Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pedro Almodovar's Film, The Skin I Live In as Cyberclunk

Pedro Almodovars’s film, The Skin I Live In a great example of what I’ve been describing as contemporary Cyberclunk. Almodovar uses technology as a vehicle to explore ideas that the technology suggests without employing literal futurism or speculations about the literal outcome of that technology as a focus.

Almodovar uses the concept of genetic manipulation as an extension of the films central theme. Robert Ledgard is a scientist and surgeon who specializes in plastic surgery. While running off with her lover, Robert Ledgard’s wife is horribly burned and disfigured in a car accident, but later commits suicide. Here Almodovst explores the idea of how body image affects our sense of self. Despite Ledgard’s every attempt to control his wife’s environment so she won’t become aware of the extent of her disfigurement—eliminating mirrors and covering windows-- she catches of a glimpse of herself and consequently commits suicide. Here Ledgard is first and most devastatingly confronted with the fact that people can’t be changed into what he wants them to be.

After Robert Ledgard’s daughter witnesses the suicide of her mother, she becomes deeply dissociative and is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. On her first outing from the hospital, she attends a family wedding, and afterwards is sexually assaulted. The assault has the effect of making her unable to bear human touch, and since her father was the last person she saw after her assault, she has projected the trauma of the assault onto him, associating him with her persecutor.

Ledgard, is now faced with an untenable situation—everyone he loves is lost to him in a way is unable to control---kidnaps her rapist, and slowly, through a series of surgeries, transforms him into the image of his wife. Here transgenesis is used as a metaphor for what Ledgard desperately desires but can never achieve, and the way it’s presented is as much an aesthetic concept as a literal one. Ledgard has set out to give his experiment the perfect skin, impervious to burns,or insect bites—insect bites because it does not give off the odor of human flesh. In a scene that is pure Cyberclunk, Ledgard pieces together his genetically engineered skin like a dress pattern on a manikin. There’s nothing about this that has anything to do with literal science, but it’s a key visual that relates to theme, manipulating flesh like a garment, skin as something worn rather than a part of us.

The work of the artist Louise Borgeouise is also frequently referenced. Here we see Ledgard’s victim identifying with the suggestions of human flesh in Borgeousie’s work, and how she evokes and manipulates our ideas about the human shape. Again and again in the film this theme of the manipulation of the organic is presented. At another point in the film, Ledgard is shown working on a Bonzai tree. Earlier we see someone dressing a shop dummy made of straw, alternately decorating it with artificial birds and bangles.

In the beginning of the film Ledgard mentions that he has participated in some of the first face transplants. He discusses how this transformative experience of having a new face effects the identity and self-image of the patients, and it is this idea of changing someone fundamentally and the emotional core of their being through their appearance that Ledgard believes in so powerfully. He is so heartbroken by his inability to save or change his wife and daughter that he has to believe this. In the end, he’s unable to impose this image he’s created onto the man who has become his victim. He can’t make him into the wife he wanted, or wants him to be. There’s a direct parallel here with transgenesis: what is the consequence of imposing our will onto our genetic code? Is our ignorance of nature the reason why we have decided to impose our will on nature in so specific away?

But the literal aspect of the technology is irrelevant. Whether or not he’s presented the technology in a feasible way is irrelevant. Almodovar’s film is pure cyberclunk in its willful lack of adherence to scientific plausibility, choosing an aesthetic and metaphoric representation of the science over a literal, hard science fiction model. As in all good science fiction, it is not the technology but the ideas presented by the technology that drives the story.

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