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A Descent into Madness

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

El hoyo, dir. Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia, 2019

The "allegory of the long spoons" is a thought experiment which contextualises effortlessly the moral deficiencies of unfettered capitalism. The allegory functions along the lines of Confuscian philosophy and cements the ethics of reciprocity: treat others as you yourself wish to be treated. However, the problem is that humans themselves inevitably prove the flaw in the playing out of their own moral dictums.

In the classical allegory, people sit opposite one another. Plates of delicious food are placed before them but there is a conundrum before they can lick their lips and tuck in: they only have very long spoons for utensils and are prohibited from using their hands. In heaven, the considerate and charitable help one another: one person uses their long spoon to feed the person opposite and vice-versa. In hell, the selfish and cruel starve because their moral vacuousness cannot work out a solution to the dilemma. The parable: there is plenty of food to go around if shared out fairly, wisely and selflessly. Enter modern capitalism into the equation and we are routed firmly in the hellish side of things: you ending up having, as shockingly realised in Gaztelu-Urrutia's brutalist film, a vivid parable of greed, corruption and self-enrichment.

El horo or The Platform is tingling with ideas moralistic, social and political. A poncy faux-French chef prances about a state-of-the art industrial size kitchen overseeing a team of culinary geniuses as they painstakingly create an assortment of scrumptious dishes sourced from the world's very finest fresh ingredients. No expense is spared: every plate is scrutinised and studied by the little master and nothing escapes his critical eye. When a single strand of one of the chef's hairs is discovered in a dessert, he rants and raves and screams and shouts. From this production line of quality and excellence a feast is prepared fit for any king and it is all laden onto a floating table which then begins to descend down a vertical tower block. There are a few hundred levels to the tower block and each level contains a single cell in which two inmates reside. Some are criminals serving a prison sentence, others have agreed to enter into the "platform" for a set period of time in exchange for a short-cut to some measure of personal success: to be able to quit smoking, to attain a fast-tracked qualification, etc.

The inmates spend a month on a certain level of the tower and then are gassed and wake up to find they are on a new level for the next month: up and down the levels they go, seeing out their sentence. Once a day, the floating dining table descends down through the levels and the inmates help themselves to whatever is available to eat: those on Level 1 get first dibs and can help themselves to whatever they want when the feast is at its freshest; those on level 144, therefore, are going to get what 143 (x two inmates) above them have essentially left over: they are living off the leavings of those above. In theory there is exactly the right amount of food for every inmate if the table were to descend to the very lowest level, but, of course, those at the top take more than their fair share, depriving their fellow inmates lower down the tower. If anyone tries to hoard any food, their cell immediately either starts to become extremely hot and they fry or extremely cold and they freeze to death. Inmates are also allowed to take one item into the tower with them: some take a weapon, others a tool to assist them, other still an item which brings them comfort. One character brings her sausage dog which prompts her cellmate to quip: "be careful, or else just now he'll be more sausage than dog."

From this interesting premise, the film could easily become nothing but a static metaphor which provides diminishing returns once the viewer grasps the ingenuity of what it all represents. Instead, Gaztelu-Urrutia has worked hard to humanise his script by fleshing out enough expositional detail about the various characters to just about make them sympathetic individuals. This is just as well because the entire system seems designed to be a project in dehumanising its inhabitants as quickly as possible. Those at the top, fearful of where they may wake up next month, give in to the deprivations of greed and gluttony, stuffing themselves full while they have the chance and the going is good, while those on the lower levels are driven to the brink of madness by starvation and desperation; traits which often turn brutal, unleashing the most primitive and animalistic instincts in man.

Our protagonist is created to be an average-Joe Everyman figure from a medieval morality play. His name is Goreng (Iván Massagué Horta) who has undergone psychological profiling and volunteered to enter the tower in order to quit smoking and gain an accelerated accredited diploma of some sort. Little does he know what he's in for. It's left to his first cellmate, Trimagasi, (the utterly brilliant Zorion Eguileor, a sort of Spanish Anthony Hopkins) to fill him (and us) in on all the necessary details about the tower's inner workings. Trimagasi is serving a term for involuntary manslaughter after he flung his TV out of the window and killed some poor pedestrian on the street below. He was angry at the TV because he had bought a knife from one of those shopping channels which was so sharp it could cut a brick in two with a single slice. Happy with his purchase, he then turned the TV on the next day only to be offered a knife which not only was so sharp it could cut a brick in two with a single slice but it also self-sharpened while doing so. Hence so outraged at buying the lesser knife when he could have had a better one, the TV was promptly launched into flight out the window. It is this kind of wry commentary about the insatiable addiction we have to the shrewdness of market consumerism and our obsession with compensatory material gain which gifts the film its deft satirical flourishes. Trimagasi is framed as someone so obsessed with "landing a deal" and "beating the system" in the age of capital entrapment that someone else forfeits their life for his paranoid vanity. Also, we have to ask: why does anyone need a knife sharp enough to slice a brick? It is exactly this kind of ironic redundancy which gives the film its sense of sharpness (excuse the pun).

The script observes other insightful satirical mores: a female character called Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan Fernández) alternates her eating regime with her sausage dog: she eats one day, he the other. Every time the table arrives, she quickly prepares two additional plates for the couple on the level below and then pleads with them politely to consider eating just what is on the plate and then preparing two more for the next level and so on. She has worked out the egalitarian wisdom of a socialist order, but her error lies in her method of appeal: she tries to use language which is diplomatic, humanist and empathetic, which of course it is not man's nature to respond to so well. Only when Goreng tires of her pointless daily appeals and barks down to the lower level that he will "shit in their food unless they obey the request" does the plan temporarily work: in other words, human political systems rarely succeed unless accompanied by an element of authoritarian threat of punishment or coercive force. Meanwhile, somewhere above them the system keeps churning out food, the conveyor belt of production keeps feeding - literally - the masses with what they have most come to depend on the system to provide for them, except that its dissemination of this very product is entrenched in an inequality which favours a small hierarchy of arbitrary privilege while prejudicing the disadvantaged majority below it. The more I watched this film, the sinking feeling of believing that we are all just feeding off the scraps of the rich and powerful became more than a little alarming. Yes, the "message" is on the nose and ostentatiously crude, and the film is about as subtle as a ten foot python coiled in a hen house but sometimes such understanding is attained best from being exposed to what is raw and blatantly visceral.

For its final act the film abandons satire for religious allegory. Goreng and a current cellmate called Baharat (Ludwig Emilio Buale Coka) decide that the only way to escape the existential horror of the system them are enslaved to is to send it a clear message of resistance. Being currently stationed on level 6 of the tower, they are able to seize upon and elect a so far unscathed panna cotta to preserve as a sign that they have managed to resist the urges and depravity they have apparently become beholden to. They latch onto the dessert and climb onto the floating table as it descends layer by layer, fighting off with some considerable outbursts of violence anyone who tries to seize it from them. They keep chanting "the panna cotta is the message, the panna cotta is the message" which did underscore the film's dark humour rather well. They will then send it back up to the top and hopefully so astound the Administration that they begin to doubt the feasibility of the social experiment they are conducting. For several reasons, this development to the parable doesn't really work. For one, the metaphor of food as a symbol of capitalist materialism strikes me as being weak: of course starving people are driven to madness and desperation and of course if an untouched panna cotta lands in their cell after three weeks of licking at already gnawed drumsticks, they will do what they can to seize it. Food is a universal human need that we will always all fight for: if they were killing one another over an Armani handbag, the absurdist element Gaztelu-Urrutia was striving for here may have landed a bit better.

But the most grating aspect is the extreme violence the film embellishes continually. This is not an easy watch and is gruesome at times to the point of being nastily shocking. I am rarely squeamish but at certain moments I found myself flinching in discomfort. While starving captives to the point of savagery is an obvious part of the premise of the fable, the parts where they all too easily resorted to cannibalism seemed to lack the kind of human resolve and revulsion I would have expected: here as opposed to being an effective signal of desperation, it seemed to be played more for its shock factor. The episode where Goreng and Baharat brutally attack the starving hordes trying to wrest their panna cotta from them just seemed to defy a certain amount of logical purpose: what is the point of making a grand statement if to do so involves so much senseless slaughter? Unless it was meant to be a commentary about the innocent slain in the name of a revolution, but if it was, it did not really enunciate itself very clearly. The panna cotta in the end is swopped (and promptly scoffed) for a young girl they discover on one of the very lowest levels and she is sent back up to the top on the flying table as the grand message: for the sake of our children, change your ways! Even then, this seemed a little strained and not very convincingly captured.

Luis Buñuel's work seems to be an apparent aesthetic reference in the film: especially nods to the kind of avant-garde surrealism which attended his earlier work. There is also something quite Beckettian in the tonal flavour of the dialogue and the absurdist horror the characters find themselves in, always subject to the machinations of a greater overbearing source of power. The set and design is mesmerizing: the minimalist and brutalist elements of the tower, all bare rough concrete, with their seedy neon lights pinned to the dark walls, reflected the starkness of the inmates' fate while mirroring the kinds of massive concrete jungles many people find themselves overwhelmed with in modern life. The acting was first-rate and the direction slick.

This film succeeds as a stripped back dystopian allegory of our true human state. At a basic level, we are possibly all prisoners of some kind, beholden to some uncaring, systemic and bureaucratic system which dispenses a cruel and arbitrary authority over us. We are all serving time for the mere fact that we exist at all. Someone is always above us who has the ability to take whatever they want and as much as they want from the table while leaving the scraps and leftovers for the rest of us to squabble over. Someone, too, is always below us in the system picking their way through what we in turn discard until, eventually, those at the very bottom have nothing and so starve and die. Yes this is deeply cynical and bleak, but, as Beckett would note, the truth of our lives is often to be found in what is the least appealing to us.


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