Intricacies of Infection:
Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral and Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color
Infection in a digital age
I happened to watch two movies streaming on Netflix over the last couple of days, and they shared an interesting preoccupation with infection. Funnily enough, I have never encountered anything about either of these movies when I wasn’t online (granted, I’m not lucky enough to be able to attend many film festivals, or have access to a New York Times subscription). It seems to me that both achieved a sort of grassroots popularity through sites like Tumblr. In a way, that kind of digital connectivity is at the root of the body horror that is the focus of both films. Even in this new digital age, the visceral, organic nature of the human body is a horror that technology still cannot transcend. The body eventually revolts and falls apart. Therefore, that great modernist preoccupation is still very much with us—no matter what social technology intervenes, we still worry about what it truly means to connect with the people around us, and whether that is ever truly possible. Cronenberg and Carruth engage with this contemporary zeitgeist by contrasting intense, visceral images of the human body, against the mores of social and emotional attachment.
Gif culture and the grotesque
Antiviral deals with a dystopian future in which the cult of celebrity has gone so far that super-fans purposely inject themselves with diseases extracted from their favorite stars in order to share a more intimate connection with them. The clinic makes use of gif-like images of the stars whose dna it keeps on file. As an obsessed fan arrives for injection, he is treated to an eternally looped video of an immaculately beautiful Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon) slowly removing her sunglasses and smiling invitingly.
Cronenberg definitely latches onto a certain obsessive infatuation with celebrity, especially as it is revealed online through websites like Reddit and Tumblr, in which images and infinitely looped gifs become shorn from their original material, and begin to speak their own language (not to mention the way the title Antiviral brings to mind software- digital networks, security and paranoia). But Cronenberg also captures the fundamental weirdness of the gif, a portrait in-motion that both represents its subject and becomes a symbol of something else.
When Geist becomes infected with a mysterious fatale disease, events begin to spin out of control. The dissonance between Sarah Gadon’s star persona, hermetically sealed in a clinically distant frame, and the grotesque actuality of her disease is striking. True to his breeding, Brandon Cronenberg is not shy about proximity to the human body—its orifices, barriers, and interiors. In fact, Geist’s illness causes uncontrollable bleeding from the mouth in its advanced stages. Nevertheless, one of the nightmarish ideas in the film is that the lethality of the illness only makes it more desirable to the public. Demand for the virus skyrockets. Relentless examination of the surface is no longer adequate; the fame-obsessed want extreme intimacy–a glimpse of the body’s internal processes, a chance to inhabit the bloodstream of their favorite star.
Hypnosis and parasitism
In Upstream Color, the vessel of infection is even more bizarre, and possibly even more Cronenbergian. The film itself is a gauzy exploration of synesthesia, which is jarring in contrast with its grotesque subject matter. In an innovative long con, a thief injects a worm into a woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz) making her susceptible to hypnotic suggestion. Consequently, she signs over her life savings to him. Meanwhile, viewers are confusingly subjected to images of a pig farm and farmer who is obsessed with the soundscapes of the world. The Sampler, as the credits refer to him, drags his stereo everywhere, collecting the aural samples of running water and vibrating electrical wires. For reasons that become clearer by the end of the movie, Kris is deeply connected to this place, although she is unaware of it. One of the things Carruth does really excellently is to absorb the viewer through the soundtrack, making us feel that connection in a very tangible way. The film emphasizes a deep connectivity that is moving and effective, and somehow all the work of a subcutaneous worm. Through droning womb-like white noise, and intense prolonged close-ups, viewers share this experience, without the misfortune of having a parasite crawling under our skin.
Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth himself), another infected individual. When the two develop feelings for one another, they experience a dissolution of identity, and can no longer distinguish their individual memories. They become deeply affected by ambient noises, and experience unexplained, but intense bouts of emotional pain. Kris, Jeff, and the mother pig on the farm are all connected by the parasite in their bodies, causing them to share emotions, memories and experiences. Plot-wise, the oddity of the scenario comes off as silly. What remains memorable and impressive about the film is the hypnotic feeling it induces. Upstream Color examines a deeply alienating, hallucinatory connectivity brought on by a parasitic organism.
Much like in Antiviral, a visceral penetration of the skin induces an entrance into an emotional network that, while organic rather than digital, has similar effects. Without showing much in the way of digital imagery at all, Upstream Color reflects the nightmare version of the digital utopia, in which social connectivity becomes ultimately mired in the organic and disposable human body, and being “plugged in” creates nothing but confusion and loss of identity.