Monday, April 30, 2007

Power and Hope in Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption provides an opportunity to investigate two different responses to power seen through the eyes of a third character. This section looks at the experience of Brooks and of Andy, two prisoners in Shawshank Prison that meet very different fates. Their mutual friend Red goes through an evolution from the philosophy of acceptance characterized by Brooks to a philosophy of hope embodied by Andy. Whereas Brooks’ philosophy shows the intention of power Andy’s philosophy presents a literal and figurative escape from power. It is left to the viewer to decide whether or not he has truly escaped power or whether power was present throughout his rebellion.

A prisoner of over 50 years, Brooks resides in Shawshank where he works as a librarian. From his first appearance, where he feeds an injured bird to nurse it back to health, the viewer makes an emotional connection to the gentle prisoner. Thus the meltdown of this grandfatherly figure in scene 16 shocks both Brooks’ fellow prisoners and those watching the film. Brooks holds a knife to his friend Haywood’s throat; when asked what Haywood has done to deserve this he replies “It’s what they done. I got no choice. [He sobs]. It’s the only way they’d let me stay.” Haywood explains that he came to congratulate Brooks on his parole approval. Brooks panicked and tried to commit a crime so that he could stay in the prison. Red defends Brooks by commenting on the manifestations of power closing in on Brooks at Shawshank: “These walls are funny. First you hate them. Then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s institutionalized…they send you here for life. That’s exactly what they take.” Here is another glimpse of power at work, this time a power that directs the response to control and observation. The image of the wall becomes compelling as it validates the prison as power over the body while simultaneously becoming a false support for the body. Brooks believes that he needs the prison. Without the walls he cannot stand by himself. This truly would be an example of effective and efficient power.

Brooks verifies this idea in the following scene. Brooks leaves Shawshank for a halfway house and a job at a grocery store. But in scene 17 he reveals to his friends at the prison his difficulty with adjusting to free life. In another rich symbol, Brooks feeds the birds in the park after work. Remembering his companion bird in the prison, the viewer sees Brooks struggle to understand the bird: a symbol of ultimate freedom through the power of flight. Although Brooks tries throughout the movie to kindle that power of freedom within himself, he ultimately gives in. Brooks hangs himself in the halfway house, with the explanation that

"I have trouble sleeping at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up, scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am…I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all of the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss, not for an old crook like me."



Brooks represents a victim of a power over the body mechanized through the prison system. Power so deprived him of an identity and of liberty that even when given freedom he could not embrace it. Andy, on the contrary, subscribes to a philosophy of hope that leads to his escape from the prison.

Though his colleagues tell him to accept his permanent imprisonment, Andy wants instead to retain some independence and hope. In scene 20 Andy manages to play a Mozart record over the prison’s public address system, a performance for which he receives two weeks in solitary confinement. When asked by his friends whether or not the time was worth it, he replies that “I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company…it [the music] was in here [he points to his head] and in here [he points to his heart]. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you.” Andy tries to convince them that they should maintain some inner sanctuary, to keep the vision of freedom at hand. The prisoners, themselves conditioned by power, struggle to understand Andy’s optimism. The dialog between Andy and Red displays Red’s apprehension:

Red: Well I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though - didn't make much sense in here.
Andy: In here is where it makes the most sense. You need it so you
don't forget.
Red: Forget?
Andy: Yes - forget that there are places in the world that aren't made
out of stone; that there's something inside that they can't get to -
that they can't touch, that's yours.
Red: What are you talking about?
Andy: Hope.
Red: Hope. Let me tell you something my friend: Hope is a dangerous
thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It's got no use on the inside.
You better get used to that idea.
Andy: Like Brooks did?
Here Red cannot conceive of Andy’s hope. Like Brooks, power convinces him to accept his fate. This is displayed in scene 21 where Red attends his parole hearing. After giving the officers scripted answers on his rehabilitation, he is denied parole. This implies that he has not yet transitioned into a state of mind where he can embrace freedom. Andy will lead him to that point.



In scene 29 Andy and Red discuss their imprisonment. Andy explains how he came to be in prison, blaming it on “bad luck I guess. It floats around. It’s gotta land on somebody. It was my turn, that’s all. I was in the path of the tornado. I just didn’t expect that the storm would last as long as it has.” This conversation precedes Andy’s escape, which is accommodated by a long term financial operation conducted by Andy using the warden’s funds. Red begins to understand how Andy’s optimism lead gave him the power to manipulate the system. Andy used his imprisonment and the warden’s schemes to put himself into a position where he could successfully flee the country. Red takes Andy’s hope to be the underlying cause of his success. When Red is finally granted parole after an interview in which he defies the norms of the judicial process, he sets out to join Andy in Mexico. As he rides the southbound bus his narrations says that “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.” Thus the final two words in the entire film are “I hope.”



Clearly the director wants to present hope as the antidote to the control and oppression that characterizes the mechanisms of the prison. But is this an accurate interpretation of power or is there actually power present in Andy’s rebellion? In short, are Andy and Red truly free now in a way that Brooks was not?

To bring Cool Hand Luke back into the discussion will show the different interpretations of power presented in the two films. The films culminate with escapes of two very different natures: one a failure and one a success. As Luke finally realizes that he cannot locate power in the oneness and unity of a God, the system affirms his revelation by killing him. But Andy’s hope in himself and in justice brings him to a peaceful beach on the Pacific. Is hope, then, a possible antidote for power? What Foucault would undoubtedly suggest is that Andy never moved beyond power. Recall Foucault’s suggestion that “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (History 35). Therefore Andy’s success story cannot be seen as a victory over power but rather, in some way, another submission to its mechanisms. How can this be done? Either Andy’s success must be seen as a victory over some unitive force where power was concentrated in a central place, such as in the warden, or Andy’s success must be qualified so as to indicate less of a victory over power rather than a progression from one form of captivity to another. Both are reasonable assertions.

What is shown in the above discussion is that power evolves from being a public display of pain to a much more personal and intensive form of control that still remains centered on the body. There is no doubt that this type of power, that of the prison system, is closely tied to political systems. To explore power in political systems the section that follows examines two Oliver Stone films dealing with political controversy in the United States. The analysis should show that a political system, and not politicians or the government as a whole, stands as another mode for power to enter into the life of subjects, though as always by modifying and influencing relationships in which power is already immanent.

41 comments:

Mike said...

You speak about power as if it were evil, but power can be used for good as well. The Warden uses his position, his money, and the law to control the inmates and benefit his private and personal life. While they do indeed both submit to power, Andy's power comes from different sources (his knowledge of the tax system, his personality/communication skills, his ability to empower those around him and his cleverness in obtaining and using the tools he needs to escape) and is intended for a noble purpose. It still demonstrates power (the capacity to produce intended effects to accomplish some end) but it is a very different power than the warden's. Comparing the two is hardly fair.

Casey said...

Mike, a line from Deadwood
"As capable of inconvenience and of some damage and debt to those that would act against my interests, I cannot fucking argue with dangerous. Different from powerful, though, which speaks to potency longer term."

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