In my darker moods, I can’t help but notice in what a bleak future we live. Sure, there are many elements of America that still exist, and some of which are strong, at least in some parts of the country. But things like constitutionalism, rule of law, respect for wisdom, faith, and a great deal many other wonderful items are daily disrespected, ignored, and/or abused.
I’ve been on a kick lately of watching dystopian films, that genre—next to zombie movies—that Americans love best. Last week I watched the 1974 cult classic Zardoz (starring an out-of-work Sean Connery), a film that shouldn’t exist given the nature of studio politics (it’s a rare example of a studio saying, “Make whatever you want,” and the director took it seriously). I also watched the less classic Equilibrium (2002), starring Christian Bale.
Zardoz explores a distant future in which frosty, immortal, aloof, and bored elites, the Eternals, live in perpetual paradise while employing vicious, gun-toting Brutals to exterminate the excess population of Earth. Equilibrium tells the story of a society, Libria—a mash-up of America and Britain, it seems—that, in order to prevent a fourth global war, outlaws all emotions, on the premise that art and literature inflame men’s passions to destructive degrees.
While it might not qualify as a “dystopian” film, I also viewed the Coen Brothers’ classic Barton Fink (1991), about the titular writer—a successful Broadway playwright who writes theatrical productions about, of, and for “the common man“—who cashes in on his success with a move to Los Angeles to write for Capitol Pictures, where he immediately develops writers’ block. Fink is a 1940s Jewish intellectual who pontificates frequently about his desire to tell the grubby, realistic stories of everyday people, yet he keeps ignoring his shabby hotel neighbor, Charlie Meadows, an insurance salesman who tells Fink repeatedly, “I could tell you some stories.”
I am also planning on watching in the near future Brazil (1985) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). I highly recommend Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel that inspired the latter; it’s one of the best dystopian books I’ve ever read, and it’s a quick read. It poses a timeless question: should man be forced to be good, or should he be allowed to choose evil? How you answer that question says a great deal about how you view the world (and, to clarify, being allowed to choose evil does not, like the current rioting, mean you’re free from the consequences of doing evil).
But I digress. Each of these films—disparate as they are—can tell us something about our current age.
Zardoz – The elite Eternals in Zardoz have grown so bored living in their Edenic Vortex that many of them long to die. Punishment for disrupting the social order is aging, but since they have conquered death, a serial criminal lives forever as an elderly man. Some Eternals grow so bored with life that they become “Apathetics,” who passively endure whatever life throws at them in a perpetually catatonic state.
Meanwhile, Brutals roam the countryside, killing the remaining free populations of impoverished humans. They worship a gigantic floating head, the titular Zardoz, who gives them guns. But the Brutals are frustrated that Zardoz now has them enslaving humans on forced farms, instead of merely hunting them, so one Brutal, Zed (Connery) sneaks aboard his gigantic disembodied god and infiltrates the Vortex.
Zed’s presence in the Vortex injects Eternal society with some fleshy humanity, and Zed—an earthy chaos agent—ultimately fulfills some manner of prophecy that topples the Vortex and ends the artificial immortality of the Eternals.
Equilibrium – Christian Bale plays a Cleric in the society of Libria. Clerics are high-ranking enforcers who learn a style of gun-based martial arts, which they use to hunt down “sense offenders,” people that keep artwork and what we might call “furniture” around to enliven their dreary existences. Every citizen of Libria takes a dose of an emotion-killing drug every few hours, keeping everyone on an even keel.
Naturally, Christian Bale falls in love with a sense offender, and he stops dosing. Now, the most powerful Cleric is surreptitiously working for The Resistance, people that just want to be able to read books and hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls (a scene early in the film sees Bale and his goons burn, among other priceless works of art, the Mona Lisa). With Bale killing dozens of baddies, it’s just a matter of time before the regime topples and emotions are allowed to flourish again.
Barton Fink – Again, this film isn’t precisely a “dystopian” one, but it’s bleak enough for my purposes. Fink carries on about his desire to uplift and give voice to the common man in his play and screen writing, but he ignores the stories of his extremely common neighbor at the dilapidated Hotel Earle. He also finds himself trapped under contract to a film production company that vows to keep him on an as a writer while never producing any of his scripts. There’s a lot more to the film than that—the film’s Wikipedia entry gives a sense for the intense degree of analysis the movie has been subjected to since its release—but at least one of the ideas seems to be poking fun at Fink’s grand ambitions and tone-deafness to the class he ostensibly seeks to celebrate.
I see some tenuous connective tissue between these films and our own times. Zardoz is fairly ludicrous in terms of the world it builds, but the presence of an aloof, bored elite surely resonates. The sheer boredom, coupled with the material plenty, of these elites leads them to toy with the lives of those outside their cloistered bubbles. The Eternals call Zed an “animal” (when he’s becoming romantically involved with one female Eternal, another cattily accuses her of “bestiality”)—they see other humans as mere beasts to use and abuse for their amusement.
Equilibrium is a tougher fit, as our elites seem overly preoccupied with emotive displays of their own virtue; we could probably do for a healthy dose of Stoic restraint. But it’s interesting to note that in a world devoid of style and art, there is, by default, some kind of “emotionless” style leftover. Everything is sleek and grey, white, or black. Buildings are ultra-modern in their styling, with lots of straight lines and large glass windows. Doesn’t that sound like every Brutalist government building or high-end high-rise you’ve ever seen? Let’s force everyone into boxes and make them to conform to the cause du jour of the ruling class.
Barton Fink, I think, is one of the more subtle critiques of intellectual aloofness I’ve seen. Fink is a sympathetic character, but he’s so fixated on portraying his romanticized version of grubby fishmongers and “the common man,” he ignores “the common man” sitting in front of him—with disastrous, and biblical, consequences. Fink passionately believes in a cause that he doesn’t really understand. Similarly, Hollywood seeks to portray an idealized version of reality, but catered to the lowest common denominator. Fink’s grand artistic ambitions become submerged in a studio system that abhors genuine artistic expression and just wants to churn out B-list pictures for quick cash.
Don’t we live in an age of Epicurean elites, aloof and indifferent to the needs and concerns of “the common man,” even as they claim to champion him? They espouse community- and life-destroying ideologies, the consequences of which they are shielded from in their cloistered enclaves, but which regular people can’t afford to avoid. They try to shove people into ever-denser urban zones in the name of efficiency, economy, and environmentalism, yet have their own retreats and castles far from the madness of the crowds.
Science-fiction and dystopian literature and films can teach us a great deal about our society—and the kind of society we want to avoid. I’m afraid we haven’t listened to the great (and even mediocre) authors and filmmakers of the last fifty or sixty years, and we’ve gotten elements of each of these worlds.
But at least we’re just worshiping a career criminal, not a giant disembodied stone head. Progress, right?