Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Problem of the Real and THX 1138

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Problem of the Real and THX 1138

Article excerpt

It is ... our common destiny to become film.--Paul Virilio ("The Last Vehicle 115)

In an essay comparing the functions of ideology and utopias, Paul Ricoeur sets out to describe some fundamental similarities in these two ways of thinking. He begins on a negative note, suggesting that both ideology and utopia represent "deviant attitudes toward social reality" (107) and that utopian thinking especially is a kind of "escapism," concealing "under its traits of futurism the nostalgia for some paradise lost" (122). In so doing he addresses a common criticism of most utopian thinking, the sense that our visions of utopias--or dystopias, for that matter(1)--produce a problematic relationship to our world because of their "eclipse of praxis" (121). That is, such fantastic constructions, much like any culture's dominant ideology, can easily distract us from what might be done.

Ricoeur does not really want to dismiss utopian thinking. Rather, he suggests that the nostalgic escapism of utopian/dystopian narratives is useful if it helps us to interrogate the prevailing conditions of our culture. Yet the very difficulty of trying to determine how a text, and especially a film, might encourage such interrogation points to another, deeper difficulty with which Ricoeur and others have typically struggled in recent times: the difficulty of gauging that other world against a "social reality," and even of locating what he terms "the real" in a world that has become thoroughly mediated by various forms of representation, particularly the cinematic and electronic. At the base of this problem is the widespread postmodern belief that reality itself has disappeared into a variety of cultural constructs, that the real "exists" only as we construct it from experience, or as it is constructed for us by the many cinematic and electronic media that permeate our world. The pervasive sense that Paul Virilio describes, that our world is inexorably becoming "film," has simply made the possibility of utopian/dystopian commentary a far more difficult and complex proposition.

The problem involved in using the imagined world as a possible critique of contemporary society surfaces rather obviously in our utopian and dystopian films, those which powerfully visualize what could be in a fully imagined and convincing diegetic world, yet in the process, potentially undermine the critical effect of such a vision by dislocating this distinctly imagined world from our own. A film like Metropolis (1926), for example, offers a thorough critique of futuristic life, one extrapolated from twentieth-century capitalism pushed to a logical and self-destructive extreme, yet symptomatically it shades that image in a starkly expressionist scheme: heavy shadows, angular images, stylized character motions, a symbolic dominance of things over people, etc.--all elements that detach this cinematic world from appearing to have any immediate connection to our own. Similarly, a later work like the British Things to Come (1936) extrapolates from the very real international tensions of its day and looming threats of another world war to describe a decades-long conflict that reduces most of civilization to rubble but opens the way for a new world order, one modeled on the social vision of the film's writer, H.G. Wells. Its vision of this new order, though, is a starkly monumentalist one,(2) marked at every turn by an outsized and imposing relationship between that reconstructed world and the human. In framing their futuristic visions in these stylized ways, such films always risk the kind of escapism Ricoeur notes, for their stylizations unhinge their imagined worlds from our own. In the process, they leave the spectator with the difficult task of understanding that the distinctiveness of those worlds derives from a comparison and contrast to our own. Such films can thereby lose the opportunity of pointing out the ideological function of representations of "lived experience"--utopian, dystopian, or otherwise. …

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