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.
Darren Ambrose begins Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief with a recollection of his first viewing of Star Wars at age ten. He describes the transformative effect that the film had on him, “stretching his imagination” and changing him forever. It is clear that Star Wars was more than just a movie for him; to his young mind it was akin to a religious event, revealing something new and magical about the world. It was an experience that showed him, in his own words, “the reality of a world filled with transformative potential” (p. 3). It is just this sort of experience, Ambrose argues, that demonstrates the capacity of cinema at its best to overcome modern nihilism and to reenchant human life.
I empathize with Ambrose’s experience, as I also recall, at approximately the same age, seeing Star Wars for the first time and feeling absolutely astounded by the spectacle. I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t want the movie to end, that I wanted the action and the space battles to go on forever. I had never seen anything quite like it before, and sitting there in the darkened movie theater I imagined that I had been transported to a new dimension of reality; one from which I did not want to return.
The thing is, the movie did end, and though I went back to see it again and again on repeated occasions, I always knew that the illusion of Star Wars was just that: an imaginary fantasy that bore little resemblance to the world in which I actually did live. So, while I share Ambrose’s fond memories of this movie, I don’t share his faith in the long-term transformative potential that it possesses. No film has the power to overcome nihilism. In fact, I believe that film, as a medium, is nihilistic to its core. However, I also believe that this is not such a bad thing.
The main line of argument that Ambrose pursues in Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief starts with the premise that film is a “material form of thought” (p. 6). Drawing on theorists such as Andre Bazin, Stanley Cavell, Noël Caroll, David Bordwell and Gilles Deleuze, Ambrose characterizes the elements that are a part of cinema – such as photography and editing – as reflections of the human thinking process itself. Just as humans look a their world, attribute cause and effect relationships to the things they see and draw inferences from the evidence, so too in movies we find the construction of narratives that reflect the modes of thinking, the assumptions and the expectations of film makers. Movies that exemplify conventional, orthodox narratives, Ambrose claims, serve to reinforce our entrenchment in modern nihilism by repeating the same old “common sense” assumptions about the world that audiences find comfortable. However, there are filmmakers like Michael Haneke, David Lynch and Werner Herzog who, according to Ambrose, successfully resist conventional thought, producing films that instruct us in new and unanticipated ways of conceptualizing reality. By viewing these materialized exemplars of “counter-sense” thinking, audiences can participate in something profound and new, giving them the opportunity to break free from the stultifying and shallow world of nihilism. This opens the path toward a renewed optimism about the existence of “hidden truths” and the possibility for a “re-enchantment” of our world. Ambrose’s main conclusion is that this sort of cinema reinvigorates faith, giving audiences hope that the future does not necessarily have to be a rehash of past forms and patterns. Contrary to what Nietzsche claims, Ambrose believes that we are not doomed to an eternal return of the same.
Just as I share Ambrose’s fond memories about seeing Star Wars for the first time, I also share his impatience with conventional movie-making and story lines. I am in complete agreement that film makers like the ones he admires should be applauded and appreciated for their bold and creative willingness to break with conventionality, to try something new and to offer unusual and interesting visions of our world. My own favorite film makers – George Romero, David Cronenberg, Lars Von Trier, Darren Aronofsky – likewise have created films that defy convention, that criticize standard patterns of thought and that offer new ways of being for our consideration. These are precisely the sorts of movies that I like to watch, and the older I get, the less time I have for boring, mainstream films that simply reiterate what has already been said. I, like Ambrose, want something new, exciting and challenging from the films I watch.
However, unlike Ambrose, I’m not an optimist when it comes to the power of film to overcome nihilism. Nihilism, as I see it, is a permanent part of the human experience. It describes the situation that all humans find themselves in as they struggle and strive toward superlative goals. It is the condition of separation from our highest ideals. Perfection is lacking in our world, and though we wish things were different, it will never be so. But while nihilism creates a gap between the real and the ideal, this is a situation that is not unequivocally negative. It is both frustrating and hopeful, since it entails that while we must constantly fail to achieve our highest aspirations, we also always have more to do and work toward. This is the point that Nietzsche was getting at when he made the distinction between passive and active nihilism. The passive nihilist simply retreats from life and despairs. The active nihilist, on the contrary, vigorously – but vainly – struggles to fill the gap separating him from perfection. I see my favorite film makers as nihilists in the best sense: active nihilists who enrich our world with their creations. None of them have solved the problems of human existence, but they have nonetheless done something positive by engaging in the creation of art.
The biggest flaw in Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief is the author’s inadequate treatment of the key concept of nihilism itself. Ambrose never gives a satisfactory account of just what nihilism is, other than hastily equating it with “pessimism,” “despair,” “hopelessness,” and “scepticism.” In fact, nihilism is not simply the same as these negative, psychological responses. It is a much more complicated, multi-layered phenomenon involving human alienation and separation from superlative ideals. At points, Ambrose acknowledges that there is more than simply a psychological level to nihilism. But he never fully clarifies, defines or wrestles with the phenomenon. Consequently he falls into a pattern that is common to much of the literature on the subject, arguing that nihilism is self evidently bad, and that therefore it obviously needs to be overcome. This is a bit ironic in a book whose main message is that we need to open up of new ways of thinking.
By giving such scant attention to the concept of nihilism, Ambrose passes over a number of potentially interesting ways that his own argument could be expanded and deepened. For instance, I found myself becoming quite intrigued by the ideas put forth in “Chapter One: Cinema, Realism and Naturalism.” It is here that the author discusses some influential theories of cinema, emphasizing the optimistic hope that film has the power to bring us into close contact with the objective world. This would be a perfect place to discuss the problem of nihilistic separation, going back to Immanuel Kant’s distinction between noumenal and the phenomenal realities; a distinction which provoked the very first accusations of nihilism from authors such as Heinrich von Kleist. Kant’s philosophy of Transcendental Idealism held that we never know the world as it is “in-itself,” but only through the mediation of interpretive categories of the mind. Because the mind always intervenes, we can only experience a world of subjective phenomena, while the objective world – the noumena – is forever outside of our grasp. If film was conceived as a way to bridge the gap between the objective and subjective worlds, then it may very well be a potential solution to Kant’s ontological nihilism. And yet, the question still remains as to how film could possibly accomplish this task. Doesn’t the camera itself (or perhaps the images produced by the camera) still intervene between our minds and the objective world, once again creating a nihilistic separation between the perceiver and the perceived?
It seems to me that filmic representations must always stand apart from the “thing-in-itself” and are thus, by their very nature, unable to overcome the gap of nothingness that separates us from objective reality. Film is not powerful enough to overcome nihilistic separation, although it is powerful enough to offer interesting and creative interpretations of reality. And it can offer an infinite variety of these interpretations. I think that Ambrose appreciates this power, but he does not recognize that this is, in fact, an expression of nihilism itself. Film is nihilistic; but this is not necessarily a bad thing. If Ambrose devoted more attention to exploring the nature of nihilism, I have a feeling he might have come to the same conclusion.
Despite an inadequate treatment of the central concept of nihilism, there is much that is useful in Ambrose’s book. His clear, concise discussion of film theory offers a nice overview of the field, and his analysis of the works of David Lynch and Werner Herzog is quite well done, offering some unique and thought provoking insights into the relationship between reality and representation. Additionally, I admire Ambrose’s clear writing and his ability to summarize and explain some very complicated theories. His book is worth reading for these features alone.
Ambrose, in the opening pages of Film, Nihilism and the Restoration of Belief, offers his childhood experience watching Star Wars as evidence that film is capable of producing a lasting transformation in a person’s being. My own experience tells me that such transformations are neither final nor that long lasting. What I do think films can offer is an ongoing and endless stream of interpretations and visions of reality, none of which are perfect or true, but all of which add to our understanding of what it means to be human in a world that constantly slips from our grasp.