Jacob’s (social) Ladder.
I haven’t seen Jacob’s Ladder for almost twenty years and wasn’t expecting much of it on a re-watch. Actually, it’s not a great film (though Adrian Lyne is underrated as a director), though it has some great moments and it is interesting in couple of respects.
First of all it’s kind of a Po-Mo Ur-text in that the shifting between two or three different worlds and time frames, the connections between which and the grounding of one as “reality” are revealed in a final scene which retroactively gives you the key to piecing the whole thing together, (in other words the film as a kind of puzzle (but not as in “ Marienbad” an enigma) that the smart viewer tries to outguess as it goes along) has become one of the central diminishing pleasures of PoMo. Also because it involves a paranoid conspiracy element in which “reality” is a byproduct of the MiIlitary-Industrial complex, blah blah.
Maybe Atom Egoyan’s fractured thrillers (variously successful: from the Adjuster through the influential Exotica and the great The Sweet Hereafter onto to the needlessly non-abc Felicia’s Journey) got there first, but Jacob’s Ladder is certainly early .
What’s most intriguing about “ Jacob’s Ladder” however is, yep, its vision of class.
Jacob fights for his life in Vietnam and the film intercuts this world, which the viewer presumes are memories, with his hallucinations of a future purgatorial existence in New York until he finally lets go and climbs up to heaven with his dead son. The hell that Jacob lives in, in the hallucinated post Vietnam America, is proletarian life and there is in this something of the nightmare anticipation of the proletarianization of the American middle classes through the Eighties (and on). Jacob has a PHD but works for the post office, he has to pull extra shifts an d falls asleep on the subway, lives in a tiny flat with a petite but vulgar Hispanic sex bomb, his neighbourhood is full of rubbish and burnt out cars, he begins to hallucinate demons that he’s assured are just the plentiful wino’s and bag ladies that litter the streets, has run-ins with unhelpful nurses in public hospitals, hangs out at parties with non-whites and sexually adventurous drug takers, has health problems and in one memorable sequence is taken into a filthy and increasingly infernal hospital to be treated.
During a fever Jacob slips into a third world, the life he lived prior to going to ‘Nam, waking up in bed with his ex-wife in their large, well-appointed flat. He tells her he dreamed he was living with Jezebel (all the characters have ponderously coded religious names) from the Post Office, of all people, “what a nightmare”, before putting his angelic children to bed. This is the middle-class nightmare, low pay, low status jobs, dirty areas, poorly educated partners and unsophisticated friends, the inaccessibility of decent health care, the possibility of mental health issues, of legal problems that you can’t get representation for. When Jacob finally decides to let go he is taken by the taxi driver, who won’t go to Brooklyn, back to the luxurious apartment he presumably shares with his wife and where the doorman addresses him as Professor Sringer, ushering him in to both his appropriate place in life and affirming his status. The route to heaven is up the stairs of a duplex apartment in the expensive part of town.
Jacob is released. Hell is still around the corner.