Over several minutes, we witness the gradually altered behaviours (unexpectedly subtle, as repeated viewings will confirm) of a fish as water is drained from its tank, to the point where death seems inevitable. It is speed that transforms what could otherwise have been an (unusually aggressive) environmentalist admonition into a sequence that uncovers new complexities within the already somewhat jaded certainties of environmental auto-destruction. In its meticulously-paced manipulation of empathic horror, Nemo constitutes an extended psychological suspense sequence, an involving piece of cruel theatre. Although, as they say in the movies, ‘no animal was harmed during the making of this film’, it is Mackenzie’s timing that ensures that the work administers repeated, piquant jolts both to our culturally-conditioned squeamishness and to our fascination with such a grim spectacle. We can’t (not) watch – all the more so if, as is inevitable, the narrative reads as a forewarning to our own doomed species.
Nemo was originally shown as an installation of two separate sequences: along with the fish, a second projection comprises a slow pan around the interior of an evacuated swimming-pool, its flaking aqua-blue paintwork forming a parched landscape parodying former glories: the end of luxury and the revenge of the elements. Recalling above all J.G.Ballard’s post-apocalyptic science-fictional scenarios, of which the abandoned pool is a favoured emblem, the juxtaposition recalls the Ballardian thesis (the most rigorous statement of which can be found in the astonishingly-prescient fable of environmental catastrophe, 1962’s The Drowned World) according to which the human being is a somatic archive, with previous stages of organic life liable to be reactivated under the influence of climatic change. Nemo, however, inverts this ‘neuronics’, replacing reversion with a sequence of systematic and catastrophic maladaption under environmental pressure. The distinct stages through which we watch our aquatic friend suffer irresistibly invite identification: Blissful unawareness; brief, concerned forays to the surface, as if unable to resist a taste of the impending doom; then an industrious but ineffectual agitation, shading into panic; and finally the torturous finale (fading out just in time, but not before the viewer too has suffered) where the entire physiognomy and somatic function of the creature are rendered dysfunctional, its very physical axis is upset and it is immobilised, its final, futile moments attesting only to the tragicomic optimism of organic life.
Traversing this series of thresholds, which pitilessly communicate their building tension to the viewer, certainly emphasises the creature’s indissoluble bond with their environment. But it does so entirely without sentimentality or romanticism, in the manner of a laboratory experiment: indexing a quantitative environmental metric to a series of shifts in the psychic life of the inhabitant, as exhibited directly in its behaviour. Might we similarly diagnose human culture with an eye to how, beyond their surface significance, their apparent complexities and subtleties, its artifacts are ultimately symptoms of terrestrial-scale physical processes just as implacable, and just as brutal in their consequences? Then we would have to ask the Ballardian question: what will culture look like as the evacuation speeds up, as we find ourselves out of water…something like this, perhaps?