Taking Seneca to the Cinema: On Wild Tales, anger and conspiracy
You would be ill-advised to watch Wild Tales (2014) when feeling on edge. The brilliant ensemble film comprises six discrete stories that depict moments when pent-up passions are set explosively, terrifyingly – and often hilariously – free. The result is at once mesmerizing and, in its moments of unbounded brutality, rebarbative to the extreme. Four of the film’s darkly humorous vignettes portray ‘civilized’ men and women whipped up into murderous frenzies as seemingly minor triggers ultimately spark fatal acts. The finale just about dances (the horah) around death, but is hardly more soothing than the stories that precede it. Set at a cataclysmic wedding, it charts the messiness of life in medias res, as the ‘sacred’ rite of passage spirals into a bloody, foul-mouthed, adulterous, cake-fuelled feast of animalistic fury. Directed by the Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron, this stuff makes prudes of the Coen brothers.
Conspiracy theorizing drives a couple of the story lines but what really interested me was the lack of conspiracy in the film overall. Given the abundance of criminality in Wild Tales, I was struck by how little conspiracizing the compendium portrayed or indicated as precursory to the violent scenes it showed. Bar one story, in which a group of self-interested co-conspirators meticulously strategizes to replace a wealthy (and guilty) teenage boy with his family’s gardener as the defendant in a looming hit-and-run case, the crimes that Szifron depicts are predominantly the work of solo operators. They are also typically committed without premeditation, in fits of fury catalyzed by all too familiar irritants drawn from everyday life. In one of the compendium’s tales, an exchange of profanities on a highway between a slow trucker and a speedier city slicker ends in a set of lethal events that gives new meaning to ‘road rage’ (think of those images of Cain and Abel – then add in motorized vehicles).
This lack of conspiratorial activity set me thinking: must a realist (of sorts) film high on irate crime necessarily be low on conspiracy because the two are antithetical? To be sure, a crime committed out of anger might be planned in cahoots with others, but what of one committed in a state of wrath? Does seething, boiling fury leave no time to gather a group and negotiate on means and ends? Put another way, are conspiratorial crimes best served by those of a dependably cool temperament? As I’ve been reading the Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher Seneca’s On Anger (AD 41) this week, a little thought experiment seemed only appropriate to help me move towards an answer: I decided to take Seneca to the cinema.
How might Seneca account for the scarcity of conspiracy in Wild Tales? For Seneca, anger was a vice and an emotion. It differed from other emotions on several counts, including two that seem particularly unsuited to conspiracy: its uncontrollability once it hits us (we can, however, train ourselves to avoid the feeling in the first place, he argued), and its conspicuousness. Anger’s uncontrollability served for Seneca as both a moral and a pragmatic argument against it. The other emotions, Seneca observed
have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it.
Seneca saw anger as harmful to all who entered its orbit – it was both potentially counterproductive for the angry ‘avenger’ and injurious to those that suffered the effects of his or her untamed emotional state. This lack of restraint jars, of course, with the requirements of a collectively planned conspiracy, which demands careful management and choreographing, right to its very last step. Seneca comes close to noting this incompatibility when he argues that ire is not only ‘devoid of self-control’ and ‘in a hurry’ but also, and relatedly, ‘unmindful of ties’. Wrath, the driving force behind so many of Wild Tales’ narratives, leaves, then, no room for co-conspirators, its loose cannon effect making it instead the ultimate liability to the careful teamwork that conspiracy typically necessitates.
Seneca might also propose another argument for the conspiracy ‘deficit’ that marks Wild Tales. Conspiracies require not just any human ties, but particular ones: bonds of secrecy. Anger, for Seneca, would seriously threaten to frustrate that connection. ‘Other vices may be concealed and cherished in secret’, he wrote, but anger, contrastingly, ‘shows itself openly and appears in the countenance, and the greater it is, the more visibly it boils forth’ (for an embodied image of what this ‘boiling forth’ might look like, have a look at Giotto’s fresco of wrath (1306) in the seven vices cycle in the Arena Chapel, Padua, where ‘she’ appears as a woman tearing off her clothes). Keeping it hidden, Seneca noted, ‘will give us great trouble’. In Wild Tales, the physical conspicuousness of anger is never far from view: it bubbles up onto people’s faces; turns them red; makes their veins bulge; and has them rip off their clothes. Anger, in each of these scenarios, appears as a sudden and unpremeditated excess of revelation – precisely the attention-grabbing visibility that conspiratorial plotting cannot withstand.
Wrath and conspiracy may not, it seems, have appeared as natural bedfellows to Seneca, and Wild Tales is more interested in anger, its motivations and emergence than in group dynamics. Seneca’s life, in contrast, ended deeply entangled in conspiracy, when the Roman Emperor, Nero, accused him of involvement in a regicidal plot. Inculpating Seneca – the anti-anger advocate – for his apparent participation in the Pisonian conspiracy, Nero famously forced the Stoic to commit suicide.
Seneca had a lot to say about anger, not all of which I agree with (some of those divergences no doubt relate to the disjunctures between contemporary and historical understandings of what emotions are and do). For a start, while some of his observations on the practical and moral shortfalls of anger make sense to me, I think that anger can occasionally be expedient. Despite these reservations, watching Wild Tales ‘with’ Seneca opened up for me a set of questions about the relationship between conspiracy and emotions that I look forward to exploring further. Are some emotions more compatible with conspiracy than others? How different are they from those emotions that the philosopher Martha Nussbaum suggests that we cultivate to produce and enhance democratic life, and how do these emotional dimensions develop our understanding of the relationship between conspiracy and democracy? Finally – and to leave you with an image from a somewhat less gory film – might our popular images of conspirators as cool and collected have some grounding in emotional reality?