Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lady From Shanghai

Code 46(2003)
Directed By Micheal Winterbottom
There should be a genre of film dedicated to watching Samantha Morton dance around in neon lights at nightclubs. A good chunk of Morvern Callar was dedicated to just that, and really it’s the kind of “special effect” I could watch for hours on end. Roland Emmerich could do a “They Short Horses Don’t They?” remake where she has to keep dancing or else the world explodes, and every time she takes a water break, another continent can sink into the ocean, he could even purchase the name from Richard Linklater’s documentary about Speed Levitch, and call it “Shiva’s Dance Floor”. Such is the allure of the only S & M that interests me on screen today, which at one point does involves some bondage, but I swear it’s the most purely romantic, almost metaphysical, bondage ever. Aside from my obvious personal gushing, I have no problem calling Code 46 one the best science fiction of the films of the decade. The only other contenders whose quality comes close to it are Alfonso Cuaron’s “Children Of Men” which used a spell binding first person and lack of easy musical cues to drop us into it’s post-apocalyptic wasteland, and Cameron Crowe’s much maligned (and misunderstood) “Vanilla Sky” which took us into the mind of a wealthy later 20th century narcissist who really was living in a bubble universe of his own design, that resembled equal parts music video and torrid soap opera (and a rare instance of a remake being, yes, superior to the original). Code 46 is on the surface level of plot not as interesting as the other two, it’s about a star crossed love affair in a dystopian future world. Like those two though, it isn’t the concept that makes the film (see District 9), it’s the execution. We never get too much back-story about what kind of specific kind of dystopia we are dealing with, which is one of the films strong points, but we slowly come to understand that Bio-Politics are the grand signifier of the day, reducing all others to bureaucratic procedure.The planet seems to be sectioned into two kinds of area and two kinds of people; those who have health insurance and those who don’t. This insurance is often just called, “Coverage” (don’t leave home without it). The Code 46 itself, we are told in the opening credits, is a law which forbids genetically similar couples from reproducing.The relations of one are the relations of all” the titles say, and the first rule of genetics after all is to spread the genes around to increase variation. Reproducing with more genetically similar people increases the chance of preserving the same “bad” genes, inherited diseases, deficiencies, etc. Apparently, these genetic quirks are enough not only to be deemed un-insurable, but to cause mandatory termination of any resultant pregnancy and for repeat offenders other more serious measures. Those without insurance cannot travel from one country or even city to another. There is an “Outside” largely in the Middle East, where these new laws are not applicable, and the corporations less sway. Language has now become a more pronounced multi-lingual affair than it is today, where all citizens speak a Pidgin dialect of mostly English but also Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Farsi and Mandarin.
This new language is an especially clever creation, in relation to the post-modern melancholy of films like Babel (which I liked) and Shijie (which I am not such a big fan of). In Code 46 the world becomes a global village, and like a village its regulations are tighter, stricter, and more interested in the collective than the individual. Many sci-fi films play this game of good individual vs. bad group-think, and there is nothing new about that, but Code 46 has no bad guys, outside of its main two characters, who betray each other in the most romantic of ways.Its essentially a tale of romance gone sour, told in a world less futuristic than it is “more modern”, a soft sci-fi world cloned in a pitri dish from a fragment of this very decade and moment in history. Code 46 by Michael Winterbottom (whose 24 Hour Party People, is the only film I’ve seen) begins with Tim Robbins traveling to Shanghai, sent by his company in the US to investigate counterfeit pass-ports called papels”. These papels allow a person to travel from one place to another, and most characters in the film agree “there is usually a good reason if someone can’t get coverage”. Robbins is on an “empathy virus” which allows him to “feel” what others around him are thinking provided they tell him something about themselves first. This makes him an excellent agent for sniffing out moles and corporate smugglers. His interrogations are at turns banal, fascinating and in one of my favorite moments in the film both hilarious and personally edifying, where after a day of these discussions, Robbins asks a woman to tell him something interesting and she confesses a sexual fetish for people with freckles. She wonders why there is pornography dedicated to women’s breasts and their legs, even feet, but none dedicated to freckles. Woman: There is no freckles pornography. William: Well, there is "Anne of Green Gables". Woman: I consider "Anne of Green Gables" to be an erotic masterpiece. Then Robbins meets Samantha Morton, and he is instantly smitten. So smitten in fact even though he knows she is the counter-fitter he blames someone else, to let her off the hook, and then follows her after work. She notices him and the two go out for a drink, where she tells him openly how and why she is stealing, even meeting her client, a naturalist who wants to go to New Delhi to study bats, in front of him. Robbins is more than a little uncomfortable being this close to the very criminal world he was sent to uncover, but is too allured by Morton to leave. They have perhaps the sexiest club scene I have ever seen recorded, set to Freakpower’s “Song #6” where the camera becomes Robbin’s POV, and Morton dances for him/us beneath the neon light, close enough to the camera, where its as if we can smell her breath. Steamy as this brief moment is, it establishes an important visual reference (POV shot), which will be used again in the films climax. Long story short, they have an affair and the next day Robbins returns home to his wife and son in America. When he goes back to work the next day, he is told that the leak he was sent to plug still exists. A naturalist was found dead in New Delhi dead because he was especially susceptible to a rare disease the citizens of the city have grown immunity too; a particularly slow and painful death. Robbins is told he has to return to China. Though he excuses his lapse in conduct, as the result of the empathy virus malfunctioning. He can’t get a hold of Morton on the phone either, who seems to have disappeared.
Much more happens over the course of the film, calling for more globe trekking and the technological revelations. Some people have complained that we are not told enough about the “laws of the universe” at the beginning of the film, and that the plot just interjects a useful Duex Ex Machina wherever it needs one (a criticism similarly and maybe more honestly heaped on “Vanilla Sky”). Personally I think the omission of these details makes the film much closer to real life experience, where technology is ever present and very much deterministic of how we live our lives, but largely not discussed and taken for granted. The nickname given to a character in a sci-fi story who has the task of explaining everything to everyone (usually a scientist or eccentric of some sort) is called a “Bore”. Code 46 is free of Bore’s and asks us to connect its puzzle pieces, both technological and literary. By the third act, the film does become an almost direct allegory of Oedipus (the corporation Robbins and Morton work for is called “Sphinx”), but to return to the global village idea for a moment, in village life where communities are smaller, arranged marriages make more sense than in urban life. If most of the people in the village can easily become cousins, a third party (a village elder with some memory of the family trees that comprise the ancestral forest) might become necessary to assist in ensuring the genes get spread, so the “health” and prosperity of the village may continue. Many cultures ancient and modern consider birth defects as evidence of some kind of curse. “Changelings” were creatures who fairies would place in a crib after they stole a baby, and are now considered a way of explaining children born deformed or mentally abnormal, “That’s not my real baby, it’s some monster they replaced him with, etc.” There are variations of the myth throughout Europe, West Africa, and the Philippines. The fear of the imperfect or genetically impure child appears in other soft sci-fi films like Gattaca”, but is especially interesting in Code 46, because it’s world is one of almost Utopian racial harmony (albeit the Babel-speak everyone talks in mainly English.)
:::SpoilerAlert:::We come to discover that Robbins and Morton are actually a 50% genetic match. Meaning Morton is one of handful of eggs cloned from the same women Robbin’s mother was. Making Morton genetically identical to Robbin’s mother. Code 46 is meant to protect against incest since cloning has become so widespread, that many people on around the world, really are family. Even Robbins himself is one several cloned eggs:::SpoilerOver.:::Perhaps this split between the quirky Wong Kar Wai-ish romance at the beginning and the Oedipal abstraction of the end, seems too distracting and unnatural after first viewing, and admittedly it is jarring, but even though the film expands its sci-fi universe and by default the stories internal logic with an almost reckless abruptness, it ends up capturing an emotional logic that’s even more effective.Emotions are abstract things, and what to me feels right might to another smack of bullshit, which is why I try to refrain (sometimes) from talking about how movies “feel”, but forgetting for a second the implication that Robbins is looking for a mother/savior surrogate to save him from his humdrum dystopian life like Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”.
The movie is about a couple who have a one night stand, resulting in unexpected sexual consequences (something besides incest, a subject more ticklish in fact, and much closer to real life) who take a romantic risk to have one moment together in impossible and doomed-from-the start conditions. Why doesn’t Robbin’s stop her from using the phone, for example? Code 46 is about a relationship that defies laws, languages, and borders both genetic and national. Where “Babel” saw separation, Code 46 sees the potential for new tangential encounters, even in an over-regulated world where everything is kept in it’s place and monitored (many times the camera becomes Big Brother POV of leering security cameras).
It’s also interesting that Robbin’s has an “empathy virus”, an implication at least semantically, that sensitivity to the feelings of other human beings is a disease. After Robbins is captured he is absolved of any guilt on the basis that his empathy was out of wack and clouding his judgment.
One question the film asks is whether love is only a pre-determined biological response, a disease of hyper-sensetive empathy, a Fruedian orroboros, a hypnotic suggestion, fate, memory, or chance? It's short of answers, as the psychic rugs are constantly pulled out from under the lovers. Memories are stored, erased, and reformed throughout the film with a shocking casualness (which lesser films would build an entire plot around).
If memories can be manipulated by government/corporate groups, it would be a dystopia more horrifying than anything in Orwell. You can’t commit crime if you can’t remember what you did. Transgressions or rebellion would simply be deleated. More interesting still, remembering is used as a form of punishment to those who would rather forget. A fate in some ways an even crueler than mandatory forgetfullness.
Basically the small details of Code 46 could amount to entire film franchises (ex: the people of Shanghais only come out at night, because of implied ozone problems), but thankfully that’s not what Winterbottom is interested in. It’s a simple story about a complex world, both strange and sincere, and strange again.
As a modern rendition of an ancient Greek classic, updated with much of “Until The End Of The World’s” romantic globe spanning cyberpunk ambitions, and what Duncan Jone’s called the “I-pod chic” of Steven Soderberg’s “Solaris”, Code 46 is full of the kind of surprises, ideas, sounds, styles, and images I go the movies for. Sad to think I ignored this when it was first released as it could have only been improved on the big screen. I never thought any film could end with a Coldplay song and evoke anything in me but utter contempt, but God help me I was moved, and Morton wasn’t even dancing at the time.

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