THE BODIES EXPOSITION

BODIES is an exhibition of corpses in suspended animation. They have been preserved by a special chemical process, so that they keep the organic qualities of the ”original” as they are transposed into gleaming, hyperreal sculptures. But the difference between these bodies and the wax bodies of Madamme Tussaud’s is the fascinating implication that the sculptures are REAL (even though they are in suspended animation, ie halfway to being real). The bodies promise a contact with the material, but they can never deliver their promise. This is what makes these simulacrum sculptures, these holograms of flesh, more than just Uncanny; the bodies are literally undead.

So while the manifest message of the expo is that you should know the complex functioning of your body in order to take care of its health better, the latent one is a direct call to the Death Drive, an invitation to the necrophilic obsession underlying our psychic apparatus. This is already clear from the way people visit the expo in clusters, unable to turn their gaze away from the sculptures, yet seeking group support for the uneasy visceral emotion that the sighting causes. But it becomes even clearer when you visit a small stand in the hook, where you can touch some organs. Oddly, the experience is disappointing. The organs feel like plastic. The sight of individual body parts often reveals their pathetic resemblance to meat from the supermarket. Apparently the obsessive urge to touch the bodies, to feel their ”authentic, material substrate”, comes from the Death Drive.

The wondrous surprise the exposition holds in store is that underneath all the layers of intricately organized meat, fat, nerve and bone, there is absolutely nothing – emptiness. Most of the sculptures are made up so that they show the layered nature of the human body, muscles under muscles, bones under bones.The sculpture is thus ”a body without organs”. Through its many vessels, the body manages complex flows and communications with the outside world.

Nowhere is the communicative nature of the body more magnificently rendered than in the ”blood vessels” part of the expo, where the vessels are presented according to their mapping on the body. At first it seems like a beautiful coral, but when you look closer, you will see a complex web of threads woven around the body, forming its contours as a virtual sculpture. The body here is quite literally a communicative network.

Other sculptures provide a fascinating insight into our bonds with animals. The muscles of a corpse are pulled up by invisible hooks to reveal the structure behind them. Suddenly the meat looks fishy, with the muscles forming beautiful surreal fins. Other sculptures resemble cloned misfortunes from HP Lovecraft, something between Giger’s ALIEN, chicken liver and Robbie Williams in the ”Rock DJ” video.

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THE PRESTIGE


Already the poster for THE PRESTIGE

suggests that the elusive Woman (notice

the smoke) from film noir

will disturb the men’s auto-reproductive

fantasies…

A friend recently suggested that THE PRESTIGE is a film about two men trying to reproduce without women. But, is this really a correct assessment?

Indeed the plot of Christopher Nolan’s newest can be described as a contest between two halves of a male personality striving to accomplish unity. One is a rugged proletarian with talent, and the other a genteel with showmanship skills. As you have already guessed, the setup differs little from THE FIGHT CLUB – so I’m wondering at which point do we get completely saturated by Gothic tales about splitting told through twisted narratives?

The usual pop psychology informs the proceedings: two magicians (Christian and Hugh) looking for the greatest trick, the Prestige, which remains forever beyond grasp. It is the maintenance of the illusion that the grass is greener over the Rainbow that provides for magic. Once the trick gets exposed, we see that the Wizard of Oz was just a silly old man pushing the buttons of a dream-machine; Dorothy returns to Kansas, and the fun ends.

Now most writers in film criticism tend to avoid SPOILERS, in order not to disturb your enjoyment of the film. Especially since THE PRESTIGE  depends, as any other film noir, on your suspension of disbelief until the end. Although THE PRESTIGE ultimately reveals the Secret, its resolution leaves enough ambiguity to preserve the trickery for further rehashes.

The Prestige is a device made by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla. A bit like David Cronenberg’s teleporter from THE FLY, Tesla’s Machine simply generates multiplications. You put a cat, or a hat, under electrodes, and you get multiple cats or hats. By this very playful substitution of ”cat” for ”hat”, the Machine collapses the usual functioning of language.

On another level, the Machine presents us with the fantasy of a magical device that can create matter out of nothingness. Hypothetically, such a perpetuum mobile could create an alternative mode of production, challenging class distinctions as well as the concept of the market.

Tesla is like a Gothic shaman here, offering the illusionists a taste of immanence, where  technological magic reconciles their splitting. Conveniently played by David Bowie, the icon of androgyny, Tesla dispenses with the gender problem mentioned in the beginning. Instead of just one Christian Bale, we can now have an endless line of Christians produced by a mere push of the button. No need for those endlessly squabbling women and their reproductive demands!

At this point, Scarlett Johansson walks on stage. As it turns out, Scarlett is the one who fueled the fights between Christian and Hugh. Hugh sent Scarlett to Christian so that she can steal his secret and give it to Hugh, but Scarlett pulled her own trick on Hugh to pit the two against each other even more. In the end, the liberated woman triumphs: not only did she spoil Christian’s auto-reproductive fantasy, she also delivered a speech about female abuse in the hands of obsessive men.

Ergo, the secret of the Prestige is something that we may not have (Nikola Tesla warns the magician: ”Destroy the Machine!”). As Christian Bale kills Jackman’s double to preserve family values for the decent American viewer, it seems that ultimately, men cannot do without women, and the world cannot do without divisions.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS

Spying on each other’s lives as multimedia bloggers, we’re not that different from the East German security police

Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s THE LIVES OF OTHERS (DAS LEBEN DER ANDEREN) turned out more interesting for its political implications, than for the broad melodrama underpinning its ”materialist” remake of Wim Wenders’ THE WINGS OF DESIRE. Lauded in Europe as the definitive answer to Ostalgia, THE LIVES OF OTHERS establishes an equally biased Westalgia by refusing to discuss the problems of the current surveillance state.

The fim chronicles the spying of socialist intelligentsia in East Germany of 1984 – a properly Orwellian year – which took place under the Stazis, an affectionate kraut term for the State security service. The Brechtian writer Dreyman, his femme fatale wife Christa and their socialist friends are plotting to publish a subversive article in DER SPIEGEL. The article reveals that the East German state hid the country’s alarming suicide figures from public view.

Wiesler, a Stazi intelligence officer, puts Dreyman and Christa under 24-7 surveillance. Initially presented as an obsessive voyeur (REAR WINDOW), Wiesler transforms mid-way into an angel. To secure an Academy Award, the angel will descend from his spying studio in the Heavens to intervene on Earth, saving Dreyman from the clutches of the Stazis. He does this by removing crucial evidence that Christa provided in a hearing session related to Dreyman’s subversive activites.

Tormented by guilt, Christa throws herself under the wheels. Her death is equally a result of the lifelong abuse she endured in the hands of the Stazis, as it is a realization of Dreyman’s article on suicide. Drawing a parallel with today’s ubiquitous networks, Donnersmarck suggests that mediated communication collapsed the boundary between ”reality” and ”fiction”. Already in these early stages of the surveillance state, our lives were being directed by the media.

After this melodramatic climax, THE LIVES OF OTHERS sinks like the Titanic. The Berlin Wall has fallen, the doors to integration are open, but the film doesn’t seem to register the persistence of social divisions. The Stazi officer has been relegated to the post office, where he will spend the rest of his days sorting envelopes. Donnersmarck proceeds to lament his fate as a consequence of socialism, oblivious to the parallel destinies of Eastern Europeans in capitalism. There is no sign of current realities in Germany, still grappling with its ex-DDR workforce, or the widespread problems with multicultural integration in the European Union.

Instead of showing how the East and West German ”Big Brother” societies mirrored each other, Donnersmarck simply greets the new world as the final horizon of happiness. This biased portrayal draws on the ideals of the ”open society”, where public access to information guarantees political freedom. What skips Donnersmarck’s attention is the obvious possibility that transparency may be serving as a disguise for control.

As I mentioned in the beginning, it is possible to extract a more productive analysis from the film’s implications:

Psychoanalytically speaking, the life of others is always your own life. The Stazi officer’s position as a blogger, who can observe the Brechtian couple’s lives, but never intervene in reality, ominously implies our inability to effect any meaningful social change. The new media have certainly increased the possibility for communication. But is this an encounter with otherness, or a narcissistic dialogue with our screen double?

In the film’s establishing scene, a reworking of Orwell’s 1984, the Stazi officer tells his students that reality is always already hijacked by mediation, so that the facts obtained in the course of an interrogation do not matter as much as the process itself. In Kafkian terms, the Party doesn’t really care about your guilt or innocence, only that they can make you feel guilty.

The film does not explain how these new structures developed through networks. Lacking a centralized authority, the new system relies on a peer-to-peer architecture to create the illusion of political freedom. Since there is no recognizable observer, the subject is alienated from his own surveillance. You can never be sure where the camera is located, who is watching and who is being watched, or worse, whether you are perhaps watching yourself. As Steven Shaviro noted, this is an instance of double-bind communication:

The most insidious form of power in the network is the way it both “incites, induces, seduces” us (to use Foucault’s words) and locates and tracks us, as well as the way that the “informatization” of everything is itself a kind of appropriation and control.

In an expository scene at the Brecht theater, the exercise of the Stazi’s power may be likened to political correctness. When the Brechtian writer asks the Stazis to help his friend Otto, who has been banned from the theatre scene, they vehemently dismiss the possibility that the Party could ever be involved in censorship. But their grinning reveals that this is exactly what they have done to Otto.

Under the mask of equality, humanism and openness, both socialism and capitalism have found new ways to deploy the media in the service of political control.