When I watch a movie, my thinking always wanders to the same few questions.
• How is this a story for our time? • What does this film tell us about ourselves, our deepest feelings, our secret thoughts, our invisible yearnings? • And how conscious are the filmmakers themselves about these processes?
Because we seem to be living in a time of converging crises, and because I am sensitive to that, I view most films through that lens. Being both a filmmaker and a cultural critic, it is an occupational hazard that I quite enjoy.
As Copenhagen unfolds, I notice some patterns in the media conversation: new examinations of confusion and denial; repeated attempts to explain and convince; more proposals of crucial solutions and necessary policies; timely reports on the severity of the situation. One question that seems to wander through these articles and essays and reports is this: why can’t we seem to get our shit together when it comes to climate change? The failure of Copenhagen feels, to many, like a foregone conclusion. So, like, What the bleep?
Good question. One that seems to apply to much of the present predicament in which we find ourselves. And one, I think, that will benefit from a viewing of Ridley Scott’s 1991 “Zeitgeist-catching” road movie, Thelma & Louise.
Go watch it. I’ll wait.
OK. You back? Good. Let’s move on.
So, if the question is why can’t we seem to get our shit together when it comes to climate change? then most of the answers I hear seem to fall into one of three categories. It’s because we (or our leaders) are:
• stuck in distraction and/or denial, • greedy, unprincipled and maybe even psychotic or evil or • just too stupid to go on living.
To me these are all reasonable explanations. Distraction and denial are surely in force, as are those other human possibilities: greed, psychosis, evil, and stupidity. If you view our movies, as I do, as the stories of Imperialism, which reveal how we view both the world and ourselves, then you’ll find overwhelming evidence to support these assessments. But I think I see something more at work here. Something more fundamental, perhaps, or more invisible. And invisible, maybe, because it just breaks too many rules, to speak about it.
Here’s what I see: our collective death wish at work.
Hang with me for a moment. I have no doubt that our egos have been left battered, bruised, and pretty much insane by the experience of being born into captivity in what Derrick Jensen calls “the culture of make-believe”. I’ve experienced that insanity intimately in my own life. And once I identified it, I could see it all around me, at work in the world. But I also have a sense that my true self, my essence, that good and beautiful being I came here as, has not been destroyed. My animal body senses, perceives, and moves through the world at levels above, below and beyond the warped and word-bound ego that thinks it is in charge. My essential self remains in close and constant connection with a reality that far exceeds any mental constructs my thinking might wish to lay on it.
What if, apart from the denial, stupidity, or greed to which our ego-bound thoughts and words are too often constrained, our bodies know exactly what’s coming down? What if the reason we’re not getting our shit together when it comes to climate change is because our essential selves are not buying a bit of what our egos are being told about how to address this “problem”? What if, in fact, at some deep level from which we cannot even speak, those parts of our being that have not been distorted, distracted or destroyed by the absurdities of Empire regard climate change, in some crucial way, not as a “problem” at all, but as a “solution”?
Hard to imagine? Let’s go back to Thelma & Louise.
This movie was a “huge critical success”, clocking in as the 88th best-reviewed movie of all time at www.metacritic.com. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and won for Best Original Screenplay. If it’s correct to call this film “Zeitgeist-catching”, then what part of “the defining spirit or mood of our times” does it catch? Pull over there. Let’s check the map.
Thelma and Louise leave their loveless, abused, and unsatisfying lives behind for a weekend fling together. A bit of fun leads to the attempted rape of Thelma, in response to which Louise kills the offender. They run, sure that they’ll never get a fair hearing in a court of law, and their attempts to flee to Mexico spiral out of control.
As the charges against them pile up, they find a surprising exhilaration in their unanticipated life of crime. It all comes to a standoff at the edge of a cliff. Trapped in a situation with no acceptable solutions, poised between a line of state troopers and the sympathetic detective who has been trying to bring them in on the one hand, and the vast unknown of that cliff on the other, Thelma and Louise choose the cliff. The film ends with that iconic freeze frame, as they launch themselves in their ’66 Thunderbird into the only freedom they can imagine.
If that’s the map, then the territory is our own world, our own culture, our own lives. If Thelma & Louise shows us the Geist, it’s the Geist of our own Zeit. And if we allow that as our starting point, then the connections come easily enough. Did not the culture of civilization, at some point, take off on a weekend fling of unexpected exhilaration that spiraled out of control, bringing the entire planet face to face with our present predicament? And have not many people’s lives, at least those lived here in the heart of Empire, become so loveless, abused and unsatisfying that we’re poised now to do almost anything to get out of them? Have we not truly managed to do something no other living creature has managed to do, which is to make ourselves, individually and collectively, miserable?
Aye, now I’ve done it. I’ve violated a deep taboo, spoken the unspeakable. Because, well, we’re so happy, we Americans. Aren’t we?
I mean, sure, we’ve got corrupt leadership, economic insanity, and the end of cheap energy to contend with. We’ve got climate change and population overshoot and mass extinction to think about. We’ve got dying oceans, dying forests, dying aquifers, dying krill, dying caribou, dying everything.
• We’ve got nuclear power and nuclear waste and nuclear weapons and depleted uranium.
• We’ve got fucked up political systems, health care systems, educational systems, economic systems, agricultural systems, and septic systems.
• We’ve got racism, sexism, narcissism, workaholism and fascism.
• We’ve got child abuse and elder abuse and spouse abuse and animal abuse.
• We’ve got rapes and murders and suicides.
• We’ve got unwed mothers and single parents and children having children.
• We’ve got addictions, distractions, obsessions and compulsions. We’ve got unemployment and underemployment and homelessness and debt.
• We’ve got boring, meaningless work, longer hours, longer drive times and falling real wages.
• We’ve got unsatisfying relationships, loneliness, divorce and broken homes.
• We’ve got mental illness, stress, busy-ness, depression, despair, medication and “the deliberate dumbing down of America”.
• We’ve got obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer and heart disease and all those other “diseases of civilization“.
And sure, all of these things seem to be spiraling out of control, as if Conquest, War, Famine and Pestilence just stormed onto our polo field and started to beat the ever-loving crap out of our players.
But, c’mon! We’ve also got 24,909 tunes on our iPods! We’ve got Trundled Duck Confit with a Gorgonzola Reduction! We’ve got shamanic excursions into the heart of the Andes! We’ve got that new James Cameron movie coming out! In 3-fucking-D!
Surely it all balances out? Surely, surely, this all counts for something? I mean, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, right? And the upholstery in this ’66 Thunderbird is just luscious, isn’t it?
I’ve got to stop and wonder whether comfort and distraction have been confused with joy, fulfillment and meaning. I acknowledge that it’s possible to find moments of comfort and happiness even in prison. That doesn’t mean we’re not in prison. I view this as our deepest denial, the denial of the truth of our own life experience, the denial kept in rigid place by our desperate story of The American Way. As David Edwards says in his interview with Derrick Jensen:
"What prison could be more secure than one we’re convinced is “the world,” where the boundaries of action and thought are assumed to be, not the limits of the permissible, but the limits of the possible? Democratic society, as we know it, is the ultimate prison, because who’s going to try to escape from a situation of apparent freedom? It follows, then, that we must be happy, because we can do whatever we want."
Copenhagen unfolds. The cliff approaches…
Go back to those last minutes in the movie. We learn, finally, how deeply Louise’s wounds go, how vast is her pain. We see the chase. The attempted escape. The final capture. We see the line of police cruisers. The helicopter hovers menacingly overhead. The sniper rifles aim their way. The “good cop” has failed to bring them in but argues angrily for one last attempt. The “bad cop” uses his PA system to order them to give up. Thelma and Louise are not buying any of it. They’re fed up with living lives in prison.
Thelma looks at Louise. “Let’s keep going,” she says “What do you mean?” Thelma looks out over the cliff, nods her head almost imperceptibly. “Go,” she says. Smiles and tears flit across their faces. “You sure?” “Yeah.” They kiss, their faces a study in love and grief and terror and power. Louise hits the gas. They hold hands. They speed toward the cliff. And they’re gone…
Can we just hold silence here for a few seconds?
I think Ridley Scott failed in this moment, as Roger Ebert so gratifyingly pointed out. Having spent two hours building up to this point, Scott could not hold it. Rather then just sit with the tension, the grief, the surprise, the pain, or the exhilaration, his freeze frame dissolved way too quickly into white. And the white dissolved right into rolling end credits, that haunting score, and a snapshot review of their happier times. As Ebert said, “Can one shot make that big of a difference? This one does.”
But now, here in our Zeit, we are given an opportunity to correct that failure. In this time of seeming collapse, as we sit staring over our own collective cliff, perhaps because, 18 years since the movie’s release, we are more desperate now, or perhaps because we have each other, we can hold the shot that Ridley Scott could not.
We can sit with that tension, that grief, that surprise, that pain, and that exhilaration. We can hold that freeze frame and feel it to the very depths of the canyon underneath. We can look at this hidden piece of Geist and see what it is that the public, as a whole, seemed to resonate with so deeply. And we can learn, perhaps, in doing that, what there is to be learned in this moment.
I wonder if we’re not getting our shit together when it comes to climate change because, at some level, we’re not buying it, just as Thelma and Louise didn’t buy it, no matter the assurances of the nice white guy in the suit, or the threats of the stern authority figure in the uniform. We’re not buying the notion that this predicament will somehow get “fixed” by any combination of carbon caps, emissions agreements, green shopping, alternative energies and new technologies under the sun.
Some months ago, the specter of 4 degree C temperature rise started bouncing around in the news. Just a few weeks back, there were new reports that we’re on our way to 6 degrees C if we keep going as we are. And another new study reports that global CO2 emissions have risen 29% in the past nine years, indicating our commitment to doing just that. Six degrees moves us into the realm of the End-Permian extinction event, during which roughly nine-tenths of the life forms on the planet said their last farewells.
It seems…. well… unlikely… that corrupt and insane leaders will have much say in such matters, as energy, environment and economy slip rapidly from our hands, as if they ever really were in our hands to begin with. Conquest, War, Famine and Pestilence seem now to have made their way up to the clubhouse. Hard to believe that that padlocked gate is going to hold.
And I wonder if we’re not buying any attempt to fix this problem that has as its goal the preservation of the culture of Empire. I think, collectively, our bodies are not buying that. Our sane essential selves are not buying that. iPods and duck confit DO NOT outweigh the costs to our souls of lives lived in prison and the destruction of the community of life. And sadly, we do not see that anything less than global catastrophe will free us from our collective insanity.
It is forbidden to say this out loud, of course, even to ourselves. It’s just too painful, to face into just how miserable we have become as a people, how lost, how wounded, how stuck. And how pointless life seems. As we asked in What a Way to Go:
“Are we destroying the planet, as Dmitry Orlov asks, just ‘to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while’?”
It’s too much to bear. And truly, why should we? Maybe Warren Zevon was right. If the planet’s now headed toward six degrees, “as the mystics and statistics say it will,” why not go out like desperadoes, our foot on the pedal, our hair just flying in the wind, taking out Empire as we go?
And “heaven help the one who leaves.”
Ultimately, what I think we are not buying, body and soul, is the notion that this is all there is, this “physical reality” of corrupt leaders, insane systems, working, shopping and fucking and dying. We’re not buying this whole “materialism” thang, this deadened world, this end of magic, this loss of meaning. We’re not buying it. The costs are too high. The benefits too shallow. And the growing edges of our own science seem no longer to support such notions. The anomalies have been piling up in the corner for so long now that we can hardly get through the door. We can still sense, despite the bullshit that has been heaped upon our minds, a Cosmos far more wondrous than either the suit or the uniform can even begin to imagine.
Indeed. Go back to that last scene. Watch closely. Look at Thelma’s face. Watch Louise’s reaction. The excitement mixed with terror. The wonder fused with grief. The pain of wounds so deep they drive us over the cliff. If Thelma and Louise are running away in their final act, they are also running toward. It’s in their eyes. They can see it. Beyond that cliff lies not only the end of this madness, but the beginning of something new. A step into that unknown Cosmos that has never abandoned us, even as we abandoned it. Plunging over a cliff is not an act of control. It’s an act of intention. And surrender. And trust.
Climate change may be a fuck-all mess, but at least it’ll get us out of this nightmare, and take us to some place new.
Hit the gas.
I do not wish to be mistaken here, though I’m fairly certain that I shall be. I merely wish to point out that, from where I sit, these forces are alive in our collective heart. I know they are alive in mine. I have no idea whether Thelma and Louise made the right choice. I do not know that we “should” hit the gas, whatever that means. The full manifestation of current trends is poised to take out a great deal more than human beings. It already has. It would certainly be my wish to kill off just the culture, rather than the vast majority of the community of life. As Derrick Jensen said in What a Way to Go:
"So many people are so very, very unhappy. And they want this nightmare to end. And they don’t recognize that the death that they want is a cultural death, and is a spiritual and metaphorical death."
This death wish is here, part of the spirit of the times, and I say that it’s exactly what Thelma & Louise tapped into, exactly what caught its viewers in the throat, exactly what caused the members of the Academy to honor that Best Original Screenplay. Our collective misery, and our wish for the death of the culture that underlies that misery, hover still in that great freeze-frame of our present predicament. If we fade-to-white too quickly, if we insist on our snapshots of happier times, then we will miss a deep truth of this moment, and the opportunity to learn from this moment what there may be to learn.
Our failure to respond may, indeed, spring from denial, greed, and stupidity. Those are all likely suspects. But it may also be grounded in the deep longing of our bodies and the wisdom of our souls. Whatever the reasons, when it comes to our collective reaction so far, we’re not buying what’s being sold. We do not seem eager to “save civilization.” It may behoove us to wonder why that is.
If we face into this death wish, if we stare into our collective misery, both as the conquered and as the conquerors, and allow the truth of our culture, a culture that would drive us to this cliff, to rise into conscious acknowledgment, we may find, in doing so, a choice that now eludes us. It’s a possibility. One that I don’t think we have much explored.
We’re sitting on a cliff in a ’66 Thunderbird, staring into the abyss of the insoluble predicament. None of the choices we can imagine are acceptable.