Friday, August 02, 2013

Cosmopolis in Tonga

[I have been away from the 'Atenisi Institute this week due to illness, but my Studying Sociology Through Film paper was able to proceed as normal, because 'Opeti Taliai, the Dean of 'Atenisi and the world's biggest fan of the Folaha rugby team, stepped boldly into the breach and delivered a lecture I had e mailed to him.

For many decades now some of the more conservative elements in Tongan society have criticised 'Atenisi as a seditious institution, where young and not-so-young men and women are introduced to the perverse doctrines of Darwinism, democracy, atheism, and Satanism. I thought I'd indulge these folks by posting the text of my lecture, which is meant to prepare students for a viewing of Don De Lillo and David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis.]

Cosmopolis is based on the novel of the same name published by Don De Lillo in 2003. Don De Lillo is an American writer of Italian ancestry who has lived in New York City for most of his life. De Lillo has been publishing novels for more than forty years, and has developed a reputation as a commentator on the contemporary world and a prophet of the future.

In the 1980s and ‘90s De Lillo published several novels about religiously-motivated terrorists who attack American citizens and property, and since 9/11 many readers have turned to these books for insights into the mindsets of Osama bin Laden and his supporters. De Lillo has been fascinated by American as well as Middle Eastern outlaws and fanatics:
his 1988 book Libra tells the story of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President Kennedy, and his most recent novel Omega Point deals with an academic employed by the American government who cites a mystical view of human evolution as justification for the invasion of Iraq and the torture of suspected terrorists.

Like so many of De Lillo’s other stories, Cosmopolis has come to seem prophetic in the decade since its publication. De Lillo introduces us to Eric Packer, a twenty-eight year-old who has made billions of dollars by investing in sharemarkets. Packer can read tables of economic data as easily as the rest of us read Christmas cards, and has a knack for predicting the rises and falls of share prices. His wealth has enabled him to buy a titanic residence in central Manhattan, as well as a decommissioned nuclear bomber.

Packer understands data and money better than he understands people, or indeed himself, and Cosmopolis follows him through a day in which the life he has constructed for himself begins to collapse. As the story begins, Packer has summouned his limousine, which seems the size of the average railway carriage, and ordered his chauffeur to drive him across Manhattan to the suburb where he grew up, so that he can get a haircut. Packer’s advisers warm him against such a journey, telling him that the American President is in town, and that traffic will therefore be snarled up; that a group of anti-capitalist protesters are gathering; and that a mysterious assassin may have Packer in his sights. The advisers point out that Packer could get a haircut without travelling across town, but the young tycoon insists on making a journey to his childhood home.

As he travels across Manhattan in his limo, a variety of electronic devices keep Packer updated on the global financial situation. The news is not good: Packer has bet a huge amount of money on the yuan falling, but the yuan is rising. With each rise in China’s currency Packer loses millions of dollars.

Soon financial advisers are dropping into Packer’s mobile office to urge him to reverse his unwise investment. One of these advisers is a young computer whizz who shares a strange joke about rats; another is an older woman who provides Packer with sexual as well as financial assistance.

Packer has more than just economic problems to contend with. As it crawls through Manhattan’s traffic his limo soon collides with an angry political demonstration by opponents of the capitalist system that has made him rich. These protesters chant slogans condemning the gap between the world’s rich and poor, and wave rats. Some of them besiege Packer’s vehicle, hammering at its door and bumper as though they were the walls of a medieval castle. Later Packer comes face to face with the man who wants to kill him, and learns about the would-be assassin’s motives.

Cosmopolis, then, shows us a rich and powerful man who has tried to create his own reality using the internet, the stock exchange, and the chrome of his limo, but who is eventually confronted with a world outside his world. It is not surprising that David Cronenberg, one of the world’s most prominent alternative film makers, decided to put Cosmopolis on the screen. Five years after Cosmopolis was published, the world’s financial markets dived, as investors worried about the health of the American and European economies began to sell their shares. The huge investment bank Lehman Brothers had to close, and there were fears that even larger banks would collapse, and that ordinary Americans and Europeans would lose virtually all their savings. Such economic catastrophes have occurred before: the Great Wall Street crash of 1929 saw many American banks wiped out, as shares fell so fast and so hard that investors chose to commit suicide by jumping out of Manhattan hotel windows. In 2001 and 2002, a financial crisis in Argentina saw several banks ruined, and many Argentines lose their savings.

Many sociologists and economists blamed the global financial crisis of 2008 on the freedom that wealthy investors have to move money around the world, from one sharemarket to another, in search of short-term profits. These investors bet on companies in the same way that poker players bet on hands. They bet millions of dollars on a company in the hope that its share price was about to rise, make a quick profit, and then sell their shares a few hours later.

In many countries, governments have been forced to intervene in the economy and bail out private banks by paying some or all of their debts. By bailing out private banks, though, many of these governments have seriously indebted themselves. In countries like Spain and Greece, governments have chosen to deal with their new debts by reducing their spending on health, education, and other services. Many people have become angry about government spending cuts, because they feel that they are being made to suffer so that failed bankers can be protected from ruin.

In 2011 protesters set up a camp in a Manhattan park in an attempt to publicise the alleged greed of big banks, the support for those banks by Western governments, the gap between the rich and poor, and many other issues. Other protest camps were set up across America and the world, including Australia and New Zealand, as the ‘Occupy’ movement was born. The protesters held mass meetings where they discussed the problems of their societies and way in which these problems might be fixed. Sometimes police moved in to break up their protest camps.

A popular slogan of the Occupy protesters was ‘We are the 99%’. When they shouted this slogan or pasted it on placards, protesters were trying to emphasise their view that the world’s financial problems were caused by the recklessness and greed of a small number of very rich people.

In many ways Eric Packer, the anti-hero of Cosmopolis, resembles the investors who played a part in the 2008 economic crisis. The protesters who confront Packer resemble the Occupy protesters who have confronted ‘the 1%’ in cities like New York since 2008.

But Cosmopolis is a portrait of a city as well as an economic system. The film presents New York City as a metropolis where all sorts of contradictions, like wealth and poverty, cruelty and kindness, and solidarity and loneliness exist alongside one another. Virtually every ethnic group, religion, and lifestyle in the world can be found in New York City. Eric Packer notes, early in the film, that New York’s cab drivers often come from distant countries tormented by war. The cabbies have had to flee the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan or the Congo for cities like New York, where they can hope for a better life. But these new immigrants have joined a city where the wealthy and the poor live very different lives. While Eric Packer enjoys a loft apartment and a stretch limo, many poorer New Yorkers squeeze into tiny apartments, or even live on the streets. Beggars and the mentally ill wander Wall Street and other centres of wealth and power, symbols of the poverty that coexists alongside plenty.

Mike Davis and David Harvey are two of the most interesting commentators on the contemporary city. Davis is a sociologist at the University of California who has written often about his hometown of Los Angeles; Harvey is a geographer who lived for some years in the eastern American city of Baltimore, and has described its contradictions in a series of writings.
Mike Davis often distinguishes between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ cities. Modern cities, he argues, were built around making and moving things. Factories, railways, and sea or river ports gave them their wealth. In the postmodern city, though, wealth is created by making and selling images, rather than old-fashioned goods. Davis thinks that Los Angeles was the world’s first postmodern city. Los Angeles lacked a good seaport and lacked many factories, but it used Hollywood and real estate agents to create an image which attracted residents and money. For more than a century, Americans and non-Americans alike have been lured to Los Angeles by the promise of sun, surf, film stars, and health.

Baltimore was once one of America’s biggest industrial cities, and had one of the country’s busiest ports. By the 1970s, though, many of its factories had closed, and much of its port was rusting. David Harvey has described how investors and an investor-friendly state government have tried to reinvent Baltimore’s waterfront as a venue for holidaymakers and for business conferences. The old port facilities have been turned into restaurants, conference centres, and parks. Where it once made and moved things, Baltimore now tries to attract investment. Like Los Angeles, it has become a ‘postmodern’ city that sells image rather than manufactured products.

Baltimore’s ‘regeneration’ or 'gentrification' of its waterfront has been a model for many other cities around the world. In New York City, the 1990s and 2000s have seen major changes to Manhattan, as neighbourhoods that were once dominated by industry have been ‘regenerated’ or ‘gentrified’. Old factories and the shabby but cheap apartments that housed factory workers have been torn down; new and expensive apartments, restaurants, conference centres, and bars have gone up, as Manhattan looks to attract the wealthy.

As a city changes from a ‘modern’ to a ‘postmodern’ form, the jobs that are available to its poorer inhabitants – to the 99% who cannot afford to live off their investments – have changed. Instead of making or moving things – instead of working in factories or in warehouses or on wharves – workers are providing services to the rich, by waiting at expensive restaurants, serving drinks at fashionable bars, driving the wealthy around in taxis, and cleaning hotel rooms and luxury homes.

Across the Western world, cities have been losing their ‘modern’ features, and becoming ‘postmodern’. Meanwhile, in non-Western countries like China, new cities have been growing which have many of the ‘modern’ features that Baltimore and Manhattan have lost. Today it is in China rather than America where much of the world’s manufacturing is done.

Cosmopolis is a portrait of the postmodern city of the twenty-first century West. Eric Packer is one of the ‘1%’ of wealthy investors who has the ability to make a city successful or desperate. He lives in New York City and invests in its stock exchange at Wall Street. He takes advantage of the fancy restaurants and bars that gentrified Manhattan offer. He employs people not to make things in a factory or move things through a port, but to serve him in various ways – to drive him about, to guard him from attack, to advise him on financial matters, and so on.

Cosmopolis attracted mixed reviews after its release in 2012. At Rotten Tomatoes, a popular website where different reviews are collected and films are given a percentage rating, Cosmopolis has won a 64% approval rating from professional film critics but only a 32% approval rating from ordinary viewers. David Cronenberg is noted for making stylish films about strange and sometimes troubling subjects. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Cronenberg explained some of the aims of Cosmopolis, and offers some advice on how to watch it:

I think if you see the movie a couple of times it does all make sense, and it's all actually really interesting, the meditations on the future of capitalism and how that all reflects back on to the present, and so on, and the future of money -- quotes like, "Money has lost its narrative value," things like that, which are hard to absorb on the fly. But if the audience lets that stuff wash over them, you know -- almost like music, rather than dialogue -- and doesn't fight it, then I think they'll have a much easier time rather than being sort of frustrated and confused otherwise. But if you get in the right state of mind it really does work quite well, I think…

None of these people [Eric Packer and his advisers] really relate on a normal human level. They've sort of created a weird abstraction, a bubble, a vacuum, and that's sort of represented by the limo -- it's a strange, disconnected space. It has every sort of luxury and amenity and technological gadget and it's really disconnected from the sight and the sound of the city that it's traveling through, and that represents the way that they construct their lives. It's sort of interesting that one of the investors in this movie is a genuine French billionaire who deals with billions of dollars or trading and so on; he really wanted to be connected with this movie because he said it was absolutely accurate -- he deals all the time with people who are exactly like Eric Packer. They live in a bubble, a strange virtual reality that they've created, and they really don't know how to relate to people on a normal level, you know.

Some possible questions for discussion

1. How do you feel about Eric Packer? Do you admire some of his achievements? Is he worthy or more respect than the protesters in the movie give him, or are you more inclined to agree with their perspective?

2. We have talked about the differences between ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’ cities. Is Nuku’alofa a modern or a postmodern city, or do the terms not apply to it?

3. During the Great Depression which began with the Wall Street crash of 1929 huge numbers of people in the West were thrown out of work, and became poor and desperate. Queen Salote said that she was pleased that Tonga was protected from the Great Depression, because of the way that most of its people still lived off the land. To keep Tongans self-sufficient Queen Salote restricted the number of goods flowing into Tonga during the Great Depression. Today Tonga is much more connected economically with the outside world, because of the goods it imports and exports and the money sent home by Tongans living abroad. Have the global economic problems which began in 2008 affected you or your family in any way?

4. There are some similarities between Cosmopolis and the film we watched last week, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Both are set in big cities, both show conflict between different groups that live in those cities, and both show how modern technology can broadcast messages which excite and trouble people. But Cosmopolis and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised are made in very different ways. One is a documentary with an obvious political bias and the other is a carefully produced, coolly observed fiction. How do the different styles of the two films affect the way you experience them? Which film do you prefer, and why?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Liz said...

Brilliant and very interesting post Scott. Your questions have given me something to think about. Cheers!

9:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

3:20 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks Liz. I was looking at your blog yesterday, because my in-laws have just moved to Wainui, or thereabouts, and I was wondering about the history of the low hills and slow stream that frame their lifestyle block...

8:09 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

Really interesting post - though your teasers are about as believable as the mags at the supermarket counter!

I think Mike Davis' distinction between "modern" and "postmodern" cities" is really interesting to think about.

I was considering, however, whether the "modern" city was being posited as a better option in your post(?), whereas I'd argue that another term would be needed to distinguish the overproductive and wasteful city with one that actually functioned - whatever that may be!

And I was put in mind of Italo Calvino's short story, "Daughters of the Moon" - read beautifully here in the New Yorker podcast by Robert Coover:

Also, a nice bit of scene setting for the movie might be the documentary Inside Job, available to watch here on Vimeo:

Hope you're well soon.

8:50 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Rachel,

I agree with you that it wouldn't be right to fetishise either type of city. Is 'Daughters of the Moon' the story where Calvino has a nightmare of flying around the world, and finding the same city everywhere? There's an interesting interview with Don De Lillo about some of his obsessions here:

8:42 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

And I see the text of the Calvino story is also online:

I discovered an audio version of JG Ballard's The Drowned World the other day, downloaded one of the chapters, found it almost unbearably exciting to listen to - there's something about the rhythm of Ballard's sentences that stirs the reptile part of my brain - decided to grab the rest, and couldn't find my way back! The internet is full of sinkholes and blind spots...

8:46 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

Ah, you got the story, good.

I have to say, I usually steer clear of audio stories, because I get so distracted by the vocal tics and end up sketching the mouth movements in my mind's eye....but I may rummage for that JG Ballard.

Thanks for the De Lillo link - enjoyed it.

10:14 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

Really! This does not surprise me one bit. Look at the other story where the bus was illegal, not insured and did NOT
even have a bus. license to operate nor insurance. I blame the state for NOT doing their job and pulling '''E V E R Y ""
limousine over and checking credentials and doing a safety check of doors and windows and fire extinguisher. And then
you have JoeJoe who is looking for just a "CHEAP" limo rental. I say, JoeJoe, this is what cheap looks like! If you
want to play like a bigshot and can't afford a reputable service than stay on your porch and party like a rock star
or rent a cheap one and take your chances! Period!!

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