The unquiet earth, 2 (on post-catastrophic realism, inhuman human nature, naked boys with nosebleeds trying to set themselves on fire)

[excerpt of last chapter of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, following from yesterday's post]

What, though, of another common articulation of “persisting through the dead world,” not producing the urge to pull the plug on it all but rather the struggle to survive after the fact? We speak here of films that are neither apocalyptic (the event and its revelations are happening) nor post-apocalyptic (the attempt to move forward or build otherwise in accordance with what has been revealed.) Rather, they are post-catastrophic. Something has caused the collapse of society, and we are asked to focus on the quiet desperation and explosions of savagery in the contentious attempts to preserve structures and memories of pre-Event normalcy. This has echoes in films and genres considered earlier but finds its dourest articulation in the dystopian realism of the post-catastrophe model, films such as End of August at the Hotel Ozone, Time of the Wolf (2002), The World, The Flesh and the Devil, Blindness (2008), and, The Road (2009).

These are often very serious films, equally serious about being high art; with that comes both a certain portentous gravity and the capacity for innovative misanthropy. They also share a very marked resistance to explain exactly what sort of catastrophe happened, or at least what triggered it. Therein lies their catastrophic nature: the previous order (and way of ordering human society) has come to a definitive end, but nothing was revealed, no glimpses of totality or of what has been structurally excluded from that totality.

 At most, we see two things. First, we see the material after-effects of that catastrophe: stillness of the blighted landscape, undrinkability of its water, and various consequences of long-time pollution or nuclear winter. Second, the rapid degeneration of the social contract and the emerging degeneracy of people finally let loose in a post-state system to be as bad as theyve always wanted to be (or that they “cannot help” being). Insofar as these two tendencies are related, the lovely melancholy of the ruins and the visions of pseudo-scarcity function primarily as a backdrop to the all the bad things people do to one another and to other living things (cannibalism, rape, torture, ritual sacrifice, kicking out strangers because you cant trust anyone).

 And crucially, this isnt the sort of violence enacted by an emergent dystopian authoritarian order: not systemic exploitation, nothing of the sort of emergent iron fist of Orwell, Judge Dredd, or Aeon Flux, not even neo-nomadic marauders with the prospect of forming a group to be reckoned with. Rather, sloppy assemblages of the scared and hungry, abortive communities, and hollow remnants of nuclear families. The rhythm and texture of these films is analogously marked by this disconnect between setting and behavior, with glacial pacing and tableau framing, out of which the barely repressed explodes again and again: a quiet earth, perhaps, but one on which noise and fury are the rule.

Underpinning this all is a deep commitment to a certain conception of the human animal. At the end of history (here defined as the narrative of a civilizing project tending toward the global stalemate of liberal capitalism), we discover that our capacity to act badly is not historically contingent or determined. More than that, we see that whatever the accidents of history were, whatever the repressions and imbalances that shaped the globe, they were ultimately a necessary corrective to the chaotic fury of the human unchained. According to this perspective, one far more common than a set of serious-minded art films, it isnt that we act badly because the reigning orders mechanisms of exploitation and domination were rewarded and learned.

 Nor is it that the catastrophic undercutting of those structures left a void into which the learned patterns could only continue in a bloody and relentless recurrence of the same: what else do we know how to do, other than steal, rape, cheat, and kill ...

And so for all their emphasis and lingering gaze on the material traces of the catastrophe, these films cannot help but evoke a deep anti-materialism, as we are asked to treat the savage behavior we witness as the transhistorical brutish underbelly of the human animal. In other words, we are invited not to see it as the consequence of a social organization that has conditioned such behavior but as the consequence of that social organization no longer existing.

However, what of the fact that these films are in many ways “about” the preservation of older forms (the family, commodity artifacts, storytelling and history, constant appeals to what we do or dont do)? In its most recent iteration, we might think of the insistent commodity fetishism of The Road, as if the way to preserve the best parts of the Old is to give your son the fizzy New in the form of a can of Coke. But the genre tendency remains capable of sharp critical intelligence, and its clearest in the way that it undercuts so much of the post-apocalyptic emphasis on remembering the Old as the necessary mode of salvation. Transhistorical brutishness may still be waiting in the wings. However, the solution may not necessarily be the frantic grasping at whatever tattered remnants remain. In fact, those solutions may do far more harm than good.

Two brief examples. In The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, Jan Schmidts sparklingly bleak film, a band of Czech doomsday female soldiers roam a post-nuclear world of ruined and overgrown cities, argue, and torture animals. If they are the face of the New, the New is often mute, rather feral, rather sexy, and deeply aimless: mercenaries without direction, supposed reproductive potential with no future. The preservation of the Old order is the task of two characters in the film: an old woman who leads them and an understandably bewildered old man upon whom they happen. (We might fairly sympathize with his flustered confusion at their attempts to flirt with him: the transition from last man on earth, holed up with memories, to a confrontation with this gang of proto-riot grrls, is a bit of an epistemic shock.) 

 The film is, at its most basic, a nihilistic and relentless destruction of the Old. Despite the attempts to inscribe personal memory as an antidote to the end of history, especially in the compelling shot in which the old woman counts back through history via the rings of a tree stump, the total disconnect between what was and what is can only blossom out into violence. There is an uncrossable rift, leaving only the sense that those unmoored from historical knowledge will be the death of us all. Or, rather, the second death of us all, after the first death of the nuclear winter. It remains unclear, however, just who is unmoored from history, for despite their destructive urge and inability to recall or adhere to older structures of social collectivity, the vital intensity of the women remains the only spark of life.

The question becomes moot. Eventually, following the death of their leader, the soldiers kill the old man for his gramophone, the last vestige of culture. And what was he protecting, holding out for the potential future to come? A single 78 rpm disc of polka, “Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel).

If End ventures the fundamental incompatibility of the post-catastrophic New with the teetering and musty records of the past, Michael Hanekes Time of the Wolf pushes further to insist that it isnt simply that our old modes may be defunct confronted with the barbarian inheritors of the vacant earth. They may directly stand in the way of reclaiming a social decency, and they threaten to destroy the potential agents of a struggling advance forward. The nuclear family is destroyed, as the father of our protagonistic group is shot a couple minutes into the film, and what emerges is an emphasis on new mythmaking, as a groundwork for understanding heroism, sacrifice, and communal good in a time of total despair. A story is told of the “35 Just,” the elite group who safeguards humanity, and of sacrifices for the common good.

But where does it lead?

To a naked boy with a nosebleed trying to set himself aflame on the railroad tracks. Saved at the last minute by a guard, the boy is told:

“You’d have done it [self-sacrifice to save the others], for sure. Believe me. You were ready to do it. That’s enough, see. You’ll see. Everything’ll work out [...] It’s enough that you were ready to do it.”

If this is a slightly more positive version of the notion of retroactive species valorization by collective suicide, the emphasis should be put on the “slightly.” Hanekes formal distancing keeps a sense of judgment from encroaching too heavily, but it certainly should be noted that the embrace and “saving” cannot remotely compensate for the deeper horror of the logic encouraged here. Im hard pressed to conceive of the full scope of an ethical logic in which it is remotely good that he was “ready to do it.” Aside from the functional uselessness of a suicide in a filmed world where the mystical power of self-sacrifice seems entirely lacking, this comforting gesture is the worst stain of the Old. For when everything doesnt work out, as it likely wont without a lot of hard work and without arbitrary suicides, it is too easy a step to think that perhaps being merely ready to do it isnt quite enough ...

From the absence of causal links between environmental after-effects and their sources to the incapacity of remembering better to stop the directionless march toward nihilism, these films draw out the full emergence of inhuman human nature. It is a notion to be pursued through the rest of this chapter and beyond, in its dual senses. First, a historical formation that results in behavior fundamentally opposed to a humanist conception of the kind of creatures we are. Second, a longer sense of the absence of originary human nature: it has never been anything more than the deviation from what we assumed to be originary, it lies in that assumed perversion itself, that unlikeness to itself.  An initial stab at this should ask:

Why do the vast majority of apocalyptic fantasies assume that things going bad will lead to human relations going far, far worse?

Why does the end of capitalist days and the revelation of the undifferentiated so often entail a return to a vaguely state of nature, a state that few of us know beyond these cultural visions?

To approach these questions, incompletely, we should follow the turn at the end of Time of the Wolf. After Bens abortive suicide, the film cuts to forest and verdant green shot from a moving train, a third party perspective with no human behind it, as if all that remains to be seen at the end of history is nature itself, seething silently and waiting its turn.


Jessica Louise said...

But it is not just nature, it is nature with train tracks running though it. Have you ever wondered why there are so many instances of train tracks in post-apocalyptic films? It's almost like it's a required element. I say train tracks rather than trains because in Stalker the mode of transport is a railcart.

I think the post-apocalyptic train track motif is a very powerful utopian image. For me it says 3 things:

1. Humans have been here and left their legacy and the future will be built from this legacy.

2. No matter what happens, there is the potential to move forward -the momentum of the vehicle on the tracks symbolises the eternal forward momentum of time.

3. We must go beyond the capitalist drive for constant progress and domination of 'nature' and other people.

It could be argued that the post-apocalyptic film is a distantly related descendant of the Western film -particularly Sergio Leone's version of the genre. At least the train track image in the post-apocalyptic film is equally important as it was in the Westerns of the past.

socialism and/or barbarism said...

J L,

somehow missed your comment when you posted it.

Indeed, you're right about the prevalence of the train track, particularly insofar as it comes to rather bluntly let us know that the trains most certainly do not run on time.

As for what they "mean," that's a sticky question, but perhaps given the other pole of the trackless open to be horizontally and diagonally traversed by endless number of cars (i.e. Mad Max) or nomads, the track does hold out something for me that has less of the domination and more of a lost collectivity. You don't drive a train alone, unless you're in The Quiet Earth. They are group vehicles, and I'd argue the track as such has little to do with, or even opposes, that sense of the forward motion in time. A track remains without a train and mocks the thought of motion, for it's a path that needs a very certain kind of motor to get those very certain kinds of wheels turning.

For an unwieldy slab of thinking about trains and motions, here's this: