Branding Change: Political Problems and Cultural Crises

01 June 2015

'Art is unavoidably bound to and impacted upon by the world to which it responds. Artistic crises reflect the palpable and prolonged dip in confidence that so many have suffered, across a broad spectrum of society, with regard to ideas of social change.'

Things can change. That’s the tagline and promotional sentiment of The Emperor’s New Clothes, the recent polemical documentary by Michael Winterbottom and British median Russell Brand, in which the latter takes up arms against the root causes of present-day social disparities in the UK. Brand, who in the past has never been far away from the gossip columns of his country’s newspapers, entered this explicitly political phase of his career ahead of the UK general election—in which David Cameron’s Conservative government somehow secured a second term.

Brand was sneered at by the right and dismissed as a champagne socialist by the left. Don’t vote, he argued, because to do so would be to legitimise the whole disgusting enterprise: the parliamentary method, the electoral system, the entire class structure of a country faced with choosing the lesser of many evils. Because Brand was utilising his popularity, fame and eloquently foul mouth to political ends, both sides of the establishment felt disgruntled, ruffled, hijacked by the thin, bearded ghost of a vanguard Bolshevik.

Things have always changed. A very basic introduction to history tells us so. Even if school textbooks tell it through kings and queens, through tyrants and despots, through pirates and merchants and profiteers and through plundered and conquered nations (as opposed, for instance, to change being shaped from below and by the masses), history is a thing of flux, of transition. Of a staggered onward progress through anomalous leaps and contradictory bounds—but it’s a thing of change all the same.

You wouldn’t know it, though, by looking at a large segment of cultural life today. Even among those seeking and promoting alternatives to the status quo, there’s a vague distrust in the leftist rhetoric of old: history ended, for them and everybody else, in 1990. The Russian Revolution, fought and won in 1917 by a country led and represented by an industrial workers’ party, finds its facile conclusion in the top-down bureaucracies and horrors of a Stalinist Eastern Bloc. The two become equated, tarred with the same brush: communism dies, history ends, the free market runs off as victor.

Even David Simon, creator of groundbreaking television series The Wire—as compelling an argument as we’re likely to get against a socioeconomic system built upon profit—has admitted that he thinks capitalism is fundamentally necessary for social growth, and that his problem is with its unchecked, rampant form. But unbridled capitalism is a tautology: because of the demands capital places upon the system that bore it, capitalism can’t exist in any other form. Genuine alternatives to our economy have been posed—often cogently—from the margins, from the far left, but when they attempt to enter the mainstream, as Russell Brand has with his megaphone, they’re quashed before they can ever really spoil the party.

If we accept the economic base of society is the primary (but not, of course, the only) factor in determining social relations, then a climate that forbids the discussion and proposition of genuine working alternatives to the existing property regime has wider ramifications. It begins to affect thoughts on other realms of social life. One need only look here at the spineless, catastrophic rightward shift by Ed Miliband’s Labour Party during the UK election campaign, when attempting to broaden its fanbase by coming down on the same side as its mortal enemies on issues of immigration.

Immigration was a problem, Miliband agreed: it must be controlled. A party meant to represent the interests of the working classes, Labour  instead ditched them in favour of bedding the same names in big business that its chief rivals, the Tories, have been bedding for years. If capitalism is here to stay, as Labour now said, then so too is the xenophobia, fear and violence under which it flourishes best. Meanwhile, the EU turns its back on the refugees drowning in their thousands each day.

As a film critic by trade, I see a great number of films each year, and I see evidence, all over everywhere, of a broader cultural life infected by the pressures and uncertainties that find their root cause in the financial crisis. Watch the biggest grossing blockbusters of the last ten years and you see it: things are dark, things are grim. In an attempt to retain relevance for an adult population living through such a precarious predicament, superhero films deal with corrupt cities, dysfunctional societies, the fate of the planet.

But if we accept that the present state of affairs cannot be sustained—that, to borrow the tagline of The Emperor’s New Clothes, things can change—then the next question is: where next? Attending film festivals, viewing films made outside the commercial cinema, one sees a great discrepancy at work. On the one hand, filmmakers are beginning to come to terms with the ongoing crisis, to the point at which it is now often the backdrop against which a film’s entire narrative plays out. Unfortunately, on the other hand, this does not always translate to a hopeful assessment of our problems. A great deal of confusion enjoys free rein among film artists today.

Recently, I attended a festival of European cinema in Lecce, southeast Italy. Writing elsewhere, I have noted that, “As people who live in the world, we know that a broken Europe has to do with the rise of neo-liberalism, the aggressive political consolidation of a new superclass, and a prolonged financial crisis. As artists, however, filmmakers are wont to look at other ways to explain the profound contradictions conditioning a great deal of social life today. Uncertainty and insecurity become the core ingredients of living, and artistic renditions, rather than confronting such problems, compound them accordingly: abstraction, ambiguity, the edgy cut-to-black. People are ciphers, meaning is reducible to gesture, action and inertia become symbols without referents.”

This is by no means a homogeneous group. As outcomes of a complex decision-making process, films vary in innumerable ways. Though the depth to which films engage with real life has always fluctuated dramatically, however, I’ve never seen it so keen to retreat from the world in favour of facile provocation, mannered simulacra and false objectivity. I’m here reminded of a passage in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory, his psychogeographical survey of 1990s London. Though he refers to a certain group of poets that enjoyed brief popularity at the time, his words apply to a great deal of cinema: “The further events moved away from language, the more obtuse and fragmented they became. The rhetoric betrayed itself in its attempt to strike a universal tone, to speak for the disadvantaged masses. Private confusions mistook acts of public drama for insights and metaphors that should always insist on remaining theoretical. In other words, at that particular instant, the poetry wasn’t good enough, true enough to its own difficulties. It solicited destruction.”

Consider one film that screened in competition in Lecce: Anemistiras (2014), the feature debut by Greek filmmaker Dimitris Bitos. This, in which an eternally bickering husband and wife are forced to get along with one another by their long-suffering and grenade-holding daughter, represents much of what I currently find problematic—even distasteful—in contemporary cinema. Greece is burdened by bigger problems at present, and I don’t wish to place all of its artistic responsibilities on an individual artist—much less a first-time filmmaker. But on some level, the po-faced seriousness with which the director has gone about assembling his work—which unfolds in gratingly, punishingly humourless close-ups, as a miserable teary-eyed couple play-act a marriage for the benefit of their irksome child—must be questioned.

When Bitos calls his film a psychological thriller, he gives good indication of the confused misperceptions of psychological plausibility in films. To invoke a comparison to Christopher Nolan's Batman films—and it’s no coincidence that these too were po-faced and humourless—a psychological thriller must take place in a universe that in some way bears resemblance to our own, precisely because the universal is to be found only in the specific: that is, the psychological is socially conditioned. In Anemistiras, events are deliberately and strategically removed from real life, and the theatrical, persistent tragedy has no room to breathe. This is indeed a symbol without a referent.

On an imagistic level, Anemistiras forms a radical contrast to another film competing in Lecce: Karl Markovics’ Superwelt, a film that at the very least presents its world in bedazzling colour. I have previously voiced displeasure at the lack of colour in films today­­, at the mistaken assumption that a monochromic palette is somehow the same as gritty realism. (Another reason Anemistiras isn’t to be taken seriously: its superficial investment in a visually dreary world.) But if one looks at the saturated hues of old Technicolor, one sees stereoscopy without need of 3D glasses: in these films, the world was celebrated with an almost innate awareness to the vibrancy of life. In some other way—assisted, perhaps, by the enduring richness of celluloid—we might also see a curiosity in Technicolor for the future: what an alternative world could look like.

Superwelt has its own problems—though ones that are, I think, worth working through, because the film itself is interesting enough to merit further discussion. Markovics’ drama tells of a supermarket employee who lives an unremarkable life with her husband in rural Austria. She is one day contacted by God, and subsequently takes up communication with Him. Whatever other weaknesses the film might have, I pinpoint some comments made by its writer-director: “I was curious to find out how someone who isn’t suffering from any psychological stress or under pressure to change would experience this encounter.”

In a more flippant mood I might remark here that there are more urgent things to make a film about than someone encountering a divine spirit, but my main problem with Superwelt is that its very concept denies a deeper engagement with the everyday, real-world problems that might define life working behind a supermarket till. Indeed, Markovics’ opening gambit, that such labour puts the worker under no pressure or stress to change, perhaps indicates a dim view of working people. Intriguing and amusing though it may be, Superwelt makes a point sometimes of its protagonist’s quirky dim-wittedness, and there’s a vague whiff of condescension in the fact that the quiet serenity of suburbia is shocked by a godly intervention into revealing its own deceits, distrusts and prejudices.

The world remains a mystery, unenlightened, resistant to change. While divorce would be the healthier resolution for characters to adopt in Anemistiras and perhaps also an option to be considered by those in Superwelt, the status quo prevails in both films. How to account for such hopelessness—and, because understanding is not the same as condoning, how to overcome it?

Art is unavoidably bound to and impacted upon by the world to which it responds. Artistic crises reflect the palpable and prolonged dip in confidence that so many have suffered, across a broad spectrum of society, with regard to ideas of social change. So long as economic alternatives to the current predicament are happily equated with a return to Stalinism—rooted as such arguments are to the fundamental falsification of the twentieth century—any optimism in breaking from the reigning order is untenable. It follows that deeper upheavals and wider conflicts are necessary for the world’s masses to move artists sufficiently enough that they feel compelled to pose more fundamental questions.

The apparent need for social blueprints, however, is a strangling imposition. The need for alternatives to capitalism, it should go without saying, outweighs the need for us to know in advance the shape and character of a future society. Likewise, who knows what kind of cinema filmmakers will produce in the years to come, in future societies? But the two are linked: such upheavals, such conflicts, will speak to artists, will impact upon social life, will help to forge links between those enacting social change and those responding to it positively, accordingly.

Speaking at FICUNAM, Mexico City’s annual film festival, the socialist film critic David Walsh remarked recently: “When masses of people feel that there are things they need to see, they will find ways to see them… Part of the problem today is that wide layers of the population don’t feel that many films, including the art-festival films, are absolutely necessary for their existence. And, unfortunately, to a certain extent, they are correct. There’s an instinctive distrust of a certain kind of art film. This isn’t the artist’s or filmmaker’s individual fault, but there is this distance and distrust. The filmmaker also has a responsibility to show broad masses of people that he or she feels a certain responsibility toward them. It goes both ways.”

There are always, of course, welcome exceptions. In Lecce alone, I saw at least two films that present the world as the outcome of actual relations, of social relations that are themselves in flux, that are themselves conditioned and changeable. My Skinny Sister, by Swedish debutante Sanna Lenken, is a delicately handled drama in which a young teenager is burdened by the knowledge that her older sister suffers from anorexia. Erol Mintaş’ own debut feature, Song Of My Mother, meanwhile, is a sensitive drama about a Kurdish teacher exiled from his home village in southeast Turkey in 1992, who now lives with his mother in urban Istanbul. Both films took home significant prizes from the festival, which suggests there is an audience willing and wanting to watch films that dare to engage with and confront the world with compassion, seriousness and vivacity.

And there’s room, also, for such qualities to be found in the mainstream. In brief, I’ll here mention Chappie, the third feature by Neill Blomkamp following District 9 (2009) and Elysium (2013), in which a robot designed for policing the mean streets of South Africa is given the full traits of human awareness, so that it becomes subject to conflicting ideologies that wish to utilise it to opposing ends: as a fascist super-cop, as a drugs enforcer or as an urban guerrilla. As I noted upon seeing it, which is to my mind the best film of 2015 so far, “By elevating an obvious but neglected truth—that being determines consciousness—to its core idea, Chappie is a brazenly radical film.”

It’s not much to ask for: for a film to have characters whose consciousness is determined by the specific conditions of their environment. Because that is the basic starting point of an outlook that sees the world as redeemable, reclaimable, not beyond hope—even with another five years under Conservative rule. Things will change.

This article was originally translated into Estonian by Tristan Priimägi and published by the arts and culture magazine SIRP.