Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

Back in the 1980s when inexpensive news programs proliferated, all wanting to emulate 60 Minutes or 20/20, I recall plenty having no problem working the public into a lather over some crime or injustice. A typical framing trick was to juxtapose two unrelated facts with the intent that the viewer leap to an unwarranted conclusion. Here’s an example I just made up: “On Tuesday, Jane went to her plastic surgeon for a standard liposuction procedure. By Friday, Jane was dead.” Well, what killed Jane? The obvious inference, by virtue of juxtaposition, is the procedure. Turns out it was an entirely unrelated traffic accident. The crap news program could legitimately claim that it never said the procedure killed Jane, yet it led the credulous public to believe so. Author Thomas Sowell resorts to that same sort of nonsense in his books: a habit of misdirection when arguing his point. I initially sought out his writing for balance, as everyone needs others capable of articulating competing ideas to avoid the echo chamber of one’s own mind (or indeed the chorus of the converted). Sowell failed to keep me as a reader.

It’s not always so easy to recognize cheap rhetorical tricks. They appear in movies all the time, but then, one is presumably there to be emotionally manipulated affected by the story, so a healthy suspension of disbelief goes a long way to enhance one’s enjoyment. Numerous fanboy sites (typically videos posted to YouTube) offer reviews and analysis that point out failures of logic, plotting, and continuity, as well as character inconsistency and embedded political propaganda messaging, but I’ve always thought that taking movies too seriously misses the point of cheap entertainment. Considering the powerful influence cinematic storytelling has over attitudes and beliefs, perhaps I’m being too cavalier about it.

When it comes to serious debate, however, I’m not nearly so charitable. The favored 5-minute news debate where 3 or 4 floating heads spew their rehearsed talking point, often talking over each other in a mad grab for air time, accomplishes nothing. Formal, long-form debates in a theater in front of an audience offer better engagement if participants can stay within proper debate rules and etiquette. Political debates during campaign season fail on that account regularly, with more spewing of rehearsed talking points mixed with gratuitous swipes at opponents. Typically, both sides claim victory in the aftermath and nothing is resolved, since that’s not really the objective. (Some opine that government, being essentially nonstop campaigning, suffers a similar fate: nothing is resolved because that’s not the true objective anymore.)

I was intrigued to learn recently of the semi-annual Munk Debates, named after their benefactors, that purport to be formal debates with time limits, moderation, and integrity. I had never heard of them before they booked Jordan Peterson alongside Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, and Stephen Fry. Like Donald Trump did for TV and print news, Peterson has turned into a 1-man ratings bonanza for YouTube and attracts viewers to anything in which he participates, which is quite a lot. The proposition the four debaters were provided was this: Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress … Problem is, that’s not really what was debated most of the time. Instead, Dyson diverted the debate to identity politics, specifically, racism and so-called white privilege. Goldberg mostly attacked Peterson regarding his opinions outside of the debate, Peterson defended himself against repeated personal attacks by Goldberg and Dyson, and Fry stayed relatively true to the intended topic. Lots of analysis and opinion appeared on YouTube almost immediately after the debate, so wade in if that’s what interests you. I viewed some of it. A couple videos called Dyson a grievance merchant, which seems to me accurate.

What concerns me more here are the cheap rhetorical tricks employed by Dyson — the only debater booed by the audience — that fundamentally derailed the proceedings. Dyson speaks with the fervor of a revivalist preacher, a familiar style that has been refined and coopted many times over to great effect. Whether deserved or not, it carries associations of great moral authority and momentous occasion. Unfortunately, if presented as a written transcript rather than a verbal rant, Dyson’s remarks are incoherent, unhinged, and ineffective except for their disruptive capacity. He reminded everyone of his blackness and his eloquence, the first of which needs no reminder, the second of which immediately backfired and called into question his own claim. Smart, eloquent people never tell you they’re smart and eloquent; the proof is in their behavior. Such boastful announcements tend to work against a person. Similarly, any remark that beings with “As a black/white/red/brown/blue man/woman/hybrid of _______ ethnicity/sexuality/identity …” calls in a host of associations that immediately invalidates the statement that follows as skewed and biased.

The two point-scoring bits of rhetoric Dyson levies with frequency, which probably form a comfort zone to which he instinctively retreats in all challenges, are his blackness (and by proxy his default victimhood) and historical oppression of blacks (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow laws, etc.). There are no other issues that concern him, as these two suffice to push everyone back on their heels. That’s why the debate failed to address political correctness effectively but instead revolved around identity politics. These issues are largely distinct, unless one debates the wisdom of switching out terminology cyclically, such as occurs even now with various racial epithets (directed to every race, not just blacks). That obvious tie-in, the use of euphemism and neologism to mask negative intent, was never raised. Nor were the twisted relations between free speech, hate speech, and approved speech codes (politically correct speech). Nope, the debate featured various personalities grandstanding on stage and using the opportunity to push and promote their personal brands, much like Trump has over the years. Worse, it was mostly about Michael Eric Dyson misbehaving. He never had my attention in the past; now I intend to avoid him at all costs.

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From Wikipedia:

Trial by combat (also wager of battle, trial by battle or judicial duel) was a method of Germanic law to settle accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat; the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel. It remained in use throughout the European Middle Ages, gradually disappearing in the course of the 16th century.

Unlike trial by ordeal in general, which is known to many cultures worldwide, trial by combat is known primarily from the customs of the Germanic peoples. It was in use among the ancient Burgundians, Ripuarian Franks, Alamans, Lombards, and Swedes. It was unknown in Anglo-Saxon law, Roman law and Irish Brehon Law and it does not figure in the traditions of Middle Eastern antiquity such as the code of Hammurabi or the Torah.

Trial by combat has profound echoes in 21st-century geopolitics and jurisprudence. Familiar phrases such as right of conquest, manifest destiny, to the winner go the spoils, might makes right, and history written by the victors attest to the enduring legacy of hindsight justification by force of arms. More broadly, within the American system, right of access to courts afforded to all citizens also admits nuisance suits and more than a few mismatched battles where deep-pocketed corporations sue individuals and small organizations, often nonprofits, into bankruptcy and submission. For instance, I recently learned of Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) “used to silence and harass critics by forcing them to spend money to defend these baseless suits.” They employ brute economic power in place of force of arms.

Trial by combat fell out of practice with the onset of the Enlightenment but the broader complex of ideas survived. Interest in medieval Europe as storytelling fodder in cinema and fantasy literature (notably, the shocking trial by combat depicted in the extremely popular HBO drama Game of Thrones where the accused and accuser both designate their proxies rather than doing battle themselves) lends legitimacy to settling disputes via violence. Even the original Karate Kid (1984) has a new YouTube Red series set 30 years later. The bad-boy acolyte replaces his scorched-earth sensei and seeks revenge from the titular character for being bested decades before, the latter of whom is yanked back from quiet obscurity (and the actor who portrays him from career limbo) to fight again and reprove his skills, which is to say, his righteousness. The set-up is surprisingly delicious to contemplate and has considerable nostalgic appeal. More importantly, it embodies the notion (no doubt scripted according to cliché) that only the pure of heart (or their proxies, students in this case) can claim ultimate victory because, well, it’s god’s will or some such and thus good guys must always win. What that really means is that whoever wins is by definition virtuous. If only reality were so reliably simple.

The certainty of various religious dogma and codes of conduct characteristic of the medieval period (e.g., chivalry) is especially seductive in modern times, considering how the public is beset by an extraordinary degree of existential and epistemological uncertainty. The naturalist fallacy is also invoked, where the law of the jungle (only the fittest and/or strongest get to eat or indeed survive) substitutes for more civilized (i.e., enlightened and equanimous) thinking. Further, despite protestations, this complex of ideas legitimizes bullying, whether (1) in the schoolyard with the principal bully flanked by underlings picking on vulnerable weaklings who haven’t formed alliances for self-protection, (2) the workplace, with its power players and Machiavellian manipulators, or (3) a global military power such as the U.S. dictating terms to and/or warring with smaller, weaker nations that lack the GDP, population, and insanity will to project power globally. I daresay most Americans take comfort in having the greatest military and arsenal ever mustered on their side and accordingly being on the right side (the victorious one) of history, thus a beacon of hope to all who would conflate victory with virtue. Those who suffer at our hands must understand things quite differently. (Isn’t it more accurate that when bad guys win, rebellions and insurgencies are sparked?)

One remarkable exception deserves notice. The U.S. presidency is among the most heavily scrutinized and contentious positions (always under attack) and happens to be the Commander-in-Chief of the self-same greatest goddamn fighting force known to man. It’s no secret that the occupant of that office (45) is also widely recognized as the Bully-in-Chief. Despite having at his disposal considerable resources — military, executive staff, and otherwise — 45 has eschewed forming the political coalitions one might expect and essentially gone it alone, using the office (and his Twitter account) as a one-man bully pulpit. Hard to say what he’s trying to accomplish, really. Detractors have banded together (incompetently) to oppose him, but 45 has demonstrated unexpected tenacity, handily dominating rhetorical trials by combat through sheer bluster and hubris. On balance, he scores some pretty good hits, too. (The proposed fist fight between 45 and Joe Biden turned out to be a tease, but how entertaining would that bout have been without actually settling anything!) This pattern has left many quite dumbfounded, and I admit to being astounded as well except to observe that rank stupidity beats everything in this bizarre political rock-paper-scissors contest. How quintessentially American: nuthin’ beats stoopid.

The movie Gladiator depicts the protagonist Maximus addressing spectators directly at gladiatorial games in the Roman Colosseum with this meme-worthy challenge: “Are you not entertained?” Setting the action in an ancient civilization renowned for its decadent final phase prior to collapse, referred to as Bread and Circuses, allows us to share vicariously in the protagonist’s righteous disgust with the public’s blood lust while shielded us from any implication of our own shame because, after all, who could possibly entertain blood sports in the modern era? Don’t answer that.

are-you-not-entertained-gladiator

But this post isn’t about our capacity for cruelty and barbarism. Rather, it’s about the public’s insatiable appetite for spectacle — both fictional and absolutely for real — served up as entertainment. Professional wrestling is fiction; boxing and mixed martial arts are reality. Audiences consuming base entertainment and, in the process, depleting performers who provide that entertainment extend well beyond combat sports, however. For instance, it’s not uncommon for pop musicians to slowly destroy themselves once pulled into the attendant celebrity lifestyle. Three examples spring to mind: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston. Others call hiatus or retire altogether from the pressure of public performance, such as Britney Spears, Miles Davis, and Barbra Streisand.

To say that the public devours performers and discards what remains of them is no stretch, I’m afraid. Who remembers countdown clocks tracking when female actors turn 18 so that perving on them is at last okay? A further example is the young starlet who is presumably legitimized as a “serious” actor once she does nudity and/or portrays a hooker but is then forgotten in favor of the next. If one were to seek the full depth of such devouring impulses, I suggest porn is the industry to have all one’s illusions shattered. For rather modest sums, there is absolutely nothing some performers won’t do on film (these days on video at RedTube), and naturally, there’s an audience for it. Such appetites are as bottomless as they come. Are you not entertained?

Speaking of Miles Davis, I take note of his hiatus from public performance in the late 1970s before his limited return to the stage in 1986 and early death in 1991 at age 65. He had cemented a legendary career as a jazz trumpeter but in interviews (as memory serves) dismissed the notion that he was somehow a spokesperson for others, saying dryly “I’m just a trumpet player, man ….” What galled me, though, were Don Cheadle’s remarks in the liner notes of the soundtrack to the biopic Miles Ahead (admittedly a deep pull):

Robert Glasper and I are preparing to record music for the final scene of Miles Ahead — a possible guide track for a live concert that sees the return of Miles Davis after having been flushed from his sanctuary of silence and back onto the stage and into his rightful light. My producers and I are buzzing in disbelief about what our audacity and sheer will may be close to pulling off ….

What they did was record a what-might-have-been track had Miles incorporated rap or hip hop (categories blur) into his music. It’s unclear to me whether the “sanctuary of silence” was inactivity or death, but Miles was essentially forced onstage by proxy. “Flushed” is a strange word to use in this context, as one “flushes” an enemy or prey unwillingly from hiding. The decision to recast him in such “rightful light” strikes me as rather poor taste — a case of cultural appropriation worse than merely donning a Halloween costume.

This is the wave of the future, of course, now that images of dead celebrities can be invoked, say, to sell watches (e.g., Steve McQueen) and holograms of dead musicians are made into singing zombies, euphemized as “virtual performance”(e.g., Tupak Shakur). Newly developed software can now create digitized versions of people saying and doing whatever we desire of them, such as when celebrity faces are superimposed onto porn actors (called “deepfakes”). It might be difficult to argue that in doing so content creators are stealing the souls of others, as used to be believed in the early days of photography. I’m less concerned with those meeting demand than with the demand itself. Are we becoming demons, the equivalents of the succubus/incubus, devouring or destroying frivolously the objects of our enjoyment? Are you not entertained?

I’m currently reading Go Wild by John Ratey and Richard Manning. It has some rather astounding findings on offer. One I’ll draw out is that the human brain evolved not for thinking, as one might imagine, but for coordinating complex physiological movements:

… even the simplest of motions — a flick of a finger or a turn of the hand to pick up a pencil — is maddeningly complex and requires coordination and computational power beyond electronics abilities. For this you need a brain. One of our favorites quotes on this matter comes from the neuroscientists Rodolfo Llinás: “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internationalization of movement.” [p. 100]

Almost all the computation is unconsciousness, or maybe preconscious, and it’s learned over a period of years in infancy and early childhood (for basic locomotion) and then supplemented throughout life (for skilled motions, e.g., writing cursive or typing). Moreover, those able to move with exceptional speed, endurance, power, accuracy, and/or grace are admired and sometimes rewarded in our culture. The obvious example is sports. Whether league sports with wildly overcompensated athletes, Olympic sports with undercompensated athletes, or combat sports with a mixture of both, thrill attaches to watching someone move effectively within the rule-bound context of the sport. Other examples include dancers, musicians, circus artists, and actors who specialize in physical comedy and action. Each develops specialized movements that are graceful and beautiful, which Ratey and Manning write may also account for nonsexual appreciation and fetishization of the human body, e.g., fashion models, glammed-up actors, and nude photography.

I’m being silly saying that jocks figgered it first, of course. A stronger case could probably be made for warriors in battle, such as a skilled swordsman. But it’s jocks who are frequently rewarded all out of proportion with others who specialize in movement. True, their genetics and training enable a relatively brief career (compared to, say, surgeons or pianists) before abilities ebb away and a younger athlete eclipses them. But a fundamental lack of equivalence with artisans and artists is clear, whose value lies less with their bodies than with outputs their movements produce.

Regarding computational burdens, consider the various mechanical arms built for grasping and moving objects, some of them quite large. Mechanisms (frame and hydraulics substituting for bone and muscle) themselves are quite complex, but they’re typically controlled by a human operator rather than automated. (Exceptions abound, but they’re highly specialized, such as circuit board manufacture or textile production.) More recently, robotics demonstrate considerable advancement in locomotion without a human operator, but they’re also narrowly focused in comparison with the flexibility of motion a human body readily possesses. Further, in the case of flying drones, robots operate in wide open space, or, in the case of those designed to move like dogs or insects, use 4+ legs for stability. The latter are typically built to withstand quite a lot of bumping and jostling. Upright bipedal motion is still quite clumsy in comparison with humans, excepting perhaps wheeled robots that obviously don’t move like humans do.

Curiously, the movie Pacific Rim (sequel just out) takes notice of the computational or cognitive difficulty of coordinated movement. To operate giant robots needed to fight Godzilla-like interdimensional monsters, two mind-linked humans control a battle robot. Maybe it’s a simple coincidence — a plot device to position humans in the middle of the action (and robot) rather than killing from a distance — such as via drone or clone — or maybe not. Hollywood screenwriters are quite clever at exploiting all sorts material without necessarily divulging the source of inspiration. It’s art imitating life, knowingly or not.

I remarked in an earlier blog that artists, being hypersensitive to emergent patterns and cultural vibes, often get to ideas sooner than the masses and express their sensibilities through creative endeavor. Those expressions in turn give watchers, viewers, listeners, readers, etc. a way of understanding the world through the artist’s interpretive lens. Interpretations may be completely fictitious, based on real-life events, or merely figurative as the medium allows. They are nonetheless an inevitable reflection of ourselves. Philistines who fail to appreciate that the arts function by absorbing and processing human experience at a deep, intuitive level may insist that the arts are optional or unworthy of attention or financial support. That’s an opinion not at all borne out in the culture, however, and though support may be vulnerable to shifts in valuation (e.g., withdrawal of federal funding for the NEA and PBS), the creative class will always seek avenues of expression, even at personal cost. The democratization of production has made modes of production and distribution for some media quite cheap compared to a couple decades ago. Others remain undeniably labor intensive.

What sparked my thinking are several TV series that have caught my attention despite my generally low level of attention to such media. I haven’t watched broadcast television in over a decade, but the ability to stream TV programming has made shows I have ignored for years far more easy to tune in on my own terms and schedule. “Tune in” is of course the wrong metaphor, but suffice it to say I’ve awarded some of my attention to shows that have up until now fell out of scope for me, cinema being more to my liking. The three shows I’ve been watching (only partway through each) are The Americans, Homeland, and Shameless. The first two are political thrillers (spy stuff) whereas the last is a slice-of-life family drama, which often veers toward comedy but keeps delivering instead tragedy. Not quite the same thing as dark comedy. Conflict is necessary for dramatic purposes, but the ongoing conflict in each of these shows flirts with the worst sorts of disaster, e.g., the spies being discovered and unmasked and the family being thrown out of its home and broken up. Episodic scenarios the writers concoct to threaten catastrophe at every step or at any moment gets tiresome after a while. Multiple seasons ensure that dramatic tension is largely dispelled, since the main characters are present year over year. (The trend toward killing off major characters in others popular TV dramas is not yet widespread.) But still, it’s no way to live, constantly in disaster mode. No doubt I’ve cherry picked three shows from a huge array of entertainments on offer.

Where art reflects reality is that we all now live in the early 21st century under multiple, constantly disquieting threats, large and small, including sudden climate change and ecological disaster, nuclear annihilation, meteor impacts, eruption of the shield volcano under Yellowstone, the Ring of Fire becoming active again (leading to more volcanic and earthquake activity), geopolitical dysfunction on a grand scale, and of course, global financial collapse. This, too, is no way to live. Admittedly, no one was ever promised a care-free life. Yet our inability to manage our own social institutions or shepherd the earth (as though that were our mandate) promise catastrophes in the fullness of time that have no parallels in human history. We’re not flirting with disaster so much as courting it.

Sociologists and historians prepare scholarly works that attempt to provide a grand narrative of the times. Cinema seems to be preoccupied with planetary threats requiring superhero interventions. Television, on the other hand, with its serial form, plumbs the daily angst of its characters to drive suspense, keeping viewers on pins and needles while avoiding final resolution. That final resolution is inevitably disaster, but it won’t appear for a few seasons at least — after the dramatic potential is wrung out of the scenario. I can’t quite understand why these shows are consumed for entertainment (by me no less than anyone else) except perhaps to distract from the clear and present dangers we all face every day.

Be forewarned: this is long and self-indulgent. Kinda threw everything and the kitchen sink at it.

In the August 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Walter Kirn’s “Easy Chair” column called “Apocalypse Always” revealed his brief, boyhood fascination with dystopian fiction. This genre has been around for a very long time, to which the Cassandra myth attests. Kirn’s column is more concerned with “high mid-twentieth-century dystopian fiction,” which in his view is now classic and canonical, an entire generation of Baby Boomers having been educated in such patterned thought. A new wave of dystopian fiction appeared in the 1990s and yet another more recently in the form of Young Adult novels (and films) that arguably serve better as triumphal coming-of-age stories albeit under dystopian circumstances. Kirn observes a perennial theme present in the genre: the twins disappearances of freedom and information:

In the classic dystopias, which concern themselves with the lack of freedom and not with surplus freedom run amok (the current and unforeseen predicament of many), society is superbly well organized, resembling a kind of hive or factory. People are sorted, classified, and ranked, their individuality suppressed through goon squads, potent narcotics, or breeding programs. Quite often, they wear uniforms, and express themselves, or fail to, in ritual utterance and gestures.

Whether Americans in 2018 resemble hollowed-out zombies suffering under either boot-heel or soft-serve oppression is a good question. Some would argue just that in homage to classic dystopias. Kirn suggests briefly that we might instead suffer from runaway anarchy, where too much freedom and licentiousness have led instead to a chaotic and disorganized society populated by citizens who can neither govern nor restrain themselves.

Disappearance of information might be understood in at least three familiar aspects of narrative framing: what happened to get us to this point (past as exposition, sometimes only hinted at), what the hell? is going on (present as conflict and action), and how is gets fixed (future as resolution and denouement). Strict control over information exercised by classic dystopian despots doesn’t track to conditions under which we now find ourselves, where more disorganized, fraudulent, and degraded information than ever is available alongside small caches of wisdom and understanding buried somewhere in the heap and discoverable only with the benefit of critical thinking flatly lost on at least a couple generations of miseducated graduates. However, a coherent narrative of who and what we are and what realistic prospects the future may hold has not emerged since the stifling version of the 1950s nuclear family and middle class consumer contentment. Kirn makes this comparison directly, where classic dystopian fiction

focus[es] on bureaucracy, coercion, propaganda, and depersonalization, overstates both the prowess of the hierarchs and the submissiveness of the masses, whom it still thinks of as the masses. It does not contemplate Trump-style charlatanism at the top, or a narcissistic populace that prizes attention over privacy. The threats to individualism are paramount; the scourge of surplus individualism, with everyone playing his own dunce king and slurping up resources until he bursts, goes unexplored.

Kirn’s further observations are worth a look. Go read for yourself.

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Fan Service

Posted: December 27, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Media, Taste
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Having just seen the latest installment of the supermegahit Star Wars franchise, my thinking drifted ineluctably to the issue of fan service. There is probably no greater example of the public claiming ownership of popular culture than with Star Wars, which has been a uniquely American phenomenon for 40 years and risen to the level of a new mythology. Never mind that it was invented out of whole cloth. (Some argue that the major religions are also invented, but that’s a different subject of debate.) Other invented, segmented mythologies include Rowling’s Harry Potter series (books before movies), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (books before movies), Martin’s Game of Thrones (books before TV show), and Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung (operas). It’s little surprise (to me, at least) that the new American mythology stems from cinema rather than literature or music.

Given the general public’s deep knowledge of the Star Wars canon, it’s inevitable that some portion of the each installment of the franchise must cite and rhyme recognizable plots, dialogue, and thematic elements, which is roughly analogous to one’s favorite band playing its hits rather than offering newly composed music at every concert. With James Bond (probably the first movie franchise, though book series written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agathe Christie long ago established the model for recurring characters), story elements were formalized rather early in its history and form the foundation of each later story. Some regard the so-called formula as a straitjacket, whereas others derive considerable enjoyment out of familiar elements. So, too, with Star Wars. The light sabers, the spaceships, the light and dark sides of the force, the plucky rebels, the storm troopers, the disfigured villains, and the reluctant hero all make their appearances and reappearances in different guises. What surprised me most about The Last Jedi is how frequently and skillfully fan service was handled, typically undercutting each bit to simultaneously satisfy and taunt viewers. Some indignant fanboys (and -girls) have actually petitioned to have The Last Jedi struck from the Star Wars canon for defying franchise conventions so flagrantly.

New media have enabled regular folks to indulge their pet theories of the Star Wars universe in public fora, and accordingly, no shortage of overexcited analysis exists regarding plots, family relationships, cat-and-mouse strategics, and of course, possible stories to be told in an ever-expanding cinematic universe promising new films with nauseating regularity for the foreseeable future, or at least so long as the intellectual property owners can wring giant profits out of the series. This is what cinematic storytelling has become: setting up a series and wringing every last bit of value out of it before leaving it fallow and untended for a decade or more and then rebooting the entire stinking mess. The familiar criticism is Hollywood Out of Ideas, which often rings true except when one considers that only a few basic narrative structures exist in the first place. All the different manifestations are merely variations upon familiar themes, another form of fan service.

This is the inverse of a prior post called “Truth Based on Fiction.”

Telling stories about ourselves is one of the most basic of human attributes stretching across oral and recorded history. We continue today to memorialize events in short, compact tellings, frequently movies depicting real-life events. I caught two such films recently: Truth (about what came to be known as Rathergate) and Snowden (about whistle-blower Edward Snowden).

Although Dan Rather is the famous figure associated with Truth, the story focuses more on his producer Mary Mapes and the group decisions leading to airing of a controversial news report about George W. Bush’s time in the Air National Guard. The film is a dramatization, not a documentary, and so is free to present the story with its own perspective and some embellishment. Since I’m not a news junkie, my memory of the events in 2004 surrounding the controversy are not especially well informed, and I didn’t mind the potential for the movie’s version of events to color my thinking. About some controversies and conspiracies, I feel no particular demand to adopt a strong position. The actors did well enough, but I felt Robert Redford was poorly cast as Dan Rather. Redford is too famous in his own right to succeed as a character actor playing a real-life person.

Debate over the patriotism or treason of Edward Snowden’s actions continues to swirl, but the film covers the issues pretty well, from his discovery of an intelligence services surveillance dragnet (in violation of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) to his eventual disclosure of same to a few well-respected journalists. The film’s director and joint screenwriter, Oliver Stone, has made a career out of fiction based on truth, dramatizing many signal events from the nation’s history, repackaging them as entertainment in the process. I’m wary of his interpretations of history when presented in cinematic form, less so his alternative history lessons given as documentary. Unlike Truth, however, I have clear ideas in my mind regarding Snowden the man and Snowden the movie, so from a different standpoint, was again unconcerned about potential bias. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does well enough as the titular character, though he doesn’t project nearly the same insight and keen intelligence as Snowden himself does. I suspect the documentary Citizen Four (which I’ve not yet seen) featuring Snowden doing his own talking is a far better telling of the same episode of history.

In contrast, I have assiduously avoided several other recent films based on actual events. United 93, World Trade Center, and Deepwater Horizon spring to mind, but there are many others. The wounds and controversies stemming from those real-life events still smart too much for me to consider exposing myself to propaganda historical fictions. Perhaps in a few decades, after living memory of such events has faded or disappeared entirely, such stories can be told effectively, though probably not accurately. A useful comparison might be any one of several films called The Alamo.

Back in undergraduate college, when just starting on my music education degree, I received an assignment where students were asked to formulate a philosophy of education. My thinking then was influenced by a curious textbook I picked up: A Philosophy of Music Education by Bennett Reimer. Of course, it was the wrong time for an undergraduate to perform this exercise, as we had neither maturity nor understanding equal to the task. However, in my naïvté, my answer was all about learning/teaching an aesthetic education — one that focused on appreciating beauty in music and the fine arts. This requires the cultivation of taste, which used to be commonplace among the educated but is now anathema. Money is the preeminent value now. Moreover, anything that smacks of cultural programming and thought control is now repudiated reflexively, though such projects are nonetheless undertaken continuously and surreptitiously through a variety of mechanisms. As a result, the typical American’s sense of what is beautiful and admirable is stunted. Further, knowledge of the historical context in which the fine arts exist is largely absent. (Children are ahistorical in this same way.) Accordingly, many Americans are coarse philistines whose tastes rarely extend beyond those acquired naturally during adolescence (including both biophilia and biophobia), thus the immense popularity of comic book movies, rock and roll music, and all manner of electronica.

When operating with a limited imagination and undeveloped ability to perceive and discern (and disapprove), one is a sitting duck for what ought to be totally unconvincing displays of empty technical prowess. Mere mechanism (spectacle) then possesses the power to transfix and amaze credulous audiences. Thus, the ear-splitting volume of amplified instruments substitutes for true emotional energy produced in exceptional live performance, ubiquitous CGI imagery (vistas and character movements, e.g., fight skills, that simply don’t exist in reality) in cinema produces wonderment, and especially, blinking lights and animated GIFs deliver the equivalent of a sugar hit (cookies, ice cream, soda) when they’re really placebos or toxins. Like hypnosis, the placebo effect is real and pronounced for those unusually susceptible to induction. Sitting ducks.

Having given the fine arts (including their historical contexts) a great deal of my academic attention and acquired an aesthetic education, my response to the video below fell well short of the blasé relativism most exhibit; I actively dislike it. (more…)

For a variety of reasons, I go to see movies in the theater only a handful of times any given year. The reasons are unimportant (and obvious) and I recognize that, by eschewing the theater, I’m giving up the crowd experience. Still, I relented recently and went to see a movie at a new AMC Dolby Cinema, which I didn’t even know exists. The first thing to appreciate was that is was a pretty big room, which used to be standard when cinema was first getting established in the 1920s but gave way sometime in the 1970s to multiplex theaters able to show more than one title at a time in little shoebox compartments with limited seating. Spaciousness was a welcome throwback. The theater also had oversized, powered, leather recliners rather than cloth, fold-down seats with shared armrests. The recliners were quite comfortable but also quite unnecessary (except for now typical Americans unable to fit their fat asses in what used to be a standard seat). These characteristics are shared with AMC Prime theaters that dress up the movie-going experience and charge accordingly. Indeed, AMC now offers several types of premium cinema, including RealD 3D, Imax, Dine-In, and BigD.

Aside I: A friend only just reported on her recent trip to the drive-in theater, a dated cinema experience that is somewhat degraded unenhanced yet retains its nostalgic charm for those of us old enough to remember as kids the shabby chic of bringing one’s own pillows, blankets, popcorn, and drinks to a double feature and sprawling out on the hood and/or roof of the car (e.g., the family station wagon). My friend actually brought her dog to the drive-in and said she remembered and sorta missed the last call on dollar hot dogs at 11 PM that used to find all the kids madly, gleefully rushing the concession stand before food ran out.

What really surprised me, however, was how the Dolby Cinema experience turned into a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic assault. True, I was watching Wonder Woman (sorry, no review), which is set in WWI and features lots of gunfire and munitions explosions in addition to the usual invincible superhero punchfest, so I suppose the point is partly to be immersed in the environment, a cinematic stab at verisimilitude. But the immediacy of all the wham-bam, rock ’em-sock ’em action made me feel more like a participant in a theater of war than a viewer. The term shell shock (a/k/a battle fatigue a/k/a combat neurosis) refers to the traumatized disorientation one experiences in moments of high stress and overwhelming sensory input; it applies here. Even the promo before the trailers and feature, offered to demonstrate the theater’s capabilities themselves, was off-putting because of unnecessary and overweening volume and impact. Unless I’m mistaken, the seats even have built-in subwoofers to rattle theatergoers from below when loud, concussive events occur, which is often because, well, filmmakers love their spectacle as much as audiences do.

Aside II: One real-life lesson to be gleaned from WWI, or the Great War as it was called before WWII, went well beyond the simplistic truism that war is hell. It was that civility (read: civilization) had failed and human progress was a chimera. Technical progress, however, had made WWI uglier in many respects than previous warfare. It was an entirely new sort of horror. Fun fact: there are numerous districts in France, known collectively as Le Zone Rouge, where no one is allowed to live because of all the unexploded ordnance (100 years later!). Wonder Woman ends up having it both ways: acknowledging the horrific nature of war on the one hand yet valorizing and romanticizing personal sacrifice and eventual victory on the other. Worse, perhaps, it establishes that there’s always another enemy in the wings (otherwise, how could there be sequels?), so keep fighting. And for the average viewer, uniformed German antagonists are easily mistakable for Nazis of the subsequent world war, a historical gloss I’m guessing no one minds … because … Nazis.

So here’s my problem with AMC’s Dolby Cinema: why settle for routine or standard theater experience when it can be amped up to the point of offense? Similarly, why be content with the tame and fleeting though reliable beauty of a sunset when one can enjoy a widescreen, hyperreal view of cinematic worlds that don’t actually exist? Why settle for the subtle, old-timey charm of the carousel (painted horses, dizzying twirling, and calliope music) when instead one can strap in and get knocked sideways by roller coasters so extreme that riders leave wobbly and crying at the end? (Never mind the risk of being stranded on the tracks for hours, injured, or even killed by a malfunction.) Or why bother attending a quaint symphonic band concert in the park or an orchestral performance in the concert hall when instead one can go to Lollapalooza and see/hear/experience six bands in the same cacophonous space grinding it out at ear-splitting volume, along with laser light shows and flash-pot explosions for the sheer sake of goosing one’s senses? Coming soon are VR goggles that trick the wearer’s nervous system into accepting they are actually in the virtual game space, often first-person shooters depicting killing bugs or aliens or criminals without compunction. Our arts and entertainments have truly gotten out of hand.

If those criticisms don’t register, consider my post more than a decade ago on the Paradox of the Sybarite and Catatonic, which argues that our senses are so overwhelmed by modern life that we’re essentially numb from overstimulation. Similarly, let me reuse this Nietzsche quote (used before here) to suggest that on an aesthetic level, we’re not being served well in display and execution of refined taste so much as being whomped over the head and dragged willingly? through ordeals:

… our ears have become increasingly intellectual. Thus we can now endure much greater volume, much greater ‘noise’, because we are much better trained than our forefathers were to listen for the reason in it. All our senses have in fact become somewhat dulled because we always inquire after the reason, what ‘it means’, and no longer for what ‘it is’ … our ear has become coarsened. Furthermore, the ugly side of the world, originally inimical to the senses, has been won over for music … Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual, and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form and colour. Here, too, that side of the world originally considered ugly has been conquered by artistic understanding. What is the consequence of this? The more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists … the vast majority, which each year is becoming ever more incapable of understanding meaning, even in the sensual form of ugliness … is therefore learning to reach out with increasing pleasure for that which is intrinsically ugly and repulsive, that is, the basely sensual. [italics not in original]