– The graters trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he never existed – this is the beginning of the lengthy monolog murder suspect tells the interrogator in police. The most of the victims are dead, and only survival naturally is the prime suspect in this horrific and mysterious mass murder.
The whole “trick” here is that main suspect is given the opportunity to be a storyteller. He is given the exclusive position to create his own narrative. Thus he creates character of the murderer so horrific, of such mythical and grand proportions that nobody would identify him, crippled and miserable little man with actual criminal. Nobody would identify horrifying and nightmarish picture he draw with him just because he didn’t correspond to common perceptions we usually attribute to such criminals as they enter our imagination, therefore our culture.
So in this light the movie becomes not only a typical Hollywood thriller but also a good study case about owning one’s own narrative. Character of Kevin Spacey signifies impossibility to interact without holding the copyright of your narrative and even more than that, impossibility to interact with your own self without owning this “copyright”. In some sense living without this copyright would feel like living without a skin. It would have been traumatic and such a painful experience, enough to send you to mental hospital; there is only one way of “interaction” with “self” and Greeks had concrete manual for it. Remember the legend of Perseus who had to go till the end of the world to cut the head of gorgon medusa. One look at her and you would turn into stone. What he does is that he looks at her through his polished shield, meaning through the reflection, so he is able to see her without actually, directly looking at her. This is how he was able to behead the monster. No need to mention that this myth is pretty much inner trip of the hero into the dark side of his self, Gorgon Medusa can be his inner self, unknown, unconscious that hero has to concur, explore in order to fully realize himself. Anyhow, this is how Greek culture resolved the problem of communicating with “self”. You do not look at it directly. The “self” should be should be reflected and this reflection is what gives you a necessary distance even from your own “self” or else you can be absorbed, annihilated… erased. Otherwise you can become absolute one with your self. There is a similar problem with Narcissus myth where this distance has been eliminated between him and his reflection and he collapses on himself, closes down in a perfect loop. So as we see Greeks ware quit aware of the possibility of such catastrophe and apparently possessed concrete method, technic of how to deal with “self”.
Very interesting edge to the subject of “self” gives movie The Exam (2009). Only the “self” here is placed on a sticking point between knowledge and its limits. Fellow competitors should answer one question correct answer to which will result in hiring for the very prestigious job. When the examiner leaves they find out that there is no question written on the paper in front of them, it’s just an empty paper.
Immediately they went on to test the paper on which the question supposedly should be formulated. Using all their knowledge, creativity and ingenuity to somehow unveil the supposedly imprinted question on the paper. When they exhausted this possibility, they’ll go ahead and interrogate each other’s psychology, motivations and past, which towards the end resulted in violence and even murder. (Interestingly cooperation and teamwork they assume from the very beginning ends up in violence)
In this case the whole setup of the examination room, whole form of the examination and most importantly the whole set of knowledge structures they are equipped: learned standards of being socialized, taking initiative in the group, team work, being in charge, being ruthless for reaching the goal, capacity to understand human psychology, knowledge in science and math, chemistry etc. basically everything that is being “positive knowledge” stood between them (competitors) and correct answer.
After all, the question wasn’t about being a leader in a difficult situation, or being smart and educated, knowing lots of things, or having done a good research prior to the examination, being able to be a team player… or to be so ruthless to even kill somebody for your job…. The question was, are you able to pill yourself off your own knowledge, because apparently sometimes even the knowledge can become obstacle, unnecessary junk or even the tool for control. Question was, do you dare to start from the position of known nothing or having nothing? (that is metaphorically expressed as an empty paper in the movie)
And for this to happen, only thing they should have done was to listen, listen closely… and this is what their (competitors) education, their cultural upbringing in general was incapable of doing. They learned how to speak, but the same education system never bothered to teach how to LISTEN.
This incapacity was highlighted in the movie by the metaphor of the empty paper. Something that is so pure and simple that competitors didn’t now how to deal with. Would it be some complicated formula written on the paper, some very difficult scheme, code or something hidden inside the paper itself anything of this kind; there were enough resources in that room to crack that code. But there weren’t enough resources to deal with something so simple and almost pathetically rhetorical as empty paper.
All the characters in the movie are collection of characters cultivated by (pardon my French but…) neo-liberal economy. There is whole list of it in the movie: a leader character, very clever Asian (Indian) type of a guy, team builder personality, self confident well educated independent women etc.… shortly, these are the characters we cultivate and nourish in our education systems, in professional field… in fact, everywhere. They represent idea of modern man or women and modern mode of life. The mode of life that is in constant career building, restless run for being successful, that being an only criterion for self-gratification. These characters represent all the resources that neoliberal mode of life accumulated throughout decades. The movie EXAM just showed the shadowy part, side effect of that “economy”… the side effects that is not so much talked about, behind the stories of success and incredible achievements. The diagnoses, and a picture is quit serious, despites the fact that we got used to hear about advances of democratic societies, success of its educational and economic systems, capacity to create society that is more reasonable therefore less violent, that people in these societies talk to each other and resolve their differences via negotiation and compromise. Yes, they can sell this “success stories” to so called third world countries… (Which they successfully do by the way) but the fundamental impossibility to rationalize human existence is still unresolved and it’s just a big absurd to hope that any kind of political, social or economic structure can somehow “produce” reasonable man. This small experiment within the closed doors in the movie The Exam was successful to show it.
The main motif of many fairytales, folk and myths (in our collective, condensed memory) very often happened to be the main hero faced with impossible challenge, unsolved dilemma’s and paradoxes that are impossible to solve. They are mostly describing the collision, clash of human being with something beyond his knowledge capacity, beyond his reach, but after all that is what constitutes a human being and not the other way around, what he knows and what is within the reach of his knowledge. And I think this motif stands truth even in our times and no matter how advanced we think our civilization is we have to keep this element in complicated equations of our “economy”.