Archive for April, 2008

Diary of the Dead

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007) is not part of the series that began with Night of the Living Dead (1968), and continued with Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985), and most recently Land of the Dead (2005). It is rather a reimagining of the series from the ground up — almost like a remake of Night of the Living Dead in light of all the considerable social and technological changes that have taken place between 1968 and today. The living dead are still the slow, shambling creatures they were in Romero’s earlier movies (rather than the fast-moving monsters they have become in other recent zombie flicks like 28 Days Later. But this time they seem to arise, not out of the internal repressions of the American nuclear family (as they did in Night, but rather out of the violent mediascape that we all take for granted. The first scene of zombies arising does not take place in a cemetery; rather, it happens on an “action news” broadcast, showing the police cleaning up after an incident in which an “immigrant” shot and killed his wife and child, and then himself. The bodies arise as they are being carted off to the morgue; one of the vicitims they attack is the newscaster herself. (Romero doesn’t dwell on the suggestion that the current xenophobic bigotry, fear, and hatred directed against foreigners/aliens is behind the dread of the living dead; but the suggestion hangs on, nonetheless, throughout the film).

Diary of the Dead is an entirely “mediated” (or “remediated”) film. Like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Redacted, it is composed entirely of shots that are taken from multiple sources, and edited together, within the diegesis (i.e. within the narrative world of the movie). Here, a group of college-student filmmakers take video footage of all they see around them as the world falls apart under the impact of the living dead, and edit this together with material taken from television, the Net, and surveillance cameras.

The mood of Diary of the Dead is somber and continually tense. Romero is still better than anyone else in orcehstrating the affects of the genre he invented. The film is entirely built around rhythms of tension and anticipation, of low-level anxiety that blooms into outright fear at just the right time (I mean, at just the wrong time for the characters and viewers, and thus just the right time in terms of making the movie as unsettling as possible). Even when you know what you are going to find — and we basically do, since we always end up finding the worst — you don’t know precisely when, where, or how you will find it. Sometimes you see horrible things, and sometimes you do not quite; by the standards of recent horror films in the Hostel and Saw mode, Diary of the Dead is in fact quite circumspect.Overall, there is less gross-out humor here than in Romero’s earlier zombie movies (though there is some); I think this has to do with the overall change in focus from grand spectacle driven by special effects to media fragmentation and multiplicity (also to the low budget, an aspect in which this film is again closer to Night than to any of its sequels, which were scarcely high-budget but which had more resources to mess around with).

Diary of the Dead‘s protagonists are a bunch of white college students (together with one older white man, their film professor). As in many of Romero’s films, there is a reversal of conventionally patriarchal gender dynamics. The women are generally more competent, and more able to hold themselves together emotionally and psychologically, than the white men. In all these films, the white men — rather than the women — tend to be the hysterics; they are generally given to some sort of (ultimately self-defeating) macho enactment that they refuse to give up on. Here, though, the obsession is not militaristic or power-hungry; it is rather the obsession to film everything, to record whatever happens on video, regardless of the risk, regardless of the harm to oneself or others. (At several points in Diary, the main male protagonist insists on continuing to film a zombie attack, rather than do anything to rescue the person being attacked). In this way, Romero continues his career-long interrogation of white male vanity and white male hysteria: which turns out to be as dysfunctional in times of crisis and need as it is overbearing and oppressive to others in times of peace and material plenty.

There isn’t as much about race here as there is in some of Romero’s other films. But there is one sequence where the students come across a group of black people (both men and women, but with more emphasis placed on the men) who are hunkered down and determined to survive. They explain that, due to the fact that all the white people ran away, they find themselves in charge or in control for the first and only time in their lives. They are grimly determined, but rational and mutually cooperative. They have no interest in macho heroics at the expense of survival. They are concerned for themselves first, but they do not take advantage of the students who encounter them, even though they clearly have the firepower and the numbers to push the students around. (The contrast is with a subsequent scene, where the students encounter two truckloads of National Guardsmen: the latter, instead of rescuing or saving the students, make them turn off the cameras and then rip them off of all their stuff, except for the cameras and comptuers, and some weapons and ammunition). What’s interesting about all this is that Romero doesn’t idealize the black characters; it is simply that (except perhaps for the main female protagonist) they are the only ones who retain some degree of civility, respect, and humaneness. (Well, perhaps I am exaggerating a bit: there’s also the quite decent deaf Amish farmer who helps the students out, until the zombies get him).

Much of this is of a piece with Romero’s previous movies: not only the Living Dead films, but also the similarly-themed The Crazies (1973), and such great, unjustly neglected films as Martin (1977) and Monkey Shines (1988). But what’s new about Diary of the Dead, at least for Romero, is its self-conscious and self-reflexive focus on media. Some reviewers and bloggers have complained that the film is too simplistic in its vilification of new media and our general social obsession with videotaping everything; but I think that in fact Romero’s take is much more complex and nuanced, not to mention visionary, than it has generally been given credit for. Romero has always been a “dialectical” filmmaker in the way he approaches social issues and social context, and the media discussion which takes up so large a part of Diary of the Dead is no exception.

The movie offers a number of parallels, contrasts, and other suggestions about the role of media in contemporary society, but none of these are definitive. The students start out filming a horror movie, before they find themselves caught up in a world where the horror has become real. (In this way, Romero implicates himself as a filmmaker, together with the characters in the film and the audience watching it). How the “real” world has become one with the movie world is made clear towards the end of the film, when the actor who had been playing the monster in the movie becomes a zombie, and stalks the very actress who had played his victim in the abortive attempt to shoot the horror flick. At the same time, the video camera is equated with the gun as a tool of violence. After one character kills a few zombies, he returns the gun to another character with the remark that it is just “too easy to use” the gun. Shortly thereafter, the female protagonist returns the video camera she has been using to her documentation-obsessed boyfriend with the same remark, that the camera is “too easy to use.” The argument between the two of them continues throughout the film. She says that he has become too obsessed with taping everything and uploading it onto the Net, and that doing this has made him numb to the actual human horror of what is happening. He responds that, since the government and the commercial media are systematically lying about what is going on, it is vital for him to get the truth out, by filming what is happening and uploading the material. The argument cannot be resolved because they are both right. At the end of the film, after he is killed, she goes ahead and edits and uploads his documentary, despite her earlier criticisms. At this point, the zombies are everywhere. Mobile phones have ceased to operate (apparently the transmission towers have gone down), but the Internet is apparently still working (well, it was originally designed to withstand even a nuclear attack). At this point, the debate has taken on a new form. On the one hand, when faced with the end of the world, there is really nothing you can do except bear witness to it in some form, which here means documenting it with video. On the other hand, even if the video is uploaded onto the Net, it is unclear whether there will be anyone left to watch it — the witness lacks an audience.

Such is the antinomy on which the film ends, and I think that it is a profound one. We have moved from being a “society of the spectacle” to being a society of participatory and interactive media. And Diary of the Dead is thinking about this change — not to say that the new media regime is either better or worse than what came before, but to try to delineate just how it is different. The great unitary spectacle of which Guy Debord wrote has been shattered, and replaced by new forms of distraction and activity in what Deleuze called the “society of control.” We are no longer passive, voyeuristic spectators; instead, we actively both give ourselves over to surveillance, and eagerly surveil (is that a word?) both others and ourselves. We fragment, multiply, and network both ourselves and whatever we encounter. This no longer falls under the dipolar schema of subject and object; but rather has the form of a network in which everyone and everything is a node. This also means that we have moved on from representation to simulation: instead of trying to capture the Real via mimesis, we actively produce bits and pieces of a reality that is directly composed of images, rather than merely being captured or reflected in images. The regime of simulacra is not an “extermination of the real” as Baudrillard claimed; it is rather a state in which the real is effectively being micro-produced and virally disseminated. In consequence, the real and the imaginary have become, as Deleuze puts it, “indiscernible”: reality pushes toward a “point of indiscernibility,” as a result of “the coalescence of the actual image and the virtual image, the image with two sides, actual and virtual at the same time” (Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 69). Every imaginary simulation becomes altogether real, even as every reality is dissolved in simulacral multiplication.

In the Living Dead tetralogy, the zombies were something like the return of the repressed: their monstrosity was that of (successively) the family, of commodity fetishism, of the military-scientific complex, and of the socio-economic class system. But all of these belong to a realm of representation. In Diary of the Dead, all of these social formations are still in place; but, instead of representing these formations, or returning the disavowed tendencies of them, the zombies are now simulations, which is to say images, but images that directly constitute the real, as they replicate and proliferate everywhere. Though the female protagonist sarcastically suggests that, if her boyfriend does not videotape an incident, then it hasn’t happened, in fact everything that happens belongs to the realm of images on screens — regardless of whether or not his videocamera is around to capture it. It is not that the world has become unreal to us because we always view it mediated through cameras and screens; but rather that, since everything in the world has proliferated imagistically and virally, by contagion, in the way zombies proliferate and communicate their own condition to others — that therefore cameras and screens and computers are in fact the only tools we have left to cope with the world and its realities. This goes along with the shift from a situation where everyone watches images on television, to one where everyone owns a camera and actively captures/produces images.

The male protagonist calls his documentary film about the zombies — which is identical to Diary of the Dead, the film that we are actually watching — “The Death of Death.” Death itself is dead, and the “undead” refuse to die, precisely because nothing is ever allowed to vanish. Everything is stockpiled and retained: images, capital, data. We are actively solicited to produce, proliferate, and accumulate: in effect, this means that we are producing the zombies, the undead, precisely to the extent that we are struggling to stay alive, to not become “them.” Somebody in the film makes the point that, where human conflict used to be among groups of “us,” now it is between “us” and “them” — but where “they” are in fact also “us.” In a crazed society of accumulation, we try to hold on to everything; and this means holding on to the dead, too, with grotesque consequences. Near the end of the film, there is a long sequence where one of the actors in the initial horror film has holed up. It is his ultra-rich parents’ fortress/mansion out in the middle of nowhere. Even still alive, the actor-student is half-crazed; he has preserved all the zombified people around him — his parents, his parents’ servants, and everyone else in the house — as sort of weird “living sculptures” planted in his swimming pool (they stand fixed to the bottom, and seem unable to escape). This grotesquerie is echoed in the final moments of the screen, where we see Net footage of some white-middle-American hunter types, somewhere in Pennsylvania (the very people whom Obama was accused falsely of having a condescending attitude towards) having a grand old time as they hunt zombies for sport. (This also somewhat echoes the ending of Night of the Living Dead, where the black man who has survived the horror in the house is killed by the same sort of good ol’ boys, who casually take him for a zombie). The female protagonist narrator wonders whether, if this is what we are like, we are actually worthy of survival. It’s a real question, and one to which no easy answer can be given. Ultimately, I think that Diary of the Dead is a very personal film for Romero (despite the fact that clearly Romero cannot raise the money to make anything else except new variations on the zombie subgenre he pioneered forty years ago).

Some thoughts on “character”

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

I’ve been thinking for a long time about the following quote from Warren Ellis:

Chris Claremont once said of Alan Moore, “if he could plot, we’d all have to get together and kill him.” Which utterly misses the most compelling part of Alan’s writing, the way he develops and expresses ideas and character. Plot does not define story. Plot is the framework within which ideas are explored and personalities and relationships are unfolded. If all you want is plot, go and read a Tom Clancy novel.

For me, this is a key to understanding genre fiction — or maybe I should just say, fiction in general. Plot is overrated. SF novels and comics and movies and the like where it’s all about the plot, how well it is put together, how if a gun is on the table in Act One, it has to be used in Act Three, and so on, bore the hell out of me. The better and more cleverly it is put together, the more it seems to me to be just a dumb, creaky mechanism which provides neither pleasure nor insight. I know that lots of people (readers/viewers as well as creators) get off on carefully crafted plots; but such things do nothing for me.

Which doesn’t mean that all I want to read is avant-garde novels which have no narrative whatsoever. Fiction entirely devoid of a plot is like movies entirely devoid of sound (i.e., not like “silent films” as they were actually exhibited pre-1928, because they always had musical accompaniment, but silent films shown today without the needed music, or arty silent films that have no soundtrack by choice) — they are extremely difficult to follow, or to keep my attention on, or to have any sort of temporal dimension at all — it is like not having short-term memory, each moment happens and then disappears in a void, never to be recalled or related to anything else. [One of the many brilliant things about Kenneth Anger’s films is how, even if he has no specific soundtrack in mind, he just drops in pop songs almost randomly because that energizes the films somehow, allows us to apprehend the images in their duration better — I love, for instance, the way that silly “things that go bump in the night” song accompanies Pierrot gesturing at the moon (or am I confusing two of his early films?)].

So. Warren is right, I think. Plot has to be there, but only as a “framework” allowing for the development of what really matters: “ideas and character.” Plot is like a medium or an atmosphere, “within which ideas are explored and personalities and relationships are unfolded.” Just like you need the atmosphere in order to live, so you need the plot in order to explore those ideas, and to see those personalities and relationships. But you’ve got to look through the plot, just as you look through the air to see somebody or something. Of course, there are times when the air itself is important (like when there is a tornado, or when it is heavily polluted), and there are certain times when the plot in itself is important. But for the most part, this is a realm in which McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” does not work.

Of course, ideas are important especially in SF; maybe not as much in some other genres. But what I am interested in here is the question of characters, or “personalities and relationships.” It seems to me that this is something very hard to talk about, yet it is an incredibly important part of how we react to fictions, and why we like some of them so much. It’s common to talk about “identification” with a protagonist, but I think this notion is so vague and general that it doesn’t get us very far. Indeed, William Flesch’s Comeuppance argues quite cogently against both the “identification” theory and the Aristotelian notion of an intrinsic human delight in mimesis. Our relations to the characters we encounter in fictional narratives (and to some extent in non-fictional narratives as well) is much more indirect and convoluted than an “identification” theory can account for.

But for the moment I want to think about only a certain subset of the question of characters in narrative. I want to think about the ways in which characters in genre fiction tend to be, well, generic. Or rather, I want to think about why the best and most interesting characters we encounter in fiction are generic ones. The greatest, most memorable, and most enjoyable characters in English-language fiction (leaving aside Shakespeare for the time being) are almost certainly those of Charles Dickens. And Dickens has no interest at all in anything like interiority, or psychological depth, or Freudian unconscious complexes. Of course, these terms are all 20th-century (or at least late-19th-century) ones, so that their application to Dickens could only be anachronistic. But that’s not the crucial point. What I mean is that Dickens’ characters are, in a curious way, indexical. By this I mean that they are each defined by a single trait, or at most by a couple of traits. These traits tend to be exaggerated, even caricatural. And the characters flagrantly exhibit these traits each time we see them — it is almost as if they were machines programmed to exhibit the same tic over and over. Or else, as if they were maniacal exhibitionists, except that the exhibitionism is not felt by the characters themselves, it is only orchestrated by the author.

What I am trying to get at is that Dickens’ characters are, in a certain sense, not “psychological” at all — they are all outer display, not inner depth. And that, far from detracting from either their “realism” or how compelling they are to the reader, it is precisely on account of what I am calling their outwardness, and their indexicality, that they are both naturalistically plausible and emotionally compelling to us. In a curious way, this mode of presenting character is “truer to life” than any degree of introspection or stream-of-consciousness detail could ever possibly be.

Why is this? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it is because Dickens’ indexical style of character presentation is very close to the way that we actually encounter, get impressions of, and judge people in the real world. I’d even say that, not only do we (obviously) not know other people through introspection, but also we do not even know ourselves through introspection. Self-knowledge is the hardest type of knowledge to obtain. I lack the disinterest that would be required in order for me to see myself objectively. And when I do introspect, the more I strain to examine myself, the more blurry and confused I appear to myself, and the less I am able to apprehend myself in any well-delineated way at all. I am unable to objectify myself, to caricature myself, let alone to characterize myself. Introspective fiction, similarly, tends not to be about character at all. It blurs and dissolves character into something else: at best, perhaps into Language or Style, or sometimes Time, in the great modernist novels. (Leopold, Stephen, and Molly are functions of Joyce’s stupendous linguistic inventiveness, rather than the reverse; Proust’s narrator is so profoundly introspective, so drawn into the flows of duration and memory that he scarcely exists as a “character” at all).

When characters are indexical, as they are in Dickens — and as they also are, for example, in classical Hollywood movies, i.e. those from approximately 1930-1960) — they have the odd quality of being both generic and singular. Generic, in the sense that they are all recognizable types. Singular, in that each one has some sort of unique inflection, something that is wholly idiosyncratic. What’s left out is everything in between these two poles: the individualizing characteristics that are less than generic, but more than the mere idiosyncrasies or tics that enable instant recognition.

Here, I am thinking in part of Thomas Wall‘s wonderful discussion of “character actors” in old Hollywood movies:

Character actors are absolutely familiar to us but they never possess “star quality”… [They] never work hard to disguise themselves or to dissolve into a role as in “method” acting. To the contrary, they play their various roles in much the same way, film after film, decade after decade. They are actors who become so familiar because their reality is entirely made up of their various roles such that their mannerisms, habits, looks, vocal tonalities, and gestures all become characteristic and as familiar as the actors themselves remain unfamiliar to us… They always play “types” and they are nothing apart from the types they play… We know them only as images and we see them only as images, that is, as allegories of themselves. Each role is another allegory.

These marvelous actors are therefore singularities… [They] are completely absorbed into the celluloid, the stock, the stereotypes they play so perfectly. They are “types” and they have assumed themselves as such. The character actor cannot be identified with any particular role but neither do they evoke nor express anything other than the role. They have a pure relation to cinema.

Wall describes these character actors as being at the same time “types,” or purely generic, and “singularities” — by which Wall means something like individual instances that can serve as “examples” of some generic quality, but that have no content to them aside from being, in this way, exemplary. A certain character actor cannot be equated with Cowardice or Drunkenness overall — for he is only an individual instance (or instantiation) of one of these generic qualities. He is certainly not the quality in general. This is what makes him singular. But at the same time he is nothing other than a coward or a drunkard — this entirely defines his being. Walter Brennan is never anything more than the Western hero’s old geezer sidekick. Donald Meek is never anything more than the “timid, worrisome, reticent, cowering” figure he plays so often.

Wall is describing Hollywood character actors in explicit contrast to movie stars. Yet I would claim that, in classic Hollywood at least, the stars can also be characterized by this strange combination of the wholly generic and the wholly singular, with nothing in between. Of course, as Wall points out, we recognize the big stars by name, which is not the case with the character actors. But “John Wayne,” “Cary Grant,” and “Katherine Hepburn” are in fact as much generic figures as the character actors are. It is just that the “types” they embody are themselves. You can’t imagine John Wayne playing Hamlet, because whatever role he plays, he is always John Wayne. In each of his roles, Wayne is a singular instance of John-Wayne-ness, nothing more and nothing less. In some of his roles, he is unabashedly heroic, while in others he may even deconstruct his own heroicness (e.g. The Searchers). But even though he is the only instance of the generic type that he embodies, he still appears always, and only, as a singular example of that type.

The telling contrast, I think, is not between character actors and stars, but between the actors of classical Hollywood (significantly, Wall names Thelma Ritter, Elisha Cook Jr., and Thelma Ritter) and those who belong to more recent times, from the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s to today. Today, for the most part, characters are supposed to be specified — they are all supposed to have “plausible” backstories and motivations. This is partly due to the ubiquity of Method Acting (Wall emphasizes how the generic/singular nature of character actors is incompatible with anything like the Method), and partly due to the way screenwriting conventions have changed, or screenwriting has become “rationalized” (this is due in part to screenwriting classes). The idea is that everything in the narrative — every detail, everything about a character — has to be “motivated,” assigned a plausible rationale. The generic is scorned as being cliche — which leads, in fact, to the much worse cliche that everything has its own particular reason for being, incomparable with anything else. In America today, each of us has his or her own “individuality” — and this is precisely the way in which we are all exactly alike, all atomized consumers with our own bundle of “preferences.” The generic and the singular are both repressed, in favor of the in-between ground of busy particularity.

The result of imposing motivation and backstories on everything is that the film’s characters lose their generic quality — and by that fact, they lose their singularity as well. Today’s character actors are completely interchangeable, in a way that Walter Brennan, Donald Meek, Thelma Ritter, etc., were not. They are interchangeable precisely because they are not typecast, but are rather each crafted as an “individual.” The trouble with such “individuals” is that they are not singular; the fact that each of them has his or her individual differences is precisely the characteristic by which they are all the same. And I think this is true of stars as well. Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert Downey Jr. are both totally brilliant actors whose performances I greatly admire. But they aren’t iconic in the way that John Wayne, James Stewart, and Cary Grant were; and this is because they are somehow too immersed in their particular roles, which vary from film to film.

[There are some exceptions to this, of course. The two Toms — Hanks and Cruise — are much more in the tradition of old-style Hollywood iconicity; but I can’t help it, they both seem to me to be completely lame when compared to Stewart or Grant. It may also be that the generic/singular formation can be revived, if not by individual contemporary actors, then by the pairing of such actors, as with the Ed Norton/Brad Pitt doublet of Fight Club. — Also, my old friend Philip Wohlstetter once suggested to me, rightly I think, that part of the brilliance of Titanic was precisely that it had dispensed with post-Method motivation, and gone back to the old Hollywood style of generic typecasting.]

To turn to another type of narrative — science fiction novels — you can see the same sort of contrast if you compare a novel by Philip K Dick to one by a contemporary hard-SF writer like Greg Bear. Nobody praises Dick for his delineation of character; yet part of what makes Dick’s novels so poignant is precisely that his metaphysical and socio-commodified predicaments, and paranoid dislocations, are always experienced by everyman, ordinary-Joe-who-just-wants-to-get-by characters. Joe Chip in Ubik is entirely generic/singular in the ways I have been describing; he has no “depth”. But isn’t this precisely why we feel so drawn in by his struggles, whether he is being shaken down by his refrigerator for a ten cent payment, or struggling for his life-after-death against a spirit of entropy and decay?

On the other hand, I just finished reading Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Radio, which is very interesting from an ideas point of view (it imagines a form of directed evolution, in which an endogenous retrovirus emerges from its thousands of years of sleep as “junk DNA” in the human genome, in order to orchestrate a new speciation, or at least subspeciation, of humanity). But I am really irritated by the way Bear introduces characters. Each one is givien a specification when first introduced. For example, chosen entirely at random: “A middle-aged Republic Security officer with the formidable name of Vakhtang Chikurishvili, handsome in a burly way, with heavy shoulders and a thick, often-broken nose, stepped forward.” No matter that we only meet this character for an instant on page 20, and never again in the course of a 524-page novel; we have to be given some “hook” that will de-genericize him, that will give him a certain “plausibility” as a character. The result is that all the characters of Darwin’s Radio get muddled, precisely because of the way that we have been given details to distinguish them. We know a lot more about the novel’s protagonists, Kaye Lang and Mitch Rafelson, than we ever do about Joe Chip; but we never care about them anywhere near as much as we do about Dick’s hero. And this is precisely because, like contemporary Hollywood actors and characters, they lack the generic dimension, and lack singularity as well, falling in between, so that their very plausibility turns them into stick figures without any deeper resonance.

I don’t mean to single out Bear for special censure; he is, in fact, one of the more interesting SF writers at work today. But, although I value SF very largely for its ideas, for the ways it tries to think through the hints of futurity that have already arrived in our present, and to negotiate the tricky shoals of the meeting between technology and socio-political actuality — I also like it because (in contrast to Bear’s technique, which is closer to mainstream fiction) it is one of the places where the generic-singular mode of character presentation is still viable. The same is true, and perhaps even more so, for comics — the medium of comics, with its tendency towards iconic images rather than fully naturalistic ones (as Scott McCloud notes), and with its linguistic compression (for reasons of space alone, text has to be brief and pointed, resonant and charged, rather than over-specific), almost requires the kind of iconic, generic/singular approach to character that I have been discussing.

Which is why, for instance, I am so looking forward to Matt Fraction’s forthcoming run with Invincible Iron Man, in which we are promised an epic battle between Tony Stark’s corporate fascism and the “post-national…open source ideological terrorism” of “bad guy” Zeke Stane.

Beth Coleman

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Hello Avatar

The DeRoy Lecture Series 2007-2008
and
The Digital Humanities Working Group

present

Beth Coleman
“Hello Avatar!: Virtual Communities and Networked Subjects”
Friday, April 18, 12 noon
English Dept seminar room, 10302 5057 Woodward, Detroit, MI

Dr. Beth Coleman is a professor in Writing and Humanistic Studies and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Her research interests include virtual world design and use, networked subjectivity, global media emergence and practice in China, India and Africa, contemporary art and technology, and critical history of race and technology. For excerpts from her forthcoming book, Hello Avatar: A Virtual World Primer and other publications, see her website. She blogs on emergent media practices at Project Good Luck.

Shriek

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

“We shouldn’t become accustomed to anything anymore. We are beginning to live in our own future, and it should feel strange” (p. 309). Jeff VanderMeer‘s Shriek: An Afterword is a lovely rendition of the world’s — which is to say, the future’s — strangeness, and of the ways that people strive either to come to terms with it, or to evade and deny it — and of how people get affected by it, in unforeseen and often unpleasant ways, regardless of their attempts either to embrace it or escape it. VanderMeer’s work, like that of China Mieville and K J Bishop, can be classified under the rubric of the New Weird — although that appellation doesn’t get us very far, since at this point it signifies little more than “fantasy” writing (in contrast to “science fiction” proper), but fantasy that takes its moorings not from Tolkien and similar psuedo-medievalism, but rather from such exemplars as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, and M. John Harrison’s Viriconium series. It’s fantasy fiction (with elements of horror) that is dark, baroque, and deeply ambiguous — rather than engaging in Joseph-Campbell-esque Quests or staging the struggle of Good against Evil.

In Shriek, the city of Ambergris is overrun by fungus. Mushrooms and other fungi grow everywhere, insinuating themselves into every nook and cranny. Spores float through the air, depositing themselves everywhere. Everything in the city is dankness and rot, which the fungi convert into new, monstrously throbbing, life. There are psychedelic mushrooms, mushrooms in all colors, poisonous mushrooms, “mushroom bombs” which can rot your body from within in a matter of seconds, and even tiny fungi that function like bugs (surveillance devices, not insects), transmitting sound and vision to distant locations. The fungi seem to have some sort of symbiotic relationship with the Grey Caps, the sentient aboriginal inhabitants of the region, whom the human founders of Ambergris slaughtered and drove underground. But the Grey Caps subsist underground with their fungi, in a vast labyrinth of caves and tunnels, waiting for opportunities to re-emerge and take their revenge…

The narrative voices of Shriek try to come to terms with this madness. The novel presents itself as a memoir written by one Janice Shriek, formerly famous but now fallen upon hard times, about her life and especially that of her brother, Duncan Shriek, once a famous historian but long since relegated to the crackpot lunatic fringe, because the inhabitants of Ambergris are willfully deaf to his warnings about the powers of mushrooms and the threat of the Grey Caps. Janice writes her book as an “afterward” to Duncan’s historical book (which has only been published in mutilated form, and which, for the most part, we never get to see). But Duncan has added his marginal annotations and corrections to Janice’s account, which is then presented to us as edited by a third party, after Janice and Duncan have both disappeared. The novel’s narrative indirection, and cacaphony of voices, are well suited to a tale about “underground” matters — the cryptic codes and incomprehensible motivations of the Grey Caps, the oblique proliferation of the fungi — that cannot be viewed head-on or brought to light.

There is no lack of “human” content to this novel: the difficult relations of brother and sister, and the ways they both embark on self-destructive spirals; Duncan’s obsessive relationship with a woman, Mary Sabon, who betrays and destroys him; the experience of trying to survive the horrors of civil war; the experience of growing old; the rich and decadent roles of art and religion in Ambergris; the torment of trying to tell unpleasant truths to people who will do anything in order to avoid recognizing them. All this makes up the foreground of the novel.

But ultimately, this foreground is swallowed up by the novel’s fungal background, which is inhuman, and therefore difficult of comprehension. Duncan’s genius, and his torment, is a consequence of his journeys underground, his strange commerce (if you can call it that) with the fungi and the Grey Caps. He starts out trying to study them objectively, as an historian, to find out their experiences, and consequently to evaluate the reality, and the severity, of their threat. But he cannot “study” them without being transformed by them, without to a certain extent becoming them. He experiences a strange becoming-mushroom, his body colonized and metamorphosed by strange fungal growths, his mind fractured and multiplied so that he himself speaks in many, not necessarily conciliable voices (see p 303). His transformations are deeply disturbing; but the novel continually suggests that such transformations are the only alternative to the extinction otherwise threatening Ambergris. If you don’t allow yourself to be transformed by the encounter with this otherness, this alienness, this fungal proliferation, then the only alternative is to be broken and destroyed by it. Two refrains haunt the novel, repeated throughout its length like leitmotives. One is: there’s no way out, you are going to die. The other is, enigmatically, “there may be a way” (see p. 325). The latter is not a promise of immortality or transcendence; it is rather a giving way, a giving in to metamorphosis, a becoming (not superhuman, but) less-than-human or inhuman. (Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, and current “transhumanist” projects, are comforting, even self-congratulatory, myths: they pretend that a becoming-other, a becoming-inhuman, really means staying the way we are, only better. VanderMeer allows us, or forces us, to see beyond these puerile fantasies; this is one of the many virtues of his book).

Biologists tell us that fungi are neither animals nor plants; they constitute a separate kingdom of life. They stand outside our customary plant/animal binary. They can reproduce both sexually and asexually; but their sexual reproduction involves multiple sexes, rather than the polarized two that we tend to take for granted. They can survive for long periods as spores, suddenly bursting into life when conditions are favorable; since they are not photosynthetic, they come in an array of strange colors unlike the green of plants. For all these reasons, they are uncanny. Shriek is fantasy/horror, rather than science fiction; but it taps into this uncanniness, explores some of its many odd shapes, and creates a powerful fable of what I can only call the materiality of metamorphosis. By this I mean that metamorphosis is not shorn of wonder, but that is rather stripped of its superhuman pretensions, whether these be “rational” or “mythical” ones. If the 20th century was a time of both mystification (in the fascist exaltation of myth) and demystification (in the humanist exploration of the powers and limits of rationalization), then VanderMeer’s 21st century text refuses both of these gestures. It opposes both the exaltation of myth and unreason, and the exaltation of rationality and demystification. It opposes both Jung and Freud, both myth and science, both the Dionysian and the Apollonian. It gives us, not an ethics of existence, but an aesthetics. While I was reading Shriek, it infiltrated my dreams, something that novels almost never do to me. I would wake up with vague premonitions of fungal extrusions and excresences.

Boarding Gate

Saturday, April 5th, 2008

I was mesmerized by Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), a delirious thriller about sex and lust and murder, money and business, and the international flows of capital. Boarding Gate is stylistically and thematically reminiscent, at least to a certain extent, of Assayas’ earlier film Demonlover (2002); but the new film is (how shall I put it?) more existential, and more embodied. Where Demonlover envisioned the postmodern world as an enormous pornographic videogame, with proliferating fractal levels and self-reflexive loops, and ultimately imprisonment and bondage, Boarding Gate rather presents the world of global capital as a place of lateral connections. Passion is inextricable from the cold calculation of business deals. Everything seems to be interchangeable, or at least exchangeable: sex, money, drugs, clothing and other bulk consumer goods. Everything flows through the conduits of international air travel, electronic transfers, mobile phone calls, and shipping in cargo containers. Everything is a potential medium of exchange, a mode of payment for something else. Everything is regulated by contracts: import-export contracts, murder contracts, prostitution contracts, and BDSM contracts. Boarding Gate presents prostitution, drug distribution, and murder for hire as the quintessential examples of the “affective labor” that makes up the distinctive and dominant part of contemporary “cognitive capitalism”. This is not to deny the continuing production and distribution of physical goods; the gangsters and power brokers of Boarding Gate are involved in all sorts of shady financial manipulations, often enforced at gunpoint, but they also run factories in China that manufacture clothes cheaply for transformation into expensive “designer label” goods in the West.

Assayas gives us a sensuous, almost tactile, sense of this world of total abstraction and ubiquitous commodification. Everything is shot in what J. Hoberman, who doesn’t get the film as all, calls a “jagged yet posh faux-vérité style” (this is an accurate description, as far as it goes, but needs to be understood more positively than Hoberman intended). The film is set in Paris and Hong Kong (and in airplanes flying from one city to the other, and cabs and limos moving down the streets and highways of both cities). It is spoken mostly in English, but with scenes and conversations in French and in Cantonese (untranslated by subtitles, at least in the print I saw) as well. It moves between luxurious condos and busy shipyards, between expensive nightclubs and crowded streets, between airplane latrines and rooms filled with computing equipment. The camera floats hypnotically through these spaces, which always seem tangibly luscious, and yet oddly distanced at the same time. It’s like being at an extremely upscale mall, where everything is beautifully arranged, and almost crying out for sensuous contact and absorption — but at the same time, it is basically a spectacular display, rather than something you can actually use or interact with. There are few still shots; the camera is always moving, zooming in, or panning laterally, horizontally. Sometimes the camera circles back on itself, or restlessly turns left and right. Nearly everything appears in shallow focus; and rack focus shifts are frequent (often used for dialogue instead of shot/reverse shot). There are always blurry planes before or behind whatever layer the camera is focused clearly upon. Everything seems to come in layers: glass, machinery, moving crowds. We see layers through the blurs or transparency of other layers. Everything is immaculate: even blood pooling on the floor after a murder, even the toilets in which the protagonist pukes after witnessing (or actively participating in) such violence. The decor, and the camerawork that presents it to us, are not exactly numbing, even if they are distanced: there is always a sense of cold fever, of icy delirium — epitomized by, but not restricted to, the ritzy Hong Kong nightclub with dazzling disco lights, where somebody is equally likely to thrust a karaoke microphone upon you or to spike your drink.

The plot of Boarding Gate is generic or genre-specific: the genre in question being what’s best described as the slick Eurotrash thriller, with equal parts glamour and sleaze, paranoia and crass calculation. (Think of La femme Nikita, for instance). But in Assayas’ treatment, the genre has been pulverized and twisted and made to go awry. Partly this is a matter of a certain obliqueness and opacity — the genre as a whole emphasizes thrills and surfaces over plot logic and narrative closure, but Assayas gives us so little information that connecting the dots isn’t even the point anymore (though the reappearance at the very end of the film of a character who was previously seen only at the very beginning gives the viewer, if not the protagonist, a sense of what was at stake, and of the overall shape of the presumed conspiracy that drove most of the plot events). But none of that explains the movie’s “moments of delirium,” like when “Kim Gordon… shows up, barking orders in Cantonese” (to cite Manohla Dargis’ lovely review of the film). Boarding Gate has its share of shootouts and tense escape/chase moments; but it also has 10-minute-long dialogue scenes in which ex-lovers argue about the nature of their now-dead relationship. The fragmentation, the irresolution, the continual switching back and forth between moments or sequences that are plot-driven, and ones that are instead purely affect-driven, the insistence that genre conventions and expectations can neither be transcended and escaped, nor fulfilled: all these features of Boarding Gate reflect — or better, work towards, and help to construct the vision of — a world that is too complex and far-flung to be totalized on the level of any grand narrative (paranoid/conspiratorial or otherwise), and at the same time too intricately interconnected to be treated atomistically.

In Boarding Gate, the question is never, “what is actually going on?”, for this is unanswerable (the world of financial flows is intrinsically unrepresentable, as Fredric Jameson already pointed out more than 25 years ago). Rather, the question is, “what is going to happen to me now?” and “what can I do about it?” With the added conditions that these questions can only be asked in the very short term — “what will happen to me in the next week, in the next day, in the next five minutes?” — and that one’s power to “negotiate” the circumstances are extremely limited, because of the limitations on what one can know, the effects of things that one absolutely cannot foresee or control, and the fact that one’s very identity is inseparable from the complex regulative and bureaucratic arrangements generated by the “society of control” (credit cards, mobile phones, passports, etc. — all of which are needed in order for one to have an “identity” at all, but which allow one to be tracked and kept under surveillance).

The problem with what I have said so far is that I have used the impersonal form of “one”; when in Boarding Gate this “one” is a particular, indeed a singular, figure: the film’s protagonist, Sandra, played by the (as always) incredible Asia Argento. (Argento’s position in Boarding Gate is somewhat similar to that of Maggie Cheung in several of Assayas’ earlier movies, notably Irma Vep; but Argento is just as sexy as Cheung, plus ferocious in a way that Cheung could never be.). Argento is dynamic and dangerous: embodying some ultimate hetero-male fantasy of the femme fatale, yet at the same time mocking this role, and the whole fantasy surrounding it, with a deep, who-gives-a-fuck irony. It has something to do with her perpetual pout, and with the way she casually tosses off her lines, as if relegating them to some other plane of existence with which she is basically unconcerned. She does this even when the lines in question are expressing doubt, passion, or pathos, and when her body language reinforces these affects.

As played by Argento, Sandra is both a stoic and an existentialist (oxymoronic as this combination might appear). She combines a ferocious determination (both to survive, and to insist on her own way, even when this is incompatible with the goal of survival) with a clear-eyed, unromantic ability to grasp things in their painful, unadorned actuality, entirely divorced from any sort of fantasy wish-fulfillment, and to accept this fatal unrelentingness. Sandra is the center of the film, its governing point of view, precisely because such a character is the only sort of “center” that can exist at all in a world so thoroughly decentered, so complex and tortuous, and so utterly devoid of empathy, that no sort of “omniscent narration” is possible or even thinkable.

Sandra is both subject and object — as is inevitable (for anybody, but especially and all the more for women) in a world as commodified and instrumentalized as ours is. She is a subject — which is to say an economic subject, or a player — precisely to the extent that she is able to “invest” her “capital,” which is her body, and the mind inhabiting that body, and the actions of which they are capable. We learn that, in the backstory, Sandra has earned her keep from her businessman lover Miles (Michael Madsen) by fucking his clients and reporting back to him both on what they did in bed and what information the client might have inadvertently revealed. It is unclear whether the information thus gleaned was really of any value — but the process clearly turned on both Sandra and Miles — an excitement for which he paid her well. Prostitution may be the “oldest profession,” but it is also the very basis of what we now, in the “new economy,” refer to as “affective labor” or “cognitive” labor. (In describing this whole process as an investment of “human capital,” I am thinking here, in part, of Michel Foucault’s lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics (not yet available in English, though the translation is supposed to be published within the month), where he outlines how neoliberalism has effaced the very conception of “labor” — and all the more of “exploitation” — by characterizing every human being as an atomized individual who possesses a certain “human capital” and whose livelihood is dependent upon the economic “investment” of this capital).

The way that Sandra is thus compelled to be a rational, Homo economicus, utility-maximizing and self-investing subject is precisely why she is also an object, a commodity. For she herself is very much a part of the round of exchanges which characterizes the sleazy economy depicted in the movie (and which we experience daily, in our “real” everyday lives). By this I mean that she makes her living through her body, her sexuality — as women are so often compelled to do. But I also mean that she always, inescapably, physically feels and registers the (often highly abstract and unrepresentable) exchanges that make up the texture and substance of globalized capitalism. This is even the case when she is clearly playing a role (whether lying in order to survive, or playing s&m games for pleasure or profit). We see and hear Sandra/Argento in the depths of orgasm, getting the shakes, puking in a disco toilet, pulling the trigger of the gun again and again in the course of a contract murder set up under the pretense of a little BDSM, trying to fight the effects of a sleeping potion or a date-rape drug that was slipped into her drink, trying to sleep in her seat during a long transcontinental flight, trying to determine whether she still loves her sleazebag ex-lover or only lusts after him, and so on.

Sandra/Argento registers in her body everything that happens to her and around her; and she also acts, violently and determinedly, to the limited extent she is able, to alter the seeming destiny in which she finds herself inexorably inscribed. But these two dimensions do not fit together in any neat or even simply coherent way. (In terms of Deleuze’s film theory, the sensori-motor links of the “movement-image” are definitively broken; we are left with a time-image in which what is suffered or felt cannot be transformed to or discharged in action; and where what is enacted is discordant from, and has no representational correspondence to, the situations in which that action is embedded and to which it cannot appropriately respond. But Assayas’ time-image is predominantly, and indeed overwhelmingly, a capital-image: a possibility that Deleuze only mentions briefly, in passing, and that it has fallen to Jonathan Beller to develop with an ampler theoretical breadth).

Boarding Gate is at once an affectively charged film, and a coldly conceptualized, or intellectualized one. This reflects the way that the society of cognitive capitalism and “immaterial labor” (Hardt/Negri) which it depicts or reflects is itself one that continually transforms affect into currency (and vice versa). At every point in the film, we are thrown back onto passion. But this passion is inseparable from financial calculation and business management. Sandra taunts an ex-lover, before murdering him, by citing an article in an online business publication that detailed and ridiculed his failed financial transactions, and called him “the perfect cliché of bygone times.” Sandra uses this appellation so that it applies to his erotic life as well — he always gets harder, she says, from planning an erotic or business move (the two being inseparable) than from actually carrying it out. The film traces a closed circuit in which singular feelings are differentially valued by being translated into their monetized “universal equivalent”; and where flows of money and capital, in turn, are registered in Sandra/Argento’s embodied subjectivity as incomparable fluxes of affect.

The film ends as Sandra apparently decides not to murder her other ex-lover, the one who has cajoled and manipulated her into disrupting and destroying her own life to such an extent that her only escape is to “disappear” into an entirely new (manufactured) identity (false name, false nationality, false passport, transplantation to an entirely other part of the world — unless this is the cover for yet another betrayal). He has roundly betrayed her, in the pursuit of his own financial transactions; but she still loves him enough, or lusts after him enough, or remembers the sex with him fondly enough (we can’t really tell which) that she finds herself simply walking away (rather than going after him with a knife). I don’t think that this represents a lapse in Sandra/Argento’s otherwise awesome ferocity and determination; it’s rather a fateful decision, and a stubborn insistence, that the reign of universal equivalence has to stop, that something needs to remain incommensurable, non-negotiable, unexchangeable. At this moment, the very end of the film, the screen becomes unreadable: the camera goes from shallow focus to an out-of-focus blur.