Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Cold Call Man: On Sorry to Bother You

There is no film this year that I have anticipated more than Sorry to Bother You. I have been a fan of Boots Riley since I first learned about The Coup years ago. I have heard about this film for years; bought the album but eschewed reading the published screenplay. The latter seemed like admitting defeat and I desperately wanted to see this film get made. The first rule of movies, at least in Hollywood, is that anticipation is the enemy of enjoyment. Of course this is usually because most films fail to meet our expectations, the trailer would have been enough; it is rare that a film not only exceeds our expectations but calls them into question. 

When I first watched the film I was under the impression that I watched two very different films stitched together on the cutting room floor. The first was a social realist drama of a young man who climbs the ranks of a telemarketing firm, pitting his individual success against the collective actions of his friend and girlfriend to organize a union. It depicts a reality of struggle that is not only missing from the summer onslaught of superheroes and dinosaurs, but is even missing from the most grounded of prestige dramas, which depict the struggles of soldiers, artists, and scientists but rarely ever the more quotidian struggles of finding a job, paying one's bills, and some kind of life. If one wanted to think of a precursor to this film, one could think of something like Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, although the film itself cites an older (and arguably more well known pedigree) in Norma Rae, underscoring just a few and far between films about unions and organizing are made in this country. Against the backdrop of social realism there was a second film, a broader satire of corporate control and media manipulation that utilizes, in Boots Riley's words, elements of magical realism and science fiction. A film that has been compared to They Live or Repo Man. On first viewing these two films seemed oddly and awkwardly stitched together, and even though I did not fault Boots Riley for including them both (after all, you are a self identified communist making a major film, I think it makes sense to include very possible idea you have for any film) they did not seem to work together. It is hard to fault a film for having too many ideas when most have none. 

Now, after seeing the film a second time (and third time), I do not think that I could have be more wrong. The combination of different aesthetic sensibilities and genres is not simply a matter of a first time and unlikely director cramming every possible idea into one film, but an attempt to answer the question of what a radical film could be today. In other words, both a social realist portrayal of the trials and tribulations of a call center employee and a science fiction satire of corporate excess would necessarily miss the mark. They would each only function as half of the story. To put it somewhat crudely, we need satire and excess in order to shock us out of our complacency, but at the same time shock without action without some connection back to our capacities to act, to the world we know, would simply be entertainment. The film enacts a kind of dialectic of realism and fantasy. This can be seen in the way in which the film almost duplicates itself, repeating the themes of individual self interest against collective struggle twice. In the first half, Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) a young underemployed black man finds that his ability to sound white, to perform a kind of whiteness catapults him up the corporate ladder, but this success costs him his friends and ultimately his self (It should be noted, just as Boots Riley underscores in multiple media appearances he has done since the film has been released, this performance is as much about class as it is about race, "whiteness is the illusion that one has their bills paid and their job is secure." White people act white). 

[SPOILER ALERT] In the second half of the film Cassius Green is offered the chance to "code switch" in a much more radical sense, to become an equisapien, a genetically engineered half horse/half human hybrid that is supposed to be the ideal worker--more capable and more docile. He would be a kind of Martin Luther King figure amongst them, but not the King of the Memphis sanitation worker's strike but the water downed version presented to us in schools and speeches every February. He would lead, but only in a way that served the creators and exploiters of this new species. The second half duplicates the first, but with more horror--it is the waking nightmare of the first half. In the first half Cassius sells out, but gradually, always telling himself he is still on the side of his friends and his fellow workers; in the second he is explicitly offered the opportunity by the owner of the company. The horrors are more explicit, as well; work does not just deaden and degrade, leaving one with little to do but, in Cash's words, work, sleep, fuck--basic animal functions, but actually makes one into an animal. The film is a brutal illustration of Marx's statement that with work, "What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal."The second half of the film repeats the first, getting us to question not only what we just saw but our reaction to it. It is hard not to be sympathetic to Cash's selling out in the first half, he does so thinking of not just himself but the others who depend on him, but it is equally hard not to see it as nightmarish in the second half. 

Many people have pointed out that the film is criticism of capitalism, and in doing so bring up the film's Worry Free company which offers people a guaranteed job as well as a food and shelter. The Worry Free corporation is a brilliant satire of the supposed innovations of silicon valley, Uber, Task Rabbit, Fiver, etc., that once you strip aware the digital veneer are ultimately about making labor costs cheaper and workers more docile. Sorry to Bother You shows us how what is presented as new is often a return to the oldest forms of exploitation--that work/living spaces and twenty four hour corporate campuses are the return of precapitalist forms of exploitation. Already that would be a great bit of satire, but science fiction, especially the science fiction of the last half of the century is riddled with all powerful corporations (Weyland Yutani, Tyrell Corporation, Omini Consumer Products). Riley's film goes further by not just giving us a world where Worry Free is possible but where it is desirable as well. Cash's uncle Sergio (Terry Crews) is so beaten down by trying to make a living and pay his mortgage that he sees Worry Free as a good idea. Sorry to Bother You does not just satirize the brutality of capitalism, but our complicity with it. It is a film for boiling frogs, for those of us so accustomed to the increase in exploitation and control that we no longer notice its incremental increase that risks killing us all. 

Part of what makes satire so difficult today is that we have gradually and incrementally gotten used to so much. "Not The Onion" has become the slogan of our times, and a kind of cynical awareness has become our ruling ideology. It is not just that the Emperor has no clothes, we watch him be stripped bare every night by all of the comic take downs and destructions. We need to find the present shocking again, monstrous even, and for that the excesses of satire, science fiction, and magical realism are necessary, but the shock needs to be inserted back into the struggle in order to be effective. As much as the film borrows from the anti-corporate satire of something like They Live it also refuses any kind of easy dramatic resolution. All dystopian films end either with the impossible act, the big revolution that sends the whole system toppling to the ground, or with the recognition that change is impossible. Sorry to Bother You refuses both of those options, showing instead that change is neither a simple act of awareness, of stripping the illusion, or totally impossible. To put it in the terms of another dystopian movie: It is not enough to scream that Soylent Green is people, you have to begin the hard work of breaking the people out of the factories that manufacture Soylent Green. 

In a scene that is a familiar to anyone who has seen a dystopian science fiction film, Cassius tries to expose the plot of Worry Free's creation of equisapiens using his viral fame to inform the masses. (Back to the notion that the film has too many ideas, throughout there are many observations on art, internet fame, and so on that are only touched upon, but who can fault a film for having too many ideas when most have none). Cassius' plan fails to mobilize the masses The news that the Worry Free corporation is making hybrid, half-human workers only drives the companies stock price higher. The union organizer, Squeeze (Steven Yeun) explains why the shocking news has not had any effect on the masses, stating something to the effect that if people are presented with a problem but no real way to solve it then they simply get used to it [this interview covers some of the same points]. No truer words could be said about our current condition; we have gotten used to so much, global warming, police brutality, a political system that exists primarily to transfer wealth to the rich, all things we have had to accept because we cannot see how to change them. 

After rewatching and thinking about the film again. It struck me that the film is precisely the sort of transformation that Yves Citton calls for in his book on Mythocracy. As Citton argues part of what defines myth is less the specific content, specific ideas and concepts, than the form, the relations that orient the very possibilities for action. What constitutes a "right" myth is less some supposed content regarding the nation or capital than the very figuration of action in and through individual agency.  Breaking these "myths" entails both a new sensibility, a new way of seeing the world, and a new way of thinking of the possibilities of action. On this point, and completing the dialectical dimension alluded to above, Sorry to Bother You is not just alternately mythic and realistic, depicting the nightmare fantasy of work and its quotidian reality, but is often mythic when it is realistic and vice versa. The call center union depicted in the film is relatively free of the bureaucratic details of organizing (not an easy task according to Jamie Woodcock), but engages with a union and solidarity at its affective core, or, as they say in the film, "Fuck you, Pay me!" This mythic union, as fantastic of a creature in 2018 as a half human/half horse hybrid, is also grounded in real acts of solidarity and friendship, ending (or almost ending) on scenes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Myth and reality, satire and realism, constantly code switch, and it is only through that vertiginous mix that we can make sense of the present and act on it.


Of all of the movies that Sorry to Bother You has been compared to the one that it has the most in common with is Repo Man. This is true at the level of narrative, each film details a young man's initiation into a job generally held in contempt, but one that he has a particular talent for. It would be interesting to consider that part of the contempt for the repo man and the telemarketer is that they rudely and sometimes even violently puncture the fiction of private property and domestic space: the repo man is there to remind you that what you "own" isn't yours but the bank that is financing the loan and, somewhat less dramatically, the telemarketer reminds you that time free from work is dedicated to consumption. It is also true in that both films are situated in the space between musical subcultures and movies, both films have soundtracks that are as important as the films themselves. One could argue that one film is about punk while the other is about hip hop, but that would be wrong--neither films are about bands or musicians. It would be more accurate to say that they are about the cultural space that punk and hip hop occupy. That is where they part ways, punk is a subculture that wants to stay at the margins while hip hop has become mass culture even while its producers and creators are marginalized. The rapping scene from the party in Sorry to Bother You says more about cultural appropriation than a million think pieces. This difference of cultural politics is reflected in their use of science fiction. In Repo Man the aliens are a "punk rock dream come true" they make it possible to leave society and its conformity, to say "fuck you" to a job, a family, and everything that threatens the individual. The punk fantasy was often one of individual liberation, not overcoming wage labor but finding a job where you could keep your tattoos and dyed hair. While in Sorry to Bother You the equisapiens remind us that there is no escape, that "Fuck you" has to be "Fuck you; pay me" and it has to be said in unison if it is to me anything at all. 

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