Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Cinema of Isolation

Image from "that book by derrida" on Flickr

The movies construct subjectivity. This is true in at least two senses. Taken to its extreme, this statement would mean that the movies, taken here in the broadest sense of the term to include whatever is projected onto any screen of any dimensions, TV, computer, ipod, construct subjectivity by giving the audience the codes, affects, and styles that make up the basic backdrop of our existence. In a more moderate sense this would mean simply that the movies construct subjectivity on the screen, convert a series of images into characters, or subjects. This construction is laid bare whenever something non-human, a car, a duck, a zombie, a robot, is given subjectivity, depth. The basic vocabulary of this construction is “shot-reverse-shot,” show the object then the thing reacting to the object (a shot of the face, or whatever stands in for the face), then an action on the second thing, action, contemplation, reaction, the basic elements of subjectivity. As Walter Benjamin argued, subjectivity is often constructed on the cutting room floor.

It goes without saying that Wall-e is a film about isolation, about separation, and ultimately about loneliness. It goes without saying, but it is worth mentioning that we are talking about a children’s cartoon that deals with these things. What is perhaps interesting is that every character in the film is presented as lonely or isolated in some sense, and their ways of coping with this reflect aspects of contemporary life.

Wall-e, the film’s central character, is introduced through his loneliness and isolation. The opening third of the film defines him a character, a subject, that is not only alone (shots of other broken down robots, of huge expanses of wasteland) but lonely. This loneliness is established through his relation with objects. Wall-e collects objects found in the garbage, objects like the rubik cube, the dolls, the lighters, and the video tape that seem to suggest a world. The objects not only reflect a world, one that is gone, but make up a world, a world that defines an interior subjective space; a point that is reinforced in the final moments of the film, when these same objects are used to awaken Wall-e’s memory, to remind him who he is.

Aboard the spaceship we meet the humans who are isolated in a fundamentally different way. The denizens of the spaceship Axiom cruise about in separate floating chairs, interacting only through screens no matter how physically close they may be. The image conjures up a phrase that Hardt and Negri use discuss the current spectacle, which they describe as—“individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens.” In this way the humans occupy a strange sort of isolation, they are not alone, in fact they are unified in their isolation or isolated in their unity. They travel along parallel tracks, never seeing anything outside the screen in front of them. Moreover, such isolation is only possible given a great deal of social organization, even if in this case it falls to robots. Such a situation recalls Marx’s overlooked, but important description of modern existence as a kind of asocial sociality:

“Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.”

The humans in the film take this to an almost absurd level, they are the completely isolated consuming subject, infantilized, overweight, and absolutely passive. In fact this opens up many questions, they are so isolated, so disconnected, it remains difficult to see how they could ever reproduce. More disappointingly, the film subscribes to the worse ideology of ideology: the idea that to escape ideology it is enough to turn off the screen and simply open one’s eyes to reality. We all know what happens when the screen turns blank, when the machine breaks down, people do not see reality and each other for the first time, they call tech support or the cable company. (It is perhaps too much to expect ideology critique from a Disney film, but those opening scenes of a desolate and abandoned Earth are just so good, it tends to get one’s hopes up.)

To conclude somewhat abruptly, the movie outlines several contemporary strategies for dealing with isolation, and what strikes me is how easy it is to map them unto contemporary existence. Wall-e embodies a particular idea of fan culture: collecting objects with nostalgia for a better world, and watching the same film again and again to extract lessons. In our contemporary world he would be shopping on ebay and keeping a blog on old musicals. While the human’s in the film embody a kind of digitally connected materially disconnected existence. In our world they would have hundreds of “friends” on facebook, but little or no contact with their neighbors. I am not sure what children think of this film, but it does seem well suited to prepare them for life in the contemporary world.

1 comment:

Steve Zodiac said...

I saw it as much of a warning - if we continue this world of consumer acquisition and environmental destruction, we will end up in a very bad place, and that's assuming we can devise a machine like Axiom, which is not necessarily true...