Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Roses, Oranges and Oedipal Eyeballs

(The following is a slightly revised and expanded version of an essay, with added images, quotes and links, that I read for the Synchronize podcast.)

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me.

The 2006 DVD release of director Toshio Matsumoto's 1969 debut feature film, The Funeral Parade of Roses, has over the past few years generated a renewed fascination for this lost classic of Japanese new wave film. This film, in its presentation of the gay and psychedelic subcultures of late 1960s Tokyo and in its transgressive depictions of sex, violence, radical politics and avant-garde film-making, is truly a portal back to a very different era. 

The film's supposed influence on Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is by now almost common knowledge among lovers of strange films. The similarities in style and mood of the two films are immediately obvious. The sped up scenes accompanied by ironic music of fighting drag queens in Parade and ménage à trois sex in Clockwork, the rival gangs, the excessive lifestyles of the gay-boys and the droogs, have been noted and compared numerous times.

A less often explored comparison, though, is that of theme. An explicit source for Funeral Parade of Roses is the myth of Oedipus, specifically Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex. In both the myth and the play Oedipus is destined to murder his father and marry his mother. Despite the best efforts of both Oedipus and his parents to avoid this fate the inevitable occurs. On finally discovering the truth his mother, Jocasta, commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself.

This myth was the basis, of course, for what Freud called the Oedipus Complex, perhaps best summed up by the song "The End" by the Doors -- "Father -- yes, son -- I want to kill you, and Mother I want to rape you."

Eddie, the young transvestite protagonist played by real-life Shinjuku gay-bar dancer, Peter, in his debut on the big screen, is clearly Oedipus. And, at the slight risk of spoiling an unspoilable film, Funeral Parade is at first viewing an inversion of the classical myth -- Eddie kills his mother and sleeps with his father. When the truth is finally revealed the father kills himself and Eddie stabs in his own eyes.

In a closer viewing, though, we find that this inversion is only apparent. Eddie has flashbacks of his father abusing him as a child, and later abandoning he and his mother. When Eddie suggests to his mother that she forget her departed husband because she has him -- the classical Oedipal outcome -- his mother laughs in his face, causing deep trauma.

Later, when young Eddie finds his mother making love with another man, Eddie stabs and kills the man -- the surrogate father -- and then slays his mother, sitting on her supine body and stabbing downward in a manner clearly resembling rape. Leda, the mamma-san of the gay bar that Eddie much later becomes a hostess for, as his boss and as the lover of his actual father becomes his surrogate mother. Her own suicide, followed by that of his father and Eddie's own blinding, completes the mythic cycle.

A Clockwork Orange can also been seen as reworking of the myth of Oedipus. Alex, the film's anti-hero, takes on several father figures, perhaps because his own biological father is shown as being a weak and powerless man. This theme is even more explored in Anthony Burgess' original novel. The principle father figure is the writer F. Alexander who lets an abused Alex into his house, initially not knowing that Alex and his droogs had brutally raped his wife two years before, eventually leading to her death.   

In the novel, Alexander is the author of a manuscript called "A Clockwork Orange" and so, in a sense, he is Anthony Burgess himself -- a writer whose own wife was beaten and raped by four American GI deserters during the war. Kubrick alludes to this connection by referring to an "Alex Burgess" in a brief shot of one of the newspapers announcing Alex's suicide attempt.

Like Funeral Parade of Roses, A Clockwork Orange is also a story of the eye, a tale of perception. Alexander's eyes are forced to witness the brutal violation of his wife just as Alex's eyes are pried open by the State during his Ludovico treatment and made to view horrific acts of violence on screen. By blinding himself, Eddie, like Oedipus, attempts to negate all that he has seen and done. Alex and Alexander, son and father, are compelled against their will to witness the ultra-violence of their time.   

Both films centre on the eye. Alex's right eye is accentuated by false eyelashes,  another visual motif that Kubrick directly borrows from Matsumoto. In fact, Matsumoto's short film, released immediately before Funeral Parade and using some of the same footage, is called For The Damaged Right Eye. Alex has stylized eyeballs on the cuffs of his shirt, the eye on the right featured prominently on the iconic movie poster.

In an interview, Toshio Matsumoto discusses his desire to transform perception in his films and in Funeral Parade of Roses most notably. He explains that all art, even the most subversive, eventually becomes formulated and co-opted into the system. He points out that even the law of perspective in painting is "an institutional system." It conditions the way that we perceive both art and the world, and it is now so commonplace that it is almost entirely unquestioned. The role of the real artist is to challenge and overthrow all such institutions of perception.

This extreme viewpoint was prominent in the late sixties, a period Matsumoto considers to be the most radical since the 1920s. The global student movement, radiating outward from Nanterre in Paris in May of '68, existentially challenged the political and social establishment. This in turn sparked off an even deeper revolutionary movement -- the desire to negate all forms of power, even those unexamined forms within our own act of perceiving the world and ourselves. He admits that during the making of Funeral Parade that his main concern was to "devour the system." In his own words:

Anyway, that's how I started to think. ... how to devour this system. As a political problem, the system is not only the power that oppresses people in this or that way or visible forms of political repression. Power is also what systematizes our thought, feelings, art, and culture in invisible ways. If we don't become aware of this and shake its foundations, we cannot move the structure of power in a real sense. That's why... we came to be controlled by more invisible things like human consciousness, feelings, points of view, or values. I thought that the most pressing issue facing art was how to become aware of this and work to undermine the system as a form of customary inertia. Films that startle and arouse self-awareness of that kind of internal distortion change the condition of cinema itself--this I think is art's form of struggle against authority. 

In Matsumoto's view, power will eventually systematize all modes of thinking and perceiving. Art will always be absorbed and neutralized in this way, and sync of course is no exception to this. Art, if it is anything at all, is a continual process of de-systemization. It constantly challenges and overcomes the boundaries of perception. If it does not do this we are soon enslaved.

Funeral Parade of Roses challenges boundaries by breaking the so-called "fourth wall." The characters in the film reveal that they are simultaneously the subjects of a real-life documentary. In A Clockwork Orange, in the book more so than the movie, this wall is breached by having the book, A Clockwork Orange, itself appear in the narrative.

In a chapter in Burgess' book, Alex is able to read a section of Alexander's manuscript. Alexander describes here how people are as fruit hanging on a great tree of life planted and tended by God. In the modern era, though, God has withdrawn and human individuals are on the verge of becoming machines -- clockwork oranges. The true god, the original father, is absent from the world and we are now dominated by a different patriarchal authority -- scientific mechanization and the State and elite who profit from this system.

It's interesting that a similar point of view is expressed by the character of the Fool in a famous scene within Akira Kurosawa's 1985 epic film, Ran. The Fool is also played by Peter, in his most well-known role since Funeral Parade of Roses. On the battlefield, at the death of his master Hidetora -- Kurosawa's King Lear, Kyoami the fool laments that there are no gods or Buddha. He cries:

If you exist, hear me! You are mischievous and cruel. Are you so bored up there that you must crush us like ants? Is it such fun to see men weep?

The Fool is wise just as Oedipus' adviser, the blind Tiresias, was the only man who could truly see. We are all subject to the spiteful caprices of the god of this world. Manifesting as an evil destiny to Eddie and appearing as conservative or liberal representatives of the establishment to Alex, this appears to be the final father to slay. 

Georges Bataille's 1928 novella, The Story of the Eye, is a likely influence on both Funeral Parade and Clockwork. Its grotesque episodes of total transgression are in excess of those in both movies. The twenties were more radical than the sixties. The book's climax -- a violent orgy in a church involving the brutal murder of a priest and the use of his eyeball in the sexual rites -- aims at total sensory and conceptual liberation.

Bataille himself has a complex but direct link to the myth of Oedipus -- his father was blind at the time of Bataille's conception.  He addresses this in his W.-C. Preface to Story of the Eye:

Since my father conceived me blind (absolutely blind), I cannot put out my own eyes like Oedipus. Like Oedipus I guessed the riddle: nobody guessed further than me.

Bataille, and The Story of the Eye in particular, went on to become a major influence on the generation of May '68 in France. Radical theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, often cite Bataille as an influence and it was these two who launched a direct assault on Freud's doctrine of the Oedipus Complex.

In their seminal 1972 text, Anti-Oedipus, they assert that Freudian psychoanalysis, in its efforts to resolve the Oedipus Complex, is really only a tool by capitalism and the state to make the individual members of the nuclear family repress their own desires and conform to the organizing principles of society. The familial father is neutralized, but he is replaced by a much more powerful patriarch.

The titles of Funeral Parade of Roses and A Clockwork Orange hint at a repression and oppression that can only be called gnostic in its depth and malevolence. Both roses and oranges are solar symbols, and the Demiurge has always been identified with the Sun. A funeral parade (or funeral parades -- plurality is not indicated in Japanese) is a procession of death. A clockwork mechanism is similarly the endless unwinding of dead matter.  

Neither the rose nor the orange, nor even the Sun are essentially negative images. Each contains vitality and joy of expression. The eye is also a symbol of the Sun. These symbols have all been co-opted by the system of control, but this does not need to be the case. Liberating symbols can again be liberated. William Blake in particular recognized this.

Blake wrote in his epic poem Jerusalem that:

A man's worst enemies are those 
Of his own house & family.

Blake understood, like Deleuze and Guattari, like Bataille, and like Kubrick and Matsumoto, that the conformist, authoritarian, life-stifling will of society is most effectively brought down on the visionary artist by the close family. It is our parents, our siblings, our spouses, children and closest friends, not the police or government or other figures of authority, who most intimately pressure us to give up our wild dreams, to reign in and snuff out our creative imagination. It is the nuclear, Oedipal family that most limits our vision.

Blake called this limitation the single vision in contrast to the double vision of imagination.  He most famously illustrated this with the image of the Sun. He wrote:

"When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?" O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty."

The prosaic, guinea Sun is what the Oedipal family, what the authoritarian State with its materialist ideology, wants us to see. To see anything else is to be, by definition, crazy. The doors of perception must be kept firmly closed. The power system is well aware that the only escape from the reign of clockwork, from the endless procession of funerals, is through the eye.

In the two films this escape does not appear to have happened. Certainly in A Clockwork Orange it does not. Alex's eyes are wide open to the violence of this world but they are blind to any deeper vision. He becomes an agent and a pawn of the same authoritarian State that tormented him. He remains a slave to the god of this world. In general, Kubrick appears to portray the establishment forces as being supreme. Despite its surface transgression, there is no liberation in A Clockwork Orange.

Funeral Parade of Roses is more promising. The hope and possibility of liberation is present throughout the movie. It is subversive while A Clockwork Orange is reactionary. Eddie blinds himself in the end, but does he, like Oedipus eventually, come to see a higher vision? Does his blindness, like that of Oedipus, finally end the cycle?

The tale of Oedipus is not even unique in Greek myth. The same story is ubiquitous. The primal god, Uranus, is castrated by his son Kronos or Saturn, who in turn is overthrown by his son Zeus or Jupiter. In every case, it is the mother goddess who spurs on her son to bring down his father. The controlling system is really Oedipal and not exclusively patriarchal. The mother, like Eddie's mother in Funeral Parade, laughs in our faces, causes us to doubt our virility, traumatizes us.

The myth seems to change, though, with the present Archon. Jupiter is Jove or Jehovah and his son is Christ. Christ rejects the world represented by his mother, but he also uniquely declares that "I and my Father are one." The Oedipal cycle is finally overturned. It does not continue. It is finished. Only its illusion remains, and illusion is what double vision dissipates. We already possess the father's kingdom within. In contrast, to have eyes wide open in this world, as sightless Tiresias attempted to teach Oedipus, is to be truly blind.

Blake is a Christian gnostic anarchist. Toshio Matsumoto is also in a certain sense. We do not need, of course, to slay or reject or even resent our families in order to free our imagination. To do so, in fact, only perpetuates this system of control, this nightmare of history. We do need, as Matsumoto, Blake, Bataille and so many others revealed, to open all the doors of perception. These visionaries, appearing as blind or crazy to the world, are those who can teach us to truly see.   

All definitions of cinema have been erased. All doors are now open
-- Jonas Mekas (as quoted in Funeral Parade of Roses)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Communications From Another Side

Last week, I had the honour and pleasure of appearing on the excellent Always Record podcast. The never-without-surprises Bill Klaus and I had a long, rambling and unscripted conversation on a number of topics and themes explored in this blog. These include contact from beyond, my post on Unit 731, other uncanny numbers, PKD and, of course, Finnegans Wake.

This was my second time on Always Record. The first occasion in April, which I neglected to mention here, was also a lot of fun. I was more relaxed in the second conversation. Maybe too relaxed.

I personally don't enjoy listening to myself speaking. Writing allows me the time to consider what I want to convey. Perhaps in this way, though, it's more artificial. Speaking is the raw deal -- me without the mask -- but actually it is itself filtered through the particular social environment I'm immersed in at the time. My greatest consideration while speaking here was that I was being recorded for public broadcast. That's not really me either. Shoganai.

So please listen and enjoy and make whatever connections you want between what you hear on these audio recordings and what you read in this blog. Probably you'll find some overlap. Maybe you won't. I'm not sure if they're the same or not. Thanks always for being out there somewhere.

The "Mark" mentioned in this recent talk is the incomparable Mark LeClair, the Wrong Way Wizard.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Year One

I've been pecking out this blog for a year now and I feel that I've just barely scratched the surface. The hen still scrapes at the dung heap. Fibrous, entwined tendrils make digging difficult. Periods of bloom and decay. My first post concluded with Carl Jung from Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away--an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures beneath the eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.

The rhizome is not Platonic in any conventional sense. This is no pie in the sky after you die. This is not a transcendence completely detached and aloof from the immanent flux. Like all roots it is directly and of necessity linked to its shining and fading blossoms. In fact, it is the above ground growth that absorbs the energy which the rhizome needs to sustain itself. The First Cause is intrinsically dependent on manifestation. The egg hatching the hen laying the egg.

Deleuze and Guattari borrow and adapt Jung's idea:

The rhizome is an accentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states.

This tells us a little bit more. No centre. No hierarchy. Signifying nothing. A tale told by an idiot. Such is the "ephemeral apparition," full of sound and fury, but such also is the rhizome. Within it the vital juices never cease to cycle. And yet the General does not swim here either. He is not to be found. He is complete ephemerality.

A new politics is arrived at. A deep anarchy in which even the notion of politics is squeezed down to its greasy essence and it too is circulated endlessly. A slurpy, juicy politics where there is no ground to "take a stand." All are left floundering.

This blog has concerned itself too much with trees, with verticality. One Tree and then Two Trees and the life and knowledge that comes from trees. There is a very different, horizontal logic in the rhizome. No King sits on the Throne. Of course, the process is the same but the metaphors are very different. And metaphors are all we have to go on.

Trees grow from this root system, but without the periodic flowering of trees the roots would also die. Yet all trees extend down to the roots. Only certain trees, certain blossoms, open up to the light. In the rhizome these all "exist" in potential at once. All plots, all colours, all scents, all metaphors, all archetypes. Everything in circulation -- melding, flowing apart, in simultaneity. This is the absolutely synchronous. Space and time at a single point which is not a point. Points are fixed and this never is.

Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery   
Is equal in its period and value to Six Thousand Years;           
For in this Period the Poet’s Work is done; and all the great   
Events of Time start forth and are conceiv’d in such a Period,   
Within a Moment, a Pulsation of the Artery.

Within the pulsation of an artery all civilizations grow and decay. So realized Blake. So realized Milton. So realized Dante and Virgil and Homer. Rome falls nine times an hour. Here is a vast tree that, in times of great thirst, shrinks down to its roots for further nourishment and inspiration. But all magic happens on this level. Hierarchies are always just projected illusions. Odysseus has not yet been cast off the Mountain.

Inspiration and conspiration thus occur at the same location. Swept up in the flows of blood and sap. Anything above the ground is an apparition. Vast pageants, a whole year of ritual, signs and wonders, wars and rumours of wars, digital banality, fish, the end of the world -- mere seasonal foliage. And yet it is all required. Photosynthesis. Structures built of words, of spirit calcified into letters, melt when the foundations are shown to be just as transitory, just as shaky, as everything else. 

The Six Thousand Years are up. One pulse. One year has passed and the poet has hardly done anything. Pointless pecking. Pointfullessness. But never sour grapes.

I have met with you, bird, too late, or if not, too worm and early...