As industrial society continues to alienate itself from its environment, as it considers itself apart and separate, as it externalizes “nature” into an abstract and distances itself to remove guilt, art creates myths to reinforce this viewpoint. We see the Romantic movement’s fear of a feral, uncontrollable wild that will assault civilization as one of the purest manifestations of this, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s own “Young Goodman Brown” has nature reflect the believed inherent darkness of the universe; by engaging with a world outside western civilization, we are opening ourselves up to the its nefarious temptations, to the devil, to evil. As we distance the world outside ourselves, art by its being begins to reinforce this action, and it creates a desire to do so. We end up with a feedback loop, a reinforcement constantly barreling towards the edge of a cliff.
The ultimate ideological goal, one nearly accomplished, is complete removal: a delusional belief that humanity and civilization exist apart from the world, that we are an island, and that our responsibility to the world is not also a responsibility to ourselves. The collective dream is total severance. This belief is cultivated out of guilt, fear, and exploitative desire, and “humanity” as a term shows this, removing the aspects we value in ourselves from the world outside of ourselves. If art about our interactions with the world serves a non-exploitative role in this society, it has to work to break through that delusion with unreality. Hundreds of documentaries exist that tell us about nature, but fact is much easier to dismiss than a counter-myth, a new (or newly re-discovered) legend that spells out this interaction.
It’s here I found a little-loved, barely-seen horror film Mr. Jones, screened in 2013 at Tribeca but only this year finding a home on DVD. In it, we find a young couple, Penny and Scott, who move to a remote house in the woods to partake in that favorite upper-middle class activity, “getting away from it all”. Their relationship seems strained, and Scott wants to work on a documentary, one that he has no concept for and that he’s often too anxious and despondent to film. They’re shiftless citizens of the industrial world hoping to find something new in “nature”, but finding the same old problems revisiting them again (which is of course a debunking of the flip-side of the “nature as evil” myth, a different sort of distancing roughly equal to a broadening of the colonizing idea of the “noble savage”). Early on, we see these sequences through the camera he’s brought with him to make this documentary, experiencing this from his perspective, both literally and thematically, and setting up the film’s wonderful use of the camera as subjective being, morphing to reflect the views of those that wield it. Soon, the couple stumble upon a strange man wandering the woods, finding his workshop filled with sculptures the wife immediately recognizes as the work of Mr. Jones, a mysterious artist who became famous for mailing these sculptures to people all around the U.S.
Here, the couple’s perspectives diverge; Scott goes to New York to talk to people familiar with the artist’s work, while Penny stays at the house to document Mr. Jones’ work. As Scott re-enters the industrial world, his segment morphs into the form of a traditional documentary, using talking heads and linear editing to express a narrative created out of imprecise pieces, reflecting a return to a sense of order, as well as the violent imposition of will on naturally tangled and complex existence. In these sections, we hear oblique comparisons between Mr. Jones work and the work of shamans in pre-industrial cultures, keeping the waking world and the dream world separate. The art critics hold Mr. Jones’ work at arm’s length, viewing it academically, placing it tactlessly behind them on their computer monitors as they’re interviewed. The only person to actively experience the art, a man who was mailed one of Mr. Jones pieces, expresses extreme fear and anxiety about it as he tells Scott about a recurring dream he’s had, a dream where he is chasing himself down to kill himself. In fact, he tells Scott that the dream isn’t recurring; it is always happening, all the time, and it doesn’t end.
Penny’s section, however, further abstracts from the original found footage shots into Terrence Malick-style evocations of the world around here, bathed in light and reflecting an immersion in an unfamiliar place that strikes her with both fear and wonder. She ignores Scott’s phone calls while falling under the trance of Mr. Jones work, skirting around the ritualistically adorned scarecrows he builds in the forest, lit up in the dark by eerie lantern light, casting unsettling shadows all around. When Scott returns, the camera becomes further and further untethered, and, without great spoilers, this removal expresses a blending of worlds, multiple viewpoints expressed through cutting, strange angles, and washes of light that come in rhythmic waves like the view of a lighthouse rolling over the scene.
At the heart of the movie, the character of Mr. Jones and his wide-reaching pseudo-pagan, somewhat tribal, vaguely shamanistic art and the frightening baggage that comes with it, expresses the impact of the world outside of human beings on all of humanity, and its unavoidable place in our lives. We are not removed from nature, and we cannot be removed from it, because we exist within it, and we are of it, and we are it. It does not go away when we move to cities, and it does not bow to us when we try to reclaim the forests. It is ever-present precisely because it is innate in our being. While watching the film, I was reminded of the song “Through the Trees Pt. 2” by Mount Eerie, particularly the line “The natural world and whatever else it’s called…I know there’s no other world. Mountains and websites.”
If there is a true portrait of the environment as it exists, it is a world that has no “environment”; there is just the world, unseparated and massive, encompassing all, spreading out to all beings and places. The withering of humanity comes through its alienation from the world, its purposeful removal, like the grey, dying Jamestown of Malick’s The New World. Mr. Jones is a horror movie exactly about this removal, about the mass cultural forgetting of our place in the world; there is us, the world, forever attempting convergence, and there is us, industrial society, forever attempting greater and greater distance, and these are both described by the word “we”. We are the nightmare, constantly chasing ourselves down, attempting to kill the notion of our being as we define ourselves, and we cannot awake.
Directed by Karl Mueller; written by Karl Mueller; starring Jon Foster, Sarah Jones, Mark Steger; 84 minutes.
Mr. Jones is available: