Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

Applying a Marxist framework, this could be described as a story of the alienation of the worker in an industrial and urbanised consumer society. This wonderfully directed video/short film features a very strong central performance, striking characterisation of the car factory robots and seamless special effects. The driving industrial music perfectly sets the tone of an overwhelming anxiety crowding out all space to think.

It opens with an aerobics class – so far, so music video – an expression of the entrepreneurial self – striving for the perfect fit body, aimed at the voyeuristic consumer. But this is a video that bites back. The shot quickly pans out to show a man watching the class on multiple television screens in a shop window. One of the aerobics performers addresses him directly, soundlessly telling him in no uncertain terms where to go. The warm embrace of voyeuristic consumerism is not for him.

We see the man’s unease as he turns up for his factory job supervising car robots, an unease that ramps up another level after he has an implied work accident which leaves his arm in a cast. Walking down to the Thames, to take some time out from the urban streetscape, he encounters a factory robot drinking from the water like a predator in the wild. The predator menacingly turns him to face him as he decides to beat a hasty retreat.

Back at home, alone in his tiny dreary flat, the head of the robot smashes through the bathroom window – only to disappear again, leaving the man to examine the window once again intact. Out in the street, the robot starts to intrude on his everyday activities. Desperate, he turns to his unsympathetic boss at work who unceremoniously fires him. The situation worsens as the robot starts to appear everywhere, in the tube, in the street, until finally the man runs down the streets with the robot in full pursuit, trampling over a car. He ends up distraught sitting on the ground in a back street, surrounded by robots which remain invisible to the onlooker. There is no happy ending to his situation.

What adds to the menace of the robots is their physical interaction with the man’s real environment, drinking from the water, smashing through a bathroom window and stepping on a car which moves under the impact.

When I have shown this video to students and asked for their views, I have found the response that it is about a man having a mental breakdown, deeply frustrating. I have been similarly irritated by some viewers’ interpretation of Richard Kelly’s 2001 film Donnie Darko as a film about mental illness – rather than science fiction. It is this ambiguity that the director clearly wanted to clear up in producing his extended director’s cut.

It has taken me a while to analyse this annoyance. It has to do with the historical distinction Michel Foucault draws between madness and its gradual transformation into mental illness in the nineteenth century, in his 1961 work History of Madness. He argues that this transformation silences the voice and truth – and ultimately the suffering – of madness and reduces it to a pathology. Once madness is reduced to a pathology, it can no longer communicate truths about various aspects of human existence to others. It just becomes the object of science and medicine, an abherration that needs treatment and elimination – it is reduced and completely muzzled by the calm order of reason. But as we all know, particularly in a pandemic age, that orderly and narrow dream of control is no more than an illusion.

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