|The tagline, "A higher class of hero," just beneath the "UNCLE," tells us what we need to know about the yellow background: it's about class. Needless to say, this post contains spoilers, so if you don't want to know what happens, please, stop reading now. Yellow, as we know, denotes royalty because it's the color of gold and only royalty can afford gold (in the old days when symbols were being created so we could unconsciously communicate as a civilization), so when someone is being "enthroned" or set as an example, yellow is an excellent color, being the color of kings. Because it is the color of kings, it can also denote cowardice because a king exists to lead his people bravely, and if a king doesn't, the very sign of his royalty (in this case, yellow for gold no one else gets to have) also becomes the sign of his incompetence. With Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya (Armie Hammer), they earn the golden background because of their heroic act of agreeing to not kill each other and burn the "disc" (whatever that 1960s contraption thing is they stored data on) so neither country would have an unfair advantage over the other (and Solo returning Illya's father's watch plays a crucial, symbolic role in this scene that we will discuss below). The enormous amount of the background being yellow invokes the tradition of religious icons, such as the Theotokos of Vladimir, among many others. Why do this? In icons, the background were usually done in gold to relate to the viewer that the space (or area) the saint or religious figure was in within the icon was not a temporal or earthly space, rather, a space existing in eternity and perfection, which is why icons never have shadows in them. Likewise, we don't see shadows in the poster above, and there is no real temporal space or location in which we can place Solo and Illya. Between the tagline, "A higher class of hero," and the yellow/gold background acting to convey iconic status upon the two spies, we can deduce that they are, indeed, political "saints." Why would Guy Ritchie want to convey this to us and why do these characters deserve such an apotheosis? Because they both experience "conversion," and while we generally discuss conversion in the religious life, Illya and Solo experience it professionally and personally, making them Ritchie's secular saints. This is validated when Uncle Rudy has Solo in the electric chair and swings the light bulb over his head in a circle, making a "halo" effect: Rudy knows he is the sinner, and Solo the saint, however, being the cowardly socialist he is, Rudy doesn't want to be converted himself. Further, when Solo and Illya discuss what to do with Rudy, and Rudy's chair electrocutes him, starting a fire, it rather suggests the old "burning at the stake" of heretics and that was certainly done by the righteous to preserve freedom (the idea being that "witch hunts" happened during the McCarthy years in the US and those communist witches who were found should have been burned at the stake because of the threat they pose to civilization and freedom.) Now, the obvious question: it's called "the man" from uncle, not "the men" from uncle, so which "man" is being targeted as being THE ONE from UNCLE? Both of them. Look at how their bodies blend together, like Siamese twins: Illya's right leg becomes Solo's leg leg, and Solo having his left hand in his pocket is like self-binding because Illya is now his left hand. They make a good team because, while Illya knows when to shoot, Solo knows when NOT to shoot (you may recall a similar conversation in Skyfall between Bond and Q at the museum and knowing when to pull a trigger or not). Please note that both men are looking to their left; why? Because the threats and international dangers in the world always come from the (political) Left. Last, but certainly not least, is the typography of the word "U.N.C.L.E." Note that it's in both white and black, and it's curved, as if the word "uncle" covers up another word, or another document; if you don't know what "erasure" is as a literary or philosophical device, we will discuss it below because the film is full of it; for the moment, however, know that it's a means of displaying a double-meaning at the same time and that it alerts its audience to the need for (active) interpretation.|
Let's begin with the first scene.
|The great truth of communism: they don't have to build a wall to keep people out, they have to build a wall to keep people in, and it's over, through and under that people tried to escape socialism imposed on them by the Soviets (we get a brief glimpse of this in the introductory history lesson Ritchie provides the audience at the start of the film; consequently, there is a brief scene of some people running through the minefield and trying to get through the barbed wire; the sweater of one of the men gets caught on the wire and goes up over his head, momentarily blinding him and stopping him; why would Ritchie pick this moment to highlight the Berlin Wall? The sweater getting caught and blinding the man acts as a metaphor of people who had become dependent upon the government for providing them with all their material needs; the barbed wire, which is used to keep animals in pastures, is being used to keep humans in their "pastures" where their basic needs are provided--which is why socialist and communist societies are nicknamed "state farms"--and, in the moment that this man is dashing to freedom, he is suddenly blinded by the loss of assured material sustenance, whereas in the West, to where he's trying to escape, the capitalists assure freedom but with that freedom comes the freedom to fail and the freedom from being cared for like an animal. This man, escaping communism in this desperate moment, is just now realizing the choice he is making and the consequences, and Ritchie is showing us this to demonstrate that communism changes and alters our fundamental abilities to become self-sufficient and define what freedom is). No one tried to get into East Berlin because the healthcare was so good, or the service industry or the government benefits, people were risking their lives to escape these very hallmarks of socialist society because they were so bad. Solo's glance over his shoulder appears as a simple gesture, however, that's because we take for granted the free world in which we live. Crossing over into East Berlin means crossing over into a different world: the world of Big Brother. Sunglasses are one of the film's strong symbols (regrettably, because so freaking much is happening in the film at any given time, on any given narrative level, I couldn't keep track of all of it from a mere single viewing; trust me, they are important). Technically, we were sunglasses to shield our eyes from the sun, symbolically, however, they denote that a character is "enlightened" or is seeing more than we are being told explicitly (in this way, Ritchie employs sunglasses as yet another form of "erasure" in the film). The sunglasses, then, alert the viewer that Solo's eyes (under "erasure" by virtue of the dark glasses he wears) are functioning at a higher level, symbolically and metaphysically, than our own eyes. For example, consider the Coen Brothers' film Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? In the story, the three criminals encounter a blind man and George Clooney's character decodes the blind man has having the gift of greater sight or prophecy. We can somewhat relate the scene and interpretation to Solo above: the glasses appear to blind him, yet his sight is enhanced for picking up on what most of us would miss, such as Illya spying on him in the polished chrome at the checkpoint, and the police following him.|
The Berlin Wall.
How many young people, i.e., Millennials, even know what the Berlin Wall was? If anyone was going to go into the film with an "open mind," Ritchie makes sure he closes it to any possibility that socialism is in any way beneficial to humanity: between the opening sequences of Winston Churchill, juxtaposed against Hitler and the beginnings of the Atomic Era, to a later sequence of photographs in a scrapbook detailing the horrors of the concentration camp, anyone wanting to count Guy Ritchie as a "progressive" or "enlightened liberal" would have an impossible hurdle to overcome: his fluency in empirical facts. What's even more damaging to the Left's self-righteous position is that he demonstrates the historical truth of what happens to people who appear to love living under socialism/communism: witness the parents of Illya.
Please click on Stalin's home Wikipedia page to see the multitude of Purges and show trials Stalin had to get rid of those who opposed him, or had enough power to oppose him, and the millions of people he had put to death during his reign (historians disagree on the exact number, but they agree it was in the millions). What about Mrs. Kuryakin?
|Please click on these images to expand them. On the left is the first poster released for the Kathryn Bigelow film, Zero Dark Thirty; in the middle is my reproduction of Martin Heidegger's example of a letter in which a word was first put "under erasure," and on the right is an image for the upcoming film Batman vs. Superman, also starring Henry Cavill. Another Cavill film, The Cold Light Of Day, used erasure extensively to build up Will's transforming character (please see Without Baggage: Erasure & Identity In The Cold Light Of Day for more). Sous rature, or the practice of putting a word "under erasure" as it is translated, began with Continental philosopher Martin Heidegger in a letter to a friend: Heidegger could not think of a better word to describe what he wanted to communicate other than "being," but he also realized that "being" didn't begin to communicate everything he wanted to communicate; by drawing a line through the word (as is demonstrated in the middle image) the word was still legible, yet--in being crossed out--it also came to communicate to the reader that the word was unsuitable in its ordinary and even extra-ordinary meaning, but the author's intended meaning surpassed the horizon of language's ability to communicate the author's meaning. I hope that is as clear as mud. So, what's the big deal? As the two film posters indicate, erasure takes on a visual and aesthetic meaning in addition to a purely ideational meaning (the "two-side sign" model as developed by Saussaure). For example, the phrase, "Zero dark thirty" is a military term meaning half past midnight; how can we put that "under erasure" with what we have just learned about the practice? Half-past midnight was the time the SEAL team entered the Osama compound and took him out, so the start of that operation is meant to convey how long it took for justice to be carried out for the horrendous crime committed on 9/11 against America (this is just skimming the top of the film; please see Reflections, Masks, Noise, Erasure: Zero Dark Thirty for more). So, to summarize: to put something "under erasure" means the author/artist wants a deeper, greater meaning to be invoked for consideration by the reader/viewer. When, for example, we see documents in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. that have heavy black marker lines drawn through them, we know those are classified documents and "the good stuff" which is classified has been marked out, and only the boring, non-important information has been left legible. Ritchie is doing that throughout the entire film. Now, consider the poster for Superman on the right. We know the eyes are "the windows of the soul" because a house shelters a person's body the way a body shelters the person's soul; we see into a house by looking through a window, and we can see the presence of a person's soul by looking into their eyes. So, why is there a bat symbol over Superman's eyes? Jacques Derrida took Heidegger's idea of erasure and further applied it throughout his own early writings, going so far as to annotate Saussure that we can understand the signifiers of language only through the "difference" with other signifiers; in more clear terms, we understand "cat" if we understand "dog"; the differences between the way the words of written and pronounced aide us in determining in context when a feline with fur is intended as opposed to a canine with fur (for more on Erasure and other critical theories, please see the most excellent reference guide The Encyclopedia Of Contemporary Literary Theory). With the Superman poster above, the familiar bat symbol being used as an aesthetic marker of erasure means (at least on one level) that we will come to know Superman in his relationship of difference to Batman, and we will come to have a greater understanding of who Batman is because of his relationship in difference to Superman. Why is this important? Because difference is the exact opposite of socialism! Socialism wants to make everyone the same, but when differences are being celebrated and studied, the highlighting of those differences fundamentally undermines the premise of socialism that we are all the same or that we can be made to be all the same. In The Man From U.N.C.L.E., specifically with the references to the yellow poster at the very top of the post, as we learn about Solo's and Illya's similarities, and their increasing ability to function as a team, they are still defined by their difference to each other and from others (both agents and non-agents).|
|"Why don't you shoot him?" Gabby asks Solo, and Solo, watching Illya attempt to stop the car with his feet, and rip the trunk off the car replies, "Somehow it doesn't seem right." Again, we are in a position to choose between interpreting shadows or erasure, because of the black area across Solo's forehead and covering the top of his head. Solo is looking out the window, so we know he is "reflecting," because that is what mirrors and glass symbolize, and because he looks behind himself, we can say he "reflects on the/his past" even though the events are taking place in the present in the film. If we interpret the dark spot on his head to be a "shadow," then we might be lead to inerpret this as Solo having "dark thoughts" about Illya, which wouldn't be accurate because--even though Illya would kill Solo right now if he could--we know Solo doesn't kill Illya (or let him die) the numerous times Solo has that chance, so interpreting that dark area on Solo's head to be "thoughts of doing a dark deed, like murder" won't be consistent with the rest of the film. If, however, we apply erasure once again, then that means that Solo understands something more is happening, and as he looks out the rear window, and Illya tears the trunk off, Solo sees how he himself had behaved when he was arrested (because the trunk is where our baggage is kept, and Illya will expose Solo's baggage as being a criminal) and, again, is able to see Illya's skills the way the CIA saw Solo's because, being an American, Solo believes in the individual and singularity (remember, when they are escaping the satellite factory, and Solo has been thrown off the boat and he watches the boat chase in the truck, Solo sees Illya's boat blowing up in flames in the rear view mirror of the truck, like he watches Illya chasing them in this scene in the rear window of Gabby's car; this is another scene Ritchie wants to link, demonstrating that Solo could kill or let Illya die in both scenes, but he has a respect for him that won't allow him to do that even though he prefers to work alone and certainly not with a KGB agent). We can say, on another important level that Solo, at this point in the spying game, has gained respect for Illya's perseverance and recognizes Illya as an individual and that's why Solo doesn't shoot him: it doesn't seem right to shoot a human being because, as a Westerner, we value individuality and I would be going against my deepest held belief system if I did shoot him right now, Solo thinks to himself (yes, when he's in the safe house, talking to Sanders, he calls Illya an "it" and says, "it was barely human," but I think that was actually some grudging compliment to Illya's perseverance in keeping up with Solo's escape). Illya, as a Soviet, does not value individuals or individuality, and that's trained within them: remember the threat his Intelligence handler uses to get the computer disc from Solo towards the end? Illya's service isn't going to be remembered, just that Illya responds to threats of humiliation and that can be used against Illya to "program him" to do what the State wants. This leads us to an interesting conflict between Illya and Solo, one that doesn't clearly come out, but is there nonetheless: Mr. Kuryakin, Illya's father, was sent to Siberia for embezzling money (whether he actually did or not is not our concern at the moment) and that act of theft was harshly punished, but rewarded when Solo was caught stealing and given a job in the CIA. During the credits, when we see the paper work of each of the agents, if you look closely, when it details that Illya has "psychotic episodes," it also diagnoses an Oedipus complex. Given the link of theft between Mr. Kuryakin and Solo, Illya somewhat transfers his OC to Solo and that's what makes it so difficult for Illya to get along with Solo for so long and to trust him, but he does and then, when Illya has to go and kill Solo, but Solo gives Illya back his father's watch, that erases the transfer and then, to Illya, Solo is just Solo and not a stand-in for his absent father.|
So, let's talk about Uncle Rudy.
|This is an incredibly dramatic and disturbing scene and how it plays out, because it's meant to be. Again, Ritchie links this scene to earlier in the film when Solo approaches Illya's wrecked car and decides not to go and "finish him off" in case he didn't survive the wreck. Rudy starts out by giving Solo a "taste" of the torture that is to come, then prepares to finish him off; in-between, we get Uncle Rudy's autobiography; why? For at least two reasons. First, Ritchie wants to make it perfectly clear that people who become socialists/communists (because they are the same things, regardless of what they say about each other, and Ritchie verifies this when Sanders is listening to President John F Kennedy on the television in the safe house before talking to Solo) become communists, not from some higher ideal, not from a desire to help people or be enlightened, but because they themselves are mediocrities, just like Rudy, but they want to pass themselves off as being infinitely better than what they are; this turns them into someone who, in one way or another, will work to destroy humanity, individually and collectively, just like Rudy killing people. The second reason is to demonstrate that, either we can have The Man From UNCLE (Solo and Illya) or we can have Uncle Rudy (socialism and communism). On a different note, when Uncle Rudy shows Solo the page that will be reserved for a photograph in Rudy's archive of pain and torture, he promises Solo that it will be preserved in Kodachrome; ironically, Kodachrome, like the uranium enrichment process Dr. Teller devises in the film, suffered from a tedious process that eventually led to it being completely replaced. However, the point is, the brilliance of Kodachrome Uncle Rudy wants was invented by capitalists, not socialists, and George Eastman, who invented the Kodak company, was poor and just as average as Rudy was growing up, but Eastman wanted to do something positive for the world, unlike Rudy. Because of Eastman's invention of the Kodak film for cameraa, the world changed for everyone--not just the rich--and for the better; because of Rudy's torture inventions, the world changed for the worse, because then we could see how base and cruel humanity could treat other human beings. The "glitch" with the electric chair that figures so prominently in this scene and Uncle Rudy dying by one of his own inventions, is really like the Hand of God. Why does, when Solo and Illya see Rudy burning up in the chair, Solo says, "I left my jacket in there?" As Solo is pointing out, the good thing about the American government giving people like Solo himself a second chance--a part of himself is as bad as Rudy, because Solo was talking advantage of the World War to make a fortune in stolen art so there is a part of Solo just as bad as Rudy--but the bad thing about the American government is that sometimes it goes too far and someone even like Uncle Rudy could be given a second chance; Rudy being lit up and set on fire by his own invention, then, is like God intervening and deciding what will happen. We can't, however, overlook the terrible irony that happens in socialism/communism to those who support it: the very political machine they create often ends up being the instrument of their own destruction as well.|
|This isn't a great example, but it will at least allow me to point you in the direction of the circular painting within the gold, square frame behind Gabby as she dances in this scene. Later in the film, after Uncle Rudy has called her and she has agreed to meet him for lunch the next day, she calls Waverly's room and confirms the meeting, then the camera pulls back from her as she looks at herself in the mirror; what Gabby sees in herself is reflected by that painting in this image, a rendition of The Judgement of Paris, but sexually reversed. In the scene when Gabby calls Waverly, British Intelligence is introduced as a "player" in the game, and Gabby has to "judge" between the three: Illya as Athena, the goddess of war (we see Illya playing chess in the image above, and he's always wanting to beat people up, like Count Lippi and friends), Solo as Aphrodite (he is always concerned about fine clothing and food and is always having sex) and Hera, symbolized by Waverly, who first took the "orphaned" Gabby under his wing and gave her instructions the way a mother might. Rather than Aphrodite winning this contest, as in the famous myth, it's Hera, because Gabby follows through with betraying Illya and Solo upon Waverly's behest. This is a "marginalia" device we have seen Ritchie use before as in Sherlock Holmes when Sir Thomas is in his fabulous copper bathtub: there is a painting of Saint Thomas Aquinas hanging on the wall of the room, and this is Ritchie's silent, marginalized commentary that, had Sir Thomas lived more like the Saint, rather than participating in ritualistic orgies, he wouldn't have found himself in the anti-Baptism state his bastard son trapped him in. Likewise, in The Man From UNCLE, we can see Ritchie making important comments in the margins of the film (in this case, the "writing on the wall," which is, ironically, the title of the theme song for the new James Bond film, Spectre). According to myth, Hera was actually more beautiful than Aphrodite, and she should have won the contest, but as the goddess of sexuality, Aphrodite revealed herself entirely to Paris and was also attended by the Graces to advance her cause. Now, we can go through the film and make arguments about why Gabby does or does not choose Solo or Illya, but just as Paris' judgment in favor of Aphrodite led to the eventual founding of Rome, where so much of the narrative takes place, so Gabby choosing Waverly leads to the founding of UNCLE: had Gabby gone with Solo or Illya, the Americans and Soviets would have edged the other out; with the British there, a concept of keeping "the team" together emerged, and that team wouldn't have existed without Gabby, and so in this way, because Waverly is the source of "birth" for UNCLE, he, again, can be linked metaphorically to Hera. Still within this scene, but on a different note, the song Gabby plays on the radio is Cry To Me by Solomon Burke; why is this important? Ritchie actually works the lyrics into the narrative: "Nothing can be sadder than a glass of wine alone," and later, the desk clerk knocks on Solo's door and brings him in a bottle of champagne, compliments of the hotel. "It's a fine bottle," Solo says, "it would be a shame to drink it alone," referring back to the song lyrics. Ritchie does this because it's a way of communicating something about Solo's character: he's lonely. Without the song playing earlier, we could rack Solo up to being just a womanizer--which he probably is--however, Ritchie softens that with Solo's invitation to the desk clerk being framed by the song Gabby plays on the radio.|
|I haven't discussed Gabby too much, but this is a good time. As Gabby finally is brought face-to-face with her father, she's wearing an orange dress; why? If you will recall from another Guy Ritchie film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, our discussion on that included a mysterious orange scarf that Holmes got out of seeming nowhere but wore across his shoulders as he attempted to track down Moriarty at the opera, which was a mistake. The scarf acts as commentary to reveal how "the game is afoot" enlivens Holmes; even though us mere mortals would interpret tracking down international criminals as a horrible burden to bear, it is what gives Holmes his very life's breath (recall at the start of Sherlock Holmes, when he's in his room in the dark, begging Watson to find a problem that he can solve because his mind needs the work). The scarf, then, symbolizes that this "game" in which the stakes are so high, is exactly what Holmes lives for and the burden for which he was born to bear (yes, there should be some Christ illusions being made here; please see Blitzchess & Chaos: Sherlock Holmes a Game of Shadows for more). Similarly, we can deduce something of the same about Gabby in this scene. The orange dress communicates to the careful viewer that she is ready and up to playing this game and she knows what she has to do; she's not exactly a lamb being sent to the wolves; another detail about her dress, however, is that the back is open, meaning that she will be "exposed" and indeed, she is, most noticeably when she creates the diversion so her father can put the wrong lens into the bomb so it will be (effectively disabled) but Victoria sniffs out the trick and locks Gabby up. Further, please notice the green color of the helicopter: that shade of green is important throughout the film. We first see it in the public men's restroom when Solo and Illya fight each other; the dress Gabby wears to meet her Uncle Rudy at Victoria's party is that shade of green and white and then the helicopter. Why? Green symbolizes there is hope in new life, or that something is rotten, like molded food in the fridge. In these scenes, the characters are being asked to use their free will towards the greater good so the world can be saved; if they don't, the world will be lost because they choose to be selfish rather than work together.|
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