Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Friday, October 03, 2014

Dystopian Parables for the Masses: DIVERGENT, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER


Jump, baby, Jump! Jump into the Uncanny Valley,
chicks and hunks in black and silver body suits, slicked over with CGI-bearing golden-brownish glow airbrush make-up, pretend to fight the onrush of enforced digital sameness until the snake eats itself, the Uncanny Valley fills with ones and zeros, and the need for actors disappears altogether; they just float on the surface, newly born. And then mom starts singing "Clash City Rockers" (1) because it turns up on a car commercial, "nothing rocks the town like the Clash City Rockers... except the new Toyota Camry." Then, and only then, I'll know it's too late... even for me.

I'm old enough, even too old, to accept the brutal truth, which is that the kids today don't know there's even a brutal truth left to accept, which means it's no longer a truth at all, just brutal. "Clash City Rockers" is 'their parent's music' and hence undesirable, unless they're cool enough to realize their generation's music is the kind of squaresville Glen Miller nonsense that rock was invented to counteract, and punk to counteract that once it got co-opted to anthem size. We punks and poseurs didn't have to decide if we were Goth or Emo or Strait Edge or hardcore or Edward or Jacob or Erudite or Dauntless or closeted or 'out' or bisexual, we were all just punks or (more likely) poseurs, smoking ourselves dizzy at City Gardens waiting for The Ramones or Replacements' All-Ages show to start. But today you need to pick your clique and must abide by its rules and brush off the rest, and if no one's worthy -- or they all left to have kids and/or move to LA, or just plain outgrew you like you're goddamned drunkie Peter Pan--your reward for being a stunted in all other ways but artistic is the agony of another Saturday night spent alone in your room reading manga, until you finally start writing your own, or if you can't write or draw, turn to the make-up table and tart yourself up for Nerdtown.

This here's real
In both the recently released to DVD 2014 films, DIVERGENT and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, there's a dude who's been brainwashed by the fascist dystopia and ordered to kill the one he loves. And in each, the one he loves doesn't give up on him, even risking her and her rebel coterie's lives while she tries to reach him because, damn it, you don't give up on your old army buddy or a cute guy who respects your virgin boundaries. Each brainwashed buddy is programmed to kill all those who pose a threat to a deranged Kate Winslet or brilliantly-against-type Robert Redford. But by now you've guessed that even buddy love is stronger than military-grade brainwashing. Love is able to survive even lame 'sensitive' male Subaru voiceovers, it's deeper even than behavioral programming or the ping pong balls of motion capture technology can ever reach. Even Redford--the goddamned Sundance Kid!--can't get there. 

Taken together these two films paint a nice portrait of where we are today as an eternally teenage wasteland nation, and how it's our obsession with health that makes us sick, how it's our longing for security blankets that leaves us most exposed to danger. Our presumption is that kids today already know who Neville Chamberlain is because they've been to high school or read a book. But we presume in vain. Kids today have no idea who he is, and so never glean the importance of the lesson his folly teaches us.

Chamberlin, a pacifist dumbass
For old Neville Chamberlin is history's most glaring example of what not to do when every fibre of your national being wants to make peace at all costs, to live safe today and let tomorrow fed for itself, to waste valuable ammo-gathering time trying to get extra comfortable in your peacetime bubble.

Neville Chamberlain (in case you're one of those kids) was the British prime minister who let Hitler sweet-talk him out of sticking up for Czechoslovakia in exchange for Hitler's solemn promise to not invade anymore countries. He came back to England waving a piece of paper guaranteeing "peace in our time."

This was supposedly because Britain was still recovering from World War One, but really it's because Hitler wouldn't let Chamberlin smoke in the Reichstag (according to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). If he just sparked up anyway, man, right there, he maybe would found the chutzpah to stand up for the Czechs. I saw a picture the other day of a bunch of members of the 101st Airborne at a dance with some dames in the mid-40s, and every single one of them had a cigarette. They're the ones kicked Hitler's ass. Do you think ISIS would even exist if Obama was allowed to smoke in the Oval Office? Let Obama have a Kool? Instead he's a Bluto-battered Popeye stripped of his contraband spinach at the door. Gotta be healthy, man. No spinach. Popeye's spinach-guzzling youth has left him with a terrible iron sufficiency.

So now you know about Chamberlin, and how our collective all-consuming horror of illness, death, and decay extinguishes the flame (and smooth filtered taste) of our own shortened life span and conversely poisons the Earth with overpopulation. So resources and living space get scarce and lack of security blanket options gives angry idiots the balls to not mind getting killed toute de suite by our noncommittal drones in the name of some fuzzy cause. And we, back home in our blankets of anti-smoking hysteria and ever-more micro-managerial anal-retentive fear-based governmental overreach create our own form of withdrawal hell through biting the hands that feed us in the name of hazy liberty. Luckily there's always movies and movies about teenagers fighting back against the hypocrisy of dystopia overreach are big bucks, and that, my friend, is what irony sufficiency is made of.

yeah, all that glowing stuff is going to have to be removed
But if grooving to a nine figure-budgeted movie spinning in your hardware can make you feel that you're part of a vox populi juggernaut revolution, a Churchill not a Chamberlain, even if only for two hours and ten minutes, facing danger unafraid just by watching this movie, dissolving into the breathless pace and riveting action like a true hero... then just remember that while you were so motionless on the couch, six more species died in the rain forest.... and you could have prevented it, for just fifty cents a day. That's less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Keep your logos round and burning
Conversely, here's a little-advertised truth about addiction I've learned the 'hard' way: drug and alcohol withdrawal is brutally painful, terrifying, even soul-crushing, BUT it can bring sexual pleasure as exponentially intense as the pain, exhilaration as intense as the terror, and enduring the intensity of withdrawal from the media's cozy hypnosis brings true liberation-- but first you must truly suffer, convulsing, screaming, vomiting and rolling around on the cool tiles, riding an endless terrifying roller coaster that's all vertical drops and torturous climbs, for like three long days in one endless loop. Stretching your limits is just another word for the rack.

And no one suffers on the rack like a teenager, whose growth is involuntary, a werewolf transformation that takes agonizing years instead of a night or two under a full moon. The one part missing from the TWILIGHT movies that the (last) book went into detail about: the great flaming agony stretching on for timeless weeks that Bela endures in her transition from dying anorexic pregnant teen to hip, naturally-toned rich mom vampire. When you don't endure the trauma, the basic training breakdown, the post-marathon soreness, or the primordial terror of the final few bardos of death or deep meditation, then your transformation, your evolution, is not permanent. This is why there are so few 'real' men in this country, because unless they've been in a war or lost a limb or otherwise faced great hardship for long enough, they won't evolve, won't ever come out of it as adults with decent skin, and it's this counter-intuitive need for trauma, coupled to our fear of it (inseparable from the fear of pain and dying) that makes a good dystopian parable for the masses, and why teenagers resonate with them so strongly. Old men need no more myths and parables, only escape from their oldness in the chimera of youth. And it is the same resonating myth and escape into (and from) youth that brings old and young together. No one wants a teenager in their living room, but onscreen everyone can be teenager just for two hours, or--if already a teenager--a hero whose diamond anguish is at last given the properly operatic golden setting.


It is the duty of any nonconformist or outcast in a conformist society to subvert that society, the force of the social repression on the nonconformist forming the response and creating the spatial form of the future: Jesus on the cross, Mandela in the jail, and Gandhi on the hunger strike; but if you want to avoid that pain, you can stay addicted to to the virtual pleasure of the simulacrum and just write a Young Adult dystopia novel or superhero comic or screenplay wherein your protagonist subverts an even more conformist future or alternate reality. And if it sells, and catches on with the teens everywhere, and is adapted into a big budget movie, conformity expands to envelop it, then shrinks back as it digests, and then the trappings from that parable are spit out a decade later in a lame car insurance commercial, as drained of its original meaning as a Times Square New Year in the post-Giuliani era.

On the plus side, by entering the collective fabric it will serve to caution the power elite about going too far in trying to repress and restrict the freedom of the masses. Certainly the power elite fear from these tales the fallout that would come with restricting freedom of speech, for any speech---no matter how anti-authority--can be subverted to power ("Clash City Rockers ride the streets in the new Ford Freedom") Truly it is written in Situationist theory books forced on liberal arts undergrads the world over: a reigning social power can find no surer way of survival than incorporating critiques of itself, ushering in an era wherein compliance as the 'reality' is never even noticed behind the simulacrum screen. In HUNGER GAMES, Donald Sutherland's nervous military dictator thinks suppressing the symbols of rebellion will suppress the rebellion itself, but a media savvy ruler doesn't outlaw symbols, he mass markets them. He flashes the Girl Scout / Revolution gang sign at press conferences. Anything--even Sid Vicious snarling "My Way"--can be digested, incorporated, and eventually spat out into a car commercial. No revolution can win against a government that burns itself in effigy every night on the evening news. What are you going to do to protest, put out the fire?


In order to be free from our addiction to the cathartic thrill of battling Hollywood-conjured dystopia, we must learn to love the pain deprivation brings, which goes against everything capitalism stands for. No expensive wine ever tasted half so sweet as warm canteen water to a dehydrated ocean castaway. Is this not the the core truth of meditation, or stereograms, or the rapturous freedom of the starving, tortured artist hallucinating sausages and flagons in his swirling oils? And nothing's more disillusioning than realizing the spiritual crisis that cost you years of suffering and depression but resulted in artsy growth could have been solved with Effexor, and just as quickly turned into a raving maniacal sociopathy by adding Abilify. By extension, anyone with the right technology, drugs, or patience could turn you into their automaton. With the flick of an artificially-implanted cerebellum switch you could feel your friends are your enemies, and vice versa. Raymond, why don't you play some solitaire?

Thus the brainwashed super-conductive Winter Soldier (above) doesn't flinch or protest when his keepers want to give him an electric shock memory wipe. He just leans back into the chair and opens to receive his rubber mouthguard like an angry boxer thinking only of the kill. The captain meanwhile is thrown into a dilemma when he doesn't quite know who to trust within the NSA-Homeland Security-ish conspiracy web known as S.H.I.E.L.D. He himself is doomed to be incorruptible, no matter how many perish as a result of his principles. I simply cannot give more away, but it's this 'question authority' theme that gives the film its emotional resonance. Fifth columnist academes can say what they want, in Captain America's heyday (he was frozen in 1945 so he could miss becoming Reb Brown -left) we had a genuine uniform-wearing enemy to fight, and that we might actually lose was a real fear that brought Americans together and cured its Great Depression quicker than an Effexor / Neurontin / Wellbutrin cocktail.


And in DIVERGENT, the brainwash comes via a remotely activated chip air-injected into each 'Dauntless' member's neck as part of an alleged location tracking program, a process woven so seamlessly into all the other initiatory processes that no one can hardly complain--any more than an army recruit can complain if forced to do push-ups. The big fear for our plucky DIVERGENT heroine, Tris (Shairlene Woodley) isn't being brainwashed, it's that her friends will find out she's not one of the approved types of persona which act as fascist-brand masonic brotherhoods that all young citizens of this society must join, being allowed to pick for themselves at a big ceremony, because not doing so, not fitting a socially prescribed 'type' means being 'divergent' - i.e. a natural-born nonconformist, the type who must subvert the dystopia, write a book about subverting a worse dystopia, or die a death by slow closeting. Perhaps it's natural to have subversive artists in any society that gets larger than a few thousand people. Native Americans treated their gay tribal members with reverence, for they were signs the tribe was flourishing and needed to slow its population growth. A dystopia would of course not go for that display of difference, and with subversive artist types it's perhaps the same... no room for 'decadent' art in a dystopia. At any rate, Tris fears becoming cliqueless and alone by daring to say no to peer pressure, but can't help being chip (brainwash) resistant and so forced into the capacity of heroine. She's the type of person who, like myself can't connect for some reason to the giddy rush of 'mob mentality' (2). In the big picking ceremony she goes for the daredevil mesomorph soldier brigade (i.e. the jocks or the Wermacht) the 'Dauntless' group, but she's way too independent and peaceful. She's also too athletic and dopey to be an Erudite (the fretful nerd group, or Gestapo); too Erudite to be Abnegation (the Red Cross), etc. But this is a dystopia where your friends literally jump off a roof and if you don't follow them then you're not cool anymore. And you have to succumb to paranoia to not be suspect (if you're Erudite). And you have to let yourself get exploited and scapegoated if you're Abnegation (see also VIRIDIANA).



Sure it's a little trite, but I like DIVERGENT mainly because the twisty high school clique-as-metaphor-for-fascism stuff displays a keen savvy to the way initiation rites are incorporated into the lure of the popular clique. Here institutionalized initiation is conformist just enough that both the personal and political seamlessly interweave, like joining the Riffs, the SEALS, the Heathers, getting your ears pierced, your first tattoo, drinking your first beer and smoking your first cigarette all on the same day. Feeling like you finally belong somewhere is an intoxicating high, especially if you've never felt it before. The dissolution of apartness, of singular lonely ego subsumed into an inclusive group whole, is exhilarating in exponential ration to the amount of lonely bedroom angst you've suffered.

But that high has a price and you're suddenly being shipped off to Vietnam, like Treat Williams at the end of HAIR.


The thing DIVERGENT doesn't get is that having a weak central girl throws off the curve- Kristen Stewart is Antigone-stubborn in TWILIGHT; Jennifer Lawrence genuinely mythic in HUNGER GAMES; the kid in ENDER'S GAME spookily self-confident, but this chick Tris is perhaps--to her detriment--the most 'normal' teenager-like of the bunch. Rocking a terrible poker-face, she lacks the inner fascist to succeed as a Dauntless. She doesn't have a grasp of 'war footing.' She's not Artemis-esque or Antigone-determined or a math prodigy; her puffy face dilates and registers every emotion, which is not good if you're gay, I mean "divergent" in a world hostile to any sort of difference. If you show your true face they will get you. The same ones who urge you to be yourself are the ones who will attack you if your actually doThe core of every teenage fear lies in this idea, that the joy found in belonging to a cool group will soon give way to the terror of being abandoned by them once they see your face register the joy you feel at being accepted at last. This is part and parcel of the feeling teenagers never get over into adulthood: that the parent or god that watches over you is just a trickster demon awaiting the right time to remove its saintly mask to expose that which your whole life was a shield against seeing--his hideous giant demon face coming forward to consume you like one of Kafka's devouring industrial vaters--all the while encouraging you to take off your own mask, to be yourself, at last, to finally show your soul just in time to see it ripped to shreds... 


 In WINTER and DIVERGENT, the moment of exposing the demon face behind the mask is when what was once just rumor and conspiracy theory starts to lock shut (SEMI-SPOILERS AHEAD) around you, too late to resist it, no time to plan a defense, no access to yourself, no chance to catch your breath. What you didn't see coming suddenly comes, not on the horizon ahead but behind, next to, within, and in all directions, making its move only when its sure all resistance has been pre-demonized as terrorism, disarmed, isolated, and confused. Then the NSA takes off its mask and the Sixth Reich Paperclip draconian totalitarian future-present is right there, and has been, in disguise all this time, and the Homeland Security emblem turns out to be a scrambled up swastika, and it's too late to do anything about it because we've signed all our freedoms away in the name of order, because we got all scared when the news waved some Muslims at us. God help us, we activated SKYNET just to deal with a couple of dudes with AK-47s and cell phones. General Ripper was right! They've infiltrated our precious bodily fluids! Little tiny Stalins swim in our blood. They're even in the money...


Masks on / masks off 
Now I don't really believe in a massive global conspiracy per se --I imagine the world to be far too chaotic for that--but I don't rule it out. What I do know, though, is that-when it comes to running Hollywood--the industry guys can tramp around their fancy desks high on all the megalomania-infusing coke they want, but deep inside their drawers they know who the real boss is, the capricious Middle American teenager. Their ample expandable income, their drivers' license, their need to get away from parental eyes even for a few hours, the crushing relentless sameness of suburban boredom, all bring them time and again to the multiplex. Why not tie high school subjects like social science and literature to cafeteria mores and social hierarchy to teenage hormonal angst and deep mythic dystopian allegories, so that the films they see double as Cliff notes to the classics in class and of their lives? Maybe the kids are reading Plato in fifth period or leaning about World War Two for the first time, so hey, if you commingle these big historical and cultural currents in with the high school threat of cyber bullies, peer pressure, and the rush of the first law break or sense of belonging to a clique, then you have hooked onto an iconography of coming-of-age mythic suburban metaphors, each multi-layered signifier keyed into a hormonally pained demographic. 


That's myth. At it's purest. In myth there's a way to apply what's taught in school to real life, to do it in a way where the result is fantasy on a larger more 'real' level than mere reality. 

Thus these teen dystopia parables become more and more urgent as the real and public sphere shrinks. Science tells these kids that their future is all used up but as long as their present is spent texting and downloading violet ray dystopian fantasies, they can live without anything so banal and limited in scope as science's concept of time line futures. These kids know that watching someone else fight the power isn't the same as fighting it themselves. But how do you fight a phantom who monitors your every move before you make it? Just trying to get a gun into high school or threatening Congress via your Tumblr will get you all sorts of expelled. But watching someone else fight a raging battle against a CGI windmill version of all the old American evils? That's doodle dandy do or die. 


I know it's cliche to say but, for my generation, things were different. The dystopian-spurred life-or-death need to assert your individuality and face the dreaded finality of conservatism was totally lacking in the John Hughes (and Arnold Schwarzenegger) 80s. There were no cell phones or internet by which to stay constantly connected. As a result, that connection never felt threatened, that was our burden and our blessing. We had no faith to lose, and we knew it. Not no more. If you win a teenager's heart today by expressing their queasy post-digital angst, they'll come back for the sequels, then they'll buy the DVD (even after they downloaded it illegally (you hope), and in 20 years they'll buy it again in a deluxe commemorative edition, and it can run in perpetuity across a spectrum of cable channels... until that car commercial tie-in wrings the last dollar out.


Starship Troopers (1997)
And of course, there are the girls, the ladies, all locked into the golden gloss that makes all them all now look like they're CGI avatars slick with softener, every frame of their face Maximed to abstraction, all the better inject them into the video game vein. But hey, the good news: boys have picked up some slack to become objects, which is like, so like, finally, you know? It's the baby steps, man. Before women can be free of objectification they must first choose a replacement way for us to look at them, and there's but one traditional gender left to objectify. There is a reason, burn, turn, worm, but don't say I didn't warn you about that Uncanny Valley crossing, ladies. This is John Connor coming to you from inside Crystal Peak: let the revolution commence broadcasting on UHF, on the Emergency Broadcast System, on the HAM radio, anywhere it can be safe from the digital detection. Analog only, No digital, man. Analog got the warmth and the resonance, 'cuz nothing stands the pressure of the Clash City Rockazz!



NOTES:
1. The Clash, in case anyone doesn't know, were a prime example of politically left-wing, anti-Thatcher English punk rock, hence their use in car commercials is the kind of thing that runs counter to their message.
2.  I've been there at the start of three riots in my life -- and each time I walked away before the violence began, horrified by the way all my friends seemed to transform into bloodthirsty animals, and feeling strangely abandoned, as if they all disappeared right in front of me, just as would happen later when cocaine came back in vogue in the '98. I simply could not catch the mob or coke mentality anymore than I could 'get' the Grateful Dead. I guess that makes me... Divergent!

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