Advertisement

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

loitering-cover-cmyk-570

Sam van Zweden

The Writer at the Centre of the Essay: Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering

Loitering is Charles D’Ambrosio’s quietly brave collection of experimental essays. It doesn’t announce itself noisily, but associations slide sideways through the essays in unexpected ways. This collection is lyric in both senses – freely associative and loose, it borrows from the world, trying meaning on for size, producing metaphors and connections wherever it sees fit. Read more »

discworld

Elizabeth Flux

Footnote to a life: How Terry Pratchett kept me from going postal

If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, then teenage me would have been the steamroller to Terry Pratchett’s somewhat plagiarised tarmac. In the ten years since I first picked up The Fifth Elephant, my work has been littered with Pratchettisms to varying degrees. Read more »

Patricia-Highsmith2

James Tierney

The Necessary Paradoxes of Patricia Highsmith

A highly regarded author of complex psychological thrillers, including The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith’s fiction comes freighted with a heady mix of cross-purposes and intimate alienations. Read more »

Rebecca Shaw

TERF War: Transphobia in the LGBTQI community

I started to realise that I was ‘not like other girls’ about the time I hit puberty. From that point on I underwent an extensive and daunting process to emerge from my closeted cocoon into the beautiful lesbian butterfly I am today. An important part of that development was realising – mostly via the Internet (or very occasionally through people I met in real life) – that there were people like me all over the world. Read more »

9807778273_afe6ec792d_z

Rebecca Shaw

Breaking the Celluloid Ceiling

We are still at a point where far less than half the movies we see have a clear female protagonist, even though women are half of the population. If women as an ENTITY are not properly represented, their stories not told, what chance then do women of colour have? Read more »

article-2301242-18FA52E4000005DC-314_470x763

Rebecca Shaw

An Inconvenient Truth: Social stigma and menstruation

If you have heard of menstruation, you would know that it is an essential process in a little tiny thing called the EXISTENCE AND CONTINUATION OF HUMAN LIFE, and it is something that most (not all) women experience for about five days every month for a large part of their lives. It is a topic (besides shopping, lol) that women think about frequently. Read more »

flock_roof

Anwen Crawford

Don’t be Sheepish: Why Ewe Should See Shaun the Sheep Movie

Shaun the Sheep Movie is the latest feature-length production from Aardman Animations (the folk who brought us Chicken Run), and it is a delight. Borrow a young relative for cover if you must, but believe me, you are not too cool for a kid’s movie when it’s this much fun. Read more »

9331818982_322b389ff2_z

Annabel Brady-Brown

The blue pill or the red pill? In defence of highbrow film

Cinema is a powerful medium. Going to the movies, be it a Lav Diaz epic or a Michael Bay blockbuster, is an act of submission. You hand over $15 and the whole mash of your brain/senses/heart/dreams for ninety minutes. Read more »

girlwalkshomealoneatnight

Anwen Crawford

Bad Cities

A Most Violent Year has an atmosphere of all-pervading dread, like a film noir, as if the polluted air of New York itself was causing people to act against their better intentions. Even more haunting and more noir is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a memorably audacious debut feature from American-Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour. Read more »

empire-tv-review-fox

Anwen Crawford

Rise of an Empire

Watching Empire, I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. Read more »

video-undefined-22D54AFA00000578-784_636x358

Matilda Dixon-Smith

Insufferable assholes and grown up Girls

Yes, our girls are growing, learning, discovering. But all they’re really discovering is how toxic and unheroic they are, and how to use that to their advantage. They’re not going to grow out of their asshole tendencies, because they are actually assholes. Read more »

agent-carter-7683

Danielle Binks

Agent Carter and the future of the female superhero

Agent Carter has been described ‘a Triumph for Women, Marvel and TV,’ and heralded as an important new chapter in comics culture. If this supposedly groundbreaking new show fails, does it spell doom for the future of female-led superhero franchises? Read more »

jakobson0052

Katie Williams

Storytelling vs. interactivity: What makes a highbrow game?

What makes a game ‘highbrow’? We don’t have solid criteria for deciding conclusively which games are masterpieces, and which are just dumb, explosive fun. Read more »

ss_f6a450fbf737eb04c58b973f72e8817bb2b50285.600x338

Katie Williams

Brain Candy: Are game jams diluting the potential of video games?

In a world where YouTube gameplay videos narrated by hollering amateurs hold as much clout – if not more – than professional game critics, I worry that developers may be swayed to choose an easier, unimaginative, and more vacuous path to success. Read more »

cher_horowitz_closet-010_2

Katie Williams

Fashion Forward: How hidden algorithms are dressing up technology

Though we increasingly rely on technology to simplify our lives, we still want to believe that behind the scenes is a happy, human face, rather than an impassive machine that does the dirty work for us. Read more »

16475519129_bb489cf4ce_o

Jane Howard

Creative Space: The secret power of community theatres

Theatre is inextricably tied to space, and the best theatre spaces become more than buildings. They become communities of like-minded people: of artists and of audience members, intermingling their ideas and their lives. Read more »

Tessa Waters stars in Womanz

Jane Howard

Fringe Feminism: Women, comedy and performance art

Taken together, the work of these female comics and performers loudly proclaims that their ideas about gender, femininity, performance and comedy are not diametrically opposed. It is because of their performance backgrounds that their shows are hilarious, not in spite of them. Read more »

Before Us_3

Jane Howard

Stuart Bowden’s Unfamiliar, Universal Worlds

It’s hard to classify the work of Stuart Bowden. His one-person storytelling theatre works are at once hilarious and melancholy. They exist in a particular space of fringe theatre: intricately crafted stories built for small rooms & small audiences, they lift and rise that audience, gathering us all up in the magic of stories & the closeness they can breed. Read more »