This is Happening

February 14th, 2019

Super November, directed by Douglas King, written by and starring Josie Long

Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley, starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson

“Rap critics that say he’s money, cash, hoes
I’m from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those?” - Jay-Z, 99 Problems

“Take the big key and open the door to the living, breathing past
The one you enliven over and over,

To the ship’s port, or the house of the welder;
To the library door of Donald Dewar.

Then picture yourself on the threshold,
The exact moment when you might begin again,” – Jackie Kay, Threshold 

Super November is a film of two halves, with a break in filming reflected by a jump in the story we see on the screen. People disappear from the plot along the way. Cameos in the first part don’t get the intended pay off. Haircuts change. The substantial details of the narrative are left largely unexplained.

The first part of the movie concerns a librarian called Josie who’s on the edge of what seems like a pleasantly boozy romance with a nice lad who’s in the Scottish Green Party. The influence of mumblecore is overt enough that it’s been built into the production and promo cycle of this low budget comedy, but Super November‘s endearing roughness highlights the interconnectedness of aesthetic choices and material possibility.

If the film feels like it was being put together on the fly, with everything from its dialogue style to its central narrative conceit working around the availability of certain players and locations, then that’s because it probably was.

For all that, Super November still manages to foreshadow its second half effectively throughout the first. Only the least attentive viewer could miss the fact that the charming, pointed dialogue keeps circling round the results of a general election, that we keep overhearing radio chatter about the resistance to the formation of a Labour government, that the TV in this version of Glasgow is always beaming relevant information into the world.

The tension between the lo-fi stylisation and the high concept that follows gives Super November most of its charge, and there’s something quite affecting about the way that the style remains consistent even as our we find our characters hiding behind bins, creeping out through military curfews and facing the threat of indefinite detention. The mechanics of the film make the illusory nature of the security provide by the state vivid, and if the film’s conclusion feels like pleasant escapism, perhaps this is only fitting – for the crew, as for much of the likely audience, this is a thought experiment rather than a daily reality. The fact that the nightmare continues beyond the realms of this fantasy is similarly appropriate to our moment.

I’ll not to take the huff about the fact that the boy from the Scottish Green Party turns out to be a smug wank in the end. I see that guy often enough in the mirror so it’d be a bit rich for me to complain about seeing him on the cinema screen.

***

While the protagonist of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You is also too focused on his own story for much of the film’s runtime to participate in the more obviously revolutionary narrative that’s happening all around him, the movie itself is never less than perfectly attuned to the bigger picture.

A harried, high-strung comedy, Sorry to Bother You follows Cassius “Cash” Green as he works his way up in the call centre business, moving from being just another casual salesperson making tentative steps towards unionisation to being an “elite caller” whose income and improved social standing are just about enough to compensate for the loss of any ambiguity as to the ethics of his position.

As in Super November, there are breaks in time here, but in Sorry to Bother You these come in the form of tiny impacts, little shifts in chronology that happen within and between scenes so that it feels like time is piling up on itself and buckling – was Tessa Thompson’s Detroit working in the call centre at the start of this scene? And how long had Cash been working there when he bailed his uncle out?

Combined with other disorientating effects – the warps in space that occur when Cash cold calls someone, the “white voice” Cash has to master to guarantee his rise to the top, the gif-ready earrings Tessa Thompson rocks throughout - this gives the film its perpetually worried tone, the sense that it’s always just a little bit less convinced in the direction of Cash’s narrative than even he is. More than that, though, they perform a paradoxical effect of wage labour, more specifically of work in a call centre environment – when your every movement is timed, your every action measured against how much you’re being paid for it, time can start to lose distinction in the mess of moneys in and moneys out.

From start to end, this is a more deliberate film than Super November – where dystopia rose from a lone signal to an inescapable background noise in that film’s version of Glasgow, in Sorry to Bother You it’s all around us from the word go and the tension comes from watching our protagonist struggle to balance his own needs (to help his relatives, to feel important, to find a way to escape his obvious fates) with the demands of the story he knows fine well he’s living in, really.

Perhaps this explains Stanfield’s performance. Despite the fact that he holds off from fully confronting the horror’s of the story’s world until it’s already confronted him, Stanfield plays Cash like he’s always flinching in anticipation of the horror to come. The movie takes Cash to task for his reluctance to commit to the struggle by having Detroit point this out to him but Stanfield’s performance makes it hard to grudge his behaviour – while Super November requires you to make a cognitive leap to imagine its hip white underclass facing genuine oppression, Sorry to Bother You is animated by lived experience of active racial and social discrimination, which explains why Cash relaxes like a man who knows it might turn sour while the cast of Super November alternately play it like drunk children and like young teens with a hangover.

If the final stretch of Sorry to Bother You a bit much to me in the cinema, it’s come to seem inevitable and satisfying to me in the time since that initial viewing. Both of these films flirt with the appeal of an edenic return in their final minutes, but by making the way Cash’s world views him an inescapable part of his existence, Sorry to Bother You comes closest to looking the world straight in the eye and promising that it will change it even as its narrative hits new peaks of absurdist horror.

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