Ktismatics

1 August 2007

The Talented Mr. Minghella

Filed under: Fiction, Movies — ktismatics @ 9:46 am

Jonathan Erdman of Theos Project, a frequent commenter on Ktismatics from nearly the beginning, recently went on a backpacking trip in the Black Hills, sparing some room in his pack to carry the Tom Ripley novels with him for entertainment. When Jonathan returned to Indiana and civilization(?) he sent me an email asking if I’d read these books. Only the first one, I told him — The Talented Mr. Ripley. I read it in Nice, having checked it out from the English-American Library there, which I found apropos since so much of the action takes place near where we were living at the time. I liked the book; Jonathan said he thought it was the best of the three. Then the next question: book or movie? There’s an old French version of the book, made in 1960, but it’s the more recent version that comes to mind, the one starring Matt Damon as Tom Ripley and featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law and Cate Blanchett in supporting roles.

Patricia Highsmith, a Texas-born emigree, brought out the first installment in the Ripley series in 1955. Not generally regarded as a great author, Highsmith wrote what might be termed high-end pulp fiction. Alfred Hitchcock made a great movie from Highsmith’s first novel: Strangers on a Train. Maybe filmmakers can see in Highsmith’s books the potential for making a very good movie out of a pretty good book. Usually novels cover too much ground and dig too deeply to make a really successful transition to film. If it’s a really good novel then a movie that remains true to the book tends to fail. The successful film adaptation has to leave big chunks of the book behind, then build a movie out of the pieces he keeps. The Lord of the Rings movies did that: left out long slogging treks across Middle Earth in order to focus on the colorful characters, the festive scenes and the dramatic climaxes. Though I love the world Tolkien created, though I liked wandering through it with the characters, though I’ve read the books three times now (twice aloud to our daughter at bedtime), the books really are kind of weak dramatically and literarily. What the books do with slow immersion, the movies accomplish with spectacle and plot. A movie version closer to the books would feel more like Lawrence of Arabia — a slow march through bleak terrain. Still, the Rings movies were great spectacles.

Patricia Highsmith wrote Tom Ripley as a sociopath, which makes him nearly impossible for the reader to relate to. He has no personality of his own; his motivations are nearly inhuman; he’s on the outside of normal humanity looking in. All he can do is imitate, to turn himself into a simulacrum of a real human being. When you look for depth of character you find none at all. In the book you might infer that Dickie is a live wire and either a nice guy or a snob, but Highsmith shows him to us through Tom’s eyes as someone whose surface accomplishments and possessions are plenty good enough for Tom to destroy, to steal and to mimic. And then Ripley has this pathological inability to believe that he’ll get caught, repeatedly compounding his ruthless disregard for the human condition assuming that nobody else is really going to care much what happens to their dead friends and family members. That Highsmith could actually make the reader sort of root for Ripley I found kind of remarkable. It’s either a tribute to us “real” humans, who can project humanity onto a rock, or an acknowledgment that we aren’t as deep as we think we are. Or maybe it’s Highsmith’s unique talent.

You’d think this sort of flat character going through a series of harrowing adventures would be ideal for the movies. Because a movie is so short it can’t offer a whole lot of character development. And because modern Hollywood movies have become so non-literary and so auditory-visual, character development has to rely on pretty flimsy clues — and on the personae of the actors who occupy the roles. But Hollywood also wants the viewer to identify with the characters — something Highsmith slowly, almost unconsciously coaxes out of the reader. The filmmakers equip Ripley with a homosexual attraction to Dickie, which humanizes his motives and makes him easier to relate to. And though Matt Damon is sort of chameleon-like as an actor, he does carry his intrinsic regular-guy persona into the role. It’s a good movie, but it’s not a particularly strange movie.

The book relies on the protagonist’s flat otherness for its unique attraction. The movie performed usual Hollywood trick of imbuing a flat screen persona with the simulacrum of humanity. It’s as if the filmmaker, Anthony Minghella, is Tom Ripley, doing to the book version of Tom what Tom did to Dickie.

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21 Comments »

  1. Fantastic! John turned my emails into a post. So, now I’m trying to go one-better on John and have written an Amazon.com review!

    I’ll leave the link to the review when it becomes available to read online. However, here is a copy-and-paste of what shall appear (this was written prior to reading John’s post):

    I disagree with some evaluations of the Ripley novels that say something to the effect of: “The creepy Ripley crawls under your skin and haunts your dreams at night!” These characterizations are somewhat silly and exaggerated. Highsmith creates an intriguing character, to be sure. But this is not a terrifying, creepy, or frightening series of crime novels. In fact, there is a notable lack of dramatic tension in these novels, particularly the last two.

    Ripley is a young man with problems who gets caught up in a cycle of murder and deception. He is to blame, of course, and Ripley is troubled, for sure. However, to walk in the shoes of Tom Ripley is to understand the unique brew of social, psychological, intellectual, and emotional forces that lead Tom into murder. Of course, understanding how these forces interact within the psyche of Tom is best left to reading Highsmith. However, I would sum up Ripley by saying that he is an intelligent, efficient and inward character who, despite his violent crimes, is still very relatable in a sinister way.

    On a more philosophical and ethical tone it is of note that the Ripley character is one of contrast and also marked development. For instance, in the earlier Ripley we find someone that despises murder and yet still justifies it all easily enough in light of his circumstances. The later Ripley seems much more emotionally/psychologically at ease with murder – he can eat or laugh immediately following the act – yet he seems to recognize that while some murders may have been “necessary” the original sin (the first murder of Dickie) was an act of volition in his own self-interest. There is a reversal here: The later Ripley is more capable of murder, yet finds less justification in his original sin. This is intriguing, and I think it parallels the Genesis account of partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ripley’s eyes are opened to a new moral dimension, and he can never go back to his age of innocence.

    Comparison with the Matt Damon movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley:
    In the case of the Ripley novel there are some notable departures in the character development of Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf that make the movie perhaps a bit more appealing. For one thing, Highsmith’s Dickie character is much more static in the novel, while in the movie they deliberately sought out Jude Law to make the Dickie character alive and dynamic. Even the main character, Ripley, is a bit more complex in the movie. He is battling insecurity on many levels and additionally they introduce a homosexual element, while in the novel Ripley is seen as somewhat asexual – at least in the first novel (The Talented Mr. Ripley). In this sense Matt Damon may have created a Ripley who is even more multi-layered than Highsmith. The result of the differences in character development is that the interaction between Dickie and Ripley is more central in the movie and a more focal point of intrigue. The novel, on the other hand, is more focussed on Ripley’s inner world and his ability to navigate through two murders.

    For the ultimate Ripley experience I recommend both the books and the move. For me the Ripley from the novel and the Ripley from the movie kind of morph and mesh together to form a character of interest and intrigue. Which Ripley is the real Ripley?!!? Let your own imagination decide.

    As you can see my assessment differs in substantial ways from John’s, particularly on whether or not Ripley is a relatable character. My impression (prior to reading John’s review) was to say that Ripley was very relatable. Not necessarily because one could relate to committing murder, but because Ripley is so intellectually and logically efficient in his reasoning process. All murders have purpose. Ripley is not amoral, he actually despises murder. But Ripley is insightful and knows when a murder must occur. This is true in all cases, except perhaps the original sin, the murder of Dickie, which is motivated purely by self-interest.

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    Comment by Erdman — 1 August 2007 @ 10:17 am

  2. Thanks for previewing your post here, Jonathan. I’m likely to be offline for at least a day or two, so I’ll remain defenseless against whatever develops here. Briefly I offer this:

    “I would sum up Ripley by saying that he is an intelligent, efficient and inward character who, despite his violent crimes, is still very relatable in a sinister way.”

    Again, I don’t regard Ripley as inward at all. Whatever inner character he possesses is projected onto him by the reader. In a way that’s true of most novels that “show, don’t tell” about their characters — the author relies on the reader to build an image of the character from outward evidence. This is also pretty much what we have to do in real life, since we have no privileged access to the inner realms of anyone’s psyche. I agree that he’s not creepy — just incredibly shallow, and of course dangerous.

    “The later Ripley is more capable of murder, yet finds less justification in his original sin.”

    I think that’s true, in part because Tom Ripley is already beginning to occupy the persona of Dickie. So killing Dickie is kind of like killing himself. The other victims are just nuisances.

    “I think it parallels the Genesis account of partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Ripley’s eyes are opened to a new moral dimension, and he can never go back to his age of innocence.”

    So you think Tom was an innocent before all this began? More projection, in my opinion. I think he was amoral — indifferent to good and evil — and remains so throughout. His only concern is with being caught. He despises murder you say — would you say it’s because he believes it to be wrong on moral grounds, or because he’s a little squeamish and fussy and doesn’t want to get his hands dirty?

    “Matt Damon may have created a Ripley who is even more multi-layered than Highsmith.”

    I agree, and that’s a mistake in my opinion.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 August 2007 @ 10:36 am

  3. Oh and by the way I did not turn your emails into a post. I deliberately let you speak for yourself. I did, however, steal your topic — kind of like taking over your virtual persona.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 1 August 2007 @ 10:41 am

  4. Here is a link to my amazon reviews, where I reviewed both the movie and book:
    Erdman’s reviews

    Class warfare: In both movie/book Ripley despises his meager existence and longs for something more/better. He’s not merely a man needing identity, but a man stealing an identity in order to transport himself into a world of privilege and beauty that he is longing to live within.

    The question as I see it is this: why does Ripley steal identity?

    On your suggestion Ripley steals identity because he has none of his own:
    He has no personality of his own; his motivations are nearly inhuman; he’s on the outside of normal humanity looking in. All he can do is imitate, to turn himself into a simulacrum of a real human being. When you look for depth of character you find none at all.

    However, let’s walk through a few words from Highsmith (from pages 99-100 in my copy). Dickie and Tom are on their last trip together and we hear Tom’s thoughts:

    Damn him anyway, Tom thought. Did he have to act so damned aloof and superior all the time?…Dickie said nothing on the train. Under a pretense of being sleepy, he folded his arms and closed his eyes. Tom sat opposite him, staring at his bony, arrogant, handsome face…A crazy emotion of hate, of affection, of impatience and frustration was swelling in him, hampering his breathing. He wanted to kill Dickie. .It was not hte first time he had thought of it. Before, once or twice or three times, it has been an impulse cause by anger or disappointment, an impulse that vanished immediately and left him with a feeling of shame. Now he thought about it for an entire minute, two minutes, because he was leaving Dickie anyway, and what was there to be ashamed of any more? He had failed with Dickie, in every way. He hated Dickie, because, however he looked at what had happened, his failing had not been his own fault, not due to anything he had done, but due to Dickie’s inhuman stubbornness. And his blatant rudeness! He had offered Dickie friendship, companionship, and respect, everything he had to offer, and Dickie had replied with ingratitude and now hostility. Dickie was just shoving him out in the cold….

    The first impulse is to see that this is a crime of passion. As the narrative continues Tom turns from rage and rejection to plotting and planning the murder. Tom’s razor sharp intelligence begins to project the events of the next few days and how he will take over Dickie’s life.

    But notice also that Dickie is “inhuman” in certain respects. Dickie didn’t get his life right. He didn’t to things the way they should have been done, at least not as far as Ripley is concerned.

    I see a similar thing come through in the movie: Ripley thinks he can live Dickie’s life better than Dickie, who is fickle and unappreciative of the aesthetic and social opportunities available. In the movie Tom is actually more ethical and morally alert than Dickie – he despises Dickie’s affairs. When Tom takes over Dickie’s life Tom appreciates the opportunity Dickie has for beauty and social appreciation by enjoying the culture of Rome and having a more sophisticated girl, Meredith Logue. Minghella says, “He lives the way that Dickie should have lived.”

    Tom is bored being Tom, but only because he does not have access to the life of privilege that he did not have the opportunity to be born into.

    The actors in the movie all rattle some tripe about how this movie is about “being happy with who you are.” But this is pure PR – and pure BS. Tom is, in his own mind, a member of the elite who can appreciate the aesthetic life of leisure. The movie is a person who is achieving self actualization in the sense of taking the place in the world that they knew they were destined for. For Tom there is almost a growing sense of calling towards a more beautiful world. What gives the book/movie its intrigue, of course, is the fact that Tom steals and murders to get what he wants. So there is still a twisted and wrapped pathology at work.

    In the movie Tom works at an opera house (or some similar theatre). He has to peak through the curtains in the back to see the show and must play the piano in the dark after everyone has left. Later, after he has killed Dickie, he is at the opera with Ms. Logue – a member of the elite, and he is sitting in a place of privilege. Of this scene Minghella says, “Finally he gets the world he’s wanted.” Tom is no longer on the outside looking in.

    I thought that the homosexual/romantic element of the movie kind of overshadowed the personal identity crisis in the novel. In the movie it isn’t until after he kills Dickie that the idea of taking over Dickie’s life comes to him. In the book the ability to live off of Dickie’s good fortune is part of the calculation. Despite this there is still a parallel: In both the book and the movie Tom has been scorned by Dickie. In the movie it is more powerful b/c Tom is something of a lover scorned, and the murder is not a calculation but almost something defensive. Minghella says that if Tom had had another object (other than an ore) available to throw and Dickie he would have thrown it. But he uses the only thing available and hits Dickie, shock registering on Tom’s face. Dickie is enraged and a struggle ensues at which point Tom has to eliminate Dickie.

    At the risk of posting a comment rivaling that of Hesiak I cite one more thought.

    Ktistmatics:
    And then Ripley has this pathological inability to believe that he’ll get caught, repeatedly compounding his ruthless disregard for the human condition assuming that nobody else is really going to care much what happens to their dead friends and family members. That Highsmith could actually make the reader sort of root for Ripley I found kind of remarkable. It’s either a tribute to us “real” humans, who can project humanity onto a rock, or an acknowledgment that we aren’t as deep as we think we are. Or maybe it’s Highsmith’s unique talent.

    Yes, it is interesting that we can root for Ripley. I think there is something in us that automatically cheers for the protagonist. It’s like something encoded in our DNA that makes hate the villain and hope for the hero, no matter how evil he may be. There is almost this sense in which evil, in the pen of the author, can become the good, while good can become the evil.

    Finally, I question whether Ripley believes he will never be caught. There are many moments of anxiety for Ripley in the book when he panics and believes the worst. At the conclusion of the books he imagines that the officers waiting at the docks as his boat sails into Athens are waiting to arrest him. There are other points at which he has something like a panic attack and is gripped with fear that he will be discovered. Most of the time he is cool and calculating, which comes through in the movie more than in the book, but there are times of break down.

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    Comment by Erdman — 4 August 2007 @ 8:47 pm

  5. i think minghella’s version of the story is contemptible because it forces us to adopt / identify with the rich burgeoisie’s weltanschauung and ”sense of decency” – ripley in this film is appalling because he is gay, envious of the burgeoisie’s riches and unafraid to make a nietzschean judgement ”beyond good and evil”. this codes the film unmistakably in the yuppie angst sub-genre. not my cup of tea!

    by contrast, liliana cavani’s brilliant ”ripley’s game” (with john malkovich) comes much closer to the novel in voiding ripley of all subjectivity, thwarting identification with the protagonists by distancing, finally presenting a morally indifferent universe in which even sacrifice has only a dubious ”meaning” …

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    Comment by parodycenter — 5 August 2007 @ 1:35 am

  6. minghella also makes the typical hollywood distortion whereby ripley’s homosexuality is equated with his narcissism – and ripley is neither gay nor just narcissistic.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 5 August 2007 @ 1:37 am

  7. Damn him anyway, Tom thought. Did he have to act so damned aloof and superior all the time?

    Tom resents the fact that Dickie rejects his overtures. Are we to believe that Tom was offering Dickie human friendship rather than trying to maneuver his way into the good graces of a guy he envies? Clearly you see more humanity in Tom than I do. It is possible that Tom can see through Dickie, that Dickie is really a poseur rather than a genuinely nice guy. It might be true that Dickie is “inhuman” — just a rich brat who from earliest childhood mastered all the social skills of his class instead of becoming truly human. That’s an interesting hypothesis. But I think Tom can see nothing other than shallow pretense and self-serving motivations in anyone. Again, maybe he’s right, maybe none of us has the depth of character we believe about ourselves. Maybe we’re all inhuman.

    From your quotes it sounds like Minghella consciously goes about humanizing Tom: he’s a sensitive artistic type who just didn’t happen to inherit the privilege necessary for him to fulfill his true destiny. Then what we get is a story of the outcast — the poor, the gay — violently usurping the place of the rich and the straight. But the outcast can’t live up to the position to which he aspires. It’s as though the high life either brings Tom to moral corruption or exposes the low character he had all along. We’re left to conclude that maybe the rich deserve to be the keepers of high culture because they can handle the temptations it offers, temptations the poor are too weak (too gay?) to resist. “The actors in the movie all rattle some tripe about how this movie is about “being happy with who you are,”” you say. That’s the moral of the movie as I see it too — but not of the book.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 August 2007 @ 5:09 pm

  8. “this codes the film unmistakably in the yuppie angst sub-genre. not my cup of tea!”

    I can’t recall whether cinematic Tom’s homoerotic yearnings made him more or less contemptible. His unacknowledged gayness bestowed humanity on him, but it also gets lumped in with his aestheticized narcissistic violence — he’s humanism corrupted, a representative of all that’s going wrong in our society. That we identify with Tom probably is meant as a warning to the viewer: recognize the lure that would invert all our values in the name of self-actualization. So maybe it’s issued as an anti-yuppie screed, which is maybe what you had in mind.

    I haven’t seen “Ripley’s Game,” but from your description it sounds more true to Highsmith’s Ripley — or at least to my reading of the book. Incidentally, I’ve been reading old issues of the New Yorker in our apartment here in Vail, and there’s an essay by the fiction writer Jonathan Lethem, who wrote the pretty cool novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” about a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome. He cites as his writing heroes Graham Greene, Philip Dick, and Patricia Highsmith. Greene is certainly in my top five, and Dick is way up there as a guy who pushes a pulp genre really hard and with personal conviction.

    I read Ripley when I was writing my first novel. I created a character that I wanted to be almost a complete cipher, offering nothing other than surface clues about her personality. I thought Highsmith wrote the Ripley character like that: virtually all his humanity must be projected onto him by the reader. Maybe I saw what I was looking for.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 5 August 2007 @ 5:32 pm

  9. Tom resents the fact that Dickie rejects his overtures. Are we to believe that Tom was offering Dickie human friendship rather than trying to maneuver his way into the good graces of a guy he envies?

    Do we have to choose? Or is Tom reflect all of us: A cacophony of desires in competition?

    Or, perhaps the term “cacophony” may be overstating the case, but I recall only a few months back when this blog explored competing desires. In the novel Tom comes to loath his New York friends. They are detestable to him. He desires more sophistication and beauty. At first Dickie seems to represent both: brotherhood with the upper class and a life of leisure and aesthetic pursuit. But when Dickie turns on him then both the brotherhood and the lifestyle are in danger. That’s when Tom’s mind begins to create scenarios of murder and identity theft.

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    Comment by Erdman — 5 August 2007 @ 6:04 pm

  10. But I think Tom can see nothing other than shallow pretense and self-serving motivations in anyone.

    I do recall a few characters whom Tom admires. Amid the clatter and clamor of Tom’s New York friends who have come to his boat to see him off there is one friend that Tom seeks out for a bit of calm…Also, in Ripley Underground Tom comes to admire the painter Bernard for his character and artistic devotion….In the third novel, Ripley’s Game, Tom admires the character of Jonathan – a dying father/husband whom Tom initially manipulates into becoming a hitman, and then later comes to his aid…

    In Ripley’s Game there is a tie-in with the mafia, and I can’t help but notice the moral comparison. The mafia can kill ruthlessly and yet follow a moral code. In fact, in their romanticized version (i.e. The Godfather) their moral compass is even more accurate than the authorities that they usurp. Tom strikes me as a mafioso-type: He determines his own codes. I do not see him as an amoral character, rather, I believe Highsmith takes us on a journey through the life of someone who, despite his humble beginnings, still believes he is one of the elite. A man of superior judgment in all areas.

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    Comment by Erdman — 5 August 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  11. Parody Center:
    i think minghella’s version of the story is contemptible because it forces us to adopt/identify with the rich burgeoisie’s weltanschauung and “sense of decency” – ripley in this film is appalling because he is gay, envious of the burgeoisie’s riches and unafraid to make a nietzschean judgement ”beyond good and evil”. this codes the film unmistakably in the yuppie angst sub-genre. not my cup of tea!

    The purpose statement on your blog states: Challenging the status quo of global culture.

    Question: Might we not also classify the above mission statement as “yuppie angst sub-genre”? After all, what other group would formally attempt to challenge the status quo of culture on a global scale than a yuppie angst sub-culture?

    Also, might we not view Ripley as the character who, in his leap beyond good/evil, actually restores taste to a tasteless class? Can’t we view Ripley as out-burgeoising the burgeois?

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    Comment by Erdman — 5 August 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  12. After all, what other group would formally attempt to challenge the status quo of culture on a global scale than a yuppie angst sub-culture?

    I don’t understand this statement, please clarify.

    Also, might we not view Ripley as the character who, in his leap beyond good/evil, actually restores taste to a tasteless class? Can’t we view Ripley as out-burgeoising the burgeois?

    Whichever way you cut it, the burgeoisie calls the shots. It is their morals that OMIGOD Ripley challenges by his various transgressions. But Ripley is beyond transgression, he is on another plane.

    His unacknowledged gayness bestowed humanity on him, but it also gets lumped in with his aestheticized narcissistic violence — he’s humanism corrupted, a representative of all that’s going wrong in our society.

    This warning against corruption (also in that classical Hitchcockian treatment of the viewer as voyeur, who gets punished Psycho-style for indulging in transgression) is the yuppie burgeois part, what makes it a failed interpretation of Highsmith for my money. Ripley’s Game reminds me a lot of Krzystoff Kieslowski’s SHORT FILM ABOUT KILLING, in that its logic is affective-Deleuzian, not based on identification at all. In that film Ripley is much more the modern-day Raskolnikov of the crime genre; the power of the story is precisely in the avoidance of adopting any single ethical system, including the kind of mainstream-straight-burgeois Christian values of the Minghella version. The main thought, which Malkovich expresses in one scene, is that society is organized POSITIVELY on an absence of morals, i.e. amorality is immanent to it, its organizing principle, and it’s impossible to either root for Ripley, or not, in this context.

    I do love Highsmith, especially her novel My Sweet Sickness (about obsession).

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    Comment by parodycenter — 6 August 2007 @ 12:22 pm

  13. ktismatics i just opened a theology debate post with anthony paul smith, but hesiak and anyone else is also invited to join where we might pick up on the old thread on orthodoxy

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    Comment by parodycenter — 6 August 2007 @ 2:58 pm

  14. “A cacophony of desires in competition?”

    Of course Ripley is a fictional character, and it’s not always possible to discern the conscious and unconscious desires that go into creating a character. Still, the specific passages you site do lend themselves to alternative interpretations. We try to assemble a unified self out of the pieces offered on the page, or screen, or in life. You and Minghella are prepared to assemble a character for Ripley that’s understandable, damnable, and forgivable in humanistic, and also in Christian, terms. You give him a more Nietzschean superman interpretation, where his heightened aesthetic sensibilities go along with a will to re-create himself as a work of art, modeled after the effete upper class but better, stronger, more fully realized than Dickie. Then his increased ruthlessness represents his coming into his will to power. Interesting. I feel motivated to reread the book, and to see the Malkovich movie.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2007 @ 3:43 pm

  15. “society is organized POSITIVELY on an absence of morals, i.e. amorality is immanent to it, its organizing principle.”

    That’s harder for me to grasp. To deny transcendent validity to any moral system is one thing, to say that societal organization is amoral seems contrary to what I understand as organization’s function in humanity. Is it simply an acknowledgment that those who sit atop the hierarchy use this position exploitively?

    I haven’t read My Sweet Sickness, but I did like Strangers on a Train. And I thought Hitchcock captured the killer’s character very well, which I think was more a case of perversion than psychosis. Still, Hitchcock kept him completely other, without allowing the possibility of the viewer identifying with him. And I don’t remember who played the character, but he was sensation. That last scene on the merry-go-round wasn’t in the book I don’t believe — pure Hitchcock.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2007 @ 3:54 pm

  16. Is it simply an acknowledgment that those who sit atop the hierarchy use this position exploitively?

    By a-moral I did not mean immoral, I meant without any moral system. The most thrilling parts of the film, as in the novels, are those when Ripley demonstrates that the people he kills with such seemingly immoral indifference, are all engaged in some form of debauchery and their passing from the world makes absolutely no difference. In Ripley’s Game Ripley teaches this younger guy how to kill basically, and the younger guy is having a guilty conscience, and ultimately sacrifises himself Christian-style to save Ripley’s life, but simultaneously you are shown that he discovered a surgically precise and cold-blooded killer instinct in himself which opens the possibility that his suicide is no altruism, but his inability to cope with his own self-realization that he had found his true calling in the killing spree.

    I like what k-punk and shaviro said respectively, I quote the links here:

    http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=297

    http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/008098.html

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    Comment by parodycenter — 6 August 2007 @ 4:44 pm

  17. “the people he kills with such seemingly immoral indifference, are all engaged in some form of debauchery and their passing from the world makes absolutely no difference.”

    Certainly the moral/legal order persists throughout the Ripley book: there are laws, police, private investigators, cover-ups, expressions of moral outrage by the more bourgeois personalities in the story. The argument for Highsmith revealing an amoral social order would have to pivot on the idea that Tom Ripley, rather than being a complete outsider to the system, is actually someone who fits perfectly into the system. He would be like one of the pod people in fifties’ science fiction who don’t conquer the world but infiltrate it, secretly taking over the earthlings bodies. By implication it’ll soon become impossible to distinguish the soulless aliens from the real people. By implication it’s already happened and the world is already populated by soulless bodies. The zombie movies offer the same premise: those who kill the zombies are just as ruthless and heartless as the zombies; they’re just smarter and quicker.

    I think a similar case can be made about Tom Ripley: that he personifies the soullessness of the upper class. Tom sees Dickie as a shallow mediocrity; Tom thinks he can play Dickie better than Dickie himself not because he’s deeper than Dickie but because he’s higher — more refined tastes, greater ability to savor luxury, more instinctively upper crust. Then the reader should regard Tom not as an interloper but as an exemplar of a soulless and amoral upper class, a class populated by zombies and inhuman pod-people. The morality of the social order turns into something like the parameters of a video game: a test of skill, something to be outmaneuvered through finesse and quick reflexes.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2007 @ 7:38 pm

  18. The argument for Highsmith revealing an amoral social order would have to pivot on the idea that Tom Ripley, rather than being a complete outsider to the system, is actually someone who fits perfectly into the system.

    But I don’t think she is ”revealing” the amoral social order, as in putting it on display for judgement. The particular effect of her writing for me comes from her taking it as a given, as if it were immanent to society. And it’s not that the victim is just as ruthless as the killer, but that they are both as ruthless as they are tragic. I am talking about a rejection of any binary system – good is impossible to distinguish from evil. You can and you cannot identify with Ripley, he is simultaneously repulsive and endlessly fascinating. I think your comparison with the zombie is spot-on, because Ripley appears like the death drive, it is like staring at the zombie just before he gobbles you up and being unable to avert your gaze. The disturbing thought (but not only negatively, as in frightening, also obsessive-compulsive) is that there is no universal value system against which to measure Ripley’s crimes. The presence of law you mention is distinctive precisely because it’s completely formal – it’s there, but it means and effects exactly nothing. This ambiguity (Spinozian, perhaps?) could only have been captured by John Malkovich’s performance, never by a bland actor like Matt Damon. And I think the Doppelganger theme is treated differently than in ”Strangers on a train”; Ripley’s assistant is more like a clone, than Ripley’s Unconscious. There is a suggestion of this murderous Affect that spreads like a contagion rather than repressed desire being unleashed through the Doppelganger.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 6 August 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  19. I remember the one persistent detective who tracks Tom from Rome to his Venetian villa. He is cleverer and more persistent than Tom, I think, and also one gets the sense that he upholds the old standards of humane decency. I can’t recall how Tom evades capture, but he does. This detective reflects the nostalgia for the passing of classical virtues you see in Fellini movies. To Americans Europe simultaneously conveys the past glories of Western civilization and the blase pessimism into which this sacred past is now mired. Venice and Rome in particular play to this sense of sorrow for lost virtue, the stately beauty of these ancient centers of civilization corrupted by criminals and dilettantes for at least a couple hundred years now — almost as if there never had been a classic age, as if classical virtues are by definition always already dead. Still, these melancholy mournings of a better age do grace Highsmith’s stage, making her more of a modernist than, say, Philip Dick.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 6 August 2007 @ 10:22 pm

  20. Still, these melancholy mournings of a better age do grace Highsmith’s stage, making her more of a modernist than, say, Philip Dick.

    It´s been a while since I read the books, you could be right, but I distinctly remember they left me with this sort of obsessive tone, that was what was so alluring about them, a sense of inevitability, almost fatalistic sweep, affectless but not in an offputting way, i simultaneously wanted to and feared being pulled into that world, and I went back to it compulsively. this is especially true of this sweet sickness, a stunning novel if you ask me. anthony paul smith by the way seems to prefer being buggered more, to discussing the great schism, but don´t let that stop you from discussing the issue because i am really interested in it. the thesis i want to research is what this priest made me think about: he said that because the catholic line accepted a belief in the pope as the mediator, god got entangled in this master*slave dynamic where god would be the Big Other i.e. what one invests in the figure of papal or priestly authority. from this perspective, as i observed before, the orthodox god would be more spinozian, or deleuzian, in that he is directly incarnated in the body of christ and it is this incarnation, without mediation, that matters the most. but these are just very scattered thoughts and i do need the professional opinion of theologians to get anywhere with this.

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    Comment by parodycenter — 7 August 2007 @ 9:37 am

  21. Please see my review of the movie at my blog for an interpretation from someone who has actually read the book (not to mention viewed the film about a million times)!
    The Metaphorical Ripley

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    Comment by Erdman — 16 August 2007 @ 1:46 pm


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