| Cosmopolis


David Cronenberg

Canada, 2012


Review by Veronika Ferdman

Posted on 30 August 2013

Source Entertainment One

Categories Favorites: The Apocalypse

In David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, society is on the precipice of tearing itself apart as the dual (and interlocking) orders of cyber capital(ism) and technology have finally depleted the world of original actions and thoughts, robbing everything of meaning and feeling. The result is a soul-sick dissociation and disaffection. Young and handsome billionaire Eric has one desire: to drive across town in his white stretch limo through the rioting streets of New York in order to get a haircut. Oh, and his chief security advisor is greatly concerned because there have been threats made against Eric’s life by a man who, as the last act of the film reveals, was once employed by Eric but could not be made to fit into the mold of the Fordist worker.

Eric is the head of a corporation that is losing hundreds of millions of dollars due to the shocking rise of the Chinese yuan. He spends the film trying to come to terms with how neither he nor his many advisors and employees, with whom he meets during his slow journey across the city, could not have foreseen the meteoric appreciation of the yuan.

Two tensions struggle against each other: orders and aberrations. Fundamentally, Cosmopolis questions if a deviation from a norm is even possible—and if it is, what is the permanence of originality? The film’s opening and closing credits are played over artwork: some very Pollock looking paint splatters and Rothko swaths of color. But what we are seeing are not original works of art by two of the greatest and most daring visual artists of the 20th century; we see digitally rendered imitations of their work, appropriations of what in the unique instant that Pollock and Rothko first picked up their brushes were radical and unique steps made outside of the set rules of art. But then Pollock and Rothko made a bunch more such paintings, and then other artists started copying or incorporating their styles. And all of a sudden the splatters and swaths became mundane, once again re-inscribed within the expanded rules of how one can go about making art.

Eric and his Chief of Theory have this exchange in the limo (which is getting increasingly smothered in graffiti) about a man on the curb who has set himself on fire:

It’s not original.

What’s original? He did it.

It’s an appropriation.

He poured the gasoline and lit the match.

All those Vietnamese monks one after another in all their lotus positions.

In a world that is overrun by images and sounds (although Eric’s limo has windows that can darken and block out the outside world) the interior of the vehicle still contains LCD screens that infiltrate the space, bringing him a barrage of the day’s news, images of the Rothko chapel that he’s so keen on purchasing, the stock exchange, etc. Immolation is a horrific and bold act of protest and pain. But his Chief of Theory has a point: When an action is repeated over and over it loses some of its urgency and meaning, even something as horrific as this. And when through the aide of technology our lives are inundated by the same images we become inured to violence, beauty—everything. That is not to say that an act such as immolation loses all meaning, but when it’s not happening to you directly, and this is not the first time something like this has happened, and you know that it will happen again, its imprint on the heart and mind is limited. Ephemeral. And thus, although Eric’s would-be assassin, Benno Levin, is presented as an anomaly (as is, comically, Eric’s prostate) these occurrences are just part of smaller subsystems. (Certainly, Eric is not the only man in the world with a misaligned prostate.)

Cronenberg’s fundamental argument, or so it seems to me, is that the entirety of existence - even acts or resistance - are predicated upon the operation of macro- and micro-systems that regiment and organize our lives. The reigning orders of technology and capital have at this point in history turned people into production line robots while unceasingly assailing them with images and information, rendering all actions meaningless. There is no escaping this emptiness without the end of the world. (But, even then, death itself is an organizing unit.) On a micro scale this starts with the very core of the film we are watching. Cinema is a grammar, and grammar is composed of rules—pans, shot-reverse-shots, anamorphic sound, color, black and white, widescreen, low angles, shadows, staccato editing, leisurely long-takes… Those in the avant-garde make stabs into uncharted territory. The first time a close-up was used in a film was a break from the vise-grip rhetoric of medium/long distance shots. But very quickly it became a commonplace part of cinema.

Cosmopolis’ thematic struggle is carried over to its form. Cronenberg employs shot-reverse-shots for conversations taking places inside the limo, and stately tracking shots. But, there is one moment in which the camera is taken off a tripod and is searching, unstable: in the scene where Eric gets pied in the face by a Andre Petrescu.1 However, aside from this instant of darting licks the camera returns to its alteration between stately gliding and immobility. And while this freedom of movement might be new within the grammar of this particular film, it is not unusual inside the broader context of cine-history. When Eric finally comes face-to-face with Benno, who is living in a squalid apartment, the stationary compositions lend order to the unsystematized chaos of clutter and strewn objects—for what is the cinematic frame if not an imposition of order?

The apocalypse in Cosmopolis is not caused by some natural disaster or monster attack. The end of the world is nigh because at this point in history we have reached maximum saturation—there can be no more original actions. And even if something dare slip and break away from a system, the proliferation of eyes, of screens, will make the action infinitely repeatable—yet another order. Eric feels nothing because there is nothing left to feel. It has all been felt before. People are rioting because it is time for the world that capital and technology have jointly created to die. It’s the end of the world as we know it. And David Cronenberg feels fine because the world needs to end so that it can start again so that for at least a little while - before information technology exhausts and overwhelms - we can find meaning, newness, and feeling.

  1. At first this act of significantly lesser protest than immolation may seem like an unprecedented action, but soon we find out that this man has pied many notable figures in the past, and is in fact modeled upon the real-life Noel Godin who boasts Godard as one of his cream pie to the face victims. Point is: There’s something stale about smashing a pie in someone’s face if this is the hundredth time you’ve done it.
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