Wachowskis: Bound (1996)
Bound, Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s debut film, is a work of stunning vision – a blueprint for their shared career and for the worlds of The Matrix in particular. The plot revolves around a single apartment block, where Corky (Gina Gershon) is renovating a unit next door to Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who lives with her Mafia boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). As soon as they lay eyes on each other, Corky and Violet have chemistry, so it’s only a matter of time before they embark on a relationship – first physical, then emotional, and finally criminal, which for Corky, an ex-con, is the most intimate connection of all. Learning that Caesar has to deliver a briefcase of money to the local Mafia boss, Violet convinces Corky to help her steal the cash and frame her husband, but things don’t go to plan, and complications quickly get out of hand.
However, the opening shot makes it clear that this is no ordinary crime thriller, as the Wachowskis pointedly discorrelate the camera from any conceivable human persective, tracking close-up, upside down, along the ceiling of a closet, before panning down at an odd angle to reveal Violet bound on the floor. The rest of the film builds up to this moment, and intensifies this striking visual register, situating us in a nascent version of the science fiction universe that blooms in The Matrix. Like so many indie films from the 90s, Bound also unfolds in a highly contained, almost theatrical space, but only for the sake of evoking a more emergent connectivity that is encapsulated in both the flow and alterity of that opening shot.
As a result, every shot and space in Bound feels contained and porous at the same time. The film is almost entirely composed of tight close-ups and sinuous tracking-shots, leaving very little room for a regular middle distance to emerge. The characters are always yearning for connection or too connected, as the camera shifts between granular details and giallo-esque acrobatics, pre-empting the flo-mo style of The Matrix trilogy. This splinters space into an unseen and emergent network that gradually revolves around Violet and Corky’s operations.
By the same token, the narrative is both contained and dispersed, claustrophobic and agoraphobic. The action hardly ever leaves the apartment building, and yet this building gradually becomes a hub of preternatural connectivity over the course of the film. The Wachowskis are fixated with the connective and communicative tissue of this building, adopting elaborate giallo-esque trajectories as they trace out its many fissures, pipes and wires. Beyond a certain point, all connective tissue is communicative tissue, including the passage of the camera. Watching the film is like witnessing the early internet snaking through, and colonising a building – or like experiencing it all from the perspective of an ethernet cable.
To emphasise that transition from physical to digital space, the Wachowskis intensify their close-ups as the film proceeds, lingering on the microscopic granularity of walls, floors and doors until they start to shimmer with a new porosity. Since Corky is renovating the apartment next to Violet’s, she’s always aware of the thresholds between them – “the walls here are terribly thin” – which become ever more permeable and provisional as the film proceeds. Since Corky’s apartment is dank, and Violet’s is bright, this often pre-empts the threshold between Neo’s cybergoth apartment, and the bright artificial vistas of the Matrix. Here, as there, a phone line forms the key point of contact – dialled from Violet’s apartment, but audible ringing next door, as if charged with the eerie connectivity of the dial-up internet.
In other words, Bound is a bit like watching the earliest emergence of the Matrix – those first critical moments when it manifested only as a disruption of traditional physical thresholds. Time and again, the two women hear echoes of a brutal violence unfolding in an elusive elsewhere, both remote and distant. In one of the eeriest scenes, Corky hears a series of muffled cries rising up from her toilet bowl, but reverberating too obliquely through the water and porcelain to be properly discernible. Many of the memorable moments in the film involve these muffled communiques from a futurity that hasn’t quite been formulated in the present.
This all contours what amounts to an intricate heist on Caesar’s money and apartment – or, rather, converges with it, since Corky and Violet seem to invade Caesar’s physical space at the precise moment that digital space takes over the film’s mise-en-scenes. That produces a remarkably mercurial world – objects enter the mise-en-scene and withdraw just as quickly, while this digital sphere produces violent ruptures but also visceral fantasy fulfilment, both of which are subsumed back into the hush as quickly as they emerge. Over time, the granular details give way to a new kind of fluidity that seems to be leaking through into the Wachowskis’ mise-en-scene – dripping from a bathroom tap, squelching up through a carpet.
After a while, it feels like the real antagonist is this new spatial scheme. Corky and Violet are only thwarting Caesar up to a point, and beyond that point the three of them are all trying to configure this emergent connectivity to their own end. In particular, they try to rewire physical space faster than this new digital presence, continually rearranging Caesar’s apartment to deal with each eventuality. When the cops arrive unexpectedly they have to position the furniture to clean up bloodstains; when the Mafia arrive later on, they have to explain why they’ve moved everything around. With each reconfiguration, they try to reclaim their hold over physical space, only to lose a bit each time, as the room becomes more virtual with each incarnation. By the end, it’s a race against time to escape this nascent digisphere.
From start to finish, this failed rewiring of the apartment strongly pre-empts the iconography of the Matrix as well. In the first major reconfiguration, Caesar takes all the dirty money out of the suitcase, cleans it, and hangs it on a series of clotheslines that criss-cross his living room. This sea of green vertical stripes pre-empts Neo’s initial glimpse of the Matrix, while the cash ends up in a space that recalls the purest vision of the Matrix we ever see – the blank white field that Morpheus shows to Neo after he unplugs him for the first time. By the end of the film, Corky has concealed this same cash in a barrel of white cement, next door, which spills across the floor in the climatic scene, before the Wachowskis fade to a field of brilliant white.
If Bound differs from The Matrix, it’s primarily by presenting a more emphatic and erotic account of what it means to be embodied at this transition between physical and digital space – that is, a more compelling vision of what we now know to be the Wachowskis’ journey towards coming out as trans, which starts with a vision of what it means to be a queer woman more generally. The Wachowskis consulted feminist writer and sex educator Susie Bright (who also appears briefly in a bar scene) to ensure that the sex scene between Corky and Violet was as accurate as possible, and the film presents a spectrum of queer womanhood, ranging from Corky’s butch haptics to Violet’s high-pitched, almost parodically femme voice.
Yet this lesbian visibility gradually gives way to a more emergent sense of what it means to be bound by the body. Corky and Violet’s plan starts with, and depends on, Caesar misgendering Corky, turning the subsequent heist into a line of flight from the idea of assigned gender to begin with. As Corky and Violet map their erotic rapport against the cascading physical and digital spaces of the film, it starts to loosen them from their own bodies too, producing a cruisey energy that suggests new possibility for bodily identification and augmentation. Their one sex scene occurs early on, and operates both as lesbian satiation and transitional perception, culminating with Violet exclaiming to Corky, in relief, that “I can see again.” From hereon out, sex is deflected into the cusp between physical and digital space.
Since the heist involves negotiating this cusp, it takes Violet and Corky from mere sexual satisfaction into a more emergent relationship with their bodies, and how their bodies relate to one another. Their femininity is both embodied and disembodied as the film reaches its climax, until their very relationship to their cisgender identities seems every bit as contingent as that of a transgender person’s orientation. Rather than present trans characters per se, or characters transitioning, the Wachowskis evoke a digital flux that denaturalises cisgender identification itself, revealing to Corky and Violet that their identification as women only happens to connect with the bodies they occupy. Bound thus takes two forms of connection most of us take for granted – to the bodies and spaces we occupy – and reminds us that these are only connections, capable of being elasticised, expanded and reimagined like any others.
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