Saturday, June 16, 2012

Experimental With a Tail Grab

Last weekend I was sitting around unwinding after a long day at work using an ancient relaxation technique used by wise Tibetan monks living high in the Himalayan mountains who, forsaking all earthly possessions to achieve spiritual enlightenment, developed a method to achieve oneness with the universe and transcend the boundaries between the corporeal and the ethereal otherwise known as getting shitfaced.  Ahhhh, that smooth, smooth, alcohol goes down easy.  Gin, gin, gin, ginny gin gin.  But anyway, all of the sudden through the haze I heard the ring of the doorbell rattling around my skull.  As I stumbled towards the front door I heard the dull ruble of thunder and I realized I had drifted far from the eye of the storm.  There was an ominous feeling of impending doom as I opened the door, and I know now that I should have followed by gut instinct and barricaded all entrances and readied myself with my latest batch of homemade TNT.

I unlocked the door and eased it open when suddenly a gust of wind stole it from my hand and slammed it wide open to reveal Ryebone silhouetted by an appropriately timed blast of lightning.

"Wassssssssuuuuuuuuuuuuuppp?!?" Ryebone screamed into my face.

I wasn't sure how, but he had somehow tracked me down despite my having moved to a different city and changed my name.  I briefly considered beating him to death with a hammer I kept near the door for just such an occasion, dismembering the corpse in my bathtub with a skill saw then disposing of the body parts in a barrel full of lye in an abandoned warehouse across town.  But it was getting late, and my brain was shredded from the cocktail of chemicals I had been ingesting that night.  Instead, I dropped the hammer to the ground and mumbled something like "Don't trust the Doritos," then retreated back up the stairs and into my head.

My wife, upon hearing Rybone's scream like some demented, 90's catch phrase spewing banchee, had left the living room to lock up any valuables, ensure there were working fire extinguishers close at hand, and hide any and all materials that might be used to fashion a shiv.  Ryebone jaunted into the living room and shoved his hand in my face.

"Talk to the hand, bitch."

"Your hand smells like shit," was all I could think to say because his hand did, indeed, smell like shit.

"Yeah, my asshole was itchy," he informed me before sticking his hand back down his jeans.  "So, whose dick do I have to kick to get some hookers in here?  Also, where do you usually bury your dead hookers?"

I immediately realized that Ryebone's presence all but guaranteed the kind of bad trip you're more likely to find in the lawless wilds of Tijuana or Shanghai where after a night of drunken debauchery your odds of waking up in some random hotel with a splitting headache, a mean hangover, and a pair of thoroughly soiled underwear were about equal to ending up in some fascist prison with the kind of vicious scum you've only ever read about in fine publications like the Disemboweler and Savage Anal Rapist Quarterly and never being heard from by the civilized world ever again.  I had to act fast if I wanted to maintain even the slightest chance of staying in Darwin's good books.

"There's beer in the fridge," I fumbled hoping to buy some time.

As he went to get himself a beverage I hurriedly searched through the couch cushions for the remote and began feverishly sorting through the library on Netflix.  I needed something, anything to distract the beast and ensure that no more of my internal organs ended up on the Chinese black market.

"Hey man, later we should try this choking thing all the teenagers are doing.  I heard that shit really gets you high.  It's da bomb yo!"

Oh my god!  Fine something quickly, you desperate swine.

"... all that AND a bag of chips."

"Wait!" I practically shouted, my forehead and back drenched in panic sweat.  "Wait, I, uh, think I, well, there's a movie we should, you know, could watch, before we embark on the, uh, you know, potentially suicidal behaviour..."

"What the fuck ya got for me, dog?"

"Just, uh grab a seat.  Over there.  On the couch.  Across the room."

"Whatever," he squeezed out alongside a foul-smelling belch that smelled like rancid ranch salad dressing.  Luckily, Netflix delivers nothing but the bare bones, so I didn't have to sweat through any trailers wondering if he Ryebone might lose interest and involve me in his twisted brand of chaos.

"Where's those Doritos at?"

"I'll grab them," I said as I stumbled to the kitchen.  I went to the cupboard, then remembered that in an earlier attempt to open the bag, it had burst sending the orange powder-dusted triangular chips flying all over the room.  I had subsequently swept them up, so I grabbed a handful out of the trash can, threw them in a bowl and delivered them to Ryebone just as the movie title came on screen: THE EXPERIMENT.

"Fuck these are good Doritos."

"Nothing but the best," I said before cranking the volume hoping to discourage or drown out any more of his demented ravings.

I vaguely remember hearing something about THE EXPERIMENT some time ago, never mind how long exactly.  The basic premise was that a bunch of random volunteers signed up for a two week long psychological experiment in exchange for a some kind of momentary reimbursement.  Upon arriving at an isolated compound the group was broken up into two groups to simulate a prison environment.  Some of the volunteers were designated as guards and some were designated as prisoners.  To ensure full participation they were told that if any one person left, then all of their payments would be forfeit.  There was to be no violence.  The "guards" had to maintain order while ensuring that the "prisoners" got fed and had some exercise and whatnot.
"... OK, but what happened to your pants?"

Of course, what seems like a simple experiment quickly spirals out of control and in a matter of just five days the whole thing goes to shit, the "prisoners" riot, and the whole scenario is stopped before both groups rip each other to bloody shreds.  While parts (read: most) of the movie was very exaggerated, the basic premise was actually based on a real psychological study, the Standford prison experiment, which actually took place in the basement of the university and involved students.  Although there was not a riot in the "real-life" version, it still only managed to last for five days of its originally planned two week schedule due to the "guards" becoming overly aggressive and violent and the "prisoners" suffering from psychological meltdowns.

THE EXPERIMENT, while certainly not a masterpiece, presented an intriguing scenario and was just good enough to hold my attention, although believability was certainly strained to the point of breaking several times.  What kept it together was a short running time and the talents of Adrien Brody as Travis, one of the "prisoners," and Forrest Whitaker as Barris, one of the "guards."  There's also a bunch of other people you'll probably recognize from stuff, as well as Maggie Grace who appears at the beginning and the end as Brody's love interest.  I'd like to get Lost with her... Wait, where was I?
"Why would the smoke monster want me
to take off my shirt?"

Ah yes, THE EXPERIMENT.  While not exactly a deftly handled examination of the intricacies of the human experience, the movie does attempt to address some interesting concepts.  I'll boil it all down to basically two things the movie dealt with.

The first major theme of THE EXPERIMENT was the concept of socialization and the tendency of people to follow the most readily available cultural scripts depending on the specifics of their particular social position.  That is, the "guards," who were put into a position of extreme authority, began abusing that authority by continually testing how far they could go before the experiment was stopped and escalating their disciplinary measures through increasingly violent and depraved means (The old philosophical conundrum: is peeing on people technically considered violence?). The "prisoners," on the other hand, began to feel disempowered and emasculated and dealt with it by alternately succumbing to bouts of depression and dejection and trying to fight for some lingering shreds of human decency through varying degrees of defiance.  I suppose the purpose of the experiment (both in the movie and in the "real world") was to shed some light on the psychological effects that the standard Western prison system has on its occupants, both law abiding and otherwise, and that the institution itself might be an aggravating factor in some of the negative aspects of prison life.

In the larger scheme of things, though, what the experiment in THE EXPERIMENT demonstrated was the tendency we all have to live up to perceived societal expectations associated with a specific role.  A simplistic interpretation might be that if you're treated like a piece of shit, you're more likely to behave accordingly.  I am a big proponent of Free Will (at least in some capacity), however we cannot deny the effects of socialization, and so how we perceive the various social roles we occupy is of the utmost importance.  It shines light on the fact that identity is not something inherent, but rather a construction based on the interpretation of the experiences we have.  That is not to say we can ever escape the social scripts we follow, but at the very least if we are aware that our identities are constructed both by the people around us, society as a whole, and by ourselves then we become more cognisant of those forces and we can, at least to some degree, choose the social scripts we follow and take a a more active role in the construction of our own identities and become more aware of the choices we make and why we make them and hopefully make better ones.

The other related theme is related to the old axiom that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  What THE EXPERIMENT shows is both how powerful and how fragile social expectations can be.  The "guards" take quite a while to switch into full douchebag mode.  They are only held in check as long as they are (only five fucking days, which is rather frightening) by societal expectations of decent, moral behavior.  It is only the lack of continual reinforcement and fear of repercussion or reprisal from a perceived authority figure that eventually allows them to succumb to their base urges.

Which leads me to the second thing that really caught my eye in THE EXPERIMENT, which was the red light.  The "guards" had a red warning light in their office that would light up if the doctors running the experiment saw something (through a series of video cameras) that violated the rules they had been given or placed one or more of the participants of the experiment in physical danger.  So after a situation which bordered what they thought was unacceptable behaviour in the experiment the "guards" would gather around and wait for the light to go off, and as things began escalating and the light continued to stay dim, they forgot about the light and started doing things their way.  I don't know if it was intended by the filmmakers, but the simple image of the unpowered light on the wall was the most poignant and insightful part of the whole movie.

What the red light represented was authority, or rather the archetype of authority which is manifested culturally in many ways but perhaps most significantly in the concept of a deity or deities.  Basically, the red light represented God.  The participants of the study were told that if they violated any of the commandments, then the light would blink, and they would be punished by not receiving their monetary reward.  I think this interpretation is pretty clearly founded.  The light in the movie was positioned high up on the wall so the "guards" had to look up to wait for Its message.  I mean, the religious subtext was so clear that they might as well have gotten a bunch of candles and kept vigil and then fucked a bunch of young boys.  But I mean, it was the perfect representation of both God and organized religion.  God is a red light that never turns on.

Ironically, though, this red light offers more tangible and meaningful interaction than the traditional God or gods that people tend to worship.  It reminded me a lot of the "God booths" in THX 1138 (one of George Lucas' forgotten gems) where people like Robert Duval would go to have a chat with their electronic deity who would spout off random, preprogrammed responses from It's databanks.  This, of course, was supposed to represent a disconnected and uncaring authority, but, again ironically, this God computer interface was more interactive and offered more feedback than the God that people worship today.  The gods in both THE EXPERIMENT and THX 1138 are more tangible and significant than any that people actually worship today because the gods in these movies A) Actually exist and B) Have the ability, or at least the potential, to give their worshipers feedback because of A).

The red light also represents what I like to call the Santa Clause effect (for more see here) where people tend to behave according to social conventions of propriety and decency when they fear that any violations of these rules will result in reprisal from some authority figure.  Basically, it's only illegal if you get caught.  Which, incidently, was Ryebone's personal motto.

So one movie and thirteen beers later Ryebone was passed out on the couch and I had gotten through one of his visits without severe bodily injury and property damage under $1000. (He later ended up standing on the front lawn naked, screaming something about "the goddamn Doritos" and smashing most of my dinnerware on the driveway.  Still, a small price to pay.  I consider myself to have gotten off lucky.)  He was later arrested and I spent most of the next week ducking his calls asking me for bail money.  Anyway, THE EXPERIMENT exists in that strange amorphous zone of not being a cinematic masterpiece but still being  entertaining enough for me to want to add it to my Blu-Ray collection.  It was a pretty tight, unique little film, and it left me with the same kind of feeling as HOSTAGE, which also wasn't great, but which I still really enjoyed for some reason and felt the need to shell out cash for.  Final verdict: THE EXPERIMENT gets a 6.5/10 = One Shaved Urine Soaked Prisoner's Head

Also, because I can:
"So, are you sure Jack said the only way to get off the island is to have sex with you?"



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