Advertisement

Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s Film ‘Empty Metal’ Captures A Revolutionary Spirit at the World’s End

Pointed in its politics and inspiringly imaginative, Empty Metal queries whether the end of the world might already have taken place

Near the beginning of Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s terrific new film Empty Metal (2018), which premieres at the Film Society Lincoln Center in New York on Sunday, a deadpan voiceover makes a counterintuitive distinction between the ideas of ‘apocalypse’ and the end of the world. ‘Apocalypse’ is defined not in terms of destruction, but as a ‘uncovering or disclosure of knowledge’; the end of the world, on the other hand, is destructive, but it is also a ‘matter of perspective’. Most people, the narrator intones, imagine the end as something that will happen simultaneously to everyone, but in reality, the destruction of life-worlds is staggered: ‘for us, the end of the world happened a long time ago.’ 

This declaration is immediately followed by found footage of Native protestors encountering a line of US police. The protestors proclaim that they are unarmed and peaceful, but the cops bring in dogs and march forward in lockstep, chanting ‘move back’. The juxtaposition between the voiceover’s theoretical discourse and the distressing interruption of documentary reality is a powerful illustration of the fact that many people in the US have already been stripped of their land, their heritage and their communities. 

a013_c004_1012di.0000000.jpg

Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Steady Orbits

Most of Empty Metal does not proceed in such an illustrative manner, but splits into a series of interwoven narratives. The main plotline involves a discontent young Brooklyn band. Disappointed by their record label, their fans, and themselves, they are approached by a trio of telepathic revolutionaries (a Native activist, a Rastafarian and a European mystic) who have determined that the band’s apathy has peaked, readying them for action. Following a ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ logic, the band is tasked with a mission to kill three men who have, in the last few years, publicly gotten away with murdering young black men with impunity (these murderers are never named in the movie, but their identities are not ambiguous). 

The early scenes with the band are directed in an almost mumbling style: bored complaints, vague ambitions, banal conversations over banal food. But Empty Metal doesn’t mock its characters, nor does it set them up to be relatable in their helplessness. Rather, the film depicts them as living out the consequences of a condition: they know that power is oppressive, they know there’s no future open to them, but there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it except make art – their one outlet for both imagination and negativity – but even that is becoming increasingly unsatisfying. So, when they’re improbably approached with the opportunity to exact justice, they barely hesitate. 

a011_c047_0605ai.0000070.jpg

Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Steady Orbits

Besides, they might have had some supernatural help in their decision making; the trio which recruits the band to their cause seem to be trans-historical spirits who have inspired revolt across time and geography (‘I haven’t seen you since the last revolution –what was it, the LA riots?’ ‘No, no, Wounded Knee.’). The trio does not make an argument for killing the murderers; they don’t convince the band that it’s a good idea or suggest that vengeance will lead to change. Rather, they tap into the band’s embodied, affective, knowledge of injustice and the intuition that the destruction of worlds and lives requires a radical response.

Like the discontinuity of revolt, Empty Metal doesn’t move in a straight line: it jumps quickly between scenes, and the relationship between all the moving parts only becomes clear about halfway through. The main story, which is already rather fragmented, is routinely interrupted by animations of fatal encounters with cops, a tangential plotline involving an earnest armed militia with dreams of battling the government, and found footage from television and YouTube. Further, selections from French composer Éliane Radigue’s drone music plays through much of the film, no longer functioning as meditative, slowly unspooling sound, but re-contextualized to add tension and mystery.   

rose_show_2.jpg

Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Steady Orbits

This dizzying arrangement of elements is only occasionally broken by more static set pieces. Though the action sequences are exciting and well-directed (and it’s fun to see a heady multidirectional movie suddenly pull off slick genre moves), it’s worth being sceptical of the film’s depiction of vengeance. The climactic scenes are perhaps a bit too tidy: there’s nothing excessive, perverse, or fucked up about the killings; the band executes their targets swiftly, efficiently, and without emotion. It’s enjoyable to watch them act like assassins in a spy movie, but in this way, vengeance is represented as just, orderly and satisfying. I don’t intend to make a quietist argument, in which all vengeance (or revolutionary violence) is poisoned by amorality: rather, I’m quibbling that a movie about the disruptive power of non-linear time and asymmetrical revolt depicts vengeance as linear and symmetrical.   

That said, Empty Metal as a whole is not a whole; Khalil and Sweitzer’s film is pointed in its politics and inspiring in its imaginative reach, energetically rejecting a bird’s-eye view that would bring all its pieces into a clear narrative (or moral) order. In fact, the only bird’s-eye view in Empty Metal comes from drone footage: throughout, the characters are surveilled from above, and there’s the strong suggestion that everything is being watched and recorded. The view of the drones is a stand-in for one that imagines itself to be total (the perspective that imagines the end of the world will come for everyone at once). But of course, such a view is not total: surveillance has its limits, revolt is not suppressed and ultimately, as the title declaims, the drones are merely empty metal. On the other hand, the humans in the film may be confused, their perspectives partial, and their actions imperfect, but for these reasons they are not empty, and the distance between apathy and action is not so far.

 Empty Metal premieres at the Film Society Lincoln Center in New York on Sunday, 6 May, as part of the ‘Art of the Real 2018’ programme, with a Q&A with the co-directors, cast and crew.

Main image: Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, Empty Metal, film still. Courtesy: Steady Orbits

Steven Zultanski is a writer based in Copenhagen.

Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich's Museum Brandhorst charts the artist's career from the 1980s to the present, from 'fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018