Lagging the Popgeist: Paranoia (2013)

Post-crash cinema includes a few notable efforts to get to the root of the latest crisis of capitalism by exploring its human dimensions. Given its status as an abstract logic, ontological principle, or centerless system, global capitalism’s fundamental unrepresentability requires a framework that can provide some measure of proportion. Perhaps the most familiar method of introducing this necessary scale is to focus on characters caught up in the machinations of profit and exchange. Unfortunately, such a tactic usually results in a narrative which reiterates the thesis that our problems stem not from structure but from individual malfeasance– thus granting capital a false alibi. The gambit of post-crash films is to explore that which is inhuman by attending to the human and in doing so to effectively cede the possibility of showing capital in its totality.

Though based on a novel published in 2004, Paranoia (not to be confused with the marvelous 1963 film Paranoiac starring Oliver Reed) seems to speak to our contemporary socio-economic environment in a manner that lacks both precision and credibility. A moral fable tricked out as a corporate espionage thriller, Paranoia proclaims that in the end the virtues of “clean” entrepreneurial capitalism will triumph over the Machiavellian decadence of filthy-rich old men who manipulate rather than innovate. In this scenario youthful vitality, honesty, and creativity rescue capitalism from its obscene excesses, recuperating a system of exploitation that produces massive inequality by rebranding it. The space in which this hat trick occurs is one that occupies center stage in the sociological imaginary of the late-twentieth century: the start up. After all the hi-tech surveillance kit has been smashed and all the lies and greed have been punished, Adam Cassidy (Liam Hemsworth) begins a new company which in his own words he will “build from the ground up.”

We might take a moment to consider a few things here, including the name of our protagonist, which is a mash-up of the biblical First Man, the original alpha male, and a loose scattering of possible connotations including Butch Cassidy, the charismatic outlaw; pop stars David and Shaun; and perhaps even Neal, Jack Kerouac’s muse and sometime companion. In any case, Hemsworth’s character blends a thoroughbred physique with anodyne charisma, a perfect sedative to Emma Jenning’s (Amber Heard) initially bitchy-prickly persona. We could play the name-game with Emma as well and note that Emma not only conjures Jane Austen but– to my mind at least– an ultra-vanilla “American” ethnicity (i.e., the erasure of ethnicity as such). Indeed, in Paranoia‘s storyworld only white people seem to exist– a shocking improbabliity given that the film is set in New York City.

Such objections, however, are almost beside the point. True enough Paranoia traffics in a racial ideology Tim Wise and others identify as white privilege- i.e., the privilege of never having to bother to think about what it means to be white. Yet the fulcrum of the film’s false consciousness lies at precisely the point where it attempts to offer a practical ethical corrective to the kind of corruption that capitalism’s proponents argue is the root of the current problem. If only we had more Adams and Emmas– a couple that embodies not only integrity, but the heterosexual reproduction of society itself via that deathless narrative device, the marriage plot.