Letters

Anthropo{mise-en-s}cène

So this is the Anthropocene: An historical time, perhaps even a geological time, in which what we think of as separate entities, the human and the natural, find their fates entwined. What was once a separate nature or environment is no in place to ground us as us.

Not only is God dead, so too is ecology, that pantheistic place God went into hiding. The biosphere is no longer a self-correcting, homeostatic deity. The later civilizations, said Valery, know they are mortal. This last civilization know the Earth is mortal too.

I feel like Nietzsche’s madman in the marketplace, saying such things. Nobody really wants to know that the world we inherited, the world of our ancestors, is already something unreal. People shrug it off, change the subject. Yet as Canada’s national poet Leonard Cohen once memorably put it: everybody knows. Everybody knows things can’t go on.

Cinema knows it. One of the things cinema is there for is to find some kind of objective correlative for feelings that can’t be acknowledged. Maybe cinema is not about desire at all, or even anxiety. Maybe it is about seduction, of turning us aside from unacknowledged feelings, and slipping us into worlds of objects and relations that displace those feelings onto something else. Thus: perhaps all cinema is now about the Anthropocene. Its all about a sense that this is not a Never Ending Story.

There is already a cottage industry starting up which reads cinema as cinema about the Anthropocene. Before joining that little workshop, I want to add another frame. Perhaps cinema is not just about the Anthropocene, but of it. Cinema is made of the same stuff as the rest of this civilization. It is part of the very thing that can and will be made into something else.

Alongside architecture, cinema is perhaps that art which the most vast consumer of resources. Unlike architecture, what is built for it is temporary. Its sets and props and vehicles are made to appear rather than to be. Sometimes there is a veritable potlatch of all these beautifully but temporarily made things staged for the film itself. Cars crash, towers explode in fireballs. Cinema is an allegory for the fiery ends of the world. Sometimes cinema’s scenery are left to rot. There are archeological ruins of ancient cities in the Nevada desert.

Cinema is also a prodigious consumer of energy. In New York, and I imagine also in Toronto, you can often see the mobile generators parked on the street to make the 3-phase power to run the show. Cinema, like pretty much everything else, is congealed fossil fuel.

The deep time of the earth is quite literally strip-mined to make the quick-time movies of our era. According to Jussi Parikka, in The Anthrobscene, 36% of all tin, 25% of cobalt, 15% of palladium, 15% of silver, 9% of gold, 2% of copper and 1% of aluminum goes into media tech. As he says, “deep time resources of the earth are what makes technology happen.”

The ruling class of our time, what I call the vectoral class, got us used to thinking of information as something weightless yet special; easy-access yet always somebody’s property. They doesn’t like to talk about how much energy it takes, or how much infrastructure, or the weird shopping list of elements that have to be extracted from the earth to make the stuff run. Not to mention the trash-heaps where all our devices end up. Out of sight, out of mind. Cinema is like a bright brief digital dawn across the surface of devices destined to spend the eons again buried in the analog night.

Cinema is then both about the Anthropocene, and of it. Watching the previews for the next season’s movies, they all seem to me to belong to the genre of the Anthropocene. They all seems to be narratives about a civilization confronting limits of its own making. Some movies, like Spring Breakers, respond by stressing the glorious expenditure of energy, burning it up with images of fast cars, fast planes, fast women. And guns, lots of guns.

Other opt for apocalypse. If the present cannot go on infinitely expanding then it can only collapse. No qualitative change can be imagined in narrative form. After us, the deluge: the Sun King’s prediction democratized. Cinema is having a hard time getting out of repetition.

Edge of Tomorrow is an interesting variation. Yes, it’s a Tom Cruise action sci-fi concoction, but these are not without their charms. Tom’s face provides the machinic sheen against which robots and aliens seem warm and somehow human. There’s a creepy shot of his right ear that keeps returning, again and again, with weird stretch marks, as if someone has shrouded a Mills grenade in cling-wrap.

Setting Cruise aside, Edge of Tomorrow is interesting for a few reasons. The story’s mechanic is pure video game. Cruise and his co-star have the special property, bestowed on them accidentally by invading ‘aliens’, of starting the action over again, every time they die. Edge of Tomorrow lives out – and dies out – a desire for do-overs, for digital time. The time of the edit suite, as well as of the video game, where metered, reversible real time is real time, and duration is unreal, as if Bergson had it backwards.

Edge of Tomorrow is about video game time, where death is not final, not an end, but rather a beginning, a do-over. Tom and his co-star do time over and over, trying to beat the aliens, clearing levels, backtracking out of dead-ends, all the way up to the boss level. But the time against which they fight with this video-game time is not duration, it is rather the historical time of the Anthropocene. It’s a human wave assault, by the most advanced flesh-tech of this civilization, against the very limits it has itself created.

It is not an exaggeration to call this historical time in the movie one of civilization. The aliens have conquered Europe. Russia and China are holding it at bay. The decisive battle is a re-staging of D-day, across the English channel. The movie charmingly presents the Brits as nothing more than a front for American imperial power. But in a way all of the current variants of capitalism as a civilization confront the same enemy.

The fantasy, then, is that the digital time of this civilization – be it capitalism still, or something worse – has within its power the ability to overcome the almost shapeless, formless, seething tentacle menace of the Anthropocene. One which curiously seems to have some sort of mimetic power. It doubles us and confounds us. It erupts from the earth or out of the sea, or appears out of nowhere in the sky.

The Anthropocene is an almost molecular enemy. It is techy, like us, and yet not. It is perhaps the shadow image of our own forces of production, mediating between earth and air and water, and bringing fire. It is very scary except in those moments when the film makers lose their nerve and give it a face.

Tom and co-star alone confront this Anthropocene alien with the digital power of do-over time. The co-star is Emily Blunt. She is the perfect embodiment of the weaponized woman. We see her tanned and oiled arms as she does push-ups in a black-ops chic sleeveless number, the camera lingering just a bit over her ass. The casting is a masterstroke. Blunt plays the global archetype of the stiff-upper-lip-Brit, mixed in with a bit of thorny English rose. Blunt’s performance is so on-point that she makes Cruise seem almost human, just as Cruise makes the aliens seem like they are actually us.

I won’t give away where they confront the boss alien, but it is in a landscape under water. Weird weather as a feature of a lot of movies of the Anthropocene. It can be caused by anything at all, except the emission of green house gases from the collective labors of this civilization. This is key. The cinema of the Anthropocene is about anything but the causes of the Anthropocene. But it is very candid about its effects.

So the boss-alien is confronted in old Europe, from which this civilization’s mode of production sprang. We see old Europe under water, as indeed in a way it already is, in the future already pre-set for it. Edge of Tomorrow secretly longs for a time of do-overs, to use this magical temporal capacity to confront the very mode of production that created it.

Cruise and Blunt: perfect names for our heroes, for the two affects that dominate the action. And of course they win. There may be a point to this. If we could prefigure all of the permutations of the narrative resources of this civilization, run through them all, have all our futures over and done with in advance, we might be done with this whole narrative formation. Perhaps we need to play this game till we get bored with it. Perhaps we will get bored with it soon enough to discover that its digital time does not accord with the historical time of the Anthropocene. That other time is out there, like a formless alien.

Gravity is a rather different way of figuring the Anthropocene. It’s a bubble film, like Lost in Translation, but in this case the bubble is absolutely literal: the bubble of the space suit or the space capsule. More than once we see the earth itself, the biosphere bubble, as if to gently suggest to the viewer that Sandra Bullock’s bubble-trouble is really our own. The space suit becomes objective correlative for feelings about bubbles so expansive they take in a whole world. “I have a bad feeling about this mission,” as George Clooney says. We all have that feeling.

In Gravity, the bubbles start bursting as an unintentional side effect. The Russians shot down one of their own satellites, causing a whole cascade of chaos. As Stephanie Wakefield says in an excellent essay on this film: “the infrastructures that were supposed to have mastered and perfected the world not only cannot, but moreover it is increasingly from within these networked infrastructures themselves that disaster emerges.”

Or as George Clooney says to Sandra Bullock: “pretty scary shit being untethered up here isn’t it?” It’s a romance story, except our romantic leads are not able to grab hands in the clumsy gloves. Like in Titanic, he will sacrifice himself for her. As if to say the world has no use for masculinity any more, but it will still have to make a spectacle of its uselessness.

Gravity is a good news story, in that – spoiler alert – Bullock finds a way to end the Anthropocene. She finds a way to make contact with the earth, to emerge from the bubble into the waters, to be reborn on the shore, face pressed into the loam. Clooney the old-fart military man gives her the confidence. Its not that hard to pilot a Soyuz re-entry vehicle. Says Clooney: “You point the damn thing at earth. Its not rocket science.”

And yet she crashed the Soyuz escape pod simulator every time, back when she could practice in do-over digital time. Cinema prefers to restage the crash, over and over. Gravity wants to hold out hope that when we have to re-enter for real we’ll pull it off. Sandra will pull through, shrug off her guilt, her mourning, her death-wish, her distraction, her compulsive hiding out in specialized labor – that in the moment the training will kick in and she will know what to do.

The training – the simulator – is cinema. A kind of cinema that does not quite yet exist, of which Gravity is a hint. Cinema for the Anthropocene. Not about it, but for it. Stories of courage, of hacker adaptability. Just in case. Sandra: “Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride. I’m ready.”

“What now?” Sandra says, as her second of three possible survival bubbles goes up in flames. As the space-shrapnel hurtles in, the screen turns into a weightless version of the final scene of Zabriskie Point, only now the exploding detritus will not fall back to earth, status quo restored. There is no equilibrium point. There is no gravity. Everything will keep spinning off. The God of restored balance is dead. That is what Sandra mourns. Her dead child is the objective correlative for the melancholia of unfigurable loss that is the ground tone of the times.

Twice we get to see Sandra take off a space suit. The first time its like a photo-realist Jane Fonda in Barbarella, a weightless strip-tease, safe for a moment at least in the space-capsule bubble. The second is under water back on earth, struggling for dear life to shrug off its weight.

“So this is your wilderness. Detroit,” says Tilda Swinton to Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive. The vampire genre solves a major problem with the narrative frame of the Anthropocene. Nobody lives long enough to really experience geological time. These characters do. Says Tilda of Tom’s Detroit: “But this place will rise again. There is water here. And when the cities in the south are burning. This place will bloom.”

Tom takes Tilda, to see the ruins of the Michigan Theater in Detroit, which among other things was a movie house, and is now a car park. The vampires cherish the artifacts of industrial civilization, its records, cars, guitars, but above all its art, its literature and music, and particularly romantic art. As if to say romanticism’s sense that real is always elsewhere were the thread that points to what might one day be left alive. “I’m a survivor baby,” says Swinton, as the lick O-negative popsicles. Meanwhile Amanita Mascaria mushrooms bloom unseasonably, “behaving rather strangely,” these objective correlatives.

Sometimes seen as a true-love movie, the truth of Only Lovers Left Alive is in its last few seconds. Having run out of black-market blood donor sources of food, the two vampires bare their fangs and pounce on two young lovers in a quiet cul-de-sac in Tangiers. The vampire here is at once the figure of art, which will always find a way to be left alive, but also the figure of the white western vampire of the vectoral class, which would like to think it has reformed its ways, but maybe not.

T. S. Eliot had the nerve to criticize Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the grounds that Hamlet gets too emotional. His intensity lacks an objective correlative, an object or situation that might compose and constraint affect, make it into art. In her book Heroines, Kate Zambreno insists on a need to undo this as part of a project of feminist retrieval, of putting back into the frame or onto the page the raw and messy business of emotion without aesthetic deflection. In her case, it’s a matter of putting back women’s lives: that of Ophelia, or Eliot’s long-suffering wife Vivienne.

Perhaps it’s a line of inquiry that can be extended even further here. If we are done with woman as muse, perhaps we can be done also with nature as backdrop, as setting, as scenery. As something that is either to be put in its place or which when not becomes a raging monster. Perhaps its time for new worldviews. Or new old. Perhaps it’s a question of re-edit of how we see worlds.

And how we see cinema. In this case, it would be a matter of shifting focus firstly from foreground to background, of seeing what cinema has to say about ground rather than figure. One could start with that genius work by Thom Andersen, Los Angeles Plays Itself, but pull back even farther.

And secondly, it might be to ask about cinema as both a practice and a representation of energy using systems. Maybe there’s a certain homology, it how cinema likes to show the consumption, and at the same time depends on it.

 

[*This is based on a talk I gave at York University for the Cinema and Media Studies Graduate Student Conference, ‘Imagining the Crisis’, 21-23 November.]

 

 

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

  • Job

    There is a bad buy in Despicable Me 1 called Vector…

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