Archive for June, 2015

I get exasperated when I read someone insisting dogmatically upon ideological purity. No such purity exists, as we are all participants, in varying degrees, in the characteristics of global civilization. One of those characteristics is the thermodynamic cycle of energy use and consumption that gradually depletes available energy. The Second Law guarantees depletion, typically over cosmological time frames, but we are seeing it manifest over human history as EROI decreases dramatically since the start of the fossil fuel era. So playing gotcha by arguing, for instance, “You use electricity, too, right? Therefore, you have no right to tell me what I can and can’t do with electricity!” is laughably childish. Or put another way, if even an inkling of agreement exists that maybe we should conserve, forgo needless waste, and accept some discomfort and hardship, then it’s typically “you first” whenever the issue is raised in the public sphere.

In a risible article published at Townhall.com, Michelle Malkin calls the Pope a hypocrite for having added his authority to what scientists and environmentalists have been saying: we face civilization-ending dangers from having fouled our own nest, or “our common home” as the Pope calls it. As though that disrespect were not yet enough, Malkin also tells the Pope essentially to shut it:

If the pontiff truly believes “excessive consumption” of modern conveniences is causing evil “climate change,” will he be shutting down and returning the multi-million-dollar system Carrier generously gifted to the Vatican Museums?

If not, I suggest, with all due respect, that Pope Francis do humanity a favor and refrain from blowing any more hot air unless he’s willing to stew in his own.

The disclaimer “with all due respect” does nothing to ease the audacity of a notorious ideologue columnist picking a fight over bogus principles with the leader of the world’s largest church, who (I might add) is slowly regaining some of the respect the Catholic Church lost over the past few scandalous decades. I suspect Malkin is guilelessly earnest in the things she writes and found a handy opportunity to promote the techno-triumphalist book she researched and wrote for Mercury Ink (owned by Glenn Beck). However, I have no trouble ignoring her completely, since she clearly can’t think straight.

Plenty of other controversy followed in the wake of the latest papal encyclical, Laudato Si. That’s to be expected, I suppose, but religious considerations and gotcha arguments aside, the Pope is well within the scope of his official concern to sound the alarm alongside the scientific community that was once synonymous with the Church before they separated. If indeed Pope Francis has concluded that we really are in the midst of both an environmental disaster and a mass extinction (again, more process than event), it’s a good thing that he’s bearing witness. Doomers like me believe it’s too little, too late, and that our fate is already sealed, but there will be lots of ministry needed when human die-offs get rolling. Don’t bother seeking any sort of grace from Michelle Malkin.

I’m not a serious cineaste, but I have offered a few reviews on The Spiral Staircase. There are many, many cineastes out there, though, and although cinema is now an old medium (roughly 100 years old), cineastes tend to be on the younger side of 35 years. Sure, lots of established film critics are decidedly older, typically acting under the aegis of major media outlets, but I’m thinking specifically of the cohort who use new, democratized media (e.g., cheap-to-produce and -distribute YouTube channels) to indulge in their predilections. For example, New Media Rockstars has a list of their top 100 YouTube channels (NMR No. 1 contains links to the rest). I have heard of almost none of them, since I don’t live online like so many born after the advent of the Information/Communications Age. The one I pay particular attention to is Screen Junkies (which includes Honest Trailers, the Screen Junkies Show, and Movie Fights), and I find their tastes run toward childhood enthusiasms that mire their criticism in a state of permanent adolescence and self-mocking geekdom. The preoccupation with cartoons, comic books, action figures, superheros, and popcorn films couldn’t be more clear. Movies Fights presumes to award points on the passion, wit, and rhetoric of the fighters rather than quality of the films they choose to defend. However, adjudication is rarely neutral, since trump cards tend to get played when a superior film or actor is cited against an inferior one.

So I happened to catch three recent flicks that are central to Screen Junkies canon: Captain America: Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Transformers: Age of Extinction (links unnecessary). They all qualify as CGI festivals — films centered on hyperkinetic action rather than story or character (opinions differ, naturally). The first two originate from the MCU (acronym alert: MCU = Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is lousy with comic book superheros) and the last is based on a Saturday-morning children’s cartoon. Watching grown men and a few women on Screen Junkies getting overexcited about content originally aimed at children gives me pause, yet I watch them to see what fighters say, knowing full well that thoughtful remarks are infrequent.

Were I among the fighters (no chance, since I don’t have my own media fiefdom), I would likely be stumped when a question needs immediate recall (by number, as in M:I:3 for the third Mission Impossible film) of a specific entry from any of numerous franchises pumping out films regularly like those named above. Similarly, my choices would not be so limited to films released after 1990 as theirs, that year being the childhood of most of the fighters who appear. Nor would my analysis be so embarrassingly visual in orientation, since I understand good cinema to be more about story and character than whiz-bang effects.

Despite the visual feast fanboys adore (what mindless fun!), lazy CGI festivals suffer worst from overkill, far outstripping the eye’s ability to absorb onscreen action fully or effectively. Why bother with repeat viewing of films with little payoff in the first place? CGI characters were interesting in and of themselves the first few times they appeared in movies without causing suspension of belief, but now they’re so commonplace that they feel like cheating. Worse, moviegoers are now faced with so many CGI crowds, clone and robot armies, zombie swarms, human-animal hybrids, et cetera ad nauseum, little holds the interest of jaded viewers. Thus, because so few scenes resonate emotionally, sheer novelty substitutes (ineffectively) for meaning, not that most chases or slugfests in the movies offer much truly original. The complaint is heard all the time: we’ve seen it before.

Here’s my basic problem with the three CGI-laden franchise installments I saw recently: their overt hypermilitarism. When better storytellers such as Kubrick or Coppola make films depicting the horrors of war (or other existential threats, such as the ever-popular alien invasion), their perspective is indeed that war is horrible, and obvious moral and ethical dilemmas flow from there. When hack filmmakers pile up frenzied depictions of death and destruction, typically with secondary or tertiary characters whose dispatch means and feels like nothing, and with cities destroyed eliciting no emotional response because it’s pure visual titillation, they have no useful, responsible, or respectable commentary. Even the Screen Junkies recognize that, unlike, say, Game of Thrones, none of their putative superheroes really face much more than momentary distress before saving the day in the third act and certainly no lasting injury (a little make-up blood doesn’t convince me). Dramatic tension simply drains away, since happy resolutions are never in doubt. Now, characters taking fake beatdowns are laughter inducing, sorta like professional wrestling after the sheepish admission that they’ve been acting all along. Frankly, pretend drama with nothing at stake is a waste of effort and the audience’s time and trust. That so many fanboys enjoy being goosed or that some films make lots of money is no justification. The latter is one reason why cinema so often fails to rise to the aspiration of art: it’s too bound up in grubbing for money.

Earlier this month, I offered a comment at Text Patterns that observed (in part) the following:

History demonstrates pretty clearly that the focus of innovation and investment has shifted considerably over the past 150 years or so from (1) mechanical contraptions and processes to (2) large infrastructure projects to (3) space exploration and now to (4) computers, communications, and networking.

I would amend (3) to include nuclear technologies on top of space exploration. Thus, various categories of innovation attract attention and glamor then fade away. I also suggested that correlating these orientations with styles of warfare might be an interesting blog post, but I won’t perform that analysis, leaving the idea available for others to develop.

With respect to (2), it seems to me that while large infrastructure projects enjoyed a period of preeminence from 1900 to 1950 or so, concluding roughly with the construction of the interstate highway system, then yielded in the popular imagination to nuclear power (and nuclear angst) and numerous NASA projects, infrastructure projects have never really stopped despite many reports of decaying and decrepit infrastructure that reduce quality of life and economic competitiveness. The development of high-speed rail, standard in Europe and Japan, is a good example of infrastructure never developed in the U.S. because we have chosen instead to support automobiles and over-the-road trucking. Elizabeth Moss Kanter’s new book, Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead, argues that we need to turn attention back to infrastructure posthaste.

If infrastructure projects lack the faux glamor and sexiness of more contemporary categories of innovation and investment, they have nonetheless been ongoing, though perhaps not diligently enough to avoid periodic bridge collapses, electrical grid failures, and train derailments. Surveying the scene in my hometown (Chicago), I can recall that in the last 15 years, major renovations have been done to all the interstates (they are under construction almost continuously yet remain choked with traffic), as well as two massive reconstruction projects to different stretches of Upper and Lower Wacker Drive. The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has also had major capital projects to update its rail lines and stations, the newest phase being Red and Purple Line modernization, including a planned flyover for the Brown Line just north of the Clark Junction. This list of projects omits regular neighborhood street and intersection repairs, redesigns, and reconstruction, as well as water, sewer, and other utility repairs, all of which lack a significant wow factor.

One project that just opened, though it’s not yet quite complete, is converting the disused rail line known as the Bloomingdale Trail (now renamed The 606 after the stem of Chicago zip codes) into a walking/running/biking path and park system extending across several NW Chicago neighborhoods. Although the Bloomingdale Trail has been open less than a week, I ventured onto it and found that it has already been widely embraced by the public. Indeed, riding the Bloomingdale Trail on my bicycle was frustrating and tense because there was no possibility of going at a normal bike speed plus lots of maneuvering to avoid collisions with others on the path. If I were a runner or walker on the path instead, I would undoubtedly have been irritated by bicyclists zipping by me at close quarters. Although the path is designed for mixed use, it fails to satisfy (IMO) any of those intended uses because of sheer congestion. Instant popularity has made the trail a victim of its own success, not unlike the overused Lakeshore Bike Path and Forest Preserve picnic shelters. And therein lies the problem: if you built it, they will come — and they often come in droves that overwhelm and ruin the entire experience.

This seems to be an endemic feature of modern infrastructure. We build spaces and places to accommodate transit, transportation, and events of all sorts, but then they stagger under the masses of people and vehicles that descend upon them. I have had similarly poor experiences at events such at the Chase Corporate Challenge (a 5K foot race and walk in Grant Park) and the Late Ride (a 25-mile bike ride — not race — through the city occurring well after midnight) where the events are so oversubscribed that constant jostling for position on the pavement among the other participants ruins the experience. Difficult entry and egress from sporting events at Wrigley Field, Soldier Field, and the United Center have also been cause for consternation. The annual lakefront Air and Water Show, the Taste of Chicago, and July 4 fireworks displays (before the city cancelled its fireworks) are further examples of places I avoid because they’re simply too mobbed with people.

Some of the cause is population density, even though the City of Chicago proper had higher density in the first half of the 20th century, and some of the cause is overpopulation, with events drawing people from the surrounding suburbs and exurbs. Some of the cause, too, is the abandonment of an historically rural, agrarian way of life for modern, technological social structures organized around city centers. The resulting depopulation of the countryside, relatively speaking, is a curiosity to me, which I have prophesied may give way to repopulation (which I called repatriation) when agribusiness fails to deliver enough food to grocery shelves. But until then, we’re stuck congregating in mostly the same places.

I have read a number of exhortations by gurus of one sort or another, usually plumbing the depths of self-delusion, to “imagine the absurd” as a means of unlocking one’s latent creativity blocked by hewing too closely to convention and, dare I say it, reality. Invoking absurdity seems to me redundant: we (well, some) already live with absurd comfort and wealth, purchased by the sweat and suffering of many, not least of which is the Earth itself (or herself, if you prefer). Slights and insults absorbed by the biosphere in the last decade may be individually insignificant, but over time and in aggregate, they constitute a proverbial death by a thousand cuts. But you don’t have to take my word for it: investigate for yourself how many plant and animal species have suffered significant die-offs. Other absurdities are piling up, too, especially in the area of politics, which is looking more than ever (how is that even possible?) like a clown circus as, for example, more candidate from both major political parties enter the 2016 presidential race. We haven’t even gotten to loony third-party candidates yet.

These are familiar ideas to readers of this blog, and although they bear repeating, they are not really what I want to discuss. Rather, it has become increasingly clear that in an age of excess and entitlement — call it the Age of Absurdity — the awful truth can only be told through comedy, just like Michael Moore’s short-lived comic documentary TV show of the same name. Sure, there are a growing number of Cassandras like me prophesying doom, but our claim on public dialogue is thus far negligible. Further, serious documentaries exposing absurd levels of corruption, mendacity, idiocy, and cruelty are currently enjoying a golden age. But compare these to any number of TV shows and movies — all offered for comedic entertainment purposes — that are now functioning as de facto news outlets (The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher have been particularly manifest about this), and it’s easy to see that the public prefers its truth sugar-coated, even if it’s given a reverse twist such as with The Colbert Report. (I can’t watch Colbert for the same reason I can’t watch South Park or The Simpsons: they’re too accurate, too on the nose, even as jokey reflections of or on the Age of Absurdity.) The only thing one needs to reveal truth inside a comedy show (not just the fake news shows) is to ignore the laugh track and turn off one’s sense of humor, treating each comedy bit earnestly, the way a child would. That’s how awful, accurate, and absurd things have become.

Take, for instance, this article in The New Yorker, which is satire on its face but quite literally tells the truth when considered soberly. The last line, “Our research is very preliminary, but it’s possible that they [denialists of all stripes] will become more receptive to facts once they are in an environment without food, water, or oxygen,” is pretty macabre but tells precisely the thing to be expected when supplies falter.

Take, for another instance, the celebrity roasts that Comedy Central has revived. I’ve watched only a few clips, but roasters typically say egregiously insulting things that are quite literally true about the roastee, who laughs and smiles through the humiliation. Insult comedy may perhaps be embellished or exaggerated for effect, but it scarcely needs to be. To call someone a hack or comment on his/her undesired unwarranted overexposure (commonplace now in the era of omnimedia and leaked sex tapes) takes a little comedic shaping, but there is always a sizable kernel of truth behind the jokes. That’s what makes comedy funny, frankly. This might be best exemplified when a joke is made “too soon.” The subject matter will become funny in time, after the shocking truth has worn off some, but when too soon, the insult is just too much to take in good taste and no enjoyment can be had from exposing that particular truth.

Is there a conclusion to be drawn? I dunno. The culture has room for both seriousness and humor, gallows and otherwise. I wonder sometimes if the ability to act with seriousness of purpose to forestall the worst is even possible anymore. Instead, we’re absorbed by distractions and cheap entertainments that divert our attention to trifles. (Why am I aware in even the slightest way of the Kardashians?) A true expression of the Zeitgeist perhaps, we know deep down that the dominoes are tipping over and we’re lined up to take hit after hit until everything has crumbled around us. So why not laugh and party right up to the bitter end?