Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cowboy Bebop Session 23: Brain Scratch

For roughly the first five minutes of “Brain Scratch,” all the images we see are television broadcasts. The episode opens with TV static and a channel number in the upper right hand corner, then cuts to a different channel playing a commercial for some organization called Scratch. Every few seconds, the channel changes, and we are treated to scenes of various shows from the year 2071, none of which would look too out of place today. We see sensationalist news reports about suicides related to Scratch, a show in which a man simultaneously gives advice to and berates a crying woman who lost her son to Scratch, and an exercise infomercial for a combination elliptical machine/DJ booth. Finally, the channel changes to a reporter interviewing a woman who recently joined Scratch. She says that the group’s philosophy of shedding the physical body, which keeps us a slave to our desires and our obligations, and living on the internet attracted her because she was tired of living in debt. The woman is Faye, and the viewer is Spike. And so the episode begins.

“Brain Scratch” is an interesting work of post-modern fiction. Without going into an in-depth explanation, post-modern works include things like questioning of reality, unreliable narrators, multiple different perspectives, and the use of the media to tell the story. Two post-modern works from different media include Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (sadly, I have not read Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” upon which the film was based). Dark Knight told Batman’s story through the eyes of multiple people, including the new police commissioner, the new Robin, and many media figures. Half of the story was told via TV screens, with different people spouting off their opinions of Batman and the state of Gotham City. Total Recall examines the concepts of reality and identity, asking if our memories equal ourselves, and whether “false” memories could still be real. Lead character Quaid is led to believe that his entire life is a lie, and that he doesn’t really exist. Instead, everything he remembers was implanted in his head to lead the real owner of his body to the headquarters of a resistance movement. But Quaid refuses to accept that he is not “real” or that he would ever betray a cause he believes in (or was forced to believe in).

In “Brain Scratch,” we learn a lot about the story from television and the internet. We watch the characters absorb commentary from television “personalities.” The episode examines what constitutes reality when we subject ourselves to fantasy on a daily basis. The cult Scratch woos people into becoming members by promising to take away all pain and desire, and allow them to live their lives as brain waves on the internet. It would almost appear that Scratch is legit, as its founder and leader, Londes, can’t be found on the physical plane, which leads followers to claim that Londes’ promises are achievable. The crew is looking for him because he has a 38 million wulong bounty on his head, most likely due to the fact that over a hundred people who have become members have committed suicide. But he continues to appear in commercials, explaining that true happiness requires getting rid of your body.

Keep in mind that this episode aired in 1999, well before the rise of social media, in which many people have developed lives on the internet. Thanks to the anonymity that the internet provides us, we can be whoever we want online, without having to worry about consequences. We can voice any opinion, pass ourselves off as any age, gender, race, or sexuality, and can even create multiple new personalities for ourselves. The only limit is imagination… and bandwith.

And that is exactly what Londes has done. Jet and Ed eventually track down “Londes’” physical body, a comatose hacker who had is mind connected to the internet. His mind continues to work and can perform action via the internet, but his body is nothing but a shell, keeping him chained to this plane of existence. Meanwhile, Spike tracks down Faye, passed out in front of a pile of television screens. Londes appears on the screens to deliver an extended monologue about the nature of reality, which is incredibly captivating. Londes discusses the need people feel to be with each other, even if only artificially. He cites this as why humans created the concept of God, but it also goes a long way toward explaining the existence of Twitter. And he says that television is one of the greatest and darkest things ever invented, as it causes people to become detached from reality; we inundate ourselves daily with “dramatic fantasy” and after a while, we can no longer tell reality from fiction. If you doubt this, consider how many things you do because someone on TV did it. Entertainment Weekly has a column informing readers where they can buy the clothes and accessories worn by characters in film and television shows. People watch 24-hour cable news channels, filled with pundits who are exaggerating their beliefs for the sake of being entertaining. We want to be like people on TV, we "ship" characters who we think would make better couples, and our opinions are informed by what we see. Once again, just imagine what this episode could say the writers knew about Facebook and Twitter.

Of course, Spike’s reaction is to shoot his gun at the screens. He probably knows that the physical objects through which Londes appears have no bearing on his health or safety, but all he can do is attack the physical form. Spike is the antithesis of Scratch; he is very tactile, and solves his problems with his fists and his charm. He “fixes” things by attacking them and can smooth talk his way through many situations. But not all; as we see in this episode, he can barely hide his contempt for Scratch when he speaks to representatives while trying to track down Londes. Spike is an old fashioned person, who would be lost with nothing but his mind.

Up next: Ed hums a haunting tune as this reviewer’s eyes tear up.