Of Costner, Corpses, & Conception:
James J. O'Meara
Mother’s Day Meditations on The Untouchables & The Big Chill
Okay, I missed Mother’s Day, but hey, every day’s a holiday for the unemployed! So, in the holiday spirit, I offer some Second Thoughts on a couple of films recently discussed here.
Readers of my review of The Untouchables as an intiatic work will recall that I was somewhat puzzled by the reasons for Malone’s death. I speculated that he had sacrificed himself, rather like Odin, to further Ness’s initiatory journey.
I was recently re-reading an essay by “Abraxas” (Ercole Quadrelli) collected by Baron Evola in the first volume of his Introduction to Magic, viz. “Three Ways.”
You must generate— first by imagining and then by realizing it—a superior principle confronting everything you usually are (e.g., an instinctive life, thoughts, feelings). This principle must be able to control, contemplate, and measure what you are, in a clear knowledge, moment by moment. There will be two of you: yourself standing before “the other.” Then you will know the meaning of “inner dialogues,” the inward commanding and obeying, the inward asking for and obtaining of advice, as in the case of many Christian and Muslim mystics, and similarly reflected in many Hindu texts that were compiled in dialogue form; the characters depicted in them are not real persons, but are seen by a skilled disciple as two parts of his own soul.
All in all, the work consists of a “reversal”: you have to turn the “other” into “me” and the “me” into the “other.”
Then, in contrast to the mystical, or Christian, path, where the Other remains Other, and the Self remains in the feminine position of need and desire,
In the magical, dry, or solar way, you will create a duality in your being not in an unconscious and passive manner (as the mystic does), but consciously and willingly; you will shift directly on the higher part and identify yourself with that superior and subsistent principle, whereas the mystic tends to identify with his lower part, in a relationship of need and of abandonment.
Slowly but gradually, you will strengthen this “other” (which is yourself) and create for it a supremacy, until it knows how to dominate all the powers of the natural part and master them totally.
the entire being, ready and compliant, reaffirms itself, digests and lets itself be digested, leaving nothing behind. (1)
In short, as the New Agers like to say, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
If Malone is a projection of Ness, embodying what Ness knows about being a man, but manifested as an external being able to function as a teacher and then dismissed (like Tyler Durden in Fight Club), this would not only be consistent with the shape-shifting and other shamanic attributes of Malone, but also explain most of the oddities I called attention to. How do they just happen to meet on a bridge at Ness’s point of greatest need? If, as Malone himself says, the whole police force is corrupt, why does Ness trust Malone himself?
And above all, why does Malone, an Irish cop, speak in a quasi-Scottish brogue? Because Ness, the ur-Norwegian Midwesterner, has probably never heard a real Irishman; Ness has just arrived in Chicago; talkies were only recently invented; even Cagney’s The Public Enemy won’t be released until after he leaves in 1931.
She’s Having My Baby
Speaking of Kevin Costner playing dead, I also failed to point out that Costner made his big screen debut playing a corpse. This was in The Big Chill, where the opening credits play over a body being dressed for viewing. According to the commentary track by the writer-director, Lawrence Kasdan,(2), Costner was to portray Alex, the erstwhile leader of the gang back at the U of M whose suicide brings them back together for the funeral. These flashbacks were the first scenes shot — the whole film was made in chronological order for effect — but Kasdan decided to scrap them and only deal with present time. As a sop, Costner was given the unaccredited role of Alex’s corpse.
Kasdan’ commentary goes on to state that audiences were supposed to be fooled, thinking that a woman was dressing a man for a formal event, perhaps Glenn Close and Kevin Kline, as just seen in the previous sequence, and then the last shot was a “reveal” of the sutured wrist of the corpse. Perhaps I had seen a review beforehand, but I don’t recall ever being fooled that way, always taking it to be Alex’s corpse. On Kasdan’s interpretation, though, we have another layer: not only is (real) Costner playing a (fake) corpse, but the (fake) corpse is playing a (fake) Costner.
Readers will also recall that I previously discussed, briefly, The Big Chill in “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall St.” but only in the context of what might be called Liberal Psycho-Geography, their strange preference for living in small towns, even rural communities, once they have been cleansed of those dirty White Others who actually created the towns and communities.
In the case of the sad sacks gathered at Alex’s funeral, they were only happy living together back in Ann Arbor, under the charismatic leadership of Alex, some kind of sophomore Tim Leary or Mark Rudd (these would have been the deleted Costner scenes). Now, his suicide has brought them back together in a similar locus, the conveniently large house of the most adult couple among them, now living in conveniently rural but Yuppie-friendly South Carolina.(3)
The gang is clearly some kind of Männerbund, now bereft of their spiritual leader. But it’s an unusual one, multi-sexual and multi-ethnic,(4) and above all, a fake and a failure.(5)
Nick: Wise up, folks. We’re all alone out there and tomorrow we’re going out there again.
Rather than the more obviously Männerbund-ish features, I’d like to focus on something at first glance entirely different: Sarah has the bright idea to solve Meg’s worries about never finding a man to have a child with, by loaning her husband, Harold.
In my previous essay, I passed this off as an ostentatious, Bloomsbury-like nose-thumbing of “bourgeois morality.” Oddly enough, Hans Blüher, the theorist of the Männerbund, provides a more interesting perspective.
Through Wulf Grimsson, whose work we drew on for our Untouchables review, I’ve obtained one of the few English translations of one of Blüher’s public lectures, in which he lays out his theory of sexuality, the family and the Männerbund.
In “Family and Male Fraternity,” he discusses at one point the role of creativity in responding to the demands of new situations. Traditions, to be vital, must respond to new conditions, and in the process, what once were sins may become moral, as they facilitate the creation of a new tradition. (One thinks perhaps of Carl Schmitt’s doctrine of the Exception.) In considering the modern problems besetting the tradition of monogamy, Blüher spurns the advocates of “free love” as not having thought out and found a creative solution to the practical problems, such as jealousy. Here he writes:
Jealousy is the will to have an exclusive right on the sexual partner and illustrates all over again the myth of the human being cut in two and deprived of his other half. Because after all there can only be one other half! Jealousy is really the destructive element within a polygamous marriage. Jealousy can never be eliminated by affectionate persuasions, by calming appeasements or any kind of rational arrangement, but only by a great creative act of the Eros itself. Let me give a comparison from German philosophy. Arthur Schopenhauer speaks at several points in his work of so-called “conversions.” A criminal, who is just going to the scaffold and who until recently has had no remorse for his crime, is suddenly enlightened. . . .
A man is not purified through a gradual diminution of sin — to believe this would just be muddled ignorance and rationalism — but through a sudden change of his whole nature. The bigger his sin was, the more he is purified. The same thing can happen with jealousy.
Jealousy is the real sin against the creative Eros. In the case of exceptional women, there are rare moments where this usually destructive passion can turn around, can place itself into the service of the former rival and can increase the love of two women for the man whom they both love. On such a basis the will of the man is creating the sacrament of polygamy. Without this sacrament, which the Greeks called (mysterion), all polygamous relationships are doomed to end in the most distressful disaster. Something permanent can only come about where a sacrament (a mystery in the Greek sense) stands between people, where devotion, sacrifice and service are involved. Polygamy needs a state of grace and cannot be “made.”
Are Meg and Sarah such exceptional women? (Note Blüher’s use of the Schmittian term.) Sarah, despite her marriage, children, and homemaking, and her general “earth mother” portrayal,(6) and Meg, despite her distinctly non-hip obsession with finding a man to have a child with (which would be mocked as ’60s stupidity on Mad Men today), are both played by decidedly “mannish” actresses. Glenn Close won her very first Oscar this year, for a role in which she portrays a woman living as a man, while Mary Kay Place eventually “came out” as a lesbian.
When she first arrives, Meg wears neither the ’80s shoulder-padded woman’s “power suit” nor the later Hilary-style “pants suit” but what looks like a boy’s suit, complete with white shirt, striped tie, and attache case — in the contemporaneous Official Preppy Handbook, women were advised to check out the boy’s department at Brooks Brothers for appropriate attire.
She and Richard are the only ones dressed like real grown up men, and both have thought a lot about what a man should be. Like Richard’s late night speech, she provides a surprisingly contemporary meditation on modern manhood:
Meg: They’re either married or gay. And if they’re not gay, they’ve just broken up with the most wonderful woman in the world, or they’ve just broken up with a bitch who looks exactly like me. They’re in transition from a monogamous relationship, and they need more space. Or they’re tired of space, but they just can’t commit. Or they want to commit, but they’re afraid to get close. They want to get close, you don’t want to get near them.
Finding no acceptable men, Meg has had to become a man, or a facsimile thereof, just as Costner’s Ness had to learn how to become a man by creating his own double, the wise and honest Malone.
Meg: It’s a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little frosty myself.
As Capone says, “If you were a man, you’d have done it.” And we know what “doing it” means. As Blüher says, “Where is the important man who would be content with just one woman?”(7)
Meg accepts Sarah’s offer of Harold only as last resort, having considered and dismissed all the inadequate man-children available that weekend (including a “return engagement” with the Jew, Michael). Her choice, adultery if not quite a ménage à trois, is made to further a higher tradition, motherhood.
It’s even possible, though it passes as a joke, that Meg’s wisdom was what killed Alex:
Meg: The last time I spoke with Alex, we had a fight. I yelled at him.
Nick: That’s probably why he killed himself. . . . What was the argument about?
Meg: I told him he was wasting his life.
In The Untouchables, Costner’s Ness conjures up an authentic teacher of manhood and then kills him off when no longer needed for the task of re-establishing the ideal of justice. In The Big Chill, Costner plays a fake guru — or perhaps, a Guru of Fakeness — who is killed off by Meg, in order for her to set up the funeral weekend where she will finally conceive a child. Meg is the authentic Shaman, who can shape-shift across gender lines and break traditional vows — monogamy — in order to pursue a higher calling: motherhood.
1. Julius Evola, Introduction to Magic (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2001), pp. 88-91. The process of “cultivating” the Other as part of the process of initiation is referenced in The Silence of the Lambs, where Buffalo Bill cultivates a rare species of moth: “Somebody grew this guy, fed him honey and nightshade, kept him warm. Somebody loved him.”
2. Kasdan was one of the most bankable men in Hollywood, and thus able to make this more personal project, due to his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, which connects him to Sean Connery, who plays Indiana’s father in the later sequel, The Last Crusade, which is based on the figure of Otto Rahn, author of Crusade Against the Grail and Himmler’s pet grailologist; suspected of disloyalty and homosexuality, he wound up a corpse as well, committing a Cathar-style suicide in the frozen Alps, like Alex before the Big Chill starts in.
3. Kline and Close are adults because, not only are they married homeowners with children, all this is possible because he has set up a company, “ironically” called Running Dog, which seems to be on the ground floor of the running shoe phenomenon. The Big House, subservient locals — even the infamous “Southern Sheriff” is a friend and “some kinda guy” — and no doubt slave labor abroad for products sold to inner city youth strongly suggests some kind of Southern antebellum fantasy. But we know he’s a “good guy” because Procul Harum and Motown are “the only kind of music here.” Kline angrily announces “I’m dug in here” while, unlike the “12 Southerners” who defended agrarian rootedness in I’ll Take My Stand, wearing a “Michigan” sweatshirt. As I mentioned before, this shot is perhaps the iconic Modern Liberal, and I like to imagine his shirt has a Made in Thailand tag.
4. Jeff Goldblum plays what can only be called “a Real New York Jew” (Annie Hall) and is consequently intensely unlikable, unlike his later roles as gawky but sympathetic and even heroic (The Fly, Jurassic Park, Independence Day), or indeed any Jew’s movie portrayal since about 1945.
Michael: Everyone does everything just to get laid.
Karen: Who said that? Freud?
Michael: No, I did.
Michael: That’s the great thing about the outdoors, it’s one giant toilet.
Harold: (preparing to order shoes for everyone) Feet grow as you get older.
Michael: I wish everything did.
Despite his smarmy approaches to every woman around, he is the only character to not manage to get laid that weekend.
5. The complete failure of their lives, most dramatically Alex himself, might lead one to question his bona fides as a guru, but like most Liberals, what they’ve learned is mostly an intense self-regard, which makes it impossible to “check their premises” as Ayn Rand used to say. Jo Beth William’s square, stodgy husband, played by Don Galloway — I remember thinking, hey, it’s that guy from Ironside!– delivers the only words of wisdom in the film — no one every said it was supposed to be easy.
Richard: [Richard is having a late-night snack while talking to Sam and Nick] There’s some asshole at work you have to kowtow to, and you find yourself doing things you thought you’d never do. But you try and minimize that stuff; be the best person you can be. But you set your priorities. And that’s the way life is. I wonder if your friend Alex knew that. One thing’s for sure, he couldn’t live with it. I know I shouldn’t talk; you guys knew him. But the thing is . . . no one ever said it would be fun. At least . . . no one ever said it to me.
That’s because he didn’t have the misfortune of falling under Alex’s spell, with Alex’s fake-Zen “ironic” non-sequiturs:
Nick: I know what Alex would say.
Nick: What’s for dessert?
His insomnia may be supposed to indicate one of those “sublimated” conditions Frankfurt Schooled Leftists like to postulate to explain why their opponents happily ignore them, but I would suggest it hints at a natural talent for vigils and contacting the Jungian active imagination, source of wisdom. No one pays attention to him, of course. William Hurt’s insufferable character just walks away when first introduced to him, and he is shipped home to Detroit to take care of the kids so that Williams can finally sleep with, and be disappointed with, her old flame. But before he goes he both predicts her disillusionment with Sam and hints at the essential fakeness of this group: “I can’t believe these are the same people you’ve been talking about all these years.”
6. Close in the film bears a strong resemblance to ’60s female icon Carole King — who wrote the theme to, and appears occasionally in, The Gilmore Girls! Cringingly but all too appropriately, King’s “You make me feel like a natural woman” is the music of Meg and Harold’s coupling, although, also in keeping with the proto-SWPL atmosphere, it’s Aretha Franklin’s version — so much more earthy!
7. A similar triangle occurs in the WWII German film Opfergang; see Derek Hawthorne’s “Opfergang: Masterpiece of National Socialist Cinema, here.