g.maclennan at qut.edu.au
Wed Aug 21 22:39:11 MDT 1996
I ended up at this movie by accident- had meant to see The Rock but got the
times mixed up. Still it was interesting though not a great film by any
means. The plot is fairly simple. A working class bloke, George McNally
(played by John Travolta) has what he thinks is a close encounter experience
during his birthday celebrations. He sees bright lights in the sky and
collapses. As a result he turns into a genius and the movie deals with the
results of this. The close encounter however turns out to be a brain tumour
that has set latent areas of his brain into motion.
So what is particularly fascinating about this? Well for me it was the
portrait of the small town community and the impact on it of the arrival of
supermensch (Over Man). We are of course in the presence of nostalgia for
lost social harmony. But this is a community with problems and to achieve
transcendence it needs help from the inspired charismatic individual.
The religious undertones are fairly easy to detect and they were always a
part of the comparable Super Man myth. It was after all no coincidence that
the Super Man comics began during the Great Depression. We are though
dealing with what Raymond Williams called "The god that dare not speak its
name". This is the contemporary form that religiosity takes in Hollywood
Think of Harold Ramis' Ground Hog Day for instance. There the villain is
trapped in a time warp until he learns to be a nice person and is set free.
There is no explanation given for the fact that he has to repeat every day.
In the cinema of the thirties we would have had an angel arrive and explain
all. Now the deus ex machina is hidden through sheer embarrassment.
It is as if god has become something like the relative we are ashamed of and
whom we keep hidden in the garret. But such is the level of social problems
of modernity that we long for transcendence and so inevitably religion is
turned to. However contemporary levels of cynicism and despair are so great
that they demand that we cover our tracks carefully and hide what is in
essence a turn to religion.
Equally significant in these films is the process of the misrecogniton of
society's problems. The ones we see in Phenomenon are the lack of
communication because of the different language barriers, loneliness and the
absence of love, an inefficient postal service, poor farming methods and
What is not shown of course are the problems that really ravage modern
societies like America namely the evils that attend a class based society.
Thus, although the people in Phenomenon do not appear to be wealthy, their
poverty is not compared to anyone's wealth and so the process of
exploitation is hidden.
Anyway George makes a huge impact on the town but his mission ends in
personal tragedy. With plots like these which pivot around the impact of an
individual on a community the charismatic/ powerful individual simply has to
be got rid of one way or the other. This is of course the classic dilemma
of capitalist society -how to promote both individualism and the need to
However the town is left celebrating George's birthday. They honour his
name and those suggestions that he made for the reorganisation of society
seem to have born fruit. The people now "love one another as I have loved
you" and the land is once more fertile. There may be no over flowing milk
and honey but the corn is sure as high as an elephant's eye and it looks
like it's climbing straight up to the sky.
An equally hopeful sign is provided by the precious manuscripts that George
has left behind and which a professor takes away to develop for the good of
humankind. Not a corporation in sight either. So there you are, George has
seemingly turned an academic into an inspired selfless do-gooder. Truly a
miracle! Though I think he might have had tenure.
Two other aspects of the movie particularly intrigued me. Firstly the way
in which George is caught between the ignorance and superstitious fears of
the town folk and the paranoid State Forces who want to get hold of his
brain for national security reasons. This repeats yet once more the classic
dilemma of the petty bourgeoisie trapped between labour and capital.
The other point of interest is George's telekinesis. His explanation is that
he understands how things are all connected. What particularly struck me
here is that I have been wading through Murray Bookchin lately and he too is
concerned to stress the inter-connectedness between humans and nature.
Bookchin wants to end the dualistic society which sees nature as Other. In
Phenomenon George achieves this lost unity. Thus he feels an earth quake
coming and he can move objects around.
The philosophy underpinning these dreams is Romanticism. It emerges with
the advent of industrial capitalism and it is a discourse of social crisis
marked by longings for lost harmonies. Phenomenon is yet another example of
the people's yearning for solutions to modernity, and of the equally
enduring power of capitalism to give these desires a fantastic rather than a
But, as I always tell my students when we are discussing how advertising
works, the greater the gap between the dream/fantasy and reality then the
greater power the dream has. Such are the workings of the remorseless dialectic.
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