The Singular Alone: (Anti-)Utopia in the films of Martin Healy

‘Melancholy and utopia are heads and tails of the same coin,’
Günter Grass

BELIEF AND ITS paradoxes have long been the subject matter of Martin Healy’s photographic and film work. Recently, something has changed. A thematic shift can be noted in the three films Facsimile (2008), Fugue (2011) and Last Man (2011). Belief now confronts its object. When belief is realised, the believed-in place is actualised in material form, at which point a different set of concerns to those posed earlier arise. The narrator in Facsimile clearly exemplifies this change when deliberating on perfection as an endless drone, terrorising as much as liberating. His concern is with a believed in place defined by endless repetition. It would be easy to classify these films as Utopian, but this would likely miss the point of Healy’s exercise. For Healy’s three films are just as much Anti-Utopian in impulse, using science-fiction as a means of exploring the Utopian project unravelling on minute and close inspection. It is not surprising that an exploration like this appears at a time when investments of a Utopian variety in ‘Ireland Inc.’ (and its liberal democratic consensus) have crumbled into dust, marked by mass unemployment and bank bailouts. As an internationally-heralded model, Celtic Tiger Ireland was the believed-in Utopian island, the very limitations of which have horrified in their revelation. It is apt that the limitations of Utopian projects, the underside of believed in places, concern Healy’s three films. For in Utopia the otherness of the Anti-Utopian resides. It is this considered concern which makes the films a resource for the present time. For while belief elevated to innovative heights is integral to Healy’s earlier work, it is now the perfection of believed in places which takes centre stage.

Facsimile sets the ball rolling in this regard. Exotic plants appear in luscious close-up as a voice-over (spoken in French) informs us of a private island. The images we come to associate with Utopia are felt in the purifying elements of nature (as drops of water glisten), layers upon layers of unhampered growth on an island – an exotic island. However the discovery by a European of an island where everything appears perfect is, of course, a dated Utopian image – Thomas Moore’s ‘Utopia’ (1516) being the originating text. Healy is no doubt aware of this, and he uses all the associated clichés: the snobbish grandeur of the French voice-over, its omnipotent associations, the objective close-up associated with nature documentaries. As the camera follows the contours of the plants, the subtleties of form and texture are revealed, as light penetrates the spaces between. The light arouses our suspicion, the outcome of an illusionary perfection. The private paradise we look upon, described by the voice-over in detail, appears more and more to be the fabricated man-made construction we suspect, with the film medium an ally to the illusion we have been party to. Inspired by the novella ‘The Invention of Morel’ (1940) by Adolfo Bioy Casares, a text which draws on Utopian conventions to slowly deconstruct them, Healy’s work gives a vital expanse to the deliberation of artifice and reality in Casares’s text. The idea that we are ‘powerless to escape consciousness,’ as the narrator attests, is in itself a slow-burning criticism of the Utopian genre, and one which sets our conscious desires against their real-life fulfilment. It appears that to be human implies a consciousness of that which escapes us: to be human means we desire too much. Yet in the aftermath of desire, the perfect place is not what it promised to be.

As science-fiction, Facsimile has close affiliations with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet masterpiece Stalker (1979). In both films, the dream of something which can extinguish desire (as something integral to human existence) is deconstructed. Stalker is concerned with three men seeking to find a mythical room said to fulfil the innermost wishes of those who enter. When looking for the room the travellers begin to deliberate on what will happen when entering it. However, rather than enter the room, they eventually lose interest, convinced it will do more harm than good. It is implied that any such freedom from the gnawing clatter of desire, the attraction in seeking out the room, will end in ruin and this becomes more prominent as the quest unfolds. By the final stages the ‘meaning’ attributed to the room differs substantially. It is believed the faith Tarkovsky held to be the cause of life would die on entering the room, ruin its inevitable outcome. A similar message lies in the ‘facs’ Facsimile sends us: paradise can only ever be an ‘image’ of paradise. A mediated reality is itself curtailed by demonic illusion.

Facsimile evokes Tarkovsky’s earlier film in the questions it raises about desire. Fugue, Healy’s next film in his loosely sci-fi based trilogy is visually reminiscent. Shot in Tapiola on the outskirts of Helsinki, itself a modernist Utopian project, the film is based on Edward Bellamy’s hugely influential novel ‘Looking Backwards: 2000-1887’ (1888), a book generally regarded as a classic of the Utopian genre. A man falls asleep only to awake a hundred years later, as he walks around a Utopian garden of the future. The city he looks upon has three towers looming in the background. As the unnamed protagonist wanders from a forest down into the city, a shot which echoes the end of Stalker as the Stalker wanders towards the docks, with the sun rising in the background, he is afforded none of the home comforts of the Stalker on his return. Instead, it is that other resounding theme of Healy’s films which now begins to assert itself: the singular alone. Or to be more precise, the fact that each of us is ultimately alone in our singularity clashes with the homogeneity of the future. In Fugue, everything surrounding the protagonist, from the towers to his uniformed attire, is ambiguous. It is either the mark of a place which, in its perfection delights, or one which heightens the feeling of being alone, a place in which the protagonist is ultimately alone. The film responds to Bellamy’s text in alluding to the Utopian aspects of the protagonist’s dream, while hinting at its Anti-Utopian opposite: the nightmare. Hence the stoical grimace on the protagonist’s face conceals emotion on ‘seeing’ the Utopias of the future. In one sense he is entranced by the place and its difference from the squalor of his present. In another sense he is alone, confronting his singularity in a future in which he plays no part.

Singularity, aloneness and the Anti-Utopian are once again the focus of Healy’s most recent film Last Man, originally commissioned for Terminal Convention in Cork Airport earlier this year. Borrowing its title (and its concern with the alone) from a novel by Mary Shelley, the film again draws on a lesser-known literary tradition for its inspiration. The man in question is a janitor tasked with looking after an airport that has fallen into dereliction. His rituals for staving off boredom are the mainstay of the ‘action’, captured with an impressive cinematic display: low-angle shots, slow pans, close-ups of airport architecture whose banal dereliction suddenly reveals a strange compelling beauty. Alone in an empty building, a sense of anxiousness would seem to result from some future threat, although as the film progresses it is - paradoxically - the past which serves as this threat. The janitor walking through the building (the slow drone of the soundtrack heightened when cleaning (washing away the sins of the past perhaps?)) is akin to his walking through the corridors of history. The airport, a symbol of universal communicability is now a dead sign of some former Utopian promise.

Singularly alone, while struggling with the Utopian promise of the past, the last man as well as Last Man is indebted, whether consciously or not, to the films of Stanley Kubrick. But the seemingly obvious reference for sci-fi inspired by Kubrick, 2001 (1968), is not what comes to mind. It is Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) which serves as a more pertinent reference for Last Man. Set in a temporarily disused airport terminal, not unlike the unused hotel in which Kubrick’s film is set, both films concern a haunting past. The drone keenly employed by Kubrick to signify this haunting is also used by Healy, reaching fever pitch every time the janitor tries to clean the floor and remove its salient features. Obsessed with the past - embodied in his stiffness and his inability to relax, the janitor wades through debris, cataloguing the obsolete parts of machines. If not at his desk, he is wiping the stains of history. In his collection of essays ‘Signatures of the Visible’ (1980) Frederic Jameson emerged as one of the first intellectuals to properly champion Kubrick’s The Shining. Jameson recognised the film as one of profound historical vitality, its generic features - it is of course a horror film - masking its utter seriousness. The Shining is now universally regarded as Kubrick’s masterpiece, as much about Utopian promise as horrifying alienation. Tasked with overseeing the Overlook Hotel, protagonist Jack descends into madness evidenced by hallucinations of a time when social hierarchies were ‘natural’ and America’s Utopianism complete, the past ‘shining’ through as perfected social dominance. In the present, by contrast, Jack is increasingly alienated from the past.

Last Man suffers from similar, if not as immediately threatening, problems. Walking through empty corridors he confronts history alone at every turn. It is not a dystopia, however, through which the last man wades. He is not the victim of a dictatorship, nor is he at the mercy of some form of future enslavement – he lives in the aftermath of our believed-in Utopia. Cheap travel wagered its claims on apocalyptic premises, environmental disaster waiting in the wings. Last Man is testimony to this. The Liberal West’s Utopia has been revealed as a pipe dream; one based on Western imperialism and arrogance. As with Jack in The Shining, yet less agitated in his outward demeanour, last man seeks continuity with what came before him. An example of this (and its failure) occurs at the end of the film. A long take of a waiting area ends as each light is individually extinguished. No one is present. A medium shot of the janitor’s office follows as the camera pans from right to left. Gradually the janitor comes into view, as he assembles a toy airplane while sitting at his desk. Healy captures his hands in extreme close-up before the screen turns to black. We are left pondering the toy as a symbol of the past; the janitor a victim of the technological progress Shelley and the Romantics predicted would lead to the depletion of the earth’s resources. As toy models appear as ghostly traces of no longer functional objects, last man’s harnessing of the present is burdened by a visible yet inaccessible past.

It is at this point we ask: is this the last man on earth? Has the apocalypse occurred? Sitting alone, for which the synthetic concept of the singular alone is a feature in Healy’s three films, the janitor acts as a warning to us. Healy doesn’t tell us what this warning is: he is not an educator. He is rather an artist dwelling on Utopia, beyond which is an examination of the limitations on finding it; the horror in its aftermath. His films therefore appear at an appropriate time, when now, more than ever, we need to visualise the future; not just considering perfection, but, perhaps more importantly, the limitations of finding it.

Dara Waldron is Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at Limerick School of Art and Design