Ghost From The Machine: Once Again, The Dead Return

Matt Osterman‘s Ghost from the Machine (2010)–originally titled and known internationally as Phasma Ex Machina--is touted by its marketing material as a ‘supernatural thriller’. A low-budget indie, it uses a cast made up of genuine amateurs who sometimes look distinctly uncomfortable and self-conscious on camera, and wears its modest production values on its sleeve. The story sounds hokey enough: a young man, an amateur inventor of sorts, tries to bring his dead parents back to life by building an electrical machine that changes the electromagnetic field surrounding it (I think.) The parents, unsurprisingly, do not return from the dead, but other folks do: a widowed, fellow-garage-tinkerer neighbor’s long-dead wife, and a pair of murderous old folk. (The return to life of this latter bunch makes the movie into a ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ film; bringing back the garage-tinkerer’s wife would only have made it ‘supernatural.’)

For all that PEM manages to often be genuinely thought-provoking. It is so because its treatment of its subject matter invites immediate analogizing–not comparison–with two cinematic classics: Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Andrei Tarkovsky‘s Solaris. In Vertigo, Scottie brings back from the ‘dead’–via an uncanny, painstaking reconstruction–the haunting subject of his obsession, Madeleine, and in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the dead–in particular, the scientist Kris Kelvin’s dead wife, Hari–come back to life as physical manifestations of long-held, deeply-felt desires and fantasies. In Phasma Ex Machina, the garage inventor’s wife comes back to life; she is, as Hari is in Solaris, made manifest–imperfectly–as his previously unfulfilled desires.

The fantasy at the heart of these movies is similar: primarily, it is that of beating death at its grimly inevitable game. In each case, the agency that makes it so differs. In Vertigo, Scottie makes the immortalizing happen; he forces his new girlfriend–via a kind of physical mortification of bodily appearance and clothing–into the desired mold. This return is only figurative–since Madeleine has never died, Judy brings her back to life by assuming her form. In Solaris, the reconstructing agency is possessed by the mysterious planet–a strange, inexplicable, natural phenomenon, a force field that populates the world with the desires of its inhabitants. In Phasma Ex Machina a similar force field is present, but it is the result of the inventor’s tinkering; it is his mastery of the subversion of nature that brings about the return of the dead.  (The wishing for the parents’ return to life is of course, an especially primeval fantasy; the premature loss of a parent is a particularly terrible loss, perhaps only exceeded in its poignancy by the loss of a child to the parent. Here, the fantasy is made more affecting because the central character–the ‘inventor’–believes himself to have been responsible for his parent’s death. We might even see the death of the parents as an earlier fantasy having gone terribly wrong; the son might have fantasized about his father’s death, but his successful wishing so brought his mother’s death in its wake. Oedipus never stops screwing things up.)

In each of the three movies noted here, the effect of the reconstruction is deeply flawed: the resurrected dead are only real insofar as they are objects of someone’s subjectivity–in each case, the fantasy is shattered. (As Žižek notes in the The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema–in referring to Solaris–this is a “low form of male fantasy’. Here, woman exists only in the imagination of man, her flaws and defects exist insofar as they are present in the male conception of her, the visible shortcomings of which her ultimately make her return so deeply, terribly, frightening.) In PEM too, the dream becomes a nightmare. While the son might only have wished to bring back his parents to life he does a great deal more–as the unexpected appearances of murderers shows. The world then, becomes just a tad more terrifying. For it is revealed to not be indifferent; instead, the world and the natural order might actually respond to our prayers and entreaties but with their own idiosyncratic interpretation of the form and content of our fantasies. Perhaps we might fear the incompletely realized fantasy more than we fear the indifferent world. In one case, we confront a world deaf to our importunations; in the latter we take the chance the world might hear a prayer we had never directed toward it.

One might read some old-fashioned moral instruction into both Vertigo and Phasma Ex Machina–an indictment of the Frankensteinian arrogance and ignorance of the scientist, who blunders on, attempting to remake reality into a form more amenable to him. But I think the movie says more than that.

There is a curiously mixed sensibility–perhaps Nietzschean, perhaps religious–at the heart of Phasma Ex Machina–it preaches to us the virtues of a Stoic acceptance of our fate, of the hand dealt to us, to take on, and not reject, all of our selves, past and present, along with their imperfections and flaws. It suggests an amor fati of sorts: a taking on, an acceptance, of our older lives and actions, of absorbing the consequences of our actions into the lives we choose to live. The young inventor, who with his machine aims to violently disrupt the very fabric of space-time, is urged–by an internal conscience during a moment of internal reckoning–to accept, internalize, and resolve his guilt over his parent’s death, which was not ’caused’ by him, but which invites such an analysis from the grief-stricken. He is urged too, to return to the daily particulars of his life, which include the responsibilities he owes to his younger brother, whose guardian he now is. (PEM gratuitously makes it the case that ceasing his experimentation, destroying his beloved machine, will also have the positive side-effect of saving his younger brother from the murderous attention of the former residents of their house.) This life’s work, its relationship with the living await; attending to the dead is a non-virtuous turning away.

These comparisons with Vertigo and Solaris have only been hinted at here by me; much more, I think, could be said, about the recurring cinematic fantasy of bringing the dead back to life.

The End is Nigh: The ACA Is Upheld (Sort Of)

Today’s blog post writing hasn’t gone so well. I thought of writing a post on the correspondence between Voltaire and Rousseau, as a way of reminding ourselves of the 300th birth anniversary of the latter, then, perhaps commenting on the connections between Frankenstein and Romanticism, and then finally, noting Aquinas’ resolution of the theological problems caused by cannibalism. But nothing went anywhere. (Perhaps I’ll return to these fascinating topics at a future point in time.) I was distracted, as most people this morning were, by the impending news of the Supreme Court’s ruling on you-know-what (more precisely, National Federation of Independent Business et al. vs Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services et al. ) So, the sheer force of circumstance have forced me to junk all those drafts and turn to noting this momentous decision.

Then, finally at 10:08 AM, the news. A 5-4 ruling (Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan for; Kennedy, Scalia, Alito, Thomas against) that rules ‘ the entire ACA is upheld, with the exception that the federal government’s power to terminate states’ Medicaid funds is narrowly read.’ (from the SCOTUS live blog).

More: the individual mandate is a violation of the Commerce Clause, but survives as a tax:

Our precedent demonstrates that Congress had the power to impose the exaction in Section 5000A under the taxing power, and that Section 5000A need not be read to do more than impose a tax. This is sufficient to sustain it.

So, the individual mandate survives as a tax. Frank Pasquale has just pointed me to a remark made by Mark Weiner in 2010:

As a constitutional matter, the bottom line is that challenges to Congress’s power to tax and spend are never successful, and I think it would absolutely stun the tax community if this tax were held unconstitutional.

The SCOTUS live blog continues:

[A] majority of the Court holds that the Medicaid expansion is constitutional but that it w/b unconstitutional for the federal government to withhold Medicaid funds for non-compliance with the expansion provisions….the Constitution requires that states have a choice about whether to participate in the expansion of eligibility; if they decide not to, they can continue to receive funds for the rest of the program.

Part of the majority opinion reads:

Nothing in our opinion precludes Congress from offering funds under the ACA to expand the availability of health care, and requiring that states accepting such funds comply with the conditions on their use. What Congress is not free to do is to penalize States that choose not to participate in that new program by taking away their existing Medicaid funding.” (p. 55)

Plenty more to come later. For the time being, in lieu of serious commentary on the ruling, I’ve been juvenile, sending off a series of Tweets and Facebook updates:

The stars and stripes have been morphed into the hammer and sickle

The hammer and the sickle are gleaming, because a crescent moon is shining on them

Starting today, turbans replace baseball caps as symbols of America

No more, “Wassup bro?” – from now on it’s “Greeting comrades!”

Alternatively, you could say “Salaam brothers!”

Lame, yes, I know, but come on, why so serious?

And with that, I’m going to wind up this morning’s ‘blogging,’ one spectacularly derailed by the Supreme Court, and the millions who decided to tune in to this piece of political theater.