01 January 2016

Blackbird

(I'm on a spree writing about TNT's alien invasion family drama Falling Skies, and it's been great fun, so I don't want it to end.  This is my seventh post dealing with the show in some way. Here I'm continuing the line of thought begun in the post on "Social Alienation".)


After I finished Falling Skies a few days ago, I wanted something else to watch.  Not finding anything appealing on Amazon Prime, I started rooting around for other things the cast of Falling Skies have starred in.  And, by a long route, I ended up discovering the 2012 Canadian independent film Blackbird.

Blackbird is about a goth teenager in a small town, whose fantasies about revenge against his classmates are intercepted by the authorities and interpreted as a serious plot to commit a massacre.  The film tracks the origin of the evidence against the young man, the court process, his time in a juvenile detention center, and his struggle to readjust to life in society.  (It's a pretty good movie, by the way, and worth seeing.)

The film is cold and morose, with much of the content communicated through silence and tense gestures (a flinch while using a public restroom, hesitation over whether to pick up a ping pong ball, etc.).  One striking aspect of Blackbird is its treatment of the protagonist's goth identity.  The satanist logos, the spikes, and the black leather, come across as elements of a carefully constructed social performance.  We read scrawled on the protagonist's bedroom door an endearingly (or embarrassingly?) high-brow admonition to "ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE".

Being "goth", with all the implied paraphernalia, is an aesthetic expression of the protagonist's understanding of himself — he sees himself as an outsider, as someone who cannot participate in the life of the community, and so he cultivates an identity based on signals of his rejection by the community.  This explains why the goth performance doesn't persist after the protagonist has been released from jail, because his outsider status is already abundantly marked by the community, and no longer needs to be actively announced.

The actor who plays the troubled teen in Blackbird, Connor Jessup, also plays the middle Mason son, Ben, in Falling Skies.  Being a post-apocalyptic alien invasion family drama, Falling Skies lacks the cold social realism of Blackbird.  Falling Skies is, all things considered, a relatively up-beat post-apocalyptic family drama, which outsources most of its need for trial and tragedy to the six-legged invaders and the struggle to survive.  The Mason sons have more pressing problems (like extraterrestrial brain worms and six-legged monsters) than being bullied by the hockey team or having crushes on backstabbing young women with unpleasant fathers.

Nevertheless, Jessup's character in Falling Skies (Ben Mason) is just as much an outsider as his character in Blackbird.  Ben is absent from the show for the first half of the first season, having been kidnapped by aliens and harnessed with a large spinal parasite which doubles as a mind-control device.  When he is eventually recovered and the harness is removed, its roots in his nervous system remain, leaving him medically abnormal.  He has an accelerated ability to heal, apparently endless energy reserves, and greatly increased endurance.  He also has a (much exploited) telepathic connection with any aliens that get close enough.

Having been transformed into a Super Soldier by the aliens, Ben Mason would seem destined to become the human resistance's very own Captain America.  But the writers of Falling Skies were too interested in social dynamics to allow that to happen.  Instead of becoming the resident hero, Ben spends the entirety of the next two seasons as an object of fear and suspicion.  Perhaps he's a sleeper agent?  Maybe he's secretly leaking information to the aliens?  Is he still human, really?  Aren't the aliens still in his head?

What originally prompted this post, and the previous one, was my appreciation of the way the writers of Falling Skies have Ben Mason deal with this suspicion and alienation from the community he should, in theory, be welcomed into.  He doesn't reject the community, or hate them for their fears, but he remains intentionally aloof and works on its edges.  He vanishes periodically, to pursue his own projects, and returns.  He is never at odds with the 2nd Massachusetts or its broader goals, but as long as the leadership has no use for his talents, he makes use of them himself for the benefit of the group.

You see, people like Ben Mason are extremely rare in real life.  One of the points I wanted to make in my last post was that being excluded by society tends to destroy a person's sense of personal integrity or value, precisely because so much of our self-understanding is derived from the underlying sense we have of what is expected and reasonable for "people" in general.  When I am shown repeatedly to be an instance of what is not to be expected, what is unreasonable or undesirable, according to general social standards, my own self-evaluation according to those primitive norms becomes an exercise in despair.  Nothing I can do can save me from my failure not to be a freak, or from my inability not to fail.  The pain of such a state of mind is one of the reasons people will go to such lengths to find communities within which their behavior and patterns of thought are considered reasonable and acceptable.

(Exile and execution are remarkably similar, and there is a profound reason why the Egyptian monks chose the solitude of the desert as a fitting replacement for martyrdom.)

I'll probably continue this line of thought again, but that's enough for tonight.