Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees: a moral and political film under the visual overload

David Blair, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” (1991)

One of my favourite science fiction films since I first saw it in the mid-1990s on video loan from the University of Wollongong via my local library, “Wax or the Discovery of Television among the Bees” is a home movie featuring inventive computer animation, archived film reels, stills, experimental filming methods, not a little humour and some live action; together these illustrate an unusual science fiction plot of body horror, a murder mission, a particular view of history (especially the history of communication technology, Iraq, World War I and the travails of the Jewish people) and an existence beyond death.

The film tells the story of Jacob Maker (director David Blair), a disaffected nuclear technician at the Los Alamos nuclear science laboratory who feels guilty that his work in designing and testing remote-controlled missile guidance systems, the early 1990s fore-runners of current drone aircraft, leads to refined mass slaughter; he tries to cope with the dissonance he feels between the nature of his work and his need to support himself and his wife by spending afternoons communing with his hive of bees. These are no ordinary bees: they’re descended from a special breed of  honey-makers brought back from Iraq, then British Mesopotamia, by Jacob’s grandfather James Hive Maker (William S Burroughs – yes, that William S Burroughs, famous junkie and novelist!) and his wife’s grandfather in 1917. One day while in a trance with his bees, Jacob receives an unexpected gift that totally transforms his life: the bees penetrate his head through his ear and punch the Bee TV into his brain. The Bee TV gives him a mission and a purpose in life: the universe is unbalanced and he must restore the balance by killing someone.

So a strange odyssey begins: Jacob ventures out into a missile test area, following the directions of the Bee TV, where he comes to The Garden of Eden Cave where he finds giant bees related to his Mesopotamian friends living in the Land of the Dead and revelations about his family history, the true nature of his bees and details of his mission, including the identity of his victim, come to him. He may be the reincarnation of his wife’s grandfather Zoltan Abbasid who married James Hive Maker’s half-sister, a former telephonist, inventor of a kind of telescope and enthusiastic member of a society dedicated to communicating with the dead. James was jealous of Abbasid and arranged for him to be killed by his bees so he, James, could inherit Abbasid’s bees. After death Jacob passes through lives in other dimensions before he is transformed into a missile sent to kill the reincarnations of those responsible for Abbasid’s death, now living in Iraq on the eve of the first US invasion of that country in 1991.

It’s a hokey story, yes, but one made serious and even plausible by the first-person / stream-of-consciousness point-of-view documentary style of narrative structure, presented in a casual, monotone and above all calm voice by Blair himself. Superficially linear in its story-telling, the plot flips back and forth between past and present, and between present and future, and presents a bewildering mish-mash of philosophies and mythology including esoteric occultism and spiritualism, Bible stories, motifs and themes, belief in karma and reincarnation, and New Age ideas about the karmic connections among the living that continue into their next lives after they have died. Startling and unusual computer animation tricks flip the screen, roll it, spin it around and even turn it into silhouettes of lever-arch folders to simulate the movements of birds and other flying creatures. Animated images can look quite dated but are still very inventive and  Blair and his wife, both computer programmers, use them cleverly to create three-dimensional figures and geometrical shapes and patterns, and to emphasise the alien nature of the bees, the Bee TV and the worlds they normally inhabit.

The information overload, gathered from a bewildering variety of unrelated and influences – Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Gravity’s Rainbow”, set during World War II, is one influence here – fleshes out the very bizarre story of karma and transcendence with the goal of atonement and redemption for past sins and the love for humanity that overcomes violence and death. The joining of Jacob, Zoltan Abbasid and their two bomb victims after death suggests forgiveness on both sides. Karma works in such a way that those who kill with violence will themselves be punished with death by violence, as the dead seek vengeance on those who kill them. Jacob himself is both victim and murderer … or is it the other way around? In its own, rather flat way, “Wax …” turns out to be a surprisingly moral and political film. It passes no judgement on the morality of the Iraq War or the wars that follow in its wake but it does suggest that those who kill may themselves be killed in the same way … if not in this life, then in the next.

Repeated viewings are needed to understand the film more fully; each repeat reveals something new and unexpected humour emerges as well – how can there be telephones to dial the emergency number even in the deepest caves or the most barren deserts? Those overwhelmed by the many esoteric references that relate to nothing in their current lives (to say nothing of what they might have experienced before their birth and what will greet them in their next lives) can just relax and enjoy the strangest of strange head trips.

 

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