When Nothin' Can Be a Real Cool Hand: The Use of Projection in COOL HAND LUKE

(Originally written in 2011) If you haven't read my previous posts Imagining the Real or Fooling Them All: The Use of Projection in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, please do so before proceeding. This essay is an extension of both of those pieces. 

It's difficult to ignore the inherent existentialism in Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke. Luke confronts God twice in the movie. The first time is during a thunder storm when everyone is running back into the trucks, afraid of the lightening. Luke stands in the middle of the road, shouting into the sky in defiance: "Love me, hate me, kill me, just let me know you're up there!" When nothing happens, Luke smirks as if he expected as much. At the end of the film when Luke enters a church, the place where he is shot and killed no less, he kneels down and prays:

Eastwood of Eden: The Maturation of Eastwood’s Messiah Complex in Million Dollar Baby

(Originally written in 2004) It’s remarkable how many films made with or by Clint Eastwood use revenge as their primary plot device. A group of guys do something wrong and Eastwood spends the entire film finding the sons of bitches to make them pay. 

In Mystic River, we see a variation on this theme, as Eastwood is not in the film, but uses Sean Penn as his proxy who must avenge the murder of his young daughter. What becomes complicated about this particular story is that after the revenge is carried out, we realize that it has been exacted upon an innocent man. The film leaves the viewer with this knowledge and does not offer any resolution or recompense. Upon first glance, it appears that Eastwood is interrogating the theme of revenge and possibly illustrating that revenge can be blinding or misleading. Certainly, Dennis Lehman's intriguing novel from which the film is adapted does; the weight of the incident in Dave’s (Tim Robbins) childhood as well as his murder orchestrated by his one-time friend do not quickly disappear from the reader’s imagination.

In Eastwood’s hands though, something peculiar happens. He creates a story where you actually feel more sympathy for Jimmy (Sean Penn) than you do for the one who is wrongly accused and murdered by him. This is accomplished in part by Tim Robbins’ acting as it is so mannered and self-conscious that it’s difficult to see him as anything more than a caricature. His mannerisms and ticks are so extreme that any sympathy is strictly superficial. We’re not even shocked when his own wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) tells Jimmy that she thinks her husband is guilty. By the end of the film, very little is said about Dave’s death. On the other hand, there is a revenge manifesto, a soliloquy really, spoken by his wife, Annabeth, (Laura Linney) explaining Jimmy’s actions and making the murder sound justified and noble.

The Devil's in the Details; Realism as Satirical Device in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE

(Originally published in 2014) One can tell by the title alone that Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a satirical, even playful look at the nuclear arms race between the United States and Russia during the Cold War. While being comedic, the film is not whimsical or only ironic. Oscar Wilde once said that satire should be more frightening than comedic. With Strangelove, Kubrick achieves this effect, yet does so through a device not often used in satire. He not only shows a keen awareness of the subject matter at hand, and its inherent ironies, he also incorporates a hyper-realism which adds a haunting authenticity as well as a sense of gravity to the film's rich humor.

To begin with, Kubrick forgoes color and instead uses black and white film so as to utilize shadows more effectively. Many scenes have only a single source of light inside a large room which provides a dark and somber tone. Also, Kubrick's much discussed "War Room" has state of the art technology, as one would assume, yet also incorporates an odd combination of space and confinement. On one hand the room is cavernous; one literally can't tell how big it is as its walls are never seen. Yet in spite of this immense size, when the military officials are sitting at the table to discuss military strategy, the lights are placed just above their heads creating an enclosed and confined space. If this isn't claustrophobic enough, the "big board" looms over them letting them know exactly when total annihilation will occur.

Bat to the U.S.S.R.: A Brief Study of Marxism in Christopher Nolan's BATMAN BEGINS

(Originally written in 2005) One wonders if Warner Bros. would have decided to retool the Batman franchise if it were still making money. In spite of incredible star power, the last few installments have been laughable. Of course, there's a part of me that would like to think the studio's intentions to Begin the franchise again were motivated more from artistic inclinations and not merely financial ones. This may seem a bit far-fetched I realize, especially when dealing with a Summer Blockbuster. However, when looking at some inherent themes within Batman Begins as well as the way it was marketed, some interesting conclusions could be made. To reach these conclusions, let's first look at a few lines from Karl Marx's A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The mode of production and material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
According to Marx, one’s wealth or relation of production not only shapes one socially, politically, and intellectually but also determines one’s very “consciousness.” This consciousness (conscience?) is not pre-existent or independent but determined by one’s position of power within the mode of material production. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, there is a radical reversal of this ideal (or in other words a pro-Marxist ideal) where Nolan’s characters are not seen as modes of production, nor is their consciousness shaped by wealth or “material life.”

Fooling Them All: The Use of Projection in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST

(Originally written in 2011) Before you proceed, I would recommend reading my previous essay- Imagining the Real as this is an extension of that post. 

In Milos Forman's 1976 classic, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, the lead character R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) presents an interesting case study in the use of Projection.  To the other patients, McMurphy represents freedom, virility, joy; perhaps even a personification of youth itself. The patients can live vicariously through McMurphy and experience emotions and ideas they're unable to express on their own. We see this most clearly when they escape from the hospital for the day and go on a fishing expedition. McMurphy introduces them as doctors and one can see the confidence and pride it instills. For a moment, they are doctors and not just patients.

A Polack with a Gun: Clint Eastwood's Peculiar Study of Racism in GRAN TORINO

(Originally written in 2008) In Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, we get a story about a racist old codger named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) who slowly and begrudgingly befriends an ethnic family of Hmong decent who lives next door to him. Even though there aren't a lot places for a story like this to go, many elements work exceedingly well in the film. There is a humorously awkward clash of cultures as well as several tender moments. Eastwood also looks great on screen. He may no longer have the quickdraw of Josey Wales, but his fists are still hard and his squint still piercing. Even with his wiry gray hair, he hasn’t lost any of his onscreen charm and charisma, and though he is playing a grumpy old bastard, he is our grumpy old bastard.

Apparently, this is Eastwood last onscreen performance, so it's hard not to get a bit nostalgic. Eastwood has not only survived an entire lifetime within a cutthroat business that has a penchant for eating people alive, he has done something else even more rare in Hollywood: he has evolved. In the last 10 or 15 years, Eastwood has really proven himself to be a sincere and calculated artist who seems to do little without heartfelt reasons or thought. Directing Flags of Our Fathers and then showing the Japanese counterview in Letters from Iwo Jima was both radical and brave. I also think that Gran Torino, much like Unforgiven, works brilliantly as an homage while simultaneously deconstructing many of the revenge films upon which he built his career. In theory, Gran Torino is the perfect choice with which to exit the screen, and it offers a nice bookend to a prolific career.

The Dualists; Misanthropic Tendencies from the Coen Brothers

(Originally written in 2014) When looking at current filmmakers who are masterful satirists one must put the Coen brothers at the top of the list. The Coen brothers attention to detail and unique characterizations have created some of the most memorable scenes in modern cinema. However, I have noticed a peculiar trend in many of their later films with how they construct scenes and develop characters. For one, it’s hard not to notice a complete lack of affection or sympathy towards the characters they create. Let’s first look at the strange climactic moment in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), whom we follow for the entire film, is killed. He’s not only killed off screen, but we’re not even sure exactly how it happens. This is disorientating because any sympathy or catharsis is emphatically interrupted. In fact, his death almost goes unnoticed as the film continues on without him. Hitchcock does something similar in Psycho with Janet Leigh; we follow her for a good portion of the film and then after her murder, we begin following Norman Bates. The difference though is that with Hitchcock we see Leigh’s last gasp for life. In fact, in his famous shot, we are forced to look directly into Leigh’s eye. The way the Coen brothers film (or don’t film) Llewelyn’s death and the circumstances around it, makes it seem like his death is inconsequential and without meaning. Why would such experts of characterization do this? I would argue it is because Llewelyn’s death doesn't mean anything. They have constructed the movie much in the same way Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) moves from one victim to the other, with calculation and attention to detail, but void of any emotion.

The Importance of Being Earnest: The Unusual Role of Kindness in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE

(Originally written in 2005) After watching Rebel Without a Cause again, I was struck by how dated it seemed: the melodrama, the overacting, the fact that most of it was shot on a soundstage resembling a television show. Interestingly when I was younger and certainly more cynical and a helluva lot more critical about such things, I liked Rebel Without a Cause quite a bit. Growing up in the 80’s and cutting my teeth on the likes of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, the sincerity of Dean rang true in spite of the hackneyed dialogue. It was a breath of fresh air in the midst of heroes who were sarcastic, indifferent, and invulnerable. An example of a subversive scene that illustrates the overall and affective tone of Rebel is near the end when Plato (Sal Mineo), Jim (James Dean), and Judy (Natalie Wood) are at the abandoned mansion and Plato falls asleep. Jim and Judy notice that Plato has on two different colored socks. They laugh, but then something really unique happens. Instead of deriding Plato or making fun of him, there is an identification that occurs when Dean says, ‘I’ve done that, haven’t you?” and Wood’s quickly nods saying she has. The two then go on to explore the house, but Dean does something else unique: he leaves a candle for Plato so he can see his way when he wakes up. Dean leaves one, takes one, and gives one to Wood’s character. These are simple and quiet gestures, but they are refreshing in the context of teenage drama’s that usually celebrate self indulgence and immediate gratification, not to mention humor that is almost always done at the expense of the other characters. Not so here. Instead, each identifies with the other, offering support and kindness. Small acts of kindness like this are so rare in teenage films that it really struck me as unique when I first saw it.

Another moment that seemed atypical was when Jim was going to school for the first day. He's walking in the door and accidentally steps on the school logo which is embedded in the sidewalk. When a guy yells at him and states what he did, Dean's character says, "I'm sorry, I'm new here, and I didn't know." Again, this seems like an insignificant scene, but it's actually quite radical. In a typical teenager film, Dean's character would have been defiant or at least sarcastic as he attempted to seem strong in a new and foreign environment. Dean doesn't do this at all but actually apologizes, presenting us with another subtle but subversive scene.
Watching the film again yesterday, it was also hard not to notice the overt misogyny. Dean says he wishes his father would just once belt his mother so she would know her place and stop bothering him. Dean’s main conflict with his father is not so much that he can’t offer him advice, but that his father is feminized, or more specifically, subservient to the feminine. When his father, Frank (Jim Backus) is cleaning up a tray he dropped “before mom sees it,” Jim (James Dean) says defiantly, “Let her see it!” To illustrate the gender confusion even more, we have Frank actually wearing an apron over his suit and tie.

On the other hand, while Jim is angry his dad won't assume his patriarchal position, we don’t see this strict role definition in his relationship with Judy. Both seem equal in a sense. He takes care of her and dotes on her to see if she is comfortable, etc., and he never demands she do anything. In fact, he talks to her much in the same way as he does with Plato, as a friend and equal.
In the end, in spite of seeming dated and melodramatic, we are left with a complicated and unique film. While the clothing and the one-liners have changed, the underlying themes seem still relevant to teenagers today.

Imagining the Real: Understanding the Use of Projection

(Originally written in 2011) Consider the film projector. A machine that takes a series of still images and projects them at 24 frames a second onto a blank screen.

These images of course are not real, but they seem real. Why? There is a humorous story about Edwin Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903), where people sat in the audience, not sure what to expect, and shrieked in horror when the train appeared on the screen.  This may cause us to chuckle and think how ridiculous these people were for believing a train was coming at them. However, don’t we, even today, react similarly? An audience still gets frightened, or excited, or brought to tears, even though they well know none of it is actually happening. The people on the screen are acting, the sets are facades, the story is fiction. Yet, the show goes on.

To understand the peculiar nature of Projection, particularly as a psychological function, we should look no further than the movie stars and celebrities our culture deems important. We may like or dislike or love or hate certain actors or musicians, but seldom do we ask why we have such emotional responses in the first place. A famous person could be rude, physically unattractive, abusive, and overall despicable, yet millions of people will still be enamored. Why? What is happening here, and what power does this person possess?

I’m convinced that what makes a Star, that IT factor people talk about, is nothing more than an ability to project a specific type of persona or affect. It could be rebellion, or sexuality, or daring, or intelligence or innocence or as is often the case, a unique combination of many. A celebrity’s true gift is his or her ability to project an Ideal that captures the public’s attention at that particular moment in time. A good publicist knows this which is why overexposure is so dangerous to a movie star's popularity. Overexposure just means that one has become too known or too literal and that the projection is no longer malleable enough for people to shape into something they desire. By only making limited appearances which abstracts the celebrity’s identity through various characters, the celebrity remains a blank screen upon which an audience can project what image they desire to see.

When I see how people act around celebrities, I always think of that passage in the New Testament where a man was ill and wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment to be healed. This person believed that the very clothing Jesus wore was sacred. This same thing is occurring with celebrities all the time. Years ago. I was at a concert and after the show, I saw a girl pleading with one of the stage guys to give her the playlist that was taped to the floor. When he handed it to her, she started crying. Now this was nothing more than a piece of paper that the singer was looking at. Yet, to that girl, something else was going on. The singer was the perfect blank screen onto which she could project her image of the Ideal or Divine or anything she wanted really, and by having that piece of paper, she was touching his garment's hem.

Ultimately, this all becomes a tricky proposition for celebrities. Imagine the blank screen itself in our analogy. Upon it are projected images that we believe to be real; they are a part of the screen and even become the screen, causing the image and screen to seem as one. However, they are not. The screen exists apart from the projected image. Separating the image from the screen or the character from the actor can be difficult. The role or characters an actor plays often has nothing to do with whom the celebrity actually is and may be in fact a completely absurd representation. Imagine someone falling in love with you and they are willing to devote all of their life and energy and attention to your every wish, yet they think you are someone else. You may enjoy the initial attention, but eventually it will all seem rather hollow. 

I am certain that this is why so many movie stars get tired of acting and often get involved in politics or social causes. They are simply tired of their own projection and instead want to reveal their actual self. What most celebrities don't understand though is that the art of projection has deep psychological powers and interrupting it has consequences. When a celebrity no longer functions as a projection, he or she should expect to be ridiculed, mocked and even hated. Again, this has nothing to do with reason or logic and the celebrity should not take it personally. Just as we project our notions of what is Good onto a blank screen, we also project our notions of what is Evil or Vile. Since celebrities act as a blank screen for our projections, it makes sense that we would place our hatred and fear onto those who disappoint, just as we place our hopes and expectations on those who please. It's important for the viewers and purveyors of projected images to understand exactly what is occurring. Separating the projector, the projection, and the screen on which the image is projected will not keep the audience from marveling at the train on the stage, it will simply keep them from jumping into the aisle to get out of its way.

The Old Man and the Sea; The Ache of Growing Old in Wes Anderson's THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU

(Originally written in 2007) When I first saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, I was not able to get beyond the artifice and, frankly, the sheer silliness of it. The ocean life was filmed with stop motion effects, Owen Wilson had a peculiar accent that faded in and out, there were pirates, a high-jacking, gunplay, and a guy being eaten by a shark, no less. Also, when we see characters walk from one room to the next aboard the ship, Anderson does nothing to hide the fact that they are on a staged set. These effects even seem more out of place when compared to Anderson’s other films where he incorporates a hyper-sense of realism: characters save childhood trinkets, old records, attendance pins, visit the graves of dead parents, accidentally chop off fingers, and wear yellow jumpsuits, with nary a single special effect in the lot. Needless to say, the Life Aquatic initially caught me off guard, and its shear lunacy made it difficult to take the film seriously.

Interestingly, when I watched the movie again years later, I didn't pay attention to its silliness, and instead, found the film to be serious and even meditative. Once one does get past the effects (and it's not easy), the movie becomes a touching, melancholic story about a successful man at the end of his life who is trying to find meaning in it all; a similar theme in each of Anderson's last three films. In Rushmore, this character is played by Bill Murray, in The Royal Tenenbaums, it's Gene Hackman, and in The Life Aquatic, we have Bill Murray again, this time as Steve Zissou.

It's hard to imagine anyone else other than Murray playing Zissou. Anderson and Baumbach really tailored the script to perfectly capture Murray's genius. The character of Steve Zissou demands an actor who can be both contemptible and sympathetic at the exact same moment. Bill Murray achieves this balance nearly to perfection. In the past, Jack Nicholson worked on this same edge, and currently, Nicholas Cage, when he isn't blowing up things, can as well. Over the last several years, Murray has been recognized as a truly gifted actor, not for his range exactly, but his ability to freely move between opposite and even contradictory personalities within the same scene. A scene written with this talent in mind is when a reporter played by Cate Blanchet interviews Zissou (Murray) for the first time:
So what happened in your opinion?

(While eating an apple)
What are you talking about?

Well don’t you think the public’s opinion of your work has been significantly altered in the last 5 years?

That’s your first question? I thought this was suppose to be a puff piece

Should we come back to it?


Okay. Is it true this is going to be your last voyage.

Wow. No comment. Who told you that? (Pause) No, goddamit, I’m only 52. How about we start with some stock dialogue. Favorite color: blue. Favorite food: sardines

How do you feel about Part One of your new film?

(Pausing) Why, how do you feel?

Well, I’m honest.

Just say it.

I thought some of it seemed slightly fake.

(Directed to deckhand in room behind reporter) Walladarsky, how about taking 5? (pauses, waits for him to leave) Did it seem fake when my best friend was bitten in half right in front of me? And eaten alive screaming? I think you’re a fake. I think you’re a phony, and a bad reporter. How does that feel? And tell me (points a gun at her), does this seem fake?

(Taken aback; Angry)
How dare you? This entire article was my idea. Nobody else gives a shit.

What about Si Perlman?

(turning off tape recorder)
Are you joking? He’s not even paying for my expenses.

You’re taking something out on me.

Reporter turns away and starts crying softly, obviously shaken up

I was only trying to defend myself.
Here, if Murray isn't careful, he would be the tyrant lashing out at anyone who questions his authority. If he goes in the other direction, he becomes the helpless child who gets his feelings hurt. Murray is neither and both at the same time. The reporter insults him by calling his movie "fake" and he defends himself the best way he can. He overreacts, but he does regain control over the situation. In this scene and throughout the whole film, Murray is able to walk this perfect tightrope between being a bully and utterly vulnerable. This is the genius of the movie and of Murray's performance.

As Murray maintains this balance, we see someone nearing the end of his life. He is not going gently into that good night, but he does know he's going, and we get to watch. It is a realization that Murray has with all of the characters in the film: his son, his wife, his crew, his arch nemesis Alistair Hennessey. He even realizes it with the “Jaguar” Shark at the end when he decides not to kill it, but instead simply says, “I wonder if it remembers me.”

Deep Throat: The Use of Conversation in THE GRADUATE

(Originally written in 2012) Mike Nichols' The Graduate, written by Buck Henry and Colder Willingham, is about a young man named Benjamin returning home after graduating from college. Following a party celebrating Ben's accomplishment, Mrs. Robinson, the wife of his father's business partner, makes sexual advances towards him.  Ben resists at first, but eventually calls her and the two begin having an affair. About a few months, Mr. Robinson, obviously unaware, arranges a date between Ben and Elaine, the Robinson's daughter. Much to the protest of Mrs. Robinson, Ben reluctantly takes Elaine out and unwittingly falls in love with her. The rest of the movie deals with the problems that incur from this predicament.

At first, it’s easy to get caught up within this provocative plot and overlook many of the film’s more subtle elements. One of the most intriguing is the film's use of language. To begin with, Willingham and Henry deliver a deft script filled with quick-witted dialogue. The actors deliver their lines as if they're dancing a tango. Consider the famous scene where an older gentleman gives Ben some famous investment advice: