When Sergei Eisenstein set out to make a feature film about Karl Marx’s Capital, he envisioned a work of brutal poetry. The ultimately unrealized film was to be a cinematic manifestation of dialectical materialism, an aesthetic expression of Marx’s analytical system. Eisenstein’s notes for the project suggest that no punches would have been pulled in his film’s depiction of the “upside-down” world created by capitalism: “Electric streetcar in Shanghai and thousands of coolies thereby deprived of bread, lying down on the track—to die.”
Nobody dies in Isaac Julien’s Playtime, a 70-minute widescreen video that takes up the challenge of giving visual form to immaterial flows of capital. Instead, Julien’s protagonists mostly gaze longingly at things: cities, modernist homes, works of art. The British filmmaker has made a languid, pretty movie about global capitalism by linking the stories of three individuals. A Filipina housekeeper is stuck in servitude in an art-filled high-rise apartment in Dubai; an artist languishes in Iceland amid abandoned, unfinished luxury homes; and James Franco plays a sycophantic London art auctioneer. A hazy picture of a post-collapse economy emerges from these anecdotal vignettes, and Julien dutifully implicates the art world in capitalism’s excesses and failures. But the film lacks a sense of urgency, and, more importantly, a sense of its public. Who, exactly, is the presumed audience for this Marxist-lite critique packaged as an art-world luxury good?
The longest and most problematic section of Playtime is set in Dubai. Arab men in white robes lounge around a stock exchange as numbers float by on screens. Slow pans of a glowing skyline and time-lapse aerial shots of pulsing traffic capture a built environment that is as mystifying as the financial machinations that gave rise to it. Amid this alien terrain, the Filipina maid narrates her story of human trafficking and exploitation. The tearful account is tragic, awful and common. But in this highly aestheticized context, the character’s sympathetic pleas dissolve into a neo-Orientalist fantasy, where appalling spectacles of inhumanity occur at the hands of inscrutable powers in faraway settings.
Two other videos playing on monitors in an adjacent space record an interview with the auctioneer Simon de Pury and a conversation between Julien and Marxist theorist David Harvey. The latter conversation, set in London’s Hayward Gallery, borders on self-parody, as the two speak to a friendly audience about the difficulty of representing the “immaterial but objective” force of capital. The Marxist discourse is simply too comfortable, and it underscores the utter lack of tension in Julien’s project. The art world is ready to digest—and heap financial reward upon—just about any critique of the system that keeps it humming, so maybe it’s time for talented filmmakers like Julien to move out of the self-congratulatory white cube. A trailer for Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, set to a thumping Kanye West song and scheduled to open as a holiday-season blockbuster, already suggests thornier, more complex questions about finance and the culture industry than what I got from 70 minutes of Playtime. (As a call to actually change an unjust system, Playtime compares unfavorably to Hunger Games: Catching Fire.) What we need is not another navel-gazing take on Marxism, but the IMAX version of the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, or, better still, Capital, the massively multiplayer online game.