This week’s pick is another noir, Gaslight.
I have a bit of a rambling preamble, which has no spoilers, because it has little to do with this movie specifically.
Last time, when we were discussing Ace in the Hole, I mentioned that it evoked this growing sense of paranoia I’ve had, and I thought I’d talk about that a bit more before we start.
Over the past year or two, at what seems to be an accelerating rate, I’ve found a noir tinge to many of my own social interactions…
A glance exchanged in the hallway, where you catch what you are sure is a look of utter despair in the eyes of your neighbor, like they have just been staring straight into the abyss and have not yet had time to compose themselves before your encounter…
An offhand remark in casual conversation–a remark with innocuous intention, that was mistakenly uttered with a certain phrasing that gives it a grave and tragic significance that you are ninety-nine percent certain was recognized by all of the participants – all of whom, however, let the thing lie without any explicit acknowledgement…
It’s as if everyone is taking great care to maintain the facade that until now you thought was just your own misperception. But these moments make you think maybe everyone else neither has a much more beautiful, optimistic picture of reality that you just have not yet grasped yourself, nor are they blissfully ignorant of the desperate truth which has been clear to you for so long. Yes, you are indeed seeing things as accurately as they are, and no, they are not ignorant. They are just keeping up appearances.
I am reminded of this bit from Slavoj Žižek I recently heard. You have all of these parents who don’t believe in Santa Claus but who say they do for the sake of the children. And, at the same time, you have all these kids who don’t believe in Santa Claus but who say they do because they see that their parents enjoy the idea that they believe.
Does every sort of optimism work like this?
These shared glimpses of cracks in socially constructed reality sent me back to The Crack Up, probably more out of a linguistic association (‘crack’) than any deep thematic relevance. I went back and reread the essay yesterday, and somewhat germane to this line of thought, Fitzgerald said,
[T]he test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
Hemingway said Fitzgerald was a coward. Plato called this sort of thing a noble lie. The Camus doc is called The Madness of Sincerity. I like this last way of putting it best…
The 1944 film we are about to watch, I learned this week, was a remake of a 1940 film of the same name directed by Thorold Dickinson, itself based on a play named Gaslight from Patrick Hamilton.
One fun bit of trivia from Wikipedia before we start:
Encouraged by the success of the play and film, MGM bought the remake rights, but with a clause insisting that all existing prints of Dickinson’s version be destroyed, even to the point of trying to destroy the negative, so that it would not compete with their more highly publicised 1944 remake starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotten. “Fortunately they failed, and now the British film has been restored by the BFI and issued in the UK on Blu-ray in a pristine print.”
As I mentioned, I’ve been watching a lot of noir since since I heard Rob had selected Ace in the Hole for #11, things like Kansas City Confidential and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and this week, Gaslight, an old favorite of mine.
What has resonated with me always about noir–but even more so this year–is the way the genre uses suspension of disbelief to take you on the same ride as the characters. In many other genres, dramatic irony makes you groan when you know something the protagonist doesn’t know that will result in some entertaining or humorous revelation. Or, it’s used to heighten anticipation and suspense–perhaps a trick learned from the Buddhists, who distinguish pain (an unpleasant experience) from the rumination anticipating pain (suffering) – you might say dramatic irony is a tool that enables the audience to suffer along with the characters of the story.
In noir, what is called into question is not just what particular plot twist will resolve a particular predicament, but the fundamental underpinnings of reality and experience. If we (and the protagonist) come to realize that we have misinterpreted A and B, we feel that there is no limit to the number of other axioms–X, Y, Z, etc–which we once held to be fundamental truths, upon which we built up our picture of reality–that we can now also no longer hold onto.
I’m reminded of the feeling of walking out of The Museum of Jurassic Technology and thinking that all of Los Angeles – every shop, every front yard, every billboard, even the production of entire television shows advertised on the billboards – was an extension of the museum manufactured by its creators.
When you’re thrown into a state of complete uncertainty like this, one of the ways to extricate yourself is through the help of other people – having lost trust in your own subjective basic sensory perceptions about ‘objective reality’, you might try to deduce a picture of it by looking for commonalities in (and the implications of) the observations of other people. If you talk to enough of the blind men touching the elephant, you might construct an accurate representation of the elephant without ever perceiving it yourself.
This piecing together of a picture of reality by collaborating with others–social constructivism–is subject to exploit by human actors who understand the phenomena and manipulate the socially constructed reality for their own benefit, as Rob noted in his remarks on Ace in the Hole. In that film, the manipulation seems somehow more innocuous – a bit of exaggeration and Chuck Tatem takes home a big paycheck, but there’s a perfectly possible sequence of events where Tatem pulls it off and ‘nobody gets hurt.’
In Gaslight, the manipulation is far more diabolical–Gregory shows no hints of a strategy where he benefits but Paula remains unscathed–the only reason she’s alive at all is because he needs to extract information from her.
The other particularly diabolical element in Gaslight is Gregory’s manipulation of physical reality. He’s not just constrained to the realm of linguistic falsehood and media manipulation. For example, he hides his pocket watch in Paula’s purse and convinces her that she stole it. And, he’s aware of the escape hatch of trading observations in conversation with others, so he designs situations where encounters with other people reinforce Paula’s skewed picture of reality and doubt of her own sanity, rather than ground her back in some accurate picture of the world. This pocket watch incident is staged at a public concert, where he bets Paula’s hysterical reaction will lead the attendees to share the belief about Paula’s mental instability he is attempting to construct.
Much of Gregory’s efficacy comes from his intimate knowledge of Paula and focus of all of his power on her specifically – he’s not a circus trickster or media artist, trying to pull off some shallow sleight of hand on a crowd. He is closely attuned to Paula’s behavior and able to design far deeper tricks that seem more incredible than those you could pull off on a crowd. Hence, he is able to cast a far deeper level of doubt upon Paula.
This calls to mind the very modern concern about manipulation of the internet media at scale – when you can know each individual in an intimate way and custom design content specifically for them, instead of broadcasting a shallow falsehood to everyone, you can craft personalized lies that are far more believable for each individual.
Imagine a game where the goal for a society is to construct as accurate a picture of objective reality as possible. Every actor knows that her own perceptions and logic are subject to flaw, so when she contributes beliefs to the collective, she assigns each one of them a confidence level. There’s then a process for aggregating the shared beliefs, given their respective confidence levels, into the most accurate picture of reality possible. Theoretically, this should produce a more accurate picture–with greater depth and breadth of knowledge–than any individual might derive on independently, given her margins of error.
This, I think, is to a large extent how human knowledge at the species level works.
As malicious actors accrue more technological power, however, their ability to subvert this system towards their own ends increases. Mass media makes it easier to disseminate a false belief to a greater number of people, and big data, computation, and internet communication technology allow the crafting and targeting of a personalized message to each person that results in a higher level of confidence in the false belief of each individual.
Gaslight doesn’t lend much in terms of practical advice for individuals who find themselves in this predicament – the arrival of Brian Cameron from Scotland Yard to save the day feels a bit like a deus ex machina ending.
The best ideas I have for escaping gaslighting are some questions to ask about experience and about media.
(1) Is this logically consistent with everything else I have experienced? Unfortunately this is not a sufficient criteria for validating a belief, given the limits of reason and logic pointed out by the modernists. Despite the limitations of reason, I do think rational thinking can be the way out of a lot of false belief traps.
(2) Who benefits if I believe this / if this is the case? Why? Adopting this attitude towards all information we receive from other people tends towards a world of distrust, which is highly inefficient and less desirable in most ways than a world where you by default trust others. Before mass media, the default of trust perhaps made more sense, since most people probably are good, and if you were playing a numbers game, you’d probably net out OK trusting. Technology, however, makes the influence of a small percentage of bad actors greater, and it makes it easier for them to masquerade as communication from an individual that we might trust (or someone that we do indeed trust). So, we may be trending towards a (sad) world where the appropriate default is mistrust of information provided by others.
(3) Supposing what this person says is true–or, many other people believe what they say is true–what kind of world results? Once you have admitted that any shared reality we settle upon is largely constructed, you might start enumerating all of the options and weighing them as possible worlds we might choose. I encounter a lot of noise and support for beliefs that might disrupt the current dynamics of power and injustices of the moment, but if followed to the limit case would result in a world of equal or greater injustice. #3 is the one I wish more people would ask themselves today.
Rather than conclude in any tighter way, I’ll leave with a final question, one perhaps not important when facing these dilemmas, but which comes to mind nonetheless.
Which is more important: consistency, or accuracy?