A park bench in Brixton, south London, under April skies. The artist Omer Fast is telling me about a New Yorker cartoon, ‘in which two sheep are consuming rolls of 35mm film. One sheep turns to the other and says: “I thought the book was better.”’ Fast is taking a break from shooting his first feature film, an adaptation of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel that since its initial release in 2005 by the small Parisian art imprint Metronome Press has become widely recognized as one of the most significant works of English prose fiction published this century. Remainder is much concerned with acts of rehearsal and restaging, of replication and reprise, and this is what makes Fast’s mention of the New Yorker cartoon (itself a micro-adaptation from the pictorial/textual to the verbal) more than a simple, preemptive nod towards all the usual challenges of transposing the page to the screen. Everything about the shoot throbs with a kind of ontic uncertainty, even lunch. Near our bench, members of the cast eat at a bank of trestle tables. One actor, who half an hour ago was channeling a cockney villain straight out of the TV cop show The Sweeney (1975–78), is laughing a mellifluous, drama school laugh.
McCarthy’s Remainder is narrated by an unnamed man (white, youngish, Brixton-based, utterly undistinguished), who awakes from a coma following a head trauma caused by ‘technology; parts, bits’ falling from the sky. Largely amnesiac, and undergoing physiotherapy to relearn the simplest of motor functions, he experiences what we might identify as an authenticity deficit, both in himself, and in the world into which he is reborn. His silence bought by an £8.5 million compensation settlement, he uses his new wealth to pursue a course of what Fast terms ‘DIY therapy’, reconstructing episodes from his vaguely remembered past (the smell of liver spluttering in a pan; the sound of a piano being played in a neighbouring apartment; the sight of cats tumbling from a pitched roof) in a series of obsessively detailed, stage- or film-set-like tableaux, so that he might inhabit reality with all the ‘realness’ that dubious term demands. When these remakes of mundane events fail to satisfy his appetite for authenticity, his tableaux become increasingly violent, and ever more criminal – on one level, we might read the novel’s title as a reference to the human body, after whatever dim flame that makes it a self (if, indeed, ‘self’ is not merely a humanist fantasy about our essential fullness and continuity) has been snuffed out. Remainder’s protagonist, as Fast points out, is not an artist, or even an artist manqué, but an ‘anti-creative’ who ends up ‘falling into genre’. His attempts to use the conventions of theatre and cinema to shape his reality are ‘ass-backwards’. Here, ‘the fake calls forth the real’.
Fast tells me that, when he first met McCarthy to discuss the project, they ‘spent a weekend staring at the wall together, before creating a diagram of the book that looked like a Mark Lombardi painting. I folded this up, put it in my suitcase, and disappeared to write the script.’ A few days after my conversation with Fast, I receive an email from McCarthy describing this blueprint, ‘plotting out certain ideas and thoughts’, in which ‘one arrow pointed to the words “zombie flâneur”’. The writer tells me he was ‘already familiar with Omer’s work before he started making the film. I was a huge fan, in fact. It’s all about mediation, repetition, trauma, inauthenticity – same as the novel […] I’m just incredibly lucky that it’s Omer doing it. I think he’s oneof the two or three very best artists of our generation. But what’s fascinating here is that he’s [adapting the novel] within the parameters of a narrative feature film. In a way, it’s easy to imagine Remainder as an art film. In fact, you could almost say that it’s already been done – by Pierre Huyghe in The Third Memory (2000) or by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006). What Omer’s doing is almost an Oulipian exercise: turning this into something to watch while you eat popcorn!’
McCarthy was ‘thinking of cinema a lot’ when he wrote Remainder: ‘the slowness and textural details of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films, or Andy Warhol’s cinematic self-awareness. Certainly, it’s about the limits of realism or naturalism, which is a central question for the novel since Gustave Flaubert (or, for that matter, Miguel de Cervantes); but it’s also a central one for film and visual art.’ For the writer, if the adaptation is ‘going to be any good, it has to be an original work by Omer Fast, not a second-hand work by Tom McCarthy’, and the artist’s script differs in several important respects from the novel. Some secondary characters have been amplified and some key scenes have been cut, among them the transcendental feint of the apparently ‘miraculous’ disappearance of a quantity of windscreen-wiper fluid, and the book’s final reenactment, in which a hijacked aircraft describes an endless, fuel-draining loop. Fast has also introduced an accent on the camera as witness. Characters film each other with mobile phones and threaten to upload the footage to YouTube. (The video sharing site was launched in 2005, the year that Metronome first published Remainder.) Unlike McCarthy’s narrator, Fast’s protagonist records his reenactments, inviting cctv cameras into his tableaux ‘like vampires’. Unnamed in the book, the MacGuffinish ‘parts, bits’ that set events in motion are identifiable in the film as some sort of surveillance tech. ‘A drone maybe,’ says Fast ‘although this is ambiguous.’
For McCarthy, visiting the set of Remainder was like stepping into ‘a scene from the novel: all these incomplete interiors with borders beyond which you just see ladders, scaffolding and diagrams; and the gaping, cavernous void of a warehouse-studio’. On the day I visit the Brixton shoot, Fast is filming an exterior scene, in which the protagonist (played by Tom Sturridge, still beautiful beneath a shaggy, Robinson Crusoe-style beard) makes a call from a phone box, and is harassed by local youths. As the crew busy themselves with boom mics and makeup, interrupted by sudden rain showers, and the clatter of passing trains, it’s impossible not to notice how much hard work goes into maintaining a simulation of reality, even for a few short minutes – reality itself, of course, has it easy; it just keeps on keeping on. Watching take after take, I see the actors’ performances undergo subtle shifts of inflection, with and without directorial input. It makes me think of Fast’s extraordinary film, Continuity (2012), shown at dOCUMENTA 13, in which a traumatized Afghan war veteran’s homecoming is reprised over and over again, becoming increasingly disturbing until the whole notion of ‘home’, indeed of any stable existential foothold, begins to crumble and give way. Moving to a new vantage point, I notice that the phone box from which Sturridge makes his call is propped up with little wooden wedges, out of the cameras’ line of sight. McCarthy’s psychopathically exacting narrator, the ‘anti-creative’ reenactor, wouldn’t have stood for that.