In Edan Lepucki’s California, a novel about life after widespread economic, political, and ecological collapse, a main character regards herself as a performer without appreciators. This character, Frida, lives in the woods after cities have crumbled due to all manner of human weakness, and she realizes that here, “No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away.” It’s one of the stranger promises of the end of the world: should you somehow survive it, no one will see you anymore. If, however, you’re inclined toward narcissism and an unmet craving for attention, you might already have experience with this heightened sense of yourself surrounded by little else.
The despair of the self-conscious and apocalypse tend to go together in contemporary fiction, both on film and in prose. David Foster Wallace once noted this in an interview with Larry McCaffery:
Here’s a really pretentious bit of pop analysis for you: I think you can see Cameron’s “Terminator” movies as a metaphor for all literary art after Roland Barthes, viz., the movies’ premise that the Cyberdyne NORAD computer becomes conscious of itself as “conscious,” as having interests and an agenda; the Cyberdyne becomes literally self-referential, and it’s no accident that the result of this is nuclear war, Armageddon.
Wallace was alluding to authors who write with a knowing, “it’s all just a ruse” attitude toward their own fiction, and the empty, limited sort of stories that result. But the issue has gone beyond the older generation of postmodern novelists. Out of all the end-of-the-world stories we continue to encounter in cinema, from the engrossing to the dismal, many are exceedingly self-referential. This is the End is a movie about movie stars dealing with the Rapture, starring James Franco as a ludicrous artist and Seth Rogen as an affable actor; After Earth is the story of life after Earth, about a father and son portrayed by real-life father-and-son Will and Jaden Smith. Both films depict disaster while fundamentally referring to their filmmakers, which is a different apocalyptic self-reference from that of the Terminator movies, but only in degree, only in intensity, as here, the self-referential architects of disaster are the filmmakers themselves.
There’s an appropriately apocalyptic, “out-of-ideas” vibe in these films, and by making their apocalypse-movies about themselves, our movie stars plainly seem to be sending us a cry for help. Hollywood has been going through a bad time, a time of rival, digital amusements, a time when the “‘Death of Movies’ think piece,” as Richard Brody of The New Yorker has noted, is “a familiar genre,” and now we have more and more filmmakers, increasingly ignored, driven to perform in the most self-regarding of ways while telling us about limited possibility. In their stories, they represent the tragic completeness of their self-focus by displaying the obliteration of the world outside themselves.
All of which brings me back to Lepucki’s California, whose survivalist main characters, Frida and her husband Cal, also think in terms of Hollywood’s action movies: “What was this,” Frida wonders, “some terrible alien flick?” And in this grim realm of cliché and limited possibility, self-reference is everywhere. There’s a rough group of people known as “the Group” and communities of wealthier folks known as “Communities.” These collectives call themselves what they are and mostly just serve themselves, carrying on the sort of behaviors that have already destroyed the world. The Group, like a cadre of violent Marina Abramovićs, engages in performance art and terrorism “in the name of—what?” It’s not obvious what their actions mean, beyond self-promotion: “it was,” we’re told at one point, all just “a means to get attention.” Eventually, Cal and the pregnant Frida, hoping to bring new life into the world, must make their way out of the woods and through the creepy places devised by such people.
There are tons of ways out of the problems that destroy humanity in Lepucki’s novel, ways to slow ecological catastrophe, to address social inequalities, to support thought-provoking art, to think conscientiously about all the people different from ourselves so that we don’t end up isolated and terrified while it all rots away. California, with its echoes of Hollywood self-reference accompanying a tale of grand destruction, suggests that the opposite of repetitive self-reference, for instance, might help us evade impending cataclysm. But we’re also having a terribly hard time emerging from our apocalyptic selfishness, or what George Eliot would call “moral stupidity.” Few intuit this better than those from our most glorified bastion of self-promoters, Hollywood, a place teeming with people who perform for no one amid visions of exploding planets.