Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

What Dave was Doing: 2001, Terminators, Videodrome, and Feelings of Self-Entitlement

2001: A Space Odyssey opens with a twenty minute scene of apes discovering the most basic of tools—a bone—and utilizing it as a weapon, and ends with the sentient HAL computer consciously seeking the murder of its human counterparts. The film’s acid trippy denouement confounded scholars and critics for years—after a few scenes in space, Dave, the protagonist finds himself trapped in a Victorian-style bedroom, witnessing his own aging from within a space pod. After his decay and eventual death, audiences are treated to the iconic Space Baby of the closing shot. Though expanded upon in the novel, Kubrick’s Space Baby features no explanation—appears simply to fuck with the audience.

Or so we think.

The themes of 2001 aren’t that far removed from the Terminator series. Machines evolve to a degree of basic survival in both; initially utilized as a means of destruction, mankind inadvertently instills a level of authority in technology superseding their own, inevitably authoring their own demise. The singular difference propelling the Terminator series to pop fame and restraining 2001 to arthouse discussion is Terminator’s suggestion of mankind’s subsistance without technology; unlike Dave, who suffers a nervous breakdown after disconnecting a light on his ship, the Conners are invincible—overcome a cop who can mutate into metal spikes, hulking robotic Arnold Schwartzeneggers, and supersexy terminatrixes. In the world of The Terminator, technology is beyond us—separate; has become a villain on its own merit.

Unlike the unexplained malevolence of Skynet’s bots, 2001 explores the origins of technological warfare from its opening—shows how little we’ve advanced since primacy. It ties HAL’s instincts directly with our own and Dave’s breakdown with mankind’s dependence on technology. Kubrick’s artificial intelligence finds nature within man rather than in spite of him, and that’s why it’s utterly unsettling; accepting the film’s message necessitates accepting a co-dependence on machines—inanimate objects we created. In the food chain of 2001’s supercomputers we’re gods and slaves— Creators of that which destroyed us.

*****

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome follows Max Renn, a sleazy television exec who stumbles across foreign torture-porn while pirating satellite signals for new content on his exploit-station. After his girlfriend takes off on vacation, Renn suffers from macabre hallucinations of S&M encounters, stomach-vaginas, and intestinal gun-slinging (don’t ask). Various surrounding entities chant “Death to Videodrome! Long live the new flesh!” until Renn himself becomes “the video word made flesh”. Consumed by the world he simultaneously discovered and created, Renn destroys his image in the name of “Videodrome”—of scripted television. He allows a fictional reality to usurp his own.

Renn’s plight sounds ridiculous, but isn’t too far from our own.

*****

The 2008 documentary Poliwood chronicled several nation-wide protests condemning the merging of politics and Hollywood; citizens felt unjustly silenced in the face of celebrity-sponsored political campaigning, demanding a platform where their voices would equally be heard. In one especially telling scene a nameless Republican woman attacks Alec Baldwin, Elen Burstyn, Rachel Leigh Cooke and others for flouting their public notoriety in order to further political agendas. The woman’s feelings of self-entitlement are not without irony; her desire for a communal channel of political debate not only validates the use of celebrity in furthering political goals, but also overlooks the equality necessarily attributed to her by American democracy—her vote is her voice. The woman’s problem isn’t lacking rights—it’s lacking celebrity, as if the existence of more successful people somehow justified her elevation as a person, or even demanded it.

While discussing the nature of celebrity in Chuck Klosterman’s new book, Eating the Dinosaur, Christopher Heath stated:

We’re used to giving witness to one’s life as an important and noble counterpoint to being unheard, especially when applied to people in certain disadvantaged, oppressed, or unacceptable situations. But in a slightly more pathological way, I’m not sure we aren’t seeing the emergence of a society in which almost everyone who isn’t famous considers themselves cruelly and unfairly unheard. As though being famous, and the subject of wide attention, is considered to be a fulfilled human’s natural state.

Even in the brief period since Heath’s interview, Twitter has risen, giving perfectly average humans the ability to share their mundane lives in 140 characters or less. Ondi Timoner’s 2008/2009 We Live in Public addresses this fabricated celebrity within our culture by following the life of failed internet entrepreneur Josh Harris. Over the course of the film, Josh loses his fortune, lover, and privacy as the web slowly devours every facet of his being; compelled by devotion and eventual desperation, he turns his private life into little more than a web forum for people to witness and discuss—an endeavour ultimately leaving him bankrupt and alone.

Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, the Blogosphere, Text Messaging—all offer new paths to psuedocelebrity. People add friends they don’t know—have never met—and are compelled to keep these strangers abreast of tedious car-cleaning rituals or foot fungus pains. They compulsively check their phones for unseen texts, subconciously basking in their ill-conceived importance. New Media isn’t man’s liberator—it’s his master. It instills us with confidence that we’re being heard—validates our opinions and existence—but does so out of delusional co-dependence. During power outages and foreign travel people feel one of two ways about their technological separation: intense anxiety, like a child who’s lost its parent, or immense relief. There are few things more comforting than leaving your phone home for the day and even fewer things more stressful than losing a hard drive.

The more our culture becomes focused on scripting an identity to gain audiences, the less true identity we’ll  have. No longer will we ask “What should I do” but “What would be better to say I’ve done?”. Technology is not only changing the way we live, but also the way we think about living. The more we turn to inanimate objects for social interaction, the less we interact with actual society; New Media turns everyone’s lives into potential reality television—broadcasts the most intimate details of our personal lives, however fabricated they may be, for whoever cares to read.

And this is what brings us back to Space Baby. Dave’s breakdown is a reaction to his denial of technological assistance; by unplugging HAL, he essentially unplugs the foundation of man’s structured society. The death he witnesses is not his own—rather, it’s the demise of Dave’s former self, which embraced technology. The formation of Space Baby is Dave—and man’s—rebirth; the demarcation of an era free from technological destruction. Ironically, in order to rid ourselves of the delusional self-importance witnessed in Poliwood and cast upon American society by the web, we must unplug the umbilical cord we’ve so lovingly attached between ourselves and New Media. Identity can be formed only outside the realm of peers and audiences—cannot be expressed in 140 characters or less.

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