Monday, December 15, 2008

What Price Civilization? (From Schizo Cinema)

In A Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer wrote that paranoia was nothing less than belief in the devil. If so, then Religion, as collectively embraced by the masses, is faith that God is better, bigger, and stronger than the devil. It functions as a sop and a comfort for our ever-encroaching terror and despair in the face of the world, a tonic for that sinking feeling that the devil has gotten the upper hand. Seen in this light, movies serve a dual purpose. They may disclose unpalatable truths to us indirectly and thereby allow our unconscious necessary expression. But they may also cover up these truths, placating us with skillfully fabricated lies designed to create the very opposite impression: that everything is fine, that nothing has really changed, that all this madness is just a passing phase and love will conquer in the end. (It ought to be noted that the conclusion of these saccharine movies need not be false, only the means by which they arrive at it.) The sap-headed affirmations of these old, long-outmoded values (of sentimental Hollywood of the ’80s and ’90s), as well as the cynical brutalism of action movies, served to suppress and divert the growing sense of paranoia and schizophrenia in society. The fact that 90% of these movies are not only dubious vehicles for propaganda but thoroughly lousy movies only confirms this suspicion. 

Since the schizophrenic experience has always been, now more than ever, the closest equivalent to the artistic one—that of the creative individual in an increasingly machine-like world—it follows that interesting and challenging movies are invariably also subversive ones, ones that address, and effectively partake of (with the awareness of the artist), the madness in which we live. This doesn’t mean they can’t have a religious or life-affirming dimension; one of the best of these recent movies (The Matrix) owes much of its appeal precisely to such a dimension. But as a general rule, the schizophrenic movie, like the schizophrenic individual, is driven into a corner by the overwhelming nature of its impressions, and takes refuge in societal rules based, above all, on a denial of soul. What better way for the schizo to protect his soul than to deny he has one, that such an idea even exists? The schizophrenic is tormented only secondarily by the world in which he lives; what torments him first and foremost is his own psyche. By rejecting the one—the world—he effectively is left with the other—his soul. Finding this to be the true source of his torment, he naturally rejects this also. As a result, the religion of our time—a schizophrenic time in which few values can be seen to have value—is nihilism. This is the chosen belief system of the younger generation: to reject all beliefs whatsoever. It is the ultimate expression of the postmodern, fragmented, schizophrenic experience, of paranoia beyond paranoia: to deny everything as not only worthless and meaningless, but as unreal. With movies like The Matrix and Fight Club, the schizophrenic experience has come into its own.  

If 1999 was the watershed year for schizo cinema (Being John Malkovich, Bringing Out the Dead, Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, The Insider, Ghost Dog, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, Run Lola Run, Boys Don’t Cry, Man on the Moon), the years since have also afforded a surprising wealth of movies that describe, to varying degrees of success, the schizophrenic experience. Memento, Requiem for a Dream, Gladiator, Waking Life, Mulholland Drive, The Pledge, Prozac Nation, Julian Donkeyboy, A Beautiful Mind, Insomnia, Adaptation, In America, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Punch-Drunk Love, 21 Grams, The Mothman Prophecies, The Others, Matchstick Men, Mystic River, United States of Leland, The Corporation, The Singing Detective, Around the Bend, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Aviator, I Heart Huckabees, Closer, Sin City, The Libertine, Matador, Mirrormask, Down in the Valley, Harsh Times, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Edmund, V for Vendetta, Capote, A Scanner Darkly, Alpha Dog, The Fountain, Stranger Than Fiction, The Departed, The Hoax, Inland Empire, Michael Clayton, You Kill Me, Reign Over Me, Lars and the Real Girl, There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Synecdoche New York, The Changeling, Choke, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, even silly dreck like Mr. Brooks and Awake or mainstream pulp like X2, Dark Knight, and Watchmen, are all doing their best to represent the ever-deepening split in the collective psyche between haves and have-nots, sane and insane, disempowered mass and super-powered elite, young and old, believer and non-believer, ignorant and informed, deluded and disillusioned, paranoid and complacent. They may not be offering up a cure, but they are doing an excellent job of deepening the diagnosis.


If, as Freud taught us, Civilization = Repression, there are three questions we may wish to ask.

First: Repression of What?

Second: Repression How?

Third: What Price Civilization?

The first consideration is crucial, since there are inarguably things that need to be repressed, if only for the time being (while other, more pressing things are acknowledged), and at least if civilization is to continue existing at all (a question which will be addressed subsequently). Ergo, some repression is worse than others. The urge to kill our fellow men when they annoy us, it might be argued, is something that needs to be repressed. Which brings us to the second question: How?

This is precisely where (and why) the arts come in, be they fine or base, blessed vision or damned advertising. The arts, and the various bastard media technologies they have spawned (devil’s tools all, from the printing press to virtual reality), possess an authority in our lives that we rarely, if ever, become aware of (they work best when they work surreptitiously). In the beginning was the word, and the word was a command (though today it is more of a subliminal suggestion). Thou shalt not kill, for starters. In movies, it’s clearly a different affair; in movies, killing is not only acceptable, it’s the best way to get ahead. This is not a million miles away from the Law of the Jungle: “kill or be killed.” 

If movies “help” us to repress our (now outmoded) killing instinct, they do so at a price. No instinct can be repressed without being rechanneled. There is always a safety valve, and in the last forty years, movies have served as a safety valve for the violence in civilized man’s soul probably more than any other single factor save sports. What is really being suppressed is not the killing but the sexual impulse, however. That is really all there is—in animal man—to be suppressed. Presumably this accounts for why our violent fantasies have become so twisted, our sexual fantasies so violent. Schizophrenia is the price of cutting ourselves off from our life force. By such a reckoning, civilization comes to be seen as the primary blight upon the schizophrenic (would-be shamanic) mind. Which brings us to the third question.

The product of repressing humans’ (animal) sexual nature was civilization. The price of civilization, for the animal man, is schizophrenia: a splitting off from the reality of our sexuality. The only sane conclusion for the schizophrenic, at this point, is that civilization itself is unreal. As in The Matrix and Fight Club, such a realization banishes all inhibitions, for better or for worse, for sorcery or savagery. The schizo is released from bondage, to become One, in the precise moment that civilization collapses around him. That is the solution, but it is also the price. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.

1 comment:

PokPok said...

Hey Jake, I'm so glad to see you're blogging again. This was the most illuminating piece of writing i think i've read from you (apart from maybe Matrix: A shamanic journey). Be well good sir.