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Sunday, June 27, 2010

You're Full of Shit - But I Still Love You: "Duplicity"

"Governments, Mr. Scofield!" shouted Guilderone, his eyes on fire. "Governments are obsolete! They can no longer be permitted to function as they have functioned throughout history. If they do, this planet will not see the next century. Governments as we have known them are no longer viable entities. They must be replaced."

"By whom? With what?"

The old man softened his voice; it became hollow, hypnotic. "By a new breed of philosopher-kings, if you like. Men who understand this world as it has truly emerged, who measure its potential in terms of resources, technology and productivity, who care not one whit about the color of a man's skin, or the heritage of his ancestors, or what idols he may pray to. Who care only about his full productive potential as a human being. And his contribution to the marketplace…In our world, nations can keep their leaders, people their identities. But governments will be controlled by the companies. Everywhere. The values of the marketplace will link the peoples of the world!"

Bray caught the word and it revolted him. "Identities? In your world there are no identities! We're numbers and symbols on computers! Circles and squares."

"We must forfeit degrees of self for the continuity of peace."

"Then we are robots!"

"But alive. Functioning!"

"How? Tell me how? 'You, there! You're not a person any more; you're a factor. You're X or Y or Z, and whatever you do is measured and stored on wheels of tape by experts trained to evaluate factors. Go on, factor! Be productive or the experts will take your loaf of bread away…or the shiny new car!'" Scofield paused in a fever. "You're wrong, Guilderone. So wrong. Give me an imperfect place where I know who I am."

- from Robert Ludlum's novel The Matarese Circle (1979)

Look at Ludlum's espionage-novel writing, thirty years later, twenty years after the Cold War has ended, and analyze some aspects of it. For one thing, when Ludlum was writing this, cyber-noir literature was emerging, transplanting aspects of noir and espionage into the future. It was science fiction, but a new kind of science fiction, urgently related to the present moment in terms of cultural and political implications. Things had been forecasted by Phillip K. Dick whose work led to Ridley Scott's film Blade Runner in 1982, followed two years later by the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer that would be soon become realities. In cyber fiction, Dick, Scott, and Gibson all painted a world in congruence with Ludlum's prediction, related to a sceptical perception of capitalism: the corporations had taken over and were more powerful than the governments (Gibson's Count Zero in 1987 would most explicitly deal with this theme). Meanwhile, human citizens gradually became robotic cyborgs altering their nature (and estranging themselves from real space and real time) with a growing dependence on gadgetry and technology. Again, this is verbalized in the Ludlum novel. Humans could be successful as corporate workers at the expense of an introspective sense of identity, and to wake up and be reflective, filled with memories and experiences, is countered by an abyss: Blade Runner's Deckard, (Harrison Ford) at the conclusion, is quite possibly a robot whose intelligence is artificial; identity is destroyed by the raw determinism of mechanics. In allegiance to companies governing us by controlling the proverbial pay-roll along with our sense of security and purpose, we become automatons.

Ludlum is often considered to be closest to the "Thinking Man"'s espionage novelist, as compared to Tom Clancy, Stephen Hunter, W.E.B. Griffin, Vince Flynn, and company. This may be due to the acclaim received by the trilogy of Bourne films, based on his novels. In truth, as evidenced by the opening section of this essay, he's still a popular novelist and not at all a “literary” author, though some of his ideas are relevant and posed deeper questions regarding Cold War espionage than were given by his peers (and he is a fun read). In effect, Ludlum perfectly saw the destination of late capitalism following the Cold War, wherein espionage became more than thrilling action and morphed fully with cyberfiction. William Gibson finally told us that the Future is Now, it just isn't evenly distributed, and following this dictum Gibson has been able to cease setting his novels in the future: Pattern Recognition and Spook Country are modern-day explorations of the post-human (made incandescent by post-9/11) condition, while retaining the feeling of science fiction. Cinema has caught up with Ludlum and Gibson. There's a reason why The Departed homages Blade Runner in its Chinatown pursuit.

When Ludlum's work was finally adapted to the screen with the Bourne franchise, the analytical viewer could take special note of some recurring ideas and images: most conspicuously Nature is at odds with a mechanical/digital world - the pursuit of authentic identities (the first novel/film is titled "Bourne Identity") versus the corporate Self created for the fulfillment of an occupation. The spies and assassins in this world are reduced to robots, Bourne himself finding his defenses in mechanical reflexes that he doesn't understand. The futility of the "job" is realized in the melancholy acknowledgement between Clive Owen's dying assassin and Jason Bourne near the conclusion of the first picture. The third film found itself soaked in water, a symbol for our primal biological origin, in which Jason Bourne ultimately descends, escaping the carved stone, steel, and plastic of the cyber-culture.

A screenwriter for all three films was Tony Gilroy, whom would go on to make his directing debut with one of my favorite films of the last five years, Michael Clayton, another examination of corporate corruption, malleable identities (the protagonist's name refers, after all, to clay), and the confusion of real with virtual space. Gilroy's complicated script shuffled time, not necessarily for the unveiling of startling plot twists, but rather to confuse our sense of what is real. The opening images of Michael Clayton (George Clooney) in a foggy rural field, in his suit while approaching some horses, perfectly fits our movie going expectations of a disturbed dream, or a crisis of interior consciousness. But rather, we discover that these spaces of nature that mirror our longing for the Real are indeed forgotten realms made real, referring to the urgency with which Michael Clayton must act to assert his identity in a world programmed to exterminate idiosyncrasies. Gilroy playfully uses a string of analogies referencing cancer: the law firm for which Michael works is defending a pharmaceutical company whose product may have caused cancer; just as the drugs must work to exterminate cancers, so too must Michael, a "fixer," exterminate problems in various cases. His mentor (Tom Wilkinson), depends on anti-depressants, and when he chooses to stop using them, he becomes a "cancer" within the company ("I am the God Shiva bringer of Death") who must be "fixed," if not by Clayton, then by hired assassins. In Gilroy's picture, there is a binding relationship between the Body and the Governing Structure, between processes of Flesh and processes of the Corporation. Tilda Swinton's tainted lawyer in Michael Clayton is first seen profusely sweating with an accent on her physicality (Gilroy deliberately means to capture whatever roll of fat as she bends over): her corporeality is one with the corporation, just as the Wilkinson character's damaged brain chemistry reflects an accurate state of the company's practices. We need a pill to help us into a state of “wellness,” and though a deviation outside of that paradigm may represent the truth, it must first be seen as madness, safely "unreal," the same way the audience instinctively interprets the film's dreamlike prologue. The urgency of what’s really happening invites chaos into the world, which must be destroyed by the constant flow of capital growth, yet must also be confronted for an individual to grasp, with attention, a sense of something abstract, far beyond those letters and numbers that Ludlum wrote about in The Matarese Circle.

Gilroy's new film is an interesting continuation of the themes that have interested him for the better part of the last decade.Duplicity has a similarly complex structure in its time shuffles, as the viewer depends on the unveiling of whatever concrete information the filmmakers can offer, much like the corporate fat-cats fishing for clues that will enable them to capitalistically control the universe. It completes the cycle anticipated by Ludlum, as it is an espionage movie where the warring countries have been replaced by corporations. It's also a project of some interest to anyone that has followed Gilroy's career as a screenwriter and director, being that it's a light comedy, and often quite funny. The opening physical battle between the dueling corporate heads (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) is delightful in its superfluous execution, while essentially being perhaps the most satisfying slow-motion capture of sustained violence seen since Alex pummelled Dim and Georgie-Boy into the Thames in A Clockwork Orange back in 1971 (Zack Snyder thus has nothing on Kubrick or Tony Gilroy in his own fetishized approach). The allusion is subtle enough. Kubrick was showcasing a world where people were less interested in human beings than products: the same thugs that would rape women also politely say "pardon me" to a mannequin; and then these thugs would be hired by the authorities, be it the police (where Dim and Georgie-Boy would end up), or working as government heavies, which we can assume is Alex's destination. Gilroy's Duplicity, set from 2003-2008, is saturated in a place where people exist solely as self-interested pawns in a corporation, searching for capital growth and financial freedom at the expense of ethics or empathy. This is, after all, where evolution has landed: outside of our biological brothers and sisters, and into the growth and development of the Institution. The CEO Howard Tully, played by Wilkinson, details this transition of evolution, recalling Ned Beatty’s monologue in Network. "Evolution's new stage is the Corporate Self," he says while trimming some plants in his spacious office. The CEO, so Tully believes, acts as Intelligent Designer in this process, the development of products in relation to the excitement of shareholders dictating the branching out of growth without a final destination. That both of the companies featured in Duplicity, Equikrom and Burkett & Randall, should specialize in products (lotions and creams, which we should remember are quite distinct!) geared towards the preservation, manipulation, and refashioning of the human body, makes Gilroy's Corporation/Body analogy all the more interesting. The science is controlled by the companies, which will distribute the science to humans, who are able to cheat their own science (be it bad skin, or most detrimentally in the case of Duplicity, baldness) in order to be more presentable in the corporate interfaces of post-human evolution. One can be wholly manicured and manipulated with the help of investments to these companies so as to fully be made another being. Our biology no longer has a bearing on our sense of Identity.

Indeed, nothing does – other than one's allegiance to late capitalist goals. The two protagonists of Duplicity (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) represent the quandary of male/female relationships in a society guided by Ayn Randian self-advancement: Empathy? Sympathy? Love? Honesty? These play out as performance pieces, always about deception with the end-game of self-gain. Perhaps the story of two spies sleeping together had to be a satire for Gilroy, being that this kind of cynicism, which is increasingly self-evident, demands laughter so as to bear out its negative implications. The two lovers meet in Dubai, sleep together, and Roberts drugs Owen in order to steal documents. What follows are a series of sexual adventures where the two are devoted to outwitting the other as they struggle to keep a stable relationship. It is impossible to trust the other, let alone know what the other is thinking – though in all fairness, Roberts' Claire Stanwyk comes across as the more duplicitous of the two, being that she seems to have less of a conscience, while Owen's Ray Koval fulfills his male role of being a chump for love. They probably love each other, in as far as they are capable of "affection," but they have been programmed to be untrusting. Lying in bed together in a fancy Roman hotel, they imagine what it would be like to "live like this" (in Gilroy's fortunate spaces reserved for the rich CEOs of planet Earth) all the time. They estimate it would take $30-40 million, and hatch a plan to work as corporate spies, covertly working against their employers in order to acquire whatever new formula that arrives to change the world for bodily maintenance. They will steal it and then sell it to a third party in Switzerland, financing their financial freedom.

Romantics need to tread carefully here. We can remember the unabashed romanticism of Slumdog Millionaire where Jamal tells his lady that they can live their lives sustaining themselves "on love." On the Millionaire broadcast, he's more interested in getting her attention and communicating to her then he is interested in winning. He doesn't care if she gives him the wrong answer as his life-line. He just wants to talk to her. The person matters more than the incentive. It's a matter of symbolic exchanges versus capital ones, human perspectives instead of economic ones. A human being's capability to love is related to their ability to sympathize and understand the Other, where thoughts are fluid, not zero sum facts. The Randian rationalism is purely mechanical. Neuroscientists tell us that our ability to think abstractly and sympathize with others is gradually disappearing because of our dependence on digital technologies and social networks, where everything is black/white binary codes. Most eerily, the biological reflexes of a human body have been integrated into the language of technology, and what was once basic communication has morphed into the space of our projected Selves (the phenomenon of the "LOL" is such an example). The wild card in Duplicity is the question of whether or not these two would bother being together if their plan is foiled: do they value the other, or is their romance dependent on concrete capital gains?

Because this world has no room for grey area, Gilroy only allows the audience in on the inner lives of the characters on a need-to-know basis. A spat between the two emerges as a simulated conversation that they knew would be recorded by their co-workers, further embedding them in the trust of their respective companies. Every transaction/conversation between beings is recorded by the surveilling technologies (cell phones, cameras, even copiers). The photos of Ray having sex with a corporate drone that would enable the duplicitous conspirators deeper into Burkett & Randle's secrets are more disturbing to Claire than the actual idea. Reality exists in the official form of media, in print where it can be scrutinized and analyzed. The audience too has its reactions governed by the unveiling of "footage" in the form of flashbacks.

The Corporation wins out. Harry Tully has been operating the matrix within the matrix, so to speak, his own moles onto Claire and Ray from the outset. He leaked the existence of a wonder product to cure baldness not to give hope, but just to destroy his competitor. The greedy self-interest of Claire and Ray was an essential element needed to complete this stage of his Corporate Evolution. Claire and Ray are metaphors for the prospective worker in the late-capitalist culture. The fantasy of freedom is what every being dreams of and grapples onto, even deep into middle age. The corporation feeds on this hunger for financial actualization (so much more important than personal "individuation") in order to achieve its own cancerous growth. Broken and beaten, they are once more alone together in a spacious hotel, but seem isolated from each other, with only words to "re-assure" the other that they are not alone. But in Duplicity, where the Self is hidden and transparent even from the subject's gaze, all that is left is loneliness, even a sense of self-estrangement. In this sense, Gilroy's film perfectly mirrors the present, a time when Ayn Rand has been selling at an accelerated rate. Gilroy understands that people view self-interest as a virtue – they just don't know they do. By necessity, in a mechanical world where new technologies have developed to adjust human nature, we must not only be duplicitous to each other, but most importantly to ourselves.

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