Samuel Beckett, stood in the midst of the ruin of Europe, once uttered: I can’t go on; I go on. Whilst this remarkable utterance represents the human condition with such clarity and simplicity, the Irish author’s insight should not be confused as the final word on all possible trials in life: sometimes one must cut the loss and move on. Often, this understanding is inaccessible to the ones who need it most. Firstly, we are generally taught to persist in the face of an adversary. Perhaps partly because of this social conditioning, the law of diminished return is one of the least accepted wisdoms. I am neither for defeatism nor for the fanatical commitment to stay on course at all cost: it makes no sense to determine the course of action without taking into account of the specificities of a given situation. Yet an attitude tends to be a part of personal identity, hence many finds it hard to make an objective judgment which must supersede various habits constructed with an aggregation of abstract beliefs and/or a recollection of some strictly personal experience. Secondly, we tend to make it harder for ourselves by allowing our reptilian brain to take charge in difficulty. As a result, many of us react in the heat of the moment rather than respond with intelligence, resolve and grace. An affective storm denies one’s capacity to be rational, and thus one’s agency deserts a person whose self undergoes a complete dissolution. Since this is not a rare occurrence, it is useful for us to ask: What is it like to have a dissolution of the self? To have a glimpse of such a state, first imagine that the world has become a screaming mess of disjointed sound and vision. In this seemingly endless free-fall, you are at the mercy of a force that has taken over what is left of your person. There is no longer any way to distinguish stimuli from impulses, for you are completely inside-out, downside-up. Then you wonder: Is anything real?; Am I real?; Is there an end to all this? Naturally, there is. Sadly, it is not a solace that you desperately seek. When you hit the bottom of this drop, you will be shattered by the sheer force of landing. If you are exceptionally lucky then you will survive the impact and recover well enough someday to ask the first question that matters: How did I allow it to come to this? And this question must be followed by another: Where have I been all this time and what have I done to those who cared for me?
There have been many movies about such a stark moment in life, and quite a few of them are the biopics of artists, especially contemporary musicians, who paid ultimate price for their creative pursuits and the fame that followed. Yet none has managed to be so completely repulsive, terrifying yet tensely moving as Her Smell, the second collaborative effort from Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss. It follows the story of a charismatic rocker, Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). She is the lead vocal and guitarist of an epochal alt-rock band, Something She. The entire set-up, including the music they play, and the look and feel of the main character, is a throw-back to the 1990s when several powerful girl-only band from the Pacific North-West burst into the scene. Whilst Grunge Rock did not end with the tragic death of Kurt Cobain, the popular music had eventually moved onto the next thing as it always does. And Becky and her mates are now in a rut: no longer booking sold-out shows in the massive outdoor arenas, they are now back to where they began: small clubs with ill-lit stages and sticky floors. Whilst the audience still love them for their music and Becky’s raw presence on the stage, it is clear that their journey has seen better days. Whilst their manager, Howard (Eric Stoltz), tries to revive their languishing career by a possible collaboration with a far more established name, Zelda (Amber Heard), he has also begun to shift his focus on a new girl-band called Akergirls (Cara Delevingne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula). Whilst Becky still commands the rapturous crowd with her sheer personality alone, time is changing, and Howard tries to keep his business afloat by betting on the next generation of musicians. Yet the main reason why Something She has been struggling is its front woman, Becky herself.
It appears that Becky’s descent into the madness was exacerbated by the dissolution of the brief, and almost accidental, marriage with Danny Something (Dan Stevens) with whom she has an infant daughter, Tama. Clearly unprepared for a parental role, she is stone-drunk and chain smoking in her daughter’s presence. When Danny and his girlfriend Tiffany (Hannah Gross) visit the backstage to drop off Tama, the baby is passed straight on to Ali (Gayle Rankin), the drummer of the band and the most caring of the group. Then, to the bewilderment of all who are present, Becky plunges herself into a ritual conducted by a ‘shaman’ (Eka Darville) to place a curse on Tiffany. A heated confrontation ensures, which is quickly quelled by Danny, yet Becky becomes more unhinged by minute. It is clear that she is paranoiac, delusional, dangerously unstable and wildly incoherent. She erratically and unpredictably jumps from one disgraceful fall-out from another, seemingly hell-bent on burning all the bridges in the world, until she blackouts from stupor while holding Tama. The baby cries for her father; Danny rushes in and picks Tama up, leaves Becky in horror and disgust. The film makes the audience feel the sheer chaos wherein Elisabeth Moss leaves everything on display: the actor goes far beyond what is allowed to be seen in popular media about the public tailspins of celebrities. The force and fearlessness with which Moss enbodies the complete loss of control is perversely sublime: the process is ugly, dirty, embarrassingly awkward, appallingly frustrating, utterly infuriating and tensely anxious. What Moss’s performance is not is: hyperbolic. Becky’s eruption happens so quickly and violently in that Moss has to be completely present in each and every moment, and she delivers. There is no hint of her trademark morbid humour and intelligent irony here. Moss’ intensity and the lack of inhibition undoubtedly make everyone want to flee from the scene for good. Yet, anyone who has entered this atrocity exhibition must be strongly cautioned not to run. The damage has already been done: the sticky dirty stain smeared upon your psyche cannot be washed away even if you manage to find an exit. There is no convenient shortcut out of this story, and thus one must simply stay on and see it through. And if you stay committed as the cast, then you will be rewarded with a strangely satisfying piece of life that is ferociously real, often unbelievably ugly, yet deeply tender and moving. In its best moment, Her Smell prompts us to drop everything and have a moment of reflection upon the meaning of our past, present and future.
Whilst this is neither a hypnotic masterclass of Winding Refn nor an affective sublime of McQueen, the style of this film fits its subject perfectly. Ross Perry shows his directorial class by altering the pace and the tone of the movie according to the development of the story: there are three distinct chapters, and each and every one of them is carefully designed to induce a maximum affective impact in the audience. Whilst what happens in each chapter and how it does are both important, Ross Perry’s talent shows in the manner in which he handles the transitions. Whilst Moss’ uninhibited performance from the first chapter is a masterclass and has made critics swoon, the most breathtaking moment of the movie comes in the very first cut of the second chapter: we see a woman sitting alone in silent light. This is Rebecca Adamcyzk, a woman formerly known as Becky Something. The moment she appears on the screen comes as a shock. Since Rebecca has been sober for almost a year and away from public eyes for years, it is not altogether surprising that she looks different from the diabolical persona at display in the first part. Yet, one must note: the stark difference between Becky and Rebecca is existential, not performative. Their difference goes far beyond the contrast in their appearance and behaviours, that is, their difference lies in the manner in which they hold themselves in the world. Whilst Becky performs what is expected of her, Rebecca simply is in her solitude. Hence one must realise: as opposed to the reviews make us believe, the first chapter, whilst masterfully done, shows us nothing. Becky Something is a mere façade, a plop of a person in the process of disintegration. Becky is nothing but an aggregation of running mascaras and ruinous laughters that bare unhygienic teeth. Whilst Becky’s catastrophic descent is at once fascinating and terrifying to watch, it strictly follows a familiar trajectory: a rock star in a downward spiral of self-destruction. Despite the unflinching performance by Moss has given a new meaning to the word, ‘horror’, in cinema, the audience can still take an easy escape route by uttering: Ah, she is doing Courtney Love. On the other hand, meeting Rebecca Adamcyzk in solitude delivers a staggering sense of estrangement. And thus, at this point of inquiry, we must ask ourselves: Why are we more comfortable to see someone performing as opposed to being? This question demands a moment of sober reflection on our part: suddenly it is us, not Becky, becomes the subject of the movie. This point becomes explicit in one of the most touching scene with her former band mate, Marielle (Agyness Deyn), to whom Rebecca asks: Who is Becky? To this, Marielle replies: She is a person, not a mere persona. Rebecca responds by saying: Nobody has seen her since she was 16. This means one thing: Her Smell is not merely about the destructive force of conducting a public life. Rather, it is about a fairly contemporary phenomenon: we have allowed ourselves to have grown comfortable to perform rather than to act.
The importance of distinguishing a performance from an action cannot be overstated. Whilst a performance in this context denotes an enactment of a set of predetermined norms, and thus its enactment relies on habits, an action requires a robust agency: one cannot act without fully satisfying the prerequisite condition of being a full-fledged agent who rationally self-examines the reasons for one’s judgment which leads to an action and is willing to live responsibly with its consequences. Hence, without a robust agency, someone is merely performing. In this light, whilst a performance differs from a pure instinctive reaction due to its close relation to norms, it falls short of being a proper action due to the lack of a critical process of thoughtfully determining what to do. Naturally it is difficult to meet the demand of being a full-fledged agent: the challenge of exercising one’s agency is such a commonplace problem in that one needs not to refer to the theories of psychoanalysis to make a point. Whilst one can easily argue with a success that the challenge of meeting the demand of agency is as old as the history of humanity, it is clear that this difficulty has come to bear a different dimension since the last century. The problem for our time is: since the rise of so-called ‘Youth Culture’ during the 20th Century, especially since the 1960s wherein the popular music eclipsed more traditional forms of music and established itself as a business which commodified what was once considered art, societies have been exploiting the demographic who are in the process of developing their respective selfhood. The implications of suddenly becoming the centre of intense public attention and scrutiny and the resulting loss of the boundary between a public persona and a developing self is grave. Whilst the list of the casualty of the cult of celebrity is painfully long, it is perhaps the best to turn our attention to someone who engaged with the sinister might of cultural industry and survived, for this artist illuminates the peril of endangering one’s personhood by performing a public persona. When a struggling English musician debuted his alter ego called Ziggy Stardust, he began his strategic engagement with the system of culture industry as a self-assured player who was supposedly in control. Yet, soon, his meta-engagement with the duality between his public persona and his personhood began to take its toll: his alter ego swiftly commenced the process of cannibalisation of the very person who created it. In his struggle to retain control of creative process and his personhood, David Bowie began his uncompromising cycle of creation and destruction. As Ziggy, to the astonishment of his bandmates, Bowie abruptly announced to quit the music at the apex of success. Then, he reinvented himself as Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack, Thin White Duke, and Thomas Newton. Whilst his creative choices were undoubtedly courageous, they were also desperate ones: whilst Bowie controlled the artistic process like no other, he was struggling to salvage what was left of his personhood from increasingly menacing his public personas. The process nearly cost his life and it took him a period of self-imposed exile to Berlin to regain his personhood. What is clear from the trajectory of Bowie’s development is: intellect and rational agency cannot save one’s personhood from the cult of celebrity; one’s public persona will eat alive the person behind it. Once this process of cannibalisation is complete, one is subsumed under one’s public image. There no longer is any mystery about such a ‘person’ who has become the aggregation of publicly accessible data whose authenticity is no longer relevant.
The phenomenon of one’s public image, or alter ego, taking over one’s place in the world as a proper person has serious implications. This reflects distinctly modern anxiety in which one’s authenticity and singularity of existence are in serious doubt: from Google’s The Nose and Dostoevsky’s The Double to José Saramago’s novel of the same name, there have been numerous variations of the literary expression of modern existential angst. This fear qualitatively differs from the old concept of Doppelgänger in that it should not be conflated with a paranormal phenomenon: as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a 'supernatural' event functions as a metaphor of the modern human condition, not as a ‘curse’ or an ‘omen’. In an industrial society, we have a strong impression that a person, with all idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, are neither unique nor irreplaceable: naturally each and every one of us represents certain functions in a system, yet, under the cruel reign of Industrial Materialism, a person is mere means, not an end in itself. For example, one may be assigned a unique number in such an exploitative system. Whilst the given number is indeed unique to someone, one must not fail to recognise: one has been reduced to a number within an infinite numerical sequence wherein one has no possibility of claiming one’s existential singularity in the world. In such a world, to know a person is to know her/their/his functions. As a result, individuals are robbed of their existential opaqueness: they are completely exposed and there is no longer any sense of mystery about them. At this point, the dehumanisation of individuals is complete. To be a human is to be regarded not as mere means but as an end in itself. In order to recognise a person as an end, there must be a degree of opaqueness about her/them/him, for being a person is to have a mind of her/their/his own, and the thoughts and affections of a person must be inaccessible to others. The reason why the opaqueness is necessary to establish and maintain a personhood boils down to a simple fact: to treat someone as a person is to respect the said person’s inner life, and one cannot have access to the inner life, not the mere mental state, of another person; hence the opaqueness must be safeguarded. To dismiss this inaccessibility is to regard someone as a mere entity without inner life of her/their/his own, and thus to see someone as mere means in the manner in which Descartes dismissed non-human animals as objects, that is, machines that make noise. Without this opacity, the erosion of personhood becomes inevitable. If left on its own, this violation progresses to the point where an individual can be no longer recognised as a person who possesses a potential to become an agent proper. The reason for this phenomenon is quite simple: no one can regard someone as a person when the said entity is reduced to a profile which merely consists the descriptions of functions and known facts on ‘it’. At this point, one’s thoughts and affections are the subjects of analytics, not for understanding. Such an existence will be alienated from dialectic amongst agents proper, for everyone who interacts with her/them/him would decide what must be appropriate for her/them/him based on assumptions, not as the result of a sincere dialogue. Such an entity is no longer a speaker proper, and thus excluded from Sprachspiel, that is, the linguistic process of performing, exercising and determining norms which include concepts such as rights of individuals and accompanying obligations. And the notion of Doppelgänger in modern society acutely represents this fear of becoming a non-speaker, a voiceless entity, who is solely performing imposed functions as mere means.
This angst is not limited to the fear of someone identical replacing one’s place in the world: one’s alter ego needs not resemble oneself neither in appearance nor in performance. In the present case, as Becky, a public persona of Rebecca, takes over, Rebecca becomes a missing person. And this process of disappearance and alienation began prior to Becky’s career as a rock musician. The dire struggles for safeguarding one’s personhood in the age of cultural industry is, however, no longer reserved for a select celebrities today. With the advent of mobile computing technology and social media, anyone who wishes to construct a public image of oneself can begin the process by merely exposing oneself online. Whilst the degree with which one’s public image and the resulting persona determine one’s world varies greatly, the ease with which one can expose oneself has brought us to the point where one needs to construct a public persona, or an ‘online-profile’, in order to court opportunities in life. Whether it is a professional network such as LinkedIn or a dating site such as Tinder, in order to achieve one’s objective, it is considered necessary to create a well-tailored public profile. That being acknowledged, the exposure that leads to a construction of a public profile is mostly involuntary: social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have been proven leaky ships from where third parties have been plundering users’ personal informations without their knowledge or consent. Worse still, criminal activities such as exposing someone’s sexually explicit pictures have been rife: these images are publicly circulated without the victims’ knowledge or consent. Yet, abuse as such is not limited to ‘criminal activities’ in a strictly legal sense of the word: social media has been a platform of bullying, shaming and trolling with serious consequences to the victims with no comprehensive solution in sight. As corporations are allowed to possess personhood and opaqueness, individuals are losing these vital qualities. And thus, it must be clear that suffering from the existential alienation is now a universal phenomenon. And thus, we must realise now: for every public persona constructed with the publicly available data, there is a person who is betrayed, neglected and dying silently.
This phenomenon must strike us as poignantly paradoxical. Anyone who participates in social activities is seeking a sense of belonging, yet resorting to the very means supposedly designed to facilitate this experience betrays the users' intention in a long run: in the time of celebrity worship/sacrifice and excess ‘sharing’ on social media, social acceptance requires someone to be stripped off every layer of personal boundary, and this process results in the loss of opaqueness which safeguards one’s personhood, for every 'shared' instance becomes a performance, not the record of being in the world. Whilst the ‘social acceptance’ by means of performing an acceptable alter ego provides a sense of belonging in a short run, it becomes clear in time that such an ‘acceptance’ has an opposite effect: instead of belonging, one finds oneself alienated not only from the humanity, but from oneself. Hence it must be clear: what is accepted is not who she/they/he is; it is her/their/his public image, her/their/his alter ego, a performing persona. This is undoubtedly an extraordinary state of affairs wherein one finds oneself completely excluded from Sprachspiel. In her existential exile, Rebecca's speech becomes Becky’s: Rebecca no longer speaks in her own terms and only performs what is expected of her persona. As she noted, the process began long before she became a rock star. Rebecca constructed her alter ego to cope with the demands of ‘fitting in’, yet, as so often happens, her public persona has gained the life of her own and taken over her place in the world. This is a perilous situation for both women: Becky cannot exist without Rebecca, yet Becky is killing Rebecca in exactly the manner in which cancer terminates the host. In this respect, Becky’s rampages in the first chapter of the movie is a desperate reaction to this cruel paradox existing between a wounded person who badly needs a sense of belonging and her double whose success is bound to defeat the purpose of its existence: Rebecca, who is exiled and buried alive, is calling for anyone to take notice of her suffering for one last time. Rebecca is screaming through a muzzle to anyone who cares to listen: I cannot go on, not like this.
Fortunately the career suicide for Becky did not kill Rebecca: she ultimately finds helpful hands in those whom she once regarded as her mortal enemies, such as her ex-husband, her ex-band mates, her former manager and her own daughter. As her personhood returns, so does her opaqueness: it is ultimately unclear whether Rebecca wants to go on with her existence in the world or not. Yet, like Beckett, standing alone in the world in rubble, Rebecca finds herself alive, again. Yet, this time, Rebecca knows why she is here: she now lives for whom she loves and cares, for she has finally regained the ability to face another person and respect her/their/his personhood. This capacity to be tête-à-tête with another person is the most important prerequisite for establishing humane relationships based on mutual sincerity amongst agents: without the ability to recognise and respect others' opaqueness, and the commitment to face another person as an end in itself, there is no possibility of living what one might call a Sittlichkeit, that is, an ethical and humane Form of Life. Rebecca now realises: losing herself by basking in the adoration bestowed upon her double by the screaming masses cannot replace a meaningful connection with another person. Therefore Rebecca is no longer going to sacrifice her family and friends on the temple of fame. She expresses her intention with no uncertain terms: after successfully performing her final act as Becky before an adoring crowd, when asked if she is willing to perform one more song, Rebecca replies: I am done. This is the moment of resurrection, the first breath of her new life: Rebecca puts her alter ego to rest in order to go on. By doing so, Rebecca can finally live as a person and return to whom she loves: her daughter, Tama. She embraces her tight and smells the child’s hair. She makes it clear that this is how she goes on: tête-à-tête with her child. In this brief yet moving moment, Rebecca realises that she was seeking her answer in wrong places. In order to establish a meaningful sense of sociality, or a specific form of Sittlichkeit that meets the challenges of our time, one must begin with a sincere face-to-face meeting of individuals, not by losing oneself in a collective euphoria. The contemporary problem with the debasement of sociality thus acutely demonstrates the deficit in an aspect of Hegelian concept of Sittlichkeit: in order to establish and safeguard a society capable of resisting authoritarianism, we must maintain a certain tension between sociality and individuality by safeguarding the individual opacity that is a prerequisite to establish mutual respect to one another. Without this opacity, individuals would be merely absorbed into a mass and sociality becomes danger to a civil society by reducing every single individual into mere means. If this process is allowed to happen, sociality eventually causes a mass hysteria of the most sinister kind.
Hence, Her Smell must not be understood as a graphic film about celebrity: whilst it appears hyper-eager to please our voyeuristic tendency with gritty details of Becky’s breakdown, this is in fact a cautionary tale for us all. It challenges us by asking the meaning of being ‘social’ in this age. It not only reminds us of the importance to go on, but also of what makes it possible for us to do so. Therefore, I ask you not to turn away from this improbable gem of a film by judging its supposed premise alone. Whilst the way this cinema is presented is by no means false or misleading, there is more to Her Smell than meets the eye.