Some make you sing and some make you scream… Films and books for #notmydebt

In good news, my altercation with Centrelink over an alleged overpayment is nearly at an end.  In bad news, there is a lot of terrible advice circulating on social media.  It should go without saying: don’t take legal advice from Twitter accounts with ‘knights and dames’ still in their handles, and don’t use template letters unless you’ve checked in with a lawyer who can explain the template to you.

But I’ve also taken to thinking about the relationship between the public service and the broader public.  One of my frustrations was the lack of intellectual leadership from legal theorists in the discussion, but another was the lack of critical engagement with why people were upset (above being chased for money that they neither have nor owe).  Put another way, even if Centrelink’s actions were perfectly legal, people seemed to intuit that there was a deeper magic that made their actions illegitimate — a deeper magic based on moral and political norms.

By calling it ‘magic’, I don’t mean to be disparaging.  I’ve been reading an article by Jeremy Waldron which engages with some discussion about whether particular concepts — like the separation of powers — are legal concepts or are instead situated in some other normative space.  It reminds me a lot of Aslan being executed on the Stone Table: he comes back from the dead because deeper magic softens the sharp edges of the White Witch’s legalism.

This provides a nice segue into the content of this post: the literature that informs our intuitions about the relationship between the government and the state (especially when things go pear-shaped).  Thus, Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam), Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (dir. Garth Jennings), V for Vendetta (dir. James McTiegue), and the novel, 1984 by George Orwell.

Brazil

A bug falls into a computer, causing a strike team to raid the house of Mr Buttle — an innocent cobbler — instead of Mr Tuttle — a dangerous terrorist who fixes airconditioning units without filling out the correct paperwork.  This begins a chain of events completely beyond the control of any one individual, resulting in the destruction of a junior civil servant, Sam Lowry (played by a very young Jonathan Pryce).  Lowry’s mistake — the sin for which he’s punished — is trying to focus on outcomes instead of processes.  This marks him out as a transgressor in his environment dominated by fearful, paranoid paper shufflers.

The mistaken arrest of Mr Buttle is discovered too late, resulting in his death (because Mr Buttle’s heart condition didn’t appear on Mr Tuttle’s file).  Where others are terrified of trying to correct at least part of the issue (refunding Mr Buttle for the cost of his interrogation), Lowry drives out to Buttle’s widow to hand-deliver the cheque.  It’s this act which causes his ultimate destruction: unauthorised use of a personal transport unit.

Brazil‘s genius is its critical examination of the role of technology in facilitating bureaucracy.  The whole society depends upon automation.  Small glitches — like having coffee poured on the toast — are just dismissed as the nature of things, rather than something to get upset or annoyed about.  The prevalence of small glitches and the omnipresence of automation create the tension of the film: a small glitch — the bug falling into the machine — cannot be easily corrected and therefore results in deaths, imprisonments, and human waste.  Where the majority are either indifferent to the problems (like the absurdly wealthy elites) or impotently terrified (like the middle management in the civil service), the heroes try to see through the machine to the outcomes the machines are supposed to provide.  Lowry finds solutions that expose himself to the risk of accountability; Tuttle (an amazing role for Robert DeNiro) finds solutions by openly defying the law in his fixing of airconditioners.

The film also serves as a critique of ‘Rule of Law’ rhetoric.  This is a society governed strictly by rules and regulations.  Discretion is not permitted and everybody is treated equally.  The result is a paradoxical mix of chaos and sterile rigidity.

The law of Equity developed in response to the rigidity of the Common Law.  When the legal system delivered results which struck people as unfair or unjust, there was another way to seek a resolution.  People weren’t just dashed on the rocks of legalism.  Brazil is the world without Equity.  It is a world where there are no real options when the system glitches, and where people are actively discouraged from trying to fix the system.

The film is by no means perfect.  The world of Brazil presents an actual problem of terrorism: explosions are a regular occurrence.  The people in charge of addressing the issue are incompetent to the point of insanity, declaring that terrorists are a result of ‘bad sportsmanship’ and forgetting ‘good, old-fashioned virtues’.  This might amuse the extreme left who seem pathologically incapable of understanding the reality of extremist violence, but it dulls the cleverness of the critique.  Far better to have the issue treated seriously and then juxtapose that with the ridiculousness of the systemic, bureaucratic approach.

Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (film)

Where I love Brazil more and more every time I watch it, each viewing of H2G2 makes me more miserable about the lost opportunity.

Arthur Dent (irritatingly portrayed by the infinitely irritating Martin Freeman) begins his adventure trying to protect his house from demolition by the local council.  They want to bulldoze his house to make a bypass.  He soon discovers the futility of this effort when the entire Earth is demolished by galactic bureaucrats to make way for a bypass.

H2G2 began life as a radio series, an episodic sitcom about galactic bureaucracy and absurdity.  Not only are the rules unfair, but everybody around Arthur behaves as if the rules make sense and that the problem is with him.  When the radio series was converted into a series of novels, there wasn’t a radical reimagining of the sort of story that was going to be told.  The result is a cult classic, but not a good novel.  The characters are deliberately thin, and the point is that events occur to the characters rather than the characters striving for particular outcomes.

Everything that makes the radio series and the novels so enjoyable — the quirky, absurd, random nature of the events — is what tanks the movie.  That, and Martin Freeman and Zooey Deschanel.

Random fun on the screen makes it feel like watching the most tedious undergrad sketch show ever made.  The jokes don’t quite land because most of Adams’ jokes are in his descriptions.  All the dialogue is flat, and there’s no drive to the story which encourages a critique of the issues Adams satirised.  Everything is tired and flat.

A lot of the problem comes down to the question about how to translate a story between media.  We don’t seem to distinguish between the questions ‘What is the story?’ and ‘How best should we tell it?’  Instead, we seem preoccupied with only one question: ‘How do we create a film of a popular book that won’t upset the fans?’

Brazil and H2G2 are from a similar era.  H2G2 was written in the late ’70s.  Brazil is from the mid-80s.  It is perhaps surprising that Brazil‘s ideas have aged better than the former.  Both deal with the absurdity of bureaucracy, but Brazil maintains a sustained engagement with the problem in a way that H2G2‘s vignettes preclude.  Adams presents a series of guerrilla strikes on his targets, armed with playful use of language that’s both beautiful and insightful.  But, despite being science-fiction, it’s not forwards-looking.  Adams imagines his own bureaucratic world in space (similar to how Wu Cheng-en imagined his own bureaucratic world in the heavens for Journey to the West).  Gilliam saw the progress of automation and bureaucracy, and pessimistically imagined their future.  It helps that Gilliam largely got this vision of the future correct: resource constraints demand greater automation of routine tasks, resulting in less room for human intervention in inhuman processes.

V for Vendetta (film)

I’m perhaps one of the few to enjoy both the graphic novel and the film.  They tell slightly different stories, and the target of the critiques differ.  Alan Moore (the author of the graphic novel) was probably right when he said that the film’s attack on Bush’s United States was lazy and flaccid, but that understates how heavy-handed Moore’s critique of Thatcherism is.  Both the film and the book are trying something difficult: they are arguing that the audience is to blame for the state of politics.  But how to do that without causing the audience to switch off or disengage?  How to do that effectively?

I don’t think either really achieves its goal.  If anything, the audience that will engage most with the texts is the audience least likely to see itself as complicit in the creation of our political environment: the audience that sees itself as savvy, switched-on, and cynical, and sees other people as conformist sheep.  But the cynical, ‘savvy’ types are the most conformist of all.  The Assanges, Snowdens, and Greenwalds have childishly stupid political beliefs, but they — and their supporters — see themselves as shining beacons pointing the way to truth and liberty.

V for Vendetta presents a world where the government and the media collaborate to keep the public in a state of apathy.  The creation of imagined threats by the media allows the government to justify the use of violence against those who are not apathetic.  A victim of the state’s violence wages a one-man war against the state, takes on an apprentice, and then inspires a revolution.

What V for Vendetta gets right is the public need for spectacle to engage with politics.  If the media is bland and panders only to petty prejudices, then the public does not engage.  The extremist commentary — ‘England prevails’ — is effective because the audience does not have to put any effort into getting impotently outraged.  Of course the problem is out there.  Of course there are constant threats to freedom.  Of course we are in the inside and need protection from Those on the Outside.

What V for Vendetta gets wrong is the adoption of the low-energy politics to inspire a revolution.  Those who support the hero at the end do so by engaging in performance rather than in critical dialogue.  Sure, this might expose me to charges of the excesses of ‘civility politics’ — where the only legitimate form of engagement is that which least upsets the status quo.  The violence expressed in the film is the violence of the impotent: the seething resentment against a powerful Big Other.  To overthrow the existing government, the rebels (both living and dead) deny their individuality and collectivise.  But why are they collectivising?  What does the world look like at the start of V for Vendetta 2: 2 Hard 2 Vendetta?

The world of V for Vendetta is the world of a political world with no political theory.  They want freedom, but they don’t know what freedom is.  They want liberty, but they don’t know what liberty is.  They want violence, but they don’t care against whom.

It is this last reason that makes me feel V for Vendetta is the most realistic of the texts discussed in this post.  When people were subjected to a form of state violence in the form of automated debt collection, people just seemed outraged without content.  At times, it felt like people thought the worst part about the debacle was that an ‘algorithm’ was used instead of flesh and blood functionaries.  The appeal of template letters also fed into that: we have been stirred up just enough to do anything, but not enough to do something.  At the end of V for Vendetta, the crowd gathers in the street and watches.  Their version of a revolution is just to show up.  Anything must be done, so they gather round for the fireworks.  What they don’t do is something effective.  The dangerous, dirty stuff is done by the shadowy, anonymous other; the dinner-in-front-of-the-TV crowd enjoy the predigested fruits.

Also, this film needs to edit out the romance bits.  They’re just the worst.

1984 (novel)

The book that started it all.  The surprising bit, perhaps, is that the book isn’t very good.  I wonder if this is one of those books that is famous despite people not reading it.  1984.  Big Brother.  War is Peace.  Room 101.  Yup, this new government proposal is exactly like that.

Like Brazil, a young civil servant, Winston, is dissatisfied with the drudgery of bureaucracy and imagines a different kind of world, with passion, with freedom, and with sex.  His world is miserable: bad gin, mandatory aerobics, and unsatisfying prostitutes.  The body civic is motivated by anger, and Winston is angry that he is forced to perform anger.  He meets a young girl who acts as a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and he is given a book that is full of political ramblings.  Winston is a kind of Mary Sue, he intuitively knows that everybody around him is a sheep and he knows being contrarian is being right (which is the view that George Orwell pretty much constantly espoused about himself).

It is the vacuity of the political critique that has left 1984 open for adoption by both the political right and the left.  The right reads it as a critique of state interference in individual liberties, an argument against socialism and the dependence of citizens on the state.  The left reads it as a critique of authoritarian power, using technology to quash dissent and radical thoughts.

Orwell never really makes a stand on the issue.  He makes his target a strawman, and his weapons are lazy intuitions about the autonomy of man.  Any interference with a person’s liberty of thought — either through manufacturing dependence upon the state or through quashing dissent through surveillance — is illegitimate.

The surprise is that Orwell’s visions of the future and the citizens’ engagement with the state turned out to be completely wrong, despite being so adaptable.  It’s the abdication of power by the state to private individuals that now pose threats to individual liberty (however understood).  I have more to fear from my wealthy neighbour than I do from Big Brother.  And it’s not just a privilege thing: my neighbour clamours for his rights to own firearms, to intimidate and to humiliate me based on race or sexuality, to deny me services based on race or sexuality, and to expect me to work for him for free.

Similarly, Orwell got it wrong about the use of language and instead participated in our politico-linguistic impoverishment.  The future wouldn’t be filled with fewer words; the future would be filled with meaningless words.  ‘Freedom’ means a sort of powerlessness now: a freedom to be isolated from others and to die alone.  The state doesn’t tax me, but I’m not sure that getting ill won’t bankrupt me.  Orwell maintained that words had a sort of innate meaning that revealed itself to the commonsensical.  Any sort of higher order thinking about what words mean was likely to be academic chicanery or political spin.  So words didn’t have their meaning corrupted in 1984; they were eradicated.  This was the only way that Orwell thought people’s thoughts could be constrained: limiting language by crossing out the difficult words.

Orwell, remember, wanted politicians to be ‘plain-speaking’.  We got that.  His name is Donald Trump.  Nobody wants that.  Trump is the Orwellian hero: the plain-speaking man who rejects the technocratic ways of the elites and appeals to commonsense truths.

The interesting thing is Orwell’s contempt for ‘bellyfeel’, which he thought was a disregard of objective truths in favour of what made people feel comfortable.  But Winston never engages with truth on a deeper level than whether or not Oceania was at war with Eurasia or Eastasia.

Maybe it is unfair to call Trump the Orwellian hero.  Perhaps, instead, he is what might occur if Winston had become Big Brother himself.

If Winston had inherited his father’s fortune and been a reality TV star.

The analogy is tortured, but the point remains: plain-speaking is no substitute for intellectual engagement with the deeper foundations of society.  Winston is angry but he doesn’t know why.  Winston is angry, but it’s probably due to the bad gin and unsatisfying sex, rather than a deep understanding of liberty and freedom.  He obtains a diary and, like an adolescent upset that his dad won’t let him sleep over at his girlfriend’s place while her parents are away, writes ‘I hate Big Brother’ as if it’s a rebellious act.

Conclusion

We need a new 1984.  The political problems we faced back in the 1940s aren’t the same problems we face today, yet so much of our literature tries to reheat that souffle.  Our movies about the relationship between individuals and the state still try to frame it in Orwellian terms.  Brazil saw it as 1984+automation; H2G2 saw it as 1984+performance; V for Vendetta saw it as 1984+theatre.  A new 1984 — a 1984 which took a courageous stand about what it means for an individual to be free (and whether or not that’s a good thing — would change the conversation about our political environment and would draw a richer discussion about the deeper magic that protects people from the harsh rigidities of legalistic government.

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