The New York Times keeps writing obituaries for forgotten actors and undercutting them after death. Upon actor Peter Crombie’s death, the obituary prefaces, “He had an impressive list of acting credits. But he was probably best known for playing “Crazy” Joe Davola on five episodes of the hit sitcom [Seinfeld].” And more recently, “Herbert Coward, Actor Who Played Toothless Man in ‘Deliverance,’ Dies at 85.” Nothing here is incorrect, but the relative clause strangely undercuts the dignity of the actor: by specifying “who” he is, it informs you that of course you don’t know who that is; and the content of that relative clause seems to emphasize, as the Times puts it in the obituary’s first sentence, the “modest career” of “who” this is.
By chance, the day after this second obituary came out, I happened to be reading Fredric Jameson’s essay on the novel Deliverance,1 where he describes the “hillbilly” characters such as Coward’s (in James Dickey’s novel, upon which the film is based) as a “disguise and a displacement” for all sorts of threats “to the middle-class way of life today” (“today” being the 1970s, when Jameson wrote). In Jameson’s account, Dickey emphasizes the violent and perverse nature of the hillbillies, culminating the infamous rape scene in both the novel and film (in the latter, the late Coward delivers the film’s most memorable line not spoken by a banjo: “He got a real purty mouth, ain’t he?”). The gratuity of Deliverance’s violence and rape becomes the vision that can render both the author’s and his protagonists’ bourgeois fantasies about threats to their way of life, whether from the poor, racial minorities, or the Global South, and via displacement, it simultaneously gives voice to and hides the anxieties the bourgeois man will not admit to himself.
“Deliverance,” as a concept, offers the flimsiest of ties to a more recent example of bourgeois anxiety, Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s The Curse (Showtime, 2023). Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie recently dedicated an issue of their newsletter Blackbird Spyplane to the question “Are we doomed or is deliverance possible?,” a question they pose to The Curse (spoilers ahead). BBSP positions, I think correctly, “deliverance” as the central issue of the show: its three protagonists are locked in cycles of narcissism and self-loathing that commit them to the same depersonalized economic violence and sexual anxiety they disavow in their public personas. To varying degrees, their masks are always slipping, and this is the heart of the show’s humorless cringe comedy. And deliverance would be the name for something that can free them from these cycles.
The show puns on this question in its finale, as Whitney (Emma Stone) “delivers” her baby and Asher (Fielder) is, for reasons you’ll have to watch the show to understand, launched into space in a fetal position.
However, thinking with Jameson again,2 I want to suggest that deliverance, for these characters, is not quite deliverance from class society and its attendant violences but rather deliverance from the anxieties engendered by their position within that society. The show follows an elaborate gentrification scheme that gets in the way of any deliverance its characters might find. And maybe they only have a concept of deliverance insofar as they have trapped themselves in that from which they want to be delivered. Whitney and Asher are not simply gentrifiers of Española; they attempt to “build up” the community while keeping its original residents around, employed, and housed (but, as the show reveals, nevertheless exploited). The indigenous, hispanic, and Black, mostly poor, residents of the community are the “displaced and disguised” figures for what Whitney and Asher fear in the world, but if these people weren’t around, if the couple simply displaced them from their homes, they would be forced to realize that, economically and socially, they are indistinguishable from Whitney’s slumlord parents (right down to the minuscule penises that Asher and Whitney’s father share). The couple must constantly manage this anxiety through awkward, forced interactions that fail to hide how much they both loath and need the people who surround them.
The intensity of this feeling becomes apparent in the fight that concludes the show’s third episode. It begins when the couple try to recreate a genuinely cute moment to display on social media and instead reveal the authentic resentment they feel. “You think that every disadvantaged person is just like a wild animal going through our garbage,” Whitney accuses Asher, giving voice to the thoughts they both have but won’t admit. The fight’s watchword is “assumptions” or Asher’s assertion “I could have accused you of something.” These vague words hold the place of all the things they cannot let themselves say. Each person is trying to put the blame on the other for the creation of the show’s titular curse, which they have mutually imagined as being placed by a young girl Nala. The curse, insofar as there is one, has nothing to do with Nala or her father Abshir, but instead with the racist and classist projections Asher and Whitney cannot let go of in order to deliver themselves from their constant torment.
But the show is not simply a depiction of fallen people failing their way out of freedom. It is not merely tormented projections and cringe racism. The show wraps all of this into a comedy, yet its funniest moments are built on its characters brokenness. One of its subplots has Asher attend a comedy class, so he can be more personable. In response to the prompt, “try to make the whole group laugh without using any words,” he makes one of the weirdest noises imaginable, and of course, nobody laughs (except us viewers). These comic moments operate as a kind of release valve: when we laugh, we can assert that as viewers, we are not in this world. Because we can see why this is funny, we are not doomed: deliverance is possible (for us). But I wonder too what this laughter defends against. What are we viewers in turn refusing to admit to ourselves. Surely, we are able to recognize The Curse as comedy because we are unlike Asher and Whitney. Aren’t we?
Jameson’s essay was originally published in the journal College English in 1972. It will be republished under the title “Allegories of the Hunter” in his forthcoming book Inventions of a Present” (Verso, May 2024). ↩
Is it a coincidence that Whitney’s mirrored homes resemble not just the work of artist Doug Aitken but also the exterior of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel that Jameson discusses in Postmodernism? A question for another day. ↩