Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cabin In The Woods (2012), Deconstructing Bureaucracy, And Subverting Horror Clichés

Cabin in the Woods is a character study on the bureaucratization of film narratives. The bureaucratization of horror film (and most genres) take the form of the wholesale manufacturing and re-manufacturing of cliques. The moments, characters, plot themes and expectations that have been categorized and focus grouped by film makers and advertisers in order to bank on the common motifs that have over saturated the market. The repetition of motifs acts as nodal points in a market system that thrives on re-occurrence. A masked man hunts down some chick and kills everyone in the way until the climatic moment comes where she disables the antagonism and sets up for the sequel. Or, some cabin in the woods where a cast of archetypes populates a forest-y vacation spot in order to let loose some middle-class angst. Only to be interrupted by some monster, demon, zombie, or creature X appears to clear the slate. Sound familiar? Cabin in The Wood's unearths this the well-trodden path of the recycled plot, characters, and the scary, in order to illuminate the bureaucratic mode of filmic reproduction.

There is an argument that I heard all too often in grad school, there are no new ideas, only integrations*. The way this works is no single one theory, like psychoanalysis or cognitive behavior therapy or narrative theory will fully explain the and address human behavior. Therefore, the social worker's job is to recognize a theory's infallibility and seek to integrate two or more theories in order to suture a theory's intrinsic faults. While an integration does not break inexhaustibly of a theory, it may widen the base of the general collection of theories. What this leads to is a generalized understanding of a multiplicity of theories in order to avoid coming under anyone theories dogma. On the one hand, this would appear to promote critical thinking, but, on the other hand, the capacity to think critically is crippled by the lack of intellectual depth.

The new is what has been re-interpreted, remade and resurrected. Integrative theory works on the marketing concept of diversity. Diversity reduces the utility and value of any given theory by presenting it in a sea of difference where all theories are reduced to a zero-sum. In this sense integrative theory becomes totalitarian. The problem with integrative theory, of course, is that the totalitarian aspect of the theory is an unstated function of the theoretical apparatus. Integrative theory is in a sense a theory-less theory (theory-less only to the extent that it's mechanisms go unstated) which structures the way the individual theories interact and demonstrate use value. The ideological problem is when theories are reduced to diversity they are also reduced to individual choice and theories become valued based upon their use rather than their morality or capacity to ease human suffering. Integrative theory while radically totalitarian lacks an overarching narrative structure that could incorporate a morality. What we are left with is anarchy in the mode of theoretical application and distribution.

Cabin in the Woods subverts this integrative diversity by over-saturating or rather over-integrating the narrative. The over-integration plays out in the way the film groups clichés. Cabin in the Wood's main cast fulfills the archetypes of the horror genre. We have the whore, the athlete, the scholar, the fool and the virgin. Yet, the pretense of these clichés makes familiar the typical nature of the first act. As the narrative progresses the characters become over-saturated with their corresponding clichés by the Technicians' manipulation of the characters in order to more fully represent their archetype. Yet, the viewer The contradiction is knowledge in relation to the dissonance between the character and the archetype so when the characters become under the influence they appear more than just their archetype. When the whore isn't whore enough the Technicians release pheromones and raise the temperature of the forest, and turn on mood lighting. It's as if to say that the character archetypes require maintenance in order to fulfill their representation. Is the relationship between the character and the archetype malfunctioning? Why does the clichés require maintenance?

The characters in Cabin in the Woods do not full resonate with their archetypes. What the technician's intervention into the narrative bring to light is not only the dissonance between the character and their archetypes, but the dissonance between the viewers expectations and the film. When a film banks on the archetypes it attempts to integrate into a narrative they seek to maximize similarity to historical tradition and simultaneously minimizing difference in order to focus on over-emphasis of similarity. In other words, Micheal Meyers wears an inside out William Shatner mask and Jason Voorhees wears a hockey mask, but what is important and what sells is that they are both wearing masks and functionally behaving in the same way. What Cabin in the Woods emphasis is the difference between the masks and the uniqueness of each genre motif. The tension between similarity and difference smash into each other and unleash a new creation.

I am referring to the glorious violent moment when the elevators open and unleash all the monstrosities that are in the underground facility. The moment accentuates the uniqueness and non-integrative qualities by pitting the creatures against each other and the security guards. Tossing a bunch of elements that don't traditionally belong together is not integration. The difference here is between something like Twilight that takes the concept of vampires and infuses it into a romantic narrative in such a way that vampires lose the distinguishing qualities that identifies vampires qua vampires. Twilight's vampires essentially strip the signifier of its signified. What Cabin in the Woods accomplished is the epic moment is like when a child dumps her toy chest of creatures on the floor and incorporates while fully realizing each toys distinction. The teddy bear is a bear, and the Barbie is a Barbie. And when tossed into the same universe Barbie is gonna get eaten. In other words, the difference is between white-washing a narrative with market values and creative play.

The technician's interventions in the narrative highlight how the manipulation, or rather regulation of clichés is enacted along the lines of bureaucratic production. When the Sacrifices are making a run for it in the RV, the Technicians, realize that the tunnel that was supposed to explode was fully functional. Running through the complexes corridors, he confronts the team responsible. They blurt out that they had not received the order to blow the tunnel. The Technician dives under an electronics panel and manually removes and assess damages. The sequence brings to light the materialization of the narrative. The hegemonic narratives function like fixed-capital. Plot points, clichés and archetypes acting as nodal points pinning the successive of narrative regurgitation. This hegemony, then reproduced and reinforced by each successive horror film that keys into the nodal points. The clichés then collects on the stored cultural capital of the historical tradition of past films and the clichés they created or homogenized.

The end of Cabin in the Woods is not as nihilistic as it first appears. If one remembers the opening sequence of the film where Dana (Kristen Connolly) is introduced, She is packing textbooks about soviet economics and Kurt suggest that she read Vygotsky. Vygotsky was a Russian education theorist who argued that students needed mental tools in order to critically engage with information. The mental tools take the form of theories which students used to transform their cognitive and psycho-social environment. Keeping Vygotsky in mind, what Cabin in the Wood's gives the viewer is a theory to critically engage with horror films in such a way to uncover the movements of the apparatus which regulates the narrative. So for instance, when watching any other horror film and a set of character is confronted with a choice to split up or stay together, the viewer can now use the theoretical knowledge gained from Cabin in the Woods to understand that these are not arbitrary moments but intentional choices by the creators of a story to manipulate the characters and the viewer.

In the end, the Virgin and the Fool choose the end of the world, and the Giant god hand rises up obligating the entire cast and falling towards the viewer. What's the message in the message? On the one hand, Cabin in the Wood's defies the horror tradition by foreclosing the possibility of a sequel by killing the narrative space of the story. On the other, the film calls into question the horror industries contemporary remake and cliché regurgitation process by declaring that
Dana: It's time to give someone else a chance. 
References
http://www.toolsofthemind.org/philosophy/vygotskian-approach/

*Integrative theory is a social work euphemism for post-modernism.

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