This essay is an accompaniment to Second Natures, a film program by Another Gaze; on view in the Screening Room through 15 August 2023.
Second Natures bring together two films by Czech writer-director duo Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt, to explore the doubled nature of the on-screen animal.
The program includes their short film Joseph Kilián (Postava k podpírání, 1963), which follows a man in his attempts to return a cat he obtained from a cat rental company. When the company’s storefront mysteriously disappears, what ensues is a kafkaesque, bureaucratic nightmare with the officials who misdirect, berate, and bully the hapless protagonist as he carries the cat from one institution to the next. Throughout the film, the cat is witness to a fundamentally human farce; no longer companion nor commodity, but the innocent and alien observer of a system that has long since exceeded itself.
Something similar is at play in the program’s second film, the 1967 feature Late August at the Hotel Ozone (Konec srpna v Hotelu Ozone), a post-apocalyptic drama about a band of semi-feral young women who wander a desolate landscape bereft of other humans. They are led by an older, wiser woman with dreams of recovering something of the lost world that stands at odds with the younger, brutish, and more violent in the group. We see the cruel exploits of these followers as they kill a snake and a stray dog, dynamite fish from a river, and rip apart a cow with their knives. In the absurdity of these violent acts, and perhaps more so by the evident pleasure taken in committing them, rises the impossibility of founding the old world anew.
In both films, the presence of animals intensifies our estrangement from what we see. Animals are never acting. Their nature is ambiguous, troubling. They are distant and distancing. They are co-opted into our subjectivity, prodded into symbolism. And yet they are anathema to fiction, pushing back through the incomprehension in their gazes, the disturbing reality of their pain, the unarguable fact of their deaths. In Animals in Film (Reaktion Books, 2002), Jonathan Burt states that “the animal image is a form of rupture in the field of representation,” and later widens this claim to include our readings of it: “This split within the animal image – the artificial image that never can quite be read as artificial – is one that ruptures all readings of it.” Onscreen, their secondary nature (in the opening of Genesis, Adam names the animals who have been created after him; this hierarchy is replicated throughout all of human history) can no longer be read as secondary or singular but is shattered into a whole host of natures that orbit and comment on our own.
Absolute Alterity in Joseph Kilian
The opening of Pavel Juráček and Jan Schmidt’s Joseph Kilian is so tidy that it could be taught to students in film schools all over the world. 'This', a teacher might say, 'is how to set images in order'. The first shot – two Grecian sculptures of men who look like compound heroes, amalgamations of Atlas, Hercules, and Perseus, holding up the columns that flank a large door – sets the tone for the film that follows, which explores a kind of futile, unending labour whose meaning is not clear to those that perform it. Next, children are led along a line of line that cuts across a deserted street. After they disappear, grown soldiers march the other way. Moments later a funeral procession appears and crosses the street again. Visual metaphors are exceedingly clear, with connotations that follow on from one another like clockwork. This neat, mechanical sequence is one of the nicest in Joseph Kilian, which sometimes feels like a light-hearted cousin to Orson Welles’s The Trial, where instead of the arrest and official persecution of the individual we have a thwarted attempt to return a cat to an indifferent authority, though both films are overlaid with the same incomprehensible bureaucratic mystique and clouding of anxiety.
The tidiness of Joseph Kilian’s opening is rejected by everything that comes after it. After the obvious metaphors and allusions at the beginning, the film is filled by a whole flock of them that never really touch ground. The viewer might try and make out their shapes or guess at the sum of their possible relations, but the meaning of what we see is difficult to pin down. Jan, the protagonist, attempts to return a rented cat. He is also looking for a man called Joseph Kilian, though soon the problem of the cat takes precedence. The parallel quests are connected in some way that is not clear. There are moments of unexpected formal brilliance, like when the shot stops suddenly, as if the camera is dragging on its images, or when actions are rewound and repeated without warning. In one scene, Jan peers up at some kind of infinite archive. He addresses a figure who moves between the rows of files on a mechanical crane. The cat is in his arms. He apologises for renting it without a reason. 'A person ought to have a reason', he admits. The man doesn’t answer him. As the quest goes on symbols accrue. Places pile up. Nothing works. Nothing quite adds up. Jan opens up a newspaper only to find that it is written in Arabic. A window leads onto a brick wall. A book of 'Workers' Suggestions' contains nothing, no pages at all. A phone rings in an otherwise empty room. 'There is absolutely nothing here,' says the man who answers. Throughout Joseph Kilian, progress is only made with difficulty, and soon enough it turns out not to be progress at all. At the end of the film, Jan is still left with his cat and presumably the late rental fee.
Joseph Kilian is a strange, flawed, and mysterious film. It was released soon after Welles' The Trial, with which it holds many similarities, both formal and thematic, and, of course, both films involve a character called Josef K. In a way, Joseph Kilian is the stranger of the two. Jan is not under arrest or looking for justice, but trying to return a cat while simultaneously looking for a man we never learn anything about. The film is far funnier and somehow more inexplicable. The inclusion of the sleepy, agreeable cat, which Jan must carry either in his arms or in his briefcase with its patchy head poking out, creates a double distance, an additional layer of incomprehension. Writing on Joseph Kilian tends to focus on its relationship to socialism and the maladies of its era, but the figure of the man with the cat in his arms pushes the film into deeper kind of alienation. The cat understands even less than Jan. Its beholding of the strangeness of what it comes across might be seen as extending the film's critique of this system into a critique of systems in general. For this gaze absurdity has no end. In 'The Animal That Therefore I Am', Jacques Derrida famously writers about the possibility of the animal looking back: 'The animal… can allow itself to be looked at, no doubt, but also […] it can look at me. It has a point of view regarding me. The point of view of the absolute other, and nothing will have ever done more to make me think through this absolute alterity of the neighbour than these moments when I see myself seen naked under the gaze of a cat.'
The film's final scene takes place in a bar. We see Jan talking with others, his cat beside him, but we do not hear their speech. The camera focuses on a man doing a crossword. He reads aloud, 'A quality that distinguishes man from animals, five letters.' His companion answers, ‘rozum,’ which means reason and is the traditional answer. The man stares back down at the puzzle. He shakes his head. 'No', he replies, 'kázeň', which means discipline. In the context of this film of layabouts and misdirection, it's hard to take this answer as anything more than an expression of great optimism. The word echoes. It hangs between the two men. Images of the people in the bar follow: they have been fractured into snapshots. The film picks up again with Jan, who jerks his head in the man's direction, and then walks over hopefully. He thinks that the man is Joseph Kilian. The man says that he isn't. After Jan walks away, the man finishes his drink. When he stands up, we see that he is carrying his own cat. There's a similar kind of tidiness here to that of the film's opening, the same passing on of a baton. Joseph Kilian begins and ends with a visual joke. Only here instead of the easy chronology of child to soldier to corpse, we are left with a cryptic, uneasy, animal symmetry. Two men, equally opaque, holding two cats, equally opaque. No eyes meet, no information is exchanged. All audiences are similarly stranded. And what is it that has derailed narrative to such an extent? The inclusion of a look that conveys nothing and wants nothing. An animal impasse that overwhelms a human one. Absolute alterity. The gaze of a cat.
No Future! No Family! : Seeing and Unseeing Abstraction in Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967).
By Georgie Carr
Films that try to represent nuclear explosions almost always depend on a non-showing, a retreat into the space of aesthetic abstraction, where mass destruction is represented through a blank screen that approximates the 'flash blindness' caused by the atomic detonation. Before CGI, this was necessary. As nuclear catastrophe was too difficult to recreate, and the struggle to capture figuratively an event which is at once unimaginable and endlessly imagined too huge, cinematic representations either relied on real footage from past explosions, or white flashes, total blankness. Perhaps the most famous example, Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), opens with a black screen, and as montaged sequences present the Japanese city through flashbacks, a vocal refrain of "for lack of anything else," suggests that the photographs and reconstructions of nuclear destruction are only there for that exact purpose. Jan Schmidt’s The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (Konec srpna v hotelu Ozon, 1967) opens in a similarly abstract manner: images of a church, a pastoral landscape and an open book, half-read, are separated from one another by white flashes.1 White light — or is that white space? — fills the screen, either nothingness or overwhelming presence. Infrastructural obliteration and cellular degradation cannot be depicted, and so what moments like this convey is impossibility, excess. But if the moment of nuclear extermination presents an insuperable representational challenge, the lives that might follow it are also fraught with difficulties. How can cinema show a world that remains after social, economic, and aesthetic annihilation?
While Hotel Ozone begins with an aesthetic abstraction, signalling towards a crisis of representation, I want to consider the way the film interrogates processes of capitalist abstraction, how it reassesses the etherealised abstract forms of domination that surround us in society. Capitalist abstractions are born from the production process and through commodity exchange in which value is formed "behind our backs," to borrow Karl Marx's phrase, via a division of labour that separates producers from production, and production from circulation.2 Chris O'Kane, in an essay on “real abstraction,” usefully describes how this process 'metamorphoses' the social and the economic into the 'natural', reifying bourgeois systems of knowledge in a world in which they overwhelmingly mediate our lives.3 Can the post-nuclear film image help us chip away at these abstractions and show new visions of interconnectedness unmediated by or dismissive of value? Films about nuclear destruction lay abstraction bare in their reduction of the world to seemingly disbanded pieces, ready for reassembly, so that we can better understand the complexity of their connections. If the unsettling of abstraction is a feature of all post-nuclear film and literature, Hotel Ozone is particularly interesting for its focus on how this unseating affects our understanding of gendered divisions of labour, care and experience. Capital shapes everything, including family and care: the unpaid work and structures we need to keep the system running and workers working. If its abstractions harden into structures that dominate our everyday experience, what can their momentary explosion tell us about how we might re-interrogate the world for the future?
Hotel Ozone depicts crises of reproduction and care in a society that has barely survived the conflict between the capitalist and Soviet Communist modes of production. In the nuclear fall-out of Hotel Ozone, humanity appears on the brink of extinction. Only a small group of eight women remain, wandering itinerantly across a dying landscape on a quest to seek out other human life. For 15 years, young women with no experience of life before the disaster have been kept alive, educated and cared for by an older woman who they call "Old One" (Alžbeta [Beta] Poničanová), who lived before the cataclysm and remembers the former society. Men appear to have died out entirely; years ago, "dogs tore apart the last boy," Old One informs the girls as they tally the post-apocalyptic history on the growth rings of a fallen tree. Ignorant of the old world, when the girls encounter an old man (Ondrej Jariabek), the proprietor of the Hotel Ozone, they violently reject his attachment to a now defunct mode of living, to tradition, propriety and property rights.
A girl scavenging for supplies emerges from an underground bunker carrying a box of bullets. As she piles them high in one hand, they shine and clink, gleaming and coin-like. The camera pauses, giving weight to the image, but she lets them fall casually to the ground, uninterested. When Old One asks if she has found anything, the girl replies: "nothing." The noise of the metal casings cascading down to the rock soundtracks a moment of interpretative dissonance between character and audience. While I unthinkingly interpret the bullets as powerful, dangerous and (in a post-apocalyptic society of scarcity) valuable, the girls are disappointed. Lying inert on the ground they appear unappealing and dull, their affective power tarnished. Following Sianne Ngai, we might say that the camera has "diagnosed an object’s false promise of value,"4 that when a thing is "too old or too new" either “technologically backward or just as problematically advanced” it appears gimmicky, silly or without obvious value: this is the enforced heuristic of the post-nuclear.5 Similar moments of dissonance recur throughout the film. Searching through a dilapidated building, one girl finds a rag doll. She clutches it behind her back, as if to claim it as a beloved toy. Later, when it is accidentally ripped apart and lies broken in the dust, she holds the pieces uncertainly, unsure what this destruction means. The camera lingers briefly on its broken body, inviting the audience to share in a pathos that is refused by the girls, who move on quickly. Watching Hotel Ozone in 2021, I am aware of the capitalist-abstractive gaze I bring to the film. My own ideas of societal abstraction are conditioned by modern bourgeois economic forms – I look according to the dictates of a world dominated by capitalist exchange, rather than by the exigencies of social usefulness. These scenes challenge the meanings I unquestioningly find in these material objects (a valuable bullet, a desirable doll). Notably, the girls do not interpret the doll as 'cute' — another of Ngai’s aesthetic categories — a cuteness which "calls forth helplessness, pitifulness and even despondency,"6 what Ngai understands as a "commodity-orientated" relationship that produces the everyday reifications that link modes of productions to certain affects.7
In the post-nuclear world things have different resonance and provoke different feelings. Close-up camera work repeatedly centres the object, inviting a cinematic valorisation — look at this! — before a series of quick cuts and reaction shots reveal antipathy or disinterest. As this accumulates, the camera begins to appear didactic, as if it’s misleading its audience in order to instruct it. Centring meaning only to strip it away, the film chips away at our abstract values. The screen becomes a space to reassess material culture, and once laid bare the image can be reinterpreted and reclaimed for new purposes. New meanings can be asserted in this changed world in which the survivors of nuclear apocalypse don’t recognise the abstractions of past societies. As they handle these strange objects, the film demands that we think about how they were made. Questions of value cohere around ideas of usefulness. By stressing the specificity of the objects themselves, divorced from their habitual meanings, the film returns us to a complex understanding of things, and the relationship between different forms of abstraction is offered up for reconsideration.
Hotel Ozone was released six months before the Prague Spring, produced within a Soviet Communist society of scarcity and control where different forms of social intuitions predominated. These, in turn, conflict with the image on screen. As I am watching I am aware of this three-way split: the communist mode of the film's production, the capitalist context of my interpretation, and a third, post-nuclear approach constructed in the film itself, what can perhaps be understood as a nihilistic perspective. Just as it is anathema to neoliberal norms of personal indebtedness and individual responsibility, the nihilism of the younger women — how they reject fundamental moral (and economic) value — would have been alien to an ideal Soviet viewer (think of the 'Stakhanovite' or 'New Soviet Man') and to a state that stressed national development through productivity. The girls smash open a barrel of gasoline with an axe and let the precious liquid drain into the ground. Bored, one of the group sets the fuel on fire and another hurls in the box of bullets, beginning a lethal game of hide and seek as they duck and run to escape the ammunition that ricochets in all directions. A swiftly panning camera tracks their hysterical movements like an over-excited observer. Sprinting, grinning and fearful, the group celebrate a bonfire of utility, exploding conceptions of use into apocalyptic forms of play.
Of course, as art historians David Crowley and Susan E. Reid argue, late-sixties Soviet society was not without pleasures. In post-Stalinist society, political consent was secured through the celebration and the state production of consumer goods. The image of the everyday consumer came "to occupy the hallowed place in consumption politics and representation," displacing the industrial and agricultural archetypes of Socialist Realism that had dominated throughout the five-year plans; Stalinist programs of mass industrialisation and collectivisation.8 New scaled pricing categories, luxury goods and increased marketisation undermined state assertions of a classless society structured around equality of means. Cigarettes, fur coats and caviar were celebrated as luxury items, to be saved up for or lusted after. Often dressed up as wealth redistribution, in reality this was less "Fully Automated Luxury Communism" than creeping marketisation and the celebration of aristocratic culture.9 But in Hotel Ozone the girls do not store, save, or venerate the things they find. We might connect this rebellious impulse to contemporary forms of political resistance expressed through material culture. In the Soviet Union, "pleasure was integral to the utopian promise of communism," and everyday happiness was often manifested through the deliberate misuse or reinterpretation of consumer or everyday objects — a rejection of state-sanctioned categories of usefulness.10 Meeting in a Black Sea resort (intended for medical purposes) or the Moscow Park of Culture and Rest (intended for education) to drink (state-rationed vodka), party or have sex was a subversive misappropriation of material culture and public space.11 Hotel Ozone pushes this to extremes. The group delight in laying waste to their surroundings and take pleasure in destruction, rejoicing in the violent maiming and killing of animals. One girl twists the head off a snake; others shoot dead an Alsatian. In a particularly ferocious scene, the group spot a lone cow and, yelling in excitement, sprint towards it, drawing their knives. The camera cuts, staccato, between the thrust and dig of different blades scoring through animal hide as the girls happily disembowel the animal.
The scene with the cow references two of the most famous montage sequences of Soviet cinema: Dziga Vertov's abattoir sequence in Kino-Eye (Kino-Glaz, 1924) and Sergei Eisenstein's montage of cattle slaughter intercut with images of workers in his film, Strike (Stachka, 1925). For Vertov, the image of the abattoir helped to reveal the processes that form the commodity — showing the work and the work-time used to create the product. Running the film reel backwards and visually reversing the production process, Kino-Eye shows the journey of the cow from hunk of meat, back through its slaughter, to an ultimate reanimation of the animal in a field; an object lesson in the socialist commodity. In contrast, Eisenstein’s Strike intercuts animal death with depictions of the massacre of striking workers, prompting the spectator — through dialectical juxtaposition — to link animal with human death in a dual condemnation of commodification and capitalist class exploitation.12 For Eisenstein emotional feeling in the viewer could be emphasised through the use of real-life death: "We were working with a truly tragic instance: a crushed strike and mass shooting. And so through montage I spliced into the acted scenes of slaughter pieces of real blood and death. The slaughterhouse."13 By layering images of suffering together he could visualise the workers lament: "They treat people like animals."14 As Soviet film scholar Anne Nesbet argues, for Eisenstein, animal death communicates an "abstract lesson," that capitalist value is built through human suffering and alienating work.15 But in Vertov and Eisenstein’s teaching of the lesson of capitalist abstraction the animal assumes a shaky semiotic footing, sliding around in metaphor: the cow is a product, the cow is a worker. In contrast, animal death in Hotel Ozone generates no value, it is not butchered, eaten or sold, it is neither obviously didactic nor useful. If all three films place a grotesque burden on the animal 'actor' who is killed for dramatic purpose or political education, Hotel Ozone’s slaughters are exceptional in that they are without obvious utility, its slaughterers without recognisable purpose. The cow remains concrete: not a metaphor nor an abstraction but a dead body.
By rejecting the obvious associations of value that a Czech communist viewer might link to objects the girls open up new modes of thought, action and feeling. These in turn engender different relationships to the world. At one point the group reach a mountain-top overlooking a wide valley, a glistening river running through it. The restless camera pauses, allowing depth and scale to fill the screen in a rare moment of beauty. Cutting between the group and the landscape, Schmidt constructs a reverse shot as if between two human interlocutors, so that the women seem to stare not only out but back at the landscape. The planar nature of the two images, each shot deep focus and wide angle, seem to intersect. Watching this sequence, I was reminded of John Akomfrah's words in Stanley Schtinter's short film 'John On The Void' (2019), when Akomfrah remembers a friend "looking out on the [French Polynesian] islands we are sailing past." When Akomfrah calls to his companion he turns, but "it was almost as if the place that he was staring at had either taken him away or had momentarily come to be him." What Akomfrah describes is something more literally and physically akin to abstraction's Latin meaning, "to drag away, detach, pull away;" an all-at-once uprooting that is difficult or impossible to explain, but which captures something of the power of conceptual abstraction, how in moving between the 'here' and 'there', in the back and forth between the simple and the complex, new insights regarding the relation between the two states can be examined. Post-apocalypse, space has become even harder to describe. Back in Schmidt's Hotel Ozone, the older woman remarks, "Everything is different […] Places have no name." Turning to one of the girls she smiles: "But you don’t mind, do you?" Here, place is dynamic, a process; appearing as a moment of nature and a structure of feeling rather than a pre-determined proposition. The group of women approach the world without the words we rely on to explain it; it becomes, for a moment, incoherent and unlimited. By overhauling an expected visual economy, Hotel Ozone suggests a new politics of aesthetics. When classic ideas of value vacate the image the parameters of possibility shift.
Reviews of Hotel Ozone typically focus on reproductive desire, suggesting that the girls' ultimate quest must be to search out men and procreate. A piece of programming text for a screening at New York's MoMA summarises the film as "a band of women prowl in search of a man in order to perpetuate the human race," while the blurb on the English DVD case reads: "A pack of wild girls search for males who can give them children."16 But this story of sexual and social reproduction simply isn't true. When the girls first encounter an old man, they run away from him, and it is only the Old One who sees him as a potential ally or even saviour. At dinner, he sets up a lavishly ornamented table decorating it with silver candles and a white tablecloth, and serves vintage wine from his cellar. Positioning the two elders at the head, he refers to the older woman at his side by her married surname, "Mrs. Herbertusová," summoning a spectre of old laws, bourgeois manners and familial identities alien to the younger women. As the girls eat the fish they had earlier dynamited from a pond with their bare hands, he looks distinctly uncomfortable. This doesn't stop him from giving a hopeful, tearful speech, "I raise my glass to you, the future mothers of the new world." His words grate uncomfortably — 'mother', 'world', 'future'. In the Grundrisse, Marx explains how abstractions dominate political economy, suggesting that "when we consider a given country politico-economically, we begin with its population, its distribution among classes, town, country etc."17 This seems logical – after all the population is "the foundation and the subject of the entire social act of production."18 But, Marx clarifies, "on closer examination this proves false. The population is an abstraction if I leave out, for example, the classes of which it is composed. These classes in turn are an empty phrase if I am not familiar with the elements on which they rest," categories that remain empty and ahistorical, presupposing more than they explain.19 In Hotel Ozone, these 'empty phrases' pile up around the Old Man and they obfuscate rather than elucidate. Instead of people he sees population; the members of the group are, in his eyes, representative of both more and less than themselves — they are stock tropes, mothers or daughters to be press-ganged into the nuclear family unit. He seeks to redefine and reconfigure them according to his image of what they should be, spectres of a past life in a dead world.
The Hotel Ozone itself is both a faded simulacra of an old society and a simplified vision of existence that cannot survive reality. Slowly the girls destroy it, smashing glasses, breaking the TV and scrapping in the dust over things they steal from the house. With each broken object the gap between the present and the past grows wider — the old man's sense of futurity is conditioned by a pastness which takes its form in property, a collection of items that the first half of the film taught us were disposable and doomed. The camera that follows him around his house — which was once his business as an old-fashioned hotelier — moves sluggishly, confined to the fixed lines of the four walls. The rapid hand-held shots that were used to film the open steppes are replaced by a slow-moving dolly-cam which drags conventionally across the room, subordinate to its surroundings. In Signatures of the Visible, Frederic Jameson argues that film "realism is conventionally evoked in terms of passive reflection and copying, subordinate to some external reality," inert and lifeless.20 Cinema, the laying of the world onto a filmstrip, has often been celebrated as the perfect realist medium, a copying machine. But at the heart of realism, he argues, is a contradiction, "that the objective world is both real and false all at once." How does cinema itself represent this paradox? By ironising the formal conventions of spatial realism Hotel Ozone playfully, experimentally makes space for this knowledge and, in dividing our perspective between generations, between the old man and the girls, old world and new, Schmidt recomplicates preconditioned ideas about the nature of the world, exposing the bedrock of ideology beneath tensions between the real and the false. The camera dutifully observes the neat reception room, the summer parasols set up for guests, the freshly laundered bedrooms, and its static care renders these homestead scenes increasingly ridiculous, as if a reality that no longer has any meaning is being piously reasserted, a threadbare curtain thrown up to hide other possibilities of living. Both lament and parody, the film shows two versions of familial domesticity: Soviet past and post-nuclear present, tragedy and farce.
In Pavel Juráček’s short story The End of August at the Hotel Ozone, written in 1958, the group is described as "living wildly on the remains of the world."21 'Wildness' is often understood as basic or base, as a societal lack rather than a constitutive presence. When used in this context, the word creates a reductive dualism that struggles to usefully describe the totalising shifts that might occur at 'the end of the world'. Indeed, in describing the group by its deficiencies — no morals, no manners, no men — we risk jettisoning the lens the film can turn on its society and ours. Although The Communist Manifesto (K. Marx and F. Engels) called for the abolition of the bourgeois family in 1848, patriarchal family structures were maintained as the societal norm throughout the later history of the USSR. And while, as political scientist Jacqui True argues, Soviet Communism had promised women’s emancipation through collective labour, Khrushchev-era culture "increased the prestige of private consumerism."22 This kept women working in the private sphere, burdening them with the double duties of paid work in the wider economy and the necessities of social reproductive work at home: cooking, cleaning, raising workers. Hotel Ozone is a radical rejection of this arrangement. The group of women equally share the labours of caring for each other and divide their resources freely. The camera suggests equity through aesthetics, filming from ground level and rendering everything in the same muddy grey film stock. Rarely situating the group in its wider geographical surroundings and rejecting aerial and panoramic sequences, the camera stays with the women, often finding them bunched together in tight formations.
Hotel Ozone’s mode of seeing envisions a smaller, deeply interconnected community that rejects the traditions of the nuclear family. The swift camera mirrors interplays of emotion and sudden close-ups materialise tenderness as well as brutal fighting. In Sophie Lewis’s book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, she offers up a set of new terms to discuss the possibility of genetically de-essentialising familial relations to push back against "repro-normativity" and patriarchal conceptions of family, celebrating an "inventive kinning" that shares the burden of social reproduction beyond traditional structures — reproduction as "personal yet plural, intimate yet inclusive," so that bonds of love and affection can flourish outside the structures that equate familial love with logics of ownership and division.23 Lewis argues for a radical rejection of the nuclear family and "the idea that babies belong to [someone] — the idea that the product of gestational labor gets transferred as property."24 In Hotel Ozone, the girls belong to no one and they have chosen to form kin bonds regardless of genetic attachments. They eat, sleep, care and play together. The film goes some way to envisioning, however bleakly and post-apocalyptically, a new sense of family, creating aspects of an ideal community within a dystopian environment. It depicts the starkest kind of familial remodelling, born from scarcity and hardship and without the transformation towards the pleasurable and abundant communism advocated for by Lewis. The tragedy of the film lies in these contradictions: a vision of life without many dangers — the violence of patriarchy, the oppressions of property, the brutality of a policed state — but which exists in a doomed material environment: "Nothing grows, the land despises us." Where Lewis’s vision is animated by revolutionary futurity, this seems impossible for this community created on a dying planet in which the natural environment, the necessary precondition for human life, is wrecked beyond repair.
Viewed in 2020, there is something enlivening about the image of young women who reject the necessity of societal reproduction in the terms that the old man sets. In No Future: Queer Theory and The Death Drive, Lee Edelman critiques a neoliberal logic of "reproductive futurism" that centres ideas of futurity in heteronormative and patriarchal social reproduction and which criticises and erases queerness through the invocation of traditional family values.25 Edelman polemicises against the figure of the child as an image tied to a capitalist future and a social world that "exists to preserve for this universalized subject, this fantasmatic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actuality of freedom itself."26 This reproductive futurism is inherently conservative in that it "works to affirm structure and authenticate social order" — reproducing tomorrow as today and perpetuating the current state of things.27 In Hotel Ozone there are no children and yet it is significant that so many viewers and reviewers demand them. The child is desired as a narrative pay off, a symbol of stability and an investment in continuity. Other critics have rejected the "tired nihilism" of Edelman’s theories.28 For Lewis, No Future "isn’t against the Family at all, insofar as it needs that form in order to have something to define its nihilistic brand of 'don’t care' queerness against."29 But if Edelman raises a flawed spectre of family abolitionism, does the caring network in Hotel Ozone, which is anti-mother but not anti-maternal, anti-property but not anti-pleasure, offer something better? Hotel Ozone argues for a present that subordinates the future: not, after all, a total nihilism, but a systematic rupture which refuses the coercive value-system of the past world.
In the film’s final sequence, a fixed camera in deep-focus is trained on a forest hillside. Travelling across the space of the image, their movement suggests momentum but the film denies the viewer any glimpse of their destination; doubt and purpose co-exist uneasily but generatively in the same frame. Post-apocalyptic narratives often focus on what can be salvaged from the ashes of the old world. Hotel Ozone instead insists on a spectacular immanence: a nowness that pushes away the constraints of the past and rejects simple visions of an easily conceived or abstracted future. If the figure of the child can act as a line of flight beyond the horrors of a failing world, then it can only appear honestly at the same time that the oppressive structures of that society are being dismantled. Focused determinedly on the fulfilment of the present, the film suggests that if the world is dying it is necessary to demand change in the radical 'now', rather than in a hopeful 'not-yet'. The child — and especially the abstracted vision of the future child — cannot provide a template for a new society; this must come from a politics of immediacy. The old man demands that the girls stay on at his hotel; August is ending and they must wait out the winter together. But rejecting the comfort, and also the confines of the hotel, the girls keep moving over the hills.
The film has variously been translated as Late August at the Hotel Ozone and The End of August at the Hotel Ozone
Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1: A Critique of Political Economy, Penguin, p.135.
Chris O Kane, 'The Critique of Real Abstraction: From the Critical Theory of Society to the Critique of Political Economy and Back Again' in Oliva A., Oliva Á., Novara I. (eds), Marx and Contemporary Critical Theory. Marx, Engels, and Marxisms, Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. p. 267.
Nicholas Manning and Sianne Ngai, 'Visceral Encounters: An Interview with Sianne Ngai', Revue Française d’Études Américaines, No.162, 2020, p.121
Sianne Ngai, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form, The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge Mass, 2020, p.2
Sianne Ngai, 'The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde', Critical Inquiry, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Summer 2005), p. 816
Sianne Ngai, 'Our Aesthetic Categories', Special Topic: Literary Criticism for the Twenty-First century, PMLA: Vol. 125 No. 4, October 2010, p. 949.
David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, Pleasures in Socialism: Leisure and Luxury in the Eastern Bloc, Northwestern University Press: Evanston, 2010, p. 15.
Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, Verso Books: London, 2018.
David Crowley and Susan E. Reid, p. 3
Ibid. p. 3-5.
Dialectical montage is “Eisenstein's term for an effect in montage in which the juxtaposition of two shots (the Kuleshov effect), which reflect some kind of conflict and has the potential to make an abstract concept tangible” — OED (Online).
Anne Nesbet, Savage Junctures: Sergei Eisenstein and the Shape of Thinking, I.B. Tauris, 2003, p. 24.
MoMA Programming Notes for Late August at the Hotel Ozone. (July 31st 2017). (Online).
Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, Penguin Books, 1973, p. 100.
Frederic Jameson, Signatures of the Visible, Routledge: New York and London, 1992, p.162
Pavel Juráček, Deník II, 1956–1959, Vyd. 1. Praha: Torst, 2017, p. 565.
Jacqui True, Gender, Globalization and Postsocialism: The Czech Republic after Communism, New York, 2003, p. 35.
Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, Verso: London, 2019, pp.147-152
Sophie Lewis, 'Covid-19 Is Straining the Concept of the Family. Let’s Break It', The Nation, 2020, Online.
Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Duke University Press: Durham, 2004, p. 11.
Ibid., p. 3
Ibid., p. 3
'Full Surrogacy Now: A Mini Symposium: McKenzie Wark, Jules Joanne Gleeson and Natasha Lennard'. Verso Books. (Online).
Georgie Carr is working on a PhD on the racialized articulations of British police policy, town planning, and police filmmaking practices. She is one of Another Gaze‘s staff writers.
Second Natures is produced with support from Bamboat | Mitchell, and the Canada Council for the Arts. The screening is co-presented with Images Festival.