”What’s her fix? Television, right? If ever there’s a TV junkie it’s the old lady ”
The opening scene presents an established routine of Harry taking his mother’s TV set to the pawn shop in exchange for cash to feed his heroin habit. The dynamic of their emotional relationship involving complex feelings of guilt and resentment on both sides can be seen as merely one element in the constellation of negative conditions which drive both of them deeper into their respective addictions. It is the actions they take to numb the consciousness of their condition which involve them in a process of physical and mental self-destruction and isolation. The movie is a requiem orchestrated by the author and the director for four characters caught in the tightening grip of vice
A good man, though a slave, is free; but a wicked man, though a king, is a slave. For he serves, not one man alone, but, what is worse, as many masters as he has vices. (St. Augustine : City of God)
For Sara Goldfarb the promise of a television appearance is a realm of fantasy which, combined with a growing addiction to prescription diet pills, displaces the painful reality of her situation. Unable to come to terms with her own condition she escapes into the artificial world of JUICE (an acronym of Join Us In Creating Excitement/Excellence) This TV show is a hybrid creation by the director which combines various features of televangelism, self-help programs and TV game-shows to depict how the dream of material success and personal fulfilment is peddled by the slick hustlers of the media industry. The atmosphere of induced euphoria and cynical manipulation portrayed in the JUICE show is only a heightened version of a large amount of television programming. The production of slogans and images by the advertising industry bleeds into the representation of reality via the television screen and the viewers are immersed within a mediated version divested of its complexities and reduced to a simplistic narrative reflecting and reinforcing the state ideology.
To a consciousness ill-at-ease with reality the seductive carnival paraded on the screen before them can exert a powerful appeal, carefully crafted as it is to manipulate the basic emotional and psychological structures within the viewer. Sara Goldfarb is an extreme example of the disorientation produced by immersion within this mediated reality
I’m somebody now, Harry. Everybody likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me and they’ll all like me. I’ll tell them about you, and your father, how good he was to us. Remember? It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right. What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old.
The entertainment industry and the pharmaceutical industry are seen here to be potential facilitators of delusion and psychological disorder. As Sara Goldfarb’s pathological condition worsens the power of her imagination which enabled her to escape reality turns against her as in a junkie’s bad trip. The television images, including her own projected self-image, escape from the screen and invade her home, taunting her condition with a vicious ridicule. The disintegration of her sense of reality and the descent into pathological delusion takes the form of a sudden dismantling of her surroundings to reveal a film set. This postmodern strategy of the director produces the uncanny effect desired (to represent the psychological state of the character to the audience) but implies additionally that the artificial relationship with images purveyed by the media enables the construction of a false identity which becomes detached from reality and vulnerable to psychosis.
In a scene that echoes the dissolution of reality experienced by Sara, and is emblematic of the overall theme of illusion, we witness the chemical transfiguration of Marion’s reality reflected in the bathroom mirror. The alteration of her consciousness allows her dream to be projected onto reality, eclipsing the shadows. The dream of creative fulfilment in her talent for fashion design becomes in time a rationalisation for prostitution, a degrading experience which can be banished from mind in the temporary euphoria of another fix.
Likewise the media re-presents the world to the viewer in the form of a flattering mirror-image. The news and the topical issues are presented ideally as part of a civic service representing the democratic consensus. Light entertainment and thought provoking drama are provided for the relaxed and the engaged citizen respectively. Alternatively we can envisage a mind drawn into a vortex of audio-visual elements which replace conscious awareness of reality with fascination and fixation.
One hundred years ago, in The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler described the power of the media of his time:
The Press today is an army with carefully organized arms and branches, with journalists as officers, and readers as soldiers. But here, as in every army, the soldier obeys blindly, and war-aims and operation–plans change without his knowledge. The reader neither knows, nor is allowed to know, the purposes for which he is used, nor even the role that he is to play. A more appalling caricature of freedom of thought cannot be imagined. Formerly a man did not dare to think freely. Now he dares, but cannot; his will to think is only a willingness to think to order, and this is what he feels as his liberty (Vol.2 pg.462)
A century on the media of our time constitutes a formidable and pervasive tool of ideological persuasion and social engineering from which one detaches oneself only with a conscious effort.
The bright euphoric atmosphere of JUICE to which Sara succumbs closely resembles the adrenalin-fuelled escapades of Harry and Tyrone in the drugs underworld. The same evasion of reality occurs within their consciousness, but the fantasy here is the ‘pound of pure’ which will enable them to become suppliers and ascend higher on the food-chain, free from the danger and insecurity of small-time dealing. Both are drop-outs from the system and long spells of boredom punctuated by brief drug-induced moments of euphoria constitute the rhythm of their existence. Their inability or unwillingness to confront the reality of their condition involves them in the creation and pursuit of an illusion. The extreme cases often serve to distract from the milder cases of the same pathology and by widening the focus to include the licit as well as the illicit forms of addiction the movie suggests parallels with the automatism embedded in daily routines and habits of which the heroin addict presents an extreme and destructive example.
In the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. the description of Harry and Tyrone as they attempt to score underlines the self-deception involved in addiction:
Harry and Tyrone were slowly absorbed by the cesspools they were spending more and more time in. It was a gradual progression, like most diseases, and their overwhelming need made it possible for them to ignore much of what was happening, distorting some, and the rest accepted as part of the reality of their lives. But with each day more and more of the truth was impossible to ignore while the disease instantly and automatically rationalized the truth into an acceptable distortion. Their disease made it possible for them to believe whatever lies it was necessary for them to believe to continue to pursue and indulge their disease, even to the point of them believing they were not enslaved by it, but were actually free.
This rationalisation of self-destructive behaviour is also evident in the attempt by modern ideological structures to locate the cause in socioeconomic or physiochemical factors. The author of the novel however locates the problem in the spiritual realm from the opening dedication:
This book is dedicated, with love, to Bobby, who has found the only pound of pure – faith in a loving God
This book is about four individuals who pursued The American Dream, and the results of their pursuit. They did not know the difference between the Vision in their hearts and the illusion of the American Dream. In pursuing the lie of illusion, they made it impossible to experience the truth of their Vision. As a result everything of value was lost.
The absence of any spiritual counsel in the film is a consequence of the liquidation of spiritual values to secular economic and social approximations. The inability of the society to offer authentic value leaves a spiritual void to be filled with audio-visual stimulants, representations, illusions. The pursuit of the authentic in the realm of the artificial is the cause of the characters descent into vice.
The latent nihilism within the characters is symbolised by the decaying skeletal remains of the Coney Island rollercoaster looming up behind Harry and Tyrone as they wheel the TV to the pawnbrokers. This remnant of a pleasure-ride and the two parking meters in the shot presages the spiral of disintegration to come in the aftermath of their hedonistic pursuits.
Similarly the pier in Harry’s waking dreams denotes the precarious and abruptly terminated status of his illusory hopes. This is the pier where Marion vanishes as he approaches, and from which he falls into a black void.
The movie is overflowing with striking images and dazzling editing, but the score carries the emotional weight throughout. The movie is divided into three seasons progressing from the optimism of Summer and the doubts and mishaps of Fall towards the inexorable culmination of Winter. The score maintains a hypnotic intensity throughout, ranging from a quiet accompaniment to a driving rhythm, an ominous undertone, or an insistent lash. It utilises the traditional instruments of violin, cello and piano with a relentless electronic beat pulsing mechanically beneath and emerging at moments of crisis to mimic the impersonal automatism of industrial machinery. Combined with the onslaught of connected images contained in the Winter episode the music serves the theme of human freedom subsumed within the dehumanising processes of vice and delivered over to the institutions of the technocratic state.
The movie intends to replicate for the viewer the effects of addiction. It utilises techniques such as a steadicam strapped to the actors body, fish-eye lenses, rapid editing montages and variations of frame speeds to convey the altered perception of time and space. It attempts to submerge the viewer within the mental and emotional turmoil of addiction and at the same time to cast a light on the broader question of what drives an addiction. The cycles and repetitions of behaviour which inform our day to day existence in many ways mirror the obsessive and irrational compulsions of the junkie. It is a difference in degree not in kind, and the degree to which one is conscious of the cycles determines the extent of one’s freedom.
The power of the movie is not in the bleakness of its brutal crescendo as a moral indictment of drug-use but rather in its enactment of a conscious attempt to understand how a mind passes into the grip of a vice and becomes enslaved to it. The word ‘freedom’ in secular thought has become little more than an ingredient of political cant and vacuous advertising slogans. The moral and spiritual framework of the past which contains the accumulated wisdom of tradition has been jettisoned from the life of the modern citizen. In its place we have the inception of the isolated individual ego, immersed in its desires and overwhelmed by ideological illusions designed to keep it spellbound, captivated by the surety of possessing freedom. It takes only a little sincere attention to one’s own behaviour to bring this presupposition into question:
You are no doubt aware of the way we think by chance association, when our thought strings disconnected scenes and memories together, when everything that falls within the field of our consciousness, or merely touches it lightly, calls up these chance associations in our thought. The string of thoughts seems to go on uninterruptedly, weaving together fragments of representations of former perceptions, taken from different recordings in our memories. And these recordings turn and unwind while our thinking apparatus deftly weaves its threads of thought continuously from this material. The records of our feelings revolve in the same way—pleasant and unpleasant, joy and sorrow, laughter and irritation, plea sure and pain, sympathy and antipathy. You hear yourself praised and you are pleased; someone reproves you and your mood is spoiled. Something new captures your interest and instantly makes you forget what interested you just as much the moment before. Gradually your interest attaches you to the new thing to such an extent that you sink into it from head to foot; suddenly you do not possess it any more, you have disappeared, you are bound to and dissolved in this thing; in fact it possesses you, it has captivated you, and this infatuation, this capacity for being captivated is, under many different guises, a property of each one of us. This binds us and prevents our being free. By the same token it takes away our strength and our time, leaving us no possibility of being objective and free —two essential qualities for anyone who decides to follow the way of self-knowledge. (G. I. Gurdjieff: Views from the Real World)
The enslavement to a vice is a severe example of the innate slavery to our thoughts and passions which traditional understanding has always recognised and sought to mitigate. Modernity has been premised on the extraordinary and continual denial of this state which nevertheless reappears time and again in the nihilistic undercurrents of the culture.