Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Syriana and Emergent Institutions


- Dean Whiting, Syriana

Syriana has been one of my favorite movies for a very long time.  Along with its companion film Traffic, it takes advantage of the medium in a way that few other films do.  For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a film about the oil business.  What aspect of the oil business, you ask?  Well, what do you have?

Syriana is a part of a trend of fractured filmmaking in the early 2000s. These films follow Robert Altman's sprawling Nashville in weaving together a collection of disparate storyline that all connect together in something that looks a little more like a narrative web than a narrative line.  This kind of non-linear storytelling has been around for a long time, but the transfer of it to film brings a new dimension to the technique. Using the framed visual style of film can bring attention to the fact that what you're seeing is an inherently limited frame, and things occur outside of that frame that affect the things inside of it.  Syriana is exciting to me because it shows how these frames intersect, clash, and complicate one another.

Syriana is primarily concerned with the rights to mineral deposits in Kazakhstan acquired by a relatively small oil company called Killeen and the acquisition of Killeen by the larger Connexx.  We see this story through the eyes of one of the men working on the ground at an oil refinery in the fictional country of Syriana, (a thinly veiled Saudi Arabia), the royal family of said oiltopia, the law firm brokering the deal between Connexx and Killeen, and a CIA agent.  In true thriller fashion, everyone has their own agenda, and each of them are at the mercy of forces larger than those they can comprehend. Unsurprisingly, everything gets twisted together pretty quickly.

Syriana is well paced, well written, and well acted, but that's not why I love it.  I love it because it does not let anyone off the hook and, for the most part, refuses to place blame.  That is to say, at its best, Syriana is portraying an abstract system, not a collection of acting agents. Sure, the film is made accessible and visceral by its characterization and the idiosyncratic (read: convenient) events that drive the plot forward, but we always get the feeling that, as I mentioned above, the structures behind the characters' actions don't reduce to their individuality.  We get the feeling that although we're seeing the flow disrupted, by the end of the film the system (or assemblage of diverse systems) has corrected/adapted itself to equilibrium and the individual actions of the characters that we follow, while not unremarkable, are assimilated back into a resorted order.

Take, as a grounding example, the case of the CIA agent Robert Barnes (here a stand-in for the author whose books the movie is ostensibly based on, Robert Baer).  He begins the movie as a good cog in the bureaucratic machine, a man of action who does his job and doesn't ask questions.  When he's thrown into a dangerous situation and begins to encounter difficulties with the niche he has carved out for himself at the agency, the system of which he is a part attempts to repurpose, eject, and finally, (inadvertantly) eradicate him.  He runs the gamut of institutional mechanisms designed to deal with faulty elements.

And this is where my real fascination with the movie lies.  The film has two registers; the human and the institutional.  It overtly gives us the drama, the morality, and the pathos of the human situations that it deals with while it simultaneously takes us on a profoundly impersonal tour of the institutions in which they are imbedded.  I am reminded of Manuel DeLanda's fascinating book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines in which he essentially argues that we are witnessing a kind of pregnancy of the human race with the new emergent order of technology.  He speculates that this "machinic phylum" has several possible ways in which it could evolve beyond human dependence and warns us away from the military route.

With the help of theorists like DeLanda, director Stephen Gaghan is participating in a wave of 21st century multimedia statements that bring together an emergent approach to institutions with a certain breed of American realism.  The idea of the institution as a very special breed of parasite that fundamentally changes its host holds a profound aesthetic sexiness that goes a long way toward explaining people's fascination with the books of Foucault and the appeal of The Wire. This approach to institutions is made explicit in Michael Clayton, another fucking spectacular (if far more moralistic) Clooney movie.

Together, this axis of dour 21st century pragmatism and cynicism can be riveting.  Syriana and its ilk make you feel as though you are witness to what's really going on behind closed doors. They create the illusion that they are showing you how the real world, the greedy, violent, impersonal one behind all of our comforting narratives, is produced and has been for time untold.  In their finest moments, they show you the unthinking, amoral inhumanity of human systems.

Statements like Syriana have the potential to engender a sort of sober quietism, a kind of serene shoulder shrug in the face of monstrous odds.  But, far more interestingly to my mind, they can also bring about an increased awareness of the pervasiveness of insitutional intervention in our lives and the way these interventions govern our interpersonal relationships.  Gaghan, alongside Delanda, Deleuze, Zizek and Foucault, realizes that the minute politicization of lives is already always a reality and that the first (and perhaps best) thing that we can do is be mindful of it.

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