Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

“You are looking at a tiny image in your own mind,” Geshe Michael Roach has said of an individual’s reality, “the world is coming from the images you plant inside your mind.”  Many of Roach’s lectures on Tibetan Buddhism have been made available on YouTube, and this is where they are seen by the characters in our third film, 4:44 End of the World.  Those characters, Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), are a bohemian couple who share a New York City apartment with each other and a countless number of screens.  They each have their own MacBook and iPhone, and their apartment includes at least one iPad and two flatscreen televisions placed back-to-back.  Most of them are on simultaneously.  It is actually rather jarring to realize, as the camera pulls slowly back, that the beautiful sitar music which opens the film is diegetic, emanating from Skye’s iPad.  She paints like Jackson Pollock, bent over a giant canvas stretched across the floor, while lectures from Geshe Michael drone in the background.  Across the room, Cisco talks on the phone while the news blares from the television a few feet in front of him.  This surplus of information, of constant visual and auditory stimulation, is very much at the heart of 4:44 End of the World’s conflict.  Though the film tells us, via a broadcast from New York news anchor Pat Kiernan, that “Al Gore was right,” and the Earth will end within several days, the biggest problem Cisco and Skye face is turning off their distractions long enough to connect with each other.

To revisit Postman’s book Technopoly, we can look to another of Plato’s parables — that of Thamus’s skepticism of the merits of technological progress — for a context in which to approach 4:44 End of the World.  Postman writes, “[T]he uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself — that is, that its functions follow from its form.  This is why Thamus is concerned not with what people will write; he is concerned that they will write…. Will the computer raise egocentrism to the status of a virtue?”  In the construction of Ferrara’s film, we find a direct corollary to this thought.  The content transmitted through the screens in Cisco and Skye’s apartment — interviews with Al Gore, the Dalai Lama, and Geshe Michael Roach; Skype sessions with friends and family; the nightly news — is not, of itself, detrimental to its recipients; rather, Cisco and Skye’s engagement with the means of its delivery comes at the expense of a consistent and nurturing emotional engagement with one another.

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When Cisco video conferences with a friend through Skype, he is surprised to learn that his friend is not alone.  He has invited several people over to sing and play music together, and at first the camaraderie that Cisco sees over the screen makes him feel excluded.  He mutes his computer and begins to write in his journal, but can still hear Skye’s iPad, playing the aforementioned lecture by Geshe Roach.  Through the iPad, Roach intones: “You can plant whatever world you want.  Plant a different image in your mind and you stop death.  If everything out there is what it is, just kill yourself, because what’s the point?”  Cisco shuts his journal and raises the volume on his computer; he gets up to dance and sing along with his friends.  Skye, heartened by Cisco’s sudden joie de vivre joins him, but Cisco again becomes despondent; being reminded of what he has only reminds him of what he is about to lose.

This cognitive dissonance regarding what is and is not present — in both time and space — stemming from the virtual life-world approximated by the social and archival nature of Internet based mass communication is actually 4:44 End of the World’s primary focus.  Again, the narrative framework of the apocalypse is utilized to hone the film’s focus and emphasize the universality of the conflicts depicted therein.  Critics of the film, considering the inferred scope of the crisis inherent in its apocalyptic premise, have taken umbrage with the pettiness of Cisco and Skye’s arguments, insisting that the gravity of the issues Ferrara wishes to address — namely, those of global consciousness, spirituality, and ecology — is undermined by the couple’s immature bickering.  This, I believe, is to miss the point.  The matter which Ferrara most wishes to address is precisely that of the great discord which is growing between our life-world and our life-conditions — between our perception and our reality, as defined by our substantive context.  The bounty of the marriage of globalization and social media has been squandered, standing in the way of that which it originally set out to do: to bring us together.

In what has become the film’s most discussed scene, Cisco and Skye order Vietnamese food delivered to their apartment.  “You know what’s going on?  Or don’t you give a shit?” Cisco asks the delivery boy, incredulous that he would still be showing up to work and doing his job with the apocalypse less than a day away.  The delivery boy hardly speaks English, and does not know how to respond.  In a show of generosity that begins in mockery but becomes sincere, Cisco gives the delivery boy a several hundred dollar tip, offers him some of their food, and sheepishly asks if there’s anything else that he can do for him.  When the delivery boy responds “Skype?” Cisco fetches his computer, and the boy uses it to contact his family in Vietnam.  As Cisco and Skye eat their food and watch from across the room, the boy bids a tearful goodbye to his family.  The scene is not subtitled, but neither Cisco, Skye, nor we in the audience need to understand the words to see that in one moment over a computer screen, the boy and his family have had a more meaningful connection with one another than Cisco and Skye have had throughout the entire film.

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Skye represents a connection to the present that does not come as naturally to the more cerebral Cisco.  Because of this she is sometimes immature, allowing emotion to cloud her perception at the expense of contextual understanding, but her impulsive nature also affords her a fluidity and a capacity for change and assimilation necessary for survival.  Like a snake shedding its skin, she slinks into a new dress every few hours; she subjugates death by being constantly reborn.  One doesn’t need a drastic reinvention to accomplish this. If we recall Postman’s assertion that “one significant change generates total change,” we can furthermore apply that thought here so as to say that an openness to the present — to one’s life-world — facilitates a continuous rebirth which, thanks to the fixed nature of one’s Dasein — one’s unique perspective, or being-in-the-world — is cumulative rather than successive.  Like the mural she paints throughout the film, Skye herself depicts the Ouroboros, the serpent who eats its own tail, as a symbol of self-reflexivity and perpetual rebirth.

This self-reflexive definition of “self” or “consciousness” has seen philosophic extrapolation by Douglas Hofstadter (Godel, Escher, Bach in 1979 and I Am a Strange Loop in 2007) as well as neurological study and mathematical induction by Guilio Tononi (whose Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness was detailed in 2012’s PHI: A Voyage from the Brain the Soul).  What these schools of thought share is an implied acceptance of the basic tenet of phenomenology: that one’s consciousness is the result of the synthesis of an object and one’s perception of that object as it relates to one’s Self.  The implications of this are twofold.  First, an object can be said to be infinite insofar as it can never be viewed form all vantage points simultaneously.  Second, an individual can always be said to have an inviolable incorporeal identity regardless of his or her context due to the sui generis nature of one’s unique life-world.

If we are to agree with Ferrara’s thesis in 4:44 End of the World, technology — and specifically the overabundance of generalized content which it provides — is a direct threat to the phenomenological definition of what makes us human to the extent that it narrows the scope of an individual’s life-world and subsequently leaves one’s Dasein malnourished.  The necessities of life become most apparent when they are in absentia, and for Cisco and Skye, who have cloistered themselves in their apartment with almost no directed or reciprocal interaction with the outside world, the atrophy of their emotional bond becomes an apocalypse in miniature.  The film ends with Cisco and Skye embracing atop her mural of the Ouroboros as she tells him, “There’s going to be a light, Cisco, but don’t be afraid.  It’s our love, it’s our wisdom — and we’re angels already.”  In the final moments before the apocalypse, Skye says earlier in the same scene, “you see the face of every living creature in the world.”  4:44 End of the World then can be considered both hopeful and hopelessly romantic in its promotion of the giving of one’s Self, in love, to another; such a selfless act, Ferrara seems to be saying, is the window through which mankind can glimpse true compassion, exemplified as the acknowledgment of the verity and validity of the variegated life-worlds of every individual.

Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World offers relatively little intellectual or philosophical promulgation compared to to Von Trier’s and Ferrara’s films.  However, by eschewing the psychological and social components of, respectively, Melancholia and 4:44 End of the World, Scafaria is able to focus on the mechanics of human interaction and disseminate the process of emotional connection.  Her protagonists Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) are perhaps the most sanguine characters to be found among these four films, and the least archetypal.  If 4:44 End of the World’s abiding message could be brusquely distilled to “follow your heart,” Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is the film most concerned with how and why an individual can be made act in accordance with this ultimatum.

The appropriately named Dodge, a life insurance broker who has lived his life with an amount of trepidation and caution befitting someone of his occupation, is nonplussed by news that the final mission to stop an asteroid headed for Earth has failed.  His life thus far has been so motivated by fear and so unrewardingly safe that its end is nonchalantly accepted, if not openly welcomed.  To make matters worse, upon hearing of the impending apocalypse, Dodge’s wife abruptly leaves him.  Observing a sleeping man wearing a sandwich board which reads “THE END IS HERE”, Dodge remarks, “He always knew the end was near and he’s currently not surprised.  You are looking at a vindicated man.”

Penny, conversely, is free spirited and impulsive.  Her experience — and her tally of former lovers — is vast, but it has come at the expense of stability.  With all commercial flights cancelled due to the impending catastrophe, she is unable to return to her family in England.  Phone service has been suspended as well, precluding even the possibility of speaking with them.  When she and Dodge, who have been living in the same building for several months but have only recently introduced themselves to one another, are forced to flee their homes, they do so together.  Dodge tells Penny that he knows someone with a plane who would be able to fly her to her family; he does not tell her that the person in question is his father, from whom he has been estranged for most of his life, and that this trip represents a very different sort of homecoming for him.

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This road trip formula allows Scafaria to walk us through several other personal doomsday scenarios without diverting her film’s intentionality or pointedness-of-care off of Dodge and Penny’s relationship.  After their car runs out of gas, Dodge and Penny are picked up by a truck driver (William Petersen) who erroneously presumes they are the assassins whom he has hired to kill him.  “A man’s not supposed to know when his time’s up,” he explains to them, “it’s not natural.  That’s when you find yourself renting a gun and buying a bullet.  But that ain’t no way in to Heaven.”  Rather than risk eternal damnation for the sin of suicide, he has placed his life in the hands of professionals.  His reclaiming of the terms of his own death ignores the universality and inevitability of death itself; that his own end will coincide with that of every other living being on Earth does not change the essence and primacy of his own mortality.

Down the road at a chain restaurant called Friendsy’s, however, the staff has taken the opposite approach to their impending doom.  “We thought about closing up shop,” the host (TJ Miller) tells Dodge and Penny, “but then we realized this is really our family.  In fact, the tragedy has brought us closer.”  More than brought them closer, it’s actually turned the entire restaurant into a Dionysian bacchanal, with the entire staff laying aside their scruples and acting upon their base impulses.  With no theoretical future in which to project the realization of one’s conceptual ideal of Self, the notions of responsibility, discretion, and purpose lose meaning.  Dodge and Penny, however, still have acknowledged short-term goals which they hope to achieve before the apocalypse, making the substantive measure of these notions relative to their Dasein exponentially greater.

Later, Dodge and Penny visit one of Penny’s ex-boyfriends, a former marine called Speck (Derek Luke) who has turned his basement into a bomb shelter.  His survivalism is part machismo and part denial; a dyed in the wool utilitarian, he pleads for Penny to stay with him, insisting that she deserves to be among the few privileged females who will be tasked with repopulating the world after the asteroid’s impact.  As such, he is in no position to be offended when Penny politely demurs, reminding him that she only came to use his satellite phone to call her family and to take one of his cars to complete her journey with Dodge.  Speck’s sense of purpose, unlike that of Dodge and Penny, is pointed towards an improbable — if not impossible — set of future life-conditions; his denial is the greatest, and his directedness-of-being is the most misaligned, favoring the speculative over the empirical.

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Though illustrative of several of the broad archetypical responses to an impending apocalypse, these scenes are really little more than amusing diversions; the film’s main concern is exploring the way humans can look past their own preconceptions to find unexpected points of recognition in others with whom they would expect to find no common ground.  One of Penny’s defining characteristics is her love of music, and of vinyl records in particular.  When she and Dodge are forced to leave their apartment building, she agonizes over which LPs to take with her; grabbing as many as she can easily carry, she stands up and tearfully says, “Goodbye, friends,” to those which she must leave behind.  Later in the film, while Penny is making dinner for Dodge and herself, Dodge finds a portable record player on which Penny can play her records.  They listen to music and eat, and afterwards, over a bottle of wine, Penny explains her love of vinyl:

I love records.  They’re not for everyone.  You really have to take care of vinyl.  It’s very delicate, it can get wrecked so easily.  You really have to love it…. [Thicker records are] more stable, you know, the grooves in them are sort of deeper and wider, you get more detail.  You know, they’re harder to carry around ‘cause they’re heavier, but they’re worth it.

While Penny delivers this concise monologue, Scafaria cuts back to Dodge.  Carrell’s performance is masterful in its restraint, and with nothing more than his eyes he is able to depict the exact moment that Dodge falls in love with Penny.  Between her perfectly cooked meal and her passion for her records, Dodge is able to see the care and the depth of character in Penny which has gone unnoticed or otherwise taken for granted by all of her previous suitors.  Her capriciousness has historically paired her with uncaring men who lack the compassion necessary to appreciate and care for her in return.  Dodge, however, possesses the same fragile qualities as Penny’s beloved vinyl, and his “intentionality” — used in the phenomenological sense, denoting the pointedness or directedness of a being’s perception — assures that he will reciprocate her care.  Much like Susan’s game of Make Me Special in Perfect Sense, it is Dodge’s unique ability to perceive an oft-neglected or hitherto undisclosed aspect of Penny’s character that aligns and increases the amount of intersection between their respective life-worlds.  Additionally, Penny’s effervescence is infectious and encourages Dodge to allay his apprehension, further opening himself to the primacy of experience and thus enriching his Dasein.

Again, as in the other three films we have discussed, we see the blossoming of one’s intentionality — one’s will-to-live — through acknowledgement of one’s relation to and effect upon an other.  Susan, Justine, Cisco, and Dodge all ultimately take the universalization of death as a means to embolden their Selfs to the benefit and service of the recipients of their love, those whose very receptiveness is the confirmation and reassertion of the merit and value of their (Susan, Justine, Cisco, and Dodge) respective Selfs.  This universalization functions similarly for the audience, allowing the viewer to engage with the essence rather than the context of each film’s meta-narrative, and thus encouraging a more personal engagement with the filmmakers’ subtextual conceits.

It is convenient, though not necessary for our purposes, that all four of these films share some exhortative corollaries with regard to the Self and the Self’s engagement with an Other.  In their exemplification of Phenomenological Eschatology, as I have come to identify and understand it as a cinematic form, the films would need only to conform to the structural tenets of phenomenology — that is to say the apotheosis of Dasein, of an individual’s unique being-in-the-world — as they regard the demise of man.  Through the additional cohesion of their form and content, however, I believe Perfect Sense, Melancholia, 4:44 End of the World, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World — taken individually and as a thematic whole — represent a timely and important school of personal and social philosophic discourse that stands parallel to their embodiment of narrative form, typifying Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message,” and exponentially enriching the variegated metatextual possibilities of cinematic expression.

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One response to “Phenomenological Eschatology: The Personal Apocalypse in Recent Cinema

  1. Pingback: When Life Gives You Nerve Gas… | Considering Film·

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