Blathering ’bout Some Birds in a Box

bird box picI recently watched Netflix’s Bird Box (directed by Susanne Bier, based on the novel by Josh Malerman), and although I wasn’t overly impressed with this film, I thought there were some interesting conceptual threads lying under the surface.  The story involves the age-old dichotomous narrative of good versus evil, where “the good” must use their strength and wit to persevere and triumph in this fight against evil and against those that perpetuate or propagate it.  In this case, we see humanity at large being attacked by an evil force taking the form of their worst fears, where blindfolding oneself or keeping one’s eyes closed to this mysterious entity is the only means of surviving its presence.  As an interesting caveat, only those that are deemed “insane” are immune to this danger, where they alone can face these entities with no apparent harm coming to them.  To add to the fear and chaos of this situation, these madmen are also intent on forcing everyone else to see what they perceive to be an awe-inspiring force (as if it were a god), and they perform this (often violent) coercion regardless of the fact that forcing others to see what they see is effectively an act of murder.

There’s a number of metaphoric and allegorical threads one could extract from this story-line, including interpreting the entity as some kind of god (Yahweh?), and the blindfolding of the masses as the inability to face this God, whether in the biblical sense where a face-to-face encounter results in death (e.g. Exodus 33:20), or in the figurative/spiritual sense of modern humanity having turned away from God (for better or worse).  Furthermore, this entity taking on the form of one’s biggest fears resonates with the biblical conception of the unequivocal “fear of God”.  If we were to frame the story around such an allegory, then the dystopic chaos that ensues from this “turning away”, and the difficulties that arise, may be entirely expected from a religious perspective.  Even though the atheistic skepticism precipitating from modernity and the Enlightenment has no doubt brought us a number of epistemic, political, and societal benefits, it’s also created its own share of problems that are yet to be resolved.

Religion and belief in a God or gods often fills a void in people’s lives because of the many hardships concomitant with the human condition, and so even if there’s a conscious decision to reject this emotional or spiritual crutch, there’s an unavoidable trade-off that can make life much more psychologically challenging, as exemplified by the burdensome journey undertaken by Malorie and her children.  On the other hand, those that intentionally or inadvertently come face-to-face with this God or God concept may be hypnotically drawn in by it, and thereby end up committing a form of intellectual suicide in the process.

In the interest of considering a radically different interpretation of this story, what if “the entity” is actually a representation of the intellectual content or philosophical paradigms that have arisen in our modern age?  Modernity has brought with it various instantiations of existentialism, postmodernism, skepticism, atheism, and along with it a transvaluation of our morals and of the meaning and purpose that we ascribe to our own lives.  It is no doubt unsettling (if not outright frightening) to face and contemplate our own existential status, among other things, the fact that we are but an infinitesimally small and insignificant constituent of an unfathomably old and vast cosmos, and the fact that our lives (as individuals and as a species) are relatively short as we inch closer to our inevitable death.

Most people would prefer to blind themselves from these uncomfortable facts even if this is accomplished by being unconsciously driven to adopt any manner of ideologies or belief systems that serve as a means of epistemic isolation and psychological consolation.  For those that earnestly try to confront and navigate this seemingly alien existential space, whether intentionally or as a matter of chance, many are overwhelmed with anxiety, depression, and the like, even leading some to contemplate or go through with committing suicide.  If one’s sense of meaning and purpose is uprooted, it’s not surprising that they may feel lost in this world, even losing their will to live.  In short, many are simply not mentally prepared to handle a number of uncomfortable existential truths nor are we all equally well-equipped to psychologically handle many of the obstacles encountered in our human condition.  Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Marx, and a number of other great thinkers of the modern age knew this fact about “the masses” all too well, even if they each differed in their interpretation of, or response to, this particular problem.

The blindfolding of the masses could be taken to represent a fairly common response to the realizations brought about by modernity, manifesting itself as a kind of reflexive blindness to the present state of affairs, but also resulting in an aimless wandering, where people are in need of some kind of direction, a structure or system to guide them through what has become a very unfamiliar and often disturbing world.

Eventually Malorie and her kids find a guide of sorts, when they make radio contact with a stranger by the name of “Rick” that instructs them to travel through the woods and down a nearby river – an almost 48-hour arduous journey – to reach what appears to be their last hope of refuge.  After encountering a few hurdles along the way, including a violent run-in with a madman, and a near-death experience after cap-sizing their boat, they reach their long sought-after sanctuary.  It turns out that the sanctuary is a school for the blind, and Malorie discovers that the stranger she had spoken with on the radio is himself blind, thus granting him and a number of others at this sanctuary their own reliable means of protection from the entity.

It’s interesting to consider the fact that Malorie and her kids are being guided toward their own form of salvation by a blind person, serving as a good analogy of the role played by religious clergy, where they’re often blind to reason in order to “see” by way of faith.  And Malorie’s use of birds to help signal the level of danger around her as they’re forced to “see with their ears”, is not only a functional analogue to the coal miner’s canary, but also reflects the role that birds play in the biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood, where doves were used to signal when the flood had ended.  Malorie’s use of the birds might also be seen to represent our harnessing and domestication of nature, and how civilization has helped us overcome the brutality and indifference found within the state of nature.  But our use of technology has also created its own set of problems for us, thus paradoxically being both a source of, and solution to, many of the problems precipitating from modern life.

And might we benefit from recognizing the fact that the madmen, who are trying to force others to see what they see, are very reminiscent of religious proselytizers and theocrats – though this can also be extended conceptually to the proselytizing of atheism or postmodernism (depending on one’s interpretation of what “the entity” represents)?  Religious followers (let alone fanatics) can seem like madmen to rational skeptics, just as many atheists, skeptics, existentialists, and postmodernists can seem like madmen to mystics, traditionalists, and to the devoutly religious.  In either case of proselytizing, there’s an inherent problem when the tactics taken are too forceful, and with respect to the unforeseen consequences resulting from a “successful” ideological conversion (such as violent behavior or other forms of moral regression towards oneself or others).  The madmen symbolize quite well the fanaticism, coercion, and lack of mutual understanding that have plagued our history and constrained our cultural evolution for millennia.

Throughout this perilous journey, the trials and tribulations experienced along the way symbolize the challenges and difficulties encountered on any spiritual or transformational journey.  And, to further the religious allegory, it’s not much more of a stretch to see the capsizing of the boat (arguably the climax of this difficult journey), where both Malorie and her children are briefly submerged underwater, as a baptism of sorts – a symbolic death and resurrection – experienced just prior to reaching the final destination on their path to redemption.  Pondering over such a story should always give us pause to ask what our path to redemption, as a society, ought to be.

Book Review: Niles Schwartz’s “Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies”

Elijah Davidson begins his foreword to Niles Schwartz’s book titled Off the Map: Freedom, Control, and the Future in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies with a reference to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, where he mentions how that book was, among other things, about God.  While it wasn’t a spiritual text in any traditional sense of the term, it nevertheless pointed to the finitude of human beings, to our heavy reliance on one another, and highlighted the fact that the natural world we live in is entirely indifferent to our needs and desires at best if not outright threatening to our imperative of self-preservation.  Davidson also points out another theme present in Moby Dick, the idea that people corrupt institutions rather than the other way around—a theme that we’ll soon see as relevant to Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.  But beyond this human attribute of fallibility, and in some ways what reinforces its instantiation, is our incessant desire to find satisfaction in something greater than ourselves, often taken to be some kind of conception of God.  It is in this way that Davidson refers to Melville’s classic as “a spiritual treatise par excellence.”

When considering Mann’s films, which are often a cinematic dichotomous interplay of “cops and robbers” or “predator and prey,” they are, on a much more basic level, about “freedom and control.”  We also see his filmography as colored with a dejection of, or feeling of malaise with respect to, the modern world.  And here, Mann’s films can also be seen as spiritual in the sense that they make manifest a form of perspectivism centered around a denunciation of modernity, or at least a disdain for the many depersonalizing or externally imposed meta-narratives that it’s generated.  Schwartz explores this spiritual aspect of Mann’s work, most especially as it relates to PE, but also connecting it to the (more explicitly spiritual) works of directors like Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, to name a few).  Schwartz proceeds to give us his own understanding of what Mann had accomplished in PE, and this is despite there being a problematic, irreconcilable set of interpretations as he himself admits: “Interpreting Public Enemies is troubling because it has theological and philosophical precepts that are rife with contradictions.”  This should be entirely expected however when PE is considered within the broader context of Michael Mann’s work generally, for Mann’s entire milieu is formulated on paradox:

“Michael Mann is a director of contradictions: aesthetic and didactive, abstract and concrete, phantasmagorical and brutally tactile, expressionistic and anthropological, heralding the individual and demanding social responsibility, bold experimenter and studio genre administrator, romantic and futurist, Dillinger freedom seeker and Hoover control freak, outsider and insider.”

Regardless of this paradoxical nature that is ubiquitous throughout Mann’s filmography, Schwartz provides a light to take us through a poetic journey of Mann’s work and his vision, most especially through a meticulous view of PE, and all within a rich and vividly structured context centered on the significance of, and relation between, freedom, control, and of course, the future.  His reference to “the future” in OTM is multi-dimensional to say the least, and the one I personally find the most interesting, cohesive, and salient.  Among other things, it’s referring to John Dillinger’s hyper-focused projection toward the future, where his identity is much more defined by where he wants to be (an abstract, utopian future that is “off the map,” or free from the world of control and surveillance) rather than defined by where he’s been (fueled by the obvious fact that he’s always on the run), and this is so even if he also seems to be stuck in the present, with Dillinger’s phenomenology as well as the film’s structure often traversing from one fleeting moment to the next.  But I think we can take Dillinger at his own word as he tells his true love, Billie Frechette, after whisking her away to dine in a high-class restaurant: “That’s ‘cuz they’re all about where people come from.  The only thing that’s important, is where somebody’s going.” 

This conception of “the future” is also referencing the transcendent quality of being human, where our identity is likewise defined in large part by the future, our life projects, and our striving to become a future version of ourselves, however idealized or mythologized that future-self conception may be (I think it’s fair to say Dillinger’s was, to a considerable degree).  The future is a reference to where our society is heading, how our society is becoming increasingly automated, taken over by a celeritously expanding cybernetic infrastructure of control, evolving and expanding in parallel with technology and our internet-catalyzed global interconnectedness.  Our lives are being built upon increasing layers of abstraction as our form of organized life continues to trudge along its chaotic arc of cultural evolution, and we’re losing more and more of our personal freedom as a result of evermore external influences, operating on a number of different levels (socially, politically, technologically), known and unknown, consciously and unconsciously.  In PE, the expanding influences were best exemplified by the media, the mass-surveillance, and of course Hoover’s Bureau and administration, along with the arms race taking place between Dillinger’s crew and the FBI (where the former gave the latter a run for their money).

As Schwartz explains about J. Edgar’s overreach of power: “Hoover’s Bureau is increasingly amoral as it reaches for a kind of Hobbesian, sovereign super control.”  Here of course we get our first glimpse of a noteworthy dualism, namely freedom and control, and the myriad of ways that people corrupt institutions (as Davidson explored in his foreword), though contrary to Davidson’s claim, it seems undeniable to surmise that once an institution has become corrupted by certain people, that institution is more likely to corrupt other individuals, both internally and externally (and thus, institutions do corrupt individuals, not merely the other way around).  If bad ideas are engineered into our government’s structure, our laws, our norms, our capitalist market, or any other societal system, they can seemingly take off on their own, reinforced by the structure itself and the automated information processing that’s inherent to bureaucracies, the media, our social networks, and even inherent to us as individuals who are so often submerged in a barrage of information.

Relating Hoover to the power and influence of the media, Schwartz not only mentions the fact that PE is undoubtedly “conscientious of how media semiotics affect and control people,” but he also mentions a piece of dialogue that stood out to me as well, where FBI Director Hoover (Billy Crudup) just got out of the Congressional Hearing Room, having been chastised by Senator McKellar (Ed Bruce), and he says to his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Chandler Williams): “If we will not contest him in his committee room, we will fight him on the front page,” showing us a glimpse of the present day where news (whether “fake” news or not), and the overall sensationalism of a story is shown to be incredibly powerful at manipulating the masses and profoundly altering our trajectory, one (believed) story at a time.  If you can get somebody to believe the story, whether based on truth or deception, the battle is half won already.  Even Dillinger himself, who’s own persona is wrapped in a cloud of mythology, built up by Hollywood and the media’s portrayal of his life and image, shows us in a very concrete way, just how far deception can get you.

For example, Schwartz reminds us of how Dillinger managed to escape through six doors of Crown Point jail with nothing other than a mock gun made of wood.  Well, nothing but a mock gun and a hell of a good performance, which is the key point here, since the gun was for all practical purposes real.  By the time Dillinger breaks into Warden Baker’s office to steal some Tommy guns before finishing his escape, Warden Baker (David Warshofsky) even says to him “That wasn’t real was it?,” which resonated with the idea of how powerful persuasion and illusion can be in our lives, and maybe indirectly showing us that what is real to us in the ways that matter most is defined by what’s salient to us in our raw experience and what we believe to be true since that’s all that affects our behavior anyway.  The guards believed Dillinger’s mock gun was real, and so it was real, just as a false political campaign promise is real, or a bluffed winning-hand in poker, or any other force, whether operating under the pretenses of honesty or deception, pushing us individually and collectively in one direction or another.

The future is also a reference to Michael Mann’s 2015 cyberthriller Blackhat—a movie that Mann had been building up to, and a grossly underappreciated one at that, with various degrees of its foreshadowing in PE.  This progression and relation between PE and Blackhat is in fact central to Schwartz’s principle aim in OTM:

“My aim in this book is to explore Public Enemies as an extraordinary accomplishment against a backdrop of other digital films, its meditations on the form precipitating Blackhat, Mann’s stunning and widely ignored cyberthriller that converts the movie-house celluloid of its predecessors into a beguiling labyrinth of code that’s colonized the heretofore tangible firmament right under our noses.”

And what an extraordinary accomplishment it is; and fortunately for us we’re in a better position to appreciate it after reading Schwartz’s highly perceptive analysis of such a phenomenal artist.  In PE, the future is essentially projected into the past, which is interesting to me in its own right, since this is also the case with human memory, where we reconstruct our memories upon recall in ways that are augmented by, and amalgamated with, our present knowledge, despite not having such knowledge when the memory itself was first formed.  So too in PE, we see a number of questions posed especially as it relates to the existentialist movement, which hadn’t been well-developed or nearly as influential until some time after the 1930s (especially after WWII, with the advent of existential philosophers including Sartre, Camus, and Heidegger), and as it relates to the critical theory stemming from the Frankfurt School of social research (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.), neither of which being nearly as pertinent or socially and politically relevant then as they are now in the present day.  And this is where Blackhat becomes decidedly apropos.

So what future world was foreshadowed in PE?  Schwartz describes the world in Blackhat as an utterly subliminal and cybernetic realm: “The world is pattern recognition and automatic information processing, the stuff of advertising.”  Though I would argue that our entire phenomenology is fundamentally based on pattern recognition where our perception, imagination, actions, and even desires are mediated by the models of the world’s causal structure that our brains create and infer through our experiences.  But this doesn’t mean that our general schema of pattern recognition hasn’t been influenced by modernity such that we’ve become noticeably more automated, and where many have seemingly lost their capacity for contemplative reflection and lost the historically less-hindered psychological channel between reason and emotion.  The Blackhat world Schwartz is describing here is one where the way information is being processed is relatively alien to the more traditional conceptions of what it means to be human.  And this cybernetic world is a world where cultural and technological evolution are accelerating far faster than our biological evolution ever could (though genetic engineering has the potential to re-synchronize the two if we dedicate ourselves to such an ambitious project), and this bio-cultural desynchronization has made us increasingly maladapted to the Digital Age we’ve now entered.  Furthermore, this new world has made us far more susceptible to subliminal, corporatocratic and sociopolitical influences, and it has driven us toward an increasing reliance on a cybernetically controlled way of life.

The social relevance of these conceptions makes Blackhat a much-needed lens for fully appreciating our current existential predicament, and as Schwartz says of Mann’s (perhaps unavoidably ironic) digital implementation of this somewhat polemical techno-thriller:

“Conversely, Mann’s embrace of the digital is a paradoxical realization of tactile historical and spatial phenomenology, lucidly picturing an end of identity, while leaping, as through faith, toward the possibility of individuation in nature, free from institutional conscriptions and the negative assignments of cybernetics.”

Schwartz illustrates that concomitant with identity, “… the film prompts us to ask where nature ends and the virtual begins,” though perhaps we could also infer that in Blackhat there’s somewhat of a dissolution of the boundary (or at least a feeling of arbitrariness regarding how the boundary is actually defined) between the real and the virtual, the natural and the artificial, the human and the transhuman.  And maybe each of these fuzzy boundaries implies how best to resolve the contradictions in Mann’s work that Schwartz describes in OTM, with this possible resolution coming about through a process of symbiotic fusion or some kind of memetic “speciation” transitionally connecting what seem to be distinct concepts through a brilliantly structured narrative.

And to take the speciation analogy even further, I think it can also be applied to the changes in filmmaking and culture (including the many changes that Schwartz covers in his tour de force), where many of the changes are happening so gradually that we simply fail to notice them, at least not until a threshold of change has occurred.  But there’s also a punctuated equilibrium form of speciation in filmmaking, where occasionally a filmmaker does something extraordinary in one fell swoop, setting the bar for a new genre of cinema, just as James Cameron arguably did with the heavily CGI-amalgamated world in Avatar (with his planet Pandora “doubling for the future of cinema [itself]…” as Schwartz mentions), and to a somewhat lesser technological extent, in Michael Mann’s PE, where even though the analog to digital leap had already been made by others, “Mann’s distinctly idiosyncratic use of HD cameras rattled viewers with its alien video-ness, explicating to viewers that they were perched on a separate filmic architecture that may require a new way of seeing.”

Similarly in Blackhat, Mann takes us through seamless transitions of multiple scales of both time and space, opening up a window that allows us to see how mechanized and deterministic our modern world is, from the highest cosmological scales, down to cities populated with an innumerable number of complex yet predictable humans, and finally down to the digital information processing schema at the micro and nanotechnological scales of transistors.  Within each perspective level, we fail to notice the causal influences operating at the levels above or below, and yet Mann seamlessly joins these together, showing us a kind of fractal recapitulation that we wouldn’t otherwise fully appreciate.  After reflecting on many of the references to freedom Schwartz posits in OTM, I’ve begun to more seriously ponder over the idea that human freedom is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, dependent on one’s awareness of what is being controlled by another, what is predictable and what isn’t, and one’s perception of what constitutes self-authored behavior or a causa sui formulation of free will.  Once we realize that, at the smallest scales, existence is governed by deterministic processes infused with quantum randomness, it is less surprising to see the same kind of organized, predictable causal structure at biological, sociological, and even cosmological scales.

Aside from Blackhat, Schwartz seamlessly ties together a number of Mann’s other films including Thief, Miami Vice, and my personal favorite, Heat.  There’s also a notable progression or at least an underlying and evolving conceptual structure connecting characters and ideas from one film to the next (above and beyond the transition from PE to Blackhat), as Schwartz eloquently points out, which I see as illustrating how various salient psychological and sociological forces and manifestations are so often reiterated in multiple contexts varying in time and space.  Clearly Mann is building off of his previous work, adapting previous ideas to new narratives, and doing so while continuously trying to use, as Schwartz puts it: “alchemic cinema tools to open a window and transform our perception,” thus giving us a new way to view the world and our own existential status.

An important dynamic that Schwartz mentions, not only as it pertains to Mann’s films, but of (especially well-crafted) films in general, is the notable interplay between the audience and the film or “the image.”  The image changes us, which in turn changes the image ad infinitum, establishing a feedback loop and a co-evolution between the viewer’s interpretation of the film as it relates to their own experiences, and the ongoing evolution of every new cinematic product.  There may be some indoctrinatory danger in this cycle if the movie you’re engaging with is a mass-produced product, since this product is, insofar as it’s mass-produced, deeply connected to “the system”, indeed the very same system trying to capture John Dillinger in PE.  And yet, even though the mass-produced product is a part of the system, and despite its being a cog in the wheel of what we might call a cybernetic infrastructure of control, Schwartz highlights an important potentiality in film viewing that is often taken for granted:

“…The staggering climax inside the Biograph beseeches us to aspire to the images conscientiously, reconciling the mass-produced product with our private histories and elevating the picture and our lives with the media.”

In other words, even in the case of mass-produced cinema, we as viewers stand to potentially gain a valuable experience, and possibly a spiritual or philosophical one at that by our forming a personal relationship with the film, synthesizing the external stimuli with our inner sense of self, coalescing with the characters and integrating them into our own relationships and to ourselves, thus expanding our set of perspectives by connecting to someone “off the map”.  On the other hand, Schwartz also mentions Herbert Marcuse’s views, which aptly describes the inherent problem of art insofar as it becomes a part of “the system”:

“…Herbert Marcuse writes that as long as art has become part of the system, it ceases in questioning it, and thus impedes social change.  Poetic language must transcend the “real” world of the society, and in order to transcend that world it must stand opposed to it, questioning it, quelling us out of it.”

But we need also realize that art will inevitably be influenced by the system, because there are simply too many subliminal or even explicit system-orchestrated ideas that the artist (and everyone else in society) has been instilled with, even if entirely unbeknownst to them.  It seems that the capacity for poetic language to transcend the real world of the society lies in its simply providing any new perspective at all, making use of allegory, metaphor, and the crossing of contextual boundaries, and it can do so even if this new perspective doesn’t necessarily or explicitly oppose some other (even mainstream) perspective.

This is most definitely not to in any way discount Marcuse’s overarching point of how art’s connection to the system is a factor that limits its efficacy in enacting social change and its ability to positively feed the public’s collective stream of consciousness, but merely to point out that art’s propensity for transcending the status quo isn’t entirely inhibited from its unavoidable connection to the system.  And to once again bring us back to the scene in PE where Dillinger is fully absorbing (or being fully absorbed by) his viewing of Manhattan Melodrama in the Biograph theater, Schwartz seems to describe the artistic value of a film as something at least partially dependent on whether or not it facilitates a personal and transcendent experience in any of the viewers:

“Cinema is elevated to a ceremony of transubstantiation where fixed bodies are resurrected through the mercurial alchemy of speed and light, contradicting the consumption we saw earlier during the newsreel.  Dillinger’s connection to cinema is a meditative and private one…”

I think it’s fair to say that, if there’s anything that can elevate our own experience of Mann’s work in particular, and film viewing more generally, Schwartz’s Off the Map is a great philosophical and spiritual primer to help get us there.  Both comprehensive and brilliantly written, Schwartz’s contribution to film scholarship should become required reading for anybody interested in cinema and film viewing.