Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Top 10 Films of 2012

1. Holy Motors (d. Leos Carax)
2. Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan)
3. The Cabin In The Woods (d. Drew Goddard)
4. The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson)
5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (d. Tomas Alfredson)
6. 4:44 Last Day On Earth (d. Abel Ferrara)
7. Killer Joe (d. William Friedkin)
8. Goodbye, First Love (d. Mia Hansen-Love)
9. End of Watch (d. David Ayer)
10. The Raid (d. Gareth Evans)

Honourable Mentions:

The Kid with a Bike (d. Dardenne brothers), Moonrise Kingdom (d. Wes Anderson), This Must Be The Place (d. Paolo Sorrentino), Margin Call (d. J.C Chandor), Lola Versus (d. Daryl Wein), Searching For Sugarman (d. Malik Bendjelloul)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Apart from being a perverted twist on the femme fatale, Disclosure is a surprisingly sophisticated examination of surplus value in a capitalist economy. The unusual correlation between the film's techno sci-fi and women in the workplace is that - as the film sees it - they are both sources from which capital extracts surplus value. Technological innovation provides capitalists with a labour substitute and temporary profit advantage over competitors, before it "becomes obsolete in a year". Meanwhile, women are given the executive role not necessarily because they're best for the job, but because they're cheap labour. As Mary Anne Hunter says early on in the film, "women work twice as hard for the same job for less pay". The film daringly (for a ostensibly capitalist, Hollywood pic) aligns this experience of being 'surplussed' with the experience of being raped, on the level of both narrative (the secondary plot to 'screw' Tom Sanders out of a job) and language (the film tells us early on that the euphemism for 'surplussed' is sodomised). Indeed, it's the surplus in language itself - the perceived minimal difference between yes and no, "rich" and "really rich", gossip/rumour and news/truth - that motivates the rape accusation and the corporate conniving. In a capitalist system increasingly tied to what the Other believes (the stockmarket, corporate mergers), language is revealed to be the ultimate source of surplus value.

All of this is conveyed in the film's first seven minutes. Virtuality, production lines, status, wealth, rumours, the 'feminine threat', are all tied together in this brilliantly concise opening. Especially interesting is the camera roaming the wealthy, upper-class family home with just the sound of early-morning domestic talk in the background, but no people. Home/family is here pure signifier - of class, wealth, happiness - performed directly for the audience. The shot will suggest the central crisis of the film - how to signify status? From the 'closed' space of the family home, the film shifts to the 'open' transparent, modernist architecture of the company before venturing into the 'invisible' hallucinatory palace of virtual reality. In terms of the Other, we move from the Invisible (the big Other), to the Multiple (little big Others), to the Virtual (the big Other in the Real or the Other of the Other). As Zizek points out, the subject constructs the Other of the Other - a secret agent pulling the strings from behind the scenes - as a paranoid response to and compensation for the demise of the big Other. For Sanders (Douglas), it's Meredith's promotion that creates this crisis of the big Other (hence the dream of Garvin sexually harassing him), and, appropriately, it's when Sanders starts suspecting Meredith is setting him up that the virtual reality machine first appears .

Sanders' experience with virtual reality is crucial in allowing for a kind of fetishistic disavowal that will restore his symbolic world. When he enters the virtual palace, Sanders denies the knowledge that tells him it isn't real, and instead acts as if it is: "I know very well what I see is an illusion generated by digital machinery, but I nonetheless accept to immerse myself in it, to behave as if I believe it." It's a similar attitude that's adopted in the film's climax. Sanders knows Meredith is setting him up, but he nonetheless acts as if he she has no ulterior motive. Instead, he 'innocently' reminds her it was her decision to alter the technical specifications - effectively sabotaging her by identifying with her act. On a closer look, however, Meredith is in fact the scapegoat here. As she tells Sanders in her final scene, it was Garvin who came up with the idea to fire him in the first place yet she's one that takes the blame. Getting Meredith fired merely allows Sanders to disavow Garvin's central complicity in the matter.

Yet as a consequence of this secret knowledge, Garvin is restored as the big Other and the 'closed' and performative status symbols of the opening return - though not without their own hallucinatory quality. The end sees Sanders publicly celebrated as "epitomising the drive and inventiveness of his division" and he is named the "right hand" of the new female executive Stephanie Kaplan. Kaplan also tells Sanders he is the division's "past and its future", restoring unity to the split introduced by Meredith's Oscar Wilde quotation, "I like a man with a future and a woman with a past". In the final scene, Sanders receives an email of a child's picture telling him 'A Family' misses him - alluding to the shadowy, behind-the-scenes anonymity of the previous 'A Friend' emails while at the same time restoring Family as pure signifier.*

*The film's insane continuity between paranoia and domestic familiarity extends even to the first anonymous email asking 'Is Your C-ck Hard?' - assumed to be sent by Meredith but never actually explicated as such. For all appearances, it's sent in the same anonymous form as A Friend and A Family. (Of course, Michael Douglas playing a family man is by itself a paranoid construction.)


Monday, August 02, 2010

Passenger Side

My review of Passenger Side, which has its premiere at Possible Worlds Fest tomorrow night:

Matthew Bissonnette’s retro-like Passenger Side has all the trappings of the indie road movie – the offbeat couple, quirky encounters, an emotional life lesson – but its subtlety and intelligence carves out a space of its own that’s refreshingly original. For one thing, there’s never been a film whose sarcasm has been so relentless.

After an early morning phone call, struggling writer Michael (Adam Scott) is forced to chauffer his drug-addict brother, Tobey (played by the director’s real life sibling, Joel Bissonnette) around LA on a series of errands without reason. In a day-long road trip that stretches from Beverley Hills to Joshua Tree, the two ex-pat Canadians come across a transvestite hooker, a boy missing two fingers and a desert psychic, all while debating such national issues as the sexual hotness of the Bush administration (Dick Cheney comes up trumps). Meanwhile, the caustic dialogue is broken up by car window vistas of oil rigs, industrial sprawl and ocean expanse, backed by Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and Wilco’s eponymous folk-rock piece.

The pair’s detached, knowing humour carries a surrealism that perfectly matches the mystery at the heart of the film. Michael can’t tell whether Tobey’s looking for drugs, money or, as Tobey claims, the love of his life - but he plays it like he does. At the same time, the deadpan dialogue suggests a disavowal of knowledge that adds real pathos. This poignant, sometimes absurd, tension between knowns and unknowns is beautifully encapsulated by the film’s moving and unexpected final twist. It’s a twist that elegantly revises everything we’ve just seen and shows us up for ever underestimating the film.

But at the forefront of all this is Adam Scott. Previously relegated to side characters in Judd Apatow films like Knocked Up and Step Brothers, he takes on the lead role here with charm, intelligence and spot-on comic timing. Scott is a star in the making and Passenger Side is the perfect introduction.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Up In The Air: Enjoy Your Symptom!

Up In The Air is an ambivalent film to say the least. Praised as the first great film to address the financial crisis, it in fact merely skirts the limits of late capitalist society. It touches upon conflicts of labour and capital, issues of class and economic insecurity - only to shrink back into a series of false dichotomies. Corporate alienation becomes a question of loneliness and personal connection; the trauma of job loss becomes a challenge to fulfill your dreams; marriage is an alternative to atomization, yet framed in purely functional terms. Far from suggesting some deep complexity, these contradictions are entirely symptomatic - the affective result of the film’s displacement of the rupturing effects of capital into the categories of neoliberal ideology.

The film follows Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), a corporate operative who jetsets around the country firing workers for companies too cowardly to do the deed themselves. Displaying few qualms about his job, Ryan revels in the perks and freedoms of the transient, corporate lifestyle. Hotel suites, pillow mints, personalised greetings – all act as complementary bonuses to keep his world “in orbit”. But as he closes in on his goal of 10 million frequent-flyer points, we begin to learn he lacks any real connection with people. When Ryan meets fellow corporate flier Alex (Vera Farmiga) and starts training young newstart Natalie (Anna Kendrick), he begins to look towards family as a way to find connection and fulfillment in life. The economic context of Ryan’s job, despite being a central component of the film, gradually becomes subsumed into his banal insecurity about relationships. Family is pitched as an alternative to Ryan’s corporate lifestyle, but in a way that reveals its own disingenuousness. The opposition of family and corporate atomisation disavows how much the film has actually framed family as both a fantasmatic and functional supplement to contemporary neoliberal ideology.

Director Jason Reitman’s comments about the film exemplify this ambivalence between the economic and the personal. During pre-release publicity, the director was explicit in arguing the economic downturn was not the point of the film:

"[T]his is not a movie about job loss. It never has been. The reason why this was just as an appropriate movie in 2002 when I started writing it as it is now is that it’s a movie about human connections... I would say that less than 10 percent of the film takes place in the world of corporate terminations."

In an interview closer to Oscar season, Reitman had this to say:

“What I do feel is that Up in the Air is the most indicative film of 2009. It is the portrait of 2009. And when you look at this State of the Union that happened a couple of days ago, that was all about unemployment being at its highest since 1983, and all about job creation, and you realize how this film is kind of a portrait of America right now…"

The film’s use of real laid-off workers (something Reitman has said he is most proud of) betrays a significant investment in the economic context. But the film’s familiar and generic sentiment deflects the traumatic alienation of job-loss into one man’s journey to “make a connection”. There’s an industry term for this. It’s called ‘faumey’.

Early on in the film, Ryan explains ‘faumey’ as a mixture of ‘faux’ and ‘homey’. The term describes the ‘simulated hospitality’ or little touches of homeliness used by hotels to ease any sense of transience or displacement. But it’s precisely this strange mix of pragmatism and sentimentality – as Nina Power says, “ideology, if ever there was a definition” – that epitomises the ambivalence of Up In The Air. Indeed, Ryan’s method of delivering lay-offs is explaining to the worker that the company’s cost cutting is both a pragmatic necessity as well as an opportunity for them to pursue their dreams and spend more time with their kids. This is initially regarded insultingly by the workers but by the end of the film is viewed as a sincere gesture. In a montage preceding the closing credits, real laid-off workers propound the virtues of family life once you get fired.

Ryan’s mix of pragmatism and sentiment in pitching lay-offs is paralleled in the film’s speeches about marriage and property. In one of the central scenes of the film, Ryan tries to persuade Jim (Danny McBride) of the value of marriage in a last-minute case of cold feet. Set up as a moving and heartfelt moment (it marks a turning point for the character), Ryan’s speech actually portrays marriage in purely pragmatic terms - marriage as a compensation for pure individualism, a salve for the fear of our “eventual demise”. Marry so you don't have to die alone. The speech even ends with a generic slogan: “Life? It’s better with company.” The functional nature of this speech is something Reitman must have been aware of, at least unconsciously. In an August, 2008 draft of the script, the “life is better with company” line is preceded by “I don't want to sound like a Hallmark card but...” - a reference that perfectly evinces the atomized and assimilated nature of Ryan’s marital affirmation. Yet the line was strangely elided in the final cut. Was it because it got too close to the contradiction at the heart of the film? The continuity between its corporate platitudes and familial sentiment? For Ryan, marriage is merely a longer lasting version of his so-called 'fast friends': the airplane passengers with whom he makes sympathetic, entertaining and, for all appearances, genuine conversation to pass the time. Marriage for him is a relationship built less on personal connection than professionalized function - "everyone needs a co-pilot" (Jim later repeats this term to his fiancé).

The contradictions of Ryan’s marriage speech become clearer when we compare it with Jim’s speech about real estate. The night before the marriage, Jim waxes lyrical to Ryan about how his property venture is “a community, not a development”; where everything is “turn-key” (furniture and garden maintenance included in the sale price). This is Jim’s version of ‘faumey’. When you buy a house on Jim’s development, you’re getting “seamless traditionalism yet all the perks”. Instant homeliness. At the end of his speech, Jim even begins connecting his real estate development to a greater American sentiment and ideology about owning your own house: “We all need a place to call our own. This is America. This is what we were promised.” To which Ryan adds, “that’s a nice touch” (a line Jim repeats after Ryan’s ‘life is better with company’ line). The “nice touch” both Jim and Ryan refer to is the point of disavowal. It’s the moment when pragmatism mixes with sentimentality, when function is disguised through empty emotion. Ryan doesn’t just like these moments – they form his identity. As he says in his voiceover introduction about the perks of frequent flying (the “warm reminders that he is home”): “It’s these kind of systematized touches that keep my world in orbit”. Ryan’s placement within the hub of transient capital necessarily posits these homely ‘touches’ at a distance. They are displaced, absorbed within the frame of fantasy. With this fantasmatic distance, they form the coherent supplement to his disjointed life. Rather than opposing corporate atomisation, these ‘touches’ actually allow it to continue, subsumed it into an equally (though less obviously) alienating sentimentality. But it’s not enough to say these moments are hidden from Ryan. As a corporate flier, he's particularly conscious of the function of these 'touches' and his introductory voiceover makes their subsumption transparent. For Ryan, it's not the friendly smiles or pillow mints themselves that create enjoyment, but the tacit and collective disavowal of capital they invoke. His modus operandi is to enjoy his symptom.*

These moments are reflective of a larger neoliberal belief system that has permeated and assimilated capitalist society since the late 70s. As Foucault says in his definitive exploration of the ideology, neoliberalism effects “an inversion of the relationships of the social to the economic”. Under neoliberalism, all social phenomena and relations are seen as economic calculations and investments - a professionalisation of life that extends even towards the family. As Mark Fisher writes in Capitalist Realism, despite neoliberal capitalism holding obsolete the values family life depends upon (obligation, trustworthiness, commitment), it has set up the family as “an increasingly important place of respite from the pressures of a world in which instability is a constant”:

"The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labour power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions) even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other)."

Neoliberalism reduces family to a functional supplement for the atomised working life and wild fluctuations of capital. Yet it retains its fantasmatic sheen because of its simultaneous placement as a utopian horizon. This encourages a sense of family’s opposition to individualism, but the reality is neoliberalism embraces both. As pioneering neoliberal Margaret Thatcher famously put it: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and their families”. The false dichotomy between family and individualism merely circulates what society can't grasp or confront – the role of capital and its formative role in social relations. To some extent, every Hollywood film is guilty of this. But it’s Up In The Air’s explicit backdrop of downsizing and the global financial crisis that makes its ideological bent particularly unsettling.

To make the film's ideological shift clear, compare it to the similar ‘humanist’ and sentimental film Jerry Maguire. Both films confront economic limits (corporate atomization and job loss) but turn to questions of loneliness, family and connection. Both Jerry and Ryan enjoy the fast flying corporate life and each stands by their own version of ‘loyalty’ in place of genuine connection. Both encounter an increasing dehumanization and corporatisation of their professions and both turn to family in somewhat desperate romantic gestures. The difference between the two films is that Jerry Maguire actually confronts the fantasy of family to reveal its own functionality. In contrast to most other romantic dramas, the wedding between Jerry and Dorothy occurs half way through the film. The second half of the film exposes the way that family can act as just a compensation for loneliness. Despite expectations, Jerry finds the same kind of atomization and alienation in marriage as he felt in his corporate life. That’s not to say the film is anti-family. Far from it. But it divorces family from any ideological and functional role so as to reaffirm it as a question of love - not about the virtues of ‘company’ or professional partnership. Up In The Air, on the other hand, not only leaves family at a distance but celebrates it for its functionality.

It’s Up In The Air’s third-act twist that both exposes and obscures its dependence on family's fantasmatic distance. When Ryan makes his sudden romantic gesture to visit Alex at her home, he finds to his horror she already has a family. At this moment, he realizes the fantasy of their relationship, flirted with through multiple transient flings, was just that – a fantasy. Once Ryan got too close, the fantasy instantly revealed itself. Interestingly, the moment could also be seen as a rupture of Ryan's fantasy of the independent and free single lifestyle without connections. But rather than using the twist to reevaluate either of these notions, the film uses it to keep fantasy at a distance. The twist is both an excuse for cynicism and false sentiment.

The film’s final moments show Ryan returning to work and continuing with his high-flying lifestyle. The final shot is a view above the clouds, with Clooney's voice imaging him looking down longingly upon the banality of family life. It’s as if Ryan has realized what attracted to him about the fantasy of family was not family as such but family’s status as a symptom – a symptom of capital. Capital under the constant instability of neoliberalism is an ever shifting and affective form, both transparent and unrecognisable. Its amorphous nature means in some sense it can only ever be a symptom. Hence the final shot represents an apotheosis, but with Ryan identifying with the locus of transient capital rather than capital itself. The bathos of the scene comes from the film's ostensible critique of capital and the simultaneous injunction to enjoy it despite the critique. From this vantage point, family, as ‘touched’ by the sublimity of capital, is both fantasy and banality:

"Tonight most people will be welcomed home by jumping dogs and squealing kids. Their spouses will ask about their day and tonight they'll sleep. The stars will wheel forth from their daytime hiding places, and one of those lights slightly brighter than the rest will be my wing tip passing over."

*This enjoyment of his symptom also explains Ryan's resistance to Natalie's online redundancy proposal. For Ryan, the enjoyment of his job is acting as the 'human' face of capital. Natalie's clinical approach to laying people off strips back any pretence and steals his enjoyment, precisely because it prevents him from disavowing the true nature of his job.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

By Billy Stevenson

From all the critical buzz surrounding The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I went into its film adaptation expecting a good escapist thriller, with a few stylistic flourishes, and maybe an occasional sly nod in the direction of 'big issues'. All I can say is - what a piece of shit.

Where do i start? Firstly, it was a research/paper-trail thriller - a genre that can really work, but only when the research process is structured around a series of increasingly revelatory/transformative discoveries, or at least elaborates interesting/evocative research spaces (small town libraries, underground microfilm holdings, archives of every sort), or, at the very least, is deliberately bathetic/anticlimactic/underwhelming (think Zodiac). Here, every discovery was prefaced and telegraphed by (literally) about five to ten superimpositions/flashbacks/voiceovers, just in case we hadn't got it.

There was no character development/interiority. Again, not necessarily a problem for a procedural thriller, except that the 'girl' was imbued with this whole sensationalist backstory, which was supposed to imbue her motivations with darkness/depth, but, for me, just felt like one enormous gimmick, or, worse, a mere affirmation of the erotic potency of the central journalist (read: cipher for the author), who certainly didn't have potency of any kind without her.

It was set in a really evocative area of Sweden - but this just clarified how totally functional/unimaginative the direction was. Also, it was an unbelievably sensational/voyeuristic film - again, not necessarily a problem for me, but somewhat disingenuous in a film which purported to be more than 'mere' entertainment, which set itself up as some quite mind-blowing comment on the way we live now. I also get that Stieg Larsson was some kind of bad-ass nazi hunter, but, to be honest, this kind of Nazi Gothic has been done to death narratively (and especially cinematically)...really lazy use of nazism as master signifier, as immediate and idiotic signification of significance.

If this film were made in Hollywood, it would be panned. It was the ultimate middlebrow film: purported to be more than your 'average' thriller (read: to be above cinema), but in fact didn't have a fraction of the craftsmanship or subtlety that supposedly more mainstream, lowbrow films enjoy. From the hype - and especially the hype surrounding the book - i was expecting something with modest ambitions, but which satisfied them artfully and delicately. Instead i got something with grotesque, grandiose ambitions, which didn't satisfy them at all.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Drag Me To Hell

After three Spiderman blockbusters, Sam Raimi makes his masterful return to horror with this B-movie gore fest. Alison Lohman plays sweet farm girl Christine, a loan officer working hard for her next promotion. But when she forecloses on the mortgage of an old gypsy woman, she finds herself under a deadly gypsy curse: in three days time, she will be dragged to the pits of Hell by a powerful demon.

Raimi shoots the film like it’s stuck in a sealed vacuum. Sound is isolated and focused while the characters are so earnest it actually encourages the abject horror. When the scares do kick off, they’re blissfully original. Trapped in the film’s massive oral fixation, characters inhale and exhale everything from maggots and flies to stationary and bile.

Christine may be cute but in the class consciousness of the film – her boyfriend’s rich parents see her as more trailer trash than country club – she herself becomes the repulsive object. Indeed, the perverse enjoyment of Drag Me To Hell is a sadistic class-based pleasure in watching trailer trash Christine being increasingly defiled.

Published in Cream magazine #49

Labels: , ,

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Box

Richard Kelly's The Box is one of the most beautiful films of 2009. So beautiful I was compelled to see it for a second time at the cinema, despite its flaws. Although the film is set in the 70s, its dense yet elliptical visuals work to evoke the hyperreality of today's media landscape. As with Southland Tales, The Box clarifies Kelly's obsession as that of the image, or, more specifically, the circulation of the image. His characters are lost in this circulation - from the network of surveillance in Southland Tales to the circuits of time travel in Donnie Darko - but without knowing the circumference.

Even more than Kelly's previous films, however, The Box is about the anxiety of being caught in this web of images, of becoming merely another medium in its network of exchange. The immanence of Steven Poster's cinematography - of dense cityscapes; a latticed NASA crane during sundown; snow falling across the camera; glaring lights in a vast and crowded lab space - give the film a sense of reticulated eeriness. We are caught behind the looking glass, on the verge of something transcendent emerging from the endless network of images, but we remain trapped. Meanwhile, the film's metonymic editing style invests random gazes and objects with paranoid associations. At one point, a babysitter sees something in the window but the camera refuses to immediately cut to what she has seen (one of the possessed zombies) and instead holds on her horrified reaction. Characters are constantly seen in mirrors and reflective screens, once removed from themselves, their identity inscribed in the image. When Arthur asks the babysitter what is going on he is told he will find his answers by looking in the mirror. In their quest for something beyond the image, the characters themselves become images. Likewise, the intersubjective network of humans has now become an alienating and mediated network of images.

In The Box, the button literally is the image. The button protrudes from the box, covered by a transparent dome, but without any of the machinery or wiring to make it a button. It is simply the image of a button, the surplus value that defines the otherwise anonymous box. This transubstantiation from object to image also invests the button with associative and reticulated qualities. In the background of the kitchen, where the couple examine the box, the wall-paper has button-like patterns, and, in every other scene, the box is constantly associated or placed next to a television. When Arthur (James Marsden) opens the second brown box at the rehearsal dinner, Kelly makes the connection explicit: the box contains a photo of Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), which Arthur immediately hides and which is also (unknowingly for Arthur and Norma) part of a larger photo Arthur keeps in his basement*. The anxiety the photo fosters is an anxiety of the gaze not being our own - not only are we being watched but our own gaze is itself an object in this network of surveillance. Like the 'employees' whose consciousness Steward can seemingly inhabit at will, the image penetrates our gaze but it also leaves us, so that we end up merely another medium/object for its circulation.

This engagement with the image is also presented as a financial transaction ($1 million to be exact) and here Kelly makes the same link between the image and capital that film theorist Jonathan Beller makes in his book The Cinematic Mode of Production. Beller argues that in so far as the image represents the surplus value of the commodity - ie. its attractive and fantasmatic exchange value rather than its use-value - cinema is the intensification of this aspect to the point that the image itself becomes a commodity. In this post-industrial world of image commodities, cinema acts as the primary site of capital production, circulation and accumulation. Not only is value added to the image by the audience (through attention - watching as labour), but new flows of affect and desire are opened up through the montage and circulation of the image, which allow it to accumulate even more value. In the cinema, our alienation from our labour becomes explicitly an alienation from our senses. And like the dominant financial flows of capital, the circulation of the image begins to affect our lives and thoughts in increasingly amorphous ways. The anxiety of The Box then is ultimately of a human consciousness and perception that belongs to capital.

In Kelly's vision, the image has already had a corroding effect on the human, even before the time of the box. When she was a child, Norma's foot was ruined by radiation from an X-ray (the definition of the penetrating image), while Steward's face has been partially shorn off by lightning (light being the very source of the image)**. It's as if Kelly's film is charting a history of capitalist industrial production but via the image. These two more gruesome examples are like injuries from a more primitive industrial period. In the time-period of The Box, however, the image has evolved in such a way that explicit signs of capitalist alienation are now disguised (to the point when the only external sign is a bloody nose).

In this new economy of capital, when you engage with the image (press the button) you yourself become part of the capitalist social machinery, part of a chain or network of which you are unaware. But what Kelly is concerned with isn't just the still image, it is a movement image - in the sense that it must always be circulating, multiplying in order to encompass reality. When Arthur and Norma ask Steward if he will now give the box to some other couple, Steward replies, "of course, that's how it works." The image accumulates value from connections, exchanges and associations, through its very movement to grasp the whole picture. This is made explicit when the film refers to Arthur's invention of a special camera for the Mars Viking Lander that can circulate 360 degrees taking photos. The camera then takes two hours to send its images to Earth, which are transferred as radio signals and then translated back into images. In its work to capture that which is 'beyond the image', the camera not only suggests an expansive and encompassing movement image but digital cinema itself (down to the average feature length!).

This dimension 'beyond the image' is really its next evolution - the third dimension. And as with the columns of water Arthur discovers, it's a movement image that approaches the liquid image, in so far as it gestures towards its own animation and substance. All Kelly's films point to this: from the liquid-like wormhole that emerges from the cinema screen in Donnie Darko to the liquid like one-shots in Southland Tales (not to mention the whole 'perpetual motion machine' and 'liquid karma'). Here, we approach a world of abstraction as substance, where the virtual world of cinema/tv/internet is so encompassing it has become our reality. Is it any surprise that Kelly's next film will not only be in CGI motion capture but also 3D?

Yet there is a key ambiguity in Kelly's obsession, which explains the ending of The Box as well as similar motifs in his previous films. As much as he is concerned with the link between the image and capital, Kelly is also concerned with cults: from Patrick Swayze's motivational speaker in Donnie Darko to the cult of the perpetual motion machine and neo-Marxist group in Southland Tales. Kelly's stance here remains ambiguous however, and in The Box, he makes the mistake of actually identifying with this cult psychology. In what is inexplicably described in the film as a free act that Sartre would somehow have approved of, Arthur murders his wife based on the hope that she will live on in the afterlife - the assurance of which he has received from Langella's charismatic character (more specifically, from his smile). This cult-like sacrifice is not only pitched as a free and altruistic act (to restore sight and hearing to their son) but is also shown to be part of the box's circulatory effects (it is suggested the murder was caused by another couple pressing the button). Indeed, the reason Arthur can kill Norma is because, from both the perspective of the afterlife and of media/capital flows, she is little more than an image. The themes of cult morality and the fetishistic worship of the image should not be left ambiguous or opposed (in the sense it could be interpreted as a happy or bad ending) - the cult morality is what such a worship and belief in the image ultimately leads to. Yet the film is unclear over the nature of such belief and Kelly himself has even come out and called it a happy ending.

That said, it's Kelly's affective density that stands out. His films are more receptive to how the image functions in and envelops contemporary society than most filmmakers working today. The Box is his most explicit film yet about the link between the image and capital and its gesturing towards a 3D cinema promises even more profound connections. As with Avatar and Gamer, and upcoming films like Inception and Tron Legacy, Kelly's aesthetic points the way forward for the cinema of the next decade.

*In line with Marx's definition of the commodity, the photo is literally the part that stands in for the whole (ie. the totality of the production process). Especially when we consider that the larger photo of NASA staff taken by the camera Arthur invented for his job is the perfect representation of the totality of his production process.

**Steward tells Norma he can now communicate with the "those who control the lightning"

Labels: ,