From the Blog
Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and other sci-fi books, wrote a fascinating post two weeks ago (thanks to Ari for linking it). He talked about the challenge of designing society for posterity: how to make a social order that could run a “generation ship” without falling apart.
Generation starships: they’re not fast.
If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.
We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different.
I’ve been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn’t look as if we’ve got any good solutions to either.
You should read the whole post; it’s fascinating stuff. And if you think about it, there’s a hidden question in there. A society that could remain stable aboard a generation ship – an enclosed biosphere hurtling through space – is, of course, a society that could remain stable aboard Spaceship Earth.
Too bad the question itself makes no sense.
Don’t get me wrong: “how do you design a society for the really long term?” makes perfect grammatical sense. You can even start imagining along those lines, as Stross and his friend Schroeder evidently did, for several ‘grafs worth of thought. But if you consider what those actual words mean – specifically, design, society and long term – the question becomes impossible. There is no way to answer it.
Let’s say Stross, or NASA, or even you, come up with a way to answer the question. And let’s say a generation ship – a vessel capable of interstellar travel along a lifespan of hundreds of years – gets built. Here’s what it’ll look like on Day One.
NASA Project Director: Okay, guys, remember what we told you …
Generation Ship Crew: Right, right, we remember.
NASA Project Director: … you’re an oligarchical commune with rotating leadership roles and multiple redundant judiciaries …
Generation Ship Crew: Mm-hmm, got it.
NASA Project Director: … lower the radiation shields every 400 days to prevent genetic drift …
Generation Ship Crew: It’s all in the three-ring binder. We’ve got it.
NASA Project Director: Okay. Just checking. Good luck, people!
(ship door seals; generation ship takes off)
Generation Ship Crew: SPRING BREAK! WHOOOO!
Okay, maybe things won’t fall apart that fast.
But the entire premise of Stross’s question ignores an obvious hurdle: if some social scientist theorizes the Perfect Society for a generation ship, who’s to say anyone inside the generation ship is going to follow it? Especially once they’re light years away from the home world? NASA can tell the crew, “The engineers are in charge; if what they say isn’t law, the ship stops spinning and O2 stops filtering and you all die in six weeks.” But that doesn’t matter, unless every non-engineer aboard the ship also agrees.
To be fair, Stross isn’t suggesting that the Perfect Society be dictated from on high. He closes the post with the question, “What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?”
But the question is still irrelevant. Stross can prove, using all the equations social science has to offer, that (say) an anarcho-syndicalist state where the Chief Engineer, the Head Gardener and the Captain of the Dodgeball Team act as a non-legislative judiciary is the only stable state for a closed, high-maintenance biosphere that has to have a population greater than x in 450 years. But that proof is irrelevant to the people inside that biosphere unless they believe it. If I scrub the oxygen filters, I might be convinced after a few years that I’m the most important person aboard the ship. After all, without me, everyone dies.
And even if NASA somehow indoctrinates every member of the first generation of the crew in their Perfect Social Theory, there’s a reason this sci-fi construct is called a generation ship. It will take more than one generation to get where it’s going. Four and a half centuries from here to Alpha Centauri at 0.1c; that’s eighteen generations. Who’s to say your kids will hold to the anarcho-syndicalist ideal with the same fervor you did? Or their kids? It only takes one generation to decide the reactor only needs sixteen control rods instead of twenty for the entire project to fail.
Far more important than the question of what should happen is the question of what will happen.
So let’s say we lock 250,000 engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and janitors inside an asteroid and slap it toward Alpha Centauri. We tell them, in the strictest language we know, what they have to do in order to stay alive. But once they get airborne, it’s anarchy – not in the “jungle savagery” sense, but in the “no recognized law” sense. What form of social order will evolve?
My guess: the same ones we’ve seen throughout history. The human race evolved in an open biosphere with no set instructions on how best to live. A generation ship changes two of those variables, closing the biosphere off from mutation and leaving a three-ring binder of Best Practices. But otherwise, we’ll probably see what we’ve seen throughout history: warring tribes, dueling factions, a period of disorder that leads to a strong preference for law and a powerful state that arises as a result. A quarter of a million of Earth’s best and brightest go in; forty-five decades later, Augustus Caesar steps out.
# # #
I am going to read a little into Stross’s post now.
I suspect that implicit in the definition of “Perfect Society” is stability. Stross hopes that the Perfect Society will in fact be so utopian that it will not change, because no one will ever have a reason to change it. Not only will it fulfill everyone’s needs, but everyone within it will recognize that it will fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s a perpetual motion machine, requiring only its own input to keep going.
(The first question – if you discover this perfectly stable social order, why do you even have to leave Earth? – might merit another post)
This implicit premise – if I’m right in ascribing it to Stross – highlights a regrettable belief in technocracy. Technocracy is the belief that if we only put the right experts or the right rules in place, the social order will run itself. Our current problems, like poverty, corruption, ignorance and violence, do not well up from human nature. They’re artifacts of an outdated culture. If we pass the right laws, we can get rid of anything we don’t like.
Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this.
Conservatives follow it in the form of “legislating morality.” Outlawing abortion springs to mind. “If abortions are outlawed, then no one will have any abortions!”, conservatives believe, contra all sense and experience. In reality, outlawing abortions means that women will terminate their pregnancies in dangerous, illegal ways. You cannot change the desire of a woman to own her own body by passing a law.
Liberals follow it in the form of “managerial liberalism.” A recent example: the stimulus package! The federal government passes a $787,000,000,000 “recovery package” to distribute money to local agencies and companies. Shockingly, some of this money has gone to waste. The most recent example: four Congressional districts in Hawaii that don’t exist received over $40,000,000 in stimulus money. Similar bookkeeping problems exist in Arizona, where the fictitious 86th Congressional District has already received $34,000,000. “That’s not what we intended to happen,” say liberal economists like Paul Krugman (who argue that there wasn’t enough stimulus) and Dean Baker. Of course it isn’t. But your intentions are irrelevant. You cannot change the desire of people to scheme for a little extra once the money faucet gets turned on.
Whether on the Left or the Right, technocracy supposes that human nature and cultural trends can be changed by top-down legislation. Draft the right rules, put the right people in charge, and the generation ship that is our world can sail on, untouched and unchanging, until we all turn into Star Children and join the galactic Overmind. In the real world, though, unintended consequences always crop up.
We’re all trapped in this biosphere together, hurtling through the galaxy far below the speed of light. And if we don’t learn a willingness to rule ourselves, throw out the systems that don’t work and take responsibility for our own screw-ups, we’re not going to reach Alpha Centauri alive.
Truly great art makes me want to make art myself. Knowing me for the conceited bastard I am, you’d think the opposite: that I’d be inspired by Dan Brown novels or Oliver Stone movies or Nickelback songs to create my own rebuttals, showing them up. But bad art just depresses me. Good art entertains me. And great art compels me to run and catch up.
I thought I’d have a handle on Sleep No More, the interactive theater installation sponsored by the American Repertory Theatre. The CCE, the premier collegiate-level interactive murder mystery theater troupe, did this sort of thing twice a year. Sure, Punchdrunk Theatre, the British troupe that originated Sleep No More, probably had a higher budget and better actors. And taking Macbeth as inspiration would make things creepy. But I knew what to expect.
I had no idea what to expect.
After idling in a packed bar, Misch and I, along with twenty other audience members, were ushered into a long hallway. We were given white plastic masks, instructed not to talk but to touch anything we liked, and then led up a flight of stairs. What had been an abandoned Brookline high school a moment ago became a decaying hotel, covered with odd photographs, stuffed chairs, marked-up books and other knicknacks. Misch and I poked around the hotel lobby and the adjoining sitting room until a Hitchcock blonde with a pillbox hat hurried through the hall outside. We followed her.
We followed her down two flights of stairs, where she ducked into an office. A dozen audience members crowded along the walls, watching her rifle through a desk for something – a photograph. She stared at it, lost in shock, until a short man with a small mustache, dressed in dinner jacket with suspenders, stalked in. He snatched the photograph from her hands. He glared at her; she smiled at him, pleadingly; no words were exchanged. He seized her in his arms and kissed her. The air filled with feathers.
The two of them separated. I followed the man; Misch followed the woman.
And that’s the real genius behind Sleep No More. Not (just) the atmospheric minutiae with which they strew every room in the “hotel” they’ve created. Not (just) the wordless performances, acrobatic gyrations and haunted looks that recreate the story of MacBeth. Not (just) the nightmarish surreality created by the artful use of light, sound and space. What makes Sleep No More work is that the story changes drastically depending on whom you follow.
And you have to choose, because the characters don’t wait for you. The man I followed most of the night (Malcolm, I believe) took off at a sprint several times, forcing me to hurry in turn. This led to the image of a man in a dinner jacket fleeing down the halls of a hotel, pursued by white-masked figures: a bit of theater which the audience helped in creating. I followed Malcolm as he and the other courtiers carried off the King’s body, where it lay in state. When Malcolm and the others went to drink in a basement speakeasy covered in sawdust I followed them. Therein they played a card game of unclear meaning, which I endeavored to understand until one of them charged me with a hammer. I backed out of the way, but he wasn’t going for me: he was going for the wall behind me, to which he tacked a Nine of Spades.
And this was all before the banquet.
If these proceedings sound like a nightmare, that was the effect intended. Every element – visuals, sounds, staging, timing – contributed to a reality that looked recognizable but jerked to a different rhythm. At times I found myself standing in a crowd, watching one woman try to feed another poison. At time I found myself alone in a room with a woman and an empty crib. Had I been in another room, I might have seen a murder, or a still birth, or a drunken dance. Without a meticulous attention to detail and a genius grasp of the surreal, it wouldn’t have worked. But it worked perfectly.
See it with someone you trust.
“I’m just not sure if I’m doing the right thing,” she said, shrugging.
I thought for a moment, settling back into the couch. Then: “What’s the one thing you could do right now that would make you feel in control?”
“The beach.” A pause. “Salem. That would do it.”
“Okay,” I said. “You want to go?”
“Yes.” Then she did a double-take. “Wait; do you?”
I checked my watch. “It’s only 10:00 now. There’ll still be a bar open when we get there.”
Rubenfeld Synergy relies on gently shifting or pressing the subject’s body while they lay back. The subject describes how they feel while this goes on: what parts of their body are in contact with the table, how the realignment of weight affects the rest of their body, and so forth. It’s not a massage, or even acupressure. The subject has to remain present and vocal throughout.
It’s like assisted meditation. Constantly narrating how your body feels keeps you grounded in the present moment. You focus on sensations and abandon the stream of background chatter we all have in our heads. I came out of the session feeling the opposite of detached: very present, as if continually being told, “I’m standing, I’m walking, I’m sitting.” A very Zen type of concentration.
I wouldn’t ascribe any more mystical aspects to this than I would to meditation or massage. But it was interesting.
As promised, my final thoughts on The Prisoner.
Short Version (Spoiler Free): The ending was better than the original ending (which isn’t hard), but the interstitial episodes were worse than the original interstitial episodes (which also is not hard). Final verdict: decent.
Longer Version (Contains Spoilers): Well.
When I wrote about the problem of genius in movies, I referenced Mr. Scott’s “transwarp beaming” in the new Star Trek movie. Transwarp beaming is supposedly a genius breakthrough, but it doesn’t seem any more “genius” than flying faster than light or teleporting to a planet. In a universe where all tech is handwaved, calling another piece of handwaved tech “genius” tells the audience nothing.
I had a similar reaction to the middle (middling?) episodes of The Prisoner. Everyone in the Village acts weird – including the one “normal” man, Number Six. We don’t know who’s acting weird because they’re crazy, and who’s acting weird because they’re hiding something, and who’s acting weird because that’s how they always are. As a result, the moments meant to shock – like 1112 stabbing 909 in the neck – just confuse us. Was that supposed to happen? If so, why? If not, what went wrong? We never know, and the show won’t bother to tell us.
Add to this the fact that the Village follows no consistent physical laws and all tension goes out the window. Are Six, Sixteen and the Winking Lady going to find the ocean over that sand dune? Maybe. Is Six going to finish rifling through this apartment before Two shows up? Could be. Is a fiber-optic camera watching Six right now? Probably. There’s no situation that can not be changed, as if by magic. So our heroes are either in constant danger or no danger at all. The visual and narrative cues we would rely on to tell us if they were aren’t available here.
The best episodes of the original series – and as much a fan as I am, I must admit they weren’t all gems – hinged around two compelling questions: why did Six resign? and who is Number One?. Simple questions, but exploring them and their ramifications made compelling drama. Why did Six resign his intelligence agency post? What did he know that was so valuable that he’d be thrust into this Village-prison to uncover it? And why won’t he save himself a lot of heartache and just say why? Similarly: if Number Two isn’t in charge, then who is? And why do the Number Twos keep changing? Bizarre little enigmas, especially for primetime television.
The new Prisoner briefly addresses both of these questions in the third episode, “Anvil,” and then abandons them. Six resigned (we learn in the flashbacks with Lucy) because he learned something he didn’t like about Summakor. And there is no Number One in the Village. Problem solved! Next!
Of course, removing these tensions pulls the teeth from the rest of the series. We have no idea why Two is keeping Six in the Village. And we have no idea why Six would engage Two on his own terms, instead of spending every waking minute walking toward those ghostly twin towers on the horizon. So the exchanges between them have no venom, the battles no suspense, and the odd little satires of suburban life no satirical edge.
The finale, “Checkmate,” revisits the interesting questions about the social order that the original series was known for. Can you fix someone against their will? If you can, should you? How aware are the Village residents of the “super-conscious” life that Mr. Curtis’s wife imagines them in? And what of the people who die in the Village – 1112, Lucy, 147′s daughter? This was fascinating. You could have built a whole series around this. Instead, you get protagonists toeing the sand uncertainly or screaming melodramatically.
If I were showing this to someone who’d never seen it before, I would skip “Harmony” and “Anvil” entirely. The rest, keep as they are.
Oh, hey, it’s my 500th post. Wave hello.
In addition to watching surreal TV and a variety of war movies, I’ve also been reading. Specifically: a steady diet of thrillers.
Lee Child: a retired British TV producer who turned his hand to the novel, his first book, Killing Floor, introduced the character of Jack Reacher. A discharged Military Policeman from the U.S. Army with a 50″ chest, he wanders the country with no fixed address and no permanent ties. He stumbles into trouble and cons, plans, cheats or brawls his way out of it every time.
I’ve read two books of Child’s: Persuader and One Shot. They’re formulaic but that doesn’t detract from their allure. Reacher may have the unreasonable martial prowess of all action movie stars – in One Shot he takes on five guys at once and kills a man by bear hug – but he doesn’t rely on it. Most of his mysteries he solves by outsmarting someone, or at least knowing a little more about the world. Jason Bourne meets Hercule Poirot.
Overthinking It has weaned me off the phrase “guilty pleasure,” which I would normally use to describe Child’s novels. Instead, I’ll say they speak to only one emotion: the laugh of triumph over a defeated foe. Fun beach and airport material.
Harlan Coben: I started reading thrillers on the advice of an agent and an editor, in order to improve my own writing. In that regard Coben’s writing has been the most instructional. Every novel of his I’ve read opens with a first paragraph that hooks me, strings it out to a first chapter that keeps me going, then turns it into a first half that carries me until the plot twist.
His stuff isn’t perfect, granted. The most interesting character in each novel is never the protagonist. The plot twists are predictable only in that they’re always the one thing that would turn the story most on its head at that moment (she’s not really dead!, etc). But his writing grips you and drags you into the heart of the action. It may be a formula, but so is Coca-Cola.
I’ve read Gone for Good and No Second Chance, and I may yet read more.
# # #
Why is the thriller genre so easy for me to read?
As I speculated earlier, thrillers tap into the lust for revenge we all have: the joy of a brutality sanctioned by polite society.
I think it speaks to that fundamental animal rage which all of us – who share more than 95% of our DNA with animals – carry. The “laugh in triumph over a defeated foe” that Orwell talks about: the brutal, pre-rational appeal of nationalism. We want to kill, and we want our killing to be sanctioned by a moral code. He hurt my family, therefore it’s okay if I cut off his fingers. He killed my wife, so it’s all right if I slaughter everyone he knows and burn his house to the ground. No impartial jury or outside observer would think that’s a proportional or fair response – but come on! I’m the Good Guy, so my savagery makes me driven. They’re the Bad Guys; their savagery makes them subhuman.
But ultimately, in stories like that, the tissue-thin distinction between Good Guys and Bad Guys suggests more than it divides. We don’t cheer the Good Guy because he did the right thing by stabbing the Bad Guy in the top of the skull. We cheer the Good Guy because he totally fucking killed that dude! Did you see that? We identify with him because he has his reasons – they took my job, they hurt my family, whatever – but that’s secondary. The chaotic, reptilian roar of victory after bashing someone’s neck seals the deal.
Black Book (Zwartboek): One of those movies that the DVD case doesn’t do justice to. The plot feels like a cliche: Jewish girl in the Netherlands, separated from her family during World War 2, dyes her hair blonde and seduces a German officer to aid the Resistance. She finds herself torn between her affection for the officer and her desire to avenge her parents. The “seduction-and-betrayal” story has been told before.
What makes Black Book different is Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) behind the camera. Verhoeven moves the film along at a breathless pace, catapulting our heroine from placidity to tension to danger to a temporary respite with little pause between. He doesn’t skimp on the gore, either, shredding civilians, partisans and Nazis with blizzards of automatic fire. Sex is frequent and graphic. These are bleeding, sweating, fucking human beings.
Verhoeven also assembled a hell of a cast. When telling a seduction-and-betrayal story, directors have to take special care to keep their heroines from looking like prostitutes or victims. Carice van Houten, as Rachel, has no such problem. Rachel is confident, opportunistic and, while capable of deep tenderness, also frank in her sexuality. When Mr. Kuipers, a resistance leader in Amsterdam, asks her how close she’d be willing to get to an S.S. officer, she asks, “You mean, am I willing to screw him?” After a pause: “I’ll go as far as he’s willing to go. Okay?”
The S.S. officer in question, Captain Ludwig Muntze, is played by Sebastian Koch (who was equally excellent in The Lives of Others a few years earlier). He’s not a reluctant Nazi: when he brings Rachel back to his apartment, he brags about having seized it from “the capitalists” (for which read “the Jews”). But it’s clear he believes in fighting a more civilized war than his comrades in the Gestapo do and has a touch of poetry in his soul. And the mercy and tenderness he shows Rachel leads the audience to, if not cheer for him, at least hold their breath when things get tense.
War makes monsters of us all, Black Book tells us; even the Resistance is full of betrayals and cruelty. The movie doesn’t end with the surrender of Germany. In fact, it’s the genius of Verhoeven’s tight, suspense-thriller plotting that the liberation of Amsterdam makes things worse for our heroine: once a Jew hiding among Nazis, she’s now an S.S. sympathizer hiding from vengeful Dutchmen. Verhoeven goes to deliberate excess here, as he is wont to do, subjecting our heroine to pornographic levels of melodrama. A world of shit rains on her head.
Spiritual and physical brutality aside, Verhoeven turns what could have been a cliched tale of victimhood and prostitution into a tense, compelling and innately real story of heroism. The heroes and villains keep surprising you and the plot twists unload like a Sten gun. The movie keeps you on edge until the very end, when the titular black book that one character has used to document all the others is finally revealed.
(Postscript: I wonder if the subtitlers were having a bit of fun with the English-speaking audience. The German officers refer to the Dutch resistance as “terrorists” instead of a more contemporary term like partisans or guerillas. This leads to a few ironic scenes, like one German officer accusing Muntze of “negotiating with terrorists” when Muntze secures a cease-fire with the resistance. Muntze defends his actions as sparing German soldiers from danger behind the lines; his comrade accuses him of “defeatism.”
I don’t believe Verhoeven intended to compare the 21st century West to the Nazis; that’s a blunt, extreme analogy and the rest of the film doesn’t bear it out. And it may just be the choice of the subtitle editors. But if Verhoeven were making the point that monsters exist on both sides of a war, the film succeeds there)
(Note: as soon as I opened up IMDB on Monday evening to confirm some details about the movie below, I saw that its star, Edward Woodward, had died. A hell of a loss, though he left a full career behind him, including Becket, the TV series Callan, the original The Wicker Man and, of course, the following)
Breaker Morant: A Few Good Blokes. Unpolished but still fiery.
Lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (Edward Woodward) begins the movie in a full court-martial in the last days of the Boer War. He led a small company of irregular colonial soldiers, fighting against the Afrikaaner guerillas (known as commandos) by adopting their tactics. Such tactics have ended with Lieutenant Morant and his fellow officers, Peter Handcock (Bryan Brown, whom audiences will recognize from Cocktail or F/X) and George Wittow, to be charged with six counts of murder.
Major J.F. Thomas, an officer with experience executing wills back in New South Wales but little more law training, is assigned to the case one day before the trial begins. Though he fumbles initially, his insightful questioning ferrets out the truth: that the unorthodox methods the Bushveldt Carbineers used were not only endorsed, but ordered, by the highest levels of British command in the field. When Morant, Handcock and Wittow executed prisoners without trial, they did so under orders.
The movie does not paint Morant as entirely heroic. He and Handcock conduct the war with a casual brutality. They both demonstrate a fiery temper, Handcock peppering the court-martial with sarcastic remarks and Morant being provoked into a tirade: “We shot them under Rule 303!” But these touches merely make the men darkly romantic, not outright villains. Breaker Morant still couches its stars in cloth of gold, depicting Morant as a poet, a singer, a leader and stalwart in the face of death.
Instead, the movie reserves its harshest condemnation for the British Empire itself. Taking its screenplay largely from George Wittow’s 1907 account of the trial, Scapegoats of the Empire (did I mention this was based on a true story?), Breaker Morant casts the British command as aristocrats, shielded from the horrors of war by the gentility of their sitting rooms. It’s not only implied but stated outright that Lord Kitchener and the Prime Minister would have no problem sacrificing three “colonials” to appease the Boers, thus ending the war sooner and keeping Germany out of it. And the film also depicts how, in sinking to the level of the Dutch commandos, the British Army may have lost its way.
Breaker Morant heralded the start of the Australian “New Wave” of cinema, preceding such films as Gallipoli, Mad Max 2 and The Year of Living Dangerously. The film feels like the early work of a film student, experimenting in camera angles for their own sake. The initial statement of Lieutenant Morant is shot in extreme left profile, dead on and extreme right profile for no obvious reason. At some points in the courtroom the frame holds both the witness and the attorney questioning him, eight feet away, in the same focus – not uncommon in the 80s, but still awful looking today. And while most of the flashbacks are timely and well-staged, some cut in and out of the present moment like misplaced stills.
But, these bits of amateur work aside, the movie’s still good. Burra in South Australia stands in admirably for the Transvaal: a green, sweeping country that almost begs to be ridden with rifle in hand. And the dialogue itself is sharp enough, full of rough Australian wit, outrage at injustice and warm poetic sentiment. It’s a timeless story and well-told.
But, Johnny, ere we “go to grass” -
Ere angel wings are fledged to fly -
With wine we’ll fill a bumper glass,
And drink to those good times gone by.
We’ve had our day – ’twill not come back!
But, comrade mine, this much you’ll own,
‘Tis something to have had it, Jack-
That time when we could ride ten stone!
- Harry “Breaker” Morant, “The Day That is Dead”, 1893
A man wakes up on a desert plateau. The staccato pops of automatic fire draw his attention; looking over a ridge, he sees an old man in an outmoded jacket tumbling down a hill. He picks the old man up and carries him out of the sun. The old man dies; the younger man buries him. Alone, the younger man staggers across the desert until he finds:
The notion of a remake of The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s legendarily inaccessible 1967 BBC series, thrilled me more than it bothered me. I don’t like remakes. I don’t like the idea of dredging the same river for new fish. But the original Prisoner, for all the thunder of its premise, lacked something in execution. McGoohan wanted the audience to draw their own conclusions, but a little more explicitness couldn’t have hurt (“yes, Patrick dear, but what do the monkey masks mean?”). And toward the end, the show drifted from challenging-weird to just weird-weird. The same ideas, given a fresh start and a proper budget, would devastate.
Number Six (Jim Cavielzel) stumbles through the Village. Exhausted from walking in the desert all day and afflicted by hallucinations of life in New York, he falls off a rooftop. He awakes in a clinic – The Clinic – under the warm gaze of Dr. 313 and the blue-eyed fatherliness of Number Two (Ian McKellen). “Why are you keeping me here?”, Six demands. Two shrugs: “I see no locked doors.” This is the insidiousness of the Village: it responds to direct confrontation with gentle redirection. Aside from Number Two, no one denies the existence of a world outside – Isaac Newton, Alexander Graham Bell, David Beckham, Manhattan. But they don’t understand why it’s so important to Number Six. They just want to help.
The beauty of the original Prisoner was the distinct visual and auditory style of the Village. Shot in Portmeirion, Wales, the use of gay colors, cheery announcements and signs in Albertus typeface all contributed to the air of stiff, enforced conviviality. AMC’s The Prisoner has a style all its own as well. Identical 60s-era bungalows, duplexes and diners form neat little rows in the middle of a vast desert. The occasional flashback to New York or to static-ridden surveillance footage jars Six out of his attempts to focus. There are no walls and no guards: there are the simple limits of sand and sky. But Number Two keeps control in other ways. He can’t suppress every citizen’s desire for escape or their search for something more, so he gives it to them: the Escape Resort! The nightclub More! And just to remind you that this world isn’t right, there’s the occasional touch of weirdness for its own sake, like the soap opera Wonkers or Brian Wilson’s “In Blue Hawaii” or the twin therapists, Number 70.
And no, they don’t have anything that’s not a wrap.
I love Ian McKellen as the new Number Two. He brings a sinister warmth to the bland pronouncements that he bestows on people: “Every day above ground is a good day.” He lives in a pristine opulence that the rest of the Village aspires to. And yet behind everything there’s an air of instability. Everyone gets very still whenever he enters a room, as if he and Mommy were just having a screaming argument in the kitchen downstairs and it’s imperative that we be good. He carries a grenade with him everywhere, pulling it out of his pocket once or twice an episode and tossing it to make a point. He is the capricious tyrant, just as likely to bestow prizes – a free vacation, a medal for service – as punishments. It takes a brilliant actor to pull that off and still appear sane.
Jim Cavielzel as Number Six, I’m not as sure on. He plays crazy very well, while McGoohan was always proud and stiff. This is essential: Number Six is the man on the fringes of society, and people on the fringes are “crazy,” even if they’re not disordered. When he’s trying to convince 313 or Two that his memories of a world before the Village are real, he fumbles for the thread of his own thought. He lacks the thunderous contempt that McGoohan’s Six had for the other conspirators in the Village, but that’s for the better. Cavielzel’s is a more sympathetic Six. He bites back, but he doesn’t bark.
What doesn’t quite work for me are the slow-mo shots of Six running through the desert, dropping to his knees when faced with some implacable object – the twin towers, the weird anchor – and screaming. They seem a bit too forced. The horror of the Village comes from its cheerful banality and its absolute impermeability to logic, sprinkled with the occasional bit of grotesque: a giant bubble bouncing down the street and absorbing someone. The horror shouldn’t be something that we sit and watch with flashing lights: hey kids! Here’s where the horror is!
I watched the first two episodes, “Arrival” and “Harmony,” last night (and thanks to Sylvia M. for being a gracious host). So far we already know more about Number Six in two episodes than we ever did in the prior series: he worked for a company, Summakor, that collects CCTV footage to analyze trends in human behavior. We already have a hint of why he resigned as well. Interestingly enough, no one in the Village seems to want to know why: a major plot point from the original series. But this cute and accessible woman he picked up on the streets of Manhattan in flashbacks – Lucy – won’t let up on it. But if she’s the only one who’s curious, why can’t Six leave the Village? And if Two wants to know, why hasn’t he asked yet?
Ultimately The Prisoner is not about Number Six. We are not supposed to see ourselves in Number Six; we are supposed to see ourselves in the rest of the village. The Prisoner is about how the institution of society deals with a man who will not conform. Perhaps he’s not conforming because his brain is chemically imbalanced; perhaps it’s because no one around him can supply what he wants. Or perhaps he has memories of a past that no one shares and every time he tries to pursue them, a giant bubble attacks him.
Regardless of why he feels that way, he can’t fit in. He rejects all attempts to make him fit in. So how do we respond? Some of us watch him with sad compassion. Some of us write him off (“she’s a crazy”; “he’s an old drunk”). If he gets too loud or violent, we lock him away. And if he persists in being unmutual, we gently nudge him to the far edge of the herd.
Two more episodes tonight and two on Tuesday. Expect my final thoughts on Friday. Be seeing you.
I’m putting the mind-body dichotomy series on hold for a while in order to read some more on the subject. Currently I’m Kindling my way through Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works, which has astonished me and lost me a dozen times already. You’re all disappointed at not getting to hear my half-baked theories on a subject the human race has been debating for thousands of years, I know, but be patient. Some day, the pablum will return.
But I can discuss why this matters to me.
My friends regularly exhort me to open up more, to them and to others. “That’s what the website is for,” I tell them, but they insist this doesn’t count. They insist that I’d meet more interesting people and get less frustrated at my internal dialogue if I “took off the mask.” But this suggestion never really speaks to me.
So I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about masks.
If all behavior arises from consciousness, then we’re always choosing to present some face to the rest of the world. In social settings, we put on our charming face; when we’re tired and distracted, we put on our bitter face; when we’re overwhelmed and confessing fears to the ones closest to us, we put on our vulnerable face. But we always make a choice which side of ourselves to present. There’s no “true face” that emerges when we stop choosing to present. It’s masks all the way down.
At the same time, though, the idea of a “true self” makes sense to us. We distinguish between the world Out There (people and streets and hot dogs and engraved pens) and the world In Here (memories and fears and imagination and fantasy). That’s what it means to be self-aware: to distinguish between Self and Other. It’s an experience that everyone who can put thoughts into words has in common. So we all think that there’s something true or ideal inside our heads.
But is an experience that everyone calls the same thing necessarily real?
That’s what my experiments in auto-epistemology have been about. I’m curious as to whether the notion of an “unmasked self” is part of the same cognitive illusion as the Cartesian homonculus, or whether it’s something with a real basis in biology and psychology. As I said, I’ve got some reading and some thinking to do. Thanks for bearing with me.
“Great,” the audience muttered, shifting in their seats and checking their cell phones. “Someone tells the Professor to open up more and his response is to read a book.”