Remarks on Method

by Joshua Clover

from Film Quarterly Summer 2010, Vol. 63, No. 4

Legion (Scott Stewart)

This completes three years of the column; it seems like a good time to run the film backward, to retrace the process of composition, more or less: to lay bare the mechanism, as the Russian formalists liked to say, and to make the operations visible as operations.

What then is the process, in its seemingly natural development? Attend many theatrical releases; make notes in the dark; patiently hope for correlations to emerge that place two or more films in collusion, or tension, or both; name this relation and endeavor to measure it against the world (as for example how both Che and Quantum of Solace in different ways figured contemporary political crisis in the Southern Cone). If this last operation yields interesting results, offers non-boring glosses on the world, and/or on that peculiar way of picturing the world known as the movies, proceed to writing (revisiting the relevant films, if possible). If not, start again, anxious eye on the deadline.

The first empirical moment of willy-nilly viewing is, however, narrowed by what’s playing nearby, available time, tastes. It is further shaped by the column’s mandate, which is more or less laid out in the title: the dialectical relation between pop culture and the real political–economic conditions that are at once artificer and outcome of that culture (rather than simply the cause to culture’s effect, the account generally derided as “vulgar Marxism”).

This mandate in turn focalizes not only movies seen, but way of looking. It’s a set of suppositions about the world: most notably the idea that our economic relations shape the kinds of thoughts the culture thinks, and that ideas are in turn about those situations (and endeavor to serve them). One will not meet the critic who lacks some such set of suppositions; the relevant matter is, at what level do these suppositions rest? When they are near the surface, we think of them as programmatic beliefs enforced on the world. When they are deeply buried, we encounter the illusion of “objectivity,” which serves to naturalize the quite unnatural circumstances of our lives as if they were common sense. These two positions are of course the two common meanings of the word “ideology”—one for Marx, one for Coca-Cola.

Here’s an example of how the method comes out: Legion (2010) is an end times B-movie. God (off-screen) has concluded, not for the first time, that humanity has become too debased, that there is too much “bullshit,” and that the slate needs clearing. The archangel Michael (Paul Bettany, reprising his flagellant from The Da Vinci Code) disagrees, and dispatches himself to lonely Paradise Falls for a last stand alongside a motley few humans. Gooey carnage ensues, much of it drawn from minor entries in the millennial zombie renaissance. The folks washed up at the diner are irrelevant but for the single and pregnant waitress Charlie (Adrianne Palicki, so exacting in the television version of Friday Night Lights, with nary to do here but look dumbfounded and glow with fearsome fecundity). In some vague way her child is the hope of humanity. She had been planning to put it up for adoption, but dot dot dot.

One might easily file under the ever-expanding rubric of apocalyptic cinema, and trot out this column’s favorite unattributable chestnut, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”—a verdict increasingly more specific to our economic moment. But this won’t really resolve enough of the details. For all the eschatological chassis, this ideological vehicle travels the ruts of that rickety domestic troika from 2007: Knocked Up, Juno, and most obviously, Waitress. (As a side note, it would be nice to have some empirical data on the percentage of women who actually walk out of abortion clinics, their visits incomplete; in U.S. films, it is the only outcome. This is the height of literal unrealism in contemporary cinema: a vanishingly rare occurrence treated not only as a common plot device but as the truth of the human condition.)

Each of those films was in its own way a comedy; Legion hasn’t a single moment of intentional humor. Regardless, it’s a superior disposition-of-the-fetus drama, with one great shot. Near the end, after our ragtag band has been reduced via the traditional horror-flick defile, we get a sudden and absolute reversal of perspective. The desolate diner is seen at a distance and from above, surrounded by a malevolent army on a darkling plain extending into infinite distance. Despite the shot’s brevity and shit CGI, it is an unnerving vision. As so often happens, the film’s least plausible image is its moment of truth.

It must surely be the vision not of god nor the audience, but of Charlie; this end of the world is her imaginary, a fact casually disguised until this moment. The horrific legion is after all there for her, and her sacred spawn. It is an image, one shortly gathers, of the absolute impossibility of adoption. Rationally, she knows it’s the right decision. But confronted by the actuality, it is intolerable. Each pustulent humanoid out there wants the baby; all are incorrigibly evil. It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine that someone else could be as good a parent as you would be.


Seeing and not seeing Legion. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But this swings the pendulum too far in the other direction, toward the kind of individual psychologism we generally eschew: the film’s tawdry apocalypticism has its own, more broadly social content. It’s reasonably open about which corruption, exactly, has doomed the world: the war of all against all that characterizes the hypertrophied and amoral market. Just as Michael is a counterfigure because he takes a moral stand rather than blindly following the imperative from on high, the decrepitly artisanal diner offers a counterfigure to the nightmare of economic end times. It’s a last redoubt of human decency within the damnation of the present, not yet given over to the debasement of soulless getting and spending.

So we can understand in full the delusion of Charlie’s position: it’s the recognition that everybody is possessed by the inhuman spirit of endgame capitalism, so much that they cannot be trusted with the most elemental of human tasks. She can see this clearly—absolutely—about everyone, except herself. And this is an interesting account of the subjective situation in which we, as biological beings and social actors, find ourselves.

But not interesting enough, one worries. There will be a legion of Legions and some will capture better than others the strange situation of knowing/not knowing, seeing/not seeing, that is near the heart of modern life and that cinema is so prodigious at conjuring. What Charlie can’t know about herself, we can still be led to recognize. But that would be pitiably simple. What there is to know is that Charlie’s blind spot, her inability to see that she too is utterly interpellated, is itself part of the disaster, every bit as much as the demons at the diner’s door. And that we must have such blind spots too—though who is to say if they are revealed, or simply filled in, down at the cineplex. Well, this is exactly the problematic of film criticism, and why one endeavors to take it seriously.

Hence the impulse to test the mechanism, to reverse the order of inputs and outputs as a sort of test. To describe this as running the film backward may be a bit of a misdescription, since cultural analysis is already backward: voyaging from the finished object back via analytic inquiry toward the shifting and unstable social predicament out of which the film arose. So we must start were that sequence ends. Here is our predicament—now what kind of movie should we therefore expect? What would be the content and form, the narrative and way of looking, and everything else that could illuminate what in our current situation escapes from view?

If these questions were easily answerable, everybody would be an artist. We could deduce the most compelling way to picture things, and get to it. Just as, if we could know exactly what people wanted and how they wanted it, we would all be rich. But instead the contingencies, complexities, and uncertainties pile one on the next, seemingly beyond speculation, much less comprehension.

Still, we do have objective conditions. We are in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in eighty years and it’s early yet. More significantly, we find ourselves within the breakdown of “the American century,” not just an economic but a political and cultural fact. We suffer near-total uncertainty about how the next epoch will orient itself.

The last great upheaval here in the core already recedes from memory: the cultural and economic shocks of the late 1960s and early 70s that announced, amid a constellation of signs and wonders, the shift from an industrial to a service economy—promised glossily as an “information” economy, which turned out to mean in truth a race into the cloudy empyrean of financial profit-taking even as the productive, laboring sectors guttered. If this move into the final stage of the U.S.-centered world system spun out a great vision, it was perhaps William Gibson’s Neuromancer, so insistent about the becoming-virtual of life, about the thrill and threat of dematerialization.

Which leaves this column wondering, inevitably, about the fate of the Neuromancer film. For a long time it was considered unfilmable because Hollywood’s technological development wasn’t yet up to the task (the story Avatar likes to tell about itself, but far more plausible in this case). Eventually, around the millennium, it was to be directed by Chris Cunningham, best known for music videos of spectral electronic acts, which made a kind of sense; a few years later the film reappeared, inexplicably to be helmed by Joseph Kahn (Torque). After years of bruiting and rumors, the movie finally moved to production … precisely as economic crisis washed over the studios. Some time last year it lost its lead, Hayden Christensen (probably for the best; he wasn’t really born to play Case). Production has been stalled since then.

It may be that Hollywood’s inability to bring Neuromancer to the screen is itself the truth of the situation, more true than any version of the film could be. The story’s displacement of crisis and transformation into science-fictional allegory is too visible: not enough blind spot for our moment’s hysterical looking-via-looking away. But more pungently, it’s endlessly telling that the film should founder in this exact moment: when the very developments it required—that is, the dematerializing and virtualizing of the physical movie set, of the scene of real labor—have blown up the economy and worse, pushing us toward another transformation, a far greater crisis. This is dialectical history in its most refined form.

What films can get made, then, that might grasp the contours of this elusive situation? No doubt the best will be brilliantly unforeseeable. Nonetheless, it behooves us to make some wagers—to lay out this column’s basic project and attunement for the next three years.

Transformation will be the keyword. Economics will be more than ever the master code. At the same time, movies will exercise their own existential panic, inasmuch as they are the art form entirely indexed to an empire heading downward to darkness on extended credit. Here are five propositions.

First: apocalypse will leap from the conventions of the zombie horde, initially into other apparitions and then, seeking to universalize itself thematically, into more and more genres.

Second: the narrative contents of tragedy and comedy respectively should no longer be understood as death and marriage, but systemic breakdown and reassembly.

Third: films that are explicitly about film must be understood in the first instance as meditations on the situation of the real global empire to which cinema belongs—metacine-matic now means about U.S. hegemony.

Fourth: as a consequence, Hollywood’s cinematic form is now compelled to be a study of imperial form.

Fifth: Hollywood will look increasingly to the past, not because of some vague sense that there are no new ideas, nor even from simple escapism (though this will present itself as well) — but because it is there that one finds catastrophes that have already been survived.

Will the shards be found there to assemble some image of a future beyond total collapse or narcotic retrenchment? This question remains before us.

Joshua Clover is the author of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (University of California Press, 2009).