Before the Collapse?

August 2014: The Rover at QUAD, Derby

The collapse in Derby?...! (photo by Paul Forrester)

The collapse in Derby?...! (photo by Paul Forrester)

Every Monday my inbox pings with the arrival of an email summing up my week’s activity on Twitter. It tells me that I did "a great job" connecting with other people, or that I "really got people talking”. It makes me feel good about using Twitter and it is, as you might have guessed, largely nonsense.

One tweet shared around a bit might receive a thousand views, yet the number of people who go to the trouble of clicking through and visiting a link in that tweet is astonishingly, pathetically small. Small as in, single figures small; and a stark reminder that however 'social' our media is, often we are basically talking to ourselves.

Which is ironic when you consider how much we use our smartphones in the company of others. Studies have been conducted that show what effect the use of mobile devices has on our face-to-face interactions. We are deeply invested in our digital identities, and it is changing who we are and how we behave in the company of others, even if we think it isn’t.

It would be a real misanthrope who declared that the influence of technology in our lives is entirely negative. After all, we can connect with anyone (almost) anywhere in the world, befriending people we'd never have had the pleasure of meeting otherwise, and bridging vast geographical distances at little or no cost.

But having gradually become addicted to the constant flow of information, developing a paranoia about underlying issues is not difficult. Free social media services experiment with the amount and type of information that they present to us, their users. Meanwhile, news outlets hide content behind paywalls, or on the other side of obligatory registrations that leave you exposed to advertisers who have stumped up the cash instead.

Plenty of us accept it willingly, but as we get more used to these scenarios (or less empowered to do anything about them…), what will it mean for how we consume information and for the devices that deliver it? And what would happen if the infrastructure for the digital services we rely on was no longer there?

David Michôd's new film The Rover presents a vision of the future in which human interaction has broken down almost entirely. Few people can hold a coherent conversation; most talk in context-free fragments of speech, muttered to nobody in particular. Guy Pearce’s character, Eric, doesn’t so much ask questions as bark them repeatedly, struggling to contain an animalistic emotional state in his sinewy frame.

Eric asks questions because he wants his stolen car back and offers of help are few and far between. Information, it transpires, has become a tradable commodity like all the other scarce resources. In one scene a shopkeeper refuses to talk until Eric buys something; Eric doesn’t even look at what he is picking off the shelf, for fear of being picked off himself in the process.

It is clear that economic turmoil has occurred: traders prefer American dollars to Australian ones, and an impossibly long freight train is bedecked in Chinese script. As the film starts, the events are established as taking place ten years after the collapse (not, ‘The Collapse’ – just the collapse), and the immediate impression is that this refers to the problems of the economy.

But I prefer an alternative interpretation, for later on we learn that Eric’s personal life also imploded ten years ago. Maybe his own misfortune was directly linked to the world's wider problems, but since he is the centrepiece of the film, why should the collapse not be his emotional collapse instead?

In a world – our world – where natural resources are pressured by expanding populations; where growing economies threaten traditional superpowers; and, yes, where technology allows people to corral support against fragile regimes and inert corporations; well … why could the world of the film not have come about through the decline of a world like ours?

A dramatic statement it might be, but who is to say that we don't already foreshadow the selfish, uncaring occupants of The Rover's listless Australian hinterland?

While Eric seems a perfect fit with that environment, seeing his car heading for the horizon suddenly sets him at odds with those around him. Seething with barely suppressed rage, he unleashes violence in the only way possible: short, sharp bursts of a pulled trigger. Becoming a victim to a bullet may look like death, but nearly every character is essentially dead already anyway.

Bereft of their consumerist motivation and seemingly unable to communicate with each other, they are condemned to a purgatorial existence in a barren landscape that is resistant to any sort of collapse.

Brutal as Eric’s actions might be, however, they represent a weird kind of hope for him. He meets people like a doctor, or his unlikely sidekick Rey (the impressive Robert Pattinson), who are also not dependent on monetary transactions. They have their own dependencies, but ones that ensure they retain some humanity: the doctor’s existence relies on patients requiring care, while Rey needs the guidance of the people he looks up to.

It might be exaggerating to suggest that life as we know it in 2014 could descend to the apocalyptic levels of The Rover, but the film offers a worthwhile lesson in resisting isolation that appears to be inevitable. Eric’s motivation for getting his car back is not immediately obvious but, amongst the physical and material desolation, he is one of the few who represents the value of interacting with something real.

A brief, but personal, footnote.

The Rover was screened in the second of QUAD’s two main screens. As my friend, James, and I took our seats, a fleeting sense of déjà vu overcame me. “This is where we watched Submarine, isn’t it?” I said, referring to Richard Ayoade’s 2011 film and a visit to QUAD that is the first chapter of A Tour of the Indies.

Lately, I’ve been readying the ebook for its release into the real world. Soon it will no longer be the personal project that I sometimes talk to friends about. Soon it will be an actual thing that strangers can read, and in preparing it for launch I’ve been rereading the accounts of those fledgling trips to indie cinemas.

The second chapter is a trip to Bristol to watch Michôd’s first film and, as the screen darkened for the start of his second feature, James leaned in and said, “Do you realise it’s three years since we watched Animal Kingdom at Watershed?” I chuckled at the coincidental nature of the observation and said that I did.

Yes, I realised – more so than might otherwise have been the case had I not been working on the book. What pleased me was that it had meant something to James as well; that we had travelled the country for an experience that still lived with both of us in different ways; and that over a century since the birth of cinema, a new film-maker can come along and still enthral audiences with powerful stories in the venues that elect to show them.

If that ever breaks down … well, that’s not a world I could be part of.

A Tour of the Indies cover.jpg

If you enjoyed this blog post ...

... then you might like the tale of my journey around some of the UK's finest indie cinemas (and a few further afield). A Tour of the Indies: A Creative Quest for the UK's Best Cinema's ... and Cake has this dedicated page where you can read more.