Saturday, November 20, 2004

Postmodern Identity

Unbreakable is a movie about a man, who finds a new identity. It was directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed Sixth Sense.

The main character of Unbreakable is a security guard David Dunn. In the beginning, he miraculously survives a train crash. All the other passangers die, but David is not even scratched. A comic artist, Elijah Price, contacts him and suggests that David may have survived because of his superhuman abilities. Elijah explains, that just like some people have genetic disorders which make them weak, there may be people who were created strong to protect the others. He claims that comic book stories were mere exaggeration from the heroic deeds of these men.

David doesn't buy it. Elijah asks him to check how many days he has been sick in his life, and David complies. The result is surprising - he hasn't fallen sick during his current work relationship, or his current marriage - or ever, except for once in very excpetional circumstances.

Little by little, evidence starts to mass up to Elijah's claims. It includes David's choice of career as a security guard. In the end of the movie, David stops a violent crime by interfering - an act, which is consistent with his new identity. The corporal basis of the new identity is never put to test - David is not shot or beaten.

The movie is about socialization into a new narrative identity. The narrative structure of David's superhuman identity is provided by Elijah and superhero comics. It is something like this: "Some people were created strong, so that they could act as heroes, who protect the masses from the acts of evil. Their bodies are extranordinarily healthy and strong, and resistant to accidents and shocks. They have a natural instict to notice that something evil is happening nearby, and a craving to protect the others. Unfortunately, each of these heroes also has a weakness, which can bring him down."

The fact that David's identity had been taken from superhero comics is a clear reference to the current sociological undertanding that national, ethnic and religious identities are more or less arbitrary and irrational.

In the process of recognizing the new identity, David goes through his past, and compares the actual events in his life against the narrative. Things, which were earlier next to irrelevant become cornerstones in the proof for the new identity, and even old choices - like the choice of a career in security - get new meanings. Earlier, he didn't even notice his low sickness rate. Once in a bullying incident in his childhood, he was sank to pool, and kept there for five minutes. He didn't breath when he was raised up from the pool. After that, he fell sick to pneumonia for 2 weeks. Earlier, the survival is the steak, and the pneumonia was just a natural consequence. With the new identity, it becomes another proof about the resistance of his body - and shows that water is his weakness, since he reacts to drowning exactly the same way as the others, and the only case of sickness in his history was linked to water.

The movie also visualizes, why people like to have narrative identities - they give a meaning for life, confidence that they're not just wasting their lives but pursuing a valuable goal. After David did the first act, which matched with his new identity, he commented "The empty feeling in the morning when I wake up has disappeared."

The conclusive proof, that David really is a superhero, is never given. This is a significant point - the identity has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which guides David's behaviour. At that point it is more or less irrelevant if it is based on facts or mere beliefs.

PS. Tommi väittää, että narratiiviset identiteetit eivät oikeasti ohjaa ihmisten käytöstä, vaan että ihmiset valitsevat kysyttäessä sellaiset narratiivit kuvaamaan itseään, jotka ovat yhteensopivia heidän aikasemman käytöksensä kanssa. Näin tapahtuu erityisesti silloin, kun toimittajat tulevat kyselemään typeriä ("Miksi teet, niinkuin olet aina tehnyt?").

Yksityisetsivä heittää esimerkin, jossa transhumanisti lahjoittaa läheisen kuoltua rahaa Singularitetti-instituutille, koska se on hänen mukaansa transhumanistisen ideologian mukainen reaktio läheisen kuolemaan.

Varmasti homma toimii käytännössä kumpaankin suuntaan. Tommin (eräs) pointti taisi olla se, että haastatteluissa ihmiset eivät koskaan vastaa "En minä tiedä, miksi teen näin. Olen aina tehnyt näin. Kaipa minä olen vain tottunut siihen."

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Truman Show

Philip K. Dick's novels inspired Truman Show, so first I'll tell about Dick, who is one of my favourite authors.

Two core features of Dick's work area (1) twisted world and (2) emphasis on human interaction and subjective preception of the world.

In almost all of Dick's novels, the nature of the word has been twisted in some way. In addition to traditional science fiction worlds, Dick uses socially constructed twists.

In "Flow my tears, policeman said", a man wakes up in the morning in a hostel room he doesn't remember, and finds out that no one he knew recognizes him - his history has been wiped away from the memories of the others.

In another novel, a group of people ends up in a world, which has been modeled according to one person's worldview. Since the person is deeply religious, the world features a stern god which gives quick punishments for sins. This also reveals the reason why Dick enjoyed twisted worlds - they offer a chance to examine twisted worldviews, as the characters have to adapt their worldview to match to the objective reality.

Dick's novels are usually told from some main character's point of view. Dick describes, how that person percieves and interprets the world. When one person's view is not enough, the stories are told from multiple subjective perspectives.

One of Dick's strong abilities is dialog. After reading some psychology, I've come to appreciate Dick's dialog, which includes a full cycle of interpretation. If A says something to B, then B doesn't just "get the point" instantly. B interprets it based on his own values, goals and attitudes, and crafts the answer accordingly. If A and B have too different worldviews, they misunderstand and the conversation breaks down - a phenomena, which is quite common in the real world, but is rare in fiction.

Dick did write a novel, where a person lives in a set-up world (but not in a TV series). His idea was to construct a scenario, where a healthy and balanced human may rationally conclude that everyone is conspiring against him. Dick didn't manuscript Truman Show, but his influence is visible in many places.

Many people claim, that Truman show is a parody of soap operas, TV in general and especially reality TV. I claim that Truman show is mainly a speculation on how a "Truman show" would be organized, and all "TV-critical" themes can be explained away without anti-TV references.

Main anti-TV themes in the movie are (1) manipulation of Truman, (2) the ehtical dilemma of deception and (3) blatant commerciality

Truman is manipulated to stay in his world by many means. His "significant others" turn down any suggestion of traveling by using excuses, which any one of us may use to turn down a normal but undesirable suggestion. In addition, they emphasize how valuable the security of Seahave is, and that things are not really different or better or more interesting elsewhere. Accidents and propaganda posters emphasize the risks. These are the 'passive' ways of persuasion, which aim to take away Truman's desire to travel.

In addition, there are 'active' ways. If Truman attempts to discuss traveling too insistently, the significant others change the subject and show moral indignation. Travel reservations are delayed and canceled. The second last resort is special effects - machine breakdowns and accidents - and the last resort is violence.

This all is absolutely necesary to maintain Truman in the show. It has nothing to do with the conformist tendencies of capitalism - in our world, travel agencies actually sell adventure and change. The merit of the film is pinpointing examples of subtle ways of manipulation during normal human interaction.

The ethical dilemma is not really about ethics, but argumentation. Firsly we must notice that the ethicality of "Truman show" is an easy target, and a simple police investigation is enough to destroy the show.

The pictures of the woman in his room calling the director make it clear that there is a "Free Truman" -group, which is organized enough to print posters. This is clearly a threat to the existence of the show - all they need to do is to convince some influental person that Truman is subjected to a criminal wrongdoing. Therefore, the director has to confront the accusations head on to keep the show going.

Also, both parties have private interests - the director is dedicated and financially dependent on the show, and the woman has a biological interest to get his lover.

The director knew that these issues would become hot, and ensured the ethicality of the show beforehand by choosing a baby, which was unwanted. (The parents were so irresposible that they announced publicly that their baby was unwanted instead of bearing responsibility of their mistakes and giving the child the best they can offer. How bright future can you expect from that point?)

The continuity of the show depends on argumentation, and the world is a sick place.

The commerciality is also necessary, since the budget of Trumanistan equals that a small nation. There is only one scene where the commerciality is so blatant that it cannot be explained away as a necessity - the scene where the wife starts marketing a hot chocolate drink, and Truman reacts aggressively to his ignorant monologue. This is clearly a scene, where the movie drives a political point - the wife knew that Truman was angry, she could have predicted that something bad happens, and in another scene the marketing message is "post-edited" to the screen between the camera and the televeision receiver.

Truman show is a good movie exactly because so many details have been consistently derived from the question "What would Truman show look like?", instead of breaking the story to drive an anti-TV political agenda. It successfully follows Dick's style and examples when it uses a twisted world to gain insight into human interaction and worldview.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Trust (Kautta kiven ja kannon)

If the human relationships and characters of a TV series are not credible - that is, they run blatantly against my intuitions on how humans behave - I tend to lose interest after one show. If human behavior is the core of a movie, and the characters don't act like humans, then the program doesn't really tell about anyhthing. "Trust" is one those series.

"Trust" tells about a top lawyer company. The staff consists mainly of very ambitious career men and women. They work long shifts, often on weekends, and in their priorities work is always before family.

Because "Trust" is a human relationship drama, the program chooses to show moments with drama: people talking to each others, people getting shouted at, people manipulating each others, hints of sex, prolonged moments of major success or failure.

In the end, it leaves the impression that the people were so successful in their careers because they have tough business attitude. They are experienced at manipulating others, and like to play the game of business.

Although the series makes it clear that the employees do massive amounts of work, it fails to give any role to one essential factor - the grinding boredom of doing the same thing hour after hour, the numbing effect it has, and the means people develop to fight it.

Instead, it hints that human relationship games are the key to success.

It doesn't have to be that way, even in the drama.

Once I saw a fictionalized accout on how Alan Leeson drove Barings Bank into bankruptcy. In the beginnig, Alan Leeson was sent to an assignment at India to sort some accounts. When Alan arrived, a local woman showed him a corner filled with huge piles of papers. In the next picture, he sat on a desk alone, processing them. Then the program shortcutted time with a "Three months later" tag, and showed him celebrating the end of the task.

Since "Trust" fails to pay attention to this aspect of work, it doesn't really tell about work, and is not interesting.

I wanna be your color TV

As ongoing re-education is corrupting my ability to form consistent opinions, and nothing ever happens, I'll start to comment TV programs. This "TV period" will last some months and stop eventually.