“The East” at South By Southwest

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The 2013 SXSW film festival had its dramatic conclusion with “The East,” at the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago. The historic playhouse was packed with eager festival goers and giddy fans, at the ready with their cameras to snap a pic of Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard, the film’s stars, who were in attendance.

“The East” takes as its subject a group of anarchists who live in a fire-ravaged mansion with their charismatic leader, played by Mr. Skarsgard.  The group scavenges for food as a deliberate statement against capitalism and waste. They also perform acts of criminal mischief against unscrupulous corporations in a series of carefully planned “jams.”

Creative powerhouses Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij wrote the script after living with a group of freegan anarchists one summer. Based on some of the scenes in the movie, you shudder to think how much of this could be based on their actual experience.

Mr. Batmanglij  directed the film.  Marling played the lead role, setting a great example for other actors: If you don’t like the parts you are getting, why not write your own?

Ms. Marling plays an undercover agent who leaves behind her polished, professional persona to descend into a grungy underworld where she survives by her wits and top-flight skill set. She gains the group’s trust by completing a series of harrowing tasks. She performs surgery (of a sort) on a dying deer, and later, a human.

She submits to the group’s strange rituals. One involves everyone wearing straight jackets to dinner. Another is a glorified version of “Spin-the-Bottle.” It was hard to watch them take themselves so seriously as they performed these odd and  embarrassing  rituals. I thought they came across as sort of pathetic and ridiculous. So, when the agent begins to cross over into full sympathy with the group, I was left with nobody to root for.

The  cult leader, we learn,  was once wealthy from an inheritance.  He became disillusioned when people treated him differently because of his money. Cue the world’s smallest violin! (If there was more to his renunciation of society, I missed it.) He fails to make the case for why he should have rejected his enormous fortune in favor of a life of feral living. Has he never heard of philanthropy? There are creative solutions to the problem of having too much money, I imagine. Homelessness seems an odd choice given the possibilities.

I had an allergic reaction to Ellen Page’s character who abandons her education at an Ivy League school to join this group of anarchists. You want to tell her, “Do you have any idea how many people would kill for an Ivy League education?” But she throws it away to run with a group of phlegm and filth encrusted street urchins. It doesn’t add up. You suspect drugs, psychological frailty, brain damage.

During one of the group’s guerrilla actions, Ellen Page’s character confronts her father, a high ranking energy executive, about his company’s evil business practices. She despises her father, for personal reasons only hinted at. She ends up drugging him and knocking him out, at which point the group moves in to kidnap him. When he comes to, they force him into a lake where the company has been dumping toxic waste. The message is, corporations act like bullies and thugs, so why shouldn’t we? It doesn’t really seem like a mature emotional response to the world, but it is dramatic and makes for a relatively lively movie. I  worry, though, about the message it sends. I’d hate to think some teenager out there is saying, “Yeah, why bother to do the hard work of learning the political process, or being otherwise civically engaged, when you could act like a juvenile delinquent instead?”

“The East” reminded me of T.C. Boyle’s fantastic global warming and eco-activism farce, “A Friend of The Earth.”  There is a series of escalating actions by the radical activists in that book which culminate with members of the group setting fire to a forest.  The trees had been replanted by the lumber company after they had clear-cut it and it lacked the bio-diversity of the old-growth forest.   I’m deeply troubled by our ongoing plundering of natural resources and unrestrained pollution, but even I can see how insane it is to set fire to a forest as a way of making a statement about deforestation. The book showed how unchecked,  self-righteous anger can easily veer into absurdity.

Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” offers another unforgettable example of the archetype of the bright, well educated young person who rejects their own family and its financial success in favor of radical,  violent political activism. In that story, the daughter lives on the lam, like a stray dog, in a lean-to by the freeway.   She bombs the community post office, in an act of protest, (of what, I don’t remember)  consigning herself to a fugitive life.  Though she is on the run from the police for her treasonous act of murder, she wears a  medical mask so that she does not accidentally breathe in (and potentially harm) any living micro-organisms, as her “religion” dictates. We see, in all these works, the way a strong moral instinct, unmoored and unchecked, can go horribly awry.

The anarchists of “The East,” clearly believe themselves to be defenders of the innocent and punishers of the mighty. But it is hard to trust them or take them seriously when they live as they do. They hate their families, they hate capitalism, they hate commerce. They reject wealth, they reject industry, they reject medicine, they reject society and civilization. They embrace vengeance and violence. Where does such a world view lead? It’s hard to see a positive outcome with that sort of social orientation.

The final montage in “The East” offers a mere glimpse of where a more balanced, less destructive social consciousness might lead, but it isn’t fleshed-out enough to offer a compelling vision. Overall, the film left me unsettled, which is perhaps the point, to get people talking and arguing about these unresolved issues.

All in all, “The East,” is a fascinating, confounding, irritating, and mostly entertaining movie that I have not been able to get out of my head in the weeks since encountering it. I’ll be curious to see what others think about it once it has its official opening.