Skip to content

Slamming on the brakes in the car wash

What does today’s spiritually starved consumer really need? The programme Cinema Ecologica: Three Daffy Weeks in Eye focuses on our lust for shopping and our greed, as the era dominated by these surely approaches its end. Over the years, filmmakers have come up with powerful images that speak volumes about the false promise of more, more, more being good for us.

By Mariska Graveland04 October 2022

A traffic jam; a department store; a car wash; a plane full of sleeping passengers. They look like mundane images, but in the hands of a good filmmaker they become powerful symbols. Images that pull everything together: overconsumption, gridlock, denial.

Take the car wash scene in Michael Haneke’s Der siebente Kontinent (1989), for example – one of the most horrifying films ever made, and screening as part of the fourth edition of Cinema Ecologica. There are signs up saying ‘Nicht bremsen’ – don’t brake – in the car wash, as a married couple lethargically pass through. So that afterwards, all buffed up and clean, they can continue their roles as happy consumers.

We see their full shopping cart, the checkout girl’s flying fingers as she routinely taps in the prices, the non-stop murmur of receipts being printed out, the pristine white garage door that opens and closes, year in, year out – the backdrop to abundance and gnawing dissatisfaction. These chilled images of everyday objects, scattered by Haneke through his film, burn into our retinas. Everything we see is man-made: in Der siebente Kontinent, nature exists only in the form of fish gasping for air on dry land, and raw meat hacked into pieces. Haneke works with surgical precision towards the frightful climax, when the spiritually starved consumer takes up a hammer, saw and pills to realise the ultimate consequence of his behaviour.

Hermès bag

Or what about the legendary long traffic jam in Week-end (1967), by the recently deceased Jean-Luc Godard – an early critic of consumer society. A seemingly endless queue of cars fills a country road; the people waiting in them driven to distraction trying to pass the time. When one car burst into flames, the passengers still inside, a woman’s only response is to cry: “My Hermès bag!” A man dressed in the style of the French revolution pithily sums it up: “The development of production is characterised by the exploitation of man by man.” A typical bit of Godard.

still from Week-end (Weekend) (Jean-Luc Godard, FR 1967)
still from Week-end (Weekend) (Jean-Luc Godard, FR 1967)

Why don’t we just stop buying stuff, if we know that this is exhausting both workers and the planet? It seems that excessive consumption is just too addictive to give up. Denial and addiction go hand in hand. Once we give in to the siren call of retail therapy, the reward systems in our brains go into overdrive. And we are all too keen to forget the collateral damage this causes as we pursue the next dopamine rush. Human beings live in a divided condition: we have long known that we are being manipulated to buy more, but the temptation is simply too great for us to resist our more basic instincts.

Many filmmakers have mined the rich seam of material offered by this internal division. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999) sketches the all-consuming effects of this: “I’d flip through catalogues and wonder what kind of dining set defines me as a person?”, Edward Norton muses as the narrator who believes he can rediscover vital energy through a secret fight club. Male guru Tyler Durden teaches him: “The things you own end up owning you.”

A year later, American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) takes this a step further through hilarious, horrific images. In the film, serial killer Patrick Bateman reveres other people’s business cards. “Look at that subtle off-white colouring. The tasteful thickness of it. Oh my God. It even has a watermark.”

Patrick Bateman kijkt naar het visitekaartje
still uit American Psycho (Mary Harron, US 2000)

Getting your nails done

And then there’s visionary George A. Romero, who didn’t pick a department store as the location for his zombies to gather in Dawn of the Dead (1978) for nothing. This retail paradise evokes vague, happy shopper moments for the brain dead: “Why do they come here?”, one survivor asks another. “Some kind of instinct”, is the empathetic reply. “A memory of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

The image of sleeping passengers in a plane in the short film Half Wet (2022) is also telling and all too recognisable. According to director Carlos Irijalba, the sleeping passengers are a good metaphor for the denial we all fall into when we are doing something out of our own selfish interest, even though deep inside we know it goes against the common good.

The short film Leak (Astrid Ardagh, 2022), made at the Rietveld Academie, captures this denial in a single, highly evocative image. A woman is having her nails painted, while the world around her floods and water drips onto her body. She carries on regardless of the catastrophe, as if it doesn’t concern her.

Steak for all

In response to these images, more and more writers are presenting ideas intended to help pull us out of this impasse. We need to move from ego to eco, argues Patrick Huntjens, a professor at the Maastricht Sustainability Institute, in his award-winning book Towards a Natural Social Contract. Because the abundance we enjoy could just run out in this time when we are coming up against all kinds of natural limits, and we will have to learn to live with a scarcity of raw materials. We are now suddenly being presented with the bill for decades of living beyond our means. We are finding out that our prosperity is in fact based on a brittle connection between excessively cheap, unsustainable energy and the exploitation of labour, both far afield and close to home.

After the deduction of these hidden costs, our wealth seems much less than we always assumed. We have simply avoided paying the real cost – until now. Following on from the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era and the Industrial and Digital Revolutions, we now find ourselves in a new, uncertain and as yet unnamed era, in desperate need of stronger foundations, but which in any event is sure to be transformative. In his book, Huntjens takes a tentative step towards a new socio-philosophical thought based on a ‘natural social contract’, in the spirit of Michel Serres’ Le contrat natural(1990).

Affluence and Freedom
by young French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier takes a similar approach. The author recognises that an undesired side-effect has come about from the relationship between wealth and freedom. To pull people out of poverty and emancipate them, during the last century every effort was made to give people greater wealth. In summary: everyone had a right to steak and a car, and this was supposed to bring greater freedom. But ecology was never part of this political thought process.

And now we are reaching the painful conclusion: this same expansion of prosperity currently forms a threat to our future prosperity: the so-called ‘paradox of prosperity’. We are experiencing, up close and personal, the fact that ecological vulnerabilities lead to social and economic vulnerabilities. Humanity has flourished for thousands of years thanks to a stable climate. If we ourselves disrupt these favourable conditions for life, we are digging our own graves. Is the freedom to waste and pollute really freedom, if in the longer term this freedom is a threat to itself?

A happy Teflon pan

In the rock-solid, oppressive Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, 2019) we see how an ecological disaster not only threatens prosperity, but also the health of local people. Chemical concern DuPont (the Dutch branch of which is called Chemours and is based close to Dordrecht) advertised with slogans such as ‘Better living through chemicals’ and ‘Better things for better living’. Women’s magazines carried pretty pictures of a ‘happy Teflon pan’. The company conveniently failed to mention in its PR that they had polluted a river with the carcinogenic substance PFOA, resulting in untold illness and death.

A lawyer came across the case by chance, and it grew into a huge scandal. Halfway through, he concludes that it’s impossible to fight against DuPont: “The system is rigged.” Nevertheless, he won the ground-breaking case – a hopeful example of justice winning out in the end.

In Night Moves (2013), Kelly Reichardt raises the question of how far it is permissible to go to claim such justice. The film features Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning as eco-terrorists planning an attack on a hydro-electric dam. Is it justified to use sabotage and violence in ‘the good cause’?

still from Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, US 2019)
still from Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, US 2019)
still from Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US 2013)
still from Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, US 2013)

Hidden desires

And so we come to the driving force behind consumer society: energy. It’s not money but energy that makes the world go round, physicist and economist Robert Ayres argues in his books. “Nothing can happen without input of energy. Not in nature, and not in the human world.” He demonstrates that thermodynamics sets boundaries for economic growth and wealth creation, because energy and materials are broken down during the creation of economic value. This leads to the release of waste heat, exhausts mineral resources and leads to emissions of carbon dioxide and other harmful emissions. There is no perpetual motion machine.

Cinema Ecologica is screening a number of films about this dark side of energy generation and the (nuclear) waste this creates.

still from Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, SU 1979)
still from Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, SU 1979)

In his still overwhelming masterpiece Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979), we enter a fantastically desolate, hermetically sealed industrial Zone full of waste and nuclear gloom. Here, it is said that hidden desires can become reality.

poster Crossroads (Bruce Conner, US 1976)

In Crossroads (1976), Bruce Conner edited together nuclear tests from the Bikini Atoll islands, accompanied by deceptively calm music by Terry Riley.

still from Pripyat (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, AT 1999)
still from Pripyat (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, AT 1999)

In Pripyat (1999), Nikolaus Geyrhalter filmed the people who still live close to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and interviewed people who have worked there.

It can be terrifying to look this dark side of our energy consumption and excessive purchasing patterns in the eye. Because foolishly carrying on the same way is no longer an option – unless you really couldn’t care less. Prefer to look the other way rather than make big changes to the way we live and produce. Until the tide turns and such change becomes inevitable. This irresistible tide of change is already heading our way. All we need to do is look.

This article previously appeared in de Filmkrant

poster Cinema Ecologica in Eye Filmmuseum
illustration Joost Stokhof

Cinema Ecologica: Three Daffy Weeks

The fourth edition of Cinema Ecologica is a critical programme about how the consequences of human greed have been portrayed by filmmakers.