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Natural Born Killers is one of my favorite movies for many reasons, which is explained ALOT better than I can in the following essay.
Natural Born Killers, directed by Oliver Stone, is a multifaceted film that deals with an array of issues, both cultural and philosophical. The film opens in a diner somewhere in rural America. A girl begins to dance to a song on the juke box while her boyfriend orders key lime pie and a glass of skim milk. Some rednecks walk in and, assuming that the dancer is easy prey, begin to taunt her. After the girl roughs up her admirers with a few slugs and kicks, the couple produces firearms and proceeds to slaughter everyone in the establishment, leaving one person alive to tell the story. As a result of this and other deeds, Mickey and Mallory Knox become celebrities on the tabloid news show, American Maniacs, raising the question of the media's role in the explosion of violence in America. The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the issues raised in this film from a philosophical perspective. I will discuss Stone's criticism of the media and his understanding of the relationship between sex and violence, but more importantly, in the second part of this paper I shall examine the spiritual and philosophical ideas addressed in this film such as fate, freedom, and responsibility. It will become clear that while NBK is a story about violence and the media, these issues are addressed in the context of a spiritual and philosophical enquiry. Recent interpretations of NBK have ignored the iconoclastic ideas promoted in this film, preferring instead to focus on the conspicuous and socially admissible anti-media message. We shall see that Stone's commentary goes far beyond criticizing social institutions and generates radical and revolutionary solutions to timeless philosophical riddles such as what it means to be human and how human beings ought to live their lives.
Media and the Trivialization of Human Experience
NBK's parody of sensational journalism is impossible to ignore. Wayne Gayle, who hosts, writes, directs, and produces his own show is a shameless self promoter. Stone's point seems to be that sensational news media promotes and reflects itself, packaging violence and fear into commodities to be sold to the public. Gayle makes no secret of the fact that his show is void of real content and refers to it as "junk food for the brain." He is nonchalant about blatantly repeating the previous evening's show because the "nitwits out in zombie land" will never know the difference. In NBK Gayle symbolizes all media; a point which is made clear at the end of the film when Mickey and Mallory shoot the reporter, symbolically killing the media. (Webster's New World Dictionary defines the media as "all the forms of communication such as newspapers, radio, and TV, that provide the public with news, entertainment, etc., usually along with advertising.")
Sensational news coverage is not the only form of media criticized in this film. Sitcoms and cartoons are also the targets of satire. The mini sitcom sequence entitled "I Love Mallory" depicts Mallory's homelife and her first encounter with Mickey. In this scene an extremely abusive dialogue between Mallory and her family is couched in the context of a sitcom. The music and laugh track distort the content of the exchange and this atrocious scene of incestuous abuse becomes trivialized. The sitcom setting numbs the audience to the grim reality of the situation. Sitcoms have a long history of trivializing abuse. In the Honey Mooners,one of the first sitcoms on television, Ralph's constant threat to beat Alice ("to the moon Alice, to the moon!") is portrayed as somehow funny. In the same way, Mallory's sexually abusive father seems less malign in the sitcom context.
Saturday morning cartoons are perhaps the form of media most guilty of trivializing violence and this form of media, too, is criticized in NBK. When Mickey storms into Mallory's house and murders her father, the cartoon sound effects after each slam and slug give an unreal affect to an otherwise grisly scene. The murder of Mallory's parents (and all subsequent murders) seems no more significant than a scene between Puddy Cat and Tweety Bird. The couple exhibits no reflection or remorse. Certainly Stone implies that their lack of sensitivity is due to desensitization to violence by too much exposure to media. This point is made clear in the shaman's hut when the word "demon" is projected across Mickey's chest and the words "too much T.V." are projected across both of them. There seems to be an equation set up between the demon, i.e. that which is purely evil, and media. The message is clear. Desensitization to violence by too much exposure to media creates evil. It is important to note that the media itself is not necessarily evil. It may have an undesirable impact on its audience but it is in no way manipulative. The media reflects its own interests and fears while giving the public what it wants. The public and the media are equally fascinated by death and murder and want to focus on it whenever possible. As a result, through shear repetition, violent events become trivialized and lose their original impact and meaning.
Stone's point seems to be that all media, not just news coverage, trivializes violence and distorts human experience. The media is not alone in trivializing human experience, however. Respected members of the community are also to blame. This point is underlined during the interview with the psychiatrist, who describes Mickey and Mallory as psychotic, but not insane. The psychiatrist dismisses as insignificant, Mickey and Mallory's family history when he speculates that they were probably never the victims of sexual abuse. When asked how he feels about the fact that Mallory wants to kill him, he replies that he never believes what women say. The psychiatrists repudiates Mallory's threat because she is a woman. Ironically it is precisely her anger at being dismissed as merely a sexual object that motivates her to kill. This is especially clear when Mallory encounters men who want to have sex with her. One of the first people to die in this film is the redneck who says: "You call her Mallory, I call her pussy." Stone's point is simple: the consequences of trivializing human experience and dismissing the violent potential of anger, can be deadly.
While it is true that Stone takes a stand against media and its role in trivializing and distorting life, his film also packages death and violence and sells it to consumers. He, like those he criticizes, trivializes murder by repeating it throughout his film, effectively desensitizing the audience to extremely gruesome scenes. Moreover, Stone's film glorifies murder by portraying it as "pure, " an idea so powerful that it sets off a riot in the prison. Wayne Gayle promotes the celebrity status of Mickey and Mallory but so does Oliver Stone. In short, Stone's movie is precisely what it claims to oppose. Nevertheless, this is not a weakness of the film. It would be impossible to criticize media's role in trivializing violence without also reflecting this reality. Moreover, Stone is quite aware of what he is doing. During the hotel room scene in which Mickey and Mallory are attempting to make love, Scarface, a violent film written by Stone, is playing in the background. Mickey sas: "I've been thinking about why they're always making these stupid fuckin' movies. - Doesn't anyone believe in kissing anymore?" Stone is quite aware that films, specifically his films, create negative images, which desensitize their viewers and trivialize human experience. In this way he attacks Hollywood in general and himself in particular.
Sex and Violence
One of Stone's greatest achievements in this film is to illustrate the relationship between sex and violence and to show how perpetrators of violence become objects of sexual desire in our culture. In a cheap hotel, as Mickey is kissing her thigh, Mallory attempts to get turned on by watching violent images on television. Mickey can only get excited by keeping his eye on the hostage. Clearly, the couple cannot become aroused without violent imagery. After the diner massacre, they passionately embrace and look ready enough for a sexual encounter yet naked on a bed in a hotel room, they are unable to get turned on. It seems that their physical passion is confused with or identical to feelings of aggression such that they cannot feel desire without also feeling emotions associated with violence. In Stone's view, media has perverted sexual desire by confusing the categories of violence and sex. Mickey and Mallory's arrest illustrates how the media encourages the association of sex and violence by the erotic language the news reporter uses to describe this violent scene. The reporter first relates that Mickey is "quite virile" and is wielding a "big gun." Mickey's gun is clearly identified with his penis and his gunfire with ejaculation. When he is finally subdued, she reports that he is "rendered impotent." The reporter has clearly drawn a relationship between getting murdered and getting laid. This violent confrontation is described as if it were an episode of lovemaking. In this way love, which is also commonly associated with sex, becomes hopelessly confused with hate and violence in the minds of both the media and the consumer. This confusion is manifested by the massive popular following of Mickey and Mallory. At their trial they are greeted by adoring fans carrying banners that read "Murder me Mickey." As a result of their murderous rampage and the media coverage of it, Mickey and Mallory become celebrities and sexual icons in a culture that simultaneously condemns and glorifies murder and sex. This is a result of the fact that the media uses sex to sell Mickey and Mallory as commodities for consumption.
The public is not alone in acquiescing to the sexual appeal of murder. Super-cop, Jack Scagnetti, also develops a sexual obsession with Mallory, whom he knows only as a vicious mass murderer. Scagnetti, Mickey and Mallory's nemesis, is every bit as brutal and ruthless as they are, and like them, he is a killer. In the uncut version of NBK, Scagnetti repeats to the prostitute Pinki as he strangles her: "I'm just kidding, I'm just kidding," betraying his inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Stone essentially deconstructs the split between cop and criminal while associating the categories of cop and media. Like Wayne Gayle, who directs, hosts, produces, and writes his own show, Scagnetti, too, is a shameless self promoter, who has just authored a book entitled "Scagnetti on Scagnetti." Scagnetti's personal motivation for hunting down the Knoxes is to gain more notoriety and have sex with Mallory, not to see that justice is served. In Stone's view, the aim of the justice system, like that of the media, is not to protect the public, but to promote itself. The warden of the prison is initially so accommodating to Wayne Gayle because he expects Gayle to enhance his image. When the riot breaks out, the warden is much more troubled by the fact that the event is being taped live than he is about the death of many guards and inmates. Image, not reality is the primary concern of the justice system and the media.
Authenticity, Fate, and the Theology of Mickey Knox
Mickey and Mallory are appealing not only because they are sexual icons but also because they are authentic, or as Mickey later puts it, "pure." (Personal authenticity implies the qualities of reliability, genuiness, and representing one's self as one really is. Authenticity is the opposite of bad faith, which is the act of lying, to one's self or others, or the failure to take responsibility for one's actions.) They act without censorship and simply are, who they are. Like the news media, Mickey and Mallory are exhibitionists, promoting themselves as shamelessly as Wayne Gayle, which is why they often leave a survivor behind to tell the tale of their latest massacre. The difference between the Knoxes and the media is that they do not portray themselves as something they are not. Mickey and Mallory are murderers but they have a strong ethic of authenticity. By refusing to dissimilate their actions they affirm themselves and their choices. The sensational news media, on the other hand, masquerades as objective news coverage and sells Mickey and Mallory to the public by sexualizing murder. In this way Stone sets up a dualism between the Knoxes and the media- between authenticity and bad faith. This film resists the traditional categories of good and evil, law and lawlessness; rather it deconstructs these categories by portraying the cop and even some of the victims (Mallory's parents for instance) as criminals. NBK also resists the categories of innocence and guilt. Ironically, Mickey talks about himself as "pure" or innocent, and about his victims as guilty. When Wayne Gayle asks Mickey how he could have brought himself to kill 52 innocent people, Mickey asks:
MK: Innocent? Who's innocent? You innocent Wayne? WG: I'm innocent, yes I am. Of murder definitely. MK: It's just murder man. All God's creatures do it in some form or other. I mean you look in the forest. You got species killing other species, our species killing all species including the forest and we just call it industry, not murder. But I know a lot of people who deserve to die. WG: Why do they deserve to die? MK: Everyone has something in their past, some sin, some awful secret thing. A lot of people walking around out there are already dead- just need to be put out of their misery. That's where I come in- fate's messenger.
For Mickey, sin is "some secret awful thing." It is bad faith, inauthenticity, and the unwillingness to affirm one's actions. In his view, bad faith kills the spirit who harbors it. The only means of redemption is to acknowledge and validate one's endeavors, which is precisely what Mickey does in this interview. He does not merely confess his deeds, he celebrates them, spending very little time on regret, which he describes as "a wasted emotion." It is important to note that while Mickey makes many references to God in this interview, he never describes human guilt in terms of original sin or the Fall from grace. For Mickey, sin is something experienced subjectively by the sinner, not judged objectively by God.
In Mickey's view, the notion of sin is based on arbitrary moral standards and exists only in the minds of those who judge others or believe themselves to be guilty. From his perspective, there are no absolute moral truths. As a result, ethical standards must be created, or, more precisely, a perspective from which to view the world must be chosen. Mickey has established his own moral standards and from his vantage point, murder is not a particularly significant act. "It's just murder man. All God's creatures do it in some form or another." For Mickey, murder is a fundamental component of reality, not an anomaly. He clearly suggests that his killing 52 people is no more alarming than humanity's role in destroying the earth under the hospices of the word "industry." Murder should not be particularly disturbing because all creatures and even the earth itself, are destined to die. From this perspective, murder, like death, is neither moral nor immoral; it is just a fact. Murder is permissible not because people are sinners, but because traditional morality has no authority in Mickey's life. He is the sole source of meaning in his universe. When he marries Mallory he does so "by the power invested in me as God of my world." Mickey's ethics are beyond good and evil, beyond social convention; he decides what is right and wrong for him. Such ethics are unmistakably Nietzschean. In Twilight of the Idols Nietzsche writes:
"One knows my demand of philosophers that they place themselves beyond good and evil - that they have the illusion of moral judgment beneath them. This demand follows from an insight first formulated by me: that there are no moral facts whatever. Moral judgment has in common with religious judgment that it believes in realities which do not exist. (Friedrich Nietzsche Twilight of the Idols in The Vision of Nietzsche, ed. Philip Novak (RockPort: Element Books, 1996) 72.)
Because Mickey rejects conventional moral standards, he considers himself (and Mallory) inculpable. Unlike most people, the Knoxes feel that they have nothing to hide, giving them an air of innocence. On the road after a massacre, Mallory says: "Baby, you make everyday feel like kindergarten," suggesting that Mallory's life with Mickey is untarnished by bad faith. (The Biblical Fall is the first act of disobedience and deception by Adam and Eve. This original sin caused God to throw Adam and Eve out of Eden. Christians believe that original sin tarnishes the souls of all human beings and that all people are born guilty of original sin. God's forgiveness of sin is the only means of salvation from eternal damnation.) When Mickey describes his time with Mallory to Wayne Gayle during the interview, he says : "It was just like the garden of Eden." Again, the garden of Eden connotes innocence and freedom from sin or bad faith. The audience is likely to experience some surprise upon hearing a mass murderer compare himself and his wife to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Nevertheless, this opinion is entirely consistent with Mickey's world view. We shall see later that Mallory's world view is quite different from Mickey's. Mickey rejects the categories of good and evil and more importantly, he embraces fatalism, which, as we shall see, both relieves him from responsibility and redeems him from sin.
Like authenticity, the topic of fate recurs throughout NBK. "Do you believe in fate?" is one of the first questions that Mickey asks Mallory. During the conversation in the prison after Mickey has been apprehended for grand theft, he tells Mallory that nothing can stop fate. (Fate is defined as "the inevitability of a course of events predetermined by God or other agency beyond human control. Fatalism is the acceptance of all events as inevitable.) He also describes himself to Wayne Gayle as "fate's messenger." Mickey is a fatalist, which is to say that he accepts all events as inevitable. As a result, he is unburdened by any sense of responsibility for his actions. Ironically, it is Mickey's rejection of the concept of free will that makes him so free to be authentic. In his world all events are determined by factors beyond his control, thus the concepts of good and evil or guilt and innocence, are artificial constructs. This theory was also that of Nietzsche, who rejected free will and joyfully embraced fatalism. Nietzsche writes:
The fable of intelligible freedom: Now one finally discovers that this human nature, too, cannot be accountable, in as much as it is a necessary consequence and assembled from the elements and influences of things past and present: That is to say that man can be made accountable for nothing, not for his nature, nor for his motives, nor for his actions, nor for the effects he produces. One has thereby attained to the knowledge that the history of the moral sensations is the history of an error, the error of accountability which rests on the error of freedom of the will...The proposition is as clear as daylight, and yet here everyone prefers to retreat back into the shadows and untruth: from fear of the consequences. (Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human in The Vision of Nietzsche, 66.)
Like Nietzsche's superman, Mickey embraces fatalism and places himself beyond the categories of good and evil. Unburdened by guilt and responsibility, he is free do whatever he wants. Needless to say, Mickey is an unsavory example of what denial of free will and personal responsibility might lead to. As Nietzsche points out, the arguments against free will are very convincing but one is loathe to accept them because of the possible consequences.
For Nietzsche, human beings have not only an instinct to survive, they incessantly strive to amplify and intensify their life experience and constantly endeavor to express their own vitality and strength. According to Nietzsche the "will to power" is the great motivator behind the vast variety of human activity in the world. The will to power may be expressed in many different ways such as the simple desire for power over others, as it is for the Knoxes; or as power over one's self (self discipline). A person who authentically expresses his will to power, that is the overman or the superman, would have the following characteristics.
The acme of power is embodied in the perfectly self possessed man, who has no fear of other men, of himself, or of death and whose simple personality , unaided by any props, changes the lives of those who meet him and even imposes itself on the minds of those who encounter him only second hand, in literature. (Walter Kaufman, "Friedrich Nietzsche" Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1967) 511.)
Mickey and Mallory Knox meet Nietzsche's criteria for "higher humanity." Their personalities make a powerful impact on everybody they meet, they are self possessed, and unafraid of life or death. They represent Stone's interpretation of the Nietzschean superman.
Unfortunately, the will to power is in direct conflict with the will to be a moral person. Nietzsche describes most forms of morality as a perverse ranking and valuation of human drives that "are always the expression of the needs of a community or herd." Nietzsche, Gay Science in The Vision of Nietzsche, 97. In a moral society, the individual becomes an appliance of the community, or as Nietzsche calls it, the herd. The individual's will to power is suppressed while the herd's will is expressed. The term "herd" is important because it suggests nonpredatory herd-like animals such as cows and sheep. Significantly, Christians often refer to themselves as members of the Lord's flock. Christian morality clearly places the needs and desires of the community (or the flock) above those of the individual. The antithesis of the herd (or the flock) is the predator, often symbolized by the wolf. The predator is characterized by acting on his own behalf whereas members of the social herd are obliged to compromise their integrity and desire to benefit the community. In short, members of the herd are forced to live in bad faith, whereas predators live authentically. Mickey and Mallory are predatory outsiders. The rules of the herd do not apply to them because, as we shall see, Mickey literally considers himself to be a different species of animal. As predators, Mickey and Mallory rise above the moral constraints of the herd. Nevertheless, they do have moral principals, but they are quite different from those of their community. Their principals embody what Nietzsche calls "healthy morality" and are designed to amplify and intensify their life experience.
I formulate a principle. All naturalism in morality, that is all healthy morality, is dominated by an instinct of life- some commandment of life is fulfilled through a certain canon of "thou shalt"or "thou shalt not," some hindrance and hostile element of life's road is thereby removed. Anti-natural morality, that is virtually every morality that has hitherto been taught, reverenced, and preached, turns on the contrary, precisely against the instincts of life.-- It is now a secret, now a loud and impudent condemnation of these instincts. By saying "God sees into the heart" it denies the deepest and highest desires of life and takes God for the enemy of life....The saint in whom God takes pleasure is the ideal castrate....Life is at an end where the kingdom of God begins. (Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols in The Vision of Nietzsche, 71.)
Mickey's life is consistent with Nietzsche's "natural morality." He affirms his life, satisfies his desires, and denies himself nothing. While violently ending other's lives, he enriches his own by appeasing his lust for power and destruction. For Mickey, murder is an expression of his will to power. His behavior is totally congruous with his nature, which makes him an authentic agent of fate. In a sense, Mickey is "free" because he embraces his nature, yet he recognizes that his life and personality are the results of circumstances far beyond his control.
WG: Mickey Knox, when did you first start thinking about killing? MK: Birth- I was thrown into a flaming pit of scum; forgotten by God. WG: What do you mean by that? MK: I mean I came from violence. It was in my blood. My daddy had it. His daddy had it. It was all just my fate.... The wolf don't know why he's a wolf. The deer don't know why he's a deer. God just made it that way.
As the audience discovers at the end of the film, Mickey and Wayne are both wolves, which is to say, they both have predatory natures. The difference between the two is that Mickey's actions are authentic, stemming from the purity of his nature, whereas Gayle has spent his life trying to appear to be something he is not. Mickey affirms himself whereas Gayle denies himself. Before his "conversion" to his true nature, when he becomes a homicidal maniac, Gayle is the classic example of bad faith. Nothing in his life is straightforward; his business is one of distortion and his personal life is characterized by deceit and adultery. Mickey is understandably contemptuous.
WG: But was it really worth it? MK: Was what worth it? WG: Was massacring all of those people worth being separated from your love for the rest of your life? MK: You mean was an instant of my purity worth a lifetime of your lies? WG: Please explain to me where is the purity you couldn't live without in the 52 people who are no longer on this planet because they met you and Mallory. What's so fucking pure about that? How do you do it? MK: You'll never understand Wayne. You and me, we're not even the same species. I used to be you then I evolved. From where you're standing you're a man. From where I'm standing you're an ape. You're not even an ape; you're a media person. Media's like the weather, only it's man made. Murder is pure. You're the one made it impure. You're buying and selling fear. You say "why?" I say "why bother?" (The idea that the media attributes an artificial value to murder is expressed in Charles Manson's interview with Geraldo Rivera in the early 1980's. The interview between Wayne Gale and Mickey Knox is largely based on this interview.)
Although Mickey often talks about God the creator, he also refers to evolution. The idea that he is a superior and more evolved human being is central to this film. Nietzsche, who was influenced profoundly by Darwin, believed that human culture and morality were the result of biological imperatives and that the strongest and most "evil" individuals were indispensable for the advancement of the human species. He writes:
"It is the strongest and most evil spirits who have up till now advanced mankind the most....- they have awoken again and again the sense of joy in the new, daring, untried, they have compelled men to set opinion against opinion, model against model. Most of all by weapons, by overturning boundary stones, by wounding piety: but also by new religions and moralities! The same "wickedness"is in every teacher and preacher of the new as makes a conqueror infamous. The new, however, is under all circumstances the evil, as that which wants to conquer and overturn the old boundary stones and the old pieties; and only the old is the good! The good men of every age are those who bury the old ideas in the depths of the earth and bear fruit with them, the agriculturists of the spirit. But that land will at length become exhausted, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again.... In truth, the evil impulses are just as useful, indispensable and preservative of the species as the good:- only their function is different." (Nietzsche, Gay Science in The Vision of Nietsche, 142.)
For Nietzsche, "evil" (e.g. the new and revolutionary) is not merely destructive, it is also a creative force. By questioning and destroying established codes and standards, it creates new, more innovative ethics. In order to create, it is necessary to destroy. "Behold the faithful of all faiths! Whom do they hate the most? Him who smashes their table of values, the breaker, the law breaker- but he is the creator." (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Vision of Nietzsche, 121.)
Mickey sees himself both as both creator and destroyer. He is both a murderer and a revolutionary social thinker. His destructive actions are the expression of his visionary philosophy. Paradoxically, he is at the same time the creative God of his world and a powerless pawn of fate. His acceptance of fatalism has made him free to invent alternative moral standards and as a result, he views the world from an alternative, more comprehensive point of view. This point is made very clear when he tells Gayle: "From where you're standing you're a man, from where I'm standing, you're an ape." Mickey's project as a killer is to question basic moral beliefs and to challenge common assumptions about the value of life and the significance of death. His actions cause people to stand up and take notice, and his words invite reflection. Mickey's life represents an entirely different (if not original) way of thinking about reality. For him, killing is creative. In the interview with Wayne Gayle, he quotes the evangelist John to make this point. "If a kernel of wheat falls to the ground it abideth alone but it bringeth forth much fruit." For Mickey, life and death is a circular process. All living things must die in order to bring forth new life. Death is not a permanent state of non being but a necessary transition toward becoming.
Free Will, Forgiveness, and Redemption
Do Mickey and Mallory progress or change in this film? Yes and no. Yes, there is an attempt to move on and no, they fail to do so. Mickey comes out of prison with a clearer understanding of who he is, what he has done, and why he has done it, but this does not change him in any fundamental way. Although he and Mallory pledge to quit killing after the murder of the shaman, they do not honor their commitment. Mallory's development takes a different course. After the death of the shaman, it becomes clear that she does not (at least not consistently) share Mickey's fatalistic views. For the first time she accuses Mickey of wrongdoing, screaming "bad, bad, bad." It is interesting that she identifies the murder of the shaman as somehow wrong but the other murders unworthy of judgement. When Mickey argues that he killed the shaman accidentally, she retorts "Mickey, there are no accidents." The belief that there are no accidents and that people are always responsible for their actions comes directly from the existentialist tradition as understood by Jean-Paul Sartre. He writes:
"The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders; he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being. We are taking the word "responsibility" as consciousness of being the incontestable author of an event or of an object." ...Furthermore this absolute responsibility is not resignation; it is simply the logical requirement of the consequences of our freedom....Thus there are no accidents in a life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am immobilized in a war, this war is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. ... For lack of getting out of it I have chosen it." (Jean Paul Sartre Existentialism and Human Emotions (Citadel Press: New Jersey, 1985) 52-54.)
For Sartre, human beings are incontestably responsible for what they do and what happens to them because life always involves a choice. In his view, there are no accidents- and more importantly, there are no victims. People choose their wars and therefore deserve them. Sartre would argue that Mickey and Mallory are no more nor less responsible for the death of their victims than the victims themselves. There are many valid objections to this theory, nevertheless, it seems to be a position from which Stone draws in this scene. For the first time in the movie Mallory takes responsibility for what she and Mickey have done and they are both compelled to wrestle with regret. The shaman, too, takes full responsibility for his own death. Mickey and Mallory encounter the shaman after they have run out of gas and are wandering (symbolically enough) in the desert. The shaman sees the demon in Mickey (the word "demon" is projected across his chest), but he welcomes the couple into his home, where he keeps an uncaged rattle snake in the corner. The shaman then goes on to tell the parable of a woman who finds a frozen snake and nurses it back to health. When the snake strikes and mortally wounds her, she asks him how he could have bitten the hand that tended him. The snake replies simply. "You stupid bitch- I'm a snake." The shaman's point is simple: it is in the very nature of a snake to strike. If the woman in this parable did not know what kind of behavior to expect from her patient, she should have. The fact that the shaman tells this parable indicates that he is quite aware of the danger he is in, but unlike the woman in the parable, he welcomes it. (Significantly, Mickey and Mallory represent themselves to each other as snakes. Their wedding rings are formed in the shape of two snakes intertwined.) His desire to "pet" the two outlaws (like he pets the snake in the corner) is based on the fact that he knows they are as deadly as venomous snakes. The shaman symbolizes Jesus, the willing victim, crucified like a lamb at the slaughter. Like Jesus, he is both a victim and a prophet of his own death. Just before he dies he tells Mickey: "Twenty years ago I saw the demon in my dreams. I was waiting for you."
For Mickey, the demon, which can also be understood in terms of Nietzsche's " will to power, " lives in all people. It is much more visible in Mickey than in most people because he is true to his nature, refusing to succumb to the demands of the social herd.
MK: Everyone got the demon in here, O.K. The demon lives in here. It feeds on your hate. It cuts, kills, rapes. It uses your weakness and fears. Only the vicious survive.
Although the demon lives in Mickey, so does love. Appropriately, the Yin and Yang symbol is tattooed on his arm, signifying the duality of his nature. He tells Gayle: "...I'm extreme, dark and light. You know that, I'm light with Mall. " Although Mickey is a fatalist, he feels a need to be redeemed, and forgiven. For him the only means of salvation from the demon and the misery of existence, is love. The redemptive power of love, is symbolized for Mickey by Mallory.
MK: You know the only thing that kills the demon- love. That's why I know Mallory is my salvation. (Mallory in the background: I forgive you baby.) She was teaching me to love. It was just like being in the garden of Eden.
Nietzsche also believes in the redemptive power of love because it is love that inspires the superman to utter the "sacred yes" to existence. The ability to say "yes" to life, to find one moment so joyful that one would will it to happen again and again, along with all the pain that occurred before, is what Nietzsche means by the word redemption.
"To redeem the past and transform every "It was" into "I wanted it thus!"- That alone do I call redemption.... Did you ever say yes to one joy? O my friends, then you said yes to all woe as well. All things are chained and entwined together. All things are in love." (Nietzsche, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Vision of Nietzsche, 162.)
Mickey and Mallory subscribe to two competing philosophical positions. Mickey's universe is mechanistic and fatalistic. He believes that forces beyond human control (not necessarily God) determine events. Mallory embraces free will and personal responsibility. (Although at the end of the film she attributes their escape from prison, to fate.) She believes that she freely chooses her life and she recognizes the murder of the shaman as inherently wrong. Her moral standards are clearly not identical to those of contemporary culture, but she does not place herself outside the categories of good and evil. After the death of the Shaman, Mallory tells Mickey: "Bad, bad, bad,...You are damned. You kill life," suggesting that she believes in divine punishment. Her judgment of Mickey requires that she forgive him if their relationship is to continue, which she does. According to Christian mythology, God's forgiveness is necessary for salvation from eternal damnation. Mickey's theology is similar, but for him God is love and love is Mallory. Her love and forgiveness are the only necessary ingredients for his salvation. (The idea of woman as savior and deity can also be found in Leonard Cohen's song "The Future", which is the closing song in NBK). For Mickey, there is no reality outside of love, hate, and fear and it is this realization that is so redemptive.
MK: Same dream I've had since I was a kid I guess. Running with the animals in the darkness. Mr. Rabbit, bloody fangs, Christmas hat. I don't know, just running. I'm just Mr. Rabbit afraid of every other animal in the forest. Death just sort of becomes what you are, after a while, you begin to like it. You know about realization Wayne? This is just illusion. Mr. Rabbit says a moment of realization is worth a thousand prayers.
This dream describes Mickey's childhood fears and his metamorphosis into a "natural born killer." Mickey, the child is symbolized by Mr. Rabbit, who is weak and vulnerable to everything in his environment. His vision of the world from the perspective of fear makes him become a sort of living death. He is like the people he describes earlier in the interview, already dead and needing to be put out of their misery. Later the fear turns to rage, which is more pleasurable because it allows him to express himself through violence. This is a decisive point in his development because it represents the emergence of the demon or the will to power. The realization that he can choose whether to be afraid or angry and that the value of the world around him is dependends on the value he attributes to it, is liberating. This is the moment of realization. His awareness that life and death are part of a never ending cycle and that death is a necessary component of rebirth, allows him to see death from a different perspective, free of fear. "If a kernel of wheat falls to the earth, it abideth alone, but it bringeth forth much fruit." This, I think, is the central message of the film.
The reason people do not view reality from Mickey's perspective is because media does not often represent it in this way. The media and all sources of knowledge, including tabloid news shows, books by philosophers, and sacred texts, are responsible for how we conceptualize the world. Media provides the perspective from which reality is contemplated. In a very real sense, it creates the world we live in. Mickey represents a sort of anti-media because he rejects established values and creates his own, or more precisely, he adopts values that are foreign to mainstream culture. Stone's point is not that media necessarily distorts reality (although he does criticize media for trivializing human experience) but rather, there are many different positions form which to view it. There is no absolute truth. From a Nietzschean point of view, Mickey's assessment of reality is as valid as the media's, and certainly much more authentic. Significantly, Mickey and Mallory are both products of the media. It has made them into cultural icons. Without the belief that murder is a profoundly significant act against nature, and that death is to be feared, Mickey and Mallory would not be very intriguing. For this reason Mickey sees himself as a monster created by the media. When he and Mallory kill Gayle, they are symbolically killing their creator.
MK: Killing you and what you represent is a statement. I'm not a hundred percent sure of what it's saying. Frankenstein killed Dr. Frankenstein.
The murder of Wayne Gayle states that Mickey and Mallory deny conventional values attached to concepts such as life, murder, and death. In short, Mickey and Mallory repudiate all the assumptions perpetrated by modern culture that make them cultural celebrities. Mickey sentences Gayle to death because he judges the media and what it represents from his own perspective. He, like Nietzsche's superman has taken on the role of creative evaluator.
"Truly men have given themselves all their good and evil. Truly, they did not take it, they did not find it, it did not descend to them as a voice from heaven. Man first implanted values into things to maintain himself- he created the meaning of things, a human meaning! Therefore he calls himself: "Man", that is: the evaluator. Evaluation is creation: hear it, you creative men! Valuating is itself the value and jewel of all valued things. Only through evaluation is there value: and without it the nut of existence would be hollow." (Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra in The Vision of Nietzsche, 149.)
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