The Unfilled “plus one”: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Everybody I know also knows that I’m enamoured of eschatology; that I think the ways in which our traditions, art and popular culture focus and reflect on the ways we face our deaths, and how we extrapolate these primal fears out to the extinction of our entire species in an often-gleeful solipsism of incomprehension at a world which carries on without us, are almost unendingly fascinating. Our interest in our own end, and the emphatic block-capital “THE END” which speaks of an armageddon which has run its course, are narcissism at its most extreme and an oddly forward-looking manner of becoming backward. The line from James Goldman’s play The Lion in Winter and its cinematic adaptations (later paraphrased in The West Wing): “[w]hen the fall is all there is, it matters”; is undeniably beautiful and brave but, given that the sentiment is an expression about how we chose to comport ourselves as we knowingly slip the mortal coil rather than the fact of our passing, the means and manner of our deaths remain less important than the ways in which we have lived.
The more costly cinema of disaster movies and their portrayals of environmental and/or societal breakdowns have tended to dwell and revel on the spectre and spectacle of the most disastrous calamities; earthquakes and volcanoes, floods and tidal waves and meteors shooting towards the Earth with deadly inexorability, at the cost of their human story. Their opposite numbers, films like Perfect Sense and 4:44 Last Day on Earth, tend to eschew the grandeur and the beauty of the impossibly horrific, in favour of watching people discovering how far they might go to keep their world as it was or how much of themselves they will surrender to despair and rage. Something like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia bridges the chasm between the disparate disciplines within this particular niche, an incredible and subtle film which juxtaposes the tragedy of small-scale personal suffering and the polar opposite of suicidal ideation writ nihilistic and apocalyptic. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is something different again, a personal story with a dark, bittersweet skein of humour that stems from the absurd incomprehensibility of something so explicitly final on such an irrevocable and unimaginable scale.
Instead it takes the understandable seriousness of the end-of-the-world narrative and mocks the mannered deliberateness and considered responses that the more-traditionally dramatic and arch examples of such put in the mouths of their characters. Rather, taking elements and conventions from road trip films and odd-couple romantic comedies, Seeking a Friend ‘s protagonists play stylised versions of the male mid-life crisis and the dilettante bohemian, neither of whom are able to quite conceptualise their impossible strife. Nonetheless where their friends, former acquaintances and countrymen are descending into a hedonic fugue of orgies and alcoholic and drug-induced stupors they go in search of personal connections and recollections which offer them some semblance of meaning and, since the film is American, closure. They don’t learn the cold and unwelcome lesson of my own bleak position, that these are essentially meaningless desires stacked against their prior lives, but they seek out their solace in such desperate obsession that it doesn’t matter if what they find is hollow as long as it sees them through. My point, to crib (and decontextualize) from Kierkegaard: “the presence of irony does not necessarily exclude earnestness” and, given how little difference it makes, I’d rather be laughing when the world ends.