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Film

The Signal and the Violence of American Identity Politics

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.

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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