Finding the Modern Monster




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Finding the Modern Monster

By Daniel Aznavorian

Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Johnathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs both depict characters that are trying to achieve a form of identification. In the process, however, they achieve what is can be seen as a posthuman state. In achieving this state, the characters become subjects of postmodernism and ultimately will exemplify the very essence of that ideology. Although Tom Ripley and Buffalo Bill use far different means to achieve this state, the problems that plague them and their solutions to them are essentially the same. Furthermore, I’d like to explore the characters at the level of society itself. What does this say about the world from which they come? Where do they fit in? Are they independent monsters apart from everyone and everything or are they products of their societies. If so, can they truly be labeled simply as evil when they are, in part, created from their surroundings?

On the level of the individual, the concept of postmodernism can be defined by Stuart Hall “as he draws a distinction between ‘the Enlightenment subject’, which is based upon ‘a conception of the human person as a fully centered, unified individual’…and ‘the postmodern subject’, which is conceptualized as having ‘no fixed, essential or permanent identity’ but rather as assuming ‘different identities at different times. (Hall 1992:277)

With the above designation, we can define the term posthuman as something that exists beyond human. A construct of human parts, whether physical, mental or emotional that, when formed, becomes something other than human. Although resembling the “human-ness” from which it was formed it ultimately ceases to resemble anything human. The posthuman may exist on different levels, that of internal identity or at the level of the skin.

“Lecter points out that Buffalo Bill hates identity, he is simply at

odds with any identity whatsoever; no body, no gender will do and so he has to sit at home with his skins and fashion a completely new one. What he constructs is a posthuman gender; a gender beyond the body, beyond human, a carnage of identity,” (Halberstam 39).

In the case of Tom Ripley, he certainly appears human in his behavior towards the external world, his constructed identities, however tell a far different story if one were to look inside. We see this in the beginning of the film as he takes upon created identity of Dickie Greenleaf while on the boat bound for Europe. Although he is far from a serial killer at this point, it serves as a glimpse of what Ripley, as a character, is about and shows us what his aims are. From early on in the film he gives himself a created identity. This develops further as the events of the story lead him into the life of Dickie Greenleaf; as he steps into his life, he steps closer to the creation of the posthuman identity.

Ripley’s transformation moves to a new level when he begins wearing Dickie’s clothes. When Greenleaf walks in on him dancing and singing in his tuxedo, Ripley stands behind a mirror. This creates a powerful visual image for the viewer which helps to capture the essence of the scene. We see only a portion of Tom’s body, with Dickie’s reflection appearing to stand “within” Tom. As we know, Ripley will eventually take upon Dickie’s life and identity, but it will be a mere reflection, a creation of the reality.

Like Buffalo Bill, Ripley literally wears a new identity. At this point he comes a step closer to the posthuman, moving from a simple name to the very clothing and hairstyle of someone else. But he cannot fool the viewer about his identity, he does not truly become Greenleaf, but rather a false construction of his image of the man, created by a merging of his own feeble identity and that which he believes Dickie’s to be. He speaks in Dickie’s voice, paints like Dickie and even plays the piano as he does, but he also shows a side of the identity which, we are led to believe, could never genuinely be a part of Dickie’s personality, a violent; deadly side belonging only to Ripley himself. An example of this can be seen in the killing of Freddie. A quick and furious scene, Tom ambushes the man, bludgeoning him to death. There was no Dickie here; no imitated voice, jewelry or forged signatures, only a desperate killer.

But where does the significance of the posthuman lie? Why is it important to be recognized? The answers may be found all around us in every aspect of popular culture. In short, the posthuman construct is a result of the postmodern world. In the postmodern, meaning is lost in a sea of signs and signifiers. Jean Baudrillard states that “[i]t is not that we live in a world increasingly dominated by images and signs, but that these signs have become our primary reality,” (Hill 96). The sign dictates the sight and it influences those living among them on a purely subconscious level. Ripley takes in all he can of the lifestyles of southern Europe and pieces together an unnatural identity from his surroundings at the level of the self while Buffalo Bill does the same literally at the level of the skin.

First, both are serial killers, making them something apart from the “norm” of their societies, they hold a quiet obsession within themselves to achieve this new form or identity and lash out at others to achieve this goal. In doing so, both characters seem to view all around them as less than human, as they are apart from their societies; they see others around them as apart from them. They wholly objectify everyone and everything in their surroundings in order to see themselves as something greater than a mere object. Both characters seem to have a problem relating to others around them and instead see their peers as tools rather than people. Although Ripley has acquaintances throughout the film, none bear any true connection with him.

Likewise, Buffalo Bill is never shown to have any sort of acquaintances other than his neighbor, who eventually became his first victim, or his psychotic doctor Hannibal Lecter, neither of which that can be considered a friend. Both characters are essentially trying to find a “true” identity within themselves by external means, using the “objects” around them to build a new and more satisfactory self.

Tom Ripley looks inside himself and sees very little, an empty vessel in need of filling. He targets his needs on those who seem to have a better life, at least externally; those with more money and material wealth seem to have more happiness and satisfaction in their lives. Ripley equates happiness, fulfillment, and, ultimately, a sense of self with this wealth. As a character, he would rather escape his own emptiness by filling it with the fulfillment of someone else. Going to Paris or Rome and filling up on espressos and fine meals are enough to escape the terrors of a shallow self.

Ripley kills, I believe, not just for personal gain but for a personal fulfillment as well. During his time with Dickie, he “finds himself,” or rather, the person he wants to become. It is more than just a name this time but an entire identity, an entire lifestyle. His intense need for this gives him the will to commit murder when all of his hopes are threatened when Dickie tells him they should spend some time apart on the train ride to San Remo. Murder now becomes easy he objectifies people, turns them into objects, tools, building blocks for a life of fine dining, European parties and weekends in Paris.

More than a killer, Ripley is a social vampire consuming more and more of the people around him as he earns their trust and brings them into a world of his creation. His world is complete with a suicidal Dickie and relationships that never existed. With all

of his stories and victims, he pieces together an identity and a reality all for himself. Everyone else essentially becomes part of a construct, seeing only what he wants them to see.

In the process of doing this, Ripley is not only shedding what little true personality he once had but he is also abandoning his very humanity. He creates an artificial self, one created from external sources; objects, both human and non-human are used as history, personality and soul. He abandons the human construct and creates his very own posthuman self.

While Ripley does this internally, Buffalo Bill does this externally and more literally. As a modern Frankenstein, he sutures together parts from corpses to create a

perfect identity, one he will literally wear. As with Ripley, he is surrounded by the signs of what he believes will be the perfect identity, and, like Ripley, he constructs it piece by piece, murder by murder in order to make himself a more complete person. As with Ripley, Buffalo Bill does not begin as a killer either, he seeks the help of Dr. Lecter and tries for a transgender operation in order to bring him closer to an identity he can be comfortable with. It is only after he is refused this operation that he begins to do operating of his own; and in doing so he abandons his humanity and creates what is essentially a synthetic product.

As stated earlier, both killers are strongly influenced by the signs, which permeate their society. Referring to Saussure’s semiotic point of view, we can see that language itself is constructed of signs, words which carry the meanings of the ideas they represent to the minds of the people, are one form of signs which affect us. Media symbols, art and even behavior held within social groups are all examples of how meaning can be conveyed. Over time, however, signs were reproduced continuously and meaning began to change. New messages were being brought to the eyes and ears of viewers and listeners and while meanings were once conveyed by signs in society, they became created by signs, new meanings, slightly askew from their original intentions, changed slowly through a constant reinforcement in society through a mishmash of media, customs and institutions. Signs begin now to show us meaning, they reinforce what is attractive or ugly, what is socially acceptable or uncouth or what constitutes a good, successful life and what constitutes a failure. Through all of this the individual person

takes a back seat to the much larger individual of society and all of its messages and signs.

The signs permeating the world we have created help to form our personality. Saussure points out that “[i]t is usual to assume that words and other kinds of sign are secondary to our perception and understanding of reality. It seems that reality is out there all around us, and language fully names real things and the relationships between them. By contrast, Saussure proposed that our perception and understanding of reality is constructed by the words and other signs which we use in a social context,” (Bignell 6).

This can be dangerous, even deadly when applied to the killers discussed above. Neither one has a sense of his own identity outside of what he sees around him. Neither killer is the least bit satisfied with the identity that they have become, either from the signs around them or other means. They then set out to construct a new identity for themselves forged from the collected signs which surround them.

The roots of evil, then, lie not within our souls but within our signs. Evil becomes banal, found in institutions and in society in general. It is found in society’s inability to accept certain lifestyles, socio-economic classes, and beliefs. Society’s inability to accept aspects of itself leads it to reject them.

Ripley and Buffalo Bill are both uncomfortable with their lives, they wish to create new ones. Their desires with these lives, as with everyone else, are affected strongly by what they see around them. The ideal life of the European high society in Ripley’s case or the ideal woman in Bill’s case. They are a part of the very aspects that their societies have rejected. It is then that they begin to piece together their new

identities, ones that will not only be fulfilling for them but for their societies. Both of them work to become, in their minds, more comfortable and thus, acceptable. They work to become part of a greater lifestyle and society, and they use fraud, deception, murder and mutilation to do it.

Society persecutes those who kill, rape or otherwise prey upon innocent people. Those who do are singled out and made into monsters. Their evil is singular, unique to them and they are essentially not a true part of our society or our world. Just as the killers discussed here objectify the world, the world objectifies them as well. Ripley and Bill make the people around them into tools to achieve their goals, those around them would make Ripley and Bill into nothing more than physical embodiments of their fear and hatred. Ripley and Bill would instead be used as scapegoats, if they are extinguished, then so would their crimes and all of their evil. Their evil comes simply from within, it is theirs and only theirs.

The harsh irony here is the idea that evil is banal, it is found not within people but within institutions and society as a whole. “We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us. Monstrosity no longer coagulates into a specific body, a single face, a unique feature, it is replaced with a banality that fractures resistance because the enemy becomes harder and harder to locate... (Halberstam 38).

Hannibal Lecter tells us that “sadism demands a story,” evil is not its own entity but everyone’s. While it may manifest in a single person from time to time, the

monster everyone fears, the one that will “skin his humps” is not simply found in one person but rather it can be found in a culture’s inability to accept part of itself,

transsexual lifestyles, for example. The monster can be found in the manner in which the signs of everyday life affect us at the level of desire and help to shape what is right or wrong, ugly or beautiful. Finally, the monster can be found in society’s inability to wrest itself from its own grasp, and it lurks there, waiting for another confused victim to become society’s next scapegoat.


Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Film Studies: Critical Approaches. Oxford University, 2000. John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, ed.

Bignell, Jonathan. “Signs and Myths.”

Halberstam , Judith “Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs. Camera Obscura #27. September 1991.

Girard, Rene. “The scapegoat,” Trans. Yvonne Freccero. Baltimore, The Johns

Hopkins Press, 1986.

Hall, Stuart. Film Studies: Critical Approaches. Oxford University, 2000. John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, ed.

Minghella, Anthony. “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Miramax Films, 1999

Demme, Jonathan. “The Silence of the Lambs.” Paramount Pictures, 1991.

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