Cinematic Representations of Contemporary Angst

We watched All is Lost last night. We’re in such an odd/interesting cultural moment. All is Lost basically has the same takeaway as Godzilla, if you can believe it. These movies about the individual’s total helplessness in the face of immense problems and systems beyond the ken of any human! All is Lost is no more about “man vs. nature” than Godzilla is; both are about individuals’ encounters with unknowable, alien entities who turn a blind face to humanity. Robert Redford, afloat in a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, all his wonderful human ingenuity ultimately counting for very little, desperately waving a flare at an enormous container ship, which passes right by him, sightless, uncaring, inhuman. 100 years ago it would have been impossible for a ship to pass by a lifeboat without someone noticing; now unimaginably vast barges cross the ocean almost fully automated–these boats have crews of like 8 people–carrying consumer products from one shore to another, ensuring the circulation of capital. The circulation of capital, which has nothing to do with individuals, with humanity, not anymore.

Both this movie and Godzilla seem to me to be investigating this feeling many of us have, that somewhere in recent history, the scale of things ceased to be human. The world is no longer to human scale. And our bewilderment and our angst, these days, is generated by the fact that we’ve lost our grasp on the scale of things. For how do we–unavoidably still individual humans, or at least trying to be, wishing to be–how do we continue to BE, in a world that is no longer scaled in such a way that we can contend with it, understand it, alter it, even perceive it wholly, with our individual human faculties? Robert Redford is an old man; he’s of a different time, when at least some things were arguably still within a human scale. The film is the story of his encounter with a new world; his boat destroyed not by storm or pirates or running into a reef, but rather by the faceless, meaningless detritus of global consumer capitalism: a shipping container full of shitty mass-produced shoes. It felt so much like one of those ubiquitous stories involving a traditional people’s grim first encounter with the white man, except this time it’s a white man’s grim encounter with the supra-human. No less brutalizing, but more impersonal. Global capitalism is a hegemonic structure that basically doesn’t recognize differences of culture, race, creed. Yes, there are different degrees of privilege–my life is quantifiably different than the life of an orphan living in a house made of burning tires in Lagos or whatever–but I feel like global capitalism has become so totalizing that even the very upper reaches of privilege are being forced to at least psychically confront its dehumanizing, overwhelming effects. At least, that’s the impression I get from a lot of these recent movies. Captain Phillips, e.g., though a very different kind of narrative, was at bottom also about this encounter where the individual becomes powerless, meaningless, effaced before the massive, non-human power of global capitalism. The needs of capital to circulate freely are not contingent on Captain Phillips’ individual heroism or lack thereof; the cliché narrative imperative to rescue Captain Phillips is ultimately not that strong an imperative, as we hear the navy dudes impassively planning to blow the lifeboat up regardless of whether or not Captain Phillips makes it off beforehand. The needs of capital so far supersede the needs of any individual that what ended up happening in the movie is that Captain Phillips and the pirates became more or less indistinguishable from one another, all of them swept up in currents they could not control; his rescue at the end felt sort of incidental, and anyway I enjoyed how broken he was, how the film concluded not with scenes of triumphant homecoming but with the “hero” of the story reduced to a speechless, quivering wreck by his violent encounter with the insignificance of human life to corporate capital and with his own inability to control his own destiny in any but the most superficial of ways.

There have always been versions of this story–a system or imperative or ideal or necessity being greater than any individual–indeed, it’s the kind of thing that’s often presented as heroic and grand: a soldier dying for his country; those astronauts in “Deep Impact” sacrificing themselves for the good of the whole Earth; uh, THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS CHRIST. But somehow it feels very different when the “greater good” altar upon which individuals must be sacrificed is “getting these containers full of sweatshop-produced iPads circulating in the market.”

Are these movies nihilistic? It’s hard to say. All is Lost has this very unsatisfying ending, where, having lit his own lifeboat on fire (symbolic!), and having finally given up and let go of everything, Robert Redford sinks into the sea, only to suddenly be improbably and somewhat mysteriously rescued at the last minute. It feels hollow and false, like whatever deeply-submerged (so to speak) message the film had until then been encoding was totally abandoned in the final 60 seconds. I felt the same way about “Gravity” and its representation of the lone individual’s encounter with the unimaginable inhuman implacable vastness of the universe. After such an encounter, her return to Earth felt cheap–I don’t appreciate being beat over the head with this insistent idea that confronting my absolute insignificance in the face of a blind and uncaring universe is supposed to be invigorating and reaffirming of my stupid daily life and my relationship with my dead baby or whatever, as if such things have any meaning whatsoever. It seems defensive, like a cinematic attempt to ward off the existential despair we’re all obviously feeling. I want to see the movie where Sandra Bullock floats away in space forever; where Robert Redford floats down into the sea forever; where Captain Phillips gets blown up along with the pirates who dared interrupt the flow of global capital.

The ending of Godzilla, I think, is the most honest of this selection. The fact that it’s pretty explicitly about passively giving up control and accepting that we’ve created a situation bigger and more pervasive than anything we could ever fix is a realistic, if unflattering, portrait of us at this time. We are children waiting for God(zilla) to save us, because we sure as hell aren’t gonna do it. But what is the ending of All is Lost supposed to mean? That even in the face of the psychologically annihilating proof that we no longer live in a human-scaled world, there is still the chance that someone will see the lifeboat you’ve set on fire, and come save you? Seems fishy (so to speak again)

I truly don’t understand how I continue to enjoy my life so much. These thoughts make me seem like the most dour, unenjoyable, relentless pedant who has ever lived and yet I spend vast portions of each day laughing, singing, dancing, feeling good about many of my life choices, and enjoying simple pleasures such as pitching a stick for my dog, eating, and looking forward to a craft cocktail. As a teacher I am constantly joking and laughing with my students while simultaneously constantly reminding them that they’re all going to die and be utterly forgotten. I passionately entreat them to take seriously the beauty and wonder of human attempts to express and create meaning throughout history even as I relentlessly hector them about how nothing means anything. Even now I can truthfully say that I believe both things simultaneously, but how can this be? I believe we are each the last person on an empty earth run by robots and yet I also believe that a hand can still reach us in the darkness and pull us back into the light; oh wait maybe that was what the movie was about

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3 Responses to Cinematic Representations of Contemporary Angst

  1. Gregory Campanile says:

    Way to hold the dialectic. Loved this.

  2. Gregory Campanile says:

    What I mean to say is, I don’t think joy in one’s personal life and universal meaning are mutually exclusive. In fact, I think that the acceptance of meaninglessness frees up our psychic energy to define what is joyful and personally meaningful for us, rather than desperately attempting to adhere to a dogma born out of anxiety/defensiveness against meaninglessness. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, they talk about this idea, sort of, in a concept called Radical Acceptance. Cool post.

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