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.

Tarnation

Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.

Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.

Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.

But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.

A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.

In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.

The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.

Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.

Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.

Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.

But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.

A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.

In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.

The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is so dense, graphically, verbally, and intellectually, that I find it difficult to write about it after just one viewing. It’s the film The Matrix wanted to be but failed to be, a profound pulp-fictional exploration of virtuality and cyborg-being. (There’s even a character called “Haraway”). Though plot-wise the film is a direct sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell, conceptually and affectively Innocence moves onto an entirely different plane.

Visually, the film is quite “advanced,” with its fluid cityscapes and technoscapes, and mixture of flat and more 3D animation techniques. Oshii of course does not have the technological resources of Pixar or Dreamworks, but then his aims are far different from theirs. He isn’t interested in the kind of “realism” that is the holy grail of Pixar animation. Nor does he go for the sort of iconicity that is frequently the strength of both comics and animated film. Rather, Oshii aims for a sort of abstraction that is both expressive and representational. Forms are abstracted and simplified, as befits the animated medium; there’s no attempt to reproduce the shades and subtleties of emotion that would go through a live actor’s face. And the environments and backgrounds — though their surfaces are often lovingly rendered, and they are active, and metamorphize, in ways that would be impossible with “real” locations — never seem (as Pixar’s often do) like advertisements for the use of massive amounts of computing power. But these abstract visuals are expressive, because of the way Oshii draws upon, but mutates, what I think of as the “heavy metal” style of certain comics, together with borrowings from such cinematic sources as film noir and post-James Cameron action editing. And Oshii’s abstraction is also representational, because of the way it conflates physical/urban space with virtual/informational space. Schematic (though messy) abstraction is a form common to the film’s futuristic cityscapes (which draw heavily on the already-abstract languages of modern and postmodern architecture) and its depictions of computer datascapes. The point is that these two necessarily flow together, because all the human characters in the film have cyborg enhancements which allow them to experience “cyberspace” more or less sensorially; and because computing is so thoroughly embedded into physical places, machines, and landscapes that physical and informational spaces have come to be thoroughly isomorphic in any case.

In terms of visual style alone, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has accomplished what no live-action film ever has (no matter how expensive and brilliant its special effects): it makes visible (and audible; though without repeated exposure I am able to say nothing concrete about the film’s electronic sound track) how computational technologies have penetrated and transformed the real itself. (It’s important to maintain that these technologies are themselves thoroughly real, constitutive and constituent of the real, in short part of the very fabric of the Real; against the fashionable claims that they have murdered the real, denatured it, reduced it to spectacle or simulacrum).

(One side note. Several reviews that I have read have made the well-nigh inevitable comparison to Blade Runner; but I think the similarity is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Oshii places high-tech androids and cyborgs in dark and gritty, but media-pervaded, urban settings; but in terms of lighting, editing rhythms, pace of action, and so on, Innocence could not be more unlike Blade Runner).

I won’t try to summarize the plot of Innocence — which was too detailed, too economically expressed, and with too many subtle twists for me to grasp all of it on a first viewing — except to say that it revolves around a police investigation that is also, equally, a metaphysical investigation. The cyborg detective protagonist is trying to find out why “gynoid” robots (basically, animated female sex dolls who have been devised to service men sexually) have suddenly started killing their owners (which should be impossible according to Asimovian laws of robotics). But he’s really trying to find out what it means to be posthuman (a question which assails him, not only because he is dealing with sentient machines, which in this case basically means sex dolls, but also because of his own cyborg enhancements — not much of his original human body remains with him — and because of his former partner, who — at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell — had cast off her human embodiment entirely, choosing instead to vanish into the Net). This question comes up thanks to the very nature of the case, but also through the interchanges between the protagonist and his new (still mostly human) partner/sidekick: in the course of their investigation, they exchange aphorisms and citations deriving from a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific, and science-ficitonal sources of both East and West.

The film explores both different levels and layers of reality — from the purely physical, through the hallucinatorily virtual — at one point, the protagonist and his sidekick pass through a series of virtual-reality loops, whose imagery, both idyllic and horrific, is ironically far more “organic” or biomorphic than anything else in the film — up to the machinic and the spiritual. What’s noteworthy — especially in contrast to the Manicheanism of The Matrix, and so much other Hollywood SF — is how the distinctions the film draws are never dualistic. Innocence is not monistic either: the differences it draws between body and soul, and between various degrees and circumstances of embodiment are never abolished or dissolved into oneness. But the film espouses a pluralism, in which body and soul, or human and machine, or living organism and doll, or materiality and virtuality/information, are neither fused together nor conceived as opposites. They are more like different floors of the same mansion (to use Deleuze’s metaphor to describe the relation of body and soul in Leibniz). There’s certainly a lot of tension between body and soul; indeed, the solution to the mystery of the criminal investigation (and perhaps to that of the metaphysical quest as well) turns on what happens when they are put into violent conflict. But Oshii doesn’t present this conflict as inevitable, or as essential and all-embracing. Boundary displacements are inevitable, but they need not be seen as absolute and definitive. The film defuses Cartesian paranoia together with the kinkiness of its initial erotic premise. Oshii suggests that Descartes’ Evil Genius (whose challenge is taken up in The Matrix, as well as in the novels of Philip K. Dick) and the sexualized uncanniness of dolls (a theme which one can trace, in the West, from Hoffman through Freud to Bellmer and other Surrealists; it apparently has great resonance in Japanese culture as well, but of this I know little) are really just two sides of the same coin. And in displacing and rearticulating the energies present in both these myths, he opens up the possibility of thinking them in different terms, telling them in different narratives. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is too skeptical, as well as too sensuous and affectively ambivalent, to offer a new philosophy of cyborg-being; but it powerfully points up the inadequacy of our current conceptions. Events are outstripping the categories we apply to them; the most difficult thing, but also the most necessary, is to be “as radical as reality itself.” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes us a few steps in that direction.

Mamoru Oshii‘s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is so dense, graphically, verbally, and intellectually, that I find it difficult to write about it after just one viewing. It’s the film The Matrix wanted to be but failed to be, a profound pulp-fictional exploration of virtuality and cyborg-being. (There’s even a character called “Haraway”). Though plot-wise the film is a direct sequel to the first Ghost in the Shell, conceptually and affectively Innocence moves onto an entirely different plane.

Visually, the film is quite “advanced,” with its fluid cityscapes and technoscapes, and mixture of flat and more 3D animation techniques, as well as of hand-drawn animation (for the characters) and computer-generated (for the intricate backdrops). Oshii of course does not have the technological resources of Pixar or Dreamworks, but then his aims are far different from theirs. He isn’t interested in the kind of “realism” that is the holy grail of Pixar animation. Nor does he go for the sort of iconicity that is frequently the strength of both comics and animated film. Rather, Oshii aims for a sort of abstraction that is both expressive and representational. Forms are abstracted and simplified, as befits the animated medium; there’s no attempt to reproduce the shades and subtleties of emotion that would go through a live actor’s face. And the environments and backgrounds — though their surfaces are often lovingly rendered, and they are active, and metamorphize, in ways that would be impossible with “real” locations — never seem (as Pixar’s often do) like advertisements for the use of massive amounts of computing power. But these abstract visuals are expressive, because of the way Oshii draws upon, but mutates, what I think of as the “heavy metal” style of certain comics, together with borrowings from such cinematic sources as film noir and post-James Cameron action editing. And Oshii’s abstraction is also representational, because of the way it conflates physical/urban space with virtual/informational space. Schematic (though messy) abstraction is a form common to the film’s futuristic cityscapes (which draw heavily on the already-abstract languages of modern and postmodern architecture) and its depictions of computer datascapes. The point is that these two necessarily flow together, because all the human characters in the film have cyborg enhancements which allow them to experience “cyberspace” more or less sensorially; and because computing is so thoroughly embedded into physical places, machines, and landscapes that physical and informational spaces have come to be thoroughly isomorphic in any case.

In terms of visual style alone, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence has accomplished what no live-action film ever has (no matter how expensive and brilliant its special effects): it makes visible (and audible; though without repeated exposure I am able to say nothing concrete about the film’s electronic sound track) how computational technologies have penetrated and transformed the real itself. (It’s important to maintain that these technologies are themselves thoroughly real, constitutive and constituent of the real, in short part of the very fabric of the Real; against the fashionable claims that they have murdered the real, denatured it, reduced it to spectacle or simulacrum).

(One side note. Several reviews that I have read have made the well-nigh inevitable comparison to Blade Runner; but I think the similarity is greatly exaggerated. Yes, Oshii places high-tech androids and cyborgs in dark and gritty, but media-pervaded, urban settings; but in terms of lighting, editing rhythms, pace of action, and so on, Innocence could not be more unlike Blade Runner).

I won’t try to summarize the plot of Innocence — which was too detailed, too economically expressed, and with too many subtle twists for me to grasp all of it on a first viewing — except to say that it revolves around a police investigation that is also, equally, a metaphysical investigation. The cyborg detective protagonist is trying to find out why “gynoid” robots (basically, animated female sex dolls who have been devised to service men sexually) have suddenly started killing their owners (which should be impossible according to Asimovian laws of robotics). But he’s really trying to find out what it means to be posthuman (a question which assails him, not only because he is dealing with sentient machines, which in this case basically means sex dolls, but also because of his own cyborg enhancements — not much of his original human body remains with him — and because of his former partner, who — at the end of the first Ghost in the Shell — had cast off her human embodiment entirely, choosing instead to vanish into the Net). This question comes up thanks to the very nature of the case, but also through the interchanges between the protagonist and his new (still mostly human) partner/sidekick: in the course of their investigation, they exchange aphorisms and citations deriving from a wide range of religious, philosophical, scientific, and science-ficitonal sources of both East and West.

The film explores both different levels and layers of reality — from the purely physical, through the hallucinatorily virtual — at one point, the protagonist and his sidekick pass through a series of virtual-reality loops, whose imagery, both idyllic and horrific, is ironically far more “organic” or biomorphic than anything else in the film — up to the machinic and the spiritual. What’s noteworthy — especially in contrast to the Manicheanism of The Matrix, and so much other Hollywood SF — is how the distinctions the film draws are never dualistic. Innocence is not monistic either: the differences it draws between body and soul, and between various degrees and circumstances of embodiment are never abolished or dissolved into oneness. But the film espouses a pluralism, in which body and soul, or human and machine, or living organism and doll, or materiality and virtuality/information, are neither fused together nor conceived as opposites. They are more like different floors of the same mansion (to use Deleuze’s metaphor to describe the relation of body and soul in Leibniz). There’s certainly a lot of tension between body and soul; indeed, the solution to the mystery of the criminal investigation (and perhaps to that of the metaphysical quest as well) turns on what happens when they are put into violent conflict. But Oshii doesn’t present this conflict as inevitable, or as essential and all-embracing. Boundary displacements are inevitable, but they need not be seen as absolute and definitive. The film defuses Cartesian paranoia together with the kinkiness of its initial erotic premise. Oshii suggests that Descartes’ Evil Genius (whose challenge is taken up in The Matrix, as well as in the novels of Philip K. Dick) and the sexualized uncanniness of dolls (a theme which one can trace, in the West, from Hoffman through Freud to Bellmer and other Surrealists; it apparently has great resonance in Japanese culture as well, but of this I know little) are really just two sides of the same coin. And in displacing and rearticulating the energies present in both these myths, he opens up the possibility of thinking them in different terms, telling them in different narratives. Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is too skeptical, as well as too sensuous and affectively ambivalent, to offer a new philosophy of cyborg-being; but it powerfully points up the inadequacy of our current conceptions. Events are outstripping the categories we apply to them; the most difficult thing, but also the most necessary, is to be “as radical as reality itself.” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence takes us a few steps in that direction.