Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings, is scheduled for release in September. The hardcover edition is available now for preorder from Edinburgh University Press, or in the US from Oxford University Press. You can use the code from the coupon below to get a $33 discount. The softcover edition will come out next year.
I have gained a great deal of mischievous glee from telling people that lately I have spent a lot of time reading Porno. Responses to my confession have ranged from amused laugher to uncomfortable embarrassment. Upon telling this to my sister-in-law, she awkwardly wondered if I meant that I had been studying scholarly commentary on pornography. “No,” I answered. “I’ve just been looking at page after page of Porno.”
Everyone seems relieved when I go on to explain that Porno is the title of Irvine Welsh’s nearly 500 page sequel to his book Trainspotting. This, apparently, makes things more respectable, though if they were familiar with the book’s content, they might still be prone to blush. Porno is filled with explicit scenes of drug use, violence and descriptions of just about every kind of sex act that you could imagine. If books required ratings, it would earn an NC-17.
Porno is the source material for the recently released movie T2: Trainspotting, although the actual similarities between book and film are very slim. Both pick up the story of Renton, Sick-Boy, Spud and Begbie after the events of Trainspotting, but whereas the film rejoins the characters about 20 years later, the book takes place about 10 years after Renton has ripped off his buddies. The film highlights Renton, the most likable of the characters, while the book focuses more attention on Sick-Boy, perhaps the least likeable of the crew, who now prefers to be called by his given name, Simon. And while in the book the plot is driven by Simon’s plan to make and market a porno movie, in the film it is his plan to open a brothel that is central. Overall, the film and book are more different than they are similar, with the film, I think, being the superior piece of work.
The main failing of Welsh’s novel lies in how scattered and disjointed its episodes are. It is not that the book is uninteresting or boring, but rather that there are too many threads that never get tied together or fully resolved. While in the film all of the various stories have a purpose and place in the overall plot, in the book many of these same story lines are initiated, but then go nowhere, getting dropped as if they were unimportant. And this is disappointing; particularly in the case of Spud, whose failed effort to write and publish a history of Leith is transformed in the film into a really fascinating subplot that reveals important aspects of Spud’s personality, Begbie’s personality, and even, perhaps, the personality of Irvine Welsh himself. In the film, Spud’s writing project is not a history of Leith at all, but appears to be the beginning of what will eventually become the book Trainspotting. In this it is suggested that it is Spud (and not Renton) who is Welsh’s real alter ego. In Porno, nothing comes of Spud’s writing, and this intriguing subplot just fizzles, as does the subplot having to do with Renton’s troubled relationship with his Dutch girlfriend, Begbie’s inner struggles with his masculinity, and Dianne’s struggle to complete her dissertation. The film does a better job of tying up the various story threads by eliminating the superfluous ones and more deeply developing and tying together the really interesting ones.
I do love the fact that Porno begins with a quote from Nietzsche: “Without cruelty there is no festival…” This gives us an initial philosophical articulation of Welsh’s literary strategy, which is to explore and celebrate his characters by following them through the gutter, taking cruel joy in describing their participation in acts of debased sex, substance abuse and senseless violence. It is all of these things that I want in a novel about my favorite Scottish hooligans. But now that they are in their 30’s, there is a danger that they might start to grow out of their old ways. Awareness of growing old is one of the major themes in Porno, but we soon find that despite the characters’ recognition that they are no longer kids, their general patterns of behavior have not really changed. Sick Boy is still a schemer, a drug addict and an exploiter of women. The only difference is that now he fancies himself an artist, who uses his charms to make “erotic” adult entertainment. Begbie, who has just been released from prison for manslaughter, is still a thug who thinks himself superior to heroin junkies, even though his addiction to violence is perhaps even more destructive than his friends’ substance abuse. Spud now has a son, but he still cannot break his drug habit, even though it is ruining everything. All of these characters have, in a sense, started to experience the challenges of adulthood (career, prison, fatherhood), but they seem not to have learned anything, and so they endlessly repeat their past mistakes in ways that are at once revolting and hilarious. And this is precisely why I feel personally drawn to their stories. I take perverse pleasure in laughing at them, while also sympathizing with their struggles and rooting for them to overcome their defects, even though I know that they won’t.
Renton is the most sympathetic of the group, and in both the book and the film he seems to be the only one who has matured to any degree at all. He has moved away from the UK, starting a career overseas, kicking heroin, embarking on a program of physical exercise and developing a concern for his health. It soon becomes clear, however, that even in his case, he can’t resist the temptation of being drawn back into the seedy world that he fled from. He once again becomes entangled in the schemes of Sick Boy, he can’t turn his back on the self-destructive Spud, and ultimately he can’t resist the urge once again to scam his pals out of money. All the while, he anxiously tries to avoid running into Begbie, who wants to murder him.
It is the absurdity of it all that is both so funny and disturbing. I, for one, sympathize with many of the anti-establishment sentiments of the central protagonists, and in reading Welsh’s book, I find a bit of myself reflected in the histrionics, the dramas, as well as in the proclamations and smug decrees made by the book’s characters. At the same time that I see hypocrisy in each of them, I’m reminded of the same hypocrisy in myself as well. For instance, Sick-Boy’s closing monologue, as he sits next to Begbie’s hospital bed, sent a shiver of self-recognition through me:
I believe in the class war. I believe in the battle of the sexes. I believe in my tribe. I believe in the righteous, intelligent clued-up section of the working classes against the brain-dead moronic masses as well as the mediocre, soulless bourgeoisie. I believe in punk rock. In Northern Soul. In acid house. In mod. In rock n roll. I also believe in pre-commercial righteous, rap and hip hop. That’s been my manifesto. (p. 483)
In reading this I tremble in self-serious accord; and then I am reminded that not only are the characters laughable, but so am I.
There are some of us who criticize the pointlessness of capitalism and of consumer culture while still participating in patterns of behavior that reinforce empty and meaningless excess, indulgence and consumption. “Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, cocaine, speed, poverty and media mind-fucking: capitalism’s weapons of destruction are more subtle and effective than Nazism’s and he’s powerless against them,” (p. 384) Renton says of Spud at one point. But he is really talking about himself and all of the rest of us who express antiestablishment sentiments while still participating in ways of life that are no less absurd than anyone else’s.
People are trapped, as Renton says, “consuming shite that does them no good at all, often just because they can.” (p. 408) The “shite” he is referring to could be drugs, porn, consumer products, poetry, literature, violence, movies, fame, power, a career, or a family. The absurd tragedy of it all is that even though nothing is all that important, you have to do something to fill up the time that you are alive. Heroin or fine wine? Porn or fine art? Punk rock or symphony orchestras? Anarchy or totalitarianism? Communism or Capitalism? The freedom to choose is endless.
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin? (Trainspotting, 1996)
In a world where the term “icon” is often thrown around too loosely, Romero is an artist to whom the designation truly fits. Best known for his cycle of “Dead” films – Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead, and Survival of the Dead – Romero established a new, modern zombie mythos that has had an enormous effect on contemporary pop culture.
Romero’s work extended beyond the zombie genre, however, including such films as There’s Always Vanilla, Knight Riders, Martin, and Monkey Shines. Whatever subject matter he worked with, Romero’s standpoint was always subversive. He had a contentious relationship with mainstream Hollywood, preferring to make most of his films independently. Regardless of whether he was working within or outside of the system, Romero always brought an outsider’s perspective to his movies; a perspective that was sympathetic to the oppressed and the marginalized. His films championed minorities, women and the disabled, placing them in central, heroic roles that allowed for the demonstration of their strength and potency, even if ultimately their stories ended in tragedy.
Although his films were always critical of racism and consumer culture, increasingly, toward the end of his career, Romero’s perspective became more and more cynical concerning humankind and the fate of the world. In films like Land of the Dead, he imagined a world in which the rich cruelly exploit and dominate the poor. Diary of the Dead ends with the narrator posing the question of whether or not humanity is worth saving at all, while in his final film, Survival of the Dead, Romero depicts an assortment of entirely despicable humans, stubbornly feuding and fighting with one another over nonsense. As he neared the end of his life, Romero’s outlook became progressively bleaker and more dark, with humankind, rather than undead zombies, playing the part of villains.
Night of the Living Dead played regularly on a local late-night program called Creature Features when I was a kid. It took me a few tries to work up the courage to watch the movie all the way through, but once I did, I was hooked. The world that Romero created in this film was intriguingly bleak and strange in comparison to most mainstream horror films. The African-American hero was strongly sympathetic, but ultimately flawed and misguided in many of the decisions that he made throughout the movie. The ending was depressing, offering no hope or redemption. There was no real explanation for the terrifying course of events depicted, and everyone that we were led to care about died in horrible ways. This was not Hollywood film making.
About 10 years later, in 1979, Romero made Dawn of the Dead, the follow up to Night of the Living Dead. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and I recall being so excited about the release of this film that by sheer force of will I overcame a fairly severe cold so that I would not be kept from going to the opening night screening, which took place at some sketchy movie theater in South San Francisco. Dawn of the Dead was released without an MPAA rating, a rebellious move on Romero’s part, motivated by his displeasure at initially being awarded an X rating for violence. His decision to release DOTD unrated meant that most mainstream theaters would not exhibit the film, almost assuring financial suicide. Nevertheless, against the odds, DOTD became both a financial and critical success. Romero’s mix of extreme gore and social commentary set an example that has been copied and developed (in both the movies and on TV) ever since. His success at releasing his film unrated also encouraged others to resist the taken for granted authority of the MPAA.
One of my prized possessions is a hand written letter I received from George Romero in response to a fan letter I sent him after I saw Dawn of the Dead for the first time. In it he answered my questions about the film, expressing a nihilistic sentiment that has stayed with me and influenced my own perspective over the years. In response to my curiosity about the cause of the zombie epidemic he replied, “…the cause doesn’t matter, since it is beyond the realm of human understanding anyway.” Quite right. We constantly try to master our world through the explanations offered by religion and science, but we often forget that the world as a whole far exceeds the power of human understanding. Our hubris always comes back to bite us, like the zombies in Romero’s movies.
I learned about Romero’s death when my wife and I were chatting with a friendly rockabilly clerk at the local supermarket. When he mentioned Romero’s passing, I was stunned, and I told our clerk that he had instantly ruined my day. After confirming that the report was true, I was overwhelmed with a mood of quiet melancholy that lasted the rest of the evening. My entire life has been lived during a time when Romero was also alive and actively making art. Now that he is gone it just reinforces the reality that a whole generation of cultural innovators is aging and moving toward death. In fact, my wife later informed me that Martin Landau also died on the same day as Romero.
Soon, they will all be gone.
Abel Ferrara’s 1979 movie Driller Killer is a notorious cult horror film, included on the “video nasties” list of banned films in the UK, and long available in the US on VHS and DVD only in an edited, incomplete version. Now, with the wonders of on- demand TV, Driller Killer (like so much hard-to-find entertainment) can be directly piped, uncut, right into your own home. Is this a sign of social progress, or yet another symptom of the decline of Western Civilization? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Having waited to see this movie for so long, I was concerned that it would turn out to be as tritely obnoxious and aesthetically worthless as some outraged critics have claimed. Instead, Driller Killer turns out to be an unusually complicated horror film that is both gruesome and psychologically interesting.
Set in 1970’s New York City, the aesthetic of Driller Killer is pure punk. The titles and credits have a homemade look, and the film opens with a typically punk rock message: “This film should be played loud.” Max’s Kansas City, the legendary New York punk club, is prominently featured as a location where a band called the Roosters (with Tony Coca-cola as the frontman) is central to the unfolding, gory events. Throughout the film, the main characters all exhibit that blank, vaguely confused, and periodically hostile way of acting typical of early east coast punk and new wave. The locations are all run-down, and the characters unglamorous.
The New York depicted in Driller Killer is not the affluent, touristy New York City of today. It is the New York of Taxi Driver and Maniac. It is the “old” New York sung about by Agnostic Front. It is the New York City that I recall from the early 1980’s when I visited my friend who was attending art school in Brooklyn. During that visit, I fondly remember seeing Killdozer perform at CBGB’s, and listening to local punk bands at some nameless warehouse before wandering back to my friend’s cockroach infested apartment, cutting through the terrifyingly dangerous streets of Bedford Stuyvesant. At night, there were garbage cans on fire, illuminating the dark streets. There was graffiti all over the subway trains. Hucksters and scam artists were on all the street corners. It felt as if everyone was out to exploit someone, somehow. It was a place much different from the New York City that I’ve visited in recent times, which feels more like a safely monitored amusement park than the gritty, dangerous metropolis that appears in Driller Killer.
Driller Killer tells the story of an artist named Reno Miller (played by Abel Ferrara, but credited as Jimmy Laine) who lives in a small New York apartment with two women, Carol Slaughter (Carolyn Marz) and Pamela (Baybi Day). While it appears that Reno and Carol have some sort of romantic connection, it is instead Carol and Pamela who are sexually intimate with one another. Reno, on the other hand, is depicted as virtually asexual, more interested in working on his paintings than he is in romance, music or socializing with others. In particular, he is obsessed with the completion of a painting of a buffalo, which he is convinced will make him rich and famous. However, his work on this painting is constantly interrupted by the Roosters, who practice in one of the adjoining apartments. Because of the constant punk rock music disturbing his concentration and sleep, Reno becomes progressively more and more unhinged, until he snaps and embarks on a killing spree with a power drill.
All of this makes Driller Killer sound like a piece of conventional exploitation. What lifts it above other, less interesting films of the genre, however, are the themes that Abel Ferrara weaves together as he explores the psychological disintegration of the main character.
The first of these themes has to do with homelessness. The opening scene has Reno being summoned to a church, where nuns have discovered a homeless man mutely sitting in the pews. In this man’s pocket is Reno’s contact information. But upon arrival, Reno has no knowledge of who this person is. When he tries to talk with the man, the homeless person grabs his hand, sending Reno into an unreasonable panic. The mystery of this scene is never fully resolved, but later in the movie we find that Reno is in the habit of hanging out with homeless people on the streets, sketching them and drinking with them. It seems that Abel Ferrara wants to suggest that this main character both identifies with the rootless isolation of the homeless at the same time that he is also repelled by this very same quality. In the homeless, he sees something of himself; something that he fears and wants to destroy. In fact, when he goes on his killing spree, his violence is largely directed toward familiar homeless people in his neighborhood rather than against the members of the noisy punk band who disturb his work or the apartment manager who threatens him with eviction.
The theme of passivity is connected to the images of homelessness. As mentioned above, Reno is depicted as virtually asexual. He is more concerned with his artwork than he is with his girlfriend, and this seems to be indicative of his own passive, impotent nature. As the only male member of his household, he is unable to pay the rent. In order to avoid eviction, Carol has to rely on alimony and other money that she borrows from her ex-husband, thus also relegating Reno to dependent status. Additionally, even though he is being driven crazy by the constant music that disturbs his work, Reno never has the courage to confront the band members, but instead befriends them and even agrees to paint a portrait of the lead singer, Tony Coca-cola. So although it is clear that Reno is an angry man, he is passively reliant on the people around him and unable to assert himself. At one point, Pamela naively says to Reno that he should let the gallery owner who is interested in his paintings “stick it up your ass,” further suggesting that Reno is by nature passive and submissive. This passivity is symbolized at one point by a skinned rabbit that his landlord gives to him, apparently aware that Reno is unable to provide food for the household. Like a rabbit, Reno is skittish and vulnerable – gutless – and he seems to become consciously aware of this vulnerability when he is alone with the wet, bloody, skinny body of the rodent. Instead of eating it, Reno begins to stab the rabbit in the head until it is broken and destroyed. This seems to be a foreshadowing of his attacks upon humans with his power drill.
Woven into all of this is the buffalo painting that consumes Reno’s attention. He is convinced that this painting will be his masterpiece, but he is unable to let it go, feeling as if it always needs more work, despite the fact that the gallery owner and Carol keep pestering him to finish it. There are points when Reno seems hostile toward the painting, as though he is intimidated by it. He threatens to stab it in the eye, but then apologizes to the painting, saying that he would never harm it. The buffalo appears as an image that is contrary to that of the rabbit. Whereas the rabbit represents Reno’s timidity and weakness, the buffalo represents his urge toward strength and aggression. He finds it difficult to let go of the painting precisely because he is unsure of his own powers, and as it turns out, he is correct to be hesitant. For when he does deliver the finished piece, the gallery owner is unimpressed, insulting the artist’s talents and telling him that his work has been in vain. He has lost his creative powers. The buffalo is a failure, and now Reno has nothing to hide behind. He is unable to conceal his impotence.
The use of a drill as a murder weapon clearly evokes phallic symbolism. As Reno stalks the gritty streets of New York, he attacks mostly homeless men, stabbing their torsos with his drill and occasionally also drilling them in their heads; just as he had stabbed the skinned rabbit in its head and as he had threatened to stab his buffalo painting in the eye. With this murder spree, Reno attempts to kill that rootless, vulnerable part of himself that he sees reflected in street people. The use of the drill is an exaggerated way to emphasize his own desperate desire to be a masculine, dominant, and potent male. Once his confidence in his own power is solidified by killing the vulnerable, he turns his murderous rage toward those who actually do possess the power to threaten his masculinity: the gallery owner and Carol’s ex-husband.
The gallery owner is the person Pamela had suggested Reno let screw him in the ass, and so by murdering him, Reno reasserts his own dominance. This murder results in a sort of crucifixion, as the body is pierced and held in place up against a door in a pose reminiscent of the dead Christ. This draws the audience’s minds back to the opening scene of the film, which takes place in a Catholic church; the place where Reno first panicked when grabbed by the homeless man. It also recalls an early scene – a foreshadowing this gruesome climax –in which Reno helps Pamela drill holes in this very same door frame.
The film ends when Carol leaves Reno, returning to her ex-husband. Reno follows her to the couple’s house and murders her ex-husband with his drill. He then waits for Carol beneath the sheets in the couple’s darkened bedroom. In the closing scene, unaware of Reno’s presence, Carol slips into bed, thinking that she is next to her ex-husband. Thus, Reno finally triumphs. He has taken back his girlfriend and presumably will now finally reassert his sexual virility.
I’m glad that when I finally did get to see Driller Killer, it was in its original, unedited version as intended by the director. I find it ironic that while in years past this movie was either banned or heavily censored, today I can watch the fully intact scenes of sex, violence and abjection at home, on demand, in the coziness of my own living room. The wonders of modern technology have preserved and made widely accessible this (and other) masterpiece(s) of low-budget, low-tech horror so that simply by turning on the television set, you or your children can freely view material previously considered obscene, vile and damaging to the moral health of film goers.
Information on Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings is now appearing on the Edinburgh University Press website. The publication date of the hardback edition is listed as September 2017.
In the US, Cinematic Nihilism will be distributed by Oxford University Press.
Exposing and illustrating how an ongoing engagement with nihilistic alienation may contribute to, rather than detract from, the value of life, Cinematic Nihilism both challenges and builds upon past scholarship that has scrutinised nihilism in the media, but which has generally over-emphasised its negative and destructive aspects. Through case studies of popular films, including Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, Dawn of the Deadand The Human Centipede, and with chapters on Scotland’s cinematic portrayal as both a site of ‘nihilistic sacrifice’ and as ‘nowhere in particular’, this book presents a necessary corrective, re-emphasising the constructive potential of cinematic nihilism and casting it as a phenomenon that need not be overcome.
I have submitted the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings to the publisher, Edinburgh University Press. It looks like the cover has already been posted on the Amazon UK website. The official release date is quite appropriate: Halloween, 2017.
In April, I’m looking forward to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where I’ll make a presentation to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor. My presentation, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” will address the ways in which nihilistic incongruity is implicated in both the humorous and the horrific aspects of films like Trainspotting and The Human Centipede.
Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a paper about spiritual homelessness and punk rock that will be part of a collection, edited by Juneko Robinson, tentatively titled Thinking Through Things. The collection focuses on the interconnection between artifacts and human thought.
The new year is off to a nihilistic start!
The third volume of The Directory of Wold Cinema: American Independent 3 is now available from Intellect Publishing. Edited by John Berra, this installment of the directory consists of a series of essays addressing the work of figures such as Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch, Dennis Hopper, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, Larry Cohen, Zalman King, and Ti West.