Saturday, March 26, 2011
Forms of Education (& their discontents)
Who brought me up according to a fantasy?" -"Bishonen" Momus
The Greek film Dogtooth centers on the lives of three young adults: two sisters and a brother, who are being subjected to a rather extreme sort of upbringing (or "homeschooling" as netflixs not so helpfully puts it). They have been denied nearly all contact with the outside world, or what little they do receivee, such as a Frank Sinatra song, is delivered to them only through their parents' filters. Even everyday objects, such as table salt, are given new names that sound as much nonsense to the viewer. (Not recalling my high school Greek, I do wonder if the film contains puns or wordplay which are lost on my foreign ears). The three children know nothing except what they have been taught by their stern, cold parents. They are physically well kept, healthy and living in a spacious modern home. For their exercise they have a small outdoor pool, resembling a pond more than anything else, as well as a large, lushly green yard. This yard is surrounded, of course, by towering walls. The parents employ tales of certain death outside this gated paradise in order to keep their children at bay.
While stories of deadly cats may sound fantastic, the parents are not above including violence among their tools of discipline. When the eldest daughter is caught with contraband videos of popular Hollywood films, her father savagely beats her over the head with a video cassette. These foreign objects were acquired from Christina the only outsider allowed inside their home. Christina is hired by the parents in order to service the sexual needs of their son. (A sure sign that you are watching a European film -- no American movie would so frankly acknowledge their child's sexual drives). That said, no consideration is given to the daughters' desires. Nor does Christina herself seem to take much pleasure from the arrangement. Thus, she offers a deal to the eldest daughter: "lick" her, Christina, between her legs, and the daughter will receive gifts from the outside world. The eldest daughter, in turn, coerces her younger sister into licking her. Late in the film, it is suggested that the youngest is about to offer a similar enticement to her father, before he wakes up and nudges her aside. For his part, the son is shown to have no emotional connection to his partner, caring for nothing but his own pleasure, which, naturally, is what sends Christina searching for other forms of satisfaction.
Thus, each child learns from those with authority over them, thoroughly assimilating the only power structure they know. Deeply ingrained within this perspective is the threat of violence overshadowing the children. Ultimately, the eldest child will attempt rebellion against this system, only, she lacks any of the tools necessary to envision a type of life different than what she knows. Without any means of escape from the home, literally or otherwise, she turns her anger inwards, internalizing her father's stories into self-mutilation. She may not be aware of what she is doing, however, her only act of resistance, it turns out, is self-destruction.
The singer Momus has also explored such states of minds in his work, which follow similar patterns. First, there is his song "Bishonen" which tell the story of a boy adopted at a young age by "an old Italian bachelor." This stepfather is obsessed with the legends of the ancient East in general, and, in particular, with the idea of beautiful youths dying gloriously. He trains his new ward for this archetype, conditioning him with "words [which] were to cut down and to kill the muscle-bound/[And] swords to fell my intellectual enemies." Every facet of the boy's development is controlled. He is groomed to be effeminate in his beauty, to outshine an inferior gender of women ("charm is essential to misogamy"). When the hero protests that he wishes a female for his bride, the stepfather instead insists on a male "retainer" for his companion.
As the decades pass, the stepson, now twenty-eight, begins to gain his independence. (It is never stated how this occurs, though, I have always assumed that his elder simply died of old age). He settles down with both a wife and a successful job at a merchant bank. Yet, he is troubled. He cannot shake pangs of guilt for abandoning his stepfather's path, for failing to die young and beautiful, as he was always taught was his destiny. Laying awake at night, while his wife sleeps, he can only find one solution: to have a son of his own, one whom would be more deserving of this great honor, and who the hero will raise "to die young/
And lay him in the grave that you[the stepfather] prepared for me." As in Dogtooth, the father's programing remains until the end. The cycles of violence keeps spinning, while the indoctrination of the next generation is ensured.
Finally, in "Pygmalism", a riff on the legend of Pygmalion, Pygmalion the play, and, presumably, My Fair Lady, there is a portrait of direct confrontation with the tormentor. Here the singer is a creation of a certain Herr Professor Pyg. He has obliterated any trace of her previously existence, leaving behind only what he wants her to be. He is so entirely successful that she is left with only "memories [which]have been implanted/No ancestors you can trace/An accent from no place invented." Here is fulfillment of all the wildest dreams of the parents of Dogtooth or the stepfather of the Bishonen: complete mastery. This child knows nothing, but what her father has taught her, has no frame of reference outside of the teacher's. He is her lover as well, filling her with the breath of life, as well as more sticky substances. Simply put, she is nothing more than "a figment of his huge imagination."
Or is she? Even within the limited knowledge she has, she can find an outlet for rebellion. Her spirit lashes back while her hatred simmers. At night she finds herself alone, singing the songs of conditioning he has taught her while "Cutting up with scissors/All the stupid sexy clothes he's bought me." Unlike the daughter of Dogtooth this woman is not willing to simply turn her rage inwards, but outwards, back at her tormentor. First she vows to prove her intellectual superiority, beating him at his own games, before driving a blade into his chest, reminding him how "the things we whip can whip us." A bloody liberation it may be, but it remains a liberation nonetheless.
Or does it? After the creator is dead, is the creature any better? Is the poor soul any less scarred or haunted than the other conditioned children? How can a figment survive outside the mind which dreamt it? Or has she become now even more truly her father's child?
(B., if you're reading this, and I never said it before, you are so right about Grant Morrison ripping off this song for his own purposes. You'd think then that he could at least meet his deadlines . . . ).
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters" indeed . . .
And, next time, I'll try for something not quite so disturbing.