The Siren Song of Capitalism

Beautiful Things (2017) | Biennale College Cinema
Biennale College Cinema

– for Eric Allen Hatch

This is what the festival program said:

From an oil driller in the Texas desert to an engineer in an immense Italian industrial waste compactor; from the chief engineer of a huge container ship to a scientist at work in an echo[less] chamber –— the creation, movement and destruction of objects that define our modern world cycle endlessly[.] Like monks in strange and eerie industrial temples, their mechanical rituals unfold in silence and solitude. This remarkable, hypnotic film reveals the hidden poetry in scientific and industrial processes.

Many of the celebrated arthouse films that get a limited release, or even wide release, in the United States and Europe often don’t make it here to Taipei. That makes the four regular film festivals and two or three irregular retrospectives each year all the more anticipated and worth cherishing. And to encounter an Italian film that not only is still seeking theatrical distribution but actually chose to premiere here—on the edge of East Asia, literally half a world away from major Western cultural centers—is unheard of. It’s an authentic cinematic event. I had to see it.

Beautiful Things is a documentary-musical(!) of machinic assemblage and desire, a rapturous becoming-object, a euphoric celebration of accelerationism, and a vision of the role of the human in a world dominated by our technological children, who have dispensed with sentience, that cumbersome redundancy. The film was directed, produced, and edited by the two-man team of Giorgio Ferrero (who also wrote it and helped with music and sound production) and Federico Biasin (who also shot it). Thanks to the Venice Biennale College workshop, this wondrous exploration of how humans mesh with the machine order has impeccable production values, despite costing only 150,000 euros, employing only three other crew members, and spending only six months in production, one of which was for editing.

The film is divided into four sections, three interludes, and a coda. “Petroleum” follows the Texan Van Quattro as he talks about his life and its entanglement with the oil fields where he works. He grew up there and once left for Los Angeles, but came back to raise a family. It’s dangerous, hard work, but oil is in his blood. “Cargo” follows seaman Danilo Tribunal around his cargo ship, a mammoth structure manned by only about half a dozen people thanks to automation. He’s spent all his life on the sea, finally landing this ideal gig, only to feel a desire sprouting within him to head to shore and set down roots. “Measure” (metro in Italian) follows Andrea Pavoni Belli around his anechoic (echoless) chamber, where he checks the sound values of new products. Favoring intellectual over physical prowess, he finds meaning in the deafening silence that can drive a person mad. “Ashes” follows Vito Mirizzi, a waste incinerator operator who used to sell adult arcade games. He finds a sense of purpose in his new line of work, reducing Switzerland’s waste volume as cleanly as possible.

The narrative arc of the film that connects these four sections is the life cycle of products: made from oil, transported across the sea, making sounds as they’re used, and finally burned in the incinerator. The idea of a cycle is emphasized in the interweaving of the four sections, so that lines and images from previous or subsequent sections intrude on the current one when themes overlap. We’re so used to seeing products instrumentally, bought for one reason and tossed away for another, drifting into and out of our lives, that it’s striking to see the world from their point of view. These four people help machines that make products, send them out, and receive them back. That’s what these humans are: helpers. The machines—pumpjack, cargo ship, product, incinerator—have their own desires, using the human operators as prostheses to achieve their goals.

These four stories of machine-human assemblage are but the most demonstrative examples of our contemporary society of work. Who among us doesn’t devote their working hours to the smooth functioning of an outfit that, ultimately and however indirectly, produces, sells, or repurposes things? Even non-profits work to get things to people: aid, clean water, medication, housing. Not only have the necessities for living been abstracted into money, but money itself is further abstracted into products that, in being bought and sold, add only marginal and fleeting value to our lives. That which we invented to help pass the time now demands ever more of it from us. Our machine overlords have already arrived, and because we kept expecting the Terminator, nobody even noticed.

Are we doomed? Perhaps. But Beautiful Things attempts a form of Anthropocene alchemy, transmuting doom into salvation. The interludes are taken from Ferrero’s home videos, one each from his childhood home, college dormitory, and present-day home. In the first and second, all the objects in the room are turned on, producing an almost unbearable cacophony devoid of human presence. (Also devoid of human presence is a “song” halfway through the film that lacks words but comes with subtitled lyrics anyway—sung by a machine, one might say.) The third interlude is a birthday party, in which the camera focuses on objects, relegating humans to the background, in effect switching the roles of object and human. In each case, the scene is alienating, signifying the inhuman façade of the machine world.

And yet, there’s a way in. Each main section of the film ends in music mostly made up of the sounds of working with machines, arranged into a rhythm and bolstered by techno bass and percussion. The exhilarating sound is accompanied by dynamically cut images of the human-machine assemblage at work. Ferrero calls the film more musical than documentary, and this becomes clearest in the coda. The scene opens on two faces, belonging to dancers Vittoria De Ferrari Sapetto and Andrea Valfrè, in a dark space. They start singing and moving, objects around them begin to light up, and we realize that we’re in a closed shopping mall. As the techno music picks up the pace, the dancers fling themselves through, across, over, and under the still-unlit space, at one point taking an elevator ride, at another point diving into the central decorative pool—and all of it is caught in one, long, glorious shot.

Accelerationism is a branch of Marxist theory that believes that the only way to end capitalism is to accelerate its evolution so that it implodes due to its intrinsic contradictions. That hasn’t been borne out politically, but as an aesthetic practice, Steven Shaviro in his book No Speed Limit calls it the only form of Kantian aesthetics (useless and irreducible to knowledge) left untouched by the neoliberal world order—for it stands with neoliberalism to begin with. Indeed, the accelerationist coda of the film is euphoric and liberating precisely because it relieves us of the burden of worrying about the political import or purity of the film. No longer overcome with anxiety about whether it conveys a politically correct message, we’re free to revel in the intoxication of transgression into a non-human space, of the free-flow of bodies, voices, and rhythm—of beauty itself. Beautiful Things opens the door to l’art pour l’art in the machine age.

At the same time, Beautiful Things also incites a curious anxiety at odds with its theme of celebrating the material rhythms of work. Its targeted demographic seems to be people like me and (perhaps) you, who frequent film festivals for the arthouse, the experimental, and the avant-garde—in other words, people divorced from physical labor. The filmmakers themselves fall into this category, as they prepared a written script beforehand, only to chuck it in favor of the life stories of the human protagonists and their colleagues; theory yielding to praxis. After all, what in the world do we know about physical labor?

Since the human-machine assemblage is here to stay, the film suggests, rather than engage in ineffectual critique, we might as well embrace it, indulge in it, romanticize it. But what do the film’s four human protagonists think of this? Quattro appears resigned to living out the rest of his days in the oil fields; Tribunal says he wants to settle down; and Belli invokes his mother’s parenting style to explain his lack of physical prowess and concomitant turn toward intellectual pursuits. Only Mirizzi seems to be possessed of a sense of mission, the only one of the four to choose his line of work because of the work itself, with no extenuating circumstances.

By eliding over these discontents in its intense framing and cinematic overdetermination, the film seeks to idealize physical labor, thus betraying an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the life of intellectual labor. As any freelancer who has waited half a year for a paycheck can readily agree, this undercurrent is not unjustified. But the film grounds this disaffection in a specific idea of physical labor: the fantasy of labor and capital united, of (machine) overlord and (human) underling fused into one organic(-machinic), autonomous, and self-sufficient whole, that supposedly resides in the gestalt of the human-machine assemblage. At the core of this euphoric film is a vision of self-determination, a state of being in which the individualist finds that her community is not constricting but supportive, not guiding but acquiescent, not regulative but indulgent. The individual and the community are one.

In fact, this vision has already been realized to a great extent. It exists, and we can see it, in the nominally democratic but actually authoritarian state whose executive branch sends bills and budgets to parliament, assured of their approval. It’s somehow apt that Beautiful Things premiered in Taiwan because the most prominent of these states is just across a narrow channel of water, aiming at us its missiles, rhetoric, diplomatic threats, and cyberattacks. Accelerationism as a political philosophy hasn’t been borne out because it ends, as we all kind of knew it would, in the state of affairs called “dictatorship of the people” on the left and “fascism” on the right – —both of which are euphemistic doublespeak for totalitarianism.

Of what use is it to point this out and critique it if the postindustrial neoliberal capitalist world order is here to stay? To rephrase this in more academically fashionable terms: what comes after capitalism? But to think of a before and after capitalism, to think in terms of a utopian event susceptible to prediction, is to make the same mistake as Beautiful Things does in dreaming of a totalized human-machine being-in-itself-for-itself (remember Sartre?). The true resistance is in the mind, as George Orwell so terrifyingly demonstrated in 1984. Life will never hand you a job in which you’re completely free of alienation; there will always be some part of even an ideal job that, when obligated to deal with it, you’d prefer not to—and look where that got Bartleby. The key is to pick your battles, to accept alienation here so that you can fight exploitation there, and in the picking, accepting, and fighting you’ll find what you’ve been looking for subconsciously, what this whole shebang has been about all along: a meaningful life.

And that’s why we go to film festivals.