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Macbeth goes to Carnival: Otium and Economic Determinism in Scotland, PA

Despite marketing itself as a humorously irreverent adaptation of Macbeth, Billy Morrissette’s 2001 film Scotland, PA continues its source’s brooding meditation on human agency. Set amid the nascent mass consumerism of rural 1970s America, Scotland, PA raises questions about the extent to which individual lives are controlled by economic and ideological forces. Rather than ambitious nobles, Morrissette’s Pat and Joe “Mac” McBeth (Maura Tierney and James LeGros) are low-paid diner employees who kill their boss to assume control over his restaurant, which they promptly convert into a McDonald’s-style drive-thru. Detective Ernie McDuff (Christopher Walken) eventually discovers the grizzly truth, precipitating the McBeths’ downfall and his conversion of the restaurant into a vegetarian establishment. To date, scholarly treatments of Scotland, PA have overwhelmingly read the McBeths’ demise as a case in economic determinism. The McBeths, many have argued, face certain punishment for daring to transgress their social rank, much like their Shakespearean antecedents. While this work has insightfully identified the class anxieties central to Scotland, an emphasis on the fixity of the social order runs the risk of aligning the film too closely with the cosmic determinism of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Such an approach overlooks one of the film’s most innovative adaptive features—its comedic subversion of tragic fate.

In this essay, I show that Scotland, PA’s frequent depictions of non-productivity punctuate and disrupt the determinism traditionally associated with both Macbeth and the rise of capitalism. As Kristen Poole observes, Macbeth suggests the presence of a hidden providential structure that guides human life. Macbeth, she states, “fails to understand himself as part of a cosmic, divinely-driven space and time that is greater than the terms of humanity” (146).1 Scotland, PA does indeed invite its audience to draw analogies between such cosmic providentialism with market forces. Yet, even as Scotland, PA charts the mythic origins of fast food culture, the film continually juxtaposes frenetic enterprise with depictions of slackerism, scenes in which characters resist the imperative to produce by doing nothing. I argue that such moments offer an alternative to the relentless temporal progression driving both the McBeths’ bourgeois ambitions and the broader expansion of mass consumerism under consideration in the film. Drawing on a term well-known in Shakespeare’s time, I will refer to such moments of non-productivity as otium in order to distinguish them from the modern notion of leisure. Whereas leisure is often viewed as a display of status, what I call otium is a mode of activity that lacks any specific instrumental purpose. As such, otium allows for a relaxed experience of temporality by which reflective contemplation of the social order becomes possible.

By using the seemingly anachronistic term otium, I hope to illuminate a mode of activity that has been obscured by capitalist valuation of productivity, wealth, and growth. In the classical, medieval, and Renaissance periods, the otium concept took center stage in debates about the relation between an individual’s private activities and the state. While many Roman authors attacked otium for inducing laziness, Cicero recuperated the term by connecting it to the social good of a peaceful republic (Hanchey 184). As Dan Hanchey explains, Cicero encouraged Romans to use their private otium to foster personal intellectual growth that would, in turn, bolster public stability (184). Cicero called this otium cum dignitate because it would theoretically lead to the excellence of both the individual and the state (182).

This view of otium as a means toward the public good, however, becomes impossible when there is no hope left in existing social institutions. Thus, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published during the reign of Henry VIII, features a strand of otium that constitutes itself in opposition to the establishment. As Quentin Skinner has observed, the discussion between the More and Hythloday characters in the book’s opening frame dramatizes the Renaissance debate between the contemplative and the active life (otium and negotium). When More urges his brilliant friend to enter into the service of court, Hythloday replies that “‘[t]he only result of this will be that while I try to cure others of madness, I’ll be raving along with them myself’” (34). Recognizing “‘[t]here is no place for philosophy in the council of kings,’” Hythloday seeks otium as a means of protecting himself and his intellectual pursuits against an irredeemably corrupt European state (33). Though this sounds like escapism, Hythloday’s self-exemption from the fray of political life is necessarily political. As shown by his spirited debate with More, a man of the court, Hythloday’s otium is a performative act of opposition to the dominant political culture.

Similarly, the slackerism on display in Scotland, PA is a kind of otium in which individuals (or sub-cultures) oppose dominant cultural values and their respective injustices. This is not surprising given that the film, like Utopia, meditates on the alienation produced by national corruption—both the Nixon administration of the film’s setting and the broken political scene of the film’s immediate past—the late 1990s.2 In Scotland, PA, however, the fundamental oppositional activity of otium is not philosophy but, rather, non-productivity, the proper antithesis to one of the film’s central corrupting forces—the product-oriented culture of mass consumerism. Whereas consumerism reifies activities, ideas, objects, and time itself into instrumental means to various ends, otium in Scotland, PA allows for contemplation and open-ended activity free from any definitive telos.3 Given the expansion of mass consumerism and its valorization of wealth and productivity, it is no accident that the word otium has been replaced with more pejorative terms. It is my contention, however, that this disappearance merely hides non-teleological experiences of time that continue to resist dominant ideologies of late capitalism. Morrissette’s film depicts such experiences, demonstrating that the commodification achieved by mass markets is not a totalizing force.

I. Reflecting on Otium in the ’90s

The thematic importance of non-productivity is signaled by Scotland, PA’s opening and closing scenes: The film begins with pot-smoking hippies in an amusement park; it concludes with McDuff eating a carrot as he stares serenely into an empty parking lot. Even as the briskly-paced murder plot gets underway, Morrissette carves out time for amusing depictions of drinking and rock-infused bar culture. The otiose temporality of such moments is juxtaposed with the goal-oriented pacing of the McBeths. Rather than doomed representatives of the lower class, the McBeths, I contend, are caught up in a capitalist value system underwritten by violent appropriation and the commodification of time. The murder does not demarcate essentialist class boundaries, but, rather, critiques capitalist expansion as an inherently violent process of usurpation. This critique resonates with a broader anti-corporate movement that reached a critical mass around the time of the film’s production. In 1999, tens of thousands of anti-globalization protestors descended upon the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle to object to the WTO’s corporate-friendly agenda. Protestors at the historic Battle of Seattle complained that the WTO’s effort to loosen trade barriers meant fewer consequences for corporations committing human rights abuses and environmental devastation.4 Amid such concerns about the expanding reach of corporate influence, Morrissette’s film demonstrates that pockets of otium resistant to market ideologypersist alongside the expansion of corporate interests.

I offer this interpretation as a guardedly optimistic alternative to criticism that views the film and its portrayals of small-town life as an expression of an inescapable economic order. From the start, this scholarship has grown out of an interest in identifying a thematic link between the film and the fatalism of Macbeth. Soon after the film’s release, Marguerite Rippy, in a review for the Chronicle of Higher Education, observes that “[w]e find the spirit of Macbeth in the film’s overall themes and relationships—including the interesting suggestion that British primogeniture survives intact in American capitalism” (B16). Building on this view, Lauren Shohet argues that “the McBeths’ grab for agency is circumscribed by their apparent inability to escape their town” (188). Critics have subsequently read Morrissette’s humorous portrayals of slackerism and 1970s kitsch as further evidence for economic predestination. Anthony D. Hoeffer Jr., for example, argues that references to pastimes such as beer drinking signify a “white, working class identity” from which the McBeths cannot escape (156). Similarly, Elizabeth A. Deitchman observes that the McBeths’ bad taste follows them as they rise, suggesting that, like the Macbeths, Morrissette’s upstarts could never truly transcend their social status: “[I]n its adherence to Macbeth’s plot, the film links social class directly to morality, vilifying the white-trash McBeths actually trapped in their class category” (140).

While I acknowledge that Morrissette’s fictional Scotland produces some level of derision at lower-class aesthetics and a sense of economic despair, its stylized representations of the 1970s are also meant to produce retrospective longing. During the DVD commentary, Morrissette explains that Scotland, PA was, for him at least, a nostalgia project. He notes, for instance, that the soundtrack comprises many of the rock anthems he listened to growing up. If the film produces nostalgic longing, I would argue that its setting cannot only be regarded as a naturalistic prison-house of deterministic forces. In order to understand Morrissette’s nostalgia, it is first necessary to recognize that it is not aimed at a naïve recovery of an idealized past. Rather, Morrissette exploits the distortions of his own memory to produce an over-the-top rendition of what was funny, disturbing, or downright weird about the 1970s. Morrissette explains early on, for example, that nearly every car in his fictional town is a Dodge Camaro, since that is the only car he remembers from the 1970s. This method of skewed remembrance may be understood as what Svetlana Boym has termed “reflective nostalgia” (49).5 Rather than aiming to restore a lost golden age, reflective nostalgia foregrounds the mediating processes of memory and longing by which the past is constructed. Reflective nostalgia tends to be “ironic and humorous” because it embraces the past as an incomplete and fragmentary construction (50, 41). As such it “cherishes shattered fragments of memory and temporalizes space” (49). Conversely, what Boym calls “restorative nostalgia” denotes a serious effort to recover an originary moment in a perfectly complete and renewed form (49). Boym links restorative nostalgia with nationalism, as it often “ends up reconstructing emblems and rituals of home and homeland in an attempt to conquer and spatialize time” (49).

Operating in the reflective mode, Scotland, PA exploits America’s own conflicted memories of the 1970s as an era defined by both the growth of mass consumerism and the persistence of a countercultural remnant from the 1960s. Morrissette exaggerates both dimensions by juxtaposing the McBeths’ corporatization project against pot-smoking hippies, southern rock music, bar scenes, the carnival ground, and McDuff’s unpopular vegetarian eatery. Though the film produces longing for these moments of relaxed non-productivity, the nostalgia becomes thoroughly ironic upon consideration of how each has become co-opted by the global commodity system, a system that the film itself may be perpetuating. The hippies, for instance, are suggestive of the prefabricated “stoner” figure used to sell so many teen slacker films and McDuff’s “gardenburger” becomes yet more supermarket freezer fare. This irony prevents such portrayals from becoming idealized forms of restorative nostalgia; instead, they enable reflection on the contingency of history. As Boym explains, under reflective nostalgia, “the past opens up a multitude of potentialities, nonteleological possibilities of historical development” (50). By prompting viewers to map their own cynicism onto the past, the film also demands reflection on whether history might have happened differently.

II. The Witches Go to Carnival

Morrissette sounds the keynote for this vision of historical contingency through his conversion of Shakespeare’s witches into carnivalesque hippies. In Macbeth, the witches see into the “seeds of time” (1.3.56), a phrase that underscores their absolute access to the underlying truth of human destiny. Such perspicacity is illustrated in Act 1 when the witches first greet Macbeth and Banquo by their names and future titles: “All Hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis.” “All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor” (1.3.46-47). The interpellation marks the witches’ access to the characters’ present, past, and future. Given their unerring knowledge of fate, it is fitting that Shakespeare’s witches are associated with death and decay. It is revealed in Act 3, for instance, that they serve Hecate, the self-described “close contriver of all harms” (3.5.8). The first witch’s incantation in Act 4 speaks of the “poisoned entrails” of the cauldron (4.1.5). Film directors have provided many poignant adaptations of these moments. In Throne of Blood, for instance, Akira Kurosawa places his witch, a single, androgynous forest spirit, in a mass grave. The spirit speaks about humanity’s inevitable self-destruction as s/he spins out a loom.

In contrast to such disturbing imagery of predestination, Morrissette suggests open-endedness by placing his witches in a carnivalesque setting. In the opening shot of the film, the three hippies are shown smoking pot in a carnival Ferris wheel. This setting may be best understood through Mikhail Bakhtin’s description of the medieval carnival: “a feast of becoming, change, and renewal … hostile to all that was immortalized and completed” (Rabelais 10). Appropriate to this spirit of becoming, the hippies’ first meeting with Mac at the carnival grounds was one of the most improvised scenes in the film. Morrissette states this was largely due to the off-the-cuff acting of Timothy “Speed” Levitch and Andy Dick, who play hippies two and three. As Mac walks through the carnival on his way home from the bar, the two hippies engage in improvisational word play that happens upon his name: “Beth.” “Mac.” “Beth.” “Mac.” “Fleetwood.” “Mac” “-ramé.” “I love macramé!” “See I made you something. It’s a little macramé thing.” This accidental interpellation suggests that Morrissettes’ witches have no access to all-encompassing truths at the bottom of their cauldron.

It is true, however, that the hippies ultimately serve as a malevolent force driving the McBeths to destruction. Yet, where Shakespeare’s witches offer a specific statement about Macbeth’s future, the hippies influence Mac primarily through ideological provocation. The hippie played by Amy Smart taunts Mac for being a failed thirty-something and then goads him into taking action against his superiors. She goes on to describe a “restaurant with an intercom,” providing him with the entrepreneurial concept that will motivate him to take action against his boss. While hippie-Smart offers various suggestions about what Mac might do, she does not voice the kind of determinism we hear from the weird sisters. Shakespeare’s third witch, for example, informs Macbeth in Act 1 that he “shalt be king hereafter” (1.3.50); later, the witches’ apparition tells Macbeth he “shall never vanquished be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.92-94). Morrissette dispenses with this authoritative use of the future tense and actually scraps the Birnam Wood prophecy scene altogether, explaining in his commentary that it was “a little too with the Shakespearean vein and it didn’t flow with the movie anymore.” Ultimately, the hippie scene is not a moment of prophecy; rather, it is an elevated form of loafing in which Mac is prompted into a politically-charged contemplation of the social order. I acknowledge, of course, that such contemplation ultimately leads Mac into violent entanglements. My point is that otium merely provides the relaxed experience of time by which one might question existing social arrangements.

III. Picturing Time

So far, I have focused primarily on plot and dialogue, but a closer attention to filmic detail is needed to understand how Scotland, PA contrasts the non-accumulative temporality of otium with the commodified temporality of the McBeths. Throughout the film, Morrissette uses socially symbolic space as a clever way of concretizing these two very different experiences of time. In his theory of the literary “chronotope,” Bakhtin provides a useful way of describing the use of space to materialize the otherwise abstract concept of temporality. Literally “time-space,” the chronotope marks the amalgamation of time and space in a narrative. In the chronotope, “[t]ime, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history” (“Forms of Time” 84). For Bakhtin, the chronotope incarnates the specialized forms of temporality associated with literary genres. Thus, the endless geography of ancient Greek romance materializes that genre’s emphasis on an ahistorical temporality of pure contingency (99, 94). Scholars have been justifiably eager to extend this concept to film. As Angela Dimitrakaki and Miltos Tsiantis state, “the filmic text is essentially chronotopic because it relies structurally on the dialectic relationship between image (relations in space) and narrative (relations in time) which form an inseparable whole” (217). Indeed, the illusionary magic of film has much to do with its ability to represent time through the juxtaposition of images.

In Scotland, PA, it is carnival space that materializes a relaxed, non-teleological experience of time. This chronotopic function is apparent from the very first scene: In the film’s only crane shot, the camera travels along the ground-level of the carnival, ascends to the hippies on the Ferris wheel, and then tracks right into the evening sky. The forty-second long-take helps the viewer, in a sense, “chill out” with the hippies in this moment. The effect is heightened by the fact that the Ferris wheel is not in operation. The slow temporality suggested here will become a counterpoint to the bustle of the McBeths’ commercial enterprise. In a subtle but important detail, the tracking shot begins only after the carnival lights shut off. The hippies, in other words, are trespassing and experience the carnival not as consumers, but, rather, as loafers.6 Hanging out after closing time, the hippies exist in a sort of temporal netherworld that eludes the mechanical stop-and-go operations of the amusement park during business hours.

The slow time of otiose space in the opening scene serves as a foil to the commodification of time that drives the film’s violent plot forward. The capitalist dictum “time is money” serves as a key motivating force behind the murder of restaurant owner Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn).7 In an oft-quoted line, Pat states, “Were not bad people, Mac. We’re just underachievers that have to make up for lost time.” For Pat, time is a commodity that she and her husband have squandered, but which may be recovered through the violent usurpation of wealth. In terms of chronotopic melding, it is notable that these lines occur as the McBeths are driving home, with Pat at the wheel. As she drives on a desolate road, Pat begins persuading Mac on the murder plan. Facing some hesitation from her husband, she eventually pulls over to deliver the lines just quoted. The road space materializes the teleological notion of time driving the murder plot—that the McBeths are supposed to arrive at a certain status by a certain age. And, again, it is during a pause within this teleological movement—the car momentarily pulled over—that the McBeths reflectively contemplate the decision before them.

The restaurant space also concretizes the notion of time-as-commodity. Though the restaurant initially has a small-town charm to it, Norm figures out an ingenious way to ramp up production—the creation of a drive-thru that would allow time-deprived customers to buy fast food without leaving their cars. After killing Norm, the McBeths bring his plan into fruition and the restaurant emerges as a foil to the carnival ground. In a direct reversal of the film’s opening, in which the carnival lights turn off, a montage juxtaposes the dim space of the old restaurant with the high-watt lighting of the new, suggesting the high-energy bustle of mass consumerism. Inside, workers rush about about—even run—to serve their customers. Most importantly, this transformation charts the mythic origin of fast food culture and its replacement of “dinner time” with “eating on the go.”

It is perhaps during the murder of Norm that the film offers its most direct juxtaposition between otiose and teleological experiences of time. The sequence begins with the McBeths at a bar hanging out with their friend Banko (Kevin Corrigan) for his birthday. After Mac complains of a fever, he and Pat leave while the rest of the group begins a game of Yahtzee. Through the use of parallel montage, Morrissette then shows the simultaneity of the murder, the Yahtzee game, and a band practice session featuring Norm’s son Malcolm (Thomas Guiry). As a chronotopic statement, frequent cutting between these scenes emphasizes the McBeths’ abandonment of otium. The montage marks the McBeths’ final repudiation of festivity, socialization, and even friendship itself in favor of acquisition. Their abandonment of the tavern is a nod to Shakespeare’s own suggestion that the murder alienates the Macbeths from the joys of drink. After framing the guards, Lady Macbeth declares, “That which hath made them drunk hath made me bold; / What hath quenched them hath given me fire” (2.2.1-2). The montage also provides metaphysical commentary on the murder. Frequent cutaways to dice-throwing suggest that even the murder, at its deepest level, is undergirded by chance and contingency. This suggestion is confirmed by the fact that the incident is helped along by various accidents. The McBeths, for instance, were inspired to move forward on the murder plot after Mac accidentally knocked Norm out while trying to get a bottle out of a refrigerator. Even the murder itself, though premeditated, occurs somewhat unexpectedly. The McBeths are surprised when Duncan falls into the deep fryer after Mac punches him.

Scotland, PA immediately follows Duncan’s murder with the spatialization of the capitalist values driving the McBeths’ ambitions. In a sex scene consummating the McBeths’ new status as entrepreneurs, Pat appears in nothing but Norm’s drive-thru blueprints and proceeds to embrace her husband within the over-sized documents (see Figure 1). Here, the car-friendly space of corporate America is mapped onto the very bodies of the protagonists. While both McBeths seek to empower themselves through their enterprise, this scene also makes it clear that the rigid gender hierarchy of Morrissette’s Scotland will be retained and even re-inscribed within the new economic order. As Jennifer Drouin has argued, Pat, in an inversion of Lady Macbeth’s radical unsexing, finds herself confined by remarkably narrow constructions of femininity—either as a sexualized object of the male gaze or a domesticated housewife (344-45). While Pat turns to entrepreneurship as a means of empowering herself, the system nonetheless reproduces these gender dynamics. In seductively garbing herself in the blueprints, Pat appears as an object of male desire at the very moment she appropriates entrepreneurial capital. Once the McBeths have established their drive-thru, we see what Monique L. Pittman calls a “success montage” that “signal[s]” that the McBeths have arrived (89): The sequence features the McBeths enjoying their new colonial home, with Pat reclining in an above-ground pool while Mac sits on ornate lawn furniture reading a magazine (see Figure 2). The cookie-cutter quality of this image suggests a form of leisure geared toward signifying status: These are the things one is supposed to do upon becoming wealthy. Interspersing these images with shots of the bustling restaurant, the montage demonstrates that such leisure is merely another facet of production.

Macbeth goes to Carnival: Otium and Economic Determinism in Scotland, PA George Moore Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 1: (Mac and Pat draped in the drive-thru plans) See page 12 – “Scotland, PA immediately follows Duncan’s murder with the spatialization of the capitalist values driving the McBeths’ ambitions. In a sex scene consummating the McBeths’ new status as entrepreneurs, Pat appears in nothing but Norm’s drive-thru blueprints...”
Macbeth goes to Carnival: Otium and Economic Determinism in Scotland, PA George Moore Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 2: (Mac and Pat at the culmination of the “success montage.”) See page 12 – “The sequence features the McBeths enjoying their new colonial home, with Pat reclining in an above-ground pool while Mac sits on ornate lawn furniture reading a magazine. The cookie-cutter quality of this image suggests a form of leisure geared toward signifying status…”

IV. Soundtrack Music as Critique and Commodity

The montage’s critique of consumerism is heightened by the pristine pop tones of its sound track, “Beach Baby” by The First Class. “Beach Baby” verges into restorative nostalgia by attempting to recall a lost American golden age, a time “when everybody drove a Chevrolet.” As with other forms of restorative nostalgia, the song evokes a sense of “a return to national symbols and myths” (Boym 41). Written in 1974, “Beach Baby” aligns its image of an Edenic America with a mythical norm of masculinity that predates the perceived gender subversions of the hippie-movement and its long-haired men: What ever happened to “The suntanned, crew cut, all-American male?” the song asks.

By pairing “Beach Baby” with the McBeths’ corrupt rise to wealth, Scotland, PA satirizes the nostalgia-based corporate marketing campaigns that became increasingly popular in the late 1990s. In a 1997 Brandweek article, Becky Ebenkamp announces the arrival of a “modern nostalgia Zeitgeist” responding to public concerns about the new millennium and the computerization of society (25). As one ad consultant tells her, “Consumers are going into the unknown and experiencing both separation and anticipatory anxiety. So they’re searching for comfort” (26). Given their timing, it also seems likely such campaigns aimed to mollify the hostilities of the anti-corporate movement. Nostalgia became an especially important strategy for the fast food industry. In 1997, for instance, burger-and-fries chain Sonic retrofitted its restaurants to resemble the futuristic architecture of the 1950s drive-in. As Mark Hamstra paraphrases a Sonic design consultant, “the remodel was based on what people in the 1950s might have envisioned a drive-in to look like in the year 2000” (Hamstra). That same year, McDonald’s, ailing from bad Wall Street numbers, announced a $550 million marketing campaign that would, in part, transform the Golden Arches “into a symbol of nostalgia and quality” (Stebbins). The following year, the chain celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Big Mac by refurbishing its “Two All-Beef Patties” jingle from 1975 and adopting uniform designs from the 1960s (Kramer et al.).

The montage uses “Beach Baby” as a means of satirizing such palliative forms of nostalgia. The First Class’s sunshine pop tones and its image of a perfect America ironically belie the violence underwriting the McBeths’ business venture. “Beach Baby” showcases big-budget production values and a full orchestra, demonstrating that nostalgia for a simpler time is often the product of a well-funded and highly technologized culture industry. The effect of the irony achieved here is a type of alienation in which the viewer cannot fully get behind the music, the McBeths, or their ascent in this sequence. The alienation effect is reinforced when Pat is shown micro-managing a young worker on how to make ice cream cones, echoing an earlier scene in which Pat resents the same demeaning lesson. After breaking class barriers, the McBeths become the bosses they hated, alienating their employees and viewers in the process.

In contrast to this orchestral pop hit, most of Scotland, PA’s diegetic and non-diegetic soundtrack is made up of hard rock music that strives for grittiness. From the outset, the film associates this music with counter-cultural non-productivity, thus pitting it against the business values of the restaurant. Just before the murder scene, Norm’s son Malcolm, resentful of having to work at the family business, closes early and tells his father that he has to “go jam.” When Norm lectures him on the importance of hard work, Malcolm replies, “This isn’t making a living; this is a fucking nightmare.” Malcolm, a bass player, later appears in a run-down practice space playing Bad Company’s “Can’t Get Enough” with his band, a scene that connects his rebellious ethos with southern rock. In light of David R. Shumway’s study of rock soundtracks, this linkage creates for the viewer a sense of solidarity with Scotland’s youth counterculture against authority figures such as Norm or the ascendant McBeths. In his study of Easy Rider, Shumway argues that the prominent rock soundtrack of that film creates a “sense of generational identity,” by which we find ourselves in “communion” with the lead characters and “against various others represented in the film” (38). Similarly, in Scotland, PA, “Can’t Get Enough,” helps to define a countercultural space by which Malcolm opposes his father’s emphasis on productivity.

Yet, true to the film’s heavy irony, the choice of “Can’t Get Enough” also exposes the possibility that even countercultural expression may be co-opted or used toward repressive ends. The song that represents rebellion for Malcolm is, of course, now mainstream radio fodder as a canonical emblem of southern rock. Moreover, as Drouin points out, Malcolm’s band is later shown performing in a strip club, demonstrating its complicity in the commodification of women (357).   Thus, as Shumway observes, the rock nostalgia film often reveals that the “communion” promised by rock ’n’ roll is ultimately an impossibility that we nostalgically project onto the past (39). As a mode of reflective nostalgia, Malcolm’s band calls into question the extent to which our memories of past rebellion are actually constructed by the media industry. At the same time, it offers a hypothetical moment in which rock music might operate as resistance to the logic of the marketplace.

In contrast to Malcolm’s hard-rock rebellion, Norm’s younger son Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) turns to folk and Broadway music. When Norm expresses surprise that Donald doesn’t like football, we see Donald listening to Janis Ian’s somber “At Seventeen” on headphones. Donald’s musical experience here clearly challenges the norms of masculinity promoted by football or the hard rock championed by his brother; at the same time, it creates an otiose space by which Donald challenges his father’s business values. He is shown seated in a wicker chair with a meditative expression on his face, providing a stark contrast to Norm who, in this moment, is gearing up for a day at the restaurant. As with Malcolm’s band practice scene, Donald’s pursuit of music is also interrupted by the exigencies of the murder plot. As Donald and a group of young men sing “Day by Day” at the piano, McDuff enters into the scene, forcing the group to postpone practice. Nonetheless, the film suggests the possibility that Donald, as a queer character, may resist the patriarchal strictures of compulsory heterosexuality. At a late point in the movie, Donald and a young man he introduces as his “friend” appear in luxurious bathrobes and greet McDuff.

V. McDuff and the Mock-Edenic

Despite his law-enforcement role, McDuff accepts and even connects with the typically estranged Donald. In one humorous scene, McDuff performs an awkward shuffle involving maracas and tells Donald that he used to be a dancer. Some critics have been hesitant to buy into McDuff’s charms. Drouin, for instance, asserts that he merely reconfigures the terms of masculinity in ways that retain patriarchal privilege by the end of the film (358). Courtney Lehmann argues that McDuff, through his vegetarianism, “steps in to restore the old order of prohibition,” thereby containing the libidinal excesses of the McBeths (246). I contend, however, that McDuff cultivates moments of otium that allow for a critical contemplation of both masculinity and fast food commodification. As his little dance suggests, McDuff subverts the stereotype of the hyper-masculine lawman with no time for arts and culture, a stereotype embodied in the clip from the cop show McCloud running in Scotland, PA’s opening credits. Resisting the norms of the hard-boiled detective plot, McDuff lingers and takes delight in the interstitial moments between leads in the case. This comes in contrast to intensely teleological nature of traditional cop show narratives, in which an over-confident detective spends every waking moment pursuing the bad guy.

Given his removal from the rigid goal-orientation that marks the McBeths, McDuff is, at least in part, a countercultural figure. As a vegetarian, for instance, McDuff is clearly at odds with Scotland’s bourgeoning fast-food culture. When he attends Norm’s funeral he brings baba ganoush and jokes about how the McBeths’ new restaurant is killing people with its greasy food. After he kills Mac, McDuff gets rid of meat for good by acquiring the restaurant and converting it into a vegetarian restaurant. The acquisition sequence functions almost as a reversal of the “Beach Baby” montage. The brightly lit McBeth’s sign, surrounded by crime scene investigators, goes dark and the shot dissolves to the new restaurant with the “McDuff’s” sign and a smaller sign stating, “Home of the gardenburger.” In the film’s final shot, McDuff stands in front of the business eating a carrot as a naked streaker holding an American flag runs by (see Figure 3). Accompanied by his dog, McDuff gazes out into an empty parking lot (see Figure 4).

Macbeth goes to Carnival: Otium and Economic Determinism in Scotland, PA George Moore Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 3: (McDuff and streaker) See page 17 – “In the film’s final shot, McDuff stands in front of the business eating a carrot as a naked streaker holding an American flag runs by. Accompanied by his dog, McDuff gazes out into an empty parking lot. Here McDuff is aligned with the relaxed temporality of the hippies at carnival. The quiet serenity of the shot, the naked streaker, and McDuff’s vegetarianism are, as Eric C. Brown observes, all suggestive of an Edenic moment…”
Macbeth goes to Carnival: Otium and Economic Determinism in Scotland, PA George Moore Literature/Film Quarterly
Figure 4: (McDuff observes streaker) Same passage as the entry above.

Here McDuff is aligned with the relaxed temporality of the hippies at carnival. The quiet serenity of the shot, the naked streaker, and McDuff’s vegetarianism are, as Eric C. Brown observes, all suggestive of an Edenic moment, a time before a fall into the violence, predation, and exploitation of mass consumerism (152). Yet Morrissette’s Eden is thoroughly ironic as reflective nostalgia, since it is clear that it postdates the fall into commodification. McDuff’s sign, for instance, retains the original red “Mc” from the McBeths’ restaurant, suggesting that this Eden is always already embedded within the spatial and temporal structures of American consumerism. Viewers are also likely to be aware that McDuff’s “gardenburger” would go on to become yet another idealistic idea co-opted and mass produced by corporate food giants. As Lehmann writes, the film “can never completely escape its real location in 2002, which makes Mac and Pat’s small-time, small-town McCruelty seem like child’s play compared to their sequel” (247).

The film, however, avoids complete cynicism by concluding on a note of otium in which partial resistance to the corrupting forces of mass consumerism is possible. As he chews on a carrot, McDuff seems to be absorbed into a meditative state hearkening back to the contemplative ideal celebrated by Hytholday. McDuff’s non-productivity momentarily escapes the logic of commodified time while leaving open questions about Scotland’s future. The scene raises several questions. Will McDuff, like Cicero, use this spirit of otium toward forging some new public good or will he, like Hythloday, use it as a means of countercultural opposition? Or will McDuff be co-opted by corporate interests keen on selling an escape from modern life? Even if viewers read their present as Scotland’s future, the questions raised at this conclusion force reflection on the extent to which the present is the result of historical necessity.

The meditative and otiose open-endedness of the final scene comes in contrast to the return to monarchical business as usual that concludes Macbeth. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, Malcolm assumes the negotium of the crown as soon as he is named king, leaving no moment of meditative pause after Macbeth’s death:

ALL: Hail, King of Scotland!
MALCOLM: We shall not spend a large expense of time
      Before we reckon with your several loves
      And make us even with you. (5.8.60-63)

In the press of court business, Malcolm construes time as quantifiable resource to be reckoned with as he settles old debts of loyalty. As if to confirm Hythloday’s complaints about court life, this urgency precludes reflection upon the political violence that has just transpired. Quite against this ominously matter-of-fact return to the status quo, Scotland, PA concludes with an open question.

VI. Producing Non-Productivity

The tensions that I have tried to show between otium and mass consumerism in Scotland, PA reemerge in the material conditions of the film’s production and release. As a first-time director creating a low-budget film, Morrissette, like his Pat, was painfully aware that time on the movie set is indeed money. He describes shooting one scene as a “long, expensive night” and explains how he used Bad Company instead of Aerosmith to save on royalties. Such consideration adds yet another layer of irony to the soundtrack’s production of nostalgia: All of our cultural memories in this film are commodities and their very remembrance must occur through the operations of the marketplace. This irony ultimately raises the question of whether the film itself becomes yet another mass-market commodification of Shakespeare. The film exhibits a meta-awareness of this very problem when Morrissette makes a cameo appearance as a dog-walking neighbor in the “Beach Baby” montage, suggesting his complicity in the reifications of the culture industry.

Yet Morrissette also exudes an ethos of countercultural otium. He jokes in the beginning of his commentary about being drunk while filming the opening crane shot and often calls attention to his own past as a disaffected youth. He explains he got the idea for the film as a teenager who dreamed about killing his manager at Dairy Queen. Noting these types of comments, Pittman astutely observes that “Morrissette styles himself as an under-achiever in unwitting kinship with his lead characters, Joe and Pat McBeth” (84). Yet I would add that Morrissette, in his countercultural mode, is perhaps more closely aligned to his otiose characters—the hippies and the carrot-eating McDuff: Rather than seeking market domination, Morrissette, in an oft-quoted interview, characterizes the film as a production for the slacker: “It’s not smart enough for the really smart people, and it’s not really wacky enough for the dumb people. It’s Shakespeare for the kid in the back row who is getting stoned, reading the Cliff Notes” (qtd. in Brown 147).

Morrissette defines the film and its audience against authoritative forces of the mass audience, the educator, and, as Brown notes, even the high-culture phenomenon of Shakespeare (147). Like his hippies, Morrissette’s viewer—the kid in the back row—is on the margins of society, operating in partial, though not total, removal from official authority. Within this vision, filmmaking itself becomes much like an otiose activity against officialdom. Like McDuff staring into his empty parking lot, however, the film perhaps alienated the marketplace in daring to pursue such a countercultural statement. Scotland, PA, earned a relatively meager $384,000 in box office sales (Pittman 93). Nonetheless, the film demonstrates how alternatives to mass consumerism may be envisioned and even enacted within its own structures. The streaker in the final shot serves as a final visual metaphor for this very point, for the role is, according to Morrissette, played by one of the film’s producers. The figure most in touch with the film’s market function appears naked in Eden. His presence suggests the possibility of momentary detachment from economic imperatives, but it also undermines any naïve effort to return to a pre-economic order. It is precisely through this production of irony that the final shot refuses the clear-cut instrumentality of the marketplace, allowing viewers and the film alike to linger in its humor.


I am especially indebted to Gregory M. Colón Semenza for his feedback on this paper in its formative stages. I would also like to thank Heather L. Horning, Amanda K. Ruud, Jarred Wiehe, and the readers and editors at LFQ for their comments on earlier drafts


1 I limit my discussion of determinism to broad conceptions about the contingency or necessity of historical progression. There are indeed other ways in which the world of the film could be said to be more deterministic than its source. As Jennifer Drouin has convincingly argued, for instance, the film displaces the remarkable gender fluidity of Shakespeare’s play with highly restrictive gender roles. Granting that severely oppressive structures exist in Morrissette’s Scotland, my point is that the film continually undermines the suggestion that they are pre-determined or inevitable.

2 There are several examples of 1990s corruption that might be cited here. Some of the most notable include President George H.W. Bush’s involvement in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 stemming from his extramarital affair.

3 My discussion of consumerism draws from Frederic Jameson’s overview of reification as formulated by the Frankfurt School: “The theory of reification . . . describes the way in which, under capitalism, the older traditional forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and ‘tailorized,’ analytically fragmented and reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency, and essentially restructured along the lines of a differentiation between means and ends” (116).

4 For a concise overview of objections commonly voiced against globalization in the late ’90s, see The Progressive’s January, 2000 editorial, “The Case against the WTO.”

5 I am indebted here to James Scott, whose study of The Right Stuff showcases the applicability of Boym’s terminology to film studies.

6 I am aware that the hippies are, quite humorously, eating fried chicken here and riffing on Macbeth as they joke that “foul/fowl is fair.” There is no doubt that they too are consumers. Nonetheless, their occupation of the carnival space, after closing time, registers an otiose experience of time that contrasts with the McBeths’ commercialism.

7 The classic expression of this view of time is to be found in Benjamin Franklin’s discourse on thrift, which became a key intertext for Max Weber’s influential theory on the origins of capitalism. In a well-known passage, Franklin exhorts the reader: “Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or thrown away, five shillings besides” (qtd. in Weber 14).

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