May 22, 2024

Cannes 2024 Dispatch, Pt. 1: Today’s Empire, Tomorrow’s Ashes

Pietro Bianchi

Film still from Francis Ford Coppola, Megalopolis (2024).

It has become commonplace to claim that the digital image—with its infinite reproducibility and ubiquitous presence on a multiplicity of screens—has, for better or worse, dethroned the movie theater, the place where images have historically been consumed and collectively discussed. This obviously does not mean that movie theaters no longer exist, but rather that the historical role they played in our communities and our imaginary has been permanently transformed. For this reason, when we talk about the contemporary crisis of cinema, we should always be clear that we are talking not so much about cinema as an institution but about a crisis of the historical form of the cinematic experience. We are in an interregnum where, as Gramsci said, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” where making a film can mean a lot of very different things. A film can be a meta-cinematographic and ironically self-distancing work (Quentin Dupieux), social criticism with a poetic twist (Agathe Riedinger’s Diamond Brut and Andrea Arnold’s Bird), or a dialectical intertwining of personal and historical-political narratives that never quite fuses the two (Thierry de Peretti), just to mention some of the interesting things I’ve seen in Cannes over the past few days. It is not only that we have arrived at a blank page, where all the styles and formal solutions of film history can coexist alongside each other. The blank page can now become a canvas or a wall, or can perhaps even be dematerialized and become a performance, an installation, a ready-made. What does it mean to make a film today, in 2024, when most of our image consumption has been transferred to other (smaller) screens and other media? What is its significance? What is its form?

It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious and interesting filmmakers to pass through Cannes in recent years (to name a few: Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Jia Zhang-ke, Pablo Larraín, Bruno Dumont) all tried to reflect on this question, or at least were aware of its historical relevance. And perhaps the fact that Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis—which was presented in Cannes in competition last week—elicited such mixed and polarizing reactions speaks not so much of the film itself (which is certainly bizarre and over the top by any art-house standard) as it does about those who watch it. What makes a film a good film in 2024? A good story with well-written, psychologically complex characters? Does it have to invite identification from viewers? Talk about current events? Have a transparent and accessible form? Avoid abrupt shifts of register? What are we searching for when we fix our eyes on a screen? And why? Perhaps this is what we should ask film critics, over and above the ratings or stars they give films: What are the aesthetic categories that make a film a good film in 2024?

The production history of Megalopolis was a rollercoaster. The long wait for the film—which is a free adaptation of the Roman story of the conspiracy of Catiline, set in the contemporary United States—made it one of the most anticipated of the festival. Coppola began thinking about it as early as the 1980s but various financial difficulties prevented it from being greenlit. He tried to make it again in spring 2001 but stopped because the ideological climate of 9/11 was at odds with such a strong utopian story. It is only because Coppola personally funded the film (he sold his profitable vineyards in California so he could retain absolute artistic autonomy) that it has finally seen the light of day, although the context of 2024 inevitably shifts and transforms some of its original meaning.

According to Coppola, the Catiline conspiracy—which is known as a “conspiracy” because the story of it was told by the victors, such as Cicero—is a symbol of the missed opportunity for a declining empire to save itself from collapse, just like with the American Empire today, whose project no one believes in anymore. “When does an empire collapse? At a particular moment? Or when people simply stop believing in it?” The film is in fact “a fable” (as mentioned in the prologue) about how things might have turned out, or perhaps still might if we are ready to seize the reins of this world and not leave it “to the insatiable power of a few men.”

Megalopolis was booed and even mocked by many critics at Cannes. It was accused of being a circus of kitsch and excess, and of showing complete disregard for measure and form. But what lies behind Coppola’s (bad) taste for an irreverent juxtaposition of antithetical and contradictory registers? It seems to me that the film is predicated on one of the most emblematic motifs of contemporary aesthetics: the continuity, or lack of separation, between opposites. In Megalopolis, ancient Rome is already contemporary New York and its hyper-technological utopian overcoming. The Colosseum is already Madison Square Garden, as much as the lumpenproletarian slums are continuous with the world of celebrities and the places where the rich and famous live (much like in our world, where homeless encampments and financial districts are side by side). The same happens formally with the use of digital images in the film, which are hyperlit, overly in focus, and overloaded with detail. These images are deprived of any depth and juxtapose elements without any hierarchy. We are in the realm of horizontality and indistinctness, where even time—the film’s true obsession, starting with the prologue in which Adam Driver stops the flow of history—seems to have lost its purchase on the world, leading to a purely synchronic universe.

The film’s protagonist is Caesar Catilina, a mix of Catiline and Julius Caesar who also evokes populist high-tech demagogues like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. His utopian project, Megalopolis, is to be a new city where “fun” and “entertainment” reign. Early in the film we see one of New York’s classic red-brick, rent-subsidized housing projects being torn down to make way for this futuristic utopian project, suggesting that the eternal expropriation of land by capital is also behind Megalopolis. Caesar Catilina’s nemesis is the city’s mayor, Franklyn Cicero, who upholds the laws of the old modern world, from socially conscious urban planning to development driven by “concrete, concrete, concrete” and “steel, steel, steel.” As in “our” late empire, the responsible (and Oedipal) position relies on regulations and the Law, while the populist (post-Oedipal) position talks about “dreams” and fun: in a word, excess. It is obvious who will prevail (and it is not difficult to see a foreshadowing of the upcoming US presidential election in November). It is no coincidence that Julia, Franklyn Cicero’s daughter, is fascinated by these fantasies of enjoyment and falls in love with her father’s rival. Responsibility is on the side of the Law, but what happens when transgression and excess take up the language of dreams?

What makes Megalopolis’s utopian project unique, however, is an element called Megalon, an AI technology that is a kind of raw material for building. (Lots could be said about the obsession with raw-materials solutionism in contemporary blockbusters: from the spice of Dune, to the unobtanium of Avatar, to the vibranium of Black Panther.) Megalon seems to be able to generate projections of any reality one can imagine. (The scene where Julia wanders around an architectural model made up of random garbage-like objects, which is “imagined” like a dream, is staggeringly beautiful.) It is from this secret material, which mysteriously derives from Caesar Catilina’s dead wife, that the high-tech guru seems to derive his power. One might venture, in a Marxist vein, that behind Megalon’s magical power lies nothing other than the repressed source of all wealth, namely, living labor: that which magically morphs the disenchanted grayness of the world into a phantasmic projection.

Perhaps one would have expected from Francis Ford Coppola a more incisive critique of high-tech populism, especially since in our world it openly flirts with the neofascist far right and the subversion of democratic institutions. But his utopian humanism is more naive and generic than any form of ideology critique. The truth of Megalopolis seems to lie not so much in its dramaturgical dialogue (which is nonetheless extraordinarily interesting, with its dense philosophical reflections full of quotations from Shakespeare, Petrarch, Marcus Aurelius, and others) as in its formal juxtaposition of overabundant, excessive, and sometimes blatantly ugly digital images, such as the 3D animation of the architectural plans for Megalopolis, which seem to come from a B-grade architecture exhibition. These demonstrate what the visual imaginary is in our digital times: a mix of visual tropes without context, without meaning, and without history. Coppola tries desperately to give an underlying order to these images, only to perhaps end up drowning in their chaos.

But Coppola’s alleged defeat, more than being about a film that we can concede is only half-successful, is rather about an underlying question whose extraordinary ambition concerns us all: What does it mean today to make a film that aims to reflect on a pulverized universe of images resistant to any totalizing understanding, images which proliferate without any center or agency (and perhaps with AI, without needing a human spectator)? In the astonishing break of the fourth wall at the screening in Cannes (which will be impossible to reproduce in the film’s eventual theatrical release) there was more than a cheap gimmick to make the press talk about the film: there was the restlessness of a filmmaker who knows that cinema, if it still wants to reflect on contemporary visual experience, must live up to these problems and to this world, despite the visual garbage in which we are immersed. And if the result is a failure, then so be it. It is still more valuable than all those “good” films with balanced forms and beautiful stories that let us forget for a couple of hours the crisis of late empire that awaits us when we leave the theater.

Read Pt. 2 here

Artificial intelligence

Pietro Bianchi is Assistant Professor of Film Studies and Critical Theory at the University of Florida. His first book, Jacques Lacan and Cinema: Imaginary, Gaze, Formalisation, was published by Routledge in 2017. He writes film criticism for Cineforum, FilmTv, Doppiozero, and DinamoPress.


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