Thursday, December 24, 2009

See the Mice in Their Million Hordes

Life on Mars (the original British version) is not only a fantastic series, with the depth and complexity of a good novel, but it's one of the few places where my extensive, instinctive knowledge of old David Bowie songs is actually relevant! When a character says in conversation that some people walk around in a "sunken dream," I know immediately that it's a quote from the title track, a song I've always loved, since there are so few musical tributes to us girls with mousy hair.

It's also a very meta choice for a title tune, since the lyrics go "Take a look at the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy / Oh man, I wonder if he'll ever know / He's in the best-selling show/ Is There Life on Mars?" I'm not sure who the wrong guy he's beating up is, though -- apart from, sometimes, himself.

We'll get back to the song later, but for the record (no pun intended), it's from the album Hunky Dory, possibly my favorite Bowie album. The most serious contender for the title is Scary Monsters -- oddly enough, the source of the "Ashes to Ashes" song that will give its name to the Life on Mars sequel. I'm clearly on a wavelength with somebody.

Life on Mars is the mind-bendy, time-twisty tale of police inspector Sam Tyler, who is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. He has the same name, but a new car, a new ID, and transfer papers from the more "modern" unit in Hyde (and it took me annoyingly long to think that there may be a "Jekyll and" identity tidbit in that name) to an unscientific unit run on instinct and machismo. Having seen star John Simm play the villainous Master (brilliantly) on the new Doctor Who, the line "that either makes me a time-traveller or a lunatic" made me yell at the TV: "Or both!"

Simm, by the way, looks so effortlessly cool in the role that there was a point in literally every episode that made me say, "Ohh, I need to get a new leather jacket." It's the same one throughout the series: not motorcycle black leather, but more a narrow, almost blazer-like cut. The kind of black leather that isn't trying too hard.

Anyway. It's not giving anything away to say that most of the series supports the Coma Theory of events, since that's the primary conclusion Sam comes to in the first episode. That is, that Sam's in a coma in the future, populating his mental landscape with metaphorical figures, and what happens to him is all a symbolic representation of his mental state. It's literally all in his mind.

If that's correct, then the actual events that take place within the show are all metaphorical. Which is kind of twisty-bendy, since the show is metaphorical outside itself, the way something like The Matrix is -- working as a metaphor for the human condition. What's real? How do we know? What does it all mean? How do we cope with the uncertainty of it all?

For one thing, most people don't really believe their co-workers are literally figments of their imagination, but a certain practical, everday solipsism isn't uncommon. We don't really register the reality of all the people outside ourselves; after all, there's millions of them. We can know it intellectually, but at the end of the day, most of us are concerned with our own reality and our own perceptions, and we act as if we know they're true. So to some degree Sam's dilemma parallels our own relationship to the larger world around us.

Interestingly, despite the fact that Sam is mostly convinced that he's in a coma, and none of what seems like his everyday life is real, that belief doesn't help when, say, an innocent person gets murdered. He still cares about what's happening, and despite the uncertainty about whether it's real, he still thinks it matters. And after all, as long as there's the slightest chance that his reality may be real, he has to commit to it in his actions and his concern, which he can give regardless of whether he thinks it's ultimately real. (For "real," one could almost substitute "meaningful.") He never blows things off, or even thinks his ethical concerns are insignificant, on the basis that none of it is real, or think that because it's all like a dream, he can do whatever he wants.

Tangent: this raised a question in my mind throughout the series. How much is the Sam personality in the show the same as the "real" Sam, who may be in a coma? If it's a mental projection, is it himself as he really is, or as he sees himself, which may be more what he'd like to be? Especially in regards to his sort of self-righteous, highly ethical qualities, which the show continually contrasts with his boss Gene Hunt's tough-talking, quick-fisted, "whatever gets the job done" attitude. The emphasis on this contrast between the two men and their different styles of policing has two interesting possibilities:

-- Maybe Sam isn't really as successfully ethical as he likes to think he is. Because his mental self-image is so strait-laced, it's obvious that he really believes, for examples, that the ends don't ultimately justify the means. But the negative results (lack of respect for the police and thus the forces of law and order; deals with the devil eroding the individual's value system; etc.) are all long-term, and the possible short-hand benefits (solving a crime, making powerful allies, putting a dangerous criminal away) are sometimes enticing. It's possible that there are times he's compromised his beliefs, or done the expedient thing to either play the game, or get results. A sense of guilt, deeply internalized, since his conscious belief is in himself as an ethical person, could create the symbolic character of Gene, who argues the point with him.

-- Conversely, if the real Sam were as ethical and strait-laced as his dream persona, he could still feel frustrated and hampered by circumstances, even while accepting the necessity for the higher moral ground. Deep down, though, he might wish he could take more direct or intuitive action, so that, when faced with crimes committed by terrible people, he need not worry about the letter of the law himself. If Gene is actually a part of his own self, then their interaction could be a process of Sam finding out who he really is, even the aspects that he keeps buried, which his conscious self would deny.

Now that I've seen the whole series (two seaons, sixteen episodes), I can't say that this has been conclusively resolved. (Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!) Fortunately, the ending didn't feel like a cop-out, because the themes (How do we know who we are? How do we know what's real?) have been explored so intelligently, and because Sam emotionally reaches what felt like a satisfying resolution. (scroll a bit for spoilers)

Let the Spoilers Begin!

Toward the end, when Gene is labeled as a symbol of a tumor that could kill Sam in the present day, that just doesn't seem right, because Gene, despite his occasional brutality, clearly isn't all bad. He's more a representative of the gut instinct, the animal appetites, the visceral experience of life, as opposed to the cerebral and abstract. As in life, those instincts and appetites can lead to things that are not healthy or morally defendable. But in the Coma Theory, Gene can easily be seen to represent the impulses that are keeping Sam alive. Sam himself, or at least the Sam who seems to be living in 1973, is the cerebral, logical side: if he's in a coma, his body is completely shut down, so in effect he's nothing but brain.

The series seems, for the most part, to suggest in the end that Sam is now actually dead. The reality of 2006 has been affirmed throughout the show by extra-textual details, like the accurate information Sam has about the present (Tony Blair, etc), which supports the Coma Theory, and the idea that 1973 is the mental projection, not the other way around. (More on that in a sec). We also hear the voice that we think belongs to his doctor, saying that they're losing him.

In this way, the ending implies that Sam's return to 1973 is in the nature of an afterlife. However, throughout the series, 2006 actually has had more the nature of an afterlife: it's a place he believes in, and gets glimmers of, but it's less "real" than 1973, which is where his actual physical present is. When dealing with crime, Sam's logical, by-the-book self is all about the evidence, and yet, he has no evidence to back up his belief about what has happened to him. Even if his belief were true, the only evidence of it he can ever get is if he wakes up from his coma. But if that happens, the only evidence he'll have is because it's happened, and he won't be able to prove the ultimate "reality" of the real world. Because the supposedly "unreal" world of 1973 felt just as real at the time. In the end, perhaps there's only so far reason can take us, and at that point, we have to go with our feelings (both physical and emotional).

It can of course be argued that, in the end, that's what happens: he wakes up from his coma, and no longer can tell the difference between the "real" world and what's in his head, so he makes a decision based on what he wants -- no longer trying to know what's real, but choosing to decide what he's going to treat as real.

The last episode sets up an equally plausible alternative to the Coma Theory: the Undercover Amnesia Theory. In this version, 1973 is actually what's real, and Sam is hallucinating his memories of the future, along with the communications he's been receiving, due to brain damage from his accident. If this theory is correct, then he's making the choice to commit to the only reality he can feel and touch, or has any empirical evidence of, rather than continually striving for a return to an idealized "home," the existence of which he can do nothing to prove. In effect, choosing to believe that his everyday existence is real, and that the other people in it are real and meaningful.

Either way, the ending feels (there's that word again!) more like an integration, in which Sam is finally reconciles the different aspects of himself. If the different characters and their lives are all playing out on a symbolic level inside his brain, it seems to have left him with a healthier internal landscape than he started with. Particularly in that the Sam we see at the end hasn't capitulated to the Gene Hunt way of seeing the world. Sam is still arguing for his vision of a more rational and more ethical future. Instead of escaping his present physical reality, he's working to improve the reality he's in. But while he's doing it, the two men are both together in the front seat, arguing, good-naturedly, in a sense about instinct versus intellect, body versus mind. The characters, or personas if you will, who symbolize these apparently contrasting elements are working side by side, equally important.

So I can't say in the end what it all means, and I'm sure the sequel will make a mess of my theories, and (hopefully) give me new ones. As Bowie said in "The Bewlay Brothers," also from Hunky Dory: "We were so turned on/By your lack of conclusions."

Oh, speaking of: I was going to say some more about the "Life on Mars?" song (the song title ends with a question mark). Like most of Hunky Dory, it's an odd thing. A girl gets kicked out of her house, wanders aimlessly, and goes to the movies, but this minimal story contains a lot of lyrical weirdness (mice in their million hordes, for one thing). It depicts a bleak, colorless existence, enlivened only by her becoming "hooked to the silver screen." But then, "The film is a saddening bore/'Cause she's lived it ten times or more."

The storyline has a recursive feel: her life seems alienated and numb (as she walks through that "sunken dream" we heard about before), as if it's not real. But when she watches the movie, to escape, it's really about her, and about other people who don't know that they're in the movie, maybe the same way she doesn't know she's in the movie. I know, I'm rambling, but it's that kind of song. The point seems to be that she attempts to escape her reality, but in doing so, it only highlights how she views her reality through a filter of unreality, when she's really starring in the movie of her own life. She doesn't realize it, so she views herself and her everyday life as insignificant.

The other intriguing bit is the recurring chorus, where "they" -- presumably the makers of the movie, whoever they are (which I can't answer, since I don't know if we're really talking the media, or a metaphor for existence, and thus fate? God? Chance?) -- "ask her to focus on" images of violence. That includes the lawman beating up the wrong guy, as well as the "sailors fighting in the dancehall." Reminds me of the words of that other famous British philosopher, the Streets: "Geezers need excitement. If their lives don't provide them this they incite violent. It's common sense. Simple common sense." People need to feel things. So for better or worse, entertainment that focuses on violent, visceral experience can make some people, who are otherwise as alienated and numb as that girl with the mousy hair, feel more alive.

One other song off Hunky Dory has a real hardcore Life on Mars feel. It's a cheerful ditty called "Fill Your Heart." If I could put together a Life on Mars fan video, I'd totally use it. At that point in his career (1971), Bowie was beginning to hone his upcoming oddball space alien persona, but his voice still largely sounded young, earnest, and slightly folky. It's a weird mix. The song starts like this: "Fill your heart with love today/Don't play the game of time/Things that happened in the past/Only happened in your mind/Only your mind/So forget your mind/And you'll be free."

(Spoilers! O, the Spoilers!) At the "You'll be freeeee" part, it would be totally perfect to show the part where he jumps off the roof.

One more quick footnote: besides his time on Doctor Who, John Simm played New Order frontman Bernard Sumner in that 24 Hour Party People movie! He even sang along with the chorus of "Digital" with them onstage, which made me ridiculously excited to discover. I thought I was an odd person when I went from Doctor Who to Joy Division, but everything comes around in the end. What rises must converge, etc. Check out the video here. "Day in! Day out! Day in! Day out!"

And here he is singing "Blue Monday" in a deleted scene. I love it when the worlds collide.

No comments: