Thursday, April 04, 2024

Leave What World Behind: On Leave the World Behind

Something has changed in watching post-apocalyptic films in recent years. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when, and what exactly the cause might be, but at some point in the last few years the post-apocalypse has gone from an escapist fantasy to a figure of dread. The increasing rate of global warming leading to fires, droughts, and hurricanes; the ongoing Covid pandemic; and the rise of right wing nationalism has transformed the apocalypse from a subgenre of science fiction to a barometer of fears and anxieties. As Robert Tally argues the sense of the future has changed dramatically over the last decade: utopia has been replaced by dystopia in contemporary fiction and film and post-apocalypse has replaced predictions of a miraculous world of tomorrow. This is another way of addressing Fredric Jameson’s old adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. To which we could add that this imagination is no longer an idle speculation about the future, but immediately lived, as apocalypse seems to inch closer, moving from the distant horizon to the lived present. 

Perhaps no film illustrates this more than Leave the World Behind a film less about the apocalypse as a distant event than the increasing permutation of apocalyptic fears and anxieties in daily life. Leave the World Behind is a film directed by Sam Esmail that was released on Netflix in December of 2023. It is based on the novel of the same name by Rumaan Alam published in 2020. The film begins when Amanda Sanford (Julia Roberts) makes an impromptu decision to rent a house on Long Island and escape the New York City with her husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and two children, Archie and Rose. Her decision is predicated as much on a general misanthropy, as Amanda states, “I fucking hate people,” as it is on the specifics of their current work and financial situation. Their vacation is an attempt to get away from not just the city, but people altogether. The home they rent is miles from any neighbor or any contact with the world. Over the course of the film isolation goes from being the dream to the nightmare. 

As the family settles in their rental home they immediately lose WIFI, cable, and cellular phone service, cutting them off from the outside world more than they wanted. Later, when they travel to the beach, an oil tanker runs aground, smashing into the beach. These events do not immediately disrupt their vacation, they endure the first with frustration and watch the second with curiousity, snapping photographs. This changes when late in the night there is a knock at the door, Clay and Amanda open the door to find G.H. Scott (Mahershala Ali) and his daughter Ruth (Myha’la). G.H. introduces himself the owner of the house that they are renting. He explains that they were attending a symphony in New York City when the power went out. They decided to escape to go to their vacation house on Long Island rather than return to their apartment in the city. The very same house that the Sandfords are renting. This leads to an awkward encounter, as owner confronts renter each claiming a right to the house. Because they have only interacted via email, and the entire arrangement of renting the house is through a third party platform, neither group knows or recognizes the other. As G.H., or George, as he prefers to be called, puts it, had they spoken on the phone they would have at least recognized the sound of his voice. Because their relation is mediated through apps and interfaces (Airbnb is implied but never mentioned) they do not know or trust each other even though one party has already exchanged thousands of dollars and the other has let them into their house. The mediation of their relations through technology, house renting apps and email, means that they do not have the base level of trust that could be established through commerce, a fact that is all the more ironic given the intimacy of their mediated relationship, they are sharing the same house. Amanda is initially incredibly distrustful of the Scotts, fearing that they might be trying to run some sort of scam, or worse yet, could be potential child molesters. That George and Ruth are black and Amanda and Clay are white only exasperates the issue. Amanda is for the most part polite enough to mention the issue, but it is implied in her suspicion of George even after he produces a key to the house’s liquor cabinet. The distrust in some sense is mutual, later we hear Ruth chastise her father for so readily trusting “white people.” The fact that this film is in part produced by Barack and Michelle Obama have led some online to see it as a film fomenting racial division and distrust. This is in part predicated on the longstanding belief on the right that it is mentioning race as a factor of social life that produces racism. However, in the film race is only itself one variant of the general breakdown of social relations. The racial divisions are only a sharper version of what keeps everyone seeking to escape the city and get away from everyone.


As the two families bunker down together the events outside of the home get even more strange. All of the events gesture towards a different aspect of a potential apocalypse: the entire communication technology from television to satellite phones seems to collapse; planes drop from the sky and slam into the beach; a drone flies overheard distributing pamphlets that seem to say “Death to America” in Arabic; deer congregate in large numbers in the yard and flamingos arrive in the pool, suggesting that the natural world too is out of balance; a loud sound tears through house, smashing windows; self-driving Teslas smash into each other and pile up on the freeway; and the son, Archie becomes allegedly from a tick bite. Even his sickness takes on strange symptoms, most dramatically a loss of all of his teeth. The logic of the film is more akin to reading the daily paper or following a newsfeed in which there is less an apocalypse than the uneven development of multiple apocalyptic potentials. It is hard to see how these different events constitute one consistent narrative of an apocalypse; instead they seem to gesture towards the multiple possibilities for the world ending, political, technological, and ecological. With each of these events the gathered families discuss theories and speculate about the possible nature of the threat they are facing. It is less a film about a specific vision of social collapse than it is about the inchoate fears of such a collapse. Since the film focuses on the individuals in the house, individuals who are cut off from other social contact, not to mention any source of new or information, we only ever get a limited and partial image of what might be happening in the world beyond the house. What we are left with is just speculation based on very limited and partial information. 

Without spending too much time on the question of the book versus the movie, it is worth noting that the film never departs from the immediate present of the few days at the rental house. With the exception of the images of the Earth seen from space we never see anything that they do not see. The book which the film is based upon occasionally departs for a sentence or two, cutting forward to tell us that the neighbors die months later in a refugee camp outside of Los Angeles. The book then eventually confirms the reader’s suspicions that we are seeing the beginning of a full on pandemic and social collapse. These passages appear in the final sections of the book, the reader eventually learns that they are reading about the beginning of a full on apocalypse in which regular life will never return. This is how the novel recounts Rose, Amanda and Clay’s daughter's, visit to a neighbor’s house: 

"She couldn’t know, would never know, that the Thornes, the family who lived there, were at the airport in San Diego, unable to make arrangements since there were no flights operating domestically because of a nationwide emergency without precedent, as though precedent were required. The Thornes would never see this house again in their lives, though Nadine, the matriarch, would sometimes dream of it before she succumbed to cancer in one of the tent camps the army managed to erect outside the airport. They’d burn her body, before they stopped bothering with that, as the bodies outnumbered the people left to do the burning."

The jump forward and to another context confirms what we have come to expect, that the world as we know it has come to an end. In the film the viewer never knows anything more than the characters, we do not know what will become of them or the world, even as the film gives us more spectacular images of crisis, such as an airplane crashing into the beach. A second major difference is that in the book, the Scott’s appearance at the door of the house in the middle of the night happens before any real crisis has taken place. In the novel at this point the only thing that has gone wrong is that the internet does not work, which is hardly a major crisis. In the film the oil tanker runs aground on the first day of Amanda and Clay’s family vacation. This not only increases the dread, it confirm the Scott’s story that something is very amiss and they are right in seeking shelter. This makes Amanda’s suspicion seem all the more anti-social or even racist. The film also proliferates the images of social collapse, adding the drone, and the pile up of self-driving and self-colliding cars on the freeway. There are other differences: Ruth in the book is George’s wife not his daughter, and the film introduces Rose’s obsession with the television show Friends, a point that will be returned to later. The major difference is how the book and the film utilize the strengths and limitations of their medium to depict the particular situation of dread and uncertainty. The book gives moments of a omniscient third person narrator in a viewpoint that lets us see the enormity of the crisis, letting the reader know what the characters do not, while the film presents more of a spectacle of the crisis, boats, planes, and cars crash and burn, while restricting our viewpoint to the limited knowledge of the central characters. In adapting the story form text to film we see more, we see carnage and explosions, and ultimately know less.

 The families are not initially in any immediate danger. They have food, water, shelter, even power despite the news of a blackout. The question of what to do is initially an abstract one. It is impossible to know if they should stay in the house or return home. It is hard to know what to do without knowing what is going on. Our daily lives and activities presuppose as their backdrop a world that is as predictable as it is taken for granted. We assume that the internet will work, that stores will be open, and that a house rented through a website will be ours and ours alone. The rationality or irrationality of our actions make sense against the background of a world, or the institutions and structures that shape and define our decisions. When that world becomes uncertain than one does not know how to act. Should one return home to the city, end the vacation, or stay in a place that is safe, stocked with food and has power. It is only Archie’s sickness that drives them from the home in search of help. George suggests that they go see Danny, his handyman for help. Earlier Amanda saw Danny at the grocery store stocking up on water and canned goods. He is presented as someone who both knows how to do things, and maybe even knows what is going on. When George and Clay arrive at Danny’s house he is less than happy to see them. He advises them to do as he has done, bunker down and protect his family. He admonishes George to do the same, and when George invokes the idea of a neighbor helping a neighbor, of Danny possibly providing medicine to help Archie, they have the following exchange: 

George, “C’mon now. It’s me. We’re Friends.” 
Danny, “That’s the old way, George. You’re not thinking clearly.” 
George, “Danny, What are you saying? You’re telling this man not to take care of his son.” 
Danny, “Nothing makes a whole lot of sense right now. When the world does not make any sense I can still do what is rational, which is protect my own.” 

Danny presents himself as the person who has taken stock of the situation and adjusted to the reality of the new world. Although what he offers in terms of theories and explanations, including a reference to Havana Symptom and a Chinese or Russian attack on infrastructure, is not much better than the other speculations that George and Clay offer. His theories maybe more apocalyptic, more extreme in their consequences, but he is still speculating based on limited information. The one thing he does offer, however, is a decisive course of action, one he considers to be rational: protecting his own, protecting property. Friendship, neighbors, social obligations are dismissed as the “old way.” The question remains, however, as to what extent this is a new ethos, a new way of living. While the shotgun might be new, “protect my own” has been the dominant mentality, and dominant idea of rationality of everyone in the film so far. From Amanda’s vacation plan which begins with the realization “I fucking hate people” to George and Ruth’s attempt to go back to their home, everyone is striving to protect their own. Danny’s survivalist rhetoric is nothing other than a continuation of the logic of contemporary capitalist society by other means. George and Clay’s confrontation with George is intercut with another confrontation; while searching for Rose Ruth and Amanda are confronted by a large, and surprisingly aggressive herd of deer. The deer are intimidating, even menacing, until Rose and Amanda drop their hostility towards each other to aggressively yell back. These two different scenes, one of the theme of man versus man the other as woman versus nature, also define two different ideas of what it means to be rational, everyone for themselves or join together in some act of solidarity. 

All of which raises the question of the film’s title, Leave the World Behind. The phrase is first mentioned as part of the advertising copy for the rental home. It promises an escape from the world. As the film progresses, however, this phrase becomes the central question of the post-apocalyptic culture. At what point should one recognize that normal is not coming back, leave the old world behind, and begin to adapt to a new one. This is one way to make sense of the film’s enigmatic, and for some viewers, frustrating ending. Throughout the film, the girl Rose is obsessed with the show Friends. She is watching the show on an ipad as they drive to the rental house. When the internet breaks down she is frustrated in her attempt to watch the final episode, to find closure. It is remarked upon that Rose is obsessed with a show that took place and was filmed before she was born. As Ruth comments on Rose’s interest in Friends, “But it's almost... Nostalgic for a time that never existed, you know?” in the final scene of the film Rose ventures to the neighbor’s empty house. There she finds their empty survival bunker, a bunker that is stocked with food, water, a greenhouse, and most importantly for Rose, a shelf of DVDs. She finds a boxed set of Friends episodes and finally gets to watch the final episode. Rose gets closure for her particular quest and her closure ends the film. The last image is her face as the familiar theme song begins. It is a fundamentally ambiguous ending. We could interpret this viewing of a final episode as an act of closure of leaving the world of screens and pop culture pleasures behind, preparing for a new world from a new survival bunker. Or we could interpret it in the opposite manner, seeing it as a retreat into precisely the kind of escapist entertainment that have made us all unaware of the mounting dangers, ecological, economic, and political that threaten our world of family vacations and unlimited screen time. It cannot be overlooked that this particular act of closure has to do with not only watching television, but watching a television show that is nostalgia for a world before Airbnb rentals and even before the dissemination of screens, before an acceleration of the isolation of capitalist society. The show’s popularity with the generations that have grown up since it aired have as much to do with this nostalgia as they do with its ubiquity on streaming platforms. The object of this nostalgia is perhaps friendship itself. As Ruth says earlier in the film, “But as awful as people might be... nothing's gonna change the fact that we are all we've got.” Leaving the world behind is perhaps less a matter of defending one’s own than it is recognizing that it is precisely such a logic that destroyed it in the first place. Leaving the world behind is not a matter of giving up all connections to defend one’s own, but of finding new forms of solidarity, new connections.

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