Anthony Chaney: Movie Monsters That Disturb Our Sleep

Chaney: RunawayToday, we welcome a guest post from Anthony Chaney, author of Runaway:  Gregory Bateson, the Double Bind, and the Rise of Ecological Consciousness, who ruminates on nature, evolution, and the mind of movie sharks and dinosaurs.

The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has been called a lost giant of twentieth-century thought. In the years following World War II, Bateson was among the group of mathematicians, engineers, and social scientists who laid the theoretical foundations of the information age. Blending intellectual biography with an ambitious reappraisal of the 1960s, Anthony Chaney uses Bateson’s life and work to explore the idea that a postmodern ecological consciousness is the true legacy of the decade. Surrounded by voices calling for liberation of all kinds, Bateson spoke of limitation and dependence. But he also offered an affirming new picture of human beings and their place in the world—as ecologies knit together in a fabric of meaning that Bateson said “we might as well call Mind.”

Runaway is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Movie Monsters That Disturb Our Sleep

A question: Is the shark in Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws hungry or is it malicious? Hungry, obviously. It comes to the beach town of Amity to feed. Sharks, we have come to understand, are relentless eating machines. Yes, the shark in Jaws is hungry! This hardly need be said, since sharks, even more than wolves, have become our preferred metaphor to express a singular and ruthless striving. The shark is a closed feedback loop. Its striving requires fuel. That striving is simultaneously the point of continuous refueling.

But the people of Amity get hungry, too. The shark interferes with the village food economy, which is why the village powers first deny the shark’s existence and then, when denial collapses, strive to hunt the shark down and destroy it. A post-humanist, or perhaps an animal rights activist, might ask a question at this juncture. Why should we root for the humans in this battle of hunger against hunger, of striving against striving?

That’s an interesting question but let’s bracket it in order to answer the first one more fully. Naturally, the shark is hungry, but it would be absurd to say that there is no malice involved. That is the meaning of the film’s third act when the shark turns to pursue its pursuers. Would any real shark go to the trouble of eating a small fishing boat simply to make a meal of three relatively old and stringy human beings? Are there no schools of tuna to chase? No, this is the movies. The giant shark’s malicious and illogical chasing down of our three human heroes on a boat was simply a nightmare we had, a nightmare that took form in a film.

The shark in Jaws has siblings that show up in other nightmares. The alien in Alien comes to mind. What motivates this creature? Does she hope to write a symphony someday, to produce the Great Alien Novel? Does she wish to share loving moments with her children, to raise them up and, with luck, see them become successful aliens in their own right one day? I find it difficult to attribute to the alien characteristics of this kind. Rather, the alien kills to live and lives to kill. She is extremely smart about that one thing. She’s another closed loop. Surviving is the point of survival, of herself and of her progeny.

The velociraptors are the landsharks of Spielberg’s later film, Jurassic Park. They are the aliens from the outer space of the distant past. One of my favorite scenes depicts the death of the gamekeeper. “Clever girl,” he says, noticing the alpha female there in the leaves, right before she lunges forward and crushes his skull in her jaws. The gamekeeper has been the only one among the park employees who sees the animals as something more than matter to be manipulated and exploited. He respects their intelligence, especially that of the raptors’ alpha female, and he’s not surprised to find himself outsmarted in the end.

Nature has no preference. How can we say that nature prefers anything? It’s all mechanics. Yet creatures have a preference, do they not? They prefer to survive. We have the same preference.

“Nature selected them for extinction,” the scientist-philosopher Malcolm says of the dinosaurs, making a point he feels is obvious. His point serves his general argument about the hubris of human science, playing with what they know in disregard of what nature wanted. Yet Malcolm misspeaks, surely. Nature has no preference. How can we say that nature prefers anything? It’s all mechanics. Yet creatures have a preference, do they not? They prefer to survive. We have the same preference.

This is all so very confusing. So I’ll pause here, and sum up what I think I know. The shark, the raptor, the alien are all exquisite manifestations of nature as an amoral and monotone motivation concentrated into a singular, ruthless force. The notion of a life force has been on the boil for two centuries, at least, and has been rendered into a bitter reduction the consistency of bone marrow. To taste it, spread on a hard cracker and put it on your tongue: that’s the stuff of horror. Shark, raptor, and alien are the nightmares we had, constructed from our understanding of and relations with nature.

Are these monsters representations of the ruthless natural forces we must contend with, or are they representations of the forces of nature within us?

The long passage at the center of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life explores this dilemma with great sensitivity. Malick sets up a dichotomy between nature and grace. As the boy grows, he is counseled by nature to dismiss demands for grace as arbitrary and limiting and rather to pursue desire. License empowers him, he mistreats those around him and eventually loses his younger brother’s trust. Insight into this loss brings the boy new abilities. There’s a neighborhood kid with a burn scar from whom the boy has always recoiled. Now he’s able to touch the kid’s scar with compassion. This touch echoes a scene from the film’s much-ridiculed pre-historical section. One dinosaur touches another dinosaur who is hurt. The scene is ham-handed because it flies in the face of what we understand about the motivation of animals not being mediated by anything like compassion. Only we humans are capable of grace!

We are different from animals. We are the same as animals. We have nightmares because we can’t decide.


Anthony Chaney teaches history and writing at the University of North Texas at Dallas.  Follow him on Twitter for updates and more information.