Monday, 23 March 2009

"capitalism is like a dead herring in the moonlight - it shines, but it stinks."

Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961), concerns an American Coca-Cola executive in West Berlin (James Cagney), charged with looking after the boss's daughter for a few weeks while she holidays in Europe. The day before her parents are due to come and pick her up, Cagney discovers that the girl, Scarlett Hazeltine (Pamela Tiffin), has married a Communist Party member, Otto Piffl (Horst Bucholz) from East Berlin. Panic-stricken at the thought of her father's reaction, he plants a cuckoo clock that plays Yankee Doodle Dandy on the hour and a balloon with "Russki Go Home" emblazoned on it, on the boy's motorbike. On crossing the border back into East Berlin, Piffl is arrested by the East German police and tortured (by being forced, repeatedly, to listen to 'Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Yellow-Polka-Dot Bikini', anticipating Guantanamo Bay by some forty years. The scene is played strictly for laughs, so, contra-Marx, it is the first time that is farce, and only its repetition that is truly tragic) into confessing to being an American spy. Satisfied that no more will be heard of Piffl, Cagney then discovers that Scarlet is in fact pregnant and is forced to bribe the authorities into releasing Piffl, concerned that a child with no father might be thought even worse than a child with a communist father. Cagney then sets about tranforming Piffl into a model son-in-law for his boss: ordering him expensive clothes, a suite at the Hilton, teaching him manners and eating habits, giving him a decent job (for Coca Cola, naturally), and even going so far as to have him adopted by a local count. 

The ultimate lesson to be learnt from this film is, of course, that Piffl was in fact guilty of betraying the East German state, and the police were right to torture a confession out of him. We have here an exemplary case of the "objective guilt" cited by Zizek, "While you can be an honest individual who acted with the most sincere intentions, you are nonetheless "objectively guilty," if your acts serve reactionary forces - and it is, of course, the party which has the direct access to what your acts "objectively mean."" (In Defense of Lost Causes) When Piffl is first stopped by the police, on account of the anti-Soviet balloon attached to his bike, it is during his stuttered attempt to explain that the 'Uncle Sam' cuckoo clock interrupts, like a parapraxis, by blurting out the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Similarly, the day after his (forced?) confession to being an American spy, Piffl has at first forgotten all about it. The incident has been repressed by his superego for coming too close to the unbearable truth at the core of his subjectivity. Despite Piffl's sincerity and subjective commitment to socialism, it is clear that the combination of Scarlet's naive, cosseted rich girl and Piffl's slavish devotion to her can only lead to him betraying his cause (as is proved by his scant protest to being transformed into an exploitative capitalist boss at the end of the film), either with or without Cagney's intervention (which merely speeds up the inevitable). And if not that girl, then another...