The Eye Is a Lonely Prey
Three recent films speak directly, and dubiously, to our new ways of watching the world.
Before going full-frontal with “the platform is the message,” though, we need to make a small detour. In the preface to yet another edition of The Society of the Spectacle in 1992, Guy Debord states there is nothing he would add to his seminal text that first saw the light of the day in 1967. Were he alive nowadays, I doubt he'd amend anything still. For the following revelation in his book sounds more relevant than ever:
Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever. Apprehended in a partial way, reality unfolds in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation.
I would not be surprised if Debord is in the vade mecum safety kit of the British journalist and filmmaker Adam Curtis, whose oeuvre has been revolving around the mechanisms of power and perception management in contemporary society since the early 1980s. The first time I met Adam Curtis and his work was in January 2015, when Bitter Lake premiered both on BBC Player and at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. It's rare to see TV filmmakers in the line-up of a festival of this kind, but then everyone from my professional milieu, including me, believed Curtis' found-footage collage on Afghanistan was haunting and truthful. So when BBC Player announced the online premiere of his new film HyperNormalisation this past October, half of my social-media contacts went gaga. And once the film was out, I did the same, devouring it on YouTube.
It shouldn't spoil your HyperNormalisation experience for me to sum up Adam Curtis' stance: The world we've inhabited since 1975 is a carefully constructed maze of lies and deception, where the energy of any potential rebellion gets redirected against itself. From the situation in Syria to the rise of Donald Trump, Curtis affirms that we have been fed oversimplified stories of complex, market-related issues, and our individualism, as well as our emotional attachment to the internet, makes us incapable of reacting in a politically organized way. Given that the film is designed to be seen online, spending two hours and forty-six minutes with HyperNormalisation is a lonely, grim, and confusing experience. Perfectly crafted as an audiovisual work but ruined by the Michael Moorian voice-over spelling out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing like the truth, Curtis' latest is at its most sincere with a supercut of pre-9/11 disaster movies. Because setting up a virtual echo chamber and addressing Viewers 2.0 as a dependent, irrational beehive, hoping that their anxious buzzing will spread the message of doom even wider, is morally wrong.
Another documentary that cashed in on the momentum of the U.S. presidential election was Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio's Before the Flood. With a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and a notable appearance at BFI London Film Festival in October, the film was released on National Geographic Channel at the end of that same month. Shortly after, on Open Culture’s feed, I caught a glimpse of a photo I'd seen memefied many times before—DiCaprio and President Obama, standing before the mythic backdrop of the White House and imagined by the internet to be chatting mostly about bears. In this case, however, the photo was accompanied with a link to see Before the Flood online for free. And so I did, just like everybody else in my social-media bubble who was simply overjoyed by the chance to see a DiCaprio film gratis.
For those who've been following environmental issues, his involvement in such a project can't come as a surprise; this is a cause he's publicly championed for decades. Yet this is where the problem starts. DiCaprio's face is so omnipresent in today's pop culture—from Titanic to Inception, from Oscar jokes to supermodel gossips—that Before the Flood reads like another disaster film. This impression is further supported by behind-the-scenes peeks at The Revenant, or lines like “I feel like I'm in some weird, surreal movie.” Also, in their attempt to make ecology sexy, the Before the Flood creators often mingle the investigative documentary genre with men's accessories ads. Still, “Leo” is a very good actor, and apparently does a great job at interviewing experts and politicians; by playing the average American know-nothing, he slowly reveals for the audience the scale of the global-warming threat.
Again, for people who are well aware of green issues worldwide, Before the Flood may seem like an oversimplification for the masses, but its narrative is quite effective. For nearly half the runtime of HyperNormalisation, it channels exactly the opposite idea: Every single one of us can make informed decisions on an everyday basis, be they in the supermarket or at the ballot box, thus helping the planet. There is a clear link between climate change and the governmental status quo, and Before the Flood doesn't shy away from giving the war in Syria as an example. This means that even if we feel underrepresented politically, there is a lot we can do to change the system. Seeking to tackle this matter by engaging individuals online, first as onlookers, then as users and self-conscious citizens, Before the Flood steers away from the dynamics of group denial. Unlike in the soundtrack of HyperNormalisation, here the dark bliss of Trent Reznor’s vocals is reserved for the ending credits, suggesting that there's hope even in the urgency.
HyperNormalisation and Before the Flood look like the ultimate double bill on neoliberalism for home use, but I can't not add one more recent premiere that takes the concept of Spectacle 2.0 to a whole different level. Have You Seen My Movie?, directed—or rather composed—by Paul Anton Smith (who worked also with Christian Marclay on The Clock), was featured in the Experimenta section of BFI London Film Festival and surfaced on the B2B platform FestivalScope.com soon afterward. A 136-minute collage of excerpts from cult features, mostly from the American and the British canon, the film taps into the lost art of cinemagoing, exposing movie theatres as a meeting point for pre-2.0 communication, and a melting pot of tropes. At first sight, Have You Seen My Movie? is not related to politics but rather to the politics of images, and this is where the game commences.
Within a three-act structure, we are immersed in two fictional universes, separated by what is supposed to be fourth wall in both—the cinema screen. Tossed from one side of this made-up fence to the other, carried by the currents of fetishism and voyeurism, we realize that this is in fact a papier-mâché realm, where actors are watching themselves. The more the plot progresses, the more the logic of the associative montage becomes abstract—until it flows into a large stream of collective unconsciousness, where our cinephilia functions best, à la Tumblr. With this radical gesture (which reminded me of the early experimental shorts of Nicolas Provost), the human body, on and off screen, transforms into pixels, along with the Michael Jackson popcorn meme, Woody Allen’s sad mask, bleeding celluloid, and one Kubrick to rule them all. As the aforementioned Debord quotation continues: “The tendency toward the specialization of images-of-the-world finds its highest expression in the world of the autonomous image, where deceit deceives itself. The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life.” Have You Seen My Movie? has made the loop great again.