Tag Archives: Science fiction

The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded




Fredric Jameson does not like predictions. His is an owlish and retrospective Marxism, one that happily foregoes the crystal ball of some former orthodoxy. There is a Hegelian lesson that Jameson’s writing repeatedly attempts to impart, which is that wisdom only comes in the backwards glance, that we glimpse history only in the moment when our plans fail or dialectically backfire, when our actions bump up against the objective, hurtful (but never foreseeable) limits of the historical situation. You can draw up your revolutionary schemes, paint the future as gaily or grimly as you like, but only upon review will it become plain in just what way you have been Reason’s dupe. If this point is unclear, you might consider Jameson’s response to the World Trade Center attacks, which began with the following extraordinary observation:I have been reluctant to comment on the recent ‘events’ because the event in question, as history, is incomplete and one can even say that it has not yet fully happened. … Historical events…are not punctual, but extend in a before and after of time which only gradually reveal themselves.”[1] I suspect many will find remarkable Jameson’s reluctance here to help shape the public response to September 11th. An event that has not fully happened yet is, after all, an event in which one may yet intercede, an event that one needn’t yet cede to the Right, an event to which one might yet attribute one’s own polemical and political meanings. But Jameson makes a conspicuous display here of spurning what Left criticism generally (and glibly) calls an “intervention”—as though the business of a Marxist criticism were not to intervene, but rather to bide its time, to wait until an event has been thoroughly mediated or disclosed its function, and then to identify, with the serene impotence of hindsight, history’s great game. Any event is, like revolution itself, a leap into the unknown. The owl of Minerva only flies in November.

One might wonder, then, how Jameson feels about his own writing, which has been so accidentally and accurately predictive. How does he feel, for instance, about his landmark postmodernism essay, the one that sometimes goes by the name “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”?[2] That article so neatly anticipated U.S. popular culture in the 1990s that it is hard to shake the feeling that a whole generation of artists—writers, musicians, filmmakers above all—must have mistaken it for a manifesto. (“Pastiche—check. Death of the subject—you bet. Depthlessness and disorientation—where do I sign up?”) As ridiculous as it may sound, the essay, first published in 1983, now reads like an exercise in cultural embryology, discerning the first, fetal traces of an aesthetic mode that would become fully evident only in the years that followed. One wonders, too, if young readers encountering the article for the first time now don’t therefore underestimate its savvy. One wonders if they don’t find it rather trite, since a sharp-eyed exegesis of Body Heat (1981) is really just a workaday description of L.A. Confidential (1997)—a script treatment.

We can be more precise: What has seemed so strangely prophetic about Jameson’s postmodernism argument are, oddly enough, its Benjaminian qualities. Benjamin’s fingerprints seem, in some complicated way, to be all over postmodernism. One might even say that postmodernism in America is a dismal parody of Benjaminian thought. Just cast an eye back over the last ten years, over U.S. pop culture on the cusp of the millennium—postmodernism post-Jameson. Consider, for instance, the apocalypticism that has been among its most persistent trends. The recent fin de siècle has been preoccupied with dire images of a devastated future: we might think here of the full-blown resurgence of millenarian thought and the orchestrated panic surrounding the millennium bug; of X-Files paranoia, which has told us to “fight the future”; of catastrophe movies and the resurgence of film noir and dystopian science fiction. If you were to design a course on popular culture in the 1990s, you would be teaching a survey in doom.

There is much in this culture of disaster that would merit our closest attention—there is, in fact, strangeness aplenty. Consider, for instance, the emergence as a genre of the Christian fundamentalist action thriller, the so-called rapture novel. These novels are basically an exercise in genre splicing; they begin by offering, in what for right-wing Protestantism is a fairly ordinary procedure, prophetic interpretations of world events—the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Intifada—but they then graft onto these biblical scenarios plots borrowed from Tom Clancy techno-thrillers. The first thing that needs to be noted about rapture novels, then, is that they signal, on the part of U.S. fundamentalism, an unprecedented capitulation to pop culture, which the godly Right had until recently held in well-nigh Adornian contempt. Older forms of Christian mass culture have seized readily on new technologies—radio, say, or cable television—but they have tended to recreate within those media a gospel or revival-show aesthetic. In rapture novels, by contrast, as in the rapture movies that have followed in the novels’ wake, we are able to glimpse the first outlines of a fully commercialized, fully mediatized Christian blockbuster culture. Fundamentalist Christianity gives way at last to commodity aesthetics.

This is not yet to say enough, however, because this rapprochement inevitably holds surprises for secular and Christian audiences alike. The best-selling rapture novel to date is Jerry Jenkins and Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind, which has served as a kind of template for the entire genre. In the novel’s opening pages, the indisputably authentic Christians are all called up to Christ—they are “raptured.” They literally disappear from earth, leaving their clothes pooled on the ground behind them, pocket change and car keys scattered across the pavement. This scene is the founding convention of the genre, the one event that no rapture novel can do without. And yet this mass vanishing, conventional though it may be, cannot help but have some curious narrative consequences. It means, for a start, that the typical rapture novel is not interested in good Christians. The heroes of these stories, in other words, are not godly people—this is true by definition, because the real Christians have all quit the scene; they have been vacuumed from the novel’s pages. In their absence, the narrative turns its attention to indifferent or not-quite Christians, who can be shown now snapping out of their spiritual ennui, rallying to God, and taking up the fight against the anti-Christ (who in Left Behind, takes the form of an Eastern European humanitarian whose malign plans include scrapping the world’s nuclear arsenals and feeding malnourished children). Left Behind, I would go so far as to suggest, seems to work on the premise that there is something better—something more significantly Christian—about bad Christians than there is about good ones. This notion has something to do with the role of women in the novel. Left Behind, it turns out, has almost no use for women at all. They all either disappear in the novel’s opening pages or get left behind and metamorphose into the whores of anti-Christ. It will surprise no-one to find a Christian fundamentalist novel portraying women as whores, but the former point is worth dwelling on: Left Behind cannot wait to dispense with even its virtuous women. It may hate the harlots, but it has no use for ordinary church-supper Christians either, imagined here as suburban housewives and their well-behaved young children. Anti-Christ has to be defeated at novel’s end, and for this to happen, the good Christians have to be shown the door, for smiling piety can, in the novel’s terms, sustain no narrative interest; it can enter into no conflicts. Left Behind is premised on the notion that devout Christians are cheek-turning wimps and goody-two shoes, mere women, in which case they won’t be much good in the fight against the liberals and the Jews. What this means is that the protagonists who remain in the novel—the Christian fence-sitters—are all men, and not just any men, but rugged men with rugged, porn-star names: Rayford Steele, Buck Williams, Dirk Burton. Left Behind is a novel, in other words, that envisions the remasculinization of Christianity, that calls upon its readers to imagine a Christianity without women, but with muscle and grit instead, a Christianity that can do more than just bake casseroles for people. And such a project, of course, requires bad Christians so that they may become bad-ass Christians. Perhaps it goes without saying: A Christian action thriller is going to be interested first and foremost in action-thriller Christians.

It is with the film version of Left Behind (2001), however, that things really get curious. The film’s final moments nearly make explicit a feature of the narrative that is half-buried in the novel: The film concludes with a brief sequence that we’ve all seen a dozen times, in a dozen different action movies—the sequence, that is, in which the heroic husband returns home from his adventures to be reunited with his wife and child. Typically, this scene is staged at the front door of the suburban house with the child at the wife’s side; you might think, emblematically, of the final shots of John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), which show FBI Agent Sean Archer (John Travolta) exchanging glances with his wife (Joan Allen) over the threshold as their teenaged daughter hovers in the background. Left Behind, for its part, reproduces that scene almost exactly, almost shot for shot, except, since the women have all evaporated or gone over to anti-Christ, the film has no choice but to stage this familiar ending in an unfamiliar way—between its male heroes, between Rayford Steele, standing in the doorway with his daughter, and a bedraggled Buck Williams, freshly returned from his battles with the Beast. A remasculinized Christianity, then, cannot help but imagine that the perfect Christian family would be—two men. Such, then, is one upshot of fundamentalism’s new openness to pop culture: Christianity uncloseted.

Of course, the borrowings can go in the other direction as well. Secular apocalypse movies can deck themselves out in religious trappings, but when they do so, they risk an ideological incoherence of their own. Think first about conventional, secular catastrophe movies—Armegeddon (1998), Deep Impact (1998), Volcano (1997)—so-called apocalypse films that actually make no reference to religion. These tend to be reactionary in rather humdrum and technocratic ways, full of experts and managers deploying the full resources of the nation to fend off a threat defined from the outset as non-ideological. The volcanoes and earthquakes and meteors that loom over such movies are therefore merely more refined versions of the maniacal terrorists and master thieves who normally populate action movies: they are enemies of the state whose challenge to the social order never approaches the level of the political. It is when such secular narratives reintroduce some portion of religious imagery, however, that their political character becomes pronounced. We might think here of The Seventh Sign (1988), which featured Demi Moore, or of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle End of Days (1999). Like Left Behind, these last two films work by combining biblical scenarios and disaster-movie conventions, and the results are similarly confusing. To be more precise, they begin by offering luridly Baroque versions of the Christian apocalypse narrative, but then revert back to the secular logic of the disaster movie, as though to say: Catastrophes are destabilizing a merciless world in preparation for Christ’s return—and this must be stopped! In a half-hearted nod to Christian ethics, each of these movies begins by depicting the world of global capitalism as brutal and unjust—the montage of squalor has become something of an apocalypse-movie cliché—before deciding that this world must be preserved at all costs. The characters in these films, in other words, expend their entire allotment of action-movie ingenuity trying to prevent the second coming of Christ, imagined here as the biggest disaster of all.[3]

This is not to say that contemporary American apocalypses dispense with redemptive imagery altogether, at least of some worldly kind. Carceral dystopias, for instance, films that work by trapping their characters in controlled and constricted spaces, tend to posit some utopian outside to their seemingly total systems: the characters in Dark City (1997) dream of Shell Beach, the fictitious seaside resort that supposedly lies just past their nightmarish noir metropolis, the illusory last stop on a bus line that actually runs nowhere; the man-child of Peter Weir’s Truman Show (1998) dreams, in similar ways, of Fiji, which is a rather more conventional vision of oceanic bliss; and the Horatio-Alger hero of the genetics dystopia Gattaca (1997) follows this particular utopian logic to its furthest end by dreaming of the day he will be made an astronaut, the day he will fly to outer space, which of course is no social order at all, let alone a happier one, but merely an anything-but-here, an any-place-but-this-place, the sheerest beyond. As utopias go, then, these three are remarkably impoverished; they cannot help but seem quaint and nostalgic, strangely dated, like the daydreams of some Cold-War eight-year old, all Coney Island and Polynesian hula-girls and John-Glenn, shoot-the-moon fantasies.

But then it is precisely the old-fashioned quality of these utopias that is most instructive; it is precisely their retrograde quality that demands an explanation. For if on the one hand, U.S. pop culture has seemed preoccupied with the apocalypse, on the other hand it has seemed every bit as obsessed with cheery images from a sanitized past. Apocalypse culture has as its companion the many-faceted retro-craze: vintage clothing; Nick at Nite; the ‘70s vogue; the ‘50s vogue; the ‘40s vogue; the ‘30s vogue; the ‘20s vogue (the ‘60s are largely missing from this tally, for reasons too obvious to enumerate; the ‘60s vogue has been stunted, almost nonexistent, at least within a U.S. framework—retro tops out about 1963 and then gets shifted over to Europe and the mods); the return of surf, lounge-music, and Latin jazz; retro-marketing and retro-design, and especially the Volkswagen Beetle and the PT Cruiser.

Retro, then, deserves careful consideration of its own, as an independent phenomenon alongside the apocalypse. Some careful distinctions will be necessary. Retro takes a hundred different forms; it has the appearance of a single and coherent phenomenon only at a very high level of generality. We could begin, then, by examining the heavily marketed ‘60s and ‘70s retro of mainstream, white youth culture. Here we would want to say, at least on first pass, that the muffled camp of Austin Powers (1997), say—or the mid-‘90s Brady Bunch revival, or Beck’s Midnite Vultures—closely approximates Jameson’s notion of postmodern pastiche: this is retro as blank parody, the affectless recycling of alien styles, worn like so many masks. But that said, we would have to counterpose against these examples the retro-culture of a dozen regional scenes, scattered across the U.S., most of which are retro in orientation, but none of which are exercises in pastiche exactly. Take, for instance, the rockabilly and honky-tonk scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina: It is impeccably retro in its musical choices and impeccably retro in its fashions, full of redneck hipsters sporting bowling shirts and landing-pad flattops and smart-alecky tattoos. Theirs is a form of retro whose reference points are emphatically local, and in its regionalism, the Chapel Hill scene aspires to a subculture’s subversiveness, a kind of Southern-fried defiance, which stakes its ground in contradistinction to some perceived American mainstream and then gives its rebellion local color, as though to say: “We don’t work in your airless (Yankee) offices. We don’t speak your pinched (Yankee) speech. We don’t belong to your emasculated (Yankee) culture. We are hillbillies and punks in equal proportion.”  Retro, in short, can be placed in the service of a kind of spitfire regionalism, and there is little to be gained by simply conflating this form of retro with the retro-culture marketed nationwide.

In fact, even mainstream ‘70s retro can take on different valences in different hands. To cite just one further example: hip-hop sampling, which builds new tracks out of the recycled fragments of existing recordings, might seem upon first inspection to be the very paradigm of the retro-aesthetic. And yet hip-hop, which has mined the ‘70s funk back-catalog with special diligence, typically forgoes the irony that otherwise accompanies such postmodern borrowings. Indeed, hip-hop sampling generally involves something utterly unlike irony; it is often positioned as a claim to authenticity, an homage to the old school, so that when OutKast, say, channels some vintage P-Funk, that sample is meant to function as a genetic link, a reoccurring trait or musical cell-form. The sample is meant to serve as a tangible connection back to some originary moment in the history of soul and R&B (or funk and disco).[4]

So differences abound in retro. And yet one is tempted, all the same, to speak of something like an official retro-culture, which takes as its object the 1940s and ‘50s: diners, martinis, “swing” music (which actually refers, not to ‘30s and ‘40s swing, but to post-war jump blues), industrial-age furniture, late-deco appliances, all chrome and geometry. The most important point to be made about this form of retro is that it is an unabashedly nationalist project; it sets out to create a distinctively U.S. idiom, one redolent of Fordist prosperity, an American aesthetic culled from the American century, a version of Yankee high design able to compete, at last, with its vaunted European counterparts. In general, then, we might want to say that retro is the form that national tradition takes in a capitalist culture: Capitalism, having liquidated all customary forms of culture, will sell them back to you at $16 a pop. But then commodification has ever been the fate of national customs, which are all more or less scripted and inauthentic. What is distinctive about retro, then, is the class of objects that it chooses to burnish with the chamois of tradition. There is a remarkable scene near the beginning of Jeunet and Caro’s great retro-film Delicatessen (1991) that is instructive in this regard: Two brothers sit in a basement workshop, handcrafting moo-boxes—those small, drum-shaped toys that, once upended and then set right again, low like sorrowful cows. The brothers grind the ragged edges from the boxes, blow away the shavings as one might dust from a favorite book, rap the work-table with a tuning fork and sing along with the boxes to ensure the perfect pitch of the heifer’s bellow. And in that image of their care, their workman’s pride, lies one of retro-culture’s great fantasies: Retro distinguishes itself from the more or less folkish quality of most national traditions in that it elevates to the status of custom the commodities of early mass production—old Coke bottles, vintage automobiles—and it does so by imbuing them with artisanal qualities, so that, in a strange historical inversion, the first industrial assembly lines come to seem the very emblem of craftsmanship. Retro is the process by which mass-produced trinkets can be reinvented as “heritage.”[5]

The apocalypse and the retro-craze—such, then, are the twin poles of postmodernism, at least on Jameson’s account. We are all so accustomed to this twosome that it has become hard to appreciate what an odd juxtaposition it really is. Disco inferno, indeed. This is a pairing, at any rate, that finds a rather precise corollary in the writings of Walter Benjamin. Each of the moments of our swinging apocalypse can be traced back to Benjaminian impulses, or opens itself, at least, to Benjaminian description. For in what other thinker are we going to find, in a manner that so oddly approximates the culture of American malls and American multiplexes, this combination of millenarian mournfulness and antiquarian devotion? Benjamin’s Collector seems to preside over postmodernism’s thrift-shop aesthetic, just as surely as its apocalyptic imagination is overseen by Benjamin’s Messiah, or at least by his Catastrophic Angel. It would seem, then, that Benjaminians should be right at home in postmodernism, and if this is palpably untrue—if the culture of global capitalism does not after all seem altogether hospitable to communists and the Kabbalah—then this is something we will now have to account for. Why, despite easily demonstrated affinities, does it seem a little silly to describe U.S. postmodernism as Benjaminian?

Jameson’s work is again clarifying. It is not hard to identify the Benjaminian elements in Jameson’s idiom, and especially in his utopian preoccupations, his determination to make of the future an open and exhilarating question. No living critic has done more than Jameson to preserve the will-be’s and the could-be’s in a language that would just as soon dispense altogether with its future tenses and subjunctive moods. And yet a moment’s reflection will show that Jameson is, for all that, the great anti-Benjaminian. It is Jameson who has taught us to experience pop culture’s Benjaminian qualities, not as utopian pledges, but as threats or calamities. Thus Jameson on apocalypse narratives: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations. I have come to think that the word postmodern ought to be reserved for thoughts of this kind.”[6] It is worth calling attention to the obvious point about these sentences—that Jameson here more or less equates postmodernism and apocalypticism—if only because in his earliest work on the subject, it is not the apocalypse but retro-culture that seems to be postmodernism’s distinguishing and debilitating mark. Again Jameson: “there cannot but be much that is deplorable and reprehensible in a cultural form of image addiction which, by transforming the past into visual mirages, stereotypes, or texts, effectively abolishes any practical sense of the future and of the collective project.”[7]  Jameson, in short, is most sour precisely where Benjamin is most expectant. He would have us turn our back on the most conspicuous features of Benjamin’s work; for late capitalism, it would seem, far from keeping faith with Benjamin, actually robs us of our Benjaminian tools, if only by generalizing them, by transforming them into noncommittal habits or static conventions: the Collector, fifty years on, shows himself to be just another fetishist, and even the Angel of History turns out to be a predictable and anti-utopian figure, unable to so much as train its eyes forward, foreclosing, without reprieve, on the time yet to come. U.S. postmodernism may be a culture that loves to “brush history against the grain,” but only in the way that you might brush back your ironic rockabilly pompadour.



But what if we refused to break with Benjamin in this way? Try this, just as an exercise: Ask yourself what these seemingly disparate trends—apocalypticism and the retro-craze—have to do with one another. Consider in particular that remarkable crop of recent films that actually unite these two trends, films that ask us to imagine an unlivable future, but do so in elegant vintage styles. These include: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the grand-daddy of the retro-apocalypses; three oddly upbeat dystopias—Starship Troopers and the aforementioned Gattaca and Dark City—all box-office underachievers from 1997; and, again, the cannibal slapstick Delicatessen. All of these films posit, in their very form, some profound correlation between retro and the apocalypse, but it is hard, on a casual viewing, to see what that correlation could be. Jameson, of course, offers a clear and compelling answer to this question, which is that apocalypticism and the retro-craze are the Janus faces of a culture without history, two eyeless countenances, pressed back to back, facing blankly out over the vistas they cannot survey.[8]

Some of these films, it must be noted, seem to invite a Jamesonian account of themselves. This is true of Blade Runner, for instance, or of The Truman Show—films that offer a vision of retro-as-dystopia, a realm of fabricated memory, in which history gets handed over to corporate administration, in which every madeleine is stamped “Made in Malaysia.” Perhaps it is worth pausing here, however, since we need to be wary of running these two films together. The contrast between them is actually quite revealing. Both Blade Runner and The Truman Show present retro-culture as dystopian, and in order to do this, both rely on some of the basic conventions of science fiction. Think about what makes science fiction distinctive as a mode—think, that is, about what distinguishes it from those genres with which it seems otherwise affiliated, such as the horror movie. Horror movies, especially since the 1970s, have typically worked by introducing some terrifying, unpredictable element into apparently safe and ordinary spaces. Monsters are nearly always intruders—slashers in the suburbs, zombies forcing their way past the barricaded door. But dystopian science fiction is, in this respect, nearly the antithesis of horror. It does not depict a familiar setting into which something frightening then gets inserted. What is frightening in dystopian science fiction is rather the setting itself. Now, this point holds for both Blade Runner and The Truman Show, but it holds in rather different ways. The first observation that needs to be made about The Truman Show is that it is more or less a satire, which is to say that, though it takes retro as its object, it is not itself a retro-film. It portrays a world that has handed itself over entirely to retro, a New Urbanist idyll of gleaming clapboard houses on mixed-use streets; but the film itself is not, by and large, retro in its narrative forms or cinematic techniques. Quite the contrary: the film wants to teach its viewers how to read retro in a new way; it wishes, polemically, to loosen the hold of retro upon them. The Truman Show takes a setting that initially seems like some American Eden, and then through the menacing comedy of its mise-en-scène—the falling lights and incomplete sets, the scenery that Truman stumbles upon or that springs disruptively to life—makes this retro-town come slowly to seem ominous. To give the film the cheap Lacanian description it is just begging for: The Truman Show charts the unraveling of the symbolic order. Every klieg light that comes crashing down from the sky is a warning shot fired from the Real. The simpler point, however, is that The Truman Show rests on a deflationary argument about American mass culture—a media-governed retro-culture depicted here as restrictive, counterfeit, and infantilizing—and its form is accordingly rather conventional. It is essentially a cinematic Bildungsroman, which ends once the protagonist steps forward to take full responsibility for his own life, and this, of course, tends to compromise the film’s own Lacanian premise: It suggests that any of us could simply step out of the symbolic order, step boldly out into the Real, if only we could muster sufficient resolve.[9]

Having a compromised and conventional form, however, is not the same thing as having a retro-form. In Blade Runner, by contrast, the setting—a dismal and degenerate Los Angeles—is self-evidently dystopian, but it is itself retro; it is retro as a matter of style or form. The film’s vision of L.A., as has often been observed, is equal parts Metropolis and ‘40s film noir, and the effect of the film is thus rather different from The Truman Show, though it is equally curious: Blade Runner may recycle earlier styles or narrative forms in a manner typical of retro, but the films that it mimics are themselves all more or less dystopian. If Blade Runner is a pastiche, it is a pastiche of other dystopias, and this has the effect of establishing the correlation between retro and the apocalypse in a distinctive way: Blade Runner posits a historical continuum between a bleak past and an equally bleak future, between the corrupt and stratified modernist city (of German expressionism and hardboiled fiction) and the coming reign of corporate capital (envisioned by so much science fiction), between the bad world we’ve survived and the bad world that awaits.

Such, then, are the films that seem ready to make Jameson’s argument for him. But there is good reason, I think, to set Jameson temporarily to one side. For present purposes, it would be more revealing to direct our attention back to Delicatessen, which, of all the retro-apocalypses, is perhaps the most winning and Benjaminian. The question that confronts any viewer of Delicatessen is why this film—which, after all, depicts an utterly dismal world in which men and women are literally butchered for meat—should be so delightful to watch, and not just wry or darkly humorous, but giddy and dithyrambic. I would suggest that the pleasure peculiar to Delicatessen has everything to do with the status of objects in the film—that is, with the extravagant and festive care that Jeunet and Caro bring to the filming of objects, which take on the appearance here of so many found and treasured items. One might call to mind the hand-crank coffee grinder, which doubles as a radio transmitter; or the cherry-red bellboy’s outfit; or simply the splendid opening credits—this slow pan over broken records and torn photographs—in which the picture swings open like a case of curiosities. It is as though the film took as its most pressing task the re-enchantment of the object-world, as though it were going to lift objects to the camera one by one and reattach to them their auras—not their fetishes, now, as happens in most commercial films, with their product placements and designer outfits—but their auras, as though the objects at hand had never passed through a marketplace at all. This is tricky: The objects in Delicatessen are recognizably of the same type as American retro-commodities—an antique wind-up toy, an old gramophone, stand-alone black-and-white television sets. At this point, then, the argumentative alternatives become clear: Either we can dismiss Delicatessen as ideologically barren, as just another pretext for retro-consumption, just another flyer for the flea market of postmodernism. Or we can muster a little more patience, tend to the film a little more closely, in which case we might discover in Delicatessen the secret of all retro-culture: its desire, delusional and utopian in equal proportion, for a relationship to objects as something other than commodities.

To follow the latter course is to raise an obvious question: How does the film direct our attention to objects in a new way? How does it reinvigorate our affection for the object world? This is a question, first of all, of the film’s visual style, although it turns out that nothing all that unusual is going on cinematographically: In a manner characteristic of French art-film since the New Wave, Delicatessen keeps the spectator’s eye on its objects simply by cutting to them at every opportunity and thus giving them more screen time than household artifacts typically claim. By the usual standards of analytical editing, in other words—within the familiar breakdown of a scene into detailed views of faces, gestures, and props—the props get a disproportionate number of shots. The objects, like so many Garbos, hog all the close-ups. “By permitting thought to get, as it were, too close to its object,” Adorno once said of Benjamin’s critical method, “the object becomes as foreign as an everyday, familiar thing under a microscope.”[10] Delicatessen works, in these terms, by taking Adorno’s linguistic figure at face value and returning it back to something like its literal meaning, back to the visual. The film permits the camera to get too close to its object. It forces the spectator to scrutinize objects anew simply by bringing them into sustained proximity.

The camerawork, however, is just the start of it, for in addition to the question of cinematic style, there is the related question of form or genre. Delicatessen, it turns out, is playing a crafty game with genre, and it is through this formal frolic that the film most insistently places itself in the service of its objects. For Delicatessen is retro not only in its choice of props—it is, like Blade Runner, formally or generically retro, as well. This point may not be immediately apparent, however, since Delicatessen resurrects a genre largely shunned by recent U.S. film. One occasionally gets the feeling from American cinema that film noir is the only genre ripe for recycling. The 1990s have delivered a whole paddywagon full of old-fashioned crime stories and heist pics, but where are all the other classic Hollywood genres? Where are the retro-Westerns and the retro war movies? Where are the retro-screwballs?[11] Neo-noir, of course, is relatively easy to pull off—dim the lights and fire a gun and some critic or another will call it noir. Delicatessen, for its part, attempts something altogether more difficult or, at least, sets in motion a less reliable set of cinematic conventions: pratfalls, oversized shoes, madcap chase scenes. Early on, in fact, the film has one of its characters say that, in its post-apocalyptic world, people are so hungry they “would eat their shoes”; and with this one line—an unambiguous reference to the celebrated shoe-eating of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush—it becomes permissible to find references to silent comedy at every turn: in the hero’s suspenders, in the film’s several clownish dances, in the near-demolition of the apartment building in which all the action is set, a demolition that, once read as slapstick, will call to mind Buster Keaton’s wrecking-ball comedy, the crashing houses of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), say. Delicatessen, in sum, is retro-slapstick, and noting as much will allow us to ask a number of valuable questions.

The most compelling of these questions will return us to the matter at hand. We are trying to figure out how Delicatessen gets the viewer to pay attention to its objects, and so the question now must be: What does slapstick have to do with the status of objects in the film? It is hardly intuitive, after all, that slapstick should bring about the redemption of objects, should reattach objects to their auras. A cursory survey of classic slapstick, in fact, might suggest just the opposite—a world, not of enchanted objects, but of aggressive and adversarial ones. Banana peels and cream pies spring mischievously to mind. And yet we need to approach these icons with caution, lest we take a conceptual pratfall of our own; for Delicatessen draws on slapstick in at least two different ways, or rather, it draws on two distinct trends in early American slapstick, and each of these trends grants a different status to its objects. Everything rides on this distinction:

1) When we think of slapstick, we think first of all of roughhouse comedy, of the pie in the face and the kick in the pants, the endless assault on ass and head. Classic slapstick of this kind is what we might call the comedy of Newtonian physics. It is a farce of gravity and force, and as such, it is based on the premise that the object world is fundamentally intransigent, hostile to the human body. In this Krazy-Kat or Keystone world, every brick, every mop is a tightly wound spring of kinetic energy, always ready to uncoil, violently and without motivation.[12] It is worth remarking, then, that Delicatessen, contains its share of knockabout: the Rube Goldberg suicide machines, the postman always tumbling down the stairs. In its most familiar moments, Delicatessen, in keeping with its comic predecessors, seems to suggest that the human body is irreparably out of joint with its environment.

A first distinction is necessary here, for though Delicatessen may embrace the sadism of slapstick, it does so with a historical specificity of its own. Classic slapstick typically addresses itself to the place of the body under urban and industrial capitalism; one is pretty much obliged at this point to adduce Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), with its scenes of working-class mayhem and man-eating machines. Delicatessen, by contrast, contains man-eaters of its own, but they are not metaphorical man-eaters, as Chaplin’s machines are—they are cannibals true and proper, and their presence adds a certain complexity to the question of the film’s genre, for there have appeared so many films about cannibalism over the last twenty years that they virtually constitute a minor genre of their own.[13] One way to describe Delicatessen’s achievement, then, is to say that it splices together classic slapstick with the cannibal film. There will be no way to appreciate what this means, however, until we have determined the status of the cannibal in contemporary cinema. Broadly speaking, images of the cannibal tend to participate in one of two discourses: Historically, they have played a rather repugnant role in the racist repertoire of colonial clichés. Cannibalism is one of the more extreme versions of the imperial Other, the savage who does not respect even the most basic of civilization’s taboos. Increasingly, however, in films such as Eat the Rich (1987) or Dawn of the Dead (1978), cannibalism has become a conventional (and more or less satirical) image of Europeans and Americans themselves—an image, that is, of consumerism gone awry, of a consumerism that has liquidated all ethical boundaries, that has sunk into raw appetite, without restraint.[14] For present purposes, this point is nowhere clearer than in Delicatessen’s final chase scene, in which the cannibalistic tenants of the film’s apartment house gather to hunt down the film’s hero. The important point here is that, within the conventions of classic Hollywood comedy, the film makes a conspicuous substitution, for our comic hero is not on the run from some exasperated factory foreman or broad-shouldered cop on the beat, as silent slapstick would have it. He is fleeing, rather, from a consumer mob, E.P. Thompson’s worst nightmare, some degraded, latter-day bread riot. It is important that we appreciate the full ideological force of this switchover: By staffing the old comic scenarios with kannibals instead of kops, the film is able to transform slapstick in concrete and specifiable ways. The cannibals mean that when Delicatessen revives Chaplin-era slapstick, it does so without Chaplin’s factories or Chaplin’s city. This is slapstick for some other, later stage of capitalism—modernist comedy from which modernist industry has disappeared, leaving only consumption in its place.

2) Slapstick, then, announces a pressing political problem, in Delicatessen as in silent comedy. It sounds an alarm on behalf of the besieged human body. Delicatessen’s project, in this sense, is to imagine that problem’s solution, to mount a counterattack, to ward off the principle of slapstick by shielding the human body from its batterings. The deranged, consumption-mad crowd, in this light, is one, decidedly sinister version of the collective, but it finds its counterimage here in a second collective, a radical collective—the vegetarian insurgency that serves as ethico-political anchor to the film. Or to be more precise: The film is a fantasy about the conditions under which an advanced consumer capitalism could be superceded, and in order to do so, it follows two different tracks: One of the film’s subplots follows the efforts of the anti-consumerist underground, the Trogolodytes, while a second subplot stages a fairly ordinary romance between the clown-hero and a butcher’s daughter. Delicatessen thus divides its utopian energies between the revolutionary collective, depicted here as some lunatic version of La Resistance, and the heterosexual couple, imagined in impeccably Adornian fashion as the last, desperate repository of human solidarity, the faint afterimage of a non-instrumental relationship in a world otherwise given over to instrumentality.[15]

But this pairing does not exhaust the film’s political imagination, if only because knockabout does not exhaust the possibilities of slapstick. Delicatessen, in fact, is more revealing when it refuses roughhouse and shifts instead into one of slapstick’s other modes. Consider the key scene, early in the film, when the clown-hero, who has been hired as a handyman in the cannibal house, hauls out a bucket of soapy water to wash down the stairwell. The bucket, of course, is another slapstick icon, and anyone already cued in to the film’s generic codes might be able to predict how the scene will play out. Classic slapstick would dictate that the hero’s foot get wedged inside the bucket, that he skid helplessly across the ensuing puddle, that the mop pivot into the air and crack him in the forehead, that he somersault finally down the stairs. The important point, of course, is that no such thing happens. The clown does not get his pummeling. On the contrary, he uses his cleaning bucket to fill the hallway of this drear and half-inhabited house with giant, wobbling soap-bubbles, with which he then dances a kind of shimmy. It is in this moment, when the film pointedly repudiates the comedy of abuse, that the film modulates into a different tradition of screen comedy, what Mark Winokur has called “transformative“ or “tramp” comedy.

The hallway scene, in other words, is Chaplin through and through. It is important, then, to specify the basic structure of the typical Chaplin gag—and to specify, in particular, what distinguishes Chaplin from the generalized brutality and bedlam of the Keystone shorts. Chaplin’s bits are so many visual puns: they work by taking an everyday object and finding a new and exotic use for it, turning a roast chicken into a funnel, or a tuba into an umbrella stand, or dinner rolls into two dancing feet.[16] In Delicatessen, such transformative comedy is apparent in the New Year’s Eve noisemaker that the frog-man uses as a tongue, to catch flies; or in the hero’s musical saw, which, in fact, is the very emblem of the film’s many objects—an implement liberated from its pedestrian uses, a tool that yields melody, a dumb commodity suddenly able to speak again, and not just to shill, but to murmur of new possibilities. It is in transformative comedy, then, in the spectacle of objects whose use has been transposed, that slapstick takes on a utopian function. Slapstick becomes, so to speak, its own solution: Knockabout slapstick, in which objects are perpetually in revolt against the human body, finds its redemption in transformative slapstick, in which the human body discovers a new and unexpected affinity with objects. The pleasure that is distinctive of Delicatessen is thus actually some grand comic version of Kant’s aesthetics, of Kant’s Beauty, premised as it is on the dawning and grateful realization that objects are ultimately and against all reasonable expectation suited to human capacities. Delicatessen reimagines the world as a perpetual pas de deux with the inanimate.[17]

Transformative slapstick, this is all to say, functions in Delicatessen as a kind of antidote to cannibalistic forms of consumption. At its most schematic, the film faces its viewers with a choice between two different ways of relating to objects: a cannibalistic relationship, in which the object will be destroyed by the consumer’s unchecked hunger, or a Chaplinesque relationship, in which the object will be kept alive and continually reinvented. And so at a moment when cinematic realism has fallen into a state of utter disrepair, when realism finds it can do nothing but script elegies for the working class—when even fine films like Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird (1994) and Zonca’s Dream Life of Angels (1998) have opted for the funereal, with so much as the protest drubbed out of them—it falls to Delicatessen’s grotesquerie to fulfill realism’s great utopian function, to keep faith, as Bazin said, with mere things, “to allow them first of all to exist for their own sakes, freely, to love them in their singular individuality.”[18]

It is crucial, however, that we not confine this observation to Delicatessen, because in that film’s endeavor lies the buried aspiration of all retro-culture, even (or especially) at its most fetishistic. If you examine the signs that hang next to the objects at Restoration Hardware and other such retro-marts—these small placards that invent elaborate and fictional histories for the objects stacked there for sale—you will discover a culture recoiling from its commodities in the very act of acquiring them, a culture that thinks it can drag objects back into the magic circle if only it can learn to consume them in the right way. Retro-commodities utterly collapse our usual Benjaminian distinctions between the fetish and the aura, and they do so by taking as their fundamental promise what Benjamin calls  “the revolutionary energies that appear in the ‘outmoded,’” the notion that if you know the history of an item or if you can aestheticize even the most ordinary of objects—a well-wrought dustpan, perhaps, or a chrome toaster—then you are never merely buying an object; you are salvaging it from the sphere of circulation, and perhaps even from the tawdriness of use.[19]

This is not yet to say enough, however, because it is the achievement of Delicatessen to demonstrate that this retro-utopia is unthinkable without the apocalypse. For if the objects in Delicatessen achieve a luminosity that is denied even the most exquisite retro-commodities, then this is only because they occupy a ruined landscape, in which they come to seem singular and irreplaceable. Delicatessen is a film whose characters are forever scavenging for objects, scrapping over parcels that have gone astray, rooting through the trash like so many hobos or German Greens. It is the film’s fundamental premise, then, that in a time of shortage, and in a time of shortage alone, objects will slough off their commodity status. They will crawl out from under the patina of mediocrity that the exchange relationship ordinarily imposes on them. If faced with shortage, each object will come to seem unique again, fully deserving of our attention. There is a startling lesson here for anyone interested in the history of utopian forms: that utopia can require suffering, or at least scarcity, and not abundance; that the classical utopias of plenty—those Big Rock Candy mountains with their lemonade springs and cigarette trees and smoked hams raining from the sky—are, under late capital, little more than hideous afterimages of the marketplace itself, spilling over with redundant and misdistributed goods, stripped of their revolutionary energy; that a society of consumption must, however paradoxically, find utopia in its antithesis, which is dearth.[20] And so we come round, finally, to my original point: that we must have, alongside Jameson, a second way of positing the identity of retro-culture and the apocalypse, one that will take us straight back to Benjamin: Underlying retro-culture is a vision of a world in which commodity production has come to a halt, in which objects have been handed down, not for our consumption, but for our care. The apocalypse is retro-culture’s deepest fantasy, its enabling wish.


[1] Jameson’s full comments can be found in the London Review of Books (Volume 23, Number 19, October 4, 2001). See also “Architecture and the Critique of Ideology, in The Ideologies of Theory, Volume 2: The Syntax of History, pp. 35-60, esp. p. 41: “dialectical interpretation is always retrospective, always tells the necessity of an event, why it had to happen the way it did; and to do that, the event must already have happened, the story must already have come to an end.”

[2] This essay is available in multiple versions. The easiest to come by is perhaps “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,”  in The Cultural Turn (London: Verso, 1998), pp. 1-20; and the most densely argued “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” in Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54.

[3] The Seventh Sign, for what it’s worth, draws on at least four different genres: 1) It is, at the most general level, a Christian apocalypse narrative; its nominal subject is the End Time, the series of catastrophes set in motion by God in preparation for His final judgment. 2) But in doing so, it deploys most of the conventions of the occult horror film. Even though the film expressly states that God is responsible for the disasters depicted, it cannot help but stage those disasters as supernatural and scary, in sequences borrowed more or less wholesale from the exorcism and devil-child movies of the 1970s, which is to say that viewers are expected to experience God’s actions as essentially diabolical. The film may adorn itself with Christian trappings, but in a manner typical of the Gothic, it cannot, finally, represent religion as anything but frightening. 3) This last point is clearest in the film’s depiction of Jesus Christ, who actually appears as a character and is almost always filmed in shots lifted from serial-killer films—Jesus stands alone, isolated in ominous medium long-shots, his face half in shadow, lit starkly from the side. Jesus’ menace is also a plot point: Christ, in the film, rents a room from Demi Moore and, in a manner that recalls Pacific Heights (1990) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), becomes the intruder in the suburban home, the malevolent force that the white professional family has mistakenly welcomed under its roof. 4) In its final logic, then, the film reveals itself to be just a disaster movie in disguise: The Apocalypse must be scuttled. Christ must be sent back to heaven (and thus evicted from the suburban home). Justice must be averted.

[4] I owe this point to a conversation with Roger Beebe. Even here, though, matters are more complicated than they at first seem. Hip-hop, after all, hardly dispenses with irony and pastiche altogether: Jay-Z  has sampled “It’s a Hard-knock Life” (from Annie) and Missy Elliot has sampled Mozart’s Requiem, but no-one is likely to suggest that hip-hop is establishing a genetic link back to the Broadway musical or Viennese classicism.

[5] Of course, as a nationalist project, retro will play out differently in different national contexts. Perhaps a related cinematic example will make this clear. Consider Jeneut’s Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001). At the level of diagesis—as a plain matter of plot and dialogue and character—the film has nothing at all to do with nationalism. On the contrary, it dedicates an entire subplot to undermining the provincialism of one of its characters, Amélie’s father, who resolves at movie’s end to become more cosmopolitan. The entire film is directed towards getting him to leave France. But at the level of form, things look rather different. Formally, the film is retro through and through. It won’t take a cinephile to notice the overt references to Jules et Jim (1962) and Zazie dans le Metro (1960), at which point it becomes clear that Amélie is a pastiche of the French New Wave, which is thereby transformed into a historical artifact of its own. Amélie, then, attempts to recreate the nouvelle vague, not with an eye to making it vital again as an aesthetic and political project, but merely to cycle exhaustively through its techniques, its stylistic tics, as though it were compiling some kind of visual compendium. The nationalism that the film’s narrative explicitly rejects thus reappears as a matter of form. Amélie works to draw our attention to the Frenchness of the New Wave, to codify it as a national style, and the presumed occasion for the film is therefore the ongoing battle, in France, over the Americanization of la patrie. Amélie is a bulldozer looking for its MacDonald’s.

[6] See Jameson’s “The Antinomies of Postmodernism,” in The Cultural Turn, pp. 50-72, quotation p. 50.

[7] See “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” in Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke, 1991), pp. 1-54, quotation p. 46.

[8] The second quotation cited here goes on to make this point clear: Retro-culture, Jameson continues, “abandon(s) the thinking of future change to fantasies of sheer catastrophe and inexplicable cataclysm, from visions of ‘terrorism’ on the social level to those of cancer on the personal.”

[9] The Truman Show, to be fair, does hedge the matter somewhat. The film’s numerous cutaways to the show’s viewers show a “real world” that is itself populated by TV-thralls, Truman Burbanks of a lower order. So when Truman steps out of his videodrome, we have a choice: We can either conclude, in proper Lacanian fashion, that Truman has simply traded one media-governed pseudo-reality for another. Or we can conclude that the film is asking us to distinguish between those, like Truman, who are able to shrug off their media masters, and those, like his viewers, who aren’t. I take this to be the film’s constitutive hesitation, its undecideable question.

[10] See Adorno’s “Portrait of Walter Benjamin” in Prisms, translated by Samuel and Shierry Weber (Cambridge: MIT, 1981, pp. 227-241), here p. 240.

[11] Examples of these last can be found, but it takes some looking: Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is a retro World War II movie, more so than Pearl Harbor (2001) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), which aspire to be historical dramas; and the Coen brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy (1994) is unmistakably a retro-screwball (and such a lovely thing that it’s a wonder others haven’t followed its lead). But they are virtually the lone examples of their kinds, singular members of non-existent sets. Neo-noir, by contrast, has become too extensive a genre to list comprehensively.

[12] Perhaps a rare instance of literary slapstick, manifestly modeled on cinematic examples, will drive this point home. The following is from Martin Amis’s Money (London: Penguin, 198?), p. 289: “What is it with me and the inanimate, the touchable world? Struggling to unscrew the filter, I elbowed the milk carton to the floor. Reaching for the mop, I toppled the trashcan. Swivelling to steady the trashcan, I barked my knee against the open fridge door and copped a pickle-jar on my toe, slid in the milk, and found myself on the deck with the trashcan throwing up in my face … Then I go and good with the grinder. I took the lid off too soon, blinding myself and fine-spraying every kitchen cranny.”

[13] See, for instance, Eating Raoul (1982); Parents (1989); The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989); and, in a different mood, Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Hannibal (2001).

[14] On the cultural uses of cannibalism, see Cannibalism and the Colonial World, edited by Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, Margaret Iversen (Cambridge: Cambridge, 1998), especially Crystal Bartolovich’s “Consumerism, or the cultural logical of late cannibalism” (pp. 204-237).

[15] For a discussion of Delicatessen that pays closer attention to the film’s narrowly French contexts—its nostalgia for wartime, its debt to French comedies—see Naomi’s Greene’s Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in Postwar French Cinema (Princeton: Princeton, 1999).

[16] See, respectively, Modern Times; The Pawnshop (1916); The Gold Rush (1925).

[17] There’s a sense in which this operation is at work even in the most vicious knockabout. Even the most paradigmatically abusive comedies—the Keystone shorts, say—are redemptive in that the staging of abuse itself discloses a joyous physical dexterity. The staging of bodies out of synch with the inanimate world relies on bodies that are secretly very much in synch with that world—and this small paradox characterizes the pleasure peculiar to those films.

[18] Bazin, What is Cinema?, translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: UCalifornia, 1967); see also Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford, 1965).

[19] See Benjamin’s “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” translated by Edmund Jephcott in the Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927-1934, edited by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 207-221), here p. 210.

[20] Compare Langle and Vanderburch’s utopia of abundance, as noted by Benjamin himself, in the 1935 Arcades-Project Exposé (in The Arcades Project, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin—Cambridge: Belknap, 1999, pp. 3-13), here p. 7:

“Yes, when all the world from Paris to China

Pays heed to your doctrine, O divine Saint-Simon,

The glorious Gold Age will be reborn.

Rivers will flow with chocolate and tea,

Sheep roasted whole will frisk on the plain,

And sautéed pike will swim in the Seine.

Fricaseed spinach will grow on the ground,

Garnished with crushed fried croutons;

The trees will bring forth stewed apples,

And farmers will harvest boots and coats.

It will snow wine, it will rain chickens,

And ducks cooked with turnips will fall from the sky.”

(Translation altered)

Illegals, Part 4






A new problem: What are we to say about stories that feature both allegorical and literal versions of the same thing, of the same class of object or type of person—about True Blood, for instance, whose vampires code comprehensively as queer even though the show also includes among its characters several mortal, day-walking gays and lesbians? This is a real problem, because the show seems to be drawing a distinction, prompting a rigorous reader, one perhaps suspicious of allegory, to insist that the vampires can’t possibly be in some general way stand-ins for queer folk because the show already possesses these latter, and they are not coterminous with the vampires. Placing an allegorical construct in the same room as its literal equivalent doesn’t, as one might suspect, make the allegory stronger or easier to explicate. Quite the contrary: The allegory and the literal referent are going to be locked in a struggle for the relevant name or meaning, and it’s not entirely clear which is going to have the upper hand in that fight. You might think that the literal term has home turf advantage. If a gay person and a vampire are standing next to each other, and I only get to call one of them “gay person,” I’m going to choose the gay person. That’s what it means to say that the presence of the literal term can prevent the allegory from coalescing, like the trace amounts of yolk that ruin your every attempt at meringue. But then hyperbole is at the heart of allegory—you create an allegorical version of x by exaggerating certain features of x—and in that case, the non-literal construct can easily seem like the better version of the thing, more fully and vividly itself, purer, pushed further away from the imaginary average against which all specific difference is gauged. If Dracula and Oscar Wilde double each other, I might decide that it is the vampire who is really queer, whereupon gay and lesbian people will find themselves outflanked, normal by comparison, conceptually maneuvered bank into the ranks of dull humanity. The allegory can poach from the literal term its very name.

If we’re going to make sense of this particular deviant variety of allegory, it will help to have the terms provided by an unreformed structuralism, whose core insight was that all stories begin by generating some opposition or another: A and B, cowboy and Indian. The idea, then, is that since most of us experience oppositions as cockeyed and agitating, the business of nearly any story will be to stabilize its antithesis, though there are different ways a movie or novel or folktale might do this: by subordinating one term to another and perhaps by eliminating it altogether (cowboy defeats, expels, or guns down Indian); or, alternately, by fusing the two together into some unforeseen third (cowboy marries Indian). Storytelling can become more complicated, of course, as it begins shading in intermediate steps that already contravene the central opposition (the half-breed, say, or the white Indian) or as it appends secondary oppositions to its core one: (cowboy and East Coast railroad interest). But nearly all storytelling is at heart a play with oppositions, and the trick when considering a complicated story is to discern the master antithesis (or small set of antitheses) that underpins its many more local conflicts. The remarkable thing, then, about stories that contain allegorical and literal versions of the same thing is that they sabotage this most basic feature of narrative; they monkeywrench the binary by plugging the same term into each of the opposition’s slots—once nakedly and then again in disguise—and thereby create reflexive stories that are not, however, immediately recognizable as such: cowboy and cowboy, teasingly and with the air of paradox.

That such stories pose special challenges should be clear from Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, released in 2005. Nearly every newspaper and magazine reviewer—and, I suspect, most ordinary fans—thought that the movie was about terrorism or that it was 9/11’s conversion into science fiction: It was “the first serious post-9/11 sci-fi movie,” “a 9/11 allegory,” a reminder that “terrorists can take out a big chunk of the Manhattan skyline,” a surprisingly solemn tour of the nation’s “worst terrorism nightmares.” The New York press took to warning its readers off the movie: “merciless,” they called it, and “shocking”—35mm PTSD. And it is certainly true, as the reviewers all mentioned, that the film is crammed with “allusions” and “parallels” and “references” to 9/11: civil emergency in greater New York, panicked urbanites sprinting down city blocks, overwhelmed beat cops, airplane wreckage, a wall of the missing, and—least generically, most jarringly—a rain of ash.

That War of the Worlds is not about terrorism one knows all the same, because it tells you as much, and in so many words—except, of course, one doesn’t know it; everybody missed it. The movie’s hero has two children, and as they escape from the attack, the younger one screams: “Is it the terrorists?”—and gets no answer. Then a minute or two later the older one repeats the question, more calmly this time: “What is it? The terrorists?” “No,” the father says, “this came from someplace else.” All the more remarkably, the film has already by this point identified that Someplace Else or Other Thing, the thing that isn’t terrorism. Some four minutes into the movie, Tom Cruise’s ex-wife instructs him to stay on top of their teenaged son over the weekend, because he has a research report due “on the French occupation of Algeria.” And there it is: The malicious gag underlying the movie is that the invading Martians give a high-school student all the material he needs to write a really bang-up paper about occupation or that they turn his assignment into a family project: This is the weekend everyone learns about empire.

War of the Worlds was thus a thought experiment or indeed a political education—one specific to the middle years of the Bush era: Can you imagine a force powerful enough to do to the US what the US has done to Iraq? Can you imagine, via analogy and extrapolation, a military wielding technological superiority over the US of a kind that the US currently wields over the world’s other nations? Or as one character says of the invaders: “They defeated the greatest power in the world in a matter of a couple of days. … This isn’t a war any more than there is a war between men and maggots.” What the reviewers inexplicably overlooked was that terrorists do not occupy entire countries. And that’s all you need to bear in mind to realize that Spielberg’s movie was is no sense an homage to 9/11—just the reverse—it was a deliberate and principled insult to the instant sanctity of that day, a way of putting 9/11 back into perspective by staging on the same terrain an event of incomparably greater magnitude, a way, that is, of showing the New Yorkers who were told to skip the movie just how much worse it could have been: Baghdad.

This is the sort of thing that becomes possible when allegory doubles its referent; such doubling is, indeed, one of the only ways that narrative can place the same term on both sides of an opposition; X fights X; the US invades the US; Americans as colonizers, Americans as colonized. This is the structure we’ll need to carry forward with us if we want to make sense now of Attack the Block, which is Super 8’s English twin, the other alien-invasion movie from 2011 that pulls in equal measure from ET and the Goonies: more adventuring tweens, more BMXs, more aliens that seem visible only to the pubescent. But then Attack the Block is also the first movie I’ve named that is openly about race in some entirely literal and earthbound sense. This is first of all a simple matter of casting: Almost none of the movie’s heroes are conventionally, ethnically English; all but one come from African or Caribbean immigrant families. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s not enough to imagine The Goonies with English accents. You have rather to imagine The Goonies as new-model Cockneys, black and mixed-race and speaking grime patois. But then it’s not just the characters: Attack the Block is also telling a story about race; indeed, it is telling perhaps the most familiar racial story of the last few generations, the one about integration and enfranchisement. All you need to know is the bare outlines of the plot: Once they start fighting the movie’s aliens—and fight they do, to the death; the movie’s resemblance to ET and Super 8 ends there—the boys are transformed from the piece’s villains to its heroes. They begin the movie by mugging a young white nurse, but they end it by saving the day. In other words, it’s not just that Attack the Block is one of the most extensive pieces of black British pop culture yet produced, and in that sense some kind of landmark. The movie is actually walking you through a reassessment of black Britain and can, to this extent, easily seem like an advance on that recent crop of movies that make the English poor seem like the worst people on earth, though it has to be said that those films’ chosen technique for communicating their sour insight is simply to remake Hollywood movies on English soil: Harry Brown, for instance, which casts Michael Caine as an East End vigilante and aitchless Eastwood—it’s there in the title, if you squint: “brown” = “smudged” or “unclean” = Harry Dirty; and especially the remarkable Eden Lake, which is Deliverance transplanted to a not-so-rural Buckinghamshire, with hoodie-wearing poor kids in the place of Georgia hillbillies: 13-year-old proletarians carving up their betters. These movies and others like them leave the impression that the British working class has simply gone feral—the impression, that is, that class relations in the UK have by this point simply snapped or that basic modes of sociability or decency or respect have disappeared, with dehumanized workers and lumpens stuck living in perpetuity on the far side of their old traditions. To a considerable extent, then, Attack the Block asks to be read as a polemical response to this cinema of broken Britain. The movie begins in the mode of Harry Brown and then simply demands that viewers revise their judgments. The respectable white audience’s designated proxy obtrusively changes her mind. At the beginning of the movie she and an older white neighbor commiserate: “They’re fucking monsters.” But by the end of the movie, she is telling the cops to back off from the bruvs: “I know them. They’re my neighbors.”

One way to summarize Attack the Block, then, would be to say that it is a story of uplift and interracial friendship, in which Britain redefines itself in order to make room for its newest members. Nor is it overreaching to mention Britain in this context; the film has the nation unmistakably on its mind. It is set on Guy Fawkes Day, for one, and so asks to be read as a redo of 1605—England’s second saving!—with West Indian yardies performing the patriotic gallantries once reserved for Protestant knights. More to the point, the movie’s 15-year-old hero, propelled in one scene from out a high window, saves himself by un-metaphorically clinging to the Her Majesty’s flag.

The movie, in sum, revises British nationalism by pushing it in a liberal and multiethnic direction, though we will want to note that this observation is dogged by two persistent instabilities.

First: The film’s visuals might be plenty nationalist—all fireworks and Union Jacks—but its dialogue is not. Anything but: The film’s teenagers routinely say that they are fighting only to defend their housing project, their block. Where the movie is John-Bullish, the characters are instead intensely localist: “We wouldn’t have mugged you if we’d known you lived here.” That’s a sentiment available only to someone whose sense of the imagined community stops cold at the corner shop. And to this jingoism of the neighborhood the characters add a working-class or black ethos of self-policing—the code, in the US context, of Stop snitching and jury negation and Walter Moseley novels: “This is the block. We take care of things our own way.” It might be possible, when trying to make sense of the movie, to simply superimpose these two terms—the nation and the locality—in which case we would conclude that Attack the Block is proposing a council-estate nationalism, a black-white alliance of the distrustful and cop-hating poor. There’s something to this idea, and yet the individual components remain visible and not fully resolved into one another.

Second: The movie does almost nothing to revise one’s perception that its heroes are sadistic predators. It merely concludes that sadistic predators are sometimes useful to have around. The film’s few white men are by contrast all emasculated. “I am registered disabled” one of them says; “I’m a member of fucking Amnesty!” shouts another; and the movie’s gibe is that these amount to the same thing, just two different routes to castration, physical and ideological—twin softnesses. This will obviously complicate our sense of the movie as liberal, since even as the movie is promoting a kind of racial liberalization, it is deciding that liberal men aren’t good for much, and the burden of British masculinity will thereby pass over to the nation’s young Trinidadians and Congolese, fourteen-year olds with knives and swords and bats and explosives, a nine-year old with a handgun, announcing that his new warrior name is “Mayhem.” Attack the Block sometimes gives the impression that it is recruiting the child soldiers of South London.

But then those two instabilities are nothing, mere tremors, compared to the movie’s central and defining instability, the oscillation around which it is constructed. I’ve been describing the role of race in the movie at the literal level, but then there is also an allegorical level, in which everything I’ve just described is taken back. This makes for a vast and, I think, unsolvable puzzle, though in many ways Attack the Block’s racial allegory is unusually bald and not in the least puzzling and amounts to this: The aliens are also black—hairy, subhuman, grinning, and black. I don’t actually want to put too much emphasis on the color in isolation. Racial allegory, after all, is not automatic. Lots of black things are not black. Darth Vader is not black. If all we had to go on is that the creatures are inky-dark, I’d say we could let it slide. But that’s not it: The movie is entirely upfront about how it wants us to understand the aliens’ ebony. The kids stand over the first adult monster they kill, and two of them speak out loud what they see: “Wow, that’s black, that’s too black to see. … That’s the blackest black ever, fam. … That’s blacker than my cousin Femi”—which moniker is Nigerian and usually followed by names like Ogumbanjo and Kuti.

The movie, in other words, openly places the creatures on a spectrum of African-ness. What’s more, it has various ways of expanding on this tactic. Only once does Attack the Block’s dialogue turn openly nationalist, when a gang member sticks up for the home country at the expense of Africa, pouring contempt on a white philanthropist off doing aid work in Ghana: “Why can’t he help the children of Britain? Not exotic enough, is it?” Or there’s this: One teenager warns another than an alien is about to attack by shouting “Gorilla!”—and then that’s another clue. Attack the Block is, at the level of its allegory, an inversion of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a second film about berserking primates, and with the meanings from that other movie largely intact—the meanings, not the judgments. If Rise stages a latter-day slave rebellion—an insurgency against the mass incarceration of black men, an uprising that is at once prison break and revolution—then Attack the Block stages a related event, a bit of colonial turnabout, but asks us instead to cheer its suppression. Anyone who goes into this movie hoping that the Jamaican newcomers are going to battle the white dragon of the West Saxons or cut down the English aristocracy’s heraldic wyverns is going to have to swallow hard. For Attack the Block offers to enfranchise black Britons only by giving them creatures to kill who are blacker than themselves. A group of mostly black teenagers earns its citizenship by systematically cutting down the new crop of even darker arrivals. Conceptually, this is rather astounding: The film is telling two antithetical stories at once—and not via a multiplot—there is no main plot and contrapuntal subplot; it is telling two contradictory stories, but it only has one plot; the same story, then, but susceptible to two radically opposed constructions: a parable about learning to like black immigrants that is at the same time a fantasy about wiping them out—“Kill ‘em! Kill all them things!” The creatures in Attack the Block are so very jet that they often blur into the shadows, but the filmmakers, in what must have seem like an inspired touch, have given them glow-in-the-dark fangs, which means you can only see them when they bare their teeth. There’s an ugly old joke in the American South — something about hunting at night — to which this image is the reinvented punchline.



Illegals, Part 3




So… How is the alien most like a Jew? Or rather, what is it that allows you to identify the alien as a disguised Jew in the first place? But then how, equally, is the alien least like a Jew? And what kind of unlicensed fantasy (about Jews) does that discrepancy announce? We can now ask those questions about Super 8. But before we do so, we’ll want to work out the character of its debt to Steven Spielberg. Everybody said the movie owed a lot Spielberg, and they were right, though maybe not as right as they thought. Super 8 does indeed commandeer the stunted bike from ET and the boy-adventurers from The Goonies. The actor in the lead role does look an awful lot like Henry Thomas. There’s a hefty kid. It’s not just Spielberg, though. Super 8 owes money all over town—owes something to Romero and the ‘70s-era zombie film; owes something else again to the sci-fi monster movies of the ’50s and ‘60s. We can think of the movie as counting off the decades or as constructing its own cinematic timeline, and this in turn points to a small struggle internal to the ongoing history of retro culture. The Spielberg (and Lucas) movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s elected as their own precursors and retro-models the adventure films of the ‘30s and ‘40s: old Westerns, serials, swashbucklers, Buck Rogers, movies with dirigibles. But JJ Abrams is trying to wrench Spielberg’s corpus from its own chosen roots in order to then insert it into the different, more recent history of the movies that he prefers. The year 1980 is no longer, in the first instance, locked into a historical constellation with World War II, as it was with ET; our own 2011, rather, is locked into a constellation with 1980, which—‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s—is now just another year in the post-war.

And yet Abrams’s politics are in some fairly precise way still Spielberg’s own: different historical coordinates, same ideological program. The movie puts on display the doctrine of heroic liberalism, in which the boy-sentimentalist emerges as the better man—not just morally superior, but more efficacious, succeeding precisely where the bullies and badasses fail. This much becomes clear even in a plot summary: The Air Force has had a large alien creature in its custody for more than twenty years (in order to study it and because the government wants the alien’s technology). One discharged military scientist, however, wants to set the alien free because he knows it is not the enemy—all it wants is to leave the planet. The movie is thus at once Godzilla and Spielberg’s goose-necked cuddly toy, which is to say that Super 8’s monster plays like a cornered, riled, amok-running ET: Mothra phone home…. The creature rampages around rustbelt Ohio, swatting down the people who want to capture or attack it, and yet—and here’s the key—it does not kill indiscriminately. The creature stops itself from mauling the town’s children when it comes face to face with them, and not just because they are children, but rather because it is psychic, an empath, and it recognizes that the main character—the 12- or 13-year old kid—is compassionate. It doesn’t flatten the boy because it recognizes that he is not an aggressor. We’ll want to note, too, that the movie has given our hero an extensive backstory to explain how he attained the sympathetic wisdom that rescues him: His mother, working in a steel mill, was crushed in a factory accident. That experience has made him quick to spot the sorrow of others. And from out of the reserves of his grief, he says something like: “I know bad things happen. You can still live.”

Super 8 is a useful film, not least in that it reveals how much magical thinking is involved in this version of liberalism. Fellow-feeling is the amulet that wards off attack. And this is where it becomes important to specify the allegory—to identity the real-world referents that accrue around the monster. We’ll want to ask: Which conflicts exactly does the movie think that a kindhearted and downbeat liberalism can resolve? This is a little tricky, in that the movie is operating in two political registers at once, and they don’t line up, not neatly, at any rate. First, in the military sequences, it turns out that the Air Force is as out of control as the monster itself, unable to stabilize the situation, torching the Midwestern town it has covertly come to occupy. It reduces homes to cinders, but is vulnerable to attack when traveling the roads, &c. This, of course, is all War on Terror imagery—or specifically Iraq War imagery of a pre-Surge vintage. The monster is to that extent framed as an Iraqi insurgent or perhaps more generically as an enraged Muslim, since allegories often drift unpredictably across taxa or levels of abstraction, from genus to family—that’s another of their complexities. But then it’s not just political Islam: Other scenes in the movie introduce what is basically a civil-rights language. The boy-detectives discover documentary footage of early Air Force experiments on the creature, and the movie specifies that the reels date from 1963, and the one dissenting military officer in the footage—the one who wants to spring the monster loose—keeps saying things like We shouldn’t be holding it captive … we shouldn’t fear it … it just needs our understanding … this isn’t right. That the military officer is also black puts the seal on the allegory: A black man in the early ‘60s is asking others in the government to reform their policies—to trade in a politics of repression for a politics of recognition. And it is within this framework—with regard to the racial politics of the American mid-century—that the movie’s few references to King Kong do their hardest work: The monster makes off with a pretty blonde; the monster scales a water tower and looks down over the town. Quentin Tarantino was right. The other name for Kong is “the history of the American Negro.”

So the monster is aligned both with aggrieved Muslims and with ‘50s-era black Americans, which produces a kind of allegorical master category, something like, people the US government has done dirt by, which at this point is a pretty large set. If we now add in the movie’s insistent references to ET, then we have to conclude that the movie is referring both of those histories analogically back to the Holocaust—the monster is the imprisoned Muslim in the guise of Emmett Till in the guise of Anne Frank—and the master category therefore becomes broader still: victims of racist violence at the hands of white Christians. From genus to family and now on to order and class.

But the presence of ET in this potage of intertext not only expands the movie’s range of possible meanings. It also sabotages them. It is at this point that we have to ask: How is the monster least like a Muslim or a black American? And the answer to that question is ready to hand. The liberals in Super 8 are the ones who understand that the monster just wants to go home. But what would it mean to say that about either scenario?—the civil rights scenario or the Muslim one? Black people in America do not, in the relevant sense, want to go home. To even suggest as much sounds bizarrely like nineteenth-century proposals for the ethnic cleansing of the US South—Liberia, say, or Garveyite colonization schemes. And though there might be some few scenarios in which a Muslim politics incorporates the language of homecoming—expropriated Palestinians talk about the right of return, and one imagines that the men disappeared into Guantanamo Bay would very much like to go home—the peculiarity of the movie is that it can’t help but generalize from these few instances, when, of course, most Muslim immigrants in the US are here by choice, often enthusiastically. And the very few militants among them are, in fact, determined to deal the US damage. The movie’s historical compactions become untenable. Neither ordinary Muslim immigrants nor the self-proclaimed enemies of the US are trying to get back to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The monster is a bad stand-in for either.

The point is worth dwelling on further, if only because the movie dwells on it for us. Super 8’s final moments incorporate one remarkable detail: The alien is preparing to leave earth, and the giant magnet it has constructed to propel itself to its home planet begins drawing all of the neighborhood’s metal to itself—cars, chain link fences, bottle caps. As the pull of the magnet intensifies, the dead mother’s locket snakes from out of the boy’s pocket—it rises into the air—he grabs it—it stretches taut—the boy strains—but then he thinks better of it and as it were lets his mother go. The movie culminates, in other words, with a successfully culminated act of mourning. It shows us someone who has overcome his loss, who has at this very instant wept his way back to equilibrium. What is so astonishing, then, is that this relinquishing of the beloved object ties up two plot strands at once, which are thereby superimposed.

First, it allows the young liberal to get the girl, the improbably lovely thirteen-year old who honestly looks three years older than her twerpy new boyfriend. There is a complication here, though, or perhaps a revision. The movie is driven by a familiar idea—both principled and class-bound—that the sensitive guy is preferable to the blue-collar tough, the emblem of whom, in Super 8, is the girl’s drunken, shouty, steelworker father. The movie literally ends when we see the girl grabbing the boy-liberal’s hand for the first time. But—and this is a big qualification—it will not allow the liberal to get the girl until it has established to its satisfaction that the sensitive guy is not too sensitive—until, that is, he has proven that he doesn’t have mommy issues. One woman wafts heavenward, and only then can a substitute step directly into her place.

Second, then, this exit-from-melancholy is the film’s way of augmenting its single most important line of dialogue, that one lesson the boy imparts to the monster: “I know bad things happen. You can still live.” In one sense, then, the boy ceding the locket to the skies is simply heeding his own advice. In another sense, though, the film encourages us to see the monster’s leaving as a parallel event, a second act of successfully completed mourning. And then you realize: The movie actually features a childish white liberal instructing an aggrieved victim of US government oppression to just get over it already—you know, the way he has (or soon will). Super 8 grants white liberals the authority to consult their own misfortunes and then tell Muslims and black people that their grievances, too, ain’t no thing. And in the film’s scenario, the white liberal’s tempered compassion will do what mere coercion cannot: It will make those people go away. Super 8 models for us a version of sympathy in which the sensitive guy need have no intention of living alongside the targets of his compassion; he really just wants them to leave. The liberalism that is the film’s official posture is transposed into its opposite. Allegory is treachery.


Illegals, Part 2


ALLEGORICAL COMPLEXITY #1—Super 8, eventually :

You can think of this as a tip for reading: When you are trying to make sense of an allegory, it is not enough to list the resemblances between the allegorical construct and its real-world referent, between the spaceman and the Jewish fugitive; you’ll need to catalogue their divergences, as well. For excess is the permanent condition of allegory. An invented creature never fully disappears into its literal equivalents; the alien is not exhausted by the designation “Jewish.” The reader’s task, then, is not to vaporize a given movie’s specificities, not to absorb them into some higher meaning that, once decrypted, would render the movie itself superfluous. Part of the task is to account, rather, for the allegory’s remainders, the scraps of significance that are left over even once the allegorical identification has been successfully announced. These unattached features are the mark of a contradiction that is internal to allegory; they disclose desires that the world’s already existing names cannot satisfy.

An alien invasion movie of a different kind, then, before we get to Super 8, just to make clear that this point is specific to no one film. The allegory in James Cameron’s Avatar, from 2009, is open-and-shut and, one might object, mostly shut—entirely too neat—elementary and plodding. The movie’s aliens are Indigenous People, a blue-skinned cross between the Chinook and the Zulu, called the Na’vi, which sounds like Navajo + Hopi. But the very obviousness of the allegory ends up producing some interesting effects of its own, for Avatar is so unoverlookably anti-imperialist—anti-imperialist in such a thorough-going way—that no-one who cares about such a politics can afford to just skip it or to write it off too quickly. Its story is certainly familiar; it’s just the twice-told tale about a white guy crossing sides, going native, turning Turk. But a comparative approach would show that the movie actually blows clean past the hedges and outs that typically blight such narratives, and especially the famous recent ones: Dances with Wolves, say, or The Last Samurai. Those movies are easy to hate. The really foul thing about Dances is that Kevin Costner falls in love with an Indian woman, except she isn’t really Indian—she’s the only other white person in the tribe—and you know this because she wears her hair differently, as though the Sioux kept on staff a special whites-only beautician. This only nominally pro-Indian movie goes to completely absurd lengths to prevent inter-racial sex. It is in this sense that the people who insisted that Avatar was nothing more than a live-action replay of FernGully or Disney’s Pocahontas weren’t paying attention. Sure, Avatar borrows from other movies, and yet it distinguishes itself even so by its open-throttle commitment to indigenism and racial treason. Quick—list for me all the other Hollywood movies you’ve seen that end with a vision of white people getting sent back to Europe for good. The movie baptizes everyone who watches it into the end of the American empire.

It does more than that. One of Avatar’s first-order complexities is that the opposing forces on the two sides of its central conflict—the human invaders and the indigenous aliens—have been borrowed from very different periods in the history of empire. The Na’vi call to mind the precolonial Kikuyu or the Algonquin before Columbus, but the movie’s humans are neither Puritan nor pith-helmeted; they are new-model conquistadors, Haliburton-types, the corporate mercenaries of the War on Terror. Avatar asks us to imagine how it would look if the current US army were invading North America or Africa for the first time—What if the Massachusetts Bay Company had employed Blackwater?—which means at the level of the image, the movie manages to insert the Iraq War into some much longer histories, folding Bush-era adventurism into an overarching account of European colonization. To that extent, James Cameron is actually rather smarter about empire than the run-of-the-mill American liberals who talk as though 2003 were some kind of shocking deviation from the fundamental patterns of US history, a freedom-loving nation’s unprecedented deviation into expansion and conquest. And in a similar vein, the movie is willing to dwell, to a quite unusual degree for a blockbuster, on images of imperial atrocity—familiar images, doubtless, if you know that history, but replayed for a global audience with immediacy and renewed grief: The Smurf-Seminoles walk the Trail of Tears.

I also think the movie’s length, about which those prone to headaches might rightfully complain, turns out to be its great asset. And the best thing about those 160 minutes is this: Avatar is a utopia hiding in an action movie. The movie is so indulgent that it can afford to give us a protracted utopian sequence, itself almost as long as an ordinary feature film, when, in fact, there is no genre that commercial film avoids more studiously than utopia. My friends who study the form will get huffy at this point: So yes, absolutely, the utopia in Avatar is badly underspecified; it is not much interested in how the Na’vi feed or govern themselves. It approaches the better society almost only through the natives’ theology. But in some respects, this is actually where the movie is at its most ingenious. Cameron, who as I write is crawling on his hands and knees around the Mariana Trench, has found a way to put his pricey 3D-technology in the service of utopia—or at least of a certain pantheism, which in this case is almost the same thing. As a sensory experience, the movie obviously feels new and exhilarating, and I want to say that in some almost Ruskinite way, the film is determined to revitalize your sensorium, to create a constant sense of wonder at the simple fact that we all live in a three-dimensional world. The movie obviously makes a big deal of the characters being connected, being able to interface with nature, to plug into it, in a way that is both technological and shamanistic, and I think the movie thereby provides its own gloss on its technological ambitions: It’s as though Cameron thinks he can use the most advanced technology that a director has ever commanded to approximate in the viewer a basically vitalist and world-adoring attitude.

But then it is precisely here that instability takes over. It is here, I mean, that we have to shift from naming the ways in which the Na’vi are most like Amazonians to naming where they are least so. Avatar is not only putting in front of us an indigenism; it is putting in front of us a technologized indigenism, and there is something about this latter that is odd and finally unsatisfying. That point comes in a specific form and a general one. Here’s the specific one. The biggest innovation in twentieth-century warfare was air power: the bi-plane, the bomber, firebombing, the atomic bomb, napalm, no-fly zones, shock and awe, assassin drones, death from above. Air power is what has permanently shifted the global balance of power to the hyper-technological nations. And the movie’s trick—ingenious in a sense, but also silly—is to give the indigenous a Luftwaffe: Dragons! The flying monsters, in other words, are the equalizer that makes the movie’s political allegory work, but they are themselves entirely non-allegorizable, which means that the entire system of correspondences actually starts coming unglued around them.

In other words, the movie’s politics are at heart fake, because it is trying to imagine a people who live in harmony with nature, who get by without advanced technology, but it has to give them the equivalent of helicopters, because if they didn’t have the equivalent of helicopters, they would get wiped out by the Helicopter People of Earth. But then the movie is ducking the really hard political question, which is: How might a non-technological people actually survive? How could they defend themselves against the cyborg nations who would steal their land and resources? Avatar dodges those questions, and so ends up being just another impotent historical fantasia.

The broader version of that point, meanwhile, is this: It’s well known that the sci-fi movies that most distrust technology are the ones that rely on it most extensively, but Avatar radicalizes that paradox in both directions. It was upon release the most technologically advanced movie ever made, and yet it is utterly, committedly elfin and eco- in its ideology. But then in another sense, that very antithesis is breached, because the movie devises ways to comprehensively sneak technology back into nature itself. The forest paths light up, as though electrically, when the Na’vi tread on them. The aborigines plug their ponytails into animals and trees as into Ethernet ports or wall sockets. Their manes have slim, wavy organic tendrils, which however also look like fibers or cables. And the Sigourney Weaver character at one point openly compares all this to a computer: the natives are jacking into the planet and downloading information from it. On the one hand, this is itself just allegory for what we take to be “the tribal worldview”—being in touch with nature or what have you—and if we accept the entirely plausible idea that indigenous and stateless peoples have been extraordinarily attentive to ecologies—that they were really good at reading landscapes, &c—then this could merely serve as science-fiction shorthand for that skill. What’s remarkable, though, is that Cameron has translated this into a technological image. That’s the other hand. The non-technological understanding of the world gets its technological allegory. So this is what it means to say that allegory yields contradiction. Is the image of plugging into nature technological or not? It is and it isn’t—and this speaks volumes about the movie’s bad faith. A global viewership sides with a pre-technological people only when it emerges that they have the newest gadgets. Avatar reassures its audience that they could go back to the land and actually give up on nothing—that they could go off the grid and still have the grid—that they could move to the Gallatin Range and keep their every last iPhone.


Special thanks to Crystal Bartolovich, who convinced me to take the role of technology in Avatar much more seriously than I was initially inclined to and who has much more to say on the topic in her forthcoming Natural History of the Common. For a preview of her argument, see also this interview.

Illegals, Part 1


I’ve been thinking a lot about alien invasion movies, and especially about the ones that feature human children, boy-explorers or pre-teen ambassadors to the talking bugs. I suppose it would just be easier to say that I’ve been thinking about ET and its recent imitators: Super 8, Attack the Block. But even this would be a way of sidestepping the truth, which is that mostly I’ve been thinking about ALF. I have, in fact, been thinking about ALF for a very long time. In the very late ‘80s, as a teenager, I spent a year in Frankfurt, and there was nothing that bothered me more in that period of my life than the centrality of ALF to modern German culture. I had gone to the Rhine to learn about Günter Grass and anarchism and was still under the impression that I could outrun network television. I suppose I was mildly surprised that the Germans had, like, vacuum cleaners. ALF was at that point a pretty fair summation of everything I thought I was leaving safely back home in New England. But that show was way more popular in Germany than it ever had been in Massachusetts: Ninja-Turtle-early-Bart-Simpson-eat-my-shorts popular. It seemed like it was always running in the background in every house I visited. The stalls at small-town German street fairs were crowded with long-snooted, rusty yellow puppets, in all the places that a visitor might have expected to see hand-made Christmas decorations or tankards in the shape of castle towers. I should point out that it wasn’t just the Federal Republic; a Eurail pass revealed to me that  the series had a pan-continental following. But only in Germany did the puppet’s voice actor spend three months in the pop charts, with a single called “Hallo ALF – hier ist Rhonda.” And the thing is, when I went back to Germany for a year after college—to Berlin in the mid-90s—ALF, having been off the air in the US for half a decade, was still around, still on T-shirts and decals and school folders. The Germans left stranded by the show’s American cancellation had taken to producing ALF radio plays. Project ALF—a one-off TV movie that ran on NBC in 1996—got a theatrical release and a big rollout in Germany: ALF—Der Film. It played in Berlin’s showcase theaters. Garfield-reimagined-as-warthog looked down from on high upon the Kurfürstendamm.

So the question that posed itself ever more insistently was: Why were the Germans so hung up on this show? And one night in Berlin, an American buddy and I drank our way to clarity. ALF, of course, is a Holocaust story—you knew that already; you’re irritated I didn’t see it sooner—a sitcom about a family hiding someone in its attic, someone the government wants to seize, a permanent exile with no homeland to which he can return. Those oversized ALF dolls turned out to be the only way that a young German could take a Jewish proxy home and fantasmatically keep him safe in a wardrobe or nighttime embrace. They belonged at one remove to the history of extravagantly racialized children’s toys — plastic figurines of Native American braves, Black rag dolls. They were the stuffed animals of genocide comedy. The original NBC production hadn’t gone to any lengths to disguise this: those bushy eyebrows; that schnozz; that gruff, Catskills shtick. The show’s lone and improbable joke was that if the fascists ever took power in America, someone would have to agree to shelter Don Rickles. And with this insight in mind, I made a special trip to the university library in Berlin to chase down a hunch, and it was right: Anne Frank was not the girl’s real name, or at least not her full name. Her name was Annelies Frank: A … L … F.

The show, which premiered in 1986, was also directly derived from—or a Muppet-y riff upon—ET, released in 1982. And in that case, most of what we have to say about ALF can simply be repeated about the movie. Spielberg did not wait until the 1990s to start making films about the Holocaust. When ET came out, he had already just made one—Raiders of the Lost Ark, which ends when the insulted might of ancient Israel obliterates a small army’s worth of Nazis. Light flashes and German flesh renders like tallow: Raiders presents an alternate history in which the Jews possessed a small A-bomb of their own, a game-changer and plague of radioactive locusts for the European war. ET, then, was itself just an extrapolation from a Dutch Holocaust diary and perhaps the first narrative in which suburban Americans were invited to imagine keeping Jews as pets.

Something about this argument we will want to generalize, since alien invasion movies are always going to be, to some degree or another, racial allegories. That can’t come as a surprise to anyone who speaks English, a language in which the word “alien” means both “squid creature from another solar system” and “non-citizen.” But then I should say, too, that lots of serious readers think that allegories—or allegorical habits of interpretation—are conceptually pretty low-rent, the literary equivalent of rebuses. They’re wrong. If you really and truly give up on allegorical reading, you’re going to miss too much of importance—too much of what makes storytelling compelling to us—which means that most literary critics don’t, in fact, give up on it. They just waste a lot of time reinventing it piecemeal under other names. Nor is allegory as straightforward as the sophisticates claim; it generates its own forms of complexity and its own revelatory instabilities. But then this last point partially vindicates the people who don’t like allegory. Naming the allegory is the easy part; it’s really just the beginning. Allegories tell us one thing when they work, but they tell us something else—something arguably more valuable—when they don’t. And allegories never work perfectly. They can’t work perfectly. An impeccably rendered allegorical Jew would no longer be recognizable as allegory. He would just be a Jew. Like a dying werewolf shriveling back into its naked human form, he would revert back to literalness, from extraterrestrial to Ashkenazy. Distortion and mismatch are the preconditions of allegory, the dysfunctions that make it function. If you are reading allegorically, you can never just whip out the decoder ring.

So I want to look over the next few days at those recent homages to ET—one from the US, one from the UK—and I want to name their allegories, but I want to underscore from the outset that these are most interesting where least steady.


The New Way Forward in the Middle West


A few quick observations about Zowie Bowie’s Source Code, from earlier this year.

But first, the plot: A terrorist has just blown up a commuter train on the outskirts of Chicago, killing hundreds, and is headed downtown to hit Play on a dirty bomb, which will kill thousands more. Government scientists send a US soldier back in time—onto the train, ante-boom—and instruct him to identify the bomber. The soldier, however, is operating under two major constraints: First, he hasn’t exactly been teleported onto the train. He is, in fact, already dead; portions of his brain are being kept alive; and it’s only his consciousness that has been lobbed backwards into the day’s bad start. In order to conduct his investigation, therefore, he will have to occupy the body of some civilian already on the train; he will have to take as his avatar one of the attack’s imminent victims. Second, the government’s time-travel technology can only project him back eight minutes before the event, which interval he will have to relive over and over again until he can give the government a name: eight minutes—whoosh!—mass death—almost had it—and again, please—a fresh eight minutes are on the clock, like injury time….



The movie is set almost entirely in Chicago, and yet its plot is closely modeled on the invasions of Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. That the detective-soldier is actually an Air Force helicopter pilot recently shot down by the Taliban is enough to establish that the movie has the war on terror on its mind. But it’s the soldier’s character arc—the transformation he has to undergo in the course of the film—that most powerfully channels the history of the past decade. What’s notable about Source Code—what makes it rather unlike an ordinary action movie—is that its hero keeps failing; he keeps letting the train blow up. The movie thinks it can provide an explanation for this, that it can make clear why an American soldier might be rather bad at stopping terrorists. Or rather, it thinks it can teach you—by teaching him—the difference between anti-terrorism and hapless, counterproductive bullying. At first, the soldier panics; he starts yelling at people; he engages in a little racial profiling; he throws a few punches and before long has drawn a gun on the other passengers. One onlooker asks: “You’re military? You spend a lot of time beating up civilians?” The turning point comes when the living officer running the mission from a government super-computer tells our undead hero: “This time try to get to know the other people on the train.” And from that point on, he just keeps ratcheting it down; stops confronting people; gets in nobody’s face; begins coolly collecting information; and finally, in one last triumphant replay of those endlessly fatal eight minutes, slips handcuffs onto the terrorist before anyone else on the train even knows they’re living amidst emergency. The movie, in other words, thinks it knows the right way to prevent a terrorist attack, and in this regard it simply mirrors David Petraeus, whose film this is. The soldier only succeeds, in other words, because halfway through he is given a new counterinsurgency manual, and the difference between hero-at-beginning-of-movie and hero-at-end-of-movie is meant to communicate the difference between Iraq in 2004 and Iraq in 2008. Source Code is, in sum, a Surge movie—it is, to my knowledge, the only Surge movie—with the New Way Forward staging itself in Illinois instead of Anbar, and with science-fiction conventions serving to communicate the panic and steep learning curve of the early occupation. The film’s hyper-repetitive structure is quite peculiar here. It could—and perhaps for a few minutes in the movie’s middle depths even does—convey the infernal quality of the war on terror, the way in which the “vigilance” to which we are enjoined is already a doom: One gets up every morning required again to avert Armageddon. But that’s not really Source Code’s vibe. Repetition in this movie soon stops seeming demonic and becomes instead the medium for learning and self-improvement—this is more somber Groundhog’s Day than it is trashy Sisyphus—and the film’s understanding of recurrence as basically harmless gets at the first of its interlinked fantasies, which is that the US should be able, at no cost, to keep trying to round up the terrorists until it gets it right. The movie to that extent signs on to the central myth of the Surge, which is that it was empire’s magic do-over in Iraq, a geopolitical mulligan.



That first point requires that we read Chicago as Baghdad in disguise, but if we instead take the movie’s North American setting at face value, then the movie’s politics become somewhat harder to parse. This difficulty goes back to the military-civilian mish-mash that is at the story’s core: The US soldier has requisitioned the body of some suburban schoolteacher—deputized the dead schmo—drafted his virtual corpse into war without end. Like any such in-between or crossbred figure, this character can be described in two contradictory ways at once, such that Source Code is simultaneously a story about a military guy becoming less militarized and a story about a civilian conscripted into special ops without his even knowing it. At the end of the movie, the soldier, having just arrested the madman and saved morning drive-time, gets to stay in his host body; he just skips off into the city with a pretty girl. At that level, the movie is an innocuous fairy tale about undoing some of the damage the US government is inflicting on a generation—not just giving a soldier his discharge papers and sending him honorably back into street life—but unkilling him, making stupid amends. But the equal-and-opposite story of the civilian who can suddenly break up terror plots sponsors a rather different fantasy, bespeaking the desire for a less obtrusive war on terror, a war less punishing to the Iraqis and the Afghanis, and kinder to Americans, as well—a war on terror without full body scanners at airports or the kind of heavy police presence that makes even white people nervous. In this sense, the movie gets us to wish that the war on terror were even more covert than it already is—that it were all undercover—its representative figure the plainclothes air marshal, the old-fashioned name for whom is Secret Police. Let me repeat a sentence I’ve already written: At the end of the movie, the soldier gets to stay in his host body, which means that the schoolteacher never gets his person back, and Source Code’s happy ending requires not that civilian life be rescued, but that it be negated.



Even by the low standards of Hollywood sci-fi, the movie’s fake science is notably addled and underexplained. Worse, having already committed to bushwa in its first act, it just ups and changes the rules in the last ten minutes, which I generally imagine is the one thing that a science-fiction screenwriter has got to promise you he’s not going to do. The audience has been told throughout the movie that the hero cannot change history; he is not really in the past; he has been inserted, rather, into a simulation built up from the memories of dead people; he can therefore only retrieve information; he will never actually save the train. But then in the last ten minutes we discover that each simulation has created an alternate universe after all, and the viewer has had the good fortune to arrive at last in the lone scenario in which every American gets to work on time. That’s feeble, to be sure, and irritating, but there’s something remarkable about it all the same. The single most striking thing about Source Code is that it brings to bear all the dopey arcana of cut-rate science fiction—the full arsenal of time-travel pataphysics and pop Leibniz—in order to generate … the world we already live in. It has maneuvered American normalcy—the AM commute, a commonplace Tuesday, just another trek to the office—into the position of the bizarro world or utopia you might otherwise have expected. The movie’s happy ending feels entirely rote, yeah, until, that is, you realize that it exists only in ontological brackets. By the time Source Code finishes, the Midwestern everyday—the one in which trains don’t blow into the sky—has become thinkable only as a science-fiction scenario, a bit of extravagant speculation. It has shriveled down to the implausible thing that a genre movie must scramble unconvincingly to achieve.