The piecemeal body of subjectivity

September 12, 2010 § Leave a comment

The most arresting symbol of capitalist realism or what I like to call postmodern madness and its infliction upon the individual person is probably that of the mutilated body. The stabbed, sawn-off, hacked-off body parts represent the end of The Body, alarmingly parallel to the end of a whole, linear narrative. The butchered body is a solemn testament to the butchered societal and cultural psyche.

Are we not all in agreement here?

I’m referring to, particularly, the mutilated, hacked-apart bodies that litter the cinematic landscape of Repo Men, directed by Miguel Sapochnik. All the things that you want to buy and can’t afford, like cars, homes, and hell, boats, are ever-so-kindly put on credit so that you can consume and enjoy it immediately and suffer for it later. It’s just the way of the world. In Repo Men, this idea is extended to individual body parts and organs that malfunction. With the help of an uber-evil corporate behemoth called The Union, sick people who don’t have the money to afford a new heart or a new liver or kneecaps (and in the case of hyper-capitalism operating at its illogical best, this includes most people) can technically “buy now and pay later” through a series of payments in installment. The catch is that once you’ve ignored your late payment notifications a few times, repossession men (yes, they’re all men) come in, cut you apart, remove your organ/body part, and leave you unattended without medical care to die.

Does the idea of this truly shock? I think most people can, on some level, accept this is a very possible scenario in the near future. We’re one with our gadgets and things; the objects that we own become an extension of us. It seems only inevitable that our body is similarly broken down into parts; parts removed and inserted at will. The final element – the fear of death – seems to be about the only truly human instinct that still operates at both a conscious and unconscious level.

Several things interest me about Repo Men, namely, the way in which the mechanical body parts and organs are removed from human bodies. There is beauty and precision to the way in which the repossession men, played by Jude Law and Forest Whitaker, perform the various “surgeries”. It is Cutting -Up a Body as Performance, done with flourish, care, and attention to the aesthetics of the butchery. That the human body is left to then drown in its own pool of blood is irrelevant. The fetishized mechanical body part/organ has been retrieved, and placed with love into its proper home – because it’s real home is never really the human body. No one can afford to pay for these things; no one has these things in their body for more than a few months before the bodies are cut up again and the things removed. These things continue to circulate within a steady rotation of ugly, failing human bodies, but its real place is only within itself. Bodies belong to it, but it doesn’t belong to anyone.

The thing about Repo Men is that the narrative falters and flails at moments in a way that does great disservice to what seems to be an intelligent story. Similarly, the dialogue also ebbs and flows along a haphazard line; sometimes sharp, nuanced, and piercing in its observations (Jude Law’s character, Jake, gets these lines) while sometimes falling into hackneyed, cheesy, Hollywood predictability (Forest Whitaker’s two-dimensional character, Remy, gets all these lines). For that reason I think Jude Law gives one of the more intriguing performances I’ve seen him give in a long time. Maybe ever. And for that same reason, Forest Whitaker’s performance is trite and unconvincing, as though he’s trying to convince himself with effort throughout to believe in the trite and unconvincing things his character is supposed to believe in. But the entire movie operates on this level – the story is never allowed to really explore the ramifications or possibilities of its own ideas, and when all else fails, the creators of the movie seemed to have said, “Oh well, let’s not get too thoughtful. Give them predictable Hollywood-style action and dumb platitudes! Because we’re fucking tired and lets’ get this movie done already.”

A small picture to break the monotony of text

What fascinates me most is the vitriol with which movie critics and reviewers have received the movie. Massive amounts of squishy, mildewed tomatoes have been thrown at it. The reviews don’t seem to be content with saying, “This movie is bad because I hated it!” but seem to take it personally, are almost affronted and offended by the entire experience. This intrigues and puzzles me, because the movie is not that much worse than any other junk that Hollywood routinely churns out – in fact, in certain aspects, I consider it to be intellectually-superior to some truly asinine shoot ‘em up movies.

Which leads me to think that perhaps these reviewers object to the lack of distance between us, the audience, and the spectacle on-screen. Repo Men puts quite a bit of effort into making blood, mutilation and butchery appear aesthetically-pleasing. (The entire movie presents a near dystopian future that is visually-pleasing, even when it takes us into the slums of the slums where the poorest of the poor live – very Cronenberg, the visual spectacle of gritty biology.) There is also a strong element of the eroticisation of not so much of violence, but bodily-mutilation – self and mutual. There is a sex/cutting up scene that, for me, was as equally sexy as it was repulsive. I wasn’t quite sure what to feel; even more, I was deeply anxious if what I felt was normal. Susan Sontag, in her ‘Imagination of Disaster’ essay, talked about how horror and science-fiction films sometimes strive to supply “extreme moral simplification” that presents a “morally acceptable fantasy where one can give outlet to cruel or at least amoral feelings.” It’s easy to revel in the killing and the mutilation if one can also be morally-distanced and superior all at once, i.e. “We’re saving the world”, “It’s those evil/horrible/ugly inhuman aliens/monsters we’re killing”, or “The monster was going to get me.”

Sontag was talking specifically in the context of sci-fi and horror films, of course, but in the case of typical thrillers and action movies the monster/alien is analogous to the evil person/terrorist/criminal person, and while still human, these are humans possessed of bad, mad, morally-suspect qualities. So it’s okay to enjoy the killing and violence of these bad humans or other nonhuman beings. The good guy triumphs, and all that. But Repo Men shows the spectacle of killing among “innocents” by “innocents”, to be sure, because it’s shallow to assume that Jake and Remy are evil people when they’re merely pawns in a all-encompassing system. Or maybe the reverse applies, and we’re all equally criminal. “A job’s a job,” says Remy, which is what you and I tell ourselves to get through a life. But the line between the morally-superior audience and the degenerate bad guys on the screen is fuzzy. The blood, the mutilation, the beauty, the sex – it all invites the audience to identify with the dead and the killers.

I’m sure this discomfort of not knowing whether to enjoy, be turned, be repulsed, or be all at once is draining on an attention span that is already trying to make sense of the at-times incoherent narrative. What modern attention spans want is the comfort of logic. There are people questioning the speed and alacrity with which Jake falls in love with Beth (played by Alice Braga); it seems to make no sense, they say. But Beth is broken on the inside – made up solely of various body parts and organs. Jake feels broken on the inside. Her literal insides mirror his metaphorical insides. I would be surprised if they didn’t fall in love. But also, most important in a movie that finally accedes to age-old Hollywood tradition: two mutually-hot people in any movie must eventually find each other.

But then again, maybe people loathed the movie so much because the ending was a lazy cop-out. Nolan’s Inception ending was a well-done, intelligently-filmed and stylish lazy cop-out, too, in a way, but at least it had the confidence to allow its audience to enjoy the imaginary pleasure of participating in a Thinking Person’s Movie. But Sapochnik’s ending is a little too eager to sacrifice a story in service of coming out with a potential blockbuster hit, and it shows. Moreover, it probably indicates a need on movie-going audiences everywhere for an Aristotelian moment of catharsis that makes every horrible moment worthwhile in the end, if it’s for the greater good of society – or someone. Repo Men hits too close to home with a stupid ending without a purpose; it’s much like life as most people know it, but after the carnage of blood and mutilation we’ve been subjected to onscreen, it becomes a bit harder to have any sort of energy to buy into the movie’s version of what’s real.

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