Thus Spoke Kubrick: A Brief Examination of Free Will

Self awareness blesses us with confliction:  presenting our minds a future of ambivalence and misconceptions of base-level worth in a chance universe.  Because of this, many find humanity itself is an intrinsic value, often anchoring their opinion to the concept of free will, a gift from the gods to ensure our conceit is not only hot air.  Unlike much of our ancestral counterparts, we act through an assumed filter of choice. When pressed, however, much like any mythology, the concept of free will deflates with the slightest amount of pressure.   We go to great lengths of disassociation to insist upon the complexity and uniqueness of the human experience, but through 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick writes a love letter to our unknown motivators.  

When I speak of free will, what do I mean?  Am I offering a fatalistic viewpoint where all actions are predetermined values and the actors remain unchangeable?  Not quite. Rather, through an agent of chaos, a life experiences a certain degree of unpredictability, where action is demanded of the participant.  We can break up the action into two categories: those of unwillingness (forced action) and those of willingness (desired action). Regardless of the cartographic impetus behind a decision, neither forced action nor desired action are the effects of autonomy.  Kubrick explored the former through the introduction of the Monolith.

2001: A Space Odyssey opens with the grand narrative, an introduction to our history—the dawning of man.  For a first time viewer, it is a humbling event. The horn section of Also Sprach Zarathustra breaks the visual and auditory silence of the vast nothingness of space for the first time.  Kubrick finds himself seated comfortably in the mythology of the divine, taking the place of God and separating the light from the darkness with the first sunrise of man.  

The Monolith is subject to controversy and discussion throughout the film community.  It serves as almost a Rorschach test for the viewer. While its ambiguity gives rise to many metaphors, the most fitting comes with the application to free will.  Driven from a watering hole, an ancient tribe stumbles upon the featureless and geometrically pleasing structure. Here we find the claim of consciousness and its mysterious effects through a simple symbol of biology.  The Monolith exists through incongruity with the surrounding environment. Its featureless dimensions are at war with the imperfect landscape of the desert. However, there is something familiar and completely natural about it.  A recurring motif to remind the viewer they are not writer of their story.

Like the proto-humans, our drive is somewhat of an odd companion; something that feels completely foreign to our sense of autonomy but natural to our biological composition.  When they discover the Monolith, it whispers to them with unmitigated influence, bringing to light their basic, primal urges and pushing them to react with violence in an attempt to tip the Darwinian scales and  reclaim a fundamental necessity for survival: water. It is the instinctual reflex of the forced action. As Daniel H. Pink states in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, our motivation can be thought of in terms of an operating system.  In these very early days of our ancestors, the Monolith is motivation 1.0, controlling our thoughts and processes with rudimentary biological needs.  Turning to the other side of the spectrum, when reduced to their simplest form, desires are made of the same indescribable material as the Monolith. We might be free to act upon our desire, but we have no control over the desire itself.  

Kubrick mirrors this complexity and unknowability of our drive with one of the opening scenes in A Clockwork Orange, where Alex and his droogs encounter a rival gang in an abandoned theater. There is one key difference between this encounter and the proto-humans of 2001.  Rather than tying the characters’ drives to an extrinsic motivational factor such as survival, Alex and his accomplices are driven by the sheer intrinsic value of violence itself.  What does this mean in terms of Alex’s choices? Is he choosing violence because of the pleasure he receives from the acts, or is the pleasure received too good to avoid? Regardless of the answer, if he does not choose the deterministic factors behind his actions, where is the freedom in his desires?  

Because of his violent proclivities, Alex is the perfect candidate for a new controversial form of cognitive therapy where, in essence, the treatment rewires the brain and forces Alex to become physically sick at the thought of violence.  As the Chaplain so aptly remarks, “The question is whether or not this technique really makes a man good. Goodness comes from within. Goodness is chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.” However, Kubrick built a house of doubt from the beginning and has left enough room for the viewer to question the conclusion at which the Chaplain arrives. If the treatment just replaces Alex’s natural urges with a different catalyst, how is he any different than before?  If the Monolith of the mind is eclipsed by another mysterious impetus that influences the actions of its recipients, can we really say that either application is the definition of autonomy? No. While most of us have lived our lives under the myopic conclusion of the Chaplain, we need to align our definitions of humanity with the truth: we are nothing more than complex machines, wired with the collective will of biology and shaped through the extrinsic values of our parents, friends, and role models.  

In its most basic definition, free will is predicated on the ability to choose the opposite without any variables being changed.  If the clock were turned back and the same options were presented, in order for Alex or the proto-humans—or the audience for that matter—to act differently, they would need an external or internal factor to diverge from the original context.  Even with this information in mind, however, most of us will continue to live with the illusion. We will continue feeling as if we are the writer of our personal narratives because, let’s face it, we have no choice. And while this information will not change the way we think about ourselves to any significant degree, recognizing the illusion of free will can affect our daily interactions.  We might find a little empathy and understanding in our fellow man.


In the Absence of God

Cinema is a medium of meditation.  Its essence is relativity, a structure built through the filter of the viewer’s life and values, opening every story to the world of interpretation.  Film holds an abstract mirror up to its subject and allows us to explore the grand narratives of what it is to be human: perception, consciousness, sexuality, death, and ultimately—spirituality.  However, what is it to be spiritual? This is the peculiar nature of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, as it aims to answer this question through an examination of the divine and the profane, often blurring the two in a paradoxical confluence until the viewer can no longer tell the difference between them.  Often planted firmly under the restrictive nature of religion, spirituality is divorced from its modern conception in First Reformed as we follow Ernst Toller through an exploration of faith, meaning, authenticity.  Ambiguity is the language of the film, and Schrader withholds just enough to skirt around confrontation and the dissonance we find between faith and reason.  As the viewer, we come to see that when a worldview is predicated on a myth for so long, adjusting values to include a sense of veridicality can be a harrowing task.

First Reformed opens a dialogue between faith and reason by filtering the two diametrically opposed values through Ernst Toller’s narration.  As the audience, we receive a look into a conflicted psyche, torn between the doubt of silence and the want for something beyond the physical.  Schrader, like most great artists, uses the medium to parse the unknown, to investigate what makes us human. One of the most fundamental aspects of our nature is the emotion of guilt.  When we have wronged someone or acted in a way that is ostensibly counterintuitive to our constructed morality, we find ourselves experiencing a ping of distress. This leads, for most of us, to a need for absolution.   Schrader explores this need through the conversation between Toller and Michael while introducing us to one of the main themes: are we worthy of salvation?

Michael begins the conversation through an expression of anxiety:  is it wrong to bring a child into this world? Bearing children is a function not many people question.  It is a built into our code. We are meant to grow old and have offspring, but we never consider if a child would want to be born.  The world, with all of its improvements in medicine and technology, still offers little sympathy to its inhabitants. When Michael asks about the moral implications of bringing a child into a hopeless world, however, Toller realizes his question is less about the child itself and more of a way for Michael to confront one of the oldest issues humanity has faced:  the purposeless life. An idle existence is something to fear, as it forces us to address the ephemerality that looms over us all. The dread of a lonely night and the reflection it brings can lead only to stasis and an incongruity between the physical and the spiritual. There is a sense of duality we all experience. We have the feeling of there being a ghost in the machine, a Cartesian theater where the true self processes every experience.  However, when we stare into the abyss of our consciousness, only the darkness stares back. This is the genesis of our anxiety.

During the conversation, Toller continues his examination of the unfulfilled by referencing Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death, a book in which Kierkegaard argues it is not the physical death we should fear, but a spiritual one by means of ignoring our true self.  Much of the Existentialist movement is grounded in the idea of individuality and authenticity. If an individual fails to nurture either one of these values, they open their life to self-deception, hardships, and despair.  As Toller tells Michael that we must not give into anguish, the audience sees him as an unreliable narrator for the first time. As Pastor Jeffers later states, Toller is alway in the Garden, sweating blood and toiling in a perennial darkest hour.  Much like our main character’s pursuit of truth, so must the viewer decipher between what is authentic and what is a desperate attempt to force belief in the unreasonable.

Within this consistent state of affliction, we find a parallel between Michael and Toller.  While their concerns are different in name, they function as synonyms, as both have found concern with the metanarrative on which they have based their lives.  Much like the environmentalism to which Michael subscribes, Toller’s faith has diminishing returns. The comparison to Michael is not wasted on Toller either. As he mentions during the narration, the conversation is much like when Jacob wrestled the angel:  “Every sentence, every question, every response, a mortal struggle. It was exhilarating.” Michael is the doubt, festering below the surface of Toller’s psyche, whispering the possibility of God’s death. He emphasizes this point when he tells Michael the only way to combat despair is through courage. Reasoning, when we cannot know the mind of God, is useless.  Because we cannot predict the future, we have to choose courage over despair, despite the unease of uncertainty. These thoughts of blind faith are almost reflexive in nature for Toller; something he likely heard from the lips of another pastor who advised him to embrace the absurdity of God and all the ambiguity that accompanies His word, rather than rely on the tangible.   However, reflective glance for Toller reveals the truth: there is little comfort in the unknown.

With the introduction of Mary, Schrader offers a secular counterpoint to the spiritual milieu that pervades First Reformed, and as her influence becomes more apparent, Ernst Toller continues to resist the temptation of losing his faith.  Nonetheless, we see his transformation through his journal. Much of what he writes is a wisp of the virtue he wishes he could possess.  Everything in his life is a reminder of his failures, including his position as a spiritual counselor. First Reformed, once a respected sect of the Dutch-Reformed Church, is now little more than a tourist souvenir shop, living in the shadow of its sister location, Abundant Life.  Since his son’s death and subsequent divorce, Toller has lived a life of solitude and reflection. However, much like Michael, he has not embraced a life of authenticity. He has buried himself in the faith and become an ethical impostor, going through the motions and measuring his worth against the expectations of others.  Unfortunately, these are unreachable standards with which Toller’s grief and shame only grows. Schrader demonstrates this in the scene where Toller is offering a group of school children some of the rich history of his church. When speaking of the Underground Railroad, he says the following, “Can you imagine that? In the dark. The air hot, shaking with fear.  The sound of the slave hunters’ horses outside. On their knees, holding each other’s hands, praying for God to save them.” This section of dialogue mirrors Toller’s current state. He has been hypnotized by the abyss, engulfed in the blackness and hoping God will end his suffering. The more he prays, however, the stronger the silence becomes.

A key tenet of existentialism is the belief in the individual.  Free will, in the eyes of this philosophy, is a vital part of humanity.  While the definitions of individuality are manifold, there is a consensus of the consequences we face without an idea of our true self:  through the loss of freedom, we welcome overwrought sensibilities in a senseless world. Jeffers sums the Kierkegaardian view of this nicely when giving his sermon on anxiety.  He states anxiety ails only the wicked, caught in their determination to do things their own way. Kierkegaard speaks of this in The Sickness Unto Death.  The idea of the self is a product of our relations:  do we find ourselves in partnership with the Infinite or the Finite?  If it is the latter, we have accepted the temporal over the everlasting and experience despair through our separation from God.  Juxtaposing the sermon, however, is Mary. While she is representative of the world, there is an unmistakable divinity to her character.  But she suffers from the same sickness as Toller: “I woke up and my heart was pounding and I thought, like, the roof, the ceiling, was just gonna fall in.  So I had to get out…Without warning, this dark curtain just fell. I’m scared of everything…I just can’t stop my thoughts. They go on and repeat and repeat.”

In attempt at mitigation, Toller and Mary inhabit a shared consciousness through meditation.   For a brief moment, Toller finds peace through Mary, transcending the physical beauty of life and embracing the sense of awe that accompanies the realization of our mortality.  Our purpose is found in the brevity of our existence because it is not until a period is placed that a sentence finds full meaning. As he lets go of his dread, he experiences true spirituality for the first time.  He later tells Mary a story of his great grandfather, a pastor from Muskegon, Michigan. In the final moments of his great grandfather’s life, the pastor was to have said he was standing on holy ground. The moment with Mary is a taste of this.  It is a short-lived reprieve, however. Toller lets go of Mary’s hands and finds himself back in the Garden, lost in the rumination of a hellish landscape.

Paul Schrader is masterful in his ability to force the viewer to inhabit Toller’s world.  His minimalist approach encourages the audience to lean into the film with its stagnant camerawork and bleak color palette.  This also allows Schrader to break the rules and highlight important aspects of the film. One of the most interesting examples of this comes in the finale.  In the last few shots, Schrader plays with color saturation and vibrancy. Moments before Toller fills a tumbler with drain cleaner, we see his parsonage void of color, almost to the point where the film feels as if it were shot in black and white. However, when Mary enters, the room is filled with light and warmth.  While the ending is drenched in ambiguity, the key to Toller’s fate lies in how the room is lit and Mary’s mysterious entrance. Because of Jeffers, we know the door to the parsonage has been locked, and there is presumably only one entrance to such a small building. This moment is a vision, the last images of a dying man who sought truth and love all of his life.  The embrace with Mary is Ernst’s holy ground, where he experiences divinity at its fullest, shedding the pseudo-spirituality of Christian mythology and embracing the wonder of Mary’s secular touch. In an unreasonably passionate kiss, the camera swirls around the two in order to parallel the meditation scene and indicate we are witnessing a fantasy. The movie abruptly cuts to a black screen. Toller has faced the abyss.

Through Ernst Toller’s ideological evolution, we see that First Reformed is a study of the self and how easily our identities can be blurred by uncompromising narratives. While it is important to find meaning, losing oneself completely to an ideology stands in opposition to the original desired effect.  We must find a healthy balance between our desire for authenticity and the timidity of accepting that, in the macro view of things, we live meaningless lives.


The Transitional Self: Annihilation and the Illusion of Identity

We have all wondered, at one time or another, about our individuality.  What are the basic components of the self? We all have the feeling of a singular “I,” a certain unnameable essence that separates us from the rest of our friends and family.  One of the earliest philosophical debates in identity is the Theseus Paradox.  Theseus, thought to be the founder of Athens, is included in the pantheon of foundational Greek mythology.  Memorialized for his bravery and leadership, the citizens of Athens preserved his battleship for years. Through natural occurrences, preservation turned from an act of repair to an act of replacement.  Every original piece of that ship eventually rotted and was replaced with new planks. From a philosophical lens, this poses a reasonably tricky question: can we still view the repaired ship as the one that belonged to Theseus?  If not, at what point during the repairs did the ship cease to be the same vessel?

These questions are the heart of Alex Garland’s science fiction adaptation Annihilation.  Much like Theseus’ ship, none of us remain the same person throughout life, both in a physical and mental sense.  We all fall prey to biology and its curses. As we age, we find hair greys and thins, skin wrinkles and loses much of its elasticity, even soundness of mind comes into question with each year.  So how do we reconcile these changes with our sense of self? How do we continue to have planks removed and still see the same person? It is through progressive change and the illusion of free will that our singular narrative goes undisrupted.  Garland examines the substructure of identity through a journey of Lena’s psyche, leading the viewer into the depths of her consciousness where Lena is confronted with the absence of a sole identity.

The subtextual narrative of Annihilation acts as a catalyst for an important conversation about what is to be human.  While there are interesting takes on cancer and relationships, the true heart of the film lies in a simple question:  what is identity? This is a hard concept to define because there are so many facets as to what makes an individual feel an “I.”  However, Garland provides the viewer with a great example through Lena. The film’s journey is one familiar to all of us. Over our lifetime, we change.  Little by little, we develop new taste in music, food, and cinema. We are instilled with the ethical values of our parents, though these can be altered through other meaningful relationships and ideas. It is through these incremental changes that we  still accept the narrative of our lives. This is the idea behind the Shimmer and its peculiar attributes, like the refraction of DNA and memories. The Shimmer is paradoxical in nature: there is an eerie otherness to everything that resides under the dome, but a familiarity lies at the bottom of the mystery.  As Lena points out in the discovery of the multi-colored flowers and vines, they all look so different that one would not believe they are from the same plant, let alone the same species. They are caught in a continuous mutation, much like Lena’s identity.

With occasional flashes of the past, the audience is introduced to a version of Lena that, like the flowers, doesn’t seem to belong to the same consciousness. Through infidelity, Lena begins a self-examination into her own misjudgment of character. The Shimmer and expedition team are a perfect vehicle for Garland to magnify Lena’s introspection.  In this sense, the crew are the many faces of Lena’s consciousness: Anya is addiction to impulse, uncontrollable and incessant. Josie is the softer side of this, wanting nothing more than the chance to feel alive, even if that means a path leading to self-destruction. Cassie is sorrow, a physical representation of Lena mourning who she was before the affair.  And Ventress is the cold, detached examination of Lena’s value judgments and moral identity, serving almost as an underdeveloped conscience.

The Shimmer, in turn, is a metaphorical device for Lena’s psyche.  Her journey to the Lighthouse is one of pursuit: it is a way for Lena to kill her attachment to identity and embrace the idea she is only a passenger to uncontrollable desires, regardless of whether those actions are high-minded or not.  Subsequently, it is through one of the most unnerving and beautiful scenes of the film that Lena faces a facsimile of her current persona. Lena’s confrontation with the being is almost like a ballet, choreographed in a bizarre echo of her insecurities. The duplicate is a surrogate for all of Lena’s doubts and shortcomings;  it is a manifestation of the faults she wishes to discard but have ultimately left her with little more than a suffocating sense of regret. Throughout the film, a tattoo emerges on Lena’s arm, which foreshadows this final confrontation.

The ouroboros is an old symbol for the infinite recurrence of life.  It is depicted through a serpent eating its own tail and is meant to represent the perpetual state of creation and destruction.  Joseph Campbell spoke well to this point in the Power of Myth: “There is a sense of death as not death somehow; that death is required for new, fresh life and so on. And the individual isn’t quite an individual.  He is a member of the plant.” Lena realizes much of her identity is a culmination of uncontrollable desires which arise through hidden biological proclivities and external factors.  She must let go of her guilt by burning her memories down to create something new.

Garland realizes that an integral part of our identity is found in memory.  Looking back at the original question of Theseus’ Paradox, we have to consider that our self is much more than a corporeal idea.  Much like the ship, we can replace limbs, sinew, and bone; we can lose hair, eyes, speech, and hearing, but the moment the mind begins to slip, we effectively lose ourselves.  Memories provide context to our narrative. They are the glue that binds our story from birth to death. This is a significant point in Annihilation as it is brought to our attention by Ventress: “We are disintegrating!  Our bodies as fast as our minds. Can’t you feel it? It’s like the onset of dementia.  If I don’t reach the lighthouse soon, the person that started this journey won’t be the person that ends it. I want to be the one that ends it.”  

If we dissect this quote under the assumption that Ventress is a branch of Lena’s subconscious, we realize the words are weighted.  Lena’s head lies heavy with the burden of indiscretion. The journey, as mentioned previously, is something of a redemptive tale in the sense that Lena is trying to reconcile a psychic disconnection between who she thought she was and who she has become.  However, like with any journey of significant growth, she must confront her painful past.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how the Shimmer is an external representation of Lena’s mind.  Garland accomplishes this through echoes of Lena’s memories. Late in the story, the crew sets up camp in an abandoned building that mirrors Lena’s home. However, like most of the environment in Annihilation, the aesthetic aspects have a preternatural value.  Whereas the earlier scenes within her home offer warmth to parallel her relationship with Kane, the echo is meant to be a counterpoint–it is cold, unforgiving, and eerie.   This is an important distinction when we examine the conflict with the bear.

The bear is one of the most interesting monster designs I have encountered in film.  It is a grim confluence of man and beast. While his structure is mostly that of a bear, he is accented with human remains:  a skull protrudes from the left side of his face like a macabre blister. He is Lena’s projection of Kane. Much like the ouroboros, Garland hides the significance of the bear in plain sight, tattooed on Kane’s body.  

There are two flashbacks that give more context to Lena’s idea of Kane.  The first is a moment where the two are lying in bed, engaging in playful banter about his upcoming departure.  The second encounter, however, serves as a contrapuntal scene, contrasting the closeness the audience felt before.  Much like the imitation of their home in the Shimmer, Kane is passionless and stiff. He has discovered Lena’s infidelity and rather than facing  his misplaced trust, he chooses to bury his grief, never fully addressing his anger. Her encounter with the bear, in this sense, is an unfilled wish.  Kane’s decision to enter the Shimmer was one born out of passive-aggression, which robbed Lena of a resolution and left her in a perennial state of contrition.  

Annihilation is ultimately a film about transition.  It is an exploration into a unique meta-narrative where identity itself is brought into question.  Garland, moreover, defies the idea of a singular self by challenging our presuppositions regarding free will and consciousness.  While most of us see our identity as axiomatic, the idea of a definitive “I” is nothing but an illusion. Sure, we can still maintain unique characteristics that separate us from others, but we can no longer claim to be the genesis of our personality.  Much like the Shimmer’s interpretation of refraction, we are an amalgamation of our biology and environment. When it comes to our psyche, we have a certain degree of volatility, which remains hidden from our narrative due to gradual change. However, through deep introspection, the illusion can snap and leave us, like Lena, with a new perspective.