Thursday 26 April 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

At the core of Foucault's picture of modern “disciplinary” society are three primary techniques of control: hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination. To a great extent, control over people (power) can be achieved merely by observing them. So, for example, the tiered rows of seats in a stadium not only makes it easy for spectators to see but also for guards or security cameras to scan the audience. A perfect system of observation would allow one “guard” to see everything (a situation approximated, as we shall see, in Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon). But since this is not usually possible, there is a need for “relays” of observers, hierarchically ordered, through whom observed data passes from lower to higher levels. 
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philsophy, Michel Foucault
I'm actually kind of disappointed with Whedon and Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods because I was promised a grand, surprising finale, except I kind of saw it coming from the very first scene of the movie - and it's not even a scene, it's the opening credits, animated shots of ancient cave paintings, depicting human sacrifices. I don't think the movie is meant to be a mystery, and the question it asked is more profound than "were you surprised?" or "did you see it coming?", and the weirdest thing about it has been the critical reception, which seems to be mostly about the question of whether to spoil critical elements of the film or not. There is a more profound question at the core of the movie - and by the way, the spoiler is that it is about humanity which brings human sacrifices according to an ancient and fixed codes (a ritual) in order to survive and please the gods - which is, who are these gods, if at least one of the people involved in writing the script is a self-professed atheist. These gods, demanding blood sacrifices in exchange for their eternal sleep, for remaining quiet and unimportant beneath while humanity struggles on the surface - what are they? 
And the cool thing about The Cabin in the Woods is that it works on two levels. On one, it's a very smart movie about writers and filmmakers, who create a spectacle for an audience but according to a fixed set of rules because it is demanded - in that interpretation, Jenkins and Whitford's character are stand-ins for the creators of the film, following the rules of the genre in order to satisfy an audience that goes into the experience of the horror film with a specific set of expectations - on the other, it's a more profound statement about the nature of civilization and all the things that remain temporarily and precariously buried underneath the surface for the sake of society, the blood-thirsty, irrational things that occasionally make it to the top as a reminder of the abyss beneath. Violence, blood lust, greed - all these things that humanity substitutes with, among other things, art - are played out in a ritual. The players must confirm to a set of stereotypical characters - and they are normalized to fit these stereotypes with drugs, by the scientists watching them. They have to choose the monsters to slay them from a fixed set of enemies, and the virgin must survive (or die last) for the ritual to be completed. The ritual confirms to the rules of horror movies, which again brings us back to the question of who the gods are, because if the scientists re-create the ritual again and again for someone's pleasure, isn't it the audience, in the end, that expects them to follow the rules? Isn't the audience the element of the game that expects everything to confirm to a certain standard, to follow certain rules, to make things happen as dramatically as possible, with the camera catching just the right angle, making the film-makers / scientists complicit in the violence because they are unable, after going through the process again and again, to still feel empathy for the human beings slaughtered on screen (and if that is indeed the intent of the film, the execution is so much more elegant than that of Haneke's Funny Games)?
The joker, the character intended for comic relief, becomes conscious. He realizes that he is being observed, and the first question he asks is - "why am I being observed?" - which directly leads to the core of the problem, and literally, to the core of the physical complex he is trapped in. In a way, The Cabin in the Woods (even though it arguably - not that I know, but it at least seems that way - is aesthetically inspired by it) is the anti-Cube: the "cellar" exists for an extremely specific purpose (while in Cube, at least in the first one, the Cube exists for no purpose, which is exactly why it is being used without question, because once you've spent money on it, it MUST have a purpose, even if that entails people dying). The question leads to the purpose, the purpose is human sacrifice in exchange for humanity's survival, and the profound question this leads to is whether humanity deserves to survive if the price is so high. This is the decision Marty has to make. Without friends (his one remaining friend is about to die) he has to make a choice between sacrificing himself in order to save humanity - a survival he will not be able to witness. It's the ultimate secular moment. In a mind-set that makes a life after death seem impossible, his sacrifice becomes meaningless, so he decides to witness the end of the world instead, to see the world end with him. 

2011, directed by Drew Goddard, starring Kristen Connolly, Fran Kranz, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchinson, Jesse Williams, Amy Acker, Brian White, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk.

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