Close
Close

ESSAYS Mousse 71

Based on a True Story: Todd Haynes’s “Dark Waters” and New New Left Cinema

by Emily Verla Bovino and Hera Chan

 

Todd Hido, #11749-1004, 2017, from the series Bright Black World, 2016–ongoing. © Todd Hido. Courtesy: Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris. Photo: Todd Hido

 

Dark Waters (2019) is not a film. It is a form of reenactment, at best. Todd Haynes, the New Queer Cinema filmmaker who brought us stories of invisibilized contagion like Poison (1991) and Safe (1995), has made this “based on a true story” about the trials and tribulations of Rob Bilott, a corporate lawyer who just wouldn’t give up.1 In 2016, when Nathaniel Rich was writing “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare” for The New York Times Magazine, the American company DuPont de Nemours, Inc., was the world’s largest chemical producer in terms of sales. Teflon was its signature product. As feature-length reenactment, Dark Waters heralds what can be called a New New Left Cinema distinct from, even contrary to, the New Left Cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, embracing as it does the melodrama of Hollywood and the entertainment of the American news cycle. 

 

To effect the suffering he wants us to analyze, Haynes makes us experience reenactment as a banal naturalization of history. It’s like sewing our suturing fingers into a closing wound: the pathos is the pain of trying to pick open a scar. Theorists and artists alike have asserted that there is a best and worst of reenactment. The worst offers “affirmative confirmation of the past,”2 “eclipsing [it] with its own theatricality;”3 the best has “emancipatory”4 pretensions, furthering historical understanding by “keeping a wound open.”5 Haynes’s reenactment does neither and both. What if, in order to radicalize American viewers, the “obviousness and banality”6 that have been identified as critical to Haynes’s work are what is needed? 

Dark Waters wants us to identify with Bilott, a “hick”7 of West Virginia origins who works for Ohio-based corporate law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister, famous for its role in destroying the American labor movement with the Taft-Hartley Act.8 The grandmother the lawyer calls “Grammer” is from the Appalachian state known as “Wild, Wonderful” and used to take him to visit farms for pony rides when he was a child. Akin to photographer Todd Hido’s landscapes, Haynes’s portrayal of the rural exurbs is heavy with melancholy and mystery. Hido grew up in Ohio and, like his mentor Larry Sultan, has staged similar returns home for projects that consider how the childhood iconosphere impacts the images photographers develop. As we took our seats at Hong Kong’s Broadway Cinematheque among a face-masked audience, our own anti-ELAB anxieties over what it means to be together resurfaced, mutated amid COVID-19 fears.9 Queerness and medical emergency were again entangled in a harking back to the promise of Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero’s 2013 exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year, installed at Hong Kong’s Para Site ten years after the SARS outbreak. 

 

Rei Hayama, Brown shrike (still), 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Empty Gallery, Hong Kong

 

Headlights hit our eyes. “How could you leave me here like this?” croons the voice of Waylon Jennings from the radio of a car that comes into focus. With his camerawork, Haynes establishes that our position outside the car is inside the film: we’re stalking. It’s 1975, Parkersburg, West Virginia, and what appears to be a Mustang careens toward the Ohio River with off-tune upbeat shouts: “Stop the world and let me off!” its riders yell in the country classic’s unintentional critique of American compulsions. “I’m tired of going round and round!” Fence-hopping from the car’s hood, the passengers head to the riverbank with a six-pack of beer. We’re in the water before they dive in. Again, we watch them from outside-inside, this time under murky waters below their kicking legs. One friend calls out to the others to show something strange he’s found. A spotlight shines and shouts ring out. From their motorboat, two men working for containment services scare the skinny-dippers away to continue spraying the foaming river.

Dark Waters opens with this variation on Haynes’s “almost”10 signature shot: a point-of-view angle onto the American road.11 In its fusion of “subjectivity and anonymity,”12 the point of view becomes our own. We are aware of our voyeurism and the moments we slip into a distance. In post-truth politics, there is no outside the system, nor is there flesh and blood on the inside. Popular culture has absorbed this lesson of postmodernism that Derrideans know as “there is no outside-text,” transposed into Lacano-Marxist terms, “class struggle is never ‘pure.’” It can never be “reduced to the duality of two opposed classes.”13 There’s always a “third element” that can’t find its place. In Dark Waters, Bilott is this element. Yet he falls back on defending human rights, an effort that won’t further our political and social system—the unending good fight. It presents an inevitability in the American political system that the film can’t refuse. Needless to say, if the system were fair, we wouldn’t need lawyers. The American Right is spitting back at us the lessons of postmodernism; challenges to grand narrative have become “known unknowns” and “alternative truth.” British artist Jeremy Deller reportedly said that he saw reenactment as “digging up a corpse for a proper postmortem.” Reenacting the story of Bilott, DuPont, and West Virginia feels exact, filmmaking as an exhumation and embalming process. 

 

Todd Hido, #11798-3868, 2018, from the series Bright Black World, 2016–ongoing. © Todd Hido. Courtesy: Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris. Photo: Todd Hido

 

Dark Waters does not analyze its own condition and is symptomatic of the society it keeps. It is an American story—a Hollywood one of Douglas Sirk’s ilk. As Laura Mulvey affirms, melodrama is the primary mode of politics.14 Overt in his contradictions, Haynes hides nothing. This recent project, produced by actor Mark Ruffalo and Participant Media (Spotlight, 2015, and Roma, 2018), may even be an effort to get out the vote for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in West Virginia, where DuPont chemical dumping poisoned thousands, and where political preference has veered from Democrats to Republicans since the election of George W. Bush in 2000. Co-screenwriter Mario Correa volunteered on a congressional campaign in high school, worked as a Capitol Hill staffer at seventeen, and was active in the political sphere for the next fifteen years. In a haunting parapraxis, Times reporters have anxiously named Sanders, the self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, the “Teflon Candidate”15 for his strong results in early caucuses while right-wing Breitbart is reporting on Ruffalo and fellow Dark Waters actor Tim Robbins rallying on Sanders’s behalf.16 

Some insist the devil we know is better than the one we don’t.17 Teflon gained the trust and love of Americans as the “miracle polymer” that made conveniently stubborn nonstick surfaces possible. In this repellent and impervious material, Americans had the perfect reflection of doting housewives and aloof breadwinners featured in advertising as aspirational images. One DuPont ad read: “Choose a pan like you choose a man. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.” The bonds of Teflon were emotional as well as chemical. Pots, pans, couches, and mattresses “brought the war home”18 as the American New Left had urged, but in ways only Martha Rosler imagined. In Beauty Rest, a collage from House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (ca. 1967-1972), Rosler inserts the bed from an ad for the eponymous brand of Simmons mattresses into a bombed-out living room photographed during the Vietnam conflict. Father and son play with a model airplane while mother reads her magazine: their blindness to visible destruction around them signals their ignorance of toxicity in the Teflon mattress cover they may lie on. Teflon was celebrated during the Korean War as an example of military research that could make it back home from the battle against communism for democratic application in the United States. 

 

Rei Hayama, Land (still), 2015. © Rei Hayama. Courtesy: the artist

 

The workers at DuPont’s plant in Parkersburg called the symptoms of polymer fume fever the “Teflon Flu.”19 Chills, fever, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, and body aches result from inhaling toxins released when Teflon coatings overheat on cookware. They can also be the aftereffects of servicing the perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA, also known as C8) storage tanks necessary to create Teflon. Despite DuPont’s internal studies—like lacing cigarettes of workers with C8 to test exposure—the chemical was never reported by its chemists for the list of substances that President Richard Nixon’s Environmental Protection Agency used in efforts to institutionalize corporate self-regulation. 

In bodies working in or living near Teflon manufacturing, cancers were growing. Black teeth were the most obvious stain. When Bilott starts to suffer sudden shaking bouts during his seven-year wait for news about seventy thousand blood tests that would indict DuPont, it’s unclear if the condition is tumor provoked or stress induced, but it’s a particularly Teflon pathos. When these Parkinson’s-like attacks are portrayed, Bilott’s inarticulateness is the trigger. The camera looms over him as he searches for words to calm frustrated participants in the tests who want to know their results. He paces in front of glass curtain walls with views of skyscraper mullions that make him appear imprisoned. Whereas in New Left Cinema, the glory of suffering in militant martyrdom was emphasized for political mobilization to destroy the system, New New Left Cinema just wants you to be an active participant, even if it throws your body into convulsions. 

 

Todd Hido, #11797-3252, 2017, from the series Bright Black World, 2016–ongoing. © Todd Hido. Courtesy: Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire, Paris. Photo: Todd Hido

 

Several people involved in the DuPont case, including the real Bilott and his wife, Sarah Barlage, make cameo appearances in the film. Only William “Bucky” Bailey plays himself. Childhood photographs build up to his entry on-screen. A wallet-size portrait of Bailey as a newborn is shown to DuPont executives to give a face to the “receptors” the company dehumanizes in its reports on chemical tests. Sue Bailey, Bucky’s mother, worked on Teflon during the first trimester of her pregnancy. Born with one nostril and other deformities similar to those found in rats that DuPont and 3M tested for C8 exposure, Bailey is a revelation to anyone who grew up watching The Goonies (1985). Suddenly, the disfigurations of Lotney “Sloth” Fratelli achieve new significance as the return of the repressed under Reagan-era neoliberalism. Though DuPont internal documents admitted that C8 could harm fetuses, Bailey’s deformities were determined by courts not to be a result of the contamination. 

A fictional encounter between Bilott and Bailey invented for melodramatic effect follows Bilott’s hospitalization for transient ischemic attacks. In a Hido-like night scene at a gas station, Bilott strangely fixates on a scarecrow being loaded into a car until Bailey interrupts: “Hey, do you know the score? The game.” In the reverse shot, Bilott can’t respond, shocked to see the adult Bailey before him. “Don’t worry,” Bailey smiles. “It will be a surprise.” Bailey is cheerful. Bilott, still suffering, watches him drive away, confused. Disorienting, even nauseating camerawork follows with shots that prolong rumination on the uneventful encounter. The gaze that the two exchange is protracted in a manner particular to New New Left aims. Bilott’s fight is misdirected, not targeting American capitalism but attacking the straw man, DuPont, as if the fall of the company could bring about the social welfare he seeks. 

 

Rei Hayama, Land (still), 2015. © Rei Hayama. Courtesy: the artist

 

The youngest partner at Taft, lawyer James Ross, portrayed by William Jackson Harper, is one of two black characters with speaking roles in an almost entirely white cast. Ross is pure invention.20 In film theory, Hollywood’s peripheral roles in legal authority for black characters are analyzed as emblematic “indexes” of America’s “paranoid fantasies.”21 The scenes played out always evade the very kind of “reciprocated gaze” that Haynes engaged in the exchange between Bilott and Bailey, a gaze in which “the dominant culture [is forced] to look at itself through another’s eyes.”22 Ross, however, challenges Bilott at a meeting held to decide whether Taft will take on other DuPont-impacted clients after the settlement won for farmer Wilbur Tennant. “You want to take everything that you know about how chemical companies operate and turn it against DuPont like an informant! Isn’t that right?” he badgers. “Yes,” Bilott admits. The scene feels crafted to play into white fears deeply rooted in the backlash against Reconstruction-era redistribution and black political leadership, similar to the white backlash facing American politics today.

From the boardroom to the courtroom, the film ends with a similar exchange, this time between Bilott and an unnamed black judge. The judge announces the DuPont cases, “3,535 claims,” he sighs: “We can all expect to be here to the year 2890.” “Still here?” he asks Bilott. “Still here,” the lawyer concedes. Bilott persists, but the struggle can’t transform the systems structured on the logic of whiteness. Bilott can’t protect the victims of corporate personhood, but at least he can get them a hefty settlement—hefty for victims, infinitely small for DuPont. 

The “happy” ending in Dark Waters is jouissance: the pleasure we are expected to feel in not attaining the defeat of the American system that we desire. After the announcement of the science panel’s findings proving Bilott’s case, his family goes for a celebratory dinner at the Japanese American franchise restaurant Benihana. Bilott picks up a call. DuPont has reneged on its agreement to cover the medical costs of C8 victims if the science panel proved relative causality. Barlage asserts tearfully, “They can fight you all they want, it doesn’t take away from what you’ve done.” “Of course it does!” Bilott counters. Outside the restaurant, bathed in sulfur yellow and framed in the deep red of Douglas Sirk’s chromatic expressionism, he refuses the spin. “They want to show the world that it’s no use fighting. Look, everybody! Even he can’t crack the maze and he’s helped build it!” We spin out from aerial view into a tracking shot of Cincinnati streets that blurs into an image of the Ohio River waterfront. Returning us to the physical actuality of the built environment, the reality of the theatricality Haynes has played out stands before us. Waylon Jennings’s cover of “Stop the World (And Let Me Off)” is Dark Waters’s musical incipit, but John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is its mantra. “All my memories gather ’round her / Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water / Dark and dusty, painted on the sky / Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye.” 

 

[1] The opening of Dark Waters tells viewers that it is “based on Nathaniel Rich, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,’” New York Times Magazine, January 6, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html.
[2] Inke Arns, “Strategies of Re-enactment,” in History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance (Frankfurt: Revolver, 2007), 43.
[3] Vanessa Agnew, “Introduction: What Is Reenactment?,” Criticism 46, no. 3, Special Issue: Extreme and Sentimental History (Summer 2004): 335.
[4] Arns, “Strategies of Re-enactment,” 49.
[5] Sharon Hayes, quoted in publicity for “Questions of Practice: ‘What Is Reenactment,’” Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, October 5, 2013, https://www.pewcenterarts.org/post/questions-practice-what-reenactment.
[6] Mary Ann Doane, “Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes,” Camera Obscura 57, vol. 19, no. 3 (2004): 13.
[7] In response to Bilott building his case against DuPont, Dark Waters character Phil Donnelly, a DuPont executive who Slate reports is an invented composite, calls Bilott a “hick” in an emotionally charged scene at a corporate gala.
[8] The Taft-Hartley Act is officially known as the Labor-Management Relations Act of 1947. A U.S. federal law enacted by a Republican-controlled Congress after major nationwide strikes in 1945 and 1946, it restricted the power of labor unions, including banning their contributions to federal election campaigns and compelling political conformity by requiring union officials to swear they were not members of the Communist Party. Christopher L. Tomlins, The State and the Unions: Labor Relations, Law and the Organized Labor Movement, 1880–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 282–317.
[9] Anti-ELAB stands for Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill and refers to protests in 2019 against a bill that, if enacted, would have permitted extradition from Hong Kong of people wanted in territories that the Special Administrative Region (SAR) does not have extradition agreements with, including mainland China. COVID-19 is the official acronym given by the World Health Organization to the coronavirus 2019 respiratory illness, first identified in Wuhan, China, that has since infected and killed people worldwide.
[10] Doane, “Pathos and Pathology,” 1.
[11] Doane, “Pathos and Pathology,” 1.
[12] Doane, “Pathos and Pathology,” 4.
[13] Slavoj Žižek, Incontinence of the Void: Economico-Philosophical Spandrels (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017), 46–47.
[14] Laura Mulvey, “Melodrama Inside and Outside the Home,” in High Theory/Low Culture: Analyzing Popular Television and Film, ed. Colin McCabe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 64.
[15] A Teflon candidate, in the United States, is a politician who is able to “[brush] off political vulnerability,” as Bernie Sanders is characterized by the New York Times. Lisa Lerer, “Bernie Sanders, the Teflon Candidate, Faces Sudden New Tests,” New York Times, February 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/22/us/politics/bernie-sanders.html.
[16] Joshua Caplan, “Actor Mark Ruffalo Endorses Bernie Sanders after Calling for End to Capitalism,” Breitbart, December 4, 2019, https://www.breitbart.com/entertainment/2019/12/04/mark-ruffalo-endorses-bernie-sanders-hes-one-of-us/.
[17] The Devil We Know, directed by Stephanie Soechtig, 2018.
[18] Weather Underground, “Look At It America (1969),” in Weathermen, ed. Harold Jacobs (Berkeley, CA: Ramparts Press, 1970), 168.
[19] Rich, “Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.”
[20] Matthew Phelan, “What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Dark Waters,” Slate, November 22, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/11/dark-waters-accuracy-fact-vs-fiction-teflon-dupont.html.
[21] Sharon Willis, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), 6.
[22] Willis, High Contrast, 6.

 

Emily Verla Bovino is an art historian, urbanist, artist, and art writer. In 2018 she returned to Hong Kong, where she lived with her family from 1984 to 1991. Her writing and art historical research have been published in academic journals, art magazines, museum catalogues, and artist publications. As an artist, her immersive projects combine ethnographic fiction, transmedia storytelling, and art criticism, with experiments in poetry, radio, performance, sculpture, architecture, and landscape studies. Her work has been shown in Italy, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, and the United States. She is currently working on a project about art criticism in Hong Kong as an expanded field that encompasses friendship, togetherness, listening, critical image making, and even union organizing. Mobilizing written and image-based practices against manifestations of coercive authority, art-criticism-as-expanded-field in Hong Kong challenges institutionalized notions of the critic’s judgment, the curator’s discourse, and the artist’s intent. 

Hera Chan is a curator and writer based in Hong Kong, currently working as the associate public programs curator at Tai Kwun Contemporary. Her ongoing work involves building a global contemporary art pageant through Miss Ruthless International. She was fellow at the RAW Material Company, Dakar, and a curator in residence as part of the All The Way South exchange between the Guangzhou Times Museum and Artista x Artista in Havana. She cofounded Atelier Céladon in Montreal and has staged projects at Para Site, Hong Kong; Spring Workshop, Hong Kong; UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; SBC galerie d’art contemporain, Montreal; SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin; and Artista x Artista, Havana. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, ArtAsiaPacific, Art-Review Asia, frieze, Ocula, Spike Art Quarterly, and TAKE.

 

Originally published on Mousse 71

 

 

Related Articles
ESSAYS
Disappearer
(Read more)
Mousse 72
She Is Already Two: Anne Minich
(Read more)
ESSAYS
A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose: Ian Wilson
(Read more)
Mousse 72
The Shadow’s Question to the Light’s Answer: Heinz Frank
(Read more)
Mousse 72
Trademark Artist: Peter Nagy
(Read more)
Mousse 72
Transforming Darkness Into a Space of Agency: Sandra Mujinga
(Read more)