On a Toaster, Wordsworth, and Phallic Daffodils

“Oh, for the love of God! Shut up and just watch the movie!” 

This is a sentence that I hear rather regularly when watching a film in company. After 5 years of studying British literature and culture, my brain seems to have developed a few extra cells which instantly try to decipher the symbolic codes of movies and books and which hugely annoy other people. To me, everything becomes a riddle that wants to be solved. When I was watching Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island with a few friends, they started complaining about the poor quality of the special effects. I really put on an effort to tame my inner academic freak, who was already frantically jumping around inside my head wanting to throw film studies companions and his oversized nerd glasses at them. Yet after 15 minutes of having had to listen to them slandering Scorsese’s work, I simply had to tell them that I read the deliberate unrealism of the special effects as a comment on the intricacy of the border between reality and fiction thus reduplicating the main features of the plot in its visual representation.

Well… What can I say: They stared at me open-mouthed for about 10 seconds and then wholeheartedly continued railing against the movie.  

I certainly tend to overthink but what if I am right? What if Scorsese really intended to hint at the plot closure by making use of visual means? What if Freud was right and Hamlet really suffered from a severe oedipus complex? What if ideology critique is right and the Sherlock Holmes stories are less about the value of rational thinking than about its limitations in a western centered, logocentric, patriarchal society?

In 1967 literary critic E. D. Hirsch published his notorious book entitled The Validity of Interpretation, in which he claimed that the author had a clear intention when producing a work of art which can be decoded by the reader. The implication is that there is one valid interpretation of a work which directly mirrors the author’s intentions and which can be found out by closely studying the author.

When a friend of mine showed me a short film that she had co-produced I was over the moon when the film’s domestic setting suddenly changed and the protagonist entered a dream world filled with daffodils. I instantly had to think of William Wordsworth’s famous poem about the daffodils. It couldn’t be a coincidence that the film’s protagonist actually bears some resemblance to Wordsworth, that he talked about feelings so important to romantic poetry and that there were hundreds of daffodils surrounding him. And as this friend studied with me, I could even be quite sure that she had encountered Wordsworth’s poem at some point.

But when I wrote her that I particularly enjoyed the Wordsworth-reference, secretly thinking myself very smug for having spotted it and for successfully having decoded the film, she replied: “Ha! Isn’t it funny what people read into this?” 

This marked the birth of a great idea! My friend and I decided that I should interpret the film as I thought fit and then she would provide me with the actual story behind that short film, enabling me to finally check the validity of my interpretation. 

Here’s the film and below that you can find my short analysis. Why don’t you also have a go at speculating about what it might mean?

Toast

We encounter a young man in a rather bleak, domestic surrounding that is characterized by the chromium surfaces of his kitchen and the technical cooking devices, especially the toaster. The only allusion to nature found in this metallic world is the little snow flake engraved in an undefined metal surface.

He craves a slice of toast before going to bed. Toast is a very British kind of food and thus denotes that the film also negotiates Britishness which becomes more clear in the dream sequence. The man suddenly finds himself leaning against a wall and facing the toaster which is hardly visible as it is surrounded by daffodils. The wall has a darker and a lighter side which creates another contrast to the homogenous colouring of the kitchen sequence. According to a BBC survey William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” (1804) – commonly known as “The Daffodils” –  comes on fifth place in the race for Great Britain’s favourite poem. Thus, just like toast, the poem exemplifies a sense of Britishness that is closely tied to an idealized, romanticized past, in which feelings dominate over rationality, here embodied by the toaster. Suddenly it is no longer the man in the kitchen which is – as natural being – the odd element out, but now it is the toaster which does not really fit in anymore. Also note that the protagonist defines his superiority over the toaster by indicating his creative abilities and potentials, especially the art of writing.

The film identifies this image of a colourful, peaceful past linked with Romantic, Wordsworthian ideals as an idea that is to be desired but that is simultaneously represented as a dream. The film ends with the next morning. Once again, the young man has a slice of toast, thusly accepting his existence in (and to some extent dependence on) a technological world and drawing attention to the ritualistic, passionless nature of our world, in which it is finally the toaster which actually has created something (toasted toast) but the human being can merely consume and no longer be creative anymore.

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It is very likely that my reading does not even come close to the message of the film. I might totally misunderstand it. I deliberately tried to analyse it as I understood it at the first viewing and restrained from a psychoanalytical reading that also came up to me in which the daffodils can be identified as phallic symbols metonymically representing Wordsworth’s castrated penis and his uncanny desire for the toaster, i. e. the representation of an emotionless, technical vagina dentata, which burns the toast and thus poses a danger to masculinity. This reading would invert the nature/culture opposition in which nature is commonly associated with femininity and culture with masculinity. Suddenly technological progress renders nature as masculine and feminizes culture.

Such a reading would probably have made the film’s creators fall off her chairs!

Maybe they wanted the film to be read as I did? Maybe they inscribed some phallic images into their film? Maybe someone just slept unwell from eating to much toast in the evening? Well… We’ll find out soon! So stay tuned!

The Victorians, Early Films and the Train

The Victorians’ obsession with visual culture is nothing new. Neither is their obsession with trains. Whenever you open a book on the Victorian era you are bound to stumble upon fascinating descriptions of early trains, of the mingling of different social classes at railway stations or about the workings and effects of the steam engine.

During the end of the 19th century, these two intriguing aspects of Victorian life were combined and the appeal of the railway was captured on screen:

A Kiss in a Tunnel (1899) by G. A. Smith

A Train Collision (1900) by R. W. Paul

Royal Train (1896) by R. W. Paul

A myth surrounding the Victorians and trains on screen is that they could not differentiate between on-screen fiction and reality. They were frightened when the train approached them and panicked. The following fragment shows that this myth itself seems to be a Victorian invention. The Victorians themselves already laughed at people who could not deal with this new medium as the following fragment nicely shows:

The Countryman and the Cinematograph (1901) by R. W. Paul

Maybe the Victorians were as fascinated by film and trains as we are fascinated by the Victorians? The railway and early film have become icons of Victorianism with which contemporary critics and artists love to play. Just notice how often a train or a cinematograph take centre stage in contemporary representations of Victorianism.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Or have a look at the ending of the BBC adaptation of Gaskell’s North and South. Whereas this scene takes place in Margaret’s drawing room in the book, the film introduces the trope of the railway station as a meeting place and of the train which takes the lovers to their new life in marriage. It is also interesting to note that the film adds one scene which is not in the book and which is set at the Crystal Palace, another icon of Victorianism.

North and South

 

I hope you had fun with this movies and will look out for more trains and films in representations of Victorian life.

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Ever wondered whether the Sherlock Holmes cases collected in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes et. al. are complete? Ever asked yourself whether Sherlock could also fail and keep Watson from writing down the story?

This is what happens in Billy Wilder’s 1970 movie The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

The movie can be seen as a parody accumulating all the fascinating set pieces that make up our modern perception of Sherlock Holmes: You get his signature clothing, his drug addiction, the violin and a Sherlock who personally starts the rumor of him and Watson engaging in a homosexual relationship when a Russian ballerina asks him to become a sperm donor. Billy Wilder intelligently plays with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories weaving in allusions to famous cases such as The Scandal in Bohemia or having Watson’s short stories published in Strand magazine, the actual magazine in which the detective stories were published in the 1890s. Interestingly enough the film’s Holmes does not always correspond to Watson’s stories, which draws attention to the fictional quality of the stories and to Holmes as a already-fictional creation within a fictional movie.

Yet, what is most intricate about Wilder’s movie starring Robert Stephens as Holmes and Colin Blakely as Watson is his focus on the detectives failure which is brought by by the one phenomenon that Holmes’s genius mind can never quite understand: women.

“Holmes, let me ask you a question. I hope I am not being presumptuous but… There have been women in your life, haven’t there?”

“The answer is yes… You are being presumptuous.”

Although the title is a bit misleading as the viewer does not get to see a more private Sherlock than the one in other representations of the detective figure apart maybe from a scene in the bathtub, the film is highly recommendable. Wilder skillfully juggles with icons of Britishness from Holmes himself to a very feisty representation of Queen Victoria to the Loch Ness monster, for which he had a life-size model built which unfortunately sank during a test run. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a witty parody on how myths of Britishness come to life and are transformed over time.

Holmes: “Take my fiancée for instance.”

“Your fiancée?”

“She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat. 24 hours before the wedding she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable and not to be trusted.”

Billy Wilder himself, who could not personally oversee the editing process demanded by the studio, said of his film: “It was an absolute disaster. The way it was cut. I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing… It was the most elegant picture I’ve ever shot.” Unfortunately many scenes, including a prologue, have been cut and couldn’t be restored so far. Just as Holmes himself, the film is a representation of mysteries and myths. It allows us to guess whether Holmes’s account of his later fiancée is true or whether there actually have been women in Holmes’s life at all. It wittily uses the Loch Ness monster, Queen Victoria and Holmes himself to show the viewer that all of them become “myth” at some stage whether actual historical persona, literary character or phantasmatic phenomenon in the first place. Sherlock is a bit like Nessie: They are cultural creations and we know that they are not real but on some level we’d all just for them to actually exist and to have a private life after all.

Have You Heard?? Batman Is…

…Gay!

This is what Batman writer Grant Morrison admitted in an interview with playboy magazine some time ago.

But let’s travel back in history a little: In 1954, Frederic Wertham argued in Seduction of the Innocent that “The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious.” This initiated a big controversy in the academia and the media. Can a superhero actually be gay? It is true that he spends a lot of time with Robin, but he’s so very masculine, isn’t he? And how harmful is that to the young viewers and readers?

The Batman movies again fueled this controversy and when George Clooney was asked whether Batman had homosexual tendencies, he answered: “I was in a rubber suit and I had rubber nipples. I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.” 

I am thinking that this might be part of the attraction of many superheros: a hypermasculinity that is clearly confined to a homosocial (or even homoerotic) environment. Maybe viewers (and especially those some decades ago) can accept homoerotic tendencies if these are accompanied by an excess of masculinity: muscles, six-packs, and enormous chins. It is also interesting to note that this seems to be the exact strategy referred to in Christopher Marlowe’s play Edward II (1592), when king Edward II spends too much time with his favourite Gaveston. One of his adversaries excuses the king’s alleged homoerotic tendencies by referring to past examples of male bonding which are also significantly characterized in terms of masculinity:

 “The mightiest kings have had their minions:

Great Alexander loved Hephaestion,

The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept,

And for Patroclus stern Achilles dropped.”

In the Playboy interview Grant Morrison said: “Gayness is built into Batman. I’m not using gay in the pejorative sense, but Batman is very, very gay. There’s just no denying it. Obviously as a fictional character he’s intended to be heterosexual, but the basis of the whole concept is utterly gay.”

Morrison distinguishes between Batman as character and Batman as a phenomenon. To me, this is the alluring quality of Batman: You just cannot define him. You cannot pigeonhole him. He is what you want him to be, which gives power to the viewer/reader and allows us to enjoy our Batman, whether it’s the comic-hero, the hilarious 1960s-representation (the way fellow blogger Cookie likes him), the gay-esk Clooney-Batman, or the dark and steamy Bale-Batman.

So, who’s your Batman?

The 10 Most Shocking Endings and WTF-Cliffhangers in Film and Literature

Inspired by Sherlock’s “unhappy ending” in the last episode of season 2, I decided to collect the most shocking endings in film, literature, and Television. Endings which left us astonished, in awe, and downright confused.

1. Atonement by Ian McEwan

When I was finished reading that novel, I simply had to read it again because the ending changes everything that you have believed in and let’s you see the world of the Tallis sisters with other eyes. This is a happily ever after gone bad.

2. Fight Club

Sigmund Freud would enjoy himself gloriously watching that movie. You can picture him lying on couch, giggling with amusement because he would understand what’s going on here. The unconscious strikes back!

3. The Grey’s Anatomy Season Finales

Is there anything in the world that you can trust more thoroughly than the creative genius of series creator Shonda Rhimes when it comes to scripting a finale? Every year, Grey’s Anatomy blows my mind and it leads its characters into situations which suddenly leave them hanging in the air not knowing where to go. The only catastrophe that has not (yet) taken place is probably dinosaurs taking over Seattle.

4. The Sixth Sense

No need to talk about that. You all know the ending, don’t you?

5. Se7en

When this movie starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman hit the cinemas, it was not yet known who the villain would be. So imagine sitting in a cinema and expecting to watch a Brad Pitt-flick and then there is… No, I’m not gonna tell who plays the villain just let me add that I met him personally, twice.

Plus, the overall plot of the movie is just genius, I think. “What is in the booooox?”

6. Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days

You knew they were gonna make it, but then they didn’t and you thought “Oh, no!”? Well a nice twist in the end can turn losers into heroes!

7. The Life of David Gale

Maybe for some of you, the ending was not a surprise but I clearly couldn’t get my head around it. It was surprising, smart, and moving… Plus: The movie offers a sequence of Kevin Spacey explaining Lacanian psychoanalysis. This does render it a must-see!

8. Shutter Island

I mean… let’s admit it. Was any of us really sure what had happened on that island? Really, really sure? If so… would you please explain it to me??

9. The Prestige

This movie is about the competition between two magicians. Just when you thought that the one of them now finally triumphed over the other you have a look at your watch and see that the movie goes on for one more hour. Then the game begins. You are never quite sure when this movie will end because you constantly think “Now, that’s it! He won.” and then the other magician comes back with a vengeance. Great popcorn cinema.

10. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter is a feminist writer who re-writes fairytales. Her stories are so uncanny and twisted that somehow you anticipate the outcome but somehow you are still a bit shocked in the end.

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And my special prize goes to….

John Rambo

The ending of John Rambo is surprising because after having watched it, you will wonder how you could actually watch the whole movie. This movie earns the pole position on my “Why the hell did I watch that?”-list.

And yes, I do own this movie on DVD but just to force others to watch it, too.

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I know that there are a lot more twisted movies for me to see and this page list the 50 Best and Worst Twist Endings in Movies. Some of which I like are rated fairly low by them but I stick to my list. I like a good twist in a story and could babble on for ages about the genius of Atonement. What are your WTF-moments in TV, film or literature?