Category: Film

Lorax forced to shill for consumerism

If you can’t see this, please go to the link here.

Universal Pictures’s Lorax can’t get any love. First, grade schoolers attacked the film studio for a lack of environmental materials on its Web site, then Fox’s right-wing host Lou Dobbs accused it of conspiring to undermine capitalism, and now environmentalists are up in arms about the merchandise and commercial tie-ins associated with the film (including disposable diapers, Double Tree hotels and IHOP). As to be expected, Dobbs’s rant is rather juvenile compared to the sensible response of kids faced with living in Fox’s demented universe. As for the tie-ins, read on.

The latest outrage is the emergence of a “Truffula tree friendly” SUV ad for a Mazda (posted above).
In response, the best quip comes from Mediate: “Having The Lorax shill for a sport utility vehicle is like using clips of Requiem For A Dream to sell diet pills, it goes completely against the spirit of the source material!” Appropriately, Jason Bittel offered this little Dr. Seuss-esque ditty:

A Lorax-branded combustion engine? I mean, seriously?

Not a hydrogen? Not an electric?

Not even a Thneed-sponsored cross-breed?

Whoever is in charge of branding

For the Lorax’s mula-making machine –

Have you read the book you’re hijacking?

Did you misinterpret what it means?

A cinematic balm for the 9/11 blues

My Italian friends asked me if I wanted to to do something special for 9/11. I was ashamed to say that the memory conjured something that I didn’t want to re-experience: bloodlust, revenge and war. All I can remember is how the moment of compassion and empathy that the incident called for eroded as fast as war plans were drawn-up to invade Afghanistan. Ten years ago all I could think about was the impending world war that would be launched in the name of 9/11 victims and their families. Indeed, the mainstream media failed to give voice to the peacemakers and antiwar critics who predicated the inevitable folly, crucial voices that I’m afraid have been proven right by the course of history.

But for this post I didn’t want to focus on politics. Rather, I wanted to share with you a clip from a film that I feel is one of the most powerful polemics against political violence I’ve ever seen. It comes from the Italian film Buongiorno, notte (Good Morning, Night), directed by Marco Bellocchio (who, BTW, won last night’s lifetime achievement award at the Venice Film Festival). Unfortunately there are no subtitles, so I will have to set it up for you.

The film is about when Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped in 1978 by the Red Brigades, a left-wing terrorist group. The movie depicts the 55 days of his captivity in Rome, focusing on his captors, four young brigadistas, and their relationship with the imprisoned Moro. The story zooms in on the conflicted brigadista, Anna Laura Braghetti, who is increasingly troubled by the fact that the Italian political establishment won’t negotiate a prisoner exchange–the condition for his release–which means that Moro will be sentenced to death by his captors and eventually murdered.

The clip I have posted above involves Braghetti (performed by Maya Sansa) reading Moro’s final letter to his wife. It is then ingeniously overlaid with a letter by a WWII partisan who was sentenced to death by the Nazis. She then has a shattering epiphany (1:50 in the clip) when she realizes that the senseless horror that is about to be inflicted on her captive is no different than the heartless political murders of the past. Bellocchio emphasizes this point by intercutting source footage of prisoner executions from the war. Cut to Pink FLoyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” for me it is one of cinema’s most poignant montages, a heartful rebuttal against the cold logic of terrorists and vengeful war machines.

I hope you have the patience to watch the entire clip. Even if you don’t understand the language, it is poetry in motion. Incidentally, it is possible to see a subtitled version of the film. If at all possible, I encourage you to watch it and learn more about this tragic moment in Italian history.

Rise of the film studio ape heads

The above viral videos were made to promote the latest entry into the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Historically the series is fundamentally a critique of human arrogance and anthropocentrism, and the trailer for this latest film seems to confirm this tradition, adding to the mix corporate maleficence as a source for our downfall.

So why, then, did the marketing geniuses at Fox come up with this horrendously racist ad campaign? The answer is quite simple: a lack of diverse perspectives and cultural sensitivity is still a core characteristic of the monied media monopolies. If there were actually African creatives as part of the brainstorming process, the repeated trope of out-of-control, psycho militants in the heart of Dark Africa would stop circulating through the mediasphere. As Roger Silverstone writes, media is a space of appearances. It gives voice to some perspectives, and leaves out others. It is rather shameful that smart, creative and intelligent Africans are not part of the design teams that craft media–not just for domestic consumption in the US–but for international markets. These kinds of images perpetuate imperial stereotypes that ultimately serve the domination of the global economy by white financiers.

The (anti-)Social Network: My two bytes


Image source

The Social Network or How Heroic Rich White Guys and Their Asian Groupies Colonized Youth Culture…

OK, snarkiness aside, I think The Social Network is a very well-made film. David Fincher is a top notch director, and Aaron Sorkin, if you can get past his machine gun style of dialog and plot devices, are quintessential storytellers of our age, churning ironic cool, short-attention span aesthetics and multilevel storytelling into high art (at least of the technical variety). The Social Network is very much a hybrid of television, film and Internet cultural sensibilities, the kind celebrated by Steven Johnson in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter.

But beyond the slick and entertaining aspects of the film, various subtexts reinforce myths about the Internet and capitalism that end up being a feel-good story for our system at a time when it is in profound crisis. Ultimately it serves as yet another propaganda device for the reality bubble of the global knowledge economy and its exploitation of youth culture. Unlike Fincher’s Fight Club, this film is a very pro-capitalist, lacking the P2P ethos and grassroots character of the Internet’s popularity, which mostly thrives in the absence of commerce.

(Soon to be changed through enclosure, however, no thanks in part to this kind of propaganda. In fact, you may want to check out Tim Wu’s The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires, and his excellent WSJ editorial about media monopolies: “In the Grip of the New Monopolists: Do away with Google? Break up Facebook? We can’t imagine life without them—and that’s the problem.”)

First, there is the genre trope of the loan genius–Zuckerberg and his freewheeling alter-ego Sean Parker (founder of Napster and brilliantly played by Justin Timberlake)– who, despite the film’s title, are depicted as anti-social jerks in search of blow jobs, fame and big bucks. There’s little cultural context in terms of the financing behind Internet start-ups, nor does it explain the popularity of social networks beyond being a tool to get laid. Though the film accurately points out that cool can’t be marketed, it fails to explain why a 26 year-old can be worth $25 billion. Really, this needs to enter into the film, somehow.

An uncritical view into how an astronomically valued company that makes little money can only feed into the larger ideology that enables banks and the government to print worthless money while we as a people are reduced to pawns of finance and capital. The film never asks what it is that is being monetized by the Facebook economy, a very significant and important ethical question. At this point–not that anyone cares–Foucault is rolling in his grave. I don’t know if he could have imagined such wholesale voluntarism to surveillance and privacy mining. (Disclaimer: I have a Facebook account, so I’m guilty as charged.)

There is a snippet and comment about how Napster took down the record industry, which passes with little debate. Was it a bit of code that did it? What about people’s pre-existing social habits, or the dinosaur-like behavior of traditional media companies? And there is the famous scene from the movie in which Zuckerberg refuses to give his attention to a stuffy establishment lawyer, which reinforces the rebel-without-a-cause image of Internet entrepreneurs and capitalism’s need to constantly reinvent itself all-the-while keeping the basic system of monetary control intact.

The film’s ultimate subtext is that social network entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. Think about it. Instead of playing in a garage band, you and your friends band together to code a tool that will eventually get signed by the arbitrators of the new culture industry in Silicon Valley. Even the way Facebook spread was like a touring band–it expanded its base by encircling and entering into markets one campus at a time (in particular those schools that are at the core of the information economy). Rather than it be traditional record companies, here it is the buttoned down venture capitalists who thrive on personality cults to drive their new wares and the stock market as its engine of commerce. That it is driven by a sex crazed youth culture makes it that much juicier. As Sorkin said, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling…. What is the big deal about accuracy purely for accuracy’s sake, and can we not have the true be the enemy of the good?”

I admit I didn’t know much about Zuckerberg’s story before seeing the film, so upon checking out his Wikipedia page, I was surprised by the following quote: “For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me.” And, “The thing I really care about is the mission, making the world open.” The Wikipedia page paints Zuckerberg as a hacker. If this is really the case (it seems to be at least partially true), then this would have been a far more interesting subtext than the rock star one used in the film. Granted, there are hints of Zuckerberg’s hacker ethos, but no sense of history that puts hacking at the center of the story of the Internet’s growth, as opposed to venture capital. Either way, at the end of the day, the history of culture and capitalism is portrayed once again as something done by smart, rich white guys accompanied by their Asian groupies.

FYI, there is a great soundtrack from Trent Rezner, who, true to his DIY roots, offers several of the songs for free on his Website.

Dangerous children, dangerous minds: getting schooled by the Kogi

Avatar’s global meme about an irresponsible/greedy/childish culture slashing and burning a planetary intelligence has its analog on Earth. So if James Cameron kicked open the pop culture door for this idea to spread through the mediasphere, now it’s time for our world’s indigenous to speak for themselves. Enter the Kogi from Colombia, who ask us to listen with our hearts and minds to their urgent call for human sanity. By using film as their bridging tool, our “elder brothers” are co-authoring Aluna, There is No Life Without Thought, a documentary manifesto designed to wake us up, asking us to think differently about our idiotic and suicidal treatment of the world/selves/others.

As a good background article in the Guardian states,

“Footage of the Kogi conducting rituals beneath a spectacular tree is straight out of Avatar. ‘Avatar has done great work for this,’ (filmmaker Alan) Ereira says. ‘Twenty years ago, the Kogi were pushing on a wheel that had just started to turn. Now that wheel is really rolling and they are part of the zeitgeist.'”

Indeed, but the scene is not out of Avatar; the film scene is from Earth (let’s not mistake the map for the territory!). However, the point is well taken: the wheel is turning. But the Kogi and Avatar can only do so much. You have to help push the wheel, too, internally and in the world at large. The task is vast, but there is one small tidbit from the Guardian story that you might find useful. When asked why it is that the current world system has such strong destructive momentum, Kogi spokesperson Jacinto Zabareta replied,

“Habit… That ambition to have more doesn’t have a framework. It’s just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. ‘What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.’ The consequences are evident, but it doesn’t seem obvious to you… You can go and live in space, that’s fine, but you don’t seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That’s something you’ve forgotten.'”

This insight concurs with the essence of Buddhist teachings about habits of mind that lead to unskilled and confused action in the world. Jacinto, I believe, is asking for a kind of mindfulness that relates to cognitive scientist Francesco J. Varela‘s call for Ethical Know-How: “the progressive, firsthand acquaintance with the virtuality of self.” What he means by this is the age-old problem of duality in which we fail to be mindful of how our thoughts are not embedded within a fictional self, but are the result of an interaction of the world which brings us into existence. Our minds are not isolated, but co-evolve with the world around us. The few statements of the Kogi I’ve read and heard in the trailer seem to imply the same: our thoughts are what bring forth the world. For evidence, look no further than the ecological nightmare our civilization has produced. All is made possible by our ideas, and is a projection of a destructive thought process that simply needs to be reigned in.

Want to change the world? Change your mind. Or at least how you conceive it.

Inception: mindfrak lite, not quite zeitgeist


It took months to arrive, but Inception finally screened in Italy this weekend. Here’s my take. There are spoilers here, but I assume everyone who’s interested has seen it by now.

Regardless of what anyone says, Inception is a good object to think with.

And I think Christopher Nolan is a clever filmmaker. Mind you, clever doesn’t always mean wise. But he has a knack for making films that can splinter your mind. Even the Batman franchise’s The Dark Night had some deep guano buried within its pyrotechnics. But is Inception the zeitgeist film it aspires to be?
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It’s all in the numbers

Too bad Pi‘s Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) didn’t see “Nature By Numbers” (the first embedded video). Maybe he wouldn’t have gone insane! But then again, seeing the beauty and perfection of the cosmos’ sacred geometry has blow many a mind before. Including this one.

Hurt Locker: The technologically insulated American at war (and cinema)


After hearing so much about Hurt Locker and its Best Picture award (I’ve always been intrigued by war movies), I thought I’d give it a whirl. For starters, this ain’t Apocalypse Now! or Full Metal Jacket, let alone even close to some of the better, more complex war films that delve into the distorted and demented politics of its leaders. In particular I’m thinking of Major Dundee by Sam Peckinpah, which is set during the so-called Indian Wars. Hurt Locker also lacks the psychological nuance of something like Terrence Malick’s brilliant The Thin Red Line.

Hurt Locker is neither adventurous nor cutting edge, and not much better aesthetically than a TV show like CSI. Ultimately it’s a really boring movie with bad dialogue that poorly fleshes out a series of tension and release sequences that draw on music video and video game aesthetics. It is full of cliches about poor American soldiers who cannot make sense of a chaotic environment not of their choosing as they enter the labyrinth of a surreal war landscape populated by an alien Other. Framed as an “American tragedy,” once again an invaded country becomes a purification drama for Hollywood’s liberal consciousness.

So I hope no one thinks Hurt Locker is a serious anti-war movie, because if this is what passes these days as war criticism, then the depoliticization of Iraq has truly succeeded to permeate the pop culture landscape.

Just compare, for example, the Americans–self-identified as “USA friendlies”– versus the zero-dimensional Iraqis who seem to have no history or personality beyond the usual tropes and stereotypes (see my list below). The only insight into how the other side thinks comes from an Iraqi professor who is allowed three lines of dialogue, one being that he is pleased to have the CIA in his home. Moreover, the film forces you to sympathize with the military every time they kill Iraqis. Army recruiters most love that.

The only hint of the film’s consciousness comes at the end of the movie. We transition from a closing shot in Iraq with kids throwing stones at the Americans to the returning soldier’s existential crisis at home when he faces a wall of cereal in a market– recalling the clash’s prescient protest song, “Lost in the Supermarket.” In the end, cleaning rain gutters is not as thrilling as war, so this middle class soldier–a cypher for our system– has to go back to Iraq because now he is addicted to the adrenaline of war–like our consumer economy. The last shot has him transformed as a technologically shielded man who lurches suicidally towards another bomb. Like our militarized system, he has lost his humanity.

Though the last shot is a pretty strong image, compare it to some of the dialog when two soldiers complain about the war. Soldier 1: “How do you deal with it?” Soldier 2: “I just don’t think about it.” Wow, heavy shit.

If “I fucking hate this place” and “Let’s get out of this fucking desert” are the strongest statements the film’s characters can make, then Hollywood is as spineless and addicted to the military as the Democrats. Because in the end, though Hollywood cast a guilt vote to make this their best picture, in the industry the war machine will continue to march unabated as a primary partner in the development of animation and other block-buster special effects technology to be prototyped for war training VR.

Ultimately I concur with Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (a much better and more introspective book/picture than Hurt Locker), who wrote that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie:

There is talk that many films are antiwar, that the message is war is inhumane and look what happens when you train young American men to fight and kill, they turn their fighting and killing everywhere, they ignore their targets and desecrate the entire country, shooting fully automatic, forgetting they were trained to aim. But actually, Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended… [soldiers] watch the same films and are excited by them, because the magic brutality of the films celebrate the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man; with film you are stroking his cock, tickling his balls with the pink feather of history, getting him ready for his real first fuck. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar—the actual killers who know how to use the weapons are not. (pp. 6-7)

It seems to me that the film’s Best Picture award is driven by a sense of shame about the war– a need to feel and say something about it, but even in the Obama years no one (that is, anyone in a position of power) is willing to stand up and call the Iraq war for what it is: a crime against humanity. So when a dramatic film can make this case, then it will certainly get my vote. But I’m not holding out hope. At least not for it to be made by Hollywood.

Here is a quick an dirty laundry list of unoriginal war film tropes from Hurt Locker:

  • Inane dialogue as indication that somewhat will die (also used in horror films).
  • Kid Iraqi (“Beckham”–yawn) who learns American black slang (and sells DVDs) as symbol of the hybridized, Utopian future of Iraq.
  • Zero-dimensional Iraqis except as The Horrible Evil Enemy Without Any Consciousness (unlike the technocratic warriors of America who kill with high technology but also have feelings of guilt).
  • A cameo of the sadistic yahoo commander (we only get a momentary glimpse of him).
  • War-stressed, PTSD soldier who doesn’t have the capacity (or stomach) to “hold it in,” and of course is the one character who gets wounded right before he is supposed to finish his tour.
  • Veteran perverted by horrors of war harbors an idiosyncratic secret obsession.
  • Strange and creepy intellectual analyst whose healing powers are over-shadowed by his naivety and lack of warrior purification (and of course is killed).
  • Depersonalized death/massacre of the other/enemy.
  • Spectacularized violence as cleansing ritual for do-gooder Americans.

Pocahavatar and the public dream

CFV 426 – Avatar/Pocahontas Mashup FINAL VERSION from Randy Szuch on Vimeo.

The point was made previously on this blog, but this excellent mash-up makes more visible the parallels between Avatar and Pocahontas. It reflects how the cultural myth of romantic savages versus colonial war machine (or loss of innocence/ fall from grace) continually persists in popular culture. Because it is a product of an industrialized culture and the radical transformation of its place on Earth, the continued popularity and re-working of this theme should not be simplistically reduced to false-consciousness. Yes it’s true that it is a distorted picture and Native Americans are right to criticize the stereotypes that ossify their culture and flatten them. Additionally, it is fair to say this is a necessary myth for the colonial culture, so it is not innocent or immune from these idealogical critiques.

Nonetheless, Pat Breton points out in Hollywood Utopia: Ecology in Contemporary American Cinema that critics need to develop an ethical kind of intervention that doesn’t ignore the legitimate (and very real) response of the audience. Likewise, Adrain Par argues in her discussion of Dances With Wolves that the film’s popularity was working on both latent and manifest sensibilities, the latent coming from the primal and repressed, whereas the manifest derives strictly from our response to the storyline. She suggests that in order to transform our culture from militarism to sustainability, it is important to recognize the “affect” that comes from deep responses to media with transformative themes. I remember really being inspired by the film, but than “learned” to hate it after all the criticism. But since militaristic and mechanistic thinking is so prevalent in our society’s cultural output, we need to recognize that when the Primal Matrix asserts itself, it does trigger a genuine revival of Spirit.

In this sense, I believe Avatar represents a good case study. Yes we can dwell upon its simplistic genre recycling and tropes (as the above mash-up alludes to), but clearly there is a deeper emotional response emanating from the cultural feedback loop happening with this film (Adrian Ivakhiv has a good round up at his Immanence blog). I see similar signs of this when the cultural commons reveals itself through the emerging economic practices of the Web. Lawrence Lessig, Clay Shirky and Henry Jenkins all document how the audience is quite alive in its response to media. People engage in all kinds of creative and participatory practices that were not reflected by the older, hierarchical structure of media of yore. So we should stop thinking about the “dominant” media with old models (this is the plea from David’s Gauntlett’s Media Studies 2.0).

Participatory cultural behaviors are not new, nor did they ever go away. In the 20th Century we can go back to Dada and follow a line through various avant-garde cultural movements to punk and hip hop that show active and often resistant behavior working beneath (or occasionally blinking on) the radar of the culture industry (albeit the industry’s machinery has become a lot more ravenous when it comes to commodifying subcultures). But the way in which marketing constantly repurposes grassroots cultural expression is a healthy sign that 1) culture constantly adjusts in ways the resist domination and 2) marketers still depend on authenticity as a reference point. This is all a long-winded way of saying that rather than being a deadened populous walking around like zombies in a shopping mall simulacrum paved over a dead planet (as critics like Chris Hedges would have us believe), the spark of life (however dim it may be) still persists among us, and can be brightened when certain stories speak to our inner moral compass and its sense of justice. No wonder that Palestinians and indigenous peoples are drawing upon the Avatar meme to highlight their causes. The “Fall”‘s mythology can play a subversive role in changing the meaning of dominant symbols, serving as a kind of fulcrum that can shift the culture’s center of gravity into a new direction.

I’m hopeful from reading Jonah Sachs and Susan Finkelpearl (makers of Story of Stuff), who argue that the open secret of marketing’s past successes (such as the Marlborough Man and Volkswagen’s populist appeal) were based on powerful (visual) stories. Propaganda has also achieved such successes through promoting narratives like the Clash of Civilizations. In terms of the environment, scientific facts about the planet’s perilous state are not penetrating the populous to the same extent as the disinformation flak spread out by the oil industry whose simplistic screed have a way of guiding the discourse just enough to scramble the facts (“confuse and conquer!” was the surrealist manifesto we used to use back in college). But what the energy companies lack is a connection to the Primal Matrix (although now that I think about it, crude oil is essence of primal goo and the fact that we burn it is an interesting psychological response to our planetary Id). Movies like Avatar, on the other hand, draw upon the repressed within all of us, the billion dollar response of the buying public a good sign that it is strongly active.

I’m struck by a quote from Bill Moyer’s interviews with Joseph Campbell, who said, “The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth.” If ads are the dreamlife of corporations, then perhaps films like Avatar are the dreamlife of the Planet. Which, of course, includes us.


I want to preface my comments by saying that I support the work of Doctors without Borders, and they were the first organization I donated to after the earthquake in Haiti. With that said, I was struck by the above poster I received in my email. It advertises a documentary about their work that will screen worldwide (click her for locations and more information). At first I thought it was just cheeky sales pitch for donations, framing the work of the organization within the narrative structure of an action film. The image reminded me a little of the Constant Gardener, in which Africa becomes the backdrop for purification of the white man’s soul (as is the case of the Western genre of film).
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Avatar: downloading our higher selves


Like most things new, it took a month for Avatar to screen in Italy. I avoided reading any posts or articles about the film until I first had a chance to view it myself. Since seeing it here in Rome, I’ve been crafting my response. I haven’t posted because I keep thinking of things to add, but I decided to just stop and let the following speak for itself. I’m sure I’ll add more later as the film continues to resonate.

Media critic WJT Mitchell asks the question, What do pictures want? Whenever staring into the eyes of media, I often wonder who or what beckons me. From the initial to closing shots of Avatar, we are invited to connect to a world through the gaze of a floating screen. In the former case eyes open to a world turned upside down, but one yet to be born. In the latter, through another set of eyes we see ourselves transmuted as a cyborg animal in a world right side up, returned to order. In other words, we voyage though Campbell's Hero's Journey to a T– one of Hollywood's most tried and true narrative arks. But what if Avatar's archetypal roots reach deeper to its Hindu namesake, calling forth the larger comsic question: is the dreamer being dreamed? Maybe the picture (as isn the film) wants to know the answer.

Before moving on, I'll start by acknowledging the easy criticisms of the film, which are also echoed across the blogosphere. Indeed it's a cowboy and Indians weekend matinee movie. James Cameron plugged and played a number of tropes, the most obvious coming from Last of the Mohicans, Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves. In the end we have an updated version of the White Messiah violently intervening to resolve a conflict between pastoral natives and a colonial war machine. Which begs the question, Do we really need another crusade to solve a problem of consciousness? One lesson is that we should avoid the right-wing Christian view that takes "spiritual warfare" literally. Certainly the film's decisive battle scene would mesh with Derrick Jensen's call to bring the fight to Empire. On the other hand, has there ever been a major film in which the protagonist does not prove himself a "man" without an act of violence?

Going back to the film's homage to matinee adventures, I could go on with the genre mash-ups (as many bloggers humorously did), but the film's conventions ultimately serve as an easily digestible morality play that are context for the special effects and larger issues of global significance. That the film has pretensions of planetary appeal is indicated by its Up With People/ world pop/ ready-made-for-New-Age-bookstores soundtrack.

Nonetheless, as an ecologically themed movie one has to wonder (tongue jammed into cheek) if the disposable 3-D glasses are made of biodegradable plastic (they are imprinted with recycling code "7"–which I think means a highly toxic amalgam that shouldn't be recycled, buried or incinerated). Also there is the fact that Mattel will make Avatar action figures made of who-knows-what toxic polymers under who-knows-what labor conditions under who-knows-what kind of authoritarian rule while shipped across the planet producing who-knows-how much C02 in transit. Not surprisingly, McDonald's will have Avatar themed Happy Meals with who-know-what "meat" product. Surely we couldn't expect the the culture industry's machinery to shut itself down in the wake of the world's greatest blockbuster. No, not when there's consumer markets to be mined. It may be too much to ask for more purity from Hollywood, but at least we (the audience) can make the cultural intervention by supplying a deeper systems analysis when one is absent. We can thank the film for creating the space to make such a discussion more relevant.

Surprisingly, Avatar makes me optimistic, despite its double binds. The quandary is that in order for the film to connect viewers to nature spirits it must use the technology of the system that it critiques. After all, like the film, Pandora's alien miners deploy 3-D imaging which enables them to map and exploit the world. But ecology to us modern folks is contradictory in the same way: we call for a return to nature, yet depend on science to map the risk of global peril in order to combat it. For instance, the iconic photo of Earth in space could not have been made possible without NASA's help, who deploy a highly extractive and environmentally destructive form of "high" technology (US rocket fuel, for example, is very destructive to the ozone and its toxic compounds are found in baby formula). At our current stage of globalization, arguments for restoring the biosphere, mitigation and remediation, whether we like it or not, require science and technology, and even the Internet, a primary byproduct of military research. The rub is that technology, according to Jacques Ellul, is first a product of "technique," a way of thinking and categorizing the world that is materially manifested in technology. The bind is that we are now called upon to turn technique upon itself in order to tunnel back to "nature," something that is itself now just a construct.

The hope is that artists and communicators can tap into the primordial call of Earth by creating stories and visualizations that move us toward a planetary vision of ecology. As Ursula K. Heise argues in her fantastic book, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, the Internet is often used in popular culture as a synecdoche for planetary connectivity. Avatar takes that one step further by showing how Pandora is itself a kind of organic Internet, its native inhabitants "jacking in" like the cyberpunk cowboys of yore. So while its true the system that produced the technology of Avatar is itself destructive, at the same time we should also acknowledge that it offers an emotional reconnection with a feeling of planetary consciousness, its 3-D heart reaching out to us over the silhouetted heads of the theater. In this sense, the film is about itself. After all, when we mindmold with Na'vi Jake Sully in the last shot, has he not become our dream? Or are we in his?

The film presents two paradigm extremes: the Mechanistic World Eaters, and the Organic World Grokkers. In-between are the bridge people, those who have a foot in both worlds, represented by Sully the wounded hero who becomes a shaman, and the chief's daughter Neytiri, who is schooled in the language of the oppressor. The love between them is one conduit to transformation; information technology and art is the other. As such, the film presents different aspects of technological prosthetics. There are the machinery versions of the Robo Cop variety, and there is the Avatar Project, which allows humans to control biologically engineered clones in order to infiltrate Pandora's natives. Finally there is the film itself which is a prosthetic of our enlarged senses. Like us, the film's avatars are digital natives, which inhabit a hybrid domain of modern network technology and the primeval matrix of interconnectivity. Despite the popular belief that we are disconnected from the natural world (reflected by the fact that we talk as if there is a dichotomy between the two), like the avatars we are biologically and imminently part of the biosphere. We are not on earth, we are in earth. And just as my mirror neurons enable me to empathize and connect with fellow humans, they also extend to other animals, plants and minerals (yes, minerals!). We are naturally interweaving with all aspects of our world, but due to our domestication (best exemplified by Avatar's comically named antagonist, Parker Selfridge), we are trained to experience nature as if it were alien. As bridgers, though, the minds that navigate the avatars are extending their awareness into a larger reality.

Still, though the technological net that encompass Pandora can model and map it in 3-D, it fails to garner empathy from the World Eaters. Only through hybridization with the Primal Matrix can it happen. This occurs through technological bonding with the world's natives, who are themselves a kind of animal hybrid (though they wouldn't see themselves that way). Indeed, humans are animals too, lest we forget. Na'vi are part cat, part humanoid, which invokes some of Donna Haraway's work about cyborgs and hybridity ("We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs"). On a biological level, if we were pressed to evaluate what is it that defines us as human, you would be shocked to learn how much of us really is water, parasites and bacteria. Moreover, our DNA contains even the most ancient strains of evolution. Indeed we are part lizard, bird, fish and algae. Where the distinction begins and ends is cultural.

In order for us to reach beyond the reality bubble of technique, we start by burrowing our way through with what we can grasp. When Sully enters the world of the Na'vi for the first time, the only way he knows how to survive in the foreign landscape is to use fire– our first technology. But it is only when the flame is extinguished that he can see the world alive with light and energy. As many bloggers have noted, such a vision is not unlike the kind you have when imbibing the "fruits of gods." If Avatar pushes the Vatican to criticizes the film's animism, then I think it's on to something.

The most useful aspect of Avatar is its ability to defamiliarize the concept of "alien." I read some reviewers refer to the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora as aliens. Wrong. As the dialog and schematic clearly shows, the humans (we don't know much about their history) are clearly the aliens, in the same sense that when the Spanish invaded the Americas, they too were aliens to the native societies.

The film's machines–as cartoony as they are–are literal world eaters, visual manifestations of the very system that exists in our planet, right now, be they rain forest consuming corporations or imperial invasions (references to mercenaries and "Shock and Awe" might confuse some of the film's fans who don't see Pandora's connection with Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan). Avatar's weakness is to not elaborate more on the RDA Corporation's home society. Like the war machine we see on the evening news, they are decontextualized from history (I imagine the sequels will flesh this out more–fingers crossed). It would be more courageous if their parent "civilization" was identified as a democracy. That could help us see more directly our own way of life as connected to the world-consuming ways of Pandora's colonizers.

If you are like me, the most powerful moment of the film comes in the last shot, when Sully's consciousness reawakens fully merged with his Na'vi prosthetic. In that moment my heart's aperture opened widely, encompassed by an enlarged sense of recognition and unity that comes from a true connection with the world. From the screen's eyes to mine, tears welled.

Cameron remarked that the Na'vi are like our higher selves. Connecting to this realm is refreshing like a purification dream. Indeed, the film's very roots are rooted in dreams, our one border region that still actively engages spirits of Earth. First, the Na'vi's physical form was inspired by a dream of Cameron's mother. Secondly, the image of blue avatars also draws upon the mythological vision of Hinduism, in which gods manifest themselves on Earth as dreamers dreaming themselves into existence. For us film can be a contact point to the liminal zones where such entities are realized by technologically aided human imagination.

Though a reviewer cynically called Avatar this season's "ink blot test," as a kind of zeitgeist film, Avatar's popularity may indeed indicate that our higher selves are calling us home. Our inner hippies are still there, feeling the groove of our filaments snaking with the global matrix, our mutated and war-damaged bodies ready to be compost for the World Tree.

In answer to my initial query– What does Avatar want?– Mitchell argues that the dominant motif of the modern era has been, "things fall apart." This can be represented by our literature's earliest version of bio-engineering: the monster Frankenstein. Such a creature doesn't dream, but is instead a nightmare. For so long his yellowed irises have stared us down in one form or another, perhaps beckoning us to re-enchant ourselves, and to rid our culture of this horrible vision of what we have become. I suspect that this is what Avatar really wants. Finally, as we stare back at the cultural dream's refashioned eyes, they invite us to download our higher selves by responding, "now things come alive!"

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2012: Flying dream of corporate destruction

*spoiler alert*

With 2012 Roland Emmerich has crafted a perfectly pitched disaster film. I don’t mean “perfect” in the sense of meaningful art, but in the ultimate mega-zeitgeist sense that it captures so much about our current historical moment. We can think of this film in same way that Leni Riefenstahl‘s Olympia or Triumph of the Will encapsulated the Nazi gestalt, or how a perfectly executed Pepsi ad embodies all the secret recipes of global capitalism’s deranged view of the world.

Emmerich is a pop genius. In one flick he combined the entire ’70s genre of catastrophe films while riffing some of the top grossing films of all time: Titanic, Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure, Airport, Towering Inferno, and of course he recycles his own global warming saga, The Day After Tomorrow, and his other hits, Godzilla and Independence Day.

So to think about this movie you have to toss out what ever idea you have that this is about 2012 in any remote way. This movie is not about consciousness transformed or reborn. Rather, the Mayans, along with the film’s actors, are mere props for the film’s main character: computer generated animation exploding on a spectacular scale.

Movies on this magnitude are nothing less than fragments from the dream life of global capital, or what I call the World System. Thus, to get at the film’s deeper meaning, we have to take it for what it is: an out of body flight through the corporate dream world’s restless vision of collapse. Recalling that a “corporation” is a kind of abstract “body,” are we not vicariously flying through the World System’s hyperspace POV? Films, ads, and commercial culture depict escape from our bodies, banishing the earth spirits so that we can become angels, and this film lifts us like no other.

The runway for our departure was created with linear perspective and its vanishing point during the Renaissance. Just beyond the horizon lies utopia and the space shuttle launch pad. Now that we are in full orbit, flying outside of our traumatized obese/anorexic bodies, we feel this strange jitter like maybe something has been left behind. We look back at earth, but our flight careens through cascading buildings with shattered glass spraying the horizon, smoke billowing from the severed earth, bridges twisting and bending, monster sounds eminating from the bowls of the planet’s interior. This is no healing dream of drifting voyage, but one of distress and angst, a roller coaster of tension and release that can no longer be satisfied by bodiless sex. This is how hungry ghosts mindfuck.

As we witness spectacular CGI destruction of LA, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Washington DC, The Vatican and so on, in 2012 almost always we are treated to a bird’s eye view as our gaze flies through one disaster zone after another. If it’s not airplanes it’s a subway, limo, RV, or boat hurtling over and through cracked earth. But unlike our personal dreams of flight, which often are about expanded consciousness, freedom and release, our mechanical cocoon–the airplane–comes to incorporate an armor against technological and scientific death. Yet, airplanes also are the most common symbol of civilization’s failure to keep us safe. One plane accident is a blip compared to how many people die each year from car travel, yet our most haunting traumas come from aircraft catastrophes. Consider how the Hindenburg’s ashes smolder in our unconsciousness, or why 9/11 is one of the most potent symbols of terror in our lifetime.

Like Day After Tomorrow, 2012’s social commentary is scattered like fuselage wreckage. The G8 steers the global economy and sets the economic tone in which Hollywood’s business is the producing consciousness. Likewise, in 2012 the G8 comes to represent a limited view of the the global consensus. This is no different than current news reporting from Copenhagen that mistakenly calls the leaders of the globe’s top grossing capitalist bureaucracies “the world,” or how we internalize the behavior of a corrupt military industrial complex as the work of “our” democracy. Neither represent “us.” So when it comes to the film’s Malthusian lifeboat metaphor (leaders have foreknowledge of impending world destruction and only a limited capacity to save the population), G8 leaders sell cabins of the mega-luxury ocean liners that will be civilization’s arks for one billion euros a piece, the rest are left for the “genetically fit.” Only the humble presidents of the US and Italy (you can hear the Italians snicker at this odd detail) stay behind to be with “their” people. These acts of humility notwithstanding, when the Vatican and the White House are simultaneously destroyed by earthquake and tsunami, we secretly take pleasure in seeing the old order destroyed. The shot in which a crack predictably separates Adam and God’s fingers in the Sistine Chapel is the final breach between the old system’s churches and the cinema that takes over as our primary house of worship.

Recall the poetic justice in Day After Tomorrow when the US has to relocate its government to Mexico, and that it’s the southern neighbors who save selfish Americans from eminent destruction. In 2012 the greedy Russian mafiosa dies (of course!), but so too does the Indian scientist who was responsible for discovering the impending planetary disaster. He dies with his family because there’s no room for him or his brood on the high tech arks designed to weather the pole shift and tectonic plate shifts. In fact, so many people die in this film with such vivid detail, one is left a bit numb and immune to it by the end. In this respect, it’s hard to see the poetry.

We live in a risk society that has the duel nature of offering us protection while simultaneously creating more peril. This tension has to be constantly resolved, with media serving as a particularly good balm for containing our fear of disaster and contigency. Film gives us the catharsis necessary to nervously laugh off the truly scary dangers that are the result of human actions, not acts of gods (at least the organic ones). But in the film, the very megamachine that threatens the planetary biosphere is what saves humanity. I don’t think it’s without irony that the only way the arks–or spaceships for planet earth–can be built in secret and so quickly is by the one society that so perfectly symbolizes the ideal of the megamachine: China. What else has the power to relocate populations and marshal the forces of massive bureaucracy, global capital and corruption to build such high tech asylums. Like the sci-fi TV series Battlestar Galactica, these ships are an advanced technological life support systems that can sustain us in a homeless universe, and they can only be made by a cyborg-like society with people as its mechanistic components.

Ultimately the film pits a cipher for humanity–an African American scientist–against a technocratic bureaucrat who is responsible for overseeing the lifeboat project (American commanded and Chines built, no less). Emmerich can’t help but eat his bioengineered cake: the technocrats are assholes, but they save us anyways. We just have to bite the bullet while they engineer our way out of this apocalyptic mess.

As I awaited for the sunset and kiss to conclude the film, it came but not without an additional penultimate Western resolution. In the end the megamachine delivers the protagonists like a bunch of Nazis fleeing to South America with their collection of European art masterpieces and dreams of genetic fitness, but this time it’s Africa, ready to be re-colonized again and to become a playground for domination and imperial fantasies launched from the decks of the ocean liner fortresses. Don’t be fooled by the cast’s multicolored skin hues, this is nothing less then a narrative of monocultural salvation. After all, with arks, floods, earthquakes and god’s wrath, is this not a Biblical tale of purification updated for the 21st century?

We zoom out to see a planet transformed, not by cosmic alignment as the slight of hand would like us to believe, but by the world eaters whose CGI teeth have bitten a huge chunk off of the African continent, its gaping wound now swallowed by a world reconfigured by alchemists of abstraction. While not explicitly stated, is it not the alien point of view that is finally offered to us, a view in which we look down upon the world as utterly strange and unreal?

Did I enjoy the film? Immensely. Intercourse with the World System has to be pleasurable, otherwise we wouldn’t mindmold with it. Blockbuster films are contemporary religious incantations to praise the gods’ work in order to justify and reward our labor, and to feed the machine. But they’re not monolithic either. Films like this have enormous benefit because they allow us to creep around the mind of the World System to see how it thinks. But it also comes with a warning sticker: be mindful of this entertainment, for it can call forth even greater dreams of annihilation. And after this massive barrage of destruction tropes, only the obliteration of the universe could top it, and that would make movie going moot.

Apocalypse in a New York minute

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.

Walter Benjamin

Via Goodie Bag

From aura to magnetic resonance

Though focus groups and test marketing of films is old news, a hybrid version with brainwave scans is truly bizarre. I think something that distinguishes a film as a kind of art versus a mere cultural commodity is the sensibility and aesthetics of the filmmaker. Granted, block busters require dollars and investments to recouped, but if we begin to monitor brainwave responses to films to test whether or not they are emotionally viable, what’s next?

This adds a new twist to Benjamin’s proclamation that aesthetics can lead to fascism.

Neurocinema Aims to Change the Way Movies are Made | GeekDad |

GeekDad: How do you see the fMRI technology changing how films are made?

Peter Katz: Movies could easily become more effective at fulfilling the expectations of their particular genre. Theatrical directors can go far beyond the current limitations of market research to gain access into their audience’s subconscious mind. The filmmakers will be able to track precisely which sequences/scenes excite, emotionally engage or lose the viewer’s interest based on what regions of the brain are activated. From that info a director can edit, re-shoot an actor’s bad performance, adjust a score, pump up visual effects and apply any other changes to improve or replace the least compelling scenes. Studios will create trailers that will [be] more effective at winning over their intended demographic. Marketing executives will know in a TV spot whether or not to push the romance- or action-genre angle because, for example, a scene featuring the leads kissing at a coffee shop could subconsciously engage the focus group more than a scene featuring a helicopter exploding.

GeekDad: Explain how the subconscious mind can better determine how we actually feel about what our conscious mind is interacting with and how that applies to film.

David Hubbard: If an audience already knows what they feel, fMRI is an expensive way to confirm the obvious. The magic of fMRI is that it shows what the brain is doing even if the viewer isn’t aware of it or can’t articulate it. We are comparing R-rated trailers to PG-13 trailers and discover that gore and sex and cursing sometimes activate the fear-anger-disgust area and sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s see what these scenes do to the brains of the MPAA when they’re deciding what’s socially acceptable; if they’re not excited, why should we [be]? FMRI makes it easy to see what’s boring.

Apocalypse (at a theater near you) soon

2012: Great mat boards of destruction!

If you are at all a perceptive being, then you feel that “collapse” is in their air. The rise in apocalyptic fiction, books, TV shows, documentaries and cultural groups are expanding exponentially. This Fall’s slate of blockbuster films is no exception. As cultural interpreters, what can we glean from the craze? Well, first of all, it’s not new. Disaster films were big in the ’70s, not coincidentally at the moment when the US was reeling from the oil crisis, failed imperial war, disgraced presidency and flat economy. Still, in regards to the state of our global ecology, the sense of impending doom is not trivial. But whereas one generation’s response was the punk anthem, “no future,” the current 2012 meme is the end of the future. Period.

Unless you are a Hollywood producer.

Nonetheless, it’s about time that time ended. Mechanical time, like our outmoded view of nature, needs to be destroyed. But when it’s done in film, it may stave off the necessary cultural adjustment needed at a time of crisis. Many media theorists have pointed out that film, photography and mechanical recordings have a way of capturing “contingency.” If we can put it into film and be entertained by it, then the danger has been contained, because media has a way of turning the inexplicable into a narrative (for example, post-9/11 TV news turned the disaster into a visual narrative so it would look like a movie instead of crisis with complex origins). Christians have borrowed from Aristotle’s notion of the three act play in which there is a final, concluding drama that culminates the historical and linear drama of civilization. Now we have Monday Night Football.

To put this on the Maya (because it is from them we get this idea of 2012 ending time) is too bad, because it is a wild misapplication of Western metaphysics on non-Western perception. The Maya believe (I use present tense because they still exist) time is *circular*– 2012 can not end something that is nonlinear. This doesn’t mean that their ancient calendar is not important or insignificant. There is a great deal of correlating evidence that shows that the calendar is quite accurate in mapping solar sunspot cycles, which introduce more radiation and potential for mutation than at other points of time. As we know from observing nature, there are cycles within cycles within cycles, but we tend to be oblivious of the impact of sunspots on evolution. What may be hitting our intuitive radar is the transition from one large solar cycle to another. As sensitive biological creatures we may know that. But because of our cultural aptitude, our way of dealing with that sensitivity is to turn it into cathartic spectacles rather than as a tool for organizing political action.

Anyhow, you may enjoy the following trailers. I think they offer a good feel for the cultural Zeitgeist, including the few that have bimbo intros which make global destruction sound as enticing as Michael Jackson’s funeral.

Follow the jump to see video clips.

Continue reading

Media food against media food

Though I haven’t seen Food, Inc., this looks to be another promising documentary about our monocultural food system. The film’s trailer starts off with a quick lesson in media literacy by juxtaposing the images of food market/ing with the reality food production. It should be noted, however, that the top PR and propaganda spinners know that people only remember pictures, and not words. So though the narration does a good job of deconstructing the images of the supermarket, one is still left with the pastoral image of an artificially abundant the food system (I say “artificial” because the high yield monocultural crops we are accustomed to are produced on borrowed time by depending on petroleum-based fertilizer that destroys biodiverse soil– a temporary fix that has long-lasting and destructive consequences on the food chain).

Nonetheless, I really like this sequence and hope the film is as compelling. The montage alludes to a deeper suspicion I have that supermarkets are more effective tools of food system propaganda than media. I urge people to consider the psychological conditioning of the market as one of the primary forms of system architecture.

Ads from an alternate reality

Thank the Great Whatever that someone compiled the top 25 sci-fi movie ads. It is something I started on my own a while back but couldn’t find the time or energy to get it done. The scene from Minority Report (clip above) is in my opinion the most likely future scenario (aside from ads being directed to inside your skull a la Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon).

Top 25 fictional ads in sci-fi movies – Den of Geek:

Some of the promo spots to come may literally make you explode…

Whether video or printed, advertisements only have moments to engage the viewer/reader and convey an enormous amount of information. Therefore they can be a great benefit to science-fiction films which have complex societal or technological backstories essential to the core plot, but which are a potential drag on pushing the narrative forward.

Apart from this practical consideration, the scope for humour and societal satire is immense when inventing ads in this particular genre. Robocop writers Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner admit that they strip-mined the rich vein of satire – much of which is contained in commercials – in the UK Judge Dredd comic (created by John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra). Dredd’s incisive take on advertising culture has spread through Robocop not only into that film’s sequels but also into a number of other SF movies since, including many by Robocop director Paul Verhoeven and his Total Recall collaborator Arnold Schwarzenegger. As we shall see…