We Will Not Let You Escape This Labyrinth (Part 1)

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

Cube Farms

My heart lives between silence and hope […]
strong, fearless, bold and never beaten,
in the middle of a horrific labyrinth
desires a lot, hopes too much and is not afraid of anything.

 

I want to talk about the postmodern maze as a gradual evolution of the labyrinth as both a metaphor and a physical structure. The postmodern maze is Kafkaesque and often warps time and space. Memory, of a lack of, often plays an important part in the process of navigating the spaces. The postmodern maze is usually three dimensional and may be analogous to a network: a branching of lines that interconnect in complex ways. The internet is, currently, the ultimate manifestation of the postmodern maze.

This type of maze is often a type of prison which entraps and tests its victims, and it may have a kind of sentience, technological or supernatural. The Overlook hotel is an example of a timeless evil taking over the minds of men (albeit weak-minded and violent men), and it creates its own labyrinths through this slowly pervasive influence. These labyrinths trap and doom their victims to an inward spiral, a walk of madness.

Let’s take, for an example, the environment of Cube (1997), a low-budget indie horror film made in a single room on a Toronto sound-stage. Imagine this scenario:

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You wake up in a room measuring 14ft by 14ft. There is nothing but cold steel walls and a hatch in the centre of each face of the cube. Each hatch opens onto an identical cube, the only difference being that sometimes the lit panels have a different colour hue: red, white, green or blue. You can’t remember how you arrived in this place, but you are wearing a uniform that bears a name. You move from cube to cube randomly or perhaps you decide to move in a straight line. Then, in one of the rooms, as your boots hit the floor you are aware that something is different. A metal net, almost invisible to the naked eye, slices your body into neat cubes which remain stacked, in a grotesque child’s play of form, before toppling to the floor.

You have died.

You wake up again as another character. The stages of realisation and decisions made are similar to before. However, this time you discover you are not alone in this maze. There’s an escape artist, a teenager, a policeman, a doctor, an office worker and a savant. Together you will try and find an exit: it seems reasonable to assume that any maze has an exit.

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Cube has no dead-ends –the maze is provided by the traps, which the occupants must avoid, while getting to the edge of the cube. Each cube has a nine digit number, split into three sets. Eventually, through trial and error and the photographic memory of the young girl, they realise that the numbers are significant. By the end of the film they have solved the riddle: the numbers are coordinates of starting positions of the cubes along an x, y and z axis, and the cubes move through a cycle of positions according to permutations of the numbers. One cube, in its starting position, bridges the gap between the entire cube superstructure and the outer shell and it aligns with the exit for a short period of time.

This rat maze is like a giant Rubik’s cube filled with mechanical minotaurs. It moves around you, constantly creating new mazes, the navigation of which requires huge computational power. Like the maze in A Solar Labyrinth, only a master game player can solve it although it is possible to get a certain distance on luck and instinct.

The Cube is really a mirror of the real minotaur.

The minotaur is you.

As desperation, hunger and thirst all take their toll, the characters begin to unravel and one, the chosen one, takes on the role of Jack Torrance –he becomes the hunter. The Cube is, on one level, simply a physical manifestation of our inner drives, of the paths we can take, and since they can realign and reset, we can all be the hero or the villain. The Cube, possibly running on algorithms amassed from big data, is silently calculating, and like the director who controls the fates of his characters, it knows who will win as soon as the characters wake up. Or perhaps it nudges the story from time to time, setting off a trap here and there to bring the narrative back under control –we don’t know. However, the Cube allows for a winner, and like the virgin girl in horror films, the victor is an innocent.

The only one not fouled by the human condition, and thus doomed to walk in purgatory, is permitted to leave the maze. What lies outside hell may just be another version of it however, and it is hard to believe in the white light that beckons in the final seconds of the film.

Very few of us believe in heaven, or any utopia. Our worldview, influenced by two world wars and the doom-game of the media, is framed by dystopia. The characters struggle to understand why anyone would build the Cube, but it is like the house that Jack built –it is indirectly linked to all the contents of the world. It is the hedge-maze at the end of The Shining: a metaphor that passes through the eye of a needle into the world.

If enough people will it, then it will be.

A Solar Labyrinth vs Stalker

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

Gene Wolfe, an American science fiction and fantasy author, who is also linked to inventing the frying process that makes Pringles, and whose writing is strongly flavoured by his Catholic faith, released a collection called Storeys from the Old Hotel. This contains work written over a span of twenty years and the genres vary from historical, science fiction, fantasy and many blendings of all three. Hidden among the lot is a labyrinth story that should be better known. It is a multi-layered, fractal masterpiece, in cahoots with Borges certainly and it tips its hat knowingly.

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The premise is quite simple and rather light. We are told that a wealthy man referred to by the pseudonym Mr Smith has a mansion somewhere in the Adirondacks and has built himself a very unusual maze as a folly for his guests. He has placed many historical objects, some fake some real –the guests at least are never sure– in such an arrangement that the shadows thrown form a moving labyrinth. As the sun rises the paths appear and move throughout the day, so that the solution can only be found as you move along its tracks, and being in the wrong place at the wrong time might leave you cut off from the correct path, or perhaps you can rejoin it later on as parts are opened up to you. How long you play this maze might determine your success, but the only way to truly master it would be, like its master, to play it regularly and learn its shifting trenches of ink. At midday the maze disappears and by this time most of the guests have drifted off and only Mr Smith, this rarified Willy Wonka, is left because only he sees that it is all a game, one that we continue indefinitely whether our eyes are open or closed.

The story is clearly about artifice, our perception of time, and, of course, the moving landscape of history –how we literally excavate the past and place it in a mock-up of something that may never have existed in the first place. His maze (or labyrinth) includes the real and the mythical, and the importance of those objects –Arthur’s sword, the minotaur, a Toltec sun-god, a barometer speak of the many forces that create new lines of sight and yet each path means that another is obscured from us.

Our sight always includes blindness.

Reality and identity are so many labyrinths in one. Culture and society shape what we can think or see. The culture that worshipped a sun-god could not see the world the way we do today, but we are no more enlightened about its ultimate meaning. We record civilisation for the future, a long shadow thrown backwards than nudges forward toward the light: but as Mr Smith knows, this is just a game.

Stalker is a 1979 Russian science-fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It is based on a book called Roadside Picnic, but it veers away from its source material and becomes something mercurial, brooding and more philosophical. In both the book and the film a trio of men approach someone known as a Stalker, a person who can guide them safely into the Zone.

The Zone is an alien crash site and it is guarded closely by the government. There is an illegal trade in alien artifacts gathered from the site and it is said to be very dangerous because inside the Zone the rules of reality have been warped. There is also a myth surrounding a room somewhere in the Zone where your innermost desires are granted. The three strangers, the Stalker, the Writer and the Scientist are lured into the Zone by a desire for forbidden fruit. The Writer wants to find inspiration and the Scientist claims that scientific curiosity is his only motivation.

After getting past the soldiers and using a railway cart to enter the Zone, the film shifts from rich sepia tones to colour. They are in an Eden-like splurge of grasses and an apocalyptic wasteland of human debris that clogs up the rivers. Fog rolls by. It is completely silent. The Zone is not that strange in essence, and looks like any number of war zones, but Tarkovsky elevates it to the sublime with his long takes and his use of water as a kind of life-giving blood and sentient well of memory, dredged by the litter of human objects, gurgling through this dream-like labyrinth.

Stalker hands one of the men some strips of white gauze and instructs him tie to each one to a metal nut. After a lengthy dialogue and more obliqueness they descend towards the stone house in the distance and Stalker throws one of the bits of gauze forward and then tells the professor to go first and walk towards where it fell. Stalker always goes last. They continue like this, picking up the gauze and throwing it again. When one of the men starts pulling at some plants, Stalker scolds them saying that the Zone wishes to be respected: it punishes those who do not show respect. He says that, in the Zone, the convoluted path always poses less risk.

Eventually the Writer, like the viewer, finds it all too ridiculous and storms ahead. He is stopped by a command which he assumes came from one of the others, but they each thought it was the other who spoke. Stalker explains how the Zone comes to life when there is a human presence, old traps disappear to be replaced by new ones. Safe spots become impassable. The labyrinth is capricious, but most importantly it depends on them. The human conditions is tied to its very structure.

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Here then we have a metaphysical labyrinth. A sentient landscape, a quest, philosophical anti-heroes, the ‘way’ determined by your actions and motives. The film seems to be a deconstruction of the hero’s journey –a path for the wretched rather than the valiant. The magical object is a kind of Aladdin’s Lamp, but one that reads your buried desires, rather than simply obeying your commands. Everything here is turned inside out, and it is what flows inside that matters. Heroes are men of deeds and words, but we rarely see their interior life. Here you may enter as an empty shell, but if you gain something along the way you might reach your goal, only it won’t be what you expected. Things change every minute inside the Zone. The only permanence is your faith.

Both of these labyrinths have a metaphysical element. Both are ephemeral, and contain invisible walls. The walker/stalker must believe those walls exist and pay respect to them. In the first story, the walker is free to abandon the game at will, although many choose not to because that belief has a piece of the sacred in it –the ability to construct a social reality is part of learning to live with others, to participate together in a game so that winners and losers all feel connected to each other: the child that wields a stick as a sword to defeat a monster is really not that different from an adult walking into a store to buy milk with a handful of metal counters. Near the end of Stalker, all three men lay defeated, huddled together. They are too afraid to enter the Room and discover their innermost desires. Their faith has settled on each other, and it is with this bond they reject the fairytale ending and leave the centre of the maze and return to their ‘beginning’ with nothing more than they started with.

Sometimes not getting to the centre is the way to complete the journey.

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is not the path.