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Earlier in this cataclysm we call the twenty-teens, digital prophet @LILINTERNET remarked that the apocalyptic disorders occupying the collective consciousness of late liberalism — singularity, state breakdown, climate change — have already begun to intrude into the present, not as a jarring break, but as a gradual “weirdening.” So begins Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s 2018 film Empty Metal: three shivering hipsters stare dead-eyed into a bonfire as one of them relays, via disembodied voiceover, “I have come to realize that the inevitable destruction of the status quo will be more of a confused, anticlimactic rot.” The end is relative, Empty Metal insinuates. Relative, and for many, already underway. “The future is already here,” as theorist Jasbir Puar puts it, “unevenly distributed, in bits and pieces in time and space.”
Bits and pieces in time and space — this is Empty Metal’s preferred narrative mode; the present is figured as a movement between ambiguously connected threads that loosely weave together homegrown militiamen, telepathic Rastafarians, and disillusioned Brooklynites who give new meaning to the maxim “DIY or die.” Interspersed with found footage from dashcams and drones, the film sketches a world uncomfortably recognizable as our own — one where artists are murderers and murderous police officers are artists in the down-time afforded by their “paid investigative leave.”
Empty Metal is exhilaratingly un-didactic, which makes it challenging to review. By way of plot summary, it will suffice to sketch out the inciting incident: a queer-coded noise band suffers from generic contemporary apathy until a failed tour kickoff sees them conscripted into left-wing revolutionary ardor. Much of what happens from there is indescribable — opaque, divorced from any expectations of narrative causality, heavily referential, and darkly hysterical. What results is a hypertext-heavy, narratively dispersed bricolage that lands somewhere between film essay and leftist manifesto.
The issues raised in Empty Metal are unquestionably contemporary, but the eternal polarity it stages — revolution versus the powers that be! — feels outside of time, a nonspecific drive for upheaval fueled by constant allusions to insurgencies past (I squealed audibly when one bit of voice-over invoked Ulrike Meinhof and Osama Bin Laden). Much like the Internet itself, the film draws connections between dense points of reference so quickly that it occasionally tends towards incomprehensibility; in refusing the totalization of typical narrative structures, Empty Metal also slumps on specificity.
We might think of Empty Metal as a cyborg film — a coalition of affinities à la Donna Haraway — as both its subject matter and formal approach hinge on unification across difference, a fuck-you to essentialized binaries. But in this generic gesture of opposition, the opportunity to vivify the specific, material connection between planetary-scale computation and racial capitalism is foregone. The literal examples that speak to this point are painfully instructive — from Navajo women’s status as some of the earliest members of the technological precariat manufacturing semiconductors for Fairchild in the ‘70s to the ongoing colonial structures of extraction that enable our iPhones.
Empty Metal’s abandonment of linearity and causality thus becomes its strength maximized as its weakness—its imprecise yet all-inclusive vitality is energizing, but leads only towards an ahistorical promise of revolution. It is so aggressively non-totalizing that it stops itself from fully exploring the boldness of its potential claims, settling, instead, for a model of “twitchy, agitated interpassivity” — that all-too-familiar digital-age affect remarked upon by Mark Fisher, a mirror image of the schizophrenic technological landscape it sets out to critique which further entrenches “reflexive impotence” as the only available response.
Empty Metal (2018), dirs. Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, screens at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, Lower East Side) December 5–11, 2019.