18 July 2014

Snowpiercer: Total Cinema


Press Play has now posted my new video essay with a brief accompanying text essay about the great new science fiction action movie political parable satire call to revolution Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, a filmmaker I am especially enamored of. (Memories of Murder is easily among my favorite movies of the last 15 years, and back in 2010 I defended Bong's previous film, Mother, from the criticisms of Richard Brody at the New Yorker.)

As a little bit of extra, below the fold here I'll put some thoughts on elements of the remarkable ending of the film...

First, for some information on the background and references of Snowpiercer, see Scott Tafoya's piece at RogerEbert.com, and for a good analysis of the revolutionary ideology of the film, see "Smash the Engine" by Peter Frase at Jacobin.

The audacity I see in the ending of Snowpiercer comes not just from its framing of revolution as something that must smash the logic of the system, but also from the way it shows that system to be not just hierarchical in terms of class, but of also being fundamentally racialized.

First, there is the inescapable fact that most of the people who have been saved from the apocalypse are white and English speaking. Even the people at the back of the train, though more diverse than the people in the front, are predominantly white and English speakers. All of the positions of highest power in the train are positions held by white English speakers, and the ultimate positions of power are held by white men and passed on to white men (Wilford to Curtis).

As Curtis moves closer and closer to the front, the white supremacy becomes obvious. There's the classroom, where the vast majority of students are very white (and often blonde), with a few Asians in there (the pre-apocalypse notion of Asians as educational high achievers is thus replicated in the train), and one black girl (at least that I saw). The overall effect is of lily-whiteness, with a few special people added.

The people at the dance party are almost entirely white.

The people who apparently stepped out of The Great Gatsby are white. 

The women getting their hair styled are white.

It's worth noting, too, how so much of what we see in the front cars evokes the old white world, a world of the 1920s-1950s — an America before the successes of the civil rights movement, of women's liberation struggles, of gay liberation, etc. (The car where everyone is taking drugs evokes even earlier ideas. It's like an opium den, a powerful force in the orientalist imagination of the yellow peril in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a setting with plenty of cinematic history.)

Early in the film, Curtis tells Edgar that once they get to the front of the train, things will be different. "But how different, really?" the film asks at the end. "Know your place!" Mason (Tilda Swinton) tells the rabble. Curtis learns what his place is from Wilford: the place of the white patriarch.

That system cannot be reformed. It will do no good to have somebody else in charge of the engine. The logic of the system must not be reformed, it must be defied and destroyed.

And thus the ending, which stops the train's circular journey and potentially annihilates the last remnants of humanity.

The system is so corrupt, so incapable of reform, that what is known to be left of humans is worth destroying rather than continuing along the same tracks.

If there is to be a future for humanity, it looks like this, the new Adam and Eve:

They might be destroyed by the cold, white world. They might be a meal for the white polar bear. But maybe, somehow, they will survive and discover or create a new world, a world where humans are on a different journey, subject to a different system, not oppressed by the cold, unbearable whiteness.

Bong leaves it to us to imagine their fate.


  1. Even if they live temporarily, humanity is over. Only two people left means that even if they procreate, humanity will die out quite soon due to inbreeding.

    I think it's hilarious how many Snowpiercer commentators see the end of the human race as a positive. Do you really hate white people that much? How does your reaction to the film square up against how you live your life? I mean, unless you're going on a killing spree tomorrow I don't see how you can reconcile your beliefs with your actions...

    1. Yes! I hate all white people!

    2. I agree with Anonymous. What is the point of a "revolution" in which nearly everyone is killed and humanity has no chance to survive?

    3. I thought I responded already but I guess the response got eaten. Just thought I'd point out that humanity was doomed regardless of the events of the film. A viable breeding population without inbreeding problems is somewhere in the thousands. A few hundred people are just as ecologically obsolete and very nearly as extinct as two people. And regardless of how technologically marvelous the train is and how well the populations are controlled, it has virtually no food security: all it takes is one livestock disease, one disaster on the agricultural cars, and humanity starves to death. Or one avalanche. Or one ice blockade that sends the train off the rails. The train was not a sustainable solution for humanity. So given that humanity has basically no chance to survive anyway, is there still a moral problem with a revolution that hastens that demise in order for people to disrupt a corrupt and immoral system?

    4. Yes, you're absolutely right, Nathan -- the train isn't sustainable (this is even clearer in the comic). Luckily, Aaron Bady has written a long piece on the film that considers that idea within the context of revolution, and he's much more interested in the practical question of revolution than I am, so he's better on that element of the movie than I would ever be.

  2. Unless the people in the train are not the last survivors, and somehow other pockets of humans survive somewhere out there in the world.

  3. Is the situation on the train, and of the train, a metaphor or a realistic extrapolation? It clearly is not a realistic extrapolation, because if it is, it is absurd and impossible. Any time spent asking about the practicalities of this situation, such as the genetic sustainability of the population on the train, is wasted.

    If it's a metaphor, which seems to be the way Matthew is reading it, is it a coherent one? I do not think so. Even if you grant it some degree of coherence, it does not seem an interesting metaphor to me. But that is a matter of taste. I thought the "ending" if by ending you mean the events once the protagonists reach the head of the train and meet the "ruler" was not revelatory of anything very profound. The dialogue and actions were banal. This was just my take. I went into the movie really wanting to like it, and came out disappointed. I'm glad it was made, and it had some clever and surreal and comic bits, but as a whole it did not move me.

    1. Why is extrapolation or metaphor the only choice? I agree that it's obviously not a realistic extrapolation — you could spend hours poking holes in the realism, but that's the sort of behavior I associate with the people Hitchcock called The Plausibles, and it seems to me a futile exercise. (But then, I'm the worst person to ask about plausibility in stories, because it doesn't interest me.)

      Is the train a coherent metaphor? Perhaps not, as you say. Why does it have to be a single coherent metaphor, though? That seems to me quite boring, like the exercise of a mathematician, or one of those science fictional "thought experiments" that inevitably leave me cold (with their equations). Particularly within film, which is not a solely narrative art form. That's why I called Snowpiercer (stealing from Hitchcock again) "total cinema", because its meanings and effects are at least as much tied to its imagery, sound design, editing, etc. as to its story.

      I don't see the train as a metaphor or an extrapolation, but only as a premise, a way of placing all of this cinematic material together in a particular way. It exudes a multiplicity of metaphors and meanings, as has been demonstrated by the tremendous amount of writing the film has generated. Now, you could dismiss people who have written lots about the various ways the film means for them, and accuse them all of false consciousness or lack of taste or general stupidity or reading too much into it or imposing their prejudices onto it or whatever — but at the end of the day, all we end up saying when we do such a thing is: "This thing in which you find meaning, I do not find meaning." Well, okay. C'est la vie.

      Who, then, is the poorer? I find Snowpiercer to be a work that provokes a lot of thought and engagement for myself, and I've enjoyed wrestling with the other meanings people have found in it, or been inspired to think of from it. Other people do not find it compelling, obviously. One is a conversation that will likely continue; the other is, "I do not like this, Sam-I-Am."

    2. Matt: You know how much I admire your writing and critical judgments, so I hope you realize that I was not trying to put down what you have had to say. As I suggested in my comment, "this was just my take."

      I do think we could talk profitably about the ending of the film and whether it is revelatory or profound in any way. Of course such judgments are at least to some degree subjective. I did not think that the meeting with Wilford, the conversation that ensued, the blowing up of the bomb and the wreck of the train deepened my appreciation of the metaphor that the film was based on. The final image of the woman and boy survivors puzzled me. Did the filmmakers intend this to be, as some critics have said, a nod toward a non-white future? But there is no future for these characters but death, as far as I can tell. This is not a happy ending. The totemic polar bear. I guess that we're to read this as nature going on, regardless of the self-destructive affairs of human beings? That's the best I could come up with.

      The "total cinema" reading can, it seems to me, be used as an almost infinitely flexible patch to cover a multitude of sins. It depends on how much you trust the filmmaker and give her/him credit for good intentions, ideological purpose, or high craft.

      I will say that I am myself inconsistent on such reactions to works of art--you could point out other cases where I am willing to extend myself to defend a film that has as many inconsistencies and arbitrary moments (such as Under the Skin, which I loved) as it seems to me that Snowpiercer has. So I will admit that I live in a glass house.

      I do come from the world of sf, and was an sf geek in my youth, so that logic and internal consistency, though I can set them aside, are often my starting place with a work of art.

      Thanks for the stimulating conversation.

    3. Oh, I took no offense, don't worry, John! The subjectivity of response, particularly to something so multi-artistic as film, is something that fascinates me: what we as individual viewers prioritize and value, and what we don't. What bothers us and what doesn't. The items about which we want to fight, defend, cast scorn, raise our fist to the sky ... and those which somebody else's appreciation or lack of appreciation aren't much bother. Perhaps what nags at me is that I have no answers, no winning argument, only personal response (ways of appreciating/not appreciating) to offer. I've been thinking about it a lot since your comment, because I have to keep asking myself of my own response: But why? But why? But why?. Which is not a bad thing. Humbling, too, because I have a tendency with any work which has given me lots of thought and feeling to want to share that with others in the hope that they, too, will find pleasure — will find, perhaps, even increased pleasure. The ideal of criticism is to create a kind of unified field of pleasure (or, in the case of negative criticism, unpleasure) and so bend the world into our own experience ... and yet of course such a unified field is impossible and likely utterly undesireable. Roger Ebert once said in his experience Casablanca is a movie no-one can hate, but I'm sure that somebody, somewhere does. Such conformity of thought is terrifying!

  4. Matt: I like what you say about what motivates you as a critic, the desire to share your reaction with others, hoping to extend that field of pleasure. That's exactly what I like the most about teaching, and it's what I think the best criticism does. I want to grab people off the street and say, "Read this! I think it's great, and let me explain why it's great, how it hits me in the heart or the mind or both, takes me to some other place, so the world looks different after I've experienced it. Maybe you will, too."