April 9, 2010

The Omega Man Complex

If movie trends reveal anything about the psyche of the modern American, it’s that we’re enamored with individualism: unique and isolated. Nowhere, perhaps, is this more evident than in the genres of horror, disaster, paranoid thriller, and dystopian future films, or any other genre that occurs in a ruined, dehumaned world. In these we see characters who are isolated, threatened, and full of the impulse to survive. Reflection is just sadness tinged with victimization.

The ruined world of these films becomes the lonely world that belongs to the survivor, to the new Adam and/or Eve. Their survival becomes the world’s mission. In the background there is carnage, inhuman in scope, and the absurdity of government, commerce, community, family, and marriage is finally revealed as fragile, ephemeral stuff. The individual is what survives, the instinctual self. There is only the Omega Man, the Omega Woman at the end of the world, and the shrunken totems of their affection, a photograph, a music box, a lock of hair, are all that remind them of their expansive and private loss.

The survivor formula is so potent that it can be (and has been) applied to every genre. We’ve been trained to think of the end of the world as a cathartic thing, a clarifying thing; it is not mass death but self-actualization. And, of course, we are all the survivors, superimposing ourselves onto the flimsily fleshed Omega Man. Importantly, the survivor is made glorious by the observer; without the voyeur, the survivor is just a inconsequential and delusional sub-human.

Our fascination with the Omega Man results, perhaps, from our sense of isolation in our current lives. It requires little imagination to project ourselves into an empty world. The people that currently surround us are insubstantial abstractions already, so seeing them all destroyed is hardly traumatizing. The morbid post-apocalyptic fantasy always depends upon us sympathizing with the centrally framed character, not the hoards and mobs and the burned environment. Incredibly, we all privately believe that we will survive the end of the world, not by wit or preparation, but by destiny.

Frost was often an Omega Man poet, writing about ruins, human residue, the isolated individual, and the empty world. The post-apocalyte and the aged-frontiersman are brethren, and we see elements of both in Frost’s work. One of the more interesting facets of Frost’s aesthetic is that he is able to make ambivalence seem romantic, or noble, or grand. I am never able to discern whether it is the speaker, the poet, or the setting that is indifferent to the empty, gray, and decayed world described in much of his work. The landscape is often articulated as an immense and apathetic presence which casts them as the half-buried and eroded monuments of another civilization, long vanished. Or put another way, Frost’s poems show a world that has ended many times before.

But again, it is the observer who enjoys ruination and the grandly desperate survivor. The voyeur gets high on this transcendence, but flying back and forth over the grave yard doesn’t stop him from crashing one day into a stone, and sliding like a cartoon into an open hole.

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