The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Galaxy Brained: Annihilation and Queer Cosmic Horror

Annihilation: The Ending Explained!!!

content warning: body horror, spoilers for Annihilation, cosmic horror, mad ravings, closetedness and detransitioning, homophobia, slurs


Every time I watch Annihilation's final scene I get this thrill of... I'm not sure what to call it exactly, joy I guess? I'll go with joy for now. The alien menace of the film got burned up, the weird distortion zone "Area X" got banished, the protagonist's husband recovered from his fucked up organ failure disease... the world is safe once more for normal folk. And yet... 

The protagonist and her husband confess to each other that they're not sure they're really themselves, that they might be clones, or weird fuckin plants or something, created by the strange refractive powers of Area X. They hug. In close-ups on their eyes we see a rainbow sheen, and we understand that they're still touched by the Shimmer, that it's still alive within them.

There's already plenty of "explanations" of this ending, ones that treat the story as this thuddingly literal thing. Like, ah this was all part of the alien invasion plan and now the characters will have Babies and they'll be Mutant Shimmer Babies AAAH!! There's also plenty of meta-explanations which explain why the first explanations are missing the point. This is a movie that has Themes and the like, and the Shimmer is a metaphor. The ending represents the continued influence of a traumatic event or a personal revelation over the characters' lives. I think it's maybe a little disingenuous to say the first reading wasn't on the radar of the film's creators--after all, this is a film by Alex Garland, who recently gave us a supercomputer simulating all of reality which is housed in a gold and stained glass cathedral. The dude is not necessarily averse to some pretty thuddingly obvious images himself, and the film's ending practically begs comparison with The Thing's similarly paranoid and unresolved ending. It's part of a pulp tradition, for all it has things to say about our internal drives to self destruct. But it's just as clear to me that, yeah, there is a metaphor happening here, there's stuff going on beyond the literal alien invasion plot. The characters come face to face with themselves and have to live with the mark of what they discover.

Why am I so hyped for that particular metaphor though, as manifest in that final shot of the eyes? Am I really feeling visceral excitement for a metaphor about this husband and wife and their struggles with infidelity? I'm sitting here reflecting on my own feelings and this explanation doesn't make a lot of sense to me. The thrilled reaction more fits that first explanation of the end. And yet... damn, somehow "they'll make shimmer babies" also repels me as a take, in this visceral cringing way. It just seems so... vulgar. 

So... So unappreciative of the blessing granted to these characters, to have their essence so gloriously scrambled. Don't these people get it? This isn't anything as mundane as... as a damn "invasion plan!" Simple minded fools, they can't even comprehend what the Shimmer is!

The Shimmer is a Revelation.

You know what it feels like? It feels like I'm essentially the final slot on a galaxy brain meme. Like this:


As I become more one with the cosmos, or possibly more high on my own supply, I wrap back around to the start. I think I really do care that the Lore suggests that the alien force in some sense lives on. I just think that's cool and good. I'm delighted that the hero of the story made it out alive! I can even feel myself wanting to take that next step, expand my brain further into the cosmic... I'm not doing a rational evaluation of the alien invasion being good, after all. No, I'm reacting to something that the shimmer represents, something it manifests within me...

You know I have to say, I like the galaxy brain meme's formal loop. Often it starts in one position and wraps around back to that position again just, it's implied, on a higher level. We can imagine winding our mollusk spiral way through the stages toward enlightenment, passing over the same territory of theme and lore and theme and lore but now perceived with an expanded consciousness. I also like it in this context cause the galaxy brain might itself be interpreted in multiple ways. In some faith traditions comprehending the cosmos leads to enlightenment. But in the cosmic horror tradition it leads to madness and terror. Hence the name, horror of the cosmos. My position here really is galaxy brained. I encountered an incomprehensible alien force and immediately started gibbering mad pledges to serve it, celebrating its return to the material plane at the end of the movie.

This dual perspective makes sense and comes from a preconception of what the cosmos is exactly. It's a lot easier to imagine oneness with being when being is simply the world and stars set in the firmament. That cosmos is manageable. The cosmos of modern science in contrast is vast and cold and alien. Do I really want to truly comprehend and become one with that? 

...Is that a trick question?

Wait, wait, I feel like I need to orient myself in a space this vast. I've been watching a lot of movies. I've watched more movies in the last month in fact than I probably watched in the last three years. With a bunch of friends, I've watched one or more horror movies every night for all of October, and I'm feeling very Normal about it actually!! I may be having continuous wall to wall nightmares now but that's probably something to do with the change in the weather that October rolls in throughout Pennsylvania, the dry heat of summer late abruptly and catastrophically collapsing into the damp chill of early winter over the span of a couple weeks. This and the stress of the election have no doubt combined to put me in this state, and not watching Suspiria (1977), Suspiria (2010), Dracula (1931), Dracula (1950), Dracula (1992) Inferno (1980), Pulse (2001), Jacob's Ladder, Possession (1981), Annihilation(2018), I Was A Teenage Serial Killer, Blood Orgy of the Leather Girls, Night of the Living Dead (1960), Train to Busan, Thelma (2017), A Nightmare On Elm Street Part II, Scream Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street, Hellraiser, Tetsuo the Iron Man, Michael Clayton, Evil Dead II, Pink Floyd's The Wall, Masque of the Red Death (1964), Blood Quantum, Woman in the Dunes, Army of Darkness, The Lighthouse, The Thing (1982), Ghostwatch, Halloween (1978), and Halloween (2018) all in the span of four and a half weeks.

If I've come away from this seeming a little touched by the cosmic chaos, well, it's only natural. Isn't that what encountering art is? Look, DH Lawrence says so:

Man fixes some wonderful erection of his own between himself and the wild chaos, and gradually goes bleached and stifled under his parasol. Then comes a poet, enemy of convention, and makes a slit in the umbrella; and lo! the glimpse of chaos is a vision, a window to the sun. But after a while, getting used to the vision, and not liking the genuine draught from the chaos, commonplace man daubs a simulacrum of the window that opens on to chaos, and patches the umbrella with the painted patch of the simulacrum.

Pretty evocative, and pretty relevant to what I'm talking about. Lawrence even describes the whole umbrella of convention that we build as this "painted firmament". Like I said, the galaxy is easier to hold in your brain if it's just painted on a dome through conventional symbols of nature, rather than the whole vast chaos of nature itself.

For Lawrence though this convention becomes stifling and art's job is to break through the firmament to the real vast chaos of experience both external and internal. Deleuze and Guattari label this "affect", a visceral experience that comes before cognition and reason. It's on that level of chaos that so many of these horror movies worked for me, not on the level of reading and analysis first, but first on the level of visceral recognition that what I was watching was Real Queer.

That's the thing about Garland's insights and the thematically focused criticism that follows where the film leads: it's ultimately pretty conventional, narrow, rote even. Another tale of two straight people contemplating or carrying out acts of infidelity ho hum. The notion of self destruction throughout the film, the idea that the Shimmer is the site at which these characters can throw themselves into the jaws of ruin, does resonate to be sure, but it doesn't capture what transfixed me about the film. No, it was what comes after self destruction, or what self destruction implies, that really spoke to me. And having binge watched a ton of horror movies I feel more certain that what called to me was a queer counter reading of the film, of many horror films in fact.

This makes sense. Sure horror fandom has a reputation for being the domain of cishet white dudes but there's always been a sizeable queer horror fandom. Everyone I watched films this month with were old hats, though it turned out there were loads of films from across a century of history that we hadn't seen yet. Take Nightmare on Elm Street 2, for example: a film which ended the career of its closeted gay lead. "Scream, Queen!", the extremely good documentary on the film's queer history and its arguable narrative of a character desperately murdering all the terrifying symbols in his life of nascent homosexuality, points out that the creators have managed a weird sleight of hand: avoiding responsibility for the queer subtext while it was politically unpalatable while receiving the credit after it was recouperated as a piece of queer cinema. This dancing around the issue is pretty morally questionable, but it actually has much to do with the film's enduring artistic interest. The film isn't a feel good queer movie or something, and it's kind of a mess in a lot of ways, but its messiness, its plausible deniability, is way more exciting and chaotic, in my opinion, than some more self-consciously "intellectual" horror, which pins its themes carefully into a holistic firmament. That spirit of chaos is often what draws me to horror in strange ambivalent ways. (The mesmerizing homoeroticism of Suspiria and The Lighthouse come to mind, as well as the apocalyptic post-gender and post-sexual weirdness of Tetsuo The Iron Man.)

Watching Annihilation with a bunch of other queer folks is interesting because we all came to a consensus quickly that the all-women cast were dyky as hell and a lot of them had some decent chemistry. This wasn't just fanfictional speculation but noting things like the struggles of the cast with mental health issues and addiction and the breakdown of their heterosexual relationships as resonating with our own experiences. What makes the reading interesting though is precisely its closetedness, its subtextuality. The characters after all treat the queering force of the Shimmer with fear and hostility (again compare Nightmare II).

That resonates with queer readings of horror. Susan Stryker for example famously identifies Frankenstein's Monster with transsexuals and thinks we should reclaim the slurs leveled against us: Monster. Creature. Abomination against nature. Isn't the force of the Shimmer exactly the kind of radically transformative intervention that allows people to alter their body chemistry, their hormones, their brain patterns, and their primary and secondary sex characteristic with medical intervention, scrambling their being? 

Being a creature, Susan Stryker points out, deposes us from our egotistical place as "lords of creation". The Shimmer shows that we are the same raw matter as everything else and can be mixed and matched like a bunch of really complicated Mr Potatoes Head. For some of the characters, realizing this ultimately seems to be a kind of spiritual redemption. One of the most astonishing moments of the film sees Josie suggest that the attempts to stand above the Shimmer as either master (to understand it) or conqueror (to kill it), and to risk the horror this pose of conflict represents, is a mistake. She doesn't want either of those things. Instead she simply walks off into a field and disappears. It is implied that she simply becomes a flower bush which is maybe one of the most astonishingly sapphic things I've ever seen in cinema. Just, straight up turn into a Georgia O'Keefe painting, absolutely. The scene hits for me precisely because it resists us in our perspective alongside the main character. From the perspective of comphet the transformation isn't comprehensible or knowable.

Of course one of the team members, Anya, is out as a dyke from the start, which is pretty cool. She reacts maybe the worst to the situation though, flipping her shit as her body starts changing, trying to kill the others, and ultimately getting ripped apart by a mutated bear monster that carries the remnant consciousness of her dead companion Cass. It's weird to approach her with a queer reading of transformation in the Shimmer given she's already apparently out and proud.

Except that plenty of queer folks get to a particular point on their journey and conclude that they need go no further. No matter what their bodies and minds tell them they just don't budge, they get stuck. Maybe this is another galaxy brain take but I feel like this perceives identity and being in the world as these resolvable things that you figure out in your 20s or teens or early 30s and then just live with, and the older I get the more skeptical of that I am. Particularly when I run into say gay and lesbian transphobes obviously terrified of the possibility they aren't done breaking down the assumptions they grew up with about gender.

From this perspective the end of the film represents not a triumph but a tragic failure. Rather than an attempt to reconcile with the transformation, to even choose to control the manner of its coming as Josie does, Kane, Ventress, and Lena all confront the entity in the lighthouse (a potent symbol of revelation and guidance!) and treat it as a hostile invading force. Ultimately, Lena kills it.

But.

When Oscar Isaac's Kane stares into the camera operated by his doppleganger to ask "If I wasn't Kane, what was I? Was I you? Are you me?" he's also implicitly asking the viewer, who happens to be a trans woman in my case. So, is Kane also trans? It'd be interesting if he was, right? I mean, the monologue opens with "I thought I was a man," for goodness sake. We don't get the reveal of his duplication till the end of the shot, of course, which is another cool bit of pulp sci fi horror. But in those moments when it's unresolved, his questions are strange and poetic, haunted by the possibility that identity is way more fluid than we're given to understand. Chaos.

When Lena and her doppleganger do their dancing fight it's clear that the entity doesn't quite understand what's happening, that it is learning from her, that it's emerging as some sort of mirror to her. Ultimately Lena teaches the entire vast organism that summoned the Shimmer what she knows how to do best of all: self destruct. Her gift to it is to learn how to blow yourself up. It's a gift that anyone who's detransitioned or gone back in the closet or repressed a desire that wasn't socially acceptable probably can recognize.

This is a subtext, a reading I feel in my gut before I put it into words, and it's powerful because it emerges in this unexpected place. Lena and Kane attempt to transform themselves into something that can kill off their own self knowledge, their realization that their old lives just don't fucking work. But there's still a rainbow shimmering in their eyes. Gloriously, the monster, the creature, the affront to nature that is the Shimmer and its queer becoming, still exists and can continue to spread and transform these people and their world.

Teratologists love to point out that "monster" comes from words meaning "divine portent" or "warning". That's frequently what they are in modern stories if you think about it. Certainly the monsters of the Shimmer are just portents of the greater weirding of reality. Susan Stryker characterises the omen of her body thus: "the nature you bedevil me with is a lie." Just like my chimera bark voice, my mutating body carries a spectral omen too. The thing you thought was solid was not. The identity you thought was so coherent was only so many lego blocks to be mixed up or dropped and scattered on the floor. The wholeness and wholesomeness you cling to will not save you.

Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains... 

Annihilation

This Has Been

Galaxy Brained

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2 comments:

  1. I had a similar reading of this film when I saw it in theaters (as a (then) closeted/self-loathing trans woman), and was a little surprised to not see it discussed at the time. I was picking up on the subtextually queer stuff by the time that Jodie's scene happened and then was dumbstruck at the bluntness of Kane's tape at the end. Honestly, this reading of the movie probably helped me contextualize what I was feeling about things and led me to eventually come out.

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  2. i can't believe that i, a trans woman who loves the video game We Know The Devil and who is all about embracing the monstrous and who set the annihilation sound to her text tone the day after first watching the film, did not understand until i read this article that *that* is why i loved this movie so much

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