Escapism can be good for the soul when coping with the harsh reality of everyday life.
The often crushingly brutal world we all reside in does not provide much mental relief for us and we often turn to our favorite movies, TV shows, cartoons, and video games to relax during periods where nothing feels right. The phrase “leave your brain at the door” becomes almost a way of life as we snuggle up to our favorite hyper-violent or ridiculously over-the-top feature film or TV series because to think too much becomes painful in itself cause again we are reminded of a bleak reality.
It becomes a good distraction, a coping mechanism.
Now, as the writer of a blog dedicated to pop culture, in no way am I saying escapism is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s healthy even to indulge oneself in it from time to time because again, we are only human, and we don’t always need to reside in reality. Hell, hyper reality can sometimes be informative to the world we live in.
However, escapism is kind of like candy. Sweets are great when you consume it after a full nutritious meal but consuming it all the time (and uncritically) leads to rotting your teeth and making you a whole lot less healthy. You can’t just cope with reality, you gotta face it too and, especially in this era we all live in, you need to confront the system in place that is causing you misery instead of playfully ignoring it all the time just to deal with life.
Paul Verhoeven confronts this hyper escapism in his brilliant action satire “Total Recall” which became one of my favorite movies to watch during the pandemic because of what it said about the world we live in, particularly Hollywood’s role in it.
“Total Recall” tells the story of Douglas Quaid a seemingly average Joe who feels unsatisfied with the life he lives. Despite being married to a gorgeous wife and seemingly having everything else he needs, Quaid is looking for an escape. He feels he is destined for something greater. He turns to Recall, a program that inserts intense, adventurous memories into the host so that they can live out their wildest fantasies. Unfortunately, upon going to Recall, the program seemingly awakens Quaid’s alter ego, Hauser, a spy deep undercover trying to liberate the rebels of Mars and thus the action kicks off from there. Quaid eventually takes on the whole Martian government himself, gets the girl of his dreams, and saves the entire planet becoming the hero he always wanted to be.
Or does he?
Throughout “Total Recall,” the film drops tiny hints here and there that may or may not be telling the viewer Quaid is still in Recall. The reality is questioned quite often but the film hums along to its epic conclusion as Quaid piles up his body count on his way to his personal story arc.
Whether you believe Quaid is in Recall or not during the film, the movie still calls into question what Quaid is truly getting out of this, what is really important to him in this journey. Is it justice and liberation for the Martian people or is it for Quaid’s vanity and deep-ridden desire to be something more than he was? To live out his perfect power fantasy?
My life has revolved around the pop-culture genre to a certain degree since I was a teenager. I fell in love with sword & sorcery through “Lord of the Rings” in the early 2000s, lived out fantasies of commanding epic armies in Warhammer 40k, and consumed a whole fuck ton of manga and anime in high school during my peak weeb phase.
I loved these properties and these stories of great knights, war heroes, Shinigami, ninjas, etc because they provided me an escape in my adolescence. I needed tales of heroes saving the day and getting the girl because my life was both dull and unfulfilling. Dealing with the hormones of my teenage years and not finding young love myself, I attached myself to worlds where no matter how rough things got for our heroes they always succeeded in the end and their arcs, their dreams, their accomplishments I got to live out through them be it on the page or the big screen.
But as I’ve gotten older, and changed significantly in the past year, I’ve come to recognize that though I’ve always understood that escapism isn’t exactly healthy, its kind of insidious in its own way if its all you ever consume regardless of how aware you are of its nature.
When we watch movies or read stories we may be looking for answers to our own life to a certain extent, just as Quaid was looking for his own through Recall, but what many of us really want is catharsis in the end. What I mean by this is that viewers want to feel like they got a release out of it, a sense of euphoria, and peace finally after perhaps a hard week at work or dealing with other stresses in their life.
An orgasm, if you will.
One way to describe a lot of Paul Verhoeven’s work in fact is that it is pornographic. Between the extreme carnage, violence, and often hypersexuality be it in films like “Robocop” or even his much-maligned “Showgirls,” the director’s work is an exercise in excess on purpose because he is holding up a mirror to American society’s deep desires and need for an orgasmic release through validating fantasy media.
Quaid is experiencing this literally in “Total Recall” as he travels to Mars, gunning down dozens of bad guys and getting his specifically Recall requested girlfriend. Whether he believes he is in a dream or not he is getting the catharsis he desires, that feeling of worth and value finally that he is missing from his own life. The nature of human society in the film kind of takes a backseat in some ways, the violence and the sex is more important. The viewer, along with Quaid, may get so caught up in this in fact that they miss some pointed commentary about our own world in between the lines.
“Total Recall’s” world depicts a society where rampant authoritative violence is used to quell protests and uprisings, air is literally sold to the people of Mars, and “mutants” are a product of government negligence. But so many people who watch and enjoy “Total Recall” tend to forget these details and get caught up in the rampant violence displayed onscreen because it provides that same escape that Quaid desires.
Don’t call into question what’s causing you misery in society, just consume and watch product onscreen. That’s kind of what Verhoeven is teasing his viewers with.
To continue with the pornographic theme here, escapism is kind of like a lap dance. You pay someone $100 plus dollars to gyrate on you for 5 minutes so you can forget that you are woefully alone, can’t talk to women, or undesirable all the same. It teaches you to ignore what’s wrong with your life and pretend things are fine for a moment to earn that catharsis you desire so badly.
But it’s not just something as shallow as strip clubs that provide these kinds of releases and catharsis to cope with an undesirable world that has no intention of changing. It comes in other forms too that you may not expect. While I think most people could benefit from therapy for instance, what is therapy really? It’s often there to again help you cope. It’s normal to work 40 plus hours a week doing mind-numbing and sometimes back-breaking labor that pays you essentially slave wages but something is “wrong” with you if you can’t put up with it. Your therapist might help you identify the source of your problem but their advice isn’t to dismantle this misery-inducing system; it’s to shit like “breathing exercises,” “go outside more,” or if you have a psychiatrist load up on anti-depressants.
Therapists don’t teach you to confront a system of exploitation, they teach you to deal with it.
And this kind of therapy comes in all kinds of forms; exercise, eating out, going to the movies, buying things, smoking weed, etc. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do any of these things and that they can’t help but like escapism, it sends the message that you just need to consume this one thing and all will be well with the world, even if it’s only temporary. Life becomes a constant transaction because of this and it’s by design. The capitalist hellscape we all live in provides us all kinds of forms to cope with it but never the keys to our own liberation and justice.
Quaid’s endgame may have been the liberation of the Martian people in “Total Recall” but that wasn’t the point of his journey, nor was it for the viewers who lived it out through him. It was to erase the thoughts of a painful existence, to stop feeling so unfulfilled.
As mentioned in another write-up, propaganda isn’t just saying “thing good” and “other thing bad” it’s about getting people into a certain mode of thinking. The reason The Roman Empire put so much energy into “bread and circuses” ie: Gladiatorial Games is because they understood how entertainment, catharsis, and escape pacified a potentially hostile public. When gladiators slit the throats of Thracian prisoners it provides the same orgasmic release that people now get seeing someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger gun down 100-plus bad guys in a single movie. They do all this while robbing us blind through our tax dollars spent on forever wars overseas and selling us out to Wallstreet ghouls who continue to lobby against everything that can help the general public.
If we’re “happy” and getting our fix, then who cares if minimum wage hasn’t risen in over a decade? Who cares if over half our country’s budget goes to the military and the police instead of infrastructure and healthcare if our favorite sports team is in the playoffs? Who cares if the government is functionally the same no matter who is in charge if we all get our catharsis through movies, games, TV, video games, etc?
Again, no one is saying you shouldn’t consume escapism but we should all recognize their primary function in our society. Verhoeven set out to make a pointed statement about violent escapism by turning up the excess in his movie to 11. Kind of like the lap dance metaphor, he very much is going “Yea, you like that? This is what you want, right? This is what you need, right??”
The important thing here is to see escapism for what it is and to not forget the extremely unfair world we all reside in. The general populace can liberate itself too if it can stop being so easily distracted by shiny objects onscreen and stops seeking out temporary at best relief through media.
It begins by thinking critically about the world we live in and most importantly NOT leaving our brain at the theater door anymore.
In the words of Kuato…