Part 1: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."
As is my practice, I woke up this morning, put the coffee on, and fired up the computer to my Google news page. All the usual was there. The Democrats celebrating minor victories while surrendering once again to Bush’s imperial war without end in Iraq, some interesting trade union news that looks like a bit of a victory for the Canadian Greyhound bus workers….
But all that is kinda usual. What really struck was an article about a new theme park opening in Kentucky. Seems what we have here is a project that puts velociraptors on Noah’s Ark, has biblical characters roaming the Middle East alongside a host of long-extinct critters and a display demonstrating the formation of the Grand Canyon as part of Noah’s flood (Reuters, May 26, 2007).
This, by the way, is no small fry crackpot side-of-the-road attraction; the investors are expecting half a million visitors per year…. I mean this puts Disney World up against the competitive wall!
But a Creationist theme park around the Book of Genesis is not what perplexes me. My view is that this Petersburg, Kentucky theme park is another symptom of phenomena that’s been stumping me for the last couple of years. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m baffled. I don’t understand.What I don’t understand is how a social reality -- a large scale world view -- can be so successfully prolific while at the same time being so absolutely contrary to day-to-day reality. I guess I'm caught inside the dialectic of "seeing is believing" versus "believing is seeing."
What's the Matter?You are, however, reading this essay on a blogsite dedicated to moving a socialist analysis and building a working class socialist movement. Thus, let me quickly step away from the subjects of science, creationism and theology and get to the meat of the matter.
The matter has more to do with the widespread identification and acceptance of a social reality and social institutions which are downright hostile to the interests, needs and human aspirations of American working class folks.For a couple of weeks now I’ve been pondering the Bertoldt Brecht quote… "Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it."
Brecht, a Marxist playwright and poet, meant to frame art as a tool in the struggle to widen, analyze and make conscious the social reality we live in. For Brecht, the theater was a distancing art, forcing the audience to step back and consciously think about what was happening on the stage. This being contrary to the more traditional approach of the playwright in forming emotionally based identifications between the audience and the play’s characters.But, this essay isn’t about Brecht either. What I’ve been pondering is the functionality of art in shaping reality regardless of the intent of the playwright, writer, or artist. In other words, the hammer of art shapes reality regardless of whether the artist means to extend and widen our consciousness of reality, or simply make a good return on the investors’ investment.
Whether the hammer is wielded in a socially conscious manner or not, it still shapes.
These days I hear socially conscious people make remarks along the lines of our current reality being more surrealistic than any fiction out there. I’m thinking of an interview I was listening to a year or two ago on NPR, of an author whose book was just about to be released. His book involved the spoofy marketing of calorie-free bottled water. Here was the author in the grocery store just as his book is about to be released, and what does he see but a whole shelf of bottled water, all labeled “calorie-free."Along these same lines, I’m thinking of our current reality, and I can’t help but to reflect back on a few of the futuristic movies made in the final decades of the 20th century. I’m thinking of such movies as Arnold Schwartznegger’s, “The Running Man” (1987); "The Fifth Element", a film starring Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich (1997); and Harrison Ford’s "Blade Runner" flick (1982).
There's a common imagery and context that runs through these flicks that seems uncanny in light of the current situation.
All these films are dark. It’s dark out of doors and when the scene is set inside, it’s the foreground that’s lit, creating a dark and amorphous background. These films are all future noir; there’s not a lot of hope or love in the worlds portrayed. Significantly too, all of these films resolve the plot line with individual solutions. There is no possibility of social change in any of them.
All of these films abound in the vertical. "The Fifth Element" is set in a futuristic New York City where buildings rise up by the mile, where traffic moves in three dimensions and the ground floor is so low, so to speak, as to seem virtually bottomless. "Blade Runner" too uses the same imagery, and the opening scene of “The Running Man” has Arnold, a high tech L.A. COINTEL-type cop, in a helicopter preparing to fire on a crowd of food rioters in a futuristic Los Angeles.The vertical exemplifies the social realities portrayed. This vertical social reality is best portrayed in "The Fifth Element" as it takes us from the absolute heights of power: the office of a galactic consortium’s CEO; down to a futuristic taxi driver's (played by Bruce Willis) mid-level apartment with the all the ambiance and comforts of a World War II U-boat; to the very bottom levels where homeless people huddle around oil drum fires.
"Blade Runner" takes us to a futuristic Los Angeles constructed out of images from an acrophobic’s nightmare. Here, the vertical exemplifies a social reality where one could fall off the city with no sense as to how far down one really could fall.In each of these films, social and political power is amorphous and corporate. None of these films portray any kind of a government in the usual sense. This is because no matter how corrupt, class biased or nasty a government might be, our current concept of government includes some notion of accountability and responsibility on a society-wide basis.
There’s no such animal in any of the films I’m writing about."The Running Man" does portray Arnold as an L.A. cop; cops usually being thought of as public employees. There is, however, no sense of these cops or associated prisons being accountable to any government. Instead, power seems to be concentrated around corporate juntas, and particularly represented in the form of a television network producer who produces America’s number one show, a show where convicts are hunted down and killed by a type of athlete known as a "stalker."
While both "The Fifth Element" and "Blade Runner" make no reference to a government in our normal sense of the word, they both abound with images of current and past corporate logos. It has been a long time, but one of the images that sticks in my mind comes out of "The Fifth Element" where one is whisked to their vacation in space by none other than Pam Am.
It’s "Blade Runner," however, that takes us to the ultimate irony of a corporate future. In this flick, the working class has hit its ultimate commodification in the form of humanoid/androids called “replicants.” Although manufactured, these replicants are conscious and sentient beings. These manufactured workers are so dangerous in their alienation they have been exiled off the planet Earth… Herein lies the plot.
2007: let’s see how far we’ve come:Since 1980, national economies have become part of a global economy. NAFTA, CAFTA, the European Union Constitution and the whole alphabet soup of trade agreements are all based on one premise: removal of any obstacles -- local, regional or global -- to capital penetration.
Factories are now on wheels (and wings) and can be shifted across continents in a matter of days. Rural economies and their populations are being destroyed as agriculture becomes a global corporate-dominated industry.
The result has been spiraling world-wide poverty, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, and the dislocation of billions of people as local and regional economic systems are torn apart in the interest of global profits.
The war in Iraq:
For the first time in modern history we are seeing large scale private sector armies fielded by the so-called security industry. Interrogation prisons are contracted out to private consulting firms to avoid any issues of accountability, and a host of corporations seem to be running Iraq and the US military through their handmaiden -- the U.S. government. It is significant the entire U.S. military support apparatus, such as camp construction, sanitation, supply, food services, etc are all privatized.
The handling of this catastrophe could have been written as a futuristic noir flick in and by itself. Private security services (Blackwater) show up with armed troops in black armored personnel carriers with a license to shoot and kill. Thousands of poor and workers are herded into the Super Dome with no food, water, inadequate sanitation, and no ability to leave. New Orleans’ poor and working class residents did not experience hurricane relief. Instead they were simply contained.
The cat is finally out of the bag! Over the last couple of years it has become apparent that a global ecological crisis is well under way. Here, the power of global capital has combined with the ecological crisis in such a way as to make a futuristic noir world seem an unstoppable inevitability.
Back to "Blade Runner", "The Running Man" and
"The Fifth Element.:
It is no accident that the plot solutions in all three movies resolve around individual solutions to the characters’ dilemmas, thus leaving all three noir worlds unchanged.
In "The Fifth Element" Bruce Willis' cynical and masculine heroics combine with Milla Jovovich’s mystical powers to destroy an evil death star which threatens to push the world into total evil. In the process, the nasty CEO Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg is beaten, and the film leaves us with Bruce and Milla in each others’ arms.
The point here is that by beating total evil, the noir world continues as is and quietly fades into the background as Bruce and Milla find happiness with each other.
"The Running Man" resolves itself as cop-turned-prisoner Arnold beats the stalkers and gets his revenge against the evil television producer. There’s a love solution here too, again letting this noir L.A. slide unchanged into the background.
"Blade Runner" is in many ways the most interesting of the three films. The film begins with Harrison Ford’s character reluctantly agreeing to hunt down a group of terrorist rogue “replicants.” This is accomplished by Harrison Ford with a whole lot of interesting twists and turns in the plot.
What is, however, most interesting in this film is its moral ambiguity and intense sense of individual atomization.
In "Blade Runner" we have a hidden theme of a totally commodisized class of people -- replicants -- yet there is no notion of a collective rebellion by these replicants. "Blade Runner" in lots of ways prefigures the atomized rebellions we see when people "go postal"; that we have seen with Columbine, recent shootings at the University of Virginia, and the roughly weekly news reports of some fired and harassed employee shooting up his boss, office, and co-workers.
Yet "Blade Runner" does "humanize" the replicants. The film ends with the noir world intact and Harrison Ford’s character sneaking off into the future with a young replicant woman. So, replicants are people too, but their humanity becomes evident only in the context of a love affair with a flesh and blood human being.
So, where’s all of this going?
In my opinion, “Blade Runner” and “The Fifth Element” are great flicks. “The Running Man” is pretty good too, but Arnold flicks are just a little too linear for me. Please don’t take this essay as any kind of a put down of these movies.
Nor do I want to suggest some kind capitalist “conspiracy theory” around these movies. In no sense am I suggesting the producers, writers and directors sat down with some kind of intent to lull a population into complacency with these flicks. Reality is far more complicated than that!
Frankly, I have no idea what the producers, writers and directors were thinking as these movies were being made, and frankly, I don’t think it matters. I do, however, think the writers and producers of all three of these flicks had a good sense of the pulse of our modern world.
If nothing else, a major theme of this article is that we have largely become the future envisioned in these movies.
There is a little more I would like to say about these flicks… This is where I want to go back to Brecht, with some kind of idea as to how exactly the hammer of these three movies shaped the reality we made (and are continually re-making).
The concept I’d like to suggest is that these three movies represent a kind of collective post traumatic stress syndrome.A little psychology:
Post traumatic stress syndrome amounts to a repetition and re-living of a terrifying experience. The repetition occurs over and over again until the mind can adapt and integrate the terrifying experience within the whole of itself, thus allowing the individual to live with this terror.
"Blade Runner," "The Running Man”, and “The Fifth Element” do work; they are all successful and somewhat acclaimed movies. (I think rather under-acclaimed.) These movies work because they are believable to their audiences. The noir worlds portrayed are and were believable worlds even as they were released.
These noir worlds were and are scary worlds too. There’s very little in any of these movies that any sane person could regard as a desirable historical outcome. Thus the movies talked about serve as a kind of post-traumatic (maybe pre-traumatic is the better concept) repetition of our fears of the future. As we watch these movies we become more and more adapted to the futures they portray.
The adaptation is more than the mere repetition. The three movies also provide the audience with a framework (a sort of compass) allowing it (the audience) to cope with such a world. As popular culture pieces, these “coping mechanisms” work because they too are believable and acceptable to the audience.
Getting down to particulars, the coping frameworks that seem to run through these three flicks are:
First, they are all visually and technologically rich worlds. These worlds might not be socially desirable, but they are interesting and provide whole new vistas of technology that are cool!
To what extent we put up with our world now because it gives us such nifty things as cable/dish TV, computers, cell phones, I-pods, all sorts of things we can’t imagine living without, is very much an open question.
Second, all three of these movies resolve around individual solutions. As such, these individual solutions reinforce the notion that there is safety in atomization (specifically a false sense of safety by isolating oneself off from the wider society… the hero always rides into the sunset alone). More specifically still, that sanctuary and happiness can be found in love and in spite of the ugliness of these worlds.
Third, the worst off, those hanging around the oil drum fires way at the bottom, are always portrayed as objective social facts without a subjectivity. The audience might feel the loom of the oil drum world, but it ain’t there yet.
Fourth, all three movies point portray rebellion as evil or pointless and futile. Consider “Blade Runner.” Here, the social context of the rogue replicants being hunted is obscured, thus reducing rebellion to acts of gratuitious violence.
Next time you run across news coverage of an office shooting, pay attention to the portrayal of the shooter. See any similarities to “Blade Runner’s” rogue replicants?
While individual acts of rebellion are evil, collective acts of rebellion are merely pointless. This is done best in “The Running Man” -- the futility of the food riot and prison break.
So, this is all very academic and nice, but who cares?
But I keep coming back to one problem…. Even as objective conditions deteriorate for most people, the system remains largely unchallenged. I can’t help but think it’s in the culture.