Monday, September 29, 2014

A Dyspeptic Leftist Review of Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer, the English-language debut by Korean director Bong Joon-Ho, is an allegory for capitalism. I know because he said so, through a translator. However, Snowpiercer portrays capitalism as a giant train speeding through a post-apocalyptic ice world, and capitalism is clearly not actually a giant train. What's more, climate change is making the world hotter, not colder. And for that matter, the future hasn't even happened yet. That's three strikes already.

That's not even a real train on screen; it's a digital simulacrum. And the characters--they aren't even real. They're made up. Lies, lies lies. Even though this film seems like the best, most lefty big budget film since Children of Men, it's actually its the most right-wing film since Batman vs. Occupy, and I say that despite my usually vehement objections to the idea that the far Left and far Right are in any way proximate or confusable with one another.

But before we get more into the politics of it, this movie is just bad. The acting is bad, the special effect are bad, the editing is bad, the dialogue is bad, Chris Evans is bad. I could spend an entire article in the Los Angeles Review of Books reiterating this one sentiment over and over: It was bad. And when I say something is bad, you know it’s gotta be true. I know what I’m talking about because I recognize Tilda Swinton, that unimpeachable emblem of good taste, from other movies.

Snowpiecer has a simplistic haves vs. haves-nots narrative that is anti-historical and ineffective. In the movie, the poor people are just poor. That's not how capitalism works, and I'm pretty sure that's not how trains work either. Capitalism has a working class, and they (and only they) are the good guys. Or will be. Eventually. I swear. The characters in the film aren't a working class, so how can they be a subject of History? There's no room in the equation for parasitic lumpens or the millions of people filling earth’s ever expanding cities who do not fit into traditional conceptions of an industrial working class and who are effectively excluded by neo-apartheid from productive and political life, living under a paradoxical state of abandonment and brutal control.

The haves vs. have-nots thing just doesn't work as propaganda either. Unless you're educating the audience on the fine details of how the wage-form disguises the extraction of surplus value or the difference between the (sacred and correct) labor theory of value and the (false and wicked) marginalist theory of value or explicating the paradoxical position of the proletariat as a self-negating subject, you're part of the problem. The last time propagandists tried reducing the complex conflict between labor and capital into a simplistic narrative of the haves versus have-nots look what happened: the Russian Revolution, the mobilization of rural masses in China, Vietnam, Africa, and South America, welfare states--nearly a century of more than half the earth's population living under some form of communism or socialism! And even though you may think that this film got you pumped to kill rich people, I assure you are an idiot.

This film is racist, btw. Like, it's all about how some charismatic white man is gonna save us. I mean, he's apparently Captain America for chrissake. (I kept the ‘apparently’ in there so that you’d know I’d never see those sorts of films and have only learned about them second hand.) And all these characters, they love their leaders, the poor as well as the rich. Why do all these people think they need a leader? Or rather, why is the film insist again and again that people need and want leaders? History shows us that leaders are not important and that there is no practical value, especially in times of war, of hierarchical structures of organization. Even though at the end of the movie Ed Harris tells Captain America that the myth of the white hero only serves the interest of ruling powers, that doesn't count. That is just the movie having self-regarding little chuckle at its own cynicism, not a twist that retroactively changes your perception of everything that came before it.

While we're on the topic: the end of the movie. I didn't like it. What am I supposed to think? Like, damn, that’s some hard shit, I can’t believe that instead of taking the Phyrric victory of reforming the System while ultimately keeping it in place they had the courage to gamble big and derail the entire thing even at catastrophic costs to innocent human lives, would I do that in their shoes? Or like, oh look, the train derailed, everyone's dead, that's what you get when the rabble take over, all revolution is doomed to failure? Coz I think it's the former, but I'm worried that some people won't get it. And that's the standard we should hold ourselves to: the lowest. If you can't take an exit poll and measure whether the film was good for the Cause, why are you even making art? What is art, after all, but a technology for manipulating affect in the service of political ends?

And don’t even tell me that the end of the film implies that human civilization will be refounded by two people of color because, look, that polar bear is going to eat those kids. I know it. I'm pretty sure that's what that swell of inspiring, triumphant music at the end of the music is supposed to suggest, and despite my vehement objections at every turn hitherto to the film's lack of literalism (and despite the obvious fact that it’s just a fucking fantasy), it's here that I will take the film's imagery at the face value: That's a polar bear, not a symbol of hope, and it's going to eat those kids and send a message to all the people stupider than me who see the film that all rebellion is doomed to failure.

What really worries me about this film is, what if I cared? It's the problem of the taint: I don’t want to be part of the same whole as David Denby. If I were to enjoy this film, I know that my enjoyment of it would be virtuous because I am virtuous. But what if someone unvirtuous enjoyed the film in an unvirtuous way—would not my virtue thereby be tainted? It gets so bad, sometimes I can’t even tell the difference between my spontaneous emotional reaction to a film and my anxiety over how imagined others might be spontaneously reacting to the film. But I know whichever it is, it’s right—my response to the film, or what I imagine those of the reactionary masses to be, reflects an objective property of the film itself.

Whatever a film shows it also necessarily implicitly endorses and naturalizes. A film that shows a train crash also necessarily endorses that train crash and implies that the train crash was inevitable. And if that train crash comes at the end of an allegorical representation class struggle, it means that the film is counterrevolutionary. There is no room in a fictional world for things like chance or whimsy, for unrealized possibilities or for things to have ended up differently (even though that would appear to be the basis of narrative suspense). It’s inconceivable that, within the fictional world of Snowpiercer, the train crash could not have happened, because it did happen, I saw it, and there are no other versions of Snowpiercer where it doesn’t happen.

The value of a fiction cannot possibly lie in its distance from reality but only in its being a merely coded version of reality, which is to say, not a fiction at all. Fictions exist to be deciphered, not enjoyed. Because there is not a tight one-to-one correspondence between the plot of this film and my personal diagram of how capitalism works, Snowpiercer is a bad movie.

You might say that artists face concrete choices and that one work of art can't be every work of art. You'd be wrong. You can't just make one movie. You have to make every movie. Or rather, every movie should be the same movie--a coded version of academic Leftist wisdom about the logic of capital--and cinema itself, nothing but the endless repetition, ad nauseum, of this wisdom.

The problem, ultimately, is art. With art, a symbol can be exchanged with many possible meanings, which means a symbol is like money and art is therefore capitalist. Whereas the Truth can only be possessed by me.

At least there's one silver lining, in which we may all find some relief: I did not make the same mistakes Bong Joon-Ho made in making this movie. Nor did I make the same mistakes you made in liking it.