Monday, September 21, 2015

Blindspot (and "Memento")

NBC has announced a new series, “Blindspot”, about an amnesiac whose body is covered with recent tattoos, each of which is a cryptic clue.   Those of us who do not ourselves suffer from amnesia, will immediately recognize a ripoff and recycling of the movie “Memento”.  However, it’s none the worse for that:  the movie was intriguing, and well worth recycling.  Moreover, the concern with original plots is quite modern;  no-one from  Euripedes to Shakespeare ever gave it a thought;  rather the contrary.

"Look into my eyes ... *Eyes*, I said, dammit!"

The trailer is promising, though not without TV-typical doofusness, like the yokel horror of a cop in Times Square quavering “It’s …. alive …. !”  NYPD officers are actually considerably cooler than that, and more composed.  The series does add a very promising premise -- that one of the tattoos names a specific FBI agent;  who, however, has never met her.  “Complications ensue.”

A note on genre:
A movie  has to be tight.  A TV series  can roll on, and on.
To be trapped in the mindset of an amnesiac  is potentially suffocating.  “Memento” (as a movie) pulled it off;  but “Blindspot” wisely offers us  a second center of deixis (namely, FBI-guy.  Cf. Jack Bauer and Chloe.)

Anyhow, for our essay on that ...  memorable (!) movie, click here: ]


The girl, as the viewer will not be surprised to learn (this being, largely unlike “Memento”, straightforward mainstream entertainment), turns out to be a superspooky kickass-ninja special ops chick, who retains all her special superpowers, but who does not consciously remember her training, or who she is.  In this motif, “Blind Spot” is ripping off, not “Memento”, but “The Bourne Identity”.  In each case, when the hero is suddenly confronted with mortal danger, (s)he reacts instinctively, and with deadly force.
More trivially, the motif Older-male-counterterrorist-has-special-bond-to-younger-apparent-neophyte-female-coworker-who-bears-a-mysterious-scar-from-her-murky-past-and-who-oh-yes-BTW-is-amnesiac (Stith-Thompson tale type #13482b) is boldly borrowed from NBC’s own “Blacklist” (hey, all in the family;  plus the resonance of the shows’ names).


The visual/mnemonic premise of “Blindspot”, which is, superficially (epidermally, as it were), similar to that of “Memento”, clearly has the field wide open, in which to go;  whereas “Memento” was monomaniac -- gaining, however, thereby, in depth and intensity.

“Blindspot” begins in the middle of a crowded Times Square;  “Memento”, in a bare, spare, windowless hotel-room, vacant except for the protagonist -- and he himself is a kind of vacancy at this point.   All he has to go by -- to direct his life -- are the cryptic messages on his skin.  Ditto for the girl, only, she is not confronted with that baffling, existential task -- “I have people who do that for me.”   That makes life much easier for the screenwriter (at that point, he can recycle pretty much whatever conspiracy/thriller material he likes), but at a cost of relative triviality.

In “Memento”, the messages concern a mysterious crime.  And they accumulate with time.  Each new hot impression pains his integument, but leads him (hopefully) closer to finally catching on.
This scenario has its classic embodiment in Kafka’s profound allegory, “In the Penal Colony”.

It is the contention of Kafka, and of psychoanalysis, that we do, in our innermost depths, have a picture of the nature of our sin, of what is making us ill, but that, we have a blindspot for it.

The canvas of shame:
the guilty skin.

There is a further subtlety, or underlayer, unexplored in the “Strafkolonie”, nor explicitly hinted-at, but implicit:  namely, the strangely endogenous nature of the cryptic messages.
In “Memento”, this is explicit:  the protagonist (somehow) knows  that he himself has written these uncanny, these otherworldly messages. 
[Actually, there is a potential aporia here, though the movie does not exploit it.  Namely:  logically speaking, the tattoo’d man cannot know, which of the messages he himself wrote (and then forgot), and which might have been impressed upon his skin (himself held down, screaming, but soon forgetting everything) by his enemies, or by some prankster. -- Nay further, that prankster may have been himself:  He could write a message known to be false, deliberately to manipulate his future self into some behavior.  (Cf. Ulysses and the Sirens, although there it is a matter of manipulating himself into a future of not doing what he otherwise would do.)]
Furthermore, there is uncertainty as to who committed that nebulous murder of the wife -- quite possibly it is the protagonist himself, a case of uxoricide.   (The revers de la médaille of Oedipal incest.)


Once again we reach, or at least approach, the bedrock (or the nebulosity) of the Unconscious:  our spade is turned, or seems to strike into empty space.  We are up against Ananke, and unconscious self-punishment -- the mystery of masochism, where the inner bourreau is outsourced to the dominatrix, projected from some depths within the self: into-whence, however, the figure was presumably, originally, somehow introjected.  Oder doch inborn?

The dreadful discovery:  The hand, or paw, that plies the tattooer’s needle, and pens its excruciating message, is nonetheless part of our own mind.   “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
A punitive superego  is like an auto-immune disease.


Ah well.  Here I have gone and written a whole post without so much as seeing the pilot of “Blindspot”.   Plus I no longer even own a television.

Likely, alas, being network TV, it will not live up  to the possibilities of its premise -- like the gross misuse of “Jack Bauer” in “Touch”, or the wasted opportunity of an IDA-style SCIF in "Rubicon".   (That was back when I owned a TV.)

Yet already, before the pilot has even officially aired, there are useful reviews and quite entertainingly observant and snarky readers’ comments, e.g. here:

[Update 23 September 2015]  OK, watched it.  NBC lets you do it online for free, a day after broadcast.
It’s moderately watchable if you’re not overparticular and have enough wine inside.  But it’s depressingly evident how the thing was patched-together by committee from earlier shows, under the watchful eye of lawyers and diversity-consultants.

More anon.  For now, check out this one aspect:


The commonest criticism of the pilot, on the fan-site linked-to above, was that all the baffled mystery about the woman’s identity was silly if in fact she’d been a Navy SEAL.  There aren’t a lot of them;  a simple phone-call could have cleared things up.   Plus, there aren’t any female SEALs.

True; but unfair, since that point did not escape the screenwriters. The FBI folks themselves  mention the (thitherto) presumed non-existence of female SEALs, and wonder aloud why, if she’d been one, her fingerprints aren’t on file.  Answer (completely acceptable in televisionland, and not implausible in any case):  these would not be available if she had been in a “black” program under the umbrella of the SEALs.

And no sooner does that episode air, then fiction becomes prospective fact.   Nor is this development evolving out of internal military necessity, but rather is in response to social pressures such as (precisely) the sort of gynocentric fantasies catered-to by “Blindspot”:

Navy SEALs ready to open doors to women

Losey states upfront that putting women in the commando jobs is not expected to increase the units' ability to fight in combat. In fact, he said, the effort to integrate the units and change the culture "will channel focus and energy away from core combat readiness and effectiveness efforts."

He said that while there may be "external" pressure to adjust the standards so that women can successfully pass, it's not likely that would succeed. The standards, he said, have been honed over the past 50 years, and that 70 percent of men fail.



[We continue with our analysis of the “Blindspot” pilot.]

An obstacle towards guys’ enjoying the show is the grating Twofer Boss.  Her role is to serve as the mallet in Whack-a-Mole -- the moles being the males.  As:

* Labcoated Science Guy quickly discovers what pharmaceutical is responsible for Jane Doe’s amnesia.  Briefing his boss and FBI Guy, he pronounces the long chemical name, and adds “commonly known as” (the acronym).   Impeccable. But she slaps him down:  It may be “common” in the hoity-toity circles you move in, “doctor”, but for the rest of us… Against all plausibility, the dramatic logic somehow has the male doctor wrong-footed.


FBI Guy tools off to the Statue of Liberty, which (as he has figured out) is about to be bombed by a terrorist.   In any approximation of reality, the Bureau along with the NYPD would deploy dozens of agents and officers for this op;  but the program sets it up so that FBI Guy is seemingly about to go in alone.  -- Now, that is the annoying scenario so frequently recycled by masscult so that the male hero can do some heroics heroically and not have to share the limelight with anyone;  it is the narcissistic/solipsistic Rambo motif, and it appeals to eight-year-old boys (and to the less intelligent among the nine-year-olds).  In recent years, the tired trope has been retooled with a sex-switch;  it is supposed to appeal to grown women.
But, interestingly, neither of these flavors of that motif are the goal here.

FBI Guy is not quite alone;  over his own objections, he brought along Jane Doe, at the insistence of his Twofer Boss.  Still, he tells Jane to wait back at the car (the patriarchal  beast!) while he singlehandedly Saves the Day(**); but again, Jane insists, and accompanies him into the Statue.   They meet up with the perp, and, in an extremely badly choreographed bit of sciamachy, the screenwriters maneuver FBI Guy, helpless and unarmed, into the grip of Perp, and only a head-shot by Jane saves his life and his bacon.

[**Footnote to laypersons and residents of Mars:  SWAT teams, Special Forces, and FBI on a takedown-attack  do not actually bring along tourists, bystanders, or embedded journalists along for the ride, regardless of the relative genders.]

Now, simply as an action sequence, that was incredibly inept, and likely to disappoint an average audience (let alone a more instructed one);  and yet a large well-funded team of producers and writers had plenty of time to craft the scene just-so, to help define the series in the pilot.  To make sense of it, we must proceed precisely as does a Freudian confronted with a Fehlhandlung:  as a symptom of something deeper, not as a random goof.
And the Trieb here finding expression is soon seen to be:  Feminine Revenge.  For:

* Back at headquarters, he reports to Twofer:  Jane saved his life, plus captured the perp.  Yet then, in an astoundingly implausible switch -- really, like a rift in the screenplay, as though someone had forgotten to delete his immediately previous remarks -- he shends his boss, saying Jane is our most valuable asset ever, and you almost wasted it by letting her go out into the field.   Why ever would he say that?  So as to set up the comeback: Twofer then acidly replies:  “She saved your life.”  As though Guy had been unaware of that, or had been churlishly ungrateful.
It reminds me of softball for the Pee-Wee League, where the kids are too young to hit a pitch.  You position the ball motionless atop a rubber pedestal, and let the kid take his time and swing.  Only, here the softball is FBI Guy’s head.

With this perspective, we revisit (1).  Here, it is beyond possibility to imagine this scene, the female boss’s putdown of the male boffin, with genders reversed, in modern Medialand.  (Just try to run such a scenario as an experiment in your head;  you will shrink back as from a hot stove.) Moreover, the putdown is truly gratuitous, and indeed off  (acronyms being in handy breezy use among laymen).  So what is the meaning of this exchange, absurd on the face of it?   An analyst refuses to accept things as merely, meaninglessly absurd. Again our Freudian:  It makes perfect sense on the underside of it.  It is revenge for an (imagined or remembered) scenario with genders reversed.
For exposition of a similar gender-squelch, cf. this:


The commercials chosen to accompany this show online, bear out the analysis.
In one, a demure, appealing, somewhat mousy carrot-top sits in a droning business meeting.  Suddenly, a cowgirl-clad mini-persona of herself leaps out of the laptop and starts vociferously twerking:  Eve Black to the original’s Eve White, in the classic fantasy “The Three Faces of Eve”.  Her twerking booty then knocks over a coffee-cup into … a guy’s lap (take that, you nasty phallus);  then she hits another guy in the eye (one of a twinned pair of sensitive round organs; to the reader we leave the rest) with her lasso.  Neither, of course, remonstrates or even reacts:  they are there to be abused by one of Eve’s daughters;  to take it, and like it.


In ads and trailers, prior to the series debut, NBC heavily marketed the opening scene, in which “Jane Doe” appears naked out of a carry-bag  in the middle of Times Square;  and wisely so.  For it contains a veritable mythologem.

In literature, the best-known birth-from-a-handbag is that of the titular character of Wilde’s “The Importance of Being E(a)rnest”;  he was discovered therein, at a railway station, provenience unknown.
The next-most-famous Railway Station birth, is that of Paddington Bear.
For “Paddington Station”, the American update is “Times Square”.  (Note, by the way, the universal appropriateness of that name.)

Now, if Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank had put their heads together, they would doubtless have deemed this motif  a wish-fulfillment reworking  of the Birth Trauma.  The Newcomer appears suddenly in a bruising world of blooming-buzzing confusion (as each we must);  but as compensation, this rude Awakening is Immaculate, ex nihilo, with none of the dreadful ickiness of having been whelped by one’s parents, Mom and Dad, via some penis-and-vagina action too terrible to contemplate.

It is a satisfying fantasy;  thus Minerva, born from the brow of Zeus.


But now there is a twist;  and it deepens things.  Born from a bag, as though from empty space, she nonetheless comes “with baggage”, in the form of intricate enigmatic tattoos.  Like Leonard, alone in his hotel room, having his (latest) very-first moment of conscious self-awareness. Born with a mission.

He awakens each day  to a world new-made; he spots the writing  with the same surprise  that Crusoe spotted footprints in the sand.  He cannot really recognize it as his own: even those he wrote himself, he stippled into the skin – it won’t resemble his normal cursive – and others he left to the tattoo-artist.   The writing must therefore confront him like that at Belshazzar’s feast.  It is otherwordly.  He is wreathed in cryptic admonitions, some penned in a Gothic script like that of Scripture.  He might almost be forgiven for fancying himself a prophet.  And yet – for here the story is bleakly modern.  He pays no mind to the source of these writings, just takes them for granted.  He simply takes the next step forward, in his appointed task.  That Mene, Mene, Tekel Upharsin  has no resonance, divine or diabolocal.

Born with a mission.

The show so far is stupid;  but I am probably going to watch another episode, simply from the power of this underlying motif -- this motivating motif.   For it applies very broadly:  These amnesiacs, with their strange “Thou must” inscribed scrolls, are like each one of us, adrift in the randomness of this sublunary life, yet with a sense, that somehow, all of it somehow means something.

[Update 6 Oct 2015]  Literary triviabit
Viewers have remarked how odd it is, that FBI Guy ends every other sentence addressed to Jane Doe with “… , Jane.”   Odd especially since that isn’t even her real name.
Concurrently, by chance, I have been listening to an audiobook of Jane Eyre;  and there, Mr Rochester exhibits the same the same vocative quirk, towards his coworker/love-interest.
In both cases,  the phenomenon is striking, owing to the utter asymmetry in vocatives:  the senior man regularly recurs to this first-name address;  the woman protege, never.

There is a slight syntactic distinction: FBI-Guy postpends the vocative ("I'm so sorry, Jane");  Rochester  prepends it.

[Update 9 Nov 15]

Pellicular Wikipedia

To fans of “Blindspot”, it has by now become apparent, that those tattoos (like some Inca inscriptions)  purport to explain absolutely everything,  Present Past or (especially) Future:  like Wiki -- or rather, like Borges’s  Universal Library.  All that is known, or might ever be known,  imprinted upon her skin.

To the cold, hard core of “Memento” fans, that is disappointing.  But to the rest of Walmartamerica, that is good news.  So -- Here is how YOU can employ those iconographic indicators  to your own benefit.  Take it from me, my smiling wife Veronica and our faithful dog Spot!  Just in the past three days, we brought in  this:

* Puzzled husband:  “Someone’s been swiping tomatoes from our garden again!”
Loyal wife: “ A steganographic exploitation of the inkblot blocking the singed skin hidden beneath the bandaid on Jane’s left buttock reveals:  The perpetrator is none other than the neighborhood raccoon!”
P. H:  “Ha-ha!  That furry rascal!”

* Puzzled husband:  “Omigosh, what shall we do?  Tomorrow’s our big picnic, and the weatherman is predicting thunderstorms !!”
Loyal wife: “A previously overlooked inscription  on the inside  of Jane’s eyelid  contains a cipher which, run through our Tordella supercomputers, breaks out to “21 Oct 2015”; which, according to the Old Style (Julian) calendar, breaks out to tomorrow!  And the graphic equates to an ideogram for the Egyptian sun-god Ra!  So:  It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiney day !!”
P.H.:  “Woo-hoo!  Packing the mayo !!!”

* Puzzled husband:  “Gosh, honey, I’ve looked everywhere!  Wherever can I have left my carkeys ???”
Loyal wife: “A p-adic attack on the recursively-enciphered left-armpit image from Jane reveals … (long technical discussion deleted) …. in the right pocket of your grey overcoat!”

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