October 31, 2007

Nightmare Alley

"Is it some quality of the crystal itself or does the gazer merely use it to turn his gaze inward"

Nightmare Alley is not an easily classifiable film- it deals with all sorts of topics from alcoholism to promiscuity to psychology to the con artists at a carnival. No statement can be taken to mean what you might think it does- this is a film in which everyone is a con artist, repeating each other's cons. Indeed the line I quote above recurs twice in the film- first mouthed by an old decaying drunk, secondly by the main character as he decays into drunkenness himself. Made by the Hollywood star Tyrone Power but supressed for years by a legal dispute, the film chronicles the rise and fall of the Great Stanton, a carnival magician who rises to become an artist at exploiting and manipulating the follies of upper class Chicagans. He uses a code with his wife to guess the content of questions, the way that she accents words and the way that she asks him what the questions are gives him the clue to perform an act of translation and tell his audience what the questions are even though he has not seen them. The Great Stanton is linked throughout his career to three women, a older woman Zeena who gives him the code, a younger woman, Molly, who he has an affair with and then marries and a psychiatrist Lilith whose information he uses to con wealthy clients.

The tale involves more than just mesmerism though. It is in part an inquisition into the principle of holding an immoral job. Stanton rises by fooling and lying his way through society for the good ends of others- he offers them consolations that they have no way of detecting as fakes. Stanton suggests to them that their dead loved ones are happy, that their futures are fortunate and that their lives are bound to improve. The only accurate predictions in this film though are pessimistic- Stanford sells his prescriptions like sugared sweets to children. By the end of the film though Stan is reduced to becoming a carnival Geek, the man who swallows live chickens and beetles, who performs every disgusting act in order to curl up in a dry corner with a bottle of whisky. As Stan tells the carnival operator who offers him the job, he was 'made for it'. The revelation though isn't a revelation- he has been a Geek throughout, prostituting what he enjoys to what he needs. He needs the corner and the whisky, and in a sense all his fraudulent activity has been committed throughout to providing what a Geek provides- entertainment at the price of indignity and immorality. This criticism of capitalism reduces all employment to geekdom- as Matt Sinclair argues it is other regarding but it directs itself to the deepest wells of human immorality, the desire to see a freak eating a live chicken, the desire for fake reassurance and accomplishes those ends through fraud, deception and degredation.

The quote I just mentioned above lends itself to a further examination of the film, for this film is also all about perception. Most of the characters speak endlessly about the truth- whether its the truth of a psychologist like Lilith or of a carnival girl who believes in God and tarot cards like Molly. Both the psychologist and the carnival people are in a profession that demands that they claim knowledge of the truth. In both cases the central idea is that they are lying, betraying the truth to convince the chumps with money that they are, as Stanton tells a client, like a prophet of old. Soothing truths like balm to wounded souls, become poison as the deception is revealed- or else remain merely potentially poisonous as the truth is not revealed. Ultimately at the heart of the carnival is a certain truth- in that Molly and the others actually believe to a certain extent in God and fortune, tarot cards and angels. Whether Lilith believes anything is another matter- she convinces people that they are mad to twist them to her own ends. And as for Stanton he unites his desires to his morality, wedding them together, he persuades himself that what he wants is good and those desires are too fraudulently deceive. There are no truths here which are immune from the huxter's profession, that every boy has a dog, that every human has desires and the point is to convince them of the truth that suits them, the truth that they want and not the truth that exists. In that sense capitalism creates the lie.

The movie is underwritten by a spiritualist position which sees that lie as important. The writer of the original book, Bill Gresham (married to Joy Gresham who later became C.S. Lewis's wife) evolved from being a communist to being a Christian- I to be honest couldn't swear as to where in his evolution the concepts of the book evolved from. But definitely here there is a very sexist view of women- masculine women are to be shunned, feminine women to be embraced and there are several indications that there is some reality behind spiritual phenomena. Furthermore in the character of Molly we are offered an alternative ethical vision to the capitalist, a vision of self denying, self sacraficing love as the pillar of existance. A love for one man that only acknowledges one other obligation, that to the moral code of the creator. The film cares so deeply about the lies its characters tell in the service of their careers precisely because it considers that the truth is important- leaving open the question of whether like me you disagree with the truth advanced, you can disagree that the lie is important.

The movie is Christian in one particularly interesting way- like most Christian philosophy it places a huge emphasis on relationships. The point of the film is that all of its relationships are corroded and broken up by the economic imperative of greed. Stanford goes through three women in the film. His first relationship he enters into with an older woman to get the code that she knows to con crowds of people. He sleeps with her for that code and in the end obtains it. But because its a fraudulent relationship as soon as he gets that code he discards her in favour of the girl he really loves, Molly. His relationship with Molly is broken by the fact that he Stanton refuses to live a good life. Molly in the end deserts him because of that- though at the end of the film when all his ability to do evil is destroyed there is an implication that she returns to him. Lastly there is Lilith, who uses him for her own ends- again its a relationship where there is real passion but again the passion is overlaid by greed and again that fact means that it is doomed.

What we see with Molly is a moral individual being held up to the light of the screen. That moral individual enables us to get some anchors in the world again- otherwise we might decay into hermiticism. The problem is that really the issue here is with other people and the distinction between appearance and reality. It brings back the argument between Rousseau and Smith. Gresham seems to argue that some kind of moral principle is neccessary to living with others- some kind of 'real' other regarding or 'real' sympathy. He doesn't define this and possibly he can't. The issue though that he exposes is less a positive vision than a negative one- it is that capitalism allows even constrains us to fake sympathy and morality in order to immoral and ultimately unsympathetic ends. Matt argues that capitalism promotes morality, what Gresham suggests is that it doesn't promote morality, it promotes the appearance of morality. His point is Rousseau's against Smith, that true sympathy is not created by capitalism, only a fake sympathy. People are regarded as objects to be deceived not as entities to be loved. In that way Molly though she too works in a deception is a true human being because she still loves, but she will never be as successful as Lilith is because she has a mark at which she stops her deceits.

If Nightmare Alley propounds a view of the world ultimately that view of capitalism is very very pessimistic. Unlike Matt, no watcher of this film can be sure that other regarding actions neccessarily proceed from a system in which your value depends on others, fraud and deception abound in the world of the film not merely in the world of the carnival. Indeed there are ways in which the carnival world is more moral than the world of the upper class caricatured in the second half of the movie. Molly's tricks are less repulsive than Lilith's partly because Molly has not been captured by her tricks, wheras Lilith wealthier and more selfish has. Personally I find the spiritual dimension of the film less convincing, that's partly I think because Gresham was moving between various positions and had not yet adopted one (I'm not sure what an orthodox Christian would think of Tarot Cards!) but also because the film doesn't really explore it- there are many things which could be spiritual but also could be purely natural. And one thing the film does teach you is to beware that there could be a huxter round every corner waiting to deceive you.

This is a fascinating film- and there is much more to it than just what I have written- as ever there are interesting things to think about here which I haven't touched on from sex to alcoholism and the nature of addiction. But central to it all I think is this perception of the corrosive influence of capitalism upon our habits, that living in an other regarding society can turn us all into fraudsters and destroy our closest relationships as we seek that popularity known as profit. The point is extreme and in its extremity wrong- not all employment is geekdom. But the point that capitalism undermines true sympathy is an accurate one- and the issue that that points to in morality is a central problem that we live with constantly. This is neither a Randian individualistic manifesto (we are looking for real sympathy and not to abolish sympathy) nor is it a particularly positive manifesto (these problems may be endemic). What it does though is offer a corrective to the too easy view that if an action is other regarding, it is sympathetic. Gresham and the director and actors suggest it isn't.

Ultimately capitalism at its worst turns us from relationships to dependance, from love to avarice and most importantly from truth to deceit. The film invites us to look into the crystal of the screen and perceive there the deformation of our own eye.


Anonymous said...

An Evangelical ("born-again"} conservative (theologically speaking) would find Tarot cards, horroscopes, seances, etc... reprehensible. As a magician (in addition to being a minister) I would add they are jokes. One should read THE FULL FACTS BOOK OF COLD READING by Ian Rowland if you want to be a "psychic" or talk to the dead. Also, why would a fool go through all the trouble Stanton does to learn how to perform a super-simplistic routine that could be purchased (in that deay especially) for less than a buck. An excellant book for the curious is THE AMAZING WORLD OF MENTALISM by Burling Hull which contains a dozen or more such routines and TONS more to make anyone impressively spooky, psychic, or just plain weird. Why all the Marxist propoganda? Read the book and the graphic novel. Can't wait to get my grubby paws on the DVD. Interesting thing: The book is where the word geek came from. Also, they bite heads off of chickens rather than eat 'em live. Enjoyed your review.