Saturday, June 16, 2012

Burdens of capitalism

David Cronenberg usually takes several years between films, so it’s very unusual for his Cosmopolis to come along less than six months after A Dangerous Method. This partly reflects different release strategies – A Dangerous Method was at last year’s Toronto and Venice film festivals in the early fall, and by the time of its commercial release almost half a year later, just about every serious film journal already seemed to have published a detailed interview with Cronenberg on the subject. In contrast, Cosmopolis was first seen near the end of the Cannes festival, and then suddenly arrived in Canadian theatres a couple of weeks later.


Further, Cronenberg says he wrote the first draft of the screenplay in just six days, largely by staying faithful to the original novel (by Don DeLillo), and his comments on the film – at least the ones I’ve seen as I write this article – appear focused mainly on technical and process matters, seeming disinclined to talk too much about the substance of the film (of course, this may partly reflect every interviewer’s insistence on quizzing him about his casting of Robert Pattinson in the lead role). Even before seeing the new film then, it seemed to occupy vastly dissimilar territory from A Dangerous Method – as if one of them, reflecting its historical seriousness, cogitates and prepares the ground; the second, driven by something more pressing and immediate, almost disorientates us with its arrival.

And with its presence. Cosmopolis had some passionate admirers, but even a lot of Cronenberg’s usual admirers were clearly puzzled and rather bored by it (the Globe and Mail pulled off a familiar Canadian kiss-ass move, giving the movie three stars while straining to find anything good to say about it). I certainly didn’t like the film remotely as much as I liked A Dangerous Method (one of my very favourites of the year so far). But then, it seems to me that’s the artistic strategy behind Cosmopolis – alienation and disorientation. If the film were “involving” or “gripping” in the way of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, it would only mean something inherently unknowable and chaotic had been diluted into simple tensions and oppositions. Taking that to an extreme, the film’s unlikability and frequent incoherence is the measure of the unity of its vision. Of course, from any quasi-conventional perspective, this only tells you the picture has no commercial prospects whatsoever, Robert Pattinson or not.

Financial wizard

He plays Eric Packer, 28 years old, a phenomenally rich financial wizard, who decides to have himself driven across Manhattan for a haircut. With the city’s traffic exacerbated by a Presidential visit among other things, the journey takes all day, during which a shift in the market wipes out much of his fortune. A stream of people visit him in the back of his white stretch limo – employees and advisers, a lover, a doctor (he gets a daily medical) – and he occasionally gets out, sometimes to meet up with his wife, who it seems he married as an arranged liaison between two billionaire families, but barely really knows. Interspersed with all this, he receives escalating reports of a credible threat to his safety, resonating against a sense of broader global disturbance (encapsulated in a brief but vivid scene of the IMF Chair getting knifed in the eye during an interview on Korean TV).

Most of these visitors, and Packer himself, talk endlessly, often expressing their incomprehension or uncertainty about the workings of the markets or the reliability of the company’s models, or else spilling out long-winded densely worded reflections on capital and technology, present and future. These exchanges seldom aspire to the rhythms of natural conversation; for example, it feels like no one in the film ever says “yes” – it’s always “this is true,” as if the people needed to keep testing their grasp of the most basic building blocks of things. It doesn’t really matter whether any of this makes sense: indeed, that seems to me the whole point, that a particular “insight” might be either quasi-profound or else complete nonsense, depending on the context – in the same way say that some whizzkid’s derivative strategy might build an empire one day and destroy it the next.

In on the action

The film’s unsettlingly ungraspable structure intensifies this unknowability. The shape of Packer’s journey makes no sense – it’s often unclear where this person came from or where that one disappeared to, or whether some of these meetings are happening by coincidence or design. Many of the scenes could be eliminated, or moved around, and to downtown Toronto eyes at least, it’s obvious this isn’t taking place in Manhattan (in this sense the film reminded me of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, another displaced, knowingly strange tale of a wealthy New York protagonist) – maybe that wouldn’t be as apparent to most viewers, I don’t know.  Packer does seem to undergo some kind of evolution – in broad terms, becoming more primitive and dangerous – but we only know this because of his actions, not because we ever gain any sense of his “character.” The film ends with a long encounter between him and his pursuer, which functions to emphasize the murkiness of things rather than provide any clarity.

The film opened here in the same weekend that Spain received a $125 billion aid package; if it had opened a few weeks earlier, it might have coincided with the reports of JPMorgan’s massive loss on derivatives trading, or with various other gloomy markers in the endless economic slump. Whether or not you perceive a pernicious cause and effect between the two things, it’s clear that the average Western life experience is stagnating or worsening, but also that the rewards of transcending this have become unimaginably vast. In one of his few comments on the substance of the film, Cronenberg said: “There are no anti-capitalist characters in the movie, even though you might think it is an anti-capitalist creed on some’s really more pro-capitalist with people just wishing they were in on the action.” Fair enough – despite a growing sense of agitation, the prevailing capitalist narrative isn’t close to cracking. But maybe this points to the reason why Cosmopolis ultimately yields much less than it should – the study of people (especially of mostly bewildered, rather sad people) wishing they were in on the action just isn’t very novel or important, compared to examining the broader reality of people who aren’t in on the action, and never will be. I know, obviously, that Cronenberg isn’t going to turn into a Canadian Ken Loach at this late stage, but for all its provocations and aspects of artistic bravery, Cosmopolis feels like an establishment movie, a staid vision of anarchy dreamed up from a position of comfort. It really feels as if Cronenberg didn’t think enough about what he was doing with the film, or what he could possibly hope to achieve.

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