October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
May 13, 2015
This film is hell to sit through. In dramatizing the now infamous psychological experiment of 1973, Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment does a number on its viewers. It forces us into an associative relationship with the events it depicts, with the participants of the study on screen, and with the system that shapes the participants of that study. And yet the film refuses us any sort of generative, willful power through our viewership. We are stuck, and our role is ultimately determined by the infrastructure itself; in taking our seats in the theater, we have actively committed to journey with the film; we have actively signed up to be acted upon, even if the unpleasantness we experience is but a fragment of what we are viewing on screen.
And what we taste is not groundbreaking cinematography or plot twists. It isn’t a sweeping narrative, a poetic script, or a moving story. Instead, it is a film that hews close to the original experiment. We observe Dr. Philip Zimbardo advertise for participants in the Stanford newspaper, offering fifteen dollars a day for students willing to participate in a study on the role of prisoners. We watch as the hallways of a prestigious institution are converted into a desolate space of bare walls, plain cots, and locking doors.
Alongside three graduate assistants and an ex-convict who advises Dr. Zimbardo, the students are arbitrarily assigned the roles of prisoner and guard by the flip of a coin. The student prisoners receive sheets as costumes, and the student guards receive official-looking uniforms. The prisoners are assigned numbers, and those numbers become their names in the prison system. The group receives a brief set of instructions and then the students are placed in position with the psychologists watching from behind closed doors. These are to be their roles, their lives, for the next fourteen days. Things deteriorate very quickly, however, and Zimbardo is forced to cut the study short after only six days. The students, whose fates were determined by the random flip of a coin, play so heavily into their roles that the guard-prisoner relationships become psychologically, physically, and sexually abusive in a matter of hours. And then the film concludes with Zimbardo leading the traumatized students through counseling sessions after they are released from their roles. The impact of the film, though, is not in its narrative-focused storytelling—few viewers will be surprised when the experiment turns sour. I am not spoiling anything by revealing that things end badly. The film’s particular strength is its slow, intentional movement, a movement so well crafted that it drags us through its entirety, perhaps even against our will.
The cinematic portrayal of the study in these wide frames makes the building tension in the fabricated prison even more evident. With each scene, we become more and more acquainted with the dynamics by and through which individuals are transformed into roles at the hands of the constructed, fabricated system itself.
In the 1970s, around the same time that Zimbardo was conducting his prison experiment, Michel Foucault was writing tirelessly about the absurdity of the cyclical nature of our relationships. As Foucault argues, the classification and categorization of people into broader groups—for example, convicts and law enforcers—actually generates types of people. That is, as Foucault scholar Johanna Oksala helpfully articulates, “Categories of people come into existence at the same time as the people who fit into them. There is a two-way, dynamic interaction between these processes.” Foucault thus argues in Discipline and Punishment that practices constitute social realities. He writes that practices form objects of knowledge as well as the subjects of that constructed knowledge, subjects that behave according to that knowledge. The subject, then, is not an ambiguous, untethered force in the social world. Rather, the subject is constructed through sets of social practices, sets that always already involve power relations. Simply put, we are forced into constructed roles, and we play into them; the system’s perseverance demands that we play into them.
As Foucault argues, the emergence of these structures as constructed—that is, as non-natural realities—is related to their political contestation and transformation. This is not the given nature of things; this is the result of a certain materialized ideology. Foucault therefore urges his readers to hope for and imagine other possibilities. This points to the ultimate undoing of any sort of narrative reading or grounding of The Stanford Prison Experiment. The film’s hyper affective construction, the way it makes its viewers feel, is itself the theologizing source. That is, the film’s very screening of the absurdity of the research participants playing into their randomly ascribed roles is itself a theological screening of a political reality. As viewers, we feel, perhaps for the first time, the absurdity and helplessness as a system narrates over us, and we are helpless in resisting.
Viewing this film is a troubling experience, an endurance test of sorts. We, as viewers, know the outcome well before it comes about, but we struggle to watch the ultimate decay of the individuals into their harsh, startling roles. We know the outcome, but we find ourselves holding out for some alternative, some form of release from the absurdity. And we feel trapped in that position, watching the screen as it depicts a constructed system chip away at individual personalities, ultimately forcing the participants into shocking new personas.
We are put into the role of a third party viewer, and our natural tendency is to watch in disgust. But as we sit hostage in the theater, are we also a part of a constructed scenario? Are we not helplessly thrown into the experiment in our own unique manner? We watch, knowing the outcome, having to endure two hours of decay, of the system determining the roles and fates of individuals who we want so badly to be freed from their own fates. But like them, we are helpless to the outcome; the institution of the prison is the sovereign entity within this space. No one will go or be free from its grip.
The film is not without its flaws, though. Rather than ending at the perfectly crafted, subtly self-aware moment immediately following the release of the students-turned-inmates and student correction officers, the film depicts the forced counseling sessions between Zimbardo and the participants in the study. Although these detox sessions certainly occurred, in the context of the film they serve as an unnecessary disruption. Rather than leaving viewers trapped in their own discomfort and awe, these sessions turn the film reductionist and preachy, as we see that participants unpacking the conclusions of the study for us on screen: the inmates and the guards alike speak to the constructed nature of their roles while simultaneously testifying to the reality of their experiences. This move, in cinematic terms, seems to undermine the affective, dream-like world Alvarez has built.
At its weakest point, The Stanford Prison Experiment undermines itself. It lets the air out of the room instead of sending viewers from the theater with a sucker punch to the conscience: before the group counseling sessions that break everything down for us, we realize that we felt these truths as much as we thought them. At its best, The Stanford Prison Experiment draws us into Zimbardo’s fabricated world in a completely shocking manner, and it refuses to let us leave. In screening this old, psychological study gone wrong—or perhaps gone honest—we, as viewers, experience the lights coming on and the fake walls being torn down as it is subtly revealed that this is our world, that we have been implicated and involved in these screened realities the entire time. The Stanford Prison Experiment captivates our imaginations, and in doing so, it capitalizes on the unique phenomenological possibilities of film itself.
1. Johanna Oksala, How to Read Foucault, (London: Granta, 2008), 224 of 2154.
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle serves as the editor-in-chief of The Other Journal and coeditor of Dreams, Doubt, and Dread: The Spiritual in Film, which was published by Cascade Books. His work has been featured in the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and Modern Theology. He is currently drafting a book that develops an Augustinian theology of economy, and he holds a PhD in theological studies from Vanderbilt’s Graduate Department of Religion.