Fantasizing our End through Film

Curator's Note

The two clips I’ve selected here come from two very different films (Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, 1977 and the final scene of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, 2011), but they both refer to the end of our existence,  and reveal how our fantasies of apocalyptic demise serve to structure our enjoyment.  According to Lacan, the “subject” is already an ontologically virtual category.  It is constituted by way of lack, for while it may appear in the field of the Other (the Symbolic) where it attempts to establish its Meaning, it also contends with the loss of its Being.  What ensues for this virtual subject is a constant anxiety concerning its end; it is a Real that cannot be integrated into the chain of signifiers.  Apocalyptic films allow us to play with our proximity to this Real through various fantasies of how we as individuals, our species, our planet, and even the universe itself, might end.  Enjoyment here is found in the death drive, in experiencing temporality as a loophole, and it is this loophole that puts us outside of both finitude and immortality, allowing us to become somehow indestructible (we can find the solution to the asteroid’s strike, another planet to colonize before earth is destroyed, etc.).

Recent scientific discoveries from the rapidity of global warming, to the possibility of an asteroid striking earth, and from the sun ultimately burning out, to the late-breaking news of the Higgs Boson particle/field, which tells us that we are headed for ultimate doom, are all serving to re-configure our fantasies and thus, also, our form of enjoyment.  Indeed, the clip of Alvy Singer as a child in Annie Hall was embedded in an NPR article entitled: If Higgs Boson Calculations are Right, A Catastrophic 'Bubble' Could End Universe by Eyder Peralta (Feb. 19, 2013). The fore-knowledge of our ultimate fate can enact a superego injunction to Enjoy (!) our present life, as happens with Alvy Singer, it can lead us to seek transcendental meanings, it can enable a lingering melancholia, or, more rarely, in films such as Von Trier’s Melancholia and Don McKellar’s Last Night, it can force us to accept our ultimate demise head on, without the cover of fantasy or the certainty of ultimate meanings. Indeed, as Slavoj Zizek posits in "The Optimism of 'Melancholia'," this is an optimistic film for it forces us to ethically face our end.


Sheila, thank you for your intriguing post. I'm most interested in the examples you offer, specifically Melancholia, and am curious if you would extend your argument to the disaster genre at large, or only a segment of it, such as the art film. I ask because I am both intrigued and skeptical of some more mainstream films that present various world ending catastrophes through this fantasy structure. One thought would be how these depictions might minimize or reorient a consumer logic of late capitalism and, as you say, "re-configure...our form of enjoyment" but seem to do so only by exploiting the cultural fears and anxieties for box office profit. In this way, there is an economy of enjoyment but one I would offer is rather perverse in nature, and also one that participates in the hedonistic attitude of enjoyment as opposed to the ethical stance such a film as Melancholia takes.

I’ll have to keep thinking about an answer (you raise several good questions), but for now would say that I’m talking specifically about how the apocalyptic film (and any disaster film) ends. The upshot here is that almost all disaster films have an idiotic optimistic ending (The Road, I am Legend, for example). More rarely, as in the case of Shyamalan’s films, the ending is ambiguous (the aliens go away but could come back at any time). To keep repeating our ending by surviving (in a kind of continual loop) is the appearance of the death drive (a kind of living death), so the enjoyment felt is not so much pleasurable as it is painful. As far as these films exploiting our cultural fears and anxieties in terms of box office profit, I would just say that films (filmmakers) are part of the generating of our cultural depictions of our end/demise; they re-present and re-create our fears through fantasy. (All films are exploitative in this regard.) Everything is structured within capitalism and so your argument that this might promote a hedonistic attitude about enjoyment and create the logic: if God is dead and we are all doomed, then all things are permissible wouldn't apply to films such as Melancholia. Here, I would take the Lacanian perspective and reverse the hedonistic logic: If God is dead (and there’s no hope of our survival, our planet, our universe), then nothing is possible. It seems more of a hysterical than a perverse logic at work here. Thanks for the great questions.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. One question. To what extent Melancholia's beautiful figuration of the end of the world might involve a fantasy rather than a confrontation of it? I'm thinking of the connection to Earth, the makeshift hut, the Wagner music, the holding of hands, etc.

Thank you Adam, you force me to consider something new. That is, the beautiful asthetic elements you mention - Wagner, the little stick hut, the holding of hands, etc., met with an unimaginable instantaneous full-out blast that destroys the earth. To me the juxtaposition was an excellent choice by Von Trier. What else is to be done when faced with our cataclysmic end - kill ourselves (as Jack did), cry in utter hopelessness as Claire does, or form a little unit to sit and wait. The music (to me) forces us to consider something beautiful (even destruction becomes asthetically different here), touching another's hand. So that despite Justine's last words ("The earth is evil, we don't need to grieve for it,") she doesn't seem all that upset. The end of the world occurs on the day of her marriage, which should be a very happy day, but something is amiss throughout the entire film. Re: fantasy, i just want to add that fantasy is our access to reality - it doesn't confront reality as something separate; in this sense, Justice's behavior throughout the film suggests her different orientation to fantasy/desire. More important than a confrontation with our fantasy about apocalypse, (to me at least) in the film's ending is a confrontation with the death drive, the sense that life can go on without end.

Thank you, Shelia, for this wonderful post. Your thoughts on the ways in which films about apocalypse end are particularly intriguing. I think Lacan's point about the fundamental virtuality of the subject is absolutely worth recalling and repeating--even though this is so familiar to Lacanians--given the way in which both popular culture and some branches of science (think AI research, VR research etc.) tend to celebrate "virtual subjectivity" as the newest TOE. Films like Avavtar and gadgets like Google Glass claim that the "discovery" of virtuality will finally release the subject from its mundane and limited being, and will usher the subject into total freedom; even though it is the proximity to totality that freezes up the subject, because it traumatizes the subject by threatening to eliminate its foundational lack. So, your comment that apocalyptic films allow us to experience temporality "as a loophole that puts us outside of both finitude and immortality" is a crucial point. I want to extend that important sentence by way of a question, and I hope you will forgive me for my intrusion. The image of a "loophole" is key here, is it not? Because a loophole--at least in the way that you are thinking it, I assume--is not just a gap/fracture--it is most prominently a "loop" and a "hole" that inevitably forms the loop from within it. Of course, I am thinking about the figure of the torus, especially in the work of Jacques-Alain Miller regarding the extimacy of the unconscious. If apocalyptic films allow us to experience our own extimacy as a way to deal with finitude, do they not do so by integrating, within our signifying chain, this intimate exteriority, as, precisely, a hole that forms the loop?

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