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.

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Mole People

The Burrow (1931) and Dark Days (2000)

PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS

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Kafka’s unfinished short story puts us into the first person document of a paranoid mole-man who has, against the odds, constructed a labyrinthine network of tunnels under the earth, mainly by using his ‘perfect instrument’ of a forehead. He exists in his tunnels in a heightened state of emergency, constantly driven my the need to re-shape or change his fortress to prolong the inevitable day when it falls into the hands of an intruder.

The tunnel system is not described accurately by Kafka, but we learn that it contains a variety of tunnel shapes, some wide and some extremely narrow, some slant upwards, some descend and others are vertical. There are numerous rooms which are rounded out, little pods, and they also vary in size but are often nothing more than a place to sleep. In the centre is the Castle Keep, a large room hammered out of sandy soil by thousands of blows from that impressive forehead.

Take a moment to try and visualise those tunnels. Kafka never describes a light source so he probably spends his days in complete darkness. He says at one point that he knows every room by the feel of its wall. He has a complete map in his head, and navigates by smell and touch. Imagine crawling through this lair, on your hands and knees, perhaps even squirming on your stomach. The rich smell of humid earth fills your nostrils. It is silent, but due to your heightened senses you hear a liminal background noise, the scurrying of the ‘small fry’ and the passage of air as it circulates. Imagine whole days spent like this, the hours stretching out unmarked.

The documentary Dark Days follows the inhabitants of train tunnels in New York City in the 1990s. One man describes how he came to live down below. He says no one hassles him down there, no one is after him. Another man talks about the free electricity: he can leave his TV on all night if he wants. Freedom. We see a number of hand-build shacks and re-purposed buildings: wooden walls, a balcony, chicken wire. Sofas and electrical appliances are salvaged and brought below. The director keeps cutting back to the ‘small fry’, the rats, as if to remind us that this is not a cosy children’s den with clothes heaped high and endless barbecues into the endless night.

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The burrow isn’t quite self-sufficient. The mole-man must return to the surface for hunting raids, and possibly to acquire water (it is not clear where he gets his drinking water). These foraging missions are a source of great anxiety for he must risk being seen leaving or returning. For this reason, his hideaway has a number of defences. The entrance is hidden first by a wall of moss and then a cave, from which there is an opening, and then a maze that is intended to deter anyone away who gets this far. Occasionally he gets lost in his own maze and this encourages him, but only for a moment. His anxieties about flaws in his design always return, and he slides between a proud father and a realist who accepts the imperfections of his castle:

Now the truth of the matter — and one has no eye for that in times of great peril, and only by a great effort even in times when danger is threatening — is that in reality the burrow does provide a considerable degree of security, but by no means enough, for is one ever free from anxieties inside it? These anxieties are different from ordinary ones, prouder, richer in content, often long repressed, but in their destructive effects they are perhaps much the same as the anxieties that existence in the outer world gives rise to.

The mole people too are chased by their demons. Dee, a woman in her fifties, lost both her children when a fire ravaged her apartment. Ralph was serving a prison sentence when his five-year-old daughter was raped and mutilated. But while the sense of community and the friendships born in those tunnels may have lifted up the people there, the mole-man suffers under his own microscope. His great monument to freedom, the burrow, is also his prison. He tackles his anxieties with logic, but those buttressing-sentences collapse immediately as they divert, but do not diminish, his compulsive energy and this leads to either exhaustion, ritualised behaviour or a grand project intended to dissipate the fixation; but each plugged hole only leads to another appearing: the burrow becomes the stage for his demons.

In the last act of the story he hears a whistling sound which seems to come from everywhere at once. He tears up his burrow, digging here and there with abandon. His mind reels from one theory to the next until it settles on one narrative: another burrower, just like him, is encircling and closing in. It is the trope of the superior other, the double that seems to know each of your moves before you make it. Since the story is unfinished we never witness the end to the mole-man’s nightmare, and we are forced to stop and leave him in the tunnels, leave him to dig his labyrinth because, like the black swan, not seeing the beast doesn’t mean it can’t exist.

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Reading the story alongside the film shows up some interesting counterpoints. We watch as a man sets up a trap outside his den, using a piece of string as a tripwire, with one end tied to a frying pan placed on a wall. Many take pride in their homes, painting the walls and clearing the rubbish away. They also return to the outside world for what they can’t get below. Some collect cans for the local authority, others trawl through bins and skips for anything they can use or sell. Tommy says that he thinks 80% of the mole people are addicted to crack. They live in their own piss and shit because they need to retreat even further: we say ‘spiral into addiction’ for a reason. Kafka never tells us where the mole-man shits and his highly over-wrought sentence structure, with maze-like clauses, might distract us from the true physical nature of this bestial man: a naked, pale, gaunt, dirt encrusted, piss-ridden, half-blind, stinking thing with claws and a long, flat forehead.

Dark Days has a conventional ending. A city scheme to provide housing allowed for all the mole people to be moved out and given cheap accommodation. We see them on their final day in the tunnels smashing up their homes with glee. They are destroying the physical memory of their past in order to destroy the past itself. Finally, there are some short clips showing them in their new spic-and-span environments. It is strange to see them in the light and not the dark. Imagine if the mole-man ended his days on the surface and our last view of him was standing in the sharp sunlight; a beast cowering before the sun.

 

Still to come:

A Solar Labyrinth (1983) vs Stalker (1979)

The Stanley Parable (2011) vs The Helmet of Horror (2007)

Here (2014) vs Millennium Actress (2001)

Takanori Aiba vs Pierre: The Maze Detective (2015)