Keep Your Eyes Peeled
Dan Friedman

Note: Contains Spoilers for Minority Report

Not since Salvador Dali's knife sliced into the jelly of a cow's eye in the early shots of Un Chien Andalou has the organ of vision been subjected to as much focus and on-screen violence as in Steven Spielberg's latest film, Minority Report: Everybody Runs. In Dali's film, the action is a deliberately provocative statement of intent, but for Spielberg the constant attention on the eye never shakes off the fundamental incongruity of having a central character and a central plot that do not 'see.'

Eyes and the notion of sight are constantly scrutinized within Minority Report: Retinas are continually laser scanned, and even, in a comically gruesome scene, Cruise's eyeballs are removed to be replaced by others (those of an unfortunate Mr Yakamoto). One of the marketing posters, showing Cruise with a torn-out eye, tacitly acknowledges that this scene is central to the film. Minority Report even makes a cute visual allusion to the problem of blindness by featuring mini-Triffids in Dr Hineman's garden-reminding us of those mobile plants that, in John Wyndham's fevered imagination, took over the earth when humanity was blinded by a freak meteor shower.

Since it is our organs of vision that do the work of actually watching the film, there is a symbolic importance to actions carried out upon eyes in the body of it. The filmmaker, whether he intends it or not (and I find it inconceivable that a director as experienced as Spielberg would not be conscious of this), makes those actions metaphors for the effects that the film has upon the eyes of the audience. Dali, for example, signals his intention to slash the eyes of the audience but, by deliberately cross-cutting poorly between a woman's eye and the cow's eye, he foregrounds the falseness of the process and introduces the possibility of sexual tension within the viewing situation. What, then, is Spielberg trying to tell us?

The most common metaphorical way in which we use to "see" is in place of to "understand" In this usage we deliberately confuse the sense of sight with the faculty of insight-vision of a deeper kind. Although it tends to be used trivially it conceals a profound, and dangerous, misconception that seeing something means understanding it, and oneself in relation to it. Consider Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Oedipus, who had been blind to his own crime and hubris, rips his own eyes out as an act of expiation, humility, and physical mourning. He killed his father, slept incestuously with his mother, and doomed the city over which he ruled, all because he had the pride to confuse his own clarity of vision with a genuine insight into his own place in things. (We know all too well today that people for whom the world seems clear and straightforward are often the most dangerously mistaken.)

Spielberg is trying to tap into this profound connection between the eyes, pride, understanding, and the individual for a more contemporary purpose -- to warn us of the triple danger of infringing upon civil rights: First, that we may see the ostensibly altruistic face of government policy, but not understand the self-interested machinations of governmental officials who shape its implementation. Second, that government may see and act upon misunderstood information about citizens (and non-citizens). Third, that however clear our vision is, it is inescapably outward facing: our eyes peer away from our brain and accept that as normal. We are hopelessly lost in our own situations however much we try to 'lose ourselves' in work or drugs (as John Anderton indeed tries to).

If Oedipus' fate is to know too much too late then Tom Cruise's fate as John Anderton is to know little too early. He can never respond positively to Agatha's repeated line "Can you see yet?" because he has too little vision to even understand the question the first time she asks it and no insight except his lack of understanding by the end of the film. Even when he has his eyes removed (a decision that is taken immediately and with regrettably little reflection) and replaced by those of Mr Yakamoto, the first immediate change in Anderton's perspective is to understand that not all people's shopping habits are similar. In fact, Anderton never makes the shift from physical sight to mental reflection that would seem to be necessitated by his changed position with respect to the law and perhaps this is Anderton's, and the film's, true tragedy.

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August 2002

jay's head
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