By Oliver Sargeant
“I am speaking to you now from a period two thousand million terrestrial years in your future. OBSERVE now the film as it appears to me.
Or at least, I imagine I’d say something like that if I were indeed among the Last Men, in the position to address the reader as such. Alas, I can only pretend, since in the film the Last Men are those who reside at the “end” of human history facing their untimely annihilation. They’re the18th iteration of humans and in their final moments, they have chosen to send us (The First Men) a message back through time.
How enlightening it is to hear the confessional disclosing of civilization meeting its end, delivered, no less, by a peculiar and seemingly transcendental oscilloscope.
Last and First Men, directed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson and released in 2020, is a film simplistic in idea and generally straight forward in narrative. An indebtedness of its being based on the more complex 1930 novel Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton. The film takes extracts from the final chapters of the novel (sometimes with alterations) and has Tilde Swinton narrate them in an orphic and captivating register. At the same time, we are shown a montage of Yugoslavian monuments that were erected between 1952-1990 (Lawler). The idea is to deliver this montage of sculptures with eerie sound scores and powerful meditations from a future “human” civilization. The meditations concern precisely the end of humankind by the sun’s rapid increase in size and temperature. As I watch, images of humanity's most creative excellence drive an abstract curiosity in me, all the while beneath the face of our cultural expressions lies a hidden lived truth that reveals a primal agony.
The film takes its strength from an attempt to prioritize affective and aesthetic precepts without totally neglecting the plot. It does this by matching image, sound and dialogue to push the viewer into generating a deep visceral connection with the film, towards a very personal and emotional response to the end of civilization. On top of that, the film also presents the idea of eternity as the only possible salvation. It’s not that civilization somehow becomes saved, but the concept of eternity is a mental alleviation to all those who find themselves confronted with the universal end. It is a surrender to the idea that beyond the unfortunate machinations of the universe, beyond its disinterest and disregard in creation and destruction, the material world continues. For humanity is but vibrant brush stroke on creation’s canvas, marked in its finality as we gazed upward into the blinding eye of the Gorgon; just as Stapleton notes in the book “… humankind is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills.”
We can see this basic plot play out in the above image group, all of which are shots of the Necropolis for the Victims of Fascism, designed by Bogdan Bogdanović in 1972. Lines from the film read “you would hear creatures recognizably human, yet in your view grotesque” and “the upward looking astronomical eye on the crown of the skull . . . reveals the heavens in as much detail as your astronomical telescopes.” It’s easy to see how these megaliths could be seen as recognizably human, even grotesque if one were alive. It is also clear that there’s a relationship between the ‘upward-looking astronomical eye gazing at the heavens’, and the image of eyes looking upward followed by a shot of the group looking towards the heavens. Not only that, but the sun resembles both the heavens and humanity’s destruction. Heaven we know is eternal, the eternal state of being for all those who pass through death. Yet it also symbolizes the end of life as it is the source of doom in the story. The entire scene is an allegory for death with eternity. In the very concept of heaven, and consequently in the idea of eternity, belongs the idea of death. We know death is real, we see and hear about it all the time, perhaps even fear it. Yet we also walk this Earth, this universe, with the idea of its infinite longevity. Even if the Earth falls into the sun and our solar system becomes bombarded by unfathomable cosmic forces, we assume the universe to continue. Hence, the film balances the notion of impending death with eternity’s salvation.
The film also accentuates the similarity between the First and the Last Men. This is to drive home the affective force of a civilization meeting its end and further prompt a personal response. The comparison is seen in the phrases ‘astronomical eye’ and ‘astronomical telescopes’. The former pertaining to the Last Men and the latter to the First. Despite the difference in face and intellect, we have the same star gazing attitude.
As the camera moves into the face of these monoliths, in close proximity to its eyes with the camera angled down, it bleeds open the feeling of being insignificant, a mirror into a familiar fate filled with desire and awe as they gaze upwards.
When I look directly into the visage of these estranged megaliths who symbolize the Last Men, I cannot but feel an emphatic sadness. With alien-like countenance these beings stand astute to their inescapable desolation, standing together in comradery, in silently marvel at the enteral passing of things. However, covered only by a thinly veiled veneer, a whiff of agony emanates from their amorphic faces. This agony reveals a darker truth that is implicit in the story’s elements. This agony is realized in the relationship between life, death and a naïve escapism. However, before I elaborate on this idea, I will first provide some final thoughts on the film’s affective power.
How effective is the film’s attempt to draw on the viewers emotional response? In a comparison between novel and film, one can identify that the entire ending of the novel has been scrapped. The novel leaves us with a romantically styled speech delivered by the last of the Last Men to his compatriots. A triumphant welcoming to the end of life and as Stapleton writes ‘for he [Man] is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.’ In addition, those who had not degenerated from the esteemed philosophic behaviour to the more bestial held out hope for their potential progeny. This was made possible by a nation-wide project to disseminate their seed across the universe in dire attempt to save the world they so desperately clung to. This is not given in the film and we are instead left with cryptic half messages and fragments of existential thought. This is done on purpose, perhaps as an attempt to topple the traditional Aristotelian hierarchy that privileges muthos (the coherence of the plot) over opsis (the spectacle’s sensible effect). Opsis being concretely the sound that bounces around curvilinear architecture, the rough and aged circles of the monolith’s eyes, and the heavenly celestial body of the sun with its radiant rays of white light diffusing over humanity’s fraught mind.
French filmmaker and film theorist Jean Epstein once wrote ‘“dramatic action” here is a mistake. The drama we’re watching is already half-resolved and unfolding on the curative slope to the crisis. The real tragedy is in suspense. It looms over all the faces.’ (Milne, Afterimage 10, 1988). Written in 1921, it suggests that cinema is not about the arrangements of verisimilar events that lead characters to their tragic or comedic ends. It argues that cinema does away with the expectation for an end, and instead, opens up infinite situations in every direction. This is not to say that the spectacle has managed to annex the capacity for narrative. It’s not that narrative can no longer bring about a story’s conclusion. It means, and in the words of contemporary political and aesthetic philosopher Jacques Rancière, ‘that the art of moving images . . . settles the quarrel between thought and sensibility.’ (Rancière, Film Fables, 2020). The sensible and intelligible remains undistinguished. The exterior and interior of the image are captured under the same texture of the mechanical eye. Last and First Men take this a step further by taking away a definitive ending in hope of heightening the sensibility of the film. To urge one to think about it in one’s own infinitely possible terms. Be that as it may, I feel it still opens us up to the same spiritual solemnity that the Last Men experienced in the book; a resolve against extinction by eternity’s infinite solace.
But what if this solace was false? A fallacy to hide the perception of an intoxicating lived truth. What if eternity were nothing but a thin membrane of abstract calm that coats life’s archaic nemesis, death. For the salvation of an inexorable fate can only reside in eternity.
Yet if eternity is a mere illusion, then what lurks behind its ghostly facade? Only nothingness and for salvation, there is not.
Last and First Men vividly conveys an escapist attitude towards death, and eternity is consolation. Philosopher Emil Cioran in his book On the Heights of Despair powerfully argues that death is immanent in life. According to Cioran, one of the greatest delusions of the average man is to forget that life is death’s prisoner. People perceive death as coming from the outside, and not as an inner fatality of life itself. When life is shaken to its core, when prognostication, depression, or illness highlights humankind’s slow, agonizing, and progressive move to death, one could see how illusory the belief in life’s eternal glory is. Depressive states bring ‘man closer to his inner reality and cause him to discover death in his own subjectivity… overcoming all the social forms which usually mask it.’ (Cioran, Despair, 1990). In the depths of one’s interiority where human subjectivity is at its most primal, life mingles with death, and anarchic drums of irrationality beat to restlessness and dissatisfaction.
For Cioran, death is the fear of nothingness since one cannot conceive of death without nothingness, nor of life without a principle of negativity. This principle slowly claws its way through blood and flesh, handheld with nothingness as it obliterates the mind. Such is the case for the Last Men, whose hopeful consolation from life’s tragic obliteration is superfluous. Their wayward glimpse into the universal kaleidoscope reveals life’s incalculable cosmic fractals, yet the insidious effervescence of our primal agony bubbles to the surface and reveals an existential pain in our awe-filled eyes.
‘The conviction that you cannot escape an implacable fate and that time will do nothing but unfold the dramatic process of destruction is an expression of irrevocable agony…Those who believe in eternity do so because they are afraid of death. There is in their faith a painful effort to save- even without an absolute certitude- the world of values in which they live and to which they contribute, an effort to defeat the nothingness inherent in the temporal and attain the universal in eternity.’
In the end , Last and First Men is a project that you’re supposed to feel before you understand. It is entirely possible that if you were to watch it, your experience could vastly differ. On the other hand, perhaps there is a common denominator in the human essence, one that seeps out when confronted with death and eternity. Perchance this is Johann Johannsson’s posthumous message to us all, delivered in sound and image. I leave the reader to investigate this for him or herself.
Last and First Men
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