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"