Come Into My Sleep
|Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1994) is a film about the radical substitution of Same by Same, a fable of the Alter Ego – this Alter Ego conceived as the very truth of the Self. The film’s narrative rests on the supplanting of a Mother by a Stepmother. On the basis of that, key motifs displace and replace each other in a malefic circuit of unimaginable substitution. The best example is the cry ‘That isn’t my mummy!’ – yelled by little Andy (Reilly Murphy), the legitimate son, but thought by Marti (Gabrielle Anwar), the adolescent stepdaughter. At the film’s heart, a particular cluster of scenes intensifies such figures of replacement: via development and multiplication, they are incarnated in the weirdest, most fantastic bodies. This seven-and-a-half minute sequence begins forty-two and three-quarter minutes into the film, across Chapters Seventeen, Eighteen and Nineteen of the Warner Bros DVD edition.
1. The original line is: ‘Now there’s no one. You’re all alone. Who’re ya gonna turn to now? Where ya gonna go? Who’re you gonna trust?’
|Marti, a Walkman to her ears, naps in the bath; in the marital bedroom, the stepmother, Carol (Meg Tilly), rubs and massages the father, Steve (Terry Kinney), soothing and helping him drift off to sleep. Thus the ‘snatching’ – requiring the sleep of its victims – can begin. Both Marti in the bathtub and the father in his bed are invaded by the spongy tendrils that suck bodies up, empty them out and replace them with another, substitute body which quickly forms in the image of its ‘model’. Marti, however, suddenly awakes, and her incomplete double crashes down from the false-ceiling into the bath. Marti struggles, rips off the tentacles and flees, while her double – the horrible image of a girl with blank eyes – floats among the domestic debris. Marti runs into her parents’ bedroom, implores her father to wake up, and rips off the sickly-white network of fibres that is currently vampirising him. As Steve rises, his bristly, slimy double suddenly appears, sliding out from under the bed. This thing grabs Marti’s ankle; she gets free, screaming in terror, as the creature folds back into the darkness, leaving only a dark, viscous trail. The impassive stepmother waits for her spouse in the hallway, hoping to convince him to not resist – for life will be beautiful if, like everybody else, he just renounces emotion and individuality. And she recites the bewitching chant that Body Snatchers reworks from a tormented love scene in Budd Boetticher’s The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960): ‘Where you gonna go? Where ya gonna run? Where ya gonna hide? Nowhere. Coz there’s no one ... like you ... left.’ (1) Steve collapses in tears into his wife’s arms. Marti, having collected her half-brother, interrupts the couple, prompting Steve to break from Carol’s menacing, seductive embrace. Marti, Steve and Andy all flee, as the stepmother transforms herself into a screeching Medusa – mouth wide open and index finger pointing, branding the trio with a universal condemnation.
What is the point of this proliferation of spongy creatures? Why these chimeras who make their entrance springing out from under a bed, or falling from the ceiling? Of course, they can be explained away in terms of generic convention, as simple monsters or ghosts. But, equally, it is possible to feel that no apparition here is merely indifferent – leading to the speculation that, the more bizarre things get, the greater the illumination produced. Here, for example, in this logic of the double, we are suddenly confronted by a true figural event: in truth, something does not match. Why is the fantasy derailed in this way? Why risk such incoherence? Must we put it down to the tendency of a dream to fade and disintegrate – or, quite the contrary, is it a doubling of the vigilance which lies at the very heart of this dream? Why, above all, is there this overrunning of the narrative by different physical statuses? Why do these reflections suddenly take the form of rough drafts, sketches, anatomical re-drawings, threatening from every direction (up, down, in, out) the integrity of a body that they return to a state of indescribable fragility? And why do these bodies fall horribly upon other bodies in order to make them scream?
As is insured by the subjective sound of the Walkman, this sequence sits within Marti’s viewpoint in order to elaborate a fantasy-scenario: the creation of an incestuous family. Marti proceeds in three stages. First, she interrupts the ‘primal scene’ not once but twice, first in the parents’ bedroom and then out in the hallway, when she forces Steve to brusquely abandon Carol. Second, she discredits the mother-figure, whom she treats as a Wicked Stepmother and then as, literally, an Alien. Typical maternal tags are inverted into dark threats: telling Marti ‘your tub’s full’, or the little boy ‘get in bed’, amounts to sending them to their death; in this story, the saying ‘night, night’ means ‘die’. It is clear that this process of disqualification is not applied to a specific stepmother, but to an abstract maternal figure: what seems, at the outset, to be the supplanting of mother by stepmother becomes hypothetical and in a deep sense anecdotal, giving rise to a phantasmic scenario that draws everything it treats into an endless circuit. Third, Marti takes Carol’s place: she becomes the mother of her brother, she tends to him, wakes him, takes him in her arms, dresses, carries and rescues him; she earns her new role, becoming the only feminine element in a wholesome family – while the Wicked Stepmother infects the world and all minds with her intolerable presence. However, for such a scenario to reach the stage of fulfilment, procedures of translation, deduction and repetition, tangled up in an intense somatic circuit, must be invented. These procedures are pathways of defiguration, and six such pathways can be discerned in this sequence of Body Snatchers.
1. The Snatching Principle
This is an economical invention involving the absolute alteration-by-substitution of Same by Same. It allows the proliferation of every kind of metamorphosis, since these alterations never truly affect their source. The absence of pathos which, within the fiction, characterises the Body Snatchers species, proves the everyday strangeness of creatures at least as much as it proves the unalterable integrity of those whom the fantasy seeks to devour. It is as if, at the moment of destroying these creatures, the dreamer took care to, above all else, preserve them, sealing them up within themselves like some sacred relic beyond every chance vicissitude.
2. Creation of Somatic Echoes
A system of visual and sonic echoes is established between father and daughter, linking and relating them in a powerful manner. They are both nude: the daughter in her bath, the father in his bed. They are both immersed in an aqueous/watery situation – the daughter in the soapy water, the father anointed by the massage oil which evokes an evil potion – and both times this has been prepared by the mother with her witch-like locks. Their simultaneous falling-asleep plunges them into a situation of dreaming, aided by two aural forms of hypnosis: the music on the Walkman for Marti and the mother’s lullaby of ‘I love you, too’ for Steve, loving declarations and caresses functioning as so many invitations to death. Finally, Marti and Steve are in two, contiguous spaces: Marti’s snatcher comes from above, falling from the roof, while Steve’s snatcher emerges from the floor under the bed – like two sides of the one, cleaved figure. In short, the film works to conjoin father and daughter.
2. Hesiod and Theognis (trans. Dorothea Wender), Theogony, Works and Days & Elegies (London: Penguin, 1973), pp. 64-5.
3. For further analysis of this, cf. Nicole Brenez (trans. Adrian Martin), Abel Ferrara (Illinois University Press, forthcoming).
3. Invention of Paradoxical Bodies
The sequence produces three paradoxical bodies. Firstly, two recognisable bodies. The double from which the terrified Marti flees amounts to an unfinished corpse; while Steve’s double resembles an old man as yet unborn – a biological inversion whose imaginary recalls Hesiod’s description of the Iron Age, the last era in which the world was invaded by the negative, men being born in their senile form and living out their lives backwards. (2) Here, we must note a fascinating oddity: contrary to the other snatchers, who form themselves in a precise mimesis, the father’s double does not resemble him at all. He is an old man, an ancestral figure, whose wrinkled, sticky appearance evokes bodily putrefaction and liquefaction far more than any blooming. (In fact, if he resembles anyone, it would have to be Abel Ferrara) (3) This double serves to emphasise, by contrast, the father’s extreme youthfulness, easily paired with his daughter by virtue of his rather adolescent character (imputed, by the soldiers at the military installation where he has moved with his family, to a hangover from his days as a leftist ecologist). According to this initial figurative choice, the father can pass for his daughter’s fiancé; but here, more violently still, he also becomes her son. He must be lulled to sleep, he does not like to be in bed alone, he cannot bother looking after Andy, he cries in his woman’s arms – in short, his irresponsible behaviour infantilises him, while Marti affirms herself as the head of the family. But the strangest and most paradoxical figure of all is the intermediary body between father and daughter. The golden-hued shots of silent, embryonic gestation work as a linkage between low and high, daughter and father – we cannot say which snatching they belong to, they produce a body-too-much, a body which displaces more than it replaces. This figure represents, all at once: the crux of the problem ‘what is a body, what is there between bodies?’; the incest-monster; an indistinct body between bodies; and, already, the child which is the fruit of incest. This is a pure figure of the forbidden, and of what is beyond the Self – a psychic complex on which Body Snatchers elaborates a direct, detailed and critical description.
4. Investigation into the Symbolic of Organicity
Don Siegel and Philip Kaufman alike – in their previous versions (1956 and 1978, respectively) of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers story which, as Ferrara justly said, should be remade every few years – privileged ellipsis and enigma: is this body which has suddenly turned up again the Same, or now an Other? Should we trust the evidence of our senses, or intuition? Ferrara, by contrast, uses metamorphosis and mystery: he renders the physical detail of mutation visually, diving into the most secret parts of the body, exposing its folds, strata and substance, in images which return to the remarkable iconographic invention in the depiction of the cosmic migration of vegetable-extraterrestrials that opened Kaufman’s film. Using the same Special Effects expert (Tom Burman), Ferrara’s film explicitly presents itself as a ‘graft’: it absorbs the heritage bequeathed by its predecessors (the paranoiac narrative), but it opens up the core hitherto left obscure, i.e., the trial involved in having a body, including the experience of encountering the body of an Other.
At least five traits characterise the treatment of organicity in Body Snatchers – starting with the primal agony associated with orifices. Visible orifices: nose, mouth, ears, eyes, which one blocks/stuffs during an embalming so as to halt the process of corruption, and which are here the openings into which the trembling, other-worldly rootlets infiltrate themselves. Invisible orifices: Carol’s oily caress renders Steve’s entire body porous, opens it at every point, massage becoming kneading, a sculpting which offers the body up to the ‘unformed’. Of course, the aim is to send someone asleep – but, more than that, to defigure him. The shot where the camera tips over in order to demonstrate the unformed aspect of the back being moulded by the mother – inevitably evoking the prologue of Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) – indicates that the film deliberately places itself on the side of fantasy. In a monstrous enlargement, the paternal pores are reprised by the holes in the roof which allow the crawling tentacles to filter through to the daughter: an imaginary of penetration as rape fills the entire space.
Next, the organic substance itself undergoes a profoundly archaic treatment. Here, the body does not comprise a structure of flesh and bone, but a mix of aquatic plants, bulbs and filaments which confuse three primeval substances: plasma, placenta and plankton. Plasma: the film’s gestation shots exhibit the plastic virtues of opalescent and viscous liquid, the germinating aspect, the complex organic structure, and of course the fact that it is the repository of hereditary characteristics. Placenta: the images exhibit a fleshy, spongy mass and, above all, this essential phenomenon of representing an ‘originating organ’ that is half-fśtal and half-maternal, i.e., it is the only intermediary organ: it belongs to two bodies simultaneously and guarantees the transition between them. Plankton: the images exhibit the capacity to displace themselves, the transparency, the coexistence of animal and vegetable as well as the possible possession of venomous organs, thus introducing death into this ensemble of vital, fertile materials. Overall, the gestation shots mingle, indistinctly, phylogenesis (formation of a species) and ontogenesis (formation of an individual) – a confusion that occurs due to the vegetable biological model of germination. The image of the embryo thus refers, simultaneously, to the human species in general and to the archaeology of life, a complex of abstract, animal and vegetable characteristics which inform (obscurely) the human. Reinscribed within this remarkable fantasy-circuit, the biological imagery also assumes a psychic signification: a dream of incest devouring humanity since the dawn of time. On this level, the embryo in Body Snatchers forms a figurative diptych with the embryo in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): Kubrick’s Astral Fśtus points to the future, new beginning, becoming; while Ferrara’s inchoate creature returns us to life’s origins, the archaic, malediction.
|4. ‘That which is the object of sight is the visible, and this kind of object comprises both colour and something which though it can be given by an account has no name.’ Aristotle (trans. Hugh-Lawson Tancred), De Anima (On the Soul) (London: Penguin, 1986), p. 173. Phosphorescent bodies are this ‘kind of object’ – paradoxical bodies, since they only become visible in the dark.
|But this archaic imagery floats within an ultra-modern chromatism. The fluorescent tints derive not only from natural phosphorescence (always, moreover, the sign of an event within the dimension of the visible), (4) but also from neon lights, atomic radiation and fission. These very modern yellow-green colours redistribute the motifs according to at least three effects, expressing: the contemporaneity of this affective archaism in our psychic economy; the blinding nature of fantasy; and the fact that we must henceforth re-view humanity in the poisoned light of Hiroshima, Minamata and Chernobyl.
There is neither contradiction nor tension, quite the contrary: the equivalence of archaic and modern is affirmed particularly by the visual echo established between the black cords of the Walkman and the milky snatching-threads that vibrate in unison around Marti’s face. This analogy allows us to simultaneously insist on the subjective, oneiric nature of the phenomenon, as well as resolve the co-presence of these symbolic elements: it is a matter of observing the resurgence of the archaic within the materiality of the modern world.
The final major element which the sequence uses to treat organicity is also modern: the plastic sheath within which the snatchers grow, at once a layer of glazed gelatine and a hermetic canvas to cover the corpse. In this transparent, crinkled top-layer, which stifles and protects at the same time, the body is packed, stored, congealed, industrialised, shielded from contagion by microbes. But in this case, what is packed and conserved is contamination itself, the propagation of a complex, nasty proliferation. The invention of such a substance allows the film to tackle the ambiguous status of protection, which is simultaneously necessary and asphyxiating. This difficulty relates both to a typical adolescent torment (how to put up with one’s parents) and an extremely timely industrial problem – namely, the fact that conservation metamorphoses and destroys life as much as it preserves it from corruption. Where, in our industrialised world, do we locate toxicity? In the microbes, or the preservatives? Body Snatchers tackles head-on this new but henceforth terribly ordinary question.
5. Anatomical Circulation
Ear, torso, back, mouth: Body Snatchers makes these body-parts the object of some unforgettable shots. But the circulation privileges two organs that possess a particularly powerful symbolic value: eye and hand. The circuit of the eye is rich in paradox. It starts with Marti’s closed eyes as she sleeps: the images derive from someone who is not looking. It continues with the embryo’s gestating eyes: on the basis of mental images, a gaze forms itself – these images are always watching us. This subject-less look refers ahead to the preceding sscene, a shot/reverse shot volley, combined with a tracking-in movement, alternating between a white mother (Carol) and a hitherto unseen black mother (there is no doubt as to this identity, as she carries a child in her arms), which ends on an extreme close-up of Carol’s eyes: at the very basis of life, there subsists and stirs the horror of having a mother – a mother who may herself be good, but is in a sense inevitably bad in that she represents the unpayable debt incurred by our coming into the world. Like Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Body Snatchers confronts the anguish of filiation; but while De Palma chose the motif of blood to explore this theme, Ferrara picks a much more problematic motif: the placenta, laying an eminently concrete physiological foundation for this horror of having a body-in-common ... The third gaze belongs to Carol’s empty eyes, a figure of self-absence. Thus, mother and daughter each introduce, in their own fashion, an antithetical hallucination: Marti lets defiguring transference proliferate, while Carol actively unleashes the proliferation of exact sameness – her final Pythian discourse announcing the rule of universal resemblance, uniform and unstoppable. The figure of Marti thus represents image-as-complex, i.e., as the personalised proliferation of alteration; while the figure of Carol represents image-as-copy, the invasion of the image-as-sameness, and this same image absolutely everywhere (narrativised as the body snatchers’ military takeover of the world) ... Finally, the film scarcely needs to emphasise Marti’s wide-open eyes as she takes in the sight of her parents in their disquieting clinch. What obviously disappears from this circuit is the possibility of an ordinary gaze, a gaze which would adapt ‘appropriately’ to the exterior world in order to allow difference.
The circuit of the hand is no less fertile. It begins with Carol’s caresses. Then, the first identifiable ‘extremity’ on the gestating body is a hand with outstretched fingers – pointing to a dimension of the creation of life which is, in this instance, mythological. The hand of Steve’s corpse-like double which grips Marti’s ankle: the only tactile relation between father and daughter, and the single note of terror in this film of anguish, picturing incest as an intolerable grasp. The sequence ends on Carol’s pointed finger, paired with her cry of damnation. But, more generally, the prehensile organs anamorphose and extend themselves in this slimy network of snatching which empties out being: they manifest the contact-phobia which is exacerbated at the onset of adolescence, when it becomes difficult to bear one’s own body, let alone the bodies of others. The insistence on the hand, as physical organ and as the bearer of gesture, allows the posing of the issue of power as hold: the threatening hold of the outer world over the inner world; and the hold of fantasy over reality – and vice versa.
6. A Plastique of Permeability
Body Snatchers thus represents a vertiginous investigation into the permeability of phenomena. The snatching principle allows an exteriorisation of organic human networks, in two senses: it surveys the various corporeal networks (viscera, nervous system, musculature, etc); and it metaphorises the movement of substances, whether as circulation (blood, nerves) or as transformation (corruption, gestation). The body’s interior is no longer offered via a cutaway diagram, but as a rhizome. Why? Because what is brought to light subordinates this corporeal imagery to a fantasy logic, and because the human body is no longer given as an objective thing but as the primary material of dreaming. Here, in fact, it is impossible to find any trace of the ‘flesh itself’, only its somatisation – i.e., the restitution of the work of the imaginary upon the body: desire for penetration, incestuous desire, maternal desire. Laying bare the workings of fantasy in this way conjures a monster, which can be glimpsed in the improper translations, the unexpected linkages (eg, from high to low), the impossible figures (the incomplete corpse or the born-dead old man in whom one can perhaps glimpse the end-point of this fantasy – Marti aborting her own father). The last word of the film recycles Carol’s line: ‘There’s no one like you left.’ This sums up the problem of singularity – ‘this body is mine, I am this body, there will never be another’, the singularity of the Person is irremediable, and experiences itself as tragically isolated – which the film converts into a story of paranoia. But the opposing prospect – ‘I am every Other’ – is equally impossible, since (as the film shows) the individual remains haunted by a dream of fusion, represented in this sequence by the incest fantasy and, more generally, by a nightmare of interconnection where the individual is plugged (even despite itself) into anything and anybody, to the point of delirium and exhaustion.
Thus, the use of the double exhumes what is unavowable, by redistributing corporeal signs and assuring the indistinction of reality and dream (somatisation). In this figurative economy, the film’s political dimension – i.e., its critical treatment of the exigency of physiological and mental mutation demanded of Civilised Man in an industrialised and militarised world – makes its presence felt at the level of phantasmic intimacy. But, above all, it is the work of images envisaged as prototypes of possible relations which, in Body Snatchers, rigorously articulates a hypothesis concerning the existence of a somatic archive, and a reflection (of an anthropological order) on what threatens our species.
|Translation from the French © Adrian Martin 2005. Excerpted from the introduction to De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L’invention figurative au cinéma (Brussels: De Boeck, 1998).
© Nicole Brenez 1998. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author.