Knowledge, Agency, and Film
The most intriguing films and television shows give us reason to question the foundations of our knowledge and agency. Knowledge of ourselves, of who we think we are, and what we would like to be. At stake are what we can know, how we can know it, and what we should do.
We form relationships with cinematic narratives. They become more than just entertainment, more than just a pastime. Part of the confidence game that films play is that they get their viewers to accept that the people portrayed have certain motives and that their actions can be explained. When we speak of what occurs in a film, we speak of what the characters do as if they are real people. “Ramius kills the Red October’s Soviet security officer, makes it look like an accident, and takes his nuclear missile key.” Of course that moment never really happened, but as a constructed narrative moment, it did.
I have seen this film probably twenty times. I know what happens when, and I know how it ends. Why do I watch this film over and over? In part because I can appreciate it and enjoy it as a finely crafted narrative, with compelling acting, as well as direction that holds its audience in just the right amount of suspense. This suspense is operative whether I know the film or not. Part of the joy of having a bowl of popcorn with this movie is that I’m pretty sure the experience, even though I know almost every moment of the film, will yield a satisfying emotional outcome. I would argue that even the first people to see this movie in theaters in 1990, even if they hadn’t read the book or knew nothing of the story, were pretty sure of that, too. Given the generic conventions of a Hollywood film with a number of name actors, and the context of the Cold War (a context that we might be bound for again, unfortunately), I think most in the audience understood that the film would not end in, say, nuclear annihilation, or the sinking of an American submarine.
The other part is that I make a psychic investment into The Hunt For Red October each time I watch it. What does this mean? It is not that it “has a good ending,” or that it has a simple lesson to give. It is that I identify with the film’s characters, and the film as a whole. Just as characters within the film have their own drives and motives, the film has its own narrative drive, its own motive. In the case of The Hunt For Red October, there is a delightful irony in that, although its narrative drive might seem to be characterized by its title, we come to know that the Soviet missile submarine Red October becomes the object not of a hunt, but rather that of Jack Ryan’s obsession to understand the motivations behind the Red October’s commander. That his obsession is in conflict with the destructive obsession of an American submarine commander raises the stakes of my emotional investment. How could Jack Ryan know the intentions of a Soviet submarine commander? How could I know the intentions of my adversary in similar circumstances?
Thirty years after the publication of the novel on which this film is based, Americans find themselves in similar circumstances. Russia has annexed Crimea, and speculation has begun on what Russia’s intentions are with regard to the Ukraine. Most of us are simply without adequate knowledge of intelligence data, diplomatic exchanges, or conversations between world leaders, and we must rely on mediated sources to make our judgments. Films like The Hunt For Red October offer us a couple of things in exchange for our psychic investment. One is knowledge, to mean what we know and we can know – about circumstances, as well as motivations and intentions of friends, adversaries, and ourselves. The other thing is related to how we know: it is a fantasy, and perhaps a model, of agency. More on that in my next post.