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writing for godot

Classic Film 1984 Plays Nationwide on 4/4/2017

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Written by Mukul Khurana   
Tuesday, 04 April 2017 18:16

Watching 1984 (Director: Michael Radford, 1985) after the recent political developments was a very sobering experience.  Nationwide, on 4/4/2017, this classic movie played to packed houses (now, it is destined to develop a cult following).  I remember thinking that the movie was overly bleak and depressing after reading the novel (not that the novel was light and a bundle of joy) the first time around.  But George Orwell wasn't trying to entertain us--he was trying to warn us.  The early part of the 20th century saw various political ideologies compete for power.  Monarchies started to feel the threat of democratic movements.  Communism took root in Russia and Fascism took root in Germany.  Common to both the Left and the Right was the totalitarian element.

George Orwell was not an idle observer--he fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco's forces.  He understood and fought for what he believed in.  Animal Farm is the other seminal work by this brilliant author.  By the way, the reason 4/4/2017 was the day for a nationwide showing had to do with the fact that Winston Smith (John Hurt), the main character, makes his first entry into his journal on that date.  Later, we will use the term "thoughtcrime" to depict anything that reeks of independent thinking.  It's a drab life in an England in the future called Airstrip One (a province of a continent sized Oceania).  People work, live a bare existence, and basically pledge their loyalty to a political regime called Ingsoc (short for English Socialism).  It seems like everyone buys into the political ideology which controls every aspect of their lives, but there is some subversion...

Oceania is in a state of constant war (sound familiar)?  Surveillance of the population is oppressive and intrusive.  And, public opinion is manipulated by Newspeak (Peacekeeper Missiles anyone)?  There is, of course, an elite that wields the power in this society.  Is it becoming clearer why this movie and the book it is based on are being revisited at this time?  "Thoughtcrime" and "Thought Police" are terms that are already in circulation due to Minority Report (Director: Steven Spielberg, 2002).

And the subversion expresses itself in different ways.  Though all the people are intent on displaying their loyalty for public consumption, you can sense that not everyone believes it all.  There are subtle hints that the two other characters in the movie are also subversive (more on that later…)—O’Brien (Richard Burton) and Julia (Suzanna Hamilton).  In the case of O’Brien, we are led to believe that he sort of mentors Winston in the art of independent thinking (not a safe vocation).  Julia is engaged in an illegal love relationship with Winston (yes, they are trying to outlaw love and relationships as they come in the way of party loyalty).

1984 brought the concept of Big Brother into common language usage.  Originally published as a novel in 1949, George Orwell started us thinking about the path that was leading to total surveillance.  Prior to WW II, you could be bugged but not monitored visually 24/7.  And then, there is the concept of Winston’s job.  He rewrites history so that the facts reflect what the party wants (any bells ringing)?  Newspeak is the evolving attempt to simplify and devalue language.  Whereas humanity has attempted to expand meaning over the years, this new government wants to make sure that language deliver less information—dictionaries are getting smaller—not bigger…

Eventually, love ends.  Betrayal is in the air.  Winston is captured and tortured.  He is tortured because he can think.  Big Brother, who may or may not exist as shown, wants to break him.  In order to do that, Winston’s version of reality must be destroyed (like they destroy evidence and proof by burning original documents so that no traces of the past remain).  After all, “he who controls the past, controls the present and the future…” The torture scene, though hard to watch, contains an in-depth philosophical discussion about the nature of reality.  We are facing this same issue in America now in the form of “fake news.”  Though new to us, it has been a staple of East European totalitarian systems for quite a long time now.  This is an important discussion.

The ending came as no surprise—the opposition had to be stopped at all costs.  It’s the visual language that makes a difference.  It is a dark future.  The film quality is meant to be drab.  The music cannot excite.  Even the sex scenes lack passion.  There is cold sensuality in the nudity, but nothing approaching warmth.  The population has stopped relating.  How can one relate in a society where no one can be trusted?

There is no doubt that George Orwell was a cynic of the highest order.  Clearly, he did not trust politicians or the ruling elite.  What is, after all, the “war on terror?”  Is it not perpetual warfare?  But, let’s face it, in our time; it is not only the politicians but also the advertising industry that seek to manipulate us with propaganda.  If you think about it, the Nazi swastika is a logo and Nazism is branding at its finest.  After all, doesn’t Coca-Cola borrow such imagery?

Dystopian novels have been with us for a long time.  Depending on your definition, you could go back a few centuries.  The majority of literature in that vein, however, was created in the 19th and 20th centuries.  As modern life started moving in the direction of conformism and standardization, a backlash started developing that highlighted the unpleasant and repressive characteristics of that evolution.  The idea was to show how the world was going so as to prevent negative developments before they happened.  Did they succeed?  You be the judge.  1984 is but one example of high quality dystopian literature.  There is a long line in that tradition.  Look for another article on that topic in this forum.

Mukul Khurana writes about art, culture, and politics.  He specializes in film and theater reviews (including film festival coverage).  He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it (comments are welcome and wanted).

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