Wednesday, April 6, 2011

He’s climbing in your windows

Jokes of bedside manner aside, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was troubling in several ways. The first problem is that the feature character Dr. Bennell was a curious choice in his role as the active defender of free human will and patriarchy (“They’re after all of us… Our wives, our children, everybody!”). One problem was that he was a doctor, so that the privacy of physician-patient privilege only added to the covert aspect of the story. Not that it stopped Dr. Bennell from blabbering about his patients’ troubles with Becky or Dr. Kaufman, which of course is perfectly within legal bounds, but it automatically put the police in an antagonistic position throughout the film, even before evidence of their infiltration by the pods. I suppose the broader idea here is that of “secret knowledge,” something that Dr. Bennell alone possesses as his ticket out of Santa Mira (and which Steffen-Fluhr would say is another misogynistic reference of the film). Dr. Bennell is forced to consider doubt about his knowledge, notably by Dr. Kaufman, but his stubborn support for his own totalized interpretation of the small secrets of town, and his ultimate vindication, support the notion of an absolute knowledge about the other, whether it be the neighbor across the street or from the sky. Furthermore, medicine has never historically been about truth as much as amelioration.

The second problem is the dual uplifting of and disregard for science. Dr. Bennell remarks somewhat nonchalantly that the pod was a genuine possibility given the tremendous strides of science in his time. So while it may technically be alien proper, the pod may equally be considered an inevitable product of human knowledge. Of course, the destructive relationship between pod and person doesn’t really glorify the role of science in society (shameless plug). All sorts of technology, even agriculture, are literally sapping away our feelings from under the rug. Dr. Bennell and Becky have to retreat to the (prehistoric) cave to survive, albeit temporarily. Kaufman’s (semi-)rigorous psychiatric analysis suffers a similar setback. Like Bennell, Kaufman is a doctor and voice of authority, but as a voice of science he cannot be trusted! Bennell’s intuition proves superior to Kaufman’ psychologic, just as Bennell’s irrational faith in the necessity of emotion as an identifying part of humanity triumphs the cold argument for removing emotion as a less “complicated” way of life.

The third problem is Bennell’s activism, which is unusual given his oath to elevate life above ego. Somewhat in the spirit of generalizing over all premeds, I’d say Dr. Bennell might have better kept to his degree by allowing life to continue emotionless rather than using his special knowledge to resist. To him, the human shapes incubating in the pods were not fully human and therefore not fully qualified as life, giving him the right to equip the pitchfork and do them in—a rather sage presage of the future conflict for legalizing abortion. It’s suggested that he gets so emotionally invested because he sees a developing body of Becky, but the fear of these humans of artificial, scientific origin goes around Bennell, Becky, Jack, and Wendy. For the same suggested love, Bennell also breaks into Becky’s house and just sweeps her away out of the sanctity of the home. He is a doctor, as he constantly reminds Becky, and apart from passively accepting patients he is very willing to intervene even when it nullifies their privacy. (House, anyone?)

Taken together, these three problems about the portrayal of science and Dr. Bennell, the Scientific Man, suggest that there is something unnatural about science and the scientific thought behind modern medicine. The relationship between human and science is not limited to that of user and tool but one encompassing reverence, fear, skepticism, and the loss of free will. It is not really a rejection of science, since educated skepticism may be scientific, but Science, with its promise of absolute knowledge and its own academic hive mind, looks like a really scary thing and is perhaps essentially other to us, its practitioners, because of our own innate irrationality, i.e. our emotions. It may also be a revival of Frankenstein; do the products of science have rights beyond their creation by mere humans? Do we look at the pods in horror because they are absolutely and irrevocably alien (like the planet in Solaris), or because like the doctor we cannot be driven to concede our obsolescence, some feature of our human identity which we hold as unique despite a scientific novelty?


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