Last weekend, I watched two films at Loew Auditorium at Dartmouth: Puzzle and In the Last Days of the City. Both times I had to rush into the auditorium, barely in time for the screenings. Weekend afternoons at Dartmouth always pass by in a blur for me, and the promise of relaxation is inevitably lost in the midst of homework, errands, and most recently the throbbing anxiety of the post-grad job search. I settled into my seat to escape the cacophony inside and out.
My escapist desires were indulged in that the films offered two hours each of immersive alternative worlds. However, these film worlds too were ridden with anxiety. News commentary filled the soundscape of both films. Unsurprisingly, the news was of bomb blasts, economic crashes, natural disasters, assaults, frauds, and their kin.
Set in our contemporary moment, Puzzle stars Irrfan Khan as Robert, a mysterious wealthy divorcee and competitive puzzler living in New York City. Robert is constantly listening to the news and repeating it back to Agnes, protagonist and puzzle-partner. While to Agnes, this obsession mainly comes to mark Robert’s difference from her husband, a handyman without a college education, to me, it also indicated Robert’s troubled internal life. In the narrative of the film, Agnes falls into puzzling to survive the torturous humdrum of her suburban family. Extrapolating: making 1,000 piecers is very likely a coping mechanism for Robert, too. Throughout the film, he comments on the satisfaction of finishing a puzzle and achieving perfection in a far from perfect world. Clearly, Robert is suffering—from his divorce, but also a more fundamental existential pain. We are not shown the details of his divorce, nor any other biographical events. Robert seems intentionally portrayed as an island-character, without any family or friends. So, we can only interpret his news obsession and puzzling escapism as a manifestation of the general feeling of anxiety imbued in the world today. I do wonder what it means that the figuration of global anxiety in this film is a foreign brown man.
In the Last Days of the City, Tamer El Said’s debut feature, more explicitly centers political anxiety. Urgent news of political developments saturates the sonic atmosphere. Here, not just one character, but the entire world is anticipating disaster. The film is shot in in the years before the start of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25, 2011; and told through the eyes and lenses of four film-makers with a shared love of Cairo. The primary eye, Khalid, lives in the city. The film follows his frustrating search for a new apartment; the slow loss of a romantic partner, Laila, soon to be leaving Cairo; and his wanderings around the city, shooting vignettes of life there before the impending revolution. If Robert and Agnes cope with disaster by escaping into puzzles, Tamer has the opposite melancholic response of desperately trying to hold on to a crumbling world. In a conversation after the screening, Tamer said that a driving question for the film was whether he could capture a city in a film. He admitted that this was an impossible mission, and this sense of impossibility pervades the film—the Revolution is coming on full force, and the city will never be the same; every apartment has something wrong; Laila will have to leave. We are left with a fleeting impression of a city that once was.
As I have been thinking about my last year in college, living in these precarious times, I cannot help but feel a kinship with Robert and Tamer. Scrolling through my email filled with Center of Professional Development emails and job rejections, my news feed chock-full of gut-wrenching world updates, I resonate with the films’ shared struggle with the sense of imminent endings. Both films end with on recuperative notes—Agnes and Khalid are both able to see the beauty in their worlds. Their anxieties live on however, least of all through their viewers.