In Which I Take The Transporter Way Too Seriously
The Transporter is an elaborate set of parables about capitalism, of course, but then what isn’t? Also for sex, too, which is appropriate since sex is itself an elaborate metaphor for capitalism (which, itself, is an elaboration on sexual desire). Yes, and yes; the skilled literary critics at the video store shelved the thing in “action/adventure,” knowing, clearly, that “adventure” was an old-fashioned term for capitalist endeavor and that “to get some action” is to have sex. Both at the same time, please; let’s get it on.
Granted that, since I’ve granted it, what’s interesting to me about this movie is the way the narrative plotline gets almost completely lost among the nesting of these figures. After all, what the heck is the underlying plot? I’m not sure, really, and while some foolish souls might suggest that plot is not exactly the focus of an action/adventure film, the important point seems to be that the transporter has, over the course of the narrative, become the unpacker. As a reader, I’m interested in how this happens: the guy whose cardinal rule is not “to open up the package” becomes the hero of a plot about rescuing people from a container on a ship. Why and how? As a literateur, however, I’m interested in something slightly different, the funny way this plot plays out in macrocosm the micro-dynamics of practically every single scene in the movie.
The plot begins, of course, when the “package” he’s hired to transport turns out to be a human being, a beautiful girl. He is required to treat her as a package; he fails, and all manner of complications ensue. The two necessary interpretations:
1. Embodying the fetishized commodity, the package is an object whose non-objectiveness must be carefully dis-remembered via the dream work of reification. Did I get enough jargon in that sentence? The transporter therefore struggles to keep the illusion alive, to pretend that it is merely a package, merely a commodity defined by weight and dimensions, yet he can only do this by keeping it closed, by keeping the surface physicality of the package intact. Once the illusion is broken, however, the package can’t be re-closed; once he’s opened the bag, he can no longer return it to the store and get his money back.
2. The encounter is also an elaborate figure for the discovery of bodily insides, which troubles the construction of the all male world in which he has lived. When he cuts her mouth open with his knife, inserts a straw, and allows her to draw liquid from it–if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink, it means sex–it begins the long process by which his desire for quiet, for rules, and for cleanliness falls apart. As such, the closed life, the masculine confirmed bachelor, gives way to hetero-desire, and his ability to close himself off (like Heston in The Naked Jungle) is lost; he gets drawn into an economy of desire and is forced, tragically, to become incomplete.
That said, since I’ve said it, these kinds of readings strike me as solid and beside the point. Far from being a film about these grand narratives in the traditional sense, it feels to me like sex and capitalism are really just stages on which the play of insides and outsides can get performed. This movie doesn’t so much use formal compositions to represent reality as it uses the structuring paradigms of reality (class struggle and sex, capitalism and the body) as meat for the formal composition-machine that is the film. To say that the medium is the message only begins to capture the spirit of it: content is necessary simply as a pretext for form. I’m not going to go into a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film, but I would venture you’d be hard-pressed to find a scene whose composition doesn’t in some way elaborate a formal version of the larger plot’s thematics: he’s always unwrapping and wrapping, entering into or exiting out of. Every shot is constructed by the things which contain the action, and by the ways the action spills out of that frame, and the need to do this, over and over again, so far as I can tell, becomes the film’s reason for existing.
To put it another way, the movie has so much fun with repeating this process over and over again that it starts to feel like that’s the real point of the whole exercise. At a certain point, the thing almost feels like a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only whereas Ovid sings of transformations, this movie constructs its narrative idiom out of doors, wrappings, and containers, until a universal rule emerges out of their archetypal significance; scenes do not so much advance the plot as they spin new visions of insider-outsiderness, a post-modernity in which (as in Ovid) progress no longer occurs because we’ll only get new versions of the same old progress. And when progress is always happening, we never progress past it.
That the plot makes no sense, in other words, might reflect a certain relaxation of narrative responsibility, the filmmakers’ abandonment of “progress” as a structuring metaphor. Yet the fact that the plot makes no sense is not a problem anymore, since the movie is doing precisely the opposite of the dream-work that most narrative does: instead of papering over inconsistency to create the illusion of coherence, the director focuses on constructing new variations, on constantly recycling the same narrative forms into now recursions of itself. In a certain sense, the reason for this is obvious: this is an action-adventure movie. An action-adventure film requires plot the same way pornography does, the same way a drug has to be cut with an inert chemical to keep it from being too potent.
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I’ve staged my interest in this film in this way because my real interest is in the ways that narrative and genre come to clash with each other. This movie is a good demonstration of the ways that genre can function as cliché, a word that Sontag reminds us is derived from photography. And, like photography, genre justifies itself by the thing that precedes the act of creation itself, the formal features which can make narrative itself almost superfluous. If a movie has outlaws, sheriffs, a frontier, and a gunfight, after all, it’s a Western, and nothing in the narrative can alter that. Similarly, you can take a photograph of anything and it will still be a photograph.
Photography is the most supremely static medium there is, for not only can there be no movement in a temporal sense, but the kinds of movement which do exist — the drama of simultaneities which will not resolve — are anti-movements, demonstrations of their very irresolution. A photograph is — in a conceptual sense — always a refutation of the very claim to realism it puts forward itself: the idea of a photograph is that the camera doesn’t lie, yet the reality is that the camera always lies. And so forth.
On the other hand, narrative forms like cinema or the novel (though not poetry, perhaps) are constructed out of the ways they reinvent themselves, the way the fifth act negates the first, the ways a character’s narrative arc produces a new sense of that character irreconcilable with the old. Narrative trumps form. Photographs do not do this; by showing you a vision of dynamic reality forever rendered static, they do the very opposite. A photograph and a sonnet never age, and while a novel or a movie implies its own deconstruction, an image (or a genre) implies the very opposite, a lack of movement and a set of forms that its its own reason for existing.
When genre becomes its own justification, in other words, it denies that it can ever transcend its narrative framing: if an action movie is constructed by endless variations on the insider/outsider compositions and the friction which is thereby produced, then that “action” gets redefined as desire with no object other than its own self-justification. It happens because it has to happen and satisfaction gets endlessly deferred; to perform within a genre is to aspire towards an ideal “type,” another printing term, and to deny that that type can be changed. After all, if the type already exists and one aspires to emulate it, the future is closed off as possibility.
The movie is just self-aware enough to know this, I think, which is where narrative both returns and doesn’t. Ultimately, after all, a film isn’t a photograph and can’t be, and if the compositional structure of “variations upon a theme” fixates on the static fixity of anti-narrative, it also performs its failure: the inverse of how photography performs the failure of narrative is how narrative performs the failure of type. In aspiring to be the thing they are not, they demonstrate the impossibility of actually doing so. A photograph always wants to embed itself in a narrative of progressive change (after all, has there ever been a medium more firmly ensconced in social realism’s desire to remake the world?) even as its very form contradicts that possibility. The Transporter, meanwhile, wants to remain the same, even while the predicament of time makes it impossible, and he himself is transported.