Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Midnight in the Villa Straylight, Part 1

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea...
Kubla Khan, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"The Villa Straylight," said a jeweled thing on the pedestal, in a voice like music, "is a body grown in upon itself, a Gothic folly. Each space in Straylight is in some way secret, this endless series of chambers linked by passages, by stairwells vaulted like intestines, where the eye is trapped in narrow curves, carried past ornate screens, empty alcoves...(Lady 3Jane's essay, Neuromancer, William Gibson)

With the barrage of here-today, gone-tomorrow sci-fi flicks flashing across the movie previews these days, it's a damn shame that nobody (to my knowledge) is going to bring William Gibson's Neuromancer to the big screen any time soon. Movies like the Fifth Element and the Matrix series appear to have liberally inspired themselves from imagery and themes in Neuromancer, yet neither possesses the intensity and originality, that which is both disturbing and compelling in Gibson's vision. To cinematically portray Desiderata street would betray the truth that it must look different for every viewer; yet the simple fact that Gibson came up with a Desiderata street deserves a director who would make it visually stunning.

With my luck, the movie version of Neuromancer will fail to be a classic in the Blade Runner category . It'll wind up being done by the people who made Starship Troopers and they'll cast Denise Richards as Molly Mirroshades. Meanwhile, the actress who comes closest to my idea of Molly would be Asia Argento. To be fair, Starship Troopers' Barbie and Ken in Outer Space meets hit-you-over-the-head "this is fascism" irony is not my cup of tea. However, it's also rather evident that I don't belong to the movie's target audience, per this entertaining observation from "A Viewer" on Amazon.com.

"Like most boys, I suffered from two terrible drives that overwhelm our much-vaunted aura of rationality. First, I am obsessed with sex appeal. Secondly, I want to kill things. These twin drives -- Eros and Thanatos -- are thoroughly exploited and mocked in Paul Verhoeven's astounding 1997 action epic, Starship Troopers. Based on (and a critique of) the Robert Heinlein "juvenile" title of the Fifties, Troopers works on numerous levels: thrill-ride, eye candy, unsubtle anti-war statement, commentary on fascism, and exemplar of Verhoeven's horrifically callous sense of humour."

I find "A Viewer"'s critique far more compelling than its actual subject, but then I'm the girl who felt the only thing that would have redeemed the orgy scene in Matrix Reloaded would have been a soundtrack featuring the Eurotrash club favorite Rivers of Babylon.

Back to Neuromancer, these notes from a university English department syllabus offer a reasonably fair overview of Neuromancer for the unitiated. I tend to agree with Professor Brian that the most original thing about this book is not so much the plot or the characters, but the storytelling. However, unlike Brian, I am interested in the cliche nature of the plot and characters exactly because they represent an updated version of classic archetypes.

The Cyberspace Cowboy
"Case was twenty four. At twenty-two, he'd been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He'd been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He'd operated on an almost permanent high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix." Footnote on Dixie Flatline, he does for redneck revenants what Bill Clinton did for redneck Rhodes Scholars.

The Expensive Razor Girl
There is actually quite a long lineage of martial women in English literature. Before Eowyn, there was Belphoebe. Of course both of these characters embody the archetype of the virtuous warrior. The femme fatale is something altogether different, yet equally ancient in Western tradition. Camille Paglia describes the femme fatale as part of the weary weight of eroticism, beneath which both ethics and religion founder, she who possesses an amoral affectlessness, a cool unreachability that beckons, fascinates, and destroys (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae).

Paglia's vision of the femme fatale focuses on the power she projects (to men), attributing her origins to the cthonian murk of Nature. What Paglia does not fully reflect upon (it diverges from her theories) is the possibility that the femme fatale is as much the creation of Society as she is of Nature, and that she pays a very high price for the terrible nature she must acquire in order to survive. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Rappacini's Daughter," Beatrice inhabits a lush garden reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, only she and the plants are poisonous. Beatrice, like Molly has been scientifically experimented on. The technological enhancement that renders these women superior to Nature, also separates them from Nature and other human beings, with whom they will never be able to physically and/or emotionally interact. The femme fatale represents a departure from a norm where, in almost every culture and society, women are expected to be nurturers; cultures and societies where women are far more likely to be victims than predators. Strictly speaking, the femme fatale is a freak. In Molly's case, the eyes, arguably one of the most expressive parts of the body, have been surgically sealed behind her mirror glasses. Her eyes will offer no clues to her emotions or thoughts, they only reflect back the image of the person gazing up her and, figuratively, what the viewer wishes to see in her. Her tear ducts have been re-routed. She doesn't cry; she spits. Molly's eyes are technologically functional and enhanced, however in the process, what was human about the eyes has been mutilated and destroyed. In his Essay on the Uncanny, Freud associates anxiety about the eyes, specifically the fear of going blind with the dread of being castrated--a rather apt metaphor for Molly's emotional state.

Not surprisingly, the person who comes closest to getting an emotional rise out of Molly is the sadist, Peter Riviera. Peter possesses the ability to "dream real," that is graphically project holographic imagery from people's innermost fantasies and anxieties. His cabaret piece, "The Doll," starts with disembodied hands, wrists, legs, torso that merge into an image of Molly. Riviera then weaves himself in the projection, simulating copulation with the Molly image until the clawed hand extracts its nails and rakes him across the back. Gibson mentions the exposure of some bare spine, but leaves the rest to the reader's imagination as the observer, Case, stumbles out the door and vomits, although, to be honest, Case had consumed a lot of alchohol and drugs at that point.

Gibson's description of Riviera's cabaret piece reminds me of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill movies to the extent that they invite the reader to visualize or, in the case of Kill Bill, graphically choreograph a sadistic and disturbing tableau of violence. Gibson's Molly and Uma Thurman's "the Bride" in Kill Bill are both hired mercenaries employed by men (or ultimately, in Molly's case, an AI). A high tech femme fatale would be nothing without the right look--black gloveleather jeans, light-absorbing matte jacket, shuriken, flechette pistol, cherry red cowboy boots with lacquer heels, burgundy-sheathed razor nails...the nails or metallic claws, that little detail that sets Molly apart and makes her just that much more disturbing than a groupie like Trinity from the Matrix movies or Kill Bill's the Bride. What is disturbing about the Bride is what she doesn't look like: a woman who has been tortured, shot in the head and left for dead, who spends four years comatose, neglected and abused in public charity hospitals--where she apparently had access to plastic surgery techniques worthy of Neuromancer because by all intents and purposes she should look like the Bride of Frankenstein, not Uma Thurman. I prefer Gibson's Molly femme fatale archetype because she's not airbrushed, or to the contrary, she's so airbrushed she gleams, shiny and metallic--not so much human as feline. At the end of the book, Molly slinks out of the narrative field of vision, taking her unknowability with her.

Because if you did drop all that mystification and Molly really talked, what would she say? That, at the end of the day, all that kung-fu and killing people is just a job and a physically demanding one at that. Compared to "jacking" into the Matrix and playing with Chinese viruses and AI ice, running around and doing martial arts in lacquer-heeled cowboy boots? That shit'll seriously fuck with your back.

To be continued, with reflections on nihilistic technofetishists and Marie-France Tessier Ashpool as Scheherazade.

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