Film, Films, Media, Reviews

A Non-Conscious Experience (Swiss Army Man)

This brief post focuses on Eric Shouse’s definition of affect and how it differs from feeling and emotion. I’m going to filter his explanation through one of the most weird and wonderful films to come out in 2016, Swiss Army Man. The absurdity of a narrative that follows a suicidal man teaching a dead man what it means to be alive is presented to us through an almost poetic lesson on feeling, emotion and affect – which happens to also be the title of Eric Shouse’s essay.

Swiss Army Man is a film about a severely lonely man named Hank who is deserted on an island. Upon trying to kill himself, Hank discovered a dead body that has washed up on the shore. He discovers that this corpse is capable of many weird and wonderful things and becomes convinced that he is bringing it back to life.

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The narrative of Swiss Army Man does not fit the conventional style of film narrative. It adheres to the convention of a character trying to reach a goal but other than that I can only describe it as a beautifully odd piece of art. Manny the corpse converses with Hank on matters of human life and provides Hank with the motivation to live on.

The corpse character, played by Daniel Radcliffe, is infused with absurd elements such as frequent loud farts that propel them across the ocean and through the sky; drinking water that gushes from his mouth when prompted; sparks from his hands that can ignite flames; and an erection that serves as a compass which leads them to civilization. The film is filled with strangely heart-warming dialogue and moments of spontaneous outbursts of music. All of these out-of-the-ordinary story elements often have nothing to do with the narrative of the film but they make it an unforgettable experience because of the impact that they have. The film is 2 hours of utter disbelief, consistent surprise and pure joy. It brings upon a myriad of feelings and emotions along with other ways in which it affects its audience that there are just no words for.

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Manny the corpse starts to have feelings that he does not know how to express and Hank starts to teach him how to identify those feelings and express them through emotion. Manny asks questions like “What is your face doing? Why are your eyes so big?” to which Hank replies “This is what fear looks like, Manny.” Along with other facial expressions that he teaches Manny that he can use to read and/or project different feelings.

Manny begins to get affected by external elements in his surroundings. These take some delicacy to nurture because unlike feelings which Hank can identify for him by name and check them against his own experience, or emotion, which many can teach him how to project and read, he cannot prepare Manny for exactly how things will affect him. When Manny sees a picture of a half-naked girl and gets an erection, Hank can only tell him that his body just reacts that way. And when that same picture no longer gives him an erection Hank can only say that the picture has lost its effect. Affects, as described by Silvan Tompkins in Exploring Affect, “are aroused easily by factors over which the individual has little control.” (Tompkins, 1995)

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Just as we, the audience, can speak of the many moments the film made us feel happy, sad etc. The strength of the film lies in the way it affects us. The effects it has which we cannot accurately predetermine or control.


Referenced readings:

Shouse, E. (2005) “Feeling, Emotion, Affect,” M/C Journal, 8(6). Retrieved 16 Nov. 2016 from>.

Tompkins, S. S. (1995) “Exploring Affect: The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tompkins. Ed. Virginia E. New York: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Referenced films:

Kwan, D., Scheinert, D. (2016) Swiss Army Man. Tadmor, USA

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