Pleasures of the Periphery

Graphic by Zawar Ahmed

My favorite genre of cinema (at least among those reputable enough to warrant an article in the Herald) tracks the emergence of a subculture not from the perspectives of its central figures, but from those of the relatively obscure characters on its periphery. 


The tone of these films, which range from the domestic tragicomedy of David Chase’s Not Fade Away to the confectionary pleasures of John Carney’s Sing Street, is as diverse as their subject matter. This diversity does not, however, preclude a unified thematic concern; these are films about the processes by which culture is formed, yes, but their focus on the margins of any given scene allows them to comment upon the decay of artistic ambition. 


This theme is exemplified by the conclusion of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, wherein the film’s melancholic folk singer protagonist performs at the same venue in which the film opened, only to be one-upped by a young Bob Dylan. Here we have a microcosm of the entire subgenre, with a historical and artistic inflection point shown from the perspective of someone whose career it breaks, not makes. The Coens and their peers in the genre conceive of history as a series of names forgotten in the wake of the artistic titans whose shadows they occupy; it is a bleak outlook, but one which allows its practitioners to avoid hagiography and focus instead on the forces that animate emergent subcultures, in this case, the folk music scene of the 1960’s.


The Coens’ preoccupation with the simultaneous rise and fall of social milieus is shared by Mia Hansen-Love, director of Goodbye, First Love, whose followup Eden takes the previous film’s chronological ellipses to their logical conclusion.

Eden tracks the development of the French EDM scene from which musical duo Daft Punk emerged through the eyes of Paul (Felix de Givry), a minor DJ based on the director’s own brother. Although Paul is a marginal figure relative to Daft Punk, who appear as recurring characters throughout the film,, we come to know him intimately over the course of the two decades depicted in Eden. This span of time, overambitious as it may seem, is essential to Hansen-Love’s film, and not just because it allows her a broader canvas on which to project her ambitions.


In fact, Eden contains very little directorial projection at all; neither Hansen-Love’s camera nor her script attempt to fashion the film into a paean for the excesses of youth or (thank god) into a morality play about the inevitability of relinquishing adolescent passions. Instead, the director is content to observe her protagonist as he wanders from party to party, accumulating baggage—emotional, economic, and otherwise—as he goes. As in Goodbye, First Love, Hansen-Love’s use of editing to collapse the film’s expansive time frame into a relatively brief two hours makes the film as poignant as it is. Seemingly at random, the film barrels forward years at a time, depicting familiar situations over and over again in a way that makes the viewer aware not only of the film’s attempt to replicate the looping rhythms of EDM, but of its protagonist’s unchanging and even dull affect throughout. At one point, a former lover comments that Paul looks exactly as he did when they were together years ago, which feels like the closest the film comes to a statement of purpose regarding its protagonist’s perpetually arrested development.


The film’s crucial irony, then, is that it peers almost exclusively into the past, from the viewpoints of characters trapped in an eternal present, desperately trying to find work within music’s most futuristic genre. The irony in Hansen-Love’s own narrative timeline is, of course, only compounded by the recent announcement that the prodigal sons of the French EDM scene, Daft Punk, have broken up. Sad as it may be, the announcement does not constitute the end of an era as some have claimed. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that even a movement’s core tenets are subject to the same forces responsible for the dissolution of its margins.


When viewed from the present day, in which Daft Punk has broken up and in which the realm of culture is every day more monopolized, one cannot help but read Eden as a work of cultural anthropology. The hat of anthropologist is one which Hansen-Love wears well, and she fills her film with enough eccentricities—this is a movie which contains an extended passage on the virtues of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—that the work rarely feels overburdened by the filmmaker’s clear affection for the subculture she is documenting. Even so, the process by which films transmute from living, breathing documents of a scene to sociological curios is a melancholy one, and it will only accelerate as meme pages are bought by political campaigns and genuine oddness becomes subsumed into the managerial aesthetic of more profitable projects. 


Both Daft Punk and Eden—which, out of the corner of its eye, documents their ascendance—have become relics, imprinted with memories of fossilized cigarette butts and anonymously stained t-shirts. The former project, in spite of the eight-year hiatus which foreshadowed its dissolution, seemed if not aware of the inevitability of disintegration, at the very least conscious of the need for historiography, formal or otherwise. Maligned by some purists as it may have been, the urge to document the past provides the structure for Daft Punk’s final record Random Access Memories. It is an album which allows Giorgio Moroder to narrate his discovery of the synthesizer track by track in a manner which mirrors his own innovations, and contains a song whose central refrain details the desire to play back fragments of time. The duo simultaneously catalogues both their influences and their penchant for invention.


Random Access Memories also contains ‘Within’, quite possibly Daft Punk’s most moving composition, which soundtracks one of Eden’s final scenes. A newly sober

Paul, having just encountered Guy-Man and Thomas at a relatively conservative establishment, gazes at the DJ as she plays the aforementioned song. The camera pans away from him and towards her, slowly taking in the club and visualizing the process by which both protagonist and audience come to terms with the fact that they are now on the outside looking in. The Greek drama of Paul’s past has become the oft-forgotten Greek chorus which only occasionally comments on his present. The best anyone can do is bear witness as time or money or both slowly rewrite the past’s vision of the future, in hopes that these fragments of time, as songs or scenes or shots, will someday be considered worth keeping.

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