Volume 19, 2011


1. Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

2. ‘Out wiv the old ay plumma?’ The Uncanny Marginalized Wastelands of Memory and Matter in David Cronenberg’s Spider – Samantha Lindop

3. A Moving Image Experience: Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, June-July, 2010 – Wendy Haslem

4. “A series of emotional remembrances”: Echoes of Bernard Herrmann -Daniel Golding

5. Don Draper On The Couch:  Mad Men and the Stranger to Paradise – Mark Nicholls









Blockbusters for the YouTube Generation: A new product of convergence culture – Kristy Hess and Lisa Waller

Abstract: While scholars have paid much attention to YouTube in a Web 2.0 environment, the YouTube blockbuster is yet to be discussed as part of this convergence culture. It differs from transmedia storytelling in that no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts. Once users have elevated videos with rich narrative qualities to the heights of fame within YouTube and other virtual social networks, they are taken from the YouTube archive by global commercial media and given new exchange values in traditional media forms such as books, films, television shows and ancillary products, using fragmented classical narrative techniques to do so. This paper traces the history of the blockbuster as a way of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change after World War II, to its refinements in the 1970s to cater for younger audiences and changes in the media landscape, to its most recent incarnation in YouTube. We argue that the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being transformed and refigured by the new form it has begun to take within convergence culture.


Susan Boyle is a dowdy, middle-aged Scottish singer with bushy eyebrows and frizzy dark hair. She was the “fairytale for the YouTube generation” (Wooley, 2010) in 2009 and now has one of the world’s fastest selling debut albums of all time. The story began when Boyle surprised audiences with her faultless rendition of Les Miserables’ “I dreamed a dream” on the hit reality television show Britain’s Got Talent. The Washington Post later reported that the judges and audience were “waiting for her to squawk like a duck” (McManus, 2009). Within hours of her performance, a snippet of footage was uploaded to YouTube by a computer user and shared among millions of people throughout the world. Another piece of footage, uploaded by the producers of the television show, has received almost 100 million hits. Boyle is now one of the world’s most recognizable faces, with guest television appearances, stories in newspapers and magazines, books and record deals. Ironically, the 48-year-old songstress had never heard of YouTube before her performance. She told one interviewer: “I hadn’t even seen a computer…Google what’s that? Is that some kind of gargle?” (Wooley, 2010).

This paper argues the Susan Boyle phenomenon is an example of an emerging media form – the YouTube blockbuster. Just like its cinematic forerunner, this is an example of large commercial media adapting to social and technological change. The two forms retain much in common and we will highlight the work of Marco Cucco (2009) to outline these similarities. Importantly, however, we aim to show how the two models differ within a convergence culture.  The traditional blockbuster model developed by Hollywood in the 1960s and `70s depends upon corporate media investing significant economic capital to produce and market a product with an expectation it will appeal to mass audiences and generate huge profits. Its production has always been controlled by single media conglomerates which make the final decisions on plot and character development as well as licensing agreements for ancillary products. Elana Shafrin (2004) argues that in recent times cinematic blockbusters have been “infused with new modes of authorship, production, marketing and consumption” (Shafrin, 2004, p.261). She uses case studies of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars franchises to discuss how a growing number of “active” or “participatory” fans (Jenkins, 1992) exhibit a sense of ownership that includes an investment in the creative development of these productions. Shafrin shows how internet clubs and websites have provided venues for fans to establish connections to Jackson and Spielberg and their evolving franchises through social gossip, artistic production and political activism.

The YouTube blockbuster is different because its character and plot development is not determined by a single media conglomerate, nor are the licensing agreements for its associated merchandise. It begins with huge interest within participatory media culture before the corporate media make any significant investment and it is dependent on both “bottom up” participatory culture as well as “top down” corporate media (Jenkins, 2006, p.242) to drive its production. Media scholars including Tiziana Terranova (2000), Andrew Ross (2009), Robert Gehl (2009) Banks & Humphreys (2008) and Banks & Deuze (2009) offer different perspectives in the debates surrounding co-creative labor and free labor, who controls content and information flows, who benefits and who profits. There is not space to work through these arguments here. YouTube does, however, provide an example of these complex, yet interdependent co-creative relationships as it thrives on its ability to function as both a business and cultural resource. YouTube has its own brand channel, provides transparent advertising platforms and offers advertising placements in frames on the site, but with its catchcry “Broadcast Yourself”™, it also provides a global stage for creative expression and is celebrated for its participatory culture. It allows everyone with an internet browser to produce, share, find and watch videos stored in its vast digital archive. It is the free, participatory culture of YouTube that is so attractive to “top down” corporate media. It offers a symbiosis with new media, as well as opportunities to build on YouTube success with a range of narratives and products. The YouTube blockbuster is unique within convergence culture as it has progressed from transmedia storytelling, the term used by Henry Jenkins (2006) to describe the ways in which the movie blockbuster production process changes when multimedia platforms are used to tell and sell a story. This paper also argues that a common feature of both old and new blockbusters is the use of narrative, even though it may be constructed in different ways. While classical Hollywood theorists claim narrative has been lost in the industrialisation of film culture, we will argue it is what helps bind new and old media in the production of the YouTube blockbuster.

Blockbuster production: A brief history

The term “blockbuster” is a synonym for something big and is commonly used to describe any cultural product that is a hugely popular commercial success, from art exhibitions to novels. However, it is most closely associated with film where the term was originally coined to describe a big budget production with mass popular appeal.

Cucco (2009) traces the blockbuster’s evolution in Hollywood to the 1940s and ‘50s when the industry was in a state of a crisis brought about by the large-scale, post-war demographic shift towards the new suburbs where there were very few cinemas. The baby boom reduced cinematographic consumption, and the birth of new media competition, especially television (Cucco, 2009, p 217), left movie houses struggling to attract audiences.

In the Studio Era of the 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood enjoyed some successes with films including Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music, but it was in the 1970s that it appeared to have found a concrete solution to its crisis with the release of films such as The GodFather (1972), Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1976). These were big budget films that recorded phenomenal takings at the box office – Jaws alone grossed $470.6 million in its initial release worldwide and cost $7 million to produce (Box Office Mojo, 2010). No three films had ever made so much money more quickly (Bordwell, 2006). They heralded the birth of the Hollywood blockbuster and provided a successful business model for media conglomerates to create big and expensive productions that could appeal to mass audiences and generate massive profits. According to film historian Thomas Schatz (2002), the emergence of the blockbuster signified what the New Hollywood was all about, that is “the studio’s eventual coming-to-terms with an increasingly fragmented entertainment industry – with its demographics and target audiences, its diversified multimedia conglomerates, its global markets and new delivery systems” (2002, p. 185). The rise of the blockbuster was met with strong criticism that such films signified the death of classical narrative and that Hollywood was relying on spectacle and special effects alone to tell and sell a story. Filmmaker Jean Douchet claimed post-classical cinema had given up on narrative and the image was “designed to violently impress by constantly inflating their spectacular qualities” (Buckland, 1999, p 178).  Schatz says film became:  “…so fast-paced and resolutely plot driven that character depth and development are scarcely on the narrative agenda and this emphasis on plot over character marks a significant departure from classical Hollywood” (Schatz, 2002, p. 194). Justin Wyatt (1994, p. 18) argues the cinematic blockbuster can be summarised on one sentence or image, usually called a logline, to make it easier to market. He gives examples from the 1980s including Flashdance (1983) and American Gigolo (1980), which were designed around the public’s taste and market research, and required a simplification of narrative in favor of the image as major appeal.

Most recently, Cucco (2009) has outlined three distinctive features of the cinematic blockbuster which we argue apply to the YouTube blockbuster as well. They include a high economic investment using both technology and human resources; a promise of a “spectacular” or something that is “must see”; and an ability to supplement the earnings from its audiovisual receipts with receipts from merchandising (Cucco, 2009, pp. 219-222). We will consider how each of these features applies to the YouTube blockbuster in this paper, beginning with the third feature – merchandising potential. This is best understood by considering how the blockbuster and ancillary products first came to co-exist.  Instead of competing with television, the blockbuster of the 1970s embraced it as a tool for massive advertising. The release of Jaws, for example, was preceded by a large-scale television promotional campaign to entice audiences. Gomery (1998) says the huge success of Jaws proved saturation advertising was the strategy that would redefine Hollywood (Gomery, 1998, p. 51). The print campaign featured a poster depicting a huge shark rising from the water towards an unsuspecting swimmer, while the radio and television ads exploited the well-known Jaws theme music (Schatz, 2002, p. 191). Bordwell (2006) argues that by the early 1980s, merchandising was added to extend the lifespan of the story beyond the cinema, so tie-ins with fast-food chains, automobile companies and lines of toys and apparel could keep selling the movie.

Scripts that lent themselves to mass marketing had a better chance of being acquired and screenwriters were encouraged to incorporate special effects. Unlike studio era productions, the megapicture could lead a robust afterlife on a soundtrack album, on cable channels and on video cassette. (Bordwell 2006, p.3)

The blockbuster strategy flourished within a new media environment where conglomerates controlled how and when a story could be produced and promoted across a range of mediums from television to the internet. Jenkins (2006) calls this “transmedia storytelling”. He uses the example of the 1999 Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, which gives audiences pieces of the story and narrative through films, books and video games. Jenkins argues that within this idea:

Each medium does what it does best so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels and comics and its world might be explored and experienced through game play…such a multilayered approach to storytelling will enable a more complex, more sophisticated, more rewarding mode of narrative to emerge within the constraints of commercial entertainment (Jenkins, 2006, p. 105).

Although the story is told across mediums, Jenkins argues that transmedia storytelling still depends on a central media company selling the rights to unaffiliated third parties to manufacture products while licensing limits what can be done with the characters or concepts to protect the original property. The production of most ancillary media is achieved by a combination of labor but ultimately the licensor has “the power”, for example the production of “tie-in novels” (Clarke 2009) depends on freelance and supervisory labor but the licensor has ultimate control over timeframes, characters and narratives. This marks the most fundamental difference in the evolution of the YouTube blockbuster because no single company owns or controls the characters or concepts.

 Beyond transmedia storytelling

Cucco (2009) outlines the use of high economic investment using both technology and human resources as a feature of the blockbuster. To understand how this relates to the YouTube blockbuster, we must acknowledge the identities and forms of agency that underpin the success of products of convergence culture such as YouTube. While there is not space here to look closely at this debate, scholars have tended to focus their discussions on the political economy of media production or classical development versus dependency theories (Jenkins, 2006; Banks & Deuze, 2009; Gehl, 2009). There was always a clear division between the role of the producer and consumer in the traditional market-driven cinema model, but that division has blurred since the “people formerly known as the audience” began creating content, uploading photos and videos and sharing information online. Croteau (2006) suggests “mega media products, along with other forms of traditional media, will increasingly be competing for attention with a constantly changing population of literally millions of media producers” (Croteau, 2006, p. 343). The YouTube blockbuster highlights this interdependency. As van Dijck (2009) observes; “YouTube’s role as an internet trader in the options market for fame is unthinkable without a merger between old and new media” (van Dijck, 2009, p. 53).

The production of the YouTube blockbuster depends on a variety of human resources, motives and objectives. They include those responsible for hosting YouTube, the people who upload content online and those who view and pass on links to popular footage via email, blogs, websites, telephone and word of mouth. Global commercial media are also involved, and their role includes extending the life of YouTube footage beyond the online archive by creating new plot developments and ancillary products of their own.

In her research to assess the future of Web 2.0  social networking sites, Kylie Jarrett (2008, p. 132) highlights that it is the appeal of, and control provided by community structures rather than corporate intervention which is fundamental to the success of sites such as YouTube.  Burgess and Green (2009) describe a continnum of cultural participation in YouTube where:

…content is circulated and used without much regard to its source, it is valued and engaged with in specific ways according to its genre and its uses within the website as well as its relevance to the everyday lives of other users, rather than according to whether or not it was uploaded by a Hollywood studio, a web TV company or an amateur video blogger (Burgess & Green, 2009, p. 57).

YouTube is owned by Google, yet Google does not charge licensing fees to those who wish to upload content or enforce subscription fees on anyone who wishes to view material on the site. This allows for large-scale site traffic, providing people have internet access and can invest in the necessary equipment for video editing and uploading. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the YouTube blockbuster. The relatively free, participatory nature of YouTube is what attracts the interest of global media companies seeking to create their own exchange values from popular content. Often the original creator of material is not acknowledged in the archive and if copyright restrictions are unclear, anyone can take advantage of this ambiguity and control the way the content is developed outside of the archive.

This shows that the YouTube blockbuster has moved beyond Jenkins’ (2006) transmedia storytelling, which depends on a central media company driving production. It does, however, reinforce Cucco’s idea that the success of the blockbuster depends on its ability to generate merchandizing and ancillary products. Without this ability, there would be no large-scale investment in popular YouTube footage from global media.  This investment can range from deploying resources such as journalists to report on the phenomena for commercial media, to book deals, movie rights or merchandizing.

The ‘Singing Spinster’ spectacle

Boyle’s appearance on Britain’s Got Talent was first recorded and uploaded by computer users. There was no initial large-scale investment apart from the costs associated with the production of the reality talent show, but this hardly compares with the massive budgets afforded to create Hollywood blockbusters. The YouTube users who uploaded footage had made some minor investment with basic computer equipment and internet access to upload content onto what is considered a cultural resource. But there were no special effects or spectacle deployed on YouTube, in fact the footage of Boyle is grainy and poor quality and lasts for less than four minutes. Once footage was uploaded, news within the YouTube community spread like a virus. Boyle became a spectacle through viral videos, word of mouth and email. The first international news reports came after the YouTube footage had received millions of hits. Newspapers across the world were reporting less than 24 hours after her television appearance of her global success on YouTube with international headlines such as “Scottish spinster a world media sensation” (no author (a), 2009, p. 16) and “Unlikely singer is YouTube sensation” (Lyall, 2009, p. 1).

Large-scale economic investment in the Boyle phenomena was made after the footage was a massive hit in YouTube and corporate media saw value in its production outside of the archive. In the case of traditional media, it provided a chance to “gobble up its most promising prospects” for its own financial gain (Croteau, 2006). Until now corporate media has always had to take a gamble that their large-scale investment in blockbusters will pay off with audiences. They have had to rely on previously successful formulas and market research (Wyatt, 1994). In the case of YouTube phenomena, television stations and talk shows such as Oprah, newspapers across the globe from the Washington Post to The Australian, magazines and book publishers all sought a slice of Boyle only after the footage had been endorsed in YouTube on a grand scale. There were media reports in May 2009 that Catherine Zeta-Jones had asked about the film rights to the singer’s life story and that Oscar-winning film director James Cameron wanted to direct the film (no author (b), 2009, p. 54) Fremantle Media, the producer of Britain’s Got Talent which discovered Boyle, found even it was scrambling to maximise potential from the phenomena and it was only after millions of hits had been received that it negotiated to set up a YouTube channel and sell advertising around official Boyle clips.  The Sunday Times of London reported in April 2009 that more than £1 million in potential advertising income had been lost because no deal was in place before Boyle’s ‘I dreamed a dream’ was viewed more than 75 million times.

No single media conglomerate could control the way the Boyle footage was used outside of YouTube. Whereas J.K. Rowling can control the licensing agreements that govern how her creation Harry Potter is portrayed in merchandizing products, sequels and plot development, both internet users and global media can take the story surrounding a piece of YouTube footage in almost any direction they choose.

YouTube says in its corporate website that every minute a mind boggling 13 hours of video is uploaded and attracts millions of users and viewers. To understand why Boyle has become a YouTube blockbuster we must identify the qualities that make her ‘I dreamed a dream’ stand out from the millions of other video clips in the YouTube archive. The Boyle footage has attracted 300 million hits worldwide and its rich inter-textual narrative appears to differentiate it from other highly popular videos such as “Where the Hell is Matt”, which is not well known to traditional media audiences but has attracted more than 25 million hits and appeared on YouTube’s list of most popular clips. We argue that strong narrative qualities can elevate certain YouTube footage to blockbuster status. International audiences can identify with the story and the corporate media can use the narrative to extend the footage’s appeal beyond the YouTube archive.

Cucco emphasises that a common feature of the blockbuster is the need for a spectacle or something that is “must see”. The spectacle of the YouTube blockbuster is not the footage itself, but the hype created around the footage. We argue this is achieved through narrative techniques, which critics say has crumbled under the industrial weight of the blockbuster.

There are several noteworthy scholars who argue that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters still have narrative structure intact, regardless of quality. Kristin Thompson (1993) examined dozens of post 1960s films such as Jaws, Alien (1979) and GroundHog Day and found dense plot developments, rather than incoherent and fragmented ones. Schauer (2007) further argues that transmedia storytelling has the potential to improve upon the standard film narrative rather than fragment it to the point where it becomes obsolete. He argues that his study of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was an important example of transmedia storytelling as ancillary products were part of director George Lucas’s marketing strategy from the beginning, but that the film still displayed strong connections to narrative.

The use of classical narratives within the global media has also been noted by scholars, particularly within the field of media and journalism. Traditional narrative themes are often used in news stories where journalists portray the hero, the villain, the damsel in distress. Bell (1991) calls journalists the professional storytellers of our age: “The fairy story starts: ‘Once upon a time’. The news story begins: ‘Fifteen people were injured today when a bus plunged’.” Stories define actors moving through sequences of events filled with victims, villains and heroes (Woodward, 1997). Propp (1975) is well known in media studies for identifying recurrent patterns, set characters and plot actions in all fairytales. The main characters include villain, donor, the helper, the princess, the dispatcher, the hero and the false hero.  More recently, Booker (2004) has outlined seven basic plots that are structural transformations of ancient tales: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy. Carroll (2001) identifies and explores key stories or archetypes at the source of Western culture from the virtuous whore; the troubled hero; salvation by a god; soul-mate love; the mother; the value of work; fate; the origin of evil; and self-sacrifice.

In their research on news reporters’ use of YouTube, Hess and Waller (2009) argue that journalists create disjointed and hybrid narratives to extend the appeal of YouTube footage for their audiences. The way the news media use classical narrative and archetypes to create new exchange values from YouTube deserves attention, especially if we consider narratives in the media as simply a way of selling something (Fulton, 2005).

This paper aims to highlight that a strong connection to classical narrative is emerging as a key feature of the YouTube blockbuster. The story of Susan Boyle bears strong resemblance to those themes identified by Booker such as rags to riches and the classic folk tales Cinderella and Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. The global media identified these themes and many stories retain some of the narrative structure of these tales with headlines such as “A life lesson on looks turns into the fairy-tale ending” from the Chicago Tribune and The Sunday Times in Singapore headline “Beauty in ‘Ugly Ducking’ Susan Boyle”. This extract from the British Daily Mirror also highlights the way the news media developed a storybook theme:

…The only man (Brian) to have kissed singing sensation Susan Boyle claimed yesterday it would be a privilege for any lucky guy. The Britain’s Got Talent wonder –nicknamed the Hairy Angel – now has millions of fans worldwide but revealed she has never found a man to love or kiss. “I never knew her to have a birthday party because she was busy caring for her mother,” Brian said. Brian also told how Susan, born with learning difficulties, was targeted by louts. He said: “They would call her names, throw snowballs at her door and dare each other to knock and run away”. (Daily Mirror, 2009).

British journalist Nicci Gerrard wrote a comment piece shortly after Susan Boyle was reportedly admitted to a celebrity rehab clinic after suffering an emotional breakdown in June 2009 (Cooper, 2009). In her article, “The Susan Boyle fairytale was just a fairytale” she writes:

Even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. You can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back — just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas) … it’s actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (gives you that essential happy ending). You have to be able to cry and make others cry.


Only rare YouTube moments are imbued with qualities that not only attract millions of viewers, but have the potential as bankable products for media conglomerates that can ultimately propel them to blockbuster status.  This paper has focused on Susan Boyle, but there are other examples of this new form of blockbuster, such as “Christian the Lion”, which possesses the same kind of rich, universal narrative qualities as the Boyle story. This YouTube blockbuster captures a tale of remarkable love between beast and man in just a couple of minutes of low-quality, grainy 1970s footage in which the lion embraces its former owner. It has spawned best-selling books for children and adults, documentaries and massive international news media coverage and commentary.

The global reach of popular YouTube footage is unprecedented and YouTube phenomena such as the Susan Boyle footage can attract as much, if not more attention from fans and audiences than some of Hollywood’s most famous actors. Martin Conboy (2002) says the popular press survives on its ability to maintain a dialogue with contemporary cultural trends. So it comes as no surprise that YouTube, a new form of popular culture, attracts interest from global commercial media.

The YouTube blockbuster shares some of the features of its cinematic forerunner – most importantly, it has the “must see” quality that Cucco describes. It also attracts massive global audiences, offering opportunities to reap big profits from merchandizing and spin-off media products. But the nature of the hype that traditionally surrounded the blockbuster has been transformed and democratised by new media communities and technology. It is no longer a case of marketeers rolling out slick promotional campaigns designed around public taste and market research to build expectations for months before a blockbuster is released. The circulation of viral emails and links from social network sites alert increasingly large networks of people to the existence of “must see” YouTube footage and they are able to access it instantly. In the process, both the economic and cultural values of the blockbuster are being redefined. It was once under complete corporate control, big budgets and big profits were its hallmarks and slick production, spectacle and special effects were the drawcard. The YouTube blockbuster is first and foremost under YouTube user control, it’s relatively cheap to produce, the nature of the “spectacle” has changed and production values are relatively unimportant. Narrative is in the ascendancy.

The global commercial media is still coming to terms with the latest transformations of the media landscape in which corporate control is slipping. As in the post-war period and again in the 1970s, creative industries must find new ways to profit. The Susan Boyle blockbuster is an important example of the media redefining itself by finding ways to meet the challenges posed by the new cultural forms, delivery systems and diversification Web 2.0 presents. YouTube users make large investments of human capital and small investments in technology at the front end of the YouTube blockbuster, but media spectacle and big profits are still possible for the global commercial media when it takes the guaranteed popularity of a YouTube clip and can spin it into traditional media products such as news, documentaries, books, films and audio recordings.

But the YouTube blockbuster is a fragile entity and models of storytelling in convergence culture are evolving as rapidly as the technology itself. YouTube is both a business and a cultural resource co-created by its users and the larger in scale and demographic reach, “the more that is at stake and the more significant the tensions between labour, play, democracy and profiteering become” (Burgess & Green, 2009, pp. 35-36) Already there have been disputes over claims of copyright infringement with Viacom, and most recently Warner Bros’ battle over music video clips. It is YouTube’s role as a cultural resource that underpins the success of the blockbuster. If corporate interests intervene, for example, through the introduction of subscription fees, then the community framework which supports the blockbuster will surely weaken.

The blockbuster phenomenon highlights the synergies between new and old media in a convergence culture. No one can predict what the next blockbuster will be, nor can they orchestrate it, but what is certain is that unlikely stars will continue to be rocketed into this new media stratosphere such as the “Hairy Angel” Susan Boyle.


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Kristy Hess is a Lecturer in Journalism in the School of Communication & Creative Arts at Deakin University. Her current research projects focus on social justice and the regional media; social capital and the media (PhD); parent/student learning partnerships to improve literacy; and developing national curriculum resources as part of the Reporting Diversity project. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal. Email: kristy.hess@deakin.edu.au

Lisa Waller is a part-time journalism lecturer and a full-time Phd student in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. As a recent graduate of Deakin’s Graduate Certificate of Higher Education and now a member of the GCHE advisory board, she is interested in the education of tertiary educators. She is also interested in curriculum and pedagogy in higher education, especially curriculum renewal and the scholarship of teaching in higher education. She has published articles in Asia Pacific Media Educator, Australian Journalism Review, and Asia Pacific Public Relations Journal.

‘Out wiv the old ay plumma?’ The Uncanny Marginalized Wastelands of Memory and Matter in David Cronenberg’s Spider – Samantha Lindop

Abstract: The shift of economic focus from industrial production to consumption in contemporary Western Society has meant that once booming factories and their surrounding infrastructure are now redundant. Left to decay, the places and spaces of yesteryear are now derelict wastelands that intrude upon the present as a fractured semblance of the past. Hauntingly familiar yet disturbingly unfamiliar they embody the uncanny, evoking a sense of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but that has come to light. Just as unwelcome memories that exist at the core of the uncanny are repressed, confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places and buildings, resonating messages of a failed past, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated to the status of unwanted waste, left to decompose over time. I argue that the film Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) represents a powerful journey through the marginalized wastelands of memory and matter. Both the memories of the film’s central protagonist Spider (Ralf Fiennes) and the decomposing landscape surrounding him are inextricably bound in the uncanny, both become disjointed from the sequential structure of time, returning as a fragmented ruin of the past, imposing their disturbing presence on the present, causing the fragile web of Spider’s mind to disintegrate like the decaying wasteland around him. 


German Intellectual Walter Benjamin famously writes: “the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (1999, 82). Abandoned, decaying urban wastelands such as those depicted in Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) may be rendered useless in contemporary consumer society but it does not mean that their history has ceased. The rags and the refuse that are post-industrial wastelands form an unconscious backdrop to contemporary life, they come back from the past, enforcing their presence on the present as a haunting and subversive symbol of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but has come to light. As such, urban wastelands embody Freud’s description of the uncanny in the same way that disturbing memories – buried deep in the mental wasteland of the unconsciousness embody the uncanny when they re-emerge.

I contend that not only are the derelict wastelands of Spider the physical embodiment of the uncanny, but the memories of the film’s central protagonist, Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralf Fiennes) also possess an uncanny quality. Memory and matter interact and amalgamate, both becoming disjointed in time; the past, now fragmented, fragile and decaying, returns to haunt the present with disastrous consequences for the future as the frail web of Spider’s mind falls apart like the dilapidated wastelands around him.

From its inception psychoanalysis has been used to explore representations in cultural texts. Whilst Freud examined art and literature from a psychoanalytic perspective, many contemporary theorists apply psychoanalytic theory to film in order to study unresolved cultural anxieties. To begin I shall explore the way deserted, obsolete remnants of a once thriving industrial age embody a powerful sense of uncanny. I will then discuss the psychological origins of the uncanny from a Freudian perspective and how this links in with contemporary Western society and the post-World War II shift from production to consumption as the primary economic activity. Finally I shall look at how marginalized, neglected places and spaces interact with the deserted, shadowy content of repressed memories in the film Spider.

Released from a psychiatric institution after thirty years of incarceration Spider is sent to live in a dingy, decrepit half way house run by an officious woman called Mrs. Wilkins (Lynn Redgrave). His new home is in the same neighborhood that he grew up in and although it is now run down and derelict, all the old places of his childhood still exist. However, the return to the landscape of his youth begins to undermine the fragile stability of his psyche. Disturbing memories that have remained deeply repressed start to emerge, intruding on the present. Time becomes disjointed as he watches the past playing out before him. As memory and contemporary reality intermingle, the film reveals that Spider, an only child, and his mother have a close, loving bond but the relationship between Spider’s parents is strained. His father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) is volatile, intolerant and resentful of his familial responsibilities. Preferring to spend his time at the local pub, Bill begins an affair with Yvonne Wilkinson (Miranda Richardson), a “cheap tart” who frequents the same bar.

One night Spider’s mother (also played by Miranda Richardson) finds Bill and Yvonne having sex in the allotment shed. Bill murders Spider’s mum with a shovel and buries her in the vegetable patch while Yvonne watches on. Yvonne then moves into the family home replacing Spider’s mother, much to his disgust. Spider knows that they murdered his mother and formulates a plan to murder Yvonne. He attaches string from his bedroom down to the kitchen, affixing it to the gas oven. As Yvonne sleeps in a chair next to the stove he pulls the string that turns on the gas. However, as Bill pulls her dead body from the gas filled house she turns back into Spider’s mother whom she really had been all along.  Her transformation into Yvonne was all in Spider’s psychotic mind.

Uncanny Post-Industrial Wastelands

Around the early twentieth century there was a shift from industrial production to consumption as the central economic activity of Western society. This movement away from production meant that many factories and their surrounding infrastructure became redundant and were abandoned. With no function they transformed into decaying, derelict urban wastelands like the setting depicted in Spider. In the opening scenes of the film, Spider makes his way through the desolate urban wasteland of post-industrial East London. The streets are lined with disused, bricked up Victorian terrace houses that would have once been animate with factory employees and their families. A canal, in the past vital for the transportation of goods, now sits obsolete. Devoid of human activity, organic life comprises solely of weeds, poking up through cracks in the pavement. The only stir comes from the methodical heaving and thudding of a monolithic gas works that dominates the landscape like an enormous steel monster from the Jurassic era.

The ruined and dilapidated places and spaces of post-industrial urban wastelands generate a strangely unsettling feeling that can best be described as uncanny. For Freud the uncanny is a feeling that is “undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror” (The Uncanny 1919, 218), but it is also unique and somehow different; a type of feeling that deserves a special conceptual term because it produces a disturbing dreamlike feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. The uncanny is uncanny specifically because of its familiarity being “that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud , The Uncanny 1919, 218) the familiar and the unfamiliar always inhabit each other. The German word for the uncanny is “unheimlich”, which translates directly as “unhomely” in English. When Spider returns to the neighborhood that was once his home he finds that although it is the same place he grew up in it is also very different. Now a wasteland of neglected ruins it exists in the present as a haunting residue of the past. Both familiar and unfamiliar, it has become an alienating unhomely place that Spider does not quite fit into. Philosopher and academic Dylan Trigg describes the ruin as something which:

 Intrudes upon the seamless present, disordering the unmarked line of time by invoking a spatial plane of uncanniness […] It retains the shadow of its old self, but simultaneously radically destabilizes the present (Trigg 2006, 131).

For Trigg, the way that the wasteland, in a sense, returns from the past, “enforcing its presence in the present” (2006, 131) corresponds with Freud’s account of the uncanny. As Freud asserts: “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (1919, 227). According to Trigg:

This coming to light materializes in the untimely quality of the ruin. Having fallen from (active) time, the ruin becomes disjointed from time. The untimeliness is evident in how past, present and future conspires to converge in the ruin. Having outlawed its functional existence, the ruin’s persistence in time disproves outright extinction, so compels an unexpected return (Trigg 2006, 131).

Confined to the status of waste, obsolete structures sit suspended in time, displacing its linear continuity. As they gradually crumble and decay they retain a semblance of what they once were but grow increasingly distant from their original form. Just like Spider’s memories, the ruins of the urban wasteland embody the feeling of uncanniness, transcending time they come from the past but appear in the present as a fragmented, ghostly revelation that informs and shapes the future.

The Origins of the Uncanny

Freud argues that the psychological origins of the uncanny stem from repressed infantile anxieties that ought to remain hidden in the deep recesses of the mind but as the result of external triggers make an unexpected return (The Uncanny 1919, 227). Freud concludes that the uncanny is directly attached to the mythical figure of the Sand-Man, and to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes. Freud refers centrally to the story of ‘The Sand-Man’ by E.T.A Hoffmann where the Sand-Man is described as:

A wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes so that they jump out of their heads bleeding. Then he puts the eyes into a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children (Freud, The Uncanny 1919, 227)

Through psychoanalytic experience, Freud has found that incidents about the eyes and fear of going blind are a substitute for the dread of being castrated which arises in the Oedipal phase of development where the male infant’s desire for his mother gives rise to an overwhelming fear that the jealous and cruel father, a bitter rival for the mother’s affections, will castrate the child as punishment for his intense cravings (The Uncanny 1919, 241). Freud argues that the self-blinding of the mythical Oedipus was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration and this is why the predominant characteristic of the uncanny is something that is familiar and long-established in the mind. It has become forgotten only through the process of repression, concealed in the catacombs of the unconsciousness which serves as a mental wasteland, reserved for things that we would rather pretend do not exist. According to Freud, in Hoffmann’s tale the Sand-Man always appears as a disturber of love, taking the place of the dreaded father, at whose hands castration is expected (The Uncanny 1919, 230).

In traditional Freudian expression the traumatic threat of castration forces the boy to give up his mother as a love object and instead identify with the castrating father who plays a role in the formation of the superego. The task of the superego is to repress aggressive impulses that stem from the infant’s Oedipal desires to take the place of the father. In order to render hostile impulses towards the father innocuous, the child internalizes its violence, sending it back to where it came from in the outset – one’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself up against the rest of the ego as the superego. Retaining the castigatory character of the cruel and jealous father the superego functions as an overwhelmingly cruel agency that torments the ego with guilt (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents 1930, 132-135). Feminist theorist Christina Wieland contends that while the successful working through of the Oedipal stage of development involves the elevation of the father to the superego the deep trauma resulting from the essential rejection of the child’s mother as an object of affection and desire necessitates her banishment into the unconscious (2002, 36).

Just as Freud draws on the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus by Sophocles in order to contextualize this particular stage of psychical development, Wieland refers to the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon form the trilogy The Oresteia to provide a schema for the distressing removal of the revered mother from the consciousness. According to the legend, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek fleet had been in Troy fighting the Trojan War for many years. Upon his eventual return he bought with him a mistress named Cassandra whom he had captured in Troy. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, angry that he had acquired a mistress and wanting revenge for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, murders both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus rule the kingdom until Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, prompted by the God Apollo, avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother and her lover. However, Orestes is immediately hounded by the Furies; ancient maternal Goddesses who seek revenge for matricide. Orestes is punished for his dreadful deed with insanity. Just as Orestes commits a physical act of matricide, the total repression of the mother is tantamount to psychical matricide (Wieland 2002, 36-38).

The young Spider is undoubtedly in the midst of Oedipal conflict. He clearly adores his loving, gentle mother, cherishing the time they spend alone together. His brooding, ill-tempered father functions as a disturber of love, an unwelcome intrusion who appears to have very little tolerance or regard for his young son. When Spider observes his parent’s being physically affectionate towards each other he becomes enraged, an emotion that is intensified when a moment of blissful admiration for his mother as she models some new lingerie is shattered when she asks Spider if he thinks his father will like it. However, just as Orestes is mentally unable to deal with the horror of his matricidal actions so too is young Spider unable to cope with the reality that he has murdered his beloved mother, his punishment, like the ancient Greek character before him is insanity. Wieland identifies that the manic solution to intense distress is to deny reality. She argues that the manic responds to the act of matricide by constructing a false belief that the mother is not their true parent (Wieland 2002, 39-40). Thus, Spider’s psychotic reaction is to deny reality by instead constructing an alternative where it is not his mother that he has murdered but Yvonne.

Another example of the expression of matricide in the creative medium of film is the Australian black comedy Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993). Bad Boy Bubby is set in a derelict post-industrial wasteland that not entirely dissimilar to the mise-en-scene of Spider. Mentally retarded Bubby (Nicolas Hope) has lived in complete isolation in a dark, filthy, windowless, cockroach ridden concrete box with his abusive, dominating mother Flo (Claire Benito) for thirty five years. His mother uses him for sex and tricks him into believing that the outside air is poisonous. To back up the lie she wears a gas mask whenever she leaves their squalid home. The unexpected arrival of Bubby’s Pop (Ralph Cotterill) triggers a jealous Oedipal response in Bubby as well as leading him to question if the outside air really is poisonous. He murders both his mother and pop, asphyxiating them with cling wrap before venturing out into a strange, inhospitable world where his experiences with other people are complicated by the fact that he cannot communicate on any level other than mimicry.

Memory and Matter in a Changing World

Social theorists Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs identify that whilst Freud’s primary concern was certainly with the psyche, his exploration of the uncanny is also about one’s sense of place in the modern, changing environment and it attends to anxieties which are symptomatic of an ongoing process or realignment in post-war society (Gelder and Jacobs 1995, 174). Sociologist John Carroll explains that the shift away from industrialization towards consumption has had a destabilizing effect on traditional societal structures in both the private and public sphere, particularly in relation to patriarchal hegemony. Consumer culture meant that for the first time the wife/mother became psychologically central to the family, taking the lead role in spending decisions (Carroll 1985, 173).

Additionally, active challenges to the time-honored order of female subordination and male domination initiated by the rise of feminism, the entrance of women into the labor market, the collapse of the nuclear family and gradual elevation of women to positions of real power within government and industry over the decades has led to the popular presumption that masculinity is in crisis; that there is a general feeling among men that they are no longer capable of fully controlling the world, and that their power and authority can no longer be taken for granted (Brittan 1989, 183).  As famous psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan states:

Whatever its future this decline [of the paternal imago] constitutes a psychological crisis. It may even be that the emergence of psychoanalysis itself is linked to this very crisis (Lacan 1938, 45).

Not all contemporary thinkers agree that the psychological crisis referred to by Lacan is entirely inclusive, for example, sociologist Tim Edwards argues that whilst there is conceptual and theoretical support for the argument of a crisis of masculinity, the actual effects of this crisis undoubtedly vary according to class, ethnicity, age, geography, and sexuality, constituting what Edwards refers to as a “partial crisis” as opposed to an overall catastrophe (Edwards 2006, 16). Similarly, academic Arthur Brittan argues “it is problematic to assume that all men are in crisis given that not all men have the same interests, nor do they share the same collective identities” (1989, 183). However, whilst the extent of a crisis of masculinity is a debated topic, there is some consensus that the male identity has been destabilized by cultural shifts creating a profound effect on the psyche by triggering deep feelings of anxiety that originate in the Oedipal phase of development.

These anxieties reveal themselves in the form of the uncanny in the sense that the derelict wastelands of former factory sites serve as a catalyst, as remnants of the past when gender roles were clearly defined. Similarly, the exclusively masculine domain of the factory serves as an emblem for patriarchal hegemony. Just as unwelcome memories are repressed and confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places that resonate with troubling messages of failure, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated the status of unwanted waste, left to gradually decompose over time.

Memory, Matter and the Wastelands of Spider

The marginalized wastelands of memory and matter form a powerful alliance in Spider, embodying the uncanny. Both become disjointed from time, disrupting its continuity, both generate a lurking feeling of unease as something that ought to remain secret and hidden reveals itself. The places from Spider’s past; the streets, the canal, the allotment, Spider’s childhood home, the local pub, and the gas works, all conspire to exhume Spider’s interred memories. The vegetable garden at the allotment is where his mother was buried after being brutally murdered, under the bridge alongside the canal Spider’s father received sexual favors from Yvonne, the local pub is where Bill preferred to spend his free time and also where he met Yvonne, Spider’s old home is where his mother lovingly indulged his obsession with spiders (as well as being the place where she met her real death). All these places still exist, but like the ruin they are shadows of past that threaten to subvert the present.

As Spider explores the landscape of his youth the past, present and future conspire to converge in his mind just as they do in the ruin. His childhood memories resurface from history, imposing their uncanny presence on the present. Spider becomes lost in time as his surroundings return to their original manifestation and the events of the past play out before his eyes. But as Trigg describes, when we encounter objects from our background a change takes place when we recall their origin:

They return to their original spontaneity, and yet are wholly decaying, rotting, and fragile to the touch. The return of the “thing” thus instills a warped time scale. What remains in the ruin is the trace of a past, fragmented and unable to be situated in an overarching narrative, fusing with the ruin’s decay in the present (Trigg 2006, 31).

As the narrative of Spider’s childhood comes to life cracks begin to appear, revealing the fragility of its construction and the fragility of Spider’s mind. Things are not quite right; Yvonne looks disturbingly like Spider’s mother, although she behaves very differently. No one else seems to notice that Spider’s mother is missing and when Spider accuses Bill and Yvonne of murdering his mother Bill, appearing shocked and concerned, asks him if he is daft.

Just as the fragmented traces of the past fuse with the ruin’s decay in the present, the repressed memories from Spider’s past emerge and combine with the present; as the prologue for the movie articulates: “The only thing worse than losing your mind is finding it again” (http://www.spiderthemovie.com). Spider is no longer able to contain the fact that it was he who murdered his beloved mother; that she was actually Yvonne all along. As Trigg asserts: “In spite of the temporal closure of the past, the same past reconfigures and reappears, circumventing the attempt to rationalize it into submission” (2006, 31).

Spider’s psychotic attempt to rationalize his act of matricide “into submission” by denying that it is his mother that he has murdered, instead displacing culpability for his mother’s death onto his father is thwarted by the return of the truth, which, in response to the external triggers of the post-industrial wasteland around him, has reconfigured and reappeared. Like the string that connects the oven door to the murder’s hand, the memory connects the past to the present. Spider’s recollections reactivate his psychosis, which returns with all the vigor and intensity of its original manifestation.  Mrs. Wilkins morphs into Yvonne Wilkinson, looking and behaving exactly as she did when Spider was a young child. The past and the present become trapped in the tangled web of Spider’s mind, just like living become ensnared in the sticky tendrils of the web of his namesake taking their place alongside decaying corpses that linger as a ghoulish testimony of past consumption. In an uncanny act of repetition he sets about murdering Yvonne again (only this time he fails to complete the deed) and is taken away to the asylum, just as he was thirty years ago, as much a fragmented ruin from the past, conflated with the present as the decaying wasteland around him.


No longer of material value, waste is the stuff we discard, the rags and the refuse that is confined to the outskirts of society, forming an unconscious backdrop that despite its marginalization defies outright extinction. Wasted places and spaces, remnant from another era become disjointed from time, transcending its sequential structure. They retain a semblance of their past life but, now distant from their original form, take on a disturbing, haunting quality that embodies the uncanny; a dream like feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. In David Cronenberg’s Spider the wasted debris of the landscape forms a powerful coalition with disturbing memories that have been impounded in the mental wasteland of Spider’s unconsciousness, each providing the other with substance and epistemological value. Like a hurriedly covered corpse in a shallow grave, memory and matter do not remain buried for long, instead they reemerge, tainting the present with their fetid presence, a presence that in turn contaminates the future. Thus, whether it is in the form of disturbing and traumatic memories or architectural constructions that resonate with outmoded ideologies waste becomes a pseudonym for the things we would prefer to forget; the objects and events that are stifled in the shadow recesses of the unconscious. However, as Walter Benjamin succinctly asserts “by their waste shall you know them” (1999, 82), hence, the unconscious is also a place where narratives of truth, unmediated by the ego reside. As a form of cultural expression Spider provides a compelling commentary on the powerful interaction between matter and memory and the hidden anxieties that embody them both.


Bad Boy Bubby. 1993. Directed by Rolf de Heer. Australia. South Australian Film Corporation.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

Brittan, Arthur. 1989. Masculinity and Power. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Carroll, John. 1985. Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History, and Culture. London: Routledge.

Edwards, Tim. 2006. Cultures and Masculinity. London: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund. 1919. The Uncanny. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVII: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 217-256.

__________. 1930. Civilization and its Discontents. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XXI: The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 59-148.

Gelder, Ken and Jane Jacobs. 1995. Uncanny Australia. Cultural Geographies 2: 171-183.

Lacan, Jacques. 1938. Family Complexes and the Individual. Translated by Cormac Gallagher.  London: Anthony Rowe.

Spider. 2002. Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada/England. Capitol Films.

Spider the Movie Official Web Site. 2003. http://spiderthemovie.com (Accessed October 3rd 2010).

Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang.

Vider, Anthony. 1994. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. London and New York: MIT Press.

Wieland, Christina. 2002. The Undead Mother: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Masculinity, Femininity, and Matricide. London: Rebus Press.



Samantha Lindop holds a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies from Deakin University and is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies, and Art History. She is researching the fatale figure in postmillennial neo-noir North American cinema.  Email: slindop1@bigpond.com



A Moving Image Experience: Il Cinema Ritrovato: Bologna, June-July, 2010 – Wendy Haslem

A film festival is always a time machine, and Il Cinema Ritrovato doubly so. Every bit of film contributes to the kaleidoscope of a century, especially when screened now, at the beginning of a new century and during circumstances where almost no moment of film, and few entire films, count in the same way.

Peter von Bagh, Artistic Director, Il Cinema Ritrovato, (2010 9).

In 2010 the 24th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato screened 313 films over eight days in four locations throughout the city of Bologna, Italy. The coordinator of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlée and the artistic director Peter von Bagh were responsible for curating a festival of cinema dedicated to the conservation and exhibition of newly discovered films. Conservation technologies are the invisible and highly visible forces behind this festival. These technologies are revealed in newly cleaned, pristine images, brilliant with the erasure of traces of time and use. Films reveal narratives that are restored with the insertion of intertitles and even in black sequences highlighting those scenes that were beyond restoration. This is a festival that makes a dynamic contribution to the evolution of the history of world cinema. Il Cinema Ritrovato exhibits the results of conservation projects by the Cineteca Bologna, The World Film Foundation and other restoration institutions world wide. As von Bagh implies, this network connects organisations, spaces, people and histories beyond a simple chronology. Von Bagh perceives this festival to be as much about the future as the past. He writes:

Considering that the cinema year 2009-10 has been filled with especially infantile discussions about 3-D and related matters, I’m glad to state the overwhelming – and essential – presence in our program of technologies and the dialogue about them. This doesn’t mean only our dear themes of colour and widescreen, but also a more surprising face: that stepping into the midst of silent films is often also a trip to the future (Peter von Bagh, 2010 9).

This film festival not only connects the past to the present, it creates a culture that understands both as necessary for the future of the moving image. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that cannot be reduced to the binary oppositions of ‘business’ and ‘audience’ festivals outlined by Mark Peranson (2009 23-37). In its diachronic connection of short films, feature films, documentaries and cinema from across film history, exhibited in spaces including theatres, museums and a Piazza, this is a “moving image experience” greater than film according to the definition outlined by Paolo Cherchi Usai. The moving image experience connects the act of seeing with creation, preservation and access (2008 9). In its history, in the establishment of its hierarchies and in the creation of its rituals, Il Cinema Ritrovato could be aligned closely with André Bazin’s effusive description of festivals, “in which people join in holy worship of a common transcendent reality, then the Festival is a religious Order” (1955, 2009 13-19).

This festival has the continuing support of screen luminaries like Martin Scorsese (who provides access to his archive) and prestigious organisations like The World Cinema Foundation which sponsors the restoration of many films. Some of these films are surprisingly new. Recent historical forces affecting the history of film are evident in the exhibition of Mest/Revenge (Ermek Shinarbaev, 1989), a film described by Kent Jones as “one of the greatest films to emerge from the Kazakh New Wave and one of the toughest” (2010 47). Mest, a film that investigates the Korean diaspora displaced into the Russian Far East was prohibited distribution by Soviet authorities and shelved as soon as it was completed. Mest was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Film Laboratory, Bologna with the collaboration of its director Ermek Shinarbaev in 2010.

Programs of auteur films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato include a retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, musicals created by Stanley Donen, silent and early sound films of John Ford, the films of Albert Capellani and a project reflecting the collaboration between Charlie Chaplin and Robert Florey. The ‘auteur’ is reconceptualised throughout these programs as embodying multiple identities, evident in nascent careers and in collaborations between filmmakers and studios. The festival consciously references the interrelationship between cinema and history in films that reflect ‘anni difficili’ in collections entitled: Hard Times: Italian Cinema Before the Codes (1945-1949), as well as Hard Times in Europe: European Cinema (1945-1952). A recurring feature of Il Cinema Ritrovato is ‘A Hundred Years Ago: European Films of 1910’, a program commemorating the cinematic technologies available one hundred years prior. Another program of films addressing issues of national identity, early communications and the development of global flows was ‘The Naples/Italy Project and Cinema of Emigration’ curated by Elena Correra and Luigi Virgolin. Many of the short films that comprise this collection were made at the turn of the century when the port city of Naples was a gateway to the rest of the world. Colour was also a focus in a program entitled ‘Searching For Colour in Films’ with many films (like Visconti’s Senso, 1954, Il Gattopardo, 1963 and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, 1954) restored to their original vibrancy. Curator Gian Luca Farinelli notes the importance of color when he writes that the “chromatic mood” of a film might be the most secret and intimate aspect of our relationship with films we have loved (2010 99). A program entitled ‘Fearless and Peerless: Adventurous Women of the Silent Screen’ showed films featuring active, mobile feminine protagonists, detective figures who travelled by ship, plane, horse and cart, even car, women armed with guns and chloroform and were not afraid to use them.

The Piazza Maggiore is the largest open air auditorium showing films for free, connecting the local community with film buffs, scholars and archivists. Each evening of the festival viewers gathered in the twilight reserving their seats before the dusk descended providing the ambience for the nightly screening. This public screen sits on an auspicious grounds in terms of history and architecture. On the right is The Basilica Maggiore shrouded by scaffolding supporting its reconstruction. The screen faces Bologna’s Archaeological Museum, a further indication of deference to the rich history of the Comune di Bologna. The screen is surrounded by cafes and restaurants with some of Bologna’s distinctive leaning towers visible in the streets beyond. A small bio box sits at the rear of the piazza, projecting light above the audience and through the celluloid – the medium of choice for Il Cinema Ritrovato. This large public screen provides the focal point for the festival. In 2010 Il Cinema Ritrovato screened restorations of  films like Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932), African Queen (John Huston, 1951) and the classic musical Singin’ In The Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) which was introduced by the ebullient Stanley Donen.


Figure 1: Il Cinema Ritrovato, Piazza San Maggiore in the daylight, Bologna. Photograph: Simon McLean

Figure 2: Stanley Donen introducing Singin In The Rain. Photograph: Simon McLean

Two public screenings in The Piazza Maggiore illustrated both the innovation and the significance of this festival. The first was the breathtaking public presentation of Lumière! (2010). This portmanteau of short films curated by the Lumière  Institut, representing innovations in anaglyphic, stereoscopic film and autochromatic coloured film stock in early cinema. In 2010 the screening of Lumière! took place on a hot night when the Piazza teemed with more than six thousand people waiting to become only the second public audience in the world to watch the Lumière brothers’ experiments with stereoscopic illusions, precursors to 3D cinema. The audience demographic was broad, and included young Italian cinephiles, some luminaries from the world of cinema and film historians, many of whom would have experienced significant change in film and screen technologies throughout their lifetimes. On this particular night I noticed a young man with an awkward gait sitting uncomfortably close to a woman who set him back in his seat with a steely glare. In our row sat young mothers cradling babies on their laps. Someone had bought their dog and he slept, curled up by his owner’s feet for the entire screening. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of an incredibly diverse audience who met in the Piazza every night, a tangible sign of the vibrant life of film culture in Italy and of the devotion to the Bologna Cinematheque specifically, the organisation that presents Il Cinema Ritrovato annually.

It is not such a stretch  to imagine that the inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière were creating technologies to film and project cinema in three dimensions as early as the 1930s. However, this new package of short films displays the surprising extent of their experimentation beginning with the earliest impressions of pre-cinema in the single reel, static camera recordings of everyday events or ‘actualities’. Included within the collection of the Lumière  films presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato are the recognisable early scenes: workers leaving the Lumière  factory (La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon, 1895), feeding the baby (Sortie d’usine, Repas de Bébé, 1895), but also early narrative films like The Waterer Watered (L’Arroseur Arose, 1895), sequences comprising more than a single shot, indications of experiments with cause and effect. One of the films in the collection shows a pedestrian being hit by a car, and then magically springing to his feet as the film is reversed, a homage to George Méliès and the potential for editing to provide illusions beyond reality. The magic of early cinema is evident in innovations in film narration, in experiments with space and perception, but also in the exhibition of images shot by travelling cameramen.

The program of Lumière  films includes sequences of panoramas of distant locations shot by Lumière  camera operators travelling throughout the world. One particular stereoscopic film included a panning shot revealing iconic buildings like The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the newly named city of Istanbul at the time that these images were recorded. With the camera mounted on a boat or even a bike, the Lumière Brothers are able to present early impressions of exotic cities as their camera scans locations visible from the Golden Horn and throughout Turkish street markets. A stereoscopic version of The Arrival of the Train at Ciotat Station (L’Arrivée d’un Train En Gare de La Ciotat, 1895), pushes Tom Gunning’s description of ‘the aesthetics of astonishment’ into a new, more contemporary realm. Whilst Gunning questions the mythology associated with early accounts of audience shock and the terror of witnessing the train arrive, audiences resplendent in their cardboard 3D glasses displayed the opposite – attentive wonder and fascination. With the experience of the IMAX and 3D screen common amongst contemporary audiences, shock is replaced by wonder and appreciation of the effects of stereoscopic technologies producing images in spatial relief. Coloured sequences created with the use of the Lumière’s patented autochromatic process displayed ladies in patterned dresses, pastel landscapes and the slightly unnatural glow of cityscapes. This collection of films shows the influence of the Lumière  family photography business in Louis and Auguste’s experiments with the development of cinematic technologies to produce delicately toned, coloured film.

Lumière! was presented and narrated by the director of the Lumière  Institute, Thierry Frémaux. The narration was both respectful and revealing. Frémaux showcased the Lumière  films which included sequences that feature a family of circus performers, with surprising images of children being juggled from the feet of their parents, their small bodies spinning through the air. The patriarch of this family reappears in a later sequence displaying his capacity for origami, folding and then modelling a range of hats. Frémaux drew our attention to detail in some of the staged sequences including the delight of two men dancing together at a formal ball. Films in this collection are designed to display spectacle, performance and magic. When the program of Lumière  films reached the end, it played again – in fast rewind – from the end to the beginning, a reminder of the range and depth of the images that comprise the collection. This digital restoration project emerged as a collaboration between the Institut Lumière  and L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory of Cineteca Bologna. These experiments in early cinematic technologies, including autochrome and anaglyph films, provided a fascinating, and at times breathtaking, collection of early cinematic experiences.

Another highlight screened in the Piazza was the latest version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), a screening that included an additional 15 minutes of footage. This recent version of Metropolis was discovered in the collection of Manuel Peña Rodriguez in 2008 and verified by the Buenos Aires Film Museum. The latest print is based on an original nitrate copy of the film that was purchased by the distributor, Adolfo Z. Wilson in 1927. The additional scenes stand out due to an alternative aspect ratio, and the surprising beauty of its faded and scratched original state. The combination of the deteriorated found material alongside the otherwise pristine film stock required viewers to look carefully and deeply into the new sequences, making visible the impact of time on celluloid. This version included detail about the rivalry between Fredersen and Rotwang for Maria and it provides the motivation for the invention of the robot. To augment the experience even further, Metropolis was accompanied by music played by the Bologna Symphony Orchestra. Audiences for this unique screening spilled into the streets beyond the Piazza, exceeding the audience numbers for Lumiere!. One of the features of Il Cinema Ritrovato is the combination of ‘live’ performance through introductions, musical soundtracks, or even narration alongside the screenings of the restored films in the Piazza Maggiore.

Whilst Lumière! and Metropolis were spectacular, some of the shorts that were screened prior to the features almost eclipsed the longer films. One of these was Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile (1941), a magical realist film shot by Roberto Rossellini and Rodolfo Lombardi. This is an eight minute experiment with the potential for cinematic illusion in documentary cinema. Rossellini creates a narrative of two conflicting threads – beginning with the story of a perch couple awaiting the imminent hatching of their eggs. A chain of talking animals is established as the fish communicate with frogs and birds in their underwater environment transmitting the good news with delight and some trepidation about the predatory trout in their vicinity. The drama escalates as the trouts overhear the conversation. Exteriors were filmed in the Ladispoli hinterland, whilst close ups of the fish were shot by creating cascading waters in the fish breeding tanks at the Ittiogenico Fish Biology Institute in Rome. Rossellini juxtaposed exterior locations with controlled interior environments and inserted the sounds and speech of animals to produce a magical realist underwater fantasy.

Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was filmed in Italy just prior to the development of the Neorealist film movement, a time when filmic subjects usually focused on daily struggles, producing films that were sanctioned by the Fascist Regime. Whilst this short film might be interpreted as an analogy of larger power struggles, the aesthetics and lyricism distinguish this tale from the Neorealist formula. Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was restored at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, Cineteca Bologna from fragments of the film and documents discovered in Cinema Cilea de Palmi (Calabria). Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was conserved without the necessity for absolute completion of form, some images (particularly towards the conclusion of the film) are rendered with black frames, something that serves to end the film in time and support the soundtrack. This film also exhibits damaged sequences in reverence to its original form and it shows a dedication and attention to detail in the restoration of the images and sounds that remain. Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile is indicative of the ideology that emphasises the primacy of the original in conservation and the desire to preserve as much of the source as possible. Linking film through the blood line, Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile  may also be seen as a precursor to Isabella Rosselini’s fabulous Green Porno project, a book and dvd set, investigating the sex life of various insect species.

Figure 3: Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile, (Roberto Rossellini, 1941)

Another inspiring and moving short film displayed in the Piazza Maggiore was Islands in the Lagoon (Isole Nella Laguna, Luciano Emmer, Enrico Gras, 1948), a poetic sequence that was described in 1948 as a chronicle of “the feelings and emotions of the islands” (Venturi, 2010 30). This black and white travelogue begins with a woman sitting on an island small enough to support herself and a goat that she has tethered to a pole. Whilst the goat chews grass, the woman is occupied by her sewing. As the camera escalates, the resulting panorama offers an indication of the mass of water surrounding this tiny landform, and the first sign of movement is noted in a small sailing ship that glides along the still waters of the lagoon, waters “without rest” according to the narrator. Water and land is linked inextricably by high contrast imagery, shots which blur the horizon line. The voice over narration mentions the “grand silence” of this landscape, one that supports ruins of a previous age. Bones and other traces of past lives remain invisible to two children who are busy pulling blackberries from canes. In a later scene, a gliding camera visits a quiet church, identifying its “abandoned saints”. The movement of the camera highlights the stillness of the church. Reflections of water produces an illusion that the Madonna’s eyes are glistening. Buildings are shot to emphasise the shimmering reflections in the water of the lagoon, adding the illusion of movement to the stillness of exteriors. The closing sequences of Islands in the Lagoon detail the work of the inhabitants of the islands. Sequences of women making lace, beading and sewing are juxtaposed with images of men blowing, spinning and cutting decorative glass for chandeliers, heated to extreme temperatures that render it soft and pliable. Focus falls on the serious faces of children concentrating hard on their crafts, an image that might imply their destinies. But Islands in the Lagoon concludes with the voice over narrator identifying the great treasure that Is hidden at the bottom of the sea, which, if we look closely, could be found one day.

Beyond the screenings at Il Cinema Ritrovato, the multi media exhibition Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna (Federico Fellini From Italy to the Moon) offered a fascinating insight into the career, dreams and desires of one of the most important Italian auteurs. The Museum of Modern Art, Bologna (MAMbo) exhibited impressions of the life and work of Federico Fellini in public and in private moments. Visitors are greeted with large, vibrant posters advertising Fellini’s films. These include the powerful imagery of posters for Roma (1972), the cityscape with characters linked in an matrix of eyeline matches in La Dolce Vita (1960) and the collage of stars and filmmaker in the classic poster for 8 1/2 (1963). Beginning an exhibition with the public art provides a reflection on the first visual impressions of a Fellini film. This public imagery also includes newspaper articles and paparazzi snapshots designed to create scandal surrounding Fellini, his films and his stars. ‘Cinestories’, popular in illustrated magazines, provide insight into early storyboarding process in imagining films like The White Sheikh (1952). One of the moving image screens shows the mesmerising opening sequence from La Dolce Vita, featuring a helicopter trailing a statue.  A photostory of Fellini’s images of Mandrake the Magician appeared in Vogue and reimagined Marcello Mastroianni as Mandrake working in advertising in the early 1970s.

Figures 4 & 5: Posters for Federico Fellini’s films Roma and La Dolce Vita.

Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna also reveals private images, behind the scenes photos from film productions and drawings that offer a (sometimes alarming) indication of Fellini’s thoughts. Fellini’s dreams are exposed in a reflective journal of watercolour illustrations and text. Drawings reveal his fear of being stuck in doorways, his anxieties of falling from buildings and Fellini’s nightmares about giant crocodiles. Watercolour illustrations magnify the proportion of breasts and penises in lascivious images of Fellini’s sexual fantasies. The exhibition includes Fellini’s thoughts on Roma where he writes: “Everything here belongs to the belly, everything is the belly… such a show is a feast for the eyes, but at the same time threatens all gazes: mouths, faces, outpouring bodies avidly swallowing”. Fellini  associates the procession of prostitutes in Roma  with both Fascist parades and processions of the Catholic Church, all of which he describes as ‘hypnotic representations’ of ritual. Photographs reveal the antics behind the scenes of Fellini’s film productions. This is illustrated by one particular image of a kitten placed gently on Anita Ekberg’s head during a lighter moment on the set of La Dolce Vita. These private images include satirical caricatures: photos written over with dialogue bubbles revealing the thoughts of the young filmmaker. The collection shows a collage of responses to a classified advertisement that Fellini published in an Italian newspaper announcing that he is ready to meet anyone who would like to see him. Displays include personal letters written to Fellini directly – one in orange texta, others containing snapshots of aspiring actors, some in profile, some in various states of undress. MAMbo’s exhibition Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna is a revealing and rich collection of still and moving images, both public and private designed to follow the ‘red thread’ of Fellini’s obsessions.

Complementing the film and multi media programs the Cineteca Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata film restoration and conservation laboratory present the FIAF (Fédération International des Archives du Film) summer school in film restoration. The Summer School provides distance education on theory and film restoration as well as classes on the practice of restoration on site and an internship primarily for archivists and film industry workers. The DVD Awards ceremony acknowledges the best results in conservation and reproduction in the digital format from the previous year. Exhibitions of photographs, multi media and the commitment to training a new generation of film conservators is evidence of the breadth of Il Cinema Ritrovato and its interest in the future of restoration.

The crowds spilling beyond the limitations of the Piazza Maggiore, the full houses in Scala Scorsese or Lumière, the visitors to MAMBo, the interest in workshops in conservation provides measureable evidence of the breadth of Il Cinema Ritrovato. The devotion to film history and the reverence for film is expressed in the dedication of the organisation, which is mirrored in the vibrancy of the audiences in both large public spaces and in the more intimate theatres. The culture of Il Cinema Ritrovato sits resolutely against the swirling fears about the end of celluloid and the eclipse of film by digital media. But this is not a festival that exists in opposition to change, it is one that is progressively engaged with film and media histories. Peter von Bagh defines Il Cinema Ritrovato as a “web of correspondences in the finest sense of the word” (2010 9). He argues that the “program is always immeasurably more than a succession of films. Behind the scene of the program is not only the Bologna staff, but also so many individual participants, and the enormously knowledgeable audience we now have around us” (2010 9). Bazin notes that when the festival reviewer returns home,  “he feels as though he’s come back from far away, having spent a long spell in a world where order, rigour and necessity reign” with the experience an “amazing albeit hard-working retreat, with cinema as its unifying spiritual focus” (1955, 2009 19). On both sides of the screen, in its organisation and in its audiences, Il Cinema Ritrovato reaffirms the life and vibrancy of cinema of the near and distant past.


André Bazin (2009, 1955) ‘The Festival Viewed As A Religious Order’, Dekalog3: On Film Festivals, Richard Porton (ed.), London: Wallflower, 13-19.

Peter von Bagh (2010) ‘Introduzione/Foreword’, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 9-12.

Paolo Cherchi Usai [et al] (2008) Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace, Wien: Synema.

Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds] (2010) Il Cinema Ritrovato, 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna.

Tom Gunning (1995) ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment’, Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, Linda Williams (ed.), New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 114-33.

Kent Jones (2010) ‘Mest’, in Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds], 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 47.

Mark Peranson (2009) ‘First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two Models of Film Festivals’, Dekalog3, Richard Porton (ed.) London: Wallflower Press, 23-37.

Lauro Venturi (2010, 1948) ‘Isole Nella Laguna’, in Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds], 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 29-30.



Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies in the School of Culture of Communication at the University of Melbourne where she is also Coordinator of the Moving Image MA, which is part of the Master of Arts and Cultural Management. Wendy teaches, researches and publishes on the intersections of film history and new media.  Her research includes: Gothic film, film noir, cinema of the 1950s, Atomic culture, trauma cinema, censorship, Japanese film, Australian film culture and industry. Wendy is interested in the impact of new forms of exhibition on the archive. She is the author of ‘A Charade of Innocence and Vice’: Hollywood Gothic Films of the 1940s (2009) and she is a co-editor for the anthology Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently researching the evolution of the Gothic from silent cinema to new media for her book Gothic Projections: From Méliès to New Media. Email: wlhaslem@unimelb.edu.au






“A series of emotional remembrances”: Echoes of Bernard Herrmann – Daniel Golding

1965 was not a good year for Bernard Herrmann. In his personal life, after fifteen years, his marriage to Lucy Anderson had ended in divorce. In his professional life, his career as a film composer was stagnating. Despite a decade of collaboration with director Alfred Hitchcock during the peak of his commercial success, including Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958) and North By Northwest (1959), new composing assignments were running dry. Lionel Newman, the new head of music at Fox, told Herrmann that their producers didn’t want him – they were “running with the new kids.” (Smith 1991, 275) Herrmann and his style of composing were no longer popular in Hollywood, and Herrmann knew that Hitchcock was under pressure from his studio bosses to find another composer (Smith 1991, 268). They were to have only one further collaboration: the aborted score to Torn Curtain (1966), a definitive and bitter end to their creative and personal relationship. Hitchcock fired Herrmann during the first day of recording and they never worked together again.

While Herrmann seems to have looked towards Torn Curtain with what in retrospect seems a somewhat naïve optimism (“I feel certain it will be one of Hitch’s greatest films. I just know it will be so”, wrote Herrmann (Smith 1991, 270)), 1965 saw him enter into one of the darkest depressions of his life. Creatively, the result was the string quartet Echoes, one of Herrmann’s last concert-hall compositions. A note on the title of the work as printed on the full score is revealing: “The term ‘Echoes’ is meant to imply a series of nostalgic emotional remembrances” (Herrmann 1966).

Echoes is strongly reminiscent of Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine” (Smith 1991, 264-265). Was Herrmann attempting to eulogise his career? At this stage, Herrmann’s deepest wound stemmed from his divorce – the acrimonious conclusion to his Hitchcock collaboration was yet to come. Nonetheless, these “nostalgic remembrances”, while almost certainly referring to Herrmann’s personal life, equally apply to his body of work as a composer. In many ways, it was the echo that defined Herrmann’s work as Hitchcock’s composer – from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than “a series of emotional remembrances.”

Nonetheless, repetition has often been cited in order to disparage and criticise the art of film music: perhaps most notably by Theodor Adorno, who in 1947 condemned film scores as “autonomous music [subject to] standardization within the industry” (Adorno and Eisler 1947, 3). According to Adorno, “no serious composer writes for the motion pictures for any other than money reasons,” (1947, 54) and “by the use of standard configurations, [film music] interprets the meaning of the action for the less intelligent members of the audience” (1947, 60). However, the scores of Herrmann challenge this argument: it is precisely because of repetition that his work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. In order to argue this, I will examine Herrmann’s use of repetition within three different planes: repetition within specific cues or motifs; repetition of these specific cues or motifs within an entire score; and repetition within his entire Hitchcock oeuvre. In these three instances, Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition (along with others of plagiarism which I shall discuss later) within film music and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to further meaning within, and beyond the film. It also draws attention to the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as (as is more usual) to the director, and therefore implicitly challenges the traditional status of Hitchcock as sole auteur of his films.

The auteur

Before I begin on Herrmann’s style and the analysis of his modes of repetition, a note on the Herrmann-Hitchcock relationship. Throughout his career, Hitchcock was acutely aware of the effect of music in his films, and would often create extensive annotations to a film’s script to send, as instructions, to his composer. According to Sullivan, “Hitchcock employed more musical styles and techniques than any director in history … one cannot fully understand Hitchcock’s movies without facing his music” (Sullivan 2006, xiii). Previous to Herrmann, Hitchcock had had numerous successes with film music, and his list of composers reads like the highlights of 20th Century film composition, including Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Alfred Newman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Ron Goodwin, Maurice Jarre and John Williams. Hitchcock did not, however, always get what he wanted from his composers. This was most clearly illustrated in Herrmann’s scoring – against Hitchcock’s instructions – of the infamous shower scene in Psycho. “Improper suggestion, my boy, improper suggestion,” was Hitchcock’s clarification to Herrmann upon being reminded that he initially request there be no music in the now iconic sequence (Smith 1991, 240). These divergences did not always work out so amicably, however. Asked many years after the Torn Curtain split whether he would work with Herrmann again, Hitchcock is said to have replied: “Yes, if he’ll do as he’s told.” (Smith 1991, 274) This was far from an isolated incident with Hitchcock’s composers. Towards the end of their period of collaboration, Hitchcock sent a terse cable to Herrmann:

So often have I been asked, for example by [Dimitri] Tiomkin, to come and listen to a score and when I express my disapproval his hands were thrown up and with the cry of “But you can’t change anything now, it has all been orchestrated.” It is this kind of frustration that I am rather tired of. (Smith 1991, 269)

Yet despite Hitchcock’s later complaints, the autonomy of his composers was often on his own instigation. “As far as I’m concerned he does as he likes,” Hitchcock said in a joint interview with Herrmann in 1964 (Telescope, 1964).[1] Clearly, despite Hitchcock’s suggestions and guidelines, Herrmann routinely made his own decisions, as Jack Sullivan illustrates (Sullivan 2006).[2] Indeed, Hitchcock appreciated the skills of his composer and often allowed Herrmann long stretches of film without dialogue to compose for. Regarding the recreation sequence of Vertigo (1958) (“Scene d’Amour”[3]), Hitchcock told his composer, “We’ll just have you and the camera” (Sullivan 2006, 167). Indeed, the climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) could be viewed as Hitchcock’s testament to the power of music in film, as it is the diegetic music itself – Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds cantata, written for Hitchcock’s original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and in this case arranged by Herrmann – that anticipates and to some extent generates the narrative climax (a gunshot) for the audience. The on-stage conductor, of course, is Herrmann, in a Hitchcock-style cameo, musically creating another murder for Hitchcock. Even though this sequence is found merely in their second collaboration, the cameo – an indulgence afforded to no other Hitchcock composer – is indicative of Herrmann’s strong role in their projects.

Uncharacteristically, Hitchcock went as far as to acknowledge that “33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.” (Smith 1991, 241). Hitchcock was usually reticent about crediting his collaborators with his successes, but according to Joseph Stephano, the screenwriter for Psycho, “Hitchcock gave [Herrmann] more credit than anyone else he ever spoke of.” (Smith 1991, 241)

Herrmann’s style

By their first collaboration, Herrmann was already a noted composer, and had written a number of celebrated scores such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, for which he won his only Oscar), and The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). On a basic level, Herrmann’s approach to musical scoring differed greatly from those of his contemporaries. The first few decades of film scoring had seen composers like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner become the leaders within the film music industry, bringing with them a marked Viennese influence (with lavish and elaborate scores like Korngold’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood and Steiner’s 1933 King Kong) (Dickinson 2003, 1-13). The Wagnerian tradition of the leitmotif quickly become the popular mode of composition in Hollywood, whereby a melody is assigned to specific characters, places or ideas, and is played when that which it represented is on screen.[4] In contrast, and although Herrmann used the theory of musical association underpinning the leitmotif system in a number of his scores (including those for Hitchcock, but perhaps most effectively for Citizen Kane), he disliked leitmotif itself. Herrmann:

…I don’t like the leitmotif system. The short phrase is easier to follow for an audience, who listen with only half an ear. Don’t forget that the best they do is half an ear. You know, the reason I don’t like this tune business is that a tune has to have eight or sixteen bars, which limits you as a composer. Once you start, you’ve got to finish – eight or sixteen bars. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know what the hell it’s all about. It’s putting handcuffs on yourself (Brown 1994, 291-292).

Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores are almost wholly vacant of traditional melody or “tunes”, and are instead populated by vast stretches of short patterns and impressionistic, ambient musical sketches. His approach was more of mood and tone: “In Hitchcock,” noted Herrmann, “one has to create a landscape for each film, whether it be the rainy night of Psycho or the turbulence of a picture such as Vertigo” (Herrmann 2004, Track 11). Indeed, ‘landscape’ seems the most appropriate term to describe Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. Though there was at least one attempt to extract a pop hit from a Herrmann score (Marnie (1964), with dire consequences),[5] each film scored by Herrmann has more of an overall identity, or ‘sound’ than distinct melodies. Critics like Royal S. Brown and Graham Bruce have argued that this particular sound, unique to Herrmann’s Hitchcock work, is fuelled by a ‘Hitchcock chord’, a half-diminished seventh that dominates much of his music during this era (Bruce 1985, 117-121; Brown 1994, 148-174). Yet most immediate of these ‘sounds’ for Hitchcock is Herrmann’s use of orchestration: in Vertigo the harp speaks strongest of all the orchestra, while Psycho’s only accompaniment is the frantic and bare string section. Herrmann’s aborted score to Torn Curtain was to be his most adventurously orchestrated Hitchcock yet, calling for sixteen French horns and twelve flutes (Sullivan 2006, 281). “The sound of twelve flutes,” said Herrmann, “will be terrifying” (Sullivan 2006, 282).

Herrmann’s abandonment of melody was key to his success composing for Hitchcock. According to Brown, “melody is the most rational element of music” (Brown 1994, 154). Despite Hitchcock’s occasional complaints, then, we can see the lack of melody in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores as supporting the irrationality often shown in Hitchcock’s films: the compulsion of Marnie Edgar, the phobias of Scottie Ferguson, and the split personality of Norman Bates. These are all musically supported via Herrmann’s landscape approach. Melody, as rationality, has no place in Hitchcock.

Repetition One: within specific cues of motifs

The notable musical ideas that are present in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores often have a heavy focus on internal repetition. Frequently, sections of Herrmann’s music will consist of a short idea which is repeated in a number of different ways; used on the one hand to partially disguise this repetition, but on the other to aid the suspense and mood of obsession and cyclic falls, chases or journeys often found in Hitchcock. The most notable of these repetitious strategies are chromaticism[6] and instrumentation[7]. Perhaps the best example of these used in conjunction can be found in North By Northwest. Brown argues that the film contains:

not one example of anything that could be designated as a theme on a cue sheet … Instead, it is made up of numerous, brief motifs sewn together in sometimes audaciously chromatic harmonic progressions and presented in brilliant orchestral colors, with totally unhummable interval leaps being the order of the day. (Brown 1994, 159)

The ‘Journey’ cue, which is most often heard when protagonist Roger O. Thornhill is travelling, combines a chromatic, cyclic repetition with variations of instrumentation. ‘Journey’ is essentially a one bar pattern of sixteen semiquavers that could conceivably be repeated endlessly via chromatic descent, with no necessary resolution other than a continuation of the loop. This cue reappears in multiple forms throughout North By Northwest, and aside from the opening fandango, is probably the most memorable piece of music found in the film. The motif, as short and malleable as it is, suits the mood of the film perfectly: cyclic chromaticism here creates a driving feeling of perpetual movement, which for North By Northwest, translates as a sense of travelling endlessly without destination – a clear parallel with the film’s plot. The addition of varied instrumentation adds to this mood. In “The Auction”[8], the pattern is played interchangeably between the string section, and the clarinet section, before shifting to alternate between the flutes, strings and clarinets, seemingly changing instrument section every note. ‘Journey’ is played in a number of different ways throughout North By Northwest, and its various uses demonstrate Herrmann’s skills of subtle variation. The theme, while remaining melodically and harmonically intact, is played as foreboding (“The Airport”), as suspenseful and dynamic (“The Ledge”), and as frenzied and exciting (“The Police”).

Chromaticism is combined with ostinato[9] in many similar sequences in Herrmann’s Hitchcock scores. This ostinato/chromaticism figure first appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, during the sequence where Jo and Ben McKenna (Doris Day and James Stewart) attempt to find their son at the Ambrose Chapel. A harp plays a steady ostinato on one note, while strings and clarinets alternate chromatic harmonies in thirds. This idea returns in Vertigo’s “Carlotta’s Portrait”, with an altered rhythm being played by a harp. This time, the rhythm of the ostinato is relates to the plot of the film, as it is a habanera, reflecting Carlotta’s Spanish origin and creating a musical presence for her. These sequences have much in common: they are both searching sequences, and the probing nature of both cues reflects this. Again, as in North By Northwest’s ‘Journey’, we may see the chromaticism as a strategy employed to encourage the feeling of travel without destination, though in this case, tweaked to suit the feeling of a search.

However, what is most interesting, and for our purposes important, is that chromaticism not only allows Herrmann to repeat short phrases endlessly, but it also augments the suspense and overall mood of a scene. It is a device of Herrmann’s ‘landscapes’, and we can see it as the first of Herrmann’s notable ‘echoes’.

Repetition Two: within an entire score

Herrmann’s use of repetitive, short phrases can also be seen to increase the feeling of psychological fixation within an entire score, often mirroring that of Hitchcock’s characters. This is the second level of repetition – that within an overall score. Herrmann’s repetitive use of short phrases can be seen to create a feeling of a myopic, tunnel viewpoint: a feeling of a single idea recurring again and again. Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho best illustrate this mode of repetition. In Vertigo, the score is divided into roughly two sections. “Madeline’s Theme” which plays over a number of extended sequences, such as “Scotty Trails Madeleine” and “Beach”, dominates the first half of the film. However, after Madeline’s ‘death’ the landscape changes abruptly to focus almost exclusively on what Brown titles “The Love Waltz”, while “Madeline’s Theme” returns only occasionally (Brown 1994, 167). This “Love Waltz” perfectly illustrates Herrmann’s use of repetition to indicate mental fixation – it is, of course, a very short (only one bar long) phrase that, via chromaticism, can be repeated endlessly. The “Waltz” reaches its climax in the “Scene d’Amour” and leads us into an overblown variation of “Madeline’s Theme” in 6/8 timing. The music here has been described as “the gushiest Hitchcock music since Spellbound, and a potent rejoinder to the claim that Herrmann avoided Romantic hyperbole” (Sullivan 2006, 126). Howard Goodall, however, claims that this overstated nature was intentional: “Because we’re in a fantasy of Scotty’s making, the strings are unashamedly colourful and symphonic.” (Goodall 2004) Indeed, Herrmann’s use of vibrato in the string section is highly unusual. In contrast to his contemporaries, Herrmann usually required the strings to be played with little or no vibrato, as in the entirety of Psycho. Goodall suggests this disregard for vibrato was a first since the time of Mozart, (Goodall 2004) – though of course, as Midge rightfully asserts at Scotty’s rehabilitation clinic, “I don’t think Mozart’s going to help at all.” The “Scene d’Amour” is the musical climax of the film, and the counterfeit emotion felt by Herrmann’s strings, in support with the myopic repetition of the score, parallels the unreal passion felt by Scotty. The landscape of Vertigo is clearly populated with the echoes of nostalgic reminisces; and the melancholic and fixated character of the film’s score is almost wholly created by Herrmann’s repetitions.

Perhaps most famously, Herrmann’s score for Psycho relies on an overall feeling of repetition to create suspense and drive the meaning of the film. In particular, the musical structure of the film is extraordinary: not only is the film monochromatic in terms of its orchestration (the unaccompanied string section was chosen by Herrmann – “to compliment the back-and-white photography with a black-and-white score” (Smith 1991, 237)), but the entire score is largely based around a single musical thread which finds its basis almost exclusively in Psycho’s opening credits. Most notably, the ‘driving’ music (“Prelude”, “Flight”, “The Rainstorm”[10]) has its basis in only four notes, which leads Goodall to claim that Psycho used minimalist techniques ten years before composer Michael Nyman coined the term (Goodall 2004). Graham Bruce elaborates:

The majority of the musical cues in Psycho, as well as providing apt contributions to the specific scene, also set up, via a fabric of developments and variants of a number of motifs, structural relations within the film text as a whole (Bruce 1985, 184).

Perhaps Psycho then provides the best illustration of Herrmann’s repetitious musical ‘landscapes’ for Hitchcock. Though the “Prelude” of the film introduces (though often in oblique technical ways (Brown 1994, 162)) a large amount of the entire score, it also serves a more important role: to drive the narrative of the film from the first frame. Herrmann:

After the main title, nothing much happens in the picture, apparently, for 20 minutes or so. Appearances, of course, are deceiving, for in fact the drama starts immediately with the titles … I am firmly convinced, and so is Hitchcock, that after the main titles you know that something terrible must happen. The main title sequence tells you so, and that is its function: to set the drama. You don’t need cymbal crashes or records that don’t sell (Cameron 1980, 132).

This is perhaps the most important contribution made by Psycho’s score. That the film’s musical language is clearly placed from the very beginning is key: even though Marion is not murdered until one third of the way through the film, there is nevertheless an unease present that cannot be simply attributed to the visuals alone. Instead, we must attribute this feeling to Herrmann, the organic and in many ways limited structure of his score, and the overall cohesiveness of repetitious echoes to create his Psycho ‘landscape’.

Repetition Three: within Herrmann’s Hitchcock oeuvre

The third, and perhaps most unusual level of repetition utilised by Herrmann is intertextual. We have already seen this on a basic level in the similarity between the ostinato in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. However, we can also see this ostinato figure more broadly reflected throughout Herrmann’s Hitchcock work. This rhythm, initially representing the parent’s search for their child in The Man Who Knew Too Much, undergoes a minor metamorphosis for Vertigo and becomes a Spanish Habeñara rhythm (“Carlotta’s Portrait”), as we have noted. At its most aggressive, the Vertigo ostinato is joined by castanets (“Nightmare and Dawn”) to reinforce the imposing and decidedly Spanish figure of Carlotta (and perhaps her insanity) in Scotty’s search for Madeline (Kalinak n.d., 20). Yet further still, this figure also appears in Psycho, slightly changed again, as Norman watches Marion as she undresses (“The Peephole” – this time played on pizzicato strings) (Bruce 1985, 134). Even more interestingly, this figure reappears for the last time in a Hitchcock film four years later in Herrmann’s score for Marnie. This time, it appears in order to narrate the dialogue-less sequence where Marnie plots the Rutland’s theft as she types (“The Safe”) (Bruce 1985, 134).

There are several possible links we can draw from these instances of Herrmann’s ostinato. Most apparent are the themes of searching, and of looking or watching. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Ben and Jo McKenna search for their child; in Vertigo, Scotty searches and watches Madeline; in Psycho Norman watches Marion; and in Marnie we observe the process required to steal. These sequences are also largely silent outside of the non-diegetic music; indeed, the Vertigo sequence is one of the longest stretches of film without dialogue in all of Hitchcock’s work. These are sequences of what Hitchcock called “pure cinema” – that is, storytelling in purely visual terms (Truffaut 1984, 214-222). It is possible to suggest that Herrmann associated the subdued nature of his ostinato with the emphasis away from sound in these sequences. However, other commonalities between the instances suggest there was a distinct motive behind Herrmann’s implementations.[11]

Aside from the themes of searching and looking, we may also see the ostinato as an indication of insanity. Just as the McKennas are treated as mad by their friends and police in their desperation to retrieve Hank (“It was a crazy thing to do,” says Jo to Ben about traveling to the Ambrose Chappell), we can see a direct link to insanity in all other instances. The direct pairing of the ostinato with Carlotta in Vertigo is the clearest indication: not only did Carlotta commit suicide, but we are led to believe that Madeleine is suffering from a mental illness that makes her periodically believe she is Carlotta. The psychotic aspects of Psycho are obvious, yet musically it is the ostinato that lies at its heart. It is also Norman’s desire for Marion that sets the murder in motion, a desire made clear by the peephole sequence. As Toles argues, “Anything that his mother judges depraved must be dropped from the perceptual frame” (Toles 1999, 641). This is a neat intricacy of Herrmann’s Psycho landscape: for all the violent music in the film, it is one of the most subdued musical cues – the simple and quiet ostinato – that triggers Norman’s madness and renders murder unavoidable. Lastly, we can again clearly see madness at the heart of Marnie’s ostinato. Indeed, as Marnie’s thieving is the result of her neurotic compulsions, the plotting of her theft at Rutlands is perhaps one of the most overt symptoms of her illness in the film.

The ostinato is one element in a larger musical landscape for Hitchcock that defines Herrmann’s work with the director. The echoes found here are not just audible to the viewer via the context of the film: they are also within the metanarrative, viewer preconceptions and awareness of the film as a Hitchcock film. This is however a minor instance of self-appropriation: though we can see overt links between Herrmann’s various uses of the ostinato for Hitchcock, they are only general associations; thematic echoes that do not prompt an intellectual comparison so much as an emotional one. Nonetheless, Herrmann’s other instances of self-appropriation prove, as I shall show, to be much bolder. Perhaps the most audacious and meaningful example comes from Vertigo and North By Northwest.

Similarities between Vertigo and North By Northwest are rarely noted. Both films probably represent the apotheosis of major strains of Hitchcock’s work: on the one hand, the humorous adventure of North By Northwest and on the other, the somber psychological exploration of Vertigo. Yet, as Brown notes, “one of the most striking appearances of ‘Madeline’s Theme’ … does not occur in Vertigo but in North By Northwest” (Brown 1994, 166). It is interesting to note tonal and intervallic similarities between “Madeline’s Theme” and the love theme from North By Northwest, which already indicate some form of musical echo. However, Vertigo and North By Northwest are successive in the Herrmann/Hitchcock corpus (1958 and 1959 respectively), so it may be tempting to disregard the similarities as a symptom of an overworked composer returning to familiar material. Yet it is not until North By Northwest’s confrontation between Thornhill and Eve in her hotel room (“Reunion”) that Herrmann’s strategy becomes clear: he abandons the differences and features “Madeline’s Theme” in full. It is little wonder that Herrmann opted to sonically remember Vertigo to audiences at this point, as thematically this scene shares much in common with Hitchcock’s previous film. Both Eve (in North By Northwest) and Judy (in Vertigo) are forced to conceal their surprise on the unexpected arrival, at their hotel-room door, of the men they had plotted against. By musically referencing the events of Vertigo at this point of North By Northwest, Herrmann adds a deeper layer to understanding and interpreting the sequence. To compare the sequences is to compare both film’s characters and our perception of them: might we now view Eve and Madeleine as equally deceptive, and Thornhill as trapped as Scottie? This intertextual parallel only surfaces through Herrmann’s self-appropriation. It is a musical echo, and unlike that of the ostinato, it is designed to draw an intellectual, rather than an emotional comparison.

While the instance of “Madeline’s Theme” in North By Northwest is the most commonly noted, echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” are not limited to Vertigo and North By Northwest. Indeed, just as Herrmann prefigured his Hitchcock ostinato in The Trouble With Harry, a suggestion of “Madeline’s Theme” can be heard prior to Vertigo in The Wrong Man (1956). In The Wrong Man’s sanatorium sequences, where Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) despairs over the deteriorating mental state of his wife, Rose (Vera Miles), Herrmann uses a similar harmonic cadence and short melody to “Madeline’s Theme”, although this time in a minor key.[12] Musically, this suggests experimentation by Herrmann, or an early variation on a theme for this particular element of his Hitchcock landscape, which he would perfect later with Vertigo. Though the similarity between the two musical ideas is remarkable, the minor key of the motif in The Wrong Man is perhaps not as effective as the false happiness conveyed by the major setting of “Madeline’s Theme”. Unsurprisingly, however, it is in these sequences that The Wrong Man is most Vertigo-like, with mirroring themes of mental illness and a tragically broken connection between lovers. The psychological debilitation of the sanatorium theme is no less potent than that of “Madeline’s Theme”, however, and both films finish with these themes playing, imparting their full power over the now enervated minds of Scotty and of Rose.[13]

A full echo of “Madeline’s Theme” was to resurface one final time in Herrmann’s cancelled score for Torn Curtain. While ultimately Herrmann’s score was rejected by Hitchcock and unrecorded by Herrmann save for a few cues, we can hear from subsequent recordings that “Madeline’s Theme” was to reappear in “The Hill”. Designed to underscore Michael Armstrong’s (Paul Newman) silent moment of confession and love to Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) before both characters attempt to escape East Germany, we again hear a complete rendition of the Vertigo theme. The connection, had it been allowed to remain, is just as clear. Though neither character is suffering from mental illness as in Vertigo or The Wrong Man, throughout Torn Curtain Michael has been forced to plot against Sarah, and is now confessing his true motives – just as in North By Northwest and Vertigo.

Through his echoes of “Madeline’s Theme” in Vertigo, The Wrong Man, North By Northwest and Torn Curtain, Herrmann draws attention to some significant intertextual parallels that might otherwise remain unnoted. Yet this third mode of repetition could also be seen to draw our attention to the variations-on-a-theme style of filmmaking Hitchcock and Herrmann were engaged with at this point in their careers. It paints both Hitchcock and Herrmann as similarly fixated, clearly unable to get away from these ideas – on the one hand, psychological breakdown and a disruption between lovers; on the other, the musical threads that echo “Madeline’s Theme” – that permeate their work.

One other major instance of self-appropriation in Herrmann’s Hitchcock work remains,[14] though it resurfaces in a non-Hitchcock film.[15] The three-note “Madhouse” motif from Psycho – first used when Marion suggests that Mrs. Bates be retired to an institution, and continually used within the Psycho score to represent madness – reappears as the last notes of Herrmann’s final film: Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). This, Bruce suggests, connects Norman and Travis Bickle: “a nicely ironic link between two killers – the one confined to an institution, the other elevated as a hero” (Bruce 1985, 200). Yet this motif also stems from Herrmann’s first major work as a composer: the fourth movement (“Interlude”) from his Symphonietta for Strings and Timpani from 1935. Much of Psycho’s score finds its initial threads in this piece, from the incessant driving theme heard in the film’s opening credits (“Prelude”) to the whirling dissonance of the discovery of Norman Bates (“Discovery”). The “Madhouse” motif is in the “Interlude” in its entirety, however – it is even in the same key, following the progression of F-Eb-D in the low strings. Interestingly, it remains in the same key for Taxi Driver as it is played as the final credit rolls, this time on Bass Clarinet and Bassoon. From some of the first most important notes he wrote, to the final notes he ever recorded (Herrmann died in his sleep after finishing the final recording session on Taxi Driver), this particular echo seems to have followed Bernard Herrmann throughout his entire career.


It would perhaps be easier to write these echoes off as simple self-plagiarism. Indeed, despite these clear intertextual links, Herrmann himself seems to have been fiercely resistant to claims of self-appropriation, or more strongly, self-plagiarism. A 1970 interview with Herrmann performed by The Los Angeles Free Press took a turn for the worse when the interviewer, Leslie Zador, suggested that Herrmann had re-used his own music:

LESLIE ZADOR: To give an example of what Mr. Herrmann is talking about, he wrote an opera called Wuthering Heights. Part of the music from act one, scene one, was in a film called The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

HERRMANN: No I didn’t, that’s completely false.

ZADOR: But it sounds just like it …


However disputed by Herrmann, these self-references did not go unnoticed by Hitchcock. In the same cable to Herrmann as his complaints regarding Dimitri Tiomkin and unchangeable scores, Hitchcock berated Herrmann for plagiarism:

I was extremely disappointed when I heard the score of Joy in the Morning, not only did I find it conforming to the old pattern but extremely reminiscent of the Marnie music. In fact, the theme was almost the same. (Smith 1991, 268)

In this instance, Hitchcock may well have been justified in his complaints. The score to Joy in the Morning, a 1965 drama directed by Alex Segal about young marriage, is strongly reminiscent of Marnie and other Herrmann works. “Thematically,” argues Smith, “the score is rarely original.” (Smith 1991, 264) It was Herrmann’s only score for 1965, and was written during the period of Herrmann’s divorce from his second wife. Smith notes the impact of the divorce on Herrmann’s creative output: “as his life reached crisis point, Herrmann seemed unable at times to compose new, fresh music.” (Smith 1991, 48) It is not especially unusual for film composers to re-use material; the composition process has always been pressured and often run to tight deadlines, creating instances where the quickest (or sometimes only) solution is to self-copy (Cooke 2008, 494-495). Some of the most admired scores in film history have contained such ‘borrowed’ music: Nino Rota’s The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972) had its Academy Award nomination withdrawn after it was agreed that Rota had reused music from his Italian TV writing (Cooke 2008, 378); while John Williams’ Star Wars (George Lucas 1977) contains a note-for-note excerpt from the “Le Sacrifice” of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Claims of plagiarism are commonly leveled at film composers, and not just in Adorno’s denigration. New Yorker critic Alex Ross, in discussing James Horner’s Troy (Wolfgang Petersen 2004), made the following remarks:

There are two possible interpretative approaches to [James Horner’s] challenging opus. One is that Horner is presenting us with a kind of musical meta-narrative of deconstructive requotation … By reducing other people’s masterworks to cheap ditties, Horner shakes his fist at the suffocating weight of bourgeois culture … That’s one explanation. The other is that the man is a hack. (Ross 1998)

Despite scores like Joy in the Morning, it is difficult to come to the same conclusion in regards to Herrmann. As well as the release of Joy in the Morning, 1965 also saw the creation of Herrmann’s string quartet, Echoes, from which I take the title of this piece.[16] As already noted, Echoes is strongly reminiscent of the composer’s work with Hitchcock, and is probably intentionally so. As Smith notes, “While many of its memories remain private, others can be guessed by allusions to past works … the plucked signature of its opening is Psycho’s violent prelude, the crying violin harmonics of its coda, Vertigo’s lost Madeleine.” (Smith 1991, 264-265) These are not the lazy shorthand of a film composer under pressure. Echoes is a concert hall piece: these are significant and conscious invocations in an art-music context. Evidently, Herrmann was able to use the echoes of his entire work as a composer to make emotional and intellectual links in this one concert hall piece. There is much to indicate that he was employing the same technique with “Madeline’s Theme” and the “Madhouse” motif, and little to suggest otherwise. Perhaps it is only fair to give Hitchcock himself the final word on the issue of plagiarism, taken from an interview to promote his final film, Family Plot. Asked about the Hitchcock “vein” of filmmaking, and reminded that “people accused Picasso of repeating himself,” Hitchcock offered a fitting rejoinder: “Self-plagiarism is style.” (Gilliatt 1976)

If, as I have argued, we accept that the instances noted in this paper are conscious “echoes,” then we must conclude that Bernard Herrmann was an innovator not just in film music, but also in the film industry itself. Indeed, just as the later “film school” generation of directors (whose enfant terrible, Martin Scorsese, received Herrmann’s final, self-referential notes) was careful to visually link their films with prior landmarks in cinema, Herrmann was clearly able (via his collaboration with Hitchcock) to link his films sonically. These allusions betray a more intelligent purpose than a simple lack of creativity; these echoes throw thematic patterns in the Herrmann-Hitchcock oeuvre into stark relief, often offering a revealing commentary that the images alone do not. As Smith suggests, these quotations “demonstrate the internal consistency and distinctive personality of Herrmann’s work, a sign of artistic maturity rather than fatigue.” (Smith 1991, 48)

Yet these echoes also reveal the depth of aesthetic repetition that lay at the heart of Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock, from the echo-like structure of his individual scores to the musical parallels and juxtapositions across his entire oeuvre for Hitchcock. Herrmann’s scores counter the simplistic criticism of repetition so often bluntly levelled at film music in general and illustrate how the technique may be utilised to deepen meaning within, and beyond an individual film. We can now also clearly see the auteur-like power that can be afforded to a film’s composer as well as to the director. Though no serious argument could be made that Herrmann was the sole author of his films, we may see through the examples provided that his was an authorial power with the ability to create and change meaning beyond the control of the director – even a director as exacting as Hitchcock. Thus, as I have argued, it is precisely because of repetition, and not in spite of it, that Herrmann’s work for Hitchcock is meaningful and effective. To return one final time to his string quartet, we can see just how apt a eulogy, if it was indeed intended as one, Echoes was. In legacy, as well as in close analysis, Herrmann’s music for Hitchcock could not be better described than as “a series of emotional remembrances.”



Herrmann, Bernard. Sinfonietta for Strings. 1935.

—. Echoes: String Quartet. 1965.

—. North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. Turner Entertainment, 1995.

—. “Bernard Herrmann on Film Music”. Bernard Herrmann Film Scores: From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver [Audio CD]. Burbank: WEA Corporation, 2004.

Mathieson, Muir. Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [Audio CD].  By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

McNeely, Joel. Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score [Audio CD]. By Bernard Herrmann. California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

Ravel, Maurice. Bolero. 1928.

Stravinsky, Igor. The Rite of Spring. 1913.


Cooper, Merian C., and Schoedsack, Ernest B. King Kong, 1933.

Coppola, Francis Ford. The Godfather, 1972.

Curtiz, Michael. The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938.

De Palma, Brian. Obsession, 1976.

Dieterle, William. The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941.

Endfield, Cy. Mysterious Island, 1961.

Fleming, Victor. Gone With The Wind, 1939.

Goodall, Howard. Howard Goodalls’ Twentieth Century Greats: Bernard Herrmann. Channel Four, 2004.

Hitchcock, Alfred. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934.

—. Spellbound, 1945.

—. The Trouble With Harry, 1955.

—. The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956.

—. The Wrong Man, 1956.

—. Vertigo, 1958.

—. North By Northwest, 1959.

—. Psycho, 1960.

—. Torn Curtain, 1966.

—. Marnie, 1964.

—. Family Plot, 1976.

Jackson, Peter. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001.

Lucas, George. Star Wars, 1977.

Markle, Fletcher. “Telescope: A Talk With Hitchcock”, CBC Television, 1964. Transcript available at <http://folk.uib.no/smkgg/midi/soundtrackweb/herrmann/articles/transcript_telescope/>, accessed 11 November 2010.

Petersen, Wolfgang. Troy, 2004.

Scorsese, Martin. Taxi Driver, 1976.

Segal, Alex. Joy In The Morning, 1965.

Welles, Orson. Citizen Kane, 1941.

Wise, Robert. The Day The Earth Stood Still, 1951.

Written Word

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. Composing for the Films. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Brown, Royal S. Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Bruce, Graham. Bernard Herrmann: Film Music and Narrative. Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Cameron, Evan, ed. Sound and the Cinema: The coming of sound to American film. Pleasantville: Redgrave Publishing, 1980.

Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dickinson, Kay. “Introduction.” Movie Music, The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. London: Routledge, 2003. 1-13.

Gilliatt, Penelope. “Hitchcock: A Great Original.” The Observer. 8 August 1976, 17.

Kalinak, Kathryn. “The Language of Music: A Brief Analysis of Vertigo.” Movie Music: The Film Reader. Ed. Kay Dickinson. n.d. 15-23.

Ross, Alex. “Oscar Scores.” The New Yorker. 9 March 1998. Accessed 11 January 2011 <http://www.therestisnoise.com/2004/05/oscar_scores.html>.

Smith, Steven C. A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Sullivan, Jack. Hitchcock’s Music. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006.

Toles, George. “’If Thine Eye Offend Thee…’: Psycho and the Art of Infection”, New Literary History 3/15 (1984) 631-351.

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

Wrobel, William. “Self Borrowing in the Music of Bernard Herrmann.” The Journal of Film Music 1.2/3 (2003).


[1] However, Hitchcock then went on to accuse composers – “not necessarily by Mr. Herrmann, but by other musicians” – of being completely inflexible.

[2] Of note is Sullivan’s account of how Herrmann directly disobeyed Hitchcock’s desire to have “increasingly comic” music while Scotty trails Madeleine in the first half of Vertigo.

[3] All Vertigo tracks referenced are from Muir Mathieson, Vertigo: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1996.

[4] Steiner paid particularly slavish attention to the leitmotif system in his work on Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and is an excellent example, as there is a theme for almost every character, minor or major. For more recent examples, the work of John Williams (most notably in the Star Wars series 1977-2005) and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings (Peter Jackson, 2001, 2002, 2003) provide excellent use of the leitmotif. Interestingly, Williams, who was a friend of Herrmann’s, scored Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976).

[5] Nat King Cole recorded a version of Herrmann’s Marnie theme set to lyrics, but it was quickly forgotten. As Sullivan notes, “a frigid, hallucinating kleptomaniac was not exactly the ideal subject for a pop love song.” (Sullivan 2006, 276)

[6] Chromaticism, in this instance means the use of notes, or chords that are directly sequential within the western twelve-note scale.

[7] In this sense used synonymously with ‘orchestration’, meaning the compositional use of one or more instruments. Herrmann was known for unique instrumentation before and outside of his Hitchcock work: he used the pioneering electronic instrument, the Theremin, in his score for The Day The Earth Stood Still; he also utilised modern technology to make previously impossible combinations, such as bass flute and kettle drums in his score for Mysterious Island (Cy Endfield, 1961).

[8] All North By Northwest tracks referenced are from Bernard Herrmann, North By Northwest: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, by Bernard Herrmann, Turner Entertainment, 1995.

[9] An ostinato is a phrase that is continuously repeated in the same musical voice. It may be a complete melody, or at least a melodic phrase; however, most commonly, it is a monotonic rhythm, and it is this usage that is applied in this essay. Perhaps the most famous monotonic ostinato is from Ravel’s Bolero.

[10] All Psycho tracks referenced are from Joel McNeely, Psycho: Original Motion Picture Score, by Bernard Herrmann, California: Varese Sarabande, 1997.

[11] While the first appearance of this musical thread appears in The Man Who Knew Too Much, it is certainly prefigured in the first Hitchcock/Herrmann collaboration, The Trouble With Harry (1955). Though it appears for less than a minute (in a cue fittingly titled “Ostinato”, played during the final nighttime exhumation of Harry), and differs from the other implementations in that it features the harp ostinato between two pitches rather than one, the movement of the strings around the figure is unmistakable.

[12] For The Wrong Man, Herrmann uses the minor iv-i7 cadence in the clarinets while an oboe plays the Vertigo-like melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. For Vertigo, the cadence is the major VI-I7 in the strings with the melody descending from the 2nd degree of the scale. Harmonically, these are closely related patterns.

[13] Interestingly, Vera Miles, who was Hitchcock’s original choice for Madeline/Judy in Vertigo, plays Rose Balestrero.

[14] Numerous other examples can be found throughout Herrmann’s entire oeuvre, though his self-appropriation within his Hitchcock scores appears to be more limited. For an exhaustive list, see Wrobel 2003.

[15] We could also examine Herrmann’s score to Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976); however, that score (or rather, the entire film) can be viewed as a homage or even pastiche of Vertigo, and therefore in-depth analysis is less likely to be as revealing.

[16] It is worth noting that Echoes is also the name of the Bernard Herrmann Society’s Journal.


Daniel Golding is a Ph.D. candidate researching the articulation of videogame spaces in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. He has also lectured and tutored in Screen Studies, has edited the gaming blog RedKingsDream and entertainment online magazine Empty Pocket Media. He also writes a monthly ‘Game Theory’ column for Australia’s oldest independent videogames magazine, Hyper. Email: <dangoldingis@gmail.com>



Don Draper On The Couch: Mad Men and the Stranger to Paradise – Mark Nicholls

“I don’t think I realised it until this moment.  But it must be hard being a man too… Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you, the way other people live it.  There is something about you that tells me you know it too.”

As befits the hero of any television series, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is everything and nothing. Throughout Mad Men we see Don as a child, a war veteran, an ad man, a husband and father, a philanderer and, inevitably for most of us, a fellow traveller in the affairs of the heart at war with society.  He is a gentleman, a friend, a harsh and occasionally cruel boss, sometimes severely restrained, responsible and buttoned-up, sometimes foolish and infantile.  For a serial philanderer he has an intensely loyal and sensitive nature.  Although reputed a creative genius, he is beset with fears, prejudices and a recurring look of bemusement.  He despises psychotherapy and, to a large extent, defies analysis.  Rather than being the subject of psychoanalysis he seems to stand on firmer footing as a hero in a tale brought forward in support of the analytical subjectivity of his audience.  In this way Don Draper is an interesting example of television’s great invention of the character that is almost all things to almost all people [1].

Despite Don’s apparent ability to engage an audience and, indeed, the accolades of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, he carries with him a disturbing sense of character contradiction.  As a protagonist who suggests himself as almost all things to almost all people, he also prompts us to question whether, despite this, he is really all there.  As I indicate in the scene from the pilot episode quoted above, department store chief Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) understands Don’s disconnection and his near compulsion towards seeing the world second hand.  Whether it is mediated by one of his outstanding creative pitches, an eight millimetre camera or a series of Kodak slides winding their way around a carousel, it is only via these “fantasies of persuasion”, as Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) calls his work, that the disconnected Don Draper can effect any real measure of engagement.  He confirms as much in a frank discussion with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) in San Pedro in the penultimate episode of series two when he says, “ I have been watching my life.  It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get in.  I can’t.”

One reason for this apparent disconnect is Don’s seemingly immovable, almost Althusserian belief in the constructed nature of the basic things in life.  A sense of happiness, security and the freedom from fear, he tells Lucky Strike management, are what advertising is all about.  Love, he advises Rachel Menkin, does not exist, except as something created by people like him to sell nylons.  Happy families such as his own, and their memories, clearly only exist in Sterling Cooper copy and on Kodak slides.  The past and, indeed, American history itself is nothing. [2]  For Don, who goes to such lengths to stamp it out and to alter his name and place in it, there is only a frontier to be discovered.  There is, of course, no London fog, nor did wartime snipers find their aim through the process of “three on a match”.  There are only products to be sold and life–what we have come to understand as “lifestyle” –to be manufactured in the selling.  This construction not only creates the notion of happiness but, according to Don, it serves the ameliorating purpose required by consumers.  “People want to be told what to do” is Don’s familiar response to questions about the integrity of his profession.  They want to be told that what they are doing is ok, he says.  According to his research department, forty-five precent of the population see the colour blue as blue, not because it is, but because they are told to see it that way and they don’t want to see it any differently.

The things of life as constructed by the advertising industry are compelling, even to Don who is such a good salesman, but they are in no sense real.  In the opening episode of series two Don is advising the creative team on the Mohawk Airlines campaign when he concludes his captivating speech about “adventure” with a highly dismissive “blah, blah, blah.”  I will write below of Don’s ability to be mesmerised by his own pitch, but this is an example of his essential failure to be impressed by the lie of advertising that is, in his mind, the lie of life.  By his own logic, as he cannot believe in the constructs of advertising, he cannot believe in anything.  A key campaign in series one is for the Belle Jolie lipstick account–“a basketful of kisses”–but after a seemingly successful and well-considered pitch the client demurs.  Don’s response is indignant and instructive.  In an impressive piece of rancour he tell the Belle Jolie exec that there is no point going any further because he is a non-believer and does not have Jesus in his heart.  Once the client is brought around to accept the campaign and they are all shaking hands at the end of the meeting, Don confuses and disturbs him, yet again, when he tells him that they will never really know if the campaign was a success or not – “it’s not a science”.  This scene shows Don at his most revealing and tells us a great deal about him.  In an advertising sense he clearly knows the power of Jesus, he can preach the gospel and he may even be a believer in the “old time religion” (“it’s good enough for me”) but he doesn’t believe in God.  He recognises a fellow non-believer in the Belle Jolie exec, because he too does not have Jesus in his heart.  Don’s job is to instil Jesus into the hearts of clients and consumers even if he cannot find Jesus there for himself.  In this way Don joins a long tradition of salesmen, selling everything from snake oil to salvation, that like Jim Casey in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) lost or never had the calling.[3]

As the essential things of life, for Don, are merely advertising constructs, it is no surprise that he tells Rachel that:“you are born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget.  I am living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” As one of the great rule makers of his generation–for advertising constructs are surely the basis of many Cold War rules and prohibitions [4]–Don feels this more keenly than most.  Anna and the spectre of his father confirm his sense of this isolation when the former tells him that this belief is the reason he cannot be happy and the latter tells him that to be a success he cannot continue to believe it.  Whether or not he acknowledges this–and something in the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce at the end of Season Three suggest he does–Don’s nihilism and his sense of being disconnected are such that we understand that he lives in a universe that is cold, lonely and meaningless.  As he tells the beatnik lover of his mistress Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), “There is no big lie, there is no system. The Universe is indifferent.”  In series three he reveals a similarly entropic view of the universe when he tells the creative team that “change is neither good nor bad, it simply is.”  In many ways he is like the physicist played by Jack Warden in Woody Allen’s September (1987)–they both know the Universe to be random, violent and meaningless and, in a sense, they both get paid to prove it.  The problem for Don in this knowledge is that, unlike Jack Warden’s physicist who takes refuge in the love of his wife (Elaine Stritch), he has very little to cling to at night.  When he comes to the realisation that Midge is in love with the beatnik, he is sympathetic, impressed and even envious, but if he can muster up enough faith to believe in love at all, he cannot know it for himself.  All he can do is give her the $2500 bonus he had from Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), another random event in his life, tell her to buy a car–a sign, at least, of happiness–and walk out of her life.

Although distrustful and consequently disconnected from his own life, as I have indicated, Don Draper certainly has the talent to engage others, and in this he is not immune from the power of his own performance.  Frequently we see him swallow his own snake oil.  In the Lucky Strike campaign, the Belle Jolie episode, as well as in his boardroom defence of selling “products not advertising”, we see Don momentarily full of feeling and untroubled by his dreadful knowledge of “the whole world laid out in front of [him], the way people live it.”  He is engaged, positive, charming and sincere, seemingly lost and, as I have written, mesmerised along with the rest of us, by the process of unfurling the lie.  The Kodak Carousel pitch, in the final episode of series one is a case in point.  He stands throughout the presentation. This exposes him and opens him up to a far greater extent than we are used, so dominant across the series is the seated or couched image of Don as a controlling and sometimes almost sadistic figure.  His stance is contained, one hand either in his pocket or clasped casually with his other hand that makes frequent restrained but assured gestures.  He is wearing a dark gray flannel pin-stripe suit, much more conservative than his usual light gray and combined with his stance he presents an image of quiet confidence along with a rare note of humility.  We see this in his eyes also, and the way they alternate between the dark knitted brow look and a flash of white as the camera moves in and he talks about the idea of “nostalgia” and “deeper bond with the product.”  When the slide presentation is underway and all eyes are on the images of a family life we have never known for Don flick past, his address becomes more relaxed.

Whatever rehearsal he may have had is clearly obscured and overcome by his present sense of rapture at the life that he has such difficulties trying to enter flashing past him.  David Carbonara’s score of strings, horn, flute, piano and glockenspiel that began with the slide show, is highly resonant of the compositions of Elmer Bernstein (Far From Heaven, 2002) and Thomas Newman (Revolutionary Road, 2008, Little Children, 2006) and it works subtly, like the smoke from Salvatore’s cigarette wafting across the screen, to complement the truth and the simplicity of Don’s performance.  It is all too much for Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who guilty from a recent small infidelity, has been kicked out of home and must leave the conference room to hide his tears.  It is Don’s consummate performance, however, inspired and technique obscuring, that stuns us and impresses upon us his undoubted but too frequently absent ability to feel something.[5]   He too, it seems has the capacity to kneel down, moves his lips in prayer and believe.[6]

In the “Bye Bye Birdie” episode of series three Don cautions Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) about the apparent and necessary separation between art and work by saying, “You’re not an artist, you solve problems.  Leave some tools in your tool box.”  Nevertheless in the emotional intensity of his pitch, in his frequent reliance on spur of the moment inspiration and in the, often begrudging, admiration of Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Duck Phillips and the account men, Don is very much like an artist. [7] The decade leading up to the John F. Kennedy assassination in November 1963, represented at the end of series three in Mad Men, was a rich one in the representation of the tortured artist both in Hollywood and elsewhere; consider: A Star is Born (1951), An American in Paris, The Bandwagon, All About Eve and The Bad and the Beautiful (all 1952), Lust for Life (1956) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), not to discount Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963).  From the Cukor, Minnelli, Kelly and Donen musicals of the early 1950s, to the “gotta dance” stage, screen and studio melodramas that span the period, the cinema furnished a great many examples of the artist for whom art is easy but the rest of life is impossible.  Like them, Don Draper shows that it is only in his artwork that he can lose himself, that he can engage with something in life as a first hand and unmediated experience.  The popular myth of the creative genius may allow him a measure of cruelty, insensitivity and generally anti-social behaviour in his struggle with the rest of life, but at the moment of performance he needs no allowances made.  In this way, life is really only viable for Don as the artist in the creative moment.  All the rest is impossible.  Where Don departs from the Minnelli model, however, is in his ultimate distrust of the creative outcome.  Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), Gerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and even Joseph Mankiewicz’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) may believe in the art they are creating but for Don, however mystified and aroused he may become by his own creation, as an advertising construct, he can never really believe in it.  As in the major part of his life when those around him are enjoying the moment, Don’s belief in the ad man created version life allows him very little room to feel or enjoy anything at all.[8]

Just as Don can be temporarily distracted by his work from, what he sees as, the cold realities of the Universe, he also allows himself an element of delusion over the possibility of escape.  This is directly related to his insatiable philandering and demonstrates another uncharacteristic level of engagement for the generally disconnected Don. In the main, the ease with which Don can float in and out of his extra-marital affairs has much to do with his nihilism and a certain emotional materialism and myopia that it has bred in him.  There is an aspect of his philandering, however, that he associates with the idea of escape and release – as if that were actually possible in the meaningless world he inhabits.

With Midge, Rachel and Anna (perhaps only an honorary mistress) he can frequently be more open and demonstrate his vulnerability in a way that he does not with his wife, Betty (January Jones).  We meet Midge before we ever meet Betty in the pilot and Don goes to her apartment for the first time when he is beset with anxieties about the Lucky Strike campaign and the generational threat posed by Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).  Almost immediately in his relationship with Rachel he is adamant that she knows and understands him better that anyone.  In Season Two, he acknowledges the problem openly with Anna when he says, “I’ve told you things I’ve never told Betty.  Why does it have to be that way?”  Just as these women seem to allow him the opportunity of “time out” from the codified world of marriage and business, he also associates them with the potential for complete self-removal.  As soon as his identity is placed under threat by Pete in series one, he rushes to Rachel and childishly proposes they run away and start their life over somewhere else.  On the stimulus of the bonus from Bert, Don’s first reaction is to charge over to Midge and suggest they immediately take a plane to Paris.  The California sequence at the end of Season Two, where he meets Joy (Laura Ramsey) and ultimately leaves her for Anna in San Pedro, is largely rendered for Don as a surreal and light-headed departure from the ordinary experience of life, as in a David Lynch film.

The significance of all this time off for Don is not as evidence of the viability of any vision of an alternative life for him as Roger Sterling might see it in the arms of his new young wife, Jane (Peyton List).  Don’s extra-marital liaisons, like his brilliant pitches, show his ability to engage in at least one small aspect of life, however false and unrealistic it may be.  Like his pitches, his affairs are limited and inevitably come to an end as soon as real life intervenes, but they do demonstrate the extent to which he can be passionate (with Rachel), vulnerable (with Midge) and emotionally challenged (with Bobby Barrett (Melinda McGraw)).  Don’s affairs, with the exception of Suzanne (Abigail Spencer) and, to a large extent, Anna, are related to his business and stand as an extension of that small part of life in which he seems to be able to engage.  To the extent that they have anything to do with love, however, we cannot divorce them from Don’s stated and demonstrated views on that subject.  They can be, therefore, no more real or viable for him than the idea of nostalgia that comes with the Kodak Carousel, the thrill of adventure with Mohawk Airlines or the feeling that comes with a new pair of nylons.

Thus far I have argued that Don Draper is disconnected and separated from the act of living his own life.  He believes himself to be in possession of an almost unbearable insight as to the emptiness of the world and the way god-like figures, such as himself, provide the things, rules, emotions and products that people can believe in to fill that emptiness.  Evangelist of the power of such a religion he may be, however, he cannot allow himself to participate or believe in it.  His sense of struggle, dissatisfaction and his growing understanding of his situation induce our sympathy and like Anna, we consider Don to be gripped by the false belief that he is alone.  The question of why he should be so faithless tempts us to follow the paths of psychoanalysis and mine the substantial screen time (which increases into the third series) allotted to Don’s childhood and youth.  But Don himself is so dismissive of psychoanalysis and this is a view not entirely rejected by even the Dionysian Roger Sterling.  Nor is there anything in Don’s childhood, and importantly in his reaction to his past that impresses itself as necessarily traumatic.  Experiences such as Don’s were hardly uncommon in and following the Great Depression.

Psychoanalytically this is dangerous ground but it does lure us away from the trauma-hysteria trajectory when we think about reasons for Don’s nihilism. [9]  Perhaps in this context, as Roger suggests, psychoanalysis is “just this year’s candy pink stove.”  Rather than trawling the past for the source of Don’s “damage”, to use a contemporary expression, Mad Men seems to present the far more disturbing idea that there is nothing wrong with Don at all.  Rather than reading him as a faithless, damaged and traumatised shell-shock victim, what I am suggesting as a fruitful approach to understanding Don is that we should read him as if he is right.  That Don’s disturbed view of the world is not his problem, but the problem of the society in which he lives.

In so many ways Don Draper is represented as highly successful, his own personal and emotional dilemmas not withstanding.  For all the brilliance we actually see in Don’s work, with clients and colleagues he seems to have a reputation far in excess of that demonstrated.  Beyond the awards he wins and the general recognition of his excellence, in each of the first three seasons of the series, it is made clear that Don’s presence at Sterling Cooper is absolutely essential to its existence – hence the on-going attempts to place him under contract and the regular flow of cash bonuses that come his way.  In his life outside business also, Don appears to live in a world seemingly without resistance.  In a guest appearance in the third season of NBC’s 30 Rock (2009), Jon Hamm encounters this resistanceless life yet again in an amusing parody of Don Draper’s world that Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) calls “the bubble”.  Liz explains to Hamm’s character, Dr. Drew Baird, that he lives in the bubble because of his good looks, and this, no doubt, also has something to do with Don’s success.  Yet it is clear, as in so many other aspects of his life, that Don’s experiences and even his vaguely deluded expectations have not only been socially recognised but also rewarded.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we should consider Don’s somewhat myopic view of the world as a viable one in the world of Mad Men for it is so thoroughly endorsed.  This we might consider to be even more the case given that the greatest critic of the world he inhabits is, in fact, Don himself.  As Don confirms when he advises Peggy to move on and forget the birth of her baby – “It will shock you how much it never happened” – no one is more disturbed by the apparent incongruity between the highly questionable nature of experience and peoples’ apparent willingness to forget.  Such is Don’s own localised encounter with the idea of American historical amnesia.[10]

A significant mark of both Don’s critique of the world and his recognition of it as meaningless comes from the way he sees his success as completely random.  Not only are his origins, as he says in series two, Moses-like, but his very birth to a dying prostitute is an accident, without planning or logic.  His name and identity, as well as all the threats he faces in protecting that identity, demonstrate the great deal of the luck and happy coincidence he enjoys throughout the show.  The eccentricity and worldly experience of Bert Cooper, as well as a developed sense of emotional detachment, accounts for Bert’s lack of outrage when Pete Campbell breaks the story of Don’s name change.  The explanation for Anna Draper’s acceptance of Don’s story, however, is less apparent.  Whatever he has done for her, however well he has explained his actions, her entire attitude towards him suggests an endorsement that is too good to be true.  And yet, despite the Lynchian Surreality of their sequences together in San Pedro, thus far into the show we have nothing concrete to suggest that this is anything other than Don’s illogical good fortune.  When he is finally forced to reveal his secret to Betty in the third last episode of Season Three, he speaks of his surprise that she ever loved him and wanted to marry him, secret or no secret.  Indeed the very idea of his marriage to Betty defies all reason.  The circumstances of his poverty and the obscurity of his background suggest their union as an highly unlikely match.  Betty’s psychological make up is no less interesting than Don’s, and requires a paper in itself. Beyond the more obscure reasons that led her to marry her man of mystery, however, we have to consider that on one level at least, her  “spoiled main-line brat” view of him as “some football hero who hated his father” played some horrific part in securing her interest.  Don is by no means the first man to wake up one morning and find himself a successful professional, a husband and father and wonder how it all happened. [11]  Like his pitches at work and his entire experience of creative inspiration, however, so much of his beautiful life seems to come out of thin air that we can hardly begrudge his suspicions over it.  If Don believed in God he might well see his life as a miracle.  As an apostate preacher, however, these “miracles” are simply evidence of his vision of a cold, random and meaningless Universe.

Beyond his apparent good fortune and as an American male in the early 1960s, the sense that Don is completely empowered and enabled to live with such freedom further argues the case against any philosophy that challenges his own.  Whatever doubts Betty has about his extra-marital activities, the freedom Don enjoys to “sleep in the city”, to wander off for hours, or even days, is as much a period feature of Mad Men as the featured period décor, the office drinks trays or the introduction of photocopiers.  Office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) gives detailed instructions to her fellow workers about ways to keep their male employers happy and these Emily Post-like edicts are similarly featured throughout the series. For all the feistiness of the key women in the series, however, Don’s expectations of women around him are almost entirely met.  Both Rachel and Suzanne present stinging critiques of Don the philanderer but end up sleeping with him and endorsing his personal concerns in a way that is similar to Anna’s.  Rachel’s comment, “it must be hard being a man too. . .” carries with it an element of irony but it also indicates the extent to which the “man’s world” view is perpetuated by the women in his life whom he treats with least regard.  When Don is surprised at home by the unexpected return of Betty he leaves Susan waiting for hours in his car.  Nevertheless, when he finally calls her next day her first concern is for his welfare.  In the penultimate episode of series one, we see Don, in a flash back, unable to leave the train with the body of the original Don Draper.  We know that to do so will expose his entire ruse but his performance of grief is so convincing – if indeed it is a performance – that a fellow passenger, a woman, picks him up, offering to “buy a soldier a drink” and comforting him with words similar to Rachel’s “It must be hard for you! Forget that boy in the box.”[12]

A potent theme of the series is generational struggle and Don is not immune from competitive fears inspired in him by Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling and, indeed, the memory of his dead father.  Nevertheless, just as Don seems to dwell in the frictionless space I have described, he sees many examples of others whose experiences have not been so blessed. He sees his father, the “common man” of the Depression, as totally crushed.  With his material comfort, Roger is not exactly the man in the gray flannel suit, but (like Bert Cooper) as the firm slips from their control, first due to their reliance on Don and then through selling out to Puttnam, Powell and Lowe, the extent to which these old timers come to inhabit the safe, reliable but easily redundant sheltered-workshop identity that threatens the protagonist of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Tom Rath, is obvious.[13]   At the other end of the greasy pole, despite the extent to which he challenges Don, especially in series one, Pete is also constantly, and often amusingly frustrated in his awkwardly stated professional ambition. With all Don’s success and good fortune in an indifferent world, he cannot but notice those whose experience of powerlessness has been harsh.  The extent to which he fears and is confronted with the intolerable realities of failure that these men endure has the effect of further emphasising Don’s frictionless experience and his sense of possessing an almost taboo personal status.

In light of its reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare of falling into the abyss of female desire, the obvious reading of Mad Men’s title sequence indicates similar fears of male decline.  The scenario suggests Don Draper, a shadow of his full self, walking into his office high on top of Madison Avenue only to have the whole business fall down around him and taking him with it to the bottom. [14]  It is not, however, a maddened and desperate figure, like Jimmy Stewart jumping up from his nightmare, that brings this sequence to an end.  Both this shadow man’s fall and the passacaglia of the strings on the music track are resolved into a comfortable image of the dark figure relaxing on a couch, his right arm casually draped along its back, his right hand holding a cigarette.  Accompanied by a mellow base and drum line it is as if the falling man has found his way to a relaxed downtown jazz club with cocktails and comfy seats, rather than finding himself splattered on the sidewalk.  From this perspective we can read the man as not so much falling between the images the late 1950s advertising boom, as floating past them and effortlessly falling on his feet again.  This is very much like Don’s experience.  Whatever signs we see of his anxiety, whatever his personal struggles, Don’s experience tends towards a comfortable resolution. So thoroughly endorsed in his empty universe view and in his power as the great creator of meaning, for Don the non-believer there is very little else for him to be other than God.  Everything and nothing, the beginning and the end of all things, he is intolerant of the past, of unhappiness and particularly psychoanalysis because he knows and is everything.  As God, or at least god-like, nothing comes before him so there can be no past.  He is the source of love (selling “products not advertising”) so there need be no unhappiness. He has no unconscious, no repressed thoughts and he knows all the thoughts of others, so there is no call for psychoanalysis.

The only, but substantial problem for Don is that he has a developing, nagging half-suspicion that there may be something for him beyond loneliness and beyond the world so comfortably created in his image.  As that great television god Truman Burbank experiences it in The Truman Show (1998), strange characters like the Hobo and strange ideas such as Utopia, nostalgia and what he himself calls “a life lived” frequently break in and suggest something else, like “an eternal thought in the mind of God” as Laurence Olivier puts it in the big hit of 1960, Spartacus.  If Don can keep the promise he makes to his son Bobby in Season One that he will never lie to him, the universe cannot simply be a meaningless and empty place simply waiting for the ameliorating fiction of Don’s products and pitches.  Bobby at least, and therefore Don, cannot be alone and therefore his barren philosophy must begin to unravel.  At this point in the show, however, if there is something for Don beyond advertising, it remains an “eternal thought.”  If he has seen it, like the life revealed to him by the Siren figure of Joy, Don has simply and quietly passed it by.  Whether it is created in his image or not, Don Draper remains a lonely god and a stranger to paradise.


[1] One particular example of this is the television news anchorman/woman.  In her discussion of the objective/subjective discourse of television news, Margaret Morse (1986) highlights the importance of the television anchor as a general subject whose personal sincerity is essential to his (frequently the anchor is male) credibility and the overall success of his endeavour to become a sort of personal paraclete.  Given the rise of the anchorman in the early 1950s and the importance of this figure thereafter, particularly in the person of Walter Cronkite, the comparison between Don Draper as adman and the essential television personage of the news anchorman is pertinent.

[2] See Althusser on history and ideology (150-2).

[3] John Steinbeck won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1962.

[4] Mike Chopra-Gant analysis of a 1946 Studebaker advertisement, which involves a father and son working together with sleeves rolled up, is an example of the way post war advertising sold ideology as well as products (142).  The critique Don’s father makes (from the grave) of his son and his profession, is based around similar notions of masculinity and real work that Chopra-Gant reads in the Studebaker ad.

[5] Benjamin Schwarz reads this scene as an interesting mix of Don’s ability to sell himself and the audience’s desire to see Don as serious (The Atlantic).  In his commentary for the DVD release of the pilot episode Matthew Weiner, however, argues for Don’s honesty in the moment of his business pitch (“Commentary”).

[6] Althusser, “more or less” quoting Pascal (158).

[7] Bruce Handy points out that in his observations about human needs Don has “an artist’s intuition”, but undermines the seriousness of Don’s pitch by suggestion that it is in these moments that Mad Men comes closest to the idea of “shtick” (274).

[8] Matthew Weiner makes this point about Don in his description of the very first scene of the pilot (“Commentary”).

[9] Certainly I do not reject the use of a psychoanalytic reading of Don Draper.  Indeed, my own extensive work on masculinity, melancholia and loss in international cinema after 1940 (see Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Pluto and Indiana University Press, 2004) suggests a number of useful psychoanalytical approaches to discuss this character and Mad Men in general.

[10] Gary Edgerton aligns Don with George Santayana’s idea that Americans “don’t solve problems, they leave them behind . . .” He also associates this attitude with Don’s tendency to escape at the first sign of trouble (Critical Studies in Television).

[11] In Gary Edgerton’s subtle discussion of the series, Don is aligned with the John F. Kennedy mystique and what critics David Newman and Robert Benton have called “The New Sentimentality” that accompanied the myth of 1960s Washington DC Camelot.  Don’s own style and mystique is essential to this argument and nowhere is it more pertinent than in the comparison of the two men and the trophy wives that helped them sell their messages (Critical Studies in Television).  To my reading, Don is very much a Nixon man.  As he says, “when I see Nixon I see myself.”  The appeal of his persona to the Kennedy style, as Edgerton points out, is, however, undeniable and perhaps all the more poignant for its origins in a Nixonian base.  If Nixon’s tragedy in the 1960s elections (or at least in the first television debate) was that he lacked the Kennedy charm, consider Don’s problem–he may look like a young Kennedy but he feels like Nixon.

[12] Matthew Weiner comments that Rachel is unusual in that she really talks to Don.  He makes this point in relation to the pilot episode and in contrast to Betty.  However, it is certainly true that in general Don has a far greater degree of conversation with his mistresses than with Betty, his wife (“Commentary”).

[13] I disagree with Sergio Angelini when he writes that Don Draper is modelled on Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  Both are veterans but not of the Korean War, as my colleague writes (90).  Tom Rath is 33 in 1953 and served in Europe and the Pacific in World War II.  In this he has more in common with Roger Sterling who also served in World War II.  Certainly all three men share the dual experience of being veterans returning to fight new enemies on Madison Avenue, but, as Matthew Weiner has pointed out, the theme of generational difference is important to Mad Men and this is largely based around a discourse of masculinity in relation to the differences between the two wars (“Commentary”).  Don reflects on the powerlessness of his seniors and, I suggest, aspires to overcome what he sees as the weaknesses and failings of the gray flannel generation.  This may account for some of the vehemence behind the punch he lands on Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) who calls him “the man in the gray flannel suit”.

[14] This is Matthew Weiner’s view (Handy 282).



Althusser, Louis. (1977), “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin  and Philosophy and other essays, Brewster, B. (trans), NLB, London,121-173.

Angelini, Sergio (2009).  “Mad Men – Season 2”, Sight and Sound, Volume 19, Issue 9, p. 90.

Chopra-Gant, Mike (2006). Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity,  Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir. London ; New York : I.B. Tauris.

Edgerton, Gary (2010). “JFK, Don Draper, and the New Sentimentality”, Critical Studies in Television, www.criticalstudiesintelevision.com.

Handy, Bruce (2009). “Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost”, Vanity Fair, September, pp. 268-283, 337-339.

Morse, Margaret (1986). “The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition” in Modleski, T (ed) Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Indiana University Press, pp.55-79.

Schwarz, Benjamin (2009). “Mad About Mad Men”, The Atlantic, www.theatlantic.com.

Weiner, Matthew (2008) “Commentary – Episode One”, Mad Men, Season One,  AMC.

Wilson, Sloan (1954/60). The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Pan Books Limited, London.



Mark Nicholls has been teaching at the University of Melbourne since 1993. He is the author of Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob (Pluto Press & Indiana University Press, 2004) and recently published chapters and articles on Martin Scorsese (Film Quarterly, Blackwell & Cambridge), Luchino Visconti (Quarterly Review for Film and Video), Shakespeare in film (Journal of Film and Video) and film and the Cold War. Mark is a film journalist and worked for many years on ABC Radio and for The Age newspaper, for which he wrote a weekly film column between 2007 and 2009. Mark has an extensive list of stage credits as a playwright, actor, producer and director. His email address is markdn@unimelb.edu.au.