I. The Black Suitcase Full of Cash
The Russian writer Viktor Pelevin once suggested that the real protagonist of western culture as a black briefcase full of money. Pelevin’s metaphor is one of those ostensibly off-the-cuff, Zizek-esque film-studies truisms that gnaws at you, prompting you to poke around your personal collection for counter-examples and leaving you annoyed at how often a black briefcase full of money literally shows up. Beyond the literal, however, Pelevin has put his finger on the basic foundation of American (and by extension, Western) fiction – our narratives involve either successfully getting our hands on our own private briefcase, or they involve us ‘opting out’ for love, usually of the domesticated, heterosexual variety (and if you dig this – voila! – you’ve saved yourself fifty thousand dollars in student-loan debt by circumventing that Film-Studies MA you wanted to get).
Of course, Pelevin isn’t really saying anything that the Wu-Tang Clan haven’t already said, and there are exceptions to this eminently capitalistic metaphor. Pynchon’s they had a sub-fiscal layer of demonic power (e.g. Blicero in Gravity’s Rainbow), the Matrix films had the same military-industrial back-story as the Terminator films but quickly zigged towards existentialism instead of zagging towards materialism. Sci-fi and fantasy fiction give us baddies who couldn’t care less about cash – usually they’re down for no-holds-barred xenocide, or soul-harvesting, or getting their hands on some slippery amulet – because cash is a fictional conceit shared almost exclusively by homo sapiens (and a few dwarves). The alternative to the economic narrative of real world history is part of their escapist charm; it’s also why religious fiction is so captivating for so many. These stories let readers imagine opting out of the world as we know it: an omnivorous system of global capital.
Okay, but what about more terrestrial fare? At the risk of spooking Anobium readers, I would say realistic fare, with the caveat that Blue Velvet is far more realistic than The Notebook. What alternatives do we have to fictions in which everything orbits the object of greatest mass: that sexy fucking suitcase (you can see it – no? – down to the brushed steel hinges and that luxurious creak of the black leather when it opens).
With that preface, let’s get to Nicolas Winding Refn.
II. The Brown Paper Bag (full of cash)
Refn’s first film Pusher, at least on the surface, doesn’t seem like a good counter-force to oppose the black-suitcase since it is, essentially, the story of Frank – a mid-level Copenhagen drug dealer – who needs to scrounge up his own suitcase full of cash in order to stay alive. Cash does in fact rule everything around Frank, including his girlfriend who – not to put too fine a point on it – has an intimate relationship with capitalism. The details of how Frank runs afoul of his mob bosses aren’t especially unique or surprising to anyone who has seen Scarface or is willing to extract an analog from any other American crime film (although the story is presented well, Refn co-wrote the screenplay, and clearly knows a thing or two about how cocaine gets from point A to point B, at least in Denmark). Aside from Refn’s truly miraculous fundraising, the film’s debut in the early nineties wasn’t a game changer, but there are two things that make the film worth seeing.
First, Refn finds something in the drug world of Denmark that he will revisit over and over again, and that is a surreal space that occupies real space and time in our world. The hierarchy of the drug world – in which profits travel up the ranks and punitive violence travels down – is of course an eerie echo of the Nazi government which ruled Denmark during the Occupation, eerier still for the prevalence of Aryan and ultra-nationalist ink that shows up across the three Pusher films (Refn, I can say, is a lot savvier than most American directors about his tattoos, the American version of these films would have had giant, Ed-Norton style swastikas, but Refn knows – or knows someone who knows – that neo-Nazis have a massive symbolic vocabulary beyond the swastika and the SS lightning bolts). It’s a place where the ordinary rules of civilized behavior do not apply and – as when we meet the disturbingly friendly Radovan – when we do encounter civilized people, we learn to be afraid. We’re familiar with this meme – the head baddie dispatches with his crude underlings, bandagers the hero’s wounds, invites them to tea, and then really fucks them up – but it is particularly effective when we know that pain in an alternate currency in Refn’s Copenhagen.
Second, a short sequence, early in the film, in which Frank and his happy-go-lucky sidekick Tonny spend an afternoon and evening talking shit (their dialog is spot on: sexual and profane, with none of the erudite ventriloquism of a Tarantino speaking – implausibly – through his thugs). Towards the end of the scene they suddenly attack each other – for no ostensible reason – brandishing knives and attempting to stab each on another. And they do this joyously: there is a shot of Frank’s glee-smeared face that clashes palpably with the rest of the film, in which his face is drawn long, first in frustration and finally in morbid resignation. Before you can really enjoy the scene, it’s over. It is an utterly bizarre moment – even in context – and the brilliance of the scene is in an acknowledgement, however dim, that there is something in Frank besides heterosexual lust and the need for money. At this early stage in Refn’s career, it’s barely articulate, but it’s there. Frank isn’t happy with his prostitute girlfriend and – despite his best efforts – cannot manage to successfully get or keep his hands on money. When Frank declines to flee Copenhagen for Spain with the money – which would be the happy Trainspotting ending – she steals his cash from a brown paper bag (the poor man’s suitcase, like the upscale model good for dope or cash). The film ends with Frank, staring mutely into the middle distance, while the violence prepares to make its way down the hierarchy. The suitcase, as Pelevin might say, come out on top once again, except for the brief rupture.
[Feature image from Reverse Shot.]
Benjamin Schachtman lives in Chinatown with his wife, his dog and thousands of books.