Orly / Amsterdam
A short text originally published in Fireflies Issue #5
We’d been sitting across from each other on either side of the desk in my bedroom for about an hour and a half. It was early summer and we had started the interview around 9pm when it was still light outside. By now it was almost completely dark but we could still see each other clearly, our eyes having gradually adjusted in sync with the setting sun. Neither of us seemed inclined to change this setting by turning a light on. We looked into each other's eyes for long periods throughout the exchange. It’s possible that the conversation had now been going on long enough for Frank to have forgotten the audio recorder’s presence, but I wouldn’t know.
Frank started talking about how most of the world is invisible to us. Not just the world outside in the distance, but the spaces we occupy and are familiar with, like the one we both found ourselves in at that moment. I asked if he could elaborate. He said something about how there was this stuff that surrounded people, stuff that was between people, invisible barriers between people and their environments, barriers between people and people, between people and themselves. An hour and a half into our conversation it was already clear that whichever surfaces we had first encountered each other through had softened to become porous in some ways. After a short silence I asked, are there ever moments or circumstances where those barriers are absent? He took a very long pause, seemingly conscious of the dramatic effect he was producing, and turned to looked at me, the grin spreading on his face simultaneously sly and heartfelt, and said: love.
Orly opens with a man, perhaps in his early 60s, making a phone call from an upper middle class domestic interior. The cellphone he’s using isn’t his: after assuming the caller I.D. would match the person it identifies, the woman on the other side asks why he’s calling her from there. She doesn’t want to talk to him, now or ever. Her absence is painful to him; he can’t understand why he’s been left. One might assume she was his lover, perhaps an affair, but neither she nor her role is made visible. The only thing granted by her voice is the resolute refusal to communicate. The man is left alone with the apparatus of connection but nothing to connect to on the other side.
The characters that inhabit Schanelec’s Orly, a film that takes place almost entirely inside the Paris airport that lends the film its title, appear hollow. If they are human, then only barely so, the traits or desires generally attributed to this species emanating only as faint, stifled echoes destined to be lost in misconnections. The atmosphere pervading the film and indeed many of Schanelec’s other films is of a dense melancholy. Her characters live lost beneath the surfaces that represent them so inadequately. They seem to be searching for meaning and purpose while resigned to the recognition that finding such a thing is far beyond the scope of anything attainable. In the hub of global connectivity that is Orly airport, we find only missed connections and stunted desires. Where intimacy is expected, alienation has already colonized exchange. Where foreignness is a precondition, emotions leak through boundaries, rerouted and mutated in the blind search for a host.
Frank is a professional motivation coach, currently employed by the supermarket chain Aldi in the Netherlands. His job is to train store managers in communication techniques. The idea is presumably that by opening themselves up, by being intimate and personal in the workplace, the managers will encourage their employees to do the same, and the social environment will be enhanced leading to an increase in overall productivity. I met Frank because he lives in the large shared apartment I would sublet a room in for four months in Amsterdam. Our initial encounters were friendly in a performative way. I think we were both skeptical of each other but at the same time recognized a potential for weird communication across the social barriers that define our differences. Frank likes to talk, as do I.
Already in the first or second week of my living there he told me a few things about his job. I was fascinated by those few stories, intuitively projecting that the language he used to describe his practices within different corporate structures could just as easily be applied to social rituals often seen as oppositional to corporate hierarchies; religious gatherings, new age healing practices, ayahuasca ceremonies, whatever. I struggled to match his existential platitudes (however sincere) with an image of the working environments where he exercised his practice. After the first few anecdotes he shared I asked if he would be willing to do an interview with me. His response was mistrustful at best. He asked me what I wanted it for to which I responded: just because, and told him I often interviewed people who had jobs that were completely foreign to me, which was half true as I had done one about a year prior. He said he’d think about it but I could tell that he was unenthusiastic. As the months went on and we learned about each other in small doses, I kept the interview in mind and tried to instill curiosity in him to soften the skepticism that separated us. Two weeks before I moved out I asked him again. This time there was no hesitation and we set the date and time.
“Joseph says I never finish a sentence. It makes him nervous. But when I do finish one he’s disappointed, and I am too.”
A man and woman find themselves sitting next to each other in Orly. Within a few sentences, their conversation moves from trivial to intimate. If we didn’t yet know that all the characters in this film are doomed to misconnect, we might read potential for exchange here. Both are French: the woman is flying back to Montreal to her husband, the man is returning to San Francisco to his job as a music producer. Each of their stories as they tell them contain a level of arbitrariness; their choices in framing the details of their lives appear like a sort of admittance that they can’t really account for their circumstances. The woman is only there for her husband; the man has left his son behind in Paris. This chance connection between strangers in the present echoes past incidental events turned solid. The woman met her husband at a sporting goods store. They starting talking because she was looking for pool noodles and he just happened to be holding all of them. Now she’s married to him. The intimacy established with the stranger she is now telling this story to is already more significant than the minor event that catalyzed her marriage.
In strangeness the travelers can find momentary trust. Their emotional splurge is contingent on the presumption that the stranger will never been seen again and thus remain strange and distant. The momentary outburst of expression is only conceivable because it will be swallowed and forgotten by the void. The man has just decided to move back to Paris for a new job. She asks the name of the company, he tells her: Excubo Now. – That’s easy to remember. [Pause] Can I find you there? Our glimpse into these two strangers’ stories ends here abruptly; neither of them will be seen again for the rest of the film.
The Europeans who drift ghostlike through Orly are beings anesthetized by the threadbare ideological legacies that gave their being form. The trickled down notions of self that taught them to strive towards their own personal fulfillment have long been scooped out of their human shells to become fodder for the global economic infrastructure of connectivity. They search in vain for purpose within the bounds of that supposed self, mistaking the infrastructure they occupy as a tool designed in the service of their own ambitions or happiness when in actuality their fancies have been engineered to serve the expansion of the inhuman machine that envelops them:
“ - What do you do in Montreal?”
“ - Nothing in particular.”
I first asked Frank to introduce himself and provide some background to explain why he would eventually choose his current profession. His story, delivered with the oratory skill of an innate storyteller, was of a boy who had grown up with big and abstract questions for which he found no audiences willing to listen or exchange. At home he was brushed off. At school he was sometimes ridiculed. While he adjusted to his environments (he finished school, was on the football team, got jobs), the questions persisted, fermenting in isolation within the walls of his own thoughts. He struggled in his early 20s. While doing a bachelors in tourism he would frequently suffer from panic attacks. He smoked a lot of weed, which also increased his anxiety.
Around that time, Frank decided to join the police force. There were many different steps in the training process including physical and psychological examinations. By the time he was scheduled to do the routine psychological exam, he was feeling so isolated and alone in his thoughts that he saw this encounter not as an obligatory performance necessary for getting the job, but as a rare opportunity to express his feelings to someone whose job is to listen. It’s unclear to me how the police-training psychologist received his emotional offering because I didn’t ask, but unsurprisingly, he failed the exam and was denied advancement in the training process.
When we initially planned the interview I scheduled two hours for it. But after two hours it became clear that we had just begun. This event felt transformative for both of us as we experienced the veil of skepticism slowly melt into mutual understanding and even sympathy. I can’t say how Frank felt, but I had the sense that he saw in me someone who could listen to his existential questions. On my side, I began to realize that the language he used, appropriated from pop psychology, was just a thin surface of an amorphous desire and curiosity for the world in all its opacity; something I could relate to. I sensed that any container to that amorphous spirit would betray a degree of arbitrariness, the containers I have developed for my own life included.
A mother and son move through different sections of the airport. The son is that age at which embarrassment informs the extent of possible interactions with his mother. Their exchanges are snappy, fueled by bitterness and mutual condescension. A recollection about her father’s (his grandfather’s) death suddenly triggers a memory of a moment in the past where she had felt love. She tells her son, only to find him listening to music on headphones. He takes the headphones off and she continues: She had slept with a man and gave him her phone number. By mistake she had given him her husband’s (his father’s) number. She never heard from him again. In the meantime, the husband/father has died and one gets the sense that this accounts for the aggressive distance between mother and son.
The conversation switches to a friend the son once had: Moritz. What ever happened to him? The mother asks; she liked him. Out of nowhere, the son recounts a story in which he and said friend were caught in the rain. Soaked and standing in an empty rowing club for shelter, they looked at each other, took off their clothes, and fucked. The disclosure, having lain silently dormant in the privacy of their shared home, can only be released in the anonymous hub of strangers swimming in foreignness. Given their intimate relationship, his confession is not so much an offering as it is a weapon, a threat, a measurement of distance. It says: take this secret I keep deep in my interior and stay back.
A young German couple sits waiting for their flight. The man comes off as disinterested in his girlfriend while she appears to harbor a sedated and mediocre sense of faith in the stability of their relationship. He moves around the airport alone while she sits with their bags. Where were you? At the newsstand. The girlfriend wants to know whether they transport animals at this airport. The boyfriend humors the question but without interest. The girlfriend asks if he can go buy some Sagrotan; they don’t have any with them. He goes back to the store. As he takes the antibacterial wet wipes off the shelf and brings them to the cashier he notices the woman standing in front of him in line. They exchange glances. He pays and starts following her through the airport’s main hall. The two strangers move through the hall, crisscrossing each other. They exchange a second glance, this time longer, and part ways. There seems to be no doubt that, were this woman to have given any further sign, he would have been willing to leave his girlfriend with the bags and start a new life, wet wipes forever undelivered.
The premise of the interview was for me to understand Frank’s job but he was practically incapable of ever describing its form. Moving from poetic to philosophical he described abstractions. I said something like: the way you speak, your interests, the things that move you could be applied to so many different things. You could have been an artist, a politician, a religious figure - why did you decide to apply yourself to motivational coaching in a corporate structure? He responded that this was his skillset; this is what he was good at - listening, talking, problem solving. I told him that still didn’t distinguish this job from the others I mentioned. After a brief pause he changed the topic. He pointed to a tattoo on the inside of his wrist, a simple outline of a circle. The circle symbolized “just being.” Whenever he felt overwhelmed or pressured to perform this or that thing in life, he’d look down at his wrist and remind himself to just be.
Despite sympathy I was unsatisfied by his evasion that, from my perspective, was either oblivious to or refused to acknowledge the strange (yet so perfectly neoliberal) connection between his loftier thoughts and the corporate structure that employs him. I was fairly confrontational, feeling secure in the trust we had already established. I pointed to the contradiction between just being and the evolution of the corporate model that had become not only so efficient but so pervasive as to mine the inner emotional material of its exploited laborers for the benefit of its inhuman pursuit of profit. Frank was an agent of that boundless exploitation encouraging the employees to forfeit not only their time and body but their personal desires, pain, hopes, dreams. He paused for a while as he contemplated my accusation. He looked slightly sad: You’re right, that’s true. But if I looked at my job like that I would probably kill myself. I just look at people and work with people to try to make them a bit happier and try to make them feel comfortable. It’s just about people. I don’t really think about the bigger picture and I don’t really want to.