Thursday, June 21, 2012

Prometheus and Oedipus

The monster of the original Alien series epitomized the fantasy image of the Phallic Mother, especially as developed by psychoanalytic theorist Melanie Klein: a violently intrusive transformation of the maternal breast, onto which was projected the developing child’s conflicted fears and longings for detachment and attachment.  In the second film of the series, James Cameron’s Aliens, the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal dimensions of the drama were highlighted through parallel mother-child relations; Ripley’s connection to her adoptive human daughter competes with the Alien Hive Mother’s bonds to her manifold progeny.

How do parent-child psychosocial relations play out in the Alien more-or-less prequel, Ridley Scott’s Prometheus?  The prelude sequence set by a great waterfall on primeval earth seems a pretty conventional rendition of patriarchal self-sacrifice: as a huge disk-like spacecraft lumbers off, a single extra-terrestrial progenitor consumes a genetically engineered potion so that his body may split apart and fall into the raging torrents, allowing his DNA to seed the waters of the earth.
Self-Sacrificing Engineer
(As in De Palma’s Mission to Mars, we are meant to understand this genetic material as the origin of all DNA on earth, pre-programmed in time to evolve into humans.)  This opening motif of the God that sacrifices Himself for His Creation prefigures the crucifix that Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) wears, itself a reminder of her father the medical missionary, who sacrificed himself for the victims of Ebola.

Oedipal parent-child relations haunt the rest of the film.  The wizened trillionaire Peter Weyland, (Guy Pearce) who unnaturally longs for immortality, has at least two competing progeny--his human daughter Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and his android adoptive son, David (Michael Fassbender)--as well as, perhaps, a quasi parental relationship with Dr. Shaw herself.  Weyland is obsessed with meeting his extraterrestrial maker-father, in the hope that this encounter will grant him new life, and is inevitably killed by the murderous alien hyper-patriarch, who himself will later fall victim to his own octopus-like engineered monstrosity, and give “birth” to the archetypal Xenomorph black creature that will haunt the Alien films. 
Android David ponders holographic Earth

The android David at one point even notes that all children long for their parents’ deaths. We are left uncertain if his scheme to implant Dr. Shaw with the alien bioengineered monstrosity (by first infecting her lover Charlie) is, as in Aliens, a corporate-backed plot for smuggling the creature back to earth as a profitable bioweapon, or if he is driven by Oedipal rage against the entire human race, his collective creators. In any event, David is properly punished by the Engineer Maker for his Oedipal effrontery through symbolic castration, reduced, like the android Bishop in Aliens, to a severed head.

Along the way, we learn that our Erich Van Danekin-esque founding fathers, the patriarchal race of Engineers, had long ago decided, in a manner reminiscent of the unforgiving Jehovah of the Old Testament, that the human race was a big mistake in need of violent eradication. The Oedipal dynamics are further emphasized by the apparent figuring of the founding race of Engineers as all-male; their temple is centered on a giant Olmec-style phallic head. (They need, we gather, the tantalizing female-coded orb of earth in which to implant their seed and reproduce.)

Although the race of Engineers are cast as a vengeful Old Testament Jahweh, the  film’s mythic timeline seems to allow for redemptive intervention by the all-forgiving divine force of the New Testament; a scientific measurement indicates that the bio-engineered calamity  that upset their original plan for global genocide took place “two thousand years ago,” nicely matching up with the period of Jesus’ life and self-sacrifice. Dr. Shaw’s crucifix, in other words, is still allowed its protective efficacy, the promise of a compassionate deity endures, and the child is still offered the redemptive potential of identification with the all powerful father.

At the center of these interlocking Oedipal dramas is Dr. Shaw’s enigmatic pregnancy and robo-surgery act of birth/abortion. (We learn that she is incapable of biological fertility, but alien-assisted pregnancy seems to work just fine.)  It seems telling that the womb-like robotic medical pod in which this bloody event transpires is, according to its robo-voice, designed only for a male patient (presumably, the patriarchal villain Weyland) and thus is incapable of performing a Caesarian, unless duped by the ingenious Dr. Shaw.  The term “abortion” is never used in the film, but the sequence does put one in mind of a reading long ago proposed for the Alien films, that the imagery of the teeming xenomorphs is meant to evoke the legions of aborted fetuses seeking revenge against those who have abandoned them. Similar readings have been proposed for the pop culture image of fetal-like aliens probing the nether regions of human female abductees and the aliens of the movie  Independence Day, who are based in a pernicious “Mothership.”

In any event, in Prometheus the aborted creature doesn’t stalk the mother who has tried to kill it off; rather, having grown to enormous size, it functions as a deus ex machina, killing off the homicidal Engineer father-figure who is hunting Shaw. Partially birthed from Shaw with the assistance of the penetrating robo-surgeon, this creature uncannily synthesizes male and female characteristics, as its vagina-dentata spouts a phallic tube that slithers down the Engineer’s throat, leading to the final “birthing” of the long-awaited specter of the Aliens films.

All of this seems to leave Shaw herself free to fly off, with the assistance of her newly acquired Lacanian Phallus, David’s severed head, in search of the Engineer’s home world--free presumably to sire new sequels yet to come.

Addendum: After I posted the above, Bryce Peake directed me to his perceptive post on the Prometheus trailer, read through the lens of Richard Dyer's analysis of racial symbolism in the original Alien film.  In brief, Dyer argues that the movie Alien, as in much of modern western culture, whiteness is constructed as antithetical to the sticky, slimy business of sexuality, epitomized by the prolifically reproductive all-black xenomorph monster.  Prometheus seems to take this racial/sexual logic a further step:  the founding race of Engineers-Makers is figured as all male, all white, and all-chaste, except through the intervention of hyper-technology. In the film's prelude,  reproduction requires the ingesting of bio-engineered dark matter so that the white engineer's body turns black and his DNA can inseminate the waters of the Mother Earth. In the postlude, we learn that the corpse of the all white Engineer-Father, who had been violently inseminated by the pink colored vagina dentata creature (auto-surgically "birthed" from Dr. Shaw), itself gives birth to the all-black Alien xenomorph. Moments earlier, the survival of Earth and of the white character Elizabeth Shaw had been ensured by the self-sacrifice of the Prometheus' human multicultural crew, led by its heroic black captain Janek (played by Idris Elba).   So in the final shot of escape into outer space, the white Dr. Shaw is left free to roam the universe, "still searching" for the Sublime, armed with the severed head of the blond Aryan David. In this light, the film could be read as a narrative of the reproduction of "whiteness," achieved through the excision of "blackness."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Exhibiting World War II at Central

We’ve been really pleased with the new exhibition developed by our Museum Studies graduating senior Kevin Sodano '12, No Place Untouched by War: The Second World War and Central Washington College of Education,” now on view on Barge Hall’s fourth floor.  The show concentrates on the the 314th Army Air Forces College Training Detachment, stationed at CWCE (the forerunner of Central Washington University) from March 1943 until June 1944.  The show ingeniously develops themes from Kevin’s senior thesis on the training detachment, written under History professor Dan Herman.   The show explores, among other things, isolationism on campus before Pearl Harbor, the early efforts by CWCE President McConnell to bring the training program to campus, and the everyday wartime experiences of cadets on campus (including Kadet-Koed dances!) In addition to thoughtful text incorporating Kevin’s original research and images unearthed in the university archives, the installation includes a period-appropriate Army jacket, a folded 48 star American flag, and several fascinating original letters written by wartime cadets, discovered some years ago by historian Ken Munsell in a crawlspace in Kamola Hall, the residence hall that housed the cadets.  Our hat is off to Kevin for all his hard work, and to the students who helped out with installation in Barge, under the able supervision of my colleague Hope Amason.

Exhibition opening (6/8/12)

We had a delightful opening event for the exhibition on Friday, June 8, the day before Commencement. Kevin was asked to address the Board of Trustees at their final meeting of the academic year; he was joined by WWII veteran combat pilot Jerry Mason, a lifelong resident of Kittitas County, who flew 243 missions in the Pacific in P-38s.  Mr. Mason’s brother in law was a cadet in the 314th program, and he is himself the grandfather of Todd Mason, the president of CWU’s alumni association. ( In the picture to the right, Board of Trustees chair Sid Morrison converses with me and MCE board chair Kathleen Barlow.)

Barge turns out to be a very appropriate setting for the show; its slightly faded walls and wooden features rather nicely evoke a bygone era. A final panel appropriately directs visitors to the striking Roll of Honor on the building’s first floor honoring faculty and students who served in WWII. The roll features a striking wooden relief sculpture, depicting images of the Homefront and all that for which those from Central fought, including wisdom and common humanity. It is a fascinating assemblage, and we hope at some point that it will be properly restored, with some accompanying interpretive signage.  Perhaps a future project for a Museum Studies intern?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Horror Film Exhibition

Recently, my students and I visited the marvelous exhibition, "Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Films," curated by Jacob McMurray with designer Ken Burns (Wondermine) at the EMP/Sci Fi museum in Seattle.  

To my mind, "Can't Look Away" is one of the most sophisticated and thought-provoking exhibitions ever developed on the American cultural landscape. Descending the spiral staircase threshold space, filled with photographs of Seattle citizens cheerfully screaming for the camera, the visitor is cleverly detached from the everyday world and prepared for an entrancing voyage into our collective psychic underworld, the consensual hallucinatory space of the modern horror film. We are quickly lured into the central  'thicket' space, evocative of a midnight cemetery and the twisted angles of German Expressionism, as we find ourselves entangled in small film viewing spaces that are partially visible from outside, and yet which each enclose the viewer in a privatized mini trip to the movies. Several veteran horror film directors (Roger Corman chief among them) deliver remarkably interesting commentaries on the genre. My students and I loved the ingeniously designed timeline, which cleverly links moments in the history of horror flicks to the cultural history of the Cold War; the unit on the music and  soundscapes of horror; and the digitized shadow box that transforms the visitors' bodies into monstrous alter egos.  The show abounds with sly humorous, nuanced touches; my students were especially delighted with the air holes for the Giger-esque Alien, and the hockey mask design element throughout the installation.

I suppose what I most love about the exhibition is, at the end of the day, the respect it has for its audience, which mirrors the campy, surreal playfulness of horror films at their best; not above gaudy moments of shock and awe, to be sure, but always ready with a knowing wink at the viewer, reminding us, as we traverse the labyrinthine corridors of the midnight hour, that we are all in this together.