Directed by Scott Brignac
Self-Sabotage is a narrative told with no words. It follows six characters through an interactive journey that pushed the audience into meditative thought. It is 'composed' to an all instrumental album by Derek Webb called Feedback, which is based off of the Lord's Prayer.
More about Derek Webb.
Self-Sabotage: the deliberate subversion of oneself. Destructive or obstructive action that hinders the person who acts. See also: the Lord’s Prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer is inherently violent towards the one who prays it.
This film has come to pick a fight, and any viewing that fails to recognize that may put the viewer at risk in one way or another. Self-Sabotage is an exploration of the Lord's Prayer based on and inspired by Derek Webb's electronic all instrumental album 'Feedback'. It follows six characters in a narrative with no words - only the music to parallel the stories.
Self-Sabotage rests firmly amidst the tension between the prayed and the praying; the single-minded character and vision of the Lord’s prayer serves as the sub-text through which we enter into the lives of its characters. Their lives, like moving icons, open windows into the great mystery of communion through self-dethroning sabotage.
A RESPONSE TO SELF-SABOTAGE by Drew Causey
I am not sure what that was, but I want to see it again.
This reaction may not be what a film-maker is going for when they premier their first short film, but it was what I heard (and over-heard) time and time again as I mingled among the audience at the premiere of Self-Sabotage.
Most of those attending the premiere had one of two connections to the project: they either knew Scott Brignac, the director of the film, or they were fans of Derek Webb, the musician whose album “Feedback” served as both the ground-zero text and soundtrack of the night. I was there as both, in a way, though my connection to Scott has much more personal history to it. My role for the evening was to moderate a panel discussion with Brignac, Webb, Cody Bess, Ryan Booth, and Scott Erickson about the project; yet even while we were having our discussion, my mind ran wild with all of the real questions I secretly wanted to ask but couldn’t:
Why was that girl dancing in the streets? Who was that guy in the woods? Did one guy just punch himself in the face? Does the girl jump? What does this have to do with the Lord’s Prayer? Did the running guy commit a crime? If so, what was it? Why does the creepy guy keep following the sad girl? Why doesn’t she spray him with mace?
And why do I feel like this is about me somehow?
One of the surprising aspects of this film is that it poses more questions than it gives answers. And not only that, but it sets the audience up to ask questions in ways that the film never plans on answering, or at least not outright. I was comforted by the questioning that I heard from those around me that night, comforted not only that I was not alone in my questions, but also that these were the kinds of question worth asking in light of art that deeply connects to its audience.
So I now find myself writing about it all, filling up space with my questions and thoughts about a film with images and ideas that are still churning up questions in my mind, even in my gut. Scott asked me to flesh some of these ideas out in light of some of our later conversation, and I have, and still am in ways. This is my obscure attempt at understanding and making meaning from what this film offered though the music, images, and ideas it explored.
If you haven’t seen the film, this posting will probably seem odd, either full of spoilers or harebrained abstractions that make no sense without the referent of the film. If you have not, do yourself a favor and watch Self-Sabotage. Watch it closely, and try it again if you need a refresher. Come back and bring your thoughts and we’ll get this question-asking, image-decrypting, meaning-making art-house film party going.
Praying To Kill Yourself
If the four sequences prior to the Self-Sabotage title frame tell us anything, it is this: these four people are linked in some way, and that way is dangerous. A teary-eyed woman hauntingly gazing at the overpass. A man on the run for an unmentioned reason. A child nodding off in the back seat of a car. A distraught young woman and her looming company. All of them on the move. All of them headed away from something and towards something else.
The subtext of this film and the soundtrack that undergirds it happens to be one of the more familiar passages of the teachings of Jesus. The Lord’s Prayer is found in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, and has served as one of the model prayers in liturgy and personal devotion from the earliest days of the Church. Anyone who grew up around the church has heard the “Our Father”, and it is this familiarity that provides one of the biggest obstacles the faithful face to praying it: we know this prayer too well...
...which is a problem because of the defamilarizing content we find in this prayer. If you really stop and think about it, the Lord’s Prayer is a totalizing, world-encompassing petition with the boldness of its requests matched only with the audacity of its claims about the Heavenly Father. Such a prayer naturally assaults any worldview or desire that doesn’t align with the Kingdom picture it presents, demanding the person who prays to re-orient their way of seeing and living with the ways it describes. The world exists as the prayer claims it does; its vision is the only vision for which there is room, and much like the hallowed One to whom it is addressed, it will not share its throne with anyone.
Such a prayer should naturally jar the one praying a little, and we must ask what dangers come from praying this kind of prayer. What is at risk in praying in this way? Or perhaps a better question: what is at risk in not praying this way? The underlying theme of movement and the threat of danger or harm in these four introductions reframe this text through their narratives so we can ask better questions, and perhaps though those questions, both seek and find.
The final answer, not of the prayer but of what should orient our questioning, is the title frame. Self-Sabotage. Sabotage itself is usually associated with conspiracy and subversion, but usually one person or group acting against another. Here, we find the subject and object of sabotage as one and the same. Self-sabotage, then, is the deliberate subversion of oneself; destructive or obstructive action that ultimately hinders the person who acts. Whatever questions we ask about faith through the lens of this prayer, then, we must ask with self-sabotage in view.
It is important to ground our discussion from this point in the perspective of the text from which it springs. It is hard to divorce this text from its context in the Christian church, and while Christian faith is not by any means a prerequisite for this or any art that draws from Christian art, texts, or iconography, it is important to note that this lens of faith will inform many aspects of the film, and thus will give us a better lens for grappling with the images that spring out of this film and text. This lens doesn’t limit our interpretations, but it does provide a framework or base from which to construct, challenge, and question meanings as we make them from the film.
This is incredibly important with the concept of self-sabotage itself. From a psychological perspective, this idea is incredibly dangerous and destructive; to be a self-saboteur is to consciously or subconsciously hinder one’s own self-interests and success through self-imposed obstacles. To promote this kind of self-sabotage would be irresponsible.
Yet the purposed self-donation (and thus self-sabotage) of Christ could not be more focal to the Christian faith; this act of Christ reveals the self-giving character of the Triune God most clearly, and becomes the pattern by which the Church understands the love she is both given and is asked to offer. Christ’s self-donation is not narcissistic self-hate motivated by a desire to hinder his own success, but rather by God-enthroning self-giving motivated by holy love. In this sense, self-sabotage embodies both a move away from some things and a move towards others, much like we see in our four scenes. Self-destruction is never an end in itself, but a means towards an/other reality.
Self-Sabotage, then, carries with it direction. This moving away and moving toward guides us into four scenes in which self-sabotage is embodied, explored, questioned, complicated, and ultimately tested in the images and narratives of the film.
The Edge of the Middle
As we explore these four narratives individually (and then take in their collage and complex informing of one another in the third movement of the film), we begin with a tight shot of our crying woman, now calm, resolved, and as the shot pulls back, on the brink of jumping from an overpass into the traffic below. While we have no indication of what has driven our actress to this point, the tears from the prologue testify that this is a painful last resort.
Suicide. A difficult issue within itself, and here a logic extension of the concept of self-sabotage. The narrative images of this section, however, bring a true complexity to how we understand exactly what is happening to this woman, and thus how we should go about making meaning of what we are seeing.
First, we must note that we are seeing intercut layers of differing scenes. Which of these , if any, represents the “real” versus the metaphoric? The obvious end of the metaphoric end of this spectrum is our dancer in the road. With painted face and black ballet garb, we are confronted immediately with the surreal nature of this scene; yet it is the contrast between her graceful movement and the immanent danger of the cars around her that captures the true tension of the jump in front of her. Death surrounds her on every side, and yet the resolve and beauty we see in her dance proclaims something else entirely. The interplay between this scenario and both the overpass and the dance studio suggests an interior and exterior play against one another; this woman is on the edge, but this is no place new. She has been dancing the edge of the middle of the road for quite some time.
The road itself has an interesting place in the narrative as well. Obviously, as the site of her possible jump, the road is the place she would be departing from as she jumps; it will be past when or if she decides to move. But the internal road is the place where she dances, the site of both the clearest beauty and freedom and the greatest risk to her. In one scene, the road is the site of the death she heartbreakingly wants to choose; the other, the site of the graceful life she daringly dances.
How, then, do we understand self-sabotage in this scene? Is death something she fears? Something she has resolved to embrace? Will death liberate her from the heartache that drives her to the road? Or is the edge of the road the most life-giving place for her to be? Is the middle of the road dangerous or safe?
While there are aspects of her narrative yet to be told, at this point we know one things for sure: this path to the edge has been one of intentional movement. If anything, the resolve to climb to the edge and the discipline shown in her dance have similar roots, roots in control. A dancer that moves gracefully shows great control; that kind of gracefulness doesn’t exist without both discipline and control. The pure physicality required to move with such intention and seeming ease is quite high; many give much of their time, money and energy to master themselves for such a discipline.
It is interesting how the control and discipline of dance, then, stands in stark contrast to the idea of suicide. If dance embodies control, suicide embodies a seeming lack of control, or perhaps a desperate act committed in order to gain some semblance of control.
The first movement of the film follows what could easily be marked as the more transcendent issues of the prayer: the naming of God as Father, the hallowed name of God, the submission to and petition for the will of God to “be done/on earth”. This prayer traffics heavy in issues of control, and specifically the yielding of it. Perhaps the most critical connections we can make between the film and the text start in the intersection of control and self-sabotage: What does it mean to self-sabotaging yield control to another? In what ways, if any, can this a good and/or needed thing? In what ways, if any, can this be a bad and/or dangerous thing? And can it be both at the same time?
Driving with No Hands
The road images continue into our next story, as we find our running man out of the house and on the road. Again, we don’t quite know what the situation driving these actions, but we do learn a couple of things about this man and his narrative through the images of this section.
First, the symbolic representations here carry huge visual connection to the theme of self-sabotage. The fight between the man and himself portrays the most outspoken image of it, and the violence of seeing a man choke himself to death carries with it the weighted commentary on the process of self-sabotage itself. Interestingly, if we look at the dual image of the man as two aspects of himself, with the hooded one being the aspect that was not desired (and thus attacked), we quickly notice that it was the hooded man that found the other and not vice versa. If two versions of the same man, it was the hooded man that did the seeking out, and the sought one who did the attacking.
While the good self/evil self labels can easily be attached here, what seems most essential to making sense of this image is the violence that exists between the divided self. The one cannot allow the other to co-exist; it seems too dangerous or risky to do so. And the goal was not to scare off or even injure the other; the goal was to kill him.
What does it mean to have a fractured self-image? To have multiple versions of oneself? Is this good, bad, or a mix of both? Why do these two hate each other? Is there a history between them, or is this animosity something inherent in their mutual co-existence? Is there an aspect of self-sabotage that has to be this violent and intentional? If so, towards who or what?
The car scene holds another telling metaphoric image of this man’s narrative. The pacing road and flashing lights intercut with shots of the man at the wheel, driving both away from home and towards something else. While his intentions are unclear, the flashing lights on his face suggest a tie to what was on the television earlier. The defining moment, however, comes when the man unexpectedly lets go of the wheel. The horizon spins to send the man upward in a strangely disorienting direction, and the relief this man expresses as he lets go shows through clearly.
The act of letting go ties back to the ideas of transcendence and control mentioned earlier. What strikes me, then, is the sequential link between this kind of release and the violence that follows it. There is a liberation or ease that overwhelms the man when the steering wheel leaves his hands, and that move sends the car in a different, and markedly unnatural, direction. The upward direction has spiritual overtones, and paired with the reaction of the man marks a pointed change in disposition. Yet the violence, intercut with police sirens flashing on the man’s rain-soaked face, links this experience of letting go with a declaration of war against the other self.
Self-sabotage, then, is both a letting go and a taking of control, or at least it seems to be in this narrative. The prayer that God’s will be done carries within it this kind of release, but also the violence of submission and its effects on the aspects of self that fight most aggressively for the steering wheel. This prayer holds faith in God and this kind of yielding together; one cannot be without the other.What does it mean to “let go”? What does this prayer suggest that means? What parts of my life would this be violent to? How so? Can self-sabotage in the sense portrayed in this film exist without some form of opposition or violence?
The third narrative of the film offers us two characters: the little girl who sleepily rides in the car, and a man to whom she is connecting, though the exact nature of their relationship is not yet disclosed. The majority of the narrative takes place in a symbolic reality in the words; we know the girl is riding in the car, but the wooded area seems to represent her world and the forces within it. The woods are not a populated or warm place, but they don’t seem to be a haunted or scary place to the girl, who climbs through the fallen trees quite comfortably.
It is not until she finds and begins playing with a wooden boat that the man from this narrative is introduced. This man enters the scene with frantic energy, and the cuts between his panicked voyage across the water to find the girl and her play-voyage with the toy boat have too many overlaps to be ignored. The playful boat ride of the girls imagination contrasts the chaos of the man at sea, and yet the back-and-forth interplay implies that these voyages are, in some way, the same trip from two vantage points.
The frenetic pursuit of the girl by this man, then, must be interpreted though this dual lens. We are seeing two different perspectives on the situation, and the one that seems most dangerous is the one of which the little girl is ignorant. This man, while in some ways chasing this little girl in an almost frightening way, seems to do so in order to protect her, not to harm her. The real danger in this scene is what will happen if he does not reach her; she is playfully hiding and playing, and we as the audience are just as ignorant as she to what could possibly happen if he does not find her soon.
Is the girl lost? Or is this a place she knows? What could possibly be looming from which she needs protection? What kind of self-sabotage is this?
Unlike our previous two narratives, this particular story doesn’t involve outright violence to oneself, as suicide and self-suffocation visually implied for us. However, ignorance as self-sabotaging could be both the most subtle and the most dangerous version of this idea we’ve seen. The dancer and the driver are both portrayed as willing participants in their self-sabotage, and both images had dense layers of danger and potential in the movements within their structure. Here, however, the little girl movements are of secondary concern, and we have little inclination as to whether anything she is doing could ever be self-sabotaging in a positive or redemptive sense. Instead, we are left to fixate on the movement of two other characters towards her: the man looking to protect her and the present danger in pursuit of her, lurking out of her frame and ours. In hiding from one, she sets herself up for a possible encounter with the other.
Are their types of self-sabotage that are ultimately good and other that are not? How does this prayer address ignorance and the unknown? How does this narrative expand or complicate (or contradict) the notion of self-sabotage? In what way does the Lord’s Prayer deal with the unknown?
The fourth narrative is to me the most provocative, most likely because it has the most ambiguous and layered of the relationships between two characters in the film. This narrative takes up the entire second movement of the film, which coincides with the second block of the prayer. This part of the prayer also contrasts the transcendence of the first and third sections with the immanence of petition: the Hallowed Father is brought near and asked to bring himself near as the provider, the deliverer, and the protector for those who pray. If the first three narratives highlight self-sabotage in relationship with the transcendent Father, this story grapples with the role of self-sabotage in relating to those we live with everyday.
The road/travel trope of the film carries into the subways and streets of the city for this narrative, and as we look at the movement from and towards here, we find that the young lady faces a dilemma that moves with her. From the introduction of these two characters in the prologue, we can trace a common thread: where she goes, he follows. Perhaps a boyfriend or formerly intimate friend, perhaps an embodied idea, memory, or some other symbolic representation, the one thing we do know is that she cannot escape this guy.
The travel tracks, interwoven cuts of walking, and orchestrated editing of lights and track movement with the music gave this narrative a circular feel, in the sense that the more this couple walked around, the more we felt like they had done this a thousand times. The agony on her face is compounded by the knowledge that this walk is one she has made over and over again, with each journey underlining the tragic nature of her relationship to him.
The most complex issue of their relationship shines through in their glancing interaction before she parts ways with him. Notice that within the edits, she resists looking at him, looks at him, and looks longingly at him. He returns glances of similar types, and the lack of dialogue highlights the pain in both interacting and not interacting. As she walks away, the quick edits following reveal this guy walking the streets looking for her again, and the repetition of the first sections lead us to think that he will find her.
What happened between them? Were they married? Do they love or hate each other? Why does she let him follow her around like that? Why don’t they speak? Is he real to everyone or just to her? What does this have to do with anything we’ve been thinking about? How do we relate this narrative to the prayer of Jesus? The idea of self-sabotage?
The critical connection between this narrative and self-sabotage lies, for me, in the tension of the young lady’s desires. Whether this guy is a memory, a metaphor, or a real person following her around all the time (creeper!), his presence in her psyche is something she cannot negotiate one way or the other. He is neither friend nor enemy; he is a specter. He haunts her wherever she goes, and it seems the only way she knows to cope is to keep moving.
What do we do with the aspects of our lives that won’t die? That won’t go away? These are the things that sabotage us because they are part of our “self”, and all the self-sabotaging we’ve ever explored hasn’t exorcised these kind of demons. It is one thing to choose the path of self-sabotage, and an entirely different thing to have it chosen for you by the aspects of who you are that will not quit follow you. In one way, this story wrestles with the powerless side of self-sabotage, the part of it that leaves you vulnerable, helpless, needy, and broken up.
The Sequence of Sabotage
As the final movement opens, we are given four more windows into these narratives, each one clarifying and expanding our understanding of these characters as they move forward. The dancer confronts herself in her bathroom mirror, wrestling with the issues that would drive her to the edge of the overpass. Perhaps the issues stem from the mirror, or the self she finds in it, but the juxtaposition of her dancing suggests that the things in her life that display the most control mask the areas where she feels most chaotic.
The driver has become a runner; running down the road from whoever may be pursing him. While the television set-up may be the motive behind his flight, the real enemy is the hooded version of himself, from whom he hides and yet from whom he cannot escape. When this hooded self finally catches up with him, another fight seems to be inevitable.
The girl and the man’s relationship is quickly cleared up as we discover the nature of the danger she is facing: a car wreck. We find that the man is some form of guardian over her (perhaps her father), and at the time of the wreck, it is his panicked reaction that sets the tone for their narrative. She lies still, asleep or unconscious, at the mercy of the man who has now picked her up and carried her towards the help she needs.
The young lady enters a coffee house to join a group of friends who seem to be enjoying themselves. Their joy rubs off on our heroine, at least temporarily, until the guy arrives at the coffee house to find her. The brokenness of her countenance is moving, as his presence unquestionably conquers her with the same dread and sadness she carried through the streets. However, what could be most clarifying about their relationship comes from the way the camera eclipses the guy out of the final shot of the scene; it is quite possible that this guy is an internal memory or symbol, as the shot brought us visually back to her being alone and isolated.
The hopeless tone of these four scenes highlights a dark reality about the process of self-sabotage, something clearly seen in the pattern of the life of Christ and in his model prayer: the process of self-sabotage is lethal to every aspect of who we are. It is by not mistake that death precedes any form of hope or resurrection; only the dead can be brought back to life. This kind of thinking echoes throughout the declarations, petitions, and praises of this prayer.
And yet it is the closing sequence that encapsulates the swing from self-sabotage into being preserved by an/other. The water metaphor, surfacing images of baptism and rebirth, surrounds the images and narrative lives of these characters, with each of them being lifted out of the waters as the film moves to its final frames. The static lifting out of the waters (as opposed to lifting themselves out) raises a completely different set of questions:
What happened to them? Did they all die? Did the little girl survive? What happened to the creepy guy? What does this really symbolize? What does it mean to be lifted out of the waters? What are the implications of this visual symbol on the concept of self-sabotage?
Oddly, what most of the film has wrestled through is the challenge of self-sabotage; what the prayer highlights most clearly is the character of the Hallowed Father as described in this prayer by Jesus. The water image reminded me that self-sabotage does not exist without reciprocal action. Just as Christ freely offered himself in self-sabotage and was raised by the Father on the third day, so too the challenge of self-sabotage through this prayer is not an empty, self-hating exercise of aimless obedience. The Lord’s Prayer may lead people to their own end in lots of ways, but never without the corresponding gift of reciprocating love and life from the Hallowed Father.
Questions Plus Answers
It’s been a month an a half since I first saw Self-Sabotage. I still think about it regularly. Part of the reason is because of the images speak into conversations I am still rehashing. But the majority reason why I keep bringing this film up is because it breathed fresh wind into some parts of praying that are easier to leave un-prayed.
Easier, but not better.
This film is beautiful. It is well done. It is art in the truest sense, and it is a wake-up call to anyone seeking to bring faith and art into productive and fruitful conversation. The world of film needs art like this. So does the world of faith.
Thinking through the questions this film arose in me has lead me to a lot of things, including some answers about some things. But it has lead me to even more questions, and I believe that’s healthy. Questions lead to seeking much easier than many answers do, and there is something about art, questions, and the Mystery of faith that hold hands in a way that I’m all too comfortable with.