We have met the enemy and he is us
The Guardian (1990) concerns itself with the guardian spirits of trees. We’re told some guardian spirits are evil. In this very domestic film, evil trees eat babies. The movie opens with nanny Diana Julian stealing her charge from the Sheridan family. We never see Diana’s face.
The baby-eating scene is the first time we hear what I’ll call the Demon. The Demon is a voice on the soundtrack. It’s been altered, so it can’t be tied to any one character. The strictest approach to the Demon would be to treat it as a separate character, a free-floating entity. Starting from there, certain coincidences and plot turns in the movie could be read as the work of the Demon.
The meat of the movie is in the story of married couple Phil and Kate, who hire a nanny called Camilla (right) to look after their newborn son Jake. Camilla, like Mary Poppins, is magical. She’s the guardian spirit of a particular tree. She might be Diana from the prologue, but she isn’t conclusively identified.
We’re never told if Camilla is good or evil. Friedkin circles the question, endlessly contradicting himself as he provides evidence for both sides. He’s used this trick so often that by now it’s come to seem a reflex action. He used it in his serial killer film Rampage, where the sanity of the killer is argued but never proved one way or the other. In Rampage, the argument is made that the killer should be kept alive and studied, his victims being “the price of knowledge.”
By The Guardian Friedkin has little hope of knowledge. The movie feels disconnected. It isn’t grounded. In The Exorcist, he was careful to ground the story in a recognizable physical world before slowly working in its more fantastic elements. Here he announces from the very start that the movie is a fantasy. It has the effect of drifting. It’s directionless, lost. There’s no way to judge if what we’re seeing is “true” or “real.” Knowledge feels like a wasted pursuit.
But Friedkin still believes in evil. Here evil is embodied by the Demon. The Demon is never tied to a character but loosely settles on characters and scenes as it sees fit. We hear the Demon just before three men walk into a meadow and attempt to rape Camilla. We hear it over a shot of Phil just before he kicks Camilla out of the house. It seems the Demon is able to control characters in the movie at will. Then Friedkin is talking about working in a system where outside intelligences can manipulate or override human consciousness. Human intelligence becomes a function of demonic interference.
The demonic influence here isn’t unlike the videotape in Jade. Once Corelli (the David Caruso character) watches the tape, the influence of his new knowledge is present in his every action. He can’t know if the tape has changed his thinking. He watched the tape and was corrupted by it. The tape becomes an active participant in the narrative.
Along the same lines, there are at least two dream sequences in The Guardian that intrude on and possibly alter reality. The sequences aren’t signified except with bookends of the dreaming character, Phil, falling asleep and waking up again on the other side. The reality of nature and the reality of dreams are collapsed. Demonic influence and the casually miraculous are present in both. Phil’s dreams are only significant in their concentration of impossibility.
In the body of the movie, the breaks from realism are frequent and violent. That’s to be expected. It’s easy to write off contradictions because this is a fantasy film, just like it’s easy to write off the dreams as unreal, somehow weightless. But it doesn’t work. The dreams are as solid as the rest of the film. The greater part of the film is fantastic in a deeply idiosyncratic way. The story is set in a heavily forested suburb of Los Angeles, a desert community if there ever was one. The violation of geography can’t be written off to ignorance. This comes from the man who directed To Live and Die in LA. Friedkin has some knowledge of the city. Phil’s dreams can’t be treated as mere dreams when the world of the movie is so at odds with what we know to be true.
Considering the way physical laws seem to warp around Camilla, Phil’s dreams could be read as nodal points of demonic interference, much like Father Karras’ dream in The Exorcist, where the demon went so far as to show its face. It could be further argued that the structure of the movie might be caused by a kind of cavitation or turbulence. The movie’s broken, cracked like sidewalk over a tree root. You can see the outline, even if the root doesn’t break through.
There’s something of Descartes in it. But it’s not Cartesian Duality, because Friedkin’s movies lack a single defining viewpoint. This isn’t Descartes’ Demon trying to trick an otherwise unmolested mind. Friedkin doesn’t respect the sanctity of any one character. He makes ensemble pieces. And Friedkin’s Demon doesn’t limit itself to trickery. It doesn’t only manipulate sensory input of the world. It actively directs the analysis of that world and the (intellectual, physical, spiritual) responses to it.
Regan in The Exorcist is not complicit in her possession. She exists as a character with a strong personal point of view, and it does not save her. She thinks and believes and acts according to outside intelligences. But at the end of the film she claims to have no memory of her possession. Demon possession doesn’t require self-awareness.
When Phil throws Camilla out of the house, we hear the Demon on the soundtrack as he runs through the house. Phil starts screaming at Camilla, growing increasingly violent as the scene progresses. He loses control. Phil identifies Camilla as evil and rejects her, but both the identification and the rejection could be the direct result of demonic interference.
Cartesian Duality doesn’t work because there’s no way to separate the mind from the observed world. He says the same thing more or less directly in “Nightcrawlers,” his episode for the 1985 Twilight Zone TV series, where a war veteran, Price, dreams his dead war buddies to life to kill him for abandoning them in Vietnam. Price’s dream shoots up the very real diner where he stopped for coffee. Characters independent of Price, characters who survive the incident and continue despite Price’s death, are injured in the firefight. The world and the mind are inseparable, and Friedkin doesn’t have Descartes’ faith in the fair play of demons.
But even there Friedkin leaves an open question. The Demon wouldn’t have to force Phil into line. It would only have to insinuate itself into his dreams to turn him against Camilla, considering the weight he places on his dreams when he finally does reject her.
That interpretation would put the Demon more in line with Descartes’ Demon, but it’s still less kind. Friedkin’s Demon can neither be ignored nor accepted. Regan’s exorcism in The Exorcisteventually destroys both Father Karras and Father Merrin, just as Phil’s failure to understand his own mind leads him to murder Camilla.
Friedkin further complicates the situation by opening himself to suspicion. He suggests that the viewer can’t trust the movie to present a totally accurate, unbiased account of events. He rejects realism and suggests that he is himself untrustworthy.
Considering the bizarre setting of The Guardian, it’s not a jump to say Friedkin intends his own actions to be similarly interpreted. He’s arguing that the system can’t be understood from the inside, that Good and Evil can’t be determined, and the director himself is out of at least his own control.
But I’m being misleading. I’m arguing in terms of Inside and Outside. There isn’t much traditional spirituality in Friedkin’s movies. For all his play with the nature of things, nothing suggests the existence of a higher reality. The Guardian isn’t a Gnostic vision. Cartesian Duality fails because there is no brain in a jar. There is no Outside. Friedkin doesn’t reject the idea of a spiritual reality, but there isn’t any way to separate the body from the mind or the spirit. The characters’ bodies are malleable, but not in a Cronenbergian sense. Jump cuts manipulate bodies. If this is Gnosticism, then film is the flesh. It could be thought of as a false consciousness argument applied to the entire human system without respect to ideology.
This is the horror in both The Exorcistand The Guardian. You can’t control yourself, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. Even the tools you would use to climb out of the pit end up deepening the hole. If Friedkin wasn’t so dedicated to the search for knowledge, his ideas could be mistaken for nihilism.
These aren’t nihilistic works. These are indictments of human weakness, or not so much weakness as the seemingly endless ability to take the means to knowledge and corrupt it. The most straightforward presentation of the idea may have been in his 1997 version of 12 Angry Men, where the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence is lost as the jury carefully builds excuses to disregard the evidence in a murder trial.
They need to let him go because they disagree with the death penalty, or they don’t want to go against the crowd, or they’re lonely and want attention for standing up for the boy’s rights. And they burn down their chance to know the truth. Those are the demons in Friedkin’s movies. That’s his world.
Then there’s The Guardian, which has him looking at his children on the edge of that world and reacting with despair.