Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nothing is Real, Everything is Permitted: Park Chan-wook, William S. Burroughs, and Solipsism


Stoker, Park Chan-wook's latest film.
Regular readers of this blog will probably have noticed by this point that I am rather keen on the great, late American novelist William S. Burroughs.  At the beginning of his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, Burroughs asserts that “NOTHING IS REAL, EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED” [BILLY MAYS-STYLE ALL-CAPS IN THE ORIGINAL] Now, if we accept the first assertion, the second assertion follows somewhat logically.  If everyone is a phantom and everything is a hologram, conventional morality can hardly apply to them.  There’s no crime in assaulting a hologram.  This is solipsism at its most extreme.  And if you’re the type who’s willing to conclude that everything is permitted, then you can probably tweak the “nothing is real” line a bit.  For instance, maybe only some things are real, and so one can still act accordingly.

This solipsism can be traced through the films of Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, starting with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and reaching its apotheosis in the companion films, Thirst and Stoker.  Prior to his “Vengeance Trilogy,” Park directed—I believe—three other films.  The first two were made in the early nineties and were flops; the second was JSA: Joint Security Area, which catapulted him to fame and success and gave him the leeway to make the more unorthodox Vengeance films and the films that followed.  JSA is an excellent movie, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t accord with our argument here, so there’s nothing stopping us from just ignoring it.

In the Vengeance Trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance (2002, 2003, and 2005, respectively)—we find that some things are real.  The basic rules that govern reality are still real; people are real; but the social, economic, and legal structures that underpin reality have proven ineffective, and have essentially dissolved into anomie.  If the law worked—or was perceived to work—we wouldn’t have vengeance.  And in these films, the law and its attendant structures have failed, and so the characters have been left to pursue lawless campaigns of personal vengeance.

Park’s 2007 film I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok inverts the Burroughsian principle: within the confines of the mental institution where most of the action takes place, everything is very much real but nothing is permitted.  The inmates are there because they don’t understand that everything is real, and so they would act as if everything were permitted were they given the opportunity.

In 2009’s vampire romance tragedy Thirst (unexpectedly based on Zola’s Therese Raquin), we see the sociopathology that can lie at the heart of solipsism.  The film follows a once virtuous priest who becomes a vampire (because these things happen to the best of us) and is forced to abandon conventional morality in order to sustain himself.  When he becomes involved with a woman and ends up “vampirizing” her, she takes her newfound powers (super-strength, rapid self-healing, and the ability to jump very great heights) and sets about on a rampage; people are no longer people to her; they’re just bags of blood.  They’re no longer real, and hence everything is permitted to her in her conduct towards them.

Park’s latest film is his American debut, Stoker (and despite all the to-do about its being his first “American” movie, the main cast consists of Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, and Matthew Goode: two Australians and a Briton) depicts an asocial teenage girl (Wasikowska) who becomes involved in the machinations of her recently widowed mother (Kidman) and her mysterious paternal uncle (Matthew Goode).  In the process, all of the moral and societal conventions that once bound her fall apart, and her nascent solipsism blossoms upon exposure to the corruption and sadism of the adult world.  People don’t matter to her; everything is permitted.

The problem with solipsism as a philosophical position is that it’s almost impossible to maintain unless you’re a psychopath.  Most “solipsists” can’t help but try to convince other people that they don’t actually exist; if you were actually a solipsist, you wouldn’t care what these illusory automata think.  Even if we try to dismiss it, the world insists upon itself.

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