The cheese sandwich of despair

“A linguistic energy, trivial and tireless, will triumph over my very memory.”

– Roland Barthes

The Fyre documentary documents the catastrophic failure of a luxury festival on a tropical island, featuring core contemporary storytelling mechanics – a three-act journey, interesting characters, glamorous settings, heroes and villains, and more.

It’s a compelling testament to how easily led we are when we think collectively, and how individual wills are subsumed by Billy McFarland’s transparent lunacy, best evidenced by the lengths one might go to to secure mineral water for thousands of punters, or that cheese sandwich. The interviews reveal a rather Arendtian banality of organisational and individual failure, as well as deception and fraud.

But behind all the chatter about McFarland’s chutzpah and the empathy with/schadenfreude at the interviews with the affluent punters who ended up stranded on Great Exuma, behind the commentary on the hollow power of aspirational marketing, behind even the brutal turmoil dumped on the innocent islanders, something got under my skin.

The problem with selling an idea

The documentary tells us people were sold a dream. A few blank tiles on instagram and a star-studded video was all they needed to sell thousands of tickets. It was an ingeniously delivered campaign, taking pure distillate of idea and turning it into cash. The only problem was that the transaction of ideas that couldn’t survive in reality. It was a thought experiment by and for millennials, asking us, exactly how much of the dream of wealth can we buy in a single transaction?

I have sympathy for the punters in the documentary, vapid as they clearly were. They’re rich yuppies, with no appreciation for the struggles the vast majority of people, emblematic of why wealth is so pernicious, sure. But Fyre was an affront to the basic values of their community – Wealth must be traded for experience, because those experiences define an individual’s value. Imagine: ‘You weren’t at Fyre? Oh you missed out, it was out of this world…’ It was out of this world, and you’re out of the club.

That dynamic is an amplification of something we all share.

FOMO

It’s there, undermining our agency, however rarefied the air of our community. We all have something we know we should read/watch/see/visit/taste/hear/play, from Malazan to an obscure paper on transcendental metaphysics only ever published in Latvia in the 18th century.

It’s a tyranny we impose on ourselves, one that we use to help navigate our subcultures. The anxiety of not having experienced everything my peers have drives me to engage further, to read more.

This means FOMO rests with the Other. Specifically, the other as an individual sees them. We have internal hierarcies of desire – say I want to read Machen before Ligotti before Harrison before VanderMeer. In the age of too much choice we inherently categorise our fears(OMO), both to understand ourselves and how we relate to our community.

Anxiety as a good thing

The beautiful thing is how we are using that anxiety to open things up. In publishing some are transforming FOMO into a frontier for cultural interaction, using the neurotic need to be the most knowledgeable to break open established ideas of what a narrative should be. You can see FOMO’s power in the strength of the counter-reactions to this exploration. The F is dominant, with deep-rooted insecurities being probed whenever we see anyone further out than us.

Say culture is a beach, those safe under an umbrella may react to the lone swimmer heading for the horizon with anger – How dare they endanger themselves? And endanger me if they need rescuing? No matter if that swimmer has seen a beautiul island, out of sight from shore, and makes it there with ease. From the beach, they’ve just taken a wild gamble, and left everyone else behind.

In the same way that within our communities wide gulfs can exist between individual members, between other communities it only gets worse. So yes, it’s easy to laugh at the fools with more money than sense, stranded in a disappointing reality as the label saying, Paradise, coming soon blows off in the wind. But we’ve all done it, assumed something had value because everyone else was doing it too.

Anxiety is, for me at least, about control. I’m perfectly happy on a rubber ring, floating in the sun and watching the swimmers pass back and forth across the archipelago, marvelling at the elegant bridges they decide to build when they arrive together. For me it’s as much about knowing who goes to each island as it is visiting myself. But that ease with missing out doesn’t come naturally, and having made the decision to let go of my FOMO doesn’t mean I always manage it.

No mo’ FOMO

This is what the Fyre documentary told me – it’s not our fears that create the problem, but how they are used against us. Primarily to sell things. It’s a fascinatingly sophisticated, but crushingly unimaginative trend. Ironically, McFarland’s delusion of grandeur is also a total failure of imagination.

Those orange tiles, shared by influencers on the payroll are the quintessence of satisfying desire as a transaction, and not an emotional validation. The image is taken for reality, our desires focusing on the expression of desire instead of what is desirous. That cheese sandwich is the deepest fears of the consumer age given form.

It doesn’t strike me as a sustainable direction of travel. The reversion to barbarism touched on in the documentary – thousands of affluent young people separated from all the power of their wealth, literally pissing out the borders of their territory – shows how the absence of a fulcrum destroys us. Without values to revert to, whilst the facts of their situation were tolerable, the shock of the change in context wasn’t.

The centre cannot hold because it was sold decades ago. Now, all too often, we trade in FOMO, using it to define daily interactions and choices, and how we navigate the world. But like all fears, unless we truly embrace and understand it, it can be our downfall.

 

 

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Black Friday and the flesh-eating elephant in the room

Sometimes you encounter unlikely bedfellows at exactly the right time. This happened to me with Song-ho Yeon’s Train to Busan (2016), Wolfgang Streeck’s collected essays, How Will Capitalism End? (2017) and Black Friday. They sit together so well it’s frightening.

First, a quick precis of Streeck’s hypotheses: We’re screwed.

A slightly longer one is that capitalism is consuming itself at an ever increasing pace. We are fleeing a series of crises, from global inflation in the ’70s, to soaring public debt in the ’80s, to public debt in the ’90s and ’00s, reaching a peak in the global financial crisis. With neoliberal agendas of deregulation expanding and technocrat governments, shepherded by undemocratic bodies like the ECB and IFS, firmly established globally. The effects? Wanton inequality, and a slow-burn cataclysm on the horizon.

But what does that have to do with zombies?

The watershed ‘zombie moment’ for recent generations was George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Suddenly we were all vulnerable, as the domestic world turned on itself. Touching on racism, domestic violence, and the corruption at the heart of the American Dream, zombies were no longer individuals trapped in slavery, they were normal people. Zombification became amoral and our response to it the subject of judgement.

By Dawn of the Dead (1978) the focus had shifted to consumerism eating itself, where the only route to survival was to grab every luxury item you can and barricade yourself in the garret. Skip ahead to the 2004 remake and rage zombies trashed the shopping centres. Consumerism gets nihilistic as you take your jollies where you can, because isolation is only a temporary solution.

Come 2017, Train to Busan the tropes are established. Yeon lays waste to his nation in moments, leaving his heroes with the clothes on their backs. It’s not clear his zombies are vulnerable in any way until the final scene. This cannibalistic singularity is an assumed inevitability. And who are our key figures hoping to survive? Why, two proud exponents of the capitalist system, a system explicitly implicated in the release of the film’s virus.

There are obviously countless variations of the zombie metaphor, but it seems to me this trend towards rage zombies fetishises our impotence in the face of consumption. The weight of climate change and over-population is inescapable. The apocalypse will be anthropogenic because we are all aware, consciously or otherwise, our civilisations are eating themselves.

Busan offers two angles on neoliberalism – one deathbed redemption and one true to the system till the end – but they are token manifestations against a system gone mad. They are simplifications for us to anthropomorphise. Aspects of a narrative we consume. Flesh to be eaten.

Of the two – Yeon and Streeck – only Streeck offers any real solutions, however little faith he has in their actually coming to pass. Regulation and an enforced redistribution of wealth and power. Fundamental and wholesale changes to our financial and political systems. A democratic phoenix from the ashes.

It’s true that Yeon has the Redeker Plan to fall back on: Lock the gates and damn anyone outside them. But narratives need completing where reality doesn’t. And the despair of Song-ho’s completion seems all too reasonable when coupled with Streeck’s bleak warnings.

Perhaps this is why, on that Train to Busan, I found myself drawn to Yong-guk and Jin-hee, two teenagers betrayed by the older, richer, Yon-suk. This capitalist fuck (to use the scientific classification) throws a young girl to the monsters to save himself. Her boyfriend, overcome with grief and trauma, lets himself be eaten by her. The scene is staged like a corrupted Romeo and Juliet.

That despair is all too familiar in a UK where the older generation has betrayed the younger. The panacea of Black Friday doesn’t work on me. Worse, the feverish quality to our festivals of consumption disturb me.

The only question seems to be: When the end comes, will it be slow or quick?

The Strange Reformation of Josephus Miller

This post assumes you have seen up to series 2, episode 9: The Weeping Somnambulist of The Expanse.

The Expanse, it would seem, is a hit. Not having read James S. A. Corey’s books I realise there’s a huge fanbase out there, so that, combined with a few recommendations from friends – including one comparison to Babylon 5 – brought me in.

But something doesn’t quite sit right. It’s that comparison to Babylon 5. For all its faults – and as a dedicated fan, I am the first to say there are many… – Babylon 5 was all about the characters. From the moment they walked onto the station, they screamed their individuality with costume, mannerisms, dialogue and more. Their development was credible and led by their needs as well as the plot’s. The Expanse, instead, has a range of grizzled, cynical archetypes. Shades of morality dashed against an amoral universe.

Most familiar of these is the burnt out cop, Josephus Miller, who sees his salvation in rescuing Florence Faivre’s Julie Mao. Classic noir. Thomas Jane serves the role well, helping us understand what some see as class betrayal as he abandons his life in pursuit of her. His corruption and violence help define Steven Strait’s moralising James Holden, his sense of duty Wes Chatham’s brutal Amos Burton, and his flexible relationship with the law the Belt as a whole.

What Jane also does well, is lead us into his growing obsession with Mao, in part symbolised by the sparrow. It starts as an itch, a case he can’t solve, and the more he scratches it, revealing the weird secrets of the system, the more it takes over his life. That self-destructive aspect of his character latches on to Mao as an inevitable conclusion – he must find her or die trying.

His execution of Anthony Dresden in an attempt to destroy the protomolecule, and exact revenge for Mao’s death, reminds us he isn’t a paragon. That action leaves him ostracised by the rest of the main cast (for about half an episode) whilst they talk out their differences – and here, the small scale of the settings stretches our belief in the characters. On Babylon 5 people could avoid each other and differences were worked out on an individual basis over time. On tiny ships, it all has to happen immediately, or it derails the narrative. So, accepting that bug as a necessary compromise of writing, the forgiveness shown places him on the Rocinante for his final sacrifice on Eros.

And this is where the strange dynamic comes in.

Miller’s return to the hotel room, again led by the sparrow, to find a transformed Julie Mao, apparently the nexus of whatever new life is developing on Eros, makes perfect sense. His tenderness with her, his fundamental need to bring her peace when the rest of the system would destroy her, makes perfect sense. Hell, even his leaning down for a kiss makes perfect sense.

What doesn’t, is Mao’s reaction.

Because she has had no part in Miller’s obsession. She has no idea who he is, given she hardly seems to have any idea who she is. This is a terrified young woman being reborn into a symbiotic relationship with an alien species, and the first human face she sees, the first kindness she’s been shown, takes liberties.

What seems to happen, is expectation subsumes reality. The inescapable narrative singularity of doomed lovers has sucked an otherwise plausible arc in, and completely obliterated it. The only way that kiss makes sense is as a necessary part of a TV show required by the kind of people who think stories are about audiences. Because otherwise it’s a stranger walking up to you and telling you it’ll all be ok, before going for first base.

The kiss complete’s Mao’s objectification in a narrative that doesn’t seem that interested in her as a person. The opening seconds of the show tells us only a spark is needed to set events in motion, then puts Mao in position to scream purely as a setup. For two series, she’s a MacGuffin and, key stage movements aside, her character is realised through Miller’s investigations. So that kiss can only ever be problematic, unless she smacked him in the chops or otherwise reacted. Miller’s redemption fails, even as the show’s execution demands we agree it succeeded.

To be fair, this is a trope as old as narratives, and I’m not expecting The Expanse to carry the bag for everyone. But at the end of a major character’s arc we should be focused most of all on the truth of their experience.  Mao’s return to the story as an avatar of the protomolecule’s evolution is inevitable, so she will get another pass.

But the show wants us to remember Miller as a flawed, romantic rogue come good. I’ll remember him as the obsessive, unable to escape his failings even at the end.

Mag Culture reviews Shelf Heroes issue A

One of the film blogs out there I have a particular soft spot for is Ben Smith’s Shelf Heroes. There are a lot of things going for it, from the great design to the all-encompassing curation that takes in the artiest of art house films to the basest of nonsense. The reviews are always considered and if that’s not enough for you you can win films there as well.

For some reason Ben has been foolish enough to risk publishing some of my thoughts there, on Boyhood and Cronenberg’s early film Shivers. So when he told me he was planning a series of film magazines running from A-Z? Well naturally I jumped at the chance to be part of it.

Issue A came out looking pretty sweet, as you can see. Mag Culture picked up on it as well, and gave it a glowing write up. That essay on Aguirre nodded to at the end? Yep.

Shelf_Heroes_Zine-4 Shelf_Heroes_Zine-x41b

 

 

Amour

Amour is the latest film from Michael Haneke. It is a frank and hugely affecting study of how strokes destroy people. If, somehow, you managed to miss all mention of it at the start of the year then clearly you weren’t paying attention to the Oscars. It won the Best Foreign Language and also received nominations for Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Or to put it another way, how was the rock? Cosy under there, is it?

Haneke only has a few films to his name but, of the ones I have seen, they are powerful pieces. His tendency of favouring a realist presentation of matters is typically undermined by aspects, sometimes just brief moments, of external influences. If you’ve seen either version of Funny Games (and they are shot-for-shot clones of each other) you will recognise the very real brutality and terror throughout is greatly amplified by the moment of deus ex machina at the end. Haneke, in 30 seconds of film, makes you complicit. That glorious detachment that makes horror, slasher, suspense and other genres based on human suffering palatable is whipped away. The White Ribbon doesn’t even allow you the comfort of understanding and is instead pervaded by malice, omnipresent and anonymous (Joon-ho Bong‘s Memories of Murder touches on similar themes, incidentally).

At first these musings on violence may seem hard to reconcile with a Amour, which documents the power of love in the face of mortality. Georges and Anne love each other, have spent their lives together, are interdependent, one and the same. Considering people breaking in with golf clubs and no empathy, or violent deeds with no perpetrator, seems to have no place here. Haneke’s unflinching document concerns how strokes debilitate the strongest of wills, and smother them with uniform aspects of suffering. Anne has a fearsome wit, but with each passing affliction she becomes more anonymous, steps further away from her personality and closer to a commonly-recognised, and feared, possible end for us all.

This, then, is where the violence is. With one exception, Anne’s attacks happen off-screen, but they are no less terrible for it. There are no warnings, she simply deteriorates between scenes, silently and instantly. Georges shows Herculean strength coping with it, but strength is no use. Fighting won’t save Anne. The fact that all of the struggling is against the simplest of tasks such as showering and going to the loo reinforces the savagery. There is a brief glimpse of a normal life but from then on everything corrodes and crumples just as Anne does.

Riva’s performance is simply staggering. Aside from the painfully astute observations of the muscular afflictions, the slipping from nonsense to acutely self-aware clarity is brutal to watch. That’s not to discredit any of the cast, particularly Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, because they are excellent too. The distinction is that they are showing us how people react, the best and worst of our hopes if we were to be faced with the same. We can relate to them. Riva becomes a shadow of a person, only briefly allowed glimpses of her former life. One can only imagine how she must have felt during filming.

All of this is not to say the film is without hope. Georges is filled with respect and devotion for Anne, and he is fiercely protective of her. No doddering fools or confused elderly tropes here. His compassion is tested but he is a loving character. The brief touches on his unspoken world in his sleep and in the closing 15 minutes are unambiguous on that, however nebulous they might be in other respects.

If I have one criticism to make it is that the film isn’t long enough, not that I wanted anything other than a peaceful ending for both Georges’ and Anne’s suffering. Everything presented is truthfully told, with great compassion, but the reality is much more mundane and lasting. There are endless baths, movements from bed to wheelchair to chair in a day, god knows how many trips to the toilet. I don’t blame Haneke for this, what I refer to here is life. Perhaps it is best so much was left out – knowing what could come brings little comfort.

The Pub by Joseph Pierce

I love Twitter. Aside from the process for disconnecting from vacillating twerps being ‘Unfollow’ it also gives me so many amazing things that otherwise I would have missed. One of those is Joseph Pierce.

The below short is a fine example of rotoscoping. For those unfamiliar with the technique the simple summary is ‘Film stuff, draw over film, fiddle about with reality to make new quasi-real animation’. It’s been responsible for A Scanner Darkly, the only filmic example of a Philip K. Dick story that manages to recreate some of what’s so bloody terrifying about his work. And yes, I am including Blade Runner here. Quit grumbling, it’s sloooooooow.

Anyway, The Pub. It’s a simple premise – a migrant worker faces up to mortality and the everyday alienation and unpleasantness of life and people. My god, people… This is a strange, threatening and far too familiar vision of the world. Watch this, and if you can face it then watch A Family Portrait and Stand Up. I won’t blame you if you take a break between them though.

Also, I know someone who works in the film industry and he told me that Mr Pierce is a nice guy as well. That makes it even better.

The Pub from Joseph Pierce on Vimeo.

Holy Motors: Violence, alienation and experience

It’s been a while since I saw a film as affecting as Holy Motors. There’s a reason for that, one that is worth exploring and indeed experiencing yourself. For those who don’t know, Holy Motors is the 2012 film directed by Leos Carax starring Denis Lavant and Édith Scob. It might be more familiar if I add it features cameos from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue.

Before I go any further, I am going to try and avoid giving away too much of the detail here, because I think to do so would diminish the impact for anyone who does want to see it. With no expectation comes sincere reaction. So if that’s you and you want to have no preconceptions then stop reading……… here.

That said, the film largely follows the exploits of Lavant as Mr Oscar who is driven through Paris in a white limousine by his assistant Céline (Édith Scob). Oscar is withdrawn, depressed and exhausted and also happens to have the utterly bizarre job of dressing up like a range of people and then acting out a series of really rather odd scenes. Of course, this smacks realism in the chops for two hours, but that’s fine because in the opening scene you see Le Dormeur (played by the director, Carax) wake up in a sealed room, unlock a door with his key-finger and walk through to a cinema within the cinema. Those detecting a Lynch vibe you are correct, there are elements of it; but it’s also a much more cogent and focused film than, say, Inland Empire or the interminable Eraserhead.

The film plays out as a series of individual scenes linked together by Mr Oscar and Célines’ journeys between appointments. This means that as an audience you are presented with only two people to really identify with and come to know as characters and that all of the performances you see, however sincere and familiar they are, are just performances. This dichotomy is one of the central pillars of the film for me – in a world awash with realist cinema this film wears all the trappings of realism but refuses to behave properly. We have to believe in Mr Oscar and his work, except we don’t know who he is, why he does it, whether or not he’s divinely instructed even. In fact, we’re not even sure Mr Oscar knows the answer to any of those questions.

Carax makes an incredibly complex set of concepts at once easy to feel but impossible to codify. It is no accident that of the various scenes the most disturbing are those which start Mr Oscar’s day. To try and rationalise the experience is to miss it. Instead you should witness the tragedy, brutality, eroticism, violence, submission and everything first hand, just as Mr Oscar does. There’s a fascinating revulsion to these performances, at one point objectified by a entirely vulgar photographer, so that you can’t look away no matter how corrupted the Beauty and the Beast parable becomes. You can’t help but get more and more uncomfortable at the representation of sex (itself then reduced to a representation of itself). When Mr Oscar gets back in the car, chain smoking his way through another costume change (the costume changes provide a fascinating glimpse beneath the hem of cinema make-up by the way), you can’t help but understand his exhaustion and sense of being lost, without purpose. Is it really his life to live the worst of other people’s lives?

Of course, if that were it then you would have an abstract film which uses an excellent device to subvert it’s medium. However, Carax is clearly a shinier button than that because it’s just the start. These difficult scenes serve to alienate you from everything that makes you comfortable and has you looking in and out, both at narrative and medium, and that’s when you are given things you can more directly relate to. Hell, there’s even a song or two thrown in there. But it’s only once you have been taken outside of the film, shown how arbitrary it is, had the scaffolding pointed out to you, that you’re allowed back in to get your catharsis. And as for Mr Oscar? I’ll just say that the most significant moment for him as a character, the moment that helps you understand his great sadness, is one of the songs. He has to perform it, experience it through a lens, instead of living it directly. No wonder he’s depressed.

This is a good time to make mention of the chameleonic Lavant (channelling a similar dark source that he offered in Harmony Korine’s Mister Lonely where he plays a Charlie Chaplin impersonator who dominates his wife, a Marilyn Monroe impersonator – another odd film) because he is integral to the film’s success. He flits between each role with a terrifying ease yet in the relative shelter of his limousine provides a nuanced and palpable face of a man who has had too much. Scob is a superb foil as well, concerned for her charge but also not letting him slip from the task at hand.

It’s made all the more unsettling by moments of anarchy. Whoever and whatever Mr Oscar is, and whoever he works for, you know there is at least a structure and purpose driving things, however obscure. Watching Mr Oscar change who he’s playing halfway through a scene undermines that. And when he suddenly sees something on his way to an appointment and barrrels out of the limo, a free agent acting alone? Well, it’s not entirely comforting is it. What’s to stop him doing it again? Why didn’t Céline, or his employer, stop him? Why didn’t I stop it?

The difficult thing to do here is to try and tie all of these thoughts together into some kind of conclusion, so here goes: Holy Motors exists on the line between reality and the abstract, performance and experience and a great number more such balances. It’s about what you expect as an audience, and what the performers and film crew expect. It’s a mix of the most fundamentally familiar experiences of life told in the strangest of ways. It’s about Mr Oscar and Céline and it’s about the people they bring us, why they do it and why we need it. It is a forceful and powerful piece of cinema which will continue to percolate through your layers of understanding long after you watch it; but like all the best puzzles, the answer is both glaringly obvious and so intricately woven you could be counting threads until life forgets you and calls Mr Oscar to stand in.

Finally, one last thing: Spare a thought for the motors.