“Apocalypse done right”: thoughts on “Snowpiercer”

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In the 2013 post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer – based on Le Transperceneige, a French graphic novel from 1982 – a train barrels nonstop around the world, carrying the remnants of humanity through a world rendered uninhabitable by a human-caused ice age. These last people maintain order with a brutal totalitarian social structure, and both film and graphic novel follow one man as he leads a revolution against it. The trailer makes the film out to be a bit more action-blockbuster than it actually is, but it’s still worth watching:

I noticed some connections between Snowpiercer and the rigid, hyper-mechanized, exaggerated grandiosity of the trains and mills of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, which was the subject matter of my 2010 orchestral work The Concerto of Deliverance. I tried to capture all of these qualities – positive and negative – in this older piece.

But my new wind ensemble work Atlas Fractures breaks this material apart and turns it on its head. I see Snowpiercer as a dystopian sequel to Atlas Shrugged, and the fragmentation of this older piece is meant to reflect this. The first part, “The Fifth Concerto”, takes its title from a sub-narrative in Atlas Shrugged: the story of composer Richard Halley’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Halley – much like other male characters in the novel – is an elusive, blatantly exalted hero, and his fifth concerto is similarly shrouded in contrived mystery. Halley is the quintessential artist-narcissist, who self-righteously withholds his alleged greatness from society. The music here evokes an exaggerated heroism, confined by serial rhythmic structures, whose final burst of energy cuts to indifferent mechanical percussion. “imagining the Engine, from 1001 cars away” is a morass of uncoordinated sound, out of which emerges a truncated passage from my original work. Here’s one relevant image from that portion of the graphic novel:

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The final part, “The Proloff Revolution”, refers to the protagonist of Le Transperceneige (renamed “Curtis” in the film) and the fight he leads against the train’s totalitarian social structure. He and the destitute inhabitants of the rear car fight their way to the front, only to learn that their revolution has been futile.

What drew me to Snowpiercer was the complex politics in both the film and graphic novel. Does it model a Communist totalitarian state, or a capitalist oligarchy? Is the Engine’s keeper John Galt or Mao Zedong? Both film and graphic novel actually offer conflicting answers to these questions, and double-takes between “right” and “left” abound. In the film, the man behind the Engine is the industrial oligarch Wilford (Ed Harris), who quietly but arrogantly basks in his material excess as he informs Curtis (Chris Evans) that he himself permitted the revolution to happen, because a hopeful proletariat is easier to control.

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But the earlier classroom scene, where a teacher exhorts young children to chant in praise of Wilford, is unmistakably Maoist, as is the brutal food rationing for the lower class, who live in enforced squalor in the rear car of the train.

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And in a further twist, the woman enforcing this social order, Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton), is an absurd caricature of several right-wing and fascist leaders who also bears a deliberate and unmistakeable resemblance to Ayn Rand:

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The graphic novel offers even more complications: the man in charge of Olga (the Engine) is Alec Forrester – a sickly man who hardly resembles an image of wealth and power. And the message of futility is pure nihilism: Proloff has inadvertently spread a plague through the train, and he is the only man left alive.

For me, Atlas Fractures is a brief reflection on the complex politics of totalitarianism, whose evils have always arisen from both sides of the left-right binary. The score is here. I’m so incredibly grateful for Chris David Westover’s generous support of the piece! He’ll be conducting the first performance with the Bethel College Wind Ensemble on Friday 4/29.

Special thanks to the other consortium members as well:

Bixby (OK) High School Wind Ensemble, Jeremy Parker, music director
Meadows Wind Ensemble, Jack Delaney, music director
University of South Florida Wind Ensemble, John C. Carmichael, music director 

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