Anti-Banality Union’s experimental video essay screens at MMoCA’s Rooftop Cinema on August 24 at sundown.
Consider Matt Damon: ubiquitous but not especially interesting (despite a recent Stella Artois ad trying to convince us otherwise). Damon’s fascinating as a Hollywood cypher, who’s managed to have perfectly inscrutable, focus-grouped politics that smooth him out to be simultaneously the most and least relatable movie star. His star-making turn in Good Will Hunting (1997) provided that blueprint. Despite some flashier and fash-ier performances since then, he’s almost always retained the persona of the meat-and-potatoes Average American fighting some sort of sinister system. His is a politically open image, equally amenable to socialist and libertarian grafting, one of the industry’s biggest leading men by virtue of being the most useful.
Damon is perfect fodder for the Anti-Banality Union filmmaking collective, whose found-footage film, Earth II (2022), screens at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s Rooftop Cinema on Thursday, August 24, at 8:20 p.m. (Tickets are $7 and free for MMoCA members.) Their newest work sees Damon sharing leading duties with Will Smith and Keanu Reeves, and nearly every other actor you’ve heard of fills in supporting roles as the Union pores over clips from the last 40 years of blockbuster cinema. This is the collective’s fourth feature, which continues a practice of video-mixtape-deconstruction that they began in 2011 with Unclear Holocaust and continued to perfect with the angrier Police Mortality (2013) and State Of Emergence (2014). Each samples dozens of Hollywood films, spinning them into a new aggregate narrative and a meta-commentary on the industry’s favorite tropes à la the films of Soda Jerk or Nicolás Zuckerfeld’s There Are Not Thirty-Six Ways Of Showing A Man Getting On A Horse (2020).
The Union focuses on bombastic images, like those of city destruction in Unclear Holocaust or mass cop mobilization and death in Police Mortality. In Earth II, the Union keeps their interest in apocalypse at the forefront but with the twist of focusing on our Earth-abandoning fantasies and their attendant pseudo-class-consciousness. It’s escapist art remixed to reveal the industry’s corporate manifesto of escape, complete with an Elon Musk jump scare courtesy of Transcendence (2014).
It’s difficult to summarize Earth II, or any Union film for that matter. Without extensive ADR (automated dialogue replacement) or digital effects, we’re left with disjointed clips that rely on a star’s repeated visage to provide any sense of continuity. The most prominent shots are usually of the masses running in terror, individuals looking intently at computer screens, and endless property destruction. Outside of this, our three “leads,” each with about a half-dozen action/sci-fi films compiling their footage, are defined mostly by their broader personae: Damon as the aforementioned Working Class Guy, Smith as a lone-wolf cop or unchecked agent, and Reeves as a Chosen One both uniquely suited to save civilization but destined to live outside of it. In Union’s supercuts, the key point is that the most pleasurable, and by extension memorable, moments of these films are also their key interpretive elements; Hollywood star as constitutive icon, action/destruction as a site of rebirth, violence as a leveling force to revert back to a primordial state.
In the face of our present, tangible climate catastrophe, it’s important to consider how Hollywood has handled this increasing crisis over the past 20-odd years, faced in films like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008), and Elysium (2013), all excerpted here. In short, Hollywood likes to have its cake and eat it, too, placing an Everyman Avatar at the front of the destruction that both condemns the Powers That Be and lets them off the hook by ultimately saving the day and showing extreme grace. The violence in these films (especially as it’s isolated here) importantly has no clear actor; in Union’s editing, the implication is that humanity’s own actions reflect back from an Earth so upset that it’s lashing out at everyone equally. The blame is diffuse, the saviors are individual.
Notably, in this regard, Earth II excludes the most dominant genre of 21st-century Hollywood: the superhero film. Rather, the narratives the Anti-Banality Union uses are more human and identifiable, and all the more insidious for it. The films excerpted provide relatable fantasies, allowing a human face to become a righteous victim and messiah in equal measure. Here, the Anti-Banality Union indulges only in destruction. Our star personae provide guideposts, but little hope: the wild animals of Jumanji (1995) stampede onward while Keanu’s starchild of The Day The Earth Stood Still never gets to his half-baked reversal of purpose.
Cultural critic Gary Indiana once said this of painter Sam McKinniss’ varied celebrity- and film-derived portraits:
Because we recognize the figures in Sam’s paintings, our initial reaction—i.e., whether we “like” them or not—is also the most trivial, since these images have passed through us repeatedly, even when we weren’t aware of them. Anyway, what’s not to like? These are filaments of a consensual reality, elements of a public sphere that has shrunk to the size of our iPhones. In another sense, it doesn’t matter at all where they came from.
The Union acknowledges the same truth about the stars of Earth II: as American subjects, we have no choice but to consider their faces and internalize the ubiquity of these narratives. These clips come to us as so many trailers and billboards, without context, and only as spectacle that reassures us of the decency of Hollywood’s leading men. It’s a calculated ploy by focus-grouped cinema to let our fears and desires toward a self-designed apocalypse rest on them, which reinforces the imperialist and fascistic idea that a global catastrophe might be averted by just the right American.
In sickly ironic fashion, the country with the second-largest CO2 emissions in the world has heralded the most widely seen films of climate disaster. They represent a system that devotes many millions to carefully curated (and fictitious) images of destruction that provide a siphoned stream of income for our system to capitalize on ecosystem death. This is all while allowing for a passive, comfortable engagement with it from the American viewer.
These Hollywood films, as clipped and recontextualized in Earth II, demand symptomatic readings to clearly understand how our entertainment industry files off the edges of the most pressing global issues to reframe their villains as either foreign boogeymen or corporate/government entities too vague to hurt their sponsorships. This is where the work of the Union comes in, to further paper over even the brightest stars and dilute their power as they fragment themselves in different narratives. In the end, even our fictional saviors end up trapped in the dead-ends of their stories, powerless against the destructive fantasies increasingly playing out in reality. The Anti-Banality Union knows that entertainment can’t save us; Matt Damon is just a Trojan horse of the apocalypse.
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