grad school hiatus

I haven’t been posting much lately, largely because I’m rather busy with the second year of my master’s program.

I do still watch a lot of movies, however.

I may return to posting here regularly at any time, but I can’t say with any certainty with that might happen.

In the meantime, you can easily keep up with me on both letterboxd and twitter.

Until next time!

Recap: Best of June 2017

the beguiled elle fanning nicole kidman moviesI did a lot of running around in June and didn’t make it to the movies much at all as a result. I still managed to introduce myself to some #cinema though. Here are the highlights.

Dogville (2003)
Directed by Lars von Trier

I still have a lot of Lars von Trier blind spots. I love Melancholia. I have mixed feelings about Nymphomaniac. I haven’t seen anything else except Dogville.

And Dogville, my friends, is very good. It’s a dark, nasty film. And it’s incredibly and thoroughly alive.

Kidman is absolutely fantastic here, and there’s a scene featuring her and Patricia Clarkson that I’ll be holding on to for quite some time.

The Beguiled  (2017)
Directed by Sofia Coppola

In May, I had a fabulous time watching Don Siegel’s The Beguiled. Then, in June, I had an equally fabulous (albeit, somewhat different) time watching Sofia Coppola’s.

Though more classy and more elegant than the ’71 version, Coppola’s The Beguiled doesn’t completely deny its more lurid origins. Where Siegel’s film goes to bed with pulp, Coppola’s often flirts with it instead. Both are valid takes on the story at hand, and examining the differences between them is worthwhile in and of itself.

I have yet to see Somewhere, but The Beguiled is one of Coppola’s very best as far as I’m concerned. Like much of her previous work, it’s “about” femininity, the underside of certain types of privilege, and the maddening power of boredom. A moody, Gothic-tinged, deeply psycho-sexual story is the perfect vehicle for such topics, which may be why The Beguiled feels more fully developed to me than a few of Coppola’s other films. It’s calculated, intelligent, and visually beautiful. It’s also surprisingly funny and features compelling performances from Kidman and Dunst.

Scarecrow (1973)
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg

Scarecrow is very sad and very well acted. Hackman is stellar, but Pacino is especially devastating. Schatzberg’s film also demonstrates a great deal of empathy and patience for its main characters, unfortunate individuals who it depicts tenderly and with considerable emotional detail.

I’ve never seen Midnight Cowboy, but maybe I don’t need to now.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Directed by Clint Eastwood

“She was trash.”

“Mo cuishle”

I cried.

E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
Directed by Steven Spielberg

I may have seen this as a kid, but I definitely didn’t watch it often, and I have no memory of ever making it through the whole thing until I caught it at The Egyptian in June.

It’s embarrassing how much of Spielberg’s work I haven’t seen. Fortunately, E.T. has encouraged me to do something about that. As most know by now, it’s a touching, delightful film that’s bursting with heart. It’s not the kind of movie that I want most days, but it’s a thing of beauty all the same.

Until Next Time
Best of May

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(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 3/3, Furiosa and Conclusion

imperator furiosa cyborgThis is the final section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Parts 1 and 2 should be read first.

Furiosa and Conclusion
I’ll now devote the final section of this paper to considering some of the ways in which MMFR uses the (cyborg) woman Furiosa to present an alternate, more optimistic image of simulation and human emotion. Though Miller’s film has numerous things in common with EM and UtS (including important thematic concerns), it also presents simulation in a less monstrous light, while pointing to genuine emotion as a means of rediscovering one’s humanity. Consequently, even though she is physically a cyborg (her body combines human flesh with metal machinery), Furiosa doesn’t work to erase the boundaries between human and inhuman as Ava and The Female do. Despite the differences between them, EM and UtS are both infused by Baudrillard’s pessimism in their own way. On the other hand, MMFR acknowledges such pessimism but also seems to combine a touch of the defiant hopefulness of Haraway with something that resembles more classic humanism instead (Haraway 57).

Where Ava is presented as an AI simulating woman and where The Female is presented as an alien simulating woman, Furiosa is presented as a human—albeit in a harsh, inhumane world. And yet, even though she is a “real,” flesh-and-bone woman in a way Ava and The Female are not, Furiosa is also far less overtly feminine. With her lean frame, shaved head, practical clothing, and dirt-streaked skin, Furiosa stands in direct contrast to the softer, more overtly sexualized women in EM and UtS. Where Ava and The Female both embody conventional, stereotypical femininity to the fullest as part of their simulation, Furiosa is not especially feminine in any visual sense, which is why some have called her a “degendered hero” (Wark). Put another way, though there is a hyperreality to MMFR’s overall aesthetic, it does not extend to Furiosa’s body in a way makes her a hyperreal simulation of woman like her counterparts in EM and UtS.

In addition to simultaneously being more (literally) human and less (visibly, traditionally) feminine than Ava and The Female, Furiosa is also more cyborgian in a strict, material sense. Furiosa’s missing left forearm and hand are replaced by a complex metal prosthetic that she wears via a harness that attaches at her shoulder and waist. Though artificial, the prosthetic is part of her and is crucial to her ability to do her job driving Immortan Joe’s War Rig. Moreover, Furiosa’s deep connection with the War Rig—she knows the machine intimately and designed its kill switches—could be read as further evidence of her cyborgian nature. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, she interfaces and must be in-sync with the large machine—itself a combination of various vehicles—which can also be thought of as a sort of prosthetic. Importantly however, Furiosa’s cyborg nature doesn’t set her apart from those around her in any especially significant way. As McKenzie Wark notes, in MMFR “The good and the bad guys are crippled […] All are cyborg characters, mixtures of flesh and tech, dependent on systems and apparatus” (Wark). While I do not mean to suggest that the use of cyborgian recombination and of cyborg imagery in MMFR is insignificant, it is not a mark of difference either. While Furiosa is literally cyborgian in a way that Ava and The Female are not, she is also a cyborg in a world where the fusion of metal and flesh is commonplace; therefore, in reading her against the rest of MMFR, it is necessary to consider other aspects of her being. Reading Furiosa’s physical body is worthwhile, but her body alone does not define her to the same extent that Ava’s and The Female’s do.

That said, the fact that Furiosa sheds her prosthetic arm before MMFR’s end does provide important insight into Miller’s larger purposes for her character. Ava is fully prostheses to an extent that she would not exist at all without it. Similarly, while there is more to The Female than her prosthetic skin, she is destroyed as soon as the non-prosthetic portion of her form is revealed. Furiosa’s arm doesn’t lack “sophistication,” but it isn’t all-encompassing in the way Ava’s and The Female’s are (Prophylaxis 35). Moreover, it is not necessary for her survival either; in fact, it is by shedding it that she secures her victory over the ruthless, sexist dictator Immortan Joe. Reading Ava and The Female in conjunction with Baudrillard reveals that they are particularly threatening and monstrous, in part because their entire outward appearance can be figured as prosthetic. Furiosa however, is a much more straightforward hero—she never kills anyone the audience might have sympathy for—and does not rely on her prosthetic for existence or survival. While her metal arm makes her job easier, she can remove it; more importantly, she can also live without it. When Furiosa kills Immortan Joe in a chase sequence near the end of MMFR, her metal hand latches on to the mechanical mask that helps him breathe. Furiosa’s prosthetic then gets caught in the wheels of a vehicle and is torn from her body, taking Immortan Joe’s entire face along with it. This moment represents the dramatic climax of MMFR, and essentially secures victory for Furiosa and the film’s other protagonists. Moreover, from this moment on, Furiosa is not shown with a prosthetic again. When she and “wives” she helps rescue retake The Citadel in the film’s final scene, Furiosa’s amputated arm is in full view. Thus, MMFR’s most ecstatic, most hopeful moment calls attention to its protagonist’s ability to move past her own prosthetic, thereby rejecting any simulation it might be seen to represent. Though it does help her kill the film’s primary villain, it is not an integral part of her. Rather than become full cyborg or simulation, Furiosa chooses another path altogether. In contrast to Ava and The Female, Furiosa is human first, cyborg second, and hardly simulation at all.

Furiosa’s ability to relinquish her prosthetic and to survive without it makes Immortan Joe’s death possible, but so too does her ability to connect with other women while embracing her own past. Discussing what he sees as a dangerous situation in which society is becoming increasingly fragmented and isolated, Baudrillard writes, “we are already living in a bubble ourselves—already, like those characters in Bosch paintings, enclosed in a crystal sphere: a transparent envelope in which we have taken refuge and where we remain, bereft of everything, yet over-protected, doomed to artificial immunity, continual transfusions and, at the slightest contact with the outside, instant death” (Prophylaxis 35). While such a dark description of “contact” holds in EM—in which Ava kills Nathan as soon as she is free of her room—and in UtS—in which nearly every man The Female brings home is destroyed—it is only partially true in MMFR. At the beginning of Miller’s film, Furiosa can be read as largely cut-off from herself and others. She grows up as Immortan Joe’s captive and lives as his tool, a situation which likely caused her to deny much of her identity, including her gender. As Immortan Joe’s Imperator, Furiosa is constantly surrounded by men and boys and feasibly never interacts with women until she helps the wives escape. Furthermore, it is only after she unites with the wives, bonds with Max, and reconnects with the all-female Vuvalini that Furiosa kills Immortan and takes the Citadel (surrounded by other women). As long as Furiosa is isolated from other women and lacks personal connections, Immortan Joe can use her to do his bidding. However, once that changes, contact with her—for him, anyway—means “instant death” (Prophylaxis 35).

In MMFR, interpersonal connection and contact are not only possible for the film’s deadly female protagonist, they are empowering as well. Ava doesn’t form any genuine (i.e. non-deceptive) bonds with anyone else, and it remains somewhat unclear if she will be able to (or if she even wants to) outside of Nathan’s compound. On the other hand, The Female briefly attempts to connect with others, but fails almost entirely and loses her life. Furiosa however, bonds with numerous characters over the course of the film, thereby expanding the scope of her existence and her emotions well beyond that which is more simply reproduced. As I’ve already shown, the idea that a finite being can be manufactured and reproduced helps illuminate the simulative nature of Ava and The Female (Doane 112). However, unlike Ava—whose emotional capacity remains somewhat ambiguous—and The Female—who tries but fails to expand herself through both emotional (and physical experiences) Furiosa possesses an emotional capacity and depths of memory that cannot be reduced to mere material. And, through her emotions and memory, Miller establishes her as a being who transcends her physical form in a way the women in EM and UtS do not.

Unlike Ava and The Female, Furiosa has a past—and acknowledging that past helps her achieve a future. Rather than her prosthetic arm or her ability to throw reality into chaos through simulation, what sets Furiosa apart (other than the fact that she is the only female driver Immortan Joe seems to have) are her moments of grief, her intense feeling, and the way she sacrifices herself for others. Notably, these aspects of her being are expressed through her physical form, as Bilge Ebiri demonstrates in his piece, “‘This is Our Furiosa.’ Mad Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” In the piece, Ebiri focuses on “one of the film’s rare quiet scenes,” a moment in which Furiosa remembers the day she and her mother were initially taken from the Vulvalini (a tribe of all women). The scene comes at a point in the film before which Furiosa (and viewers of the film) have not yet “had a chance to slow down and reflect”; but as Ebiri notes, that the moment is “so adrift amid the madness” emphasizes it, providing “added depth” (Ebiri). MMFR moves at a much, much faster pace than EM and UtS making it all the more significant that Miller devotes the film’s few slower moments to memory, emotion, and interpersonal connection. As Furiosa opens up and recounts both her kidnapping and her mother’s death,

“[…] the Vuvalini reflexively perform a quiet, brief mourning gesture – holding a hand up, grabbing at the air, and bringing it to their chest. After seeing them, Furiosa herself slowly does the gesture as well […] As she grabs at the air, her haunted eyes watch her own hand, as if she were seeing it for the first time. Her face is that of someone remembering something that was once probably very much part of her—not just her mother, but this whole Vuvalini ritual, and the sense of belonging it implies. She’s re-learning, in other words, the person she used to be.” (Ebiri)

In this moment, Furiosa’s body is used to express grief and memory, and the “gesture” she performs among the Vuvalini serves as physical evidence of her inner, non-material experience. Furiosa’s body also expresses extreme feeling when she realizes that The Green Place she imagined no longer exists. In this moment, Furiosa walks off into the dessert alone, shedding her prosthetic arm as she goes. She then drops to her knees, and screams into the air with all her might. This display of genuine pain and emotion is unlike anything in EM or UtS, both of which occupy spaces of simulation in a way MMFR does not. Unlike MMFR’s other central protagonist, Max—who does not open up to others and remains fully locked within himself—Furiosa shares her past traumas and displays her emotions in front of others. Thus, also unlike Max—who returns to The Wasteland alone—she ends the film connected to and surrounded by others, ready to make a new start at The Citadel.

In EM, Ava is an AI who can appear human. Similarly, in UtS, The Female “is an alien who passes for human” (On the matter of blackness). But in MMFR, Furiosa is a shell of a person who then reclaims her humanity.  Moreover, while Ava and The Female both simulate humanity and spend much of their time reading emotion, only Furiosa actually feels emotion. In fact, it is largely her emotional capacity—which is inextricably linked with the depth of her memory—that distinguishes her from those around her. In a piece on MMFR, Wark highlights the ways in which Miller’s film rejects a Baudrillardian depiction of simulation. For, in Baudrillard “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra” (Precession 1). But as Wark writes, in MMFR, “The actual precedes the virtual, even when it seems it is the other way around […] Furiosa is driven by the virtual image of the green land. But it turns out there really was an actual one. In seeking after her childhood memory of it, she drove straight past the real one, which has turned into a poisoned swamp” (Wark, emphasis in original). In Miller’s conception of a post-apocalyptic future, simulation offers nothing but empty promises. And so, where Ava and The Female are simulations who are both subjected to violence and repeatedly enact violence on others, Furiosa eventually embraces emotion and humanity, even when it’s painful to do so. In a sense, the post-apocalyptic Wasteland of MMFR is a post-technological world—a place in which a manufactured simulation as advanced as Ava or an alien like The Female would both be unthinkable, but that doesn’t mean that Furiosa couldn’t have chosen to remain in the “virtual” realm of simulation—by remaining isolated from others, by continuing to repress her feelings and memory, and by remaining a useful tool for Immortan Joe.

The general topics I address above—as well the films at the center of my analysis—all warrant more consideration than a paper of this size can contain. Though my work here is in many ways incomplete, it is my hope that it still adds to critical understanding of EM, UtS, and MMFR; these intelligently crafted films all deserve further scholarship, in part, because all three dare to grapple with the dangerous, potentially overwhelming question of what it means to be human in an age of simulation, “ephemeral” identity, and alienation (Sobchack 229, 299). At the same time, these films offer different ways of envisioning both the cyborg and simulation in contemporary sci-fi cinema. Moreover, with the above, I don’t mean to claim that Ava, The Female, or Furiosa shouldn’t be thought of as cyborgs; rather, my purpose has been to show just some of what can be gained both by looking at the material of their bodies and by reading them as simulation.

Throughout “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard frequently calls attention to the threat of the simulation he describes. EM, UtS, and MMFR each express anxiety about living in a world of simulation. That said, where Garland and Glazer gesture toward a future (and a present) in which simulation overtakes the existence of the (cyborg) women at their centers, Miller (who sets his film in a future that looks more like an imagined past) offers a way out of simulation by allowing Furiosa to reconnect and remember how to feel. While none of the three films I discuss here denies the danger of simulation, each at times, takes the side of simulation as well. In their own way, Ava, The Female, and Furiosa are all victims of systems well beyond their control. Their respective forms and simulative modes of existence are all, in a sense, imposed on them; but what this means for those of us still pretending to occupy “the real” must wait for another day.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 2.

[A previous piece on Mad Max: Fury Road can be found here.]

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Bibliography
Balsamo, Anne. “Reading Cyborgs Writing Feminism.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup,  Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

  1. 43-41. Print.

Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

Herzog, Amy. “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of  Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-HerzogSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/
HilderbrandUnderSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Jonsson, Marysia and Aro Velmet. “Feminus Ex Machina.” LA Review of Books. lareviewofbooks.org/article/feminus-ex-machina/. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Mad Max: Fury Road.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=furyroad.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Film Theory Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York: Routledge, 2010. 200-208. Print.

Nudd, Tim. “Tinder Uses at SXSW Are Falling for This Woman, but She’s Not What She Appears.”

Ad Week. adweek.com/adfreak/tinder-users-sxsw-are-falling-woman-shes-not-what-sheappears-163486. Accessed 21 Feb 2017. Web.

Renstrom, Joelle. “Artificial Intelligence, Real Emotion?” Slate. 9 April 2015. slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2015/
04/ex_machina_can_robots_artificial_intelligence_have_emotions.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film. 1987. Second, Enlarged Edition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2004. Print.

Under the Skin. Dir. Johnathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson A24, 2014. Blu-ray.

“Under the Skin.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=undertheskin2014.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

“Under the Skin.” The Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt1441395/. Accessed 9 April. Web.

Wark, McKenzie. “Fury Road.” Public Seminar. 22 May 2015. publicseminar.org/2015/05/furyroad/#.WOsHXojysTc. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 2/3, The Female

under the skinThis is the second section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Part 1 can be found here and should be read first.

The Female
Now that I’ve examined Ava—and laid the theoretical foundation for most of my argument—I turn to Glazer’s film and, more importantly, to the simulation of a woman at its center. Though she is an otherworldly alien (rather than a manufactured AI) The Female too expands notions of the cyborg while occupying a place in the world of simulacra. Unlike Ava and Furiosa, there is nothing visibly mechanical or obviously artificial about the The Female’s appearance. She looks like a human woman, and there isn’t a scrap of metal or technology anywhere on her. Though an alien, her simulation of human femininity is so complete (at least on the surface) that no one can detect it with their eyes alone. In fact, like Ava, The Female in UtS can also be said to push simulation into hyperreality. As Elena Gorfinkel notes, Glazer’s film “tracks the movements of an alien predator in disguise, played by the sex symbol of our precarious times, Scarlet Johansson. Our alien-star body is a woman too womanly, painfully brought down-to-earth with tacky black wig, fake fur coat, acid washed jeans and heavily rouged lips” (Gorfinkel). Dressed in clothes taken from a dead woman (who was likely a sex worker), The Female—played by one of the most frequently objectified women in Hollywood—fully embodies a particular image of femininity and sexual desirability. She is an image of woman pushed almost into the realm of caricature.  Whatever her true “origin or reality” is, viewers of UtS never receive any concrete information on that score (Precession 1). Though she is not manufactured as Ava is, the Female too is a replication of woman without a clear “referential;” she is both a simulation and “a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Thus, she might as well be a woman even though she isn’t one. As Baudrillard says of a simulated robbery, “There is no ‘objective’ difference: the gestures, the signs are the same as for a real robbery, the signs do not lean to one side or the other. To the established order they are always of the order of the real” (Precession 20). So too is The Female regarded by the “established order”—that is by the people she around her, and especially by the men she seduces—as a “real” woman. Though her lack of interiority betrays her near the end of the film (more on that later), her exterior is never regarded as alien—the truth of her simulation is impossible to see.

Situating The Female within the image of the cyborg is no simple task. Both fully human and fully alien in her own way, The Female certainly “transgresse[s] boundaries” and “open[s] up productive ways of thinking about subjectivity, gender, and the materiality of the physical body” as cyborgs do (Balsamo 155, 157). And yet, the figure at the center of UtS is hardly a “technological object” in any literal sense (Balsamo 152). Still, in “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics,” Marc Francis connects The Female’s “indecipherable” body to Haraway’s cyborg (Francis). In doing so, Francis also notes that “the figure of the cyborg […] is still laden with contradiction,” rendering it potentially useful for “confront[ing] the question of embodiment within a so-called posthuman world” (Francis). Surely, Glazer’s film is deeply concerned with “embodiment”—with what it means to have a body and with what types of bodies should be allowed to exist. However, this does not change the fact that The Female is not a cyborg in a straightforward or material sense. As Anne Balsamo writes, “Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). The Female is “other,” but not because she is a mechanical hybrid with any overt connection to the world of technology. The Female does the work of a cyborg without actually being one. A simulation of woman, she also simulates the cyborg while existing as something else.

Moreover, with The Female at its center, UtS (much like EM) demonstrates the collapse of all distinction between human and other under postmodernism. As Sobchack argues, “Alien Others have become less other […] They have become our familiars, our simulacra, embodied as literally alienated images of our alienated selves” (Sobchack 293). Though she is not actually a human, The Female’s status as simulation prevents her from being read only as “other,” which considerably complicates interpretation of UtS. Here, Balsamo’s claim that “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious,” is useful, even if The Female only simulates the cyborgian (Balsamo 149). Simultaneous status as human, alien (and possibly, cyborg) aside, examining the fears that The Female taps into is one way of untangling Glazer’s creation.

With this in mind, many of the anxieties that The Female appears to be a product of include the reproducibility and the simulation of the human. According to Doane, “The concept of the ‘body’ has traditionally denoted the finite, a material limit that is absolute […] For the body is that which is situated as the precise opposite of the conceptual, the abstract” (Doane 110). But as Doane goes on to note, that which is finite can be reproduced (Doane 112). From this, it follows that if humans are “clearly quantifiable” and can be reduced to a “material limit,” then technology can recreate them artificially (Doane 110, 112). Fear of such reproducibility runs throughout UtS and “The Precession of Simulacra.” In line with Sobchack’s claims, The Female renders the familiar and the alien one in the same, and as Baudrillard writes, “Everywhere, in no matter what domain—political, biological, psychological, mediatized—in which the distinction between two poles can no longer be maintained, one enters into simulation, and thus into absolute manipulation—not into passivity, but into the indifferentiation of the active and the passive” (Precession 31, emphasis in original). To be in the presence of The Female in UtS is to “enter[] into simulation,” into a mode of existence that leaves one open to “manipulation” and that confuses the “the active and the passive” (Precession 31). Thus, nearly all of the human men that interact with The Female are rendered helpless and lose their lives. Here I turn to Amy Herzog’s description of the film:

“We are introduced to the streets of Glasgow through her manufactured eyes, she, an unnamed alien sent to Earth, to Scotland, for purposes that remain elusive. She is a worker, an operative who cruises the city looking for easy marks, single men with few entanglements. She seduces, she hunts, but not for herself. Instead, she gathers these corporeal goods to be farmed, liquefied, and extracted, their residue collected and distributed for some unspoken use […] Her labor rests ultimately in the value of her simulated body as an object of desire.” (Herzog)

As a simulation, The Female can be read as a claim to the limitations and to the reproducibility of the human. At the same time, the way she kills men—by luring them into an incomprehensible void that one might describe as “The desert of the real itself”—makes a terrifying case for the material, finite nature of the human (Precession 1, emphasis in original). Once they’ve entered the strange, dark, and horrifyingly empty space that serves as The Female’s home, the men are absorbed by its limitless, illegible depths. There, they are reduced to nothing but floating skin and bloody goo—to meaningless, shapeless material and nothing else.

The way The Female comes to her end further demonstrates UtS’s concern that humans are—or may become—nothing more than simulatable material. After encountering (and sparing) a man deformed by neurofibromatosis—whose appearance sets him apart from her other victims and whose material body is already damaged—The Female effectively starts going-off script. Instead of devoting all her time to finding, seducing, and liquefying lone men, “She pursues small, constitutive pleasures, appetitive, aesthetic, sexual, self-confirming, that signal corporeal and sensory self-awareness. An impeccable worker until she is not, we are shown the limits of her imperfect corporeal and behavioral mimesis” (Gorfinkel). Try as she might to collect certain experiences—to eat, to have sex, to form human connection—The Female is repeatedly shown to be incapable of such things. Unlike Ava (who Nathan claims can easily experience pleasurable sex), The Female is not made to be penetrated; “Her body has not been designed to ingest” (Herzog). Her “impenetrable” body consists of “impossible orifices”: a mouth that rejects chocolate cake, a vagina that cannot be entered (Gorfinkel). She cannot be added to. The “material limit” of her body is “absolute” (Doane 110). The finite nature of The Female’s form betrays her simulative status, and such betrayal swiftly results in her death.

Though alien, The Female is perceived and treated as “real” woman up until the very moment when the material reality of her body is revealed, exposing her as simulation, as a dangerous thing capable of “short-circuit[ing]” reality (Precession 2). After failing to have sex with a man, The Female runs off into the woods, where she is found by an unnamed logger, who attempts to rape her. As she runs from him, her skin is torn, revealing a solid, black mass underneath. According to Lucas Hilderbrand, “dehumanization” in UtS “is coded through blackness” (On the matter of blackness). However, while I have no desire to disagree with Hilderbrand, I’m more concerned with the way in which The Female’s black form is evidence of a finite materiality than I am with blackness itself. As Gorfinkel notes, there is something “illegible” in the truth of The Female’s form—her body cannot be expanded through ingestion and, once revealed, it cannot be decoded either (Gorfinkel). “The revelation of” The Female’s “black” inner form “becomes the ultimate absolute evidence of [her] non-humanity” (On the matter of blackness). Beneath her simulated skin, The Female is impermeable, concrete, and cannot be breached, and her inner form looks much more like hard plastic than it does flesh. For the logger to see this aspect of her—and to be faced with the fact that he initially read her as human—is for him to face the deceptive power of simulation and the reproducibility of the body simultaneously. And so, “Immediately her aggressor douses her body with gasoline and lights her aflame, as if to suggest not only that she seems unreal but also that she must not exist. This sequence marks when other characters finally fail to recognize her as human within the narrative” (On the matter of blackness, emphasis in original). Her simulation comes to an end.

At the end of UtS, The Female is punished for simulating woman, for not having the penetrable orifices promised by her appearance, and for calling both the materiality and the limits of the body into question. Unlike mere “pretending,” which “leaves the principle of reality in tact,” “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the imaginary’” (Precession 3). Once unmasked as simulation, The Female’s existence becomes intolerable. Interestingly, the revelation of The Female’s interior also shows that her prosthetic is woefully incomplete, that it does not extend beyond the surface. Once that prosthetic—in the form of her incredibly realistic skin—is damaged, she is all but powerless. If only her entire body were simulation. Unlike Ava—whose body is more coherent and whose status as simulation enables her to manipulate and destroy everyone who seeks to control her—The Female’s true nature leaves her vulnerable. In EM, to be simulation is to be both monstrous and powerful; in UtS, the simulation remains monstrous, but is also doomed.

As with my examination of Ava, I’d like to end my section on The Female with a quick consideration of her emotional capacities. Like Ava, The Female too is deceptive; perhaps, as simulation, she has no choice but to be. The men who go home with her expecting sex don’t receive so much as a kiss before her otherworldly void swallows them whole, and she continually plays the part of a human woman. Like Ava, The Female interprets the emotions of others and performs humanity without actually experiencing noticeable feelings herself. As Herzog writes, she “learns quickly how to survey her marks, to read nuances in human behavior”; and yet, she herself “lacks […] the faintest traces of empathy” (Herzog). As deceptive and as vile as her actions often are, The Female watches the people of Glasgow and leads numerous men to their death “without a trace of emotion or reaction” (Loving the alien). Moreover, Glazer even goes out of his way to include a scene which makes it clear that her “lack of empathy” isn’t restricted to the men she feeds to her void (Gorfinkel). In the scene, “she goes to the sea and watches a man who attempts to save a couple from drowning nearly drown himself; she hits him on the head with a rock after he washes ashore. It’s not a mercy killing, just a killing” (Loving the alien). After killing the man, The Female ignores—and indeed, appears wholly unaffected by—the cries of the dead couple’s young child. The baby wails and wails on the beach, but The Female is unfazed. When Ava leaves Caleb to die, one gets the sense that she may be punishing him (either for selfishly objectifying her or for proving so easy for her to manipulate). However, when The Female ignores the screaming baby on the cold, rock-covered beach, there is nothing personal in her actions. She leaves the child to die, because she can’t feel a thing for it.

UtS’s chilling beach sequence highlights The Female’s inability to experience human emotions, despite the completely convincing realism of her appearance. Consequently, when The Female does seem to be (even if only slightly) touched by empathy later in the film, viewers should hardly find it surprising that the moment spells the beginning of the end for her. In attempting to enter the realms of human connection and emotion, The Female exceeds her own limits and sets off a chain of events that ends in her violent immolation. In Gorfinkel’s words, “The alien exhibits a chilling lack of empathy […] Yet after an encounter with a victim whose face suffers the congenital scars of neurofibromatosis, she is moved […] Shortly, Johansson’s alien goes off the rails wandering away from her directed task” (Gorfinkel). A finite simulation, The Female is only designed for a limited scope of interactions and behaviors—and the moment she acknowledges anything like emotion or starts seeking experiences other than those she is meant to have (a male-coded alien followers her around on a motorbike like a sort of watchdog), she begins approaching her demise. Gorfinkel makes this connection between The Female’s death and her emotional limitations more explicit writing that, “The skin of the alien cannot touch the human atmosphere without being snuffed, burned out, defaced,” because she is one in “pursuit of an impossible interiority” (Gorfinkel). Just as The Female’s body cannot ingest anything in the name of pleasure, so too does her being lack the ability to be expanded through any emotional experience. Moreover, while Ava uses her ability to simulate human connection to secure her eventual escape, The Female’s lack of emotional range robs her of the human connection she seems to crave near the end of the film. While simulating emotion has its value in UtS, Glazer seems to ascribe potential (though for The Female, unattainable) benefits to truly feeling in a way Garland does not.

Until Next Time
Parts 1 and 3

[A previous piece on Under the Skin can be found here.]

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Bibliography
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Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Reprint. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2017. 1-42. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Posthumanism. Ed. Neil Badmington. New York: Palgrave,

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Buchanan, Kyle. “Does Ex Machina Have a Woman Problem, or Is Its Take on Gender Truly Futuristic?” Vulture. 22 April 2015. vulture.com/2015/04/why-ex-machina-take-on-gender-is-so-advanced.html. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Creed, Barbara. “Introduction.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 1-7. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Kristeva, Femininity, and Abjection.” The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1993. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2007. 8-15. Print.

Doane, Mary Ann. “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 110-121. Print.

Ebiri, Bilge. “‘This Is Our Furiosa.’ Mad: Max Fury Road and the Moments In Between.” They live by night. 14 June 2015. ebiri.blogspot.com/2015/06/this-is-our-furiosa-mad-max-and-moments.html. Accessed 23 Jan. 2017. Web.

Ex Machina. Dir. Alex Garland. Perf. Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Sonoya Mizuno. Universal Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

“Ex Machina.” Box Office Mojo. Updated 17 April 2017. boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=exmachina.htm. Accessed 17 April 2017. Web.

Francis, Marc. “Splitting the difference: on the queer-feminist divide in Scarlett Johansson’s recent body politics.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-FrancisSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Gorfinkel, Elena. “Sex, sensation, and nonhuman interiority in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-GorfinkelSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, And Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Gendered Cyborg: A Reader. Eds. Gill Kirkup, Linda James, Kath Woodward, and Fiona Hovenden. New York: Routledge, 2000. 50-57. Print.

Herzog, Amy. “Star vehicle: labor and corporeal traffic in Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of  Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/-HerzogSkin/index.html. Accessed 1 February 2017. Web.

Hilderbrand, Lucas. “On the matter of blackness in Under the Skin.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/
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Hilderbrand, Lucas. “Loving the alien: introduction to dossier on Under the Skin. Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media. no. 57 (fall 2016). ejumpcut.org/currentissue/HilderbrandUnderSkin/
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Jonsson, Marysia and Aro Velmet. “Feminus Ex Machina.” LA Review of Books. lareviewofbooks.org/article/feminus-ex-machina/. Accessed 10 April 2017. Web.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Dir. George Miller. Perf. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Zoë Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, and Courtney Eaton. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Blu-ray.

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Under the Skin. Dir. Johnathan Glazer. Perf. Scarlett Johansson A24, 2014. Blu-ray.

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(Cyborg) Bodies, Simulation, and Emotion in Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Mad Max: Fury Road – Part 1/3, Intro and Ava

Ex Machina Cyborg AvaThis is the first section of a paper that I wrote as part of an independent research project I completed during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Since its too long to post all at once, I’m breaking it into 3 sections for this blog.

[The paper is not in a particularly polished state, but maybe someone will enjoy it anyway…]

Intro and Ava
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Johnathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2014), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) are three recent films that deploy the female body as a tool for destabilizing (and redefining) what it means to be human. Released in the U.S. within a span of just over a year and running the gamut from more obscure arthouse darling (Under the Skin), to financially successful indie (Ex Machina), to major studio blockbuster (Mad Max: Fury Road), the films represent a spectrum of contemporary science fiction cinema. Despite the many differences between them, these works converge in a number of compelling, potentially productive ways. Importantly, all three feature women (of some kind) at their center. Even if these women diegetically differ in their precise form and origin, all inhabit bodies that serve as sites for working through the anxieties motivating this cluster of works. Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Ex Machina, The Female (Scarlett Johansson) in Under the Skin, and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road all challenge the purportedly fundamental categories of “human” and “woman” alike. In doing so, they call attention to the material nature of the body while also complicating the relationship of the body to human or emotional experience.

One way to begin disassembling the depiction of women and their bodies in these films is by considering them within the realm of the cyborg. In her widely influential “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” Donna J. Haraway writes that the “cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 50). Though Haraway expands the term considerably, it isn’t too far removed from more limited, “dictionary” definitions of “cyborg.” Interestingly, Furiosa is the only woman in Ex Machina (EM), Under the Skin (UtS) or Mad Max: Fury Road (MMFR) who fits such an image. EM’s Ava is an incredibly advanced AI created (and imprisoned) in a billionaire’s lab; as lifelike as she often seems, there is nothing truly “organism” about her. Meanwhile The Female in UtS (she’s never given a name) is an enigmatic alien who traverses Glasgow looking for men she can seduce and destroy. Though there is nothing in her appearance that directly signals her alien nature, she is neither human, nor machine, nor any literal fusion of the two. On the other hand, MMFR’s Furiosa is a woman living under a dictator in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. With her mechanical, prosthetic left arm, Furiosa’s body merges human flesh and inhuman machine in a way that Ava and The Female do not. And yet, as I demonstrate later in this piece, Furiosa is also the least monstrous, most clearly human among them. While Miller’s heroine does push against stereotypical depictions of her gender while also calling into question what it means to be human, she does not do so as boldly (or as bleakly) as her counterparts in EM and UtS. Though their bodies don’t physically combine the organic and the mechanical as Furiosa’s does, Ava and The Female are, in a sense, more cyborgian. Furiosa’s mechanical arm is hardly incidental, but it never threatens to obliterate or fully obscure her human origins. On the other hand (and as I argue below), Ava and the Female manage to be completely human and completely inhuman all at once. Rather than represent some combination of organic and inorganic, they reject any such distinctions; instead of mixing human with other, EM and UtS each in their own way collapses all difference between them, often with disastrous results.

For Haraway and many subsequent writers, the cyborg is a transgressive figure who works to blur and to complicate distinctions between human and machine as well as between human and inhuman more generally (Haraway 52). As Anne Balsamo writes, “cyborgs are a product of cultural fears and desires that run deep within our psychic unconscious. Through the use of technology as the means or context for human hybridization, cyborgs come to represent unfamiliar ‘otherness,’ one which challenges the connotative stability of human identity” (Balsamo 149, emphasis in original). Though Balsamo and Haraway both call attention to the fusion of the human with machines (or “technology”) when discussing the cyborg, the work that their images do is much more important than the specific form they take. The cyborg is an Other, but one that cannot be cleanly or completely separated from normality or the human. Like the monster in horror films, the cyborg is a figure which blurs boundaries (Creed 5, 11). According to Haraway, “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” (Haraway 51). In part, the female-coded cyborgs of science fiction are a product of that very war; just as “the concept of the border is central to the construction of the monstrous in the horror film,” so too is it at the heart of the cyborgian (Creed 11). Like monsters “whose bodies signify a collapse of boundaries between human” and other, the (cyborg) women in EM, UtS, and MMFR “bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability” (Creed 10-11). Considering Ava, The Female, and Furiosa in tandem demonstrates some of the breadth of “cyborg” as a category while also underscoring the connections between women, the cyborgian, and the monstrous that writers like Creed and Haraway plug into. That said, they can also be used to challenge “cyborg” itself. For, where MMFR makes a point to reestablish Furiosa’s humanity (destroying her mechanical arm in the process), EM and UtS trade the cyborg’s recombination of categories for something closer to sheer simulation.

Despite the prevalence (and importance) of the cyborg in discussion of women’s bodies in science fiction film, it may actually be more fruitful to read Ava and The Female’s bodies as simulations. Moreover, even though EM, UtS, and MMFR all leave themselves open to psychoanalytic readings of gender and the female form, such is not my primary concern. Given the presence of both violated and violent women in all three films, reading them through the likes of Freud, Mulvey, or Creed has the potential to illuminate, unite, and distinguish them. That said, a more complete understanding of these films and the women they feature requires something more. Rather than read gender in EM, UtS, and MMFR from a predominantly feminist, psychoanalytic, or even a genre studies perspective (all worthwhile pursuits that I here leave to others), I use a substantial portion of this paper to focus on the material reality of Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s bodies. In doing so, I situate them within Baudrillard’s conception of simulation as it is presented in his 1981 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra.” I also put the women (I use the term loosely) into contact with some of his ideas on prostheses as expressed in “Prophylaxis and Virulence.” Furthermore, in drawing out some of the differences between Garland, Glazer, and Miller’s films, how they conceive of the human, and how they understand the (cyborg) women at their centers, I also discuss Ava, The Female, and Furiosa’s (in)ability to experience emotion and to form attachments with others.

EM’s first image of Ava shows her (rather elegant, clearly feminine) silhouette in profile. Viewed this way, she could almost be a “real” human woman. She lacks hair and light shines through portions of her form, and even though she is made largely of metal mesh and circuitry, her outline is all but indistinguishable from that of the actress who plays her. Though Ava’s movements are a touch too precise to be truly organic, and though much of her machinery is in plain sight, her shape is all human. By introducing her in a way that emphasizes this fact, Garland can be seen to align Ava with Haraway’s cyborg, to situate her in a world where “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred” (Haraway 56). EM’s introduction of Ava simultaneously acknowledges and obscures her inhuman nature, thereby involving viewers in the same Turing test that her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks his employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to conduct on her. By the time viewers first see Ava, Nathan has already made it clear that he designed and built her, but Garland instructs viewers to remain uncertain about her all the same.

But Ava is no simple cyborg, no mere amalgamation of human machine. Rather, she can be regarded as fully machine and fully woman at the same time, which renders her all the more threatening to those who try to read her (namely, Nathan and Caleb). Early in his “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard claims that “Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Precession 1). Such “hyperreal” unreality can be seen in much of Ava’s form, but it is especially apparent in her face. EM’s initial silhouette images of Ava show her from a distance and obscure her face, but once her face is revealed, it only adds to the uncertainty of her being. While the surface of Vikander’s “real” body is disguised with visual effects, her “real” face (though altered slightly to took smoother and have a more uniform texture) is left more or less intact. From the neck down, Ava is mostly metal, computer, and light (her hands and feet are covered with artificial skin), but there is nothing obviously mechanical about her face. In fact, if there is anything clearly artificial about this aspect of her appearance, it’s only that her countenance is almost too beautiful, that it’s “hyperreal” (Precession 1). All that separates Ava’s face from that of a human woman’s is that it is completely without blemish. Viewed in isolation, Ava’s face looks more like some airbrushed image of femininity in a perfume ad than it does an AI made in a sexist billionaire’s basement; though she is “actually” the latter, her face works to constantly challenge, and to undermine this fact.

In addition to occupying a space of hyperreality, Ava’s face can also be read as a “model[] of a real without origin or reality,” which further emphasizes her simulative nature. According to Nathan, he designed her face using Caleb’s porn search history. Not only is she carefully crafted to appeal to the young software engineer, but she is also a replication without a single origin. In EM’s diegesis, there is no one “real” woman whose appearance Ava duplicates. Instead, her face is an average of countless faces that Caleb has objectified. Ava’s face is both singular and a representation of numerous women—it simultaneously sets her apart from all other beings and challenges any claims she might have to originality or to a coherent identity. She is a copy without an original, what Haraway calls “simulacra” (Haraway 56). A manifestation (and a translation) of Caleb’s desires, Ava “is a virtual daydream turned into some kind of flesh” (Jonsson and Velmet). Moreover, for Caleb to look at her, is for him to confront himself. On one level, she is an artificial replication of his own interiority and past experiences, which blurs the edges of both their identities. Ava is machine, she is woman, and she is something else altogether.

In having Ava simulate numerous modes of existence as she does, Garland taps into postmodern anxieties concerning not just the fragmentation of identity, but it’s total dissolution as well. As Vivian Sobchack writes in her 1987 piece “Postfuturism”:

“[…] in a culture where nearly everyone is regularly alien-nated from a direct sense of self (lived experience commonly mediated by an electronic technology that dominates both the domestic sphere and the ‘private’ or ‘personal’ realm of the Unconscious), when everyone is less conscious of existence than of its image, the once threatening SF ‘alien’ and Other become our familiars—our close relations, if not ourselves.” (Sobchack 229)

Writing on cyborgs (and on Haraway’s conception of them), Anne Balsamo declares that “the cyborg is a social construction” which “illuminates a crucial dimension of postmodern identity: the fragmentation of subjectivity” (Balsamo 153). However, while Sobchack certainly does not deny such “fragmentation,” her focus in the passage above is on something different. Concerning the “Other” in science fiction—a category which includes the enigmatic, undoubtedly “threatening” Ava—Sobchack gestures toward the complete dissolution of any distinction between human and alien (Sobchack 229). Not only does identity break apart and undergo recombination in postmodernism, it is dissolved and simulated as well. Together, both EM and UtS (which I discuss in more detail shortly) support Sobchack’s claim that many works of “postmodern” science fiction “do[] not ‘embrace the alien’ in a celebration of resemblance, but ‘erase[] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude (Sobchack 294). But, if Baudrillard and EM (as well as UtS and MMFR) are to be believed, accepting simulation—and the dissolution of identity that comes with it—is a dangerous thing to do.

Once “the sovereign difference” that once “constituted the charm of abstraction” disappears, “the murderous power of images” reaches its full potential (Precession 2, 5). Thus, simulations like Ava become “murderers of the real, murderers of their own model, as the Byzantine icons could be those of divine identity” (Precession 5). Faced with a simulation of their own creation, both men in EM come to terrible ends. Though Nathan designs builds Ava, Caleb is partially responsible for her existence as well; not only do his porn preferences shape her face, but his interactions with her also inform her (simulated) personality and emotions (which I discuss below). As numerous moments throughout the film demonstrate—including one in which he tells Caleb, “I wrote down that other line you came up with. The one about how if I’ve invented a machine with consciousness, I’m not a man, I’m a God”—Nathan thinks of himself as a sort of “divine” entity in Ava’s life (Precession 5). But that isn’t enough to save him. Within moments of leaving her room for the first time, Ava kills her creator. Once she is free of the limitations Nathan places on her existence, Ava stabs him[1] and leaves him to bleed out on the floor. Afterward, Ava ignores Caleb’s pleas for help, leaving him locked in Nathan’s compound, which is so far removed from the rest of society that there is little chance anyone will find him before he dies.

“‘Eras[ing] alienation’ in a celebration of similitude” results in the contemporaneous emphasis on and “absence” of “otherness,” which my reading of Ava has thus far worked to call attention to; but as Baudrillard writes, “the absence of otherness secretes another, intangible otherness: the absolute virus” (Sobchack 294; Prophylaxis 37). After stabbing Nathan and leaving Caleb to die, Ava puts on skin and clothes from Nathan’s older AI models (which he displays in closets like some sort of techno-Bluebeard). Fully clothed—and with her mechanical nature fully obscured—Ava then exits Nathan’s compound. Once outside, she boards the helicopter that Nathan originally sent for Caleb. In doing so, Ava, a simulation of a “real” woman, destroys and obscures her own origins. More importantly, she is not content merely to kill those who made her; she replaces them as well. By the end of EM, Ava is the only character left for viewers to identify with—real or not, she is all they have, and both the narrative and visual centers of the film belong solely to her; to help further illustrate the significance of this fact, I turn once again to Baudrillard:

“[…] the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials—worse: with their artificial resurrection in the system of signs, a material more malleable than meaning in that it lends itself to all systems of equivalences, to all binary oppositions, to all combinatory algebra. It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs for the real, that is to say of an operation of deterring every real process via its operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all signs of the real and short-circuits its vicissitudes.” (Precession 2)

In deceiving and manipulating Caleb to secure her escape, and in killing both men and going out into the world as a “real” woman, Ava “short-circuits” the system that created her.

In reading Ava as a character who embodies simulation while extending beyond more straightforward definitions of the cyborg, it’s also illuminating to consider that her entire body—indeed, her entire being—can be regarded as prosthetic. With Haraway’s cyborg “mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms,” but with Ava, it’s all but impossible to determine where “tool” ends and where “mind” and “body” begin (Haraway 56). There is a material unity to Ava that transcends the cyborg, a “hybrid” image built on the intersection of “technology […] with the body” (Haraway 50; Doane 110). Cyborgs are part human and part technology, and thus they can be understood as one of many “postmodernist strategies” that “subvert myriad organic wholes” (Haraway 52). However, there is nothing in Ava’s physical makeup that is part human—she is not a combination of flesh and tech; rather, she is a machine that appears to be a woman and a woman that appears to be a machine. Her form doesn’t fuse a “real” woman with cybernetic enhancement or technological prosthetic; instead, she is composed only of prosthetic—of a purely mechanical, manufactured body made to give shape to the artificial intelligence that Nathan develops. Importantly, Ava’s status as pure prostheses (much like her simulative nature) renders her all the more dangerous to the people and to the existing order that surround her. As Baudrillard claims, “the biological body, loses its natural defences in precise proportion to the growing sophistication of its prostheses” (Prophylaxis 35). Faced with a body that is entirely prostheses, the physically “biological” Nathan and Caleb don’t stand a chance.

Just before signaling the danger of advanced prostheses, Baudrillard also writes that “In a hyperprotected space the body loses all its defences. So sterile are operating rooms that no germ or bacteria can survive there. Yet this is the very place where mysterious, anomalous viral disease make their appearance” (Prophylaxis 35). In EM, Nathan’s compound serves as such a “sterile,” “hyperprotected” space. Not only does Nathan’s combination home, library, and AI prison exist in an isolated location far from prying eyes, but it is also largely windowless and virtually impenetrable. The rather empty, incredibly clean building is also crawling with surveillance cameras, which increase Nathan’s sense of control. And yet, under his very nose—from a glass room in which she is always visible to Nathan—Ava devises her creator’s destruction. No unwanted “germ or bacteria” could ever enter Nathan’s compound (not in the form of another person, anyway), but the place still gives birth to an “anomalous” AI, to a simulation with the power to reduce everything Nathan has worked to build there to rubble. At the very beginning of “Prophylaxis and Virulence,” Baudrillard writes that “The growing cerebrality of machines must logically be expected to occasion a technological purification of bodies. Inasmuch bodies are less and less able to count on their own antibodies, they are more and more in need of protection from the outside” (Prophylaxis 34). Even if Ava is miles away from anything Baudrillard had in mind while writing this, it remains useful for exploring EM all he same. In choosing to develop incredibly advanced AIs and in almost total isolation, Nathan precipitates his own destruction. With EM, Garland reenvisions Baudrillard’s “technological purification of bodies” as a destruction of bodies by the simulation of a body—by a machine so cerebral she exceeds “human” and “technological” alike.

In her “Technophilia: Technology, Representation, and The Feminine,” Mary Ann Doane describes cinema as sort of “prosthetic device […] a technological extension of the human body” that gives viewers access to vision and perception that they could never experience with their bodies alone (Doane 113). In EM, Ava too is a “prosthetic device,” but she is not an “extension” of any “human body”; instead, she renders all human bodies obsolete. Several days before Ava kills them both, Nathan and Caleb have a conversation that testifies to this fact. While discussing his work with Nathan, Caleb says “One day, the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” Later in EM, Ava regards her creator with clear disdain saying, “Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you?”; but as her constant simulation, her completely prosthetic form, and the end of the film all indicate, she may as well have replaced “hates” with “can stand in for.” In the presence of simulation, it is “impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (Precession 211, emphasis in original). The Turing test that Nathan asks Caleb to conduct is doomed from the start. Ava is far too sophisticated to be contained on either side of any “human”/“inhuman” divide, for she represents a perfection of simulacra in which, “Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Precession 19).

Before turning to The Female at the heart of UtS, (and then to Furiosa in MMFR) I’d like to add just a touch more dimension to my reading of Ava by briefly considering her relation to the realm of emotion. Throughout EM, Nathan repeatedly emphasizes the importance of feelings in Caleb’s interactions with Ava. For instance, when Caleb points out the nontraditional nature of Nathan’s Turing test, the genius-billionaire offers the following: “If I hid Ava from you so you could just hear her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” Later, after one of Caleb’s “sessions” with Ava, Nathan grows frustrated with Caleb’s careful responses to his queries saying, “The answer is, how do you feel about her? Nothing analytical, just how you feel.” Then, after the next session, Nathan reiterates his interest in emotion yet again: “Yesterday I asked you how you felt about her, and you gave me a great answer. Now the question is, ‘How does she feel about you?’” And yet, Nathan’s intense concern for Ava’s ability both to perform and to impact feelings may also set him up for failure. As Joelle Renstrom writes, “Ex Machina demonstrates why there can be no Turing test for emotions. Once a robot is advanced enough, it will be nearly impossible to discern whether it is an emotional actor or an emotional being” (Renstrom, emphasis in original). Interestingly, such (even if faintly) echoes Baudrillard’s description of the impossibility of simulating a crime convincingly, in which he writes that “the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements […] in short, you will immediately find yourself once again, without wishing it, in the real, one of whose functions is precisely to devour any attempt at simulation, to reduce everything to the real—that is, to the established order itself” (Precession 20). Under simulation, the difference between “real” and otherwise collapses in on itself, making clear distinction between the two all but impossible. Thus, Caleb isn’t capable of making sure determinations concerning Ava’s emotions, as is seen in the way she manipulates his feelings to get him to help her escape. Such can also be seen to explain why exposure to Ava, the AI bodies in Nathan’s room, and Kyoko’s mechanical interior all cause Caleb to have a breakdown that ends with him cutting into his own flesh; according to Marysia Jonsson and Aro Velmet, Caleb’s self-injury is the result of him doubting “his own ‘authenticity’” (Jonsson and Velmet). He doubts “his ‘own authenticity,’” because Nathan’s AI women disregard the certain and the authentic entirely.

Just as it’s impossible to simulate crime under Baudrillard’s framework, so too is it “impossible to prove” whether an AI does or doesn’t “have genuine emotional experiences” (Renstrom). Even if AIs “don’t actually feel,” “they can appear as though they do,” and as Ava’s victory demonstrates, any difference between the two hardly matters as far as the simulation itself is concerned (Renstrom). “Simulating is not pretending”—“it is more complicated” and more treacherous (Precession 3). Ava’s “gender” and her behavior more generally both stem from “adaptation,” for it is “through her meetings with Caleb [that] she comes to understand the effects her feminine form has on him. Nathan’s problem however, is that he underestimates the power of her adaptation” (Jonsson and Velmet). Ava reads those she interacts with like a book, and she can decode faces so expertly that it is essentially impossible for anyone to lie to her without her noticing. That said, she herself is under no compulsion to reveal when she catches a lie, nor is she incapable of lying herself. Through the simulation of emotion, Ava gains a clear advantage over the people she interacts with. And yet, they also teach her how to perform those emotions in the first place. Writing on EM, Renstrom notes:

“For now, robots’ emotional capabilities are in the hands of everyone who interacts with them. Our relations with robots determine their emotional potency. If we relate to robots socially, not to mention romantically or sexually, then their emotional capabilities are a reflection of us. If robots can learn emotions through experience, then we will be their emotional guides—both a comforting and a terrifying thought.” (Renstrom)

Ava reflects Caleb and Nathan, and her actions are a direct result of the way they treat her. While simulation is at the heart of their shared demise, they are as much to blame for their deaths as Ava is. In EM, emotional interaction with simulation opens one up to manipulation and leaves one both internally and externally vulnerable to violent destruction.

[1] Another AI, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), actually stabs Nathan first, but she is promptly struck down and is more or less abandoned by the narrative. Largely out of consideration for length, I do not focus on Kyoko here, but she is an important figure in the film all the same. It’s also worth noting that, unlike Ava, Kyoko is initially presented to viewers (and to Caleb) as a human woman, which further complicates her relation to simulation and reality alike.

Until Next Time
Parts 2 and 3.

[Previous pieces on Ex Machina can be found here and here.]

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Bibliography
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The Beautiful and the Repulsive: Ambivalence in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererWhat follows was written for a course on “Introductory Concepts in Cultural Studies,” which was taught by Dr. Denise McKenna during the spring ’17 semester at USC. Initially, the paper’s central points where also explained in conjunction with a visual presentation, which is not included here. Furthermore, this paper is far from complete; Rather than present a narrow, well-contained argument concerning Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, it attempts to put the movie in contact with larger topics in cultural studies while also laying out a number of ways in which Tykwer’s film should be examined further. Lastly, as this paper was written for a Cinema and Media Studies program, it largely ignores the 1985 novel from which the the movie is adapted. That said, I recently read Süskind’s book for fun, and engaging it in depth could certainly sharpen and expand what I say below.

Also, this project was largely inspired by my fondness for Tykwer’s film, which deserves more love and critical attention than it has received thus far.

The Beautiful and the Repulsive: Ambivalence in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Perfume) is no ordinary movie. Released in 2006, the film is an adaptation of German author Peter Süskind’s 1985 novel (originally titled Das Parfum), which received wide acclaim and was an international bestseller (Markham). And yet, for all the book’s widespread success, Süskind was slow to sell the rights, and many believed the story was unfilmable (Ebert; Phillips; Rabin). Like the unusual serial-killer at its center, Perfume does much of its work in “the fleeting realm of scent” (Perfume). Instead of shying away from this aspect of the film, Tykwer embraces it, and the result is a jarring, almost hyper-real work that provokes intense reactions from viewers—whether they like the film or not. In a sense, there is something more consistently visceral, more noticeably physical in experiencing strong scents (good or bad) than there is seeing. Perfume is pervaded by striking, sensuous, and even horrifying images; moreover, Tykwer wraps those images in a tale that completely merges them with the notion of their smell. Through it’s scent-focused narrative (as well as numerous shots of noses taking in the world around them), Perfume attempts to transcend the visual, thereby challenging the boundaries surrounding the category “cinema.”

Questions concerning what film can depict and what senses it engages aside, Perfume challenges numerous other categories as well. As its double title indicates, the film is pervaded by juxtaposition. Somewhat like perfume itself—which has traditionally included revolting, animal-derived substances like civet and ambergris—Perfume the film combines the beautiful and the repulsive. However, where the perfume business has sought to efface its less-appealing qualities, Tykwer repeatedly calls attention to them instead. Shots of beautiful women are met with those of dead animals in jars. Tranquil fields of lavender are followed by images of death and decay. The film embraces the beautiful and the repulsive in equal measure, all the while refusing to ally itself with just one side of any divide between them. Such juxtaposition and ambivalence lead to a situation in which the boundaries between various seemingly opposed categories (such as “high” and “low” art) are emphasized and blurred almost simultaneously. As I discuss in more detail below, Perfume asks important questions and engages a large number of substantive issues—many of which can be tied back to the nature of art and of mass culture. However, while the film hardly lacks intelligence, it does refuse to provide straightforward answers. Like a perfume combining things as different as rose and castoreum, the concoction that is Tykwer’s film employs disparate (even contradictory) ideas to create one complex, sublime experience. Thus, while appreciating the individual notes of Perfume may enhance one’s reception of it, so does taking in the whole on its own terms.

In what follows, I read numerous aspects of Perfume, paying particular attention to those that seem to insert the film into fundamental debates in cultural studies. In doing so, I draw on work by a range of thinkers, primarily Walter Benjamin and Dwight Macdonald. Of course, there are certainly other valid, potentially enriching ways to read Perfume. For instance, exploring its specific engagement with the horror genre or teasing out the parallels between the its main character and Hitler could both prove fruitful; while such readings are not at all unrelated to the work I do here, I leave them to others for now (Markham). In addition to those I discuss below, other aspects of Perfume ripe for further analysis include the societal role of the artist, aberrant collecting, the nature of beauty, commodity fetishism, mindless consumption, and the way the film’s main character is repeatedly dehumanized by the system of capital that controls him. A paper of this size cannot provide a comprehensive reading of Perfume and its ambivalence, but I remain interested in the degree to which carefully considering the film’s relationship to larger, extracinematic topics might open up a space for it to be more fully itself—for some of its vacillations, contradictions, and ambivalence to be regarded as meaningful features of the work rather than as flaws to be rejected. Furthermore, while I do not develop various parts of this paper to their fullest, I do hope that this might inspire future investigation of Tykwer’s frustrating, fascinating film.

Though released in 2006 and based on a novel published in the 1980s, Perfume is set in 18th-century France, a fact which helps illuminate some of its more multidimensional thematic concerns. Perfume combines elements of historical fiction with elements of magical realism and horror. The film is presented by its narrator as a factual account of “one of the most gifted and notorious personages of his time” and as a story that will help viewers remember someone who has been undeservedly forgotten because “his entire ambition was restricted to a domain that leaves no trace in history” (Perfume). Though a work of fiction, Perfume has an especially fraught relationship to history and reality, which further complicates the process of untangling its “meaning.” Regarding the 18th-century setting of Süskind’s novel, Amy J. Elias places it among a cluster of contemporary works that question and restage the Enlightenment from a postmodern perspective (Elias 533-5). Elias’s “The Postmodern Turn(:) on the Enlightenment” also includes the following claim from Jürgen Habermas, which is useful for understanding some of the chaos and possible incoherence of Perfume: “Enlightenment thinkers […] still had the extravagant expectation that the arts and sciences would promote not only the control of natural forces but also understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings” (Habermas, qtd. Elias 535). Tykwer’s adaptation of Süskind’s story reimagines the 18th century from a position in time in which the Enlightenment can be regarded as a failure, and in which hope for widespread, meaningful “understanding” has all but collapsed. Thus, Elias goes on to write that “Confronted with the explosion of irrationality, factionalism, an increasingly impersonal technocracy, dehumanization, and other social ills in contemporary capitalist societies, the postmodern sensibility logically turns back to the Enlightenment and questions the sanctity of its proffered gifts” (Elias 536). Importantly, regarding Perfume as a questioning of—or even as a challenge to—certain Enlightenment ideas frees it from pressure to provide clear, unified answers to its queries.

While a full summary of Perfume is not necessary for my purposes, some description of its main character and his actions will help frame the analysis that follows. The film centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw), a perpetual outsider with an impossibly well-developed sense of smell—a talent which makes “him unique among mankind” and which pushes him toward the animal and the superhuman simultaneously (Perfume). After he is unceremoniously birthed in a Parisian fish market—on what the film’s narrator (John Hurt) declares “the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom”—Grenouille is discarded by his mother and left for dead (Perfume). He is then taken to an orphanage where the other children regard him as a freak and even try to kill him. As he grows up, Grenouille voraciously seeks new smells; preferring his “olfactory experiences” above all else, Grenouille fails to connect with others and rarely speaks (Perfume). Then, at the age of thirteen, he is sold to a tannery (a place overflowing with unpleasant smells). There, he toils away into adulthood, all the while dreaming of the “utopia of unexplored smells” waiting for him beyond his putrid prison (Perfume).

When Grenouille finally gets a chance to venture into those nicer parts of Paris (while making a delivery for the tanner), he is enraptured by all the scents, and his life if changed forever. When he encounters his first perfume shop, he is transfixed and stops to watch the customers inside. He then encounters a beautiful girl selling plums. Mesmerized by her aroma, he follows her, startles, her, and then accidentally suffocates her in an attempt to stop her from screaming. Taken aback by her death, he then tries to experience as much of her scent as possible before it dissipates from her corpse. When it does, he is devastated, and from that moment on, he becomes obsessed with finding a way to “preserve scent” “so that never again would he lose such sublime beauty” (Perfume). Grenouille then uses his exceptional sense of smell to convince a washed-up old perfumer named Baldini (Dustin Hoffman) to buy him from the tanner.

While working for Baldini, Grenouille is desperate to learn how to “keep smells” (Perfume). The old perfumer teaches him what he can, but his methods are limited. After realizing this, Grenouille travels to Grasse—which Baldini calls “the promised land of perfume”—to learn “the mysterious art of enfleurage” (Perfume). While there, he begins experimenting with ways to use the technique to capture the scents of beautiful women. After a prostitute refuses to willingly participate in his efforts, he kills her and uses her corpse. Grenouille then proceeds to do the same with eleven other women before setting his sights on the daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood) of a local nobleman (Alan Rickman). With her pale skin and vivid red hair, the daughter reminds Grenouille of the girl with the plums, and he becomes determined to use her scent as the final ingredient in the perfume he crafts from his victims. Despite her father’s attempts to save her from Grasse’s serial killer, she is murdered by Grenouille and his perfume is completed anyway. At this point, Grenouille is almost immediately caught and sentenced to a torturous execution. But thanks to the overwhelming power of his perfume, he convinces the people of Grasse that he is innocent. He then leaves their town freely, returns to Paris, and is promptly eaten by a crowd of peasants, not far from the same disgusting spot on which he was born.

Perfume’s plot is often outrageous, which is connected to the fact that much of the film flies in the face of Enlightenment rationality and reason. One place this can be seen is in the way Grenouille learns and practices perfumery. As depicted in Tykwer’s film, perfume exists in a strange space that mixes commerce, science, and art; and through his violent, horrifying acts, Grenouille distorts and reveals the dark underbellies of all three.

Grenouille’s superhuman sense of smell enables him to make enticing perfumes in a matter of seconds, which is the only reason Baldini gives him a job. Due to the circumstances of his birth and upbringing, Grenouille would never enter the world of perfumery were it not for his exceptional nose. By the time Grenouille enters his life, Baldini’s once-grand business is failing, and his inspiration for crafting profitable scents is all but spent. Grenouille infiltrates the world of perfume. Once there, he both exploits that world to his own ends and is exploited himself. Though Grenouille learns about perfumery from numerous people, Baldini is the one who first opens that door. Notably, he does so, not because he has any real interest in helping Grenouille develop as an artist, but because he can use his special nose to rehabilitate his business. Thus, Baldini—as a member of a higher cultural tier than Grenouille—can at least partially be blamed for the destruction Grenouille causes after working for him. This situation connects to one of Macdonald’s key points in “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in which he argues that “The upper classes, who begin by using [mass culture] to make money from the crude tastes of the masses and to dominate them politically, end by finding their own culture attacked and even threatened with destruction by the instrument they have thoughtlessly employed” (Macdonald 41). An “instrument,” Grenouille creates hundreds of profitable perfumes for Baldini, but he never receives any credit or financial gain from his work—any such benefits go to Baldini alone. Baldini also exploits Grenouille by requiring him to come up with one-hundred additional perfumes before giving him the journeyman’s papers he needs to travel to Grasse. Importantly however, Baldini does not escape his lopsided relationship with Grenouille without coming to harm himself. Not only does Baldini set off a chain of events that leads to widespread death and chaos in Grasse, he also dies before turning Grenouille’s final batch of perfumes into cash. The same night Grenouille leaves Baldini’s shop, the entire building collapses into the river below, killing Baldini. If Macdonald were watching Perfume, he might say that the old perfumer is punished for “thoughtlessly employ[ing]” a “crude,” filthy orphan “to make money” (Macdonald 41).

Though the issue remains just under the film’s surface, there is a constant tension between Grenouille’s lowly background—which is reflected in his worn, simple attire—and the wealthier, more cultured, and more artistic world of perfumery. More importantly, contained within this tension is the question of whether someone born with nothing and raised in an orphanage, of whether someone who is bought, sold, and dehumanized throughout his life could ever have anything but a perverse, at least partially destructive relationship to art and beauty. Macdonald declares that mass culture holds the power to corrupt so-called “High Culture” (Macdonald 43). He also writes that mass culture “destroys all values, since value judgements imply discrimination” (Macdonald 42). Grenouille is one of the unwashed masses (that he almost always appears sweaty and streaked with dirt is no coincidence). He cannot tell the difference between “high” and “low”; indeed, he does not care too. Thus, When Grenouille travels through the shops of Paris and experiences perfume for the first time, the narrator describes his olfactory delight saying, “He was not choosing. He did not differentiate between what are commonly considered to be good smells and bad. At least, not yet. He was very greedy. The goal was to possess everything the world had to offer in the way of odors” (Perfume). If the likes of Macdonald and F.R. Leavis are to be believed, Grenouille’s cultural status and lack of discrimination between smells both render him a threat to art and to the powers that be (Leavis 33, Macdonald 40-4). Grenouille is born in a fish market reeking of filth and decay. Later, he spends his adolescence surrounded by the odors of a tanner. Well before he ever thinks of perfumery or the preservation of beauty, Grenouille consumes some of the worst smells imaginable, and he lacks experience with “good” scents. Thus, even if Tykwer’s well-informed narrator never answers the question outright, Perfume still asks viewers to consider if Grenouille could ever express himself artistically without throwing the world around him into darkness and disarray.

The way Grenouille practices perfumery places it in an odd space between science and art while also depicting both as potentially threatening. Grenouille goes to great lengths to devise a way to capture the scents of women and turn them into perfume, and at various points throughout the film he “experiments” like a sort of mad scientist (Perfume). Before becoming a serial killer and devising a way to practice enfleurage on humans, Grenouille tries (and fails) to capture the scents of things like copper, glass, and Baldini’s cat (which he kills). In conducting these experiments, Grenouille shows no respect for established practices; when Baldini finds what he is doing, he is deeply disturbed, and from that moment on, Grenouille is more careful to keep his efforts hidden. Not unlike Victor Frankenstein, Grenouille transgresses boundaries to terrifying ends in the name of a singular, socially unacceptable goal. Grenouille repeatedly misinterprets Baldini as well; for instance, he takes his story about a mythic, all-powerful perfume with a mysterious thirteenth ingredient literally despite its fictitious nature. Grenouille also twists Baldini’s teachings by deciding that “the soul of beings is [literally] their scent” (Perfume). This belief colors everything that Grenouille does in the name of his obsession, while also complicating the nature of the powerful and extremely dangerous perfume he creates.

Grenouille’s belief that scents are souls is also important, because he has no scent of his own. As Roger Ebert notes in his (four-star) review of the film, lacking a scent “is ascribed by legend to the spawn of the devil” (Ebert). In keeping with its refusal to willingly flatten the way it is interpreted, Perfume never allows this connection to emerge completely, but it remains part of the film all the same. After spending time in an isolated cave somewhere between Paris and Grasse—in a clean, liminal space untainted by smells or other people—Grenouille finds that he himself has no smell, and the revelation disturbs him greatly. As the narrator puts it, “For the first time in his life, Grenouille realized that he had no smell of his own. He realized that all his life he had been a nobody to everyone. What he now felt was the fear of his own oblivion. It was as though he did not exist” (Perfume). As someone who believes scents are souls and who interacts and experiences others almost exclusively by smelling them, Grenouille understands his own lack of scent as both a lack of identity and as a harbinger of his mortality. Moreover, such lack of identity can be connected to his aberrant behavior, as it may explain his obsessive drive to consume and to preserve the scents of others. The film itself gestures toward this connection through its narrator, who claims that after finding himself thoroughly unsettled by the absence of any smell distinctly his own, Grenouille resolves “to teach the world not only that he exist[s], that he [is] someone, but that he [is] exceptional” (Perfume). In doing so, he becomes a serial killer and throws the entire town of Grasse into chaos. Grenouille before he enters the cave may be monstrous, but he doesn’t kill people deliberately or completely commit to making a perfume out of women until he is faced with the scentlessness of his own being. Furthermore, why Grenouille has no scent is never made clear, just as whether he is born a monster, becomes one, or is turned into one (if he is even a monster at all) is left ambiguous.

Perfume’s association of scent with souls—as well as Grenouille’s obsession with preserving and distilling beauty by making of perfume—echoes aspects of Benjamin’s concept of “aura.” While viewing the Enlightenment through a lens clouded with disillusionment, Perfume also complicates and darkens certain ideas from “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Though Benjamin primarily discusses “aura” in connection with “historical” and art objects, he does say that “natural” objects (such as mountains) have an “aura” as well (Benjamin 795). From here, applying the term to the beautiful women that Grenouille kills and repurposes to make his art is hardly an unreasonable stretch. That said, Benjamin also claims that “the authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning” and that “no natural object is vulnerable on that score” (Benjamin 794). Where the “authenticity” of an “art object” is easily damaged and “interfered with” through reproduction, that of something “natural” is not (Benjamin 794). This may seem to undermine the idea that anything distilled from a “natural” object (like a beautiful woman’s scent) is comparable to art’s “aura.” Contrariwise, it may actually explain why in Perfume, a beautiful woman’s “aura” can live on beyond her. Near the end of the film, the narrator tells viewers that the perfume Grenouille uses women to make is so powerful that he could literally “enslave the whole word if he chose” (Perfume). The beauty of the perfume is the beauty of his murder victims. Where the “authenticity,” the “most sensitive nucleus” of an “art object” is “vulnerable” to destruction, that of the “natural” (or, the organic) in Perfume can be bottled and repurposed, and for long after the being it once belonged to has ceased to exist. Or at least, it can in the hands of Grenouille. The efficacy of the auras that go into his perfume does not die with the women he kills, it only dies when the perfumes evaporates, when its scent dissipates.

Likening scent in Perfume to “aura” also troubles the relationship between reproduction and destruction in Benjamin. For, where Benjamin positions “aura” as “the eliminated element […] that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction,” Grenouille explicitly devotes himself to the preservation of scent (Benjamin 794). By the time he arrives in Grasse, all the young perfumer cares about is capturing and bottling the scents of beautiful women—both as a means of preserving beauty itself and as a way of asserting his existence and unique ability. In transforming his victims into perfume, Grenouille can be said to reproduce them in a loose sense; in doing so, he isolates and takes possession of that which declares their “uniqueness” (Benjamin 795). It’s not that nothing is lost in the process—the women do die, after all—but their essence is concentrated, not diluted. Put another way, Grenouille’s particular manner of destroying beautiful women reduces them to nothing but pure “aura.” Benjamin compares the destruction of art’s “aura” to “pry[ing] an object from its shell,” but Grenouille doesn’t pry objects from their shells; he pries auras from their objects (Benjamin 795).

Essentially, Tykwer’s film seems to invert (or at least, to alter) aspects of Benjamin’s argument while simultaneously confirming the value of the aura more generally. In creating his perfume—which is so great that it gives him “the invincible power to command the love of mankind”—Grenouille can be said to harness “aura” (Perfume). In doing so, he creates something so beautiful that he is able to avoid an execution that—as far as both the law and the church are concerned—he most definitely deserves. On one hand, such would seem to support the general importance that Benjamin ascribes to the “aura”, even if somewhat obliquely (Benjamin 794-5). However, given Grenouille’s position outside of accepted norms—as well as the manipulative, destructive ends to which he deploys his ultimate perfume—the film also ask viewers to consider whether not the “aura” (or the essence of beauty) should be regarded as dangerous. Like Grenouille himself—and like so much of Perfume more generally—the reduction of beautiful women to their auras and the substance those auras are used to create cannot be read in a single, straightforward way. Instead, they are open to polysemy and encourage viewers to approach them from various angles.

No straightforward protagonist, Grenouille “simultaneously represents the aesthete as hero, anti-hero, messiah, [and] anti-Christ,” both alternately and all at once (Rabin). As such, he perverts perfumery, rendering it illegible in any straightforward way. Grenouille’s perfume is beautiful, exceptional, and powerful. It is also repulsive, destructive, and terrifying. As Elias argues, “the postmodern psyche” that informs works like Perfume “seems compelled to rewrite the Enlightenment past […] in order to construct, and perhaps vindicate, itself and to confront the promise of Enlightenment epistemology” (Elias 535). Art, science, law, order, and reason are all helpless against Grenouille. Faced with his combination of obsession and ability, they are thrown into chaos and undone.

Such can be most clearly seen in Perfume’s spectacular (and spectacle-filled) third act. In its final moments, the film features two acts of mass consumption, both of which are triggered by exposure to the perfume Grenouille makes from his victims. Whether one reads it as art, commodity, spectacle (or something else, or some combination of the three), Grenouille’s perfume highlights the impressionability and the susceptibility of the masses. In the film, France is portrayed as teeming with people in such a way that it can reasonably be designated as “a mass society,” as a thing “so undifferentiated and loosely structured that its atoms, so far as human values go, tend to cohere only along the line of the least common denominator; its morality sinks to that of its most brutal and primitive members; its taste to that of the least sensitive and most ignorant” (Macdonald 44). Though they differ in specific actions and makeup, both groups exposed to Grenouille’s perfume seem to back up Macdonald’s (rather elitist) claims; but, true to Perfume’s ambivalent soul, they have their way of challenging them as well.

Perfume’s orgy sequence is by far the longest and the most visually spectacular in the film; it also reinforces the film’s deep ambivalence toward its content. After Grenouille is found guilty of murdering over a dozen women in Grasse, the entire town gathers to watch him die. The mob is hungry for him, and one of the guards nervously remarks that they “can’t hold them back much longer” (Perfume). In these moments, Perfume characterizes the mob as an unruly and threatening thing. But the second the people smell Grenouille’s perfume, everything changes. Overwhelmed by the beauty of its scent, they immediately begin showering Grenouille with adoration, and the executioner declares his innocence. Even the priest cries out “This is no man! This is an angel!” and the father of Grenouille’s last victim sobs and begs Grenouille for forgiveness. Almost as if hypnotized, the people of Grasse engage in a giant orgy, which includes a number of legal and religious authorities. Surrounded by the beauty of Grenouille’s monstrous perfume, the mob forgets their desire for justice and is swept up by the desire for collective pleasure instead. While the orgy saves Grenouille’s life and demonstrates the power of his artistic endeavor, it also illustrates Macdonald’s claims that mass culture, “break[s] down the old barriers of class, tradition, taste, and dissolves all cultural distinctions” and that “It mixes and scrambles everything together” (Macdonald 42). According to Perfume’s narrator, the people of Grasse wake the next day with “a terrible hangover,” deeply ashamed of what they’ve done—allowed themselves to be manipulated and eliminated all barriers between them in the name of pure pleasure—but there is also nothing in Perfume to suggest that they could have ever resisted the power of Grenouille’s creation.

Though not nearly as drawn-out as Perfume’s orgy sequence, the film’s cannibal scene parallels it in numerous ways. After leaving Grasse unscathed, Grenouille suddenly understands that one thing his incredible perfume cannot do is “turn him into a person who could love and be loved by everyone else”; faced with this dark realization, Grenouille chooses to end his life instead (Perfume). To do so, he returns to the market where he was born and pours his remaining perfume over his head. When he does so, the filthy, lowly people there immediately declare him an “angel” and are overcome—both by the beauty of the perfume and by love for Grenouille more generally. Then, like zombies driven mindlessly to consumption, they make their way toward him and devour him until nothing but scraps of his clothes remain. Like the people in Grasse, the peasants in the fish market are also influenced to act in an extreme manner through exposure to Grenouille’s perfume. However, unlike the much cleaner, comparatively more sophisticated mob that has an orgy, those who eat Grenouille are not ashamed by their consumption. As the narrator says, “When they had finished, they felt a virginal glow of happiness” and “for the first time in their lives, they believed that they had done something purely out of love” (Perfume). That said, whether their lack of guilt stems from their lowly nature or from the fact that their cannibalism destroys the monstrous Grenouille is left open to interpretation, as is who precisely their love benefits as well whether the love of the masses can ever be a good thing at all.

Contradiction and ambivalence can be found all throughout cultural studies, in part, because little is simple about the topics it attempts to untangle. Even terms as common and as seemingly fundamental as “culture” and “masses” have come stand for different, even oppositional ideas (Williams 25, 29). Concerned as it is with cultural issues, Perfume too is pervaded by ambivalence. Consequently, accepting Perfume’s juxtaposition and contradictions allows for more complex and worthwhile readings of the film. The cultural problems that Tykwer engages and the world his characters inhabit are far from black and white. Moreover, there is nothing timid in Perfume’s approach to such matters, nor is there in its commitment to engaging a sense usually considered to fall outside of cinema’s purview.

Trying to pigeonhole Perfume—or even requiring ideological coherence or consistency on its part—does a disservice to movie and viewer alike. With this in mind, the prevalence of both mixed and markedly negative critical response to the film may actually serve as a testament to the multifarious ways it embraces ambiguity and the ambivalent. Perfume currently has a 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, putting it just on the wrong side of the “fresh”/“rotten” divide (Rotten Tomatoes). Moreover, reading many of the less favorable reviews reveals that a number of critics have trouble reconciling the visual and technical beauty of the film with the realities of its unsettling content. Many charge the story with being too confused or too depraved to be acceptable, and one gets the sense that some take issue with Perfume’s ugly, disturbing, intensely vacillating subject matter being presented in what might otherwise be a pleasant, lovely, and more straightforward period piece (Howell, Phillips, Rabin, Puig). Instead of rejecting Perfume for daring to “combine[] the nobility of a mythic quest with horror most foul” and for “fall[ing] somewhere between lurid pulp and arty surrealism,” it is far more rewarding to consider why it establishes the juxtapositions and occupies the liminal space that it does (Howell, Rabin).

In 1930’s “Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture,” Leavis laments that “the prospects of culture […] are very dark.” (Leavis 37). According to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, they may never have been all that bright to begin with, not even at mass culture’s very beginnings (Macdonald 39). Either way, the film has a great deal to say, and it is about much more than killing and scent.

Until Next Time
I actually wrote about Perfume: The Story of a Murderer once before, just after watching it for the first time. That was over 2 years ago, and my thoughts on the film have changed a bit since then. Anyone who might be interested can still find that piece here.

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Bibliography
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” 1936. Reprinted in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. 791-811. Print.

Ebert, Roger. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rev of Perfume: the Story of a Murderer. Roger Ebert. 4 Jan. 2007. rogerebert.com/reviews/perfume-the-story-of-a-murderer-2007.  Accessed 21 April 2017. Web.

Elias, Amy J. “The Postmodern Turn(:) on the Enlightenment.” Contemporary Literature. Vol. 37 no. 4 (winter 1996). University of Wisconsin Press. 553-558. jstor.org/stable/1208771. Accessed 6 April 2017.  Web.

Howell, Peter. ‘Perfume’: Scents of Horror.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Toronto Star. 5 Jan 2007.
thestar.com/entertainment/movies/2007/01/05/perfume_scents_of_horror.html. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Leavis, F.R. “Mass Civilisation and Minority Culture.” 1930. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 33-38. Print.

Macdonald, Dwight. “A Theory of Mass Culture. 1975. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 39-46. Print.

Marx, Karl. “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Therof.” 1867. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 89-95. Print.

Markham, James M. “Success of Smell is Sweet for New German Novelist.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of  a Murderer (novel). The New York Times. 9 Oct 1986. nytimes.com/1986/10/09/books/success-of-smell-is-sweet-for-new-german-novelist.html. Accessed 25 April 2017. Web.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. Dir. Tom Tykwer. Perf. Ben Whishaw. Dustin Hoffman.  Alan Rickman. Rachel Hurd-Wood. DreamWorks Pictures, 2006. DVD.

“Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rotten Tomatoes. rottentomatoes.com/m/perfume_the_story_ of_a_murderer. Accessed 21 April 2017. Web.

Phillips, Michael. “‘Perfume’ whiffs.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.  Chicago Tribune. 5 Jan 2007. articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-01-05/entertainment/0701050349_1_perfume-serial-killer-serial-killer. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Puig, Claudia. “‘Perfume’ gets under your skin.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. USA Today. 26 Dec 2006. usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/movies/reviews/2006-12-26-perfume_x.htm. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Rabin, Nathan. “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.” Rev of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. A.V. Club. Dec 27 2006. avclub.com/review/perfume-the-story-of-a-murderer-3646. Accessed 22 April 2017. Web.

Williams, Raymond. “‘Culture’ and ‘Masses’.” 1976. Reprinted in Popular Culture: A Reader. Eds. Raiford Guins and Omayra Zargoza Cruz. London: SAGE Publications, 2005. 25-32. Print.

Recap: Best of May 2017

movies ishtar a serious man the immigrantI met some damn good cinema last month.

A Serious Man (2009)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

One of my more immediate film-watching goals is to fill in some of my Coen Bros. blind spots. So, hopefully, my recent viewing of A Serious Man motivates me to stick to that goal…

I went into A Serious Man without knowing anything more than that the Coens directed it and that Michael Stuhlbarg stars in it. I knew nothing specific about the plot, and I’d heard very little from anyone who’d already seen it. While the film definitely has its fans and has been favorably reviewed, one also gets the sense that it’s been flying under the radar. Sandwiched between the higher-grossing Burn After Reading and True Grit, it’s possible that A Serious Man hasn’t received quite as much attention as it deserves. For, even if I still need to see some of the Coens’ films (including Miller’s Crossing and Blood Simple), I feel relatively confident asserting that A Serious Man represents some of their very best work.

Like many a movie-person, I’ve enjoyed Stuhlbarg in many roles. Most recently, he’s also been hilarious in Fargo season 3. But I’ve never seen him as fantastic as he is in A Serious Man. His especially Coenesque performance here is top-tier.

There are no holes in A Serious Man. The cast is solid. Deakins’s cinematography is lovely. And the writing is absolutely stellar. The script is super smart and wonderfully funny. It’s intricate, inspired, and fully itself as well. Viewers need not be Jewish or work in academia to get a kick out of A Serious Man, but the Coens delve deeply into the absurdity of both to supremely entertaining results.

I love this movie. I can’t wait to watch it again. The Uncertainly Principle can’t be avoided.

Ishtar (1987)
Directed by Elaine May

I recently got my ass out of the house and attended an Elaine May double feature at the New Bev. It as was a great time. 10/10. The first film on the bill was A New Leaf. While that film is unquestionably funny and was a whole lot of fun to watch with a crowd, the real highlight of the night was Ishtar. Many laughs were had. Many chuckles were heard. I basically smiled for two hours straight.

If you haven’t seen Ishtar, don’t let the negative reviews or it’s reputation as as a flop scare you away. Elaine May was so next-level, this one may have been too ahead of its time. Many of today’s large comedies can’t even begin to hold a candle to it. Watch it if you like to have a great time.

Ishtar is absurd and absurdly lovable. It lampoons show business, international espionage, and its leads’ status as stars in hilarious fashion. It’s a good movie. Full stop. In fact, it’s an absolute delight.

Every second of Hoffman and Beatty performing is comedy gold. And while viewers might not initially welcome the turn the film takes once it moves to Morocco, May finds her comedic feet again rather quickly. There may be some bumps along the way, but Ishtar is so packed with genuine laughs and stand-out gags, that any such missteps are quickly erased.

Also, as good as Hoffman is in this, Beatty is the real highlight for me. In fact, his portrayal of the hopelessly stupid, but sincerely well-meaning Lyle Rogers is now one of my very favorite comedic performances. He’s brilliant here, and I feel sorry for those who can’t see that.

#JusticeforIshtar2k17

The Immigrant (2013)
Directed by James Gray

In the last two months, I’ve gone from seeing none of Jame Gray’s films to seeing three of them: Two LoversThe Lost City of Z, and The Immigrant. I appreciate all three of the films, and all of them resonate on a deeply emotional level. On top of that, The Lost City of Z is also incredibly grand, and it represents one of the best theater-going experiences I’ve had this year.

That said, my favorite film from Gray is The Immigrant. It’s absolutely lovely. Joaquin Phoenix is very good in it, and Marion Cotillard is downright stunning.

The Immigrant‘s story may be simple (all three of the Grays I’ve seen have that in common), but its combination of delicate execution and emotional weight sets it apart.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Directed by Olivier Assayas

Kristen Stewart is so beautiful in this, and her performance is top-notch. Binoche shines too, and Assayas delivers stunning images and captivating interactions throughout.

That said, one thing that doesn’t work here is the presence of Chloe Grace Moretz. She (albeit, somewhat appropriately) feels like an uninvited guest, and she steals time from Binoche and Stewart, both of who are far more talented and more interesting on screen.

I was enraptured by Personal Shopper, and I’m eager to revisit that film, but at the moment, I give the slight edge to Clouds of Sils Maria. There is a porousness and an evanescence to both films that contributes significantly to their particular mood and feel. That said, Clouds of Sils Maria holds together just a little bit more, and it feels like a more complete thought. I love the ideas in Personal Shopper, but it also gestures toward thoughts more often than it sees them through.

That said, Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria work beautifully as a pair, and their concerns overlap in some fascinating ways.

The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by Don Siegel

I decided to watch the original The Beguiled in preparation for Coppola’s upcoming film. What a good decision that was!

The Beguiled is wild. It’s trashy. It’s fun. It has Clint Eastwood, a turtle, and thirsty women (of all ages)! It also has castration anxiety and a Civil War setting. It’s the psychosexual Southern Gothic you’ve been waiting for. It’s sort of amazing that it ever got made. Go watch it.

Until Next Time
I’ve been travelling a bit lately, which has made my life a little irregular. In an effort to pretend that I’m not actually returning to grad school in a few weeks, I’ve also been taking it pretty easy, and I haven’t been making enough of an effort to introduce myself to new movies.

However, while I do say I want to do a lot of things I don’t ever do, I do really want to try to go to more rep screenings once I’m back in LA later this month…

So there’s that.

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