Nightcrawler and the Murder of the Real

At first we will point at three forms of violence. The primary form is that of aggression, of oppression, of rape and spoiling: the unilateral violence of the most powerful. Another form is that of historical, of critical violence, the violence of the negative and the transgression of revolt and revolution (included maybe the violence of analysis and interpretation). Both are determined forms of violence – effects that are related to specific causes and to whatever form of transcendence, be it that of power, of history, or of meaning.

These are, I would say, the violence of the first type and of the second type. But now we have to deal with a violence of the third type, a very different one. More radical and subtle: the violence of deterrence, of consensus and control, of hyper regulation and deregulation altogether – the violence of the virtual, a meta-violence in some way. Violence of forced consensus and interaction, which are like the plastic surgery of the social. Therapeutic, genetic, communicational and informational violence …. violence of a general extradition of conflict, of death. Violence which paradoxically puts an end to the violence itself ….

The image is violent because what happens there is the murder of the Real, the vanishing point of Reality. Everything must be seen, must be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this visibility. But at the same time it is the site of its disappearance. And that something in it has disappeared, has returned to nowhere, makes the very fascination of the image …

| Jean Baudrillard, The Violence of the Image |

A recent Hollywood film that captures the ‘third type of violence’ articulated by Baudrillard is the excellent Nightcrawler. Like any critique of the global media apparatus as it relates to the disruption of concrete social relations – in which digital subjectivity and networking has intruded upon the most intimate and vulnerable theaters of human contact – Nightcrawler gives us the irony of the entire situation: the individual becomes entirely alienated in the face of the virtual, so, rather than retreating from it, he instead delves deeper into it as an answer to the very problem it created.  More of the problem becomes the solution to the problem.

In the opening montage of Nightcrawler a series of images, images of one of the largest and most populated urban spaces on the planet appear in a montage before the audience.  However, by the end of the chain of individual frames, we notice something missing, something so obviously voided from the succession of forms that I imagine many in the audience entirely fail to notice: the absence of human presence. Our introduction to Los Angeles, a metropolitan area of over 16 million, is apparently empty, entirely vacant of social relations and human contact.  And it is this very insinuation, the absence of social reality, forms the entire crux of deeper meaning we can excavate from Nightcrawler. Reality, the concrete relations of the social body, fades away in the presence of an ever expanding global media apparatus; the virtual paradoxically becomes the dominant theatre of ‘reality’ and the human subject suffers deeply in the excruciating psychological and relational consequences of this transition.

We are not simply referring to the blatant distortions and less than honest framings of social reality through media manipulation and narrative construction that is realistically portrayed in the back offices of a local news station throughout the film, we can also feel something even more chilling, more abstract, that is transpiring before us. What we can rather sense is something that goes far beyond the creation of sensational news stories through contrived and selective narrative methodologies, but rather, something that Baudrillard referred to as the murder of the Real. For in Nightcrawler, nothing becomes more confounded than the attempt to grasp for reality itself.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sociopath of the DSM variety. His life demonstrates a more intense and acute kind of contemporary alienation that is generically experienced during breaks from twitter feeds and the endless ‘conversations’ supplied by the various media forms. He is utterly alone and, paradoxically, our initial contact with Bloom shows a man that does even use social media and has little contact with technology. That is to say, Bloom lives in the reality of ‘reality.’ But this, ironically, is the precise problem that Dan Gilroy’s vision attempts to elucidate in our initial rendering of Bloom’s psychic and relational dysfunction: the media is so big, one doesn’t even have to use it to experience the traumatizing effects. And within this mirrored world of social alienation and ruptured human relationships in the face of digital encroachment, the world itself has been engulfed by the media, the virtual representation, and Louis Bloom moves in the shadows of this emptied world alone; stealing, killing, and conniving.

But it is this exact point where the narrative develops: Bloom’s world, the real world, is empty and he wants in to something that will offer deeper meaning and purpose to his current life. The irony, however, is that this meaning Bloom seeks is not to be discovered in the authenticity of concrete human relationship and contact, for that is a hopeless pursuit as he knows better than most. His meaning is rather to be found in the virtual itself, in the capturing and creating of reality with a technological interface, which progresses in a startling, horrifying vector.

His ‘in’ is gained in the form of an opportunity to work as a nightcrawler. A nightcrawler, a free agent videographer that uses police scanners to track in real time any form of human disaster; car wrecks, murder, and most specifically ‘suburban tragedy.’ Upon acquiring video, local news stations bid for the most graphic, most obscene coverage that can be used to captivate their audience and subsequently acquire ratings which lead, logically, to capital.  Rene Russo plays the station manager responsible for acquiring nightcrawler footage and soon develops an intense and comically dysfunctional relationship with Gyllenhaal. Their entire relationship and dialogue focuses on a disturbing, yet with a pitch perfect ‘realism’, fixation on locating and framing violence to be used in newscasts. It is obvious to the point where the audience may miss it entirely, that reality for both characters has nothing to do whatsoever with anything that is not filmed and distributed through an integrated network of media distribution. ‘If its not on video, it’s not real,’ could be the motto for both characters. For in both characters, we see an interior life so ravaged by the very thing they desire more of, that the virtual has paradoxically become a place of solace, a place of work, a place of connection. I often feel that this very logic employed by Russo and Gyllenhaal, which seems to encapsulate so many users of digital applications: using it makes me feel alone, inferior, and disconnected, I must use more to compensate, has a similar logic to the active heroin addict or alcoholic: the solution to the problem of heroin is more heroin. Does the audience see this logical fallacy?  They may, but Gilroy never makes it an obvious conclusion. He hides it perfectly throughout various interchanges between the characters.

The ending of the film, which aptly chronicles Louis Bloom’s brilliant nightcrawler capabilities into a climactic scene where all of his sociopathy, cinematographic literacy, knack for creating narratives, and total alienation conspire into tragedy. However, what most certainly does not happen for Bloom is some sudden awakening, a deep examination of his behavior and its causes. There is rather a kind of visceral hopelessness we can sense in Bloom for any type of responsibility, social integration, and compassion. His character, the interiority of Bloom, has been entirely emptied and nullified in reality by the virtual and only in the space of the virtual does he consider that any solace be found.

The opening quote from Baudrillard is most appropriate in my own reading of Nightcrawler. “Everything must be seen, must be visible, and the image is the site par excellence of this visibility”  There is no doubt to the darkness and emotional vacancy displayed in this film. And those closest to the virtual, to the image itself being portrayed as reality, are the ones most deeply disturbed. Yet, at the same time, the less dramatic loneliness and alienation often accompanied by our own attempts at making and maintaining virtual friends and staring at pixilated screens can provide insight into the fleeting nature of reality and the emotional consequences we face in its demise.

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