Post-Human Post-Cinema

HBO's Westworld

Part 1 - published in Senses Of Cinema No.89, Melbourne, 2018

Introduction

HBO's Westworld (2 seasons to date, late 2016 and mid 2018) is new, modern, innovative, polyphonic, self-reflexive and existential. Yet it is simultaneously classical, postmodern, derivative, mono-dimensional, self-aggrandizing and grandiloquent. As an exemplar of post-cinema, the TV series is the unbecoming of its originating cine-text, Michael Crichton's Westworld (1973), and the becoming of its replication of that text. Produced in a hyper-algorithmic Google era, artificial intelligence (AI) is central to the American series' premise and development. But more than a mere zeitgeist conceit, the practice of AI scripting, authoring and coding works to shape the series thematically, formally and textually. Androids and ethics abound, but - as will be argued - their presence is critically modulated by two founts of post-human discourse: Japanese anime and Nouvelle Roman cinema. Further contextualized by the conditions of video-on-demand (VOD) televisual production and its dependency on cinematic morphology, Westworld the series in toto behaves distinctly from its predictable allusions and references.

In a sense Westworld is its own AI engine. It is caught up in the process of learning and remembering, conscious of its manifold replications and simulations, yet somehow unconscious of how its aggregated and processed data itself originally performed cannibalistic and regurgitative acts. To discuss the series simply in cinematic or televisual terms would ignore this expanded context of the series' production. The diagnostics run here to illuminate Westworld's generic artificiality and textual multi-dimensionality are strategically restricted to two passages within the series' narrative maze: (i) the 1.5 minute opening title sequence (covered here in Part 1), and (ii) the first 10 minutes of the first episode of Season 1 (covered later Part 2). Like a scanned laser slice of frozen cranial tissue, this analysis thrives on never knowing either the whole of its analytic object or the mystical author of its construction - or the power attributed to either. It is an analysis which only responds to the ways in which Westworld operates as post-cinema, and is only presented as such to the post-human reader. Humanists may read on, but their presence will not be welcomed.

Part 1 - Unreading the Opening

Opening title sequences - to films, classically, and to television series, modernistically - can be viewed as programmes put into run mode. They start, continue, then end. Their logical construction is the parenthetical spatio-temporality during and across which they map a network of themes, situations, icons and images which can be said to compress the movie or show following. Part abstracted poster, part navigational preparation, the opening title sequence figuratively comes to life itself as if it is an self-executing application. If book covers and frontispieces in novels are wilfully excluded from traditional literary analysis, film and television parasitically embrace their opening title sequences. Be they cryptic haiku-like apparitions or bombastic carnivales of audiovisuality, the cine/tele opening title sequence can function like a blood chart detailing its humoral content, symbolically suggesting that here is the essence of that which is to follow.

Come the new millennial meta-cinema genre productions of HBO (the gangster of The Sopranos, the western of Deadwood, the fantasy of Game of Thrones, etc.), opening title sequences consolidated their signifying importance. Semantically engorged through excessive repetition - even developed stylistically and thematically across multiple seasons - their emboldened status is celebrated and included within any serious tele-series commentary or analysis. Consequently, as genre cinema became reinvented through televisualization, the opening title sequence genetically advanced in fascinating meta-textual ways. The VOD opening title sequence - by nature, form and species - references not simply cinema, but everything cinema had become as well as everything it could not be due to being cinema. It's not by accident that HBO adopted a linguistic pun in its tagline: "It's not TV. It's HBO."

Thus does Westworld - the HBO series perform. "It's not Westworld. It's Westworld." Its opening title sequence is a map of developing nodes. Some the viewer 'pre-reads' in assumption of the speculative sci-fi base of the series; others hauntingly tease the viewer as to the purpose of their placement. The imagery is suitably iconic and historically loaded (a player piano, a horse rider, a Colt six-shooter, the Utah buttes of the Colorado Plateau, etc,) but their rendering bears the hallmarks of contemporary sci-fi production design: all is placed within a meld of Ikea displays, NASA laboratories, Silicon Valley boardroom interiors and contemporary art installations.

The sequence is itself a concatenation of unfolding micro-scenes which grow and fertilize each other. Morphing from procedural operations to completed processes, each tableau demonstrates its own making by incorporating its digital realization. Pre-digital, the references would be Michelangelo's The Creation Of Adam (c.1508) crossed with M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands (1948). But the opening title sequence is neither painted nor drawn. It is - to use an old term which now means something entirely different - 'printed'. The key mechanism depicted is a complex animatronic cannula extrusion needle, posed as a fantastic 'meta digital printer'. It can extrude a substance to form anything required. Its sinewy threads will become metallic piano strings, osteo-polymer, and retinal thread. The needles are affixed to the tip of hulking robotic arms; we could call these apparati 'morphizers': makers sans moulds which make men sans gods.

Almost immediately, these morphing images cast tantalizing semiotic shadows. The close-up on the iris with its interwoven noodles creates a caldera whose contours follow the curvature of the iris. Superimposed on its circular plane is a vista of Utah's Castle Valley, whose shadowed flats are centrally aligned with the as-yet unmade pupil. For a few seconds, the iris contracts, as if responding to something. This is impossible because (a) it isn't a biological eye, and (b) it is not fully formed yet. This is the cyborg eye being imprinted with a reflex response, right at the moment that it is being geo-digitally born in 'the western' through 'watching' a western as signified by the near-identical buttes of Monument Valley - a terrain made iconic through John Ford's classical westerns.

The images now replace each other even before they can trigger singular thoughts. A pair of the massive robot arms are staged to digitally-print or 'morphize' a running horse. Again, the scene is impossibly realized by conflating its end point of production with its generative line of development: the horse is running even before its legs have been completed. It's a densely compacted image. In its proving of impossible logistics, it recalls Eadweard Muybridge's famous galloping horse photographs (1878-1884), initially engineered to prove that a horse lifts all four legs off the ground when running. Earlier in the late 1860s, Muybridge gained fame with his popular stereoscopic landscape photographs of the American West, thereby contributing to the iconography of the Wild West both then and for the future. His optical legacy is multivalently encoded here.

The horse, of course, was the prime vehicle of the West. Exploitable yet unreliable due to it being a living thing, its transformative industrialization came with its death: the 'horseless carriage', here mirrored by Westworld's fabrication of realistic cyborg horses, whose physiology is now redrawn to become 'horseful carriages'. The robotic arms clearly recall the triple-roll wrist industrial robots deployed in automated car manufacturing most infamously in Japan. The scene is an ironic riposte to America's fear of Japan's automated heavy industries which threatened America's global dominance in car manufacturing up to the mid-80s. As Americans baulked at Japanese robots making Japanese cars that would trammel the asphalt spread across the girth of America's great land, little did they realize that their own Silicon Valley would similarly void materiality through manufacturing data to simulate objects. Manufacturing has since become a system of mirage management: products are CAD-designed, digitally printed, Photoshopped lo-res, imaged through social media, positioned for algorithmic take-up, presented as in-stock despite residing nowhere, and made purchasable in order to bolster the system to make more products for the user.

If this is how industry now goes, then the film industry inevitably goes with the flow. While block-buster CGI fantasy film and animation from Hollywood has for the past two decades made cinema as if it had been restoring the Parthenon to former classical glory, Westworld's opening title sequence oppositely constitutes a virtualized post-cinema through constructing impossible objects obeying plausible physics, wherein the unreal appears to spatio-temporally exist within the real. It is 'post' because it is eventless (pre-programmed and pro-designed) and despatialized (occupying the computational space of positioned vectors). The scenes do not commence with a human shouting "action!"; they commence by a hand hitting "enter".

Returning to the sequence's imagery: human form is signalled by two cyborg figures, caught in a state that is simultaneously in-utero and con-futuro. They mime making love as the robot arm digi-prints synaptic energy veins into their spinal channels. They appear to be making life while coming to life (as per the running horse and the skeletal hands playing the piano). The scene overtly quotes Chris Cunningham's music video for Bjork's "All Is Full Of Love" (1999). This music video is still celebrated for its futurologist sensuousness despite it resembling corny robot erotics typical of the covers to Omni magazines from the late 70s (remembering that the magazine’s parent company was Penthouse). The music video is more interestingly viewed as a hi-gloss luxury car advertisement, in acknowledgement that car advertising on television had absented the human driver around the same time that industrial robotics took over car manufacturing. By the end of the 80s, car ads intoned that cars drove people, implicating the absence of humans by never showing them within the eternally blackened windows. These sleek aerodynamic vehicles full of hi-gloss onyx reflectivity smoothly traversed the empty city at night, rulers of hi-tech urban environments where bombs had killed everyone but left architecture untouched. The Cunningham cyborgs are ostensibly the beings who drive those cars. Their repositioning in the Westworld opening title sequence similarly absents the human by using cyborgs as transmission vehicles of post-human energy.

An admonishing pause: while the sci-fi imagery discussed thus far can be accepted as ethically spurred and critical of the myriad industrial and post-industrial transformations which have shaped the 21st century, the post-human reader can rejoice in the absenting of human presence. As venerated arthouse movies and corporatized insurance marketing now spring from the same semiotic fountain of saccharine humanist lemonade, it is exhilarating to view oppositional images. More so - and in line with a committed embrace of post-cinema - the intentionality of the images' moral message can be discounted due to the televisual context of their generation and the polysemic encoding of their transmission. Just as Westworld unmakes the Western, so can one unread Westworld.

Part of the near-illegible voicing of Westworld's opening title sequence is layered within the suppression of its own post-human origins: Mamoru Oshii's Ghost In The Shell. The creators of the Westworld series Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have promotionally announced that their visit to a car manufacturing plant in Germany inspired the concept of the opening title sequence, while Elastic (the subcontracted effects company for producing the sequence) claim a debt to Cunningham's video. Bizarrely (yet typical of American-centric views of cinematic legacies), Ghost In The Shell is never officially mentioned.

In the first Ghost In The Shell movie of 1995 (based on sections of the long-format manga series written and drawn by Masamune Shirow in 1988), the opening title sequence depicts the bio-neural cyborg manufacture of the 'shell' (body) of Lieutenant Motoko. It starts with a 3D digitized brain-scan converted into a cranial module which is then inserted into a hard-shell skeletal corpus. This body resembles a Davincian puppet designed by NASA. Its rhodamine musculature is interwoven and partially covered by white flexible cladding; thick transducing cables hold it in a suspended relaxed position. With the cladding now furnished into a full-body suit, the white figure is released and shuttled underwater to an electrostatic coating tank, where Motoko's porcelain naked form levitates through the milky pool, from which she ascends prone while liquid drips downwards and upwards simultaneously. Her gleaming body now twirls as a set of concentric rings energize the coating's particles. Following another pool immersion, her body rises again from water to air, this time with her aerated epidermis peeling off and gravitating upwards in a halo of floating flakes. Another pool dip: this time she is in a foetal position, and bubbles dance around her sinking corpus like a champagne explosion. Finally, she rises from the depths toward a surface opening centred on an observational landing platform. From this she levitates into what appears to be air as we know it: her wet hair drips down, and is then tussled by air vents below.

Not once does Motoko open her eyes - most likely because we are witnessing her 'shell' alone. Only when her cyberbrain is engaged and connected to the world's neural net does Motoko become activated, thereby engaging her 'ghost'. Crucially, the narrative of Ghost In The Shell is built around the textual shell of Motoko navigating the fissures between the psycho-cyber space of her programmed cerebrum connecting to the networked world, and the inner 'ghost' space of her consciousness realizing the multiplicity of Self that perceives how she had been manufactured and rendered operable. It is this unknowingness of Self while accepting that it is something that irrefutably exists and guides one's actions that defines the character of Motoko. But in anime, 'character' is not what Greco-Euro Classical tenets maintain. Motoko is not an expression or representation of how 'people' behave, think, feel, act. In line with the performative principles of Kabuki theatre and Bunraku puppet theatre, she is a cipher designed to demonstrate how such characteristics and traits can be disembodied, discounted, renounced and reprogrammed. Motoko - like all anime cyborgs, androids and even robots - does not achieve selfhood: she overcomes it. This is the crux of post-humanism.

It might sound like Japanese apparition and its humanist cleave is being championed here over American mimeticism and its humanist cling. Not so - because Westworld's opening title sequence enables a non-binary reading of its depiction of the thing we call 'human' (hence this analysis' acceptance of all that is 'good' and 'bad' about the series.) Following the model of matrixed nodes of human identity, human form, human biology and human neurology which Ghost In The Shell maps onto the thing of Motoko, Westworld's biomechanical assemblages and cybernetic forensics are indicative of how post-cinema can shed its skin and reconstitute its pith to figure characters as vessels not of any essence but of the open-ended possibility of what humans can do beyond the restricted definitions of who or what they should be (something to be discussed in relation to the first episode in Part 2).

We are now about half-way through the opening title sequence of Westworld. Momentum is gained as objects, beings and forms near production line completion. The slo-mo galloping horse has developed fuller form with thickened melding of muscle and bone. It is being ridden by a female cyborg wearing a tight black-op biomorphic skin suit. Her hair is flowing in the wind despite there being no wind. As with the Motoko's dimensional warping through the stages of her gestation and delivery, the horse rider's materiality is illusionistically determined by conflicting physics.

Referentially, the horse is clinically constructed as for a museum educational display. One might readily think of old world dioramas of taxidermized horses, but a more apt reference here is contemporary art installation. 21st Century contemporaneity in art-making is largely defined by an institutional embrace of institutional critique. Transforming the museum space into anything other than its prescribed environ has been de rigeur for quite a while. Next to jackhammered parquetry and trucked-in trash, living and taxidermized animals have been prime fodder in spectacular displays of this dialogue of radicalism. Encountering such a fabricated bestiary in an art museum conjures the phantasm of the contemporary artist's intervention of the darkly conservative Museum of Natural History in New York. [Some biennale show-stoppers: the horse carcasses of Berlinde de Bruyckere (since 2000) and Maurizio Catalan (since 2007); Douglas Gordon's elephant video (Play Dead Real Time, 2003); and Damien Hirst's formaldehyde menagerie (since 1991).]

Westworld's cyber angel of death rides her 'horseful carcass' while firing her six-shooter. She strikes the pose of late 19th C Wild West carney shows which toured America's Midwest. Laterally, then, she evokes the vanishing horse rider in cinema: from a grizzled John Wayne with reins in teeth blasting two rifles in True Grit (1969) to Robert Redford's illuminated jacket in The Electric Horseman (1973) to Paul Newman's stilted theatrics in Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). But she is no vanishing figure: she is the return of that which once was, now living in an unwarranted present. While 70s revisionist westerns attempted to either take history to task or smash the myths embalming such history, and while interventionist contemporary art facetiously claims its exploits to be an unstoppable stream of zeitgeist commentary, Westworld's reanimation of the horse, its rider and his/her pistol in a suspended digital realm forgoes modernist causal critique and linear radicalism. To have the West revisit us with vengeance: this is the chilling undercurrent animating the opening title sequence's simulations.

Meanwhile, the robotic arm has continued to extrude white plasmatic foam: the skeletal pseudo-hands playing the piano now swell into muscular knots approximating finished hands. At this point, the hands lift up: the piano keys continue to be depressed automatically. The piano roll scrolling perpendicular to the keyboard continues the production or music, which of course is the actual theme music we are auditing at this moment. The camera zooms in on the piano roll and its vertical dashes which stream down like a cascading data shower of perforated computer punch cards from the 60s. As orchestral accompaniment thickens the music's tonality, the player piano now accompanies centre-stage as if it is conducting the music. A light rises behind it: we glimpse a round metallic frame rising up from a large square pool and tilting towards us. The player piano continues its droll melodic dirge, taking position in front of this mysterious contraption pool. It uncannily recalls how an upright piano would be played outdoors to the side of a movie set during the silent movie era in Hollywood. Here is the final Western allusion in the opening title sequence. Just as Hollywood once made Westerns in the Californian sun, placing clunky semi-mechanized cameras in front of bare facades of sets while non-actors melodramatically pretended to be sheriffs, gunslingers and barmaids taking emotional cues from honky-tonk trilling, so continues the artificial production of the genre. Digitally, plastically, textually.

Finally, the DaVinci Ring to which is tethered the supine androgynous biomorphic cyborg. The opening title sequence suitably climaxes with the series' pictogram. What is Westworld about? This logo is the answer (in deeper ways too, as the man-in-a-circular-maze forms a visual cryptogram imprinted on the superficial facia of the scalps of the android hosts). The logo also appears everywhere in the real world through advertising and branding. Its mark is like a branded steer, a sign of the seared copyright claim made by cattle industry start-ups in the unzoned frontier west. But the spread of the logo also treats the world of potential viewers as a conjoined skin to be branded and thereby herded into watching the series in what cable services now market as an 'event'.

A cascade of fluid semiotics are released by this body. At first glance, the portentous pointing towards DaVinci's Vitruvian Man (c.1490) takes us back to the supercilious concept-boarding of those Omni magazine covers. Upon reflection, Westworld's cyborg physiology can be read as a fused muscular-skeletal combine of the original drawing's eight-limbed man. Each singular limb encases itself and its other - its cyborg signifier and its human signified. Bone, muscle, flesh and skin seem fused into a deconstructed human. It's like a beef terrine placed with a cow-shaped mould. This cyborg looks human, but it is essentially a 'shell' containing what humans presume to be the stuff that makes up a human. His positioning in the 'Host Assembly' laboratory (part of the Delos corporation's Manufacturing division) reveals the space as a post-Frankensteinian workshop of sterile horrors. Everything is white, porcelain, marbleized, a mix of Renaissance Carrara marble and cleanroom suits. But a sense of pain persists. The human form - unlike the floating levitating Motoko in The Ghost In The Shell - is pinned to the wheel, much like the halo stabilization supports pins are affixed to the skulls of patients suffering cervical spine trauma. This cyborg also resembles a white man being flayed, spiked or filleted in an imaginary First Nations ritual (although historical research suggests that Indians specifically tied their victims to wagon wheels, possibly as a condemnation of the 'wheels of progress' which propelled white colonization in the west). Such a repressed nightmare has long been posited in westerns - invisibly via the Mohawks in The Northwest Passage (1955) and the Commanches The Searchers (1956), and visibly in A Man Called Horse (1970). Westworld's Vitruvian Man might be better regarded as the white man liquefied. From that liquefication comes the new man for the new world, a fatalistically dystopian creation.

The hi-tech visual confabulation of this scene recalls another submerged anime meme: Tetsuo's body and brain being scanned by scientists in Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira (1988, based on his manga from 1983). In this landmark scene, a fantastic array of circular bands, robotic arms and scanning heads encircle and rotate around Tetsuo’s prone body as the Japan Self-Defense Force scientists attempt to analyse the mysterious psychic-neural 'esper' composition within him (his ability to mind-control matter to devastating effect). This is the inverse of the Westworld scanning/printing/extruding/coating process of creation. Tetsuo has already been created by unknown and unknowable forces; the scientists aren't creating something - they're trying to find out how something had aberrantly been created.

Akira proceeds from the assumption that all is unknowable - a very Japanese stance in opposition to just about every Eurocentric post-Enlightenment idealistic narrative in pursuit of knowledge. Westworld - like most American science fiction - is about the after-effects of what man creates, produces and makes. It does so primarily to champion that man could complete such tasks, and only secondarily to perform some soft hand-wringing. This is why the moralism of revisionist and progressivist fictions is debatable, despite the presumption that moral critiques of scientific pursuit are somehow 'good' for the world. When America unleashed the atomic bomb on Japan - for a host of intensely complex reasons beyond us here - science reality made giant leaps forward precisely through its disregard for humans. Revisionary moralism in American cine-tele sci-fi always rings hollow when it attempts to reboot that end-world moment of annihilating creation in fantastic spectacles of hi-tech tut-tutting. We could term this peculiar repression a 'sub-atomic' effect in contradistinction to a 'post-atomic' effect in Japanese post-war cultural representation. This is why American and Hollywood sci-fi is best unread, and why this diagnosis unreads Westworld.

Another Akira connection crucially closes Westworld's opening title sequence. As the biomechanic Vitruvian mutant is submerged into the velvety milk of its final sealant, fully formed close-ups of the cyborg eyeball perfectly position the superimposed buttes of Castle Valley around the cavernous pupil. Taken archly, this eye is no window to the soul, but a void where humans no longer exist. The digitally contracting pupil is responding not to any enlightenment before its lens, but to a horripilative creeping of its own digital flesh, contracting in response to the terror of existence.

There is no such pupil in Akira - because the film is one giant yawning black hole. Akira's opening title is laid atop a totally black screen, which a zoom-out reveals to be a mammoth crater left in Neo-Tokyo 31 years earlier following the mysterious annihilation of Tokyo in 1988 which sparked the tumult of World War III. Across the zoom-out, single taiko drum detonations virtually rip the film's soundtrack apart. It is not a stretch to imagine that post-humans were symbolically born in Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The encoding of those events' after-shocks are psycho-genetically sealed in just about every so-called 'pop' image Japan has generated since. Akira's title sequence opens with a black void; Westworld's ends with the perfectly centred cyborg iris and pupil rendered in shades of black. Once the white man is completely immersed in the white tank, the encircled double-W Westworld logo (also the corporate brand of the Delos theme park throughout the series narrative) cuts to the black eye. It looks planetary in scale, infinite in depth.

Interpolating Westworld with Ghost In The Shell and Akira (two seminal post-human texts in anime) has been performed here not to simply extend a binary of eastern cosmology versus western archaeology. Cued by the reversals these texts create when placed relationally, one can return to unread Westworld as a western imagining of its own apocalypse/Armageddon (to use loaded Judaeo-Christian nomenclature). That Utah landscape etched into the auto-printing cyborg eye can be viewed not as essential natural beauty as per pastoral rhetoric, but as a terrain whose nature cosmically precipitates the vast industrialization of America and its consequent transformation into a vista of virtual manufacturing. Whether this is a fevered liberal nightmare of the intelligentsia or a wet dream of libertine free-market forces doesn't matter. Westworld's hosts will encounter both types of guests, and they will be treated simply as 'shells' bearing whatever random ideology they believe defines them as 'human'. All are welcome in the post-human world.


Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.