So Basic: Understanding Our Base Desires
Humans have an uncomfortable understanding of where we come from and what makes us tick. We all agree that we possess an emotional gut instinct, but we still have the ability to control ourselves (for the most part). However, we also believe parts of our brains are hardwired through millions of years of evolution, something we tend to call our "base desires." That there are feral remnants within us is something we accept uneasily and only when the discussion takes a turn towards procreation or burning desires.
Exploring these uncultivated areas in the brain usually plays out as a cautionary tale. Movies that feature rabbit holes into our collective primordial consciousness tend to be warning against trying to understand more than our human brains can truly absorb. Here's where we start to see that searching through the mud and muck of our creation is on par with searching for God, and sooner or later a point is reached where human comprehension falters. From that point on, there is no guarantee of remaining in solid, earthly form. These movies focus on what happens when an otherwise normal mind connects with the purest source of existence.
The Untamed (2016), which just premiered in the US, is a movie out of Mexico that puts humanity in the forefront, even as it tugs at the edges of society. The story follows a small group of people that all know, or get to know each other. Large portions of the film are the days and struggles of average citizens. What brings this into the realm of the primitive is a rarely seen creature living in a shed out in the forest that provides people with the purest feeling in the world, a feeling of complete elation.
Most of the characters in The Untamed are unsatisfied or dishonest in their own lives. One man is in the closet; another is openly gay but emotionally unfulfilled. A married woman has love but no passion; her single friend is alienated from almost everyone. Nobody is particularly happy but as they are introduced to the creature in the movie’s most captivating scenes, they are broken out of themselves and released from their more trivial worries. The creature, a tentacled Gieger homage, interacts sexually with everyone it meets. When we see the copulation in full swing it’s clear that the creature provides immense pleasure. Pleasure is almost too simple a word for it as characters return over and over, despite the creature starting to cause damage.
In human form, we are limited by our senses and what our nerves have the ability to transmit. The creature in The Untamed allows the characters the ability to step outside of their corporal forms and experience “the most beautiful thing you’ll see in this life.” Though the audience never gets a visualization of the characters’ perspective while visiting the creature, we can tell by the change we observe in them afterwards. It is a moment of freedom and bliss, something that can survive in the vortex of existence but not in the physical world. Once we are bodies, we are limited and that bliss in unattainable. As the movie continues, the people visiting the creature face more and more harm yet return to the shed like addicts. Those orgasmic moments they spend wrapped in tentacles cannot be sustained and several characters face death just to get another round. Peace and pleasure override the need to survive as if the creature knows how many base instincts humans have and how they can all be warped against each other.
The people in their normal lives are guilt and anxiety ridden. There is the hint of violence in most of the scenes, whether it’s sexual violence, allergic reactions to certain foods, or even a running discussion about hunting. When out of the woods and back into society, their base desires remain but become muddled. Violence, which one can argue is part of our animalistic nature, seeps up between the fissures in romantic love and arousal; food closes throats and turns stomachs rather than nourishes. In their civilized world, characters navigate confusion and shame as they live alongside their more primitive leanings. The question of which is better for us – being an utterly free animal or attempting to evolve into someone at peace with their given societal role – is posed but not answered.
Dealing less with the practical and more with the theoretical is Ken Russell’s Altered States (1981). Whereas the characters in The Untamed stumble across something that connects them to a more primitive frequency, Edwards Jessup (William Hurt) in Altered States sets out looking for it. His is a search for meaning in the spiritual world, initially rooted in religious visions he claims to have had as a child. When he experiments with hallucinogens in a sensory deprivation tank, he believes he may have reactivated a long dormant piece of DNA that links us to our earliest ancestors. Jessup begins devolving and the visuals of the movie descend into madness as Ken Russell films are wont to do.
The base instincts and desires tapped into by Jessup are at the same time similar and different than the ones in The Untamed. Altered States ponders and explores where we as humans came from and how we’ve come this far. Jessup wonders about the existence of God and, in some ways, is out to prove that we are the product of divine intervention. There is no peaceful, beautiful feeling of being released from expectations but rather an endless onslaught of nightmarish visions as he presses onward. In order to understand our origins, Jessup must dissolve out of his own shell, taking on several different forms throughout his de-evolution. Again, there is a theme of humans in bodily form being unable to handle the information of the universe. As Jessup learns more, his body shifts and changes and the search for explanation or an ethereal truth moves further from his grasp with each new piece of information he absorbs. Like Tantalus with a burning thirst, Jessup is close enough to an answer to feel it but not close enough to quench him.
Altered States shows one man’s attempt to understand higher powers that ends in the primordial ooze of our shared genealogy. The Untamed shows the anxiety and pain born out of denying our instincts and the danger humans are willing to face to be freed of it all. Evolution (2015) directed by Lucile Hadzihalilovic covers the base topic of reproduction while tying it to the base fear of having one’s body corrupted by external forces.
Evolution takes place in an enclosed society living next to the ocean. The town is entirely populated by adult women and young boys, and though it is obvious to us that something strange is going on, most of the children seem at ease with their life there. Except for Nicholas (Max Brebant) who begins to question everything. What we eventually learn is that the roles of reproduction have been changed here. The women mate together in a huge writhing mass reminiscent of sea stars and the boys carry the fetuses like sea horse males. Nicholas pushes back against (yet is helplessly dragged through) his impregnation, all the while being told that this is how life continues.
The women in the movie, including Nicholas’s mother, are perpetually driven to keep their society going which means reproduction, the preservation of one’s lineage. The boys being used for reproduction are unable to maintain any autonomy. These two issues side by side are an ongoing struggle in reality but in Evolution they are played against each other to show the battle of the deeply rooted drives that exist inside us. Breeding and self-protection are about as animal as instincts can get, and while they intersect at some points, they’re also independent of each other. As Nicholas tries to escape from his strangely aquatic childhood, his main concern is his own well being. Others try to convince him of the necessity of his cooperation; their main concern is for reproduction and the larger picture. Ultimately our sympathies lie with Nicholas, as most people would find the need to be in control of one’s own body a higher priority than reproduction. I say most people because we all know there are quite a few that find reproduction to be of the utmost importance. (Re: my discussion of that in Female Anxiety.)
What scares us and what motivates us varies from person to person, but with a little prodding, the dark, base origins of both are exposed. What brings us closer to God or our source of creation, and what returns us to the animals we grew from are questions with a multitude of answers. Understanding, fighting, and enjoying our primitive instincts, not just in the world of art and film, is a continuing struggle. A continuing, eternal, and uniquely human struggle.