Node Life: Nothingness in Sleep Dealer

by Ola Jayzeh Al-Hallak

Technology has changed our lives greatly. We no longer use it just to aid us at our jobs, but rather, in many cases today, technology is the one that completes our jobs for us. Our lives have greatly become dependent on technology. With this dependency, however, consequences have resulted. One main downfall of our lives revolving around the technology is human alienation. The central theme of Sleep Dealer is the widely spread yet increasingly invisible prevalence of alienation in the world today that questions the effect of the relationship between man and technology. 

Memo Cruz, the protagonist in this film, lives with his family in the small village of Santa Ana del Rio in Mexico. This small farming village is the kind of place that seems to be frozen in time in itself and the people living there. The only one who doesn’t blend with this frozen mold is the hi-tech, militarized dam that controls Santa Ana’s water supply. Memo doesn’t care about his town. He loves technology and dreams of working in the hi-tech industry in the big cities. One night, while playing around with his radio, Memo stumbles across something he’s never heard before; the communications of the security forces that are patrolling the area around his village to protect the dam. Unfortunately, security agents have spotted Memo’s radio intercept and concluded that it is a threat. Memo is then forced to realize his dream of leaving Santa Ana in the worst possible way when his house is destroyed in a remote-control bombing. Driven by feelings of guilt and the need to earn money to support his family, Memo leaves the big city to find work and help his family start again. He heads to Tijuana to only end up losing himself to the “node” world. Once connected to the net, workers are able to earn money by working in factories where they build skyscrapers, care for children and the like without having to cross the border.  Alex Rivera’s, Sleep Dealer simply imagines a world of vanished identity and virtual everything where the mood is lonely and abandoned.Alex Rivera’s artistic purpose is to show the dramatic character in a situation that lacks humanistic values which in return makes him suffer and become lonely. This lack is ultimately the reason for Memo’s unhappiness. Rivera has created a thriller of the vanishing: the character’s vanished ability to depend on themselves as their lives seem to be controlled by the modernization around them has become the source of their own suffering. Memo knows what he’s lacking but he can’t help it disappear. In the opening scene, we see how Memo deeply wishes his family would leave his small village and move to the city for a better lifestyle. His emptiness and loneliness make him a victim in this film. The dynamics of emptiness make “nothingness” the ultimate explanatory tool for Memo’s situation. “Emptiness” or “nothingness” is an existential situation that is within him but functions as a “disease” of which he is not the cause of and can’t fight against. The title of this movie already gives an idea of the disappearance of humane elements and identity. The plot is built upon a series of disappearances. First, we learn that Memo’s village lacks water supply. Then we discover that Memo lacks any interest in wanting to stay in his town. Memo then loses his father after his house was bombed, forcing him to flee to the city. Then we see that after he gets his “node” job, he begins to lose his energy and self to the technology. Memo also loses his trust in Luz when he discovers that she is selling her memories of him online. The ending of the story shows that despite the village having gained its water supply back, Memo refuses to go back, enforcing the idea that he has lost his identity to his “node” self or in other words, technology.The concept of nothingness developed by Jean-Paul Sartre is an important one in this film. The main aspect of nothingness is that it’s not only recognized when something is missing from what exists but rather it is linked to it. Nothingness has become the central concept of existentialist philosophy (Kovacs, 2008). Nothingness has become a key player in the relationship of man to the world or in this film, Sleep Dealer, man to technology. Nothingness is a series of everyday situations where man is alone, disappointed by his beliefs and expectations, desperately looking for something solid in a situation where his own identity is called into question (Kovacs, 2008). Throughout the film Memo questions why his family is staying where they are despite their poor living conditions. He is lonely in this world which is why he spends his days and nights with his technological toys. This gives him a place to run to, a place for him to let himself be, a place where he can try to find himself and understand who he is and what he is about. His being lonely and feeling as if he belonged somewhere else is, in essence, the foundation of his being, of his existence as we later discover in the film. His love for technology was the cause of his father’s death yet it also saved his small village as it supplied them with water.Nothingness is the Sleep Dealer is human memory.  All expectations, all disappointments, and all memories are tied to concrete contents (Kovacs, 2008). In Sleep Dealer, we see many flashbacks of Memo’s memories from his small village. By closely looking at these images, most of these flashbacks show images of an empty village, a waterless, deserted, lifeless and most importantly a “kingless” one. By seeing these images with those missing elements, nothingness is produced by their absence.  We also see this concept in the supporting actress. She too left home without a plan and is now empty on the inside. She introduces herself to Memo as an inspiring writer which we later discover her “writing” is not the conventional writing we know about. Rather, it is all about her memories being recorded and uploaded to the virtual network to be purchased. This shows that even the one thing she stands by and the reason why she left home has lost its reason. When someone finally showed interest in one of her uploads, that of her encounter with Memo, things brighten up for her and she sees some purpose to her “writing”. When she also learns about Memo’s family and what his father did to support them, she asked him “how did it feel like to work with something so… real?”, to which he responds with; “I guess I never really thought about it.” This again shows how the character is accepting his loneliness and is sinking more into misery as he begins to realize what he has abounded, a life that was much better and closer to the heart than this “node” life.      

From another perspective, nothingness can also be positive in the sense that it is an empty moment in the world. Between what happened to Memo and what can change in the future in empty space that Memo can shape and control its outcome.  In other words, nothingness is freedom. “In freedom, man invalidates past and creates his own nothingness… Nothingness is freedom intercalated between past and future.” Nothingness created by free of choice obligates a man to make a choice. After his father’s death, Memo felt responsible for what had happened to his father and decided to flee his village and find work in the city to support his family. In the city, Memo is presented as a lonely man, freed from his past to a certain degree, but forced to choose and to look out for himself. He begins to work in a factory environment in Mexico. There, they don’t make products, however, they connect their bodies to a network that allows them to control machines in America.  What the director Alex Rivera is trying to establish are the cause and effect. As the character move is this far away place, the machine moves in America is some sort of “puppetry” scenario. He is trying to make the audience see and feel how this futuristic, alienated worker, which in a lot of ways is the same way many people feel like today.  In the sense that there are people who live in the shadows, a ghost workforce, like that of unrecognizable workers in our society or those who work in the outsourcing fields. Modern art cinema tells stories about the “individual” who has lost his or her contact with the surrounding world. This film tells the story about the lonely, alienated, suppressed and helpless man who is faced with repressive forces of the exterior world. The happy ending is unexpected as it happens by chance and even then the main character was not freed from his “nothingness”. The bigger power is represented by something that is stronger not by its presence but by its absence. Memo found himself faced with an existential situation that he couldn’t understand, and this lack of understanding provoked loneliness, suffering, and anxiety. At the ending of the film, however, this “modern authentic individual” accepted nothingness as the fundamental aspect of his freedom and gave up the search for traditional metaphysical values as he decided to stay in the big city and continue to work as his “node” self. The concept of “nothingness” has shaped his new self and the world around him.