Alejandro Adams’ unsettling science-fiction dystopia, Canary, is one of the first films I’ve seen in ages that sent me scrambling to learn more, not simply because the film was “difficult,” but because it engaged me on so many levels. I’ve been in contact with Alejandro ever since he invited me to contribute to a roundtable on the video iPod when it was first released in November 2005, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for Canary’s profound meditation on interpersonal communication, corporate malfeasance, and cinematic storytelling.
Canary depicts an alternate present in which a large percentage of the human population has received organ transplants, and the people who have received transplants are apparently functional. The primary corporation involved in the organ transplant business, Canary Industries, is one of those medical companies that we know through relentlessly cheerful advertisements showing smiling families watching beautiful sunrises from improbably pristine beaches (Adams has set up a nice mock-up of this PR spin on the film’s official website). However, those transplant recipients are only “leasing” the organs, which can be repossessed if the user is not properly taking care of them. At one point, a medical consultant gently lectures a small child for not eating properly. Other details come across more elliptically. A passing bit of information reveals that a large percentage of infants are equipped with organ transplants, suggesting the ways in which Canary Industries is able to build a long-term customer base.
This cruelty is set against the public relations workers who, while watching a series of PowerPoint slides, attempt to design a new logo that will put a friendlier face on the corporation and the relentlessly cheerful banter of the office staff at Canary Enterprises (one of my Twitter friends aptly suggested the film could have been called “PowerPoint: The Banality of Evil”). These scenes are unsettling, in part, because we view them from the position of an outsider. Adams studiously avoids allowing us to identify with any specific character, creating a “voyeuristic, disconnected” feeling that distances us even further from the characters we are watching. At the same time, the messy, noisy, seemingly improvised conversations in the Canary cubicles recalled the overlapping dialogue commonly seen in Altman films (Dennis Harvey also makes this Altman connection), here to the effect of turning the viewer into an observer of the action. As Adams observes in this interview, the film’s “horror is terminal alienation, the absence of coherent interpersonal communication.” This lack of communication also comes across in an unsettling conversation in which a mother picks up her daughter from a preschool, talking on a cell phone while only half-listening to a teacher’s concerns about the daughter’s recent behavior. Is the teacher overreacting to behavior that might be perfectly normal? Perhaps, but the mother hears only part of the conversation, too distracted by other things.
This forced chattiness stands in stark contrast to the mute, unsettling gaze of Carla, the organ collector, who quietly observes before taking action, whether repossessing organs that are being used “improperly” or, in some cases, walking away. Because she generally observes without speaking, we have no sense of how she views her job, the morals involved. These scenes are especially creepy, as Nick Rombes observes, because we never actually see Carla complete the act of harvesting an organ. We watch her meticulous preparation, and we even see her apply a bright blue goo to people’s chest and stomachs, but the act itself remains unseen, conjuring for us something that might be far more sinister than what we see on screen.
Like Nick, I appreciated the film’s textures, the ambient noises, such as the sounds of small children energetically drawing and coloring pictures, that gave the film a naturalistic film even in the midst of its sci-fi plot. At the same time, despite the naturalistic use of hand-held camera, a number of shots had a deliberate, sometimes stunning composition. While Canary will no doubt challenge many viewers, through its use of distancing techniques (including significant sequences that feature dialogue in untranslated Russian, German, and Vietnamese), it also asks compelling, engaging questions.