Patty Hearst

(Paul Schrader, USA, 1988)


The Cabinet of Patty Hearst


There are two distinct ways of understanding the emotional charge of obsession in cinema – two ways virtually polarised into a positive and negative, or light and dark, opposition. (1) The first way is one that basically derives from Romanticism and all its heirs (including the jolly half of Surrealism). Here, obsession in film is grasped for its positive, powerful, even revolutionary potential: obsession as the figure for any strong, liberating emotion, be it for a person, a thing, or a political cause. Romanticism as an ethos is about soul, embrace, contact, empathy. Obsessive love in the Romantic vein would be about getting outside of yourself and moving toward an Other – a perpetually generative and unstoppable “outward turn” as distinct from the spiralling, crippling inward turn that obsession (in life as in fiction) so often takes, as in the scenario of possessive jealousy.


Romantic art – which finds its 20th century apotheosis in Hollywood cinema’s musicals and melodramas – believes in, and tries to awaken and direct, reserves of soul-energy, of yearning and dreaming, within each viewer. Anticipating Sigmund Freud, Romanticism conjured human beings as driven – filled with natural drives toward pleasure, ecstasy, happiness. Romanticism demands that your heart go out to it, and that your mind grasp – in the form of an overwhelming epiphany – the longing and torment of others’ minds. But Romantic art is not all fairy-tale positivity; it is often suffused with a keen awareness of the experience of pain, of the obstacles that the social world (via its means of repression) puts in the way of fulfilment. It knows – sometimes only half-knows – that the life-drive can so easily be twisted into a death-drive.


It is hard to put a word to the opposite of Romanticism, but let’s suggest Nihilism, and evoke (for example) the very popular terrain of cynical, black comedy. As a negation of Romanticism, this dark viewpoint believes that most of the dreams of soul or love contact – and their promises of liberation – are, at best, amusing diversions and, at worst, horrible shams. In place of an unbridled pleasure principle, it evokes the sad and murky rigours of a reality-principle which is our final, our inescapable lot.


But then, Nihilism is not necessarily a sad or even melancholic attitude. It achieves its own fierce clarity, and generates its own energies. Not the florid, Other-seeking energies of Romanticism, but something often just as intense: the sensations that traverse the disconnected, atomised, alienated ego locked in on itself. Some versions of the existentialist dream can be evoked here: a standpoint, a way of being in the world that takes as given the general futility of life and the emptiness of one-to-one or individual-to-society relations, and moves through the mess from there – alienated but free. Because freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose! Obsession, here, would correspond to the whirring and buzzing of internal physiological circuitry, the fleeting brushes with the external world, the weightless sophistry of idle speculation.


Personally, I incline easily toward the Romantic attitude, but I was urged toward a fuller understanding of its opposite number by Paul Schrader’s extraordinary Patty Hearst, a film virtually ignored on its initial release by audiences and reviewers alike. I suspect that this was a hard product to sell, and out of its time (before or after, it’s hard to say): corrosively, relentlessly black, its energies happen out on an orbit terrifyingly far away from normal comic-dramatic viewing modes and expectations. J. Hoberman called it a “flop”, but goes on, tellingly, to note that Hearst’s “tale inspires a certain lysergic queasiness, a horror vacui – there’s a haunting feeling of emptiness”. (2)


In fact, Patty Hearst is an extreme example of mainstream experimentalism, and its mood of emptiness is no accident. A totally expressionist film in the grand style, it contains hardly a single typical or classical shot – few redundancies or repetitions on any level. Although it bears some kinship with the shock-tabloid cinema of Samuel Fuller, the most extreme 1950s B-film work of Phil Karlson or Joseph H. Lewis, and the energetic excesses of Brian De Palma, it is never simply hyper-styled fireworks for the sake of it. As in Expressionism, all the stylistic distortions spring from the progressive deformations of the main character’s point of view.


There’s the rub. What makes Patty Hearst such a dark, unsettling film is that it asks you to identify with someone who is, in every respect, totally null and void – a point blank. We have no idea why Patty (Natasha Richardson) does anything, and neither does she. Her subjectivity is not brimming with drives and dreams, but is completely empty from the word go. The whole movement of the story, in showing you the brutal ways in which her character and psyche are made over by her Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) captors, is to eventually suggest that it never was, and never will be, any different.


The film is a Lacanian nightmare: the “I” or ego of Patty Hearst is never anything more than a passing illusion courtesy of someone else. The recurring melodramatic imagery (Patty as a blindfolded child; being buried alive) stresses that, everywhere, at all times, she is blinded, pulverised, atomised. About the first 20 minutes take her point-of-view within a locked, darkened cabinet – a suitably Gothic metaphor for the blank self. She is never anything but a pawn, or a projection, in everybody else’s games – whether being a dutiful daughter, acting as a fervent revolutionary terrorist collaborator, or being subjected to a trial-by-media. (A detail in the end credit roll notes the publication of a book titled My Search for Patty Hearst by someone she had never spoken to!) As a female pawn at the hands of men, Patty’s subjection is particularly unpleasant: she refers to herself with startling clarity at one point as a “tight sperm receptacle”.


In a fictional world where everything equals out and thus cancels out in this way, no values or beliefs are seen as inherently more worthy than any others. The black humour of the film springs from Schrader’s vision that everyone’s dreams are just mad, psychotic projections: the revolutionary fervour of terrorism is rendered (and this is doubtless an index of Schrader’s political conservatism) as, in Hoberman’s description, “a grotesque acid trip”. (3) The SLA (incarnated by an ensemble including William Forsythe, Frances Fisher and Ving Rhames) are an unlovely bunch, running on WASP guilt and horrendously double-bound sexual freedoms – spurred into action by fanatical visions and recanting, in a moment, their brotherly/sisterly empathies with the oppressed (those lousy, thieving Chicanos!). The psychic rule of all this projection becomes clear: if you can’t somehow dominate someone else’s consciousness, you will simply become the next colonised, duped subject.


In many ways, and on many levels, Patty Hearst is a furiously obsessive exploration of the texture of alienation, of emptiness in and between people – where the only operative drive is to survive, to maintain a momentum, to keep one’s beleaguered organism at some kind of equilibrium. Patty will become anyone or anything just to stay alive – and as far as we can tell, she is sincere about every one of her roles. Here the theme of the “presentation of self in everyday life”, insistent in recent cinema and prefigured particularly by Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), spins into its blackest hole. Patty Hearst forms a group with other, contemporaneous films that similarly explore (with no particularly melancholic complaint about a generalised state of alienation) a nihilistic texture: Philip Brophy’s Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988), Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1988) and Luc Moullet’s mindboggling The Comedy of Work (1987).


In place of Schrader’s bold, crazy, melodramatic structure, these films plunder minimalist, repetitive, entropic forms: all are constructed out of the movement of tiny, mechanical, banal, ritual gestures that form themselves into circuits or systems. These systems run only in order to run down – to exhaust themselves in some final, deathly spurt (Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts [1985] is the supreme embodiment of this ideal). In all these films, characters or people are little more than the sum of actions performed or undertaken to get through a particularly blank and tedious everyday reality. Not much stirs within, apart from a vague desire to move around the available atomised particles of nothingness.


Patty Hearst sets up an expectation that it will be the story of a woman who moves from debutante innocence and a state of exploitation to a condition of self-knowledge. In a way, this does happen, but the outcome is hardly heroic or morally-socially uplifting. Like Mary Lambert’s unfairly trashed Siesta (1987), Schrader’s film eventually creates a heroine who is not a coherent self or centred subject, but a certain flash of energy, of feeling. For Lambert, what persists is the intensity of love and hurt. For Schrader and his writer Nicholas Kazan (who already massacred the patriarchal family in At Close Range [1986]), what lasts is rage. What Patty is privileged to learn – what others like her have never had the opportunity to learn – is that she’s a nobody like everybody, alienated and abused. That is what her voyage into the unknown teaches her.


It is also her crime that she came to know it, that she lived to tell the tale. The pivotal moment in Patty’s voyage of discovery is when she sees on TV the evidence that her rescuers – the white knights of the patriarchal state – where planning to kill her along with the SLA, rather than save her. She learns then that all the games and gambits of her Others have only that one possible outcome: the extinction of the one being played.


In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which Schrader scripted for Scorsese, Willem Dafoe as Jesus ends by rendering on the cross, the famous Biblical line: “It is accomplished”. The line means several things – not least of all it is a testament by Scorsese to himself, to what he had to go through to get the film made. More profoundly, critics have interpreted the line to be a reflection on the way the movie settles abruptly on closure, having hitherto explored a more open-ended, veritably anti-Oedipal wandering. But Oedipus is indeed where Scorsese’s film stops: with the cry of a son to a father that, finally, he will accept his pre-given, pre-scripted role in the scheme of things, the Book of History.


I much prefer what Patty Hearst says to her ghostly, off-screen patriarch, Randolph A. Hearst (Ermal Williamson): “Pardon my French, Dad, but fuck ‘em. Fuck ‘em all”. It is a brave American movie these days that can end on a line like that.


MORE Schrader: Affliction, Auto Focus, Blue Collar, The Comfort of Strangers, Light of Day, Touch




1. Personal note: I wrote this review after (and partly because of) a disconcerting experience. In October 1988 (I had recently turned 29), I spoke on a panel at the State Film Centre in Melbourne devoted to “Romantic Agony”, and in particular romantic obsession – this was the culminating event of (as I recall) a short season of screenings, probably co-organised by a local film-culture association. On the panel, I took the positive, affirmative, surrealist extreme – while my fellow panellist Philip Brophy took the nihilistic path. To my shock, it came out loudly in the discussion time that almost everyone in the packed audience – including several who were my good friends at the time – voted for the “dark side”, and were rudely dismissive of my romantic positivity! Hence the long and “relativistic” prefatory reflection here (and in several other texts of mine in this period). It took me a while to recover my innate sense of romanticism after that public blow! For the record, and to give the flavour, my little talk of October ’88 climaxed (according to my preserved notes) with this quotation from Françoise Audé (1938-2005), a pioneering feminist critic associated with Positif magazine (I didn’t keep a bibliographic notation, and can no longer vouch for the accuracy of its translation!):

I love love – the love of couples, love in melodrama, love for a cause. I go to the cinema for emotion. And this emotional Utopianism is part of a politics – a soul politics. A yearning that busts the chains of repression. A magnificent obsession that can also be a permanent revolution. back

2. J. Hoberman, “American Myths”, Artforum (December 1988). back

3. Ibid. back

© Adrian Martin February 1989

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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