Conspicuous Consumption

I went to see Flux Gourmet at BFI South Bank. This was originally slated to be shown on the NFT3 screen but was moved yesterday to the Studio screen. I was one of about 20 people watching.

It is the latest film written and directed by Peter Strickland. That was the reason I went to see it, not knowing much else except that there was some theme about cookery. There was a flyer available going in, and here it is. As I try to watch new films and plays cold, as far as possible, I haven’t read this:

Also on the entrance to the Studio auditorium:

And so to begin.

We start with the view from a kitchen counter, as ingredients are put in to preparation by anonymous hands. The camera switches from close up horizontal to overhead, a trick also used in Don’t Worry Darling. We can see some of the hands have long enamelled fingernails. We pull back to see this is part of a tableau involving 3 performers working with electronic sound equipment whilst making the food. The spectacle is interrupted by an overdressed lady we learn is called Jan Stevens; there is also a man scribbling in a notebook. He is Stones, a writer (he describes himself as “a hack”) employed at the Institute to record the details of each resident group of Sonic Caterers. He also supplies the voiceover narration, in his own language, which is subtitled in English, though he speaks English along with all the other characters. All of them have accents, and the most powerful figures in this world (administrator Jan Stevens, and medic Doctor Glock) have posh British voices.

The “sonic catering” conceit is a play on the idea of “industrial music” – in both cases, the fusion of electronica with a process of material work that has been detached from the lives of people employed to perform it all day, and enacted by people who have usually never experienced it in their lives. It becomes a novelty, a source of wonder, since it is encountered by artist and audience in small doses away from its context of repetition and exhaustion and boredom. Art produced by people with greater experience of factory life does not generally take machines and their noises to be a flaring-out of mechanical inscape, but rather the wardens of a prison yard of monotonous tasks and ambient danger. Flux Gourmet depicts the flimsy stage scenery of self-proclaimed “transgressive” artists who make a career providing cheap and quick shots of unpleasant voyeurism. It draws out the hidden drama of the petty jealousies, vanity and domination amongst the egos that create performance art for a small marketplace of similarly jaded egoists and dilettantes. It nudges them to admit that their backgrounds are more privileged than they would like to be known; that their thoughts are mostly derivative and banal; that they rely on the lingo of Theory to secure funding and opportunities but it adds no illumination to their works.

All these satirical points are made clearly out loud, in case we missed them. The action loops around in what is marked as a period of 3 weeks, with on-screen titles for each week, and at the bottom of each a chemical formula, presumably for a food additive. At times we have what seem to be interviews between Stones and members of the art collective, and the style is tending towards the mock-documentary comedy that existed for many years on British television before The Office was a worldwide hit. But the main influence here feels like a different British comedy series from the same period: Blue Jam. Starting as a radio show in which sketches mixed with ambient and electronic sounds, it took the voices of “every day” and “down to earth” characters in absurd situations, but rather than whooping them up with an hysterical audience instead set them to work grimly in the grain of whichever conceit they were trapped in. The most memorable Blue Jam sketches could have performed in any safe and conventional TV sketch show, playing up to the studio audience with eye-rolling and exaggerated voices (many regular TV sketch shows did sometimes include odd moments that were just strange and stood out from the rest). Being on the radio freed it from needing to supply the visuals, and when it transferred to TV it used minimal staging.

What I found disappointing in Flux Gourmet is more of the problem with Strickland’s previous film In Fabric. That was a world of sad and lonely figures lost in stores full of mannequins and feeling that they were soulless clothes-fillers as well. But it broke its own spell in a moment when the camera broke away from any of the characters and showed a material change underlying the odd behaviour of objects around them: a boiler going faulty with nobody around. That established the action was happening in a universe larger than the humans and running on processes they weren’t in charge of. But it also took away any sense of elusive, unknowable agency behind the strange phenomena – the suspicion that humans were the cause of pain to others at a distance, through their unfathomable connections.

In Flux Gourmet we are often jumping away from the central poseurs to see threats and rivals scuttling around. Faces are usually in close-up, like TV drama. Jan Stevens never gets the chance to burst into a scene in her mad outfits, we see her laboriously approaching, and then focus in on her. The joke about Elle not knowing what a flanger is gets repeated more than it deserves, and it doesn’t make sense in its final appearance, in the 3rd week when it’s more than “a few days ago” that she found out. There are lots more oddly-dressed characters at the dinner table but we don’t get to see them very well. A gathering that looks like it could be a scene from a Bunuel film instead turns out to be a sitcom set-piece that just has a coincidental passing resemblance. The Blue Jam mood wears off too quickly to leave the lazier, more smug comedy-of-banality style derived from Monty Python, Terry Gilliam and Douglas Adams, where extreme situations are populated by dull mundane people who take the fantastic as normal.

Extreme artists and anarchist groups with incoherent philosophies were already depicted just as well in The Big Lebowski 25 years ago. Flux Gourmet just brings them back to conventional models by giving simple explanations from their unhappy childhoods. Turns out they have deep feelings of guilt and shame they aren’t facing up to, awww. There is a message, and it is that all this business is just silly nonsense from spoilt children who didn’t grow up because someone was always available to indulge them. How sad and what a pity there isn’t a really transgressive artist breaking through the screen to disrupt it.

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