Thursday, March 02, 2006

"Man strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship."

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Night Watch (Fox Searchlight, 2005), Diretor Timur Bekmambetov.

"Man strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship."

Feodor Dostoyesvsky, The Brothers Karamazov.

This film has not been well-served by its American reviewers. It is one of the few movies that I have seen that works on multiple levels. It is an "open work," in Umberto Eco's sense. The movie is a roller coaster ride, fast and furious fun, with plenty of thrills, car chases, magic, vampires, lots of plot twists and turns. The film is a dramatization of fascinating mythological, philosophical and political questions, which is grounded in cinematic history and aesthetics (containing references to quite a few great films and to Rembrandt's large canvas "Night Watch"), so that it may also be viewed as serious "postmodern" art. Night Watch raises some timely questions concerning the price of freedom. Like the Matrix films, which provide one touchstone for this interesting director, the subject under examination is freedom and its entanglement with evil.

The movie is also solidly grounded in the classical literary and mythological tradition which is expressive of "the Great Russian Soul." References to Dostoyesvsky's "Grand Inquisitor" and to Tolstoy's "The Devil" come to mind.

I wish to discuss the movie on three levels: 1) mythologically, as an allegory of Christianity, with gestures in the direction of the mystery cults as well as the Christian mass; 2) philosophically, as questioning the scope of choice, the ethics of self-sacrifice versus selfishness, the quest for redemption and the problem of man's violent nature; 3) politically, whether the gain in material benefits and wealth from free enterprise and Capitalism offsets the negatives of greed and crime in the newly free societies of Europe.

How should freedom and social equality be balanced in the post-Communist era in the former Soviet States and allied nations? Anthony Lane summarizes the plot of Night Watch:

We start a millennium ago, with a standoff [the armies are "evenly matched"] between armies of Others -- gifted spirits who stalk the world, unsuspected by mere mortals. There are two bands of Other, Light and Dark, ... A change of scene brings us to modern Moscow, where Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) learns that he is not just an Other but a Seer, one who can spot [fellow] Others across a crowded room. One day, in the subway, he spies a woman whom he suspects of being not just any old Other, but the Virgin, [whose appearance signals the arrival of the child-Other, whose choice for Light or Dark will tip the balance in favor of one side or the other, finally ending the eternal cosmic struggle of good and evil.] ... the Light Others have a squad of vigilantes -- the Night Watch -- who keep an eye out for rogue Darks, while the Darks have a corresponding team, the Day Watch, on the trail of the Lights.

The child to be protected is a symbol of the future, humanity as yet uncontaminated by evil. The boy is required to choose, so that the struggle is "for the future." At the same time, the child is a symbol of goodness (the unicorn), in Anton, who must make amends for his original sin and fallen condition by rescuing this child, who may be his own, so as to achieve redemption. Anton saves himself and, in this way, he saves the world.

All of the lead performances are excellent and the weaving of myth into the plot is fantastic. This a movie that will entertain you. It can also lead to fascinating philosophical discussions. It is highly recommended, especially to university students and "guys" looking for an action movie that is intelligent. I plan to see it again and to buy the DVD when it is available.

Anton is the guardian angel and Christ-like figure. There is an hommage to the film Wings of Desire, especially in many shots of Moscow from the air. We are soaring above the buildings by means of imagination. The boy represents the wounded quality of goodness in Anton and the recovery of his lost love for a woman he has not seen in twelve years. The boy is love. So long as Anton can rescue this child, through self-giving (even opening his veins to "feed the gloom," so as to keep the evil away from the boy), there is hope for himself and humanity. Gloom is a motif in this work. One is reminded of everything from Terminator II to the classic film, Gloria. There is a visceral response to any depiction of a struggle to protect a child.

In terms of mythological archetypes in Jungian theory, there are: "the wise child," the woman of light or Virgin, the witch at the beginning of the film (who is like the witches at the opening of MacBeth). Power animals identify each character: Olga (the shape-shifter who becomes an Owl) is Anton's feminine side and "spiritual sister" (soror spirituelis), the bear, and others. Although it is not specified, Anton is clearly the White Wolf. Cinematic references to Buffy the Vampire Slayer compete with a reference to Lady Hawke and another to Star Wars, by way of light sabers wielded in a final rooftop duel.

Interestingly, the director of the film shares a name with the blind king in Puccini's "Turandot," King Timur, father of Calaf, so mythology is in his blood. The director serves as the Deus Absconditus of this film. The general of the forces of light -- like the "Architect of the Matrix" -- symbolizes God as the masculine principle, as father; the general of the forces of darkness is a Lucifer-like or "Merovingian" figure. Ambiguity is recognized in terms of the adoption of lethal methods. Anton drinks "blood" only when "he is hunting a vampire." To fight terror, must we adopt the methods of terror? This is a timely issue for the U.S. at the moment.

With choice comes not only the possibility of achievement and morality, but also evil. It is essential to see the evil that makes goodness possible, along with the goodness that is the negative of evil, in Hegelian terms. What is crucial is not the method, then, but its purpose. This suggests that torture for a good cause is O.K. Is this too neat? Does the adoption of heinous means not alter our ends, changing us and what we become? The viewer is left to make his or her own choices and interpretations.

Do we want happiness and security or human dignity and freedom? I choose freedom. For me, in Kantian terms, there are things which we must not do. Torture is one of them. To stop the killing by the Dark Others, the Night Watch must kill them. Jungian analyst, June Singer explains the underlying issue in Jung's psychology:

The essential nature of the individual includes not only strength but weakness. Each of us has the potentiality for creativity and, equally present, the potentiality for destructiveness. The Hindu gods, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva-Creator, Preserver, Destroyer -- live in each of us; all must be reckoned with. It is as though we exist in a psychic system where an ecological balance must be maintained. ... we cannot dispose of dangerous or destructive aspects of ourselves, we can only know of their presence and how they tend to function.

Each of the characters in this movie is an aspect of a single psyche: the knight protector, the wise child, feminine protector and maternal principle, gods and devils, "anima" for a man, "animus" for a woman, and so on. We are inside the mind of the director, the blind king of this work, as we see the movie. Remember, at the deepest level of the Jungian subconscious is the collective subconscious which is universal.

Each of these forces also exists politically, in society: police and criminal, anti-semite and Jew (Sartre), master and slave (Hegel), Capitalist and Communist (Smith and Marx); objects of political idealization, democracy and cooperation with the West (President Putin) and totalitarian oppression and hostility to the West (Stalin). We are inside Russian society -- and maybe all human societies, including the United States -- faced with the eternal dilemma of liberty versus security. We move from the individual to the social, as the themes of the movie are resolved.

We tend to forget, in the aftermath of the Marxist generations in what used to be called the USSR, that Hegel was an even more powerful presence than Marx in Russian philosophy prior to the October Revolution. For Hegel, society is always subject to change through conflict, never-ending conflict, so that rationality and reality is understood as "one" in a moment of "singular apprehension," when suffering and oppression is both seen and transcended, aufheben. A link to Russian Christianity is essential at this point. This demands the "grace" to accept that what is left behind, returns as contradiction, only to be transcended again. See Lesley Chamberlain, Motherland: Philosophical History of Russia (London: Atlantic Books, 2005), and the review by Professor Marcus Wheeler in Philosophy Now, February/March 2006, at p. 44.

As the child must choose between good and evil, so should we: Do we worship God (morality) or the Devil (crime)? Do we want fame, wealth or power (Capitalist success) or artistic and intellectual integrity (Marxist fidelity to aesthetic purpose and poverty)? Can we have a little of both, like in this movie? Maybe. After all, somebody is making a lot of money with this movie.

The film ends on a cliffhanger, literally, as a tribute to Hollywood moviemaking, perhaps. There are many such tributes. It appears that this child has chosen the darkness, but Anton is still fighting for him and for all of us. Each of us must do the same in our lives. I can hardly wait for the second film, which is already released in Moscow.

In essence, the Grand Inquisitor poses a dilemma: One can either grant to mankind what it wants, although that dispensation will be degrading, or one can offer noble values, but then one has to be cruel. One has only a choice between compassion that concedes to mankind the vulgarities for which it hankers -- and a will to raise and lift it, which is ultimately brutal. It is impossible to give both happiness and dignity at the same time.

Fight to rescue the child that you once were from total extinction. The problem is choice.

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