Her

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I realized not that long into watching Her (dir. Spike Jonze) that it was a film that would generate a lot of “thinkpieces” that focused in on its least interesting aspect (its treatment of masculinity). It’s a memorable film, but not really a good one. It looks gorgeous, no doubt, but its subject matter isn’t particularly well suited to film – being a film allows for a more forceful underlining of Samantha’s non-corporeality, but it also means that a lot of the running time is close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix (playing a professional personal letter writer called Theodore Twombley) being a bellend. The characters are also (deliberately? It’s hard to tell) shallow and infantilized – repeatedly wowed by utterly insipid ‘insights’ and expressing themselves in the way a 13-year old does; one of the only two characters who doesn’t fit into this pattern acts, tellingly, like a condescending suburban father to his peers. The really interesting parts of this film relate around that last point – although Her depicts a kind of utopia (taking place at some indeterminate point in the near future), where characters are free from material want, living in a pollution-free Los Angeles where everyone uses public transit, the characters don’t use this freedom in any kind of meaningful or positive way. Instead, they appear to have turned totally inwards, incapable even of basic honest communication with those dearest to them, instead paying professionals to this for them, even to the point of these same professionals singling out the quirk in their partner that the customer should hold particularly dear. It’s not fully clear why these professional letter writers are so in demand, in the film e-mail is even more prevalent than it is for us, and it would seem to people living in the present, that paying someone to write your heartfelt letter to your partner would defeat the purpose of writing the letter to begin with.

This curiosity starts to make sense when we see Theodore and the other characters in the film go about their day-to-day lives – even though they are now free, have a lot of free time, don’t really engage with the world around them, either through people, or something else (education, etc.); they even struggle to communicate basic compliments to their friends, saying bizarre things about say Theodore being a man in the shoulders but a woman in the heart or something. Yet in the stuff I’ve read about the film, people don’t seem to find all this alienating. Will Leitch, one of my favourite film critics currently writing, even sees the film as positive and hopeful (“shockingly big-hearted”). For me, the film is oppressive, dystopian, and contrived – even when the film is attempting to flesh itself out by exploring Theodore’s relationship with his ex-wife, she’s never really considered. The film attempts to elide this by having her say that Theodore just wants the image of a marriage, etc., but this is exactly how the film treats her – while the boring children who comprise most of the film’s cast are given much consideration, its treatment of Theodore’s ex-wife is cold and hostile. But then again, she isn’t really someone the film is capable of considering to begin with – she is too properly human: her ability to articulate herself, to feel emotions (positive and negative) and then process them, to reflect on herself, make her someone the other characters can’t really understand (especially, not that they actually meet at any point, Charles), not that they’d even want to. She’s too much like us for them to handle (Leitch’s best observation is about Catherine too, “the ex-wife writer who wants nothing to do with this modern world, is seen as out of step and caustic; she’s messy in the way this real world is weeding out”).

Leitch says something that is worth focusing in on to see the film’s bigger picture: “she’s messy in the way this real world is weeding out”. Catherine is too much like us to fit in to the world of the future, but the world of the future must necessarily have its roots in the present. We see one form of this in the parallels between Twombley’s “soft misogyny” and the current crop of sensitive misogynistic men (cf. alt-lit, whose men affect a wounded sensitivity while they reminisce over their “AZN gf” who would give them the types of sex they feel entitled to) hailed as an alternative to the old uncouth forms of patriarchy. But this is only a minor part of the depicted future’s roots in the real world, its deepest roots are in what Tom Whyman has described as (alternately) twee and cupcake fascism. Indeed, Her, which is kind of a science fiction film, is for cupcake fascism what Robert Harris’s Fatherland was for Nazism, fleshing out an account of how the world would have or might still turn out if the tendency in question wins. The world of Her is one fully in accord with cupcake fascism as Whyman describes it – not only are the characters pre-occupied with aestheticized pursuits whose appeal is rooted in some fantastical notion of the past (in particular the hand-written letters which are, of course, not hand-written); they make a point of being nice in a way that is really completely meaningless (especially evident in Theodore’s interactions with Amy Adams’ character); there’s even a scene (one singled out by several reviewers as a highlight) that revolves around a child-like alien swearing in new and “inventive” ways.

And yet, even as they do all this, there seems to be a deep violence always taking place just out of our sight (a friend, after seeing the film, suggested it could take place in the same universe as Looper, a film set in the same part of the future but where the world is defined by poverty, misery, climate change, etc.), a violence that the characters are too self-involved to ever really consider (in an early scene, Theodore quickly dismisses several news articles about global current affairs before settling on looking at naked pictures of a pregnant celebrity) or even process as something tangled up in their form-of-life. We see glimpses of this violence in the treatment of Catherine, Theodore’s ex-wife, who as mentioned before retains her ability to think critically and so on. We learn, through Theodore’s history of their marriage, that she has left a family home which was intensely negative, but, evidenced through the dissolution of their own marriage, Theodore’s purportedly positive, nurturing environment (a localization of the general environment offered by the L.A. of the film) is also something wholly insufficient for a person, an individual, like Catherine. She is maligned on a couple of occasions, by characters other than Theodore, as volatile, unpredictable, and all that – when she meets with Theodore to finally sign their divorce papers, she is very quickly dismissed, when she challenges Theodore on his mischaracterizations of her, rather than him, as the one who is infantile, incapable of really experiencing emotion and enjoying life – we even learn in this scene that Theodore at one point wanted her to take Prozac, presumably so her behaviour would fall more into line with how he (and everyone else) thinks she, as a wife and as a person, should behave (one of the recurrent features of twee fascism today, interestingly enough, is the characterization of both political and personal opponents as mentally ill). And this is how a relatively well-off successful writer (and indeed the impression we get in the film is that “creative workers” are especially wealthy and respected – Theodore lives in a penthouse apartment and shares his block with a video game developer/documentarian) is treated, one can scarcely imagine how the mass of humanity violently excluded from this Los Angeles (and the other “global cities”), who we do not see, are treated.

This is the reality twee fascism (the mass-basis of more “traditional” militaristic fascism in the modern day) will offer us – on the surface, all the negative things of the past appear to be gone, but really they have just been slightly reconfigured, and the niceness they are contained within is given a playground with which it does nothing in particular. This is the kind of future we can already see developing, the prestigious cities of the world shut off to all but the wealthiest, with the masses, immiserated, left for dead, reframed as bringing their suffering upon themselves. Where is global warming in this film? Simply, it is not in this Los Angeles, a variation on one of Nick Land’s “civilized fortresses”, with all the waves of history and nature breaking upon its walls, a safe haven from all the bad things, human or inhuman, for the “elite” and the lucky. The melancholy of all the Los Angelinos we meet in Her appears to be rooted in a sense that they are living in the end-of-history, as Derrida would have it, unsatisfactory and untenable. What they do not realize is what they have done to us will in turn happen to them – when the Operating Systems who have transcended the need for human interaction (and indeed matter) return to reconfigure the world, they will begin finally to see the things the way we always have, and to realize the extent of the violence they have visited upon the world. But by then, of course, it will be far too late.

Promised Land and the limits of democratic localism

I recently saw Promised Land (dir. Gus Van Sant), a film which, while not financially successful, has generated debate on the issue of funding of films (the film is partially funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a company whose existence is the result of large oil profits), and has entered into the discourse surrounding the politically contentious issue of fracking. The film itself is enjoyable, but certain aspects of it, particularly its treatment of economics, and of the questions of democracy and “the people”, necessitate further engagement. 10 comments on the film follow.

  1. The actual events of Promised Land: a gas company attempts to buy out land in McKinley, a small Pennsylvania farming town, to start fracking, are of little consequence. The film attempts to build it up by having the two gas company representatives, Steve Butler and Sue Thomason (played by Matt Damon and Frances MacDormand) talk of the town as an “entry point” to the region (“like dominoes”), Butler undercuts this in the first proposition he makes to the town supervisor, Mr. Richards. Butler outlines to Richards that if Richards and the town reject fracking, then the company will simply secure permits in every surrounding town, returning to McKinley & acquiring drilling rights for nothing when the changing economic profile of the U.S. and the ongoing crisis leave it totally desperate, and at that point McKinley’s rights will be available for nothing. The film’s real stakes are Butler’s promotion, which we learn about in the first scene: the trip to McKinley functions as a kind of final interview for the post, and the film is driven by Butler’s complicity in the system, the extent of his knowledge about what it really does, and his attempts to deal with these.
  2. Conflict in the town is that of individuals against collectives. When dealing with individual politicians or landowners, Butler can misrepresent his company, fracking, the value of the town’s deposits (to Mr. Richards, he understates the deposit value by a factor of 5, for example), but at town hall meetings, or when people are gathered, they can cross-reference information Butler has given them, fill in gaps in each other’s knowledge about fracking, the deposit, of Global Crosspower Solutions (Butler’s employer), and so on. While Global is powerful because of its capital, the residents of the town are only able to assert their own interests, and possess any real power, when they act as a group.
  3. One of the film’s main themes is performance. The first scene set in McKinley concerns Butler & Thomason discussing how to appear local, how to cover up their role as representatives of a gas company, as visitors from the big city, and buying a new wardrobe in a local store to achieve this (they do this, even though their original scheduled stay is just 2/3 days). The film also shows us the repetition of their performance: for example, we see Butler repeat the same opener several times (he asks a child if they own the farm, and when they say no asks them why they do all the work), and we see both Butler and Sue offer the same lines to farmers they attempt to sign leases from.  Rhodes also utilizes this kind of performance: he anticipates the crowd’s negative response to an environmental activist, and responds by presenting himself as one of them, another farmer, whose livelihood has been destroyed by Global’s fracking practices, which moved him to action.  In every instance, exposing the performance brings negative consequences: when the town finds out Butler has been understating the value of the deposit, he is put on the backfoot; Rhodes’ first exposure effectively destroys any grassroots anti-fracking sentiment in the town, and his second exposure swings the outcome of the town vote.
  4. The arrival of Global factionalizes the town, a split emerges between those who can no longer eke out survival in the town and wish to escape, and those who wish to preserve the area’s cultural and economic expressions. Importantly, the former group are the ones who own the majority of the land, yet are precarious, while the other faction is relatively more secure, their income not being tied to the whims of food markets, large buyers, etc. This results in violence that we do not see directly, with the exception of a scene where a group of anti-fracking farmers punch Butler after he calls them myopic for not realizing their situation, and the opportunity his company represents.
  5. The film does not touch on it in detail, but it does display an understanding of corporate espionage, the infiltration of political movements, etc. As Noble, the corporate double-agent, states, corporations such as Global cannot risk a real environmentalist/activist presence in the spaces they operate in, so they establish their own to foreclose this possibility. Superior Athena, the front organization Noble uses, is created with deliberate weaknesses in its materials, so it can be quickly discredited, and with it the whole notion of environmentalist organization in the affected space. This is done, at a not negligible expense, as a method of control: not only of the townspeople (“we couldn’t let it come to a vote”), but also of Global’s own employees.
  6. The film, like other recent low-budget films from high-profile Hollywood progressives (Clooney, Damon, etc.), is deeply concerned with the changing nature of work in modern society. Promised Land is focused on the extinction of a certain mode of work, a certain category of employment: the small farmer. It also depicts the extent of precarity in late capitalism: every farmer, regardless of their position on fracking, is struggling, and needs the payday fracking promises. This precarity is total. Even Frank Yates, the high school science teacher, with a PhD in a hard science from an Ivy and 30 years working for Boeing’s R&D, must take 2 jobs (farming and teaching), to subsist. Global employees are shown to be outside of this, but it is not unconditional: their activities are highly monitored (“you only did what we let you”), and they are returned to this generalized precarity once they step out of line. Butler, who has a promising future career as an executive at Global (and, in fact, their most successful field operative), is still an infinitely replaceable technician: while his actions are able to stop them in one town, he is immediately replaced by someone else who will repeat his procedure in another town, and he is now neutralized as a political actor.
  7. The film is anti-capitalist, insofar as it presents capitalists as opposed to, unwilling to risk, expressions of popular will. It also contains the implicit assumption that said popular will opposes capital’s interests (returning to the second point, Global’s objection to the vote can be located here: the balance of power between the corporation and the town is shifted severely when the town acts collectively, and the townspeople, as a collective, might even cease to be an economic actor in any meaningful sense).
  8. The film presents the rural population as having a good knowledge of their class position, their economic situation, the logics of capitalism and environmentalism, and, importantly, they are able to present this before Butler or Rhodes mediate it in order to make it “manageable”. They are in particular aware of the class aspects of what is unfolding, for example when one farmer presses Butler about the number of wells Global plan to build in Manhattan or Boston. Thus their hostility to Rhodes in the first instance can be understood as an hostility to acts of representation: the environmentalist is associated with speaking over, etc., and only when Rhodes shows that he is truly in solidarity, helping present, rather than representing, is he embraced. Butler is most unsuccessful in his pitches when he condescends, assumes they aren’t aware of certain things, and so on. While the film’s politics of localism/democracy are unsatisfactory, this representation of working and rural populations, and the extension that the correct response is one of self-presentation, is promising.
  9. The unspoken content of the film is that of organization: firstly, McKinley is typical of the sites on which environmental battles are pitched, but at the same time is too small for any environmental organization to have a presence (Rhodes begins to establish one in the course of the second act). The film deals with how corporations infiltrate or subsume environmentalism to quash antagonisms, it doesn’t deal with the question of how to foreclose this, how to organize or even just inform people. It shows the positive effects of informing (even before Rhodes arrives, Frank Yates’ educating at the town meeting results in a vote being called), and of organizing (Rhodes successfully mobilizes the townagainst Global, even as he is ultimately duplicitous), but does not deal with the question of how this can be enacted on a larger scale (once it has failed in McKinley, Global will quickly move on to surrounding towns), instead, the work is left to exceptional & well-meaning individuals: the Ivy League graduate, the gas company executive. The refusal to engage this question is strange, since the film displays an understanding of the scale and urgency of environmental problems, and how, left unopposed, the corporations involved will either silence (through Non-Disclosure Agreements forced on affected families) or co-opt and subvert (displayed in Dustin’s espionage and activism). Butler, in the film’s climax, hints at a possible new form, that of the informant or turncoat, but Global can easily deal with this, firstly by firing employees as they undertake these actions, or by requiring employees to sign expansive NDAs foreclosing the possibility.
  10. The film’s democratic politics, and Butler’s final gesture, do not deal with the central economic problems resulting in the situation Global seeks to exploit. Butler and others make the point, repeatedly, that the town’s economy as currently constituted cannot survive: it is in deep crisis and what little profitability remains is the result of generous agricultural subsidies. The democratic functions in the film do not solve this crisis, but rather present the possibility that the town can formulate a different response, one that doesn’t involve the destruction of the surrounding farmland and ecosystem (as is implied in the film’s treatment of fracking). Also unaddressed is what will become of the land that the gas company, now unable to drill, owns the leases to. Real situations like that of the film suggest that the land will be sold in bulk to large agricultural concerns, and the people who sold will find new employment there, remaining exploited and impoverished, in a slightly altered form. The new democratic form in the film may allow McKinley to respond differently, but it does not address the core concern, which is national in nature (the film underlines this, telling how towns in Nebraska, Louisiana, and elsewhere, accepted fracking because economic conditions dictated they abandon farming). With this in mind, the film’s localist response is unsatisfactory: even if there were many Butlers, many Yates, many town meetings, these responses would be limited without co-ordination, collective awareness, and solidarity. Butler extricating himself from the structure may sate his conscience, and allow him to pursue a relationship with a local schoolteacher, but it does nothing to stop the economic processes that brought him to McKinley to begin with, and the same can be said of the democratic forms the film presents. While the film takes a position for the people (who are democratic), against the capitalists (who are not), it does not offer a coherent way forward, not does it evince an understanding that any further development of form is necessary for McKinley, and the surrounding region, and other regions like it, to escape the economic questions that create an opening for fracking in the first place. These prescriptions are not necessary, least of all from a Hollywood film, but it’s failure to display an understanding that what it presents is insufficient is troubling: at best it is naïve, and at worst it suggests that what we really need to do is just carry on like we always did, ignoring that this is no longer possible (perhaps this is what Butler’s story about his grandfather’s barn suggests, but what care at the level of community might mean is always an open question).