10:27a.m. 7 July 2016
CW: This essay attempts to examine two recent films, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room and Sebastian Schipper’s Victoria, alongside Franco 'Bifo' Berardi’s latest book, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide.
It contains discussions of suicide, self-harm, death, mental health, war and violence.
Both Green Room and Victoria pivot around a suicidal moment that is not presented overtly as such. The eponymous centre of Victoria, an embodiment of our current precariousness– keen, talented, mobile, likable; yet utterly isolated, hedonistic in the face of friendless world , “a smiling, lonely monad” as Beradi might put it – shifts at a key moment in the film from potential victim to instigating force. Let briefly into the tight fraternity of a Berlin street gang, Victoria joins them in their secret towerblock smoking spot, teetering at the edge of the roof as they try and contain her spiralling jouissance; with her death and life laid out before her, the group nervously implore her to back away the brink. Victoria’s wild evocation of worry helps ungird the viewer’s site of concern; suddenly we see her as an actor unshackled and out of control in her own measured way, shrugging at risks and empowered by her own abaondon, a stranger without even a second name, a centre and a lack. We worry for her new friends as well as for her.
In Green Room, nervous punk Anton finds himself forced by the spiralling violence around him into dwelling on a faux suicidal moment at a paintball game from his past, in which, faced with a resolute massacre at the hands of some ex-Marine pros, his friend goes ‘Rambo’, running uncovered into the enemy, breaking the rules and, in classic Hollywood embrace of the death drive, surviving by facing mortality with a crazed glint in his eye. Director Jeremy Saulnier recounts in an interview with the Observer how this story was based on a real life event:
“My buddies and I were up against some Marines in paintball. And they were whooping our ass because they were playing by the rules; they were professional soldiers. But when one of my buddies broke the rules of war, and did this goofy Rambo raid–because he didn’t fear getting shot, he broke the rules of cover and fire and he was wearing cut-off shorts while doing it– the marines couldn’t believe this guy.”
Various realities blur into one another with ferocity; Rambo runs into Jeremy, into Anton, into Rambo, into us.
What ‘rules’ of war and violence does this seemingly innocuous frat-boy story hint at? How far should we expose ourselves in order to triumph against a far greater force?
These films are clearly celebrating a certain proximity to self-destruction. ‘The ‘Bounce Back’ is a cliché so strong in cinema, TV and personal improvement narratives that we don’t even really examine it: hit rock bottom, face your mortality, fight it with a vigour that can only come from accepting your ultimate fate. The individualised notion of ‘facing your fears’ and triumphing through a strength of will is central to an absolute capitalism based on constant competition and a false ‘meritocracy’. Yet behind the atomising logic of self-improvement sits a generalised mood of collective suffering. From Hunger Games to Eastenders, in news reports on Foxconn factories and ATOS assessment centres, suicide is omnipresent, diffused and unavoidable in our friendships and families, constantly depicted, yet rarely discussed or unpacked. In increasingly telling us that we can (and should) recover from a suicidal moment, pop culture is also telling us that this moment is ever more present in our lives.
Anton’s survival in the end depends on a sheer loss of self; shaved head, sharpie-pen camo print etched into his skin, he and his conspiring accomplice (Imogen Poots, laconic and worldly, the film’s best performance), defeat their aggressors through a dehumanized abandon, accessed only through confronting their probable deaths.
Victoria we leave empty handed in her search for any social connection, facing the death of her nearly-lover Sonne, and with it any notion of a future relationships or life in Berlin. Left sobbing in the perfectly sterile environment of a posh hotel, she is hit with the realisation of her own traceless part in the perfect crime. She too must embrace a lost self, but only very same nomadic urban loner she began the film as. She disappears into the film’s final frames, the morning light swallowing her profile, in an affectively ambiguous depiction of anonymity. Like a sinking Leo in Titanic, the group of working class, local and collectively bound friends she had stumbled into can never survive, only certain kinds of accrued capital will float*.
By the end of ‘Green Room’ both the main philosophies at play (white supremacist authoritarianism and “true school” primitivist DIY punk) are dead; shot, beaten, eaten, stabbed, with the two living characters embodying this disavowal. ‘Victoria’ has one survivor, but in a social sense, the eponymous centre of that film was never really alive.
Death in both senses then, imposed socially or acted on personally, is depicted as the only option.
“What can we say about suicide and capitalism that doesn’t crassly subsume each individual tragedy to an abstract political programme, but still provides some sort of analysis, and some sort of hope? I don’t want to add any too-easy last words.”
Tom Denning writing in The Commune.
Berardi began his new book in the summer of 2012, after becoming worryingly obsessed with researching James Holmes, the 24 year old man who opened fire on the audience of a late-night screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, killing a dozen people and wounding many more.
Heroes examines this and many other acts of harm inflicted on selves and others (more often in a blur of the two) with a mounting disgust for his own morbid fascination, as well as the forms of Social Darwinism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and revenge that animate so many of these young, male killers. Yet he also sees in their discourses an expression of some of the most treasured tenets of contemporary capitalism; a “Thatcherite […] hatred for Equality” in Finnish High School shooter Pekka-Erik Auvinen, or an ideology based on hatred of Muslims and pro-European jingoism in Anders Brevik’s writing that is “not so far removed from the agenda of conservative political movements the world over”. Beradi also sees bullied, overworked and empathy-damaged agents in many cases of suicidal murder. He has, in his own words, “tried to breathe normally, while staring into the eyes of the beast.” These men express the worst excesses of contemporary capitalisms, as well is its worst failures, a murderous dialectic.
Whether suffering, calculating or both, the killers Beradi analyses also have an acute sense of spectacle. In the manifestos, videos and press kits that come prepared with their violence, they are clearly aware of the societal tendency to “subsume each individual tragedy to an abstract political programme” and keen to control that. Beradi describes how Holmes “wanted to eliminate the separation between the spectator and the movie; he wanted to be in the movie.” Derealization, a feeling that one's surroundings are not real and a common factor in periods of serious mental ill health, is here conjoined with a desire to control and ‘direct’ this unreal world.
Both Anton’s ‘Rambo’ switch and Victoria’s steady ascent into an increasingly audacious crime spree evoke a sense of derealization for character and viewer alike. Yet, while for many incredulous reviewers this problem of ‘unbelievable’ plotting lets the two films down, it is this temporary negation of realism that allows them to work so well, the characters must step into a ‘film’ of their own in order to survive. No last words.
Here is our dilemma: suicide has become the omnipresent expression of ‘absolute capitalism’ at its most destructive, and, at the level of culture is in its very unavoidableness (because of?) intensely difficult to discuss. It becomes buried everywhere in the topsoil of pop culture, yet as our lives become increasingly effected by it personally, we’re unsure of the utility in excavating it. In this world of economic depressions, downturns, deflations and bubbles, it feels like late-capitalism is dying, and we’re dying with it.
“According to the World Health Organization,” Berardi writes, “suicide is today the second cause of death among young people, after car accidents, which is often a disguised form of suicide.” He also cites a report from WHO that indicates a 60 percent increase in the suicide rate over the past 45 years.
Yet, he goes on, “although I am persuaded that suicide is a problem of great importance for our times, my focus is not on the impressive increase in the number of people who commit or try to commit suicide, but on the particular significance that the act is coming to acquire at the social and cultural level”
Victoria and Green Room demonstrate how even our strategies of escape and survival are deeply implicated in this mood. The dreams at the heart of both - start a band / move to Berlin – offer a depressing indictment of two very particular millennial fantasies, as well as the gaping lack of political and social futures on offer. I mean, why didn’t anyone tell Victoria about Leipzig?!
In reclaiming ‘recovery’ and ‘care’ from the singular tracks of a system only interested in our bodies, minds and desires as (not quite dead)Labour Power, we must also try and help each other find new dreams; not of escape, but of changes here and now.
Part of what makes these films so compelling is that they expose these layered fantasies to a wildly violent scrutiny, exposing the hidden subtexts of suicide and loss that animate our impoverished notions of the future, whilst implicitly arguing that it is only in acknowledging the impulse towards self-destruction that could offer some insights into ways out of our impasse.
Without shying from the stratified layers of privilege at play, Victoria asks us to weaponise the anomie of late-capitalism against its functioning. In sharing our anxieties, loneliness and despair, we can collectively hope for new ways of dreaming, daring and turning our anger outwards. It shows us Jameson’s “eternal present” for over two hours, and then it stops, and the lights come up. It is both a refusal accept the various kinds of social death imposed by a capitalism that constantly requires destruction and crisis, and a mediation on those who end up unable to make such a choice at all.
The suspended states of reality (escapism is just a word for people who never actually go to the cinema) and proxy-wars we find in films may offer momentary catharsis. They also offer a view of culture increasingly preoccupied with suicide and self-destruction, “an epidemic of unhappiness”. This does not mean ‘embracing death’, or nihilism, but instead, in caring for ourselves and each other, acknowledging how far this system has pushed us, and pushing back. Victoria, Green Room, Beradi, this bloody essay, none even begin to offer a clear solution to our suicidal epoch. But they hopefully do start to stare “into the eyes of the beast”; for it is not the ‘fittest’ that will survive, but those who can, together, diagnose the condition.
by Joel White
*Thanks to JH for this comparison.
• Beradi, Franco ‘Bifo’. 2015. Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide. London: Verso
• Denning,Tom. 2011. “making a killing: suicide under capitalism”. In The Commune, June 2011. Accessible via : https://thecommune.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/making-a-killing-suicide-under-capitalism/ [Accessed 13.06.16]
• Grant, Drew. 2015. ‘Green Room’ Creator Jeremy Saulnier on Skinheads, Ultra-Violence and Patrick Stewart [Online] Observer News. Available at: http://observer.com/2016/04/green-room-creator-jeremy-saulnier-on-skinheads-ultra-violence-and-patrick-stewart/ [Accessed 10.06.16]
• Green Room. 2016. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier [Film]. USA: A24
• Jameson, Frederic. 1994. The Seeds of Time New York: Columbia University Press
• Victoria. 2015. Directed by Sebastian Schipper [Film]. Germany: Senator Film.
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