revolutionary road, 2008
taken from Robert Yates first book, directed by sam mendes.
uncannily, in the last 5 minutes of the movie i did think to myself… this could have been great.
but the point is: it wasn’t. or it was.
or they weren’t.
but were they?
first and foremost the acting was, until the last 5 minutes, horrible.
that aside, the story line was strong. yet this dangerous distinction between actor and script is precisely what comes up and out in revolutionary road (and if i thought mendes would go so far as to ask for intentionally bad, removed and unconvincing acting my admiration for the film would surely mount, barring that…) here’s the recap:
frank and april. we see them young and in love and then we see them married and miserable. the inbetween comes later, albeit still inbetween: through flashbacks we learn that in the mid-50’s this couple moves from the city to a lovely home in the suburbs. he commutes, she raises the (oddly mainly absent) kids. things sour by the minute (or by the 10 minutes as this tedium is plainly tedious) as both frank and april realize they aren’t two stars on the rise who are just play acting suburban life in the meantime… they struggle with each other, their lifestyle, their positions and their hopes from within the unhappy hopelessness of hyper-domesticated, consumerist suburbia.
the film then reads like zizek reading lacan. franks’ manhood (the primary point of the entire screenplay) is temporarily revived by his wife’s proposal that he quit his job and, yes, ‘find himself’ while they all move to paris and she works for the state department or whatnot. but of course, when the firm he’s been working for offers him a raise to make his father proud, frank falters, sleeps with his secretary again and uses his own wife april’s new pregnancy as a way out of the move to paris. with bizarre and telling scenes centering on a mad truth sayer, mendes moves the film along as the not-so-latent conflicts of frank and april wheeler’s lives rise to the surface. when frank is revealed to be less than a man and april all but accused of castration, you can almost hear lacan singing in the background. yes, it was the 50’s, yes april was forced to live her dreams of self-actualization through her husband, and yes, she broke his balls in an attempt to find her own through him.
as the movie and another suburban husband begin to tune out, what the viewers are left to tune into is an abortion ending in death. a marriage gone awry. a suburban neighborhood functioning through studied exclusion. and the question is: does mendes really want to attribute all of this to a lack in the master signifier?
while questions about frank’s manhood litter the script, the title and the correspondingly named street setting for most of the film could allude to a larger failed struggle: that of the revolutionary against the status quo. against property (family, house, legacy and children), april’s idealism is soon read as naïve and even crazy. Without a model, an understandable shared name for what she was proposing, no one could make sense of her ‘resistance’ to suburbia except, temporarily, her husband. sharing a vision, an idealogy, a politics, brought them together. made them productive (thus the 3rd child). brought them back to being in love.
but in the end we are left to think april was the puppet inside the dwarf. her belief (her role as phallus) stiffened her husband’s resolve and made everything possible. when that same husband lost his courage, or simply decided his wife’s desire was not really his own… everything fell apart. all the love was gone, and in the end, throwing (pumping, actually) the 3rd baby out with the bath water, april tried to erase all signs of the naive revolution she had lived for and killed herself in the process.
what to make of all of this beyond the pat failings of suburban life in the 1950’s? and what does this do to any notions of a functioning ‘as if’..? while frank and april lived ‘as if’ change and hope were possible, change and hope did indeed occur. they laughed, they loved, they shared a secret that said they were special, their marriage revived, franks work was inspired… yet while i’ve toyed with the ‘as if’ via ritual as a way out of the presumptions of sincerity culture (see Adam Seligman and my previous posts here...) clearly frank’s decision to live ‘as if’ his job, his marriage and his life were enough didn’t match up to the couple’s first subjunctive vision of finding themselves in paris.
in the sublime object of ideology, zizek works through lacan, pascal and kierkegaard to think the ‘as if’ in the function of ideology.
what we call ‘social reality’ is in the last resort an ethical construction; it is supported by a certain as if (we act as if we believe in the almightiness of bureaucracy, as if the president incarnates the will of the People, as if the Party expresses the objective interest of the working class…). as soon as belief (which, let us remind ourselves again, is definitely not to be conceived at a psychological level: it is embodied materialized, in the effective functioning of the social field) is lost, the very texture of the social field disintegrates. zizek, the sublime object, p. 36
this is where zizek’s claim that ‘appearances matter’ takes root: as kierkegaard’s wager makes clear, the appearance of belief is belief already in operation. there is no essential kernel of faith (hope or revolution) that can persist apart from appearances, practices, rituals…
the only real obedience, then, is an ‘external’ one: obedience out of conviction is not real obedience…
zizek, the sublime object, p. 37
yet up against the superficiality we read back into and through the 1950’s, statements about externality and appearances (let alone obedience!) really grate against our sincere sensibilities. aware of this, zizek writes:
what distinguishes this Pascalian ‘custom’ from insipid behaviorist wisdom (‘the content of your belief is conditioned by your factual behavior’) is the paradoxial status of a belief before belief: by following a custom, the subject believes without knowing it, so that the final conversion is merely a formal act by means of which we recognize what we have already believed. in other words, what the behaviorist reading of Pascalian ‘custom’ misses is the crucial fact that the external custom is always a material support for the subject’s unconscious.
after taking an incredibly long way around, i would like to contend that the point zizek makes is one highly pertinent to deleuzian realist/non-realist debates: the site of the subject is external. as jean-luc nancy states, it is exstasis, it is on the surface because there is only surface. by this reading, by judith butler’s reading and by the work of late foucault as seen through judith butler, with the subject as surface, the wheeler’s of revolutionary road were special. they were also just like everyone else. they are great, they were miserable. there is no hidden sincere inner kernel to their relationship: when it was shit it was shit, when it was loving, it was loving.
refreshing isn’t it, to think we are what we do, rather than we are the sum of our internal sincere convictions…