By Ray Langenbach
(Ir)reversible Déjà vu
I used to spend weekend mornings in Singapore with a friend, Lee Weng Choy, watching formulaic Hollywood flicks. Seeing the same actors appear in film after film left us with an eerie sense of déjà vu. One day following two hours of the usual fare, we devised a game. A simple conceit, it involves replotting a given film against the background of the starring actors’ earlier (or later) “breakthrough” roles, and the moments of crisis or catharsis in those roles. The replottings are loosely done, hop-scotching back and forth through time and across the fuzzy borders between fiction, production and daily life. Some readings are based in fictional time, while others presumed the chronology of the actors’ careers. Let me offer some examples:
Lai Yiu-fai, who was ‘happy together’ with Ho Po-wing in Buenos Aires, circa 1997, found himself three years later ‘in the mood for love’ with Su Li-zhen Chan in Hong Kong. As a child Po-wing was an actor with the nickname ‘Xiao Douzi’, or ‘Little Bean’, in a Peking Opera troupe. Indentured there by his mother, he was violently forced to take on the roles of female concubines.
We are left to speculate that perhaps Yiu-fai’s Hong Kong tryst with Su Li-zhen was a motivating factor in Po wing’s suicide on April Fools Day 2003. But boiling down his demise to just one cause may be too simplistic, as this was only a recent example of his many tragic loves, reaching back to the first unrequited romance with his school mate, Duan Xiaolou.
An American working class hero, Jim Braddock, desperate to provide food for his family during the Great Depression, defeated another American champion, Maximilian Adelbert Baer. Braddock’s sacrifices to provide for his family and eventual victory were played out against the pentimenti of the life of another ‘gladiator’, Maximus Decimus Meridius, who could not protect his family from the Emperor Commodus’s (CE180-192) murderous intent. The violent destruction of one family in 2nd century C.E. Rome motivated the struggle to save another in 1935 America.
The game opens step-by-step, like Russian matryoshka (nesting dolls), each identity contained in and containing those that follow. At times the scene shreds into infinite complexity, as you find yourself submerged in an ever deepening embrace of virtual personae. At other times it can be surprisingly symmetrical: J.D., a young conman picked up by ‘Thelma and Louise’ (Thelma Dickerson and Louise Elizabeth Sawyer) in 1990, only eight years later found gainful employment as that consummate trickster, Death aka ‘Joe Black’.
We find a resolute Gandhi, haunted by his own violent impulses, at the core of two other equally resolute personae: the ‘sexy beast’ Don Logan, and the Iranian emigre Massoud Amir Behrani mired in the ‘sand and fog’ of America.
By cutting across the grain, the game can bring the politics of cultural production and reception into sharp relief. The most obvious and banal exemplars are the transformations found in sequels, such as Zorro turning from his career as a Mexican outlaw-insurgent, resisting Spanish colonial imperialism, into a tool of U.S imperialism, and symbol of Mexican assimilationism.
But more complex examples can span eras, cultures and film genres. In 1987, the book editor, Alex Forrest, took time off from literature to avenge Dan Gallagher’s cavalier dismissal of what she thought was the beginning of a cozy relationship, but what he thought was a one night stand. In the grip of their ‘fatal attraction’ she boiled the family’s pet rabbit in its own juices, almost precisely 200 years after Pierre Choderlos de Laclos chronicled the Marquise de Merteuil declaring to Viscount de Valmont that she was born to “avenge my sex and master yours”, in the book, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782). The book reached the screen in 1988, during the expansion of the American women’s liberation movement into the still male-dominated corporate workplace. Taken individually, each of the two characters, played by Glenn Close a year apart, exemplifies a paranoid view of independent women threatening the nuclear family and pubic mores. But when read through eachother, the Marquise de Merteuil and Alex Forrest fold out into a two century panorama of women’s struggle for social parity and power.
Weng Choy and I have tried to find the right word for this game. “Reincarnation” came up. But the ordered progression of a ‘soul’ through a string of avatars doesn’t adequately capture the dangerous manner in which these transubstantiations liaise, overlap, inflect, infect, and fuse. Rather, I’m reminded of a 1982 grade-B sci-fi flick by John Carpenter, inelegantly entitled, The Thing. Set in the present, an alien species is released from the Antarctic ice by a Norwegian mining company and proceeds to parasitically absorb and duplicate nearby earthlings – in this case, sled dogs and humans – at two research stations.
The ‘Thing’ simulates its victims, not through a process of DNA encryption, but by analogically copying one cell at a time. Because it takes hours to complete a perfect cellular copy, with the right number of fingers and toes in all the right places, ‘the-horror-the-horror’ in this film results from the ‘Thing’ getting interrupted at particularly grotesque moments of the compositing process. Bits of dogs and humans and gallons of infectious bodily fluids take over the station in the midst of the pristine continent of ice. The process isn’t reproductive, nor is it reincarnative. It is mutative in the manner of language and signs, producing ever more complex compounds, incomplete composites (or perhaps we should we say ‘composts’) of the two signifieds available at the field station: humans and canines (presumably with a few cockroaches and rats thrown into the mix).
The Thing was released within a year of the publishing of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacres et Simulation in French and Simulations in English. While being grotesquely physiological, The Thing speaks directly to Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal, and the capacity of signs (such as the moving image) to simulate real ‘things’, and, in the inverse logic of representation, to precede those things (“…the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced” – Baudrillard 1981). Simply put, in the world of the simulation, the original is copy to the copy.
The alien ‘thing’ becomes indistinguishable from the things it mimics and absorbs, bluntly capturing what Baudrillard calls the “hallucination of the real” in the codes of the Grade-B film thriller. And it provides us with a copacetic analogy for ‘the game’, in which an actor’s earlier roles are absorbed into, and remain infected by, the later ones that precede them.
This (ir)reversible déjà vu is paradigmatic of both The Thing and the game. But it also leads us to the game’s fundamental inconsistency: its reliance on excepting the protagonist (and by extension, the audience) from the logic of simulation. Let me explain.
The Thing was a product of its own internal logic. It snatched its core concept from the 1956 sci-fl thriller, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which the bodies of the citizens of an American town were taken over by immigrant alien pods. The nefarious strategy of the alien (read ‘communist’, although they could also be McCarthyite anti-communist) invaders to take over the world was discovered by the town’s good Doctor Miles J. Bennell. He, of course, had a trained eye for reading the symptom in the identity, and the (ideological) mutant in the citizen. But he could do so only so long as he himself had not been snatched. So, the film’s theme is recuperated through the doctor’s avoidance of the invasion he observes. Snatch him, or reduce him to madness, and the symptoms of the snatchees become those of the observer, that is, symptoms conflate with identity and simulation becomes assimilation.
A generation later we find Dr. Bennell morphing into the science officer, Blair, of The Thing, who is first infected not by the alien, but by the same knowledge held by Bennell, that the ‘Thing’ will inevitably become another thing, and then another, until it becomes ‘every thing’. There are no exceptions to the logic of compositing and simulation. Perhaps it was this dawning awareness, rather than unrequited love, that propelled Little Bean to his dalliance with ‘vertigo’.
Ray Langenbach can usually be found in the fifth row from the screen snatching the latest Grade B flix-prop at Midvalley Megamall, when not pontificating on film and media theory at the Department of Performance + Media, Sunway University College.
First Published: 17.11.2005 on Kakiseni