On W.E.B. Du Bois’s ‘The Princess Steel’ – his newly discovered sf/fantasy story

MTE5NTU2MzE2MjA2MDQwNTg3‘The Princess Steel’, a previously unpublished sf/fantasy story by W.E.B. Du Bois, can be found in the most recent issue of the PMLA (130.3: 819-829). It was written some time between 1908 and 1910, and there is an earlier draft called ‘The Megascope: A Tale of Tales’.

The earlier title acknowledges Du Bois’s self-conscious embedding of one tale within another within another. It also shows a clear sense of how the introduction of a science-fictional innovation (not really what Suvin means by the novum) functions as a narratological device to generate fictions. The Megascope shifts the story from one genre/diegesis into another and then into another – or, perhaps more accurately, revises the reader’s expectations of the story as it rewrites the rules of the world in which the story takes place.

‘The Princess Steel’ begins as an apparently realist story in contemporary New York, told with a certain wry humour, as the unnamed protagonist and his wife, in response to a newspaper advertisement, go to witness a scientific demonstration by the sociologist Professor Hannibal Johnson:

Now my wife and I were interested in Sociology; we had studied together at Chicago, so diligently indeed that we had just married and were spending our honeymoon in New York. … it certainly seemed very opportune to hear almost immediately upon our arrival of a great lecturer in Sociology albeit his name, to our chagrin, was new to us. (822)

To their even greater chagrin, Johnson is black (and initially they assume he must be the Professor’s servant). On reflection, however,

One would not for a moment have hesitated to call him a gentleman had it not been for his color. His voice, his manner, everything showed training and refinement. Naturally my wife stiffened and drew back and yet she felt me smiling and hated to acknowledge the failure of our expedition. (822)

This is an intriguing passage in that it is also the one at which we realise that the newly-weds are white. Their studies provide a clue to the likelihood of this, but it is only their assertion of the colour line that definitively places them on one side of it. By making it manifest in this way, Du Bois prepares the ground for a story that will use fantasy so as to imagine some of the determining forces of everyday life that many varieties of realism and naturalism, with their emphasis on surface detail, interpersonal relations and individual psychology, struggle to capture. Like naturalist Frank Norris’s incomplete trilogy of wheat (The Octopus (1901), The Pit (1903)), Du Bois’s first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), is an epic that attempts to map out the complex social relations of a single industry (for Du Bois, cotton); but even Norris, especially in his first novel, bows under the weight of the task and includes weirdly ecstatic visions, as if the real were too complex for mere realism. In this context, one cannot help but also recall the fantastical spirit that imbues Du Bois’s second novel, The Dark Princess (1928), especially when it draws closest to heavy industry in the stunning passage when protagonist Matthew Towns chucks it all in to become a manual labourer digging the subway tunnels:

Lakes and rivers flow … pouring from the hills down to the kitchen sinks with steady pulse beneath the iron street [and] great steel Genii, a hundred feet high, lumber blindly along at out neck and call to dig, lift, talk, push, weep, and swear [and us] houses sag, stagger, and reel … but …do not fall: we hold them, force them and prop them up [even as we] tak[e] away the foundations of the city and leav[e] it delicately swaying on air. (265, 266).

In ‘The Princess Steel’, however, Du Bois approaches the problem from the other side. His broadly realistic opening is just a frame for an exercise in the fantastic, using sf to access the allegorical as a means to draw out the unseen determinants of an exploitative patriarchal-colonial-capitalist modernity and contemporary social life.

Johnson’s library contains volume upon volume of The Great Chronicle – a record he discovered a quarter century earlier of the ‘everyday facts of life but kept with surprising accuracy by a Silent Brotherhood for 200 years’ (823). We learn no more about this surveillant order – perhaps for Du Bois an imaginative precursor to The Dark Princess’s secretive revolutionary Great Central Committee of Yellow, Brown and Black – but their copious records have enabled Johnson to develop the Megascope.

Rather than plunge into directly into allegory or deploy the kind of slippery kind transition into an alternative realm deployed in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) – I am insufficiently familiar with Du Bois’s biography to know whether he had read Mark Twain’s novel, but it does seem to me to lurk in the background of what is to come – Du Bois turns to scientific innovation, the very stuff of modernity, to investigate modernity. (Foucault scholars will be excited to learn that Du Bois begins with technologies of statistics and surveillance; Hegelians will have to wait a few moments longer for their fix.)

Professor Johnson first shows his visitors a mechanism by which a human deed can be represented in two dimensions on a ‘thin transparent film’ (823). Layering such films one on top of another produces a representation of the ‘history of these deeds in days and months and years’ (823) and, he explains, if

“these planes be curved about one center and reflected to and fro we get a curve of infinite curvings which is—”—he paused impressively—“which is the Law of Life.” (823)

He next reveals the ‘vast solid crystal globe’, ‘fifty feet in diameter’, on which he has spent twenty years plotting the curves of life; and for twenty years he has been thwarted in his quest for the ‘Great Curve … by curious counter-curves and shadow and crossing’ (823). This endless frustration has led him to hypothesise that

Human life is not alone on earth—there is an Over-life—nay—nay I mean nothing metaphysical or theological—I mean a social Over-life—a life of Over-men, Super men, not merely Captains of Industry but field marshalls of the Zeit-geist, who today are guiding the world events and dominating the lives of men. It is a Life so near ourselves that we think it is ourselves, and yet so vast that we vaguely identify it with the universe. (823)

And so he reveals the Megascope, with which he will reveal an Over-Man. First they see

the Curve of Steel—the sum of all the facts and quantities and times and lives that go to make Steel, that skeleton of the Modern World … the Spirit of the wonderful metal which is the center of our modern life, and the inner life of the Over-life that dominates this vast industry— (824)

I love this slightly awkward description of imaginary technology. It beautifully captures the extent to which all language – including and perhaps especially scientific language, for all its pretensions otherwise – is inherently and unavoidably metaphorical. Du Bois transition from more or less mundane descriptions of physical objects

with one more swinging of the lever there swept down before the window a great tube, like a great golden trumpet with the flare toward us and the mouth-piece pointed toward the glit[t]ering sphere; laced round it ran silken cords like coiled electric wire ending in handles, globes and collar like appendages (824)

to the heightened and elusive description of their purpose introduces an ineffable tone that eases the next generic switch.

The great tube’s window displays a vision of New York that transforms before the viewers. The landscape becoming apocalyptically fantastical as the view rushes towards Pittsburg, where steel mills rise like cyclopean castles or ‘the Mills of the Gods’ and between them move obscure and terrifying Things – the ‘Things of this New World, the World of Steel’ (824).

A giant knight emerges. He is the Lord of the Golden Way, a disembodied Voice explains, and then tells in some detail a cod-epic story – part medieval romance, part allegory. (It is only loosely allegorical – there is not the direct one-to-one correspondence between manifest and latent content insisted upon by allegory proper, so it might be more accurate to think of it as a symbolic story, but only so long as you then don’t fall into the trap of expecting each symbol to directly correspond to one specific symbolised thing in a clearly delineated overarching scheme (because that would be allegory proper, horribly reductive and maddeningly dull).)

The Over-Man Sir Guess of Londonton captures the Witch Knowal – the wife of the ogre Evilhood – and she tells him of ‘the dark Queen of the Iron Isles—she that of old came out of Africa’ (825) and who is held captive in the Pits of Pittsburg, along with her enchanted daughter, Princess Steel, fathered by the Sun-God . The Lord of the Golden Way agrees to help Guess rescue the Princess Steel from her enchantment in exchange for her treasure. This leads to inevitable conflict. Guess promptly falls in love with the freed Princess, but the Lord realises her treasure resides in her body:

her hair is silver and her eyes are golden, and … mayhap there be jewels crusted on her heart. (828)

Guess is defeated, and as the Princess watches over her fallen lover, the Lord of the Golden Way begins to spin strands of her hair, which is the steel upon which the modern world is built. The San Franciso and Valparaiso earthquakes of 1906 are signs of her rage at the Lord of the Golden Way and she warns him

I watch and ward above my sleeping Lord till he awake and then woe World! when I shake my curls a-loose. (829)

On this note – presaging the dire consequences of industrial modernity, of capitalist and colonial and gendered exploitation, which include the violent overthrow of such a world – the vision ends.

The wife has seen none of this because, a little troublingly, the megascope ‘was not tuned delicately enough for her’ (829). (Even in The Dark Princess, Du Bois tends to push Princess Kautilya, one of the key members of the revolutionary Committee, into domestic roles.)

The couple make a hasty exit.

In the PMLA, ‘The Princess Steel’ is introduced by Britt Rusert and Adrienne Brown, who are currently co-editing a collection of Du Bois’s sf, fantasy, mystery and crime fiction. The story is locked behind the journal’s pay-wall – but there are bound to be people out there whose universities have institutional access.

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The City in Fiction and Film, week two

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Week one

This week we took on Fritz Lang’s M (1931).

We began with a quotation from Anton Kaes’s BFI classic, which describes the film as embodying:

‘the tension between the forces of modernity, with their emphasis on time, discipline, rationality, seriality, law and order and those recalcitrant counterforces – trauma, passion, illness, loss and, finally, death – that defy reason and resist integration’ (76)

Our discussion of these various concepts in relation to the film was supported by a number of clues and questions presented before the screening:

Look out for clocks, files, records, book-keeping, accounts and other evidence of bureaucracy in action.
Look out for communications networks and mass media.
Look out for shop windows and other displays of commodities.
Look out for mirror images/reflections and doublings.
What is going on with the narrative structure? To what extent is this a film about the contest between a protagonist and an antagonist? To what extent is classical narrative structure subordinated to a series of images of the city connected by sound? How are those images arranged? How do they relate to each other?
Pay attention to the ways the film uses sound (offscreen sound, sound from the following shot/scene present in the current scene, unusual sources of sound, silences).
At the end of the film, is there any conclusive evidence of Hans Beckert’s (Peter Lorre) guilt?

Clocks abound in this film (and other Lang films – see the Paternoster Machine in Metropolis for example) – from the child’s game that opens the film with clock-like movement to the pickpocket who calls the talking clock and then corrects all the stolen watches he is carrying; from the cuckoo clock in Frau Beckman’s apartment that signals the time as she waits for little Elsie to return home to the clocktower bells that drown it out. They signify the imposition of clock time on our experience of the world – imposed so the trains could run on time, to organize commerce, to discipline and control labour – and the ways in which this ordering of subjectivity also disorders us.

Building on this, the police investigation evokes the instrumentalisation, rationalisation and bureaucratisation of everyday life – files kept on people, fingerprinting, forensic procedures. The police amass information and process it in an orderly manner, an image graphically captured by the concentric circles drawn on a map to indicate the expanding radii of the investigation around a crime scene. The state panopticon’s vast archives of signifiers are bureaucratic abstractions of actual people – this is, as Foucault would argue, evidence of the growing management of populations by statistics. (Though we didn’t get on to Foucault or the panopticon or biopolitics in class!)

Likewise, the gang of criminals come up with their own systematic means of finding the killer (because he is bad for business) – surveillance conducted by the army of beggars in the street; and then, when Beckert is trapped in the factory/office building, despatching teams of men to work through it in an orderly manner.

This parallel between the police/administration and the criminals/beggars has already been indicated by the sequence which repeatedly cuts between them, in their respective smoke-filled rooms, as they plan their respective campaigns. (And boy, are those rooms smoke-filled – like the studio is on fire or something.)

We also thought about seriality – the children’s game, the serial fiction delivered to Frau Beckman as she waits for Elsie, the ordering of cigarettes and cigars and other objects in the beggars’ hideout, where food prices are listed in chalk as if share prices at a stock exchange. And of course serial killers, that modern and largely urban phenomenon, the US variety of which is typically said to start with HH Holmes in Chicago at the time of the 1893 World’s Fair (the subject of one of Edison’s early phonographs). The early twentieth century saw several notorious examples in Germany (Kürten, Grossmann, Denke, Haarmann), and they crop up in other German films of this period, such as Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), and The Lodger (1927), made under the influence of expressionism by Hitchcock shortly after his return from Germany to England (and remade in 1932 with sound by Maurice Elvey).

The idea of the serial killer returned us to the anonymity offered by cities – and the film’s recurring idea that anyone could be the killer. An idea that flips immediately into unreason – we three times see groups of people mistake someone for the killer, unleashing irrational violence, twice by mobs. (This is why it is important, I think, that we see no real evidence that Beckert is guilty. All the police know is that they have traced the man who wrote a letter to the newspapers confessing to the crimes – as many others have done. All the criminals know is that a blind man recognised a tune that was being whistled by someone to whom he sold a balloon for a little girl on the day Elsie went missing. Beckert’s own not entirely convincing confession is clearly that of a deranged man. And yet we, too, generally assume that he is guilty, leaping to conclusions.)

Violence lurks everywhere in this film. The streets are populated with men injured in the war: limbs are missing, and the one set of fingerprints we see are those of a man with only four fingers; there are blind people and deaf people, people who fake being blind and a blind man who sometimes wishes he was deaf so as to cut out the constant noise of the city. There are also psychological traumas: the anxiety of parents (shared to an extent by the viewer who joins them in being worried about their children) and the bereavements they suffer. Lang at one point considered including a flashback to explain the origins of Beckert’s derangement in the horrors of World War One; but that would psychologise him, and like Brecht, Lang is more interested here in moving from ‘psychology to sociology, from empathy to critical distance, from organic development to montage, from suggestion to argument’.

This is why the film narrative is decentred into montages of city scenes, without real protagonist or antagonist. It is about the social circumstances which enable serial killers (and other modern urban figures) to emerge, to thrive, to become a media spectacle. This is why we are not permitted – until the final scene – to develop any real sense of Beckert as a person with whom we might sympathise in some way.

We also situated the film in relation to
— expressionist art (Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Paul Klee’s Castle and Sun, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Nollendorfplatz and Self-Portrait as Soldier, Wassilly Kandinsky’s progression from The Rider to Composition 6 to On White II, James N. Rosenberg’s Oct 29 Dies Irae)
— German expressionist film (Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr CaligariGenuineRaskolnikov, Hands of Orlac, Martin’s From Morn to Midnight, Robison’s Warning Shadows) – though we only had time for clips from Caligari and the opening of Joe May’s Asphalt, which moves from actuality footage to expressionist images of the city, cuts to a calm domestic space, and then returns to expressionist images of the city (you can see it here.) Unlike Caligari, which films expressionist spaces and performances, Asphalt in places uses the camera and editing in an expressionist manner.
Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-factness, New Sobriety or New Dispassion), a post-impressionist movement that tried to get away from subjective expression to a more political art intended to provoke collective action (examples included Otto Dix’s verist Salon, War Cripples and The Trench, and Alexander Kanoldt’s classicist Still Life II and Der rote Gürtel). We also took  quick look at some footage from the great New Objectivity film People on Sunday (see it here).

Lang, after all, called a documentary!

The conclusion that I did not have time to get to included the sneaky reference to Foucault mentioned above, and one to the Adorno and Horkheimer – their argument that in capitalist modernity economics and politics become increasingly intertwined: business interests intervene in the running of the state for their own ends; the state intervenes in the economy to maintain conditions favourable to business. This leads to centralised instrumentalist bureaucracies and administration. As instrumental reason dominates, social life becomes increasingly rationalised.

Which kind of captures a large chunk of what M is up to. As in others of Lang’s German and US films, the city is the site of modernity, and this is what modernity looks (and sounds) like.

Additional information from the module handbook
Recommended critical reading
– Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Visions and    Modernity. London: BFI, 2000. See 163–199 on M.
– Kaes, Anton. M. London: BFI, 2000.
– Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 1, “Modernity and the City Film: Berlin.”
– Roberts, Ian. German Expressionism. London: Wallflower, 2008.
Recommended reading
The key German expressionist novel is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929). A more accessible vision of Germany in the Weimar period can be found in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), often bound together as The Berlin Stories or The Berlin Novels and adapted for film as I Am A Camera (Cornelius 1955) and Cabaret (Fosse 1972). Other serial killer fiction of interest includes Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Dorothy B Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), David Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter (1953), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Susanna Moore’s In the Cut (1995). Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of HH Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City (2003), is also of interest.
One of the innovations of American hardboiled crime fiction was the introduction of the detective who could go anywhere in the city, crossing physical space as well as class barriers – such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, introduced in The Big Sleep (1939) – which enables a similar overview of society as that offered in M.
Recommended viewing
Other German expressionist films about the city include The Last Laugh (Murnau 1924), Metropolis (Lang 1927), The Blue Angel (von Sternberg 1930) and – made in the US – Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau 1927).
German expressionism visually influenced American film noir, including adaptations of Chandler novels, such as Murder My Sweet (Dmytryk 1944) and The Big Sleep (Hawks 1946). Its impact can also be seen in such British films as Odd Man Out (Reed 1947) and The Third Man (Reed 1949).
Point Blank (Boorman 1967), Se7en (Fincher 1995), The Underneath (Soderbergh 1995), Dark City (Proyas 1998), Fight Club (Fincher 1999) and The Deep End (McGehee and Siegel 2001) find ways to create expressionist effects in colour.
Although it has expressionist elements, at the time of its release in Germany M was considered and example of New Objectivism, like People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) and GW Pabst’s films of this period – Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Pandora’s Box (1929), Westfront 1918 (1930) and The Threepenny Opera (19321 .
The Wire (HBO 2002–08) maps the urban complexity behind crime, from street-level drug-dealing to corporate and political corruption. Spiral (Canal+ 2005–), The Killing (DR/ZDF 2007–12) and Peaky Blinders (BBC 2013 – ) do some similar things, although they are less astute about economics.

Week three

Eden Log (Franck Vestiel France 2007)

[A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 3.1 (2010), 157–61]

edenlogEden Log begins in darkness.

Water drips into water.

Ragged breaths.

Flashes of light reveal a man (Clovis Cornillac), caked in mud, waking, staggering to his feet. (Later, much later, we – and he – will learn that his name is Tolbiac, but for now he has no idea who or where he is.)

He finds a torch on a nearby corpse and in its intermittent light he creeps and crawls and climbs up out of this cave into the lower levels of a seemingly derelict industrial complex. Cables and roots, difficult to tell apart, hang from the ceiling, industrial detritus devolving into, merging with, the subterranean-organic. On the wall behind him, a half-seen diagram describes a process which seems to involve humans descending below ground and then later ascending. He presses through heavy turnstiles and is greeted by projections of half a dozen women, immaculately clothed and coiffed, who address him in multiple languages. In the ominously bland idiolect of a corporate shill, one of them states,

The contract is fair. It is thanks to your work below that you will build your paradise above. Look after the plant and it will look after you.

This pun on plant, which works in French as well as in English, opens up one of the several fields of ambiguity in which this often elliptical film nestles. The plant is both a miraculous tree of vast proportions, its roots reaching far underground, and the industrial complex which extracts sap with ‘infinite energetic properties’ from the tree so as to power a city.

eden-log-clovis-cornillacAs Tolbiac ascends through underground levels – a trajectory that materialises the vertical integration upon which the Eden Log corporation’s gradually unveiled monopoly depends – he encounters various others from whom he begins to piece together the world and its story. One man, suspended from a wall, claims to have brought down the system, but it is not entirely clear where he ends and the plant (in either sense) begins. Tolbiac triggers a recording of the final confrontation between the technicians and the guards: when faced with an information leak over their corporate malfeasance, the nature and extent of which will only later become clear(er), Eden Log overrode all protocols about the relative autonomy of the subterranean levels and sent in guards to destroy the evidence and eradicate the threat.

1242613626_3The plant has been responding to its escalating exploitation by releasing a toxin that mutates the workers into strange, no-longer human creatures. Tolbiac’s struggle against transformation wavers when he finds an uninfected woman (Vimala Pons) and, suddenly abhuman, rapes her. He is appalled by what he has done, and what he is becoming. She elects to accompany him up to the surface, not knowing that he has infected her.

Eventually, having pieced together most of the puzzle, Tolbiac is recognised – and, at last, named – by the guards he used to command. Pretending to be himself, he cons his way past the guards and plugs himself into the plant, which has always been sterile, infecting it with life. It erupts, shattering the dome that contained it, and expands to take over the deserted city, transforming it into a beautiful – and colour-filled – landscape.

Eden Log actually begins not in darkness but with a quotation:

Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. (Genesis 3:23)

Tolbiac’s initial emergence from the mud might be taken as a reworking of the creation of Adam in The Bible: In The Beginning… (US/Italy 1966), replacing John Huston’s achingly – and thus camply – tasteful images of an inspirited wind blowing aside yellow sand to reveal the first man with birthing imagery that is rather more fecal, fluid and feminine. Eden Log certainly invites psychoanalytical readings: its setting recalls the maternal interiors of Alien (Scott UK/US 1979), the rape carries strong overtones of a primal scene fantasy, and Tolbiac’s ascent into realms of language and control, the realm from which he fathered himself, plays out an Oedipal entry into the Symbolic.

The biblical quotation can also be interpreted as Vestiel’s announcement of his transition to directing feature films. Previously, he had directed three episodes of the French cop show, Central Nuit (Night Squad 2001– ), and gathered assistant director credits on numerous films, including Blueberry (Renegade; Kounen France/Mexico/UK 2004), adapted from Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s bande desinée, and Ils (Them; Moreau and Palud France/Romania 2006). Such experience undoubtedly prepared him well for shooting a film in the dark, in confined spaces[1] and with an elusive – some have claimed incomprehensible – narrative with religious overtones.[2] Many of the reviews of Eden Log struggled to make sense of a film with the narrative structure of a Paul W.S. Anderson video game adaptation but stripped of his prolonged action sequences and clearly-defined (if one-dimensional) characters, motives and goals. Struggling to make sense of their disappointed expectations, reviewers typically drew fairly insubstantial comparisons with THX 1138 (Lucas US 1971), Le dernier combat (The Last Battle; Besson France 1983), Cube (Natali Canada 1997), Pi (Aronofsky US 1998) and Primer (Carruth US 2004), among others – often for no better reasons than Eden Log being a first film, French, black-and-white (sort of), low-budget, visually striking and/or elliptically plotted.

A more productive comparison might be drawn with Tsukamoto Shinya. Although Eden Log lacks the viscerality of Haze (Japan 2005), in which a man likewise drags himself through a mysterious subterranean location, Vestiel shares Tsukamoto’s eye for post-industrial landscapes – for once-essential components mutating into something almost-organic – along with his taste for apocalyptic rebirth and a posthuman otherness that defies eutopian-dystopian binaries.

Vestiel’s decision to begin the action in overwhelming darkness, with intermittent flashes of light that reveal less than they show, recalls the opening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper US 1974), with which Eden Log shares an energy crisis narrative about the dehumanising effects of capital. But it also announces that Eden Log is self-consciously a film. Garrett Stewart argues that

cinema exists in the interval between two absences, the one whose loss is marked by any and all photographic images and the one brought on by tossing away each image in instantaneous turn. (xi)

For him, the presence of still photographs within the diegesis functions as a reminder of the photogram, the still image that is held in front of the viewer for a twenty-fourth of a second as the film is projected but which is never seen or experienced as a still image. Vestiel’s prolonged stretches of darkness between each flash of light work in a similar manner, to remind us of the unseen dark absence which replaces each photogram in succession.

This filmic self-consciousness is further developed by the projection of images within the diegesis. For example, in the sequence in which Tolbiac replays the recording of the final attempt at negotiation before the guards invaded the subterranean levels, he must scurry to raise into the air a variety of surfaces so that the recorded dialogue can be accompanied by images projected onto these détourned screens, rematerialising a profilmic moment that is no more and reminding us that the

filmic medium is the once having been there of the represented spaces themselves, absented by necessity to make possible the materiality of their moving image on the track. (Stewart 5)

Later, a wizened figure, attached to the plant but slumped as if dead, is eerily animated as an earlier recording of him is projected onto his unmoving face. This play between the inanimate and the animated – which resonates strongly with the decision to strip the film stock of all colour, apart from the occasional revenant touch of red and green[3] – confronts us once more with the interplay between the substrate and the surface of the filmic experience itself. As Stewart notes,

photography engraves the death it resembles, [whereas] cinema defers the death whose escape it simulates. (xi)

Vestiel’s striking use of light and darkness, his flickering between presence and absence, the visible and the invisible, is matched by a refusal fully to explicate the world of the film or the narrative. By adhering to Tolbiac’s amnesiac perspective as he pieces together information from the thinnest and most elusive of expository clues, Vestiel situates the viewer in the space between obscurity and illumination. Even those adept in the relevant genre conventions will find themselves frustrated by Vestiel’s grimly playful evasion of specificity – a strategy clearly announced in the rape scene.

Having raced together into a room-sized elevator, Tolbiac removes his unknown companion’s helmet, revealing that she is a woman. With increasing passion – and apparently in flashforward – they begin to make love. This is soon intercut with another image stream in which the sex is reconfigured as Tolbiac violently raping the woman, and with a third in which he seems to be looking on in disgust at himself. The scene ends with Tolbiac slumped against a wall in dismay, and with the woman curled up in a corner, crying; and yet when he finds a way out, repeating to himself, ‘It’s not me, it’s not me’, she accompanies him.

While it remains unclear what has actually happened between Tolbiac and the woman, the frequent complaint in online commentary that the scene is gratuitous and that it makes no sense for the woman to follow her rapist indicates the extent to which generic framings can override the indeterminacy of the specific. This troubling conjuncture of community and violence, the flicker between affective intersubjectivity and aggressive domination, between what might be and what is, is at the core of the film’s critique of contemporary power.

Eden_LogThe Eden Log corporation’s circular logo which reappears throughout the film contains a diagram of tree as an intricate network, branching out in all directions. This potentially rhizomatic image is disrupted by the corporation’s name, which bisects the circle horizontally, turning the network into a tree with branches above ground and roots below. It forces verticality and thus hierarchy onto the image. The tree, as Deleuze and Guattari argue,

plots a point, fixes an order (7)

even as the rhizome that this tree places under erasure

expose[s] arborescent pseudomultiplicities for what they are. (8)

Indeed, the film’s working title, Network Zero, suggests the point at which vertical hierarchy severs and deforms lateral multiplicity. The plant – both the tree and the factory housing it – is a synecdoche for the Eden Log corporation which owns it, part of the biopolitical order that, according to Michel Foucault, extends and veils the disciplinary sovereign power of the state to

make live and let die. (241)

In the closing minutes of the film it is revealed that Eden Log has promised immigrants who labour in the plant will be rewarded with citizenship, and concealed from the citizens that the plant is feeding on its workers. Eden Log has a vision of ‘a new social order’ built upon this ‘integration’ of non-citizen outsiders into ‘our civilisation’, and believes that when the truth is revealed that ‘our citizens will accept what our needs impose on these populations’. This exemplifies the manner in which biopolitical governance moulds populations to serve the economy. It can be seen as the logic of the Holocaust, in which the

death of the bad race, of the inferior race (or the degenerate, or the abnormal) is something that will make life in general healthier. (Foucault 255)

But it is also the logic of the supposedly free market.

And to this sovereign power Eden Log counterposes zoē, the

simple act of living common to all living beings (Agamben 1)

which is shared by the abhuman not-death-but-continuation of the mutated workers and the plant-human-machines, and by the climactic, uncanny efflorescence of computer-generated nature.

Notes
[1]
Eden Log was shot in a damp, freezing ten-acre mushroom bed sixty feet below ground, as well as water decontamination stations and sewers.

[2]
Vestiel co-authored the screenplay with Pierre Bordage, co-writer of Marc Caro’s less-than-coherent Dante 01 (France 2008), on which Vestiel also worked as assistant director.

[3]
There are two other bursts of (rather artificial-looking) colour when, courtesy of CGI, the plant effloresces. Stewart suggests that

in the second half of this century, science fiction has continued, more and more vividly, to imagine the technologies that would outdo it, do it in. In the digital era, however, futurist cinema has for the first time mobilized rather than merely evoked its own self-anachronizing upgrades. Engineered by computer enhancements, the super-annuation of a suddenly hybrid medium has become manifestly planned obsolescence, performed from within rather than simply foreseen. (222)

Works cited
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone, 1988.
Foucault, Michel. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France 1975–1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.
Stewart, Garrett. Between Film and Screen: Modernism’s Photo Synthesis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.