WEIRDLAND: Moral Choices: "Downsizing" (Alexander Payne), "Dark Age America" (John Michael Greer)

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Moral Choices: "Downsizing" (Alexander Payne), "Dark Age America" (John Michael Greer)

DOWNSIZING (2017) directed by Alexander Payne, is an enormous movie—enormous in its ambition, and enormous in its ingenuity. As such, it is distinctly out of step with the times. Payne and Taylor’s soul-sick seeker is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), employed as a physical therapist specializing in repetitive stress by the Omaha Steaks meatpacking plant. After an ellipsis of ten years, the human “downsizing” process has radically changed the wider world, but not much has happened in Paul’s life—mom with her fibromyalgia flare-ups has been replaced by a wife with migraines, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Maintaining the status quo promises only a paycheck-to-paycheck life of repetitive stress, but by submitting to miniaturization Paul and Audrey can trade genteel penury for a palatial mini-McMansion at Leisureland, a biodomed community in New Mexico.

As Paul and Audrey go about making their decision to downsize, Payne and Taylor anchor their far-fetched setup by imagining all the practical, political, social, and economic exigencies that such a scientific upheaval might bring about, from plummeting normal-world property values to unchecked immigration to unbalanced tax burdens for large and small to the ability of dictatorships to shrink noisy dissidents out of sight. The premise of Downsizing, like that of any good science-fiction work, takes off from an observable real-world phenomenon. In this case it’s the current cult of minimalism in all its forms: the “tiny house movement”; the gradual device-driven elimination of the clutter of physical media from living spaces. The film takes us through every stage of downsizing, a sequence that shows Payne’s understated visual intelligence at work. 

After Audrey backs out of the downsizing pact, divorce dashes Paul’s dreams of living big while small, and, adrift in a new world, he is sucked into the orbit of his neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). Even in Leisureland somebody has to clean up after the party’s over. This is how Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a woman making her cleaning service rounds on a painful, junky prosthetic leg. Paul recognizes Ngoc Lan from the television news—she is one of those miniaturized dissidents, injured as the lone stowaway survivor of a trip from Vietnam to a Eugene, Oregon-area Target in an imported television’s cardboard packaging, a traumatic experience she refers to as “the TV box.” Well-meaning Paul guiltily offers her his assistance.

In any just world this multifaceted performance would be the part that catapults Chau to stardom, but there have been rumblings of disquietude about her broken English, that very contemporary squeamishness that labels anything creating the slightest discomfiture as “problematic.” It’s a crying shame, because she has given one of the most human performances in recent American movies, by turns comic and somber, hard-edged and meltingly vulnerable, as when seen in tearful confession or in the first heavy breath of the most tender and true romantic interlude at the multiplex this decade. Ngoc Lan’s point-blank proposition to Paul is: “What kind of fuck you give me?” The development of the Ngoc Lan character by Payne, Taylor, and Chau might be seen as an extension of Payne’s 14e Arrondissement, the shining highlight of the otherwise-unremarkable 2006 omnibus film Paris, je t’aime, which follows Margot Martindale—seen in a cameo in Downsizing—as a plus-sized American tourist in Paris. 

In most films Paul would have to pick a side between the poles defined by Dusan and Joris on one hand and Ngoc Lan on the other, between pleasure and principle—but Payne is not most filmmakers, thank God. Instead he brings the entire quartet together to move from Leisureland to the fjords of Norway and the original downsizing commune, where preparations are now underway to move underground in anticipation of an extinction-level event, a final retreat that Paul is invited to join in the name of greater good. This turn might, along with the movie as a whole, be taken as a satire of eco-panic and our fretting over carbon footprints, but there’s less than nothing here to mark Payne and Taylor as climate-change deniers. Downsizing is, rather, addressing itself to a culture of buying dispensation through lifestyle, through conscientious consumer choices, while keeping suffering abstract, at the comfortable distance of that TV box. The film’s climax finds Paul again at a crossroads—or, rather, facing another long corridor. Source:

Downsizing has a subtly structured arc of redemption, as well as a nifty metaphorical design. Although the film’s plot has the apocalypse looming over its characters, Matt Damon believes that ultimately Downsizing is optimistic. “I really do believe that movies are the greatest tool for empathy that we have,” he explained at a press conference in the 2017 Venice Film Festival. “I think it’s a beautiful and optimistic movie. There’s this sense that we’re all in this together. I feel that is a very hopeful message in a very divided world.” Damon emphasized that “Downsizing” shows a “likeable character whose life is different from our own, but whom we can find common cause with.”

Matt Damon’s Paul marks the best character Damon has played in some time. Paul isn’t all that distinguished but Damon invests him with an underdog charm that you don’t expect from someone of his power and charisma. Watching Damon as Paul suffer indignities and setbacks we really feel for him. Damon’s chemistry with Hong Chau is surprising and delightful. Ngoc Lan's snappy matter-of-factness beautifully complements Paul’s nicely pitched bluff affability. The tentative romance between Damon’s schlub and Chau’s displaced tough chick activist is wonderfully layered and unique. The tenderness and understanding between Paul and Ngoc Lan may not steam up the scream but their warmth and humor will win you over more than any great sex scene.  Source:

Downsizing offers us a message of positivity, urging us to recognise the importance of doing good locally and in our own communities. In today’s political climate, where the politics of spite and fear seem to be thriving everywhere, it might feel as though the whole world’s gone sour. Downsizing tells us the grand gesture is admirable, but so too is striving to make a difference in our own surroundings. And while that might be naïve, simplistic or even old fashioned, as far as messages go, it’s certainly not a bad one to have. At its centre, Downsizing is a real heart warmer. It’s both very funny and melancholy. Downsizing’s concept and attention to detail mean this world is fully realised, believable and fun to inhabit. It explores both concept and message with joyful, imaginative abandon and although its messages are not subtle, they are not heavy handed either. Source:

The fall of a civilization is not a pleasant prospect—the decline and fall of industrial civilization, the long passage through a dark age, and the first stirrings of the successor societies that will build on our ruins. Among the standard phenomena of decline and fall is the shattering of the collective consensus that gives a growing society the capacity to act together to accomplish anything. The schism between the political class and the rest of the population is simply the most visible of the fissures that spread through every declining civilization, breaking it into a crazy quilt of dissident fragments pursuing competing ideals and agendas. No doubt most of us would rather live in a world that didn’t work that way, but morality remains a matter of individual choices—yours and mine—in the face of a cosmos that’s sublimely unconcerned with our moral beliefs. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, most of the former Soviet republics have seen steep declines in rates of live birth, life expectancy, and most other measures of public health. For that matter, since the financial crisis of 2008, birth rates in the United States have dropped sharply; these days, immigration is the only reason the population doesn’t register significant declines. No matter what your ethnic group, no matter how privileged or underprivileged it may happen to be, it will almost certainly no longer exist as such when industrial civilization on this continent descends into the deindustrial dark age ahead.—"Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead" (2016) by John Michael Greer

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