The BOOKPRESS April, 1996

Blowing Up Las Vegas


Howard Aldendorff


Leaving Las Vegas, the recent film by Mike Figgis, has been highly praised and deeply condemned, but in no instance have I encountered, accurately appraised, and for reasons that have much to say about American film criticism and the American understanding of alcoholism, a problem whose proportions are now becoming truly critical.

Ben, the film’s main character, played by Nicolas Cage—whom I found admirably over-the-top in Wild at Heart—is a likeable alcoholic who, when he has been drinking, aims to be charming but succeeds in being merely louche. His employer, who has kindly been keeping him around long after his screenwriting talents have played out, finally lets him go, with generous severance pay. This Ben invests in alcohol in order to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, where liquor is said to be constantly available. That he is single-minded in this final project may seem to be put in question by his hailing a not-yet-overdone prostitute played by Elisabeth Shue, whose name, Sera, as will be seen, all too appropriately fits (que sera, sera), and whose abusive pimp is soon to be rubbed out by a Latvian “mafia.” It soon becomes apparent that Ben has not deviated from his central project: in Sera he has accurately identified a person whose vocation as an enabling codependent seems even more deeply rooted than her businesslike professionalism in. Though she offers, and even urges, sex, she and Ben do not in fact consummate their relationship until the (literal) end.

It is at this final moment in the film that the old metaphysical/Shakespearean pun on “to die” is translated into image, so that the same event represents both sexual climax and physical death. This is not new to cinema, and was a much better pun when performed in Antonioni’s first English-language film, Blow Up, a film which I shall use as a reference point of the truly expressive and artistic (though I shall not be able to refrain from celebrating it in its own right as well). As the Dante scholar John Freccero has pointed out, a scene of seemingly gratuitous sexual frolic in Blow Up leaves the male protagonist staring up from prostrate exhaustion at a blow-up of a photograph he had lately taken of an older man and a beautiful woman in a park. The photo was taken at the moment when the woman was pulling the man away from the direction of the camera and towards a tree—which becomes for the jaded young photographer something of the tree of the knowledge of life and death, as at the foot of it he begins to see the impression or image of a dead man. The image has been decomposed by the blow-up into grainy particles which nonetheless seem to coagulate into the uncertain shape of a dead body. The photographer goes back to the Eden-like park at night, and sees only a slight hint of a depression in the blowing grass, which might have been left by a now-absent corpse. This erasure (much in the film recalls the Oedipal darkness of Robbe-Grillet’s Les Gommes) is completed when the photographer returns to his studio from a fashionably decadent drug party (to which he went to tell another human being, a friend he finds too stoned to comprehend, about his discovery), only to find all his films and blown-up prints stolen, and the evidence in the process of becoming as lost as if it had never existed. This texture of composition and decomposition is repeated and reflected throughout Blow Up, refracted even in the timing and content of its temporal and visual rhythms, within such scenes (brief as a moment) as that in which a British guard in full red regalia and peaked hat marches, high-stepping, to an about-face as two black-robed nuns approach and pass him, as if an energy of movement had been transmitted from them to him, the effect of a cut without an actual cut, like the clack of one solid ball hitting another in the standard demonstration of transfer of momentum; cut back to an open Land Rover full of yelling clowns wheeling about a cobbled square (the scene that had just opened the film); cut to the fashionable photographer returning in shabby dress from a dreary charnel-house-like homeless shelter he had been photographing, and entering his open Rolls Royce. A detail like the grains of the blown-up photograph is repeated in the cobbles of the square and in the pattern of dots in the dress of a woman, played by Vera Miles, whom the photographer walks in on as she, prostrate, eyes wide open, head thrown back, is receiving the uncomprehending rutting of her husband. And finally, though by no means inclusively, we see the clowns from the first scene, now reappearing in the last, no longer yelling, but silent, miming a tennis game at a court in the green, rolling park, so expertly that you can almost see the non-existent or invisible tennis ball as they ape a shot and a long return, until their gestures, and the ensuing trajectory of one’s eye, follow the imagined object over the court’s fence to a spot near the photographer on the lawn. Now their gestures invite, urge him to participate, to throw “the ball” back, so that the game can continue. He does so, and as he walks away, becoming a steadily diminishing figure on an enlarging field of green, faint clicks or pops are heard on the soundtrack, as of a tennis ball being hit back and forth, and the film closes (if I may borrow from Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden”) “annihilating all that’s made / to a green thought in a green shade.”

This visual, musical, rhythmic delight of surface enacts the most profound themes of generation, death, absence, presence, creation, destination, alienation and social creation of meaning, a man’s peripiteia from jetsetting denial into his own dank mortality, as the soul of form metamorphoses from the cocoon of the film’s earthy subject matter. By Contrast, in Leaving Los Vegas, the brief darkness of a blank, black screen which recurs during the course of the film (at moments where we might logically expect an alchoholic “blackout” or stunned [un]consciousness) serves as a degraded, unnuanced, modern equivalent of the gentler yet far more profound “annihilation of all that’s made/ to a green thought ...” of Marvell and Antonioni. Compare the clunky literal rhythm of the blank, stereotypical trope of mortality in Leaving Los Vegas to the syncopated reeling of reality/fiction in its aesthetically and thematically treasurefilled predecessor.

This integration and interplay of the aesthetic and thematic, of formal, material, and psychological levels, can also be seen in Blow Up in the very texture of the blown-up photograph, with its grainy particles that hint at the reconstruction of an uncertain and missing whole. Like the phenomena that Freud describes in his seminal article, “The Uncanny,” these grains of enlarged film (and other briefly snatched intimations of death) are “a coming to light” of connections which “should remain hidden.” In the tale that Freud discusses in his essay (E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”), there is of course an Oedipal drama at work, but one which may indeed be more primal, elemental, and mysterious than the highly structured, by now almost stereotypical, scenario that Freud himself alludes to. It is this drama which may also supply some of the subliminal force behind the grainy images of Blow Up. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein has described an early disposition of the infant (which she calls the “paranoid-schizoid position”) towards experiencing the mother as parts or fragments (e.g. breast, etc.) rather than as a whole: the rage the infant feels towards these not completely reliable parts can be experienced, through projection, as an external threat. This disposition gives way, at about six months of age, to the “depressive position,” with its integration of split, or part, objects into a whole, now the whole person of the mother (and others, such as the father, as well), who are seen as often present and fulfilling, but, alas, often something absent, frustratingly gone, lost, destroyed (either by external dangers or by the power of the infant’s own aggressive impulses, producing guilt to go along with grief). Only when the swirling, fragmentary confusions of part objects are resolved into enough of an entirety can this entirety be experienced as lost, dead, gone, grievable. With the feeling of loss and guilt comes the desire to restore and recreate the grieved object in both the external and the internal world. As Melanie Klein’s interpreter, Hanna Segal, writes in “A Psychoanalytical Approach to Aesthetics” (The Work of Hanna Segal), Klein theorizes that “mourning in grown-up life is a reliving of the early depressive anxieties”; according to Segal, creative art is born out of the desire to restore “a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self.”1 It is this desire to “re-create our world anew, reassemble the pieces, infuse life into dead fragments,” this resolution of grains, dots, cobblestones, impressions left and absences felt, that is at the beating heart of mystery in Blow Up.

Such resolutions, sublimations, symbolizations may also perhaps reinforce Segal’s hypothesis about the true work of art—that it is achieved by “a realization and sublimation of the depressive position.” In order for the artists truly to succeed in their quest for re-creation and restoration, according to Segal, they “must acknowledge the death instinct, both in its aggressive and self-destructive aspects, and accept the reality of death ...” In contrast, the less successful work of art may indicate in part “the inability to acknowledge and overcome depressive anxiety.” The failure, in Leaving Las Vegas, to create more than stereotypically repeated symbols such as the recurring blank black screen, may be related to such an inability.

In Leaving Las Vegas, the scene in which the aesthetic and psychological dimensions of the film purportedly blend most completely is that of the concluding scene of Ben’s death-agony. Yet this finale, presented as the existential choice of the alcoholic, the teleology of his disease, and as artistic and symbolic culmination, may in fact be merely a false formalism, driven by the motor of stereotype (climax/culmination, sex-death-blank-void)—a disavowal of death rather than a gritty grappling with it. Rather than being motivated from deep within the aesthetic logic of the film, or from within the logic of human psychology, it seems artistically and epistemologically unearned, a quick and easy way to get out of a film which, on the level of psychological truth, may have reached a (formalist) impasse.

From the beginning, the liberty of existential man and of the supposedly libertine alcoholic would seem to come together in the hero of Leaving Las Vegas, who sets a condition for his new-found enabler: “Never ask me to stop drinking.” As Sera tells her shrink at the end of the film (the therapist is a virtual presence in Sera’s backward-glancing monologues interspersed throughout the film, and occupies the place that a chorus would in a Greek tragedy—except that the therapist’s incompetent non-response strips the encounter of any societal weight), Ben respected her free choice and she respected his. Yet this rather complacent conclusion seems to imply that, faced with Ben’s determination to drink himself to death, Sera’s only choices were to argue with him or to acquiesce in silence. The latter choice, in fact, is one which is all too often made by many real-life therapists as well as by society at large (including, evidently, the makers of this film). Leaving Las Vegas, for all its touted realism, courage, and respect for liberty, ultimately presents a banal and one-dimensional picture of alcoholism, death, and human freedom.

Had the therapist in the film not been so smugly silent (this characterization of the therapeutic profession may be another aspect of the film’s poverty of philosophy) while Sera spoke of how wonderful it was that she and Ben could have a relationship without her trying to change him, the therapist might have told Sera of choices she had all along but of which she was unaware. Sera’s uncritical, even proud, acceptance of her behavior vis-a-vis Ben and his alcoholism was part of her pattern of not taking care of herself. (Witness, in this regard, the scene in which she is beaten by three boys: her brassiness with the boys, which seemed so much like street-smart survival grittiness, was actually the opposite, the first move of the dance in which the boys would continue so cruelly to abuse her.) This characteristic is, one might add, shared by codependent and addict: the apparent brazen toughness of the addict is often just such an expression of low self-esteem and failure to provide for his/her own survival. In this, Sera and Ben are both making all the same moves in the same game, both compulsively repeating the past.

Had Sera been taking care of herself in her relationship with Ben, she might possibly have opened up the space for him to take care of himself. “Taking care of herself” might have involved—as in the made-for-TV movie, My Name Is Bill, presenting the inaugural moment of Alcoholics Anonymous (where Bill meets Bob and draws back, rhetorically if not visually, while Bob then leans in)—her actively, ostentatiously refusing to change him, rather than simply passively tolerating, his not changing. Admittedly this is a tricky distinction, but a distinction nonetheless: instead of sappily agreeing not to ask him to stop drinking, she could have given him a paradoxical injunction: “If you stop drinking, you might not leave me enough time to work, and then we’ll really have a problem”—a sort of “Please don’t throw me in the briarpatch” approach familiar to readers of the Uncle Remus stories. Then again, taking care of herself might have involved taking the same action as Jack Lemon’s character in Days of Wine and Roses, when he finally decides to separate from his still-drinking wife. Although Sera does indeed walk out when she finds another woman in Ben’s bed, that departure is only a brief interruption in a well-established pattern—as evidenced by her speedy return to his side as soon as he telephones her. Often a codependent’s (or, equally, an addict’s) apparent changes in behavior are actually the necessary moves to ensure the long-term continuance of just such behavior. By seeming to demonstrate that one has the power to stop the destructive game, one merely allows it to go on longer—a game whose bottom line is that one cannot “stay stopped.” If Sera was going to walk out on Ben, she might more successfully have done so for the reason that she couldn’t tolerate his continued drinking; instead, she allowed herself to be manipulated into walking out for a reason that would give him no pause in his addictive behavior: shortly before the “other woman” scene, Ben had proposed to Sera that he leave the apartment to finish his drinking out of her sight—feeling, as he was, guilty, ashamed, and humiliated by her presence—but she had not then acceded to this separation; he proceeded to bring about, by indirect means, the essence of what he had initially proposed.

Although Sera ultimately stayed with the alcoholic to assuage her essential loneliness, her staying only assured that her loneliness would remain essential, that is, that she would not move through and out of it. Had she faced and truly felt this loneliness by leaving Ben in a healthier fashion (as a part of her plan rather than as a participant in his), she may have been able, with the assistance of a less complicit therapist, perhaps, to transform her needy dependency in such a way that she would then be truly free, either to live her own life or—such is the radical nature of true freedom—even retum to live with him, no longer as a martyred participant in his dead-end game, but as a truly loving and accepting, while detached and independant, other.

For Ben’s part, the drive toward self-destruction, which fuels his decision to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, is admittedly part of the psychology of the alcoholic, or of any addict: self-hatred and low self-worth are important factors in compulsive disorders, and the repetition compulsion and death instinct are linked on a meta-psychological level. But it is an over-simplification, indeed a misrepresentation, to portray addiction as an unambiguous, linear path to self-destruction. In a real-life alcoholic’s life and consciousness, there is often a movement from the scattered to the whole, combined with the opposite movement of retreating from the (whole) pain of loss to the scatterings of dissolution—but never an unadulterated abundance of the negative, never the pure, unalloyed death instinct. Rather, there is always part of the self that would rather not be alcoholic, and always a quest for something more—or something other—than annihilation.

A key element in the mechanism of addiction to alcohol, or to other drugs, substances, people, or processes, as described by Gregory Bateson in his “Cybernetics of Self” (Steps to an Ecology of Mind) is the peculiar labyrinth of pride, the problematic attachment to the magic of power. The alcoholic’s booze, or the gambler’s betting, for example, is not merely—as in Leaving Las Vegas—seen by the addict as a compliant ally in his quest to embrace his own death; rather, there exists the all-important element of prideful competitiveness with the addictive substance, over which the addict believes himself to have control and mastery. Thus, an alcoholic will often quit for a period of time in order to prove to himself that he has mastered his compulsion—a starting and stopping that is part of the dialectic of the addictive repetition-compulsion. Just as with the codependent’s “fits and starts” about getting fed up and walking out, the apparent oscillation from one pole to another serves ultimately to ensure that the addiction will continue. And so it will, until the addict comes, by one path or another, to a realization of his or her true powerlessness. Until forced by that realization from his or her central illusion, any “existential freedom” he or she might be seen to have to stop drinking—or even to “will” his or her own death—is equally illusory. Unfortunately, Leaving Las Vegas implicitly encourages its audience to follow Sera in her misguided, tragico-philosophical “respect” for this pseudo-liberty, rather than to grapple, as do both true art and good therapy, with the complex and paradoxical issues that inhere in addiction, compulsion, and the dilemmas of human freedom.

Endnote

1. Segal writes about how Marcel Proust, in the last volume of A la Recherche du temps perdu, describes his returning “after a long absence to seek his old friends at a party, and all of them appeared to him as ruins of the real people he knew—useless, ridiculous … [It was then that] he decided to write, to sacrifice himself to the re-creation of the dying and the dead.” In like fashion, our Oedipal photographer in Blow Up, after experiencing both the presence-absence of the body of the older man in the photograph, and the appearance and disappearance of the fascinatingly beautiful woman to whom he is attracted (at one point she comes to his apartment to try to get the film back, and then frustratingly vanishes), is so changed as to perceive his old friends, whom he seeks out at a party, in a similar light of ruin and loss.


Howard Alendorff is a psychotherapist in private practice in Ithaca.

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