By John Thurman

It seems to have been deliberately buried.

– Dr. Ralph Halvorsen (Robert Beatty) in 2001: A Space Odyssey

Buried within Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), like the monolith found beneath the moon’s surface in the film, is the motif of the Frankenstein story. In the H. A. L. 9000 computer (“HAL”), humans have created the first artificial intelligence: a sentient, albeit synthetic, life form. But HAL’s very existence is an abomination; he is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. While perhaps not overtly monstrous, HAL’s true character is hinted at by his physical “deformity”. Like a Cyclops he relies upon a single eye, examples of which are installed throughout the ship. The eye’s literally warped wide-angle point-of-view is


HAL’s warped perspective

shown several times — notably in the drawings of hibernating astronauts (all of whom HAL will later murder). But as Frankenstein’s monster is a crudely-sutured motley of cadaverous parts obtained through grave robbing, his appearance is shocking in a way that the seemingly innocuous collection of diodes and chips comprising HAL can never be. This difference of emphasis might serve as a metaphor for Kubrick’s artistic subtlety: the placid surface must be penetrated to arrive at its deeper meaning. It will take action from HAL to make his monstrousness truly manifest. Consequently, Frankenstein’s shocking appearance, and HAL’s murders are somewhat equivalent insofar as they are revelations of character.

Indeed, Kubrick’s film equates the two. To underscore the Frankenstein connection, Kubrick nearly reproduces a scene from James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein in both style and essential content. The scene by which Frankenstein’s monster is first shown on the loose is borrowed to depict the first murder by HAL of a member of Discovery One’s crew. In each case, it is the first time the truly odious nature of the “monster” can be recognized as such, and only appears about halfway through the film.

Kubrick took a year and a half to complete the visual effects work on 2001. (1) The scene borrowing from Frankenstein involves the exacting arrangement of various models. It is likely that the close approximation of the scene to its predecessor is a function of the careful deliberation required. A comparison of the two scenes reveals just how similar they are in terms of lighting, composition, editing, staging, and sound. To facilitate explanation, the comparison is broken into five stages.


Frankenstein shot 1


2001 shot 1

1) Frankenstein shot 1:
Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is sitting at a table talking with his mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), who warns him that his creation — using a criminal brain — may be dangerous. “Only evil can come of it . . . You have created a monster and it will destroy you,” Waldman says. Frankenstein tells him that it must be given time to develop: “So far he’s only been in complete darkness, wait till I bring him into the light.” Thus it is made explicit that the monster’s nature, previously hidden, is about to be revealed. In response to footsteps, the two doctors rise and turn to look expectantly off-screen left, to the approaching monster. Frankenstein turns off the light directly over them.

2001 shot 1:
In medium long-shot, Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea), inside the Discovery’s cockpit, shifts his gaze downward to a display of monitors before him. Off-screen Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), his colleague, is about to emerge from the hatch of his self-contained space pod (a physical extension of HAL, effectively his “body”) to do maintenance work on the transmitter. HAL’s prediction of an imminent failure in the transmitter conflicts with the findings of his twin earthbound computer and has provoked the two crewmembers’ mistrust of HAL.
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2001 shot 2


Frankenstein shot 2a- c

2) Frankenstein shot 2a-c:
From the scientists’ look, a cut is made to the door they are watching. It opens all the way to the right, revealing the monster backing his way in.

2001 shot 2:
An over-the-shoulder insert shows Poole emerging on the lower right of the four computer monitors, which are placed in the pod’s control console, just to the left of one of HAL’s ubiquitous eyes. Over both of the first two shots is heard the steady supply of oxygen from Poole’s respirator, as well as his heavy breathing. The hatch of Poole’s pod opens all the way to the right, and Poole emerges.
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frankenstein-3b.jpeg 2001-3b.jpeg

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2001 shot 3a-c


Frankenstein shot 3a-d

3) Frankenstein shot 3a-d:
A medium close-up of the monster in the doorway is roughly from the two onlookers’ points-of-view. He continues to back in, then pauses and begins turning around. Reaching profile, his face is visible and comes out of shadow and into the light streaming in through a side window – just as his creator has anticipated in his dialogue. The monster continues turning, with his footsteps still sounding until he is almost fully frontal. He stops, facing forward.

2001 shot 3a-c:
A cut to the outside brings a very long shot. Poole drifts toward the ship at the left, very small in the frame. Looming menacingly in the right foreground is his empty pod. Poole continues to breathe amid the vacuum. His pod suddenly turns of its own accord, toward Poole. It is half in shadow.







2001 shot 4a-f

2001 shot 4a-f:
The pod continues to turn around silently, as Poole’s breathing is heard. Its robot arms move, dropping down from their position of rest to extend before it while its lights flare into the camera. The pod has emerged from the shadow into the light, thus repeating the symbolism of the monster’s emergence in Frankenstein. The pod rushes forward, into the camera, opening its twin double arms with monstrous claw-like hands at their ends. HAL’s single eye can now be seen in a panel at the middle of the pod, below its portal.

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Frankenstein shot 4 2001 shot 5

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Frankenstein shot 5 2001 shot 6

4) Frankenstein shots 4-5:
Suddenly, a cut is made to a close-up. The sound drops out of the soundtrack entirely. Very quickly after, a cut brings an even tighter close-up, which nearly fills the frame. This is the third frontal shot of the monster in a row, and each is successively closer — seeming to rush forward shockingly at the viewer. There is still no sound. The monster’s eyes are rolled back inhumanly.

2001 shots 5-6:
A sudden cut brings a close shot of the panel, in the middle of which is HAL’s lone eye. A quick cut to the center of the panel brings the eye closer.


2001 shot 7


2001 shot 8


2001 shot 9

2001 shots 7-9:
A close-up fills the center of the frame with HAL’s eye. With the cut to this shot, Poole’s breathing and oxygen cut out, his breathing tube having been severed by HAL. There is absolute silence on the soundtrack. Two cuts bring closer shots of HAL’s red eye. The last of these fills the frame entirely with a mute extreme close-up, confronting the viewer with the portrait of a deep and malevolent intelligence.


Frankenstein shot 6


2001 shot 10

5) Frankenstein shot 6:
A cut is made moving back out from the oppressively close shots of the monster. This long shot repeats the setup of shot 2a-c. From the left side of the frame, Frankenstein moves to the monster and invites him in. The doctor’s footsteps, and then voice, bring sound back after the sudden dropout.

2001 shot 10:
Bowman is cut to in a medium-long shot, as he was framed in shot 1. From the absolute silence of the previous four shots, sound returns with the humming background sound of the cockpit’s interior. Bowman jerks his head to the off-screen monitor, which shows, in a later insert, Poole still alive and struggling in the vacuum of space with his severed breathing tube.

Beyond thematic concerns, the two scenes share numerous formal characteristics that make it clear one follows from the other. Both scenes begin by cutting on characters’ eyelines from a wide shot to a point-of-view or near point-of-view shot. Following this, a character emerges from behind a door, which opens all the way to the right. Then, the “monster” turns around 180 degrees to face the camera, in the process moving from darkness into light for a revelation at once literal and symbolic. During these shots, the soundtrack suddenly goes completely silent. Finally, the scene ends with a cut back to an earlier, much wider, setup as if to give breathing room after the barrage of ever-tighter close-ups.

But there is more to the Frankenstein myth as adapted by Kubrick’s film than hints at HAL’s nature and the borrowing from Whale. Like a palimpsest the story of Frankenstein also reveals inherited creation stories itself. Mary Shelley’s original novel, the inspiration for Whale’s loosely-adapted film, is subtitled The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus the Titan created man out of clay and — if the myth is not to be taken literally — in stealing fire from the Gods thereby endowed man with the divine spark of wisdom. In 2001, the monolith imparts a divine spark precipitating humanity’s evolution to a new stage with each of its appearances. Thus toolmaking is discovered. Later, a mission to Jupiter — not just a place, but the Roman name for the supreme deity whom the Greeks called Zeus, and who dwells “beyond the infinite” — is conceived. The mission is guided by a signal emanating from the monolith excavated on the moon, and executed through the use of a stargate by which time and space are transcended. Out of this meeting with God comes the further evolution to the “Star-Child.” These examples of the use of a divine spark notwithstanding, the place of Prometheus in the film is taken by humans, who create HAL and then endow him through programming. This “birth” of machine intelligence is poignantly recalled as HAL is lobotomized, when he sings the song Daisy Bell, taught him by his “instructor”, Mr. Langley. Like the Titan, humans create and endow intelligent life but suffer for it. HAL would not have had to have been incapacitated were this not the case.

The Biblical Genesis is also recalled, wherein God creates Adam from dust “in His image”. Separating human from beast is a self- awareness and the need for self-control derived from it. Thus, humans exist in God’s moral universe, and are subject to His law. HAL is likewise fashioned after his creator, being able to “reproduce . . . most of the activities of the human brain and with incalculably greater speed and accuracy.” In Genesis, humans’ resemblance to their creator implies a privileged position – indeed they are “the pinnacle of creation”. (2) They are to lord it over all the other species on Earth:

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’(3)

HAL is privileged in that he is trusted with maintaining the crew. His function on the ship’s mission is as the “brain and the central nervous system of the ship” (so it is no coincidence that the ship encasing HAL resembles a head and spinal column – he is one modern incarnation of the first bone/tool). But just as in Whale’s film where Frankenstein’s monster was given a dysfunctional brain, HAL makes a prediction that runs counter to its earthbound twin, and thus seems to be in error. Already in the film, repeated mention has been made of the completely perfect operational record of the HAL-9000 line of computers. Bowman and Poole investigate HAL’s prediction outside the ship, culminating in HAL’s murder of Poole. Soon afterward, the three hibernating members of the crew are also murdered, during which an extreme close-up of a warning light flashes “Computer Malfunction.” It would seem that at least within the context of HAL’s mission, he too is a dysfunctional brain. This is, perhaps, inextricable from his lack of concern with morality.

These stories are united in that they are all cautionary tales of the consequences of a monumental presumption by humans, one which is an affront to God. The story of Frankenstein is a fitting successor to the earlier accounts. It is a secularization of the creation myth, a new myth for the new scientific age. George Levine notes, “the whole narrative of Frankenstein is acted out in the absence of God.” (4) Therefore, Shelley’s novel anticipates the moral vacuum later described by Nietzsche. In the wake of scientific advances that called into question numerous traditional Christian beliefs, Nietzsche declared, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, that “God is Dead” – that is to say the Christian worldview was no longer adequate for explaining the world and infusing it with purpose. (5) Doubt had replaced faith. But Nietzsche was attempting to overcome this nihilism with an affirmative philosophy of his own, a project he called the “revaluation of all values”. Many have interpreted 2001 as an illustration of Nietzschean ideas. Don Daniels conceives of the film, at least in part, as exemplifying the three-fold evolution Nietzsche details in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: from ape to man, and finally to Bowman’s transfiguration into the ubermensch. (6) This is further emphasized in the film by using Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem, also entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra, three times. (7) In replacing God with humanity, Nietzsche allows for the amoral hubris of Dr. Frankenstein. In Whale’s film, as Dr. Frankenstein animates his cadaverous creation, he shouts “It’s alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

Dr. Frankenstein’s fundamental assumption is that there is nothing inherently special about life itself; it is merely a mechanism whose workings could (and therefore should) be uncovered. (8.) Electricity takes the place of the “divine spark” of Prometheus, and this is inherited by HAL. But time and death cannot be transcended through matter alone (9) and the Frankenstein story becomes a “parable of the necessity of limits in an entirely secular world”. (10) As the presenter says in Frankenstein’s prologue, the story is of “a man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.” The same attitude is echoed by the creation of HAL. With each, humans have trespassed into the realm of the divine. In a moral universe, the inevitable result is catastrophic.

Kubrick, speaking of 2001, says “the God concept is at the heart of this film.” Kubrick then describes the vastness and age of the universe, the chemical inevitability of the development of life under certain conditions, and the
tremendous technological strides made by humans in only six thousand years of civilization. This, to him, probabilistically implies “that the universe is seething with advanced forms of intelligent life.” He continues:

At a time when man’s distant evolutionary ancestors were just crawling out of the primordial ooze, there must have been
civilizations in the universe sending out starships to explore the farthest reaches of the cosmos and conquering all the secrets of nature. Such cosmic intelligences, growing in knowledge over the aeons, would be as far removed from man as we are from the ants. . . Once you begin discussing such possibilities, you realize that the religious implications are inevitable, because all the essential attributes of such extraterrestrial intelligences are the attributes we give to God. What we’re really dealing with here is, in fact, a scientific definition of God. And if these beings of pure intelligence ever did interfere in the affairs of man, we could only understand it in terms of God or magic, so far removed would their powers be from our understanding. (11)

In the film, this divine intelligence does intervene in human affairs, to speed our evolution. It acts at least partly through technological means by leaving an artifact (the monolith) whenever doing so. The necessity of this intervention implies limits that would seem to proscribe human ability to duplicate the feat. But, it has not prevented the attempt. HAL is the apotheosis of human technology — whereby intelligent life itself is artificially evolved.

Human toolmaking is, however, through all history (and pre-history) fraught with a basic dualism. Utilitarian inventors do not trouble themselves with questions of good and evil, only the practicability of their discoveries. The same bone that allows the starving man-apes to hunt and prosper becomes an instrument of lethal inter-group warfare. After what is apparently the very first murder, it is tossed triumphantly into the air. Although four million years are spanned by the famous cut from the flying bone to the orbiting satellite, little has changed. (12) Some satellites allow Dr. Floyd (William Sylvester) to converse via “picturephone” with his daughter, or a BBC newscaster to interview the Discovery crew. The satellite that appears after the bone, though, is an orbiting nuclear weapons platform. (13) HAL is designed to aid humans, but could conceivably supplant them. Indeed he attempts to do so through intentional mismanagement of the crew’s life-support systems.

Kubrick’s universe ultimately proves to have a moral dimension, but one that seems to operate independently of God. For his rebellion against Zeus, Prometheus was chained to a rock to have an eagle feast daily on his continually regenerating liver. Likewise, for Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God they are exiled from Eden and condemned to eventually die. In Kubrick’s film it is apparently not the divine intelligence seen operating elsewhere in human history who effects retribution for the abominable presumption embodied by HAL. In this secularized myth, adapted from Frankenstein, it is the creation himself who takes revenge. Everyone in the crew but Bowman is condemned. HAL is an evolutionary dead-end, but as the incarnation of monstrous human potentialities, he must be overcome before Bowman may continue to Jupiter and a more affirmative new stage in human evolution.


1. Stanley Kubrick, quoted in Joseph Gelmis (Ed.), The Film Director as Superstar
(GardenCity, New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 295.

2. Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis: The Heritage of Biblical Israel
(New York: Schocken. 1970) [Melton Research Center of the Jewish Theological
Seminary of America, 1966], p.14.

3. Genesis 1:28 in Michael D. Coogan (Ed.), The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, 3rd edition NSRV, College Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 12.

4. George Levine, “The Ambiguous Heritage of Frankenstein” in George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher (Eds) The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 7.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann (trans.), (New York: Penguin Books,1978.) [Viking Press, 1954], p. 12.

6. Don Daniels, “A Skeleton Key to 2001”, Sight and Sound. Winter 1970/1971, p. 29.

7. Daniels, p. 33.

8. Levine, p. 27.

9. Levine, p. 6.

10. Levine, p. 12.

11. Quoted in Gelmis, p. 305.

12. Jerome Agel, (Ed.) The Making of Kubrick’s 2001 (New York: Signet, 1970), p. 76.

Although it is explicitly stated in the film that the lunar obelisk was placed four million years ago, there is no dating of the obelisk which appears during the Dawn of Man sequence. Agel specifies the same date as for that on the moon. Also, although not credited, Daniels (p.28.) notes that Kubrick cooperated with Agel in editing the book, which was issued with the film’s re-release.

13. Agel, p. 88.

By John Thurman

Much has been written about the right-wing attitudes embodied by Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro), Taxi Driver’s title character. Critical reaction has, at times, linked the film to reactionary revenge fantasies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish (1). Both director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader have discussed Bickle’s obvious racism (2). Although the film is told almost entirely from Bickle’s point-of-view, it has a counter-current throughout — a denunciation of American imperialist militarism. The same imperialism that involved Bickle in a war in Vietnam is tied to America’s moral deterioration. While this cannot be said to be the film’s main thrust, a careful examination of Taxi Driver‘s subtext reveals its presence.

The film relates the imperialist adventure in Vietnam to earlier American history, revealing a basic continuity, while illuminating its social consequences. Thus it is implied that little will change. Schrader says that “the film never mentions Vietnam, but it’s full of Vietnam language”, and adds that the references are intentionally obscure (3).

When we first see Bickle applying for the job of taxi driver, he wears a Marine jacket with his name stenciled on the back, a parachute wing breast insignia patch, and a “King Kong Company”shoulder patch. He tells the dispatcher (Harry Fischler) interviewing him that he was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1973. The first view of Bickle’s apartment begins with a shot of a clothesline stretched in a corner from which hangs an item of Bickle’s laundry, as well as a draped Vietcong flag — a souvenir from the war. Panning right, we see his olive drab service knapsack hanging from the wall before we see the rest of Bickle’s apartment, or Bickle himself. Travis and his dwelling are both intimately related to Vietnam as they are introduced. Clearly then, the shaping of Bickle’s character is closely entwined with the war. Vietnam has scarred Bickle; we see its effects on him throughout. And, in an expressive touch we see that this scarring is at once emblematic and literally true. An overhead glimpse of Bickle’s back, as he does push-ups, reveals that it is streaked with a length of scarified tissue. As Scorsese notes “It was crucial to Travis Bickle’s character that he had experienced life and death around him every second in south-east Asia… So Travis Bickle was affected by Vietnam: it’s held in him and then it explodes.” (4)


Travis the Marine

When Travis goes to Palantine headquarters to ask Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) why she won’t take his calls, he is ushered to the door by Tom (Albert Brooks). Travis backs away, and assumes a fighting posture that makes us realize he was no ordinary Marine. Rather, this is something he would have learned from hand-to-hand combat instruction in Special Forces training. As Travis goes back into training for what he conceives of as his final “mission”, he is seen doing chin-ups while wearing an inside-out Marines t-shirt, of the type used in basic training. He also drills with a KA-BAR knife, the standard Marine-issue knife since the end of World War II (5). Later, when he is about to attempt Palantine’s assassination, Bickle appears with his hair shaven into a Mohawk (6). This is a practice from Vietnam, continued from World War II airborne troops, who would get Mohawk haircuts the night before their perilous airborne assaults. It was particularly in evidence on D-Day (7).


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The Mohawk__________________Two of “The Filthy 13″before D-Day

In Palantine’s second to last speech, he uses empty political rhetoric, which nevertheless gives the impression that America has lost its way, in part as a result of the recent failure in Vietnam. He says, invoking Walt Whitman, “We the people suffered in Vietnam. We the people suffered,” before continuing with a litany of vague systemic ills. Although Palantine is clearly nothing but a stuffed shirt, he is seeking, through carefully chosen rhetoric, to exploit deep-seated unresolved feelings lingering in the public from the time of the war. This empty populism is intuited by Bickle when he alludes to his plan for Palantine with a reference to Robert Penn Warren’s novel about a populist politician who is assassinated, saying in voice-over “All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.”

At the final rally in the film, where Bickle has planned to make his assassination attempt, Palantine speaks before the Maine monument in Columbus Circle. The location’s significance is manifold, and Palantine begins his speech by noting the symbolic significance it carries for him. Columbus Circle is a crossroads, he points out, “no ordinary place.” He adds that likewise, they meet at a crossroads in history. Palantine reiterates his earlier theme that “the wrong roads” have led the American people into war (in Vietnam) and numerous other social problems. For Bickle, too, it is a crossroads, the scene is led into with his voiceover, where he tells us that he sees clearly now that his “whole life has been pointed in one direction.”

The Maine monument serving as a backdrop for Palantine is America’s national monument to the Spanish-American war, which ushered in a new era whereby America changed from an expansionist nation with continental designs to an imperialist power with overseas territories (8). The Maine itself embodied this new vision of America, as the first of a new class of battleship designed and built wholly in America with American materials (9). Also, the unsubstantiated claims made in the wake of the Maine’s sinking which helped generate support for a war with Spain foreshadow the later Gulf of Tonkin incident (10), by which Congressional support for American escalation in Vietnam was assured. The parallelism of the two wars does not end there. As historian Howard Zinn points out, both wars share:

…the euphemisms for imperial expansion (McKinley called his policy ‘Benevolent Assimilation’); the ignoring of peace overtures from the other side; the incessant promises of victory just around the corner; the look beyond the battlefield to the markets of China; the growing disgust of American soldiers with the war; the token court-martials with token punishments for officers accused of atrocities; the racism of soldiers in the field and financiers in the stock exchanges, as our armies searched and destroyed ‘the Niggers’ of the Philippines (11).

The Spanish-American War set America on the path to becoming “the new Rome.” (12) And just as in the proverbial saying “all roads lead to Rome”, for Bickle, his whole life has led to this moment, to Palantine. Palantine’s very name, Schrader has pointed out, is derived from Rome’s Palatine Hill (13). Palatine Hill is the center-most of Rome’s seven hills, where, according to legend, Romulus and Remus founded Rome. In recognition of its importance, it became the site where Roman emperors built their palaces.

In one sense, Bickle’s assassination of the Senator would be a way of destroying Palantine’s hold on Betsy, which appears total (14). But it would also be, whether Bickle consciously intends it to be so or not, a way of casting off the American imperialism which led to the war that traumatized Bickle and made him a killer in the first place.

The monument to the Maine is also the result of an effort by William Randolph Hearst’s paper, The New York Journal, to take up a collection to commemorate the 267 American sailors who died as a result of the sinking (15). It is commonly thought that Hearst, along with his yellow journalist competitor Joseph Pulitzer were instrumental in America’s involvement in the Spanish-American War (16).

The monument’s sculpture is composed of groupings of allegorical figures emphasizing sea power and America’s new world-power status. These two ideas were closely linked at the time, popularized by the work of Alfred T. Mahan and put into practice by his disciple Theodore Roosevelt, who was Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the war broke out (17). At the top a gilded Columbia, America personified, leads a chariot drawn by three mythical sea creatures, cast with bronze from the Maine’s six-inch guns (18). The principal group, visible just behind and above Palantine, consists of the martial virtues of Courage and Fortitude personified, along with Peace and Victory. Victory is posed before all, kneeling on the prow of a warship. On the same level, the monument’s posterior features a grouping of three, with Justice, eyes closed, receiving her sword from a Warrior, to whom it has been lent, as History records this on a tablet. Two smaller pylons decorated with marine motifs flank the primary monumental pylon. On one is a deified embodiment of the Pacific Ocean, on the other, the Atlantic (19). Both saw fighting in the war. Thus, the memorial is made national in scope (“from sea to shining sea”), with America’s role understood to be global for the first time, a new Rome indeed.

The statuary glorifies American militarism. Palantine mimics the triumphal pose of Victory three times over the course of his brief speech. Each time this is emphasized with the framing. If it was somehow unclear before, Palantine’s repeated mimicry reveals him to be a political hack, and his anti-war rhetoric to be nothing but a charade. Clearly, he would do nothing to alter American policy.



Palantine repeatedly strikes a pose


The Venus de Milo

The neo-classical style of the monument’s figures is in keeping with the classical motifs seen at other points in the film. Hence, the porno theater where Travis takes Betsy is The Lyric, and has bucolic flute music piped in at its entrance. At another porno theater, a reproduction of the Venus de Milo stands atop the candy counter. The manager called for by the harassed concessions woman (Diahnne Abbott) is named “Troy”. Perhaps it is no coincidence that even the empty slogan espoused by Palantine’s primary opponent, Goodwin, is “A Return to Greatness”. This would indicate a recognition that America has fallen into a period of decay and must be restored.

Pornography though is just one manifestation of the depravity Travis sees everywhere around him. Just as Vietnam is linked to the Spanish-American War, and ultimately to the Roman Empire, the few classical references can be seen as relating the vast tapestry of social problems depicted in the film to the decadence of the ancients. In the film we see that on “the home front”, the effect of American imperialism has been anything but benevolent.

1. See the following:

Michael Dempsey, Taxi Driver (review), Film Quarterly, vol. 29, No. 4, Summer 1976, p. 41.

Gordon Gow, Taxi Driver (review), Films and Filming, vol. 22, No. 12, September 1976, p. 30.

Lenny Rubenstein, Taxi Driver (review), Cineaste, vol. 12, no. 3, Fall 1976, p. 34.
Rubinstein notes that the .44 Magnum Travis buys is the same gun used by Dirty Harry.

Colin Westerbeck, Jr., “Beauties and the Beast”, Sight and Sound, vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 1976, p. 139.

Amy Taubin, Taxi Driver (BFI Film Classics), London, British Film Institute, 2000. Taubin notes that this is a simplistic view, not allowing for Travis’ psychopathology or his being in the tradition of the Noir anti-hero (p. 15). But Taubin also suggests Bickle mayhave learned hand-to-hand combat in a right-wing militia (p. 48), and goes on to discuss Bickle’s gun fetishism in depth (pp. 53-54).

2. Paul Schrader quoted in Taubin, 2000, p. 16. Schrader says, “There’s no doubt that Travis is a racist.”

Martin Scorsese quoted in Richard Goldstein and Mark Jacobson, “Martin Scorsese Tells All: Blood and Guts Turn Me On!”, Village Voice, April 5, 1976. Reprinted in Peter Brunette (ed.), Martin Scorsese Interviews, Jackson, University of Mississippi, 1999, p. 61. Scorsese says, “Well, Bobby DeNiro in Taxi Driver is a racist character.”

See also Schrader quoted in Kevin Jackson (ed.), Schrader on Schrader, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 117. Schrader says, “In fact, in the draft of the script I sold, at the end all the people he [Bickle] kills are black.”

3. Quoted in John Brady, The Craft of the Screenwriter, New York, Touchstone, 1981, pp. 292-293. Scorsese seems to admit the basis for the interpretation given herein, but discounts it as secondary to what he saw as the overriding concern in the film. See Guy Flatley, “Martin Scorsese’s Gamble”, New York Times, February 8, 1976, reprinted in Peter Brunette, 1999, pp. 56-57. Flatly asks:

But doesn’t Taxi Driver make a broader social statement? Doesn’t it say that our country-with its poverty and filth, its Watergate and its Vietnam-breeds drifting creatures like Travis, people who can gain recognition only through acts of violence? Surely, the fact that he is a Vietnam veteran is not coincidental?

To which Scorsese responds:

That’s all in the movie, and I agree changes should be made in the American social structure. But in order to bring about change, you have to start by understanding individual characters. You begin by going into a microcosm. . . I always start with a person, not a statement.

Schrader seems to be in disagreement with Scorsese in this regard, discounting any larger cultural motivations as being responsible for Bickle’s psychology. In Brady, 1981, p. 303, he goes on to say that “[Travis] was choosing to be a misfit. Society had not wronged or harmed him.”

In Richard Thompson, “Screen Writer, Taxi Driver‘s Paul Schrader” (interview), Film Comment, March-April 1976, p. 13, Schrader says, “When I first saw the film Marty [Scorsese] and I had a talk about it; he ended up having an attack, screaming, accusing me of not knowing what the movie was about and of being against him.”

4. Quoted in Ian Christie and David Thompson (ed.), Scorsese on Scorsese, London, Faber and Faber, 2003, p. 62.

5. Quoted in Goldstein and Jacobson, reprinted in Brunette, 1999, p. 61. Scorsese says, “He was in the Special Forces, in the marines. You only get that by watching the kind of knife Travis is using at the end. It’s called a K-bar [sic]. Only Special Forces use it.” Scorsese correctly identifies the knife as a KA- BAR, but incorrectly ascribes it as tell-tale evidence of Bickle’s involvement in the Special Forces.

In Vietnam, the Marines did not have ‘Special Forces’ in the same sense that the Army had Rangers and the Navy its SEALS. Rather, the Marines’ elite forces consisted of Force Recon Companies, which were special units attached to, but separate from, regular Division-strength Marine detachments. These Force Recon companies did reconnaissance work ahead of the main amphibious unit. See Patrick A. Rogers, “Strong Men Armed, the Marine Corps 1st Force Reconnaissance Company, Part I”, The Accurate Rifle, vol. 3, no. 12, January 2000, no pagination, available at

Scorsese’s mistake about the knife is apparently a common one.  See Frank Trzaska’s “Knife knotes part II” at “Who called the knife [the KA-BAR] a Force Recon knife to begin with? Stopping it now is like standing in front of a moving truck on the highway, you just don’t stand a chance.”

Rogers, Part III, April-May2000, no pagination, available at Rogers, “There is no ‘official Force Recon Knife’… The standard issue knife is the MK 2 ‘Ka-Bar’… It is the same knife that is issued to every Marine not armed with a rifle.”

For a brief historical timeline of KA-BAR knives, refer to the manufacturer’s website:

We know that Travis was in the Marines. From the knife’s intended significance, and the filmmakers’ further intention of Travis having served in the Special Forces, we thus know that Travis served as a Force Recon Marine.

Training would have included regular training as a rifleman, then the Basic Recon Course, and in Travis’ case, Airborne training. See the “Recon FAQ” of the United States Marine Corps Force Recon Association, available at The best evidence for Bickle having been in the Special Forces in addition to his fighting stance and the filmmaker’s stated intention are Travis’ jump wing patch, and the Mohawk he gives himself. Only a relatively small number of Marines had the distinction of earning jump wings in Vietnam, as Marines have no fixed-wing aircraft from which to make parachute jumps. And although it was a routine matter in the pre-war peacetime, parachuting was not used in combat by the Marines before Vietnam. See Chapter 9 “The Only Three Combat Jumps in Marine Corps History”, pp. 115-126 in Michael L. Lanning and Ray W. Stubbe, Inside Force Recon, Recon Marines in Vietnam, New York, Ivy Books, 1989, p. 115.

Also, the unit patch on Bickle’s Marines field jacket is a Company patch. Although a fictional unit, the fact that such a small unit has issued a patch underscores its elite status. As the Marines are a smaller organization than the Army, typically their shoulder patches are of the division, regimental, and battalion levels.

6. Martin Scorsese, in Making Taxi Driver (Laurent Bouzereau, 1999), a documentary included in the extras of the 1999 Region 1 Taxi Driver “Collector’s Edition” DVD, released by Columbia Tri-Star Home Video. Scorsese says:

Now the Mohawk is interesting. We had a friend of ours named Vic Magnotta… We went to NYU together, Vic and I, and then he was in Vietnam, special services or something, and we met with him doing some research on the film, and he talked about certain types of soldiers going into in the jungle, they’d cut their hair a certain way, looked like a Mohawk, he said, and you knew that that was a special situation – commando kind of situation, and people gave them wide berths.

Schrader also comments on this in similar terms in Brady, 1981, pp. 292-293:

Marty Scorsese and Bobby DeNiro interviewed an ex-Green Beret who told them if a Special Force member felt he was going to die, he would shave his head into a Mohawk as a warning to his fellow soldiers. What he meant was ‘Don’t fuck with me. I’m going over the hill.’

7. Many stories of World War II airborne troops’ use of Mohawks center on the so-called “Filthy 13″, a self-styled elite group within the 101st Airborne. This is presumably because they were photographed during D-Day preparations by the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper. The photo of the group displaying their Mohawks is from the cover of a general study of the group, Richard Killblane and Jake McNiece, The Filthy 13: From the Dustbowl to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest: The 101st Airborne’s Most Legendary Squad of Combat Paratroopers, Haverton, PA., Casemate, 2003.

Interestingly, this group was apparently the loose inspiration for the film The Dirty Dozen, but their now famous cry and American-Indian-inspired “war paint” were for their part apparently derived from the 1939 film Geronimo. See

It is undoubtedly true that the adoption of Mohawks was more widespread than the “Filthy 13″ though, as revealed, for instance, by the excerpt from the oral history of paratrooper Thomas Hashway, of the 17th Airborne Division. See

For a photo of Vietnam-era Mohawks, see Paul Owen’s photo “Bathers” at Owen is a veteran of the Hawk Recon group, one of the Army’s L.R.R.P.s, the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol, which became the Army Rangers.

8. It is worth noting that the atrocities of Abu Ghraib and My Lai were anticipated by American activities in the Philippine Insurrection, a continuation of the Spanish-American War in which the Philippines was subjugated after the defeat of the Spanish. On the island of Luzon, General J. Franklin Bell ordered 100,000 civilians in the Batangas province to be put into concentration camps. It is unknown how many died or how. Concentration camps were also ordered on Samar Island, which General Jacob Smith ordered reduced to a “howling wilderness.” See William R. Everdell, The First Moderns, Chicago and London, University of Chicago, 1997, pp. 122-123.

In order to compel them, Filipinos were tortured with the “water cure” technique, learned from the Macabebe minority, and thought to have originated with the earlier Spanish colonial rulers, who had employed it during the Inquisition. With the “cure”, water was poured down a man’s throat until he became swollen, and then pressed out of him. See Daniel B. Schirmer, Republic or Empire, American Resistance to the Philippine War, Cambridge, MA., Schenkman Publishing, 1972, pp. 227-228. General Bell, returning to America from his charge of Luzon reported that approximately 600,000 Filipinos died on that island alone as a result of the war, the famine it brought about, and the disease caused in turn. See Schirmer, 1972, p. 231.

These incidents typified what General Arthur McArthur, Military Governor of the Philippines, euphemistically referred to as the “very drastic measures” being utilized to assure victory. See Schirmer, 1972, p. 227. President Roosevelt, after ordering General Smith’s court martial, sent General Bell a telegram congratulating him for his efforts in Batangas. See Schirmer, 1972, p. 239.

William Howard Taft, who became Theodore Roosevelt’s handpicked successor as president, and was first American Governor-General of the Philippines, patronizingly referred to Filipinos as “our little brown brothers.” This was in keeping with President McKinley’s revelation that he felt it America’s duty teach the Filipino people how to govern themselves, as “they were unfit for self-government-and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s”, and further to “educate, uplift and civilize and Christianize them”, never mind that the Filipinos were already predominantly Catholic. This is widely quoted, as in Delia Kuhn and Ferdinand Kuhn, The Philippines, Yesterday and Today, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966, p. 93.

9. E. B. Potter (ed.), Sea Power, A Naval History, Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, p. 160.

10. Peggy and Harold Samuels, Remembering the Maine, Washington DC and London, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995, pp. 229-234. The chapter titled “Declaration of War” describes in detail the impact of the Maine’s sinking. On page 232, they write, “After the Sampson report [investigating the Maine's sinking] had been published in March 1898, war was said to be unavoidable because ‘not one American in 10,000 will admit the possibility of an accident’ on the Maine.” Then on page 233:

Ten years later the allegedly reprehensible role of the Spaniards in the Maine disaster was down-played in favor of blander reasons applicable to any foreign involvement. . . A dawning awareness of the absence of any true menace to the peace and safety of the United States, though, signified that there had been no moral justification for the war.”

Edwin E. Moise, Tonkin Gulf and the Escalation of the Vietnam War, Chapel Hill and London, University of North Carolina Press, 1996, pp. 203-207. This section contains a concise summary of Moise’s findings. Of chief relevance herein, he concludes that the incident, a purported North Vietnamese attack on an American destroyer (one of two which were said to have occurred within a span of four days) that ultimately motivated Congressional action to escalate the war, although probably not deliberately faked, likely did not occur.

11. Howard Zinn, Preface to Schirmer, 1972, p. x.

12. Since the events subsequent to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the description of America as “the new Rome” has become commonplace. But even before, the term was gaining currency, as can be seen, for example, in Charles Sable, “An Unlikely Democracy: the US at the Millennium”, Paper presented at Columbia Law School, November 1999, cited in Jan Harvey, “The New Rome?”, Legal Week Global, November 19, 2002, unpaginated. Sabel states, “The US begins the new millennium looking for all the world like a new Rome: only grander and more authoritative than the original.” See also Charles Krauthammer, “The Bush Doctrine, In American foreign policy, a new motto: Don’t ask. Tell”, Time, March 5, 2001, p. 42. Krauthammer writes:

America is no mere international citizen. It is the dominant power in the world, more dominant than any since Rome. Accordingly, America is in a position to reshape norms, alter expectations and create new realities. How? By unapologetic and implacable demonstrations of will.

13. See Taxi Driver (“Collector’s Edition” DVD), “Photo Montage/Portrait Gallery” section of the Special Features, 1999, Columbia Tri-Star Home Video, which has the DVD’s producer Laurent Bouzereau in voice-over relate his conversation with Paul Schrader, in which Schrader describes the meaning of each character name. Bouzereau quotes,”Palantine came from the Palatine hill in Rome and the idea of an older world, an ancient culture, which has been destroyed.”

This is apparently the only place where Schrader goes into such detail about the naming of Taxi Driver’s characters, although he does talk in other places of his general methods. Schrader is quoted in Kevin Jackson (ed.), 1990, p. 153. Jackson asks if he often gives characters symbolic names. Schrader says “Yes, and I still try to.” In Brady, 1981, p. 299, Schrader confirms that there are no accidents in the naming of his principal characters.

14. Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver (screenplay), London, New York, Faber and Faber, 1990, p. 10. Betsy’s character is introduced with the description, “Simple pose and status do not impress her; she seeks out the extraordinary qualities in men. She is, in other words, a star-fucker of the highest order.” Her attraction to Palatine is made obvious in the film with the following dialogue between Betsy and Tom:

BETSY: Senator Palantine is a dynamic man, an
intelligent, interesting, fresh, fascinating. . .

TOM: You forgot ‘sexy’.

BETSY: man. I did not forget ‘sexy’.

Schrader himself encourages a psychological interpretation of Bickle’s actions. In Brady, 1981, p. 306, Schrader says, “[Bickle wants to kill Palantine] Because Palantine represents a man who is at ease. . . He hates men who are relaxed with women. Because they are the one thing he cannot be. So it doesn’t have anything to do with politics, it has to do with sexuality.”

15. Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1995, p. 108. The navy’s official figure of 260 dead does not include seven who later died as a result of injuries suffered in the sinking.

16. W. A. Swanberg, Citizen Hearst, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, pp. 101-149. This is a traditional study of Hearst including an emphasis on his role in the incitement of the war. Included is the well-known story of Hearst instructing artist-correspondent Frederick Remington, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” (pp. 107-108). This was the basis for the scene in Citizen Kane, which was, of course, primarily based upon the events of Hearst’s life. Incidentally, Taxi Driver contains several references to Citizen Kane.  For more on these references, see  John Thurman, “Citizen Bickle, or the Allusive Taxi Driver:  Uses of Intertextuality,” Senses of Cinema, Issue 37, October-December 2005.

Kenneth E. Hendrickson Jr., The Spanish-American War, Westport, CT and London, Greenwood Press, 2003, p. 7. This study also mentions the role of the yellow press in inflaming public opinion, while passing along the Remington story.

W. Joseph Campbell, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the myths, defining the legacies, Westport, CT and London, Praeger, 2001. This revisionist study includes much on the role of the yellow press in the time preceding the war. Chapter 3 is devoted to an attempt at debunking the Remington-Hearst story, while Chapter 4 attempts to refute the popular perception of the yellow press having fomented the war.

17. E. B. Potter (ed.), Sea Power: A Naval History, Annapolis, MD, United States Naval Institute, 1981, pp. 162-163, 187. Mahan was president of the Naval War College, and his 1890 book The Influence of Sea Power upon History traced the concomitant rise of trading empires with the growth of their naval power. His work was also influential with Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, and among British, German, and Japanese imperialists who were then engaged in their own ambitious neo-colonialism and the naval arms race that accompanied it.

18. Harold Samuels, and Peggy Samuels, 1995, p. 281.

19. Josef Vincent Lombardo, Attilio Piccirilli, Life of an American Sculptor, New York and Chicago, Pittman Publishing Company, 1944, pp. 115-134. Chapter IV includes an extensive discussion of the Maine monument.

The Columbus Circle monument was one of the most sought-after commissions of the time. Forty-seven renowned sculptors submitted proposals. The winner was Attilio Piccirilli, one six sculptor brothers. See Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1995, p. 281.

Their commissions include the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Square Arch, and the lions of the New York public library. See Andrew Ragouzeos, “Boroughwide News: exhibit and signage to commemorate renowned Mott Haven sculptors”, Bronx Times Reporter, July 24, 2003, unpaginated, contained in:


By Cubie King

(This article was originally published in the online film journal, Senses of Cinema; Issue 35, April-June 2005)

“This one came from my stomach. It’s referenceless. When you start out, you latch onto other styles, to help you get across what you’re trying to say. But this one is mine somehow – and I’m proud of that.” –P.T. Anderson (1)

“…for every part of the life of man has need of harmony and rhythm.”
–Plato, Protagoras

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

It has been firmly established by now that Paul Thomas Anderson is a formidable young director at the forefront of American cinema, but with his latest film Punch Drunk Love it can be argued that Anderson has taken a seminal step into the realm of auteur. Prior to Punch Drunk Love Anderson’s first three films (Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999)) dealt with themes of alienation, regret, dysfunctional families, and ultimately, a character’s search for someplace to call “home.” Each film ends with slight optimism that is nonetheless overshadowed by its transience. Punch Drunk Love is an evolution of these films, while sharing similar thematic issues; it attempts to tell its story semantically. Unlike Anderson’s first three films Punch Drunk Love creates its own distinct cinematic vocabulary (shedding influences, whom he cites, such as Altman, Scorsese, and Demme) becoming the first film he can call distinctively ‘his own’. With trenchant use of mise-en-scene, Anderson integrates cinematography, sound, production design, costumes, and locations to offer a purely subjective experience seen through the eyes and emotions of his protagonist Barry Egan (Adam Sandler).

Punch Drunk Love is by far Anderson’s most complex film, challenging its audience to consider choices of color, to battle through unconventional sound design, and to find meaning in objects that may initially appear to be irrelevant. One could suggest the central image of the film is the abstract artwork of Jeremy Blake. These abstract montages immediately introduce the audience to a more venturesome, ambiguous approach unseen in Anderson’s works thus far, an emergence into a more conceptual form of storytelling. The uneasiness of these montages, and their sheer beauty, within seconds, capture the mood of the film. They serve not only as brilliant segues within the film’s narrative but also contribute to a larger purpose of imbuing the viewer with an intense, discombobulated sensation that can only be described as ‘punch drunk.’

Anderson also uses colors as key indicators of Barry’s psychological battle; blue, red, and white being the most prominent. Blue is largely seen in Barry’s workplace and home, it is also the color of Barry’s suit that he curiously begins wearing the day the film begins. Barry is literally blue throughout most of the film. Red is used more frequently, most obviously as Lena’s (Emily Watson) red dress; but it is also placed strategically throughout the film to take on a very important meaning, as I will show. White is not used as strategically as red, but its usage is just as important. It can almost be said that red and white are in contention with one another due to their polar purposes.

Red serves as the color that leads to Barry’s happiness. Very precise red objects throughout the film visually direct Barry out of his damaged life (or psyche) and points him in the direction of escape and/or change. Take for instance the first scene in the supermarket. Barry walks down an aisle whispering to himself, “what am I looking for?” As he utters this, in the far background, a woman in a red dress is visible. When Barry turns his head and notices her watching him she quickly walks off (fig 1). This woman could be seen as Lena, but more importantly a manifestation of the ‘idea’ of Lena, what Barry is actually ‘looking for’. Because the woman is never identified the color red becomes the most important aspect of the sequence. Anderson answers Barry’s question, “what am I looking for?,” visually, (there is no motivation otherwise to explain this) thus showing us tangible elements of Barry’s subconscious in an environment which we assume is entirely real.

Fig 1

The usage of the color red goes well beyond Lena’s dress (which she wears in all but a few scenes), a red arrow can be spotted pointing the way to escape from the four blonde brothers (fig 2) or in the supermarket a red arrow points in the direction of where Barry will find the pudding (the pudding offers a way out for Barry). Another scene has Barry leaving his workplace in pursuit of Lena who is Hawaii; a red diesel passes the frame (fig 3) as he runs in the same direction. In the foreground of the following shot, Barry walks down an airport terminal; two stewardesses dressed in red await him (fig 4).

Red Arrow
Fig 2

Red Diesel
Fig 3

Red Women
Fig 4

White, on the other hand, takes on a much more sophisticated role. White is the color that coats many of the barren rooms throughout the film. If red works towards Barry’s mirth, then white works in the opposite, as his oppressor. Throughout the film Barry travels through all white environments that are sparse, isolated, nondescript, and cold. Instances such as Barry’s workplace resembling a large white box or scenes of Barry running like a trapped mouse through white mazes while attempting to escape the blonde brothers or finding Lena’s apartment door demonstrate its recurring influence. White is also the color of the oppressive blown-out light which floods in and suffocates Barry from the outside world; thus emphasizing a greater suppression Barry feels in all his environments (figs 5-7). This suppression correlates to the film’s many compositions that imprison Barry within the frame.

White Light 1
Fig 5

White Light 2
Fig 6

White Light 3
Fig 7

The tale of a young Barry throwing a hammer through a sliding glass window is recalled a few times in the film (at the family get together, Lena mentions it on their first date). This motif of Barry imprisoned behind a glass barrier is prevalent throughout the film, like a person trapped in a fish bowl, a strong visual and thematic metaphor. Barry’s work office is a room entirely surrounded by glass; he’s literally trapped within, continuing the repression Barry’s felt since childhood. In one scene Barry actually walks straight into the glass door. Earlier scenes show Barry’s frustration build to such a crescendo that the only way he knows to deal with it is through physical violence, hence the breaking of sliding glass windows at the family get together (fig.8; also the bathroom in the restaurant), but as he begins to fall for Lena he learns to restrain his rage. Not coincidentally, when Barry finally resolves his problems with the D&D Mattress Man, Dean Trumbell (Phillip S. Hoffman), a low shot reveals the mattress warehouse is made up of large glass windows. Barry has now freed himself from his mental and physical imprisonment (fig 9).

Breaking Glass
Fig 8

Walking Through
Fig 9

A constant duality is always at play in Punch Drunk Love, the oppressive white light that constantly engulfs Barry is contrasted by the warm yellow light which emanates from the harmonium the first time he attempts to play the instrument. This same warm light appears again atop a telephone booth the moment Barry hears Lena’s voice in Hawaii. Anderson, in the role of cinematic painter, does not use his color palette arbitrarily, but fastidiously, utilizing color as a vital component of his story, indeed a modern Expressionist. Beyond color Anderson also uses objects such as unpacked boxes, pudding, diesel trucks, and a harmonium to lend meaning as well.

A vacuous, empty space is present in almost all locations throughout the film and successfully captures the enormous lack of love Barry feels. The austere, almost “unlived-in” homes (and workplace) of Barry and Lena, are peppered with unpacked boxes lying in various corners. The boxes reinforce Anderson’s preeminent theme of wandering, of being unsettled, characters always searching for family, home, and/or love. The drifting diesel trucks can also be read in a similar fashion. These are vehicles that move boxes from place to place and are never stationary a perfect symbol of his characters. In fact the opening shot of Anderson’s first film, Hard Eight, is of a diesel truck passing the frame seconds before we met his first wanderer (see figs 8 and 9). Other vehicles play an important role as well; airplanes represent an escape for Barry, and a red taxi drops the harmonium in the middle of the road for him.

Hard Eight
Fig 8 Hard Eight

Diesel Punch Drunk
Fig 9 Punch Drunk Love

The harmonium is the most multifaceted of objects in the film, open for several interpretations, and the mystery of it is essential in understanding its purpose. When Barry first brings the harmonium in his co-worker Luis (Luis Guzmán) asks, ‘why is it here?’ The harmonium is there to bring Barry love, for in a sense, it is a symbol of Lena; more exactly, a symbol of their relationship. The root word of harmonium is harmony. The harmonium, like Lena, appears suddenly in Barry’s life; when things are going poorly for Barry the harmonium is somehow mysteriously ripped; and like his new relationship Barry must learn to find its harmony. Only after Barry rids himself of his sex hotline problems does this harmony take place. After returning from Utah, Barry grabs the harmonium and physically brings it to Lena’s apartment door, thus combining the two elements that bring him joy. It is as if Barry has suddenly recognized their connection, a surreal moment. The entire film Barry pecks notes on the harmonium, as if in search of some secret it possesses, it represents an enigma to him, and ultimately, to the audience as well. But in the final shot of the film the puzzle is solved. Barry plays the exact notes from Jon Brion’s score for Punch Drunk Love, playing the harmonium almost concurrently with the music that plays nondiegetically over the scene. The diegetic and nondiegetic music playing together is a moment of cinematic harmony; Barry, Lena, and the harmonium are now in sync.

The strength of Punch Drunk Love comes from showing us Barry Egan’s emergence into a larger world, both mentally (expressively depicted) and physically, which he obtains through Lena’s love. As described above Anderson takes large strides in showing Barry’s repression, but he also deftly shows us Barry’s transition into this ‘larger world.’ Compare a photograph hanging in Barry’s office (a sad aerial photo of his workplace) to a larger painting we see of a Persian-esque setting during his first date with Lena (figs 10 and 11), this hints at the expansiveness Lena’s attention and love has on Barry’s psyche. The compositions alone show this great contrast. The same way the glass windows are meant to imprison Barry, the supermarket represents a land of opportunity. It is in the 99-cent supermarket where Barry’s dreams of escape are most obtainable (through his pudding scheme), and one must note how expansive, clean, and vibrant this environment is shot, resembling a similar vividly photographed supermarket by Andres Gursky taken in 1999, correspondingly named 99 Cent (fig 12 and 13).

Small Picture
Fig 10

Larger Picture
Fig 11

Fig 12 Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent (1999)

Fig 13 Anderson’s Supermarket

Anderson takes this idea of entering into a larger world to staggering heights when Barry flies to Hawaii. The Hawaiian locations explode with colors and sounds, and for the first time genuine life and freedom is felt. Anderson places his protagonist in a noisy parade filled with happy faces and happy cheers, amplifying the emotions felt by Barry through this spectacle. When Barry and Lena finally meet, framed in a silhouette, they kiss, and as they do a multitude of people are unleashed into the frame, signifying Barry emergence into a larger setting, a more idyllic environment, and a greater state of mind; a brilliant moment.

One last technique Anderson uses which should be discussed is the use of lens flares. In moments of affection shared between Barry and Lena Anderson makes use of a pinkish-blue lens flare near the bottom of the screen perhaps hinting at the real emotion the characters are experiencing. When Barry speaks to the Dean Trumbell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the phone near the end of the film he asks Barry, “did you just say go fuck yourself!?” Barry replies, “yes.” The next shot of Trumbell the lens flares are now highly visible (fig 14 and 15). This systematic use of lens flares show us visually that Barry’s love for Lena is indeed real and it becomes a physical element of the film itself.

Trumbell 1
Fig 14

Trumbell 2
Fig 15

The same way in which a poet pens a poem in search of capturing the feeling of love, or a musician sings a song, Anderson uses this aesthetic technique of flaring his lens to hint as something which transcends his frame. He attempts to show us something grand through these lens flares, for they confine and display something that is unexplainable and impossible to physically photograph, the feeling of love (figs 15 and 16).

Embrace Flare
Fig 15

Flare 2
Fig 16

One can’t help but draw comparisons between Punch Drunk Love and the 1927 silence masterpiece Sunrise (F.W. Murnau). Both are romance films, both have leading men who are in constant struggle with their environments, and both end with the world (and the film) back in harmony with itself. But more importantly both films take important steps in forwarding a cinematic language based less on dialogue (Murnau had no choice) and more on how a story can be told replete with image and sound, “cinema to be cinema.” (2) “The camera angles, the lighting, the sets and the costumes were meant to convey the psychological complexities of the characters,” renowned cinematographer Nestor Almendros wrote of Sunrise (3). This analysis touches briefly on many of the major ways in which Anderson expressively shows us his romantic comedy, but much more can be said and uncovered.

Anderson represents a small handful of young American directors looking to forge new ground in the way cinema is approached, wrought, and presented. With Punch Drunk, he has shown that he is well on his way in defining his own craft. Like his character Barry Egan who finds harmony within the film one senses Anderson has also found a harmony within this new artistic approach; perhaps this is the reason for his first happy ending. One can only patiently wait to see what this young auteur will come up with next.
– — – — –

1. Ryan Gilbey, “Interview: Paul Thomas Anderson,” Times (UK)- 2/2/03

2. Nestor Almendros, “Sunrise,” American Cinematographer, April 1984, vol. 65,
no. 2, pp 28-32

3. Ibid

– — – — –


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