OCCUPY NOWHERE: Bystanders of Change

“When the artist produces something intelligible only to himself then he has already contributed to himself as an individual, and with this effect has already contributed to the social world (just as we benefit ourselves, and therefore also society when we eat).  In other words society benefits every time an individual improves his own adjustment in the world, for however we look at society, the empirical measure of a society’s welfare is the aggregate good of its constituents…The satisfaction of personal needs is therefore never an escapist form of action.  In its effect it is more natural than a hundred acts of philanthropy and idealism, which concern themselves with the needs of others.  Who is to say which of the personal needs are more pertinent to society?” — Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality

In the midst of diasporic protest across the US and indeed the world, one is reminded of generations past, unafraid simply to react and to vocalize their objections in hopes of shaping circumstances.  In the US, a rich history of protest is engrained in the culture.  The protestors unified under Occupy Wall Street, like many before, are very much exiled in public, drawn together by broad ideology, living in self-selected reclusion from the majority that they represent (the 99%) to form a minority-in-plain-sight.  The event of “occupation” is a means by which to build and to refine a vocabulary of objections and solutions into fluency among so many individuals with so many concerns.

One may also be aware of those who, for one reason or another, don’t share in the waves of extroverted fervor.  It is this retracted individual that has been the subject of so many notable films and filmmakers whose aim it is to explore the greater tides of change in miniature, and it is such films that will be analyzed here, in a weekly Cinedelphia column titled OCCUPY NOWHERE.  These radically intimate films unfold in the hermetic seals of apartments, barges, deserts, and even in the simple grey of anonymity, where the exteriorized conditions (not always political per se) that facilitate or instigate an individuals exile, are often rendered only in periphery.  Physical alienation characterizes these stories, and the viewer finds themself as equally expulsed as the characters.  Sometimes these individuals are the architects of their marginalization, and sometimes not.  Sometimes they emerge from “exile” newly formed, and sometimes not.  Sometimes their actions have consequence in the world beyond their own skin, and sometimes not.  Sometimes their isolation is a means of pure diversion, sometimes a means of construction.  What unifies these varied shades is the use of reclusion from the macrocosmic as a platform for interior excavation.

What arises most palpably from these private existential revolts, which often reflect the larger movements they avert, is a sense of frustration; of characters utterly detached from the norm of established modes or hierarchies, where a new personal language is culled to express that discontinuity.

Many critiques of the growing US Occupy movements lean toward semantics.  It is said that the movement stems from an all-too-general “sense of frustration” without core ideology.  OCCUPY NOWHERE aims to do two things; elucidate a genre by dissecting specific films on their own terms, and by extension stir a conversation about the legitimacy of that vague but powerful sensation of frustration as a viable and foundational cause for reaction.  As with the clarity of hindsight when analyzing a film, these objections to policy and practice voiced by protestors, which are consolidating more and more each day, will specify to form a cogent thesis for change.  Most importantly, it is on the protestors’ own terms that this evolution is occurring in a plein-air exile.

Bruce Robinson’s The Rum Diary (now in theaters) presents a serendipitous point of introduction to the loose genre that OCCUPY NOWHERE intends to explore in much greater depth.  The film chronicles unpublished novelist/freelance journalist Paul Kemp (Johnny Depp) on assignment in 1950’s Puerto Rico; what he might well have thought to be a kind of Rum-drenched escape from America lands him in a hotbed of local unrest directed at the expatriate community living there.  Flung into an orbit of lost souls, the mediocrity of a failing newspaper where he is forced to write drivel for an ignorant tourist readership, Kemp stumbles (often drunkenly) through exercises of bureaucracy, censorship and exploitation while never truly taking root.  In the process of floating, Kemp uncovers from within himself a keen dislike for the polarized socio-economic injustices and corporate greed that are rampant there (a timely message), and tries his best to give the “man” a spit in the eye.  An exile of “hanging somewhere in the middle,” leads Kemp not only to his own unique moral center, but to finally find “a voice” with which to share his massing objections, which had eluded his pen for so long.

Look forward to more lengthy analysis of the films listed below, as well as others!  As long as OCCUPY WALL STREET and its diaspora hold their ground, I will continue to discover and discuss films in this unique family.

Coming up in the OCCUPY NOWHERE series:  Young Adam (2003), Woman in the Dunes (1964), The Dreamers (2003), The Woman with Red Hair (1979), Pleasantville (1998), Millennium Mambo (2001).

Author: Aaron Mannino

Aaron Mannino is a Philadelphia area artist, film enthusiast, and some other things. He has made contributions on film analysis to the publication Korean Quarterly. Visit his blog or his website for writings and art-ings.

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