Gesture without motion: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? and giving up hope

Like you, no doubt, I think about climate change all the time. Sometimes on purpose, often involuntarily. Sometimes I say I’m afflicted by ‘climate anxiety’, but ‘climate terror’ describes it more neatly. I think about the world heating up, insects and animals dying, urgent reports blowing in the breeze and the responses bellowing from the scattered cathedral of capitalism: ranging from the laughable, like market-based solutions or liberal democracy, to out-and-out denial, to the most ubiquitous: the sense that the people stripping and choking the earth really don’t give a fuck as long as profit is maintained.

It makes you wonder where things will end up. On one hand, I find protests, activism, and anti-capitalist words and actions inspiring. I also find the material power behind capital terrifying and the flailing, violent responses of this power to be crushing. Sometimes it really feels like things aren’t going to get any better, and that they’re going to break instead. It feels like that a lot of the time, lately. I don’t worry about reactionary fantasies like societal order descending into dog-eat-dog horror, but I do think about other breakdowns in the way of life we’ve come to take as normal: places becoming unliveable, supply chains breaking down, communication lines – like the internet or phones – becoming (literally) severed, and resources being too scarce to repair them. The end of air travel, products becoming scarce, farms becoming unsustainable (or revealing their inherent unsustainability), etc. I don’t need to go on: just insert a couple of your own doom-and-gloom fantasies, the stuff that pricks at your mind while you fall asleep or that drifts across it unexpectedly in the middle of the day: maybe the whimsical (when did I last see a butterfly?), maybe the statistical (dead fish in the Murray-Darling), maybe the balls-to-the wall terror of thinking your child’s quality of life will spiral down, down, down.

There’s no future in nihilism, but sometimes it seems like there’s no future regardless. On this level, it can be therapeutic to wallow in it for a little while – just sometimes. And for a real hit of nihilism (with some anti-capitalist politics as a ladder out, when we’re done) I can think of no better experience than Sydney Pollack’s 1969 masterpiece They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Based on the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy, former dance marathon bouncer and later screenwriter, the treatment had been originally licensed to Charlie Chaplin twenty years earlier. However, that production was canned when Chaplin was blacklisted as a communist and denied re-entry into the United States, and the part intended for Marilyn Monroe ended up being played by Jane Fonda instead.

Set in Depression-era Los Angeles of the 1930s, the film takes place within the centrifugal space of the dance marathon: the seemingly endless, sleepless zone of performance and hope for victory. A place without day or night, where the band never stops playing and the master of ceremonies never stops spruiking – for the dancers to dance, for the audience to cheer and throw coins, and for the show to go on and on. The nominal victory is a large cash prize, but early on we see that the main reason these dancers are competing is for the assurance of square meals (seven a day) and a roof over their head for the duration of the contest. The dance is cruel, meaningless and joyless: within minutes, our protagonist, Gloria Beatty, has likened the contestants (herself included) to cattle to the slaughter. Perhaps worse, as cattle don’t appear to know their fate.

For unrelenting nihilism, Gloria is maybe the finest character of twentieth-century cinema. At no point does she derive any pleasure or hope from the situation, and even the presence of food and shelter just seems to be weighed by her as a prolongation of misery. Her companion, Robert Syverton (Michael Sarrazin), is slightly less world-weary: although not much more hopeful, he does make an effort to let the brief moments of sunlight fall on his face during the day. But he knows better than to offer hollow comfort to Gloria. She’s not buying it. The best he tries for is to keep her upright and, at the film’s close, to help her out by answering the film’s titular question.

Punctuated by a deathly siren straight out of Silent Hill, the dancers are called again and again to the stage, swirling and gyrating endlessly above the churning ocean (the ocean that, in McCoy’s novel, will drift from being a sound of carefree joy to one of ceaseless horror). The dances get more frantic, the challenges get more frenzied, and this performance will go on and on. Participation is optional – but not if you want to eat. Dignity is stripped away and replaced with a desperate plastering of artificial joy: yowza, yowza, yowza, as the MC keeps repeating, in as much of an attempt to keep himself spirited and awake as the dancers themselves. (The MC is played by Gig Young, who less than a decade later would murder his wife and kill himself.) Even the figurehead of power is nominal and meaningless here, for everything is stripped away: old allegiances, purposes, a sense of meaning. All that remains is the veneer of entertainment and the swirling of the dance.

Paralysed force, gesture without motion: what was prescient in 1935 and 1969 is even more so in 2019. The sense that beneath the facade, the engine has stopped running, and the sense that bland optimism – some kind of faith, in the old way – is an insult as well as an injury. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? revels in its hopelessness, and it is deeply refreshing, like a breath of pure air. Beneath the yowza, yowza, yowza, all the platitudes have failed and the dread-siren rings out, beckoning us back to the dance. All this energy just to stay afloat and to ignore the horror at the back of it all. A running thread of the film is Gloria’s attempt to talk a competing couple into getting an abortion, her rage at their inability to provide for a child sidestepping classist notions of eugenics or zero population and landing squarely in the field of anti-natalism. Finally giving up her protests and care, she washes her hands of the affair: ‘Why not drop another sucker into this mess?’

Who hasn’t felt like one more sucker dropped into this mess?

The centrifugal setting, where actions and words relate only to each other as a system of closed signs, recalls another great enclosed drama: Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. In that story, the wealthy Prince Prospero walls off his palace to create a timeless paradise of constant decadence: a realm where the steady onslaught of the plague can be halted, and where death is in turn denied. Within the palace walls there is only revelry, but of course death eventually finds its way in. The performance of gaiety and life is ultimately revealed as a farce, and death makes its way not just to the edges of Prospero’s ball, but to the very nucleus. None of the charms or defences against it – the recycling of straws, the liberal think-pieces, and the good intentions – have meant a thing.

Ultimately, we never see who wins the marathon in They Shoot Horses. By the end of the film, it no longer even seems to matter. The dancers keep swirling, and the sea keeps churning, and the whole mess doesn’t mean a thing.

All a bit ‘grand hotel abyss’? Maybe – but I don’t think so. How are we going to get up if we don’t get down first? The cheerful, forward march of progress is a cruel notion, akin to dancing to stay fed. It constantly denies us the frustration and sadness that we’re surely entitled to, even if it’s become clear that we’re apparently entitled to nothing else other than the right to work and die. In her recent Overland article, ‘Before we ossify: on forgetting, radical histories and the Anthropocene’, Claire Collie invokes Walter Benjamin’s famous lines concerning Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’, writing:

With this persuasive allegory, Benjamin insists we keep our focus on past suffering if we are to advance precisely because we ‘are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren’. Collective memory of our own ruined and ruining histories is the source of real revolutionary progress. Insistent and unhindered advancement focused only on a future emancipation, Benjamin alludes, is fallacy.

When I see genuinely inspiring things – kids striking against climate inaction, teacher strikes, Uber strikes…basically, strikes – I don’t see them as springing from an optimistic faith that everything will be all right. The strikers know it won’t, and that nothing is assured: they have faced the horror squarely in the face, seen the void at the end of the tunnel. This is the firm bedrock from which to push back and resist. Like Collie says, advancement and emancipation that conveniently forget the times these words have rung empty and hollow helps nobody: there is no help in resistance, no help in coming to terms, and no help, even, in psychological ease. With all the best wishes in the world, the lame horse of capitalist progress is never getting up again.

Yowza, yowza, yowza.

Laurence Barratt-Manning

Laurence Barratt-Manning is a writer from Australia, who currently lives in Cambridge, UK.

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