Code 46, Part 2 of 2

September 24th, 2011 § 0 comments

Thoughts on Code 46, continued…

The “standardized future” as a concept—something which, if not yet entirely real, SF has long been reaching for—is technological in the broadest sense (see Billington via Segal: not only “machines” but “structures, those fixed buildings which form the physical foundations of society” Technological Utopianism, 12). Thus it is not a gadget Code 46 proffers but the complete vision of a world, a production design as cohesive in its way as that of Menzies’ Things to Come, not manufactured but cobbled together from existing architectures and locations. The presentation of a piecemeal future, rather than one of whole cloth, is a measure of cultural difference between the two eras in which these films were made. “‘Found’ spaces” (Code 46 Production Notes, 6) in Dubai, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, London, and Jaipur are fused together in a

“‘creative geography’, often matching the exterior or exit of a building in one well-known city with the entrance or interior of a building in a different city. “We thought that the most interesting thing to do,” says production designer Mark Tildesley, “would be to try to fool the audience by taking the most interesting bits from each location. So you’d have the impression that you were walking out of a door in one city, but you’d actually end up walking out of it into completely different place, somewhere else entirely.”

The net effect of this assembly is to emphasize the homogeneity and interchangeability of an aesthetic we have come to qualify as futuristic. Social critics have long bemoaned the visual monotony common to sites of commerce (malls, office parks, skyscrapers) and public transit (airports, subway cars and stations). Jacques Tati mocked the universal anonymity of modernity with a series of nearly identical travel posters in Playtime, and Ken Kalfus humanized consumer desire in an age of mass production with the playful Calvino tribute “Invisible Malls” (Thirst, 147-153). Indeed, it is almost as if one mall were all malls, one lobby led to all lobbies, and we might pass unremarked from one to another. Splicing these urban environments together construes a contiguous transcontinental urban space whose unifying trait, besides impersonality, is privilege. Producer Andrew Eaton notes the “contradictory architecture” and curious juxtapositions to be found in modern cities like Shanghai and Dubai (C46PN, 6), which came to be reflected in the film’s politics: wasteland and metropolis, poverty and modernity, Reservation and Brave New World. Although distinct, geographically disparate cities are named in the film—a Shanghai that looks like Dubai, a Seattle that looks like Hong Kong—the network of cities known as “inside” functions as a unified first world, a global high future, as if to prove that urbanity according to the theories of Rem Koolhaas were not only feasible, but in a way already here, lacking only the system the movie posits to connect them and hermetically exclude undesirable social elements.

By system I mean, as per Segal, “a coherent, integrated… planned social order in which the components operate regularly and harmoniously” (TU, 17)—in this case, the papelles, which govern people’s movements and lives. Obtaining “cover” to go certain places and do certain things is a central issue in the film. Even (or especially) the comings and goings of William, a creature of the high future, are constrained by cover—though traveling to Shanghai to investigate forged papelles, he is allotted only 24 hour cover for each visit.

The papelles’ visa/passport aspect was inspired by director Winterbottom’s experience with his previous project, a documentary recording the epic passage of two Afghani men from a Peshawar refugee camp to London (C46PN, 5). That permits for mobility should extend their purview to encompass health insurance seems a perfectly plausible SFnal extrapolation—speculative legislation, or “hard” policy, if you will—given the concerns over contagion and epidemic. The stickling medical forms that complicate visa applications, the SARS body heat scans at Asian airports—these are of a piece with the various but uniquely pecuniary upgrades and premium services providing the sort of standardization that smoothes travel. Business express lines, pre-screening, frequent traveler programs—all these entail negotiation over and access to databases of personal information which, if pooled, would hasten an infrastructure enabling the “standardized future.” Throughout William’s effortless journey, designated services await him alone, from the taxi at the airport to the thumbprint coded lock on his hotel room. When my uncle relocated to Hong Kong in 1995, he remarked that he “worked on the 29th floor, lived on the 14th, and rarely ever had to go below the 5th.” William, too, need never interact with anyone his itinerary hasn’t prescribed in advance. The eminent convenience, even imminence, of such services is underwritten by global capitalism. Mobility comes to denote a de facto global elite. The characters’ refrain in the film cannily echoes the prevailing attitude toward health insurance in America before recent reforms: “If people can’t get cover, there’s probably a reason.” This is the rhetoric of a victim who has accepted his lot explaining that lot to himself, or of a fortunate man avoiding sparing a thought for one less so. Standardization enables ease and efficiency, features of every utopia, but also control, the primary feature of its opposite. As William slowly pursues the love affair that will drag him into illegality, the movie’s scenes are increasingly presented as security camera footage with a corporate watermark in the lower right corner. This hallmark of the dystopian surveillance state now hardly seems farfetched.

As a counterpart to the half of the system “consciously designed by society’s leaders,” another aspect of the movie employs a similar collage strategy to depict “less formal daily choices by ordinary citizens” (TU,  17). However, in contrast to the sameness of architecture and locale when fused together, the movie’s invented global pidgin exhibits a lively variety: a motley lingo of English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, Farsi, and Mandarin. This pidgin isn’t systematized, and so quite likely each language carries the implicit class markers we currently associate with them. For example, there is a disproportionate amount of French, a traditionally upper class language, in William’s speech, especially with his family. The effect on our insular, Anglophone ears is exotic in a way the settings are not. This pidgin feels more at home in the movie’s nightclubs, street markets, and the feral afuera than in its glass-and-steel offices. In fact, English—our “global” language—is the movie’s least colorful.  Many peripheral functionaries in the film—pharmacists, nurses, receptionists, middle managers—speak an officialese collaged together from the very sorts of set customer service phrases, invariably in English and parroting politeness, that employees at helpdesks outsourced to the third world now use. The diversity of languages is matched by that rare coup, a diverse cast. With prominent Indian, Japanese, French, British, and American actors, the film presents multiculturalism not as a political agenda, but as a dispassionate fact of life (thematically warranted by the movie’s premise). The future population is a globo-genetic bouillabaisse made, as the opening titles explain, from “IVF, DI embryo splitting, and cloning techniques.” Samantha Morton’s Maria speaks with an indeterminate Euro accent, and though without Hispanic features, bears the surname Gonzales.

Lazarsfeld and Merton have noted the power of mass media to confer and legitimize status. The power of photography to confer a compelling futuristic aura on the monuments of modernism should not be underestimated. The cantilevered living room of Pierre Koenig’s Stahl House, John Lautner’s flying saucer Chemosphere, Eero Saarinen’s JFK terminal—these look more real in, say, the architectural photography of Julius Shulman than they do in life; they are more themselves. Rather, the future they seem to be part of, to have come to us from, is more convincingly conjured, more easily imagined, in these pristine images. Individually or especially in series, buildings as presented in such photos seem to imply a world of like structures beyond the edges of the frame. Similarly, as in an album, slideshow, or exhibit of such photos, it is sum of images, the totality of the movie’s construal of a high future that convinces us of its existence. Technology appears in its native environment, the place where it makes the most sense. Thus the illusion of futurity lies in a consummate provision of context. In this scheme, sparingly or strategically placed, the people serve the architecture, and not the other way around. These locations seem to force conformity—of posture, behavior, uniform—on their denizens. William Geld is repeatedly made minuscule, and later even lost and forlorn, by Winterbottom’s framing of him in the high future world: a man amidst repeated escalators, endless curving balconies, blackly gleaming floors, a hail of vertically suspended fluorescent bulbs.

The low future is, conversely, past-ridden, distinguished by irreconcilable heterogeneity. It is, so to speak, a victim of poor production design, in that nothing there matches. From the immaculate high future tradition is expunged; in the low it keeps obstinate, somewhat risible company with technology, which is always decontextualized, never in its place. The ancestral hand-embroidered carpet hangs on the wall beside the dusty fax machine, several models old, in the antique light and street noise from the open window. Yet this patchwork look is precisely what Bruce Sterling identifies as vital and generative, “Favela Chic”:

“We are into an era of decay and repurposing of broken structures… a crooked networked bazaar of history and futurity, rather than a cathedral of history, and a utopia of futurity…

[T]he other symbol is the favela slum, the informalized, illegalized, heavily networked structure of the emergent new order. The things that… have not been domesticated or brought into sociality.”

However deprived—or perhaps by dint of it—the people of the “outside” are resourceful. When William visits a clinic on the outside in hopes of rescuing Maria, the “empathy virus” that is the basis of the investigative acumen fails him for the first time, blocked by the antiviral bacteria suffusing the clinic, which immediately give him the sniffles. He is forced to barter (and the only thing he has of value are the first world recreational drugs). This ragtag, destitute, squatter future is what the film posits against its sterile future. It will be heard. It will persist. It will not be banished.

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