Friday, March 2, 2018

The Value of Explanatory Scenes

The further away I get from Annihilation, the more I am appreciating the way that the opening scenes put a button on the interpretation. It's a movie which imagines a kind of cancer of alien origin, that operates on the idea of the world as a body. Portman's Lena's small monologue over cancerous cells is, functionally, like the psychiatrist scene in Psycho. Which, at this point, is maybe my favorite thing about Psycho.

A fun thing is how the intersection of spoiler culture and wiki loredump culture means that everyone Theories about every edge of a piece of fiction without ever saying a goddamn thing about it, all while making any discussion of material, formal, or thematic concerns completely subservient. Not only does that provide one of the material foundations for an oppressively dull discursive environment, playing into it leads to moments where things like the interpretation of Mulholland Drive as split into death-dream followed by real life can take functionally canonical status. That can be exciting at first, but (for me at least) it ultimately robs the experience of its ethereality. I worry that this is the ultimate fate of the third season of Twin Peaks as well, its beautiful, complicated sprawl boiled down to a couple timelines and a million wiki entries about character names.

I reference Lynch because he is, to me, the example of a director who most adamantly refuses the Skeleton Key approach to his own work, to the point where any interview with a cast member inevitably runs up against his own reticence. It's a strategy I admire in many ways, but that has increasingly seemed to me to be ineffective. Not because I want everyone to J.K. Rowling all over their completed works, but because the cultural shift has made it simultaneously difficult to find clear, detailed description of specific elements while canonizing everything in a way that rewards only the most general interpretation.

I was probably as likely as anyone to make fun of, or at least discount, the psychiatrist scene in Psycho the last time I saw it, probably a decade ago. But that decade has changed the way texts are approached. When it was shot, a generous reading of that ending would be to allow for Bates' condition to be subsumed not just under the generic mode of "crazy killer," but to give a sense of human motivation to his break and subsequent actions without reducing it to the conscious mind. It was a profoundly psychoanalytic move at a time when many characters had no writing that even acknowledged their drives, much less the plethora of other factors that motivate a person beyond their conscious intentions. Now, though -- and let me stress again that this is an intentionally ahistorical reading -- it is a way of circumventing the interpretive lacuna left in so much media to be endlessly filled with fan labor that corporate media companies can exploit. It is a type of focus that wasn't needed at the time, but is now.

To say that Annihilation is about cancer is to say that, yes, it is a movie about what makes us human, because what is cancer but that which is of and against the very foundation of ourselves? It is to say that yes, it is a movie about the difference between human and animal because what is a thing about cancer that doesn't take into account the human built environment that organizes and exacerbates it? It is even to say that yes, it is a movie about Stalker, because what is Stalker but a movie that poisoned its crew and contributed to the death of its director by, yes, cancer? And, importantly, it is a way of saying that that can say: it's right there. It's part of the thing. It's as transparent as the Shimmer.

So if we want to continue this conversation to something more interesting, we can't simply get caught up on the right way to put the jigsaw puzzle together. We can talk about the aesthetics (they totally didn't work for me) or the way it points to a possibility of a science fiction that advances certain past examples like Tarkovsky, Kubrick, and Carpenter (I didn't feel like it did much in that arena either, no matter my mixed regards for all of them). We can take the central conceit of self-destruction in both the sense of action and impulse. Even more than that we can, though, is the fact that the movie hands us the tools to insist on doing that. And I appreciate that about this film, no matter the fact that I didn't particularly love watching it.