The Lobster (2015): The Collective Exhaustion of the Present

lobster

The high concept of The Lobster, explained briefly:

In an alternate universe, every single person past a certain age is sent to a resort/prison in the country where they’re given a certain number of days to find a mate or else they’re surgically turned into an animal of their choosing. Every night the resort prisoners are forced to attend mixers and/or watch the older couple who run the resort give presentations resembling medieval morality plays demonstrating the sad pointlessness of single existence pushed too far. The single people can earn extra time to find a mate by hunting down single people who escaped the resort without being turned into animals. They shoot the escapees with tranquilizer dart guns in the woods near the resort. There’s a resistance movement in the woods that doesn’t allow any kind of romantic or sexual contact between its members.

That was a mouthful… anyway, onto the fun stuff:

The Lobster plays out a framework that’s been the basis for movies as wide-ranging as the original Star Wars to Woody Allen’s Bananas to Logan’s Run-man in oppressive/ineffectual society escapes said society to join a resistance movement where he meets a girl. Except usually the future/foreign country/other galaxy etc. has to look dangerous; it ultimately exists as the backdrop for the growth of trust and romance between the leads. Usually, the future/foreign country/other galaxy exists as a contrast by which the hero can define themselves in the starkest possible terms as the competent and effective individual (or, in the case of Bananas, a parody of such.) The individual comes out of the trauma of existing in society having taken revenge on, in the case of Star Wars, the literal authoritative father figure, in the rest some sort of surrogate paternal authority. Having killed the father, they can then have sex. This mixture of blatant Freudianism and frontier individualism is perhaps America’s defining mythical archetype; we return to it obsessively and take great interest in even its smallest variants.

We take such an interest because of the enormity of what this myth represents to us as a culture-it’s one of the first things that children are exposed to and they’re exposed to it over and over and over again in different guises. It probably forms much of the subconscious language and cues that make Donald Trump seem so comfortable and familiar, even inspiring to so much of the country. Even the left that’s ostensibly horrified by Trump don’t seem especially energized against him except in small bursts to try to legitimize Hillary Clinton. He’s a fascist demagogue, but he’s our fascist demagogue. We’ve been collectively preparing to like someone like Donald Trump for most of our lives. We’ve already been prepped for one end of the world scenario for a while; it’s hard for a populace to focus on two potential ends to everything at once.

After a century of increasingly intense media saturation attempting to enforce the social norms more aggressively and entirely than at any other point in human history, everything from heterosexual coupling to even the rebel myth seem like words that have been repeated to the point of losing any meaning. Surrounded by sounds and images that have spread themselves too thin to romance the senses; they’re experienced as a disciplinary beating rather than a seduction. The hand has been overplayed. Hillary Clinton, because she’s more attached to the continuance of these aesthetics, can’t seem to increase a polling lead over a guy who’s publicly attacked not just Latinos and Muslims but police officers and military personnel, a person who has been repeatedly and very publicly compared to Adolf Hitler (but who, it should be noted, did not vote in favor of the Iraq war and hasn’t been endorsed by Henry Kissinger who has indirectly killed as many or more people than Hitler did.)

The Lobster is a document of this collective exhaustion.

It skews the hero’s journey framework just enough to remove the elements that allow direct viewer identification or even the impetus to identify-who would want to be any of the characters in this film? Colin Farrell plays the protagonist, an overweight man who seems to be pushed into situations and who doesn’t take an independent action until the very last shot of the film. The leaders of both the resort and the resistance have no charisma; they rule by dull but forceful paternalism. Their authority exists in the extent to which their opposing ideologies frame the other as being unlivable. This strategy works because neither the puritanical resistance nor the boringly oppressive resort is actually livable.

In the woods, after escaping the resort, Colin Farrell’s character meets and falls in love with Rachel Weisz’s character. They can’t continue to exist in the resistance but similarly can’t rejoin society. When the resistance leader discovers that Weisz broke the rules, she’s taken to a surgeon and blinded, a parallel to the mainstream of the society’s ritual of surgically transforming single people into animals and similarly blunt in its symbolism. The resistance stage a raid on the hotel and in a clever sequence puncture the supposed basis of the resort-domestic love-by showing the couple in charge don’t actually love each other. I won’t ruin how they do that for those who haven’t seen the film, suffice it to say that they combat artifice with artifice.

At the same time, while puncturing the basis of the society, the resistance doesn’t have anything actually feasible to replace it with. The couple at the center of the film have no place to go and the film ends with Farrell, in his first self-determined action in the film’s running time, blinding himself in a bathroom.

With the society and its opposition equally distasteful, the true revolutionary act is to focus on one’s own problems and be blind. Neither character has anything even close to the sort of leverage where they could change the society. All they can do is seize the rest of their lives from the bleakness of the situation.

Do we have any better options in the United States in the present moment?

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7 comments

  1. How about a monastery in the woods? With some Buddhist “camps” someone will feed you at your little hut, so you can truly isolate from all this madness. And then you fall in love with your feeder. Oh oh. Back to materialism and a lovely body that Buddhists say is just a bag of bones and wind. But if you totally reject the material world, your body cannot support your wonderful spirit-being. See a specialist? “The dichotomy of being a sentient being”. Awareness is the best you’ll ever get, and even that may be a delusion.

  2. First thought:

    Male Feminist: You have no right to have sex.

    Nerd: But dude. They’re going to turn me into a fucking centipede.

    Male Feminist: Get over your human entitlement.

    Second thought:

    Two movies along similar lines. Mauvais Sang. Never Let Me Go

    Third thought:

    All this blinding, hmm, seems sort of Oedipal.

  3. After having seen the film, I totally agree with this:

    “The leaders of both the resort and the resistance have no charisma; they rule by dull but forceful paternalism.”

  4. […] narration, which somehow combines deadpan comic timing with utter sincerity, and while it does, as Daniel Levine points out, accurately dramatize the contemporary west’s political and cultural malaise, it never quite […]

  5. […] The new fascism is not a politics of possibility but a politics of exhaustion. It’s not founded in the shadow of imagined utopia but in the shadow of imagined extinction. […]

  6. […] The new fascism is not a politics of possibility but a politics of exhaustion. It’s not founded in the shadow of imagined utopia but in the shadow of imagined […]

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