Category Archives: Novels

Scorched Earth by Mitt Romney’s Chief Strategist Stuart Stevens

Part of an on-going attempt to illuminate the life and career of a political consultant, in this case, Stuart Stevens; other posts include “He Hates You”, a summary profile, a brief look at his China travel memoir, Night Train to Turkistan, his memoir of the 2000 Bush campaign, a look at his travel memoir Malaria Dreams, an analysis of his book Feeding Frenzy, his interview with Charlie Rose promoting Feeding Frenzy, Stevens and Jon Hinson, an analysis of an episode of “Commander in Chief” which he co-wrote, and his defense of Newt Gingrich on “Charlie Rose”. Outside profiles and mentions, all excellent, are “Building a Better Mitt Romney-Bot” by Robert Draper, “An Unconventional Strategist Reshaping Romney” by Ashley Parker, “The Coming Tsunami of Slime” by Joe Hagan, and “Mitt Romney’s Dark Knight” by Jason Zengerle.

scorched earth by stuart stevens


A novel by Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. It is a book of interest since one often says things in fiction that are perhaps never said in memoirs or factual tales, and also because few political consultants have written novels about their own profession, showing how they see their role, politics, voters.

The story has a plot that is both convoluted and simple. In an unnamed state, but one which can only be Mississippi (Tishomingo county is often referenced), Luke Bonney, a congressman, runs in an election for Senate against the state’s governor, Solomon Jawinski, whose campaign is managed by Matthew, Luke’s brother. Matthew Bonney is married to congresswoman Lisa James. Luke, despite his good looks, is unmarried. The father of Luke and Matthew is Powell Bonney, former governor of the state. Almost all of the story takes place in the last six days of the campaign.

During the election, the Jawinski campaign is threatened by revelations from his ex-wife’s memoir. Luke Bonney’s campaign is hit by allegations that he slept with a group of black transvestite prostitutes. Luke Bonney tries to counter this rumor by claiming that he slept with Matthew Bonney’s wife. Matthew cheats on Lisa with her sister, Dawn. The election ends in a near dead heat, with Jawinski finally winning by a fraction of votes. Jawinski believes the tightly split vote shows how disgusted voters are with the choices given them, so, in order to heal this cynicism, he has Powell Bonney appointed in his place as senator. The story ends with the rumors over Luke Bonney ambiguous and unresolved, Powell Bonney a senator, Matthew and Lisa expecting their first child.

Though I don’t think it’s very funny, the story is an attempt at a madcap farce, with a few serious moments. There are many reasons why it doesn’t work, but a principal one is that the reader has no sense of the characters as real. The people of a broad comedy may be exaggerations, yet they must still feel something like what we do in comparable situations: women and men are deeply upset when they’re betrayed, sexual entanglements do not begin and end arbitrarily, there is some intuitive reason for why two brothers hate each other. Lisa shows no regret or sadness when she intuits that Matthew has betrayed her with her own sister. Matthew sleeps with Dawn, then never gives her any additional attention again, nor does she ask any. The brothers Matthew and Luke hate each other, but though we wait to hear of some basis for the long standing ire, none is ever revealed.

If the book is a failure, that does not keep it from being a fascinating one, almost entirely because of the writer’s privileged position. Through several sections, I try and examine the more intriguing aspects in some depth. Quotes from the book are often long, to make clear that they are not selective or distorted. All quotes are accompanied by scans of the pages to make clear that the quote is very much real, and not fabricated.


Perhaps the strangest, most interesting detail of the book is that Powell Bonney, the father of brothers Luke and Matt, is a composite of segregationists George Wallace, governor of Alabama and Ross Barnett, governor of Mississippi; he is also, easily, the most sympathetic character in the book.

Powell is governor of Mississippi during the strife of the civil rights era, with two historical events merged and given over to him. He is there during the integration of Ole Miss when James Meredith is admitted as a student, during which a massive riot takes place and several people are killed; this is joined with the image of George Wallace standing in the doorway to block admission of black students to the University of Alabama, as well as the idea of Wallace’s penitence for segregation and his subsequent re-election as governor.

What is strange is the way these segregationists have been re-sculpted into this character. He is simply a good man, caught amongst the forces of history, deeply regretful of what takes place when a riot breaks out at the university over the admission of its first black student. After the crisis, stricken by conscience, he resigns from the governorship, and finds a sort of penance by doing volunteer work at Mississippi’s notorious Parchman Farm.

This is one of the first references to the father’s segregationist past in the book, with the borrowed detail of Wallace standing in the school’s doorway:

The Big Guy.

That’s what they called his father in those days. The two brothers had picked it up from one of the state troopers who drove him around and played at being a bodyguard. He never called their father Governor Powell Bonney. Just the Big Guy, even to his face. The governor didn’t seem to mind.

Matt had liked that state trooper. He was the one who told Matt and Luke about their father’s decision not to run for reelection. Luke was furious, Matt could remember it so clearly. “Why?” he kept asking. “How come?”

The trooper just shook his head. He was a sizable fellow, large but not obese, with a burr haircut and a warm smile. Even their mother liked him. “Your daddy’s a good man,” he told them that day driving around in his cruiser – Luke and Matt loved that cruiser. “You don’t let anybody tell you different. You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

That was before they were old enough to understand. At least officially understand. What Matt knew was that something wasn’t right. Later, in college, even at the University, right next to the photos of the cars burning and the dead bodies. There were three of those: one student, one national guardsman, and one poor bastard photographer from Sweden. That sort of spread the losses evenly. It would have been hardly fair if any blacks had died. After all, only one was trying to enter the University. That’s what the Big Guy was trying to stop – standing tall in the doorway.

“You hear me now? The Big Guy’s a champ. A champ-i-on. You wanna hear the siren?”

The most extensive mention of the father’s role during the University crisis comes during a visit by Matt Bonney to the prison where his father does his volunteer work. A history book triggers a memory of where he was and what took place that night. The date of the admission of James Meredith has been changed, from October 1, 1962 to September 7, 1964, when Robert Kennedy was no longer even attorney general, but other than that the facts seem the same.

Wandering around the empty library, Matt found a copy of a state history and began to read. It was a new textbook and included a section on his father entitled “The Question of Powell Bonney?”

Powell Bonney’s single-term governorship is one of the more enigmatic in state history. Indeed, Powell Bonney himself remains a mysterious figure in our state’s history. There are those who consider him a tragic victim of the times, destroyed by the race question. Others see him as a conservative who took advantage of racial issues to gain election only to be overtaken by events. But all agree the pivotal event in his single term was the integration of the state University and the subsequent riots that left four people dead. Clearly, Governor Bonney saw these events as a personal failure, and though he gave no reason publicly for deciding not to seek a second term, it was generally agreed that the incidents at the state University were at the heart of his decision.

The exact date was easy to remember – it had made headlines across the country – September 7, 1964. He always thought of it beginning with the two of them in the kitchen, he and Lisa, while his father, who was governor then, of course, was “dealing with the situation.” Lisa’s father was teaching law at the University, a visiting professor taking a year off from his Capitol City law practice.

A few blocks away, in the center of the campus, a crowd of students was beginning to gather, and less than a mile away, a small army of National Guardsmen were waiting instructions from Robert Kennedy, the attorney general. Tomorrow, the first black was scheduled to be enrolled in the state University.

Huddled in the kitchen, Matt and Lisa felt they were part of some great and strange adventure. Outside the house, television crews waited with a score of reporters. They were perched on the sidewalk, spilling out into the quiet street lined with live oaks, drinking lemonade and iced tea the University provided. They sat there waiting for some word from the house, and it made Matt and Lisa feel very important and mature that they were on the inside, a part of what was happening.

That night after dinner at the kitchen table, they slipped over the back fence, very serious in their stealth, convinced that their departure, if detected was sure to be seen on Huntley-Brinkley. Once free, they wandered around town holding hands for the first time. Certain streets were totally deserted, while others were packed with racing students and the press.

They decided to follow the jeeps and trucks that had begun moving toward the campus’s main square. Several blocks later, though, the streets were blocked by a rifle-carrying students turning away all spectators. But Lisa knew the town and she led Matt to the football stadium, where an underground tunnel connected the locker room an the gym, which faced onto the main square. Perched on a locker, they watched the riot begin.

They killed two people and burned a half-dozen cars that night, and Matt and Lisa watched it all. At first they were more excited and nervous than they had ever been, but by the end, they just felt numb, eyes burning from the tear gas. They stayed until dawn when the square was mostly empty of students and firemen were left in peace to hose down the smoldering cars.

When they got back to the house, Matt and Lisa expected their fathers to be waiting, upset by their disappearance. But no one was there. After they had gone to bed, Matt in the guest bedroom, Lisa a floor above, Matt heard his father and Lisa’s father come in together, the front door slamming behind them.

They remained downstairs for a little bit, then his father came up to the extra bedroom next to Matt’s, where he was staying. Matt was just falling asleep when he heard his father vomiting in the bathroom they shared. A little later, he thought he heard sobs, but about this he couldn’t be sure.

This governor vomits over what has taken place. The history book gives the possibilities of either a tragic figure or a man overwhelmed by history. A later episode with the current governor, Jawinski, further makes him into a martyr. Jawinski implies there was a secret deal with Robert Kennedy, but the riots took place anyway.

“Oh, that’s good, Bonney. Just terrific. Anyway, dummy, you’re crazy to be dumping on your old man. He did the best he could. I think there was a lot more about that standing-in-the-schoolhouse-door act than people ever understood. I really do.”

“You mean like some kind of deal with Robert Kennedy that he would pretend to be against the integration but then let it happen.”

Jawinski looked over at Matt for a terrifyingly long time. “Yeah,” he finally said, surprised, “something like that.”

“They just didn’t figure on the riot.”

“Riots you don’t figure. It’s the first rule of riots.”

There were, in fact, attempts by governor Ross Barnett to arrange in some way to have Meredith attend a school, without bringing about a confrontation with federal forces. These arrangements broke down. Barnett did not “pretend” to be against integration. He was against integration. He made defiant, incendiary speeches against integration on the Saturday before Meredith’s admission to the school. He arrested the Freedom Riders when they came through his state. He showed visible and crucial support to Byron De La Beckwith, the assassin of Medgar Evers. “There is no case in history where the Caucasian race has survived social integration,” he said. “We will not drink from the cup of genocide.” White supremacy was his campaign theme each time he ran for office. He was utterly unrepentant about his actions at his death, and stated emphatically that he would act in exactly the same way again. All this information is unambiguous and easily available in his obituary. He did not seek a second term for “mysterious reasons”, but because term limits restricted governors to single nonconsecutive terms.

These were the same non-mysterious reasons why Governor Wallace did not seek a second term in Alabama, following the tenure in which he fought integration at his own state’s university. Wallace, whatever the sincerity of his later professions of regret, did attempt to make active penance, in addition to the forced penitence of partial paralysis from an assassin’s bullet, by confessing to having been wrong, becoming a born again Christian, actively seeking out the forgiveness of his state’s black citizens, some of whom then demonstrated their forgiveness by voting the man back into office. All these steps to redemption for this specific act go untaken by this novel’s governor. He goes into exile. He trains for the Ironman. He does volunteer work at the prison. The last no doubt helpful, but not a direct confrontation of the segregation he helped enforce.

So, given this historical context, it’s puzzling that this book takes the material of two segregationists, who believed in the inherent inferiority of a substantial number of their state’s citizens, and turns it into a character that is a martyr, someone who is an instrument for good, integration, yet cannot reveal this, who then goes into exile, a man too good for this world. It can only be read as an exculpation, a fantasy desired of who the governor was then and why he acted, a shirking from what actually took place.

Stranger still, is that the book acknowledges that this man once made an active appeal for segregation. Matt stumbles upon a commercial made during the governor’s race:

“Powell Bonney – the man from Arcadia!” the voice announced boldly. (Or, at least, semiboldly. The announcer was Woody Jackson, the best local talent available at the time the commercial was made, in 1962. [Woody Jackson, a local TV newscaster character who appears briefly in the book]) “He speaks for the people!” The camera cut from footage of Powell Bonney speaking before a huge crowd at the Lester County Fair to Powell Bonney in a studio talking directly into the camera. “I have always tried to do my best to protect our way of life. The stakes in this election are high. Our cause just. I need your help in the battle ahead!”

Despite this contentious history, it is never explicitly brought up in any conversation between father and either son. It is simply enough to present him as a martyr and assume that the reader will accept that. This perhaps makes one of the last moments of the story truly alienating. Though the current governor has won the senate race, he hands over this position to Powell Bonney, the former segregationist governor:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“And let’s not kid ourselves that when it came down to it, there weren’t many people in this state who were happy with the choices before them.” [said Jawinski] He looked over at Luke with a wry grin. “Just about everybody hated us both and hated the fact that they had to choose between us. Something is wrong.”

Standing at the side of Jawinski, Luke Bonney nodded. The governor motioned for Luke to join him at the microphone.

“Both of us,” Jawinski continued, “believe the people deserve better. And instead of just complaining about it, we’re going to do something about it.”

“I,” Jawinski continued, “will, of course, no longer be governor. Lieutenant Governor Jack Tangent will be sworn in as the new governor. But it will be my-” he stopped here and rolled the word around delightfully, “recommendation that the new governor appoint Governor Powell Bonney to fill the remainder of the term.”

This is viewed, from inside the story, as the sound, moral choice, a happy ending to this novel. I would think a very large number of black men and women of Mississippi would take great issue with what happens: they vote for a candidate, yet somehow this group of almost entirely white men and women decide that the better pick would be the favorite son of the state, the former segregationist governor. He is, after all, a decent man. There were a lot of victims in the fight for civil rights, and, according to this novel, the governor was a victim too. So, it’s only proper that he get another chance, and serve as state senator. How could any upstanding black man or woman dare disturb the universe and disagree with that?

How does this man demonstrate his ultimate decency in a novel written by a Republican consultant? Through his support of a massive government program which will benefit the children of every state, a national literacy program:

“I’ve got one son who thinks I chickened out and another who figures I wasn’t a hero on civil rights. They’re both right, but there you have it. So look, can we talk about literacy? Please? I’ve proposed legislation that would guarantee every American a right to basic literacy skills. It’s an unbelievably good bill.”

So, government paternalism is an evil that a republican must fight against with all his will, unless, of course, it is needed to redeem an aging segregationist. Even big government occasionally has its uses.


As with any book about american politics, a number of figures appear as caricatures, a few small details changed, taunting you to unmask who they are. I am very poor at this game, but I believe I guessed at least one correctly. Perhaps because there is a safety in fiction, and safety in mildly guised characters, every member of the political-media-industrial complex who appear under another name are portrayed unsympathetically, if not utterly dark with bile.

Early on, an obnoxious and violently unattractive man shows up, a former journalist who has become a celebrity by hosting “Showdown”, a quasi-debate program where he shouts and spits over unfortunate guests. This, I believe, can only be one man, the late Prince of Darkness, the infamous Robert Novak. Here Novak is Robert Newsome, and “Showdown” is Novak’s ugly child, “Crossfire”.

A lengthy quote describing the man and his creation:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Few ugly people love the camera, but Robert Newsome was a triumphant exception. He looked forward to his nationally telecast weekly program called “Showdown” with the same heart-thumping glee he had once anticipated his first bylines in his salad days with the Baltimore Sun. The camera – television! that wonderful cathode stage – had resurrected political reporter Robert Newsome from op-ed obscurity and had thrust (that’s how he liked to think about it – THRUST) him into the homes of unsuspecting millions. Television had brought him fans. Television had, for the first time in his forty-seven years, narrowed the vast chasm between his sexual appetites and reality. (Maybe a little too much. That lawsuit was annoying, but it was mostly inside baseball. No one really seemed to care.) Television had made him rich.

At first, the thought of appearing on television made Robert Newsome throw up. Literally. (The outtakes of his first shows were an underground classic in Washington. “Grab the wastebasket!” was the oft-heard, off-camera cry of the bedraggled director.) But he had gradually stumbled onto what he figured to be the medium’s dirty little secret: Television was easy! There was none of the hard digging and seducing of sources that went into his twice-weekly column, Banished was the need to freeze to death at the Iowa caucuses or get teargassed at demonstrations. All you had to do was show up in a studio, usually a temperature-controlled studio, and rant and rave, threaten and cajole – his normal dinner party performance, really, no more or less – and that was it. People loved it. Newsome was a star.

Some television critics had speculated, much to Newsome’s pleasure, that he deliberately tried to make himself look unappealingly sinister on camera. But the truth was that Newsome required no magic to make his electronic presence frightening. He was short and dumpy, with arms too long for his frame, arms that looked to be borrowed from another body. His face was a disaster. He had collapsed cheekbones and a bulbous forehead, a combination that threw most of his features into perpetual shadow. The tone of his skin was swarthy, which on handsome Italians is enviously referred to as “olive,” but Newsome’s olive was overripe and splotchy, two weeks to the bad. A feeble beard raged across his face like a gray bushfire partially extinguished by a rake.

It was Newsome’s love of combat that his audience adored. Here was a man who spoke the truth. “You’re lying, Senator!” A man who begged to be hated! “This may come as a shock, Congressman, but my sources tell me you have an illustrious future behind you.” Thus spoke Newsome!

The set of “Showdown” was designed to maximize the shock effect of confrontation. The two “guests” – it seemed an odd word for people invited to be abused – sat jammed next to each other in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs. Newsome sat inches away across a simple black table, quite literally in their faces. When the show got really hot, spittle flew in all directions. True fans loved to watch closely to observe who was getting the most spray in the face. Usually, it was a guest, for Newsome was blessed with a fierce set of salivary glands.

For some reason, whenever he faced Robert Newsome, Matt’s mind drifted to images of Newsome having sex. Matt wondered if Newsome took off his thick black socks and what sort of sounds he made. It was an oxymoronic vision, like a warthog dancing. Matt started to laugh.

I quote one more Newsom segment from the novel. It is easily one of its most striking, of no consequence in its overall structure, but of great importance to a reader during a presidential election, especially one where a population is burdened and worn down, while a media-politico elite issues diktats from an increasingly lofty height. Robert Novak, I’m sorry, Newsome and Matt Bonney go to a run-down chinese restaurant. Newsome looks about at the sorry souls of myriad races, far poorer than the two men, people who will be poor the rest of their lives, feels no connection with any of them, and states clearly: he wants no part of them. Matt Bonney hears this, and completely agrees. Remember that the next time you wonder why some Sunday morning “news” program seems to have so little to do with the poverty and desperation of people outside their hallowed studios, or when the Romney campaign puts forth a message of compassion, concern, or empathy. The people who opine on those programs, the man who crafted that message, have nothing to do with your sorry lives and they are grateful for that.

The significant areas receive my bolds.

Newsome stiffened as soon as he and Matt walked in the door.

“You always bring me to the nicest places,” he mumbled as Matt led him to a stool at the counter in the rear near the all-Chinese section. Newsome carefully wiped the counter with his paper napkin. His red face appeared to have been drenched with a garden hose.

“Who bothers you the most?” Matt leaned over to whisper in Newsome’s ear, “the niggers, the ‘necks, or the chinks?”

A frightened smile tried to fight its way onto Newsome’s face.

“Don’t forget I’ve been to your house in Washington, Bonney. I know how you live. Your stereo cost more than the per capita income of this god forsaken country.”

Matt started strenuously to object but then, calculating quickly in his head, realized with some embarrassment that Newsome was literally correct. But it was a wonderful stereo. “I live in a very middle-class neighborhood, you know that, Newsome. I’m not out there in Bethesda with all you rich white folks.”

Thank God there’s still some place for us. Jesus, I’ve been poor. Poor is boring. It sucks.”

“Look, Nuisance, I just brought you here so you could interview average voters three days before the election. I’m just trying to help you out, pal.” Matt beamed and ordered two cups of coffee from the girl, perhaps ten years old, behind the counter. She had the face of a Han Chinese, with skin that looked almost transparent.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Newsome challenged. He turned around on the stool and stared out at the crowd, his eyes flitting between the gruff Chinese men, the rambunctious black kids, the tired, middle-aged white men with the sullen quiet of the defeated. The fans droned overhead. Outside, it was already ninety degrees, the street glaring through the half-drawn shades like some exotic ray gun programmed to stun.

Newsome took a long look and turned around. He shook his head, staring straight ahead. “There was a time,” he began.

“Ah, yes,” Matt said.

“A time when I would have been dying to know just what every one of those unique souls was thinking. What made ‘em tick. Were they going to vote? For whom? Why?” He shrugged and drank from his coffee cup. “Now, now, I think I just don’t care. I don’t want to be a part of their world and, God knows, I don’t want ‘em part of mine. Jesus.”

“Yeah,” Matt said, watching their reflection in the mirror behind the counter. “Me, too.”

Next, there is a political consultant, Mort Koughan, working for the opposing candidate, Matt’s brother Luke. He is not given anything like the extensive description of Newsome; he is fat, jewish, with a hard glare and a low rumble of a voice. He’s a very famous consultant from New York City who frequently loses his temper, works state campaigns as well as presidential races. That he is from New York and jewish, I think, are red herrings. The two prominent consultants who match those details are Hank Sheinkopf and Dick Morris, but they don’t really fit the other details, and Morris, despite his current outsize profile, was a very secretive figure when this book was written.

The hard eyes, the temper, the man’s fame and prominence, especially the low rumble of a voice, all make me think this is supposed to be a thinly veiled Ed Rollins, California born catholic. Two quick notes: Rollins appeared on a discussion panel with Stevens in this episode of Charlie Rose, and he was very critical of the performance of the Romney campaign in this very good article, “The Lost Party” by John Heilemann).

Like Newsome, he is looked at with loathing. Koughan makes his first appearance in the novel as a “Showdown” guest:

“And on my right is the famed veteran of national politics, the media maven from New York, the wealthy and ever-well-fed Mort Koughan.” [introduction by Newsome]

Mort Koughan glared and chortled all at once, an exceptionally repellent combination.

“From what I can gather,” Koughan said in his low grumble of a voice, “people around here have a very high regard for former Governor Bonney. In fact, most think he was a heck of a lot better governor than the man trying to do the job right now.”

During a debate, Koughan fires off his gun by accident.

Suddenly, a sound bellowed from the wings. “Jesus wept! I shot myself! Jesus!”

It was Morton Koughan’s voice. He staggered out on stage, staring downward in amazement. A dark wetness spread across his gray Paul Stuart suite pants. “How the hell did this happen?” he asked, as if he were questioning the inferior performance of one of his employees. “How the hell-” His legs wavered, and then he pitched off to the side like an ugly tree losing its balance.

As a quick aside, I should mention that I find a detail here to be slightly unusual: a catholic would be in the habit of saying “jesus wept!”, as an oath, but I think a jewish man from New York City would be less accustomed to using such a phrase as a curse.

After this incident, emphatic reference is made in the book on this man’s small penis. Folks, these are the jokes.

Another consultant, Ruthie, on Matt Bonney’s team:

“You think that fat bastard shot himself in his tiny little thing on purpose?” Ruthie hissed.

A conversation between Matt and his mother.

“Matt,” his mother said gently. “It’s not Luke, and you know it. It’s that awful consultant of his from New York. The one who shot himself-”

“In his little-bitty penis.”

“Matt!” But she was laughing.

I’ll note a strange aspect of this loathing which I’ll return to later. Koughan inspires great animus in Matthew, he is widely looked on as a repellent creature, as if we in the audience should easily see and share in this venom, yet there is nothing in the man portrayed that appears to justify this. He is a pit fighter, but there is nothing I notice that distinguishes him from Matthew or anyone in the Jawinski campaign.

Here he is again, recovering from his self-inflicted wound, not simply a political combatant, but a man whose existence challenges the concept of a loving god:

From the control room, Matt and Governor Jawinski could see Morton Koughan roaming the perimeter of the soundstage. Using a cane, he dragged one foot behind him. For an instant, Matt was astonished to feel a pang of sympathy for a man whose very existence he felt challenged the notion of a benevolent God.

“Look at that jerk,” Jawinski muttered. “He looks like a wounded warthog.”

This was true.

Another political professional who shows up is Walter Farkas, a pollster who works with Matthew Bonney. He is a slightly eccentric man, dark skinned but not african american, whose brother works in his polling firm as well. This, I believe, is the polling expert John Zogby.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter Farkas walked across the table, his bare toes splayed across the glass like a tree rog. While he walked, he rolled his tie up and down. His gray pinstriped suit gave every impression of having been slept in, which it might well have been. Walter was noted for keeping vampire hours, an unusual trait for a pollster. As a rule, pollsters were the accountants of politics – smart but dry, a breed whose members prided themselves on their very blandness as proof of their submission to the empirical forces of numerical logic.

But not Walter Farkas. It was one of the reasons he and Solomon Jawinski took to each other from the start. Years ago, Walter’s brother, Josh, who held up the business end of their polling firm, had called then Attorney General Jawinski to pitch Walter’s services.

A physical description and age appear in this pan over the campaign consultants sitting behind the observation glass during the testing of a TV ad:

Scorched Earth 017n Farkas tall

Had the glass been reversed, the focus group could have witnessed a rather strange assemblage: the tall and dark Farkas, who looked like he should be running a numbers racket in Queens (which he had done once while at Columbia – his numerical adroitness had made him an instant success); Charlie Song, who was half-black and half-Oriental and somehow preposterously handsome; and Ruthie Simms, who resembled a cheerleader trying out for a role in a music video. Walter Farkas was the oldest at forty-four; Ruthie Simms, the youngest, twenty-eight; and Charlie Song in between at thirty-three.

I am unclear who Charlie Song and Ruthie Simms are stand-ins for, if anyone. I note also the strange juxtaposition that Song is half-black, half-asian, and “somehow” preposterously handsome. I am uncertain why good looks should be a surprising development from this racial mixture.

Again, as with the others, Farkas is viewed with bileful hostility. The thoughts of Ruthie, another consultant, on Farkas:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She had never in her life met anyone who thought he knew as much as Walter Farkas. The problem was, he actually had good ideas so it was impossible just to ignore him, which is what she’d really have liked to do.

It is Farkas who wants to make an issue of Luke Bonney’s sexual orientation. He brings it up during a meal where he keeps taking food off other people’s plates. Two details establish how he’s viewed by Matt Bonney and the writer:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“What’s it mean?” Matt asked. He wanted the pompano to arrive that instant so he wouldn’t have to look into Walter’s horrible gray face another second. “Do the spots work or not?”

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Walter nodded, then leaned down so that Matt could taste his acrid breath and whispered, “What do you know about your brother being a fag?”

Later, Farkas is beaten by Matt Bonney for what he’s done. I leave that excerpt to the next section.

Finally, for completeness, I mention that Roger Ailes, along with the lesser known Bob Beckell, a democrat consultant, make a brief walk-on under their actual names. I wish I could say some rancid secret is exposed here, but their appearance is a non-event, though Beckell is viewed with casual dismissiveness.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I am leaving,” Lisa sighed, and this time she opened the door, and just as she did, Roger Ailes walked into the bathroom with Bob Beckell. They were both big men, and the bathroom seemed to get much smaller in a hurry.

“What is this,” Beckell demanded, laughing, “some kind of Bonney family reunion?”

“I was just explaining to Beckell,” Ailes said, quite graciously, as if this were a bathroom conclave convened at his request, ” that it takes a smart man to win a bunch of races and become a national pundit, but it takes a damn genius to lose forty-eight states in a presidential race and become the hottest pundit in town.”

Beckell, when he had managed Walter Mondale’s campaign, had done just that. Now he dispensed political wisdom on national tv with great aplomb.

“Amazing country, ain’t it Roge?” Beckell beamed.

“I,” Lisa said most graciously, “was just leaving some time ago.”

Luke Bonney laughed and slapped Beckell’s expansive back. Matt shrugged, catching Beckell’s puzzled expression. As a fellow political professional, he looked to Matt to explain the odd behavior of these two congresspeople named Bonney. But Matt marched right past him for the door.


In the last book I read and wrote about by Stevens, Feeding Frenzy, he showed a strong fascination for violence in the context of the normally sedate genre of foodie memoir. Here, in the more vicious terrain of political combat and the more permissive universe of fiction, this fixation on violence continues. It is not just that politics is inherently violent struggle, but Stevens wants it to be like violent struggle, and make the violence of the struggle as brutal and sadistic as possible.

This is Luke Bonney preparing for his debate. My bolds.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Over the earphones connected to the Sony Walkman resting in his lap, he was listening to a collection of Motown’s greatest hits, cassette five of an eight-cassette package. Before the debate, he intended to work through all eight.

Luke had spent two full days preparing for the debate with his New York media adviser, the famous Morton Koughan. They had strategized and prepped, rehearsed and analyzed for hours. Now Luke Bonney understood that success or failure came down to his ability to perform. By the time tape eight ended with a Jackson Five medley, he had every intention of being fully prepared to tear Governor Solomon Jawinski’s face right off his ugly head.

Luke Bonney and his consultant Morton Koughan discussing on how to deal with some negative advertising.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“How,” Luke asked in a tired voice, “do you think we ought to respond?”

“We’ve got to go in and tear Jawinski’s heart out and eat it right in front of him. Before he does it to us. That’s what we do. We’ve been ridiculing him. Now we kill him.”

The violence is not simply imagined, as in Feeding Frenzy, but often acted out. After Walter Farkas releases the accusation that Luke Bonney slept with prostitutes, Matthew confronts Farkas, then hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

No one said anything for a long time until Matt, whose head lay on the table and who appeared asleep said, “Farkas, what have you done this time?”

“Me?” he answered, looking around the room, which was beginning to fill. “Me, Matt?”

Matt looked up, his eyes slanted like an alligator viewing a potential meal.

“You are such a lying, miserable failure of human endeavor,” Matt said in a tone of voice no different than when he had ordered his Greek salad.

Farkas sputtered and grew red. “You stupid cracker!” he hissed, loud enough to silence the table and booths in the back half of the restaurant. Lionel and Darryl [the owners of the restaurant] stopped in mid-delivery, myopic eyes bulging delightedly.

On the other side of the restaurant, a reporter from the Clarion Item newspaper sat at the counter trying, without great success, to appear not to be listening.

“I don’t think this is quite the place,” Charlie said.

“Right,” Farkas blurted. “You gonna tell me what the exact proper place is for this cracker to call me a miserable failure of a human?”

“How about the kitchen?” Matt asked, still using the same level voice.

Farkas seemed taken aback. “Okay,” he said, frowning, as if analyzing the change of venue.

The Mayflower kitchen was a loud, extraordinarily hot place. Bubbling vats of oil sizzling with strange shapes covered most of the surfaces. Buckets of brown, twisted french fries hung from meat hooks above the stoves. Two men, both black, and two women, both white, threw their bodies about with tremendous velocity.

Walter Farkas was standing there gawking when Matt hit him in the stomach. Tired as he was, Matt’s punch was not particularly powerful, but it was close enough to bump Farkas into Lionel, who was just entering the kitchen door behind Farkas with a tray full of plates. Flailing about for a handhold, Lionel grabbed hold of Farkas’s shirt. For a moment, the two hung together in some perfect symmetry before all those good pompano dinners Lionel had consumed over the years edged his center balance toward the floor, and together, linked like an awkward train, the two of them cascaded backward through the door into the restaurant. The tray full of dishes followed closely thereafter, its astounding crash serving as period to Farkas’ strangled cry: “Crackers! All crackers!”

After the election, Matthew Bonney goes to the rival victory party, then lights hidden firecrackers and throws lit firecrackers at everyone, including his nemesis, Morton Koughan.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

At first, the crowd cheered as the Roman candles lit the sky, thinking, of course, that this was all part of the show. But when Matt hurled the first M80s into the edge of the crowd, and the second round of star shells came shooting straight at the well-barbered heads of the crowd, a nervous ripple of panic shook the onlookers. This escalated into a roar of sheer fear when the helicopter spinners flashed toward the crowd, then the lava cones and the parachute flares. A few dozen simple bottle rockets completed the riot.

“I’m gettin’ out of here!” a handsome woman with a lovely tennis tan announced, kicking off her high heels and sprinting for her convertible but not before grabbing a bottle of champagne from one of the stunned waiters.

Matt ran through the night, lighting the fireworks he and Lisa had hidden. He was barefoot, the sand and clay crunching against his bare soles, sweat pouring off his face, a pleasant, almost sweet sweat of energy long stored finally expended. As he sprinted from hidden fuse to hidden fuse, Matt couldn’t remember when he had enjoyed anything quite as much. He liked it so much he figured he should do it again very soon, make a regular habit of it, say, every few weeks or so.

“There he is!” Matt heard one of the waiters scream, and he passed for a second, looking around, wondering who might have arrived. Then he realized the waiter was pointing at him. “Ninja!” the waiter screamed, getting a better look at Matt as he paused. “Ninja man!”

Matt smiled, then launched a bottle rocket at the man’s crotch. “Aeeiiii!” he screamed, jumping aside with surprising alacrity, revealing a very disturbed-looking Morton Koughan suspended between his walking cane and the bar. He did not seem flushed with the sweet wine of victory. In truth, he looked mostly pissed off and well on his way to a quite mean drunk.

“Ninja!” Koughan yelped.

Matt smiled, lighting a fist full of bottle rockets.

“Go ahead!” Morton Koughan screamed. “Shoot me! Go ahead!”

Matt hated to disappoint the famous media consultant.

Ninja bastard!” Koughan yelped as he flung himself behind the bar to avoid the incoming missiles.

Matt was quite impressed with his agility. He may have been an aging, overweight, half-lame, nearly self-castrated media consultant from New York, but the man could move when faced with an immediate introduction to the physics of bottle rocketry.

After Luke tells Matthew he wants to use an affair with his wife as an alibi, Matthew hits him.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I need to start leaking the word that Lisa and I have been an item. I need it out there to beat off this fag thing. It’s the way it’s got to be, and I’m here trying to be a nice guy to ask you if it’s okay or what.”

“Let me understand.” Matt’s voice shook. “You’re a nice guy because you’re asking me if it’s okay if you tell the world that you’re having an affair with my wife?”

Luke shrugged, and Matt thought he looked incredibly smug for a fellow who had just been accused of waking up next to transvestites. Matt thought about this for a bit, then he stood up and, almost as an afterthought, hit his brother very hard right in his nose.

“Right,” Matt repeated when Luke fell, sputtering to the floor, blood exploding all over his gray pinstripes and Ruthie’s Oriental rug.

The desire for violence is aroused not just by opponents and wrongdoers, but by anyone who irritates Matthew. His fellow consultant Ruthie says something that annoys him, and Matthew wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Ruthie suddenly smiled. It was a huge smile that lit up her entire face. “We’re going to win,” she murmured, almost breathlessly. “This will do it for sure. Luke is finished!” She thought for a moment. “We ought to still do that spot you came up with, the one with Luke on vacation with those lobbyist sleazebags. Have you been able to get that tape yet?”

Her Adam’s apple bobbed up and down, and Matt thought very hard for an instant about biting it and ripping it from her throat with his teeth.

Ruthie later says something else that annoys Matthew and he wants to rip her throat with his teeth.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Look, let’s face it,” Ruthie said, “My sister on television is strictly a T and A kind of thing regardless of what she is doing. She’s a T and A kind of girl.”

“Oh,” Lisa said, “unlike being an anchorwoman like my sister. T and A has nothing to do with that, of course not. That’s strictly a matter of superior intellect. That’s why they hired Dawn. I mean, she’s just talking about plastic surgery now because it will make her smarter.”

Dawn! Matt’s vision went a little blurry around the edges.

“Plastic surgery?” Ruthie giggled. “She is not.”

Lisa laughed, and Ruthie turned to Matt. “Dawn doesn’t need any surgery, does she?” Ruthie asked. “Neck, eyes, cheeks?”

Matt wanted to reach across the table and bite her vocal cords right out of her throat.

The imagery here echos Stevens’ own fantasies of strangling women in Feeding Frenzy.

“Can you recommend a hotel?” I asked an elderly woman walking her tiny Pekingese pup.

“You have a problem,” she said.

Immediately I felt like strangling the woman. A problem? A problem? Just because I’m riding around in a car with no brakes in a city with man-eating tunnels and I’ve got a dog on the back seat who is just dying to eat your silly little dog and, besides, I’m about to be late for dinner at Comme Chez Soi, you think I’ve got a problem? PROBLEM?!

maybe it would kill some germans

“What do we do?” [says Stevens]

“We could stop and siphon out the old gas and put in new.”

“Siphon? Siphon with what?”

“A hose would probably be best, don’t you think?”

I thought about killing her, maybe with a hose wrapped around her neck.

“Just a thought,” she added, when she saw my look.

This desire for violence is not a put-on, but one truly felt by the writer, which Stevens has occasionally been very honest about. A relevant paragraph from “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse”, an article Stevens wrote on long distance cycling, on his path through various sports. The striking portion is bolded.

So I played football and rugby, boxed and wrestled, none of it particularly well. I tried basketball but always got into fights, mostly as a way to cover for the fact that I never could master that dribbling thing. This all works well enough through high school and college, but at a certain point you look up and the options for participating in sports as a socially accepted way to commit pleasurable acts of violence have narrowed. When most peers are focused on building a career and starting a family, it becomes problematic to admit that what you most enjoy in life is lining up and knocking the snot out of somebody, or vice versa. What once made you seem fun-loving and enthusiastic – so well-rounded! – now begins to paint a darker portrait of an emerging psychopath with serious developmental issues. You’re not just the aging lifeguard whose friends have all left the beach – you’re the aging lifeguard with a little serial killer practice on the side.

This fascination with violence is a filter through which the political process is seen. Elections, are simply war by other means. It is best shown near the ending, when the vote is split, and an image of strength must be given. Stevens was a participant on the Bush team during the 2000 election fiasco and this section serves as an eerie foreshadowing of what took place.

Before getting to the martial imagery, two quick excerpts are disturbingly apt given what was to happen in 2000.

One, on the possibility of vote theft:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Solomon Jawinski, even after being governor for seven years, had never been accepted by many in the local courthouse crowd – the county clerks and the supervisors – and they were the ones most likely to steal votes. The way things were these days, it was hard for them to steal big time, but they could definitely tilt an election that was less than half a percent. The courthouse crowd loved nothing more in the world than a close election. The state, like all southern states, was still under the jurisdiction of the federal Voting Rights Act, and it required Justice Department approval to strike a single name from the voting rolls. Few county clerks wanted to go to the trouble of dealing with Washington just because somebody had moved or died, so as a result there were more people on the voting rolls dead than alive. That made it very easy to steal.

The other, on the inspection of voting tallies:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Everywhere on the ground floor of the mansion, people were screaming into telephones. No fewer than ten cellular phones were in use, and every line of the mansion’s thirteen line system was lit by a manic voice intent on securing a not insignificant prize – six years in the U.S. Senate. The noise was elaborate. A desperate, loud noise:

“What do you mean those boxes are ‘okay’? We’ll decide if they’re okay or not, not some damn county clerk wanting to kiss Luke Bonney’s ass. Hell, yes, I want ‘em impounded now!”

Here then are the segments after the contested vote which emphasize the point of politics as war, a politics that the writer wants to be war. I bold the significant notes in the first excerpt:

Scorched Earth 031n Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Charlie Song, talking into two telephones, winked at Matt. He flashed a thumbs-up, not very convincingly. He was still in a very Charlie Song suit that did not look as if he had slept in it, as Matt knew he had. If he had slept at all. Theirs would have been an all-night vigil, with lawyers rousted in the middle of night. The finest legal aides available in the state turned out of bed like a bunch of Parris Island recruits heading for a midnight march through the swamps.

A television was on in the corner, and Luke Bonney was standing before a podium expressing his supreme confidence that the recount would put him where the people of this great state clearly wanted him – in the United States Senate. Matt could just make out the faded Sun and Sand logo on the podium.

“Dream on, slime sucker!” Ruthie hissed, turning to give Matt a quick kiss on the cheek. Her eyes glowed with the heat of the hunt. “Banana republic stuff, Matt,” she whispered fiercely, “we hold on to the lead long enough, we got it. Bring out the tanks! Put those damn planes in the air!”

Matt agreed sophisticated armaments might come in handy.

The press conference makes the point even more emphatically, the importance of the projection of strength, military strength:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The Solomon Jawinski postelection press conference was held on the steps of the mansion. The location had been Matt’s idea and had been chosen to project as much credible force as possible. It was the sort of thing best done while standing on top of a tank surrounding by a whole bunch of ferocious-looking guys with nasty weapons. The message was clear: I am mean. I am strong. Do not mess with me, or you shall die.

Instead of tanks, Jawinski had to settle for the somewhat imposing white columns of the mansion and in place of armed men, civility dictated he rely on a bunch of tired-looking lawyers. It suffered in the translation, but Solomon Jawinski seemed delighted by the world. Matt couldn’t remember seeing him this happy.

So, let us be clear. The supporters of Barack Obama, of those who wish for a fairer life for the 99%, must recognize that the chief strategist of the Romney campaign does not look upon elections as a happy ballet of ideas, or a civil discussion, or a calm thinking over of choices, but vicious, nasty, violent war. Do not ever worry that some infinitely wise op-ed columnist chastises you for being too partisan, or unrelenting, or unmerciful. Always remember that the only things the chief strategist of the Romney campaign believes in are force, power, strength, and sadism. When Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the democratic national committee laughs at the foibles and follies of the Romney campaign, Stuart Stevens no doubt wants to rip the vocal cords out of her throat with his teeth.


Perhaps the most startling aspect of this book about a state election, written by a political consultant, is the entire absence of any discussion of any issues – poverty, employment, medical care, anything. It is not that these issues do not exist; Matt Bonney mentions that the state continues to finish last in just about any ranking of citizen welfare. It is not simply that issues are tangential, or referred to through other means, they are not there at all.

This is stated, clearly and openly, in a discussion at the Jawinski campaign on how to deal with attack ads from the opposing candidate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You announce,” Matt told him, “you announce that your campaign is demanding that all stations refuse to air this scurrilous attack. This attack that has no place in the political dialogue! And by inference, neither does the sort of scurrilous personal attack Luke Bonney’s media consultant must have talked him into launching, because you know Luke Bonney wouldn’t stoop to such low-life behavior on his own.”

“This is a race about issues! About values!” Walter Farkas sounded positively transformed.

“What issues?” Jawinski asked. “We’ve got issues in this race?”

“Of course not, but you can’t admit that.”

This next quote appears again in a conversation in the Jawinski camp on how to win the election, knowing that if the race is a referendum on their man, they will lose. The only way to win is by attacking and destroying the other candidate. Again, no issues are mentioned.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Well, it seems to me,” [lieutenant governor] Jack Tangent spoke up, “it seems to be that the biggest issue in this race is sitting right here,” he nodded toward the governor, “and as long this race is about a fellow named Solomon Jawinski, we might just up and lose. I mean, I find it hard to believe, but it just might be that fifty percent plus one wake up on Saturday feeling like maybe they’re kind of tired of Solomon and how they’d maybe like a change.”

“So?” Walter Farkas asked.

Jawinski scowled at Farkas. He liked his lieutenant governor and did not want him hurried. Jack had his own languid style, but eventually he would come around to the point – and the odds were it would be worth the effort.

“So maybe,” Jack continued, dawdling as always, “maybe we better get around to makin’ people start asking questions about that other fellow so destiny can work its little magic and our boy will end up in the Senate. Trouble is, nobody would ever think our esteemed Luke Bonney was a crook or a Communist. Can’t make him into that. Gotta play off his strengths to whip his weaknesses. Little jujitsu. You guys understand.”

There was a brief pause until Walter Farkas looked around and asked in a stage whisper, “Did anybody understand that?”

“I think,” Matt said, “that the lieutenant governor means that as long as this race is a referendum on Solomon Jawinski, we will probably lose. Or sure as hell could lose. But if we can get people to focus on questions about Luke, we can win. But the problem is that we don’t have really good stuff on Luke – nothin’ dirty -”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Farkas said quietly.

This idea, to use an opponent’s strengths against him, was, of course, effectively applied by the Bush campaign against Kerry, where the asset of his military experience was destroyed through various methods, most crucially the Swift Boat attack ads.

This allows for a quick digression, on the possible differences of what can be admitted in fact and fiction.

What follows is a small excerpt from an interview with Stevens by Jules Witcover, conducted in March 7, 2007, dealing with the issue of issue PACs such as 527s acting independently of the campaign (the site is currently off-line, so a screenshot of the full interview follows the excerpt). A central point of campaign finance reform is whether or not such PACs genuinely act apart from the main campaign, or whether co-ordination, explicit or through implicit signaling is inevitable. In this interview, Stevens claims the 527s acted entirely on their own.

How do you feel about both the independent-expenditure committees and 527s, in terms of losing control of your own campaign?

I hate it.

Talk a little about that.

Like the Swift Boats. I remember when the whole Swift Boat thing, everybody in the [George W.] Bush world was furious, and sort of stunned. People don’t believe this, but it’s true.

So it’s not enough to be able to say, “Hey, that wasn’t ours, and we had nothing to do with it – we didn’t talk to anybody.” You are getting nailed with it anyway? Is that the problem?

Oh, yeah. People do nail you with it. And most of the time they screw it up, in the sense that they don’t do what you want to do. And I remember in the Swift Boat thing, I had been working on this ad, just kind of noodling on my own, where it was very straightforward. “John Kerry came back from Vietnam and he said this.” And then I had just a clip of it. It said, “What do you think?” That was it. And then the Swift Boat people came in.

But it didn’t go after the element of his service in Vietnam?

No. And they entered the argument on the medals issue, which I always felt was the worst way to argue that. Like should he have gotten two medals instead of three? It’s just insane. And so I felt that by entering the argument at that point, they had discredited the argument. And the one thing you could say about someone like Karl [Rove], Karl likes to control things. Not in a bad way, but in a “we don’t like stuff just to happen.” And all of us, I think, were like, “What?” I certainly didn’t know anything. I don’t think anybody knew anything about it. It’s just kind of you wake up one morning, and it’s like, “What?” I remember the phone ringing, one of the 6 a.m. phone calls, you know whatever it’s going to be it’s not going to be good. It’s like, “Have you seen this?” And so, I mean, people say the Swift Boat thing hurt Kerry. Maybe. Maybe the way they handled it hurt him. But I thought the “Ashley” ad that was done mainly in Ohio by the 527s, you see that where Bush is embracing this girl whose mother had died in 9/11. He did the Willie Horton ads, Larry [McCarthy]*; he did it. I thought it was a very good ad, fabulous ad.

buying of the president part one buying of the president part two

It may well have been the case that the 527s acted on their own. However, it should be noted that what Stevens states here is entirely different from what Matthew Bonney, says in the novel about independent action committees. A front committee, The Citizens for Good Government, is set up by Walter Farkas, the campaign’s pollster, in order to publicize the story that Luke Bonney has slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Who’s the Committee for Truth and Justice?” Matt asked.

“The Citizens for Good Government,” Charlie corrected. “It’s Walter Farkas and Byron Timmons.”

“Sweet Jesus,” Matt muttered. His hands trembled with rage.

“Walter has found,” Charlie continued, “three male prostitutes who say they have been playing around with Luke.”

It is after this that the issue of the connection between this front group and the campaign comes up. It is here that Matthew Bonney states that co-ordination between independent committees and the larger campaign was inevitable, as impossible to avoid as teenagers having sex, an admission entirely at odds with what Stevens said in the interview on co-ordination with the Swift Boat committees.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Can Farkas be traced?” Matt asked, ignoring her and trying to focus. “Will anyone prove he was involved with Byron?”

“No,” Charlie answered, though he wasn’t really sure of this at all. It was what he had spent the afternoon trying to decide. Some people knew that Farkas was a friend of Byron Timmons’s [sic], but that couldn’t be called a crime, though by all rights it should have been.

The question at hand involved a violation of FEC – Federal Election Commission – law. It was illegal for there to be any contact or coordination between an independent group like Citizens for Good Government and a federal campaign. This was because the independent groups were exempt from the fund-raising limitations and reporting requirements imposed on congressional and senatorial campaigns. Nine times out of ten, however, this was a sham. It was like trying to keep teenagers from having sex. The very notion of stopping two groups with the same goal from trading information and plotting together sub rosa was preposterous.

I now go to a lengthy excerpt of the book which best illustrates the exclusive emphasis on what could be style issues, over anything to do with any policies that might help or hurt those living in the state. It is the best, truest scene in the book, very detailed, its details no doubt coming directly from personal work experience. The campaign team tests out a possible election ad for effectiveness with a group of potential voters. No issue is discussed in either the anti-Jawinski or anti-Bonney ad, no issue that might be hinted at in either ad is discussed by the campaign team either. The only “issue” is the perception of inexperience in Bonney and clownishness in Jawinski.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The room darkened, and the television set flickered. A series of news clips appeared on the screen, brief bits on Martin Luther King Jr., the Olympic swimming team, Fidel Castro, the Atlanta Braves baseball team.

Farkas always showed the same clips at the beginning of all his focus groups. The responses served as a control, weeding out any pranksters: a ten rating for Fidel Castro tagged you as either a Communist or crazy, both equally useless in Farkas’s statistically correct world.

After the clips came separate three-minute segments of Luke Bonney and Solomon Jawinski answering questions at the previous night’s debate. Farkas had selected the responses to Woody’s weather question and Samantha’s UNICEF inquiry [Samantha Simms and Woody Jackson, panelists from the debate] – the bland of the bland. A strong response either positive or negative would ferret out any closet supporters or antagonists. Farkas naturally assumed that a certain number of people had lied during the initial selection process when asked if they had strong feelings about either candidate. They lied for the $35 bounty, they lied because they wanted to give what they figured was the correct answer, they lied for spite, and they lied for fun. Farkas hated mendacity. Liars were to a pollster what land mines were to tank commanders: nasty little unknowns that could muck up everything.

These bland three-minute appetizers were followed by the morning’s red meat: the new Bonney campaign spot attacking Jawinski. This was the spot Morton Kouhan had made the night before, directing by phone from his hotel room. Ruthie had obtained the spot from Ernie Swindell [the TV station manager] as soon as it had been delivered to the station early this morning. It was not scheduled to be aired until that evening in the time slots adjacent to the news. This was the most treasured airtime for political commercials. Years ago somebody like Walter Farkas had figured out that people who vote like to watch the news, and somebody like Matt Bonney figured out that positioning a commercial next to a news broadcast lent a certain credibility to the message. Most stations across America refused to sell political ads inside a news broadcast, fearing that it compromised the impartial tone of the news. But the Capital City stations, ever confident of their ethical reputation – as well as being greedy as pigs – had a policy of selling any open position.

In the darkened room of the focus group, the pirated spot began to play. Koughan had constructed the ad around film of Solomon Jawinski water-skiing at Cyprus Gardens intercut with shots from the debate. First, you saw the governor behind the podium proclaiming, “And I’ll be the sort of senator who’ll fight for what’s best for you!” Then it cut to Jawinski on water skis. He had never been a particularly pretty sight in a bathing suit, and he did not fare well in comparison to the stunning beauties of Cyprus Gardens who shared his tow rope. While the viewers heard the governor talking about what he would do as senator, they saw a delighted Solomon Jawinski clearly having a splendid time: as the camera zoomed in on his bouncing belly and skullcap of wet curls, he whooped and hollered, riding his single ski with a preternatural grace. He beamed at his co-skiers, muscular angels of the jet spray. Jawinski looked delighted, ecstatic, a man who had died and gone to heaven.

He did not look, however, by any stretch of the imagination, like a United States senator.

An announcer’s voice, a rich mocking voice, cut in over the pictures: “This man wants to be your next United States senator. He wants to represent you in matters of war and peace. He’s asking for the right to raise your taxes, to support or cancel Social Security.

“Over the next six years, this man wants to be your voice in Washington. Your voice. Your voice. Your voice…”

During the last refrain, the camera closed in on Jawinski letting loose – in slow motion – one of his famed rebel yells. Some might say it was a moment of pure existential joy; others might say Solomon Jawinski looked like a total asshole.

Ruthie watched the spot with a sick feeling in her stomach. She thought it was a terrific spot, one that cut to the core of the doubts about Solomon Jawinski. Sure, he’s a funny guy, but do you really want him in Washington?

The focus group spun the dials wildly. Some laughed. A few frowned and shook their heads. All eagerly awaited the next spot.

It was the spot Matt had made the night before, and it opened with a smiling Luke Bonney from the debate, which faded into another shot of Luke smiling and then another – a long, seemingly endless montage of Luke Bonney smiling.

The announcer began in a friendly, conversational tone: “He’s a young politician who likes to smile and make promises. Then smile some more and make some more promises.”

As the announcer spoke, the camera pushed in a little closer on each smiling shot, and each shot made Luke Bonney look sillier and sillier and even a bit sinister.

“But when you think about the problems we face,” the announcer continued as Luke Bonney’s smile was replaced by a half-dozen images of problems – unemployment, hot spots around the globe, crop failure, drugs – “do we really want just another smiling politician? Or a leader who’s not afraid to say no and can make Washington stand up and listen to what we are about. A smiling politician…or a leader. Solomon Jawinski. Smart. Tough. Ready for the job.”

The dials spun like windmills in a gale. When the lights came on, Ruthie thanked everyone and stood by the door distributing unmarked envelopes each containing $35 in cash. The generic envelopes and the payment in cash rather than by check were part of an effort by the Jawinski campaign to conceal the fact that they had sponsored the focus group. As in most campaigns, there was a great obsession with secrecy, but no one could actually articulate why it would be undesirable for anyone to know the Jawinski camp was holding focus groups. But campaign secrets took on a value of their own, so the more secrets the better.

The all importance of image is seconded when Matt observes his brother speaking. Luke is a very good politician, but this quality has nothing to do with any legislative expertise or achievement – none are ever mentioned – only his ability to shift in tone for the appropriate audience, just as a great musician can move effortlessly from playing with small bands to large orchestras.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt was halfway back to the car when he heard his brother take the stage. He knew what he was going to say – Matt had watched his brother on the stump a half-dozen times during this campaign. He always gave a reverse doughnut – a different introduction with specifics tailored to the crowd, a stock middle section, and a close geared to the emotional level of the crowd. Without fail, he was his most emotional in front of poorer, less educated crowds. In front of business or do-gooder types like the League of Women Voters, Luke became almost analytically aloof and reserved, just the way they liked it. This adapatability was a trait Matt, when he still worked on his brother’s campaigns, had groomed. He felt it was the key to the big leagues. Any small-time politician can have one good act, but the big boys had half a dozen they rolled out at will, assessing the temperature of the crowd with great finesse.

“Today, before I begin here at this glorious Lester County Fair-”

That was Luke Bonney all the way. Make sure to refer to the event in the first sentence. It was a trick straight out of a Dale Carnegie speech-giving class, and it always worked.

This exclusive emphasis on image, on perception, rather than any policies merges with the idea that the management of an election campaign has nothing to do with policy, and for a consultant to have any focus on policy is a mistake. This is not an interpretation on my part, it is, again, stated explicitly by the hero consultant of the book, Matthew Bonney.

A scene at the end, Matt talking about the work of his wife, the congresswoman, and the contrast between governing and consulting:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

He knew she would have been up since 7:00 A.M., doing what she did every morning: talking on the phone, reading this subcommittee’s report on that committee’s report on the previous committee’s study of the subcommittee’s recommendation. There was a permanent but ever-changing stack of such reports by their bed in Washington. Matt couldn’t read the covers without getting bored. It was said by some that political consultants had too much influence on the governmental process, but Matt was yet to know a consultant who really gave half-a-damn about government. Government was that thing done by other people, the folks who actually wrote those reports that Lisa and her colleagues consumed like so much cotton candy. What Matt and his kind did were elections. That was as different from government as playing tuba in the high school band was from playing halfback on the team.

And that was how it should be, Matt figured. What was mucking everything up was the confusion of the two endeavors. Increasingly, the sort of person who would make a good political consultant was running for office. And winning, of course, because they were the best at manipulating the system. But, Lord knows, this wasn’t the breeding ground for the great statesmen of tomorrow. It was fundamentally wrong, confusing the two. It was like ambulance drivers replacing doctors just because they knew how to get to the patients first.

That an election is fundamentally about these dueling images, that it not be about policy at all, is what Stevens wants. He does not wish there to be any analytical aspect to a campaign, and cannot conceive of one. What everyone wants, even those who say it is not what they want, is conflict. He does not see journalism giving anything in terms of insightful examination or analysis as a counterpoint to the visual slugging contest, only diktats. The choice between two dueling images, the dozens played between two campaigns is democracy. That nobody votes or is disgusted that politics in turn is transformed by subservience to these images is not an issue either. Look at Italy, that’s where people vote, and look what sorry shape that country is in.

All this is said in this discussion about political coverage between Newsome and Matt Bonney:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“You know what it is about you reporters, Newsome?” Matt asked. Newsome was busy scrubbing furiously at his suit pants with a wet towel. “You’re fundamentally conflicted about this campaign stuff.”

“Conflicted?” Newsome muttered.

“You guys talk all the time about how you hate dull campaigns and spend God knows how much energy trying to get two candidates to bash each other’s brains out-”

“What other fun is there?”

“Exactly. And then if a campaign should finally catch fire and start exploding on you, all of a sudden you start to condescend and rip into us for lack of decorum. Decorum. Hah!” Matt laughed loudly. Heads turned. “On the one hand, you want democracy to be a great popular sport, everybody involved and cheering wildly. But as soon as it starts to happen, you’re horrified. It’s like you want everybody to come to the party but only if they dress just so. You complain about how nobody votes anymore. Big deal! Ninety percent of the people in Italy vote. You want a country like that? And all this BS about how television ads are ruining campaigns! You know why editorial writers don’t like television spots? Because they take power out of their hands! They want a few dinky debates, a polite campaign, and then for everybody to sit at home on Sunday waiting for the editorials to know which way to vote. Instead, some jerk like me can muck things up! You want twenty percent of the people to vote instead of fifty! Just take campaign commercials off the air. You’ll bore everybody to death!

That Matt Bonney and Stevens both want, thrive on, is the violence of the campaign, a juvenile violence unconnected to anything to do with any issue whatsoever, is emphasised in this brief mention of the intensive arguments over set-up for a debate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

For media consultants, debates were fun. It was one of the few opportunities in adult life in which you were expected to be as demanding and petty as an irate six-year-old. Fierce battles were fought over podium height, lighting selection, backdrops – all the details that assumed a preternatural importance but in fact meant next to nothing. Grown men would howl like wounded animals and make vile threats of physical dismemberment and career-ruining blackmail over questions such as the difference between fifty-six- and fifty-eight-inch podiums. What other business would not only praise you for acting like a contemptible tyrant but pay you an obscene amount of money in the process?

To act like a tantrummy six-year-old is not exactly my idea of fun, or that of many that I know, but it is Matt Bonney’s, and I assume Stevens’ as well, given that he expects a sympathetic connection with the reader here.

What is made clear to be crucial in a campaign is not any issue, but identity. Matt Bonney’s father defended the way of life of those in Mississippi, his identity and their identity, against federal incursion. Matt Bonney’s candidate is a Polish jew born in McComb County, Michigan, but these details of location and ethnicity do not matter, because he has fastened on what connects him with a substantial amount of voters in Mississippi, and, for that matter, many states.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

But it was part of young Solomon Jawinski’s genius that he understood the basic similarities between his old environs and his new. He appreciated that McComb County and the Capital City were linked by the same kinships of xenophobia and provincialism, with a sustaining faith that they were God’s chosen people. “Damn rednecks,” Jawinski would mutter around the house. “Rednecks here, rednecks there. All the damn same.” In Matt’s opinion, this early strategic insight is what allowed Jawinski to do what seemed on face value as completely, ridiculously, and utterly impossible: get elected. Elected in a state in which there were probably just as many left-handed Lithuanians as Polish Jews. But Jawinski wasn’t just any Polish Jew; he transformed himself into a Polish-Jewish REDNECK, a Polish-Jewish redneck superman.

This identity has nothing to do with any policy that might help the poverty or suffering of the people of Mississippi. It has only to do with a particular style of speech and life, in this case, a variation on Bill Clinton without the Oxford education.

The communication of this identity to the voter, is what is of primary importance, with the candidate himself secondary and incidental to the process from the consultant’s perspective. This is obvious in this passage, where Matt Bonney talks of the ease of the end of the campaign, when the candidate becomes entirely an automaton, entirely under the control of consultants, who are now unhindered by the personality of an actual man, awake and alive.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It was an inevitability in campaigns that during the final two weeks, a candidate was largely removed from the decision-making process, shunted from one event to another in a nineteen-hour-a-day frenzy. This always left the candidate in a near catatonic state of exhaustion with no time to think – at exactly the stage that required the most precise thinking. Most consultants, of course, relished this moment when a candidate teetered on physical collapse and functioned as a mindless automaton. Then they – the professionals – could go about their jobs without the messy hindrance of the person who was, titularly, at least, their commander in chief.

That Mitt Romney is a robot-like, lifeless man may be considered a liability by pundits and possibly voters, but: given the last fragment, I believe Stevens ultimately considers this automaton-like quality a strong plus.

Further, that policy is of no importance, that the focus be solely on violent gladiatorial combat, that the poor, suffering souls of Mississippi that Matt Bonney observes in the chinese restaurant may well remain poor and suffer, getting poorer and suffering more is of no concern to the consultant. He does not want any part of these voters’ lives, as he admits to Newsome, and he no longer lives in Mississippi, instead moving from state to state running campaigns, so the consequences of this election will never be felt or seen by him.

That there is something rancid in this, is pointed out by the most sympathetic figure of the book, his father, the former segregationist Powell Bonney. My bolds:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“We always call lieutenant governors Lite Guvs. Whatever state I’m working in,” Matt shrugged, “it always seemed to fit.”

“Don’t you get confused about what state you’re working in?”

Matt knew that Powell Bonney hated the very concept of consultants working on different races around the country. He thought it was fundamentally a corruption of democracy. Matt had never argued the point.

Matthew Bonney knows that he is something of a carpetbagger, plundering these campaigns in poor states for fortunes then scooting away, but he continues to do his work. There is the fact that he is paid an obscene amount of money, but also, something that might be constructed as Stuart Stevensism, a specific theory of political life, which pervades this book. I leave it to the next section.


In this novel, Stuart Stevens views politics as primal, violent, tribal struggle. Ideas are entirely absent. The identity and image of the candidate are crucial. When necessary, a show of force, a martial demonstration, is essential for victory. Elections are not decided by analysis, but through the rough feelings of the mob. Stevens, and his proxy, Matthew Bonney, make a great deal of money by manipulating this mob. Yet at the very same time, Stevens has contempt for the rabid crowd, this thoughtless rabble, and does not believe government is best served through appealing to their appetites. At the end of the book, the wishes of the mob are overruled by the wisdom of the elect: Jawinski abdicates as Senator, and has Powell Bonney appointed in his place. That there may be something racial in this attitude might be noted as well; former segregationist Powell Bonney cannot win in the state because of black voters, but in the end, he can be imposed on them, and it will be for their benefit.

That Matthew Bonney continues to work as a consultant, despite his contempt for this mob, despite the fact that it does not bring about the best result for the state, is, I think, because both the author and his proxy hero share the same belief, that there is something eternally mob-like and tribal in humanity, both in the United States and elsewhere, which can never be remedied or fixed, only manipulated or oppressed.

One of the first scenes in the book, the night of the TV debate, conveys this. This debate is, ostensibly, about the back and forth of competing ideas of the candidates. Yet none of the ideas of either is ever brought up. Beforehand, we are given the scene surrounding this debate, a portrait of two rival groups of passionate supporters. It is essentially, we are told, a pep rally. These crowds are crucial for psychological warfare. They embody no support of any particular idea, but they are essential for the candidate, who is part of this crowd, just as they are part of him, as well as necessary for giving a visual spectacle for reporters. We are given the side detail that an Iranian exile served a crucial role in crowd organization in a California campaign, and that he was extraordinarily skilled at it. The ideas of the candidate supported, a lunatic who wanted to toss a few warheads on Iran, are of no consequence. That the Iranian organizer before organized crowds against the Shah is of no importance. All that is crucial is the mobilization of the crowd for support, and this man is able to do so.

Then we move to the theme already seen before, that the natural state of politics is one of sadistic, brutal struggle. Jawinski is going to kick a little ass tonight. A demure grandmother, a previous client of Matt Bonney’s, was roused to want to rip off her opponent’s dick and shove it down his throat.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

A block from the station, supporters of Solomon Jawinski and Luke Bonney lined the street. They were mostly kids, teenagers or college students in their early twenties, the shock troops of every campaign. They all carried signs proclaiming their respective allegiance and shouted at each other as if at a pep rally which, more or less, they were. That intelligent human beings would find it rewarding to stand on a hot street corner, and jump up and down with signs trying to affect the outcome of an event that was taking place a block away in a sound-proof, windowless studio may seem marginally insane, but it was all part of the psychological warfare that no aggressive, in-your-face, must-win campaign – that is, a good campaign – ever neglected. The street-corner demonstrations were intended for two audiences – the reporters covering the debate and the candidates themselves. Both were expected to be impressed by this spontaneous outpouring of loyalty. In a California senate race a year earlier, Matt had been lucky enough to find a visiting Iranian student at UCLA who was a genius at organizing such demonstrations, having trained on the streets of Tehran chanting “Death to Americans!” It did not seem to bother the Iranian in the least that Matt’s candidate, a congressman from southern California, had once suggested Tehran might be in need of a little “nuclear renewal.”

Even though he knew the predebate street action was carefully scripted, Jawinski still enjoyed the show. “Yeah,” he snorted, “we’re gonna kick a little ass tonight. No doubt about it.” Matt found that all his clients had a tendency to talk like enraged, steroid-crazed linebackers in the predebate hours. Once a demure, sixty-five-year-old grandmother running for Congress in Florida on a pro-environmental platform had leaned over to Matt on the way to a debate and murmured, “I’m gonna to rip the bastard’s little wee-wee off and stuff it right down his golden throat.” She was running against a local anchorman, hence the “golden throat” reference.

Another important, though very brief, image occurs towards the end, in the ruins of Luke Bonney’s victory party. Matthew sees his brother on the stage:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke was standing on top of the crude podium, hands on his hips. He reminded Matt of nothing so much as Jim Jones just before handing out the Kool-Aid – a strange, troubled figure but not an unhappy one.

Politics is a cult, a gathering of a group through demagoguery. The supporters may be drinking elixir, or they may be drinking poison, but they will drink it, out of the mob’s blind animal fealty to a magnetic man.

However, at the same time that Matthew Bonney requires the mob for his business, he despises it. He hates the individuals who make it up, and he thinks that it is ultimately a destructive force. He has utter contempt for every other person involved in political consulting, whether it be Morton Koughan, Ruthie Simms, or Walter Farkas. In one of the last scenes, it’s shown how little he or his congressional wife care about the voters of their state:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

When Matt got back to his townhouse on G Street, Southeast, Lisa was on the phone. “That’s just wonderful. Fine. Good.”

She had the mindlessly happy, I’m-not-really-listening tone she usually adopted when talking to one of her constituents. Matt figured it was probably someone on the Farm Bureau or maybe the Rotary Club president of Arcadia looking for a speaker. “Why, Matt just walked in.”

Matt frowned. Lisa knew – everyone knew – that it was dangerous to put Matt in contact with average voters. It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation.

It was the surest way to guarantee a difficult situation. Matt Bonney needs average voters for his work, and he hates them as well. He guesses that his wife is on the phone with one of her constituents, because she sounds like she’s not really listening. Who wants to hear from the slobs back in Mississippi?

That the author believes the foolish cretins who make up this mob are also dangerous as a crowd, is made again in the views expressed on Germany and Japan. Stevens, in Feeding Frenzy states boldly that he hates Germany and hates Germans.

i hate germans

“You’re getting close to Germany. There is hope.”

“I hate Germans, and how am I going to get there without brakes?”

but they were germans

[He] was German. They were all German. Which was very troubling when I quickly realized what a likable, genuinely friendly person he was. It always troubles me when I come across Germans I like. It makes maintaining my rabid anti-German fervor all the more difficult, which, naturally, I resent terribly.

maybe it would kill some germans

“And leave the Mustang! Just like that?” [says Stevens]

“Yes. With any luck at all, some German will steal it and be driven mad with frustration.”

She knew I disliked Germans. The idea did have some appeal.

A few cars, not many, had passed us without stopping.

“A German wouldn’t know the brakes were bad. They might get in and drive away and plow right into a tree.” This enjoyable scenario began to unfold in my head.

“Or maybe a big tanker truck. Lots of flames.”

“But that would snuff the truck driver too,” I cautioned.

“He would be German as well.”

“Ahhh…” It was a delightful notion.

This same anti-German passion appears in a number of Governor Jawinski’s speeches. There is the televised debate:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

The question went to Luke Bonney. “If elected to the Senate, Congressman Bonney, would you support the president’s policy of noninvolvement with the difficulties of German reunification, or do you advocate stronger action to bring about change in Eastern Europe and other former captive nations?”

Luke Bonney knew this one was coming and hit smoothly over the fence. There was no question that the president had chosen a wise course of action. “Europe’s destiny should be in the hands of the Europeans. We have helped foster a great democracy in West Germany, and they are perfectly capable of charting their own course.”

Jawinski exploded.

“I’ve never heard such gibberish in all my life! I’d call it total bull if my ex-wife wouldn’t yell at me!”

The audience roared. Jawinski’s profanity had become a running joke in the state, as was his relationship with the former First Lady. “How is it that any responsible, intelligent person -,” he looked over at Luke Bonney to make it clear he didn’t really believe these adjectives fit his opponent, “could think for even one moment that this pansy approach” (gay rights was not a big issue in the state) “to the terrible realities of German reunification was a wise course of action has got to be one brick shy of a load. Maybe Luke Bonney doesn’t remember how many soldiers from our great state died fighting – “

And Jawinski was off, hitting all his favorite notes, a wild John Coltrane improv riff, knowing where he was going but not sure how he would get there. There was something fundamentally wrong with Germans and their thwarted sense of destiny. If you think the Germans have really changed, just spend an hour on the autobahn! A nation with the soul of a bully! Either at your feet or at your throat! Is forty years enough? Hell, no! Forget Omaha Beach?! Forget the Bulge?!

The crowd, most of whom honestly didn’t care one way or the other about what happened to Germany, whooped and hollered their approval. Blood on the floor!

Note, of course, the reaction of the studio audience.

The idea of tribal violence is there again during a television interview conducted with the governor, speaking about the germans, the japanese, and the southern confederacy. I bold what I consider a truly striking detail, in this moment of grievous income inequality in the U.S.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“Everybody worries about the Japanese, and, to be sure, they’re terrible people-”

“They are?”

“Of course! Look we might think of them now as smiling, camera toting technocrats, but let’s don’t forget, not too long ago they were a nation of sun-worshipping lunatics trying desperately to take over the world. They’re racist, narrow-minded people.” He shrugged. “We just don’t have the same values.”

“But the Japanese don’t worry you?”

“Not really. When it comes down to it, they’d rather be rich than powerful. But the Germans-”

“They’re worse?”

“Ab-so-lutely!” Down came the hand, up went the cigarette. “They still have this horrible sense of thwarted destiny. Lookit,” he took off his glasses and rubbed the dark circles surrounding his eyes like bruises, “one hundred years ago, this was the richest part of the country. Man, we were rich, rich, rich. But then we went and did a stupid, violent thing called secession. In five years we became the poorest part of the country, and one hundred years later, it’s still that way. And maybe that’s not so bad.

“It’s good to be poor?” Dawn looked genuinely shocked.

It’s good to have some kind of reminder of what happens when people do something horrible – like rebellion. The Germans, all those damn cars, the money – amnesia!” Slap! Jawinski’s big hand crashed down on his knee. “Amnesia! That’s where being rich like that does to you! Losing the war made us better people! Don’t you get it?”

“We’re gonna miss that man,” [TV station manager] Tom Riddell said gravely. “When you got a man crazy enough to actually speak his mind, it’s a real crime to let him go.”

Note that the lunacy is not the ideas expressed, but to express oneself honestly. Also important is that Jawinski is easily the most sympathetic character in the book after Powell Bonney, the former segregationist. The view of the japanese, like that of the germans, is not simply Jawinski’s, but that of Stevens himself. The hero consultant Matt Bonney also dislikes the japanese, though not in such forthright terms.

From a moment in the morning after he lit firecrackers at the other campaign’s victory party:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

It wasn’t until he caught a glimpse of his face in the reflective backwaters of the river that he actually thought about what he had done the night before. What he saw was a face streaked with dirt and black powder smudges, long hair held in place with a black headband that trailed down his back like a strange tail.

“Jesus!” Lisa murmured, still half-asleep. “Geronimo. You look like Geronimo.”

“Yeah?” Matt said, pleased. “Not a ninja?” He had never considered the reference to be a compliment, not being overly fond of many things of Japanese origin.

This dislike, as stated by Jawinski, over the aggressive military aspect of the germans and japanese is never connected with the history of the countries, or particular conditions that might shape a people. It is entirely tribal, with the germans, the japanese, the confederacy having a nature that is something like a violent mob, which in turn must be beaten and controlled. There is something fundamentally wrong with germans. They are a nation with the soul of a bully. It is good that Mississippi is poor, because this educates and controls its citizens after rising up against authority. It would be better if Germany had not been unified, better if both Germany and Japan had remained poor, as that would have leashed their inherent tribal instinct for war. Remember that this novel takes the riot at the University of Mississippi, and places the blood entirely and wholly with this mob, while segregationist Powell Bailey is made into an innocent martyr.

Towards the end, Matt Bonney lets out his exasperation at the electoral process. It is a speech that shows the mixed feelings of the character and the author, but it also this sense of any group of voters as only a mob. He is now a co-host of “Showdown”, and gives the opinion on-air:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I’m not sure,” Matt stuttered, “why anyone would want to be in public office.” Matt realized that he was saying something that he deeply believed. “I can’t imagine one single reason that anyone would run for office. I really can’t.”

“We expect people to live by a standard the rest of us have abandoned years ago, we invade their privacy, we pay them squat.” Matt faced the camera. From his earphone, he could hear the director’s calming voice urging him to get the program back on track. “With ridiculously small contribution limits, we think we’ve actually accomplished some ethical breakthrough, while we make our politicians roam around the country begging for money to pay people like me. Reporters hide in the bushes in front of houses, root through garbage, chase old girlfriends. We all ask, ‘Why would anyone want to put with that’ in one breath and then bitch that nobody decent runs for office in the other. My God!”

The problem is that the job pays too little and takes away too much of one’s privacy, which keeps better candidates out. These better candidates will make better decisions for us. That Matt Bonney focuses on image to the exclusion of all else, that he wishes elections to be like violent combat and pushes them to be so, goes unmentioned, perhaps because he and Stevens think that this aspect is inevitable, a bloodlusting idiot mob unavoidable. The only remedy is that somehow this mob be handed leaders who are better than they deserve, like Powell Bonney, who might actually pass programs that could help them.


For this last section, I bring up what should be a private matter, but which the GOP has decided is not. Supposedly, there are questions that cannot be asked of the powerful, because it is undignified and cruel, though this is a luxury only reserved for this society’s topmost niche. No man or woman barely making enough to support their children can ever turn down a pee test at work. No woman seeking an abortion in certain states can now avoid certain inquiries.

So it would seem that when a campaign, as part of its strategy to woo voters, makes a secret donation to the National Organization for Marriage, as well as signing their pledge, and has their candidate speak at Liberty University, I think one might be entitled to ask a question of the man behind said strategy.

However, the following is not so forward as an explicit question, so much as a carefree piece of literary analysis only hinting at a possible query, an analysis which could well be very, very wrong. It continues on a hypothesis brought up already, in discussing Feeding Frenzy, then referred to here and here as well. I leave it to the reader to be intelligent enough to make certain deductions.

One more note before we begin: Matt Taibbi wrote a hilarious piece on the overuse of italics in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. In deductive moments, I tend to overuse italics as well.

This novel features two brothers, Matthew and Luke Bonney. They are very, very much alike physically. Near twins. Matthew, the political consultant, must make an effort not to look like his brother. This observation is made on one of the first pages.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Luke stood with his arm around Matt, and Lisa realized it was one of the few times she had even sen the to brothers so close together. The resemblance, despite Matt’s best efforts, was striking. Since they were little kids, Matt and Luke had been mistaken for twins. Matt had confessed to Lisa that there was a time when he had enjoyed this, basking in the physical glory of his slightly older sibling. But since they had come to Washington, Matt had worked at distinguishing himself from the collegiate good looks of Luke Bonney. Though they still shared the same high cheekbones, Matt liked to think that he had aged faster than his brother, his face more creased, his features lived in, not like Luke Bonney whose face looked as if it had been made yesterday. Always gleaming, always smiling. Smiling. And Lisa knew how careful Matt was to avoid the perfect helmet-of-hair look that was a Luke Bonney trademark. These days, Matt wore a ponytail.

Luke, the congressman, barely exists in this book, with the story concentrated almost entirely on Matthew, the political consultant. We know very few things about Luke, except that he’s very good-looking, he’s a congressman, he’s not married, and the possibility that he slept with a number of transvestite prostitutes. Though we are never told why, and though we are given nothing by which to make an inference, Matt Bonney hates his brother. It is the foundation of his existence.

Here he is talking to his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“And I don’t hate Luke. And I don’t understand how you can work against your brother, if you want to know the truth.”

“What? I hate my brother!”

“No, you don’t. Nobody hates their brother.”

Matt stared at her. “Of course I hate my brother! Hating my brother is one of the cornerstones of my existence. Look what he’s doing to Mule Jail!” Matt paused for a second. He almost never raised his voice when talking to Lisa. “Why shouldn’t I hate my brother?”

Mule Jail is the land where their childhood home once stood, before it burnt down. His brother has sold the land to a country club for development. He is desecrating a place sacred to their family memories.

Matt Bonney does not simply look like his brother, there is the good possibility that he might have been his brother. This is said clearly by Matt Bonney himself.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Even though he’d seen it hundreds of times, the plate on the office door that read Congresswoman Lisa Bonney never failed to startle him. It made him think first of his brother and then, more troublingly, of himself as a congressman. It was like being confronted with an alternative identity, the way his life could have been. It was not something he liked to think about very much these days.

So, there’s a man who looks just like Matt Bonney, is almost his twin and who he might well have been. This, I think, is the classic shadow self, the person who acts in ways we may wish to but do not. That Matthew views Luke not just as his double, but a dark mirror image, is implied rather strongly through a few details.

Luke does not simply have bad qualities, he is diabolical. Again, a conversation with his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“He’s diabolical,” Matt moaned, returning to the Style section article.

“Diabolical?” Lisa questioned. “I’ve heard Luke Bonney described as a ‘pretty boy,’ ‘simplistic,’ ‘grossly ambitious,’ ‘overly friendly,’ and ‘the ultimate Sigma Chi,’ but never ‘diabolical.’ This is an entirely new development.”

Then, in one of the only times in the book when the brothers meet, Luke and Matthew speak following the revelation that his brother may have slept with transvestite prostitutes. What do we associate with the devil? Fire.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Matt looked at his brother. He was wearing a double-breasted gray pinstriped suit. His hair was perfectly in place, his teeth gleamed. He looked freeze-dried except for his eyes. His normal bright blue had been replaced by red-streaked horrors.

“You looking at my fireballs, brother?” Luke asked. “I can wear these if it’ll help.” He pulled out a pair of aviator sunglasses and put them on.

I go back to the beginning of the book, because there is a striking sentence there of some relevance. It is the only time when Luke, Matt, and Lisa appear together, all three in the men’s bathroom. I find the entire quote unusual in the immediate emphasis of the husband or wife as escort, with the last sentence especially stunning, almost an answer to a question unasked.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Congresswoman Lisa Bonney was there in her role as Matt’s wife, a most unusual turn of events since it normally was Matt who found himself dragged along as the spouse. It was a role – the spouse – that they both hated playing, but it was the nature of Lisa’s job as a member of Congress that she was more in need of a spouse as escort than Matt. Matt was a political consultant and no one, of course, really cared if a political consultant was married or not.

Matt is a political consultant, and no one cares if he is married or not, unlike his brother, the man he might well have been, whose marital status people very much care about.

I give now a lengthy excerpt from the press conference with the transvestite prostitutes. They are, I think, made into creatures as lurid and grotesque as possible.

Josh Finkelstein and Tom Alexander are reporters. Byron Timmons is a ridiculous conservative fanatic and Civil War revisionist, who organized the press conference. Trixie, Pierce, and Markel are the black transvestite prostitutes. Their ethnicity is made very obvious, and used for comic effect1.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

Trixie smiled, as did Markel and Pierce. But none of them said a word.

“Well,” Dawn finally broke the silence, “this is certainly enlightening. What about it, Trixie, have you really been sleeping with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

Trixie giggled and cut his eyes sideways at Byron, who nodded and smiled while wiping his forehead with a hankie.

“Say what?” Trixie asked, crossing his legs.

“Did you sleep with Congressman Luke Bonney?”

A slow smile gathered in the corners of Trixie’s lipsticked lips. “I don’t remember doing much sleeping.”

Trixie was expecting laughter. The reporters stared in silence.

“What did you do, Trixie?” Tom Alexander asked.

“We done it all.”

Markel and Pierce laughed, covering their mouths with their hands. A few short grins broke out in the press corps.


“The nasty thing.” Trixie laughed.

“He done it all.” Pierce crowed, “the nasty and the watusi.”

“The nasty and the watusi,” Dawn repeated, glancing over her shoulder to make sure Ernie had his camera on.

“Yeow!” Trixie affirmed.

“How did you first meet Congressman Bonney?”

The three looked at each other, then over at Byron, who looked a bit calmer. He nodded and smiled.

“He come down Farish Street,” Trixie began.

“Driving that car of his -” Markel continued.

“Looking for a good time, he was,” Pierce added.

“He found it too.”

Trixie’s last comment occasioned a fresh round of giggles amongst the three.

“What kind of car does Congressman Bonney drive?” Tom Alexander asked.

“A white Poniac Sunbird,” the three said in unison.

Tom Alexander looked over at Byron, who shrugged and smiled nervously.

“Where did you have sex with the congressman?” Dawn asked. This seemed to stump them.

“Where?” Pierce finally asked, embarrassed. “You mean-”

The press corps hooted. “Ask him, Dawn!” Tom Alexander cried. “Get to the bottom of it!”

Pierce looked hurt and confused.

“At what location,” Dawn clarified. “Where did you go to have sex?”

“We did it at the Zebra Motel,” the three said, again more or less as a chorus.

“Which room?” Dawn asked.

“Twenty-four,” they answered together.

“All three of you at once?” Josh Finkelstein demanded.

This set off gales of laughter amongst the three.

“What kind of people you think we are?” Markel finally asked. “You dealing with a bunch of sluts, you think?”

“Tell me, girls,” Josh Finkelstein asked drolly, “how did you meet Mr. Byron Timmons?”

“He drove down Farish Street, too,” Trixie said.

“Is he a client like Congressman Bonney?” Josh Finkelstein pounced on Trixie.

“Now just a minute!” Byron exploded.

“I didn’t ask you, Byron.”

“I met these gentlemen when I was performing a citizen’s investigation of charges-”

“Who brought the charges?” Josh Finkelstein barked.

“I have had my longtime suspicions and I-”

“Yeah, I’ve got some suspicions, too, Byron.”

“Lots of suspicions going down,” Tom Alexander said.

“I don’t think any details about my personal situation are very important,” Byron said. “I’d like to focus-”

“We decide what’s important, Byron,” Dawn interrupted.

“There is no disputing that I have presented three independent sources-”

“You on drugs or what?” Josh Finkelstein yelled. “Independent? They’ve been drilled like trained seals.”

“If you are questioning the integrity of these gentlemen-”

“That’s right,” Josh Finkelstein said flatly. “You bet.”

“You callin’ us a liar?” Trixie shouted.

“I be callin’ us a liar,” Josh Finkelstein sneered, mocking Trixie’s accent.

“Why you little faggot,” Pierce cried, standing up. “You want to come up here and-”

“As long as I don’t catch anything!”

Markel and Trixie both stood up, squinting through the television lights.

“Bitch!” they cried in almost perfect unison. Trixie lobbed a small handbag at Josh Finkelstein, who ducked behind Tom Alexander.

“Gentlemen!” Byron cried.

“You call my black ass a ‘gentleman’ one more time,” Markel erupted, then threw his pocketbook at Byron. With surprising deftness, Byron pirouetted out of harm’s way. The imitation crocodile-skin bag sailed into a television light, tumbling it with a tremendous explosion as the bulb shattered.

“You moron!” Ernie screamed at no one in particular.

“Gentlemen!” It seemed to be the only word Byron still knew.

“I warned you!” Markel shouted. He turned around so that his back was facing Byron, presenting a profile to the press corps. He then dropped his pants while Pierce hooted, “Black moon risin’!”

Though what actually took place with Luke is left unresolved, late in the book, a strong hint is dropped that Luke did indeed have sex with these women – transvestites prefer to be referred in the gender they dress, so I refer to them as such.

Matt and his wife stay at the hotel where the alleged unions took place.

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“George voted for Solomon,” Lisa greeted Matt. “That’s one vote.”

“George?” Matt sat down and immediately drank all of Lisa’s coffee in one sip.

Lisa nodded over her shoulder at a large black woman emerging from the kitchen with a coffee pot in her hand. At least, Matt thought it was a woman. She looked a lot like Tina Turner, only even more muscular.

“I felt kind of bad,” George said. The accent was Jamaican, lilting, and delightful. “To vote against a customer, it is not such a good thing.”

“Customer?” Matt whispered to Lisa. She shrugged, and Matt turned to George. “Customer?” he asked.

“You saw on the news. Mr. Luke likes the Zebra, that man can do, yes!”

“Oh,” Matt said, nodding. “You saw it on the news.” He turned to Lisa. “He saw it on the news. That doesn’t mean it’s true.”

“No?” George said, laughing.

Matt looked at Lisa, with a question in his eyes.

“Does Luke really…” For the first time, Matt thought about the idea that his brother might really be sleeping with Trixie, Pierce, and Markel. “I always thought it was a joke that Farkas and Byron cooked up.”

“I’m sure it is,” Lisa said.

“No, you’re not. You’re not at all.”

So, Matt Bonney has a brother who looks just like him, who he very well could have been, a congressman, with a public life open to scrutiny, who people can blackmail because of the grotesque figures he has sex with, if only he had not decided to be a political consultant, who no one cares whether they’re married or not.

As a related aside, there appears to be an attempt to always move the unsavory aspects of election campaigns to others. It is Walter Farkas who comes up with the attack involving the prostitutes. It is Morton Koughan who is a despicable creature, though like Luke, we are never told why he is so hateful. He appears to do, here come more italics, only exactly what Matthew does.

That Koughan is a judas goat for the sins of political consultants is not implied, but made explicit. Here is a conversation between Matthew Bonney and his father, upset about the ad involving the prostitutes:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

“I want you to go and talk to your mother about what is going on. Tell her you are getting that transvestite thing off the air. And tell her about what might happen with Luke. Blame it on that guy, what’s his name…?”

“Koughan. Morton Koughan. The media consultant.”

“Blame it on that New York media consultant. You can always blame anything on a New York consultant, right?”

Matt had to laugh.

So, perhaps there is the possibility that there is not one judas goat in this story, but two. Perhaps also, just as there are parts of a story about a political consultant, written by a political consultant, which we immediately detect as obviously biographical, there may well be other parts that are also biographical, though a little hidden. Anyway: if others are given license to speculate on a president’s birth certificate, I think I’m allowed to speculate on a political strategist’s books.

Though I have mapped out a pattern of a shadow self in this book, I should add that this idea of a shadow double is out in the open in an episode of Northern Exposure, “Jules et Joel”. Joel, the reserved doctor protagonist, suffers a concussion, after which he dreams of a twin brother who acts out the impulses he does not, and who can be blamed for any sins he commits. While this dream twin pursues these desires, Joel is interrogated by an imagined Sigmund Freud. These scenes are in the usual place. I quote the relevant moments:


Joel Ego

Joel Id

Do you always do things out of a sense of obligation?

No! (beat) Yeah, most of the time. Yeah.

Well, my point is what difference does it make to Jules? One more blot more or less on his already disreputable character, whereas to soil my reputation would-


At least Jules expresses his id. He is id. Me, I am all super-ego. Good behavior. Stellar achievement. Always judging myself how others judge me. But…who really is the bad one here? Joel, who is only pretending to be good…or Jules, who expresses his evil side, so that when he is good is the genuine article?

Perhaps you project onto your brother those parts of yourself which it is uncomfortable for you yourself to own up to.

Jules is an animal, a predator, a sexual juggernaut whose idea of guilt is something like lint. Say Jules meets a girl. As he rips her clothes off, they ride like eels into a frenzy of unadulterated love-making. Me, I’d shower with my socks on if they wouldn’t get moldy. I have this thing about getting totally naked…I feel totally…


Exactly. I mean I want to be spontaneous, I do. I have this thing about analyzing my every move. And pre-meditated spontaneity is about as exhilarating as getting the measles twice.

Let’s take O’Connell for example. I mean, Jules plies her with alcoholic beverages, instinctively tells her everything he knows she wants to hear, flatters her, charms her and then sticks his tongue down her throat before she has a chance to say “Ah.” I mean, me, do I want her as badly as Jules? Absolutely. But do I pin her against the wall, pressing my chest against her chest? Thrusting my hips against her hips? I mean, do I?

Do you?

Me, yeah. Joel Fleischman. Are you kidding? No way. I mean, I’d tell her it’d never work out simply because we have nothing in common… because I hate everything that she likes. And in return for my forthrightness and honesty, I’d get at best, if ever, her grudging respect. When, like Jules, what I really want… is to lick her naked body from head to foot like a postage stamp.

I near the end with one penultimate note, this time a small one on writing style. The character of Matt Bonney is someone, we are told, who has had “zillions” of girlfriends, a man with the usual rabid lust of almost any man. Here is the first, and only physical description of his wife:

Stuart Stevens Scorched Earth

She was thin and dark, almost an inch taller than Matt’s five feet eleven inches. She was not so much beautiful as exotic, with dark hair and cheekbones that cut sharply across her face. On a trip to China, an official junket on which Matt had been included as a spouse, guides had twice asked if she were a Mongolian fashion model, a species of creature that neither she nor Matt had known actually existed.

The only absence I note is that men with this conventional lust have, both inside and outside of books, the occasionally endearing and sometimes tiresome quality of always fixating on a woman’s body: the texture, the curves, the movement. It is for that reason women wear clothes which accentuate such features, and wear heels to exaggerate these extraordinary rhythms. Matthew Bonney makes no mention whatsoever of his wife’s body here, or anywhere in the book. Nor does he make any mention of the body of almost any other women, including Dawn Simms, who he has an affair with. This may be a simple aesthetic divergence, a show of greater gallantry than most men possess, or, forgive me…a dog that doesn’t bark.

I end with a compliment. The bookjacket, in its author profile, again, carries no mention of Stevens’ credits as an undergrad and graduate at Oxford. I praise him for his discretion and self-effacement.

Stuart Stevens book jacket

* An excellent profile of Larry McCarthy, “Attack Dog” by Jane Mayer is in the New Yorker.

(After initial posting, edits were made to fix links and to improve clarity. A relevant section of “Thank God This Will Only Get Worse” was added later. The mention of “Northern Exposure” was added later. “Northern Exposure” images and script quotes copyright Universal TV and related producers.)

1 When I first read this book, I assumed this section on the transvestites was fiction – however, it is very much taken from reality, an episode from 1980s Mississippi politics, one more incident from that state which has somehow fallen under the waves, while more banal scandals of the Northeast remain common currency.

I am grateful to We’re With Nobody by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, for giving it mention. The book is a memoir of their years as opposition researchers, researching weak points and scandals of political opponents for later use in attack ads and talking points. Huffman is fascinating as a coincidental doppleganger of Stevens. Both have backgrounds in Mississippi, both have travelled extensively in Africa and Asia, both have written prolifically about politics and other subjects. They are at separate polarities however – Stevens is a mercenary, while Huffman seeks some betterment of politics by eliminating the unsavoury and amoral from the field. Stevens sees Karl Rove as an ally unfairly maligned, while Huffman is enthusiastic in continued malignment of the man. I think, on aesthetic grounds alone, that Huffman is the better writer. His description of Timbuktu, for whatever reason, strikes me as more authentic than that of Stevens; I look forward to reading his pieces on Jan-Michael Vincent and dirt eaters.

Returning to the main episode, I give the full description in With Nobody. The perspective is Huffman’s:

In the mideighties, the state of Mississippi, which later served as our proving ground as opposition researchers, was in the throes of a particularly brutal, and surreal, gubernatorial election. At the center stood a trio of transvestite prostitutes who claimed they’d had sex, on numerous occasions, with the leading candidate, a Democrat who was then the state attorney general. Notably, considering where we were, the prostitutes were black and the AG was white.

I was a reporter in Jackson at the time, and the newspaper’s statewide editor, a fiery former marine and Vietnam War veteran, supervised the coverage of the story, which attracted a national media circus that included Geraldo Rivera, the controversial correspondent for the ABC News show 20/20. During a particularly aggressive interview, Rivera, a proud pioneer of trash TV, drove one of the transvestites to tears by angrily demanding to know how it felt to have “ruined a man’s life.” It was, in a way, a legitimate question, particularly considering the transvestites’ penchant for changing their stories, but his delivery was unnecessarily rough. On-camera, the transvestites came across as physically striking, yet they were shy, and clearly unprepared for what they were getting into when they agreed to vogue with the Republican businessmen who hired them to go public with their stories.

The viciousness of Rivera’s attack and the prostitute’s resulting distress prompted my editor, who was present for the interview, to intercede. He and Rivera exchanged a few heated words and the argument devolved into a shoving match-a precursor to Rivera’s brawl a few years later with skinheads, that famously earned him a broken nose. So it was that a freelance opposition research campaign undertaken by a group of conservative businessmen resulted in a Vietnam War vet fighting with Geraldo Rivera in defense of a sobbing transvestite. And that was just the offstage action.

The newspaper’s executive editor had initially balked at reporting the results of the businessmen’s inflammatory research, which they had privately presented to him. The group was comprised of longtime Republicans in what was then a staunchly Democratic state, and they clearly had a political vendetta against the AG. More importantly, there were significant questions about the veracity of their claims. Rather than accept the businessmen’s word for it, the newspaper’s editors assigned two reporters to investigate the matter independently.

The reporters discovered that the businessmen had hired a private detective agency to interview the prostitutes along with policemen who claimed to have seen the AG speaking with trolling prostitutes as they made their rounds. The businessmen then paid the transvestites to go public, and afterward sequestered them in various hotels across the Louisiana line, presumably to control access and to ensure they could find them when they needed them.

At the beginning, the Republican gubernatorial candidate steered clear of endorsing the businessmen’s claims, though they were designed to get him elected. That would soon change. As the scandal reached a fever pitch, even his wife got in on it, smugly proclaiming during one speaking engagement, in reference to the fact that the attorney general was, you know, divorced, “I’m running for first lady, and I’m unopposed.”

Ultimately, the lurid details, the shockingly personal nature of the attack, questions about the businessmen’s payments to the prostitutes and attempts to convince the attorney general’s financial donors to abandon him, together with the lack of clearly documented evidence, did not sit well with either the public or the media.

A reporter asked one of the businessmen during a news conference, “Are you attempting to ruin the man? Are you trying to defeat him? Are you trying to get him to withdraw? What are you doing?” Eventually, television and radio stations refused to sell the group airtime for their campaign ads, enabling the beleaguered attorney general to control the dialogue about the scandal. The result was that the Republican candidate’s campaign was eclipsed by a bizarre sideshow staged by his own supporters.

There are a few noteworthy points here – the women, when they appeared in a press conference were not the ridiculous, comic figures of the book, but tragic ones. Rivera’s bullying, continues unabated and remains consistently callous, having now found a suitable haven at Fox News. The gubenatorial candidate was democrat William Allain, and the detective who pressured the women to make the allegations was Rex Armistead. There was no ambiguity afterwards about the allegations – the women recanted them. The character of Byron Timmons in the book is not Armistead, but still perhaps based on someone real.. Armistead, however, had a colorful enough history for a book, from his possible involvement in covering up the killing of black students at Jackson State, to his futile attempts to prove that Bill Clinton was involved in cocaine smuggling. He is a character who would be as welcome to any fiction as his person is unwelcome to this life. In the disputed race, William Allain won the election. The “20/20″ segment where Rivera questioned the women to the point of tears, despite its sensational nature, does not appear to be on youtube or anywhere else on the web. This footnote was added long after the rest of it was written, November 19th, 2012, two weeks less a day after the election. It originally stated that Armistead was involved in the killing of students at Jackson State due to an unmalicious mis-reading on my part; it has been changed to the still serious crime of possible complicity in veiling what took place there.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part Two


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted.)


It is here that the historical context of “Dream Story” intrudes, one absent in Eyes. Fridolin reaches the house of his dead patient to comfort his daughter, Marianne. While there, he fixes on an image which is of key importance for understanding Fridolin’s struggles throughout the story, and one missing from the film. Fridolin lives in Vienna, during the decline of the Hapsburg empire, and after it has already lost a war with the ascendant Prussian state. Where before the weapons and uniforms connoted strength, now they are a reminder of this loss. Throughout the story Fridolin tries to make some claim to heroism through physical force, often fantasizing about duels or fights, a place where he can demonstrate a masculinity that is thwarted in his dealings with women. It is this plight that the picture, mentioned several times in the story, embodies. It is a soldier in uniform, sword out, charging at an invisible enemy:

Her brother was now living somewhere abroad; a picture he had painted when he was fifteen was hanging over there in Marianne’s room. It depicted an officer galloping down a hill. Her father had always pretended not to see the picture at all. But it was a good painting.

The father has disdain for the picture, since he is very much part of the old martial tradition and has contempt for the soft, feminine arts, among them, painting.

As he turned up the gaslight over the desk, his glance fell on the picture of a white-uniformed officer galloping down a hill with a sword drawn against an invisible enemy. It hung in a narrow gilded gold frame and made no better impression than a modest print.

That this theme begins here is not arbitrary either. What Marianne, the daughter, badly needs right now is the display of another noble virtue, simple compassionate empathy. Fridolin, however, is a cold, distant man, more suffused with the rational aspect than the sensual, and he entirely misses the need for what is wanted. This emotional blindness prevents him from helping Marianne, just as it makes him so emotionally clumsy with his wife.

This is the relevant portion where she expresses her extraordinary need for comfort in this moment:

She scarcely heard what he said. Her eyes moistened and large tears streamed down her cheeks; once more she buried her face in her hands. Instinctively he placed his hand on her hair and stroked her head. He felt her body beginning to tremble as she sobbed, first hardly audible sobs, then gradually louder and louder, and finally completely unrestrained. All at once she slipped down from her chair and lay at Fridolin’s feet, clasping his knees with her arms and pressing her face against them. Then she looked at him and with wide-open, suffering, and wild eyes, whispered ardently, “I don’t want to leave here. Even if you never return, even if I’m never to see you again, I want to live near you.”

He was more touched than surprised, because he had always known that she was in love with him or imagined that she was in love with him.

“Please get up, Marianne,” he said softly, bent down to her, and softly raised her head. He thought: of course there is hysteria in this, too. He cast a sideways glance at her dead father. I wonder if he can hear everything? he wondered. Maybe he isn’t really dead. Perhaps every man only seems dead the first few hours after he dies – ? He held Marianne in his arms but kept her a little away from him. Almost unthinkingly he planted a kiss on her forehead, an act which seemed a little ridiculous even to him. Fleetingly he remembered a novel he had read years ago in which a very young man, almost a boy, was seduced, in fact, raped, really, at his mother’s deathbed, by her best friend.

Fridolin is at many points ridiculous in the story, but I think it is here that it becomes really comic. Marianne is devastated in this scene, in great emotional need, and the ridiculous, self-centered Fridolin takes her plea as a statement of long-standing love, a compliment he desperately needs after his wife’s fantasy of infidelity. He follows this with an even more comic one, a fantasy about the possibility that he might be sexually assaulted by this unbalanced woman, who simply wants a hug and words of comfort after the loss of her father.

The movie substitutes something more overtly lustful, Marion (slight variation in name) giving Bill an open mouthed kiss, while whispering, “I love you.” The impulse stems from the death, but demands a reciprocation not in comfort, but in lust as well. This, I think, is one of the first points where the movie transforms Schnitzler’s work into one where sex is made into something alien and threatening. This is lust made frightening and morbid, because it erupts out of tragedy, a crude, degrading demand for solace.

When Marion’s fiancé appears, we get a possible explanation for this outburst.

Bill, Marion, and Carl

Carl and Bill have many similarities in look, and I think there’s a possibility that Marion is momentarily drawn to Bill because he is, in effect, Carl, but one without their shared memories, a man with whom she can start afresh, and walk away from this tragedy rather than reconcile herself with it. The story’s Carl, a professor in philosophy named Dr. Roediger, may be a double for Fridolin, as almost all the men in the story are, but he serves as a reflection of Fridolin’s own coldness. Marianne desperately needs comfort, but she is unable to find any with her own fiancé so she turns to an expected figure of compassion, a medical doctor, but he fails her as well. There is one change from Roediger to Carl that I find puzzling; Roediger is like Fridolin, though devoted instead to purer intellectual pursuits, with Fridolin conceding that he went into the medicine partly for the material comfort. He is, however, very much Fridolin’s intellectual equal or superior, marked by his forthcoming professorship at the University of Gottingen, possibly one of the best institutions in Europe at the time. The movie has this character getting a professorship at the slightly less prestigious University of Michigan. However, Marion’s need for Bill has nothing to do with money or mobility, since, given her apartment, her family clearly has a great deal of money already.

The scene in “Dream” ends with one of the first details that make the narrative more fantastic and dream-like, though we have had no indicator before this that Fridolin was dreaming this. He leaves the house and:

The people he had left behind up there, the living as well as the dead, seemed equally unreal and ghostlike.


Now begins the sequence of events leading up to, and including, the second masquerade, all of which can be considered of one section, where are all the increasingly surreal, dream-like details, where the erotic feeling reaches a crescendo, but remains unfulfilled.

Appropriate to the heightening sensuality of this part, the air on this winter night becomes warmer and warmer. A passage from just after Fridolin has left the house of the dead father:

Here and there tightly clasped couples were sitting on shady benches, as though spring had already arrived and the deceptive warm air was not pregnant with dangers.

Another, later passage notes the increasingly warm night. Note that the source of the air is from a distant pastoral mountaintop, not unlike the setting of Albertine’s sexual dream.

Meanwhile it had become even warmer. The warm wind was bringing an odor of wet meadows and intimations of spring from a distant mountain into the narrow street.

First, there is an encounter with university students. This might be where Schnitzler makes the most merciless fun of Fridolin. The heroic virtue he most needs in the situations of the story, that would be of most benefit to him and others, would be empathy. However, the virtue he most ardently wishes for is strength. He sees the students and they remind him of what he no longer has, or perhaps, what he never had.

In the distance he heard the muffled sound of marching steps and then saw, still quite far away, a small troop of fraternity students, six or eight in number, turning a corner and coming toward him. As the young people came into the light of a streetlamp, he thought he recognized a few members of the Alemannia fraternity, dressed in their blue, among them. He himself had never belonged to a fraternity, but he had fought a few saber duels in his time.

That he feels the need to stress that he fought a few saber duels in his time explains what he sees in this men, strength, military valor, the virtues of a man that can only be demonstrated and acquired through combat. That I do not entirely trust his statement of having actually fought these duels lies with how he, Fridolin, is presented up to this point and afterwards, a rather timid man who constantly protests that he’s not as timid as that.

The passage continues, this encounter reviving the image of the mysterious women of the first masquerade:

The memories of his student days reminded him of the red dominoes who had lured him into the loge at the ball last night and then had so despicably deserted him soon after. The students were quite near now; they were talking and laughing loudly. Perhaps he knew one or two from the hospital? It was impossible to make out their faces accurately in this dim light.

That the students’ faces remain blurry is another element of the dream-like setting, people are out of focus, somehow known but unknown.

He had to stay quite close to the wall in order not to collide with them. Now they had passed by. Only the last one, a tall fellow with an open overcoat and a bandage over his left eye, seemed deliberately to lag behind, and bumped into him with a raised eyebrow. It couldn’t have been an accident. What was he thinking? though Fridolin, and instinctively stopped. The other man took two more steps and also stopped. They looked at each other for a moment with only a short distance separating them. But suddenly Fridolin turned back and went on. He heard a short laugh behind him – he almost turned around again to confront the fellow, but he felt his heart beating strangely – just as it had on a previous occasion, twelve or fourteen years ago, when there had been an unusually long knock on the door while he was with that charming young creature who was always going on about a distant, probably nonexistent fiancé. But in fact it had been only the postman who had knocked so threateningly.

The man’s bandage suggests that he has perhaps been involved in violence, a wound from a pistol duel maybe, experiences Fridolin foolishly covets, but which elude him. This is followed by another comic moment of Fridolin, his memory of once truly being scared as this by the knock of a postman at a lover’s place. I give a full excerpt of Fridolin’s inner monologue, to make clear the writer’s mockery of this man.

He now felt his heart beat just as it had at that time. What is this? he asked himself angrily, and now noticed that his knees were shaking a little. Coward – ? Nonsense! he answered himself. Should I go and confront a drunken student, I, a man of thirty-five, a practicing physician, married, and the father of a child! Formal challenge! Witnesses? Duel! And in the end get a cut on my arm and be unable to work for a few weeks because of such a stupid affair? Or lose an eye? Or even get blood poisoning – ? And perhaps in a week end up in the same state as the man in Schreyvogel Street under the brown flannel blanket [the dead father of Marianne]! Coward – ? He had fought three saber duels and had even been ready to fight a duel with pistols; it wasn’t his doing that the matter had been called off amicably at the end. And his profession! There were dangers, everywhere, anytime – one just usually forgot about them. Why, how long was it since that child with diphtheria had coughed in his face? Only three or four days, no more. That was a much more dangerous thing than a little fencing match with sabers. And he hadn’t given it a second thought. Well, if he ever met that fellow again this affair could still be straightened out. He was by no means obligated to react to such a silly student prank at midnight on his way to or from seeing a patient – he could just as well have been going to a patient – no, he was not obligated at all. On the other hand, if now, for example he should meet that young Dane with whom Albertine – oh, nonsense, what was he thinking? Well – well, really, she might just as well really have been his mistress! It wasn’t any different. Even worse. Yes, just let him cross his path now! Oh, what joy it would be to face him and somewhere in a forest clearing aim a pistol at that forehead with the smoothly combed blonde hair!

Fridolin assures himself that he does indeed possess the qualities of valor and strength, for not only has he been in several duels, he’s had a child cough in his face. The episode ends, significantly, with Fridolin connecting the weakness felt confronting this man and the revelation from Albertine about the young danish man.

In the movie, the episode is outwardly similar, though much less subtle. There is no ambiguous bump, hard stare, and single laugh, but instead a group of students pushing him to the ground and overtly taunting the man, taunting him that he is gay. This is an appropriate jeer for youth, but it misses entirely Fridolin’s crisis. Bill and Fridolin feel unmanned because of their heterosexuality, their failure with their wives, something very different from being insecure about their heterosexuality.

After this, Fridolin walks into an area filled with prostitutes. We have a scene that is more realistic than the solicitation in Eyes, while more unreal as well, with these women as ghost-like as Roederer and Marianne when he leaves their house.

Suddenly he found himself past his destination, in a narrow street in which only a few pathetic hookers were strolling around in their nightly attempt to bag masculine game. Like specters, he thought.

He meets one, we have the recurrence of red, and its association with sex.

One of the girls wandering about invited him to go with her. She was a delicate, still very young creature, very pale, with red-painted lips.

During their brief meeting, there is a mention of the red of her lips, and her age is the same of his wife when they were engaged.

He noticed that her lips were not made up but colored by a natural red, and he complimented her on that.

“But why should I use makeup? How old do you think I am?”

“Twenty,” Fridolin guessed.

“Seventeen,” she said and sat on his lap, putting her arms around his neck like a child.

The meeting progresses, reaching a sexual height, and the red theme intensifies.

She took a red dressing gown, which was hanging over the foot of the unmade bed, slipped into it, and crossed her arms over her breasts so that her entire body was wrapped up.

Nothing, however is consummated. For the reason that Fridolin is not brave enough, again, he is lacking the valor that he truly wants. There is now a movement from red to blue.

She refused his money with such vehemence that he could not insist. She put on a narrow, blue woolen shawl, lit a candle, lit his way, accompanied him down the stairs, and opened the door for him.

A few changes make the movie’s scene no longer about bravery, but loyalty, with the coitus put off because of a phone call from his wife. The prostitute’s clothing embodies the more complex color scheme of the film, a purple worn by no other character, possibly a merging of the red and blue polarities. Where the story has no intimacy between the two, the film features a beautifully shot deep, slow kiss.

After the encounters in both film and story, the protagonist meets an old acquaintance, a former medical student who ended up a musician. The movie introduces this character already at Ziegler’s party, the story only brings him in now, and makes him into something fantastic, giving him the name “Nightingale”. Where the movie tries to treat this as an actual name, calling him “Nick Nightingale”, in the story it is a simple obvious dream symbol, that we accept as part of the story’s dream logic, with the character not an actual acquaintance, but perhaps a composite of many things, partial memories of a past friend and Fridolin’s own ideas. Nightingale is just that, a night-time piano player, a bird that sings at night. He is also a missing or submerged half of Fridolin, someone intuitive, musical, sexual, more successful with women than Fridolin, while Fridolin is closer aligned with the rational and scientific. He is also an exile of this society in a way Fridolin never can be, his speech touched by a “jewish twang” (his first language is Yiddish), and it is this apartness which perhaps made it more difficult to complete medical school.

Nightingale tells the doctor that he will be playing blindfolded at a strange erotic masquerade that night, and Fridolin begs to go with him. The pianist gives him the password, which, significantly, is “Denmark”, the same place where both Fridolin and his wife felt lust for others. The masquerade will be a path to fulfill the doctor’s own secret, submerged desires. The movie’s password is “Fidelio”, a Beethoven opera which Nightingale is familiar with but Bill is not, the opera’s theme of a woman who infiltrates a prison to save her husband, either a possible foreshadowing of the sacrifice that will take place later, or of Alice’s forgiveness of Bill’s attempts at infidelity.

A small important detail in the conversation between Nightingale and Fridolin absent from the movie’s dialogue, stressing again the theme of the doctor’s lack of bravery, the same absence he felt during the confrontation with the students:

“Listen,” said Nightingale after a slight hesitation. “If there is anyone in the world that I would like – but how can I do it -” and suddenly he burst out, “Do you have courage?”

“That’s a strange question,” said Fridolin in the tone of an offended fraternity student.

After arrangements are made, in both versions the doctor visits a shop for the costume necessary for entrance to the masquerade. We have again an indicator in the story that Fridolin moves in a dream world; he is never told exactly what costume he should wear, yet somehow he intuits that it must be a religious one. This might be the key distinction between the masquerade of the movie and story. That of the movie involves a vaguely mystic cult, with an opening ritual where a masked leader circles with a censer and a staff. It’s a variation on the trope of a shadowy cabal, a select one percent of one percent that give wealth and sex a religious veneration. They are a sinister group in opposition to the values of Bill and the viewer. The masquerade of the story, on the other hand, is very purposely in Catholic outfits, of monks and nuns. This is not a critique of the church or religion, but there for the simple reason that Fridolin is catholic. The outfits at the party serve as a metaphor for Fridolin’s internal self, his sense that beneath exteriors of piety and religious virtue are impulses of rabid carnality. Tellingly, Fridolin, for obvious reasons, is given the costume of a pilgrim.

Both movie and story feature a costume store owner with a strange, lustful daughter. The treatment of this character is another key distinction. In the story, she is just one more of a series of young women who are the age of his wife or younger when they were engaged, part of a fantasy of being with his wife before she was his wife. In the story, there are two men of vague description, but a position of authority who are engaged, one assumes, in sexual play with this girl. The men, like others in the story are not apart from Fridolin, but a projection of Fridolin, his own dualities. They are dressed as inquisitors, the outward costume of authority and judgement, though their robes are red, a sexual note, while one wears a wig that is white, a note of purity. The lusts they express are the lusts of Fridolin, for his wife, the young danish girl, the various other young women of the story.

Two men dressed as inquisitors in red robes arose from the chairs to the left and to the right of the table, while at the same moment a graceful little creature disappeared. Gibiser rushed forward with long strides, reached across the table, and grabbed a white wig in his hand, while at the same time a graceful, very young girl, still almost a child, wearing a Pierrette costume with white silk stockings, wriggled out from under the table and ran to Fridolin, who was forced to catch her in his arms.

The movie handles this part very differently, making this lust not Bill’s, but that of grotesques. I think Kubrick here demonstrates something awkwardly crude here, with the two inquisitors made into very obvious, cheap asian sterotypes. By making the inquisitors into simple pedophiles, and men who clearly are not Bill, this moment loses the meaning that exists in the story, and again, makes sex into something like a malevolent outsider that intrudes on the doctor’s life, rather than the doctor’s own impulses.

asian grotesques

Another crucial point is that the girl is dressed as a Pierrette, a clown pining for a lost love. This is an unsubtle mirror of Fridolin, but also an image of a woman in need of compassion, not valor. A helpful illustration can be found here. We see again two of the thematic colors, the white of the face, the red of the lips. It is also a mask, another female surface Fridolin cannot decrypt or see beneath. The girl of the movie has the lustfulness, but not the counterpoint of sadness of this character, making her into a simple perverse type. A Pierrette costume shows up in the second masquerade of the film, possibly worn by Ziegler’s betrayed wife (she stands next to a man who instantly recognizes Bill and gives him a nod), but the reason why a betrayed wife would wear a mask pining for a lost love is obvious.

Pierrette at masquerade

Before he receives his costume, the Pierrette offers a suggestion.

“No,” said the Pierrette with gleaming eyes, “you must give this gentleman a cloak lined with ermine and a doublet of red silk.

Milich's daughter and Bill at costume shop

This makes sense in the context of the story’s color schema, it’s a white outfit of sensual softness with a red interior, a simple image of purity on the outside and carnality hidden inside, a reiteration of Fridolin’s recurring vision of his world. This line is repeated in the movie, but I have difficulty making sense of it given the film’s very different color mapping.

Fridolin receives his costume and mask, which carries a strange perfume. I assume that it is from the orient, another intrusion of the exotic like the “1001 Nights”, one that is outside him yet part of him as well. He feels an urge to stay and protect the girl, yet once again, he finds himself painfully lacking the valor to do so.

Gibisier, standing on a narrow ladder, handed him the black, broad-brimmed pilgrim’s hat, and Fridolin put it on; but he did all this unwillingly, because more and more he felt it to be his duty to remain and protect the Pierrette from the danger that threatened her. The mask that Gibiser now pressed into his hand, and that he immediately tried on, reeked of a strange and rather disagreeable perfume.

Fridolin leaves the store, and we have another discordant note which establishes that we are in a dream world. Where the movie might imply a fantastic quality through heightened colors, here we have a moment that is not a more vivid reality, but one that establishes the dream state because it could not take place in reality. The men who were in the clothes of inquisitors are in a sudden jump cut, now in another formal outfit, black and white tails, with red, sensual, masks.

Pierrette turned around, looked in the direction of the end of the hallway, and waved a wistful yet gay farewell. Fridolin followed her gaze. There were no longer two inquisitors there but two slender young men in coat and tails and white ties, though both had red masks covering their faces.

The doctor sees himself in the mirror and though he does not think of himself as this figure, a pilgrim into the sensual, nor as the man he does not want to be, someone “haggard”, a much older man than the Pierrette, he is very much these men.

She stood in the doorway, white and delicate, and with a glance at Fridolin sadly shook her head. In the large wall mirror to the right, Fridolin caught a glimpse of a haggard pilgrim – and this pilgrim seemed to be him. He wondered how that was possible, even though he knew it could not be anyone else.

In the movie, Bill leaves the costume store and travels far outside the city to vast estate where the masquerade is held. Before the story’s Fridolin leaves, however, he confronts the owner about his daughter:

But Fridolin did not stir from the spot. “You swear that you won’t hurt that poor child?”

“What business is it of yours, sir?”

“I heard you describe the girl as mad – and now you called her a ‘depraved creature.’ Rather a contradiction, don’t you think?”

“Well, sir,” answered Gibiser in a theatrical tone of voice, “aren’t the insane and the depraved the same in the eyes of God?”

Fridolin shuddered in disgust.

“Whatever it is,” he finally said, “I’m sure something can be done. I’m a doctor. We’ll talk about this more tomorrow.”

This is an important dialogue, as much about Fridolin as about the daughter. The doctor is confronted with the idea of his own sexual desire as a lunacy, something irrational, both part of himself, and entirely in opposition to the rational individual that he considers himself to be, as much a pervert and lunatic as this young girl.

Fridolin now leaves, following the carriage of Nightingale, the details having the fantastic quality of a fairy tale. A few fragments from the ride:

They crossed Alser Street and then drove on under a viaduct through dim and deserted side streets toward the outlying district. Fridolin was afraid that the driver of his carriage would lose sight of the carriage ahead, but whenever he stuck his head out of the open window into the unnaturally warm air, he saw the other carriage and the coachman with the tall black silk hat sitting motionless on the box a little distance in front of him.

Suddenly, with a violent jolt, the carriage turned into a side street and plummeted down as though into an abyss between iron fences, stone walls, and terraces.

A garden gate stood wide open. The hearse in front drove on, deeper into the abyss, or into the darkness that seemed like one.

When the doctor arrives at the house, the password is given. Again, we have the image of two men, the duality of Fridolin, it is he himself who is the guardian over this secret place, allowing himself entrance.

He heard a harmonium playing, and two servants in dark livery, their faces covered by grey masks, stood to the left and right of him.

“Password?” two voices whispered in unison. And he answered, “Denmark.”

As said before, the movie features a mystic cult, while the story’s characters are clearly in Catholic clerical dress:

One of the servants took his fur coat and disappeared with it into an adjoining room; the other opened a door, and Fridolin stepped into a dimly lit, almost dark room with high ceilings, hung on all sides with black silk. Masked people in clerical costume were walking up and down, sixteen to twenty persons all dressed as monks and nuns.

This is a contrast with the costumes of the film, which are variations on the historical outfits of a Venetian masquerade. A good contemporary example of such dress is here, “The Ridotto” by Pietro Longhi:

Ridotto of Venice

Eyes Wide Shut

Continuing the religious theme, the music of the story’s masquerade is liturgical:

A woman’s voice had joined the strings of the harmonium, and an old sacred Italian aria resounded through the room.

At a point in the ceremonies of both film and story, the women disrobe:

All the women stood there completely motionless, with dark veils around their heads, face, and necks, and black lace masks over their faces, but otherwise completely naked. Fridolin’s eyes wandered thirstily from voluptuous bodies to slender ones, from delicate figures to luxuriously developed ones – and the fact that each of these women remained a mystery despite hr nakedness, and that the enigma of the large eyes peering at him from under the black masks would remain unresolved, transformed the unutterable delight of going into an almost unbearable agony of desire. The other men were probably feeling what he felt.

A clear difference between the two is the variety of the bodies of these women, these are women that Fridolin has seen on the streets of Vienna that he has fantasized about, that he sees exposed. The bodily perfection of the film’s women is something entirely different, women of a wealthy elysium, the models from an upmarket magazine, unclothed, their bodies like the marble of the bar of a VIP room of an exclusive club, unseen and known to only the elect. There is also the obvious point that if these were women of the streets of New York now re-created in Bill’s dreams, there would be a greater variety of skin tones.

nude woman of the masquerade

The men in the story now lose their robes, and display a range of rainbow colors in costumes of cavaliers, the noble warrior of the painting seen in Marianne’s apartment. They are, disturbingly for Fridolin, simultaneously the virtuous ideal and lusty animals. This contradiction is absent from the film, the martial ideal which existed in Vienna of the time, absent now. In the most infamous part of the film, there is now open and explicit sex, which is not a verbatim reading of the story, where no sex is visible in the house, and perhaps none takes place. The cavaliers and the nude women dance, yet never become closer than that. The events are part of Fridolin’s mind, yet this encounter, like the ones before, is frustrated by his own restraints; were he to imagine such an orgy as takes place in the movie, it would be a sign of a release from his inhibitions.

In both, however, the doctor is now warned by one of the women of the danger he’s in. This passage details the mysterious woman’s warnings, as well as the relative chastity of the event, despite what Fridolin himself deeply wants. A digression about the “wild tunes of the piano” in the following quote: in Eyes, the piano of the masquerade is an archaism, a marker of a society that is cultured, isolated, elite. The piano of “Dream Story” is simple sensual music, something like the torrid song of Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata”. A true contemporary equivalent for Nightingale in Eyes would be a frontman for a Prince cover band.

“It’ll soon be too late, go!”

He wouldn’t listen to her. “Do you mean to tell me there are no out-of-the-way rooms here where couples who have found each other can go? Will all these people here say goodbye with polite hand kisses? Hardly!”

And he pointed to the couples that were dancing in time with the wild tunes of the piano in the too bright, mirrored adjoining room, white bodies pressed against blue, red, and yellow silk. It seemed to him as though no one was concerned with him and the woman next to him now; they were standing alone in the smei-darkness of th middle room.

“Your hopes are in vain,” she whispered. “There are no small rooms such as you are dreaming of here. This is your last chance. Flee!”

“Come with me.”

She shook her head violently, as though in despair.

He laughed again and didn’t recognize his own laughter. “You’re making fun of me! Did these men and these women come here only to inflame each other and then go away? Who can forbid you to come away with me if you want to?”

In both story and movie, he is now found out and confronted by the partygoers. There is now another crucial change. The film has the doctor remove his mask, but he refuses the humiliating demand of taking off his clothes. The viewer might sympathize with this, few would want to take part in such a degrading exposure, but what takes place in the story is far more apt for the character. He is asked to remove his mask, and this is what he refuses, since this would be admitting that he, Fridolin, had these lusts. In fact, he states explicitly that to remove his mask would be worse than to be naked among these people.

“Off with the mask!” a few demanded simultaneously. Fridolin stretched his arms out in front of him as though for protection. It seemed to him a thousand times worse to be the only unmasked one among so many masks than to be the only one naked among people who were dressed. And with a firm voice, he said, “If one of you is offended by my presence here, I am ready to give him satisfaction in the usual way. But I will not take off my mask only if all of you will.”

Note the “I am ready to give him satisfaction in the usual way”, which would be a duel. He has once again been thwarted in his desire, so he seeks the security of the role of noble warrior.

The next voice, not incidentally, has the quality of a military man.

“Take off the mask!” another commanded in a high-pitched, insolent voice, which reminded Fridolin of the tone of an officer giving orders. “We’ll tell you what’s in store for you to your face, not your mask.”

“I won’t take it off,” said Fridolin in an even sharper tone, “and woe to him who dares touch me.”

Given what we know of Fridolin’s character, we may consider the last line either one more piece of comic ridiculousness, or, in a story made up of dreaming, a moment of heroic fantasy.

The woman is now, appropriately, back in the clothes of a nun to redeem Fridolin:

An arm suddenly reached for his face, as if to tear off his mask, when suddenly a door opened and one of the women – Fridolin had no doubt which one it was – stood there dressed as a nun, as he had first seen her. Behind her in the overbright room the others could be seen, naked with veiled faces, crowded together, silent, a frightened group. But the door closed again immediately.

“Leave him alone,” said the nun. “I’m prepared to redeem him.”

This heroic desire is thwarted, just as his sexual desire is frustrated again and again. Fridolin attempts to block this woman’s sacrifice by finally, allowing his mask to drop, but it is too late, her redemption has been accepted. The movements at the end are properly fantastic, the disrobing, the falling of the hair, the doctor pushed away and out, as if propelled by the waves of a repulsive magnet, a not uncommon sensation of dreams where motions are not our own or have sudden, greater momentum than they ever would in waking life.

“No,” he said, raising his voice. “My life means nothing to me if I have to leave here without you. I won’t ask who you are or where you come from. What difference can it make to you, gentlemen, whether or not you keep up this masquerade drama, even if it’s supposed to have a serious ending? Whoever you may be gentlemen, you surely have other lives than this one. But I’m not an actor, not here or elsewhere, and if I’ve been forced to play a part from necessity, I give it up now. I feel I’ve happened into a fate that no longer has anything to do with this masquerade, and I will tell you my name, take off my mask, and be responsible for all the consequences.”

“Don’t do it!” cried the nun, “You’ll only ruin yourself without saving me! Go!” And turning to the others, she said, “Here I am, take me – all of you!”

The dark nun’s habit dropped from her as if by magic, and she stood there in the radiance of her white body. She reached for her veil which was wrapped around her face, head, and neck, and unwound it. It sank to the floor. A mass of dark hair fell in great profusion over her shoulders, breasts, and hips, but before Fridolin could even glance at her face he was seized by irresistible arms, torn away, and pushed to the door. A moment later he found himself in the entryway. The door fell shut behind him; a masked servant brought him his fur and helped him put it on, and the outer door opend. As though driven by an invisible force, he hurried out.

The film has a woman who offers herself for sacrifice as well, but there are no protests from Fridolin, no attempts at gallantry, no expression of desire for this woman which requires him saving her. The nature of the sacrifice in the two works is different as well; the movie implies that her life will be taken, while in the story, the redemption will take place through this woman being ravaged sexually by the cavaliers: “Here I am, take me – all of you!”. So we again have another paradox of the house. After the partygoers dressed as holy figures, the lust ridden men as cavaliers, a wanton woman who acts virtuously, there is now a holy redemption performed through debauched sex.

Before reaching home, there are a few more details in the story establishing a dream state, not simply of atmosphere or vividness, but fantastic moments entirely alien to reality. Fridolin entering the carriage after leaving the party:

The servant replied with a wave of his hand so little servantlike that any objection was out of the question. The coachman’s ridiculously high top hat towered into the night sky. The wind blew gusts; violet clouds flew across the sky. In view of his experience tonight, Fridolin could not fool himself into thinking that he was free to do anything but step into the carriage, which started off the moment he was inside.

Note the surreal size of the top hat, and the unnatural violet of the clouds. Violet is used previously for the imperial robe of the prince, and later, for the imperial robe of an imaginary queen. Here it elevates the chaotic, the pagan, these violent unruly clouds, to the point of supreme power.

The end of the journey, the carriage doors move entirely on their own, like objects animated by magic, the coachman unseeing of the doctor though knowing exactly where to go and when to depart, like someone spellbound and receiving orders from somewhere else:

The carriage began to jostle, going downhill, faster and faster. Fridolin, gripped with anxiety and alarm, was just about to smash one of the opaque windows when the carriage suddenly halted. Both doors opend simultaneously as if through some mechanism, as though Fridolin was sarcastically being given the choice between the right and the left door. He jumped out of the carriage; the doors closed with a bang – and, with he coachman paying not the slightest attention to Fridolin, the carriage drove away across an open field into the night.

At this point in both stories, the doctor returns home, where his wife wakes from her sleep in a burst of laughter, then tells him about her troubling dream.


Beside the changes to the masquerade, from one in catholic costume to that of a mystic sect, those made to the dream of the doctor’s wife are the most important in the migration from story to film. The movie’s dream is in many ways much simpler, though carrying a common seed: that while Bill moves through his own dream world, tantalized by images he creates from his own past memories, his wife carries an image of him as well, traveling in her own world with this man, then betraying him. Alice dreams of a pagan place, an empty beautiful field, where she and Bill have sex before he disappears suddenly. She then has sex with the naval officer she fantasized about, before she is suddenly in an orgy among thousands of men and women, where she has sex with countless more men. When her husband returns she laughs at the way she betrayed him, and it is in the middle of her laughter at his humiliation that she awakes. The dream parallels what has taken place with Bill, though her fantasies are consummated while his are not. He avoids the degradation of being forced to disrobe at the masquerade, only to be humiliated in his wife’s dream. The shame of disrobing that he avoids at the house is of no importance in his wife’s dream, where she and her lovers are naked, and he may well be clothed.

We were in a deserted city…and our clothes were gone. We were naked…and I was terrified…(ALICE starts sobbing)…and I felt ashamed. Oh, God…and I was angry because I thought it was your fault. You rushed away to go find clothes for us. As soon as you were gone, it was completely different. I felt wonderful. Then I was lying in a beautiful garden…stretched out naked in the sunlight…and a man walked out of the woods. He was the man from the hotel, the man I told you about. The naval officer. He stared at me…and then he just laughed. He just laughed at me.

But that’s not the end…is it? Why don’t you tell me the rest of it?

It’s too awful.

It’s only a dream.

He was kissing me…and then we were making love. Then there were all these people around us…hundreds of them, everywhere. Everyone was fucking. And then I…I was fucking other men. So many…I don’t know how many I was with. And I knew you could see me in the arms of all these men…just fucking all these men. I wanted to make fun of you…to laugh in your face. And so I laughed as loud as I could. That must have been when you woke me up.

Albertine’s dream of the original story plays on the themes of christian and heroic virtue that are prominent in the story’s masquerade, where the partygoers dressed in clerical outfits denoting christian virtue, their carnal selves underneath, a tainted woman demonstrating a heroic bravery that Fridolin does not.

Her dream is set in a pre-christian pagan place where a virtuous act, his fidelity to his wife, isn’t heroic, but laughed at as weakness. It is all deeply upsetting for Fridolin, a man who wishes to hold onto the idea of a rational, moral universe. The dream opens with her near a city both European and that of the East, a union of their world and that of the “1001 Nights”:

“I didn’t see this city, but I knew it was there. It was far below and was ringed by a high wall – a really fantastical city that I can’t describe. It was neither an oriental city nor an old German one, exactly – rather it was first one and then the other. In any case, it was a city buried long ago.”

It is a city buried and behind a wall, a place of submerged, hidden carnal urges.

She gets dressed and Fridolin arrives, now both in the clothes suitable for the roles Fridolin wishes for them, a princess and a virtuous warrior whose appearance connotes his valor and purity, clothed in gold, silver, and a dagger. Note the galley slaves which bring Fridolin to Albertine, just as in the “1001 Nights”, and that among the costumes are oriental ones.

I opened the wardrobe to look, and instead of the wedding dress a great many other clothes were hanging there – costumes, actually, like in an opera, splendid, oriental. Which of these should I wear for the wedding? I wondered. At that point the wardrobe suddenly fell shut or disappeared, I can’t remember exactly. The room was very bright, but outside the window it was pitch black…All of a sudden you were there – galley slaves had rowed you here – I saw them disappear into the darkness. You were dressed in splendid clothes, in gold and silver, with a dagger in a silver sheath at your side, and you lifted me down out of the window. I too was now gorgeously dressed, like a princess.

Fridolin now disappears, Albertine is joined by the man from Denmark she lusted after, they finally consummate her fantasy and are suddenly surrounded by other couples in carnal union. Albertine is not sure if she has sex with other men after this, but this is not the point which disturbs Fridolin, but rather what takes place upon his return:

Then, while you stood in the courtyard, a young woman with a crown on her head and a purple cloak appeared at one of the high arched windows between red curtains. She was the queen of this country, and she looked down at you with a stern and questioning gaze.

She was holding a piece of parchment in her hand – your death sentence, in which both your guilt and the reasons for your conviction were written. She asked you – I didn’t hear the words, but I knew it – whether you were prepared to be her lover, in which case your death sentence would be canceled. You shook your head, refusing.

Then the queen moved toward you. Her hair was loose and flowed over her naked body, and she held out her diadem to you – and I realized that she was the girl from the Danish seashore that you saw one morning naked on the ledge of a bathing hut. She didn’t say a word, but the meaning of her presence, yes, of her silence, was to find out whether you would be her husband and the ruler of the country. Since you refused her once more, she suddenly disappeared, and I saw at the same time that they were erecting a cross for you – not down in the courtyard, no, but on the flower-bedecked, infinitely broad meadow where I was resting in the arms of my lover in the middle of all the other lovers.

You climbed higher and higher, the path became wider as the forest receded on both sides, and then you were standing at the edge of the meadow at an enormous, incomprehensible distance from me. But you greeted me with smiling eyes, as a sign that you had fulfilled my wish and had brought me everything I needed: clothing and shoes and jewelry. But I thought your gestures stupid and senseless beyond belief, and I was tempted to make fun of you, to laugh in your face – because you had refused the hand of a queen out of loyalty to me, had endured torture, and now came tottering up here to a horrible death. I ran toward you, and you toward me faster and faster – I began to float in the air, and you did too, but suddenly we lost sight of each other, and I knew: we had flown past each other. Then I hoped that you would at least hear my laughter, just at the moment when they were nailing you to the cross. And so I laughed, as loudly and shrilly as I could.

Fridolin acts more virtuously than he did in his own travels, yet he is considered a fool for not surrendering to his own carnality, by all those in the field, by his wife. The story may have a setting like that of the “1001 Nights”, but it is one where women have power, with a female leader wearing a crown and an imperial robe.

Fridolin wishes to have the virtues of a bygone time, courage and martial valor, yet the lack of these virtues are not the cause of difficulties between him and his wife. The gallantry one associates with the figure of the valorous man makes him a figure of ridicule in his wife’s dream. Fridolin returns from travels where the sexual self underneath the most virtuous exterior is revealed, to a home that he wishes to be a sanctum from such hungers, only to be confronted by a wife who reveals that she thinks even these external virtues are ridiculous. She dreams of Fridolin dying as a christian martyr, a man on a cross, and thinks this hilarious.

Fridolin’s sense of himself and his world is shaken. A later passage captures this vertigo.

After finishing his consulting hours he stopped to check on his wife and child, as he usually did, and ascertained, not without satisfaction, that Albertine’s mother was visiting and that the little girl wa having a French lesson with her governess. And only when he was on the stairs again did he realize that all this order, all this regularity, all this security of existence was nothing but an illusion and a deception.

Both Fridolin and Bill now go back and examine each part of the night before: the grieving daughter, the prostitute, the costume shop, the masquerade. A search for answers, but also the possibility of consummating what went unconsummated, a reprisal for his wife’s dream infidelity.


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

Tagged , , , , ,

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part Three


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted)


The doctor in film and story goes to the costume shop, meeting again the owner and his daughter. In both, the doctor returns the costume. Where the film emphasizes the amount paid and the mask gone missing, the story does not note the absence of a mask at all. It then returns to a moment absent from the film, Fridolin’s attempt the night before to help out the mentally ill daughter.

“I am also here,” said Fridolin in the tone of a police magistrate, “to have a word with you about your daughter.”

Herr Gibiser’s nostrils twitched – whether it was out of discomfort, scorn, or annoyance was difficult to tell.

“What do you mean?” he asked Fridolin in a similar tone of voice.

“Yesterday,” said Fridolin, with the outstretched fingers of one hand resting on the office desk, “you said that your daughter was not quite normal mentally. The situation in which we found her does seem to indicate that. And since chance made me a participant or at least a spectator of this strange scene, I would very much like to advise you to consult a doctor about her.”

Fridolin is complicit in this scene, because he felt lust for this girl. There is now an “unnaturally long” penholder, which may be a phallic sign, and an indicator that we remain in a dream world.

Gibiser, twirling an unnaturally long penholder in his hand, surveyed Fridolin with an insolent air.

“I suppose the doctor himself would be so good as to take the treatment upon himself?”

“I beg you not to put words in my mouth that I haven’t said,” Fridolin answered sharply.

The store owner’s barb finds its mark, for if his daughter is guilty of depraved feeling and in need of a cure, then so is the doctor.

At that moment the door that led to the inner room opened, and a young man with an open coat over an evening suit stepped out. Fridolin knew immediately that it could be none other than one of the inquisitors of the night before. No doubt he came from Pierrette’s room. He seemed taken aback when he caught sight of Fridolin, but immediately regained his composure, greeted Gibiser casually with a wave of his hand, lit a cigarette, for which he used a match lying on the desk, and left the flat.

“So that’s how it is,” remarked Fridolin with a contemptuous twitch of his mouth and a bitter taste on his tongue.

“What do you mean?” asked Gibiser with perfect equanimity.

“So you changed your mind, Herr Gibiser,” said Fridolin, letting his eyes wander about significantly from the entrance door to the door from which the judge had come, “changed your mind about notifying the police.”

“We came to another agreement, Herr Doctor,” remarked Gibiser coldly, and stood up as though an interview had ended. Fridolin started to go. Gibiser obligingly opened the doors, and in an affectless manner he said, “If the Herr Doctor should want anything else…it needn’t necessarily be a monk’s robe.”

A variation of all this is in the film, though the small changes alter the implications. What takes place in the story is an absurdist rendering of Fridolin’s own conflicting feelings of lust and protectiveness for his own daughter, who will one day be courted by beaus driven by his same impulses. He wishes to protect this young girl, yet he also lusts for her, and she feels this back. Fridolin condemns the store owner, yet this man is not much different from other fathers, who must accommodate themselves to the sexual lives of their children. Another crucial point is that before there were two inquisitors, now only one leaves. This, I think, has to do with these men expressing a duality, with one half, the rational, moral, restrained part, leaving the daughter’s room, while the carnal side remains.

The store owner of the film is made into something simpler and more sinister, a venal man who pimps out his daughter to the men of the night before, and speaks of an arrangement that can be made with Bill as well. Again, the father of the story and the inquisitors are both expressions of Fridolin, whereas the men of the movie are made into something entirely other, part of a disturbing sexual world that Bill has intruded into, but does not belong to.

MILICH [the store owner]
Would you like to say hello to Dr. Harford?

DAUGHTER extends hand. BILL gently shakes it.


The TWO ASIAN MEN emerge from the back of the store.

Thank you, Mr. Milich. I’ll call you soon.

Goodbye, gentlemen. Merry christmas and happy new year.

And you too.

Well, Dr. Harford, here is your receipt.

DAUGHTER smiles radiantly.

I’m tearing up your deposits and thanks for the business.

Mr. Milich, last night…you were going to call the police.

Things change. We have come to another arrangement. And by the way, if the good doctor should ever want anything again…anything at all…

MILICH meaningfully pulls his daughter close to him. A close-up of the DAUGHTER, still smiling radiantly.

It needn’t be a costume.

Another of Kubrick’s masterful shots, where we see the daughter, the light fully capturing her beauty and radiant smile, yet at the same time there being an eerie hollowness to the image, the child as wind-up doll.

Storeowner's daughter smiling

The doctor continues his search for answers by going to Nightingale’s hotel. There is again the contrast between the brevity of the scene on the page, and its length in the movie, though both give much the same information.

A tough-looking concierge with sly, red-rimmed eyes, ready to give information to the police, willingly gave Fridolin information. Herr Nightingale had driven up around five o’clock in the morning in the company of two other gentlemen who had disguised their faces, perhaps intentionally, with scarves wrapped high around their heads and necks. While Nightingale was in his room, the gentlemen had paid his bill for the last four weeks, and when he didn’t appear after half an hour, one of the men had personally brought him down. All three had then driven to the North Train Station. Nightingale had appeared to be very agitated – well, why not tell the whole truth to a man who seemed so trustworthy? – and, yes, had tried to slip the concierge a letter, which however the two men had immediately intercepted. Any letters for Herr Nightingale – so the men had explained – would be picked up by a person properly authorized to do so.

There was nothing to be done about Nightingale for the time being. They had been extremely cautious and probably had good reason for it.

Fridolin’s caution here does not reflect a simple physical cowardice, but his own reluctance to look too deeply into himself. If we consider the world he travels in a dream world, one he himself constructs, with the second masquerade his most hidden inmost desires, then what takes place now should be seen as his own reaction to these desires. Where the two inquisitors were reflections of himself, so too, I believe, were the two servants who gave him entrance to the house, his own self letting him peer deeply at his own carnality, and the two men who now appear in the story to take Nightingale away are a projection of himself as well, wanting to get rid of any trace or connection to these desires. The letter that the pianist tries to pass but is unable to, is the unconscious trying to transmit a message to the conscious mind that it is unable to, whether because the very nature of the message cannot be understood by the rational, conscious mind, or because such messages are suppressed.

Given that the movie has removed much of the fantastic and metaphorical cues of the story, when the film’s concierge provides this information, these men become more “real”, frightening men who act on behalf of a secret society that hosted the night’s masquerade. When they take Nightingale, his face is bruised, a detail of violence absent in the original text, a sign of intimidation unnecessary in the original text. A countervailing note is the way the concierge delivers the monologue in a way that sometimes seems frivolous or mocking, as if it’s a performance that he’s been paid to give, the intent to make Bill believe a false story of brutality so he’ll stop asking questions. In one of the few moments where the camera is not with Bill or Alice, it returns to the concierge after has left, and we are given an ambiguous moment of his nervousness, though whether he’s unsettled about his performance achieving the desired intent, or the repercussions of having given this information, is left unanswered.

Concierge after Bill leaves

Later, the doctor contacts Marion / Marianne to cheat with her in order to pay back his wife for her betrayal. This is a very short moment in the film, with a phone call to the woman’s house answered by the fiancé, after which Bill hangs up. It is an extended scene in the story, a moment which best conveys that the virtue most wanted from this man is empathy, rather than heroic valor, and this lack is what hurts him and those around him. It might be the most upsetting passage in the story, and makes clear that this a woman not sick with infatuation but crushing grief.

He rang the bell, and Marianne herself opened the door. She was dressed in black, and around her neck she wore a black hade necklace that he had never seen on her before. Her face became slightly flushed.

“You’ve made me wait a long time,” she said with a feeble smile.

“Forgive me, Fraulein Marianne, but I had a particularly busy day.”

She sat motionless, and tears streamed down her cheeks. He saw them without sympathy, more with impatience; and the thought that she might in the next minute perhaps be lying at his feet once more, repeating her confession of yesterday, filled him with fear. And since she said nothing, he stood up brusquely. “much as I regret it, Fraulein Marianne-” He looked at his watch.

She raised her head, looked at Fridolin, and her tears kept flowing. He would gladly have said a kind word to her, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

She didn’t move, as though she had heard neither his congratulations nor his farewell. He held out his hand to her, but she did not take it, and he repeated almost in a tone of reproach, “Well, I sincerely hope that you’ll keep me posted about your health. Goodbye, Fraulein, Marianne.”

She sat there as if turned to stone. He left; for a second he stopped in the doorway, as if he were giving her a last opportunity to call him back. But she seemed rather to turn her head away from him, and he closed the door behind him.

Both Bill and Fridolin visit the house where the masquerade took place. The location and type of house in both works is of great importance. Eyes gives us a vast mansion on an estate far from the city. It is in all respects distant from the doctor’s life, in positions both social, economic, and geographic, its hosted perversities far from his own life as well.

Mansion of the masquerade

This contrasts with the source material, which aptly makes its masquerade house an undistinguished one, much like many others, in the heart of the city, with the bustle of children and families close by.

It was a quiet little street. In one front garden there were rose bushes carefully covered with straw; in the one next to it there stood a baby carriage; a boy, dressed from head to foot in a blue wool knit, was romping about and a young woman was looking down from the first-floor window, laughing. Next came an empty lot, then an uncultivated fenced-in garden, then a small villa, next a lawn, and then, no doubt about it – there was the house he was looking for. It didn’t look grand or magnificent in the least. It was a one-story villa in modest Empire style and obviously renovated not very long ago.

In both cases, he receives a warning to cease his inquiries. The threat in the movie feels more literal, an actual warning from a secret society that he is in physical danger if he continues his questions. The alert in the story feels closer to an existential warning, that his questions into what took place is an investigation into his own desires, and may well endanger his own sense of self.

Now the doctor tries to visit the prostitute of the night before, with him discovering that she has AIDS in the movie and syphilis in the story. He goes to a café casually flips through a newspaper before reading that the night before a beauty queen overdosed on drugs, the movie’s plot, or that a baroness staying at a hotel committed suicide, the plot point of the story.

Shortly after coming across the story, there is this passage:

He would see her; no one on earth could stop him from seeing the woman who had died because of him; indeed, who had died for him. He was the cause of her death – he alone – if this was the same woman. Yes, it was she. Returned to the hotel at four o’clock in the morning in the company of two men! Probably the same ones who had brought Nightingale to the train station a few hours later. They didn’t have a lot of scruples, those two!

Fridolin very much wants to transform what has taken place, a messy, unsuccessful search for sex, into a gallant quest. The two men who returned this woman to the hotel are those who took Nightingale away, with his own self, his own mind eliminating all evidence of this inconvenient desire.

His investigation winds near its close as Fridolin and Bill now travel to the morgue to see the body, under the suspicion that it is the woman of the night before.


This section of the plot, a conclusion to the search for answers about the masquerade is a brief episode in “Dream Story” and a much lengthier sequence of the movie. That it is a briefer moment of the former does not dilute its importance. Fridolin goes to the morgue to try and see first-hand the body of the suicide and confirm that it is the woman of the night before. There, he runs into Adler, a former fellow student, the only male character of prominence other than Nightingale, and like Nightingale, a variation and double of Fridolin. Where Nightingale abandoned medicine for music, becoming more intuitive and sensual, Adler is at the other polarity, a cold, clinical doctor who works beside corpses, comfortable in his isolation of working nights among the dead. It might be imagined that Fridolin, with his lack of empathy, his aversion to intimacy, will become more and more like Adler as he grows older.

Fridolin looks among the bodies of the morgue with a flashlight and finds a possibility.

Was it her body – that wonderful, voluptuous body for which only yesterday he had felt such agonizing desire? He saw a yellowed, wrinkled neck; he saw two small and yet already somewhat limp girl’s breasts between which – as though the work of decomposition was already beginning – the breastbone already stood out with terrible clarity from the pale skin; he saw the rounding of her brown-tinged abdomen; he saw how the well-formed thighs now opened indifferently from a dark and now meaningless shadow; saw the kneecaps, slightly turned outward, the sharp edges of the calves and the slender feet with the toes turned inward.

The woman has a hold on him for her extraordinary virtue in pledging to save him, yet his obsession with her is also intertwined with her physical form. Now this body is entering the stages of decay, and that desire is lost. The obsessive feeling he has had, for the image of this woman, nude except for a nun’s veil, and the decomposition he is confronted with, is part of the same theme of the distance between the image of the material and the material itself which is throughout the book, whether it is the memory of the danish girl for Fridolin, the officer for Albertine, the image Albertine holds of him in her dream, the image of Albertine that Fridolin holds in his. The image of this woman, of that moment in the masquerade, will persist, even while this decays. There is a subtle point made here, I think, about Fridolin’s marriage to Albertine, a union whose bond lies with how the two saw each other during their courtship, blind to how each other is now. Fridolin confronts the decay of this woman’s body, but also the distance between his image of Albertine and how she is, as well as what he is now and the vision of him Albertine once held onto.

This last point made me implied as well when Fridolin begins to look through the bodies of the morgue and realizes that he has no idea what the woman’s face looks like, that he has in fact been picturing his own wife as this woman.

He only knew her body – he had never seen her face, had only been able to catch a hasty glimpse of it at the moment he was leaving the ballroom last night, or rather had been chased out of the ballroom. He realized that he had not thought of this fact before because, up to this moment, in the last few hours since he had read the notice in the newspaper, he had envisaged the suicide, whose face he didn’t know with Albertine’s face. In fact, as he now shuddered to realize, it had been his wife that he had imagined as the woman he was seeking.

Throughout the story, Fridolin has always suffered from a lack empathy, a too cold distance from others. Now, for this dead woman, this distance disappears. It begins when he first asks Adler to see the corpses in the morgue. My bold for emphasis.

“I have a feeling that this so-called Baron Dubieski is someone I knew casually years ago. And I’d like to know if I’m right.” [Fridolin's line]

“Suicidium?” [Adler]

Fridolin nodded. “Yes, suicide,” he translated, as though he wished to restore the matter to a personal plane.

Then, when he comes across the possibility, he is moved by feelings he has not known as a doctor:

The head was hanging down on one side; long, dark strands of hair feel almost all the way to the floor. Instinctively Fridolin reached out his hand to put the head in its proper position, but with a dread which, as a doctor, was otherwise foreign to him, he hesitated.

He moves, arguably, out of a place of strict science, to a place of magic. The body becomes infested with a subtle anima. Fridolin sees life stirring in the eyes, and he moves closer and closer to look into them.

Rigid as they were, it seemed to him that the fingers tried to move, to seize his; yes, it seemed to him as though from underneath the half-closed eyelids a vague and distant look was searching for his eyes, and as though pulled by a magic force, he bent over her.

Suddenly, he heard a voice whisper behind him, “What on earth are you doing?” [this is Adler speaking]

The use of the phrase “magic force” is not, I think, an idle one. A sort of magic starts here, Fridolin looks into the eyes, achieving something closer to empathy than at any point in the story, and then, the spell is broken by Adler, a cold rationalist at the pole furthest from magic, sensuality, sex.

The magical trance has ended. He moves back to being the clinician of the story, and this is a regrettable choice, returning him to a more limited world. Note also the “pedantry”, a brief moment where he must re-acquire the instincts of an unempathetic man. My bolds for the key phrase.

He freed his fingers from those of the dead body, clasped the slender wrists, and with great care, even a certain pedantry, he laid the ice-cold arms alongside the trunk. And it seemed to him as though she had just now, just now this moment, died.

Now, one of the most important passages of the story:

“Well – was she the one?” [asked Adler]

Fridolin hesitated a moment, then nodded wordlessly and was hardly aware that his affirmation might in fact be a falsehood. Because whether the woman who was now lying in the morgue was the same one he had held naked in his arms twenty-four hours ago while Nightingale played his wild piano, or whether the dead woman was someone else, a stranger he had never met before, he knew: even if the woman whom he had sought, desired, perhaps loved for an hour was still alive and no matter how she now lived her life – he knew that what was lying behind him in that arched room, illuminated by the light of flickering gas flames, was a shadow among shadows, dark, without meaning or mystery like all shadows – and meant nothing to him, could mean nothing to him except the pale corpse of the past night, doomed to irrevocable decay.

The paradoxical image of sensuality and virtue persists, will continue to persist for all his life, whether or not the woman here was the source, is now of no consequence.

Eyes has a shorter morgue scene, entirely without dialogue, with Bill shown the beauty queen while a sleepy doctor stands by, Bill moving closer and closer to the woman before he stops himself. The nude woman’s body, like that of all the female nudes in the film, is perfect, without any sign of decay or flaw. Bill then receives a call to meet with Ziegler, the doctor who hosted the opening party, for urgent reasons.

Ziegler is entirely from whole cloth, absent from the original story, and not Adler or an Adler variation at all. He strikes me as very true in every note, a wealthy arrogant doctor of New York City, callous and grasping enough to have sex with a woman in the bathroom of a party his wife is at, a man who is casual in his cruelness, entirely blind to how his malice is seen by others. The character has all these qualities, yet he doesn’t come across as a stock villain, but rather, a very recognizable man, and in part this is in tribute to the excellent performance by the late Sidney Pollack. A supplemental point: though Bill and Ziegler suffer from wayward lust, the viewer does not see one as a variation of the other, again making the movie about a man intruding on the world of disturbed sexual desire, rather than a story about the exploration of his own.

Ziegler at pool table

Ziegler reveals he was at the second masquerade, a point underscored by the way his parlor feels like a light re-shuffling of elements of the rooms of the masquerade house, such as the lined bookshelves, the oil portraits, the similar carpet pattern, the red of the pool table at center like the red of the circle in which the ceremony is performed. He makes ambiguous warnings, telling Bill that the people at the masquerade are incredibly powerful so he should stop asking questions, but that no harm has come to Nightingale, and though the beauty queen is the woman with the blue headdress, she died of a simple overdose. Ziegler tells Bill that there was no sacrifice, it was just a ruse to keep him from talking. What’s interesting is the way the movie takes Fridolin’s own doubts about the sacrifice, his wish that there be no sacrifice at all and he not need to take up any quest, and places them in the mouth of Ziegler.

A secret society? Well, yes, it certainly was secret. But they probably knew one another. Were they aristocrats, perhaps members of the court? He thought of certain archdukes who might easily be capable of such pranks. And the women? Probably…recruited from brothels. Well, that was not by any means certain. At any rate, they were very attractive. But what about the woman who had sacrificed herself for him? Sacrificed? Why did he persist in imagining that it was really a sacrifice? It had been an act. Of course, the whole thing had been an act. He should have been grateful to have gotten out of the scrape so lightly. Well, why not? He had preserved his dignity. The cavaliers must have recognized that he was nobody’s fool. And she must have realized it in any case. Very likely she had cared more for him than for all these archdukes or whatever they were.

While whether or not to believe in the sacrifice still lies with the doctor, Fridolin’s need to doubt her virtue is because of the codes of virtue and gallantry of his own time, codes by which Fridolin has failed. That the sacrificed woman had met such codes, giving herself up to save another, while Fridolin lacked the bravery to do so, is something he does not or cannot accept.

A further discussion of the sacrifice in Eyes requires a separate section to look at the movie’s own themes, implanted and separate from those in the original story.


Eyes has several concerns not in the book, one being a man attempting communion with women and failing throughout. This is something different from Fridolin’s lack of empathy, as Fridolin makes no such attempts. That Fridolin wishes to act gallantly or be seen bravely, is for his own benefit, that he may demonstrate and be observed having this virtue, rather than for any attempt at a deeper contact with the women of the story.

There are five kisses in the movie, absent from the story, each an attempt at this contact, each for different reasons a failure.

Bill kissing Alice

A kiss that Alice breaks off, before giving herself a look in the mirror, a point of self-analysis and self-doubt. Perhaps asking herself, given all this happiness, my great husband and daughter, why am I unhappy about much of my life? This question might be tied to her own feelings about having to stay at home and take care of their child while her husband goes to work.

Marion kisses Bill

A deep kiss from Marion which Bill rejects, a kiss made out of desperate need for comfort, which Bill cannot reciprocate. When he does call her house to perhaps follow up on the promise of this kiss, it is for the petty reason of striking back at his wife.

Domino kisses Bill

A long, deep kiss which might be a communion between these two people except for a detail. Domino is a prostitute, and she makes this kiss as a servant might to a subject. The camera pulls back and we see that she is bending over and down to kiss Bill.

Domino bending down

This moment is interrupted by his wife’s phone call.

Masked woman and Bill kiss

There is the lengthy kiss at the masquerade between Bill and the woman with the blue headdress. Yet this also is a failure, it’s entirely a ceremonial one, their lips never touch because of the masks.

He remains obsessed with this woman, finds her body at the morgue, and drawn closer and closer, he does simply look into the woman’s eyes, as in “Dream”, but moves towards a kiss, before breaking away, knowing it is now too late, he in the world of the living, her in the world of the dead. In many ways, she is the woman he feels closest to, other than his wife, and the possibility of his reconciling and finding communion with his wife, is left an open and ambiguous point by the film’s end, with this woman having perhaps sacrificed her life for the doctor, and his wife having made the sacrifice of forgiving him for his attempts at infidelity.

woman at the morgue

Another theme absent from the story but prominent in the movie is the idea of society as partitions closed off by wealth and privilege, which require the equivalent of passwords to gain access. Some of these passwords Bill has, and some he lacks. In order to gain access to the costume shop at night he must show his doctor’s ID and have the extra money to pay the gratuity. He has the money for a long cab ride, and an extra hundred dollars for the cab to wait. The second masquerade, obviously, has a password which he knows, and a second trick password: the code that there is no second password. He uses his doctor’s ID to get information at the diner, to find out what took place from the concierge, and to gain access to the morgue.

That there are, literally, gates through which he can and cannot pass is made clear through two similar images.

Bill at gate of costume shop

Bill at gate of estate

The first is the gate of the clothing store, by which he gains access through the wealth and identification of a doctor. The second gate is that of the estate of the masquerade, which remains closed.

That his movement is restricted by his economic place, rather than anything inherent in his character, is made clear in the scene from Ziegler’s parlor, where he makes clear how they knew right away he did not belong, even though he had a costume and password for the event:

Was it the second password? Is that what gave me away?

Yes, finally. But not because you didn’t know it. It’s because there was no second password. Of course, it didn’t help a whole lot that those people arrive in limos and you showed up in a taxi.

That the second password doesn’t exist, that ignorance of the fact is what marks those in the society and those without, is specific to the movie, not to be found in the story. It further conveys the exclusivity of this group and that it is ultimately a rigged game, that the expected method of answering a riddle to gain entry is pointless: the very fact that you think there is a riddle makes clear that you should not enter. Further, no second password is necessary because it can already be seen whether you should be at this place based on external cues, like a cab for a ride instead of a limo.

So, Bill has stumbled upon a corrupt enclave of extraordinary wealth, all powerful, at the heart of society. Bill may be able to travel to places restricted to some of us because of his medical license, but Ziegler can travel to those places too, as well as many more forbidden to Bill, so this is not a recognition of the benevolence associated with a doctor, but recognition of power.

These themes are all intertwined with the last one indigenous to the movie, the setting of the whole story at christmas. The holiday marks, of course, the birth of a savior who sacrifices himself for the redemption of man. This context, I believe, is not an arbitrary one, but an attempt to move this idea of a virtuous sacrifice from a religious context, which a jew, a muslim, any atheist or skeptic might question as having taken place, to a secular one, a woman having actually sacrificed herself for this man. Where believing in the christian sacrifice is tied with christian belief itself, and the obscurity of an event that took place thousands of years ago, Bill’s belief or non-belief in this sacrifice lies only with the acceptance of the consequences of his belief. If he is to believe that the sacrifice genuinely took place, it would mean disrupting his entire life and abandoning everything he has.

The world he lives in is something like ancient rome, a wealthy elite devoted to a pagan cult with a sudden self-sacrifice that places this entirely in context, making the place look utterly squalid and corrupt. An obvious aside: this cult’s emphasis on materialism and a world twisted for the benefit of an elite is not alien to society’s top tier then or now. Were he to believe the sacrifice actually took place and continue his investigations, he would be like a pre-Constantine roman who took to christian belief, a believer that there were virtues lacking in the society he lived in. It would mean leaving behind the comforts of his life, risking the possibility of exile and the appearance of a lunatic. Were he to believe the sacrifice actually took place, that would be his only moral choice, and it might offer him the possibility of a secular communion that eludes him so far.

It’s unimplied what takes place after the end of the movie, but of what we see until that point, Bill considers this burden took great, and refuses to see the sacrifice as real. We in the audience may wish to refuse to believe in the sacrifice as well, to believe that the choice he makes, to try and return to the life he had, is the best possible compromise, when it might be the lesser one. Where Fridolin is a man who very much wishes to be a hero in such a simple conflict, yet very clearly is a timid man lacking the necessary virtues, the movie presents us with a figure who, outwardly, has many of these heroic qualities, someone very good looking, strong, who often does the proper thing, played by an actor who has a long career of heroic roles. Yet at this crucial point, the protagonist makes the easier choice that is the wrong choice, though the audience may well wish that it were the right one, since few of us would have the strength to take on the same burden of questioning our lives too much.

A final, minor, note. I think everything just mentioned rests on what’s easily seen and said in the movie. I leave this small point for last since it’s far more tenuous. Ziegler may signify to other members the upcoming ceremony of the masquerade cult, placing the cult’s symbol, a banal star surrounding a circle at various points, throughout his house.

At the party, this star is lit up.

lit up small star

lit up large star

After the ceremony has been completed, when Bill visits Ziegler, the star is now off, as we might turn off christmas lights after the end of that holiday.

unlit small star

unlit large star

However, this may well be just a simple star of the magi, and it may be off for the obvious reason that even the wealthy like to save electricity.


Both movie and story end with the doctor arriving home to his wife, finding his costume mask on the bed. Bill’s mask is missing already when he goes to the costume shop, so the viewer assumes that the cult behind the masquerade somehow acquired it, then placed it in his house as a final warning. The story has Bill assuming that his wife placed it there in an effort to get an explanation. Something in the doctor bursts now, in both versions, he lets out an unrestrained sob, and then confesses to his wife all that took place.

His wife’s reaction, however, is very different at this point. In the film, she is utterly devastated by what she hears, and they are both emotionally spent after the doctor’s revelations.

Bill devastated after revelations

Alice devastated after revelations

Only after, when they go later that morning to a toy store with their child is there an attempt at reconciliation, though no completed kiss. This is all in extraordinary contrast with the story, which has Albertine hear about the attempts at infidelity with great calmness, no visible reaction whatsoever. Her attitude is shaped in part, I think, in what a woman’s choices were then compared to now: Albertine cannot simply divorce her husband and find work on her own. This option, however difficult, is available for Alice. Albertine, who I read as far more perceptive than her husband, sees this man with a clarity that she’s never seem before, a man who is fundamentally weak, childish in his attitude to his wife, and lacking the courage to engage in any sexual adventure, even an impulsive one born out of brief petty jealousy of her past lusts. Some image she had of him has finally died. His weaknesses will make it easier for him to stay loyal to their union, while increasingly intolerable as a husband. That they are both awake for a long time to come, that they will now see each other without illusions, as entirely a good thing.

Albertine hadn’t once interrupted him with a curious or impatient question. She probably felt that he neither would nor could keep anything from her. She lay thee calmly, her arms folded under her head, and remained silent long after Fridolin had finished. Finally – he was lying stretched out beside her – he leaned over her, and looking into her immobile face with the large, bright eyes, in which morning also seemed to be dawning, he asked in a voice of both doubt and hope, “So what should we do now, Albertine?”

She smiled, and with a slight hesitation, she answered, “I thin that we should be grateful that we have come away from all our adventures unhared – from the real ones as well as from the dreams.”

“Are you sure we have?” he asked.

“Just as sure I suspect that the reality of one night, even the reality of a whole lifetime, isn’t the whole truth.”

“And no dream,” he said with a soft sigh, “is entirely a dream.”

She took his head with both her hands and pressed it warmly to her breast. “But now I suppose we are both awake,” she said, “for a long time to come.”

Forever, he wanted to add, but before he could say the word she put a finger to his lips and whispered almost as if to herself, “Don’t tempt the future.”

The movie, as said, ends in a toy store, the characters in a background of red and blue, the daughter with red hair and a blue outfit, Alice, who often wears blue clothes contrasting with her red hair, now, perhaps significantly, covers her dark blue outfit with a tan coat. Bill is a mix of blue, coat and pants, with red sweater.

Alice and Bill at toy store

child of Alice and Bill at toy store

Alice and Bill, Bill with coat open

This may be the conflict between two opposing qualities of the world, which now balance in Bill. I am not entirely sure, as I find the movie more cryptic than necessary in this area and others. A good quote about the respective mysteries of the story and the movie may be found in “The Wrong Shape” (a story with a vile attitude towards hindus and hinduism, but with some solid moments apart from this) by G.K. Chesterton:

“The modern mind always mixes up two different ideas: mystery in the sense of what is marvellous, and mystery in the sense of what is complicated. That is half its difficulty about miracles. A miracle is startling; but it is simple. It is simple because it is a miracle…If it was pure magic, as you think, then it is marvellous; but it is not mysterious-that is, it is not complicated. The quality of a miracle is mysterious, but its manner is simple. Now, the manner of this business has been the reverse of simple.”

I find “Dream Story” something like a miracle, one of the best stories I’ve ever read, an extraordinarily subtle and detailed work, without any melodramatic notes sounding its importance, a substantial lasting tale made up of elements light as cake dust. That Kubrick became obsessed with such a story is not surprising. To reproduce its qualities would be difficult, if not impossible, for any director. The change in time and setting ultimately requires other changes in detail, and in a story as finely sewn as this, small changes in the stitching will create something different, and ultimately, dilute the achievements of the original material. That these beauties are lessened is not to say the movie does not have beauties of its own, as any Kubrick movie would. Ultimately, the enigmas of the story do seem miraculous, a half smile cast partly in shadow, whereas the enigmas of the movie are too complex, an opaqueness for the purpose of puzzlement and worship, a monolith on the moon, but a monolith one keeps looking at, not for its puzzles, but the beauty of its puzzling face.


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

Tagged , , , , ,

Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story Part One


(SPOILERS for both the movie Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story”. The translation of “Dream Story” is an excellent one by Margaret Schaefer from the collection Night Games. To supplement some points, stills from the movie have been used. Some of these stills contain nudity. For the usual tiresome reasons, the usual suspect parts of these stills have been distorted.)

From Cracked’s “Twelve Classic Movie Moments Made Possible By Abuse And Murder”:

Just to be clear, we’re not criticizing him for being a perfectionist. Lots of people like to make sure shit is done just right. But at some point, you go past “perfectionist” into “obsessive-compulsive.” Beyond that on the spectrum, you have “insane,” “a danger to himself and others” and finally a category that experts have simply named, “Stanley Kubrick.”

Eyes Wide Shut, the last film of a great director, may also be the last film of a great era. It is a deeply personal, often static, very intimate story, yet made up of images that have the majesty of an epic. It has nothing of the design, in conception or character, of most films now, designed for banality, to be as widely seen as possible, to be understood easily by children. So, I think of it as a monument, or, to be morbid, a grave marker, of a few decades in the United States when the extraordinary possibilities of film were staked out, and many risked a great deal not simply for the usual bounty of the movie business, whores, cash, and ego, but for the possibility of creating something breathtaking and effervescent, made entirely of light. With this, Terry Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York may be the terminii of putting vast fortunes and rep into the possibility of a legacy of a lasting pile of images. This period is marked not simply by the greatness of the works, but the vast scale of the attempts at such greatness, whether it’s Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War, Once Upon a Time in America, Heaven’s Gate, The Last Emperor, Heat, Blade Runner, Days of Heaven, Empire of the Sun, or this. These movies, whether or not they entirely succeed, have something of the character of egyptian tombs or roman festivities, the vast power and wealth of empire invested in strange, glittering, magnetic obelisks.

Much of Kubrick’s work is considered enigmatic, and his last is masked by an obscurity that is part inherent, part willed by adherents of the director, just as the idols of a religion might derive some of their power from their obscurity. It is, however, not entirely as obscure as it needs to be; by looking at the Arthur Schnitzler story on which it’s based, for illuminating clarity and for the brilliance of the story itself, we may have a greater sense of the movie’s focus, why the movie’s trance holds and breaks, why the genius of the story may be trapped in amber of a place and time, immovable to anywhere else.

The plots of both Eyes Wide Shut and “Dream Story” are roughly the same in many externals, with the small changes making an extraordinary difference in tone and theme. A doctor and his wife have a brief fight over their respective sexual pasts, the doctor has to leave for a medical emergency, then has a few thwarted sexual possibilities before sneaking into a sexual masquerade. The next day he retraces the path of the night’s potential conquests, investigates the mysterious sexual party, is strongly dissuaded from these inquiries by persons unknown, looks into the death of a woman whose fate may have been caused by the same mysterious powers that held the masquerade,
breaks from his inquiries out of fear or lack of belief, and returns to the union of his wife.

A first difference is how both works treat sexual desire. “Dream Story” has Fridolin traveling through a world very much of his own creation, each scene reflecting his own infatuations. These desires may make him anxious, but they emerge from within, and they are very much our own. Eyes takes these same desires and makes them alien, malevolent, and emerging from without, sex entirely as dangerous threat. When going through both works part by part, I’ll mention the obvious contrast at relevant points.

The second, crucial, difference between the movie and its source might be that of weight and lightness. The distinction is best expressed by Italo Calvino in his chapter “Lightness”, from Six Memos For The Next Millennium. His essay gives a full and extraordinary examination of the idea, but a small fragment should be suitable for our purpose:

We might say that throughout the centuries two opposite tendencies have competed in literature: one tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud or better, perhaps, the finest dust or, better still, a field of magnetic impulses. The other tries to give language the weight, density, and concreteness of things, bodies, and sensations.

The images of Eyes have extraordinary weight, each giving a sense of having been forged with great skill and hard work. “Dream Story”, has an outward casual, easy quality to it, a lightness of fine dust, which point by point forms into a vision, all the more haunting that each dust point was seemingly so simple and inconsequential. Schnitzler’s story embodies the very aspect of the dream in its form, an image where things happen quickly, often barely seen, decisions are made impulsively, with the dreadful sense of later consequence when the dreamer wakes up. This is what gives the story an eeriness, because in the vivid mid-section we seem clearly to be in a dream, yet the events of the dream continue on in waking reality. The reader waits to break from this extended dream, yet it never takes place, we remain in the dream, only guessing at what takes place outside this shadow world. It should be noted that to achieve something like the effect of the book here, Kubrick would have to sacrifice something of his technique, his images would have to be a little more careless, a little more lacking in craft, as if they just flowed like loose words from a sleeping man. To write more of this it is necessary to look at how “Dream Story” begins, an opening entirely absent in the movie.


The first words of “Dream Story” belong not to Schnitzler, but the “1001 Nights”. The daughter of Fridolin and Albertine, the couple of the story falls asleep as she reads them:

“Twenty-four brown-skinned slaves rowed the magnificent gallery which was to bring Prince Amgiad to the palace of the caliph. But the prince, wrapped in his purple cloak, lay all alone on the deck beneath the dark blue, starry sky, and his gaze…”

Up to this point the little girl had been reading aloud, but now, suddenly, her eyelids fell shut.

This ancient book of tales foreshadows the nature of the story, staying in the netherworld of stories told at night, perhaps never leaving the bedroom for the world outside. It is also about what is now labeled the “orientalist” world, an exotic, mystic, pre-rational one, unlimited by christian morals, a more sexual and mysterious life, yet at the same time, not entirely in an exotic land, but here, alongside them, the book of tales on the children’s bedside, just as the child’s bedroom is close by the parents’, the innocent beside the carnal, the dreams of Fridolin and Albertine merging with the “Nights”.

Equally important is the specific story quoted in this opening, with Schnitzler’s plot reflecting its various turns. The “One Thousand and One Nights” was well-known at the time, and the tale not an obscure reference, but one that the reader could be relied on to know or easily look up. The story of the princes Amgiad and Assad follows the two princes, children of the same king, whose respective mothers fall in love with each other’s son, Amgiad’s mother falling in love with Assad, Assad’s with Amgiad. This is not maternal feeling, but carnal, sexual love. When the princes reject this love, the two women mislead the king to think that the princes initiated the advances, which results in the king calling for the death of the men, and their flight from the kingdom. The story continues through various adventures, ending with the family reconciled, and both princes married. That there are two princes in the story, who are in effect doubles of each other, is crucial for what takes place in “Dream Story” where the theme of two men appears again and again, two men as a projection of Fridolin, two men as the two sides of his self, the rational and the sensual. There is another duality as well, of the material and the image of the material, with Fridolin traveling throughout the city while the subject of Albertine’s torrid dream, as well as Fridolin tantalized by the image of a memory of a woman, but the image alone, an image that persists after the woman’s body decays in death, an image that may ultimately have no connection with this woman at all.

Another relevant detail is that in the world of “1001 Nights”, though they may occasionally intrigue, they are almost entirely under the power of men. The two mothers may lust for each other’s sons. might lie to their king of what took place, but they live in mortal fear of what their king will do if he discovers their infatuation. A woman solicits one of the princes for sex in a manner no woman of Vienna not a prostitute would so brazenly do. Yet she is later beheaded without legal consequence when she betrays the prince. This is a necessary contrast with the surrounding structure of “Dream Story” where Fridolin again and again feels himself to be weak, under the influence of the women around him, unable to resort to the traditional prerogative of men, physical force, to impose his will. A key detail of the fragment of the “1001 Nights” glimpsed in “Dream Story” is Amgiad’s purple cloak which declares his imperial power. However, in the main of Schnitzler’s narrative, it is not Fridolin that wears this cloak, but a woman in a dream of Albertine.


After this brief moment with their child, the couple retire to their bedroom in “Dream”, to go over what took place at the masquerade they attended the night before. The detail of placing this masquerade as a past event, a memory that now wields influence on what takes place now and ever after through the plot, further connects this story with “1001 Nights”, a series of dream like tales, one after another, night after night, but also sets the tone of what will take place through “Dream”, a sense that the events are of the same hazy substance as a dream, yet have the consequential impact of actual events.

The events of this recalled masquerade share some of the details of the party in the movie. Fridolin meets two beautiful women, while his wife is unsuccessfully courted by a stranger. One difference is that this is a masquerade, and so many of the players have their faces concealed, making for a symmetry with the second masquerade of the story. The other distinction from the film, a difference in approach which recurs throughout, is that these moments are extraordinarily brief, barely seen by the reader, like the vivid, startling image of a dream which then recedes out of reach before it can be glimpsed in detail. This contrasts, of course, with the enactments in the film, where the encounters of both spouses go on at some length.

This short passage is all that’s given to the episode:

Fridolin had no sooner entered the ballroom then he had been greeted, like a long lost and now impatiently awaited old friend, by two red dominoes, whom he couldn’t for the life of him identify, though they had shown strikingly detailed knowledge of his student and internship days. They had left the loge to which they had eagerly invited him with the promise that they would come back – unmasked – very soon, but had stayed away for so long that he, becoming impatient, had decided to go back down to the ballroom where he hoped to meet the two enigmatic figures again. But however carefully he looked around, they were nowhere to be seen; instead, another woman unexpectedly took his arm. It was his wife, who had just abruptly freed herself from a stranger whose melancholy and blasé manner and foreign, evidently Polish, accent had at first charmed her but who had then offended and even frightened her with a casually dropped, unexpectedly, vulgar, and hatefully impertinent remark.

The lack of specific details, actual conversational quotes, do not diminish this moment, but add to the effect, a hazy moment that strikes like a pebble in the water and whose vibrations travel through till the end. The dominoes are simply hooded cloaks, women entirely unseen and unknown to him yet who, somehow, know Fridolin very well. We may have here the female duality like that of the two princes of the “Nights”, two halves of women, not two women who we will literally encounter again and again in the story, but two aspects which will become re-imagined in various variations over and over by Fridolin in the course of the plot. Another theme that begins here is the story’s approach to color, a far simpler one than that of the film. Red is one of the only colors stressed in the story, and its use is for the obvious emphasis, of sensuality. As already mentioned there is the purple, in one scene there is a rainbow palette, and in two others, blue, but otherwise, that’s it. The simple use of color exemplifies the story’s method, with symbols used but ones that are extraordinarily simple and intuitive, having no manner of elaborate construction, but very much like a dream, where an image may contain second or third meanings, yet these same images are built intuitively, impulsively, and the underlying idea may be inferred fairly easily.

Eyes makes the two beautiful women unmasked and literal, two beautiful women only who know Bill from a specific episode when he helped them, rather than the enigmatic, brief image of the story, women masked in red robes who somehow know many intimate details of the hero but whom he doesn’t recognize at all. There is also the beginning of the movie’s own very complicated color scheme. Kubrick first creates an incredible background for the party of blazing white light which surrounds Bill and Alice during these scenes. We might think of these moments of courtship as occurring in an elevated place, the white light of a point nearer the sun. Light, of course, can be broken into many fragments in a prism, and after these scenes, Bill is called in to help the man behind this fete, Dr. Ziegler. He ascends a staircase, and reaches the bathroom, where the light is broken into its various prismatic colors: the blue and red of the dragons, the blue of the exterior through the window, the red of the sofa chair, the green and yellow of the walls, the various colors of the painting. There is the white light of courtship, here are the underlying colors of that light, the messy carnality that follows, that lies beneath, appropriately in a bathroom, a place we associate with physicality and exposure, defecation and bathing.

Bill climbing stairs at Ziegler's

Ziegler and Mandy in bathroom

From here on, the color scheme is extraordinarily intricate, far more complex than that of the book, and one which I cannot say I follow. I will pick this up at later points, but at this moment I think it’s enough to say that red and blue are made into a point counterpoint, two intertwining and competing forces, though not with red as sensual. Whereas red is only associated with the erotic in the story, red appears in many places here where it makes no sense in that context, such as the red clothes of Bill and Alice’s daughter, while absent in other obvious sexual contexts. In the second masquerade, there is a red cloak, a red circle in which the opening ceremony is performed, and red in the carpeting, but an absence of red in the masks of the women, with the sacrificial woman given, pointedly, a blue feathered headdress. This is one aspect that makes it difficult for me to think of Eyes as a dream, though that might well be the intent, since, though its colors are sometimes too vivid and rich to denote realism, the color methodology is too complex, a deliberate industriously thought out map, for the effortless uninhibited images of a dream.

This scene featuring Ziegler is not in the story, as Ziegler is not in the story. An in-depth examination of Ziegler will be taken up only later, but for the moment, I think it’s enough to say that his creation is one more way that the movie inserts those whose sexual character is very different from Bill / Fridolin, in this case, a callous, mercenary, pervy older man, for whom lust is another manner of acquisition. A final, and smaller note: Nightingale is entirely absent from this episode in the story as well, introduced only later, when Fridolin meets him at a small club.


After the first masquerade in both story and movie, the couple has a very satisfying sexual episode. The next day has their usual work routine, then a sudden conjugal argument at night, but the routines of that day, and what the argument is about, are very different, necessarily different because of the shift in time and place from Habsburg Vienna to contemporary New York City. The source of conflict in the story is very much about sex. In Eyes, the source is very much Alice and work.

Only now, when the day’s work was finished for both of them and no disturbance was likely, the child having gone to bed did the shadowy forms of the masquerade, the melancholy stranger and the red dominoes, rise into consciousness again and all at once the insignificant events were magically and painfully imbued with the deceptive glow of neglected opportunities. Harmless but probing questions and sly, ambiguous answers were exchanged. Neither failed to notice that the other was not completely honest, and so both felt themselves justified in taking a mild revenge. They exaggerated the degree of the attraction that their unknown masquerade partners had exerted upon them, made fun of the jealous tendencies of the other, and denied their own. But the light banter about the trivial adventures of the previous night gradually became a more serious conversation about those hidden, scarcely suspected desires that are capable of producing dark and dangerous whirlpools in even the most clearheaded, purest soul. They spoke of those hidden regions that barely attracted them but to which the incomprehensible winds of destiny could still drag them, even if only in a dream.

Anxiously drawing closer to each other, both searched for an event, however indifferent, for an experience, no matter how trivial, that might count as an expression of the inexpressible and whose honest confession now could perhaps free them from the tension and mistrust that was gradually becoming unbearable.

The story leaves ambiguous who begins these inquiries, and there is a sense given that they are both equally drawn forward and hesitant about these self-investigations. In the film, the questioning is initiated by Alice, she is the one interested in this, with her husband keeping pace.

The back and forth of the couple reaches a peak now:

Albertine, whether she was the more impatient, the more honest, or the more kindhearted of the two, first summoned the courage for a frank confession.

Her confession arises out of the impulsive questions each has about the masquerade. In the film, there is a conversation about their respective partners at the party, before Alice gets angry at Bill for a prolonged moment, and it is only then that she speaks about her time with the naval officer.

The difference, I think, is rooted in what precedes the dialogue. In the story there is this description of their days:

The husband’s profession called him to the bedside of sick patients at an early hour, and household and motherly duties prevented Albertine from staying in bed much longer than he. So the hours had flown by soberly in predetermined daily routines and work, and the events of the previous night, those at the beginning as well as those at the end, had grown pale.

These roles, the man busy at work outside, the wife at home taking care of the home and child are to be expected of Vienna at the time. Alice in Eyes is a professional woman very much of our time, who once ran an art gallery. She spends her day with her child, doing rather dull tasks, including wrapping presents.

Alice and daughter wrapping presents

After her husband arrives home, she mentions that they might finish the wrapping that night, but he casually declines.

BILL watches TV with his feet up. ALICE pushes past his legs without asking or giving notice.

So how do you feel about wrapping the rest of the presents?

Uh…let’s do that tomorrow.

ALICE gives him a hard look.

Alice gives Bill hard look

He has spent the day doing far more interesting work than she has, and she’s aware of this. She’d dearly like to finish the wrapping that night so she’s not burdened with it another day, but her husband puts this off, not noticing or asking anything of her needs. We see her in the mirror of the bathroom, and there is something obviously bothering her, something she wants to bring up, but doesn’t know how. She takes out the pot to relax a little.

Alice overwhelmed looks in mirror

The partners of Bill and Alice are not equal, with Bill getting two lithe young models, and Alice getting a much older man. Alice is the one who starts the questioning, and I think she does this, in crudest terms, to start a fight, but more specifically, to give her husband a sense of how unhappy she is with the way their lives are arranged now, her life is arranged now, whatever agreement they might have had when the child was born. When Bill brings up her seducer at the party, Alice clearly thinks the man was ridiculous, and there was no possibility of anything taking place.

Tell me something…those…two…girls…at the party last night…Did you…by any chance…happen to…fuck…them?


Anyway, who’s the guy you were dancing with?

ALICE cracks up.
A friend of the Zieglers.

What did he want?

What did he want? Sex…upstairs. Then and there. (continues laughing)

Is that all?

Yeah, yeah, that was all.

Just wanted to fuck my wife?

That’s right.

Where the story’s conversation focuses on sexual possibilities, when Bill brings up the possibility that the only reason this man started talking to Alice was out of sexual interest, she gets very upset.

Woah…woah woah woah…wait. So. Because I’m a beautiful woman, the only reason any man ever wants to talk to me is because he wants to fuck me? Is that what you’re saying?

She is exasperated at being restricted to the limited roles of either mother or object of seduction. When they move to the issue of sexual temptation, Alice focuses not on the various women Bill would run into throughout his life in the city, but exclusively those at his place of work. I don’t think this is incidental, but a detail which points to the true focus of Alice’s concern.

Let’s say for example you have some gorgeous woman…standing. In your office. Naked. And you’re feeling her fucking tits. Now what I wanna know…I wanna know what you’re really thinking about when you’re squeezing them.

Alice. I happen to be a doctor. It’s all very impersonal. And you know there’s always a nurse present.

So, when you’re feeling tits it’s nothing more than just your professionalism, is that what you’re saying?

It is only after this moment of anger, then the focus on work, that Alice makes her confession, and I do not think it is out of impatience, honesty, or kindheartedness, but reprisal, to make clear to her husband that she is not simply his domain and vassal, that she has parts unknown that elude him. Her story of the naval officer starts after this dialogue.

I’ll tell you what I do know. You got a little stoned tonight, and you’ve been trying to pick a fight with me, and now you’re trying to make me jealous.

But you’re not the jealous type, are you?

No. I’m not.

You’ve never been jealous about me, have you?

No, I haven’t.

And why have you never been jealous about me!

Well, I don’t know Alice. Maybe because you’re my wife. Maybe because you’re the mother of my child and I know you’d never be unfaithful to me.

You are very, very sure of yourself, aren’t you?

No. I’m sure of you.

A small digression. It is here, in much of this scene, that we see Kubrick’s mastery of images. This is an extraordinarily simple scene, with unexotic elements, a man and woman arguing, yet he creates something distinct and subtle at once. An example would be this shot, the camera giving us a great sense of Alice’s beauty that is intimate while distant, exactly how Bill sees his wife at this point:

A great shot of Alice triumphant beautiful distant

She talks about her time with the naval officer. Bill does not remember this man. Perhaps it is only myself, but I think the man he sees as the naval officer is a younger version of a man he has seen, her seducer at the ball. I see a resemblance between the two:

Alice dancing at party

Alice's fantasy with naval officer

In the story, Albertine talks of a military officer she felt a great sudden lust for while the couple were on vacation in Denmark. In the movie, Bill does not bring up any encounter in reply to this, while the story’s Fridolin talks of a girl he himself became infatuated with on this same Danish vacation:

But one morning I suddenly became aware of a female figure that had been quite hidden only a moment before and was now cautiously walking on the narrow ledge of e beach hut set on piles in the sand, her arms spread out backward against the wooden wall behind her. She was a very young girl, maybe fifteen years old, with loose blonde hair flowing over her shoulders and to one side over her delicate breast.

That the girl is fifteen is not an indicator that Fridolin is a pedophile. It is very much connected with his courtship of his wife and when they were married. Earlier in their conversation, there is this moment between the two, when they talk about the moment they met, the night before they were engaged.

“Albertine – so there is something that you’ve kept from me?”

She nodded and looked down with a peculiar smile.

Incomprehensible, unreasonable doubts awoke in him.

“I don’t quite understand,” he said. “You were barely seventeen when we got engaged.”

“Older than sixteen, yes, Fridolin. And yet – ” she looked him squarely in the eye – “it wasn’t thanks to me that I was still a virgin when I became your wife.”

“Albertine – !”

But she continued:

“It was at Lake Wörther, just before our engagement, Fridolin. There, one beautiful summer evening, a very handsome young man stood in front of my window that looked out into the large and spacious meadow, and while I talked with him I was thinking – yes, just listen to what I was thinking – What a lovely, charming, young man – he would only have to say the word – the right word, of course – and I would come with him into the meadow and walk with him wherever he wanted to go – maybe into the woods – or, even better, we could take a boat out into the lake – and I would grant him anything that he wanted that night. Yes, that’s what I was thinking. But he didn’t say the word, that charming young man; he only kissed my hand tenderly – and the next morning he asked me – to be his wife. And I said yes.”

Fridolin, annoyed, let her hand drop. “And if,” he said, “someone else had by chance stood at your window that night and said the right word, if it had been, for example – ” and he pondered what name he should say, but she had already lifted her arms in protest.

There is an asymmetry between Fridolin and Albertine, with Fridolin having been with many women, while Albertine, to Fridolin’s best knowledge has only been with him. This is why the possibility that she has been with another man at some point is so haunting to him in the story, and perhaps rings less true in the movie. Regarding the previous point, the girl Fridolin fixes on is fifteen; his wife was sixteen or seventeen when they were engaged. What tantalizes him is the idea of sleeping with Albertine before he was with her, paradoxically knowing his wife before she became his wife, as someone different than the woman he met. This recurs through the story, with the storeowner’s daughter and the prostitute Mitzi both young enough to be substitutes for his wife to be.

Both scenes end with the hero leaving to give his respects at a house where one of his patients has died.


All images and dialogue excerpts copyright Warner Brothers.

Tagged , , , , ,

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Five


(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)


The tropes of Black Dahlia are those of noir, a genre native to american film and Los Angeles, with such standards as vertical blinds, smoking, a femme fatale, the rich sisters of The Big Sleep, a love triangle, no doubt others. These are all ritual elements, as recognizable as aspects of a christian painting, and they are supposed to be given proper veneration, homage to mystic relics. De Palma does something different, not openly desecrating for cheap laughs, but bending them through camp elements. The noir elements do not make a film great any more than a 19th century sitting room makes for a serious film, anymore than anything that features a harpsichord is “serious” music. The movie Dahlia takes in noir elements and upends each of them.

Consider the possibility that the hypotheses of the previous posts are true. Then this film is about an alpha male, Lee Blanchard, who is actually gay; Dwight “Bucky” Bleichert, a bisexual man attracted to both Blanchard and his appearances only girlfriend, Kay Lake; she is a woman of moral purity who tries to make sure that her male rival for Bleichert’s affections is killed, so they can both live happily after together on his stolen money. The story also features the classic trope of a femme fatale, Madeleine Linscott, as well as another classic trope (around since Laura), the girl who is a double for a dead woman. In this movie, however, Madeleine looks nothing like her double, but she does seem like a double for Bleichert, and shares his bisexuality. The dead woman, the Dahlia of the title, is an afterthought to the whole story, which is eventually solved through a baroque solution, and given a baroque presentation. This dead woman, a brutalized victim, is supposed to be the centerpiece of the plot, but she’s overshadowed by Kay and Madeleine, who seem to be smarter than almost all of the men of the story, and are very good at manipulating them. Madeleine sees very clearly the corruption of Kay and Blanchard, as well as the sexual identity of Bleichert. The detective, threatened by all this, kills her. So, the expected noir story, though outwardly little different and carrying all the identifying details, is turned entirely on its head.

Probably the best, most obvious place to start this discussion is near the ending, when Ramona Linscott confesses to the murder. From here on I rely, and perhaps overrely, on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” for reference. Sontag throws a very wide net over what she considers camp, including Caravaggio and The Maltese Falcon, but her essay is very useful for the expected thoughtfulness, but also for being so well-known that it serves as an easy touchstone on what is broadly considered camp, even if we disagree with some of its inclusions and exclusions. The essay warns against intentional attempts at camp, and here, I think De Palma is very effective, because the camp effects of the film prompted reviewers to ask the wanted question: “was that done on purpose?”

The Ramona Linscott scene is helped with this “Camp” quote on high art, which I think is important here as a counterpoint for what the movie tries to avoid:

35. Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. We value it because it succeeds – in being what it is and, presumably, in fulfilling the intention that lies behind it. We assume a proper, that is to say, straightforward relation between intention and performance. By such standards, we appraise The Iliad, Aristophanes’ plays, The Art of the Fugue, Middlemarch, the paintings of Rembrandt, Chartres, the poetry of Donne, The Divine Comedy, Beethoven’s quartets, and – among people – Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola. In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.

The Linscott confession scene starts out like most such scenes in a conventional noir: the detective has the suspects at the point of a gun, and he threatens them to confess. In the book, Bleichert starts destroying works of art by shooting some of them as a way of getting answers. The novel, as it treats many things, treats this very seriously. In the film, it is given such a ridiculous, heightened quality that it’s laughable. Various high art objects are destroyed, valued not for their qualities themselves, but their “seriousness”, and most important for a family whose fortune was built on firetraps, for their “respectability”. So, Bleichert shoots these various pieces, the movie defiantly avoiding formal seriousness. A chandelier falls to the ground, the high art is destroyed, and the camp really starts.

The novel’s confession contains many of the same elements as Ramona’s, but even more elaborate and morbid. It is all given in a sober tone, an inquiry into the darkness of the soul, very much serious art. I enjoyed most of the book, but found the final revelation to be so complex and gory I kept trying to reshuffle things in my head to make it more effective. De Palma seems to have found it unworkably baroque, and given it an appropriate delivery. Rather than a serious monologue, it’s delivered from the top of the stairs like an aria without music. Various pieces of high culture lie smashed about the players, and only camp remains. I have no doubt that some review made reference to Goebbels’ line about “when I hear the word culture”, and, hopefully, gave credit to someone other than Goebbels, since the intent here is not against high culture, only an opposition to the idea that certain forms or tropes are inherently great or serious. The destruction of the serious art and the lurid monologue are about this movie’s sensibility, but also a manifesto for De Palma’s career, a non-deference for respectable stories, the nineteenth century romance, someone or other dying of cancer etc., in favor of work in “trashy” popular genres.

Moving on, this “Notes on Camp” point, I think, is very relevant to this film:

15. [...] To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.

But most importantly, this:

The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo. Here, Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness (as well as the most refined form of sexual pleasure) consists in going against the grain of one’s sex. What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine. . . . Allied to the Camp taste for the androgynous is something that seems quite different but isn’t: a relish for the exaggeration of sexual characteristics and personality mannerisms. For obvious reasons, the best examples that can be cited are movie stars. The corny flamboyant female-ness of Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Jane Russell, Virginia Mayo; the exaggerated he-man-ness of Steve Reeves, Victor Mature. The great stylists of temperament and mannerism, like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Edwige Feuillière.

This idea, I think, dominates the film, and we are given a quick image which embodies the way the film’s camp undermines the seriousness of the noir form in a crucial scene.

There is the bust of a man which, frankly I can’t identify (my only guess is Thomas Jefferson), but no doubt a possible member of the group of serious individuals (Socrates, Jesus, St. Francis, Napoleon, Savonarola, etc.) mentioned in the previous “Camp” note, in the sequence at the Olympic:

Then, from behind this piece of serious art, appears the androgyne, “one of the great images of Camp sensibility”, Madeleine in her man’s suit.

Two other moments where the picture clearly tips its hand. Bleichert walks into a room after showing off his behind to the camera, and looks at the audience, as if aware he’s in a movie and they’re looking at him.

He goes about the business of exposition in the scene, necessary for the later confession, before arriving at a picture that catches his attention. It’s a picture of The Man Who Laughs, laughing at whoever looks at it.

In this case, it is, literally, laughing at these characters and the noir ritual of exposition. “I don’t get modern art,” says Bleichert. “I doubt modern art gets you either,” replies Madeleine.

The last, and my favorite, wink would be the scene at the dinner table. In the book, Martha, Madeleine’s sister, is an unattractive, malicious girl who is silent during dinner while she sketches Bleichert. Martha of the movie is a bright, vital, attractive woman (the excellent Rachel Miner) who carries on a normal conversation, one might call it a small investigation, with Bleichert.

On the surface, it is entirely an ordinary conversation. At the same time, Bleichert and Madeleine are being rendered into parody figures.

The characters of the movie are not parodies, and if they were, camp wouldn’t be possible. Yet they all have an exaggerated note to them, that may not entirely be noticed, since noir is full of these exaggerated notes.


By treating his characters as surfaces, individuals who correspond outwardly to noir types but are very different underneath, De Palma makes a fascinating movie, but by doing so, something compelling is lost from the book.

I struggled to put what this is into words, but this fragment from “The Dragon’s Egg”, by Adam Gopnik, which discusses the compelling qualities of young adult fiction, is a good starting point:

Books win their audiences for a reason. Most popular books wear their artlessness on their sleeve: Stephenie Meyer, the author of the “Twilight” series, is an awkward writer with little feeling for construction, but the intensity of emotion with which she imbues her characters is enviable. You never doubt her commitment to the material, which is half the battle won.

Ellroy is a better writer than Meyer, though not, despite his claims, as good as Tolstoy. Whatever the weaknesses of his books, his commitment to the Dahlia is complete and unfeigned, his belief in the writing of books as a penitence through which damned individuals expose the authors own damnations, and redeem themselves through heroic acts the author himself wishes for, is complete, a quality of extraordinary importance in a writer, one unlearned and unlearnable. The obsessions of Bleichert and Madeleine are either Ellroy’s own, or felt to be Ellroy’s own, and like Meyer this gives Dahlia an intensity of emotion that is enviable. De Palma has had no difficulty with commitment to characters of similar obsessions, whether in Blow Out or Casualties of War, but in this case, he does not connect with these men and women. It may be because that there is something inherent in the material that does not allow him this commitment, that in his movies he always skeptically questioned his own obsessions, while in Ellroy’s Dahlia one is given nothing but the man’s obsession, unquestioned. Such examination of the motives of those who make movies and books is always an unreliable business, I like to avoid it, and I end it here.

What is best examined are the effects of books and movies, what they attempt to achieve, and how they do so. On those terms, I think the approach of both is very different. De Palma’s Dahlia is ostensibly about a man possessed by a woman, with every element subverting this very story, with the movie ultimately about the false aspects of these heroic fantasies, the roles it forces women to play, the roles men dearly want to play in these fantasies, and makes camp of both. Ellroy is so deep inside his obsessions in Dahlia that he has no possibility of skepticism, and his belief in this world allows for our belief as well, locating our obsessions, however different, in Bleichert and Madeleine. The distance of camp does not allow this, and this is what causes some to despise the camp and ironic approaches. In some contexts, camp and irony are seen as a diminishment of possibility, the empathy any reader or viewer has with some characters. It is possible to cherish the characters of Jane Austen; I’m unsure if it’s possible to cherish the characters of John Barth. De Palma’s Dahlia has such sympathy for one character only, looked at entirely without any bend or slant, and that’s Elizabeth Short, a troubled young woman of luminescent beauty who conveniently dies, allowing her image to persist for the machineries of obsession, fantasies of the characters and our own. Again, the quote from Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”


Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Four


(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)


An auburn haired beauty of the novel is now a blonde. A character of the book that is thin all over, waiflike – as Blanchard likes them – is now bodacious. This last is not, I think, due to any low appetites, but fits with the movie’s schematic. Blanchard loathes himself for what he is, so he seeks a woman who exudes feminity, a buxom, rather than a reedy figure. She should also embody fertility, the wealth and bounty of the food on her dinner table and her pristine house. That there may be an ugliness underlying all this, migrant labor and stolen water for the California agriculture, secret bargains and blood money for the house, are all things that can be thought about later.

She is a wounded woman, branded with scars by her former pimp, Bobby De Witt, and still shaped by her experiences with this man. She is also very, very smart, “always the smarter of the two of us”, says Bleichert in the book, and this, despite appearances, is true in the movie, all the way through. In the book, her major switches from pre-med, psychology, English lit, and then history; in the movie she has a masters in history.

I’ll start with a succinct outline of the movie’s Kay as I see it. She is a woman who has gone through horrific experiences, found a protector, Blanchard, but one who she is deeply unhappy with. She wants to abandon this man, for another protector, Bleichert, but he refuses to betray his partner. She is either directly complicit in having the first man killed, or tries to make sure that it is more likely that he will die. It is convenient that this man die for another reason: he is her romantic rival for Bleichert’s affections.

When this new man takes over, she must make sure that they are bound together, first through sex, then by a secret, that the beautiful home they live in was bought with stolen money. She is throughout this, like I said, very smart, and simply plays stupid in order for her schemes to work, this stupidity accepted without question by Bleichert, but also by the audience, who don’t consider the possibility that a blonde might just be playing at dullheadedness. Kay does not act out of pointless malice, but because she knows first-hand the viciousness of this life. In her audition tape, Betty Short plays on the line from Gone With The Wind: “As god as my witness, I’ll never go hungry again…even if I have to lie…or cheat…or steal…I’ll never go hungry again.” This is something like Kay’s credo. It should also be said that this theory goes entirely against Kay’s image in the film, which is, essentially, a passive victim.

I show here a series of images of Kay from the film, from beginning to end. They give a sense, I think, of a woman who is saucy, witty, with a piercing look, slowly hiding herself, giving herself an exterior of a dull-minded, passive, child-like figure, occasionally a hysteric. This is an exterior society prefers, but it’s also necessary for her own ends.

Our introduction:

At the gym. This is when Kay reveals that she and Lee don’t sleep together:

A brief glimpse of the image Kay will become. The night of the shoot-out with Baxter Fitch and associates, and when Bleichert tells her about the return of Bobby De Witt. She freezes up, and her face becomes a mask:

This is the last scene where we see this old Kay. Her eyes are probing. It’s the moment when she asks Bleichert, “what about us?”, wanting to be with him, and he refuses to betray his partner:

Now, it starts. We, the audience are almost always with Bleichert, moving with him. One of the few exceptions is when the camera pulls away from the detectives prior to the Baxter Fitch shoot-out. The other times are with Kay. Here, we are in the house with Kay for a few seconds before Bleichert arrives. When she hears the door, she arranges her character, touching her eyes, lighting her cigarette.

During this scene, Bleichert presses her on where Blanchard is. She may have a nervous tic about her mouth, it may be a tell. I don’t think this tic ever shows up again:

The night they have sex for the first time:

She asks Dwight to repair the kitchen tile. While he’s there, again, for one of the only times in the film, we are away from Bleichert, and with her. What does she do, after the man who protected and rescued her dies? She pours drinks. Why does she do this at this point, when Bleichert’s removing the tile? Because she knows what he’ll find. Her old protector is dead. She now has a new one, and she wants to celebrate: the money and sex will now make them partners. This makes me think of nothing other than when a femme fatale celebrates after they kill her husband together. She pours the drinks, and ascends the staircase, going up, as characters do in this movie, to damnation:

But Bleichert surprises her. He is still connected with a very sentimental image of Blanchard. She plays this very stupid:

This causes Bleichert to bolt from the house, to return to Madeleine. When Kay arrives at the mansion and confronts them, she is a shrieky harridan. Again, she plays the facts about the money very stupid:

Bleichert kills Madeleine and returns to Kay. This is the last image of her, and it is a very different Kay than the one of the beginning:

I go now through the movie’s scenes that feature only Kay and Bleichert, contrast it with its equivalent in the book, and point how the intent each time has subtly been changed.

The meeting with Kay where she first prompts him about having an affair:

I found Kay in her usual weeknight posture–reading on the living room couch. She didn’t look up when I walked in, she just blew a lazy smoke ring and said, “Hi, Dwight.”

I took a chair across the coffee table from her. “How’d you know it was me?”

Kay circled a passage in the book. “Lee stomps, you tread cautiously.”

I laughed. “It’s symbolic, but don’t tell anybody.” Kay stubbed out her cigarette and put the book down.

“You sound worried.”

I said, “Lee’s all bent out of shape on the dead girl. He got us detached to work the investigation when we should be going after a priority warrantee, and he’s taking Benzedrine and starting to go a little squirrely. Has he told you about her?”

Kay nodded. “A little.”

“Have you read the papers?”

“I’ve avoided them.”

“Well, the girl is being played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. There’s a hundred men working a single homicide, Ellis Loew’s looking to get fat off of it, Lee’s cuckoo on the subject–” Kay disarmed my tirade with a smile. “And you were front page news on Monday, but you’re stale bread today. And you want to go after your big bad robber man and get yourself another headline.”

“Touché, but that’s only part of it.”

“I know. Once you got the headline, you’d hide out and not read the papers.”

I sighed. “Jesus, I wish you weren’t so much smarter than me.”

“And I wish you weren’t so cautious and complicated. Dwight, what is going to happen with us?”

“The three of us?”

“No, us.”

I looked around the living room, all wood and leather and Deco chromium. There was a glass-fronted mahogany cabinet; it was filled with Kay’s cashmere sweaters, all the shades of the rainbow at forty dollars a pop. The woman herself, South Dakota white trash molded by a cop’s love, sat across from me, and for once I said exactly what was on my mind. “You’d never leave him. You’d never leave this. Maybe if you did, maybe if Lee and I were quits as partners, maybe then we’d have a chance together. But you’d never give it all up.”

Kay took her time lighting a cigarette. Exhaling a breath of smoke, she said, “You know what he’s done for me?”

I said, “And for me.”

The scene in the movie:

Hello Dwight.

How’d you know it was me?

Lee stomps. Is Lee working late? What’s wrong?

He’s all bent out of shape over this dead girl. He’s getting all squirrely. Benzedrine, I think. Did you read the papers? She’s been played up as the hottest number since the atom bomb. Ellis Loew’s gonna make a career out of this, and Lee’s not far behind.

What about you?

What about me?

What’s gonna happen to us, Dwight?

The three of us…

No, us. Just the two of us.

Kay, there is no two of us. He’s my partner.

That’s everything.

He’s done a lot for me.

He’s done even more for me. There’s food in the fridge. Good night.

In the book, the relationship wouldn’t be possible because of Kay. She wouldn’t leave this man or this life. The movie shifts the choice entirely to Bleichert who won’t betray this man. “He’s my partner”, and I think we should read a secondary meaning to that, of a union that rivals what he has with Kay.

It is right after this scene that she tries to tempt him in her nightdress. He refuses, and she slams the door on him:

Next, a scene whose small changes give an entirely different light to the relationship between Blanchard, Bleichert, Lake.

Blanchard has taken Dahlia case files home, Kay is very upset and throws them out, Bleichert comes along in the middle of the action.

Pulling up, I saw Kay storming out the door and down the steps, hurling an armful of paper onto the lawn, then storming back while Lee stormed beside her, shouting and waving his arms. I walked over and knelt beside the discarded pile; the papers were carbons of LAPD report forms. Sifting through them, I saw FIs, evidence indexes, questioning reports, tip lists and a complete autopsy protocol–all with “E. Short, W.F. D.O.D. 1/15/47″ typed at the top. They were obviously bootlegged from University Station–and the very possession of them was enough to guarantee Lee a suspension from duty.

Kay came back with another load, shouting, “After all that’s happened, all that might happen, how can you do this? It’s sick and it’s insane!” She dumped the papers beside the other pile; 39th and Norton glossies glinted up at me. Lee grabbed her by the arms and held her while she squirmed. “Goddamnit, you know what this is to me. You _know_. Now I’ll rent a room to keep the stuff in, but babe, you stick by me on this. It’s _mine_, and I need you . . . and you _know_.”

They noticed me then. Lee said, “Bucky, you tell her. You reason with her.”

It was the funniest Dahlia circus line I’d heard so far. “Kay’s right. You’ve pulled at least three misdemeanors on this thing, and it’s getting out–” I stopped, thinking of what _I’d_ pulled, and where I was going at midnight. Looking at Kay, I shifted gears. “I promised him a week on it. That means four more days. On Wednesday it’s over.”

Kay sighed, “Dwight, you can be so gutless sometimes,” then walked into the house. Lee opened his mouth to say something funny. I kicked a path through official LAPD paper to my car.

Almost entirely the same scene.

I’m not having this in my house anymore. It is sick and insane. After all that’s happened, all that might happen…

Talk to her Bucky, reason with her.


This is where it departs from the book. The visual aspect is crucial.

Lee, she’s right. There’s at least three misdemeanours, here. You can’t…

BLANCHARD stares pleadingly at him.

I promised him a week on this, four more days, and then it’s over.

Bucky, you can be so gutless some time, you know that?

In the novel, Bleichert holds himself back from rebuking Blanchard because of the impropriety of his liaison with Madeleine, and that he’s arranged sex with her in return for not bringing her name into the investigation. Bleichert hasn’t spoken to Madeleine yet at this point in the movie, so that isn’t what holds him back. It’s entirely his connection with Blanchard, and his movement back and forth between the man and the woman is about the rivalry the two have for his feelings.

The scene ends with Bucky’s voiceover. I bold a part that might have a double meaning.

Three days since we killed four men. Three days till Bobby De Witt got out. I tried to tell myself that I was the straight leg in this triangle. I was worried it was true.

Now, perhaps the most important moment between Kay and Bleichert. There is no equivalent in the book. Blanchard has gone to meet De Witt.

You’re famous, Dwight. [about a newspaper headline on the failure of the two cops to capture Raymond Nash]

Notorious. Where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

Bobby De Witt’s probably in LA right now.

Lee always said I’d be safe.

You will be. You will be.

DWIGHT reaches out and holds KAY’s hand.

He had a sister.


He had a little sister. She was killed when he was fifteen and they never caught the guy.

What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?

He made me promise never to tell you. He thought it made him too easy to figure.

Well, that explains some things.

No, it doesn’t.

Kay, where’s Lee?

KAY doesn’t answer.

If you know, you should tell me.

KAY doesn’t answer.

Kay…Bobby De Witt just got out. Lee’s all hopped up on Benzedrines, what do you think’s gonna happen?

KAY doesn’t answer.

Where is he?

Morrie Friedman called a couple of hours ago.

The guy from New Year’s?

Bobby’s got a drug deal somewhere…a building Friedman owns, the Olympic I think.



DWIGHT rushes up to leave.


Kay knows that Lee is going to meet De Witt. She knows that Lee might be in danger. If she wants De Witt killed, it would seem she would have no difficulty telling Bleichert right away about the deal so he can get there immediately to help his partner. But she holds out on the information, delaying as much and as long as possible. My belief is that she does this so Bleichert is not there to help Blanchard. In order that Blanchard be killed.

A contrast now between how the novel treats Bleichert’s return to Kay after he finds out about the death of Blanchard. The novel has Blanchard dying off-scene in Mexico:

Dawn was pushing up over the Hollywood Hills when I knocked on Kay’s door. I stood on the porch shivering, storm clouds and streaks of sunlight looming as strange things I didn’t want to see. I heard “Dwight?” inside, followed by the sound of bolts being unlatched. Then the other remaining partner in the Blanchard/Bleichert/Lake triad was there, saying, “And all that.”

It was an epitaph I didn’t want to hear.

I walked inside, stunned at how strange and pretty the living room was. Kay said, “Lee’s dead?” I sat down in his favorite chair for the first time. “The Rurales or some Mexican woman or her friends killed him. Oh, babe, I–”

Using Lee’s endearment jarred me. I looked at Kay, standing by the door, backlighted by the weird sunstreaks. “He hired the Rurales to kill DeWitt, but that doesn’t mean shit. We’ve got to get Russ Millard and some decent Mexican cops on it . .

I stopped, noticing the phone on the coffee table. I started dialing the padre’s home number. Kay’s hand halted me. “No. I want to talk to you first.”

The scene in the movie is almost entirely non-verbal, has a different reaction from Bleichert, perhaps a response to a different, more intimate, though not physically intimate, bond between the men. Bleichert simply starts sobbing and can’t stop, even after Kay comes out and asks him what’s wrong.

Later, they try to have dinner, without Blanchard. Bleichert blames himself for his partner’s death, that his immobility at a crucial point doomed his friend.

I couldn’t move…I couldn’t move. I didn’t move. I never move. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Kay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. (under his breath) I could’ve saved him. I could’ve saved him.

This, strikes a strange note for me: Bleichert is almost in constant motion on the stairs, trying to save his friend until he’s knocked unconscious. It isn’t Bleichert whose immobility may have led to Blanchard’s death but Kay’s; she is the one who stayed silent, not answering his questions about where Blanchard was, perhaps keeping him from reaching the Olympic till it was too late.

After Bleichert returns from Mexico, the novel has Kay tell him the full story of Blanchard’s involvement in the robbery. That it was he who did the robbery, blaming it on her pimp, De Witt. A lengthy excerpt:

I moved from the chair to the couch; Kay sat beside me. She said, “You’ll hurt Lee if you go crazy with this.”

That was when I knew she’d been expecting it; that was when I knew she knew more than I did. “You can’t hurt something dead.”

“Oh, yes you can, babe.”

“Don’t call me that! That’s his!”

Kay moved closer and touched my cheek. “You can hurt him and you can hurt us.”

I pulled away from the caress. “You tell me why, _babe_.”

Kay cinched the belt on her robe and fixed me with a cold look. “I didn’t meet Lee at Bobby’s trial,” she said. “I met him before. We became friends, and I lied about where I was staying so Lee wouldn’t know about Bobby. Then he found out on his own, and I told him how bad it was, and he told me about a business opportunity he had coming up. He wouldn’t tell me the details, and then Bobby was arrested for bank robbery and everything was chaos.

“Lee planned the robbery and got three men to help him. He’d bought his way out of his contract with Ben Siegel [Blanchard's boxing contract], and it cost him every cent he’d made as a boxer. Two of the men were killed during the robbery, one escaped to Canada, and Lee was the fourth. Lee framed Bobby because he hated him for what he did to me. Bobby didn’t know we were seeing each other, and we made it look like we met at the trial. Bobby knew it was a frame, but he didn’t suspect Lee, just the LAPD in general.

“Lee wanted to give me a home, and he did. He was very cautious with his part of the robbery money, and he always talked up his boxing savings and his gambling so the brass wouldn’t think he was living above his means. He hurt his career by living with a woman, even though we weren’t together that way. It was like a happy fairy tale until last fall, right after you and Lee became partners.”

I moved toward Kay, awed by Lee as the most audacious rogue cop in history. “I knew he had it in him.”

Kay drew away from me. “Let me finish before you get sentimental. When Lee heard about Bobby getting an early parole date, he went to Ben Siegel to try to get him killed. He was afraid of Bobby talking about me, upsetting our fairy tale with all the ugly things he knew about yours truly. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and I told Lee it didn’t matter, that there were three of us now and the truth couldn’t hurt us. Then, right before New Year’s, the third man from the robbery showed up. He knew that Bobby De Witt was getting out on parole, and he made a blackmail demand: Lee was to pay him ten thousand dollars, or he would tell Bobby that Lee masterminded the robbery and framed him.

“The man said Lee’s deadline was Bobby’s release date. Lee put him off, then went to Ben Siegel to try to borrow the money. Siegel wouldn’t do it, and Lee begged him to have the man killed. He wouldn’t do that either. Lee learned that the man hung out with some Negroes who sold marijuana, and he–”

I saw it coming, huge and black like the headlines it got me, Kay’s words the new fine print: “That man’s name was Baxter Fitch. Siegel wouldn’t help Lee, so he got you. The men were armed, so I guess you were legally justified, and I guess you were damn lucky that no one looked into it. It’s the one thing I can’t forgive him for, the one thing I hate myself for tolerating. Still feeling sentimental, triggerman?”

I couldn’t answer; Kay did it for me. “I didn’t think so. I’ll finish up, and you tell me if you still want revenge.

“The Short thing happened then, and Lee latched on to it for his little sister and who knows what else. He was terrified that Fitch had already talked to Bobby, that Bobby knew about the frame. He wanted to kill him or have him killed, and I begged and pleaded with him to just let it be, no one would believe Bobby, so just don’t hurt anybody else. If it wasn’t for that fucking dead girl I might have convinced him. But the case went down to Mexico, and so did Bobby and Lee and you. I knew that the fairy tale was over. And it is.”

This information, some of this information, is not freely given by Kay in the movie. She only tells it when angrily prompted by Bleichert after he discovers the money in the bathroom:

I always wondered where he kept it.

Were you ever gonna tell me?

He’d given all his money to Ben Siegel…he wanted to buy us a home, I didn’t know there was any left.

Were you ever gonna tell me?

Something’s burning.

KAY rushes down to the kitchen, BUCKY follows.

Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.

I don’t know what kinda idea I got right now.

BUCKY throws money down on counter with a violent gesture.

KAY moves away and starts putting candles in candle holder.

Things were getting really bad between me and Bobby and I had to get out. I knew this guy that…Bobby made me be with once. It was a hophead who sometimes snitched to cops for dope money.

And that’s how you met Lee.

I told him what Bobby was doing, about how he cut me and pimped me to his friends. I told him about the bank job and where Bobby was hiding the money. And then last year…the guy…

The hophead.

Yeah. Lee had given him a thousand dollars for introducing us. He found that Bobby was getting out, he threatened to tell that we stole from him. He wanted money that we didn’t have, Dwight. He wanted ten thousand dollars. What were we going to do? Promise me, promise me, you’ll forgive him for DeWitt, forgive him for the bank. Please. It doesn’t matter to us.

What’s the guy’s name?

It doesn’t matter.

The first thing obvious is that Kay, a very intelligent woman in both versions, is cool-headed and smart in her presentation in the book. The movie has this intelligent woman as a hysteric (my word choice is not arbitrary), who avoids Bleichert’s questions with the ridiculous evasion of “Something’s burning!” It is not an intelligent woman doing stupid things, it is an intelligent woman playing at being stupid. How much Kay is lying in this scene is never resolved, as it’s the last time these details are brought up. If we take Kay’s version in the book as the true version, then she is lying about the major fact that Blanchard was behind the robbery. A further tip-off is the way she mentions this: “Bobby did do the bank job, Bucky, don’t get the wrong idea.” Why expect that Bleichert would immediately get this idea?

I bold part of Bucky’s line that I think can have a double reading:

Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?

Baxter Fitch…and then DeWitt. Lee killed them both, and took the bank money. Making me witness. Stooge. Weak point. In a fairy tale triangle.

You’re so good at some things.

BUCKY rushes out.

The line “You’re so good at some things” is referenced at the end, and I think both times there’s an irony to it.

Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much. This has nothing to do with us, Dwight. DON’T RUN OUT ON US!

This line is important for the reference to love, and what immediately follows this scene. Bleichert returns to Madeleine, and gives us the voiceover.

Lee and Kay had lived in sin. Not because their shack job was against department regs, but because the ghosts of their past had forced them to choose love over passion. A veneer of a fairy tale. Only a band-aid to cover a fractured life. I didn’t believe in fairy tales. It was a reunion of avowed tramps. Old rutters who knew they would never have it as good with anyone else.

Bleichert never tells us what those ghosts are that force this choice of love over passion. Kay has already said that it’s not the death of his sister that’s behind Blanchard’s chastity. I read Kay’s line, “Dwight, he loved you, he loved both of us, so much”, in juxtaposition with Dwight’s voiceover, and it seems a good fit. Blanchard had to choose love over passion for both points of this triangle, one for whom he could feel no sexual attraction, and the other, for whom he was not allowed to show an attraction.

While at Madeleine’s, Bleichert is confronted by Kay. This is how the scene plays out in the book, the entire focus on the morbid aspect of his sexual obsession with a woman who’s a twin for the Dahlia:

Kay was wearing her Eisenhower jacket and tweed skirt, just like when I’d first met her. I said, “Babe,” and started to ask “Why?” My wife counterpunched: “Did you think I’d let my husband vanish for three weeks and do nothing about it? [in the book, Kay and Bleichert get married after Blanchard's death] I’ve had detectives following you, Dwight. She looks like that fucking dead girl, so you can have _her_–not me.”

Kay’s dry eyes and calm voice were worse than what she was saying. I felt shakes coming on, bad heebie-jeebies. “Babe, goddamn it–”

Kay backed out of grabbing range. “Whoremonger. Coward. _Necrophile_.”

The movie changes the nature of the confrontation, with Bleichert angry at Kay for her deceptions, all the things she hid, all the things she might still be hiding. She first evades this charge by saying that she did not lie out of her own interest, but for his benefit, their benefit. When he refuses to accept this, only then does she bring up Madeleine, “She looks like that dead girl!”

Kay. The hell are you doing here?

What am I doing here? How could you, how could you Dwight?

You followed me here after what you’ve done?

What have I done? Nothing.

You lied to me.

I lied for you. I lied for us. What could I do, but lie, Dwight?

You could have told me the truth.

She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee, you will. But I will not.

This last line pushes him away from Madeleine and he resumes his investigation. There is, I think, a very important hidden significance to this line, which echoes in voice over as Bleichert resumes work on the Dahlia case.

She looks like that dead girl! How sick are you! You’re gonna end up like Lee.

Madeleine, as already said, isn’t the Dahlia’s double, but Bleichert’s. The line implies that his relationship with Madeleine over Kay is a choice of a sexual netherworld, one that will lead him to an entirely different sexual orientation: “You’re gonna end up like Lee.” This frightens Bleichert, just as his first sense of Madeleine as his twin deeply frightened him, and pushes him back onto the case.

After solving the murder, Bleichert kills Madeleine, the end of an actual life, but also the end of a virtual one, the closing of certain possibilities for the man. He does a deep inhale in his car, echoing the same deep inhale he made during the credit sequence, in the locker room before the boxing match with Blanchard, the first a preface to a substitute for “passion”, the second a regret over a “passion” that will never be fulfilled.

He is overwhelmed with sadness, returning to a woman who helped kill a man he loved, a man he himself wanted killed so he could have Kay, but also to end the frightening inconvenience of the love he felt.

He re-unites with Kay in a last, very strange scene.

This is the book’s conclusion, Bleichert heading to Massachusetts where he’ll meet Kay.

On the plane I thought of all the things I’d have to explain to Kay, evidence to keep a new foundation of lies from destroying the two–or three–of us.

She would have to know that I was a detective without a badge, that for one month in the year 1949 I possessed brilliance and courage and the will to make sacrifices. She would have to know that the heat of that time would always make me vulnerable, prey to dark curiosities. She would have to believe that my strongest resolve was not to let any of it hurt her.

The last paragraph is a simple description of what took place in the last month of his investigation of the Dahlia murder, with him discovering the killer, then covering it up so that Madeleine’s mother would not be the one indicted, then having to turn in Madeleine, despite his obsession with her, and knowing that what haunted him then would always haunt him. I don’t think there is anything obscure that makes it difficult to connect with the recent events of the novel that have taken place. Despite this past darkness, the future holds the possibility of great happiness for the man, and it’s about the only upbeat ending for any lead character, ever, in Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.

Contrast this with the voice over in the film, Bleichert’s last lines:

Madeleine was wrong. I had others. Ones I’d loved, ones who’d loved me. People I betrayed, and people I needed to protect. And for the first time in my life, I knew that for the briefest of times, in the darkest of places, I had been so so good at some things.

My reaction to this, on first seeing the film was, “What the hell is he talking about?” I’ll just quote the last part of the dialogue with Madeleine to make clear what Bleichert is responding to. It’s in the hotel right before he kills her:

You chose me over her. You’ll choose me over him. He was going to take Daddy’s money and leave. Leave all of you.

BUCKY points gun at MADELEINE.

You’ll never shoot me. Don’t forget who I look like.


Because that girl, that sad, dead, bitch. She’s all you have.



Visually, Bleichert’s return to the house suggests that he has found an alternative to this dead woman, the Dahlia, and her living incarnation, Madeleine, in his love with Kay. Then the voiceover completely flummoxes this assumption. Bleichert speaks in the plural. More importantly, he speaks in the past tense, except for needing to protect. Bleichert mentions his skills in the last paragraphs of the book because they were crucial for putting the Dahlia case to rest and being able to re-unite with Kay, but why is it important for him to be so good at some things in this context?

My only resolution for this is that Bleichert returns to nothing in the present, that what he loves, protects, and betrays, are only memories now. He loved Blanchard and Kay (“Ones I’d loved”), both loved him back (“ones who’d loved me”). He betrayed Blanchard, by wanting him to die, so he could have Kay and so their inconvenient love could end (“People I betrayed”). The “people”, plural, he needs to protect are the Kay and Blanchard of his memories (“You don’t talk about them, okay?”, he says to Madeleine), a heroic cop and his loyal, pure woman. The “so good at some things”, is a reprisal of something Kay says to him when he asks her about Baxter Fitch (him: “Kay, tell me the guy’s name…was it Baxter Fitch?” her: “You’re so good at some things”). As I said, I think there’s an irony to this line both times. What’s remarkable is not what Blanchard sees, but how much he doesn’t see, such as the fact that a cop with such an expensive house must be corrupt in some way or other. Bleichert is good, not at seeing, but at not seeing. The brief time he turns to, are the memories of Kay and Blanchard, when he was so good at not seeing them as they are, but as he wanted to see them.

Bleichert ascends the steps to the house, ascending to hell. We then arrive at a brief shot, possibly the most striking in the movie, Kay behind the door, only her lips visible in the strip of glass.

There are a multiplicity of ideas in this image: an isolated part of a woman to be pecked at, of pornography and the voyeur; the woman trapped in a seraglio, as Kay remakes herself, outwardly, into a passive female; soft lips, soft like Bleichert’s, apart from any body of either gender; an inversion of The Man Who Laughs, whose monstrous mouth is hidden while his eyes are exposed, while it is Kay’s eyes, which grow duller and duller through the film, which make her monstrous.

The door opens, the house is filled with a hot, ungentle light.

Suddenly, Bleichert turns round, and behind him it’s the body of the Dahlia; a crow that is feasting on her turns to look back.

The viewer, as I said before, sometimes glides through the air with this bird’s freedom. Viewers may have come to feed on the carrion of nude women and gore of this film, evil without, and their attention has been mis-directed. They have stayed fixated on this plot, when the true story, the true evil, has already been here in this triangle of Kay, Buckey and Lee. Bleichert turns, briefly, to see the bird, as he turned to look into the camera at the Linscott mansion, and then the image is gone. The hot artificial light disappears, but Kay remains the same cold child self she’s been for half the movie. “Come inside”, she says, but the invitation carries no comfort. The door closes, and for the last time in the film, we, the voyeurs, are left outside.


Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Three


(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)


Blanchard and Kay serve as the best examples of the way in which the movie takes elements from the book and entirely inverts them. Much of the dialogue and details of both characters are retained, with enough small edits and additions to make both more mysterious, and radically different from the man and woman of the novel.

Lee Blanchard of the book is a heroic cop burdened with the memory of a sister, Laurie, kidnapped, never found, forever missing. This is a point made early on, and emphatically, throughout the book. Kay, same as in the movie, was rescued by Blanchard from a robber named Bobby De Witt who pimped her out and brutalized her. Kay reveals, near the novel’s outset, that though they live together, she and Lee do not sleep with each other. By placing the story of the missing sister early on and in such detail, the reader assigns this event as the cause for their strange chastity. Blanchard was having sex with someone when his sister was kidnapped, so perhaps sex for him has become a tainted thing. He desires to protect a sister substitute in a way he was unable to with his lost sibling, and Kay fills this role; sex would destroy his seeing her as a sister proxy. That she is a wounded woman, scarred by De Witt, only makes her more fitting for this part. In a newspaper article about Blanchard’s arrest of De Witt and rescue of Kay, we have a telling quote by Blanchard: “She has that waiflike beauty I’m a sucker for.” This detective wants someone waifish, with a vulnerable look, who he can save and protect.

Blanchard’s sister is almost entirely removed from the movie’s story, except a small mention far in, right before Blanchard’s death:

He had a sister.


He had a little sister. She was killed when he was fifteen and they never caught the guy.

What? Why didn’t you tell me this before?

He made me promise never to tell you. He thought it made him too easy to figure.

Well, that explains some things.

No, it doesn’t.

Kay’s answer, that no, it doesn’t explain the obvious question of their platonic union, touches on a key aspect of Blanchard. That this man feels no attraction for Kay, but he perhaps does feel something for Bleichert, and Bleichert feels something back.

I should emphasize that any attraction between the two is unconsummated. Blanchard sublimates his desire two ways, through violence, and the purity of the quest for the Dahlia’s killer. This, I think, is the underlying motif in the boxing match between the two men, physical violence, in close contact, as a substitute for sexual contact. The fight comes right after the following dialogue:

You know shacking up’s against regs. Probably cost him his stripes. Waste of diamonds and bassinets.

Well, you’d have to sleep together for that, Dwight.

It is after the fight that Bleichert and Blanchard becomes partners. They go out together with Kay, she always in the middle, never in between. She, of course, is not the one who both points of the triangle covet, it’s Bleichert; the man of soft, androgynous features, who desires both of them, is desired by both, and whose double is Madeleine, another figure of androgynous features, but who freely travels between both genders.

The movie gives us two pictures of the trinity, one at the theater, the other at dinner, once with Kay in the middle, another with Blanchard. The invisible, unseen picture is the one that hangs over both, Bleichert in the center.

It is at the New Year’s party where we have the first disconcerting moment in the relationship. This scene is the most vivid in terms of color of any in the movie, bright and rich, filled with red and blue. Kay and Lee stand apart, far from Blanchard, and kiss.

Blanchard blows them a kiss, and then, in an incongruous note, as both turn their backs to him, gives them a stare of poisonous menace:

No explicit answer is given for this. The book provides a sense of an unhappy couple, but the scene is different.

On New Year’s Eve, we drove down to Balboa Island to catch Stan Kenton’s band. We danced in 1947, high on champagne, and Kay flipped coins to see who got last dance and first kiss when midnight hit. Lee won the dance, and I watched them swirl across the floor to “Perfidia,” feeling awe for the way they had changed my life. Then it was midnight, the band fired up, and I didn’t know how to play it.

Kay took the problem away, kissing me softly on the lips, whispering, “I love you, Dwight.” A fat woman grabbed me and blew a noisemaker in my face before I could return the words.

We drove home on Pacific Coast Highway, part of a long stream of horn-honking revelers. When we got to the house, my car wouldn’t start, so I made myself a bed on the couch and promptly passed out from too much booze. Sometime toward dawn, I woke up to strange sounds muffling through the walls. I perked my ears to identify them, picking out sobs followed by Kay’s voice, softer and lower than I had ever heard it. The sobbing got worse–trailing into whimpers. I pulled the pillow over my head and forced myself back to sleep.

Kay is very sad in her union, in love with Dwight, but the feeling of Blanchard angry at the two is absent.

I’ll give further support to this by going to the end of the book. It is from a part of Kay’s dialogue, about Blanchard taking the shakedown money and leaving for Mexico:

“Lee was going to run away no matter what. I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again, and I wanted him to be comfortable, if such a thing was possible. He didn’t trust himself to deal with Emmett Sprague again, so I picked up the money. Dwight, he knew I was in love with you, and he wanted us to be together. That was one of the reasons he left.

The movie does not give us the information that Blanchard would leave through Kay. It gives us this through Madeleine, and she presents it as a taunt. Bleichert is very angry in his reaction:

A murderer? Of Lee Blanchard? You should thank me for Lee Blanchard. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have the balls to fuck your partner’s girl.

You don’t talk about them, okay?

Wait…I forgot. You don’t fuck her anymore…because you’d rather fuck me.

You don’t talk about them.

You chose me over her. You’ll choose me over him. He was going to take Daddy’s money and leave. Leave all of you.

BUCKY points gun at MADELEINE.

Blanchard feels tremendous anger towards his situation, towards Kay, who can have Bleichert when he cannot, and toward other women as well.

This anger about who he is shows up during the stag film.

The men are enjoying this movie, which has zero investigative purpose. Only Blanchard is seething with fury. He ends up stomping out of the detectives’ room while the film is playing. In the book, he is more demonstrative, and is given lines making clear why he is angry. His fury lies with the killer of this woman, like the killer of his sister, out there and uncaught:

I wanted to shut my eyes, but couldn’t. Next to me, Chief Horrall said calmly, “Russ, what do you think? You think this has got anything to do with the girl’s murder?”

Millard answered with a hoarse voice. “It’s a long shot, Chief. The movie was made in November and from what the Martilkova girl said, the Mexican doesn’t play as a killer. It’s got to be checked out, though. Maybe the Mex showed the movie to somebody, and _he_ got a case on Betty. What I–”

Lee kicked his chair over and shouted: “Who gives a fuck if he didn’t kill her! I’ve sent Boy Scouts to the green room for less than that! So if you won’t do something about it, I will!”

Everyone sat there, shock-stilled. Lee stood in front of the screen, blinking from the hot white light in his eyes. He wheeled and ripped the obscenity down; the screen and tripod hit the floor with a crash. Betty and Lorna continued their sex on a chalked-up blackboard; Lee took off running. I heard the projector knocked over in back of me; Millard yelled, “Bleichert, get him!”

In the aftermath, the emphasis for the outburst is placed on Blanchard’s drive to find the killer and his missing sister:

Loew had murder in his eyes. It hit me that Lee’s explosion came from his weird chastity, a week of death and dope and its pornographic capper. Safe myself, I put an arm around my partner’s shoulders. “Mr. Loew, it was just that goddamn movie. Lee thought the dykes here could give us a lead on the Mex.”

Loew hissed, “Bleichert, shut up,” then turned his velvet rage on Lee: “Blanchard, I got you Warrants. You’re my man, and you made me look like a fool in front of the two most powerful men in the Department. This is no lesbian killing, those girls were on drugs and hated it. Now I covered for you with Horrall and Green, but I don’t know how much good that will do you in the long run. If you weren’t _Mr.Fire, Big Lee Blanchard_, you’d be suspended from duty already. You’ve gotten personally involved in the Short case, and that’s an unprofessionalism I will not tolerate. You’re back on Warrants duty as of tomorrow morning. Report to me at 0800, and bring in formal letters of apology to Chief Horrall and Chief Green. For the sake of your pension, I advise you to grovel.”

Lee, his body limp, said, “I want to go to TJ to look for the smut man.”

Loew shook his head. “Under the circumstances, I would call that request ridiculous. Vogel and Koenig are going to Tijuana, you’re back on Warrants, and Bleichert, you’re to remain on the Short case. Good day, Officers.”

Loew stormed over to his black-and-white; the patrolman driver hung a U-turn out into traffic. Lee said, “I have to talk to Kay.” I nodded, and a sheriff’s patrol car cruised by, the passenger cop blowing kisses to the lezzies in the doorway. Lee walked to his car murmuring, “Laurie. Laurie, oh babe.”

In the film, Blanchard, while watching the stag flick, gets up and throws a film can to the floor. We have only this line from Lieutenant Green, no dialogue from Blanchard:

What’s that about gentlemen? The boy can’t hold his water?

In the locker room right after, no reference to anything to do with Blanchard’s sister or the murder case:

I got you warrants. You’re my men. You made me look like a fool in front of the most powerful man in the department. (to LEE) And you. Yeah, you. Look at me. Blanchard. LOOK. AT. ME!

BLANCHARD cannot look at LOEW.

If you weren’t Mr. Fire, you’d already be suspended from duty…you’re a punch drunk, washed up fighter…stay out of it Bleichert!


You’re back on warrants as of tomorrow. I want you to report to me at oh eight hundred with a letter of apology for Chief Green. You. Are. A POLITICAL ANIMAL! And for the sake of your pension, I suggest that you grovel.

The script’s emphasis on Blanchard looking at Loew, and Blanchard unable to meet his gaze, is, I think, a subtle, but important change from the novel. When we look into someone’s eyes, there is the greater possibility of revealing ourselves. Blanchard knows this, and is deeply afraid of what he might reveal of himself, something distinct from the Blanchard of the novel. If there is something histrionic in Loew’s speech in the film, I believe it’s by design, for Loew himself may be playing a part, having his own sense of what Blanchard’s action reveals. By L.A. Confidential, the third book of the quartet, Loew is revealed to clearly be gay:

Ed [Exley] laid a folder on his desk. “Sid Hudgens had a file on you. Contribution shakedowns, felony indictments you dismissed for money. He’s got the McPherson tank job documented, and Pierce Patchett had a photograph of you sucking a male prostitute’s dick. Resign from office or it all goes public.”

[Ellis] Loew–sheet white. “I’ll take you with me.”

The reaction of Blanchard to the movie may be similar to a scene that happens in another book of the L.A. Quartet, The Big Nowhere. Detective Danny Upshaw, as part of his undercover work, is to seduce Claire De Haven, a screenwriter, to get information on a labour union she’s connected with. The only problem is that Upshaw is gay, and De Haven has already figured this out:

Claire took his hand and led him through the kitchen to a room lined with bookcases, the front wall covered by a projection screen. A long leather couch faced the screen; a projector was mounted on a tripod a few feet behind it, a reel of film already fed in. Danny sat down; Claire hit switches, doused the lights and snuggled into him, legs curled under a swell of skirt. Light took over the screen, the movie started.

A test pattern; a black-and-white fade-in; a zaftig blonde and a Mexican with a duck’s ass haircut stripping. A motel room backdrop: bed, chipped stucco walls, sombrero lamps and a bullfight poster on the closet door. Tijuana, pure and simple.

Danny felt Claire’s hand hovering. The blonde rolled her eyes to heaven; she’d just seen her co-star’s cock–huge, veiny, hooked at the middle like a dowsing rod. She salaamed before him, hit her knees and started sucking. The camera caught her acne scars and his needle tracks. She sucked while the hophead gyrated his hips; he pulled out of her mouth and sprayed.

Danny looked away; Claire touched his thigh. Danny flinched, tried to relax but kept flinching; Claire fingered a ridge of coiled muscle inches from his stuff. Hophead screwed Pimples from behind, the insertion close in. Danny’s stomach growled–worse than when he was on a no-food jag. Claire’s hand kept probing; Danny felt himself shriveling–cold shower time where you shrunk down to nothing.

The blonde and the Mexican fucked with abandon; Claire kneaded muscles that would not yield. Danny started to cramp, grabbed Claire’s hand and squeezed it to his knee, like they were back at the jazz club and he was calling the shots. Claire pulled away; the movie ended with a close-up of the blonde and the Mex tongue-kissing.

Film snapped off the cylinder; Claire got up, hit the lights and exchanged reels. Danny uncramped into his best version of Ted Krugman at ease–legs loosely crossed, hands laced behind his head. Claire turned and said, “I was saving this for après bed, but I think we might need it now.”

A black screen; Danny going light-headed from holding his breath, sensing Claire’s eyes on him. Then all color footage, naked men circling each other just like the dogs, going for each other with sucking mouths, 69 close-ups, a pullback shot and Felix Gordean in a red devil costume, capering, prancing.

Danny got hard; Claire’s hand went there–like she knew. Danny squirmed, tried to shut his eyes, couldn’t and kept looking.

A quick cut; then Pretty Boy Christopher, naked and hard, pointing his thing at the camera, the head nearly eclipsing the screen like a giant battering ram, white background borders looking just like parted lips and teeth holding the image intact through rigor mortis–

Danny bolted, double-timed to the front of the house, found a bathroom and locked the door. He got his shakes chilled with a litany: BE A POLICEMAN BE A POLICEMAN BE A POLICEMAN.

This anger is part of why Blanchard chooses the Dahlia case over Raymond Nash; it is not just that the Dahlia is high profile because she is a white victim and Nash’s victims are non-white, it is because Blanchard has some understanding for a man who would hate a woman so much as to disfigure her, specifically to destroy her beauty, a beauty that could attract someone like Bleichert.

This expression of violence shows up near the end as well, and it serves as a good example of how the movie takes almost identical materials and changes them subtly, but radically. In the book, Madeleine’s sister, Margaret, out of hatred of her sibling, calls in a tip to the police, which leads to the blackmail attempt on the family:

I braced myself for the spooky stuff. “Martha, did you call the police with a tip on La Verne’s Hideaway?”

Martha lowered her eyes. “Yes.”

“Did you talk to–”

“I told the man about my dyke sister, how she met a cop named Bucky Bleichert at La Verne’s last night and had a date with him tonight. Maddy was gloating to the whole family about you, and I was jealous. But I only wanted to hurt her — not you.”

Lee taking the call while I sat across a desk from him in University squadroom; Lee going directly to La Verne’s when _Slave Girls From Hell_ drove him around the twist. I said, “Martha, you come clean on the rest of it.”

Martha looked around and clenched herself–legs together, arms to her sides, fists balled. “Lee Blanchard came to the house and told Father he’d talked to women at La Verne’s — lesbians who could tie Maddy in to the Black Dahlia. He said he had to leave town, and for a price he wouldn’t report his information on Maddy. Father agreed, and gave him all the money he had in his safe.”

In the story, when this tip is placed, Blanchard goes directly to this lesbian bar to find out about the film and the Dahlia killer:

Then Lee got out and pushed through the door of La Verne’s Hideaway. Worse panic made me stomp the brakes and fishtail the cruiser into the sidewalk; thoughts of Madeleine and evidence suppression raps propelled me into the dive after my partner.

Lee was facing off booths full of daggers and femmes, shouting curses. I flailed with my eyes for Madeleine and the barmaid I’d rousted; not seeing them, I got ready to cold cock my best friend.

“You fucking quiff divers seen a little movie called _Slave Girls From Hell_? You buy your stag shit from a fat Mex about forty? You–”

I grabbed Lee from behind in a full nelson and spun him around toward the door.

So, the first importance of the tip for Blanchard is information on the murderer of the Dahlia.

The movie takes this same plot turn, but tells it with much greater economy, and a small twist.

In the initial sequence, Blanchard asks for matches, and Bleichert tosses the matchbook from Laverne’s (rather than the book’s La Verne’s), the lesbian bar.

Blanchard sees Madeleine’s name written inside, sees that it is Laverne’s, and deduces that Madeleine and the Dahlia know each other.

When Bleichert replays the sequence in his head, however, there is an additional element, not in the novel:

Blanchard sees that it’s Laverne’s and the name Madeleine Linscott. He knows that the investigation involved lesbian bars. The culmination of these shots should be Madeleine’s name – that would be the most important element, if all that’s necessary for this sequence to convey is Blanchard getting the information that Madeleine, a customer of Laverne’s, might be connected with the Dahlia. Instead, the emphasis falls on Blanchard’s eyes moving back from the name to Bleichert, a focus on his menacing stare, the same stare of the New Year’s Eve party. The name is of importance to Bleichert because he wrote it down, and there must be a romantic coupling, because if this was simply the name of a suspect or witness he came across in one of these bars, he would have shared it with the investigation. Instead, he specifically keeps it out. Blanchard’s anger over this coupling, fulfilling something with Bleichert that he cannot fulfill, is the prime motivation for him going to the Linscott house, and beating Madeleine’s father so badly.

This does not entirely finish the subject of Blanchard, but the rest overlaps with the even more mysterious figure of the triangle, Kay Lake.


Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part Two


(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD.)


Where the book is about obsession with a single image, the Dahlia, the movie is about what men want from movies, and how the form and the characters are not exclusively developed for narrative purposes, but to satisfy these tastes. An example of this from another movie would be making some character a strip club owner, so we can have a scene in a strip club, which will have naked women running around. Another would be a beautiful actress taking her shirt off before a love scene, or other purposeless context – only for the edification of the men. I don’t give citation for these examples because they’re so ever present. Black Dahlia is about a murder victim who slept around and made a stag film, with another woman, her supposed double, who also sleeps around, and a good looking detective who has sex many times with both. It would be very easy for this film to use this as a context to sate simple appetites; instead, the movie turns things on their head, using the context as a vehicle to examine and play games with these same desires.

Let’s start with one of the first important changes in the movie. As said, in the book, Bleichert is something of a grotesque, having massive obvious buck teeth. In the movie, these are visible in the opening shot before the fight when he does a deep inhale:

Then, during the fight, these front teeth are graphically knocked out.

New, proper teeth are put in.

That his buck teeth make Bleichert into something of a grotesque comes up several times in the book:

I danced and counterpunched and hooked to the liver, always keeping my guard up, afraid that catching too many head shots would ruin my looks worse than my teeth already had.

“My girlfriend saw you fight at the Olympic and said you’d be handsome if you got your teeth fixed, and maybe you _could_ take me.” [Blanchard talking]

“You’d be very handsome if you got your teeth fixed.” [Kay talking]

Smiling without exposing my teeth, I said, “Hello.” [at the Sprague family dinner]

The kids noticed me first. I flashed my teeth at them until they started laughing. [at the school where Kay teaches]

So, the fight carries some of the fantastic, ridiculous qualities of movie violence. Not only do the effects of these blows disappear within days, but they make Bleichert better looking. He moves from a grotesque to a very handsome man without aberration.

As an actor for this role, Josh Hartnett was criticized as mis-cast and too blank. I think this misunderstands a critical quality of this part. He is supposed to be blank, so that a man might better project himself onto this figure, and so that he might better serve as a proxy for heroic deeds and sexual feats. It might be argued that this slight blankness, in combination with great looks, is a necessary part of being a leading man, because what is wanted is this projection, something not possible with faces of too distinct or eccentric feature, where the actor is that character, and it is impossible to imagine oneself as that man. Bleichert is our proxy, with a man perhaps imagining with some small step, some teeth fixed or small physical error repaired, he might well be this person.

Bleichert has the traditional role of an avatar, allowing the men in the audience the possibility of vicarious sexual conquest. The movie plays a simple game with this. Each time there is a scene involving sex, the audience is brought close before being reminded that we are outsiders, not Bleichert at all, simple voyeurs to this image:

The first scene with Madeleine, we follow Bleichert and her to the hotel, before the smeared glass comes between us:

The scene between Bleichert and Kay, they start to have sex on a table, and suddenly, we are outside the house, looking in:

And when Bleichert returns to Madeleine, we look on through the glass of the door.

In each of these scenes, the violence of the motions of caressing and removing clothes approaches, intentionally, camp. The gestures are ostentatious because they are acted out for the benefit of the audience, not out of any necessity to present something of the characters.

After the last mentioned scene with Madeleine, the viewer is again placed behind a barrier, looking down on Bucky and Madeleine through a veil:

Here, De Palma plays another little trick. There are countless movies where a nude woman turns over and gets up for no purpose other than to show some appetizing part of her body. Perhaps there is the expectation that something like this will happen here. But, no, it is not the woman, but Bleichert, naked, in a shot that adds nothing to the movie, other than the pleasure a body part might give, who gets out of bed and walks around. De Palma emphasizes that the only point of this is titillation, though not for straight men, by moving his camera to a conveniently located mirror. There is one other subtle visual point made here: De Palma rudely mooning the wants of a straight man.

In the mirror, he looks at his reflection, but also at us:

Subsequent to this scene, at the beginning of the next, Bleichert walks into the room and is looking off at something, but ends up looking straight into the camera. Both moments I read in one way: a character briefly wondering, am I being watched?

A similar game is played in the Lorna Mertz sequence. In the book, Lorna Martilkova (Mertz in the film), a past associate of the Dahlia, is spotted by a barman who calls it in to police, she runs out of the bar, the police give chase and Bleichert pins her to the ground, saying nothing in response to her protests. The scene, is very different for the movie, and I think the changes are, again, about the way men look at a movie.

It opens with Bleichert at the park reading a paper.

Something catches his attention.

However, it is something where he does not want the object to know he is looking at them, so he puts up the paper and lowers his hat.

We now get his perspective, that of a girl in a juvenile’s sailor costume. She is eating ice cream, and in one of those gestures that seem entirely designed for the edification of men, she lifts up her skirt to lick some ice cream that’s spilled on her leg.

I think there’s an obvious reason why Bleichert might have been staring in the first place, and why this image is there. I don’t think it’s for police purposes, because now the cast of his face shifts, and only then is there recognition that this girl is of importance to the investigation.

Another image that seems designed for our appetites, she licks off some ice cream that’s fallen under her shirt:

Now, Bleichert rises up from his seat:

She, not knowing who he is, is suddenly frightened of this man and starts to run:

He chases her about and holds her down:

His line after the chase, that gives this the observation of the girl the all-clear, is “I’m a police officer!” I don’t think this is some criticism of the power of police in society. It’s very much about the audience being given license to do certain things. Were Bleichert to look at this girl and he were a pedophile or other aberrant, the very possibility of edification would not be possible, because it would be through a deviant’s perspective. Here, the voyeurism is part of a criminal investigation, not for any essential part of the inquiry, but solely for the voyeurism itself.

De Palma explicitly states this when the stag movie is screened. It features Lorna and Betty topless and engaged in sex play, of which the audience is given a few seconds sight. We then move to the detectives looking at the film and get this dialogue.

What do you think, Russ? This got anything to do with the girl’s murder?

Long shot, chief.

The joke, of course, is that there is no purpose to what we just looked at. The detectives are not watching this for its critical importance in the investigation, and the audience has not been given a look at it for any need of story or character, but only to watch some women with their tops off roll around.

This stag film also has a visual punchline. The movie, as said, is told almost entirely from Buckey’s perspective, and we, as voyeurs, always travel with him, looking from his view or over his shoulder at the beautiful women he encounters. We associate ourselves with Bucky, in wanting to see the same things he wants to see, and we have no problems with associating ourselves with this handsome man. Whatever nudity we see, we see not as voyeurs, but as a natural part of the journey of his character. At the very end, however, we’re given a brief, unwelcome shift. We move to a flashback of the making of the stag film, and again, we are looking over someone’s shoulder at the nude women. Again, we immediately associate ourselves with the viewer, because we share wanting to see these things:

Then suddenly the angle shifts, and the figure who is our proxy is the disfigured grotesque Georgie. The erotic view is no longer that of a handsome detective, but an outsider scarred degenerate murderer. We are suddenly him, just as before, we were Bleichert:

The culmination of this, the most explicit examination of men looking at women in film, are the audition clips of Betty Short, conducted by an unseen director, voiced by the same Mr. De Palma who directed the movie we’re watching. They are the only points when we see her, they are entirely of the movie, with nothing of the kind in the book, serving no simple expository purpose. The clips do not give anything like the fuller sense of Short we have in the book through various witness interviews. They serve as a fractional view of her, but one that contrasts with the roles that Kay Lake and Madeleine Linscott play in the film. The interviews serve as an indictment of the audience, but also a self-indictment of the director. The sets of The Man Who Laughs serve also as the sets for the stag film, and De Palma presents himself as the worst sense of what directors can be, simple pimps procuring beautiful women for the delectation of their clientele. The doubling of the stag film and Man Who Laughs feels like an indictment of contemporary film itself, a question of at what point the medium becomes so debased, so simple a mechanism for sating the dullest tastes that it becomes indistinguishable from the artlessness of pornography?

A digression: we see the debased role of other actresses in the brief scene with Sheryl Saddon, Betty Short’s roommate. She waits in her room, looking out, the blinds like prison bars:

She is waiting for the casting truck, or cattle car, filled with female extras:

Of course, she is dressed as a slave girl.

The anonymous director procures these women for us, but he also performs another task: to reprimand them for being so beautiful, so distant from the men in the audience, he also punishes them by humiliating them, all in the guise of acting, or getting some insight into them. Betty Short gives a terrible performance as Scarlett O’Hara, then is made to crawl on the floor till she is close to tears, then finally, provides a personal story that is sneered at. This is all difficult to watch, but how different is it from the desire and counter desire in the entertainment industry then and now, which both demands attractive women, and then demands that they be humiliated or destroyed, a reprimand for the audacity of their beauty and fame. The audition clips are also a study in contrast, with Mia Kirshner luminescent in every frame, something like a silent movie actress, all while her character is laughed at for her shoddy acting.


A key visual theme that runs through the movie is ascent, and movement from a great height. There is, again, a slight trick played here. We associate a position at great height with something unreachable, but also with the great moral purity, the divine. Here, the point of great height is the very opposite of some moral peak, but rather, the pit of damnation. That the viewer of the film often has the perspective of one on a mountain top looking down does not provide any moral distance, but indicts him as equally culpable as those damned.

The best example of this would be the best known sequence of the film, where, for the only extended period, the camera leaves Bleichert’s perspective and travels on its own.

We start at the base of the Holden Pet Food store:

Then move to the top of the building. We, the audience, have the power of flight, just like the crows that caw on this roof.

We then move out from the roof, to the field where a woman has come across the body of Betty Short, then follow a car, then a bike, then Baxter Fitch and his girlfriend.

As a brief digression, the following quote by Joan Didion from her novel Democracy was appropriate for De Palma’s Femme Fatale, and it is appropriate here:

I know the conventions and how to observe them, how to fill in the canvas I have already stretched; know how to tell you what he said and she said know above all, since the heart of narrative is a certain calculated ellipsis, a tacit contract between writer and reader to surprise and be surprised, how not to tell you what you do not yet want to know.

The camera has given us this extraordinary freedom, that no other character has, to move about the neighborhood, but when it turns back to the car it leaves out the simple fragment of what is going on at the Pet Food store when Blanchard pulls out his gun: is someone firing at him, or did he fire first? We, the viewer, have been granted extraordinary power, yet it is arbitrary, with vital, simple images withheld, ones that we wish withheld for suspense.

Returning to that uninterrupted shot: that we pass over the building and the crows sound is not, I believe incidental. The viewer’s power of flight, to wish to swoop down on parts of this landscape is connected to the most vulgar aspect of the crow, which can also move about and land where it wishes.

The next time the crow appears in this sequence is here, after the discovery of Betty Short’s nude body when it lands and starts to peck at it. Not unlike some men, perhaps us, is how this crow travels, searching for some nude part to sight and feed on.

The position of the camera here makes obvious that our perspective of great height has nothing to do with some enlightened moral distance; it is entirely at the whim of the director. Before, we sailed freely through the air, far above the detectives and pimps. Now, we look up at the police from the perspective of Betty Short’s body, where, even crouched, they tower above us.

To make the association clear, the visual theme is repeated during the autopsy. We look down at the body at great height, just like one of the crows. Then we move closer and closer till we reach near where one of the crows pecked, then our view shifts, and we are looking up at the detectives, again level with Betty Short. That the gore of the Dahlia’s corpse is close within reach, but always kept away from our eyes, may be another game played on those who desire to look on such morbid things in a movie about a serial killer.

Two major sequences are set on winding stairs, the killing of Lee Blanchard at the Olympic, and the confession of Ramona Lincott. They continue the theme of ascent as descent, stairways to inferno that run up, rather than down.

Bobby De Witt starts at the bottom, then steadily moves up. At the very top of the stairs is Lee Blanchard, Georgie, and Madeleine Lincott.

At the Lincott mansion, Bleichert is at the base, Madeleine and Emmett are a landing up, with Ramona at the very top.

The killing of Baxter Fitch and associates takes place in a house with stairs, which the partners ascend.

The men take on the Black Dahlia case, which will take them away from Raymond Nash, when Blanchard lies that it’s being covered. It is after this that we see the men on the police station’s stairs mid-point. Bleichert protests here, but ultimately does nothing.

Finally, there is the theme of ascendance as damnation in the Blanchard house. The home is purchased through sinful works, blood money, corrupt acts, bribes and possibly even a bank robbery. In the novel, Kay relinquishes it because she cannot bear to have it on her conscience. Kay, as we’ll later look, is a different character in the movie than the book. Bleichert acquiring the house, Kay Lake, and the funds that come with it, completes his damnation, though visually, it’s entirely an ascent.

Kay, a deeply ambiguous figure, is a woman Bleichert badly wants. Both times when he sees her partially nude form is when she is in the bathroom at the top of the stairs.

That the bathroom is at the top of these stairs is not incidental. The bathroom is where money that Blanchard either stole from De Witt, or stole from the bank itself is buried.

The house has a set of stairs which he must climb.

The very last shot involves him walking up this set of stairs. The viewer has no sense of superiority over Bleichert; the camera’s perspective, the audience’s perspective, is already at the top of the steps as he makes this climb.


In the movie, the fight is set aside as an act of central importance. The entire opening scene of Bleichert in his training room is a lead-up to this sequence, before cutting back to when Bleichert and Blanchard first met. The book simply has the fight in plot sequence, while the film wishes to place special emphasis on this moment. Another key difference, connected with the first, is that in the novel, Bleichert arranges to throw the fight before deciding that he won’t, though he loses anyway.

From the book:

The crowd was chanting, “Buck-kee! Buck-kee! Buck-kee!” as I weaved to my corner. I spat out my mouthpiece and gasped for air; I looked out at the fans and knew that all bets were off, that I was going to pound Blanchard into dog meat and milk Warrants for every process and repo dollar I could get my hands on, put the old man in a home with that money and have the whole enchilada.

The film has Bleichert arranging to throw the fight, then provide a voice over which starts to imply he’ll double cross the bookies as well, before leading to a point that he, in fact, will throw the fight.

That the fight is set aside may be because it serves as an embodiment for everything that follows. The external conflict is not at all what it appears to be. The book’s Bleichert and Blanchard are moving in opposite directions, with Blanchard among the damned and Bleichert with the saved. This match suggests that they are actually moving towards the same end, though Blanchard may be unaware of it. There is also the quality of the rigged game, with the designated hero having to win, not because he is skilled, or even because he is good, but only because he is perceived as the good man. There is another aspect to this fight, but that lies with the ambiguous nature of Lee Blanchard, and I’ll leave it to later.

Among the consequences of the fight, as mentioned, is, improbably, that Bleichert becomes a better looking man. Another is that he now has the money to place his father in a rest home. In the book, this man is a despicable character who’s a member of the German Bund. The father of the novel being placed in a rest home that he’ll have to share with jews is sweet revenge. The movie changes this to a man who longs for the Europe left behind.

In the movie:

Englische ist scheisse! Amerikanische ist scheisse! ["English is shit! America is shit!"]

In the book:

I pulled the old man up into a standing position. He dropped the BB pistol and Expectolar pint and said, “Guten Tag, Dwight,” like he had just seen me the day before.

I brushed tears from my eyes. “Speak English, Papa.”

The old man grabbed the crook of his right elbow and shook his fist at me in a slapdash fungoo.

“Englisch Scheisser! Churchill Scheisser! Amerikanisch Juden Scheisser!” ["English is shit! Churchill is shit! American jews are shit!"]

When the father is left at the rest home in the novel:

For two grand a year and fifty a month deducted from his Social Security check, the old man would have his own room, three squares and plenty of “group activities.” Most of the oldsters at the home were Jewish, and it pleased me that the crazy Kraut was going to be spending the rest of his life in an enemy camp.

When the father is left at the rest home in the movie, it feels like a confirming detail of what might be the squalid lack of family closeness in the United States, as compared to Europe. When dropping him off at the rest home, Bleichert gives his father an encouraging look, you’ll like this, and his father returns a look that Bleichert reacts to with utter despair.

After throwing this fight and leaving his father behind, we might think there would be a visual note of Bleichert’s descent. But no: as mentioned, the movie acts in reverse. In the scene following the fight and the rest home, he is shot from his balcony, far above the street, far above Blanchard.


A strange detail that many reviews comment on is that while the novel makes clear that Madeleine and the Dahlia are near twins, and in the movie various characters comment on the resemblance between the two, Madeleine (Hillary Swank) and the Dahlia (Mia Kirshner), obviously, visually, look nothing alike. That it would be no difficulty to cast the same actress in both roles, or very similar looking women in both roles then provokes the question, why cast two women who look nothing alike as virtual twins?

There are several games, I think, being played here. The first, is that these characters, in a movie made in our time, who in many ways entirely resemble us, do not see things entirely as we do, though we may see the very same things. Ellroy, in his other novels, quickly establishes the divide between his police characters and the contemporary reader, by having them freely use racial epithets and often talk about men and women of certain races as subhuman. The reader may consider individual acts of the characters as heroic, but almost immediately, an easy identification is destroyed.

The only example of this is the film’s portrayal of Ellis Loew, the district attorney, or in the words of the police, the “jew DA”. Almost all of the book’s epithets have been scrubbed, except this one. Loew throughout the quartet is a venal opportunist. The movie’s transformation of him into a shallow grotesque suggests less a surrender to the views of the characters in the book, and more an attempt to create a compromise: can such a grotesque truly be real, or is it a creation of the characters’ perspectives? A tip of the hat to the latter appears in the last scene with Loews. We keep switching to Bleichert’s perspective, seeing Loew as a vindictive martinet throughout, chastising him for Blanchard’s absence.

Now, our last shot of Loew from Bleichert’s perspective, the “jew DA” looms large, entirely a grotesque, his semitic marker, an oversized nose poking into the camera. This, is how Bleichert sees this man, not just an opportunistic DA, but an opportunistic “jew DA”.

Another is to question the movie’s assumptions that it might present as absent of doubt. That characters at the end of a film are young and good-looking, in love and with money, should not imply that they are without malice or that the victory is noble. If a man positioned as the hero in a story kills someone, it should not be assumed that the killing is necessarily righteous.

That the movie will present things that are not what they are, blatantly, is done quite clearly in another instance. The photo of Elizabeth Short, as part of an attempt to get leads for her murder, is publicized as the “Black Dahlia”, a play on the then contemporary movie The Blue Dahlia because of the dark dresses she wears.

The flower in her hair, however, which I believe is a dahlia, is not black at all, but white, in almost every photo. We see it in the collage of photos of Short at Bleichert’s apartment:

It is one of these photos that is used for the front page story that gives the Black Dahlia her name. It can be glimpsed in this shot:

So, the movie is somehow able to convince the viewer that white is black.

All this should not be taken that Madeleine is without a double. She has a double, but it’s not Betty Short. It’s Bleichert.

This, I think, is only obvious in the last minutes of the film, when we see Madeleine in her man’s suit which others have seen her in, but we only see now. I have Bleichert in outfit next to her for comparison and contrast.

There is also, I think, a very clear point when Bleichert realizes he is Madeleine’s double.

They are lying together in bed, face to face:

She tells him that she once had sex with Elizabeth Short because she wanted to know what it was like to sleep with someone who looked just like her. In the book, it is this revelation that disturbs Bleichert. He can’t handle this idea:

I slid over to where I could eyeball Madeleine up close. Her lipstick was a bloody disarray, and I daubed at it with the pillow. “Babe, I’m withholding evidence for you. It’s a fair trade for what I’m getting, but it still spooks me. So you be damn sure you come clean. I’ll ask you one time. Is there anything you haven’t told me about you and Betty and Linda?”

Madeleine ran her fingers down my rib cage, exploring the welt scars I’d gotten in the Blanchard fight. “Sugar, Betty and I made love once, that one time we met last summer. I just did it to see what it would be like to be with a girl who looked so much like me.”

I felt like I was sinking; like the bed was dropping out from under me. Madeleine looked like she was at the end of a long tunnel, captured by some kind of weird camera trick. She said, “Bucky, that’s all of it, I swear that’s all of it,” her voice wobbling from deep nowhere. I got up and dressed, and it was only when I strapped on my .38 and cuffs that I felt like I’d quit treading quicksand.

Madeleine pleaded, “Stay, sugar, stay”; I went out the door before I could succumb.

The movie handles in a slightly different way. Madeleine tells Bleichert, “Betty and I made love once that one time last summer”.

Bleichert cracks up. He’s not bothered at all by this revelation.

Then there is a slight change to the book’s dialogue. The line in the book is, “I just did it to see what it would be like to be with a girl who looked so much like me”, all part of the line about Betty Short. The movie’s dialogue is, “I just did it to see what it would be like to do it with someone who looked like me”, and puts it after Bleichert laughs. It is after she says this line, that he turns to her, sees something in her face literally, and then the revelation hits him, disturbing him so much that he shoots out of bed, very scared.

He starts to leave, she begs him to stay: “Bucky, please stay.” He then says the line, not in the book, “You stupid slut.” Then, she begs him to stay, again: “Stay, sugar, stay.” He leaves anyway.

Madeleine is Bleichert’s dark half, a twin who acts in ways he will not and does the things he wants, but which he will not permit himself. She is the one who initiates sex with him, rather than the other way around. Bleichert wants Kay Lake and the house, subconsciously wants Blanchard out of the way, perhaps finds Blanchard in an inconvenience for another reason, and it is Madeleine who kills him. She acts as the agent of his own hidden desires, which might make her something like his “Black Angel”. Her very identity is introduced in the Pantages marquee that we see right before the scenes in the lesbian clubs and her entrance.

Finally, Madeleine travels among men and women equally, having sex with both. This is what frightens Bleichert most about Madeleine; if she is an equal mirror, than they share this attribute as well, though she acts on it, while he represses it.

All these qualities, especially the last, are what make Madeleine so deeply disturbing to Bleichert. After he rushes out of the hotel bedroom, he stays away, only lured back much later, in an image where Madeleine stands at the balcony of her mansion like some gothic phantom:

Madeleine’s final scene is her taunting Bleichert about their twinship, and their polarities. She acts as she wants, he does not.

I think you’d rather fuck me than kill me. But you don’t have the guts to do either. You’re a boxer, not a fighter.

You’re a murderer. Of my partner.

A murderer? Of Lee Blanchard? You should thank me for Lee Blanchard. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have the balls to fuck your partner’s girl.

For Bleichert, there is something taboo about speaking ill of Kay and Blanchard, a defamation of the temple. There are two aspects of the movie Black Dahlia, in the first, two men, one in a perfect marriage with a beautiful woman, are on a modern day quest, the hunt for a killer of a beautiful woman, Elizabeth Short; the other is of a man drawn to a woman, his twin, who states that everything in this other plot is false. Blanchard is a crooked cop and a wicked man with no loyalty for either Bleichert or Kay, a man Bleichert is grateful his twin killed. The nihilism of Madeleine is how Hollywood operates, how the LAPD operates, and it is closer to how Bleichert, who throws a fight and ultimately accepts a house bought with stolen money, operates as well, though he would dearly like to believe he does not. There is also something of a sexual netherworld that he chooses when he is with Madeleine instead of Kay, a place of neither here nor there, of a dissolution in gender.

You don’t talk about them, okay?

Wait…I forgot. You don’t fuck her anymore…because you’d rather fuck me.

You don’t talk about them.

You chose me over her. You’ll choose me over him. He was going to take Daddy’s money and leave. Leave all of you.

BUCKY points gun at MADELEINE.

You’ll never shoot me. Don’t forget who I look like.


She isn’t just taunting him with her resemblance to the Dahlia, which only the characters of the movie see, but her resemblance to him. It is also necessary, however, to imagine her for how she’s seen by the characters in the movie, as a virtual double for the Dahlia, an image whose destruction they have committed themselves to resolve. Madeleine says all the noble ideals of their lives are ridiculous; if Bleichert kills her, he will end up destroying these illusions anyway, because he will himself be destroying this sacred image again. His only excuse then would be that this image has nothing to do with reality, but this now could well be said of the idealized exterior and actual details of the lives of Kay and Blanchard. The intentional irony of this, of course, is that, to the viewer’s eyes, Madeleine looks nothing like the sacred image of the Dahlia. The scene moves to its conclusion:

Because that girl, that sad, dead, bitch. She’s all you have.



I end this part by noting that of all the women in the movie, Madeleine is the one who moves with the greatest freedom. She has sex with who she wants. She is the only one who is able take on all the privileges of a man, when she puts on a suit. In the book, Madeleine kills Blanchard by manipulating other men through her sexual powers. The movie has her killing him herself, in cold blood. She may be wicked, but I see her as a good less cruel than, say, Blanchard. Her house is built on corrupt money, but so is Blanchard’s. She may have helped cover up evidence leading to the killer of the Dahlia, but so did Blanchard. She has the blood on her hands of one man, Blanchard has that of many.

She killed Blanchard, but this is a man who beat her father for shakedown money. In doing so, she acted not as a woman is expected, but like a man. According to the very code that Bleichert holds to, the misdeeds of her father are irrelevant, just as the misdeeds of his partner are irrelevant. Emmett was her father. Blanchard was his partner. When they are hurt or killed, there must be vengeance. I do not say whether this is a good or bad code, only that if it is the code Bleichert cites for killing her, it is the very same code by which she operates as well.


Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia, James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia Part One


(This post contains spoilers for the movie The Black Dahlia, as well as the novel by James Ellroy. On March 26th, 2014, the pictures on this series of posts were updated with richer, larger images that were also, unfortunately, no longer theatrical widescreen, due to the cropping on the DVD. I was quite out of sorts when I first published this, and there were many errors of grammar that lay extant until it was re-edited on March 27th, 2014. My apologies to anyone who had to deal with it beforehand.)

An example of a movie making small changes in certain details to a book that transform it into something entirely different. This post is an attempt at examining those changes, why I think the novel works so extraordinarily well, and trying to get at the crux of the movie, which may be a failure, but one which I find to be a fascinating, inscrutable, enigmatic one.

Laying a few cards on the table, I think Brian De Palma is a director whose movies are as distinct from others the way a rapturous, frightening dream is different from an unenthusiastic puppet show. He, along with David Lynch, is one of those men who I do not wish to imagine the movies without, any more than I want to imagine a world that never moved past oil portraits. He is, I think, falsely saddled with the reputation of a film-maker who hates women and likes to hurt them on-screen, when he does something entirely different. The taboo De Palma violates is not that of hurting or humiliating women in his movies, for there is no such taboo, it is a commonplace; the taboo he violates is that sympathetic women are hurt or killed, in circumstances that in other movies are usually the basis for heroic fantasy, but here the male hero is unable to prevent her suffering and death, such as Casualties of War or complicit in her suffering and death, such as Blow Out. Again and again, De Palma makes movies which have serious questions about what men expect in movies, the fantasies the movies feed, and each time he receives the same reward for his inquiries, one more variation on the review headline, “Another Sadistic Piece Of Garbage From Misogynist Brian De Palma”.

So, I don’t say cavalierly that I think the Black Dahlia feels like a movie of extraordinary contempt, contempt for the audience, contempt for what movies have become, contempt for the fantasies people have about movies themselves; it is not contempt that is easy or stupid, but one of extraordinary focus and design, of a brilliant craftsman, something akin to Sam Peckinpah in Straw Dogs, a man fulfilling certain fantasies for the audience, hating the audience for those fantasies, and asking, is this the best this vivid mess of images is capable of, fulfilling our cheap ideas of vengeance? Like Straw Dogs, I think it’s possible to consider The Black Dahlia brilliant, as well as a deeply disturbing and repellent movie at the same time.

I don’t think Black Dahlia has the same seamless build of Dogs, yet every shot demonstrates incredible skill, and its conception, including the crucial changes to the novel, has been well thought out, even if this conception is ultimately a failure. The movie takes the single story of the novel, and turns it into two stories, a superficial narrative on top about the chase for a serial killer, and another beneath: if the topmost story were more compelling, the movie would have been a greater box office success; if the secondary story were less subtle, and more obvious to viewers, it would have been praised as an avant-garde masterpiece – instead it received neither laurel. It’s a work of a genius, but I don’t think I like it, though it’s so full of bitterness, I think it would wear my dislike for a crown.

An initial note: it might be the most cynical movie De Palma has ever made, surpassing both Bonfire of the Vanities and Scarface. Scarface at least is quite clearly about an obvious villain, and that he is almost wholely evil may even be a comfort that the wickedness of the world lies entirely with thugs like these, not the petty sins of ordinary men and women. Bonfire is clearly a satire, and we expect any one to be treated cruelly in this form. Dahlia is something different, outwardly the tale of a heroic figure who, though flawed, is ultimately good, doing just work and finding sanctuary in the home of another victim. I say outwardly, because I think through the fiddling of a few details – with very specific intent, not out of clumsiness – De Palma has entirely changed the trajectory of Ellroy’s novel, of protagonists moving from damnation to salvation, to entirely the reverse. He condemns his characters, Lee Blanchard, Bucky Bleichert and Kay Lake, but his condemnation is not just limited to them, but the audience and their naive fantasies as well.

I preface what is a very lengthy analysis by saying it is entirely absent of abstract theoretical language; I find the best, most insightful analysis looks at narrative works in detail, and why their details are there, rather than grouping them from a distance as belonging to this or that category of ideas. Those with a taste for a more theory heavy look can find it with this John Demetry post, at Revolution To Revelation. I also offer a strong caveat: as a book, I think The Black Dahlia is direct in what it is about, while the movie, despite belonging to two genres that are expected to be forthright, the serial killer chase and film noir, is very ambiguous, and I present my hypotheses as tenuous possibilities. Perhaps the closest to come to some of them would be Keith Uhlich, in his piece “Ghost World” at Reverse Shot. If the director Brian De Palma is sincere in his answers in this invaluable interview conducted by Jeremy Smith, then some of these hypotheses are wrong. I start with a long, but necessary, look at the original novel.


The book is a story of redemption, of Dwight Bleichert, whose father is a member of the German Bund and Reich sympathizer, and a man who has betrayed his Japanese American friends, Sam Murakami and Hideo Ashida, in order to get a position with the LAPD. Importantly, he is something of a grotesque: he has buck teeth, the reason for his nickname, and which he has never had the money to fix. He joins up with Lee Blanchard, a cop, who he looks up to as a heroic ideal. When the police department holds a fight to publicize a bond issue, Bleichert betrays bookies and refuses to throw it; he loses anyway, and the payments are made, but this refusal is his first act toward redemption. He now has the money to put his senile father in a group home, taking glee in the fact that this racist man now has to sit together and eat with jews. Blanchard and Bleichert become friends, with Bleichert looking to Blanchard as an older, noble brother. He also starts to fall in love with Blanchard’s wife, Kay, a mysterious, brilliant woman.

The two partners become involved in the Betty Short murder case (named the Black Dahlia by a newspaper for her dark clothes, playing off the title of the contemporary film The Blue Dahlia), with both becoming obsessed with it. For Blanchard, the Black Dahlia is connected with his sister, kidnapped and killed at a young age, and resolving this investigation becomes a way of bringing justice where no justice was done in this earlier, unsolved mystery. For Bleichert, the obsession is erotic: he becomes infatuated not with the Black Dahlia as she lived, but the Black Dahlia as an image, apart from life. Bleichert wishes to somehow re-create this image in life, and his desire is fulfilled when he meets Madeleine Sprague, a woman who consciously re-makes herself into the image of the Dahlia, becoming her living twin*.

As the story progresses, Bleichert gets more and more erotically obsessed with the Dahlia and Madeleine; it also becomes clear that Blanchard is nothing like his heroic exterior, but is a deeply corrupt cop. The book develops into an examination of two illusions and the people who become these illusions, and surpass them. Bleichert ends up a better cop than Blanchard ever was. The Dahlia, who was a lousy actress who had sex as a desperate respite from loneliness, is surpassed by Madeleine, a woman who is a gifted mimic who revels in sex and her new image, that of the dead girl. The attraction of the Dahlia is also an intersection with the now ubiquitous culture of fame, fame exclusively through an image, rather than any achievement. Though Betty Short was entirely unknown as a performer or individual, the image of the Dahlia becomes known throughout Los Angeles, and it is the ubiquity of this image, that so many other men lust for this image, that makes Bleichert want it even more. This is something that plagues every well-known, beautiful actress: a woman who is not just beautiful, but a beauty ever present in the dreams of men, Liz Taylor or Scarlett Johansson. A line from Ellroy’s Dahlia sequel, The Big Nowhere, is apt: “Downtown came and went; the woman stayed.”

The bulk of the book are interviews by Bleichert and associates with those who knew the Dahlia, and are possible suspects. The Dahlia herself never appears as a character; we only get a distant sense of her through the words of others. In this context, Madeleine as the Dahlia creates an uncanny image: the woman is dead, yet here she is, more alive than ever. Whatever the complexities and detours of the plot, which causes Bleichert to move about among possible interviews, it holds together through his obsession with the Dahlia. Despite all the busy plotting, the focus always returns to this point.

A key sequence is when Blanchard disappears in Mexico. It is Bleichert’s search for his partner, his discovery of the body, which mirrors Bleichert’s own unresolved search for his missing sister. For it to properly mirror Bleichert’s search, Blanchard must be missing, he cannot die on-screen, and his body must be found. It serves as another point in Bleichert’s redemption, and his superceding of his flawed mentor.

The search for Blanchard and the discovery of the body is crucial to the book. It is given, rightly, a holy aspect. It’s the best piece of writing in The Black Dahlia, and possibly the best piece of writing in the entire quartet.

Bleichert searches for Blanchard’s body with a private detective he doesn’t trust, Milton Dolphine:

The burial ground was ten miles south of Ensenada, just off the coast road on a bluff overlooking the ocean. A big, burning cross marked the spot. Dolphine pulled up next to it and killed the engine. “It’s not what you think. The locals keep the damn thing lit up because they don’t know who’s buried there, and lots of them have got missing loved ones. It’s a ritual with them. They burn the crosses, and the Rurales tolerate it, like it’s some kind of panacea to keep the great unwashed gun-shy.”

Dolphine got out of the car, walked around and popped open the trunk. I followed, watching him remove a large earth spade. Flame glow illuminated the PI’s old Dodge coupe; I noticed a pile of fence pickets and rags next to the spare tire. Tucking the .38 into my waistband, I fashioned two torches out of them, wrapping the rags around the ends of the posts, then igniting them in the cross. Handing one to Dolphine, I said, “Walk ahead of me.”

We strode into the sand pit, outlaws holding fireballs on a stick. The softness made the going slow; torchlight let me pick out grave offerings–little bouquets and religious statues placed atop dunes here and there. Dolphine kept muttering how gringos got dumped on the far side; I felt bones cracking beneath my feet. We reached an especially high drift, and Dolphine waved his torch at a tattered American flag spread out on the sand.

A putrid smell rose from a big crater at our feet. “Dig,” I said. Dolphine went at it; I thought of ghosts–Betty Short and Laurie Blanchard–waiting for the shovel to hit bones. The first time it did I recited a psalm the old man had force-fed me; the second time, it was the “Our Fathers” that Danny Boylan used to chant before our sparring sessions. When Dolphine said, “Sailor. I can see his jumper,” I didn’t know if I wanted Lee alive and in grief or dead and nowhere–so I pushed Dolphine aside and shoveled myself.

My first blow sheared off the sailor’s skull, my second tore into the front of his tunic, pulling the torso free from the rest of the skeleton. The legs were in crumbled pieces; I shoveled past them into plain sand glinting with mica. Then it was maggot nests and entrails and a blood-mattted crinoline dress and sand and odd bones and nothing–and then it was sunburned pink skin and blond eyebrows covered with stitch scars that looked familiar. Then Lee was smiling like the Dahlia, with worms creeping out of his mouth and the holes where his eyes used to be.

Blanchard took on the quest for the killer of the Dahlia to somehow resolve the loss of his sister, but also to redeem himself for the corruption he engaged in for so long – but his own quest became corrupted. He discovered that Madeleine had a relationship with the Dahlia, and used this information to shake down her father for money. Bleichert takes up the quest now entirely on his own, but he does so with a purity that is another step in his penitence. Brutality and coercion are a common place in the LAPD of the novel’s time (perhaps not only of the novel’s time), but Bleichert breaks from these tactics, putting himself in opposition to one of the most brutal cops, Fritzie Vogel.

Eventually, Bleichert discovers that those behind the Dahlia’s murder are Madeleine’s mother, and the mother’s former boyfriend. The choice of these people for the killers is not arbitrary but vital. Bleichert, as said before, is something of a grotesque, marked by his buck teeth. The Spragues (Linscotts in the movie), Madeleine’s family, are divided between those who are marked by beauty and power, respectively, Madeleine and her father, Emmett, and those who are marked by their lack of beauty. There is Ramona Sprague, the mother, a fat, flaccid woman who was married for her money, Madeleine’s sister Martha, pudgy and marked by bad skin, and, most importantly, Georgie Tilden, her mother’s boyfriend: he was a good-looking man, a heroic veteran of the first World War, and Madeleine’s real father. Emmett, after discovering Madeleine’s paternity, cut up Georgie’s face, turning him into a grotesque, and causing him to lose his mind. So, Ramona and Georgie are like Bleichert in that they are in various ways physically marred, they don’t possess the beauty of Madeleine or the Dahlia. Georgie, obsessed with the image of Betty Short, wanted to sleep with her, just as Bleichert was obsessed with her. Ramona ends up killing this woman for her resemblance to Madeleine because among the men Madeleine sleeps with is Emmett: she hates Betty Short as a romantic rival and for her resemblance to a romantic rival. As grotesques, they are transfixed and envious of this beauty, and want to destroy it. That they disfigure her by cutting at her mouth, and that Bleichert’s disfigurement is in his mouth, I do not believe is trivial.

Bleichert does not kill any of those involved except Georgie; that he shows mercy is part of his path to redemption, and partly, I believe, because he sees some of the same harmful qualities in himself as in the killers. I stress the details of this ending, because, though it is very baroque, it is of a piece with what’s come before, with the obsessions of the hero and the killers converging. Bleichert discovers that Madeleine was behind the death of Blanchard, that she had him killed after he shook down her father for blackmail money; she has already passed through the book earlier while on this mission, in a disguise Bleichert does not unveil at the time, of a beautiful mexican woman.

The book ends with Bleichert redeemed. Kay has left for Massachusetts, leaving the house in Los Angeles bought with money from Blanchard’s corrupt activities, and the last sentences have Bleichert descending from the clouds in his flight to join her.

I mention some of the more prominent details of the book so as to make obvious the small changes the movie makes and why they make such a difference in why the movie does not work in ways the book does, but how the subject of the book and the movie are very different.

* A quote that applies to both Madeleine and the Dahlia is the following, from Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age: “She had the fatal gift of beauty, and that more fatal gift which does not always accompany mere beauty, the power of fascination, a power that may, indeed, exist without beauty.”


Images and Screenplay Copyright Universal Pictures, Millennium Films, Equity Pictures, and associated producers.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Last Note From Milan Kundera On Kafka

This post overlaps with, and serves as a complimentary fragment to the posts here and here. I quote so much from Milan Kundera because his investigations are so diligent, and his findings sound so truly. As always, this is from The Art of the Novel.

First, an anecdote:

In one of his books, my friend Josef Skvorecky tells this true story:

An engineer from Prague is invited to a professional conference in London. So he goes, takes part in the proceedings, and returns to Prague. Some hours after his return, sitting in his office, he picks up Rude Pravo – the official daily paper of the Party – and reads: A Czech engineer, attending a conference in London, has made a slanderous statement about his socialist homeland to the Western press and has decided to stay in the West.

Illegal emigration combined with a statement of that kind is no trifle. It would be worth twenty years in prison. Our engineer can’t believe his eyes. But there’s no doubt about it, the article refers to him. His secretary coming into his office, is shocked to see him: My God, she says, you’re back! I don’t understand – did you see what they wrote about you?

The engineer sees fear in his secretary’s eyes. What can he do? He rushes to the Rude Pravo office. He finds the editor responsible for the story. The editor apologizes; yes, it really is an awkward business, but he, the editor, has nothing to do with it, he got the text of the article direct from the Ministry of the Interior.

So the engineer goes off to the Ministry. There they say yes, of course, it’s all a mistake, but they, the Ministry, have nothing to do with it, they got the report on the engineer from the intelligence people at the London embassy. The engineer asks for a retraction. No, he’s told, they never retract, but nothing can happen to him, he has nothing to worry about.

But the engineer does worry. He soon realizes that all of a sudden he’s being closely watched, that his telephone is tapped, and that he’s being followed in the street. He sleeps poorly and has nightmares until, unable to bear the pressure any longer, he takes a lot of real risks to leave the country illegally. And so he actually becomes an émigré.

Then: a precise detailing of what might be meant by the “Kafkan”, and further notes on Kafka’s prophecies.

The story I’ve just told is one that would immediately call Kafkan…But what is the Kafkan?

Let’s try to describe some of its aspects:


The engineer is confronted by a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth. He can never get to the end of its interminable corridors and will never succeed in finding out who issued the fateful verdict. He is therefore in the same situation as Joseph K. before the Court, or the Land-Surveyor K. before the Castle. All three are in a world that is nothing but a single, huge labyrinthine institution they cannot escape and cannot understand.

Novelists before Kafka often exposed institutions as areas where conflicts between different personal and public interests were played out. In Kafka the institution is a mechanism that obeys its own laws; no one knows now who programmed those laws or when; they have nothing to do with human concerns an are thus unintelligible.


In Chapter Five of The Castle, the village Mayor explains in detail to K. the long history of his file. Briefly: Years earlier, a proposal to engage a land-surveyor came down to the village from the Castle. The Mayor wrote a negative response (there was no need for any land-surveyor), but his reply went astray to the wrong office, and so after an intricate series of bureaucratic misunderstandings, stretching over many years, the job offer was inadvertently sent to K., at the very moment when all the offices involved were in the process of canceling the old obsolete proposal. After a long journey, K. thus arrived in the village by mistake. Still more: Given that for him there is no possible world other than the Castle and its village, his entire existence is a mistake.

In the Kafkan world, the file takes on the role of a Platonic idea. It represents a true reality, whereas man’s physical existence is only a shadow cast on the screen of illusion. Indeed, both the Land-Surveyor K. and the Prague engineer are but the shadows of their file cards; and they are even much less than that: they are the shadows of a mistake in the file, shadows without even the right to exist as shadows.


Raskolnikov cannot bear the weight of his guilt, and to find peace he consents to his punishment of his own free will. It’s the well-known situation where the offense seeks the punishment.

In Kafka the logic is reversed. The person punished does not know the reason for the punishment. The absurdity of the punishment is so unbearable that to find peace the accursed needs to find justification for his penalty: the punishment seeks the offense.


The tale of the Prague engineer is in the nature of a funny story, a joke: it provokes laughter.

Two gentlemen, perfectly ordinary fellows (not “inspectors” as in the French translation), surprise Joseph K. in bed one morning, tell him he is under arrest, and eat up his breakfast. K. is a well-disciplined civil servant: instead of throwing the men out of his flat, he stands in his nightshirt and gives a lengthy self-defense. When Kafka read the first chapter of The Trial to his friends, everyone laughed, including the author.

In speaking of the microsocial practices that generate the Kafkan, I mean not only the family but alo the organization in which Kafka spent all his adult life: the office.

In the bureaucratic world of the functionary, first, there is no initiative, no invention, no freedom of action; thee are only orders and rules: it is the world of obedience.

Second, the functionary performs a small part of a large administrative activity whose aim and horizons he cannot see: it is the world where actions have become mechanical and people do not know the meaning of what they do.

Third, the functionary deals only with unknown persons and with files: it is the world of the abstract.

To place a novel in this world of obedience, of the mechanical, and of the abstract, where the only human adventure is to move from one office to another, seems to run counter to the very essence of epic poetry. Thus the question: How has Kafka managed to transform such gray, antipoetical material into fascinating novels?

The answer can be found in a letter he wrote to Milena: “The office is not a stupid institution; it belongs more to the realm of the fantastic than of the stupid.” The sentence contains one of Kafka’s greatest secrets. He saw what no one else could see: not only the enormous importance of the bureaucratic phenomenon for man, for his condition and for his future, but also (even more surprisingly) the poetic potential contained in the phantasmic nature of offices.

But what does it mean to say the office belongs to the realm of the fantastic?

The Prague engineer would understand: a mistake in his file projected him to London; so he wandered around Prague, a veritable phantom, seeking his lost body, while the offices he visited seemed to him a boundless labyrinth from some unknown mythology.

The quality of the fantastic that he perceived in the bureaucratic world allowed Kafka to do what had seemed unimaginable before: he transformed the profoundly antipoetic material of a highly bureaucratized society into the great poetry of the novel; he transformed a very ordinary story of a man who cannot obtain a promised job (which is actually the story of The Castle) into myth, into epic, into a kind of beauty never before seen.

By expanding a bureaucratic setting to the gigantic dimensions of a universe, Kafka unwittingly succeeded in creating an image that fascinates us by its resemblance to a society he never knew, that of today’s Prague [Art of the Novel was published in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed, Czechoslovakia still existed, and Prague was behind the iron curtain].

A totalitarian state is in fact a single, immense administration: since all work in it is for the state, everyone of every occupation has become an employee. A worker is no longer a worker, a judge no longer a judge, a shopkeeper no longer a shopkeeper, a priest no longer a priest; they are all functionaries of the State. “I belong to the Court,” the priest says to Joseph K. in the Cathedral. In Kafka, the lawyers, too, work for the Court. A citizen in today’s Prague does not find that surprising. He would get no better legal defense than K. did. His lawyers don’t work for defendants either, but for the Court.

In a cycle of one hundred quatrains that sound the gravest and most complex depths with an almost childlike simplicity, the great Czech poet [Jan Skacel] writes:

Poets don’t invent poems
The poem is somewhere behind
It’s been there for a long long time
The poet merely discovers it.

For the poet, then, writing means breaking through a wall behind which something immutable (“the poem”) lies hidden in darkness. That’s why (because of this surprising and sudden unveiling) “the poem” strikes us first as a dazzlement.

Kafka made no prophecies. All he did was see what was “behind.” He did not know that his seeing was also a fore-seeing. He did not intend to unmask a social system. He shed light on the mechanisms he knew from private and microsocial human practice, not suspecting that later developments would put those mechanisms into action on the great stage of History.

The hypnotic eye of power, the desperate search for one’s own offense, exclusion and the anguish of being excluded, the condemnation to conformism, the phantasmic nature of reality and the magical reality of the file, the perpetual rape of private life, etc. – all these experiments that History has performed on man in its immense test tubes, Kafka performed (some years earlier) in his novels.

The convergence of the real world of totalitarian states with Kafka’s “poem” will always be somewhat uncanny, and it will always bear witness that the poet’s act, in its very essence, is incalculable; and paradoxical: the enormous social, political, and “prophetic” import of Kafka’s novels lies precisely in their “nonengagement,” that is to say, in their total autonomy from all political programs, ideological concepts, and futurological prognoses.

Tagged , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 82 other followers