The Signal and the Violence of American Identity Politics

The oppressor in The Signal is an underlying, parental figure in absentia. It is industrial civilization as pathology, inextricably and somehow willfully divorced from reality.

"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.

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