Ivaylo Ditchev

Global Flows of Extras

in: Lettre International, #72 Berlin Frühjahr 2006

*The eassey was originaly published under the title "Globale Statistenströme" in Lettre International, #72, Frühjahr 2006. An edited version was printed in the publication Extra Work: Taking the Figure of the Extra in Cinema as a Metaphor, merz&solitude: Stuttgart, 2008


If you think everything has been said on globalization, you should see Battles of Troy by Bulgarian artist Krassimir Terziev. It tells the story of one of those mega-blockbusters, the $185 million Troy seen through the eyes of the extras.

The very geography of film industry is fascinating. As we know, the action of the Iliad takes place in present-day Turkey, but for economic reasons (and because of the Iraq War) the main shooting was outsourced to Mexico, where some 300 Bulgarians would be transported to play the role of Greeks and Trojans in the monumental battle scenes. Why Bulgarian extras? Because they look like Greeks. “We are the Mediterranean type” one of the boys says, for- getting that his country (since the empire of the great czar Simeon in the 9th century) has mostly been separated from the sea in question by other coun- tries. The truth is that the Bulgarian extras are the cheapest possible movie labor force one can buy in this part of the world; at $12 a day they are not only four times less expensive than the local Mexicans, but cost much less than the horses the heroes ride.

Just imagine the global scene: Bulgarians, transported to Mexico, to repre- sent Greeks in a Hollywood production!

An extra is a curious figure, perfectly adapted to metaphor. To be an extra is not a job, and you can hardly be a professional since you do not know whether they will need your type in the next production. A very characteristic, long, warty nose is usually used only once; maybe only having some univer- sally looking big muscles or breasts could help you stay in business for some time. This is what has changed since Fellini: instead of expressing irreducible individuality, the extra nowadays stands for the abstract, flexible human mate- rial. He is temporariness incarnated, waiting to be hired, to be told where to stay or what to do. Wearing someone else’s clothes, running from one height to another over and over again, without even knowing what went wrong and why they need to re-shoot the sequence. And in the end most of it is cut out and the extra is left speculating before the screen whether that foot on the left could be his. Now imagine this mass of disguised bodies moving around the global world.

I remember having had a similar experience when I was a pupil in another era.

It was during the Student Games in Sofia that the communist regime used as an occasion to stage a majestic show of prosperity, progress and order for the rest of the world. So they mobilized us youngsters for what they called “background.” We were deployed along the stadium, opposite the grand stand, and taught to hoist colored flags under the command of the teacher’s whistle. At a distance, from the point of view of the prominent guests those flags merged into beautiful pictures like doves of peace or space ships circling round the Earth. At least so they told us because all we, the background, could natu- rally see were our neighbors. I must say we were happy for the rehearsals took weeks on end (“At one you hoist the blue, at two you wave the yellow ...”), and of course there was no school. While we were hoisting those colored flags, French students were occupying the Sorbonne, the Czechs were throwing stones at Soviet tanks, and we were glad to be part of the scenery of the modern world.

In a way, our brave Bulgarian-Achaeans are also happy in the background of the postmodern world. Even the most absurd experience is better than no experience at all. An extra participates in the global thing, he is part of the flow. They would even feel like colonizers in this exotic place walking around with their swords and helmets. In a way, being an extra is a matter of narcissism. Even if he is not the subject of his life, his body is there, part of the plot. I was struck by the strange shift in the meaning of the word “adventure” they use to describe this: the adventure of being taken to some place, disguised, pushed around. Think of this: tourists regularly describe themselves as adventurers. Why? Because their bodies have been transported to various locations, placed in different sceneries.

We won’t understand the global machine of desire in overestimating the role of money. A strong young man whom we see spending hours in the fitness club to build muscles does not sacrifice three months of this life just for the $12 that do not even cover the drinks he has under the hellish sun. There is the promise made by the image-world. The vague dream that something might happen, someone will notice his particularly handsome body, and offer a bigger role in the film. Those boys cannot even articulate it, it seems somehow obvious – if you happen to be transported to a good place, there are chances that good things happen to you – to get a job, find a rich widow, anything.

It is this vagueness of the dream which amazes me in the contemporary human flows. One is ready to be carried to the other side of the globe, not pushed by a will to conquer, discover or trade, but just to be there and wait for opportunities. Would it be that the global world no longer makes it possi- ble to formulate a clear project, to build a stable career, to have some long term vision? The global migrant is an extra attracted by those distant images of Californian palms and swimming pools. The consumer scene is concrete up to the individual brand, whereas activity always remains vague – maybe a Trojan, or an extraterrestrial for that matter. This is how the main role of subjectivity is reduced to transport you to the right place, not to do the right thing: places of consumption have become hyper-visible, actions dissolve into the nebula of infinite possibilities.

Happiness looks more and more like a lottery: it will come to you if you just give it a chance. Benjamin saw the link between capitalism and lottery under a different angle: he linked to the machine where every operation begins anew erasing the past. The global scene of desire operates through spatialization as in a game where once you land in square X you draw a lucky card, square Y makes you step back three steps. You move not as an actor, but as an extra, expecting things to happen to you. The fragmentation of time and the new humility before global complexity transcending possible human understanding makes results ever more arbitrarily linked to human intentions. This may seem unjust for the best, but it inspires the immense mediocre majorities to become a powerful machine of desire. Because lottery is the only form of radical democracy, for everyone can make money on the stock exchange, everyone is allowed to run for president.

But consider this. Belief is also an optical problem. Maintaining the faith in the lottery desire machine implies a specific direction of the public gaze. When you are looking at the one happy winner – Brad Pitt proudly leading the Hollywood hordes – hope is strong and participation unwavering. But when you turn to those who just sweat in the desert and never win, as Terziev’s film invites us to do, the lottery world starts to look less modern and much more like those times depicted by Homer.

As you might know, in ancient times only the king was allowed to possess a destiny and astrologers made horoscopes for him alone. Thus a bad day for Alexander the Great could imply thousands of killed soldiers, even if they might have had their luckiest stars this very day. It seems logical. Try to design horoscopes of all those poor people – there will be a mess of contradicting prophecies, with no line of destiny to deduce from the chaos. The global scene of success makes you think of a comeback of those times: the bigger the budgets, the smaller the numbers of the lucky ones who have a destiny and the more extras hanging around.

Anyway, nothing happens to our extras: they get back home to pick up their jobs as gym teachers or bodyguards, maybe with some slight aftertaste of some sort of deceit, of having been lured into the make-believ world, then let down. Only a few lucky ones out of 300 managed to marry American tourist-ladies who were hanging around on the set and left for a better world. And yet, one thing has been changed by their experience. Being moved around as human background has distorted their gaze. They say they can no longer correctly look at a film: instead of concentrating on Brad Pitt, they tend to focus on the third guard, up in the left corner and thus spoil the whole magic of globalization.

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