Thursday, February 03, 2022

Are Geeks Born or Made: On Nightmare Alley (movies and the book)

Let us start with a general question: why should someone interest in philosophy also be interested in film? Granted there are probably as many versions of answers to this as there are philosophical perspectives and orientations. To propose an answer from my, Marxist-Spinozist, perspective is that what is instructive about film is the relationship between the immediacy of their reception and the mechanisms of their construction. In other words, a film is experienced intensely, as fear, joy, sadness, disgust and even boredom, this is its immediacy, but to some extent it can also be viewed in terms of how those reactions are created, how images, sounds, dialogue, and music create these effects. Viewed this way film is not different from other art forms, literature and music could be discussed the same way, but what distinguishes film is the way that this production is both effaced and traceable. This distinguishes it from literature: a reader will perhaps always be able to find the relevant sentences and passages that produce effects on them, might even quote them, but the intensity in the reception of a film is not related to any understanding of its composition. It also distinguishes it from music in that knowing how music is produced requires something of an education in music, but to delve into the construction of the film one often only needs the pause button.

My thesis, which is really more of an hypothesis, and I am sure that one could come up with multiple objections to it, is that film offers a unique glimpse into the production of subjectivity. It not only produces reactions, affects, and ideas and us, but can be used to expose the condition of that production. It is worth noting that this production of subjectivity is in some sense ephemeral, creating associations that only last through the film, but it sometimes has lingering effects after the lights come up. At the same time the audience is having their sensibility and subjectivity rewired, they are also often watching the construction of another subjectivity, that of the character on the screen, which in a different sense is assembled through images, sounds, and words. That these two constructions are parallel, as the reactions of the audience duplicate and anticipate those of the central character is another way to understand the identification at the heart of Hollywood and mainstream cinema.

All of this is a way to introduce Guillermo Del Toro's Nightmare Alley a film that is as much a new adaption of the original novel by William Lindsey Gresham as it is a remake of the original film by Edmund Goulding. I am not entirely sure why Del Toro decided to remake the film; Given that the original bears the marks of the limitations of midcentury Hollywood on it like scars, especially in the tacked on happy ending, as well as in the excised  subplots involving abortion, adultery, and even racism there is a great deal of room to go back to the novel. At the same time, nearly seventy six years have passed since the book has come out, and Del Toro's film is not only a period film, set on the eve of World War II, but, like The Shape of Water before it, revels in its period details such as funhouse attractions and art deco hotels to the point where they seem less a reflection of some bygone world than a fantastic world of their own.

Both the original film and Gresham's novel open with the geek, a sideshow act depicted as the missing link between human beings and animals. A human being living like a wild animal. The geek is presented as a fact of nature, as something found, but he is in fact something made, someone must be desperate enough to be willing to live in filth and bite of the head of chickens. The film then opens with the question, "How do you get a guy to be a geek? Is that the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way?"Del Toro's film gets to these same question, but a little latter, after a brief introduction of the main character, Stanton Carlisle, who is first seen disposing of a body and torching a house, a visually striking introduction that won't be clarified until later. This is in some sense unfortunate because it loses the Chekovian symmetry of the original film (and novel) in which a man who wonders how someone could be brought so low as to bite the heads off of chickens in the opening scene find himself in that state by the time the credits roll. It is worth nothing that the Stan Carlisle of the novel is younger than either of his cinema versions, very much a young man who is escaping an abusive home. The new remake alludes to that history more, but the casting of Bradley Cooper undermines that aspect.


I am getting ahead of myself, or ahead of the film, before the fall comes the rise. The film (Del Toro's version) begins with Stanton taking a job at a carnival, he starts as a manual laborer, taking down tents, but eventually climbs the ranks, in a funhouse mirror of a a Horatio Algers story, a distortion of the rags to riches narrative in which a cold heart is a substitute for hard work. First, he becomes the assistant to Zeena, the mentalist. Zeena usually does her act with Pete, her partner and ex-lover, who is struggling with alcoholism. Stan learns that Zeena and Pete used to be a successful vaudeville act. The key to their success was a code, an elaborate system of verbal cues by which clues could be communicated to someone wearing a blindfold. The code made it appear as if the blindfolded person could see random objects selected from the audience. This code is the secret to an entire act, but it is not the only secret. The other is an ability to read people, to see what they need, understanding that these needs, a loss love or beloved childhood dog, are less unique than people think. Stan excels at this, in a pivotal scene that remains the same in both films he saves the carnival from being shutdown by a sheriff by performing "a cold read," picking up on a few clues to see into the sheriff's fears and hopes, telling him what he wants to hear. Understanding people becomes a way to get the upper hand on them.

Gresham's carnival is in some sense a grimy social safety net. It is where people end up when everything else fails. It takes in anyone no matter their background. It is also a place where the fundamental truth of capitalist society is laid bare. It is also all a grift, a con. To paraphrase Baudrillard, the carnival exists to delude the rest of America that is anything else but a series of sideshow tents, each one promising answers to mysteries, some kind of salvation, but ultimately offering only a shakedown. Gresham's life seems to have followed this trajectory, at one point or another he was interested in Freudianism, Marxism, spiritualism, Christianity, fought in the Lincoln Brigades in the Spanish Civil war, and even took up Dianetics, seeming to becoming disillusioned with each in turn. 

Stan's trajectory is less a linear trajectory searching across different schools of thought looking for some kind of answer to the emptiness and banality of daily life than a series of ever expanding grifts, from carnival to nightclub, to something bigger--an escape through money not meaning. Each of these different grifts involve a different woman, first Zeena, who he learns from; then Molly, who he takes on as assistant; and then Dr. Lilith Ritter who he conspires with. Each of Stan's shift of career passes through another woman, using each one in turn: Zeena for her knowledge, Molly for her looks, and Lilith for her connections. Ritter first appears in trying to debunk Stan and Molly's act, but Stan tries to enlist her in his next big con, utilizing her knowledge of the fears and fantasies of the wealthy. He reinvents himself a third time as a spiritualist, claiming to speak to the dead and to connect the wealthy with those they have lost. This last long con is one of the places where the novel and films diverge the most, but all of them involve Stan getting Molly to pose as the ghost of long lost lover to a very wealthy man. Stan pushes Molly too far, fooling a nightclub audience for applause and a salary is one thing but preying on the desperation and lust of a desperate man is too much. It is also the point where Stan's own methods are turned against him. It turns out that Stan is a mark to Lilith. Psychoanalysis is just another way to get the upper hand on someone, to exploit their insecurities, one that replaces sawdust with a daybed, tarot cards with the patients own words. 

Stan's fall is very different in the book than in Del Toro's film. In Del Toro's film we go quickly from the collapse of the big con to Stan becoming a geek. In the book it takes a bit longer detailing Stan's fall onto skid row, including a segment in which Stan rides the rails as a fugitive. This leads to his encounter with a character described only as the "Negro" who helps Stan onto a rail car. Stan tries to run his usual routine on the Negro, talking about his second sight, trying to gain some sort of advantage. The "Negro" does not fall for it, and pushes Stan to actually engage in a conversation. What follows is the one moment that breaks out of the dialectic of cons and marks, the one time that we hear Stan say something that is not an attempt to get an angle on anyone.

"Stan was trying to listen. When he spoke his voice was thick and flat. "It is a hell of a world. A few at the top got all the dough. To get yours you got to pry'em loose from some of it. And then they turn around and knock your teeth out for doing just what they did."

The Negro sighed and offered Stan the tobacco, then he made himself another cigarette. "You said it, brother. You said it. Only they ain't going have it forever. Someday people going to get smart and mad, same time. You can't get nothing in this world by yourself."

Stan smoked, watching the gray thread sail toward the door and whip off into the night. " You sound like a labor agitator."

This time the Negro laughed aloud. "God's sake, man., labor don't need agitation. You can't agitate people when they are treated right. Labor don't need no stirring up. It need squeezing together." 

This scene never makes into either of the film versions, revealing that not even today perhaps everything is not representable. Adultery, sex, and even the gore of a geek's act are more acceptable than even a brief foray into labor organizing. (Gresham's novel also includes a glimpse at the Jim Crow south that is absent from both films) This is unfortunate because "the Negro", who is never named, is an odd exception to the general logic of the book. He is the one character who is not trying to take advantage of anyone, and the solidarity he expresses with Stan, with the workers is oddly out of place in the dark carnival of the novel. He briefly espouses another world, one predicated less on trying to take advantage of the next person than struggling together. I confess that I might be reading a lot into this, or, as they used to say in graduate school, offering a generous reading. It is possible that Gresham is less invested in this bit of revolutionary consciousness than I am, and considers this character, that of the Negro to be as lost as the other souls that populate his novel, but to me he seems like someone from another timeline, another possible world one predicated on solidarity rather than scams. 

In the end, Stan is broke, wanted for murder,  descending into alcoholism, and without anyplace to go, he looks for work in a traveling carnival. He offers himself as a mentalist, but they are not hiring mentalists anymore, too old fashioned. 

Carnival Manager: "Wait. I just happened to think of something. I might have a job you can take a crack at. Course it isn't much and I'm not begging you to take it, but it's a job."

 Stan: "That's all I want."

Carnival Manager: "And we'll keep you in coffee and cake. Bottle every day, place to sleep it off in. What do you say? Anyway, it's only temporary, just until we can get a real geek."

Thus, the film ends with an answer to its initial question as to  how someone becomes so low, so desperate and devoid of self respect, to take a position as a geek. However, Stan's response to being offered the job, "Mister, I was born for it," changes the ending of the original film in which he declares that he is "Made for it," declaring that geeks are ultimately born and not made.  Stan's question about the geek, becomes a question about him: are people naturally inclined to think only of themselves, see everyone else as a mark, and every relationship as a chance to get some angle on someone, to live out a geek eat chicken world, or is this something artificial, something that is produced. Is Stan made or born? 

Stan's final declaration reveals something of the limit of the remake. Gresham's novel sheds a light on a darkness that is not simply found in the carnival, but at the heart of America. That darkness can only be seen, can only be glimpsed, if there is some other light to contrast with it. If we understand it to be made, to be the product of our socio-historical world, rather than something we are born into. It might be more correct to say that noir has always vacillated between born and made, between an existential understanding of the human condition and a different, call it Marxist, understanding of alienation and exploitation under capitalism. This can be seen in De Toro's definition of noir, which he states is as follows:

"Noir isn’t about Venetian blinds and a husky voice-over and dimly lit street. It’s not about a dame smoking under a spinning fan. Those are the clichés. Those are the Coca-Cola commercials of noir. What I understand to be noir is the real grittiness that comes out of American realism – those films that channel the same spirit as George Bellows or Edward Hopper or Thomas Hart Benton. It’s the poetry of disillusion or existentialism. The tragedy that emerges between the haves and the have-nots. And the have-nots are trying to breach their ambition through violence and, ultimately, worshipping a hollow god, which is money. So therefore it’s literally an exploration of the flip side of the American Dream."

Del Toro's film offers us a beautifully rendered world, in which every scene revels in its construction and artifice according to the mid century ideals of art deco design, and a nightmare dreamscape of a carnival midway, but that world increasingly serves as the backdrop to a story which has lost all of its socio-historical specificity (despite the odd period details of the build up to World War II) to become ultimately a story of mankind's greed, indifference, and cruelty. The subjectivity it produces in Stan, one motivated by greed, that sees people, especially women, solely in terms of what they could do for him, is too close to us, too naturalized, to offer us a critical perspective on it. It is immediately recognizable even if it is produced through so many mediations, so many clichés.

Geeks are presented as the dark underbelly of human nature, of the animal within, that will kill and drink blood in order to survive. Of course we know them as artifice, as a sideshow attraction held together with a wig and shoe polish. The cheap and gaudy nature of the sideshow lays bare its construction. It is harder for us to see that Stan too, in his greed and indifference, is also a product, not of a carnival barker but of the world we live in, in short if Stan is a product of capitalism. 

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