The Most Relevant Movie of the Year: ‘Cosmopolis’

By  · Published on September 4th, 2012

Warning: This article contains possible spoilers for Cosmopolis.

At some point about halfway through David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, Vija Kinsky (Samantha Morton) informs young billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) that the chaotic protestors wreaking havoc outside the windows of the state-of-the-art, impenetrable limousine 2.0 they occupy subscribe to an anarchist philosophy that holds destruction itself to be a creative act. Implicitly citing the work of economist Joseph Schumpeter, Kinsky then points out (perhaps ironically, perhaps not) that capitalism is also a form of “creative destruction”: the market moves through cyclical ebbs and flows, older resources must be exploited in new fashions, the seemingly new is always replaced by the purportedly antiquated, and so on. This view of destroying the old as a means in of itself to produce something new also emboldens the work of productive critique, a practice in which Cosmopolis (as both novel and film) is heavily and centrally invested in terms of its narrative and intellectual preoccupations.

Cosmopolis is no doubt a strange and unique film, a provocation as necessary as it is unwelcome in the wake of Hollywood’s stock cloning practices. That the film stars Pattinson, an actor both beloved and despised because his astronomical fame has been created by this Hollywood, highlights the film’s inevitably polarizing difference all the more. Cosmopolis is a sort of narrative “essay film,” at once a polemic without urgency, a manifesto that doesn’t design a way out, and an apocalyptic suicide note too disillusioned with and desensitized in the 21st century to see much worthwhile past it.

Cosmopolis is, more than anything else, a film heavily invested in its own tensions and limitations. On the one hand, Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel (which is less adapted than it is transcribed here) is eerily prophetic of our current moment: it envisions a New York City that erupts in a class war between the uber-wealthy and the under-employed postmodern proles, tracks a loss of faith in currency exchange and the future of the markets that closely resembles the 2008 economic crisis, and the film’s “antagonist” struggles to articulate his motive for killing Eric while a seemingly endless string of senseless real-life acts of gun violence continue to traumatize and instantaneously become forgotten throughout the United States. But despite its relevance and immediacy, Cosmopolis could not feel more distant and alienating, as if it were preserved, packaged, and presented in a vacuum containing all the signals of The End of the American Empire As We Know It without the feelings of impending doom, cautious optimism, and routine paranoia that often resonate along with this proliferation of all-too-familiar images.

But if Cosmopolis is an alienating experience, that’s because it’s about the alienation of contemporary experience. Eric’s limo is a model of media convergence not unlike a smart phone in that its function permeates well beyond its archaic name (“phone” is hardly the appropriate term for what we use today, just as Eric and Kinsky lament the stupidity of other mainstay terms like “airplane” and “computer”), and also provides a shelter for the most basic human actions, from penetration to urination. Eric has all the access to the world’s information at his fingertips, yet he is notably separated from “the world” whateverthatmeans, seemingly privileged with a legion of followers who come to him without ever visibly arriving or leaving. Bookstores and diners are not the only places of leisure for Eric. That Eric’s shoes rarely touch the asphalt of the street (until the final act) signals that the material world itself has become an escape from the “reality” he’s manufactured as his working life.

This alienation gives Eric (and his many passengers) the opportunity to experience lived life simultaneously with a critique and analysis of it. Strangely, DeLillo and Cronenberg make a compelling case that the space of the one-percent does not so much manufacture Romneyesque out-of-touch-ness as it potentially provides the ideal container for intellectual inquiry: Eric has omnipotent access to “real life,” but is distanced enough from it to engage in critique (I’m not sure how much this move elevates the bezerkly rich or denigrates academics). With alienation comes immediacy: Kinsky, without an ounce of worry about the dangerous puncture of reality seeping in, is able to comment on the riots outside as they occur. When the anarchists’ protest finally comes crashing down onto Eric’s roof, the scene’s mutedness is maddening and disappointing (especially in contrast to the depiction of this scene in Cosmopolis’s advertising campaign, which finds on-the-ground anarchy far more exciting and marketable). And that’s the point. Cosmopolis is a quiet film, not because it’s scant on dialogue (hardly), but because it deliberately obliterates any semblance of atmosphere. The sound, or absence of it, that’s deafening in Eric’s car is also the sound of the blog post, the online bank transfer, the scroll of the stock quote.

But perhaps Cosmopolis’s greatest tension exists between theory and materiality, critique and concrete, abstract and asphalt. As an exploration of the crises of late capitalism, this tension is highly appropriate. According to Marx, capital itself exercises this exact tension. Alienation is hardly exclusive to the rich. The industrialist worker is alienated from other workers and the product he or she produces on the assembly line, and the cyber-capital laborer is alienated in ever-more compounding ways. Currency, the guiding marker for the exchange value of goods and people – the dollar, the yen, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the nanosecond – is an abstract idea rendered into something tactile, material, and measurable, be it plastic or paper.

This abstraction is also explored in the film’s idiosyncratic use of dialogue (“what” becomes a malleable term whose meaning expresses only the momentary lack of meaning), Eric’s preoccupation with using wealth to accumulate abstract expressionist paintings (perhaps the most honest of abstractions, Mark Rothko’s paintings were paintings of paintings), and the questionable social value of symbolic protest (Mathieu Amalric’s proselytizing, pie-armed celebrity dissenter represents the most active of slactivists). No wonder Eric fucking shoots himself in the fucking hand.

But for Cronenberg, this tension between abstraction and materiality exists in the process of adaptation itself.

Cronenberg’s original screenplays have, for the past three decades, often been adaptations, just as they’ve frequently been his coldest, most intellectually engaged and emotionally distanced works, from reworkings of J.G. Ballard’s Crash to William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch to the director’s unofficial adaptation of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media, the masterpiece Videodrome. Cronenberg’s scripted adaptations are largely works of notable invention and selection in his unique process of bringing book to screen: e.g., excising the Elizabeth Taylor subplot for Crash or assembling Naked Lunch from bits of Burroughs’s life, selections from the novel, and Cronenberg’s own obsessions. It’s surprising, then, that Cosmopolis is such a clinical adaptation, seemingly copying and pasting the novel into shot arrangements.

But Cronenberg’s intervention in DeLillo’s work is subtle. In a recent interview with Film Comment’s Amy Taubin, Cronenberg said, in response to not including a reflective closing moment Eric experiences in the novel:

“I thought it would have a different impact than it has in the novel, where it’s still pretty abstract and literary. Movies are pretty literal no matter how you mess with them…”

Here Cronenberg means that when making films, one works with materials that look and feel a specific way, as opposed to the opening up of imaginative possibility that the poetics of the novel allows. A great many avant-garde filmmakers would rightfully protest Cronenberg’s implication that film can’t portray the abstract. But Cronenberg has never worked in the abstract, at least not in the materials that he chooses to depict onscreen. His acts of violence and staging of human sexuality, for instance, leave decidedly little for the human imagination to do. Cronenberg’s filmmaking is explicit in nearly every sense of the term.

So, where DeLillo’s anti-naturalistic dialogue and revolving door of limo guests provides an open impression in the novel, these factors considerably more at-risk in a film, where that dialogue and that supporting character is occupied by a flesh-and-blood individual possessing a known persona that extends well beyond the film itself, and a cast of varying capacities in their ability to deliver such stylized diction. The film’s New York setting deals with the concrete as well, even though much of the film takes place through a window: from the antiquated computer-generated Sim City simulacrum of Gotham’s streets in the film’s opening to the exterior Toronto-filmed locations later on, Cosmopolis begs the audience to consider their relationship with the detailed representation they’re given against the reality they think they know. “New York City” exists in the abstract for every one of us, even if we can cull a mass of individual meanings and iconography from it. To film a Toronto building and deem it New York City forges a confrontation between the theoretical and the actual.

Cosmopolis the film also forgoes the novel’s ability to portray sensation. The attack of the aforementioned Pastry Assassin, for example, is described by DeLillo through Eric’s disorientation and confused pain. That same attack onscreen is devoid of sensation. While Eric’s journey and fate greatly resembles that of Videodrome’s Max Renn in terms of his gradual descent and inevitable fate, Cronenberg has rejected portraying a shocking immersion into the psyche of James Woods’s delirious martyr in favor of an absence of subjectivity altogether. Eric’s material world is one of his creation, so why would we need access to the experiential state of his subjective being? They are the same thing.

Cosmopolis in a way completes what Cronenberg started with his body horror films, moving from the transformation of the body through its insides (Videodrome, The Fly) to its surface (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) to a vision of the outside world as governed by the subjectivity of the privileged few. According to Cosmopolis, we’re all living through the alienation, intellectual distance, and subjective world-making of the one percent.

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