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Basic writing instinct: casing Michael Douglas.

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During the AFI's 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, which honored Michael Douglas's body of work in film and television, Sharon Stone gracefully reminded everyone that the staying power of her crowning moment, indisputably the interrogation scene in Paul Verhoeven's 1992 Basic Instinct, has had little to do with her. The particular scene she invokes, which, in her words, inspired millions around the world to freeze-frame a certain shot catapulting the owner of the exposed parts into dream world royalty, is however--and this is the climax and surprise ending of her brief speech--not the obvious opening of Catherine Tramell's scissor-like legs, but the bare bones of Douglas's cinematic career. Stone's speech performed not only the undecidability of Tramell's act of seduction, but also the mechanism of fetish formation itself: both Douglas's detective character and his on-screen persona are pulled up short before the horror play of the crime novelist's unhinged, castrated body-script. Although she built her career on the strength of this fetish she shared with Douglas, Stone had the good sense to pay her tribute in what is known in psychoanalysis as the protective crypto-fetish and the basic writing instinct that sponsors its psychic currency. (1) Her speech was pure Benjaminian Trauerspeil.

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The panorama afforded by Douglas's major films offers a flawless replication of fetish formation as defense mechanism. According to Winnicott, the other major psychoanalytic theorist besides Melanie Klein and Laurence A. Rickels who has accorded the one-on-one with mother a fundamental role in the formation of the psychic apparatus, the fetish develops out of the transitional object, which serves to bring the external world into that magical web of internal illusions the infant entertains from its earliest interactions with the maternal body: "The mother, at the beginning, by almost 100 per cent. Adaptation affords the infant the opportunity for the illusion that her breast is part of the infant. It is, as it were, under magical control." (2) The transitional object--the soft toy bunny or teddy bear--does not disillusion, but it does bring external objects under the sway of the earlier formed illusion of total control and the hallucinations that arise in its stead. Reality testing occupies the territory of the lost object, which, as a rule, is not identical with the transitional object. Reality arises in place of the lost magical world of the early phases and rounds up the remains from the mourning process or meal. The inability to mourn, on the other hand, reestablishes the primacy of the magical phases, which predate the debilitating neuroses and "the primitive mind"--the counterpart and twin of the neurotic mind in Freud's corpus.

In Mike Cahill's 2007 film King of California the "psychotic" lead character Charlie (Douglas) plays Prospero, the magician-father in Shakespeare's The Tempest, to daughter Miranda (Eve Rachel Wood). The movie metabolizes for non-Californians the genealogy of that magic kingdom out west, here doubling as yet another offering to east coast insecurity. Disinherited and divested of any sort of real power by his brothers back east, Charlie-Prospero is plotting, by way of revenge, to locate and dig up the old Spanish treasure the east coast has already claimed in diurnal genealogical currency. However, as we know from Hamlet, behind every revenge story there is a maternal legacy to be reclaimed, more specifically here mother Gertrude's transgression against uncle Claudius. What clinks and glitters as the buried gold of seventeenth-century explorer "Juan Florismarte Torres" to eastern ears and eyes is only a dishwasher to a child traumatized by mother's disappearance into a world of modeling. Miranda's missing mother--symbol of her disinheritance--was a hand model, a model Stepford wife who may have stayed only if she didn't have to ruin her hands and merry wife disposition washing dishes. The prosthetic maternal body, the dishwasher, hypnotizes Miranda into forgetting--and losing--her father diving six feet under a Costco store to find her treasure.

The staying power of the maternal legacy is sponsored by the illusions it was once able to copy with a hundred percent accuracy. Of course the mother plants the illusions in the body of the infant and takes for their model her hidden psychic disposition, often modeling secret patterns of erotogenic stimulation sealed by unspeakable transgressions. Prospero borrows his magical powers from this ghost-fashioned legacy for a time. Upon Miranda's marriage to the King of Naples' son Ferdinand--or the dishwashing machine in Cahill's version--Prospero gives them back: "Now my charms are all overthrown/ And what strength remains is my own .../ And thence retire me to my Milan, where/ Every third thought shall be my grave." (3) This is not a farewell, but rather a genealogy. What Prospero accomplished as he devoted himself to a mourning process of reality testing and science, abandoning his political duties in Naples, is the institutionalization of a fetish world underwritten by the magic he practiced in response to his missing wife's modeling career. Similarly the career of Douglas, although seemingly politically disengaged, performs in the place of "real politics" a service that unveils child rearing and education as the Ur- source of every political fetish.

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The fetish succeeds the transitional object after the drama of castration. Although Winnicott wins back the territory of the transitional object for processes of sublimation through art and religion from a sexologically conceived and pathologically cast "fetish," a genealogy of the latter is built into practices of mass culture that differ from sublimation. The institution of the fetish is supported by the necessity to integrate a bad breast in the infant ego formation. Although the transitional object is partly magical, it is not always benevolent, since the death wish against the disappearing breast returns to strike back. Castration anxiety repeats the drama of separation in the fold of the threesome formed by the arrival of the father, who, owing to the requirements of prohibitions and the threat of castration, is always already dead and consumable, not as the breast but as a poison-proof, thus reality-tasted, funeral meal. Fetish succeeds pleasures lost to realization and successful reality testing. These pleasures are, however, consumed along with the paternal body that feeds systems of circulation. As one Australian teenager on Twitter economically puts it: "i wish i could remember school work like my disney stars knowledge, maths should turn into Jonas Brothers, id never fail."

Unlike sublimation of instinct, which is available only to a few artistically or religiously talented individuals, the fetish provides invaluable service to psychic evolution. As defense mechanism, fetish is instrumental in the rewriting of instinct. It preserves the early pleasures of intense enjoyment of the maternal body and its transitional prostheses as it provides defense against the horror of castration, which is also why it may be colored by the attributes of the horror object. Undecidability is another tool that keeps the view of castration at bay, but only after the feminine function of writing, weaving, or World Wide Web techno magic has failed. Because the female is marked by fear of castration, indeed living permanently under that signifier, she is often endowed with the power to castrate, the central plain-text psychoanalytic motif of Basic Instinct. Since her genitals have gone missing, she can take yours away too. Her parents and husband, representing the couple of family law, are dead. If you go mainstream, she'll take you out too. The challenge is not only to overcome this logic, to give her the benefit of undecidability--not just Catherine, but every California girl--yet also to let her exist in a world of magical illusion. The film is singular in that it captures the inseparability of Douglas's characters from their female counterparts as it achieves perfect identification between the compromised detective, Nick Curran, and the female writer-murder suspect, Catherine Tramell.

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Failure to contain aggression within the couple dates back to Fatal Attraction (1989), the first hit that left Michael broken down and deprived of his teen group support--let's call the phenomenon "Alex," the title of Rickels's 1990 study. (4) The latter identifies the station that broadcast the fetal attraction, the teen group, interchangeable with playground and university, which responds only to its self-fashioned erotogenic zones and not to those deposited in the body by the parental couple and, later, the spousal couple. A Perfect Murder (1998) wires violence within the spousal couple through adultery, which, as Tony Tanner's study of the genre of the European adultery novel discovered, (5) is an ageless writing technique channeling the libidinal makeup of crypt transmissions. The genre of the adultery novel organizes itself around the self-reflexive control of language in the mode of infidelity to meaning, which opens the channel to the crypt transmission that also binds the teen group. The transgression of the mother--or adulterous acting--is deposited in the body of the infant and serves as origin of baby's magical kingdom of omnipotent control. The teen group, Alex, channels this magic directly.

It is hardly an accident that Glenn Close played both Alex Forrest, the Californian teen terrorizing east coast family law--"I [love] New York," California style--and the adulterous queen mother Gertrude in Zeffirelli's film adaptation of Hamlet (1990). Unlike most other film versions of the play, the queen here outperforms everyone and dominates the picture. Illness trains the son in the craft of neurotic surveillance, neurosis being a source of instinct identification, and allows him to diagnose the poisonous air transmissions that killed his father. About to depart for England, Hamlet turns to Claudius and declares him "mother" with the kiss of betrayal. As the object of Gertrude's transgressive affections, Claudius represents the magical body Hamlet received from mother during the early developmental phases. The Freud-Ernest Jones interpretation links Hamlet to Claudius in regard to the murder of the father, but not to the transgression of the mother. The mother's infidelity, Tony Tanner found, co-signs the Ur-text of all belle lettres, or fine literature. In German at least one could rename Belletristik "Effibriestik," after the title of Germany's most influential adultery novel, Theodore Fontane's 1894 Effi Briest. Effi's love letters (Briefe in German), which she keeps despite the incriminating evidence of betrayal they carry, represent the crypt transmission that transforms her legacy into pure writing instinct. The Prospero/Douglas-style nervous breakdown Fontane suffered upon the completion of the novel tells us that he identified with his heroine as completely as the good breast accommodates the infant. Effi Briest was not a transitional object for the author but the real magic, which is what marks sublimation as different from all transitional object phenomena, including fetishism.

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If we had not stopped to (un)mourn our losses, Freud concludes in his contemplation of war and death during WWI, the development of fetish culture--and with it the entire evolution of technology--would have been stunted. (6) Rickels takes this insight a step and a world war further and proffers a model for mass mediatization as mass crypto-fetishism, where the underworld peopled with abject instinct and powered by developmental libido--mostly drawn from the pleasure principle of maternal "education"--represents the body of the techno-Sensurround. After WWII, at the absolute latest stage of development, the body is no longer home alone, which changed everything from science to entertainment as it switched the tracks from father's law to survival measured in symptom beats. Winnicott links the pathology of fetishism to addiction, both of which have been ascribed to another heroine from an adultery narrative, Madame Bovary, the fetishist-addict. Soderbergh's Traffic from 2000, partly shot, Shakespeare style, as an occasion masque for Douglas's marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones, confirmed Ronell's thesis that the war on drugs is a culture war. (7) Once you trash the fetish, which is culture-specific, you are left with addiction to global sameness: money and the dull high of some nameless chemical synthesis. Although Freud paid tribute to J.W. Goethe and acknowledged an origin of psychoanalysis in the chemical analysis the author performed in his adultery novel, Elective Affinities (1809), the chemical reaction in question can only escalate to addiction if fine, culture-specific letters were not there to mediate between the high and the loss that inevitably follows in its stead. For fetish culture to prosper in mourning or reality testing, including their aberrant experimental forms, a certain time is needed. The police psychologist in Basic Instinct, Beth Garner, is a good example of shortcut, instant analysis. The proliferation of plain-text psychoanalysis rests on an insistence on tested formulas and the ever-greater shortening of therapeutic time. The result is the complete merger of Garner and Tramell in Basic Instinct 2 (2005) with the court-ordered doctor who becomes a lifetime prisoner of a psychiatric institution.

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Dr. Garner's transference transgression--as Nick Curran's therapist she should know better than to bed her patients--is fashioned after the psycho-therapist serial killer Bobby Elliot in Brian de Palma's 1980 Dressed to Kill, and underwrites the same script that projects Alex's intrusion in Dan's family life in Fatal Attraction. Yet the trail of corpses Beth leaves behind will not be allowed to reach the couple in the first Basic Instinct. The therapeutic value of the latter film emerges in respect to the deadlier movie from 1989, which leaves everyone crushed into ice pulp. The dreaded weapon, the ice pick, is really only there to break the ice--sometimes an ice pick is just an ice pick--much as the surgeon's weapon cuts to heal. It becomes a weapon only in the hands of Dr. Garner who has hysterically fashioned herself after Catherine's books. The text ensnares the fetish-body of the detective whose psyche Trammel studies in the course of a love relationship based entirely on "the fatal (fetal) narcissistic, group-bound attractions of gadget love," (8) which also traverse the characters of Alex and Dr. Garner. Catherine's books save not only the couple, but also the horror figures Alex and Catherine's lesbian lover Roxy, both Garner's genealogical predecessors. Whereas Alex took justice in her hands and went after her accomplice in sex crime recognizable from the adultery genre, Roxy has murdered her teen brothers--feminist style--before she became the writer's subject or love interest. Like the plaintext reader/therapist Garner, Catherine beds her subjects, but only to deposit their transgressions in the text's omnipotent magical control. She thus marks the difference between text and transgression. Her only astute reader is Nick, equally instinct-driven--as opposed to plain-text-driven, like psycho doctors Garner and Elliot--in his reading and bedding as she is in her writing. When Roxy attempts to murder him she puts him in the place of her slaughtered teen brothers, her illness providing her with a hundred-percent-correct vision of the difference Nick makes among Catherine's subjects/lovers. She shares this vision with Catherine, but whereas the writer is able to sublimate the mark of difference, which in the genital organization of libido comes across as castration, Roxy cannot sublimate and rushes into destruction. Her only other option would have been to adopt the fetish, Nick's--or Catherine's--bare body instinct and last line of defense for afflicted Dr. Garner. "I loved you," Beth says before or as she gives up the ghost, keys mistaken for weapon in her hand, meaning she stopped loving him once she adopted the ice pick as her instant analytic method of choice.

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Berlin artist Seumas Coutts's freeze-frame, topological portraits of Douglas (reproduced here) highlight the fetish in cinema as the photographic moment of negative or reverse development of image and psyche that nevertheless allows the figure of the actor to emerge from the reality-simulating flow of individual frames. Reminiscent of European portraiture, which, unlike traditionally conceived letters, transmits a legacy that does not belong to a culture of ceaseless and seamless circulation of images, the juxtaposition of single frames draws attention to the receding and receiving background as Shakespearean spectacle, a synthesis of component instincts into the singular pattern of a familiar face. As the fetish succeeds the transitional object, it is neither external, nor internal, but always underwritten by instinct. As "D-Fens" in Falling Down (1993), Douglas may well play abject victim of a system of circulation that hung him out to dry. He for his part returns the favor, but the letters that emerge from various surfaces, like his license plate or the graffiti he ends up splattered against, remain unwoven into any kind of recognizable pattern, wasted as if by interminable addiction to a chemical high. Along with The Game (1997), where he falls down again only to be caught by the film crew, Falling Down is perhaps the most tragic of Douglas's movies, inviting the viewer to take stock of the entire fetish body of work to save oneself and the artist to break down the frames to re-synthesize a flow of singularity.

VIOLA KOLAROV is an Assistant Professor of German at New York University. She researches pop culture, psychoanalysis, European literature and philosophy. Her forthcoming book reads Shakespeare through film.
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Title Annotation:fetishism in the works of movie actor Michael Douglas
Author:Kolarov, Viola
Publication:ArtUS
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:2808
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