Into the Maw: Beautiful Things (2017)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2018 Taipei Film Festival; it also benefits from a post-screening Q&A with the directors.

Beautiful Things (2017) is a musical of machinic assemblage desire, a rapturous becoming-object, a euphoric celebration of accelerationism, and a vision of the role of the human in a world dominated by our technological children, who have dispensed with sentience, that cumbersome redundancy. Directed, produced, and edited by the two-man team of Giorgio Ferrero (who also wrote and helped with music and sound production) and Federico Biasin (who also shot), this wondrous documentary exploration of how humans mesh with the machinic order has impeccable production values, despite costing only 150,000 euros, employing only three other crew members, and spending only six months in production, one month of which was for editing—a process made possible wholly due to the Venice Biennale College workshop.

The film is divided into four sections, three interludes, and a coda. “Petroleum” follows Texas oil field worker Van Quattro as he talks about his life and its entanglement with the oil fields. He grew up there and once left for Los Angeles, but came back to raise a family. It’s dangerous, hard work, but oil is in his blood. “Cargo” follows seaman Danilo Tribunal around his cargo ship, a mammoth structure manned by about half a dozen people thanks to automation. He’s spent all his life on the sea, finally landing this ideal gig, only to feel sprouting within him a desire to head to shore and set down roots. “Measure,” metro in the original Italian, follows Andrea Pavoni Belli around his anechoic (echoless) chamber, where he checks the sound values of new products. Favoring intellectual over physical prowess, he finds meaning in the deafening silence that can drive a person mad. “Ashes” follows Vito Mirizzi, a waste incinerator operator who used to sell adult arcade games. He finds a sense of mission in his new line of work reducing Switzerland’s waste volume as cleanly as possible.

As one audience member observed during the Q&A, the narrative arc of the film that connects these four sections is the life cycle of the product: made from oil, transported across the sea, making sounds as they’re used, and finally burned in the incinerator. The idea of a cycle is emphasized by the interweaving of the four sections, so that lines and images from previous or subsequent sections intrude on the current one when themes overlap. We’re so used to seeing products instrumentally, bought for one reason and tossed away for another, drifting into and out of our lives, that it’s striking to see things from their point of view: These four people help out machines that make products, send them out, and receive them back. And that’s what these humans are: helpers. These machines—pumpjack, cargo ship, product, incinerator—have their own desires, using the human operators as prostheses to achieve their goals.

These four stories of machine-human assemblage are but the most demonstrative examples of our contemporary society of work. Who amongst us doesn’t devote their working hours to the smooth functioning of an outfit that produces things, sells, or repurposes things? Even non-profits work to get things to people: aid, clean water, medication. Not only have the necessities for living—food, water, clothes, housing—been abstracted into money, money itself is further abstracted into products that, in being bought and sold, add only marginal and fleeting value to our lives. That which we invented to help pass the time now demands ever more of it from us. Our machine overlords have already arrived, and because we kept expecting the Terminator, nobody even noticed.

Are we doomed? Perhaps. But Beautiful Things attempts a form of Anthropocene alchemy, transmuting doom into salvation. The interludes are taken from Ferrero’s home videos, one each from his childhood home, college dormitory, and present-day home. In the first and second, all the objects in a room are turned on, producing an almost unbearable cacophony nearly devoid of human presence. (Also devoid of human presence is a “song” halfway through the film that lacks words but comes with subtitled lyrics anyway—sung by a machine, one might say.) The third interlude is a birthday party, in which the camera focuses on objects, relegating humans to the background, in effect switching the roles of object and human. In each case, the scene is alienating, signifying the alienating façade of the machine world. And yet, there’s a way in. Each main section of the film ends in music composed mostly of the sounds of working with machines, arranged into a rhythm and bolstered by techno bass and percussion. The exhilarating sound is accompanied by dynamically cut images of the human-machine assemblage at work. Ferrero calls the film more musical than documentary, and this becomes clearest in the coda. The scene opens on two faces, belonging to Vittoria De Ferrari Sapetto and Andrea Valfrè, in a dark space. They start singing and moving, surrounding objects begin to light up, and we realize that we’re in a closed shopping mall. As the techno music picks up the pace, they dance through, across, over, and under the still-unlit space, at one point taking an elevator ride (the camera follows), at another point diving into the central decorative pool, all caught in one take.

Accelerationism is a branch of Marxist theory that believes that the only way to end capitalism is to accelerate its evolution so that it implodes due to its intrinsic contradictions. That hasn’t been borne out politically, but as an aesthetic practice, Steven Shaviro in No Speed Limit calls it the only form of Kantian aesthetics (useless and irreducible to knowledge) left unco-opted by the neoliberal world order—for it stands with neoliberalism to begin with. Indeed, the accelerationist coda of the film is euphoric and liberating precisely because it relieves us of the burden of worrying about the political import or purity of the film. No longer overcome with anxiety about whether the film conveys a politically correct message, we’re free to revel in the intoxication of transgression into a non-human space, of the freeflow of bodies, voices, and rhythm—of beauty itself.

Beautiful Things opens the door to l’art pour l’art in the machine age.

Editor’s note: A traditional Chinese version of this review has been published here. This review has also been published at Critics at Large.

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