Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'm on a Plane

Earth is out of bounds for us now; it remains a planet accessible only through media.
(Otolith I

We are travelling at an altitude of 35,996 and a speed of 556 miles per hour over the southernmost tip of India. I can chart our progress on the screen on the back of the seat in front of me, which also includes a USB port, a power point, and a handheld device doubling (quadrupling?) as a remote control and mobile phone on one side, and a full keyboard and videogame controller on the other. Thanks to this device I can alternate between the flight information screen and a confounding range of entertainment and work-in-flight options: choose between dozens of films and over 150 hours of television programmes, start and pause and resume them when I desire; play over 100 videogames, some of them between seats; keep informed with text news updates from the BBC beamed up during the flight; watch PDF documents or photographs from my USB device. And that's without even getting the laptop out of its bag.

On this flight I can sleep, I can read, I can be entertained, I can even make the occasional phone call. And they bring us meals at pre-ordained times. It's like a minimum-security prison with wings.

Forget about space travel, or intelligent warfare, this here is the pinnacle of the industrial age: hurling people in tin cans from one side of the world to the other, whilst sustaining them through poorly recycled air and ersatz gourmet meals, but most of all, keeping them entertained and productive, invisibly tethered to the world below.

What is the population of this suspended city at any one time, would you say?

There are the people who seem able to sleep through the whole thing, all thirteen straight hours of it, waking up for the meals and then immediately switching off again, as if on command, often without even reclining their seat. They breathe life into the old science-fiction trope of hypersleep, holding on to the outdated idea that travel time is lost time. But most passengers remain awake at least until some time after the first meal is served. Yet there is very little talking going on in the cabin, even amongst relatives and friends. Few read books or magazines, while the rest of us plug into our 'information, communication and entertainment unit' (ice), where the choice really is confounding. Joseph immediately zeroes in on the videogame Galaktor, while I succumb – as I always do, if given the chance – to the combination of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon.

The Fortune Cookie (1966), also starring Walter Matthau, is the story of an insurance scam, and has an unusually developed racial angle – if not for its time, certainly in terms of Wilder's work. It's also more than usually misogynistic, but ever so damn interesting, especially if one cares to compare it to the current crop of social satires produced in the United States. Lemmon is just brilliant, even when playing the straight man to Matthau he steals the damn show. And look! The great Sig Ruman, in what must have been one of his final appearances.Typecast as ever, he plays an Austrian medical luminary hired by the insurance company to verify Lemmon's supposed injury.

Just the other day – although it feels like weeks ago already, as is customary when one embarks in long-haul travel – I saw the Otolith film trilogy at the Adam Art gallery in Wellington. It's a highly secretive affair, as per usual at the Adam, but if you're in Wellington you really should set aside a couple of hours and go see it.

(Entry by koha, closes October 10; don't miss the Ronnie Van Hout installation on Flying Nun while you're at it, and allow me to tip my hat to Stephen Parkes for the recommendation.)

I was struck especially by Otolith I, whose science fictional premise I find very suggestive at the present time: humans born in low gravity on orbiting space stations have lost the ability to live on earth due to the abnormal foetal development of the otoliths in their inner ear, which cannot withstand ordinary gravity. So I look around myself and wonder: what would it be like not to be able to get off one of these things? To have to live permanently suspended, off-planet? How would we conceive of earthlings and earthly affairs, which we could only apprehend medialogically but that would yet sustain us? (For there are no resources for us to mine at this altitude, nor food to produce.) And what kind of economies and societies would develop at thirty-five thousand feet?

It is very difficult for me to imagine having to spend any more than thirteen hours on this one flight, any more than the overall thirty-odd of this trip in airports and on planes. Who could bear it? Yet there are so many lives on earth that don't fit most people's definition of bearable, and still they are lived, enough to suggest that the permanent jet-setters too would adapt.


The flight was comfortable
So much so that it became disquieting.

(Otolith II

Another key characteristic of the Otolith films – their extensive recourse to archival footage, especially from old Indian films in black and white – comes back to haunt me. I enjoy the works of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon for a host of entirely justifiable, intrinsic reasons, but also and inextricably because they were a regular feature of my childhood film diet. To watch them is to repeat a family ritual, except in an alien and, yes, disquieting context.

Joseph makes matter worse by challenging me to a game of classic Pong. What is it that attracted him, with so many games to choose from, to the one that is by far the most primitive? I beat him of course because hey, I grew up on Pong, and I remember the one trick: to wait just above or below the spot that the ball is headed for and then at last second snap at it, sending it at a wide angle towards the nearest wall so that it will reach the opponent's opposite corner at speed and possibly bounce again just before the baseline, making it harder to predict where it will end up.


At some unspecified later time, following a period of broken sleep, Joseph has discovered with much glee a series of Mythbusters episodes, while I settle for The Karate Kid. Remind me which one of us is eight years old again?

Plus if I was trying to eschew the hauntological stuff, I might have been better advised not to choose a remake of a film that came out when I was a teenager, or one that were a little harder to plot in advance as it cycles through all the available clichés of its genre. It is not an entirely un-interesting film, however, in the context of how Americans go about re-imagining their relationship with China. Besides the utter sadism and brutality projected onto the regimented Chinese youth, there is at least one other arresting image: the wreck of the car that Jackie Chan's character keeps in his living room, patiently working on it and restoring it over the course of a year, until the anniversary of the accident in which his wife and son were killed, at which point he reduces again to a wreck in a fit of thoroughly methodical rage, and the cycle can begin again.

To make and unmake the same memory, over and over: what a fitting background image for this suspended life. And it plays concurrently on dozens of different screens, a popular choice amongst new releases. That's another thing you do: watch what others are watching, catch silent bits of films, splice them during periods of restless sleep, imagine or dream up whole plots and endings. Did I really catch Asif Mandvi looking as if it was all he could do not to laugh in a sequence from a fantasy action blockbuster? I think so, but couldn't say for certain. Not being able to access imdb at this point counts as a small mercy, a little haven of disconnectedness. Every year, every trip back home could be the last without full Internet access, and the prospect of an even more thoroughly productive and entertained time.

But now we begin our descent, for the third and penultimate time today, and so the laptop must go away. Another small mercy, possibly.

Otolith I, II and III are showing at the Adam Art Gallery at Victoria University in Wellington until October 10. Entry is by koha. It's the first time that the the three films are shown together. 

Read Nina Power's essay on the Otolith Group for Frieze


Anonymous said...

Thank you fort he heads up on the Otolith films and what's going on at the Adam Art Gallery. I thought it was currently closed.


Giovanni Tiso said...

Easy mistake to make...

Di said...

I like how you write at altitude 35,996. Enjoy your other home.

Rob said...

Lovely words from off the planet. Hope you have a grand time on the other side...