Push

Push (2009) has left the critics disappointed, if not puzzled. Even hostile. Roger Ebert, for example, acknowledges the film’s “vibrant cinematography and decent acting” but continues by complaining, “I’m blasted if I know what it’s about.”

Oh, I understand how the characters are paranormals, and how they’re living in a present that was changed in the past, among enemies who are trying to change the future. I know they can read minds and use telekinesis to move things. I know they’re [fighting against] a Nazi experiment gone wrong, and the U.S. [agency, called Division, that] wants them for super-soldiers. But that’s all simply the usual horsefeathers to set up the situation. What are they doing?

What Mr. Ebert and most of his fellow critics have failed to recognize is that the “horsefeathers” is precisely what this film is about. The opening credits make it abundantly clear that its story is addressing the violence that defines our present, the role of medical science in contributing to modern dis-ease, and how shadow governments and fortified bureaucracies strangle the vitality of the living.

The future for which the protagonists are fighting is one that has been all but blotted out, a path at risk of extinction, crowded out by decisions and commitments made on our behalf … and with which we have complied. The accretions of power have long-lasting effects, not only resident in the hands of the elected, or the (self) appointed, but in the modes-of-living and ways-of-feeling that have come to define our “normal” existence.

But what does this have to do with paranormals?

Mythology

The answer to that question lies in how we understand the mythology presented in Push, or mythology in the movies, more generally. That the protagonists of this film are endowed with special abilities should alert us to the fact that we’re dealing with a contemporary version of the pantheon of gods found in the myths of old. Their “human” qualities – such as anger, ambition, hypocrisy, but also love, desire, and tenderness – provide a screen against which to interpret our own grapplings with the dilemmas of living. And a point of reference for making our own choices.

In this sense, Push is like many superhero films: it revolves around a protagonist who discovers his “power,” learns how to harness it, and joins in a historic battle against Evil.

What makes Push different, however, is that it comes without the usual trappings of the superhero story. Push’s protagonists are not independently wealthy (e.g., Bruce Wayne); neither are they blessed by the largess of a benefactor (e.g., Prof. Xavier). There are no costumes that mark the superheroes’ ascension to power and which protect their secret identities. And since Push does not provide an elaborate backstory about its protagonists, neither does its story revolve around the painful – and tragic – split personalities that haunt many superheroes, trapped in the gulf that separates their “normal” identities from their powerful (and often dangerous) alter-egos.

Instead, we are presented with “normal” people with psychic abilities. And unlike the protection provided by a Batcave or an X-Mansion, the protagonists of Push are swallowed by one of the most densely populated cities in the world. There is no space to buffer the noisy and confusing environment in which they find themselves; there is no surfeit of wealth to mediate or ease the demands the world makes of them. In other words, while comic book superheroes possess a certain privilege of escape from the commotion of life among the living, the protagonists of Push are completely immersed in it.

Paranormal Power

All they have are their abilities. And when compared with the superpowers that fill the pages of comic books, it’s difficult not to think of these psychics and their talents as “normal.” There is no x-ray vision here, no soaring to the stratosphere, no ability to stop moving trains with a finger. Instead, we learn of talents that operate on a much smaller – almost personal – scale: the capacity to change or erase a memory, the gift of foresight, the use of hands to heal a wounded body.

In a way, these abilities are the stars of this story, rather than the individuals who possess them. Perhaps this is why we are inundated with a dazzling array of the different forms these “powers” can take: Pushers, Bleeders, Stitches, Movers, Watchers, Sniffs, Shifters, Wipers. This is what the protagonists of Push are fighting for, against the threat of being “disappeared.” Recruited, transformed – and, subsequently, effaced – in service of Division.

That these powers are “paranormal” rather than “super” points to a different way of thinking about gifts and abilities. The talents showcased here are not distinguished by their transcendental dimensions: they are not super-sized and overblown; neither are they supra-human. Instead, they are noteworthy precisely because they operate alongside what we take to be normal. The only thing extraordinary about them is that they defy or exceed our normal understanding of the things of the world.

This is the mythological universe to which the film introduces us. The paranormal is no mere scaffolding for an unrelated story: each character possesses a talent – whether recognized or not, whether developed or not – and all are challenged to cultivate an understanding of the gifts they possess, and to make an affirmative choice about the uses to which they are put … even if they have had to pay dearly for doing so in the past.

Cassie Holmes, Watcher

As a Watcher, Cassie can see the future, and constantly uses her notebook to record the images that come to her mind. What distinguishes these “visions” from mere fantasy is that they have a tangible relation to the world in which she finds herself, one that can (almost) predict what is to come (since the future is always changing). This puts her in a strange position, particularly since others do not share her ability to “see” events as she does. It is an alienating experience, one in which she is dismissed as a crazy person whose scribbles makes sense only to her. An island to herself amid a sea of humanity blind to what consumes her. That she often comes across as hard or aloof, even at the tender age of thirteen, is only a natural consequence of this “talent.”

In this light, Cassie’s name takes on special significance, as she can be considered a Cassandra cursed with the gift of prophecy that no one else believes. In movies, like 12 Monkeys, such foresight is often the gift of the immigrant who, by virtue of having crossed a boundary separating two worlds, has access to a truth not available to others. According to depth psychologists, on the other hand, Cassandra is the person – usually a woman – who by virtue of suffering at the hands of an Apollo-like figure becomes the voice of moral conscience, her torment becoming the ground from which her insight is born.

We are not told where Cassie’s gift comes from, other than the fact that she has inherited it from her mother, now imprisoned by Division. All we know is that she is an orphan to the world, and that all she has left are her visions of the future. All she can do is trust them and learn how to measure them against what the world has to offer by way of verification.

It is this gift of sight that leads her to Nick Gant.

Nick Gant, Mover

Like Cassie, Nick is a second-generation paranormal, having inherited his ability as a Mover from his father. As a child, he was also orphaned by Division.

However, unlike Cassie, Nick is not plagued by visions. Neither does he suffer the assaults that come from foretelling a future no one wants to believe. Instead, he lives in hiding from Division, in one of the last refuges for people like himself: Hong Kong. Like many refugees, he finds himself faced with empty time – and a vacant life – estranged from the kind of normality most of us take for granted. Given this life-world, it’s not surprising that he has turned to gambling to fill his days, particularly since he also believes that his (unpracticed) skills as a Mover provide him with an advantage not available to others.

Nick is a lost soul living a life without meaning, until Cassie finds him. Predictably, he is skeptical of her claim to see the future and the role he plays in it. Not until his first encounter with the Bleeders, as Cassie had warned him about, and having his wounds tended to by a Stitch, does Nick begin to believe. His lingering doubt is put to rest when, upon awakening, he receives a gift from Cassie, as had been prophesied to him many years before. That she hands him not just any flower, but a lotus, to the accompaniment of chanting monks, leaves little ambiguity as to what kind of turning point is hinted at here.

With the confusions of his life falling away, what’s left for Nick to do is learn how to care about – and fight for – the world he has spent his life trying to escape, find the courage to stand up to Division, and harness his inherited talents that have, until now, largely gone to waste.

Division

We are not shown or told much about what happens in Division’s facilities. What is clear, however, is that its activities resemble a form of extraordinary rendition in which paranormals are tracked, imprisoned, and subjected to various forms of manipulation and extraction.

The “crisis” around which the film revolves, in other words, does not come in the form of a flamboyantly costumed Nemesis threatening an otherwise tranquil world. Instead, it centers on those entrenched practices and policies that seek to extend the reach and control of power, the forcible conscription of talents and abilities that lie outside its sphere of influence. There is no need for a colorful Archenemy here, since the interlocking powers of shadow governments, calcified bureaucracies, and the aspirations of science already collude to create a world stunned and gasping for its breath. Life has been reduced to dizzying swings between the rush of stimulus-overload and the corrosive murmur of meaninglessness.

Whatever happens under the cover of secrecy, it’s clear that Division is acting as a modern day Frankenstein, meddling with bodies and minds in an effort to capture the secret of the paranormal so it can be harnessed for purposes of domination. That their efforts have failed is evident in the climbing number of dead, as well as the living debris of their previous handiwork. Prime among these are Bleeders, trained as assassins, who can unleash screams that rupture the bodies of their chosen targets.

In addition, Division’s legacy is plainly apparent in the assortment of rogue paranormals who have escaped bonded service to Division. Ever on guard against possible recapture, these “new” refugees eke out lives in the fissures and niches afforded by the Hong Kong landscape: a clairvoyant Sniff, able to track people and objects, makes her living in an underground private practice; a Shadow, after losing his finger to his former captors (“Pinky”), offers his services to those hoping to avoid psychic tracking; a Shifter, entranced by the dazzling Nightclub scene, uses his talents to impress the ladies, and earn his keep; a Wiper, calling a dilapidated boat his home, who stares across the waters of the harbor as he tries to retrieve what Division has taken from him: his memories … and, as a result, his Mind.

Kira Hudson, Pusher

In the midst of this jumble of paranormals we are introduced to Kira – Division’s patient zero – who has not only escaped captivity but, more significantly, is the only one to have survived Division’s lethal efforts to boost paranormal powers.

As a Pusher, Kira is able to insert specific thoughts, feelings, or memories into people’s heads. As a consequence, she is able to gain their trust or otherwise direct their behavior. The attractiveness of this “power” for Division is fairly obvious: it does not involve the mere manipulation of physical objects (as Shifters and Movers are able to do); nor does it concern the tracking (or hiding) of people and objects (like Sniffs, Watchers, and Shadows); neither does it merely alter the constitution of the body or of memories (the capabilities of Stitches and Wipers). Instead, Pushers are able to directly access the faculty of the mind, intervening – and interrupting – an individual’s will and intent.

The organ that is crucial in the operation of a Pusher’s ability is the eye, that portal between the mind and the outside world, including the minds of others. While the gift of Watchers like Cassie involves the ability to “take in” information and images from the outside world, the Pusher’s talent is precisely the reverse. In a not so different world, those with this kind of “natural” ability become teachers, where they can use their power to nurture and edify young minds. Gently and humanely, of course. But, as we know all too well, there are other uses to which such powers of persuasion can be put: gossip, peer pressure, advertising, public relations, news as infotainment, spin doctoring, smear campaigns and witchhunts, propaganda, counterinsurgency.

Divide and conquer.

Push

This is the pivot around which the battle is fought.

Perhaps due to her familiarity with a Pusher’s power, Kira is suspended between Division and her paranormal allies, never quite sure whether she’s been “pushed.” When surrounded by the powers of insinuation and indoctrination, how is one to discern what is real from what is not? Escaping from Division is no small feat, but the more crucial struggle involves learning to distinguish between one’s own will from what has been imposed (or inherited) from without. The question, in other words, boils down to what it is that compels, what kinds of forces impel action, and where they come from.

Each of the protagonists in this film faces some version of this battle. For Cassie, it concerns her ability to overcome the suspicion and hostility brought on by her talent, and it is through her relationship with Nick, and his emergent belief, that she is able to learn to lower her defenses and care about another. For Nick, it involves overcoming his fear of the power available to him, a transformation enabled once he witnesses the trust he has earned in Kira’s and Cassie’s eyes. For Kira, the struggle is discerning between what is “her” and what has been “pushed” into her, and developing faith in her ability to push back.

The secret to the paranormals’ success is not some spectacular display of awesome force but, rather, something almost imperceptible: the effort required to properly gauge one’s own talent and learn how to relate to it differently – with faith and dignity – particularly if it has been relegated to the margins, denied of significance or worth. It is about overcoming those forms of denigration from which it is near impossible to escape, of powerlessness overcoming its invisible bonds. It’s about a certain kind of labor, giving birth to what was already there but not fully recognized.

Postscript: Breaking Away

Even as Cassie and Kira struggle against a certain form of claustrophobia, and expend their mightiest efforts to escape entrapment or find passages that lead elsewhere …

they also experience a certain kind of expansiveness not available to Nick, a potentiality that belies the sense of confinement and persecution that comes with doing battle against Division …

which puts them in a position to serve as his guide, in ways he has not recognized and even actively resisted …

unaware that the solution to his struggle against life’s suffocations merely involves a certain willingness to listen … and an ability to look up. Beyond his own miserable existence.

Different kind of heroes, indeed.

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~ by mistified on June 12, 2009.

One Response to “Push”

  1. […] has had many bad reviews over its run from thetre to DVD, however after reading a blog post by Divinations I have to completly agree that many critics are blind to the fact that the story is shadowed by the […]

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