The figure(s) in Da Vinci’s Le proporzioni del corpo umano secondo Vitruvio—however many there are, on however many planes of existence compressed into two-dimensions—are all properly endowed. Many iterations before and after, from the quattrocento ur-texts of Francesco di Giorgio through the complex mythology of William Blake’s Albion, and on and on, maintained the anatomically correct, cough, proportions. As the titular architect deduced, inspiring Leo to visualize mathematics on the human form, “And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.” To which Da Vinci extrapolated that the square cannot have the same centre as the circle, the navel, but is somewhat [cough] lower in the anatomy.
Five-hundred twenty-six years later we end up in the Bloodbath Gulch ghost town that is Westworld. In the opening credits, the analogous svelte figure dipped in milk is gelded. The castration recalls that puzzling universal act of stripping down a figurine only to find a smooth, frustratingly inhuman physique under the cheap cloth. In the diegesis, inanimate figures, like waxy plastic army men yet to be plucked from their wireframes, not yet given life, are wheeled through the see-through maze of the byzantine hollowed-out Monument Valley replica office building with the anatomy again made whole. In the promotional material, the posters, the paraphernalia, and the like, no dice. The avatar has again mutated; it’s alien and pseudo-androgynous. Uncanny, monochrome, and of different proportion than Vitruvius—that is, feminized, in a manner of speaking—the eye is still drawn to the locus of the square but is now confronted with an unsettling, perplexing lack. If Freud were to imbibe this disappearing act, he might’ve bled from the ears.
Westworld continues the strange and meandering obsession of its parent premium cable network with the faux, lifeless human form, a passion that has been built into a unique and defining feature from full-scale-model sex dolls on Real Sex through the contorted, drugged-out, fast-forward necrophilic BDSM of True Blood. Bizarre, unnerving casting calls have emerged for the likes of Game of Thrones—an ad for a male flasher needed on-the-quick is particularly piquant. Westworld upped-the-ante, it came to light: Extras “may be required to perform genital-to-genital touching, simulate oral sex with hand-to-genital touching, contort to form a table-like shape while being fully nude, pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back, ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude, [and] have genitals painted.” All in all, couldn’t one argue that Westworld is but a lusty, sexed–up Jurassic Park? The god-complex and cleansing Chaos Theory prospect of ill-conceived scientific progress is intact, with vicious, deviant sexuality, unbridled meta-narrative immersion, and post-slasher DNA supplanting the relative modesty of family-friendly dinotopia spectacle.
Glass walls dominate the working space, making it into an eerily open-concept, subdivided hall of voyeurism into infinity, what with naked bodies and odd, deep-focus clinical-cum-computational doings throughout the space. In its austerity, it creates an indefinite crossing of magnified prurience and surveillance paranoia. Ribbons of lengthy conversations between fully-clothed Westworld employees and stripped “hosts”—with fixed, numb, straight-ahead stares—striate each episode. Clipped, key-stroke-esque lingo and defined power dynamics color these scenes. They are robots, we are led to understand, and yet, with each twist and turn, the program is intent on blurring the distinction between human and machine, manipulating our affiliation and understanding of the divide, crossing factions and motivations.
And yet, they are furniture encased in hermetic boxes like life-size action figures. And, the assertion that “the machine’s chief distinction is its being male,” in a rhetorical sense, with respect to agency and narrative geometry, seems reaffirmed by the iron fist of the living deity of Westworld, and the more elusive, but ever-present divine intervention of Westworld’s invisible Omega, Arnold. Early on, creator/god/Rotwang, Dr. Robert Ford—the surname evincing that towering filmic Western mythmaker, as well as history’s preeminent myth-killing coward—eviscerates a subordinate drone for covering up the naked body of one of the bachelor machines under review, deriding them for daring to impose modesty and pity on an object. For, “The bachelor machine is typically a closed, self-sufficient system…[with] frictionless, sometimes perpetual motion, an ideal time and the magical possibility of its reversal, electrification, voyeurism and masturbatory eroticism, the dream of the mechanical reproduction of art, and artificial rebirth or reanimation.” The vortex of symbology, exploitation, and rooting interest gets more complex as it gains steam over the course.
The eye and the mind see little difference in the moment, and yet we are broken down until we’re numb enough to see these nude extras as mise-en-scène. The arc of the guests’ choices when inevitably confronted with this existential paradox seems to be the very idea of the constructed world—a mirror back on the self, id and ego made monstrous without reprisal. The first bedding of the automaton in Westworld ’73 courses through the veins of Westworld ’16 in hypermodern form. Stiffer bots with ribbed hands evolved to complex vessels capable of improvisation and reverie. The assertiveness of the android with no reservations, the emphasis of ‘her’ figure, disrobed right up to exposing anything of consequence, leaving the mind to fill in the fantasy, the sub-human features of the machine providing inanimate object fetish-fuel. In positronic cleansings—where bodies are fixed, minds prodded, memories erased, submission affirmed, programming written, subroutines examined, orifices sterilized—the camera is subtly distracted, even schizophrenic. The sequences alternate between sterile and titillating, modest and leering, naturalistic and stylized, caressing and high-and-tight, loose and strictly blocked. The oscillation between narrative momentum and calculated lusty expressionism either perpetually teeters on fetishistic or infuses all else around it with fixation verve. Bodies are fragmented in the frame, then are pieced back together in faceless or enticingly brief tableau.
There’s clear asymmetry to the structure, despite the antiseptic setting; the story flows outward from the organic tissue. Visual expression is dictated by algorithm, precisely calculating how much flesh should be exposed within any single scene or sequence. There’s a waffling engagement and investment with character that makes room for dislodged rubbernecking. To preserve the modesty of the respectable actors, CGI and body doubles are grafted into the scenes with no expense spared, complicating our own lusty investigating as the characters literally flit between recognizable actors and uncanny-digitized fembot hybrid stand-ins subliminally reduced to their body with face obscured by design. In these moments, pure narrative cedes to pure visual pleasure, a sweeping camera dictated by little more than the desire to see the cropped, fragmented body. The comparative speed of the cut entices in the moment, acquiescing to the voyeur but delimiting the gaze. The naked body, female more often than not, is the focal point in an empty, open space, the sole patch of organic tissue for the eye to latch onto. The body is whole and in view, but also fragmented by the technology, pieced together in post in some strange and brave new fetishization frontier of organic-digital hybridization—fitting for our postmodern, technocratic perversity. The artifice of the cinematic plane is thwarted and reified simultaneously, objectification and eroticism comingle.
The search for the irreducible human element, an irrefutable division/connection between human and machine, is always an undercurrent—“Do you ever question the nature of your reality?” The question of what happens when this is pinpointed remains open: to suppress the real and embrace the fantasia or embrace the juxtaposition and unleash the suppressed? In the sexed-up, twisty gonzo-genre dress rehearsal theatre, where micro and macro laws of nature and sociology are thorny, a primal mandate echoes through the desert of signification: Whether human or machine, “we don’t want to die or apologize for our dirty God, our dirty bodies.” Even in a world constructed from scratch, there are rules, dictates, and concessions governing the dark underbelly of the unconscious, and fueling psychic, dissociative, narcissistic rebellion. As Metz asserted, “It is the specific characteristic of every true institution that it takes charge of the mechanism of its own reproduction.” In the turmoil of the simulacrum, we root for the machines, and, in the case of Westworld, in its macro Ex Machina moments, for female agency and, strangely, abject bloody otherness. It’s a replica/mirror that is also a brain melting paradoxical crisscross: a purer reality that is simultaneously humane and posthuman.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.