Originally written for The Terror Test episode grading The Fireman, Baskin, and Southbound.
Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas! or Repetition In Heaven and Hell
“I think this story is about Hell. A version where you are condemned to do the same thing over and over again. Existentialism, baby, what a concept: paging Albert Camus. There’s an idea that Hell is other people. My idea is that it might be repetition.” ~ Stephen King (author note to “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French.”)
I’m typing this listening to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, an example of American minimalism. He’s a peer to the more famous Philip Glass. One of the key elements in minimalism is repetition—of rhythms, chords, tones, etc. For a time I didn’t like it, this obnoxiously repetitive music by Nyman (a Brit), Glass, Reich, Riley, et al. Slowly and one by one, I’ve been listening to these composers over the last seven years and have come to appreciate and even enjoy their work. I now love the repetition and slight variation, where it used to be annoying. Besides Nyman’s A Zed & Two Noughts score which was easy to love, and a few Glass pieces, it was Terry Riley’s In C that got me interested in this music as a larger movement. Then I heard Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, which is a personal favorite of any genre.
One of the things I like about this style is that I can listen to it and write. It’s a multi-purpose art that I use as a kind of white noise filter. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Repetition is often used to depict a type of Hell or damnation when it’s obviously part of what we love about music, particularly pop or dance music in their various forms. But this repetitive nature is also what can be so aggravating about certain songs. One person’s trash, etc.
The sense of repetition as a punishment has been with us since at least Ancient Greece, with the Classically Damned trio of Ixion, Tantalus, and Sisyphus. Ixion is strapped to a spinning wheel. Tantalus, gives us the English word “tantalize,” with his punishment of neither being able to reach food that hangs above him, nor is he able to reach the water below him which lowers as he does. Sisyphus rolls a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down. He must then roll it back up. Repeat. Forever.
Not too far from a Sisyphean torment is the use of time loops in movies and television. Both films for the next Terror Test, Baskin (2015) and Southbound (2015), use a time loop as part of the narrative. Time loops are when a narrative folds in on itself, this often happens in time travel films. Time loops, as a device, attempt to vary traditional plotting but create their own problems. If a film ends where it begins, it’s not much different than the alligator-in-the-toilet ending. I call it that because so many films ended like this through the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Alligator (1980), a moderately entertaining Jaws knock-off. Presumably based on urban legends of the time, the film opens with an alligator getting flushed down a toilet, getting massive in a city sewer, wrecking havoc above ground and then being destroyed. Enter freshly flushed gator. Roll credits.
Sometimes there is something satisfying about ending where we began. Sometimes we can’t think of anything better. Sometimes we want to suggest a sequel. Much art attempts to bring the ending back to beginning to varying degrees of success. Even a work as surreally sublime as the Brothers Quay adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s “Street of Crocodiles” uses it. We see a contraption we come to understand is an automaton with a map. Spit goes into the automaton, things move, the energy from the saliva (acting as a type of coin maybe) expires, things run down and stop. We return to the exterior of the machine and the map. I probably watched the film ten times before I noticed this extremely basic structure. The time loop feels like it wants to be a fancy version of this, offering subtle variation. The thinking person’s alligator-in-the-toilet, if you will. Often it comes off as more like a Hell of having to watch all the sequels to your favorite horror film without watching the original.
King gets the aforementioned quote “Hell is other people” from Jean-Paul Sartre, who depicts an eternal punishment in his play No Exit, though how repetitive it will be is unclear. Albert Camus, in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” describes Sisyphus as the absurd hero, one whose “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”
At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go.
Camus sees life in this repetition, I think. It is absurd but is part of our consciousness. It is inherently part of our life and work and love. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he writes, in this universe “neither sterile nor futile.”
For me, Samuel Beckett, also referred to as an absurdist, depicts this in an entertaining way, particularly in Waiting for Godot and Endgame. But I’m always curious how unfavorable the reactions can be when I’ve often found Beckett quite funny and see him as much a realist as an absurdist. His characters repeat actions and words. Eating. Putting on boots. Salutations. Jogging. Sleeping. Peeing. Etc. But these are the cycles and conditions that we’re in and I think it’s the ontological verisimilitude of his work that often makes audiences uncomfortable. Or bored. His work often shows how our Being is attached to these rhythms of natural and social life: seasons, weeks, days, liquid brunches, Casual Fridays.
Even Sisyphus has been described as a variation of a solar deity. Rolling the rock up the hill becomes the sun rising. We wake, work, toil. The rock rolling down the hill is the sun descending. Night. Repose. Unless I’m misreading, which is entirely possible, this recognition seems very similar to Camus’s moment of Sisyphean meta-consciousness. Bestselling books like Outliers and its “10,000 Hour Rule” and more recently The Power of Habit also suggest that we don’t see all repetition as hellish, though we have to acknowledge that habits can be good and bad for us.
One may even feel most alive doing something one loves in regular patterns of time and behavior. So much of our lives is repetition.
If we’re lucky.
I like red peppers and Jan Švankmajer movies.
1. Current Listening: Lots of soul from Muscle Shoals
2. Current Viewing: A Hard Day's Night (1964).
3. Current Reading: H.G. Wells: In the Days of the Comet