The Occupy Zeitgeist in 2011 Cinema

by Nicholas Rombes

1. A sense of outsideness. Buildings turned inside out on 9-11, and people outside in the streets of Manhattan. The mind, outside of itself with disbelief. The brutal and temporary restoration of the natural world in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities. Located a block from the World Trade Center, Zuccotti Park, terribly damaged on 9-11 and slowly restored, would become the locus of the Occupy Movement. Encampments. Tents. The incongruous sight of camping gear in urban spaces and beneath the shadows of skyscrapers, in a forest of steel and concrete and glass. It is not films like Margin Call or Contagion which speak to the Occupy anxieties of this past year, but rather a handful of films that at first glance seem far removed from what happened, and in some instances is still happening, in Manhattan, Oakland, Boston, and other cities.

2. In chapter two of Walden — a chapter that seems as bright and dangerous as it must have upon publication in 1854 — Henry David Thoreau (punning on the railroad tie usage of the term sleeper) spit-balled a promise across the American centuries:

Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain. If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? And if railroads are not built, how shall we get to heaven in season? But if we stay at home and mind our business, who will want railroads? We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.


Drive, FilmDistrict, 2011

3. The scene in Drive, wordless, to the sound of College’s “A Real Hero” that takes Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son and the Driver (Ryan Gosling) to a small patch on unrefined nature just off of the concrete river bed in the structural enormity of Los Angeles. A patch of wilderness, a dividing line, a threshold, the entrance into another zone. This is where the Driver was driving all along, and where he wishes to stay.

4. In Meek’s Cutoff, the Oregon desert in the 1840s, the fantasy and terror of open spaces, a film whose narrative journey takes it to no discernable end. The film’s goals are as fluid and unwritten as the goals of the Occupy movement. Meek’s Cutoff has a peculiar resonance for our time, with its leaderless leader, its inscrutable villain (is he even a villain?), its fractured communal decision-making, and most of all the wide-open spaces of the landscape and the mind of the landscape. In an interview Jon Raymond, who wrote the screenplay, commented on the film’s radically open ending: “That’s the worry I hope people leave with, which is to say, I hope they leave with their own predispositions toward the unknown in mind. Where do I place my own blind faith? When do I cede my own moral instincts to someone else? The story revolves very much on how a community makes decisions based on incomplete information.” The gamble of revolution: on which side do you place your bet? Is Occupy something substantial, an outward expression of a real cultural shift, or a brief historical moment that will become a footnote? That ambiguity, that haunting feeling of what’s next, and where to turn, and who to trust, is also the secret generator that propels Meek’s Cutoff.

5. In his book The Practice of Everyday Life (1980; trans. 1984), Michel de Certeau explores how we are both determined by and resistant to the organizing structures that try to map and control us:

The goal is to perceive and analyze the microbe-like operations proliferating technocratic structures and deflecting their functioning by means of a multitude of ‘tactics’ articulated in the details of everyday life . . . the goal is not to make clearer how the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology, but rather to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and makeshift creativity of groups or individuals already caught up in the nets of ‘discipline.’

6. The vague commune in Martha Marcy May Marlene exists as a sort of unfulfilled dream. As with the other Occupy Zeitgeist films, the deceptively shambling narrative structure hints at a fantasy of disorder, the disorder of the natural world in the heart of a city, a desire not to dismantle the dominant social structures, but to circumvent it altogether. What Martha wants is never clear; her desire is defined by its own contradictions At one point, for instance, she lashes out at her sister and brother-in-law’s excess materialism, and yet she herself has been involved in robbing material goods from others. Why should it be important that Martha want anything at all, the film seems to suggest. The beautiful and terrifying scene of Patrick singing to her — a scene that evokes but never affirms a sort of folk/hippie/protest feeling — is the closest the film comes to validating just what it is that binds the cult together: a yearning and hunger for authenticity.

7. In 1843, radical transcendentalist Orestes Brownson published his essay “The Present State of Society,” in which he wrote:

Let us not deceive ourselves. The whole head is sick, the whole heart is faint. Our industrial arrangements, the relations of master-workers, and workers, of capital and labor, which have grown up during these last three hundred years, are essentially vicious, and, as we have seen, are beginning to throughout Christendom to prove themselves so. The great evil is not now in the tyranny or oppression of governments as such; it is not in the arbitrary power of monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies; but it is in the heart of the people, and the industrial order. It is . . . in this fact, this mournful fact, that there is no longer any certainty of the born worker obtaining always work whereby he can provide for the ordinary wants of a human being.

8. In Tree of Life’s most centripetal scene, Jack (Sean Penn) “leaves” his glass and steel building and ends up in a desert, in the bright sun, still dressed in the clothes that signify his place in the machinery of capital, of high rises, of the built structures that separate him from the natural world. Tree of Life is not a nostalgia film for Jack’s imperfect but sometimes glowing childhood, but rather for a world where such buildings are brought down not by screaming planes, but by thought and memory.

Of course, this is a far cry from the daily practicalities of those who organize and participate in the Occupy movements, and yet it’s possible that films like Tree of Life somehow capture — in their very structure — the decentralized fantasy of the movement. All four films — Drive, Meek’s Cutoff, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Tree of Life — are defined by lack. In each one, it’s not clear precisely what the protagonists want, although they each clearly want something, and this generates a sort of outsized tension, a puzzle for the audience that somehow makes us complicit.

9. In Herman Melville’s 1855 story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” there is a moment when the narrator, who is visiting a paper mill in New England, stands in terrified awe of the enormous black machine that turns out nothing but blank paper:

Something of awe now stole over me, as I gazed upon this inflexible iron animal. Always, more or less, machinery of this ponderous, elaborate sort strikes, in some moods, strange dread into the human heart, as some living, panting Behemoth might. But what made the thing I saw so specially terrible to me was the metallic necessity, the unbudging fatality which governed it. Though, here and there, I could not follow the thin, gauzy veil of pulp in the course of its more mysterious or entirely invisible advance, yet it was indubitable that, at those points where it eluded me, it still marched on in unvarying docility to the autocratic cunning of the machine. A fascination fastened on me. I stood spell-bound and wandering in my soul.

10. In 2011, a new mood stole across the country. The physical machine in Melville’s story has, in the digital age, fragmented into a million little self-contained machines that lodge themselves in nearly all the circumstances of everyday life. There are open histories and secret histories, and the invisible cords that connect the Occupy Movements and Martha Marcy Macy May and the other films may never fully come into view. For myself, I have only sensed them, glimpsed them in the in-between moments of these movies. I suspect there is no rational, analytical way to establish a firm connection between say, the cityless landscape in Meek’s Cutoff and those Occupiers who choose the outdoors (rather than, say, the virtual channels of the internet) to make their grievances known. We find ourselves at the edges of something new here, a new hope, a yearning, glimpsed in all the usual places, but also in the bright, fragmentary sparks of a handful of movies that may turn out to be the deepest historical record of our present discontent.

Piece originally published at Filmaker Magazine. Piece republished with permission.