The James Clayton Column: Not Knowing

James contemplates Nic Cage in Knowing, and decides that certainty is not necessarily a good thing...


In life, not knowing is so much better than knowing. If you’re lost in ambiguity and uncertainty and therefore engaged in an active quest to get the necessary knowledge, life is exciting. If there’s no quest or journey or everything is plain to see, life is pedestrian and plain.

Once you’ve seen the shark in Jaws, the scares are less intense. If you are fully aware that the killer hiding under the bed is not actually an inhuman abomination but rather a middle-aged mother in a frumpy ribbed-cotton sweater then the movie will never well and truly terrorise you. As far as I’ve experienced, The Haunting and The Innocents, British horror films from the early ‘60s, are the most genuinely frightening movies because throughout both you just don’t know what form the horrific threat takes and whether it’s genuine or the product of overactive imaginations. The imagination can conjure up some immensely disturbing images and ideas, which is why Rosemary’s Baby would’ve been totally ruined had Roman Polanksi allowed us to actually see the satanic sprog. Genuine horror is about the unseen and the unknown.

If we’re thinking invaders from outer space, the title terror of The Thing is always going to be more disconcerting than the main menace in Predator (even though the latter can make itself invisible as it stalks out its prey). It’s not the glorious gore of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic that’s the most unnerving aspect of the film, but the fact that you can never be certain whose person the shapeshifting alien has permeated and imitated. The movie’s brilliance is based fundamentally in its tense anxiety and the eventual visceral explosions of sinew, guts and flesh are the bonus climax that reward the spectator for putting themselves through all the nerve-shredding suspense.

Inquisitive and eager to go on voyages of discovery or be kept constantly on tenterhooks, I personally find that not knowing isn’t too bad a state to be in. In contrast to interesting ambiguity, the fact that there are always firm answers probably explains why maths was my least favourite subject at school. There’s no room for debate in simple sums and no opportunity for creative conjecture. Everything is absolutely certain according to a formula or method and there are no grey areas and unsure shades to stimulate intellectual activity. Casting judgement, maths is for miserable people with no intellectual energy or imagination.

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The cinematic release of Knowing then offers a double-whammy of disinterest to me personally as it presents in its title alone an unappealing idea of absolute certainty and, in its plot, a disturbing amount of attention to numbers. Damn the numbers! Damn those digits all to Hell! The thing that bothered Patrick McGoohan (Number 6) most in The Prisoner – after the fearsome floating bubbles – was the depersonalising influence of numbers (“I am not a number: I’m a free man!”). As such, I’m disappointed to find that having not made a film since I, Robot, director Alex Proyas has moved from Will Smith and artificial intelligence to Nicolas Cage and arithmetic in his return to sci-fi action.

The new movie’s plot sees Cage (“Proudly wearing the same expression since 1996”) grappling with great disasters that have been ominously predicted through the prescience of a time capsule opened by his child. Faced with a bleak future of unfortunate catastrophes, it’s up to Cage’s astrophysicist character to act upon the number codes contained in the capsule to limit the impact of the train and plane crashes that the formulas have foreseen. I don’t think I’d ever manage to muster the confidence to trust in Cage and his troubled forehead to save the day when the terrible occurrences unload themselves on the planet and its helpless population – especially not if he comes waving a scrap of paper with mathematical scribbles all over it.

It all calls to mind another blockbuster effort led by a distinct big-name actor that makes nods to numerology: Ron Howard’s dismal adaptation of The Da Vinci Code.

It’s no fun watching Tom Hanks fiddle with the Fibonacci sequence, so why would the sight of a panicked Nicolas Cage doing calculations prove any more appealing? Can we keep the sums in the classroom, please? Admittedly, it’s true that there are elements of the supernatural in the story, but it’s really the numbers that occupy the spotlight as ominous harbingers in Knowing. The film’s alternative title of Know1ng (as if it was a personalised license plate rather than a motion picture) confirms this as fact.

Destiny, I feel, should not be encoded in cold numbers but accessed through more creative methods such as the reading of tarot cards, the examination of animal entrails or through the interpretation of divinatory dreams. Old crones and witches of the wasteland should be the sagacious soothsayers that operate as the oracle and offer insight on what is to come – it shouldn’t be Cage that’s dispensing the doomsday warnings.

Furthermore, in the modern age these traditional prophets find themselves no longer valued as a source of knowledge. Soothsayers and fortune tellers of all kinds are more likely to find themselves vilified and marginalised to the fringes of society, forced to practice their arts and expertise in dark underground chambers or dilapidated seaside resorts. The release of Knowing – a film that further undermines traditional divination at the expense of scientific rationale and academic method – is just extra salt in the psychic wounds of these outcast augurs.

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Can you not spare some sympathy for the sad old gypsy with the crystal ball? Number-crunchers, code-crackers and mathletes can turn to the sudoku puzzles in the daily paper if they wish to play with digits and get an arithmetic kick. If they really want to use their expertise to avert global disaster, I’d urge mathematical geniuses to get their heads around the current economic situation that’s got everyone on edge. The apocalypse will come when it wants to and we’re better off left hanging in hazy ignorance instead of putting ourselves and Nicolas Cage through digit-based distress to discern the exact details. Why spoil the surprise? We’re better off not knowing…

James’ previous column can be found here.