Monday 23 July 2018

The Question in Bodies #16: The Cell (2000)

I went to see The Cell in the cinema on its initial release. At the time, I really wanted to see what a horror film directed by the bloke who directed the video for “Losing My Religion” looked like.

As it turns out, it looks a lot like the video for “Losing My Religion”, only much longer and with a somewhat higher number of dismembered horses.

Consider this - consider this.

I remember thinking that was all there was to it, some really amazing visuals attached to a paper-thin plot, all style and no substance, but that I also quite enjoyed it, so maybe it might have fallen into the “so bad it's good” camp because of its high weirdness quotient.

Over the years I've changed my tune with regard to how I watch film. “Style over substance” and “so bad it's good” are both, as you might already know if you're a regular reader, clich├ęs that I no longer have much time for. Style is substance. Images supply all sorts of associations; they are the vehicles for story and meaning. Hell, that's how film works. And as far as the other one goes, I think there are bad films and I think there are good films and I think there are indifferent films, and I think that we need to just own things for what they are, and own up to liking things for what they are. Having said that, personally I have a “so weird it's good” category, as readers of We Don't Go Back – available very soon! – will know.

And The Cell, it's definitely weird, but is it weird enough to be good? And the answer is, almost. See, it has this unfortunate tendency to insist on grounding things, to try to bring things back to the mundane; and that's ridiculous, because OK, the film happens in a real world and a dream world, and the classic tactic would be to play up the madness of the dream world as a contrast with the real. But it doesn't work. The Cell has in fact two real worlds: a psychology lab and an FBI investigation. But both of these premises are themselves pretty wild, not unbelievable or inconsistent in their own terms, but difficult to reconcile with each other.

In making both the mundane and the dreamlike wild, you run the risk of making it all mundane. 
That's me in the corner.
So there's this laboratory which enables the psychologists working there to enter other people's dreams; no one is a hundred percent sure that what they do even works, and funding might soon be cut. Meanwhile, the FBI are tracking down serial killer Carl Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio). Stargher abducts women, takes them to a fairly remote abandoned industrial building and imprisons them in a little room with reinforced glass walls (the eponymous cell), which, after about 40 hours of CCTV-recorded psychological torment, has this automated feature which floods the cell, drowning the woman. Stargher then messes with each of his deceased victims in some exceptionally weird ways, which involves him hooking himself up to some very specialist machinery, before disposing of her. At the start of the movie, we see him violating and disposing of a fresh corpse and then finding another victim. But his new victim puts up a little more of a fight, and he is sloppy, and the FBI are on his trail.

The agents run the man to ground, but at the precise moment they raid his flat, Stargher has a seizure and goes into a coma; we discover that he has a neurological disorder and that this was always waiting to happen. So of course the FBI ring the psychology lab, because entering the mindscapes of comatose patients is what they're doing, and – it's a long shot! (It's always a long shot) – get a child psychologist to explore the oneiric space of a serial killer.

This is a tortuous setup, and of course it exists entirely to get us to the meat of the film, which is the literally surreal exploration of a serial killer’s subconscious.
Like a hurt, lost and blinded fool.
Although easily as baroque in structure as Stargher’s MO, The Cell follows its own rules strictly. Every plot development is meticulously set up, and explained and foreshadowed and lands exactly as it should. So early on, the scientists talk about how they have three places to get hooked up to the dream machine thing, and there's some dialogue about why they don't use the third set of equipment, and you know that it's going to get used by the end of the film, but that's all right, because that's better than coming out of nowhere and saying, “Oh look, here's a third set of equipment.” and The Cell is full of fairly straightforward plot developments like that. The film says, “Here is a thing,” and half an hour later, it says to you, “Hey, remember that thing? Here is where that thing comes in.” And I think that works in the film's favour. With a premise that's so twisty turny that it sorely taxes suspension of disbelief already, and its succession of nightmarish Foucaultian images, The Cell needs to have a fairly solid base on which to ground itself.

And the problem with The Cell is nonetheless that the two parts of the “real” world we see need to interact with the dream. And if you've seen The Cell, then you at this point know what I've been avoiding talking about and where I'm going next.

Each of the two sides of the “real” world has its representative, who serves as a protagonist, and who is framed as a sympathetic, competent and compassionate figure who we are supposed to be rooting for, and each of these of these protagonists is conceived as a character who can supply a challenge to the messed up psyche of Carl Stargher: psychologist Catherine Deane (Jennifer Lopez) and FBI agent Peter Novak (Vince Vaughan).

It's the easiest thing in the world to make a judgement based on the presence of Jennifer Lopez, but this was a film made in 2000, when Lopez was still primarily known as an actor, and as a pretty good one, having made a particular impact as George Clooney’s romantic foil in Out of Sight (1998). And Lopez gives a good performance, and importantly she has the presence to sell herself as a being of the earth, and a being of dreams. She's framed as a figure of unearthly natural beauty, and let's face it, Jennifer Lopez is about the only actor I can think of for whom “unearthly natural beauty” isn't an oxymoronic statement. And she has presence and talent, and she pulls it off, and it's irksome (and sort of suspicious frankly) that Jennifer Lopez seems to be the first point of criticism for most of the people who don't rate The Cell, when it's a film with Vince Vaughan in it.
I thought that I heard you laughing.
And here's the thing with Vince Vaughan. He’s a comic actor,  and he comes across as an average sort of bloke. That's his thing, his schtick; he's so aggressively ordinary that he's made entire movies that hinge on his ordinariness (for example as the leader of the Average Joes in Dodgeball (2004), which is totally one of my Guilty Pleasure Movies). And in order to sell the otherworldly, you have have a little of the otherworldly in you, and he doesn't. So, later in the film when Catherine loses her self to darkness and Peter, as the one man who understands Stargher, has to enter the dream realm after her, you see him surrounded by all this weird stuff, and he just deflates it. Inexplicable images assail him and he blinks, and shrugs, as if to say, “Oh. OK.” And it doesn't work.

And man, those inexplicable images. Here's where The Cell is at its best. So Catherine enters the comatose Stargher’s dream. The killer's personality is fractured – of course it is. He appears both as a little boy (Jake Thomas) and as a series of monstrous, powerful figures (D’Onofrio in various guises). And you see the kid, terrified and terrorised, running from the other imaginary self, the inhuman overlord. Catherine witnesses scenes of terrible abuse in the memory of Stargher’s inner child.

The inner child is one of the foundational concepts of therapy, and here it's made into an actual character: the serial killer literally has a child in his mind, running scared from the bloody images of control and sex that litter the man's psyche. And this is where the film does succeed on all of its levels, as Catherine seeks to engage with and gain the trust of the killer’s inner child as a way to find out where the trapped woman is, before the taps open and she dies.
The lengths that I will go to.
And of course it doesn't immediately work. Her first sojourn into Stargher’s psyche confronts her with so many nightmarish images that, when faced with his perception of himself as a sort of inhuman overlord, she has to get out. Peter talks her into going back in, and this second time she's caught and lost in the man's dream, becomes part of it, signified by his putting a collar around her neck.

And this is horrible, because the next time we see Catherine, she is a blank-faced mindless slave in a sort of futuristic harem. This is the poster image of the film, very much a “What were they thinking?” moment for me. Thankfully, the full import of what this means isn't spelled out, even if it is obvious, and I suppose it's redeemed a little by Catherine recovering her agency and for it being she who rescues Peter, who has ventured into the dream to rescue her. But still, it carries all the signifiers of rape and abuse, without needing to portray it fully.

That third venture into Stargher’s subconscious supplies Peter with the information necessary to find the missing woman and rescue her before she dies. Meanwhile, now we have a dream where Catherine brings the murderer into her own subconscious.

This is one of the most interesting parts of the film, because we see Catherine's psyche awash with the hypersaturated iconography of Latin-American Catholicism. She appears as a virgin saint; she appears as an avenging angel. Gold leaf unscrolls around the edges of the screen itself. She exists within an icon and as an icon.

Now a lazy reading of this would be to assume that we're no longer even pretending she's the psychologist, she's just J-Lo being J-Lo, and Jennifer Lopez is an undeniable icon who had already pretty much achieved that iconic status even then. But that's not fair either to her, as the talented performer she in fact always has been, or to the part she's playing in the film.
It's bigger than you (and you are not me).
This was during a period of Lopez’s career where she – probably still the most famous artist of Puerto Rican descent – worked very hard not to be typecast. And here she's playing a character called Catherine Deane, which is a very white name. But the character's self-identification here raises the issue of heritage.

Catherine’s Latin American heritage has had literally no impact on how she has been portrayed as a character up to this point, but now we see how much it affects who she is. This is how she identifies. It's a part of her. Now the way that Americans construct racial politics is, for me, not an American, so far outside of any area of expertise I have it's probably not even funny how wrong I get this sometimes. But it strikes me that this scene is somehow done right.

The Cell is pretty clear on the point that we're shaped by our upbringing. Stargher is the product of brutally abusive fundamentalism; Catherine's heritage is Latin Catholicism, which for a surprising number of people is the Best Catholicism. The doctrinal content of these two varieties of Christianity is irrelevant here, but the sorts of communities they nourish and the people they create is the crux on which the dream-conflict between the child psychologist and the killer rests.
Oh come on, I wouldn't be that obvious.
Both Catherine Deane and Carl Stargher are products of Christian communities, but both also at least aspire to transhumanism. Stargher has rings embedded in his flesh that connect him to the machine that he uses to get his thrills; Catherine has a chip implanted in her hand that allows her to control her interactions with the virtual reality/dream setup. Both Catherine and Stargher hang in midair when they are connected to their respective devices: I think you're supposed to draw the parallel.

And The Cell puts forward the interesting idea that for transhumanism to be viable, we have to be whole humans first. Catherine Deane’s dreamscape is her own, an integrated core of identity where she's whole and able to draw strength from her heritage, a heritage which the people she works with don't necessarily take into account, but which nonetheless make her who she is, and which supplies her with an iconography that supports a working transhumanism. Carl Stargher’s identity, built on misery and abuse, is fractured. His interaction with his own machine, which is framed as oily, grinding gears and tortured flesh, is characterised by pain. His life is pain, his desires are pain.

Pain is not an excuse. And Catherine must deal with the killer. She is an angel of mercy for the child; she is an angel of wrath for the monster. And then, having defeated the monster, she is an angel of mercy again, and as an angel of mercy, she ends the life of the adult Carl Stargher, the child and the beast. And it's framed as an act of compassion, but it's still essentially an execution. His was a life born in pain and violence that brought more pain and violence. Even a serial killer has an inner child, but that doesn't stop them being a serial killer, and doesn't mitigate the consequences of what they have done. Understanding, although essential, cannot constitute an excuse or justify a pardon.
Hint of the century.
I think time has been kind to The Cell. It seems a better film now than when I first saw it, and certainly one with more to say, and more truth to it. But it's still not, in the end, a great film. And I think if I'm honest, the analysis I've given it is more applicable to the film that they tried to make rather than the one they actually made. The one we have, for all of its powerful symbolism, thoughtfulness and good intentions, is a bit of a disjointed mess that tries to get you to buy Vince Vaughan as a charismatic, compassionate figure capable of straddling the world of waking and the world of dreams, and that's the most surreal and disconcerting image in the whole thing.

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