Glimpses of the Future

19 07 2012

I

Rumors of science fiction can surface anywhere, even in films from other genres. In Jia Zhangke’s Still Life, hundreds of people are relocated during the planned flooding for the Three Gorges Dam project. Buildings are sledge-hammered to dust, families withdraw from the rising waters, history is buried underneath the ruinous layers of an artificial lake, and the ghosts of China’s past contemplate their own oblivion. An outsider travels to this underworld of felled architecture and anarchic upheaval, presumably in search of his wife, and disappears into the fissures of a cracked social order. He recedes from our view, as the film forgets him for a third of its running time. Life becomes unmoored. Every week implies more destruction and a higher water level. Nobody can settle into a daily habit since constant upheaval is the only norm. Amidst this desolate and confused panorama, a few skyscrapers take to the skies, escaping the dystopia around them, like concealed spaceships propelling themselves away from the end of the world.

These fleeing buildings serve a metaphoric rather than a literal purpose, yet they clash with our expectations. Still Life plays out like a semi-fictional document, where the real and even journalistic content of the images – shot on location at Fengjie – are estranged by sublime, otherworldly moments. This aesthetic shock-tactic disassembles our assumptions, forces us to investigate anew. Our preconceptions are eclipsed under the exhaust fumes of unlikely, bulky rockets. None of the characters even react at the sight of the soaring buildings. They look on with weary acceptance, as if watching just another example of everyday decadence, booming notes in the dirge of a drowning civilization. The science fiction drama of mass terrestrial emigration, which serves as back-story for Titan A.E. and Cowboy Bebop, among others, here finds a surprising echo. We can imagine the flying architecture, amidst the onslaught of demolition, striving to find a dark Eden in outer space. It is certainly a stretch of the imagination, but the profound rupture produced by the rocketing buildings, the utter jolt they administer to the urban landscape of Still Life, welcomes such free-associative links.

We hear the whispers of the future. Trapped in a context deprived of security and certainty, where history and the livelihoods of thousands can be stamped upon in the rush of progress, it often feels like the only escape is towards the skies. This same theme appears in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, where the promise of paradisaical off-world colonies is publicized through the mocking neon of ubiquitous blimps, which remind the low-class city dwellers of the deliverance only money can buy, and which, for them, will forever rest beyond their reach. Struggling through the congested, anarchic streets of Earth, the sick and disenfranchised can only dream of departing to a lunar or martian alternative. In the ephemeral alleys of Still Life, more than one Chinese citizen might feel likewise. The city of Blade Runner is a city forgotten. Financial and political processes so exceed the influence of most people, that these have become abstractions. Society continues to function, builds its own mechanisms, but it is mostly unchecked and ungoverned. Those who exert authority – mostly private companies, from the looks of it – find no threat in the blur of pedestrians. People exist as anonymously and freely as they wish, so long as the aforementioned processes continue unaffected. We might think of Still Life as an embryonic Blade Runner. The city of chaos and flying cars, realized in the sinking Atlantis of the Chinese mainland.

II

The oneiric cesspits in Sharunas Bartas’ Three Days and David Lynch’s Eraserhead are detached from time. We cannot place them geographically or chronologically, though we might infer a few explanations. The wasted Lithuania of Three Days is a ruin from the post-Soviet early 90s, and its portrait of a land without history or future might reflect the political state of the country following the dissolution of the USSR. Eraserhead, on the other hand, seems like a disturbed relic of the cynical American 70s, and its American cast and crew suggests the story happens in the United States, or at least, in a nightmarish, nocturnal version of it. But locating these movies on a map or a timeline is counterproductive. Both are snapshots of displacement, and their dearth of narrative context contributes to their aesthetic discoveries. Both, too, are set in decaying environments without exits. There is no outside, no better place to emigrate to, only rotting buildings and dank hallways.

Eraserhead seems set in a post-industrial hallucination, where bacteriological horrors and mutant babies are within the realm of possibility. Three Days is submerged in a slum, except without nearby evidence of any wealthier antithesis. Based on what can be seen, there is nothing anywhere but slum, nothing but dregs and filth stretching infinitely in all directions. We recognize the materials in the frame as contemporary or, at least, non-futuristic. Everywhere in the frame, there are objects and buildings that cannot be precisely dated, and even if we can mark an approximate decade based on the clothing or furniture, it is not clear that this would correspond with the decade the characters are actually living in. Such an exercise would even be superfluous. Both films are about worlds frozen in temporal ambiguity, and while the cities or towns they describe could exist in our present, they reek of an apocalyptic loneliness. There is no national or global backdrop from which to interpret the purgatories of Bartas and Lynch. They could be utterly alone, broken forts before the darkness. They could be all that is left.

Connections like these energize film-watching. Movies talk to each other, genre tropes break into unsuspecting canvases. Nightmares and science fiction find themselves on common ground, as they probe today’s anxieties to project our fears up to their eventual conclusions. Eraserhead and Three Days exaggerate and poeticize our suspicions about where the world is heading, but unlike the over-populated scrapyards of Battle Angel Alita and Soylent Green, they present us with dystopias of solitude, where silence and stillness predominate, even when, in Three Days, there is no under-population either. Instead, what we have is extreme alienation, where not only people are alienated from each other, but whole urban spaces are alienated from their countries, from their continents, from social memory. Even those living inside do not remember where they are. They roam through irradiated cities, where interacting with other human beings is impossible. Which does not make either the Bartas nor the Lynch science fiction. But, from their disparate starting points, they lead us into a shadow realm where we recognize – in expressionistic, dreamlike, intense, and even melodramatic shape – our times to come.

III

Morning Patrol by Nikos Nikolaidis and Stalker by Andrei Tarkovksy are more explicitly science fiction and few would deny their claim to the genre. Nevertheless, and although both are set in undefined tomorrows, there are no futuristic objects or machines, only collapsing industrial scenery, wasted vehicles, and tattered clothes, all of them eroded versions of their current counterparts. Like Eraserhead or Three Days, they uncover the dystopia hiding underneath recognizable present-day surfaces. We come to suspect the very architecture that houses us in real life, since we have almost glimpsed its decaying future on film.

Forgotten neighborhoods in modern cities evoke similar feelings. Closed merchant stores with dropped letters on still extant signs, shut-down factories with monolithic chimneys tracing patterns in the sky, dissolved athletic or ethnic clubs with their dashed promise of social reunion, hollowed-out brick homes with mossy living rooms, defunct shops with darkened interiors choked by improbable mountains of boxes and furniture, the planked-windowed mysteries of abandoned tenements, and the unknown heavens of buildings boarded up at street level. These are images of our nightmare future, in our present. Whoever built these edifices or lived in them, has died or moved elsewhere. Around or beyond them, the city counts its days undisturbed, so that, when we visit these forgotten neighborhoods, we get the sense of having entered a bubble of time. These buildings, it seems, have not been noticed by the present. They exist besides it, as an anomaly. They have not been demolished either, much less renovated. And, crucially, we cannot isolate and sterilize them as curious remnants of the past, because they’re not necessarily old. In fact, they might be like the buildings in other parts of town, except spoiled and corrupted. They comprise an alternate double of the city, a dreamed distortion of it, a vision of what awaits it.

The bleak settings of Eraserhead, Three Days, Stalker, and Morning Patrol operate in similar ways. Whether science fiction or not, they inject their environments with a narrative of gradual deterioration, where objects and places we acknowledge as roughly contemporary to ourselves are tainted with a degrading past which, we fear, includes us. The post-industrial hells of Lynch and Tarkovksy, with their claustrophobic black-and-white or sepia wastelands; the desperate, anarchic apartment complex of Bartas; or the vacant playground of Nikolaidis, where the few survivors of an unspecified disaster cavort in deserted structures; all of these filter the modern world through a distorting mirror, where it finds itself naked and vulnerable, without the institutions that sustained its growth and maintenance, without people or government interested in its progress. Except in the cases of Morning Patrol and Still Life, which is like an origin story for these annihilated urban spaces, these cities or towns have not been abandoned by their populations so much as they have simply disappeared from everyone’s gaze. Even their residents fail to notice them, as they wander blind through the twisted passages of ghost towns where the pedestrians do not know they’re dead.

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One response

19 07 2012
Charulata (@wormatwork)

Great essay, Beau. Reading Part II, I kept wondering when Morning Patrol would get mentioned! Tsai’s The Hole comes to mind as well.

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