by Kathleen McHugh
Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 110-116
A marked concern with space, often geographic space, informs the films of Patricia Gruben. A satellite photograph of the earth, maps, and floor plans figure prominently in her work. Her narratives (this term for lack of a better) invert the privilege that narrative cinema traditionally accords to time. Instead, they emphasize the space-geographic, cultural or textual-in which these narratives take place. Tensions in Gruben's films arise as human subjects are acted upon, conditioned or determined by their geographical surroundings. In THE CENTRAL CHARACTER, an amorphous protagonist — a housewife perhaps — disintegrates as her voice/ persona moves from the emphatically organized environment of the kitchen to the organic profusion of the garden. SIFTED EVIDENCE depends on a foreign geopolitical setting, Mexico, to structure its narrative and thematic concerns. Finally, in LOW VISIBILITY, Gruben draws on the hostile natural environment to explore a crisis between a languaged "civilized" subject and the needs of his body.
Yet Gruben's films pointedly are not naive re-workings of the age-old conflict described by the tired phrase, "Man (sic) against nature." Rather, her work opposes and exposes the fallacy underlying the construction of this conflict as it continually points to the textual, discursive aspects of spatial contexts. The earth, nature, our physical environment come replete with sciences (geography, architecture, astronomy) that articulate them and methodologies (cartography, photography, cinematography) that we use to represent them. In addition, Gruben underlines the fact that space is significant, it means, however much we take it for granted. Against the traditional organizing schemes of history and narrative in which a subject, temporally and progressively determined by events, moves through a background of neutral space, Gruben poses an alternative paradigm. Technically and narratively, she foregrounds the ways in which human subjects, narrative, and history cannot be separated from and indeed depend upon context, space and environment for a signifying/significant integrity.
Language, traditionally construed as the immanent mark of the human subject, as that which distinguishes us from objects, other life forms, and the environment, plays a crucial role in Gruben's films. She continually separates aural representations of her characters' dialogue and discourse from visual representations of their bodies. Thus language becomes an interface, a mediating region between bodies and their surroundings. Often words, sounds, dialogues on the soundtrack indicate a subjective presence, but Gruben only depicts their locale. This technique works to erode the neat distinctions usually observed in cinema between subject and object, character and context, and as a consequence, challenges the privilege usually accorded to the first term in each of these pairs.
The title of Gruben's first film, THE CENTRAL CHARACTER (1977), indicates the terms of its own motive enigma. Focusing attention on food, both its preparation and growth, the film aligns two functionally similar yet structurally distinct spaces, the kitchen and the garden. It then traces its protagonist as she moves from the monotonous order of the former to the profuse, chaotic beauty of the latter. This protagonist never assumes a distinct, synched identity; rather, she takes on the "character" of her surroundings. In the kitchen and the garden, she concerns herself with order and cleanliness. Once in the garden, however, her character becomes diffuse and wild; she literally revels in dirt.
Gruben uses primarily verbal and architectural texts to render the domestic space of the kitchen. The film opens with a woman reciting a grocery list on the soundtrack as a text scrolling up on a black screen describes her struggle with two bulky grocery bags on her way into the house. This scrolling text recurs, intercut with images, giving us fragmentary descriptions of events and chores that structure a woman's domestic existence. All these chores involve a struggle between food and dirt, cleanliness and disorder. Over a floorplan of the kitchen's layout, superimposed titles state, "Entropy is the main problem in the modern kitchen, regulating traffic flow, keeping fingerprints, food particles and other unhygienic intruders out. A nucleus of order must be maintained. A kitchen is white steel and chrome for earlier detection. Why is it that disorder is more contagious?" A subsequent text notes that as the women goes to fix herself a meal, she must be very careful "to remove all the grit"; a recipe scrolls up on the screen, then instructions for sprouting potatoes. The woman's proclivity for cultivation proves to be her undoing. Utilizing a poetic logic, Gruben plays the organic implications of the word "cultivation" (as vegetal growth) off against its culturally oriented meaning involving refinement and polish. The next text informs us that the potatoes exhibited "phenomenal growth" and "overtook the kitchen." To get to her cupboard, the woman "had to pull roots off the cupboard door." The last text in the film has the flavor of a fairytale. Needing to find more containers for her plants, it says, the woman ventures into the woods, sprinkling seeds behind her to mark her way home. The birds eat the seeds.
The printed passages that punctuate these initial sequences of THE CENTRAL CHARACTER trace the movement toward disorder of all of its elements. From the straightforward description that opens the film to the clinical treatise on the horrors of entropy and the reassuring order of the recipe, these texts slip into a fantastic narration that details the transformation, the disordering of a certain milieu and of the character that inhabits and maintains that milieu.
The images that attend these texts initially serve to illustrate them. Following the passage on entropy, we see a hand scrubbing a dirty footprint off a floor. The early sequences of the film present the woman as merely an agent of order; we never see her. Stills of a broom sweeping a patio, the hand scrubbing the floor, a voice observing that the patio must be swept "every day" denote her presence. Time lapse photography of wildly growing roots ironically illustrate her remark, "The natural world takes dictation from scienctific order." The first visual representation of her lying in a bathtub with a fern frond dangling down toward her floating hair marks the turn towards disorder. The organic world invades, contaminates the domestic. The woman goes to the woods to search for more "containers."
In the latter half of the film, compelling, enigmatic visuals predominate. No texts order this world, and the woman's aural presence, her voice, merges with the cacaphony of the outdoors. Overexposed, high contrast film footage finds her lying in the mud, initially indistinguishable from the ground, perhaps drinking water from a puddle. Discovered by the camera, she bounds off, her white clothing patterned with dirt stains. She peruses domestic junk scattered in a field as a voice repeats incessantly, "I would like to say that I would like to say that..." Meaning becomes a mantra, a drone blending in with the sounds of frogs and insects. Hemmed by foliage, she sets a mock table, placing a worm and a frog on a plate as an almost incoherent, reverberating voice delimits the proper place for knives and spoons.
The lush visual beauty of the ending of THE CENTRAL CHARACTER undercuts the order that dominated the film's beginning. The drudge and monotony of the domestic becomes exotic as it dissipates in the aural, vegetal riot of the outdoors. And the elusive central character? Originally constituted as an ordered, ordering function in the kitchen, the woman disintegrates into an organic effect, a liberated growth that exceeds the constraints, the original context or containers of her own cultivation.
Moving from the poetic evocation of domestic and rural space depicted in THE CENTRAL CHARACTER, Gruben works with a coherent narrative and larger increments of geographic, here politicized, space in her second film. Midway through SIFTED EVIDENCE (1982), the narrator remarks "The history of Mexico can be seen as a series of superimpositions..." Significantly, the phrase articulates history in spatial terms and resonates with the archaeological emphasis in the film. The evidence sifted from the dust of ruins provides material artifacts which verify and support the abstract, temporal construct we call history. In addition, the notion of superimposition informs the film at every level — technical, narrative and ideological — and operates as a master trope in this film's meditation on vision, representation and reading as they are inflected and distorted by the place/ position of the viewer.
The film begins with a text scrolling as the first of two female narrators reads, "For a few people, the center of this vast globe is a tiny village located near the Mexican gulf coast once known as Tlatilco. This village died out nearly 3000 years ago and no longer appears on modern maps. But to reach that spot, we must proceed from where we are at the moment." The title appears to the sound of airplane engines, and then we see a satellite camera view of "this vast globe" sighted through crosshairs. Over these visuals, the narrator prescribes rules for accurate vision through a lens.
These two opening shots, containing respectively verbal and visual representations of "this vast globe," approach their mutual subject very differently. The first shot, in a descriptive mode, announces the film's story while the second introduces its structural and self-reflexive concerns, couched in a prescription for proper viewing. The written text identifies a particular location vital to the narrative — it places us within the film — while the second shot, in its concern with focus and vision, seems indirectly to address our placement as spectators outside it.
A disjunctive stream of images follows, held together by the continuous narration which begins to describe the trip to Mexico. From an aerial perspective, we see a body of water, a coastline, the small huts of a village. With no cinematic punctuation, this film sequence takes on a slide-show format illustrating the Virgin Mary's successful invasion of primitive Mexican religion. The narrator remarks that the "chaste" Christian imagery of Mary replaced the icon of an Aztec goddess of fertility. The descriptive and prescriptive discursive modes heard just before in the film's opening sequences now recur as shifting moods in this slide presentation. Initially the narrator introduces the lecture on the Virgin Mary in an explanatory context; her interest in female divinities of ancient Mexico has led her to make this trip, and the Virgin Mary provides the contemporary trace of these ancient goddesses. But her voice quickly becomes polemical. Alluding to the imperialism of Christianity in New World countries, she notes dryly that the spiritual traits of mercy and sacrifice expounded by missionaries were "useful lessons for a conquered race," and ultimately translate into "our mercy, their sacrifice."
Yet as she is developing the argument, the content of the slides changes and another salient political concern makes its way into this discourse on racial oppression. After we see a slide showing a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a billboard where a woman's body advertises beer, the narrator discusses the problem of a woman travelling alone in a foreign country. "We must always remember the power of archetypes. We have no biographies on the street beyond present behavior." Over images of women sitting on park benches, talking at tables, or shots of their fragmented bodies (a sandalled foot, an elbow), she says, "We are all billboards on the street." She relates that the men in Mexico all called her "la huera, the blonde, in an insulting way"; she associates this derogatory appelation both with her gender and her privileged status as a foreign tourist who has "the time and the money for adventure." This voice-over effectively complicates the issues of racial and sexual oppression, issues perhaps embedded in the Virgin's icon. It poses them in an ambiguous relation to one another, crosses them as it were. As if to demonstrate this dilemma, the narrator then tells the story of a Canadian woman who was kidnapped and held for several days in a remote village. The camera scans a primitive map of a Mexican landscape as the narrator says, "The man who took her didn't understand her words, mistook her curiosity for desire. Who knows what they finally meant to each other."
From this anecdotal digression, the woman then explicates the series of slides that follow. They depict two-faced or two-headed female figures which were discovered in the ruins at Tlatilco. She wonders, "Why the double images?" and as the camera pans across a bookshelf, she confesses, "I felt that old Teutonic fascination, the body and the spirit, immanence and transcendence, the gap that can never be closed by analysis." She decides that, because of her interest in the doubled figures at Tlatilco, she will try to find this place. The image fades as we hear the sounds of a slide projector being turned off and a light switch being turned on.
Heretofore only an authoritative voice over the film's introduction, the narrator finally appears in one of only two scenes in SIFTED EVIDENCE with synched sound and visuals. The camera surveys her room, the pictures on the wall, the open suitcase on the bed, as the woman discusses ancient rituals of female sacrifice. The camera finally reaches and rests on her face. Looking directly into the lens, the woman says that she made several attempts to get the ruins but it was difficult to find out where they were and it was very difficult for her to get around. She turns on a Spanish language tape and, crossing the room, removes three souvenirs — a bus ticket, a statuette and a bunch of flowers — from her suitcase. "These items," she says, "represent adventure, mystery and romance; they are marks of voluntary bondage." The visuals fade.
A new female voice dictates the internal narrative of SIFTED EVIDENCE. This narrative acts out or re-presents all the topics, problems and plots presented in the introductory sequences. The protagonist "Maggie" doubles for the first narrator. She wants to get to the ruins of Tlatilco; she travels, initially, alone. Like the Canadian woman who was kidnapped, Maggie "cannot observe herself from far enough away to stay out of trouble," and she finds herself in an awkward position with a Mexican man she meets. As this relationship is reenacted or dramatized, an earlier question resurfaces, "Who knows what they finally meant to each other."
Gruben tends to introduce her characters aurally and then to follow with visuals, if at all. Maggie and Jim Lilly's story begins as we watch visuals presumably from their point of view of a Mexican town, then successive dissolves of the countryside from a moving vehicle, presumably a bus. The voice-over states that he has offered to show Maggie around, to act as her guide. Maggie tries to describe the face that would go with the name "Jim Lilly." She is suspicious of his motives, but reluctantly accepts his help.
Maggie and Jim make their first appearance literally superimposed on a rear projection image of a country road. They stand awkwardly side by side, both facing the camera as the voice-over discusses their positions. "She should be at right angles to him from now on as he filters all her data; he knows the language." Here, the narrator attempts to impose a spatial configuration ("right angles") on the protagonists' positions. Their disparate relations to their geographical surroundings, the artificial "setting" of the latter pointedly underscored by the rear projection technique, serves to structure their relationship. He acts as her filter, sifts or strains her incoming "data." To a certain extent, he controls or influences her perspective, as when he lectures her about her revealing bathing suit.
She, a well-educated woman, has come to Mexico to do feminist research on certain ancient artifacts; to her, this country is a text that she approaches with a very clearly delimited set of ideas and pre-suppositions. Tlatilco interests her because the evidence she has every indication of finding there will verify an already formulated worldview. She will and, if we consider the introductory sequences of the film, already has imposed a certain interpretation on the Mexican figures, the events of her journey, the Mexican man. Her gender, her cultural background, her politics at once constitute her focus, so necessary for any sighting, while they simultaneously preclude the possibility of any undistorted vision. Yet, she cannot negotiate the foreign terrain, cannot locate the site. Not knowing the land or the language, she must depend on a man, her filter, to show her around, however much she might suspect his motives.
Although her trip "was organized around trips to the ruins," Maggie (also the original narrator) never makes it there. The narrative finally devolves around the rapport, or lack of it, between Maggie and Jim Lilly. Ultimately, the evidence we must sift through concerns the tension elicited from their conflicting representations of what is ostensibly the "same" story. The viewpoint of Jim Lilly AKA Charlie, although mediated through the woman's voice-over narration, presents a perspective that differs from, if it does not overtly challenge, Maggie's point of view.
Initially Charlie presents himself as Jim Lilly, a major league baseball player who did time for writing bad checks. Later, in a scene in which he confronts her, he admits to Maggie that he constructed this myth, but he chides her for not realizing that all his friends call him Charlie and have done so in front of her. "You didn't even notice." He considers himself a "people person" while she "has her head in a book all the time." He tells her that she doesn't know where she's going, that she didn't even notice when they drove right past the ruins she was seeking. While he tells her these things, she fiddles with her expensive camera.
Maggie's Teutonic background: At one point, she thinks about her father, relates an anecdote of his childhood in Bremen. A bit later on the soundtrack, a voice recites fragments of a Rilke poem. Sometimes Maggie dreams in German. Although her German heritage would seem to have little to do with her vision, a comment by Charlie brings them together. As he is trying to feed the nauseous Maggie an enchilada, he says to her, "You're a German, just close your eyes." His comment, with its very obvious historical allusions, implies that her obliviousness constitutes a significant moral flaw and one that involves racial oppression. She doesn't notice that his friends call him Charlie because she's only interested in what he can do for her, not in who he is. Charlie's reading of their relationship on racial lines neatly matches and problematizes her gender-oriented perspective of it.
The visuals for the Maggie/Charlie story consistently emphasize the artificiality of its representation. Gruben consistently employs rear projection and, in one sequence, uses a painted backdrop to stage a scene. The often disjunctive spatial planes that comprise the mise-en-scene emphasize the fact that context too is a representational construct. The narrator's voice-over adds another level of distanciation and artifice. The narrative of SIFTED EVIDENCE does not happen, unfold before us, wrapped in illusory claims to realism. Rather, a voice which we recognize as biased tells us the story. Gruben does not allow us to forget that the narrative evidence we receive is always being re-presented. In addition, SIFTED EVIDENCE consistently presents narrative detail or evidence that derives from more than one voice or source. Sometimes the voice-over and the visuals appear completely unrelated to one another, as when the narrator reports that the angle of Maggie's shoulders should let Charlie know she wants to travel alone and the visuals depict a door and a fork in a country road. Sometimes they are absolutely "consistent" as when we see Charlie's lips mouth the words the narrator reports that he is saying. The characters never actually speak in synch sound in a "synched" (non-artificial) mise-en-scene-with one exception.
In their last encounter with one another, Charlie and Maggie come to blows. She attempts to leave her motel room. He stops her and throws her on the bed. She bites him. The only time they physically touch, in this scene, they also speak directly to one another. The absence of the narrator's voice makes this scene seem shocking and out of place. He tells her that he wants her "off his back" and that he's going to make sure she gets on the bus in the morning. She replies, "Can't I put myself on the bus?" He retorts that he doesn't think she's learned how to do that yet.
Their dialogue stands in direct opposition to their former behavior. She has been incapable of getting around without him. He has sought out her company. They both seem to be lying. The film that provides the context for this scene also undermines its validity in a representational sense. The realistic conventions that inform it become apparent when juxtaposed with the modes of presentation used in the scenes that precede it. The film thereby presents diegetic realism as just another mode of representation with no privileged claim to truth.
Gruben's multi-faceted play with misc-en-scene acts out the problems of perspective presented in the story of Maggie and Charlie. We must arbitrarily choose which representative mode, if any, we will take as the legitimate one. In an analogous hermeneutic dilemma, Charlie and Maggie's points of view cross, intersect, foil one another and any reading we might have of their conflict. Gruben doesn't opt to resolve the oppositions embodied in these two characters (body/spirit, German/Mexican, male/female) by a convenient narrative synthesis. Charlie and Maggie, for example, do not fall in love. Their story simply ends, unresolved. A theoretical, feminist reading of SIFTED EVIDENCE would obviate the historical and cultural aspects of Mexico and the iconography of women in that culture. A reading along historical/cultural lines that would find Maggie's behavior, indeed the film overall, "racist" leaves women imprisoned in the sexist ideologies embedded in this culture's heritage.
Maggie and Charlie's relationship and the strains within it quickly foreground a dilemma involving political positions and perspectives, a dilemma which ultimately faces the spectator of this film. In the situation which develops between Maggie and Charlie, one which calls into question racial and sexual rights, depicts racist and sexist attitudes and fashions these issues in such a way that an interpretation of racial injustice precludes a feminist interpretation and vice-versa, how do we, the spectators, read, how do we judge? SIFTED EVIDENCE skillfully poses these questions and just as skillfully refuses any simple answer to them. If we judge Maggie to be racist or Charlie to be sexist, the film demands that we realize our reading is based on a point of view that inherently suppresses another's reading.
Finally, the adage that one must pay "close attention to the crosshairs" nicely collapses a demand for focus with a critique of self-reflexivity, for our awareness of our own theoretical, political, visual perspectives does not alleviate the consequent perceptual distortion resulting from it. SIFTED EVIDENCE construes perception within the enigma of the figure and ground. Foreground, background — when a subject focuses on one, the other becomes its context and vice-versa. Neither has any independent significance. The film inscribes its spectator's position at the intersecting point of two perpendicular or opposed lines; confronted with the crosshairs and their subject, we can only ponder the riddle of their irresolvable relation.
LOW VISIBILITY (1984), Patricia Gruben's first feature film, combines the strategies and strengths of her two earlier works. Visually stunning like THE CENTRAL CHARACTER, it also concerns a protagonist lost in a linguistic twilight provoked by the natural environment. But this film treats the language loss as pathological rather than liberating. LOW VISIBILITY shares with SIFTED EVIDENCE a concern with media and perspective and uses narrative to explore these issues. The poetic elusiveness of Gruben's first film, and her studious avoidance of narrative resolution in her second, find expression in the plot structure of LOW VISIBILITY, for it treats of what becomes in her hands an unsolvable mystery. Borrowed from a real-life account of a plane crash survivor who feeds on the remains of his fellow passengers to stay alive, the plot of LOW VISIBILITY deals with a man found wandering alone in the snow in a park in British Columbia. Apparently suffering from amnesia and aphasia, he can only utter profanities. A barrage of institutions — the media, the medical community and the police — bring their resources to bear on solving his case.
Who is he? Where did he come from? To all queries, Mr. Bones, as he is later dubbed by his nurses, can only stutter "fffucking asshole" or some variation thereof. His language disorder renders him an impenetrable, utterly enigmatic subject. The sociopolitical order demands an identity and an origin for all its inhabitants. In the case of Mr. Bones, who is discovered without any identification, the media and the police initially appear powerless. In the film's second sequence, a reporter pushes his way into the ambulance where Mr. Bones sits on a stretcher, saying, "Hold on! He's not dying or anything. Let me get a story." He aggressively demands of Mr. Bones, "What is your name? Have you been out here long? What happened?" Mr. Bones only swears at him, and frustrated, the reporter shrugs and says irritably to the camera, "Oh forget it, Sandy. We can't use this on the six o'clock news. We'll just get some hospital shots and do a voice-over."
The police are equally callous. Over visuals of nurses helping Mr. Bones into bed, a hushed dialogue occurs in the hallway between a doctor and Sergeant Nimitz. The investigator says, "They couldn't really give me anything on him downstairs, his name, anything. I wonder if you'd just let me go in there and get a start on his file." The doctor refuses repeatedly despite Nimitz's claim to special "approaches" to make people talk. As the press cannot get his story nor the police coerce it from him, the task of discovering Mr. Bones' identity, of telling his story falls upon the medical community. The narrative thus functionally collapses a clinical therapeutic process with the hermeneutic demands of the plot. Doctors become detectives.
As in SIFTED EVIDENCE, this film refuses to privilege any particular point of view. The eyes and the media through which we see Mr. Bones constantly shift. The film opens with a sequence shot through the windshield of a moving car. The women in the car spot Mr. Bones staggering down a snowy embankment and out onto the road. We never see these women, but we hear them disagree about whether to stop or not. The driver, who doesn't want to, wins out, "He might be dangerous." The car passes Mr. Bones. The screen fades to black. The sequences with the reporter and the investigator follow, also punctuated by these noticeable fades, which mark off many of the sequences in the film. Gruben thus emphasizes the fragmentary, incremental character of this narrative. Stories, speculations, a clinical case history aggregate around the silent center inhabited by Mr. Bones. Everyone wants to explicate him, to render him coherent. They want to penetrate, permeate him with language. One of his physicians, a Dr. Pearl, who tries to make him put a face on a Mr. Potato Head says, "I just want to know how far we have to go to get you back here with us." Mr. Bones responds by slapping the plastic eyes, ears and mouth into his plate of food, a legitimate answer to Pearl's question but one too literal for the doctor to understand.
Much of the footage in LOW VISIBILITY depicts Mr. Bones' clinical experience, an experience utterly mediated technically, linguistically and narratively. A video camera in his room constantly monitors his behavior, and Gruben switches our perspective of him back and forth from the black and white video monitor to the film camera in the room. The video camera films the film crew filming Mr. Bones. A reporter interviews Dr. Korona who explicates the jargon of his trade. Gruben even exposes the mediation of cinematic narration itself; over a still of Mr. Bones, a voiceover explains the Kuleshov effect, a perceptual phenomenon exploited in film editing to suggest affective states.
Narratively, Mr. Bones' relations with the hospital staff reflect different therapeutic perspectives that seem to divide along gendered, hierarchical lines. His two female nurses play word games with him, tell him inane jokes, steal crayons for him. They report dreaming about him, as they dream about all their patients, dream that they can speak. They touch him, and he responds to their treatment. He takes on the name the nurses give him, later angrily telling a male doctor his name is "Bones!"
Mr. Bones has sessions with the male doctors. They conduct tests on him, do speech therapy, use and withhold food from him to elicit his cooperation in their therapy. They act businesslike, professional in all their interactions with him, and they sometimes become impatient when he doesn't respond as they would like him to. Many of the tasks they want him to perform involve food. It is the first word Dr. Korona tries to teach him to say. One of the games he plays with his patient requires Mr. Bones to pick out the object among several that "you can eat." These tests initially appear innocent. As this plot about cannibalism unfolds, however, they acquire a sadistic significance.
A second investigation counterpoints the relentless clinical assault on Mr. Bones' psyche. Gruben, exploiting every possible instance and meaning of the word "media," executes a sort of pun in adding a psychic medium to the cast of characters. The psychic never actually meets Bones but rather "haunts" the official investigation. Gruben introduces her in a striking image. A woman's hands move lightly, slowly across a map as she says, "I see rocks...trees, lots of snow...I'm up high, looking down. There's a burn patch on the ground..." Always filmed from a subjective camera position, the psychic flies over the crash site in a helicopter, murmurs trance-like over a photograph of Mr. Bones. She camps in the woods near the wreckage and, in a slow motion, visually distorted sequence (a dream, a hallucination?), she comes across ripped pieces of the fuselage as she hears fragments of a conversation between the two men who survived the crash.
The psychic's search always involves incidental or contextual material as she cannot get inside Mr. Bones. She wonders if he's "blocking her" because when she gets "near him, it's all garbled inside." Her perspective, represented by voiceovers and subjective shots, begins to invade and "read" occurrences in the hospital. Musing over a police photo of the crash site, she challenges the police report that the two men and the woman in the ill-fated plane were killed on impact. Her interpretation of the events comes to be more and more privileged by the film. In one scene, the camera slowly pans across the screens of several video monitors, each depicting a perspective of Mr. Bones. One replays a therapy session with Dr. Korona, the next Sergeant Nimitz talking with him. On the next monitor, a newscaster, standing in the park where Mr. Bones was found, reports that the condition of the bodies at the crash site 'raises new questions for the police." The psychic sits at the last monitor, watching a TV commercial, visually equated with the other investigator/ narrators of Mr. Bones' case.
Through the many information sources in the film, we learn that two of the survivors' bodies were eaten, probably by Mr. Bones. Contingent questions become important. Were the other people in the plane alive or dead after the crash? Did Mr. Bones kill them? Near the end of the film, Sergeant Nimitz confronts Mr. Bones with a log found at the crash site. In elliptical terms, he accuses Mr. Bones certainly of cannibalism, possibly of murder. He tells Mr. Bones, "Everyone's known about this for a long time." The police and the doctors were only waiting "to see if you'd admit to it." The sergeant never articulates exactly what Mr. Bones should admit to, and the account with which he confronts Mr. Bones is riddled with inconsistencies. When Mr. Bones attempts to speak, however, the investigator interrupts and silences him. "You don't have to say anything. We know it was you." The details gleaned from the psychic's insight that contradict Nimitz's interpretation together with the questions he himself asks and then dismisses unanswered utterly confound the denouement of LOW VISIBILITY. Sergeant Nimitz declares, "It all fits togehter," as if his pronouncement were sufficient. He and Dr. Korona practice a sadistic hermeneutics; they impose their account on the stupified Mr. Bones. In the end, even the psychic's voice is undercut. Over the last shot in the film, an aerial view, flying, the psychic "talks" with the nurse killed in the crash. She tells her "It's you I want, you know. He was just all we had...the alive one." The psychic finishes by telling the nurse, "You don't need to talk now."
Mr. Bones functions in LOW VISIBILITY as a pretense for discourse. Narrative, legal, and clinical systems abduct him, fill his silence with their voices, forcefully make him their subject. The media, the psychic, police, medical personnel frame him, indict him in their own discursive constructions. Finally madman, victim, garbled body, Mr. Bones becomes a mediated event seen through eyes whose vision is always partially, if not wholly, obscured.
LOW VISIBILITY succeeds in developing and realizing Gruben's formal and thematic concerns more fully than either of her previous works. Both visually captivating and theoretically sophisticated, it apprehends a certain malaise or paradox of subjectivity without being overly analytical or didactic. The film constitutes Mr. Bones as a skeleton or context to depict/delimit the construction of a subject. The drama, the narrative obliterates the very possibility of any Cartesian clarity as objective facts and subjective accounts in LOW VISIBILITY are utterly inter-contaminated. Context, linguistic and spatial environments, media, the camera's lens become the subject; they invade a silent, helpless body, enacting the process any subject must experience to get, to be "back here with us."
I wish to give special thanks to Claudia Gorbman for her assistance in the preparation of this article.