Dennis Cooper and Zac Farley's Permanent Green Light (2018) is showing July 19 – August 17, 2019 on MUBI in the United States.
“The novelist Dennis Cooper has always made other gay writers nervous,” film director John Waters begins in praise of the author and in particular, Cooper’s novel, The Sluts
, which Waters would list as one of his all-time favorite books. A critical collection of other writers and scholars on Cooper was called Enter at Your Own Risk: The Dangerous Art by Dennis Cooper
, edited together by Leora Lev back in 2006, where Cooper was posited as “the most controversial writer working today.” His works, a writing career that dates back to the 1970s, have been seized at the United States-Canada border, banned, and then later published in a compilation of banned works of literature in Canada
. He has had numerous censorship run-ins with Google, which at one point disabled his Gmail account
and took down
his active literary blog for images he posted for an experimental GIF novel. His blog and email later got restored, after threatened litigation and support from PEN America, although parts of the blog were irretrievably lost. Cooper’s art, largely experimental fiction, also includes poetry, non-fiction, theater, graphic novels, and GIF novels
, is unapologetically queer, anarchic, transgressive, and comfortable in the underground, alternative literary community. His work can be shocking in its psychosexual horrors, various trauma, grisly visceral violence, body dismemberments, existential listlessness, and the combustible, fallible, all too human characters who commit, or at least seriously think about, various actions that blow past the threshold of acceptable behaviors in the straight world. But what makes his works feel so unshakeable is that as a writer, Cooper’s prose does not feel like cheap shocks or the type of nihilism of shock lit that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. The shocks from Dennis Cooper feel much more internalized, rupturing the very core of his characters. Very much like a series of bombs going off.
Cooper, in his second feature-film collaboration with visual artist Zac Farley (they previously made 2015’s Like Cattle Towards Glow), has made a film that feels very much a spirit of his whole career with Permanent Green Light
. Set in the French suburbs of Cherbourg (Cooper is an American expat by way of Pasadena, California who resides in France), the film is about the character Roman (Benjamin Suplice), who is seeking disappearance from the world in the form of blowing himself up. Roman is loosely based on the story of Australian teenager Jake Bilardi
who joined ISIS and died in a suicide bombing. Bilardi’s motivations were unclear, nobody in his circle saw a religious or ideological radicalization or conversion, and the bombing itself was a failure in that only he died. Was that just a botched job or something else? What led Bilardi to that path?
In Permanent Green Light
, Roman notably tells a bomb maker that he wants to “explode. Blow myself up. But nobody and nothing else. Just me.” For him, it is not a suicide or a death but an ending. If he is to leave anything behind, it is the reaction of people in awe of this act.
The premise is distinctively Cooper, whose tastes and cinephilia have included strong admiration for filmmakers ranging from Terrence Malick to Harmony Korine to Robert Bresson. Cooper told The Paris Review in 2011 that in discovering Bresson in the 1970s, “I felt I had found the final ingredient I needed to write the fiction I wanted to write.” He would then conclude that Bresson’s impact, “....had the greatest influence on my work of any art I’ve ever encountered.” It is easy to pinpoint the influences and similarities to late Bresson, particularly L’argent
and The Devil
, Probably found in Permanent Green Light
, especially in the casting of non-professional actors, as well as in Cooper’s written fiction. He speaks of Bresson’s work as containing
“extreme isolation and pain and emotion, but they’re so rigorously stylized and composed that they’re almost invisible, they’re my ideal.” Roman as a character is haunted by a kind of elusive pain and the very epiphany that the solution to that pain is a disappearance. Much like a Bressonian lead, Roman is almost stone-faced and unaffected in his disposition through most of the film. What is potent and disturbing to his small circle of friends are his spoken words. The window into his mind that while still mysterious and confounding feels extremely resolute and driven to what the conclusion of his problem should be.
Roman reveals he finds that other people do not really try to know him. He is a symbol or meaning of something to others, but he feels nothing. There was a before to Roman’s life than this moment in this place with these friends, a past that is as hazy as his current intentions. He sketches drawings that are loosely modeled off of his own face but are meant to be of the disappeared figure of Pentti Monkonnen (the name of a real-life active modern artist
, but the name is used here in the way, like in other Cooper works, real names of real people—including Cooper’s own name—are consigned to different types of characters from the real) who never had his picture taken, an influence on Roman’s disappearing dreams. If it was not obvious to those familiar with Cooper’s work before, Roman shares some natural similarities of another major Cooper fictional character of George Miles, the subject of five Cooper novels and based on a real-life friend and brief lover of Cooper’s. The reactions and power Roman gets from his circle of friends that vary from platonic to unrequited romantic feelings to intense obsession and emotional trauma, are very much what powers The George Miles Cycle (Closer, Frisk, Try, Guide, Period), a series that Cooper reflects were tied to his feelings that he could not save his real-life friend Miles, whom he had found out committed suicide years after the fact when in the middle of writing the series. Both Miles and Roman as characters are psychologically troubled and yet extremely, if unwittingly, alluring and important to others. Roman’s friends feel possessive of him in some ways but also deferential to him. He is an archetypal leader, incredibly charismatic yet isolates himself out of feeling frozen out by the world in misunderstanding. He could lead a movement out of his natural magnetism alone but he is directionless, politically detached, and troubled, the only connection he shares is with a girl obsessed with bomb vests who similarly has this aversion to feeling close and not feeling understood.
The film speaks of a very contemporary story of Gen Z disenchantment, full of people seeking to feel everything or not feel anything at all, or oscillating in-between those feelings. What separates Cooper, now 66, from his contemporaries is he was never averted by the changing forms of communication, art, and technology. His GIF novels and works like The Sluts that are keenly observed texts that reappropriate internet speak and syntax into novel form and novels into internet syntax, show an artist with ever broadening imagination and experimentations that in tapping into underground youth culture have many true to life elements. Even without the Bilardi story as a template, the film’s arguable catalyst of events are in the form of unexplainable violent change with an off-screen explosion and collapse of a building heard. Roman’s friends run into the direction of the now rubble grounds, but Roman prefers not to look. His impulses are to not see as to not feel. Gradually, he uses his computer to listen to explosion sounds and then gets into outright snuff, watching a figure, an unknown person, exploding, and re-watching the impact over again on a loop. He takes an interest in his friend Tim’s compulsive collection of garish pinatas- meant to be filled and broken apart, Tim instead empty and untouched as if left to live- that stands out all the more in the oppressively washed out colored modernest suburbs. Then some teenagers in that staid bourgeois neighborhood that Roman hangs out in begin to commit suicide, their reasons unexplainable beyond “depression” and what they leave behind for others are without full context.
What are examples of what Roman believes he does not want to do only fuel his intangible, unable to articulate, reasons for wanting to disappear. Roman wants to become nothing as to feel like he was something. The legend of Pentti Monkonnen jumping off an airplane to the top of a high-rise building drives Roman, stating, “The shadow is what he [Monkonnen] became when he hit. There was nothing left of him. No skull, no bones, no blood. Just a black shadow.” The yearning to jump from one extreme to the next, life to afterlife or rather post-life, presents this fractured version of the self that wants to escape the banalities of modern life that pervade Cooper and Farley’s world. That can also describe as analogous to a lot of internet culture where the intangible forces and pull are both this alluring and toxic sensation of images, words, and unseen figures with power they are not always aware that they have. It is as much a place to be heightened as much as it is to disappear into, or as demonstrated by Cooper’s own run-ins with censorship, a place where things can completely vanish.
Why does Roman want to do this? A fuller life story, a past, is teased and then revealed. His actions suddenly become a reason to feel like he has felt like a ghost, cheated death, or wants to reclaim a trauma that, in his mind, irrevocably changed the course of his life, caused a split, a bifurcation of what was before that moment and after. For a film that can be darkly funny in the exasperations of those who are not Roman reacting to Roman on what seemed so senseless, these revelations take on a more moving and, frankly, shock that sneaks up on you as a viewer.
Permanent Green Light is precise and deliberate in what it wants to state to its audience. Cooper and Farley bring confidence and clear-eyed quality to their second feature film, with black humor, pent up sexual frustration, and psychological turmoil built from an artistic career that presents just how much the human psyche can disfigure reality. In the end, you may become only a shadow and, perhaps because of the world around you, that is what you want to be, as it is how you have long felt.