The First Weekend of Occupy Austin

October 10, 2011 § 11 Comments

From its official beginning on Thursday through this weekend, Occupy Austin has gone through major changes very, very quickly. It’s ‘franchise’ operations like these that will determine the future of the Occupy movement; that is, if it really is a movement and not just a long protest against Wall Street or a short-lived Internet fad. From my experience here, I can say that the Austin branch got off on a much less radical foot than some of its cousins in Boston, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, etc., but also that these difficulties expose some of the fault lines endemic to the movement and to the state of American populism more broadly.

The biggest issue has been with the initial assumptions of the people who started it, and their tenacity in hanging on to those assumptions. I imagine that’s the case everywhere, to some extent. But the Austin ‘occupation’ was started by some neo-hippies whose unorthodox notion of horizontalidad involves establishing close communication with the police and city government, and whose equally unorthodox notion of nonviolent civil disobedience involves working entirely within the law. This was made clear to everyone from the beginning. I stuck with it in the hope that leadership would broaden. And it has, but not without effort.

The first day set the tone — it was, essentially, a block party on City Hall, albeit an explicitly politicized one. The atmosphere was carnivalesque in just the customary Austin way: bizarre forms of personal expression, anti-authoritarian populism, weird conspiracy theories, inked-up hipsters, peace, love, and drum circles. Somewhere around 1,000 or more people showed up for the General Assembly. Ron Paulites gave a strong showing, but the only conspicuously absent groups were advocates for mainstream candidates — I think it was the second day I saw one lonely soul wearing an Obama 2012 T-shirt and carrying a clipboard. What finally won me over about that day was the ease of political discussion, even with ideological opponents, without an immediate breakdown. I ran a workshop on the 2008 debt crisis that even got the libertarian to take a Marxist analysis seriously (the really interesting thing here for me was that all 10 or so of the twenty-something white kids agreed on my Brennerian interpretation of what happened and why — the sticking point was the definition of capitalism).

Since the ‘occupation’ zone is a public space, it’s a perfectly legal spot on which to assemble. The catch is that Austin city ordinance does not permit sleeping overnight or camping on city property. The underlying social consequence is of course that (like is typical in the U.S.) it’s illegal to be homeless. Coinciding with the first day of Occupy Austin was an attempted illegal ‘tent city’ across the river, organized by homeless activists and advocates. Their declaration of solidarity seemed to take the Occupy organizers off guard, and who eventually offered a limp non-response on the Facebook community wall. While we were partying that afternoon, the tent city was blocked by police. Some anarchists put up a tent in front of City Hall as an act of solidarity. It was almost torn down that night, but the crowd insisted otherwise and the police relented, letting the symbol stand as long as we didn’t put up any more. After much debate, this prompted another limp official statement at the next day’s General Assembly (which I did not attend), posted online as “We don’t necessarily want to break the law, but we respect the tent city’s right to civil disobedience and stand in solidarity with them.” I believe this was modified (without being edited in the online minutes) to “We support Tent City’s right to Civil Disobedience, we stand in solidarity with them, but the members of Occupy Austin do not necessarily want to break the law, and therefore wish to remain separate from that movement.” Both versions manage only to cancel out their own attempts at content.

The next day, I happened to be sitting near the same group of young anarchists, discussing the tent city with the emerging celebrity anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street organizer David Graeber, when they started putting up another one next to the first. Being already disgusted with the GA’s non-stance and not thinking any of this was especially radical, I helped them do it. Almost immediately, we had people come up to “peacefully remind” us that what we were doing was illegal (in violation of a park ordinance, not even a misdemeanor) and that we were “violating consensus.” A crowd was forming around us, getting angrier and angrier as we incompetently struggled to erect the tent against the heavy wind that kept blowing it over. A GA was going on at the same time, and quickly divided over the tent. Some were permitted to commandeer the mic and incite the crowd against us. A group started chanting things like “WE WANT TO BE SAFE” and “TAKE DOWN THE TENT.” Meanwhile groups of police placidly strolled around and through the space, with no acknowledgement of the principled stand being taken by their staunch defenders. A middle-aged woman, who earlier had been confiscating signs with curse words on them, loudly demanded we take the tent down. When we didn’t she went off to get the police and it took several people to talk her down. While someone who actually knew how to assemble tents helped us, another boomer in a cowboy hat started taking it down. When we rushed to stop him he muscled through us, saying, “I’m a combat veteran and this tent is coming down.” Again, a group of peacekeepers were forced to corral him.

With the tent finally up, we had a heated debate with one of the original moderators — let’s call him M — and some of his supporters. They reiterated the importance of working through legal channels, the dangers of risking “the entire movement” and “other people’s personal safety” for “one stupid tent.” David tried to explain to them that presuming and creating hierarchies within oppositional movements by appearing to grant them legitimacy was a police tactic to force an elite to feel ‘responsible’ for everyone else, and that the only personal safety threatened was our own, by the other occupiers. They said we had jeopardized their decision to petition city council for a special permit to let us camp overnight. They threw out fantastic scenarios involving riot cops dispersing the entire group, of heroic occupiers, acting out of solidarity alone, throwing themselves before police nightsticks to protect a tent they didn’t even support. They defended the police, or as they referred to them, “peace officers”: “they’re the 99% too,” “they facilitated our march to Bank of America.” We asked M about his political convictions and if he thought the Occupy Austin GA had the authority to quash dissent. “I have radical thoughts,” he assured us, “but we have to respect the consensus process. And anyway, we’re really only disagreeing on timing. Which is sort of arbitrary, isn’t it?” I asked him if he was not permitting dissent in theory but not in practice, and insisted on the importance of nonviolent civil disobedience. His reply stunned me into silence. “What was MLK fighting against?” he asked me. “A lot of the same things we are, but let’s say primarily racial oppression,” I said. “And that’s still here, isn’t it?” he said. “That’s why we have to take the fight to the next level!”

At that point David ran off to do an interview with Al Jazeera and what was left of the conversation died back down. That night, the second tent was taken down by a bipartisan team of police and occupiers.

By the third day, it was clear the ‘occupation’ was off balance. After another discussion circle (probably the best organized thing so far) I brought up the tent city debacle and how people felt about civil disobedience in general at that night’s GA. We had just come off a successful bid to incorporate a solidarity statement with indigenous people’s struggles thanks to the participation of what seemed like our first ‘real’ activists, and emotions were already high. Though most seemed to agree with nonviolent direct action and a diversity of tactics within those bounds, the whole thing degenerated due to the moderator staff’s inexperience and overaggressive bid for control of the debate.

I dwell on this incident at such length because, unfortunately, it was the most significant event to occur over the weekend aside from the heavily managed Bank of America march. That and several non-starter attempts to establish basic principles, demands, etc. While I’m sure I made clear my fundamental ideological disagreement with Occupy Austin’s self-appointed ‘steering committee,’ I don’t think it would have mattered as much had we been a little more like Occupy L.A. That operation seems just as in love with the police as ours (oddly enough), receiving official support from the mayor and City Council. The only arrests attributed to Occupy L.A. were quickly disclaimed. However, they also seem to be much more effective organizers, making alliances with major unions (AFL-CIO) and progressive orgs. If we were visibly moving toward those goals, we probably wouldn’t have as much time to dwell on institutional compromises, nor the sense that they’re being engineered by a cadre of neoliberal hippies behind our backs (does anyone know if other Occupy groups require that all core value proposals be funneled through a Mission Committee?).

The absurdity of the whole thing highlights an important difference of opinion across the Occupy movement: is it an institution unto itself, with its own distinct goals and the right to exclude those which aren’t deemed ‘universal’ or ‘inclusive’ enough? Or is it a resource, a clearinghouse of sorts, through which differently privileged, differently oppressed groups of people can provide mutual aid? Is it a proto-state, or an open call for help? The former would be a response to media and institutional pressure to be ‘on message.’ Pressure from above. The latter would be a response to pressure from below.

Yesterday, the same community activists who pushed for indigenous solidarity successfully helped organized an Indigenous People’s Day March for this afternoon, against the worries of the usual crew of white middle class End the Fed types that the movement is getting “hijacked” by “personal interests.” As a concession, we’re stopping at JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America on the way. There weren’t as many people last night as I would have liked, but I think amidst the chaos and abjection some people are changing their minds.

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Preparation

October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

Attending planning meetings, preparing for tomorrow when Occupy Austin is to commence. In addition to posting about it here I may be helping out with video and running a discussion group on the 2008 financial crisis.

The website finally has General Assembly minutes and blogs – this one on Tuesday’s meeting I found ecapsulates both the good and bad things going on. What it seems like people are figuring out is that General Assemblies are good for deciding on actions and points of procedure but are terrible at discussion (which it forces into theatre or the shadows, it seems like). They are also figuring out that moderators have kind of a lot of power — the new rule to expand the moderator pool is a step forward. I’m nervous about tomorrow’s General Assembly because like the author of the post I don’t think we have any clue how to deal with the volume.

I still don’t care about ideological differences at the occupation; our individual opinions are, at this early stage, unimportant (though we do now have demands). More important just to show up and stand together. There are some currents in Occupy Austin I’ve noticed that may undermine this goal. Not differing opinions — even the noisy Ron Paul libertarians are pretty well neutralized by the effects of the direct democracy process. It’s difficult without devoting lots and lots of time for any individual to change anyone’s mind. Instead I mean how eager the most visible participants seem to be to collaborate with the police, and the automatic acceptance of the media’s view of Occupy Wall Streeters and members of other popular social movements — us — ourselves — as always on the brink of ‘violence,’ when it is always the police who provoke and respond the most brutally. I spoke with one woman who eagerly described her plan to create a ‘nonviolence team’ to surround and isolate anyone who seemed violent. Possibly she would also go as far as advocating physical restraint, but I couldn’t get a straight answer. I don’t expect anything that provocative to go down tomorrow and certainly favor nonviolence, but there was something really disturbing about this conception of readiness as self-policing. Why not surround violent cops instead?

I can understand both tendencies in two different ways: one sympathetic — fear of police reprisal is nothing to sneer at — and the other perhaps a bit arrogant — of course this is what we should expect from Americans and their revulsion at the very idea of politics or of confrontation with superior force. They — we — respond with cowardice, overreaction, self-policing, and, yes, maybe an insignificant minority respond with adolescent adventurism.

Here are the consequences: the whole thing was planned in contact with the police and City Hall, and the organizers who made those contacts were so emphatic that we follow the law and not be ‘violent’ that this was taken as consensus without (to my knowledge) going through any process. No honest discussion that might unpack the term ‘violence’ and come up with a definition that reflects our values, instead of guessing at the inconsistent application by police and media so we can apply it to ourselves, is likely to happen. The issue of police collaboration and legality didn’t come under open discussion until last night’s toss-up over the proposed ‘police liaison’; it was just assumed that of course we were going to follow the law. And that basically means no marching, though we also haven’t discussed that UPDATE (it turns out maybe this was discussed and I missed it — we don’t have permits though so maybe we also decided not to care about those laws?). Not discussing it because we assume that ‘of course we’re all going to follow the law’ just opens the field for breakaway groups to lead marches without any deliberation, irresponsibly opening themselves and others to police repression. We don’t even have an action or tactical committee. Finally, these assumptions meant that ‘we’ refused to even discuss a declaration of solidarity with the simultaneous “Tent City” initiative, which actually is planning to defy the police by sleeping overnight.

Instead of solidarity with those who choose to disobey the law, we seem to have decided — without really deciding — to look the other way. This is very much in line with the class prejudices of what looks to me like the majority of the participants: white, middle class, you know the drill. But let’s not be determinists. All one has to do is turn on the Twitter to see that the police don’t need any provocation to respond with brutal violence, no matter how polite we are and no matter how well we police our own dissent.

While I am worried about the consequences of these nondecisions, I’m still excited for tomorrow, and eager to see what comes out of this.

Though if Alex Jones shows up I’m going to throw community food.

Occupy Everything

October 2, 2011 § 2 Comments

I went to the first organizational meeting for Occupy Austin on Thursday, and will hopefully be able to make it to one or two more before the 6th when we all head for the City Hall building downtown. I’m posting a few observations from my experience so far.

– You’ve already heard this, but there were lots of people: the official count was 500; I don’t know how there could have been more than 300, but either way, impressive. Numbers at successive meetings (so I hear) have been much less but hovering around 100 seems pretty good to me.

– The crowd seemed to be a similar mix of people to the early stages of Occupy Wall Street. Mostly white, pretty evenly gender balanced, ‘middle class’ (whatever that means these days), youngish, with strong minorities of anarchist punks, community organizers, college students, social workers, media types, and hippies. But there were enough middle-aged people and people who looked employed to keep the group from feeling marginal. Though of course at this point we still are,

– Politically the group seemed (I stress this is just an impression from watching people self-identify) less left-oriented than Occupy Wall Street, which makes sense for a few reasons: we have less of an obvious target, the initial organizers were very insistent on non-partisanship, and we’re in Austin, which has a reputation for a vague ‘leftishness’ that conceals quite a few run-of-the-mill, Adam Smith fetishist libertarians. And there is no left in America. The inevitable Ron Paul rep gave his stump speech (no one advocated socialism or even anti-capitalism), and we even got trolled by a woman who identified herself with “Don’t Occupy Austin,” who said some nonsense about Anonymous and “supporting the USA instead.” To the group’s credit, both of these people were treated with a patronizing smile and nod, and didn’t manage to derail anything.

– I think this lack of political cohesion matters as little as the lack of clear demands. There was a lot of debate about whether or not to have demands that went on for way too long and, I think, missed the point. That is, I would prefer greater cohesion and a set of clear demands, but we are a people in love with bullshit, and until we have a real presence on the street, until we have felt the pressures of organizing and of holding space, ‘political debate’ is pretty meaningless.

– The decisive importance of action currently underwrites but will soon trump the depoliticizing rhetoric of nonpartisanship, political neutrality, etc. that some are using to ward off internal division. For example, a lot of people talked about peace and love, empathy for the police, and ‘we’re all in this together.’ All of this is very ‘Austin’ and I have no problem with drum circles either. But the whole point of this movement is that America really doesn’t stand together, that it’s the job of police to oppress us, that the wealthiest elite are openly cutting more and more people out of the social contract. Being together on the street in solidarity with the Occupy movement is forcing these facts out into the open, no matter what anyone says.

– The differences between the Occupiers will have to shake out at some point, but those differences are without significance until after we have done something together. This includes all the stupid worrying about appearing ‘respectable.’ The Occupiers must appear as the majority. The majority is simply ‘the 99%,’ or everyone who is not a plutocrat, who has been deprived of political agency, social support, and economic wealth. Whether or not we succeed in being the majority depends on who joins, not what they look like. This is about our power, no more and no less.

– If Occupy Together fails to attract people of color, the working class, and the poor, then we will have failed to be the majority. Not much seems to be getting done on this front in Austin, despite the presence of really good, POC-heavy anti-death penalty and prison complex groups.

– Occupy Austin’s organization still isn’t even at the level of Occupy Boston. Must find out why the website is still totally uninformative. A Facebook page is not a valid substitute (and no one posts timetables).

– This whole thing still seems silly and naive to me, especially non-Wall Street efforts like ours. But we’re going to do it anyway, if only just to see what happens.

Hopefully more later.

Fantastic Fest

October 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Austin’s Fantastic Fest is the largest genre festival in North America, apotheosis of the mainstream clout “geek” or “fan culture” has been building since the ’90s. It shares the sense of cinematic utopia with other international film festivals, a genuinely diverse collection of movies populated by adventurous audiences, the comforting (and misleading) sense of an alternative to Hollywood instead of a supplement. But its difference is obvious, and not just in the programming, which draws on a pretty liberal definition of ‘fantastic’ and ‘genre,’ even as film culture itself moves ever closer to ‘nobrow’: it is not all that shocking when established auteur Lars von Trier, whose reputation is based in part on a gothic TV miniseries (Kingdom Hospital), does horror (Antichrist) or now science fiction (Melancholia). No, the difference is clearest in the ‘extras,’ the celebrity boxing matches and superhero costume parties, and the flavor of interaction between attendees — fans — and filmmakers and fans and each other. These interactions are structured by the assumption that film is primarily entertainment, and everyone is there to satisfy shared fetishes, often perverse or trivial ones, not to achieve mainstream cultural relevance. If elitism is prideful participation in some elevated thing that others should share but are too dumb, then geek/fan culture is about pride in the terminally marginal. The boundary between the two has been disintegrating for some time (in my generation producing mutants like the post-bloggers at zero books), but it’s stable enough to be recognizable, for people to still think and speak as if they were one or the other. The international filmmakers not accustomed to encountering fans instead of cinephiles, i.e. Michael Roskam of Bullhead, were taken off guard at first but seemed hooked by the end (by the third screening he was savvy enough to compare his film’s protagonist to Batman – “You’ve spoiled me for the art-house circuit,” he said, “and that’s a good thing”). There’s probably little more gratfying for a filmmaker than meeting an audience that not only passionately loves you just for being there but today is a serious tastemaker.

The following are my notes on the films I saw that had something worth noticing, good or bad.

Juan of the Dead (Alejandro Brugués, Cuba)

Thankfully Alejandro Brugués second feature isn’t limited to its novelty value as the “first Cuban horror/zombie movie.” Nor is it the cheap knockoff of Shaun of the Dead its title suggests, though they start from a similar place – zombies who allegorize the worst tendencies of their societies (basically conformity) take over, prompting a small group of slackers to find themselves by killing them. There’s an amusing running gag where the zombies keep getting mistaken for C.I.A.-sponsored dissidents. References to Cuban history are littered throughout, the biggest being the image of hundreds of Cubans attempting another great exodus from the island (presumably to the U.S.), some dragged to their deaths by underwater zombies. Here we have a different angle on the post-Soviet ‘end of history’ — a nation doomed to re-experience its war with the U.S. in increasingly absurd ways (in the Q&A Brugués revealed that a scene where ninja stars are used to dispatch zombies is based on an actual public lecture on preparing for Yankee invasion), stumbling through an uninspiring, futureless life (“It looks normal” is all one character can say upon seeing her neighborhood post-zombification). Brugués talked about the effects of the Special Period on Cuban society as an influence on the film, but it seemed odd to me, in 2011, to hold the U.S. up as every Cuban’s (slightly taboo) dream of escape — isn’t the American unemployment and poverty rate many times greater than Cuba’s? Though that dream is sympathized with throughout (and meekly affirmed at the end), it is never treated as realistic, nor as authentic. The only thing that really mars the film is its constant, vicious homophobia. I thought Michael Bay was bad.

Bullhead (Michel Roskam, Belgium)

This one beat the Dardenne brothers (snubbed again – the judges must know they’ll never win) for Belgium’s official entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Aside from being a first film that puts anyone else’s first film to shame, its treatment of masculinity is interestingly literal. Nominally a gangster noir (the justification for including it, I guess), Bullhead is a character study of cattle farmer Jacky Vanmarsenille, who was castrated with a rock as a child and became addicted to testosterone supplements. He is also part of Belgium’s locally infamous “hormone mafia,” a criminal network that traffics in the kinds of chemical enhancements that we take for granted in US livestock but happen to be illegal in the EU. Jacky’s troubled relation to his own masculinity is a bit Cronenbergian (before he went all conceptual in the ’00s) in the way it is reduced to a physico-chemical substance addiction, a hot commodity. His physical castration and physical juicing make a Freudian analysis irrelevant; Freud’s ‘unconscious’ themes are Jacky’s daily thoughts. Roskam described Matthias Schoenaerts’s performance as guided by breaking down rather than building up a psychology, a character of barely-concealed animalistic urges and instincts.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos, Canada)

I count this one along with House of the Devil and Drive as a recent subclass of ’80s nostalgia film. House poses as an artifact, a trompe l’oeil early ’80s babysitter movie; Drive is all arch irony, unmotivated stylistic and musical borrowings for a story set in the present. BtBR tries to do what you’re not supposed to and explicitly historicizes its own fetish — 1983 is the date that opens the film and 1966 marks the flashback (Christian Thorne has an interesting take on Body Double as a pomo historicist film). Drawing on a nonspecific, half-remembered mélange of ’80s sci-fi TV and VHS cover paintings, BtBR recreates the ’80s as a gothicized remnant of ’60s utopianism. The Arboria Institute was devoted to the improvement of human life; now it is just a shell, Dr. Arborea near-mummified in the basement, his former protégé wiling away the hours tormenting their most promising subject, a preteen with psychic powers (?). ’80s futurism was indeed mostly dystopian, which at first glance makes it an odd object for nostalgia. But I don’t pick up any longing for happier times from most of these odd throwbacks (pop music is different). Instead it seems to be a way to represent contemporary feelings of dread and alienation, which has so far proved close to impossible to achieve with contemporary materials. The content of commodity culture hasn’t advanced much since then, so the complexes of today are easily projected onto that decade’s objects. And more usefully: in the networked 21st century, everyone could be consuming anything, everyone shares and borrows from everything, but nothing is held in common; an underground ’80s is the closest thing artists of a certain age have to a set of shared cultural references outside of infantilizing interface menus (the ’90s are coming back in as Gen Y grows up, but I have no idea how anyone is going to reconstruct the 100% recycled ’00s into anything coherent). And indeed, one thing all three films share is a fixation on ‘atmosphere’ that trumps narrative momentum. BtBR is the most extreme in this regard: the production design and the analog synth soundtrack are the real stars, plot is put off until the perfunctory and farcical final act. It’s a pure fetishist’s movie, with almost no concession to anyone else. I got off on it, but the whole thing bears an (unintentional?) resemblance to an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

Carré Blanc (Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, France)

Another debut film, this future dystopian take on corporate life presents that world as a series of sadistic psychology experiments. A man is ordered to give himself an electric shock for as long as he can endure it; a woman is ordered to remain within a small ring on the floor while her interviewer hits her over the head with a bamboo stick. Their purpose is to separate the strong from the weak, so that the weak can be processed as food for the strong. The funniest part of the film is how everyone maintains the enforced attitude of corporate civility even in the most abject and humiliating situations (the closest thing to ‘villains’ – a pack of testosterone-laden, ultraviolence-dispensing suits – don’t last long). All the mind games are ostensibly are to demonstrate the fairness of this post-resource population control scheme. Philippe, the Obama lookalike protagonist (almost everyone else in the film is white), is repeatedly told that his high rank is “proof the system works.” He and his boss cluck over the ‘obvious’ solutions to the games that no one else picks up on — the small ring on the floor can itself be moved, for example, and the bamboo stick avoided. But we see how the demand to constantly prove loyalty to the regime destroys creative thought, making selection for the games a virtual death sentence, albeit a self-justifying one (to the administrators, the players ‘choose’ to destroy themselves). This is a world where the unfit are invisible because they are consumed, everything has been consumed, where there is nothing but Brutalist concrete and white people in suits. We see the population numbers slip into decline, and a big part of the plot is Philippe’s passive refusal to reproduce out of despair and self-loathing — the ‘sustainability’ plan is not sustainable. Léonetti imagines what would be left of capitalist society after the market runs out of resources and comes up with something between George Orwell and Michel Foucault.*

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

I hated Antichrist, heard this was similar, and so only went because nothing else in its time slot seemed worth it. One common criticism of both films I don’t agree with though is that the genre elements are gimmicks or ‘stunts.’ That’s just realist snobbery, a depressing thing to find in the most spectacular visual medium ever but there it is. The problem with Antichrist wasn’t that it was a horror movie (with over-the-top gore, talking animals, etc.), but that it was a bad horror movie; its allegorical premise was stupid and wasn’t carried off in an inventive or even competent way. Melancholia is almost as thin in terms of character and just as thematically extravagant — it juxtaposes a rich white woman’s clinical depression to Earth’s apocalyptic collision with a larger planet named ‘Melancholia’ — but is much better executed. It’s actually a good companion piece to Tree of Life, both lavishly photographed, elliptically edited, epic-length films linking a realist drama about ‘white people problems’ — and Americans, no less — to the movements of the cosmos. Von Trier takes the added step (whether forward or backward I leave to the reader) of putting both events on the same diegetic plane: it’s a science fiction film in a way Tree of Life was not. The film is split into two halves, each focusing on one of two sisters. The first half, on the depressed Justine (Kirsten Dunst), shows her ruining her expensive wedding to her boss’s son, a powerful ad executive, and in style hearkens back to Von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart’ melodramas. The second half focuses on family woman Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who helps Justine pick up the pieces as Melancholia barrels toward them. The parallelisms are pretty obvious: two parts, two sisters, two planets. Life vs. death. That death gets the stronger case should be no surprise, though I found the end much more satisfying than Tree of Life‘s hokey walk on the beach, and really not that cynical. The relation to more conventional science fiction apocalypses is interesting — SF usually uses the moment of The End to expand its scope to society as a whole (it’s only afterward that stories in this genre return to the personal), while Melancholia rather cheekily uses it as an opportunity to heighten an already heightened melodrama. It sometimes seems anti-science fiction, as in the way it shamelessly indulges the cliché of the male rational optimist who turns out to be totally wrong (take that, climate change). But I think a better way of putting it would be to say it embraces what in most SF figures as weak responses to crisis that have to be overcome in the name of action: emotional withdrawal, cynicism about the value of ‘life’ in the abstract, putting the family unit and social convention over broader social agency, etc., and genders them female. Thematically similar to Antichrist, yes, but with a better integrated, less emotionally distancing use of kitsch. Despite the overall more careful construction, Melancholia feels rawer, less defensive.

One day I want to write something on the proximity Malick’s and Von Trier’s films share with advertising, but that will have to wait.

*the whole film could be read as a parody of Foucault, come to think of it — the end of capitalism due to resource depletion provides the only conditions under which his analysis of biopower could be universally accurate: totalitarian liberalism.

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