Thursday, 31 December 2009

3 discursive positions in The Hangover

A 24-hour stag party in Las Vegas is the premise of 2009's The Hangover (Dir Todd Phillips). Before Doug marries Tracy, he and his two best friends Phil and Stu, and Tracy's brother Alan, head to Sin City for a party-filled time. High school teacher Phil rebels against the eradication of masculinity, setting the stage for a real man's debauchery session. Stu, a dentist, worries a lot, mainly about not offending his overbearing girlfriend Melissa. And Alan seems to be totally unaware of the social graces of Western society. The morning after their arrival in Las Vegas, they awaken in their hotel suite with the worst ever collective hangover. Nobody can recall what happened the previous night, the suite is in shambles and Doug is missing! Worse for wear Phil, Stu and Alan proceed with the business of rushing madly about Vegas town desperately seeking the groom-to-be, and in the course of the manhunt they effectively reform the missing pieces of the forgotten night.

Left to right: Alan holding mysterious baby, Phil and Stu

So what's The Hangover really about? You could look at it in a thousand different ways, I choose Lacanian psychoanalysis because it makes sense to me. This essentially involves a study of language with a poetic twist, and it goes a little something like this...

Jacques Lacan described 3 basic types of speech:
  • Neurotic: over-preoccupation with the shortcomings of language, impression that words do not capture precisely what is intended, a struggle that leaves the speaker stammering, hesitating and subservient to a more strong-willed other
  • Psychotic: lacking the accepted assimilation of cultural laws of language, speaking without a 'filter', disorganised stream of consciousness, off the wall comments at inappropriate times, impulsive and confusing speech
  • Perverted: reducing the other to an object of bemusement in a linguistic game, shock value is a really big turn-on here, enjoying the look on the listener's face when witty and/or provocative words are spoken, this is a very masterful speaker
Based on this classification, we can start to see where the men in Doug's wedding party slot in:

Stu: not a confident speaker! This guy is totally whipped by the overactive superego posing as his girlfriend Melissa. That he is a dentist is telling, because in psychoanalysis teeth are symbolic of words inside the mouth, and Stu makes his living from regulating and straightening teeth, placing order inside the mouth and seemingly in his linguistic tendencies as well. Melissa runs a tight ship at home and Stu responds obediently. As a result Stu becomes preoccupied with maintaining the order he's worked so hard to establish, and in The Hangover we see him lying to Melissa about the location of the stag party, since the lascivious connotations of Vegas are too hot for his girlfriend to handle. When Stu wakes up from the night of mystery he discovers that one of his teeth is missing, which suggests that the perfect little order in his language is disrupted and so his neurotic tendencies flare up. More panic ensues when it is revealed Stu has married a stripper/prostitute/single mother in his inebriated state... At this point Stu says he wants to "torch the evidence" of the bachelor party and wipe away all trace of the shocking events - this is a classic neurotic tactic of denial and the desire to 'mortify life' as Lacan would say. Keep things clean and sterile, that's what Melissa would want!

Alan: talk about being diametrically opposed to Stu! Besides the fact that Alan's speech is unpredictable and ungoverned by any discernible principles, let's linger on the Bearded One's sartorial style because this dude is insane. After checking into a swish suite at Caesar's Palace, the men change into slick suits before stepping on the party scene, but Alan doesn't quite manage this. He remains in an outfit that straddles the cusp of nondescript and nasty. We soon learn that Alan marches to the beat of a batshit crazy drummer. A case in point is Alan's toast to Doug, which is rather long-winded, labyrinthine and flighty - all hallmarks of psychotic discourse. We also learn that Alan dabbles in recreational drugs, and he's not averse to spiking the men's drinks with unidentified pills he bought from a random dealer in a liquor store. Right! No wonder they couldn't remember the party last night. The role of drugs here is significant because it is a disinhibiting element - these guys were unwittingly tripping on mysterious substances, breaking all conceivable social boundaries, stepping over lines of accepted Vegas decorum, and their shit got so crazy they couldn't even remember what they got up to in the morning! Thus is the discursive position for dear Alan, living in a state of absolute linguistic impulsiveness and lunacy. When Alan slipped drugs in his pals' drinks, one could say his psychosis became contagious.

Phil: this guy is smooth. He's economical with words (in dramatic contrast to Alan) as in his rooftop toast to Doug, declaring simply "Here's to a night we'll never forget"... see what they did there? So what else do we know about Phil? He's a high school teacher whose moral code is suspect: he tricks his students to pay for a non-existent field trip as a way of funding his Vegas escapade. He is also basically the leader of he pack: when everything is a mess he makes practical decisions about the men's next move. He steps up to the plate and works out a plan to retrace their steps, negotiating with hostile opponents when necessary. He also makes and breaks the rules when it suits him, and this masterful quality is reflected in his speech - we know Phil is married but he also wants all the lust-filled fun Sin City has to offer. Having lost their car, the men ride in a stolen police vehicle (Phil driving of course) and when they hit traffic on the road Phil steers onto the sidewalk, snaking his way through the bemused crowd of pedestrians. And this is how a perverted speaker conducts himself in language: Machiavellian cop whose use of power is sensationalistic and attention grabbing. The pervert has contempt for authority except when he is in charge, and his desire for power has nothing to do with regulation (as in the neurotic sense). For the pervert, power is a commodity for pleasure and fun! It's the look of shock on the other's face he finds entertaining, it's all just a game to him.

So we've diagnosed Stu, Alan and Phil but where does that leave Doug? Well, Doug is missing for most of the film so we really don't know that much about him. Ah-ha! In Lacanian terms, the lack itself is significant of desire. Doug is the fantasised ideal for modern man - and that's why he doesn't exist! He's calm under pressure, serious when he needs to be, loose when the occasion calls for it, tends to the insecurities of his friends and doesn't appear to have any neuroses of his own. He also strikes the right balance linguistically because he's compassionate. Come on, nobody is that perfect! This is why psychoanalytically Doug must disappear because he is the incentive the other men require to 'correct' their own pathological discursive positions. The drama rests in the bachelor party bridging the linguistic gap to bring them closer to the elusive Doug. It is a manhunt in more ways than one.

I will end this entry with this thought: Tracy's father entrusts Doug with his beloved Mercedes convertible for the duration of the Vegas trip. Doug is specifically instructed not to let the groomsmen drive the car. In this instance, Doug's future Father-In-Law is setting the boundaries for respectable behaviour. Doug is marrying Tracy and soon they will start a family of their own - there is a certain etiquette to abide by and Tracy's father is laying down those laws. In Lacanian terms, this is actually called Name-Of-The-Father, which is an anchoring point in language. The Mercedes being a token of successful masculinity, Doug knows what's expected of him. And still Tracy's father does manage to concede that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, so there is some room for mischief!

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