Archive for June, 2010

“I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people”

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010
Bret Easton Ellis’ latest novel, Imperial Bedrooms, is his first book since Lunar Park in 2005; and it is a sequel of sorts to Ellis’ very first novel, Less Than Zero, which made him famous or notorious upon its publication in 1985, when he was just 21. The new novel is retrospective; it looks at the characters from Less Than Zero twenty-five years later, when they have gone from being spoiled, bored, and passive college-age kids to middle-aged people of power and influence in Hollywood. Imperial Bedrooms is also an exercise in what can only be called Hollywood Noir; it’s rooted in this genre, and reflects back upon it, in the same way that Lunar Park was rooted in and reflected back upon the John Cheever-style suburban anomie novel and the Stephen King-style horror novel.

Imperial Bedrooms begins with the narrator Clay (who was also the narrator of Less Than Zero) complaining about the way “the author” of Less Than Zero played with his feelings and violated his privacy. While conceding that the earlier book “for the most part was an accurate portrayal… there was nothing in it that hadn’t happened” (3), Clay nonetheless portrays “the writer” of the earlier book as very nearly a stalker, and certainly an exploiter: “he was simply someone who floated through our lives and didn’t seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone or that he’d shared our secret failures with the world” (4-5). From this, Clay goes on to dissect the film that was made from Less Than Zero, and which notoriously turned the novel into a feel-good tale of Hollywood redemption. Clay makes much of the way the movie transformed him from a passive, continually high, and bored observer into “the movie’s moral compass, spouting AA jargon, castigating everyone’s drug use” (7). In the movie, Clay tries desperately to rescue his former best friend Julian, who is falling into an abyss. In actuality, though (i.e. in the original book), Clay had just watched passively, without lifting a finger, as Julian drifted into prostitution, heroin addiction, and general self-abasement. Julian dies in the movie “while a choir soared over the sound track” (9), because being “punished for all of his sins” is “what the movie demanded,” indeed “what all movies demanded” (8). But this, of course, does not happen in the novel Less Than Zero, or in the actuality that Clay is describing for us in Imperial Bedrooms. Rather, “the real Julian Wells was murdered over twenty years later” — in the course of Imperial Bedrooms, as we will eventually learn — “his body dumped behind an abandoned apartment building in Los Feliz after he had been tortured to death at another location” (9).

In these opening pages, we get the same sorts of impossible displacements, and metafictional arabesques, that were major elements of American Psycho and Glamorama, and that also fueled the opening chapter of Lunar Park, with its scathing and hilarious dissection of the life and literary career of “Bret Easton Ellis.” However, after these opening pages, the novel at least seems to play things pretty much straight. Once he’s established his point in the opening pages, Ellis no longer calls attention to the metafictional games and multiple media references — not because he has returned to some prior or more solid sense of “reality,” but precisely because the ubiquity of the mediasphere, the remediation and premediation of everything, and the indistinguishability of so-called “real life” from the movies (at the very same time that movies are ideological lies about the actualities they depict) are now so banally self-evident that they no longer need to be highlighted or called attention to; they are simply part of the book’s (and of our lives’) taken-for-granted background.

Or to put this same point a bit differently: the movies are always already being referenced at every point in Imperial Bedrooms, because all the characters are either directly involved in the movie business, or circle in its wider orbit. Clay, the narrator, is a successful screenwriter; at the start of the book he returns to L.A. in order to be involved in the casting of his latest film, and his social life seems to revolve entirely around industry parties and meetings at swank restaurants. Clay is also a person who seems determined to script his entire life as if it were a movie; though this becomes something of a joke in the course of the book — he isn’t really powerful, since he is just a screenwriter, not a director or a producer (e.g., 156). At the very beginning of the novel, Clay describes Julian’s actual (as opposed to cinematic) fate as follows: “I had put Julian there, and I’d seen what had happened to him in another — and very different — movie” (10); and then, on the very last page of the novel, he refers to “the fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes” of his own life (169).

I could go on analyzing the novel’s phrases closely, as I have done so far, because Ellis writes in a minimalist style in which every line seems to be a throwaway — and yet these seemingly casual and commonplace phrases are dense with portent and meaning. But I need to step back and (in the book’s own metaphoric style) view the book from a greater distance, with a long shot. Ellis’ books always have unreliable narrators of one sort or another; but in Imperial Bedrooms, it seems to me, Clay is unreliable in a new way. He isn’t factually unreliable, but emotionally unreliable. He doesn’t really tell us, or let us infer, how he feels about things. It’s not that he is being deliberately deceptive, so much as that he himself doesn’t know. He’s opaque to himself, and the movies are the screen through and upon which this opacity is played out. You might say, in psychoanalytic terms, that Clay fails to apprehend himself not because something is repressed, but because he seems not to have an “unconscious” at all. There are no depths; there is nothing there for the reader (viewer?) to work out, no way for us to understand Clay in a way that he doesn’t understand himself. Indeed, his motiveless behavior seems more or less clear to the other characters in the novel, who are always telling him, in exasperation at his latest irritating moves, that “you have a history of this, don’t you?” (87), or “what you really want to be doesn’t exist” (121), or “you’ve done this so many times before” (151). Nothing can be revealed, because nothing is hidden in the first place. Clay is almost a parody of the calculative rationality — which of course is anything but rational — that neoliberalism presumes to be paradigmatic of the individual.

As for what it is that Clay does over and over: well, basically, he is a serial sexual abuser and near- (or maybe even flat-out) rapist. What happens in the course of the novel — and what has happened, we are told, many times before — is that Clay, a man in his forties, gets twenty-something women (would-be actresses) to fuck him, in return for his (supposedly) getting them roles in his movies. There’s no naivete about this, on either side. The women are playing the game, in full awareness, as much as he is — albeit a game that is rigged in favor of middle-aged, sexually predatory men, and against the young women who enter into it. For in fact, Clay never delivers on his promises. As the women start sensing this, and seek to withdraw from him, he becomes more brutal and sexually abusive. The relationship is so crass and cynical, that it isn’t even disguised as something nicer. It happens something like half a dozen times in the course of Imperial Bedroom’s brief 167 pages: Rain Turner (the beautiful but incompetent actress who seems to be the object of desire, not just for Clay, but for all the heterosexual men in the novel) says she doesn’t want to have sex, or prepares to leave Clay’s apartment, and Clay gives her an ultimatum: do what I want, now, or I will call up and cancel your audition for the part you want so badly in my new movie. And in fact, “this is the way I always wanted the scene to play out and then it does and it has to because it doesn’t really work for me unless it happens like this” (119).

In addition, whenever the woman in question leaves him, Clay goes into a tailspin of depression and rage and anxiety, as if he had been betrayed by somebody whom he deeply loved — despite the fact that the whole situation, up to and including the woman’s departure, is something that Clay himself has pretty much all scripted in advance. So what we get, in the course of Imperial Bedrooms, is a lot of hysteria and emotional turmoil, all the more disturbing for the fact that it is depicted so coldly and flatly, and that there is nothing whatsoever behind it. Al of this builds up gradually, so it takes a while for the reader to figure out that there really isn’t anything to figure out, and that what we see is what we get. At the start of the book, we are inclined to think that Clay is just passive and vapid, the way he was in Less Than Zero; it takes us a while to realize just how complete a psychopath he is.

I said that, in genre terms, Imperial Bedrooms is Hollywood Noir; in interviews, Ellis has mentioned Raymond Chandler as a particular influence, and Chandler provides one of the novel’s epigraphs: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” Another one of the novel’s accomplishments is that it both honors the genre’s conventions, and turns them inside out. There are all the trappings of a violent and sordid Hollywood mystery: a femme fatale (Rain Turner), a menacing gangster  type (Rip Millar, the drug dealer from Less Than Zero), intimations of conspiracies, people spying on Clay and sending him disturbing anonymous messages, etc. But the logic of noir gets inverted, as we gradually realize that Clay is neither solving a mystery, nor finding himself lured into crime, vice, and ruin. Rather, he is one of the perpetrators, one of the people who makes the mystery. He doesn’t commit a murder for money or for a woman — both of these are things that he already has easy access to. The femme fatale is essentially his victim, rather than the reverse. Even the massive betrayal that Clay commits at the end of the book is not a surprise, since he has already confessed to it in the opening pages.

There’s an incredible coldness in Imperial Ballrooms; and this is something that has to do with the background of comfort and power and privilege that the novel depicts: a comfort and power and privilege that all the rich white men in this novel have, and take entirely for granted. In this sense, the novel is not about the fictions that Hollywood produces, so much as it is about the people who produce them. Beneath the flatness and coldness, there’s a savagery about Hollywood here that rivals the great portrayals by Nathanael West (Day of the Locust) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon). It’s as if Ellis has updated these portrayals for the postmodern age, so distant from the classic Hollywood of West and Scott, and yet in basic continuity with it; and combined it with James Ellroy’s take on Hollywood’s sleazy underside. What Ellis adds to all of these, perhaps, is a sense of the everydayness of what, from another angle, might be seen as depravity. This is both because of the privileged status of his narrator, and that narrator’s friends and milieu, and also because of the way, as I said before, a total media immersion is taken for granted as one of the story’s premises.

Where Lunar Park ended on a note of at least potential hopefulness (the closest Ellis has ever come to suggesting even the glimmer of something like redemption), and where even Glamorama (still Ellis’ craziest novel, and the one most engaged with a broader social reality even though, or because, its narrative is entirely delirious) had a slight metaphorical suggestion of improvement in its final words, Imperial Bedrooms leaves us with an unrelieved chill. It’s intentionally narrow focus has a strongly intensifying effect. Where American Psycho (1991) totally nailed the ethos of the Reagan 80s, and Glamorama (1999) presciently divined the social maladies (terrorism and reality television) of the decade following it, Imperial Bedrooms glancingly suggests the psychological malaise (can we even call it “narcissism” any longer?) of a society in which capitalist realism survives, and continues to dominate, despite its utter loss of all credibility.

Splice

Saturday, June 12th, 2010
I can’t stop thinking about Vincenzo Natali’s new SF/horror film Splice. Although narratively straightforward, thematically and emotionally it is very rich, and I am not sure how much of it I was able to grasp in just one viewing. Kim has a great discussion of the film, to which my own discussion here is greatly indebted. As often happens, Splice seems to be one of those cases in which my own enthusiasm is not generally shared either by the critics or the fanboys. The movie seems not to have performed as well at the box office during its first weekend as the studio had hoped (it earned $7.4M, well below pre-weekend projections of $12M — figures from boxofficeguru.com). It’s also gotten fairly mixed reviews, at best. (For a representative sample of fan-based negative reactions, see the comments to Annalee Newitz’s largely favorable review). Interestingly, reviewers’ complaints mostly have to do with the movie’s ending; but where some critics dismiss the ending as a lapse into the most predictable and hoary genre cliches, others deplore it as being beyond the pale, absolutely reprehensible and unbearable. I find this split to be symptomatic of a certain confusion on the part of viewers and critics who remain anxious about whether genre pieces can truly be embraced as works of art. In fact, Splice never departs from being a genre film; but the way it twists genre conventions is powerful and original.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW, OBVIOUSLY]

Most obviously, Splice addresses our hopes and anxieties concerning the prospects of genetic engineering and transhumanism. It draws upon, yet also subtly undermines, both extremes of opinion regarding these issues. On the one hand, there are the utopian dreams of human self-transcendence, of tweaking our own genome in order to become stronger, smarter, and more than human. On the other hand, there are the cautionary moralisms warning us against transgressing limits, violating the natural order, and usurping the role of God. Though Splice can be understood as a cautionary tale, it finally puts no more credence in the latter of these opinions than it does in the former. Actually, the film is disillusioning, or deflationary, with regard to our sense that technological advances Change Everything, whether for the better or for the worse. The film suggests that both our hopes and our fears are greatly exaggerated; and that technocentrism ignores too much, both about social structures and about ourselves. Splice is (quite unusually, for speculative films today) anti-apocalyptic, although in a way that is grim rather than reassuring.

Splice has familiar genre coordinates. It reworks motifs from (among other obvious sources) Frankenstein, Eraserhead, and Cronenberg’s early biohorror films. But it reworks these motifs, by placing them in the context of today’s computerized and corporate-financed biotechnology. Even when the scientist works alone and in secrecy, she is entangled in social and economic circumstances that would have been unthinkable for the Victor Frankenstein either of Mary Shelley’s novel, or of James Whale’s films for Universal. It remains noteworthy, however, that the main characters in Splice take their names from the Universal films. Meet Elsa (played by Sarah Polley, and named after Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and The Bride in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein) and her partner Clive (played by Adrian Brody, and named after Colin Clive, who played Victor Frankenstein in both of Whale’s films). Elsa and Clive are science-superstar biochemists, with boho-hipster sensibilities and a rebellious streak. They live for their cutting-edge research, and don’t seem to have much in the way of lives outside it. Their home is not a lavish mansion, but a hip but grungy, run-down downtown loft. And they don’t have sex very often; they (and especially Elsa) are always too busy with work. Elsa and Clive are living, walking embodiments of a sort of nerd chic, that has become one of the myths of contemporary society (though the film works to make us skeptical as to what sort of work this myth actually does). Working in a lab provided for them by a Big Pharma company, Elsa and Clive splice genes to make hybrid organisms, whose use is to secrete marketable pharmeceuticals. But their real passion is not the meds (which is what the company has hired and bankrolled them for), but the thrill of creating new forms of life. They are always arguing with their corporate overlords, who want to see something profitable now; whereas they demand creative freedom in their research, which they unconvincingly claim will pay off for the company in the long run. We are given a familiar opposition — Creatives vs. The Man, or entrepreneurial initiative vs. corporate/bureaucratic fossilization — which will be thoroughly deconstructed in the course of the film.

Splice begins with a prosthetic childbirth scene, as Elsa and Clive “deliver” a new organism they have created. We see the whole process from the newborn creature’s own POV, as enters into the world, by being drawn out of the incubator, or artificial womb, in which it was first encased. It’s all very sticky and oozy, and the camera’s POV-from-the-birth-canal feels claustrophobic. (One might compare the POV here to the POV-from-inside-the-gas-tank-as-Gerard-Butler-pisses-into-it shot in Neveldine/Taylor’s Gamer). The creature given birth to in this way is a gross and enormous slug-like organism, looking to me like nothing so much as a gigantic turd (though others have seen it as phallic). This specimen, we are told, is a female; Elsa and Clive immediately plop it in a tank with a previously-created male of the same invented species, and the two proceed to copulate, or at least “imprint” on one another. (It is noteworthy that the film only imagines heterosexual attractions and relations. While it may well be that Natali simply fails to entertain other erotic possibilities, I think that — as will become more evident later — the film’s insistence upon a compuslory, and indeed compulsive, heterosexuality is actually a big part of its point).

The grotesquerie and messiness of the turd/phallic thingies contrasts with the generally sterile, high-tech look of the lab in which they are produced — all the scenes that take place here are shot in with an uninviting bluish glow. The lab continues to feel sterile even at crisis moments when tanks and test tubes get smashed, material falls off the shelves, etc. (One of the strongest resemblances between Splice and early Cronenberg has to do with its portrayal of the grim sterility of official corporate spaces and architectures). These genetically engineered organisms may be ugly, but they do indeed produce the chemicals that the Big Pharma bosses need. The problem is that Elsa and Clive are bored with the thought of merely taking the extraction process to its conclusion, by isolating the important proteins and maximizing their production. They want more; or more precisely, Elsa does, as she is both the true genius, and the active, enterprising one, of the pair. So, without the authorization or knowledge of the corporate bosses, and even in the face of laws that explicitly prohibit it, Elsa soon takes the next step, growing a transgenic organism that includes human DNA together with that of other organisms. She tells Clive that the DNA is from an unidentified “Jane Doe”; but he later figures out that it is in fact her own.

There is clearly something narcissistic and self-obsessed here; all the more so when we learn that Clive wants to have a child, but Elsa is reluctant. She’s the one who would have to become pregnant, after all. The film doesn’t judge this, and indeed suggests that Elsa is moved both by a legitimate worries about the gender inequality involved, and how this would interfere with her work and career, and by a kind of squeamishness about her own body, however down and dirty she is able to get with the animal bodies she creates. This is the aspect of the film that most directly references, and rewrites, Frankenstein. Instead of a man who seeks to create new life without feminine mediation, we get a woman who produces new life while replacing her womb with a technological prosthesis — a substitution that also allows her more complete control over which genetic material gets mixed with her own. (And indeed, it is arguable that the mixed species DNA that Elsa uses — evidently including fish, amphibian, reptile, and bird components, though it is hard to say whether any invertebrate material is also included — is far superior to any DNA that the rather creepy Clive could provide).

The gender switch makes for a very different sort of Prometheanism than Mary Shelley envisaged. Frankenstein revolves around issues of patriarchal fiat. It is also centered on Victor’s disgust at working with putrefying dead matter; since the monster is made by revivifying this dead matter, it is no wonder that the monster turns out to be an ugly and terrifying figure. It’s as if Victor’s moral failure is the consequence of a previous aesthetic failure or mistake. Victor sees everything maternal or feminine as a “filthy workshop of creation,” and this disgust spills over into his own prosthetic creation of life as well. Splice, however, “feminizes” this process, and gives us maternal relations between creator and monster instead of paternal ones. The movie has to do with questions of intimacy, continuity, and trust, instead of with ones of disgust. Abject, matter-based technologies are replaced by (relatively) cleaner computer-based ones, in which matter is not so much treated with horror, as it is distanced and made manipulable through being regarded as merely information or digital code. Elsa may not want to give birth physically, but the logic of her displacement of maternity into a computer-mediated process does not have the Manichean overtones one finds in Frankenstein. Splice seems to take for granted the affinities between constructions of femininity and technoculture. Infotech with its horizontal networks is far different from the older, hierarchical and patriarchal, structure of science and technology; though this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is “freer” or less oppressive.

Of course, Splice‘s focus upon a woman instead of a man as the “mad scientist” figure whose creations ultimately lead to catastrophe has been quite a point of contention. Some bloggers have seen the film in anti-feminist backlash terms, on the grounds that Elsa is punished by the narrative for being too uppity. But this seems to me to be wrong, and based in an overly literal-minded take on the film, not to mention regarding it as far more moralizing than it actually is. I am inclined to think that the film is on-target in the way that it suggests that a certain “feminization” is at work in our current digitally-based regime — without implying that this actually translates into actual equality for women. Most other films that approach this sort of territory — I am thinking of Cronenberg’s earlier films, but also of something like Fight Club — tend to see the development of prosthetic or virtual embodiment, and the leveling, horizontal tendencies of network culture, as leading to crises of masculine subjectivity. Splice seems to me to be refreshingly free of this sort of retro, conservative anxiety. It takes recent shifts in gender politics — especially as they relate to the workplace — for granted, without nostalgia for the good old days of male supremacy (cf. Mad Men), but also without imagining that this somehow means that gender equality has actually been achieved. — But all this is really a subject for another essay.

I should also note that the digitization of the flesh has deep consequences in the narrative of Splice. Gender itself is a binary — male/female — which means, in digital terms, that it can easily be flipped from one state to the other. The sudden transformation of a transgenic organism from female to male — something that actually happens in many species of fish — becomes a major plot point and thematic concern in Splice. One of the movie’s highlights is the comedic-horror scene where Elsa and Clive are demonstrating their success with the sluglike thingies to the stockholders, press, and public. They put the two beasties in the same tank; but instead of copulating as before, they fight to the death, smashing up everything in the process and raining blood and gore over the audience. It turns out that the female organism had flipped over to male, without Elsa and Clive noticing. And males, of course, must always be aggressive and fight one another. What’s significant here, I think, is the combination of utterly stereotyped norms (of what males and females supposedly always do, regardless of species) and the utter arbitrariness of their expression (one of the gender terms can flip over into the other, without motivation, just like that). As in all the other cases I mention, the juxtaposition of assumptions is so telling that I think that all this is not a flaw or limit to the film, but something that the film is itself quite self-conscious about.

After some experimentation, the transhuman splice is fertilized and then born — it bursts traumatically out of its sac or artificial womb, long before it should have been ready. This is the first of several traumatic ruptures in the course of the movie. One could easily regard this in Freudian/Lacanian terms; but I prefer to see it, more generally, as having to do with the lack of fit between information and embodiment, or between genotype (what is “written” in the DNA) and phenotype (the actual living body that is ostensibly “programmed” by that DNA). In general, I would want to argue that Freudian Nachträglichkeit and Lacanian “prematurity of birth” are themselves not primordial formations, but merely derivatives of the more general situation — not restricted to human beings — in which what determines, codes, or “preforms” a given body is never adequate to the full range of “what a body can do.” Here, Spinoza and Deleuze must come before Freud and Lacan. Elsa knows precisely how she has coded the new transhuman organism that she creates; but she still does not know, and cannot know in advance, how it will grow and change, how it will act, and what it will feel. As Natali puts it in a recent interview: Elsa and Clive “understand life in its chemical form, but they don’t really understand the essence of what life means, what life is. And that’s where things go wrong.”

In any case, the birth of the new entity isn’t premature, so much as it is a reflection of the fact that the very nature of this new entity involves a continual getting-ahead-of-itself. It has an alarming vitality, which translates into both an accelerated developmental span, and a progress through several larval forms, metamorphosing from one to the next in stages. The new entity apparently recycles some of the DNA from Elsa’s previous creations. Nonetheless, it — or rather, as we quickly learn, she — has a backbone, and isn’t a slug. We get a chimera that starts out very animalistic, but that becomes more human as she grows up. Elsa immediately adopts a stereotypically “maternal” attitude towards this new being. Clive wants to destroy the larva, but Elsa cuddles and encourages it/her, thereby winning its/her trust. There is a very peculiar and interesting thing going on here, and throughout the film: Natali thoroughly mixes together (or “confuses”) those sorts of attitudes, gestures, and behaviors that our ideology tells us are “natural,” with those which, being the immediate product of high technology, are manifestly “artificial.” The result is to destabilize our habitual binary between the two. Either the splice is herself just as “natural” as any other biological organism; or else Elsa’s supposedly “intuitive” maternal behavior is just as “artificial” as the genetically engineered organism. In our hyper-technologized world, and precisely because of all this technology rather than in spite of it, any nature/culture or natural/artificial distinction breaks down. This has the effect of undermining our currently hegemonic biological determinism (tracing all qualities and behaviors back to “the genes” or to DNA) as much as it does so-called “social constructionism.” The fact that we now how such extreme power in manipulating DNA does not mean that DNA determines everything — indeed, quite the contrary is the case.

As the splice grows up, Elsa eventually names her Dren, which is “nerd” spelled backwards — a kind of ironic self-reference, as Elsa sees Dren as an offshoot or rearrangement of herself. (The theme of rearrangement is emphasized by the way in which “nerd” is first spelled out in Scrabble ® tiles; “dren” is then the result of looking at these tiles upside down). Dren is hairless, but with a largely human face and upper body, bird-like legs that can be articulated in several directions and with claws for feet, a tail that ends with a stinger, and the ability to extrude and withdraw wings at will. I think that one of the brilliant aspects of the film is the way that it positions Dren in between the allure of the enticingly unfamiliar, and the frightfulness of the truly alien. When fully grown, Dren is played by Delphine Chanéac, whose digitally-altered body has been carefully tweaked by Natali to maximize a sense of “exotic” beauty and mystery, in a way that is just barely this side of a creepy “uncanny valley” effect. (I put “exotic” in scare quotes in order to call attention to the often racist/colonialist implications of the term; Chanéac is white, and French, but the makeup and digital effects alter her just enough to “other” her). This presentation allows the white male heterosexual viewer (if I am at all representative) to be suspended just at the precise point in between voyeuristic drooling lust on the one hand, and castration anxiety on the other. As I will soon explain, this is crucial within the diegesis itself, as well as outside it for the normative viewer.

As befits this “exotic” or alien portraiture, Dren remains largely inscrutable both to her creators and to us the viewers. We never get “inside” Dren’s mind anytime in the film. Some critics have seen this as a defect in the movie, but I think that it is poignant and effective. Her facial expressions do indeed communicate, at different points in the course of the film, such feelings as contentment, fear and dread, and anger. But none of this is ever made entirely concrete. Dren is highly intelligent. She evidently comes to understand human language; she clearly comprehends and responds to the English that Elsa and Clive speak to her. But she is apparently unable to speak; evidently Elsa failed to provide her with the genes that would have allowed for the development of human vocal cords — an omission that may well be symptomatic. For it guarantees Dren’s outsider status, and her subordination; she will always be enough of an animal that she cannot be regarded as superhuman.

Dren communicates, occasionally, by arranging Scrabble ® tiles into words. Elsa and Clive are thrilled when this happens, because it is sign of her high intelligence. But they don’t seem at all interested in the content of what she tries to tell them. They are too invested in studying her scientifically, in disciplining her properly, and in securing her from the risk of discovery. All too much in accord with contemporary scientific ideology, they are intrigued by Dren exclusively in cognitive terms. They don’t have any sense of her affectively; they don’t even know to look for her feelings, let alone to try to consider how they might work. This is all the more the case, in that Elsa’s and Clive’s own behavior is equally incomprehensible to themselves. Elsa and Clive, no less than Dren, are driven by affects that are out of their control or even of their awareness. They do not look at Dren’s affectivity, precisely because they are unable to comprehend even their own affectivity. And this is not just a personal failing of theirs; it is a symptomatic consequence of the cognitivist assumptions of the contemporary biological and behavioral sciences in general.

The import of all this is that Dren’s inability to speak is itself an expression of her existential situation. She cannot speak, in effect, because she cannot help feeling like an alien or an Other even to herself. (Clearly we need to reject the Lacanian assumption that it is somehow language which “alienates” us as subjects; this assumption rests on the unjustified anthropocentric belief that non-human or non-linguistic beings are somehow simply “natural,” simply immediate, simply at one with the world, unaware of mortality, etc. Dren is alienated by the way that she only has a partial and oblique relation to language; this relates to what I said above about trauma and prematurity not being exclusively human experiences or attributes). Dren is brought up in isolation, she is effectively abused, and there is no other being who is anything like her. When she spells out the word TEDIOUS in Scrabble ® tiles, in order to complain of her boredom and frustration at being locked up alone and not allowed even to go outside, Elsa and Clive respond simply by dismissing her complaint; doesn’t she know that they cannot risk letting her outside, since nobody must know of her existence?

Most of the movie is taken up with Elsa’s “mothering” of Dren, with Clive as the somewhat distant father figure. And this is where any prejudice that “mothering” might be “natural,” or inherently “feminine,” or inherently hardwired in Elsa’s, or any woman’s, genes, definitively breaks down. For Elsa engages in a kind of arbitrary, schizophrenic parenting style that would be enough to drive any child crazy, let alone one as “gifted” and “different” as Dren. At one moment, Elsa is exceedingly warm towards Dren, drawing her out of her scared shell and winning her trust; and then at the next moment she is overly severe in her disciplining of Dren, on the basis of distinctions between permitted and forbidden behavior that Dren clearly cannot understand (and that no child or teenager would ever be able to understand). For instance, Dren at one point adopts a stray cat, as a compensation for her boredom and loneliness. But Elsa takes the cat away from Dren, berating her for doing something unsafe (which seems to mean, both something that might expose Dren to discovery by other people than Elsa and Clive, and something that might interfere with the level of control Elsa needs in order to study Dren as a scientific experiment). A few scenes later, however, Elsa changes her mind, and brings back the cat, returning it to Dren as a “present,” and a sign of her (Elsa’s) warmth and affection. This is clearly just as incomprehensible to Dren as the original gesture of taking the cat away had been. Confused and panicked by the erratic nature of Elsa’s affection, Dren freaks out and kills the cat by stinging it with her tail. Elsa — in a rage all the more disquieting for being kept under wraps by an external calm — responds by physically restraining Dren, and subjecting her to (unsuccessful) surgery to remove the stinger. Castration, anyone? This is yet another moment of violence and trauma for Dren; and another moment to which Elsa remains completely oblivious. She is entirely unable to notice or understand her own effect upon her “daughter.”

Throughout the relationship between Elsa and Dren, therefore, intimacy is tied together with a horrific sense of violation. In Polley’s amazing performance, Elsa’s fucked-up parenting is utterly horrific, and yet entirely understandable from the inside. For Elsa is nothing if not well-intentioned; and she herself is also a victim of her own mother’s crazy abuse of her, when she was a child. Elsa mentions her past history as an abused child several times in the course of the movie; yet she thinks nothing of hiding or imprisoning Dren within the very walls in which she (Elsa) grew up and suffered this abuse. (We even get to see the spartan room, much like a prison cell, that was Elsa’s childhood bedroom). Thus Elsa troublingly (but not unsurprisingly) replicates, with Dren, all the ways that her mother mistreated her. But even when Elsa explicitly tries to do the opposite with Dren from what her mother did to her, the results are problematic and messed up. Thus Elsa gives Dren a Barbie doll which she had loved as a child, but which her mother had taken away from her. Elsa also has Dren wear baby-doll dresses and put on makeup. The Barbie doll, the dresses, and the makeup have the effect of “humanizing” Dren, making her over in accordance with human norms — which in this case means, in effect, making Dren stereotypically “feminine.” Even worse, the sexy-alien Dren gives off something close to a pederastic vibe.

In this way, all-too-human (by which I mean, culturally specific) gender roles are oddly reinforced, precisely when we are supposed to be getting beyond the human. Yet again, the film entirely scrambles our sense of what is natural and what is artificial, or of what is innate and “genetic”, and what is implanted or learned. We often reflexively assume the idea that nature, or the given/innate, is inherently deterministic and programmed (“hardwired”), while culture — that which is invented, transmitted through language and behavior, and which can be learned — allows for the possibility of difference. But Splice entirely reverses this dynamic. Dren is radically new and different, as far as her genetic endowment is concerned; but Elsa (and Clive) work to contain this difference within the cultural norms that they take for granted without question. And indeed, the film as a whole plays on the way that we, too, take these norms for granted; they are built into our genre expectations, which regulate how we take both the film’s form and its content. This is also the reason why the film is, as I noted before, heterosexual with a vengeance: it depressingly chronicles the ways that, faced with the prospect of difference, novelty, or radical otherness, we try to reduce this difference to the same, to police it and regulate it by inserting it within these pre-assumed norms. The film highlights these normative aspects (of cinematic genre, of socially-enacted gender, and of assumptions about what is natural and what is artificial) in a way that makes us troublingly conscious of them, instead of just letting them go “without saying.”

I should say something here about Clive as well as Elsa. She is the main mover and shaker of the couple; but his role as enabler should not be ignored. He is in fact is exceedingly creepy, without this ever quite coming out up-front. He simultaneously objects to all of Elsa’s transgressions, and yet helps to further them by his attitude and actions. All this is captured in Brody’s excellent performance, which really makes me squirm. Clive is a passive enabler, while at the same time disavowing this role by coming off as a (fake) voice of moderation and reason — despite the fact that he is evidently every bit as crazy as Elsa is. Clive encourages Elsa, while at the same time doing this in such a way that she must take responsibility, or take the fall, when anything backfires. Beneath the veneer of hipness and reasonableness, he is really a self-righteous prick. He sits back and lets Elsa take the initiative and maneuver them both into difficult situations. Then he objects, but at the same time provides evidence that there is no way out. He manages, therefore, both to express moral qualms and yet to use those qualms as an alibi for the fact that he is really excited by what Elsa is doing, and that he is desperate to get involved.

This also relates to the fact that Elsa and Clive turn out not to be the perfect couple that they seemed to be at the start of the film. I have already mentioned that they rarely have sex, and that this seems to be something of an issue for Clive. The one time in the film that they do get it on, it becomes sort of a primal scene for Dren, who sees them in the act without their being aware that she is viewing. them. But beyond this, all the tensions between Elsa and Clive get acted out in relation to Dren, and are directly projected onto Dren. She both becomes the alibi for, and suffers the consequences of, their instabilities and their lack of self-knowledge. In addition, all the traditional Frankenstein/SF arguments about morality, responsibility, the limits of knowledge, etc., are taken up in Elsa’s and Clive’s arguments; which has the effect of undermining the discursive force of the arguments, since they so clearly become masks or alibis for the couple’s own feelings, which they are quite obviously not at all in touch with.

All of this comes to a head in the third act of the film. This is the part that, as I mentioned above, some reviewers deplore as a capitulation to Hollywood/exploitation norms; while others condemn it as ugly and nasty, morally unacceptable, horrifically misogynistic, etc. I am inclined to think that these incompatible responses are symptomatic of the way that Natali has touched nerves, and thereby done something right. A conventional macho action film, with its taken-for-granted misogyny, would never get denounced for being “a thoroughly repulsive science fiction-horror flick that slicks up its B-movie tawdriness with high-gloss production values and two otherwise classy stars… a singularly cynical enterprise, exploiting our anxieties about reproduction, parenthood, control and betrayal while engaging in the crudest forms of sensationalism” (Ann Hornaday, in The Washington Post). I think that the ending of Splice succeeds both in fulfilling the pre-assumed requirements of the genre (there has to be a climax of violent monstrosity, in which all the creepy suggestions raised earlier in the film are pushed to a point of extremity, and, perhaps, catharsis), and in working through the logic of its premises — which, as I have been suggesting, have to do with the uses and abuses of technology, with both the creation of otherness and the attempt to contain and reduce it, with the regendering of processes in global, highly technologized capitalism, and with the relation of innovation and creativity to corporate control and corporate property.

In the third act, there are two significant — highly disturbing, and even shocking — events. The first one is that Clive has sex with Dren, in a way that is psychologically suggestive of incest. The attraction is apparently mutual. Dren, having been “feminized” by Elsa, and put off by the violent abusiveness of Elsa’s treatment of her, seems to idealize Clive as the more distant, and therefore less painfully-associated, authority or parental figure. There is something perversely innocent (oxymoron entirely intended, since it is something that at once seems childlike and yet is very post-puberty-aware and erotic) about Dren’s desire for Clive. On Clive’s part, the desire seems shifty and creepy in the same way that all his actions and affects have been throughout the film. He first formulaically tells Dren that we cannot do this, only to respond avidly to her allure a moment later.

Clive claims — sincerely,as far as we can tell, in his lack of knowledge of himself — to be attracted to Dren because of the way she reminds him of Elsa. He disavows the other elements of her appeal: for Dren, of course, is more sexy than Elsa on account of being younger, not tied to her work the way Elsa is, not Clive’s evident intellectual superior the way Elsa is (though we don’t know the level of Dren’s intelligence for sure) — not to mention that, of course, Dren’s not-entirely-human makeup makes her thrillingly exotic/unknown in a way Elsa could not be. Clive is able to enact, in other words, the fantasy relation to Dren that (as mentioned above) the film produces for the normative male-heterosexual spectator. In fact, Clive’s coming on to Dren, and his self-understanding about doing this, simply replicates the most boring and banal, and most common, scenario of heterosexual-male psychodrama imaginable. It’s a syndrome that forms the basis of far too many melodramas and far too many real-life divorces (not to mention its featured role in award-winning movies like American Beauty, and in prominent real-life careers like that of Bill Clinton). It bespeaks a kind of self-blindness that could only come out of (unacknowledged) privilege. In the (fairly explicit) way that the movie presents this sexual act, it is shocking, jolting, and disturbing, and yet at the same time disappointing: as if this extravagant, transgressive act were at the same time the enactment of a failure to change, a failure to get anywhere, a failure to do anything different from business (and prejudice) as usual. My sense of the film is that, precisely, Natali manages to have it both ways: to give us the genre-specific thrills that we need and expect, and to make a meta-commentary which precisely turns on the the oppressive sameness of what the genre gives us.

Of course, Elsa walks in on Clive and Dren while they are in the midst of fucking: this, again, is both a genre necessity, and acutely true to the strained and messy psychodynamics of the entire film. Elsa is angered and disgusted; she walks out and drives home — but first she stops at the lab in order to do the banal protein sequencing that the corporate bosses had demanded of her all along, and that she had previously considered beneath her. Apparently Dren’s DNA coding, no less than that of the slug-like creatures, causes her to produce and secrete the meds that the Big Pharma company wanted in the first place. And this is apparently the first thing that Elsa thinks of, in her rage that Dren and Clive have betrayed her.

When Clive goes after Elsa and tries to explain what happened, she tells him: “you aren’t going to talk your way out of this one.” But in fact, Clive succeeds in talking his way out of trouble within just about two minutes of screen time. Clive convinces Elsa that the rules have changed, that they have both overstepped limits, etc. etc. It becomes clear to the audience that neither Clive nor Elsa has learned anything whatsoever from all that has happened to them, and to their creation. Worried about further consequences, and at least sensing the need for damage control, they return to the farmhouse/barn where they had left Dren.

The very ending of the film pushes all this contradiction and tension to its most extreme point. For the second significant, and disturbing happening in the third act is that Dren (quite predictably, in genre terms) turns monstrous and murderous. But there’s more: Dren’s turn towards homicidal behavior is correlated with her shifting gender from female to male (just as slug-like creature did earlier in the film). The male Dren-creature murders Clive and some secondary characters, and concludes by raping Elsa. This is also the notable point when Dren — turned male — speaks a word for the first and only time in the movie. The word has trouble coming out of his throat; the Dren-organism’s difficulty with articulating spoken language still remains. The barely articulated word is “inside.” Male Dren wants to enter/penetrate/fuck/rape Elsa; but also, perhaps, he wants to return to the womb, to an ultimate inner place where the outside world cannot harm him. It makes no difference that, in fact, Dren’s original womb was not literally Elsa’s, but a prosthetic one. The whole film has worked through an ambivalently aggressive dynamics in relation to technologies of reproduction, and now this is all quite horrifically and nastily literalized and embodied — in a way that collapses back on Elsa, the originator of these dynamics, and now their victim.

As before, I think it makes sense to see this rape scene in relation or contrast to Frankenstein. In the original novel, the monster, denied his own possibilities of sexuality and reproduction, murders his creator’s bride, but leaves that creator himself uninjured, to stew in his own regrets and guilt. In Splice, Elsa suffers a worse fate than Victor Frankenstein; I think indeed that this is because she is a woman, but (as noted before) I take this, not as evidence that the film is misogynistic, but precisely as an indication that misogyny is part of the situation that the film reveals, and of which it offers a diagnosis. Frankenstein’s transgression of the laws of God and Man has been transformed into Elsa’s pseudo-transgression, which ends up only reinforcing the order it had seemed to be rebelling against. Elsa has worked throughout the film to create life prosthetically, to give birth to and raise a being that transcended the limitations of the human order. But (as her confusions and failures in parenting Dren have shown), she proves unequal to this task, and ends up reproducing the same all-too-human (and in fact culturally as well as genetically determined and limited) order that she had thought to get beyond. Which is why, at the end, she is reduced to the limited role of having/being a womb and nothing but a womb, after all. She manages to destroy the “monster” that she has created, but only after it has inseminated her (in effect, returning to her the burden she had imposed upon it).

A sort of epilogue shows Elsa, pregnant and evidently close to term, signing everything away to the corporation, in return for ample (we presume) financial considerations. She would seem to be giving the corporation both her scientific expertise and the contents of her womb (produced, presumably, by the rape, though we do not know this for sure); the distinction between them has entirely collapsed. And this is the saddest and most horrific thing in the entire film — much more so than anything having to do with Dren. Whatever the film has to say about gender and familialism, everything is overcoded by the reality of corporate ownership. Property and profit come first. It’s significant that the corporate boss with whom Elsa negotiates this abdication of power is also a woman: as if to explicitly show us both that there is nothing special about a woman-to-woman bond, and that the regime of captial is always ready to allow exceptions to conventional hierarchies without thereby ceasing to rule. Elsa can be a successful scientist, and a woman can be the CEO of a Big Pharma company; but these individual exceptions or exemptions don’t ever rock the boat. Corporate power is what bought Elsa and Clive their lab with its high tech machines in the first place; and corporate power accumulates the profits that are generated with the help of that lab and its machines. Elsa’s and Clive’s creative surplus does not belong to them, and never did. Movies in the last three decades of the twentieth century tended to figure corporate power in terms of vast conspiracies (this has been discussed at length by Fredric Jameson, and more recently by Jeff Kinkle here). But in 2010, there is no longer any need for a conspiracy in order to explain corporate dominance. The corporation is just there, a banal fact that is not in the least bit hidden, and that everybody takes for granted without even thinking about it.

Indeed, I think that we can go further, and say that Elsa and Clive’s whole hipster/boho/rebellious vibe not only doesn’t threaten the reign of capital (or Big Pharma in this case), but also actively helps to maintain it, and may even be necessary to its functioning. It’s not just because the hipster-rebellious genius image appeals to disaffected arty-intellectual types like me, and thereby helps (just as “cool” corporations like Apple, Google, and Starbucks do) to draw me into a more active and engaged complicity with the mechanisms of capital accumulation. But beyond this (and on a more fundamental level than that of mere “ideology”), techno-innovators and “creatives” like Elsa and Clive both provide the corporations with continual streams of innovation and insure that these innovations will be channeled in normative and profitable ways. Old Deleuze/Guattari enthusiasts like me have tended to privilege, celebrate, and idealize flows of becoming, monstrous metamorphoses, and lines of flight and escape from the normative and the all-too-human. At times in our enthusiasm, we would tend to forget Deleuze and Guattari’s own warnings that capitalism recuperates (“reterritorializes” and “recodes”) whatever crazy, destabilizing fluxes it unleashes.

But Splice suggests that the relation between capitalism’s “creativity” and its recuperations is even more intimate. It’s not that Elsa and Clive create something radically new, and then desperately try to recuperate it within conventional or normative parameters. Rather, the normalizing drive is at the heart of their “creativity.” Elsa doesn’t secondarily familialize a transgenic creation that initially threatens to escape her control and that of the conventional gender coordinates. It is rather the case that she develops the transgenic creation in the first place in order to produce a body upon which those conservative, familiar and familialist coordinates may be inscribed. She rebels against corporate management in order to fulfill its aims better than that management would be able to do by itself. Her very choice of private, emotionally meaningful goals instead of externally-imposed corporate ones is a vital and necessary element of the corporate seach for ever-expanding profits. In this way, Splice suggests that the fantasy of transgressive genius, the dream of liberating metamorphosis, and the dedication to personal fulfillment, are themselves adjuncts to, and enablers of, corporate power.

Or, to use a biological metaphor here, Splice suggests that evolution is only the result of the essential conservativism (drive to self-preservation and self-perpetuation) of “life.” Mutations happen, and grow within a population, not out of any drive for change, but precisely because life’s only goal is to replicate and multiply itself, to continually reproduce itself as the same. Whatever does the best job of this flourishes. Biotechnology’s current vision is bloodless, rationalistic, cognitivist and computational. Splice challenges this vision, by suggesting that it must ultimately be brought back into contact with a politics of affect, of the visceral, and of the body. But the film is deeply disillusioning, in that it further suggests that the movement back to affect and the body doesn’t have anything emancipatory about it. Rather than moralistically warning against the dangers of experimentation beyond socially acceptable limits, Splice suggests that such experimentation itself works to return to and reinforce those limits, so that it is inherently disappointing. Indeed, we are never imaginative enough.