Cynicism, Freedom, and the (Neo-Liberal) Polis
by Phil Hutchinson
|Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
For a low-budget sci-fi film by an unknown director, Gareth Edwards’ 2010 film Monsters received a considerable amount of pre-release publicity in the UK, publicity that mainly focussed on the (relatively) small budget and Edwards’ impressive ability to multitask. Edwards had previously worked as a digital visual effects designer and Monsters was his first feature as director and screenwriter. Seemingly undaunted by embarking on his first stint in the director’s chair, Edwards also took on the task of designing the digital visual effects on a consumer PC located in his bedroom.
By current Hollywood standard, Monsters was produced on a tiny budget, employing both standard guerrilla film-making techniques, such as making use of members of the public to play roles in the film while on location, and innovative techniques available to Edwards because of his CGI skills and the advances in consumer PC processing power. This meant that while on location Edwards could shoot scenes in the borrowed premises of his amateur actors and then render those ‘sets’ very cost-effectively in post-production back home in his bedroom on his own PC.
This would not have been a money-saving strategy if Edwards had been obliged to employ digital video effects designers to do this work in a post-production studio. His ability to carry-out this work at home on his own consumer-class PC transformed a hitherto costly and therefore luxury procedure into a contemporary addition to the guerrilla film-maker’s lexicon of techniques. So, for example, in one pivotal scene in the film, we see the central characters, Andrew and Sam, in a ‘ticket office’, which was in reality a café. The ‘actor’ who in the film sells the ticket to Sam and Andrew is the café proprietor, the ‘ticket office’ in which the scene takes place is the café digitally transformed in post-production (the menu on the wall is transformed in to a map of the “infected zone”).
These stories are interesting and serve to make Edwards’ achievement as a first-time writer-director even more impressive; they might even ultimately serve to give him a status and mystique comparable to that enjoyed by Werner Herzog, based on the parallels between the story of Edwards making Monsters and that of the young Werner Herzog travelling to Peru with a stolen camera to make Aguirre: The Wrath of God (on which, more later). However, I would like here to shift the emphasis away from Edwards’ practical and innovative resourcefulness and his standing as the person who has given us cause to reassess our ideas about guerrilla film making. My argument in what follows is that Monsters stands as an example of film as political philosophy.
I shall suggest ways in which Edwards’ film can be read as a philosophical meditation on, and maybe even a therapeutic dialogue exploring, the extent to which a certain conception of freedom, which is currently predominant, becomes, via cynicism, a destructive un-freedom; where, in the name of freedom, individuals and their societies imprison themselves, both psychologically and practically. Furthermore, I want to suggest that we find expressed in the film the thought that achieving liberation from such a destructive conception of freedom-as-non-freedom is only genuinely possible politically, through institutionalised, organised collective action.
The point I want to make is that the film (rather brutally it transpires) offers the attentive viewer the thought that individual realisation of, and attempted flight from, such a destructive conception of un-freedom and politics is simply not secure without societal and institutional transformation. The film implicitly contains an argument against ‘voluntaryism’. Voluntaryism is the thought that it is enough merely for individuals to change their behaviour to institute sustainable political change and this thought, I will argue, is little more than a politico-conceptual artefact of the descent into cynicism that the film helps one work through. Moreover, it is, arguably, the somewhat brutal rejection of voluntaryism that serves to frame the whole film.
Before I commence, a word of caution: In what follows I bring out some of the threads that make up the film by way of example. I believe the film has many such threads, and there is more in it than it is possible for me to cover here in this paper. Repeated viewings pay dividends.
Cynics and Cynicism
Diogenes of Synope is something of an Ancient ideologue, who in place of the written word engaged in public acts, designed to both shock and unsettle his peers with a view to dislodging them from their complacent acceptance of constraints upon their individual freedom. When I write ‘unsettle’, I don’t mean simply that he set out to emotionally unsettle them (though he does seem to have achieved that), I mean, rather, that he meant to unsettle their latent assumptions about the extent or degree of their own freedom. He wanted to show them that their shock, their disgust and their condemnation of his actions were themselves expressive of the extent to which they were unwitting captives of their culture’s norms (or rules). We might say their disgust evidenced that aspect of their self that is the encultured self (what in Aristotelian terms we might call their second nature).
|Diogenes of Synope|
The contemporary use of the word ‘cynic’ and ‘cynical’ might be thought to have departed somewhat from what knowledge of its etymology tells us. It has evolved, it seems. But let us think for a moment about how the word is now used. A ‘cynic’ in contemporary parlance is one who stands at distance from the norms of his own culture (and possibly those of other cultures too), and treats with a degree of scepticism those norms blindly followed his peers. Furthermore, he sees those social norms which demand of him that he act in the service of things beyond self-interest as illegitimate impositions. Because, for the cynic, it is self-interest that motivates individuals, and therefore culturally-bestowed norms that demand individuals to act in anything other than self-interest are no more than illegitimate impositions.
But cynicism goes further than this, because the cynic is also committed to the belief that others act in their own self-interest, irrespective of whether they claim to do otherwise. The cynic assumes that appearances and claims notwithstanding, the world is populated by self-interested individuals. The cynic takes him- or herself to be a seer, seeing through the artifice of altruism, of demands for and expectations of compassion and so on. Alternatively, or in addition, the cynic might see themselves as having greater courage; refusing to comfort themselves with self-serving myths of the virtuous person; the cynic has the courage to see things as they really are: all is self-interest.
I want to emphasise the aspect of cynicism which is related to ideas of freedom. My thought is that a politics in which pure negative liberty—freedom conceived purely in terms of individuals being free from constraints on their ability to do as they choose—is the primary goal, axiom even, where the political community is structured in the service of pure negative liberty only, is a context in which cynicism is likely to flourish. Put another way, a society in which all talk of freedom is framed in terms of the removal of constraints (pure negative freedom), and not as putting into place enabling conditions (positive freedom), is a society where it is possible to see such things as duty to another, which might flow from love, or care, or compassion, as impositions, as trammels on one’s freedom. A preoccupation with pure negative liberty militates against loving, caring and being compassionate. It will militate against trusting that others might, in a non-self-interested way, hold the wellbeing of their peers, both familiars and strangers, as important; it has a corrosive effect on trust. Indeed, cynicism which might flow from an obsession with negative liberty ultimately militates against acknowledging the humanity of others.
Following the explanatory text providing the viewer with the backstory, the film commences with a military-shot night-sight scene, involving some army vehicles carrying US soldiers. As the scene begins we hear one of the soldiers whistling Ride of the Valkyries, and remarking that it is his “theme tune”. This is one of a few references to 'Apocalypse Now' in the film (the film contains numerous references to classic river journey films: Apocalypse Now & Aguirre: The Wrath of God being the most obvious). As the night-sight scene unfolds chaos ensues: there is much shouting, screaming, and gunfire; we briefly glimpse a large cephalopod-like creature; the camera shakes and frightened soldiers and civilians are running in and out of shot, as the camera person also seems to be running. We then cut abruptly to an aerial shot, which we come to realize is a point-of-view shot from a fighter jet, which targets and then launches missiles at the creature. The viewer is left unclear as to what ultimately has taken place in all the chaos.
|Opening scene of Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
The film cuts immediately to a daylight scene of relative calm, in which we are properly introduced to one of the two main protagonists: Andrew Calder. As the film introduces us to him, Andrew is making his way through a Mexican city as a passenger on a motorcycle taxi; shortly thereafter he is climbing across a bombsite, stills camera in-hand, asking those clearing the site for directions to the hospital. We are provided glimpses of parts of a dead creature, which serves to convey to the viewer the mundanity, the everydayness, of the sight (and site) of both a bombsite and a dead extra-terrestrial for those present: the partially visible carcass seems of no interest to any of those who populate this scene. We later learn that Andrew has been tasked with escorting back to the USA the daughter, Sam, of the owner of the magazine for which he works as photographer. He undertakes the task under protest.
Sam is engaged to be married and has come to Mexico for reasons not specified, though one is led to believe that she is there to ‘clear her head’. While she explicitly professes to be ready for marriage, there are numerous clues that testify to her having reservations. She is at the hospital as an out-patient, having sprained her wrist, and it is for this reason that Andrew has been tasked with escorting her back to the USA. The question as to why one man (her father) feels the need to task another man (his employee) to escort her home is, I suggest, relevant.
|'Sam and Andrew', Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
What we learn is that to travel from where they are in Mexico back to the USA entails crossing or bypassing the fenced-off Infected Zone, a zone which has been relinquished to the extra-terrestrial cephalopods. We further learn that the creatures are migratory, and every year, for certain months of the year, the creatures migrate down the rivers and out to sea. The Mexicans seem to have grown accustomed and to accept living alongside the creatures. Throughout the course of the film we see graffiti depicting the creatures. It pays the viewer to pay close attention to this graffiti.
|Graffiti in Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
Andrew and Sam travel to a ‘border’ town, located on the edge of the Infected Zone, with a view to securing passage to the US. They reach the town the day before the official start of the migratory season and at huge cost purchase a ticket for Sam to take the last boat to the US, which leaves the following morning. However, following a night together drinking Tequila, Sam retires to her room alone, while Andrew, having failed in his attempt to persuade Sam to sleep with him, continues to drink, gets drunk and takes a stranger back to his hotel room. The next morning the stranger steals their passports and Sam’s ticket. Sam misses the last boat.
Andrew and Sam return to the travel agent and, using Sam’s engagement ring, pay to be illegally ‘trafficked’ by river and land through the Infected Zone. In the course of their journey we see overgrown, abandoned and in many cases burnt- and bombed-out buildings (such as hotels). Where humans have fled the Infected Zone, nature is reclaiming the environment. As noted above, there are strong visual allusions and even direct references to classic river journey films. In such films the journeys serve a number of intersecting purposes: they serve to show us that in so much that rivers can be dangerous and unpredictable, people are fragile and not in control of, but often subject to, their natural environment.
|The 'infected zone', Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
Moreover, nature is at one and the same time beautiful and brutally morally indifferent; if one expects it to be otherwise one has confused or collapsed the aesthetic and the ethical. In a more figurative sense, the river journey serves as a metaphor for a psychic, emotional or existential journey: e.g. the encroachment of nature on the human world represents the encroachment of the emotional on the rational, as emotions become excessive emotions and take hold, ultimately consuming the rational capacities of those who have descended into psychological pathology. The obvious allusions Edwards furnishes us with are to Herzog’s magisterial and profound Aguirre: Wrath of God and to Coppola’s now almost mythical Apocalypse Now, and the documentary of its filming: Hearts of Darkness. (I’d be happy to be corrected, but I believe maybe much less so to The African Queen…) I want to suggest that it is important to appreciate the way in which Edwards works in parallel with these two classic river journey films and the way in which he subverts crucial elements of them (and that of their source of inspiration in Joseph Conrad’s original novel, Heart of Darkness).
|Nature in Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
It transpires then that the wall has failed, and as Sam and Andrew enter the US and head North they pass through a recently-bombed and deserted US town, before arriving at an abandoned gas station after nightfall. From here Andrew telephones for rescue and they each then telephone loved ones—Andrew calls his estranged 6 year old son, who, we learn earlier in the film, does not know that Andrew is his father; Sam calls her fiancé. As they end their calls, their transformation is almost complete: Andrew allows himself to be emotional and slides to the ground, finally acknowledging the emotional significance of his estrangement from a son who is not allowed to know that Andrew is his father. Sam finally acknowledges to herself that she doesn’t want to marry.
As Andrew and Sam await the rescue, two creatures converge on the gas station and seem to engage in some sort of greeting, maybe even copulation. Sam and Andrew watch, awestruck, and then they kiss. The moment is shattered by the arrival of their military ‘rescue’ team.
|Gas-station scene in Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
Ultimately, Sam and Andrew ‘complete’ their journey, in that they make it back to the USA. But their journey has changed them both. By the time they arrive at the US border, to be confronted by a huge newly-constructed border wall, constructed in an attempt to keep out or stop the further encroachment of the creatures, they are no longer sure they want to go home. To their eyes, home no longer looks so appealing or welcoming.
It is here then that one sees Edwards’ subversion of the standard river journey film conclusion/terminus: in Edwards’ hands the heart of darkness is not the heart of nature, where 'nature' is to be understood as the contrast class of 'urban', nor is the heart of darkness the heart of the jungle, where civilization is absent, as in both Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Rather, in Edwards’ hands, our protagonists’ return to the ‘civilization’ they have been journeying toward transpires to be an arrival at a new perspective on that ‘civilization’. From the perspective afforded them by their experiences, by their existential growth in the course of their journey, they now see the extent to which what they had taken to be civilization has in fact negated itself in and through its obsession with waging war on nature. Arriving home is to enter the heart of darkness.
Andrew’s JourneyOne narrative thread that is central to the philosophy of Monsters is the story of Andrew’s existential blossoming. Andrew, as the film unfolds, transforms from one who cynically views others as objects and baggage, (albeit possibly a strategy developed as a psychological defence mechanism, developed so to allow him to carry-out his job as a ‘war’ photographer and so as to allow him to distance himself emotionally from the enforced estrangement from his son) to a person who allows himself to become emotionally engaged and acknowledge the humanity of others and the claim they exercise on him in virtue of the humanity they share with him.
This blossoming, this existential journey is evidenced through the stages flagged in the film: at the outset, Sam only registers on Andrew’s radar as an imposition; he only agrees to escort her to the border under protest and because he is instructed to do so by his employer, who is also Sam’s father. At this stage it is clear that, for Andrew, Sam registers as little more than extra baggage that he has not only been forced to carry but also go out of his way to deliver. She serves as no more than a restriction on his freedom. Andrew’s persona is one of the jovial cynic, the “slacker”, as that term came to be used to refer to the “Generation Xers”. In the course of the film, he makes a number of remarks in an attempt to justify this outlook, remarks which appeal to the way the world really is. For example, in response to Sam’s remark that as a 'war' photographer he is profiting from death, he responds: “You mean like a Doctor?”
As their journey progresses, Sam starts to figure as more than simply baggage and becomes for him an object of sexual desire. This first becomes apparent at the border town as they spend the evening together drinking and eating. Where hitherto he had shown scant interest in Sam, he now employs his own brand of ‘slacker’ charm. Nevertheless, at this stage, though Sam has transformed for Andrew from nothing more than an inconvenient imposition she still remains simply an object, only now one of desire. At this point, there is for the viewer, if not for Andrew, a deeper connection developing: their rapport.
The following morning marks the next stage in Andrew’s transformation. On seeing Sam’s reaction to his sleeping with someone else, he finds himself wanting to mitigate that reaction. This triggers his growing awareness of his emergent non-instrumental attachment to her. Their brief conversation at the quayside is multi-layered: Andrew: “what are YOU doing Sam?” “WHAT are YOU doing?” He still can’t talk about his own feelings. His cynicism is so deeply-rooted that when it, his cynicism, begins to whither he externalises his own transformation.
His transformation thus first appears through his probing questions about her emotions, though crucially asked in a manner that would enable him to disavow that aspect of their meaning and intent. He asks Sam what she is doing in a manner that suggests to those viewing that he is asking about the life choice she is making in leaving him there to return to get married, while at the same time he does so in a manner that he can deny or disavow, by saying he was simply asking her why she ran from his room or why she is stood talking to him on the quayside rather than boarding the boat. Asking the question in this way, leaving its point and therefore meaning hovering, allows Andrew to deny to himself that he has grown emotionally attached to Sam. It allows him plausible deniability.
Andrew's question is, however, one that can only be asked by someone interested in the thoughts of his interlocutor. Sam has thus transformed in Andrew’s eyes from imposition on his freedom to pursue his goals, through mere object of desire, to a person about whose emotions he is concerned. But right now, he is in a state of denial about this. This marks the point at which we might say of Andrew that he hands back his membership of the Cynic movement, albeit of the contemporary slacker, Gen X, variety. Andrew begins to care for Sam, and as a consequence grow, himself, as a human being. This budding non-instrumental attachment slowly blossoms as he (while retaining his distinctive persona) comes to care more and more, through exhibiting the ordinary virtues of care, compassion and love. As the story unfolds, so does Andrew’s new-found humanity, opening out to include others too.
Further viewings of the film with this narrative thread in mind pay dividends. One sees much further evidence for Andrew’s existential transformation away from his cynicism. In one of the most significant scenes in this regard, we see Andrew confronted by the body of a recently killed child. What is obvious to the viewer is that he doesn’t photograph the child’s body, what is more important is that he seeks to give her dignity in death by covering her corpse with his coat and placing a flower on it. The decision to take time to provide dignity for the dead is a mark of a non-instrumental humane attitude, an attitude that sees dignity as both of importance and irreducible to the interests of the living, those who survive the dead. Where we would have expected the Andrew to whom we were introduced at the opening of the film to have photographed the child, now Andrew not only chooses not to do so, but he unpacks his camera bag to find something beyond the photographic equipment, a coat, with which to cover the body and provide the child dignity in death.
This scene, Andrew’s actions here, partially echoes themes found in the writing of J.M. Coetzee; I’m thinking in particular of Disgrace, and the protagonist’s partial redemption through his volunteer work preparing unwanted euthanized dogs for cremation. The point is that there is in such actions a recognition that virtue transcends, reaches beyond, the interests of individuals. In such actions we gesture toward our commitment to the tacit belief that norms of behavior that emerge from virtuous action transcend and are irreducible to the interests of individuals and/or to contractual requirements, whether tacit or explicit. To paraphrase the Bengali hummanist poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, the good life is not achieved through attachment and possessions but in giving-up oneself to ideas that transcend one's interests and one's own individual life. (One might contrast this here to the world as suggested by the Social Contract tradition, whereby ethico-political concerns are justified in terms of individuals having entered into a social contract).
The final example of Andrew’s transformation that I will discuss is that of the way in which he relates to his relationship with his son. As the viewer learns about this in the film, Andrew’s discussion of it is detached and sometimes flippant. In one scene, while he and Sam are on a river boat, he tells her the story of how a year after a brief sexual encounter he received a telephone call in which he was informed that he had a son, that he could know his son, but that his son could not know that Andrew was his father. Andrew tells the story in his now-familiar detached slacker style, and as he sees that the story has darkened the mood (Sam looks moved to sadness by the story) he immediately tries to lighten the mood by asking a deliberately trivial, flippant question, which has obvious connotations: “so.., you got any pets?”
In the gas station scenes at the end of the film we see that the way he relates to his relationship with his son has changed. Rather than engaging in various distancing strategies, Andrew now allows himself to react emotionally to the telephone conversation with his son. He feels, in an emotionally engaged way, his loss of fatherhood. He slides to the ground crying. This is the final increment in the film’s depiction of Andrew’s existential blossoming. Now he can stop viewing the creatures as objects for filmic consumption—instrumentally. He can stop seeing the world through the distorting lens of cynicism, whereby all demands, including emotional ones arising from his own emotions, are seen as potential fetters on one’s freedom. Just as his tying of his persona to the lens of his camera made him see that and those—people, dead bodies, destruction and the creatures—on whom he gazed as instruments in the service of his own self-interest, the lens provided by his cynicism afforded him the justification for his instrumentalism.
|Monsters, dir. Gareth Edwards (2010)|
The World Viewed, The World Framed
The preoccupation with the lens that I am suggesting is evident in Monsters also operates figuratively such that the film is also concerned to explore the way in which our world is framed by our values: a commitment to cynicism frames the world in a particular way. Seen through the lens of cynicism, others, one’s own emotional attachments, and the virtues of care, compassion, honesty, integrity and love, will inevitably be seen as impositions, as alien constraints on one’s freedom to do as one desires.
Ironically, this is one of the insights of the Ancient Cynics, the extent to which one’s second nature, one’s encultured self, was so natural as to be not even noticed by most (non-cynics). Here we are turning this claim of the Ancient Cynics on its head: cynicism is not freedom from enculturation but just one among a number of ethics. For the Ancient Cynics it was a self-consciously arrived at ethic, a philosophy for life, like Stoicism that came later. For contemporary variants, I am suggesting, it is often a spontaneously arrived at philosophy, or ethic, arrived at owing to a distorted or partial conception of freedom. We might therefore suggest that in contrast, seen through the lens of what we might call the ethic of compassion (the ethical life that involves tutelage in and establishment of an environment in which the ordinary virtues can flourish), the world, one’s emotional being, and others will look very different.
What Are You Doing?
Unlike the framing of the mechanical, though in other respects not un-cephalopod-like, alien invaders in Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, the extra-terrestrial cephalopods in Monstersare here because of our actions. Spielberg (and Wells) makes things very straightforward: the extra-terrestrials are hidden inside their machines of destruction, their Weapons of Mass Destruction, and they are overtly aggressive and murderous. But even having noted this, is there, as Wells and Spielberg implicitly suggest through their framing of the story, simply no prospect of diplomacy: the extra-terrestrials appear and fire on us, we engage them militarily. The fight is to the death.
Edwards frames things a little differently in his film: we’re (we have become, in the militarised, neo-liberal west) monsters, such that it never occurs to us that having kidnapped and stranded these creatures here, far away from the home from which we snatched them, we should try to live alongside them, try to accommodate them, welcome them, show them compassion. Instead, we would rather wage war so that we can go on living our lives just the same as we did before. We treat them like intruders; we see the ways in which they go about their lives not as interesting, not as something we ought to try to understand and respect, not as something we should maybe even support, but as something threatening and disruptive of our existing and settled way of life, and as thus something to be controlled with violence. Yes, they are very different to us, but should we relate to them as Spielberg has humanity relating to the mechanised cephalopod-like extra-terrestrials in his War of the Worlds?
After their night out at the ‘border’ town drinking tequila, as Sam stands at the doorway to her hotel room, a drunk Andrew says to her, “did you know that Dolphins can hold their breath for 12 minutes? They’re mammals.” Sam responds, “does that mean they have belly buttons”. That small section of dialogue resonates throughout the remainder of the film: the creatures are different, they are not humanoid, they are not even mammalian in appearance. Rather like the extra-terrestrials in the film District 9, the extent to which the extra-terrestrials in Monsters are depicted as alien to us is in their likeness to species with which we are familiar but which are, in evolutionary terms, distant from us.
In District 9 the extra-terrestrials are insect- or crustacean-like, derogatively referred to by the human characters as the “the prawns”. In both films, therefore, the alienating force of their appearance is achieved through their similarity to species on different branches of the evolutionary tree. Our alienation from them is not a fact of nature, but a result of our tendency to (mis-)read moral and political significance into biological classifications. Having taken the journey into the heart of darkness that Monsters invites us to take, we come to realise that the responsibility for finding the creatures alien lies with us. It fails to occur to us that they might be worthy of trying to communicate with (the creatures in the film are capable of and attempt communication), worthy of living alongside (the creatures live peacefully alongside humans until they come under attack), worthy of being seen as more than baggage to be shed (they are beings). This failure is our responsibility. The creatures are different, yes, and maybe they don’t have bellybuttons, but that biological difference does not amount to an observation that leads automatically to, that entails, an assumption about their moral status: that assumption is lens-dependent. That assumption results from a particular frame being in place. A politics freed of the ordinary virtues, where cynicism leads us to see the virtues as impediments to freedom, becomes a politics of fear, control and aggression. All becomes alien.