Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cineme: Cold War Paranoia

Do you also do this when you teach, trott(ha)ing out ideas from your undergraduate education that have been with you, that perhaps you have not developed in the slightest regard, like miniscule seeds that somehow brought you to the present but which seem to remain in the infantile stage of development ...? (there is a question there).

For me, the course was "Cold War Lit", taught by Prof. Daniel Bourne, the year was 1993, perhaps?. One of the things I appreciated about that class was Bourne calling out some genius for not operating on "all 4 cylinders" ... I was thinking then that there was too much kid-gloving in teaching. That may tell you something about my present pedagogy. The idea, however, was the film "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) exemplified paranoia about the effects of communism on human life in an imaginative form.

In other words, the story of aliens landing on Earth and slowly but surely subverting all normal human life by creating exact duplicates of existing humans. These duplicates are by all external appearances indistinguishable from the originals, except to those who know them well and notice subtle yet significant psychological differences. In particular, the duplicates lack human emotions. And most insidiously, the duplicates are appearing more and more frequently, and the normal humans are becoming more rare--that is, the duplicates are replacing all of the normals.

The claim is that Communists are like these duplicates: by all appearances they are normal, but at the most profound human level, on the level of emotions (hold on a second, has anyone here read any of the canon of the history of philosophy, which generally agrees that intellection is the factulty that constitutes the anthropological difference? ...), they are not American and not human.

If you look at the Wikipedia entry on this film, there is some discussion about these Communist readings, which are concluded with statements from those involved in the production that no such intentions existed. Fuck, thanks for clarifying that. Now we can die knowing that all such interpretations are false, deluded, etc. (another pet peeve of mine, the intentional fallacy). Whew. Good thing we didn't need to call Encyclopedia Brown. His fees are getting expensive.

I take it the idea at the core of the film is a cineme, by which I mean merely a concept that has some considerable cachet in the business of film production. I draw this conclusion because this film has been remade so many different times, both under the original title and numerous others. A cineme is an "idea" in film because it has certain components which are inseparable from the medium, such as the visual narrative representation of the duplicates and the ineffable but horrifying process by which the originals are replaced by duplicates. Perhaps there are other elements as well that belong especially to film, rather than to literary fiction (the narrative was originally a short story by Jack Shitlips).

Last night I felt into, unwittingly, what I out of honor would hereby like to call the Encyclopedia Brown problem, of determining, if the idea is a Cold War artifact, why the cineme continues to be so meaningful, even now some 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. although the are probably other examples, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig recently starred in the "The Invasion"(2007), which I had the unfortunate displeasure of watching. Probably a lesser Encyclopedia Brown would claim, cleverly, that the film sucked and the reason is that it's raisin d'ĂȘtre is now absent. But a more courageous Encyclopedia Brown would not stop there. For what have we to do with outcomes?!? I mean, it did spend some time in the theatres and didn't go directly to video. Or more seriously, it was made, right, and that is what means something ...

After a seed like this, it was easy to swallow Jameson's Third World Unconscious argument.

Monsters (2010): Reflections on Narcoterrorism

"Monsters" is a poorly titled film about aliens that inhabit the "infected zone" of northern Mexico. This area, all along the border of United States and Mexico, extends south for a hundred miles or so, and not coincidentally, cohabits the same space that is presently contaminated by Mexican drug cartels. Not a word is spoken of the latter, because "Monsters" is set in contemporary America, six years after a NASA probe, having examined a meteor believed to hold extraterrestrial life, falls back to the earth on its return and spreads its payload across this "infected zone." In the six years succeeding, the aliens have reproduced and established domain over the entire area.

The narrative follows a photojournalist who is given the initially unenviable assignment of escorting his publisher's daughter from somewhere around Mexico City to the eastern coast of Mexico, where she is expected to take a boat by the Gulf of Mexico to the United States. Of course, the daughter turns out to be very beautiful, albeit avoiding the return that will reunite her with her fiancé (the reason for this is never explained). The trip turns out to be more complicated than it should and, as you might expect, rather than going around the "infected zone," they must go through it.

What interests me is the concept of the "infected zone." In the film, we do not know much about it, except that its borders are strained and the monsters seem to be pushing beyond them. The monsters are these long-legged, octopus type creatures, except that they are 100 feet tall and glow at times and, of course, have legs in addition to tentacles. They are spawned from a larva that attaches to trees and then somehow enters into the water source, in which they grow.

But the point is not the reality or irreality of the creatures, but the concept of the "infected zone." Both the American and Mexican military are struggling to control the zone, and are apparently failing therein. At the beginning of the film, by way of introduction to the "monsters", we see one attack a city outside of the southern border of the zone, and at the end, we learn that they have broken through the US border. In the zone, the two main characters are escorted by armed men who look like guerillas. The latter turn out to be a sympathetic group, who are essentially the residents of this zone. They must wear gas masks at times, to protect themselves from the gases spread by American planes. They are eventually victims of the creatures they attempt to avoid. When the protagonists approach at the US border, they first spy it from the top of what looks like a Mayan temple. From this vantage point, they are able to see its enormity: it is a fortified concrete wall, hundreds of feet tall and extending, presumably, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean (see photo below). The protagonists enter through one abandoned checkpoint--a surprising state of affairs, indicating that the borders have been breached.
Inside the border, towns have been evacuated and laid waste to, and no humans remain, save an old homeless woman pushing a shopping cart, who is mad. The protagonists eventually find a gas station that is empty, but lighted as though someone just left. They call the police and military are dispatched to collect them. As they wait, one of the monsters arrive at the station. It extends its tentacles into the store and focuses on a television. Perhaps it has eyes at tips. Then another monster arrives. The two monsters seem to embrace each other and glow, make noises, indicating love and affection. These creatures have desires. After they leave the protagonists, having grown attached to one another, kiss for the first time. The female says, "I don't want to go home." The Marines come and pull them apart, into separate humvees. The humvees depart, but one hears a Marine humming the "Ride of the Valkryies" (this happened in the beginning of the film, also).

The latter moment is to me an unquestionable reference to the famous scene in "Apocalypse Now" where Robert Duvall's character spearheads an invasion into Vietnamese territory with speakers attached to his helicopters playing this song (and that image recalls one from the beginning of Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will", as Hitler's airplane descends on Nuremburg from the heavens to a Wagnerian accompaniment).

To me what is interesting about this film is the way in which it speaks about something that it does not think it is speaking about. The filmmaker, in a featurette online, spoke about the plausibility of extraterrestrial life, particularly in the backstory for the film, that the NASA probe had visited Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, and one of the few known bodies with sufficient water for life to occur. Yet the issue is the "infected zone," not even the extraterrestrials. They are incidental, represent the threat, but are not meaningful in themselves.

The "infected zone" cohabits the space where, presently, a devastating drug war is unfolding and nothing can seem to stop it. One might imagine a component of this film describing how the "infected zone" became what it is: that is, how the aliens were discovered and how it was evacuated of the human life that is found there now. Would that story countenance narcoterrorism, and describe its eradication by the aliens? That story would be the imaginative solution to the current social-political problem. But it would leave Mexicans economically destitute (as portrayed in the film) and involve an American police state.

Yet nary a word is spoken of immigration (in one of the trailers, the words are telegraphed between montages "they arrived six years ago ... they were aliens ... now they are residents") or narcoterrorism. The guerillas are the closest representation of the drug war or the immigration (in addition to the protagonists, they are escorting several Mexican families to the border).