At first, the argument seems straightforward enough, the familiar Freudian psychoanalytic shtick. We even hear a shrink on TV spell it out for us: The truth is we all wear masks, metaphorically speaking. We repress the Id...our darkest desires and hide behind a more socially acceptable image of ourselves in order to cope with the frustrations of our day to day lives. The movie then seemingly proceeds to play this out. Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) is repressed, a nervous nelly who's too nice to get the girl. And then there's Dorian Tyrell (Peter Greene), an id-driven gangster. For Stanley to get the girl away from Dorian, he's gotta release his id.
But right from the get go, things are not so simple. Most conspicuously, which is the mask we wear? Is our repressed self the mask, hiding our true desires — that is, in being so nice, is Stanley wearing a mask? According to our shrink, yes. But in order to release his repressed desires, Stanley has to put on a mask — the mask. Which, then, is the true Stanley?
Well, both and neither. According to the film, there is no true self. When Stanley is "nice" and repressed, he's wearing a mask of the super ego, of society, to hide his carnal desires. But then in order to release his desires, to let loose his id, he has to don a mask, as well. All there are, it seems, are masks — masks all the way down.
And what exactly happens when Stanley dons the mask? He doesn't just become a creature of raw desire, killing and screwing everything in sight. What happens is much stranger: he becomes a cartoon. And not any cartoon. He becomes the Looney Tunes cartoon that he watches all the time.
This is not the release of his id, even if he is now outspoken and confident. The architecture of psychoanalysis is vertical — below the ego sits the id; above the ego, the super ego. The super ego — law, culture, society — helps keep the id down below. We speak of our deepest desires and what happens if they come to the surface.
|Psychoanalysis is premised on veritcality and depth|
|Schizoanalysis is a sideways, or every which way, system.|
But in wearing the mask, Stanley doesn't release anything in as much as his identity moves sideways into the network of identities that swirl around him. He begins taking up and playing out figures, actions, characters, and icons which he's seen on TV and the movies. His identity becomes a relentless play of signifiers — Elvis, Clint Eastwood, a 1920's gangster. And, of course, he performs the very cartoons we've seen him watch.
As Guattari argues, our identity is fundamentally ecological. There is no "true" self that exists as a set of pure, burbling desires. The self is a pastiche, an endlessly modulated intersection multiple ecological forces — cultural, natural, economic. We take up snippets of the world, possibilities of being gathered from anywhere and everywhere — from parents, media, strangers, animals, trees. As I speak and act my way through this life, I am haunted and possessed by my brother; as I parent, I feel my fathers; as I talk to women, I feel Larry David running through my veins.
While the film might imply that cartoons are a cultural release of the repression, the cartoons Stanley watches and becomes are not a release: they are realignments of his becoming that move in all sorts of directions. Yes, they break the laws of nature, falling off cliffs only to peel themselves off the pavement. They break social codes, hooting and hollering. But they are not a movement from underneath to the surface: they are a sideways movement at all angles into new territories.
Take this scene in which Stanley, as The Mask, is cornered by police. This is a traditional opposition: cop and criminal; law and crime; super ego and id. But Stanley refuses to play the criminal, to throw his hands up or shoot his way out and run. Like the brilliant Bugs Bunny before him, Stanley takes a line of flight, breaking the oppositional logic that at once divides and connects criminal and cop. He begins to dance and, soon, everyone is dancing. This film, while seeming to operate within a psychoanalytic framework of oppositional desires (Eros/Thanatos, id/super ego) breaks this architecture by introducing lateral movement (or what Deleuze might call a stutter).
At the end of the film, Stanley doesn't need the mask anymore — at least not the mask. But it's not because he's refined his ego to balance the id and super ego. It's because he moved sideways and let new identities express themselves through him, with him, as him. He didn't stop repressing. He learned new ways of going.