Mini-Mythologies #1 [+ Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug, UK/USA, 2018)]

American cinema, Blogpost, Mini-Mythologies, Uncategorized


Don’t ask me why I went to see Tomb Raider. But I did.

However, while I want to offer a brief critique of the film below, I also figured I’d use this blog as an opportunity to start something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, which is basically to write mini-critiques of adverts, both posters and audiovisual pieces – in the spirit of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. Hence ‘mini-mythologies.’

Numerous adverts preceded Tomb Raider, but four caught my eye in particular.

The first was ‘Five Go On a Great Western Adventure,’ a pleasant enough animation that sees the Famous Five take a train journey to the coast, but with dog Timmy getting separated from the rest of the gang and ending up travelling via other means to the same destination.

Created by adam&eveDDB, what is interesting about this advert is that Timmy arrives at exactly the same time as the other four of the Five, in spite of going for a long stretch in a hot air balloon, a motorbike with a sidecar, and then a speed boat.

Now, some speed boats can go quite fast. But on the whole, I’d imagine that a speed boat cannot go as fast as a train by any stretch. Certainly a hot air balloon cannot go as fast as a train.

Except, of course, when the train is very slow because of problems with the signals, leaves on the track, a touch of snow, and all of the other things that go to make British rail services generally disappointing.

In suggesting that the train only goes as fast as a hot air balloon, are adam&eveDDB in fact suggesting the true nature of Great Western Railway trains – namely that they also go at a speed that is dictated by the whims of the weather rather than by man’s technological advantage over nature?

The second advert is Dell’s Introducing Dell Cinema. The above is not quite the version that I saw, but it comes close enough.

Several things. Firstly, Dell suggests that watching a movie on a laptop is the equivalent of watching a movie at the cinema. It may be that we mainly watch films on computers now, as we have progressed from standing to sitting to lying down before movies, in the process prostrating ourselves before cinema as if it were a god. But in other ways, one wonders that what is missing from solo (solipsistic?) film viewing is the communal aspect of the cinema, which is not to mention simply the sound and image quality of the theatrical venue: hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on cinemas, and unless you are very rich, home viewing, especially on a laptop, will never match it.

Nonetheless – and here is my second point – in suggesting that it can match it, we have a re-emphasis as communal something that is essentially solitary – watching a movie at home.

Thirdly, that the laptop aspires to be cinema suggests that culturally cinema is still at the top of the pile as far as being a medium that connotes power. A laptop does not aspire to be a laptop; it aspires to be a cinema.

Fourth, it is ironic that the snippets of ‘cinema’ that we see are in fact ‘television’/laptop shows like The Crown and Stranger Things. While we do live in an era of technological convergence, whereby laptop shows and movies are made using the same equipment, there is nonetheless a false claim being made here. The Dell machine is not cinematic, but televisual. However, it claims to be cinematic in order to empower itself. In other words, as per the GWR advert above, the advert lets slip that it is lying to us (that it is an advert, if all adverts are in certain respects lies, or mythologies).

Finally, that the laptop – which initially was a tool devised for computing – is now a tool sold for the purposes of viewing, suggests a shift from work to entertainment. Or more accurately, it suggests the immaterial labour that is screen-viewing for the purposes of the attention economy. It suggests how entertainment is used to keep us looking at the screens in order to keep the wheels of commerce turning. And it suggests that consumption via ‘cinema’ viewing is, again, a better thing to do with one’s time than production, especially if one might produce something that challenges the status quo by being a product not from the sanctioned sources. That is, the Dell Cinema is an anti-revolutionary machine designed to keep us staring at screens rather than bringing about a better world.

Third up is Halifax’s Top Cat advert.

In this advert, TC basically lies to a woman at the Halifax in order to get a mortgage from the bank, employing Benny to play a sad violin score, while other cats stand around outside pretending to be homeless children.

Not only is the advert basically a riff on Top Cat as a ‘benefit scrounger,’ lying to the Halifax in order to get money. But in making TC the hero, the bank is also encouraging people to take out loans.

Why is it doing this?

Well, in part it would seem to be doing this because clearly after the 2008 economic crisis, which was in large part based on sub prime loans, it would seem that banks are up to exactly the same thing again: handing out cash to anyone who asks for it.

But more than this… the banks are doing this because we live in a culture that wants to use debt as a form of control. Not only does debt help to stave off crisis (if I have debt that I cannot pay back, then I must create more debt from somewhere else in order to pay it back temporarily, a bit like the gambler who thinks that doubling up a bet after a loss is what will make them their money back). But this attempt to stave off the crisis is unsustainable: using debt to pay off debt will ultimately come crashing down, as happens during crisis and as happens to the gambler.

The Halifax advert, then, is a signal of a new, impending crisis. But not only this: it demonstrates that crisis is exactly part of the natural cycle of capitalism – its very rule, rather than being an exception to it.

And it is this because debt will keep people enslaved, rather than able to create new or different economies. So while TC thinks he is being super savvy in conning the Halifax out of some money, in fact he is being duped. I can guarantee that the bank will not be so kind to him when he cannot pay off his mortgage.

Although not included in the version here, the cinema advert also includes ‘out-takes’ at the end of the advert. A mildly amusing gag, in that animated out-takes are clearly not out-takes at all, the advert uses the illusion of exposing labour (look at the failed attempts that we went through to make this advert) in order to keep labour hidden (but these are manufactured failures and not real failures at all).

Top Cat is a television character, but the ‘out-take’ is more common to cinema. Not only is there an aspiration to being/becoming cinematic going on here, but it also is linked to the idea that cinema is about not working – and that money and good things can and should come for free, an ideological trick that is played precisely to keep people working – in the hope of becoming cinematic…

Another advert, then, another lie.

And finally, there is a new Max Factor advert that I cannot share here, and in which we see make-up being applied to a woman in order to bring out ‘the leading lady’ in her. The usual awful clichés apply, with the advert suggesting that it is ‘her time,’ with the possession of time here being precisely the myth that drives much of capitalist society: that time is something that we can possess and use rather than something that flows through us and which we are incapable of controlling.

What is more, the imbrication to insist that it is ‘your time’ basically is a byword for saying that you will truck nothing that does not sit comfortably with your worldview. That is, the endorsement of ‘my/me time’ is equally an endorsement of greed, selfishness, solipsism and a destruction of relationships with others.

Importantly, this greed/solipsism is linked explicitly to cinema: to behave this way is to be cinematic, or to be a leading lady. So cinema is again a chief tool for capitalism, and something to which we must all aspire.

Notably, this is also at the root of the cosmetics industry. This is not simply a cheap point in that cosmetics reaffirm superficiality and an emphasis on appearances/the visual. But more specifically it bespeaks how numerous humans prepare themselves visually not to be seen by other people, but to be seen by cameras in order then to be seen in images.

For, to be seen in images/to be cinematic is, as mentioned, a sign of power and/or a sign of someone with money (even if it is debt). Indeed, to be in images is to be/become a sign/icon, with money itself being a sign and an icon (i.e. we want to be/become money, or cinema, with cinema and capital thus being basically the same thing). We live in a world that worships icons, that upholds becoming an icon as the highest achievement, and which worships money. To become cinematic is the summum of achievements.

In order to become an icon, one must dispense of or deny one’s body; one must cover or make it up so that it cannot be seen. So to be/become cinematic, and thus to deny one’s body, enables the cosmetics industry to exist as such. It relies upon making people feel ashamed about their bodies, which are too real and not cinematic enough, and thus modifying their bodies not in order to be real, but to be cinematic. So when the advert sells you ‘your time,’ it is in fact selling you a fake time, since ‘your time’ only comes about when you are not yourself, but when you are an image. Again, then, the advert is lying to you.

As for Tomb Raider, a few thoughts:-

  1. Lara starts out poor because she has not accepted her inheritance from her father because she cannot accept that he is dead. Fair enough. On some levels. Except that Lara clearly is not poor, and yet slums it in London. This is disingenuous tourism among the poor (‘poorism’), which makes Lara somewhat objectionable and dishonest. Indeed, when we see Lara’s flat with skylights and rooftop terrace… she clearly has used money from outside of her bicycle courier job – because I could not afford such a place and I earn a respectable wage.
  2. Lara’s daddy issues subvert any claims to empowered femininity that the film might otherwise purport to offer.
  3. Of course, Lara cannot have sex with anyone, and does not. Because powerful women cannot have partners (because they are too good for everyone else?).
  4. When Lara discovers her father’s hidden lair of treasure… we get a sense of how the Croft family wealth is predicated upon theft – a basic re-enactment of colonialism. As Lara denies her class, so she denies in some senses a history of colonial theft – in order to justify and perpetuate it.
  5. The film’s other women are basically carriers of a plague and/or corporate bitches.
  6. Spoiler. Lara discovers at the end that the woman to whom she has given power of attorney over her fortune is basically heading up the evil corporation that is seeking power via colonial theft. Obviously a cue for sequels. But importantly, Lara does not do anything specific about this, like launch an investigation into anything. Apparently she cannot because she does not have ‘power of attorney.’ But if the attorney were unsuitable, a court would surely be sympathetic, and indeed want criminal activity to be investigated and stopped. But Lara does not take this course of action, not least because it would not be cinematic, but instead a bit boring. So what we learn, then, is that Lara really needs her own company to be doing evil things so that Lara can have her adventures. In other words, Lara does not want the evil to end at all, but in fact wants it, because she is part of it. Because she is indeed an expression of rich, white (and here feminised) colonialism, faking some affinity/kinship with the lower classes and in fact justifying the exploitation of the rich by the poor. Lara in fact endorses the slave labour that one of her companies is carrying out. As it is with Lara, so it is with Tomb Raider.

There are other things to discuss (like the fact that the diseased woman that is found at the film’s end infects and kills people really quickly, and yet within the final tomb there are neatly arranged bodies, as if the disease were really just a genteel experience… while the elaborate underground tomb must have taken years of slave labour to build, begging the question of what happened in the meantime to the plague bearer… and a thought that if the threat of her plague were so real,  then you’d just burn the woman and illico/immediately, rather than waiting for ages to build a ceremonial tomb in which to place her… which in being accessible, even if difficult to reach, only begs the usual question about King Kong: if you don’t want the monster to escape, don’t build a gate big enough for the monster to fit through. Clearly the plague is supposed to escape. Clearly Lara wants the plague to spread, just as the map of her company’s holding looks suspiciously like globalisation, like globalisation as plague, the plague being capital, that Lara needs in order to be rich, while at the same pretending to be poor.).

But I shall leave it at that…

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