Make the Medicine Go Down:
Steven Matheson's Apple Grown in a Wind Tunnel

Jim Supanick

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

In Steven Matheson's Apple Grown in Wind Tunnel, the unseen protagonists make do with what's immediately at hand, and the video deploys means that are as bare as those of its characters. It follows the trail blazed by such films as Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), fictions superimposed on real locations, without the aid of craft service trailers or pesky production assistants redirecting street traffic. This approach serves the video well, as the resourcefulness of its production methods is in direct correlation with its characters, who desperately navigate a terrain of tailing ponds and truck stop tabletops with the intent to invent medicine anew.

The opening shot displays the apple referred to in the title—oddly elongated, but bitten nonetheless. Though not a narrative element per se, it measures a degree of degradation far beyond the Fall. Typifying what remains of a once-ideal Eden now distorted beyond recognition, at the same time it offers an odd sense of hope, foreshadowing the adaptive mechanisms the characters will later deploy.

The voiceover begins in a future tense, describing events that will take place rather than ones that have. A shortwave radio broadcast is heard in which an anonymous woman lists a series of numbers and ingredients that seem at first benign, then clearly less so. Their significance, though, is beyond question, and the messenger, something of an oracle. These are recipes for experimental cures, fashioned from toxic industrial by-products— "...small doses of pesticides, effluents from titanium refining processes..."— gathered and combined to combat maladies of a severity we can only surmise.

Our narrator speaks of decades, but the time frame is left deliberately vague; he roams the radio spectrum in the hope of once more crossing paths with these fugitive broadcasts. Soon we learn he's not alone: a loose-knit confederacy of silent sufferers has been listening as well. Nothing-left-to-lose attitudes prompt homespun variations; recipes are later swapped amongst neighbors. Their movement becomes a groundswell; before long, recipe books circulate in samizdat form.

Desperation is defined obliquely, by the very toxicity of the substances they ingest. It's a blind faith of sorts, and not unrelated to what the viewer is asked to swallow: images which prove to be less than solid evidence to support the words that are put before us. Instead of serving an illustrative, and thus subservient, role, they weave an allusive counterpoint from a string of poetic tropes at once fluid and suggestive. A shortwave radio doubles as a Geiger counter; the inverted reflection of power lines as seen in a puddle suggests both the unstable signal of the shortwave broadcasts and the polluted waters from which the hoped for cures are drawn. Words are never seen leaving anyone's lips; disembodied voices carry an authority vested in them by the viewer.

Throughout, the soundtrack drifts between the voice of the mystery woman and that of the narrator, dovetailing with a deft economy that assigns each their turn in shouldering the burden of narrative. It calls to mind those heady manifestoes of Pudovkin, Cavalcanti, and Rene Clair, written in reaction to the unimaginative uses of sound that followed the advent of the talking cinema, and in which they advocated speech and other sounds as floating free, unmoored from the image.

To Matheson's credit, it not only goes down surprisingly smooth, but it also resonates as a Swiftian perspective to the direction in which our health care system is headed. Later, when their ad-hoc cures prove successful, the authorities feel it necessary to intervene: first, through the efforts of law enforcement, and following that, when legislators step in to protect drug manufacturers' proprietary interests.

Matheson's video stands solidly alongside other independent efforts of recent years, namely Erik Saks' Forevermore: Diary of a Leach Lord (an acknowledged inspiration for Matheson), and Todd Haynes' Safe; both haunting portrayals of our ravaged environment and, along with that, its psychic cost. It invites comparison, too, with Chris Marker's 1962 classic La Jetee, for a number of shared qualities that are immediately evident: the succession of black and white images in each, essentially static when seen alone (and in the case of Marker's film, almost entirely so), but with an effect that is anything but; a relationship between word and image that's both imaginative and elastic, maintaining a sense of rightness throughout while avoiding the merely descriptive; a sophisticated use of voiceover—dominant, though never overbearing—so absorbing in their power that they evoke stories told 'round a campfire (and without it, the temporal conundrums in each are simply unimaginable.)

Yet despite these shared qualities, a closer look reveals crucial differences that illuminate both the works themselves and their respective historical moments. As Catherine Lupton has recently written,1 Marker's film was more than some mere flight of fancy, as it distilled some of the most pressing anxieties felt at that time. Mounting Cold War tensions (culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis later that year), the upheaval wrought by an urban redevelopment program of unprecedented scale across greater Paris, and the revelations of torture used by the French military in the Algerian War, are all reconstituted in La Jetee.

Marker's sophistication, both artistic and political, enabled a reimagining of these conditions as a post-nuclear underground set in the not-too-distant future. It is there that a shadowy cadre dressed in lab coats will regard one man's treasured memory (and yes, the man it belongs to) as a small sacrifice to be given in the name of "the greater good."

Matheson, by contrast, conjures a state where even the pretense of paternalistic intent has been abandoned long ago, its citizens left to forage for what once was freely available. The spectre of disease is treated as a given, and yet this is more than just a paranoid fantasy. One can't help but see real-life parallels with the pharmaceutical industry's resistance to generic drugs and low-cost AIDS treatment, or the biopiracy battles now being fought in the Amazon Basin. The effectiveness of these basement concoctions, then, is ultimately beside the point. When viewed through our present-day safety net left torn and tattered, Matheson leaves us with an image whose outlandishness is surpassed only by its sorry familiarity.


Apple Grown in Wind Tunnel is distributed by Video Data Bank.


1.^ Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, Reaktion Books, 2005, pp. 88-89. Also, see: Lee Hilliker, "The History of the Future in Paris: Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960's," Film Criticism, XXIV/3 (Spring 2000), pp. 1-22.