don't look to the left

Bridget Riley, Hesitate, 1964.
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By PEDRO CÔRTES LOUREIRO*

Commentary on the film “Don't Look Up”, directed by Adam McKay

After Theodor Adorno and the studies on ideology in the second half of the XNUMXth century, both by the great names of Marxism such as Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, and by names less connected to Marxism such as Slavoj Zizek and, in my experience, Jean Baudrillard, it is impossible to watch a movie like don't look up and not observe every Hollywood cliché tactic. When you see their posters, trailers and actors, you expect just more of the same, brief and superficial holiday entertainment. No more is expected than the well-known typical American ideology: the supremacy of American liberal democracy, the moralistic and sentimental criticism of injustice, errors and corruption, and the conciliatory happy ending, fraternal or family, and preferably with some “Balance” or clever reference. However, Adam McKay's direction was quite skillful in juggling these devices in their favor for a clever satire.

When we remember other catastrophic films, what do we see? In the movie 2012 (2009), the very few human beings who made it to the arks found South Africa, the first piece of land to rise above a flooded planet. The film, which had a black president for the USA, was released a year after the election of Barack Obama and a year before the World Cup in South Africa (2010), in a context of growing discussion about race and decolonialism, and the economic and political rise of some underdeveloped countries, the so-called BRICS. At the end of The day after tomorrow (2004), after the death of the President, the denialist vice president assumes the presidency and recognizes his mistakes, sending help to people trapped by the blizzard that took the northern hemisphere. Astronauts announce that the sky is clear and the storm has passed. Finally, Deep Impact (1998; to some extent lampooned by don't look up) ends with a few million dead from tsunamis caused by the meteor strike, while the rest of life on Earth was saved by the heroic sacrifice of astronauts to explode the second and most lethal meteor.

In general, the relatively happy endings of these films very briefly lament the millions of dead, pointing to a final union of humanity against a common evil and that there will be injustices that cannot be avoided, but that “everything will pass” and humanity will prevail. All of these movies were also made in the context of the 2000s, where the US was exercising its cultural and geopolitical dominance without much resistance.

Therefore, regardless of the quality of the film don't look up as a cinematographic work, its quality within the ideological context is curious, as it differs from catastrophe films. First, the government is the first to be pointed out as corrupt and denialist. Many have pointed to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) as a reference to Trump – however, we know that the first person we think of when we say “a woman president of the USA” is Hillary Clinton, and I believe that the brief frame with a portrait of the president hugging Bill Clinton in the film reinforces the idea.

In other words, the film took pains to demonstrate that it is not specifically about the Democratic or Republican Party. President Janie Orlean is not as much into Trump as Democrats would like to admit. It must be remembered that Joe Biden does not keep many of his promises, is shy about making concrete changes, including Trump-era policies, and has his share of bizarre speeches and postures. Recently, many have questioned the scientific rigor of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) determinations, such as the recommendation to reduce isolation time for cases of covid-19.

Secondly, the CEO of BASH, the billionaire Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), is an amalgamation of everything that represents the would-be lunatics and Martians of our planet: the main donor to the president's campaign, he sees himself entitled to scream with it and order the interruption of the space mission even after launch. A hypocrite, misanthrope and sociopath, the CEO invests heavily in monitoring cell phone users and controlling their moods – preferably for forced happiness. This, in fact, is a striking feature of the film that few people have seen comment on: everyone is obsessed with keeping laughter and good humor eternally constant. It's a strong contemporary and ideological aspect that perhaps deserves its own cinematic satire.

Third, science collapses with meteoric speed. Scientists prove completely unable to convey the message; not only because of its ineptitude with contemporary forms of communication, but also because of the interlocutors' complete lack of ability to understand anything other than money. After all, it is precisely the fear of damage that motivates everyone to keep “the good mood” – eventually, “not looking up” – and makes them abort the only mission with a chance of success, replacing it with one with a weak prospect, but very high profit. Finally, the last novelty of this film is that everybody dies, no exceptions. There is no happy ending. Not even on a paradisiacal planet where billionaires flee, as they are also incapable of doing anything.

It appears on the page of wikipedia in english of the film that was announced in November 2019, with the start of recording scheduled for April 2020, but was postponed because of Covid-19. The coincidence couldn't be more interesting: as a metaphor for environmental denialism, it also fits very well for the pandemic. In particular, the main point of the film is impeccable. The capitalists, whom the government really serves and obeys, will even bet on the apocalypse, provided there is some profitable opportunity. It is also necessary to note this detail: the current reconfiguration of capital and the political and economic models that will accompany it will necessarily be disastrous for the vast majority of living beings, human or otherwise.

If there is destruction of the environment, then it will take advantage until the last moments to burn forests, extract oil, pollute the seas and air, and hunt endangered species as never before, before it is no longer possible. If there is a pandemic, then vaccines and treatments will profit, whether they work or not, until the last possible moment. If there is a comet, then one will try to mine it before it explodes. In short, capitalism can even decline and be altered by the historical movement of needs imposed by nature, but it will do so in the most profitable way possible. This will not be said like that, “in the can”, directly and clearly. The message we will receive is the same one we have always received: “we will wait and evaluate”. Translation: delaying action gives us time to earn a little more money first.

For these reasons, I believe that this film indicates our historical moment, in which social criticism becomes necessary for any film that intends to be relevant; and that this is a positive sign. Does it mean that Hollywood became leftist and began to criticize ideology? It is certainly not the case. This aspect is also dangerous, as this is how ideology transforms and appropriates its conflicts.

If films have become more critical, as they have been in the last ten years, it is because there is a requirement, a force that presses and strains ideology and its discursive tools in that direction. I believe that this force is mostly popular. Not by chance, the film is released in the context of a strong social crisis within the USA: disbelief in relation to its political system, a highly lethal epidemic accompanied by denialism and negligence, unemployment, inflation, racist police persecution, senseless wars that end in failure. , little or no social security. If the film exalted the supremacy and exceptionalism typical of American ideology, it would probably be “cancelled” in its reception.

On the other hand, as has been said, one cannot genuinely believe that Hollywood is now on our side. If it is true that critical concessions have been made, it is also true that there is still plenty of support for liberal hegemony. And we can find signs of that in the film. First of all, look for where the people are. And the people, subject to decades of consumption ideology, of believing only in what they see on TV and on cell phones (not by chance, plans appear several times demonstrating reactions in the media and social networks), of the hyper-reality of the “screen- total”, does nothing but believe one side or the other of the dispute, or enter into social upheaval. This behavior displayed in the film, while somewhat realistic, is illuminating.

Popular unity and a possible insurrection is treated as madness. Besides, the people are rarely portrayed and, when they are, they don't know what to do. Here, the role of scientist Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is reversed. Throughout the film, she represented the misogyny of silencing women as she was never taken seriously. It felt like the movie was telling us “nobody listens to women”. Later, however, he gives up being heard or acting, falls into nihilism and anarchy, causes disorder and acts recklessly. The film then seems to say “there is nothing to do”. There is, neither on the part of Dibiasky, who could be a possible leadership or symbol, nor on the part of the people, who are capable of turning everything upside down, any insurrectionary organization.

There is, at the end of the film, a “Look Up” campaign, in the democratic and liberal molds, which remains attached to the discourse, and that's all. In fact, there is even more criticism to the people, ironically placed on the parents of Dibiasky, the main scientist to discover the comet: her parents become denialists and throw her out of the house, saying that they do not want to commit because they wait for the jobs that the comet will generate. A clear reference to the average conservative denialist voter. But perhaps it would be convenient to make the famous Zizekian inversion: wouldn't this be precisely the most sensible posture? What can workers do, with no prospect of revolutionizing the status quo, other than looking for the best opportunity for survival and employment?

A second point where the ideology is sustained is in the scientist Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). He represents the academic who is totally ignorant of any subject other than sidereal stars. Unable, at first, to communicate adequately, in a second moment he is the first to give in. Mindy becomes a defender and media representative of the denialist actions of BASH and the government. He is involved in an obscene relationship with TV presenter Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett), cheating on his wife.

In other words, the main representative of the intelligentsia and scientific-academic milieu in the film is, at first, naive, to the point of crudely discussing and arguing against strangers on the internet; and secondly, corrupt. Like the common people, the intellectuals in the film are incapable of thinking about how to make society work. Again, there is some truth to this criticism, as academia today does bring together many people like Dr. Randall Mindy - but there's also some lying. What the film's ideological discourse obscures through Mindy's behavior is, in addition to her agency, her rationality. As in other catastrophic films, Mindy's problem, according to the film, is a moral one. Mindy was corrupted by her moral failings, not the oppressive force of money, media mega-corporations, and the brute force of government. To believe that the problem is people's moral and rational incapacity, as some analyzes of the film also did, is to buy into this ideological discourse, when the real causes of the problem are of a different nature. Science, by itself, does not save the world.

Finally, the film still presents, in an inverted form, an American exceptionalism. In a negative kind of TINA (Theres no alternatives; “There is no alternative”, Margaret Thatcher's slogan), where everything goes wrong in the world because of the USA, with nothing to do. Instead of being saved by liberalism, we will be killed by it, and there is no alternative. We can see this in several moments of the film: when Mindy finally realizes the situation she got herself into and speaks desperately on television without seeing a solution (“What have we done with ourselves? How do we fix it?”); or when the “Olhe Para Cima” campaign is as mediatic and electoral as the opponent, as demonstrated by the show pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande).

But one brief moment caught my attention, especially for its brevity: when Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) gets a call and informs us that the US has excluded Russia, India and China from its ambitious mission to extract the comet's minerals, that the three countries have organized a joint mission, and that this mission had just fizzled out with an accidental explosion. Now, where were these countries throughout the film? Didn't exist? Didn't do anything? Didn't they organize or charge the US before that, and six months had passed? What does the film suggest to us? That the world, given all of history, was trusting the US? And the other countries, rich and poor, haven't done anything either?

It is still worth remembering that Russia and China are countries as capable as the US (or more) of carrying out such space missions, and would probably not fail in such a way. In fact, many people interpreted the failure to be caused by American sabotage, although the film does not explain further. One way or another, the US remains exceptional: either it is the only one capable of carrying out the mission of deflecting the comet, or it is omnipotent and capable of preventing any other country from doing so.

Before concluding this interpretation of the film and its position in the current cultural context, let's talk a little about the other gift we received. As the criticism of the Omelete website points out, it is likely that Slavoj Zizek will find in don't look up the old “Capitalism's ability to sell discontents back to the consumer as commodities”. And it is precisely our favorite philosopher and critic of ideology who surprises many of us this month with support for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics boycott by France, alongside conservative names. By participating in such a small action and with such obvious motivations, one has to wonder if Zizek is still capable of seeing the tools of liberal ideology.

We don't know Zizek's motivations, though I doubt they could be good. France and the countries that intend to boycott the Olympics are no example of humanitarianism – at least not for informed people. If even a Hollywood movie can understand this, what makes Zizek sign such a petition? Is Hollywood on the left of “the most dangerous philosopher in the world”? Defender of the “European legacy”, the Slovenian philosopher forgets that Western European countries have always considered themselves more human than other peoples, and more European than Slavic peoples like Slovenia, where he comes from. Joining conservatism and Eurocentrism, Zizek looks like Dr. Randall Mindy. Perhaps he thinks that democracy will benefit, or that he will be more European if he behaves French.

Come to think of it, they would be very well aligned. After all, in the film, China is just an unreliable abstraction, incapable of acting on the world – which already has an owner. At bottom, despite the film's positive critiques of our current misery, this is the message that resonates, from Hollywood to Slavoj Zizek: "don't look to the left." Don't look for the uprising. Don't look at the organizational capacity of the people, of the workers. Don't look at socialist countries. Don't look at alternatives to capitalism. Don't look to other nations. Don't look at what China did with the pandemic or at its reforestation project. Don't look at the Chinese Olympics. Just look at the US and its powers that be, they alone exist; only they can act. There is only one model of democracy, one model of economics. Only the US and its allies can save the world; only they can make Olympics (and commit crimes against humanity).

Those who invented a world-destroying capitalism and sustain it are silently desperate. They fear that we will look to the left for alternatives. Here, no heterodoxy of so-called Western Marxism has so far managed to sustain its opposition. Against the imperialist ideological lexicon, defeatism and denialism, perhaps Domenico Losurdo's ideological criticism is the vaccine we so badly need, while other thinkers sell us fake treatments.

Instead of the conciliatory ending that rebuilds humanity, the last-scene-last-supper of don't look up it is the acceptance of the inevitable end, the return to religion and a fraternal union not in the struggle for survival, but in defeat. It is true that this may be a satire on the family conciliation of other disaster films. However, it is precisely here, where the satire equals its predecessors, that it visibly fails. The conclusion is impotence and utter failure. Facing the end of the world, all people morally corrupt, act irrationally and die. It is certainly a generalized caricature of humanity, a stylistic tool of satire.

We cannot think that this representation of people is intended to be literal and accurate – it is exaggerated so that the criticism is clear. At the same time, nothing in the film hints at alternatives. In this sense, society don't look up it is tenebrously static, immobile, plastered. Not even the imminent end can set it in motion. And it is precisely this absurdity among many others that fascinates us due to its verisimilitude. For the difficult task, after the events of the last five or ten years, is to identify what is realistic and what is fanciful in the film. It's easier to find the realistic parts of the film and their references to historical events than the original parts that never happened. “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” – as thinkers of the past would say.

It is precisely through this verisimilitude that we deviate from the discussion about what can and should be done. What the film obscures is our capacity for action, individually and collectively. What the film obscures is the alternative. Yes, we are in a complex moment where humanity is still governed by minority and harmful interests. Yes, if we depend on these people, a lot will still go wrong. Yes, there are very real risks of catastrophe: pandemics, destruction of nature, meteors and comets. But it is false that there are no alternatives. It is false that other countries are in the same situation. It is false that all people would get corrupted or not give a damn. It is false that we cannot do anything. There are alternatives, there are different societies, there are concerned people like you and me. We can organize and change things.

Just look the other way.

*Pedro Cortes Loureiro é graduated in philosophy from USP.

Originally published on the website Translating.

 

Reference


don't look up (Don't Look Up)
USA, 2021, 145 minutes.
Directed by: Adam McKay
Screenplay: Adam McKay and David Sirota
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance.

 

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