In My Skin

Last week I had some essential dental work done — something that I had been putting off for years. In the aftermath, the new bridge that covers the spot where teeth are missing or defective is fine. But my gums are awfully sore, even today, a week later. The pain is slight in amplitude, just barely above the threshold of awareness — which is just enough to be annoying. I’m taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen (not simultaneously, but one after the other) to dull the pain. But I also have this incessant compulsion to probe the sore spots, with my tongue and with my fingers. Doing so actually makes the gums hurt more; but I can’t get rid of the feeling that this constant probing is also in some sort of way a cure, or a solution, as if stimulating the pain in this manner was a way to make the feeling active instead of passive, to claim it for myself, to incorporate it, so it would no longer be something that’s just happening to me, no longer something from which I suffer.

It is through this experience — and others like it in the past — that I relate to Marina de Van’s extraordinary film In My Skin. A thirty-something woman (played by de Van, who stars in the film as well as being the director and screenwriter) injures herself at a party: she goes out to the back lawn for some fresh air, and in the dark she stumbles over some sort of tool (we never get to see it) that tears up her leg, leaving some ugly gashes. Although she is bleeding, she goes back to the party as if nothing had happened, and doesn’t bring herself to go to the emergency room until hours later. In the days to come, she develops a fascination with her wound, tearing off the bandages so she can feel and trace the cuts, and then cutting herself to extend the network of bloody lines. As the film proceeds, she grows more and more obsessive. All this plays out against the background of her life as a Parisian yuppie, moving up the corporate ladder as an advertising consultant, and alternately arguing with and making up with her boyfriend (who’s a self-centered asshole). At one point, during a dinner meeting with a client, she hallucinates that her left arm has been replaced by a prosthesis and has started to act in alien ways, out of her control; she starts furtively cutting it under the table, with a steak knife. Later that evening, she fakes an auto accident so that her boyfriend won’t know that the wounds were deliberately self-inflicted. And it escalates from there: she eventually holes up in a hotel room, lying in fetal position while she cuts off rectangles of her skin, licking up the blood and putting the skin fragments aside for later preservation via tanning.

What’s remarkable about In My Skin is not just the presentation of an obsession, but the affective tone and mode of presentation. Though the film is definitely visceral in impact, it’s also psychologically muted — which makes it all the more intense. No explanation, either psychological or sociological, is ever given for the main character’s obsession. It’s just a brute fact of her being, something that defines and dominates her very existence. At the same time, though we see some of the cutting, the cutting scenes are dominated by close-ups of her face. This leads us to identify with her emotional reactions, which range from dread to blankness to nearly orgasmic bliss — without our being able to ground these emotions, because (in the absence of any causal explanation) we cannot relate them intelligibly to what she is actually doing to her body. The result is a ferocious intensity that is at the same time very nearly abstract. Towards the end of the film, instead of these facial shots de Van splits the screen and gives us two different angles, both in extreme close-up, on the same few inches of skin, knife, and surrounding objects: the effect, again, is one of visceralness and abstraction at the same time. The more intimately the film reduces its focus to just the consciousness of its protagonist, the more oddly impersonal it becomes. (I can’t help thinking, at this point, of Maurice Blanchot, the author who — aside from Proust — has demonstrated most profoundly how intimacy is tied to impersonality: for the deeper you go, the more you explore interiority and the precognitive desires and feelings that drive us, the more everything that we know as “personality” and “psychology” falls away, and the more we discover an impersonality that is tied to otherness, to the Outside).

The emotional tone of In My Skin, to the extent that it can be pinned down at all, is closer to horror than to any other genre. I was reminded a bit of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Except that in Monique de Van’s film, the vampire/cannibal and the victim are the same person. Monstrosity cannot be projected outward; it becomes a sort of auto-affection, and thereby an of self-love, a way of fashioning and relating to oneself. (As Foucault taught us, it’s precisely because the “self” doesn’t exist a priori, because there is no pregiven phenomenological subject, because “the given” is prepersonal or impersonal, that “care of the self” or “self-fashioning” becomes the most crucial existential and political issue).

In vampire stories, the vampire’s insatiable desire often wins our sympathy: because of the allure of shadows; or because the vampire suffers and endures more than his victims; or because such infinite longing can never be resolved in satisfaction; or because the inextricable intermingling of life and death is something we cannot conceive and yet know in our hearts; or because such desire, however cruel, seems more authentic (more alive, ironically) than the repression and coldness of the society in which the vampire’s victims live. In My Skin goes further than any other vampire story in exploring these dimensions, and in excavating the strange, impersonal intimacy at the heart of vampiric terror. In other words, In My Skin is the tenderest of all horror films.

Last week I had some essential dental work done — something that I had been putting off for years. In the aftermath, the new bridge that covers the spot where teeth are missing or defective is fine. But my gums are awfully sore, even today, a week later. The pain is slight in amplitude, just barely above the threshold of awareness — which is just enough to be annoying. I’m taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen (not simultaneously, but one after the other) to dull the pain. But I also have this incessant compulsion to probe the sore spots, with my tongue and with my fingers. Doing so actually makes the gums hurt more; but I can’t get rid of the feeling that this constant probing is also in some sort of way a cure, or a solution, as if stimulating the pain in this manner was a way to make the feeling active instead of passive, to claim it for myself, to incorporate it, so it would no longer be something that’s just happening to me, no longer something from which I suffer.

It is through this experience — and others like it in the past — that I relate to Marina de Van’s extraordinary film In My Skin. A thirty-something woman (played by de Van, who stars in the film as well as being the director and screenwriter) injures herself at a party: she goes out to the back lawn for some fresh air, and in the dark she stumbles over some sort of tool (we never get to see it) that tears up her leg, leaving some ugly gashes. Although she is bleeding, she goes back to the party as if nothing had happened, and doesn’t bring herself to go to the emergency room until hours later. In the days to come, she develops a fascination with her wound, tearing off the bandages so she can feel and trace the cuts, and then cutting herself to extend the network of bloody lines. As the film proceeds, she grows more and more obsessive. All this plays out against the background of her life as a Parisian yuppie, moving up the corporate ladder as an advertising consultant, and alternately arguing with and making up with her boyfriend (who’s a self-centered asshole). At one point, during a dinner meeting with a client, she hallucinates that her left arm has been replaced by a prosthesis and has started to act in alien ways, out of her control; she starts furtively cutting it under the table, with a steak knife. Later that evening, she fakes an auto accident so that her boyfriend won’t know that the wounds were deliberately self-inflicted. And it escalates from there: she eventually holes up in a hotel room, lying in fetal position while she cuts off rectangles of her skin, licking up the blood and putting the skin fragments aside for later preservation via tanning.

What’s remarkable about In My Skin is not just the presentation of an obsession, but the affective tone and mode of presentation. Though the film is definitely visceral in impact, it’s also psychologically muted — which makes it all the more intense. No explanation, either psychological or sociological, is ever given for the main character’s obsession. It’s just a brute fact of her being, something that defines and dominates her very existence. At the same time, though we see some of the cutting, the cutting scenes are dominated by close-ups of her face. This leads us to identify with her emotional reactions, which range from dread to blankness to nearly orgasmic bliss — without our being able to ground these emotions, because (in the absence of any causal explanation) we cannot relate them intelligibly to what she is actually doing to her body. The result is a ferocious intensity that is at the same time very nearly abstract. Towards the end of the film, instead of these facial shots de Van splits the screen and gives us two different angles, both in extreme close-up, on the same few inches of skin, knife, and surrounding objects: the effect, again, is one of visceralness and abstraction at the same time. The more intimately the film reduces its focus to just the consciousness of its protagonist, the more oddly impersonal it becomes. (I can’t help thinking, at this point, of Maurice Blanchot, the author who — aside from Proust — has demonstrated most profoundly how intimacy is tied to impersonality: for the deeper you go, the more you explore interiority and the precognitive desires and feelings that drive us, the more everything that we know as “personality” and “psychology” falls away, and the more we discover an impersonality that is tied to otherness, to the Outside).

The emotional tone of In My Skin, to the extent that it can be pinned down at all, is closer to horror than to any other genre. I was reminded a bit of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Except that in Monique de Van’s film, the vampire/cannibal and the victim are the same person. Monstrosity cannot be projected outward; it becomes a sort of auto-affection, and thereby an of self-love, a way of fashioning and relating to oneself. (As Foucault taught us, it’s precisely because the “self” doesn’t exist a priori, because there is no pregiven phenomenological subject, because “the given” is prepersonal or impersonal, that “care of the self” or “self-fashioning” becomes the most crucial existential and political issue).

In vampire stories, the vampire’s insatiable desire often wins our sympathy: because of the allure of shadows; or because the vampire suffers and endures more than his victims; or because such infinite longing can never be resolved in satisfaction; or because the inextricable intermingling of life and death is something we cannot conceive and yet know in our hearts; or because such desire, however cruel, seems more authentic (more alive, ironically) than the repression and coldness of the society in which the vampire’s victims live. In My Skin goes further than any other vampire story in exploring these dimensions, and in excavating the strange, impersonal intimacy at the heart of vampiric terror. In other words, In My Skin is the tenderest of all horror films.

Land of the Dead

We’ve had to wait something like twenty years for George Romero’s Land of the Dead; but now it’s finally here, and I couldn’t be happier. The film is a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) (which three films I wrote about, long ago, in my book The Cinematic Body).

Though the “living dead” films take place in chronological order — each seems to take place a few months or years after the previous one — they explore different realms of social experience. Night is about the implosion of the American (white, middle class) nuclear family; its crude, low-budget visceral shocks (which revolutionized horror filmmaking in general) are grounded in the collapse of patriarchal authority into a kind of grovelling hysteria. The sexual and social “revolutions” of the 1960s were not so much rebellions against a tyrannical paternal despot, or against the rigid repressions of suburban family life, as they were carnivalesque revelations that the emperor had no clothes, that the patriarchal tyrants were toothless, and the suburban hypocrisies nothing more than a thin veneer of stage decor. So the nuclear family holed up in the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead collapses under the weight of its own stupidity, until the child-turned-zombie avidly consumes her parents; the impotence of the father is echoed by the clownishness and impotence of the larger-scale authority figures viewed on television during the zombie siege. Meanwhile, the ravaging zombies outside present a darkly humorous vision of hippie communalism (the preferred refuge of the children of the white middle class). And the movie’s ostensible theme of survivalism is totally undermined by the cynical conclusion, when the film’s only sympathetic character — a black man who has managed to make it through the night unharmed by the zombies — is shot dead by a redneck sheriff’s posse.

Of course the “rebellions” of the 1960s went nowhere — though they are still the object of vilification by the far right and the fundamentalists to this day. But hippies and campus radicals from middle-class backgrounds grew up to be yuppies, and their influence on the larger culture was mostly a matter of an easily saleable “lifestyle.” Once the social upheavals of the 60s had passed, consumerism turned out to be the real winner. So it’s entirely appropriate that Dawn of the Dead takes place largely in a shopping mall: which the zombies are attracted to because it was the place of their happiest moments when they were alive, while the four living characters who hole up inside it alleviate their sense of being besieged by living a fantasy of commodity abundance and frictionless shopping and consuming. The invasion of a paramilitary bikers’ gang looking for loot puts an end to this bourgeois idyll, but not before the exorbitant lust for commodities has been established as the ruling passion of living and dead alike.

Many fans of the earlier films found Day of the Dead disappointing, but to my mind it’s as brilliant and as vital (if that’s the right word for a film about the dead) as the rest of the series. Day is the most philosophical of the “living dead” films, which is part of what I love about it, but which may be part of what turned many viewers off. As befits a film from the Reagan 1980s, the focus shifts from consumerism to the military/scientific complex; it takes place, not in a brightly lit mall, but in a hellishly claustrophobic underground bunker. Pathologically macho soldiers try to keep the zombies at bay, while scientists futilely try to discover the cause of the zombie plague, or else try to “tame” the zombies. The film is relentless in its deconstruction of military authoritarianism and scientific claims to supreme authority (indeed, Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later is entirely indebted to Day in its latter half, when — just as in Romero’s film — the military saviors of civilization come off as worse than the monsters they are trying to fight). Day of the Dead ends up combining a kind of Stoic fatalism (as the few sympathetic living characters do escape the zombies, but in a way that is pointedly fragile and contingent) with a greater sympathy for the zombies than ever before, as they embody a kind of inchoate, but plaintive and oddly innocuous desire, in contrast to the twisted viciousness of the characters who stand for social order.

Land of the Dead is both simpler and more expressionistic than Day: it takes place almost entirely at night, and both the cinematography and the gory special effects have an elegance that goes beyond anything Romero has done before. In Land, as befits our globalized, post-9/11 world (though Romero’s screenplay was apparently mostly finished before 9/11), social class, and indeed class warfare, comes to the foreground, after having been an implicit subtext in the earlier films. Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh is a bastion of humanity against the zombie hordes — just as America today paranoiacally imagines itself as a fortress of “freedom” barred against the Muslims and Mexicans who are always trying to batter their way in. Internally, post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh is almost a parody of rapacious capitalism (though it must be said that “actually existing capitalism” in America is rapidly approaching this terminal parodic state): the ruling class live lives of elegance in the exclusive gated high-rise of “Fiddler’s Green”, while the masses outside scrape by day to day, more or less at a subsistence level, with sex, drugs, violence, and gambling as their only amusments. Add to this a psychotic Bushite dictator (played, inevitably, by Dennis Hopper) whose two main passions are an all-out drive to make the rich richer, and a refusal ever to negotiate with “terrorists”; and the muscle he uses, a cadre of mercenaries who have no ties or loyalties, except (to a limited extent) to one another. Meanwhile, the zombies are treated more sympathetically in Land than they even were in Day: they start to evolve, and develop a sort of memory and intelligence, an ability to plan and to coordinate their actions. They become, in fact, a spontaneously self-organized swarm (they have a sort of leader, but his role is exemplary and inspirational, rather than having any sort of authority). And when they break into the city, it’s as if the proletariat — or more accurately, Negri’s “multitude” — had finally arisen to demand restitution and justice. This zombie invasion is intercut with infighting among the city’s cadres: John Leguizamo starts a self-serving rebellion, because he’s pissed of at not being amply enough rewarded for doing Dennis Hopper’s dirty work. (Hopper will never allow Leguizamo into Fiddler’s Green, because he’s “street,” and even worse, Latino). Simon Baker, the film’s nominal hero, is sent by Hopper to squelch Leguizamo (it’s sort of an offer Baker can’t refuse, though he plans to hijack the process for his own selfish ends anyway). (The fabulous Asia Argento also plays a small but key role). Not to give too much away, or get involved in the minutiae of the plot, but the various strands merge in brilliantly satisfying ways. What makes Land noteworthy, aside from the tightness of its construction and (as I’ve already said) the delights of its (dare I call them understated?) gross-out special effects, is the way that class comes to play a central role — and other oppositions, particularly that between the living and the dead, tend to dissolve or fall away. Is there any American filmmaker working today who is as politically cogent as Romero, and at the same time as affectively powerful, and as committed to pulp/”low” culture values?

We’ve had to wait something like twenty years for George Romero’s Land of the Dead; but now it’s finally here, and I couldn’t be happier. The film is a worthy successor to Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985) (which three films I wrote about, long ago, in my book The Cinematic Body).

Though the “living dead” films take place in chronological order — each seems to take place a few months or years after the previous one — they explore different realms of social experience. Night is about the implosion of the American (white, middle class) nuclear family; its crude, low-budget visceral shocks (which revolutionized horror filmmaking in general) are grounded in the collapse of patriarchal authority into a kind of grovelling hysteria. The sexual and social “revolutions” of the 1960s were not so much rebellions against a tyrannical paternal despot, or against the rigid repressions of suburban family life, as they were carnivalesque revelations that the emperor had no clothes, that the patriarchal tyrants were toothless, and the suburban hypocrisies nothing more than a thin veneer of stage decor. So the nuclear family holed up in the farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead collapses under the weight of its own stupidity, until the child-turned-zombie avidly consumes her parents; the impotence of the father is echoed by the clownishness and impotence of the larger-scale authority figures viewed on television during the zombie siege. Meanwhile, the ravaging zombies outside present a darkly humorous vision of hippie communalism (the preferred refuge of the children of the white middle class). And the movie’s ostensible theme of survivalism is totally undermined by the cynical conclusion, when the film’s only sympathetic character — a black man who has managed to make it through the night unharmed by the zombies — is shot dead by a redneck sheriff’s posse.

Of course the “rebellions” of the 1960s went nowhere — though they are still the object of vilification by the far right and the fundamentalists to this day. But hippies and campus radicals from middle-class backgrounds grew up to be yuppies, and their influence on the larger culture was mostly a matter of an easily saleable “lifestyle.” Once the social upheavals of the 60s had passed, consumerism turned out to be the real winner. So it’s entirely appropriate that Dawn of the Dead takes place largely in a shopping mall: which the zombies are attracted to because it was the place of their happiest moments when they were alive, while the four living characters who hole up inside it alleviate their sense of being besieged by living a fantasy of commodity abundance and frictionless shopping and consuming. The invasion of a paramilitary bikers’ gang looking for loot puts an end to this bourgeois idyll, but not before the exorbitant lust for commodities has been established as the ruling passion of living and dead alike.

Many fans of the earlier films found Day of the Dead disappointing, but to my mind it’s as brilliant and as vital (if that’s the right word for a film about the dead) as the rest of the series. Day is the most philosophical of the “living dead” films, which is part of what I love about it, but which may be part of what turned many viewers off. As befits a film from the Reagan 1980s, the focus shifts from consumerism to the military/scientific complex; it takes place, not in a brightly lit mall, but in a hellishly claustrophobic underground bunker. Pathologically macho soldiers try to keep the zombies at bay, while scientists futilely try to discover the cause of the zombie plague, or else try to “tame” the zombies. The film is relentless in its deconstruction of military authoritarianism and scientific claims to supreme authority (indeed, Danny Boyle’s excellent 28 Days Later is entirely indebted to Day in its latter half, when — just as in Romero’s film — the military saviors of civilization come off as worse than the monsters they are trying to fight). Day of the Dead ends up combining a kind of Stoic fatalism (as the few sympathetic living characters do escape the zombies, but in a way that is pointedly fragile and contingent) with a greater sympathy for the zombies than ever before, as they embody a kind of inchoate, but plaintive and oddly innocuous desire, in contrast to the twisted viciousness of the characters who stand for social order.

Land of the Dead is both simpler and more expressionistic than Day: it takes place almost entirely at night, and both the cinematography and the gory special effects have an elegance that goes beyond anything Romero has done before. In Land, as befits our globalized, post-9/11 world (though Romero’s screenplay was apparently mostly finished before 9/11), social class, and indeed class warfare, comes to the foreground, after having been an implicit subtext in the earlier films. Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh is a bastion of humanity against the zombie hordes — just as America today paranoiacally imagines itself as a fortress of “freedom” barred against the Muslims and Mexicans who are always trying to batter their way in. Internally, post-apocalyptic Pittsburgh is almost a parody of rapacious capitalism (though it must be said that “actually existing capitalism” in America is rapidly approaching this terminal parodic state): the ruling class live lives of elegance in the exclusive gated high-rise of “Fiddler’s Green”, while the masses outside scrape by day to day, more or less at a subsistence level, with sex, drugs, violence, and gambling as their only amusments. Add to this a psychotic Bushite dictator (played, inevitably, by Dennis Hopper) whose two main passions are an all-out drive to make the rich richer, and a refusal ever to negotiate with “terrorists”; and the muscle he uses, a cadre of mercenaries who have no ties or loyalties, except (to a limited extent) to one another. Meanwhile, the zombies are treated more sympathetically in Land than they even were in Day: they start to evolve, and develop a sort of memory and intelligence, an ability to plan and to coordinate their actions. They become, in fact, a spontaneously self-organized swarm (they have a sort of leader, but his role is exemplary and inspirational, rather than having any sort of authority). And when they break into the city, it’s as if the proletariat — or more accurately, Negri’s “multitude” — had finally arisen to demand restitution and justice. This zombie invasion is intercut with infighting among the city’s cadres: John Leguizamo starts a self-serving rebellion, because he’s pissed of at not being amply enough rewarded for doing Dennis Hopper’s dirty work. (Hopper will never allow Leguizamo into Fiddler’s Green, because he’s “street,” and even worse, Latino). Simon Baker, the film’s nominal hero, is sent by Hopper to squelch Leguizamo (it’s sort of an offer Baker can’t refuse, though he plans to hijack the process for his own selfish ends anyway). (The fabulous Asia Argento also plays a small but key role). Not to give too much away, or get involved in the minutiae of the plot, but the various strands merge in brilliantly satisfying ways. What makes Land noteworthy, aside from the tightness of its construction and (as I’ve already said) the delights of its (dare I call them understated?) gross-out special effects, is the way that class comes to play a central role — and other oppositions, particularly that between the living and the dead, tend to dissolve or fall away. Is there any American filmmaker working today who is as politically cogent as Romero, and at the same time as affectively powerful, and as committed to pulp/”low” culture values?

She Hate Me

Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is a total mess of a film. It’s sprawling and digressive, all over the place; and its main plot line (black man serves as superstud to impregnate lesbians who want to have babies) is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, but not over-the-top enough to work as satire. The film seems to be an attempt to address homophobia, but its ostensible message of tolerance is overlain with smug condescension, in precisely the same way that the anti-racist messages of “liberal” Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s (like Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) were compromised by their ultimately racist and condescending portrayal of black people (see James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for the ultimate analysis of these latter). And She Hate Me concludes with a reaffirmation of bourgeois family values — the restoration of a “kinder, gentler” patriarchy — that is the obnoxious ideological message of so many of Spike Lee’s films.

And yet, and yet… As with nearly everything Spike Lee has ever done, I loved nearly every minute of the film. Should I call it the triumph of form, or technique, over content? In part; though I don’t think form and content can really be separated. It is more a question of the way Lee’s cinematography and editing create a sort of counterplot, running underneath, and in dialectical tension with, the often didactic intentions of the screenplay.

The best comparison here might be to Scorsese — another great director whose camera never falters, even though he has frittered away most of his later career on pretentious, unconvincing, and utterly pointless projects. And the comparison, I think, goes entirely in Lee’s favor: his bad films, like She Hate Me, are a hundred times more interesting, emotionally moving, and thought-provoking than such Scorsese white elephants as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Gangs of New York. Lee is simply the more inventive and formally adventurous filmmaker of the two. Scorsese and Lee both have highly individual, auteurist styles. But whereas Scorsese uses his style to embalm his material, Lee’s style is a flexible instrument that he will bend to any purpose: he is willing to try almost anything once, and he is continually turning out extreme experiments, that don’t always work but that always show a cinematic intelligence and exuberance, no matter how dubious the material. This is the sense in which, as I’ve said before, Lee — for all his fame — is actually the most underrated of American directors.

In She Hate Me, the counterplot — and Lee’s exuberant inventiveness — come out in the way he moves the camera, the way his framings (indoors) and tracking shots (outdoors) always lead to a sense of space as psychologically charged with the psychological demands and ambivalences of the characters, and in the hysterical rush and overload of the montage sequences (most notably, one in which the protagonist — played with understated elegance by Anthony Mackie — impregnates a series of hyper-stereotypical glam lesbians, and a later one in which said lesbians all give birth, with much groaning and screaming). There’s also a series of bizarre, almost surreal digressions: like the animations of Mackie’s character’s sperm racing up the vagina and into the uterus, or the sequence where John Turturro, playing a Mafia don, does an impression of Brando in The Godfather, or — best of all, perhaps — the sequences that take on the story of Frank Wills, the night watchman who discovered the Watergate burglary, but who sank into despair, poverty, and an early death after his service to democracy went unrecognized (there is one scene especially where Wills is taunted by Haldeman, Erlichman, Gordon Liddy, etc., plus Nixon himself, or an actor wearing a grotesque Nixon mask).There’s also a climactic scene, where Mackie does his Jimmy Stewart impression (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) before a US Senate hearing where he’s being bullied by Brian Dennehy as an old, corrupt committee chairman. (I think I forgot to mention that the film is not just about impregnating lesbians, but also about corporate corruption and greed, with Woody Harrelson doing a turn as a Ken Lay-style sleazeball CEO). Not to mention the German mad scientist who gives Mackie’s character cornball advice and then kills himself in the movie’s first five minutes. And so on and so on….

These scenes are all utterly bonkers: they detract from any hope of making a coherent and convincing film; but they are what makes the movie come alive. She Hate Me is a completely crazy potpourri of stereotypes, non sequiturs, stylistic affectations, and random observations. Almost every five minutes I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and wondering: what the hell did Spike Lee think he was doing? But this is precisely what makes She Hate Me into such a fascinating, and (for me, at least) compulsively watchable film.

Spike Lee’s She Hate Me is a total mess of a film. It’s sprawling and digressive, all over the place; and its main plot line (black man serves as superstud to impregnate lesbians who want to have babies) is too over-the-top to be taken seriously, but not over-the-top enough to work as satire. The film seems to be an attempt to address homophobia, but its ostensible message of tolerance is overlain with smug condescension, in precisely the same way that the anti-racist messages of “liberal” Hollywood films of the 1950s and 1960s (like Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) were compromised by their ultimately racist and condescending portrayal of black people (see James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for the ultimate analysis of these latter). And She Hate Me concludes with a reaffirmation of bourgeois family values — the restoration of a “kinder, gentler” patriarchy — that is the obnoxious ideological message of so many of Spike Lee’s films.

And yet, and yet… As with nearly everything Spike Lee has ever done, I loved nearly every minute of the film. Should I call it the triumph of form, or technique, over content? In part; though I don’t think form and content can really be separated. It is more a question of the way Lee’s cinematography and editing create a sort of counterplot, running underneath, and in dialectical tension with, the often didactic intentions of the screenplay.

The best comparison here might be to Scorsese — another great director whose camera never falters, even though he has frittered away most of his later career on pretentious, unconvincing, and utterly pointless projects. And the comparison, I think, goes entirely in Lee’s favor: his bad films, like She Hate Me, are a hundred times more interesting, emotionally moving, and thought-provoking than such Scorsese white elephants as The Age of Innocence, Kundun, and Gangs of New York. Lee is simply the more inventive and formally adventurous filmmaker of the two. Scorsese and Lee both have highly individual, auteurist styles. But whereas Scorsese uses his style to embalm his material, Lee’s style is a flexible instrument that he will bend to any purpose: he is willing to try almost anything once, and he is continually turning out extreme experiments, that don’t always work but that always show a cinematic intelligence and exuberance, no matter how dubious the material. This is the sense in which, as I’ve said before, Lee — for all his fame — is actually the most underrated of American directors.

In She Hate Me, the counterplot — and Lee’s exuberant inventiveness — come out in the way he moves the camera, the way his framings (indoors) and tracking shots (outdoors) always lead to a sense of space as psychologically charged with the psychological demands and ambivalences of the characters, and in the hysterical rush and overload of the montage sequences (most notably, one in which the protagonist — played with understated elegance by Anthony Mackie — impregnates a series of hyper-stereotypical glam lesbians, and a later one in which said lesbians all give birth, with much groaning and screaming). There’s also a series of bizarre, almost surreal digressions: like the animations of Mackie’s character’s sperm racing up the vagina and into the uterus, or the sequence where John Turturro, playing a Mafia don, does an impression of Brando in The Godfather, or — best of all, perhaps — the sequences that take on the story of Frank Wills, the night watchman who discovered the Watergate burglary, but who sank into despair, poverty, and an early death after his service to democracy went unrecognized (there is one scene especially where Wills is taunted by Haldeman, Erlichman, Gordon Liddy, etc., plus Nixon himself, or an actor wearing a grotesque Nixon mask).There’s also a climactic scene, where Mackie does his Jimmy Stewart impression (think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) before a US Senate hearing where he’s being bullied by Brian Dennehy as an old, corrupt committee chairman. (I think I forgot to mention that the film is not just about impregnating lesbians, but also about corporate corruption and greed, with Woody Harrelson doing a turn as a Ken Lay-style sleazeball CEO). Not to mention the German mad scientist who gives Mackie’s character cornball advice and then kills himself in the movie’s first five minutes. And so on and so on….

These scenes are all utterly bonkers: they detract from any hope of making a coherent and convincing film; but they are what makes the movie come alive. She Hate Me is a completely crazy potpourri of stereotypes, non sequiturs, stylistic affectations, and random observations. Almost every five minutes I found myself shaking my head in disbelief and wondering: what the hell did Spike Lee think he was doing? But this is precisely what makes She Hate Me into such a fascinating, and (for me, at least) compulsively watchable film.

The Passion of the Christ

I have finally, belatedly, seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Probably everything that can be said about this film , and about the media event of its release, has been said already. Nonetheless, I will try to sort out some of my reactions.

First of all, it is undeniably a powerful film. One can understand why the faithful flocked to see it. The Passion of the Christ owes this power almost exclusively to its unstinting display of tormented, suffering flesh. This display has ample precedents in Christian iconography — the lighting and cinematography owe a lot to hundreds of years of European paintings, many of which Gibson quite consciously called upon as models. But the sight of Jesus’ tortured body in this film has an affective power that cannot be reduced to iconographic references alone; Also, the duration of the body’s torment is crucial to the film, and this is something that can only be captured on film, not in a durationless medium like paint.

More of this in a moment. But there’s an overarching question to be answered first: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Unquestionably it is — but this is not as simple an issue as it might appear. The Jews (given much more “Semitic” features than Jesus and his disciples have) are depicted as monsters of depravity, whose hatred is not slaked even by the torture of Jesus in the very intense whipping scene; they want more suffering, more torture, even to the point of death (Caiaphas demands crucifixion because, he says, Jewish law does not have capital punishment — which is why he needs the Romans to do it). To the contrary, Pontius Pilate is depicted quite sympathetically; as are the other upper-class Romans. (The plebs, or ROman common soldiers, to the contrary, are shown as being as depraved as the Jews, whooping and hollering like drunken frat boys every time they inflict more suffering on Jesus). BUT… in all this, Gibson isn’t really singling out the Jews; he is pretty much just following what the Bible actually says. (There’s one scene where a Roman soldier, grabbing a man from the crowd and drafting him to help Jesus carry the Cross, calls him a dirty Jew, or something like that: an indication that Gibson is aware of the issue). In short, it’s the Gospels that really need to be convicted of anti-Semitism, much more than Gibson himself: though this is an issue that neither Jews nor Christians today are ever willing to face up to squarely. (Though it should be remembered, too, that Gibson quite deliberately stirred up controversy as to whether the film was anti-Semitic, in the months leading up to release, as a marketing ploy to increase anticipation for the film, and to rally the faithful behind him).

The homophobia of Gibson’s portrayal of Herod and his court should also be mentioned. Even as Herod refuses to condemn Jesus (saying that he is insane rather than a criminal), Gibson portrays him as a screaming queen (in the metaphorical sense in which this word is applied to gay men) lording over a court of screaming hysterics of both genders. Homophobia is nothing new for Gibson (there was a lot of it in Braveheart), but it’s worth noting here, if only because (as reported in today’s New York Times) the prospect of a gay pride rally in Jerusalem is the one thing that can bring the Orthodox head rabbis, the Christian Patriarchs, and the Mufti of Jerusalem together in partnership — they all got together to oppose it.

Still, the issue of villainy, or of who is responsible for Jesus’ death, is not really a central concern of The Passion of the Christ. Rather, the display of torture, and the obscene spectacle of Jesus’ flayed and exhausted flesh, is where the libidinal center of the movie lies. Comparisons of The Passion of the Christ to pornography are very much to the point. The film is in many ways quite literally and concertedly sadistic. The figure of Jesus can really only be compared to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: a body whose innocence is directly correlated to her miraculous, infinite ability to bear and suffer pain: Justine cannot be killed throughout the course of Sade’s immense novel, because that would mean a limit to the libertines’ ability to torture her. As the novel goes on, the torments become ever more extreme, ever more Baroque: but no matter how far they go, Justine survives, and indeed retains consciousness, in order that she may receive and suffer still more pain. This is precisely the logic at work in Gibson’s film. It’s a moot question to ask whether this means that Sade is really a Christian in spite of himself, or whether it means that Gibson’s particular version of Christianity is sadistic: these two are just sides of the same coin. What is important is that Gibson’s film gets its emotional power almost exclusively from its depiction of the human body, the flesh, reduced to meat, reduced to pain, reduced to a spectacle, and yet still fully conscious and able to suffer more. Jesus’ actual death is weirdly anticlimactic; and the last scene of the film, the Resurrection, is almost laughably perfunctory. (In this way it’s almost the polar opposite of Dreyer’s Ordet, arguably the greatest Christian film ever made, which is all about resurrection and redemption). Jesus died for our sins — or more precisely, suffered for them — is where Gibson’s theology begins and ends.

I want to insist that, in specifically cinematic terms, sadism and not masochism is at work here. (This despite the fact that — in terms of film theory — I have committed myself in print, at great length, to supporting the masochistic models of spectatorial identification put forth by Gaylyn Studlar and Carol Clover, against the sadistic model proposed by Laura Mulvey). Masochism implies a pleasure in submission, an ambivalent giving-oneself-over to a all-powerful yet unreliable figure (usually female), and the endurance of an infinitude of postponement and delay. These characteristics may well describe Jesus’ relation to the Father in The Passion of the Christ; but they do not describe the viewer’s relation to Jesus. For the viewer, the film proposes the direct, visceral enjoyment — the Lacanians would call it the “obscene jouissance” — of the spectacle of agonizing, lacerated flesh.

That is to say, the film solicits the viewer to (quite literally) enjoy this spectacle — which is not quite the same thing as identifying with Jesus-as-victim. We can’t identify with Jesus — though we are supposed to emulate or imitate him — precisely because his torment is too extreme, too excessive, to be borne. (Gibson makes it clear that the two thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus do not suffer anywhere near as much as he does: they haven’t been beaten and flayed first, their bodies aren’t anywhere near as bloody, and their agonies are much shorter). Nor, of course, can we identify with Jesus’ tormentors — Gibson uses every trick in the Hollywood playbook to signify that these tormentors are despicable and hateful — despite the fact that Jesus prays to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” Nonetheless, the film is set up so that we are gratified by Jesus’ torment: the more horrifying, the more explicit it is, the more the believer is justified in his/her faith, and the more the viewers — regardless of whether those viewers are empirically believers — is filled with a kind of sublime convulsion. All we want is more, more, more: we find ourselves in the frenzy of a kind of negative ecstasy that is heightened even further, the more the horror is poured on, the more directly the obscenity is burned into our eyeballs, the more Jesus’ body convulses or collapses in exhaustion, the more the rivulets of blood stream from his flesh.

It little matters that we, the viewers, feel this jouissance in the form of horror and indignation, rather than with the grim self-satisfaction of Caiphas and the other rabbis, or with the brute delight of the Roman legions. It’s still something that we directly revel in, as it takes us outside ourselves, beyond ourselves. And I insist on this “we”, rather than saying “I”; I can think of no film, besides Triumph of the Will or Battleship Potemkin, that so powerfully and emphatically addresses its audience as a collective, rather than as a mere collection of isolated selves.

If this were all that The Passion of the Christ did, I would have to say it was a great work of art, however unsavory — and however unacceptable to most believers — its astonishing sadistic jubilation might be. But unfortunately, it is not the whole story. There’s a whole apparatus that surrounds the sadistic spectacle: and that is where the problem really lies. The torture of Jesus is intercut with lengthy reaction shots, depicting the empathetic sadness of the Virgin Mother, of Mary Magdelen, of the Apostles, and even of some mere onlookers who distinguish themselves from the ugly Jewish mob. The torture is interrupted with flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount, to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” to the Last Supper, even to a scene of Jesus as a young child slipping and falling, and being comforted by his mother. The torture is supplemented with scenes (both in the present and in these flashbacks) in absolutely dreadful slo-mo. And the whole is accompanied by an overbearing soundtrack (as insistent and bombastic as the ones John Williams provides for Spielberg) of santimonious sacramental music. All these aspects of the film are incredibly lame — they manifest the continuing presence of “Hollywood” at its stupidest, laziest, and most cliched — and so overdone that you cannot ignore them.

The effect of this weighty apparatus is to muffle the impact of the sadistic spectacle, to frame it and distance it in a way that makes it “socially acceptable.” This apparatus disavows the jouissance at the film’s core, allowing it to wend its way into the hearts and minds of the spectators, while at the same time reassuring us that we aren’t really enjoying something so cruel and barbaric. Now, of course, Gibson never could have made the film — and Christians would never have flocked to see it — without this elaborate scaffolding of disavowal. But that is precisely what is so insidious about it. What I am calling the film’s superstructure, or surrounding Hollywood apparatus, is what allows us, the viewers, to walk away from the film with a good conscience. And this normalization by way of good conscience is the one substantial way in which Gibson’s art does differ from that of the Marquis de Sade. Gibson restores, as Sade does not, the veneer of civilzation; he gives us the sadistic jouissance, but then he lets us off the hook.

One might make a Christian argument that Gibson’s capital sin as a filmmaker is precisely to forget original sin, to forget that each one of us — every human being — is guilty of Jesus’ death. Since I’m not a Christian, I will not follow up such a line of argument. I will say, though, that Gibson’s maneuver is exactly the one that allows people to support violence and torture — at the limit to become killers and torturers themselves — in “good faith.” The combination of sadistic jouissance and self-exculpating distance is what allows us to approve of foul means because they are in a good cause, or for a valuable ideal. And this is where the film does make contact with the “culture wars” and political struggles taking place in America today. It is what allows people (like President Bush) to mourn Terri Schiavo as a martyr, and to champion the rights of 12-week fetuses, while at the same time gleefully applying capital punishment to scores of inmates, and defending the torture in Abu Ghraib on the (inconsistent) grounds that it was either harmless “blowing off steam,” or a grim necessity in order to win the “war on terror.”

What it finally comes down to, I think, is a kind of exceptionalism. The word is often used to describe the United States of America, allegedly radically different from any other society on Earth, and by virtue of that justified in exempting itself from the obligations and mutual agreements that bind all other nations and societies. But I am thinking of “exceptionalism” in a related, but slightly different, sense. The argument of The Passion of the Christ is finally that Jesus’ Passion is greater than, qualitatively different from, and incommensurate with, any other inflictions of torture and pain that have ever occurred in the course of human history. And this incommensurability is what authorizes Christians to see themselves as uniquely victimized and persecuted, no matter how much actual power they have, and therefore authorizes them to perform (and indeed to institutionalize) actions that they would not allow to anyone else.

Lest I be accused of anti-Christian bigotry here, let me note that the same phenomenon runs rampant among my own people. Jewish identity today is largely built around the memory of the Holocaust, and on the idea that the Holocaust is unique, greater than and absolutely incommensurate with any other incidents of massacre, slaughter, genocide, enslavement, etc., in all of human history. And this in turn provides an alibi for Jewish (anti-black) racism in the United States, as for Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. We’ve suffered more than they have, the argument runs; with the implicit (but rarely stated outright) corollary that therefore we are justified in what we do to them. This kind of thinking, however much it arises out of high ethical principles — in the cases both of the Jews and the Christians — can only lead to extending the cycle of pain and oppression.

I have finally, belatedly, seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Probably everything that can be said about this film , and about the media event of its release, has been said already. Nonetheless, I will try to sort out some of my reactions.

First of all, it is undeniably a powerful film. One can understand why the faithful flocked to see it. The Passion of the Christ owes this power almost exclusively to its unstinting display of tormented, suffering flesh. This display has ample precedents in Christian iconography — the lighting and cinematography owe a lot to hundreds of years of European paintings, many of which Gibson quite consciously called upon as models. But the sight of Jesus’ tortured body in this film has an affective power that cannot be reduced to iconographic references alone; Also, the duration of the body’s torment is crucial to the film, and this is something that can only be captured on film, not in a durationless medium like paint.

More of this in a moment. But there’s an overarching question to be answered first: Is The Passion of the Christ anti-Semitic? Unquestionably it is — but this is not as simple an issue as it might appear. The Jews (given much more “Semitic” features than Jesus and his disciples have) are depicted as monsters of depravity, whose hatred is not slaked even by the torture of Jesus in the very intense whipping scene; they want more suffering, more torture, even to the point of death (Caiaphas demands crucifixion because, he says, Jewish law does not have capital punishment — which is why he needs the Romans to do it). To the contrary, Pontius Pilate is depicted quite sympathetically; as are the other upper-class Romans. (The plebs, or ROman common soldiers, to the contrary, are shown as being as depraved as the Jews, whooping and hollering like drunken frat boys every time they inflict more suffering on Jesus). BUT… in all this, Gibson isn’t really singling out the Jews; he is pretty much just following what the Bible actually says. (There’s one scene where a Roman soldier, grabbing a man from the crowd and drafting him to help Jesus carry the Cross, calls him a dirty Jew, or something like that: an indication that Gibson is aware of the issue). In short, it’s the Gospels that really need to be convicted of anti-Semitism, much more than Gibson himself: though this is an issue that neither Jews nor Christians today are ever willing to face up to squarely. (Though it should be remembered, too, that Gibson quite deliberately stirred up controversy as to whether the film was anti-Semitic, in the months leading up to release, as a marketing ploy to increase anticipation for the film, and to rally the faithful behind him).

The homophobia of Gibson’s portrayal of Herod and his court should also be mentioned. Even as Herod refuses to condemn Jesus (saying that he is insane rather than a criminal), Gibson portrays him as a screaming queen (in the metaphorical sense in which this word is applied to gay men) lording over a court of screaming hysterics of both genders. Homophobia is nothing new for Gibson (there was a lot of it in Braveheart), but it’s worth noting here, if only because (as reported in today’s New York Times) the prospect of a gay pride rally in Jerusalem is the one thing that can bring the Orthodox head rabbis, the Christian Patriarchs, and the Mufti of Jerusalem together in partnership — they all got together to oppose it.

Still, the issue of villainy, or of who is responsible for Jesus’ death, is not really a central concern of The Passion of the Christ. Rather, the display of torture, and the obscene spectacle of Jesus’ flayed and exhausted flesh, is where the libidinal center of the movie lies. Comparisons of The Passion of the Christ to pornography are very much to the point. The film is in many ways quite literally and concertedly sadistic. The figure of Jesus can really only be compared to the Marquis de Sade’s Justine: a body whose innocence is directly correlated to her miraculous, infinite ability to bear and suffer pain: Justine cannot be killed throughout the course of Sade’s immense novel, because that would mean a limit to the libertines’ ability to torture her. As the novel goes on, the torments become ever more extreme, ever more Baroque: but no matter how far they go, Justine survives, and indeed retains consciousness, in order that she may receive and suffer still more pain. This is precisely the logic at work in Gibson’s film. It’s a moot question to ask whether this means that Sade is really a Christian in spite of himself, or whether it means that Gibson’s particular version of Christianity is sadistic: these two are just sides of the same coin. What is important is that Gibson’s film gets its emotional power almost exclusively from its depiction of the human body, the flesh, reduced to meat, reduced to pain, reduced to a spectacle, and yet still fully conscious and able to suffer more. Jesus’ actual death is weirdly anticlimactic; and the last scene of the film, the Resurrection, is almost laughably perfunctory. (In this way it’s almost the polar opposite of Dreyer’s Ordet, arguably the greatest Christian film ever made, which is all about resurrection and redemption). Jesus died for our sins — or more precisely, suffered for them — is where Gibson’s theology begins and ends.

I want to insist that, in specifically cinematic terms, sadism and not masochism is at work here. (This despite the fact that — in terms of film theory — I have committed myself in print, at great length, to supporting the masochistic models of spectatorial identification put forth by Gaylyn Studlar and Carol Clover, against the sadistic model proposed by Laura Mulvey). Masochism implies a pleasure in submission, an ambivalent giving-oneself-over to a all-powerful yet unreliable figure (usually female), and the endurance of an infinitude of postponement and delay. These characteristics may well describe Jesus’ relation to the Father in The Passion of the Christ; but they do not describe the viewer’s relation to Jesus. For the viewer, the film proposes the direct, visceral enjoyment — the Lacanians would call it the “obscene jouissance” — of the spectacle of agonizing, lacerated flesh.

That is to say, the film solicits the viewer to (quite literally) enjoy this spectacle — which is not quite the same thing as identifying with Jesus-as-victim. We can’t identify with Jesus — though we are supposed to emulate or imitate him — precisely because his torment is too extreme, too excessive, to be borne. (Gibson makes it clear that the two thieves who are crucified alongside Jesus do not suffer anywhere near as much as he does: they haven’t been beaten and flayed first, their bodies aren’t anywhere near as bloody, and their agonies are much shorter). Nor, of course, can we identify with Jesus’ tormentors — Gibson uses every trick in the Hollywood playbook to signify that these tormentors are despicable and hateful — despite the fact that Jesus prays to forgive them, “for they know not what they do.” Nonetheless, the film is set up so that we are gratified by Jesus’ torment: the more horrifying, the more explicit it is, the more the believer is justified in his/her faith, and the more the viewers — regardless of whether those viewers are empirically believers — is filled with a kind of sublime convulsion. All we want is more, more, more: we find ourselves in the frenzy of a kind of negative ecstasy that is heightened even further, the more the horror is poured on, the more directly the obscenity is burned into our eyeballs, the more Jesus’ body convulses or collapses in exhaustion, the more the rivulets of blood stream from his flesh.

It little matters that we, the viewers, feel this jouissance in the form of horror and indignation, rather than with the grim self-satisfaction of Caiphas and the other rabbis, or with the brute delight of the Roman legions. It’s still something that we directly revel in, as it takes us outside ourselves, beyond ourselves. And I insist on this “we”, rather than saying “I”; I can think of no film, besides Triumph of the Will or Battleship Potemkin, that so powerfully and emphatically addresses its audience as a collective, rather than as a mere collection of isolated selves.

If this were all that The Passion of the Christ did, I would have to say it was a great work of art, however unsavory — and however unacceptable to most believers — its astonishing sadistic jubilation might be. But unfortunately, it is not the whole story. There’s a whole apparatus that surrounds the sadistic spectacle: and that is where the problem really lies. The torture of Jesus is intercut with lengthy reaction shots, depicting the empathetic sadness of the Virgin Mother, of Mary Magdelen, of the Apostles, and even of some mere onlookers who distinguish themselves from the ugly Jewish mob. The torture is interrupted with flashbacks to the Sermon on the Mount, to “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” to the Last Supper, even to a scene of Jesus as a young child slipping and falling, and being comforted by his mother. The torture is supplemented with scenes (both in the present and in these flashbacks) in absolutely dreadful slo-mo. And the whole is accompanied by an overbearing soundtrack (as insistent and bombastic as the ones John Williams provides for Spielberg) of santimonious sacramental music. All these aspects of the film are incredibly lame — they manifest the continuing presence of “Hollywood” at its stupidest, laziest, and most cliched — and so overdone that you cannot ignore them.

The effect of this weighty apparatus is to muffle the impact of the sadistic spectacle, to frame it and distance it in a way that makes it “socially acceptable.” This apparatus disavows the jouissance at the film’s core, allowing it to wend its way into the hearts and minds of the spectators, while at the same time reassuring us that we aren’t really enjoying something so cruel and barbaric. Now, of course, Gibson never could have made the film — and Christians would never have flocked to see it — without this elaborate scaffolding of disavowal. But that is precisely what is so insidious about it. What I am calling the film’s superstructure, or surrounding Hollywood apparatus, is what allows us, the viewers, to walk away from the film with a good conscience. And this normalization by way of good conscience is the one substantial way in which Gibson’s art does differ from that of the Marquis de Sade. Gibson restores, as Sade does not, the veneer of civilzation; he gives us the sadistic jouissance, but then he lets us off the hook.

One might make a Christian argument that Gibson’s capital sin as a filmmaker is precisely to forget original sin, to forget that each one of us — every human being — is guilty of Jesus’ death. Since I’m not a Christian, I will not follow up such a line of argument. I will say, though, that Gibson’s maneuver is exactly the one that allows people to support violence and torture — at the limit to become killers and torturers themselves — in “good faith.” The combination of sadistic jouissance and self-exculpating distance is what allows us to approve of foul means because they are in a good cause, or for a valuable ideal. And this is where the film does make contact with the “culture wars” and political struggles taking place in America today. It is what allows people (like President Bush) to mourn Terri Schiavo as a martyr, and to champion the rights of 12-week fetuses, while at the same time gleefully applying capital punishment to scores of inmates, and defending the torture in Abu Ghraib on the (inconsistent) grounds that it was either harmless “blowing off steam,” or a grim necessity in order to win the “war on terror.”

What it finally comes down to, I think, is a kind of exceptionalism. The word is often used to describe the United States of America, allegedly radically different from any other society on Earth, and by virtue of that justified in exempting itself from the obligations and mutual agreements that bind all other nations and societies. But I am thinking of “exceptionalism” in a related, but slightly different, sense. The argument of The Passion of the Christ is finally that Jesus’ Passion is greater than, qualitatively different from, and incommensurate with, any other inflictions of torture and pain that have ever occurred in the course of human history. And this incommensurability is what authorizes Christians to see themselves as uniquely victimized and persecuted, no matter how much actual power they have, and therefore authorizes them to perform (and indeed to institutionalize) actions that they would not allow to anyone else.

Lest I be accused of anti-Christian bigotry here, let me note that the same phenomenon runs rampant among my own people. Jewish identity today is largely built around the memory of the Holocaust, and on the idea that the Holocaust is unique, greater than and absolutely incommensurate with any other incidents of massacre, slaughter, genocide, enslavement, etc., in all of human history. And this in turn provides an alibi for Jewish (anti-black) racism in the United States, as for Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians. We’ve suffered more than they have, the argument runs; with the implicit (but rarely stated outright) corollary that therefore we are justified in what we do to them. This kind of thinking, however much it arises out of high ethical principles — in the cases both of the Jews and the Christians — can only lead to extending the cycle of pain and oppression.

The Big Red One

I saw Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One on the very first day of its initial theatrical release in 1980. My auteurist passion for Fuller has never wavered, but I did not see The Big Red One again until today, a quarter-century after my initial viewing, when I finally got to see the reconstructed version, released last year with 45 minutes or so of additional footage.

There were only two scenes that I remembered from my initial viewing. There’s the moment when a solider has been exploded by a mine, and Lee Marvin’s crusty sergeant picks up a bloody mass of flesh and hurls it away, telling the soldier that this is one of his balls, and he should feel lucky that nature gave him two. And there’s the near-climax when Marvin’s unit liberates a German concentration camp, and a soldier opens a door and stares numbly into one of the ovens (we aren’t shown much of the horror, but mostly just this sublimely inexpressive reaction shot).

The Big Red One is an utterly amazing film, though it isn’t necessarily even Fuller’s best war movie. (That would probably be The Steel Helmet; Merrill’s Marauders is also first-rate). But as a World War II epic, it clearly transcends most of the genre — both its many predecessors, and such subsequent films as Spielberg’s meretricious Saving Private Ryan, and even Terence Malick’s sublime The Thin Red Line. Lee Marvin is great — his world-weariness even exceeds his toughness — and the rest of the ensemble cast is convincingly grim. The film says a lot about The Horrors of War — at the end, the narrator tells us that the only glory in warfare is survival.

The Big Red One, like many of Fuller’s films, combines often corny dialogue, amazing camerawork, and an over-the-top narrative audacity. The first half of the film is dominated by gripping battle scenes, alternating between tight close-ups and chaotic (but actually finely controlled) long shots. These scenes are grueling, but somewhat distanced by Fuller’s adherence to familiar genre conventions. (It was evidently Spielberg’s ambition in the opening Omaha Beach sequence of Ryan to surpass Fuller, which I guess he does in technical terms, and also in intensity by dint of sheer relentlessness, but Fuller still seems to me to be superior in terms of affective resonance).

But perhaps “adherence to familiar genre conventions” is not quite right. Fuller blows up genre conventions to monstrous proportions, and makes explicit what the genre usually keeps as subtext. Thus in an early scene, during an amphibious landing, the soldiers protect their rifles from the water by covering them with condoms. Homoeroticism is always close to the surface, and nearly every verbal reference to sex, or narrative suggestion of the soldiers possibly being able to have sex, is followed almost instantly by an unexpected attack, so that battle is figured repeatedly as coitus interruptus.

As the film progresses, things become increasingly bizarre, surreal, and absurdist. Straight battle sequences give way to insane, floridly operatic scenarios: the GIs must help a boy bury his mother, whose stinking corpse is being donkey-carted through the Sicilian countryside; the Germans stage an elaborate ambush by pretending to be already dead, in order to lure the US soldiers off guard, but the Americans kill them anyway; a French woman whose husband has just been killed gives birth inside a tank (the medic puts condoms on all his fingers in lieu of sanitary gloves); an elaborate infiltration/shoot-out takes place in an insane asylum. There are also spooky scenes like a gun battle in the forest, with the fog so thick that nobody can see whom they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them.

Fuller famously expressed scorn for the idea that a war movie could ever be “realistic.” He said that the only realistic war movie would be one in which a machine gun behind the screen would fire directly at the audience. (It’s not surprising, in Fuller’s terms, that Spielberg combines a claim to depict war realistically with an uncritical recapitulation of all the cliches about heroism, etc., that Fuller is rather concerned to demystify). So The Big Red One does not strive for realism; rather, it suggests precisely that war stands so far outside the parameters of everyday experience, and of livability, that it can only be represented as being profoundly “unrealistic.” It cannot, and does not, make normative sense: and its absurdity is something that Fuller’s soldiers respond to with little more than a stoic shrug of the shoulders. The film is littered with corpses, and Marvin walks among them with a grim refusal, or failure, to react. He repeats the mantra that killing is different from murder: we kill the enemy just as we kill animals. But his conscience is tormented by the repeated scenario of killing an enemy after the armistice, which makes it murder after all.

The result is a film of powerfully skewed affect. You feel numbness rather than horror, but this numbness is itself highly charged (if that isn’t too outrageous an oxymoron). The film creates a kind of schizophrenic derealization: an estrangement-effect that paralyzes the intellect instead of energizing it. The result is a kind of stunned disengagement, which is also on a meta-level a kind of positive engagement, only with an impossible, strictly unthinkable, situation. This is, I think, the anti-fascist way of “aestheticizing” war, a phenomenon that I hope never to encounter outside of the movies.

I saw Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One on the very first day of its initial theatrical release in 1980. My auteurist passion for Fuller has never wavered, but I did not see The Big Red One again until today, a quarter-century after my initial viewing, when I finally got to see the reconstructed version, released last year with 45 minutes or so of additional footage.

There were only two scenes that I remembered from my initial viewing. There’s the moment when a solider has been exploded by a mine, and Lee Marvin’s crusty sergeant picks up a bloody mass of flesh and hurls it away, telling the soldier that this is one of his balls, and he should feel lucky that nature gave him two. And there’s the near-climax when Marvin’s unit liberates a German concentration camp, and a soldier opens a door and stares numbly into one of the ovens (we aren’t shown much of the horror, but mostly just this sublimely inexpressive reaction shot).

The Big Red One is an utterly amazing film, though it isn’t necessarily even Fuller’s best war movie. (That would probably be The Steel Helmet; Merrill’s Marauders is also first-rate). But as a World War II epic, it clearly transcends most of the genre — both its many predecessors, and such subsequent films as Spielberg’s meretricious Saving Private Ryan, and even Terence Malick’s sublime The Thin Red Line. Lee Marvin is great — his world-weariness even exceeds his toughness — and the rest of the ensemble cast is convincingly grim. The film says a lot about The Horrors of War — at the end, the narrator tells us that the only glory in warfare is survival.

The Big Red One, like many of Fuller’s films, combines often corny dialogue, amazing camerawork, and an over-the-top narrative audacity. The first half of the film is dominated by gripping battle scenes, alternating between tight close-ups and chaotic (but actually finely controlled) long shots. These scenes are grueling, but somewhat distanced by Fuller’s adherence to familiar genre conventions. (It was evidently Spielberg’s ambition in the opening Omaha Beach sequence of Ryan to surpass Fuller, which I guess he does in technical terms, and also in intensity by dint of sheer relentlessness, but Fuller still seems to me to be superior in terms of affective resonance).

But perhaps “adherence to familiar genre conventions” is not quite right. Fuller blows up genre conventions to monstrous proportions, and makes explicit what the genre usually keeps as subtext. Thus in an early scene, during an amphibious landing, the soldiers protect their rifles from the water by covering them with condoms. Homoeroticism is always close to the surface, and nearly every verbal reference to sex, or narrative suggestion of the soldiers possibly being able to have sex, is followed almost instantly by an unexpected attack, so that battle is figured repeatedly as coitus interruptus.

As the film progresses, things become increasingly bizarre, surreal, and absurdist. Straight battle sequences give way to insane, floridly operatic scenarios: the GIs must help a boy bury his mother, whose stinking corpse is being donkey-carted through the Sicilian countryside; the Germans stage an elaborate ambush by pretending to be already dead, in order to lure the US soldiers off guard, but the Americans kill them anyway; a French woman whose husband has just been killed gives birth inside a tank (the medic puts condoms on all his fingers in lieu of sanitary gloves); an elaborate infiltration/shoot-out takes place in an insane asylum. There are also spooky scenes like a gun battle in the forest, with the fog so thick that nobody can see whom they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them.

Fuller famously expressed scorn for the idea that a war movie could ever be “realistic.” He said that the only realistic war movie would be one in which a machine gun behind the screen would fire directly at the audience. (It’s not surprising, in Fuller’s terms, that Spielberg combines a claim to depict war realistically with an uncritical recapitulation of all the cliches about heroism, etc., that Fuller is rather concerned to demystify). So The Big Red One does not strive for realism; rather, it suggests precisely that war stands so far outside the parameters of everyday experience, and of livability, that it can only be represented as being profoundly “unrealistic.” It cannot, and does not, make normative sense: and its absurdity is something that Fuller’s soldiers respond to with little more than a stoic shrug of the shoulders. The film is littered with corpses, and Marvin walks among them with a grim refusal, or failure, to react. He repeats the mantra that killing is different from murder: we kill the enemy just as we kill animals. But his conscience is tormented by the repeated scenario of killing an enemy after the armistice, which makes it murder after all.

The result is a film of powerfully skewed affect. You feel numbness rather than horror, but this numbness is itself highly charged (if that isn’t too outrageous an oxymoron). The film creates a kind of schizophrenic derealization: an estrangement-effect that paralyzes the intellect instead of energizing it. The result is a kind of stunned disengagement, which is also on a meta-level a kind of positive engagement, only with an impossible, strictly unthinkable, situation. This is, I think, the anti-fascist way of “aestheticizing” war, a phenomenon that I hope never to encounter outside of the movies.

Collateral

Michael Mann’s Collateral is a film of many small virtues, notably its modesty. For a Tom Cruise vehicle, it’s surprisingly free of affectation. Cruise’s own performance as the heavy is quite disciplined — despite the character’s built-in potential for over-the-top hamminess. Cruise also deserves praise for making room for Jamie Foxx’s fine turn as the reluctant, didn’t-know-he-had-it-in-him hero. (If it had been up to me, Foxx would have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in addition to the Best Actor one he did win).

Michael Mann is content (like Clint Eastwood) to work within genre formulas, rather than hyperbolizing and hybridizing them as Tarantino does. Mann turns the familiarity of the form to his advantage by basically letting the plot take care of itself, the better to focus on character and on character interactions. This includes both revealing facets of the characters that are unknown to themselves as well as to others; but it also includes impersonation and fabulation, the putting on of masks, the becoming somebody utterly different than oneself. The ostensibly realistic character development of a film like Collateral is also a self-reflexive meditation upon acting. (Foxx’s taxi driver constantly has to figure out what he can and cannot get away with, faced with Cruise’s killer for hire; and then, at one point, he is even compelled to impersonate Cruise’s character itself). The banter between Cruise and Foxx itself becomes sort of philosophical, as it reflects on the existential and ontological dimensions of the characters’ roles and actions. And it’s precisely because of the unpretentious genre framework of the film that Mann, Cruise, and Foxx are able to get away with this.

Collateral is also distinguished by Mann’s visual poetry. He’s always been a master of depicting urban landscapes, usually being glided through by car: this goes back to Thief, his first major feature, as well as, of course, to Miami Vice. Here, nocturnal Los Angeles is ghostly and beautiful, by turns open and closed, free and deadly. Mann’s Los Angeles is a postmodern landscape of lateral motion, anonymous architecture, middles without beginnings or ends, hubs of intense activity where everyone is in your face (the hospital, the disco) surrounded by vast spaces that are never inhabited but only moved through at speed by drivers invisible to one another from within the protected coccoons of their cars. Mann’s LA, like Johnnie To’s Hong Kong, is one of those phantasmic, yet all-too-real, future (postmodern) spaces that are altering our very notion of landscape, changing our sense of what it means to inhabit a space.

Michael Mann’s Collateral is a film of many small virtues, notably its modesty. For a Tom Cruise vehicle, it’s surprisingly free of affectation. Cruise’s own performance as the heavy is quite disciplined — despite the character’s built-in potential for over-the-top hamminess. Cruise also deserves praise for making room for Jamie Foxx’s fine turn as the reluctant, didn’t-know-he-had-it-in-him hero. (If it had been up to me, Foxx would have won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in addition to the Best Actor one he did win).

Michael Mann is content (like Clint Eastwood) to work within genre formulas, rather than hyperbolizing and hybridizing them as Tarantino does. Mann turns the familiarity of the form to his advantage by basically letting the plot take care of itself, the better to focus on character and on character interactions. This includes both revealing facets of the characters that are unknown to themselves as well as to others; but it also includes impersonation and fabulation, the putting on of masks, the becoming somebody utterly different than oneself. The ostensibly realistic character development of a film like Collateral is also a self-reflexive meditation upon acting. (Foxx’s taxi driver constantly has to figure out what he can and cannot get away with, faced with Cruise’s killer for hire; and then, at one point, he is even compelled to impersonate Cruise’s character itself). The banter between Cruise and Foxx itself becomes sort of philosophical, as it reflects on the existential and ontological dimensions of the characters’ roles and actions. And it’s precisely because of the unpretentious genre framework of the film that Mann, Cruise, and Foxx are able to get away with this.

Collateral is also distinguished by Mann’s visual poetry. He’s always been a master of depicting urban landscapes, usually being glided through by car: this goes back to Thief, his first major feature, as well as, of course, to Miami Vice. Here, nocturnal Los Angeles is ghostly and beautiful, by turns open and closed, free and deadly. Mann’s Los Angeles is a postmodern landscape of lateral motion, anonymous architecture, middles without beginnings or ends, hubs of intense activity where everyone is in your face (the hospital, the disco) surrounded by vast spaces that are never inhabited but only moved through at speed by drivers invisible to one another from within the protected coccoons of their cars. Mann’s LA, like Johnnie To’s Hong Kong, is one of those phantasmic, yet all-too-real, future (postmodern) spaces that are altering our very notion of landscape, changing our sense of what it means to inhabit a space.

Bad Education

I adored Bad Education, even though I don’t think it’s Almodovar‘s best film. (I didn’t like it quite as much as his previous film, Talk To Her). It’s pretty much pure melodrama, with less humor/absurdity than many of his earlier films. Of course, you could argue that drag queens in Almodovar are always campy and absurd, at the same time that they are people of passion and pathos; but here the balance is more towards the passion and pathos, and less toward the absurdity, than in many of his previous films. This may be, in part, because Bad Education is one of Almodovar’s most overtly gay films — all the relationships in the film are between men, for the first time, I think, since Law of Desire in 1987. But then, one of the great things about Almodovar is that he has never made any distinction between gay and straight passions/relationships: all of them are equally queer, all equally delirious and obsessive. This is what’s utopian about his movies. It’s remarkable how he can create this sort of equality, even as all the passions he depicts are intransitive, i.e. not reciprocal, not fully reciprocated. Almodovar is fully aware of the power relations that flow from different privileges of gender and sexuality; it’s not by ignoring these, but precisely through them, that he creates sympathy for the madly-in-love obsessives who populate his films. The pedophile priest in Bad Education, however, is not quite as exalted as the protagonist of Talk To Her, who impregnates the woman of his dreams while she is in a years-long coma; Bad Education is a somewhat colder film. The melodrama turns more on mystery and disguise than on thwarted passion, and so the film is less about extravagance than it is about mirrorings of situations, doublings of identity, and life imitating art imitating life. All the characters are troubled, but Gael Garcia Bernal’s hustler/actor/drag queen remains opaque to the end — he’s a performer, everything he does is masked, and when the masks drop it’s only to reveal other masks. Resolving the melodrama — or at least revealing the mystery — in this self-consciously aestheticized way is Almodovar’s alternative, I guess, to the tragedy of passion (equally aestheticized, but far less archly self-conscious) depicted in Talk To Her. All in all, it’s quite a distance to this film from the campy excess of the early films (What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Matator, and Law of Desire) that first led me to fall in love with Almodovar nearly two decades ago. But I won’t endorse either of the cliches that usually come up on occasions like this: I think neither that Almodovar has matured and deepened his art, nor that he has abandoned his early radicalism and excess for mainstream tastefulness and dullness. The world has changed and Almodovar has changed with the world, which is why he has moved from low-budget camp to slick art-house fare, or from emulating early John Waters to emulating mid-period Vincente Minnelli. In a real sense, it is precisely through these shifts that Almodovar has kept alive the lovely utopianism that I mentioned earlier: a utopianism not of Blochian hope, nor of Adornoesque disalienation, nor even really of surrealist freedom of the imagination, but rather just of the singularity, stubbornness, and sheer stupidity of passion itself, its refusal to resign itself to the facts, or to pay heed to the counsels of good sense, the demands of self-preservation, and the glittering allurements of commodity fetishism. This is perhaps why Almodovar sets his relatively disillusioned narrative in the early 1980s, that extraordinary moment of flowering for Spanish culture after the death of Franco, when Almodovar himself got his start as a filmmaker, and when both democracy and gay liberation seemed to promise so much more than the bourgeois normalization that is legacy for Spain (and for some other countries, mostly in western Europe, that are happily less benighted than the United States) today.

I adored Bad Education, even though I don’t think it’s Almodovar‘s best film. (I didn’t like it quite as much as his previous film, Talk To Her). It’s pretty much pure melodrama, with less humor/absurdity than many of his earlier films. Of course, you could argue that drag queens in Almodovar are always campy and absurd, at the same time that they are people of passion and pathos; but here the balance is more towards the passion and pathos, and less toward the absurdity, than in many of his previous films. This may be, in part, because Bad Education is one of Almodovar’s most overtly gay films — all the relationships in the film are between men, for the first time, I think, since Law of Desire in 1987. But then, one of the great things about Almodovar is that he has never made any distinction between gay and straight passions/relationships: all of them are equally queer, all equally delirious and obsessive. This is what’s utopian about his movies. It’s remarkable how he can create this sort of equality, even as all the passions he depicts are intransitive, i.e. not reciprocal, not fully reciprocated. Almodovar is fully aware of the power relations that flow from different privileges of gender and sexuality; it’s not by ignoring these, but precisely through them, that he creates sympathy for the madly-in-love obsessives who populate his films. The pedophile priest in Bad Education, however, is not quite as exalted as the protagonist of Talk To Her, who impregnates the woman of his dreams while she is in a years-long coma; Bad Education is a somewhat colder film. The melodrama turns more on mystery and disguise than on thwarted passion, and so the film is less about extravagance than it is about mirrorings of situations, doublings of identity, and life imitating art imitating life. All the characters are troubled, but Gael Garcia Bernal’s hustler/actor/drag queen remains opaque to the end — he’s a performer, everything he does is masked, and when the masks drop it’s only to reveal other masks. Resolving the melodrama — or at least revealing the mystery — in this self-consciously aestheticized way is Almodovar’s alternative, I guess, to the tragedy of passion (equally aestheticized, but far less archly self-conscious) depicted in Talk To Her. All in all, it’s quite a distance to this film from the campy excess of the early films (What Have I Done To Deserve This?, Matator, and Law of Desire) that first led me to fall in love with Almodovar nearly two decades ago. But I won’t endorse either of the cliches that usually come up on occasions like this: I think neither that Almodovar has matured and deepened his art, nor that he has abandoned his early radicalism and excess for mainstream tastefulness and dullness. The world has changed and Almodovar has changed with the world, which is why he has moved from low-budget camp to slick art-house fare, or from emulating early John Waters to emulating mid-period Vincente Minnelli. In a real sense, it is precisely through these shifts that Almodovar has kept alive the lovely utopianism that I mentioned earlier: a utopianism not of Blochian hope, nor of Adornoesque disalienation, nor even really of surrealist freedom of the imagination, but rather just of the singularity, stubbornness, and sheer stupidity of passion itself, its refusal to resign itself to the facts, or to pay heed to the counsels of good sense, the demands of self-preservation, and the glittering allurements of commodity fetishism. This is perhaps why Almodovar sets his relatively disillusioned narrative in the early 1980s, that extraordinary moment of flowering for Spanish culture after the death of Franco, when Almodovar himself got his start as a filmmaker, and when both democracy and gay liberation seemed to promise so much more than the bourgeois normalization that is legacy for Spain (and for some other countries, mostly in western Europe, that are happily less benighted than the United States) today.

Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle

I simply adored Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It may be just another dumb, immature, homosocial/homophobic stoner comedy. But it’s a good one. It wasn’t too sexist or homophobic, the product plugs are sufficiently tongue-in-cheek not to be overly offensive, and it kept me chuckling throughout (though, without pot, I didn’t have any real belly laughs). There’s real chemistry in the Felix/Oscar dynamics between John Cho and Kal Penn: Harold and Kumar are the best pairing since at least Bill and Ted. And it’s not just that both leads are Asian American: a first for this kind of film, and a real breakout from the minority-as-sidekick syndrome. But more, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle really gets race in America right. Asians are not white — and neither are Jews, quite. However overachieving (and the film has a lot to say with its parody and deconstruction of the Asian overachiever syndrome), they don’t have full access to white skin privilege (though they are closer to it, and better off, than black people, of course). Among white people, the poor and unhip come across pretty well (the film also deconstructs “white trash” stereotypes), while the villains of the movie are racist cops, a gang of abusive skateboard skinhead poseurs, and (finally) a pair of WASPy ex-frat-boy junior executives who get a well-deserved comeuppance for taking their privileged status so smugly for granted. In short, this is progressive filmmaking of a far higher order than Tim Robbins or Warren Beatty has ever done.

I simply adored Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It may be just another dumb, immature, homosocial/homophobic stoner comedy. But it’s a good one. It wasn’t too sexist or homophobic, the product plugs are sufficiently tongue-in-cheek not to be overly offensive, and it kept me chuckling throughout (though, without pot, I didn’t have any real belly laughs). There’s real chemistry in the Felix/Oscar dynamics between John Cho and Kal Penn: Harold and Kumar are the best pairing since at least Bill and Ted. And it’s not just that both leads are Asian American: a first for this kind of film, and a real breakout from the minority-as-sidekick syndrome. But more, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle really gets race in America right. Asians are not white — and neither are Jews, quite. However overachieving (and the film has a lot to say with its parody and deconstruction of the Asian overachiever syndrome), they don’t have full access to white skin privilege (though they are closer to it, and better off, than black people, of course). Among white people, the poor and unhip come across pretty well (the film also deconstructs “white trash” stereotypes), while the villains of the movie are racist cops, a gang of abusive skateboard skinhead poseurs, and (finally) a pair of WASPy ex-frat-boy junior executives who get a well-deserved comeuppance for taking their privileged status so smugly for granted. In short, this is progressive filmmaking of a far higher order than Tim Robbins or Warren Beatty has ever done.

Primer

I’m not sure how much I can write about Shane Carruth’s Primer, since (like most viewers, apparently) I am unable to give a coherent summary of its plot after having seen it once. But not understanding the plot scarcely seems to matter. The film is dense, elliptical, and powerfully involving, and I doubt a point-by-point explanation of “what happens” would make much of a difference, in terms of its impact.

Primer is about two engineers, working in a garage in an anonymous suburb somewhere in the Sunbelt (the film was shot in the environs of Dallas), who stumble upon an amazing invention. They are really just tinkering, with no particular goal in mind aside from the vague hope of coming up with something that will make them money. But it turns out that they have devised a time travel machine: it looks sort of like a strongbox or a coffin, but if they crawl inside and stay for, say, six hours or so, when they emerge it’s twelve hours or so earlier than when they entered, so they have an entire day to live all over again.

Primer is intellectual SF, exploring its premise with no bells and whistles. The film contains no special effects: most of it is just naturalistic shots of the two engineers talking or arguing, without dramatic entrances or exits, and without any of the “action” actually happening onscreen. The time-travel devices themselves are nothing, really, to look at. Just as the protagonists only gradually infer what they have discovered, so we only gradually get a sense of what they are doing, and what the stakes are. There’s kind of a drift, and then an acceleration into paranoid complications and cross-purposes, but it’s all conveyed through a murk of low-affect, casual conversation, technospeak, offhand private allusions, elliptical cuts, and occasional anomalies that the characters themselves are unable to explain. The film is often overexposed, bleached out by the Texas sun; the mise-en-scene is cluttered and yet utterly mundane; the camerawork seems straightforward and documentary-like, but nonetheless it has a strangely alienated, claustrophobic feel (I have no idea how, technically speaking, Carruth attained this).

So: we have these two guys messing with time. At first, they do simple things like finding out the stock prices in the afternoon, then going back to the morning to buy/sell accordingly. (This is just reported to us through conversation, not shown onscreen). But gradually, they start messing with time in more complex ways. And in film terms, messing with time means messing with continuity. If you live through a day, then in the evening go back to the morning and live it again, there is no way to present this linearly (since subjective time and objective time are now out of sync: if you portray/represent either one, you cannot portray/represent the other in proper succession). Worse, it means there are now two of you around instead of one: what if you meet your other self, or if other people interact with the two of you in inconsistent ways? What if you multiply the effect by doing this more than once? What if you put a time machine inside a larger time machine, sending it back in time and in effect multiplying it as well? What if you record your conversations, and listen to them through an earpiece so that you can replicate them the second time around? All of these things happen in the second half of Primer. Time travel implies a logic of feedback and recursion, and this logic seeps into the form of the film (as well as its content, since in such a case the form is the content), and everything is swamped in a sort of fractal paranoia.

The film’s achievement is to make all this as visceral and affective as it is cerebral: by the end, we don’t quite know what’s going on, but we are drawn powerfully and disturbingly into the labyrinth. Primer unfolds with a suffocating, mysterious density — or better, viscosity. The film takes seriously the idea that engineering, or technical experimentation, is a form of imagination. Technology is a probe into the unknown: those things that we often think of just as “tools” or “instruments,” or at best as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, in fact redound back upon us, and change who/what we are. Primer proposes that the mysteries of technology, as well as those of representation, are ultimately the mysteries of Time itself. Carruth’s strange amalgam of McLuhan and Borges stands alongside such films as Code 46 and Demonlover as a brilliant exploration of the metamorphoses of the postmodern image.

I’m not sure how much I can write about Shane Carruth’s Primer, since (like most viewers, apparently) I am unable to give a coherent summary of its plot after having seen it once. But not understanding the plot scarcely seems to matter. The film is dense, elliptical, and powerfully involving, and I doubt a point-by-point explanation of “what happens” would make much of a difference, in terms of its impact.

Primer is about two engineers, working in a garage in an anonymous suburb somewhere in the Sunbelt (the film was shot in the environs of Dallas), who stumble upon an amazing invention. They are really just tinkering, with no particular goal in mind aside from the vague hope of coming up with something that will make them money. But it turns out that they have devised a time travel machine: it looks sort of like a strongbox or a coffin, but if they crawl inside and stay for, say, six hours or so, when they emerge it’s twelve hours or so earlier than when they entered, so they have an entire day to live all over again.

Primer is intellectual SF, exploring its premise with no bells and whistles. The film contains no special effects: most of it is just naturalistic shots of the two engineers talking or arguing, without dramatic entrances or exits, and without any of the “action” actually happening onscreen. The time-travel devices themselves are nothing, really, to look at. Just as the protagonists only gradually infer what they have discovered, so we only gradually get a sense of what they are doing, and what the stakes are. There’s kind of a drift, and then an acceleration into paranoid complications and cross-purposes, but it’s all conveyed through a murk of low-affect, casual conversation, technospeak, offhand private allusions, elliptical cuts, and occasional anomalies that the characters themselves are unable to explain. The film is often overexposed, bleached out by the Texas sun; the mise-en-scene is cluttered and yet utterly mundane; the camerawork seems straightforward and documentary-like, but nonetheless it has a strangely alienated, claustrophobic feel (I have no idea how, technically speaking, Carruth attained this).

So: we have these two guys messing with time. At first, they do simple things like finding out the stock prices in the afternoon, then going back to the morning to buy/sell accordingly. (This is just reported to us through conversation, not shown onscreen). But gradually, they start messing with time in more complex ways. And in film terms, messing with time means messing with continuity. If you live through a day, then in the evening go back to the morning and live it again, there is no way to present this linearly (since subjective time and objective time are now out of sync: if you portray/represent either one, you cannot portray/represent the other in proper succession). Worse, it means there are now two of you around instead of one: what if you meet your other self, or if other people interact with the two of you in inconsistent ways? What if you multiply the effect by doing this more than once? What if you put a time machine inside a larger time machine, sending it back in time and in effect multiplying it as well? What if you record your conversations, and listen to them through an earpiece so that you can replicate them the second time around? All of these things happen in the second half of Primer. Time travel implies a logic of feedback and recursion, and this logic seeps into the form of the film (as well as its content, since in such a case the form is the content), and everything is swamped in a sort of fractal paranoia.

The film’s achievement is to make all this as visceral and affective as it is cerebral: by the end, we don’t quite know what’s going on, but we are drawn powerfully and disturbingly into the labyrinth. Primer unfolds with a suffocating, mysterious density — or better, viscosity. The film takes seriously the idea that engineering, or technical experimentation, is a form of imagination. Technology is a probe into the unknown: those things that we often think of just as “tools” or “instruments,” or at best as prosthetic extensions of ourselves, in fact redound back upon us, and change who/what we are. Primer proposes that the mysteries of technology, as well as those of representation, are ultimately the mysteries of Time itself. Carruth’s strange amalgam of McLuhan and Borges stands alongside such films as Code 46 and Demonlover as a brilliant exploration of the metamorphoses of the postmodern image.