Voyou Désœuvré

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. Read more↴

Snow White and the Huntsman is certainly not a “good” film, although some of the ways in which it isn’t good I find endearing. It’s in the tradition of genre films that don’t have much narrative coherence – events happen, but there’s little sense of why any event follows from any other, or of any lasting significance to any event after it is over. In this, it reminds me of a few films I’ve seen over the past few years of which I’m rather inexplicably fond, particularly Aeon Flux and Dungeons and Dragons (the “sequence of unrelated events” structure is particularly appropriate in this case, as that is the underlying structure of a game of D&D); but the film that’s really in the back of my mind, and which explains my attraction to these incoherent films, is The Neverending Story. Read more↴

A slightly odd line from Gavin Mueller’s post about The Dark Knight Rises:

The Dark Knight has nothing to do with Occupy, and no one who sees it will make that connection, unless they gleaned everything they know about Occupy from newscopter footage.

Isn’t “newscopter footage” precisely where most people will have got most of their knowledge of Occupy from? Likewise Gavin’s quibbling about how the villain, Bane’s, authoritarian command of his loyal mercenary band is unlike the leaderless process-fetishism of Occupy: yes, the bad guys in The Dark Knight Rises  aren’t a very accurate representation of what the Occupy movement is actually like, but they do accurately represent a right-wing media narrative about Occupy. Read more↴

It took me a while to remember what it was that the visual style of The Hunger Games reminded me of. It was a second-hand paperback of H. G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come published some time in the 70s which, as these books usually do, featured a cover illustration which drew a little on the book itself and a lot on the trends in SF illustration of the time. That’s an appropriate style for the film, I think, a re-creation of 70s interpretations of WWII-era futurism, or, a taking-up of the science-fictional imaginations from two previous eras of austerity. And the film does look marvelous, with lots of little touches (some of which, such as the train we see near the beginning of the film, might be lost on an audience that doesn’t remember the existence of British Rail) that position it critically within the aesthetics of austerity nostalgia. Read more↴

The Terminator (1984) and Terminator: Salvation (2009) make great bookends to neoliberalism. Terminator is about the rise of neoliberalism: a woman is hunted down by a representative of the future, a future manifest in a machine hidden within human flesh. This future seems unstoppable until, in the final scenes the fleshly machine is destroyed by the more honest Fordist machines of an American factory. As an allegory of neoliberalism, this is utopian, as the future of outsourcing and just-in-time production that the terminator represents was already on well on it’s way to being established by 1984; and by being utopian, it’s also reactionary, because it mistakes Fordism, a temporary compromise with capitalism, for something desirable in itself, and so focuses on an unwinnable and anyway unworthy defensive struggle, rather than thinking of new ways of going beyond capitalism. Of course (and I think this is what has given The Terminator such a lasting legacy), the film is quite aware of this, ending with Sarah Conor aware of the inevitability of the neoliberal apocalypse, and searching for ways to prepare for it.

Read more↴

I think it’s pretty clear that the Transformers films are pathological, but it’s difficult to determine whether the pathology lies in society, the film industry, or in the individual psychology of Michael Bay. Maybe there’s plenty of blame to go round, we can blame the film industry for allowing a series of films to exist in which Micheal Bay’s creepy individual peccadilloes are magnified to such an extent they end up showing something more general about society. One of the more subtle pieces of creepiness in the first film is the way in which it suggests a world filled with a barely-hidden hostility. The film’s macguffin is a thing called “the cube,” which has the power to turn everyday objects into Transformers, but the robots which it creates are uniformly and absurdly aggressive:

I take it that Michael Bay has some kind of unconscious awareness of the intuition behind Evan Calder Williams’s Hostile Object Theory. Williams argues that objects under capitalism “are the material organisation of all the toil, struggle, and negative affect that went into them, that thwarted, pissed-off agency, a clenched fist that keeps pulling punches and punching clocks,” and they hate us because of it. The second Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen really doubles down on the hostility of objects, but goes beyond Williams, primarily in terms of creepiness, but also theoretically, by sexualizing the hostility of objects.

A remarkable proportion of the runtime of Revenge of the Fallen is made up of this kind of body horror, showcasing Shia LaBeouf’s horror as feminized robots attempt to insert parts of their metallic anatomy into him. The robot as hostile object becomes, for Bay, a simultaneously horrifying and arousing object (and horrifying because it is arousing, and perhaps also vice versa).

There is, of course, another sexualized object in the Transformers films: Megan Fox. As LaBeouf puts it, “some people think [Michael Bay] is a very lascivious filmmaker, the way he films women,” although LaBeouf disagrees, saying that “the one thing Mike lacks is tact. There’s no time for  ‘I would like you to just arch your back 70 degrees’” (I guess specifying the precise angle at which you want an actor to arch her back doesn’t count as lascivious; to her credit, Fox responded by calling Bay “Hitler,” and getting herself fired). The films then provide an interesting mirror image: women sexualized by objectification, and objects sexualized by feminization. I think the hostility of objects is the truth underlying this mirror image. The way Bay objectifies women is, as LaBeouf’s attempted defense shows, about control, and underlying this desire for control is a fear of an assumed hostility about to break free of control. The hostile robots in Transformers, that is, are the return of the repressed of the portrayal of women in the films.

What Williams’s Hostile Object Theory emphasizes is how the hostility of objects results from the place of the commodity in capitalism; applying this to the particularly gendered objects in Transformers reminds us of the way in which the commodity is gendered. Dumb but treacherous, commodities have something in common with misogynist depictions of women reaching back to Rousseau’s Sophie (we can also see the feminization of the commodity in the connection that is often made between femininity and consumerism, so ably criticized by Ellen Willis back in 1969). This should, I think, encourage us to be careful about construing our opposition to capitalism in terms of a proletariat which is defined by its subjectivity. My worry is that, as the category of subjectivity has a long association with masculinity, emphasizing the subjectivity of the proletariat risks repeating a pattern of gendered subject/object hostility.