Brick swings the genre of the hardboiled detective and throws it into the setting of high school. In a way, there couldn’t be a more perfect setting. As a young student with little knowledge of the outside world, high school takes on an almost surreal significance. Everything is not quite what it is but is at the same time and it is because of this ambiguity that high school becomes the perfect place for subversion. For the detective, a rebel loner at once part of the seedy underbelly as he is outside of it, subversion is always a natural inclination. For the noir film, this subversion must always take place at the level of language, of form.
With Brick, first time director Rian Johnson has achieved an seductive autonomy of form. Dialogue is twisted into a highly stylised slang and objects are so persistently emphasised that the film raises every sound and image onto a sensory level. It is at this sensory level, of sounds hallucinated as images, of negative space rupturing into symbolic space, of an obsessive return to things, places, images, that Brick should be experienced. Indeed, it is at this level of signs, of clues, that the detective himself exists.
However, it is important to note that despite this playfulness of form, scenes are often tightly framed, the dialogue curt, the establishing shots repeated. There is a tendency to have the sun shine directly in the background, bursting with brightness, as if the unity and totality of the frame were too much for it to handle. In fact, it is from this very tightness of frame, this direct confrontation of the sign, that anxiety emerges, gaps appear and forms are manipulated.
We see this during Tug’s first fight with Brendan when a subliminal image of the sun appears with each punch, until Brendan’s eyes finally rest upon its glare before he loses consciousness. In the words of feminist critic Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror, what we are seeing here is ‘the shimmering of a signifier that terrified flees its signified”.
It is within these blanks that separate the signifier from signified, and not in their connection, that affect takes place. Brick explores these blanks by developing a kind of ‘negative space’, a negative space within the frame as it is without. Sometimes, these spaces operate like blind spots, hidden spaces that are outside the frame, such as Kara’s ever-present ‘lapdogs’ that suddenly rise up in a scene.
Other times, it can act as a superimposed space that characters drop in and out of, as a frame within a frame (for example, Brendan and Brain outlined by empty spaces in book shelves) or as a space contingent on light or reflection (such as Pin’s men hidden in the darkness of the corridor).
In the same way that space contains its own negativity, so do the characters. Brain and Brendan work together within a mental/physical dichotomy, a relationship more explicitly mirrored by Tug and the Pin. Pin is a ‘cripple’ (emphasised by the walking stick) yet has the brains to run the operation. Tug is the muscle but doesn’t take time to think things through (his lack of thought referenced by the scar on his head). This brings negative space into the realm of Kristeva’s 'abjection'
, which describes a self that can only be constructed by what it rejects, by what it isn’t – although this abjection continues to have a tight hold over the self, constantly threatening to bubble up. Examples of an abject overwhelming the self are numerous in Brick but the most explicit is Tug’s screaming to the Pin that “I aint under your thumb no more, that I aint playing lapdog to no gothed up cripple”, drawing a comparison here with Kara’s ‘lapdogs’ and their formal rupture. It is this negative space, in all its variations, that Brendan must confront, occupy and manipulate to subvert the level of narrative reality, of symbolic space.
Sound as space is especially emphasised here. When Emily tells Brendan over the phone, “it’s good to see you Brendan”, she is alerting him first to the fact that she is close by (although unseen), but also alluding that sound itself occupies a space. At the point when Emily uses “see” instead of “hear” our initial response is to replace our idea of Emily as semi-passive listener with a more immediate subject who is actively watching. However, this response disregards the fact that we don’t witness Emily at all in this scene. Despite her reference to an ocular space, she is still only a voice. The absence of visual referent means that this space reverberates back in on itself, creating a signified space existing on the level of a signifier - a sound that is a space. Kristeva describes this as “sound hallucinating images”, a floating image, a sound that refracts against nothing but more signifiers, a presence marked by its very absence.
This is best exemplified by the chase between Brendan and Chuck Burns (the lug with the knife). The film traces the chase through the rhythmic sounds of the characters’ shoes. Their incessant repetition is so emphasised here and the different boot sounds so distinguished that we reach the point when the characters actually seem to become their sound. Even their relationship to place becomes defined less by their visual presence as by the echoes of their boots. This is why Brendan takes off his shoes to elude Burns. By removing himself from this world of sound he enters another, unseen space - the silent space in between the footsteps, a negative space that ruptures the linear space and creates rhythm.
However, what this particular scene shows is that rhythm can also become a deadly circuit. There is a seduction in the endless inevitability of the two-step rhythm, as if the man himself is controlled by the sounds, by a rhythm without object. In the end, the abrupt clang preceded by the stretched silence also seems inevitable, foreshadowed by its own rhythm. In this way, rhythm turns back on itself, to the point when it controls us, so that we are swallowed by the abject, by our own negative space.
What the film tries to show is this inversion of rhythm (or of a rhythm disguised as linearity). The film’s exaggerated punch sounds operate in a similar way. The bruises they leave on Brendan’s face act as existential markers, reassuring him of his presence and charting a sense of progressive linearity. But, like the chase, this linearity becomes a rhythm that turns back upon itself, into a revulsion, as Brendan starts vomiting up blood and staggering, dizzy-like from the barrage of hits he has taken.
Time also takes place as an inversion. Frequent references are made to digital clocks, watches, meeting times as if time charts a fragile linearity. Yet time itself is retroactive - it exists only by being returned to, by being historicized in the present, effects reverberating between different periods,
As such, it resembles one of the film's key clues, the burning cigarette with an arrow pointing upwards away from the filter, towards a space that burns itself away – a negative space. By the end of film, we are back at the beginning, at least the earliest period glimpsed – that of the flashback on the football field. Despite the fillm's initial emphasis on linearity, we gradually realise that we are only returning to places again and again, out of an almost obsessive desire to realise their secret, their cause.
It is this trauma/cause behind negative space that, to quote Zizek, “gives rise to an indeliable inconsistency in the symbolic field” and it is this which Brendan as detective searches for. The paradox is that it can only be seen through its distorted reflection in symbolic space, most particularly in the image of the tunnel, the site of Emily's murder.
Notably then, it is in the reflection of Brendan’s nightmares that Emily and the tunnel become inextricably linked. And just as the tunnel is referred to as ‘A’, Brendan refers to Emily as Em or ‘M’. Place and the feminine become signs here. They cannot be approached directly. Our relationship to space exists only in so much as it refers to something else, as when the Pin gazes out towards the sea and says, “Do you ever read Tolkien? His descriptions of places are really beautiful, makes you want to be there” Even when we are there we are not quite there.
Thus, the more Brendan penetrates the mystery, the more ‘mirrors’ he encounters, the more bluffs and guises. In a fit of rage and frustration, Brendan throws a clock at Kara’s mirror, shattering it, only for Kara to raise her made up face in place of the smashed mirror. Negative space is constant and re-emerging. Brendan’s desire to discover and subjectivise the cause outside of it reflections, to destroy this negative space and discover the Thing itself, is futile. For as he shall eventually realise, it is precisely this negative space which constructs space as he knows it.
The mysterious last word that Laura whispered to Brendan is that he is a ‘mother[fucker]’ – ie. the father. By the end of his investigation, Brendan has discovered the reason why Emily was killed - her pregnancy. But the cause of her pregnancy falls back upon him. And here Brick’s twist enters three movements.
'Father' as symbolic authority: The subversion and manipulation that Brendan engaged in was always a rebellion against the father, against the paternal prohibitions that institute symbolic meaning. ‘Father’ is thus ‘a dirty word’ and the final insult.
'Father' as void: Father is not just a dirty word, it is an unspoken word. Laura’s whisper is neither completely audible nor the word 'father' itself. Brendan even declines to tell Brain what she said. Indeed, throughout the film, there is a distinct lack of reference to real fathers. The only parental figure we see is the Pin’s mother and the only other references made are of mothers (specifically those of Brendan, Brain and Laura). Kristeva explains this twist indirectly in Powers of Horror: “Manipulation of words is not an intellectual play but a desperate attempt to hold on to the ultimate obstacles of a pure signifier that has been abandoned
by the paternal metaphor’ (italics mine). This is the film’s encounter with the void behind language, that there is no external Big Other authorising its meaning.
But, in an almost Hegelian movement, Brick goes further and returns to the father. The twist then is not that there is no father, but that the father is you, that the meaning can only be authorised by yourself on the level of signifier. The trauma/cause is not something outside of our symbolic world but something intrinsic in it. This negative space is not a subversion or rebellion against the paternal prohibitions but actually, effectively constitutes paternal authority.
In this way, it is the paradoxical nature of the object cause, its own constitutive yet necessarily unattainable identity, that defines Brendan as a subject. Once Brendan gets too close, once he steps out to grasp the trauma as it is in itself, then it evaporates into nothingness (like the Brick shattering into white powder at the end) while he as subject turns in on himself and is erased. The object cause that he desires is itself the negative of the subject - the father - that which he thought he was resisting. Hence his last words are ‘She called me a dirty word’, not only registering himself as object but also, at the same time, as subject. Seemingly despite himself, he is restarting the prohibition of language that begins with the Father (and thus Brain disappears back inside Brendan's head, Brendan turns his back on the feminine). And so, in the desire and progression to realise the cause behind form’s distortion, we realise that we as subjects are already the cause, that we were always-already on the other side.
Labels: brick, film, kristeva, noir, zizek