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My 12 for ’18: “Sorry to Bother You” & Getting Used to the Problem

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number six.

“If you get shown a problem, but don’t see a way you can have control over it, you just decide to get used to the problem.”

2018 and 2017 were chaotic years.

It is almost impossible to fully process everything that has happened. Even just the headlines seem insane. The President of the United States is under investigation. There may be a tape that exists of that man being urinated upon by Russian prostitutes. Children are being locked in cages. Meanwhile, Britain is leaving the United Kingdom. Part of that is down to a campaign organised in consultation with a celebrity hypnotist. Prominent British politicians have threatened to recreate the Great Famine in order to create negotiating leverage.

All of this is just the headlines. It is possible to miss the smaller-scale insanity that is taking place around the fringes of the news. A Republican congressional candidate who is a “devotee” of “Bigfoot erotica.” The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development suggesting that slaves were really “immigrants.” The high volume of democratically elected doctors with frankly insane ideas about medicine. Elon Musk labelled a heroic cave-diver a “paedophile” for rejected his crazy plan involving a submarine. The world is a topsy-turvy place, and nothing makes any real sense.

With that in mind, Sorry to Bother You is one of the movies that perfectly encapsulates the texture and feel of the current moment.

To a certain extent, the annual “best of” tradition allows a framework for making sense of the year that has been. Which (good) movies speak most strongly and most articulately to the current moment? Which (good) films resonate beyond what is actually objectively on film and have sketched a portrait of the zeitgeist in celluloid? A good “best of” or “top ten” serves as a collage or a kaleidoscope, a wild selection of material that reflects something of the modern world – even in an abstract rather than a literal way.

Sorry to Bother You is a film that largely captures the heightened absurdity of modern living. The basic premise of the movie is quite similar to the broadly drawn political and social satire that ran through so many iconic eighties science-fiction films, a conscious heightening of the status quo in order to make a very simple and universal point about the insanity of the current world. Of course, the modern world is already completely insane, and so heightening that further means pushing the film into the realm of off-the-wall fantasy.

Writer and director Boots Riley covers an incredible amount of ground within the one-hundred-and-ten-minute runtime of Sorry to Bother You, throwing a host of concepts into the air and skillfully bouncing them off one another; the intrusive nature of telephone marketing, the absurdities of corporate culture, the brutality inherent in reality television, the pretentiousness of the art world, the manipulation of media coverage of social protest. Everything in Sorry to Bother You happens incredibly and breathtakingly quickly.

It is to Riley’s credit that this works as well as it does, that his central themes are strong enough to support this rapidly branching and developing narrative. This is perhaps most obvious with the movie’s biggest and most divisive central twist, which would come out of the blue in almost any other film. In Sorry to Bother You, it is subtly seeded with considerable care in everything from a brief-glimpsed book cover to the decal on a plate from which the main character takes a hit of cocaine.

Still, the speed at which Sorry to Bother You moves over its narrative terrain is not just disorienting and ambitious, it also reflects the realities of living through the second decade of the twentieth century. Information flows very quickly. Everybody is constantly bombarded with data and revelations. Perceived political and social norms are being distorted and shattered, but is happening so quickly and so violently that it is impossible to keep pace with it.

At one point in Sorry to Bother You, Cassius tries to explain the plot of the film to a journalist, but it sounds like an insane conspiracy theory. At another point, two anonymous bystanders try to make sense of a pointed art installation. “I have absolutely no idea what this is about,” one admits. The other suggests, “Maybe it’s saying that capitalism dehumanizes and that…“ Detroit cuts across the conversation, “Maybe the artist is being literal.” Maybe the horror that seems heightened and absurd isn’t heightened and absurd at all.

Again, this is the reality of modern living. Any attempt to explain why the world is the way that it is inevitably sounds like the plot to a bad novel. A reality television star has been elected President of the United States. A candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan holds the Oval Office. This man has been caught bragging about sexual assault on tape. This person described Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and still won the election. All of this still sounds insane when articulated.

This is exhausting. It is numbing. It can be paralysing. Sorry to Bother You perfectly captures that sense of modern living, the reflexive horror at realising that the world is broken and the anxiety of wrestling with the fact that even the mechanics of how it is broken exist outside any sane person’s frame of reference. It is no coincidence that Cassius is introduced wondering about existential concepts like the extinction of mankind or the heat death of the universe. The modern world has reached a point where the everyday problems seem just as insane and insurmountable.

None of this is to suggest that these problems are unique or new of themselves. Sorry to Bother You has Detroit provide a historical context for the attempted exploitation of black people through her art show centring on the taking of slaves from Africa. Similarly, Sergio’s description of the “Worry Free” indentured servitude contract as “three hots and a cot” contextualised this exploitation of labour in terms of the abuse of prison labour for profit, which inevitably affects black men more than other demographics. None of this is new; it is just happening more quickly and overtly.

Of course, in putting these lists together, it isn’t enough that a film reflects the world around it. There are plenty of terrible films that offer compelling insights into the modern world, after all. Films like Crimea and China Salesman arguably suggest as much about the future of cinema as the more lauded game-changers like Roma or Manchester By the Sea, but they certainly won’t be competing for space on the end of year top ten. Sorry to Bother You isn’t just vital and important. It is legitimately brilliant.

Sorry to Bother You is a joyous piece of cinema on its own terms, packed with wonderful little touches and observations nestled between its larger and more provocative points. Personally, I adore the characterisation of Steve Lift as a coked-up defensive tech bro who insists very strenuously that his insane plan is completely logical. After making Cassius watch a video outlining his scheme, he explains, “I just didn’t want you to think I was crazy. That I was doing this for no reason. Because this isn’t irrational.” It’s a wonderfully well-observed beat.

Sorry to Bother You is an absolute joy, one of the freshest and most exciting pieces of cinema in 2018.


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