Friday, May 25, 2012

Pop Culture as Allegory in the Films of Giorgos Lanthimos

As has been widely reported and well documented, Greece’s economy experienced a collapse in 2010 after years of unpaid debts and rising inflation eventually became too much to bear. Indeed, in 2000, almost a decade prior, Greece was allowed to join the European Union, converting to the Euro, a move that many economists believe only exacerbated Greece’s debts, when the move was originally thought to help erase them.[1] In fact, “there were suspicions at the time that Greece was operating a "limbo dance" – squeezing its figures to hit the stringent euro criteria…indeed many believe Greece simply lied about its figures to gain entry.”[2] In effect, aspirations of integration and the self-stripping of economic autonomy and/or cultural identity led to bankruptcy and disintegration, the severity of which has yet to be resolved, as pundits and analysts continually debate whether or not Greece should withdraw from the Euro.[3]

It is the intention of this essay to evaluate Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2012), with these issues in mind, and draw parallels between the EU and Hollywood, in terms of Global dominance, inescapable influence, and a loss of identity via the mimetic impulse. These are the two most recent films from Giorgos Lanthimos, one of Greece’s most prominent, contemporary filmmakers, even though he only has three films under his belt.[4] Though neither film outwardly discusses or even seems to be concerned with the real-word economic woes in Greece, Lanthimos uses the guise of pop cultural discussion, with its Greek characters immersed-in and learning from American culture for their primary means of expression, as a way to align Global Capitalism with what Fredric Jameson and Masao Miyoshi have termed “The Cultures of Globalization.”[5] In a sense, though finance and capital barely factor into Lanthimos’s films, on a textual level, the subtext emerges, as does a consistent, rigid, and clinical mise-en-scene that implicitly denigrates conventional logic, the sort of rational cognition that leads to Global Capitalism (the erasure of sovereignty, the emergence of cultural totalitarianism). Ultimately, Lanthimos seeks to venture away from this sort of cultural (and thus narrative) logic and more towards a “logic of sensation,” to borrow a term from Deleuze – it is my intention to argue that it is not individual scenes, themselves, that evoke sensation in the work of Lanthimos, but the films as a whole. Thus, it will be difficult to point to individual scenes that engage sensation, because Lanthimos’s style is clinical, detached. At least – it appears this way outwardly. Inwardly, the projection is filled with sensation, affect, and echoes Deleuze’s claim that:

There are no longer grounds for talking about a real or possible extension capable of constituting an external world: we have ceased to believe in it and the image is cut off from the external world. But the internalization or integration of self-awareness in a whole…has no less disappeared…the relinkage takes place through parceling…this is why thought, as power which has not always existed, is born from an outside more distant than any external world, and, as power which does not yet exist, confronts an inside, an unthinkable or unthought, deeper than any internal world.[6]

The use of Deleuze here is an attempt to link the internal world of Lanthimos’ films and their refusal to simply adhere to one “meaning,” to a larger, cognitive sensation of meaning that does indeed find distinct parallels in the external world. Deleuze is correct in positing an internalization of self-awareness, but his suggestion that it has become incapable to constitute an external world is disproven by Lanthimos’ auto-dialectic, which does not ascribe particular sensational meaning to individual scenes, themselves, but employs enough recurring themes, images, and technique to achieve a collective sensation that eventually forms a coherent synthesis of the dialectical and the sensorial.[7]

Thus, these qualities are not readily identifiable in either film, though a consistency exists that directly points to such implicit analysis/formal rigidity. Dogtooth is, in many ways, about the construction of identity via cultural forms. On a very basic narrative level, the film concerns a family of five, secluded away from the rest of society. The Father (Christos Stergioglou) manages a factory of some sort, while the Mother (Michele Valley) stays at home with their three, adult children, a Son (Hristos Passalis), an Older Daughter (Aggeliki Papoulia) and a Younger Daughter (Mary Tsoni), all of whom have no knowledge of an outside world, other than the altered, redacted stories they hear from their parents. They learn new words every day, but with changed meanings, as to erase any concept of movement or migration from their minds. In a very Kubrickian manner, the framing of characters operates under the internal logic of the film, itself: stable, observant, and devoid of attempts to heighten the emotion/content of the scene by a negation of conventional filmmaking/continuity editing. Often, characters heads will be just out of frame when talking, or some other sort of metonymic device is used to unsettle a screen-space that is all about uniformity and stability. The unsettling effect comes not through quick editing or canted angles; in fact, much of the film is shot in long takes and with little movement. Nevertheless, the effect is highly contrapuntal and serves as auto-critique of a fascistic, patriarchal construction of society. The content is so absurd that the clinical observance of it creates the film’s heavily ironic, comedic undertones.

These qualities are fairly obvious and, not surprisingly, the ones most critics have latched onto. What has been less discussed in Dogtooth is how innocence becomes disrupted via the infiltration of technology and outside cultural construction. Certainly, the sexual “lessons” taught by Christina (Anna Kalaitzidou), a worker from the Father’s factory used as a prostitute for his Son, to the Older Daughter, such as erogenous zones and cunnilingus, serve as a conventional starting point for the deterioration of the heavily ordered, ritualized space. Nevertheless, as the sex becomes a means of exchange, often trading sexual favors for something trivial like a headband, it ultimately is something not so trivial:  a VHS tape. The sex (although influential) is not what ultimately drives the Older Daughter’s decision to flee the domestic space (the children are told they may leave when the “Dogtooth” falls out, an event which obviously, will never naturally occur); it is her mimetic desire, her capacity for imitation, after viewing pop cultural heavies like Jaws, Rocky, Flashdance, and Enter the Dragon that drives her towards rebellion. We might say she finds her “double bind,” what René Girard calls “a contradictory double imperative, or rather a whole network of contradictory imperatives…it is so common that it might be said to form the basis of all human relationships.”[8] The desire to be self-sufficient, but to also imitate (or, perhaps better stated) and play “follow-the-leader.” In Dogtooth, the leader is not ultimately the most literal form of patriarchy (Father), but the figurative presence of Cultural hegemony via pop art (films), that, devoid of context, provide the Oldest Daughter with nothing to do but carry out empty mimesis – in other terms, not only what contemporary Hollywood cinema is often denigrated for engaging in, but also, in more specific terms as related to Greece, their imitative double-bind of belonging to the EU, at all costs, including their own disintegration.

Some will likely find the claim that the integration of popular Hollywood films from the late-1970’s through early 1980’s can hardly be seen as a means for bridging a gap as allegory for Greece’s current financial crisis. These worries would be reductive in-and-of themselves, however, since the intent is not to simply posit their presence as directly correlative, but more an intimation towards these underlying political and financial problems, which align nicely with contemporary Hollywood’s ethos of imitation over context and product over sensation or emotion. Were Dogtooth an isolated incident, one might be inclined to write these similarities off, as incidental. However, in Alps, Lanthimos takes this relatively tangential facet of Dogtooth and brings it to the fore. Essentially, Alps involves a quartet of amateur actors who decide to begin a business: they will act as replacements for deceased loved ones, “auditioning” and hiring themselves out for live, often-reenacted moments from the past. For instance, Aggeliki Papoiulia plays a hospital worker who fills-in for a young female tennis player killed in a traffic accident. Rather than interacting with the parents for “new” experiences, they request that she look, dress, and act like their daughter in scenarios past; for instance, as if she just finished a tennis match or, later on, being caught getting a little too close with her boyfriend. The hospital worker (no character name) eventually begins to confuse reality (original) from fantasy (imitation), and the film, itself, begins to blur the lines between actual living and performance, again driving towards the double bind that comes to define Lanthimos’s previous film.

Like Dogtooth, there is a key patriarchal figure in Alps, who dons himself “Mont Blanc,” because, “it is the biggest of all mountains.” Monikers and linguistic exchange/confusion play a significant role in both films, especially in the latter’s concern with pop cultural influence. The film’s recurring joke is that people, of any sort, are often defined by their favorite actors or musicians. Riding in the back of an ambulance with a dieing girl, Mont Blanc squeezes her hand: “Who is your favorite actor? Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp…what, not Johnny Depp?” Likewise, another deceased person is said to have been “a big fan of Morgan Freeman. He saw every single one of his films.” Characters openly and often discuss their favorite pop cultural figures as if it were akin to personal experience: in Alps, it is the most essential question anyone can be asked.

In many respects, the integration of pop cultural discussions into feature films has existed for decades. Tracing back to American films like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992), and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), directors began to define not just their own parameters through influence, but their character identities through pop cultural savvy, often in discussing the meaning of specific films and songs, rather than the contents of their own personal lives and themselves.[9] Indeed, one might say these films prompted an excessive obsession and immersion with the past for the past decade: "Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening all at once: a simultaneity of pop time that abolishes history while nibbling away at the present's own sense of itself as an era with a distinct identity and feel."[10] Moreover, in the ninth annual “State of Cinema” address given at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, author Jonathan Lethem detailed what he calls recent “ecstasies of influence” in cinema, where B-movie ethos can often burrow their way into the subconscious of contemporary popular culture. He notices a recent trend in filmmakers emphasizing a performative nature in the art form, itself, and that their characters are often trapped between personalities, uncertain of what or who they really are.[11] Alps, in particular, embodies exactly what Lethem is talking about, detaching its characters from any singular identity – more a multiplicity, but none that are particularly genuine, honest, or, perhaps worst of all, satisfactory. Moreover, it’s particularly noteworthy that in many of the American films interested in pop cultural influence, characters are often discussing American figures. In Dogtooth and Alps, every single influential figure is American – never is a single Greek or, even, European influence noted amongst the characters. Such an inclusion (or exclusion, as it were), speaks to the crux of Lanthimos’s imitative, mimetic crisis, where not only is identity being constructed outside of the self, but it’s coming from another cultural referent entirely – the pop cultural equivalent of the EU, if you will: Hollywood. That Lanthimos refuses to give nearly any of his characters names (unless they are self-ascribed monikers) further solidifies his aims at revealing identity crisis.

Lanthimos intimates these absences not only through pop culture interests as the primary identity for a person’s lived life, but also through more subtle inclusions within the diegesis. Sticking to Alps, Mont Blanc drinks from a coffee mug that reads “Los Angeles,” a further suggestion of the film’s implicit critique of, shall we say, the Hollywood Industrial Complex. Naturally, the mug becomes a source of trauma later in the film. In another instance, while sitting in for the killed tennis player, the nurse asks the boyfriend: ‘I saw this film. It is about a cop who is going to retire, but on his last day, he must go on one final assignment.” The boy responds, dryly: “I think I’ve seen that one.” The irony of this exchange seemingly defines Lanthimos’s attitudes on performance and repetition. Being the premise for likely hundreds of films, the bland description of plot and meaning could in no way determine the film being discussed – implicitly, Lanthimos is asking us to remember Roger Ebert’s old adage: “It’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about it.” What masks and troubles Lanthimos’s films so vividly is the sense that neither the what or how can be readily identified. The referents are lost, not just for characters, but for everything – form and content, with Lanthimos’s, always seem in medias res, having no sense of a beginning and, ultimately, little sense of an end.

When asked to describe how he came up with the idea for Dogtooth, Lanthimos responded: “[My] original inspiration was almost science-fiction…it’s a thought about the future. What if there were no more families anymore? Do we actually need them?”[12] By questioning the family unit and larger super-structures, his films get to many contemporary issues of identity crisis, be they financial, individual personality, or cultural. To conclude, in February 2010, it was widely reported that Goldman Sachs, the now infamous American investment firm, helped mask Greece’s debt in order to increase profits on a (legal) derivatives deal.[13] Taking into account both Lanthimos films, as a whole, the broad, sometimes surreal and murky strokes of “meaning” are juxtaposed to instances of minutia that lack affect or sensation, but retain an empty specificity. Indeed, Lanthimos might be offering his characters’ (and his country’s) posterior mask – the intrusion of American capital and culture at the expense of comprehensive autonomy.

[1] Harry Wallop, “Greece: Why Did It’s Economy Fall So Hard?” The Telegraph, April 28, 2010, accessed May 20, 2012.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Gary Becker and Richard Posner, “Should Greece Exit the Euro Zone?” The Becker-Posner Blog, May 20, 2012, accessed May 21, 2012.
[4] His first feature, Kinetta (2005) screened at festivals like Berlinale, but never had a North American release. His second film, Dogtooth, was the first Greek film since Iphigenia (Michael Cacoyannis, 1977) to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It, unsurprisingly, did not win.
[5] Fredric Jameson & Masao Miyoshi, The Cultures of Globalization  (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998).
[6] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 277-8.
[7] For further discussion on this matter, the link between cognition and sensation, there is no greater book than: Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York, Putnam, 1994).
[8] René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 156.
[9] The lineage can certainly be traced back further, to Godard and Fellini, but the above examples are the most notable from an emerging Hollywood obsession with the past, not just with directors, but actual characters in the films, as well.
[10] Simon Reynolds. Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. (New York: Faber and Faber, 2011), x-xi.
[11] Jonathan Lethem, “Jonathan Lethem’s State of Cinema Address at San Francisco Int’l Film Festival,” Indirewire, April 26, 2012, accessed May 23, 2012.
[12] Larry Rother: “Dogtooth: No Indifference Allowed,” The New York Times, February 4, 2011, accessed May 20, 2012.
[13] Beat Balzli, “How Goldman Sachs Helped Greece to Mask it’s True Debt,” Spiegel Online International. February 8, 2010, accessed May 20, 2012.

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