The Terrifying Allure of Nonhuman Cinema
Early in the pandemic I watched two films, one that I’d seen dozens of times before, and one new to me. David Cronenberg’s 1986 classic The Fly offers a fairly standard narrative arc: A scientist named Seth Brundle plays God and is punished. His secret invention, a teleportation machine which analyzes your molecules in one telepod and reconstructs them in another, is world-changing. But Brundle gets ahead of himself, deciding drunkenly one night to teleport himself long before he’s worked out the kinks and the safety protocols for his machine. A fly buzzes into the telepod with him, and the machine fuses its molecules with Brundle’s, setting the scene for some iconic gene-splicing and gruesome special effects. His girlfriend Ronnie is initially excited by his new strength and sexual prowess, but soon he’s exhibiting other side effects. Violent, grotesque and distorted, he ceases to be Seth Brundle and becomes Brundlefly, a hideous hybrid. By the film’s end, Ronnie and her old boyfriend have no choice but to destroy the thing he’s become.
Weeks later, I watched Shane Carruth’s 2013 film, Upstream Color, the plot of which is harder to summarize. It would seem, at first, to follow a woman, Kris, who’s assaulted outside a club one night by a mysterious thief. Knocking her out, he forcibly injects a parasitic worm into her. Once inside her, the parasite renders her soporific and suggestible. The Thief keeps her occupied for days with menial tasks while instructing her to turn her home equity over to him, along with her stash of rare coins. Having bled her dry, he vanishes. Disoriented and unable to remember what has happened to her, Kris awakes to find something moving under her skin, some kind of large, parasitic worm. She finds herself drawn to a remote farm, where another man (the “Sampler”) draws out worm from her and implants it in a pig. Bankrupt, her life destroyed, with no memory of how it happened, Kris attempts to move on. A year later, she meets Jeff, who had something similar happen to him. The two slowly begin a relationship with each other, but it is a relationship motivated less by love or attraction than by a series of compulsive, unstated or undefined drives.
Who is the Thief? We never see him again. Nor do we ever really understand who the strange pig farmer is. The relationship between the two leads, Kris and Jeff, is likewise merely sketched out, composed of brief periods of intensity without any real development.
Only gradually does one understand that Kris and Jeff are not the protagonists of the film, nor is the Thief, nor even the Sampler. Rather, the protagonist is the parasite itself, and the film follows its life cycle. It starts as a grub that feeds off the roots of orchids, poisoning the plants. It is then harvested and forcibly injected into human hosts. Finally it is drawn out and transferred to pigs. At the end of the life cycle, the Sampler drowns the piglets born of the infected hosts, tossing them in a river where they will infect a new generation of orchids.
The two human hosts, Kris and Jeff, are not only unable to precisely reconstruct what has happened to them, but they find that their memories are entangled with each other, and that the life of the pigs that carry their parasites are intertwined with their own; when the pig with Kris’s parasite becomes pregnant, she too believes she’s pregnant. When the piglets are summarily drowned, both Kris and Jeff are overcome with an inexplicable depression and rage, linked to these animals’ deaths via the pathogen that now controls their emotions.
It is a striking example of a kind of nonhuman cinema, one where the characters exist to further the life cycle of a thing whose intelligence, inner life, and even existence cannot be known. The Thief appears as nothing other than a vector to move the parasite from its plant host into the humans. His motivations are irrelevant to the workings of the film, and any sense that we’ll eventually learn more about him or that he’ll face justice is brushed aside. Kris and Jeff do not fall in love so much as passively react to the emotions engendered by their connection to this thing. The Sampler’s role in the drama is likewise kept behind a wall of obfuscation.
The characters exist to further the life cycle of a thing whose intelligence, inner life, and even existence cannot be known
It’s a frustrating experience at first, since the film prompts a number of questions about these people without offering any attempt to answer them. Normal character traits and developments that we’re used to become obscure and gnomic, because, we understand finally, here they are not borne of character motivations in the traditional sense — rather, these actions are just expressions of the life of the virus. The film ultimately doesn’t care about the human drama it portrays. The inner lives of these characters are as interesting as the inner lives of the orchids or the pigs.
The Fly is a film about humans confronting the inhuman and then banishing it. However horrified Ronnie and her boss are by BrundleFly’s final form, they successfully reassert the primacy of an anthropocentric universe, triumphing over the intrusion of the insect into human world. Upstream Color, on the other hand, is a film where the humans are so secondary they are not even given a chance to confront the inhuman. It’s one of those rare films that involves humans but refuses to be about humanity, pushing them to the edges of the narrative. Instead, the human characters in the film are the litmus paper on which the actions, motivations, and drives of the true protagonist are made manifest. Not just the humans, of course but the orchids and the pigs, too — humans are not just secondary in Carruth’s film, they share second billing with plants and animals.
Upstream Color stuck with me throughout last spring, as it became clear we were ourselves living through a non-human moment, a moment when the human drama ceased occupy center stage, where we had become instead bit players. When our sole identity was reduced to vectors and hosts of a new lead actor.
When New York City went into lockdown last March, I began taking walks through my neighborhood, seemingly the only safe thing possible outside of my apartment. With whatever face covering was available to me at the time, I’d choose the least trafficked streets so I could walk down the middle of the road and avoid having to pass someone on the sidewalk. Even at the height of the fear and uncertainty, it quickly became clear to me that we were not going to beat this disease.
Everywhere I went, you could see people straining to be close, to bridge the six-feet gap had to be maintained. Young men in small groups, on the street corner or in stairwells. Teenagers on forbidden dates. Children, running up to strangers to say hi. Everywhere, people lingering, a little too close, desperate for skin hunger. What had once been a series of actions and gestures that defined human contact — the very kinds of gregarious behavior that defined human civilization — had all been reduced to vectors and moments of transmission.
The inner lives of these characters are as interesting as the inner lives of the orchids or the pigs.
At the same time, the machine of denial and resistance had begun to churn to life, creating spectacles of unmasked defiance. The colossal stupidity of politicized ignorance — both predictable and horrifying — made for ready breeding grounds and super spreader events across the country, from weddings to the White House.
After watching Upstream Color, this behavior finally started to fall into place for me. Humans had ceded the spotlight. Our motivations, our needs, our desires, our conspiracy theories — however fascinating they might have been to us in the abstract — were ultimately nothing other than the machine by which this thing used us to further itself. The story of spring 2020 had become about this virus: what did it want, what were its needs, where was it going.
We spread the virus because we had lost all agency; we did not think, we did not act as rational beings, but instead as hosts whose utterly predictable behavior was exploited by this nonhuman thing without any effort on its part. Again and again, people seemingly unable to stop themselves put the virus’s life cycle above the lives of those around them.
You can see this in a cliché that took on a disturbing relevance this past year: like lambs to the slaughter. It’s a phrase that was invoked by a British doctor in March, 2020, and again by an American pharmacist at the same time, both times in reference to the absence of PPE among frontline workers (“We are totally naked — lambs to the slaughter. As always we our left to our own devices, using our own resources to protect staff… every day we are exposed to 200 potential virus-carrying customers.”). A worker in an assisted living facility used the phrase two months later, also lamenting the lack of essential protective gear. All last year and into this one, including in January of 2021, when a high school senior in Colorado described herself and her peers, forced to go back to in-person learning, as “lambs being led to the slaughterhouse that is COVID-19.”
Lambs are led to the slaughterhouse because they are dumb — at least that’s what we think. We, the advanced humans, understand their drives to such a degree that we can manipulate them, we can get them to act in ways that are contrary to their own interests. We can further our own needs, our own instincts for self-preservation, by overcoming theirs. We can lead them gently to the slaughterhouse.
What became clear last spring is how quickly we allowed ourselves to become the livestock of this virus. Even without any sentience, Covid-19 knew us better than we knew ourselves. It spread because our drives and instincts superseded our rational thought, and as such, it used us to further its own needs in defiance of our own desire for self-preservation. We were the lambs, and it slaughtered us.