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Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 02:39 am
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe

What is it about this scene from the first Austin Powers film that moves me so much?



Dr Evil has taken his son Scott to Group Therapy. He's asked to tell the group something about his own childhood:

Dr. Evil: The details of my life are quite inconsequential.

Therapist: Oh no, please, please, let's hear about your childhood.

Dr Evil: Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanise, he would drink, he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy, the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was typical, summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we'd make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds, pretty standard really. At the age of 12 I received my first scribe. At the age of fourteen, a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum, it's breathtaking, I suggest you try it.

Therapist: You know, we have to stop.




What makes this scene funny is also what makes it fascinating. Dr Evil is just so incongruous at the group therapy session, dressed in his light grey totalitarian dictator's jacket. He's a character designed to be one-dimensional, to sit inside a volcano in a Bond film and strive to take over -- or destroy -- the world. He's supposed to say "I've been expecting you, Mr Bond!" and "I am going to kill you, Mr Bond, in due course, but first, since you are so curious, I am going to explain what will happen when I take over the world."

Instead, at the group therapy session, the totalitarian sits surrounded by suburban Americans wearing autumnal leisurewear, and -- as sinister, beautiful John Barry-esque music starts up -- tells them something so incommensurate with their own experience that they can only interpret it as a series of metaphors. He says he's been partially frozen, he says he's been trying to kill his son, and the hippy-liberal therapist interprets these as figures of speech. No, says Dr Evil, he means it literally. But what stops him is the thought "Who's going to take over the world when I'm gone?" And again the therapist explains it to the group as a metaphor. Haven't we all felt like that sometimes? Aren't we all alike?

No, we aren't. The John Barryesque music strikes sinister chords containing "forbidden" intervals, with an icy sparkling of mallet instruments falling across them like sunshine striking the tops of high mountains. Dr Evil begins his speech. We hear of luge racing -- a luge is a sled or toboggan -- and summers in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, now Myanmar; a colonised nation now run by a military junta. We hear of taboo child-rearing practices (corporal punishment, humiliation), taboo body parts, undignified professions, insane cruelty, buggery, headwear made of meat, ritual testicle-shaving that evokes that talisman of unacceptability, clitoridectomy, brutally hierarchical social relations (the young Evil "received a scribe"), and archaic religions with a vaguely Nietzschean ring to them. What could be more strange to the American Christians present than Zoroastrianism? What could be better calculated to strike a chill in their hearts, and show them more rapidly the limits of their tolerance?



The pretense of this therapy session -- of all therapy sessions -- is that you can say anything. Whatever you say, you will be heard, and shepherded back from its extremity to some kind of normalcy. But Dr Evil, in his grey suit, is beyond the pale, irrecuperable. What he says is so unsayable that it can only be understood as a series of metaphors. His "standard" and "typical" childhood draws gasps and revulsion from his listeners. Rather than indicating that he is willing to move towards suburban normalcy, Dr Evil tries to influence the group to adopt the arcane rituals with which he grew up: "I suggest you try it". The aging 1960s hippy in charge of the session senses that the limits of expression -- and perhaps a moment of danger -- have been reached: "We have to stop."



It reminds me of Batty, the Nexus 6 replicant in Blade Runner, telling Deckard "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shore of Orion. I watched seabeams glitter in the dark near the Tennhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like... tears... in rain. Time to die."

What's so poignant here is that we know that the conventions of genre require the "evil" character to die, precisely for the incommensurability of his difference -- he is "the unacceptable other", the creature too intolerable for any tolerance, too incomprehensible for any understanding. We know these people must die for their difference, but we are also fascinated by it. We are wedded to monoculture, but subtly disturbed by pluricide. And so, just before they die, evil characters representing "the unacceptable other" are given speeches which allow us to glimpse, simultaneously, how unlike us they are, and yet how like us, if only by the fact that they have had experiences, as we have too. Luge lessons in Rangoon, attack ships off the shore of Orion. Like us, they will die, and this difference will all die with them. The removal of their incommensurable difference will, we know deep down, impoverish the world, perhaps even more than their presence menaces it.

Something about Dr Evil's speech reminds me of some lines near the opening of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Perhaps it's the sled and the luge, the overlapping references to summer and exotic places, the sense of privilege and refinement, something archaic. But it's also surely the sense that this is a way of life -- profoundly undemocratic, unacceptably other -- made more beautiful for being marked out for destruction.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

77CommentReply

chipuni
chipuni
Brent "Chip" Edwards
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)

It's a shame, too, that we so demonise the other.

The Unacceptable Other is usually a lot more interesting to talk to.


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obliterati
obliterati
Night of the Living Dave
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)

Apparently Lorne Michaels was very upset that the voice of Dr. Evil was based on him. Hard to forget such an iconic character though. Apparently some Saudi official somewhere along the line actually put his pinky to his teeth and demanded one million dollars during a particular arms negotiation, to sound like Dr. Evil. Never underestimate comedy!

Also, I read that Mr. Hauer improvised the line about tears in the rain, it wasn't in the script originally. It's strange how Phillip K. Dick died immediately after getting paid for the rights to this movie, it was the most money he'd ever had in his life and then his heart gave out almost immediately, and he never got to see the finished result. Considering how many of his sci-fi books were essentially autobiographical, I can almost see him saying the same thing as Batty at the very end.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 02:33 am (UTC)

Interesting... although Future Noir says (as quoted on Wikipedia):

Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, the violent yet thoughtful leader of replicants, was regarded by Philip K. Dick as "the perfect Batty—cold, Aryan, flawless". So he must have seen it pretty close to finished.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC)

Sean Young lived in my building in NYC (circa '89). I only saw her once, coming in late one night from a shoot, and she was still wearing makeup from the set that made it look like she had been in a terrible accident -- black eyes, gouges and blood on her forehead, bandages. But she was still striking, beautiful even, albeit in a "warm leatherette" kind of way.

Edited at 2009-03-05 03:36 am (UTC)


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the_sullz
the_sullz
Sullz
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 03:48 am (UTC)

I watched the Austin Powers clip twice, and I can't find any reference to cliterectomy. Was that a joke?


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 07:52 am (UTC)

No it was an IQ test.


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mcfnord
mcfnord
shoop
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 04:50 am (UTC)

Henchmen: Good financial sense?


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 05:44 am (UTC)
behold, I shew you a mystery...



Edited at 2009-03-05 08:04 am (UTC)


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 05:50 am (UTC)

I would say that, while Austin Powers is playing off the typicality of the genre convention in question for laughs, Blade Runner complicates it somewhat by investigating the morality of Deckard taking part in the whole enterprise. Maybe "Richard III" captures this slightly better? But he's the protagonist, so it might not count.

I prize both "Blade Runner" and "Do Androids Dream..." almost equally, even though they're completely different in many significant ways. The killing of Baty (as it's spelled in the book) is so much more abrupt and without-incident in the novel. The real conflict in the book is centered on a crisis of faith, and there's this whole strange element of religion and animal worship that barely exists in the film (the only real sense we get of the animal worship is with the mechanical owl at the Tyrell corporation).


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krskrft
krskrft
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)

This discussion also reminds me of Kim Ki-duk's brilliant "3 Iron," in which the silent protagonist is forced, by propriety and social manners, to shadow an abused housewife's husband for the rest of his life if he wishes to stay near her. He is sort of a vagabond type character who breaks into roams around breaking into and sleeping in temporarily empty houses, then performing some helpful task before he leaves (doing the laundry, etc). He isn't evil--in fact, it's the woman's husband who is evil--but he is nonetheless an "unacceptable other," and the fact that he must live in the shadow of this evil man is tantamount to a "death" in some ways.



And then, of course, there's the more recent and up-front use of this theme in The Dark Knight, where Batman turns himself into the "unacceptable other" in order to salvage the squeaky clean image of justice that was Harvey Dent.


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cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
cap_scaleman
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 08:20 am (UTC)

Speaking of psychologists, the Israelian tv show called betipul is about a psychologist and his clients.



The american version is called "In Treatment".




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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 08:34 am (UTC)
Strange

I never had you down as a Mike Myers fan, but now that I do, I would like you to disseminate Wayne's World in such a poetic fashion as this.

wewillbecome.com


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 09:28 am (UTC)
Re: Strange

The catch-phrase "Schwing", by evoking the volatile and vulnerable mechanism of the male erection, takes us into the realm of "the unacceptable tent-pole", a phenomenon of nudity which can nevertheless be seen through clothes, and therefore an intrusion of the private sphere into the public.


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eptified
eptified
H. Duck
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 09:32 am (UTC)

Mr. Momus, the next time I am feeling sad about having done a blog post where I explain how my favorite anime points to a new, post-binary method of gender individuation, I will think of this and I will smile inside.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 09:55 am (UTC)

I think something else that appeals to me about Dr Evil's speech is how it reveals him to be more intelligent and more creative than the others in the therapy group. He's addressed as "Mr Evil", but he's careful to underline that he is Dr Evil; he has qualifications. This already edges him out of the horizontality of the group into a world of vertiginous hierarchies. There's no reference to his enormous wealth, but his speech packs a hell of a lot of lateral thinking into a very short space of time. The idea that someone might lie that they invented the question mark, the idea of making hats out of meat, references to genius and insanity.

The speech bears hallmarks of Romanticism, with its ideas of the utter otherness of artists, geniuses and the mad. It's also Romanticism which gives us the pathos of Frankenstein, and Dr Evil is Frankenstein's distant relation.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC)

I think it's also that he's basically speaking a different English from the rest of the group. "Inconsequential, insolent, malaise, lament", these words are essentially keigo, a more formal and literary English from another age. Despite wearing the uniform of a 20th century dictator, Dr Evil is a neo-Victorian of sorts.

He's also very much a European in North America, one who has not yet learned the requisite informality. I think of Nabokov:



I suppose, given the choice between loosening up and becoming more conformist in America and playing up their difference and becoming more beyond-the-pale, some Europeans do the latter. Lolita is a beyond-the-pale book set in American suburbia, yet designed to shock and titillate it with otherness. And I think my own Little Red Songbook has something similar going on; I'm a sort of unacceptable other on the cover:


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 10:31 am (UTC)

This Time guide to Bond villains reminds us that David Bowie was originally slated to play Max Zoren in View To A Kill:


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 5th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
Forrest Thomson

Spring surprised us, running through the market square
And we stopped in Prynne’s rooms in a shower of pain


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