Contracts and the will to power in Brand New Cherry Flavor

Brand New Cherry Flavor (TV Mini Series 2021) - IMDb

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a Netflix limited series based on the first section of a 1996 novel by Todd Grimson adapted by Nick Antosca who is previously known for Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor is a mess.

I’ve often said that I’m much fonder of an ambitious project that swings for the fences and misses than for a project that plays it safe, strives for little and accomplishes less and so I do have a fair amount of fondness for this messy and confused attempt. It certainly succeeded at injecting a fair amount of edge into the often atmospheric and moody world of Netflix horror miniseries with its regular use of well-executed practical gore effects and disturbing body horror. A scene in which a character pulls a worm out of the eye socket of another is well done enough to make even horror fans cringe a bit and there is a moment of Cronenberg-inspired body horror fused with seedy sexual desire in episode four that was incredibly disturbing – but in the precise way that people fond of extreme horror are likely to gel with. Antosca owes a very deep stylistic debt to Cronenberg throughout the series and I would recommend that people who enjoyed eXistenZ or Vieodrome in particular will enjoy the seedy aesthetics of this show.

I would also like to mention that Rosa Salazar delivers an excellent performance as the show’s anti-hero, Lisa Nova. I think it’s funny that somebody who has been putting in the effort in genre film as long as Salazar is still getting “will this be her breakout performance?” notes on her performance here, particularly after she already starred in the sadly poorly received Alita: Battle Angel, but it is true that she brought precisely the correct blend of edge, cruelty and vulnerability to this difficult role to make the character’s journey something we care about. Shame that Eric Lange wasn’t really able to keep up with her. Happily, Lange’s Lou Burke is rapidly eclipsed by Catherine Keener‘s Boro – and Keener provides an understated performance that works quite well as she drifts through the madness her character authors with a faint smile a sense of detachment.

But for all that the show had slick visuals and some strong performances from the leads it ends up being a little bit muddled. It is, at its core, a show about contracts. The inciting action drives this home as Lou offers Lisa a contract to direct a feature length adaptation of her short film and tells her to get a lawyer to read it. She does not, instead trusting a music video director friend-of-a-friend to ensure it’s all good. This leads to her missing a loophole that allows Lou to steal her movie in an act of petty spite for her rejecting his sexual advances.

In the second episode, Lou reinforces that there’s a dichotomy between a promise and a contract – and he suggests that the contract, the agreement on paper, is ultimately far more important than the promises made. This ends up being something the show reinforces in the final episode. But throughout it we see the various victims of either Lisa and Boro’s shared quest for revenge on Lou or the war-of-the-witches that builds between the two once Lisa discovers how Boro has manipulated her suffering and dying despite never having entered into a contract at all. But then perhaps this is the point.

When we think of contracts we often think of them as a device to enable something. We enter a contract to secure work or to agree to the performance of a service. A person who signs a contract agrees to do a thing and in exchange the other party also agrees to do a thing: A does a job, B pays for it. But when we look at the world of Brand New Cherry Flavor we see, more than anything else, a world where people with power, when unconstrained, do whatever they want to whoever they want.

Lisa emotionally manipulates Mary to get the performance she wants out of her for Lucy’s Eye. She’s so successful that, while the two of them are both high on Peyote, Mary rips out her own eye and eats it. Lisa films it and adds it into her short – grist for the creative mill. Lou exploits his power to make or break would be stars. Alvin Sender, despite his obsequious demeanor makes it just as clear that he wields power and expects obedience. And, of course, Boro does what they want to whoever they want whenever they want. They drug people, murder people, enslave them as undead zombies. They ensorcell people and they steal the bodies of people, forcibly overriding their victims’ minds so that they can continue their eternal life. These people don’t need contracts to enable them. Boro has eyes on Lisa the second she sets foot in Los Angeles and long before Lisa comes to them for help with her revenge on Lou. Boro, in fact, manipulates Lisa to the position where she expects Lou to betray her and while Lou’s ultimate motive for his treason is personal, common and pathetic there may, in fact, be a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy in how things work out for Lisa in that Boro primes her to believe she has the power to hurt Lou and the will to use it.

No. Contracts constrain the powerful. In Brand New Cherry flavour it isn’t that a contract enables you to do anything. Instead the contract sets the limits of what the powerful can do to you. Boro makes a contract with Lisa to help her take her revenge on Lou in exchange for the kittens she begins vomiting up. Lisa makes a contract with Lou which she believes will constrain him in his choice of director but she’s deceived.

Contracts are protective in Brand New Cherry Flavor. This is a show with a remarkable body count. Almost every named character is either killed or maimed. But it’s notable that the people who survive: Lisa, Boro, Lou and Jules are all people who have entered into contracts with each other. Lisa adheres to the precise limit of her contract with Boro and, as such, is unconstrained in the use of her own, not inconsiderable, power to repel Boro’s attempt to take more than they were owed. Lou enters a contract with Lisa and, despite losing everything of value to him, he lives. We can safely assume that Jules has signed a contract with Lou and Jules was also intimately involved in the deception of Lisa regarding the terms of her contract and he, too, survives, if barely. In the end his girlfriend happily announces that his restorative surgeries are going apace. Meanwhile Roy and Code, Jonathan and Christine and even Mary never engage in contracts. They enter the arena of the powerful without any such protection and they are consumed.

There’s a scene early in the first episode where Lisa moves into her apartment and discovers a coyote being eaten by a pack of stray cats. Cats turn up a lot. Boro compels Lisa to vomit white kittens and Boro leaves Lisa with a cat of her own as a token of their contract. Lisa’s mother may, in fact, be a spirit of a white jaguar. The spirit is an ancient enemy of Boro’s but in particular she is a spirit being who Boro broke a contract with. The Jaguar left Boro for dead but they managed to escape and the two of them have been playing something of a game of cat-and-mouse ever since. Boro wants to steal the jaguar’s magic to reinforce their own and Lisa is a conduit to that magic. But Boro is playing with fire since Lisa, as such a conduit, is a being with power of her own to wield, and Boro has, by necessity, to educate Lisa in the use of that power in order to advance her revenge and position her to become Boro’s new vessel. As the show goes by the dead coyote slowly decays and nobody really does anything about it. Lisa, becoming increasingly a witch rather than an artist, seems somewhat at home with it and her visitors all react with revulsion but think it should be someone else’s job to clean up. Instead it’s just… consumed.

Hollywood, in Brand New Cherry Flavour, is the domain of predators who eat anything smaller than them and who have implemented the contract to impose the minimal limits upon their consumption necessary to allow any collaboration at all. But this goes beyond people being inhumane – this presents a cosmology where altruism is punished. It’s a universe where powers contend and overthrow each other: a universe of struggle. This then allows us to unify the dialectic we’ve established surrounding a contract. Because, in its character of a restraint upon the powerful and a shield for the less powerful against predation it allows a savvy negotiator the opportunity to secure more power to herself. In their pentultimate confrontation, Lou castigates Lisa, accusing her of being no better than him. In a sense he’s not entirely off the mark. Lisa did exploit Mary. “She’s an actor; she means whatever I allow her to,” she says at one point. Mary believed there was something far more mutual between her and Lisa to the point where, when Code tells Mary how little Lisa really cares about her, she murders him on the spot in a particularly brutal fashion. Except Lou has missed something important. Lisa, burned by her inattention to her contract with Lou, has used her contract with Boro to grow both the power available to her and her will to use it. The first time Lou sends an assassin to kill Lisa he almost succeeds. The second time, Lisa eats the assassin. This is, in part, because Lisa has secured power from Boro but that’s not the full story. We know, by this point, that Boro is a parasite. They need Lisa’s power to execute their magic. That is what the kitten blood is all about. It’s fuel. So when Boro heals Lisa and grants her increased strength with which to confront the assassin, who Boro intentionally puts in Lisa’s path knowing full well the outcome, they’re only returning to Lisa a fraction of the power they took along with the knowledge and the will to use it. Lisa isn’t like him. By the time they have their second-last encounter she is far more powerful and far more willing to use that power. This is demonstrative in how she approaches her revenge – as a restorative vengeance which Nietzsche describes as being built around a need to assert a lack of fear: “The intention of showing their complete lack of fear goes so far in some people that the dangers of revengeβ€”loss of health or life or other lossesβ€”are in their eyes an indispensable condition of every vengeful act.” Lou fidgets and hesitates when he decides to kill Lisa and ultimately goes through an intermediary. He’s unable to summon the will to do the deed himself. By this time Lisa has already infected Lou with a parasite, been a conduit through which Jules spontaneously combusts inadvertently led to the death and zombification of Lou’s son at the hands of Boro and eaten the assassin Lou sent to kill her. Lou’s money is power just as Lisa’s magic is. But he doesn’t have the will to wield it. He’s small and pathetic. Lisa, ultimately, has so little concern for him that she gives him the final insult of letting him live. Blind. Ruined. When they meet for the last time, he asks her not to turn on the TV – he doesn’t want to hear it if he can’t see it.

She leaves it running.

Marx described revenge as being, “one of the highest incentives to energetic and passionate action,” in revolutionary times. And as such we can also see how Lisa, in her contracts and her proletarianism, is embodying a revolutionary drive contrasted to Lou’s bourgeois moralizing. “Law, morality, religion, are to {the proletarian} so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests,” and so it doesn’t matter if Lisa is better than Lou. It doesn’t even matter if she has committed some of the same sins of exploitation that he did before. She has contended with him and brought his so very bourgeois world crashing down with the power of her will.

When we first meet Lisa and Lou there is a vast gulf of class and status at play. She’s living out of a car. He’s living in a mansion where he keeps falcons and he is able to throw around cash to do whatever he wants. He sees the world as his oyster. But this class antagonism proves insufficient to forestall Lisa’s revenge once Lisa uses the system of contracts in place to marshal her strength and pit herself fiercely, completely, against him. Lisa isn’t just like Lou, she’s far far more terrifying because while Lou might be guided by appetites, while he might be a predator, he’s divided against himself while Lisa has an intensity and singularity of focus that allows her to use any power she can seize far more effectively. And, of course, Lisa is not alone. Things don’t go well for her allies but she has them nonetheless. She even tries to protect them. But more than that, she marshals their strength and guides it into the spear-thrust of her attack on Lou and later into her escape from Boro.

Lisa’s proletarian stature remains throughout the series. She never gets much money and what she does she spends to rent a room in a derelict hotel. She’s the only tenant in the cavernous building and so she ends up with a demesne much like Boro’s a home for a witch – a run-down and forgotten place possessed not by the bonds of capital but by the will of the holder to take it. When we learn the backstory to Lisa’s movie we discover that it was financed by the star and shot in her house. Lisa hadn’t any money before shooting and she didn’t after. She didn’t even pay for the peyote they took.

When Boro tries to jump into Lisa they’re unable to explicitly because her will is too strong to dominate. They try to compel her to despair by killing the last of Lisa’s allies and by pushing her to renounce life. But she refuses. Lisa would rather live with all the death and terror and monstrosity that suffuses her life than give in. Mary chooses otherwise and is consumed in her stead.

Ultimately it’s fundamentally important to understand how Brand New Cherry Flavour decouples class position from power. At the end Lisa is confronted with a Hollywood executive more powerful and insidious than Lou ever was and she laughs in his face. She’s done what she set out to do with Lou and set his world on fire. All his bourgeois posturing, his anxiety, concern for lineage, his pride in family and his last-minute defensive moralizing are ash. And she did it without needing to engage bourgeois power. Boro is never seen spending a penny on anything. They take the scraps and refuse a butcher doesn’t need to feed their zombies. They take what they want directly and what they don’t take they make themselves – they’re a gardener and a doctor one and the same with being a witch. Boro is not bourgeois; they’re something far older, something best approached via Nietzsche’s ideas of master morality. But Lisa is not an embodiment of slave morality so much as an exemplar of proletarian will thrusting against the power of her enemies.

Brand New Cherry Flavor is a clumsy, messy work full of internal contradictions. There isn’t an easy or neat through line and this interrogation of Lisa’s revenge and its ties to power dynamics and class is, itself, something which suffers from muddled and unclear readings. But the one thing that shoots straight and sharp as an arrow through this tangled mess of a horror story is the will of the protagonist. It gleams out of Rosa Salazar’s expressive eyes and radiates from her stance. It is something the rich predators of Hollywood lack. There is a certainty to the poor, to the forgotten, to the underbelly, here. Even the cheap assassins Lou hires have more certainty, more will, than their employer. This doesn’t become a valorization of the proletariat. Lisa isn’t a good person and many of the other proletarian characters we encounter are far worse. But it is an evident divide from the contempt this show demonstrates for Bourgeois comfort and platitude. Brand New Cherry Flavor is a difficult show to recommend. The chances are if you’ve read this far and still want to watch this show you’ll appreciate the experience. But it’s a tough pill to swallow with an expression of theme that is, at times, as messy and haphazard as the gore that gloriously spatters every frame. But it is compelling. This season has me curious to read the book it’s adapted from in part to see if certain structural elements of mirroring between Boro and Lisa that don’t pay off in the show are present, and resolved, in the book and in part because I suspect that as somebody with an appreciation for Barker, Bataille and Burgess I might also enjoy the work of Grimson. At the very least, this eight-episode war-of-the-witches is far better paced than the average Netflix fare and is served well by being only eight episodes long. If you’re a fan of horror it might be one to consider this Halloween season.