The Archival Erotics of Repo Men

(So first off I’ll fail to apologize for only now realizing that I have not posted anything on here for over a month, and that my continual engagement w/ Otis Nixon should not have perhaps been heading this page for as long as it has—which is to say, hopefully there will be a slight flurry of activity re: this blog on my part in the near future, as I hope to have posts on a bunch of new work from people of some eminence: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, John Ashbery’s Planisphere, and perhaps a piece on a short story from the March edition of Harper’s, “The History of The History of Death.”  But for all that, I thought I’d start w/ a film I saw recently that legitimately surprised me in more ways than one.)  (Also, like all my posts, there will be spoilers galore.)

I in no way intended to see Repo Men (Miguel Sapochnik, 2010).  Like many other things in my life recently, I’ve inexplicably taken a break from my frequent and unapologetically saccharine foray into commercial cinema.  So a few days ago I realized I desperately needed, for whatever indefensible and inexplicable reason, to see Hot Tub Time Machine (I did, btw, but snuck in after Repo Men).[1] The reasons for this are probably more complex or simple than I would like to pursue, but suffice it to say, the film was peculiarly suggesting itself to me.[2] I also very much wanted to see Scorsese’s new effort, which was playing ten minutes after Time Machine.  Due to an inexplicable lane closure for construction that was nowhere apparent as being done, there was a familiar intensity of traffic over the Homestead High-Level Bridge and I arrived, of course, too late to see the beginning of either film.  Not wanting to wait around, my only chance for immediate darkness infused cinematic bliss was Repo Men, and even though I’d thought little-to-nothing good about the previews, I decided—hell, why not; it couldn’t be worse than Hot Tub Time Machine.  And I was right.

I should’ve known better than to dismiss this film so off-handedly as just another vehicle for Jude Law’s increasingly weird and inconsequential career (which I’m tempted to say isn’t inconsequential at all).  I mean, Forest Whitaker is in it for christ’s sake.[3] From the previews it appeared to be yet another Fahrenheit 451 rehash: agent of the oppressive dystopian police force turned resistance sympathizer, etc.  Don’t get me wrong, it is that.  And it very easily could have been very little but that, despite the interesting and complex friendship b/t Forest and Jude, the commentary it is so obviously making on our current economic crisis, and its portrayal of late-capitalistic posthuman cyborgicity.  Basically, I should’ve known better b/c of the fact that many recent SF films have been deceptively incisive and captivating despite their mundane genre trappings and crappy trailers.  In other words, unlike, say “comedies,” or even Hot Tub Time Machine specifically, in which all the best, funniest, most worthwhile moments are portrayed in their trailers, this type of film is fairly exemplary of putting none of why it may be interesting in the trailer.  The typical contemporary comedy often feels simply like a device shuttling you from one recollected moment of the trailer to the next.  We’ve already seen many of these films, for like most jokes you hear twice, they simply aren’t as funny on the second go-round.  At first glance, Repo Men appears to be doing just this.  It’s political, social, aesthetic, and economic stakes are clear: a 451 for the cyborg generation.  It looks exciting, action-packed, violent, bloody, and perhaps just complex enough w/o being too difficult to garner some mild amount of attention.[4] And of course it is these things.  But why Repo Men is worthy of some attention is for completely different reasons.  (Say, in the same way Steven Shaviro finds Gamer interesting.)

For my own purposes, the readily suggestive reading of the film is an obvious one, but the film’s specific archival engagement is only grounded upon this blatancy.  Basically, the premise of the film,

is that a massive corporation—sterile, all-encompassing, and totally ruthless in its pursuit of the bottom-line[5]—has cornered the market on artificial organs, enabling them to charge extravagant prices for them.  As a majority of these organs are vital [sic] for the customer’s continued existence, of course. . . they pay, and they pay w/ credit.  Inevitably, they miss a few payments, at which time the repo men repossess these organs, often killing the customer in the process.[6] There are clear things at stake here: 1) an engagement w/ our current mode of late capital and a critique of consumer debt; 2) a surveillance society in which the body is literally marked w/ its own potential death; and 3) a clear engagement w/ the (hopefully soon to be) aftermath of the wars of the early 21st C.[7] If this were all the film did, I believe it would still be worthwhile as, even though it is grossly heavy handed, it raises some important questions about the role of capital w/r/t the body in both the future and the present.  But ultimately it would be so heavy handed as to be eminently dismissible—yet another dystopian, paranoid speculation on an idea taken to its obscene limits.

Repo Men avoids simply being another generic entry into SF’s archive for two reasons: 1) the important, yet obvious twist that occurs in the film; and 2) the frankly incredible scene at the heart [sic] of the Union corporation: its organ reclamation center.  And, for reasons that will soon become apparent, I’ll address the second of these first.

The film (of course) culminates in an all-out-assault on the Union Corporation’s headquarters, w/ all the necessary Matrix-esque action, gunplay, and some pretty gruesome (actually) knife-wielding by a small band of people to topple the very structure that makes the Corporation run.  At the heart of Union, behind an (appropriately) pink door, is the database of all the people w/ artificial organs and, if one were to delete the database, everyone who currently had an organ would be “free” to “enjoy” it w/o worrying about paying or missing a payment.  Like so many of these films, Law’s character has descended into the underground—that of course gets brutally wiped out[8]—and the only recourse to possibly getting off the grid is attempting a last-ditch desperate effort to destroy the corporation which manufactures the very thing keeping him alive.[9] But none of this is the point.

The point is that when Law and his girlfriend make it behind the pink door, sealing themselves inside, there is no keyboard.  Instead, all there is is yet another sterile white room w/ scanners to literally scan the barcodes of the organs into the database.  In other words, there is no way to delete the archive.  The basic thing Law and his girlfriend confront in this scene, is not only that humanity has become totally and utterly archived, at the most bodily, vital level, but this archive’s logic is impenetrable: it can’t be burned (i.e. deleted w/ a keyboard).  The body throughout the film is always at the mercy of the most brutal of archival processes.  Your specific, numbered organ’s “time is up,” it must be put back into archival circulation to be repossessed again and again, and all through this process human bodies are piling up.  This, in many ways, is more sinister than everyone being implanted w/ RFID tags or barcodes.[10] The very thing that marks and distinguishes these bodies, that archives them in the state’s (or capital’s) panoptic gaze is absolutely essential to the continual existence of the lives of those bodies.  What appears clearly at stake w/in the context of the film is an extension (and perhaps complication) of Giorgio Agamben’s comment on the notion of survival w/r/t biopower:

“the most specific trait of twentieth-century biopolitics: no longer either to make die or to make live, but to make survive.  The decisive activity of biopower in our time consists in the production not of life or death, but rather of a mutable and virtually infinite survival.”[11]

Agamben says this mostly w/r/t Auschwitz, but I think it is equally applicable here.  This making survive is in capital’s best interest, in the case of the film, as it will funnel the last available resources out of the subject trying to survive.  They will go into debt so deep it causes death—the final logic of capital.  Most importantly, this making survive takes the form of placing directly into the body the very limits of its survival.  The artificial organ simultaneously makes survive and when biopower no longer has use for this survival, reclaims it to begin the process over.  As long as you are surviving and paying exorbitant amounts of money to survive, the corporation will let you.  Once you cease to do this, biopower no longer has any interest in continual survival.

The archived nature of this survival, however, I think slightly extends or complicates Agamben’s notion of survival.  Survival here is wholly dependent upon being w/in the systemic archive (i.e. making one’s payments) or else going off the archive’s grid (not making payments and “running.”)  Either way, however, when Law enters this room and realizes there is no way to ultimately delete one’s presence in this archive of survival, something is made very clear.  When the very processes of the body become the site of archival logic and the interest of biopower in survival, there is (virtually) no recourse.  The archive and survival become synonymous.  Nothing is outside the logic here and everything is caught w/in the camp.  Consequently, and this is what is so important about this film, for all Law’s Matrix-esque shenanigans, there is nothing to be done.

Sorta.  And what Law and his girlfriend do, and what director Sapochnik portrays so well, is an alternative.  Law has an artificial heart, his girlfriend some ten (or so) artificial organs, including lungs and kidneys.  Obviously they cannot simply cut these organs out and scan them, for their very survival would be compromised.  Instead, Law sees that the only recourse they have, the only way to get off the grid, to get out of the archive, is to cut into each other’s bodies and scan the organs while they’re still operating, while they’re still alive! (And furthermore, this is perhaps one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen in any film.[12])  Anesthetizing each other while making out, Law’s girlfriend, actress Alice Braga, cuts into his chest, inserting her hand all the way to his heart to scan it, to take him out of the survival archive.  This ultimate act of love, freeing the other from biopolitical control, however, requires this ultimate penetration of the body (and it is, of course, important here that it is the female penetrating the male body, and not just anywhere, but precisely at that point [the heart] where it is most vulnerable).  Then it is Law’s turn to “scan” Braga: her eyes, her ears, her throat (he pushes his hand to the back of her throat), her knees, and ultimately her lungs and kidneys, mirroring and complicating her own penetration of himself.  Blood is flowing everywhere, their bodies intertwined, “passionate kisses,”[13] etc.  And, less it be unclear, this act is neither sadistic nor masochistic.  The only power over the body that is expressed by either sexual party is the act of getting rid of power over the body.  No pleasure is taken in the inflicting or receiving of pain, but rather in liberating the other’s body.  No genital sex takes place here, and this weirdly pure, violent, horrific, gruesome act of lovemaking may very well be what Gilles Deleuze had in mind when he talked of “non-genital sex.”

The point this scene seems to be making w/r/t the film as a whole is that, though the very survival of the body may be inscribed into the archive in totality, the body’s sexual role w/in this constellation defeats this reification through what I would like to call “archival erotics.”  The act of deleting one another from the archive, is the erotic act par excellence.  This is not sex as: two people simply masturbating w/ each other.  Rather, sex here becomes a liberatory, vital act of not only survival, of emancipation, but of escaping a totalizing archival logic.  And most importantly, there is no other option available w/in the space of the film. The “way out” is only available through a radical re-imagining of two bodies relationship to each other at the most primal level.  Bodies interacting ceases to be procreative and becomes liberatory.  Sex (w/o genitals) becomes a mode of escape.

But of course, and this is why this film is so interesting, that is not the end of the story.  Whitaker bursts through the door to perceive Braga and Law in post-(non-genital)-coital bliss, revealing he has a bomb.  Since Braga and Law have entered their organs into the archive, the machine is asking for those organs to be placed into a receptacle.  Conveniently, Whitaker’s bomb is placed in this receptacle, which is then taken into the archive where it explodes, deleting the archive.  The characters then sit back against the door, laughing.  And it is this laughter that is so captivating.

If they had just let Whitaker in a few moments earlier, this entire erotic scene would have been unnecessary.  Perhaps they are laughing at the absurdity of what they were forced to do.  Or perhaps they’re laughing at something else.  What I would like to suggest is that they are laughing at the absurdity that it is only after such a violent and poignant moment where biopower’s control over them is displayed so keenly that it becomes possible to literally penetrate the archive and delete it through, of course, technology.  In the space of the film, the laughter is important.  It not only signals that something is (perhaps) slightly amiss w/ this whole spectacle we’ve just witnessed, but that this act has been procreative.  The technology (of the bomb) was produced in this act.  What Law and Braga have given birth to is the very technological tool w/ which to delete the archive.  And this is fucking hilarious.  But it is hilarious because it is ultimately false.  Pain is funny, and the pain we’ve just seen was ultimately for no reason whatsoever.

And this brings me to my first point of why this film is interesting.  Long before the scene I just described, there is a “final showdown/confrontation” b/t Law and Whitaker during which Whitaker hits Law over the head w/ a chain(-thingy).  Immediately after this, the screen goes blank (evoking Law’s voice-over of “being knocked out”), and then Law’s life flashes before his eyes.  The twist at the end of the film is clearly perceptible here.  Throughout the film, a system that would preserve consciousness in the case of catatonia is repeatedly referred to, and it was at this moment I realized that Law “died” and that everything that was to follow in the film was taking place in his catatonic-consciousness.[14] And, as the film closes, this is precisely what is revealed: the twist.  Everything we’ve seen b/t this moment and now was pure simulation.  The whole moment of archival erotics was simply a projection of Law’s (un)consciousness.  Consequently, his badassness in killing virtually everyone while storming the castle is revealed as pure fantasy.  In other words, the laughter following the amazing, erotic scene is nothing but the acknowledgment that this sort of narrative, poignant and incredible though it may be, is impossible w/in the system all the characters are inhabiting.  And this is why Sapochnik’s first feature-length is so incredible.  He simultaneously gives us an incredible, gorgeous, brutal “answer” to the whole problem while acknowledging that this answer, this “way out” is complete fantasy.  Furthermore, it occurs in a kind of hyperarchival [sic] mode.  Law has become totally subject to the survival archive.  His very consciousness only persists w/in its logic.  This “survival” will now only be maintained by Whitaker continuing to repo organs (i.e. this life-after-life is very expensive).   Whitaker asks: can we know what he’s thinking, and of course the answer is no.  Survival here, and indeed consciousness itself, becomes only a function of the dominating totality of the archival logic.  Not only is there “no way out,” but there are further ways in.  Consequently, the entire amazing, incredible scene b/t Law and Braga becomes merely how archival erotics themselves get absorbed into the system.  Something posited as a way out only is possible by being more thoroughly w/in the system than one ever was before.  Love and sex are merely (hyper)archival expressions.

And this is why Sapochnik’s vision is so much more terrifying than merely a rehash of 451There is no alternative here.  The only, quite provocative alternative is ultimately presented as part of the whole damn thing.  Even resistance is a function of archivization.  And if this is terrifying, it should be, for it presents us w/ the truly terrifying prospect of the only solution being a fantasmatic one that can only come as a result of being so thoroughly plugged into the machine that we cannot survive w/o it.


[1]This is also of course to suggest that part of my unapologetic enjoyment of commercial cinema is seeing multiple movies for the price of one.

[2]I also have absolutely nothing to say about it.

[3]Also of impressive note, is that Repo Men is director Miguel Sapochnik’s first feature-length film.  How he got Forest and Jude, I presume, would be an intriguing back-room Hollywood story if I cared to do any research.

[4] For how little attention it may have indeed garnered, however, it need be noted that I was the only person present in the fairly major cineplex during its screening—something I always thoroughly enjoy b/c it affords me the opportunity to smoke cigarettes and see the smoke rising in the light of the projector.  Mild crimes like these are strangely enjoyable.

[5] I.e. the film goes as far as to suggest that the company desires people to have their organs foreclosed upon as it insures that the Union company can re-sell that specific organ to someone else.  The fantastic scene in the seemingly endless, sterile, white manufacturing center of Union also appears to suggest that this company is doing very well indeed.  (On a side note, the Repo Men also give a semi-hilarious twist to the notion of the body w/o organs.  In the case of the debtor, their bodies are w/o organs b/c they’ve quite literally been removed.  A tangent to this is that in the opening scene Jude Law is, by law, required to ask the “patient” whether or not they want a doctor or ambulance present.  This is totally absurd, as Law’s character clearly perceives, b/c he asks this of the “patient” after he has been stunned unconscious, of course implying that a body w/o an organ, in this scene the liver, clearly will very soon have no need of a doctor nor an ambulance.)

[6] It also need be noted that there is no affinity whatsoever b/t this film and the fantastic punk classic, Repo Man (1984).

[7] Law and Whitaker are both veterans of (presumably) the Iraq (or some other) war.  They are highly trained soldiers who have found the perfect venue for their training, and b/c their actions are clearly sanctioned by the state, they can approach it as “just a job.”  One of the most important parts of the film is that both Law and Whitaker are portrayed as not terribly intelligent; indeed, there is a quite hilarious flashback where they are shown to be specifically bodily suited for operating a tank: they have large heads and small brains, the better to prevent concussion.  They’re just dumb, “normal” guys who are violently carrying out the whim of capital.

[8] The aftermath of this scene is actually quite affective as Law’s character walks over piles of corpses.  The resonance w/ other genocides is quite clear here.

[9] Oh, btw, predictably, Law’s heart fails and has to get an artificial one.  He of course misses the payments now that he can empathize w/ his victims and subsequently doesn’t make any money.  (Also of note, how weird is it that these dudes work off commission, like some sort of used-car salesman death squad.)

[10] I distinctly remember one techno-industrial-kid who worked at my local zia in t-town, AZ who had a barcode printed on the back of his neck—the “subversive” irony of this I thought was dumb then, and I surely do now, btw, if you’re interested.

[11] Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002), 155.

[12] W/ the exception of Marina de Van’s Dans ma peau (In My Skin, 2002).

[13] Mary Chapin Carter had no idea her “Passionate Kisses” may ever have been used in such a manner.

[14] Thus the penultimate scene on the beach is obviously a pure dream-construction.

2 thoughts on “The Archival Erotics of Repo Men

  1. oh. THAT scene. good stuff. might have to buy this movie. not that i don’t enjoy grubby Netflix discs that arrive packaged with snacks

  2. Pingback: Two Small Bits of Hyperarchivalism « The Hyperarchival Parallax

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