Excrement, Garbage, and the City: an Ideological Battlefront in Canadian Apocalypse Cinema
The infrastructure of cinematic cityscapes manifests as spectacular utopian capitalist fantasies, or as the sites of detritus and abjection, usually stratified by visual metaphors of decadent heights or sewer-level depths respectively. This division frequently depends on an ideological mandate congruent with the social and economic conditions under which a film was constructed. As cinema has become an increasingly global product, depictions of the city have found articulations that stretch far beyond the comforting bourgeois fantasies of classical Hollywood productions. Especially following the introduction of revolutionary Third Cinema in the 1960s, filmmakers from many parts of the globe have taken to producing cinema that is directly concerned with cityscape and how it has participated with global capitalism in the production of class stratifications and social constructs. In “Dreaming of Infrastructure,” Patricia Yaeger proposes “a new practicum for looking at city literature, including (1) the fact of overurbanization, (2) the predicament of decaying or absent infrastructures, [and] (3) the unevenness of shelter (which, along with food, energy, health care, and water make up the mythos and ethos of the nurturing city)” (13). In the context of the mythos and ethos of the nurturing city, Yaeger makes specific reference to infrastructures concerned with the disposal of human excrement, and their symbolic representation in texts that use excrement to challenge such a mythos. Extending Yaeger’s call into cinematic text, Mark Shiel proposes a challenge “to produce a sociology of the cinema in the sense of a sociology of motion picture production, distribution, exhibition, and consumption, with a specific focus on the role of cinema in the physical, social, cultural, and economic development of cities” (Shiel 3). In this paper, I take up Yaeger’s new practicum for looking at city literature to investigate how the global discourse on urban and capitalist constructs is negotiated. While much of the explicitly revolutionary impulse of ostensibly Third Cinema seems to have faded out in the 1970s, its revolutionary impulse can be found in more contemporary examples of cinema that have become a hybrid of dominant forms in capitalist distribution networks, but which narratively include a form of cultural critique. Using a number of cinematic artefacts that are specifically concerned with contemporary urban infrastructure, I argue that historical examples of Third Cinema have been answered by more contemporary examples of Hollywood fantasy cinema in an ideological dialectic. From that point of departure, I further argue that certain examples of Canadian-influenced cinema, particularly the films of Don McKellar, plagued by a subordinate position within the U.S. market but imbued with a more socialist ideology, maintain a critical middle-ground between the polarized depictions of First and Third cinema. In these films, excrement and waste become a symbolic taboo through which effect criticisms of the capitalist mega-city in a framework which systemically recuperates such dissent back into the Western mythos of the nurturing city.
In order to facilitate this analysis, this study engages with a set of primarily neo-Marxist theorists concerned with the cultural reticulation of myth and ideology in the context of capitalist societies. Such an approach provides a fertile analytical framework in which to understand the cultural work of symbols and ideology in the context of cinema, particularly as it is concerned with the contradictions of capitalism, and a socialist revolutionary impulse to critique these contradictions. The governing theoretical framework is based on Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air. According to Berman, industrial capitalism afforded its subjects a combination of “awe” and “horror” (Berman 120). Cinematic examples demonstrate how the “horror” of industrial capitalism has been effaced from Hollywood fantasies, whereas the “awe” of industrial capitalism is exposed as contradictory in many examples of Third Cinema. These movies play out Berman’s dialectic of awe and dread on a global scale.
Within this overarching framework, I will employ three distinct theoretical trajectories of analysis. First, I will employ anticolonial theory to discuss the revolutionary impulse of ostensibly Third Cinema as articulated primarily by Solanas and Getino in their seminal “Towards a Third Cinema.” Within that context, I will discuss the way in which several examples of such cinema foreground and insist upon the depiction of abject human waste, as described by Julia Kristeva in The Powers of Horror. Second, I will analyze certain representative examples of more contemporary Hollywood cinema that depict urban infrastructure through the neo-Marxist theoretical concepts of myth, ideology, and fantasy as articulated by Louis Althusser and Slavoj Žižek. In my third analytical trajectory, I will reference the theory of cultural hegemony as articulated by Antonio Gramsci in order to challenge Althusser’s closed model of capitalist ideological determinism, and Solanas’ and Getino’s similarly pessimistic view of the revolutionary political efficacy of socially critical films constructed from liminal socio-capitalist positions within the First Cinema industry’s ideological bubble.
Althusser suggests that ideology works to mask and displace any antagonistic forces that are a challenge to the current system (Althusser marxists.org 21). Part of this masking is achieved through cinematic fantasy. Slavoj Žižek’s description of “Fantasy as a support of reality” (Žižek Sublime 47) finds its most comprehensive articulation in his The Plague of Fantasies, a neo-Lacanian extension of psychoanalytical theory which provides a particularly useful framework for the examination of how cinematic fantasy works to displace both repressed and explicit social anxieties. Aptly, early in his text, Žižek offers an example of a three-tiered network of ideological mechanisms with a “shit” metaphor. He suggests that “shit can … serve as a matière-à-penser” (Žižek Plague 3): it represents a “traumatic excess” in the West (Žižek Plague 4) caused by proprietal standards based on repressed fears of animalistic abjection. This symbol of traumatic excess is effaced in traditional Hollywood cinema but foregrounded in examples of Third Cinema that use it as a metaphor for the treatment of excess or surplus populations under capitalism. More importantly, Žižek describes the way fantasy works to provide comfort by obfuscating the horrors of a reality in which desires are in constant flux based on social intersubjectivity (Žižek Plague 9-11). The Hollywood cinematic narratives I explore are exemplary of these workings of ideology and fantasy.
However, Althusser’s model has been criticized for its closed cultural determinism of ideology. Antonio Gramsci’s model of socio-political hegemony offers a corrective. He defines popular culture as the primary arena in which cultural hegemony is negotiated. Furthermore, Gramsci states that “Every relationship of ‘hegemony’ … occurs not only within a nation, between the various forces of which the nation is composed, but in the international and worldwide field, between complexes of national and continental civilizations” (77). Filmmakers disenfranchised by global capitalism do not contradict Althusser’s closed model of ideological determinism in their overt criticisms of capitalist-influenced urban infrastructures because their films are allegedly constructed outside the capitalist ideological network. Likewise, Hollywood examples of First Cinema also work to sustain Althusser’s understanding of capitalist ideology in their propensity to efface urban contradictions from within the ideological bubble. These two factions demonstrate a hegemonic relationship in the way Third Cinema functions as an explicit critique of urban infrastructure, and First Cinema works to contain, or efface such criticism. In this context, it becomes clear that certain Canadian-inflected cinematic examples attempt to negotiate the social criticism of Third Cinema within the confines of capitalist ideology.
Third Cinema and the Inversion of the Garbage Taboo
Third Cinema is a category whose boundaries are difficult to define. In their manifesto, Solanas and Getino offer the following definition:
the cinema known as documentary, with all the vastness that the concept has today, … is perhaps the main basis of revolutionary film making. Every image that documents, bears witness to, refutes or deepens the truth of a situation is something more than a film image of purely artistic fact; it becomes something which the System finds indigestible” (Solanas and Getino 1).
In Anthony Guneratne’s introduction to Rethinking Third Cinema, he traces the unfortunate neglect of Third Cinema in dominant cinema theory discourses, while outlining the “schisms” or contradictions even within the Third Cinema discourse that have contributed to its neglect. Guneratne aims his criticisms and concerns regarding the neglect of Third Cinema theory at the problem with sliding definitions, including those of what constitutes Third Cinema, the “polymorphism” of the Third World, and the problem of China’s often contradictory political alignments. In “Beyond Third Cinema: the Aesthetics of Hybridity,” Robert Stam addresses a number of seemingly disparate subjects of Third Cinema. First, he elucidates the cultural work and ideological aesthetics of Third Cinema, suggesting that “[m]ost of these alternative aesthetics revalorize by inversion what had formerly been seen as negative” (Stam 32). In this universalizing of Third Cinema, Stam fails to identify who the seer is, but one can assume an Eurocentric perspective that locates the bourgeois viewer as possessing the gaze that is in need of inversion.
Stam concludes his argument with an analysis of three Brazilian films (Thread of Memory , Boca de Lixo , and Isle of Flowers ). These movies play with a metaphor of the waste and excrement of decadent capitalist society as analogous to the excess and abject populations that urban centres tend to produce, or attract, invoking the same repulsive materials to which Julia Kristeva refers in Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (Kristeva 2). Kristeva describes a super-ego level personification of the abject. “The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). She continues to state that the abject, “the jettisoned object, is radically excluded” (Kristeva 2). Such an analysis applies equally to the erasure of abjection from myriad Hollywood urban fantasies, and to the exclusion of the dump-dwellers in the Central-American movies described by Stam from the bourgeois urban social environment. These latter movies, however, refuse to allow the viewer to exclude or turn away from any of the commodity, fecal, or human waste which urban centres produce, and further refuse to deny the abject agency.
Apparently following Yaeger’s concept of untenable urban populations mired in their own feces, Stam describes the way in which these examples of Brazilian Third Cinema representations and their motifs of garbage demonstrate his theory of inversion and can come to represent a metaphor of empowered alterity (Stam 41). The Thread of Memory recounts the documentary narrative of “an elderly black man who had constructed his own dream house … completely out of garbage and detritus” (Stam 42). Boca de Lixo “centers on impoverished Brazilians who survive thanks to a garbage dump outside of Rio” (Stam 43). These survivors actively engage with the camera in a process of acquired agency through which they celebrate their abjection as a philosophy for life. Isle of Flowers offers a highly satirical indictment of human behaviour and the hierachies of human social relations in the production of detritus.
Other cinematic examples produced outside of the Hollywood dream factory similarly insist upon depictions of the city that foreground urban decay. Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977) and Jia Zhanke’s Still Life (2006), while culturally and geographically disparate in their production inputs, refuse to depict urban images with the glossy, modernist patina provided by classical Western cinema, and demonstrate an unintentional global unity in challenging the urban mythos of Hollywood fantasies. Shiel provides insight that might significantly be applied to a discussion of these two films. He observes that “globalization remains incomplete and ‘uneven’ and possibly demonstrates the degree to which globalization can be or is resisted” (Shiel 12). One might consider this the theme of Perfumed Nightmare. While Kidlat is initially enamoured of Western technology and progress, he is soon disenchanted after witnessing the massively invasive force of urban expansion. His village initially appears to be one of “those areas where global capitalism has not yet been quite able to reach or which have fallen out of the global capitalist ‘loop’ altogether” (Shiel 12). Nevertheless, early in his voice-over narration, Kidlat points out the pervasive presence of U.S. soldiers, part of the effects on rural communities by the urban project and corrupt political mismanagement of the Philippines by Marcos. Both films share an aesthetic that depicts decaying urban centres of concrete monoliths crumbling under the weight of globalization, highlighting appalling images of the mass construction or mass decay of buildings, which transgresses the effect of commodity fetishism to efface the traces of production, both material (the ugly buildings) or socio-economic-ecological.
While these examples are hardly a satisfactory cross-section of films from the wide range of nations and economies involved in the production of socially critical cinema, they are representative examples of cinema concerned with the contradictions and shortcomings of urban infrastructure for disenfranchised classes. Moreover, these examples seem to be concerned with human and urban excrement as a metaphor for the way disenfranchised subjects are treated as garbage under industrial capitalism. Following the 1970s, however, Third Cinema that explicitly critiques city infrastructure in the context of waste disposal seems to have nearly vanished. Third Cinema today is more subversive than revolutionary, having been absorbed into an ambiguous hybrid of national cinemas and otherwise socially critical films. This may be due, in part, to the powerful effects of capitalist appropriation, and its ability to recruit filmmakers into its global distribution networks.
Hollywood Cinema and the Infrastructure Fantasy
Hollywood examples that respond to these Third Cinema and non-Western articulations of the city do so in a less explicit fashion. Rather than explicitly valorizing the effects of global capitalism on urban subjects, many of these films offer self-identified fantasies replete with ideologically-charged images of clean and functional cities. George Lucas’s Star Wars prequel trilogy (1999 – 2003) features an entire planet that is an urban centre reminiscent of the New York skyline. Indeed, Carl Silvio refers to the city-planet Coruscant as particularly “Manhattanesque” (Silvio 68). Under the protection of the concept of fantasy, the film effaces any evidence that such an infrastructure is ecologically untenable. Class stratifications in the film are effected through metaphors of height, in which the lofty towers of the bourgeois elite are separated from their view of the working class landscapes below. In Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, one of the film’s earliest scenes depicts two highly decorated graduates of the Jedi Academy, Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi, in an elevator shooting upwards to the ivory towers of the elite. At its height is Senator Padme Amidala’s luxury apartment in which she (accompanied by her black servant) overlooks a technologically utopian urban vista.
Soon after, as the heroic Jedi Knights pursue a rogue assassin into the seamy underbelly of Coruscant’s urban heart, the scene shifts to a dramatic plunge downward into a working class industrial landscape. Piloting a hover car with Obi Wan Kenobi as a passenger, Anakin Skywalker effects a manoeuvre in which he ascends nose down with blinding speed to which the horrified Obi wan can only plead, “Pull up, Anakin. Pull up!” The dramatic energy of the scene masks Obi Wan’s articulation of the terror of descending into the abject proletarian depths with a characterization that has him frightened by Anakin’s flight hot-dogging. On ground level, Obi-Wan and Anakin pursue the would-be assassin into an explicitly ‘blue-collar sports bar.’ This sports bar is a far cry from the cantina in Episode 4 and the first time such a specifically American urban landscape has been portrayed in any of the films. Even the working class landscapes, however, are fantastically clean, with technology-laden infrastructure apparently working flawlessly. The closest the proletariat class comes to abjection occurs in a brief episode in which Obi Wan Kenobi is offered metonymic cigarettes called ‘death sticks.’ The only explanation for the inclusion of the otherwise inexplicable moment is to code the proletariat social landscape as one in which self-destructive addiction and the purveyors of such intoxicants run rampant. Nevertheless, Obi Wan summarily eliminates this problem for the poor proletariat dupe.
Another example which depicts a similar fantasy of utopian urban infrastructure is Len Wiseman’s 2012 remake of Total Recall (based on the original short story “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick). Following Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “one of the best ways to detect shifts in the ideological constellation is to compare consecutive remakes of the same story” (Žižek End Times 61), the two popular versions of this story present clear differences. The earlier version of the film (a 1990 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger) foregrounds ecological issues in the face of an evil political power holding the lower classes hostage for clean air. The newer film effaces ecological issues in favour of foregrounding class conflicts in which a working-class hero resolves the power contradictions inherent to urban capitalism. This class binary is maintained with two opposing ideological representations. Earth has been divided into two continental urban centres following nuclear holocaust. The wealthy elite maintain residence in one, while the proletariat classes are housed in another, shipped in daily for the purpose of labour via an intra-planetary elevator mechanism unsubtly called “the fall” reminiscent of the stratification metaphor of the elevator in Star Wars: Episode II. The narrative and mise-en-scene in Total Recall demonstrate highly technological urban landscapes with no trace of infrastructure contradiction. Although the proletariat city is visibly hyper-crowded, there is little evidence that the city infrastructure is not wholly effective. Hand-implant cellular phones, and domestic hives seem entirely functional in their otherwise mundane operations, and distinctions between the two urban centres are difficult to discern. The more significant binary exemplifies the “mythos and ethos of the nurturing city” (Yaeger 16). Within the city limits, while all is well on the level of infrastructure, outside the city walls resides a toxically untenable apocalyptic landscape into which the revolutionary freedom fighters must escape to evade the repressive state police and military apparatuses that pursue them. Only within the urban centre is there security from the toxic fallout of nuclear holocaust.
Although there is no specific evidence to support a contention that these Hollywood films are directly responding to Third Cinematic challenges to the ideology of urban utopia, they are part of the larger ideological dialectic that implicates depictions of the mega-city. Indeed, the very ideological project of much Hollywood cinema appears to be to efface urban criticisms and contradictions as part of a global discourse. These films are Western self-representations (or fantasies of them) that remain locked in a context of globalization and a capitalist global urban network.
Canadian Cinema in the Liminal Critical Position
However, even from within the capitalist “First World,” several cinematic artefacts have challenged the bourgeois comfort provided by these urban fantasies, many of which have Canadian productive inputs. In 1970, Solanas and Getino opined that
A reformist policy, as manifested in dialogue with the adversary, in coexistence, and in the relegation of national contradictions to those between two supposedly unique blocs — the USSR and the USA—was and is unable to produce anything but a cinema within the System itself. At best, it can be the ‘progressive’ wing of Establishment cinema (1).
They continue to explain that “The most daring attempts of those filmmakers who strove to conquer the fortress of official cinema ended, as Jean-Luc Godard eloquently put it, with the filmmakers themselves ‘trapped inside the fortress’” (1). Numerous cultural theorists have articulated similar perspectives on the ways in which capitalist culture not only contains criticism, but commodifies it and returns it to its own service.1 Nevertheless, Solanas and Getino remained hopeful. “The anti-imperialist struggle of the peoples of the Third World and of their equivalents inside the imperialist countries [my emphasis] constitutes today the axis of the world revolution” (2). For such cinematic revolution on the national level, Shiel locates a “‘window of opportunity’ between the end of colonialism in the 1960s and the full realization of globalization in the 1980s when small national cinemas … were looked to as sources of a utopian and dynamic opposition to the dominance of Hollywood” (Shiel 12). Canadian cinema may provide a minor example of such utopian opposition, even though it remains very much within the system as described by Solanas and Getino.
The position of Canadian cinema within the system is unique, not entirely encumbered by an ideology of nationalist imperialism, nor entirely integrated into the U.S. cinema industry. I discard any suggestion that Canadian cinema or its ambient culture maintains an impulse to participate in the overthrow of capitalism. It seems quite the contrary. However, it also seems that certain Canadian filmmakers are duly prepared to tackle the contradictions of globalization and capitalism with more revolutionary fervor than their American counterparts. In this liminal position, Canadian films answer Kenneth Harrow’s desire in Trash “to situate trash not simply in the Sierra Madre mountains of revolt but in some more indefinite, ill-defined, uncomfortable position where the grain of sand comes to trouble and destabilize the oyster’s sense of wholeness” (Harrow 9). In contrast to the utopian opposition described by Shiel, Canadian films are substantially apocalyptic – a reflection of the recognition of the filmmakers’ inability to escape the inevitability of his/her own immanence with the capitalist system such films attempt to critique. The question remains as to the extent to which certain examples of Canadian cinema participate with the lingering footprint of the anti-colonial struggle, and the extent to which they remain trapped inside the ideological fortress of the capitalist culture in which they were produced.
As early as 1966, contemporaneous with the first wave of Third Cinema in Africa and South America, Ryan Larkin produced his experimental animated short, Cityscape. With a running time of less than a minute and a half, the short sequence is saturated with what the title refers to as “Impressions of a City.” Far from a valorizing fantasy, this animation locks the central character in paralysis amidst the screeching visual and audio cacophony of an inner-city setting. Dominating the central position in both time and framing is the depiction of dark, masculine, fecal figures that ooze into the nether-regions of the frame. There, the masculine excrement of the city undergoes a death-transformation that produces effeminized white wraiths that ascend to the heavens on the left side of the frame. Only once the scene dissolves into a rural idyll is the central character freed from his foothold and able to move about the landscape. Larkin’s short film establishes a thematic aesthetic trajectory for Canadian cinema regarding the city – a feces-based criticism of the urban landscape, contradictory to dominant American cinematic valorizations. However, the depiction is highly symbolic, and open to ambiguous interpretation. While Larkin’s aesthetic subverts Hollywood conventions of realism, it is not nearly as explicit an example of a criticism of urban society as provided by contemporaneous examples of Third Cinema, such as Battle of Algiers (1966), Xala (1975), or Perfumed Nightmare (1977), nor of the Brazilian examples of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
By 1975, however, even more contemporaneous with films such as Xala (1975) and Perfumed Nightmare (1977), experimental Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg was ready to depict urban feces as a symbol of horror in his first feature-length success, Shivers (1975). Solanas and Getino dismiss any revolutionary political impact in the so-called “cinema of ‘challenge’, of ‘argument’, promoted by the distribution monopolies and launched by the big commercial outlets” (3). In this regard, they dismiss the cinematic content and define political impact as entirely dependent on capitalist production patronage. However, Canadian cinema is not always easily compartmentalized as commercial. Canadian Film historian Caelum Vatnsdal is succinct when he states that Cronenberg’s earlier works “were far from commercial enterprises” (96). Although Cronenberg’s works have largely been culturally appropriated to the service of Canadian national artistic pride, Shivers was constructed almost entirely outside the commercial patronage system, and its reception underscores its rejection by the conservative right, rather than being “noisily applauded by the ruling classes” (Solanas and Getino 3). Under the pseudonym Marshall Delaney, right-wing Canadian political activist Robert Fulford published an article in a 1975 edition of the Toronto-based magazine Saturday Night, entitled “You Should Know How Bad This Film Is. After All You Paid For It” (Vatnsdal 101).
Marshall’s title references the funding patronage of the Canadian Film Development Corporation in making the film and his article becomes an attack on public funding for artistic ventures, with Cronenberg’s film as his scapegoat (Vatnsdal 101). Cronenberg’s own reaction admits the film’s abject content. Vatnsdal quotes Cronenberg as responding that “Delaney’s reaction seems perfectly legitimate: that he found the film repellant” (Vatnsdal 101). If Cronenberg had wanted to disrupt the political right with a cinema of the horror of urban feces, he had succeeded.
Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) follows the somewhat comical ennui of Dr. Roger St. Luc who attempts to thwart the spread of a genetically-engineered sexually transmitted parasite that renders the victim wholly sexually hedonistic, and a little murderous, in what appears to be the parasite’s sentient self-reproduction. The opening scene highlights the urban setting with an ersatz advertisement for a luxury apartment complex in inner-city Montreal which comes to be the setting of the remainder of the film. The narrative ontology of the film is easier read as a critique of the fatal lacking morality of post-sixties sexual liberation. Nevertheless, Cronenberg’s cinematic representation of the parasitic monster is unambiguously reminiscent of human feces. The film does little to offer agency to those trapped within the fecal confines of an urban underbelly, but one read of the conclusion is quite progressive, suggesting that the inhabitants of the apartment complex, once freed of their fecal inhibitions, are further liberated in the design of less contradictory social relations. As they drive in convoy out of the parking garage at the end of the film, apparently to spread the parasite to the population at large, they are serene and quite elated. If Shivers is limited in its use of feces as a form of urban criticism, it at least sets the stage for Canadian productions to use the fecal taboo in increasingly uncomfortable urban depictions. In a loose similarity, both of Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) and Existenz (1999) depict urban settings replete with decay and refuse, a trajectory not lost on neophyte Canadian filmmaker Don McKellar.
Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998) is an apocalypse narrative that “follows the intersecting and elliptical narrative strands of several characters resident in Toronto in the last six hours before global apocalypse” (Christopher 61). The film parodies the stratified social hierarchy that would later be so fantastically depicted in Attack of the Clones and problematizes the metaphoric binaries of ‘above and below’ and ‘inside and outside.’ At street level, abject masses revel in the refuse of the fallen infrastructure. At the beginning of the narrative, Sandra navigates city streets in a state of neglect and disrepair, strewn with the debris resultant from abandoned city services. While she desperately harvests remnants from a looted grocery store, several of the city’s abject subjects saunter towards her car like Romero zombies. Unlike the inhabitants of garbage-based residents in films such as Boca de Lixo, these characters are afforded no agency. However, another character, coded as homeless and crazy, and who visibly resembles the characters in Boca de Lixo, acts as the town crier, intermittently announcing the time left before apocalypse as she pushes forward—an incessant flaneur of the city streets. Although she is coded as somewhat insane, she is almost always smiling, and clearly does not suffer the compromising effects of social dissolution that preoccupy the film’s primary protagonists.
Also at street level is the depiction of violence against the agents of state apparatuses. Duncan, played by David Cronenberg, remains irrationally loyal to his management job at the gas utility company, calling every customer on his printed database to assure them that the gas would stay on until the last. When he finally returns to his home, he is accosted by a street thug brandishing a shotgun. Duncan confidently retorts that he has no fear of the thug. He is later shown shot through the head. Most significantly, however, is the social freedom that rises in the streets. Referring to the rising street population, Jenny’s father warns her, “You be careful when you leave. Don’t go out in the streets unless you have to.” She is dismissive. “Oh, come on, dad. They’re safe. They’re just having fun.” Her boyfriend Alex articulates the message even more clearly. “People want to experience things and we’re all going to die anyway.” The message is emphasized by the fact that Jenny and Alex lie to her parents. Instead of going to visit Alex’s parents as they claim they will, they join the revelry in the streets. Amidst violence and inhibition, a gathering emerges in which noisy masses of people come together to celebrate the inevitable end, and their emancipation from the capitalist urban setting that is the entire diegetic world of the film.
Meanwhile, in the lofty heights of infrastructure-based office buildings or urban apartment complexes, social relations are in comical flux. “Much of the film renders the established social code risible, especially in the face of the inevitably mortal human condition. At the gas company office, Donna admits to her boss Duncan that she took a drink every night at 6pm. He responds, ‘I could fire you for this.’ They both chuckle at how ludicrous the notion is” (Christopher 62). In this scene, the height of the cubicle desks at which Donna works on the second floor is contrasted against a blurred depth of field that offers a balcony view of the lobby atrium far below. Nevertheless, the mise-en-scene surrounding these inhibited and sexually repressed characters is explicitly within the confines of the building. Similarly, Craig and Patrick debate the ownership of a car that they view from the confines of Craig’s apartment window high above the parking lot below. “Since the apocalypse is imminent, ownership [of the car] is academic. Nevertheless, in response to Patrick’s request to give Sandra the car, Craig states that he ‘wanted to die the owner of three cars.’” (Christopher 62). Craig’s dialogue satirizes the effects of commodity fetishism and how it can supersede social relations when they are mediated by material goods. “When compared against the importance of assisting a fellow human being in the face of imminent mortality, materialism loses its lustre” (Christopher 62). Moreover, the car will do Craig little good within his apartment so far above street level.
And it is only while Patrick and Sandra navigate the street anarchy that they begin to undergo social self-discovery. As they walk along, and in their quest to find transportation for Sandra, they are comically interrupted by various personae in the streets. Their conversation drifts in and out of mundane topics while they become enamoured of each other. Meanwhile, in his apartment, Craig continues a quest to satisfy every sexual fantasy he has ever had with a revolving door of partners that include a woman solely because she is black, his high-school French teacher, and a virgin. In this environment he encourages Patrick to embrace the social freedom of imminent apocalypse, part of which includes Craig’s desire to experience homosexual relations with Patrick. Patrick rejects Craig’s offer on all counts, and returns to the streets to venture home to his own apartment.
In the opening scene of Last Night, Patrick is framed from above, prostrate and inverted on the floor, unambiguously below, but enclosed within the heights of his apartment. As the narrative prompts his ascent into the refuse and abjection of the city streets, he finds social revelation. McKellar, however, abandons the visual metaphor which codes the abject depths as the site of resolution at the last. At the narrative conclusion, Patrick is returned to his upright position and set above the urban decay. Patrick fulfills his desire to return to the heights of his apartment for the final moment. Having acquired some liberation from his street-level social revelation, however, he at least brings Sandra with him. Having resolved their mutual social schisms, they reacquire emotional control, and locate themselves on a rooftop wing of his apartment building, above but not enclosed within the apartment, with a promise to shoot each other in the head at the final moment. The depressing malaise of their controlled end-solution, set explicitly upon an apartment rooftop, is contrasted against the noise of the unbridled revelry in the streets below. The re-establishment of their conservative social hierarchy, however, inundated with the street-level noise, cannot sustain the control required to pull the trigger, and they succumb to the passion of a kiss. Such a concluding heteronormative pair bond could be interpreted as little more than conservative romantic Hollywood ideology. However, this kiss demonstrates a loss of control, coded as a choice of social embrace, rather than the violent alienation of shooting each other. With all social propriety in flux, the urban world of the diegesis comes to an end. The film represents unbridled social liberation as concomitant with the absolute end of the urban setting, and the dissolution of the spatial binaries that urban infrastructure produces.
Another film which employs spatial binaries and detritus to critique urban infrastructure is Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness (2008). A claim to the film as Canadian requires some justification. Three of the primary protagonists are renowned Hollywood stars. The distribution companies, Miramax and Focus Features are explicitly U.S.-based companies. (In fact, Focus Features was previously named USA Films.) However, Don McKellar had substantial collaborative significance in Blindness, in which he performed and participated as the writer of the screenplay, adapted from José Saramago’s novel of the same name. Furthermore, Fernando Mereilles is a Brazilian director perhaps best known for his critically acclaimed City of God (2002), and Gael García Bernal, who portrays the film’s primary human villain, is a Mexican actor and director known for such socially critical films as Amorres Perros (2000). These collaborative inputs associate Canadian Don McKellar’s influential participation with significant figures within the socially critical Latin-American cinema movement that Solanas and Getino highlight as the historical origins of Third Cinema, and that Stam locates as the site of revolutionary impulses in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In Blindness, an encroaching epidemic of global blindness renders its unnamed American urban centre, so fantastically protected under a patina of urban bliss in many Hollywood narratives, the site of violent corruption and decaying social relations. The narrative and mise-en-scene are particularly concerned with the excess of fecal and urban waste in an apocalyptic landscape of infrastructure failure where universal blindness becomes a metaphor for the maintenance of delicate and untenable social relations under the ideological misdirection of capitalism and urbanization. A local doctor becomes one of the earliest victims of the epidemic and finds himself promptly herded into a well-guarded quarantine prison. His wife, who maintains her vision throughout the narrative, pretends to be blind in order to accompany him.
Within the prison, inmates, unaccustomed to their malady, face untenable overcrowding in an environment of increasing fecal and physical detritus. At one point, a blind inmate slips in excremental remnants left in the hallway days before. As the infrastructure is increasingly taxed, and the external world succumbs to the epidemic, the provision of food supplies becomes scarce, and social harmony dissolves under the totalitarian political control of an inmate who crowns himself “The King of Ward 3.” In this role, he distributes food based on abject inmates relinquishing their personal belongings. Once these are exhausted, the women are forced to relinquish sexual favours in communal orgies organized by the men of ward three. The doctor’s wife eventually dispatches The King, and discovers that the prison gates have become unguarded. They escape the confines of the prison into an urban landscape overwhelmed with human, fecal, and physical detritus. Eventually, the couple, with their new commune of misfits make their way to their old luxury apartment high above the street level detritus, and begin to recover their sight.
The introduction establishes the tenor of an unsettling urban setting characterized by with a visual depiction of angled grids and gridlock. The film opens with a close-up overview of an intersection segment of an inner- city street grid which is graphically matched to a close-up of traffic light. At such close proximity, the scoring on the face of the light, invisible in the overview, demonstrates how the city is not as clinically beautiful as it appears from afar – a sort of proximal blindness. The movie is replete with uncomfortable close-ups, not the least of which is the uncomfortable sexually charged close-up of The King’s face in the moment he forcibly demands fellatio from the doctor’s wife. Throughout the film, the foul abjection of humanity is visually proffered to the viewer for close inspection in conjunction with images of an urban landscape penetrated by the kino-eye, rendering feces, garbage, and death in close visibility.
However, following so much social revelation in the context of absolute abjection, the narrative loses sight of its social and urban criticism in the narrative conclusion. Towards the end of the film, the protagonists grope out of the prison and form an exclusionary cabal. As they ambulate the city on their way home and in search of food, danger lurks in the abject face of every person they encounter. When the doctor’s wife attempts to harvest food from the basement of a supermarket, she is ravaged by starving epidemic victims, and barely escapes with her life. The viewer is left wondering why the group, or at least the couple, doesn’t simply flee the city. Equipped with her sight, they could readily make a run for the security of a rural space. In this regard, the film loses much of its critical velocity. As with Total Recall, the urban city remains the only available cradle of civilization and sustenance, and the only viable human residence. However, therein lies the critical or revolutionary inflection of films such as Total Recall, World War Z, and Blindness. These narratives are all ultimately concerned with the lack of security of the urban setting, primarily due to the abject malevolence of members of the over-populace, but are all resolved with fantasies of closure in which there is a return to ‘normalcy’ and the city can once again take up its role as the cradle of comfort.
In conclusions that evacuate the urban critiques within the narratives, both Last Night and Blindness position their bourgeois heroes above the unwashed masses, and fall short of dissociating abject lower classes from their metaphoric depths in the urban mire or the privileged upper classes from their ivory towers. In the narrative closure of Blindness, just as with Last Night, the protagonists return to the heights of their bourgeois apartment, where they begin to recover their literal sight. Returned to the comfort of her bourgeois normalcy, the doctor’s wife steps out onto her balcony and looks down on a seemingly intact urban infrastructure that the viewer well knows, upon closer inspection, reveals a landscape mired in its own decay. Discomfiting visual hyper-proximity has been replaced with comfortable distance. Like so many Western films, the protagonists escape the squalor within the city limits in a fantasy of urban redemption. In an even more conservative twist, and reminiscent of such American blockbuster films as Deep Impact, 2012, and more recently Noah (2014), rather than face apocalypse as in Last Night, the urban world can begin anew, armed with the revelatory social knowledge brought on by communal abjection.
In all three of Shivers, Last Night, and Blindness, the urban populace, including its own bourgeois, become the abject Other to which Solanas and Getino refer as the “zoological detritus” and “the unwashed hordes” normally identified as racially inferior under colonialism (Solanas and Getino 3). In stark contrast to Hollywood blockbuster fantasies, these Canadian-influenced films unabashedly depict the less savoury aspects of urban reality, replete with squalor and abjection, and deny an ideology of urban idealism. Last night is the most ethnically and narratively progressive. Unafraid to resolve the urban social contradiction with annihilation, the narrative concludes with apocalypse. Unafraid of racial conservatism, the street rabble is almost exclusively white, while bourgeois members of the narrative, including Sandra and one of Craig’s lovers are visibly of other ethnicities. Blindness, while far more specific in its critique of the inequity and illusion created by urban social practices, displaces much of its critique onto one of only two Latin-American characters, the villainous King of Ward 3. The other Latin-American character is a prostitute.
Ultimately these examples tend towards conservative fantasy resolutions of the problem of urban overpopulation and infrastructure (as Althusser might have expected) based on their privileged capitalist sites of construction and productive inputs. Solanas and Getino contend that “all of these ‘progressive’ alternatives come to form the Leftish wing of the System, the improvement of its cultural products. They will be doomed to carry out the best work on the Left that the Right is able to accept today and will thus only serve the survival of the latter” (3). Only once freed of the convention of romantic resolution will such apocalyptic examples of Canadian cinema achieve the revolutionary significance so desired by Solanas and Getino. However, it seems evident that such is not the ontological ideological impetus of these films. They rather participate in the reproduction of the capitalist environment in which they were made. They are fundamentally non-revolutionary.
Nevertheless, as global capitalism continues to spread, it remains to be seen where Canadian cinema will position itself in an ever-changing social and economic global landscape.
Perhaps Canadian filmmakers will capitalize on the establishment of conventions that are so critical of capitalism and redefine a revolutionary aesthetic that does not polarize socialism and capitalism, but rather seeks to find a tenable middle ground. While these Canadian-influenced examples may fall prey to an inability to call for revolutionary revisionism of capitalist self-aggrandizement in cinematic depictions of the city, they attempt to take up the torch of Third Cinema in an effort to challenge and critique dominant ideological fantasies of urban spaces. These examples of Canadian cinema certainly fall short of the open call to revolution Solanas and Getino desired. However, they do not necessarily only serve the right, as Solanas and Getino contend. In a landscape of political and cultural hegemony, these films represent the voice of the left and a call for change in which socialism might provide mitigation for the contradictions of capitalist urban contradictions, rather than revolutionary overthrow, perhaps an untenable Marxist ideal under the capitalist globalization of the 21st century. It seems from these examples that a dialectical global discourse continues to negotiate global capitalism and its ideology, in which Third Cinema is ‘slinging shit,’ Hollywood cinema is ‘full of shit’ (by being empty of it), and Canadian cinema is desperately trying to understand the flushing mechanism.
- See, for example: Marcuse, Herbert. “Repressive Tolerance.” A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Wolff R. P., Moore B. Jr., Marcuse H. New York: Beacon Press, 1965. 81-2; Kellner, Douglas M. Cinema Wars: Hollywood Film and Politics in the Bush-Cheney Era. John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 41; Baudrillard, Jean. “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media.” The Shadow of Silent Majorities (1983). 109; i e , Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997. 80.