Symbol (2009)

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First time with Hitoshi Matsumoto.

After it finishes you have to go digging back a bit for the opening section, which begins with a Fear and Loathing nun travelling to pick up the wrestler father (Escargot Man!) of an anxious young boy in a Mexican wilderness. There’s later a feeling that this is just a disorientating false-start, but there’s also a sense of trusting childish investment in an adult world: the boy places faith in his father’s strength and heart despite a fretting mother and dismissive schoolmates. His faith is mirrored by the prayers of his wrestler father, surrounded by quietly prevalent catholic iconography in his locker room. Barthes says that wrestling is always about “explicit” signification of moral (internal) situations (expression of emotions that signify and complicate status of heroes/villains etc.). “Each moment of the wrestling match is therefore a kind of algebra which instantaneously discloses the relation of a cause with its figured effect.” Its truth is present and immediate (“Each sign in wrestling is thus endowed with an utter clarity since everything must always be understood on the spot.”). “A wrestler may irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always ultimately achieves, by a gradual solidification of signs, what the public expects of him.” Catholic devotion and wrestler-worship are both investments in moralistic/causal systems that appear to function continuously – upon which its devotees are therefore trustfully dependent.

In contrast (constantly contrasted, in the first half of S anyway) we have the surreality of a man awakening in a bare rectangular room. Cherubic figures emerge from the walls and their abstracted penises become levers by which random objects are inserted into his world for him to puzzle over – pots, trees, sticks, comics, sashimi, a floating key, a mysterious runner, a door which is appears and disappears on a timer. Our man is dressed childishly in a bowl-cut wig and spotty pyjamas (infantility enhanced by the first apparition: a pink toothbrush) and exhibits a streak of infantile (scatological) humour amidst his frustration at this confinement – frustration which he announces, in protest, as unanswered pleas for help or explanation. He is clearly an adult trapped in a world of childish (il)logic, failing to get to grips with a system of infantile signification: effect does not explicably follow cause; knowledge has to be pieced together blindly through trial-and-error experience (like an animal in an intelligence test). None of Barthes’ “instantaneous disclosure” in here; in fact, the system often seems to play (childishly) capricious tricks on our man, with soy sauce ejected at the wrong time during a meal, levers awkwardly springing shut at inconvenient points, objects breaking each other at inopportune moments, etc. Our man longs for the certainty of Barthes’ world of wrestling:

In wrestling, nothing exists unless it exists totally, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is given exhaustively; leaving nothing in shadow, the gesture severs every parasitical meaning and ceremonially presents the public with a pure and full signification, three-dimensional, like Nature. What is enacted by wrestling, then, is an ideal intelligence of things, a euphoria of humanity, raised for a while out of the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and installed in a panoramic vision of a univocal Nature, in which signs finally correspond to causes without obstacle, without evasion, and without contradiction.

Our man does eventually escape: after a purgatorial entrapment, he is laboriously led to another similar room, in which the effects of each lever are obscured to him. In fact, in a pulse-raising coordination of S‘s two plotlines, the first lever gives the Mexican wrestler-dad a bizarre means to win his match. Other levers take effect in global scenes with a similar level of systemic signification to wrestling: painted rockstars spout fire at a concert, a tv magician’s trick is interrupted, etc. Meanwhile, increasingly frustrated about his protracted confinement, our man starts climbing levers on the walls towards a seraphic light above – each compression sparks an action or event in a montage of home-video and news footage, including animals falling over, weapons firing, and an Obama speech.

This angelic ascent forms a middle section entitled PRACTICE. The first room was LEARNING; the final stage is FUTURE: our man ascends through the roof into a final room, where instead of cherubs a topographical atlas seeps through the wall. Opposite is one final dick-lever, which our man reaches towards like The Creation of Adam until the credits cut in before we get a chance to see what happens. There’s a clear development from blind operation of levers whose effects capriciously torment the operator, to a blind operation of levers whose effects register capriciously in the real world, to an enlightened operation of a lever whose effect (I imagine) will constitute complete control over the real world.

I don’t 100% know what to make of that. The ending isn’t annoying: it’s like a joke shared with the writer about how clearly none of us can know what it would be like to wield that kind of power, the power to control a system “in which signs finally correspond to causes without obstacle” (the mad futility of wrestling as an approximation is kind of hinted at by the fact that the miracle-lever ends up inducing Escargot Man to headbutt his own celebrating child). It’s certainly satisfying that our frustrated hero ends up with that power, though it is pretty hilarious watching him struggle in the first room, particularly when he devises cartoonish plots for escape. This first section certainly feels less like youtube excreta than the last third-ish, which is less satisfying visually and thematically. There does seem to be a religious ascension, a graduation from patient- to agent-status; perhaps a comment on the incomprehensible causal complexity of today’s world of object-based consumerism and the internet. There’s also a dick-lever which lowers a massive room-sized arse from the ceiling while flashing red lights and a child’s countdown announce a visible fart to which our man responds by kneeling and screaming “That STINKS!!!!”

A colourful, bizarrely lovable oddity whose surreal logic is sufficiently engaging to encourage both uncomprehending enjoyment and pompous retrospective speculation.

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