I re-watched Thelma & Louise last night and finally understood what it is really about. It is neither about women’s empowerment, nor is it anti-maie, although those have been the most common assumptions. Indeed it is a put-down to women to assume that a great film with female stars must be about “women’s issues”. Do we assume that a great film with male stars must always be a “a man’s thing”? Thelma & Louise is an epic saga for every one of us – it is about liberation and empowerment on a universal canvas. I picked out two key lines of Thelma’s to share with you that make this clear…
(1) As they’re driving in the desert near the end of the film:
Thelma: I don’t know, somthin’s, like, crossed over in me , I can’t go back, I mean, I just couldn’t live.
When she says this, it is clear from context that she is not talking about a fear of going back and facing jail. She is talking about going back her old life, her old world, the ‘normal’ life with house & husband and all. Even with a battalion of police and FBI agents after her, if she had the choice, she wouldn’t undo her predicament and go back to how it was. Freedom to be herself had now become the most important thing in the world to her, more important than life itself. She hadn’t realized that she had given up who she was in order to live in her old world – our world, our society.
When she says, “I just couldn’t live”, she becomes the voice of all of those indigenous peoples throughout history who have preferred death to giving up their way of life, as the curse of civilization reached their territories. They had always been free and liberated and they could see what we can’t see, that civilization is a cage they simply could not live in, a cage that no one could live in and still be free, even in a leading role. Thelma had experienced real freedom, and would never again give it up.
(2) Later, still on the road:
Thelma: Are you awake?
Louise: I think so.
Thelma: I’m awake. I don’t think I’ve ever been this awake before. Everything seems different.
If you add to this the keenness in her eyes, and the radiance of her face, it is clear that she is talking about ‘awake’ in the same way the Dali Lama or Buddha uses the term. She had become fully awake to life and the universe, free of fear, a free spirit. This isn’t a gender thing at all, or even a species thing; it’s about the essence of life itself and about consciousness.
I’ve seen that look in eyes before, but only rarely in the eyes of humans. Many years ago I visited some friends in Nairobi and went on one of those low-budget safaris, where they take a group of us out in a truck to watch the animals doing what they do in the wild. It was migration season for the wildebeest and we had lots to see, so I stood up on the railings to get a panoramic view. At first I was trying to identify different species and similar tourist-type things. After a time, I just relaxed and let the whole scene sink in. And then it hit me – the gestalt of what it means to be wild.
Every wildebeest out there knows there are predators on the prowl, desperate for their next meal, formidable and dangerous. There are no sanctuaries to hide in, and no defenses other than alertness and fleetness of foot. I suddenly realized what that meant in terms of ‘being awake’. Every moment they must be on guard, always ready to run for their lives. I could feel in my bones the heightened consciousness that is a constant part of being wild. It was a feeling of exhilaration, and of being fully alive.
I was feeling for the first time ‘the call of the wild’, and for the first time I could feel that we are missing something essential in the way we go through life, always worried about our future security, trying to insure all of our risks, subject always to stress or to boredom. Bob Dylan captured it, as he does so well in a single line, “…their life is nothing more than something to invest in”. I thought of the others in the truck, who were mainly comparing notes of where else they’d travelled, unaware of the magnificent drama all around them, and I felt sad.
In the metaphor of the moment I felt the gestalt of civilization: it’s all about being asleep to the world around us, doing everything we can to insulate ourselves from the world. We envy the wealthy, who can be idle and secure at the same time, and have no need to pay attention to the world at all. I said above that civilization is a cage, and if you responded to that at all you may have thought in terms of ‘jobs we don’t like’, or ‘taxes we must pay’, ‘restrictions on us’, etc. But it’s more than those kind of things. Civilization is a place where we accept the illusion of security and in exchange we give up who we are. We are in a zoo, and many of us have very comfortable digs in the zoo, but life is outside.
This is what Thelma and Louise is about, in their fleet-of-foot Thunderbird, pursued by formidable and dangerous creatures on the prowl, surviving only by their wits and by constant alertness. But of course we’ve seen desperate chase films before; there’s nothing special about being on the run, and being alert. What’s special about Thelma & Louise, and about Thelma in particular, is that we see much more than mere desperation – we see that desperation transform Thelma into being fully alive and awake. The desperation vanishes. She is ready for whatever happens, free of fear – and she could never go back to any other way of being.
I’ve found that the dictionary tells us a lot about our society, between the lines. Let’s see what dictionary.com says about ‘civilize’:
Civilize: to bring out of a savage, uneducated, or rude state; make civil; elevate in social and private life; enlighten; refine: Rome civilized the barbarians.
Very, very, interesting. What we have here is an out-of-date anthropological perspective frozen into our language, imposing that perspective on us when we should know better. Over the past several decades, anthropological research has made it very clear that indigenous peoples are not at all savage in the sense implied in the definition above. One can certainly over-romanticize here, but we now know that ‘wise’ is closer to the truth than ‘savage’. And I’m talking about mainstream anthropology, not a fringe view.
When a truth dictionary comes out, it will probably read like this:
Civilize: to domesticate to hierarchy; to cause a forgetting of the state of freedom. syn. domesticate: the horse trainer domesticated the wild herd
It is the trance of civilization that Thelma and Louise were escaping from, and in so doing they found a freedom they hadn’t known was possible. They only experienced it for four days, but neither of them would have traded those four days for the comfort of the blue pill. They had learned that the comfort is fake.
None of us wants to think of ourselves as being in a cage. If you’re getting upset with me about now that’s your defense mechanisms protecting you from considering the possibility in your own case; it’s a sign that the shoe might fit. If you are really liberated then my words on your screen cannot not upset you in that way.
After watching the film itself, I watched the making-of documentary in the special features section of the DVD. If you’re into cinema I highly recommend the documentary. Ridley Scott is a genius, the one who gave us “Blade Runner”, and its is great to see him interviewed on film. And it was Brad Pitt’s first role in a big picture, making his interview particularly poignant. Geena and Susan’s interviews are wonderful it goes without saying, but the interview I found most enlightening was that of the writer: Callie Khouri.
Callie said the story came to her all at once one night when she was in her car. She then wrote the script in her spare time. In the course of developing the film, and even while it was being directed, there were many attempts to make changes to the story, and considerable concern about the ending. But every time a change was attempted it didn’t work. They tried changes out with audiences and they all flopped. The story had an internal coherence that couldn’t be tampered with. The script barely changed from the first draft submitted to the studio.
Callie said that she later realized she had ‘accidentally’ stumbled onto an archetypal form, ‘The Hero’, ala Joseph Campbell. She said that’s why the story couldn’t be changed.
What this says to me is that the story was channeled, in the sense that it came from another level of consciousness than Callie’s normal writer-consciousness. And as with all channeling, the channeler is not necessarily a reliable interpreter of the meaning of what is channeled. It is only as an outside observer that Callie surmises that the story might be of this or that archetypal form. She says explicitly that no such thing was in her mind when she was writing the story and she wasn’t even consciously au fait re/archetypes at that time.
In fact the archetype of the film is not that of the Hero at all. The Hero goes out and slays dragons and then comes back home transformed and is recognized as a hero. (Almost every Hollywood film follows the heroic motif, typically with a love-interest side-plot.) Thelma and Louise certainly slay dragons, and Thelma is certainly transformed, but they don’t come back home, and only the Keitel character can still see their humanity at the end – hardly a hero’s reception.
Furthermore, the transformation comes too easily, compared to the classic hero motif. It took a lot for our female fugitives to decide to become dragon slayers, but once the decision was made the slaying became more a romp than a challenging exertion of will and strength. No, there is some other archetype at work here, equally profound but different. Thelma & Louise is neither about feminism nor is it about heroism, even if the writer, the director, the critics, and the actors all don’t get it. And from the interviews, I’d say it was only Geena who really got it, whether or not she could articulate that in intellectual terms. It was still in her eyes in the years-later interview.
In A Long Kiss Goodnight we see Geena in the traditional hero motif. Her dragon-slaying there is very difficult indeed, calling for Herculean exertions and canny wit, and she is received as a hero at the end by the President himself. And in the last scene she returns happily home to the same unchanged husband and family, and she lays aside her sword and shield. As Thelma, she brandishes her sword and shield until the very end and beyond. They have become part of her, not merely her tools for a time.
The archetype behind Thelma & Louise is that of life itself. We are thrust into this life, it happens to us just like the attempted rape & killing happened to them, and once born we must use our wits to deal with whatever comes up. That’s what life is really about – using your wits to deal with whatever comes up, and not fearing what might come up. Life is not about being always secure and having retirement funds saved up. Those amenities are veils of light that hide the bars of our cage. They are the opiate that helps us forget what freedom is about. We use our wits not to face the world, but to deal with the institutions and authorities that control our lives. Instead of not fearing what might come up, we live in a chronic state of insecurity about our futures, albeit unconscious.
There is no such thing as security in this world, and chasing the illusion of security is like cocaine addiction. The first time the addict does a line, he feels a pleasant high. He starts taking it regularly, and he spends a lot of time feeling high – not such a bad thing really. But over time something else happens; he needs the drug just to feel normal, and he always needs more and more.
Look at those who have the most wealth and power, the financial elites who control our societies. You’d think they’d be content. But no, they are more desperate than the rest of us. If they don’t totally control the whole world, they live in constant fear that someone else will. Their security is their power, and they always need more and more. That’s why the US is seizing oil supplies and surrounding Russia and China with military bases. That’s why the elite’s response to the resource crisis is genocide, rather than a transformation of our economic system. They are like Gollum and his precious, their moral universe narrowed to a pathetic grasping.
Our world is going to change, and very soon. You and I, my friends, are about to be thrust into a world totally unfamiliar to us. The world we now know it is going to disappear, gone with the wind, never to return. With 911 and the so-called war on terrorism we saw one pillar of our world fall down, the pillar that pretended we lived under the rule of laws and not men. With Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo the collapse of the pillar was rubbed in our noses, just to make sure we got the message, although many are so asleep they still haven’t gotten it. We are reminded again every time we go to an airport, but still many don’t get it.
Now, with the engineered subprime crisis, and the powerdive of the dollar into oblivion, another pillar is beginning to crumble, the pillar that pretended ‘progress’ was equal to economic security for you and me. Anyone who studies the history of Germany in the 1920s knows exactly what economic scenario we are going to be facing. The pattern is identical. First there was a credit crisis, arranged by the daddies of same folks who engineered this one. That was followed by hyper-inflation, where savings became worthless, and even those who were wealthy became paupers overnight. As we speak, the Federal Reserve is intentionally pushing us into hyper-inflation, as it conjures up out of nowhere trillions of dollars to save not us, but their own financial hegemony. The handwriting is not only on the wall, it is in the pages of every newspaper every day.
This will be very different than the Great Depression in the States. In that case cash was king. Those who had their wealth in liquid form became even more wealthy, in terms of purchasing power, than before the Depression. Mainly it was the lower middle classes and downward who were pauperized. This new collapse, modeled on the one in prewar Germany, will pauperize everyone except the super-rich. Scoff at your own peril. Already the homeless ranks are swelling, as millions are being evicted from their homes, and economic refugees from America are becoming a serious problem for Canadian authorities.
Whether we like it or not, our world is going to fall apart, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men won’t even be trying to put it together again. Our familiar illusion of security will be gone, and we will have no ‘home’ we can return to. We will be experiencing the inherent uncertainty of real life whether we want to or not. In psychological terms, we will soon find ourselves in the same place Thelma and Louise found themselves in. We can respond with fear and desperation, like the usual fugitive in films, or we can use this as an opportunity to wake up, and leave fear behind, as did Thelma. In either case, you will be better off if you realize your world is disappearing now, rather than waiting until that’s totally in your face, and you have fewer options available to you than you do now.
Let us return now to the plains of Kenya, for there are more lessons there. As I was watching the panorama, and became aware of that heightened state of awareness all around me, I could also see that the wildebeest were not at all living in a state of fear. A band of young bucks were running around between clusters of adults, kicking up their heels, just like a band of children running around at a picnic. They were having fun, not worrying about predators. Those they would deal with if and when the occasion arose. Being wild is not about being afraid, or being chased, even though documentary makers love to seek out a chase when making their wildlife films, and they love to show the kill scene, as if that is what ‘being wild’ is all about. How comforted we are made to feel, sitting on our sofas in front of the TV, happy that we’re not out there where lions roam. From our youngest days we are taught to fear the wild, to be grateful for civilization.
Meanwhile, those sitting down in the truck saw only a constant wave of nearby wildebeest, undulating away from the approaching vehicle. They never saw the exhilarating and dynamic pattern of the natural panorama. Then we came to a cluster of wildebeest who did not flee the truck, and in fact we had to slow way down and wend our way through them. They just stood around, not paying much attention to us, sensing that we were irrelevant to the game of life. I soon could see why they were standing around. One of their fellows had been injured and was on the ground. They could do nothing to help, but they knew if they left, the injured one would be visible, and predators would soon be competing for the meal. For as long as they could, and at increased risk to themselves, they were delaying their migration to lend comfort and protection from view to their fellow. Was I looking at a dog-eat-dog world? Not at all, rather a world of mutual concern and mutual aid.
That’s how life is meant to be for sentient social species, survival through mutual concern and aid for our fellows. That’s how our ancestors lived until they were subdued and corrupted by civilization and hierarchy. And as for the lions, we had no fear; lions were afraid of us. Once we had the bow and arrow, and probably long before, humans never lived in fear of predators. Of course there were occasional cases of humans being attacked, but that was no more a pattern of life than someone today being attacked by a turncoat pet dog. An exception to the norm. Even today, every thirteen-year-old Masai lad must kill a lion single-handed with a spear, as part of his maturation ritual. And a lone teen-aged girl protects a whole herd of cattle – out in lion country – simply by standing there unafraid in a red outfit holding a spear. I saw this myself, as our truck passed by, and the girls are not even trained to actually use the spears. They don’t need to.
In fact it is not our real world that is going to fall apart, it is the fake world that is crumbling. We have been taught to think that ‘our world’ is that spectacle of events that we read about in our papers, and watch on our TV screens. Also we see ‘our world’ as the hierarchy itself, and we think the stability of that hierarchy is essential to our well-being. All illusion. Our real world is what’s around us, the people and things we see everyday, directly with our own eyes. This is what we need to wake up to; this is the world we need to learn to live in, and the sooner the better.
Cooperation and mutual aid with our fellows is our only hope for survival as the hierarchy contracts its circle of concern to those at the very top, and our world-scale distribution systems begin to break down. We are not helpless, we are powerful, once we wake up and begin working together. If you want to see this dramatically demonstrated in a real-life documentary, check out The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php, available from Community Solutions.
An important part of the Cuban ‘world’ had been its relationship with the Soviet Union, who supplied them with petroleum and bought Cuban exports. That ‘world’ fell apart all at once when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cubans had to adjust or starve. Self-sufficiency for the island was forced on them. They started out in desperation, and as they worked together, planting gardens in every bare patch, and adopting non-petro-based organic methods, their desperation transformed into a new kind of community spirit and empowerment. In the documentary you can see the pride in their eyes, and you can see the same keenness and glow we saw on Thelma’s face toward the end of that film. The collapse of their old world was a blessing in disguise, and now they eat better than they did when they had Soviet help.
I can’t promise you a rose garden when you wake up to life and join hands with your neighbors to re-inhabit the real world. But then, no one every could promise you a rose garden; that was always an illusion and a deception. In the Cuban film we see the practical possibility of taking care of ourselves through our own cooperation and creativity. In Thelma & Louise we see the the precious peace and aliveness that comes from leaving fear behind, reclaiming our wild nature, and accepting life as the adventure it was intended to be by its creator.