Self & Other in the Movies: Redemption or Destruction?

“Man’s greatness comes from knowing he is wretched.”
 ~ Blaise Pascal

Walking through the cemetary last night, my friend mentioned the movie District 9. It turned out we both had watched it this past week, but my friend didn’t finish watching it because he didn’t like it. So, we discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of the movie as we walked among the headstones.

For some reason, I was reminded of the movie Falling Down. I told my friend that I wanted to see that movie again sometime and he asked me why I thought of it. There were two reasons.

The first reason had to do with the similarity between the District 9 bureaucrat (Wikus van de Merwe) and the Falling Down businessman (William “Bill” Foster, aka D-FENS). Both are pathetic ordinary guys. They lived their lives playing by the rules. All they wanted was the normal mediocrity that was guaranteed to them as boring middle class white guys. 

The second reason was more generally about where my mind has been focused lately. I think I might’ve seen Falling Down used as an example in something I was reading lately. Anyways, it made me think of Glenn Beck being inspired by Howard Beale’s “Mad as Hell” speech in the movie Network. Howard Beale is another example of the middle class white guy being forced out of his contented stupor. So, it seemed to me that Beck would be similarly inspired by William Foster of Falling Down.

Bill Foster: I’ve passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don’t know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.

Falling Down largely puts this into a class context with obvious racial tensions. It’s not just the ordinary guy refusing to take it anymore. It’s the middle class white businessman refusing to take it anymore, the middle class white businessman who is the ultimate symbol of the American normalacy we all are supposed to strive towards. This middle class white businessman is frustrated, but his frustration doesn’t cause him to feel sympathy for all of those who have been frustrated their entire lives. No, he sees the poor and the minorities, the gangsters and other dregs of society who have refused to play by the rules, as the source of his frustration. Even the Korean shop owner is seen as an enemy simply for the perceived insult of charging too much for a soda. 

Why should these poor people and these minorities be allowed to get the better of good Americans? All the hardworking middle class white businessman wants is to be a good American and be rewarded for playing by the rules. Yet, he realizes that life isn’t fair and so he seeks retribution for this perceived loss of moral order. What he doesn’t realize is that life never was fair (even when it was personally benefitting him in the past), that life isn’t fair for anyone.

Bill Foster: I helped build missiles. I helped protect this country. You should be rewarded for that. But instead they give it to the plastic surgeons, you know they lied to me.
Sergeant Prendergast: Is that what this is about? Is that why my chicken dinner is drying out in the oven? You’re mad because they lied to you? Listen, pal, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish. But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.

Howard Beale, at least, realizes that they’ve been lying to us all… and not just to middle class white guys. Beale’s speech evokes populist discontent and righteous anger. Beale is portrayed as noble in his standing up and speaking out. Foster lacks any such noble qualities. In District 9, Wikus could’ve gone down the path of Falling Down, but eventually his sympathetic side wins out. The difference is that, where Foster clearly holds himself above all those he condemns, Wikus is literally turning into one of the aliens he had previously treated, in his role as a heartless bureaucrat, as being below him. Foster dies never doubting his own righteousness towards others and Wikus risks his own life in righteously defending the Other.

It would be too simplistic to portray Foster’s anger as mere racism. Foster has no more love for the rich white guys on the golf course than he has for the Latino gang. It’s the rich guys like them who fired him without any care for his fate. You’d think this might make him feel sympathy for all the people who have been likewise screwed over by the wealthy elite, but that isn’t what he feels. As I see it, Foster is mad not because he doesn’t believe in the American Dream of the good life but because he does believe in it and believes he deserves it. On the other hand, Beale and Wikus seem to come to some understanding that the good life they had known is not real or not worthy and so they don’t look for easy targets on which to project their frustration.

At this point in my discussion with my friend, I was reminded of A Scanner Darkly (of which I’m often reminded). In Scanner, the protagonist Bob Arctor remembers (or else has a vision) of once having lived the good life, of having  had a nice house with a perfect family. It’s in that scene he realizes he didn’t ultimately hate the momentary pain of life’s events but rather he had felt hate for how his life had once been, the life that wasn’t real and that hid the deeper pain of a world without meaning or wonder. Arctor hated what that dream of the perfect life represented. The perfect family and home weren’t as perfect as they appeared. Society and human relationships are filled with endless deception. No matter how comfortable the fantasy, it’s not enough. The realization that the dream is fake is a good thing because only in knowing what isn’t real can one then seek out that which is real.

Foster is deluding himself that if he can just get back home that the world will somehow be put right again. By tightly holding onto his dream of normalacy, he ends up hurting almost everyone he meets. As portrayed in Scanner, facing reality isn’t always pleasant… even so, there is something worthy in it. The key element is the willingness to self-sacrifice. Foster instead chooses self-destruction that achieves no end other than self-righteousness. Foster is shocked to discover that he is seen as being the “bad guy”, but he doesn’t ask for forgiveness for the destruction and suffering he has left in his wake. 

I thought of one last example of this narrative: American Beauty. Lester Burnham is yet another middle class white guy who had been living the American Dream and found it lacking. When confronted with this situation, there are many possible responses. At first, Lester responds by becoming infatuated with his daughter’s friend. So, he turns from the fantasy of career to the fantasy of youthful desire, but something stops him from following through with this infatuation. He sees the young girl as a real person and not merely an object of his desire. He seems to realize that he doesn’t want to harm another simply because he himself feels hurt by life.

Interestingly, both A Scanner Darkly and American Beauty end, after everything going wrong, with a vision of beauty. Quite differently, Network and Falling Down end on a note of almost pure cynicism. District 9 just ends with self-conscious movie cliche silliness.

However it ends, I find it a compelling story when the middle class white guy is thrown out of his middle class white world. But why is it compelling? Should we pity the middle class white guy who has been forced to face the everyday suffeing most of humanity faces all of the time? Should the middle class white guy feel sorry for himself because he has lost the sense of comfort that his socio-economic class normally provides? Why, as a society, are we obsessed with telling (and being entertained by) stories about the struggles of middle class white guys? Is it compelling because the middle class white guy as the collective symbol of normalacy represents our collective sense of self? If the middle class white guy loses his direction, will our whole society collapse? Is the middle class white guy the moral compass of modern Western Civilization?

I could leave it on the level of social criticism of middle class white guys and our fascination with them, but there is another context I wanted to throw in. The theme of the superficial normalacy of American culture has been explored in Film Noir and Neo-Noir. Starting with the first Philip K. Dick adaptation (Blade Runner), Science Fiction has become a popular form of Neo-Noir. Like much of Philip K. Dick’s work, A Scanner Darkly also has Noir elements. Important elements of Noir and Neo-Noir are memory and identity. None of the movies I’ve discussed are specifically Noir, but for all of them identity is the most central element in that the characters have their identities shaken to the core. In Arts of Darkness, Thomas S. Hibbs discusses American Beauty (p. 193):

Not technically a noir film, American Beauty does overlap with noir in a number of respects: in its use of flashback and voiceover; in its focus on a character who is already dead (D.O.A.); in its assumption that the source of American alienation is somehow connected to the infiltration of consumerism into the very heart of intimate relations; in its theme of a doomed quest; and in its setting of the final, crescendo of violence at night in rain. American Beauty is also a deeply, if not entirely coherent religious film that, according to at least one perceptive Christian film critic, can help viewers see “the world as it truly is: resplendent and suffused with a radiant, implacable love that shows itself in the exquisite beauty of the very fabric of the created world.

Hibbs, a few pages later, points out an important insight (p. 199):

A more consistent critique of capitalism as source of brutality can be found in Wendell Berry’s essay “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community.” Berry argues that giving free reign to capitalism wipes out local communal life, leaving individuals isolated and powerless in the face of large, impersonal forces. The proper, mediating role of the community is lost and individuals, liberated from local traditions and communal expectations, are increasingly subject to the whims of national bureaucracies and international markets. One of the problems with the “family values” espoused by conservatives is that it often leaves the nuclear family to itself, isolated amid an increasingly hostile economic and social order. Family values are also quite compatible with what Tocqueville identified as one of the great vices of modern politics: individualism. Tocqueville contrasted egoism, which elevates the satisfaction of one’s own desires above all else, with individualism, which is a “a mature and calm feeling” that disposes each person to “draw apart with his family and friends” and ” willingly leave society to itself.” The consequence of this sort of individualism, according to Berry, is the loss of the sense of marriage as anything other than a contract between two isolated individuals: “If you depreciate the sanctity and solemnity of marriage, not just as a bond between two people but as a bond between those two people and their forbears, their children, and their neighbors, then you have prepared the way for an epidemic of divorce, child neglet, community ruin, and loneliness.”

This brings me back to my social criticism of the white middle class guy who is the symbol of our consumerist society. He is the head of the nuclear family and the traditional breadwinner. The role of the individual has become so constrained, so narrow that this role takes on ultimate significance. When the white middle class guy loses his job or family, the center can no longer hold. There is no larger community for him to turn to, there is no other respectable role he can take up. However, at the same time, this role that gives him the only meaning he knows also confounds any search for greater meaning. It’s what Thoreau described as “lives of quiet desperation”.

This “quiet desperation” is often portrayed in the form of bureaucracy. In Falling Down and American Beauty, the protagonists just lost their important positions in large bureaucratic companies. In District 9, Network, and A Scanner Darkly, the protagonists are caught up in the machinations of bureaucracies. This mind-numbing, soul-killing bureaucracy is what Max Weber called the Iron Cage. From the Wikipedia article:

Iron cage, a sociological concept introduced by Max Weber, refers to the increased rationalization inherent in social life, particularly in Western capitalist societies. The “iron cage” thus traps individuals in systems based purely on teleological efficiency, rational calculation and control. Weber also described the bureaucratization of social order as “the polar night of icy darkness”.

[ . . . ] Weber states, “the course of development involves… the bringing in of calculation into the traditional brotherhood, displacing the old religious relationship.”

Modern society was becoming characterized by its shift in the motivation of individual behaviors. Social actions were becoming based on efficiency instead of the old types of social actions, which were based on lineage or kinship. Behavior had become dominated by goal-oriented rationality and less by tradition and values. According to Weber, the shift from the old form of mobility in terms of kinship to a new form in terms of a strict set of rules was a direct result of growth in bureaucracy and capitalism.

[ . . . ] Because of these aforementioned reasons, there will be an evolution of an iron cage, which will be a technically ordered, rigid, dehumanized society. The iron cage is the one set of rules and laws that we are all subjected and must adhere to. Bureaucracy puts us in an iron cage, which limits individual human freedom and potential instead of a “technological utopia” that should set us free. It’s the way of the institution, where we do not have a choice anymore. Once capitalism came about, it was like a machine that you were being pulled into without an alternative option; currently, whether we agree or disagree, if you want to survive you need to have a job and you need to make money.

[ . . . ] “Rationalization destroyed the authority of magical powers, but it also brought into being the machine-like regulation of bureaucracy, which ultimately challenges all systems of belief.”

I first learned of Weber’s ideas about bureaucracy from the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George P. Hansen. In that book, Hansen describes the eternal conflict in our society between the forces of bureaucratic order and the forces that are beyond control. The Trickster archetype can never be entirely removed or entirely protected against. It’s the role of the Trickster to explode the alien chemicals in the face of Wikus in District 9. It’s the role of the Trickster to create such confused self-deception in A Scanner Darkly. If nothing ever went wrong, there wouldn’t be any reason to tell stories. No satisfying story ends exactly as it begins. Some learn to accept the role of the Trickster and they hold less tightly onto the story they were telling themselves. Those who do try to hold onto their self-justifying stories typically become tragic anti-heroes like in Falling Down and tragic anti-heroes have tragic ends.

Yes, “they” are lying to us, but it also must be understood that “they” are lying to everyone… including to themselves. We are all caught up in a system of lies. This relates to Weber’s Iron Cage or, to put it in the light of gnosticism, what Philip K. Dick called the Black Iron Prison. Ultimately, we should worry more about the lies we tell ourselves than the lies that others tell us. Most of the time, we believe the lies of others because we want to believe them, because we have internalized some fundamental lie that our society is built upon. If you must, scream out the window that you’re mad as hell and aren’t going to take it anymore. Then, after doing so, take a look at yourself in the mirror.

Let me end this with the context of real life.

I mentioned Glenn Beck in relation to Network. I find that fascinating considering that Glenn Beck idolizes a fictional character who ends up being assassinated for speaking out against the powers that be. What is sad about Howard Beale, and hence what is sad about Beck, is that he looks outward trying to find the source of the problem. As I recall, Beale doesn’t come to any grand realization as does Bob Arctor and as does Lester Burnham. Both Beale and Arctor are possessed by paranoid visions which isn’t the problem in and of itself. Their paranoia correctly detects real conspiracies and real deceptions, but there is a difference that matters. Arctor, through profound self-questioning, transforms his paranoia into a spiritual vision.

It’s with this contrast between Beale and Arctor that I rest my own personal struggles. I can’t entirely blame the Beales and Becks of the world for ranting against injustice. I can’t even entirely blame the Bill Fosters of the world for going on their rampages. In the real world, Bill Foster in Falling Down is Joe Stack flying his plane into the IRS building. I understand how a person can feel overwhelmed by the frustration and hopelessness. The rug gets pulled out from under us (whether it’s losing your job or having alien chemicals sprayed in your face) and one is forced to respond. Most will try everything they can to make it go back to the way it used to be, but this inevitably fails. In place of what was lost, some latch onto convictions and others seek retribution. I personally prefer those who seek understanding and those who try to find a way to end the cycle of suffering. Such things as family and career won’t save you and neither will such things as politics and religion. My sense is that genuine salvation is much more personal and existential. Like Bill Foster, it’s all too easy to become the enemy that one wishes to fight against. Righteous anger is a dangerous drug which is highly addictive. I understand the allure of self-righteousness, but I’d like to believe there is some other option… beauty, love, compassion, self-sacrifice… I don’t know… something…

Nonetheless, whether or not we are able to gain something we deem a worthy exchange, it is undeniably clear that most often what is lost can never be regained. As Thomas Wolfe so famously said:

…you can’t go home again… back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love… away from all the strife and conflict of the world… back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.

I do, however, hope that at least some semblance of truth can be found or else just the awareness of the edges of knowledge. I admit I’d love to experience a transformative vision or attain some gnosis about the world, but there is no guarantee about anything and I suppose that is the only truth we can rely upon. We can’t know what lies ahead and so that is why we try to hold onto past certainties. Still, I think Bob Arctor was lucky in having entirely lost his former self. It seems to me that it was because he had no past to weigh him down that he was able to see the world in a way no one else could.

“I saw Death rising from the earth, from the ground itself… in one blue field.”

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