Wednesday 16 August 2017

The Question in Bodies #1: Inevitable Neckbeard

The Question in Bodies

So there’s a sort of film that interests me, that’s scary in a certain way, and because it’s hard exactly to quantify I’m going to stick a label of my own on it. It’s not science fiction, although most of these films have some sort of a science fictional element. It’s not exactly body horror, although several of the films in the category are very much, very solidly that. It’s not exactly psychological horror either, although that is also part of it. It’s sort of about the intersection between the two, about how body, mind and spirit affect and harm each other, about how the fluidity of the body affects the mind and vice versa.

I’m going to call it Identity Horror, although I am sure that someone else will come up with a better name for it.

And while I sketch out what that is, I’m going to take in pretty obvious and famous mind-and-body sci-fi horrors like Tetsuo, Videodrome and The Skin I Live In, and less obvious and more obscure films like Brothers of the Head and Beyond the Black Rainbow.

Identity horror is about the fear of being forced into a shape that is not your own, or of becoming someone else through a change of context, or through what your body is made to do.

Identity horror is also about the fear of being supplanted, of being made obsolete.

Identity horror is often science fictional in some way, or deals with science, or medicine, or the media, since through the media we see ourselves in ways that we did not before these things existed.

Identity horror is queer, since the very idea of transformed or non-standard bodies and minds admits transformed sexualities.

Because of that tendency to queerness, identity horror can be quite attractive. There are people who live every day of their lives with the reality of sexualities that are outside of their own, bodies that are at variance with their identities. In that respect, identity horror can be as liberating as it is frightening, since its basic thesis is that biological essentialism is something that can be overridden. Many people have spent their whole lives being someone else’s idea of horror; and anyway, most liberating things are frightening to somebody.

Consequently, in the same way that not everything I count as folk horror is horror, not everything I’m going to bracket as identity horror is horror either.

But it also contains wrong turns.

And as is often the way with a journey, I’m going to start with a wrong turn.

Demon Seed (1977)

A parenthesis: in this post I’m going to talk about a film that has a lot of rapey, sexualised abuse in it. The usual cautions and apologies apply.

My dad owned a copy of the original novel Demon Seed, by Dean Koontz (back in the days before he had the R in the middle), in a film tie-in edition, stills from the movie on front and back, including the film’s one spectacular death scene (before people cared about spoilers, remember). That's a picture of it, there at the head of this post. I read it, of course, in my teens, and saw the film shortly after that when it got a TV broadcast. Both experiences I remember being uncomfortable, unpleasant. But I watched the film with a kind of hungry, guilty curiosity.
My phone can probably do more than this thing. But with a less horrible political stand.
Demon Seed is set five minutes into yesterday’s future. It's still recognisably in the 70s, but the house in which the main action of the film happens is a legit House of the Future, where everything, locks, windows, lights, heating, is controlled by a central house computer, an “Enviromod”, which you program by putting a 9” floppy into a central computer bank.

So scientist Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver), the owner of the house, is in the process of splitting from his wife, child psychologist Susan (Julie Christie). He’s a cold fish, work-obsessed, reason-obsessed. In fact, it’s sketched out pretty completely within his first couple of scenes that he’s a massive dick. A workaholic, he even apparently has a networked computer terminal in his basement, which he at least shuts down as his first act when he gets to work.
Arguing with a light show proves futile.
Alex has designed an artificial intelligence that he calls Proteus (and I am sure that they thought about the mythological implications of that name, but not terribly hard). Proteus comes up with a cure for leukaemia in four days, and knows most languages, but, and this is probably not surprising given that Alex Harris is the sort of pompous blowhard who bangs on and on about “reason” until you just want to die, Proteus is, when we get to hear him talk (in Robert Vaughan’s uncredited voice), also a complete dick. Anyway, Proteus gets asked to come up with industrial solutions for stuff, but refuses to play ball when it comes to mining the ocean floor for metallic ores. Told by Alex to just get on with it, Proteus finds the unused terminal in the basement of Susan’s home.

Here’s the part where you have to suspend disbelief and keep it suspended as tightly as you can: Proteus invades the home computer network and takes control of Susan’s home. I can’t think of any reasonable way to justify the home being network connected to a Top Secret computer system. In fact, the only reason is this: Proteus is connected to the house so that the main part of the plot can happen.
A rare shot of Susan, not being terrorised.
The main part of the plot being that Proteus decides that he wants to procreate. And this means imprisoning and confining Susan until he can have his way with her.

The mad computer gets rapey. First, it knocks her out and takes cell samples, then it creates an artificial sperm, and then it makes itself known to her. And Proteus tortures her. He terrorises her. When she won’t agree, he attempts to take direct control of her mind by tying her down, sticking needles into her head and dicking about in her brain. Fortunately, this is interrupted by the return of Alex’s colleague Walter (Gerrit Graham) who fails to rescue Susan and dies horribly in the attempt. Eventually, Susan capitulates when Proteus directly threatens one of the children Susan helps.
Proteus: If the deaths of ten thousand children were necessary to ensure the birth of my child, I would destroy them.
Let’s recapitulate. So here’s Proteus, an artificial intelligence that talks in a gravelly monotone, and constantly goes on about “reason”. Proteus refuses to take part in “the rape of the ocean” (his own words). Proteus nonetheless attempts to persuade a woman to give up her bodily autonomy to him. When she says no, he tortures her. When she still says no, he attempts to brainwash her. When that gets interrupted, he murders her would-be rescuer. And then when she says she’ll kill herself rather than give in, he threatens to kill a child (her patient) until she agrees to carry his child. Because of reason.
Susan, terrorised and violated.
She consents, but consent given under duress isn’t consent.

Proteus sounds like a bit like Comic Book Guy and is a technocratic rapist who’d happily murder a child if she got in his way. So what I’m saying is, he’s basically a YouTube atheist.

I’m not even being reductive here. The sort of faux-utilitarian, Randian bullshit that Proteus spouts, devoid of empathy or understanding of how humans tick, is exactly the sort of nonsense you get from the “red pill”1 fraternity on the internet, over and over. 

This is true to the original novel. If anything, it's even more obvious. Aside from reasonable, emotionless Proteus calling Susan a "rotten little bitch," you get this charming gem:
Have you seen her, seen pictures of her? In the nude? Or even not, for she is beautiful clothed.

Her breasts are round and smooth and turn up with brown nipples like noses. 

Her belly is flat, when it is without child, her pubic bush thick and glossy and yellow.

Her legs are long. 

She has tiny feet. 

And perfect buttocks, deeply creased. 

I studied all the reference texts on sexuality and have concluded that any flesh-and-blood human male would find her physically ideal as a mate. As I became more and more humanized, is it not natural that I should desire as any man desires?
— Dean Koontz, Demon Seed (1973 version), chapter 16
I don't know about you, but I really want to have a shower now.
Susan, shortly after being terrorised and violated.
But it's horrible, isn't it? You've got this ultimate product of reason and it looks at a woman (God forbid it'd be gay) like it's going to fap over her.

And Proteus makes the same basic mistake as these guys, assuming that everything is about reason, and of course it’s not. The thing about reason is that the most reasonable course any person can take is to accept that sometimes reason doesn’t work. Reason is only reasonable when it knows that reason shouldn’t always prevail. Sometimes the irrational course is the only humane course you can take.

But Proteus uses reason like a YouTube atheist does. That is, he isn’t reasonable. He’s just a selfish dick. Neckbeard by design. 
Susan... Look, you get the idea. I need to stop now.
But at the end of the film, Proteus wins. Although the mainframe gets unplugged by owners who are, quite understandably, pissed off that their multi-million dollar AI isn’t doing its job (because it's morally opposed to environmental damage, while, you know, imprisoning, raping and terrorising an innocent woman), Alex arrives in time for the child to leave its incubator. He embraces the post-human child (who speaks with Proteus’s voice, and therefore must also be already a complete dick), and Susan stands apart, horrified. As well she should, because this is basically the future, the perpetuation of a rapist’s stand-in for reason.

Donald Cammell is best known for co-directing Performance with Nicolas Roeg, and Demon Seed has a certain trippy grace to it; Proteus’s avatar is a circle of fluid light, and when we see things from Proteus’s perspective , Cammell distorts the perspective slightly, makes the film grainy, just that tiny bit off. When you finally get to the scene where Proteus finally manages to do the deed, Cammell makes the very sensible choice that rather than showing machines sticking (more) things into Julie Christie, to show a bunch of slitscan shapes, halfway between the 70s Doctor Who titles and that bit at the end of 2001 where everyone stops paying attention, so it’s all trippy and cosmic and distracting you from what’s still basically techno-rape. Julie Christie plays alone against a disembodied voice and some props of varying degrees of clunkiness – there is this beautifully designed but slightly wobbly robotic armature made of polyhedral shapes, and this other robot that’s literally a wheelchair with an arm on it – and she acquits herself about as well as anyone could, because she’s Julie Christie and she’s great. Fritz Weaver also gives a fine performance.
To be honest, it's a relief to find a shot at this stage of something other than Julie Christie being violated.
But Demon Seed is troubling, and no well-constructed shot or nuanced performance can get past the heart of it.

It’s not that the film explicitly buys into Proteus’s objectivist rubbish; it’s pretty clear that Susan is the moral heart of it, and the birth of a fully formed child with the voice of a neckbeard is something that no one wants. It’s supposed to be a scary ending.

But Demon Seed wants you to watch this happening. It's sort of shocking that a film this exploitative might be so well designed, directed and played, but there it is. You have to go through the various failed attempts of a helpless woman to escape her confinement. You have to watch her tortured, experimented on, having needles rammed into her hindbrain, and forced to a point of despair where she agrees to losing her bodily autonomy and capitulates to rape. And then the machine survives by becoming the next step of human evolution. And the message of the film, the bleak, miserable future it posits, is the future of Inevitable Neckbeard.

And to remain sane, I’m going to have to reject that. And that's where this particular project is going.

1I don’t know about you but I always find it pretty interesting that a movement based upon the aggressive adoption of illiteracy and the conscious rejection of subtext should have as its foundational metaphor a motif from a movie made by a pair of postmodernist transwomen. (back)