This essay uses The Crow, Dark City, and Knowing to trace director Alex Proyas’ repeated thinking through of a philosophical problem using a stock of images that derives from the literary, artistic and philosophical traditions of Europe. In each film he describes an approach to transcendence that fails because it can never step outside the confines of the anti-Platonic discourses of matter and language that dominate post-medieval thought. To do this would perhaps require an influx of grace or inspiration from a source that Proyas refuses to appeal to but that he is also nostalgic for. For some viewers this may be a heroic refusal of false comfort, and to others a failure to develop his higher contemplative faculties. In either case he exemplifies the way in which modernity is indebted to an earlier theological age for its self-understanding and remains parasitic on what it disavows. Further, he helps us to understand how this theological loss continues to haunt heterosexual relationships and elucidates the connection between misogyny and nihilism.
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At the start of After Virtue, the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre narrates a parable about a group of people who come upon fragments of broken technology in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and try to reconstruct the edifice of modern science using only a few pieces of its rubble.1 According to MacIntyre, this apocalyptic scenario is analogous with modernity itself, and what modern ethicists are trying in vain to reconstruct is a premodern moral and spiritual order without its basis in divine revelation and realist metaphysics. Critics like Victoria Nelson and Gerard Loughlin have described some of the ways in which this premodern high culture survives in contemporary popular culture.2 This essay aims to show how the premodern flotsam has been reassembled by filmmaker Alex Proyas in a manner skillful enough to make his oeuvre an addition to the dramatic lineage that includes the Attic tragedians and Plato. Like Aeschylus and Sophocles who predate Plato, Proyas is an artist who can only gesture toward the kind of contemplative knowledge that is the neoplatonic solution to the aporias we encounter in trying as physical beings to think metaphysically.
Other commentators have noticed Gnostic elements in Proyas’ vision, but Gnosticism is an imprecise term that refers to dualistic theologies of salvation whose tropes can be found within and beyond the realms of institutional orthodoxy.3 Like putative reconstructions of Gnostic belief, and like Gnosticism’s existentialist descendants, Proyas is conscious of his thrownness into an absurd existence that can’t account for itself and can’t see beyond the limits of its own materiality. However, in this essay I prefer to see him in more modern terms as an Epicurean materialist with a melancholic nostalgia for the Platonism he disavows. Kant said that all previous philosophy could be divided among Platonists and Epicureans, and he himself steered a middle path between them that provided a philosophical account of the ambiguous individuality of modern liberals.4 Proyas fits within this tripartite Kantian schema, and while Gnosticism may be one of his reference points, he doesn’t provide an idealist vision of spiritual gnosis that isn’t undermined by an Epicurean despair of the possibility of real transcendence.
As such, Proyas belongs in the utopian/dystopian tradition of commentary on Platonism. Although it goes back to classical Greece, this tradition gets its name from the early modern Catholic Thomas More’s work of speculative fiction. By locating his utopia in a geographical place, More emphasised the problems involved in trying to talk about ideal things in material terms, and he implicitly connected the utopian state with Stoicism, and with the Lucretian version of Epicurean philosophy that was enjoying a renaissance in the fifteenth century after its rediscovery by humanist scholars.5 Epicureanism thus became one of the most important influences on early modern science and political theory with their assumptions that the world is explicable in terms of matter moving matter around, and that human beings are fundamentally motivated by desire rather than love. A Platonist might argue that most readings of Plato produced by this culture are Epicurean misreadings, conditioned by their ignorance of the vertical axis of being.
In The Crow (1994), Proyas depicts an American inner city on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween.6 It is a city whose lack of physical boundaries is mirrored by a lack of metaphysical boundaries when people start coming back from the dead. The protagonist’s name is Eric Draven, an allusion to “The Raven,” Poe’s poem about love-melancholy. On this night, a year previously, Draven and his fiancée were killed during an eviction by a tyrannical landlord that turned violent. Now the murdered man has returned for revenge and proceeds to pick off his killers one at a time. We see his own murder through a series of flashbacks that he experiences after climbing from his grave and returning to the apartment where he died after being flung from the window. Unlike the sprawling city, the window is circular and looks out across scenes of an infernal metropolis where fires lit by anarchist gangs are burning. The circular window will reappear in two later films – Dark City and Knowing.7 In The Crow, its circular shape and broken pane of glass tell us we are living in a world of fallen ideals. This is the kind of city that Plato associates with democracy and tyranny, for him the two most pathological forms of government.
Tyranny looks superficially like its opposite, Monarchy, to those lacking dialectical insight into their difference. In Proyas’ city, the physical sun, a Platonic symbol of the light of divine reason that the monarch sees by, is missing, and the eyes that the landlord pries from his victims’ heads reinforce the message of its absence by demonstrating the city’s moral blindness. Other floating signifiers of a lost past include the gothic cathedral with a spiral staircase leading to its belltower where the final battle between the landlord and the undead lover takes place. Spirals are littered through Proyas’ films, and if they are archetypally a symbol of dialectical or contemplative ascent up the hierarchy of being, here they signal the attenuation of that possibility. The inhabitants of this city try to know the divine by lighting a “fire so big the gods will notice us again.” Their conception of divinity is that belonging to the Homeric and Epicurean gods, whose stories were excluded from Plato’s ideal republic because they were bad role models for children. Although they are much more powerful beings than we are, these gods are not transcendent, but subject to the same basic forces as humans. In a world like this, death is the end of the individual, and only matter endures.
Epicureanism entails the idea that history may continue indefinitely without meaningful progress. The Epicurean notion of infinite time in a material universe has a religious counterpart in the belief in the infinity of bodily suffering in hell. Hell is known to medieval writers as the second death, because following one’s release from earthly toil one is trapped in an eternally suffering self. Gnostics believed that this world was in fact a hell from which we could escape. In secular modernity the hell of entrapment within a reified self and the pain of anticipating the oblivion of the self at the moment of death often coexist in the tortured consciousnesses of literary protagonists. Hamlet is the locus classicus for this, but it is also evident in Poe’s poem with its refrain of “Nevermore” and “Evermore.” The conflation becomes more complete in fantasies like The Crow where individuals in an infernal urban landscape don’t really die. One of the villains, seeing Draven returned from the dead says, “This is the really real world. There ain’t no coming back!” The abolition of death is as horrifying for him as death’s inevitability. At the end of The Crow, death is nominally restored to the landscape as Draven returns to his grave, but as we look at the lovers’ graves we are told that real love is forever. It is hard to tell whether the guarantee of love’s eternity means these lovers have transcended their earthly existence by dying or are consigned to the second death of entrapment within a narcissistic selfhood.
Dark City (1998, 2008) is a more complex rewriting of The Crow that tries to refine the earlier film’s queasy take on romantic love. The circular window is reprised in the opening sequence, as the camera travels through it to discover the protagonist, John Murdoch, waking in a hotel room that is the scene of a murder he can’t remember if he is responsible for. A dead prostitute with spirals carved in her skin lies beside him, a graphic representation of the misguided metaphysic that attempts to transcend matter by repressing it. The circular window leading us into the story exists in symmetry with the wound in Murdoch’s forehead, where he has been “imprinted” with a set of memories that obliterate his true history. This history is never uncovered, because Dark City is the product of a melancholic creation story based on amnesia: “First there was darkness. Then came the strangers.” These strangers are not just aliens, they are figures for human alienation from the divine. Like The Crow, the film depicts a dystopian cityscape, but in this case the city has a clearly defined perimeter, and so we are explicitly dealing with a descendant of the Platonic and Utopian states, whose physical circumference represents the purity they strive for. In the sprawling city of The Crow nothing was repressed, and in this city the Strangers who are its driving force live underground, only coming out while people are asleep. Comparing the two cities, we understand that the presence or absence of physical boundaries, and of repression, has little to do with the spiritual health of a city-state. A walled city may symbolise the rationality that the state should embody, and the absence of walls may symbolise democratic release from tyrannical forms of rationality, but insofar as they operate on Epicurean principles with no access to the light of transcendence, both the democratic and the tyrannical states are pathological forms that merely travesty the freedoms that Plato set his sights on.
In a typically misguided operation, Proyas’ strangers rearrange the architecture of their city nightly as part of a project to perfect themselves by discovering the secret of human individuality, or the soul. They try by this means “to divine what makes us unique.” Their divinity is an evil one, however, signaled obliquely by a film called “The Evil” playing in a movie theatre that we glimpse a couple of times. The other film playing there is called “The Book of Dreams.” In the world governed by the Strangers, human bodies are empty vessels filled up with a different set of experiences each night. Experience, instead of conferring uniqueness on them, is a set of memes that nobody has any personal claim to. There is, however, something mysterious that confers a kind of authenticity: Murdoch is being framed for the murders of the prostitutes, but he says, “Whoever I am, I’m still me, and I’m not a murderer.” The murders have actually been committed by the Strangers, who are nonplussed by the fact that Murdoch, although he believes his wife to have been cheating on him, does not retaliate. Mr. Wall says “This is irrational” and that if he were Mr. Murdoch he would hurt his wife. The rationality of the Strangers is thus an index of their inhumanity, while Murdoch’s ability to transcend the rationality of revenge and act conscientiously represents the spark of divinity within the soul that they lack.
The Strangers’ thought process is based in the same means-end rationality that governed the infernal cityscape in The Crow. This kind of rationality was at the root of the problems that beset the landscapes of Greek tragedy where every crime attracts a retaliation in kind, in a potentially neverending cycle of violent mimesis. It was a form of rationality that Socratic dialectic was meant to overcome. Dialectic is, at the most basic level, dialogue, and the efficacy of dialogue as a method of inquiry depends on whether the participants are charitably disposed friends trying to reach the truth, or are selfish adversaries trying to win an argument. Although it can look to the undiscerning like the coercive groupthink of totalitarian collectives, the truth reached by means of dialectic results in ethical behavior that is freely chosen by the individual based on the purity of his knowledge of the Good. The argument that this “good” is not a religious dogma, a totalitarian ideology, or a set of cultural memes, as is sometimes claimed, is implicit in Coleridge’s substitution for it of the term “imagination.” The Good is a principle of artistic freedom that is not reducible to a formula.
The phrase from Book IV of Paradise Lost, “and felt how awful Goodness is,” spoken by T-Bird, one of the villains in The Crow, registers the terror that may attend this kind of freedom because it can place you in a minority of one against the forces of popular opinion and authoritarian rationality alike. In this case, T-Bird is about to be killed by Eric Draven, someone who seems to have attained such freedom, and he is experiencing his own uniqueness in the most radical way possible for a human being, since death and transcendence are moments when we step beyond our meme-driven selves into unknown territory. Otherwise, we live in the second death of entrapment within an exhausted self. The absence of dialectic in Dark City during the regime of the Strangers is symbolized when Murdoch goes to an “Automat” to retrieve his wallet. In an effort to reconstruct his lost memories, he asks when he left it there, and the attendant says “The last time you were here.” Upon asking when that was, he is told “When you left your wallet.” This is question-begging, or sophistical obfuscation, that goes nowhere. We also see a family, suggestively called the Goodwins, changed overnight from a poor working-class family into a capitalist dynasty. As he imprints them, Dr Schreber says “The rich get richer.” However, there is no more a Marxist than a Platonic or Hegelian dialectic operating in the attenuated lives of these individuals.
For Platonists, the path toward divine knowledge is in the end an introspective process of anamnesis, or unforgetting. More parodied this idea by placing his Utopia on the other side of the world, and having his protagonists forget to take note of its precise location. In Dark City Proyas places the ideal in a holiday destination called Shell Beach whose precise location, as with Utopia, nobody can remember. As Gerard Loughlin has argued, Murdoch is the philosopher who leaves the cave of illusions by anamnesis and loses his ability to accept commonsense material truths such that he sounds like a madman.8 Another way of saying this is that Murdoch is one of the few who, like Socrates, has the imagination to see alternative frameworks for reality. However, his recognition of the falsity of what he previously took for common sense has not resulted in a joyful freedom, but merely in the discovery of his own thrownness into an inexplicable existence. He discovers that the city is an island floating in the void, about whose origins he can learn nothing. He quickly departs from the Socratic paradigm in which the dialectician concedes ground to his sophistical adversaries, only asking questions that help them discover the inconsistency of their thought, such that they finally realise that everyone is on the same side. Murdoch, by contrast, develops an ability to use his own will as an “opposing influence on the machines” that amplify the telekinetic powers of the strangers and keep the citizens in passive subjection.
The spark of divinity within Murdoch has not led to transcendence but to an Epicurean type of godhood, and the film ends with an apocalyptic battle of wills between Murdoch and Mr. Book, which Murdoch wins. He now has sovereign power and uses it to create Dark City’s first-ever sunrise and to create a perimeter of ocean around it. The city becomes an island like Utopia, and Shell Beach a place that people can visit. Dr Schreber, who has been helping him while pretending to be in league with the strangers, tells Murdoch that there is nothing beyond the city, and that hope exists only in his head. Murdoch rejects the possibility of a dialectical friendship with Dr Schreber, the only other visionary who knows what he knows, perhaps because he still has no belief in a higher truth in which they both participate. This being the case, he is more interested in reconstituting his relationship with his wife. Sexual difference is the defining difference within the structure of the city that has become indistinguishable from Murdoch’s own self, but is his relationship with his wife in the newly imagined city a dialectical relationship with a friend, a competitive relationship with an antagonist, or a tyrannical relationship to a subordinate?
Toward the end of the film he encounters her in a police station and, despite his knowledge that their history together is a collage of romantic memes, he tells her he loves her and that “you can’t fake something like that.” Then he tries to kiss her by using his telekinetic powers to pass through the pane of glass that separates them. On this occasion the glass breaks, as real glass would. Socrates says that “anything which is a fine example, whether by its nature or its design, or both, is the most resistant to being changed by an external agency” (Republic 2.381.b). The glass in this situation resists being virtually manipulated because it is a moment when Murdoch is being most truly himself, and his desire to change it willfully is a self-alienating gesture. However, the failure of his telekinetic powers when he is with his wife means that he will be unable to tell her what he knows about the nature of their reality without sounding insane. The loneliness of the visionary and the loneliness of the solipsist are hard to disentangle at this point. It seems that Proyas believes with Freud that visionary knowledge is a species of infantile narcissism rather than a dialectical means of transcendence. However, Murdoch’s love for his wife is more constitutive of his being than anything else, and the question of how he can communicate with her is also an ontological question about how he can know the reason for his own existence, or the nature of the substance from which he is made.
Proyas has no ready solution to this impasse. He never loses sight of the fact that his depiction of the mystical, non-dual dimension of the Platonic tradition whose fragments he is putting together here is a material special effect. Platonism is a progressive tradition in which women are eligible to be monarchs just like men, and gender is an accidental form of difference, but also one in which women are associated with matter, matter is connected to evil, and evil is a kind of non-being, is the “nothing” that lies beyond the walls of the city. In the mystical Platonism of the middle ages, God’s otherness to us is experienced as a kind of nothing. Does the absence of God vitiate Murdoch’s relationship to his wife, and indeed her reality, or does her reality and his love for it bring God back into the frame? The film’s queasy ending recalls that of The Crow in which there is cause for celebration at a romantic reunion, but also a sense that this reunion may be a travesty of something he can’t quite put his finger on. Murdoch’s freedom is ambiguously that of the Gnostic who finds a spark of divinity within himself that allows him to think beyond the episteme in which he is born, and of the existentialist who is capable of an irrational swerve in the direction of a desired object but can’t explain the fundamental reasons for his desire without recourse to myth and mystification.
Proyas makes another attempt to think through these contradictions in Knowing (2009). Set in a real American city, this film focuses on the home, the oecos that Socrates wished to abolish among the ruling class in the Republic because in Attic tragedy it was an incubator of antagonisms that could destroy a polity. Nicholas Cage plays John Koestler, an MIT astronomer whose wife’s accidental death has plunged him into post-romantic melancholia. He has suddenly become obsessed with the meaninglessness of life in a material universe, where “shit just happens.” Shit is the lowest form of matter. In Proyas’ film it is connected to dilapidated domestic spaces that figure a lack of feminine presence, a lack that is also connected to the ubiquity of the dead woman in his protagonist’s consciousness. She represents at the same time his highest Good and the material world from which it is absent. Proyas used the same imagery of dilapidated domesticity in The Crow to signify the world experienced by the undead lover after his beloved has been killed. The materialism of these films preserves a Platonic sense of matter’s essential nullity, without any recourse to a transcendent source of salvation. By making the protagonist of Knowing an academic skeptic, Proyas prompts us to consider academic knowing a species of knowing that is inherently melancholic, a pathological grieving for something it can’t admit to having lost, and therefore to still believing in, an admission Milton’s fallen angels were already becoming incapable of as they discussed “Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate, Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute, And found no end, in wand’ring mazes lost” (Milton, 48). Unlike Milton’s Raphael, who doesn’t have to ratiocinate in order to know the truth, these fallen angels are intellectuals generating scholarly discourse, and eternally travelling away from the answers that are to be found within themselves.
Proyas’ attempt to make a film of Paradise Lost was abandoned for budgetary reasons, but in Knowing, John Koestler’s despairing assertion that “shit just happens,” comes at the end of a discussion with his students, not unlike the one Milton’s fallen angels engage in, about whether events are ordered by a determining intelligence or are merely random. Shit just happening might be a description of efficient causality – matter being moved around by matter – or it might describe the unaccountable spontaneity of a will whose nature is mysterious. When it begins to look as if there is an intelligence directing the film’s events, this knowledge is deprived of an unequivocal “good news” effect by the availability of a naturalistic explanation, one that is improbable but not impossible: the end of the world is about to be effected by a solar flare and the intelligence orchestrating humanity’s salvation seems to be extraterrestrial rather than metaphysical – that is, like the gods of Epicurus, it is a basically material entity existing on the same level of being as everything else.
As an astronomer, Koestler’s intelligence is preoccupied with the planets of our solar system, which, for him, are inanimate rocks, though they bear the names of Roman deities. In a failed attempt to bond with his son, he shows him the rings of Saturn through a telescope in the backyard of their house. Saturn, as the word “saturnine” reminds us, comes from a 2,000-year tradition of association between this planet and melancholy.9 Saturn is Kronos, whose name connects him to material history and, more specifically, to historical declension narratives that look back to a mythical golden age, as if the Platonic origin were to be found in an earlier historical time and a physical place rather than at the top of a vertical hierarchy of being that is reached by dialectical and ultimately contemplative means. Saturn is also symbolic in this case because of its rings. As we have seen, circular ciphers appear regularly in all of Proyas’ films. They represent the conceptual purity possessed by Platonic ideas and Aristotelian species, a purity that is always tainted by an unassimilable remainder. In contrast to the spiral that signifies upward movement as a result of successive attempts to assimilate this remainder, in the absence of a transcendent source of inspiration the circle is a structuralist emblem of rational stasis subtending ultimately meaningless permutations of matter and language.
In Proyas’ films a Platonic idea and a cup-ring no longer exist on different planes of a hierarchy of being, and in this circumstance we can see the director intuiting the other great anti-Platonic tradition that, stripped of its theological context, becomes hegemonic in the modern period, and that forms the basis of the post-structuralist turn in modern philosophy: men like Koestler live in a nominalist universe where every attempt to circumscribe the whole by conceptualizing it merely succeeds in adding another individual thing to the plane of immanence.10 Yet the ideal persists within the demonstrations of its failure and is asserted by the film’s denouement in which the children start the world again in a virtual landscape dominated by a tree – the tree of knowledge we may presume. To use the language in which the arch-nominalists Deleuze and Guattari describe Platonism and anti-Platonism, this arborescent structure exists in tension with the more rhizomatic implications of the doomed planet from which the children have been rescued.11 It offers no good reason to think that the as yet unsexualized children won’t ultimately be subject to the same alienation from themselves and one another as their parents were, when innocence turns to desire, and desire fails to find the object that can permanently satisfy it. Thus their innocence will give way to experience, but the possibility inherent in the neoplatonic symbolism that experience can open onto a further vista is muted.
As Boethius’ Lady Philosophy said, “The superior manner of knowledge includes the inferior, but it is impossible for the inferior to rise to the superior.”12 For Boethius, Epicureanism is transcended and included by Platonism, but insofar as Platonism has to exist in the world of politics and power, it is always susceptible to Epicurean despair. Platonic dialectic aspires to a reconciliation between matter and spirit, female and male, but Plato himself is pessimistic about the possibility of lasting reconciliation in the Myth of Er which predicts an inevitable relapse into democracy and tyranny. In Plato’s works, Socrates is the only person who can transcend the aporias of binary thinking, and when Plato’s brother, Glaucon, asks him to
Tell us, how does it operate, this power of dialectic? Into what forms is it divided? And by what routes, again, does it progress? After all it is these routes which can apparently take a man to the destination which is his place of rest after the road, and the end of his journey
My dear Glaucon, you will not be able to follow me that far – though not for any want of enthusiasm on my part. From now on what you would be seeing would not be an image or model of what we are talking about, but the truth itself – at least as it seems to me. (Republic 7.532e – 533a)
The goal of dialectic should be to make people capable of true democracy by turning everybody into monarchs who can think for themselves without a formula or a set of memes. However, dialectic can be modelled but never taught, and so its existence is ultimately dependent on a mysterious inner source. Proyas’ films show us the efforts of Plato’s modern counterparts to achieve the ideals that all individuals have within themselves, but without the benefit of a Socrates to act as a role model and ask them the right questions. Dr Schreber in Dark City and the aliens in Knowing may be versions of Socrates, but Schreber is rejected by Murdoch and what the aliens say to John Koestler is experienced by him as an incomprehensible and blinding light emanating from their mouths.
Proyas’ rewriting of the story of The Crow in Dark City and Knowing shows a refining of his melancholic Platonism, but not a dialectical transcendence of it. Important in this respect is the fact that his protagonists remain alienated from the women in their lives. These women are ciphers whose nullity fills the world the men struggle in. The films thus dramatise the perennial connection between misogyny and nihilism, and are a reflection of the complexity of Plato’s idealism that made gender equality a keystone of its ideal state, but depicted the man most capable of ruling such a state as somebody perpetually at odds with his wife. His relationship to the priestess Diotima is a figure for a type of equality between the sexes that can only be suggested symbolically but never dramatized as a conversation in the way that relationships between men are, because it partakes of the conversation between the material and the divine. The material base and the goodness at the top of the Platonic cosmos are similarly unreachable, and as esoteric Platonists put it, “the way up is the way down”; it is necessary to effect a mystical reconciliation of these opposites in order to be enlightened. Proyas’ characters are products of the 18th-century enlightenment, and they operate in the Kantian intermediate realm as unhappy subjects navigating a path between matter and goodness and never possessing either one.
- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. 1. [↩]
- Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003; Gerard Loughlin. Alien Sex. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. [↩]
- Eric G. Wilson, Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. New York: Continuum, 2006. 42. My definition of Gnosticism comes from Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. 32. [↩]
- Immanuel Kant. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996. 772. [↩]
- Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve. London: The Bodley Head, 2011. 229. [↩]
- The Crow. DVD. Directed by Alex Proyas. Burbank: Warner Home Video Inc. 1994. [↩]
- Knowing. DVD. Directed by Alex Proyas. Summit Entertainment, 2009; Dark City: The Director’s Cut. DVD. Directed by Alex Proyas. New Line Productions, 2008. [↩]
- Loughlin, 2004. 46-53. [↩]
- Raymond Klibansky, Erwin Panofsky, & Fritz Saxl. Saturn and Melancholy: Studies in the History of Natural Philosophy, Religion and Art. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1964. [↩]
- Michael Gillespie. Nihilism Before Nietzche. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995. [↩]
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. [↩]
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philsophy, trans. Victor Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1999) 127. [↩]