If you’re having a hard time digesting Teknolust, possibly because it lacks convincing acting, a plot, or even anything but a hint of themes, then writer-director Lynn Hershman-Leeson has done her job. A radical feminist filmmaker, Herman-Leeson’s film recalls the best and the worst hallmarks of Alex Cox’s anarchic style of irruptive cinema. Hershman-Leeson isn’t necessarily trying to piss off her viewers, but she is trying to make them watch her collection of themes and interests through an aesthetic lens that has more in common with performance art than cinema. In other words, she’s trying to please herself first and everyone else second.
Eight years after it was originally produced, Teknolust is still a baffling and tantalizing collection of ideas. It’s like a long inside joke Hershman-Leeson is telling herself that you just happen to overhear. You feel like you’re eaves-dropping because you haven’t either been expressly forbidden or invited to process what you’re looking at and listening to. When you laugh at Teknolust’s quirky sense of humor, you may think you’re laughing with Hershman-Leeson, but you’re really not.
The product of a militant feminist with a perverse and intriguing sense of humor, Teknolust is a rather funny film, but not in any traditional sense of the word “funny.” Tilda Swinton stars as Dr. Rosetta Stone, a nebbish scientist working to create a new form of techno-organic cloning. She uses her own DNA to create three clones: Marinne, Olive, and Ruby (all Swinton). Each clone wears color-coordinated wardrobes to match their names and live in a virtual space that Stone monitors on the glass door of her microwave. All three clones suffer from “low levels of spermatozoa,” a condition whose symptoms include “irritability and loss of consciousness.” Ruby, the most outgoing of the trio, decides to remedy that situation by seducing men using lines of dialogue stone feeds her from films like The Last Time I Saw Paris and The Man with the Golden Arm. After Ruby beds a man, any man really, even a particularly hapless sperm factory played by Haiku Tunnel’s Josh Kornbluth, Ruby takes her target’s spooge, stored in a used condom, then she boils the man goo in water and serves it in tea. There’s no rhyme or reason to the film beyond that jumble of a plot. Either you can take it on those terms or you’re a patriarchal square enforcing hegemony with your male gaze.
As someone teetering on the fence between enjoying and being put off by Hershman-Leeson’s happily alienating sensibility, I’m still trying to figure out what that makes me. I can appreciate that the clones’ drive to become fully fledged personalities is sort of present in the film: One likes to shop, one wants companionship, and one is a moderate in-between version of the other two girls. And there’s something inherently funny, in a conceptually cruel way, about watching a film about using other people to create your identity created by an artist who doesn’t give a fuck about substantively developing anything she doesn’t want to. But really, there’s something to be said about a film that doesn’t just rattle off a series of ideas ranging from stem cell research to post-femininity as self-othering (to seem more acceptably feminine, Stone’s clones effectively have to act more robotic), and then laughs at them. I was laughing with Hershman-Leeson until I realized I wasn’t.
Microcinema International's new release of Teknolust does nothing to clean up the picture quality of THINKFilm's original 2004 DVD release. There's a distracting thin green line atop and on the bottom of the film's letterbox framing, and the picture quality is frequently fuzzy and slightly out of focus. The film's audio is likewise not as sharp as it should be: The soundtracks containing the film's dialogue and its music are not very well distinguished, blending together to form an indistinct, lusterless single soundtrack.
Apart from a hilariously disjointed trailer for Teknolust, which tries vainly to sell the film as a sexy indie thriller, there are only two supplements to Microcinema's release, but both are surprisingly engaging. "DiNA" is a five-minute look at an art installation Lynn Hershman-Leeson created in 2006. The piece is basically a thinking computer whose human face is composed of video footage of Tilda Swinton's head. It's an artsy update of the Turing Test, a series of questions whose answers were meant to help a layman guess whether or not the person answering the questions was a human or a computer. Hershman-Leeson's experiment is redundant, but it's a welcome reminder that she's genuinely interested in the subject of how computers inform our powers of association, even if she doesn't show it in Teknolust.
The other special feature on the disc is an informative half-hour Q&A session hosted by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston that both Hershman-Leeson and Swinton participated in last year—though Microcinema only advertises the interview on the DVD's menu as a "Q&A with Tilda." Moderator Patricia Zimmermann is clearly very excited about the film and that passion puts both of her subjects at ease. Zimmermann also fearlessly puts her finger on a lot of the things that are both exasperating and fascinating about Teknolust: She describes Hershman-Leeson's deliberately chaotic sensibility as a means of resisting "patriarchal" modes of storytelling associated by feminists with Hollywood. The director just smiles a little when Zimmermann says this, but it's clear that both she and Swinton agree with that pointed assessment and are fairly forthcoming in their ideas on what they created. Swinton's description of the film as being guided by "arrhythmia" is dead-on and her self-deprecating assessment of how she and Hershaman-Leeson "admitted to ourselves that we were only half-baking [our ideas]" is also very funny because that's exactly what one can't help but think after watching the film.
Tweaking the nose of hegemony is sometimes funny; ditto for Teknolust.