Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Aliens, Robots, and Lesbian Teens

Tomorrow afternoon, I will head to Flagler College in St. Augustine, where I have been invited to speak in a class on religion and sexuality called “The Erotic God.” My former college professor, Dr. Timothy Johnson, invited me to discuss issues of religion and sexuality relating to cinema after seeing my short film, “Melissa With A Heart Around It,” which deals with those themes. While I’ve looked forward to this opportunity for some time, I have found the task of coming up with something to say rather intimidating. I don’t want to walk in and just start talking about my own movie.

The class is reading a text called Alien Sex: the Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology by Gerard Loughlin. The book looks at the image of the alien in science fiction films as symbolic representations of religious attitudes toward sexuality. “These connections,” writes Loughlin, “are between the human body and the figure of the alien, between what we think is most our own and most foreign to it. They are the intimate connections of what we think most unconnected.”

Anytime I get to thinking of extra-terrestrials on film my mind goes to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both my favorite science fiction film as well as one of my all-time favorite motion pictures of any genre. Could Close Encounters possibly speak of human sexuality? After all, the film’s plot is the quintessential Spielbergian fairytale, a hero’s journey rife with Pinocchio motifs (Disney’s “When You Wish Upon A Star” is even hidden in the score) and child-like optimism. The film’s central character is Roy Neary, an everyman figure possessed by an inexplicable passion, an obsession he has neither created nor chosen but one that has chosen him. Roy will stop at nothing in his journey to satiate this uncontrollable, unnamed desire and cannot be satisfied until he has made contact with the alien beings that first seeded in him this need.

Surely, parallels can be easily drawn between Roy’s awakening in Close Encounters and the universal concerns of either spiritual or sexual awareness. Roy’s awakening begins with an unexpected encounter. Roy has settled in for the night, finding comfort in the sanctuary of his home, when he receives an unexpected call from his employer, the electric company, which requires him to leave. Power outages have occurred throughout the area, and Roy must investigate the cause. As Roy travels in the dead of night, he is confronted by an otherworldly encounter so beautiful and unimaginable that it leaves an indelible mark on his soul. In the wake of this encounter, Roy has no choice but to pursue its cause. He fixates on apprehending an explanation for his experience, and as a result, he loses his job, his family, and his stature in society. He is seen to be a madman. To this end, Roy’s story reminds me of one of my favorite scripture passages, Song of Solomon 5:2-8, the passage that inspired my short film, “Melissa With A Heart Around It”:

“Listen! My beloved is knocking. "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night." I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them? My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle those sentinels of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.”

Like the woman in the biblical passage whose lover eludes her, Roy is frustrated by the answers that elude him. He seeks an explanation for the obsession he feels, just as the woman in poem seeks the man she desires. The woman turns every corner of the city in her search, only to be beaten and abused by the watchmen at the city gates. Roy turns every corner of his quest, only to be shutout and ignored by his family, his community, and his government.

To some degree every journey is ultimately sex-driven. We leave our childhood homes not in search of better real estate but because the health of our genetic lineage depends on our decision not to have sex with our siblings but to find new partners who can strengthen the DNA of our future offspring. A coming-of-age tale is nothing if not a depiction of an initiation into sexual maturity. To this end, we find in the Pinocchio motifs of Close Encounters yet another hint at a sexual reading.

The story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who will stop at nothing to become a real boy, a boy of flesh and blood, is of course the quintessential subversive fairytale. It isn’t about a doll becoming a boy but about a boy becoming a man, the transition from childhood, during which time we value our playthings most of all, to adulthood, the point at which we grow into our flesh and the desires that come with it. What could possibly be more representative of our repressed sexual desires than the story of a simple plaything that longs to become a creature of flesh?

If films about alien encounters can be seen as symbolic representations of sexuality, then surely the same can be said for another sci-fi genre, those fashioned in the Pinocchio mold. Movies about robots or androids or other man-made creations who want to become human. Multiple films in this genre come to mind, from Blade Runner to Short Circuit to Spielberg’s own Freudian take, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in which a boy robot longs to become a flesh and blood human so that his mommy will love him.

The film Star Trek: First Contact offers one of the more interesting treatments of this problem. In this film, a half-synthetic half-organic villain -- the Borg Queen -- offers one of the film’s chief protagonists, the android Data, the opportunity to feel truly human for the first time in his existence.

“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to have flesh?” the Queen asks Data.

“It is impossible to imagine sensations for which I have no frame of reference,” Data answers.

To which she responds, “That can change.”

In another scene, later in the picture, the Borg Queen arranges to have human flesh grafted onto Data’s arm, complete with tiny arm hairs. The Queen blows softly on the arm hairs, giving Data his first sensation of the flesh.

“Was that good for you?” she asks him.

“It was . . . interesting,” he admits reluctantly, clearly having received much pleasure from the experience. “Do it again, please?”

Ultimately, Data will be forced to choose between the pleasures of his new flesh and loyalty to his crew. This is an unusually Puritanical turn for the typically progressive Star Trek series, and of course, because Data is one of our heroes, he will choose to sacrifice his flesh. The message here is rather explicit: the pleasures of the flesh are a distraction from the ultimate good.

The dichotomy that we have created between flesh and goodness is striking, particularly because it stands in direct conflict to the most theologically developed of the four gospels.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [. . .] And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14a).

It is perhaps unfortunate that so many lines separate these two statements, which possibly explains why so little attention is given to the latter declaration. Before there was Data, before there was even Pinocchio, the Word became flesh, and the flesh was good.

The process of cinema mirrors this pinnacle of biblical history in that motion pictures begin as written screenplays that “become flesh” when performed by living actors. This process is of course also true of theater. Cinema, however, affords an intimacy with the flesh that theater can never allow. In cinema, we become more intimate with the flesh of strangers than we do with even our own lovers. In the close-up of the skin, of the eye, of the lips, of private places and private actions, we break taboos and overcome our own alien distance from the body, whether in our conceptions of our own body or our conceptions of the other’s.

This, I suppose, brings me full circle to my own work, to the short film, “Melissa With A Heart Around It.” In this project, I wanted to engage the struggle with the flesh and with the sanctions we believe (correctly or incorrectly) that God has placed on the body and its desires. The protagonist, Jamie, is a Christian teenager coping with a same-sex crush and with her own sense of location in the community of the church. My point in writing and directing the film was not to preach a spiritual or political message, but to bring the audience into that intimate encounter with the other that is only possible in cinema. I am not sure that I achieved this. In fact, I’m rather certain I fell short in my goal. However, I tried, and I guess that’s something.

1 comment:

  1. The other day I caught the very ending of 1981's "Heartbeeps," which starred Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters as two robots that run away together and apparently feel human love for each other. But if the shittiness of that last ten minutes was any indication, the movie doesn't offer any insight into anything. Incidentally, Bob Zmuda also cites it as the reason Kaufman couldn't summon the clout to ever get his Tony Clifton movie made. So this movie was not only lame and irrelevant-- it actually ended careers. It also featured a full John Williams score.