Barbie and Oppenheimer

Marcelo Guimarães Lima, Hidden Garden, digital painting, 21x29cm, 2023
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By SLAVEJ ŽIŽEK

Considerations about the two films, showing in theaters

Denounced and ridiculed by critics, Indiana Jones and the Relic of Destiny – the fifth and final chapter of the franchise –, however, faces one of the central problems of modernity: the separation between fantasy and reality. Set in 1969, the story centers on Jones' efforts to locate an ancient device - "the relic of fate" - believed to grant the power of time travel. Estranged from his wife, Marion, and depressed after the death of their son, Jones is aided by his goddaughter Helena, as they are pursued by a new generation of Nazis who are also seeking "the relic of fate".

In the film's climactic scene, Jones and Helena are transported back to the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BC, where they meet the astronomer Archimedes, who invented the time machine. Believing he has no life to go back to in 1969 America, Jones wants to remain in the past, living in the midst of a great historical moment. But Helena, refusing to give up on him, knocks Jones unconscious and returns with him to the modern world. Waking up in her apartment, Indi is reunited with Marion, and they embrace as Helena walks away smiling. That happy resolution, however, does not hide the bitter implications of the film's conclusion. Forced out of ancient Greece, the hero-teacher now faces a life of barren domesticity.

Many of the critics' fiercest attacks were directed at the character Helena (played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge), who was variously presented as either awkward (as measured by classic Hollywood standards of beauty and eroticism) or "Woke”, a protagonist who undermines the patriarchal clichés of female charm. But Helena is neither a sex symbol nor an exemplar of gender-conscious attitudes: she simply introduces an element of everyday opportunism combined with basic kindness – a touch of what might be called real life. The new Indiana Jones is really about Helena, a person from the real world who is drawn into the fantasy world of Indi's treasure hunting adventures.

As a variation on the “welcome to the desert of the real” theme from Matrix – that is, what happens when our protective illusions break down and we face the real world in all its brutality – Indiana Jones and the Relic of Destiny is part of a recent film trend – Barbie, Oppenheimer, I'm a Virgo – in which the heroes venture between the real and the imaginary and the imaginary and the real. After being kicked out of utopian Barbieland for being imperfect dolls, Barbie and Ken embark on a journey of self-discovery into the real world.

But what they find is not a profound revelation of self, but the realization that real life is even more filled with suffocating clichés than their own fantasy world. The puppet couple is forced to face the fact that not only does a brutal reality exist beyond Barbieland, but that utopia is part of that brutal reality: without fantasies like Barbieland, individuals simply would not be able to endure the real world.

O Oppenheimer by Christopher Nolan complicates this idea of ​​venturing into reality. Its theme is not only the passage from the paradise of academia to the real world of war – from the mind to the ammunition depot – but how nuclear weapons (fruits of science) shatter our perception of reality: a nuclear explosion is something that does not belong to the world. our everyday. Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, led the Manhattan Project, the team created in August 1942 that developed the atomic bomb for the US. In 1954, authorities later labeled him a communist for his affiliation with groups working to slow nuclear proliferation.

Although Oppenheimer's stance was courageous and ethical, he failed to take into account the existential implications of the device he created. In his essay "apocalypse without kingdom”, the philosopher Günther Anders introduced the concept of “naked apocalypse”: “the apocalypse consisting of a mere fall, which does not represent the opening of a new and positive state of affairs (of the 'kingdom')”. For Anders, a nuclear catastrophe would represent a naked apocalypse: no new kingdom would arise from it, only the total obliteration of the world.

Oppenheimer could not accept this nudity, so he escaped further into Hinduism, which he had been interested in since the early 1930s, when he learned Sanskrit to read the Upanishads in the original. Describing his feelings after the first atomic bomb explosion at the Trinity test in New Mexico, Oppenheimer quoted the The Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna tells Arjuna, "Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds."

While this is the line most people associate with Oppenheimer, he also quoted another passage from the Trip: "If the brightness of a thousand suns should burst at once in the sky, it would be like the splendor of the mighty." The nuclear explosion is thus elevated to a divine experience. It is not by chance that, after the successful nuclear explosion, according to the physicist Isidor Rabi, Oppenheimer appeared triumphant: “I will never forget your path; I'll never forget the way he got out of the car... his ride was like [Gary Cooper's] Kill or die… that kind of strutting. He had done it.”

Oppenheimer's fascination with the Trip it therefore belongs to the long tradition of trying to ground the metaphysical implications of quantum physics in Eastern traditions. But Nolan's film fails to show how the evocation of any kind of spiritual depth overshadowed the horror of a new reality created by science. To effectively face the “naked apocalypse” or cataclysm without redemption, one needs the opposite of spiritual depth: an utterly irreverent comic spirit. It is worth remembering that the best films about the Holocaust – Pasqualino Seven Beauties (1974) Life is Beautiful (1997) – are comedies, not because they trivialize the Holocaust, but because they implicitly admit that it is too mad a crime to be told as a “tragic” story.

Is there any movie that dares to do that with the horrors and threats of today? I'm a Virgo (Boots Riley miniseries released 2023) is the story of Cootie, a 19-year-old, four-foot-tall black man raised by his uncles in Oakland, California. The two guardians dedicate their lives to ensuring that Cootie is safe and isolated. But created in commercials, comics and pop culture, Cootie invades the world not as a tabula rasa, but already brainwashed by mass consumerist ideology. He clumsily manages to make friends, get a job and find love, but he soon discovers that the world is more sinister than it seems - Cootie acts as a catalyst, his entrance into our ordinary social reality bringing to the fore all his antagonisms and tensions ( racism, consumerism, sexuality…).

And how does he do it? As one perceptive critic of the The Wrap: “Don't be fooled by the heavy themes, I'm a Virgo It's a comedy full of absolutely crazy moments." Riley uses absurdity to point out the obvious in real-life situations: "I'm attracted to big contradictions," he told Wired. “The contradictions of capitalism – how it works – will echo in almost everything we do.”

Therein lies Riley's genius: the combination of two tragic facts (a giant aberration released into our world; the basic antagonisms of global capitalism) produces a brilliant comedy. The comic effect arises because ideological fantasies and reality are not opposed: in the heart of the darkest realities we stumble upon fantasies. The perpetrators of horrible crimes are not fiendish monsters who courageously do what they do – they are cowards who do it to support the fantasy that motivates them. The Stalinists killed millions to create a new society and had to kill millions more to avoid the truth that their communist project was doomed to failure.

Most of us know the crowning moment of matter of honor (1992), by Rob Reiner, when attorney Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) interrogates Colonel Nathan Jessep (Jack Nicholson) and declares, “I want the truth!”, and Jessep screams, “You can't handle the truth! ”. This answer is more ambiguous than it sounds: it should not be taken as a simple assertion that most of us are too weak to deal with the brutal reality of the world. If someone asked a witness about the truth of the Holocaust, and the witness replied, "You can't handle the truth!" this should not be understood as a simple statement that most of us are unable to process the horror. of the holocaust.

On a deeper level, those who were unable to deal with the truth were the Nazi perpetrators themselves: they were unable to accept the fact that their society was traversed by the economic and social crisis of the 1930s, and to avoid this view Worryingly, they engaged in a mass murder spree that targeted Jews – as if killing Jews would somehow miraculously re-establish a harmonious social body.

And therein lies the final lesson of stories about venturing from fantasy to reality: not only do we escape into fantasy to avoid clashing with reality, we also escape into reality to avoid the devastating truth about the futility of our lives. costumes.

*Slavoj Žižek, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School, he is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London. Author, among other books, of In defense of lost causes (boitempo).

Translation: Isabella Meucci for the Boitempo's blog.

Originally published on the portal The New Statesman.


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