Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

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 (1oo 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]

An old Star Trek episode called “A Taste for Armageddon” depicts Capt. Kirk and crew confronting a planetary culture that has adopted purely administrative warfare with a nearby planet, where computer simulations determine outcomes of battles and citizens/inhabitants are notified to report for their destruction in disintegration chambers to comply with those outcomes. Narrative resolution is tidied up within the roughly 1-hour span of the episode, of course, but it was and is nonetheless a thought-provoking scenario. The episode, now 50 years old, prophesies a hyper-rational approach to conflict. (I was 4 years old at the time it aired on broadcast television, and I don’t recall having seen it since. Goes to show how influential high-concept storytelling can be even on someone quite young.) The episode came to mind as I happened across video showing how robot soldiers are being developed to supplement and eventually replace human combatants. See, for example, this:

The robot in the video above is not overtly militarized, but there is no doubt that it will could be. Why the robot takes bipedal, humanoid form with an awkwardly high center of gravity is unclear to me beyond our obvious self-infatuation. Additional videos with two-wheeled, quadriped, and even insect-like multilegged designs having much improved movement and flexibility can be found with a simple search. Any of them can be transformed into ground-based killing machines, as suggested more manifestly in the video below highlighting various walking, rolling, flying, floating, and swimming machines developed to do our dirty work:

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What’s Missing

Posted: May 9, 2017 in Artistry, Cinema, Consumerism, Culture

Pessimists, misanthropes, fatalists, and doomers (I’m all types) often find themselves defending the position that maybe we don’t live at the very best, super-duper, tippy-top time in history, that although technology in particular has admittedly delivered some amazing innovations and improved our material conditions considerably even over our fairly recent past, we nonetheless lack spirituality and meaning — unless of course one’s spirituality and meaning are mistakenly found in technology. The technological sublime is so deceptively glamorous and ubiquitous that it obscures the idea that maybe another time and place made for a more ethical, moral, and noble life. (Experience varied widely, obviously.) In addition, personal freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies are difficult to argue against, though that’s more characteristic of those at the very top of the socioeconomic heap than those of us below who know to keeps things buttoned up lest we discomfit our betters. Perhaps the most broadly enjoyed modern development is increased lifespan borne out of improved healthcare. And quite recently, the grossly expanded communications age (the information age is nested inside) reputedly makes learning and keeping in touch far easier than ever before. I won’t dispel any of these. However, I have two complaints against modernity as evidenced by a body of posts extending back through the life of this blog: life lacks many salutary aspects delivered passively by bygone social structures and technology smuggles in a host of problems with its bounty.

Among the failed attributes are (1) lack of a cohesive narrative for what life ought to mean beyond grubbing for money, chasing fame and social cachet, and overpopulating the planet with progeny (many of whom suffer neglect while parents are away grubbing for money), (2) lack of true community and social conditions necessary to be properly situated within a wholesome context, (3) spiritual and emotional vacuity, (4) destructive social presences and bullying, especially online (as exemplified by the Bully-in-Chief) and by civil authorities, (5) unrelenting, disorienting technological and social change, including slang and memes that are impossible to track fully without being in the thrall of celebrities, pundits, and media in general, (6) little prospect of things improving near term, and (7) the still-dawning realization that, like the existential angst from the so-called Atomic Age and its threat of complete nuclear annihilation, we possess tools sufficient to destroy ourselves many times over (including rotting ourselves out from the inside in a fevered race to the cultural bottom) and have unwittingly fired the slo-mo suicide gun. We’re only just waiting for the bullet to strike its target. Since the gun is industrial civilization, the target is all of us. Dead men walking, or perhaps more accurately, the zombie shuffle.

A significant minority has replied to this set of miserable circumstances by voting into office our our current president, 45. According to one astute commentator, 45 was never understood as a solution but rather a murder weapon used by the disenfranchised to kill the host, namely, our sick society run by plutocrats maniacally hellbent on destroying everyone outside their immediate concern, which is just about everybody.

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Punchfest

Posted: February 26, 2017 in Cinema, Culture, Idle Nonsense, Sports
Tags: , , ,

Early in the process of socialization, one learns that the schoolyard cry “Fight!” is half an alert (if one is a bystander) to come see and half an incitement to violence (if one is just entering into conflict). Fascination with seeing people duke it out, ostensibly to settle conflicts, never seems to grow old, though the mixed message about violence never solving anything sometimes slows things down. (Violence does in fact at least put an end to things. But the cycle of violence continues.) Fights have also lost the respectability of yore, where the victor (as with a duel or a Game of Thrones fight by proxy) was presumed to be vindicated. Now we mostly know better than to believe that might makes right. Successful aggressors can still be villains. Still, while the primal instinct to fight can be muted, it’s more typically channeled into entertainment and sport, where it’s less destructive than, say, warrior culture extending all the way from clans and gangs up to professional militaries.

Fighting in entertainment, especially in cinema, often depicts invulnerability that renders fighting pointless and inert. Why bother hitting Superman, the Incredible Hulk, Wolverine, or indeed any number of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Segal, or Statham characters when there is no honest expectation of doing damage? They never get hurt, just irritated. Easy answer: because the voyeurism inherent in fighting endures. Even when the punchfest is augmented by guns we watch, transfixed by conflict even though outcomes are either predictable (heroes and good guys almost always win), moot, or an obvious set-up for the next big, stupid, pointless battle.

Fighting in sport is perhaps most classical in boxing, with weight classes evening out the competition to a certain degree. Boxing’s popularity has waxed and waned over time as charismatic fighters come and go, but like track and field, it’s arguably one of the purest expressions of sport, being about pure dominance. One could also argue that some team sports, such as hockey and American-style football, are as much about the collateral violence as about scoring goals. Professional wrestling, revealed to be essentially athletic acting, blends entertainment and sport, though without appreciable loss of audience appeal. As with cinema, fans seem to not care that action is scripted. Rising in popularity these days is mixed martial arts (MMA), which ups the ante over boxing by allowing all manner of techniques into the ring, including traditional boxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and straight-up brawling. If brawling works in the schoolyard and street against unwilling or inexperienced fighters, it rarely succeeds in the MMA ring. Skill and conditioning matter most, plus the lucky punch.

Every kid, boy or girl, is at different points bigger, smaller, or matched with someone else when things start to get ugly. So one’s willingness to engage and strategy are situational. In childhood, conflict usually ends quickly with the first tears or bloodied nose. I’ve fought on rare occasion, but I’ve never ever actually wanted to hurt someone. Truly wanting to hurt someone seems to be one attribute of a good fighter; another is the lack of fear of getting hit or hurt. Always being smaller than my peers growing up, if I couldn’t evade a fight (true for me most of the time), I would defend myself, but I wasn’t good at it. Reluctant willingness to fight was usually enough to keep aggressors at bay. Kids who grow up in difficult circumstances, fighting with siblings and bullies, and/or abused by a parent or other adult, have a different relationship with fighting. For them, it’s unavoidable. Adults who relish being bullies join the military and/or police or maybe become professional fighters.

One would have to be a Pollyanna to believe that we will eventually rise above violence and use of force. Perhaps it’s a good thing that in a period of relative peace (in the affluent West), we have alternatives to being forced to defend ourselves on an everyday basis and where those who want to can indulge their basic instinct to fight and establish dominance. Notions of masculinity and femininity are still wrapped up in how one expresses these urges, though in characteristic PoMo fashion, traditional boundaries are being erased. Now, everyone can be a warrior.

I see plenty of movies over the course of a year but had not been to a theater since The Force Awakens came out slightly over a year ago. The reason is simple: it costs too much. With ticket prices nearing $15 and what for me had been obligatory popcorn and soda (too much of both the way they’re bundled and sold — ask anyone desperately holding back their pee until the credits roll!), the endeavor climbed to nearly $30 just for one person. Never mind that movie budgets now top $100 million routinely; the movie-going experience simply isn’t worth $30 a pop. Opening weekend crowds (and costumes)? Fuggedaboudit! Instead, I view films at home on DVD (phooey on Blueray) or via a streaming service. Although I admit I’m missing out on being part of an audience, which offers the possibility of being carried away on a wave of crowd emotion, I’m perfectly happy watching at home, especially considering most films are forgettable fluff (or worse) and filmmakers seem to have forgotten how to shape and tell good stories. So a friend dragged me out to see Rogue One, somewhat late after its opening by most standards. Seeing Star Wars and other franchise installments now feels like an obligation just to stay culturally relevant. Seriously, soon enough it will be Fast & Furious Infinitum. We went to a newly built theater with individual recliners and waiters (no concession stands). Are film-goers no longer satisfied by popcorn and Milk Duds? No way would I order an $80 bottle of wine to go with Rogue One. It’s meant to be a premium experience, with everything served to you in the recliner, and accordingly, charges premium prices. Too bad most films don’t warrant such treatment. All this is preliminary to the actual review, of course.

I had learned quite a bit about Rogue One prior to seeing it, not really caring about spoilers, and was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t as bad as some complain. Rogue One brings in all the usual Star Wars hallmarks: storm troopers, the Force, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, ray guns and light sabers, the Death Star, and familiar characters such as Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, etc. Setting a story within the Star Wars universe makes most of that unavoidable, though some specific instances did feel like gratuitous fan service, such as the 3-second (if that) appearance of C3PO and R2D2. The appearance of things and characters I already knew about didn’t feel to me like an extra thrill, but how much I needed to already know about Star Wars just to make sense of Rogue One was a notable weakness. Thus, one could call Rogue One a side story, but it was by no means a stand-alone story. Indeed, characters old and new were given such slipshod introductions (or none at all!) that they functioned basically as chess pieces moved around to drive the game forward. Good luck divining their characteristic movements and motivations. Was there another unseen character manipulating everyone? The Emperor? Who knows? Who cares! It was all a gigantic, faceless, pawn sacrifice. When at last the main rebels died, there was no grief or righteousness over having at least accomplished their putative mission. Turns out the story was all about effects, not emotional involvement. And that’s how I felt: uninvolved. It was a fireworks display ending with a pointless though clichéd grand finale. Except I guess that watching a bunch of fake stuff fake blow up was the fake point.

About what passed for a story: the Rebellion learns (somehow?!) that they face total annihilation from a new superweapon called the Death Star. (Can’t remember whether that term was actually used in the film.) While the decision of leadership is to scatter and flee, a plucky band of rebels within the rebellion insist on flinging themselves against the enemy without a plan except to improvise once on site, whereupon leadership decides irrationally to do the same. The lack of strategy is straight out of The Return of the King, distracting the enemy from the true mission objective, but the visual style is more like the opening of Saving Private Ryan, which is to say, full, straight-on bombardment and invasion. Visual callbacks to WWII infantry uniforms and formations couldn’t be more out of place. To call these elements charmless is to give them too much credit. Rather, they’re hackneyed. However, they probably fit well enough within the Saturday-morning cartoon, newsreel, swashbuckler sensibility that informed the original Star Wars films from the 1970s. Problem is, those 1970s kids are grown and want something with greater gravitas than live-action space opera. Newer Star Wars audiences are stuck in permanent adolescence because of what cinema has become, with its superhero franchises and cynical money grabs.

As a teenager when the first trilogy came out, I wanted more of the mystical element — the Force — than I wanted aerial battles, sword fights, or chase scenes. The goofy robots, reluctant heroes, and bizarre aliens were fun, but they were balanced by serious, steady leadership (the Jedi) and a couple really bad-ass villains. While it’s known George Lucas had the entire character arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader in mind from the start, it’s also fair to say that no one quite knew in Episode 4 just how iconic Vader the villain would become, which is why his story became the centerpiece of the first two trilogies (how many more to come?). However, Anakin/Vader struggled with the light/dark sides of the Force, which resonated with anyone familiar with the angel/demon nomenclature of Christianity. When the Force was misguidedly explained away as Midi-clorians (science, not mysticism), well, the bottom dropped out of the Star Wars universe. At that point, it became a grand WWII analogue populated by American GIs and Nazis — with some weird Medievalism and sci-fi elements thrown in — except that the wrong side develops the superweapon. Rogue One makes that criticism even more manifest, though it’s fairly plain to see throughout the Star Wars films.

Let me single out one actor for praise: Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic. It’s hard for me to decide whether he chews the scenery, upstaging Darth Vader as a villain in the one scene they share, or he’s among a growing gallery of underactors whose flat line delivery and blandness invites viewers to project upon them characterization telegraphed through other mechanisms (costuming, music, plot). Either way, I find him oddly compelling and memorable, unlike the foolish, throwaway, sacrificial band of rebellious rebels against the rebellion and empire alike. Having seen Ben Mendelsohn in other roles, he possesses an unusual screen magnetism that reminds me of Sean Connery. He tends to play losers and villains and be a little one-note (not a bag of tricks but just one trick), but he is riveting on-screen for the right reasons compared to, say, the ookiness of the two gratuitous CGI characters in Rogue One.

So Rogue One is a modestly enjoyable and ephemeral romp through the Star Wars universe. It delivers and yet fails to deliver, which about as charitable as I can be.

Anthropologists, pundits, armchair cultural critics (like me), and others sometimes offer an aspect or characteristic, usually singular, that separates the human species from other animals. (Note: humans are animals, not the crowning creation of god in his own image, the dogma of major religions.) Typical singular aspects include tool use (very early on, fire), language, agriculture, self-awareness (consciousness), and intelligence, that last including especially the ability to conceptualize time and thus remember and plan ahead. The most interesting candidate suggested to me is our ability to kill from a distance. Without going into a list of things we don’t think we share with other species but surprisingly do, it interests me that none other possesses the ability to kill at a distance (someone will undoubtedly prove me wrong on this).

Two phrases spring to mind: nature is red in tooth and claw (Tennyson) and human life is nasty, brutish, and short (Hobbes). Both encapsulate what it means to have to kill to eat, which is hardly unique to animals. All sorts of plants, insects, and microorganisms embed themselves in hosts, sometimes killing the host and themselves. Symbiotic relationships also exist. The instance that interests me, though, is the act of killing in the animal kingdom that requires putting one’s own body at risk in life-or-death attack. Examples falling short of killing abound, such as intimidation to establish hierarchy, but to eat, an animal must kill its prey.

Having watched my share of historical fiction (pre-1800, say, but especially sword-and-sandal and medieval epics) on the TeeVee and at the cinema, the dramatic appeal of warring armies slamming into each other never seems to get old. Fighting is hand-to-hand or sword-to-sword, which are tantamount to the same. Archer’s arrows, projectiles launched from catapults and trebuchets, thrown knives, spears, and axes, and pouring boiling oil over parapets are killing from a relatively short distance, but the action eventually ends up being very close. The warrior code in fighting cultures honors the willingness to put oneself in harm’s way, to risk one’s own body. Leaders often exhibit mutual respect and may even share some intimacy. War may not be directly about eating, since humans are not cannibals under most circumstances; rather, it’s usually about control of resources, so secondarily about eating by amassing power. Those historical dramas often depict victors celebrating by enjoying lavish feasts.

Modern examples of warfare and killing from a distance make raining down death from above a bureaucratic action undertaken with little or no personal risk. Artillery, carpet bombing from 20,000 feet, drone strikes (controlled from the comfort of some computer lab in the Utah desert), and nuclear bombs are the obvious examples. No honorable warrior code attaches to such killing. Indeed, the chain of command separates the execution of kill orders from moral responsibility — probably a necessary disconnect when large numbers of casualties (collateral damage, if one prefers the euphemism) can be expected. Only war criminals, either high on killing or banally impervious to empathy and compassion, would dispatch hundreds of thousands at a time.

If killing from a distance is in most cases about proximity or lack thereof, one further example is worth mentioning: killing across time. While most don’t really conceptualize the space-time continuum as interconnected, the prospect of choices made today manifesting in megadeath in the foreseeable future is precisely the sort of bureaucratized killing from a distance that should be recognized and forestalled. Yet despite our supposed intellectual superiority over other species, we cannot avoid waging war, real and rhetorical, to control resources and narratives that enable us to eat. Eating the future would be akin to consuming seed corn, but that metaphor is not apt. Better perhaps to say that we’re killing the host. We’re embedded in the world, as indeed is everything we know to be alive, and rely upon the profundity of the biosphere for survival. Although the frequent charge is that humanity is a parasite or has become as cancer on the world, that tired assessment, while more accurate than not, is a little on the nose. A more charitable view is that, as a species, humanity, as the apex predator, has expanded its habitat to include the entire biosphere, killing to eat, and is slowly consuming and transforming it into a place uninhabitable by us, just as a yeast culture consumes its medium and grows to fill the space before dying all at once. So the irony or Pyrrhic victory is that we while we may fatten ourselves (well, some of us) in the short term, we have also created conditions leading to our own doom. Compared to other species whose time on Earth lasted tens of millions of years, human life on Earth turns out to be exactly what Hobbes said: nasty, brutish, and short.

I watched John Pilger’s excellent documentary film The War You Don’t See (2010), which deals with perpetual and immoral wars, obfuscations of the governments prosecuting them, and the journalistic media’s failure to question effectively the lies and justifications that got us into war and keeps us there. The documentary reminded me of The Fog of War (2003), Robert McNamara’s rueful rethinking of his activities as Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (thus, the Vietnam War). Seems that lessons a normal, sane person might draw from experience at war fail to find their way into the minds of decision makers, who must somehow believe themselves to be masters of the universe with immense power at their disposal but are really just war criminals overseeing genocides. One telling detail from Pilger’s film is that civilian deaths (euphemistically retermed collateral damage in the Vietnam era) as a percentage of all deaths (including combatants) have increased from 10% (WWI) to 50% (WWII) to 70% (Vietnam) to 90% (Afghanistan and Iraq). That’s one of the reasons why I call them war criminals: we’re depopulating the theaters of war in which we operate.

After viewing the Pilger film, the person sitting next to me asked, “How do you know what he’s saying is true?” More fog. I’m ill-equipped to handle such direct epistemological challenge; it felt to me like a non sequitur. Ultimately, I was relieved to hear that the question was mere devil’s advocacy, but it’s related to the epistemological crisis I’ve blogged about before. Since the date of that blog post, the crisis has only worsened, which is what I expect as legitimate authority is undermined, expertise erodes, and the public sphere devolves into gamification and gotchas (or a series of ongoing cons). If late-stage capitalism has become a nest of corruption, the same is true — with unexpected rapidity — of the computer era and the Information Superhighway (a term no one uses anymore). One early expectation was that enhanced (24/7/365) access to information would yield impressive educational gains, as though the only thing missing were more information, but human nature being what it is, the first valuable innovations resulted from commercializing erotica and porn. Later debate and hand-wringing over the inaccuracy of Wikipedia and the slanted results of Google searches disappeared as everyone simply got used to not being able to trust those sources any too much, just as everyone got used to forfeiting their privacy online.

Today, everything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment is understood either with a grain of salt mountain of skepticism and held in abeyance until solid confirmation can be had (which often never comes) or simply run with because, well, what the hell? Journalists, the well-trained ones possessing integrity anyway, used to be in the first camp, but market forces and the near instantaneity of (faulty, spun) information, given how the Internet has lowered the bar to publication, have pushed journalists into the second camp. As Pilger notes, they have become echo chambers and amplifiers of the utterances of press agents of warmongering governments. Sure, fact checking still occurs, when it’s easy (such as on the campaign trail), but with war reporting in particular, which poses significant hurdles to information gathering, too many reporters simply repeat what they’re told or believe the staging they’re shown.

/rant on

With a new round of presidential debates upon us (not really debates if one understands the nature of debate or indeed moderation — James Howard Kunstler called it “the gruesome spectacle of the so-called debate between Trump and Clinton in an election campaign beneath the dignity of a third-world shit-hole”), it’s worthwhile to keep in the front of one’s mind that the current style of public discourse does not aim to provide useful or actionable information with regard to either the candidates or the issues. Rather, the idea is to pummel the hapless listener, watcher, or reader into a quivering jangle of confusion by maintaining a nonstop onslaught of soundbites, assertions, accusations, grandstanding, and false narratives. Our information environment abets this style of machine-gun discourse, with innumerable feeds from InstaGoogTwitFaceTube (et cetera), all vying simultaneously for our limited attention and thereby guaranteeing that virtually nothing makes a strong impression before the next bit of BS displaces it in a rapid succession of predigested morsels having no nutritional content or value for earnest consumers of information (as opposed to mouth-breathers seeking emotional salve for their worst biases and bigotry). Many feeds are frankly indecipherable, such as when the message is brutally truncated and possessed of acronyms and hashtags, the screen is cluttered with multiple text scrolls, or panel participants talk over each other to claim more screen time (or merely raise their asshole quotient by being the most obnoxious). But no matter so long as the double barrels keep firing.

I caught Republican nominee Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyann Conway being interviewed by some banal featherweight pulling punches (sorry, no link, but she’s eminently searchable). Conway proved adept at deflecting obvious contradictions and reversals (and worse) of the Trump campaign by launching so many ideological bombs that nothing the interviewer raised actually landed. Questions and conflicts just floated away, unaddressed and unanswered. Her bizarre, hyperverbal incoherence is similar to the candidate’s stammering word salad, and ironically, both give new meaning to the decades-old term “Teflon” when applied to politics. Nothing sticks because piling on more and more complete wrongness and cognitive dissonance overwhelms and bewilders anyone trying to track the discussion. Trump and Conway are hardly alone in this, of course, though their mastery is notable (but not admirable). Talking heads gathered in panel discussions on, say, The View or Real Time with Bill Maher, just about any klatch occupying news and morning-show couches, and hosts of satirical news shows (some mentioned here) exhibit the same behavior: a constant barrage of high-speed inanity (and jokes, omigod the jokes!) that discourages consideration of an idea before driving pellmell onto the next.

Thoughtful persons might pause to wonder whether breathless, even virtuoso delivery results from or creates our abysmally short attention spans and lack of serious discussion of problems plaguing the nation. Well, why can’t it be both? Modern media is all now fast media, delivering hit-and-run spectacle to overloaded nervous systems long habituated to being goosed every few moments. (Or as quoted years ago, “the average Hollywood movie has become indistinguishable from a panic attack.”) Our nervous systems can’t handle it, obviously. We have become insatiable information addicts seeking not just the next fix but a perpetual fix, yet the impatient demand for immediate gratification — Internet always at our fingertips — is never quelled. Some new bit will be added to the torrent of foolishness sooner than it can be pulled down. And so we stumble like zombies, blindly and willingly, into a surreality of our own making, heads down and faces blue from the glare of the phone/tablet/computer. Of course, the shitshow is brightly festooned with buffoon candidates holding court over the masses neither intends to serve faithfully in office. Their special brand of insanity is repeated again and again throughout the ranks of media denizens (celebrity is a curse, much like obscene wealth, or didn’t you know that?) and is seeping into the ground water to poison all of us.

/rant off

An enduring trope of science fiction is naming of newly imagined gadgets and technologies (often called technobabble with a mixture of humor and derision), as well as naming segments of human and alien societies. In practice, that means renaming already familiar things to add a quasi-futuristic gleam, and it’s a challenge faced by every story that adopts an alternative or futuristic setting: describing the operating rules of the fictional world but with reference to recognizable human characteristics and institutions. A variety of recent Young Adult (YA) fiction has indulged in this naming and renaming, some of which have been made into movies, mostly dystopic in tone, e.g., the Hunger Games tetralogy, the Twilight saga, the Harry Potter series, the Maze Runner, and the Divergent trilogy. (I cite these because, as multipart series, they are stronger cultural touchstones, e.g., Star Wars, than similar once-and-done adult cinematic dystopias, e.g., Interstellar and ElyseumStar Trek is a separate case, considering how it has devolved after being rebooted from its utopian though militaristic origins into a pointless series of action thrillers set in space.) Some exposition rises to the level of lore but is mostly mere scene-setting removed slightly from our own reality. Similar naming schemes are used in cinematic universes borne out of comic books, especially character names, powers, and origins. Because comic book source material is extensive, almost all of it becomes lore, which is enjoyed by longtime children initiates into the alternate universes created by the writers and illustrators but mildly irritating to adult moviegoers like me.

History also has names for eras and events sufficiently far back in time for hindsight to provide a clear vantage point. In the U.S., we had the Colonial Era, the Revolutionary Period, The Frontier Era and Wild West, the Industrial/Mechanical Age, Modernism, and Postmodernism, to name a few but by no means all. Postmodernism is already roughly 40 years old, yet we have not yet named the era in which we now live. Indeed, because we’re the proverbial fish inside the fishbowl, unable to recognize the water in which we swim, the contemporary moment may have no need of naming, now or at any given time. That task awaits those who follow. We have, however, given names to the succession of generations following the Baby Boom. How well their signature characteristics fit their members is the subject of considerable debate.

As regular readers of this blog already know, I sense that we’re on the cusp of something quite remarkable, most likely a hard, discontinuous break from our recent past. Being one of the fish in the bowl, I probably possess no better understanding of our current phase of history than the next. Still, if had to choose one word to describe the moment, it would be dissolution. My 4-part blog post about dissolving reality is one attempt to provide an outline. A much older post called aged institutions considers the time-limited effectiveness of products of human social organization. The grand question of our time might be whether we are on the verge of breaking apart or simply transitioning into something new — will it be catastrophe or progress?

News this past week of Britain’s exit from the European Union may be only one example of break-up vs. unity, but the drive toward secession and separatism (tribal and ideological, typically based on bogus and xenophobic identity groups constantly thrown in our faces) has been gaining momentum even in the face of economic globalization (collectivism). Scotland very nearly seceded from the United Kingdom last year; Quebec has had multiple referenda about seceding from Canada, none yet successful; and Vermont, Texas, and California have all flirted with secession from the United States. No doubt some would argue that such examples of dissolution, actual or prospective, are actually transitional, meaning progressive. And perhaps they do in fact fulfill the need for smaller, finer, localized levels of social organization that many have argued are precisely what an era of anticipated resource scarcity demands. Whether what actually manifests will be catastrophe (as I expect it will) is, of course, what history and future historians will eventually name.

Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts, accepted narratives, and propagandist mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

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