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Month: January 2023
The First Time as Tragedy, the Second Time As Farce: The dialog of Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion
When Marx wrote that history repeated itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” he was pointing toward a parodic structure to history wherein the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” This was a phenomenon which Bataille later captured with almost the same grace but even more breadth when he declared, ” each thing seen is the parody of another, or is the same thing in a deceptive form.”
Consider then two 2022 films: Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion: a Knives Out mystery. The first film was a nihilistic genre cross between psychological thriller and slasher, directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe based on a story by Kristen Roupenian (of Cat Person fame). It centers upon a clique of rich kids who decide to occupy the mansion of the groups pseudo-leader David’s parents empty mansion on the eve of a hurricane to throw a party. Inter-personal conflict and long-simmering grievances are exacerbated by isolation and disaster until they fall into a Hobbsean war of all against all. Before I go any farther with my analysis though I think it behooves to mention me that both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are films that depend heavily on one or more twists – so please consider this your warning that there are spoilers below.
In Glass Onion, written and directed by Riaan Johnson the consulting detective Benoit Blanc is called into action via another mysterious invitation which lands him at an annual private party held by billionaire (and thinly veiled Elon Musk stand-in) Miles Bron at his private island mansion during the early days of the COVID pandemic. However conflicts over a partner pushed out of the company and a dangerous new product cause the guests to reveal the emptiness of their self-professed friendship beside the naked desire to gain and retain power.
But of course we’ve seen this story before. When it was called Lord of the Flies. It really is a pity that the pedagogy surrounding this book has often been so shabby that people believe Golding’s novel was some sort of comment on universal human nature when it was quite clearly a commentary on the specific cruelty and viciousness of the public school attending classes. Likewise both Bodies Bodies Bodies and Glass Onion are laser focused in their critique specifically of Bourgeois culture in the opening decades of the 21st century. In Bodies Bodies Bodies, much as with Lord of the Flies, this is accomplished by showing how the children of the powerful have been raised to be vicious little monsters. In Glass Onion, rather, the ruling class are attacked directly rather than via their progeny – with the lot of Bourgeois strivers on display being consistently stupid while possessing grandiose belief in their own genius, self-centered backstabbers who present a façade of tight, lasting friendship. Both films expose the contradictions at the heart of the Bourgeois in precisely the same way as Lord of the Flies: isolation and a disaster.
Dividing the bourgeois off from the majority of their exploited subjects, forcing them to fend for themselves, and then introducing the stress of uncertainty brought about by a shipwreck, a hurricane or a global pandemic allows for the surfacing of the fault-lines between their contradictions.
Of course, for all that they might share central thematic and story-structure bones neither Glass Onion nor Bodies Bodies Bodies is reducible to just a rehash of Lord of the Flies. Bodies Bodies Bodies, for instance, sees social dynamics as being far more fluid within our group of rich assholes than Lord of the Flies. Rather than a rigid hierarchy of ins and outs that forms to recreate the oppressed class from within the body of the oppressor the subjects of Bodies Bodies Bodies fall apart completely with alliances shifting as people die and the storm outside worsens. There is a hint of such alliances with the rapid murder of Greg (a veterinarian who everyone stupidly mistakes for a veteran) and the expulsion of working class Bee into the storm shortly thereafter but Bee’s reintegration by Sophie and then the later turn of Sophie and Bee into mutual distrust shortly before the final reveal complexifies this relationship and points back to a fluid social milieu. Meanwhile the political situation of Glass Onion is much more static – there’s Blanc and Andi against everyone else. But, of course, everyone else is “Sucking on Miles’ golden titties,” so the political dynamic becomes far more despotic. The party-goers are either with Miles or against him.
These represent, then, three different views of power among the ruling class. Lord of the Flies proposes that, isolated from their victims and in crisis, the ruling class will produce a novel category of exploitation in order to reproduce extant hierarchies. Bodies Bodies Bodies says the ruling class will descend into the hell of Hobbes, any sense of alliance consumed under paranoia and distrust far too dysfunctional to allow for the reproduction of extant hierarcies. Glass Onion almost splits the difference, saying that a crisis will cause the ruling class to split either based on an expectation that loyalty to the existing hierarchy will set their course or that doing so will cause them to go down with the ship. Here alliance is possible but atomized personal survival trumps the construction of any sort of substantial hierarchy. In Bodies Bodies Bodies friendship is a battleground upon which every rich shithead battles every other rich shithead to become the lord of all the shitheads. In Glass Onion friendship is contingent on maintenance of a position in a pecking order but the idea of a cohesive group isn’t treated as a fiction. It’s somewhat unsurprising that when the “disruptors (shitheads)” finally turn on Miles they do so all together.
There’s also some significant differences in quality of performance between these films. No offense to Pete Davidson but David’s corpse is a far worse antagonist than Edward Norton’s Miles. And Daniel Craig and Janelle Monae are far stronger as protagonists than Amanda Stenberg and Maria Bakalova. Give them a few years to mature perhaps.
That being said the return of Benoit Blanc, now elaborated into an aging gay man who suffers from depression when he’s not able to put himself into risky situations involving murder and deception and the introduction of his ally in his latest case, Andi, played by Monae with Mona Lisa-like subtlety, both serve to elevate Glass Onion which would otherwise have suffered for its blunt edges compared to the meaner Bodies Bodies Bodies.
Now I should note that blunt edges and meanness are relative here. Bodies Bodies Bodies has nothing but disgust for the offspring of the ruling class. They are, one and all, mean-spirited, backstabbing, judgmental, hypocritical and stupid. There’s not a moment of sympathy or compassion to be had for any of them. When we finlly get the reveal of the actual circumstances of David’s death all we can do is laugh. Because what these awful people did to each other is precisely what they were always going to do. It’s just that the crisis heightened the stakes from social death to actual death.
On the other hand some compassion can be conjured for the Disruptors/Shitheads. Particularly for Whiskey via the recontextualization of her activities in the flashback sequence. But similar dribbles of humanity are allowed for Duke via his delightful mother and Dave Bautista’s continued capacity to deliver an emotionally subtle performance despite looking like a meat-tank and via the misgivings and sense of being trapped that both Claire and Lionel demonstrate. Even Birdie is allowed a bit of sympathy as it becomes evident that, despite her unexamined prejudices, she mostly suffers from being very stupid and incurious – the sort of person who thought a notorious sweatshop was just somewhere with a powerful reputation for manufacturing sweat pants. But this is where generic markers become significant because Bodies Bodies Bodies is a tragedy and Glass Onion is a farce. Specifically I mean that Bodies Bodies Bodies is a story in which our protagonists are their own undoing via the action of their own character crossed with the fickle hand of fate. In Bodies Bodies Bodies all the death and mayhem would have been fully avoidable if only the protagonists were to stop and think for a second – to talk to each other without the words being simply another category of weapon. They undo themselves and are fully undone. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in the stupidity of its cast. True to its name, no effort is made to conceal Miles’ stupidity. We may hear Lionel talk abut Miles’ brilliance, we might hear Miles brag about what a special little boy he is at length, but Benoit unravels his murder mystery game in under a minute and his malapropisms and nonsense neologisms (“inbreathiate” lol) are so egregious as to immediately undercut the idea that this man is anything other than a fraud. In fact, while Bodies Bodies Bodies creates an atmosphere of paranoia so pervasive as to leave you guessing until the literal last minute as to the identity of the killer Glass Onion lives up to its name by repeatedly reminding the audience that, while it may look as if there are layers of complexity, the core is always visible. Of course Bodies Bodies Bodies cheats by concealing the key evidence (the video of David’s drunken accidental death via failed tik tok stunt) for the final twist while Glass Onion establishes itself firmly within the generic construction of the cozy mystery and plays very fairly with the audience. Glass Onion’s trick is to show you Miles, to tell you Miles has the strongest motive for the murder, to demonstrate that Miles has no alibi and in fact to situate Miles at the scene of the crime via Duke’s comments but then to have Miles and his hangers on spend the whole movie talking piss about how brilliant Miles is. Glass Onion plays the mystery straight, makes it as easy as a “child’s puzzle” puzzle-box invitation and then enthusiastically encourages the audience to over-think and chase obvious red herrings because, well, it couldn’t be that simple, could it? When Blanc realizes he’s been playing 4D chess against a pigeon his own combination of ironic humor and frustration is intended as a reflection of the audience.
And so the history of Lord of the Flies inspired critiques of the ruling class proceeds first as tragedy and then as farce. Both films seek to strip the ruling class naked of their propaganda and to reveal there’s nothing special about the rich. In this regard farce becomes a stronger tool than tragedy. The victims of Bodies Bodies Bodies are constrained to die by their own fundamental moral vacuity. It doesn’t matter that they’re also stupid. It is unimportant that the emperor wears no clothes. After all these are just the children of the emperor anyhow and all we’re seeing is how these otherwise unremarkable life-failures (fail to) learn how to navigate the cut-throat social politics of their class. Meanwhile Glass Onion revels in displaying the nakedness of the Disruptors/Shitheads. Even the pilot of the yacht is able to outplay them with wordplay (as it takes Lionel nearly half the film to figure out what was meant by calling Miles’ glass dock a pieceashite) and they are ultimately compelled to abandon Miles when Blanc and Andi demonstrate that Miles has no power beyond what he can con from his more talented peers. Miles, the leader of the Disruptors, is shown to be the dumbest, most foolhardy, most venal and vulgar of the lot of them.
It takes him mere seconds after discovering that Duke has possible leverage over him for him to murder Duke but even then he does it incompetently, literally handing Duke the poisoned drink in plain sight. Miles is still undone by his tragic flaws – the Mona Lisa burns with his mansion because he arrogantly decided to install a backdoor to let him circumvent the agreed-upon safety measures the Louvre required – but because Miles is so obviously the villain of the piece from the first moment we see him this doesn’t invite any sense of the tragic. Instead we laugh at his farcical undoing and clap as Andi and Blanc deliver justice to him. But of course this is also one place where Bodies Bodies Bodies may be slightly stronger than Glass Onion. The tragic former piece cannot imagine justice coming for the ruling class. When they undo themselves it isn’t justice – it’s just the outcome of their own flawed and monstrous nature. But Glass Onion entertains the fantasy that justice might be visited upon the powerful – it envisions a world were a man who is Elon Musk in all but name might actually face the legal consequences for his many transgressions. It’s a pleasant fantasy and an appropriate ending to a farcical movie. But perhaps, although I would be as loath to universalize the bellum omnium contra omnes of Bodies Bodies Bodies beyond the bounds of the ruling class as I am to generalize the reproduction of exploitation beyond the British ruling class of Lord of the Flies, it is more honest and unflinching about how the Bourgeois will end than Glass Onion.
I don’t know. I would like to believe the fantasy of justice Riaan Johnson penned. I’m just not sure I can. It’s an easier pill to swallow than the undiluted bile of Bodies Bodies Bodies. But this makes it, perhaps, easier to recuperate than the former. Which is a better tool to explore the ruling class in this moment? Farce or tragedy? Pessimism or fantasy? In the end I’m unsure. But it’s at least heartwarming to see these conversations occurring across film.