March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment
It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See www.rottentomatoes.com/m/island/). And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.
At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.
But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.
“It’s the New American Dream”
But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.
In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,
“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”
In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.
“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”
Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.
But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.
In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.
From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.
November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
Rein rechnerisch sind 5 DM immernoch 2,56 Euro aber an diesem Automatenbetreiber ist wohl ein Gutmensch verloren gegangen. Statt dessen kostet eine Packung Präservative hier nur einen Euro. Es sind wahrscheinlich auch nur noch zwei und nicht mehr fünf darinnen zu finden. Anlass genug, doch einmal einen Gedanken an die symbolische Dimension von Preisen zu verlieren.
Douglas Adams, u.a. Autor des Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sagte einmal, dass ein jeder Prima(t)ner die Zeit seiner Pubertät als die Normalität ansieht. Zum Beispiel in Bezug auf Medien. In dieser Phase ist so ziemlich alles, was vor dem eigenen Geburtsdatum existierte unbedeutend, es sei denn, es bezieht sich auf die unmittelbare Familiengeschichte. Ab dem Moment der Pubertät gewinnen bestimmte Präferenzen für Moden und Medien Dominanz, sie werden zum Normalfall der Generation postuliert. Mit zunehmendem Alter gerinnen diese Präferenzen zur Norm einer selbst alternden Generation. Ergo wird alles, was danach folgt als Verfall der eigenen, nicht angebiederten Kultur gesehen. Man bemerkt alsobald neue, konservative Charakterzüge an sich und empfindet nun diese wiederum extrem avantgardistisch. Gegen die Konformisten ist man eben Konformist des Andersseins.
So ähnlich verhält es sich mit den Preisen für Waren. Alles wird immer teurer. Und das wird jeder Ökonom bestätigen – es muss auch. Weil Löhne steigen, weil es Inflation von Währungen gibt und weil es an dem Verbrauchsmaterial Geld aufgrund der Druckfreiheit von Staatsbanken nie einen Mangel gibt. Einen Preis von vor zwanzig Jahren als den einzig gültigen und akzeptablen anzunehmen ist so anachronistisch, wie das Familienalbum nach Neuigkeiten zu durchsuchen. Obwohl ein Brötchen zu meiner Jugend 5 Pfennig (Ost) kostete, machen mir 15 ct (Euro) keine Sorgen, obwohl das samt Kaufkraftverlust nun eigentlich eine Mark und achtzig sind. Soviel kostete eine Woche Mittagessen (im Osten). Der symbolische Preis ist wohl eher eine Wegmarke, wenn man an der stetigen Einkommensvermehrung keinen Teil mehr hat oder von ihr ausgeschlossen ist. Dass einem Preis eigentlich ein gegenseitiges Bewertungsverhältnis von Aufwand und Nutzen zugrunde liegt, stört bei dem allgegenwärtigen Preisanstieg wohl niemanden. Statt die Karre einfach stehen zu lassen, fährt der Golf jeden weiteren Kilometer um 2 oder 5 oder 36 cent pro Liter mehr und alles, was einem bleibt ist sich darüber zu beklagen. Auch die Symbolik des Automobils ist nicht mehr, was sie einmal war.
November 2, 2011 § 1 Comment
The title of this post is not mine. It goes back to Mark Osteen’s fabulous book on Don DeLillo‘s fiction and its concern with modern media. But ever since reading that book, the tautological nature of the title, so apt and precise to describe the fiction of DeLillo, has remained with me as a shortcut to a European perspective on America. In a similar way, Liam Cennedy argued that for Europeans, America remained an object of study and also an object of desire (h/t Ida Jahr). Same tautological structure of interest (magic) and despair (dread). Yet, seen from the right perspective, and I speak spatially here, that picture above does make sense to someone driving DOWN the alley in the wrong direction, while for someone driving UP the alley, the letters are just nonsense. The irritated bystander (read: European) perceives the interdiction and the definition at the same time, as mere commands phrased in the same alphabet. This yes/and – no/but structure still seems to capture what many think about America as a cultural space, although the no/but-faction is gaining ground.
Paul Virilio coined the phrase of a projectile image, projecting through space at radiant speed, reflecting on screens and surfaces, thereby reorganizing our perceptions of space at the same time. Now, in addition to these spatial metaphors of images – between the ground floor and the observation deck – there is a temporal dimension of the image, which altogether can go beyond its spatial origins. It’s the visceral and viral image, which resonates in digital time (not space, how anachronistic).
DeLillo was able to capture this mode of being obsessed with images as a fundamental quality of American culture, images as part of the magic, for sure, but also images as the source of dread, of unease, and instability. In Cosmopolis (2003) and Underworld (1997), to name just two, DeLillo weaves the objective certainty of the image into a matrix of uncertain perceptions – phenomenological irritations in the face of photogenic magic. In one short passage, Jeff’s fascination with a video of the “Texas Highway Killer” turns into an ontological journey into the self, an image beyond the consumerist self of wryly calibrated image particles.
Jeff became absorbed in these images, devising routines and programs, using filtering techniques to remove background texture. He was looking for the lost information. He enhanced and superslowed, trying to find some pixel in the data swarm that might provide a clue to the identity of the shooter. (Underworld, 118)
In the constant run of images this clue to an identity is no longer directed at identifying the “Texas Highway Killer” but is used as a vehicle to see an image of oneself gaining shape in an endless swirl of half-codified, half-creative forms of repeated interaction, documented amply in forums and on pinwalls. If there is such a magic of uncertainty, then America might still inhabit the space of attractions. But as the magic of uncertainty of the image surpasses the national turf, it becomes a temporal trope, actualized at haphazard conjunctions of identity processes. One may feel urged to warn: “Do not enter” – “Entrance only” – at your own risk.
Additional background reporting: GC Commentary: BV, JP, JK and IJ.
July 5, 2011 § Leave a comment
Aus Anlass des 60. Geburtstags des Goethe-Instituts, hier eine Anmerkung zur sonst sicher tadellosen Arbeit des Instituts im Ausland. So gesehen – und nicht am Computer bearbeitet! – in der Vitrine des Goethe Instituts Kyoto – April 2010 in einer Zusammenstellung berühmter Bauwerke aus … ähm … Deutschland.
Daher an dieser Stelle die Bitte: Karten und Wörterbücher in allen Dependancen aktualisieren. Schöne Exemplare, und garantiert aktuelle noch dazu gibts beim DLR. Sonst beschweren sich erst die Dresdner und dann die Polen. Auf die nächsten 60 Jahre.
March 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
Part and parcel of living in a cluttered urban space is that the brain is in a constant struggle to filter meaningful sound from the acoustic entropy of noise. As inevitable as noise is part of an urban (motorized, mobilized, populated) environment, as unsurprisingly is the urbanites’ search for meaningful sound. “Hey you,” Althusser’s famous phrase to explain interpellation, may refer to just about anyone in a crowded urban setting. The interpellation foregoes its ideological effectiveness. The subject is alone at large, bathed in unexpected sounds.
Sound is not to be equated with music. Sound can be an orchestrated version of noise or a fully arranged piece of music. But at the beginning of music is (a) sound. Particular sounds stick out, others wane with the passing of instruments or cars, with the seasons or the habitat. The particulars of urban sound are that no frequency is necessarily attributed to particular sources whereas natural environments seem to feature sounds within a limited frequency range with attributable sources such as birds, insects, wind or water falls.
The tension between sound and noise is a strong motif in Gaspard Kuentz und Cédric Dupire’s documentary on Japanese noise/music/sound artists called “We don’t care about music anyway” (produced by Studio Shaiprod, 2009), which is currently on tour in European cinemas and at new music festivals (ie. Maerzmusik in Berlin). The format is (inadvertently) reminiscient of Wim Wender’s Carnet de Notes sur Vêtements et Villes (1989) by locating a form of avant-gardist creation (music or clothes) within a hyper-modern environment (Japan) where skills and crafts of former times have not only been preserved but productively influenced new techniques. It is this form of forward-looking, innovative engagement with everyday materials that characterizes many of the most striking examples of innovative culture “Made in Japan.”
In Kuentz & Dupire’s film we see Sakamoto Hiromichi shooting plastic balls from a toy hand gun against the body of his worn cello, recording the sound and feeding it back into an echo chamber. Such interaction with a material sound source characterizes much of the work presented in the film. Watch out for musical chain saws and splintering glass.
Yamakawa Fuyuki attaches contact mics to his body near the heart. The sound (electric impulse) controls a number of light bulbs randomly scattered across the floor. Along with the bumping heart beat and an obsessively controlled use of breathing for musical effect, the entire setup comes close to an installation of sound as the tension field of body and technology.
The label noise seems inappropriate for this kind of acoustic sphere. Although many of the compositions presented in the film appear as mere noise, it is a carefully controlled form of sound installation with a strong emphasis on and understanding of the material and corporeal basis of sound. The interest in mere sound, in interferences and overlaps is not unlike Steve Reich’s Phases and similar compositions (ie. “It’s gonna rain”) , which may cater to a Western ear more easily than the atonal, off-beat but still marvelously inventive tones and harmonies of Sakamoto, Yamakawa, Saidrum, Numb et. al.
[This is not a featured post and remains unrelated to business affairs of any actors mentioned in the article. The Ekoune label seems to be out of business, anyway, although their channel still has some techie stuff like the bliptronic 5000 sequencer.]
March 11, 2011 § Leave a comment
Dieser Gastbeitrag erreichte uns schon vor einiger Zeit. Wir geben ihn hier ungefiltert wieder, weil wir von seiner Qualität als urbane Miniatur, als Lebenszeichen des Stadtmenschen und seiner Empfindungen, überzeugt sind.
Unglaublich, wie trostlos und verstörend die Landschaft zwischen Braunschweig und Göttingen ist. Tiefer liegt der Nebel über den groben Feldern. Ein Industriegebiet entsteht. Berlin dagegen mit Sonnenschein und Qualitäten, wenn auch überfüllt und flüchtig. Neben Eindrücken des Wochenendes wieder Ankommen im Alltag. Büro. Heute ein Ausflug nach Franken, Anstieg der Temperatur im Raum während des Gesprächs um 2,4. Danach Landgasthof und Autobahn. Im Fernsehen Alfred Brendel bei Verleihung des Liszt Preises. Abschließend Biere im Stimmenmeer der Kneipe. Und Zeitung. Jochen sagt, sei gegrüßt. Das sag ich auch!
T. R. aus K—.