On civilization and its discontents
I recently saw a list of Luddite movies that listed Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927), among others. Luddites opposed the large textile factories, destroyed much of the machinery to save their own livelihoods. The term, however, has since come to stand for the radical antitechnological stances from the Unabomber’s Manifesto to Jacques Ellul’s book The Technological Society to Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Luddite movies dramatize a world crushed or systematically exterminated by machines; thus, The Terminator represents the worst Luddite scenario whence the machines pursue and kill humans.
I was surprised to see The Gods Must Be Crazy (Jamie Uys, 1980) on the list, although I shouldn’t have been. The film satirizes civilization’s overdependence on technology, and how it has dumbed itself down in our relations with the natural world. Yet The Gods’ tone is never severe, dogmatic, or apocalyptic. Indeed, we could better serve it by creating another category, like “civilization versus noncivilization” movie. This opposition exemplifies an extreme but less phobic design. The Gods’ innate critique depicts the civilized world in relief or context and, in a sense, points out the dangers of being overcivilized and of humans having lost their better instincts.
A more pensive film that establishes this split between civilized men and native tribesmen (but not on the Luddite list) is John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985). In the film, Bill Markham (Powers Boothe) must engineer a new dam in the Amazon basin. Seemingly in reprisal, a rainforest tribe called the Invisible People kidnaps the engineer’s son, Tommy (Charley Boorman), and the boy grows to manhood in the wilds. The engineer searches for his son ten years, finds him, and discovers the extent of the ravages on the Invisible People wrought by civilization. One byproduct of indecent contacts with the civilized world is the Fierce People, who attack the Invisible People’s village and kidnap the women to be prostitutes. Markham ultimately accepts his son’s decision to stay in the rain forest and blows up the dam in reparation for western civilization’s sins.
Before the boy’s biological father reaches the village, Tommy has experienced the Invisible People’s harsh rites of manhood helped along by his Indian father. The ritual, which includes the mixing of human ashes and blood then drinking it, might repel us, but our reaction sharpens the real distinction and gulf between the savages’ lives and ours. The Indian father, Wanadi, helps his adopted son in two ways. He is a teacher and disciplinarian and must respond indifferently but not without love toward his son’s immediate suffering; second, he allows his son to achieve an emotional independence from his parents.
The “father” role of male parenthood is brought into relief when the engineer, sick and wounded, is being carried into the village. His son calls out “Daddy”; the Invisible People recognize the name and react excitedly. They had remembered how the boy for many years had referred to this creature “Daddy” and, now, the villagers were meeting this legend in the flesh. Daddy’s legendary standing developed because the Indians, engaged in a subsistence lifestyle, had never met someone so generous and apparently all-tolerant. He’s the person who wouldn’t force his son to drink ashes and blood, couldn’t think of abandoning his son to fend for himself, and would generally accede to his son’s desire never to become a man.
In the film’s terms, the Indian “father” (Rui Polonah) is Daddy’s surrogate and must labor to bring the boy into manhood. Surrogate fathering enters other Boorman films. In Excalibur (1981), Arthur (Nigel Terry) has three fathers. Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne) sires a son but must give him up at birth. Ector (Clive Swift) serves as the Daddy, although not one who has spoiled his adopted son. Meanwhile, Merlin (Nicol Williamson) initiates the man into the mysteries of life, in the role similar to the Indian father. In Hope and Glory (1987), a boy grows up virtually fatherless in war-torn London amidst his sister, mother, and grandparents. The Emerald Forest adds to Boorman’s continuing scenario whence male parent roles have been left in a weakened condition. Technological progress, symbolized by the dam being built by the engineer, elevates the “daddy” functions to an institutional level. Governments and societies evade or elide the burden of producing mature and responsible peoples. The reason is unimportant for the film, but one could suggest that living within a progressive model of life tends to make us undervalue the rites of growing up if not many other rites of passage. The Daddy is equivalent to a sentimental virus endemic to the overcivilized. Excessive daddy-ing erodes and destroys the spirit of our descendants. Western man’s best intentions, especially its goal to reduce or eradicate human suffering, belie a fear of the future, that is, a virtual dread of mortality – a theme Boorman amplifies in Zardoz (1974).
Besides the atomic and hydrogen bombs, western civilization has given the world Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, bacteriological and chemical weapons, the annihilation of the uncivilized world, the indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife, the invisible destructiveness of chlorofluorocarbons, the appalling Bhopal-like disasters, and the apocalypse now: the greenhouse effect. Contemporary men and women want to have it both ways: we decry the horrors perpetrated by our technological society, yet we continue to enjoy this society’s benefits. Analogously, we persist with this untenable situation and try to be both Daddies and Fathers to our children. Our malaise appears near fatal, a return to health and invigoration – both spiritual and environmental – highly doubtful or, at least, as doubtful as the possibility of a rapprochement between the native and civilized worlds.