26 January 2008

Cape Fear

When I am doing my daily exercise quota on my cross-trainer, I scan the television programmes for moving wallpaper to look at. This has made me aware that modern films are almost universally unpleasant and uninteresting, so far as I am concerned, having a much greater content of explicit sadism than when I was growing up.

If a film is ‘serious’, rather than a ‘comedy’ (I don’t find comedies pleasant either) the storyline is almost certain to depend on some person or persons doing something to other persons which is very nasty and sure to be against the will of those persons. People are tortured, murdered, raped etc. and then may seek revenge against those who maltreated them, whether by retaliatory brutality or by ensuring that they (the perpetrators) are exposed to ‘justice’ in the form of imprisonment or execution.

These films seem to shed a light on a fundamental element in human motivation. There is, it would appear, a drive to assert oneself by making some other consciousness aware of its impotence; you are forcing it to experience something to which it cannot feel reconciled. I see that this could be a displacement of the drive to assert oneself against objective reality which is too powerful and threatening, and which may make you painfully aware of your impotence. But you may be in a position of power relative to some other people, especially if you can get on the right side of the social system in which you find yourself.

The film Cape Fear (1991 – a remake of a 1962 film with the same title) seems to express this rather well, at the same time as placing this drive in its place as an important part of the psychodynamics of socialism.

In this film a well-set-up, respectable lawyer once wronged a serial rapist whom he was defending against a charge of rape. The victim was a girl of 16, and the lawyer was so moved by her injuries that he suppressed a piece of evidence, to the effect that she had been promiscuous, which might have counted in his client’s favour. The client was ‘poor’ and illiterate, and hence an object of sympathy, but it is clear that he was quite likely to do sadistic things, to the point of killing people against whom he had a grievance. This partly accounted for the length of time (14 years) which he had spent in prison, where he brutally killed someone in the course of his confinement.

In asserting yourself to other people, it seems to be very important that they are made unmistakeably aware of the fact that you are able to threaten what is most important to them, and to make them feel out of control and inadequate to defend themselves or other people whom they mind about. (This is more or less the position in which people find themselves vis-à-vis agents of the collective in modern society.)

Near the beginning of this film the released prisoner tells the lawyer that he is going to make him experience loss. Then he sets about devoting his menacing attentions to the lawyer’s wife, girlfriend and daughter, and poisons their pet dog.

It may be noticed that he has no scruples about persecuting people (and an animal) who were not responsible for the imprisonment of which he is so bitterly resentful, but sees this as a valid way of doing things that the lawyer will not be able to avoid minding about.

Towards the end of the film, when he has the lawyer, his wife and his daughter at his mercy on a houseboat, the wife tries to make him believe that she understands what he has suffered, and pleads with him to do whatever he has planned to do to her daughter to herself instead.

The persecutor says he is glad she has made her feelings so plain to him. Now he knows she feels so strongly about it, it will make what he is about to do to her daughter all the more enjoyable.

In this, the later version of the film, the themes of wishing to have a destructive effect on people’s lives and the relationship to socialist ideology are far more clearly brought out. In the earlier version (1962) it is more a case of good guys being persecuted by a bad guy. In the 1991 version, the lawyer is (we are invited to believe) being rightfully punished for a misdeed, and his persecutor is a representative of the wronged class of the ‘poor’ and illiterate. The film is expressing the class warfare underlying modern society, in which well-set-up and successful bourgeois people are seen as natural targets of resentment, and in which the avenging individual, as the member of a wronged class, is ‘beyond good and evil’ and is free to disregard old-fashioned and hypocritical moral restraints.