Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
a tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this tropic port,
aboard this tiny ship...
If you haven't heard of it, then you've probably been coiled under a rock for the last eight months. Samuel Jackson is starring in a new air disaster film that is causing quite a bit of cultural bedlam. We've got impending catastrophe, criminal intrigue, we've got sex in a bathroom at thirty thousand, but most of all we've got SNAKES!
Before you go mocking it, consider that this movie appears to be a cultural phenomenon, not in its content, but in the sheer volume of interest it is generating. "Snakes on a Plane" is redefining a space in the pop culture history of fan worship. If it succeeds, it will be nesting in good company: Beatlemania tore the hair and good sense out of lachrymose teeny-boppers in the early 60s;
1977 saw impossibly long queues for the original Star Wars release, and two years later, deadly lines of entry decimated the crowd at the Riverfront Stadium Who concert; the Cabbage Patch Kids were the first instance I recall of the now annual Christmas Stampede at Toys R Us. Now arrives the era of Al Gore’s Internet, where Web surfing can become a tidal wave of pop momentum. Within this context, The Blair Witch Project (1999) pre-release Internet buzz clamored loudly through fan sites, Web rings, et. al. Important to note the allegations that much of the excitement was generated through crafty web plants. Still, the din was heard round the world, and Blair was a genuine success, financially and creatively. This time the excitement's been spontaneously generated, and it's hard to imagine an opening weekend that spells box office Boo, Hiss! The product isn't even out yet, and pre-fans are blogging, meme-ing, slangin', crank phone calling airlines, writing songs, poetry, cartoons, a game and video parodies. Can't wait until the Bunnies at Angry Alien get busy on this one. Till then, settle for their rendition of Jaws.
All of which begs the question, can you parody what you have never seen? More importantly, can you successfully spoof a thing of no real significance? Notable cultural moments don’t occur for no good reason. Something slithery's underfoot. We’re a country at war, in the White House and abroad, and the culture is replete with an ethos of fear (threatened as we are by homosexuals, immigrants, terrorists and sick birds), while Hollywood concurrently bursts with horror genre projects. Scary movie production is at an all-time high. "We’ve got snakes on a motherfucking plane!"
Richard Hofstadter argued that a society in denial of its inherent contradictions gives rise to pathology, "mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values that bring fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action." This is the "“paranoid disposition," that gives rise to widespread hysterical response. Hysterics, according to Elaine Showalter, are defined as individuals who have lost their capacity to admit and express what they feel. Sometimes the actual voice is lost, 'globus hystericus,' or expression becomes exaggerated in uncontrollable emotion and fictionalizing. These creations of imagination are really metaphors containing the contradiction between what the individual is denying, and what he substitutes as a replacement for the truth.
Think of the Cold War era and the exaggeration of the ubiquitous B horror film, for instance, with it's redundant yet telling theme of invasion, subtextually pointing to communism.
Or examine the resurgence of sensationalism in the 70s cinema, in large part generated by the "Master of Disaster" himself, Irwin Allen.
Was this Vietnam guilt, or simply an extension of anti-communist propagandizing? Whatever the case, Irwin and his peers raised some hellacious storms: natural disasters, noisome animals, and severe technological failures. Consider his credits: Towering Inferno ("One tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense."), Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm (from the trailer: "It is a documented scientific fact that a giant swarm of killer bees is now moving towards the United States. The swarm is coming! ...an extraordinary plan for survival."), and for television, Outrage! Cave-In! Fire! Flood! The man made an entire career on the strength of the exclamation mark alone!
Hysteria, it turns out, is well conducted by the age of media. Showalter explores this in her book, Hystories, "Hysteria is part of everyday life. It not only survives in the 1990s, but it is more contagious than in the past. Newspapers, magazines, talk shows, self-help books, and of course the Internet ensure that ideas, once planted, manifest themselves internationally as symptoms."
Art forms work through metaphors, which function to sort out problems both personal and societal. "Psychology regards all symptoms to be expressing the right thing in the wrong way." A preoccupation with horror then is the focal point for a society steeped in fear, anxiously wishing to keep itself safe. When suppression is greatest, mannerism/theatrical affectation and entertainment become more grossly exaggerated. "Follow the lead of your symptoms," advises James Hillman, "for there's usually a myth in the mess (of snakes!), and a mess is an expression of soul." For those of you who doubt the psychological power of art exerted in social/cultural movements, let me direct you to propaganda, the 60s, The Werther Effect, and Stendhal Syndrome.
So I located “snake” in my various dictionaries of symbols, as well as a thesaurus and my American Heritage Dictionary (someday some great benefactor will get me an OED), all of which produced the following meanings:
Traitor (remember the parable about the woman nursing the ailing snake? Once healed he bites her. As she lays dying, she asks, “Why?” To which he replies, “Woman! You knew I was a snake.”)
Bedlam (that's crazy talk!)
Crook (Mostly like a traitor, I suppose)
Complicated situation (snake pit)
Shamanism (Well, it is Sam Jackson, after all.)
Temptation (like the sound of that)
Two additional meanings stood out, "a very significant sign, not to be feared. A sign of healing" and, “the emergence of the unconscious (repressed) material into the light of consciousness." Transformation and Resurrection. Tall order for a Disaster film.
Mikhail Bakhtin authored an entire book about the Grotesque and Carnivalesque in art and culture. a category into which Horror/Disaster surely falls. The Grotesque and Carnival traditions of parody, satire, and exaggeration criticize negative aspects of society, thereby bringing light to the dark realms of societal neuroses, repressed libido, and pathologies, The Disaster Horror sub-genre, though framed as a kind of drama rather than comedy, parodies these weak spots unwittingly, which is why they tend to play out humorously for savvy viewers. Bathos on a Plane! It is precisely this absurdity that seems to be drawing so many people into the Snakes' lair. And let's face it, fear and pain (schadenfreude) are fundaments of funny, hence, "the butt of the joke." But tearing down false or hypocritical social constructs is not just good revelry, it’s healthy for the culture. In fact, it is the essence of democratic discourse. Question authority, question art, question everything.
So, what are we looking at here? What are the Snakes Signifying?
A JUNGIAN VIEW -
Imagine the story as a dream. The plane (a vessel of our direction and travels as a culture), is soaring at high altitudes (lofty ideals and, additionally or alternatively, our consuming desire for rapid success). The snakes Grendel about (monster figures are shadow figures, unintegrated parts of the self) the cabin, terrifying the passengers (citizenry). FBI agents (investigators probing the shadow - ideally, they are truth seekers) Samuel Jackson (hero, also the Law) and his partner (one white, one black - mythically this pairing is potent as a coupling of opposites. One might read in a peculiar function of race here, but there I won't delve. Read Toni Morrison's essay, Playing in the Dark, for a literary analysis. Draw your own conclusions.), escort incognito (more shadow and unrule, though he's an innocent) witness (truth teller - here's another duality, concealed truth - only the shadow knows), whose presence on board summons the snakes. The FBI pair are the best hope for resolution, to avert the "fall" ( avoid the 'fatal retribution' of hubris), or anomie (break down in social order, as well as personal unrest).
But what truth needs to be told? What could the snakes represent?
THE TRICKSTER (Freaks on a Plane?)
The trickster character is a recurrent mythic device in literature. Jung defined this archetypal figure as "a primitive cosmic being of divine-animal nature, on the one hand superior to man because of his superhuman qualities, and on the other hand inferior to him because of his unreason and unconsciousness." Often represented as animals (ravens, foxes, coyotes and SNAKES), as well as "freakish" god-humans (tremendously un-p.c., but historically, this includes dwarves, the mentally ill or deficient, the blind, hermaphroditic, minorities...),
these figures, also known as psychopomps, have often represented access to other worlds. They are "seers" and instigators of change. In accordance with Grotesque traditions, tricksters seek to tear down; they are class levellers. As Bakhtin wrote, "Privilege is a death blow to theater (culture). All that is High wearies in the long run." Tricksters are social cleaners - they take out the trash, they eat the Sin. So the snakes aboard the plane are trying to eliminate what isn't working, what has grown stale. As with all disasters, real or cinematic, no one is spared, rich, poor, young or old. But like all good Tricksters, they do what they do with humor.
TALIBAN (Snakes in Bahrain?)
In our current climate, post 9-11, with an ongoing War on Terror, the most obvious conclusion is that the Snakes are Terrorists. Air travel is inseparable from our zenophobic fears after Flight 93. The airplane has become one of our most tightly controlled social sectors. Even without pernicious interlopers, there is so much that can go wrong. Many people fear flying, and not without practical reasons. Heavy with protocol, the airplane is a "repressed" vessel, a pressurized cabin. The potential of humans creating disorder aboard, makes it moreso. Shades of Orientalism turn those snakes right into Fatwa missionaries, enemies of Liberty and Justice. Oddly enough, this wouldn't be the first representation of Islam as a serpent. During the Crusades, and in Romance literature, Islam was a Dragon that Christendom sought to slay. Can't imagine what else St. George and the other Knights might have wanted from the Turks, but it all sounds vaguely familiar... Come, let's go to Constantinople.
The IMMIGRANT (Scapegoating the Snakes: More People We Want Off the Plane?)
Closely tied to the Terrorist fears, immigrants have long represented "invasive" forces to citizens worried about their employment and the depletion of their pocketbooks. Just this Monday (5/1), we had another Immigrant Protest Day. I'll not make too much of this, but the country continues to be quite focused on the issue (is Buchanan still trying to erect that wall?). Certainly it's easy and traditional to blame would-be citizens for societal problems. Hell, scapegoating's a favorite cultural past time, and precisely a thing the Trickster/Snake would like to bring down.
FEAR OF SNAKES
Poisonous ophidians are dangerous. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Before I sink into tautologies, this might best be illustrated with a bit classic film dialogue:
Indiana Jones: There's a big snake in the plane, Jock!
Jock: Oh, that's just my pet snake Reggie.
Indiana Jones: I hate snakes, Jock! I hate 'em!
Jock: C'mon, show a little backbone, will ya?
PESTILENCE (I got nothin')
"See, I will send venomous snakes among you, vipers that cannot be charmed, and they will bite you..."
- Jeremiah 8:17
Anxieties run high when disease is present. Avian Flu, like AIDS, is heightening social tensions. Dangerous, winged, it flies through the air with the greatest of ease, (frankly, I'd focus my health fears more realistically - namely worry about those steaks they serve on the plane). Fortunately for us, Sam Jackson tends to "get medieval." Of course, that's part of the problem to begin with. Disease alludes to the Plagues of Egypt, just so Fundamentalists can have more fun. Back to Showalter: "in a supportive cultural environment, after entertaining the mainstream of popular culture, hysterical syndromes multiply as they interact with social forces such as religious beliefs, political agendas, and rumor panics." Suddenly the snakes are the Lord's dark emissaries, sent to smite the wicked.
"The path of the righteous plane is beset on all sides by the iniquities of these snakes and the tyranny of those evil motherfuckers. Blessed is the plane, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the snakes through the friendly skies, for this plane is truly the snakes keeper and the finder of lost as shit motherfuckers. And I will strike down upon thee with lots of venom and motherfucking anger those who would attempt to crash my plane and destroy my snakes. And you will know my name is Samuel L. Motherfuckin’ Jackson when I lay my taser upon thee." Esnakeiel 25:17
Which brings us to...
SEX (Cakes on a Plane!)
I understand that in an effort to boost the "PG-13" rating up to a solid "R," Snakes went back into production for a round of reshoots, including a "Mile High Club" scenario. That's right, somebody's gonna 'do it' in the bathroom (Jakes on a Plane?). As if that weren't enough, I hear the snakes, who are naturally shy creatures, get their fangs a-salivating at the introduction of pheromones, intentionally released into the cabin. Makes 'em feisty - something straight out of "When Animals Attack," or "Snakes Gone Wild!"
Need one point out the phallic imagery of both the snakes and the plane? If there is sex on this plane, small wonder it's headed for disaster. If you watched any of the slasher films of the 70s and 80s, you know the central 'morality play' device, wherein virginal teenage girls are caught 'in flagrante' and mortally punished. These are cautionary tales, like modernized versions of the Victorian Fallen Woman, except the modern girl doesn't kill herself, a psycho/sociopath cuts her into ribbons. One imagines those movies backed by the Moral Majority, which, like the 700 Club, really was neither. If anything fuels an hysterical fire, it's a repressed sexuality, whether it be Puritans and the Witch Trials, (I've already mentioned the Victorians), legions of sexually unfulfilled and overmedicated Eisenhower-era housewives, or the contemporary Horror of Untraditional Marriage (Snakes on a Mountain? No way, that's Gay!). What is it, exactly, that we think could happen? Remember, we didn't let the Sam Jacksons of our country marry for quite awhile, either.
But sexuality is divine and sacred, and few mythical figures represent that notion more potently or universally than the snake. When the Cretans and the Hebrews went about worshipping snakes, they didn't try to separate the two. (Hey! Nice Cakes!)
Gnostic literature praised the serpent of Eden for bringing the “light” of knowledge to humanity, against the will of a tyrannical God who wanted to keep humans ignorant. In Babylonian iconography, like the Garden myth, the snake offered man the food of immortality, which really is sex. Likewise, in Kundalini the snake is coiled at the base of the spine (root chakra), symbolizing immense life power. As it rises, it creates a spiritual awakening and healing.
The symbol of the caduceus contains these yogic notions and is unmistakeably evoked in the Snakes on a Plane movie logo. It is also a fertility symbol. Often depicted (along with the Easter Lily), as the rod of impregnation to the Virgin, it was delivered by a Seraphim, the root word of which means "fiery serpent." Mostly known to us now as the symbol of medicine, the caduceus was the Hermetic "wise serpent," representing commerce and the tree of life. Also found in Aztec and Navajo art, the snake is shamanistic. It sheds skins and is reborn in perpetuity; the snake is the circle of life. If the Snakes are generative, which makes them inherently sexual, then they have a spiritual purpose. So, these sexual impulses we've repressed mandate expression, otherwise the life cycle ends. Rob Brezny paraphrases Carl Jung, who "believed that all desires have a sacred origin, no matter how odd they may seem. Frustration and ignorance may contort them into distorted caricatures, but it is always possible to locate the divine source from which they arose."
And maybe THAT'S why Samuel Jackson is now making a movie with Christina Ricci, about a white nympho who must be cured by a black bluesman, Black Snake Moan.
IT'S JUST PLANE FUNNY
Why even bother to interpret it? Could just let it be, but the fans have run amok - burlesque, caricature, flim-flam, whatever you call it,
there is something sublime and flattering to mimicry. The Grotesque-Carnivale tradition embraces these notions, even when the lampoonery seems merely to skim along the surface. Here's some more of the fun it has already generated.
Whichever interpretation suits you, it will be most entertaining to watch Samuel Jackson, like a modern St. Patrick, driving the snakes out (never you mind there are no snakes in Hawaii).
This whole thing has already reached Rocky Mt. High Altitudes. Check out the cute snowboarder:
And when the Mother Fucking Snakes gross $100,000,000, we'll have "Remakes on a Plane." Sam might be tired of those snakes, but I can hardly wait.