The other night, I experienced one of those intoxicating moments where what I was reading seemed to provide the exact key I needed to unlock a mysterious, hidden meaning.
In this case, it was the meaning of a movie -- panned as one of year's worst -- which I, of course, had found utterly entrancing.
The movie was Skyline, which I rented on Pay-Per-View. It's an alien invasion flick -- more or less a pastiche of films like Cloverfield, War of the Worlds and Independence Day, with a dash of The Matrix thrown in. As Umberto Eco wrote: "Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us." The trailer offers a taste:
I couldn't put my finger on what moved me about this particular heap of cliches until when, soon afterwards, I began reading an essay by the late, great social philosopher Andre Gorz.
Gorz was making a case for the continuing relevance of early 20th century sociologist Max Weber:
"Long before the creators of contemporary scientific dystopias," Gorz wrote, "Max Weber thought that bureaucratization and the onward march of machines would progress to the point where society would become a single megamachine which its human cogs 'would be forced to serve, as powerless as the fellah of Ancient Egypt.'"
The bureaucracy, in Weber's mind, I think, wasn't just "big government", as people often interpret the word today, but any massive, highly rationalized organization -- including corporations, institutions, and (in our time) the entertainment industry itself -- with goals all of its own. Goals that its "cogs" may not care about, agree with or even understand.
Such "megamachines" gain your support, in theory at least, by offering benefits (cash, jobs, recognition, distraction, etc. ) -- but often "at the cost of deprivation of meaning and freedom." This all results in "dehumanization."
Gorz' short exposition reframed, for me, many of the "humans vs. machines" Science Fiction films I've seen in the last few years. (Think of The Matrix!) In Skyline, though, it seemed to speak to the specific anxieties of indie artists -- particularly filmmakers.
The film opens with Jarrod, an artist of some sort, and his partner, Elaine, at a ritzy party in L.A. They are boho types (I think from Brooklyn) who are impressed, but almost a little taken aback by, the success of Jarrod's best friend, Terry. It seems Terry's special effects company has made it to the big time in a big, big way.
The party (at Terry's new pad) is stocked with all the accoutrements of L.A. glamour: posh decor, very beautiful, flirty people, booze and presumably all sorts of other decadent highs.
Mid-way through the party, a friend of Terry's congratulates Jarrod for joining the company and deciding to move to L.A. Elaine is shocked (has Jarrod sold out?) -- and reveals that she's pregnant. Jarrod assures her that this is the first he's heard of the gig (and that the matter isn't decided). Soon after they crash -- and that's when the weirdness begins.
Jarrod wakes in the middle of the night to bright lights. We soon learn these are from aliens in humongous, robotic craft, hovering near the high rise's window. And it's not only their overwhelming size and force that make them terrifying. It's the way the draw you in.
It seems the light they shine into your face is incredibly beautiful. If you stare a moment too long, you get vacuumed into their craft. Next thing you know, your brains are sucked out and used as a sort of neurological fuel (and the rest of you is cast, headless, into a pile of other victims). Your mind becomes one with the machine. Talk about dehumanization...
But Is It All a Dream?
After reading Gorz, I began to wonder if the last two-thirds of this flick were in fact a literal nightmare -- one expressing the artist Jarrod's anxieties about selling out. Isn't one of the cliches about organizational exploitation that you get sucked dry of your ideas (and cast into the heap of fellow burnouts)?
With a little imagination, you can extend this interpretation to the situation of the film's directors, the special effects gurus the Brothers Strause. Is not an indie outfit like their own always faced with such creative pressures (not to mention battles over who owns "intellectual property") from the big studios they deal with?
But Why Now?
The theme of humanity vs. "the machine" is older than Science Fiction itself. Why then its almost incessant repetition today? I guess one quick answer is that we're simply surrounded by more machines and mega organizations than ever.
A friend told me recently, for example, that after resisting Facebook for years, she finally relented. Upon joining, one of her first welcomes was from a friend who quoted Pink Floyd.
He wrote, simply, eloquently: "Welcome to the Machine." Thoughts?