Agitprop to Occupy My Time

'In Time' for the Revolution

by Thomas Britt

8 March 2012

Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried in In Time (2011) 

Occupy's Timeline

These themes of vigilantism and segregation run throughout In Time—a film that does not consider how a freed population of formerly oppressed individuals might itself lapse into segregation based on lawlessness (more on that later). Especially in the context of these not-so-positive Occupy developments (which directly followed the theatrical release of In Time), the character of Will Salas represents the folly of assuming that a single vigilante can solve such social disruptions and divisions, once and for all.

The film’s contemptuous attitude toward law enforcement officers (here called “Timekeepers”) paints them as uniformly bad, sometimes simply by virtue of their trying to keep the peace. The primary activity of the Timekeepers (led by Cillian Murphy in the role of Raymond Leon) is to ensure that time stays in its zones. Within those zones, they also police individual criminal cases involving the theft of time. As in the Occupy camps, Salas nearly always resists working with official authorities, choosing instead to pursue his own brand of individually determined justice.

Despite lacking collective support for revolution (another difference between the film and Occupy Wall Street), Salas “matures” in his rebellion, identifying an increasing number of oppressors without much evidence to support his suspicions. This one-against-many plot strengthens the drama of the film, but it inadvertently spotlights how self-righteous such revolutions can become when goalposts shift. In the beginning of the film, Salas is the poster boy for what the film repeatedly refers to as “ghetto” life. Aside: The film’s concept of the “ghetto” is one of its more puzzling and egregious elements. Only in the dictionary’s tertiary sense of the word does “ghetto” even apply to Dayton or any other zone we see here. Nevertheless, the young “ghetto” boy transforms to curious truth-seeker, and then to kidnapper, bank-robber, and killer.

Throughout this transformation, Salas justifies his actions with a litany of wrongs he feels he and Dayton have suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Salas’ language is rich with generalities:  “I’m going to take them for everything they’ve got. I’m going to make them pay.” Instead of decisively targeting specific individuals and corporations for corrupt activity, Salas comes to mistrust wealth on principle. When confronted by the Timekeepers at a ritzy party in New Greenwich, he says, “If you guys are looking for stolen time, maybe you should arrest everyone here.” Later, when his resentment turns to outright theft, he changes his argument again, using rationalizations such as “Don’t think of it as stealing. Think of it as repossession”, and “Is it stealing if it’s already stolen?”—a mantra he passes on to Sylvia Weis, his victim-cum-protégé.

Salas’ behavior corresponds with the list of grievances found in the “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City”, a document addressed to “the people of the world”. In it, the “New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square” encourages the “right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.” Although this set of action points is eloquently articulated and admirably non-violent, the list of facts provided in the document accuses all corporations with the broadest of brushes. These 23 offenses range from “They have sold our privacy as a commodity,” “They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad,” and “They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity,” to other, much more serious allegations of poisoning, torturing, and murdering. To be fair, each bullet point probably began as a response to a specific, likely verifiable, world event. Yet they are collected and presented in such general terms, that the list utterly lacks context. Did one corporation do all of these things? Are a few responsible? All?

But there’s the rub. The mass enthusiasm for Occupy Wall Street likely wouldn’t have accrued if the language of the movement were too specific. As a catchall movement, it promised a home to a specific percentage—99—so large that nearly no grievance fell outside its purview. Henceforth, the concept of “justice” could likewise be defined broadly to be collective action against the combined perceived injustices of that percentage of the population. In Time’s lead Timekeeper Leon says to the film’s revolutionary heroes, “I see. You’re talking about justice,” but the heroes choose not to engage. Going beyond a peaceable pursuit of justice to the point of becoming out-and-out criminals, Salas and Sylvia Weis become the de facto chief executive officers of their own financial system. They rob their way to folk hero status and the film concludes with the setup to a robbery so massive that the bank they target towers almost limitlessly into the sky.

Last year, I talked to Rage Against the Machine guitar virtuoso and Occupy ally Tom Morello about a variety of political and social tensions that had been building throughout the year. He spoke with great satisfaction about the 2011 Wisconsin Protests and the anger against Governor Scott Walker, and he sympathized with what he perceived to be the underlying causes of the explosive 2011 London Riots. Although Occupy Wall Street would occur a month later, Morello might as well have been speaking it into existence as we conversed.

Stating bluntly that “the people who own and control this world don’t deserve to,” he defined his opposition to “illegitimate authority, whether it’s parental or corporate.” For Morello, Governor Walker was emblematic of “illegitimate authority” as a result of his own contradictions, specifically passing “austerity measures” while “high fiving cronies on a yacht”. When I asked him if there was a possibility that the governor had his own idea of justice, Morello conjectured that it would be caring for the “shareholder’s profit margin”—essentially the corruption of government by corporate concerns, at the expense of lower-class laborers. This characterization puts Governor Walker in the same league with In Time’s wealthy arch-villain/bad-dad Philippe Weis, whose unquenchable thirst for time causes him to spit out the phrase, “For a few to be immortal, many must die.”

The ostensible feel-good ending of In Time ousts Philippe Weis from his place atop the economic food chain. He loses his daughter, his money, and his reputation to Salas because Salas was unhappy with the impact of poverty on his family and decided to overreact beyond all reason. Yet any good feeling to be derived from the villain’s undoing is tempered by the unintended effect of the hero’s actions. This is the film’s final, and perhaps most direct, parallel with the Occupy movement.

One of the foremost “points of unity” in Occupy Wall Street’s “Principles of Solidarity” is “redefining how labor is valued.” Labor unions are fundamental to the ideology and activities of the Occupy movement, which aims to improve conditions and ensure rights and benefits for “workers”. The specific redefinition of labor that Occupy Wall Street seeks could likely be described as increasing both the value of the worker and the strength of the worker’s negotiating power. However, none of that can come to fruition if the worker on whose behalf the movement crusades loses his or her job.

When Salas steals one million years from Philippe Weis and redistributes those years to the people of Dayton, the backfire is powerful and instant. News footage explains to the viewer, “There’s so much time in circulation, factories in Dayton lie idle, and now citizens are crossing zones.” Those inclined to root for Salas see this development as an embarrassment of riches—a true victory for his revolution. Consider, though, the effect of Salas’ bypassing intermediate measures and simply robbing the rich to pay the poor: The factories shut down altogether. Salas single-handedly disincentivizes and destroys productivity. The workers of Dayton, formerly on time and orderly, now roam the streets in what looks like a scene from a zombie film. Once this trance wears off and/or their time runs low, there will be no factory to employ them.

Of course, the film doesn’t ask us to consider this likely future. Instead, we’re encouraged to anticipate the next adventurous criminal endeavor of the outlaw lovers.

Likewise, the international news media broadcasts images of streets, parks and public grounds full of occupiers, as if their collective presence is itself a victory. Granted, there’s much symbolic power in the pictures and representations of like-minded individuals working together to improve their society. The picture clouds, though, when the collective activity in question actually does more harm than good.

On 12 December 2011, The Guardian provided a detailed account of an attempted “shutdown of America’s West Coast ports”. Although the protest was declared to be “in solidarity with longshoremen and port truckers’ struggles against EGT and Goldman Sachs”, the very union on whose behalf the shutdown was to take place, disavowed the protest. In the article covering the shutdown, the communications director of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is quoted as saying, “[Occupy organisers] have been very disrespectful of the democratic decision-making process in the union and deliberately went around that process to call their own action without consulting workers.” The lost productivity of a “successful” shutdown would in reality jeopardize the very jobs that protesters act to protect.

Raymond Leon, In Time’s top Timekeeper, wonders aloud about Salas, “Doesn’t he understand he’s hurting the people he’s trying to help?” Unfortunately, Salas never reaches that conclusion and neither does the film. To call Occupy Wall Street a self-defeating revolution would be inaccurate. Some real issues are being discussed, citizens are taking their role in the economy seriously, and figures of power and wealth (some of whom were probably formerly complacent) have doubtless heard the resounding complaints against them.

Earlier this month, Bill Maher addressed the problems of the Occupy movement on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher. In comments that have since generated a lot of debate online and elsewhere, he remarked, “When you occupy anything for too long people do get pissed off…They did a great job bringing the issue of income inequality to the fore, but now it’s just a bunch of (expletive deleted) who think throwing a chair through the Starbucks window is going to bring on the revolution.” If fiction and reality could merge, I think the hero of In Time would benefit from listening to the host of Real Time, whose perspective succinctly illustrates the importance of using one’s time in the spotlight wisely.

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