Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Spectre is Haunting the World: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis.

                Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find.  In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly free psychopathology.
                JG Ballard, High-Rise (1975.)

                2012 was the year of the existential stretch limo film, or so say Cashier du Cinema, having voted Leos Carax’s Holy Motors and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis their top two films of the year.  There are certain intriguing, if superficial, similarities between the two movies.  Both are set during the course of a single day, and both their protagonists experience episodic adventures while being ferried around in stretch limos.  The limousine has lost much of its mystique as a symbol of wealth, power, and conspicuous consumption in recent years; in Holly Motors and Cosmopolis it becomes symbolic of how technology tends to insulate and isolate modern individuals from the world, operating as a womb, a shell, and a prison.  Both films remind me vaguely of the John Cheever short story and subsequent Burt Lancaster movie The Swimmer, in that they are long day’s journeys into night, or stories of men who are gradually exhausted and disillusioned by the close of their compressed odysseys.   A more comprehensive comparison between the two films might make for an interesting essay, but since I’ve only seen Holy Motors once, and wasn’t overawed by it, I’m going to concentrate on Cosmopolis, which strikes me as the first real Cronenberg film since 1999’s eXistenz, and the first really good Cronenberg since his adaptation of Ballard’s feverish prose poem Crash in ’96.  In fact, Cosmopolis feels like a mature companion piece to Crash, and a long awaited return to the weird and coldly fascinating shared universe in which the director’s best work takes place. 

The quintessential theme of early Cronenberg was the transformation of the body through its marriage with technology.  In Videodrome, James Woods’ flesh was subject to a literal transformation; in Crash, with the exception of copious flesh woods, the body preserved its integrity, but the mind underneath was transformed.  James Ballard and his wife Catherine (played by James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger) have a cold, oddly affectless quality; they appear to have moved past emotion as it is conventionally expressed, and regard their bodies and sexual compulsions with the rapt but clinical interest of physiologists examining a cadaver.  It could be argued that Cronenberg was always primarily concerned with the mental rather than physical transformations engendered by technology, and in this sense both he and Ballard were pioneering theorists of an idea which only acquired a name much later on: the idea of the posthuman, or the radically transformed new species that emerges from our increasing symbiosis with technology.  Ballard’s fictions constantly present aspects of the topography of modern life as potential incubators for new types of human behaviour and new species of human being: automobiles, motorways, high-rise apartment towers, and luxury gated communities become the behavioural laboratories of emergent social orders and pathologies:
“A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like and advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere.”  (Ballard, High-Rise.)
Cosmopolis finds Cronenberg exploring a similar kind of detached, posthuman ennui to that which characterised the fusion of his vision with Ballard’s in Crash.  In Crash, however, the technologies which transform the psychologies of its characters are primarily those of the first Machine Age – the mass produced automobiles and crowded motorways which also formed the centrepiece of Godard’s 1967 consumerist apocalypse Weekend.

 In the 21 century Information Age vision of Cosmopolis, both people and technologies have become subservient to the transfer of information which they facilitate – the idea of clock-time which facilitated the physical, labour-based capitalism of the Industrial Revolution has given way to a permanently encroaching present or future-present of instantaneous information, and a wholly abstract economic system where “money talks to itself”:
“You don’t believe in doubt.  You’ve told me this.  Computer power eliminates doubt.  All doubt arises from past experience.   We used to know the past but not the future.  This is changing,” she said.  “We need a new theory of time.”  (DeLillo, Cosmopolis.)
With Burroughs and Ballard in his earlier movies, Cronenberg proved adept at finding literary sensibilities which could be merged with his own thematic and stylistic concerns to the point where it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where one begins and the other ends (influence as a perfect viral infection or parasite.)  In Don DeLillo’s source novel he has found that perfect symbiosis again, and the result is one the year’s most exciting and original films.

Just as the Greeks saw fire, atoms or water as the ultimate constituents of matter, so we now see information flowing through all things.
Brian Appleyard, The Brain is Wider than the Sky.

Published in 2003 and ostensibly covering the period of the dot com collapse in 2000, Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis feels remarkably prescient in 2012.  It tells the story of Eric Packer, a 28 year-old billionaire asset manager who decides on a whim to get his hair cut in a barber shop across midtown New York.  In order to do so, his limousine must travel through an urban landscape which has become as complex and fraught with variables and vectors as the financial system itself: a presidential visit is in progress, a Sufi-influenced rap star is publically being laid to rest, and an anarchist/anti-capitalist protest, operating under the symbolic banner of the rat, has exploded into a riot of graffiti and self-immolations.  While the limousine is attacked by protesters, Packer’s “theoretical” advisor insists that the riot is “a protest against the future”, or against the reformulation of temporality into the perpetually unstable now of cyber-capitalism.   (In 2010, protestors attacked the Royal Roll Royce; the expression on the faces of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall was less of everyday fear and more of a kind of shock that the symbolic order of the world had been breached and shattered.)

Packer is himself making an unconscious protest against the future, however.  His desire for a haircut in a traditional barber shop, and in an establishment which he used to visit as child with his father, represents a nostalgia both for his own childhood, and for the vanishing world of traditional, tangible commerce.  He seems, in various inchoate ways, to be trying to remember what it means to be an authentic human being:
He felt these things.  He felt the pain.  It travelled the pathways.  It informed the ganglion and spinal cord.  He was here in his body, the structure he wanted to dismiss in theory even when he was shaping it under the measured effect of barbells and weights.  He wanted to judge it redundant and transferable.  It was convertible to wave arrays of information.  It was the thing he watched on the oval screen when he wasn’t watching Jane.  (Cosmopolis.)
He encounters his new wife, a young heiress and would-be poet, and attempts throughout the day to have sex with her, an act which he believes will be cleansing and cathartic.  Failing this, he has intercourse with a female bodyguard in a hotel room, and tries to persuade her to stun him with her Taser gun.  All the while, however, his world is crumbling around him.  He is haunted by the fact that he has an asymmetrical prostate.  Somebody is trying to kill him.  Most catastrophically, he has gambled hundreds of millions against the rise of the yen (the yuan in Cronenberg’s adaptation) and his fortune is ebbing away.  In his book The Quants: How Math Whizzes Helped Sink the Economy, Scott Patterson describes how Wall Street quantitive analysts dreamed of finding hidden patterns amid the chaos and complexity of the global financial system which would make it possible to gamble the markets with the predictive accuracy of a hard science:
Regardless of which signature trade each man favored, they had something far more powerful in common: an epic quest for an elusive, ethereal quality the quants sometimes referred to in hushed, reverent tones as the Truth.  The Truth was a universal secret about the way the market worked that could only be discovered through mathematics. Revealed through the study of obscure patterns in the market, the Truth was the key to unlocking billions in profits. The quants built giant machines— turbocharged computers linked to financial markets around the globe—to search for the Truth, and to deploy it in their quest to make untold fortunes.  The quants created a name for the Truth, a name that smacked of cabalistic studies of magical formulas: alpha.
According to Brian Appleyard in The Brian is Wider than the Sky, “the quants’ superstition that infected the financial markets is the most vivid example of a superstition that infected the entire world in the post-war period – the fantasy that maths could be applied to the human realm and, with the ever-increasing power of computers, arrive at truths that were as hard and testable as those of physics.”  In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer embodies this mixture of venal hubris and Platonic mysticism:
He knew there was something no one had detected, a pattern latent in nature itself, a leap of pictorial language that went beyond the standard models of technical analysis and out-predicted even the arcane charting of his own followers in the field.  There had to be a way to explain the yen.
The absolute fallacy of these notions is revealed to Packer in the course of Cosmopolis, as it was revealed to the world in the aftermath of the crash of 2008: the application of computerized mathematical models to the global financial markets didn’t make them more stable and predictable, it did the opposite.  It created a volatile, perilously interconnected abstract monster that nobody could predict because nobody could really understand it.  Cosmopolis was not warmly received when it was released in 2003, but it strikes me as a very prescient and original thing: a strange lovechild of David Mamet, Harold Pinter, Bret Easton Elis, and JG Ballard.  It is a bone-dry black comedy and an intricately constructed prose poem where every recurring image and theme is very carefully interwoven. 
Cronenberg’s adaptation has been similarly underappreciated on its first critical airing.  It’s the type of film that makes you wonder what exactly you’re watching at first; it feels a little like movies do when you watch them in a sleepy, hypnogogic state of mind, and everything feels a little weird and austere and lifeless and hypnotic because your mind can’t quite follow what’s happening.  The interior of Packer’s limousine is a striking creation, like a HR Giger sculpture without the explicit references to human biology.  Cronenberg stresses its artificially, using green-screens that echo the unconvincing back-projection of film antiquity; when Packer eventually steps out into the world it startles us, because we hadn’t believed there was any world outside its artifice up to that point.  The director and his cast – including the Vampire Valentino of the Young Set – do a remarkable job of performing the novel’s ultra-mannered, Mamet-like dialogue.  Cronenberg himself responds to the challenge of the novel’s dialogue-heavy theatricality by producing a master-class in careful, arresting composition.  “I feel located absolutely nowhere” one of the characters says, and Cronenberg’s compositions constantly wrap space around the protagonists, shrinking the world while it expands the constrictive bubble of the limousine.  Most of all, it’s a joy to see the director firmly back in the very particular world he made his own in the 80s and 90s – a chilly, Ballardian world where oddly lifeless characters are absorbed and coolly obsessed by dreams of putting on a new flesh in a world of high technology.  Ballard and Cronenberg and DeLillo’s posthuman fantasies may seem exotic and affected to many audiences, but as a recent New York Times article How to live without Irony suggests, we are a culture moving to some extent towards a kind of detached and distanced relationship with the world.  What Brian Appleyard calls the superstition of the post-war world still presides over our lives today, despite the crash of ’08.  The internet was once envisioned as the ultimate interaction with a vast environment whose positive virtues were its randomness and unpredictability; increasingly, however, it is being designed to reflect ourselves back at us – but not ourselves precisely,  rather a version of ourselves and our interests which has been reverse engineered from our footprints by algorithms.  Travelling, again, in a bubble.  Cosmopolis articulates a pervasive underlying anxiety of our time: that in our intimate relationships with technology, we are willingly and even enthusiastically participating in our own obsolescence.
“He was thinking about automated teller machines.  The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory.  It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of muddled human personnel and jerky moving parts.  The term was part of the process the device was meant to replace.  It was anti-futuristic, so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated."

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