Yet Another Failed Apocalypse
Like the inevitable outing of virulent homophobes, we have yet another example of a failed apocalypse. The problem is not necessarily the apocalypse itself, but the frequency of these failed apocalypses has become so grating that even the jokes have become predictable and flat. In 2012 alone, we had Howard Camping’s multiple declarations of impending doom as well as the famous Mayan “apocalypse.” (Ironic air-quotes because it is a classic misunderstanding of a non-Gregorian calendar system by hysterical nutjobs. In December 2012, the Mayan calendar ends. What happens when you reach December 31, 2012 in your household? Most people usually get a new calendar.)
I won’t bother listing the failed apocalypses. Here’s a link. It’s a really long list. And in the future there will be more non-apocalypses added to that list. But people will still be hysterical, declaiming the end of the world, and getting everyone worked up over nothing. Another after-effect of all these failed apocalypses is that apocalyptic rhetoric has lost all meaning.
Apocalyptic rhetoric has been trotted out whenever a poorly written cash-in reaches the New York Times bestseller list. (Because that never happens.) Until the next sub-literate hack gets a choice book deal and struggling authors continue to struggle in obscurity. All this talk of cultural apocalypse because the author of Fifty Shades of Grey sold some books seems a bit overheated. The wealth of Hollywood wasn’t built on good movies either. The apocalypse is fast becoming meaningless the same way terms “indie” and “edgy” have been eroded to vacuous buzzwords.
Do not misinterpret this post as some snarky smug “religion is dumb, hooray science!” diatribe. (The Internet has plenty of those.) I was raised in a Lutheran household and apocalyptic rhetoric wasn’t in the conversation. Yes, the theological basis for Lutheranism includes the Apocalypse, but there wasn’t any ham-fisted close readings of the Book of Revelation like certain denominations, sects, and cults do. (For examples, tune in to your local religious networks, except EWTN, since the Catholic Church isn’t apocalypse-happy as Kirk Cameron’s flock.) The Apocalypse was part of Lutheran theology, but believers were taught not to presume to know when it would happen.
Presume is the key word here. As with other things, God will determine when the Apocalypse will happen. Hence the constant empty blathering of failed prophets. This goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the Antichrist of the Week. So many people have been charged with being the Antichrist that it gets comical. Cracked.com, the reliable barometer of American opinion, published one of their most hilarious articles saying “Obama is the least efficient Antichrist ever.”
Not to belabor the point, but naming someone the Antichrist has become as politically expedient as calling someone a Hitler. The same people using the same rhetoric have called everyone from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Saddam Hussein to Barack Obama the Antichrist. One doesn’t need a PhD to see what’s going on. Label the political opposition the Antichrist and the flock will follow accordingly. And since Obama was re-elected, American is in a state of moral depravity and God will smite us. Or something. (I live in Minnesota and the state recently voted down the Traditional Marriage Amendment. I’m still waiting for the being-caused-by-gays earthquakes and hurricanes. We did get a snowstorm on the day of the Mayan Apocalypse … in Minnesota.)
The same people who label the President as the Antichrist are the same people who allege there is a War on Christmas. Which leads us to …
The Holiday Spirit
August to December 25th annually, depending on the retailer
“First-nighters, packed earmuff-to-earmuff, jostled in wonderment before a golden, tinkling display of mechanized, electronic joy!”
A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)
I enjoy the holiday season. I get to home to Wisconsin, be with family, open presents, and generally have a good time. Again, this is not some garden variety anti-religious screed. Those are boring. This post is exploring the issue of fatigue. Along with apocalypse fatigue, the commodification of Christmas inevitably gives way to fatigue. Since free market capitalism is based on the premise of an ever-expanding market, the Christmas season has been incrementally expanded into more of the calendar year. While retailers and businesses are right to exploit the reason for the season, this can have an unintentional blowback effect.
Christmas is fine. Shopping is fine. But I don’t need to see Christmas trees in retailers in August! By the time Black Friday rolls around, I’m already sick of Christmas. To put this another way: I like chocolate cake, but I don’t want to eat chocolate cake for every meal every day for three months. What is happening to me and fellow shoppers is the retail equivalent of diabetic shock.
Ironically, I see myself as a traditionalist here. Christmas season should begin on Black Friday and end on Christmas (with some overlap for New Year’s). The relentless drive to have us shop, shop, shop til we drop has extended the holiday season way too far. The Holiday Season has become a calendar-eating amoeba, devouring everything in its path.
Christmas, the best seven months of the year.
The Battle of Stalingrad
July 17, 1942–Feb. 2, 1943
Nikita Khrushchev: [addressing a roomful of Soviet political officers] My name… is Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev. I’ve come to take things in hand here. This city… is not Kursk, nor is it Kiev, nor Minsk. This city… is Stalingrad. Stalingrad! This city bears the name of the Boss. It’s more than a city, it’s a symbol. If the Germans… capture this city… the entire country will collapse. Now… I want our boys to raise their heads. I want them to act like they have balls! I want them to stop shitting their pants! That’s your job. As political officers… I’m counting on you.
Enemy at the Gates (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 2001)
The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the pivotal battles of World War 2. Thousands died, thousands more were killed, and it was an ideological wrestling match between two totalitarian superpowers. I only mention this because, as a punchline, I have likened the annual Christmas season to the Battle of Stalingrad. It is a Stalingrad-like battle of enforced cheer and omnipresent Christmas songs. I’ll leave you with a clip of Christopher Hitchens likening the holiday season to living in North Korea. Is it really? Let me know your opinion in the comments section.
“Hercules! Table for eight!” one of the bots says on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The feature ripe for riffage stars Steve Reeves, has sub-par dubbing, and copious shots of Reeve’s chiseled torso. Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword & Sandal Film explores the history, interpretation, and sexual politics of the sword and sandal film. Michael Cornelius editorial acumen brings together numerous academic essays focusing on this particular film genre. The first set of essays focus on the sword and sandal film (also known as the peplum, the name of the short skirt-like garment wore by the muscle-bound heroes). These essays investigate the peplum film’s development and history. The second set of essays focus on specific pop cultural products in the peplum genre, ranging from film to TV series to animation and parody. The essay collection functions simultaneously as a précis and a convergence of numerous disciplines (film history, gender studies, pop culture studies, classical studies, literary theory, and others). One can hope to see a more thorough investigation of the peplum genre that build off this initial essay anthology, either in the form of monographs or a tighter anthology refracted through one of the various aforementioned disciplines.
This Barthesian excursion into a much-maligned genre seeks to revivify it through reconnections with its classical roots and older waves of peplum films. The genre originated in Italy with the Maciste films (one even had proto-fascist poet and adventurer Gabriele d’Annunzio as a screenwriter), being a modification of the “strong man” film genre. The connection to d’Annunzio is further complicated by the Second Wave peplum films, those produced in the Fifties and Sixties with American bodybuilders as the “Hercules” figures and financed by Italian production companies. (Also those routinely skewered by MST 3K.) Maria Elena D’Amelio’s essay “Hercules, Politics, and Movies” posits that American stars and Italian funding helped viewers negotiate with the Fascist past. As evidenced by plots involving the musclebound hero liberate an oppressed populace from a tyrant. The peplum hero also works in a similar way to American Westerns, in that the liberator does not become the ruler, only as a means to restore the political status quo. While Westerns have the White Hat Hero riding off into the sunset, the peplum usually has the hero heading back to his farm and reuniting with his wife and child.
On a similar note, several essays explore the problematic sexual politics of the peplum film. The most notorious film, the recently released 300, had obvious heterosexual cheerleading and made the villains into gay caricatures. (As one blogger snarkily put it, turning Xerxes’s armies into “a gay pride parade from Mordor.”) Another essay, by way of counterexample, explores the intentionally problematic sexual politics of Pasolini’s Medea. Pasolini received short shrift from contemporary film critics because of his status as a gay Catholic Communist filmmaker and poet. The connection between heroic heterosexuality and conservative politics makes 300 a popular film among American conservatives, but also, predictably, at least given the clockwork-like predictability of Republican gay sex scandals, one of the most unintentionally gay films released in recent years. However, film fandom operates in strange ways, perhaps giving rise to a resurgent gay fandom for 300. The film’s ham-fisted sexual politics beg for audience mockery and derision.
The author is a child of the Eighties and grew up playing with and watching the Masters of the Universe TV series. Michael Cornelius writes an essay finding parallels between the Masters of the Universe franchise and the gay clone subculture (e.g. The Village People, Tom of Finland).
In an overall worthy collection, it is the final essay that disappoints. Daniel O’Brien’s essay investigating The Three Stooges Meet Hercules in terms of parody within the pepla genre fails not in content, but in execution. The serious tone of academic writing clashes with the film’s comedic content. Visual gags and the crazy plot get explained, but the ill fit occurs when O’Brien’s prose belabors the obvious. Understanding parody and burlesque is instrumental in understanding the pepla genre, since it is another aspect of pepla’s multifaceted nature. In the end, this reviewer kept uttering the phrase, “Well, duh,” while reading O’Brien’s anodyne explanations.
Despite the final essay’s shortcomings, Of Muscles and Men offers a variety of analyses into the pepla genre and its attendant pop cultural significances and problematic sexual politics.
Warning: This is not a traditional movie review, but an exploration of politics and pop culture within the Hunger Games movie universe. Spoilers ahead!
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” – Guy Debord
Hunger Games fever is sweeping the nation! Catch it! The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), focuses on the story of Katniss Everdeen, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12. Through an act of selflessness, she volunteers to go in her sister’s place to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. At the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 to 18 fight to the death in front of a national audience.
While this represents only the bare bones of the plot, the film itself offers a unique take on the collisions of politics and pop culture. The nation of Panem had a nasty civil war where the poorer outlying districts fought against the richer central districts. When hostilities ceased, a Truce was signed. The Truce stipulated that two young children be selected from each district to fight to the death. (A nostalgic film is played on a massive public screen in District 12. This commemorative film eerily echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia(1938) with its chiseled heroic youths holding swords and striking sculptural poses.) The process by which the children are drafted is named The Reaping, a term with agricultural and religious connotations. During the opening text crawl, it is explained that the Reaping and Hunger Games are “penance” the former rebellious districts must pay to the victorious districts.
Susanne Collins vision is fascinating because she shows how a political ideology transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. After 74 years, what was once a weighty political ritual has become an empty sports spectacle, complete with sponsors, an opening ceremony, and betting. Gary Ross is a nice fit for director, since his previous effort, Pleasantville, offers an analogous situation, with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trying to escape, then eventually trying to liberate, an entirely mediated space. The Tributes fight in a similar mediated space, since personnel associated with the Head Gamemaker can easily manipulate its environment.
Akin to the modern-day Olympics, the Hunger Games seeks to depoliticize a painful political event. Instead of killing each other for political or territorial control, the contestants kill each other in order to become victorious. Prior to the actual game, the draftees are treated as media superstars, each getting interviewed by the Emcee Caesar Flickerman.
The Hunger Games offers a fascinating blend of right- and left-wing authoritarianisms. Like North Korea or Nazi Germany, there is mass spectacle. Everyone watches the Games, the same way everyone listens to Big Brother’s instructions via television in Orwell’s 1984. The economic gap between the districts has echoes of France’s ancien regime and the Occupy movement’s nefarious 1%. The wealthy districts has a dolled-up citizenry with facepaint, make-up, and outrageous hairstyles. (Cf. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s futuristic costuming in the Fifth Element). The film is to be commended for making Elizabeth Banks ugly (she plays Effie Trinket). Not ugly in the sense of Quasimodo or someone with physical deformities, but someone whose artificiality, arrogance, and unawareness make her simply vulgar. The largest breach of decorum with her is not the televised murder or economic chasm between district, but “manners!” In the end, manners are rituals and codes one must follow in a certain socioeconomic group. Katniss is a threat to Panem, not because of her adept archery skills, but because her intelligence bespeaks a knowledge of codebreaking. She is victorious as both a tenacious fighter and one who “games the system.” (We live in an age where school shootings are commonplace, alongside stories of teenagers hacking formidable computer programs. No wonder this movie and novel trilogy speaks to so many young people.)
As the games hit their dramatic peak, someone from a wealthy district kills Rue, a young girl from District 11. This causes a riot in District 8 that boils over into other districts, creating a tense political situation. During the ensuing debacle, President Snow talks with the Gamemaker, saying to the effect that “a little hope is good, but too much hope is dangerous. Contain it.” When I first heard those lines, I recalled last year’s Arab Spring. For too long, the United States has spooned out hope in tiny portions to the peoples of the Middle East. The United States would make constant promises about freedom and liberty, and then simultaneously prop up brutal dictatorships because of either their natural resources or their geopolitical position associated with the Cold War and/or War on Terror. The Arab Spring was something the United States could not control and it scared us as much as an Osama bin Laden videotape. One recalls how the United States simultaneously talked about supporting freedom yet made constant associations between Arab Spring protesters and Al-Qaeda. Freedom and liberty are fine, control and commodities are more preferable.
It is not often that a Young Adult novel can so presciently capture the zeitgeist and offer up such lacerating commentary on our brutal, hyper-mediated culture.
Well, after twenty years and twenty million dollars of his own money, film producer and Galtian superman John Aglialoro finally dragged Atlas Shrugged: Part One into theaters three weeks ago, to a shower of critical brickbats and universal audience indifference. Now, Aglialoro is whining that politically biased film critics poisoned the market with their non-Objective reviews that harped on such minor issues as laughable CGI effects, wooden performances, and a screenplay comprised almost entirely of discussions of metallurgy and corporate governance. In response, this titan of cinema and gym equipment manufacturing is threating to deprive the world of the two sequels no one was asking for. Some churlish sorts might claim that the free market has spoken, but that would ignore the tyrannical, market-perverting power of Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter.
Part III: Chapter VIII: The Egotist
I Blow Minds.
After John Galt’s speech melts the airwaves, the looter elite at the Wayne-Falkland lose their collective shit. They bicker and freak out until Mr. Thompson declares that Galt is just the man to right the listing ship of state. It turns out Mr. Thompson is a pragmatist above all, and willing to overlook all of Galt’s windy “theory” in order to exploit his clearly singular mind. So the government starts a campaign to find Galt and give him the power of economic dictator. Meanwhile, Galt’s incendiary rhetoric and the continual collapse of the economy lead to an upsurge of violence across the country, as the people strike back against government goons and their civilian lackeys.
After trying to lure Galt out of hiding with strategic loud-speaker begging, the government finally nabs him by following Dagny to his apartment in New York. Of course, he’d been hiding in plain sight as a common laborer at Taggart Transcontinental, with his own apartment filled with a hidden science lab. As soon as Galt sees Dagny, he knows that the feds are just behind, so he makes her swear that she’ll disavow him when they come. If Thompson and company think that Galt cares for Dagny, they’ll threaten to harm her if he doesn’t help keep their failing system afloat. Heavily armed guards so up, Dagny points an accusing finger at Galt, and he’s spirited away to the Wayne-Falkland, but not before his lab self-destructs.
Across a starving land, government buildings burn as looters and home-grown militias vie for power. In New York, a parade of luminaries try to talk John Galt into taking over economic planning. Mr. Thompson offers riches and power, Dr. Ferris threatens to euthanize everyone over 60 years old, and Dr. Stadler just blubbers all over the place. All the while, Galt holds fast against these entreaties: if they order him to sit at a desk that says “ECONOMIC DICATOR,” he’ll do it, but they can’t force him to think for them.
Dagny plays her part as a new convert to Mr. Thompson’s expedient vision and, in order to make sure that the government doesn’t just kill Galt, advises the Head of State that Galt can be convinced, given enough incentive and time. Thompson attempts to force Galt’s hand by holding a massive dinner at, where else, the Wayne-Falkland to announce Galt’s cooperation and the creation of the John Galt Plan. On the night of the event, Dagny watches the assembled reptiles smarm their way around the dais, giving windy, contradictory speeches before Galt’s final remarks. In front of a national television audience, Galt jukes out of the way long enough for everyone to see that his ‘secretary’ has a gun pointed at him, and says directly into the camera, “Get the hell out of my way!”
Reflections: Wait, are there really less than a hundred pages left? Praise Xenu! There IS light at the end of the tunnel! I’ve honestly forgotten that there was a time in my life when I wasn’t reading this book. Who is president? Have we landed on Mars yet? What’s with these young people and their saggy pants and raps music?
“‘That wasn’t real, was it?’ said Mr. Thompson.” That head of state never misses a trick.
“The attendants of a hospital in Illinois showed no astonishment when a man was brought in, beaten up by his elder brother, who had supported him all his life: the younger man had screamed at the older, accusing him of selfishness and greed–just as the attendants of a hospital in New York City showed no astonishment at the case of a woman who came in with a fractured jaw: she had been slapped in the face by a total stranger, who had heard her ordering her five-year-old son to give his best toy to the children of neighbors.” So apparently the looter method of coercion through guilt-trips is giving way to the Galtian ethic of random violence. Incidentally, that ‘best toys to the neighbor kids’ vignette is a reference to the primal scene of Ayn Rand’s philosophical development. Apparently, her parents made a similar demand of her when they were living in Russia. Needless to say, she never got over it.
“‘I will perform any motion you order me to perform. If you order me to move into the office of an Economic Dictator, I’ll move into it. If you order me to sit at a desk, I will sit at it. If you order me to issue a directive, I will issue the directive you order me to issue.’
‘Oh, but I don’t know what directives to issue!’
There was a long pause.
‘Well?’ said Galt. ‘What are your orders?’
‘I want you to save the economy of the country!’
‘I don’t know how to save it.’
‘I want you to find a way!’
‘I don’t know how to find it.’
‘I want you to think!’
‘How will your gun make me do that, Mr. Thompson?'” Physical assaults and passive aggression, the two mightiest weapons in the Objectivist arsenal, apparently.
“‘The John Galt Plan,’ Wesley Mouch was saying, ‘will reconcile all conflicts. It will protect the property of the rich and give a greater share to the poor. It will cut down the burden of your taxes and provide you with more government benefits. It will lower prices and raise wages. It will give more freedom to the individual and strengthen the bonds of collective obligations. It will combine the efficiency of free enterprise with the of a planned economy.'” Alright, Ayn, that’s a pretty good distillation of the sort of political rhetoric that has led to record deficits, record spending, and all-time low income tax rates.
And what would the holidays be without Patton Oswalt?
Well … that was underwhelming. But I’m hardly one to judge a film based on a trailer. It does remind me of Avatar, especially the dourly over-serious tone and the weapons grade self-righteousness. The inevitable release of Atlas Shrugged, Part I, after decades in development hell, reveals an old truism about Hollywood. It is show business. And business is all about capitalizing on trends.
Let’s take a step back from this and examine the phenomenon more closely. With the release of the trailer, there will be the motley crew of jellyfish-like leftists waving their hands in the air, gnashing their teeth, and yammering on about such-and-such apocalypse. The pro-business Right will gloat, drink their martinis, and wallow in the glow of their success. Finally, finally, finally, after decades of oppression from the Communist Velvet Mafia that secretly controls Hollywood, they released a film based on the book by Ayn Rand – Peace Be Upon Her – that shows the virtue of making money and being selfish. (The previous sentences had a light dash of sarcasm. Although given the hyperventilating, anti-intellectual, psychotic-off-his-meds tone of the national political discourse, how can ya tell?)
The focus of this essay will be the phenomenon of the heavy-handed political satire film. And Ayn Rand can be particularly heavy-handed when it comes to getting her point across. I’m surprised copies of Atlas Shrugged don’t come with a trowel.
After reading nearly 1000 pages of Atlas Shrugged, one can only hope that the screenwriter has trimmed a little bit from this bloated text. And perhaps added a joke or two. Just because one is making a political point doesn’t mean one has to be dour and serious. The American film going public has a short attention span.
Upon reading Atlas Shrugged, I came to the realization that it resembled Avatar. The only difference is the politics and that is superficial at best. Rand’s book is about a miracle metal, Cameron’s film is about Unobtainium. The tone is what is most bothersome about Avatar. The CGI and creature design created an amazing array of visuals and a gorgeous alien world, the narrative sucked! The alien became less alien when the Navi became the Blue Indian Stand-ins riding atop Blue Horse Stand-ins. The facetious put-down calling the movie Dances with Wolves IN SPACE was true. The narrative copied Dances with Wolves down to its condescending, retrograde, and racist White Man Set Them Free theme. The additional stereotyping of the two major human sub-groups into flat caricatures made it even worse. Every military-type figure was a dumb jarhead and every scientist-type figure was a pansy-ass bookish nerd.
Avatar remains an example of how not to do heavy-handed political satire.
By all accounts, the film They Live shouldn’t work. Written and directed by cinema master John Carpenter, They Live focuses on an apolitical construction worker who discovers a magical pair of sunglasses. When he put them on, he sees a zombified world controlled by ghoulish aliens. The ghoulish aliens espouse beliefs almost exactly the same as Reagan Republicans. The film’s musical score is simple, the plot equally so. It stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and Keith David. Carpenter lays on his criticisms of Reagan’s economic and social policies with a trowel. Anyone with half a brain would be able to pick up on the satirical element. Yet the movie is Pure Awesome?
Why is that?
John Carpenter, like Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Maya Deren, owns a seat in the Cinema Pantheon. He created the slasher genre with Halloween. He directed the action-comedy-martial arts cult classic Big Trouble in Little China. Throughout his career, he worked with Kurt Russell, a vocal libertarian. Kurt Russell is made of pure Awesome.
The magic of They Live occurs because of its light touch. The political criticisms remain trenchant and serious, but the overarching story has huge dollops of the ridiculous. The sunglasses? Casting a WWF wrestler? The really, really, really long fight scene? The obviousness? The ridiculous aspects become resolved with its bent humor. The film wouldn’t work by casting Robert Redford as the lead. This is hardly Dog Day Afternoon or Godard’s Weekend.
But seriousness isn’t a roadblock to an effective film with heavy-handed political satire.
Mislabeled as a thriller, Land of the Blind (Robert Edwards, 2006) lays the satire on thick. In the film, Emperor Maximilian II runs a banana republic-type country. Tom Hollander portrays Maximilian as a garish cartoon dictator, equal parts savagery and incompetence. (Hollander also played a cold-blooded technocrat in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.) Maximilian’s world involves wealthy elites who don’t speak the native language, police setting monks on fire, blackface routines, and the Emperor helming atrocious action movies. The Emperor also keeps charismatic political dissident John Thorne in prison.
Thorne used to work as a writer. Then through the incompetence of Emperor Maximilian II and populist anger, Thorne is released. Here is the pivotal point where Land of the Blind stands out among political satires. The de rigueur critique of rightwing regimes has a long tradition in Hollywood. The only thing easier than satirizing a Southern preacher figure is to satirize a rightwing dictator. That’s easy money. In the film, once Thorne gets power, things actually get worse. Thorne, played by a bearded arrogant Donald Sutherland, turns the unnamed country into a theocratic hellhole, akin to post-Revolution Iran. Land of the Blind succeeds in showing the awfulness of rightwing and leftwing regimes. Hardly an endorsement for the mealy-mouthed centrism so beloved to voters in the United States, the film shows that regardless of where one goes on the political spectrum, the extremes will only bring poverty, atrocity, and despair. (Something the mass of American devotees of the “lesser of two evils” method of voting should consider the next time they enter a voting booth and do their obligatory duty to further this republic into a neck-deep swill of corruption and incompetence.)
The heavy-handed political satire can be done well on film. It takes a light touch and a humanistic vision of society. Like Crash Davis said, “Strike-outs are boring … and fascist.” Atlas Shrugged has a lot of strike-outs in it. I don’t agree with its philosophy, but sweet Christ! does it have to be so boring? That’s the cardinal rule in Hollywood. A movie flops not so much from any political consideration, but because it bored the audience.
Atlas Shrugged, Part I, good luck! But if you bore your audience, it’s your own damn fault. A book based on the philosophy of making money should at least have the good sense in actually making some money.
By the way, where’s Angelina Jolie? Can’t Objectivism buy A-Listers or are Coen Brothers character actors (John Polito for the win!) the best that can be done?