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11 October 2011 @ 05:04 am
Fake Psychics -- Nightmare Alley  
Here is another non-SF movie that's sort of about psi, but very relevant to the discussion of psi narratives. It's a movie about fake psychics, from 1947.

In Nosferatu, just 25 years before, the assumption was that psychic experiences were real, without any comment. In this movie, the assumption has switched -- that they are not real. It is, however, a slightly ambiguous assumption.

The movie follows the basic plot arc of the tragic hero that anyone who has read Greek tragedies or Shakespearean tragedies is already familiar with.

1) Meet our tragic hero!
2) Our hero makes a tragic error (in this case, resulting in the accidental death of his friend, Pete)
3) Rather than confessing his error and trying to make right by others, he hides his actions and benefits from his friend's death (by taking over his act, which is worth lots of $$$)
4) Why? Because he's tragically proud (hubris etc.)
5) He rises very high, ignoring that the fates have predicted his downfall
6) His hubris blinds him to the course of action he is taking, and he oversteps and falls all the way down to the lowest of the low
7) In the end, there is a glimmer of possible redemption for him in his reunion with his wife

The end!

The act that the hero (Stan) takes over is a fake psychic act. It is a very profitable fake psychic act. Several other characters in the movie are also involved in fake psychic acts (his circus friend Zeena, his wife Molly, his late friend Pete). It is clear in the movie that it is not being in a fake psychic act which is immoral, but the way Stan "goes too far," crossing the line from fake psychic entertainment to "acting like a minister." The line is an explicitly religious one (more on that later). Pretending to be psi for profit, and for the entertainment of others, is OK -- being a "false prophet" is not.

Paul Meehan writes of the movie, in Cinema of the Psychic Realm,

"This cynical view of psi, emerging through the jaded prism of film noir, offers a compelling presentation of the skeptical position regarding ESP. The debunkers believe that all psychic functioning is a fraud perpetrated on gullible believers by clever fakers, and Nightmare Alley illustrates people's willingness to believe in fortune telling. In one carny spiel, repeated twice in the film, the seer supposedly has a vision of a little boy running through a field with a dog at his side. Most shills fall for this psychic con job, but the trick is that every boy has a dog and the situation is common in almost every lad's childhood. Stanton's bogus clairvoyance convinces even wealthy, educated people by manipulating their will to believe in the preternatural. Ironically, Zeena is given to fortune-telling with a deck of arcane Tarot cards, and correctly predicts both her husband's death and Stanton's eventual downfall."

I personally do not think anything in this movie provides any "compelling presentation of the skeptical position regarding ESP." It is true that the main characters are putting on a fake psychic act, and it is true that they are using unscrupulous methods to ensure the accuracy of their revelations, but while some of the believers are presented as gullible fools, some are presented as very sympathetic characters whose religiosity was exploited. The film itself leaves open the possibility of real ESP in three different ways:

1) The tarot cards.

The Tarot cards in this film have the narrative role of MacBeth's Weird Sisters. The first scene with the cards (Clip 2, at 6:05) predicts Pete's demise, and death, and Stan's rise to fame and wealth. The second scene (Clip 7, at 2:27) predicts Stan's demise -- a warning that he completely ignores, to his doom. These scenes, and Stan's blatant disregard for the Tarot (and Zeena) in them, serve an explicit narrative function, highlighting Stan's hubris in the face of true prophesy, and securing his downfall.

It is not merely "ironic" that Zeena is able to do this with the cards, it is necessary to the tragic narrative formula. Even Oedipus Rex has prophets and oracles fulfilling this narrative role -- this stuff is ancient.

2) Stan's hunches, which are sometimes kinda too good to be just hunches. And they're right 100% of the time, too. Stan never makes a single mistake, and the one time he appears to (calling Mrs. Peabody's deceased daughter Carol "Caroline"), we know it is an intentional mistake because he has inside information about Mrs. Peabody, including the name of her late daughter.

He never makes a mistake -- even at the end, the hoax is brought down by his wife intentionally throwing it, not by any mistake Stan makes.

I may be reading too much into this movie, but there are a few moments when this "they're only doing it by code" idea completely breaks down, first when Stan talks down the deputy and isn't even using the code, (Clip 4, the marshall scene begins at 4:06, the talking down part at 6:00, and continuing in Clip 5), and then when he meets Lilith at the restaurant (Clip 6 at 1:05). When he later attributes his intuition about Lilith to "common sense," Lilith replies, "it's not so common." (Clip 6, at 5:46). He spends the whole movie putting down those who believe in ESP as "shills" and "chumps" (seriously, count how many times he uses those words in this movie!), and then casually pulls off stuff that none of the others can actually do, even with full fluency in the code. It would have been totally awesome if part of what he discovers at his fall in the end of the movie was that he was actually psi all along and in denial, and he's the biggest chump of all -- but drat, we don't get that ending. ^_^ (Makes me want to get a hold of the book this is based on and find out for sure.)

It also would have been totally awesome if he was haunted by Pete's ghost, like MacBeth is haunted by Banquo's ghost. That would have been an awesome contrast to the scene where Molly plays a fake ghost. ^_^ It would serve him right for the years he spent in denial refusing to think about or accept what he did to Pete -- instead, after the second Tarot card scene, he has a complete freak out over smelling the alcohol that his masseuse is rubbing on him, because it triggers these memories -- but he doesn't see a ghost.

3) One tiny line Lilith utters when she is asking Stan about how he apparently read her mind during the performance. (Clip 6, at 5:10)

Lilith: "Now, in regard to this feeling you have, psychologists admit the validity of mental telepathy under certain--"
Stan: "Uh huh." (cutting her off)

Huh? I can't tell if this is supposed to be serious, or if this is Lilith (a better con artist than Stan) trying to con Stan. It's ambiguous.

Anyway, returning to the role of the Tarot cards in the narrative. In MacBeth, the Weird Sisters were witches. According to Wikipedia (citing Coddon, Karin S. "'Unreal Mockery': Unreason and the Problem of Spectacle in Macbeth." ELH. (Oct 1989) 56.3 pp. 485–501),

"The Three Witches represent darkness, chaos, and conflict, while their role is as agents and witnesses. Their presence communicates treason and impending doom. During Shakespeare's day, witches were seen as worse than rebels, "the most notorious traytor and rebell that can be." They were not only political traitors, but spiritual traitors as well. Much of the confusion that springs from them comes from their ability to straddle the play's borders between reality and the supernatural. They are so deeply entrenched in both worlds that it is unclear whether they control fate, or whether they are merely its agents. They defy logic, not being subject to the rules of the real world."

Yet the witchcraft angle (and all negative connotation) is completely absent in this movie. Instead, the revelation of the cards is implied to come from a divine source. So in that respect, it's more like the prophesy in Oedipus, except unlike in Oedipus, wherein it is impossible to change one's fate, in this movie it is implied several times (by Zeena and Molly, in the two Tarot scenes, and then in Molly's "religious" speech (which starts in Clip 8 at 9:13, and continues in Clip 9) that Stan can give up the fraud and change his fate, but his ego and hubris prevent him from being able to take that course of action.

The whole movie had very little to do with religion until we get near the end, and Mr. Grindle is introduced, a very wealthy man who believes Stan's act. He gives $150,000 to build a "tabernacle" for Stan. Stan speaks of him as a "new convert." Where in the beginning, Stan appears to have no use for religion (such as here, in Clip 5, at 3:45), Stan suddenly starts caring about his act bringing faith to the skeptics.

"A man's fate is trembling in the balance. A man who was confirmed skeptic about anything relating to religion now stands upon a threshold. The door is open -- one more step will being him inside the fold. What should I do, should I let the man's soul be lost forever, or should I stake my own to save it?"

Although the sudden introduction of religion (Christianity) made the movie make sense on a "meta" level, didn't actually make a lot of sense in the film itself, based on what we'd seen so far in the film. Although the scenes with the Tarot cards now make sense from a "religious prophesy" narrative perspective, it's quite a bit less than clear when Stan began taking religion seriously. Earlier in the film, Stan was contemptuous of "salvation" and those who tried to save him when he was a youngster. (And since when do skeptics have "confirmations"?) Now his central motivation for continuing with the fraud (instead of taking the money and coming up with some excuse why he can't materialize a vision of Mr. Grindle's deceased sweetheart) is to save Mr. Grindle's soul.

And I have no idea when he started taking religion seriously, or when he began seeing his mentalist act as having anything to do with Christianity. Maybe when he began making predictions about the afterlife? I dunno.

Here is the earlier scene in which Stan talks about religion:

Molly: You ought to have heard Stan spout the gospel to that old hypocrite! It was like being in Sunday school!
Zeena: You must've been raised pretty religious!
Stan: Yeah in a county orphanage.
Zeena: Didn't you have any folks?
Stan: If I did they weren't much interested.
Zeena: Where'd you learn all this gospel?
Stan: In the orphanage. That's what they used to give us on Sunday after beat'n us black 'n blue all week. And when I ran away they threw me in the reform school. But that's where I got wise to myself. I let the chaplain save me, and got a parole in no time. Boy, how I went for salvation (rolling his eyes). Comes in kinda handy when you're in a jam. Many's the judge I've good talked right out've his shirt.
Hoatley (Stan's boss): Son, you can have mine right now.

So with no explanation, now he apparently actually believes in saving people, and he takes religion very seriously.

He tries to talk Molly into helping him, and she's against it, and threatens to leave him.

Stan: Honey look, it's not me that I'm thinking about, but what about this poor guy Grindle? What's gonna happen to him? Mrs. Peabody, all those other people that I've helped? Look, look at these! (Picks up letters) Hundreds of 'em, every day! Simple, honest little people who believe in me! They say I've given them hope!
Molly: Oh I'm not worrying about them, they're going to be all right. But you won't. You've got to stop it, do you hear? You've got to, Stan. Or I'll make you. I will walk out on you.
Stan: Are you crazy?
Molly: No, I'm not crazy. Just plain scared.
Stan: Scared? Of what?
Molly: I dunno, I--I can't explain it. But I feel... (forcefully) Well, you're going against God. (AHA, HERE'S THE MOVIE'S META MOMENT!)
Stan: (angry) How'd'ya figure that? Do you think I'd be getting all those letters?
Molly: That's what makes it to terrible. Everything you say and do is so true and wonderful, and you make it sound so sacred and holy. When all the time it's just a gag with you. You're just laughin' your head off with those chumps. You think God's gonna stand for that? You want Him to strike you dead? You can't do it, Stan! Nobody's ever done it! Never!
Stan: Now honey, don't get yourself all worked up about nothing. I've gone over this in my mind a hundred times! If anybody comes back they're not gonna get all steamed up because we fake a little! And another thing, I've met a lot of these spook workers and they're all hustlers, just like me. I didn't see one of them wearing a lightning rod.
Molly: But they don't act like you do. They don't talk like ministers!
Stan: When did I ever talk like a minister?
Molly: Oh you do it all the time!
Stan: I'm talking exactly the same way I did when we were in the nightclub. And I'll tell you another thing. I never mentioned God in the nightclub, did I?
Molly: No.. I--I--I don't think so.
Stan: Have I ever mentioned Him in this racket? Have you ever heard me do it? Come on come on, when did I do it?
Molly: You haven't--
Stan: No I'll say I haven't. I know what I'm doing. I've read the Bible. I can recite the Ten Commandments backwards. And I'll tell you what the third commandment is, too. Thou shalt not take the name of thy Lord thy God in vain. A lotta people think that means swearing. But I'll tell you what it means. It means exactly what you're talking about. I'm not taking any chances, baby. I'm not taking any chances. There's no difference between this and... and mentalism. It's just another angle of show business.
Molly: Wait a minute Mister. You're not talk'n to one of your chumps. You're talk'n to your wife! You're talk'n to someone who knows you red, white and blue! And you can't fool me anymore! There's only one way I can stop you from doing this thing, and that's to leave you.
Stan: You'd honestly do a think like that to me?
Molly: No, I'm going to do it for you.
Stan: We're right back where we started. All right, listen to me. I'm no good. I never pretended to be. But I love you. I'm a hustler, I've always been one, but I love you. I may be the thief of the world, but with you I've always been on the level. (They kiss) You've done a lot of talking about love, I never mentioned it before, and I guess you get the general idea. If you wanna walk out on that, it's OK with me.

Needless to say, he talks her into doing the act, and in the middle of she intentionally throws it, and one thing rapidly leads to another and he spirals downward (because he's crossed the line from harmless hustler to false prophet, and God's giving him a smackdown). Very strangely, he does not blame his wife for what she did, or appear to have any anger toward her, and his running into her again at the end is presented as him achieving a glimmer of salvation at last. I guess the idea is that she threw the act because she was doing God's work, so she's blameless in his downfall. Or something.

Meanwhile Lilith gaslights Stan and makes off with the loot and never gets caught. Ha.

As a side not to all this, I found the gender roles interesting. His swaggering dismissal of the Tarot cards is typical of the "good men do not believe such nonsense, only weak-minded men (and women) do." Bruno believes in the cards -- and he's sure not too bright. Mr. Grindle is at first concerned by how thoroughly Stan has duped Mrs. Peabody ("As far as Addie's concerned, he seems to be a bit of a hypnotist"), but then meets Stan and comes to believe him, too. Mrs. Peabody falls for it first, and Mr. Grindle is convinced that Stan is "nothing but an uncommonly shrewd, young trickster," but he too, gets snookered. Stan waves around like a badge of masculinity how he doesn't really believe any of this stuff.

And as for the women, well, we know what any character named Lilith is going to be like, and ta da, no surprises. Independent, sneaky, sexual, and ruthlessly out for herself, no matter who she has to step on to get it. She comes onto Stan in this scene here (Clip 8, at 7:18), though Stan turns her down. Molly, meanwhile, is the "good young Christian girl" -- except she and Stan have sex without being married, which is why the other circus workers force them to get married (Bruno beats Stan up till he agrees to marry Molly, here in Clip 5, starting at 4:37). Molly also wears very revealing circus outfits, which almost gets her arrested for indecent exposure. So... those were unexpected twists.

Meanwhile, Lilith gaslights Stan and makes off with the loot without getting caught. Ha!
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