August 16, 2010
Final Paper – Marxist Analysis of The Thomas Crown Affair
Since its invention, the medium of film has provided its audience with an insight into the deconstruction of society and culture. Within American films, Marxist ideologies have been an ever-present view of determining societal identities, particularly between the bourgeois and proletariat classes. The 1999 film The Thomas Crown Affair perpetuates the ideologies of Marxism, specifically through the principles of alienation, class conflict, and commoditization of labor. Moreover, in addition to depicting Marxist principles and ideologies, The Thomas Crown Affair also heavily draws from post-modern theorists including Jean Baudrillard and Jurgen Habermas, whom reject an objective truth. Throughout the plot of the relentless pursuit of recovering a painting by the impressionist artist Monet, who greatly influenced postmodern theories, the motif of the difficulty of identifying the “original” or “real” becomes evident. The larger implications of the film’s themes of Marxism and postmodernism suggest to a contemporary audience that the class consciousness that Marx coined in his works between identifying oneself within the capitalist and labor class are still very evident today, particularly now with the inauspicious effects of the global economic crisis. Furthermore, the implications of the postmodern theories seen in the film arise to its audience that we as a society have become challenged in identifying what is “real”, and thus subsequently speaks to us in describing how our own identify within our class system is misconstrued.
Marx’s most central theory is that of a division of classes, in which he states in The Communist Manifesto that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Leitch 658). Marx states in his Manifesto that the proletariat, or the working class, is since birth at a “struggle with the bourgeoisie” and in a “constant battle” (Tucker 480-481). This struggle is lucidly manifested in The Thomas Crown Affair through the relentless pursuit of the proletariats, that is, the police, capturing Thomas Crown for his theft of a $100 million Monet painting. Thomas Crown, a multimillionaire businessman, exemplifies the stereotypical bourgeoisie – he flaunts his wealth, wrecks “a $100,000 boat because he likes the splash”, has “flesh-eating lawyers and … not to mention political connections”. As the Manifesto states, “the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored… has converted … the physician, the lawyer… into its paid wage labourers” (Leitch 659). Crown has ostensibly “stripped the halo” of the prestige of his lawyer into nothing more than a cook with an apron on used for his own plotting in his heist. Additionally, Crown receives help for his troubles with women through a psychiatrist (who he is paying very well) in order to feel better about himself. Furthermore, Crown has hired several Romanians to rob the art gallery to create a diversion so he can steal the $100 million Monet painting. He essentially has hired an army of peoples to work for him so he can cash in on his riches and his own “self-interest”, believing, as he states, that “anything is obtainable” (Leitch 659). As Marx writes, “the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society” (Leitch 659). Crown has twisted his “instruments of production” (i.e. his physician, lawyer) into his own benefit, his own means of existence. Without them, he knows his own high status and heist will crumble. The laborers who work for Crown have, in turn, become commodified through their own labor; that is, they are unable to offer anything other than their own labor to society. They have merely become pawns in the hands of Crown, doing anything he tells them to do, even robbing an art gallery and facing the possibility of prison. As Marx states in Capital, “the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear [as] material relations between persons and social relations between things” (Leitch 665). In other words, labor is nothing more than “material”, a commodity that can be easily bought. But why does the labor worker, the proletariat, succumb to such exploitations from the capitalist? As Marx explains, he says that the capitalist is the “intellectual” class and has the power to manipulate to his own desires.
Thomas Crown, the wealthy bourgeois businessman in the film is able to plot a clever heist in which he outsmarts the detectives who are out to catch him. As Marx writes in The German Ideology: “The class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (Tucker 172). In other words, the ruling class is an intellectual class in which they have the means, the ideas, the aptitude necessary to control the mental as well as material means of production (Tucker 172). This idea of intellectuals forming the ruling class is also discussed by the Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, in his work “The Formation of the Intellectuals” argues that the intellectual ruling class “must be an organizer of masses of men” and “of society in general” (Leitch 1002). Crown no doubt has been able to master the organization of society in general so that they have to revolve around his every move to out trick them.
The proliterariat class, conversely, must succumb to these ideas “because they are in reality the active members of the [ruling class] and have less time to make up illusions and ideas about themselves” (Tucker 173). This is underscored in the film The Thomas Crown Affair through Crown’s ability to con and deceive the detectives out to get him. While speaking to Katherine, a detective trying to unveil Crown’s plot, Crown states that his passion in stealing art is because “it’s like poker… we don’t let you in the game”. That is to say, the “game” is the elite ruling class in which you can’t get in unless you have the ideas and intellect necessary. To this, Katherine replies: “You’re right. My brothers said I didn’t have the mind for it”. This implies that she is the prolitariat class, not worthy to be the ruling class because she lacks the necessary intellect for it. Additionally, because Katherine is devoting all her time trying to catch up to Crown, she has no time for herself, either to form “ideas for herself” or for leisure. This lack of leisure time is yet another characteristic that identifies Katherine as a proliterarit. As Marx’s Capital reads: “the laborer is nothing else than labor-power [and] therefore all his disposable time is … to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital” wherein “time for intellectual development” ceases to exist (Leitch 671). Because Katherine is putting all her time into ideas plotted by Crown, the bourgeoisie, she is devoid of leisure time. This binary between bourgouisie and proleteriat regarding differences in leisure time is seen heavily throughout the film. Crown is seen with having large amounts of leisure time in the film. He bets $100,000 on a golf swing he plays on a Saturday morning “because there’s nothing else to do”. He constantly is seen canoodling with women because it “entertains him”. Crown’s form of entertainment by women also furthers themes given by feminist critiques, which underscore how women have become “objectified” and “subjugated” as nothing more than sex objects. They have no power within society, and similarly to the proletariat class, have nothing to offer than themselves. From a conversation with Crown, Katherine even lets the question out in the open that she believes implies her only worth: Do you really think I’m going to sleep with a man I’m investigating? As feminist theorist Simone de Beauvoir states, “Few myths have been more advantageous to the ruling caste than the myth of woman: it justifies all privileges and even authorizes their abuse” (Leitch 1267). Women in this film, particularly the role of Katherine, become the means of increasing the power of men to the “ruling caste” – thus creating a binary system much like that of the bourgeois-proletariat system in Marxism. Crown is seen as the ultimate ruling class and capitalist. He has excessive leisure time on his hands, this excessiveness echoing the excessiveness of his money and riches, and thus cementing his status in the ruling class. This notion of excessive spending on “toys” like boats and planes mirrors the current state of American consumerism and spending. As a result of the 2008 economic crisis, Americans (which are composed largely of the working class) have shook their heads against the splurges and excessive salaries given to wealthy CEOs and the like. The elite class has become highly criticized for their vacation habits and consumerism and it seems like America is headed towards a less “conspicuous consumption” way of life, a term coined by pre-modern theorist Thorstein Veblen in his work The Theory of the Leisure Class. Here, Veblen argues that consumption of the leisure class, that is, of the upper-class, is done for the purpose of others to observe. As Veblen explains, “Conspicuous consumption of valuable goods is a means of reputability to the gentleman of the leisure. … He consumes vicariously for his host at the same time that he is witness to the consumption of that excess of good things which his host is unable to dispose” (Veblen, 1210). While in the 1999 film Crown remorselessly flaunts his wealth, in today’s post-economic crisis society, he would likely become ostracized and criticized by much of the society at large. This type of alienation of the ruling class is a characteristic that Marx has given to the bourgeoisie.
As Marx argues, he believes that both the bourgeois and proletariat class are alienated from their work and themselves. As author Alvin W. Gouldner argues: “What the capitalist himself does, his very exploitation of the labor worker, is not (as Marx sees it) simply a matter of free choice but a constraint imposed upon the capitalist by his role in the system as a whole. If he did not behave in this way toward the worker he would soon cease to be a capitalist [and therefore] is alienated by the very system within which he is powerful and privileged” (Gouldner http://media.pfeiffer.edu/lridener
/DSS/Marx/ch6.htm). Because the capitalist is forced to exploit the labor within the class system he is bound to, he is therefore not a free agent and is alienated from the system. As Marx writes, “In the social production of their lives men enter into definite, necessary, relations that are independent of their will” (Goulder http://media.pfeiffer.edu/). In the case of Thomas Crown, his life as the bourgeois has become mundane and he has become “bored” within his work of “acquisitions and mergers looking a little stodgy”. Crown yearns to find a true identity for himself, one that goes beyond just a bourgeoisie. As author Arthur Berger states in his book Media Analysis Techniques, “bourgeois capitalist societies generate alienation and a host of afflictions that are connected to it – a sense of powerlessness, insecurity, estrangement, and lack of identity” (Berger 164). While its hard to visualize Crown as being “powerless”, when one understands it from a Marxist lens in that he has become part of the system in which he exploits, he soon realizes his alienation and powerlessness. Furthermore, Crown exhibits signs of a “lack of identity” through the film’s motif of copies creating copies. The famous surrealist painting “The Son of Man” by Rene Magritte (as seen to the right) is used by Katherine to describe Crown in the film. She explaims to Crown: “Hey, I didn’t know your portrait was here. The faceless businessman in a bowler hat”. The fact that Crown is being described as “faceless” implies his own lack of identity. Crown acknowledges that he does in fact own a “copy” of the painting in his home, thus suggesting that his copy of the painting that represents him also represents how he himself has become a copy. This notion of copies creating copies is illuminated in post-modern theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard argues in “The Precession of Simulacra” that “simulation is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Leitch 1557). In the film’s end, Crown hires multiple men to dress like him, in a suit and bowler hat with a briefcase full of copies of the painting “The Son of Man”. Through this process, Crown creates “models” of himself that in effect mask his own identity to society. The idea of Crown not inhabiting his own true or real identity is mirrored in how the painting “The Son of Man” represents himself. “Bourgouis art”, as postmodernist Jurgen Habermas suggests, “has two expectations (meanings) at once from its audience” (Leitch 1585). This dual meaning in bourgouis art reflects back to Crown having multiple meanings, or identities himself. He has employed the scheme of creating models of himself so that he can win in his own game of deception. As is revealed in the film, the detectives were trying to acquire a painting Crown was believed to have stolen but was in fact in the art gallery all along. This is an example of simulation. According to Baudrillard, “to simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t [and] threatens the difference between “true” and “false”, between “real” and “imaginary” (Leitch 1558). By Crown feigning his own plot of simulation, he has blurred the lines of identity within himself – within whether what he owns is “true” or “imaginary”. This perpepuates the notion of postmodern theory that suggests that there is no ultimate truth, no “original” and that culture and identity is constructed by the political economy of a society. This relates to Marxist ideology that specifies that the identity of people is bound by their class relations. Although postmodernism argues that you can not create such definitive binaries such as bourgeoisie and proletariat, postmodernism does seem to agree with Marxism in that identity is culturally created. The larger implications of both theories of Marxism and postmodernism imply to today’s societies that while there might be suggested bounds of where classes are leveled (i.e. income stratification), a current “postmodern” analysis of today’s society suggests that this definitiveness of classes is just not the case anymore, especially with the disappearance of the once dominant middle class which has grown increasingly small in current times. What might have defined what an “upperclass” member was ten years ago might not be an accurate definition to today’s struggling economic times.
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