- Among the most studied films of the last few decades
are those that descend from the mid-century fiction of Philip Dick and
his contemporaries, including Richard Condon (The Manchurian
Candidate) and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch).
These authors wrote during the Cold War scandal of the apparent
"brain-washing" of U.S. soldiers by communists. In medical journal
articles, Biderman and Lifton reported that military men had been
coerced into confessing atrocities, and they helped to raise the
specter of mind control, crystallizing fears of Big Brotherly rule that
had been solidifying since the world war. As further news leaked of the
Central Intelligence Agency's baroque attempts to counterprogram
double-agents, sci-fi writers wove mind-control plots into parodies of
spy novels. The agents in such tales believe their own covers and think
that they are ordinary men until evidence of violent pasts disrupts
their lives in colorful ways. In the most subversive stories,
protagonists never know who they were or whom they might attack next.
- The setup, in which normal life masks one's status as a
spy--a sort of
hardboiled play on the monomyth--has drawn several filmmakers, who spin
it into social satire. Consider a 1983 release by writer-director David
Cronenberg. Tired of the banality programmed by the television station
he runs, Max searches for "something harder." He samples recordings of
torture called "Videodrome." The footage turns him on, and Max watches
until he hallucinates a blend of video display, sex, and violence. But
he soon learns that "Videodrome" is a mind control tool, wielded by
fascists who induce Max to kill. He loses his grip on reality, appears
to torture women, draws a gun from a hole in his gut and shoots men at
work--all on orders from those who control him. At the end of Videodrome,
his own brains out, television having poisoned his mind. In
Max's postmodern story, local governance gives way to conspiracy,
certainty to schizophrenia, and narrative realism to surreal
subjectivity. The heroic agency sustained by Hollywood's classical
alignment of spectators with successful, heterosexual protagonists is
displaced by the penetration of bodies and minds. Max discovers that
his status as agent-in-training has been kept so secret that neither he
nor the audience knows about it until late in the film. He is a
- Ordinary-seeming citizens
turn out to be unwitting secret agents, terrorists, and assassins in a
series of North American films released over the last quarter century,
including Blade Runner (1982), Videodrome
(1983), Total Recall (1990), Naked Lunch
(1991), The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Conspiracy
Theory (1997), Dark City (1998), eXistenZ
(1999), the three-film Matrix cycle (1999, 2003; see
Figure 1 below), Imposter (2002), and A Scanner,
(2006). In these movies, bourgeois protagonists discover secret lives
of violence, engage with rebel groups, and then threaten and sometimes
kill their own lovers. They escape ordinary routines and wrestle with
over-socialization, media saturation, hampered agency, intensive
surveillance, and the soul-draining effects of consumer capitalism. By
discussing such films, I intend neither to nominate a genre nor to use
them as reflections of the social world, but rather to consider the
functions that production of and commentary on such films serve
filmmakers, scholars, and perhaps others as well. The storytelling,
which the 1950s brainwashing scandals indirectly inspired, have allowed
filmmakers, analysts, and audiences to reconsider the status of
authorship and agency in a postmodern world--in which subjects are
commodities to be redefined for profit and prestige.
1: Scene from The Matrix.
Postmodernity taken literally, as body and agency compromised.
© Warner Bros., 2008.
Image from the author's personal collection.
is no way to draw a clear line around the films named above. Scholars
have included several of them in such overlapping sets as "mindfuck
films" (Eig) and "puzzle films" (Elsaesser, Panek)--in some cases,
claiming that Hollywood has undergone a large-scale, postmodern change.
I have chosen the core of mind-job films simply by selecting those in
which protagonists serve as unknowing agents of espionage. I study the
derivation and correlates of this conceit in order to trace the origin
of a postmodern segment of popular culture. Mind-job cinema engages
postmodernity on the thematic level, and contemporary films result from
an industrial context that has changed since the classical studio era
of the 1930s and 1940s: for example, authors sign on to specific
projects rather than to long-term employment by studios. One might thus
presume that depictions of postmodernity in post-classical film arose
with shifts in production--new modes of filmmaking (multinational
hegemony, short-term contracting, the breakdown of genres and realism,
etc.) and new patterns of storytelling. Indeed, the appearance of
art-film styles of narration in mainstream, English-language feature
film has led several scholars to posit a new narrative era, in which
Hollywood's commitment to coherent, character-centered narrative drive
has weakened. The general argument in such literature is that
contemporary films are more likely than before to fracture their
narratives into opaque spectacles, with thrills aplenty but scant
- For instance, a book-length study
argues that postmodern cinema results from "a revulsion against tightly
structured, formulaic, narrowly commercialized methods traditionally
linked to the studio system" (Boggs and Pollard 7). That mode of
production, of "classical Hollywood cinema" (Bordwell, Staiger, and
Thompson), includes attention to probabilistic and historical realism;
coherent, clear plots that turn on decisions of white, heterosexual
heroes; and editing/cinematography meant to disguise the artifice of
narration and thus intensify emotional response. Critics have suggested
that such cinema conveys "status quo ideals and messages" (Boggs and
Pollard 5), and that the postmodern shift entailed critique and
rejection of the modernity shored up by such ideology (6).
- Analysts argue for recent shifts in Hollywood storytelling,
advent of the "psychological puzzle film" (Panek 65), with its
(initially) unclear means of distinguishing protagonists'
hallucinations from diegetic reality; of "post classical narration"
(Thanouli), with its art-cinema trappings and addled protagonists; of
big-budget action spectaculars (Davis and de los Rios), with their
noisy set-pieces that crowd out character development; and of
postmodern cinema (Beard, "Crisis of Classicism"), which recuperates
cheery Hollywood from the pessimistic 1970's auteurist rebellion.
Elsaesser also argues that "puzzle films" combine contemporary themes
of psychic pathology (paranoia, schizophrenia) with the unreliable
narration typical of post-classical film, and emerge from an industrial
context in which filmmakers wish every film to provide "access for all"
by meaning anything to anyone (37). Thus several analysts suggest that
North American films have struck a sort of postmodern grand slam. In
the postmodern era, these scholars argue, a significant chunk of
storytelling has grown ambiguous in meaning, perhaps the better to
serve the interests of the conglomerates that abjure widely shared
critical views. These analyses suggest that especially fractured or
polysemic storytelling also depicts elements distinct to postmodern
life, grappling with the very forces that produce it: imbrications of
virtual and real, electronic and fleshy, robotic and agentic; the
inducement of disorientation and schizophrenia by corporate control.
Thus might postmodern film be postmodern in all ways at once: in
origin, in theme, and in narrative form. To assess the extent to which
these forms coincide, I study the mind-job films from those angles.
of structure reveals patterns in the plotting of secret-agent films.
Mainstream artists, whether screenwriters or editing teams led by
directors, tend to employ a four-act structure to feature film, in
which regularly timed pauses emphasize protagonists' goals and/or
changes of direction, in order to clarify unfolding plots (Bordwell,
Staiger, and Thompson).
movies mostly use this structure to emphasize heroes' departures
from normal life, confusion over identity, and crises brought
by combat and isolation.
- The Matrix and Total Recall,
for example, both begin with a disaffected worker open to a new, more
rebellious life. Each ends its opening act with the hero's break from
the mundane: one unplugged from the titular "matrix" that imprisons his
mind, the other driven from his home by a woman who turns out only to
have posed as his wife ("your whole life is a lie," she tells him in Total
Both heroes are rudely awakened to the fact that they have been
brainwashed, their apparent normalcy all lies. Both begin to search for
truths about their origins. The films' second acts introduce
complications: one hero may be the foretold savior of the last colony
of humankind, unplugged from the brainwashing matrix in order to free
people from parasitic machines; the other may be a spy, also implanted
(with false memories and a sham marriage to make the subterfuge more
convincing) into a proletarian rebellion. These second acts end on
moments of tension in which heroes wrestle with the competing
possibilities that they are superhuman saviors, brainwashed dupes, or
both ("What a mind job," says a skeptic of the savior prophecy, in The
The films' third acts play these possibilities off against each other
as the oppressive rulers raise the stakes of the conflicts. Comrades
and authorities provide competing testimonies, thus keeping heroes
confused about who they really are. As is typical of Hollywood
melodrama, third acts end on moments of crisis. In each case, a rebel
mentor is captured or killed by an oppressive ruler; and it turns out
that the deluded heroes were being used by secret police. "That's the
best mind fuck yet," says the hero of Total Recall, who
must escape another brainwashing in order to realize (what might be)
his destiny. The hero of The Matrix
must rescue his kidnapped mentor to fulfill his own. The fourth,
climactic acts test heroes in the combat that suggests who they, and
what their destinies, are. Both rescue people they love and appear to
be foretold saviors after all, but both also know they were programmed
by others to work their miracles. They may be heroic, but are hardly
free in any liberal sense. Brainwashed to do good is brainwashed
nonetheless; and they do not know which identities might be all their
own, or whether there is such a thing. Indeed, the Matrix
cycle saves its final revelation of the hero's purpose for the climax
of its first sequel; then, as in Total Recall, he learns
the dispiriting truth that his savior status was manufactured by
oppressors to subvert rebellion (see Figure 2).
1: Scene from Total Recall.
Crisis ends the third act and leads to the climactic battles of the
film. All appears to be lost as the hero sees double, confronted by the
oppressive state with evidence that his personality is a scam implanted
to manipulate him and destroy rebellion.
© Lion's Gate, 2006.
Image from the author's personal collection.
can mind-job films feature plots that are both parallel and clear:
revelations of brainwashing inspire departures from normal life;
competing hints at origins heighten confusion; escalating conflicts
with oppressors lead to crises; and final combat allows heroes to
rescue comrades and stake claims to destinies. Such plotting trains
viewer attention on the characters' goals and their ongoing revision of
and attempts to meet them. Though these stories depict confusion, they
employ classical means to prevent it among viewers (at which both
appear largely to have succeeded). Films with this plotting also
released during the 1990s include The Long Kiss Goodnight
and Dark City.
- As other examples of parallel plotting, consider two
drug-novel adaptations, those of the Philip Dick's A Scanner
Darkly and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch.
Both concern addicts assigned to spy on loved ones. Though only one
ends its first act with a traumatic event (Bill, the hero of Naked
gets high and accidentally shoots his wife), both end with heroes
undercover, newly assigned to surveil drug peddlers. The second acts
complicate assignments by hinting to the confused heroes how closely
watched they are, without clarifying who they are. The protagonist of Naked
shares a flat with an insectoid handler who directs his espionage. He
makes new friends who are dead ringers for old ones and for the wife
whom he has killed. His handler orders him to spy on those people but
doesn't reveal how he came to spy in the first place. Who might pull
the strings he cannot guess. The main characters of A Scanner
share a house fitted with cameras and microphones that capture their
drug use. We see the government's brainwashing process, by which the
hero's mind is split and made to work for police so deep undercover
that he does not realize that he is also one of the addicts who live
there. He thus spies on his friends and on himself without realizing
it. Both films end their second acts with newer, more focused
assignments: One character is to spy closely on a woman who resembles
his deceased wife, and the other resolves to spy more intently on the
alter version of his own self.
- Thus, while the
first acts disrupt ongoing routines with new missions, second ones
complicate and then focus those missions on especially intimate spying.
Third acts develop the goals clarified by the second acts without
allowing heroes to meet them; the spies pursue questions of identity
but find no final answers. In Naked Lunch,
his handler breaks it to the hero that he was brainwashed and
pre-programmed to kill his wife, who the handler claims was a counter
spy ("An unconscious agent is an effective agent," he reassures the
outraged hero). When friends try to talk him back to his normal life,
this hero sends them away and drinks himself into a pit of despair. In A
the hero is troubled by the thought that a narc might live among his
friends, but cannot see that it's him. Worried that he has lost his
family forever and that betrayals abound in the drug war, he slips into
an existential funk just as deep, staring into the camera at the end of
the act. Thus do both films end third acts on notes of crisis. Heroes
have tried but failed to learn who they are or where they are going,
and fear that they will lose everyone they love. Those dark moments set
up climactic pursuits.
- Fourth acts twist plots
with final betrayals, send heroes into drug factories run by double
agents, and foreground their lasting alienation and confusion. The
narcotics agent of A Scanner Darkly
winds up incarcerated in a drug-rehab center that serves as an illicit
factory for drugs. He is so thoroughly brainwashed that he lives as a
prisoner there without understanding that he's still being used to
collect evidence of larger conspiracy. He secretes the blue flower that
his handlers programmed him to obtain as evidence of drug production;
but the film offers little hope that his mind will clear or mission
end. The spy in Naked Lunch also visits a drug factory
run by a man who pretends to cure addictions but instead fosters them
for profit. There, the hero rescues the woman who resembles the wife
whom he's killed, but then shoots her by accident as well. His story
ends with a sense of ongoing tragedy and malaise. In neither film does
the hero see a way out of the loop of loss, betrayal, and addictive
madness. These stories are bleak, and they dwell on drug-addled,
brainwashed confusion. But they both use Hollywood's four-act formula
to keep mind-job stories as clear as possible (though neither sold many
tickets). Heroes accept missions in their brainwashed states, later
focus their spying on those closest to them, then become troubled by
their lack of love and agency in those positions, and finally fail in
their struggles for independence.
- Other films with brainwashed spies that feature different
employ the Hollywood four-act structure to keep stories clear. The
(1962) and the 2004 remake offer minor variations on the same script.
By the end of the second acts, heroes have learned that they were
brainwashed. At the crisis-points that end third acts, delusional
assassins murder women they love. Suicide, matricide, and salvation
close both films. A more mainstream play on those parodies, Conspiracy
(1997) focuses on the romance and the danger that the brainwashed
assassin poses to the woman he loves. Sunnier than the film it
lampoons, Conspiracy Theory features no disturbing
murders by heroic characters, but only the threat thereof. It ends
happily for all but conspirators.
- We see more such classical structure if we look to the
mind-job cinema. The obverse of the brainwashed-spy conceit is the
story of a man who deludes himself that he is a spy when he (probably)
is not. In A Beautiful Mind (2001) and Confessions
of a Dangerous Mind
(2002) (both based on biographies), young professionals dream of
stardom and sex. Heroes of these films perceive themselves to be
recruited to Cold War espionage (code-breaking in one film,
assassination in the other), both of them responding to their
insecurities with women. In the second acts, both heroes mix their
public lives as professionals (mathematician, game-show producer) with
clandestine spying. In their third acts, both heroes try to square
their delusions with cohabitation, and fail. Only in the climaxes do
they forswear their lives as spies and attain some normalcy and
romantic bliss. These films are more focused on professional and
romantic success than are those in the mind-job core.
films that feature deluded operatives include Fight Club
(1999) and Memento
(2000), both of which offer narrative puzzles (what is diegetically
real? what is a hero's hallucination?) and solve them in conventional
fashion (climactic exposition specifies mental illness and the
difference between hallucination and diegetic reality). Both rely on
conventional four-act plotting to maintain clarity (see Bordwell 
about the plot structure of Memento). The films neither
mention spies nor draw from the stream running from the
Condon/Burroughs/Dick novels, but they do suggest both the patterns
that deluded-terrorist/detective stories can take, and their
maintenance of conventions of clarity. The narrative shifts in these
films do not make them postmodern.
claims about the postmodernity of shifts in storytelling may overstate
the case. For instance, most of the elements of postmodern film noted
by Boggs and Pollard (16) characterize decades of cinema rather than a
postmodern period only: mass marketing, moral quagmires, film noir,
disorder--all present in Hollywood product since before
World War II. Though mind-job films and other crime/sci-fi/horror
cinema depict the immoral and insane, often in terms of deliberately
puzzling narratives (such as whodunit detective stories that save
revelations for last), mundane Hollywood storytelling remains as clear
as ever. Intentional exceptions to the rule of narrative clarity in
English language features are few. U.S. theaters have long showed
European and Asian art films, with their own non-narrative modes; and
Hollywood features have long depicted mentally unbalanced characters in
ways that drew audiences to question lines between diegetic reality and
hallucination (see, for instance, 1939's The Wizard of Oz).
of such cinema from the last two decades do not indicate
postmodern shift in Hollywood cinema.
- In any case, the plot patterns in the mind-job core suggest
lineage, as though adapters of Condon, Burroughs, and Dick watched and
read each other's works and developed the templates typical of generic
production. It also suggests a commitment to classical Hollywood
storytelling and the consumer-friendly clarity of plotting that it
emphasizes, even if the protagonists tend to hallucinate and by doing
so challenge audiences to learn each film's distinction (if any)
between fantasy and diegetic reality. Most mind-job films supply
viewers with enough information to arrive at plausible interpretations
of plot events. (Exceptions come only from Cronenberg, whose
screenplays, though generally clear and classically structured, leave
open the possibilities that heroes never wake from their dreams.) Even
when hallucination and reality blend, hegemonic conventions keep
mind-job films from lapsing into the abstract self-consciousness of
art-cinema narration. Those conventions are professional guides that
filmmakers continue to take pride finding new ways to follow (Bordwell
51, 107). And viewers who hope to identify with heroes continue to
demand that stories follow them as well (Eig).
cinema is not particularly post-classical in its
narrative form, though it is concerned with elements of postmodernity
Jameson identifies "a whole mode of contemporary entertainment
literature, which one is tempted to characterize as 'high tech
paranoia', in which the circuits and networks of some putative global
computer hook-up are narratively mobilized by labyrinthine conspiracies
of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information
agencies in a complexity often beyond the capacity of the normal
reading mind" (80). Jameson roots conspiracy myth in the complexity of
late capitalism, in which the growth of conglomerates (ruled by
Byzantine legal codes but no obvious morals), breakdown of communities,
and collisions of worldviews inspire general confusion. Industrial
production has given way in the most developed world to consumer
capitalism, as merchants pursue the unfettered advertisement and
exchange that can most fully valorize their capital. Multinational
corporations effect, via their intensive advertisement, "a prodigious
expansion of capital into hitherto uncommodified areas [leading to the]
colonization of Nature and the Unconscious" (78). What might have been
"a space of praxis" becomes a no-man's land of disconnected places and
times, or a set of ideas inserted into consciousness by powerful
organizations. Jameson notes that forces of late capitalism control the
very circuits of information that people use to imagine their worlds,
blinding us to what we might learn from the stories that we tell. As an
economic order, defended by the military that it mocks in its
pop-culture parodies, the postmodern culture industry has shown that it
can turn even criticism of rebellion against it into a commodity (56).
- One might expect characters to confront such a world in
cinema, a world in which powerful but poorly understood forces govern
the minds of high-tech professionals in the most subversive and
intimate ways imaginable. Indeed, modernity appears as a theme in
mind-job films, as protagonists' fears of being just like everyone else
and too little the individuals of professional-worker ideals.
Postmodernity in Hollywood cinema appears as the consumerism of urban
renewal, in which old neighborhoods are plowed up and turned into
ad-saturated consumer havens by shadowy conglomerates (the omnipresent
advertising of Blade Runner--see Figure 3 below--and Total
Recall, the manufactured communities of Dark City
and The Matrix),
only to be destroyed as heroes' mind-warps externalize in spectacular
violence. Postmodernism also appears in the schizophrenia induced in
Hollywood heroes, who decide that behind faÃ§ades of
lie conspiracies too vast to comprehend. The tightening disciplines of
postmodern life leave them feeling impotent, so they wade into public
bloodbaths to redeem themselves. These films use the surrealist
language of contemporary film to present schizophrenic, penetrative
combat, suggesting a postmodern aesthetic of cyborg unreality.
3: Scene from Blade Runner.
Postmodernity appears as theme in this confusing, ad-intensive
© Warner Brothers, 2008.
Image from the author's personal collection.
elements of postmodernity as theme thus bear brief discussion:
blinkered perception, bodily violation, and hampered agency. Deluded
about their pasts, mind-job heroes cannot trust their senses. As they
buckle under psychic strain, the movies draw from sci-fi and horror
cinema's arsenals of lurid imagery to convey confusion. In some cases,
the environments around heroes alter as though with their moods. The Matrix
films render fantasy in photo-realistic terms and shuttle characters
through spatial displacements that make the architecture around them as
confusing as any postmodern spaces. Total Recall features
serpentine shots of vast interiors, viewed as if from the inside the
hero's mind. The skyline of Dark City
reshapes itself as buildings rise and fall, changing size and
appearance in seconds. Though much of the style of mind-job cinema fits
the model of "intensified continuity" in narrative film identified by
Bordwell, and thus simply makes more frequent use of the most dramatic
compositions, camera moves, and editing strategies of classical
Hollywood, some hallucinatory scenes go further still, into the generic
turf of science fiction. They execute virtual camera moves across vast
spaces and through walls (as in the Matrix cycle and Total
toying with the imbrications of electronic media with actual and
psychic spaces. Sudden space-time displacements convey the heroes'
fractured states of mind and the fall of the walls they have kept up
between fantasy and reality. The Cronenberg films Videodrome,
Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ
offer prosthetic flesh-machines with erotic overtones, and symbolize
fissured minds with penetrated bodies. Their heroes find themselves in
new places without having traveled there by obvious means; they talk to
strangers who seem to know them. Editing and physical effects allow
audiences to share the heroes' queasy disorientation, one generally
linked in the stories to the violations and bodies and minds.
- The most obvious aesthetic development in mind-job cinema
relations between mind, flesh, and machine as penetrative violation.
The hero of Videodrome
develops a vaginal slit in his belly; he and other men slide videotapes
and guns into the orifice and pull them out again, transformed but
still deadly. The titular character of The Manchurian Candidate
(2004) receives new programming through a needle into his brain;
inhabitants of Dark City receive new personae through
large syringes between their eyes; those of The Matrix
do so through ports at the backs of their skulls. Inside the matrix,
one has a "bug" crawl into his navel to keep track of him; and later a
villain takes over the minds of other characters by plunging his
virtual hand into their chests. The players of eXistenZ
have ports of their own at the bases of their backs through which
penile implants insert new worlds and identities.
- The penetrative tendencies of action cinema are realized
most fully in
scenes of mind-job combat. Shot by a "flesh gun," a villain in Videodrome
dies by splitting from head to toe, organs exploding as his blood
spouts. The brainwashing conspirators of Dark City die
when their heads crack open and the insects within wriggle forth to
expire. The colonialist of Total Recall loses his eyes to
the vacuum of space as his head slowly pops. In Imposter,
a cyborg assassin screams as cops eviscerate him and pull a weapon from
his heart. Much of this assumes a sexual tone that implicates
postmodern manhood. Others have written of the penetrative violence and
wordplay of such mind-job films as eXistenZ and The
Matrix (Freeland), Total Recall (Goldberg), and Videodrome
(Beard, Artist as Monster;
Shaviro), in most cases linking the bodily penetration to postmodern
fantasies of compromised manhood. In his analysis of other
science-fiction films, Byers suggests that allusions to male intimacy
can play on a "pomophobia"--the sense that moral and physical
perversion infiltrates the solid male subject of modernity (7). "The
homophobic's paranoia about homosexual rape [expresses] a fear of
violation of the masculine body that, in a heterosexual economy, sees
itself as inviolable, as hard and sealed off rather than soft or
- As mind job becomes "mind fuck" (as in Total Recall),
their bodies and penetrate each other, claiming a perversely
gendered space far from mundane life. Their domestic lives are phony
set-ups and fall to violence and betrayal as battles compromise their
bodies. Heroes are bound and/or brainwashed in the torture scenes of Imposter,
The Matrix, The Long Kiss Goodnight,
The Manchurian Candidate, Dark City
(see Figure 4), Videodrome, Conspiracy Theory,
Most retaliate with penetrative assaults of their own. Some heroes
escape with mere bullet wounds, beatings, and broken limbs, but the
violation of a hero's body is nearly as foregone a conclusion as the
mortification of a villain's.
involve face-offs between heroes and those who challenge
their senses of themselves, burdening the violation with mind-job
3: Scene from Dark City.
Posthuman conspirators prepare to inject a controlling, collective
personality into the skull of the bound hero.
© New Line, 2008.
Image from the author's personal collection.
and the conspirators who mold their minds, direct much of the threat of
violence against lovers. Brainwashed protagonists kill wives and (at
least former) lovers in both versions of The Manchurian Candidate,
The Long Kiss Goodnight, Naked Lunch
and Total Recall, and eXistenZ, and have
been programmed to do so in The Matrix and Dark
Even in cases where heroes resist the urge to savage their families,
they direct the violence elsewhere. The brainwashed hero of Dark
learns that he has been implanted with the impulses of a serial killer
of women by the strangers who control him. But he claims, in the name
of his love for the woman programmed to be his wife, a sense of
personal autonomy. That formerly secret agency then manifests in
mind-job form by laying waste to a city and slaughtering the strangers
who have implanted their thoughts.
- Entertaining an ideal of possessive individualism, with its
status and freedom, heroes seem to suffer the effects of pacifying
surveillance, seductive advertisement, demanding romance, burdensome
families, rule-bound employment, and addictive routine. They could seem
to respond with violence as moral hygiene, as if to flush from their
brains the codes of faceless conspiracies that govern their minds as
well as their worlds. So does violence become one of the principal
expressions of agency in mind-job cinema, rooted as it is in an
apparent revulsion from intimacies of any kind. We should not presume
that these films valorize agency of a modernist ideal, however. The
thematic depiction appears to be more complex.
- For all of the fighting that heroes do, agency in its ideal
out of reach for most. Even the most professionally successful hero (of
the peripheral film A Beautiful Mind) must learn to live
with his phantoms, unable to will them away. Neo cannot save his world
by fighting in The Matrix Revolutions. Asked why he
endures beating after beating, knowing that he must die, he claims,
"Because I choose
to"; but only by relaxing and allowing his opponent to penetrate and
kill him can Neo help to destroy his enemy, in a plan authored not by
him but by the computer program that has directed his movements. His
passive acquiescence, rather than a choice to stand tall against
attack, saves the day. Dark City's John also triumphs in
battle, but only after being programmed to do so by an ally with a
syringe full of lethal thoughts. And the new world that John creates
(including the name "John") is based not upon a life lived before his
brainwashing but on the implanted programs instead. So must the hero of
Total Recall worry about the possibility that he
has won a
battle by implanted design rather than by his own choosing. As
protagonists shoot each other in eXistenZ, they must also
wonder where virtual reality begins and ends, and thus whether the
satisfying combat is of their own authorship or not. Other heroes kill
themselves on the orders of implanted programming in Videodrome
and Imposter. A testament to heroic agency, mind-job
cinema is not.
- So mind-job films depict postmodern conditions, classically
The remaining question bears on their origins. Does a movie that makes
postmodernity its theme also arise from its unique mode of production?
cinema issues from a small group of mainstream filmmakers (in the U.S.,
Australia, and Canada) who work with Cold War fantasies. Canadian
writer/director Cronenberg has been the most prolific translator,
having drafted a screenplay for Total Recall from one of
Dick's stories, adapted Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and made
two other films featuring the same elements (Videodrome
and eXistenZ). In his study of Cronenberg's cinema, The
as Monster, Beard celebrates this authorial lineage:
has always expressed his allegiance to the
romantic-existentialist-modernist idea of the artist as heroic and
transgressive explorer--explorer especially of the inner sources of
transgression. His admiration especially for William Burroughs has
always been expressed in these terms, and his attempts to emulate
Burroughs have led him to create works which seek a direct, oneiric
connection with unconscious instincts and associations. Videodrome
is, along with Naked Lunch,
certainly the best--most extreme and virtuosic--example of this
phenomenon. The film's absolutely un-objective plunge into the realm of
bodily disorder, identity chaos, bewildering transformation, and
abjection signals a new commitment by Cronenberg to this principle of
blind truth to the imagination, an embrace of fundamental
disorientation as the price for a direct connection with the
unconscious, and a discovery of a new path to the goal of artistic
- This testament to the work that Cronenberg has done to
raises the question of auteurism. A humanist theory of the origin of
film narrative, auteurism has expanded from a friendly critical
perspective to a corporate marketing pitch and the posture of many
filmmakers who wish to build renown. The theory was invented by
aspiring French filmmakers who celebrated the genius of the Hollywood
directors (Hawks, Hitchcock, and Ford prominent among them); it
explained how great films could be made within a profit-oriented
industry. Decidedly modernist, auteurism celebrated the single artist's
measure of control over work in the factory-like conditions of
corporate Hollywood. It has also become the logic of block-buster era
marketing. Distributors have found that writer-director, and
producer-director "hyphenated" talent can make successful films, in
part because the most popular names serve as product-differentiating
brands in genre-film marketing (Baker and Faulkner, Flanagan).
Auteurism's popularity has also grown with the development of the
free-agent process of film-by-film deal-making among artists, which
favors those authors who call attention to their skill at manipulating
and pleasing viewers. The hope is that producers will hire an auteur as
a safe bet to make a successful film. Thus do many parties maintain
respective interests in the lauding of auteurist control over
storytelling in film.
- The irony of auteurism as a scholarly theory of postmodern
that postmodernity as usually theorized undercuts the formations upon
which auteurism depends: the stability of authorial subjects, the
metaphor capacity of texts, and the shared meaning of mass cultural
products. Consider the case of Blade Runner (1982).
Adapted from a Philip Dick story, and making vivid the urban decay and
corporate corruption of its setting, Blade Runner
has assumed "the oxymoronic status of a canonical postmodern cultural
artefact" among scholars (qtd. in Begley 188). The film tells the story
of a cop assigned to slaughter renegade androids who have had human
memories implanted so successfully that their corporate creators can
market them as "more human than human." Fans of the film have long
toyed with the notion that the cop is yet another android, brainwashed
so thoroughly that he's bought his own cover as human and knows not
what drives him. The film seems to hint at this with a momentary gleam
in the hero's eye (and, in post-release versions, his dream of
unicorns). At the end of the story, he takes an android as a lover and
flees. Begley points out that scholars have embraced the metaphorical
significance of Blade Runner's story in a way that works
against their own theories of postmodern opacity. That is, some
analysts interpret it both as a product of a dissimulating
culture-industry and as a rich object for interpretation. On
this conflict, Begley suggests that "it seems strangely mimetic to
suppose" that a film such as Blade Runner "both
represents and exemplifies postmodernism" (191). The argument that a
film results from post-industrial shifts is a social-scientific one,
usually paired in postmodern theory with the argument that films have
lost much of their metaphorical import. This coheres as far as it goes,
though it may exaggerate the change in Hollywood production (Bordwell
16, 189). Nevertheless, to argue in addition that Blade Runner
director Ridley Scott and his screenwriters have achieved a vivid
representation of the postmodern condition is to make a very different
point, one in apparent conflict with the first. Those who analyze
postmodernity as the decomposition of meaning, who also adhere to the
modernist author as creator of metaphors that spectators may interpret,
may be having their cake and eating it too. "Can narrative film
mimetically reproduce postindustrial relations?" Begley asks
rhetorically of such analysis. "Is Ridley Scott the author of
postmodernity?" (191). Indeed, in view of the fracturing of meaning and
authorship in postmodern theory, who would find value in such a claim
- Commentary celebrating the metaphorical significance of
postmodern film is not hard to come by: on Dark City
(Tryon); Terminator 2 (Byers); Videodrome
(Beard, Artist as Monster 125), Memento and
Conspiracy Theory (Boggs and Pollard).
Boggs and Pollard on Blade Runner, among other
While such movies do not fit
conventional Hollywood formulas, they
nonetheless stand at the critical edge of contemporary film culture
today; their "postmodernity" equates with their graphic illumination of
fundamental social and intellectual trends. (249)
This film's critical
illumination of postmodernity, the authors argue, occurs in "the
media-saturated public sphere" in which postmodern cinema in general
"both appropriates and caricatures the antipolitical mood of the times
while trivializing the major social problems that dominate the lives of
ordinary citizens" (247). They thus provide the double argument typical
of commentary on Blade Runner:
it provides critical illumination, but also results from a production
process that tends to diffuse the meaning of film. As Begley points out
(191), the exceptional objects in such analysis tend to fit the
eclectic standards of elite culture (high modernist in aesthetic, the
work of reputable authors, and none too successful with the masses).
The double status of such postmodern film is such that it both stands
as product of an anti-political culture machine and (in some cases)
allows for intensive interpretation of its insight into the postmodern
- What might have made this selective auteurism so popular?
Begley suggests that such "postmodernist appropriation of Blade
Runner rests on an ideal spectator who is very nearly an
academic critic" (190).
beyond Begley's suggestion by adding that auteurist celebration
of postmodern culture can also come in handy for filmmakers, whose
careers might flourish if they can be branded auteurs. If the ideal
spectator, in the celebration of postmodern culture, is nearly an
academic critic, then perhaps the ideal filmmaker has the authority of
a scholar. Ridley Scott has embraced the notion of the provocative,
postmodern mind-job at the heart of the film he directed. He argues, in
commentary attached to the pointedly labeled "Ridley Scott's Final Cut"
home-video release of the film (2007), that Blade Runner's
indeed a replicant, programmed with the memories and skills of
a human cop. By aligning with the notorious inference of the hero's
nonhuman status, and taking credit for the implication, Scott asserts
control over the film and the fans' responses. He dons the mantle of
visionary that mimetic interpretation ascribes. Thus presented as
intervention, not mere consumer product, Scott's work can seem both to
result from and to provide critical commentary on the postmodern
- The stories that filmmakers tell
about making the films foreground authorial lineage and control.
Jacobson and González chart the Hollywood development of The
Candidate in the wake of the success of Condon's
novel. Cronenberg has stated that Videodrome
was first inspired both by the career of Marshall McLuhan and by
Cronenberg's experience watching late-night television (Cronenberg and
Grünberg). It turned toward more political matters as he crafted
story for the science fiction and horror genres in which he works. On
his DVD commentary, Cronenberg tells of the paranoia of Videodrome's
worried that a faceless, controlling "they" would destroy the
film and its makers. Cronenberg says that he reassured those on the set
that he, as writer/director, was in control. Thus might auteurism come
in handy across a range of circumstances. On their DVD commentaries,
production personnel note connections between these various works. The
star of Videodrome connects it to the writing of Philip
Dick; another actor, successful after starring in the Matrix
films, provided the clout needed to get A Scanner Darkly
made by agreeing to star in it; a screenwriter of Dark City
notes (with distaste) resemblance between his story and the work of
Cronenberg. Thus does a chain of storytelling connect Cold War jitters
to Hollywood careers and craft. A small group of filmmakers, who work
within their international, industrial network to exchange ideas and
tell provocative stories, have mined postmodern ore from public
interest in the brainwashing of soldiers and spies. The late-1950s
appearance of reports of false confessions by U.S. soldiers raised
discussion of "brainwashing." Several novels on the topic, popular
films, and a stream of science fiction followed. Cronenberg and others
read the novels, saw potentials for provocative filmmaking, and made a
series of films that influenced other artists, resulting in more Philip
Dick adaptations (Imposter, A Scanner Darkly,
and parodies thereof (Conspiracy Theory and Shane
Black's script for The Long Kiss Goodnight). The
cyberpunk line of fiction influenced Australian Alex Proyas (Dark
City) as well as the Wachowski brothers in the U.S. (The
cycle). Copycatting of provocative stories became popular among
filmmakers at the turn of the century, adding a more concrete motive to
the larger trends postmodernity has wrought (e.g., widespread suspicion
of intertwined corporate media and individual perception) (Wilson 93).
- Bordwell shows that filmmakers have long employed
devices within the framework of clearly-told stories (17) and do so
today in part to demonstrate their virtuosity (51). They work in a
distribution process so crowded that "product differentiation" serves
studios and storytellers (73):
Films aren't made
just for audiences but for other filmmakers . . . a filmmaker can gain
fame with fresh or elegant solutions to storytelling problems. . . .
Prowess in craft yields not only professional satisfaction but also
prestige, and perhaps a better job (107).
This appears to have worked for such well-known filmmakers as
Frankenheimer (a television director who gained a reputation as a
feature-film director with such early 1960's Cold War films as his 1962
version of The Manchurian Candidate), Cronenberg, the
Wachowski brothers (The Matrix), and the authors of such
peripheral films as A Beautiful Mind (which won Academy
Awards) and Memento
(which secured writer/director Christopher Nolan's status as a potent
auteur in Hollywood, such that he now makes summer blockbusters).
Thompson notes that, while the break-up of the monopolistic studios
left artists to seek work on film-by-film bases rather than in
long-term contracts, the day-to-day organization of the job remains
largely the same--"coordinated from development to post-production via
the use of a numbered continuity script [which guides the work of
people who] still have a set of craft assumptions inherited from older
generations" (346). Thus filmmakers flaunt plot twists and violence for
the same reason they cleave to classical principles of storytelling.
- In this loose network of artists we find the most immediate
concrete agency behind mind-job cinema--a group of filmmakers invested
in tricky but clear storytelling, about heroes whose agency is hampered
by the filmmaking beneficiaries of modernist celebration of authorship.
Using the classical Hollywood model, filmmakers can boost their own
status as auteurs by puncturing the delusions of the heroes whose
stories they tell. Just as agency manifests in mind-job films as
agonistic violence, often against loved ones, so does authorship appear
as the showy mutilation of the traditional hero's subjectivity. These
filmmakers play one agency off against another and show they are really
- Mind-job cinema may very well result from larger postmodern
note merely that we need not resort to theories of the collapse of
Western narrative, the death of authorship, a fragmentation of mundane
storytelling, or collective schizophrenia in order to explain the
appearance of these stories. We have sufficient reason in the mundane
workings of artistic networks in English-language, feature-film
production. The root of mind-job cinema thus may or may not be
postmodern production. But, either way and following Begley, I urge
against having it all ways in our analyses. I do not see how mind-job
movies can be both post-classically ambiguous and
metaphorically clear, or be apolitical and
bear insight into postmodern conditions. Indeed, the imputation of
meaning to the mind-job movies, by their scholarly critics, by their
fans, and by the filmmakers themselves (however career-serving those
imputations might be), lend credence to the notion that storytelling by
the international, Hollywood-dominated film industry is more classical
and more modernist than not. For all of the schizophrenia and
conspiratorial brainwashing depicted onscreen, these stories
tell, in reasonably clear fashion, stories of people with postmodern
problems. They slight neither clear progress nor character development
for vapid nostalgia, violent spectacle, or brainwashed hallucination.
Nor does such storytelling appear to respond to uniquely postmodern
demand. Though a generation will have grown up on video screenings of Fight
Club and The Matrix,
mind-job films are not otherwise hits. These visions of compromised
agency and restless violence seem unlikely to indicate mass sentiments
or to shape their courses. The small size of audiences for most of
these films suggests that we look elsewhere to explain patterns in the
storytelling. Likewise, though Cronenberg tells stories that never
specify diegetic reality, he is alone in that respect among makers of
mind-job cinema, and does not indicate a larger trend. Postmodernism in
Hollywood's storytelling may be sharply constrained by its commercial
- Changes in mass culture issue from
the practices of (consumer capitalist) organizations, by the artists
both employed and selfishly motivated to push cultural boundaries with
"edgy" entertainment, loaded as that might be with nutty assassins and
their mind-blowing violence. By splintering the psyches of their
protagonists, filmmakers tout the reliability of their own
craftsmanship, in service of careers in a labor market that maintains
wholly modernist ideals of authorship.
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Staiger, and Thompson) have demonstrated that large
numbers of Hollywood feature films adhere to classical principles of
character-driven drama. Thompson shows that such films break their
stories into sets of acts (usually four per 90-150" feature, rather
than the three claimed by Syd Field in his famous 1979 text), which
emphasize character traits at their conclusions. Filmmakers use
stylistic flourishes to mark end points of dramatic acts, to inspire
moments of contemplation, to emphasize changes of direction, and thus
to clarify the unfolding stories and maintain viewer interest. By
having characters redirect the courses of their action at such points
and provide the audience with moments of reflection, feature films
privilege those decisions as defining characteristics.
the term "hero" not as approbation or affirmation of agency but
as shorthand for the character on whom the camera and story dwell. A
hero is the character who spends at least as much time on screen as any
other and whose personal trials receive as much attention as those of
any other, and may not be the principal agent driving the plot.
is not to say that all stories are equally plot-focused. The
adaptation of A Scanner Darkly
includes a few scenes that illustrate character rather than advance the
surveillance plot or depict changes in those characters. The
writer/director wishes not to be known for "by-the-book storytelling"
(Johnson 340). In his commentary on the home-video release of the film,
Linklater recounts studio pressure to cut the static scenes.
different direction, a peripheral cycle such as the Jason Bourne
series (2002, 2004, 2007)--based on Robert Ludlum's spy
novels--involves brain injury and amnesia, and a brief sequence during
which a hero discovers that he was trained to do violence. But it does
not depict the intrusion of spy memories into normal life, because the
hero never has a normal life. Cop action movies with mind-job elements
include the Robocop cycle (1987, 1990, 1993) and Demolition
Man (1993), in which cop heroes are electronically brainwashed
in order to prevent them from challenging lawless oppressors.
art films and the science fiction genre from his survey
of "alternative" plotting because the former are defined as those
primarily aimed at formal experimentation (12), and the latter
"provides the motivation for and naturalizes" breaks in continuity
(11). He rightly suggests that the best test of change in Hollywood
storytelling comes from mainstream feature films outside of those sets.
that reports of the death of traditional, reliable
narration in mainstream feature films are greatly exaggerated. He
advocates that we distinguish stories that merely confuse their
audiences from those in which main characters mislead by narrating
delusions or lies. By his standard, a film such as Fight Club
has an unreliable narrator, whereas a hallucinatory film such as Naked
Lunch does not. By its conclusion, as its narrator's head
clears, Fight Club
more rigidly distinguishes between the protagonist's hallucination and
diegetic reality than Cronenberg ever does. Cronenberg has stated (in
DVD commentary for Videodrome) that he does not mark
hallucinations stylistically, because "they feel real" to those who
experience them. But Cronenberg is alone in this approach among
mind-job filmmakers. Eig suggests that a film that was postmodern not
only in theme, but in narrative form as well, would do without the
classical storytelling typical of films such as Fight Club.
mind-job cinema violence follows the trend of contemporary
crime movies, in which gory, penetrative combat accompanies puns about
homosexuality and homosocial bonding. But these intimate violations
transcend even the liberal standards of cop action bloodshed. In the
cop movies that are peripheral to the mind-job cycle, sexual violence
between men marks a space where men admit to their madness and love of
antisocial action (King). So too, in mind-job cinema, where heroes join
anarchic quests and revel in rebellious destruction.
least violent film is A Scanner Darkly.
It features the explosion of a man's head by gunfire but little other
bloodshed. It is also the most depressive of the set, leaving its dazed
hero incarcerated in a nearly somnambulant state at its conclusion, as
if to suggest that, without violence, mind-job heroes cannot wake.
films include such romantic comedies as True Lies
(1994), Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), Mr. and Mrs.
(2005), and War, Inc. (2008). The heroes are not deluded about their
work as assassins, but their loved ones are, and heroes get stressed
trying to integrate their lives. The films play with the threats that
confused heroes pose to their lovers as they flee the constraints of
consumer life. For instance, Grosse Pointe Blank arranges
names and dialogue to represent the hero's anomie: his name is Mr.
Blank; he repeats the schizophrenic's mantra ("It's not me") when he
kills, hides behind dark glasses, and extorts psychotherapy with
mocking threats of violence.
this scholarly commentary on The Truman Show,
a cousin of mind-job films in which an apparently ordinary man only
realizes in middle age that his life has been choreographed by a
television producer. The commentary demonstrates links between the
purposes of film critics, postmodern scholars, and marketers of
While my own critical response
to the film's artistic merit is no
different than most critics' appraisal of it as a powerful indictment
of rampant technology and rote consumerism or as a "thought-stirring
parable about privacy and voyeurism" (Guthmann www.aboutfilm.com), the
real critical value of The Truman Show
lies in the boldness of its central concept and its self-reflexivity
which provides an apt metacommentary on the New Hollywood situation.
In the context of Kokonis's larger argument that Hollywood film has
subordinated narrative and critical commentary to spectacle, this is a
remarkable assessment of a postmodern film. The showy self-reflexivity
of so many Hollywood authors serves in such analysis, paradoxically, as
evidence that claims of hampered agency/authorship are valid. I suggest
not that the makers of The Truman Show
lack the insight that Kokonis attributes to them, but rather that such
intensive interpretation undercuts his own larger argument about
postmodern, postclassical Hollywood, and the way in which its
storytelling has sacrificed its critical, interpretable edge.
Pollard discuss the fate of film authorship in postmodern
Hollywood, concluding with the paradox that recent change in production
"simultaneously elevates and diminishes the status
of auteur" (23), endowing them with "the aura of (postmodern) critical
public intellectuals" (21). This is because directors can attain
celebrity status and work as free agents but must submit to
increasingly tight corporate control in order to have their projects
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