“What’s in the Basket?”: Jouissance and the Circuit of the Lacanian Drive
Basket Case (Frank Hentenlotter, USA, 1981) is the story of the twin Bradley brothers. Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) came out normal looking; the other sibling, Belial, emerged from the womb as a hairless lumpy mass of gray tissue with stumpy arms and beady eyes. Until their early teens, the boys were conjoined at the trunk. Their father orchestrated an operation to separate them performed by two doctors with very questionable ethics and a veterinarian. After killing the father and growing up with a kindly aunt who becomes an accessory to their crime, they strike out to exact revenge on the doctors who came between them. Belial’s mode of travel when the brothers relocate to the city in order to search out the doctors is a brown wicker basket—like a picnic basket—carried by Duane. The basket serves as Belial’s home and works to conceal his grotesque visage from the eyes of the everyday world. It is the basket carried so suspiciously by Duane that causes the both of them so much frustration. Had he hidden Belial in plain sight, like Poe’s Daupin did with the purloined letter, Duane’s neighbors would be none the wiser. By working as a barrier to something hidden in the film, which is given away by Duane’s anxiety around the basket, it is immediately sensed by others as something that withholds a speculated upon satisfaction, a jouissance, and must be opened to reveal said enjoyment.
While loved by aficionados of ‘schlock’ horror commonly featured at midnight movie screenings, the movie’s simple story of revenge against the doctors who separated the brothers offers insight into the human unconsciousness and its motivations leading to the pursuit of enjoyment. Despite, or possibly due to the budgetary constraints of the film (the roll of twenty and hundred dollar bills with which Duane uses to pay his rent is rumored to be the film’s entire budget) it urgently communicates the intricacies of desire and insatiable drive after pleasure. Without time and funds to fully realize artistic refinement and subtlety, the film lays its unconscious bare.
I. Questions, Answers, Expectations, and Jouissance
“What’s in the basket?” Characters pose this question to Duane Bradley throughout Basket Case. This question never changes form, an aspect of the film that one could easily brush away with the dismissal of ‘bad writing.’ The question works as a pointed motif throughout the film, and repeats itself so many times, that the viewer must ask himself why it is so important. While the query is static (“What’s in the basket?”), the answer is always different. Across the narrative, and depending on who does the answering, the basket contains: clothes, a case of booze, Easter Eggs, tools, something worth stealing, Belial, nothing, Duane’s brother, Belial again.
The contents of the basket are often consequential to each character who peers into it. What changes is that each individual expects something different when he/she encounters the basket. It is this expectation that bestows upon the basket its power. It might seem that attention should focus on Belial, the misshapen brother who makes the wicker carrier his home, since he is the force that drives the narrative and is the monster around which this horror film revolves. The monster often works as a red herring to ramp up suspense and falsely cue the viewer to expect something, when the basket contains a lack, and Belial is absent from his wicker home. When a character expects something specific in the box, they are ultimately disappointed—that which they desire is kept at bay and is further away than when they first opened the box.
In this way the basket works as Lacan’s objet petit a, an intermediary between the subject and that which he or she desires. The objet petit a (or simply objet a) is the object around which desire is focused. It is never the object of desire itself, but the aspect of an object that draws the subject to it and initiates desire. In his lecture, “The Deconstruction of the Drive” Lacan bluntly states: “object a (is) cause of desire…that will explain its place in the satisfaction of the drive.” Simply put the objet a triggers desire, which is bound up in the drive. The objet a contains “the function of a certain object, qua lost object” in the circuit of drive. This idea of a “lost object” resonates with Lacan’s further explanation of the term in his 1960-61 seminar as an agalma or “precious object hidden inside a relatively worthless box. The basket, to the cast of characters in Basket Case, is the lost object that is bound up with desire and drive, due to the prohibition against opening it. Working as objet a, the basket promises jouissance to those who come in contact with it. Jouissance is a state of being that some translate enjoyment, even though the word connotes much more than merely finding casual pleasure in an action. It is pleasure that has “no rhyme or reason. Furthermore, jouissance carries with it a connotation of sexual pleasure, particularly a suffering or painful sexual pleasure. This painful pleasure, as Lacan describes it, is due to the pleasure principle’s prohibition on obtaining jouissance. According to Evans, “the pleasure principle functions as a limit to enjoyment; it is a law which commands the subject to ‘enjoy as little as possible’” . By attempting to subvert the pleasure principle, the subject never feels only more pleasure, but instead experiences pain, “since there is only a certain amount of pleasure a subject can bear”. This painful pleasure is jouissance.It is only when a character approaches jouissance, where a strongly sexual or deviant subject enacts this move toward something beyond the pleasure principle, that the basket contains the grotesque Belial, who immediately attacks the subject. Instead of languishing in the jouissance they expect, that state is reversed and experienced by Belial. Each character attempts to see beyond the basket (the objet a) in order to fulfill some kind of drive toward the pleasure of seeing, knowing, or possessing. Each character hopes whatever exists within the basket can fulfill his dreams, whether money, alcohol, or some imagined treasure. This drive toward jouissance stops with Belial, the enforcer of the pleasure principle vis a vis the other characters’ desires.
Basket Case’s opening scene takes place in rural upstate New York. It is dark; trees cast ominous shadows. All of the action in the scene occurs rapidly: a man runs from an unseen stalker. The person hiding in the shadows presumably cuts the line feeding electricity to the house. In total darkness, a grotesque hand assaults and kills the man. Following this scene, an establishing shot features the protagonist of the film, Duane Bradley, sauntering down a busy, well-lit, heavily populated street in Times Square.
The shift from the rural to urban locales situates the story as a tale about the false dichotomy between the rural and the urban. More often than not, the horror film works with the paradigm that the rural and suburban are edenic places that are invaded by a monster from outside. The invader always stands out in the homogenous white middle-class world. In these films, the killer is a kind of avenger against questionable morals. We only have to look at a film like Halloween whose Michael Meyers is driven insane by witnessing his older sister engaged in sex with her boyfriend. Driven by a need to quash actions spurred on by teenage hormones, he breaks out of the mental asylum years later to commit his murders. Most of the film’s victims are stereotypically young, sexually active teens; he is a walking, killing embodiment of the pleasure principle, out to regulate the jouissance of the suburb and thus preserve its homogeneity.Basket Case plays with this formula by bringing a similar monster character to the center of jouissance and heterogeneity: Times Square, New York City. The bucolic yet menacing setting of the first scene is straightforward. Obviously, anything can easily hide in the dark and in the shadows. Times Square conversely revels in its lack of opacity where signifiers constantly assault the casual passer-by. Acting counter to the genre, Basket Case locates itself in the largest, loudest, brightest city in the world. This is the first clue to the uniqueness of the picture. Even among unbridled sexuality, entertainment, and drug use, Basket Case specifically illustrates that even when a community is bound up in the conscious search for pleasure, the limiting pleasure principle still affects the outcomes of this quest. Furthermore, by setting the film in this location, Basket Case underscores the meaningless of the vilification of the urban and the lionization of the suburban. Each, despite surface difference, is bound by the same laws.The setting of the second scene is based in an overwhelming pursuit for jouissance beyond the pleasure principle. The sequence that establishes a break from the rural locale of upstate New York to the City does not take place in areas like Wall Street, Soho, or the Upper East Side. Instead, Duane disinterestedly ambles along the sidewalk of 42nd Street in Times Square. As he walks along the gritty streets, signifiers for every form of carnality assault him. XXX theatres and shifty hustlers seem to form a Gomorrahan cocoon around him as he placidly stares forward toward some unknown destination.This block of Times Square was called The Deuce from the late 60s to the early 80s. Before its Disney-ization in the early 90s, Times Square’s 42nd street, between seventh and eighth Avenues, was the world’s home to sleaze. Because of its devotion to the potential fulfillment of any and every desire no matter how kinky or depraved, the Deuce still looks great on film and serves as a reminder of the pain and corruption brought on by an over indulgence in the search for jouissance.
The establishing shot of the Deuce is a cornucopia of come-ons from corporations high above the sidewalk, far away from the action on the ground. Elevated signs for Aiwa and Coca-Cola blaze a passionate red. Sony’s white luminescence blazes over Times Square as a scrolling sign extols “Sony loves N.Y. and New Yorkers love Sony.” The shot cuts to a street scene of the Deuce where garish fluorescent lights illuminate a selection of adult videos in a store window. A sign to the left of the window exclaims “Adult PEEP SHOW with SOUND 25 cents.” The other side of the storefront reads vertically “RUBBER GOODS Newspapers FILMS TAPES.” Viewing these shots back to back reveals that both multi-national corporations and local peep show operations work similarly to promote an image, the Lacanian objet peit a, which is used to tempt consumers. This juxtaposition of shots lays bare the hypocrisy of the separation of the two categories since all advertising plays on the same psychological trope: causing desire via a signifier, promising a satiation of drive that ultimately delivers jouissance through their respective products. As seen in the tracking shot that follows Duane after his first murder in Basket Case the Deuce is in full late-night swing. He slowly saunters over the concrete sidewalk, oblivious to the distractions of sex for a quarter. A pusher sidles up to him offering a quick litany of the Deuce’s other stock: PCP, uppers, downers and any number of chemicals. Duane, zombie-like, walks forward without so much as an acknowledgment of the pusher’s presence. Despite the potential signifiers of pleasure around him, Duane is happy to be holding the ultimate signifier of jouissance in the film: the basket.
What finally ends to the pusher’s come-on is the presence of a beat cop standing quietly in a doorway passively watching the cacophonous horde swarming over the Deuce. The pusher quickly ends his tirade and fades into the night, but not before asking Duane, “What’s wrong with you, man?” The law, represented by Lacan as the name-of-the-father, micro-manages and regulates everything that approaches jouissance. Lacan asserts that it is “the essence of law—to divide up, distribute, or reattribute everything that counts as jouissance”. In the presence of authority, of the law, any chance for jouissance dissipates or is re-routed and made unattainable. What we experience onscreen is a juxtaposition of two kinds of authoritarian fathers, both whose job is to regulate the experience of pleasure. The first represented by the policeman, but also brother Duane and his order “Don’t look in the basket” and his constant deferral of people’s curiosities about the basket, functions as the traditional law of the pleasure principle.42nd Street as an entity represents the second kind of father, just in its infancy when Basket Case premiered. The Deuce works as the “anal father of enjoyment” that commands the subject to enjoy himself and actively and constantly seek jouissance. While Duane and the beat cop are individuals who can only work on a limited level to prohibit enjoyment, the anal father possesses an almost omnipotence. The Deuce as anal father, “licenses our enjoyment rather than prohibiting it. Stores surround Duane promising every kind of illicit kind of enjoyment, encouraging the casual passer-by to engage in the express indulgence of sexual pleasure. Duane and Belial’s present a return to the old law of overt suppression of jouissance and the enforcement of the pleasure principle.Duane’s basket represents the objet a for everyone he encounters. His entrance to the lobby of the Hotel Broslin causes loitering residents to immediately speculate on what desire-fulfilling object might lay beyond the rim of the basket’s lid. A drive toward the next pleasure is the order of the day of the hotel and reveals itself in the form of two tenants openly passing a bottle in the hallway while a third hopes the basket contains booze and that Duane will throw a party for his new neighbors. Even in the domestic space, the Deuce is still the Deuce. Duane explains that the basket contains clothing, signifying something so pedestrian that only the most twisted fetishist could find enjoyment in it. In a larger sense however, clothing often works as the objet petit a, revealing only a part of the whole. Consider the bare midriff or shoulder, made sexually arousing only due to the other articles of clothing around it, drawing attention to the part revealed. This part is what causes desire in the subject, who wants to move beyond to see the object revealed.
II. The Hustling Hustler and Jouissance
The first instance of interrupted jouissance occurs not long after Duane makes his home on the Deuce at the Hotel Broslin. Like most area habitués, he eventually finds refuge in a grindhouse theater. Duane specifically chooses one that features kung-fu movies. The particular neighborhood theater specializing in the imported chop-sockey movies was the Cine 1 and 2. According to Sleazoid Express it was “adjacent to Blackjack Books, one of the Deuce’s freakiest adult bookstores, infamous for its cheap rough-trade hustlers and explicit live S&M show”. As for the activities of the patrons of the Cine theaters, “inevitably somebody would be getting high smoking angel dust”. One could walk along the Deuce’s corridor and meet prostitutes and hustlers, drug dealers, drug users, pimps, closeted men looking for anonymous sex, liquor stores, bath houses, cheap motels, arcades and, most importantly theatres. The theaters, as described by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, were leftovers from the Burlesque days and were the fixtures of the Deuce around which the rest of the insanity revolved. They were edifices draped in garish red velvet from the walls to the seats to the carpet. The theaters’ hosted some of the filthiest restrooms in New York, which, more often than not, served as “office space” for junkies and prostitutes. Hobos could pay for a cheap triple feature, drink wine in the dark, and sleep it off all in the course of a night. Kids looking for cheap thrills as well as artsy types looking for edgier (or campier) fare could take in a Mondo documentary, a Kung Fu film imported straight from Hong Kong, or a blood-soaked slasher flick.In this environment of sought after jouissance, the place where pleasure becomes pain and vice versa, Belial makes his first entrance. As Duane sits passively, hands at his side, the camera pans right to reveal a shady young man wearing an undershirt (Tom Robinson). He sits diagonally behind Duane, out of his field of vision, and notices Duane nodding off. The protagonist attempts to fight the sleepiness but the exhaustion of murder and a trek to the big city overtakes him in the darkened theater. As he continues to nod off, the young man sitting behind looks longingly in Duane’s direction. The glance does not have the tight eyed and purse lipped body language of greed or menace. Rather the unnamed man, who we can reasonably suspect is a Times Square hustler, depicts mannerisms usually found in looks of desire. His eyelids droop and his mouth is slightly open, he drapes his arm languidly across his chest. Duane finally succumbs to exhaustion and, for a short while, drops off to slumber. Noticing his chance the unnamed grindhouse patron slips away with the basket off-screen. Duane wakes up shortly thereafter to find the basket missing. For the thief, the basket contains some unknown treasure; maybe something worth pawning with which to get his next fix, his next meeting with jouissance. As previously seen in the opening sequence, the drive can be temporarily satiated by any number of chemicals or liaisons easily found on the streets. Salecl posits that anxiety works as “a median between desire and jouissance” and that this anxiety “aims at this lost jouissance” lost in the process of “symbolic castration”. The anxiety is palpable as the unnamed movie-goer quickly runs through the halls of the theater toward the restroom. That he goes to the restroom is a clue that a certain kind of jouissance is being pursued, signified by the mise en scéne as well as what we know about the history of the Deuce. Johns and hustlers who frequented the Deuce often met and conducted their illicit business affairs within the filthy environs of theater lavatories. Another signifier of young male sexuality is literally in the writing on the wall. As the thief attempts to elude detection, we notice a western motif painted on the walls. The intertextuality of this image, the location of the theater, and the anxiety on the face of the man all suggest a queer reading of this particular moment in the film. An earlier film about a male prostitute fascinated with cowboy regalia, Midnight Cowboy, comes to mind. The character literally hustles down the hall past the mural. The wall displays a sign painted to look like a ranch scene. A “restrooms” sign is painted to look like an old board with sagebrush at its base. At the top left hand side of the screen, we see a horse in full gallop. The stallion or stud (also euphemisms for young sexually active men) painted on the wall mirrors the white-shirted hustler running to the restroom to lose himself in his illicit booty. He throws the basket to the floor in front of an open stall and kicks open the lock. The large hiking booth with which he kicks open the lock increases the violence of the action and the anxiety. Light purple laces twined in the hustler’s boots further the notion of rough trade sex, mixing the feminine with the hyper-masculine. The purple signifies femininity, while the black boots with harsh shiny silver buckles signify an excess of masculinity. These contradicting signifiers, along with the days’ growth beard the thief sports, is reminiscent of the Tom of Finland (nee Touko Laaksonen) gay fetish illustrations that gave rise to many of the contemporary queer butch stereotypes.
After two swift stomps, the lock skids across the floor and lands in a urinal. The barrier between the desire and the object that is desired has been removed and jouissance is only a moment away. In his excitement, and due to the lock, he has no understanding of what the basket actually contains. The basket works like a rapidly sliding signified, where the signifier can literally mean anything. The pace becomes frantic; the cuts within the scene speed up. Desire has fallen away and pure drive for the ineffable jouissance is in full force. “Unlike demand, desire is elusive: whenever it is made completely articulate, it slips away.” Whether the drive is sexual in nature or not is inconsequential at this point. Regarding the acquisition of the elusive state jouissance in the face of the pleasure principle, that which refuses or re-routes pleasure, Lacan asserts that “The subject will realize that his desire is merely a vain detour with the aim of catching the jouissance of the other—in so far as the other intervenes, he will realize that there is a jouissance beyond the pleasure principle.” This scene works in the realm of drive and not desire. According to Lacan “the Name-of-the-father sustains the structure of desire with the structure of the law” where the pleasure principle is enacted. Desire is that alone: a want, a wish. It is kept in check, and keeps the subject out of trouble by denying that which is desired. Anyone could desire to know what is in the locked basket sitting next to the sleeping man, yet few take the risk to find out. We know this through the means with which the basket is procured, namely stolen, that something else is at work. The phenomenon in question is drive.The drive is “the forcing of the pleasure principle” and in this “another reality intervenes”. We must ask ourselves then what activates the drive to such a force to initiate robbery, and symbolically in Basket Case, an anonymous sexual liaison in a seedy Times Square theater’s restroom. The drive is “capture(d) by the veiled face that is that of sexuality”. It is precisely the objet a, the veiled anonymity of the meeting that fuels the drive toward the sex act. This anonymous unknown works to veil the object in question. The drive encounters a “lacuna” a hole “that the subject establishes the function of a certain object”. This lacuna that the subject expects to function in a certain way is the objet petit a. Duane’s basket may contain anything, but to the hustler in the theatre it contains something to activate the drive. This activated drive, symbolically sexual in nature, is about the basket, yet not really about the basket at all. The basket is “a subjectification without subject.” It just is and therefore can mean anything when a subject’s unconscious assigns it a correlating signifier. This signifier is fantasy, which “is the support of desire” and not the object itself. So the hustler desires the basket and fantasizes about what the anonymous container may contain. His drive in search of enjoyment or jouissance forces him to steal the basket and takes over at this point. The urgency of drive surpasses the fantasy of desire because “when a subject traverses the fantasy, he or she moves from desire (continually seeking the object) to drive (circling around an objectless void).” The lacuna (the objectless void) is a mirage that promises sustenance for the drive. The drive takes control of the subject at this point in order to fulfill its longing for jouissance, that which is beyond the desire and the pleasure principle.
He secrets the basket away to the place where other illicit liaisons are executed to enjoy his treasure grasped beyond the pleasure principle’s prohibitions. A barrier must be overcome to reach the goal of seeing what is beyond the teaser, the outer shell. The anonymous hustler’s kicks affirm his love/hate affair with the basket as objet a. Lacan’s words ring true here about the function of the basket: “I love you, but, because inexplicably I love in you something more than you—the objet petit a—I must mutilate you”. Even though the basket is inanimate, it represents something in the chain of signifiers for the hustler. Therefore, the mutilation is symbolic of an unknown but hoped for something to satiate his desire, based upon the initiation of desire and promise of fulfillment by the basket. The libido’s “sexual coloring is the color of emptiness: suspended in the light of a gap. This is the gap desire encounters at the limits imposed upon it by the principle ironically referred to as the ‘pleasure principle’…desire…is essentially found in impossibilities”. A decision to use violence to break into the basket is to symbolically and temporarily obliterate the pleasure principle’s borders that keep the subject from fulfilling his or her objective of satisfaction.
What happens next however illustrates another side of drive and jouissance and the law that regulates them both. We see the box open in a point of view shot from within the basket. The man’s face changes from expectancy to horror as he realizes that the end of the circuit of drive ends where it begins: an anxious flight. By running after sexual fulfillment pain and death intertwines with the pleasure and heightened sense of life. The Lacanian drive “represents…the curve of fulfillment of sexuality in the living being”. Therefore, the drive circuit is finalized in meeting Belial. This meeting ends with the basket dweller attacking the hustler and mauling his face. Expectant of any number of valuables, the hustler is first surprised then horrified at what he finds lurking beyond the locked lid. His mouth opens in fright. Duane, upon noticing the basket is missing, runs toward the restroom. As he enters the hall, with its western-themed mural, the hustler runs past, clutching his mutilated, bloody face, and assumedly out into the night, back to the Deuce. This seems to be the furthest thing from the “fulfillment of sexuality” but every phenomenon contains the trace of its opposite.
The fulfillment of the drive “should be death, when the presence of sex in the living being is bound up with death?”. The hustler’s drive is fulfilled. Although the hustler probably did not procure what he imagined the box to contain, he did meet a brief moment of jouissance the moment before recognition of Belial resting in the basket. What we know as ‘satisfaction’ (release) was not attained yet Belial forced the circuit of drive to be short circuited, thus satisfying the drive. About this satisfaction without being satisfied, Lacan states that “the drive may be satisfied without attaining what…would be the satisfaction of its end of reproduction, it is because it is a partial drive, and its aim is simply this return to circuit”. While the hustler might not have acquired what he bargained for his drive was satisfied in such a way that he did not want any more of what the basket had to give.
III. Belial as Signifier and Sadistic Jouissance
Another instance bears out the circuitous nature of the drive, but this time in its aspect as greed. O’Donovan (Joe Clark), the resident who initially hopes there is liquor in the basket, peeps through a keyhole into Duane’s room. The large amount of money carelessly carried by Duane is the signifier that first initiates O’Donovan’s drive. When he is caught by a neighbor in the midst of his voyeuristic outing he exclaims “He’s gotta roll of bills on ‘im. He’s carry’n ‘em around loose in his pocket!” The money turns O’Donovan on and initiates his scopic drive. For Lacan, the scopic drive, the drive related to seeing and gazing, is a partial one that “represent(s) sexuality partially: (it) does not represent the reproductive function of sexuality but only the dimension of enjoyment.” Recalling the definition of jouissance (an enjoyment that has no use value) the scopic drive (which Lacan says correlates with desire) begins without any design on fulfilling any use value, but is merely a push to satisfy a lust of the flesh by looking. O’Donovan peeps, the same way a pervert would to get a quick look of flesh. “The signifier is the cause of jouissance. However fuzzy or confused it may be it is a part of the body that is signified in this contribution”. The money is a signifier not only a signifier of wealth, but for potential jouissance, the enjoyment of the body.O’Donovan breaks into Duane’s apartment later by picking the lock after a violent fit thrown by Belial causes commotion in the Hotel Broslin. He quickly takes the money, yet his drive is not satisfied. He rifles through a drawers before noticing the basket on the chest of drawers. His hand trembles with excitement and anxiety mirroring the hustler’s anxiety a few scenes before as his fingers slide along the brown rim of the lid. Again, the basket works as objet a, the cause of desire, which moves into drive. The greed-driven actions are almost automatic. He opens it quickly and Belial leaps out and attacks O’Donovan’s face. His quavering excited enjoyment ends as soon as he removes the lid. While the basket signifies (in its role as objet a) potential, the signifier “is what brings jouissance to a halt…The other pose of the signifier, its stopping action, is as much there as the origin as the commandment’s direct addressing can be.” If the basket represents the Lacanian cause of desire, Belial then is the signifier that “brings jouissance to a halt.” According to Lacan, the desire/drive circuit is an entity that woks like a system. As such, all parts are in place, and like some sort of Rube Goldberg contraption, each part of the circuit works based upon actions before it. Furthermore, despite any great effort to the contrary, if man is integrated into the symbolic order (the system of language that regulates the subject’s life) all the workings are in place and can do nothing to derail the processes from exercising themselves unconsciously. If the hustler or O’Donovan believe they are subverting the order of the law with impunity by disobeying Duane’s proscription to “don’t open the basket,” Belial remains behind to make sure the circuit is completed, the pleasure principle is enforced, and jouissance is halted immediately. Like the seemingly unimportant basket, Belial is not what one might first attribute to him. One might hypothesize that he is a sadist, one who receives pleasure by inflicting pain on others, that his jouissance bases itself on the pain of others. The basket works as the catalyst for the enjoyment of the other simply by being wherever it is. Both the hustler in the theater and the keyhole peeper O’Donovan in the hallway of the Hotel Broslin demand the presence of an other on the side of the unknown, an anonymous someone or something that could potentially hurt them, catch them, or somehow or other punish them, to fulfill their respective drives. According to Lacan “the sadist himself occupies the place of the object but without knowing it, to the benefit of another, for whose jouissance he exercises his action as sadistic pervert”. In this equation of objet petit a, drive, and potential jouissance, if not Belial himself, at least the potential of something to short out the drive, is necessary to achieve a fleeting enjoyment and eventually complete the drive’s circuitous route. That the circuit completes itself in mutilation and death only makes the argument stronger that the sexual drive of the characters involved reaches its apex the moment they begin to lift the lid of the basket. Belial is there to work as the signifier that demands the return of the pleasure principle and voids the “‘enjoyment of the body’…that has a certain Sadian flavor to it” and contains “an ecstatic, subjective flavor”. Belial’s sadistic representation as the return of the law manifests itself throughout the film. His basket is empty after the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold neighbor, Casey (Beverly Bonner) walks a drunken Duane back to his room. Her own inebriation bestows upon her the courage to investigate the basket. Casey is obviously nervous; her unease about Duane’s obsession with his laundry hamper having grown after Duane told her in a drunken stupor about his misshapen brother and their ability to communicate psychically. She slowly lifts the basket’s lid, obviously expecting to discover some sort of horror. The non-digetic soundtrack reinforces the tension of impending slaughter; but Belial is not home. Instead, he works as a counter measure to the audience’s jouissance; through his absence the audience cannot fulfill its bloodlust. Arriving home and tired, Casey decides to change and retire to bed. The camera slowly gazes at her as she slowly peels off her clothing. Clad only in underwear, the viewer expects, desires what is beyond the clothing, which works as the objet a for its audience. At this point, she finishes changing into a terribly short nightshirt in the restroom, deferring any sort of jouissance beyond the veil that incites desire. She languidly lays in bed, almost allowing the camera to peek up her shirt. At this point, the audience is a reflection of a former victim in the film: O’Donovan the peeper and his scopic drive. Belial prevents the audience’s scopic jouissance as he did for O’Donovan. The monster has hidden himself in Casey’s bed and assaults her, breaking the sensual tone of the scene and denying any thoughts the audience might have about the film turning into soft-core porn. Throughout the movie Belial and Duane share a psychic bond. One often feels emotions experienced by the other. After Duane leaves Belial alone during the day with a television that does not work properly so he can go on a surreptitious date with the secretary of a doctor he helped murder, Belial goes into a rage. Through his bond with Duane, he knows that his brother ignored him for the day to explore and pursue jouissance with the secretary. The monster’s grating metallic voice seems to fill the room as he destroys it. He throws drawers across the room, smashes the television, strews papers, but it is his voice that works as the centerpiece of the shot. Up to this point, Belial is what Michel Chion calls the “complete acousmetre, the one who is not-yet-seen, but who remains liable to appear in the visual field at any moment.” The viewer’s evidence of Belial earlier rests on reverse-shots of characters’ reactions after opening the basket as well as munching sounds as Duane feeds him. This hiding of the body by voice works as objet a to the audience. We want to know more, to see the monster revealed. According to Chion, when the acousmatic voice continues unseen it “becomes invested with magical powers…usually malevolent.” Chion attributes four specific powers to the acousmatic voice: “the ability to be everywhere, to see all, to know all, and to have complete power.” This explains why a monster no larger than a medium-sized picnic basket can seem to appear then disappear at will, understand when to attack those intruding into the basket, and have no problem overcoming and killing a full grown male.At the moment Belial reveals himself to the screen, Chion says his acousmatic voice undergoes de-acousmatization. If Belial conformed to Chion’s assertion about de-acousmatization, his powers would become impotent, “dooming (Belial) to the fate of ordinary mortals.” Despite the monster’s revelation, Belial continues throughout the movie slipping in and out of the apartment undetected, killing at will, and always knowing Duane’s thoughts. Until the very end of the film, Belial continues to possess these powers Chion associates with the acousmatic voice. It is the very uniqueness, the grating electronic-tinged growl that prevents it from losing its power. Chion explains that “the ear attempts to analyze the sound in order to extract meaning from it—as one peels and squeezes a fruit.” It is the combination of voices expelled by Belial, primal rage mixed with a futuristic sounding robotic scream, that disallow the viewer to extract any real meaning. Unable to digest the sound heard, the viewer cannot place Belial into any category, cannot compare him to another animal that makes a similar noise. It is through this inability to integrate him into the symbolic realm of language and description that allows Belial to preserve his power as signifier over jouissance. Simultaneous with Belial’s ranting, Duane experiences his first kiss. Here, even at a distance, Belial works as signifier that repels jouissance. Even more notable is that this time he is not physically present, yet makes himself present in Duane’s mind, a clear reference to his unconscious at work preventing Duane from enjoyment and his power as acousmatic voice. Later in the film, Duane declares his frustration with Belial and asserts his independence. He brings his girlfriend to his room to engage in sexual intercourse. They begin to become amorous, and Duane and Sharon (Terri Susan Smith) climb under the covers. At this point, Belial pops up from his box, roaring hideously. Belial here works as he did previously with the hustler and anonymous sex, O’Donovan’s greed, and the viewer’s lust—he allows Duane and his desire toward sexual satisfaction to move only so far before completing the circuit and denying the ultimate possession of jouissance, his first sexual climax. In his frustration and fear, Duane wraps Sharon in a blanket and throws her into the hall. Sharon wrapped up, reverts to objet a, a veiled object that represents, but is ultimately unable to deliver, satisfaction to Duane.Basket Case ends with Belial’s search for jouissance. His eyes glow red for the first time in the film. This change signifies a change in Belial. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then something is different, and dangerous, within the monster. What has happened is not that he is more powerful; rather the opposite. What changes is that the roles inhabited by Duane and his brother are now reversed. Sexual drive now consumes Belial. While Belial rapes Sharon in her bed, Duane has the awkward dream of running naked through empty streets shrouded in darkness. Duane psychically experiences the sexuality experienced by Belial within the dream. He realizes this upon awakening and fearfully runs to Sharon’s home. Duane also realizes that the dynamic between his brother and him is reversed; he is now in charge and as such, must put an end to his brother’s jouissance. While atop Sharon Belial kills her while having sex, yet he continues to copulate with her bloody corpse. At this point Belial is pure sadistic Sadian drive. Duane pulls his brother from Sharon before the drive is satisfied and rushes him home. By doing this Duane now stands in as the signifier that stops the subject from experiencing jouissance. A fight ensues after arriving back at the Hotel Broslin and Belial lifts Duane to the ceiling by his crotch. Duane may temporarily interrupt Belial’s drive’s circuit but it still moves forward in a violent sexual rage. The two brothers struggle and fall through the apartment window and onto the Hotel Broslin sign. While they struggle to hold on a group of prostitutes below point and watch the brothers. They eventually fall to their deaths from the hotel sign, splayed out among the sex-workers. The sexually sadistic drive is finally completed in Belial’s own death. Yet the law of the pleasure principle, desire, drive, and jouissance persists, signified by the gathering prostitutes, symbolic of potential enjoyment that ultimately ends in guilt, shame, possible diseases, and a continuation of female sexual subjugation for money.So what does this reading do for the viewer or scholar beyond this one low-budget schlock-fest? Horror movies’ raison d’etre is drive, objet a and jouissance. American horror films’ generic conventions usually include a drive dynamic that deals with some sort of quest for jouissance for either the killer or the heroine. Viewing horror films (a genre interested in the psyche from its inception) with this sort of lens can help scholars better understand the meanings behind the on-screen madness. Even more, this sort of analysis helps to deflect elitist suppositions about genres such as horror or science fiction as worthless and possessing nothing of worth. While the horror film is not a genre with its genesis in America, the gory slasher pic most definitely is. One must wonder then, if film is a microcosm of the beliefs, desires, frustrations and drives of a country, what can a Lacanian approach communicate about our society, its quest for, and subsequent suppression of jouissance.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 168. Ibid, 185. Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (New York: Brunner-Routledge, 1996), 125. Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Ecrits Closely, (Minneapolis: U of Minn. P, 2004), 124. Evans 91 Ibid Ibid 92 Ibid
See the seminal text Sleazoid Express for details on Times Square in its sinful heyday. All the historic information cited in my paper about the Deuce comes from this book. Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford, Sleaziod Express (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).
Jacques Lacan, On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972—1973, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), 3. Todd McGowan The End of Dissatisfaction? Jacques Lacan and the Emerging Society of Enjoyment (Albany: State U of New York P, 2004) 46. Ibid 49.
Strangely, the same year Basket Case was released, a kung fu film featuring real deformed people played in the Cine theaters. The Crippled Masters featured supposed kung fu experts born with flippers where arms should be.
Landis and Clifford, Sleazoid Express, 272. Ibid 273.16 Renata Salecl’s footnote to jouissance’s definition states that “Lacanian psychoanalysis does not translate the French term jouissance with ‘enjoyment’, since the latter does not depict enough pleasure coupled with pain” Renata Salecl On Anxiety (London: Routledge, 2004) 153.
Salecl, On Anxiety, 30. Salecl, On Anxiety, 30.
See appendix 1 for example.
Todd Mcgowan “Fighting Our Fantasies: Dark City and the Politics of Psychoanalysis,” in Todd McGowan and Sheila Kunkle, ed., Lacan and Contemporary Film (New York: Other Press, 2004), 157. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), 183-4.Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 34. Lacan, FFC, 184. Ibid. Ibid, 185. Ibid 184. Ibid
185. McGowan, “Fighting Our Fantasies”, 164. Lacan, FFC, 268.29 Lacan, Ecrits, 722. Lacan, FFC, 177. Ibid. Ibid, 179. Evans, 47. Evans 48 Lacan, OFS, 24. In Belial’s fit of rage we see on the wall a framed picture of Irving Berlin on sheet music to his ode to carnal pleasure “Along Came Ruth.” The song details a narrator’s insatiable love of women and the “merry go ‘round” feeling of sexual indulgence. Lacan, OFS, 24. Lacan, FFC,
185. Lacan, OFS, 23-4.40 Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema (New York: Columbia UP, 1999), 21. Ibid 23. Ibid 24. Ibid 27 Ibid 27-8 Ibid
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Shane Gilley is currently finishing his dissertation about hip hop film and the signification process of authenticity throughout the history of the genre at Oklahoma State University. In addition, he is currently researching the transition of street art from city walls and subway cars to the commercial realm and the museums. He previously published the entry on Tupac Shakur in Greenwood Press’s Encyclopedia of African American Literature and Hip Hop Cinema in the Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Literature.