The fifth panel was a diverse group, consisting of three people presenting their papers and one discussant.
The first presenter was Robyn Citizen, presenting on the role black women play in science fiction. She discussed three films: Alien vs. Predator; Children of Men; and Les Saignantes. A particularly intresting point as relates to Rick Altman’s “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” was how she defined the genre of horror the elimination of the “other,” rather than the negotiation of the “other,” as she defines science fiction. This contradicts the paradigm that I had previously established, which dealt with Altman’s article, and how the semantics of the film, the units that are present, and syntax, how these units are arranged, work together to define the genre. It does seem a much more simple classification to view it this way, except there are films where there is no “other” to exterminate or negotiate with, which causes problems with this view.
Citizen lays out certain roles that black people tend to fill in science fiction movies. If it is a black woman, they are often hypersexualized and end up with a white male. As a black male, which most blacks in these movies are male, they usually are expendable in the fight against the alien/monster/other. In Alien vs. Predator, the black woman is (spoiler alert!) the sole survivor of the game between Aliens and Predators. The movie associates women and the monster and creates a new human mythology, what she refers to as proto-C0lonialism, with the Predators having colonized earth. In Children of Men, the black woman of African and pregnant. The pregnancy of this African woman is supposed to reference the start of humanity in Africa.
The final movie that was discussed was Les Saignantes, a film from Cameroon. She descries the movie as particularly interesting due to having two black female protagonists. They are hypersexualized in the film, but the characters are prostitutes by profession in an environment where they have little to no power. The film is about these girls using the power that they do have in a corrupted government setting of Cameroon. Citizen chose this film to discuss because it was from an African country, and comparing the portrayal of black females in this film to those of American films would draw interesting parallels.
The next panelist, Víctor Goldgel-Carballo, discussed the films Estrellas and El Nexo. He posed the question, “Why do aliens never land in a slum?” His discussion of these films dealt primarily with poverty. The characters from the slums save the world from aliens by throwing “rotten water” (feces and water) on them from the rooftops. The discussion of this film dealt with the poverty, but also with the function of science fiction as a genre, with aliens helping to reconfigure marginalized sectors as a center in history. Parallels between the aliens and real historical events were drawn, such as when people from the slum threw oil from the rooftops onto the English. Goldgel-Carballo also pointed out how science fiction has the power to point out irony and cynicism of poverty, for example in the last scene of Estrellas, where the main character and his wife are shown living luxuriously, driving a car and drinking.
Matthew Goodwin then discussed labor’s role in science fiction. The film he discussed was Sleep Dealer, a Mexican film. He discussed how the people in the film performed work through a virtual reality, a metaphor for colonization. A quote from the movie claimed “We give the US what they’ve always wanted. All the work without the workers.” Goodwin points out many things that may not be obvious to a viewer of the movie not familar with Mexican culture or cinema, including the references of Coyotecs in the film to coyotes, an allegory for migration. One scene that was presented showed one worker who was injured and blinded while working, and how this was parallel to the real-life injuries that Mexican workers can get at their jobs in the US. Goodwin posed several questions about the main character and his job, such as “What is real about his migration and his labor?” and the issue of what to call these people? Virtual migrants?
The discussant, David Wittenberg, asked questions about these films and the papers, after which the audience posed questions for them as well. Some of the most interesting questions posed were:
Who controls the means of production that produces the means of production? (Who creates these robots that are controlled through virtual reality by these Mexican workers, as well as who creates the virtual reality equipment that controls these robots?)
Why does the equipment that the Mexicans are using appear high-tech, but the robots that are controlled look so rundown? This was answered by talking about how the robot we saw was in a construction site, and how this affected appearances.
Does it matter the gender of the operator of the robots? Now, it is mostly men who would do heavy lifting and labor, and women may be nannies, but if they are only controlling robots that do the “real” work, then is there still a gender divide?
What is the ramification of two protagonists?
Unfortunately for me, I have not seen any of the six movies discussed at the panel. It is interesting to see how the idea of these different tropes of science fiction can be viewed through different lenses. A dystopian society movie can be viewed as a statement on migration. Alien invasion movies can make statements about the fringe groups of society, blackness, and poverty. I hope to find a copy of these papers to read myself again as I do find and watch these movies so that I can process more of the ideas and themes presented at this panel.
Sleep Dealer is a sci-fi experience that deals with so many different topics in today’s world. The film shots make the viewer feel as though they are actually in Santa Ana, a small pueblo in Mexico. Memo Cruz is desperate to see what else there is to the world other than the small Santa Ana pueblo he lives in. From watching the film, the small town in which Memo lives in is what causes him to thirst to the technology he doesn’t have. “Nodes” can give you so much opportunity to accomplish anything you desire, and Memo wants them badly. Throughout his journey to fulfill the emptiness he feels from not belonging, he finds out maybe it isn’t all that great to be so technologically advanced like the rest of the people in Tijuana, Mexico.
This film, although about technology, deals with so many other issues many Hispanics deal with. Coming from a Hispanic family, so many things in this film reminded me of my own childhood. Memo sends money to his family and they depend on it. Finding jobs in different cities due to the lack of work if one’s own city is something which happens daily and Rivera did an excellent job of portraying the realism families go through when a member leaves the home to provide for everyone else. Rivera stated in the Q&A that past and present are very important in this film because slowly the past start catching up to Memo and he tries to belong to a society that is so unfamiliar to him.
Rivera also stated that coming from a Hispanic family helped make this film what it is. To me this film not only symbolized tremendous advances in technology, but also family and cultural unity. Rivera also mentioned that he had done previous documentaries of Hispanic immigrants and it also helped the film become the work of art that it is. To me this film was amazing and Rivera not only captured the essence of true Mexican culture, but also incorporated amazing science fiction ideology he created.
This panel, “New Media and the Technologies of Science Fiction” actually served as a more literal reading of its name.
The first two panelists decided to discuss Science Fiction in short film narratives. Ritch Calvin talked about the post-apocalyptic story in science fiction, comparing many narratives to modern anti-corporation and big business movements. But also focusing on the way many short films navigate the problem all-together by foregoing any backstory and letting the viewer piece together the puzzle. Which, personally, is my favorite method of storytelling – one that is prevalent in video games and short films alike. Pawel Frelik also made a pretty big statement when he referred to short films as a new medium for filmmakers and storytellers. Something I truly agree with and appreciated his comparison of an artist working on both painting and mosaics – they can be different ways of looking at the same story.
Julie Turnock spoke on the special effects of SF throughout film history and the unfortunate reliance on the uses of big name Hollywood studios for special effects (deemed “the Big 5). She seemed to ignore some of the smaller picture short films that use all internal effects, ones you’ll find after some brief searches on sites like Vimeo, but she does have a valid point when it comes to big name directors from around the world. I would’ve liked to hear her speak more on something she only mentioned in passing which was the director’s vision with the “foreign-made” monster in The Host where, coincidentally, the term foreign-made takes on a double meaning. Turnock talked about how The Host gives us lots of clear views of its monster in broad daylight – something most modern US filmmakers wouldn’t dare to do for fear of desensitizing or ruining the audience’s suspended disbelief. Director of Attack the Block, Joe Cornish, found a clever way around this with his “blacker-than-black” invaders from outer space. However early films didn’t shy too far away from showing us the whole picture such as the “menacing” ED 209 in 1987’s RoboCop; however, this could also be an example of how American filmmakers have learned from this open, clear, approach over time.
Garett Stewart also posed an interesting question in his fast-paced analysis of the 2011 film Source Code, asking about the worth of one man’s life (or in this case death?). Questions like this one reminded me exactly of what Nikolas Rose was writing about in The Politics of Life Itself, as he warns us about the dangers of thinking of ourselves as a sort-of biological commodity and asks us to forget about the taboos of bioethics and focus on what is truly at stake not only for progress but for humanity.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for all of the Q&A as technical issues pushed the panels a bit farther back than planned; however, it was a great conference and I’m glad to have been able to be a part of it.
Rose, Nikolas. (2001) “The Politics of Life Itself.” Theory, Culture & Society
As Saturday night came to a close, it was with a note of sadness that I sprinted through a downpour to reach the Bijou and Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer. In many ways, the weather seemed appropriate, the violent flashes of lightning and ear-splitting booms of thunder an almost supernatural, science-fiction phenomenon themselves. Finding my seat in the screening, the feeling only intensified.
Behind me and a few seats down, I spotted Dr. Thomas Lamarre, whose keynote speech I had attended a day prior and to whom I’d had a chance to speak for some time at the Friday night reception. Casting my eye over the room, I noticed other familiar faces: other presenters, speakers, and attendees. Most of us were soaking wet from the downpour outside, and everyone wore the same look: regret. The last event – it was over.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s jump back to Thursday afternoon, 2 pm. The first event I was able to attend for the Visions of the Future global science fiction film conference. While I won’t go into extreme detail on all of them, this one merits a specific mention due to one of the speakers. The panel was titled, “Cyborgs, Affect, and Sexuality” – a relevant and year-long topic in my class on global science fiction film. I sat near the back of the room, taking copious notes as Michelle Cho, Steve Choe, William Covey, and Theresa Geller gave their presentations. And they were fascinating presentations, discussing a range of topics from Cho’s analysis of Air Doll (a Japanese film about a sex doll that one day gains sentience) to the familiar scenes of Technotise: Edit and I, a particularly strong delight since I saw it earlier this year. However, the entire reason I mention panel 2 is for the final speaker (and a funny aside – more on that later): Sharalyn Orbaugh.
Professor Orbaugh talked about Oshii Mamoru’s Ghost in the Shell films (specifically the second, but delving into the first in a few moments). And by that, I mean that she talked about whether or not emotion and affect are exclusive to humans, about the impact of digitization (the advent of the cyborg) on our bodies and psyches. She spoke of terms like “tsumetai shintai” (the “cold body” of the cyborg – Mamoru’s term for it) and how the human body was a medium of memory. She moved into the “niou shintai” – the animal’s body, or “body that smells” – a topic important to my main event. And she talked about all of this before she even mentioned the protagonist’s name. She asked questions like, “Without the body, what feels?” and eventually ended her presentation (a too-brief 15 minutes) with a quote from Donna Haraway (paraphrased because I was struggling to keep up in my notes): communication across irreducible difference is what matters.
I spend a moment reflecting on Professor Orbaugh’s presentation now because she introduced the screening for Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence, simultaneously one of my highlights of the conference and the event on which I was asked to blog. Before I move into Innocence, however, I promised my readers an amusing aside. During the Q/A at the above-mentioned panel, I had a few interactions with the person sitting beside me. First, I was insanely jealous of his schedule, printed in small leaflet form. Apparently, there was a table of them I missed in the back (along with missing most of the pastries, sadly). Second, I was a bit surprised when his question (or, as the Discussant, Rob Latham, stated, “admonition”) wasn’t so much a question as a very sharp observation (regarding the use of the term “the West” as a catch-all for Western culture and history). For a moment, I thought he was just some interested layperson who had just managed to show up a room full of people going back and forth with these concepts. Of course, I should have known better – this was my first exposure to Dr. Lamarre, the brilliant second keynote. But more on him later. For now, you were promised a movie, and here it is.
My notes for the opening remarks on Ghost in the Shell II are decidedly nonexistent since I was on-stage to work the lights as Professor Orbaugh started to speak again. However, her opening comments were brief, and posed as a challenge to the audience, or perhaps an observation from a knowing eye. Namely, she challenged us to find examples where creatures and human representations (cyborgs, dolls, etc.) were being “queered” – the places where the film challenges notions of gender, of humanity. Of course, she knew her answer as I put the house lights down, I’m sure. Her answer? Nothing was. And it was true. My overwhelming impression of the film – and I say this with a note of sadness (and an appreciation for the things the film does examine) – was that whereas the first film was overwhelmingly an examination of gender and sexuality in the post-human landscape, the second wasn’t concerned with pushing these issues. Now, with every rule there are exceptions. The gynoids in the film seem to be a statement, though I’m still parsing what; essentially robotic “pleasure” dolls gone haywire and turned killing machine, the gynoids serve as the main mystery in protagonist Batou’s investigation and also his main combatant in the climactic end. And, as Professor Orbaugh mentioned in the panel, there is a modicum of emotion and warmth in how Batou treats his dog. However, this on its own does not equal the same degree of questioning that was present in the first film. For the most part, the Q/A afterwards followed this line of thinking.
I want to say something brilliant about Innocence in this section, but I am still struggling to parse my own feelings and thoughts on the film (class will no doubt help me in this endeavor). I wish I could connect it to Dr. Lamarre’s insanely good keynote speech (Humans and Machines: Media Interface After the Cyborg) into which Ghost in the Shell (as a franchise) figured prominently. I wish I could tie it to Katherine Hales’ keynote, on the “Technogenetic Spiral” (I’m still trying to wrap my head around my notes for that speech – incredibly high level, and with the lovely example of Dark City, it’s hard to go wrong), or perhaps bring in some of Garret Stewart’s analysis of surveillance and mediation (indeed, there exists here a link back to Lamarre’s keynote, and his analysis of the scan-line vision of the cyborg in the Ghost in the Shell franchise). However, these are tasks for the presenters. I have about fourteen pages of notes from the conference. I will leave this difficult analysis for them; rereading these notes as I type, I am still learning from their words, struggling to understand their concepts. Until I do, I will not have something “brilliant” on Innocence (though perhaps someday soon, something halfway coherent). For now, three days and a tornado warning later, I am contenting myself to review my notes, to make a list of films mentioned at the conference to watch, and hoping that next year, we’ll see the second annual Visions of the Future Conference.
“Mind-blowing” would be the words I would use to sum up Thomas Lamarre’s talk on Friday afternoon. Using the manga, films, and anime of the Ghost in the Shell universe, Professor Lamarre powerfully wove his interpretation of cyborgs, the direction they are headed, and the ways in which technology works to create them.
Lamarre started off by explaining that cyborgs are a technology of the self. This technology of the self is then composed of two different elements: the technology of replication, which is usually posed at the level of the consciousness, and the technology of communication, which is usually posed through computer components and through cyberspace. He expounded that one existing technology that combines both of these parts is television, or what is referred to as a screen, in that it records images, and then proceeds to transmit them. He claimed that television, “…is what a cyborg is often about.”
The first method Lamarre had of showing this was through his section on the Ghost in the Shell manga, called “Beyond Dualism”. In this, he says that the manga expresses the idea that “…we can overcome dualism in terms of models of our materialism”, and shows this through the panels that depict a human brain and spinal cord hanging, about to be transplanted into an artificial body. He also shows us one of the first examples of a screen, in the manga panel where Motoko is looking through a large window at the garbage man who has had his mind hacked and possesses false memories.
Second, he looked to the Ghost in the Shell films, in a segment called “Beyond Substantialism”. Here, he emphasizes the role of hierarchy in the films, such as in the idea that the higher mental functions can control the lower functions. He claims that this hierarchy is carried out through management. It is also here that Lamarre points to one of the other examples of screens, that of the repeating images of scan lines, and the way that they are also exhibited in characters’ cyber perception. He connects this back to television, since we are led to the conclusion that not only do artificial eyes and cyber perception scan the world or cyberspace, but also transmit this information beyond themselves.
The last portion of Lamarre’s speech was called “Beyond Hylomorphism”. He defined hylomorphism (very briefly) as a theory of emergence of form through competing forces. In the Ghost in the Shell anime, this can be seen through the laughing man incident; a mysterious logo/virus that had no known cause or creator, managed to cause a major social affect merely through its existence. Lamarre connected this to the idea of the pervasive images of screens and televisions within the anime. These images cropped up even when they would be unnecessary (such as when characters were jacked in to the cyberspace), and would even be layered over one another or reflected in glass in a way that Lamarre claimed could actually cause people to “lose perception”. He described these overwhelming visual obstructions as becoming “social contagions”, influencing how people interact in the physical environment without having a physical presence.
At the end of his presentation, Prof. Lamarre left us with the sentiment that in the end, for humans and/or cyborgs, “…electromagnetic radiation is what is most in common”.
For me, Thomas Lamarre’s lecture was both intriguing and overwhelming. His idea that television and screens are one of the elements/forms of cyborgs was interesting, and I could definitely see how in the future this could be realized. Already today most cellular phones can take photos or videos and upload them to the internet, so it’s not much of a stretch to imagine such devices being implanted or attached to our bodies, thereby making us all cyborgs. However, I wonder how Lamarre’s theory of screens would operate when a cyborg does not realize that it is in fact a cyborg. In particular I am thinking of a situation similar to the replicants from Blade Runner. While in this film the replicants are not actual cyborgs but completely artificial beings, one character, Rachel, is not at first aware that she is not human. In all of Lamarre’s examples, he uses easily identifiable screens that have characteristic scan lines or digital displays overlapping the visual feed. For Rachel, we assume her eyesight is much the same as a human’s, except that it is like a camera, scanning and probably transmitting without her knowledge. It would be interesting to see whether her “screens” would fit into Lamarre’s premise.
Overall, Thomas Lamarre’s keynote lecture was an exhilarating experience, wrapping the idea of the cyborg into the technologies of television, and it has left me still pondering many of the proposed ideas still, days later.
Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, and Daryl Hannah. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982 (2007 edition). Film.
Lamarre, Thomas. “Humans and Machines – Media Interface after the Cyborg.” Visions of the Future: Global Science Fiction Cinema Conference, University of Iowa. Main Library, Iowa City, IA. 13 April 2012. Keynote Speech.
Right after the opening remarks of the conference, the first set of panel presentations began on the topic of Biopolitics and Bioethics. While all of the presenters have provided exceptional insight on the topic and the films of their choices, I was particularly intrigued by the presentations of the second panel, Everett Hamner, and the discussant, Diana Cates.
Hamner’s presentation was titled “The Virtual Immigrant: Sleep Dealer: Science Fiction Cinema, and the Borders of Biotech.” His presentation was mainly on how science fiction films, such as Sleep dealer, The Island, District 9, Blade Runner, and even Star Wars, can be understood as a rebellion/critique against techno-scientific imperialism and global capitalism. Certainly mentioned was Code 46. Hamner often phrased the kind of imperialism that these films are critiquing as “U.S. imperialism,” of which I thought The Host could probably be one of the best examples: not only because it depicts U.S. explicitly but also because it problematizes the presence of the power of U.S. military technology outside America. In that sense, perhaps The Host can also be regarded as a depiction of the “expanding state space” (Ross, 2007) of biopolitical power, albeit its irrelevance to immigration.
The discussant, Diana Cates, presented her own reflections on the topic covered by the panels before initiating the open discussion. One of the most notable remarks of hers, which suits the perspective of her field, religious ethics, was the question about whether these films can arouse the spectators to ask ethical/moral questions about biopolitics. The panels mentioned the capacity of these films to challenge the audiences to question the ethical issues of biomedical technology and ask “where will science take us next?” Indeed, responses to such questions, depending on how one views it, can range from warning the possibility of the resurrection of eugenics (Ross, 2007) to a bit more positive notions of biopolitics ascribing equal worth to human life (e.g. Rose, 2001).
The open discussion itself was very short, but one of the questions challenged all to think about “cinema itself as biotechnology” to which one of the panels responded with the remark that, while it certainly is, films such as these also challenge us to be critical about biotechnology. Perhaps cinema itself, then, like biotechnology, is a double edged sword.
Rose, Nikolas. (2001). “The Politics of Life Itself.” Theory, Culture & Society, Volume 18(6): 1-30.
Ross, James C. (2007). “Biometrics: Intersecting Borders and Bodies in Liberal Bionetwork States.” Journal of Borderlands Studies, Volume 22, No. 2.
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. This was the very last panel of the conference, which was a bad thing, at least for me, but it was also a sweet moment in history, for, to quote Prof. Feeley, “the doughnuts were coming!”
On a more serious note, I will be dealing with the first two presentations of this panel, which was on SF, Empire and the State, in general, and on Argentine and Chinese SF, in particular. The two speakers, Prof. Rachel Haywood Ferreira and Prof. Nathaniel Isaacson, did a wonderful job of fusing academic insight with popular sentiment, and talked about how SF challenges neo-imperialism by positing its own interpretation of facts, which leads us to think – is there the truth, or a truth?
Prof. Ferreira in her presentation on “Argentines on Mars: From 19th century Text to 21st century Claymation” uses Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg’s Viaje maravilloso del señor Nic-Nac al planeta Marte and Juan Pablo Zaramella’s Viaje a Marte as her two base texts to present an alternative vision of SF that challenges and subverts the ethnocentrism that has crept into the character of SF. Whereas Senor Nic-Nac is ridiculed by the American director of the Argentinean Space Observatory for claiming to have visited Mars (by separating mind from matter with the help of a German spiritualist) for that’s impossible as per him, Antonio in Viaje a Marte is laughed at by his class for his claim to have been to Mars in his grandfather’s tow-truck.
The first text provides a critique of western hegemony over science and SF, and the second, talks of an ancient tradition of a people that might well precede the knowledge of contemporary western discourses and its subsequent applications of technology. As the American astronauts in Viaje a Marte report, ‘Houston, we have a problem’, as they realize that Argentines are present on Mars even before NASA, thus subverting US-Centrism of space exploration and the subsequent marginalization of the developing world, which is countered by the ‘third world’ in its own fantastical way of Antonio’s grandfather and his tow-truck. It is this alternate, almost subaltern, vision of SF, that I find truly revolutionary.
A sample of Viaje a Marte could be found at:
It is interesting how this presentation reminded me of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation.
The article could be found at:
Is truth what NASA or the government believe (or want us to believe!) or is truth what the indigenous traditions of Argentine/Developing world have faith in? Perhaps, the simulacrum is to be brought in here – how it is something that does not hide the truth, only the fact that there is none (Ecclesiastes). No material explanation can vouch for Antonio on Mars, and thus, it may not be a material truth, which leads us to believe that Antonio, like the Schrodinger’s Cat, is simultaneously on Mars and not on it. Or perhaps, to loosely quote the presenter, “the colonizing forces have again made a mistake like Columbus did when he discovered America by landing at the wrong spot!”
Another interesting article to connect this is Prof. Altman’s A Semantic/Syntactic approach to Film Genre.
The article can be found at: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1225093?uid=3739640&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=47698883049327
Viaje a Marte, despite containing all the semantic elements of SF, are syntactically arranged in a more ‘Fantasy’ rather than SF way. It has spaceships, rockets, Mars, but the way they’re integrated into the narrative may as well be fantasy.
Moving on, Prof. Isaacson in his presentation “Media and Messages: Blurred Visions of Nations and Science in Death Ray on a Coral Island” talks about how Chinese SF (Tong Ernzheng’s Death Ray… in its novel and film forms) negotiates material reality by the way of depicting not only the threat to China from the Soviet-brand of communism (and the ensuing border disputes), but also the danger that America and Capitalism poses to the political order in China, whereas, surprisingly, being sympathetic to Japan, which was next to never portrayed in positive hues in the post Japanese-occupation Chinese popular culture.
The film revolves around an atomic battery (created by a loyalist, though westernized, Chinese scientist somewhere in the west) and the following struggle by various powers to attain it in a sinister plot that contains all the enemies of the Chinese state. The antagonists in the film are caricatures of not only bear-faced Russian generals, but also those Chinese living abroad who have been corrupted by American ideals of capitalism, laissez-faire and free-market, uniting threats that need to resisted by a unified (communist) China. American-Capitalist agents trying to get back the battery are resisted by loyalist Chinese. Interestingly, here China can be seen as promoting its own brand of imperialism in the guise of resisting colonization, for now the Chinese communism considers itself to be superior to not only western Capitalism of the first world, but also the Soviet socialism of the second. But aren’t all anti-imperial movements entrenched in a reverse-imperialist desire, whether accessible right then or in the future? After all, as we read in the article on Indian SF and post-colonialism by Alessio and Langer, “Nationalisms of liberation (have) turned into nationalisms of domination” (Balibar 1991:46). Moreover, is the film using, to quote Altman again, a ‘ritual approach’ or an ‘ideological approach’? Does it give the audience with what it needs (comfort with Chinese authority) or does it use their energies to lure them into a more nuanced position of critically examining the film’s content or does lure them into some other position that may be either reactionary or revolutionary? Perhaps only a closer analysis of Chinese reception of the film could tell.
With this, I end this entry, and hope that both Chinese and Argentinean SF keep going where ‘no one has gone before’.
Tornadoes and severe thunderstorm warnings went unheard in the Bijou Theatre last night, for attendees of the closing screening for the Global Science Fiction Cinema Conference, Sleep Dealer, were far too engrossed in director Alex Rivera’s poignant envisioning of the future of the U.S./Mexico border and Latino labor in America. Before the actual screening began, three shorts (1-5 minutes a piece) by Rivera offered some conceptual background on the feature film and introduced his satirical humor.
The first of these shorts, the aptly titled “Dia de la Independencia”, broke the ice with a pun on extraterrestrial aliens and illegal aliens. What better way to start the night than with an invasion of sombrero starships? Another Rivera short, “Why Cybraceros?” mocked the U.S.’s Bracero Program and introduced his futuristic Cybracero concept where Mexican workers can remain in Mexico and control robotic apparatuses in America through the internet.
For more, visit: http://www.invisibleamerica.com/movies.html
Sleep Dealer employs an amalgamation of Rivera’s previous conceptions into a narrative that follows a dystopian Santa Ana del Rio, dammed by the U.S. The dam and flowing water creats a metaphor for the flow of immigrants across borders; the dam prevents water from allowing natural growth while the U.S./Mexico border, depicted with a prison-like gate and a turret checkpoint like the Santa Ana dam in the film, currently prevents the growth of Mexican and American economies. The film coins “aqua-terrorism” to describe resistance efforts against the dam, and its actual prominence during Rivera’s extensive writing period for the film helps to suture his vision of the future with its past (or our present) as he creates a sort of documentary under a science fiction facade.
During the Q&A, Rivera cited a community of Mexican workers in NYC that send money to family in Mexico to fund infrastructure there. Memo Cruz, the protagonist, plays a similar role by finding work in the Cybracero-like “Sleep Dealer” in Tijuana where he connects to a robot in America that welds girders together. He is then able to send money home to Santa Ana. For more reading on the “sister city” relationship check out this PDF: http://sfaa.metapress.com/media/c5vkwktwrl2b5877tmdq/contributions/8/x/h/d/8xhdfg6jggqccb2c.pdf
Inherent in the title, “Sleep Dealer”, Rivera also denotes a sense of alienation of the Mexican workers from the work they perform. To compare it to “Why Cybraceros?”, the cartoon image of the Mexican worker whose arms literally fall off over the border fence is particularly striking. Rivera commented that Marx’s theory of capitalism was deeply inspiring and quoted another theorist, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The existence of aqua-terrorism reflects the inevitable revolt of the bourgeoisie, the Mexican workforce. The Mexican worker’s plight in Sleep Dealer is related to the Marxist vampire as described in Rob Latham’s book, Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption. Through the Sleep Dealer connection stations, “The worker essentially becomes a cybernetic organism – a cyborg – prosthetically linked to a despotic, ravening apparatus.” The apparatus, of course, is the vampire-like capitalist system of the U.S. that feeds off the Mexican workforce through virtual space in the film. Rivera also imagines a memory data bank, “True Node” that is not unlike today’s Youtube phenomena. Coupled with the alienated Sleep Dealer workers, the concepts reflect Katherine Hayles’s description of Hans Moravec’s theory in her book, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. If human consciousness can be downloaded into a computer, human identity becomes a pattern of information rather than an embodiment. “You are the cyborg, and the cyborg is you.” Think about that next time you post a video (dare I say “memory”) on Youtube.
Here’s a link to another article on Marxist theory and the vampire: http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/ope/archive/0604/att-0138/01-PoliticalEconOfTheDead.pdf
Lastly, Rivera stressed a dichotomy between “Global Village” connection through the internet and increasingly strict border control and general isolation. Visual cues for this are represented throughout the film. Much of the depicted future Mexico remains unpaved and shantytown-like. Some of the only clues of futuristic elements are the hi-definition televisions in every home, the glass computer that is able to hook into the body to transfer memories to True Node, U.S. military objects, and the Sleep Dealer facility itself. Rivera revealed that this was intentional, not merely due to financial restraints.
Although Rivera offered a wealth of fun and engaging commentary on his film and the process behind it, I am afraid I will end there. If you didn’t get a chance to view the film, you are able to purchase a DVD direct from Alex Rivera himself, and I would definitely recommend doing so.
Check out: http://alexrivera.com/index.html
Grey, Mark (2002) “Unofficial Sister Cities: Meatpacking Labor Migration Between Villachuato, Mexico and Marshalltown, Iowa”
Latham, Robert. “Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption” (2002)
Hayles, N. Katherine. “How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics.” (2010)
Neocleous, Mark. “The Political Economy of the Dead. Marx’s Vampires” (2003)