March 20, 2012

The Chatterley Effect

Spoilers? NSFW? I can't tell anymore.

I fell down a psychic wormhole recently while writing about Luis Buñuel's Belle De Jour (1967) for Film Freak Central. It was one of those chrono-synclastic infundibula that can convince a potheaded college student he's living out the theories of Carl Jung, or at least the lyrics of later Police songs from before Sting went Adult Contemporary. Fortunately for science, it's a long time since I was a potheaded college student, but since all time is now I'm gonna just roll with that vibe.

Belle De Jour is about Séverine, a moneyed Paris housewife whose sexual frigidity with her husband leads her to explore her fantasies of sexual submission in secret — as an afternoon prostitute in a fairly exclusive brothel. She also fantasizes at length about being abused, bound, raped, and otherwise sexually humiliated. Here's what I wrote for FFC, with select video scenes interspersed:

Belle De Jour occupies one of those strange synchronistic points of literature and history, which intrigues me almost as much as the film itself. The source novel, by Joseph Kessel, appeared in 1928, the same year as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.

The two novels bear striking similarities, or rather, reflect each other in striking ways. Constance Chatterley acts on sexual frustrations after her husband is paralyzed; Séverine's decision to act results in her husband becoming paralyzed. Prior to this, the young prostitute Mathilde (Maria Latour) says she entered the oldest profession because (like Constance) her beloved was injured and couldn't work; and Pierre contemplates an empty wheelchair with the air of a man whose grave has been trodden.

In Chatterley and Belle De Jour, there's a surrender of a high-class woman to a lower-class man (or, for Séverine, more than one). In each, there's a fetishization of nature, mud, ordure. (Most of Séverine's fantasy abasements take place outdoors.)

… In terms of sex as psychology, both Lawrence and Kessler's novels were preceded by Arthur Schnitzler's Traumnovelle, later the source for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which finds a man exploring sexual abandon in hopes of assuaging his marital conflict.

"Traumnovelle" means "dream story," and while there are no dream or fantasy segments in Kessler's Belle De Jour, Buñuel the great surrealist injected them into the screenplay he developed with Jean-Claude Carrière. All these literary and cinematic monuments were built in the shadow of Freud, of course, who tore down the sexual prisons of the past century. Séverine becomes, then, a Freudian adventuress, a lineage she shares with dear Constance Chatterley.

I went on in a later paragraph to mention Buñuel's producers on this project: "Robert and Raymond Hakim, past financiers of Jean Renoir and Claude Chabrol and, just prior to Belle de jour, Roger Vadim's La Ronde." A bit of judicious IMDbing, and who pops up as the source author of La Ronde? Arthur Schnitzler, that crazy Viennese (like Freud) who wrote the 1897 play Reigen on which it was based.

This was after I'd moved on to other ideas and thought I was done with Schnitzler entirely. Brrrrr.

Belle De Jour's parallels with Chatterley — published the same year, both proceeding from a woman's sexual dreads and desires, both involving an incapacitated male partner — led me to think about the other areas of film where the Chatterley effect came into play. Since pop culture and literary studies are often a process of working backwards, I first encountered the paradigm in Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996).

Von Trier's delvings into sexuality are well-explored, much-admired and frequently reviled by now, but in 1996 he was a new force. New bride Bess McNeill, a Scottish lass who believes herself divinely inspired, is coaxed by her husband into sexual trysts with other men after he's paralyzed in an oil-rig accident. It's prurient interest on his part, a belief that by hearing her accounts of illicit sex he may continue to experience something like a carnal life with her. Bess, drunk with fleshly desire for her husband and directed by "the voice of God," believes this is a sacred duty. As in Chatterley, we have a man symbolically crippled with a wife who plunges into earthy, even violent sex. Only the motivations (and the upshot, with a spiritual reward for Bess' carnal martyrdom) are different.

Romance (1999) was director Catherine Breillat's breakthrough. It can be seen as a legacy of Belle de Jour, much more frank in its heroine's migration toward masochism — even pornographic, to the point of employing porn juggernaut Rocco Siffredi in a dramatic role.

The male motivator in Romance is crippled in a different way: Paul (Sagamore Stévenin), a beautiful male model, is sexually disinterested in his girlfriend Marie (Caroline Ducey), cruelly withholding himself from her. He claims to be uninterested, even repulsed, by the entire idea of sex, but that doesn't stop him from flaunting his gorgeous wares to nameless women in clubs while Marie watches, and in his worst moments even bragging of the desire he arouses.

“He dances because he wants to seduce. He seduces because he wants to conquer. He wants to conquer because he’s a man.”

(I don't know if Breillat intended this to mean anything in terms of character or symbolism, and I'm going to hell for bringing it up, but Stévenin also has a cinematically unimpressive penis. Most guys suffer by comparison with Siffredi, but the contrast is quite stark. Bless everyone involved in this movie for their willingness to share their bodies for art.)

Like Buñuel's Séverine, Marie indulges in at least one artfully directed flight of fantasy, especially after Paul impregnates her in an embarrassing, abbreviated tryst:

The experience of pregnancy in the medical system increases the disjunction she feels between sex and love, body and mind. This is most overtly represented when Breillat cuts from a close-up of a cumshot on a woman’s belly to a nurse squirting a similar-looking gel onto Marie’s belly for an ultrasound. ... The most outrageous and perhaps overly didactic representation of this is Marie’s fantasy of a hellish brothel where women’s top halves are indoors, treated to a pristine white heaven of chaste love and affection, while their bottom halves are outside, protruding from a red-lit hellish fortress where anonymous, dirty men fuck them without a care. This scene emphasizes that Marie’s struggle is widespread, and not only an individual problem. She is just one of many women here. — "Masochism in Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste & Catherine Breillat’s Romance," Jon Davies

Year ago I visited D.H. Lawrence's burial chapel, in northern New Mexico. The tubercular British artist bought a ranch near Taos in 1924, and lived there just two years before returning to Europe. He died in Italy in 1930, but his ashes are interred here, brought back the the United States by his widow. This writer, who tried so hard to interpret a woman's erotic mind, was branded a pornographer for it by everyone save E.M. Forster. But his "pornography" already walked abroad in the waking world, in Kessler, in Schnitzler. Now it's our cinema, and those carnal thoughts that overflowed onto the page en masse circa 1926 are ours, unashamed. Lady Chatterley lives, and loves.

(Cross-posted from Soul Smithy.)

March 06, 2012

The Man In The Box

SPOILER ALERT for the film Source Code, the Many Worlds hypothesis of quantum mechanics, and fiction by Dalton Trumbo and Ambrose Bierce. Bet you wanna read this now, dontcha?

Colter Stevens is living proof. A living proof of several things, actually, when you really take apart Duncan Jones' film Source Code (2011, scr: Ben Ripley) and the protagonist's place in it. In proving these concepts, he inhabits several contradictory states at once. He has the freedom to go anywhere, yet he will never leave his prison.

Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens, shorn of memory, in metal pod of some kind. From here, he's repeatedly plunged back in time to inhabit the body of another man. He is told little by his remote handler Goodwin (Vera Farmiga), except that his consciousness is being hurled into an eight-minute window before a terrorist bomb destroys a Chicago-bound commuter train — a train that was, in his current reality, destroyed that same morning. He dies in the effort to prevent the blast, repeatedly, and each time is yanked back to his pod to try again.

No one will miss him. Reported KIA in a helicopter sortie over Afghanistan, Stevens is in fact a limbless lump of flesh in a sealed box, his internal organs held in place by a plastic sheath. His pod, emulating a pilot's cockpit, is just his psychological projection of space. His last glimmer of consciousness — call it his soul — is a tool in a project to change the recent past. In his box, unseen by the world, Colter Stevens is simultaneously alive and dead.

In his original thought experiment, Schrödinger imagined that a cat is locked in a box, along with a radioactive atom that is connected to a vial containing a deadly poison. If the atom decays, it causes the vial to smash and the cat to be killed. When the box is closed we do not know if the atom has decayed or not, which means that it can be in both the decayed state and the non-decayed state at the same time. Therefore, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time — which clearly does not happen in classical physics.

For injection into the past, Stevens' preserved psyche is wrapped into a spacetime field called the Source Code. The informational set that comprises his personality is shot back to the moments before the train's destruction. Essentially, he becomes a packet of data, overwriting the brain (soul?) of rail passenger Sean Fentress, who's doomed to die in the bombing.

In programming terms, "source code" is the raw commands for a piece of software, written in text language. Change any character of the text and you change the operation of the software. (Indeed, Goodwin sees Stevens' responses to her commands entirely as text on a screen.) The Source Code project is, in essence, rewriting informational space to put Colter Stevens in another man's body, several hours ago.

Space is the set of dimensions that allows motion to take place, but it also stores information via its configuration. ... Space that has information stored in it has some entropy. Since there is more information stored in some parts of space — for instance, in highly curved parts of space — then the entropy is not uniform. ... Looking specifically at a black hole, space is curved sharply around it — so sharply that, from the inside, it is closed off from the rest of the universe. As objects fall into the black hole, the event horizon expands (this is the spherical surface that, from the inside, is perceived as a closed surface). That sphere now has more surface area, and so can accommodate more information, all of which remains on the surface of the object.

In the transitions from his box to his hijacked body, Stevens frequently glimpses a huge, curved, reflective surface, gleaming in the sun like an alien craft. Its presence echos the General Relativity notion of spacetime, through which Stevens is whiplashing back and forth, as a curvature. It also reminds one of the "magic mirror" frequently encountered in Grant Morrison's graphic novel series The Invisibles — the physical manifestation of spacetime, through which enlightened operatives may travel or observe other points in their various continua.

Stevens is deeply cut off from the material world and his own physical self, relying on Goodwin's input to make sense of what's happening to him. As they work together — over the course of a single day — Goodwin grows more sympathetic to her subject's plight, becoming the only person in the Source Code program to treat Stevens as a human being, rather than an experiment or an implement. Maimed and only debatably alive, he can only act in the material here-and-now, and can only understand what he's become, through surreal interactions with his caregivers.

The door of the room jarred open and the nurse's footsteps came up to the bed. He began to tap out more frantically now. Here he was right on the brink of finding people of finding the world of finding a big part of life itself. Tap tap tap. He was waiting for her tap tap tap in response. A tap against his forehead or his chest. Even if she didn't know the code she could tap just to let him know she understood what he was doing. Then she could rush away for someone who could help her get what he was saying. SOS. SOS. SOS. Help. He felt the nurse standing there looking down at him trying to figure out what he was doing. The mere possibility that she didn't understand after all he had gone through before discovering it himself shocked him into such excitement and fear that he began to grunt again. He lay grunting and tapping grunting and tapping until the muscles in the back of his neck ached until his head ached until he felt that his chest would burst from his eagerness to shout out to explain to her what he was trying to do. And still he felt her standing motionless beside his bed looking down and wondering.

— Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (1939)

Because Stevens and Sean Fentress are essentially frozen in the moments before death — and because the Source Code intervention creates a potential for something like survival for both — another text rises to mind.

He stands at the gate of his own home. All is as he left it, and all bright and beautiful in the morning sunshine. He must have traveled the entire night. As he pushes open the gate and passes up the wide white walk, he sees a flutter of female garments; his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. At the bottom of the steps she stands waiting, with a smile of ineffable joy, an attitude of matchless grace and dignity. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms.
Ambrose Bierce, "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge"

These trapped protagonists all spend time in alternate realities, whether psychological/spiritual in the case of Trumbo and Bierce's work, or (we are led to believe) physical in Stevens' misadventures. They are experiencing dimensions in which other ends are possible; Stevens is, in fact, creating those new dimensions by his actions on the train. In a dramatic sense, he is enacting Hugh Everett's Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, in which subatomic behaviors are explained by parceling them out to parallel universes.

... The upshot of the Many Worlds theory is that this universal wave function describes a series of branching universes that make up what [physicist] David Deutsch calls the "multiverse," and that in these branching universes, there are beyond trillions of copies of you, of me, of Everett. There are branches in which Everett is still alive. There are branches in which we did things that we don't want to talk about, that we may have thought about but we never did. Well, guess what? I'm sorry to tell you, in Everett's theory, you actually did it, because everything that is physically possible happens in some branch of the multiverse.

None of this can be realized, though, so long as Stevens exists in a state of improbability — shut away, channeled, the truth of him unconfronted. Like Schrödinger's cat, Stevens' condition is only theoretical. Like the cat, his condition inspires compassion. Goodwin, the observer of these quantum events, is the determinant for whether Colter Stevens is alive or dead, and whether he will live or die again. She is the one who must open the box, if his unbearable half-life is to end.

The crucial plot questions of Source Code are teased apart at length — and diagrammed! — in an excellent piece by Brad Brevet at Rope of Silicon, published the week of the film's release.

(Cross-posted from Soul Smithy.)