Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg’s latest, Eastern Promises, is a powerful movie, better than nearly anything else (David Lynch aside) being made in the English-speaking world these days. But even though it had a powerful impact, I felt blank afterwards thinking about what could be said about it. This has something to do with Cronenberg’s tightness and closure: like many of his more recent films, Eastern Promises is so tightly organized, and so perfectly self-enclosed, that it doesn’t leave the viewer with any wriggle room. But also, Eastern Promises seems less interesting, somehow, than Cronenberg’s previous excursion into the crime/gangster genre, A History of Violence.

This is partly the result of the films’ respective directions of focus. Where A History of Violence focused on both American genre assumptions and on American society more generally, with Cronenberg the Canadian able to view the USA both from inside and from outside, Eastern Promises entirely displaces its focus onto a group of exoticized Others (Russian gangsters in London). There is no inside perspective, and hence no inside critique, but only an outward one. This has the advantage of presenting Masculinity as something bizarre, ritualized, and coded (rather as being in any way “natural”); but it has the disadvantage of not reflecting back upon the film’s primary (American, and more generally, Western) audience. This is made all the stranger, or more estranging, by the curious fact that all the major Russian characters are played by non-Russian actors: they are, respectively, Danish-American (Viggo Mortensen), French (Vincent Cassel), German (Armin Mueller-Stahl), and Polish (Jerzy Skloimowski). Cronenberg masters an amazing combination of visceral grippingness and radical estrangement; I think this is a brilliant combination, but I also can’t help feeling that, in Eastern Promises, the result is just too icily perfect, or too closed.

Kim has already discussed in brilliant detail how Eastern Promises is yet another Cronenberg excursion into the visceral dimensions of masculinity. The rituals of the Russian gangsters are all about male embodiment, and the way that masculine anguish and masculine recognition alike are grounded in the flesh. Tis is reflected in everything from the fight and murder scenes, which do not dwell on the violence, but are direct and abrupt enough as not to be for the squeamish, to the full-body tattoos that are the gangsters’ signifiers of power, status, and belonging. They are incised visibly in the flesh because every aspect of power — from Armin Mueller-Stahl’z vicious avuncularity to Vincent Cassell’s dissoluteness to Viggo Mortensen’s impassive more-than-cool — has to be enacted and embodied, in order to be effective.

On the other hand, the one important female character, played by Naomi Watts, is entirely marginalized. Despite the fact that she is a kind of surrogate for the viewer, and that her investigations — stumbling unexpectedly upon a dangerous underworld that has existed in proximity to her, but unseen and unfelt, all this time– are what lead us into the heart of the film — despite all this, she nonetheless doesn’t really enter into the affect of the story at all. The sexual attractiveness of Viggo Mortensen isn’t really channeled through her sensibility at all; and her curiosity about her Russian father’s past, and her urgings toward motherhood, are the most conventionalized (and therefore least reworked, least energized) aspects of the pregiven genre that Cronenberg is otherwise so energetically reworking.

In other words, it’s all about the men. I entirely agree with Kim’s suggestions as to how Eastern Promises reworks (under the guise of gangster fiction) Cronenberg’s body obsessions in his earlier work like Videodrome (which of course is as much about ritualized masculinity, and its dismembering or “castration” when James Wood’s belly turns into a VCR-cum-vaginal-slit). But what I miss in Eastern Promises is the sense I get from Scanners and Videodrome and The Fly of something crazily transformative — the metamorphoses of the flesh. My friend William Beard (the author of a massive and very smart and detailed book about Cronenberg) sees those earlier films as being basically about masculine angst, and unreservedly horrified at the loss of male power, virility, and authority. But I think that those earlier films are also deeply hilarious in some way that (obviously without being sappily new-agey and upbeat) nonetheless points to the “joy of becoming” even amidst the horrors of self-destruction (to paraphrase Nietzsche a bit).

And this has something to do with the fact that these earlier films are also directly about “new media” and new technologies, in ways that Cronenberg’s more recent films are not. I mean, James Woods’ orifice is not simply a vagina; it is a VCR as well. And this is related to the way that, as Woods is told in the course of the film, the forces fighting over the Videodrome technology — the corporate fascists at Spectacular Optical and the new-age social activists led Bianca O’Blivion and her late father, the McLuhanoid Brian O’Blivion — are political,in ways that he, Woods, is not. Because communications media, and expressive media, are directly political in their own right. This is a much broader sense of the “new flesh,” and of politics, than the mere power struggles (who’s going to be the boss? what role will the governments play?) that are the ultimate background to the masculine rituals of Eastern Promises.

This larger sense of a technology that is also a politics, and the consequent intimations of transformation — not of something better, let alone utopian, but at least of some dynamism of becoming — is missing in nearly all of Cronenberg’s more recent films. Which is why films like Spider (and also, alas, even the Burroughs and Ballard adaptations) really do seem to me to be just about masculine angst and dissolution. Which is why I felt bummed and depressed about them, despite their masterfulness and tragic intensity. To a certain extent, by making himself into a formally more powerful and contained director, by transcending or giving up the sloppiness and (even) exploitativeness of his earlier films, Cronenberg in effect undermined his films’ very significance. The recent films are aesthetically superior to the earlier ones (taking “aesthetically” in a narrowly formalist sense), but there is something sterile about them: their fascination is too narrowly focused, too contained. A History of Violence represented something of a change of direction, and, I thought, a substantial reinvigoration. But Eastern Promises, despite being the same genre as A History of Violence, somehow doesn’t seem anywhere near as fresh or as thoughtful (or affectful). This is all relative, of course: I only find Cronenberg at fault because I expect so much more of him. I am holding him to higher standards than I do most other contemporary filmmakers. But a lot more needs to be said than I managed to say in the past (when I wrote academically about him) about the allure of techno-metamorphosis in Cronenberg’s earlier films, and why this is neither a geeky utopia nor mere masculinist backlash, but something orthogonal to the categories we are stuck in when we discuss either masculinity or media. I don’t know if I will ever manage to get back to this. But I think there are still things to discover in Cronenberg’s earlier horror films that I don’t see being taken up in his more recent work — nor in any work in the horror genre that I have come across recently.


I found David Fincher’s Zodiac to be compelling and absorbing. Though, interestingly, the reasons I liked the movie are not far from the reasons Kim hated it. Zodiac is so cool and detached as to be almost hysterical, as well as creepy, in its insistence upon objectivity (both in terms of its point of view, and in terms of its excessive care in making supposedly “authentic” re-creations of 1970s decors).

How does the film work? Despite what I might have expected from the director of Seven, Zodiac is not interested at all in the inner motivations of the serial killer, nor even in the spectacle of gore that his acts created. Even the murders we see on-screen are oblique and deadpan; we have little sympathy for the victims, but also no sense of identification or complicity with the masked killer — the Zodiac killer is no Michael Myers. The movie has no shock effects, and no unplumbed depths. What you see is what you get, without any residue of mystery or suggestiveness or (even) danger. This is a world that is cooly and carefully visualized, and that doesn’t seem to have anything lurking in the shadows, anything beyond the literal givenness of what is visualized. This makes Zodiac almost the exact polar opposite of, say, Dario Argento’s films, with their baroque flourishes and arcane visual conceptions.

In part, this is because the focus of Zodiac is upon the investigation of the crimes, rather than upon the crimes themselves. It belongs, more or less, to the genre of the “police procedural.” This genre is a popular one in American culture today, as witness the success of TV shows like Lae and Order and (in a more specialized sense) CSI. The focus is on the investigators, rather than the perpetrator, and we see the effects of the investigation upon the investigators’ personal lives. Yet even this formula is skewed in Fincher’s treatment — since the (real-life) case is never neatly wound up in the way it is on TV. We end with the identification of the probable killer, but he is never brought to justice, and even this identification remains twisted up in the maze of false inferences and ambiguous clues and mistaken identifications out of which it emerges.

The narrative of Zodiac is quite literally linear, since it starts with the first Zodiac murder, and then moves doggedly forward in time, without any flashbacks or interludes from subjective POVs or pauses to contemplate the significance of one event or another. One scene follows another, with no blackouts or other ways of emphasizing the cuts; we are only informed of time passing by small titles that appear at the bottom of the screen. The exact same transition marks “an hour later” and “eight months later”; the passage of time is thereby weirdly homogenized. The unsettling result is that sequence (the order in which things happen) seems to have nothing to do with duration and time passing (how long it takes for an event to happen, and how long we have to wait between one event and the next).

Of course, this skewing of ‘real time’ in order to construct a more exciting or engaging ‘narrative time’ is a feature of the overwhelming majority of narrative films; but Fincher pushes it so far, and does it so understatedly, and at such great length (the film is something like 2 hours 40 minutes long), that the effect is entirely uncanny. The movie seems affected with a time disorder malady, a sort of dyschronia. This is all the more the case in that, for the first two thirds of the film at least, the movie switches its focus among characters almost as capriciously as it jumps forward at irregular intervals. In terms of both temporality and point of view, the movie at once revels in absolute disjunctions and disparities, and yet at the same time smooths these all out into a stylistic uniformity. The result, for the viewer, is a kind of stupefied absorption, but one that cannot crystallize or coalesce into any sort of “identification.”

Towards the end of the film, there is in fact one “time-passing” montage of the sort that usually orients us in other narrative films. But even this has no subjective center: rather, we see a rapid animation of the San Francisco skyline changing as the Transamerica Pyramid goes up. And, in the last third of the film, the splitting among multiple investigative subjects is reduced, as most of the concerned parties just give up on the case, and Jake Gyllenhaal is the only one who continues obsessively searching for the identity of the killer. But even here, the results are far from straightforward. Just as, in the earlier portions of the film, the various cops and newspapermen investigating the Zodiac killings never coalesces into a group the way they do in the TV procedurals, so, in the latter portion, the actions of the single protagonist to remain active do not fuse into any stable point of reference. The narrative is simply too choppy and gap-ridden for this to happen.

For instance, Gyllenhaal has a blind date with Chloe Sevigny: it is awkward and embarrassing, as the two don’t hit it off at all, there is no chemistry between them, etc.; and even this devoles into a even worse date from hell when Gyllenhaal drags Sevigny off into his Zodiac investigations. The next time we see Sevigny, however, she is married to Gyllenhaal and they have had a baby. The time after that, she is worried by his continuing obsession with Zodiac — it is both potentially dangerous, and somethng that gets in the way of family life. So she eventually takes the kids and walks out on him (all this conveyed off-screen). Everything here is off-kilter, and by design: the point being, that Gyllenhaal doesn’t have any sort of intelligible private life, but has been completely consumed by his obsession.

Perhaps I am exaggerating this, because of my general bafflement and incomprehension with regard to the younger generation of actors. But here both Gyllenhaall as the newspaper-cartoonist-turned-investigator, and Mark Ruffalo as the San Francisco detective who does most of the work on the case, appear to me like “men without qualities” — to my jaded senses, there is simply nothing distinguishable or charismatic or even interesting about them, so I don’t quite understand how they became movie stars. (The same is true for me of other actors of their generation, like Ed Norton, for instance, or Keanu Reeves. The brilliance of Norton’s role in Fight Club consists precisely in the contrast between his blankness and the floridity of Brad Pitt). Here, in Zodiac, both Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo seem utterly bland to me even when they become a bit crazed or obsessive — but they are set off against the floridity of (of course) Robert Downey, Jr. as the crime reporter who falls into a spiral of bitter cynicism and alcoholic self-destruction, and (in a more minor, character-actor sort of role) Brian Cox, who does a wonderful, utterly bizarre turn as famous defense attorney Melvin Belli.

In any case, the acting in Zodiac is overwhelmed by Fincher’s cinematography, with its dull colors, relative flatness, ceaselessly panning camera, and exploration of bureaucratic spaces (most notably, the newspaper offices, and various police headquarters). Nothing ever feels quite right, and so even the creepiest and strangest sequences (like one in which the cops search the trailer of their prime suspect, and find it overrun with squirrels, cavorting amidst the assault rifles and porno magazines) don’t seem out of place, but of a piece with the scense set in (always slightly inhuman) “ordinary” spaces. All in all, Fincher’s treatment of space is as expansive as his treatment of time is clipped and understated. But the effect is roughly the same: the exploration, almost as if it were being done by an alien, of a world of surfaces that connect and ramify, but also block one another; yet without anything that we could call a hidden dimesion of depth. (The expectation of depth is even parodied at one point, when Gyllenhaal visits the home of an informant, perhaps a suspect or the friend of a suspect, who runs a movie theater that shows old silent films, and whose archives — one of the rare basements in California — have a kind of Gothic creepiness to them. Gyllenhaal gets paranoid and flees, but it becomes clear to us that the creepy movie man isn’t the Zodiac killer).

The world so described is also a world permeated by media. The murders themselves have less presence in the movie than do the letters that the killer sends to the newspapers. We see the letters themselves, and the ciphers that the killer also sends, in extreme-close up on the screen, or superimposed over other images; much is made in the plot of handwriting analysis, though that turns out to be another dead end. The presence of media is epitomized in a scene where Gyllenhaal and Ruffalo meet at a screening of Dirty Harry (released in 1971, and in fact a fictionalization of the very Zodiac murders that the present film is about). Zodiac is so filled with false or misleading clues, with data that seems significant and turns out not to be, and so on, that from a logical-deduction point of view it can only be frustrating. But the sense that all this welter of evidence makes, is that it is all mediated in some fashion. The killer wants, most of all, to be in the papers; reporters bypass the cops with evidence they have found, and go straight to TV; Gyllenhaal wants to solve the case so that he can write a book about it, which is the only way he sees of justifying his existence; and so on. A particularly apt (and “postmodern”) touch is that Fincher deals not just with the media of Spectacle, but also with little media and dispersed media — records in police archives, TV seen on small screens, etc. — which makes for a link between the time depicted (30 to 40 years ago) and the present moment, of ever more widely dispersed media, in which the film was made.

In all these ways, Zodiac creates a overwhelming, but distanced, sense of flatness, mobility, and creepiness: a kind of low-key affectivity that is as much an expression of our general mediascape as it is of the mind of a serial killer. Gyllenhaal, no less than the killer, is consumed by a cold obsession, one that drives him utterly yet seems altogether dispassionate. And Gyllenhaal’s obsession doesn’t even really seem unique to him, since it emerges out of the “noise” and jumpiness of the multiple POVs of the first two thirds of the movie. In any case, when asked why he is interested, Gyllenhaal can say little more than that he enjoys solving puzzles; he has as litle interest in, or understanding of, his own motivations as does George W. Bush. And Fincher seems to suggest that this shallowness and disinterest is symptomatic of “postmodern” American society in general; it is in this sense that our situation today has its roots, not in the 1960s but in the 1970s, or in that aspect of the 70s that this movie depicts. And, to his credit, Fincher doesn’t portray this situation as one of deprivation or lack; there is no mourning here for lost subjective depths. It is rather the case that Fincher has mapped the stylistics, or the geography if you will, of our contemporary form of subjectivity. This is the situation in which we live right now, the field in which we have to operate. And it’s up to us to do what we can with it.

Sound Mind

I’ve been meaning to write for a while about Tricia Sullivan’s SF novel Sound Mind. But now it is too long since I read it, and I’ve forgotten too many details, so (pending a rereading, which I don’t have time for now) I can only comment on it vaguely and briefly. The novel is a sequel to Double Vision (which I wrote about here), and is probably incomprehensible if you haven’t read the previous volume. (For an excellent account of both books together, see Timmel Duchamp’s review).

Sound Mind is hard to describe, because it is a strange visionary novel which is nonetheless rooted in the mundane: both the details of everyday life in suburban New Jersey (where the author grew up) and at Bard College in New York state (where the author went to school), and the details of television. Basically, there is a cosmic struggle between forces of integration and disintegration, or concreteness and abstraction, or system-building and system-breaking, and a set of experiences reflecting at once a sense of impending catastrophe (as a small region of upstate New York) gets hit by a violent destructive force, and then enclosed in a bubble that does not and cannot communicate with the rest of the world, or indeed the universe), and a sort of Dungeons-and-Dragons derived videogame; and (like the previous novel) a kind of scenario in which televison-induced hallucinations control behavior and fulfill various corporate agendas including, but not limited to, selling consumer products. The way in which commodification and advertising feed into all other sorts of self-referential loops and psychotic-breakdown modes of feeling is of course the part of the novel of most interest to me, but it really cannot be separated from some of the other themes, involving avant-garde improvisational music as a means of “cross[ing] the boundaries between systems” (332), and synaesthesia, and lots of other things I can’t quite remember.

The point is, Sound Mind is mind-fuel, with such a density of cultural references, slippery almost-theories that tease and allure and never quite coalesce, that it is quite mind-blowing, even as it weaves and bobs and evades your grasp in the way martial arts (one of the subjects of Double Vision) at their best are supposed to do.

Our Current Climate

So here are some examples of what I find odious in the everyday mediascape.

Bruce Sterling links to a talk by noted futurologist Paul Saffo, in the course of which Saffo praises the government of Singapore as an exemplary sort of “democracy”; Saffo says (I paraphrase) that the social contract between the government and the people in Singapore is that the government promises not to be corrupt, to make the trains run on time, to foster a good business climate, etc., and the people in response promise not to rock the boat by opposing the government or making any sort of unseemly political and economic demands. Wonderful for capitalism and capitalists; not so wonderful if you are an underpaid guest worker in that good business climate.

Meanwhile, a New York Times article describes how Angela Merkel has high popularity ratings as Chancellor of Germany, precisely because she has dropped the Thatcherite threats on which she campaigned, and has instead refrained from dismantling the welfare state. The article bemoans the fact that Merkel hasn’t been able to pursue her reforms, because the German people are “more than content to let the state care for them, from kindergarten all the way to retirement,” because they “have not been trained for the last 20 or 30 years to take responsibility for their own lives.” As usual in neoliberal discourse, “responsibility” is a code word for leaving everyone who isn’t rich to suffer, and in fact blaming the victims for the very fact that they have been so left out in the cold. It’s the way that the supposedly “progressive” (i.e. anti-Bush, “blue state”) NY Times adopts this sort of neoliberal worldview as being a self-evident truth, not even worthy of debate, that so disgusts me.

Rant over; this blog will now return to its usual highminded programming.

Science fiction update

This is rambling and all over the place, but I think I will post it anyway, as it tries to make sense of a lot of the reading I have been doing lately, and which I haven’t previously mentioned in this blog.

SF writer Chris Moriarty, whose excellent novel Spin State I have just finished reading, notes on her website that the most fundamental distinction in science fiction as a genre is “the division between writers who view sf as being primarily about science and writers who view sf as being primarily about politics.” She goes on to note that, of course, this polarity is really a “continuum” rather than an absolute divide; but I think that the major point is well taken.

Actually, I might want to substitute “technology” for science in Moriarty’s formulation, because, even in the “hardest” SF the scientific knowledge is embodied in technology; and also because more metaphorical technologies, like those used in certain types of fantasy writing, are sometimes (though, obviously, not always) closer to the technologies that hard SF provides. (Think, for instance, about the use of artificial intelligence, alongside several kinds of flat-out magic, in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. So it might be best to state the division as between SF that looks at the imaginative possibilities unleashed by potential or future technology, and SF that looks at the political consequences of such technology. Though, of course, most good SF has elements of both.

I’m thinking about this because I want to work out more of the way that SF moves in between these two poles, and helps us focus on the ways that politics inflects technological development (and even scientific discovery) and the ways that scientific discovery and technological change inflect, divert, and alter socio-political possibilities.

For instance, Moriarty’s Spin State is premised on extrapolations from current quantum mechanics. There is a lot of stuff about correlated particles (providing for a loophole in the absolute restriction of movement to the speed of light or lower), and about the many-worlds implications of certain branches of quantum theory (though, thankfully, Moriarty never uses this as a mere plot device to bring alternative universes in contact with the one in which the novel is set). And Moriarty even provides several pages of bibliography at the end of the book, in which the real physics underlying the made-up physics of his novel is grounded and explained.

And yet, Spin State is, in a certain way, more about (old-fashioned) class struggle than it is about quantum theory. The action takes place mostly on a planet where workers are employed in horrific conditions as coal miners, digging up the “Bose-Einstein condensate” that is necessary for superluminal communication and travel, and that is buried amidst the coal. The miners’ conditions are every bit as bad, and even as ‘primitive’, as those of mine workers in, say, South Africa today. The flashy newer technologies that make up the world (universe) of the novel are overlaid upon the older technologies that in fact, already exist today. It is symbolically indicative that, several centuries from now, people are still watching the Mets take on the Yankees in the world series, and government troops are still being brought in to break strikes and keep the workers in line. The novel is split between the hell of the coal mines, where workers routinely die in cave-ins, or — if not — succumb to black lung by the time they are forty, and the paradise of completely immersive virtual worlds in which the illusion of physicality is complete, and material objects are as palpabe, and can be transferred, as easily as occurs in the physical world. We meet emergent artificial intelligences possessing superhuman computing power, quasi-human beings who have been genetically engineered and cloned to provide certain exploitable physical and mental characteristics, and people whose bodies have been extensively wired to give them strength, computing power, prosthetic memory, ability to interface directly with machines, and so forth. Yet these transformations,as well, are not universally available, but tied to power and privilege and economic status.

The thriller plot of Spin State involves contact with an alien form of intelligent life (so alien, that for a long time human beings were unable even to recognize it as either alive or intelligent), together with a love story between a quasi-human “construct” and an AI who can only instantiate itself physically by “borrowing” (actually, paying for use of) the bodies of physical human beings. Though the novel is partly committed to the sort of naturalistic “character development” that is sometimes considered requisite in genre fiction, it does at least to some extent speculate on what it might mean to speak of the “psychology” of an intelligent and communicating entity which, yet, is not entirely human, and not even a unified subject in the ways that we expect human beings to be. Moriarty doesn’t go anywhere near as far in this respect as Justina Robson does in Living Next Door to the God of Love, a book which is mind-blowing in the way that it imagines the depth psychology of entirely nonhuman subjects, and the emotional relationships such subjects might enter into with other nonhuman, as well as with more or less ordinarily human, beings. But Moriarty, unlike Robson, links this sort of strange emergence — something beyond what we might be capable of actually experiencing today — to socio-political conditions that are continuous with our rapaciously capitalistic present.

Well, I seem to have introduced a third category: nonhuman psychology, or (as I would prefer to call it) the affectivity of nonhuman beingss (including transhuman beings, genetically modified human beings, hybrid/cyborg human beings, and artificial intelligence beings), which is as separate from (and as influenced by) either science/technology or politics/economics as these two are separate from, and yet strongly influenced by one another. Nonhuman affectivities are an important part of science fiction, because they are part of the investigation of how “we” (taking this pronoun in the broadest possible sense) could be otherwise, and indeed how we are already (since SF is always about the futurity that is already implicit or incipient in the present) in process of becoming-otherwise. The key principle here, of course, being McLuhan’s, that as media (an even wider term than “technologies”) vary and change, so our very percepts, affects, and concepts vary and change.

But I digress. I wanted to mention, as a contrast to Moriarty, Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, which just won the Hugo for best SF novel of 2006. (I am looking forward to Vinge’s visit to my university’s campus later this year). Rainbows End is near-future SF; it extrapolates trends in “social software,” in wearable computing, in ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous networks, and massively parallel computing involving scores of people only virtually connected, etc., in order to suggest how these technologies are radically reshaping our social world. It is much more on the science/technology side of the continuum than the political; and I tend to distrust Vinge’s politics to a certain extent, I must say, as it seems (from what I can gather from his fiction) to trend libertarian-capitalist; not to mention that Vinge is the originator of the concept of The Singularity, which I think has subsequently (in the hands of others, at least) been greatly oversold.

Nonetheless, Rainbows End is quite brilliant both for the ways it integrates into a seamless whole its various technologies, all of which are floating around right now, but isolated from one another and only in incipient versions; and for the way that the book offers a vision in which the surveillance of the national security state, vigilantly on guard against terrorism and against any violation of so-called ‘intellectual property’ rights, has become so ubiquitous and taken-for-granted that the chance of getting away from it doesn’t exist anymore — the loss of civil liberties and of privacy is so established that it isn’t even an issue. The scariness of this is only mitigated by the fact that “freedom” of business entrepreneurship and of entertainment “choices” is left intact — i.e., you are entirely free to swear your allegiance to either of the two popular fantasy authors who have ripped off and updated Terry Pratchett, each in their own way. That is pretty much the way Vinge paints it, though I don’t think he is quite as snarkily ironic about the commerce part of it as I just was. (Disclaimer: I have nothing against Terry Pratchett; I am only objecting to his future imitators).

And, oh yes, Vinge’s book also has some interesting bits about a sort of mental virus that, spread by a combination of biological and net/informational infection, can cause an extremely high percentage of those exposed to suddenly want to buy a given product, or support a President’s rationale for waging war. And, also, the novel contains one mysterious character who (it seems — this is never explicitly spelled out) just may be an emergent AI, having arisen out of the Net itself, with its own somewhat alien agendas/interests and affects… That again.

But, for really hitting that point on the continuum where the social and political blends imperceptibly into the scientific and technological, and vice versa, the best SF I have read in quite some time is Warren Ellis’ new comic book series, Doktor Sleepless. Only two issues have come out so far, so it is hard to know quite where this is heading — it is as if I were to review Moriarty’s or Vinge’s novel on the basis of only reading the first fifty pages — but already we have been hit with an extraordinarily high density of new ideas, innovative concepts per page. One theme, at least, is the contrast between the shiny, high-concept SF of the past, and the way that technological innovation is already, much more quietly and unassumingly, worming its ways into our lives in ways that are far more profound, precisely because they are less spectacularly noticeable. In the world of Doktor Sleepless, people complain, “where’s my jet pack? where’s my flying car?”; but they fail even to notice how much they have been altered by stuff they take for granted, like (just barely beyond what we actually have today) ubiquitous instant messaging. Now, making fun of the grandiosity of Golden Age SF is nothing new; William Gibson did it twenty-five years ago in his short story “The Gernsback Continuum.” But Ellis is pointing, beyond this, to the increasing sense we have, in our globalized network society, that futurity itself is used up, that its horizons have shrunk, that we have nothing to look forward to. Our future hasn’t changed in, what, twenty or thirty years? The future we imagine today is no different from the one that Ridley Scott imagined in Blade Runner twenty-five years ago, just at the same time that Gibson was mocking the future that had been imagined twenty-five years before that. So we would seem to be in a stasis, where futurity has decayed, melted into an infernal, eternal present.

Against this malaise, Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless has a “terrible perscription” — though we do not know, after only two issues, what it is yet. But it does seem to involve DIY low tech, of the sort that has already changed our world, more profoundly perhaps than we have even noticed. [This really does ring true to me. My students are always surprised — not only that I grew up in a time before the Internet, even before personal computers — but, more stunningly, because it is something much more mundane — that I can remember the first time that I saw and used an ATM, and that — prior to that moment — I managed my bank account for many years without one].

Anyway.. Issue two of Doktor Sleepless introduces us to the “Shrieky Girls” — young women who have tiny haptic devices on their hands or arms, connected to the ubiquitous instant-messaging system that they can access through their contact lenses. The result is that they can share, not just words, but perceptions and sensations. When one of the Shrieky Girls takes a boy (or a girl) home with them, then the next morning “it’s all of them who share the modemed sensation of a warm arm closed softly around them.” So “Shrieky Girls are never alone; they live in an invisible web of constant secret conversation, transmitting raw feelings like they were texting notes.” What’s brilliant about all this is that it’s barely even SF; it’s only a step beyond what is already technologically feasible; and, in the world of the story, it isn’t even spectacular, but is something cobbled together cheaply and easily, out of already-obsolete components and second-hand networking links. Which makes it nearly invisible, even as it meses with our ideas about selfhood and privacy, and the boundaries between self and other, more profoundly than the more flashy technologies of science fiction past had ever done.

Ellis’ Global Frequency of several years ago already toyed with the making-mundane of the most extravagant SF visions that recent technologies have given us. And his novel (prose, not graphic) Crooked Little Vein, released this past summer, made the point that categories like “perversion,” and distinctions between the normal and the pathological, no longer make any sense in our society of what Baudrillard calls “transparency” and Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — and emphasized this with humor and relief, rather than with the horror of Baudrillard, or the moralistic fervor of those who bemoan the so-called “decline of symbolic efficacy” (the only “perversions” in the novel that are truly odious and objectionable are the ones that stem from the privileges and life-and-death powers that the extremely rich and well-connected exercise against the rest of us). Doktor Sleepless seems to be starting out from where these other works left off, and heading into uncharted territories. Ones in which the micro-affects and micro-politics of technologies that have insinuated themselves within our lives pretty much without a splash (albeit with lots of marketing hoopla) are exposed, dramatized, subject to the harsh scrutiny of genre fiction.

I mean, I’ll never have a jet pack, but won’t the iPhone change me? Why do I want one so badly, even though it won’t do anything for me “as a person” that my current phone (albeit using the disgustingly ponderous and irritating and user-unfriendly Windows Mobile platform) doesn’t do already?

Sweet Movie

Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) is his follow-up to WR: Mysteries of the Organism, and the last truly radical movie he was given the money to make. Like WR, Sweet Movie is a dense montage of disparate political and sexual elements, but overall it is much more cryptic and baffling. There are two main plotlines. The first involves Miss World, the winner of a virgin’s beauty contest, who is married to the world’s wealthiest man, who of course is a crass American capitalist. The other concerns a young sailor from the Battleship Potemkin, a “sexual proletarian,” who becomes the lover of Anna Planeta, the captain of a ship, called SURVIVAL, with Marx’s head for a figurehead, which sails around the canals of Amsterdam.

Two allegorical/sexual sequences, then: one is capitalism and the other is communism. Both are sinister: both are fueled by libidinal energies, which they co-opt and transform into a surplus of seductive power. Makavejev shows us these transformations, without explicit judgment. We have to make what we can of them, and of their juxtapositions.

Miss World runs screaming from her wedding-night bed with Mr. Kapital. It’s less his obsessive cleanliness ritual that upsets her — he wipes both her and himself down with some sort of rubbing alcohol or antiseptic — than his golden dick, from which streams forth an abundant liquid flow (urine? oil? water? I wasn’t sure). She goes through a series of erotic and therapeutic encounters — with a stereotypical black American stud, with a fake-Mexican macho, etc. — and ends up in advertising: masturbating for the camera while wallowing in liquid chocolate that is being poured all over her — they are shooting a commercial that is supposed to make this particular brand of chocolate unforgettable.

Meanwhile, Anna Planeta and the sailor from the Potemkin are endlessly fucking in an enormous vat of raw sugar. It’s Reichian sex-pol revolutionary bliss, until (and even still when) Anna grabs a knife and castrates, then kills him. He swoons and dies still completely happy, as the red of his blood mixes with the white of the sugar, giving it a unique and pungent texture. He may be glad to die for the revolution, but the communist ship of state has an overall stench of corpses, mixed with the sickly sweetness of the sugar and its supply of lollipops and other candies. When Anna Planeta is neither fucking the sailor nor brooding on the bow of her ship, just above the Marx figurehead, she is busy seducing underage teenage boys (they look to be about 14), whose violated corpses are later retrieved from the ship by the Dutch police.

But I still haven’t mentioned the most viscerally memorable parts of the film, which involve Otto Muehl‘s anti-psychiatric collective. Miss World is brought to them in a wheelbarrow, traumatized and in shock from her experiences of sexuality-as-commodity. Muehl and his collective (who really existed; it is unclear to what extent Makavejev’s portrait of them is documentary, and to what extent it is staged for the film) engage in all sorts of rituals, art performances, and behaviors designed to break down ego defenses and return the group to a state of (Norman O. Brown-ish?) polymorphous perversity. In the course of a communal dinner, members of the group play with their food, play with their testicles, smear bodily fluids/products on one another, and regurgitate amidst screams of delight. Later, they dance nude to a rendition of the Internationale played on a hurdy-gurdy, and shit into dinner plates that are then passed around as culinary delicacies. All this is quite self-consciously performative — rather than ‘primal’ — but it is definitely ‘real’ rather than simulated. None of this does very much for Miss World, who continues to sit in the midst of all the activity in a glum stupor, except when she is nourished from a lactating woman’s breast — but presumably (insofar as we grant the story any sort of linear narrative meaning) it ‘liberates’ her to wallow in the chocolate in the following sequence.

Makavejev also intercuts other material — as one might expect — including orgasmic shots of Niagara Falls, and, most notably, documentary footage of the unearthing of the corpses of Polish soldiers/prisoners who were massacred on Stalin’s orders during World War II; and some sort of German Nazi footage of an Aryan baby being manhandled by a doctor in the name of greater Health.
All in all, this makes for a film that is considerably more visceral (and less immediately delightful) than WR. Makavejev is pushing limits here: both in his frequent shots of (non-erect) male genitalia, together with scatalogical imagery, and in his touching on emotional areas — like an adult woman sexually performing for underage boys — that is far more taboo today than it was in 1974. Still, for all Sweet Movie‘s shocks and extremities, I cannot quite think of it as “transgressive,” in the sense that word holds in so much 20th century art. Because, although Makavejev is going where no filmmaker (except, perhaps, in the low-end of porn/exploitation moviemaking) had ever gone before, he absolutely insists on intertwining erotic release with power and domination, love with death, sex with shit, sweetness with putridity. There is none of the glee in being outrageous that one finds, so endearingly, even in the most reprehensible sex or slasher exploitation movies. But there is also nothing like the way, for instance, that Samuel Delany depicts orgies of golden showers and the like with a rich, naturalistic density, and an attention to the pleasures and satisfactions of the body. Rather, Makavejev directly links the sublime and abject bodies he depicts to the film’s overall allegorical abstractions, in which bodies stand for, or reveal themselves as symptoms of, social conditons (capitalism, communism) that they nonetheless cannot embody or coincide with.

It’s this knottiness, and this insistence upon “intellectual montage,” that makes the film so difficult to parse. And that forces the viewer to confront his or her own affective responses, as much as the images that provoke those responses. For me, the film was as much about my own anality (as I suppose one would have to call it in psychoanalytic terms) as it was about anything else. I mean, I have no trouble watching the violations of, and violence to, human bodies in horror films, even in the calculated sado-porn of movies like Hostel. But I find stuff like in-your-face regurgitation, and bodily immersion in chocolate or sugar (not to mention shit), somehow difficult to watch. Especially when it seems that the actors are not simulating, but doing it “for real.” I guess food (and slimy or greasy or already-partly-digested-liquefied food in particular) is just too Real (in the Lacanian sense) to me. Or, perhaps, it is the site where my inner fascist, with its fear of boundary dissolution and flows (cf. Theweleit) comes into play.

In any case, the gustatory (or, rather, digestive) imagery in Sweet Movie was the nodal point of the film for me — others may fixate more on other material instead. But overall, the film’s power comes largely from the way that it insists that bodies and their (sexual, gustatory, sensing, etc.) modalities are both in a certain sense primordial, and at the same time caught up in webs of power relations, exploitations, commercial or propagandist manipulations, and so forth. NOT caught up in a web of signs or significations (the way the “structuralism” of the 1960s and 1970s so famously insisted), but precisely caught up in relations of production and circulation and exploitation that are irreducible to, and at times even directly contradictory to, those signifying networks. The point of Makavejev’s allegorism is precisely to make a direct link between the Artaudian viscerality of bodies on the one hand, and the so-abstract-as-not-even-to-be-representable circuits of money/power/influence on the other, while signification or the Symbolic drops out of the equation, since it cannot possibly mediate this link between the most concrete and singular, and the most universal and abstract. In this way, affirming all this, Makavejev remains very much a Marxist (all the more so for his harsh critique of actually existing socialism); while as a Freudian he has moved beyond the sterile dichotomies between Reichian apocalyptic liberationism and the right-Freudian insistence upon primal repression, to a more politico-cynical understanding of bodies and their drives, and how they fit into power relations and flows.

Sweet Movie is, at one and the same time, too intellectual to be ecstatic, and too visceral to be theorizable. Certain questions the film asks simply can’t be answered: there is no way really to evaluate what goes on in Muehl’s commune, and no interest in determining what Makavejev actually thinks of it, or might intend us to think of it. Rather, the density of what we see in the sequences with Muehl and his group makes it impossible to maintain either the sense that it was truly liberatory, or the sense that it was a kind of enforced-fascist nightmare embodying the worst, most oppressive, side of 60s/70s utopian naivete and groupthink. It’s worth noting, in any case, that Muehl’s group belongs to the film’s capitalist series, rather than its communist one; it plays a role in the capitalist storylineequivalent to the one that Anna’s seduction of the adolescent boys plays in the communist storyline. Both are provocations in which pleasure and control are intertwined; both energize their participants only to precipitate them into the film’s double culmination: the “obscene” orgy as ultimate commodity spectacle on the capitalist side; a grim police procedural, against a background that combines overfull sweetness (sugar) and grim decay (the stench of corpses, the stench of history) on the communist side.

Still, the film ends with a still on a final shot in which the teenage boys murdered by Anna Planeta, whose corpses are laid out on the verge of the canal, stir into life and begin to emerge from their body bags. Shortly before, there’s a brief shot of the Potemkin sailor, also returned to life, watching the shooting of the Miss World chocolate commercial. This fleeting suggestion of resurrection would be Makavejev’s only (and tentative) answer to both communism’s regime of death, and capitalism’s total colonization of life (what would today be called biopolitics). Is it merely a crypto-religious yearning, that these bones may live? Or does Makavejev’s libidino-cognitive mapping of the deadlocks of the twentieth century hold out any prospects to us in the twenty-first?