Uncut Gems and Other Complex Interiors in the Affective Capitalist Map (2020)

theoretical essay

           The year is 1992, and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan convinces U.S. President Bill Clinton to embrace the free market [1]. This event is a prelude to a global tale of capitalist takeover and intangible infrastructures, a tale that the Safdie Brothers’ film Uncut Gems (2019) discreetly captures the ambience of. The “New Economy”, spurred by the rise of information technology and neo-liberal ideology, ushers in a wave of economic growth in the United States [2] and emboldens the American dreamer with upward fiscal projections. That same dreamer is crushed in the 2008 financial crisis, though the memory of fortuitous promise lingers. It lingers because artefacts of a bygone economic paradise remain, only remediated. Uncut Gems enlivens the “schizophrenic character” of capitalism [3] by presenting its affective map within the context of New York post-financial crisis with a gambling addict at the plot’s centre. This affective map is achieved by several means. Those that I will address are: the casting of a post-cinematic celebrity, chaotic filmic techniques, extended metaphor, contextualised depiction of black bodies, and a soundtrack that engages with the capitalist aesthetic and its spatio-temporal ramifications.

The year is 1990, and Adam Sandler joins Saturday Night Live as a cast member. His subsequent career of financially successful yet critically panned comedy films makes for a recognisable, albeit ridiculed, face. Such familiarity and decades-long development of viewer intimacy creates a commodity out of Sandler, making him an ideal conduit for “multiplicities of affective flows” [4]. As an iconic figure, Sandler acts as an “anchoring point” in the affective map, allowing such “flows” to be “[brought] into focus”while appearing “strangely absent” from himself [5]. The Safdie brothers are not ignorant of his allure. Sandler’s status as a Jewish cultural influence has been described as “mythic,” [6] and the brothers were already teenagers when Sandler was at his comedic prime. Howard is not even a unique role for Sandler, who has built a reputation around playing lovable, somewhat scummy everymen. In fact, Sandler’s real-life public persona inhabits the very same archetype of “the quintessential American striver” [7] as Howie, in that he is driven and worthy of redemption for any flaws. This role is certainly a form of redemption for Sandler (quite literally, he was nominated for a 2019 Razzie Redeemer Award for Uncut Gems), as he regains respect as a dramatic actor, while Howie’s redemption is in his pay-off at the film's climax. Sandler’s iconic reputation and idiosyncratic parallels with the gambling addict protagonist allows Howard’s depiction to be a point of convergence for implications beyond immanent narrative. The character’s obsession with the “next big score”[8] immediately paints him as a capitalist, Randian hero driven by selfish desires. Uncut Gems is critical of this attitude by presenting Howard’s addiction as a legitimate condition with negative consequences on his loved ones.

Howard is our main window into the narrative, and his mindstate is translated through filmic techniques, oft bearing the stylistic traits of chaos cinema. Such chaotic techniques include tight framing, shaky cameras and high-voltage energy. The choice to portray a naturalistic story in this frenzied manner is contextually less about Howard’s internal world so much as it is about his place the external world, especially the socio-economic world. It has been widely commented that Uncut Gems shows a side of New York that has not been seen in cinema since Taxi Driver (1976), a 70’s New York far grittier and more organic than its current cosmopolitan identity [9]. This depiction of New York suggests a wistfulness towards the city pre-capitalism [10], romanticizing the small shops and village-like dynamics between the jewellers in the Diamond District. This is presented in direct opposition to the world of impenetrability and impersonality that Howard encounters when he is dealing with the auction house.

The year is 1993, and new legislation is introduced in Ethiopia to encourage private and foreign investment in the mining industry, so as to better adapt to the free market [11]. The titular uncut gem, the black opal, serves as a metaphorical prop, in that it is a valued object of unknown potential. In the anatomy of capitalism, the individual is similarly imbued with the intellectual capacity and freedom to exact their fiscal desires - there is potential for success. The most overt extension of this metaphor is the sequences that dive through the interior of the black opal, eventually morphing into the inside of Howard’s colon. It furthers the notion that the body is a commodity. On this point of commodified bodies, it is important not to discount the depiction of race in Uncut Gems. Black bodies occupy a troubled space in the film as both idols and subordinates in Howard’s immediate world. The Ethiopian Jews hold a place of reverence in his estimation for the religious faith they share with him, yet are also being actively exploited for their work. This is actually a point that another central black character, Kevin Garnett (K.G.) brings up. K.G. is himself affiliated with globalized media in his National Basketball Association (NBA) career, as is The Weeknd, now a huge pop star (interestingly, also of Ethiopian origin). Marketability is a daily consideration in their lives. While these black bodies may serve not as direct affective components, they are emblems of the complications of their circumstances. Their roles in the narrative point to larger contradictions in how the economy has shaped black identity and its visibility, or in the case of third world labour: invisibility. Perhaps more aptly, selective visibility.

Sound plays a critical role in building this affective map of the capitalist mindstate. The film’s original score was composed by Daniel Lopatin, who is most well-known as an experimental electronic musician performing under the pseudonym Oneohtrix Point Never (OPN). Before finding fame as OPN, Lopatin was at the forefront of a budding internet musical trend: vaporwave. His 2010 release Eccojams Vol.1 under the alias Chuck Person, is considered to be a seminal early example of the genre[12]. Vaporwave itself uses “corporate sonic ephemera of the 80s and 90s,”to make reference to the “soulless techno-corporatism” of the time [13].These sounds tend to include the following: Kenny G-esque saxophones playing smooth jazz, New Wave synthesizer pads, New Age subject matter and instruments. Lopatin’s current music has come to be classified as “hypnagogic pop” [14]. Though distinct from vaporwave in its modern production sensibility, this genre retains the same hyper-corporate influences [15]. The liminality and dream-like consciousness of the hypnagogic phenomenon is similar to the experience of affect, being pre-cognitive processes. Such hypnagogic influences find their way into the Uncut Gems soundtrack as well, like the aforementioned saxophones and choral synthesizer pads. They serve to situate the story in the time period shared with the birth of the free market, thereby directly referencing an environment shifting alongside the machinations of capitalism.

Lopatin’s soundtrack is also mixed at a high volume in relation to the diegetic sound, to an almost comedic degree. Even the mood of the music is sometimes in direct opposition with the events of the narrative. Howard may be in the middle of anon-screen crisis (or at least, an especially dramatic among crises), and a cheesy melody will weave between dialogue. This gives the soundtrack anirreverence, as though it is a character of its own [16], cementing itsparodical intentions and significance for the themes of the film. Another keyfeature of the sound in Uncut Gems isthe treatment of environmental noise. Background chatter remains in the soundtrack where it would otherwise be muted. The Safdie Brothers themselvesadmit to a fascination with “cross talk and ambient sound” [17], and this helps enhance the film’s chaos. Additionally, this background sound is organized spatially, meaning that the location of the sound source within the diegetic frame is distinguishable in the final mix. In my estimation, this makes reference to how the capitalist world has re-spatialised the movement of information. Steven Shaviro quotes Manuel Castells, that “sound…lends itself to the multiplicity of the spatialized database aesthetic,” an aesthetic evident in the network society of Uncut Gems. Shaviro additionally quotes Jameson, that the “world space of late or multinational capital,” [18] is most effectively understood as a map. The spatio-temporal arrangement of the background audio and the musical soundtrack, itself incredibly dynamic in terms of stereo space,illuminates waypoints in a larger ontology of how network society and the New Economy has made mayhem out of man.

1. Adam Curtis, director. ‘Love and Power: The Influence of Ayn Rand’. All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, BBC, 2011.

2. Robert J. Gordon “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure up to the Great Inventions of the Past?” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 14, no. 4, 2000, p. 49.

3. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin, 1977, p. 239.

4. Steven Shaviro. “Post-Cinematic Affect.” Denson and Leyda, 2016.

               > Shane Denson and Julia Leyda, editors. Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. REFRAME Books, 2016.

5. Ibid.

6. Jamie Lauren Keiles. “Adam Sandler's Everlasting Shtick.” The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2019. 

7. Michael O'Sullivan. "In 'Uncut Gems,' Adam Sandler is supremely annoying - and that's why he's so great." Washington Post, 19 December 2019.

8. Winston Cook-Wilson. "Oneohtrix Point Never is Scoring Uncut Gems, the New Safdie Brothers Movie Starring Adam Sandler." Spin, 19 August, 2019. 

9. Kevin Baker. “'Welcome to Fear City' – the inside Story of New York's Civil War, 40 Years On.” The Guardian, 18 May 2015. 

10. Emilie Friedlander. “Welcome to Neo New York, Where Everything Feels Old School but Isn't.” Vice, 13 February 2020. 

11. Pascal Belda. eBizguide Ethiopia. Dublin, Ireland, MTH Multimedia S.L, 2006.

12. M R P. “Daniel Lopatin Releases Remastered Version of Chuck Person's Eccojams Vol. 1.” Tiny Mix Tapes, 22 November 2016. 

13. Christian Ward. “Vaporwave: Soundtrack to Austerity.” Stylus, 26 January 2014.

14. Philip Sherburne. “Last Step: Going to Sleep to Make Music to Sleep To.” Spin, 31 March 2015.

15. David Keenan. "Childhood's End". The Wire, vol. 306, August 2009.

16. Mina Tavakoli. “Daniel Lopatin: Uncut Gems (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).” Pitchfork, 16 December 2019.

17. Kelefa Sanneh. "Outside Shot." The New Yorker, vol. XCV, no. 40, 16 December 2019.

18. Steven Shaviro. “Splitting the Atom: Post-Cinematic Articulations of Sound and Vision.” Denson and Leyda, 2016.

Image copyright Uncut Gems (2019)

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