The Signal and the Violence of American Identity Politics

[11 November 2008]

By Timothy Gabriele

“America is not so much a nightmare as a non-dream. The American non-dream is precisely a move to wipe the dream out of existence. The dream is a spontaneous happening and therefore dangerous to a control system, set up by the non-dreamers”—William S. Burroughs

“Do you hear that?  It’s past the noise in your head.  That is the natural world. That was here a long time before us.  It’s going to be here a long time after we’re gone.”— Ben, The Signal

Upon the theatrical release of The Signal in early 2008, the movie was received timidly by audiences and critics alike.  The cumulative totals on Rotten Tomatoes (55) and Metacritic (63) betray a disparity amongst filmgoers, who mostly found the film’s three acts jarring and disjointed, but enjoyable as a break from convention. 

Viewers disagreed about where the film’s narrative heart lied, and to what exactly it spoke.  Most felt cheated either by the inconsistencies in tone or the broadness of its perceived thematic cathexis, both of which they felt spoilt an otherwise rewarding thriller.  Whether they envisioned the film as a wry commentary or just a vapid genre exercise, no singular conclusion about The Signal could be reached. 

Ironically, the fracture of these parallax views is correlative to The Signal‘s themes of identity and perspective, and how each are vulnerable to interrogative manipulation by mass media.  The creation of these divisions in the film threatens to completely alienate each individual from his or her community and thereby tighten the stranglehold of the transmission and reinforce its ideology of violence as communication. 

Many of those initial reviews tended to focus on form and process rather than product.  The Signal has a central gimmick in that its acts were divided between its three creators (David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush), who worked exquisite corpse style on the script and took turns in the director’s chair for each of the film’s three “Transmissions” (“Crazy in Love”,  “Jealousy Monster”, and “Escape from Terminus”).  Knowing that each “Transmission” is attributable to a separate directorial personality makes it easy to dismiss the film’s tonal temperaments as dilettante experimentalism for experimentalism’s sake, especially as it relates to a crew of cinematic virgins with no longform films on their resumes to buttress the depth of their form experiments.

Yet The Signal is supposed to be a film infected with its own crazy.  It is mercurial precisely because its characters are driven to abandon reason in favor of emotion and to abandon emotion in rationalization of their outrageous behavior.  The presupposition of reality in the film is questioned at every turn. 

With each curtain of the film’s three acts comes a shift not only in filmmaking perspective, but in narrative perspective as well. Transmission I or “Crazy in Love” follows Mya, visibly careworn even before the outbreak, as she discovers and subsequently tries to evade the infected. Transmission II or “Jealousy Monster” follows a paranoid trio of partygoers, dividing the film’s triptych further, though mostly focusing on Mya’s husband Lewis as he struggles to understand his newfound illness. Transmission III or “Escape From Terminus” mostly adopts the vantage of Mya’s extramarital fling Ben, who is infected, but has taught himself how to control it, or at least he thinks so.  His confusion makes the later narrative increasingly unreliable and deteriorative. 

The plot of The Signal centers on Mya (Anessa Ramsey), a 20-something trapped in a not-entirely-loveless, but not-entirely-fulfilling marriage with an exterminator named Lewis (A.J. Lewis).  Mya becomes entangled in a tryst with a photographer named Ben (Justin Welborn), who, after a night of bliss, begs her to run off with him.

Anything is possible, Ben informs her, eager to dissuade her hesitancy. “We could go up to the rooftop and build and exotic flower garden. Or take one of my cameras and dress up like homeless people and infiltrate their society. Or we could throw my TV out the window and replace it with coloring books. Or we could leave Terminus tomorrow”, Ben rattles off, somewhat presciently.  Though she secretly wants to submit to his promise of absolute freedom, Mya doesn’t feel she can abandon her obligations to her husband so hastily. Concurrently, a transmission is sent out from an unknown source through various forms of electronic media that begets a massacre at the hands of everyday citizens turning against their loved-ones, co-workers, and the random passerby. 

Mya thinks that her identity is fixed, which is a premise the signal reinforces, strengthens, and regulates using an innate violence from within its frustrated hosts as a kind of self-defense mechanism for cultural conformity.  The violence is bred familialy, tribally almost, particularly within Mya’s husband Lewis, who sees himself as a protector of the ideal of familyhood.  All impediments to his (and to a lesser extent Mya’s) happiness become perceived threats. 

As he searches for her, Lewis’s perception of Mya and what she represents becomes an abstraction, a kind of nationalism and absolutism of identity.  This is not his own conclusion, the film suggests, but one reached through contact with the signal and its rendering of fear and desire.

“It’s telling me what I should do and what I should want”, Lewis says at one point.  “I want my wife and I want my home and I want all of you people to stop bothering us”.

It’s no secret that the signal itself functions as a critique of mass media.  At a pre-screening of the film in Philadelphia, Bruckner made the unexpected revelation that much of the script had come about in the wake of overdosing on 2004 election coverage.  He recounted a crippling depression over the media’s role in such a dire debate, how it transformed rhetoric into reality and created a shallow framework for understanding. 

Indeed, while the results would by no means inspire men and women to go out gratuitously murdering one another, these were matters of life and death. People’s lives for the next four years were literally on the line; in Iraq and Afghanistan, in American hospitals, in hurricane-torn regions, etc.  The public, given such critical circumstances, was not given a sufficient enough platform on which to make a decision, regardless of what their options were.  They were instead driven by fear and given reinforced and pre-molded American identities.

The absolutism of Lewis’ ideals becomes a stopgap for analysis. For him, problems can no longer be solved by any means other than pure visceral, primal response.  Yet, Lewis’ aggressive impulses are never engendered from any kind of Darwinian bestiality (like, say, a movie werewolf) or a hopeless automatonism (like, say, Romero’s zombies), but from constant fear of losing control over his life.  Lewis fears not only physical threats on his person and his wife, but also attacks upon his value system. To the infected Lewis, these two are proportionately identical threats and require appropriately proportionate reactions. 

Thus, Lewis represents the psychosis of the modern American dream, which is cold, individualistic, self-aggrandizing, and contingent upon the destruction or marginalization of other viewpoints.  He is the red-blooded red state alpha male who feels tragically powerless in the face of change.  This is a fear that is not entirely baseless, though Lewis’ and perhaps many similar Americans’ scapegoats are falsely targeted (extradiegetically this may includes gays, immigrants, environmentalists, etc.). 

When conflicts are settled using only violence, it reduces language to no more than a perfunctory byproduct of the violent action itself.  The signal, while seemingly avoiding logic in favor of survivalism, becomes its own rationale.  Every killing has its justification (“He had it coming.  Probably.” Clark, one of the partygoers from Transmission II says), but the violence itself is the end communication.  And like Burroughs’ language bug, the message is viral, a meme that spreads rapidly throughout Terminus, escalating the tension with every fresh corpse, killing begetting killing.  Even those who have not been switched on by the signal catch the bug via close proximity to, and hence the socialization of, the utter madness of life in Terminus.

This sense of alarmism and bewilderment comes from a concept the filmmakers seem to have borrowed from George A. Romero’s The Crazies, a movie about a military occupation trying to contain an outbreak of a rage-like virus.  The Crazies, like The Signal, poses the ethical quandary; how can you tell whether someone is being defensive or offensive when they feel that their homeland and/or their person is threatened? 

The citizens of Terminus face no looming authoritarian symbol of oppression like the omnipresent military in The Crazies.  Their disease instead constitutes a form of mental colonialism.  Their situation is accepted as a substitute reality because the pandemonium that surrounds them seems to dictate it.  Instead of lashing out at their TVs, the perceived threats from their friends and neighbors become a manufactured source of oppression. 

The oppressor in The Signal is an underlying, parental figure in absentia.  It goes beyond specific leaders and institutions.  It is culture itself, madness personified in its elusion of guilt.  Industrial civilization as pathology, inextricably and somehow willfully divorced from reality.  This disease leads to a society of individuals, holistically alienated from one another, intimately oppressed within the panopticon and hence unable to huddle as masses to overthrow their jailers. 

Mya seemingly avoids infection by plugging herself in to a closed-circuit system in the form of her portable discman.  As she walks around listening to Ola Podrida’s cover of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” ad nauseum through headphones on the mix CD Ben made for her, her headphones give her the ability to phase out the signal’s domination enterprise, its permanent state of hostility.  Mya’s disconnection appears to be strategic, yet she also maintains an unrealistic fantasy of reengaging with Ben by meeting him at a train station and righting her erroneous decision to leave his side.

Television, the main fountainhead of the signal’s strength, allows its viewer to be wired into an exclusive community, a community constituted of the very culture industry its pervasive influence has created through the fetishization and demonization of various images and ideologies.  We feel like we are part of that community when we watch, but unless we are part of the privileged elite, we remain unable to democratically alter its trajectory in any meaningful way except in those that mass media allows (mainly through consumption and social identity-building). 

The signal ossifies the notion that the choices made under television’s influence are empowering, the unspoken backdrop being that much of the rest of life under the American system does not grant us the control available through violent recourse.  Any kid who shoots up his school or any downsized worker who runs into the nearest McDonalds or Unitarian church with an automatic weapon can attest to such.

At the Philadelphia pre-screening, the filmmakers revealed that the signal itself, as it is portrayed on screen, was composed of disturbing images from television and popular culture’s past which were manipulated and scrambled until they were unrecognizable. Though they’re not discernable in film, one could imagine any number that might fit perfectly. Ours is a world in which the collective unconscious is plagued by atrocity. The 20th century was by far the bloodiest in history, even when adjusted for population density. And the 21st is shaping up to be no better, thanks in no small part to the rapid global and domestic growth of sectarianism, nationalism, and other identity politics

Upon first being exposed to the natal culture of violence that rages throughout the apartment complex of Transmission I, the viewer can safely assume that what is happening on screen is actually happening within the film.  The violence is stark, brutal, and random, and thereby familiar within the horror and thriller genres.  By Transmission II, we’re encountering characters who are already, only hours later, desensitized to this culture and facing the prospects of living within in it.  The film’s second act then becomes a kind of Brechtian farce (complete with the deus ex machina ending of Ben slamming a pesticide tank into Lewis’s face) wherein violence becomes, as much for the viewers as the characters, normative.

The casualization of violence is an important factor for the horror genre.  The everyday event, such as showering, swimming, talking on your cell phone, breaking up with a girlfriend, or camping, is exploited for its vulnerabilities in the horror film.  The fear of death and the trivialization of its finality is part of what makes a horror film thrilling, rather than hopelessly sad. 

As viewers, we invite this danger into our lives (and our nightmares) in a sense because there’s part of us that empathizes with this bloodlust.  We want to see the dumb teens succumb to the serial killer’s machete blade.  Videodrome‘s Max Renn and his response to each video nasty is a perfect example of this stimulation. He is not only allured by the rush of the torture films, but also eroticized by the power of the imagery, the camera’s ability to render heaven as hell and vice versa. 

Max Renn, however, seeks out his transgressions.  The Signal subverts its viewers while they think that the cable’s gone out.  I’d posit that the reason most viewers found the transition to Transmission II jarring is because it invites them to participate in the absurdist perspective of its mass murderers and then punishes them emotionally for their complicity. 

In Transmission II, housewife Anna prepares for a New Year’s Eve party as the signal overtakes her husband Ken.  In self-defense, she kills him with a balloon pump.  Soon after, Clark the landlord comes over asking if he can reclaim his hatchet and garbage bags that Ken borrowed.  Unbeknownst to Anna, he needs them so he can chop up Rod, whose car crashed in the front of the housing complex. 

Soon after, Lewis arrives looking for Mya, who appears to him via hallucination in the form of Anna, who, for her part, simply thinks Lewis has arrived for the party.  Things get even more convoluted as an oblivious guest actually shows up for the party, eager to scout out loose women and do terrible, degrading things to them.

Throughout the sequence, there is a nervous tension that inspires a kind of slapstick violence, mostly perpetrated by Lewis, who is eager to “exterminate with extreme prejudice”.  Just as the expectations of comedy become ripe, the film takes a decidedly grim turn as Lewis begins to suspect Anna and Clark have done something to Mya.  Lewis’s on-screen execution of Anna is horrific, disfiguring her face by spraying pesticides in her eyes and mouth.  Yet, for Lewis, the slapstick continues as she stumbles around, crashing into a wall in her blindness, nearly tripping over the couch full of corpses in party hats that Lewis has modeled.  Now that such carnage is being perpetrated against characters we’ve has come to care about, the viewer immediately becomes culpable in the atrocities, having laughed over similar crimes just moments before.

Rather than wagging a finger at its audience like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, The Signal understands its own complicity in the reproduction, exploitation, and manufacture of tragedy.  Its penitence is to expose its violence as bitter and denigrating.  Gory and thrilling to be sure, but never something to be relished.  At best, even violence in self-defense (and the film is especially deliberate to single out acts of preemptive violence, likely in defiance of the Bush doctrine) is a gray matter.  After titillating us in the beginning of the second act with the prospect of normative superficial aggression, it pleads with us by the end of Transmission II to never adopt this perspective outside the realm of fantasy, to never become Lewis. 

Transmission III quickly eradicates the guilt by cracking Lewis’s skull open with a pesticide tank, Ben’s heroic rescue setting the stage for a finalé wherein he can reunite with Mya and ride off into the sunset through train terminal 13.  However, true to form, the film affords its characters no such simple resolutions.  The pesticide tank assault, it seems, never really happened, or, at best, it was an exaggeration of Ben’s psychotic mindset. 

This leads us to question what in the film, from the opening reel to the closing credits, is mere representation and what is true.  Is any of the violence real? Or is the film’s only reality that which we choose to believe, making us as delusioned by media as those infected by the signal?

Ben seems to believe that there is a natural world breathing and billowing beyond the societal static, the albatross of mental interference that constitutes the signal’s presence, and thereby culture at large.  “Do you hear that?  It’s past the noise in your head.  That is the natural world.  That was here a long time before us.  It’s going to be here a long time after we’re gone.”  Anything beyond that is merely perspective.  “It’s a trick”, he says.  “If we change the way we look at things, the things we look at will change”. 

It follows then that the world of Terminus has become indistinguishable from its representation.  The characters’ experiences in the natural world are the old reality.  The television set has supplanted reality and supplied them with a new version of reality.  In a culture so obsessed with believing its own fantasies, where every aspect of its delusions is validated by a system eager to sell you your next one, each representation can only be replaced by a different representation.  Hence, erasure of the new reality can only be temporary.  As Videodrome‘s McLuhan-esque figure Brian Oblivion puts it, “Life on TV is more real than life in the flesh … and reality is less than television”. 

Ben discovers, through observing the signal via terminal 13’s departure screen while Mya sits catatonic nearby, that the only way to defeat Lewis is to strip him of his identity. Left without the one thing that defines him, Lewis is pure conditioning, without the will to self-actualize.  He is only the sum of his aggression and the consequence of his actions.

Yet it is the film’s final vision that prompts perhaps the most disturbing variation on these themes.  Mya is forced by Lewis to stare directly into the void of the signal.  Lewis, the tragic figure of the film, finds himself without a purpose and commits suicide.  Ben snaps Mya out of her trance, they hug, and a wordless montage appears on the screen that features Ben, Mya, and Clark rebuilding their lives and hopping that train out of town. 

All seems well, until the façade of their grand finale dissipates and Ben is still trying to reawaken Mya.  He finally puts Mya’s headphones around her head.  As Ola Podrida’s version of “Atmosphere” is heard one final time, she closes her eyes and a single tear runs down her face.

There are plenty of ways to interpret this coda.  Throughout the film, Ben seems to survive his struggles by returning to a flashing image of Mya staring at him on a train as an image of hope.  Many see the montage as a flash forward, the anticipation of Ben’s heroic fantasy completed.  Yet, the themes discussed above would suggest a different interpretation.  This is not Ben’s reality, but Mya’s dream, fantasized from within her signal-trance.  After all, it’s a vision that ends when Ben puts on her headphones. 

Ultimately, Mya’s delusion, her vision to join Ben and “fuck our way to freedom” is just as abstract and untenable as Lewis’s concept of the perfect family unit.  It’s that which puts her in that chair at the terminal and nearly kills her. This kind of simulated reality, albeit an idealistic one, is equally capable of replacing the actual, laying down our defenses, and making us vulnerable and unprepared for the harsh truths of the world around us. 

Hence, The Signal ends by inferring that the ideal will always be more attractive than the actual.  But there are no fantasy endings, no short ways out, no romance that can defeat modern horrors in and of itself. Beyond the noise, beyond the construct of identity, there’s only the natural world.  Only that has been here before we started ascribing our mythologies to it.  Only that will be here after those same mythologies destroy us.

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