10/40/70 synecdoche

By: Joshua Glenn
April 2, 2010

Earlier this week, at The Rumpus, Nicholas Rombes (who has written a contest-winning story for our sister site Significant Objects; and whose apocalyptic micro-story was a top-10 finalist in our latest Radium Age science fiction contest) read three frames of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in an aleatory fashion. Pausing the movie at the 10-, 40-, and 70-minute marks, Rombes claims to discover sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Verhoeven is an auteur who requires viewers to decide for themselves whether his 1997 Robert Heinlein adaptation is a satire or an endorsement of fascism; a critique or a celebration of war; an indictment or glorification of cruelty and bloodlust. Finding the whole in the part: synecdoche.

Synecdoche is a paranoid mode of interpretation — it’s employed brilliantly by Adorno, in Minima Moralia, for example when he claims that the difference between 20th- and 19th-century window-opening mechanisms reveals the violence lurking just beneath the surface of a supposedly advanced, progressive modern social order. But synecdochical and aleatory methods don’t mesh well. The latter (e.g., Rombes’ 10/40/70 trick) trust in chance, while the former are controlling in the extreme. What’s more, most attempts to employ synecdoche as an interpretive device aren’t nearly paranoid enough to pull off convincingly. I’m not disputing Rombes’ conclusion that Starship Troopers is a highly ambiguous text when it comes to political themes; he’s obviously correct. (Verhoeven has said that the movie’s message is: “War makes fascists of us all”; one wonders if that’s also true of the Starship Troopers first-person shooter video game?) But just as fascism (for Adorno) is a symptom of the dialectic of enlightenment, its political theme is merely one aspect of the movie’s overall dialectic — and not necessarily the most telling one.

Another aspect of the movie’s ambiguous overall dialectic — one which isn’t merely absent, but effaced from the 10-, 40-, and 70-minute scenes analyzed intelligently by Rombes — concerns gender. Although women do pilot spaceships in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in Edward Neumeier’s screenplay for the movie, women are portrayed as our future society’s dominant gender. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) can’t compete academically with his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), and she has more exciting career opportunities than he does. The quarterback of Johnny’s football team is “Dizzy” Flores (Dina Meyer); when the team showers together, a female player slaps Johnny on the ass.

Desperate to prove that he’s Carmen’s equal, Johnny joins the Mobile Infantry; the toughest member of the MI, however, turns out to be Dizzy, the only soldier tough enough to tackle the brutal Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown).

And when Johnny and Dizzy hook up, she’s on top.

Starship Troopers is an intensely macho movie in which women are the macho-est of all. It’s as though Neumeier had mashed up Heinlein’s novel with John Broome’s 1952 Mystery in Space comics story “It’s a Woman’s World,” about which I posted last year.

So what’s the ambiguous whole dimly glimpsed via these two synecdochical readings? What topsy-turvy dialectic, what rage against the social order and culture of the mid-1990s finds expression in Starship Troopers? Only Neil Patrick Harris knows for sure.

***

READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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What do you think?

  1. Joshua,

    Excellent, insightful analysis. I down’t dispute your claims about gender: right on target. But you say that the 10/40/70 method effaces an overall dialectic of the film: gender. But that’s precisely the point. The constraints of the 10/40/70 approach are designed to do just that: constrain us from our own over-determined interpretations. You’ve selected specific scenes to make your argument. In 10/40/70, the scenes are pre-selected, and, hopefully, detour my interpretation of the film away from my preconceived understanding of it. Just as the flaneur walks, and takes notes, the notes–random and scattered as they are–become the basis of the exploration. I love Adorno, but his method was not the final word.

    Weird side note: on the road for the next several hours & may not be able to continue for a while.

  2. I think the 10-40-70 method is useful! I mean to try it sometime soon. But in this case, don’t you think it led you to analyze the most apparent theme of the movie — how war turns us all into fascists?

  3. Hey Josh,

    I don’t think so–“war turns us all into fascists”–this is Verhoeven’s take on his movie, and frankly I’m suspicious of his sincerity in that statement.

    I think–but maybe it didn’t come across as clear as I would have liked–that the movie wants it both ways: as an indictment of fascism on one level (the strict formalism of the shot at the 40 minute mark, etc.) and as a celebration of war it its very spectacle. In fact, my own reading of the film (apart from the 10/40/70 analysis) is that, at its deepest ideological levels, Starship Troopers is a celebration of war, and that Verhoeven’s postmodern ironic quotation marks (i.e., the recruitment videos embedded in the film) do not recuperate its pro-war sensibilities and aesthetics.

    But of course the 10/40/70 method did not–as it should not–allow me to make the argument that the movie has a fascist heart. I had to follow the crumbs laid down by 10/40/70.

    N

  4. Yes — that’s exactly how I explained your reading of the movie, in the post. Sorry if I was clumsy in employing Verhoeven’s quote, in my last comment — I didn’t intend for it to sound like I was agreeing with Verhoeven’s account of his movie’s theme, nor did I intend for it to sound like I thought that your reading was the same as Verhoeven’s. Your reading resonates with me more than his does. What I was trying to argue, though, is that (ambivalent or not) the movie’s exploration of fascist themes and imagery is its most striking feature; so the 10/40/70 method, though fun and no doubt useful in other ways, doesn’t (or didn’t, in this case) accomplish what you’re claiming for it; i.e., it doesn’t detour us from preconceived notions of the movie. Picking and choosing particular scenes in order to offer a non-random reading, e.g., my gender-centric reading of the movie, though that’s just one possible example, was more of a detour, I think.

    If six blind men, starting from the same point, walked towards an elephant with hands outstretched, then described the elephant based on what they felt at the moment of first contact, it’s highly unlikely that you’d get the sorts of descriptions we know from the Indian fable: “The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.” It’s much more likely that they’d all agree the elephant is like a pillar; that’s because an elephant’s legs are its most apparent feature, to a blind man walking at it with arms outstretched. I think the 10/40/70 method is most likely to alight upon a movie’s elephant-leg aspect.

    Of course, more testing is required. I look forward to your second experiment!

  5. One small thing I would say: I don’t think the 10/40/70 method is designed to provide, always, radical new readings of the films. If this happens sometimes, that’s great. But part of the pleasure it’s meant to encourage is to look more closely at the frames themselves. In fact, some of the descriptions of the frozen frames might just be about details of their composition, lighting, framing, etc. If the frames also happen to open up windows into the larger ideology of the film, that’s very good, of course. But 10/40/70 is also a tool to detour us away from the analysis of large sequences and focus attention on smaller details.

    As I writer, I’m always tempted to make big leaps from these small details to larger meanings of the fllm, which I also do in the next installment coming Wednesday. But I don’t think 10/40/70 has to work that way. It can also work in quieter ways, pushing us deeper into the granularity of a single scene.

    N

  6. >But 10/40/70 is also a tool to detour us away from the analysis of large sequences and focus attention on smaller details.

    I think it’s an excellent tool for that purpose!

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