Still from Sara Cwynar's Red Film, 2018,

16 mm film transferred to video, 13 min.

On Sara Cwynar's "Red Film" and Shopping Just to Feel Something

Capitalism equals democracy equals freedom, or something.

by Adina Glickstein
Jun 21 2020, 9:30am

Still from Sara Cwynar's Red Film, 2018,

16 mm film transferred to video, 13 min.

Sara Cwynar’s Red Film (2018) whirrs into action, booting up like a machine coming to life: a single bottle of red perfume spins alluringly, drawing us in before a swift cut that cruelly withdraws this object of desire. Sneakers! Suits! Sports cars! All cast in luscious, deep, sensual crimson. Red Film’s procession of products catalyzes a tingle in my fingertips, flirting with the familiar visual language of marketing and promotion—the familiar sense of manufactured need held at bay only by the film’s voiceover track, which draws on theorists like Jonathan Crary and John Berger, tempering the base drive for more, more, more with the higher-order pleasure of thoughtful self-restraint.

I have revisited Red Film particularly often in the last month, trying to talk myself out of a string of cursed (but cute!) online purchases—feeble attempts at achieving some kind of high. I crave the embodied head-rush of sweating it out on the dance floor and kissing my friends on the mouth. In lousy stead, I make myself believe I can fill myself up by filling my shopping cart. The gradual, staggered accretion of objects makes me feel alive: cut off from the identity I had once comfortably assembled by, like, doing things and seeing people, I’m now compelled to believe I can architect a personality by commanding boxes to appear in three to five business days. What self am I producing, I wonder, by proxy of these products?

This question sits at the heart of Red Film, which probes the vacant promises that prop up our increasingly subsidized and saturated media landscape. Its intertwined tracks of coked-up voiceover narrate the futile and exhausting process of fashioning oneself as a desirable and desiring subject—describing how consumption has, itself, come to feel like a kind of work, the Barbie Dream House transmogrified into the Italian Marxist Social Factory. In my most despondent moments, Cwynar’s film helps me see the grid of identity and personal expression grafted onto the monstrous machinations of post-industrial capitalism in freakishly lucid terms: there is no choice but consumer choice. “You’ve got to take your pleasure where you can get it, Sara,” harp various voices early in the film. “Stop enabling me!!!” I groan as my cursor hovers over the dangerous threshold of Proceeding to Checkout.

Capitalism equals democracy equals freedom, or something. This equation isn’t holding up so well, lately: as the cataclysm of our current crisis is unequally distributed along pre-existing fault lines of race and class, it grows increasingly clear that the system was broken to begin with. A revelation so axiomatic as to ascend to meme status: what if capitalism is the real virus? I consider the prescience of this observation as I advance into the double-digit depths of my eBay search results. I can’t remember what I came here looking for, but I’m certain that once I find it—that once I have it—I will be perfect and complete despite the disarray around me. Now, of all times, I should know better, but the discomfort of sitting with this realization is conveniently placated by queuing up another purchase.

Still from "Red Film," 2018, 16 mm film transferred to video, 13 min.

Cwynar herself appears onscreen in Red Film, her vacant gaze meeting my own. “You’ve got to take your pleasure where you can get it.” The miasma of competing voice-over tracks circles with suffocating intensity. Rapid cuts between people and products parallel the breathless futility of producing oneself as a subject by procuring the right stuff. Cwynar, too, is given over to the hunger of want: masterfully, she dissects these pangs of desire, revealing the underlying labor of self-styling that repeatedly promises delight and repeatedly fails to deliver. It’s deadening, its tax visible in her cadaverous face while rapid-fire product shots swirl around her. Her eye-line bounces dizzily across the screen as though she means to track the endless tug-of-war between wanting and knowing she should know better—the gnawing ambivalence of critiquing consumer culture without buying into the parallel delusion that one can fully, ascetically renounce its cyclic siren song.

The inevitable disillusionment of cutting open another (dutifully disinfected!) mailer, the contents of which fail to live up to the fantasy I had managed to manufacture between forking over my AmEx and greeting the package on my porch: there is almost a shred of virtue in this self-flagellation, as if, in my disappointment, I’m performing anticapitalist critique. One of Cwynar’s crucial virtues is that she never condescends to those who share her familiar ache for acquisition. This time, I tell myself, the thing will make me happy. This time, no, no, no, this one! You’ve got to take your pleasure where you can get it.

This crisis demonstrates such a transparent, painfully-obvious failure of the free market, yet confined to my home, market-based promises of pleasure compel me a hell of a lot more than they did when I could go outside. Red Film does not purport to solve the catastrophe of consumer capitalism—to its great credit, it doesn’t reward us with a false exodus from complicity, but it also stops short of the necessary and revolutionary work of moving beyond negation to imagine an alternative. Still, I find comfort in its clarity as it frames out the paradox, elegantly expressing the ambivalence of being torn: I’m not ascetic but neither am I anhedonic; the throb of want is a sort of sign of life.

Sara Cwynar