Friday, March 05, 2010

Apocalypse No

Poor Evan Calder Williams... I never give the guy a fair shake. Every mention of him here and every comment I've made on his blog has been from a combative, borderline-bullying stance. But the truth is that we're both Marxists of one sort or another; we both try to imagine means by which capitalism can be choked; and we both have unruly beards that do us no aesthetic service. We're on the same side - and yet I can't read his writing without taking a swing at him.

How ferocious the battles are when so little is at stake.

Anyway, Williams has contributed to Mute magazine an article a propos apocalyptic cinema. It's well worth a read, and makes some interesting distinctions between crisis, catastrophe, and apocalypse. Most of my disagreement with the piece is specific & quibbling. For example, whereas Williams tacks to the original zombies-as-consumers interpretation (updated with a Žižekian notion of drive), I think the new glut of zombie films differ significantly in intent from the original Romero movies. The old Living Dead films were satirical critiques of persistent consumption, whereas the current crop are exploitation flicks preying on the audience's fear of the Other. Suppurating blank slates as they are, zombies are floating signifiers for whoever the audience fears are tearing at the fabric of civilised society: leftists may see fascists; Christians may see Muslims; conservatives may see immigrants, gays, or communists. (The heathen/immigrant/homosexual angle is especially persuasive, given bigots' fears of corruption of the blood & conversion by a kind of lobotomisation.)

I also think Williams gives The Road incredibly short shrift when he calls it "a terrible, terrible film." I see why many people wouldn't enjoy it (long, bleak, proud of its own straightjacketed sentimentality) but to call it "terrible" is unfair & inflated. I think the film is as embarrassed as proud of its nostalgia for good ol' late capitalism, especially considering how quickly the film's survivors/survivalists turn to cannibalism. Taking this literally - as an animal "urge" to digest human flesh -, Williams utterly misses the obvious symbolism of the cannibalistic act: that we as a species have eaten ourselves out of house & home, and will continue to do so until the last man gnaws his own kneecaps off rather than suffer from want.

I also get the sense that, as a good Marxist, Williams finds The Road's lack of faith in the collectivist spirit repellent and perhaps inaccurate. Maybe in Santa Cruz, where Williams lives amidst the redwood-shaded spectre of hippie utopianism, a group-oriented, egalitarian approach to survival would prevail. Let's hope it would. But from the rust belt to the Gulf Coast, where the bibles are beaten the hardest and the Gini coefficient is at its widest, American citizens faced with the deprivation & desperation presented in The Road would make the marauding motorheads of Mad Max look like British aristocracy.

A greater problem with Williams' piece is the writing itself - what happens to academics that bleaches any style or wit from their writing, leaving in its place a skree of adverbs and neologic nouns? Most infuriating (and this almost ruined Dominic Fox' Cold World for me) is an over-reliance on stock first-person-plural devices that affect the tone of the dullest college lecturer ever:
  • To start, we should...
  • Let us...
  • What do we mean...
  • Let us...
  • To conclude, we should...
No, not "what do we mean," but what does "we" mean? Who is this phantasmic "we" that I, as a reader, have been presumptively lumped into by the writer? What are "we" fighting for, and can I get a deferment?

Ultimately, it's Williams' apocalypse fetishism that bugs me the most. Clearly, he's found his theoretical niche, and I can't begrudge him that, but his pontifical embrace of the eschatological suffers from two problems of perspective. The first is that Williams has never experienced first-hand the truly catastrophic. I'm not asking that he suffer, but anyone in Haiti or the Gaza Strip would probably find him naïve & privileged.

The second is the same arrogance that every post-apocalyptic film appeals to: that "I" am one of the lucky ones, that "I" am smarter-faster-stronger, that "I" will survive.

What are the odds of that? Well, how many heroin addicts aren't William Borroughs or Iggy Pop?

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