Through their control of the media that so many people watch and spend for every day it’s purported, by many of us, that they are able to influence or even control the thoughts and spending habits of the typical viewer. The implication being made here, which has grown into an outright claim in some camps (particularly Marxist ideologists), is that us common people are rendered helpless while the rich and powerful masters of media dictate to us their message. However, I volunteer that this premise is fundamentally flawed, and that the audience does not simply serve as a vessel waiting to be filled by the ideas of Hollywood.
Another late capitalist school of thinking, deconstructionism, has emerged from the school of Jacques Derrida. He begins by drawing upon an earlier philosopher who demonstrated that the idea that anyone, much less a higher industry, sending down a message to an audience without it receiving some sort of interference or otherwise alternate interpretation on the way was astounding in its sheer ignorance. To presume that any mode of communication, movies in this case, could initiate such a perfect transfer of information from the lips of Hollywood to our minds would be to assume that we have achieved a level of perfection in language rendered impossible by the logic of Ferdinand de Saussure, who says that, ““…language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system” (Saussure 70). The entire framework of language, according to Saussure, is based off of signs which only attempt to represent meaning, rather than being intrinsically meaningful in themselves. What this means is that communication necessitates an intermediary which will always obscure the original meaning, if only a little bit. In terms of Hollywood it means that even if they execute a given clichéd scene over and over in each movie, they cannot deliver the same meaning behind it ever time because although the same cliché may attempt to signify the same idea it is always up to our interpretations.
If language universally cannot be used to present a consistent meaning with each telling then the premise behind the culture industry weakens significantly; it is almost impossible to claim that an industry holds sway over the minds of an audience when each member is not even assured of seeing the same thing. The primary consequence of this is the disassociation of language from any sort of intended meaning, forcing meaning to be determined in the minds of the viewers, spawning any number of interpretations. Saussure says that, “The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Since I mean by sign the whole that results from the associating of the signifier with the signified, I can simply say: the linguistic sign is arbitrary” (Saussure 62). The signifier is the word in language, and the signified is the meaning that the word is trying to convey, and their relationship has no meaning.
The subversive message that this entails is that if we analyze any given movie which is purported to have a single meaning or intention behind it then we know that that presupposition is a lie. The movie, by the necessary failings of language and the sign, can be deconstructed and shown to have any number of interpretations, even ones highly contradictory with the intended meaning. In this way I will deconstruct the film “The Mist”, showing that while the movie’s methods of delivering its message may appear solid and describe a certain narrative meaning, but because it’s content can never truly reflect thought or meaning, the movie’s message ends up subverted by its own content.
It is ironic that this deconstructionist bent does not allow me to summarize the movie, or any text, for another individual as I may simply use an interpretation which supports my own beliefs the most strongly. I will, however, present a summary paraphrased from Rodger Ebert’s own website:
“In ‘The Mist,’ based on a Stephen King story, a violent storm blows in a heavy mist that envelops that favorite King locale, a village in Maine. When the electric power goes out, David Drayton and his young son Billy drive slowly into town to buy emergency supplies at the supermarket […] You may not be astonished if I tell you that there is Something Out There in the mist [such as] Creatures that devour half a man in a single bite. David and Mrs. Carmody become de facto leaders of two factions within the store: (1) the sane people, who try to work out plans to protect themselves, and (2) the doomsday apocalypse mongers, who see these events as payback for the sinful ways of mankind” (Ebert)
The tagline of the film is that “Fear Changes Everything” (Berardinelli) and coupled with the obvious dichotomy set up between the protagonist and the religious Mrs. Carmody there is clearly a message that we are intended to see here. Being familiar with many Hollywood clichés and continuous plot line recycling, we can gather that the conventional meaning drawn from the movie is that untamed people blinded by their prejudice are bad, while being the opposite (a thinking, accepting person) is a good thing. The movie’s message is a very classic one in Hollywood, and up until the ending the movie superficially follows through to deliver the message on all fronts. The ending is a bit of a twist, so I will warn you that I am going to spoil it later on in this paper.
Regardless, however solid the movie’s premise and subsequent message may appear, even a small degree of scrutiny will demonstrate the contradictory elements in their presentation. The actual content goes beyond and veers away from the supposed overall message, leaving the movie (as stated earlier) subverted by its own language. Having presented a brief summary, I will go through several key scenes in the movie and show the contrasting anti-moral that lies within them.
To say it in short, when we actually look at the movies content closely, it will portray the exact opposite outcome from what is commonly believed. Rather than saying that people should use reasoned opinions based on evidence, common sense, and human decency, I will show that the movie advocates blind faith as the ideal way of looking at the world. The movie demonstrates this through its text, the plot and the action based consequences which occur to the various characters, leaving bad ends for those who do not simply utilize blind faith. The message “Fear Changes Everything” will not change people for the worse, but for the better, when they become blind and reflexively prejudiced.
The movie begins with an argument between the white protagonist David and his black neighbor Brent. I mention their skin color because this dichotomy is clearly made in order to deliver the quickest impression of difference and contrast possible. The two eventually come to a mutual understanding with each other because both of them have suffered property damage in a thunderstorm the previous night. This is where the movie begins to set up a theme of acceptance and setting aside your differences, and even David’s son Billy speaking approvingly of the scene, asking, “Does this mean you’re friends now?” The text, incidentally, is consistent with their message so far.
When all three of them reach the supermarket the scene goes out of its way to introduce three soldiers who, ordinarily browsing the market for snacks, are called back from leave (vacation) and proclaiming that, “Another half hour and we’d been gone”. For our purposes this is a significant scene because it introduces a sort of fate, which we know to be a powerful narrative force keeping them within the store. While we cannot say that it is the author or director, as they have been divorced from the scene the moment ink was put to paper, the content itself speaks to us that they have a purpose and cannot leave.
The first truly important deconstructive moment, though one whose impact we won’t see until the end of the movie, appears at the next scene. The titular “Mist” rolls in, with a man stained in blood running away from it saying that anyone who enters it will die, which sets up the next moment now that the fate of those who enter the mist seems to be certain death. A woman ignores the reasoning of everyone there (namely, going into the mist will kill you) and says that she must find her children, and she’s certain that because she wants to find her children so badly that she will be alright. This is the first test of blind faith here, but no one follows her, with her even asking, “Isn’t anyone going to help me? Won’t anyone escort a woman home?” She is met with only silence and with that she walks off into the Mist.
Jumping ahead to the end of the movie I will say that she survives, having been spared not only death in the Mist (for no apparent reason, people were dying in the Mist both before and after the time she stepped out of the store) but the rest of the madness that is soon to take place in the supermarket. This first and ultimate test of blind faith, faith without any knowledge whatsoever, comes out to be the most successful. The lesson the text itself is giving us here is to ignore what people say and even ignore what you may think, and simply act on your impulses. Regardless of what the audience may think, the text has her succeed by every measure the medium can produce: She lives, doesn’t suffer, and the plot bears all this out. A litmus test for the veracity of her actions is to ask yourself, if the other characters did exactly what she did instead of what they did do, would they be better off?
Derrida has said, “The exteriority of the signifier is the exteriority of writing in general, and ... there is no linguistic sign before writing” (Derrida 309). The writing, and in this case the entire movie, is exterior to the intentions of the director and author. As strange as the morals and lessons I say the movies presents appear or sound, it cannot be denied that the text cannot transmit the more Hollywood friendly ideas that the director wishes to place upon us. The text is now on its own, leaving us to judge it based by the sheer amount of content and consistency it has within its own plot.
Continuing, the people now trapped in the Supermarket now begin to split up into groups. What Ebert missed in his review is that there were three main groups: The first group is headed by David’s neighbor Brent who represents the demand for evidence because they refuse to believe there are monsters in the mist unless they see them with their own eyes. The second group is the solitary Mrs. Carmody who believes that God’s wrath has finally come down and that they should listen to her as the voice of God if they wish for penance, though she has but a single follower at this time. Lastly, there is David, whose group is desperately trying to tell Brent that there are indeed monsters and that they shouldn’t leave.
Consistent with the contradictory sub theme I’ve presented, Brent refuses to take blind faith in David’s words about the monsters. As the audience we know this is foolish because we’d just seen David fight off a monster on his own, though unfortunately out of view of everyone else. What ends up happening is that Brent takes his people out into the Mist looking for help, and then they all die horribly. We are not assured that their fate is ambiguous like the woman at the very beginning (who simply faded out of view) because we are treated to a gore fest with a character even being split sideways at the waist. The text has shown us again that blind faith was the right path.
Later on, Mrs. Carmody, the religious leader is portrayed as psychopathic, petty to a murderous degree (willing to kill people for small slights), willing to sacrifice human lives to the Mist and a God who she claims only she can hear, and quick to judge and condemn anyone who does not follow her own beliefs and commands (calling nonbelievers whores and destined for Hell). She even puts forward a brand of anti-progressivism, counting amongst the blasphemies against God, “Walking on the Moon! Stem cell research! Abortions!” Clearly we are meant to see this as a regression to barbarism and she as a very unsympathetic character, even being cast and made up as more ugly than a beautiful blond woman (who has a professional vocation, unlike the jobless Mrs. Carmody) who sides with David. This is the classic case of the villain being set up only to be knocked down by our hero later. Once again, however, the text screams out to us that even through the typical Hollywood characterization, she and her brand of blind faith are the correct ways to do things.
Mrs. Carmody begins to gather followers with a series of predictions she makes regarding the Mist, most of them along the lines of saying that monsters will attack in the night or that people who venture out will get killed. When she promises peace after a human sacrifice, the monster in the Mist strangely do not attack that night, and when she promises that they will strike against unbelievers (those who leave the store and her influence) many of them do die. The audience is set up to believe that there are painfully obvious predictions that only gather listeners because they are scared and primitive (she’s a villain, of course she is wrong on some level), but the plot of the movie portrays a very different message. Like the woman at the beginning, everything she says in the name of blind faith is right, and we soon find out that she also passes our litmus test, with everything possibly having turned out better if David simply listened to her.
In the buildup to the climax, David and his small group decide to leave on their own in fear of Mrs. Carmody but are found out. She incites the mob to attempt to sacrifice David’s son, cementing Hollywood’s intention to cast her as an incorrect villain, and she is shot in the head and killed in the aftermath. The curiously drawn out scene of her blood pooling beneath her is a final look at the end of her evil ways, and David’s group is able to stalk out of the store unopposed. Their plan is to drive in a single direction until they can either escape from the Mist or die having tried.
In the ending, the final scene shows them running out of gas and David pulls out a gun which, tragically, has only enough bullets to kill everyone in the car but one person. Having lost his blind faith in finding help and escaping the Mist, David takes it upon himself to shoot the survivors, including his own son, before walking out into the Mist to be killed himself. A loud noise enters the scene which we believe to be a monster when, instead, a tank rolls out of the now dissipating Mist. In these few seconds you realize two things: They were driving away from help the entire time, and secondly, you see the survivors of the supermarket as well as the woman from the beginning of the movie driving by in rescue trucks.
This ending cements the antithesis of the entire film. When we look back at the demands of Mrs. Carmody, to simply have David’s son killed, if he had obliged then the rest of the members of David’s group would have lived. If they had listened, blindly, to Mrs. Carmody at all then the subject of sacrificing David’s son (which was done in retaliation to David’s trying to escape) would never have come up and they would have all lived anyways. Even worse, if they had simply kept to the blind faith that rescue would come, even for five minutes longer, no one would have died either. The plot bears out the complete and total punishment of characters that face reality and use reason, and the absolution of those who threw logic to the winds and went with their unsubstantiated faith.
We have an interesting opportunity here because the movie ending was added for the movie, and the book simply ended with them driving off into the Mist (before the group suicide). The opportunity is to see how a singular change in the content will change the entire message drastically, regardless of the message that was intended behind the whole thing. The final argument here is the suggestion that there is, “A rupture between the originary meaning of being and the word, between meaning and the voice,” (Derrida 316). The mere fact that a single additional scene would absolutely warp the thesis of the movie, much less piled on top of all the other evidence, shows a disconnect between our ability to interpret and Hollywood’s ability to provide.
In analyzing any text, not simply this movie or any movie, the audience can always find a contradicting meaning through careful study of the language used to make it up. Scenes, words, clichés, or even images will yield results completely negating what the author says the intention of the work had originally been. This is important because it allows us to subvert the machinations of those who would control us through the media, giving us the principal foundation upon which we can fight off their influence from. If language can never truly support the ideas of those who speak it, then it is up to us as individuals to derive our own message from it.
Adorno, T.W. "Culture Industry Reconsidered." The Audience Studies Reader. Ed. Will Brooker and Deborah Jermyn. London: Routledge, 2003. 55-60.
Berardinelli, James. Mist, The. 2007. Reelviews. 10 May 2009
Derrida, Jacques. "Différance." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Micheal Ryan. Massachusetts : Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 278-299.
Derrida, Jacques. "Of Grammatology." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Micheal Ryan. Massachusetts : Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 300-331.
Ebert, Rodger. The Mist (R). 21 Nov. 2007. Digital Chicago Inc. 10 May 2009
Saussure, Ferdinand de. "Course in General Linguistics." Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Micheal Ryan. Massachusetts : Blackwell Publishing, 1998. 59-71.