Georges Bataille and the Visceral Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow

Jeff Karnicky

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

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Strange Days: Eye

Georges Bataille loved the 1929 Luis Bunuel-Salvador Dali collaboration, Un Chien Andalou, saying of it:
Several very explicit facts appear in successive order, without logical connection it is true, but penetrating so far into horror that spectators are caught up as directly as they are in adventure films. Caught up and even precisely caught by the throat, and without artifice; do these spectators know, in fact, where they-the authors of this film, or people like them-will stop? If Bunuel himself, after the filming of the split-open eye, remained sick for a week . . . how then can one not see to what extent horror becomes fascinating, and how it alone is brutal enough to break everything that stifles? (Visions 19)
Bataille does not want the cinema to produce meanings, to be symbolic, to disinterestedly distill the truths of the human spirit. No, Un Chien Andalou is a powerful film because of the bodily sensations it evokes in its creator and its spectators. What higher praise could Bataille give to a film then to note that the making of Un Chien Andalou incapacitated its director for a full week. Cinema should be visceral; it should rip the spectator from the complacency of everyday life. Cinema should make you sick, alter your body, push you into an abyss of flickering images. Bataille asks "where they . . . will stop;" his hopeful answer is that they will not stop until "everything that stifles" is broken. But what is it that stifles? The self, the comfort of identity, the safety of complacency. The sliced-open eyeball and the fragmentary, illogical cuts of Un Chien Andalou disrupt this complacency. Identity is lost in a frenzy of images that produce never before felt bodily sensations. And if these sensations are fear and disgust, if Un Chien Andalou makes us cringe, look away, perhaps even vomit, that is because we've been taught all of our lives to hold on to our identities, to be ourselves, to remain a coherent whole at all costs. Cinema opens the space for a new possibility: the visceral sensation of the loss of self. But the loss of self that cinema can produce is not a lack. Nothing is missing; rather, something new is produced. Bataille laughs "when I think that my eyes persist in demanding objects that do not destroy them" (Visions 239). His laughter provides an affirmative account of the cinema-goer's experience. An eyeball, sliced open, excretes a gelatinous substance and our eyes cannot look away from the potential of their own destruction. We've been given a glimpse of the hidden disgust inside of us and we are fascinated. Every vision hurts, every flash of light slashes at our retinas. Un Chien Andalou says that perception is pain. Bataille asks where "people like them," the makers of this film, will stop? What limits of perception will the cinema set for itself? What pains will spectators refuse? What sensations will cinema forbid?

Horror films today glory in the destruction of human bodies; the close-up, slow-motion cutting up of human flesh has become a staple of the horror film. And such images are not only in the domain of the horror film, as exemplified by the brutality exhibited in the films of David Lynch, or the Coen brothers, or David Cronenberg. As if in reply to Bataille's question, the promotion for Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, borrowing from William S. Burroughs, answers that "Anything is possible. Nothing is forbidden."

"Are you ready? Boot it." These are the first words we hear in Strange Days. It is 1999 and a new technology-stolen from the government-is available on the black-market: SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). SQUID technology allows the user to experience someone else's reality, "a piece of somebody's life . . . straight from the cerebral cortex." Through a centipede-shaped device strapped to the top of the head, it is possible to feel all the bodily sensations of sex, robbery, anything the user wants. Memories have become information on a disk; experiencing SQUID goes beyond the visual into the visceral. Strapped into the SQUID, you lose yourself in the sensations of another. You can get whatever you want, with no risks involved. Strange Days enters into the world of Bataille's pineal eye, where "existence no longer resembles a neatly defined itinerary from one practical sign to another, but a sickly incandescence, a durable orgasm" (Visions 82). If that's what you're looking for.

Lenny Nero, an ex-vice cop deals in SQUID disks, and he's also a wire-head, a junky of the technology. He experiences the past in the present, in a SQUID world of sexual encounters with his ex-girlfriend, Faith; he's in the world imagined by Bataille in "The Pineal Eye," a world that is

not a product of . . . understanding, but is instead an immediate existence; it opens and blinds itself like a conflagration, or like a fever that eats the being, or more exactly, the head. And thus it plays the role of a fire in a house; the head, instead of locking up life as money is locked in a safe, spends it without counting, for at the end of this erotic metamorphosis, the head has received the electric power of points. (Visions 82)
The SQUID user is the picture of pure expenditure; Bigelow shows us a wired-in Lenny, eyes closed, groping at the air around him, moaning ecstatically in sexual abandon. These shots of Lenny are intercut with shots of his SQUID experience; the spectator can see and hear what Lenny is feeling, all from Lenny's point of view. We see Faith stripping off her sweaty clothes and we see them fucking from Lenny's perspective. The spectator becomes implicated in Lenny's voyeurism, but not by means of a simple one-to-one identification. It could be anybody jacked into the SQUID; memories have transgressed the limits of the self. Through SQUID, sensations move from body to body producing ecstasies that cannot be individualized. Privacy and individuality are forgotten in the pure experience of jacking in, an experience whose only product is bodily excitation. You no longer have to be yourself.

But even SQUID dealer have their limits, and Lenny's is murder. "You know I don't deal in snuff . . . I got ethics," he tells one of his suppliers. So when Lenny is given a disk that details the rape and murder of a prostitute named Iris, he begins to lose control. We see him retching as he lives the experience; the camera shows the look of horror on his face, and as the prostitute dies we can hear Lenny's screams. And the spectator is not spared this horror, either. We see the assault from the murderer's point of view. Through his eyes, we see him break into the hotel room and handcuff Iris to a towel-rack. We see the killer slice her clothes off with a razor blade and we see him rape her. What's worse, we see the killer strap a SQUID onto Iris' head that connects to the one the killer wears, so that the killer "makes her see her own death [as he] feeds off her reaction" and strangles her. The killer forces Iris to simultaneously enjoy her own death and to feel profound and utter horror as she dies.

This scene is extremely difficult to watch, but also difficult to turn away from and forget. Strange Days reminds us that a world without individuated limits is dangerous. Lenny experiences the rape and murder, yet he can do nothing to stop it. We watch the film and get closer than we want to a painful and utterly disturbing experience. We are reminded that bodily sensations still have violent repercussions, even and especially when detached from a single individual. Strange Days emphasizes the necessity of ethics; even as the limits of the self-focused human are left behind, new limits must be set up. "Where they will stop" must remain an answerable question even as boundaries of individuality and representation are transgressed.

In addition to detailing the SQUID experiences, Strange Days portrays a Los Angeles on the verge of riot. It's New Year's Eve 1999 and as 2000 approaches, cops in riot gear, along with tanks and armed government troops, patrol the streets of the city. Huge crowds gather, fires burn throughout the city and we see Santa Claus get mugged. A black rap artist has been murdered by the LAPD and someone has given Lenny a disk that details the murder. Lenny watches with horror as two cops repeatedly shoot the unarmed Jeriko-1 in the head. In restaging the Rodney King beating in this way, Strange Days does away with the possibility of any subtle explanations or excuses. Lenny's SQUID disk offers incontrovertible proof of cold-blooded racist murder. And while the disk provides the evidence which leads to the subsequent death of the two murderous cops, Strange Days offers no simple moral resolution. Given access to a world where Bataille's imagined pineal eye has actually evolved, the spectator is caught up in both the excitations and the horrors of a world where endless expenditure is the norm.

Near Dark: Rotten Sun

"Fuckin' daylight," screams one of the vampires holed up in the motel room. The police have them surrounded; the sun is up; each bullet fired by the cops blows a hole in the wall and lets in another shaft of sunlight. And it is sunlight, not bullets, that these vampires fear. Newly initiated Caleb-who still hasn't made his first kill-covered only by a blanket, makes a run for the vampires' van. Shot up by the cops and burnt by the sun, Caleb stumbles toward the vehicle and its blacked-out-windows sanctuary. He drives through the police line, through the wall of the motel, his fellow vampires jump in and they flee the scene, their only casualties some scorched skin and a few quick-healing bullet holes.

The vampires who inhabit the night world of Near Dark see the sun only as the weapon of their ultimate destruction. This aversion to sunlight makes the sun an abstract notion to the vampires, something they can experience only in pre-vampiric, human memories. But, according to Bataille, even for humans, the sun is "the most abstract object, since it is impossible to look at it fixedly" (Visions 57). To look directly at the sun evokes madness and horror, blindness and death. So, Bataille argues, humans "distinguish two suns" (Visions 58): an elevated, poetic and serene sun that is never looked at, and a horror-inducing, violent scrutinized sun. In this sense, the vampire's body is a gigantic eye, unable to look onto the sun with any surface of their bodies. Perception becomes displaced from the eye to the whole body; this eye-body must remain forever in darkness, with access to neither of Bataille's "two suns."

Near Dark defines the difference between human and non-human (vampire) as the difference between day and night. The vampire Mae, before biting Caleb's neck, exclaims over the beauty of the night, the sensory overload she experiences in darkness: "the night-it's deafening"; "look-the night, so bright it'll blind you." Caleb cannot understand this perceptual framework; while he is human, he cannot experience the night as Mae does. Yet Near Dark continually offers glimpses of the beauty of the night: Mae's hair gleams brightly in the moonlight; the camera captures gradients of light, from black to light shades of blue; stars glitter in the sky; reflected by rain-slicked streets. In contrast, the daytime scenes of the film evoke the forbidding, dusty expanses of the Midwest. The sun moves through the sky and scorches the earth to a uniform grayness that covers everything. Sunlight invades and scorches the eyes of the spectator sitting in the darkened theater. I find myself, watching the film, desiring the beautifully filmed night scenes and cringing with the vampires when the sun rises.

And this is where Near Dark sets itself apart from other vampire films. I begin to empathize more with the vampires than with the humans. I cannot understand Caleb's refusal to kill and his desire to return to the daytime world of humanity. When Caleb's father, a veterinarian, gives Caleb a blood transfusion and brings him back to the realm of the human, I mourn the perceptual abilities that Caleb has lost. Later, Caleb performs a similarly successful transfusion on Mae and the film ends with a static shot of Caleb and Mae embracing in the sunlight. Yet the film cannot return so wholeheartedly to the world of the sun. The shot of Caleb and Mae embracing stays unchangingly on the screen, like a photograph. Scrutinizing this image, the spectator can see that while Mae's face is in the light, Caleb's face is in complete darkness. Vials of blood can be seen in the shadowy background of the shot, and the spectator is left asking what exactly has happened. Whose blood (or what's blood) did Caleb's father-a veterinarian-use in the transfusion? Whose blood did Caleb use when he gave Mae the transfusion that made her human? Even if the blood used was completely human, something lurks underneath the sense of complacent human joy that Near Dark ends on. The human is nothing more or less than an infectious agent, transferable through blood, like a virus. The self remains always open to infection even while it denies this. Caleb and Mae have rejected the power of the night, the transformative abilities of darkness, of the vampire, of cinema. "In the form that night takes," Bataille writes, "existence cannot recognize "what it anticipated" (Impossible 164). We necessarily squint back into our identities when the lights come up and the film ends, but we cannot help but return to the night again and again.

Point Break: Joy Before Death

"That's Bodhi. They call him Bodhisattva." So says surfer Tyler to FBI agent Johnny Utah in Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 film Point Break. This Bodhi follows quite a different path than the historical Bodhisattva; he seeks the ultimate adrenaline rush, the perfect wave that will affirm, as Bodhi says, that "the human spirit is still alive." Like the historical Bodhisattva, Point Break's Bodhi does not stray from his path, simultaneously funding his search and providing an adrenaline rush by heading the Ex-Presidents, a group of surfers who rob California banks in the summer to fund their winter travel through the surfing beaches of the southern hemisphere. Bigelow renders these scenes of intensity-night surfing, sky diving, bank robbing-beautifully in terms of the singular, momentary orgasmic thrill they present. But, like Bigelow's other films, Point Break does more than merely detail a rising scale of action for a testosterone-addled audience (although it does do this quite well). Point Break constantly reminds its audience that what is being experienced is not the thrill of the sexual union; instead we are in a masturbatory, Bataillean world of, what one character calls, "too much testosterone." "The sea continuously jerks off," (Visions 8) Bataille says, and the surfing scenes in Point Break attest to this. Surfing is an erotic, if masturbatory, experience; yet Point Break neither situates itself within (what we might call) the masculine space of the action movie, nor does it ironize the action genre. Point Break revels in its scenes of violence and orgasmic abandon and does not stop for meditations about character motivation and modes of identification, gendered or otherwise. So while Bataille would hold that "the sea, then, has played the role of the female organ that liquefies under the excitation of the penis" (Visions 7), Point Break resists such anthropomorphic genderings. Subjectification is an effect of the ever changing movements of the waves and lines of surfing. As one character says, "surfing is the source; it can change your life." Surfing catches a line of subjectivity; "self" rides a relentlessly moving wave.

Bodhi thrives by surrendering to and embracing the rush of events that propel him; indeed, for Bodhi, catching a wave is the philosophy to live by. But another wave flows through Point Break at the same time: the wave of the law, of police control. From the moment Johnny Utah is buzzed through a series of doors on his first day at the FBI's bank robbery unit in Los Angeles, we can see the mechanisms of control societies at work. As they banter statistics back and forth, Utah's superior instructs him that crime fighting is all about the manipulation of information: "Do you know how we nail the bad guys Utah? Do you know how we nail them? By crunching data. Good crime scene work, good lab work, and most importantly, good data based analysis." The process of organizing the flow of digital information, cracking and controlling the code, catching the wave of data, takes precedence over the location of the bank robbers' bodies. Capturing criminals means capturing code. Control and resistance are matters of direction and speed; both the cops and the criminals are surfers.

The opening sequence of Point Break anticipates the meeting of the cop and criminal lines. Shots of Utah training at a firing range are juxtaposed with shots of Bodhi surfing. Lest we fail to mark this connection, both actors' names literally collide and pass through one another. But the opening credits do not give away the whole game. The movement that brings Bodhi and Utah together is not a simple dialectic equation leading toward unity, not a matter of recognition and attraction between self and other, cop and criminal, lawfulness and transgression. Point Break is not simply the story of one line-the law-pursuing and capturing the other-the criminal. It's about what happens when the two lines cross, when two waves collide and go off in a new direction, what Deleuze and Guattari call "a perpendicular direction, a transversal movement that sweeps one and the other away" (Plateaus 25).

Point Break takes its time in reaching this transversal moment. For over an hour, the movie follows Johnny Utah along the FBI's line of capture. We see Utah and his partner working the case in a typically generic way: searching archives and records, talking through the details of the case, following false leads, working stake outs, going undercover. All of this culminates with Utah pursuing Bodhi in a brilliant chase scene through the streets of Los Angeles. Yet the chase results in neither a capture nor an escape. At the moment of suspense, the logic of capture fails Utah; he cannot fire his gun and bring in the criminal. From this moment on, Point Break does away with any remnants of the logic of disciplinary societies that may have been driving the plot. Realism and plausibility are forgotten as Utah's line of the law gets swept away in Bodhi's wave of pure adrenaline. Bodhi and his gang lead Utah through a frenzy of sky diving and bank robbery which he is powerless to resist. But this movement is not one of simple reckless abandon (although it is that). Bigelow's film conceptualizes action as a form of thought; Reeves' Johnny Utah embodies a philosophy of the event that replaces a static and unified concept of the subject. Point Break follows Deleuze's advice that "one might equally well speak of new kinds of events, rather than processes of subjectification: events that can't be explained by the situations that give rise to them, or into which they lead. They appear for a moment, and it's that moment that matters, it's the chance we must seize" (Negotiations 176).

But what happens when the waves crash, when the line breaks apart ? Can annihilation be avoided? Should it be? Point Break offers two options. After months of pursuit, Utah catches up to Bodhi on an Australian beach in the midst of a storm of immense proportions. Just as Bodhi is about to paddle out in the rough seas in an attempt to catch the ultimate wave, Utah handcuffs their wrists together. For a moment it seems that the line of the law will triumph: the cop gets his man. But Utah reconsiders, and allows Bodhi to annihilate himself on the wave of adrenaline. And Utah then abandons the line of the law; he tosses his badge into the sea and walks off, waiting to be swept up by the next line, the next wave, the next sensation. He has rejected annihilation, and he has rejected, for now at least, what Bataille calls "the practice of joy before death." Bodhi, of course, embraces this philosophy. We can imagine Bataille's words crashing through Bodhi as the waves destroy him:

I AM joy before death. Joy before death carries me. Joy before death hurls me down. Joy before death annihilates me. (Visions 237)
It is to the credit of Kathryn Bigelow's films that they can elicit such sensations in the spectator. The practice of joy before death becomes more than words on a page. Philosophy becomes visceral sensation, leaves the world of abstract thought and enters the domain of bodily sensations. Bigelow shows us that Bataille's cinematic question about the makers of Un Chien Andalou must be asked of philosophy. Where will "people like them" stop? What limits of perception will philosophy set for itself? What sensations will philosophers refuse? What sensations will philosophy forbid?

Works Cited

Bigelow, Kathryn, director. Near Dark. HBO Video, 1987.

- - - . Point Break. Twentieth Century Fox, 1991.

- - - . Strange Days. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.

Bataille, Georges. The Impossible. Trans. Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1991.

- - - . Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. Trans. Allan Stoekl, with Carl R. Lovitt and Donald M. Leslie, Jr. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Trans. Martin Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Copyright © Enculturation 1998

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