In Cinemascope’s winter 2007 publication (no. 29), Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson declare Tony Scott – whom they contend is “regularly dismissed by critics as an action hack director” – “overdue” for reappraisal (Huber and Peranson). The occasion for this reassessment, according to Huber and Peranson, is Scott’s Déjà Vu (2006), a “surveillance-era, post-Hitchcock concoction” that the authors claim as the director’s “masterpiece” (Huber and Peranson). The authors likewise reference the “Master of Suspense” in the piece’s title, “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo,” in order both to emphasize the thematic affinities between Déjà Vu and its specific Hollywood antecedent, and also to catalyze Scott’s and Déjà Vu’s entries into the canon, following on Hitchcock’s famously belated inclusion. Indeed, Huber and Peranson’s decision to title their Déjà Vu piece thusly actively courts the same controversy generated by Robin Wood when he stated that Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is the director’s “masterpiece… and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us” (Wood 108). “World Out of Order” represents the next disparaged frontier for 1960s-style auteurist criticism, though at a juncture long after its tacit acceptance as a default classificatory system for film studies. The critical dismissals of Tony Scott’s corpus suggest that select traditional binaries – art and commerce, high and low, good taste and bad – have not disappeared, but instead have moved underground. With Déjà Vu the old debates again become new.
None of the above meta-critique, however, is intended to foreclose against legitimate criticism of Scott’s work, which includes potential claims that his films are overly commercial, products of low culture (or in today’s parlance, geared toward the “lowest common denominator”) and representative of bad taste – in a word, that his films can be trashy. Rather, this recognition of Huber and Peranson’s auteurist project is meant to perform a different set of tasks: first, to acknowledge the preceding interest in Déjà Vu and its acceptance (in certain quarters) as superlative film art; second, to highlight this essay’s engagement with a recognized object of film art, rather than with cultural detritus – to respond to Déjà Vu is to engage with the extraordinary, not the ordinary; and third, to provide an analogy in Hitchcock’s similar passage from exemplary auteur to a subject of theoretical interest.
The subsequent analysis will not in fact consider how Déjà Vu relates to the remainder of Scott’s body of work, as is Huber and Peranson’s primary topic, nor will it confirm or reject their assertion that Déjà Vu is the director’s masterpiece, even if this last claim seems wholly plausible. Rather, the following text will begin with a single theoretical dimension of Scott’s film, its construction of diegesis, which occurs both on the level of the film’s narrative and also in the figuration of a visual field of surveillance. While the latter is presented within the former, and therefore relies upon the prior construction of the narrative space of the film, clarity can be gained nevertheless from discussing the surveillance space first. As such, Déjà Vu’s surveillance imagery, its film-within-the-film or image-within-the-image (as it will be referred to hereafter), will be analyzed at the outset, and thereafter, the contours of the narrative’s more classical diegetic space will be located. For both, the texts of Noël Burch (“Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits”) and especially Thomas Elsaesser (“Discipline through Diegesis: The Rube Film Between ‘Attraction’ and ‘Narrative Integration’”) will serve to clarify Scott’s conceptualization of diegesis, as will a short comparison with Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002). Following these analyses, the implications of the film’s content, as enacted in and through its diegesis, will be examined, with particular emphasis given to its status as a contemporary “rube” film, using Elsaesser’s terminology; to its emphasis on the previous decade’s surfeit of collectively-experienced American traumas; to the role of the ethics of preemption in Scott’s film; and finally to the religious iconography that coalesces at the film’s conclusion. As Déjà Vu’s tagline purposively asks: “What if you could change the past?” The answer for Scott and screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio, like for so many Americans in the early twenty-first century, begins with the tragedies of Oklahoma City, September 11th, and Hurricane Katrina.
“A single trailing moment of now, in the past”
Déjà Vu opens with what Huber and Peranson call “a nine-minute bravura sequence of dialogue-free ‘pure cinema,’” in which five hundred forty-three men, women and children are killed in act of terrorism centering on a New Orleans ferry (Huber and Peranson). Among the initial law enforcement respondents is Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington), a locally based A.T.F. agent who begins his crime scene investigation as the aforesaid “pure cinema” passage continues. From the first, Carlin’s investigatory brilliance is unmistakable: he notices a thin fragment of plastic on the riverbank; he climbs under the Crescent City Bridge to collect residue from the explosion; in examining a woman’s corpse, he spots transparent adhesive on the victim’s lips. It is Carlin who determines that the explosion was an act of terrorism – no doubt aided by his experience with the Oklahoma City bombing – and Carlin again who will be entrusted with the task of locating the perpetrator in the extant surveillance footage.
Carlin is assigned this task by F.B.I. Agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who stipulates that he needs “someone who can look at a crime scene exactly once.” As the protagonist and the film’s spectators soon learn, Pryzwarra means this literally. Entering into the investigation’s media-saturated operations center, Carlin is confronted with a large, flat-screen monitor presenting multiple windows and a pair of multi-screen, vertically-oriented television consoles flanking the larger panel to the right. A New Orleans satellite map fills the largest segment of the big screen – the “Jumbotron” for Huber and Peranson – and is soon replaced by footage of the ferry. Subsequently, Carlin will be asked for another focal point to which he offers the address of the dead woman Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). With her location cued on the large monitor, the initial satellite mapping is progressively replaced – in a single, simulated (craning) camera movement – by closer and closer views of her French Quarter apartment. Ultimately, the exterior view is displaced by an interior image featuring a mobile, partially recomposed Claire, with streaks of light trailing her cyborgian facsimile (see Figure 1). Successively, this holographic figural flux is replaced by a denser, more sculptural reconstruction that ultimately seems to show the former corpse alive once again (see Figure 2).
Here, Scott’s image-within-the-image closely mirrors the satellite-imaging technology of Google™ Earth, including its fluid replacement of cartographic, aerial views with increasingly immersive images of the earth’s surface (see Figures 3 and 4). Of course, Déjà Vu represents the extension of this technology from photographic stills showing select cityscapes (and in some cases, its population) frozen in time, to moving images of a targeted place at a particular time. Simply put, Scott has made the photographic technology of Google Earth cinematic.
This specific time, Carlin has been assured, occurred four days, six hours in the past. Indeed the technology that allows for this implicitly global surveillance (though, as the dialogue soon dictates, the viewer may only see into the past within a limited radius of their present location), codenamed the decisively meta-cinematic “Snow White,” requires precisely this time delay due to the massive amount of digital data required for this recreation; it takes this long to render a fluid space, which, while navigable, cannot be stilled or reversed. It is for this reason that Carlin’s superlative abilities are needed: to know where to look in the continuous flow of a past, four-plus days before, or as Dr. Alexander Denny (Adam Goldberg) puts it, “a single trailing moment of now, in the past.”
“Strictly one way”?: Scott’s Two-way Mirror
Dr. Denny’s conception is particularly revealing as it captures the unique construction of Déjà Vu’s image-within-the-image: namely that it is a space connoting surveillance (for its locatable spatial coordinates and continuous image stream) and even a televisual liveness, which nonetheless figures a time that has passed. This live quality issues less from the image stream itself, though this is a property it shares with surveillance, than from the reaction of the object of vision to the image’s spectator. (The alternative, namely indications of liveness through content that is verifiably occurring in the present, is of course foreclosed by the aforesaid time gap and particularly by the fact that Claire died at the time of the terrorist act.) As Carlin, Denny, Pryzwarra and the rest view Claire on the big screen, she glances back as if aware of their viewing act. Claire even tells a friend over the phone that she feels as if she is being watched and then repeats the same point in her diary. In the process, the viewer’s presumption of “invulnerability” to use Noël Burch’s terminology, which is to say his or her insulation from the act of being looked at, recedes (Burch 24). The spectator (or spectators: Carlin, Denny, et al.) can no longer look at the image with impunity.
This sense of interchange between viewer and viewed is reinforced further by the light that issues from the flat screen panel that frames Claire’s likeness. Significantly, Scott does not project the aforesaid image from the rear of the space; there is no shaft or stream of light transporting above the actors’ heads. They are not positioned amidst the flow of images. Rather, the light from the screen reflects back and conspicuously paints the performers throughout their viewing (see Figure 5). In fact, the degree to which light reflects from the image, or conversely the degree to which we see the figures in the media room reflected on the screen, is far greater than it ought to be, absent the process of projection. Scott adds these reflections, or rather paints his viewers in sheets of light, to connote the two-way process that Claire’s returned gaze makes explicit. The image does not seem to be “strictly one way” in the terms of Scott’s visual rhetoric.
Pryzwarra, however, assures Carlin that it is. After finding nothing in their navigation of the exterior to suggest that Claire’s comments could refer to somebody else, Carlin asks if in reality it is possible for Claire to see them. Pryzwarra responds with the above quotation, that it is “strictly one way,” which accordingly reaffirms cinema’s uni-directionality (using the term “cinema” liberally enough to include television and surveillance technology), while contradicting the imagery that distinguishes the scene. In Pryzwarra’s and more traditional conceptions of cinema generally, the medium acts as a two-way mirror in which the spectator occupies a position in the present – on the side of the mirror through which the glass is transparent (and from which the past may be seen) – whereas the object of vision analogically faces the reflective surface of the mirror, denied a vantage of the future instance on the other side. The future, of course, is never visible, whereas, as Déjà Vu makes explicit, we invariably see into the past via reflection, whether it is light bouncing off a mirror or the reflection of a distant star.[i]
Carlin’s question therefore presents either an extreme form of naiveté, or an equally radical skepticism,[ii] given that in both instances it was Carlin himself who touched Claire’s dead body. His personal experience at least dictates that the likeness on screen must be a representation of the past. Cinema’s act of resurrection consists in allowing its spectators to see the past in the present, not in bringing the past to renewed life.
Across the “Einstein-Rosen Bridge”
Carlin, however, remains unconvinced by Pryzwarra’s assurances and shines a laser pointer clandestinely toward the flat screen. Its red shaft breaches the space, becoming visible inside Claire’s apartment. As she notices the beam bouncing off a lamp in the center of the room, Carlin and company lose their feed, and in the process, black out a substantial portion of the city. Realizing that the image is something other than a representation of the past, Carlin interrogates his law enforcement colleagues. It is imperative that this result does not compel Carlin to question his prior experience at the morgue; he loses no faith in his earlier perception, even though it now seems that he is interacting with the dead.
This results in the Bureau agents’ eventual disclosure that the image-within-the-image is in fact Claire’s room, four hours, six days in the past, brought near by an enormous expenditure of energy (known as an “Einstein-Rosen Bridge”). In other words, they are faced not with a past, perfectly reconstructed in cinema, but with the past itself, though filtered through the flat surface of the screen in a manner that is not precisely indicated in the film. (It is as though Scott and company are willing to say, evoking Bazin, that the image “is the model” (Bazin 14).) The sensation of liveness that codes the image as surveillance is therefore a genuine liveness, and as such actual surveillance, though again in a manner that resembles more closely the two-way mirror than the disembodied vision of closed-circuit television. As Thomas Elsaesser has argued for “the media worlds we inhabit,” Déjà Vu permits at this juncture “different spaces to coexist and different times to overlap” instead of relying on the “single diegesis of classical cinema” (Elsaesser 216-217). The parallel reality is more than a representation within the contours of the diegesis; it is a second possible world, a second diegetic reality whose distinguishing feature is its setting four-plus days in the past. It is not so much that it overlaps but that it exists in parallel to the world occupied by Carlin and his Bureau colleagues. The Eisenstein-Rosen Bridge has made this second discrete world and parallel diegesis accessible to a sight mediated only by the two-dimensionality of the screen. The laser pointer shows that the space between the viewer and the viewed can be traversed; to use Noël Carroll’s preface for the act of “seeing,” “[we] would know how to get to the place in question if [we] wanted to” (Carroll 71).
This sense of a co-existent, permeable and living image-within-the-image distinguishes Déjà vu from contemporary Hollywood’s other recent ‘crime prevention among multiple temporalities’ narrative, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report. In the case of the latter, two forms of film-within-the-film are embedded in the movie’s diegesis: hallucinated fragments of the future that permit the picture’s preemptive policing, [iii] and holographic home movies to which protagonist John Anderton (Tom Cruise) responds.[iv] In each instance, the image-within-the-image does not correspond to an on-going second temporality, but rather represents a fragment of the film diegesis’s past or future. With the home movie, it is a matter of a straight-forward recorded past that is projected holographically in the film’s mid-twenty-first century present. Anderton reacts to these images by recounting the same words he presumably spoke off-camera during his initial filming of the fragments. He relives this past virtually, rehearsing his original part. By contrast, the so-called hallucinated fragments are moments that have yet to come into being, and which the film’s homicide detectives must decipher in order to determine where and when future crimes will occur. In other words, Spielberg provides glimpses of the crime (to come) rather than its trace in the form of clues.
Spielberg, however, will complicate the status of these hallucinated images by introducing the possibility of variations among multiple presentations of the same scene.[v] As such, the hallucinated fragments theoretically are either visions of a future actuality or pictorially indistinguishable alternative scenarios. Or, in each instance, pictorial-realist approximations of a future that might occur. In neither case, however, does the image-within-the-image represent a co-equal world in the same respect as does the embedded diegesis in Déjà vu; that is, none of these depicted spaces continue to exist in the same manner as does Déjà vu’s four-plus day past, its “single trailing moment of now.” Rather, these are impregnable indexes and/or digital-age facsimiles of the film’s diegetic world.
Activating the “Goggle Rig”
Comparatively, Déjà vu’s image-within-the-image diegesis can be breached, as happens during Carlin’s subsequent operation of the “goggle rig.” This object is made necessary by the fact that the surveyed space is limited to a relatively small radius surrounding the site of spectatorship. After identifying a suspect (Jim Caviezel’s Carroll Oerstadt) who is in the process of leaving their immediate field of view, Carlin and his associates employ the aforesaid technology, which allows for direct line-of-sight surveillance with its operation. Carlin specifically utilizes the apparatus – a helmet supporting a camera and two LCD viewfinders in the place of eyepieces (see Figure 6) – as he takes the wheel of an SUV. Carlin affixes the object as he aligns himself with the suspect. Within both of the LCD eyepieces, as on the screen back in media operations center, the past, four-plus days earlier, is again made visible. Carlin lifts the right viewfinder so as not to block his view of the congested midday highway, even as the pursued suspect – apparent again in the viewfinders and on the large screen – drives down the same, largely empty freeway, in the middle of the night. In straightforwardly reflexive terms, Carlin has become the cameraman, shooting dailies they watch back in the media room. He has become the conduit for their surveillance, which nonetheless possesses the temporal gap of cinema. Carlin occupies the space in the present, which naturally is the place of surveillance, while witnessing the events of the past. Washington’s character can not only see into both diegetic realities, but effectively exists in both at once – embodied in the present and as the (invisible) apparatus in the past.
Likewise, the “goggle rig” and its footage, similar to the image-within-the-image, must be “activated”: in each case, the image is theoretically permeable and therefore changeable, which conceptually distinguishes it from traditional narrative cinema (Elsaesser 219). (In the case of the “goggle rig,” Oerstadt’s reciprocal gaze establishes the image’s two-way interchange.) Of course, Carlin’s initial act with the laser pointer precedes this revelation; he reacts to the on-screen object of vision, whom he again knows to be dead, as though she can see him. In other words, he confuses the look into the camera and thus the loss of the spectator’s invulnerability with the possibility of actual vulnerability, of his being spotted by the dead.
His behavior, in other words, is that of the classic “rube” who confuses representation for reality (211).[vi] Carlin is the proverbial (though, as Elsaesser also points out, mythical) spectator who confuses the ontological status of persons and objects (213). While modern “media-forms” and specifically video gaming and virtual reality permits this “ontological confusion,” Carlin’s attempt to interact with the image transgresses the norms of classical cinema and thus signals a suppression of what he knows to be real, through his prior haptic engagement with Claire’s corpse (213, 219). In fact, that the image responds to his gesture should undercut its status as documentary record, and accordingly Carlin ought to understand it as a fictional world, rather than as the indexical (unmediated) recreation of a past time that it claims for itself.
However, Carlin’s subsequent attempt to communicate with his past self across the Einstein-Rosen Bridge confirms his faith in the factuality of the enframed image. Carlin succeeds in sending the message, though with the unintended consequence of changing how his deceased partner will be killed. Nevertheless, this achievement ultimately prompts Carlin, with Dr. Denny’s assistance, to chance the journey himself, though only after he and his colleagues have successfully solved the New Orleans bombing.
“U Can Save Her”
Appearing in a hospital emergency room with a message – “revive me” – written across his chest, a seizing Carlin has made it across the Einstein-Rossen Bridge, and in the process, into the image-within-the-image’s parallel diegetic world. He is no longer synonymous with the apparatus as he was during his use of the goggle rig, but is rather within the world he was filming. He has, like Sherlock, Jr. decades before him, entered the world annunciated by the screen. Unlike Buster Keaton’s protagonist, however, he has penetrated a world in which his earlier self exists – though in a form perpetually four days, six hours younger.
The possibility of this encounter, however, will have to wait as Carlin’s immediate purpose is to save Claire from her fate. After locating the beautiful young woman – blindfolded, bound and gagged – in Oerstadt’s bayou cabin, Carlin rushes Claire back to her New Orleans flat, where he attempts to impress her with the situation’s urgency. Nonetheless, Claire remains skeptical of both Carlin’s intentions and also his identity as an ATF agent, which leads her to call his departmental colleague for a description (a detail that occurs without explanation in the film’s earliest section). Similarly, a phone call caught as Claire’s answering machine picks up becomes an opportunity for Carlin – who had listened to the message during his earlier inspection of the deceased’s apartment – to predict every word that the caller will say. In this way, Scott explains a few of the more quixotic details that had been included in the film’s earliest sequences, from the aforesaid phone calls to a message written by Carlin in magnetic letters on Claire’s refrigerator – “U Can Save Her” – to the profusion of the agent’s fingerprints throughout the space. The identity of his trace is revealed retrospectively.
This strategy of interpreting previously-opaque details shortly becomes one of narrative repetition as Scott re-screens much of the footage that opens Déjà Vu: a pack of sailors rush onto the U.S.S. Nimitz, a teacher mouths the word “okay” as she counts her students, a little girl drops her doll and yells “Mama,” a military band on the Mississippi riverbank plays “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and so on. While some of the stylistic ornamentation that accompanies the opening sequence, Huber and Peranson’s “pure cinema,” remains – as for instance Scott’s utilization of slow-motion – other techniques have been expelled: the initial use of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” as a sound bridge, moving into and out of the diegetic space, for instance, has been replaced by the song’s full integration into the film’s narrative world. In this shift, to be sure, the different narrational registers of the two sequences becomes clear, with the earlier passage highlighting the act of narrating the event from a position initially divorced of any protagonist, while the latter emphasizes the storyteller’s total immersion within the diegetic space – as well as the agency of Carlin, Claire and Oerstadt. In the incipient passage, no human narrative agent within the diegetic world can be identified. The effects of an action, withheld from our view, are highlighted, not its causes.
Indeed, this earlier emphasis on the act of narrating is made explicit in the picture’s first shot: a rectangular viewfinder zeros in on a Louisiana landscape, zooming in once the exact location has been chosen. The filmmakers, in other words, are in control of the film’s narrative subject. Then again, the rhetoric of the narration does not construe an unembellished documentation of events in this opening passage, but instead encodes its recounting as an act or remembering. Connotations of memory proliferate: this is in an idiom that favors de-accelerated motion and shuffles fragments of ambient sound, live music and non-diegetic pop songs in order to imply a past recalled in vivid, if isolated detail; an imagined, fictional spectator might have seen the girl drop her doll or might have been listening to the song when the explosion occurred. Scott thus imparts a sense of the subjective in this opening passage, though in a form that does not center on an individual viewer but rather moves freely between various centers of interest, as if adopting André Bazin’s “eye of God.”[vii] The filmmaker’s ubiquitous control is filtered through a set of representational codes that read as subjective. Yet, it is a subjectivity that does not belong to an individual spectator but to many synthesized viewers – it is group memory.
The film’s memory-inflected opening meets its abrupt end with the explosion of the military vessel: digitally-produced fire balls surge from the ship concurrent with the sudden muting of the Beach Boys song (which had been playing on a local radio station at the time of the disaster). With this, we see bodies flying from the watercraft, as if replaying the notorious imagery of persons throwing themselves out of the upper floors of the World Trade Center. Scott switches freely from positions above and below the waterline, with audio points-of-view varying with the camera’s location. When Carlin arrives moments later, the auditory point-of-view becomes his, initially cutting out most of the ambient sound in favor of a mournful non-diegetic theme. However, as the ATF agent slowly soaks in the scope of the tragedy and acclimates himself to his surroundings, a more rapid tempo replaces the slower bars, thereby emphasizing his self-suturing into the world around him. He is now prepared to commence with his investigation – and has become an active agent within the diegesis. Still, it will remain for his travel back in time for Carlin to truly remake the narrative world in which he is present.
Comfortably “Unobserved” in the Present
While still maintaining the opening sequence’s ubiquitous camera, the closing segment refuses its identification with either collective recollection or individual response (until its very final moments, where an analogy to Carlin’s earlier point-of-view is found in the narrative’s sudden focalization through Claire’s subjectivity). Rather, Scott has replaced the opening past-tense with the present. The director no longer assumes a position after the explosion; instead, he narrates through his selective framings of Carlin, Claire and Oerstadt as the first two attempt to stop the third in his act of terrorism. These are added to a series of reused shots that likewise maintain the same selective disclosure and withholding of ambient sound that contributes so strongly to the earlier scene’s evocation of memory. The film’s trauma looms in the future rather than in the past; the narrative occupies the same present tense that it has since Carlin commenced in earnest with his investigation, though the ground has shifted to a time before rather than after the event.
The legibility of this modification of tense is similarly discernable in Scott’s new refusal to use the segment’s pop songs non-diegetically. Here, both “Don’t Worry Baby” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” are fully locatable within the space of the diegesis and are audible only when a camera and microphone is near a radio (as in the case of the Beach Boys tune) or close to the riverbank where the military band performs the second tune. In resisting the earlier technique, Scott increases the “diegetic effect” that Burch argues is fundamental to the “general experience of the classical film” (Burch 16). It is not simply that we are observing these people in this setting unawares, but that our spectatorship represents a duration as well. We watch a present as it unfolds.
Concurrently, none of Scott’s characters look into the camera during this closing, classically-articulated passage. Rather than the two-way exchange that defines the image-within-the-image’s diegesis, the final segment’s diegesis is strictly uni-directional with the roles of viewer and viewed clearly separated. In fact, this is the relationship between image and spectator that Déjà Vu maintains throughout, including those passages that house the image-within-the-image. Whereas Carlin acts according to the norms of the “rube,” following his misapprehension – or as the case may be, his apprehension – of the meaning endowed in Claire’s look into the “camera,” Scott does not challenge his Déjà Vu spectators similarly. Theirs is the traditional role of the classical spectator, comfortably “unobserved” in their act of spectatorship (22).
“Lord knows the [country] has seen its share of pain”
At the same time, Carlin is not “disciplined” for his naïve response to the cinematic image (Elsaesser 213). If the conventional “rube” film trains its spectators to inhabit an appropriately inactive relationship to the screen, through “a subtle process of internalized self-censorship” that flatters its audience for not sharing the rube’s untutored response, Déjà Vu reverses this schema in its tacit encouragement of Carlin’s suspension of sophistication (213). To put it somewhat crudely, “a superior form of spectatorship” would not get either Carlin or Déjà Vu anywhere. We as spectators encourage Carlin’s ontological confusion in our shared desire to write the wrongs of history, to “prevent” crime in Carlin’s words, rather than to simply solve it.
The crime presented in Déjà Vu once again is a composite of more familiar mass-tragedies that have claimed large numbers of American innocents. The first of these, annunciated in Carlin’s own professional history, the bombing’s modus operandi, and in the identification of the bomber as a white male who speaks of “patriotism” (as opposed to the more familiar Islamic villain of the post-9/11 world) is the domestic terrorism of Oklahoma City. As such, Scott seeks to deflect questions of external state support and a potential military response that inheres in acts like those conducted against the U.S. on September 11, 2001, in favor of a crime whose recourse is necessarily prosecutorial. In other words, a domestic bomber gets Scott the mass-victims of 9/11 without the messy international political ramifications or potential cultural/racial discourse that typically follows. Then again, 9/11 does resound in Déjà Vu in the experience of death shared by many of the victims: once more, we see persons hurled from the burning ship, their bodies on fire as they plunge into the surrounding water. In the annals of contemporary American trauma, no event continues to figure as large as 9/11; to ignore it would be to inadequately engage the subject.
Aside from 9/11, the responses of the local, state and national governments that preside over New Orleans represents the most conspicuous of recent American tragedies. This context is made explicit not only in the film’s New Orleans setting but in the banners that refer to the spirit of the people after Katrina, contemporary footage of the then still devastated Ninth Ward (where Oerstadt continues to reside), and in a closing intertitle that proclaims the film to be “dedicated to the strength and enduring spirit of the people of New Orleans.” Each of the above historical events rank as crimes – perhaps even equal in Scott’s eyes – against segments of the American people, whose traumatic memory we nonetheless all share.
Nevertheless, Déjà Vu is about the prevention, not the prosecution of crimes. If this situates Scott’s piece as a corollary to the logic of preemption, which resonates not only with the Anglo-American response to 9/11 but also with the increasing presence of surveillance (CCTV) technology in urban centers throughout the West (and particularly on the British Isles, Scott’s homeland), Déjà Vu’s novel invention is metaphysical certainty. To be able to know the future beyond all doubt is to foreclose against any of the potential ethical dilemmas that are implicit in preemption. (Minority Report is, in this regard, the film’s negative, in its promotion of epistemological uncertainty.) “Snow White” indeed becomes the perfect tool for a world beset by terrorism: it is a means for changing the past, for redirecting time’s flow around the events that would adversely shape it otherwise. In this respect Déjà Vu submits itself to the criticism that it is an abjuration of real world ethical concerns. Yet, the very impossibility of the process through which Scott condones preemption indicates that this set of questions ultimately exists outside the reality that Déjà Vu wishes to treat.
The reality that Déjà Vu does concern itself with is the emotional aftermath – shared by all Americans – of Oklahoma City, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Like the picture’s opening, Scott’s film speaks to a collective memory and the desire to reverse the past’s larger tragedies, which in the American context have been in greater supply over the course of the past decade. Déjà Vu diagnoses a nation’s psychology and telegraphs its collective fantasy life.
Romantic and Religious “Faith” in Déjà Vu
Then again, neither Carlin’s nor the film’s spectators’ stake in the picture’s restorative fantasy is primarily public in nature. In each case, it is a desire to save Claire that animates our interests. Of course, in Carlin’s case specifically, it is not simply benevolence but a romantic desire that accounts finally for his willingness to endanger himself in his attempt to travel back in time. In this respect, Carlin truly is the “rube” who has fallen for the embalmed image on screen. We see her larger-than-life likeness in close-up profile view and then dressing in the distance as Carlin stands facing the flat panel. In reverse shot, Scott discloses his enraptured gaze, which the filmmaker pairs with a romantic musical theme and the light dancing off the screen. Scott signifies Carlin’s romantic desire rather directly, while inviting his spectator to share in this economy of desire. He has made her “matter” to us in the same manner her father attempted to make her matter to Carlin – by supplying pictures of the beautiful, deceased woman. Our desire to see her alive once again, and with the film’s star, leads to our affirmation of Carlin’s “ontological confusion.”
Carlin’s reclamation of his dead love assures the film’s debt to Vertigo that Huber and Peranson identify in their article. It also introduces a directly Christian iconography to what had been an essentially theistic work. During the initial debates surrounding the possibility of convening with the past via the picture’s “Snow White” technology, Carlin raises the possibility that there may be something more out there. Dr. Denny understands Carlin’s theological implication and adds that God’s mind “is already made up,” thereby supervening further discussion on this basis. However, when Denny later agrees to aid Carlin in his attempted time travel, he prefaces his assistance by admitting that he too believes in God. In other words, he also holds out hope for the miraculous – in this case, for the possibility that Carlin could travel back in time. As such, Carlin’s act is framed less in the naïve terms outlined heretofore than as an act of faith – in the possibility that the physical laws of the universe could be suspended, that a miracle could occur.
Carlin entreats Claire to have a similar faith when he saves her from Oerstadt. In this case, she was not made aware of her kidnapper’s identity and thus would be justified in doubting Carlin’s identity, as she initially does. Certainly, Carlin’s true story is far more implausible than the alternative explanation that he is the kidnapper, which compels him to demonstrate his superior knowledge of the situation – to perform miracles (as in his perfect recounting of the phone conversation that Claire is having in the present). The female lead, though initially skeptical, nevertheless does act in faith, particularly after she hops onto the ship once Carlin insists that she go to the police. In decidedly Catholic terms, the same terms as Hitchcock, she shows her belief through her works.
This faith is tested most severely when the pair finds themselves in the truck carrying the explosive device. As Carlin puts it to Claire, “if we get out now, everybody dies.” Claire reaffirms her trust and Carlin drives the vehicle off the side of the ferry, deep into the waters below. Claire is able to escape, but Carlin dies in the now underwater explosion. Unlike Oerstadt, Carlin shows himself to be willing to give up his life to save others. As he tells Oerstadt elsewhere, this is the “price of freedom,” to “sacrifice” one’s self, thus clarifying the film’s Christian allegory as it mirrors Christ’s offering of his blameless life for mankind’s sins.
And like the film’s religious precedent, the guiltless Carlin’s sacrifice entails a victory over death. With Claire wrapped under a blanket along the water’s edge, Carlin suddenly emerges between a pair of nearby emergency vehicles, alive once more. This resurrected Carlin, importantly, is not the Carlin of four days, six hours in the future but is instead the Carlin of the present – that is, the Carlin of the past. Scott and his screenwriters Marsilii and Rossio have discovered therefore a second means of representing resurrection within the stipulative logic of the film’s science fiction narrative, while identifying a solution for the problems posed by the coexistence of Carlin’s past and present selves. This diegetic world can move forward with the same number and identity of persons that had populated its mirrored past and future self. This possible world can now be the real world – which it will be with the same Beach Boys hit playing on the radio as Claire asks Carlin the same question he posed to her earlier: “What if you had to tell someone the most important thing in the world, but they’d never believe you?” Carlin responds that he’d “try,” before shrugging it off with a “nah” as he experiences the eponymous déjà vu.
Ultimately, Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu represents a classical understanding of the filmic diegesis, wherein a ubiquitous camera discloses its fictional subject in the non-fictional actuality of post-Katrina New Orleans. Scott’s mise-en-scène presents its content unaware of its apparatus, and thus makes its spectator “invulnerable,” which according to theorist Noël Burch maximizes the “diegetic process” that is integral to the experience of classical film narrative (Burch 24). In other words, the world created for the screen is not made for interaction but rather to be viewed by a spectator whose gaze will not be returned. In this way, Scott’s conception of his screen world coheres with Burch’s analysis.
Nevertheless, nested within Déjà Vu is a less traditional understanding of film space deriving from viewer-“activated” media such as virtual reality and gaming, to follow on Elsaesser’s contemporary reframing of diegetic formation. That is, Déjà Vu establishes another method of relating to diegetic spaces that leads the film’s protagonist to immerse himself within the spatial coordinates of the depicted past. In this respect, Scott’s picture converges with the same early film history – as instantiated by the “rube” genre – which Elsaesser identifies as a precursor to new media conceits of diegetic spaces that are manifest in the image-within-the-image. Moreover, the multiplicity of diegetic or possible worlds in Déjà Vu likewise links to the theorist’s redefinition of the diegetic experience. Hence Déjà Vu effectively acts out the unique diegetic production of new media (as anticipated by early cinema) within the parameters of a more traditional, uni-directional diegesis.
At the same time, it is essential to remember that Déjà Vu’s invention of ontologically separable diegeses occurs within an “action hack” cinema that remains every bit as critically disparaged in our time as was Hitchcock’s in his, or as was the medium itself in the time of the “rube.” Even if the film’s form can be made palatable (or useful) for its critics, as an exemplar of new narrative modes, this is not a cinema of ideas or “thought” surely (Rosenbaum). Yet, what this criticism misses is Déjà Vu’s contemporaneousness. To this end, the film’s adaptation of the “rube” trope exceeds its historical pedagogical function, becoming further the enactment of a shared national desire to rewrite its recent traumatic past. This invented history, a synthesis of Oklahoma City, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, is made revisable through the film’s construction of an enterable diegetic space, literally brought into proximity with the diegetic world that houses it. Consequently, the naïve act of the “rube” is encouraged rather than “ridiculed” (Elsaesser 213); it is the film’s means for saving the lives of the innocent, bringing the dead back to life and securing love across this un-crossable boundary. It is the ultimate act of faith.
This essay was originally published in Film Criticism, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2 (Winter, 2008-2009). My warmest thanks to editor Lloyd Michaels and the editorial board for their kindly inclusion of my work.
Burch, Noël. “Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits: Noël Burch Questions the Centrality of Narrative to the Experience of Film.” Screen 23, 2. 16-33.
[i] André Bazin made the analogy of cinema to a mirror “that relays the presence of the person reflected in it – but… with a delayed reaction” in “Theatre and Cinema – Part Two” (Bazin 97).
[ii] Déjà Vu does not, as might be expected, question the reliability of this earlier experience. At no instance in the film are we given any indication that either Carlin or any of his colleagues doubt that he saw the woman dead. Rather, her earlier death is stipulated as fact both in the film’s investigation and also in our understanding of character motivation and psychology.
[iii] Minority Report’s future temporality is hallucinated, so to speak, by the film’s “Precogs” – a floating trio, whom one character classifies as “more than” human. These Precogs have the ability to intuit future murders at variable distances from the present, which are thus recorded and deciphered by the film’s “Precrime” unit on a series of interactive, holographic screens. With this data, the film’s law enforcement officers not only prevent homicides (specifically) from occurring, but prosecute those who would have been guilty of the crimes.
[iv] Thomas Elsaesser, in fact, classifies Cruise’s Anderton as a “rube” inasmuch as he attempts “to ‘touch’ his missing son” (Elsaesser 219). For the author’s definition of the “rube,” see endnote 6.
[v] Namely, Spielberg reveals that it is possible for one of the three Precogs to disagree with the other two – as to how or if a murder will occur – thus creating one of the film’s eponymous “minority reports.” The film indicates that these visual files can represent future actuality in spite of their minority status.
[vi] The “rube” film, according to Elsaesser, “emerged with the origins of the cinema itself, at the turn of the century, first in Great Britain and the US, but similar films were also produced in other countries. They often presented a film-within-the-film, that is, they showed a member of the cinema audience, who does not seem to know that the film images are representations to be looked at rather than objects to be touched and handled or scenes to be entered and immersed in. These so-called ‘rubes’ or simpletons usually climb up to the stage and either attempt to grasp the images on the screen, or want to join the characters on the screen, in order to interfere with an ongoing action or look behind the image to discover what is hidden or kept out of sight. The best-known example of this genre is Uncle Josh at the Movies, made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Company in 1902” (Elsaesser 211-212).
[vii] As Bazin puts it: “It is like the eye of God, in the proper sense of the word, if God could be satisfied with a single eye” (Bazin 88).
Bazin, Andre. Jean Renoir. Ed. François Truffaut. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992.
---. What is Cinema?, Vol. 1. Ed. and trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
Burch, Noël. “Narrative/Diegesis – Thresholds, Limits: Noël Burch Questions the Centrality of Narrative to the Experience of Film.” Screen 23, 2. 16-33.
Carroll, Noël. “Towards an Ontology of the Moving Image.” Film and Philosophy. Eds. Cynthia Freeland and Tom Wartenberg. New York: Routledge, 1995. 68-85.
Elsaesser, Thomas. “Discipline through Diegesis: The Rube Film between ‘Attraction’ and ‘Narrative Integration.’” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 205-223.
Huber, Christoph and Mark Peranson. “World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo.”
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Déjà Vu.” Chicago Reader. 17 November 2006.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.