Let’s Apocalypse! A Discussion with the Anti-Banality Union

By Jarrod Shanahan

What do the violent obliteration of New York City and the self-destruction of the police have in common? According to the Anti-Banality Union, these are two key motifs in “Hollywood’s dream diary,” the cache of our society’s secret wishes to destroy the present order and bring a new world into being.

The ABU edits countless Hollywood popcorn films together, forming orgies of death and destruction at the hands of our society’s hopeless antagonisms. Drawing clips from such box office hits as Independence Day, The Dark Knight, and The Siege, they reveal the violence and chaos lurking just below the surface of the present order.

Their first film was Unclear Holocaust, a devious medley of over 50 disaster movies, in which New York is destroyed over and over again by its own hopeless contradictions:

This week I had the pleasure of attending the premiere of their new film Police Mortality, the cop film to end all cop films—literally:

After the screening I caught up with the filmmakers to chat about their projects, the insane world they've diagnosed, and the new one they strive to bring into being.

The ABU is an “anonymous three-headed hydra,” so their voices have accordingly been collectivized for this interview.

VICE: So you make movies that are like... a bunch of a different movies... edited together... to make a new movie. That’s crazy! Tell me a little about the process that goes into this.
Anti-Banality Union: Initially we wanted to pursue two formal experiments: one, to see whether a film could be made for absolutely no money, and two, to understand whether or not Hollywood could be mobilized towards revolutionary ends, that is, against itself.

Narratively, we registered how disaster movies are basically structured the same way: a quotidian existence is interrupted by an anomaly manufactured by different apparatuses, whether scientific, military, administrative, pedagogical, or civilian, which are then turned into real objects of crisis and catastrophe and deployed as political stratagems by a governmental apparatus. Unclear Holocaust is, in this way, a literalization of neoliberalism.

Can you elaborate on that?
Meaning: the constant production and reproduction of minor, manageable crises that can be used as catalysts for ever more capitalization on certain populations and resources, as well as the popular habituation to a permanent state of exception. These practices, which became clear after 9/11 and, on a smaller scale, after Sandy, have been the paradigm since the 1970s.

The hopeful lilt toward the end of Unclear Holocaust is that this catastrophe will become unmanageable, and this increasingly destructive strategy may spin out of control and destroy the world as we know it.

The same in Police Mortality: you have this increasing consolidation and universalization of “police” as a practice and as a group, that at the moment of its total realization, just when they’ve deputized everyone who wasn’t already a cop, and overcome themselves in this class struggle within the police force, they accidentally release all prisoners, and the police and the system it buttresses implode, committing mass suicide.

Both films are very much retrospectives of the last ten, 20, 30 years—broad surveys of long processes of governance, made into a narrative and condensed. In Police Mortality and Unclear Holocaust, we have very literal depictions of OWS, 9/11, and the killings of various unarmed black men in the city, among other occurrences. But it’s also meant to be future oriented. That is, the logical conclusion of all these contradictions, events, and violences is hopefully the complete eradication of such structures.

A simple way of viewing your work is that you reappropriate these films into something that they weren’t initially supposed to be. I think it’s more interesting that they are, as you’ve said, a “reading of Hollywood’s dream diary,” so that you’re not actually creating something that didn’t exist, you are instead drawing out something that is latent within the films.
We would argue that Hollywood has more or less completely occupied the collective unconscious and determined roughly the coordinates of the social imaginary. This is extremely clear in the prefiguration of events in movies like The Siege, where prior to 9/11, you see a more or less accurate prediction of the incarceration and vilification of the Muslim population of the US, as well as events like the OWS Brooklyn Bridge protest.

Whether this is an aspect of plagiarism between reality, documentary, and fiction, is not so much at issue here. Anthropologist Didier Fassin describes how French cops model themselves after characters in the TV show The Shield. In this way, Hollywood becomes more prescriptive than it is descriptive.

To this effect, I’m interested that the two themes of these films—the destruction of New York by every possible means and the absolute carnage unleashed by the police being turned on the police itself—are so firmly lodged in the American unconscious.
We think that there’s a kernel of liberation in all of these Hollywood narratives, and the destruction of New York, and the police destroying themselves from within, are both maybe sublimated forms of revolution, or maybe ideas of revolution that insinuate themselves into Hollywood in these masked forms. So the idea that the world ends, whether it’s the world as a geological planetary reality, or the world as a social order, as in the police no longer being able to withstand its own contradictions, are both forms of wanting to see this world, or its present organization, end in some way.

Essentially, we think that all the machines, all the apparatuses we are dealing with here are essentially thanatos-driven suicide machines, self-hating, self-perpetuating, extremely powerful systems, that at their core must surround themselves and fill themselves with death. And at the end of this intense accumulation, there can be nothing but toppling under their weight and their implosion.

Can you please clarify this notion of thanatos?
We’re using it loosely but also in an orthodox Freudian way. In that sense, eros, the fundamental life force, is blocked by the reality principle, by civilization, and all of these different repressive patterns force us to sublimate our eros, and forces it to rebound back in on itself, turning it into thanatos—still a libidinal investment, and a very pleasurable thing, but an investment toward death, self-hatred, and self-destruction.

And this isn’t limited to the police.
Absolutely not. This is a society-wide affliction, which we’re sure everyone can sympathize with. It is also excruciatingly obvious in Hollywood. Thanatos is just a heightened state within the police, because they have a particularly obvious means of exercising it, with their weapons.

Recently we had the well-publicized case of Christopher Dorner, who became a hero to many people of various political stripes. I’m interested in your take on this romanticism of Dorner by so many.
On the one hand, his manifesto is incredibly militant, but it is essentially militantly reformist. It’s about purging the sort of “racist” or “Nazi” aspect of the LAPD, in order to instate “justice” and “true order” and the like. We would argue, however, that despite their reformist appearance, these goals are totally incompatible with the continuing existence of the police, and in order to achieve such contradictory aims, he would essentially have to wipe out the entirety of police. His brief killing spree revealed that instead of the common notion of the police maintaining an equilibrium, or order, within society, in fact what it needs to function is a total dissymmetry of force, a total monopoly on all violence. An imperative was issued by an opinion piece in the New York Times not long ago entitled “Don’t Mythologize Christopher Dorner”

They say “don’t mythologize Christopher Dorner,” but if you read his manifesto, it’s just an amalgamation of all these different Hollywood clichés. The way this man understood himself was a direct product of Hollywood. We could say that Hollywood mythologized Christopher Dorner before he was even born!
Not to mention the biographical films already in development. Initially we said we were going to add him last minute into Police Mortality, and then realized he was this intrusive figure, precisely because every character in the film was acting out his struggle. It’s redundant. Magnum Force is Christopher Dorner, Bruce Willis is Christopher Dorner, Robocop is Christopher Dorner. So this literal adaptation, retroactively, would have been an intrusive addition, because it was already there, fully formed.

How has the film been received so far?
The prescriptive idea for its reception, that we introduced it with at the premiere, is that it will hopefully become a documentary by this time next year. And while that seems more unlikely than ever, considering the strengthening of police ideology and the police state, we’re at an extremely critical threshold that contains this potential.

In Unclear Holocaust you have a fabulous juxtaposition of all these clips of idyllic New York, just before the disaster announces itself. But it seems like in the present, we don’t have that anymore. It’s almost like the “idyllic New York” would be a catastrophic New York. How do you understand the fact that we live in this period in which crisis, whether ecological or political, is more or less the norm?
The present stage of “apocalyptic capitalism” is basically predicated on this continuing crisis, key in Neoliberal strategy, where even a very minor seasonal snowstorm becomes an ostensibly devastating event. The fact is, we’re becoming daily more accustomed to this apocalyptic mindset, and if we take hold of or appropriate this way of thinking, and urge it further, it can result in something extremely revolutionary. The idea of revolution as apocalypse is pretty concisely reflected in a slogan we heard not long ago: let’s apocalypse. 

Your method raises the question of agency in analyzing politics or film. The impetus for most who analyze film or politics is to find the human agent. So in a film, you’re looking for the vision of the auteur. What is Bergman trying to tell me about finitude? Likewise in politics, there’s this comforting fiction that the United States government took down the World Trade Center and controls all events in the world. Personally I find much more accurate (never mind interesting) the idea that we live in a disordered world governed by vague laws like that of capital accumulation. What are your thoughts on this oppressive need to decipher agency in the world?
That there’s not necessarily a doer behind the deed, and when we look for agency, the agency of Bergman in a Bergman film, we’re just desperately avoiding the conclusion that Bergman as such is just a node for the indirect discourse of cinema to pass through. Really, it’s Hollywood, or the dominant form of cinema, conceived as a totality, coursing through these different nodes that receive proper names to differentiate very similar, compatible worldviews. We try to avoid the question of individual free will, particularly because it is a relic of metaphysics, a centuries-old diversion that philosophy professors continually assert in order to distract people from the political. What should be studied, rather than this mythological irruption of pure will and individuality, is the conditions of possibility for certain subjects and objects to erupt into existence on a mass scale, and how they are used strategically in the opposing camps of power and resistance.

Police Mortality isn’t a product of some highly original individuals, some fucking young New York entrepreneurs. It is an important accident in the dirty history of cinema and the political and a damning, recorded admission of how power operates in the 21st Century—a particularly visible spot on the filthy sediment of Hollywood’s spectacular sheen.