Cosmopolis – A film and a book.
“Your genius and your animus have always ben fully linked,” she said. “Your mind thrives on ill will toward others. So does your body, I think. Bad blood makes for long life. He was a rival in some sense, yes? He was physically strong perhaps. He had a large personality. Filthy rich this chap. Women in his soup. Reasons enough to feel a sneaky sort of euphoria when the man dies horribly. There are always always reasons. Don’t examine the matter,” she said. “He died so you can live.”
It’s impossible for me to talk about the film Cosmopolis without talking about the book. I finished the novella ten minutes before I went in to see the film, so for me they have become forever entwined, each incapable of existing without the other.
However, unlike many other book / film interactions, in this case it works perfectly well. David Cronenberg has lavished adoration on Don De Lillo’s book, and brilliantly opted to recreate it rather than interpret it. While this may make for a critically controversial film, it honours a very great writer and relishes the pleasures that are found in the pure orgiastic indulgence of brilliant writing. For this decision Cronenberg has been called dull, meandering and pretentious. For deciding not to sell out on the original narrative, the film has been criticised for being verbose and self-indulgent. It is in the reading of the book, however that Cronenberg is liberated from these accusations. In an interview in Cannes he said he wrote the script in six days because the book was so perfect as it was there was little for him to do to adapt it. I would agree with him and congratulate him on that insight.
DeLillo wrote Cosmopolis in 2003 before the recent recession and before the Occupy Wall street protests. In historical context, the novel has therefore proven to be prophetic in that it predicts the fall of the obscenely wealthy connected with the world of trading and the people’s rise in protest against having to bail Wall Street out of the consequences of their self-imposed errors and foolish acts spurred by shameless greed. However, this is Don De Lillo we’re talking about here, and the man is a post-modernist through and through. To imagine this is purely a tale about the evils of capitalism and its piles of money walls that separate the haves from the have nots is to make an error of judgement about what De Lillo is all about. This is a book about a human creatures separation from the real, a desperate reach for the real and the inevitability of death.
Death is everywhere in the novel and, properly, in the film. Eric is haunted by the threat of death from a man who wants to kill him, he takes the risk of going out (for the most unimportant of reasons) deliberately risking his life because he likes to think he can face death. In the course of the day he will see a rival die on public television (a death he celebrates) and witness the funeral of a rap star who was also a much-loved friend (a death he mourns) and ultimately we will discover the death that hangs over his head is the death of his father, a man who died suddenly when Eric was five from prostate cancer. Eric, incidentally, has his prostate and the rest of his body checked by a doctor every day. For Eric there is order in everything and with enough data, enough information he will be able to control all events.
“There’s an order at some deep level,” he said. “A pattern that wants to be seen.”
“Then see it.”
He heard voices in the distance.
“I always have. But it’s been elusive in this instance. My experts have struggled and just about given up. I’ve been working on it, sleeping on it, not sleeping on it. There’s a common surface, an affinity between market movements and the natural world.”
“An aesthetics of interaction.”
“Yes. But in this case I’m beginning to doubt I’ll ever find it.”
“Doubt. What is doubt? You don’t belive in doubt. You’ve told me this. Computer power eliminates doubt. All doubt rises from past experience. But the past is disappearing. We used to know the past but not the future. This is changing.” she said. “We need a new theory of time.”
Inextricably linked with death is the relationship Eric has to his animus. De Lillo calls traditional masculinity into question in Cosmopolis and Cronenberg does the same, extracting a decent performance from Robert Pattinson. Pattinson looks like Eric Packer, even if I envisaged someone with more sex appeal. (Pattinson is very pretty to look at but there is something decidedly a-sexual about him – maybe its the spectre of all that teen angst) If there is one thing Pattinson can do brilliantly, its look cool and rich. However, toward the end of the film, when he discovers the asymmetrically of his prostate is something he has in common with the man who is threatening his life he discovers control, power and the right to choose who lives and dies are masculine qualities that led him astray. It is his way-ward prostate that informs him – via the man who wants to kill him – that he never allowed for the variables. That he was so determined to impose his theory of order and control, that he missed the crucial allowance for imprecision.
“The importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides. I know this. I know you. But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The misshape.”
“That’s where the answer was, in your body, in your prostate.”
For Eric Packer the answer was there all along. In his body. In his father’s body. De Lillo brings us back to the concept of mind-body separation – the belief of convenience that the intelligent mind (male) is always superior to the emotive body (female). In the end Packer will shoot a Christ-like hole through his own hand because its better to feel something than nothing.
Having lavished my praise on this gorgeous film and fantastic novella, I will add that one of the gifts of the film, that is embedded within the novella is the time concept and the overall datedness of the concepts of post-modernism. Eric and Vija muse in the back of Eric’s limo on the way computers are integrating themselves into daily life. That the idea of the box and the keyboard seem passe. That even the word computer feels old now. This is a commentary on the way that post-modernism feels old now. Its time has come. We are no longer so concerned with our detachment from reality. Time has sped up and is overtaking us so much that all introspection is dated. Hidden meanings and endless metaphors occur as clumsy in a world where we have come to seek the words that are not being said, and the words missing in the spaces between the words. DeLillo, for all his brilliance (and I do think he is brilliant) belongs to a time that has passed, and Cronenberg (intentionally or not) brought this insight alive for me in the film. There is something horribly 1980’s about Eric Packer and his reflexive word play, his smarmy self-congratulatory attitude and his imminent downfall. For me this came out beautifully in the Cronenberg film.
He stood on the street. There was nothing to do. He hadn’t realised this could happen to him. The moment was empty of urgency and purpose. he hadn’t planned on this. Where was the life he’d always led? There was no where he wanted to go, nothing to think about, no one waiting. HOw could he take a step in any direction if all directions were the same?