As it stands, Suture’s bold attempt at cultural effacement never drives home any type of allegory, just as Clay is only a passenger in a narrative with barely any causal motivation. By his loss of memory and community, he is little more than a cipher, an invisible man without a past, unwittingly made to answer the question Who wouldn’t want to be white? as if it’s rhetorical.
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Suture (1993) is in the tradition of the B-movie that borders on arthouse. It is distinguished most by its curious casting, designed to gaslight the audience at the outset, to introduce something contentious and then expect us to pretend that it isn’t.
This first feature written and directed by autodidacts Scott McGehee and David Siegel presents itself as a psychological thriller and a neo-noir, with Greg Gardiner capably photographing it in wide-format black and white. Using the motif of the bandaged face to address issues of identity, Suture is like the immature kid brother of John Frankenheimer’s Seconds and Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another (both 1966), borrowing heavily the ideas and aesthetics used in both preceding films, those twin movies from different cultures, each simultaneously pushing the bandaged-face motif into explicitly existential territory with striking similarities.
“How is it that we know who we are?” a voice asks in the darkness, setting Suture’s ominous if painfully pretentious tone. A deadbolt lock is turned from the outside. The resident awakens and arms himself. The intruder sneaks upstairs. As the hyperbolic voice-over continues, explaining that when we lose our memory we lose our self-schemata, the rifle-clutching resident and the pistol-wielding intruder come face-to-face. A gunshot blast is heard and the screen washes in blinding white.
In a flashback, these same two men are seen meeting for the first time outside a bus station. They are half-brothers, sharing a father who has recently been murdered, a crime that remains unsolved. As they drive into the desert city of Phoenix, Arizona, they talk about their terrific physical similarity. And yet, as we can plainly see, they look nothing alike. Vincent (Michael Harris) is white, and Clay (Dennis Heysbert) is black. Like a continuity error so egregious that we are compelled to ignore it, or the kind of thing that might remain unexamined inside a dream, this conspicuous conceit functions as the gimmick of the film.
These brothers of different yet apparently irrelevant races arrive at Vincent’s modernist home. While Clay showers, Vincent removes the identification cards from Clay’s wallet and exchanges them with his own. Then he drives with Clay to the airport, entrusting his car to his nearly identical half-brother while he’s away on business. But as Clay returns alone into town, Vincent triggers an explosive device hidden beneath the car.
Clay wakes up in the hospital. A tight shot of his eye reflects the ragged aperture of the eyehole cut into the white hood that covers his bandaged head, an echo of the post-op Rock Hudson in Seconds. As the medical professionals assess Clay’s trauma, they gaze upon Vincent’s driver’s license, the small photo on it seemingly providing all the information they need to reconstruct this black man’s white face.
Vincent was trying to fake his own death by killing Clay, announcing himself as the likely killer of their father, but since Clay doesn’t die, Vincent has essentially duplicated his own identity, and it is now evident that no one in the film is able to recognize the obvious discrepancy between the two.
Like the black-and-white film stock winking in the direction of the actors’ ethnic labels, the name of the surgeon also functions as a pun, another joke without a punchline. Dr. Renee Descartes obviously refers to the seventeenth-century philosopher of the same name though different gender, René Descartes of I-think-therefore-I-am fame. Despite that, surgeon Renee (Mel Harris) is anything but introspective. And with its large glass partitions, her office is a gift-shop version of the metabolic clinic from The Face of Another; the large Rorschach inkblots later seen on the walls of the psychiatrist’s office are another disappointing allusion to said clinic.
This psychiatrist, Dr. Shinoda (Sab Shimono), is summoned to Clay’s hospital room. There, he explains amnesia to the amnesiac, his risible dialogue devoid of any intentional irony. The real irony is in Clay being repeatedly told that he is Vincent, well-heeled and white. Although, seen in grainy fragments, his dreams evince a life without such privilege.
After his facial-reconstruction surgery, Clay appears to be recovering without complication. He is still bedridden, a hi-tech face-bra stretched over his bandages. Every bandaged face in cinema, especially in black-and-white films, has a direct lineage to James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933). In Suture, the presence of Dennis Heysbert, the black actor playing white Clay, prompts an evocation of the protagonist in Invisible Man (1952), Ralph Ellison’s novel that uniquely addresses self-perception versus outside projection, the condition of the individual in society, attempting to code the self within a code already written. It is the story of a black man in America who doesn’t need a disfigured face or one hidden behind bandages to be spurned and treated as less than a man. “That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact,” explains Ellison’s nameless narrator, “a matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.” The color of his skin renders him unseen in the mind’s eye of the somnambulist whites who have been taught to categorize him as outside of importance, to discount not just his equality but his humanity. In the novel’s odyssey, this invisible man feels “more human” when he joins the Brotherhood, a group of black radicals, whereas Clay is given no such opportunity. For Heysbert, though he is the movie’s star, he is also a token, because there is not another black actor in the entire film, so we are unable to test Suture’s conceit with any other character.
Now Renee carefully snips and unwraps the thick cotton dressing that covers Clay’s face. As he gazes into a mirror, he thanks the doctor for her good work at reconstructing the face he cannot remember, his face that has (to us, at least) stayed the same. What follows is a decidedly original, if conceptually catastrophic, moment, one that sees the filmmakers sabotaging their own conceit. As the doctor removes the remaining sutures from Clay’s cheek, she describes her patient’s facial features as Greco-Roman, though they are obviously African American. And when he smirks at her pronouncements, Renee assures him that they must be true because she read about them in a book. For a film that doesn’t want to be about race, it weirdly becomes clear that racist stereotypes and propaganda are not absent in the world of the film, regardless of how Clay is perceived. This brings to mind the artwork of Adrian Piper, whose subject matter is her first-hand experience of such views, being a black woman who “passes” for white and therefore is reluctantly exposed to candid conversations riddled with such prejudiced ideology. And Renee continues in this vein by telling Clay that he has “far too elegant a nose to have shot someone,” further commenting on his straight hair (“always a sign of good mental temperament”) and thin lips (“a sign of an affectionate, kind-hearted and generous person”).
This incongruity between what she says and what she sees (or can’t see) conjures the problematic term “color-blind,” which was common parlance in America during the era in which Suture was made. Every character in the film seems to embody the bad faith embedded in this term, not displayed as a concession to tolerance but as a sort of mass distortion.
Two films that employ a similar conceit are Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and John Waters’ Female Trouble (1974). In the first, Fernando Rey experiences an individual distortion that challenges audience expectations via the film’s casting of two women in the single role of bipolar girlfriend, the actresses periodically switched (even within a single scene) without Rey’s notice. In the second, Waters presents a group distortion, as Divine’s character, having had acid thrown in her face, is considered by her motley friends to be more beautiful than ever after the bandages come off, even though her left cheek is grotesquely disfigured.
The most promising angle in Suture, Clay’s amnesia, is sadly left without conflict. Apparently, having disappeared from another city, he is not missed. Did he tell no one that he would return after his sojourn to Arizona? It’s as if he has been forgotten too. Meanwhile, the whole of society in the film exhibits a selective amnesia with respect to his appearance. And even if we accept this conceit on good faith, it lets us down by epitomizing the opposite, because it only represents wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers, who want it both ways: they want their post-racial cake on display and their liberal confusion tucked safely away.
With further counsel by Shinoda, and having begun a romantic relationship with Renee, Clay attempts to unravel the mystery of his dreams, though without real commitment and therefore to no avail. He is like one of the inkblots seen in Shinoda’s office: open to interpretation. Clay is not impeded by his past because it was never given purchase in the script to begin with.
One night, the lock on the front door is turned and we are back to the beginning of the film, seeing Vincent return to finish off his half-brother, to kill the man who has assumed his life rather than his death. Both men are armed. We hear shots. Vincent is seen lying on the floor with blood pooling beneath his head, his face having been blown off.
It remains unclear how this incident of self-defense is reconciled by the authorities, if they think the dead Vincent is the real Clay, or if Clay remains a suspect in his father’s murder. Instead, we return to the psychiatrist’s office, where Clay insists that he used to be some poor guy named Clay but now sees himself as this wealthy Vincent guy. Shinoda quackishly asserts that Clay has “buried his soul” by abandoning his unremembered past and adopting his half-brother’s persona. This is a peculiar conclusion for a psychiatrist to reach about a patient, his implication that a lifestyle and name change equal a lie, when they obviously do not.
Unfortunately, Clay never acknowledges any feelings he has about becoming his readymade Vincent-self, which we see in a series of still photographs at the end of the film, his having been acculturated (or winkingly reborn) into Phoenix high society, images of cocktail parties and vacations with Renee. Besides being basically boring people, the remolded Clay and the ironically racist Renee haven’t been given any obstacles to overcome.
Obstacles of identity, mistaken or invalidated, are variously exploited in two memorable horror films where the central character’s blackness is actually seen, and so is not irrelevant. Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) shifts the metaphor of body snatching to African American fears of unsung appropriation, not just culturally but downright corporeally. And in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), flesh-eating zombies don’t discriminate, and the characters in the film don’t either, until the end, that is, when the redneck deputies show up and kill Ben (Duane Jones), assuming he’s the enemy when he is actually the hero. Interestingly, in the original ending for Get Out, the cops don’t see Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) as an avenger but as a criminal, a conclusion that was scrapped so as not to contradict his hard-won dispensation of poetic justice, the kind of revenge fantasy familiar from blaxploitation films.
Suture, too, is comparable to an episode from the classic Twilight Zone series. Yet another bandaged-face tale of appearance-based oppression, Eye of the Beholder (1960), brilliantly conceals its conceit until the story’s culmination. Adherence to this unwritten rule of the sci-fi thriller, to allow the primary plot contrivance to become a spoiler-worthy twist in the final act, might have benefited Suture.
As it stands, the film’s bold attempt at cultural effacement never drives home any type of allegory, just as Clay is only a passenger in a narrative with barely any causal motivation. By his loss of memory and community, he is little more than a cipher, an invisible man without a past, unwittingly made to answer the question Who wouldn’t want to be white? as if it’s rhetorical.
Because Suture summons complex issues – race and representation, perception and amnesia, patricide and persona – and then disowns them like an unloved litter of MacGuffins, the film hedges its bets and begs us to not take it too seriously. So it must be an irritation to such convenience when creative culpability dictates differently.
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All images are screenshots from the films and TV shows discussed.