Sunday, March 17, 2019

Total Recall and Other Tall Tales. Reality is as Reality Does... When is an Alien Artifact Not an Alien Artifact?

Paul Verhoeven's movies are almost as well-known by this point for being chronically misunderstood as they are for their over-the-top violence and sex and their underlying subversive social commentary. His storytelling style is perhaps one of the most unique in the history of film, and it is both the most significant factor in understanding the core messages of his films and the largest hindrance. This is not the fault of Verhoeven, but more of a testament to the failure of educational systems to truly instill a foundation of media literacy in audiences at large.

The films of Paul Verhoeven are almost paradoxical in their execution; they simultaneously revel in and rebel against the actual literal content being shown on screen. On the one hand, they can be enjoyed by audiences at face value for the sheer visceral absurdity of the whole spectacle, but for all of their ultraviolent bluster, their core messages are almost always the exact opposite of (or at least vastly different from) what you might assume they would be considering the subject matter. The thing that causes so much confusion among audiences in understanding Verhoeven's films goes beyond the normal complexities that can be involved in decoding various garden varieties of irony and satire; his work is simultaneously completely obvious but intentionally cryptic. It's like being invited into somebody's house for dinner while standing there watching a wrecking crew demolishing that same house. The intention is genuine, but the execution is enigmatic.

Total Recall is one of my favourite Verhoeven films, and one of my favourite films of all time. This is partly because of the narrative, which is a perfect example of lean storytelling that includes not an ounce of waste in terms of story; partly because of the underlying philosophical themes it explores in such a paradoxically bombastic (and entertaining) medium; partly because of the aesthetic in terms of world-building as well as the action, sex, and violence; partly because it still contains one of the single best all-female fights ever committed to film; and partly because it so thoroughly encapsulates a singular artistic vision and voice. There's a certain purity to Total Recall in terms of obviously and unabashedly being a product of the early '90s. It's the kind of anchoring so thoroughly in a specific time that is, somewhat counterintuitively, necessary to achieve timelessness.

Total Recall is perhaps the greatest treatise on the perception and acceptance of reality and the foundational building blocks of identity prominently featuring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and a mutant, three-breasted stripper. The fact that such a deep philosophical exploration of one’s place in the universe is disguised as a simple ‘90s action film is to the credit of its director. Its multiple levels of meaning are as richly layered as its multiple levels of enjoyment.

The driving force in the narrative of Total Recall is the existence of technology that allows for the implanting of memories in the human brain. In the case of our protagonist, Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), that includes creating an entirely new identity that overwrites or supersedes an existing one. As would probably happen in the real world, this ground-breaking technology seems to be used by the government for nefarious purposes and by the entertainment industry for a quick buck from bored yuppies. A company called Rekall runs a business built entirely around implanting memories of perfect vacations at a fraction of the price of actually going on those vacations. They also offer an add-on called an "ego trip" that allows people to have their implanted memories customized in such a way to remember one's own self as a different person in the context of these fake memories of a vacation that never really happened. In Doug's case, he decides to virtually get his ass to Mars as a secret agent.

Almost instantly after getting his brain tampered with, Doug's world goes completely sideways. It turns out that Douglas Quaid, the mild-mannered construction worker married to Sharon Stone, is apparently a secret agent named Hauser who is under deep cover in a covert op to infiltrate a resistance group on Mars that is focused on bringing down the corrupt government run by Cohagen (Ronny Cox). Now, at a narrative level, this is compelling for various, fairly obvious reasons. But it also carries with it some deeper implications.

OK, I understand the concept of the x-ray scan to check for
weapons. I'm still not clear on the necessity of the daily
prostate exam.
In the movie world of Total Recall, human memories seem to operate in a way that generally aligns with how a layman might envision computer software. A person’s identity, including their memories and entire cognitive functions, seems to be regarded as a software program; the constituent memories and cognitive processes might then be seen as lines of code within that software. Therefore, it is possible to alter specific memories or even to go so far as to “deactivate” and store (or archive) an entire existing identity somewhere in the brain, and implant a completely new identity within that brain and that body.

I use the term “identity” because that’s the word the movie uses, but really this gets at a much more fundamental question, because in this case “identity” is synonymous with “consciousness.” By all reasonable assessments, Douglas Quaid is a conscious, intelligent being with full human agency (all deterministic arguments aside). The thing is, all of the cognitive processes and memories--including his entire life up to that point; his political, social, religious views; his preferences for food (or blondes or brunettes for that matter)--everything that makes Douglas Quaid Douglas Quaid was literally made up whole cloth only a few weeks prior to this whole adventure starting.

And when you think about it that way, that’s fucking crazy.

In the future as imagined by Total Recall, human beings will literally have to power not only to alter conscious states but to create entirely new, self-aware, fully realized consciousnesses with some technology apparently common enough that is deployed on a large-scale commercial level. Of course, it’s implied that the Agency (the sinister organization working for Cohagen that’s never mentioned by a more specific name) has a more advanced version of this technology. But still, a couple of civilian lab workers are able to easily identify what’s been done to Douglas Quaid and even contribute some memory blocks of their own.

Then there are, of course, the ethical implications. What are our responsibilities towards an artificially generated consciousness? Does erasing someone’s identity meet the definition of murder? Does a two-week-old consciousness qualify as the age of consent if it has the memories and cognitive capacity of a thirty-year-old?

Total Recall leaves these questions deftly unanswered in favour of tackling even more fundamental questions about identity and reality. Because any issues of identity are ultimately issues of perception, and perception is dependent on what is being perceived, or in other words, reality. Douglas Quaid is on a quest to save the Mars resistance from Cohagen's machinations, to be sure, but he is also on a mission to literally find himself.

This all boils down to that age-old question: Who am I? And of course its corollary: Am I?

I know who I am. I'm the dude playing a dude disguised
as another dude. And sometimes a chick.
The posing of this question is woven into the very fabric of the narrative of the film itself. There's a deliberate twinning and parallel sets of lines of evidence built into the plot itself. It all hinges on whether the main narrative of Total Recall--the entire arc of espionage, corporate corruption run amuck, traitorous cab drivers with four five kids to feed--is actually happening or the result of a schizoid embolism from a botched procedure at Rekall as they tried to deliver the “delightful package” they promised Quaid with the ego trip vacation add-on for his memory implants.

And the thing is, it’s never made perfectly clear whether or not the main narrative of Total Recall is supposed to be a dream or reality, which only adds to the thematic complexity and general mind-fuckery of the whole thing. For all those folks whose argument hangs on that one musical cue at the end of the film, hold on to your hats for words from the man himself, Paul Verhoeven:

"Total Recall doesn’t say whether it’s reality or it is a dream, you know? It’s really saying there’s this reality and there’s that reality, and both exist at the same time... Because you look at Total Recall there is never a preference, let’s say, taken by me or the scriptwriter, to say this is really what he dreams about and this is the truth.

I wanted it to be that way... Because I felt that it was--if you want to use a very big word--post-modern. I felt that basically I should not say ‘This is true, and this not true.’ I wanted--and we worked with Gary Goldman on that, not the original writers--[and we] worked very hard to make both consistent, and that both would be true. And I think we succeeded very well. So I think of course there is no solution. Hey, it’s both true. So I thought, two realities; that it was innovative in movie language at least, to a certain degree, that there would be two realities and there is no choice."
(William Bibbiani. "Paul Verhoeven FINALLY Explains The Ending of ‘Total Recall’," Mandatory. November 10, 2016.)

The really interesting thing is that if you subscribe to the theory that the main narrative of Total Recall was, in fact, the reality of the movie’s world and not a paranoid dream in Douglas Quaid’s head, then Douglas Quaid as a person literally and paradoxically becomes the living embodiment of a dream.

This structure actually mirrors Verhoeven’s thoughts about the dual interpretations of Total Recall as dream versus reality:

If the story was a dream, then Douglas Quaid is real.

If the story was real, then Douglas Quaid is a dream.

This has also contributed to my own worldview in which people can be divided into two categories: those who believe that the narrative of Total Recall is a dream and those who believe it was reality. I'm not sure exactly what this delineation reveals about people; I only know that it as essential a question in understanding people as any that can be thought up. I, myself, have always interpreted the narrative of Total Recall as being events actually transpiring for the characters as reality. Perhaps that speaks to my own anxieties, both conscious and unconscious, or maybe it's simply a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

As I've argued elsewhere, in terms of finding meaning in life, it doesn't really matter whether what one is experiencing is the actual material reality that everybody else is experiencing; what matters is the choices we make acting as if what we did mattered. Ultimately, the only agent our choices really matter to is to ourselves. That's not a battle cry for solipsism, but rather a recognition that in an ambivalent and chaotic universe, meaning is not inherent, but bestowed. Perhaps the only true agency we have in this crazy, mixed-up world of ours is the power of self-reflection and personal commentary, both internal and external.

I guess maybe that's why I always interpretted the narrative of Total Recall as the true reality for Douglas Quaid. In the face of otherwise infinite ambivalence and chaos, at least there was some reassurance of agency. Even though our actions and decisions are most likely guided by biological, environmental, and existential constraints, deep down, I share those anxieties about agency that I'm sure most people harbour to some degree. It's one of those other fundamental questions: Does anything I do really matter? The only reasonable answer that I can provide is that it matters if it matters to me. That's the only real benchmark for meaning or agency that I makes sense to me, and the principle can be extrapolated to the group or societal level with the modified benchmark that it matters if it matters to us.
Maybe it's a tough pill to swallow. An maybe it's a pill we'd prefer to pretend to swallow before spitting out onto the corpse of a mortal enemy.

So... Every time that you have sex, is it technically a three-way?
I think I also prefer the reading of the narrative of Total Recall being real as it also fits into my overall view of identity, which was also shaped from an early age by this crazy little film. Once Doug is finally able to infiltrate the mutant resistance, he meets with their leader, Kuato (Marshall Bell), who is very wise and very psychic and very living in the stomach of another man. Quaid tells Kuato that he wants him to use his psychic powers to help him regain his memories so that he can remember who he truly is, and Kuato hits him with a seemingly throwaway couple lines that burrowed their way into my subconscious and still inform my worldview today in terms of identity and morality:

"You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory."

For all of Yoda's reputation as a wise, old frog-man, I don't think any wisdom he dispensed quite matched this little observation from Kuato, a wise, old, mutant adult baby. It seems so obvious and, dare I say it, cliche, but like most cliches, it is utterly banal in the self-evidence of its truth. It's the kind of thing that makes me wish I had three hands, philosophically speaking (although I think I'm doing just fine with two).

It's a philosophy that eschews the past in favour of living in the present and looking forward to the future. The bodies you have buried in the past (both figurative and literal) remain there, maybe deep down in a dark, subterranean cave on Mars or maybe just deep down in a dark, subterranean level of your consciousness. By embracing a view of identity as what we do now in the present as opposed to the memories of what we have done in the past is to acknowledge the possibility of change and growth.

In the movie, of course, Quaid eventually comes to terms with his existence and his identity, gets the girl, and saves the entire planet. He's only able to accomplish this, however, once he stops searching for who he was and instead decides who he wants to be.

We might not be able to change the world, but we can always change ourselves. And be home in time for Corn Flakes.

The Verdict

Total Recall is a classic in every sense of the word, and I have no doubt that it will one day be studied in school alongside Hemmingway and Shakespeare. For those of you keeping track at home, my rating for Total Recall is 10/10 = One Exploding Head on the Pre-Terraformed Surface of Mars


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