Friday, May 8, 2009

At Last, We Meat: Questions of Liberty and Authority in Svankmajer’s Lunacy

Jan Svankmajer opens up his film Lunacy telling the audience exactly what it’s going to be about. “The subject of the film is essentially an ideological debate about how to run a lunatic asylum”. What’s the best way to treat the insane? Under what conditions does humanity thrive? The two opposing ends are liberty and authoritarianism. “One encourages absolute freedom. The other, the old-fashioned, well tried method of control and punishment.” One would naturally side with the idea of liberty, but Svankmajer warns that both sides are “equally extreme”. His contention is that the world we live in today combines the very worst of both sides and creates a sort of madhouse. Another issue that he points out in the intro is that Lunacy isn’t art; it’s a horror film “with all the degeneracy that the genre implies”. What’s horrific in the film is the apparent damage done to humanity due to this struggle between the ideologies. Svankmajer’s dancing meat interludes expose our nature as fleshy and corporeal, which transcends either side of the debate. In the realm of the film and the world of today, we find ourselves indulging our nature as hunks of meat, but also judging ourselves harshly by the strict rules of society. Thus, we embrace the worst of our primal needs and also the strictest of civilization’s censures. If we can’t escape a balancing act between the two sides, Lunacy suggests that we might try to find the best of both. The revolution of the Marquis goes too far because it ceases to be a revolution when authority is ultimately removed. The revolution the film suggests would be an internal one, where we come to realize our true nature in spite of society’s restraints.
The Marquis character takes the protagonist, Jean, under his tutelage. The repressed Jean is quickly horrified by what he sees in the man. He is erratic and maniacal and he isn’t inhibited by world around him. One of the first jarring images of the film is the Marquis and Jean riding in a horse-drawn coach along a modern highway, complete with cars and the drudgery of everyday life. The Marquis rejects this contemporary world and remains in the 18th century. That’s not to say that the film is truly set in present day, just that the two worlds exist side-by-side and the Marquis ignores the first in favor of the latter. The controls and repression of today’s society would not suit him.
The Marquis’ revolution is fairly straightforward; he values liberty and a true appreciation for human nature. Only with these things can human civilization embrace its true purpose. He blasphemes against god regularly because god creates the human constitution, but also gives power and meaning to the authoritarians who mean to control it. His blasphemous orgy illustrates his frustration over this conflict. While his associates indulge in their bodily excesses of sex and food, he drives nail upon nail into the crucified figure of Christ. He derides the helpless figure for not saving humanity, but for ruining it through the instillation of two diametrically opposed ideologies. Jean witnesses this event and horrified, he asks to take leave of the Marquis, who is quick to point out his naiveté. The Marquis explains his position to Jean and because he is facing the camera directly, he is also explaining it to us. He spits with anger at the invocation of religion’s repression of god-given tendencies. He exposes Jean as blindly moral and unaware of himself.
At this point, Jean makes to leave, but the Marquis suffers a fit and he is forced to help him. The Marquis is pronounced dead by his servant and eventually buried, which only furthers Jean’s horror. To his surprise, however, the recently deceased returns from dead, having escaped from his coffin. The Marquis explains that he has a fear of being buried alive and that the only way to cure it is to come face to face with it. If this idea is to be applied to all levels of fear and repression, we might come to be free.
This idea explains the Marquis’ interest in Jean. Jean suffers from a fear of incarceration in a mental asylum; well, it just so happens that the Marquis once resided in a mental institution and he suggests that Jean face his fear head on by taking a stay there. When we get to the asylum, we see the Marquis’ ideas at work in full throttle. To use the old cliché: the inmates are running the asylum. Supposedly, this is a better method for curing them because it gives them what the human spirit truly desires, which is absolute liberty without the restraints of repression and fear. It only takes a few moments within the asylum for us to realize the faults in the Marquis’ methods; no one appears to be getting ‘better’. In a world gone mad, what motivation is there for improvement? All the inmates have been cured, in a sense, because they have been removed from a structure that would deem them insane. To the Marquis, society as a whole is the enemy. He sees all of its suppression of humanity, but none of its encouragement. His extreme, uncompromised vision leads to a regression of humanity into its base gristle. The inmates only lose themselves further, which, to the Marquis, is the cure.
Another flaw in the Marquis’ ideology is that it doesn’t alleviate the oppression inherent in authoritarian regimes. Liberty is not guaranteed for everyone because part of someone’s freedom might spell someone else’s incarceration. The old staff is chained in the basement, so that the Marquis can achieve his vision. Is it part of the obese, naked woman’s therapy to have paint hurled at her by fellow inmates? One can assume that it is not. We must remember the famous words of Lord Acton, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The Marquis’ extremism results in hierarchies of power similar to that of the authoritarians. However, in this case class will be decided by brute force instead of by history and wealth. The powerful will continue to tread on the weak.
Jean is justified in wanting oppose to this method, but his motivations are confused. He doesn’t stop to consider what he believes; instead he acts on his blind morality. He doesn’t want to get involved in the debate; his primary concern is for the seemingly enslaved Charlotte. He wants to save her, ride off into the sunset, and get married, escaping to a regular life. However, what he doesn’t realize is that his chivalry has its roots in bodily desires. What does he know about the mysterious girl? He’s only seen her as one of the Marquis’ sexual objects. Like a voyeur, he watched her struggle and write on the night of the orgy. If this image attracted him to her, then the origin of his infatuation can be linked to sexuality. Sure, he wants to save her, but why her above all else in the film who might need saving? It’s her beauty and his natural attraction to that which motivate him. Ironically, he has to give power back to the authoritarians in order to fulfill his latent desires.
This results in an unfortunate turn for Jean. As it turns out, Charlotte was manipulating him in order to bring back the old regime. The irony continues in that Charlotte’s motivations for this were also sexual. Only under (or in front of) the punishments of Dr. Coulmiere can she achieve complete gratification. What’s left for Jean but becoming part of the struggle? His situation at the film’s conclusion is tragic. He turned his back on the Marquis, who aimed to free him of his fears, and ended up confined by the authoritarians he liberated. His nightmares become manifest because of his sightless adherence to an oppressive society. He doesn’t acknowledge his human impulses and ends up getting the punishment that he always knew he would (and probably always thought he deserved).
The opposite of the Marquis’ extremism is authoritarian extremism. This side is head by Dr. Coulmiere. His method of treating the insane ignores human corporeality. This is apparent in his gruesome regimen of tortures. His is a society of control. The authoritarian rules can be likened to the rules of god that the Marquis finds so abhorrent and cruel. The authoritarians, like god, aim to stifle and suppress our human tendencies. Like the Marquis’ methods, the tortures don’t result in curing insanity. All that is accomplished by them is the taming of actions through fear and crippling the physical. To this regime, this seems like a cure because it can stop degenerate behavior in its track. The trouble with this way of thinking is that the nature they aim to cure remains within the patients. The meat is still breathing.
The injection of animation into the film illustrates the struggle and faults of both ideologies. Svankmajer doesn’t try to include it within the story for this reason. The grotesque images are so jarring and distracting that we have to consider their importance. They aren’t a supplement to the story; they are the story at its core. If anything, the narrative is a supplement to these simple images. The meat dances, sliming its way throughout the world of the film. It presses against societies foundations, pushing up through the masonry. Its motivation is primal; to remain in motion, lapping up nourishment and seeking sexual gratification. The meat is the meat of humanity. It expresses itself in the manner that we are naturally hardwired to. It is a reminder of what resides below the force of civility and intellect. Even the brain, the source of higher thinking, is exposed as just another fleshy mass of tissue. The animation depicts bodily bits flowing through cow skulls, causing them to perform, just as our own parts come together to perform for society.
The meat displays a humanity akin to the Marquis’ desires. He advocates a world that fully expresses its nature. The animation, although it is fun and interesting to look at, does not display a functional or desirable society. In such a civilization (or lack thereof), nothing would be achieved; all pursuits would be in search of bodily gratification. There is no concern expressed by the meat for its fellow players. The pieces merely run amok, indifferent to each other, and would do so for all eternity.
There’s also something to say about the animation’s continued presence throughout the entirety of the film. When Coulmiere is released by Jean and the regimes change, the meat continues to dance, as if to say ideologies have no influence over what is inherent. The authoritarians can subdue actions, but they can’t eliminate the drive towards those actions. The libertines can try to place humanity within their ideology, but that doesn’t alter or improve it. It doesn’t matter that the Marquis creates a way of life around human nature because it doesn’t need his help to exist. All he can accomplish is the abuse of it for the purpose of gaining absolute power and authority. Both ideologies that Lunacy presents only prove to taint our essential being.
The film’s final images step outside the narrative and get to the importance of the issue. The shot of meat packaged in a supermarket, struggling to breathe, reflects Svankmajer’s idea of our third way of living that makes apparent the worst elements of both sides. Today, we shrink-wrap our nature, using rationale and intellect to paint it as something we are above; something we can control. The meat in our supermarkets today is hardly natural; it’s chock full of hormones and inorganic elements to make it more acceptable for wide consumption. Our repressive society does the same to our meat, our nature. Through psychoanalysis, state and government mandated sexual suppression, and the constant threat of punishment for stepping out of line, our very humanity is packaged and made acceptable for consumption in society. However, the is still there. People still embrace their tendencies, but they do so with authoritarian controls weighing on them, shaming them. One can only hope that the grocery meat at Lunacy’s conclusion isn’t actually suffocating, but perhaps that’s too optimistic. There also exists the possibility that it is breathing, surviving in spite of the world around it. That would give hope that even in today’s society, we can embrace our nature, acknowledge what is within us, and resist.
And so we come to the end of Lunacy’s debate. What’s the best way to run a madhouse? What’s the best way to run this madhouse we call the 21st century? Neither complete liberty, nor authoritarian control work towards any positive outcome. Both sides are oppressive in some respect. The libertines rule by brute force and the authoritarians rule with intellect and suppression. Svankmajer himself has experienced several regime changes as a Czech native, giving him insight into their inability to function as extreme ideologies. In an interview with Peter Hames, he spoke about capitalism after the fall of socialism in the East. He said that it “will soon worry itself to death over the demise of its ‘socialist’ counterpart” (CP 169). This seems to follow his thinking about the two sides in Lunacy; both ideologies are destructive if left unchecked. The best parts of both need to be in play, struggling against each other, for humanity to advance. The revolutionary spirit of the Marquis is invoked by his use of Le Marseillaise in the film, but it turns out that the Marquis is not revolting (at least in this sense). When the libertines are in control, they have nothing to fight against, so they simply run amok. Through the (almost) direct address of both sides, we are encouraged to see their benefits, but we find that there are none when only one is in control. The film takes place in a different century, but the brief images of our contemporary society hints that we should consider these issues in our own time. How best is it to live? It is better to revolt in favor of ourselves than to merely let ourselves run wild or be completely subdued.

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