Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Escaping a certain fate: changing a frame of mind

I've always been struck by the overwhelmingly negative tenor of most cinematic imaginings of our future. The vast majority of science and fantasy fictive projections of our tomorrows posit a post-apocalyptic world: depressed, dark and barren. They often depict regressed societies forced to go primitive and trying to overcome and rebuild, or escape and survive.

There are of course exceptions, and my guess is that a lot of more positive renderings never make it into the mainstream culture outlets. Negativity sells, modern audiences have been trained to accept cynicism more easily than hope, and all the trends of our time incline the viewer toward cataclysmic thoughts.

I've watched two films recently that cast such dark gazes into our future selves, albeit with very different styles and settings. The first is action heavy with big Hollywood box office aspirations sprawled out across the sandy American southwest. The other is a quirky French art house project acted out with a wry sense of humor in the intimate apartments above a Parisian butcher shop.

Oddly both feature collapsed societies from the not-too-distant future that are dominated by those with a compulsion to devour human flesh. Buried in the blood and gore I tried to discover an abiding faith in the human capacity to circumvent the worst of circumstances, but these are some dire straits.

Part I – Resident Evil

Last weekend I went with a friend to see the recent release Resident Evil: Extinction. It was my introduction to this video-game inspired franchise, but I was able to get up to speed on its general premise pretty quickly. It's certainly not high-brow cinema, but there are elements of it that reflect the contemporary collective consciousness.

The broad outline of the back-story is that the evil Umbrella Corp. has unleashed a deadly virus on the world that turns the Earth's landscape into a uniformly barren desert, and evolves most of its denizens, both human and animal, into zombified mutants wanting nothing more than to chomp the innards of unlucky passersby.

The hero is a super-human, zombie-killing machine named Alice who was genetically modified by the bad guys who unleashed the viral menace. She's a modern female high-plains drifter, skirting her way through the dunes, helping any remaining normals in need, and trying to avoid both the zombies and the Umbrella Corp. henchman. Both sets of villains have a penchant for popping up unexpectedly as in the video game.

Alice's engineered blood holds the scientific key to an antidote, but the mad scientist of the story also sees the potential for using it as a serum to domesticate the zombies into a drone work force. Also traveling the abandoned roadways of the southwest are a convoy of poorly defined characters who have banded together to try to find an uncorrupted corner of the world where they can rebuild.

The film on the whole is little more than a loose story strung together around the money-making scenes filled with special effected explosions, crashes, stunts and gore. It is however an interesting little window into the general cultural cynicism of our time.

There is the mistrust of the corporate-owned science that is tinkering with every aspect of Nature in order to discover new profit-making mechanisms. There is the suspicion of a society over-run by mass mindlessness, where jobs have become so scarce and deskilled they can be performed by automatons. There is the fear of an environment decimated by our mismanagement; the earth returned to a wind-swept rock.

The limited vision of the authors can only offer up the clichéd biblical hope of a new Messiah to rise up out of the desert and deliver us from evil to a promised land. Interestingly, Alice, moses-like, is only able to lead this group exodus part-way toward their goal before going her own way. Of course, the story is to be continued.

Part II – Delicatessen

A few days before heading to the theater, I watched the DVD of the 1991 film Delicatessen. It's a visually clever, dark comedy set in a dystopic future France where domestic animals and their meat have gone extinct, grain is used for currency, and a rebel force of vegetarians roams the sewers. The butcher Clapet keeps his business going by luring unsuspecting tenants to the an apartment above his shop with the promise of free lodging in return for odd jobs.

The circus performer Luison stumbles into this trap, but stays one step ahead of the cannibalistic butcher's knife with the help of Clapet's daughter Julie, who falls for his clownish charm. Luison still looks at this collapsed world with rosé colored glasses, believing the brutality to which most have succumbed a symptom of necessity rather than a moral failing.

Attempting to rise above the abasement, the shadowy Troglodistes have gone underground to the sewers pursued by what remains of a governing authority. They're a well-intentioned but absurdly bumbling mercenary crew, bought off by Julie with promises of access to Clapet's store of corn in order to come to Luison's rescue. As with everything else in the film, nothing goes according to plan, but things work their way out for the best, Rube Goldberg style.

It's a meditation on the depths to which much of humanity will sink when abandoned by society and forced to rely on their own devices to survive. The tenants submit to Clapet's harsh rule to avoid the edge of his blade, and they line up for his ill-gotten goods because, driven by hunger, they've come to expect no better for or from themselves.

Louison, playing the wise fool, maintains his moral compass and survives precisely because of his naively optimistic outlook. His persistent grasp on the finer points of human nature keeps him from falling blindly into the tenants' bestial march to the slaughterhouse.

Conclusion – Escape

What fascinates me about these two so different films, and many others like them, is the sense of a world headed toward disaster that informs the reality of their futures. It's as if the collective creative consciousness detects an inescapably negative trend toward economic, social, environmental, and political collapse.

If such a gloomy feeling dominates our expectation of things to come, these worst-case prophecies may become self-fulfilling. We're at a critical moment in human history, and the choices we make today will shape our tomorrows. Allowing ourselves to be carried along on the tidal waves of suspicion, fear and apathy, we'll wash up on a recognizably arid shore.

It's not too late to pilot our way toward a more hospitable climate, but that will require some much more positive creativity. The innocence and honesty that most today disdain, may in fact hold the key to our survival. Looking at the world with naked eyes can reveal new possibilities.

That's how I escaped my certain fate
by Mission of Burma

This might be your only chance
to prove it on your own
Tulsa's not that ...
Tulsa's not that far

Besides if you stay
I'd feel a certain guilt
Did I hold you
Did I hold you back?

Can I count on you
If I fall apart?
Yeah, if I fall a...
If I fall apart?

That's how I escaped my certain fate
That's how I escaped my certain fate
Innocence, a novice's mistake!!!
That's how I escaped my certain fate
That's how I escaped my certain fate
Honesty's an actor's worst mistake!!!
That's how I escaped my certain fate!!!
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