The Insourcing of Despair
What do we mean when we talk of film and compression? Utilised to explain compacted files in computing, and also a term in finance under the rubric notional compression, its validity may also extend to a certain emotional-psychic state, a human compression where a self isn't made out of a progressive existential movement based on choice, but one instead increasingly made out of feeling squeezed by non-choices. It is a way of looking at our present condition: that we are no longer chiefly in the age of repression (evident in Victorian values, Colonialism and explored so well by Freud), oppression (be it the Communist gulags or the Nazi death camps), or depression (so evident in what was called in the nineties Prozac Nation, after Elizabeth Wurtzel's book). This doesn't mean that any of these have gone away: people will continue to be repressed, oppressed, and depressed. But perhaps we have something relatively new in compression. If people talk so often about thinking outside the box, it is possible that it comes with an awareness that much of our lives take place in ticking boxes and feeling boxed in.
Our purpose isn't to make any grander a claim than the evidence we find in a handful of films we will be investigating. What should be clear though is that this isn't just a Western malaise. When Prozac Nation was published in the nineties it was seen as far from an international book, evident in its very title. John Harris noted "I was 25 when I first read Prozac Nation. I was impressed not only by Wurtzel's strident prose, but by her placing of our generation's woes in the context of both the aftershocks of the 1960s, and the fact that we had bumbled through our teenage years in the hard-bitten Reagan-Thatcher era." (Guardian) He also observed the many comparisons the book received with one published long before it: Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. Clearly, depression has been around for a long time; in Prozac Nation, the drugs had changed but the malaise remained. However, it was seen chiefly as a Western problem.
But compression is something else, and perhaps not even a medical condition at all but a product of our political reality, a discursive demand that takes further Freudian notions of the superego and Althusser's ideas of the Ideological State Apparatus. In Freud's formulation, the superego regulates the ego and allows it to become conscience. The sort of modest punishment we receive as children that asks us to act well rather than badly allows an external authority to become internalised. "If one has carried out this renunciation, one is, as it were, quits with the authority and no sense of guilt should remain" Freud says. If we had to be punished every time we made a mistake, we would never 'grow up', would never accept authority, but equally if one were to exaggerate the punishment, feel endlessly guilty for whatever our youthful past deeds, this would create arrested development. In such an instance, instead of learning from authority and moving on, the person exaggerates both the authority figure and the punishment, as the person fails to develop a healthy conscience. "After that comes the erection of an internal authority, and renunciation of instinct owing to fear of it owing to fear of conscience. In this second situation bad intentions are equated with bad actions, and hence comes a sense of guilt and a need for punishment." (Civilization and its Discontents) Ideally, you want the person to accept the punishment and accept that they shouldn't do a bad thing again. If the person keeps doing it and continues to be punished, little is learned; however, someone who accepts the punishment and cannot stop feeling guilty about it hasn't developed either.
But to understand the compressive mind, we might think too of Louis Althusser's neo-Marxism, where there are both repressive and ideological state apparatuses. While the former are clear enough (police, prison etc), the latter can be more nebulous: schools, churches and so on. However, while the repressive ones may continue functioning without much equivocation, no matter Foucault's Discipline and Punish, where he noted the increased internalisation of authority through the Panoptican eye that can survey without the prisoner knowing for sure if they are being watched, what constitutes an ideological apparatus? It is one thing to seek regulating principles that mean authority is internalised, but while self-monitoring is necessary in a functioning modern society, at what point does it become just another oppressive device? We can think here of the well-known story of the child expected to visit their grandmother. The child doesn't want to go but the parents insist that they don't care how the child feels, they are going whether the child likes it or not. The more apparently considerate and free-thinking parent says that how can the child not wish to visit the grandmother who so loves them; imagine how grandmother would feel if she knew they weren't keen to go? As Slavoj Zizek says, "every child who is not stupid (and as a rule they are definitely not stupid) will immediately recognize the trap of this permissive attitude: beneath the appearance of a free choice there is an even more oppressive demand than the one formulated by the traditional authoritarian father, namely an implicit injunction not only to visit the grandmother, but to do it voluntarily, out of the child's own free will." Such a false free choice," Zizek says, "is the obscene superego injunction: it deprives the child even of his inner freedom, ordering him not only what to do, but what to want to do." (Lacan.com)
To get people to do what they don't want to do for their own good can be the height of liberal democracy or the depth of capitalist manipulation. Think how often companies increasingly get the customer to share data that becomes part of the algorithmic feed to sell the customer further products? From one perspective this is giving you more of what you want; from another, it is manipulating you into potentially making purchases and choices you may only think you want. The documentary The Social Dilemma makes much of the well-known phrase that if you aren't paying, you are the product: a tech variation of the even better-known capitalist maxim that there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Perhaps central to compression is that it becomes very hard to know whether what one is doing happens to be in one's interest or contrary to it. When the prisoner is incarcerated, it doesn't matter whether it is good for them to be locked up. The point is that it is good for society. Yet many other instances are more finessed, which is partly why we have invoked Freud's superego and more especially Althusser's distinction between the repressive and the ideological state. Vital to our notion of compression in film will rest on this latter aspect seen through the prism of Zizek's Lacanian anecdote. From a certain perspective many of the films we will discuss deal with the state and society as there for the general good, showing advanced or advancing nations ostensibly showing the gains made generally while attending to the individual lives that are specifically less than wonderful. As we look at films from Sweden, Romania, Iran, France, Argentina, China, Austria and Ukraine, we can see that what is often presented as a societal gain, with GDP improving, standards of living rising, and jobs becoming apparently less arduous, is a personal defeat: a defeat of the individual for the sake of an abstract generality.
Yet this needn't have anything to do with Communism, which can often be explained with the repressive we have already invoked but is often offered in a manner that suggests the sacrifices made are for one's own good. When the Bank of England proposes that workers shouldn't chase pay-rises despite high inflation, it is presented as an axiom: that this is self-evidently a bad thing for people to do with Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey saying, "I'm not saying nobody gets a pay rise, don't get me wrong. But what I am saying is, we do need to see restraint in pay bargaining, otherwise it will get out of control." (Guardian) Our purpose isn't to discuss politics and policies in this piece, but Bailey's statement can resemble a little Zizek's anecdote: that workers should reflect on their selfishness, just as the grandson should think and reflect on how his grandmother would feel if she thought he wished not to visit her. The person internalises a need as if it were a greed and they make sacrifices for the good of the economy. The individual accepts their predicament and even accepts their position as though they were grown-ups making it.
But this is why so many thinkers of the post-war years have concerned themselves with what Marx would call the superstructure: the societal strata of ideas that can be distinguished from the economic base and it is this superstructure Althusser is invoking when he then goes on to differentiate two aspects of it: the ideological from the repressive. If you want compliant people who think they aren't oppressed, best to make sure that the system factors in this possibility. As Noam Chomsky says: "the mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda." (Manufacturing Consent) Newspapers are unlikely to be owned by billionaires because they are benevolent, and advertisers aren't telling us about various products because they know we really want them.
But while Chomsky, Althusser, Freud and others are useful in exploring a problem that goes beyond oppression and repression, they are simply figures we can utilise to understand a predicament they haven't themselves analysed. If Georg Lukacs was right to say that Balzac, in Matthew J. Smetona's words, "depicts precisely the catastrophe, the material, moral, and intellectual crises in the course of which his young men finally find their bearings in a French society rapidly evolving towards capitalism and who then conquer or attempt to conquer a place for themselves. . . ." ('Lukacs and the Project of a Marxist Literary History: Balzac and Dostoevsky'), then maybe contemporary cinema can help us comprehend compression. Lukacs says that "what Balzac painted is how the rise of capitalism to the undisputed economic domination of society carries the human and moral degradation and debasement of men into the innermost depths of their hearts" ('Lukacs and the Project of a Marxist Literary History: Balzac and Dostoevsky'). It is a point that Lukacs can make partly through the aid of a Marx he has absorbed, but that Balzac was making prior to Marx as a perceptual observation. What sort of perceptual observations are the films under scrutiny addressing?
We can start with You, The Living, a 2008 Roy Andersson film that like other Andersson works (Songs from the Second Floor, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence), takes a perception of Sweden and simultaneously internalises it as a characterisational condition, and externalises it as an elaborate mise en scene. A daughter sits on a chair next to her elderly mother who is sitting in a wheelchair with a third character, a nurse, standing in the background. It is a fixed frame shot and the woman tries to get her mother to talk about her difficult childhood where things were so much harder than they are now. It is the sort of scene that may demand a modicum of intimacy but is framed and lit with its complete absence. "I am interested in shadowless light, light that illuminates all the time and shows people nakedly exposed", Andersson says. (Film Quarterly) The mother can no longer it seems access her memories for all the daughter's cajoling, and Andersson captures its impossibility by creating a mise en scene where the inside looks like it has been excavated by the outside. One can see this as a symbolic sense of space and framing, and the artificiality Andersson offers leaves this as a valid claim,. But it is chiefly a question: what sort of light and space robs the self of its agency and purpose? When watching Andersson's films we know from the first scene that the characters are contained by a force greater than their own will. We don't expect the mother to talk and we don't expect the nurse to intervene. Andersson's work is a tableau painting moving through time, yet the irony is that though he utilises a temporal medium he achieves a still greater sense of fixity. In the scene immediately following the mother and daughter, a husband sits on the chair and his wife tell him, "it's already five-thirty." We don't know for sure if they are married but in this moment, and probably requiring no more than the man's forlorn, floppy body language in the chair, Andersson conveys a long, stale marriage with the husband in a job he doesn't like and where his only consolation is the dog next to him.
Andersson says that he believes in "a society where one shares, and feels responsibility towards others. Unfortunately, we've had a period where to look after one another is seen as old-fashioned. This is the path Sweden has taken politically. But it's evident that it hasn't worked out." He reckons his purpose is"...trying to show what it's like to be human and to be alive." (Guardian) What he shows consistently is the human as a suffering creature compressed by an existence that is hard to comprehend but simple to show. One needn't mean by this that Andersson is easy on himself; more that he is hard on the life he observes, determined to find a form to illustrate this compressed mode of existence. It is true when looking at his images we might imagine the characters are depressed, repressed, or even oppressed, that the director's interest in the despondent, the hemmed-in and the Nazi-past all suggest paradigms well-established. But Andersson creates a world that is airless and inexorable, as if from the opening moment of each scene the compression is evident: that the characters carry within them an inertia that no event can transform. At one moment in You the Living, a dozen people are crammed into a bus shelter as the rain pours down. We have no idea if they are waiting for a bus or just escaping the weather. But we aren't surprised when no bus comes, and we aren't surprised either when a man with his coat half over his head tries to shelter too and instead keeps walking after nobody budges to let him in. It is a wonderful example of literal compression but it also shows both people's selfishness and their passivity. We don't really know if they won't budge because they wouldn't want another and very we, body in their midst, or if they are incapable of the sort of activity that would indicate the generous. Andersson creates an absurd in-humanism that leaves us musing how inertial lives can become when many of the characteristics of human life are enervated. Whether eating, drinking, falling in love, playing music or getting annoyed, Andersson manages to convey a sense of futility to the deed.
It would seem this is an ontological enervation where even humour becomes incapable of surprise, even if it retains a capacity to make us laugh. In one scene, the dream sequence of a man driving a small open truck with a cement mixer on the back, the man is in the house of the wealthy. He tells them he can pull the tablecloth clean off the table while leaving all the expensive crockery and glasses untouched. We watch as the family stand around while he attempts the deed and he drags all the family heirlooms off the table with the cloth as they crash to the floor. What we see left is just the table, with Nazi insignia. There is no surprise to the humour in the scene but a sense of aptness in what the family heirlooms have been hiding: an aspect of the family past that isn't part of the display. The poor man is carted off to prison for his sins of the present and will go to the electric chair, while the far more significant sins of the past will be ignored. Andersson is well capable of exaggeration but this isn't the same as surprise as though compressed comedy can only entertain the inevitable even if it is then hyperbolized. In contrast, uncompressed comedy relies on surprise even if we may find it predictable. In the ostensibly similar scene in Trainspotting, a character wakes up at his girlfriend's parents' place and realises that all his vital fluids have found their way into the sheets, strips the bed and aims to take the sheets home to wash. He pops into the dining area, says he has to go and that there has been a bit of an accident and he will take the sheets to his place and return them clean. The mum is having none of it and the various expelled substances splatter all over the place. In one scene we have the pulling of the tablecloth and in the other, the yanking of the sheets by the mum as she tries to wrestle them from the character of Spud, and Spud determined to hold on to them. However, Andersson's is predicated on an inevitability that allows the man to pull the tablecloth as if his defeat is a fate accomplished before the event, while Spud really believes that he can take the sheets home and wash them. In both instances, it ends in disaster, but in one it is hopeless, the other hapless. The man seems without hope as the anxiety dream continues and leads him to the electric chair. Spud is unlucky as his attempt to cover his messy deed leads to further shame. Much great comedy rests on a sort of decompression: the humour offers a cathartic release rather than a hopeless sense of the unavoidable. But it is as though Andersson sees that characters' lives are so hemmed in that the choices available aren't choices at all.
It is this aspect that is central to compression as we are defining it. Oppression is a conscious force, repression an unconscious demand, and depression a feeling of futility, well exemplified in the David Foster Wallace story where he says, "the depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror." ('The Depressed Person') Or we can think of William Styron who says in Darkness Visible that "the ferocious inwardness of the pain produced an immense distraction that prevented my articulating words beyond hoarse murmur." In the sort of compression we find in various contemporary films, none of these earlier paradigms quite work even if we will find elements of all three in compression's presentation. In films like Andersson's, in Time Out, A Touch of Sin, Import/Export, The Headless Woman, Crimson Gold, and Graduation, it seems a further problem arises, and we offer such a broad range of titles to indicate this isn't specific to one country or one continent.
But in trying to get a greater understanding of the problem, let's turn to Laurent Cantet's Time Out, a film that shows a well-paid white-collar worker who is sacked by his firm pretending he is now employed with the WHO in Geneva. Based loosely on a famous case in France where Jean-Claude Romand spent twenty years pretending to be a doctor when in fact he had failed his exams and for a couple of decades borrowed money to cover his deceit, Cantet settles for a much shorter period and foregoes the violence of the actual case: where Romand killed his family and tried to take his own life. Instead, Cantet is interested in the idea that a job isn't so much what you do but how you present yourself. Vincent (Aurelien Recoing) looks every inch the businessman, speaks the language, researches various documents, and convinces friends that he is interested in new financial ventures that will see them receiving high returns for the investment. Actually, the money will be going nowhere except into Vincent's pocket as he tries to sustain a life and lifestyle without working for it. Yet that somehow doesn't sound quite right; that Vincent will be working probably just as hard if not harder trying to convince others of his business acumen as he was while employed. The main difference might be that instead of the returns going to various investment companies, they will go to him. Sure, he is ripping off his friends but at least he won't be taking advantage of the African countries that he claims he is investing in and it seems his friends can take the hit. Vincent might feel bad about what he is doing but we might wonder if it is worse to take money from friends during hard times, however fraudulently, rather than 'invest' in impoverished countries where the investments often work in favour of, in this instance, France over the countries that are apparently benefitting from a close relationship with a western country. 14 African States declared independence from France: Benin, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Togo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, Congo-Brazaville, and Gabon. Afterwards, the French government put all the former colonies in a group called 'compulsory solidarities.' Rosa Cheneva says, "this meant that those independent states would need to pay 65% of foreign currency reserves to the French treasury and 20% for their financial liabilities. So each colony has only 15% left to use from their own money" (Illumination)
It is not our purpose to address the socio-economic circumstances of France's relationship with African nations post-colonially, only to say that Vincent may be doing no bad thing in creating a false image of his investments if it means leaving Africa alone. And it is this which interests us in the context of compression. What if many of the jobs people are doing would be better done not at all, a point David Graeber makes when offering the term bullshit jobs. "I mean, the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist. A lot of them are made-up middle management, you know, I'm the 'East Coast strategic vision coordinator' for some big firm, which basically means you spend all your time at meetings or forming teams that then send reports to one another." (Salon) What if Vincent has just replicated the world of work through the world of fantasy, though taking meetings, turning up at corporations, mingling with possible clients, aware that none of this is real? We may assume he has found a way to decompress by transforming not at all his working life, which continues as if he is working, but its compressed nature, where the person works to earn money but isn't involved in labouring for it. In one scene, Vincent finds himself in the same hotel as an old colleague Fred and, when they talk together, Vincent discusses numerous businesses around the UN and that he wants to be part of this world. He speaks like a man of authority and we might wonder if much of this comes from his prior professional experience meeting his present sense of freedom. The film starts with him already unemployed and we find details about his working life in snippets along the way, especially through a former work colleague he meets while both are with their family shopping. They were co-workers for ten years and we hear that he was fired. The former colleague has tried to contact Vincent a number of times and also tried to help him find work. Though we would be inclined to view this colleague Jeffrey as a sympathetic figure of concern (later in the film we are told Muriel tries to contact him), Vincent's new emancipatory self wants nothing to do with this former work environment. Jeffrey says his concern is normal, Vincent reckons it isn't normal at all: they only worked together. The ex-colleague says "weren't we really close? We ate lunch together daily for ten years, all those late evenings, isn't that something?"
If the film is compressively impressive it rests partly on scenes like this one, which shows the ex-colleague as a concerned and sympathetic figure. But at the same time, he is a person one might wish to escape if the world of work Vincent was in was an environment of captivity. If Andersson is very good at showing the passivity of the body, its lethargic distress, Cantet is concerned with the institutionalisation of the self. Glass becomes the modern means of entrapment as an apparent form of liberation. "Modern-day buildings boast the latest facade and glass technologies, enabling the all-glass concept to be fully optimised, with maximum transparency allowing daylight in and views out," says a consultancy report by Alinea. However, Will Higbee reckons there is a "tension between the naturalistic locations and a more stylized mise-en-scene that mirrors Vincent's oscillation between the pressures of the real world and the fantasy life he has created for himself",('The Social-Realist Melodramas of Laurent Cantet') Patrick Z. McGavin notes that "...in the first hour, the movie's dominant image is glass, either the interior of the car where Vincent is frequently trapped, the architecturally beautiful office building in Geneva where Vincent engineers his scheme, or the dank and shoddy hotel where Vincent undergoes a perverse transformation." (Indiewire) Both suggest glass isn't all about letting the daylight in and allowing for views out but instead, a corporatisation of life that means whether someone is sitting in their car, in the buildings of the World Health Organisation, or the Novotel, whose lobby Vincent uses as he tries to drum up clients, freedom must lie elsewhere. If McGavin is right that most of the places where Vincent finds himself invoke the corporate world he has officially left, how is he to find a way to escape it? Higbee proposes he does so through fantasy. We might only half-agree: that while it is true Vincent has escaped the real world of work into a fantastic one of ripping-off friends, family and former colleagues, this is an unreal world closely mimicking the real one. When he sits with the ex-colleague he meets in the hotel, he authoritatively lays out his plans, saying at one moment that, despite his friend's claims that he doesn't have the right profile, has no international experience, this needn't matter. Vincent confidently tells him: "if I ever need to expand my team, I'd surely think of you." Vincent speaks with the confidence of someone who knows what he is talking about, even if he doesn't have a job, as opposed to the friend, who has a job but doesn't seem to know what he is talking about.
When Graeber discusses bullshit jobs, he reckons "the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of these middle-management positions I'm talking about, and the people doing these jobs are completely unhappy because they know their work is bullshit. I think most people really do want to believe that they're contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable." (Vox) The irony is that Vincent escapes a bullshit job by talking bullshit by lying that he is investing people's money instead of bullshitting by saying his job is of any significance. At the very end of the film, it looks like he will be reentering the world of gainful employment, and we can see, if we rely on body language alone, here is a man so much more uneasy than he was when talking with the friend when they were seated in the hotel foyer. In this closing scene, Vincent says "I'm someone who functions on enthusiasm". But the smile leaves his face as quickly as it arrives, and not only because the interviewer says "you stopped working for seven months!" Vincent is back looking for work but he is also back with bullshit that isn't his own. If Vincent shows knowledge, enthusiasm and assertiveness in the hotel foyer, in the interview he appears anxious, agitated and insincere: a man trying to convince another that he is worthy of employment while in the earlier scene, he has the facts to hand and a comfortable disposition. He will undeniably be screwing his friend over but that is a secondary issue within the film's primary enquiry into what sort of pressures an individual happens to be under in turn-of-the-century capitalist France. The suggestion is that it wouldn't be enough to be good at your job, you have to be good at presenting yourself as the person doing it. If the character who befriends him and offers Vincent employment that Vincent briefly takes, Jean-Michel (Serge Livrozet), seems generally less insincere than Vincent does in the interview at the end, it lies in an irony: Serge is honestly dishonest, the sort of honesty within criminality that needn't cause an identity crisis. In the interview, Vincent is dishonestly honest, trying to find his way back into the corporate environment but looking like he doesn't at all believe in it and won't be himself in the process of doing the job. The problem is that he will struggle to act in bad faith, to do a job in which he can still believe, as though he knows, like Graeber proposes, that his work is useless or at best, exploitative. Graeber says, "a lot of bullshit jobs are...management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all." (Vox) If we say at best, it rests on exploiting other countries, it rests on his job having some significance but chiefly in taking advantage of Third World resources for Western gain, if we accept the earlier point made by Cheneva.
However, perhaps corporate capital has little need for the Vincents of this world once they become well aware that they aren't of much use to accumulating profit. Peter Thiel and other contemporary billionaires may be wondering if Graeber has a point, and rather than insisting like Graeber that many jobs should go and the useful ones distributed more evenly around the population, with everyone doing fewer hours, it better to have as direct a relationship between resources and profit as possible. Writing in the London Review of Books, David Runciman notes a book Thiel greatly admires, 'The Sovereign Individual', written by James Dale Davison and William Rees-Mogg (and where Thiel prefaced a new edition), Here, they "predicted the demise of the nation-state and the emergence of low or no tax libertarian communities in which the rich can finally emancipate themselves from 'the exploitation of the capitalists by workers'." Graeber may be very far away from the libertarianism of Thiel (and they've debated each other). But where their thought coincides is on the uselessness of many workers. However, while Graeber sees a sharing of work, Thiel seems to insist on a securing of profit. The worker gets in the way of that profit, especially if he is the worker doing a bullshit job as Graeber proposes.
How, though, does this work in the context of Time Out and more especially in the context of compression? If the worker knows their job is pointless, and the capitalist eventually sees the worker as surplus to their profitable requirements, then they are left manifestly and manifoldly compressed. They are performing the act of a job that isn't important while at the same time living a life that demands they keep the job nevertheless. Vincent is such a man and one who resolves the problem in proving that he can go it alone and seek investments, but by going it alone has nothing to put the money into except his own bank account as he tries to keep the family in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. He releases himself from the compression of being a futile company man but instead becomes a person who finds the best way to continue using whatever skills he possesses lies in ripping off his friends, former work colleagues, and acquaintances. In the scene with Fred in the hotel foyer, the colleague speaks about how bored he is in the job: "doing less gets boring. Sometimes after work I just can't go home..." as he says he feels like he needs to believe he has done something with his day. He knows he has a bullshit job and admiringly looks to Vincent to make his life potentially more exciting. Part of the film's purpose rests on showing us that Vincent's lies are at least his own, and if they have any validity as lies it rests partly on a broader culture that expects people to do the job socially as much as professionally. We can recall the moment when Jeffrey says they would lunch every day for ten years, and link it to the remark Fred makes when Vincent asks about his work friends. "You saved me! Dinner with the boss. Give me a break!"
Work and play aren't so easy to separate and perhaps people aren't expected to do so. If the traditional maxim is work hard/play hard, a Graeber/Cantet version might be closer to play hard and work easy: make sure you are playing the game rather than putting in the work. The job you are doing isn't especially challenging as work but is very demanding personally as you are expected to conform to a work environment that insists the line between work and leisure is blurred. You become a company man and thus a job search site reckons, "listing your hobbies plays a role in demonstrating how you'll relate to the company's culture. Any extracurricular work that supports what you know about the culture is extremely relevant and should be present on your resume." (The Muse) Work stressed; play stressed might be the new motto as the person is compressed not just during the 9/5 but is expected to take play home with them. If Graeber is right that many jobs are of little worth as industry, then what exactly are you taking home with you but perhaps the values and expectations of a company? No wonder Fred is happy escaping his work colleagues, and Vincent escapes from corporate work altogether as he becomes, however absurdly, his own man.
Time Out may feel like a very Western film, a millennial work that captures well high-end employment that registers a great degree of futility while paying workers large sums of money. But we wish to make clear that compression isn't just a Western problem even if we often find in works from China, Iran, Argentina and elsewhere, that questions of development, growth, expansion and bourgeois expectation sit behind the material. In Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold, based on an actual story, a motorbike courier delivering pizzas is about to get married. The beginning of the film shows in a single shot Hossein (Hossain Emadeddin) breaking into a jeweller's shop, his prospective brother-in-law remaining outside on the bike and horrified when Hossein shoots the jeweller, and then shoots himself. The film then flashes back to a couple of days before and we are offered several vignettes that might pass for motivation. In one, Hossein goes with his fiancee and her brother Ali to look at rings but the jewellers are condescending towards them while flattering some wealthy clients. Later, he takes pizzas up four flights of stairs where a lift is broken; then, after being forced to hang around outside a building while the police are involved in an operation, delivers pizzas to a client whose dwelling is luxurious and that includes an indoor swimming pool. It doesn't belong to the youngish man who answers the door but his parents, who have made their money outside the country. The young man feels some sort of affinity with Hossein, and allows him to roam the house as Panahi turns the locations into an almost Antonionesque architectural puzzle as though Hossein has never before seen such a salubrious dwelling and almost certainly hasn't. He may be delivering pizzas to those much better off than he is but he is rarely allowed beyond the front door, and few apartments will be quite as grand as this.
But what is it we may wonder that leads him to rob the jewellers, go on to shoot the owner and then kill himself? Also, why does Panahi insist on presenting the film in flashback, offer a lengthy opening shot, and focus so much on the apartment Hossein gets to wander around? Most heist films wouldn't interest us from the point of view of compression, even if Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which also involves a jewellery theft, might be an example we could utilise, and see Philip Seymour Hoffman as a great actor of this compressed form. To speak about this heist film might take us away from Crimson Gold, and endanger pursuing our central argument, but let us hope it reveals why Crimson Gold is interesting to us and why most heist films aren't compressive works, just as we have noted most comedies aren't useful in thinking about compression in film. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Hoffman plays one of two brothers. Andy is due an audit, knows he is in financial trouble and wishes to escape to Brazil. He reckons he can get the cash by arranging a heist on his parents' jewellery shop and involves his impressionable brother Hank, who engages someone else, in what should be a victimless crime. They will use a toy gun, they won't harm the shop assistant, and the business won't lose out as the lads' parents can claim against insurance. None of this goes according to plan and the problems that Andy thinks he will be alleviating become enormously exacerbated. Though in a very different way from Crimson Gold, the film could be seen as a work of compression because Andy uses the heist as an opportunity to relieve the pressure on his life and instead greatly adds to it. This is a heist that ends up involving his entire family, and becomes not just about evading the police but avoiding the audit and, throughout, his wife has been having an affair with Hank. Andy's life is a mess to start with and made worse by his attempt to sort it out by hoping to get the money he needs through a victimless crime, one that becomes so victimful his mother ends up dead. Now we needn't pretend that this level of chaos in a heist film is unheard of and Dog Day Afternoon may quickly come to mind but what we wish to make clear is that just as we can talk of the very occasional comedy that is compressed, so too can we talk about heist films that focus not on the heist as the dramatic high point but more on the tension in an existence: one that makes the suspense of the crime secondary to the stress of the individual.
This is especially true of Crimson Gold. Written by Abbas Kiarostami, Kiarostami's work insistently deflects from the consequences of an action and attends to the processes of the deed. The viewer follows the young boy returning his friend's school book in Where is My Friend's House?, the process of making a film in Through the Olive Trees, a person determined to find someone who will bury him after he takes his own life in A Taste of Cherry. Here, the heist as a logistical event is irrelevant; what matters much more is showing the symptoms that lead Hossein to take such drastic action. Early in the film, as it moves into flashback after the opening heist, Hossein and Ali are in a cafe and talking with a con man. The conman reckons that "If you want to arrest a thief, you'll have to arrest the world," and he may be right, especially if one views many a criminal as circumstantially made rather than professionally focused. Hossein is one such man, and thus better to show the events that led him to criminality rather than the act of crime itself. This isn't of much use for many a heist film by Melville or Michael Mann, or in films like The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing.
The films are populated by career criminals, not circumstantial ones, but Crimson Gold (in this sense like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Dog Day Afternoon) shows someone who finds himself committing a crime incompetently. Though the film does pay attention to the opening robbery, it does so at a scrutinising remove, offering again an Antonioniesque curiosity as the scene resembles just a little the famous penultimate shot in The Passenger. It isn't the robbery that matters but the inscrutability of the situation as we see the character breaking into the shop, and the film offers that single long-shot from inside the jeweller's as most of the light comes from the open door. The camera holds to this fixed position, only using the zoom, as we see Ali outside on the bike, and Hossein trying to get the jeweller to hand over the goods. Instead of getting away with the jewels, Hossein of course shoots the jeweller and turns the gun on himself. The film then flashes back. Speaking of Hossein's situation, Panahi says "...he hardly talks, but he sees much, and when he sees something, he really sees deeply into it. And he is ill, and he suffers both physically and emotionally." (World Socialist Website) Panahi's purpose is to focus on the perceptual process rather than the action the situation could have instigated. The film's aim isn't to show a heist but to reveal compression. When the interviewer says, "this is an Iranian film with an obvious international significance. In the US such tragedies happen everyday. Unfortunately, one almost becomes accustomed to them," Panahi replies: "it's true that when you live in a society like ours things like that happen all the time, but there are certain times, certain moments, certain days, when you hear what happens, the pain hits you so hard, you think about it seriously." Panahi doesn't exploit the reality of the heist for generic gains, though masterpieces by Melville and others have been created out of that very generic exploitation; it is to symptomize a societal pressure that has become ever more pronounced. Certain crimes aren't criminal but societal, symptomatic reflections of how people feel boxed in and pressurised, and where the crime committed shows desperation more than initiative, a need to reveal a pain rather than conceal a deed. Just as Andersson wishes to compress his comedy to register despair, so Panahi wants to utilise a heist to acknowledge how hemmed in his central character happens to be. Hossein has been in the army, clearly suffers the psychological repercussions, and is on medication. Though he fought for his country he sees others benefiting in society, and Panahi's purpose is to show someone at the end of their tether rather than in the middle of a criminal career. It shows a person whose life is pressurised, whose time is somehow not his own but the property of others.
Though made in 2003, it both reflects an Iranian reality and anticipates a Western gig economy, as if Western countries are creating exactly the same economic divisions that non-Western countries were perhaps moving towards eradicating. If there is such a pessimism in many a Western country it rests partly on this growth of compression as a squeeze, and the gig economy as an acceptable economic model. A squeeze takes many forms but the latest has been the cost of living crisis: comments like the "cost of living squeeze could push UK into 'mild recession'; petrol price hits fresh highs..." (Guardian) has become a common enough headline. Investopedia reports that "America is well on its way to establishing a gig economy, and estimates show as much as a third of the working population is already in some gig capacity as of 2021." Uber was created in 2009 and Deliveroo in 2013. This is a recent development. While we might not wish to turn this article into a contemporaneous political piece, trying to understand contemporary cinema, and how characters are compressed, it is useful to see that an aspect of this compression rests on time being money and with not quite enough of either. An article more focused on this financially temporal aspect would include Ken Loach's Sorry I Missed You and also I Daniel Blake, even if one is about overwork and the other about the tests people are put through to prove they have a disability and can thus receive welfare payments. But for our purposes, we want always to keep in mind the cinematic dimension of compression and the international aspect which shows it is a global problem, and thus perhaps close to an ontological question. This is ontological in the sense RD Laing proposed when saying: "despite the philosophical use of 'ontology'...I have used the term in its present empirical sense because it appears to be the best adverbial or adjectival derivation of 'being'." (The Divided Self) To reduce it to a social problem, and a social problem only in Western countries. would be to risk suggesting it is a temporary and local phenomenon. But by expanding it outward we might be able to speak a little about ontology, film and society.
From this perspective, Import/Export is a much greater film of compression than Ken Loach's work, even if Loach's films offer a much more focused examination of socio-political failure. Yet his films reflect lives oppressed by institutional forces and business practises that, though often secondary to the people he delineates, are clearly causing the problems. But in Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's work, and most especially Import/Export, humanity is a tragedy and death an escape. His work resembles a little Andersson's even if the form is less pronounced: the mise en scene and the acting more naturalistic, the humour less clear. Yet they both share a compressive aesthetic that proposes our degraded state is so advanced that the problems aren't resolvable in the political sphere but only, if at all, in the ontological one. This would be an ontology where energy is released rather than trapped, but while Andersson's films usually show characters caught in passive states of inertia, Seidl is more inclined to illustrate energy released but also dispersed. People are much more active within the frame in Seidl's work, yet there is little sense that the movement frees the characters from the predicament that Seidl contains them within. In a series of brief scenes, Seidl shows us respectively: a son and step-father training, the stepfather in front of the mirror striking muscle poses and punching his stomach, and the mother dancing in front of the son, Paul (Paul Hoffman), and her partner. All three characters are acting with purpose and the mother seems a competent dancer. But Seidl insists on creating environments and camera positionings that show the characters oblivious to the compression he offers. In the first scene, the two men are working out in a compact room where it looks like at any moment they could hit the lampshade, each other, or the wall. When the stepfather stands in front of the mirror in the hall and strikes some poses he isn't in terrible shape, but the narcissism of his actions is mocked by the fattiness of his love handles. He is framed on the right, and on the left we can see into the room where the pair of them have been exercising, and there is a poster of a young man in much better shape than the stepfather; someone whose posing might seem vain but needn't quite be preposterous. The film then cuts to another angle on the hall and the door frame of the sitting room as the mother enters into our view and her short, stocky body moves to the music. Seidl holds on to the shot in the hall for a few seconds before cutting to a frontal shot of the son and the stepfather looking on in a fixed frame that suggests she is performing to an indifferent crowd. The film then returns to the hall and shows us the mother and her partner dancing within the space of the doorframe before cutting back to Paul.
What does Seidl want us to make of this series of shots? "His camera is unsparing - it shows in unflinching close-up those considered undesirable or ugly by society (the elderly, the overweight, the poor, the disabled) - but it does not mock or denigrate" (Guardian). So reckons Ryan Gilbey, in an interview with the director. It is always my intention for the viewers to see themselves." Seidl says. "I do not judge, but I show how people behave in their longing for happiness. If the viewers have a problem with my films, it may be that they have a problem with themselves too." Working out and dancing, the characters seem happy, but why might the viewer see a greater misery in their behaviour than any happiness they seem to be expressing? When the film then shows us Paul at work, a security guard who looks bored as he swings in his chair and looks at his nails, it captures despair equally. As always, the framing is precise. Seidl shows us a fixed frame shot from outside the window and the window grill is half down, making the image of Paul in the room seem especially long and low, a coffin-like horizontal framing not so different from the vertical compression shown when the mother dances. By 'framing' happiness Seidl removes the pleasure from it, but the point is the framing, whatever the event, so that as viewers we don't see especially the enjoyment or the boredom. The restrictiveness of their world, and this restriction is so pronounced that it doesn't really matter what a Seidl character is doing (eating, making love, working, driving, dancing or exercising) all is contained by greater indifference.
Seidl's films propose that whatever one is doing could equally not be done, and this film, ostensibly about Paul and his stepfather's attempt to sell gambling machines in Ukraine, and a young Ukrainian nurse Olga (Ekateryna Rak) trying to work in Austria, emphasises the futility. Whether employed in online sex work, working as a housekeeper or doing care work in a geriatric hospital (all jobs Olga takes), Seidl is determined to extract from work not the surplus labour of a good capitalist, but the absurdity of a shrewd observer of the human condition. If Loach insists on showing the worker exploited, and the non-worker cruelly deprived of the basics, Seidl shows work and play are equally purposeless because he refuses to show an underpinning point to someone's life. This is no doubt partly why he is considered a condescending filmmaker. Thus when he says that he doesn't judge, this is too easy. He judges alright but not in a manner that can lead to the patronising. It leads instead to the discomforting realisation that every life is potentially compressed and contained, held in place by a gravitational force that is absurd when looked at closely enough. If much condescension is about someone, a group or a cause, and often leads to humour, and those outside it are those who get to laugh, Seidl's condescension, if condescension it is, might be seen as cosmic, and can only be redeemed by a sort of self-enquiry that sees no life is meaningful. Compression here would be an ontological problem and redeemable perhaps only by faith, which isn't the same as a belief in organised religion. "It's very complicated, and difficult to reduce to one single phrase" Seidl says. "I can definitely say it's something that doesn't leave me untouched. Faith and religion, on one hand they can be easily perverted, lead to militantism, extremism, but at the same time it's something humans search for and need. God always keeps coming back to me and so do feelings of bad conscience." (Slant) Seidl consistently shows the force of matter upon the soul, as though the soul need be no more and no less than a suffusion in matter that removes its absurdity a decompression that gives meaning and purpose to an existence that has no a priori reason not to be pointless.
We can see how our understanding of compression in film can cover the societal but mustn't be limited to it. Many films can still be viewed chiefly through the repressive, the oppressive and the depressive, which is why we wouldn't be inclined to include films like, for example, Death in Venice and Black Narcissus, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Letters from Marusia, Equus and Ordinary People. This only partly rests on them all being older films, for many newer ones and often very good ones also fit into these three categories without any problem. Yet if we see in Seidl's work a metaphysical principle, one that shows the problem of matter finding a soul, then how can this be an especially contemporaneous problem? A provisional answer would be that the denser our relationship with matter becomes, the more the issue of compression is manifest. Now this might seem odd in a world that could appear to be ever more virtualised. However, it is important to see that the virtual isn't getting us closer to spirit but even more reliant on 'immaterialised matter'. This might sound a little too paradoxical but what the virtual world gives us is a presence within absence without quite giving us detachment; without allowing us to see ourselves beyond ourselves. One only need witness how engaged people are on internet chat forums and newspaper threads to see that, egotistically, many are as involved in disputes as two people would be having pranged their cars. It is partly why writing on 'Virtualisation of the Life World', O. I. Ollinaho says, "I use [Alfred] Schutz's verb gear in order to underscore that people are active with these virtual worlds instead of being passive receivers of news and other entertainment." It is also why Ollinaho distinguishes the 'here and now' and the 'where and now'. When we are on the internet we aren't in the here and now but what is this virtual space we are occupying that is so much more irritably engaging than many a here and now event, like going for a walk, taking in a sunset, looking up at the moon? This is the here and now but it is also capable of the detachment so many there and now events don't allow. It is no doubt why people find themselves detaching themselves from social media, as if the there and now is a bruising and bustling environment that direct reality needs to counter. It seems that the online isn't contrary to the compressive but a further intensification of it. And yet though this is an apparently immaterial world, what it appears to do is take our materiality as nervous system, upload it onto the net and allow us to have all sorts of experiences that anger us, exhaust us and irritate us without being 'real'. When we look up at the moon or view a sunset, we wouldn't be likely to use an active verb to describe the experience. Perhaps vital to compression is that it suggests the active within the compressive, that people's lives seem purposeful but not meaningful, busy but not industrious, hectic but not energising. Such a life could incorporate the potentially antithetical: the housewife surrounded by luxury; or the worker employed eight to ten hours a day in a job which remunerates little or has a Graeberesque lack of purpose and where the employee knows they might as well be back home as listless as the housewife.
If we see Seidl as a great director of compression it rests on how he insists on showing various worlds equally lacking in meaning, whether it is the virtual world Olga occupies working in porn webcams, as an assistant in a geriatric ward, the large house she cleans, with the woman owning a collection of stuffed dog heads that Olga has to clean very meticulously, or Pauli's attempt to make a living either as a security guard or as an import-export worker. Social class and wealth won't allow someone to escape a compressive environment because the characters are still all in the world of matter even if they are in a virtual world, as we find with Olga and her online services. If the world whether it be the here and now or the there and now, whether people have money or don't, whether apparently active in a job or desultory at home, Seidl's aesthetic proposes there is little to distinguish them. Matter hasn't been dematerialised and the self remains locked in the pursuit of happiness without the wherewithal to extract a meaning that can compensate for the material emptiness. In Dog Days, a young boyfriend drives speedily around a car park in a new vehicle to impress his attractive girlfriend and Seidl impresses upon us how unimpressive the boy's egotism happens to be. He may be happy to have a car and a girlfriend but Seidl imposes upon his happiness a greater sense of absurdity as we know that happiness cannot be sustained if materiality is all one can hope to achieve. Seidl's is usually a soulless universe not because he searches out a religious perspective (even religion in Faith can fall into absurdity) but because his characters are caught in compressive frames that are both ontological and cinematic. The characters lack the wherewithal to comprehend possibilities beyond the sensorial and the material, and Seidl insists on framings that play up that impossibility. There may be moving moments in the director's work, evident when Olga dances with one of the elderly patients in Import-Export, but his work isn't about cathartic release but its imprisonment. What would allow for a different frame, so to speak, isn't Seidl's concern. Seidl is no Tarkovsky, and that needn't be an insult but a comprehension of the director's interests. Tarkovsky is no use to us in understanding compression.
However, we needn't say that filmmakers of compression have much in common even if we must of course find a common denominator to speak about film compression at all. Most directors aren't concerned with the question and those that do may not initially seem to share a similar worldview. Lucretia Martel wouldn't be associated with Seidl in most people's minds. But in The Headless Woman, Martel shows as great an interest in compression as Seidl. Here we have a woman, Vero, probably between forty to fifty, middle-class and married. One afternoon she appears when driving to hit something that might be a dog; may be a child. She stops, looks tentatively through her rear-view mirror but doesn't get out and instead continues driving. She may not know what she has hit even if the film shows us a shot of a dog lying on the road just afterwards, seen from the rear of the car. The film explores less the repercussions of the accident as a mystery to be resolved - more, as a complicity explored. Vero (Maria Onetto) is very comfortably ensconced in Argentinean wealth, her husband a doctor; she a dentist and her family and friends reliant on an indigenous servant class to help around the house. Indeed, it is one of these kids who has gone missing, and there is the suggestion that she hasn't only run over the dog, but also the boy. We can say with some confidence it is a dog we see in the rear windscreen, though that doesn't mean Vero knows what she has hit, and did she hit both, with the boy thrown into the ditch? Yet this would be to concern ourselves with an aspect of the story the film puts in the background as it attends much more to the story of Vero's day-to-day life and the guilt, if guilt it be, she feels about whatever it was that she thinks has happened. There is no detective here investigating, and a strong element of the film rests on making sure nobody does. The Headless Woman is about how others around Vero insist nothing has happened, a sort of tell-tale heart narrative where the central character cannot simply go to the police and confess when she is deemed of a social class above suspicion, someone whose husband and others will convince her that no crime has been committed, and makes sure there is no evidence either: the husband gets the car fixed, the hospital records altered.
For our purposes, the film looks at how a woman who is ostensibly protected by her bourgeois milieu is just as readily compressed by it. Martel is right to insist that "...to me, what was important or relevant wasn't finding out whether she actually killed somebody but her reaction to what happened. I wanted to focus on her human behavior, her human reaction to the possibility that she may have killed somebody, and it doesn't really matter whether she did or not. What matters is her attitude toward it; in her heart, she killed him." (Film Comment) Martel makes much of the singular perspective the film offers, saying: "I felt I was really taking a chance with that because I had never worked following just one character before." Though the film is seen chiefly from Vero's viewpoint, in the opening scene she is absent as we see the kids playing with the dog, and if this breaks with the formal precision of the film it does so all the better to propose this is a sort of moral prologue: making central to the work the very people who for the rest of the film, and in the society, are peripheral to it. Yet though we don't doubt Martel is interested in showing an entitled bourgeoisie, nevertheless, what interests us is the compressive form this takes: that Vero isn't even allowed her own moral consciousness as other characters from her milieu make it clear she is a citizen whose value to the society is so much greater than a young boy who she believes she may have been responsible for killing. It is one thing for her to believe that, as the film could have been about a person's insistent belief she is above the law, a kind of bourgeois immunity, but the film makes clear this is more the milieu's belief rather than her own. She isn't presented as a character of self-delusion and entitlement and another film might have taken this element of her personality and explored how she would come to confess her guilt. Yet Martel's isn't a Bressonian project (to simplify a master's concerns): it is to show the difficulty of taking responsibility when one isn't quite sure what one has been responsible for and in an environment where nobody wants you to take responsibility.
Let us see this as a form of moral compression that Martel explores through rejecting narrative demand and finding purpose in formal precision. "What I mean by layers is a form of accumulation, which makes plot no longer necessary in its classical sense. I work with a number of elements that are tied together, and each one of them is present in each scene in different positions, different perspectives, foreground or background. For example, the accident is present in every scene in different forms: maybe there is somebody who is digging, or something that is thrown on the floor. So I'm not spelling out the accident thing, but I have elements that evoke that." (Film Comment) She also talks about working with a wider frame than usual, and one can see in this widescreen approach both intimacy and alienation. Many of the shots show Vero in close up but only taking up half of the frame. A tighter ratio would have her fully in the shot but the widescreen leaves her adrift even if it remains a close up. These might be for the briefest moments and we wouldn't wish to exaggerate their purpose. Nevertheless, they reflect the film's formal aim in registering someone who is both implicated in her milieu and alienated from her environment. Throughout the, film people seem to be speaking to her from outside the frame, intrusively entering it or have a hovering, troublesome presence within it. In one scene late in the film she is in the garden with the gardener and she is looking at the newspaper. Martel shows us the pair of them in the frame but shows us at the same time the expanse of garden as she moves away from the gardener who continues digging. When she picks up the paper in the long shot that includes a couple of glances back at the gardener, the film cuts to a tight close-up of Vero on the left-hand side of the frame, in focus, and the gardener to the right, out of focus. He stops digging and looks in Vero's direction but Martel brilliantly doesn't rack focus but leaves him a blur in the background. As Vero turns to look in his direction, he moves out of the shot. A rack focus might have suggested a confrontation; the shot instead proposes a reflection, someone perhaps thinking about their guilt, not being forcibly faced by it.
Phoebe Chen, speaking of this scene, says "Lauren Berlant examines the possibilities of underperformed emotion. Ordinarily, emotional intelligibility in social situations relies on the transparency of performance. Berlant argues that underperformed - or "flat" - gestures inhibit immediate comprehension, and force us to reorient our understanding of cause and effect in the present." (Another Gaze) But Martel doesn't only have the scene underplayed by Onetti, Martel also offers the underplaying within the context of a shot that leaves us wondering what the gardener is thinking, or more especially wondering what Vero thinks the gardener is thinking. If the servants are generally invisible, here they take on a paradoxicallly subjective visibility they become central to Vero's guiltscape. A rack focus would have brought the gardener into the shot but may have left him outside of Vero's building paranoia. In a typical rack focus so often used in horror films it makes clear that the fear is real; that there is a figure in the background about to attack. Martel refuses the shot all the better to leave the person in the background and suggests he may believe Vero is guilty but that what matters for the film is that Vero thinks he might suspect her.
From the perspective of compression, Vero is protected by her family: she is someone from a well-off milieu who may have killed someone who clearly isn't. Her culpability within this asymmetrical culture would rest more on her acknowledging that responsibility rather than denying it. To deny it saves the family from a scandal, and after all the dead boy is dead, and Vero didn't murder him. What is to be gained by her insisting that she is responsible when the family have the money, the contacts and the general wherewithal to cover it up? Martel may be resistant to seeing Vero as guilty. "I also didn't want to link her with the idea of guilt. It doesn't work. It's useless to think deeply about perception and human beings and then to think about being guilty or not guilty. If you use the word "guilt," you're saying there is something precise, that there is a reality, and I'm not sure about that. The Headless Woman is not about a woman who feels guilty; it's about a woman whose worlds are nearing collapse." (Reverse Shot) However, this is partly what makes the film so fascinating and at the same time potentially very modern. Vero may or may not have run over the boy and even if she has it was an accident. If she is guilty this is no more her guilt than the society's that wishes to see in such a deed an irrelevance. Martel also says: "Well, you can have doubts about whether she kills someone or not. But the film is very clear on how she decides to deal with this possibility, and how the family and social class decide to react to the situation. "There is a beautiful and at the same time horrifying mechanism in society: if you want to protect someone, she says, you can disown his or her responsibility across his or her class. This sounds really beautiful, but it only works for some layers of society." (Reverse Shot)
Maybe Vero's world would be less inclined to collapse if she were living in a society where an accident can be confronted rather than denied, where a person can decide for herself how guilty she is and to pursue the ethical conundrum it elicits. But instead, Vero is a compressed creature, someone supported by those around her but in danger of collapsing inside. When near the end of the film, she goes back to the hotel where she stayed the previous weekend with her lover, and just after the accident, the hotel records indicate that the room was empty, as though someone has gone to great lengths to remove key moments from her life over the last week including the x-ray that ends up with her brother. Family members may well be removing incriminating evidence but they are also removing traces of Vero's reality. If Martel is determined to keep the film indeterminate, to leave us musing over what exactly has taken place then, if so, she nevertheless makes clear that, whatever has happened, Vero is someone compressed by social expectation. This is part of the layering that Martel talks about. The director wants to give a complex narrative and audio-visual texture to a woman whose world may be internally falling apart, though externally is propped up by family members even if they paradoxically might be contributing to that crumbling mind.
The Headless Woman is a film that shows an established society, one where there is a clear and long-standing divide between the wealthy whites and the indigenous poor, while A Touch of Sin focuses on the rapid changes in contemporary China. If Vero is compressed by societal expectation, the leading characters in Jia Zhangke's film are compressed by societal change. Based on actual incidents, and told in four sections, with also a prologue and an epilogue, the film shows people who are compressed by the rapidity of development. In the first section, a local mine worker and worker's representative is determined that the village chief who sold off a collective enterprise must be held responsible along with the new owner who Dahai believes is allowing the mine to pollute the area. He reckons the law is on his side and he has some knowledge of the law, but times have changed and enterprise is what counts rather than knowledge and integrity. When the wealthy mine owner comes to the village, in a private jet and with a ceremony at the airport, Dahai (Jiang Wu) confronts him saying he is a hard man to reach and asks for a favour. Will the boss and the former colleague finance Dahai's visit to Beijing to file a complaint against both the chief and the boss? The locals are embarrassed and, after everyone leaves, the boss's flunkies give Dahai a beating, which later the locals discuss in mocking tones. Dahai isn't seen as the heroic villager defending everyone's rights. He is the awkward luddite who won't move with the times. What the film explores through its other stories as well is that moving with the times is a sort of compression; that despite what seems like enormous opportunities for growth in a China whose GDP was 1.3 trillion in 2000 and is now almost 20 trillion, it offers restricted growth for individuals who aren't willing to ignore the corruption and private greed it entails. Jia Zhangke's film shows us the enormous gains in the Chinese economy, through the sort of wealth that would have seemed impossible during the Cultural Revolution. The old colleague flying in on a private jet may seem for Dahai the height of misdirected funds but for the locals it shows the level of aspiration to which people can aim to attain.
However, in the four stories he tells, Jia is more interested in the collateral damage that sudden wealth brings to a country than the inspiring stories of individuals who have made it. Speaking of a recent documentary he has made, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue, Jia says: "Nowadays in these rural areas, you tend to see mostly older people; younger people don't stay in these areas for long. So now when these younger generations have children, they will have no connection or memories or understanding of their rural or agricultural roots." Jia adds, "in the case of Jia Family Village, you go from having 5,000 years of agricultural history to, in one generation, having this break or gap as a result of urbanization." (Hyperallergic) What can seem like financial liberation can, from a different perspective, look like cultural compression, with many years of history becoming compacted into an urgent, pressing and materialistic present. While it must surely be true that there are many opportunities in a country that moves from little over a trillion to almost twenty-trillion in two decades, what Jia proposes is that there are fewer and fewer opportunities to recognise a historical legacy and to act ethically. To live in a present with wealth as the only marker of worth is hardly to live at all, and yet China is perhaps only going through an expansionist version of this compression that other nations are suffering contractively. In other words, while at least China can believe that its market economy is growing and might be able to claim that a rising tide lifts all boats, the West is left with a dubious model of trickle-down that indicates, in a mixed metaphor perhaps apt for the muddle which is contemporary laissez-faire, the increasingly modest growth of western economies leaves many sinking or swimming. People who were waving are now drowning and the Western model isn't that most can do okay if they work hard and keep their mouths shut, but that in a contracting economy you have to work harder aware there are only so many jobs to be had. Films propose that to have a job you are expected to play the game, or game the system. Films like Nomadland, Sorry I Missed You and the documentary American Factory (with its new Chinese owners) would be good places to look for such contractive compression. However, that would take us into the overtly political when our concern is only the socio-economic as the subsidiary of the aesthetic.
Jia's film is concerned with the political but what makes it an interesting piece of cinema is that it wonders how integrity in a culture of economic imperatives becomes manifest. The answer, Jia says, is violence towards others as a means of employment, as a way of making a statement, as self-defence, or as violence towards oneself as suicide. In the film's prologue we see not just Dahai but also a young man, San'er (Wang Baoqiang) taking out hoodlums suggesting he might be one himself. We discover in detail in the second section that San'er is a hired killer, willing to help his family but his wife is sceptical about the source of his money and the traditional house she lives in indicates a traditional ethos that she wants to retain. In the third section a woman working in a massage parlour as a secretary is expected to service a couple of clients who think their wealth countenances no contradiction as they force themselves upon her. Xiaoyu (Zhao Tao) takes them out. In the final section, a young man falls for a club hostess but she rejects Xiaohui's (Luo Lanshan) advances though a close relationship develops. She wants to send money back home for her young child, and to earn enough she needs to service the clients and Xiaohui will take his life.
In each section, Jia insists on attending to the specifics of Chinese life as he covers vast parts of the country, including Chengdu and Dongguan, but at the same time he is interested in presenting compression as violence, while making the action mimic Hollywood. The underlying social reality is evident but Jia chooses not to offer violence consistent with it, seeking instead disjunction. Xiaoyu has the predicament of a woman trying to get by in a China that is carefully delineated by Jia as a place of ethical impoverishment, where people are cornered by circumstances rather than plot. While in a commercially-oriented action film, the mayhem is often predicated on a plot that needn't attend to the societal, in A Touch of Sin it is the other way around even if the presentation of violence is very similar. When the assassin San'er takes out the three men in the opening sequence, the film offers shot/reverse shots and arcing camera movements, giving the viewer a privileged place in the action, and a sense of anticipation of the violence about to take place. When after killing the first two thugs, San'er goes after the third, we see him on his motorbike, the gun between his teeth, and watch him witness the man running in front of him. Jia gives us the shots that puts us in San'er's perspective even if we don't quite know what sort of character he happens to be. The sequence has a Leone-esque ability to tease the viewer with the ambiguity of character, the sadism of situation, and the virtuosity of its style. While Crimson Gold insists on an aesthetic distance when the central character shoots the shopkeeper, A Touch of Sin demands a generic immediacy, putting us into the egoistic assurance of both character and filmmaker. But this is a disjunctive aesthetic because Jia still wants specificity of milieu. Jia clearly believes these actual incidents the film is based on aren't isolated moments but symptomatic revelations.
What do they tell us about contemporary China, and how aggressive must the filmmaker be to register that ethical compression, where people are expected to go with the economic flow as a general national good no matter how terrible it might be for the individual? It makes sense that the fourth section moves towards Xiaohui's suicide, as though the tensions evident in the other sections (or certainly in Dahai's and Xiaoyu's) are potentially suicidal: that Dahai and Xiaoyu try to take things out on others aware that others would prefer they took things out on themselves. When Dahai is humiliated by the mine's owner at the airport, and humiliated again when his work colleague laughs and jokes about his humiliation, his reaction is anti-suicidal: he continues to pursue violence against others as if determined to resist the suicide he is expected to accept. When he blows out the brains of the mine owner after hiding in the back of the owner's fancy car, it is murder as necessity. He might be doing it for what he sees as the greater social good, but he is also doing so as if to say that, given the choice between killing himself and killing the owner, he will kill the man who is destroying him and by extension destroying the community. The violence has been done quietly as exploitation on the owner's part, and Dahai decides to do it loudly and comprehensively by killing him. The owner might have wished Dahai would go depressively quiet, sunk in alcohol abuse and eventual suicide, but Dahai seems to say: not before taking out the owner he won't.
In Xiaoyu's case, after the men expect her to sell them her body, she sits in a room shaking, raw and exposed, as the men haven't taken her sexually but have already damaged her nerves. Had they forced her into sex we might assume here is a woman who would see her humiliation as complete. She has already been beaten up by men hired by the lover's wife. She has been in a long-term relationship with a man who has more or less told the wife he has a long-term lover and wishes to leave. Xiaoyu is thus already badly beaten and so who knows what mental state she would have been in after an attack from two more thugs. She fights back in an absurd moment of martial arts effectiveness that could have come out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or The House of Flying Daggers. Here she yields a knife with the dexterity of an experienced warrior and the men are vanquished. Yet for all the skill she shows and the damage she does, Jia again contains the scene within the suicide that has been avoided. She hurts others as though the only other option would be to hurt herself.
Xiaohui hurts himself, in a further story that indicates humiliation that in this instance he isn't strong enough to counter. First, he escapes his job in a factory where, after an injury a colleague sustains and that he is blamed for, he is expected to hand over his wages to the injured colleague. He escapes to another part of the region and this is where he falls for the hostess. He then speaks to his mother on the phone and she frets over lack of money, and the boy from the factory confronts him, with flunkeys to hand. Backed into a corner, he jumps off a balcony. Jia proposes that many in contemporary China are possible suicides, though some choose to take lives other than their own. Even San'er who is easily the most skilled, ruthless and determined of the four main characters, acts as though a pragmatic member of a modern society that expects efficient work from its citizens. Yet we may wonder if this is the direction he might have moved in given a different set of circumstances. Jia doesn't present him as sympathetically as the three others, but he does insist there is a milieu which has produced him as we see San'er in his home town. Many film assassins (Jack in The American, James Bond, Jason Bourne) are socially disembodied, living an isolated existence. But Jia wishes to see San'er as readily a product of contemporary China as any of the others just one more given to taking advantage of the opportunities available.
Xiaohui is the weakest of the four, someone who lacks the resources to survive, and where the environment won't do much to help those who are not strong. If Jia allows Dahai and Xiaoyu to fight back even if their efforts seem more broadly futile, Xiaohui can't even do this as the film proposes that China's compressive economic growth might leave many without the wherewithal to become violent except towards themselves. Perhaps from a certain perspective, this isn't so bad; a few suicides will be less messy than taking out industry bosses. The economy still functions while the murder of bosses might indicate a lawless dysfunction. Suicide is just collateral damage, if Fourteen Foxconn employees who killed themselves in 2010 is anything to go by, and the source for Xiaohui's story. There were more at the company in the year of the film's making, with three suicides reported within 20 days. It is a problem that hasn't gone away, yet so be it. Not everybody can cope with the growing pains of expanding GDP and better the death of the few over the stunted growth of the many in this gruesome utilitarianism.
But lest this be seen only as a problem of economies developing quickly we shouldn't forget that the Foxconn deaths have been echoed elsewhere: infamously in France where there were 19 dead and 12 attempted suicides during 2008 and 2009. "In 2006, [CEO Didier] Lombard announced plans to cut 22,000 jobs and move another 14,000 workers, as France Telecom pushed for greater efficiency in the wake of privatisation two years earlier." (BBC) Whether a company or nation is expanding or contracting, is a nation quickly making enormous financial gains, or offering the much lower growth of an advanced economy, compression may be present. It is partly why we have insisted its cinematic manifestation is international, even if the causes of it might not be the same in each instance.
In Graduation, Cristian Mungui wonders if while the economy has grown is morality contracting, or is it that the old communist corruption is still in place in capitalist Romania? What seems undeniable is that as opportunities increase, greater opportunism is likely. Central character, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a surgeon, hears his daughter, Eliza, has been attacked. She is lined up to go to Cambridge University on a scholarship, but she needs first to do very well in some final exams. However, forced to wear a cast after the assault, she doesn't finish the exam on time and in the final one will need to achieve 100 per cent. Romeo looks like he can find someone to fix the result but only if in turn he gives a prompt liver transplant to a corrupt official. If this isn't dilemma enough, Magda, Romeo's wife and Eliza's mother, rejects the plan, believing it will ruin Sandra's bright future with a lie. The film follows Romeo's various compromises as he determines to help his daughter but Magda clearly has a point; even before Eliza takes her place in Cambridge, much murky behaviour seems to be required, and some of it at least initially beyond Romeo's ken. In a scene late in the film, Eliza is in a surprising conversation with the Chief Inspector as Romeo arrives at the station. What have they been discussing Romeo wonders, and we may too wonder what people have generally been discussing in Romeo's absence as the film hews closely to his point of view. Mungui finds an objective correlative to Romeo's feeling of compression as he tries to do the best for his daughter, accept the demands of his wife (on whom he is cheating and with whom he is all but estranged); and acknowledge that embroiling himself in the situation means further corruption as he decides whether to give the official a liver transplant while still keep his new relationship going.
In this restrictive point of view, also adopted by The Headless Woman but with a greater sense of objectivity here, Romeo must examine his conscience anticipatorily; Vero retrospectively. Martel is keen for the film to avoid focusing on the aspect of guilt even if it permeates a work where the most important question is one of perception (what has she done?). Mungiu said what he wanted to do was "...to make the story about a father who realizes that there's nothing much you can do once you've started down this path. The only thing you can do is to try to postpone as much as possible this very first compromise for your child." (Vox) Romeo tentatively moves towards doing his best for Eliza but all the while aware that he is compromising himself. Is that the inevitable choice: that to improve his daughter's chances he must surrender his value system? If the film's form remains within Romeo's purview, the emphasis rests on showing him within the frame as the observed more than the observer. Martel's off-framing captures an aspect of Vero's askew perspective on the world as she wonders how much is in her head and how much is in the world as she muses over what exactly she may have been responsible for killing. Graduation is more lucid and clear, and Romeo's incipient guilt is based on what he is choosing to do incrementally; Vero's is immediate; it comes out of the accident. But both Vero and Romeo belong to cultures that accept bad deeds are done for good reasons if the 'good' in both films is protecting one's family. Romeo wants the best for his daughter; Vero's family want the best for her which means making sure she isn't held responsible for a death she may or may not have been involved in. However, if The Headless Woman makes clear that Vero is encased within long-established bourgeois values, Romeo's world is less rigid, perhaps partly because of the changes evident in Romanian society as it moved from dictatorial Communism under Ceausescu, to a capitalist economy.
The latter might be the lesser of two evils but it may still be an evil, and the advantage of a society that has structurally shifted is that people who have been privy to these changes can see how contingent a value system is and how an ethos differs from such a system. A value system offers the assumed behavioural expectations, close to what David Hume would call customs, while an ethos consists of questioning these customs well aware that they are historically contingent. Hume says, "custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us." (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding). As Rachel Cohon says, "this signalling is not a promise (which cannot occur without another, similar convention), but an expression of conditional intention. The usefulness of such a custom is so obvious that others will soon catch on and express a similar intention, and the rest will fall in line." (Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy) But when people are accustomed to corruption, how natural does it become to fall in line? There is a scene with Romeo talking to his mother who says that she wishes Eliza would stay and Romeo says what is there to stay for and the answer would be very little if a chance of an education in the UK is a great goal. But in a culture that values education but equally values honesty, Cambridge would be foregone. However, this respect for the West in the wake of communism can lead to a severe deterioration in Romanian values, on top of the problematic ones practised under corrupt communism. The mother says, Eliza" should stay and change things. If they all leave..." as Romeo interjects and says he and Magda stayed and what did that change? He may have a point as he is willing to do some mutual backscratching to get her abroad but when he says "there, you don't need connections", we might assume he is wrong and wrong-headed. Wrong to assume that the UK itself isn't centrally about connections: as Owen Jones explores in a piece on the Establishment (and in his book of that name), one that references Henry Fairlie who coined the term. The Establishment "comprised a set of well-connected people who knew one another, mixed in the same circles and had one another's backs. It was not based on official, legal or formal arrangements, but rather 'subtle social relationships.'" (Guardian) Romeo would be wrong-headed because he is assuming a better life for her elsewhere while making Romanian life worse by compromising his ethos as he will help a corrupt official.
Near the beginning, we proposed that an aspect of compression lies in not knowing whether what one is doing is for one's own good or detrimental to it. In Romeo's case, he is determined to improve his daughter's chances while worsening his own as he almost ends up in prison. In The Headless Woman, Vero might believe her family are protecting her but are they actually destroying her mental well-being? In Time Out, Vincent will return to work and once again support his family just as he may feel his family has supported him. But if the compression continues, will the tragedy that the story has been based on become the case? He is certainly no happier at the end of the film with the likelihood of a new job than he was when pretending he had one during the course of it. In Crimson Gold, Hossein's heist indicates desperation rather than greed. It appears more an attempt at showing the limitations of many in Iranian society over the wealth that might accrue from a successful theft from a jewellery shop.
What most of the films explore is an inversion of the dynamic so prevalent in works of the sixties and seventies which combined Freud and Marx but showed the importance was more Freudian than Marxist. The problem was that individuals were so inculcated in a Gramscian hegemonic consciousness, in a thought process that needed to be liberated from beliefs imposed upon them by the ruling class, that liberation from this authority was what mattered most. Here we had repressed individuals because we had insidiously oppressive regimes. Films by Fassbinder, Mike Leigh, Bertolucci, Godard and Bunuel in very different ways explored this problem. Some characters would drink themselves to death (Fassbinder), become sexually confused and obsessed (Bertolucci) and others neurotically inert (Leigh), motivationally incoherent (Godard) or fetishistically preoccupied (Bunuel). We simplify complex filmmakers' problematics all the better to propose the issue now is elsewhere without at all suggesting that these earlier filmmakers aren't still enormously relevant.
However, one way of looking at today's problem is to play with the two words compromise and depression, to think of the bullshit jobs Graeber talks about, the suicides that have become prevalent in corporate workplaces, and the sense in which conformity becomes so standardised that deviations from it can seem like an illness. It might appear wonderful that so many people suffering from mental ill-health can diagnostically understand their condition. But it also allows for an outsourcing of capitalist precarity: it supposes it isn't the system that has a problem but the individuals within it. As Rod Tweedy notes, "what if it's not us who is sick but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?" (Red Pepper) You, The Living brilliantly shows that in such a situation there is no point individualising characters but instead focusing on a generalized mise en scene of misery, where everyone seems in a state of despair. When "one in four adults in the UK have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and four million people take anti-depressants every year" (Guardian), maybe the culture needs a diagnosis more than the individual. To understand a vital element of compression may require letting go of an individualist notion of the self and seeing instead that personal happiness is an oxymoron, that no matter the ever-increasing number of self-help books, life coaches, therapists and psychiatrists, it is the collective that is the problem. Our purpose has been to do no more than show how it manifests itself in a small handful of films, though there are plenty we could have chosen from; inevitably if it is one of the most pressing dilemmas of our age.
© Tony McKibbin