Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 in Shit: After Earth

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.
To begin; read Thinking about "After Earth" (2013) by @nochiel. You can finish there; what he has to say is significantly more important than what I'm about to write. If you want to read me as well, that's fine. But I really can't stress enough that reading that is more important and worthwhile than this.

It's not really my goal to expand upon what is written there. I think, for one thing, that I quite straightforwardly cannot, in any way that would be even remotely useful. What I think I can do is point up other ways in which the movie is, as Ochiel says, "an excellent, even important, sci-fi film" according to my own practices of reading, which firmly agree with that statement. And, of course, to read with him. Hopefully this weird thing I do manages that.

We assume that a film's stakes are basically a consequence of its genre; a biopic will fall along a spectrum that valorizes the individual according to tribulations, ranging from starting from the bottom to hitting rock bottom. The SF film spectrum has stakes in the setting; the world (or universe) is at stake. This is a sort of overdetermining of genericity, a whiteness of genre; not only does the marketing material let us know what sorts of things will be likely to be present, but it allows us the ability to enter the theater knowing for what or whom we will be rooting.

After Earth specifically undermines this. The film's climactic line is spoken by Jaden, and goes like this: "I wanna work with mom." It's a joke, sure, an intentional reflection of the gendered division of labor and the overwhelmingly masculine grammar of the film up to this point, a way of pretending to valorize women's work while implying that it isn't really work, at least not in the same way. But to read it as only this sort of joke, to deny that this is the real lesson of the film, that it also uncovers the actual desires of the film itself that were previously only communicated in its staging or cinematography, is to overvalue that generic whiteness. To let its claims about what is at stake in the film override the claims that the film itself makes.

The moment in which Kitai lays on a raft and dreams of his sister Senshi (Zoƫ Isabella Kravitz), who whispers something into his ear and has a conversation with him before suddenly shifting into a horrible spectre, contains more of the film than perhaps any other single moment. Shyamalan has basically always been a director of horror, in a largely idiosyncratic way, but this is the only moment of After Earth that is clearly signposted with elements of the filmic genre of horror. It's a jump scare, it's an example of the art of makeup application, and it is also a moment of psychological horror. Senshi's death is replayed endlessly, but in this moment alone she is unshackled from the burden of being the traumatic motivation and invested with a sense of malevolent agency (even if she never taps into it). At the same time, Kitai, with a sense of dream logic, is reciting a memorized passage from Moby Dick, a book that comes up a number of times throughout the film as a favorite of Cypher's, a moment of his bonding with Senshi, and a signifier of the lack of that bond with Kitai. The impulse, of course, played on though never really conceded, is to read the one through the other, to attempt to organize After Earth in accordance with some particular understanding of Melville's novel. On top of all that, the position that Kitai is in is one which is both foregrounded by the movie and constantly returned to it; the opening shots suture together Cypher's violent removal from Kitai by the ship's crashing with Kitai's laying on his side as the leeches venom takes hold. Throughout the movie Kitai finds himself in this peculiar repose, including the cross-cut scene out of which the above still is taken.

I am, to be completely honest, not sure what to do with the return to Kitai's laying on his side; but the return to that shot echoes the way that the movie aggressively insists on the image of Senshi as the marker of trauma. One of the many ways that this movie differs from the "accepted" mode of representation is in its insistence on trauma not just as a motivating force, but one that is marked by repetition; rather than using the moment of Senshi's death as either an established or revealed motivation, the film endlessly returns to it. In terms of narrative economy, this is decidedly inefficient; but as an act in itself, it resonates within the larger structure of the film beyond its narrative ends to color the similar use of the technique. So when Kitai speaks to Senshi in his dream, these moments that have technical resonance (both repeat beyond the representational economy that they are apparently subordinate to) are unified in representation; whether this explicitly codes Kitai's pose as traumatic or does something else entirely is beyond me. The presence of the "heart's hot shell" quote and the use of clear generic horror provide suggestions, though.

To linger, for just a moment, on the horror; more than the ways that this can be subsumed into the narrative by way of speculatively psychologizing the characters, I think the key here is the use of makeup and its metaphorization into a signifier of immanence. If it's a little cheap to say that what is important about this scene is that it is seen, then okay, yeah, so that is true of anything in a film. But it still feels especially so here, as so many things, both from within the film and from without it, are collapsed into this moment of visual recognition. Which is maybe what really matters; that the way the moment ends with certain established signifiers of estrangement are really aimed at producing a sort of recognition.

If Kitai's dream of Senshi is an exemplary moment in the film's repetitive impulse, that's only because that impulse is so completely diffuse throughout the movie that it needs a particular example to anchor it. As a whole the movie uses repetition to locate trauma, as being both representative and a consequence of the family.

I'll again note, because I worry that this last point will suggest otherwise, that I am very much reading with Ochiel here.

It resonates in the scene where, after Cypher has described his first experience of ghosting, Kitai learns to ghost in near-exactly the same circumstances; but more obliquely it even shows up in the way that the giant bird interacts with Kitai. At first an apparent enemy, it ends up saving Kitai by adopting him, even after he fails to protect its chicks from the predatory cats. And then again at the very end, as Cypher replies to Kitai's desire to work with Faia with a "me too," which itself calls back to the scene where Cypher tells Faia of his impending retirement and offers that he will possibly work with her as well.

That scene also repeats an early scene in a more direct way, as Cypher asks to be stood up to salute Kitai in the same way a soldier Cypher had saved asked to be stood up to salute him. This is, on the face of it, a pretty ordinary move, an example of the way the grammar of cinema uses self-citation to indicate the ascension of one character to the status of another where there was an initial power difference. But because of the insistence on showing and reshowing the scene where a young Kitai "fails" to save Senshi, it can't possibly only work to that end here; and because the final conclusion of the film is that the actions of the film are themselves totally untenable, this is even more drawn out than it would be otherwise.

That the film positions family as the site of trauma does not mean that the film positions family as the cause of trauma. This is an easy elision to make, but is itself a consequence of assuming the whiteness of genre, the overdetermining of the particular by the universal (in the form of marketing categories). That the act itself involves the invasion of an Ursa into the Raige household is important; family is the site, which is to say the location. The trauma builds into itself, refuses the distinction of outside and in, and so collocates the two. It is a rupture from outside, but it becomes the constitutive aspect.

I came across The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, a fake documentary by the Sci Fi channel about the making of The Village by way of this article; I don't know quite how it was received or is remembered outside of that context, but I think it's not unfair to extrapolate that the article's reading of it alongside The Village and Lady in the Water as the turning point, when Shyamalan became too narcissistic to maintain a steady credible presence as an auteur, is pretty fair. Which is incredibly interesting, having now watched it myself; the fake documentary is clearly more invested in exploring the specific ways in which Shyamalan is or feels fetishized within the industry and the culture than it is an act of narcissism. From his early interview to the white kids at the gates to his house to the images of "ethnic" masks, The Buried Secret is a short film about race in an incredibly straightforward way. But instead it gets read under the same forms of erasure -- the whiteness of genre -- as After Earth has. It's no coincidence, I think, that this relatively nondescript fake documentary was brought up in relation to this film.

Of course, the silencing of artists of color by way of claiming their narcissism is both a common and well known tactic. It wouldn't be too hard to read The Buried Secret as being entirely about this; all one would need to do would be to discard the very tenuous generic connections and refuse to whitewash it. What arises then is a pseudo-documentary about a film crew whose invasive attempts to refuse to allow a director of color to control the meaning of his own works in even the limited field of his own actions. It's telling especially that the "last interview" with Shyamalan ends with a white dude explaining to a South Asian American artist that his works, despite all indications otherwise, are entirely and directly autobiographical. This is a history with which we are familiar.

There's a part of me that wants to launch into a full blown defense of M. Night Shyamalan here; I honestly think that Lady in the Water is his best film, and that The Happening is genuinely strange in ways that are actively enhanced by how dull it reads. And this probably is the place for it too; only it's not the time. I've got fake deadlines to meet.

Suffice to say, for now, that certain aspects of After Earth need to be read through Shyamalan. The scene just after the plane crash, for instance, where the camera is let rest just outside the plastic membrane that is meant to seal off the ship's atmosphere, as it opens and closes on the dead crewmembers body, seems to me to be very particularly Shyamalan, and to possess a strange, awkward visual poetry that ends up coded into the use of repetition in the films larger structures. There is also, of course, that moment of genre horror, which without Shyamalan would read very differently. But also, at a broader level, he presents maybe the most interesting case of the erasure of the why in the generic whiteness equation; why, if this is the Smith vanity project, was a director whose utter narcissism, as racialized and wrong as that claim might be, is so widely established as to be, at this point, basically uncontested? Why not, at that point, literally any other director at all? And the answer, again, is that I don't know; but also that I do know that there is a crack there, a failure of the metanarrative, and that this is a movie worth keeping in the conversation, and so it is a crack worth exploiting.

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