Born To Be Alive

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Many other critics maintain that the Saw series forwent character development in favour of shock value, which rendered flat and consequently unrelatable personae; and that may hold true as viewers aren’t invested in player survival as much as they are passive to their imminent failure and thereafter, demise. Fatality is conveyed through rapid, sometimes incorrigible reverse shots. Shots do linger, even in their haste, on timers and machinations which punctuate gruesome excisions. I know I never expected players to win as I watched each Saw instalment back when it debuted.

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What I found telling was the profusely low likelihood of victory. The odds of success never increase with the number of players, most of whose involvements are cited as unethical since the lives of others are not subject to their own games, but meant as pawns in another’s; contingent upon a lone player’s decision or success. For me, this is yet another unnerving element: everyone can or does have a role to play. No one is safe or absolved. Jigsaw purposes people as actants or accessories in each game.

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Saw is one of many franchises which vindicate my misanthropy as it evinces that—more often than not, regardless of what’s at stake—catharsis proves to be a fruitless objective. People are fickle. Proud. Rampantly complacent and unapologetic. Disparities which precede and prevail define our systems wherein too few, if any are truly invested in change. But Saw isn’t marked for me by its legion of losers or few winners. It’s the indiscriminate subject selection. Games are not exclusive to particular demographics: they can and do include privileged positionalities. Had the series continued, I would’ve liked to see a wider inclusion of aristocrats and celebrities.

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I would say that the attention paid to cops is thematic, but it seems more coincidental than calculative. The players in blue are primarily those assigned to the case. I find their deaths—and therefore, lack of revelation—entirely too convenient respective to Jigsaw’s/John Kramer’s [Tobin Bell] favour despite how he waxes poetic about their obsessions or shortcomings. I find the bulk of them are as unrelatable as the other players. Detectives Tapp [Danny Glover], Kerry [Dina Meyer], and Gibson [Chad Donella] are my only exceptions. The first being avidly albeit ignobly compelled to pursue answers to his own detriment, whereas insurmountable odds were foisted upon the latter.

Then, there’s Detective Rigg [Lyriq Bent] who invokes a little of both.

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The entirety of the Saw series captivated me from start to finish. Quite frankly, respective to philosophy and cinema studies, I’m surprised by its absence in scholarship or wider speculation. For many, franchise has been characterized and condemned as torture porn, coding sadism and gratuitous gore as a central [and tactless] narrative device. Others purport that Saw is an indictment of the very existentialism its eponymous antihero purports. That Kramer simultaneously establishes, maintains, and circumvents game parameters renders each trial to be a mere vanity project. What drives that prospect home is how he admonishes the murderous dimensions of his accomplices yet ultimately passive to them, allowing them to continue and therein subjecting players to inescapable traps.

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Compared to the other Saw movies, Saw IV (2007) isn’t exactly more intimate although it does feature the smallest roster of swine fated to reap what they sow. Viewers know that individuation is key to the Saw series, a standard effected through Saw IV’s predecessors: the frigid formality of Dr. Gordon [I]; Detective Matthews’ graft and outrage [II]; and Jeff Denlon’s irreconcilable bereavement and outrage [III]. Peripheral players had explicit connections respectively to each film’s main players: forsaken patients, victims, or bystanders whom wither or stagnate because of cyclic anguish.

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In Saw IV, Detective Rigg braves the moral quandary of complacency. He must acknowledge that he cannot—and moreover, should not—save everyone. That victory entails he be his own saviour imbues a degree of irony to this learning objective because goodwill is [ideally] supposed to be what motivates the intervention and prevention of violence, along with the subsequent detection or apprehension of its perpetrators. Bearing this in mind, it proves useful that players in Saw IV are rather impersonal instead of woven into Rigg’s personal tapestry because there is something distinctly universal in the conclusion he should arrive at. His game conveys that people are and can be accountable for their adversities despite the guise or actuality of victimhood. To impart this, one’s familiarity or lack thereof is inconsequential.

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Parallels can be drawn between Rigg as an impulsive agent of judiciaries whom are prescribed to affirm social order, and Kramer who entraps wayward souls as an essentialist paladin. Transgression marks the distinction between the two. Rigg is spurred to action less out of virtuosity and more because he succumbs to idealism that casts him as sanctimonious and headstrong. Whereas Kramer acts in a state of pronoia, impassive to what transpires within or beyond the realm of his control, Rigg assumes he himself possesses the capacity—no matter how grand or infinitesimal—to change things for the better and his failure to do so results in a crisis of faith.

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Not once does this occur to either Kramer or Rigg that the system is broken. One need only consider the significance of hegemony and qualifiers of positionality which account for disparities. Introspectively, both men conclude—but cannot acquiesce—that no amount of conviction can absolve this. Kramer resolves to incite an appreciation for life itself in disconsolate people by subjecting them to excruciating machinations purported to trigger a survival instinct. He contends that he hasn’t actually killed anyone, that failure results because of the players themselves. Their fate, he maintains, is in their own hands.

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Alternatively, Rigg endeavours to arbitrate justice despite the prevalence of injustice. That he is the most fervent denominator in the scheme of things—against the grain of comparatively hapless or dispassionate parties—means that he assumes rather fruitless pursuits. This in itself may bear an element reflective of modernity wherein the individual grows increasingly alienated and tasked against the decline [and de-regulation] of initiatives traditionally attributed to the welfare state. Antiquity is conversely imparted in through Kramer’s brute, analogue machinations which are contrived in the interests of functionality as much as austerity. Likewise, the phylogeny of enterprise or capital interest evinces oppressive contingencies as the market fails to yield fair or equitable outcomes. It is the accrual of capital, not magnanimity which becomes tantamount to esteem; and it is the inordinate, systemic concept of accountability that motivates Rigg to take action. The latter would be admirable had this been successful. Instead, Rigg finds himself shafted each and every time he goes out on a limb. Deliverance, honesty, virtue: the glare of reality dislodges what hopes he pins on these things to pass.

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I think this is somewhat of a statement on how idiosyncratic it is to liken advancement to independence or free enterprise, as laissez-faire economics serve to envenom class brackets and monopolize any-/everything, including the welfare state. For me: I have yet to reconcile the anomie which afflicts labourers and the have nots while reckoning ceases to exist for cruel, parasitic elites whom own the means of production.

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I could ramble [even more] about the implicit themes of horticulture, agronomy, and livestock which could be gleaned from the Saw series overall: the tacit likeness of flesh and anatomization [wherein Kramer details the literal and figurative bodywork of each apparatus he devises in his instructive recordings] to industrial meat production. Another thing I could ramble [even more] about is the horological dimension underlain in Kramer’s adoption of the pig guise since Saw IV reveals its origins to be from a zodiacal festival; but I’d think Kramer is too much of an empiricist to afford that much to fate or some prescription of cosmic order. I’m more inclined to think of a more blatant likeness in which Kramer regards subjects as bonafide hogs and is more or less apotropaic as he personally adopts the literal guise of one.

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Saw IV markedly conveys the crucial roles played in everyday [and the after-]life by law enforcement. Each film depicts subjects whose agonized [inter]connections arise from jurisdictive actors whom relish and uphold the venality of carceral regimes. Praxes and politics underlay the wrongdoing players suffer or execute. Depending on what you believe in—fate or magistry—sanctions Kramer interposes can be read overall as karmic or coincidental.

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Saw IV proffers that life is conditioned on the vagaries of law enforcement. Kramer transposes Rigg’s compulsion to ‘save everyone‘ to reflect the proclivity of disciplinary, surveillance societies to—perhaps, unwittingly—tyrannize its citizens. Judiciaries and officers can and do summarily have marginalized positionalities incarcerated or executed for thwarting their purview. As Rigg strives to take all matters into his own hands and obsesses over missing or deceased colleagues, he inadvertently absconds the very social order he resolves to maintain.  He comprises a class of professionals whom cultivate and are privy to a wealth of information, domains, and governance unbeknownst to underlings or outsiders. Everyday people cannot monitor, enforce, or escape law and order. Therefore, they oblige these things lest they be punished or exiled.

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Eventually, Rigg ascertains the prosaic likeness between people and gatekeepers. He realizes that anyone can be rendered invisible, powerless, and disposable regardless of panoptic polity. This revelation comes once he—under Kramer’s watch—is subjected to this asymmetrical oversight. This occurred to me earlier this week once I spoke to a [more misanthropic] colleague. No matter what came from the plight of our ancestors; no matter where or upon what one stands; no matter how ideal things may seem—we will always be captive. Modernity does not overcome, but rather breeds a wider spectrum of enslavement. An open-air prison is still a prison. So is a seemingly tolerant one.

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Prisoners may rebel. Others will say that prisoners may riot, but these terms are not exactly interchangeable. Riots span a range of mass acts where people abandon what they know for what they don’t. They surrender themselves. They wholly aspire to integrate. Then, the crowd assumes a life of its own that thrives on insurrection. Rebellions concern the resistance of oppressed peoples against systemic violence. Rioters ultimately tend to be incorrigible and disjointed. They want to disrupt politics while rebels aspire to redefine or eliminate them.

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Saw IV actually does a good job in illustrating these distinctions to me. Through Rigg, I see the heart of the judicial systems which subjugate—and quite often, sadly, fail to protect—life as we know it. His own life attests to how positionality renders hollow the impunity given to those in power who attempt to forge judicature with the master’s tools. Blackness compounds an already intuitive, identifiable figure whose persona is harnessed unbeknownst to its allusion. If imperial ascriptions of civil order cannot be leveraged concomitant to integrity and good faith by the successors of emancipation, only resignation is possible. What underpins his obsession is a desire for tangible action from the forces of order whose platforms are not only purported for, but capable of such.

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The problem with Rigg is that his thought process and rationale are always one step behind his emotions. He speaks too loudly through his actions which consequently render him silent, and therefore unable to articulate that the justice system coalesces around an impersonal consensus that fails those most vulnerable in the effort of service and protection. Rigg embodies how we cannot amend our oppressions as agents of the very discourse which justifies them.

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The arm of imperial law is an empty platitude in and of itself. Which is why I think Rigg is such a relatable character. We are taught to value ourselves in relation to others. But our sense of worth is innately flawed because we seldom see real honesty or kindness in others, so we become enamoured less with what comprises actual people and more with what—or who—we imagine. Rigg is transfixed by the feat of rescuing others more than seeing people as/for themselves; and each time he ventures to save someone, he is unsuccessful and resigned to a litany of vain regulations. Kramer just sees people as a mere succession of associations and reactions to stimuli. He maintains that the will to live lurks within and he endeavours to coax it out because it is withdrawn from consciousness.

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And, this is where I had and still—probably always will—have a problem: Rigg doesn’t really ‘qualify’ for a game to me. An indictment of agents whom wield state-sanctioned violence with legal impunity can justify Kramer’s overall focus on law enforcement. But while we can admonish penal overseers and systems for their failure to care for those they systemically prejudice, Rigg is condemned for caring too much. At best, he illustrates the necessity for boundaries: that we must recognize and respect our own limitations; that we may have realism and satisfaction which aren’t conditional on vacuous optimism or the descent into pessimism that repudiates the future.

I can’t fault him for the latter.

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Characters like Rigg [likewise marginalized, racialized] remind me of myself in that they are credulous albeit painfully aware of how miserable life is or can be. There are no windows of opportunity or to the soul. We don’t see windows. We see gutters. When we realize that we can’t tidy them, we become nauseated by what resolute filth mounts. People then vilify us as ungrateful or obnoxious.

As if we choose to be like this.

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Contrary to what most prescribe, we don’t lack will or imagination. It never occurs to anyone that our outlooks are actually vindicated by lived experience. We are cognizant of the (often unwitting or unapologetic) micro-aggressions that define the bulk of interactions with new or unavoidable people. Our lives have cultivated in lessons which affirm how and why trying to educate or relate is futile since our efforts prove moot. Because most folks’ [maintaining] privileges or feels always undermine our realities. Absolutely no one is exempt. Not even our own since “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Rigg is berated for being reckless and hopeless. Not once does anyone consider that his growing pessimism, however absconded, is but valid nonetheless. The same world that builds certain people up has a predilection to tear us down. When we grow nihilistic and misanthropic, it is not indignant. These perspectives are borne of a presiding sense of despair that is beyond our control. This despair is also timeless. It is evinced by blood memory and cyclic evils.

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Kramer urges Rigg to cherish his life. Of course, the implication is that one cannot watch over others at the expense of overlooking themselves. The most obvious moral is that people must save themselves. Another implicit one is that people cannot be saved if they don’t want to be. Sure, Rigg cannot and should not assume the responsibilities or plights of others; but I think that’s beside the point.

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People liken me as exigent since I dwell on ensuring and upon the purpose of my survival. I see myself in Rigg as starved and restless. I see myself in his incensed bereavement and the sheer intent which serves as his only cudgel to go onward. Rigg is completely within his right to despair. Some of the most dehumanizing things I face concern the reproach and disbelief of my emotions. This world strives less for reckoning and justice than it does composure. There is always someone or something, some richling or platitude, that rebukes me even when I know I have every right to be angry or despondent. It’s not that I should be happy to be alive. It’s that I should be happy that I’m allowed to exist.

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Which adds another dimension to how insidiously privileged positionalities appropriate our cultures and mechanisms to strengthen their condescension. Our grasps of value and welfare break free of imperial concepts of temporality which are linear and forever bind us to anguish, and are meant to afford us the power determine our own paths as Arrivants and Indigenous peoples. We instead see these models adulterated and weaponized by colonial contemporaries to legitimate their inaction, indecision, or disengagement. It’s fine for a SWAM to vacate his office to the detriment of others citing a mental health crisis. Whereas, it’s somehow not fine if I express contempt for maltreatment and abuses of power from that office—despite my own crises. I am often deigned insatiable because I question the absence of guarantees or precarious odds. My ND obliges me to a daily cocktail of prescriptions. I can’t sleep without sedatives. Every night, I knock myself out simply because I’d lay awake musing of all the ways my life can—or is bound to—unravel; and all the people I’ve loved and lost, and how it’s only a matter of time before I lose the ones I’ve got now.

Saw IV doesn’t drive home that we can’t save everyone. It conveys that we just can’t win.

How Soon Is Now?

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Most films I’ve seen tend to open with extreme long shots. Likewise, the cinematography employed in first minute is often termed to be establishing shots since this is where audiences are granted their first taste of perspective; and in these shots, the camera is impartial in being parallel. Subjects are occluded by a literal and figurative bigger picture as visuality unfolds along a linear axis. But this indistinction isn’t exclusive to long shots. Even in close ups or medium shots, impersonality can be effected since subjects themselves preclude the absence of narrative. Ambiguity may also maintain characters as unknowns if we can’t discern or relate to their motives.

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Which is probably why nothing gets under my skin quite like psychological horror. It’s a subgenre whose horrors I have yet to fully describe, but maybe that’s the point; maybe it’s meant to invoke aversion—angst, fear, irresolution, loathing—by an inarticulate form of unnerving. It’s a distinct vein in the body of horror. There’s no pun intended when I say the body of horror has become a corpse. It’s an apt figure of speech since the horror genre has become oversaturated with a multitude of half-assed tropes whose imitability have devolved into pastiche and clichés which cheapen narratives as camp and disingenuous. The vein of psychological horror isn’t exempt from the corpse-like genre’s autolysis, which explains why it’s acclimated—if not, collapsed—with hallucinatory dei ex machina purported to be abstract.

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For me, good psychological horror films lead down a path which turns outs to be along a hillside. You don’t think to go on because the rise is unassuming; but no matter how far you go, something seemingly innocent or happenstance always occludes the apex. When you finally reach the top, you settle in to take in the view—only to realize that all along, there was a path next to yours. Not only is it adjacent, it’s well-trodden and whoever has walked it is worlds ahead of you. When you retrace your steps, you discover that your path wasn’t a ‘path’; not because it was fundamentally different, but because you’ve got nothing to prove there was ever any path at all. Still, you know there was a path. There had to be. How else could you be here? After a cursory glance, you realize you actually aren’t at the top; but the path you’re so sure of has yet to manifest. However, whatever lies ahead is on even ground. There’s no up or down. There’s just forward. It just makes sense to distrust whether you proceed or pack it in. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Given humankind’s tendency to destroy itself, you have to wonder if there’s such a thing as an advance. Except this outlook isn’t about logic or entropy. It’s personal. Everything in your life has led you to this point. You lived under the impression that you were going somewhere; you were meant for somewhere.

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Now, you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Psychological horror plays upon the mundane. It evokes fear in the fact that life as we know it is and always will be fractal despite the totality of the human mind. This subgenre’s best movies effect that catharsis comes down to alienation and disenchantment; and living under the weight of revelation that you were never really alive to begin with, wondering if you’ll ever feel alive, or resigned to the conclusion that one can never truly feel alive in the absence of delusion. These prospects aren’t fantasy-like or speculative. They’re real, if not imminent. Life itself as a phenomenon is novel, but each life as it manifests is empirically unremarkable. Existence is recurrent. Evolution doesn’t boil down to cultures or technologies because everything is already preset. In this way, history is bound to repeat itself because the knowledge of the past hasn’t inclined us to heed it. There is no God or angels regardless of how miraculously one may take flight because any ascent is contingent upon obliging demons a priori. Any happy ending or inspirational anecdote is moot, if not fallacy when disparity has a predetermined meaning.

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It’s been a while since I’ve cracked open Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, or Ligotti; but I remember what they were on about. I’m sure when I dust off their classics—wherever they may be in my never-ending library—I’ll be able to better relate psychological horror to continental philosophy for an academic article down the line. Which makes me think of a recent exchange I had on campus. These days, as a PhD student, I’m usually the most senior in my [required] elective classes. I happened to take one last semester which concerned philosophy and artificial intelligence, specifically if the latter could be capable of sentience or actual intelligence.

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Although the crux of its was philosophical, this class was cross-listed as a psychology course; and I only mentioned that because that might account for why it ended up being predominantly dudes, some of whom were edgelords (and some of whom I’ve seen lurk and whinge on campus pages). One day, we happened to gloss over the virulent egotism and bigotry of an infamous academic who happens to be a patron saint for today’s edgelords. The fact that those in my class incline people to “consider” them is unsurprising. I found one of my fellow students who proceeded to explain Nietzsche surprising—and amusing. Nietzsche came up since he was frequently cited (and laughably, misread) by the notorious aforementioned academic.

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I pretended not to know anything about him; I let this student—who was an undergrad with little, if any background in philosophy (or by extension: early modern and contemporary studies, classics, English, and miscellaneous social sciences or humanities—all of which I was familiar with or had aced)—try to explain what was behind [and what justified that bogus scholar’s reference of] Nietzsche, of all people! I won’t recount the bullshit he proceeded to relay as if it were remotely corrigible; but I will say it was surreal to see someone so woefully wrong feign expertise, even as they registered that their inarticulation betrayed their very own fallacy.

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Which is kind of a good segue into the film I watched this week, Abandon. It follows Catherine ‘Katie’ Burke (played by Katie Holmes), a university senior whose ambition and meticulosity ensures she is bound for a corporate ascent. The plot is driven by the pursuit of her ex-boyfriend, Embry (played by Charlie Hunnam) whose estate seeks to declare him deceased given his disappearance two years ago. Benjamin Bratt rounds out the narrative tripartite as Detective Wade Handler who is tasked with privately investigating the case. Although it’s been dubbed as psychological horror and likened to the realm of mystery, Abandon employs psychological horror at its core. It’s a series of everyday albeit eerie sketches which unearth many seeds which have failed to flourish for our three points of interest. Repression is personified mainly in Katie, the austere beauty whose fanatic WPM and hyper-focused scholarship overshadow her sense of self, time, and space; while Embry—the bourgeoise narcissist with a penchant for theatre—embodies sanctimony and mania. Handler represents a grim sense of wonder as his gazes seems to search offscreen, into the distance, in pursuit of something further than answers; something I suspect may reference one of many ruinous machinations of modern capitalism wherein happiness ceases to overcome the technologies which augment reality, prosperity, and celebrity.

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Each character, including those peripheral (such as the now wider-knowns: Gabrielle Union, Tony Goldwyn, and Zoey Deschanel), is walking a hillside path despite lacking any concept of summit. Abandon builds upon this, but falls short because it lacks continuity and momentum. Integral aspects of character development are only referenced in passing. These could’ve been explored as opposed to several emphases on impersonal character exchanges. The institutional angle of Abandon—through lenses of post-secondary education, neo-liberalism, and law enforcement—effects just how much success and survival are operant upon quick, superficial, and incisive insights as opposed kindness or principle. In terms of cinematography, the film employs a maximum visual and expressive use of the depth of field in long-shots which are underscored by foreboding scores. Fatalism and disconnected are further conveyed as the characters’ interrelation is conveyed through a singular or flattened planes. These span cool palettes and barren landscapes.

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For viewers, the horror of Abandon is one that bleeds in. We’re gradually unnerved as we watch Katie, Embry, Handler, and the rest of the ensemble scurry by because we’re inclined to consider our own paths in contrast. Thematically, this is what defines the film. As we wade onward, even as we may have yet to cultivate any sense of direction, the people and the world as we once knew fall away; but even if we’ve outgrown them, we can never shake the sense that it is us who they’ve left behind. People don’t persist because of any particular objective, but because they are constantly reminded of how little the world thinks of them. As we grow older, we don’t grow freer. We aren’t entrusted with independence and responsibility in adulthood, we’re categorically tasked with such as we’re expected to hold our own on the market.

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And, that’s really at the heart of Abandon. It drives home that our most poignant moments ensue when we find ourselves as alienated and isolated, instead of appeased by some abstract sense of reckoning or greater good. People are vainly inclined to emulate some semblance life even as they gradually die inside because of what alienation prevails during our formative years.