by Joshua Clover
from Film Quarterly Winter 2011, Vol. 65, No. 2
Fast Five (Justin Lin)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt)
Early in Fast Five, charismatic Han (Sung Kang) arrives in Rio de Janeiro, recruited Ocean’s Eleven-style to play a role in an elaborate heist. Though fans of the series will no doubt be delighted to see him, they may be perplexed when they recall that he met an unambiguous death in previous installment The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. His persistence is a mystery, like that of the generally heavy-handed and lead-footed franchise itself.
The Fast and the Furious series follows the exploits of a shifting crew of street racers, drivin’ cars and metin’ out informal justice. It has in some degree succeeded by tapping into the demographic niche of “tuner” culture: auto-modders proliferating in the fetishized endgame of Fordism. But the films, on occasion, have been better than they have any right to be—none more so than Tokyo Drift, with its sublime car choreography, more Astaire and Rogers than Petty and Allison. That the plot is set in Japan, where America’s Fordist revolution met its match, is suggestive enough; casting a fastback ’67 Mustang as the hero only deepens the historical melancholy illuminating the film.
But Toyota-ization too reached its limits. “Tokyo drift” describes a style of street racing where the cars are made to slide almost frictionlessly through corners, with the low impact grace of a tap dancer in a sandbox. It might just as well be a rubric for the Japanese economy of the ongoing “lost decade”—having avoided a massive economic crash, it is still unable to get back on track or restore profitability, and drifts endlessly through the long turn of late capitalism.
A consultation with reference materials suggests that Tokyo Drift was meant to be out of series and out of time; Fast Five, a less nimble film, takes place earlier. Looks like the present. So Han, a ghost of the Lost Decade, walks into a garage in the emerging economy of Brazil to take his place in the team assembled by Dom (Vin Diesel), who looks like a muscle car with legs, and Brian (Paul Walker), former federal agent. Our heroic band’s admixture of criminal and lawman is matched by the villains: the caper involves a crime lord who is also a political boss. All parties meet at money, obviously. The boss has $100 million socked away in a police station vault. Being street racers, our crew proposes to prise the vault forth from the station cabled to a couple of their vehicles, then flee through downtown Rio. But first they lay hands on an identical vault: a salute to the (remade) Ocean’s Eleven, where the team acquires a replica of the casino vault so as to practice their mechanics.
In the event of it, eluding unencumbered pursuit while dragging an enormous steel oblong across pavement proves easier said than done. Call it Rio Friction, the very inverse of Tokyo Drift. Or call it Attack of the BRIC. Abandoning all hope of escape, Dom turns to use the vault as a weapon. Indeed, it has been functioning as such all along; the flight to safety, even before it becomes a demolition derby, has managed to obliterate considerable swaths of the world capital.
Not only is it impossible to imagine the characters thinking this was a good or even plausible idea for getting the dough, it is also impossible to imagine the screenwriters thinking this would make for a good caper. The ten-minute sequence is finally a bit dull; absurdity does have a way of turning to boredom.
But what if we have been thinking of this all wrong, and the entire movie is just a pretext for something else altogether? It may be narrative idiocy of the first water—but it is, we must admit, the single best cinematic representation of the global financial crisis yet contrived, immeasurably better than Inside Job or Capitalism: A Love Story.
A weaponized concentration of capital seems to be dragged about by supermen; it is in fact dragging them around, laying waste to the world before it, destroying houses and urban centers and bodies as it races for safety—before recognizing that there is no safety and it should just turn violently on its pursuers in a festival of destruction.
In the textbook definition, capital is generally self-valorizing value; in a crisis it is inverted, and becomes self-annihilating value. The supermoney that seemed to run the world is revealed as “fictitious capital,” unrealized and finally unrealizable, but still in its auto-destruction capable of laying low the world around it. Which explains what would otherwise be the most intolerable plot device. In the end, it turns out that Dom and Brian have been hauling the fake vault through the city, while the actual box is spirited away, loot enclosed. As a scheme, it’s ludicrous. As a reading of crisis in the world system, it’s immaculate—as if Hollywood had come to an intimate knowledge of volume 3 of Capital without reading, simply by bathing in the current of world money—and should complete the contemporary genre. I am seriously considering renaming this column “The Marx and the Furious.”
Now that we no longer want for figurations of the financial crisis, we can turn to what comes next, if anything, and how one imagines the vectors and contexts of an adequate response. In this arena apocalyptic pictures continue to hold us captive. The signal version this season is Contagion—arriving as an updating of the 1970s disaster flick, and bearing with it some backdated ideas indeed.
It proceeds with Soderbergh’s usual cool bluish eloquence, the dry tones as ever standing in tension with the rising morbidity. We make our way with the knowledge that things have already gone terribly wrong and we are just waiting for the remaining characters to realize it and drop—as they are bound to do, because everyone is connected, in ways far more direct and determinate than they realize.
In Contagion this is literalized. The entangled libidinal liaisons of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and the lines of commerce and political debt of Traffic—these return as epidemiological vectors. The film is those plus Mike Davis’s book Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu. But rather than worry the matter of factory farms and global trade much, Soderbergh spends a good deal of effort punishing Gwyneth Paltrow’s character for infidelity (also her fate in Country Strong). In this case her sex and lies lead directly to mass death, spinning off the first North American disease vector. For this she is killed shortly and brutally, to be pilloried further in flashbacks. This lends the story a curiously moralizing tone that infects Soderbergh’s otherwise nonhysterical disaster film.
But what is so retrograde about the film, finally, is the quiet persistence with which it solicits the audience’s sympathies for the authorities. This is a politics, with or without allegory. In a world gone catastrophically wrong, the only folks to be trusted are government officials, mostly aligned with the Center for Disease Control. I am certain that the CDC is filled with decent folks. But a movie that insists, with aplomb and steely commitment, that civilizational crisis is the time to trust the G-men and women—well, that’s a funny thing, now more than ever. An affirmation of the order of things, without apology or agon. Or perhaps an apology for Che. Both, we assume.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers a civilizational crisis of a different order. It’s a prequel, the dread metagenre which has produced little of note until now: while it is hard to gainsay the original Planet of the Apes, its most recent spinoff is an extraordinary film.
This is true in a literal sense: it is precisely the exception which imagines an end to capitalism that is not the end of the world. It requires the existence of the original films in order to do so—only through them do we know that the world, and society, persists after the end of mankind’s rule. This provides the essence of the new film’s frisson: how often do we enter the cinema knowing that the humans are going to lose?
The original’s allegory is racialized: the white race (played by Charlton Heston, typecast again) is thrust into the role of the enslaved, the caged and shackled, the dehumanized. The machinations of plot churn toward inevitable recuperation: “ape” society too is riven with antagonisms and contradictions, and the real forces of solidarity fall along vaguely ethical lines. Released in early 1968, it’s a fitting story for the dying fall of civil-rights struggles, ending with an overcoming of difference based on compassion, mutual recognition, love even. If Rod Serling, one of the screenwriters, had read Frantz Fanon’s gloss on Hegel’s master–slave dialectic and the recognition scene, he kept it to himself.
This limns what really must be taken as a kind of heroism in the workings of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, particularly given the limits of Hollywood. Though trailers suggest one long melee between apes and men, the film’s seriousness unfolds patiently before this happens; for seventy five minutes, it is like a prequel for itself.
We open in the world as we know it, humans in charge and apes in cages. An experimental Alzheimer’s drug bestows upon Caesar, born in captivity, a burgeoning intelligence. Taken home as a pet, familiar, and friend of scientist Will (James Franco), he is granted an upstairs room, a limited freedom and respect, and play dates in the manicured wilds of Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge. Nonetheless, he ends up in a correctional facility for simians, where he is ill-used. Caesar pines for his charming San Francisco attic with its church window.
Via bribery and promises to preserve the order of things, Will eventually wins Caesar’s freedom. Will is coded in every regard as the good guy, in comparison both to his avaricious corporate boss and the brutal preserve master, played by Brian Cox, with his yellowed veneer of humanity. Will loves Caesar. Surely this is the moment—an hour in, already!—when good joins with good and the malefactors are given what for, in a rousing finale.
This is precisely what does not happen. His cage thrown open, Caesar spots the leash in Will’s hand and, seeming to reach out to him, he instead closes the door, locking himself in. No pretending that even the most enlightened bondage is more tolerable than an iron cage.
It is a heartbreaking moment: the sorrow of serious politics. To understand the real situation is to understand that the categories of good and evil, of humane and inhumane, of compassionate and cruel—the humanist bedtime tales—do not apply. There is an irreducible antagonism between one group and another, and no amount of moral or ethical grace can remedy it. Love cannot help with it. Working to change things from within cannot help with it. There is no yes that doesn’t come with a leash.
Lest we miss this, the film offers a second fulcrum, ten minutes later. Still in the preserve, Caesar tangles with the gamekeeper’s vile son. After being shocked several times, he manages to grab his tormentor’s arm. “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” cries the human, reprising in reverse a line from the original. There is a pause, and for the first time Caesar speaks: “No!” He goes on to repeat the word several times as he drags the poor fellow away, sets free his fellow captives, cries havoc, and lets slip the apes of war. Wallace Stevens began one poem, “After the final no there comes a yes and on that yes the future world depends.” Rise sets that formula on its head, or perhaps its feet, with adamantine force.
The question of whether the irreducible antagonism is that of class, of the dispossessed and those who possess nice houses in San Francisco, remains in some regard open. Allegories are necessarily slippery that way. But we know that it is not an antagonism based on perceived differences, one that can be resolved by coming into a better knowledge each of the other. In that sense the allegory is dispositive: it is, at the least, material and structural. We know this much for certain. And we know that the only path out compels both the action and the language of negation, an absolute no said once and then again and again.
Joshua Clover is the author of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About (University of California Press, 2010).