June 23, 2012 § 6 Comments
I disliked Prometheus intensely. I do think that having acrimonious feelings towards the film is the actual point—the film seems to be a stand-in for a certain segment of humanity and its imperialist, ruinous ambitions, though like most films coming out of Hollywood this seems to coexist with its appreciation of capital, technology, and involuntary/reproductive labour. That in itself doesn’t make it inherently unlikeable, not at all. But as Susan Sontag wrote in “The Imagination of Disaster,” “Science fiction films invite a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence—a technological view,” and perhaps it’s the nihilist technological determinism of Prometheus that is inherently unsettling. Perhaps it’s this utter lack of meaning in the movie that is its meaning, and consequently the source of my loathing. Maybe a part of me just wants machines and people to get along? I’m not sure.
I read Elaine Castillo on Prometheus and realised this is the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the movie. Besides, she addresses the questions/concerns I had with more thought and care than I could have ever managed. Still, I’ve apparently written a lengthy post on Prometheus because there are just some issues that I can’t stop thinking about, and Castillo’s post is the spark.
The stuff I can’t stop thinking about includes Elizabeth Shaw’s (Noomi Rapace) auto-caesarean scene, for one. This scene, where Shaw basically has to perform a caesarean procedure on herself because, as Castillo points out, “the apparatus—medical, state, corporate—is literally not equipped for what she needs to do,” was, for me, the most unsettling scene in the entire movie. Primarily because it’s filmed in a way to expressly provoke horror and/or titillate. Seeing Shaw’s writhing, jerking slender female body clad only in underwear reminded me of Linda Williams’ essay, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In it, by way of Foucault, Williams talks about how “audiences of all sorts have received some of their most powerful sensations” through the “sexual saturation of the female body” and Shaw’s female body is textbook horror movie trope: a body that is saturated with sex and drenched in blood. And it’s a body that’s intruded upon: first by an unknown alien substance, then by the machinery that’s supposed to remove it out of her.
That Prometheus follows in the footsteps of Alien in blending the genres of both science fiction and body horror is obvious. But in the midst of trying to isolate my visceral horror (and empathy?) for Shaw’s distressed female body on display from thoughts about what was being shown I realised that what was being shown is pretty unusual: a female protagonist actively trying to get rid of her baby. (Castillo: “[T]he only American movie where I’ve ever been able to hear a woman saying, with absolutely no regrets or qualms—GET IT OUT GET IT OUT—hear a woman declare that she does not want a baby in her, and do what she needs to do to terminate the pregnancy.”) Of course, it’s not an actual abortion and it’s a monstrous alien baby, which somehow makes this a “safe” option to explore, perhaps. The more crucial point is that Shaw’s agency is limited in the face of technology—the machines aren’t equipped to do what she needs.
So technology fails her—women’s reproductive needs somehow never being important enough on this planet or any other planet, even in 2089—and Shaw, both the Good Scientist and the Good Woman, keeps the alien fetus alive presumably to learn more about it in service to science and for the benefit of human society at large. (What is this thing? What can we do with it?) Lurking in the background, much like the creeping aliens, is the fact that Shaw is Christian. There’s probably no room in the film’s imagination for Shaw to want the alien fetus dead; not only would she be a bad scientist for not wanting to keep this specimen alive but inevitably she would be seen as a hysterical, selfish woman making an irrational choice for wanting to kill this thing that was growing inside her body through no choice of her own. And we can’t have that. So this scene was an expedient way for the film to work around this issue: you can remove your alien fetus and keep it alive too. (Furthermore, in terms of a movie franchise, this decision to keep the alien alive conveniently segues into the world of Alien.)
After the procedure, Shaw stumbles about bloodied and disoriented and no one around her actually cares or even attempts to portray some semblance of human concern. It’s clear that she’s undergone some form of physical trauma because it’s written all over her body i.e. blood everywhere. It’s only David the android who hands her a robe, or maybe it was a towel, I don’t know. Granted, he is the only one who knows what she’s gone through because he basically engineered this non-immaculate evil conception by introducing alien goo into Shaw’s boyfriend’s system (thereby killing the boyfriend). In the larger scheme of the machinations of corporations and capital, Shaw’s body is used and discarded as a birthing device; the physical and emotional demands placed upon her female body are secondary. In fact, it’s barely an issue. The body must get back out there and perform.
These messy, inconveniently frail and bloody human bodies are foregrounded against the supremely immaculate interior of the spaceship; gleaming metal, shiny objects, pristine surroundings. The year 2089 gives us some pretty amazing technology in terms of what capital needs and dictates, but where the human body is concerned, it’s still going to bleed and fuck and become impregnated against its will. Nowhere is the disparity between body/space clearer than during the aforementioned scene; blood spurts out of Shaw’s body while outside of the surgical pod/chamber is glaringly monochrome, flawless, and unspoiled. The human (female) body and the grotesque alien-monster coming out from inside it are the contaminated bodies, ugly in its inefficiency.
This is in contrast to the ship’s physical interior in Alien. This movie was made in 1979 and clearly movie technology has “improved” since then, but that movie reflected a messier, chaotic, lived-in atmosphere of actual living, breathing humans. But the stark sterility of the ship in Prometheus is mirrored in the cool, inscrutable blondeness of Michael Fassbender’s David and Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers. In fact, the moment Vickers steps out of the ship into the cosmos in the final scene where she’s trying to save her life, you know she’s going to die immediately because she’s in the wrong place. Her place is with capital and machinery; she’s practically powered by the forces of profits and technology. Accordingly, she is immediately crushed to death by alien technology. A silly, pointless death—cruel irony, perhaps, or maybe Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof were simply not too fond of Theron. In any case, this death-by-machinery is, back home on Planet Earth, a lived reality for the vast majority of the population working with wayward, hostile machinery in unsafe, unregulated conditions. Very rarely is this a concern for a Corporate King and his family members and fellow plutocrats. In Prometheus, “one of the ‘cheapest’ big-budget films of the year”, the white American 1% has to make a trip outside of Earth to learn that its lives are literally worthless.
Then, there’s Idris Elba. Castillo on Idris Elba’s character (and related, the Aryan-android):
I think there is also a comparison to be made here, too, between David and Captain Janek, played by Idris Elba. Janek’s pragmatism, his lived-in clothes, his race, his accent (somewhere between the American South and Hackney), his embodiment, his sexuality, his noble going-down-with-the-ship-to save-the-world death. The conversation he has with Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), their flirting, the moment when he asks if she’s a robot, and she responds by telling him to come to her room in ten minutes (implying that the sexual act will prove whether or not she is truly “human” or not). Janek’s basically good humanity is never questioned. I wondered if this was another case of “people of color as containers of good old homespun wisdom and goodness, to be dispensed to the grateful white people who still dominate them, but a little more nicely in recent years, sort of.”
It strikes me of note that it’s the one black male character on this pristine white ship who gets to needle Meredith Vickers about her anger issues which, to his mind, stem from a presumed lack of sexual activity. Elba’s character also gets to joke about gay sex: When two of his ship’s crew are stuck in the alien cave during a sandstorm and can’t immediately return, he (strangely) seems to exhibit very little fear and concern and instead jokingly tells them not to “bugger each other”. We have to thank Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof for this macho posturing; we clearly don’t get enough of this in our lives and what’s more a science fiction slash horror film will be nothing without it. But it’s also important for the movie to give us the One Black Dude. In an impressive display of moviemaking imagination, the movie’s creators cast Idris Elba to give us a spot of colour and to be the resident homophobic/sexist douche. To be sure, none of the human characters in the movie perform against heterosexist conventions, but Elba’s character is the one who gets to explicitly make homophobic/misogynist jokes. So in a really creative display of characterisation we have this black male character who is one part goodness and one part macho hypersexuality. He left his station to have sex with Vickers! And didn’t even get anyone else to cover for him! During this very crucial time in alien land with strange happenings! Because sex!
(And since we’re talking about spots of colour, let us now devote one sentence in this blog post to Benedict Wong who plays the requisite Asian-everyman with a few clever quips. He gets a few sentences in the film.)
After the predictable and expected deaths of practically everyone, Shaw and Vickers are the last two people alive if you don’t count David who, after an unfortunate encounter with the nasty “Engineer”, is reduced to a talking android head. (“Off with his head, man!”) The movie brings us to the almost-end with both women still alive! (“Feminism!” writes Ridley Scott in the margins of Damon Lindelof’s script). This is also a great way to remind the audience of Alien. (Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley! Didn’t you guys love her? Love this movie, too!) But this brings us to the standard trope of body-horror movies: the good girl vs bad girl trope premised on the whore/virgin dichotomy. Or, as Linda Williams puts it:
The sadomasochistic teen horror films kill off the sexually active “bad” girls, allowing only the non-sexual “good” girls to survive. But these good girls become, as if in compensation, remarkably active, to the point of appropriating phallic power to themselves. It is as if this phallic power is granted so long as it is rigorously separated from phallic or any other sort of pleasure. For these pleasures spell sure death in this genre.
A twist to this trope in this sadomasochistic adult horror film: Vickers is the bad girl because she cares only for profits and power (to usurp her father’s place) while Shaw is the good girl because she’s a believer and has faith, both in the religion in which she was raised (she still has her father’s gold cross), but also because she “believed” in the idea of the existence of these alien-man engineers who made us. The latter fact flies in the face of her religious belief, naturally, but Shaw’s beliefs are framed as both irrational and “right”, and the movie rewards her by letting her stay alive. I’m not sure if Shaw appropriated phallic power—unlike Ripley in Alien there’s nothing about her battling hostile alien beings on her own. In fact, perhaps we can read the talking android head David as her source of phallic power. (Maybe that’s stretching it. But I do enjoy the idea of phallic power = android head.)
Still, as expected in a horror film that’s also a sci-fi film, redemption lies in technological knowledge and expertise. And Shaw, along with David, heads back out into the unknown in search for our makers and why they hate us. “We” human beings apparently want nothing more than to be in search of hostile gods who will be the leaders of our technocracy. And if “human agency, like capital, is a technological body, is something made,” as Timothy Mitchell points out in Rule of Experts, then it seems to me that the android is the clearest example of human agency in this film and also the means by which phallic power is exercised. This is really interesting in light of Castillo’s question: “If we think the cyborg body as techno-human hybrid and metaphor for raced gendered bodies, how do we think the android commodity body, especially David’s blond Aryan android commodity?”
Fassbender’s David inhabits his android body with soft, gentle, yet very precise actions—not a gesture is wasted. He is, on the surface, an ideal disciplined subject. This particular manner of inhabiting the male body is often read as effeminate (particularly in discourse on racialised/colonised subjects). And in this movie, his presence is in contrast to the wayward, raucous, contemptuous masculinity of the human men. Yet there is the bare fact of David’s physical presence: queer android, perhaps, but in a masculine-presenting Aryan body.* Far from a paranoid android, he is a supremely confident one.
(*Or maybe it’s just hard for me to separate this notion of phallic power from the kind of power that Fassbender himself seems to command among movie audiences and critics. I think about Shame and how the widespread acclaim for his performance seems to have been conflated with praise and acclaim for the bold presence of his actual penis. It was collective swooning over an appendage that overshadowed what his performance was about or, indeed, what the movie was about. But then, maybe that’s what the movie was all about. I think it’s a movie about man tears and a capricious penis that, on the surface, wants to be understood as being in tension with or against the phallocracy, but deep down inside is just totally enamoured with phallocracy. But that’s another movie for another overlong blog post discussion.)
June 18, 2012 § 1 Comment
I’ve had a Tumblr account for awhile, but I’ve only recently begun to really enjoy it. I think a large part of it has to do with who I follow. I look at my Tumblr dash and feel only excitement, unlike Twitter, which has only brought about feelings of anxiety and general grouchiness of late. But this is not a comparison; I complain about all social media equally. Unless I hate it, then I deactivate my account and become even more removed from digital social interaction. (I’m looking at you, Facebook.) It’s just that on Tumblr, stuff like this[i] often pops up. (And worsement’s follow-up commentary (and hashtags) is like icing on the cake.)
I recently read Peter Stallybrass’s “Marx’s Coat”. It’s a really gorgeous piece of writing, on top of being a truly exhilarating piece of analysis/theory. I remember reading Renaissance Clothing and Materials of Memory, a book he co-wrote with Ann Rosalind Jones, in the dry, overheated aisles of the University of Winnipeg library one winter while researching a shitload of books for my “Women in the Renaissance” class. The writing in that book was energetic and lively, too, and I remember it a particular form of relief after reading piles of books written in dusty, properly comatose-inducing prose. Bits of “Marx’s Coat” sounds familiar because I’m pretty sure these were some of the ideas explored in Renaissance Clothing as well.
In “Marx’s Coat”, Stallybrass writes that “for Marx, fetishism was not the problem; the problem is the fetishism of commodities.” What follows in Stallybrass’s essay is a brief elucidation of the historical development of the concept of the fetish:
As William Pietz has brilliantly argued, the “fetish” emerges through the trading relations of the Portuguese in West Africa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Pitez, 1985, 1987). Pietz shows that the fetish as a concept was elaborated to demonize the supposedly arbitrary attachment of West Africans to material objects. The European subject was constituted in opposition to a demonized fetishism, through the disavowal of the object.
The concept of the “fetish” was developed literally to demonize the power of “alien” worn objects (through the association of feitiço with witchcraft). And it emerged as the European subject simultaneously subjugated and enslaved other subjects and proclaimed its own freedom from material objects.
This is short overview within a specific site and form of colonisation, of course, but it does make me want to comb through the archives of British colonial records to see how this played out in the subjugation of Southeast Asian cultural and religious practices.
There is much to think about throughout “Marx’s Coat” but towards the end, Stallybrass writes the magic words:
There was, as Marx knew, a form of magic in the material transformations capitalism performed.
But if there was, indeed, a magic to these transformations, there was also a devastating appropriation of the bodies of the living and even of the clothing of the dead.
Magic by way of mystification is the essence commodification in a capitalist system. Marina Warner gets really close to this in the one section of Stranger Magic I really enjoyed, “Active Goods”; but Stranger Magic attempts to be a feel-good book about magic and its various transcendent qualities that bridge the gap between “East” and “West”. Thus it merely glides over whole chunks of the material realities of Orientalism, particularly in relation to economic and cultural appropriation of symbols, objects, rituals, and practices of the East by the invading/colonizing West. I mentioned this briefly in my previous post on Warner’s book. Warner’s focus on magic and the life of objects needs to be Marxified and Arjun Appaduraied. That’s a book I would love to read.
[i] A result of following Voyou’s tumblr is inadvertently listening to, and liking, a Justin Bieber song. Yes, it has happened. “I’ll be your platinum, I’ll be your silver, I’ll be your gold, as long as you love me,” Justin sings, and you wonder if this is what Karl (Marx) would have sung to Jenny (Marx) on the way to the pawnshop.
June 14, 2012 § 14 Comments
Movies like Snow White and the Huntsman prop up and reinforce conservative ideologies while pretending to “subvert” conventional narratives through the guise of liberal feminism. On the surface is Empowered Young Women Kicking Butt; underneath the gloss it’s all Business As Usual. Everything about Snow White and the Huntsman is about the purity of BLOOD AND ANCESTRY. I mean, we know the story from the fairy tale and nothing’s changed. It’s about the rightful princess taking her place on the throne as queen because she is of “pure blood” and supposedly “pure at heart”; this is evident through her pure beauty (white skin, red lips, black hair). She even stops a troll in his tracks, for fairy’s sake, so it must be right. One scene in particular made me feel ill: Right after she escapes from her holding cell, Snow White rides a mysterious white horse (a gift from the universe! fairy tale magic!) through a village of dirty, poor folk – the unwashed, raggedy masses; the universe doesn’t give them white horses, nope! – and they stare at her meanly like they’re going to chop her up and make a stew of her. That’s what poor people do, amirite? So Snow White looks all afraid. And she’s white and luminous even though she’s been rolling around in grime while the villagers are all grimy and dirty because SNOW WHITE, GET IT? I mean, if you don’t get it or forget which movie you’re watching then HERE IS AN IMAGE TO REMIND YOU.
Dwarves who have the second sight say things like, “She is the one. She is destined.” Or, “She will heal the land.” Or variations of, “She is pure”; “She is the rightful heir”; “She will save the goddamn world and I will follow where she leads because once upon a time I was a man/dwarf with no pride and then SHE came along and my pride is restored, so let us save, support, and secretly want to fuck this beautiful woman who will be queen because yeah.” Chris Hemsworth is made to say things like, “You will be a queen in heaven and you will take your place among the angels” or some such shit while Snow White is (sort of) dead; how he said it without spitting into the camera will remain one of moviemaking’s greatest mysteries. So it’s not just that humanity needs a white person to rule the world; she will also save the world because SHE IS THE ONE and if you’re not buying the white horse then wait for it, a white deer appears and bows to her and gives her his blessing and it is WHITE so it is PURE and therefore it is GOOD and IT IS ALL AS IT SHOULD BE and why they didn’t go all the way and make her god, is the bigger question.
Fuck me, I’ve been trying to figure out if the movie has subverted any of the conventional narratives but now all I want to do is rinse out my brain. Moreover, I’m just angry because I watch movies like this. But what happens if you don’t watch movies like this – do they stop making it if we all don’t show up at the cinema? LET’S ALL NOT SHOW UP AT THE CINEMA. (Charlize Theron* as the “evil” queen tells us that we get the queen we deserve. Presumably we also get the movies we deserve.)
I was rooting for the evil queen, simply because she has known what it’s like to be at the mercy of powers larger than herself, powers that altered/ruined her life as she knew it for the sake of nationalism/ancestry/culture and cheap thrills. It’s a bummer that she then became, you know, wholly bad and appropriated all the power in the world for herself while sucking out the youth/souls of younger people in order to stay alive forever, but yeah. The world will do that to you, apparently. The world will corrupt and ruin you UNLESS YOU’RE SNOW FUCKING WHITE AND PURE OF HEART THANKS TO YOUR PURE BLOOD AND NOBLE FUCKING ANCESTRY.
The evil queen is evil because she is operating in a man’s world, as her mother taught her, and in a man’s world a woman must have beauty or she has nothing. Beauty = power. This is neither new nor shocking, just depressing as fuck, because the thing about totalising ideas like “this is a man’s world” is that it prevents us from seeing how we continue to remake it as a man’s world, it prevents us from seeing how to undo its structures. And we’re left talking to mirrors.
Ideas of beauty in Snow White and the Huntsman are predictable: beauty is pure and good if it is moderated and neutralised, usually with the help of patriarchal structures like monarchy and actual men-protectors like huntsmen and dwarves; beauty is really bad if left to the devices of women who hate men but want what men have (i.e. power). Beware the beautiful woman who spurs you on to such heights of lust that you marry her the next day! Where possible, shape and modulate youthful female beauty by locking her up in a tower (bonus points if the evil queen does it for you, you benefit from the effects of disciplined subjects without having to do the dirty work yourself!). Then, set her free BUT of course, not totally free; keep her well within the proper boundaries of patriarchal structures that also operate subtly as fascist supremacy (bonus points again!) and pretend that she has a choice. And so the movie tries to sell itself as rah-rah feminist because Empowered Young Woman Kicks Butt but by the way, Old and Not-So-Beautiful Anymore Evil Hags Who Hate Men Should Die a Slow and Painful Death. It’s Good Beauty vs. Bad Beauty, the former who simpers when the still-a-stranger-to-her huntsman cuts off her skirt (for easy mobility, one reckons?) while the latter stabs men and kings while they’re making out with her.
Meanwhile, here is what the movie wants you to know: Goodness is written on your face but ideally it should be a face that adheres to hegemonic standards of beauty. Plus, you must have the right skin colour! If so, then the world is yours! Take it! Otherwise, your beauty is suspect or you’re most likely ugly; therefore, shut up and be subjugated. Furthermore, if goodness is written in your face, you don’t really have to do anything beyond stare soulfully into the eyes of a troll, which is enough to convince Chris Hemsworth that you’re something special so that one minute his job was to kill you and the next minute he looks you into your eyes and thinks NOPE! TOO BEAUTIFUL TO KILL! and this will make him forget his dead wife just like THAT although he’s only been grieving for her ALL THIS TIME so it will all work out in the end, because he will kiss you while you’re almost-dead and you will wake up and you will claim your rightful place and you will live happily ever after.
(*Much of the film appears dark, grey, and gloomy, and Charlize Theron’s exaggerated performance admirably matches the artifice of the movie’s aesthetics, like the fluttering dark feathers of ravens and the melting mirrors. Her performance and the movie itself almost veers towards camp but fails because there is not a shred of humour to be found anywhere — except, of course, in the predictable sequences involving the dwarves. Forced laughs, etc. Maybe it would have been better if this movie was lesbian camp, with the Queen and Snow White finding love, or just great sexual gratification, with each other. But no. This movie is serious. Theron’s performance is all about excess: this queen cannot be contained. Still it’s a relief to watch her shriek and moan and gesticulate wildly compared to the blank-eyed expressions of the ChrisStew, as I call them. The ChrisStew performance is flattened affect in a movie that’s filled with intensely trite and sentimental dialogue; it’s dialogue that strains for Meaning. Maybe the vacant, one-note expression thing would have worked against the shittiness of the dialogue somehow, but no, because this movie is serious. There’s one great but fleeting moment where you catch Stewart’s expression before she jumps into the water: it’s a mix of dread, fear, and exhilaration. You never see it again. As for Hemsworth, he’s drunken, distant, and loutish until he falls in love over the course of two minutes and becomes silent and wistful. And presumably because this is love as pure as the driven snow, there is no sexual heat or tension, just unending blah.)
June 10, 2012 § Leave a comment
This blog is not dead! It is merely in a state of extreme rest. In a state of hyperrest. (Hyperrest is characterised by placidity or inactivity on the surface, bordering on comatose, as the wheels of the mind’s engine churn and churn in a journey towards who-the-fuck-knows-where.)
My review of Katrien Jacobs’s People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet is up at PopMatters. I enjoyed reading it; Jacobs is an enthusiastic and engaged/engaging writer, but I was troubled a bit by the premise, which seemed to imply that DIY pornography and digital culture are necessarily subversive and/or emancipatory:
Although much of the material Jacobs explores follows the familiar trajectory of pornography that finds men as its main consumers and women as its primary labourers, Jacobs includes plenty of first-person accounts that provides a glimpse into how women negotiate the spaces of propriety and proper “female behaviour”. One blogger who goes by the name Hairong Tian Tian collected and posted pictures of men’s limp penises because she wanted to explore “the root of Chinese masculinity” by showing the “cock in its most mundane state”. Another blogger named Lost Sparrow attempted to compile an encyclopedia of lovemaking sounds “based on the premise that they would sound different in different parts of China”.
These are attempts to remake pornography, but whether or not they succeed in presenting pornography as something more worthwhile than a convenient commodity is hard to tell. For example, the DIY sex videos that Jacobs describes as popular among younger Chinese citizens certainly reify sexual pleasure and emotions and it leaves one to wonder about the emancipatory possibilities of the endless click-and-choose of online porn viewing. As Jacobs research shows, pornography has entered new spaces and is presented and enjoyed within new(er) forms of technology, but the patriarchal structures of society remain unyielding and resistant in the face of all this sexual and technological creativity.
But I also wondered if my own knee-jerk cynicism got in the way of a full appreciation of what was and is taking place. I do recommend Jacobs’s book, even if I had trouble reading it in public because my inner convent-school-educated prudishness kicked in. EXPLICIT PICTURES! CLOSE-UPS OF NIPPLES! IN PUBLIC! OH DEAR! So it was a read-at-home book, but no less interesting because of it.
(I was also reading the Feminism and Pornography anthology while reading Jacobs’s book and Wendy Brown’s “The Mirror of Pornography” was one of the most clear-minded, kick-ass essays in it; it’s essentially a response to Catherine MacKinnon, and I posted a quote from it on my Tumblr. Anyone who’s read even just a tiny bit of MacKinnon might sense the difficulty of countering the force of her totalising arguments against porn. Brown does a sublime job of it while demonstrating how MacKinnon’s style borrows a lot from porn, and reading Brown after reading MacKinnon is like being thrown a lifeline while attempting to swim in choppy moral waters. Sorry, melodramatic analogy, and also vaguely deceptive, because I can’t swim and will technically drown in all waters, but still. Also, this technically doesn’t have much to do with Jacobs’s book but throwing it in here because ♥ WENDY BROWN ♥.)