Sleep Dealer

February 5th, 2011 by Sergio de Biasi

Conversation with the director Alex Rivera after a screening of
Sleep Dealer at Rutgers University on 2011.02.03

Sleep Dealer (2008) is a movie that has yet one more go at the now standard notion of humans connecting their nervous system / mind directly to computer networks. The concept remains fresh and intriguing and opens so many doors to all kinds of philosophical, sociological, existential and political exploration that it’s no surprise that it spawned a whole tradition – almost a subgenre now I’d dare to say – of moviemaking around it.

The earliest contact I had with an investigation of this Pandora box of real reality versus simulated reality versus “what is real after all?” was when I read the classic sci-fi novel Simulacron 3 (1964) when I was a teenager. Although this book probably can’t claim to have been the first to tackle the theme, it remains as sort of an intellectual grandfather of later incarnations, and many of the ground rules that are now repeated and accepted for how to go about it were laid down back there. It took a while though before there was wide popular interest in more of the same, an early exception being the movie Brainstorm (1983). As the millennium approached, however, possibly because of the explosion of the internet and other technologies which made this whole alternate universe more concretely relevant and realistic, there was a sudden surge of renewed energy directed to the subject, and after the release of movies such as Strange Days (1995) the public and filmmakers seemed to finally fall in love with it, a movement which culminated in 1999 with the production of The Thirteenth Floor (1999) (which explicitly refers to and is loosely based on Simulacron 3), Existenz (1999) (a Cronenberg movie with the usual implications) and then of course The Matrix (1999).

The Matrix can probably be described as the landmark movie of the genre, which brought the whole concept into mainstream consciousness, bringing about the usual mix of awareness raising and washing down of ideas. But while the average person had arguably stayed largely untouched by all the philosophical conundrums and mind bending consequences of this kind of technology, the idea had been alive and kicking and breeding in the sci-fi literature, which had meanwhile been augmented by classics like Ender’s Game (1977 short story, 1985 novel) (in which a child is unwittingly induced to commit genocide when his ability to play games is used to control military drones) and Neuromancer (1984) (the archetypical cyberpunk novel).

Enter Sleep Dealer, 2008.

Before watching the movie, I was curious to see how the director would manage to explore those issues without just re-hashing bits and pieces of what is now a somewhat mature cafeteria of ideas. I was not disappointed. The director, Alex Rivera, had some aces up his sleeve, one of them being his South American  ancestry. Right at the beginning of the movie, the main (Mexican) character watches his father being killed by an American military drone in a completely stupid military operation which serves no purpose but to keep the paranoid marketing of constant war going. Now, of course there is a political point being made there. The director, however, chooses not only to let it go and not to spell it out (which to me is even more powerful than ranting about it, the scene speaks for itself) but he also has the main character react to it in what is a much more personal and human way than the one we are used to in American movies. What do you do if a member of your family gets killed by an oppressive alien government for no reason at all in front of you? Well, if you’re Mel Gibson, you grab your machete and start hacking, killing as many as possible, and give the whole thing an immediate “us vs them” meaning in terms of politics and ideology. Which I wouldn’t really feel justified to condemn under the circumstances, I suppose. But this is definitely not the only possible reaction, and it’s surely not on the list of urgent priorities of the main character in Sleep Dealer that he should join a guerrilla or start blowing things up. No, instead his main worry and concern is about his family, his mother, his brother, the people whom he loves and who will now have a very hard time meeting their basic survival needs. So he decides to leave town and look for a job that can give him enough money to support his family, even if this means being alone and isolated and letting his health and identity be put in jeopardy.

Now, this is an immensely powerful statement. Some would call the main character of the movie “alienated” or even naive. I beg to disagree. He is in fact shockingly in touch with his own humanity and with what really matters. He doesn’t really want to fight anyone or to use his abilities to destroy. He wants to connect. All through the movie, what he wants to do is to connect, to share, to meet the scary unknown otherness face to face. “I didn’t call to fight with you”, he tells his brother when he is criticized for having left their family behind. His perseverance is rewarded when what is supposed to be his “enemy” empathizes with him and out of guilt and shame offers to help him. Somewhat unrealistic? Perhaps, if taken literally. But that’s more or less how Gandhi managed to get the English out of India.

The movie makes a very strong point out of how much more fundamental than the impersonal entities and institutions and nations and ideologies which divide us, our emotions and underlying common humanity stands. Families are more important than jobs, feelings are more important than ideology, working together is more important than borders. If we are to thrive and blossom both as individual human beings and as a species, love must overcome fear. This is a message that speaks very deeply to me, and which I think is lost in the sometimes blind monomaniacal pursuit of supposedly objective material “prosperity” and “success” which in the end leaves people alone and unfulfilled.

Sure, there is a strong political message about immigration and social control which most of the time is not even metaphorical. But the movie manages to get the point across splendidly precisely by not being metaphorical about it, by not making it cerebral, by showing in all its glory the absurd reality that comes out of the actual physical materialization of certain attitudes. There is a scene in the movie in which the main character visits the wall which supposedly prevents immigrants from crossing the border. And then what immediately strikes you as most surreal as you look at it is that such a wall is being seriously (well as seriously as such a thing can be) proposed and has been partially built at enormous cost. Isn’t it inconceivably ironic that one of the most iconic utterances associated to a standing idol among some of the conservatives voices who demand and mobilize for the construction of this aberration is precisely “Tear down this wall” ?

And once again (wisely and effectively) without discussing it too explicitly but instead by letting us see it through the eyes of  a specific person with an identity, a story, a conscience and a soul, the movie raises some points  which still seem to somehow elude a large fraction of governments, politicians, policy makers and ideologues everywhere (as if history didn’t teach us this lesson again and again) : that restricting immigration in a draconian implacable fashion inevitably end up entailing totalitarian practices, that the pseudo-economic argument about “stealing jobs” is much more about xenophobia than anything else, and that in modern economies the migration and growing virtualization of the jobs themselves makes the very notion risible. (This is what a serious, working border wall would look like.)

But although the movie does tackle these issues head-on, it also transcends the political context in which they are posed to reframe them as an expression of the more basic and ultimately more important issue of connectedness in general. So this absurd physical wall ends up representing not only a criticism to immigration policies that manage to be simultaneously oppressive, unrealistic and counterproductive even to their stated objectives (i.e. supposedly protect the US economy and labor force), but a much deeper criticism to the actual broader psychological forces behind it, a criticism of a culture of fear in which human beings find themselves unable to connect and relate to each other at meaningful, emotionally rewarding, existentially fulfilling levels. The wall is an appropriate and universal symbol for lack of understanding, for the essential existential loneliness and isolation that each human faces, and whose ultimate resolution is to connect to other human beings. It’s impossible not to think of The Wall (1982).

And still regarding this message about connectedness, another aspect of how the director goes about some artistic and iconographic decisions which I liked very much is the way in which he chooses to depict the technology for jacking in to the network and (this is explicitly underlined) to other people. First of all, he does not make the physical connections (which are actual holes) go into the spine or the brain. No, they go into wrists and the back and into other place which he goes out of his way to have perceived as being the body – not the mind – of a person. And the connectors themselves are (even unrealistically form a technological standpoint) extremely needle-like, and convey in a very primal fashion the sensation of being invaded, penetrated, touched.

The metaphorical link to sex is overwhelmingly obvious, and even made explicit the first time the connecting nodes are discussed in the movie. But the point is then driven home by making the metaphor concrete and depicting the potential that this technology has for, above and beyond tearing down all sorts of social, political and economic walls, and maybe even more importantly than between people’s conscious minds, it has the potential to tear down walls between people’s experiences and emotions, and its actual use during sex is very concretely depicted and then suggested as possibly the main and most significant redeeming feature of a technology that could otherwise be seen as used (in the movie) mostly for dehumanization of the main character.

“How could I tell her the truth? I was just figuring it out myself. My energy was being drained… sent far away. What happened to the river, was happening to me. I don’t know what I’m doing. I work in a place I’ll never see. I can see my family, but I can’t touch them. And, well, the only place I feel… connected… is here… with you.”

Which maybe brings us all the all through the metaphor and, without the need for any new technology, to the immensely powerful role of sex as the ultimate tool and symbol for integration, connection and tearing down of walls. When two people have sex, they actually, physically, literally connect and put their senses intimately in touch with each other in such a way that what one feels, the other feels (even though of course they may *experience* it differently). On one hand, this has the potential to be an invaluable resource to nurture intimacy, closeness and peace, and establish communication and connectedness at levels that would not otherwise be possible. On the other hand, it leaves one’s self exposed and bare and unless one is existentially able to let go the fear, and unless one can get in touch with finding sincere fulfillment and rejoice in feeling empathy for the other, one may feel the urge, the need, the urgency to go around building all kinds of walls.

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