Songbird (2020)

A film that piqued my interest by using an out of control variant of COVID as the backdrop.

At its core it’s a love story, set in the totalitarian regime imposed by attempts to control the deadly virus. It doesn’t try to find a new way of looking at either the love story or the virus, instead giving us a stream of familiar foes. The corrupt. The psychotic megalomaniac. The faceless military.

Imbedded, unquestioned, in the story is this very American idea that the power of love and individual freedoms are the ideal, and only true outcome for any such scenario.

There’s more at stake than just blocking no deal

Sienna Rodgers in Labour List announces that “Labour has launched a cross-party bid to block the possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a divorce deal”.

I think there’s more at stake than just blocking no deal.

This motion is only needed because there have been calls to suspend parliament. The fact that there is even talk of suspending parliament should scare everyone, even those on the side of Britain exiting the European Union.

Their argument was that we should wrestle back sovereignty from Europe, not give it to an elite group of self serving politicians. Suspending parliament is not acceptable under any circumstance. That’s us slipping and sliding, scrambling and scuffing, open eyed towards totalitarianism.

But that’s what happens when the world gets complicated, filled with nuance, and leaders frame every argument as a binary choice. I considered exactly this “totalitarian mindset” when I was working on one of my characters for CARR-10-N. This is an extract from something I wrote in 2013.

So the question I’m really asking is; what kind of person is attracted to totalitarianism? To answer that question you first need to ask; what allows totalitarianism to flourish? The short answer is uncertainty. In his paper “How to make enemies and influence people” (2) Alfonso Montuori characterises the “totalitarian mindset” as a response to the stress of contemporary pluralism. Basically we live in complex times full of ambiguity and uncertainty. We feel threatened. And when we’re backed into a corner we have a tendency to succumb to “simplistic, black-and-white solutions.” Montuori goes on to note that “individuals all over the world have sought relief from the uncertainty of a pluralistic world in the arms of absolute belief systems of a religious fundamentalist and/or political/nationalistic nature.” 

2013/02/08

If that doesn’t describe the current mess nothing does. Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for a “muddy” position on Britain exiting the European Union, but muddy’s what we need. We need nuance not black and white choices. Black and white choices are what got us here in the first place. There are no easy answers in any of this, but sleepwalking a totalitarian government into office is not the answer.

Throwing out the first act

Finishing my last post brought with it something of a revelation about Carrion, an insight that means I’ll be throwing out the first act; at least those scenes involving Adam and Reiner. The ideas for the change bubbled up after a lot of research about Reiner’s totalitarian mindset. I’ve been concerned since the outset of this draft with the action that puts Adam in conflict with Reiner. The idea that I’ve been working with to date has his relationship with Christine provide the substance of the conflict that pits the two men against each other. But I’ve never really been happy with how that scenario plays out. The inciting event simply wasn’t strong enough. It doesn’t explain Adam’s decision to put his self-righteous attitudes to one side and save Christine. Neither does it explain the vitriol Reiner has for Adam. What I’ve really been looking for is something that serves two functions. First it has to force Adam to land definitively on Christine’s side. Second it has to make an absolute enemy of Reiner. I think I’ve found the solution in the hierarchical structure of the totalitarian regime. Reiner is member of the regimes inner circle. He puts his standing on the line when he sponsors Adam’s induction. The price of Adam’s admission is Christine. In a proving ceremony reminiscent of a scene from Eyes Wide Shut Adam has to kill Christine. When he refuses, he not only puts himself on the wrong side of the regime, he also makes a mortal enemy of Reiner. Adam is cast out, throw into a cell with Christine and John, condemn to suffer the fate of all junkies in the coming genocide. This changed scenario brings with it an inciting event that kick-starts the story. It allies him with Christine but still allows her to be an opponent. It gives Reiner a character specific reason to hate Adam. It also mirrors the final battle, resonating against Adam’s choice to help Christine commit suicide. Hope that all makes sense. This really is me thinking out loud.

Inciting Adam

While writing about Reiner’s authoritarian personality (1) I noted the polarisation of freedom and security. Adam and Reiner’s conflict, at it’s deepest level, is a fight over the kind of world they will live in; “will it be a world ruled by freedom or one ruled security?” If Adam is to have a better life at the end of Carrion he has to reject the world of security demanded by Reiner and make a positive choice for freedom. The seed of this decision is sowed in the stories inciting event. Adam has to do something at this critical juncture of the story that, to quote John Truby, “causes the hero to come up with a goal and take action.” The difficulty I have is that Adam and Reiner are part of the same tribe. They are policemen in a totalitarian state that has built it’s identity on attacking drug users. Adam at some level shares this totalitarians mindset. He couldn’t be a policeman if he didn’t. So what would make him question the orthodoxy? If part of the totalitarian mindset that Adam is part of is the authoritarian personality exemplified by Reiner, an individual willing to belittle himself so he can, as part of something greater, become great himself; what would startle Adam out of that delusion? My gut tells me the only thing powerful enough to force that kind of revelation in Adam, is a direct attack on Christine. Whatever self-righteous stance he might take against her drug use, she’s still his sister, the only remaining member of his family. Whatever he believes at the beginning of the story, when she is attacked, he would feel compelled to save her. At present the inciting event happens as Reiner attacks a surrogate for Christine. Adam gets a call from Christine as Reiner beats the surrogate to a pulp. Reiner’s action and Christine’s plee for help prompt Adam to abandon his post and go to help Christine. I have the feeling that this is only the proverbial straw that breaks the camels back. The attack on Adam would need to be more sustained before he finally reject Reiner. Perhaps the key is in the symbiotic tendency of the authoritarian personality, in the idea of the tyrannical father who torments his wife but is subservient to his superiors, those closer to the inner circle? Perhaps Reiner uses Christine against Adam; he has to choose Christine or Reiner. Instinct tells me that’s actually the choice Adam has to make in the final battle. The last stepping stone that gets him to the freedom side of the river. What I’m looking for is the first stepping stone on that journey. I’m sure it has to be a direct attack on Christine. Reiner makes a move against Christine, which forces Adam to step in. His instinctive response to save Christine puts him in direct conflict with Reiner. With this choice made I now have to go back and restructure the first thirty five minutes of the plot. Good job I’m not already half way through a draft. Moral of this post. Plan. Plan. Plan.

Reiner and the totalitarian mindset

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Adam’s main opponent Anthony Reiner. Specifically I’ve been struggling to understand what makes Reiner such a willing exponent of prohibition? As I pondered in the comments of my previous post; “I’m trying to figure out the mechanism of his adherence to the cause. Why does he react so violently to Adam’s need to save Christine?” (1) Reading back though yesterdays post I realise now that Reiner reacts to Adam’s decision to help Christine as a betrayal of the cause. A reaction rooted in Reiner’s totalitarian mindset. A mindset that has no tolerance for ambiguity. When he encounters the kind of complexity offered by Adam’s willingness to help Christine he tries to impose his pre-existing frames of reference on the decision, reducing it to an us or them ultimatum. Going back to Alfonso Montuori paper “How to make enemies and influence people” (2) it’s interesting to note the kind of personality the totalitarian mindset attracts. Consistent attempts to suppress “complexity through maladaptive simplicity is characteristic of the closed-mindedness of the authoritarian personality.” (3) Montuori’s characterisation of the totalitarian mindset as an authoritarian personality fits perfectly with description I have in my head of Reiner. For Reiner ambiguous situations cause anxiety. A stress he copes with by adhering to “a clear set of rules and regulations… imposed by whoever is in charge.” (4) While this might be described by John Truby as his psychological weakness. A weakness that Truby defines as hurting only himself. It doesn’t describe his moral weakness. The weakness that is hurting at least one other person. It is clear to me now that Reiner’s moral weakness is explicit in his framing of drug users as an external threat. As Montuori notes “the perception of an out-group as a threat and an enemy is the glue that holds this (totalitarian) mindset together.” (5) A distinction that’s at the very core of Carrion. In this fiction, as in reality, drug users are universally defined as a threat; blamed for everything from social unrest to criminality. The prohibitionist routinely reduces our understanding of the drug issue to a simple black and white choice; “if we sort out the drug problem everything will be all-right.” In Carrion the threat from users becomes even more acute when they are attacked by the insects. But it’s no coincidence that the government are behind the release of the insects. It serves two functions. First it’s an attack on the drug using population; it unites people against an identifiable enemy. Second it creates a crisis that allows drug users to be targeted for persecution. In Carrion the drug user is not only a threat to public order, now he’s a threat to public health. A threat that needs to dealt with in the expedient (read harshest) terms possible. Although it’s interesting to remember that when Hitler was asked whether he thought Jews should be annihilated he replied no. If we didn’t have them “we should have to invent him. It is essential to have a tangible enemy, not merely an abstract one.” (6) In trying to answer the question; what makes Reiner such a willing exponent of prohibition? It has become apparent to me that Reiner’s willingness to persecute drug users, in Trubian story telling terms, is his moral weakness, a manifestation of totalitarian mindset that is embedded in the authoritarian personality that is his psychological weakness. Now all I have to do is work out his need; what he “must fulfil within himself in order to have a better life.” (7) But that will have to wait for another post.

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