The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)

In the last article on Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River (2014), I have settled with the concept advanced by both Gosling and David Bowie: In order to go on in the world without any false hope of retaining/attaining a messianic redemption, we must find strength in the love and care which one feels for our precious ones. To find a reason and motivation to go on without any metaphysical notion which promises eternal salvation means that one must find the source of strength amongst finite subjects whom one intimately knows and loves (for philosophers: I am not endorsing Harry Frankfurt’s notion of ‘love’. In order to avoid what I think is a rather solipsistic notion of ‘love’ advocated by Frankfurt, we need to appreciate the Hegelian dialectic, yet I digress. For our current purpose, we are not getting into how our love should be exercised; in this article, I am focusing on the possibility of having this feeling in the first place). The obvious problem with this solution is: It is not easy to develop and maintain relationships that are genuinely meaningful. Not only can human relationships be shifty and/or fragile in general, in this age of instant/constant connectivity, we must survive all too invasive distractions before dreaming of having a genuine human interaction which, if one applies oneself, might grow into something true. Moreover, even if one is fortunate enough to establish such a relationship with someone, there is another problem with this solution: Since one locates the source of one's strength in finite subjects, in the event of severance, one effectively loses the reason to go on. As life on Earth becomes increasingly precarious due to the constant outbreak of violence and disasters, one must be aware of this possibility, despite that nothing can prepare us to cope with such a loss. And the more we are made aware of the precariousness of life on Earth, the less convincing our current solution becomes. Then, we must face the following question: What must we do when we are denied having a meaningful relationship? Before answering it, we must assess how it feels to live with alienation due to such a loss.

To see just how difficult it is to cope with the severance from loved ones, and the resulting alienation and despair, there is no better place to start than Nicolas Roeg’s cult classic, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). This rather spotty film, both aesthetically and technically, attains cult status due to the involvement of David Bowie. He not only played the main protagonist, Thomas Jerome Newton, but inspired the entire project to the degree that the film became an experimental documentary about David Bowie in 1976 under the pretence of a SCI-FI film. All of this is obvious, yet I shall take a moment to briefly touch on this subject by recalling that Ziggy Stardust, Bowie’s first breakout persona, was an alien who came to the Earth with a lofty goal, only to be corrupted by his involvement with Rock’n Roll and the resulting stardom. Like Ziggy, Newton comes to Earth, more specifically to the United States, in a mission to bring water back to his thirsty home planet and save his family, only to be prevented from achieving his goal by the American government. As the result of his failure, his family perishes from an extreme drought. It appears that no one from this advanced civilisation survives this extreme weather, leaving Newton as a sole survivor, a captive in an alien Form of Life. Whilst Roeg’s feature film bears distinct characteristics from the 1970s, such as indulgent sexual expressions, a paranoid tendency of conspiracy theorists, and a casual approach to stylistic experiments, the core of the story brought on by Bowie endures the test of time, since it expresses the existential challenge of life in the time of great chaos and spiritual degeneration brought on by our modern human condition.

Unlike in Brooklyn, the America represented in this film is not the Promised Land where one can expect to attain everything the American Dream promises: a fresh start; freedom from traditions; rooms for enterprising thinking; reward for hard-work; and genuine human relation in an egalitarian utopia. Instead, The Man Who Fell to Earth presents a distinctly dark and sinister side of the industrial empire. Newton is prevented from saving his family due to interference from the American government who sees Newton’s scientific patents as matter of national security: as Newton’s true identity becomes known to them, secret agents murder his right-hand man, Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry), seize Newton’s assets, and subject him to confinement and brutal medical experiments. It is the sort of picture fostered by paranoiac conspiracy theorists who believe the might of the American government to be absolute. Yet, there is another factor which works against Newton: even before his mission is terminated, Newton’s well-being is already severely undermined. Through the companionship of Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), he is exposed to the silently destructive side of American life: hard drinking; binge watching TV; and sex without intimacy. He is already so damaged that he cannot find anything better to do than drown himself in alcohol and despair even after his liberation from captivity. And thus, in this story, America is a dystopian prison cell from which one can hardly escape without sustaining irreparable damages. Incidentally, this is the same America from which Bowie was struggling to extract himself. After seeing some success on the American music charts, Bowie moved to Los Angeles. It became apparent that the move was a disaster; LA alienated him to the extent that he lost all sense of reality, and the life of a Rock star in the USA accelerated his descent into addiction and paranoia. By the time Roeg started filming, Bowie was barely holding onto his sanity, as he admits later.

The great irony here is that the United States of America, the new champion of Industrial Materialism (to understand the use of this term clearly, please read my article on The Big Short, was started mainly as a British colony, the nation that started the global domination of Industrial Materialism in motion via its celebrated legacy of the Industrial Revolution and its global colonial empire. Despite its origin as the land of Native Americans and having featured strong French influences in the early days, it retains a distinct family resemblance to its former ‘mother land’, due to the initial dominance of English settlers. In this sense, a Brit is in a similar position to that of Dr. Frankenstein; he cannot recognise humanity in his creation, yet it is far more powerful than the inventor himself. He must look in despair, rather than in contempt, for what he perceives as the monstrosity is precisely the realisation of his own vision; whilst the consequences may be unintended, the characteristics of this creature are the logical extension of his world-view. Interestingly, for Bowie, the New World was the Promised Land of his childhood; it is the land he dreamed to be in, and it is the place he later returns and settles permanently. In early days, he was keenly in tune with the American music scene, and artists such as Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground stimulated his ground breaking creative endeavours. Whilst America acts as a catalyst in his life-threatening crisis of the mid 1970s, in his later career, his time in the United States appears to be generally a stabilising experience. For example, his album Reality (2002) is a contemplation of the world after 9/11, and, in his own words, draw inspiration from the immediacy of the streets of New York City. Whilst he continued to remain eclectic both in his styles and inspirations, he was in a position to withstand the challenges of living as an alien subject in the empire. Then, it is natural to question: How did he overcome the crisis of his life and then chose to live as an alien again in the United States, of all places?

In order to answer this question, first we need to cast our eyes back to the crisis again. When he was Thin White Duke, Bowie, like Newton, felt absolutely alone. He was estranged from his family and friends, and barely sane. His life was taken over by loneliness and addiction, and the trouble with his manager added to the mistrust and paranoia. Whilst we don’t know whether he contemplated suicide at some point during his crisis, the severity of addiction, and the poignancy expressed in some of the songs from this period, clearly indicate just how dire the situation was for him. As his dangerous balancing act added to the fascination for his music and character, he was just barely holding on. Now, I must be clear: I have no inkling whatsoever about what separates the ones who survive and the ones who do not. It is a mystery and it will remain that way, for there are simply too many variables to explain everything away with a few neatly formulated theories. And thus, instead of trying to offer one explanation or another, I shall simply point to one factor which might prove to be not only interesting, but also useful.

There is one crucial difference between Bowie and some of the notable artists from his contemporaries who commit suicide. For instance, in the case of Ian Curtis (Joy Division), his commitment with the moment is absolute, and frightening. In contrast, Bowie expresses himself through certain characters and intricate conceptual expositions. Whilst his expressions do not necessarily lose intensity or poignancy, there were always complex layers of intellectual and artistic conceptualisation existing between the man and his expression, no matter how moving his performance was. As he was on the razor’s edge, his intellect offered a protective buffer, however slim it was at certain times. This is a crucial factor not only for Bowie, but for anyone who struggles to find a reason to go on in this world; intellect reaches toward the world around us, for it is expansive by its nature. When intellect is at work, it separates us, however temporarily, from our emotions by shifting our attention from them, thereby providing a sort of protective shield to us. In addition, intellect tends to put things in perspective, since it strives toward objectivity and moves away from subjectivity. This feature is particularly helpful in testing situations; we tend to experience emotions with lesser intensity when we can discursively make sense of the situation. Whilst Curtis never lacked intellectual curiosities, the manner in which he pursued his chosen subject is notable: according to his widow, Deborah, he spent most of his spare time by studying human sufferings through his reading of history (Touching From a Distance, 1995). It is apparent what his pursuit did to his art: he was so involved with the subject of his study, that is, human suffering, that he literally transformed the stage into an ‘atrocity museum’ where he would have a fit, collapse, and be torn apart. This is exactly the state Austrian poet Georg Trakl aimed at, and expressed through his poetry with both alarming and admiring consistency. Whilst we must acknowledge this quality as a rare and precious gift, for the sake of artists’ well-being, this is probably the most undesirable of characteristics. With absolute merging of the world and the self, one would effectively lose grip of both: when one loses an objective look of the world as it is absorbed into the subjective experience, the self dissolves into an unrecognisable chaos of sensations. Whether one finds it fascinating or suspicious depending on one’s idea of creativity, Bowie’s intellect did not work in this way; he was intensely engaged with whatever he chose to do, yet there was always the presence of mind in his undertakings. Even in his most severe form of paranoia, he was still striving to make sense of the world and his place in it, and he had found a creative outlet through the subjects he chose to examine, understand, and express.

Whilst his intellect may have pushed him to dangerous places, it is clear that the manner in which he engaged intellectually with the world not only helped his creative endeavours, but also ensured certain gain of time. His quest to make sense of the world and his own trials led him out of the United States to West Berlin, the city which represents the promise and the betrayal of the Enlightenment. It is clear that his stay in Berlin had a transformative effect, both creatively and philosophically; not only did he break new ground with his ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the history and the culture represented by the city helped him to overcome his distorted world-view; in time he came to situate his work and his existence in a proper philosophical context, and was able to clearly and concisely express his own insight. Whether you will agree with his view or not is not really the point; it is important to note that the use and the engagement of intellect do have a positive effect on one’s well-being. As the cases of Curtis and Kurt Cobain might suggest, when one lacks a precious relationship from which one might draw strength, it is not enough to devote oneself to a special vocation for which one feels passionate enough to sacrifice everything. The question is not whether one has such a vocation or not; it is rather how one engages with it. And it is beyond doubt that the proper use of intellect is crucial for us to face many challenges, due to its ability to introduce a certain objectivity to the way we engage with the world which should prevent us from plunging into the depth of paranoia. Bowie represents an exemplary case of intellect serving a therapeutic function. In the aforementioned interview, it is striking to see him speaking of his alienation and isolation with what appears as a certain degree of cheerfulness. It is clear that he made peace with his alienation, and chose to live through it by taking up residence in the nation which isolated him in the past, rather than going back to London where he could exploit his status as a kind of national treasure. Whilst it was a good move which stimulated his creativity, it was also an important decision philosophically: by finalising the acceptance of one’s alienation by making it ‘official’, one can discard delusional notions such as the Promised Land and ‘belonging’ to a certain Form of Life. By rejecting to be loyal to a certain Form of Life for the sake of safeguarding one's place in it, one creates an option for oneself to remain critically objective. This rejection to give an oath to any collective functions also enables us to shift our focus on immediate and personal relationships, and thus, we are no longer swayed by vague and incoherent notions such as nationalism/patriotism. By accepting one’s status as an alien, one can cultivate an unassuming attitude toward each individual whom one encounters. Whilst this attitude would not demolish categories such as nationality, gender, class, and race, it opens enough room for us to engage tête-à-tête, an engagement which, if both interlocutors are committed and intelligent, could be the start of a genuine dialectic.

Does it mean that the proper engagement with intellect is going to substitute for the lack of precious ones in life? Hardly. In fact, it does not even guarantee our survival; it certainly does not make one’s life meaningful on its own. My current assessment is that, given the failure of all messianic notions, political or otherwise, we must look for modest aims, and thus, the suggestion by Bowie and Gosling, namely, finding the source of strength in precious and personal relationships (without, of course, endorsing some sort of nepotism) is probably the only plausible way for us to go on in this world. The obvious caveat to this position is: it is common to suffer the lack of such a relationship, and moreover, even if one successfully establishes and sustains such relationships, given the precariousness of life on Earth, the threat of severance cannot be ignored. One may be forced to go down the route taken by Newton and drown oneself in despair and grief in the event of catastrophe. The resulting alienation should induce a powerful paranoia in the sufferer who eventually loses all contact with the world as a consequence. What the proper use of intellect promises to us is the time we gain from it. Intellect gives us a buffer from the onslaught of the raging affections and opens up a space for us to work things out. In addition, it strives for objectivity, and thus helps troubled individuals to contextualise one’s struggle. Whilst these characteristics of intellect aren’t enough to make life worth living on their own, they do prevent us from plunging straight into the abyss of despair. Whether the time gained may be enough for us to find reasons to go on or not depends on many variables, yet it does open a possibility for us to hang on in the mean time. In this sense, the life of David Bowie should make a compelling case for the cultivation of intellect. Whilst Thin White Duke continues to fascinate us by enacting our existential angst and despair, Bowie himself overcame them, and went on to build a meaningful life which benefited not only himself, but also the people around him. He not only drew strength from the precious ones around him, but also was able to give back to them. Again, intellect alone does not make a life meaningful. It does not guarantee one’s survival of crippling alienation and crushing loss, yet the time gained by the proper use of intellect offers a possibility to overcome them. And we have Bowie to thank for exemplifying what one’s intellect might enable for one’s search not for the meaning of life, but for a meaningful life.

Lost River (2014)

Despite universal condemnation, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, is a fascinating piece of cinematic art. Whilst I wish to write an in-depth analysis of this feature, I am going to focus on just one aspect of the film on this occasion. This article forms a part of a mini-series on the American Dream, which started with my review on Brooklyn, followed by an article on The Big Short. As the latter offers an inside story of the 2007-08 financial crisis, Lost River delivers a contrasting yet complementary picture, a harrowing fantasy bred by the same event which marks the collapse of the American Dream.

Lost River is the name of a fictional town near Detroit, Michigan. Like many places in the USA, it once was a place which promised a good life and a better future, yet now it is in permanent decay. There, the great exodus has already taken place, and only a handful of residents remain. This shadow of town, the perfect picture of degeneration, is where Gosling's dark fantasy comes to life. Billy (Christina Hendricks, known for her role in a hit TV series, Mad Men) is a single mother who struggles to survive in this wasteland with her two sons, Bones (Ian De Caestecker), a teenage boy with whom she has a testy relationship, and Franky, who appears to be suffering from some form of learning disability, most probably due to malnutrition. Billy faces the prospect of losing her family home of generations; she was tricked into refinancing her home by a banker named Carl, who happens to be her former husband. Like most in town, Billy is unemployed, and thus she has no means to pay back the loan. She tries to directly renegotiate the deal with Carl and visits the bank, only to discover his disappearance; in his place now sits Dave (Ben Mendelsohn, from The Place Beyond Pines), who fired Carl and has taken over the entire operation. From this point on, the already dire situation becomes terribly sinister. Dave turns a deaf ear to Billy, quickly turns the table, and cozies up to her; he slips his business card for his side gig into her hand and offers a job right there and then, strongly suggesting his personal interest in her by stating: She is a beautiful woman.

In the mean time, Billy’s first son, Bones, struggles to fix his car so that he can leave this rut for good. Yet, he spends most of the day trying his best to help the family by breaking into abandoned buildings to salvage copper, which he sells to a local scavenging business. Then, out of the blue, his home town turns into a no-man’s land: a skinhead called Bully (Matt Smith, best known as the 11th Dr. Who) declares Lost River his own and decides to hunt down the ‘thief’ in his domain. After caught red-handed outside of an abandoned building, Bones leaves everything to Bully and flees for his life. However, realising how imminent is the threat of losing his family home, he sneaks into Bully’s base and takes back what he thinks is rightly ‘his’. Seeing Bones managing to flee again, Bully comes after Bones and his associates himself. The one who is caught in this dangerous game is Rat (Brooklyn star, Saoirse Ronan), the girl living next door to Bones with her demented grandmother. She tells Bones the reason why the town and its inhabitants are cursed, then suggests that he break the spell: to complete the mission, one must capture the monster lurking in the ghost town, which is entirely submerged under the dam next to Lost River. As Bully relentlessly pursues Bones, Rat falls into his clutches, and discovers what it means to live through a reality which becomes perilously surreal by every passing minute.

The terrifying dreamscape of contemporary America captured by Gosling is condemned by critics as a crude mash-up of a Lynchesque fetish and naïve political statements about crippling economic inequality, yet there is nothing further from truth; Lost River is neither self-indulgent as many of Lynch’s features can be, nor is it limited to documenting the economic struggles of ordinary Americans. It contains critical representations of many subjects such as violence, the exploitation of women, immigration, and the notion of ‘home’, and thus, it does not focus on any single topical subject matter in a way The Big Short and Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) do. Rather, what Gosling created is a fairy tale bred by the senselessness of life in contemporary America: the America represented here is an empire which champions Industrial Materialism, and crumbles as this Form of Life runs its course. And thus, paradoxically, there could be alternate versions of this film which express different experiences of, and reactions to, the modern human condition under Industrial Materialism. For example, a West African version of this degeneration should be vastly different from a Middle Eastern version or a European version, yet they would still be about the same degeneration which has been dragging us down for quite some time now. It is a decline on many fronts: ecological, political, economic, aesthetic, intellectual, moral and spiritual. Interestingly, Gosling’s debut directorial feature at first appears to suggest that there is a way out of this hell, for one can always leave a graveyard of broken dreams and move on with life in a new town; Bones is taking account of his friend’s advice and pins all his hope on fixing his car and leaving Lost River for good. If the curse is about a specific town, then one should simply leave there before it is too late. This way of thinking reflects an underlying desire represented by many a ‘superhero movie’: There has to be a special destination, the Promised Land if you will, wherein fate magically enables my unrealised potential and fulfils my destiny for me.

To Gosling’s credit, he carefully avoids this particular pitfall which has been preventing many of us from realising just how hollow the notion of the Promised Land is. The film features an immigrant taxi driver (impressively portrayed by Reda Kateb) who has quite a few wise observations to spare; what he has to say about life in the USA from the perspective of an outsider is at once sobering and compelling. In the end, it is this newcomer who helps Bones’ family and Rat escape from Lost River. And the last scene presents the journey away from Lost River as a one-way trip into the endless night; whilst there is a sense of relief in all passengers, it is clear that nobody knows where and/or how their journey ends. No matter how long they drive, they are still in America, and there is no place on Earth where the influence of this global empire cannot reach. Still, unlike Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011), which features Gosling as the driver who disappears into the distance alone, this film ends with perhaps the only kind of hope we could have in this world today: the presence of the ones whom we care deeply. The history of humankind is also the history of ideas, be they religious, philosophical, economic, political, or aesthetic. Our story so far has been that of the conflict of ideas without the supposed sublation. The latest events seem to confirm the end to all grand ideologies, each of which claims to offer the key to the only and final salvation. We are at the point where every political ideology has failed, including capitalism, the most negative ideology of all in the sense that it embodies the refusal to think anything through (God’s invisible hands!). Thus, we can safely conclude that there is no purely political solution for our problems; whilst large-scale structural reforms (of improbable scale) are urgently needed, as I noted in my reflection on The Big Short, we cannot expect political solutions, whatever they might be, to be sufficient on their own to change the destructive course of our civilisation.

Whilst one might be tempted to ask whether there is anything that could ‘save us’, I think it is the wrong question to ask, for it is exactly what has misled us in the first place. Rather, a better question to ask is: How can each of us simply go on? The answer Gosling is suggesting seems to be: our company with whom we deeply care about. Incidentally, it is the same realisation which inspired “Where Are We Now?’, one of the last songs written and performed by David Bowie. Upon revisiting Berlin, the city that represents the ideal and the destructiveness of modernity in the most stark light, the wizard seems to have discovered an answer to the most existential question of all: Why must we go on? His answer is different from Beckett’s. Whilst Beckett refuses to have a reason at all, Bowie finds it in our potential to appreciate the world as it is ('as long as there’s sun/as long as there’s rain'), and in the company of someone he personally cares about ('as long as there’s me/as long as there’s you'). When humanity seems to be the worst enemy of itself, it is hard, if not impossible, to trust anything we humans invent as solutions: Every revolution ends in a massively violent conflict, and every reform is sabotaged by pettiness. When faced with such a realisation, like Gosling and Bowie, I would like to think that, for most of us, having a positive thought and feeling on certain people (not limited to humankind) in our life should be enough for us to go on. With them, and for them, we might be able to endure challenges that get in our way with certain grace.

The Big Short (2015)

In the last article on Brooklyn (2015), I questioned the reasons why we gravitate toward the notions of the Promised Land and the Golden Age, and why the film, which is set in 1952, represents them as the American Dream with its youthful optimism in the year 2015. In this article, I am going to examine a highly acclaimed feature, The Big Short by Adam McKay (also released in 2015), which tells us what happened to the American Dream through four characters who were deeply involved with the financial crisis of 2007-08. It is a harrowing tale of greed, negligence, incompetence, and betrayal. Yet, the most sobering part of this exposé is: The failure of the system was not merely down to the individuals involved in the banking industry and/or the regulatory bodies; it is not even down to the system which is rife with loopholes. Popular opinion is that it was the evil of the world of finance and the corruption of regulatory bodies which caused this particular crisis, and thus we need to hold those who are involved accountable, and clean up the system on which the world economy relies for its healthy function. Whilst McKay seems to be content to go along with this trend, if one follows the movie closely, it becomes clear that there is a deeper and more fundamental problem. The systematic failure we love to discuss has its own cause. The most important problem is none other than the inherent nature of capitalism itself. And thus, we must realise that the American Dream, an optimistic manifestation of the ethos of Industrial Materialism, is flawed at its foundation. In short, it is a philosophical problem, not merely a political one.

The Big Short is a film about the 2007 financial crisis originating from the colossal corruption and oversight over the handling of subprime housing loans in the United States. It is based on the book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (2010) by the bestselling non-fiction author, Michael Lewis, who has been publishing insightful books based on his extensive knowledge and experience of the world of finance. The film gives us a unique view of the financial crisis of 2007 through the experience of four characters: Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), an autistic neurologist turned hedge fund manager; Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), an ambitious bond salesman at Deutsche Bank; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a hedge fund manager with an ambivalent attitude toward the industry to which he belongs; and Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who wishes to have nothing to do with the world of finance. It is clear from the artwork used for the promotional material that McKay chose a style popularised during the early 2000s; one story told through multiple points of view by assigning equal importance to many characters played by an ensemble cast. Interestingly, he chose to tell the story of this horrific degeneration by the format mostly used for romantic-comedies (Love Actually, directed by Richard Curtis and distributed in 2003, would be the most representative of this style), instead of focusing on one or two characters to intensify the dramatic effect. McKay assigns Vennett (Gosling) the role of ‘tour guide’ to the dark underbelly of the world of finance, assisted by the occasional elucidation of technical terms by Richard Thaler with Selena Gomez from the casino floor, Margott Robbie from the bathtub of her penthouse, and Anthony Bourdain from his kitchen. The result is a deceptively light-hearted tone which thinly veils the cynicism and despair. Naturally, the comic and irony expressed here are very dark, and Gosling’s Vennett embodies its spirit exemplarily. He is insufferable, unapologetically self-serving, and, above all, completely amoral. He is the face and the spirit of the hornet’s nest, and he makes a fool (or a hypocrite) of other players in the field, such as Baum (Carell), by enticing them into a devil’s pact which he carefully invents.

That being noted, it is important to recognise that Vennett’s attributes are shared by the entire financial sector and its regulatory bodies. Notwithstanding the frequent outburst of conscience, Baum accepts Vennett’s deal and pockets millions, and goes on to invest in one of the most precious ‘commodities’: water. Despite his retirement from the banking world and his deep wariness to it, Rickert shows that he still has what it takes in the world of finance. To be sure, he makes nothing from helping his ‘friends’. Yet, he gives us an impression that, at some level, Rickert is enjoying the fact that he is still very competent in what he is doing after many years of absence from the scene. Whilst I believe the sincerity of their frustration, anger, and despair over the way financial institutions operate, it cannot be denied that they achieve what they aimed for. The most interesting case in this story is that of Michael (Bale); due to his autism, despite being a prodigious hedge fund manager, he is very much an outsider; he is alienated from his colleagues, his employees, and his family. It is his exceptional acumen to ‘read numbers’ which sets the entire story in motion, firstly by betting on the collapse of the subprime housing loan and the world economy at large. Yet, he was ridiculed and treated like an idiot by the big banks who smirk and gladly take his money, believing that Michael is sure to lose the bet. Nobody takes him seriously until Jared Vennett overheard of one his colleagues’ casual remarks on his ‘strange customer’ and the 'crazy' deal they made with this 'weirdo'. In the end, Michael is vindicated; just as he predicted, the world of finances collapse as the insidious scheme of subprime housing loans implodes. Whilst Michael correctly diagnoses the inevitability of a colossal economic crisis based on numbers alone, due to his autism, he cannot comprehend the seriousness of its implications in the same way Baum and Rickert do. Still, he recognises the toll his activity takes on him; he shuts down the hedge fund by stating how the business of money-making has deepened his alienation irreversibly. ‘No one’ he writes in his last e-mail to his investors, ‘speaks to me anymore except through lawyers’. In the aftermath of the world-wide financial crisis, he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times and accuses the regulators' incompetence. This fact seems to indicate that he eventually recognised the questionable nature of his actions as a hedge fund manager.

To be sure, it is easy to dismiss personal dilemmas, and even agonies, of these characters; after all is said and done, they reaped massive fortunes out of the disaster which turned countless people’s lives into dust world wide. Whilst it is tempting to accuse those who are involved in the world of finance in any way, and it is true that they need to be held accountable for their actions and inactions, we should not lose sight of the deeper problem which caused this fiasco, namely, Industrial Materialism. I freely and openly admit that I have no expertise in economics, and thus am not qualified to discuss the merits and ills of capitalism as a system or to present an alternative to it. The point I wish to make here is solely focused on the ethos of capitalism. Capitalism is a product of philosophical dualism which understands the material world as a separate entity from our mind, or ‘soul’. Generally, this Cartesian dualism, broadly construed, implies that only humankind (except God) possesses the mental capacities, and thus it gives us permission to exploit non-human ‘objects’ as we see fit. It also transforms the way in which we regard the human body; the body itself is understood as a machine and should be treated as such. In short, bodies, human or non-human, can be now understood as commodities. This way of seeing the world has tremendous implications, and it transformed the way in which we see ourselves and the world wherein we inhabit. We now see ourselves as the master of the material world which merely consists of raw materials for the production of goods. And the production enhanced by technological inventions means that we start over-producing goods. And this consistent over-production of goods necessitates the expansion of the market in order to keep the balance between supply and demand, which in turn ‘justifies’ the territorial expansion. In time, the limit to the imperial expansion (which ignited the paradigm shift from colonial imperialism to global free trade) coupled with the increasing production capacity necessitates industries to invent ‘needs’ and ‘wants’ to stay in the business, for business must perpetually increase the profit. And it is at this point in history that capitalism becomes ‘schizophrenic’ in a Deleuze-Guattarian sense; the so-called ‘reality’ in high-capitalist societies is nothing but the unregulated desires and fantasies spilling over to distort our world-view, and thus subjecting us to uncontrollable desires which we believe as our own. Whilst Cartesian dualism created the foundation of modernity, and thus helped us to promote the advancement of science, and the ‘liberation of men’ from older Form of Life bound with religious beliefs, the ‘liberated’ individuals could not find anything better than desiring. And the materialist world-view means that our desiring is the objectification of the world itself; even another human being in sight becomes a mere object of desire. We now live in the fantastical world in which each individual assumes that one’s freedom is absolute, limitless, and a birth-right, and thus one is going to do/have whatever one wants now. And, in the age of Industrial Materialism, the satisfaction must be sought in the possession of material wealth, and this goal must be achieved by technological means.

Armed with this absurd notion of ‘freedom’ and capitalism as the sacred ideology, the majority of Americans identify themselves with the ethos of capitalism which demands the permanent and perpetual expansion of material wealth. This diagnosis is not limited to those who support so-called conservatism in the United States. As contradictory as it appears, this diagnosis also applies to the religious who are supposed to be the defenders of anti-materialist world-view. The political discontent and the narrative of dissent today is that the political and economic elite swindled and denied opportunities to the ordinary people, and they want to take back what they deserve from the hands of political and economic establishments. Notice that this narrative has not departed from the ethos of Industrial Materialism; whether one calls oneself a conservative or a liberal, or even a social democrat or a Marxist, in essence, they all want more of what they think they deserve. Nobody is asking oneself what it is that one wants and why. In the case of the housing loan crisis, before signing the dotted line, no one seemed to be asking oneself how one would be able to pay off the loans, or, more importantly, why one wants what one is about to buy in the first place. And before replying to these questions with a standard punch line (‘I do whatever I want! This is America, the land of the free!’), just pause and ask yourself what makes you think that you understand what it means to be ‘free’. Because if you cannot answer such an elementary question clearly, then you have no idea what you think you are talking about. And thus, the problem with our current society is ultimately a philosophical one; one should be asking oneself the most fundamental questions about one’s world-view, for mere political solutions would inevitably lead to another crisis dramatised in The Big Short. And from this particular stand point of mine, it is clear that the so-called American Dream is fundamentally flawed. It is based on assumptions that state: 1) the accumulation of capital and the acquisition of goods are intrinsically good; and 2) there is nothing other than communism to stop the perpetual economic growth. These are the assumptions which are held as orthodoxy without question in the United States and other capitalist societies. Whilst no one can provide a clear and consistent defence of the first notion, the second notion is already debunked by the environmental destructions we have created; the limit of our ecosystem on which all life depends is the blind spot for the likes of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, who represent the spirit of Industrial Materialism in their own unique ways. And thus, we can see the demise of the American Dream as our own struggle in the aftermath of a Cartesian revolution which bred the Industrial Materialism.

The Big Short is not a piece of great cinematic art, yet it is nonetheless an important film to be viewed at least once, for the hour is almost too late for us to pose the very question Michael asks at the end of his journey: What exactly is the point of making money? Whilst he won a bet in a very big way, he is left with soul crushing hollowness. It is curious that this role was played by the actor who infamously embodied Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of the film, American Psycho (2000). Whilst the two characters are very different from one another, both represent the same diagnostic function for our Form of Life in which the dead souls, driven by insatiable and uncontrollable desires, material or sexual, know no satisfaction from their realisation. Whilst American Psycho remains an artificial demonisation of the privileged, The Big Short opens the door to the world of finance based on the experience of real characters. The only caveat is that this film represents only half the picture; whilst McKay tries to include the experience of the under-privileged, the scenes which include them appear as a mere afterthought. And thus, to have a better picture of the current state of the American Dream, I am going to look into Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, in the following review. 

That being acknowledged, if one focuses on Michael’s story, this movie opens us up to the question which must be asked by everyone: What is the point of all this striving for more? This is exactly the same question which Spinoza asked himself at the beginning of his philosophical journey as documented in his first title, The Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. In this first published work, the young philosopher examines the pros and cons of three most common objects of human desires, e.g., wealth, honour, and sensual pleasure, and reasons that none of them could bring us lasting happiness. Despite Spinoza’s warning, humankind chose not to bother with philosophical questions and went ahead with the newly acquired technological inventions to pursue the vices Spinoza rejected. Whilst McKay’s focus is a political aspect of the problem represented by this film, by following Michael’s story, this feature at least opens us to an old philosophical question which no one seems to bother asking.

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley based on Colm Tóibín's novel of the same name, is a lovely and unexpectedly uplifting film in a very interesting way. It tells the story about a young Irish immigrant to the United States, and, despite the trials and suffering she experiences along the way, the film is filled with a sense of youthful exuberance of life and resilient optimism for the future, the kind of ideal which the majority of Americans once thought that their nation represented. And this was not merely self-aggrandisement: many non-Americans once regarded 'America' as proof that a 'better life' is possible somewhere on this very Earth. And, perhaps, many still hold onto this notion of 'America', the land of free. In representing this ideal, Brooklyn does an excellent job. Yet, the excellence with which it represents this ideal should also unsettle us.

The story is set in 1952. Ellis (pronounced as AY-lish; splendidly portrayed by Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman from Elliscorthy, a small town in South-East Ireland. She is unsure of her existence like anyone of her age (approximately in her late teen), and leads an unfulfilling life in her hometown; she works for a spiteful shop owner, and the boys of her age seldom take notice of her at social gatherings. All of this changes when her older sister, Rose (Fiona Glascott), makes an arrangement on her behalf so that Ellis would be sponsored to move and live in the United States where the new, and ostensibly better, life is expected. Ellis settles in Brooklyn, NY, the new home for many Irish immigrants. She starts to work at a department store, and struggles with her new life, a new city, and homesickness. Whilst she enjoys the support by her fellow Irish such as Father Flood (ever so charming Jim Broadbent) and her flatmates at an Irish boarding house, the real turnaround comes as she finds love: an Italian-American, Tony (Emory Cohen), falls in love with her, and she returns his affection. They quickly become close, and start to think of the future together.

Then, an unexpected tragedy strikes: Rose 'suddenly' dies of an illness, a secret which she kept away from everyone. Upon her return home for her sister's funeral, Ellis, quite unexpectedly, discovers her home inseparable from her. To her great surprise, all of a sudden she has everything she has ever hoped for: a satisfying job with a gracious boss, social attention, and even a sensitive and genuinely supportive suitor, Jim Farrell, (once again, a quietly gripping performance from Domhnall Greeson) who is from a privileged class, and a kind of prince charming she has always wished to find for herself. There is a very strong chemistry between Ellis and Jim, and, as she delays her return to the USA, she has to face a moral dilemma: Would she honour her promise to Tony, or would she choose to stay home in Ireland to lead a life which she has always wanted?

Whilst one might dismiss Ellis' grappling with morality from the high-ground, one must try to imagine just how difficult it is to move to a foreign land, away from 'home', completely. It is one thing to say that the only way is forward, it is quite another to live the life of an alien oneself. It is not just homesickness which is crippling; upon returning, the experience of living in a foreign land opens one's eyes to previously overlooked aspects of life back home. Once what was hopelessly mundane could be surprisingly welcome after struggling to make sense of an alien way of life abroad. Then there is this fear of being uprooted and lost amongst strangers; regardless of one's social and economic status, this sense of being lost as an insignificant entity in an indifferent world can have a devastating effect on one's well-being. The struggle is all the more demanding, for most have to restart their entire lives by starting from scratch. Establishing oneself in a society wherein one grew up is difficult enough; doing so in a foreign land can be altogether soul-crushing.

Despite the subject matter, Brooklyn manages to stay hopeful and optimistic, reflected by the sheer innocence and youthfulness of our protagonist. Saoirse Ronan is as convincing as ever on screen, portraying Ellis as someone who is vulnerable, yet unassuming and eager for life. The freshness with which this not-so-uncommon protagonist is portrayed deserves special praise, and Ronan's first lead role in a period drama once again confirms her reputation as a young 'acting sorceress' (Peter Travers). The uplifting mood of the film is further strengthened by its narrative; it is a classic coming-of-age story, and, by nature, it is positively affirming. Supported by a great cast and a solid mise-en-scène, Brooklyn is a delightful experience at many levels, and it certainly deserves special mention and recognition. However, this film is also unsettling in a significant way. Whilst the movie is truly charming, one is also left with a certain uneasiness. In this sense, this is the movie which is more than just a 'good-viewing experience'; it lingers and forces you to question many things.

It is curious that this feature about the Irish immigrant experience in 1952 must have debuted in the year 2015. The surveys show that most Americans have lost faith in the direction of their country, and most significantly, they no longer believe in the notion of the American Dream. The belief in a better life and future in this 'land of the free' used to be considered a self-evident truth. Given the loss of self-confidence witnessed amongst Americans today, Brooklyn could be welcomed as a fine cinema about 'good-old days' when life was 'brighter' and the world 'simpler'. For someone who lives in fear of uncertainty by realising that the world is far more complex than one is willing to acknowledge, this film must feel at once nostalgic and comforting. Yet, when any notion of the 'Golden Age' is mentioned, one must be wary of self-delusion: a moment of sober reflection is suffice for any sane person to see that there is no point in human history wherein humanity enjoyed such a 'perfect' state of existence. Thus, nostalgia is always the bi-product of our unceasing discontent toward the present. In this sense, it is unsettling to see just how well this story is received across the board. True, the craft of realising this film at all levels deserves utmost praise. Yet, one cannot help wondering why it affects us at all. Are we plunging into the self-deception that there once was an American Golden Age? If we do believe in this notion, just how seriously do we want it back? And, more alarmingly, who or what do we want to blame for its supposed loss? 

Whilst these questions bear the unmistakable mark of our time, ultimately, in my view, the most unsettling question has been: Why do we continue to be charmed by what is represented by this movie despite ourselves? True, Brooklyn is more than just a nostalgia piece; it is a human story about one young Irish woman's personal journey, and it is acted magnificently by Saoirse Ronan, perhaps one of the most talented actors today. Still, the way the story is represented in this movie strongly suggests that there once was a certain place for a brighter future and better life somewhere on this very Earth, available for anyone who is willing to leave one's home behind. Whilst I have never believed in the notion of the American Dream, I too found myself being affected by this particular representation of the 'Golden Age' in this movie. Does this mean that I cannot live without some vague notion of hope, however unrealistic?
If that is the case, then, perhaps, I must have finally come to understood what Isaac Singer meant when he wrote: Divine Spinoza, forgive me, I have become a fool (The Spinoza of Market Street). Whilst I might find some comfort in knowing that hoping is a constitutive part of human existence, the fact that this particular model of hope can affect me will continue to keep me on my toes.