The Circle [2017]

Often when I read a negative review about a film, I’ll eventually come to the conclusion that the reviewer brought their own agenda to the review rather than coldly evaluating the work in its own terms. How valid that is as a strategy is up for debate, but I think one useful way of thinking about that decision is to look for precedents and familiar story patterns – genre. The Circle isn’t exactly a genre piece, but it is explicitly about the function of social media and its intersection with surveillance, and hence connects to a range of other similarly-interested films recently, and broadly with a major area of civil concern right now. Facebook and its analogues know a truly terrifying amount about us, both in terms of what we explicitly tell it, and in that we share information using it as a medium even knowing that every keystroke is recorded somewhere. A film about this topic, by its mere existence, posits an investigation of the phenomenon beyond the obvious facts of it that are well known to virtually everyone. Despite any good intentions I may have about letting the film speak for itself, it’s inevitably actually just a contributor to a much wider discussion that’s going on around me.

As usual, spoilers follow.

The elevator pitch for the film is that Mae [Emma Watson] gets a job at a Facebook analogue on steroids and discovers that it’s agenda is far more extensive than “just” social networking. The bulk of the film plays out Mae’s increasing advocacy for this philosophy, before one brief moment of doubt near the end of the film. The two principle axes that the eponymous “Circle” expands are mass surveillance and the integration of itself into the mechanisms of government. The concept being pushed is one of total openness, beginning with a congresswoman who agrees to have all of her e-mails, meetings, and phone calls be completely public, leading to Mae wearing a body-cam 24/7, except for 3-minute bathroom breaks. Based on the security and ubiquity of the underpinning identity technology, the Circle begins to advocate that a kind of direct democracy is possible by superseding conventional voter registration and indeed voting with the social media tool. Mae advocates making membership in The Circle mandatory – much like having a social security number (or foreign analogue), as just a thing that’s necessary for the operation of government.

What I wanted this film to be was a cautionary tale, a kind of Black Mirror-esque dystopia, where the iron fist of Big Brother is replaced by a smothering cotton-wool, and the film does play with this concept. Early in the film, Mae is visited by The Circle’s social-media advisers, who make it pretty clear that the “optional” social events offered by the Circle are effectively mandatory, in effect requiring her to use The Circle as her primary mode of interacting with the world. Office Space [1999] perfectly skewered this optional/mandatory dichotomy when Joana [Jennifer Aniston] is questioned about the number of pieces of “flair” she has to wear at work, where her manager makes it clear that the mandated minimum is anything but. Their goal, at which they fail, is to force her to internalise the logic of defining herself in terms of the company’s needs; in The Circle, this naked requirement to control Mae is not deflected but embraced. The film makes this connection explicit at the point where she agrees to become “fully transparent” by wearing a body cam all the time – her boss, Bailey [Tom Hanks] virtually quotes Bentham’s description of the panopticon in discussing how this transparency will force her to be her best self, to self-regulate. Bentham’s panopticon works on the principle of uncertainty – because you could be observed at any moment, you behave as if you are always observed – but The Circle ensures 100% visibility, there really is someone watching all the time. As a consequence of her immersion and eventual “total transparency”, Mae becomes extremely popular within The Circle. This is offset by her loss of connection with her “real life” relationships with her parents and her old friends Mercer [Ellar Coltrane] and Annie [Karen Gillan]. She characterises the loss of Mercer’s friendship as him “drifting away”, but it’s clear from the very first scene of them together that she is disinterested in him as a person or friend, maintaining any connection only through habit. Instead of a cautionary tale, the new generalised friendship/follower dynamic correlates with a general improvement in her sense of self esteem and her happiness. It’s clear that she craves the attention and is gratified by it as it increases.

The cautionary aspect of the story is therefore very much a second-order reading, rather than one proposed by the film directly: the film doesn’t tell us that she is being damaged by these experiences, we must decide that we don’t like where she ends up as an independent value judgment. Reading it as a cautionary tale is like reading House of Cards against Frank Underwood [Kevin Spacey] or Breaking Bad‘s Walter White [Bryan Cranston] – of course it’s a valid reading, that we don’t want people like them around, but the structure of their fictions effectively endorses them. We want Frank and Walter to succeed, even if we understand that they’re evil men. Similarly, while we are cautious about identifying with Mae, she nonetheless gets everything she wants here, and her unshaken belief in the mission statement of The Circle coincides with the basically happy ending of the film, where her vision of universal total transparency is implied to have been realised. The fiction punishes those characters who oppose the Circle – a questioning Senator is politically annihilated, Annie’s loss of faith is punished by her psychological break-down, the two bosses who seek to be “above” the cloud rather than in it are revealed in the manner of the Wizard of Oz, and Mercer is actually killed for his refusal to participate: all contrarily to Mae, who is saved from certain death by the system and her participation in it. The cautionary tale is still there, but by sublimating it so deeply, the film relies heavily upon an audience reading almost every scene critically, rather than in sympathy with the surface text. What the film is doing in some senses is evading the usual moral over-determination that Hollywood has trained us to expect, perhaps deriving from the Hayes code, where Evil Must Be Punished (c). It expects and allows us to look at Mae’s life and decide for ourselves whether that’s where we want to end up.

Perhaps as instructive as what’s shown in her life is what’s omitted: sex and shitting. Mae’s allowed 3-minute bathroom breaks in coverage are an acknowledgement of some level of absolute privacy – but why? The film offers no explicit answers, but I think the reason is to do with reality versus pretence. The objective of the “total transparency” is the removal of secrecy, but in fact Mae immediately begins to perform for her audience. Instead of capturing reality, Mae suppresses her natural instincts at all times and begins to explicitly use a kind of soliloquy to “express” her inner thoughts. She is young, charming, and beautiful – a perfect fantasy, which like other fantasies has no space for the most basic human acts of elimination. Instead of total transparency, Mae creates a total lie: she becomes a simulacrum instead of a person. Yet even here, the film expresses an ambivalence by showing how her father obfuscates his inability to control his own defecation – euphemisms are used to convey the meaning to his guests, but not the detail. This works because of a shared understanding, but nonetheless, is an omission mirrored by the breaks in coverage.

Her life is not only free from the toilet, but free from intimate contact. The only sexual contact of any kind in the film is an embarrassing moment where Mae inadvertently sees her parents having sex via one of the video cameras placed throughout their life as an implicit pre-condition of The Circle offering him medical assistance. Sex is relegated to something completely pre-digital, something that cannot exist in the infinitely connected open world; the implication sex is something that isn’t and can’t be technologically mediated. This is a bizarre position in the age of the digital hook-up where sex for those who want it is a right-swipe away and what in fact the omission signifies is a kind of puritanical morality, constantly emphasised in the rhetoric of honesty, openness, accountability.  The film is saying you can have all those things, but not them and sex – because sex is inherently non-performative, it’s not not a piece-to-camera or a carefully staged “spontaneous” reaction to some new artwork. Her father can be honest with his wife about his defecation, and consequently is sufficiently intimate for sex with her – but the rest of the world must be kept at a further distance. By totally excluding everyone in the world from intimacy by making them an audience for her performance of identity, Mae excludes everyone from sexual contact.

What makes The Circle emotionally unsatisfying is that it provides no locus of resistance to the dominant narratives within the fiction – that The Circle is inexorable and broadly desirable. All of the critical commentary is either ambivalent, such as the scepticism of its inventor or the hypocrisy of its controllers, or shown to be compromised. Compared to other films like Gattaca or The Truman Show, which posit equally thoroughly dystopian views of technologically-contingent societies, The Circle only shows how seductive the fantasy is. The fantasy being the sense of belonging and purpose that is created by a wholly performative public persona – by sacrificing any deeper self, Mae gets the popularity and material success she craves. It’s a compelling vision, but the lack of any meaningful challenge to the views makes it dramatically inert and emotionally dead – just as the people in the Circle become. It’s anaesthetic in its warnings of the dangers of anaesthesia. Instead of leaving the film with a sense of the urgency of resistance, as I did with Eye in the Sky, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, etc, you leave this film with the sense that it’s not great, but not that it’s so terrible really. Not what you would want, not what you would work toward or actively choose… but certainly a liveable dystopia. In the end, reading the text versus looking for a subtext leaves me ambivalent: Is it a warning, or an endorsement? Yes.

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