Sunday, May 25, 2014

Oculus (2013), Reality Splitting, and Who Let That Baby Eat A Cockroach?

Mirrors show a kind of reality that is a bit scary. Anyone who's tried to use a mirror to coordinate their arms to do something have come across the uncanny feeling that something is wrong with reality when it feels like your arms are going one way, but in reality they are going in another. A mirror disconnects subjective and object reality in a way that abjectivily conjoins them. My experience of my hand trying to position a hand mirror to see the back of my head using a bathroom mirror feels like my hand, looks like my hand, but there something missing. Almost immediately your mind makes up the difference by explaining the feeling of abjection away by realizing that actions in a mirror are reversed. The image looks like you, quacks like you, but it's not you at all. Oculus creepily pays with this experience of abjection in relation to your experience of reality, not just with the characters on screen but your experience watching the movie. Let's Saw Into It!

Oculus begins, punctually, with Tim's psychotic breakthrough. The recurring dream where he was chased and gunned down by his father has reversed. Tim's latest dream puts the gun in his hand. The shrink labels this a breakthrough in that Tim is finally taking responsibility for the horrible act that took place in his childhood. Now cured Tim is let free from the mental institution that he has been locked in for over a decade. Waiting for him outside the loony bin is his sister Kaylie.

Kaylie has a scheme (and an incredible amount of money) she has located the mirror that influenced the paranormal event that caused all the craziness in her childhood, and wants to enlist her brother’s help to kill the mirror. But first she wants to capture on film the mirrors paranormal-ness. She rigs up an elaborate scheme involving several alarm clocks, two video cameras, potted plants and an hourly call from her fiancé.

What's so scary about the mirror exactly? It has the power to distort multiple realities at once. What the hell does that mean? Well, I'm going to tell you. There is a good example, midway through the film where after the food alarm clock goes off Kaylie is eating an apple, but her mouth hurts, she soon realizes the apple was not an apple but a light bulb. Slowly and goo-e-ly Kaylie pulls the broken shards of glass from her bleeding mouth. Suddenly, Tim arrives and she realizes that the experience of eating a light bulb was a distortion because in her hand is an apple.

Now on one level this is a simple horror movie trick familiar to anyone who has seen Nightmare On Elm Street. Children pass out, have creepy dreams and then wake up screaming and freaked out. The difference here is that in Oculus the experiential distortions are seamless. Soon after this scene Kaylie picks up a chunk of a potted plant pot that she broke out of rage earlier. Carrying the ceramic chunk in one hand, she is using the other to hold her IPhone. She is using the video function in order to 'filter reality'. From her subjective point of view, we see the broken chunks of plants on the hardwood floor, but through the viewfinder there is nothing there. Suddenly, a creepy ghostie of her mother appears in the phone, and she goes with the stabbing. When she pulls the camera away, she finds that she stabbed not a ghostie but her fiancé. Now mind you, the chunk of pot she stabbed the ghost/fiancé with was not in the viewfinder of the camera therefore, as far as her sense of reality is concerned, she could not have killed the guy because the chunk she stabbed him with did not exist. On top of this pile of contradictions, she received her hourly call from her fiancé. Now when she uses her phone to look at the dead fiancé the ghost of her mother is nowhere to be found.

Let’s take a step back. The other interesting feature of this movie is that it is telling two stories. The scenes are alternating between Kaylie and Tim's childhood around their experience with the mirror tossing their world out of whack, and the current experience of Kaylie and Tim taking on the mirror. As the movie progresses the two story lines start to bleed into each other, and at the same time, the contemporary perspectives of the grown up Kaylie and Tim are spreading apart. So, there are a couple complex levels of narration going on at once. Two story lines wherein each one reality become less and less fixed until each character is pushed into an isolated experiential universe, which is overlay-ed upon a real fixed reality.

What is going on here is a malicious inversion of Lacan's 'Mirror Phase". In Lacanian psychoanalysis, we are born into a 'subjective state' of sorts that does not distinguish between outside and inside. What this means is that there is very little difference between and newborn and a cockroach (although a baby cockroach is a bit more independent at birth). Both creatures are existing in the world in the world in a pre or non-ego state. In other words, neither cockroach nor baby has developed a sense of ego. They don't know what they are because they haven't developed a sense of "I". Lacan argues that when a baby is confronted with a mirror at the right stage in their development they are confronted with them self as an object for themselves. What this means is that a baby goes from being existing a radical whole to a fragmented subject, and in this fragmentation that is rooted in relating to one’s self as an object a baby develops an "I".

So how does this work in Oculus? Both Kaylie and Tim start the film in radically other-ed places. As autonomous adults, they have crafted out their personal idiosyncrasies and ideologies. They have a firm grasp on what they are in the world and what the world means to them. The clarity surrounding the differences in their crafted realities is laid out squarely in their first argument in the Mirror Room. Kaylie is totally buying into the idea that the mirror ripped her life apart when she was younger and caused her father to torture and kill her mother. Tim, on the other hand, is convinced that the effects of the mirror are a neurological and narrative distortion in his part caused by his childhood brain trying to encode the traumatic memories of an abusive father.

As the movie unfolds both personal narratives are called into question and ultimately subverted. The subversion of their biographical memories and present reality alienates them to solipsism. In other words, Kaylie and Tim psychologically regress to a pre-ego state. In other words, they become mental cockroaches whose entire symbolic universe is crafted by a reality distorting mirror. Slavjo Zizek argued in the introduction of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock:
A modernist work of art is by definition 'incomprehensible': it functions as a shock, as the irruption of a trauma which undermines the complacency of our daily routine and resists being integrated into the symbolic universe of the prevailing ideology; thereupon, after this first encounter, interpretation enters the state and enables us to integrate this shock - it informs us, say, that this trauma registers and points towards the shocking depravity of our very 'normal' every day lives. Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan, Google Books,. 'Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Lacan'. Web. 25 May. 2014.

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