Monday, December 13, 2010

Fringe: The Creepy Edition

Remember that Aesthetics course I was sitting in on and for which I went to that Shoppers? Well, today was the day each student taking the class had to present their final paper. I had the option of doing the paper as well, but opted out because... because doing no paper is easier than doing a paper, essentially. (And I wanted to focus on my dissertation and course syllabus, but that's a boring explanation.) And to be honest, I kind of regretted it, after seeing the high quality of papers presented today. (In particular, the panel on masculine aesthetics got me thinking how interesting a paper on the appearance of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother could be. This song alone could take up the whole essay.)

Besides the masculinity papers, there were papers on pretty wide variety of topics. Highlights included papers on the aesthetics of the video game Fable, a not-for-the-squeamish discussion on the self-mutilation in Dans ma Peur, and one enterprising gentleman gave a pretty good performance of the Joker ala Dark Knight, and talked on the aesthetics of chaos and supervillainry.

All the presentations were good, but what really got me thinking was a comment the professor made, on how doctors, those operating on the body, get to decide to decide sometimes get to decide what makes that body beautiful--or just normal. That brought to mind another performance on the body I've seen recently, on the last episode of Fringe. I'll say this just once: Spoilers ahead. (I'm going to analyze the episode in some detail here; if you just want to skip to the video clip at the end, I understand.)
Fringe is the middle of a fairly complicated multiple-season alternate universe plot at the moment, but the 22-episode per season format means that you get a few filler episodes every season. This episode, technically, was a filler episode, but it deviated from most in that it wasn't mind-numbingly dull. The A plot is a story straight out of the Twilight Zone. A ballerina commits suicide, and her body parts are distributed after death according to her organ donor status. But one of the members of her old depression support group is also a specialist in tissue regeneration, and happens to be in love with her as well. So he steals the body, and then goes around stealing back her organs, and lovingly sews them back into place. It should be noted that he tries to be as merciful as possible with these thefts, using his tissue technology to stabilize the organs' new owners--not much comfort when your new eyes have been gouged out, but it's something.

Anyway, once our cadaver-inclined Casanova gathers back all the body parts, he plans to use his technology to jump-start her brain, but before he does that, he dresses her up in a tutu, hooks her up to a series of pulleys and levers, and mechanically makes the dead body perform a dance. The scene is quite possibly the creepiest thing I've ever seen on prime-time network television. (And if you want to skip to the movie clip at the end NOW, I understand.) Still here? Really? All right. The scene is also really interesting for how the manhas imposed himself on the artistic scene. The girl has been reduced to a collection of limbs, devoid of volition. Is ballet any more than music and mechanical precision? There's also a heavy gender relation, one that also gets exploited in the B plot. This girl's last choice was to end her life; the scientist is, in a sense, violating her will by assuming she "made a mistake" and that he, as the representative of science, has both the means and the moral right to bring her back.

After this scene, the actual ending of case is almost a denouement. He performs the revival, and the show's protagonists finally arrive on the scene shortly later. They find him upstairs, and the girl in the basement, dead again. He won't say anything beyond "I couldn't bring her back. I brought back something, but it wasn't her. It... didn't have her spark." In other words, he could recreate the mechanics of her performance and the flesh of the body, but her inner essence couldn't be duplicated.

And this is where the B plot comes in. You may have wondered exactly what was going on when the protagonists of a show don't come in until the final act. Well, they were busy--trying to find the scientist, yes, but also dealing with the emotional fallout from the last episode. And this is where things get complicated. If the A plot was classic horror film stuff, then the B plot is pretty hardcore sci-fi. (If I lose you, just scroll down to the end, and... well, you know.) Okay: the main plot of Fringe is that FBI agent Olivia Dunham and associate Peter Bishop investigate paranormal phenomena, mostly those created years ago by Peter's father and cast member, Walter Bishop. (Essentially, it's the X-Files, but with more plot and less pointless bafflement.) The last season ended with a harrowing escape from an alternate universe. However, there was a shocking twist where Olivia was captured by the enemy and replaced by her alternate reality self, without her teammates being the wiser.

The captured Olivia was brainwashed into thinking she was the alternate reality Olivia. A voice in her head--physically embodied by hallucinations of Peter--keep telling her that she is not who she thinks she is; there is, in other words, some core part of herself that they couldn't brainwash away. She fully regains her memory, and escapes narrowly back into our universe.

At the same time, the alternate reality Olivia has been pretending to be the original. She gets physical in the original Olivia's budding romantic relationship with Peter, and takes it to the next level. And she generally skulks around and gathers info until the original Olivia returns and the faux one hightails it back to her own reality.

This leaves the original Olivia feeling pretty violated, especially when Peter confesses that he was sleeping with the alternate reality version of her. (And yes, I recognize the ridiculousness of that sentence.) She has a breakdown in her apartment, throwing the clothes out of her closet, ripping the sheets off the bed. Finally, after the scientist-ballerina case has played out, she lashes out at Peter. Even the scientist could tell that the body in front of him wasn't the woman he loved; why couldn't Peter tell the same?

Okay, on the surface, it's a ridiculous thing to hold against someone: "Why can't you love me like the necrophiliac organ thief?" But it speaks to the same underlying question: "What makes a person's identity?" Olivia saved herself because she found some core that was more than what she was told she was. The scientist recreated the form of the girl, but not what he truly loved about her. And Olivia lashes out at Peter and her possessions because she's forced to confront the notion that they weren't sufficient to identify her: someone who could copy her face and body could swoop in and take her life, and no one knew the difference. Whatever core essence she has beyond her physical appearance didn't make any difference.

This all ties back to aesthetics, for me, because modern individuality is tied so much on expression and appearance. If we express ourselves through the products we buy and the clothes we wear, is there any element of us that isn't reproducible? Is there any core to us that extends beyond the surface? And if there is, is there any way we can prove its existence to anyone else? Or see their inner self? Can you prove that it's me, your beloved blogger, writing this? Or could I be someone who was just sufficiently schooled in his rhetoric and cadence?

And to leave everyone with the really important question:

Is that just the creepiest thing ever?

Later Days.

No comments: