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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