Dialogue #2


A dialogue with playwright, director, and teacher Guy Zimmerman.


John, looking back at the last year in popular culture Refn’s film Drive with Ryan Gosling stands out as having a bit of a pulse – some of it is quite good, in fact – and I thought it might provide an okay jumping off point for a broader look at where we are at currently. Curious what you made of the film generally.

Its interesting, if we’re sort of just talking film as an entryway to broader issues, that you mention Drive. I was running a Cinematheque out in Palm Springs at the Ace Hotel, and then later Palm Desert, and it was mostly quite young film enthusiasts (sic). The topic of Drive came up one night and there was quite intense and sort of defensive discussion from this group in defense of Refn’s film. Now, I had just seen it, up in the high desert at this cruddy little Cineplex off 29 Palms Highway. I mention this because it all lent a certain background feeling for me with that film. I understood the energy expended defending this film, I really did. From the opening sequence one is aware this is a director who knows how to shoot film. So on one level I ‘got’ the enthusiasm. Of course, I had also just screened Point Blank, Boorman’s sixties bit of noir revisionism, with Lee Marvin. It was hard not to see certain things when you compare those two films. Both are studio projects, and both are genre exercises. And what is germane firstly in this comparison is that Boorman’s film was made in an entirely different era if we’re talking studio product. Boorman has even said, he’d never get that film made today. Now, Refn is a Dane, and has some heat right now in Hollywood. So, he was able to make a film that really would under normal circumstances have few supporters among the bean counter executives in Hollywood. Anyway, my point is that Point Blank feels a lot angrier, and a lot more expressive of its era than Drive is of its era. Drive feels very much like a film school monograph on genre. Partly of course the gravitis of Marvin provides Point Blank with a foundation – the man out of time (Marvin himself in a sense) and in another sense the entire narrative trope of anti-hero, or outsider to the system running on his own code of morality and honor. Never mind how disfigured that code may be (and that was partly the point of course). Boorman was British, and Refn Danish. Both come to the genre, American crime narratives, with a revisionist perspective. If we talk style codes, and they overlap with the narrative itself, what you have in Point Blank is a re-appropriating of the post war noir sensibility of directors like Siodmak and Lang and Wilder by way of the French appropriation (Melville, Godard, et al). What is so striking though in Point Blank, and what gives the film its genuine stature, is the bleak and empty social landscape. The scene where Marvin finally confronts Carrol O’Conner , in a suburban house, empty of life, a proto hotel room in a sense, and OConner simply says, I don’t have the money – it’s a corporation, we don’t deal in “money”. Marvin just seems bewildered. It’s a terrific scene. In Drive, the landscape feels empty, too, but in the wrong way. Its empty because the filmmaker doesn’t care about it. He cares about the style codes at work and about his own virtuosity. Gosling’s character is an interesting icon for the narrative; a man with no inner life save what he has gleaned from video games and TV. And this is the point where the ‘car’ theme gets derailed (as it were). Refn comes from a bicycle culture, not a car culture. The casting of Bryan Cranston as the old car mechanic was a huge problem, as was the character itself. Cranston is a very self conscious actor, which works in its way for Breaking Bad, but not if he is meant to carry with him the dark arts of car racing and with history itself. But this is Refn’s failing, too. Leaving the theatre in Yucca Valley, surrounded by marines from the nearby base and with muscle cars filling the parking lot, I couldn’t help but feel a huge opportunity had been missed. This problem seems to be congenital in today’s US film culture. There is no social awareness. Hence the narrative exists in only filmic space. Point Blank captured an era, a transitional moment in US society….prefiguring the post Viet Nam noirs (Who’ll Stop the Rain, Cutter’s Way – both made by Europeans interestingly, and Nightmoves). Drive feels like a technical exercise. The third act collapses because there was nowhere for it to go. Point Blank had a tragic sensibility. A fatalistic understanding of how empty revenge is, how fetishized our love of money. One side note is Marvin’s Floresheim wing tips….which Boorman was careful to shoot and then over amplify as Marvin strode purposefully down that corridor. No such moment happened in Drive. Having said all that, it is a remarkably well shot film, and one that does in fact capture something, but Im not sure what it is. Given that studios are billion dollar corporations, the product today is always going to reflect a certain elite point of view. In that sense, the anxiety that runs throughout Drive feels like the anxiety of the ruling class in its confusion and fear of the working class.

I know the Boorman film, John, and second your comments, and particularly the sense that Point Blank was not a genre film, or at least didn’t perceive itself as such. That also holds true for the neo-noirs you mention – Nightmoves, Cutter’s Way, etc. While the link to noir is clearly there, it arises from the obvious fact that the 70s filmmakers were interested in the same things as the noir directors, seeing the same dynamics at work in the world, and not simply glomming onto the atmospherics. That’s true even for (maybe especially for) Godard, who understood how all those great immigrant German directors were first cousins of Bertolt Brecht and what that implied about the Brechtian possibilities of cinema.

Drive actually seems to me to be an odd hybrid of noir and Western motifs – Shane being an obvious referent. Gosling’s character is really a version of Shane, and of the Leone characters made famous by Clint Eastwood, and that helps to explain what went wrong in the third act. The film shifted there back onto the noir track, and it really didn’t work at all – the source of energy and the trajectory were all wrong. I agree with you about the tastiness of the style – Refn really is on top of how to light and frame a shot, and he understands pacing too and, yes, this time around Gosling’s blessing gave him a kind of stylistic leeway he’s unlikely to encounter again (at least in Hollywood). And then there are the virtuosic scenes of violence in the second act, those moments where the character’s command of violence, his obviously long and detailed experience with violence, come to light. Gosling with his face covered in blood looking out of the bathroom where Christina Hendricks’ ex-stripper has just had her head blown off. Then, later, the elevator scene with the crunching of the trachea, etc. This is Shane terrain, suggesting the film might have wanted to stay closer to the subplot of Gosling’s relationship to the boy rather than devolving into what-to-do-with-the-money. Interestingly, it never occurred to me why the name “Shane” helped iconicize Alan Ladd – that it’s so close to “shame” but then veers off at the last consonant – as if the name taps all the energy that swirls down into shame, but redirects it toward sublime violence. The repressed self-loathing of the closet homosexual always animates Ladd’s work – it’s a distilled version of the affect of shame that also lies close to the violence of Americans in general.

I’ve actually never been that interested in Shane as a film, or in George Stevens for that matter. The story is interesting though (and so is Palance), and the best version of it was told to me by my father on one of the epic car trips we took across the US when I was a kid. The reality of the film never matched my first imagining of it listening to my father’s account and what’s interesting here is the way thinking about the film still evokes the uber-American feeling-sense of being in motion in a car at night across the horizontal world. This is one of the things about the car culture that Refn actually does capture – the lyricism of motion, that differential state of forward momentum, and the odd kind of oblivion that can be found there, that blankness of transition or liminality. Watching Drive reminded me of my father because of his own odd love of driving huge distances, in flight from personal demons, largely. This is, of course, emblematic of the American state of mind. Heaven is always at the end of the road, as if the feudal hierarchies of Europe had fallen to earth to form the lattice-work of highways, the asphalt conduits of the American dream that, in Cupertino in the 1970s, shifted down into the molecular structures of the microchip that now enables this exchange. The film that comes closest to capturing the mania of that horizontal flight is perhaps Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, which frightened and fascinated me when I saw it as a kid. Don’t get me wrong – Refn only hints at what I’m describing, which is in any event different from what you mean by the nature of car culture as a working class phenomenon.

There is something important in what you bring up about the American sense of expansion. You and I have talked before about Oslon’s book on Melville, “Call Me Ishmael”. And its something I find almost at the heart of my thinking on narrative. There is in narrative a conjuring up of space, and it’s the space of our unconscious to put it reductively. We are narrative, in the sense that we cannot exist without the space in which to create ourselves as part of a narrative. On side of this is the mimetic faculty that is triggered by all artworks. And I want to get back to that later, but the other side is more directly connected to a sort of Lacanian space (if you will). Lacan’s rethinking of Freud took him to the well known “mirror phase” and without getting into that too deeply here, I will say, for our purposes, that the infant of six to eighteen months sees its mirror image and is captivated by it. Is jubilant. This image is an ideal, a better coordinated less helpless “I”. This ideal however is not actual, and so the identification with this ideal starts a long journey in which the child’s (individual) ego is an alienated one. In a sense the ideal is ‘outside’. Already there are space metaphors in play. For Lacan this identification involves a necessary suicide (as in Narcissus)…of the real child in lieu of the simulacrum.

Now, to sustain this illusion the child must get rid of what doesn’t fit the ideal picture. This expelled material Lacan later called the “real”. Now, language enters into this equation, and the drives and instincts are pushed aside, at great cost eventually. So vision is itself split; the scopic field is divided between the ideal (conscious “sight”) and the expelled material. Included in the expelled material, perhaps most importantly, is death. For death cannot be controlled, and the gaze is master of what it surveys. Now much has been written on all this, and Althusser made an important connection between the imaginary and ideology. So our egos in one sense are inherently ideological. The individual under the sway of the imaginary, the ideological, the possibly authoritarian, will privilege vision over the other senses. I’m being highly reductive here, but what I want to get at is how later theory mis-read this a bit when they began to talk of film. For its not as simple, in my opinion anyway, as seeing the screen as the mirror and mis-recognizing the image as a reflection of self in the world. An idealized self in the world. For what is left out is that for Lacan, the mirror stage is highly conflicted….rife with jealousy, rivalry and aggression. The illusion of coherence, and of mastery, is always defeated, and there is always a fall back into the chaos of the Id. I think that in fact that our desire for art, for narration, our mimetic impulse, is linked to the space we must put ourselves in, our innate sense that the real, the traumatic real, is a space where we meet death. And I think the more profound artworks always access this understanding somehow. I wrote in my theatre notes, that theatre is always about death, not life. We must return to what we missed, that obscure object of desire, or however you want to posit it, and we will repeat this journey over and over and over. Freud originally thought repetition was therapeutic – but then had to ask; why the constant repetition then?

So, our pleasure in viewing “beauty”…organized space, illusion, always carries with it anxiety. The anxiety of sensing there is something missing and that the heart of this illusion is a lie. Ok, so, the expelled material, the ‘stain’ in Lacanian terms I think, drags us back down to the chaos. Narrative (because we have language) is how we navigate this slide back and how we must repeatedly try out new narrations of self. The “space” of our dream lives is the space of all art. And all art has a narrative. Work that attempts to defuse narrative, and present a post modern surface is actually one that probably ignites the most conflict within us. There is a letter I think, or interview with Lacan where he speaks of the “I” as a fortress surrounded by marshes and garbage dumps….the unconscious as the fetid waters around a far away castle…clearly reminiscent of Kafka. Adorno and Benjamin both speak of Kafka’s space. Adorno said it was the space of film, Benjamin the space of theatre. In this case Benjamin is right. In any event, Lacan said Aristotle’s idea of catharsis was actually our purging of the imaginary. This is so profound. If we accept this, then we are on the road to how to rethink what the artwork is all about.

The beautiful, what Adorno called the merely beautiful, is actually linked on a deeper level, to the horror of mortality. Our terror. Lacan later said “a work of art always involves encircling the Thing”. The thing is the sublimated, the expelled, the object of desire. So, to get back to Lee Marvin and Ryan Gosling…. What you suggest about the horizontal conjuring of space is somehow connected to the “real” narrative, and to the expunging of the imaginary. And with it comes aggression and fear and paranoia. With it comes Manifest Destiny and domination. In Moby Dick, the quintessential novel of the 19th century, this expansion is literal, but the white whale surfaces to drag everyone down into the mysterious waters of the unconscious.

Now, popular film, that most imaginary of art forms, seems required, when it is successful, to somehow manage an invocation of the uncanny. The uncanny as its experienced in Von Kleist or Robert Walser or in Pinter. The uncanny has a spatial aspect to it. In theatre of course, as you well know, the space is there. That’s what theatre IS. To walk into a gothic cathedral or Egyptian temple is be in a play. Film isn’t like that I don’t think. It must find another register in which to introduce the allegorical space of dream. A film like Point Blank resonates because we know, in the tragic vision of Marvin, that we are lost. We murder and our sadism knows no bounds, but at the end the man says, “we have no money, it’s a corporation”. Drive has no such moment. As you perceptively lay out, the third act forgets what was really driving the film. When Gosling stamps that man to death in the elevator, as his ideal “love” looks on, impassively, we are in that space…we feel ourselves sliding back to the chaos…and we feel the truth of it. When the pursuit of Albert Brooks continues, we have returned to another register, one in which the real narrative space has closed up. That’s for me what kitsch is. A closed narrative space.


Well, it’s funny you mention Moby Dick and Olson’s fine book, because both were actually on my mind thinking about Drive. Both are exactly the right vehicles to assess Lacan’s picture of the psyche, which is so sophisticated and at the same time oddly limiting (these issues have a lot to do with narrative and cinema, so hopefully we can swing around and come back to Drive.) The issue for me with Lacan is how he comes to view desire as by definition a function of lack – that the image in the mirror has a unity that I do not feel on the subjective level, and so I am compelled to engage in a lifelong self-completion project that, because it is based on the (m)other’s desire, can only ever be a self-negating cul-de-sac. In some sense Ahab in Moby Dick is the embodiment of this dynamic, and it connects with Melville’s love of Shakespeare, and has a lot to do with the Protestant mode of engaging with experience that was on the horizon in Shakespeare’s day, and fully manifesting by the time Melville read him. But Ahab is surrounded on the Pequod by those amazing indigenous harpooners. Moby Dick is his obsession, not theirs, and while, with the help of the sorcerer Fedallah he has been able to draw them into his demonic project, they continue to represent another mode of being, an animist mode in which material itself is imbued with life. It’s an animism that is comfortable with the idea of multiplicity, and gives the lie to the idea that the Oedipal psyche is the only option for the human. Charles Olson is totally correct to view the Pequod as a floating factory, a symbol of capitalist production…but this means that, to Melville, capitalism is simply a new brand of sorcery (thank you Isabelle Stengers), not something fundamentally different. We are entranced…and part of that trance is the view of desire as a function of lack…This is really not doing desire justice, as anyone who has ever fallen in love can attest.

Lacan, from this point of view, isn’t wrong in his description of how we relate to experience in the capitalist era…but what he describes is simply one possibility among others, and you have to ask whether his analysis is, finally, descriptive or, in a perverse way, actually prescriptive. And here we have to talk about Freud’s view of Nietzsche – Freud somewhere said he had to stop reading Nietzsche in order to be able to write something of his own. You could say that the Freudian unconscious is really a version of what Nietzsche meant by the Dionysian…but talk about lack and Oedipus…To what extent did Freud, in the grip of an “anxiety of influence” get things about the Dionysian wrong? To what extent was it an innocent accident that his nephew Edward Bernays would be able to twist major elements of Freud’s theories so that they could help give birth, via advertising, to the “economy of desire” that energized consumer capital? This is, or should be, a very hot topic, since the corporate oligarchs now need to dampen desire on a massive scale since their preferred economic model no longer includes a vigorous and expansive middle class. And obviously, Freud is a vast topic anyhow, and there’s so much that’s so great in his work, etc. etc. but I find myself agreeing with those who view psychoanalysis as suspiciously friendly to the hierarchies of authority, and the proliferation of a lack-based, endlessly frustrated mode of alienated existence. And I’m not sure Lacan can fully evade the same questions. Is the Name of the Father really so all-dominant within the psyche?

Drive? Well, I think artistic work in general is where the real Dionysian energies lie. Those long drawn out shots in the film where Gosling and Cary Mulligan (who I think I liked more than you did) simply breathe in each other’s presence were haunting the first time I saw the film. Lack is not really a full answer for what is going on there – more like a recognition of non-separation, a powerful connective affect that is immensely challenging precisely because it is transformative. If anything, the film fails because it lets that issue fall by the wayside after the explosion of violence in the elevator. And it’s what we really want to see more of, or learn more about. Immensely challenging to be sure, but we maybe at least want to have the experience, as in Godard’s Breathless, of being denied that satisfaction. Oddly enough I can see Queequeg or Tastego or Daggoo having that experience, but I can’t imagine Ahab having it. The core of his character is, in fact, his inability – his refusal, possibly – to inhabit that Dionysian multiplicity with anybody or anything but the white whale…and of course when the white whale shows up it’s all over very quickly, that’s all she wrote.

I think there is another aspect of this, and that has to do with narrative again, but also with what we think genre is. You made a comment earlier about Point Blank – not thinking of itself as genre. And that’s true, but the other way to think about this is that ‘everything’ is now genre. To return for a moment to Lacan…vis a vis genre….or to Lacanian anthropology as it applies to the arts. In Lacan’s dissertation on paranoids, he suggests that the paranoid – at least the psychotic ones – only achieve a degree of satisfaction through self punishment. But it’s a long complicated process. The paranoid commits acts of aggression against the “other” he thinks has stolen his place. Its more complex than this, but the point I want to get to is that once he conquers the “other”, he takes on a responsibility for that crime. When he takes responsibility he achieves agency, and then we are bound in an arduous path where a dialectic to the mother is activated —but at the end of this it’s the removal of an other from the place I want to be….the object of the mother’s desire….that matters. For then we run up against Death….and for Lacan death fulfils the goal of this long Oedipal journey – to be the desire of the Other. The implications of this, though, are what matter for narrative because what is being said is that I can only be successfully loved by my Mother if I am a criminal.

Now, I would argue…even if I’m not completely convinced, that this accounts for the durability of the crime franchises in TV and long history of crime film, and I would argue that it is always the criminal that we identify with. Now, putting aside for a second that word “identify” , which I hate, lets look at crime and narrative a bit. In Drive, Gosling is both criminal and avenging angel. But he is a criminal first. I remember Orson Welles once said, “the condemned are so attractive”.

I think its interesting to look at what you posit about Nietzsche here, too. I’m not sure I feel quite the same way about Freud though. But lets look at it a bit more. The entire idea of narrative journey – and there we have the space metaphor again – is about how we tell ourselves this story. I would maybe interject here that language is an issue with how you posit lack. But let me backtrack a moment to the Oedipal drama as Freud saw it. And later as Lacan (sort of) saw it. The band of brothers murder the father so they can get access to the sexual object(s) of desire. They take the place of the Father after an orgy of violence (including cannibalism? I mean this is where Egyptian ritual violence becomes so interesting)…anyway, the rival’s women are raped and /or killed, and this is the fertile crux of this whole thing. Because they, the brothers, also loved and perhaps admired the Father. So, enter, remorse. Guilt. So the brothers, sons, decide to create prohibitions from this happening again (to them?). Hence the father becomes even more powerful after death. Now, there are many ways to interpret this material. It is at this point , for me anyway, that I think we have to address narrative. For one way to look at this is that (as German romantics sort of did) the sons take responsibility for the inevitable crime – and hence break out of the symbolic and into freedom by giving away that freedom. Etc etc. But there is another interpretation and that suggests once the Father is killed, and the sons have what they want, they have the women and they have become what the father “was”…that its not only this responsibility, but a sense of absence. Of lack (!!). The Father’s authority is really only given respect AFTER he has died. It seems to me that this is where Dostoyevksy lived….in this particular fertility – this spot in narrative. No Country for Old Men in its own way, also asks questions of what is inevitable in our acts of violence. But we also know that the Father is symbolic (the name of the father). Freud himself understood this….it was the origin of tradition, this respect for the absent. And of course this is the ancestor, and what that means in the symbolic order. Anyway, if I’m right, at all, in following Lacan here, then it would illuminate an aspect of how narrative is used – in its mimetic function anyway….to re-tell ourselves stories….in endless repetition. And we are the holy criminal, always. Gosling is the holy criminal, Lee Marvin is the holy criminal. Audiard’s A Prophet is a work that traffics in exactly these narrative formulae. The Sufi dancer, the murdered man….the man the boy was told he MUST murder, then haunts him as an ancestor might. The inevitable. The prophetic is only make visible the present…the “real” present.

So…I think we can agree Drive contains enough of this fertility to take us at least part way on our Dante-esque pathway. And see, the truths of Dante, the greatest figure in antiquity in terms of narrative, leads us right to Shakespeare.

Ok, so, if we accept even some of this, then it also would account for the durability of road movies (and endless travel fiction, really, and even Dickens and Eliot). So the endless sea in Moby Dick….with the crew ever staring out at the horizon. The vast emptiness of the desert in Bowles fiction, or in The Searchers etc. I mean even low end genre instinctively ‘get’ this….Mad Max, Book of Eli etc. The vast emptiness beckons. Of course, it can turn inward (McCarthy’s cave in Child of God) or countless others. I mean the wilderness is always there. Its IN us, it IS us. And however we posit this space, we somehow know it provides a way through the wilderness. I think Shakespeare was so attuned in his tragedies to that sense of ending that is a siren’s song for us. Now I might only argue that Point Blank resonates more than Drive because it is more accepting, in its narrative, of its own innate criminality. Gosling’s silver jacket vs Marvin’s wingtips.

But what you say regards Bernays and capitalism is very true. Although I might argue that because capitalism is inherently irrational, that they will peddle consumption no matter what. They will peddle consumption even if its of themselves. There are mystic echos here….in schizophrenia, autism and cancer. The pathological and how a culture posits symbolic health. In a sense this is the weak spot also in both Freud and Lacan. For its never clear why the child accepts the phallus given by the father. Why the symbolic order is necessary. But certainly language is part of the answer. For language and I would argue narrative – for I think narrative is the missing idea in how Lacan and others think of language — grants us a register in which to gain symbolic satisfaction. But there are still many unanswered questions in this whole architecture of the psychic. And those questions revolve around our understanding of Death. What does it mean the Father is ‘dead”? We have forgotten. This is, to my mind, hugely important. Our forgetting. What were we dreaming about? Cant remember.

I think probably that entering sideways here would be the commodity form. At least if we’re talking the arts. The artwork – and how its talked about, how critics and reviewers describe it – must be contained with the imaginary. It must remain kitsch. For our superego demands it. And that is the ‘law’. So, plot replaces narrative. And the uncanny is banished. We see the ambivalence in a film like Drive – where so much of it (the apartment shoot out) is a pure dream, but not just any dream, it is OUR dream. For we are the murderers and we are the guilty. The Red Riding trilogy….certainly the first part anyway, is another example of capturing this paradox. This enigma. The “space” of that narrative is existential – the “north”….replaces the “south” of so many US narratives. A mysterious realm where the laws of the imaginary give way.

Ok, Im rambling on here……I hand it back to you.


It’s so true what you write about the role of crime in the process of individuation. It’s close to what anthropologist Rene Girard has to say about human sacrifice and mimetic desire, in his own odd way – the triangular nature of desire, where I only know what to want by copying you, and I am therefore driven to eliminate you in order to be originary to desire. Violence becomes contagious this way, the blood feud acting as the monstrous scourge that decimated entire communities until it was stopped via the re-direction of violence toward the sacrificial victim. In the terms of high-theory, difference is at issue here – we are never more the same than when we are striving for difference via some form of mimetic (lack-based) desire. And the only way out is to choose one poor schnook to absorb all our murderous rage…and then, in our guilt, worship him as our savior, and build churches to him, and start wars on his behalf and all the rest.

From a dharma point of view I always think what’s happening here is the covert operation of a simple syllogism by which I aspire to your (apparent) unity and solidity as an object, and I come to believe that the only way I can fully embody that is to replace (and hence eliminate) you. The (m)other here only enters the picture as a kind of referee, offering the most intimate affirmation that I have pulled off this act of embodied ventriloquism that is ultimately a macabre fantasy – a piece of grotesque theater. And ironically enough, of course, it all dissolves as soon as I find myself unobserved, as soon as I am alone and without the solidifying affirmations or negations of the Other. This is the sad joke of the human situation, and another way to view Gosling’s character in Drive – and the iconic man-with-no-name generally – is as a no-man drawn back into the agonies of identity, the traumas of the self, by the affect of love. His vocal work in the film harkens back to Brando, don’t you think? The Wild One in particular – that surprisingly feminine, quiet voice that suggests someone at peace with a non-insistent passivity that is oddly transgressive precisely because it refuses to ask anything of the Other. There’s a criminal quality to be sure, but the criminality is not Oedipal – does not seek to wield authority. It’s actually a kind of post-criminality linked to a hard-won understanding that violence, murder, bloodshed actually do not deliver the longed for rewards. Grace would be another word for this quality, and it’s linked to a kind of nomadicism that both Brando and Gosling’s characters abandon at their peril, and finally only because the story, the narrative, can’t happen otherwise. Narratives require hierarchy and hierarchy requires scapegoats – someone has to suffer.

Again, it’s not that Lacan and Freud are wrong – just awfully incomplete in what they are willing to include in their account of what makes us tick. The essence of Jung’s dispute with Freud about the primacy of the sexual in the infant’s relationship to pleasure was that Freudian account being reductive rather than wrong per se. What’s happened is that the limitations of Freud’s account of the unconscious have been used to discredit the whole idea of the unconscious, and that’s truly damaging. The instinctive unconscious of Bergson, which lead to Jung’s archetypes, is full of unsettling glimpses of a kind of knowing that is truly uncanny. This has to be a part of the appeal of narrative also – that, like a dream, a connected narrative reveals or illuminates some incommensurable entanglement at work in the way things unfold and refold across the gradients of time. There’s a sense in Drive that Gosling’s character sees the logic at work in the world of the film long before we do, and this is what makes him worth following. I’m simply defining what it means to be a protagonist, I know, but the disappointment we’re talking about in the third act has to do with the fact that Gosling’s fate in the film doesn’t live up to his potential for suffering. Anyone can get knifed in a parking lot, basically.

You mention that cinematic, open quality that can be found in Bowles and in McCarthy, and I would interpret that as the invitation to nomadicism. The nomadic here exists in opposition to the fixed identity of the settled community, the Oedipal identity in which triangulated desire takes institutional form in the concept of private property…a concept that seems so natural to us, but that seemed utterly bizarre and exotic to the indigenous peoples of the world when they first encountered it. My current take on property has to do with what it does on a temporal level – like an iron bar dropped across the wires of a circuit, property shorts out the differences between the temporal zones of the past, the present and the future which have traditionally been viewed as sacrosanct and distinct. The intensive differences between these three temporal realms is what, in traditional cultures, drove the sacred balancing processes. Bergson is interesting here in his account of the past – memory is much more mysterious than we typically take it to be, according to Bergson. This is an interesting discussion with respect to cinema as opposed to theater, because time has such a different quality on stage, is so much more fluid and malleable than on film. The nomadic quality on stage is temporal rather than spatial is what I’m saying, such that those broad vistas of No Country or The Searchers arise as the pauses and silences of Beckett or Pinter.

Yeah, first off Gosling was for sure doing a gloss on Brando. That feminine dimension was always crucial to Brando’s presence. The well noted scene in On the Waterfront where he toys with and then tries on Eva Marie Saint’s glove. Gosling was almost doing an exaggerated version of this and his phrasing had that indelible sexually ambivalent quality (which you hear in Mike Tyson, too, oddly…or not oddly). Now, we are circling around material that actually requires a much longer more structured context to fully explore….but it seems to me that the issue remains narrative, and then this question of time and space. I actually think in theatre that its not temporal…or rather it is, but what you describe as nomadic is actually first spatial, and THEN temporal. Maybe I’m just fixated lately on question of space. See, I think we “are” narrative…we do not exist outside of narrative. In theatre, that sense of what has been forgotten is given a platform, as it were. Forgive me here for quoting myself….from my notes on theatre:

A voice – on stage – is already an image, worded, before it is heard. What do we hear in dreams? Whose voice? Does it matter? Because “I” hear all the voices and if the subject “looks” (always), then the subject “hears”, and if he hears, he speaks. Artaud said this of Balinese Theatre (“WE KNOW IT IS WE WHO WERE SPEAKING”).

The first order of what is going on in theatre is “space”. The text/narrative follows. The audience goes to a theatre because of a need for that space that is not the space of the daily world. Same for temples and cathedrals. The return to a place, a home, in some rarified sense, and once there the instinctual need or desire to listen to what we are being told. If we are told kitsch lies, then the space slowly recedes before us. It is here that the issue of narrative is introjected.

Today we live in a surveillance society. The spectacle is a reflex of surveillance. We have no “place” to escape. Identity; passports (a recent phenomenon), the paper trails, cyber traces of having been
‘there’, in time anyway, graffiti, the partially legible marks left behind…for whom? An audience knows a character is not real. Its not exactly a social contract, nor is it ideological per se, exactly. The ideology found in simulacra is the simulacra of ideology. The need for the theatre space as refuge is very acute today. So what is there in the theatre? “

I think I am being a bit simplistic here, but theatre always seems to be so acutely connected to space.

Another quote:

“There is also not just what “I” forget, there is history. There is that conversation with death, the conversation in the graveyard or mausoleum. And conversations are all formed in language—so the truth of identity not being individual is echoed and doubled in all the dimensions of theatre. For we are in history: and the dead are as real and present as we sitting there. Sitting and looking. Derrida is wrong (in his Artuad essay) that theatre is life. To the degree he says, that it is representable. Theatre is not life, it very much more about death. Narrative however, is how language is negotiated in all this. The text only glimpses the missed encounter and does so in its concreteness. Perhaps narrative is, at its end, silence (Beckett seems to have sensed this). Silence is where the death drive takes us – concretely. Then we leave the theatre. Life reforms around us. The mountain is the mountain again.”

So, somehow space seems something we cannot do without because we cannot speak or question without it. Of course you are right that it is a timeless dream space – and that fact is full of paradoxes. I think its really significant how you speak of the Girardian scapegoat as it relates to this. But also this idea of the nomadic. I might argue that this violence IS Oedipal, but in the end it probably doesn’t really matter. For all is ‘story’, all is ‘narrative’. Benjamin I recall wrote of childhood spaces…beneath the Christmas tree…and I think this is also the space of theatre. So if we return to Drive, we cannot help but ask about Gosling’s character….and that requires we ask about character in general. You’re exactly right, and on to something, when you point out his character seems to know something we do not, and knows it ahead of anyone else in this playing out of a primal conflict. That withheld information is much more about film than theatre, I think. An actor on stage is so different than in film – its maybe the essential difference between the two mediums. An actor like Bogart based everything he did on a withholding. He always knew some secret. His suffering on screen was linked to this. True also for Spencer Tracey. On stage, it is never the character speaking, in a sense. The actor is performing as a form of thinking. I think Mednick used to say that, that theatre is a form of thinking. Film is not the same in that respect. Whoever is speaking in film is actually who is speaking. There is none of that doubling or sense of history in film. I’ve not ever thought of it this way before, to be honest. But our unconscious is historically mediated….its shaped by capitalism in the sense that even leisure time has become labor. Attention is labor now. Film has no “off stage”, so it must create the uncanny link to history, both collective and individual (and in the end they are probably the same). So I think film is more immediate in the sense that it always erases history somehow. The ruins of history, as Benjamin saw it, as a basis for allegory, are missing in film. Film is closer to the photograph, probably.

Returning to Drive, and this nomadic question. The pauses in Beckett and Pinter akin to the “space’ laid before us in Melville. I think I would accept this, mostly. There is certainly a link. How that works in Drive I’m not sure, but Gosling’s character’s knowing, his prophetic voice in this narrative, is very interesting. If this were just a TV cop show…that sense of prophecy would be short circuited by its kitsch commodity form. Now – Drive is still a commodity, produced by corporate capitalists….but maybe that is beside the point right here. I would agree that Gosling’s driver, this enigmatic sacrificial soul is betrayed at the end by the filmmaker. He is actually betrayed at the end of act two. But I don’t think the Oedipal is necessarily fixed – because I think its more a product of our entry into language….how the symbolic register is formed. This is about our primal repression – and that narrative comes out of this, we must construct stories to keep a semblance of coherence to our identity, our construction of self. This also speaks to the inherent lie of the commodity form. The alienation of capitalism, basically. But these stories don’t ever work so they must be repeated. And we have stories within stories.

So, on stage there is always a sense of the Prophetic. Speaking “before” an audience. The future is always godly. It is, in one sense, why we have theatre. Film is not like that. Film is not prophetic. In theatre I think the dialogue is the action of thought. The narrative is never the narrative, it’s the idea of the play. This is very tricky stuff – but its relevance here has to do with what film does with narrative as it expresses something of our primal repressions. You and I are sort of debating the nature of this repression … and how it finds itself in film…or specifically in a film like Drive. So the failure we both sense in Drive has to do with closing down the narrative into a plot – into kitsch somehow. It does this by failing to sustain the suffering that is so present in that shoot out in the apartment. Whether it’s nomadic or Oedipal, it suggests something of why we bother with art at all. My sense in corporate studio film over the last fifteen years (with only a couple exceptions) is that the erasure of anything (!!) remotely dis-unifying must be complete. The illusion of unity and coherence, in its cookie cutter forms, is substituted compulsively.

As a side bar note, I often wonder at the residue of the rehearsal process in theatre. The constant repetitions of scenes in rehearsals – what that does exactly? Because you don’t have that in film (unless its Ozu or Dreyer or someone). Clearly filmmakers such as Pasolini or Dreyer or Fassbender, were aware of the stage – and what went on in the theatre. Today, few filmmakers are aware of those things. If Refn is aware, its only through second hand sources I suspect. Not that it matters, really. So I would agree that Drive sticks in our memory because it approaches something that is disturbing to this false commodified sense of unity.

I think what makes a discussion like this relevant, and what is of disturbing interest and concern is the way in which western culture has entered a late neo-liberal state of almost complete social domination. The activities of the state are more intensive and invasive than ever before – albeit with an accompanying narrative that is actually a form of memory production. It’s not just a surveillance society that is upon us, but a new master narrative that has as its real topic political economy. How does the artwork intersect with that? And how does this branding of both past and future relate to ideas of the prophetic? How does it intersect with the individual trauma of identity as we’ve come to know it? It’s a Phillip K. Dick’ian world of not just controlled amnesia, but something more. The fascist tendencies just beneath the surface…and often on the surface, are now writ in new fragmented narratives applied to not just culture product but to urban landscapes and a carefully controlled “nature” as well. The violence of financialized capital has its own narrative, and globalized militarism plays its part. The unconscious is, as state, mediated by history. I wonder that so much surplus narrative doesn’t somehow impinge on our core sense of self, and play its part in the destruction of our everyday ability to probe these mysteries. A film like Drive I think actually captures some of this – even if unintentionally…though maybe intentionally, I don’t know. But the protagonists lack of a past, his inability to grasp the dimensions of his own desire, all give the film a certain claim to relevance, whatever its other shortcomings.

I quote Lacan to conclude:

“Am I responsible for {the lack in the other}, then? Yes of course. Is this Jouissance, the lack of which makes the Other consistent, mine, then? Experience proves that it is usually forbidden me, not only, as certain fools would have it, due to bad social arrangements, but, I would say, because the Other is to blame – if he was to exist that is. But since he doesn’t exist, all that’s left me is to place the blame on “I”. that is, to believe in what experience leads us all to, Freud at the head of the list: original sin.”



John, I share your interest in the implications of repetition in the rehearsal process and in theater generally. This is a very big terrain and I kind of don’t want to step into it now because we have tabled so much already in this exchange. Just briefly, one would obviously want to talk about Benjamin in that context, and about the difference between theatrical repetition, which is never exact at all, and mechanical repetition. Maybe we can pick that up next time?

To close, I want to focus on your comments regarding futuricity and theater. Here again, so much to say, but I thought straight away of Bruno Latour’s haunting phrase about our current situation: “We were having a future.” What Latour underscores there is how we no longer feel secure in our future, nor should we. The Protestant mindset was always based on the idea of limitless benefits down the line – progress! But now progress has developed apocalyptic overtones…not the advent of perfection but the progression of a disease. And we can’t seem to even slow the momentum of the behemoth of capital and consumerism.
Latour’s analysis is intricate but one of the interesting aspects of his critique of the modern is that “matters of fact” and “politics” are once again mingling in ways they haven’t since the 16th century. For better or worse, we are waking up from the dream of modernity, in other words, and we find ourselves in a cultural landscape that would not have been that unfamiliar to Shakespeare, strange as that may seem. More toys, more gadgets, obviously, but our inner lives start to pertain more to Marlowe and Shakespeare than to, say, Ibsen. Pretty interesting. Until next time…


Guy Zimmerman has served as Artistic Director of Padua Playwrights since 2001, staging over thirty five productions of new work including new plays by John Steppling, Murray Mednick, Rita Valencia and others. A playwright and director, his plays include Vagrant, The Inside Job, and, currently featured in the Hollywood Fringe Festival, The Black Glass. His film work includes the shorts Pronghorn and Great Things (also in this year’s Fringe) and the soon-to-be-released independent feature Gary’s Walk starring John Diehl and based on the play by Murray Mednick. He’s currently completing his Phd in Theater and Drama and UC Irvine.


  1. One question that comes to mind is around the actors themselves, and what role they play in forming the genre, or even the archetype. It’s obviously not all form, so what did Lee Marvin create. What has been Brando’s impact on stories like these? WHat would Gosling have played had Brando never have been?

  2. John Steppling says:

    I think this is a huge question and really germane to the subject at hand. Brando was always bigger than the films he was in. He was the ultimate auteur in that sense. The film was always about what Brando was doing in it. Lee Marvin, by the time he did Point Blank, had acquired a whole set of associations that were brought into play — and this is where film is quite different than theatre. Performance in theatre is another category altogether. Filmic acting is more about performing yourself somehow. I cant do justice to the topic right here, but it does have significance for sure. I think Gosling is instinctively aware of these things….his own anxiety of influence as it were. And probably a more profound director than Refn would have explored that a bit more somehow. That said, Gosling is an interesting actor because of what he witholds…..which is, one could argue, the essence of film performance. As I think on this film, Drive, the more I feel that Refn sort of intuited something about this genre…but never really articulated it to himself, hence the incomplete feeling one is left with.

  3. Joe Nava says:

    I’m not going to pretend that I can keep up with you guys in any discussion of theory in terms of Lacan and theater, but I do have rather modest ideas on film that I think are worth raising.

    Too many points to address, so I’ll start here: I find myself fascinated with the notion that theater is a form of thinking, according Mednick. And I’ll venture to say that film is much less like a photograph and more like a dream, at least in terms of narrative and my argument below. Luis Buñuel described the rituals of watching a film at a theater similar to those of preparing for sleep – a darkened room, where you lie back passively and watch everything unfold, only to wake up and go about your day. Now, you might say that theater is like this too, and it is in some respects, but the moving images on screen, the change of perspective, and the editing of the shots is really what makes cinema more dreamlike (as opposed to live actors on a stage).

    Which brings me to DRIVE. I wanted to like DRIVE. And for the most part, I did – kind of. It captures something visceral and primordial for most of the film, and somehow speaks to the current state of “cool culture.” (Although a sad state of affairs when our American notions of “white cool” fall on the shoulders of a former Mouseketeer). But it doesn’t hold up all the way through. DRIVE left me unsatisfied, even frustrated and resentful that I had gone along with so much of the film only to be let down. Worst of all, I didn’t know WHY, which was even more frustrating – like feeling an itch on your body but not knowing where to scratch.

    Then you mentioned that DRIVE had no where to, that it just kind of “petered off.” And that got me thinking about sex drive within dreams, especially those that don’t offer “relief”, which led me to the Freudian notion of dreams as wish fulfillments. Freud refers to dreams as the guardians of sleep, meaning that the dream will trick us into feeling an urge in order to keep us from waking (i.e. drinking water in a dream to alleviate our somatic thirst). Similarly, DRIVE tricked us with its images and the narrative to keep us engaged in the film. But unlike even the most anxiety-ridden nightmares which fulfill our darkest desire, DRIVE wasn’t satisfying. And this is why:

    If we bring this back to Oedipal psyche and desire, you can see how many father figures were killed in this film. Take Benicio (the little boy) – he develops an incredible affinity for Gosling, so much that I think he projects himself onto him, and identifies with him. Remember the scene where they watch cartoons? It’s Benicio teaching Gosling who the good guys are and the bad guys are (the sharks are bad because all sharks are bad). It’s not that Gosling makes him feel like a cool adult that is the mark of their friendship, but rather that Gosling is much like a cool kid that Benicio wants to be – that garish silver jacket, driving in the movies, and the fact that Gosling is blond, boyish and “white” (this is VERY VERY important). It’s through Benicio transferring himself onto Gosling’s character that the film can fulfill Benicio’s Oedipal desires with his mother Carey Mulligan.

    Whiteness is a very important point here because Benicio is obviously not white (probably Mexican or Latino), at least in contrast to Carey Mulligan’s white, girlish mother. The role of Irene was written for a Mexican woman in her mid-30’s. Mulligan read the script and convinced the Refn to cast her instead. Which speaks of the idea of DRIVE erasing its cultural and social simply at the behest of a pretty British actress. I do like Mulligan in the film but she is a stand-in and really has no business in this film.

    Back to DRIVE and dreaming. The dream tricks us in order to guard the sleep (i.e. the film tricks us in order to stay with it) but really Mulligan is NOT the mother of Benicio. She’s a substitute. And because she is white and girlish (and Benicio is not), Benicio transfers himself onto Gosling, who IS white and boyish. Here, the film achieves this twisted sense of Benicio dreaming of his own Oedipal desires, of objectifying the white people within his own dream. At least for now, there is order – even though it’s a needed deception for the dream/film to continue. But deep down we know something isn’t right.

    When Standard (Benicio’s father) is released from jail, the father returns from the dead (according to Frued, a place from which people never return). (SIDENOTE ON PRODUCTION DESIGN: There’s a photograph of what looks like a dead soldier from WWI in Mulligan’s apartment. It’s so prominent, always in the center of the frame. There are ghosts here…) Standard disrupts this Oedipal wish fulfillment. Of course, he is severely threatened by Gosling, so he invites him over and tells the story (to him and Benicio) of how it was illegal for him to date/impregnate Carey Mulligan, as she was only 17, still a child. This violation of a child by an adult, told to other children incites the film’s natural “drive” to kill the father. And of course, even though Benicio is unable to kill Standard himself, the film succeeds in doing so, by making Gosling complicit – Benicio’s transferred self. The killing of Standard is inevitable, and naturally, like Oedipus, Gosling is responsible.

    At this point in the film, I’m starting to realize I’m dreaming, I’m being taken out of the film. But the film, being the guardian of sleep, lures me with the desire of fulfilling my wish – to marry/fuck my mother. Right now she’s the only one, the other females being either statuesque strippers who don’t move, or an infantilized Christina Hendricks (in light pinks and baby blues, nothing sexual about her) who gets her head blown up.

    But that doesn’t happen. Suddenly, the dream doesn’t hold up to the false images it presented before. These replicas (Gosling as a false Benicio and Mulligan as his false mother) are coming apart at the seams – and the film knows it and must stop it with most enticing dream of all. So when Gosling kisses Mulligan in the elevator (in the most cinematic and “beautiful” sequences of the film), it’s in slow motion, the music swells, the cinematography changes, and that magical feeling of watching a great film fills our consciousness. But this is not the mother, and it never will be – so the film reacts in violence, as Gosling stomps on the trachea of the handsome intruder.

    It’s after that beautiful moment that things come apart for me. That’s also the last time we see Irene and Benicio – the elevators door close over Mulligan as it dumps her in the basement/garage. We’re waking up to an unfulfilled wish and all there is left is to pretend to sleep, to dream, and to keep on killing other false fathers with the intention of finding other mothers. But the jig is up.

    Again, I left the theater somehow sated but then completely frustrated. I knew I had just watched the work a good director, but I couldn’t explain why all I took from it was a great cinematic style. But even the style is deceptive – you have a contemporary movie, shot like 70’s film, with an 80’s flair.

    I also just saw Point Blank – about which I have a lot to say! Man what a great fucking film that was. I’ll have to write more later on that…

  4. john steppling says:

    thanks Joe. Great comments. First….I didnt know that about Mulligan. And suddenly a lot becomes clear. Its the same as No Country for Old Men…where Chigr in the book is described as having pale blue eyes. Then they cast a spaniard. IT changed everything and robbed the film of much of the sub text that existed in the book. Its almost an instinctual turning away from colonial realities in US cultural producers.
    — Now….i think what you just laid out is a very classical Freudian analysis….and that has value for sure. The more interesting question for me is how film might resemble a dream. I think this is such a big topic: and I think in one sense its true. But i think almost all artworks have a connection to dreams. Thats a good part of what they are….how even a painting carries within it a narrative, and that is ‘read’ a certain way. Roz Krauss has a book (and i dont love krauss) called The Optical Unconscious….which is interesting in light of all this. Anyway, film occupies a very interesting place in our culture…..through the sheer volume of film and media (TV etc) that is produced and screened constantly. Putting that aside for a moment….and talking about Drive……I think we all agree the film begins with a sense that something is really going on, that the dream is present….that the ‘idea’ the film has of itself, is alive somehow. It slowly leeches away. And we have all commented on this. Its as if Refn didnt really trust what he was doing. The first problem, I now see, thanks to you, is Mulligan. I didnt like her in this film, but I hadnt figured out why. Now i see. And this brings into stark relief Gosling’s whiteness. He is the white man’s anxiety dream made whole…….and when Guy pointed out that moment when we see his previously hidden expertise with violence, something makes itself felt. For “who” is he? Where did this come from? In the meta narrative, if you will, its an expression of white anxiety. All the villains are ‘not white’…..albert brooks, Ron Perlman, and benecio’s father…..who is a curious character in all this. But none are white. Cranston and Gosling are white. They are the put upon white man. And as I think on this, I see Cranston’s humiliation as fitting perfectly with this. Had Mulligan been latina, the dynamics within the film would have emerged more clearly.
    — The trope of white privilege increasingly surrounded by forces of evil (i.e. dark skinned people) is a very white middle class fear. You see it in films where a white family takes the wrong freeway turn-off and find themselves in the ghetto. How many times have we seen that? Many many. Its a colonial anxiety almost. Its also a class fear…..the producers are an elite class……and i wrote on this a bit in the first entry on this blog (about vampires). An elite class that sees the zombie hordes banging on the gates of their sheltered privilege. Now Drive is more complex — because this anxiety and this class hatred, is channeled into a trope of white masculinity — or does so more directly. There is an odd sexual tension present. Here is the place where I think I might question some of your Freudian critique — and if we look at it more in terms of desire, we see that the Oedipal underpinnings are extrapolated out onto a class platform , as it were. White men murdering the sexual threat, in an effort to establish the social order of patriarchal authority — and of “law”. The name of the father…..the symbolic order — except that there is ambivalence in Refn’s narrative….because of Cranston’s impotence. And really, Gosling’s lack of sexuality. His sexuality is expressed through violence. He stomps on the guys head in the elevator while Mulligan watches. Its foreplay. Its an initiation ritual. But for sure its a stand in for copulation somehow…..for consumation of anything, and so the new order, the law, cannot be established somehow. I’m just riffing here…….but that scene is pivotal. Up to that point the dream was intact. After it, suddenly, a kitsch narrative takes over. And its interesting to think on how gosling puts on a mask at that point in a sense…literally and metaphorically. I hadnt really thought much about Benecio in all this……and I still find myself wondering how that works. One aspect is that its a stock sentimentalizing of childhood. And its an infantalizing of this actual dynamic between races and classes (had mulligan not been white herself….which is I see is what throws things out of whack). The paternalistic white father substitute…replacing the criminal dark skinned father. The unruly father returned to reform a horde at the gates. Gosling is the white knight……but he is the caretaker of the elite class , too. The dream is white Euro anxiety about the end of empire , on one level.
    Anyway……back to film as a dream. Yes….but see i think photographs are dreams too. As is theatre. The ‘space’ is different, so the register in which these dreams operate is different. I wrote recently that a Lacanian gloss was that i can never be fully loved by my mother except as a criminal. This is a core question in how we read narrative, how we mimetically tell ourselves or retell ourselves stories. The criminal is where the energy always coalesces……around this Oedipal tension, and this patriarchal establishment of law, or super ego….its very complicated. So gosling is both criminal and white knight. So, all art contains a relation to this i think. Photographs draw more directly on some feeling, almost uncanny, about what we have missed. The missed encounter, that trauma (from/of childhood) that is lost object of desire. We return…..the return of the repressed is another formation in this…….and in Drive, the reason we all can talk about this film so much, is that something of a real dream was unfolding…..something linked to this trauma. The films own idea of itself however unravels I think……hence how frustrated we feel at the end. I will write more on all this soon……..and youve posited some cool questions about film in its relation to the photograph and to narrative per se.

  5. john steppling says:

    one other thought….Brooks and Perlman are jewish. There is an uneasy disquieting trope here, where Gosling is cleansing this world of vermin. The rodent threat…….just occured to me, and its worth pondering. And actually in that sense, Mulligan’s whiteness comes into play in another way. This is a reading that suggests a fascist underpinning to the relations.

  6. Interesting, I agree, Joe, and I more or less second your analysis and also embrace John’s sense that a Freudian interpretation only goes so far. And, in fact, I would want to point out here the way in which the Freudian account, in its limitations, is itself a seductive encoding. We overlook the limitations of the Freudian account of a film like Drive at our peril, in that the Freudian account is premised on the self as a unified, rather than a partially chaotic or open, structure. Between us and the experience of desire as something NOT based on lack lies what we take to be the abyss of psychosis, and we shy away out of terror. But in our accounts at least we ought to remain consistent – lack is not, finally, the origin of desire. Desire precedes the experience of lack (though the self does not) and this means that the Freudian account of the unconscious is unnecessarily reductive. Drive, for example, benefits from a more Bergsonian reading in which Gosling’s character is drawn to Mulligan’s for reasons that have much more to do with temporality than with oedipalized desire. This is not to disagree with the equating of Mulligan to (m)other…but to look deeper to see what that equation has to say about the relationship between memory and identity, which is much trickier than we typically assume. Those moments of pure duration in the film, for example, really do cut to the heart of desire as a loss of separation, and one way to view Drive is how that experience inexorably begins to draw Gosling back into the past until finally he reaches a point, very paradoxically, where he does not yet know Mulligan yet…and the doors of the elevator close. The whole structure of the Freudian interpretation can rest on top of this view, which, to me, is more interesting or germane.

    The failure of the film from this point of view has to do with an odd restraint, an inability to marshall the kind of denoument that would take the film to another level. The malevolence in play has already been revealed to be petty, etc. Refn here fails at the moment in a Peckinpah film, for example, when things are just starting to get good – Warren Oates waking up beside the grave where his wife lies murdered beside him in Bring Me the Head, etc. Drive, aims, as any film that holds out attention aims, to move beyond the oedipal into the realm of non-spacialized time that only seems dreamlike to us because of how deeply oedipalized we are. Antonioni is possibly the great master of drawing attention to the Oedipal aspect of spatialized time, and from this point of view Point Blank is about as Antonioni-esque as American films ever got.
    It’s a serious issue in that the specialization of time (and these are Deleuzian ideas) as the core of modern alienated consciousness continues at an ever more rapid pace and reaches surreal heights in the hyer-activity of contemporary cinema and television – the spatialized sensorium we’re all trapped inside of…

    Without a capacity to withstand our more basic multiplicity the oedipal, lack-based self has no choice but to fall in love with his own repression. And this is why we are stuck in the institutionalization of lack that is capitalism. The danger in the Freudian interpretation is how Oedipal structures in films offer the same comforts of reductivism that they offer elsewhere. The narrative richness of the west is not unrelated to its greater dynamism, which in turn, is linked to its more unrestrained embrace of lack – we’ve really been giving Satan a whirl in that regard, since the Protestant Reformation…with predictable results…

  7. Joe Nava says:

    Thanks guys for indulging me in these comments. Again, I’ve yet to read Lacan or Deleuze (though I have 1,000 Plateaus high on my reading list, and recommendations on where to start with Lacan are openly welcome) so I admit that my analysis of why DRIVE didn’t work for me was reductively Freudian. However, by laying my thoughts in that manner, I was able to further process the film and validate other ideas I have on film as a dream. The ideas presented below are less arguments and more effort to continue to learning from you both through this dialogue.

    It’s interesting that the scene/sequence where DRIVE falls apart for us is after the kiss. John, you said that the violence in this scene presented a stand-in for copulation, while I posited that it was in reaction to unfulfilled desire – which actually, in and of itself, further proves your point. This scene is key to explain why the narrative dream dissipates and yet it’s one of the most interesting and cinematic moments in DRIVE – one of the most dreamlike.

    John I can’t help but add to your idea about the “mask” Several “others” are represented in DRIVE besides Latino and Jewish and… Armenian with Cook – the bald guy in the track suit at Echo Park (I have an Armenian friend who INSISTS that Armenians aren’t white, despite the Caucasus being in Armenia). Despite his whiteness, he is viewed as an other, and is associated with the other. When Gosling goes to the set trailer to steal a mask, you see masks for Christina Hendricks and for Cook – both actors needing prosthetic masks for their death scenes. Gosling chooses the Armenian mask to disguise himself while he murders Pearlman. I can’t help but think that the killing by the white man, at least under Refn’s Eurocentric direction, must be done under masks – both literal and figurative (“codes of honor”, self-protection, securing the safety of the white woman). And when he kills Brooks, it’s done in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant, a ghettoized space in the valley. I hope I’m not reading too much into this, but I’m just extrapolating on your previous point.

    When I was a child visiting Mexico, my grandfather used to recount all the stories that were depicted in the stained glass windows in the town church. I was in awe of how he managed to derive so much information from a still image, especially one distorted by painted glass and illuminated by light passing through it (much like film). Of course, he studied the Bible and knew its stories, but it’s clear that images/paintings/photographs do have a narrative. I like to say that a good portrait doesn’t capture a moment in a person’s life, but rather ALL of their life in a single moment. This goes back to your point John, about how we are narrative and we exist in a space – in this case the photograph provides a different space.

    I think there’s value in applying Freud’s theory of dreams being the guardians of sleep to how narrative unfolds in cinema/theater/images/space. John, you mentioned in the workshop before that off-stage in theater is the unconscious. And above you said that film has no offstage so it constantly erases history somehow. And forgive me if I’ve taken your words out of context, I’m just thinking as I type, but I’ll venture to say that the reason why film has no unconscious is because it IS “the unconscious” (or the dream) that constantly reinterprets personal and cultural histories for it to fulfill our wishes and desires.

    Which brings me to say that photography, like film, is equally dream-like (However I do think that film is less like a photograph and much closer to music – in the way it unfolds in a sequenced narrative over a temporal space – a whole separate topic for later). Actually, the lifeblood of cinema, its “cells” (what makes film FILM) are at their core – photographs, MOVING photographs. These photographs are representations of people in action, although they’re NOT actual people, the way people exist in the theater, where actors are living and breathing before you. I think film touches upon Freud’s notion of the uncanny – if at least in doubting whether inanimate objects are really alive. I haven’t thought this through, but it’s worth investigating, an I’d be very interested on what you guys have to say about this.

    Briefly addressing the aesthetic properties of POINT BLANK in regards to the dream theory…. First, I am in complete awe that this film exists and was made in 1967. This is one film that feels most like a nightmare than almost any other film I’ve ever seen (similar in to feel STALKER by Tarkovskiy or THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE by Buñuel – two films that deal with the “desire.”) There have been various interpretations of POINT BLANK that believe it to be “a dying dream.” Frankly, I hate to think of it that way since 1) film is already unfolding as a dream, and 2) it robs the film of all weight and meaning.

    There are so many contrasting images in this film and such a complete disregard for logic, yet everything makes sense on a deep visceral level. The deep anxiety that “pulls” the film stems from dream-like images that seem familiar but completely unknown, often repeating prior shots in slow motion with heightened sound, which give new meaning to shots which had appeared to be completely unrelated. From the first image of Mal Reese collapsing on top of Walker on the floor, in a room full of yelling businessmen, begging for Walker to help him – everything in this film incites the uncanny for the fracturing psyche of the American male – men falling from buildings, mistaken for others, cuckolded, homes invasion, swimming. You get the sense that Walker has no choice but to do what he does in the order and manner in which de does them. He’s fulfilling the dreams wish.

    I’ll leave it here for now…

  8. John Steppling says:

    hey Joe…..(and guy)… I guess I need to make a bit clearer a couple of things. First, I love Freud. I’m a defender of Freud. Most people who “discredit” Freud haven’t read him. And one can’t just read a bit of Freud, you have to really follow his evolution. I think most people still recoil from Freud because its such a pessimistic vision. Now…..this is not to say Freud doesn’t need correctives. For me Lacan was the most important one. There are others…Althussar, Deleuze, Marcuse, Adorno….all of them touched on the implications of Freud. Ricoeur, too. Anyway…..so far be it from me to complain about “reductive” Freudian readings. I suspect Guy would complain about this much more than me. One of the things that make dialogues with Guy so rewarding (at least for me) is that we do disagree on crucial issues…..and so it allows two perspectives to be in operation….even when we arrive at very similar conclusions often.
    Now….the scene in the elevator is not where the film falls apart….its what immediately follows that scene. The “narrative” that follows from that moment. This will bring us back to my thinking on “narrative” which i believe is often if not almost always, forgotten when speaking of symbols and the unconscious etc. One has to be dialectical. Things are almost always this AND that. So the off stage might be the unconscious, as Ive said, but its also — in another register — the super ego. I mean this is what is so tricky. We havent even spoken of Benjamin and allegory — a topic worth bringing into the dialogue when speaking of Point Blank. —– But to finish the original response here….in Drive, however we slice it up, there is a ‘white’ dream, an anxiety dream that fuels the narrative. We all feel it, and its evident from the first moment in the film. Sitting in that car. Why? Hard to say, but thats what art does. But narrative cannot be escaped. And it builds, and it repeats, and doubles, and slithers back upon itself in various elliptical curls…..it cannot be escaped. And at some point in Drive the real narrative…for I dont think Refn knew what it was…..is left behind. The director misses That moment comes soon after the elevator. Watch the film again, you can feel the energy leech out of the film….bleed out and the film dies. Part of this has to do with the ‘whiteness’ of the film, and a failure to really look at that tragic carnage as part of a failed historical mission…cultural and political. This is a huge topic…Shakespeare to Melville to McCarthy…..by way of Pinter and Beckett and Genet and Fassbender and Pasolini and Herman Broch and on and on and on. I mean the point is that there is a proto-quality to shakespeare and melville. Anyway, Drive simply runs out of its own title….drive. It stalls. And it does so because the unconscious understanding is turned away from. It literally stops looking at itself. Point Blank never does. And that moment in Point Blank…..around the time the guy is tossed off the building….it actually picks up energy. I would argue because it accepts its own nilhilistic vision of our atomized selves. (this touches on Guy’s comments). There is an historical aspect to this of course…..because we ARE history. Our unconscious is historical……allegory doesnt exist except as a sort of dance with history. Language is historical. So, Point Blank feels as alienated as Walker (marvin) is….and he is so because of his dialectical relationship with history. Walker is dying, in the same way the empire is dying. He is all violence, forward moving power and savagery. But he has nothing left to conquer or dominate. Gosling’s character (via Refn) exists outside history more than the narrative can withstand. To say he is a composite, psychologically, of cartoon and TV image and story is miss the fact that TV and cartoons are themselves shaped by history. The bigger implications of Drive are missed by the filmmaker. in PB, Walker (Marvin) dies with the cultural he has helped shape…(this is an echo in everything from The Searchers to Training Day)..he knows the tragedy and he IS the tragedy. Refn lacks the artistic maturity to find that….for the film steps away from its narrative….it starts to look at Gosling and tell us, oh, he is doomed (but I, the film and filmmaker) are not!! Point Blank instinctively embraces its tragic dialectic. (as for it being a dying man’s dream…..it doesnt matter….it changes nothing. I love when people say, oh it was a dream blah blah blah….ITS ALL A FUCKING DREAM….even writing this comment is a fucking dream…..). Anyway…..great artists intuit something of the forces out there…political, historical, psychoanalytic, religious, etc. Now — one final note: film is a dream…yes, but its also not dream….its both. This is where narrative becomes so important. Sitting in a cineplex watching the new adam sandler movies is NOT a dream….the space was suffocated long ago…..its pure kitch, pure pathology, actually. So this is all open to much discussion. Digital filmmaking has changed aspects of all this, too. I saw that at the film school in Poland. It changed photography. For one thing, the process, the rituals of taking a photograph are gone. Click..instant. You “look” at things differently. I used to have to go to the library to do research. Now i sit and acess the internet. What has changed? Much…..so, we cant ever say a medium is this or that, not totally. But i take your point. I just think narrative intersects in this……all paintings, all image, all of it, contains narrative. The very construction of single point optical instruments….of lens, presupposes a dialectic with other historical forces.

    Guy is more tibeten in his pov — if you will — among a plethora of other things…..and I would say Im probably more Vedantic, among a plethora of other things. It may account for how we approach Freud.

  9. John Steppling says:

    one quick final note on Desire. If one is thinking in a Lacanian context, desire is really the desire of the other, or (as i wrote just this week) the other’s desire of me, or…what I want it to be. This is a complicated Oedipal dynamic….and what it means is that — since we’re talking of Drive — that Mulligan is both mother and other and lack and on and on and on. For in dreams the expelled material returns to haunt us….as it were. We feel responsible for the lack in the Other….except the Other doesnt really exist, so all thats left is keep turning back on myself…as “I”….which is the even larger fiction (in a sense). Lacan wrote a lot at the end about responsibility and guilt. How if I am guilty of murderous and incestuous fantasies, then i am already guilty of these criminal fantasies….and I take on this ‘blame’. This all leads to this idea that the symbolic order is based on primal repression of something horrible — and also to the notions (Lacanian again) of something lost. The lost object of desire….who very existence has come into being by ‘being lost’. What is relevant in all this is the ‘story’….how its constructed ‘after’. Reconstructed. And why? And why does guilt stick? These are complex questions…but they cut to the core of why art has importance….for we work it out, again and again, through the construction of narrative, which is, in the end, always our own narrative.

  10. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Well, we could probably riff on this for a while. The issue of desire is technical but also crucial and the view I’m tabling is Deleuzian, really. Drive, I note in passing, is really all about this issue, from the title on down it’s about psychic energy and how it is shaped and folded with respect to objects (space) and time (repetition). One can embrace Lacan totally as a special case of how desire operates under the sign of lack. It’s similar to Newtonian physics being a special case of natural law that holds true for interactions at our specific scale; the theory holds true but not as a final description of how things are. Desire after the mirror stage does operate as a function of lack…but psyche predates this structuring of the self, and so does desire as a kind of psychic force or psychic absorption in something that isn’t yet defined as “other” because the sense of separation is itself an aspect of the structured self. If one looks one finds that this pre-oedipal way of relating to experience stays with us, and is everywhere rising into expression only to be suppressed or otherwise evaded. Desire is constantly drawing us into multiplicities, multiple identities that undermine the false unity we are seduced into embracing and that is the ground of our alienation and our self-repression. This distinction is the basis for the split between Freud and Jung, cropping up in how Jung famously pointed out that the Wolfman’s dream of wolves in a tree watching him are crucially multiple – becoming animal is always becoming multiple. Freud here becomes a brilliant but unreliable conduit for Nietzschian insights into the nature of the Dionysian unconscious, and I now do not think it’s an accident that Edward Bernays was able to deploy Freud’s ideas so profitably to those launching the economy of consumerism. Freud’s theories showed how transformative Nietzchean energies could be safely domesticated and deployed to further the Apollonian ends of Capital. This is all thumbnail sketching, of course, but it’s crucial to view Freud’s theories in the context of the tradition they were a part of – the Freudian unconscious is not the most fertile schema of the unconscious, in my view. (And, yes, this is not inconsistent with Tibetan psychology, which manages to blend shamanistic, tantric and also madyamika buddhist frameworks into something quite sophisticated.)

    Drive, the film, is a useful pony for all this, but I don’t know if it really merits all the attention. I agree entirely with what you say, John, about the dream and how Refn pulls back from the implications of his own film and fails to really understand what he’s doing. In the great postwar film flourescence a collective form of dreaming was launched and perfected and it now falls away, strangely out of reach. We can no longer be drawn back into a past that is also, very strangely, our future. There is no refuge from the spacialized temporality of instrumental reason or the efficient deployment of our energies for the neurosis of capital accumulation. The point of films like Point Blank was to deposit us in the wreckage of history (to nod toward Benjamin) and give us the dignity of acknowledging our actual situation.

  11. John Steppling says:

    We could go on…and on….and on, no doubt. I only wanted to just footnote Guy’s last comment. Because I mostly agree….but this actually touches on something significant about ideas of repression and the unconscious. We are, as someone said….born into language. The pre-linguistic psyche, and that energy, continues to be a fertile topic for thinkers in all fields. I think my only problem with a lot of post modernism, and even some eastern traditions, is that a tendency exits to de-politicize. To de-historicize. Guy’s right that Freud came out of a very specific intellectual tradition, and one directly in the long shadow of Nietzsche. That said, its important not to forget that all explanations are going to be incomplete. In a sense this reflects the intuition we all have of our own incompleteness. That primal split….and the lack that follows, sending out these ripples that effect both ourselves and the society, are linked intimately to language. We narrate through language. This is why in my opinion, its crucial to keep examining language….and various forms of coding. The political matters because “meaning” is mediated through specific historical forces, which change, and this is one reason cross cultural readings are so fragile and difficult. But its also why “final” solutions are always an illusion (to my mind anyway) and a trap. Guy’s note on our past being our future is really to the point — I mean it is and it isnt…..but it is most certainly true that the core truth of repetition, and how that features in dreamwork…..is not an insignificant topic. But….bringing this back to the cultural…to art and film…. it brings into relief something really important about why Point Blank seems more resonant somehow, than Drive. Now I suspect of the three of us right now, I probably like the film the least. I could be wrong….but we all agree that something in Drive failed, and in Point Blank you carry with you something haunting. It is exactly at that spot that cultural critique should operate I think. Its what Margaret Iverson touches on, and its what I hope to bring up often on this blog. For finally, Deleuze or Lacan or whoever you pick— they dont exist in an historical vacuum. And we begin a form of dogmatism when we stop remembering that. Lacan is useful to me because he re-invented Freud….he corrected a lot and extrapolated from Freud something I find profound about narrative. In fact it was reading Lacan that i began to finally understand (assuming I do) something about our relation to this mimetic recreating of stories, and hence of ourselves. Then as I re-read Adorno, I began to hear the echos. The social structures “we” exist in, the one Lacan existed in, demand further examination — because without this, we end up asking what is the “crime against”? (speaking oedipally). This in turn leads to “why repress it?” I mean I agree totally that Bernays astounding success, as well as he penchant for fascist apology, are not an accident. However one theorizes our primal narrative, as well as our ‘split” — begs further questions. Those questions cannot escape history, however. I think spatial temporality isnt something one can ever avoid — not if one possess language. For language IS that space. It is the pre-condition for language and language is the pre-condition for space. So much Vedantic thought reminds us of this dilemma, this circle, these repetitions.

  12. Guy Zimmerman says:

    Yes, well, these are fertile issues to be sure. One does not want to underestimate these thinkers at all, and I’m really giving voice to the Deleuze and Guattarian critique of Freud and Lacan. (In particular my sense of these things has been shaped by Manuel DeLanda, Christian Kerslake, Brian Massumi and others.) One has to remember that Guattari was a Lacanian activist before joining Deleuze to write Anti-Oedipus – he’s, in a sense, extending and refining Lacan even though there’s also a break there. The role of language is a crucial issue, clearly but everywhere one sees thinkers putting distance between themselves and the “linguistic turn” not because it’s wrong per se but that it’s too limiting. Language is indeed a deep epistemic encoding, but it operates in parallel with a multitude of other encodings and semiotic systems in which we are embedded. But even within the domain of language the encoding aspect is only part of the story, and poetry exists precisely to disrupt the machinic aspects of language, to re-nomadicize it through metaphor and other emergent devices. What’s so intriguing about Deleuze is how he manages to link the recursive human processes of the linguistic with a wide array of other processes – biological, geological, etc – that re-link the progressive with the tradition of panpsychism that leads back through Whitehead and Spinoza to the Pre-socratics. Cool stuff…which leads off in many other directions.

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  14. Wow, just wow. Love the analysis and discussion, very thorough, even to a layman like myself.

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