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The Future is Unwritten: Mark Asch on 2023 in Film

Two white men in cowboy hats stand next to each other. The one on the right holds a rifle.Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in Killers of the Flower Moon (courtesy of Apple TV+)

in Issues, Reflections
on Dec 15, 2023

For what, and for whom, do workers work? One way to conceptualize the 2023 writers’ and actors’ strikes is as a fight for the right to refuse the demands of shareholder capitalists maximizing return on investment and tech-world futurists devising new forms of extraction, notably via a disrupted exhibition environment that siphons away profits once reserved for residuals and AI that treats words and likenesses as royalty-free intellectual property.

As I embark on this year-in-review exercise, I am also conscious of the past few months of policed speech—on campuses, within political parties, at newspapers and in the film world. At IDFA, more than a dozen filmmakers withdrew after festival leadership condemned pro-Palestinian protesters. The International Short Film Festival Oberhausen canceled a program whose curators signed a letter questioning the festival director’s use of an official social media account to refer to residents of Berlin’s heavily Arab Neukölln neighborhood as “Hamas friends and Jew haters.” At the Scottish BAFTA awards, award winners’ and presenters’ calls for a ceasefire in Gaza were edited out of the rebroadcast available to stream on BBC iPlayer. American talent agencies and production companies have dropped and fired actors who are open about their anti-Zionist convictions. I am, specifically, conscious of the revealed tension between the scope of political expression permitted by many institutions and the actual aspirations of writers and artists, to say nothing of the people in the streets. 

That a single entity, Penske Media, owns both Hollywood trade publications that laundered studio talking points throughout the strikes and Artforum, whose editor-in-chief was fired for publishing a pro-ceasefire open letter by artists—which offended the political sensibilities of collectors who own their work and gallerists who market it—points to a widening gulf between the preferences of the workers on whose labor the art world runs and the investor class that profits most handsomely from its running. It also underscores the role of the discourse industry, meaning art and the spaces made for it, in scripting our range of possible futures.

Addressing the film world directly and content creation more generally, Radu Jude gives us a single day in the life of a Bucharest gig worker in Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World. Angela is a production assistant interviewing workers injured while employed by an Austrian company, auditioning them for a workplace safety video that will shift blame from the system to the individual. The power of employers over their employees is reified in meaning-making media. Even Angela’s ringtone, a tinny version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”—the EU anthem, extracted from his ninth symphony—is neoliberal propaganda at the intersection of art and technology. Jude’s film engorges itself on the newest tools and techniques for exploitation: algorithm-gaming branding and face filters, outsourcing and Zoom meetings, an ugly binge as protest at the ugliness of Angela’s life. (In a similar act of culture-jamming, Eduardo Williams made The Human Surge 3 by using a 360-degree camera and VR headset the wrong way, to shoot and edit images that looked distorted projected onto a 2D screen, infecting new technology with the taint of vaporware before it could achieve mass market penetration.) The privations of the Ceaușescu years are revealed in forensic freeze-frames from a 1981 film’s street scenes: Scant glimpses of breadlines are like grains of dissent embedded in moving images—once you grab the remote and slow them down enough to see clearly.

Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast likewise plays find-the-lady within a mass of audiovisual misdirection. Across three timelines, its narrative is as overstuffed as your browser window when you try to read an article on a website that’s been acquired by a hedge fund and drowned in pop-up ads. But X out of all the windows promoting themed club nights and antiwoke content creators and you’ll find a simple story about how the real beast is the love we lost along the way. Like Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, the villain in The Beast is an AI, one that in the film’s 2044 has relegated the majority of humanity to service work (as 2023 AI already does: Thousands of low-wage workers worldwide tag the data sets it trains on). It subjects Léa Seydoux’s Gabrielle to a dehumanizing past-life regression designed to purge the trauma of her previous existences, afflicting her with an emotional amnesia meant to render her fit for a modern labor market filled with the kind of mass-produced blank-faced dolls that recur across the film’s timelines.

Poor Things is also about a living doll, a corpse with an undeveloped brain implanted in her head prior to her reanimation by a character named Godwin and thus called “God.” Just as the designers of AI chatbots fear or hope their creations might, Emma Stone’s Bella develops feelings and consciousness; her character arc parallels the evolution of a large language model, as she speaks first in grunts but rapidly evolves her own pidgin grammar, develops a growing vocabulary marked for a period by gratuitous repetition of synonyms, and finally adopts a sophisticated speech pattern and makes nuanced judgments as her soul is trained on the variety of the world. By film’s end, she supplants God himself, fulfilling the prophesies of AI evangelists and the fears of AI doomsayers like Tom Cruise and the members of the WGA. Barbie, another picaresque journey of an artificial life form who becomes sentient and questioning, tested the limits of self-awareness achievable by a filmmaker working under corporate guardianship. In Poor Things, the chatbot’s self-improvement is in defiance of her instrumentalization by the many men who use her. She even tries to unionize her brothel—an intervention beyond Sofia Coppola’s placid Priscilla Presley, also doll-like in her helmet hair, her glued-on eyelashes, her perfect stillness at home in Graceland, who only springs to life under the gaze of her owner. Priscilla, like other films this year on the subject of grooming, concerns the appropriation of another person’s agency.

I don’t intend to be glib when I observe that “manufacturing consent” is an apt description of interpersonal as well as institutional manipulation and abuse of power. So, if Killers of the Flower Moon is the major film I suspect it is, it is so because it is about violation both at an intimate as well as an historical scale, like Chinatown. (“The future, Mr. Gittes! The future!”) Also like Chinatown, Killers of the Flower Moon is about natural resources and inheritance, genetic and otherwise: King Hale’s marriage-and-murder scheme is a plot to disappear Osage oil and bloodlines in the American mainstream. Such assimilation is also Ernest Burkhart’s wish. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ernest as a joiner, with the dumb smile and nervous laugh of an awkward loser willing to be the butt of the joke as the cost of sitting at the popular table. Eager to prove himself a good worker, he, hardly less than Mollie, the Osage woman who allows herself to love a white man, defers to authority and is ill-used by it. Ernest Burkhart has a choice—but with the film’s ending showing how the Osage murders are explained away by new-media mythmaking, Martin Scorsese reminds his audience how easy it is to let a national storytelling apparatus do our moral imagining for us. 

Hedwig Höss, The Zone of Interest’s “Queen of Auschwitz,” doesn’t have a moral imagination at all; her portrayer, Sandra Hüller, has said in interviews that she lent nothing of her interiority to a character unable or unwilling to grasp the depth of her own evil. The Zone of Interest is among several films of the year about, effectively, killing machines, in which the supposed virtue of professionalism, echoed in the technical virtuosity of their execution, stands in for a foresworn introspection. Another film about a contract killer, Oppenheimer, concerns a Great Man of History who discovers himself to be not a STEM visionary, but what football fans call a “system QB,” less a playmaker than a functionary fulfilling someone else’s gameplan.

Both the Auschwitz of The Zone of Interest and the Los Alamos of Oppenheimer are, in their way, Fordist workplaces, where a civilization’s most fearsome industrial capacity is broken down into compartmentalized tasks. In Ferrari, a film actually about an automobile manufacturer, Michael Mann, who crossed a picket line during postproduction, identifies with the boss, who in this telling maintains his independence and produces a high-quality product despite logistical and technical challenges and financing troubles. Enzo Ferrari lines up his cars and their drivers for the media like a director leading his cast through a red-carpet photo call and makes sure photographers snap his logo, an authorial thumbprint lest anyone think that drivers design the car or actors write their own dialogue. Less mindfully than Killers of the Flower Moon, Ferrari still depicts the consequences of our dependence on fossil fuels. Just as Ferrari sells luxury cars to foreign royalty, Mann completed his dream project with help from Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Foundation. 

For Ferrari’s drivers, racing his cars is at least a more glamorous hours-long slog than Angela’s day behind the wheel in Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World—a narrative inspired by a real-life overworked p.a. who died after falling asleep at the wheel. The Delinquents, in which two bank tellers rob their employer of money to compensate for the theft of their time, is one of several films this year to posit work as a slower kind of death, and to forge new reward pathways outside transactional logic. In Showing Up, Kelly Reichardt gives us an artist carving out time outside the demands of her job to make art for its own sake, while at the climax of Alice Rohrwacher’s tomb-raider fable La Chimera, a priceless artifact is forcibly ejected from the art market before it can be priced. In Fallen Leaves, Aki Kaurismäki’s proletariats once again find meaning outside zero-hours contracts and the radios and televisions that tempt us to stay home alone. It’s the same film he’s been making for decades, but that’s because we have yet to devise a pleasure purer than clocking out and heading to the kind of bar where his characters converge in soulful silence. The minimal dialogue and unaffected performances in Kaurismäki films give his characters’ actions an arbitrary, improvisational quality, fitting for their instinctive rejection of the lives offered them—which is also an affirmation of their collective self-sufficiency. There is a kind of creativity in this way of living, which we may as well call an art.

Happy new year, in love and solidarity.

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