Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hijacking a Train: Revolution and its Limits in Snowpiercer


I scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of Snowpiercer once I became intrigued by the basic premise. Despite this, and not reading anything after seeing it this afternoon, I was aware, in that way we become aware of things through an almost social media osmosis, that it was quickly being heralded as a new film about the 99% and the 1%, about social inequality, and, more importantly, about revolution. In what follows I would like to explore these allegories for at least two reasons. The first, and most basic, is that the film openly invites such readings. Its particular premise, the Earth is frozen after a failed attempt to solve global warming and all of the survivors are left stranded on globe circling train, is so thin in terms of any pretense at credibility, and so packed with allusions and images, I am not sure it is even possible to watch it as "just a movie." Second, and more importantly I am interested in what it means to make or interpret a film as allegory of the present, recognizing of course that the line between making and interpreting can never be rigidly defined. (Spoilers follow)

Initially the film's premise is presented as a kind of freshman essay on dystopia. It turns out that the train was designed by a maligned but gifted engineer, known only as Wilford, who somehow foresaw that the attempt to solve global warming would fail horribly resulting in a new ice age. Already we have a kind of John Galt figure filtered through Fox news. Life on the train is a strict hierarchy with the ruler in the front, next to the sacred engine, followed by the elites in first class, the remainder of humanity is stuck in back, crammed in the tail of the train. This hierarchy is fairly static; occasionally guards from the front come looking for someone possessing a particular skill, a violin player, or, more chillingly a few children of the proper size and height. Other than that the people in the back do not seem to work, or serve much of a purpose. They only reproduce, this is the source of both their value to those who run the train and makes them objects of hatred of those in the front. As is so often the case in American popular culture, or even in the media, inequality is much more easy to imagine and discuss than exploitation. It is easier to imagine a world divided into rich and poor than a world in which the rich live off of the productive activity of the world. Thus, to butcher a phrase that has been quoted all too often, it is easier to imagine some dystopian tyranny than it is to come to grips with actually existing capitalism.



What makes Snowpiercer engaging, however, is precisely how it runs up against these limitations of imagination and representation. First, and to be fair, the film does not entirely present us a world without work. The majority of the people on the train are unemployed and unemployable, doing only the most basic reproductive labor of keeping humanity alive, a kind of surplus population even when humanity only numbers in the hundreds. Overpopulation, surplus, and reserve armies are not natural conditions, a species out of control, but are relative to a given mode of production. On an automated train almost the entire population is surplus, and an arbitrary line separates those unproductively languishing in the cramped read, and those reveling in the hedonistic excess of first class. There are of course a few workers, making protein bars, teaching kids, doing security, and making sushi, but much of the train, rich and poor, live a life without work. The train is thus a predominantly service economy, but overall it is a world in which a small elite governs over a fundamentally expendable population. They are kept alive not because they are exploited, but because they are potentially exploitable, might have something that the train could use. Viewed this way the film's effacement of labor brings it closer to a picture of the present. 

It is when we get to the theme of revolution that things get interesting. First, there is a matter of how the film answers the question, why don't people revolt? What keeps the people in line, besides the few guards, is the recognition that as much as the order on the train subjugates them, keeping them living in crammed, dirty, and dark quarters, living off of a meager diet, it is also the condition of survival. If Tilda Swinton's performance has been compared to Margaret Thatcher it is fair to say that the train is the very embodiment of "there is no alternative." There is no life outside the train. 

As much as we see a classroom where students are interpellated into the ideology of the train, taught to idolize the train and its conductor, all of this ideological indoctrination is a bit superfluous to the way in which the train itself materializes ideology. If people cannot live outside of the train, or can imagine no life outside of its walls, then there is almost no need to venerate it, or to indoctrinate people to love it. Material necessity supplants ideology when it is impossible to imagine other conditions capable of reproducing existence. It is easy, perhaps too easy, to see the train as an image of contemporary capitalism. The inequality is acknowledged by nearly everyone except for the lucky few, but as long as the world outside of it appears frozen and hostile, a gulag in the waiting, then the train just goes on and on. 


The back of the train is dominated by what Althusser would call the Repressive State Apparatus, the masses are kept in line with a gun butt, while the middle, the school, is where you find the Ideological State Apparatus, the children are interpellated in the lessons which treat the train as the condition of survival, and Wilford, its creator, as their savior. Not just a "job creator," but a life creator. Of course these distinctins quickly breakdown in two interesting scenes. We learn that the guns that maintain order in the back are empty, all bullets have been spent repressing past revolutions. The loaded guns are hidden in the school, in the baskets of eggs which symbolize rebirth and renewal as the train makes another round. There is always symbolism, ideology, in every RSA, in every appearance of the cops on the street, and there is always violence, exclusion and guns, in every ISA. Breaking the repetition of the existing order entails being able to spot the imaginary dimension of violent force, and the violence and force existing underneath ideology. It is a matter of recognizing where belief becomes a force and force becomes just an idea. Even shock troops need black hoods (and must occasionally sacrifice a carp).



That the train is the necessary condition of existence, or at least appears to be so, puts any revolution are narrow tracks. The revolutionaries can seize the train, but seizing the train risks all too easily reproducing the same relations. In fact we learn that these revolutions are nothing other than the dynamic actions that keep the order intact. They reduce the population, functioning as a kind of unnatural selection, and they occasionally bring new leaders to the front of the train. Successful revolutionaries are bribed into becoming new leaders, or at least offered the chance. The only solution then is not to seize the train, to claim its engine, but to begin to imagine a life outside of it. The end there are two revolutionaries, two ideas of revolution. One (played by Chris Evans) wants to make it to the engine to seize control; he reads the signs of power and subjection aboard the train, spotting the ideology that sustains violence and the violence underneath ideology. While the other (played by Kang-ho Song) wants to escape the train, and he reads the signs of the changing conditions outside the train, seeing the possibility of life where others see only death. Snowpiercer is very much a film about what people see and cannot see. The visible and the invisible is given not only tactical importance, as in spotting the empty magazine on a rifle or  enemies in a the darkened tunnel, but a utopian significance as well. In the end the future belongs to those who can imagine a life outside of the train and can realize it.



This is ultimately what makes Snowpiercer worth viewing, and even timely, it is not that it is particularly imaginative dystopia for our present, but that it stages the dystopia of our current imagination. We are so desperately in need of a vision of life outside of our particular economic and political system; it is clear that the train is going nowhere and we need something more to hope for than becoming a cog in its machinery. 

10 comments:

seymourblogger said...

An absolutely incredible review of this film.

seymourblogger said...

Here's my review of Snowpiercer. Thanks for doing all my work for me. http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2014/07/review-snowpiercer-reading-through-ayn.html

kim carsons said...

Terrific review. Yes the film's ending is very much an anti-dialectical view of revolution. A return to an immanant sense of things outside the logos of the historical abosolute. To posit a new beginning one must disassemble the entire dialectical approach as it will only succeed in throwing up an old order, posing as the new. The way out is infinitely more difficult it seems...........

seymourblogger said...

All those years ago with Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig said the same. As does Baudrillard and Nietzsche.With their simulacra of the world they left in each car you know that's what they wanted to do.

Michael De Nola said...

PART ONE

Scene: Tilda Swinton, in a long ornate robe, relaxes in her trailer on a film set in the Marquesas. She receives a call from Bong Joon Ho.

TILDA:

Bong! So wonderful to hear from you! I often think of our magic nights in Findhorn.

BONG:

Findhorn? I’ve never been there.

TILDA:

I know that. But I do think of them.

BONG:

So are you excited about our project?

TILDA:

Absolutely! What is it?

BONG:

Uh, didn’t you speak with your agent?

TILDA:

I never speak to my agent. I just find myself on film sets.

BONG:

Well, let me tell you a little about the project. It’s called “Snowpiercer.” It’s…

TILDA:

Brilliant! I love it.

BONG:

Uh, well just let me…it’s an allegory, you see. About the most fundamental problem of our age.

TILDA:

You mean this is an important film?

BONG:

In capital letters. It may be the most important film anyone has ever made. I plan to include so much importance that they won’t even show it in the US without cutting it to shreds.

TILDA:

The highest honor!

BONG:

We’re going to use a metaphor. Snowpiercer is a train hurtling around the uninhabitable Earth, just like planet Earth hurtling in orbit through uninhabitable space, you see. For all intents and purposes, it doesn’t matter that global warming was the trigger that wiped out life on Earth. It simply matters that the system is closed. No escape. The enemy in the mirror has finally removed all masks.

TILDA:

Oh my! Who is it?

BONG:

In the mirror?

TILDA:



BONG:

Anyway, Snowpiercer attempts to get its arms around the fundamental shift in human understanding that happened to have happened in our lifetimes: the realization that our resources, our range, our territory are finite. It’s the Big Issue: We are stuck together in a closed system. There’s nowhere left to go. Ergo, we must organize ourselves somehow or we will all die.

TILDA:

I always love dying in movies.

BONG:

Well, that’s one way the film could go. Everybody kills each other. Another thing that could happen is that…well, you see, the people in the back of the train are poor, they’re oppressed. They’re the 99%. And they’re trying to get to the front of the train, so they can kill the Great Leader or at least get some clean underwear.

TILDA:

They’re off to see the Wizard!

BONG:

Wow. I actually hadn’t thought of that.

TILDA:

And he’s really not big and mean and scary at all!

Michael De Nola said...

PART TWO
BONG:

Again, I’m stunned. Because that’s another way the film could go. The rebels get to the front of the train and their leader meets The Great Leader. And he’s a nice guy, kind of. But he corrupts the upstart rebel leader. And the rebel leader takes over. And power corrupts him. And the people from the front go to the back and the people from the back go to the front and it starts all over again. It’s the human condition! It’ll never change!

TILDA:

Uh, sorry, but, hasn’t that been done before?

BONG:

Well yeah, several times. And well, too. Well then there’s the third way this could all go.

TILDA:

A third way? Why?

BONG:

Well, in the real world they’ve already lost countless species of animals. The oceans are dying. Within a few years, we all know you’re either living in a protective bubble or you’re roaming around in feral packs of cannibals. What can be done? What is the answer? So maybe, you know, since we brought it up, we should kind of, you know, deal with it. For the audience’s sake.
TILDA:

How?

BONG:

Well, maybe there’s a way to figure it out. I must admit I’m really struggling with this. Somehow, everyone agrees to some form of fairness in society, some basis of organization that isn’t based on power. Where everyone at least participates to some extent and gets some decent food instead of the gelatinous insect goo they have to eat in the back. Oh, and toilets. Because the script as I’ve written it has no mention whatever of how all these people manage to shit.

TILDA:

I have your answer!

BONG:

You do?

TILDA:

What you’re describing, why, it’s a film set, sweetheart! A film set is a Utopian society. Everyone on the set, from the gaffer to the producer, does their part in service of the higher goal. Everyone is fully engaged and happy in their well-defined role. It’s a transcendent experience!

BONG:

So…your solution is…have them all make a film?

TILDA:

Yes!

BONG:

But Tilda, the perfection of a film set is ineffable by definition. And when it’s over, it’s like the end of summer. Time for real life again.

TILDA:

Time for what?

BONG:

Real life.

TILDA:

Oh, nonsense. Just have them make another film.

Michael De Nola said...

PART THREE
BONG:

I can’t do that, Tilda.

TILDA:

Well fuck it, then. Have them blow a hole in the train.

BONG:

But Tilda, then everybody dies!

TILDA:

Ah, but that’s the magic of film, you see! Not everybody dies. There’s someone left! She carries on! She survives! Escape!

BONG:

But that ruins the whole premise we’ve set up: No exit!

TILDA:

Split! Migrate! Ramble on! That’s what people do! Real life!

BONG:

But that’s totally against the reality we’ve created!

TILDA:

Oh fuck that. It was all in their minds. A dream! In fact, if we think outside the ..uh..train, we can do whatever the fuck we want. And then our heroine looks back at all those suckers that died believing that the Earth was actually a real place. Well goodbye to all that. You know, gravity and atmosphere and shit like that.

BONG:

I…I…

TILDA:

Look, do you want me in this film, or not?

BONG:

Yes!

TILDA:

Well, then, blow a hole in the fucking train. And make it like the matrix, you know, the heroine looks around blinking in the snow, like you know, oh my god! It’s a different world! And stick a fucking polar bear in there. Looking at her, like, Yes! Yes! Welcome to whatever-the-fuck!

BONG:

Yes, Tilda.

TILDA:

And I’ll tell you something else. I’m sick of this androgynous man-woman shit I always do. I’m sick of being a fucking brilliant mannequin with my mysterious eyes and my subtlety. I want to be an outrageous ridiculous cunt in this movie. I want to chew more scenery than a goat with a tapeworm. I want carte blanche. Just try to direct me and I walk.

BONG:

Ok Tilda.

TILDA:

All right then, I’m on my way.

BONG:

Sorry Tilda, what was that? You’re breaking up.

TILDA:

Oh that’s what always happens when I’m in my bubble. See you soon.

unemployed negativity said...

These are enjoyable. Thank you.

Jason E. Smith said...

This is great, Jason. This might be of interest:
http://ddt21.noblogs.org/post/2014/07/20/lutte-des-glaces-a-propos-de-snowpiercer-le-transperceneige/

JESmith

unemployed negativity said...

Thanks, this is great, Jason. I finally tracked down a copy of the original French comic.