I've seen things you people wouldn't believe

What is it about this scene from the first Austin Powers film that moves me so much?

Dr Evil has taken his son Scott to Group Therapy. He's asked to tell the group something about his own childhood:

Dr. Evil: The details of my life are quite inconsequential.

Therapist
: Oh no, please, please, let's hear about your childhood.

Dr Evil
: Very well, where do I begin? My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery. My mother was a fifteen year old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet. My father would womanize, he would drink, he would make outrageous claims like he invented the question mark. Some times he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy, the sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament. My childhood was typical, summers in Rangoon, luge lessons. In the spring we'd make meat helmets. When I was insolent I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds, pretty standard really. At the age of 12 I received my first scribe. At the age of fourteen, a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my testicles. There really is nothing like a shorn scrotum, it's breathtaking, I suggest you try it.

Therapist
: You know, we have to stop.

What makes this scene funny is also what makes it fascinating. Dr Evil is just so incongruous at the group therapy session, dressed in his light grey totalitarian dictator's jacket. He's a character designed to be one-dimensional, to sit inside a volcano in a Bond film and strive to take over -- or destroy -- the world. He's supposed to say "I've been expecting you, Mr Bond!" and "I am going to kill you, Mr Bond, in due course, but first, since you are so curious, I am going to explain what will happen when I take over the world."

Instead, at the group therapy session, the totalitarian sits surrounded by suburban Americans wearing autumnal leisurewear, and -- as sinister, beautiful John Barry-esque music starts up -- tells them something so incommensurate with their own experience that they can only interpret it as a series of metaphors. He says he's been partially frozen, he says he's been trying to kill his son, and the hippy-liberal therapist interprets these as figures of speech. No, says Dr Evil, he means it literally. But what stops him is the thought "Who's going to take over the world when I'm gone?" And again the therapist explains it to the group as a metaphor. Haven't we all felt like that sometimes? Aren't we all alike?

No, we aren't. The John Barryesque music strikes sinister chords containing "forbidden" intervals, with an icy sparkling of mallet instruments falling across them like sunshine striking the tops of high mountains. Dr Evil begins his speech. We hear of luge racing -- a luge is a sled or toboggan -- and summers in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma, now Myanmar; a colonised nation now run by a military junta. We hear of taboo child-rearing practices (corporal punishment, humiliation), taboo body parts, undignified professions, insane cruelty, buggery, headwear made of meat, ritual testicle-shaving that evokes that talisman of unacceptability, clitoridectomy, brutally hierarchical social relations (the young Evil "received a scribe"), and archaic religions with a vaguely Nietzschean ring to them. What could be more strange to the American Christians present than Zoroastrianism? What could be better calculated to strike a chill in their hearts, and show them more rapidly the limits of their tolerance?

The pretense of this therapy session -- of all therapy sessions -- is that you can say anything. Whatever you say, you will be heard, and shepherded back from its extremity to some kind of normalcy. But Dr Evil, in his grey suit, is beyond the pale, irrecuperable. What he says is so unsayable that it can only be understood as a series of metaphors. His "standard" and "typical" childhood draws gasps and revulsion from his listeners. Rather than indicating that he is willing to move towards suburban normalcy, Dr Evil tries to influence the group to adopt the arcane rituals with which he grew up: "I suggest you try it". The aging 1960s hippy in charge of the session senses that the limits of expression -- and perhaps a moment of danger -- have been reached: "We have to stop."

It reminds me of Batty, the Nexus 6 replicant in Blade Runner, telling Deckard "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shore of Orion. I watched seabeams glitter in the dark near the Tennhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like... tears... in rain. Time to die."

What's so poignant here is that we know that the conventions of genre require the "evil" character to die, precisely for the incommensurability of his difference -- he is "the unacceptable other", the creature too intolerable for any tolerance, too incomprehensible for any understanding. We know these people must die for their difference, but we are also fascinated by it. We are wedded to monoculture, but subtly disturbed by pluricide. And so, just before they die, evil characters representing "the unacceptable other" are given speeches which allow us to glimpse, simultaneously, how unlike us they are, and yet how like us, if only by the fact that they have had experiences, as we have too. Luge lessons in Rangoon, attack ships off the shore of Orion. Like us, they will die, and this difference will all die with them. The removal of their incommensurable difference will, we know deep down, impoverish the world, perhaps even more than their presence menaces it.

Something about Dr Evil's speech reminds me of some lines near the opening of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. Perhaps it's the sled and the luge, the overlapping references to summer and exotic places, the sense of privilege and refinement, something archaic. But it's also surely the sense that this is a way of life -- profoundly undemocratic, unacceptably other -- made more beautiful for being marked out for destruction.

Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.

[Momus]
Taken from his blog, Click Opera.

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Related posts:-
Wild Things
Step toward madness
Live the straight and narrow
Society, you need therapy
Still Waters

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