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.


This short essay relates to a film that I wrote and directed entitled, ‘The Mission.’ I have shown the film twice publicly and is currently being put through final post production rearrangements. The film deals with the social and cultural theatre of “ghetto” basketball formation in the decades following World War 2. Specifically looking at public housing, The Great Migration, and the social chaos produced by the American city’s process of deindustrialization; basketball emerges as not only a game, but a sport with multiple social functions.

Here are some thoughts I have about basketball and its rise as a national sport from the mid 60’s -1990’s :

1. It socially functions better than any other sport in both reduced and multiple spatial settings.

2. It was integrated, naturally, into the city park structure.

3. In addition to being embedded with city park planning, it was also integrated to postwar public housing design and construction.

4. It provided creative solutions to its reformation in the wake of the vast and intense social order breakdown associated with the prewar industrial economy.

5. And perhaps most importantly – its economic accessibility made it a sport that was available for those with limited economic mobility .

To elaborate on each point

1. Basketball performs in both reduced and multiple spatial settings. Is there any sport that can be effectively played and practiced on such small dimensions as basketball, i.e. the reduction of space? Played at the end of a driveway, in an alleyway, with a makeshift hoop attached to the side of a public housing project; or in its standard form: a playground court of regulation dimensions. And as a logical supplement, basketball can also be played upon a multiplicity of settings. To put it bluntly: find me any place to secure a basket, give me a ball, and a potential basketball court emerges. It is these interrelated features of basketball — it’s ability to be effectively played regardless of spatial or formal limitations — that were fundamental in basketball’s association with postwar urban life.

2. Basketball is perhaps the only sport planned and integrated within virtually every city park — a basketball court featured in the city park is often the essential feature of its design. This structural relationship — municipal parks to the game itself — was deeply influential on the development of basketball as a social activity within the city, and intended or not, the game’s emerging popularity became an unstated imperative of urban planning in it of itself.

3. Basketball was often an essential design feature to the construction of public housing, a key site in postwar cities and culture. Public housing, apart from its status as bona fide social disaster, did much to cement the association of basketball with inner city life. Nearly every single public housing project — although often absent basic amenities such as heat and hot water as the projects descended into virtual war zones in the 1970’s and 1980’s — still maintained the possibility of basketball as a positive social activity due to the fact that the sport had been integrated to the scope of both its architectural and social philosophy. Dr. Robert Fishman, urban historian at the University of Michigan, notes in The Mission: “One purpose for creating a lot of open space in the projects was to open up space for playgrounds. And this was an essential part of the design philosophy: that “the street” was evil, and the worst thing that could happen to kids was for them to be hanging out on street corners. On the other hand the playground, especially organized team sports, were seen as the salvation of youth. So, if you were going to plan a better neighborhood, the first thing you did was to eliminate the streets and leave plenty of room for open space and especially for playgrounds. Because that would be the future of youth, that would save youth from poverty and crime.”(8)

4. We can speculate that the unlocked potential of basketball’s radical and creative energy that was unleashed during this time frame, occurred not in spite of the social instability and economic dysfunction, but because of it: basketball became both a social mirror and aggregator throughout this period. When we view basketball’s earlier practices — a la iconic figures such as George Mikan or Dolph Schayes — we are naturally inclined to think of basketball as being analogous, almost like boxing, to a measure of factory logic: rational, regulated, and linear; Mikan’s famous hook shot is perhaps the best example of basketball performing with an “assembly line” logic of sorts. But then, in an almost miraculous turn of events — and we can never underestimate the truly radical transformation of basketball that took place in the postwar decades —  the prior version of basketball (the factory like Mikan style of play) is eventually replaced by the style of iconic figures such as Earl Monroe, or eventually in the person of Magic Johnson; this change in basketball logic is nothing short of shocking. But this is the precise metamorphosis that would be endlessly worked out on the inner city playgrounds throughout the post war decades: no look passes, reverse dunks, alley oops, and the true symbol that became emblematic of the formal break with the basketball of disciplinary logic: the fast break. These materializations, these elements of basketball’s emerging de-centered logic, are in some respects simply byproducts of the factory’s closure — rational space, planned production, and administered labor all being lost as global financial services and technological systems begin to replace them — and the corresponding emergence of a de-centered global economy. So basketball in this period of urban history became a mirror of the social disruption that enveloped city space: boring set shots are substituted for spontaneous slam dunks. And at the very same time basketball became a sort of social aggregator: continually taking the pieces and fragments of the industrial fallout and inserting them into its own logical edifice: perfectly embodied in basketball legends like Nate Archibald, Isiah Thomas, and the player I view as both the symbol of its peak, and the beginning of its decline: Stephon Marbury, the legendary 1995 graduate of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, New York. (9)

5. Basketball is perhaps the most economical of all sports to play. What could be more financially accessible than a pair of sneakers and a ball? This may be the most influential aspect that brought forth the intimate relationship between city dwellers in postwar urban America and the game of basketball: its economic accessibility.