Film In Conversation
Anti-Banality Union with Andreas Petrossiants
This anonymous group of filmmakers has just released their film Earth II, which premiered at Spectacle in January. Earth II takes an innovative approach to the “end of the world” genre, and is a significant exercise in appropriation.
Andreas Petrossiants (Rail): Can you all introduce the Anti-Banality Union? In the past, you’ve referred to yourselves as an anonymous three-headed Hydra. But I also like how the New Inquiry called you a “guerrilla cinema collective.”
Anti-Banality Union (ABU): It’s worth noting that our number is indeterminate. So nowadays, we prefer “many-headed hydra.” We think the latter description correctly describes our approach to making our films, which is largely through theft of various kinds—whether it’s piracy or larceny of moving image sources. There was a point some years ago where we all had enough of being individuals and wanted to become an indistinguishable entity. We started spending all of our time—waking and sleeping—in the same space, trying to never refer to each other by individual names, working nonstop on our first project. From then on, we’ve tried to make ourselves as indistinguishable from each other as possible. A future project, which is more of a long-term thing, is to all have the same fingerprints and the same DNA.
Rail: Could you also talk about your logo, which is a really nice détournement of the hammer and sickle, constructed from an exclamation point and a question mark, given your focus on the expropriation of private property?
ABU: The hammer and sickle is—as you know—a powerful symbol. Though unfortunately it is still a little too closely associated with state communism. Over the years, we looked at the margins of a lot of the various books and texts that we were reading and realized that they were just littered with exclamation and question marks. That’s where the logo was born out of.
Rail: Could you introduce your earlier movies as a way to introduce the tactics that you’re using? The first one was Unclear Holocaust from 2011 which dovetails with your newest film Earth II (2021), given their focus on mainstream portrayals of collapse, albeit different kinds.
ABU: Unclear Holocaust started with all of us thinking about the tenth anniversary of 9/11, when that was approaching, and the various ways in which Hollywood had imagined the destruction of New York for decades before this infamous act of destruction actually happened. We thought it was interesting that those two things were hardly ever talked about in the same breath. So, we figured what better way to commemorate that anniversary than by compiling all the instances where Hollywood had kind of prefigured or presaged that event.
Rail: In an earlier interview, you refer to that film as a “literalization of neoliberalism.” I think in some sense that that applies to all the films we’re going to be talking about today. So, do you want to maybe return to that claim and describe how it applies to your corpus?
ABU: Well, what we were talking about in that instance was that both Unclear Holocaust and Police Mortality (2013) portray ways in which contemporary liberal society uses a tightly administered set of crises as a tool of governance—whether the crisis is terrorism, or rather the ever-looming threat of terrorist attacks or popular riots, the latter of which we deal with in Police Mortality. The idea is that with this proliferation and production of minor crises to be managed, society becomes more governable; meanwhile, the police’s preeminent function is to create and manage those series of crises. What happens in that film is that these crises end up snowballing and becoming unmanageable until the whole police apparatus implodes. As the police is creating crimes to make itself relevant as an apparatus, it also creates an overwhelming amount of disorder in the space that it’s trying to govern and then basically becomes enveloped in an internal power struggle and civil war that then annihilates itself.
Rail: By siphoning off all of these different clips from so much popular mainstream cinema that serves to venerate or legitimize the status quo, and repurposing it, the films you make pull away at that patina of normalization. I remember in your zombie film State of Emergence (2014), there’s a clip taken from Doom (2005) where a space marine played by The Rock says, “We kill them all. Let God sort them out.” And I remember that while watching this in your film, when it’s pulled away from the drama of the Martian science facility, the sentence actually shocked me in a way that it might not have otherwise in the source film.
ABU: In the case of that quote, we were trying to make it as shocking as it was in its original context, which was a Marine Corps slogan. In Doom, because The Rock is referring to a bunch of space demons when he says it, the explicit extrajudicial violence is rendered sort of innocuous, or morally palatable. So we were just restoring it to its original brutal, genocidal meaning.
Hollywood does constantly “speak the truth,” but they always back pedal in the third act of the film. A great example shows up in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) after mass rioters destroy the prisons, free the prisoners, and expropriate the houses of the wealthy. All great things! And the only way the film can really complete itself is to say: Oh, actually, they don’t really believe those things. Oh no, Bane’s not some sort of communist icon. He’s actually just some goon who wants to kill everyone in the city. Forget the last hour of the movie.
Rail: There’s an interesting flip to what might be called traditional, pedagogical “counter-cultural” production with your films. I wonder if you see yourselves in a Situationist tradition, using popular culture to make the ideas existing inside of popular culture more apparent?
ABU: We follow Hollywood’s formula in a lot of ways. We have our own ideology and things that we want to say through it. But it’s been said already, and it’s really just a matter of moving things around to make that message clearer. One thing that Hollywood often does is trivialize real fears, emotions, and revolutionary impulses. So what we’re trying to do in most cases is to show that these tools, these emotionally manipulative cinematic tools, can actually be used in a way that doesn’t insult the viewer and doesn’t trivialize their emotions.
Rail: Your justification for why you use the material reminds me less of Asger Jorn, let’s say, than it does of conceptual artist Douglas Huebler who said something like: since all the good art has already been made, why make any more? At the same time, a formalist analysis could potentially distract from what your films are accomplishing. Meaning, thinking of your tactics solely as a détournement of popular culture or as an “appropriation” of found materials doesn’t do justice to how much narrative sense the films have. Do you think formalist readings like these detract from a nuanced understanding of what your films are trying to do? In other words, what do you think is the relationship between the way you make the films and the films themselves?
ABU: In many ways, this is the most efficient way for us to make a film that looks good and looks like it has a high budget, when it actually has no budget. And so certainly a formal analysis is not something that we can resist. But it’s not really the primary focus, per se. In a lot of ways, we take this tactic out of expediency because we have no investors. You have to remember that the people making Hollywood films are human beings and they do have similar impulses to ours at times, but they’re subsumed within Hollywood machinery so they can’t say what they want to necessarily. Independence Day (1996) is a good example, in as much as it has a very weak critique about global warming and some emphasis on environmentalism, broadly speaking. Jeff Goldblum’s character is an environmentalist and he talks about recycling and Styrofoam. And there is this critique—well maybe not a critique, it’s not really developed enough, but the underlying premise is that these aliens used up the resources on their planet and so they’re coming to Earth to take our resources. So, one could see that as a critique of capitalism, an extremely weak one, but we can see the roots of it, we can see the beginnings of it, and we can pull it out by putting it together with other work that operates along a similar vein.
In that sense, maybe the appropriation bit is important as it shows that these ideas, which are painted as radical, are in fact ideas that most people hold. Most people want a dignified life where they don’t have to destroy the only place capable of sustaining their life force in order to make a few people richer. One rule we’ve found after watching hundreds of these movies is that many of them are really good if you just root for the bad guy and don’t watch the last twenty minutes or so, because that’s where the retrenchment happens. That’s the crux of how we see this. We’re certainly influenced by the Situationist International and view ourselves within their tradition, but we also see ourselves as different because they would just take a comic strip and remove all the dialogue and replace it wholesale with their own ideas. Whereas we’re interested in actually looking at what the original material is saying.
Rail: Let’s talk about Earth II, which premiered at Spectacle Theater in January. This film deals with climate and ecosystemic collapse and how those crises are mediatized, mourned, and encouraged by popular culture. Can you talk more about the process of collecting this material?
ABU: It took more than five years. We wanted to see if it was possible to make something that was as watchable as a Hollywood film. Because of that it took a long time, but also because of the investment of time, it required us to be more thoughtful about what we wanted to say with the film as well. So, we had more freedom and more constraints with this project, because the previous three films each focused on a single genre or meta-genre. With this one, we didn’t select a delineated genre—some of the sources are sci-fi or cli-fi movies like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), The Core (2003), Geostorm (2017). But we also had war movies, superhero movies, and so on. Because of that it also didn’t lend itself as much to the supercut way of assembling, whether by theme or by some formal commonality because we were less focused on analyzing and lampooning these genre-specific tropes or conventions. The main difference between the previous films and this one is that here we took the three-act plot structure really seriously and recognized its power as a vessel for communicating powerful emotions. We wanted to make a blockbuster for our friends.
Rail: To your earlier point about the scope of time, I thought that one of most interesting things was seeing how little has changed in terms of the political orthodoxy of neoliberal capitalism, but how much smaller, unimportant things have changed. For example, the panic rooms from the earlier film sources all have ashtrays and the later ones don’t. But it also seems to me that Police Mortality and Unclear Holocaust were much more referential to the political moments they emerged from, coming on the heels of Occupy and Sandy and alongside rebellions erupting in response to the constant police murder of Black people. Earth II emerges from a different temporal context, when liberal systems of governance, distribution, and production are quite literally crumbling. How would you situate Earth II today, coming at the tail end of this most recent cycle of rebellions and strikes from 2020 to the present?
ABU: One of the only ways we decided to limit the films we would use was through their release date. They start in roughly 1980 and go through today. And at the time, it was not really a conscious decision made with anything in mind other than aesthetics and the quality of filmmaking. But in retrospect, it’s roughly the timeline of neoliberalism becoming the dominant economic, political, and social ideology ruling the United States, and soon the entire Earth. So, in this film, you see villains that have completely withdrawn from “society,” in the Thatcherian sense. They decide that they owe nothing to the rest of humanity and accelerate their efforts to extract as much wealth from the Earth as they can before everything collapses, and they leave the planet—which was a much more fantastical idea when we started the film. We were only looking at Elon Musk really. At the time when we started the film, everyone thought that he was this kind of goofy, well-meaning guy. Now, everyone hates him and is on the same page as us. But we remember when we started making the film, people would be like, “Elon Musk, like, okay, I guess.” But now they’re like, “Oh, yeah, Elon Musk. He’s the worst.”
In many ways we’re speaking to our contemporary moment, but maybe in a broader sense, we’re looking at a longer timescale than some of the previous films. In the first film, we were responding to a thing that had been happening for about ten years: the post-9/11 surveillance state. In the second one, about something that had been going on for two hundred years: the modern police apparatus. And in the third, something that had been going on for forty years: the contemporary zombie movie. In this case, we’re responding to a moment that, depending on who you ask, has been going on for at least a few hundred years: humanity’s incursion into geological and climate processes as a determining factor in changing climate patterns.
Rail: I like the epigraph, which comes from a Fred Moten and Stefano Harney text where they write: “The Earth moves against the world. And today the response of the world is clear.” The original text continues: “The world answers in fire and flood.” I also really like the image that accompanies the original published essay, which shows lava flowing out of a volcano in the shape of a smiley face. Is the protagonist of Earth II the Earth?
ABU: First of all, Anthropos is definitely the antagonist. It’s worth noting though that we do also present a sort of series of allies of the Earth, which is the hero, yes. In general, the ubiquitous focus on the Anthropocene and Anthropos takes a very Western idea of humanity, rooted in neoliberalism, that everyone on Earth is participating in this extractive process. We think blaming “people” instead of a specific ideology that has led to this activity kind of obscures the fact that it’s really about extraction and primitive accumulation.
Even so, the allies we present are not necessarily perfect heroes either. In the film, a glimmer of hope does appear in the form of this decentralized distributed neo-Luddite resistance that Keanu Reeves becomes the reluctant leader of. And one way of describing that is a collection of Earthbound people fighting against the remnants of this Anthropos that have viewed the planet as something to govern and extract from for centuries. But they are also flawed. Their motivations are sometimes ambiguous, their methods are sometimes ill-advised.
It’s also worth noting that in our film Matt Damon is a character that we have a real fondness for. He’s a tragic figure, but one that we also laugh at, and one that spends the whole film clinging to bare life. He’s really someone who this system does not exist to serve in any way. And yet, he clings so strongly to it, and is completely dedicated to it. He’s an important character to think about in contrast to the Earthbound people because he will do anything he can to preserve this way of life. But he’s not the villain, he’s not rich or making these decisions. He views himself as an ally with the rich somehow, even though they’re ready to discard him at a moment’s notice.
Rail: I imagined the Earthbound characters in your movie as halfway between something pretty depoliticizing and misguided, like Extinction Rebellion, and something a bit more thought through, like the ZAD in France let’s say, but not really either of them. Do you think they represent any kind of tendency happening in real life besides a slightly left of liberal sensibility that may periodically flirt with property damage before retrenching back to a fetishized nonviolence?
ABU: We must work with what we have. It’s worth saying they’re a little underdeveloped. And we think one reason we focused on them is to show there is a glimmer of people wanting to change the way they’re living in the world—they want to live a life of dignity that shows respect for other forms of life. And yet, because of the timeline we depicted in our film, they don’t really have an opportunity to develop beyond what we see. They make some bad strategic decisions. And ultimately, they’re wiped out when … well, not to give anything away, but when the rich leave Earth and secure all the resources of it, they decide to nuke the planet.