The Thing from Inner Space, on Tarkovsky

Forbidden Planet (1956) Forbidden Planet (1956)
The Thing from Inner Space, on Tarkovsky
The Thing from Inner Space, on Tarkovsky

Jacques Lacan defines art itself with regard to the Thing: in his seminar on the ethics of psychoanalysis, he claims that art as such is always organized around the central void of the impossible/real Thing – a statement which, perhaps, should be read as a variation on Rilke’s old thesis that beauty is the last veil that covers the horrible. Lacan gives some hints about how this surrounding of the void functions in the visual arts and in architecture; what we shall do here is not provide an account of how, in cinematic art also, the field of the visible, of representations, involves reference to some central and structural void, to the impossibility attached to it – ultimately, therein resides the point of the notion of suture in cinema theory. What I propose to do is something much more naive and abrupt: to analyze the way the motif of the Thing appears within the diegetic space of cinematic narrative – in short, to speak about films whose narrative deals with some impossible/traumatic Thing, like the Alien Thing in science-fiction horror films. What better proof of the fact that this Thing comes from Inner Space than the very first scene of Star Wars? At first, all we see is the void – the infinite dark sky, the ominously silent abyss of the universe, with dispersed twinkling stars which are not so much material objects as abstract points, markers of space coordinates, virtual objects; then, all of a sudden, in Dolby stereo, we hear a thundering sound coming from behind our backs, from our innermost background, later rejoined by the visual object, the source of this sound – the gigantic space ship, a kind of space version of Titanic – which triumphantly enters the frame of screen-reality. The object-Thing is thus clearly rendered as a part of ourselves that we eject into reality… This intrusion of the massive Thing seems to bring relief, canceling the horror vacui of staring at the infinite void of the universe – however, what if its actual effect is the exact opposite? What if the true horror is that of Something – the intrusion of some excessive massive Real – where we expect Nothing? This experience of “something (the stain of the Real) instead of nothing” is perhaps at the root of the metaphysical question “Why is there something instead of nothing?”

Furthermore, I want to focus on the specific version of this Thing: the Thing as the space (the sacred/forbidden zone) in which the gap between the Symbolic and the Real is closed, i.e. in which, to put it somewhat bluntly, our desires are directly materialized (or, to put it in the precise terms of Kant’s transcendental idealism, the zone in which our intuition becomes directly productive – the state of things which, according to Kant, characterizes only infinite divine Reason).

Forbidden Planet (1956)
Forbidden Planet (1956)

IMDb | [amazon asin=B003D0E3FM&text=Amazon] | [amazon asin=B003IHVKS8&text=Blu-Ray]

This notion of Thing as an Id-Machine, a mechanism that directly materializes our unacknowledged fantasies, possesses a long, if not always respectable, pedigree. In cinema, it all began with Fred Wilcox’s [amazon asin=B003D0E3FM&text=The Forbidden Planet] (1956), which transposed onto a distant planet the story-skeleton of Shakespeare’s The Tempest: a father living alone with his daughter (who has never met another man) on an island, and then peace disturbed by the intrusion of an expedition. On [amazon asin=B003D0E3FM&text=The Forbidden Planet], the mad/genius scientist (Walter Pidgeon) lives alone with his daughter (Anne Francis) when their peace is disturbed by the arrival of a group of space-travelers. Strange attacks by an invisible monster soon start to occur, and, at the film’s end, it becomes clear that this monster is nothing but the materialization of the father’s destructive impulses […]

[Extract. Appeared in 1999, Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 221-231.]