Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 3/3

While the main thematic issues of Code 46 are hardly new or surprising, (although the relatively evenhanded way in which it tackles them is novel), the way it portrays its state and its control is unusually nuanced. Unlike many other tales of dystopian governments the state is abstracted from human beings. Similarly the way it maintains control over its populace is subtle and calls to mind the theory of governmentally. Finally its sexism, while not commented on directly in the film, is insidious.

The state in Code 46 is not associated with one human being. There is no dictator, no Emperor Palpatine on whom we can pin the malevolence of the government. Indeed there isn't even a government suggested or shown to absorb our outrage. Oppression is not the work of one man in Code 46, rather it is the result of the employees of the state who have internalised the discourses on which its control rests.

Code 46 gives us some remarkable sketches of government bureaucrats. Despite limited screen time each one is given as distinct a personality as possible. There's the warm, slightly shy woman at the company who is determined to be as polite as possible, the man with learning difficulties and the bored woman pissed off at her work. Yet despite their individuality they, and their less remarkable compatriot at the gene center, are determined to keep to their script and follow their processes - no matter how much sympathy they may have for Robbin's character. They have a job to do and they will do it to the letter, even small and ultimately harmless disturbances such as Robbin dodging the normal entry procedures for the Papel company are unwelcome deviations that put their jobs, and their ordered lives, in danger.

The occasional, undramatic, shifts to the POV of a security camera remind us that these characters are being watched. And they know it. Should some slip-up occur there is always the possibility that someone could go back through that footage and find them wanting. However this is more a subtle, cheap threat then the clear and present danger it turns out to be in many other films. There are no scenes of government agents watching the footage - no one needs to waste the money employing such persons when the threat is enough.

A similarly subtle threat is the presence of those on the outside. For a society so concerned with the welfare of its citizens it might seem odd that the government chooses to let these people languish outside the metropolises with only their ability to make do and sell trinkets to those on the inside. These people serve as a warning for those under the protection of the state - if you don't live by our laws you won't receive our benefits and this is what happens to those not under our protection.

And those most likely to be punished for their transgressions would appear to be women and lower class workers. It takes two people to create a fetus and yet it is Morton's character who bears the brunt of both punishments - she has the memory of the affair wiped from her mind and her fetus aborted. He, on the other hand, is not even given an explicit warning. Similarly he, the initiator of their second round of civil disobedience, whose breaking of laws was caught on camera, is judged simply to have misplaced his judgement, while she is exiled. The film never lays out explicitly whether the difference in their treatment is the result of her class or sex and its difficult to untangle the two: certainly the degree of control exercised over Morton's body would suggest the latter, but in Robbin's treatment there are intimations of the former - one suspects both played a role.

The laws of Code 46's society are not enforced by expensive, inefficient tools such as thugs in uniform, indeed the movie goes out of its way to remove any traces of the government agents who presumably investigated the case, arrested Morton and retrieved the lovers from the car crash. Instead control is maintained in a more Orwellian way: by ideas of how society is to be run and how citizens are to behave that are deeply ingrained.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 2/3

The state of Code 46 is, to a large extent, a totalitarian one. It maintains strict control over both the travel and reproduction of its citizens. It is not however, the wholly nefarious entity so typical of science fiction dystopias. It is not controlling its citizen's lives in order to fulfill its own selfish desires for capital or power. Neither is it unsympathetic towards its citizens: while it may act contrary to their desires it does so in order to protect what it considers to be their best interests - travel restrictions for example serve the function of protecting public health. For Robbin's character it fulfills the functions traditionally given to the wife in infidelity dramas. It is the loving, nurturing, familiar embrace of a life partner: an embrace that can also begin to feel stifling.

However it's not simply designed to serve a dramatic function: it's also intended as a comment on the nature of state power and that long-running debate as to just how large government should be and how much control it should have over our lives. In Code 46 the conflict between the state and the individual is expressed in individuals who desire something dangerous or forbidden, who know and acknowledge the potential consequences and yet are determined to fulfill their desire anyway - having reasoned that the benefits outweigh the potential consequences. In doing so they are set against a state which believes the risks to the individual, and potentially the broader society, are too great to risk.

Unusually for a western dystopia the film does not come down firmly on the liberal side of the argument. On the one hand Damian's caving expedition does offer him a sense of joy and fulfillment that his ordinary life does not. However in a stark warning to our newly corrupt protagonist his medical condition does rear its head in a brutal fashion and he dies in agony on a hotel room floor: his bats unseen, his desire unfulfilled. It's difficult to argue that the state's judgement was wrong - although whether keeping such a tight leash on the population as a whole is worth avoiding occasional accidental deaths is something that liberal viewers could be expected to question.

And it's something that the second rebellion does question more starkly. Despite the fact that their incestuous love is breaking every taboo in the book one can't help but wonder just how convincing the argument against it is in this future society. The presence of large numbers of clones suggests that reproduction is no longer solely and perhaps is rarely the result of intercourse, contraception is highly effective and there's no suggestion that abortions have any sort of stigma attached to them. Furthermore the unsettling emotional territory of the boundaries of family relationships being crossed is nearly entirely removed. Does the state forbid such contact to maintain social cohesion?

In any case the film makers do attempt to make the viewers sympathize with the lover's plight - something of a Herculean task given that, in opposition to standard dystopian tropes, their relationship (adulterous, incestuous) is something that even a modern viewer in a liberal nation would struggle to cope with and which is outlawed in most (all?) nations in which they live. The question it raises is that, even if the government is right, does it have the right to extend its control into such personal areas in such an all encompassing and unsettling manner?

(The way the state is portrayed as diffuse and yet is humanised and the way its control manifests itself are subjects for part 3)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The BIFF so far...

Main Slate (Fiction)
Main Slate (Documentaries)
Notes: As promised the early focus looks to be on films with some youth appeal (Kaboom and Heartbeats both feature youths negotiating relationship shenanigans and We Are What We Are is a classy horror pic) and documentaries (I can't use the word non-fiction in relation to film docs anymore). It's hard to complain about the narrow focus given that the films have attracted positive and intriguing notices and that this is only the small fraction of the overall line-up. But maybe I'm just responding that way because I'm in the target audience.

For film neophytes like myself it's not immediately obvious that The Red Shoes is there as a tie-in for the Jack Cardiff doc but he is, of course, best known for his work on that film. Whatever the case I haven't seen enough classics (or indeed enough films!) and I'm looking forward to seeing Cardiff's reportedly sublime colours on a big screen.

Pre-Festival Scribbling: Code 46 - 1/3

Code 46 is unusual in that it refuses to utilise the expected source of conflict in narratives about infidelity. Traditionally a story of adultery revolves around a character's choice to either continue their long established, comfortable yet possibly stifling relationship with a loving wife (and often family) or to indulge in a more passionate romance with an exciting outsider. However this particular conflict is never pushed to the forefront in Code 46.

While Robbin's character insists that he loves his child and tells his wife he loves her, the evidence for their hold on his psyche is very thin on the ground. His home life is shown, when it is shown at all, to be pleasant enough but if it is pleasant then it is also nondescript. Interactions with his family are limited to functional language, "When will you be home?" or lightly cliched expressions of an emotional bond that is never convincingly expressed. Neither his wife nor his son emerge as anything more than archetypes: they represent, rather than embody, their roles.

When contrasted against his interactions with Morton's character the shallow attraction of his home life can only feel thinner. Their conversation revolves around more idiosyncratic matters; her recurring dreams, his childhood toys. Through such interactions they emerge as distinct people. Morton's character is not "the lover". Instead she evidences a unique inner life as someone who vicariously lives out a sense of adventure, who is disappointed in the banality of most of her surrounds and who is deeply afraid of empty spaces.

The camera and set design also work to accentuate their attraction while playing down Robbin's theoretical domestic bliss. The clean, modernist surfaces in Robbin's apartment are shot with a relatively static camera. In contrast the alternating homely and gritty environments of the apartments, streets, cafes and clubs in which Robbins' and Morton's characters fall in love are on occasion shot more adventurously - the obvious example being the slow-motion POV shot of Morton's angelic, alien face under disco lights. Robbins' wife's conventional haircut, clothing and surrounds cannot, and were never meant to, compete.

It's made conspicuously clear that there is no inner torment in this affair - or rather that the torment doesn't stem from the traditional dichotomy of a stable, loving family facing off against an exciting new interloper. This is despite the case that, confusingly enough, such a dichotomy does exist in the narrative even though it's not mined for its dramatic potential. The wronged woman is a player in the story but she barely exists as even a sketch of a woman. Instead it's the more nebulous wronged state that functions in place of the wronged woman. An eminently suitable (this is, after all, a dystopian science fiction romance) but easily misunderstood substitution. (tbc in 2/3).