NeMLA23: “An End to the Anthropocene”: Climate Change and Psychedelic Horror

If fungi seem to be everywhere right now, that’s not just a result of HBO’s adaptation of The Last of Us. Fungi and their psychedelic possibilities have been all over horror for ages. Contemporary writers like Jeff Vandermeer, M.R. Carey, Alicia Whitely, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia have used the third kingdom for allegorical ends, turning the hallucinatory and transpersonal potentialities of fungi into critiques of settler colonialism, imperialism, and misogyny. Today, I’m going to discuss two films that use fungi’s psychedelic possibilities to respond to the terrors of the Capitalocene, Gaia and In the Earth. Both released in 2021 by Neon, these two psychedelic horror films have strikingly similar narratives: an outsider encounters people living in the wilderness who worship a fungus as a sort of consciousness of the Earth fighting against the coming climate collapse.

Poster for Ben Wheatley's psychedelic horror film, In the Earth.
In the Earth (2021)
Poster for psychedelic horror film Gaia (2021)
Gaia (2021)

The use of fungi recalls what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing says of mushrooms. Their “willingness to emerge in blasted landscapes,” Tsing explains, “allows us to explore the ruin that has become our collective home” (3). In these films, however, fungi aren’t important because they can survive neoliberal ruin but because they act as a counterpower to capitalism itself. Fungi’s terrors are inseparable from its powers of appropriation. These films explore the uncanniness of fungi’s different ways of eating: the saprotrophic, which decomposes what it consumes; the parasitic, which lives off its hosts; and the mycorrhizal, which creates networks in symbiosis with other plants to exchange nutrients and aid ecological communication. The fungi of Gaia and In the Earth do a bit of everything, allowing fungi’s multiform powers of appropriation to make it resonate with capitalism. What cinches the allegory is that fungi is a diffuse networked system of appropriation. With their masses of hyphae, fungi elude description as individual organisms. What we see are the fruiting bodies of larger, more diffuse networks hidden in the soil that not only seem to have their own form of consciousness, but that can bring humanity into that consciousness through psychedelic experience. Both films rely on this conceit and use elements of psychedelic filmmaking to emphasize the permeability of human and nonhuman consciousness. The result is a pair of films that try to convey the terrors of climate change from the Earth’s perspective.

For that reason, these films force us to confront ecofascism, what Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier concisely defined as “[emphasizing] the supremacy of the ‘Earth’ over people; [evoking] ‘feelings’ and intuition at the expense of reason; and [upholding] a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusian biologism” (11). The far-right has long had what Sam Moore and Alex Roberts call “an ambivalence toward capitalism” (11). This ambivalence allows far-right ecologism to decry neoliberalism and environmental destruction on the one hand, and to treat climate change’s catastrophic effects on the global south as “racialized ineptitude” (42) on the other. To escape the impasses of the Capitalocene, far-right ecological thought seeks its solutions in ideas of Earth supremacy and naturalized hierarchies based in racialization.

Gaia makes these stakes clear almost immediately. From South African filmmaker Jaco Bouwer, the film presents its fungus as part of a reimagining of James Lovelock and Lynn Margolis’s “Gaia hypothesis,” the idea that “life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favorable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms” (Lovelock 254-55). Bouwer’s film asks what would happen if the Earth realized that the best way to do this was to eliminate humanity? This desire is shared by two back-to-the-land Afrikaaners, Barend and his son Stefan. Barend preaches a form of Earth-supremacy. The fungus will cleanse the world of humanity, he says, and “bring an end to the Anthropocene.” Barend’s eco-fascism seems implicitly allied to white supremacy, if only because he opposes the film’s two people of color, rangers sent to monitor the forest. One of them is quickly killed by the fungus, but the other, Gabi, seeks refuge in his cabin after one of his traps stabs her in the foot. Not only does Barend reject South African modernity, he also tries to hide his conversations from Gabi by speaking Afrikaans with his son. This doesn’t work, but the meaning is clear, and that’s before we see that his fungus worship has a lot to do with blood and soil. The fungus ties them to the Earth with its blood. When a fungus-headed creatures attacks, Gabi winds up coated in spore-tainted blood and the fungus begins to colonize her dreams and her arms. Barend and Stefan ward off this control by offering prayers and sacrifices to the fungus in return for mushrooms that cure them of this infection. Stefan steals one for Gabi, which clears her skin but not her mind, and Barend thus decides to initiate her into his cult with another of the fungus’s offerings, a psychedelic mushroom. Her trip begins pleasantly enough. She melts into and out of the earth and has a sexual encounter with Stefan before the vision turns dark. Barend fucks the earth and Stefan appears with an arrow through his head. Later, Barend tells her he’s had the same vision. The fungus wants him to sacrifice Stefan. More blood for the soil.

Gabi will thwart Stefan’s sacrifice by giving it Barend instead. The film briefly gestures toward a pluralist happy state of nature with Gabi and Stefan living together in the woods, but the fungus quickly brings this phase to an end. With Barend gone, they can’t ward off infection and Gabi is quickly overcome, her body consumed by the fungus. Stefan then leaves the forest and  falls back into his father’s apocalyptic project. In the film’s coda, he wanders through an unnamed city dressed like the Unabomber and leaving a trail of spores in his wake. The final image, a half-finished burger slowly enveloped by mold, suggests the Earth’s revenge to be inseparable from love.

Gaia wants us to see these ecofascist ideas critically, but its use of gender hierarchies undermines this critique. Early in the film, Barend insists that infection turns humans into the violent mushroom-headed creatures that roam the forest. However, the film’s two women escape this fate to become part of the landscape: Gabi quite literally becomes nature, absorbed into the forest floor. Stefan’s mother, long dead by the events of the film, has been similarly absorbed. As literary critics know, the alignment of the feminine and the land is a persistent trope of colonial and imperial literature. That’s because it runs through capitalism itself. As Claudia von Werlhof writes, in capitalism, women are “the only people on earth who always under all circumstances count as ‘nature’” (“On the Concept of Nature” 103). The film hammers the point home in its opening and closing sequences when the frame literally turns the world upside down. [SLIDE 5] A God’s-eye shot of the forest canopy captured from a great height reduces foliage to the texture of lichen before the camera slowly tips over, placing the lichen-forest canopy above and the blue sky below. This inverted image then dissolves into a drone shot inside the forest canopy as the camera glides over a riverbed, splitting into a distorted mirrored image above and a clear image below. When the drone approaches a canoe, we see Gabi, and the inversion ends as the camera passes overhead. [SLIDE 6] The film’s closing images reframe this inversion to suggest that what we’ve seen—Gabi’s story—is the real inversion. The conclusion returns us to what the film suggests is nature’s proper domination, absorbing Gabi into the landscape. As she expires, the camera returns to the God’s-eye shot, this time of her body completely colonized by fungi before dissolving to the opening God’s-eye view of the forest canopy.

Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) uses many of the same elements to surprisingly different ends. Dr. Wendel, a scientist studying the forest’s mycorrhizal network, has been lost in a UK forest, and Martin, a friend and colleague, heads into the woods to find her, guided by a ranger name Alma. One way to distinguish the two films is that Gaia exists in a world prior to COVID. The characters of In the Earth mask, test, and sterilize. When Martin approaches the ranger station at the beginning of the film, it isn’t clear where filming precautions end and fiction begins. Throughout, characters discuss the need to maintain a “sterile” environment. The people most fearful of contamination, though, aren’t Martin or Alma, both played by people of color, but the film’s deranged white researchers-cum-pagan-forest-worshippers. For Wendel and her ex-husband, Zach, fears of contamination camouflage their descent into madness.

Like Gaia, then, In the Earth is about ecofascism, here keyed to the rise of the far right in Britain. Wendel and Zach’s isolation in the woods has led them to become entranced by folklore about a forest necromancer, Parnag Fegg. Neither Alma nor Martin take the story seriously. Rangers have children draw Fegg before they go on hikes, Alma explains, so they’re too scared to wander off. Wendel, however, has come to believe Fegg is a personification of the forest’s mycorrhizal mat after she discovers its densest area lies under a Celtic standing stone. Her research hopes to discover how to communicate with the fungus, and she’s brought an array of light and sound equipment to do so. When her experiments fail, she turn to folk religion with Zach’s help. Together, they’ve decided the answer must be human sacrifice. And look, here come Martin and Alma. Taken as a whole, the racial division of the cast, the demands for sterility, and the turn to folk religion and human sacrifice suggest another ecofascist story, this one about an imagined return-to-origins and purity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr Wendel conducts her research for “the Fashdale Institute.”

Unlike Gaia, In the Earth is more circumspect about what it means to communicate with the nonhuman. Here the psychedelic also offers the possibility of communication between humanity and nature, but the people most committed to it are deranged. [SLIDE 10] Zach relies on trippy images, patternmaking, and offerings. Wendel, who pretends for much of the film not to accept Zach’s paganism, tells Martin, “Zach is trying to make meaning where there isn’t any.” Wendel is pulling Martin’s leg here, but the film does undercuts Zach’s beliefs. Nothing in its psychedelia supports ecofascist appeals to feelings and intuitions about nature. Instead, we see Zach wander aimlessly through the forest, claiming to feel its presence, but never knowing what it’s saying. At one point, overcome by fungal spores, he wanders in a hallucinatory daze and asks, “What do you want? I’ll give you whatever you want. Just tell me.” The film suggests the question is meaningless or unknowable. Wendel approaches communication along more scientific lines, but she is equally deluded. She uses the vibrations of the trees to produce feedback loops and trigger flashing lights in her attempts to communicate. The results are the sort of hallucinatory effects typical of psychedelic film: strobing lights, tracers, and tricks of persistence of vision. Wendel’s reasoning for these displays is no different than Zach’s. The forest network “wants to talk,” she says. “Nature is one giant system… This is the way to communicate with it.” Both Wendel and Zach believe climate change is so pressing that the forest must want to talk with us, if only to protect itself.

What In the Earth suggests here is that a capitalism increasingly deranged by climate change will intensify its violent repressions along racialized lines and it’s going to follow the divisions of existing imperial power. As the film shows, people of color are the first to suffer. Zach systematically tortures Martin, at one point chopping off his toes with an axe. When Martin escapes to the supposed safety of Wendel’s camp, she repeats Zach’s torture, cauterizing Martin’s wound with a heated iron. Both justify what they do as expressions of care. There’s never enough time to get Martin to a hospital. This is the only way. That’s bullshit, of course. When Zach attacks Alma late in the film, she drives a tent spike into his eye. He futzes with it for a moment then demands she take him to hospital. She doesn’t, obviously, but the point here is that suffering is for other people, and the benefits of science and technology for white environmentalists.[i]

Wheatley’s film lets us see something about eco-fascism, capitalism, and climate change that Gaia doesn’t: capitalism won’t spin off into reckless incoherence as climate change continues. It will keep pushing forward in its drive to accumulate value, even if it finds fewer and fewer commodity frontiers to exploit. Wendel’s research is a case in point. She wants to learn how to communicate with the mycorrhizal network to increase crop yields. The idea shows us one path capitalism is likely to take as the collapse of the biosphere closes resource frontiers. When capitalism can no longer rob nature, it will try to reimagine it as a recalcitrant workforce. Wendel’s research is the first step in what capitalism hopes will be a mere labor dispute with the Earth. After all, labor discipline and scientific and technological innovations have reclaimed productivity before. Why not again? What In the Earth adroitly shows is that these negotiations won’t work. They will, however, encourage the far-right’s murderous back-to-the-land fantasies of a purified nature, and it is the horrors of a supercharged ecofascism that psychedelic horror suggests to be the real terror of the Capitalocene.

[i] This scene also seems a play on Matthew 7:3 “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”

Host (2020): Pandemic Horror and the Real Abstraction

I’m working on a new book about contemporary horror. To keep track of the films I’ve watched, I write up my notes and general reactions for later development. This post on Host is the first in the series. For posts on the theoretical basis of the project, see these posts on Jason E. Smith and Boltanski and Esquerre.

Host (2020) is a well-made little shocker from the first year of the pandemic. In 2020, meetings on Zoom were new enough that people were doing what we see the characters do in Host: actively choosing to get on Zoom to visit with friends. Zoom happy hours were a thing. It’s not drinking alone in your apartment if you’re talking to some friends on Zoom, or so the argument went. And this is what the seven friends in Host are doing: drinking on Zoom, comparing their “lockdown“ lives. The film was shot in the UK, so these characters were actually meant to be experiencing the government-mandated lockdown announced on 23 March 2020 and extended on 16 April 2020. (The film was released on 30 July 2020, before the second UK lockdown announced on 5 November.)
Shot using laptop cameras and Zoom (or edited to look like Zoom), Host is a high concept horror film: a found-footage horror film about a seance gone wrong using Zoom. That’s it. The only innovation, such as it is, is the use of Zoom. As a found-footage horror film, it follows the pattern set by The Blair Witch Project and followed by every found footage horror film since: the movie is over when the last person dies. No one gets out alive here either. It doesn’t matter whether they are being menaced individually or, as in the end, in a pair.
Perhaps that’s the formal trick of the film: to be in a frame is to be dead already, at least as a found footage horror film is concerned. Here we have characters in a pandemic, their faces in frames in Zoom, destroyed by a demon unwittingly unleashed by the one Chinese-British character (a plot point that shouldn’t be overlooked given the violence directed against Asian people in the West during the pandemic), and finally captured in the penultimate shot of the film in a triple framing: in the Zoom frame, in a photograph, in a doorway.
What, if anything, can we do with this film in a materialist vein?
Well, we could say the idea of the demon here is a kind of real abstraction. One of the friends, bored and waiting for something to happen, makes up a story to freak everyone out. The result, according to the medium, is that she has create a kind of empty mask that any entity can inhabit and use. The idea of the demonic coming forward doesn’t quite work, but of the mask that takes on its own dangerous power would.
On an affective level, the film is powerful, I think, because it captures something about experiencing life on Zoom. The images of the people on Zoom seem normal and everyday. They are present as you know them, in spaces that you recognize, mostly, and doing what you would expect them to be doing. Yet in the pandemic, these images are continually beset by the threat of disruption. Those could be minor disruptions—children, pets, deliveries, neighbors—or major. The image derealizes reality, you might say, following Debord. But this derealization is a violent dissociation of life and image. The loop of one woman brushing her teeth is a good example. This loop is her screensaver, we learn, and it comes on only after a glitch that shows the demon violently beating her to death. She is endlessly present and not present in this loop.
This, I think, is key to the film’s effects. One might think that this should be watched on a laptop, thus making the viewer part of this terrible Zoom call, an infection of the viewer perhaps best done by Ringu. That idea gets hinted at in the end as we watch some spiritual entity close out Zoom after everyone has died. But the viewing experience of this film will never be quite like that of Ringu. In Ringu, death comes from watching a video. Characters and viewers watch the video. The threat comes through the screen for characters and the implication is, for you as well. We all know you can now be part of a Zoom call without having your camera or mic on, those long video-like presentations that should have been an email, but that’s not the Zoom call of 2020, and it isn’t the Zoom call that Host gives viewers. No, what Host taps into is the fear that something might happen to the people on your call and you’ll be unable to help. That was always a possibility with video calls, but the pandemic brought this to the fore. You could see someone in their room just as you expect and then… you wouldn’t ever again.

The Terrible, Clever Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2

I’ve been prepping a course on horror films over the summer. While reading through materials on The Blair Witch Project, I decided it was time to rewatch Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. I saw this film in an actual theater in the year 2000 and could only recall 1) that it was terrible, and 2) it had aerial footage of the forest floor at the beginning and end of the film. That’s it.

Why? Because Joe Berlinger directed it. I had no idea who he was in 2000, but I now know him as the talented documentarian responsible for films like Crude, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, and the three Paradise Lost films about the West Memphis Three. What in the world, I wondered, led Berlinger to direct this terrible film.

The answer, at least according to Berlinger’s director’s commentary, is that he imagined the studio would allow him to create “a taut psychological thriller” radically different from its predecessor. It seems obvious, though, that they hired Berlinger because he was a noted documentarian, and they imagined someone with his resume could quickly produce a film in time for a Halloween release. If it had Blair Witch in the title, then they figured it would make them some money. In essence, they wanted BWP to become something like Halloween, a monetizable franchise.

The demand for quick turnaround seems to be why they allowed Berlinger to make a film that essentially attacks the first film for the problems that it posed to documentary filmmaking. In his commentary, Berlinger struggles to be complimentary about BWP. Toward the end, he says that he thought selling the original film as a documentary was “not right,” and then describes the conflation of fact and fiction in its marketing as “evil.” That’s not what sequel directors usually say about the wildly successful film that’s the basis for their new film. But it is this problem of the indetermination of fact and fiction that Berlinger makes the thematic core of BoS, and in doing so, effectively monkeywrenches the BWP as monetizable property for Artisan.

Whether that was his intention or the outcome of the studio’s interventions in the film’s final cut is unclear. At the very least, the key conceit of Berlinger’s film would pose a significant problem for the franchise. After all, he wanted to begin BoS by discussing the success of BWP as an explicitly fictional film, and then to build a new film about the ways in which fictional representations affect the people who cannot distinguish them from reality. I’d guess the studio okayed his initial script for sheer expediency, fully intending to insist later–as they did–that he remove references to the first film being fictional.

On first viewing, the elimination of the fictionality of the BWP makes BoS incoherent. On reflection, though, the change also undermines the realist pretenses that the first film achieved through both plot and form—most especially, first person shaky cam—more than Berlinger’s initial idea. The plot in a nutshell: a BWP tour group blacks out in the woods and awakes to find themselves embroiled in either a supernatural plot or a murderous group hysteria. Berlinger uses 35mm film for character perspectives as they experience supernatural terrors, and ends the film with the surviving group members confronted by video footage that shows them committing the horrors they imagined had been perpetrated by a supernatural entity. “Someone got to the tapes!” one of the men shouts, and the film ends.

The conceit here is that, while characters in the film imagine that video can’t lie, savvy viewers know that it can. It’s no mistake that Berlinger mentions the OJ Simpson case in his commentary. This is a very ’90s documentary concern. That said, it seems unlikely that this move to create ambiguity for horror audiences would have worked for either the studio or for test audiences unless they either knew of or were Bill Nichols. Judging by the edits, it’s clear they didn’t and weren’t.

So it’s possible that the film made more sense when (or if) the film had a clearer division, narratively and formally, between fiction and fact. The final version, however, not only lacks a clear distinction between the two but has also worked overtime through its interpositions of gory cutaways and mental ward flashbacks to set up its characters as guilty and unreliable. Berlinger tells us that the studio demanded these cutaways—they wanted more gore and to heighten the villainy of one main character. (How badly did they want them? He tells us they were shot five weeks before the film’s international premiere on over 3,000 screens.) This alteration refracts fictionality across all levels of its plot and essentially monkeywrenched the BWP as a franchise.

Why? It is impossible for viewers to believe either version of the film’s events. When I left the theater in 2000, I didn’t ponder for one moment the question that Berlinger wanted me to ponder. I wasn’t wondering what had really happened to those characters. Of course, that question would have been in keeping with the first film. We don’t know what happened but we’re left to wonder. Berlinger’s plan for the sequel attempted to make audiences think about this problem from a more ethical position, one informed by his work as a documentarian.

But I didn’t think about that at all when I left the theater. What I thought was, “What a terrible film.” Where the first film threatened to break out of its narrative space, then, the sequel collapsed the myth entirely, in large part because the studio insisted that it include more gore and less uncertainty. The result is a bad fiction film.

But bad films don’t typically end franchises. That this one did—for sixteen years—is what makes it interesting.

Part of the trouble is that Berlinger seems to have wanted the film to be read in and against the grain of the documentary tradition. Fair enough. That’s what is interesting about the film, and it clearly mattered to him because of the problems to documentary ethics posed by the first film. But audiences came to this film as a horror movie. If he’d raised these concerns in an entertaining horror movie, there would be no problem. But this emphasis on documentary is what poses aesthetic and thematic problems in imagining subsequent films.

In terms of aesthetics, BoS shows that the camera eye of documentary is almost alien to horror. BWP overcame this because of its highly subjective shots. BoS avoided this approach because it seemed both a bad form of documentary aesethics and too readily parodied to Berlinger. But the horror films that he references as influences–The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby–port viewers into the hallucinations of its characters through tight focalization. The clean camera work in BoS is the hallmark of a well-shot documentary, but it is largely too detached from characters.

The best sequence in conveying a group experience is the 35mm campfire montage, which conveys a group feeling (i.e., getting wasted in the woods). The film struggles to manage this visually otherwise, in large part because it wants to give us a visualization of a group hallucination. This makes the construction of narrow focalization almost impossible. The whole film has to become a hallucination–or, what it seems at times, a parody of itself. Kubrick managed it in The Shining by making nearly every shot a creepy experience of ghostly visual floating, and Argento does it in Suspiria through similar killer camera mobility. BoS has no engagement with the camera as the perspective of a terrifying threat. It’s a medium, with all the fallibility of mediums. That empties the visual field of the fact/fiction question. It’s a question of how viewers relate to the medium.

It also matters that BoS was scripted and BWP was the result of long form improvisations carefully edited together. This conjunction of a scripted follow-up to BWP combined with the visually flatness of this fact/fiction problem make it difficult to see where one might push another film.

It also cuts at the heart of the first film. In BWP, video is medial mark of truth, and the “directors” largely abusive methods for coercing Method-style performances from their actors relied on their ability to improv. BoS unmasks that performance and the attempt to make video a medial guarantee of truth. The crucial video undermines its explanatory power: the video of their blood orgy in the woods includes footage of one of the women hiding under the rocks the video of her hiding the video under the rocks. I’d guess that Berlinger means to reference a recurrent truth problem for documentary, reenactment. (In fact, the title card tells audiences that the film is just such a reenactment.) If one wishes to believe the video, then one has to believe that she hid it twice, once for the camera, once for sure. This is Blair Witch Project as directed by Robert Flaherty. The conscious production of video in this context undermines its truth claims, and once video becomes the same space of lies and as film, the franchise is left in a truly difficult medial position. What kind of medium would be appropriate for a followup? What would carry the same claim to authenticity?

Hence a long pass of silence from the BWP franchise.

The success of the first film and the failure of the second also points to something I’d hadn’t pondered much. The wave of found footage films in horror seems not a result of BWP at all but rather of successful scripted found footage films (e.g., Cloverfield). The formula only takes off once its controllable.

On Cuarón’s Great Expectations


I applaud everyone who has forgotten Cuarón’s 1998 remake of Dickens’s Great Expectations. It’s an offensively bad adaptation of the book, but for whatever reason, I am increasingly convinced that there’s something to be said about cultural production in the twenty-first century and the way that the film adapts Dickens’s text.

The key, to me, is how the film adapts the character of Pip to a postmodern US setting. In the novel, Pip is essentially a character without a profession. His desire to rise in status means that he leaves his apprenticeship as a blacksmith to become a gentleman, but this new status comes without profession, and he does not seek one out. Instead, Pip lives off the wealth of his unknown benefactor, lost in fantasies and mired in debt. When his expectations disappear, his adopted blacksmith father pays off his debts and he takes on the most gentlemanly but least skilled work he can find, as a clerk under his friend Herbert. What’s important here is Pip’s incapacity. It is central to his character. (Indeed, that he simply enjoys his new wealth without reflecting on the future has led biographers to connect the story with Dickens dissatisfaction with his adult children.)

The film renames Pip as Finn, and gives him artistic pretensions. His sudden rise to fame is classed, but heavily mediated through art and the art world. Thus his class ascension includes a fancy NYC art show. The film smartly situates him as an outsider artist. Handled differently, this could use the art world to represent the much more diffuse and difficult to represent realities of class in the US. One can imagine the acceptance of Finn’s work by the art world—all of which is purchased by his criminal benefactor—as variant on the rigid yet permeable Victorian class system, willing to recognize a new member only insofar as that member accepts a particular set of values and holds a certain amount of wealth. That’s not the case in the film, though. The outsider artist story becomes a means of adapting Pip’s shame of Joe, so that he at once narrates Joe out of his outsider story and is then embarrassed by his gauche appearance at the gallery opening. The fault lies with the outsider artist, not with the broader social, political, and economic milieu.

Yet this reframing of the gentlemanly-as-artist is suggestive, and I guess that’s why Cuarón’s adaptation sticks in my craw. Rather than taking this suggestive new situation and using it to explore the key thematic issue of the novel—how understands one’s position in the broader social world—the film chooses instead to insist that Finn’s new position in the world is the right position for him. Why? Because is a talented artist. This change in characterization is the film’s critical mistake. If one follows the thematic logic of Dickens’s novel, Finn should either be a terrible artist or one who wastes his talent by refusing to put in the effort of honing his craft. Were Finn even a merely passable but unimpressive artist, this thematic logic would hold. What matters is that the character needs to be in a fragile enough position that the final revelation of his criminal benefactor precipitates an all-encompassing destruction of his tissue of fantasies. After all, Pip does not get to be a fashionable gentleman at the end of the novel. He manages to land a job as a clerk and then, in the novel’s epilogue, to become a partner in his firm. He has come down in the world and is content to be respectable. In Cuarón’s film, however, Finn does not come down. Instead, he achieves further artistic success after he discovers his benefactor. Crime launches his career without scruple, and the only expectation lost is his expectation of Estella.

These shifts raise a number of intriguing critical possibilities. Is this a commentary on cultural production? Is it meant to imply that cultural production now relies on unscrupulous funding to secure positions for the economically tenuous cultural producers? And vis-à-vis Estalla, one might argue that making Finn an artist is a way to explore Estella via cinema’s scopophilia, and thus make his expectations of Estella part of her objectification by the camera. The scenes of her being sketched nude certainly offers the possibility of such an idea.

The reason I hesitate to explore these possibilities is the film’s insistence that Finn is a talented artist. That is the basis of the narrative conclusion, not the criminality of cultural production or an exploration of Estella’s experiences or thought beyond such objectification. The renaming of Pip as Finn underlines this problem. What’s the difference between a pip and a fin? Pips come in groups and you spit them out after eating the fruit. One might become a seed, but maybe not. A fin, though? The answer is embedded in the film’s production design. By relocating the initial scenes to the Florida coast and making our convict pop out of the water at Finn, the film telegraphs its meaning. A fin is a sign above the waterline of something substantial below. Making Finn an artist is thus an indicator of something more substantial underneath the apparently inconsequential signifier. It is this that makes Cuarón’s artist Finn different from Dickens’s no-occupation Pip.

This change in characterization effectively guts the meaning of the novel’s title. Pip’s great expectations are class and sex based delusions that the revelation of his benefactor shatters. The only thing below the surface with Pip is the possibility of being a better human being than the class-focused horror show that he is for most of the novel. By contrast, Finn’s talents mean that he has great expectations in and of himself that no revelation can shatter. He has no better humanity to find, no revelation of connections with others, only a sense of his own specialness. In effect, the film endorses the very adolescent fantasies that the novel skewers.

It’s this fundamental selfishness that makes the film stick with me. This deformation of the novel’s thematics is consistent with the valorization of cultural production in the 1990s: Art becomes a form of work that can move Finn out of the working class in one of the many fantasies of the petit bourgeois in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. More than that, though, the film turns the great tale of adolescent selfishness and class priggishness into its artistic defense. I guess that’s why it still gets me angry.