Sunday, September 30, 2012

After the Future(s): On Looper

"The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language."--Karl Marx

"Time travel has not yet been invented. But thirty years from now, it will have been," is the opening narration that sets up Rian Johnson's Looper. The movie is set in 2044, a time before the invention of time travel but after its effects. It is a movie with two futures, neither particularly good. Time travel, it appears, was no sooner invented than it was outlawed. It is only used by criminal syndicates some thirty years in the (second) future, where it is apparently easier to send a man back in time than it is dispose of a body. 

In the first future, where most of the film is set, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hit man with a fairly easy job. His job is to wait in a field for hooded and handcuffed people from the future to appear. He then shoots them, and collects the silver bars strapped to their body. He does this day after day, it is a task of utter monotony. The hit man, that last bastion of skill and danger, has been rendered utterly routine: one only needs the coldness and detachment to kill not the talent or skill to carry it out. This is reflected in the hit man's preferred weapon, a futuristic blunderbuss which, as the movie explains, can hit anything within fifteen yards but nothing past that point. A crude tool for a deskilled job. The hit men, or "loopers," as they are called, disposes of people with this weapon day after day. Until, one day, the looper finds a body with gold bars strapped to it. When this happens they have killed their future self, sent to cover up the crime,  eliminating the suspect, witness, and victim or, in the language of the film, "closing the loop." The gold bars function as a kind of retirement fund and hazard pay for a particular taxing bit of emotional labor. It is difficult to kill one's future self, and this difficulty is all that remains of the hitman's work.

The work of the loopers is not only deskilled, it is without a future. While their work gives them a present, defined by fashionable clothes, antique cars or flying motorcycles, drugs, and long nights at a stripclub, it also dooms them, they have sold any future for immediate gain. It is hard to disassociate the film's representation of the looper lifestyle from accounts of life on Wall Street. The films overall aesthetic reflects this disinvestment in the future. The cars are beat up trucks and compacts from our present, retrofitted with solar panels, power cables, and tubes, suggesting some kind of post-oil future. The guns are also retro in several layers, from their names, "blunderbuss" and "gatt,"which encapsulate the history of firearms, to their design, revolvers primarily. This retro aesthetic is continued in the sartorial style of the loopers, ties and jackets. The latter come under scrutiny when the boss of the loopers, a character named Abe (played by Jeff Daniels) who is sent from the future, the second future of the 2070s, ridicules Joe's style of dress. He criticizes him for being caught in a retro twentieth century aesthetic, challenging him to invent something new. The examples that he gives of this new properly twenty-first century look, rubber shirts or one piece body suits, only recite past images of the future, sounding like something out of tomorrowland. Inventing something new, escaping the dead weight of past generations is more difficult than it seems. This is the films central motif, a motif that structures its plot, casting, and look. It is a reflection of the post-future generation, to use Franco "Bifo" Berardi's formulation.

Everything is old, worn out, the only exception, the only thing "new" or "futuristic" in the film, aside from time travel itself, is the presence of telekinesis or, in the jargon of the film, "TKs." Even this nod to some transformative effect of mutation seems mired in repetitions of the past. As Joe explains in voice over, it was originally thought that telekinesis would "give us superheroes," but the powers are slight, manifesting themselves in parlor tricks and ways to pick-up girls. The nod to genre, to the dominant genre of the moment, that of the superhero film shifts the problem of repetition and invention from the world of the film to its narrative structure.

The film's most brutal invocation of this weight of the past, of the way in which the past functions as a kind of prison on the future, is also its most powerful scene. A looper (Paul Dano) fails to kill his future self, he lets his loop run, to use the film's particular argot. This disrupts the system sending two loopers, two versions of the same man, one from the present and one from the future, on the run from the crime syndicate. The one from the present, from the film's present, is caught by the syndicate first. We see the effects of this capture on the man from future. First, he notices a scar on his arm, words carved in his flesh dictating where he should meet his pursuers in order to surrender. He is being held hostage by his past self. He ignores them, only to watch his fingers disappear one by one, as torture in the present appears as scars on a body thirty years later. The looper from the future then loses limbs as the past tears him apart. In the end he can barely crawl the designated place of surrender where he is immediately shot. He is held hostage by his past self because they cannot immediately kill his past self, doing so would immediately obliterate the work he has done.

As much as this is the nightmarish weight of the past on the present, it is a past that has already been bought by the future. As much as the loopers, those from the future and the present, are prisoners to their past, forced to live out their contracts, completing their loops, the commands that they are responding to come from the future. Debt is the future acting on the present. It is the effect of what is most abstract, a future or a possible future, determining the present. The film locates this shift of a power, a shift away from an impoverished US, towards the East, towards China. In this case it is not a matter of form matching content, but of content matching financing. The film's shift from Paris, which remains in the script in the form of Joe's attempt to learn French, to Shanghai reflects the search for funding. As Abe says, addressing Joe's plans to escape his contract and move to Paris, "I'm from the future. You should go to China."We know that the producers took this advice. 

While the rise of Chinese financing and the importance of the Chinese audience is relatively new, forcing films like the ill conceived Red Dawn remake to substitute North Korea for China as its villain, the general structure is not necessarily new. Financing is the future acting on the present through the past, as films are forced to repeat tested genres and remake reliable properties. It is because the film must realize future profits that it repeats past patterns.

The conflict between past, present, and future is most vividly expressed in the conflict between present Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levit) and future Joe (played by Bruce Willis). The Joe from the future is sent back to be killed, but he gets the jump on the Joe in the present, escaping into his past. This is because he has spent many of the last thirty years becoming an actual hitman, shooting at something other than bound and immobile bodies sent back in time. The difference between them is not just that between age and youth, but experience, a difference between skilled labor and unskilled labor. That the difference of their age expresses so much hostility, a hostility expressed in terms of their insults of "boy" and "old man," expresses the impossibility of the present: one is either too young or too old.

It is also a difference tinged with regret, "haunted" to use the film's tagline; Future Joe has lived a wayward life of murder for hire, but has been redeemed in his final years by the love of a "good woman." He lives the last years of the future in domestic bliss, but his past catches up with him. The crime syndicate needs to close the loop, needs to send Future Joe back to his death. Future Joe's wife is killed in the process.

Future Joe returns with a plan, a plan to alter the future by killing the child that would become the leader of the crime syndicate. This leader is known only as the "Rainmaker," and he is as mysterious as he is powerful. Somehow this lone figure has taken control of all the syndicates in the future, and he is closing all the loops, sending all the loopers back to be killed by their past selves.

The nod to The Terminator is unavoidable. If one adds to that borrowing the fact that The Terminator is itself a version of Chris Marker's La Jetée, which was also remade into 12 Monkeys staring Bruce Willis, then the imitations and repetitions become as dizzying as time travel itself. The variations on that theme were always torn between remembrance and revolution, between the desire to find some past memory, a memory usually of a woman, of love, and the desire to remake history, to change the world. Future Joe is clearly more on the side of memory than revolution. He is not interested in creating a different world, a world where crime syndicates do not use time travel, but in saving the woman that saved him. There is no desire to change the future, to right the world, but simply to hold on to one's own little slice of it. Both Joes, future and past, only want to hold onto what is theirs. In the first case it is memory and in the second it is money. It is their antagonistic desire not to change that drives their conflict

It is at this point that the film's world weary attitude (itself borrowed from noir) and post-future aesthetic confronts its particular philosophy of time travel. Time travel stories, especially travel to the past, are always about the possibility of action, of changing a past that has already happened. They are a pop version of freewill and determinism with added paradoxes. In the world of Looper it is possible to change the past, something that happens immediately when Present Joe fails to kill Future Joe. These changes, like the scars and missing fingers of the tortured looper, alter the future. Future Joe has all of Present Joe's memories, and as the past changes, so does his memory. The particular loops of past and future, and the future's rewriting of the past, imposes a particular challenge on Joe in the future; he wants to change the past, making it so his wife will live, but he also wants to retain his memory, his memory of his wife. This is why he cannot simply tell his past self not to meet or marry the woman in the future.

Future Joe is not alone in this, his past self is also fixated on a memory of a different woman, his mother. The film makes multiple references to mothers and lost memories. Underneath the retro-stylings of twentieth century suits, cars, and nineteenth century gunslingers, the real past that the characters want to return to is not historical but personal. It is the lost memory of intimacy and connection that they want to recreate. Of the different loops, the cultural loop that brings the fashions and words of the past back into the present; the economic loop in which the present is caught between dead labor and future speculation, and the affective or emotional loop that sends individuals searching to recreate lost intimacy, it is the latter that ends up being dominant, driving and explaining the character's actions.

This loop, a loop that could be called Freudian, is the most difficult to break. How do we escape the wounds of the past? How do we know that we have ever decisively broken the loop of memory? I do not want to say too much about the end of the film, partly because this post is too long as it is and partly because I do not want to give too much away. I think that the movie ends on an ambiguous point, unclear if the future has been altered or not. Moreover, and more to the point, if this film reflects a future without history, a history doomed to repeat itself even if it is worse for the wear, then this is perhaps because it is incredibly difficult to know if one has acted decisively on this interior space. The end of the future has as its correlate, in terms of both cause and effect, the turn towards interiority.

Postscript on Genre (with massive spoilers)

I have said little about the film's use of telekinesis and mention of superheroes. If you have seen the film, you know that these are not incidental details of the future world it depicts. In the final act Looper becomes a superhero film of sorts. Not just because it introduces superpowers, but because it raises the central question of all superhero films: is an individual going to use his or her powers for good or evil? The answer to this question provided by the various superhero origin stories all in one way or another suggest that the answer is found in the family. If you have the right parents, or a kindly aunt and uncle, you will end up a hero. Looper follows this logic right down to a farmhouse in Kansas, paying a nod to the urtext of the superhero genre. The superhero genre renders the psychic, the intimacy of memories of fathers and mothers, world historical.

Ultimately I am tempted to consider the film according to Raymond William's historical schema of residual, dominant, and emergent. The dominant genre is clearly the superhero film, which Looper initially cynically rejects and finally embraces. The residual genre would be that of the science fiction action films of the eighties and early nineties, which appear here in the nods to The Terminator and in the person of Bruce Willis. The difficult question then is discerning what is emergent. What new thing does Looper portend? Does it, along with such films as Moon, Sleep Dealer, or Inception, suggest a new science fiction?

Only the future will tell.


unemployed negativity said...

Interesting follow up to the China finance angle here:

Joe Clement said...

I won't spoil the ending, but it's not how I would have resolved the dilemma. Older Joe's obsession with maintaining his memory of his wife is his flaw and shows how little he progressed from his youthful narcissism. It's disappointing that it's present rather than absolved in the end. This (the ending) seems apropos if we want to compare the Loopers to Wall Street speculators and think through what a break from that would mean or look or feel like. A more life-affirming strategy would be preferable. Another excellent film also on this subject is the recent 'Margin Call'.

unemployed negativity said...

Yes, the ending has multiple problems, and several time travel paradoxes. It did like its ambiguity, however, and its sense that it is difficult to break the cycle of violence.

Buttquack said...

I have a question or two.. How would the future (or the past/present) know if the past self didn't kill the future self when they came over? I mean, if the younger self and older self just disappeared, who would know and how? And then it makes no sense to me that if they kill the past self instantly rather than torture them in order to attract the old self to surrender then everything that the younger self has down would never happen (as in all the contracts he fulfilled wouldn't have occurred? Or?). I think it would be anything after the younger self dies would make the older self never occur. Why the mob cares about that makes no sense. If you just killed off the younger self then the older self would be gone to and anything the younger self did before dying would still remain. Or, am I just thinking of this all wrong in some way"?