A Cinema Without Organs: A Roundtable on Alejandro Adams' "Canary"

Four critics discuss a seminal work of recent American independent filmmaking.
Dave McDougall

If you've heard anything about Alejandro Adams' film Canary, it's probably that it's an oblique sci-fi film, or that it has something to do with organ harvesting. These are true, sort of, but these elements are to some degree just the packaging that Adams uses to smuggle an entirely different film, about the smallness of people's worlds. That smallness is double-edged—beautiful in our personal moments, but myopic with respect to the larger world. Canary is closely observed on a human scale; in the aggregate, these human encounters create a world where people are pushed and pulled by forces beyond their control, but also where people are tiny pieces of the larger puzzle that creates these forces.

Plot details are maybe best left unmentioned here—in part because Adams' conception of 'plot' eschews narrative drive in favor of accumulation of slowly revealed information (when it's revealed at all). Our window into this is a mute recurring character—she doesn't really qualify as a protagonist—who's been distilled down to the role of the absolute outsider, not even seen by the characters around her. Adams is taking what seems like a straightforward, sci-fi premise and turning it inside out, stripping away what Hollywood thinks are the pleasures of narrative to arrive at a deeper picture of the thing being examined. It's a Cubist film in this way—showing all sides of an object, at different times but all at once. Canary's mix of conspiracy-theory pervasiveness and humanist attention to detail would make it a major achievement if it did nothing but balance these two impulses; instead it creates a world that mirrors our own and examines the ways people make and live in that world. Canary creates a dystopia that's dystopic precisely because it looks exactly like the world we live in.


In preparation for its upcoming screening at Rooftop Films, The Auteurs organized a roundtable conversation via email on Canary, which is printed below. Participants were: Dave McDougallCraig KellerMichael SicinskiIgnatiy Vishnevetsky.


Canary plays at Rooftop Films in Brooklyn, New York on Friday, August 7 at The Old American Can Factory. More information and tickets available here


DAVE MCDOUGALL:  OK, let's talk about Canary.

I'll start with an assertion: modern life consists mainly of passive participation in a series of systems that smooth the gap between production and consumption (and encourage these two related processes as our dominant modes of [in]action). These systems are almost invisible—they structure modern life rather than appear in it. 

This is probably the wrong way to lead off a roundtable, not just because it skips the film's specificity but also because it's a vague statement even polemically/politically, one that at best hints at a truth rather than captures it. But the dilemma we have here in writing about Canary seems related to the one that Adams had in constructing it—how to talk about something diffuse, spectral, invisible while looking right at it

Canary's solution—and, I hope, ours—is to look right at the things that evade the point: examples of complicated human lives undisturbed by the world in which they live—but as an outsider, capable of both judgment and longing. 

I'd like to talk about the film's opposition of the pathos of individuals against the bathos of the corporation, but not as much as I'd like to talk about the pure, unpathetic examples of humans acting out the details of their everyday lives inside a system whose rules at first glance don't affect them—a family arguing in (unsubtitled) Russian about cleaning the house; a young mother negotiating feeding her child while sharing lunch with a friend; an office full of flirting and conversations about lunch menus. A good place to start?

CRAIG KELLER: With all due respect, reading what Dave wrote made my mind wander toward an image of Optimus Prime hunkered over a ditch, trying to pass a lawnmower. It's not that I necessarily disagree with everything he's said, but it makes the film sound so clinical. And it's only literally clinical—organ-harvesting is delicate business, especially when you have no idea you're seven seconds away from losing your spleen.

If we're kicking this thing off, let's let people know why they should keep reading and then why they should go and see this movie (I'd offer up a pull-quote of "the best American film of the year") and repeat, tagline-style: "Canary—You Are Seven Seconds Away from Losing Your Spleen." I don't think anyone wants to see a movie about "the pathos of individuals" vs. "the bathos of the corporation"—or maybe they do, as I'm not sure what that last part even means. What the public wants to see is a sci-fi actioner that will make their butts gulp. And that is exactly what Canary is.

To the degree that it isn't at all. ‘Organ-harvesting’ in Canary is mostly a plot-sized/-shaped MacGuffin. I recall an interview I saw recently with Paul Meurisse about his role in Le Deuxième souffle, where he said: "I play a police commissioner, but I could just as well be playing a peanut vendor." The pleasures of Adams' film lie in the episodic blocks, which the ‘organ-harvester’ is (not-so simply) there to facilitate. For both Adams and the audience, the episodes allow a rediscovery of the pleasures of play, the same type we found in early cinema. Take the opening scene, for example. We can imagine Adams saying: "Okay, you'll all be speaking Russian, you're gonna be arguing with him, and he'll be at the piano, and at one point we'll see these two pretty girls dressed in nice colors in a room. The cameras will be here and here. Talk and work something out together, let me know a little, or whatever, and we'll roll and see what happens." Over and over again, with new scenarios, all presented in quotes as "the moment of organ-harvest-victimhood!" The scenes in the van with the girl and her victims (the ‘after’ to the episodes' ‘before’) are like the intertitles in a silent film, these moments of elision, that Nosferatu-like contain this liminal, vampiric quality. But no bite marks; something closer to registration marks on a print proof, maybe. It's an exciting and an adventurous way to make a film. If you're brilliant. Adams, thankfully, has that quality.

MICHAEL SICINSKI: I'm glad I had the luxury of holding back and letting you two gentlemen kick off the discourse, because now I have quite a lot of material around which to shape my own somewhat amorphous response to Adams' film. And, wouldn't you know, I'm cheating just a bit, because in a manner of speaking, my own discourse will, through Keller and McDougall's initiative and my own lassitude, get to function like that goopy blue jelly in Canary, molding itself to whatever organ it finds itself next to, evolving into a facsimile of ‘the thing’ simply by proximity, and by a lack of its own fundamental integrity.

But of course, the emptiness of firm identity, or a highly developed capacity for generating a simulacrum of the logic of the structures around you—the power to adapt—is a skill in itself, and certainly a vital one for living in the putrid, living-dead society of late capital that Dave described in his opening salvo. Craig is correct to link this problem, in a formal manner, to Hitchcock's concept of the MacGuffin, which once was a nifty narrative device safely cordoned off within the world of fiction (remember that world?) but is now a frighteningly generalizable political category. (To take only the most obvious recent example—and indeed, forgive my painful obviousness—what were Saddam Hussein and the WMDs if not MacGuffins of global magnitude?) 

Canary is a tough sell precisely because it "holds up a mirror to our age" [PULLQUOTE!], but not in the stupid, culturally affirmative manner of political fictions like, say, Charlie Wilson' War or Traffic or Frost/Nixon or any number of other worthless entertainments. Canary is a formal mirror. It ‘is’ a film about organ redistribution, but indeed, it could be a film about any number of other things. The core elements of Adams's film—its acute observational realism within highly specific milieus, its attention to the particulars of gesture and argot/idiolect within those milieus, and its organization of those ‘nuggets’ around an elliptical center which falls slowly into place gradually and trough repetition—do not require the organ-corporation plot per se in order to function on a formal level.

And yet, in Canary Adams has in fact produced a film that is absolutely about organs, replacement, the swapping of one vital thing for another. In this MacGuffinized universe, Adams has forged a formal technique that could, in its most fundamental elements, go on forever (there are millions of little worlds to visit), structure itself around anything (a forgery ring, the production of an animated kids' show, the detonation of a bomb, whatever). In my original review, I referred to Adams' "undifferentiated cinematic tissue," and I stand by this on further examination. Formally, Canary is held together, if not largely comprised, of that blue jelly. And yet it holds. This, I think, tells us a lot not only about the ‘right way’ to do an organ transplant movie (taking its meaning down to the bones, as it were), but also about a mode of storytelling adequate to that crisis-world Dave described. Adams has given us a cinema without organs.

KELLER: The organs in Canary are the latest/greatest incarnation of the now-hoary critical chestnut “the structuring absence." As MacGuffins, they're metaphor; as metaphor, they are constructs that nevertheless return us back to ‘the real’—that is, to consideration of their place in the real-fiction of the film. Let me unpack this: no matter how much the organs function as 'catalysts' for the film-action, there's dialogue that forces us to ponder the physiological or bio-technical mechanics of the phenomenon at the core of Canary Industries' business—organ-removal—and this places us 'segmentally' (to use a term from the film) back in the realm of traditional fiction, having to suspend disbelief and engage on a story-level with its ideas.

The premise, as far as I follow it, goes something like:

-Individuals volunteer to become living organ-farms for Canary Industries. (And/or, in the case of children, their parents volunteer them.) (And there's some ambiguity as to whether 100% of the cases constitute 'volunteers.')

-Should the host-body fail to adhere to strict physical and dietary guidelines, the organs might be 'repossessed' at some unspecified time by the white-jumpsuited Canary Reaper. The idea being, the organs can be more successfully cultivated in another host.

-Sub-hypothesis: The organs may be removed apropos of nothing having to do with ill care.

-The Canary Reaper replaces the organs in situ with a clumpy blue gel, brewed from a science that (ostensibly) allows it to replicate the function of the original organ.

How that can be is the part where suspension of disbelief enters. But the bizarre cycle continues as the implications of the blue-glop take us out of the World of Story and return us to the Symbolic Realm: we have to consider that the actual 'value' of an organ has been called into question by a science that has proven the organ's raison d'être to be essentially metaphysical, if not outright superfluous—as such, every organ has the value of the appendix (we can keep it or lose it) —the notion of every-organ-an-'appendix' instructs us to look outside the core text of the body, or the story, or the story of the body, however you want to put it, and thus beyond The Individual. Which is to say, that which makes us who we are. It's no surprise that the heart acts as a graphical locus in the film, and not much more — two arrows circle its edges like Ouroboros-in-pursuit — vectors caught in infinite loop — total solipsistic endgame.  Canary: Alejandro Adams' literal/metaphorical cri de coeur. If you needed any further proof that the movie's a cautionary tale, chant the title in litany.

Moral: Look outside thyself. In other words, do what the two girls in front of the TV seem incapable of doing — and, ironically, all the Canary Reaper seems capable of doing.

For what it's worth, I'm considering filming an unauthorized sequel, which will be titled BlackBerry.

MCDOUGALL: I like the idea that Adams' cinema could structure itself around anything, as his structural conceits are all about that around. His previous feature Around the Bay doesn't feature a bay in the same way that Canary lacks birds, but the titles help decode the films' agendas as much as any other piece of the films. The title Around the Bay describes seeing something from just outside the edges, but it's also specifically geographical (Adams lives in the San Francisco Bay Area). So the title is about ways of seeing, but it's also about the ways people live in this part of the world. Canary is also about ways of seeing, and outsidership, but also exploration. The question we should ask about the title is: which coal mine?

I'd also like to return to the tease I left at the end of my first piece, about the way we see everyday life in the film. It's not just at "the moment of organ-harvest-victimhood!" that we see people in their quotidian crises; it's throughout the film, from the perspectives of people coming up with marketing strategies for the company, or functionaries of medical offices, or TV producers finding ways to sell conspiracy stories. Canary isn't a film about organ harvesting; it's a film about the way organ harvesting works as a system. We observe people in their everyday lives, becoming complicit in some piece of a larger puzzle of control. There's no person in charge of this conspiracy, because the corporation is all organs but no body (and like the frail human organ recipients, the corporation is vampiric—it needs a constant stream of organs to survive). Corporate entities, once created, have an agency all their own; they contract people to execute their tasks but the decisions are made by the corporate entity itself. Because Adams show us these people working as people actually work—full of interpersonal tensions, flirtations, and other various distractions of being a physical body with organs (eating, etc), we get a double vision of their lives—their everyday human existence and their roles as pieces of a larger machinery. Craig's mention of vampires is accurate here—this undead corporation actually does consume human tissue. 

Canary is a film about people within systems, and how people navigate their participation in evil through a combination of ignorance and distractions of everyday life. Jean Renoir's films frequently offer a not-quite-lost alternative to the corruptions of the modern world, and this escape is tied up with human connection. Canary ends on a note that's hopeful in a human way, but this human hopefulness is inextricably tied to indoctrination's continued march forward. As an analysis of our present era, it doesn't come more incisive or apt.

KELLER: After reading Dave’s most recent email, it seems we are both gravitating (or ‘alighting,’ if that’s allowed) on some the same concerns of the movie.  I myself don’t see Canary as a systems-film per se, nor as a film-equivalent of, I guess, a DeLillo or Pynchon novel.  As soon as the word “conspiracy” gets introduced, it seems to arrive side-by-side with an impulse to place responsibility for any dehumanized gestures exclusively in the hands of some shadow faction.

Actually, or at least as far as I can tell, the genesis of ‘systems’ and ‘power-structures’ suggests a scenario much more ambiguously avian-'n-egg. And I think Adams is tuned into this ambiguity precisely by virtue of his all-consuming concern with sociology. Domestic arrangements, conference rooms, fluorescent-drowned reception areas—these are open-source templates made disorienting, charged, or oppressive by the humans that fill them. And humans are 'viral' by nature, parroting 'memes,' trying on and discarding at will the behavioral archetypes they've observed in other humans. Excuse the heavy thematic lean, but more often than not the way a bond with one or more people out 'in the real-world' forms (and this action represents the geneses of 'systems' or other open-structures-that-go-closed—such as the front-room of the Canary Industries branch-office), is through these little ‘tweets’ of small-talk and endless palaver about absolutely nothing in particular, things that exist to keep the moment itself going, pure social lubricant, perpetual-motion, talk for the sake of talk. So, okay, humans are viral and social (two sides of the same petri), but I would insist these compulsions are born from fear as much as from concern or authentic interest in those around us—'selflessness' redefined as the void—anxiety of being alone at day's-end.

Tag Gallagher calls the interaction between individuals in John Ford's films "relaxed relating." There's nothing of the sort going on in the Canary office. But it would be a mistake to blame-it-on-the-caffeine, just because the guy in the rubber-cap rants it so at the doc-crew's camera during the scene directly preceding—even though one of the clinic associates, mere minutes after, shouts at the designated gofer to make hers a double-soy-latte. No, the buzz at the clinic is delivered in the following proportions: one part office-buddy'ship; six parts the arrivals of the jokester in the Santa Hat ("I'll come down your chimney"); six parts hormones.

IGNATIY VISHNEVETSKY: ‘Mumblecore’ is a taboo word in this conversation. It's the term that only an idiot would use in relation to this movie. I hope you don't mind, therefore, if I will be that idiot.

Mumblecore is a tendency more than a movement. At its center is a particular dream, which my ‘colleague’ (or, more accurately, ‘co-conspirator’) Ben Sachs summed up as "the evasion of tone." The evasion of tone, "for better or worse," I'll add. This is also in some ways the dream of digital communication—of blogging, messaging, and even this exchange. It's the desire to talk, but not make statements. On the one hand, it frees us from a certain responsibility or finesse, and on the other hand, there is a communal aspect to it: we make willfully incomplete statements in the hope that someone else will complete them. This is where a lot of the evasive style of blog-writing comes from. Having seen the film, and read quite a bit of Adams' writings, I think he's very good at this. He's shrewd. There is nothing wrong with evasion: it's probably the single most effective technique in fostering ideas on the Internet. 

Canary is a deeply evasive film, and that's precisely why I think it's interesting. It's mostly a sort of workplace comedy with a bit of Good Night and Good Luck. intrigue mixed with a horror film about a single mother. Not bad, some good shots of hands, a good bit of improvised satire in the third scene, the scenes with the reporters and the kids are all interesting. It's also a film that believes itself to be without tone, which of course isn't true, since everything has tone and style. 

My question is whether we'd be having this discussion right now if it was a different film, maybe only 30 minutes long, informed by the same ideas but unwilling to play the same game—whether you'd have had the same reactions you do now, felt the need to examine the same aspects. The movie is not elliptical—there is a sort of hardness to the ellipsis. It's an absence, and absences are always felt. No, what I'm wondering is whether what makes Canary is its evasion, and the fact that we're willing to chase after it wherever it might go?

SICINSKI: Okay, this is all getting very weird. But naturally that's highly productive. At least I think so.

Ignatiy, I follow your line of thinking up to a certain point. I guess I would never describe Canary as a film that purported to have no style, or that operated within a self-effacing, passive-aggressive stylistic register. That's mumblecore all over. Its finest practitioner, Andrew Bujalski, has finally figured out how to stand outside of passive-aggression and really look at it, with Beeswax. Before, his films were all about opening the mouth, letting a statement waft out, and then swallowing it down again, as if making a simple declarative utterance was too much of a commitment to something, to anything.

I don't see Canary operating in that register at all. Adams the filmmaker must be separated from Adams the Tireless Internet Self-Promoter. The stylistics of the film are highly deliberate in that they entail the insertion of a foreign object (Carla Pauli's silent agent) into seemingly naturalistic / sociological settings, thereby (among other things) undermining their ostensible fly-on-the-wall truth value. (And this is just the wedge that opens up fissures all through the film, the more you look at it. There are subtle ‘actorly’ gestures that…I don't want to say "undermine," but maybe "artificialize" otherwise realistic sequences, like the two women watching TV, or the parent / teacher argument.) Again, Adams' form is a function of the dominant theme. All of these settings that are not about organ harvesting per se (the journalists, the front office, the restaurant, young lovers on a bench, etc) coax us into accepting their implicit human organicity, their functional wholeness. (Their non-"system"-aticity.) But everything has a system underlying it, the human body most obviously, and like those scenes as Adams stages them, the question becomes whether or not the underlying apparatus (in the form of Pauli) will or will not assert itself.

You don't have to be a Pynchonian/Rivette-ish conspiracy thinker to understand the world as a set of systems, by the way. Yes, most social structures are the product of quelling anxiety and fear but this too has its basis in codes and laws. If Foucault makes us uncomfortable we can go back to Durkheim for that one.

Anyway, I'll shut up because I feel like I'm just saying the same thing over and over:  this is a film about missing parts, and it is constructed with parts missing. The film and the bodies work even though the parts are not there. The "organic" is finished.

VISHNEVETSKY: Good point. There's the ‘real’ Adams (as real as a movie, anyway) and the Adams constructed by Adams in the last few months. But both seem to come out of a desire to interact with a particular quality. A certain smallness. The ideas and the images are small enough that others can build something bigger than them. That is, if we previously thought of cinema as ‘bigger than life,’ I think Adams belongs to a group of filmmakers (which includes people from many countries, and to a certain degree the aforementioned mumblers) that is trying to construct a cinema that's ‘smaller than life.’  And that's ultimately what makes the film not paranoid.

KELLER: A few fragmentary notes in close:

— Canary is a film that shows work. Not the kind Marxists tend to be most sexually stimulated by, since it mainly involves pens and computers manipulated by members of the middle-class, but work nonetheless.

— The term ‘mumblecore’ has all the utility, and capacity, of a mass grave. Classic use of negative space.

— Negative capability and post-Modernist Modernism. <=> Canary.

— Me = less interested in the world as a set of systems than talking about the sexual dynamics of the office, or dissecting the how/why of the give-and-take between the two girls on the couch. I'm to blame for the slant, and this conversation would have seen me shifting out of theoretical constructs into actual dramatic content, if only there were more time. But I hope we can pick this up again in a second part and explore the film at its deeper, diegetic level. (The term "diegetic" <=> diuretic.)

— "Adams the Tireless Internet Self-Promoter" = practically irrelevant to any discussion about the film whatsoever. The picture speaks for itself and therein the auteur maintains his silence. Fritz Lang spoke, Alfred Hitchcock spoke. "I was attempting to show..." Eugène Green has much to say. Stanley Kubrick limited his speech. If Adams is a tireless self-promoter, all the better — for once we get to read press by someone uninterested in presenting the vaguest generalities about why-they-do-what-they-do, and who happens also to be capable of formulating then verbalizing a stand-alone thought. He has artistic pretensions? Good. (And thank Christ: he's not Andrew Repasky fucking McElhinney.) In the mid-'60s, Jean-Luc Godard said of Jerry Lewis that he was (something to the effect of) the only filmmaker in Hollywood who has any courage and that, what's more, he knows it. Within three years, Adams has finished two films, with three more in the can. I'm sure they will be very beautiful. Let's see where this goes.

VISHNEVETSKY: Let me then clarify my idiocy a little: as I'm participating in this discussion, I obviously find Canary interesting enough to talk about and good enough that I think people should go out and see it. The word has a negative connotation, but we've already established that we're on the positive here, so I think that frees us up to use whatever language might seem appropriate or might bring up an issue. In this case, it wasn't so much to say "Canary is somehow mumblecore," as to say "these two very different things come from the same tendencies, which we tend to think of as a negative but aren't negative at all and it's great to see someone actively working with these aspects."

SICINSKI: Indeed, much like Canary itself, we are starting to circle around our own edges a bit, so it is time for some closing remarks.

Today I finally had the chance to view Adams's first film, Around The Bay, which I greatly admired and which helped clarify a number of things about Canary and Adams's filmic thinking in general (although the two films are quite distinct). The earlier film has at its center a deeply opaque middle-aged man named Wyatt (exquisitely played by Steve Voldseth) whose sudden need to father his five-year-old son results in his reestablishing contact with the adult daughter from whom he has been estranged for ten years. 

The raw material, which Adams conducts as something of a Kammerspiel, could not be further removed from the centrifugal approach of Canary. But Adams locates a formal dominant, in this case a jarring, gently expressionistic use of contrapuntal sound that becomes more and more prevalent as the dormant emotional life of this family emerges. Entire scenes of dialogue play over the actors looking at one another "silently" on the image track. The results are intriguing, because the dislocations are not temporally or spatially divergent enough to spin out into abstraction à la Resnais. But ATB certainly gives the unnerving feeling throughout that everyone's awareness, Wyatt's especially, is divided against itself at every moment, thinking ahead or darting back. It's a film about, among other things, avoiding the present.

So in this regard, Canary began to take on a new set of terms for me, when played against the earlier film's formal approach. Adams is clearly commanding our attention because, unlike most independent narrative filmmakers working in the U.S., he is sculpting with the raw materials of the medium: sound, image, and time. Canary presents a "future" problem (or one that is traditionally presented as such, that bears the hallmarks of dystopian sci-fi) as a set of cinematic presents, ones that occasionally progress, such as the throughline of the obviously-distracted little girl afraid for her own bodily safety, but most of which appear as fully-formed immediacies which Pauli's agent, to some extent, curtails. In a narrative way, she is there to end this story called life, with its borrowed time and breached contracts (although—spoiler—she is most likely thwarting the repo system). But formally, she hovers, leaving a question as to whether she even has the diegetic power to register within the scene, to halt these ‘nows.’

As for whether Adams's presence on the Internet and the personality he has developed there is relevant, I think I may have misspoke. It's not that he's some sort of huckster. (Far from it; most of the time he's online debating someone else's films.) But there may come a time when we look back at Canary as a film whose reputation was built, in part, because of the specific time-based interactive spread of the web (especially Twitter), and that is not incidental. The film stands on its own merits wherever it goes. Adams's talent is undeniable. And we may also be observing a small change in the way talented, independent artists get their work out into the world. What has happened with Canary, which is only partly the result of the film festival circuit, is worth ten thousand Hulus.

MCDOUGALL: Perhaps the quality I admire most in Canary is the way each person on screen is treated. While I've talked mostly about societal superstructure in this little roundtable, it's the humanism of the film that hits me hardest. When I compared Canary's worldview to that of Renoir, it's because Renoir shares Adams' incredible respect for the everyday lives of characters. What I love about Adams' approach is that he uses the stuff of normal life to create this empathy and understanding on our part. Even the tiny office politics and struggles of lunch-with-kids are given weight. It's a film about real human beings, and human being. Canary is a masterpiece, and not to be missed.

Thanks Michael, Craig, and Ignatiy for having this conversation. We've left unexplored depths, but perhaps we've scratched the surface.


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