May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
April 3, 2009
Unless you either caught it at this year’s Cinequest or are planning to attend the upcoming Migrating Forms, I don’t think your chances of catching Alejandro Adams’ latest film, Canary, are very good. But I hope it secures the distribution it deserves. Set in a near-future science-fiction, Canary trails a repossession agent (the bewitchingly ghostly Carla Pauli) of a corporation that leases organs to clients. When clients fail to keep up with the contracted exercise and diet requirements, these agents quietly recover Canary Industries Corporation property in non-descript vans. Much of the film is taken up with eavesdropping on the conversations monitored by this Canary agent, which often occur in unsubtitled languages. At times it moves back and forth between its bare bones storyline and the Orwellian business meetings behind the entire fiasco. But Canary‘s narrative world is largely voyeuristic, disconnected, and focused on evoking the chaos of its depiction of advertising and biological commerce gone wrong.
It is tough to watch Adams’ films without thinking about cinema itself. Even though his storylines are so immersive, his editing process seems controlled by the same questions about the way we see and hear that are explored in similarly verité films. And with the science fiction context of Canary, I couldn’t help but filter most of it through Susan Sontag’s 1965 essay “The Imagination of Disaster.” By stripping down his camerawork to such bare elements, he also undoes a lot of the patterns and conventions we usually expect from science fiction. Whether it is intentional or not, Canary makes a lot of the same points as Sontag, who criticized her era of science fiction filmmaking as a fantasy that we use to cope with the terrors of the technological age. It was Xanax for people with acute cases of bomb-consciousness. The opening paragraph from her essay:
“For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated-by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”
Canary has an active imagination of disaster, but it extends beyond the typical science fiction film preoccupation with what Sontag describes as an “aesthetic view of destruction and violence.” Through special effects and cunning set pieces we have watched the world burn and explode dozens of times, only to live through these proxy apocalypses to watch them again during the next round of summer blockbusters. We are granted play-it-now access to “living through one’s own death and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.” Science fiction can quickly become a form of nihilistic therapy.
But Adams’ imagination of disaster is aware of its own duplicitous history. How does one film the near-future devolution of the world without allowing its audience to walk away absolved of its consequences? How can we do science fiction world-building in such a way that the genre’s prophetic bent remains directed towards its unsettling questions about humanity and the future rather than circling back around to make us feel more comfortable about the ever-present now? Adams’ answer is sown all throughout his awkwardly paced, disjointed, audience-unfriendly film. Embedded in Canary is a form of dread that only increases as the film moves from language to language, conversation to conversation, and through all those immobile passages of silence in between. The narrative seems oblique because it is. Adams simply abandons the idea that science fiction needs to bring us full circle, that dystopian disasters need the genre’s standard survivor’s dawn, and instead leaves us immersed in the loose ends of his script. The form of the future is every bit as disjointed and opaque as the present. The best science fiction trades in hieroglyphs.
Samuel Delany did this same thing at the end of Dhalgren with the lines: “Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the hills, I have come to” which then lead directly back into the first sentence of the book. The terrifying dystopia described in the many intervening pages remains confusing and unsettling through this unexpected twist in the reading process. Similarly, Haneke’s Time of the Wolf ends in flames, robbing us of the possibility of anticipation. Stalker vanishes in an absurd mist of contemplation and Solaris in a cascade of water on a vast roiling sea.
Adams doesn’t seem interested in these kinds of grand gestures. His filmmaking is far more interested in the quiet and compact movement of actors and dialogue across barely scripted scenes. But he arrives at the same place as these open-ended uses of science fiction images, which grope for fuller poetic realizations of their ideas. The quieter scenes of Canary, during which this repossession agent becomes a mute stand-in for our own inevitable process of reflection on this near-future corporate nightmare, achieve a similar ambiguity. If Sontag’s essay needs to be updated for the Information Age, Canary’s thoughtful forms offer a good starting point.