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Terri Murray on Wim Wenders and panoptic power.
Wim Wenders’ penultimate film, The End of Violence (1997), portrays a vast government satellite surveillance network, the putative purpose of which is “to cut down on crime response time by two hundred percent.” This, claim its owners, “could be the end of violence as we know it.” The true aim of the state is a voyeurism which will allow its users to be all-seeing and hence all-knowing. Wenders’ aim in this film is to say something about violence of another kind – a kind which cannot be seen, but is a way of seeing.
Wenders’ implicit critique of state surveillance and the presuppositions used to justify it has many parallels with Michel Foucault’s analysis of power and knowledge, and especially with what Foucault called ‘bio-power’. He saw a gradual shift in the mid-Sixteenth century away from overt forms of state power, to an insidious concern with the measurable minutiae of human life. Governments now achieve their control over individuals through knowledge-power, accomplished by means of ever-expanding administrative apparatuses. In other words, bureaucracy and statistics (literally, the science of the state) come to dominate public life. But with the advance of this bio-power, modern categories of anomaly such as the delinquent, the pervert and the terrorist proliferate. The ‘technologies of normalisation’, as Foucault calls them, invent dangerous social deviations so as to govern them.
The Panopticon is a vivid example of this new regime. It was invented by utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, who had intended to design the perfect prison. In his design the cells are arranged in a circular formation around a central viewing tower. Each prisoner is visible to the surveillant, who may or may not be watching. With a window at the back of his cell, the subject can be seen at all times. The Panopticon is a mechanism and metaphor for efficient hierarchical control – over space, the body, human relationships and all things visible.
The architecture of the Panopticon is such that it operates effectively even if no guard is present. Because the prisoner cannot see whether the guardian is in the tower, he must behave as if he were perpetually under surveillance. Unsure if he is being observed, the prisoner becomes his own guard. As the final totalizing step, the Panopticon also includes a system for observing and controlling the observers. Those whose job it is to control are themselves thoroughly controlled.
Wenders illustrates this last predicament in his film through the character of Ray (Gabriel Byrne), who occupies a seemingly omniscient position in the government observatory, but who is himself constantly monitored by anonymous supervisors. A scientist who assisted in the construction of the surveillance telescopes, Ray has realised too late that he cannot extricate himself from the state’s gaze. He has assisted in the construction of his own prison. As Foucault says of the Panopticon, “this machine is one in which everyone is caught, those who exercise this power as well as those who are subjected to it.”
As a substitute for escape, Ray leaks a top-secret FBI document to Hollywood film producer Michael Max (Bill Pullman), whom he once met at a technology fair. Mike Max is Wenders’ tragic hero. He also happens to be making a film about violence. But Max is not just a movie producer, movies also produced him. This voice-over is revealing:
“Something about that day reminded me of when I was a kid. We lived by the sea in a tiny town with lots of fishing boats, one movie theatre. My brother fished, I watched movies. They got me wondering what we’d do if we were ever attacked. We suddenly seemed so vulnerable: to killer sharks, nuclear submarines, an alien invasion, the enemy could come from anywhere – the land, the water, the sky, the Chinese… you couldn’t trust anyone anymore. Guess I been kinda edgy ever since, looking over my shoulder, always ready for the sudden attack.”
As a movie-watcher, Max gradually came to adopt the defensive perspective of a victim, and his whole outlook has been taken over by paranoia. This paranoia is normalised, routinised, taken for granted. It is a hidden premise in a culture where the bad guy is always someone else coming to get you. But Max’s fearful childhood fantasies of being invaded by the enemy, implanted in him from watching movies, are now being represented and played out in his own films:
“You never quite realise how things affect ya. When I was a kid movies scared the shit outta me. So when I grew up I went into the movie business; turned what you call a basic fear of strangers into a multi-million dollar enterprise. After all, paranoia is our number one export. It’s only now I’ve come to realise there are no strangers, only a strange world.”
By projecting his fears onto a ‘reality’ of his own making, Max is actually creating that reality, that world. Thus Max functions as a prime example of Wenders’ post-modernist perspective on violence, which he shared with Foucault. From this perspective, violence and power are not wholly independent phenomena to be discovered – they also play a part in our acts of discovery, of knowing. Power is a ‘construct’ – a way of thinking in which the images we use to represent our world contribute to the constitution of that world, and its remaking.
This circularity in the perpetuation of fear has a parallel in the state’s use of violent techniques to end violence. Moreover, the circumspection of Max, the paranoiac anti-hero, is mirrored by the continuous registration and documentation of information by the state’s panoptic technologies.
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault’s topic is not the functioning of power per se, but the particular rationality that accompanies the desire to organise and produce a power hierarchy. Wenders was aware that violence is also less a ‘thing’ to be found and eradicated by police officers, than a ‘climate’. He said in on online interview with Jayne Margetts:
“Our entire Western culture has shifted from a written one to a visual one. The very idea of violence, for audiences over the world, is partly originated by an imagery produced in Los Angeles, in movies and in music. As far as politics are concerned, I tend to belive any story in which crime control, be it police force, CIA, FBI, etc, has perverted into crime itself, or in which crime is finally controlling the controllers. Violence is an unhealthy climate, in real life as well as in the movies.”
The End of Violence endeavours to say something about violence without using violence to say it. There is no on-screen violence in the film – no violence to be seen. This appears to be a deliberate omission on Wenders’ part, for the script does contain violent scenes, such as a bar brawl in which two of the main characters are injured. Wenders permits his viewers to see the before-and-after (cause and effect) but none of the violence itself.
The same can be said for the story’s most violent event. Michael Max is kidnapped by two would-be hired killers who fail to complete the job, and are instead shot by anonymous sharp-shooters. From the satellite network’s ‘viewing tower’ Ray cannot get a good picture of what takes place, initially because he is denied access, and later, when he surreptitiously acquires the video, because his view is obscured by temporary cloud-cover.
Meanwhile, for Max this event is the pivotal point in his self-awakening:
“There’s nothing like two shotguns pointed at your head to make you pay attention. But seeing their heads blown off – instead of mine – that’s what scared me the most.”
Max’s reality has become one in which people are out to get him. He’s made a profession of recycling this vision on celluloid. Max has become so immured in the unreal world of his obsessive paranoia and the technological paraphernalia of his trade that he has begun to treat other people as extensions of his own warped vision of reality.
When he learns that stuntwoman Kat has been injured on the set, all Max can say is “Did we get the shot?” He sees Kat as little more than an object. She is not a fully real person for Max. Although he seems to have a soft spot for her, Max nevertheless has to be prompted by his lawyer to visit Kat in hospital. She cuts through his feigned concern by saying, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to sue you anyway.”
The character of Kat is unfathomably multi-dimensional, and in that sense she represents the success of Wenders’ project, which (among other things) is to draw our attention to the act of movie-making, not just to the world of the movie itself. Kat is not an actress. She risks real dangers in the process of making a movie that depicts only apparent dangers. Thus she spans the gap between fact and fiction, reality and image. She cannot afford to lose herself or become fully absorbed into a role: “In my business if you don’t know what something really is, as opposed to what it looks like, you don’t mess with it. You could get yourself killed.” Wenders calls on us as audience members to have the same response: to remember who we are and what we are doing. He allows us to immerse ourselves in an alternate reality only so far. If we were to immerse our selves in it completely, losing consciousness of our own role in making the experience what it is, then we run the risk – the real danger – of making the fantasy our reality.
Kat is Max’s muse. She represents the lesson Max needs to learn. Max has to be reminded that Kat is a stuntwoman not an actress, that the dangers she faces are real dangers, not an image of danger. Her vision of life, and the attention she pays to the details and the people around her, is a sharp contrast to the vision of Max, who only sees life through the lenses of his fantasies.
Kat demands of Max, “Define violence. Violence… define it. You’re making a movie about it. You ought to know what it is.” This scene is indicative of the kind of anti-realism that Wenders uses throughout to draw our attention to the artificiality of cinema and to ourselves as participants in that fiction. Kat, the stuntwoman, is a vehicle for Wenders’ message about violence. Because she directly addresses the camera, it is not entirely clear whether Kat is saying her lines in the persona of her character, or addressing the camera as her real self. When she says, “You’re making a movie about it…” we’re not sure whether she is addressing Wenders as her real self, or the director of the film within the film, or possibly even us – the spectators.
The end of Max’s marriage comes at the beginning of the film and sets the story into motion, although it will take more than his wife leaving him to snap Max into wakeful reality. When we first meet Max he is sitting in front of a screen – his laptop – through which he seems to be living his life. Max’s distance from Paige (Andie McDowell) and from the real world is highlighted by the fact that she has to phone him on his mobile to tell him that she’s leaving him, and even then it doesn’t register. By having Max outdoors in this opening sequence, Wenders enhances the irony of the character’s detachment from the world around him, to which he pays scant attention. By contrast Paige is indoors, but still notices a small bird perched on her window and takes the time to appreciate it. Even from within the walls of her home she has more awareness of the world outside than Max, who is outside but notices nothing of his surroundings.
The film’s action is guided by Max’s self-awakening. By the end of the story he sees everything very differently:
“The thing about sudden attack is, you never know where its coming from – unless you expect it from everywhere, which makes you paranoid. Sometimes your friends are really your enemies, and vice versa… reminds me of what a prick I was… Funny, all those years while I was waiting for an attack, I became the enemy… and when the enemy finally came, they set me free. I can see China now. I hope they can see us.”
The paradox is that when Max was looking obsessively he couldn’t actually see anything as it really was. Now, having looked within, he has gained new access to the world. He sees more because he has become aware of his own act of looking, and hence he looks less to the world around him for the source of violence, and more to the world within him. It is through this introspection that Max finally sees the world with new eyes, and sees it much more realistically. Paige’s decision to leave Max is vindicated by Max’s own self-critique, which gradually converges with her independent criticisms: “I can’t get your attention anymore”; “I have a yearning for life… real life”; “I’m beginning to think that fairytales are really over-rated. Sometimes a good old-fashioned catastrophe can cut right to the heart of the matter.”
The omniscient narration allows us to see the convergence of their disparate views and reveals a hidden harmony between them which heightens the tragedy of their estrangement. There is finally a sense in which a unity has been achieved between the estranged lovers; but the two individuals do not experience it, because their discoveries, though identical, have not been synchronised in time and space.
The relationship between Kat and Doc, the police officer in charge of investigating Max’s disappearance, is offered as a metaphorical antidote to the failed relationship between Max and Paige. Kat and Doc together represent the paradigm of love, the opposite of violence. As the story builds towards the consummation of their romance, Kat says to Doc, “Hey, you’re a cop. Define violence,” to which he answers, “Fear, absence of love, emotional revenge.” A few days after Doc finally tells Kat he loves her, she prompts him to define “that thing that you said before” (meaning love). He resists all three of her demands that he define it, and on the third request kisses her instead. This gesture is a refusal to abstract himself from love. Just as stockpiling objective knowledge about violence obscures its internal reality, knowing what love is does not require discourse about it. It is not an abstract concept – it is not what happens to one in general – but something I am never fully able to be ‘rational’ about, in the manner of scientific detachment.
On the other hand, Max had become subjectively that which he has always feared in the objective realm. His closest relationships are infected by his own violence, which takes the form of an insidious objectification of individuals. The enemy is within. And just as his inability to live in reality with Paige ruins their relationship, so does the projection of fear through his films come full circle to the point of nearly destroying him: the thugs hired to kill him are two of his biggest fans. One of them says to the other, “I like him. I like him. His name is Mike Max. He produced your favourite movie.”
For Wenders’ tragic hero, violence at the level of reality is a catalyst to genuine love, or ‘the end of violence’. Max’s transformation is a result of his own confrontation with real violence, as opposed to the kind of violence in his famous films Creative Killing, Odd Sudden Death and Violence itself. By the end of the film, Michael Max has become a stranger in strange world. Instead of seeing his losses (marriage, home, fame, status, job) as a tragic erosion of identity, Max discovers the liberating power of self-discovery as he gains new insights into himself and makes new friends in unexpected places. Max has become a ‘nobody’ (at least, nobody special). He is enveloped into a world of strangers whom he can now see as potential allies.
The Truth is Perverse
On one level, the entire story from the point when Paige leaves Max is a reflection on why and how their marriage failed. Wenders’ script interprets what went wrong in the relationship as a kind of perversion:
“I still love my wife, so much. I always did… even when I made her suffer, on purpose, for long periods of time and enjoyed it – perversely. I think that is one thing I can begin to define… it’s when things are turned upside down, and you start to like them that way.”
This perversion (or inversion) of things is clear on many levels of the story; in Max’s marriage, but also permeating the culture of violence and paranoia Max has perpetuated through his professional life as a maker of violent films. It also extends to the state with its mechanisms of surveillance.
The purpose of a surveillance network is to have ever more accurate knowledge in ever more abundant quantities. Perhaps, like Foucault, Wenders wants to emphasise not the information itself, but what the voyeurs are doing with it. What purpose does it serve? In theory, the panoptic satellite network is intended for the protection of citizens from violence. Yet when Max accidentally learns of the network’s existence before it has been legitimized by a democratic process, he is ruthlessly man-hunted. The architects of the panoptic technology are intent on protecting themselves. Ray finally discovers that the government attempted to assassinate Mike Max and the two thugs they hired to kill him. It was only by a freak stroke of luck that the bullet intended for Max missed its mark.
Wenders uses The End of Violence to pose serious questions about the relationship between knowledge and power, as Foucault did. To define something is always to abstract it, to generalise about it, to locate forms of experience within a discourse that reduces experienced phenomena to manageable portions distinct from oneself. It is precisely by objectifying violence, as a panoptic surveillance must do, that the satellite network fails to capture what violence is, and becomes the problem rather than the solution. The drive to find violence in an exterior visual field of observable phenomena presupposes a dichotomy between seer and seen, spectator and spectacle, subject and object. Thus the panoptic surveillance network reduces violence to its exterior dimension, and negates the role of human awareness in seeing what we intend or expect to see.
One of Wenders’ implied ideas is that Max is not just making his current film, Violence, but that he is also inhabiting it. The title of our film, The End of Violence, coupled with Wenders’ choice to conceal the ending of Violence from our view (which is also the panoptic view), further suggests that we are watching the film which Max is supposed to be making, but which he has simultaneously come to inhabit. What we don’t know is how this film ends. Wenders’ implicit message is that we have to become involved in how it ends; that we are participants and never mere spectators.
Just as the ending to Max’s film, Violence, is inconclusive, so too is the ending to the film we are watching. It leaves us in limbo as to what will become of Max. So for Max there is no end to the film he is shooting; for Ray there is no end to the violent event he was surveilling; and for the cinema spectator there is no ending to the film about violence we have come to see. By thus making director and audience participants in the film, Wenders suggests to us that we are not only watching but that we, too, are being watched. The film is not just for us – for our consumption – it is also about us and what we are doing as spectators. We are watching ourselves. We find ourselves in a similar position to Ray, who is caught up in a surveillance machine of his own making.
By using shots from his point of view, Wenders attaches us to Ray the surveillant. Wenders consciously draws his viewers into an identification with the voyeur. We are thus implicated in Wenders’ critique of voyeurism, of spectatorship that cannot be separated from agency, and fantasy that cannot be entirely divorced from reality.
For Foucault the cells of the Panopticon became, “small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.” But the satellite network of Wenders’ film extends the surveillance to global proportions, making all human activity a theatrical spectacle for the surveillant, whose television monitors are the ‘cells’ in which individuals are framed, isolated and scrutinized. With the satellite network’s visual efficiency, the whole world becomes a Panopticon.
The film’s meta-statement is about our role as spectators who have come to the cinema to participate in a particular director’s fantasies. This puts us in an unusual position as movie-goers. The usual way of participating in the filmmaker’s fantasy is to forget that we are doing so, to suspend our disbelief and temporarily forget that what we are seeing is fiction. What Wenders does with his film about a film-maker is tantamount to what Magritte does by placing the denouncing subtitle ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ beneath his rendering of a pipe. In shattering the illusion of realism, it is as if Wenders is saying of his principle character ‘Ceci n’est pas un directeur’. With The End of Violence Wenders challenges the position of the voyeur. The only recent film I have seen that does this as powerfully is Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1991).
In the film’s final scene, Mathilda, a Salvadoran cleaning lady who is being manipulated by the FBI, defies the agent in charge of the satellite network’s security. Mathilda represents the voice of opposition to the FBI agents who are ruthlessly defending the surveillance network’s secrecy. She says to the agent in charge: “Look at us, a couple of killers, trying to change the world! Changing yourself – that takes guts.” She tells him that he’ll have to shoot her if he wants further co-operation, and in doing so she risks her daughter’s life too. We see the agent telling one of his minions to shoot her, before the camera cranes upwards into the sky, reminding us of the satellite surveillance which will register the state’s own acts of violence, highlighting the contradictory nature of the utopian machine.
© Terri Murray 2008
Terri Murray teaches film studies and philosophy at Hampstead College of Fine Arts & Humanities in London. She is also a post-grad research student at Oxford Brookes.