Nostalgia for the Future: Consumerist Desire and the Strange Chronology of Ti West’s Pearl (2022)

Ti West’s Pearl (2022), the prequel to his film X, released earlier in the same year, greatly enriches that original film by adding important background information. At the same time, Pearl also introduces some important new material of its own. Like X (which is set in 1979), Pearl centrally deals with a well-known version of the American dream that sees a young girl from modest beginnings dreaming of rising to fame and stardom through participation in the film industry or some other form of show business. Moreover, in both X and Pearl these dreams are thwarted in ways that involve a turn to horror—and in ways that suggest a fundamental problem with the American dream itself. Pearl, however,draws very extensively on its 1918 context to give the American dream of show business fame a very different texture in that film. The context of Pearl includes World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, the two most important specific events of that year. However, Pearl depends even more centrally upon deeper historical phenomena that occurred in the first decades of the twentieth century, including the explosive rise to dominance of a new consumerist form of capitalism and the rapid growth of the Hollywood film industry, which was a key part of this new capitalist system. Because of its engagement with these crucial underlying historical phenomena, Pearl is ultimately a much more serious and profound film than its predecessor. At the same time, Pearl is a rhetorically complex film that is not fully faithful to it historical context, drawing much of its basic texture from Golden Age Hollywood films of the 1930s. This aspect of the film suggests an odd sort of nostalgia for the future that ultimately comments in important ways on the impact of consumer capitalism on the historical imagination.

Pearl’s Show-Business Dreams

The title character of Pearl (played by Mia Goth, who also co-wrote the screenplay with West) is a young woman who has grown up on the now-failing (but aptly named) “Powder Keg Farms” in Texas. At one point late in the film, she explains her basic goal in life: all she wants, she says, is to be “dancing up on the screen like the pretty girls in the pictures.” Indeed, the nature of Pearl’s ambitions is already made patently clear in the first few minutes of the film. When we first see the title character, she is posing in front of a mirror, wearing a very nice dress that turns out to belong to her mother. As Pearl steps away from the mirror, still admiring herself, we suddenly hear the loud thunks of stage lights being switched off, an intrusion that can be attributed to the fact that Pearl is imagining herself to be performing in a movie. The screen goes completely dark. Then the lights switch back, spotlighting Pearl’s double reflection in the mirrors, as she slowly dances to lushly romantic movie music. The camera pans across her reflection and back into darkness, then on to a direct shot of the dancing Pearl. We are clearly now in the realm of Pearl’s dreams, but the dream is rudely interrupted by Pearl’s stern German mother, Ruth (Tandi Wright), who (we will discover) often interrupts and thwarts Pearl’s fantasies. The interruption here is signaled as the romantic soundtrack audibly grinds to a halt. Ruth castigates Pearl for borrowing the dress and orders her down to the barn to feed the farm animals, who seem to be her only friends.

Once in the barn, Pearl proclaims the animals there to be her “audience.” She tells a cow about her dream of leaving the farm because she is too “special” for such a setting. “One day,” she announces, “the whole world’s gonna know my name.” This ambition will, in fact, be made clear at several points in the film. When she cycles into town to pick up morphine for her vegetative father[1], she pops into the town movie theater to watch a (fictional) film called Palace Follies, which features a group of female dancers whom we can see dancing to the film’s integrated musical soundtrack. Of course, films in 2018 had no such soundtracks, so the music we hear is obviously merely in Pearl’s head, as she imagines herself dancing in the film. In fact, what we hear is an excerpt from the song “Oui Oui Marie,” which runs through Pearl’s head multiple times in this film—and had also run through her head at a key moment in X. In the course of Pearl, will also eventually see shots of Pearl’s dancing in Palace Follies, as she projects herself into the film.

After the showing of that film, Pearl chances to meet the theater’s handsome young projectionist (played by David Corenswet), who feeds her fantasies by giving her a glimpse of a world very different from her family farm. For one thing, he works, if in a lowly sense, in the film industry and gets to watch unlimited films as part of his job. For another, he lives a rather carefree existence that differs dramatically from Pearl’s claustrophobic life. “I’m what more civilized people refer to as bohemian,” he explains. He is so bohemian that he is also something of a connoisseur of the stag films that were at that time illegal in America. He even shows one such film to Pearl, having brought it home with him from military service in France. Pearl is quite surprised to learn that such films even exist, though she seems more titillated than scandalized.

At one point, Pearl’s fantasies intersect with reality when a local church holds auditions for girls to perform as dancers in a Christmas show they plan to take on a tour of seven different Texas towns. It isn’t exactly Palace Follies, but it’s a start, and Pearl is convinced that she will be able to win the part. She cycles to her audition full of hope and fresh from having killed both her parents and pitchforked that projectionist (when he became turned off by her obvious psychological instability). She then gets so involved in her performance that she suddenly imagines herself involved in a full-scale Hollywood musical production number, complete with backup dancers and a backdrop of scenes from the war, ending with a spectacular display of fireworks.

Pearl doesn’t get the part, of course, because they’re looking for someone “younger and blonde,” suggesting that Texas churches and Hollywood casting traditions might have more in common than is immediately obvious. Pearl is crushed, her dreams shattered. Her younger, blonde sister-in-law Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro) helps her back to the farmhouse. Then, as Pearl sits at the kitchen table with Mitsy, confessing that “I’m worried there may be something real wrong with me,” Mitsy suggests that Pearl might try explaining what she means by pretending that she is talking to her husband Howard and attempting to explain herself to him. Pearl complies, and Goth delivers a bravura Oscar-worthy performance in a speech that begins with an admission of her adultery with the projectionist and continues with an acknowledgement that she was originally interested in Howard mainly because she thought he might be her ticket off the farm and to living “a life straight out of the pictures,” if she could only prevent him from learning who she truly is. Then, she describes who she is with confessions of killing everything from small animals to her parents, shocking Mitsy so badly that she attempts to run away, despite Pearl’s plea that “it can be our secret,” in one of the several direct verbal echoes (or anticipations) of dialogue in X. Pearl then runs down the fleeing Mitsy and hacks her to death with an axe.

Pearl’s show-business dreams are quintessentially American. They are also in many ways very much of her time, and the film does a great deal to establish the historical setting of the film, including a full-screen graphic reading “1918” near the beginning of the film. This year, of course, was the final one of World War II—and the one in which American involvement in the war (which began only in 1917) was at its peak. Pearl is filled with reminders of the importance of the war to its action, in which Howard’s willing departure for military service in Europe has left a disappointed and desperately lonely Pearl stranded back on the farm she so terribly wants to leave. It is also the case that many of the other farmhands on Powder Keg Farms have departed for the war, leaving Pearl and Ruth to try to run the farm (and tend to Pearl’s completely disabled father) all on their own.

Less obviously, World War I has led to special hardship for the family specifically because the family is German, which makes them essentially outcasts amid the anti-German climate of the war, as Ruth reminds Pearl at one point. Other than this reminder, nothing is really made of the family’s German ethnicity in the film, but it certainly seems likely that Pearl’s desire to escape the family farm is partly inspired by an attempt to escape her German background and the ostracism that goes with it in this climate. This aspect of Pearl’s life also adds an extra dimension to Pearl’s show business dreams. It is obviously relevant to Pearl’s dreams that, as Hilary Hallett has documented, the new film industry offered unprecedented opportunities to women, contributing to a transformation in gender roles that led, among other things, to the women’s suffrage amendment in 1920, just two years after the action of Pearl. But the emerging Hollywood film industry also offered unparalleled opportunities for success and acceptance for a number of talented immigrants and children of immigrants (especially Jewish ones, but also a variety of others) who might otherwise have remained outsiders to the American dream[2].

Pearl also calls attention to its historical setting by highlighting the “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918—in a motif that surely has special resonances for audiences that are still living through the COVID-19 pandemic[3]. Several different characters openly express fear of the flu virus, and there is, for audiences in the early 2020s, a special jolt of recognition when we see government tents dispensing medications to help fight the flu or when we see numerous characters in the film wearing facemasks in an effort to avoid infection. The way so many people in the film are worried about the flu also adds an extra note of anxiety to the atmosphere of Pearl, enhancing the sense, which builds through the film, that bad things are afoot.

However, the historical context of Pearl includes much more than simply the events of 1918. The two decades or so leading up to 1918 were a crucial historical moment, a time of tremendous change and modernization in the United States. Most obviously, in terms of Pearl’s dreams, these decades included the first years of the American film industry. Pearl would have been born at a time when this industry was essentially non-existent, film technology itself still in its infancy. So, in a sense, she grew up with the American film industry. The girls she admires on the screen seem to be living especially exciting lives partly because they are the first generation ever to have such lives, ever to be seen and “loved,” as Pearl puts it, by so many people, thanks to the unprecedentedly wide distribution provided by the new medium.

Importantly, though, the new film industry was only a part of broader and more fundamental changes that were sweeping across America in those same decades. Indeed, the basic texture of Pearl’s dreams (without all the murders) is already present in something as early as Theodor Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, whose protagonist is a young woman from the sticks who comes to Chicago seeking the kind of excitement and success that are offered by the emergent urban culture of the time. Ultimately, Carrie’s dreams turn to show business, and she even succeeds in becoming a famous stage actress, only to discover that this success is empty and hollow. She ends the novel in her rocking chair, by her window, still wondering if there is any path to happiness.

Carrie’s hopes are high, but ill-defined, when she arrives in Chicago, but her dreams begin to take a much firmer shape when she observes the fancy clothing that she sees in turn-of-the-century Chicago’s new department stores and becomes enthralled by the magic lure of the commodity. That her dreams are driven by such an explicitly economic motivation is an indication of Dreiser’s deep skepticism toward the new consumerist form of capitalism that he saw emerging in the America around him. Indeed, the rise of consumer capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century was the fundamental force driving all the other transformations in American society at the time.

In his seminal study of the rise of consumer capitalism in America, William Leach has emphasized the fundamental nature of the transformation of American society that accompanied this shift in the emphasis of the economic system. Among other things, Leach notes that the new emphasis on marketing and advertising that was so central to this new system spread into all aspects of American society. As Leach notes, the first years of the twentieth century saw an outburst of pageants, parades, and other spectacles all over America, viewing these spectacles as extensions of the dazzling light and color driven displays of commodities that made the major department stores so attractive to consumers like Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber. And he sees the rise of Hollywood film as very much a part of this phenomenon.

Pearl does not overtly emphasize consumerism (there are no fancy department stores in Pearl’s small Texas town), and it is certainly the case that Pearl’s Hollywood dreams have more to do with a desire to be loved and admired than a quest for fabulous wealth. Still, we can see that Pearl likes nice things from the way she fondles her mother’s dresses, making it clear that her Hollywood dreams include the dream of having such things of her own. In addition, Pearl is anachronistically shot in brilliant color, making it a spectacular object built of color and light, very much like the window displays in early department stores.

In this sense, even the bicycle we see Pearl riding at several different points in the film is indicative of her historical context. Bicycles at this time became something of a symbol of the burgeoning women’s suffrage moment, whose participants tended to see bicycles as source of increased mobility and freedom. Pearl’s bicycle is, indeed, her only means off the farm and therefore serves for her as a source, however limited and temporary, of liberation from the doldrums of farm life. The bicycle, which began to gain this popularity in the 1890s, at the same time that consumer goods in general started to become more popular, can thus, as Adrienne LaFrance has argued, be seen as paving the way for the rise of the new woman and the fight for women’s rights. Meanwhile, as Luis Vivanco notes, bicycles were also central to the rise of consumer capitalism, the bicycle being one of “the very first—and most expensive— mass-produced luxury durable consumer goods,” whose production in the United States was central to the “creation of new consumer markets to generate desire for these products” (26). The bicycle, Vivanco goes on to point out, was “the first durable luxury item to be mass marketed” (48).

Pearl and the 1930s: Nostalgia for the Future

Despite the fact that the action of Pearl is firmly situated in 1918, many aspects of the film have a flavor that seems much more like the 1930s. From the film’s very first shot, many shots in the film are reminiscent of the films of the 1930s, and the soundtrack throughout the film sounds very much like it might have been taken from a 1930s (or even 1940s) film, alternating between melodramatic and sentimental. Even the film’s opening credits are shown in a script that is clearly designed to recall the look of on-screen scripts from classic Hollywood films of the 1930s or 1940s. In general, the actual content of the film seems reasonably authentic for 1918, though Pearl’s stylistic anachronism is accompanied by a certain amount oof anachronistic content as well, especially when that content involves the film industry.

For example, the movie theater Pearl attends in the film certainly looks more modern than a 1918 theater in a small Texas town would be likely to look—almost as if Pearl is traveling into the future when she enters the theater. On the other hand, in addition to Palace Follies, the movie theater Pearl attends is currently showing Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara,and Gene of the Northland, starring Gene Gauntier, films from 1917 and 1915, respectively. These are excellent choices, both because they could both conceivably be showing at this time and because they essentially bookend the roles available to women at the time. Bara, of course, was one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols, well cast as Cleopatra, who had already become virtually synonymous in the popular American mind with exotic feminine sexuality[4]. Gauntier is less known than Bara today, but she was an important silent-film screenwriter as well as actress—so much so that Gene of the Northland is titled after its star, rather than its similarly-named main character (Jeanne), who is a prototypical pure-as-the-driven-snow good girl.

The only “silent” film we actually see in Pearl is Palace Follies, whose anachronistic integrated soundtrack can be explained as Pearl’s fantasy. But there are many other ways in which Pearl engages with films of the 1930s. For one thing, its basic plot motif of a young farm girl dreaming of fame in Hollywood would have been much more common in the 1930s than in 1918, when performing in Hollywood films was still regarded as a bit disreputable (and definitely a step down from acting on stage). Thus, when Leach lists the Hollywood dream factory as a main source of romantic visions in the new American consumer culture, he cites an example from the mid-1930s, by which time Hollywood films had added sound and were increasingly adding color, allowing them to fully reflect the spectacle-oriented ethos of consumerism. Leach notes that, when journalist James Rorty reported on a trip across America in the mid-1930s, “what Rorty saw was a fully realized consumer landscape with separate regions carved out, catering to different parts of the consumer paradise: Detroit to the ‘manufacture of mobility for the continent;”’ Hollywood to the ‘manufacture of the soothing, narcotic dreams of love, of riches, of powerful untamed egos;’ and New York to ‘the manufacture of cheerio radio optimism … and commodity fetishism intoned by unctuous announcers’” (360).

Pearl’s own “narcotic” dreams are certainly of a kind that would have been much more likely to be inspired by watching 1930s films than films of the 1910s. For one thing, she seems to dream particularly of performing in musicals, which didn’t really exist in 1918. For another, the one scene in which we see Pearl performing amid one of her movie-inspired dreams is that audition in which she imagines herself performing in what appears to be an elaborate musical production number of a kind that certainly didn’t exist in silent film but that was one of Hollywood’s most important and popular genres. And, if it seems odd that this Hollywood dream includes a backdrop of World War I, one need only consider Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), a key 1930s musical with production numbers choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley, Hollywood’s leading choreography in the decade. Of this film’s three lavish production number, the second is a light (and slightly risqué) number that reinforces the romantic comedy plot of the film. The first, though, is more socially engaged, directly addressing the economic realities of the Great Depression. And the film closes with a highly politicized number, the memorable “Forgotten Man” sequence, featuring the performers in costumes that simulate poverty. They also sing of the hardships of the Depression, but now with an emphasis (inspired by the 1932 Bonus Army march on Washington) on the failure of America to live up to the promises made to the soldiers who fought in World War I. Particularly striking is a sequence showing a troop of soldiers proudly marching off to war, then staggering back, wounded and bleeding, then standing in line at a soup kitchen.

It’s easy to see how films such as Gold Diggers of 1933 might be inspirational to someone like Pearl, while it is difficult to see how the silent films of her own era could have had the same effect[5]. The whole vibe of Pearl’s dreams (until things turn ugly) is very reminiscent of all those “show biz dream” films of classic Hollywood, beginning with Al Jolsen’s Jakie Rabinowitz in The Jazz Singer (1927) and including things such as Gold Diggers or a series of films involving a young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. In many ways, though, the Garland film that this one resembles most is the beloved classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), with the family farm playing the role of Kansas and Pearl’s imagined Hollywood playing the role of Oz and, especially, the Emerald City. And, of course, the brilliant color of Pearl, evoking the Technicolor films of classic Hollywood in stark contrast to what should be a relatively grim and colorless landscape in rural Texas, recalls the shift from the drabness of Kansas to the dazzling Technicolor of Oz. Indeed, the Technicolor film that Pearl evokes most extensively is precisely The Wizard of Oz, a film based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which is referenced by Leach as one of the leading examples of turn-of-the-century American literature that reflects (and endorses) the rise of consumer capitalism at that time (251)[6]. In a similar mode, Paul Nathanson has argued that Dorothy’s progress through Oz “recapitulates American history,” very much as I argue herein that the duet of X and Pearl recapitulates key aspects of American history (122).

In addition to the general parallels in implications, visual style, and basic premise, Pearl directly echoes The Wizard of Oz in several specific scenes, including the one in which the confrontation that ultimately leads to Ruth’s death clearly resembles Dorothy’s killing of the Wicked Witch of the West. The most important and telling parallel scene, though, is the one in which Pearl cycles down a road that passes through a cornfield, then notices a scarecrow stationed in the field[7]. Dorothy Gale, of course, also finds a somewhat similar scarecrow in a corn field, though her cornfield is green and fresh, while Pearl’s is brown and dead, creating a completely different atmosphere. In keeping with that atmospheric difference, Dorothy’s scarecrow also looks charming and benevolent, while the face of Pearl’s scarecrow looks like something, well, from a horror movie. Like Dorothy, Pearl stops and gets the scarecrow down off his pole, followed by a musical interlude. But where Pearl most drastically departs from the Wizard of Oz comes next, when Pearl hops atop the supine scarecrow and starts to hump it while fantasizing about that young projectionist, whom she had first met only a few minutes earlier.

Given the overall texture of Pearl, this seemingly shocking development should really come as no surprise. Over and over again, the film presents us with Pearl’s all-American dreams, then shows us their dark and perverse side, just as it starts with a classic Golden Age Hollywood aesthetic and then shows us the dark underbelly of that look. In an interview with Simon Thompson for Forbes magazine (in which Thompson clearly believes that Pearl is set in the 1940s, which says a lot about the look and feel of the film), West talks about his aesthetic choices in the film, noting that the look of Pearl was “Technicolor-inspired” and “Disney-esque.” He explains, “I wanted to tell the story in an aesthetic that was very far removed from X, so whether it was going to be a very German expressionist black and white The Night of the Hunter kind of thing, or this sort of Mary Poppins thing, it had to be something that was a big swing.” Ultimately, says West, the main aesthetic inspirations were “the classic Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking and those tropes, maybe like Hitchcock as far as the suspense goes.”

Along these lines, Erik Piepenburg describes Pearl as having a “Douglas Sirk style with a slasher sensibility.” Not everyone, of course, was impressed with this combination. Nick Allen, in an early review of the film, declared that “the aesthetic gambit of Pearl registers more as being cute than immersive. There are just too many moments in which the sincerity of Pearl is questionable.” One could argue, though, that the insincerity of Pearl is a crucial part of the meaning of the film, suggesting as it does the inauthenticity of the new consumerism, with its emphasis on spectacle and appearance, rather than reality, with its turn from use value to exchange value as the most important property of the new commodities being mass-produced in that society. Moreover, if the disjunction between the film’s bright visual style and its dark subject matter seem odd, one could also argue that it creates a sort of Brechtian cognitive estrangement that at least has the potential to make audiences take a step back and think about just why the film was made this way. Read within the context of the explosive rise of consumer capitalism in the decades beginning with the 1890s, Pearl’s dramatization of the changing of American society during these decades in the form of a bloody horror film suggests the potentially damaging, de-humanizing, and soul-destroying nature of this newly emergent form of capitalism.

This sort of reading also offers a productive explanation of the very odd chronology of the X-Pearl sequence, including the fact that the film set in 1979 was released before the film set in 1918, as well as the fact that the film set in 1918 seems to draw so much aesthetic inspiration from the films of the 1930s or 1940s. The simplest explanation for the former of these is that X was conceived first and was already well on the way to filming before Pearl had even been written[8]. Still, given that the films were made back-to-back and then released just months apart, it would have been entirely possible to reverse the order of their release.

It is also the case that Pearl is informed throughout by a special sort of dramatic irony that arises from the fact that this film was released months after X, which reveals the baleful way life has gone (and ends) for Pearl. Pearl’s speech to “Howard” via Mitsy ends as she pledges to stay on the farm with her husband and to make a life together, “till death do us part,” which is certainly more poignant if we have already seen the way they die in X. And the intensity of Pearl’s dreams becomes all the more heartbreaking if we already know how thoroughly those dreams will be broken. All the things we learn about Pearl’s background in Pearl also add a great deal of poignancy to X by helping us to understand why the old Pearl of 1979 reacts so strongly when she sees a young woman (who reminds her so much of herself) pursuing her own show business dreams right under Pearl’s nose.

The decision to release Pearl and X in an order that is the reverse of the chronological order of the events of the film is thus dramatically quite effective. And Pearl goes out of its way to utilize this effect by including so many “Easter eggs” that directly refer directly back (or forward) to X. Some of these moments seem simply clever, as when Pearl begins her audition in the church by positioning herself on stage by standing on her mark, which is (of course), an X, to which the camera calls careful attention. But sometimes these moments serve a genuine thematic purpose, as when we see direct connections between the young and old Pearl. More subtly, there is a moment when Ruth looks down on the young Pearl from an upstairs window of the farmhouse very much in the same way the old Pearl looks down on Maxine near the beginning of X, thus establishing an interesting reminder that Ruth (who mostly seems to be such an unsympathetic character) might have a great deal in common with Pearl as a woman whose dreams have been thwarted by forces beyond her control. Indeed, at one point, Ruth even explicitly reminds Pearl that her own dreams have been dashed by the collapse of her husband and the demise of the farm. We have no information about how Pearl’s German parents got to Texas, but one can imagine a young Ruth immigrating to America with hopes of a better life, hopes that have now been dashed by her husband’s infirmity and the war’s negative impact on the fortunes of the farm. Such a reading would add another dimension to the film’s deconstruction of America as a land of dreams.

This vision of America as a New World of new possibilities is an old one that goes back at least to John Winthrop’s 1630 “city upon a hill” speech, but it surely took on a new form with the rise of consumer capitalism, which was all about the creation of desire for something more, particularly of the desire to consume more and more commodities and thus feed the capitalist economic system. Crucially, though, it was necessary, in order for that system to continue to grow and prosper, that these desires could never be fulfilled. Within the logic of this system, acquiring particularly coveted commodities did not make consumers content but merely stimulated them to yearn for even more acquisitions. Consumer capitalism is not about the fulfillment of desire but is instead precisely about ensuring that desire can never be fulfilled. And, of course, this same logic applies to show business within this system. There is a good reason why the dictum “always leave them wanting more” is widely attributed to P. T. Barnum, a showman who epitomized the new emphasis on spectacular consumerist entertainment.

The other element of odd chronology in Pearl (the fact that it seems to engage with films of the 1930s rather than films of its own time) also serves a practical function and can no doubt partly be explained by the fact that the films of the 1930s are the earliest ones whose basic style and texture audiences of the 2020s are likely to recognize. If West wanted to enhance his own film by entering into a dialogue with early Hollywood films, then the choice of the 1930s was probably the earliest one he had. Moreover, both American society and Hollywood film did not become infused with the energies that drive Pearl’s dreams until the 1930s, when Depression conditions lent themselves to fantasies of escape and the burgeoning American film industry increasingly focused those fantasies on Hollywood.

All that said, the odd chronologies of Pearl can also be seen to serve a deeper function as a commentary on the kind of fractured and fragmented sense of history Fredric Jameson has associated with postmodern narratives in general. From this point of view, the strange chronology of Pearl might simply be attributed to the fact that Pearl is a postmodern work, which it certainly is. To a postmodern sensibility, 1918, the 1930s, and 1979 are all equally “past.” Yet the strange chronology of Pearl is not a simple failure of historical imagination; it is overtly calculated to achieve certain effects, while the world of Pearl is careful constructed as the past of the world of X. And, while there are certainly ways in which the situation of Maxine in X resembles that of Pearl in Pearl, there are also ways in which their situations differ dramatically. And much of that difference comes from changes in the film industry that both Pearl and Maxine aspire to join. It is a far cry from Palace Follies (or even from the projectionist’s stag film) to the kind of legal porn that Maxine sees as her springboard to a new and more exciting life.

If the combination of Pearl and X thus acknowledges the reality of historical change, the strange chronology embodied these films also suggests some of the ways in which the historical progress of consumer capitalism has maimed our ability to perceive and understand the historical process. Moreover, this suggestion is very much in line with Jameson’s attribution of the maimed historical sense reflected in postmodern art to the direct effects of late capitalism, the form into which the consumer capitalism of the early twentieth century ultimately evolved. Particularly relevant to Pearl is Jameson’s discussion of the implications of the fact that Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint is a science fiction novel published in 1959 that is, oddly, driven by the kind of 1950s nostalgia that would come to be an important force in American culture in the 1970s and going forward. Referring to this phenomenon as “nostalgia for the present,” Jameson suggests that Dick’s unusual novel is actually quite typical of a particularly postmodern form of nostalgia that is fundamentally inauthentic because postmodern artists are not really capable of envisioning the past as fundamentally different from the present or of understanding the movement from past to future as a natural part of the historical process.

In his discussion of Dick’s novel, Jameson suggests that science fiction itself is a sort of reaction to the waning of historicity over the course of the twentieth century. Jameson suggests that, “if historical novel ‘corresponded’ to the emergence of historicity, of a sense of history in its strong modern post-eighteenth-century sense, science fiction equally corresponds to the waning or the blockage of that historicity, and, particularly in our own time (in the postmodern era), to its crisis and paralysis, its enfeeblement and repression” (Postmodernism 284). Science fiction thus emerges, for Jameson, as a “violent formal and narrative dislocation” that displaces its action into the future or into another world, opening up new possibilities for historical (and utopian) thinking that had otherwise been foreclosed.

Pearl manages no such overt utopian energy, and the logic of this film (especially when read alongside X) does not point to ways beyond the constraints of consumer capitalism, as the best science fiction can do. What Pearl does do, though, is illustrate the difficulty of mounting utopian dreams in a consumer capitalist society in which the imaginations of individuals have been thoroughly colonized, even constituted, by consumerism. By borrowing so much of its aesthetic from the classic Hollywood films that were still in the future in 1918 but that were well in the past relative to either the aesthetics or the release of the film, Pearl disrupts the normal chronological sequence. However, as opposed to the “violent formal and narrative dislocation” that Jameson associates with science fiction, Pearl merely executes a sort of reverse nostalgia whose vision of the future involves nothing new but something that is, in fact, now quite old. This strange chronology works in tandem with the prefabricated content of Pearl’s dreams to produce a powerful commentary on the way the consumerist desire machine and the Hollywood dream factory have such a stranglehold on the American imagination that it is virtually impossible to imagine a future that is fundamentally different from the present. Discussing this very limitation, Jameson suggests that “at best Utopia can serve the negative purpose of making us more aware of our mental and ideological imprisonment … and that therefore the best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively” (Archaeologies xiii). By this definition, Pearl’s dream is a utopian one indeed, made all the more so when Pearl is read alongside X, in which Pearl’s dream of Hollywood stardom has decayed into Maxine’s participation in a low-budget porn film, and Pearl herself winds up dead outside the farmhouse, her head mashed into goo after being run over by a pickup truck. And, of course, consumer capitalism has become more firmly ensconced than ever, not to mention more seductive and more soul-destroying. Read through Jameson, though, the utter failure of Pearl’s dreams serves the positive function of reminding us of just how limited our imaginations currently are by the prevailing system, so much so that it is currently impossible for us to imagine a genuine alternative to that system. For now, our imagination are like Pearl trapped on that farm, never able to get out. May we ultimately come to a better end than does she.

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Piepenburg, Erik. “The Multiplying Horror of Ti West.” The New York Times, 20 September 2022, Accessed 14 November 2022.

Thompson, Simon. “Ti West Talks Pearl Being Influenced by Everything from Mary Poppins to Norman Rockwell.” Forbes, 15 September 2022, Accessed 14 November 2022.

Vivanco, Luis A. Reconsidering the Bicycle: An Anthropological Perspective on a New (Old) Thing. Routledge, 2013.


[1] The film never specifies exactly what is wrong with the father, though there is one moment in which Ruth warns Pearl that seeking a career in dancing will lead to whoredom, “let alone the illness you may contract and spread.” In context, this comment seems to refer to venereal disease and not simply to the Spanish flu, which gives a special meaning to her immediate continuation that “you’ve seen what it does to your father,” suggesting that his condition might arise from an advanced stage of syphilis.

[2] See, for example, Neal Gabler on the crucial role played by Jewish filmmakers in the rise of the Hollywood film industry. And, of course, some Jewish immigrant filmmakers were also from Germany, such as Carl Laemle, the founder of the studio that became Universal Pictures.

[3] And, of course, COVID-19 also played a special role in the making of this film: X and Pearl were shot back-to-back in New Zealand during some of the worst months of the pandemic, taking advantage of the fact that swift and strong government action there had made that country one of the few places on earth where it was safe to make a film.

[4] Leach notes that exotic, orientalist motifs were among the most popular marketing schemes in the newly emergent consumer capitalism of the early twentieth century and that Cleopatra was a popular marketing image, as well as a popular early subject for films: “By 1918 Americans had seen numerous film versions of Cleopatra’s life” (103). And, as Booker and Daraiseh note, Cleopatra became (and remains) a popular image of exotic oriental sexuality in American popular culture, serving as the epitome of the “alluring, but dangerous woman” (70).

[5] Such Depression-era films, of course, were designed precisely to stimulate dreaming as a way of offering some sort of respite from the rigors of life in the era. In Bonnie and Clyde (1967), for example, the title characters attend Gold Diggers of 1933, with the implication that it might have encouraged their dreams of ill-gotten wealth.

[6] The Wizard of Oz is one of the most influential films in Hollywood history. In addition to a whole series of its own remakes or sequels, echoes (sometimes quite subtle) of The Wizard of Oz have appeared in numerous contemporary films by such filmmakers as David Lynch or the Coen Brothers. Pearl is not the first of these films to pick up on the dark underbelly of the Wizard of Oz, which is, after all, liberally populated with wicked witches and murderous flying monkeys that would be very much at home in a horror film.

[7] Pearl’s bicycle itself also echoes The Wizard of Oz, and the later scene in which Pearl cycles back into town after killing her parents has something of the same sinister vibe as the famous one in which Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) takes off with poor Toto on her bicycle. Also, see Pangborn for a discussion of the ways in which Miss Gulch’s bicycle is crucial to the film’s evocation of horror.

[8] West has stated in a number of interviews that Pearl was largely written during the two weeks when he and Goth were in COVID-19 quarantine in New Zealand, waiting to begin the filming of X. Luckily A-24 then greenlit the making of both films while everyone was already in New Zealand, using many of the same sets and thus slashing production costs.