Thursday 21 April 2011

Source Code (Duncan Jones, Canada | France | USA, 2011)

Time is frozen. Locked in an eternal kiss, Fentress and Christina will forever be in this moment, for all eternity. The camera tracks back through the train carriage, a liquid, flowing trajectory, weaving through the other passengers who are caught in unending silent laughter. A comedian (cajoled by Fentress into an impromptu, celebratory gig) stands in the centre of the aisle – a punchline delivered in perpetuity. On the second tier of the carriage, a woman in amongst the audience has allowed her coffee to spill, and the liquid has become a solid, remains mid-air in suspended animation. Shafts of sunlight catching dust are rendered for infinity.

The perfect ending.

However, such an ending has a correlate genesis. The environment of the train carriage – and indeed the world and universe through which the train cuts its path – are an ambiguous and perplexing construct. In the real world, Colleen Goodwin – a member of a shadowy scientific programme operating at the fringes of the military complex – has switched off the life-support system that sustained the meat and mind of soldier Colter Stevens. Stevens was a half-life: what remained of his body merely a bagged and tagged trunk, mutilated arm and shattered skull; comatose and unconscious, his mind endured only through the software developed by maverick scientist Dr. Rutledge. Stevens can rest in peace, finally. The death of Stevens, accordingly, is the source of the freeze-frame and the true ending of Source Code; the condition for the perfect denouement on the train. For Fentress was Stevens. Or rather, the mind of Stevens was projected back across and through spacetime into the body of Fentress, who – along with Christina and the other passengers – died some hours before in a horrific terrorist bombing. Stevens has – through a series of repetitions lasting some eight minutes, the eight minutes prior to the bombing – inhabited Fentress time and time again in order to investigate the incident and identify the bomber. For if the terrorist can be identified in the past, they can be detained in the present and prevented from committing further atrocities.

Impossibly, however – beyond all reason – everything starts up again. On the train the event is reanimated, stasis returns to flux. Somehow this moment in the past continues beyond the death of Stevens in the present (just as it passed beyond the moment of the bombing, which has been averted by the actions of Fentress) and this (re)invented universe is preserved. The perfect climax and the true denouement are both a ruse. And continuing past these fake endings derails the filmic line, diverts the cinematic trajectory into a series of ambiguities from which Source Code will not – and will not wish to – escape. Time travel dovetails with many worlds. Is this universe in which Stevens now lives as Fentress the same world? Another world? A parallel reality? A simulation? Was quantum parabolic calculus time travel an access to the past of the present, an alternate real or some kind of computer encoded space as remnant or echo event? These ambiguities become active only by going beyond the moment of dual-closure. Crucially, and in this way, Source Code goes on to foreground an ethical impasse. Furthermore, in so doing, the narrative is extended into the contemporary political environment. To explore such productive elements, we can do no better than turn to the cinematic semiotics of Deleuze.

Source Code is an action movie, and Deleuze describes such films as action-images. In the first place, action-images are of two types. There is the large form, where a given situation engenders behaviour, actions which attempt to rectify the situation (played out through duels between characters). This aspect of the action-image can be seen in Source Code: the train has been destroyed in a terrorist attack, and Colter will be embodied in Fentress to enter into a duel with the bomber. The film tracks a character in their becoming equal to the milieu, and in so doing, going on to rectify the situation. However, the film also has elements of the other type of action-image. This is the small form, where character actions explore an elliptical situation. Colter must continually re-enter the milieu to attempt to reveal its coordinates. Who is the bomber? What do they want? What will they do next? In parallel, the large form and small forms in the construct inspire further interactions between on-going repetitions of the immediate past and the real world of the present. Colter must discover what is happening to him: who he is, where he is. And this can only be done through a duel with Rutledge, the military scientist who has sustained his life and is using Colter as a weapon. In other words, small form action-images and large form action images interweave, and describe a very special type of action-image: the reflection-image where large and small transform one another as figures of attraction. Thus, in the second place, Deleuze describes two compositional forms of such attraction-images: the plastic figure and the theatrical figure. When a film of the action-image small form (action → situation) is affected by the large form we encounter the plastic figure. When a film of the action-image large form (situation → action) is affected by the small form, we encounter the theatrical figure. Either way, writes Deleuze ‘there is no longer a direct relation between a situation and an action, an action and a situation: between the two images, or between the two elements of the image, a third intervenes to ensure the conversion of the forms’ (C1:182). This third is a mental-image: the figure. With plastic figures the situation revealed on-screen is an encompasser of the true situation; the real situation remains an ellipsis. With the theatrical figure the real situation is expressed in ongoing fictional actions. Source Code appears to capture a moment of indeterminacy between these two mental-images... The movie – in other words – enacts a recurrence of attraction-images: mise-en-abyme.

To read the full exploration of Source Code through the cineotic sign of the 'mise-en-abyme,' see Deleuze's Cinema Books: Three Introductions to the Taxonomy of Images...

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