Friday, June 18, 2010

Diffuse Cinema

If you've seen the film, or don't care about the substantial spoilers, you can go here and here to read very thorough and clear blog essays about the myriad and wide-ranging implications of, and topics brought up by, Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009). Although, if you've seen the film, and you're a moderately attentive and thoughtful viewer, you don't need to really go anywhere to have anyone unpack the film for you. A clause from early in Kim Dot Dammit's review sums up what a lot of these two pieces are circling around: "the film manages to combine a whole mess of hot topics such as abortion, biotechnology, the reproductive industry, genetic research, cloning, big pharma’s role in late capitalism, maternity, sexuality/gender and so much more into one disturbingly effective film."

This kind of phrasing pops up commonly reviews & criticism, i.e., admiringly listing off the host of diverse elements that a film brings together or brings up. (See, e.g., the
Spin review, Feb 2008, of British Sea Power's Do You Like Rock Music?, where the band "touches on the topics of Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr, the great skua seabird, Kevlar, and the flooding of an island in the River Thames.") This listing by the critical observer is always at least somewhat self-aware, because the point is to indicate range by indicating a number of particulars. But I wonder if this gesture can be read symptomatically, too, to say something about the products in question and their own self-awareness.

A while back I gave a conference paper on 'reversible' films, blockbuster cinema that seeks to accommodate politicized readings by accommodating even contradictory ideologies. On a textual level, there is no true interpretation to movies like
The Lord of the Rings or The Matrix or even more ostensibly right- and left-wing 300 and V for Vendetta. These films have fluid, if not gaseous, rules for the construction of their allies, enemies, and causes. Their engineering as narrative packages is highly clever and streamlined. In a related way but on a more sophisticated level is another articulation of cinema, what we might call 'diffuse.' The difference - and of course I'm speaking impressionistically and in generalities, and any given film will offer particularities which trouble my categories - is that a reversible film fosters a political position (any number of positions), a spiritual forebear being something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, whereas the diffuse film knowingly revels in the messiness, in the feeling of impossibility of a clear political through-line. It goes into the cul-de-sac, it embraces the ethical, epistemological, sociopolitical clusterfuck. This isn't necessarily apolitical - cousins to this diffusion seem, to me, to be Roman Polanski as well as speculative fiction writer China Mieville (both figures dealing in genre fictions who have serious political intentions). But diffuse cinema, like Splice or District 9 (Neill Blomkamp) or some Arnaud Desplechin, seems to me to deliberately inspire such lists of diverse topical or thematic content as those highlighted above. When the film in question is considered effective, the iteration of such lists is meant to indicate that these nodes are mobilized in rich, weird, perhaps unpredicted or unpredictable, and sophisticated ways.

As a broader practice in audiovisual culture, like (say) "slow" cinema (see here), I think it'd be worth greater attention to this industrial-textual confluence as something which is still sometimes treated as a natural and unselfconscious happening at this moment in cinema/culture, and sometimes treated (perhaps more shrewdly) as a wave whose riders are aware of themselves ...

(P.S. also, some World Cup commentary forthcoming probably sometime this weekend ...)


Joel said...

The critical response to Splice was disconcertingly easy to predict. It's the kind of film, as you suggest, that seems engineered to appeal to the (or at least a certain) critical community's appetite for subtext in genre films. Perhaps too beholden to the idea of "discovering" the brilliance in some unloved B-movie, influenced by some fantasy about the Cahiers du Cinema and many many other critics after that first mining of unregarded American films( though now in a vastly different historical context, hence the fantasy), any genre film that seems to "raise issues" is described, inevitably, as "rich." Yet, not a single review so far has convincingly argued that the film does anything more than raise an issue and almost immediately abandon it in favor of raising another issue. Nor has a single review examined the value of raising these particular issues(beyond topicality) or of "raising issues" in general, a phrase written countless times in countless reviews under the assumption that this artistic activity is invariably "smart" and "rich." One problem with this sort of discourse is that Splice is almost entirely subtext, a vehicle for subtext, and is not an undiscovered or unloved film, but a film embraced by this particular critical community. It purports to examine ethical issues wrapped up in science while giving an entirely ludicrous view of how science is conducted and how (prominent, well-regarded) scientists behave, and thereby, from my point of view, nearly negates anything it might have to say about such ethical issues. One could say that the use of human DNA to create anything, much less a frightening, human-like monster, is wrong - but isn't this issue dependent, to some extent, on what exactly science plans to do with this DNA and how it plans to do it. Science as a vocation seems like a particularly hard subject to film. The depiction here, if one believes this movie is seriously attempting to examine the implications of what these "scientists" are doing, is lazy. As is the reaction of "taking the bait" by critics. I understand this somewhat - the film makes a viewer feel smart, because, as you point out, it's very easy to identify the countless issues it raises (and to pat oneself on the back for doing so). Yours is the first commentary I've read on this particular film that addresses my experience of it; however, this isn't new - it's why I continue read and enjoy your blog. Without sarcasm, it's rich. Thanks for continuing to write.

ZC said...

I don't want to come across as harsh on, say, Steven Shaviro (whom I like a lot) - and I hope that my taking up his review, among others', symptomatically is not read as a slight in any way. But I do think you're right: sometimes these "B" (!?) films are smarter than some of their defenders might give them credit for being aloud - not in a thematic sense but in a business (demographic/hucksterish) sense. Splice has a good idea of who (will) comprise it's audience - it's not dolts & fanboys redeemed by solid critical-theoretical discourse, but rather the latter who are redeemed (box-office wise) by the former.

But I'm glad you agree with me, and crystallize some of my concerns better than I have, and thank you for the compliment at the end, Joel - I truly appreciate it.

watch TV said...

I am glad to see your reviews..This is what I was expecting about it...Seriously, it is kind of film that seems engineered to appeal to the the critical community.

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The chap is completely right, and there's no skepticism.