I saw Philip Kaufman’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) again last night. Beyond the camp and aged effects, it really has these creepy ideas I think it’s one of those prophetic movies that kind of tell us the reality of ourselves just beneath the apparent conspiracy of surfaces. For me, it’s the best version produced, capturing the right time, right ominous paranoid mood of a culture imperiled.
The spoil-free plot, for those who haven’t seen it, involves an alien creature that migrates to earth, and begins to absorb people while they sleep, replicating them with “pod people.” The 1950s original movie was in a small town. The 1978 version moves the drama to the urban bustle of San Francisco, where the pod people start to take over globally. Friends and family become alien, distant, aloof. They become a bit numb, callous, somehow inhuman.
There is something in the pod people phenomena that reminds me of a key part of Freud’s psychology. He has this idea commonly called Thanatos, Greek for “death,” by post-Freudians. Uncle Siggy called it “the death drive.” What was this mysterious force that Freud was trying to communicate? Well, he had a basic drive theory of human beings that he called Eros, which is a drive to be, a drive to create. But during the madness of World War I, there was no evidence of a civilization that desired to be creative. It was rather destructive, and didn’t seem to have any real reason behind this destruction than the destruction for its own sake. Freud retreated to neutral Switzerland during the war, writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and then Civilization and its Discontents, both about the urge to destroy, to bring life to stillness. It seemed the only way to explain the inexplicable madness of unfettered human aggression and stupidity.
Freud proposed his death drive, and expanded drive theory to cover many other aspects of life. This isn’t science so much as a philosophy that Freud was tapping into. But something astonishing came of his theory. It’s probably useful for us to think of the death drive as a state of being that is undead, or unliving. That is to say, a state of being alive without really being alive. Freud alternatively called it a kind of “crust” around the self, hardened over time, to be a kind of psychogenic buffer between the nascent sensitive human and the world. Its existence is guided chiefly by the inculcation of a crust-making culture, which is body-snatched by its virtue of being disembodied, and is precisely at odds with the drive for life, vitality and creative expression. This crust-making becomes integral to acculturating a human being, full of “thou shalt nots,” existential guilt, of informing the nascent mind that reality isn’t as it appears, but rather is laden with social injunctions built on the guilt based on the insistence of archaic prohibitions. Thanatos rather uses the vitality of life for its own inverted purposes – to continue itself as an eternal symbolic force of the unliving. This mysterious cultural force and tradition is Thanatos.
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film about life against death. It’s about the death drive, this alien oppressing force, seemingly from outer space, but really a representation of Superego, or “the over-I.” It has been said that ideas are something you have, but ideologies are something that has you. Here, it is represented by vegetation coming to take over people, replacing them with cabbage. Pod people are characterized by a numb indifference about life. They are only driven by the need to expand themselves, hunting down those who still live. They have little pain, little pleasure, become kind of apathetic automatic in their responses to the world.
There are these scenes and frames that give these great images for a psychological process. The pods lurk in the background, some kinds of fibrous tendrils reaching out toward the living. The replicant people seemingly being built with layers of plant crust. Eventually the living people fade away, turning into a kind of grey cotton candy husk.
The scenes of these invasions are contrasted with these little humorous scenes among the living; the spontaneous gyrations of Jeff Goldblum, the cooking of Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adam’s laughter and eye trick, the moments they do with each other to remind themselves that they’re alive.
There is a kind of powerful scene at the end of the movie. Donald Sutherland is running away in the night from the pod people, trying to escape in a world over run by the cabbages. He’s run to the docks of the harbor, seemingly trapped, finds a place to hide under a boardwalk. The replicants have flashlights looking for him, beams of light surveying between the boards. The creepy claustrophobic feeling of this scene reminded me a lot of what it’s like growing up in this world beset by a complex web of cultural injunctions that are racist, patriarchal, colonial, corporate, bureaucratic, banal and/or callous.
It makes me think that The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is really more than it is as a science fiction movie. It think it’s a kind of spiritual documentary, documenting the passing of the world to a world of fascist replicants. In the new special edition, there is an interview with Brooke Adams, who pretty much verified this as the intent of the picture. I think there was a shift in the social fabric of reality between the 1960s and 1980s. It’s in the difference between Kennedy and Reagan. Carter called it a “crisis of confidence” and was made fun of. It was alternatively a loss of activism. Citizens were replaced by patriots. The Great Society was replaced by Maggie Thatcher’s “they’re no such thing as society, just individuals.” It’s in Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. It’s in the new corporate self. It’s in new lines of credit. It’s in deregulation. It’s in profits over people. It’s in the cheapness of black lives. It’s in the conquest of the television and mass communication. it’s in Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s in Marshall McCluhan’s The Medium is the Message – the television is the new printing press – we have erased a logocentric text based society and replaced it with a mass communication society of petty amusements. Consult that other great prophetic seventies movie Network for further research.
I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life trying to unravel the cabbage, the a cultural crust, that’s been crawling over me since I was born. Trying to peel off the crinkled layers of cultural cabbage of junk culture. Replacing it with creative vitality, finding an authentic voice, honing my perceptions.
What is a fragile dignity? It’s this process of unraveling and then a process of reconstruction. In this time of peeling away, analogous to Nietzsche’s “the great overcoming,” we find that we have yet to remain in the world, but not of it. We yet have to engage with social reality, but with caution. The crust of our cryptofascist social reality has to be navigated with a complex bulwark of critical theory. I mean, just to make it today without becoming a total somnambulist takes quite a bit of effort to basically tirelessly interpret social reality, be able to put everything in a context, and adjust the bearings accordingly. Yes, this does involve pointing out “ideology,” “patriarchy,” “hedgemony,” “racism,” and so forth.
This has been my chief method, which happens to be driven by doubt and cynicism. Is there any mood that is more cheap and common today? If not cynical, it is ironic, which is basically cynicism with consent.
The hermeneutic circle is not complete, however, without hope. And it is critical to have areas of life and otherness that remain vital, that resists the cabbage-making of culture. We need prophets. We need beacons of vital reason and reasonable vitality. Many of my favorite luminaries, people who are truly sane and alive are artists and writers. Some of those souls, in their works, I sense a profound truth, a prophesy, a kind of apocalyptic vision that lifts away the veil. Derrick Jensen is perhaps the sanest person on the planet today. You know someone’s really onto something when they are called radical by the rest of us cabbage people. There are other luminaries – Cornel West is a great soul. James Baldwin was a prophet who taught me the meaning of freedom.
I can’t say I was ever interested in drugs. I smoked philosophy, psychology, art. I smoked Jung, Hillman, Nietzsche, Norman O Brown, Herbert Marcuse, Mary Oliver, Rielke, Hafiz. I always believed in “Plato over Prozac,” you know, the idea that we can think our way to reality, freedom and decency. As Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It may be in the wildernesses within, and without, that we can yet find the springs of human vitality. It certainly will not emerge from alien pods…