Thursday, March 27, 2014
Try to imagine the neoconservative's greatest nightmare, if you can. Try to imagine a world in which individualism is crushed beneath the oppressive boot of the academy, a world in which science and research is used to enforce conformity to their ideology, and brave young white people are turned into soulless automatons to be used as cold efficient stormtroopers. Imagine that these brainwashed soldiers are ordered by the academy to ruthlessly execute white selfless families and to eliminate any individual that uses their God-given gifts to be themselves. Imagine a world in which collectivity is villainous and individualism is hyperbolically heroic and dangerous to the status quo.
If you can imagine this neoconservative nightmare, then you can imagine the first two thirds of the recent film Divergent, directed by Neil Burger. Adapted from a bestselling young adult novel, Divergent depicts a post-apocalyptic Chicago in which the denizens (not citizens) have been categorized and organized into discrete groups called Factions. Each Faction is based on a character attribute such as bravery, honesty, kindness, and most chilling of all, intelligent. Tris's class and upbringing mean that her habitus (as per Bourdieu) puts her squarely within the Faction of Abnegation. However, she is special (as all YA protagonists are) and chooses Dauntless, the sexy black leather group of shouting running teens. They perform the labour of soldier and police for the city while Abnegation, the selfless Faction, works as government. The cruel, cold, and ruthless Erudite (ie the academy) seek to undermine and overthrow Abnegation. However, Tris represents an obstacle for the villainous allegiance between Erudite and Dauntless because she does not fit neatly into any of the Factions. She is Divergent. In other words, she is special.
Tris meets the requisite love interest named Four. His chiselled jaw and piercing eyes present a gruff exterior for Tris to eventually erode through her hard work, fierce personality, and good looks. He is the trainer during the requisite training montage that takes up what seems like an hour and a half of the 140 minute running time. Tris's is fully committed to the Dauntless training program, characterized as individual and competitive, cut throat enough that weaker individuals are willing to collude and cheat. Again, the terror of the collective action and unfair advantages in a free market. Tris's skills and God-given advantages are inherently fair because she works harder than anybody, according to the film. Thus, her privilege and individuality should be punished by the system. She is an undisciplined body that is slowly manipulated through coordinated movement and repetition of dogma into becoming a docile body.
In the second half of the film, the conspiracy to overthrow the rightfully governing body is revealed. Tris and Four discover that Dauntless leaders and Erudite leaders have conspired to use science and conformity to violently grasp sovereignty. Erudite have invented a brainwashing serum (some sort of cognitive blah blah technobabble) while Dauntless have offered the use of their trained soldiers. Thus, the individual soldiers are innocent of genocide because they have been manipulated by the academy for nefarious purposes.
Only Tris's Divergent nature allows her to see the truth of the conspiracy, and only her individual, non-Faction allegiance allows her to fight against the corruption of the Erudite. Logically, this means Tris's individuality is the greatest threat to Erudite and their plans. Other Divergents are murdered if only to prevent their refusal of the change in status quo. The main antagonist, Janine, as played by Kate Winslet, spells this out during the climax of the film. Only conformity can maintain the peace of the city.
In the neoconservative fantasy, collective action is reprehensible because it represents an unfair advantage against the individual in the free market. Collectivity and conformity is the hand of the government. It is repeated as dogma that Faction comes before kin in this evil cruel system. Individuality and free market capitalism are the only signs of the fair and just society. This is not hard to read in the film Divergent because it is right there on the surface. It is explicit. This is the libertarian heroic fantasy: one in which the ruthless Randian entrepreneur rejects the rigid structures imposed by the systems unmotivated by profit.
It is utterly telling that in the film, the only depictions of family come from the farming Faction and the selfless small government Faction. Amity is the rural labour force for food. They are depicted in the opening exposition as happy, giving, and carefree. Only in these brief scenes do we see families, smiling, white, and heteronormative. The Abnegation Faction also provides the audience with two conflicting images of families: Tris's family is a tight unit of selfless, loving, giving people who work selflessly for the government, whereas the leader of the Abnegation government, Marcus, is depicted as corrupt and abusive to his son (the law of economy of characters means that this son can only be one person: Four). The crucial difference here is that Marcus is depicted as a single father. Thus, the absence of the mother, the heteronormative mother, leads to corruption and an overreaction of punishment for individuality. Four is unfairly punished for being unique. Similarly, Tris and Four's romantic relationship is explicitly chaste because of the reaffirmation of traditional family values that the Right hold so dear. As soon as they kiss, Tris tells him that she doesn't want to go to fast. She must maintain her virginal purity lest she be punished for her nonconformity.
Likewise, the threat of punishment for Tris's individuality is much higher than for Four, ie she risks literal death. However it is this uniqueness and self-awareness that allows her very survival. There is a curious excess of scenes in which Tris undergoes a hallucination. In the film, the final test of initiation into Dauntless is facing one's greatest fears in one's subconscious. Some sort of technobabble allows for others to watch on a screen the initiate's confrontation with their fears. In the case of Tris, she defeats a flock of angry birds by knowing her own mind well enough to understand that it is a dream and not real. Yes, Tris's Divergent (read: individualistic) nature allows her to differentiate between simulation (read: ideology) and reality (read: how things really are). Within the dream sequences, she is able to control the parameters of the dream. She develops an ability to think around the illusions, to see that the glass cage filling with water is not glass but ephemeral dream stuff. However, it is critical to Tris's survival that does not reveal her Divergent nature by shattering the illusion of the dream. Instead she must overcome these obstacles by means of conformity: in order to survive within the system, she must suppress her individuality and defeat the tests by pretending to be Dauntless. She must perform collectivity to survive.
But survival is not enough. To survive within an unfair system is akin to death ("give me liberty or give me death"). Thus, as Divergent, she must defeat the government and expose their corruption. In other words, her Divergent nature will always give her away. She will struggle against the suffocating bonds of conformity and her true nature will reveal itself. Her flower will bloom regardless of the drought imposed by collectivity.
In typical heroic fashion, the John Galt figure of Tris must sacrifice her ties to either Faction in order to transcend conformity. She must be divorced from her past because in the neoconservative American fantasy, the past is the past, it should not matter, and has no bearing on the present. Thus, in order to achieve her heroic destiny, Tris's parents must die. There can be no ties to Faction. Nothing can hold her back from her destiny as exceptional hero.
There is something utterly insidious about the nexus between the Campbell monomyth (the Hero) and the neoconservative fantasy of exceptionalism and struggle against academy. None of the major YA film franchises appear to be anything but heroic fantasies of the Right wing: the rise of the individual against the oppressive and opulent government; the reinstatement of tradition and traditional family values; the perpetuation of heteronormativity; and the reaffirmation that class can be overcome through hard work, athletic prowess, and ruthlessness on the free market. The Harry Potter megafranchise reiterates class distinctions, the Twilight franchise offers heteronormativity and the nuclear family as solution, and The Hunger Games suggests overthrowing a Big Government too interested in fashion and conformity.
Likewise, Divergent depicts a structure in which intelligence is posited as villainous. It's hard not to be offended when the film tells you that the academy (the one in which I work and live) is brainwashing fine hardworking white kids into being genocidal stormtroopers through irresponsible use of science. The only other applications of science in the film represent moments of either forced conformity or unfair collusion. It's as if science and the academy are always irresponsible and it is up to athletic white kids to save us from the evil intelligentsia. Truly, this sounds like the paranoia of the Right as espoused by "thinkers" such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly.
Even as a film, a unit of entertainment, this propaganda for family values fails. The direction is lacklustre, the running time bloated, the action bland, and somehow everything seems really small. It seems like there are only about 50 people in each Faction, yet the city is depicted as teeming. This is a microcosm of the lack of internal consistency in the creation of the speculative world. Throughout the film, I found myself constantly irritated by the logical implication of this world. It doesn't seem like there is a Faction devoted to construction, maintenance, design, or even basic manufacturing. Who is running the trains that the Dauntless dolts seem so keen to jump off? Who stops the train when the kids don't want to jump? Who built the structures they live in? Who maintains the dungeon-y Dauntless headquarters? Who cleans up after them? Who manufactures the sexy leather outfits worn by Dauntless? How do the tattoo artists in Dauntless get and maintain their equipment? Who cooks for the Dauntless during the meal scenes of the film? And on and on.
The film is a terrible blur of neoconservative fantasy and stretched metaphor for the anxiety of not knowing who to sit with in the cafeteria. At every stage, character motivations and important points are stressed as explicitly as possible so the audience does not fall behind the characters. The supporting cast is filled out with types (the sassy sidekick who is of course a person of colour -- thanks, tokenism!) with completely undercooked motivations. The screenplay follows slavishly the three act structure. If the motions of the beats hadn't tipped me off to a romantic scene, then the obvious change in lighting would have. As soon as the lighting changes from stark blue or teal to orange and warm, then I knew characters would touch sexually. It is a tedious exercise.
If I had never seen a film before, I would have loved Divergent. However, I have seen a film and thus I was bored senseless. Nothing is surprising, nothing is new, and I did not care to be depicted as the genocidal villain, thank you very much. Fuck this movie.