KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Column: Film and TV

The souls of successful men

by Estelle Tang , February 21, 20122 Comments

Playing like an episode of Mad Men reworked into a treatise on the Current State of Twentysomethings, Any Questions for Ben? is a film insistent on its own contemporariness. Note the superimposed text at the start of the film pointedly informing us that Ben can’t stay one year in a job without needing to move on (so Generation Y!) or the self-consciously cool locations of Rooftop Cinema and Melbourne’s famous laneway cafes in which the characters hang (so subcultural!). But also note the comprehensive failure of such strategies. The film’s attempts at Sofia Coppolafied joie de vivre are hopelessly undercut by a soundtrack of mid-tempo Australian rock music that sounds like it was cribbed from five-year-old Australian Open television promos. AQFB does not resemble a Sofia Coppola film as much as it embodies the glaringly unconvincing hipness of Bill Murray wearing a yellow camo T-shirt in Lost in Translation.

What the film actually turns out to be is a fairly well-trodden tale of existential angst from the perspective of a successful white male with financial security and a hedonistic lifestyle. Whether it’s Ben in this film or George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air or Don Draper in Mad Men or Marcello in La Dolce Vita, these characters are model citizens of capitalist society, efficient in their jobs and good consumers. Ben is an advertising consultant with an expensive apartment, who dates models and attends the hottest parties. But this fast-lane lifestyle comes undone when he accepts an invitation to return to his old high school with a group of alumni to talk about his achievements and is met with indifference by the student body. Needless to say, this prompts Ben to re-evaluate his life’s direction (though part of me wanted to pull this character aside and tell him that it’s usually a bad choice for a teenager to make important decisions just to impress a group of seventeen-year-olds, and this probably holds truer for someone in their late twenties).

What does this kind of narrative about hedonistic men’s existential crises (let’s call it the What’s-It-All-About-Alfie genre) tell us about life under capitalism today? It indicates that what philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek refers to as capitalism’s superegoic injunction to enjoy cannot be met without some excess feeling of guilt. In other words, our angst-ridden men are caught in a catch-22: it is in the fulfilment of their duty to be successful participants in capitalist society that they feel most guilt-stricken. Capitalist jouissance is their duty and despair. Zizek suggests that capitalism is able to accommodate this unwanted psychic energy by way of ‘cultural capitalism’ – through feel-good products such as organic food and free-trade coffee, capitalism allows you to ‘buy in the very consumerist act … your redemption from being only a consumerist’. One needs look no further than the nearest Grill’d store, where customers who buy burgers are asked to drop a bottle cap into a box to help the company decide which charity they should donate money to. You’re not only buying a burger; you’re saving the world!

The question regarding the What’s-It-All-About-Alfie genre, then, is: how is capitalist guilt resolved within the narrative? To what end is this psychic energy deployed? The answer, invariably, is a bourgeois romantic coupling. In AQFB’s happy ending, Ben retains his unfulfilling job having resolved his existential crisis by committing himself to a Serious Relationship with a woman (a human rights lawyer, no less!). After the film ends, one is left wondering whether Ben will return to his high school the next year and tell the students that he still has a boring job but it’s okay because he has a hot girlfriend.

By contrast, Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) presents the possibility of a romantic coupling and building a loving family as an illusory solution to its protagonist’s existential angst. Marcello, an unhappy tabloid journalist, visits his friend Steiner and is envious of his seemingly fulfilling life as a comfortable intellectual who socialises with artists and poets and exhibits great passion for his family. It turns out that the stability of Steiner’s world is a fantasy that promptly disintegrates in a later scene where we find out that Steiner has inexplicably murdered his children and committed suicide. Even if this plot point may be overblown, one has to prefer Fellini’s rejection of easy solutions to AQFB’s unerring faith in the redemptive power of romantic love.

But at the same time, we can’t be satisfied with Fellini’s absence of solutions. Perhaps something symptomatic of all these films is that the crisis and solution are framed in individualist terms. The drama plays out not in the relational field of ethics but in the private realm of men’s souls. This is why romantic love is an attractive illusion; it proposes a solution to capitalist guilt that leaves the status quo intact. We might view Year of the Dog (2007), directed by Mike White and starring Molly Shannon, as a quietly radical film in this regard. Again, the film is about an existential crisis: Peggy, a spinster who works in admin, falls to pieces when her closest companion, a pet dog, dies. Where in most comedies this would be the catalyst for Peggy developing a ‘normal’ romantic relationship, Peggy instead develops a passion for animal rights activism. Here we have a new kind of ending, where ethical problems are met with ethical (not private) solutions. Peggy has found something larger than herself to believe in and live for. It’s this ‘something’ that our angst-plagued men have not yet found.

Brad Nguyen (@bradnguyen) is a Killings columnist. He is a Melbourne-based writer and editor of the film criticism website Screen Machine (www.screenmachine.tv).




  • http://www.vitaminfaq.net/ http://www.vitaminfaq.net

    Hello from many miles away! This is just what I was expecting, and you wrote it well. Thankyou

  • http://www.gamespot.com/users/superfruta slim pills

    I did fruta planta for 1 month, i started at 192 and ended at 174. I did workout 2x a week for about and hour and changed my taking in habits lots of protein and very little carbs but overall i went from a size 14 to a 9. I cant complain its perfectly worth it.!!1

West Bank

David Donaldson

Whitewashing occupation? Bill Shorten and the Israel Lobby

Racism and military occupation have no place in the modern world, and are certainly not something looked upon favourably by a majority of Australians. Yet while apartheid, for example, has become a byword for shame and racism, the Labor Opposition leader feels comfortable asserting that some Israeli West Bank settlements are legal. Read more »

Tony Abbott

David Donaldson

Abbott and Brandis’ culture war backfires

What is supposed to happen in a culture war is that conservatives use a controversial issue to drive a ‘wedge’ through the left, forcing a split between factions. In Australia, this usually means pitting Catholic unionists against their socially liberal colleagues in the Labor party. Read more »

climate change

David Donaldson

Australia is going backwards on climate policy

During the Howard years, it was usual for Australia to be awarded ‘Fossil of the Day’ by climate advocacy groups whenever it attended a climate negotiation conference. The award signifies the country that had done the most to hinder climate change negotiations, and Australia has won a pile of them. Read more »

Zoe Pilger

Carody Culver

Girls, eat your hearts out

Middle class hipsters, conceptual artists and third-wave feminists have long been easy targets for mockery, so I admit that I wasn’t expecting anything too groundbreaking when I picked up Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out, a satirical romp through contemporary London that reads like a surreal mash-up of Broad City, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Less Than Zero. Read more »

Laika, Astronaut Dog

Carody Culver

Houston, we have a fabrication

As someone who doesn’t have children, I’m no less resistant than any of my book-loving friends-with-kids to the charm of a beautiful picture book. So when I spotted Laika: Astronaut Dog by writer and illustrator Owen Davey, with its charming retro-style artwork Read more »

& Sons

Carody Culver

WASPiration: David Gilbert’s & Sons

As someone who’s always secretly aspired to being a WASP (before you mercilessly judge me for this, I should clarify that my desire has less to do with attaining elevated social and financial status than with being able to dress like a character in The Great Gatsby Read more »

American Pickers

Julia Tulloh

Eccentric junk collectors held high on American Pickers

The History Channel’s American Pickers, currently in its sixth season, is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable reality series on TV. It’s not a competition show, it doesn’t exist to objectify people and it isn’t particularly dramatic. So what’s the appeal? Read more »

Justin Timberlake

Julia Tulloh

Pleasantly forgettable: Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience

On 7 March this year, tickets went on sale for the Australian leg of Justin Timberlake’s latest tour, ‘The 20/20 Experience’. All five shows sold out in a few hours. The same day, five new shows were released, with most tickets for these rapidly selling out too. Read more »

BuzzFeed

Julia Tulloh

BuzzFeed quizzes understand me

If you use social media regularly – Facebook, in particular – you’ll have completed a BuzzFeed quiz during the past month. Don’t deny it. Even if you didn’t share your results online, deep down you’re still feeling smug because the ‘What Should You Actually Eat For Lunch?’ quiz confirmed that eating ice cream was, in fact, an appropriate meal for your personality type. Read more »

The Lego Movie

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Nostalgia and today’s family-friendly films

Hollywood has always known the adults are watching alongside the kids, and that to push a film into record profits (as Lego looks set to do with a global box office of $428 million and counting), you need to appeal to ‘kids of all ages’. Read more »

nympho-poster

Rochelle Siemiennowicz

Weirdos on screen: Noah and Nymphomaniac

There are some filmmakers you’ll follow into the dark, no matter how bad the buzz is about their latest work. For me, naughty boy Lars von Trier (The Idiots, Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Antichrist, Melancholia) and strange kid Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) are two filmmakers who can be loved or detested, but never ignored. Read more »

planes

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Notes from a plane

There’s an art to choosing the right film for every particular occasion, and as I nervously sit in a Qantas jet about to take off on a four-hour flight from Melbourne to Perth, the choice seems very important indeed. Read more »

tweet

Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Web as an Empathy Machine

Ad hoc Twitter projects like #RaceSwapExp neatly draw together all that is terrific and all that is terrible about the web as a system. Depending on how it is used, the web can either allow us to retreat into callousness, cliques, and fixed ways of thinking or it can function as the world’s most sophisticated and effective empathy machine. Read more »

Samsung fingers

Connor Tomas O'Brien

‘Fooled’ by technology

As I browsed the web last Tuesday, something struck me: tech companies can no longer pull off compelling April Fools’ Day hoaxes because there’s no longer even the thinnest line delineating sincerity from spoof. Read more »

wifi

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Flight 370 and gaps in the internet

On Twitter the other day, sandwiched between a slew of links to articles about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, somebody tweeted a link to the website for Tile, a Bluetooth-enabled device that can be attached to physical objects, enabling them to be located within a 150-foot range. Read more »

Magabala Books

Danielle Binks

Magabala Books and the importance of Indigenous YA literature

Magabala is Australia’s leading independent Indigenous publishing house based in Broome, Western Australia. An independent Aboriginal Corporation since 1990, Magabala’s objective is, ‘restoring, preserving and maintaining Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.’ Read more »

Young Adulthood Books

Danielle Binks

The young adult books of my young adulthood

In March, Penguin Books Australia rereleased Melina Marchetta’s first novel as part of its Australian Children’s Classics series. Looking for Alibrandi was first published in 1992; the first print run sold out in two months, and Marchetta’s debut went on to win the Children’s Book Council of Australia Children’s Book of the Year Award. Read more »

When You Reach Me

Danielle Binks

A children’s lit prize of one’s own

Earlier this year, Readings Bookstore announced the creation of The Readings Children’s Book Prize. The eligibility criteria for the 2014 Prize was specified as ‘a work of published fiction, written for children aged 5–12’. Read more »

EMA

Chad Parkhill

Radical honesty: EMA’s The Future’s Void

Erica M. Anderson’s recently released second solo album, The Future’s Void, has been for the most part well-received by critics – albeit with some caveats. Read more »

music theory

Chad Parkhill

Do music critics need music theory?

Canadian musician Owen Pallett – the man who arranged the strings on Arcade Fire’s albums, co-wrote the soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s Her, and has a bunch of wonderful solo albums – can now add another feather to his cap: that of an engaging music writer. Read more »

Tune Yards

Chad Parkhill

Drips, leaks, and spurts

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a state of perpetual excitement – musically speaking, that is. First came tUnE-yArDs’ new song, ‘Water Fountain’, a joyous, riotous explosion of colour and movement. Then Swans released ‘A Little God in My Hands’, a seven-minute epic of a track … Read more »

Community

Stephanie Van Schilt

Diary of a lurker: TV and Twitter

At the end of last month, global information provider Nielsen announced that Australia was to become the third country in the world with the ‘Nielsen TV Twitter Ratings’ service. According to a Nielsen Company press release, the Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings are ‘the first-ever measure of the total activity and reach of TV-related conversation on Twitter’. Read more »

Broad City

Stephanie Van Schilt

Funny Broads

‘All comparisons between Girls and Broad City should be hereto forth banned from the internet.’ I agree with Katherine Brooks. Yet the comparisons continue, ad nauseam, mostly following one of two lines of thought. Read more »

The Carrie Diaries

Stephanie Van Schilt

‘Alive Girl’ TV: The Carrie Diaries

Get ready to feel old: it’s been ten years since the final episode of Sex and the City aired. I’m not talking about the first episode back in 1998, but the final episode – the one before the two questionable movies were released. Read more »