“Yet the punctum shows no preference for morality or good taste; the punctum can be ill-bred.” —Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
The first rude challenge of this movie is watching it without permanently devaluing Spring Breakers as a hot, precious high-conceptualist mess compared to the crisp genre elegance on parade here. I can’t be certain, but it seems like Harmony Korine dreamed up his movie drowsing behind his shades during a matinee reverie of this insta-classic. If not, he should have! The plot has a documentary-like simplicity. Maybe it really happened. Ancestral fish-freaks buzzsaw into the thumping “sexy-time” heart of American youth culture, during a Spring Break weekend on a desert lake in Arizona. That’s it. The Sayles/Dante original, recall if you must, was a lame anti-authoritarian parable (the seminal proto-SyFy Channel movie) with occasional dark comic touches. Piranha 3D is not a parable of anything, thank Corman! It is efficient big-budget sadism tainted with blooms of poetry.
As the Marshal Ney of the Grand Army of Tarantino’s children, director Alexandre Aja remains for now, a lovable hack. Or a hackist, maybe. What saves him is his cheerful commitment to nihilism, particularly since “Dad” has started to make Important Films about Nazism in Movies, Slavery in Movies and the Plight of Islamic Women. And Piranha already marks the second time Aja has made a better movie than the cult original. He has a little arty bone, too, as recognized in the title montage of 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes, where atomic explosions alternate with horrific birth defects scored to a fine 1950s Webb Pierce song. There’s something faintly reminiscent of Polanski’s clean, sardonic touch in Aja. That’s the Polanski of Cul-de-sac, The Tenant and Frantic. It could and should be cultivated. Aja is more glib, of course. All movie kids are. But he’s not afraid of longeurs and the emotive detail. And he’s not an idiot like Eli Roth, who is game enough, and thespian enough, to credibly run a wet-t-shirt contest in Piranha in a head-spinning bit of “ha-ha” meta.
This here is a Calvinist puzzle-western. The Piranha are the usual sort of Puritan moral avenger, there to vaguely punish corruptions against innocence. But the logic is ultimately abstract and unfathomable. Only the Elect survive. Sure, but why? Sorry, that’s one question too many. I’ve said before, this is no parable but a perfect nihilist circle. The cinematic equivalent of Black Metal. But funnier.
The advantage of 3D for this kind of movie is without question. Underwater, with its difractions, vast and terrifying sensual volume, and see-through surface is made for arias of dimensional surrealism. Two examples: when the piranha tear off their meals of human flesh they inevitably dangle them gleefully in Theatre-Space for a skin-crawling bit of real abjection. Get it? The fish, like the spring break orgiasts, and their exploiters, and Aja himself are all putting the “flesh on display.” Then, almost at the end, Aja shows the aftermath (he loves aftermaths!) of the human revenge on the Piranha School, a floating cemetery of fish, each drifting as a perceptible felt point in the space, and makes us somehow feel melancholy for the fish. Why? Because in death they are no longer this vicious, churning impersonal stream and force. They are spatially individuals. And showing a fishtank in a 3D movie? It cracks me up every time—a next-level visual joke. That’s mise-en-abyme at its finest.
In his famous book on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes talks about how most photographs stay put; they are resolutely iconic, banal, and “unary” as text. “When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means they do not emerge, they do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.” He talks about how images that move him have a mysterious, unreadable part that he calls the punctum. “A floating flash...,” he calls it. This punctum captures him, wounds, pricking him, and rends the image into dynamic pieces, what Barthes called the fissured. The punctum is a site for desire, a gateway out of the static/iconic field of the photograph into reverie itself.
Stereo cinema naturally has this “punctual” or absolutely reveristic quality, and not just on the occasion it is “in-your-face.” It is the essential condition of 3D. No matter how adept filmmakers are at forcing intentions (conceptions) to heel, to in-form the “information” with the old/new tools of dimensionality, the rich sensual ambiguity of 3D, its quasi “acoustic” tonal quality, conspires against them all. So it seems that when you “unnaturally” split the attention of the eyes into multiple planes, you force the audience even deeper into dreamy subjectivity. They are now watching a defiantly private film sutured in their heads. “I refuse to inherit anything from another eye but my own,” says Barthes. (This happens to some extent in every moving image, but this fact is made to be forgotten; mobs are constructed and made uniform through images.) This short-circuit of magisterial control may be only because conventions and codes are yet unlegislated for stereo cinema. Meanwhile, the audience is still free to dwell, wander and wonder.
And you can never say Aja phones it in at any point that matters. He has a feel for those places where he has to rise to the occasion. But it doesn’t always work. Energized by the possibilities, he’s forever essaying indiscriminately wacky stuff with the 3D, like the bit where Soccer Mom/Sheriff Elizabeth Shue learns that her kids are not safe at home like she assumed but out on the seething hell of the lake—Aja does the Vertigo traveling-plus-zoom thing and then snap-returns to the original position. Which transforms the far distance into a total psychedelic texture. But what it means we have no idea. Or again, when Ving Rhames, playing a deputy Sheriff, yanks an outboard engine off a boat and uses it like a weed-whacker to make desperate sweeping half-circles to delay the Piranha onslaught, Aja goes overhead to admire the style and aesthetics of the man’s work, but the chunks of fish hacked by the propeller fly upward so the audience’s theatre space is now disconcertingly a seagull’s paradise. Weird, right?
It may splatter on land, but blood turns into lovely digital smoke underwater. What makes Piranha 3D a masterpiece is that it never stops being a true exploitation film even as Aja indulges his “sadean artist” side. The balance between poetic grace notes, the misanthropic black humor, and the tidal pull of gore is perfect and effortless. You can see this in that brief aftermath sequence where suddenly the tedious plot element of the hero rescuing the girl is abandoned for a minute of melancholy as the wild girl throws a slo-mo funerary sheet over her boss, the fabulously debauched frat-boy porn merchant played with insane Oscar-level commitment by Jerry O’Connell, and under the water, his severed penis drifts beautifully in theatre space before being fought over, eaten, defiled, and rejected our way by an indifferent piranha. And that’s by way of requiem. Yes, absolutely, the punctum can be ill-bred.