Renegade Kryptonians attempting to take over a world that’s already given up.
This weekend I was, for about four whole minutes, gripped by an acute sadness that made me sadder than I've been in...I don't know, let's say, months.
Alone in the dark at the Scotiabank Cinema 4 - well, as a party of one, there were other people in the theatre, even at 11:30 am on a Saturday - watching the mostly lousy Man Of Steel, my wincing disinterest in the film teetered into full-on despair. I was seized by that feeling that feels like when you're falling off a cliff in a dream and your heart's all the way down in your gut and you kind of lose control of yourself and start weeping - like your body is trying to escape through itself, ooze out into the world, and die.
At this point in my young-adulthood, my capacity to manage/suppress/banish all emotions is basically a metabolic function. So openly weeping during Man Of Steel was confusing and, naturally, humiliating beyond belief.
Luckily the movie was so stupid and boring that I had plenty of time to distract myself with a little emotional-mental reckoning. It's not that Man Of Steel was sad, or necessarily moving, or much of anything besides a 2.5 hour supercut of Michael Shannon getting punched in the face, first by Russell Crowe and then by Henry Cavill. But there is a more essential sadness that manages to unfold itself over the course of the film, best articulated, I think, in Smallville having a Sears. And a 7-11. And an IHOP. This, for some reason, I found deeply upsetting. Like enough that I'd start crying.
Well, not "for some reason." For a very specific reason. Watching Man Of Steel, and seeing Superman smash General Zod through an IHOP, and seeing that Ma Kent works at a Sears made me feel, severely, intensely - and sorry if this sounds like I'm wringing buzzwords out of a soggy B.A. - like I was being interpellated by the whole grinding process of capitalism, like some gross insidious force was reaching into my body and trying to produce my subjectivity for me. Or: it made me feel like I was just some dumb idiot, not only trying to be sold something - not just Sears or Superman but the whole idea of capitalism - but being relegated to the embarrassing status as nothing more than a commodity arranged in a whole complex process of commodification. Like a cog in a machine, man.
Part of this has to do with how the experience of going to the movies has, at least in the multiplex context, become almost intolerably terrible. You sit through ten minutes of ads for Aveeno and cars and Coca-Cola, and then ten more minutes of trailers for movies you have no interest in seeing, which...fine. Complaining about it seems pointless, like bitching about the price of popcorn at the concession. But time was, the feature presentation would start and you could put all the stuff behind you and sink in and get down to the business of escapism and enjoyment. Now the movies actively advertise to you in the films themselves. And it's not just a Bond movie pushing luxury brands like Aston Martins or pricey shakable vodkas. It's the piddling stuff of corporatized Middle-American existence: 7-11, IHOP, Budweiser, etc.
This seems like a dumb thing to complain about on its own. We're supposed to just take for granted that this is how things are. Hollywood cinema has never floated free from the larger operations of Western capitalism, so in their own garbage way, these blockbuster movies are just becoming more and more like themselves with each eight-figure product placement deal. But it seems especially egregious in Man Of Steel. Because it is Smallville.
Before, Clark Kent's fictional hometown was generally depicted as an arch Rockwellian idyll, a place of ma-and-pa shops and Jeffersonian family-farms. It was a place where an alien-titan-god like Superman could be weaned on the all-American mother's milk of hard work, humility and industry, where he could absorb the values that makes him want to work to benefit humanity, and not just rule over it. Now that landscape has been radically altered, reshaped as if by one of General Zod's Kryptonian terraforming doohickeys in the movie.
This is the new Anytown, USA. The general shop is a 7-11. The family-owned department store is a Sears. The diner is an IHOP. Pa Kent's farm might as well have a Mountain Dew well and a Nike sneaker tree. Middle America is now Corporate America. It is very sad.
It's very easy to feel defeated by all of this. Or just defiant, like, "So what if Smallville has a Sears?" True, hearts and minds aren't likely to be won or lost on the streets of made-up Smallville, even if it is where Superman and General Zod face-punch each other for control of all humanity. But seeing a Sears in Smallville puts in mind the more local, arguably more pressing, concern of a Kensington Wal-Mart.
(Yes, some hawkeyed geniuses have observed that, no, College and Bathurst is not, strictly speaking, within the commonly understood boundaries of Kensington Market. But as Jonathan Goldsbie noted last week, the very words "Kensington Wal-Mart" possess a certain spiked potency. And that potency, if not altogether accurate, nonetheless proves handy, argumentatively. Plus, as if something being basically right beside something else won't have an effect on it. Come on.)
The lie about Wal-Mart is a lie as old as capital itself. Basically, that there's no time to quibble about ideological fundaments (or use phrases like "a lie as old as capital itself") because people need jobs and Wal-Mart produces jobs and Wal-Mart sells essentials relatively cheaply and - what? You hate poor people, yuppie? Does the sight of a Wal-Mart offend your gaze as you peer through complicated designer eyewear? Why don't you go to Kensington and pay a premium for your ego-stroking because you're buying a mango off a real-deal authentic Chinese fruit stand? The rest of us need diapers and enormous economy boxes of Tony's Turboz.
Some people even try to argue that Wal-Mart isn't even so bad. Some, like Steve Maich in Macleans in 2005, even go so far as to argue that Wal-Mart is "good," as if just for the polemical kick of doing so. Maich, and people like him, usually hinge their rickety defenses of Wal-Mart's anti-labour practices on the well-worn argument that, hey, unions just want power too. Maich even defers to Andrew Pelletier, Wal-Mart Canada's own director of corporate affairs to make such claims, never bothering to problematize them or their source, while writing off anti-Wal-Mart lobbyists as religious zealots.
Defenders of Wal-Mart say that their non-standards of depressed wages, union-busting and competition-squashing pricing paradigms are well within the operations of supply/demand economics. But it's not a matter of their conclusions being wrong. It's a matter of the premises being false. It's not just about jobs, but the kind of jobs.
(See also: the downtown casino issue, which used the idea jobs-qua-jobs as a truncheon to beat back anyone opposing the "world-class integrated gaming complex" for whatever sets of reasons. This is a whole other argument, but deferring to the plight of the poor and jobless as a means of making really rich people even richer strikes me as way more disgusting and classist than thinking we can somehow do better than serving up more and more unskilled, minimum wage labour.)
Anyway. I think the whole condition of modern life in late capitalism is best summed up in this piece of pith, attributable to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectic Of Enlightenment: "The diner must be satisfied with the menu." The implication is that capitalism's greatest fleece - whether in the culture-industry of Hollywood superhero movies or the industry-industry of big box retail - is its ability to structure the whole curvature of reality. It offers nothing but false choices: Seth Rogen buddy comedy vs. Superman movie, Kensington vs. Wal-Mart (vs. Target), etc.
That quote - "the diner must be satisfied with the menu" - fizzed into the front of my mind as I left the Superman movie, bummed out and $13 lighter, and biked around the corner to the newly opened Burger's Priest on Spadina, to treat myself to two cheeseburgers I in no way deserved. That restaurant is well known (a bit ironically) for offering a secret menu: gut-busting burgers squirrelled away off the main board, sandwiches made of whole other sandwiches. At Burger's Priest, the diner doesn't have to be satisfied with the menu. The sense is that they'll make you a quadruple-stacked cheeseburger with grilled cheese buns just because they can; because they have all the stuff.
And so do we. I mean, we have all the stuff. Our world possesses the means and intelligence and the material wealth to, you'd think, fashion any sort of society we want. Or fashion a better one, at least. It's not a matter of not wanting a Kensington (or Kensington-adjacent) Wal-Mart. It's a matter of not wanting any Wal-Marts. Anywhere. Ever. Faced with even the false option, why chose one that prefers to create jobs only so it can alienate the people who take them? Why choose one that privileges the big box over the general store? Why choose the one that will perpetuate its own suffocating, inescapable logic of this-is-just-the-way-it-is normalcy?
It's kind of like that joke about fish not knowing what water is. When something structures your reality so totally, it's tricky to even conceive of it, let alone anything outside of it. I also think this is part of why stupid Man Of Steel brought me to literal tears: it wasn't just the sadness of realizing how totalizingly bad the experience of movie-going and how atomically ingrained the experience of living as a subject in capitalism is, but my bothering to even think about it that knocked me way off guard. It was like I was responding to how wildly mortified I was by my own naivety. Why choose a world that makes you feel bad just for feeling?