Sunday, 28 March 2010
Psychology. It's what you take in undergrad when you don't know what to take. And it's kind of interesting. Especially the really weird stuff. But you have to slog through Skinner and May before you get to learn about abnormal psychology and psychopathy.
Not too long ago I watched Kill Theory and hated it. Basically, it's about a guy who's out to prove that friends will turn on each other at the drop of a hat in order to save their own lives. He lays siege to a house full of best friends and eventually they all end up stabbing each other in the back. The problems with Kill Theory begin with the premise--it's dealing with two different psychologies, dispositional in the case of the killer and situational in the case of his victims. But even worse is the speed with which the friendships breakdown. I simply refuse to believe that could happen in as little as four hours. The same holds true for lauded zombie-esque film 28 Days Later. Although this movie has a much stronger story, the psychological breakdown suffered by a platoon of soldiers is borderline ridiculous. How can these highly trained men, who obey a strict hierarchy of command, loose it so fully and completely in such little time? Again, I can't abide the psychology at work in the script.
I'll be the first to point out that I'm no expert in psychology. I only took that one class. But something I learned is that, barring a few assholes, people are generally pretty descent and there are a number of checks and balances in place that help keep "normal" people normal. I like movies that put regular folk in extreme situations to test their character (psychodramas), but I find I'm often disappointed with the outcome. Usually because the people aren't all that regular to begin with.
Enter The Experiment, a German film loosely based on the Stanford prison experiment. In the film, a group of men volunteer for a psychological experiment in which they're to simulate being in prison. The men are divided into two groups, guards and prisoners, and the guards are told they must keep order but are forbidden to use violence. The doctors running the experiment anticipate the behaviours of both groups and are pleased to see all their predictions are coming true. Moreover, they expect a clash between Prisoner 77 and Guard Berus, and the two meet and surpass the doctors' expectations. Things start to get out of hand when the guards internalize. Led by Berus, the prison guards grow ever more abusive and 77 bears the brunt of it, telling himself it's all just play. But it's not all just play, and soon everyone is at risk of loosing themselves in the experiment.
To give you an idea of the kind material we're dealing with, the experiment in the film is terminated early, as happened with the original experiment in 1971. The goal of the Stanford prison experiment was to create a situation in which "prisoners" would become disoriented and loose their individuality and identity. This same thing happens in the movie, when prisoners become morose, depressed, and disturbed. The guards, too, disassociate and soon stop taking direction from the doctors running the show.
The Experiment succeeds where so many other psychodramas fail. That may seem a little moot, considering the whole point of the film is to showcase psychological breakdown, but the movie isn't altogether that much different from others of the same ilk--the only real difference is these people volunteered for this. Once things get underway, the character studies that underlies the three films are basically the same. Where The Experiment distinguishes itself is in how its story escalates, how the balance of power shifts, and how relationships grow and destruct. Where other films rush to conflict, The Experiment takes time to introduce the characters and establish group dynamics. Conflict is situational-driven more than it is a result of competing A-types, which makes everyone's actions and behaviours all the more shocking.
By no means perfect, movie is a frank take on what was a very controversial psychological experiment. What's more is most of what takes place in the film has a firm grounding in reality--people will adopt expected roles within a circumscribed social environment. But as much as the film harps on our collective potential for negative behaviours, as well as the fragility of identity, accountability is still valued within civilized society and a person can overcome atrocity. The film ends on a high note, the experiment less so.