Shocking Blocking (21)

By: Joshua Glenn
July 11, 2011

John Huston’s blocking in this scene from The Asphalt Jungle (1950) was obviously intended to illustrate Freud’s theory about the interaction of the psychic apparatus. In the foreground we find the inaccessible, relentless id — depicted (by Sterling Hayden) as Dix, a brooding hooligan. In the background hovers the critical, moralistic super-ego — depicted (by Fred Graham) not as a preacher or teacher but as a truck driver. At center, mediating between id and super-ego, is the ego — depicted (by James Whitmore) as Gus, a hunchbacked diner owner. How illuminating!

Too often the id is described as “amoral,” but Dix is better described as instinctually driven; at the end of the movie [SPOILER ALERT] he instinctually drives until he drops dead. Too often the super-ego is described as holier-than-thou, when in fact it’s brutal (as are holier-than-thou preachers and teachers): “What’s a big dirty cat doing at an eating joint?” the trucker demands. “I run over one every time I get a chance. People feeding cats and some kids haven’t got enough to eat.” The least understood aspect of the human psyche is the ego, which we like to tell ourselves is realistic. Gus is savvy, it’s true, but in the end he’s not realistic but romantic. His loyalty lies with Dix; perhaps his deformation symbolizes the ego’s struggle to serve too many customers.

If Gus were permitted to think only of his own needs, what would he do? He’d be an idler: “Smart cat,” he muses aloud. “Never does a lick of work, stays out all night, sleeps all day.” Wrapped up in his own drama, Dix couldn’t care less what Gus wants; while the trucker seeks to make Gus feel guilty about his idlerdom. So it goes.

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PS: Kirk — Spock — McCoy are not a Freudian trio.

An occasional series analyzing some of the author’s favorite moments in the positioning or movement of actors in a movie.

THIRTIES (1934–43): It Happened One Night (1934) | The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) | The Guv’nor (1935) | The 39 Steps (1935) | Young and Innocent (1937) | The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) | The Big Sleep (1939) | The Little Princess (1939) | Gone With the Wind (1939) | His Girl Friday (1940)
FORTIES (1944–53): The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) | The Asphalt Jungle (1950) | The African Queen (1951)
FIFTIES (1954–63): A Bucket of Blood (1959) | Beach Party (1963)
SIXTIES (1964–73): For Those Who Think Young (1964) | Thunderball (1965) | Clambake (1967) | Bonnie and Clyde (1967) | Madigan (1968) | Wild in the Streets (1968) | Barbarella (1968) | Harold and Maude (1971) | The Mack (1973) | The Long Goodbye (1973)
SEVENTIES (1974–83): Les Valseuses (1974) | Eraserhead (1976) | The Bad News Bears (1976) | Breaking Away (1979) | Rock’n’Roll High School (1979) | Escape from Alcatraz (1979) | Apocalypse Now (1979) | Caddyshack (1980) | Stripes (1981) | Blade Runner (1982) | Tender Mercies (1983) | Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
EIGHTIES (1984–93): Repo Man (1984) | Buckaroo Banzai (1984) | Raising Arizona (1987) | RoboCop (1987) | Goodfellas (1990) | Candyman (1992) | Dazed and Confused (1993) |
NINETIES (1994–2003): Pulp Fiction (1994) | The Fifth Element (1997)
OUGHTS (2004–13): Nacho Libre (2006) | District 9 (2009)

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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  1. Excerpt from Mark Kingwell’s essay on Kierkegaard and the Art of Procrastination:

    socrates. The story is that Leontius, the son of Aglaion, coming up one day from the Piraeus, under the north wall on the outside, observed some dead bodies lying on the ground at the place of execution. He felt a desire to see them, and also a dread and abhorrence of them; for a time he struggled and covered his eyes, but at length the desire got the better of him; and forcing them open, he ran up to the dead bodies, saying, ‘‘Look, ye wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.’’
    galucon. I have heard the story myself.
    socrates. The moral of the tale is that anger at times goes to war with desire, as
    though they were two distinct things.
    glaucon. Yes, that is the meaning.
    socrates. And are there not many other cases in which we observe that when a man’s desires violently prevail over his reason, he reviles himself, and is angry at the violence within him, and that in this struggle, which is like the struggle of factions in a State, his spirit is on the side of his reason?
    What strikes us most about this sad tale is, first, its commonality. Leontius is the ancient Greek equivalent of the so-called rubbernecker, the person driv- ing past a highway accident who finds his or her eyes drawn to a gruesome spectacle, not despite its evident horror, but because of it. For most of us, this perverse desire is fleeting and only slightly troubling. We would not wish, perhaps, to embrace the desire to look at bloody bodies or tangled wreckage, but we can own up to such a desire without much cost to our over- all mental self-regard. Yes, not the prettiest aspect of human psychology, we might say to ourselves, but not a crisis of faith concerning our general sense of self either.
    Not so Leontius. He is wretched before his desire to look at the piled corpses—which, not insignificantly, lie outside the city walls, the place of barbaric absence of civilization. His struggle not to look is, we are told, pro- tracted (it lasts ‘‘for a time’’). And his conflicting desires are passionate, espe- cially the ‘‘dread and abhorrence’’ he feels about the dead bodies. When this desire wins out over his (presumably more rational) desire not to look, his inner energy immediately turns outward, from struggle to violent action. He rushes to the corpses and, with some hatred, invites his betraying eyes to have their fill of the ugly sight they nevertheless yearn after as if it were beautiful.
    Socrates then suggests that this self-directed violence—somewhat exag- gerated, we might think—is evidence of what has happened to his spirit, or will, in the struggles. First allied with reason against the perverse desire, once that desire has emerged victorious, Leontius’s will (his ‘‘anger’’), as it
    Kierkegaard and the Art of Procrastination
    were, changes sides and rushes to condemn the failure. Thus the tripartite soul of Platonic orthodoxy is shown in living colour: the rational or wisdom-loving part (which enjoined Leontius not to look), the biddable and capricious desir- ing part (which experienced the ugly wish to look in the first instance), and the spirited part (which first sided with reason and, that failing, turned against the person). Poor Leontius! His soul is in disarray, unbalanced and at war with itself. And his eyes take the rap for a desire that he, as himself whole, could neither resist nor acknowledge. The eyes are figured here not as the window to the soul but as a sort of synecdochic scapegoat. Thus do the conflicted curse their own limbs, or genitals, or organs of sense for ‘‘betraying’’ the better parts of our nature.

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