Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fundamental Notions Of The Hive

The quality of our lives matters.

We don't have the political clout to change economic policy in our favor.  We have to adapt to economic conditions that will favor the rich for a long time.  If we can't become wealthy ourselves, we have to learn to think like the wealthy think, to anticipate their moves.

Debt is not a good thing to have.

Find a cheap, warm place to live.  Stay close to clean water.

Try to think of yourself as a producer.

Cooperate.  Contribute.  Serve.  Hold fast.  Don't fall through the cracks.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Grey Gardens Revisited

There is an element of the hunt in documentary films, a delicious kind of trophy hunting at its lightest, but, at its heaviest, a predatory savaging of people and events that exposes the dark side of subjects and the exploitative nature of documentary film.

The Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975) is a film portrait of Big Edie and Little Edie Beale. It’s a film about eccentrics and eccentricity, about marginal people whose living conditions reflect the condition of their lives.



Film lends itself exceptionally well to the substitution of one thing for another when two things regularly appear together. Over the course of the Maysles brothers' film, the Grey Gardens estate comes to stand for the lives of the Beales in the same way the American flag has come to stand for America and the White House for the President. If there were nothing more to Grey Gardens (1975) than that – and there is – it would still be an important work of art, because it’s a wonderful example of film as sympathetic magic. It gives us the illusion of power over the world by reducing complicated people and situations to a manageable size.

The genre the Maysles brothers chose to work in had rules, and they were accused from time to time of breaking them, of manipulating events, of straying outside the boundaries of direct cinema and cinéma vérité, particularly in the case of Gimme Shelter (1970), a sensational film that features the murder of a black Rolling Stones fan at Altamont.

Direct cinema captures real events as they happen, without interfering with them in any way. There is no direction in direct cinema, no “do this” or “do that again.” No questions. No staged scenes. Nature documentaries are perhaps the purest example of the form. The film makers witness horrific events, but never interfere. Cinéma vérité, another style of modern documentary, has some latitude. It’s more about truth than about reality, and, as long as the film conveys the truth, it may wander away from real events.

In the case of films like Grey Gardens (2009), a historical drama that HBO has run off and on since its triumph at the Emmies, neither the rules of direct cinema nor cinéma vérité apply. The intention of the producers is simply entertainment, and they're free to pick over the bones of the Maysles' kill any way they can.  HBO doesn't broadcast Grey Gardens as part of it's regular schedule anymore, but, in a move that harkens back to the days when movies were all glitz and glitter to brighten the lives of the little people, they put it up on HBO On Demand over the Christmas holidays.  "They were steeped in affluence and privilege," the HBO promo proclaims.  "Yet their lives in East Hampton became a riches-to-rags story that made national headlines."  There is a metaphor lurking around there somewhere.



A cottage industry has sprung up around Grey Gardens and the Beales since the Maysles first documented the squalor and decay of the Beales’ lives. Since Grey Gardens (1975) the documentary, we’ve had Grey Gardens the musical, Grey Gardens the book, Grey Gardens the web site and, finally, HBO's version of the Beales' story.  But I doubt HBO will have the last word.

Over the years, the Beales have attracted a cult following: people who know what it’s like to live on the fringe. But the audience for works based on the lives of the Edies is more general than a cult. It includes any of us who have ever slowed down to look at the scene of an accident. 

The story of the Edies coincides with the long, downhill slide of American society, the decay of the American dream, and the slow stratification of America into two cultures, one affluent and above ground, the other underground, it’s people trapped in poverty.  If it could happen to the Edies, it could happen to anyone.

American capitalism has always had two spurs to keep us moving up the steep hill of success. One boot prods us with the promise of fortune and fame, the other with the specter of disaster, with the threat of losing all we have suddenly or, like the Beales, gradually, as we get older. The Beales’ story is frightening and fascinating. It’s hard to look at it, but it’s harder to look away. 

The Maysles brothers had an eye for the wounded straggler, for the animal ready to die. Perhaps it’s because their subjects knew they were damaged that the Maysles brothers were able to stay above the people and events they filmed, to appear to be superior to their subjects, to have the upper hand. Their contemporary, D. A. Pennebaker, seemed more respectful, more deferential to his subjects – even, as in the case of the War Room (1993) when Pennebaker’s camera grovels at the feet of James Carville and Mary Matalin, obsequious.

Pennebaker had a knack for getting in on the beginning of things: Timothy Leary and the counterculture; Bob Dylan; Joplin and Hendricks at the Monterrey Pop Festival; and, finally, the Clintons. The Maysles brothers, Al and David, had a knack for being there at the end of things, the final acts, the death throes of the traveling salesman and the Counterculture, the unraveling of Camelot. 

By the time he filmed Grey Gardens (1975), Al Maysles was one of the best cinematographers in the world, and the Maysles brothers had mastered the art of manipulating subjects and situations. They had developed a gift for narrative unmatched in documentary film. No one tells a story the way the Maysles brothers do.



“Once you’ve lost that push, you’ve had it,” Paul Brennan, the "Badger," tells the camera in Salesman (1968). Brennan suffers from too much awareness. He knows he’s a dead-ender in a dying profession. Negativity is the unpardonable sin of Brennan’s world, and Al Maysles patiently and carefully documents Brennan’s descent into negativity during Brennan’s last days as a bible salesman.

“We can get it together,” Mick Jagger tells the crowd at Altamont, just before a shot of what appears to be the Hell’s Angels killing a black fan who pulled a gun on them. Earlier in the concert, when Grace Slick, watching the Hell’s Angels beat her fans with pool cues, said: “People get weird, and you need people like the Angels to keep people in line,” she was, at that spaced-out, sappy moment, more in touch with the direction of American society than the slightly confused Jagger who believed Altamont was going to set an example for America about how to behave at large gatherings.



The Maysles brothers persuaded Jagger and the Stones to let Al film them watching a rough cut of Gimme Shelter on a Steenbeck editing table, ostensibly to provide a gimmick to structure the film. The brothers’ real reason was to make the apparent knifing of a fan by the Angels the central point of the film. Without the knifing and the opportunity to make Jagger eat his words, the Maysles brothers would have had a mediocre, though beautifully photographed concert film, whose high points were scenes of Jagger expressing his androgynous sexuality and young Tina Turner fellating her microphone. The violence and the obvious naiveté of the Stones and Grace Slick gave the brothers a chance for something much bigger, a chance to take down the Stones, Slick and the Counterculture at the same time. Eerily, Jagger’s helicopter exit from the Altamont speedway foreshadowed America’s final exit from Saigon, and, by the end of Gimme Shelter, Jagger’s stare was as vacant as the barren landscape in the last shot of the film.

For big-game hunters like the Maysles brothers, who already had bagged the "Badger", the Stones, Grace Slick and the end of the Counterculture, two eccentric ladies in a run-down mansion were sitting ducks.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inside Job (2010) The First Day Of School

I wrote this five years ago, right after Charles Ferguson won his Academy Award.  I think I have a pretty good idea now of what Wall Street planned to package and sell next.

Inside Job (2010), Charles Ferguson's exposé of the takeover of American government by greedy financiers, is full of information.  It adds important details to the history of the worldwide financial disaster that triggered the Great Recession, and, even when Ferguson is being redundant, recounting facts that are generally well-known, he's entertaining.  Sunday night, Ferguson won an Academy Award.

The question is:  How relevant is the history of a ponzi scheme that caused a global financial disaster back in 2008, now that the folks Inside Job calls our "Wall Street government" have moved on to undermining civil liberties, torpedoing single-payer health insurance, busting unions and generally shredding the safety net we cobbled together during the Great Depression?


Inside Job (2010) Economic Crisis Film LLC

Will Charles Ferguson's documentary film bring down the Wall Street government?  Will it even break their stride?

I have no doubt, that Inside Job will do what film and art are uniquely suited to do.  It will change the way we look at the world.  I don't think anyone who sees Inside Job will ever look at bankers and the finance industry, academia, our government, or the history of America over the last 30 years in the same way again.

Inside Job unfolds like a criminal trial, with Ferguson carefully building a case against the most prominent financial figures in America, many of whom are now in the Obama administration.  By the end of the trial, the verdict of history -- or at least of the historian, Ferguson -- is clear.  The finance industry and the government, on purpose, wrecked the world economy and destroyed millions of lives.

Ferguson's explanation of how subprime mortages were bundled as derivatives, called Collateralized Debt Obligations -- CDOs for short -- and sold in unregulated markets along with Credit Default Swaps -- insurance policies that paid off when borrowers defaulted on the subprime loans in a CDO -- is easy to follow.  Because anyone could buy a Credit Default Swap against a CDO, whether they owned the CDO or not, firms like Goldman Sachs could sell CDOs and bet against them at the same time.  AIG, the main writer of Credit Default Swaps, collapsed -- and got bailed out -- when it couldn't pay off on the Credit Default Swaps it had written.   The financiers held on to the commissions and bonuses they made selling the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, even after the bubble burst.  The taxpayers held on to the dirty end of the stick.

Ferguson is a skillfull interviewer who balances skepticism with naiveté and knows how to follow-up when he gets an opening.  The big names in finance and government were smart to dodge his interviews.  He is especially savage when he unmasks the academics -- the professors of economics and finance -- who sold out to the finance industry, covered up for crooks, and even invented economic theories to justify and defend Credit Default Swaps.

Inside Job is a film in the tradition of documentaries like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Harvest of Shame (1960).  It combines interviews and narration with archival video and photographs to make a point.  It's not particularly filmic, but the cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam is crisp and sophisticated.  It fits the subject.  The settings for the interviews are well chosen.  A fast-moving montage of mansions, yachts, jets, drugs and whores -- but where were the male prostitutes? -- adds a dimension to the history of the meltdown that was missing from the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.  To his credit, Ferguson sees Wall Street's obsession with wealth and its use of drugs and prostitutes more as character issues than as moral ones.  And he's not without humor.  The irony of Eliot Spitzer being reluctant to use the personal vices of Wall Street underlings to force them to flip on their overlords is not lost on him, or on us.  Equally ironic is the Bush administration's sacrifice of Lehman Brothers to "calm the markets," like Greeks, sacrificing to Poseidon to calm the seas.  If Inside Job has a weakness, it's in the way Ferguson brings the pain of the financial crisis down to the individual level.  Why interview workers in China when so many workers in the Midwest had lost their jobs?

Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year, but, in spite of Matt Damon's sappy reminder -- delivered as we gaze at the Statue of Liberty -- that "some things are worth fighting for," Inside Job may not accomplish as much as Ferguson hopes.

What we -- the survivors -- need now, instead of warnings and history, are tools.  We need to know how to get on down this Cormac McCarthy kind of road, past the charred, asphalt-covered bodies of the refugees who died when the death ray caught them pushing shopping carts, burdened with their last belongings, along the interstate.  We need stuff we can use.

And we need to know what the overlords -- the financiers who are, as Ferguson reminds us, still in power -- are going to do next.  What will they package and sell to create the next bubble?  Maybe we can get in on the ground floor.

A link to the complete film is here at YouTube.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Time Travel In The '60s

Compared to the action-packed super-realism of time travel films like the Terminator series and 12 Monkeys, the black-and-white video technology of The Star Wagon, a 1966 television play, written by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Karl Genus, is archaic. But Genus’ direction and the relaxed and intimate acting of a cast that includes Orson Bean, Joan Lorring, Eileen Brennan and Dustin Hoffman make The Star Wagon one of the most entertaining attempts to use the idea of time travel to dramatize the tension between free will and destiny I’ve seen.

The Star Wagon, produced for WNET and NET Playhouse at the time that National Educational Television was evolving into the Public Broadcasting System, is one of the television plays available from distributors like Broadway Theatre Archive who specialize in early television productions. It’s also available as a rental from Netflix.

Taped mainly on location, The Star Wagon follows Bean, a dreamy inventor, and his earthy sidekick, Hoffman, as they try to reverse their fortunes by turning back time. If the outcome of their journey through time seems sappy and predictable nowadays, that may say more about the cynicism of the 21st Century than it does about the naiveté of television audiences in the '60s, who were comfortable with Hollywood endings, the triumph of good over evil and the idea that innocence, lost in time, can be restored. And some of Anderson’s themes — that there are no great men, that nothing matters more than freedom, and that the business of business is the fleecing of the unwary – seem, in this age of Ponzi schemes and bailouts, downright timeless.

Television is an intimate medium, suited for low-key performances, and Genus’ cast, led by Bean and Lorring in the role of Bean’s long-suffering wife, deliver the kind of casual intimacy seldom seen in film. Genus uses his performers and the low resolution images of early black-and-white video to create a unique mix of impressionism and naturalism. The high contrast images of Genus’ actors, overexposed to the extent that the actors’ bodies seem to glow, are painterly and impressionistic, but the performances Genus and his actors create are natural and realistic.



Genus’ cast has a remarkable ability to be with one another, to be with Maxwell Anderson’s script, and to demonstrate that good acting is, in fact, reacting. The result is a kind of naturalness that even directors like John Cassavetes, who were completely committed to naturalism and improvisation, never achieved. Cassavetes was able to use improvisation to structure his films by creating realistic situations, but the dialogue his actors improvised seldom matched Anderson’s ear for small talk, flip comments, and the kind of gentle razzing we see in The Star Wagon.

Anderson and Genus deliver poetry, as well. Standing on the star wagon, Hoffman looks like an angel with one good wing. There is a dreamlike, druggy quality to Bean and Hoffman’s laughter as they launch themselves back through time. Bean moves effortlessly from innocence, as he rehearses a hymn, The Holy City, with Lorring, to funny sexuality as Eileen Brennan digs in his front pocket for candy at a picnic; and Bean’s dark and violent rebirth leaves the impression of opera, of voices singing together to reveal the dark underside of Anderson’s comedy before Hoffman yanks Bean from the river to begin life over, half-drowned and miserable, lying in the mud with his head in Brennan’s wet lap.


Technically, these scenes of Bean’s death and rebirth by the river are as advanced as any experimental cinema of the Sixties. Bean’s passage begins with the sound of Hoffman pushing Brennan out to the way and jumping into the river, but we aren’t allowed to see Hoffman pull Bean out of the water until we enter the drowning Bean’s thoughts and contemplate nothing less than the meaning of life.

It is possible to think of life as a long series of paths not taken, doors opened or not opened, decisions made one way instead of another. It is a convention of most time travel films that the journey back through time will either change nothing, or it will change everything. The art of the film is to show why this should be so, to explain in a satisfying way why history had to happen exactly as it did happen. In The Star Wagon, Anderson breaks with that convention. He raises the possibility of changing history by going back in time, and then rejects that possibility as an act of will. Orson Bean’s Stephen returns to the present tense of his life as we found him, not because he has to, but because he wants to. But he is better for having made the journey, even if the world is not, and, watching the film, I felt the sweetness of life in a way I had not felt it since those summer evenings long ago, when I was a boy and I waited nervously at shortstop for our pitcher to deliver his first pitch.

At the end of the play, Stephen tells us his time machine is just a way of remembering the past. Karl Genus’ The Star Wagon is as good a way as any of remembering some of broadcast television’s best years. And that’s something, in my view, upon which it is worth spending some time.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Equus

A child is born into a world of phenomena, all equal in their power to enslave. It sniffs, it sucks, it strokes its eyes over the whole, uncountable range. Suddenly, one strikes. Then another. Then another. Why? Moments snap together, like magnets forging a chain of shackles. Why?” -- Equus (1977) United Artists


Equus is art that manages to be about violence without adding to the culture of violence.  Neither the Peter Shaffer play nor the 1977 film adaptation by Sidney Lumet are likely to provoke copycats to act out the violence that is the subject of their art.  Alan Strang, the boy who blinds six horses with a metal spike, doesn't inspire admiration or contempt, only pity.  His cruel attack on demigods of his own creation is a desperate act, performed in the midst of despair and excruciating mental pain.

Alan Strang's parents are unable to explain their son's madness and they're not willing to shoulder any responsibility for Strang.  While Shaffer hints at the roles Strang's mother's religiosity and repressed sexuality and his father's hypocrisy may have played in Alan's descent into a secret world, ruled by improbable gods, ultimately, Shaffer lets the parents and society off the hook.  The connections are just too complex.



Self-flagellation.  Equus (1977)  United Artists  Peter Firth as Alan Strang

One of the reasons Equus works is that it grounds itself in antiquity and refers to fundamentally important things like the struggle between reason and emotion, the Appollonian versus the Dyonesian in culture. The role of psychiatry in Shaffer's Equus is to civilize the child, to bend the individual's will, even his grasp of reality, to the demands of society, even if the unique and creative individual is destroyed in the process.

Equus distances us from the violence it portrays by beginning and ending with: "Why?"

As a play, Equus naturally involves the viewer as spectator more than participant.  And, being a British play by a British playwright, it lacks the cultural references to the Westward Expansion that are so readily available to American artists. But even the film version by American director Sidney Lumet, though it occasionally adopts a subjective point of view and graphically depicts the blinding of the horses, manages balance.  It doesn't just dramatize the struggle between nature and civilization  -- between what Levi-Strauss called the raw and the cooked -- it honestly wrestles with the dilemma and achieves, if not a solution, at least a resolution to the conflict between freedom and conformity.  It wraps the action of the film up in literate and reasonable discourse about a difficult subject.  For better or for worse, it is a cerebral film.  And it's an honest one, because the author doesn't pretend to answer the unanswerable.  He -- and we -- must settle for stasis -- as painful as that may be.




Richard Burton as Martin Dysart  Equus (1977)  United Artists

Ultimately, of course, it is not Alan Strang but Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist appointed by a British court to ease Alan's pain -- and the one person in the film who has a moral dilemma -- who ends up in chains.

Account for me, Equus demands.

Dysart can no more account for Equus than I can rule out the possibility that some word of mine, some thought, floating loose in the blogosphere where everything is connected to everything else, will forge the last link in a lethal chain some sad day.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Culture Of Dissent

Back in 2011, the establishment media made a stab at coping with protests outside of the political process the oligarchy controls.  The venerable New York Times ran an opinion piece by Charles Blow, Hippies and Hipsters Exhale, that ranged from making fun of the Occupy Wall Street protest -- pointing out that the protesters amused themselves with face-painting and pillow fights -- to fretting about the idea that the protesters on Wall Street might represent the avante garde of a completely disillusioned American majority.  Blow's "sage" advice to the protesters?  Join the political process.  Come be co-opted.  Step right up.

Of course, Blow completely missed or chose to ignore the point to protests like Occupy Wall Street.    The protesters have rejected politics.  They are wide awake.  They no longer believe a political solution to America's problems is possible.  They are determined to win or lose in the streets, and they are committed to the notion that culture trumps politics.  (Think about the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war, anti-draft movement that ended the Vietnam War and the Johnson Presidency, but at the price of undermining The Great Society and opening the door of the Oval Office to Richard Nixon.  The way, we used to say, the cookie crumbles.)

When I came home from the Army in the late Sixties, I spent a lot of time lounging around and arguing with a good friend -- a Marcusian who had ditched his Swiss name for "Baptiste" -- about whether everything was politics -- his idea -- or everything was culture.  I've never been more convinced I was right.  Politicians, like everyone else, swim in the sea of mass culture.  Political movements emerge and ride the wave of mass culture for a while, then sink back into the sea.  It is impossible to imagine the New Deal outside a culture that valued people and the idea of society, just as it is impossible to imagine the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests that followed outside the Counter Culture of the Sixties and Seventies -- precisely the culture Blow derided in the title of his essay.

The real question is: Can the emerging protest movements stay alive in the absence of something like the Counter Culture of the Sixties?  Has enough work been done to build a culture of dissent to sustain them?

Near the end of the Sixties, the University of Texas School of Communication, together with Stanford University, hosted a week-long seminar every year at Pebble Beach.  The schools brought a handful of graduate students and professors to Pebble Beach to spend a week with the leaders of the mainstream media.  The kicker -- the brainchild of Stan Donner -- was that the "leaders" who were invited to the seminars were the number two men and women of the broadcast industry, the men and women UT and Stanford figured had the best shot at grabbing power and doing something different when they did.  The theory was that the last people in the world who would shake things up were the people in charge.  If you wanted to talk to somebody in the industry about doing something better, the person you needed to get to was the heir apparent.

The problem with the American political system now is that not only the leaders, but all of the possible pretenders to positions of leadership -- to political office, you see -- have been vetted by an establishment process that has eliminated the possibility that any anti-establishment -- read anti-Wall Street and anti-Corporate -- idea will work its way into the political process.  The culture just isn't there to sustain it.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

It's A New World

I woke up this morning in a new world.

Last night, I learned Michigan used to be on the equator. It was completely covered by warm, salt water just 350 million years ago. My attitude toward the Great Lakes and the little town I live in changed overnight.

I live where a great ocean used to be.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Shamananana Nanananana

Winter lasts longer on this side of the lake. At least it seems to. And we've been traveling in the ice and snow more this year than we usually do. If I had a ceremony or an incantation that would end the winter now, I'd use it. If I were a shaman, I'd construct a complicated mechanism, a string of batteries maybe, to jump start the sun.

My father died in the winter. He was in a hospice in Mississippi, where he had a warm room with big windows and four beautiful women to change his pajamas and his sheets every night, laughing and singing while they put the old man to bed.

When he lapsed into a coma, we drove over from Houston, and he was still alive, but breathing in a labored way that lifted his shoulders off the bed with every wheezing breath. We sat with him for nine or ten hours, talking to him and wetting his lips with a piece of gauze, soaked in cold water.

I was holding his hand when he suddenly opened his eyes and squeezed my hand, and I said hey, he's awake, then no, he's gone as he died. And I felt that something had just left that body. Took one last look and moved on, leaving me next in line.

For an entire year after that, I had a recurring dream. I dreamed I was being roasted slowly, like a pig in a pit. The strange thing about the dream was it really hurt. I could feel the intense heat from the coals, charring my skin. It took a year for the fire to burn my skin away and prepare me to carry on in my father's place. And he was a very ordinary man.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Cyborg

One of the ways we understand ourselves and the world around us is through myths. In the telling and re-telling of myths, we attempt to resolve conflicts between concepts like human and machine, life and death, and good and evil by reconciling and uniting the opposing concepts within the fabric of the myth. The struggle of human against machine, which has been the subject of myth since the Industrial Revolution, comes close to being resolved by the Science Fiction genre's myth of The Cyborg, a creation that is part human and part machine.

The myth of The Cyborg unites human and machine, or, more precisely, it re-unites humans with characteristics we projected onto the world of machines and set ourselves in opposition to. Machines are cold, dead and hard, but living human beings are warm and, compared to machines, very soft. The fragility of human beings is revealed in war, murders, car wrecks and plane crashes, the art of Schwarzkogler, Burden and Mark Pauline, the reproductions of Andy Warhol, and the films of motion picture directors whose forte is the action sequence, and, piling action sequence upon action sequence and genre upon genre, the Action Adventure Science Fiction Fantasy film.

It happens that two of the best known and most successful renditions of the myth of The Cyborg are James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). What is particularly interesting about T2 is that it marked a significant shift in our attitudes toward machines. In 1984, The Terminator still reflects the ambivalence and caution that had characterized our attitudes toward machines for hundreds of years and informed the Science Fiction genre film since Fritz Lang created the evil robot, Maria (the original material girl), in Metropolis (1926). In 1991, just seven years after The Terminator, Cameron and Hurd's Terminator 2: Judgment Day creates a world in which an out of control machine with an Austrian accent saves the human race. If we didn’t notice anything strange about this particular rendering of the human versus machine myth, it's because we had already made the mental leap to the other side of the chasm separating men and women from machines. After struggling with the issue for a few hundred years, we had finally made up our minds about computers, robots and ourselves, and we had decided to come down on the side of the machines.

The distinction between humans and machines in popular culture began to blur in the 1980’s. In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982), more physical damage is sustained by replicants than by people, the replicants have pitifully short life spans, and, in fact, all of the women in the film are replicants. In Robocop (1987) the cyborg (a true cyborg, compared to the Terminator, whose humanity is only skin deep) sustains massive injuries in his first encounter with a killer robot. And, in Cameron and Hurd's Aliens (1986), their sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), the robot or "artificial person" is ripped in half by WATCH OUT! A XENOMORPH! Cameron and Hurd's word for a non-human life form. By this time, Cameron and Hurd’s view of machines is already softening. The humans and the machines are on the same side, and, at the film's climax, it is the badly damaged "artificial person" -- his legless torso resembling a broken, plastic doll -- who saves the human child from being sucked into space.

We define ourselves in terms of what we are not. As the distinction between humans and machines begins to blur, our image of ourselves begins to blur with it. In a futile attempt to maintain the distinction, we work hard to come up with things people can do better than machines. It is our hope that we are different from and, on some level, better than the machines we create. But the truth is that machines can do most things better than people can. Machines can't paint as well as Jackson Pollock, say, but most people can't either. Generally, where we choose to employ them, machines outstrip people easily, and they force us to redefine concepts like intelligence. We fall back on our last line of defense: the capacity to feel. Can machines feel? Can they appreciate art and music? Are they alive? In the Science Fiction film they are.

Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner, stands Philip K. Dicks 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, on its head. Dicks’ novel is about a bounty hunter who is so human he is capable of empathizing with the ruthless machines he hunts down and destroys. That capacity almost destroys him. Fourteen years later, in Blade Runner, the machines are more human and compassionate than the humans. It's the machines who recite poetry and philosophy and who have "seen things you people wouldn't believe," and it's pain that keeps Roy Baty alive long enough to redeem the bounty hunter, Rick Deckard.

The struggle of human against machine, as it has played out in our best myths, has two main variations. In the first variation, machines are evil. In the second variation, machines are just dangerous, and it's the "mad scientists" who create or use them who are evil or insane. Machines have a potential for evil, but they usually include a built-in safety mechanism to protect people -- the first law of Robotics is not to harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm -- but, of course, the safety mechanism doesn't always work.

In masterful renditions of the myth like Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film, Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both the evil machine and the mad scientist versions of the struggle between human and machine resonate at once. Dangerous men are caught up in dangerous machines. We can see the Strategic Air Command as a machine out of control, we can see it as a machine in the hands of a mad general, or we can see SAC as a cog in the menacing machine we used to call the Cold War, a concept that comes close to what the hindus mean by karma. One big machine. A clockwork. No choice. Exactly the opposite of what we hope to be.

Forbidden Planet (1956) is an especially bleak rendering of the mad scientist myth. After thousands of years of rationality, with the assistance of a machine to end all machines, the Krell are destroyed by monsters from the id. Morbius, in his pursuit of the knowledge and power of the Krell, is transformed into a monster who, subconsiously, seeks to destroy anyone who opposes him.

Most Science Fiction films, however, and in particular the ones in which the machine is a robot, cyborg, or some combination of human and machine, favor, like Lang's Metropolis, the evil machine story. These films include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), Westworld (1973), The Demon Seed (1977), Alien (1979), and, finally, The Terminator (1984), the genre's last rendition of a truly evil machine. The machine in T1 is bad to its alloy bone.

Cameron and Hurd's two Terminator films demonstrate our changing attitudes toward machines with great clarity. Both films are set within the context of an apocalyptic war between humans and machines that follows a 1997 nuclear war between the United States and Russia. As you recall, the nuclear war begins when Skynet, the U.S.A.'s computer-based defense system, achieves self-awareness and attacks the Russians, hoping the human race will be destroyed in the nuclear holocaust that follows. In this, both films are consistent with each other, and with Dr. Strangelove, Colossus: The Forbin Project and other films of the Cold War era.

The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, have the same basic plot. Skynet sends a Terminator from the future to kill Sarah Connor or her son John before John can be born, grow up, and lead the humans in their war against the machines. In both films, the humans send a warrior back through time to protect John and his mother. It is at this point that T1 and T2 diverge. In The Terminator, the protector is a human being, and the Terminator is a machine. In T2, the protector is a machine, and the Terminator is neither human nor machine. He is something else.

In film, what you see and hear is what you get. And what you get in The Terminator are brilliant special effects, muscles, big trucks and bikes, shiny pistols, machine guns, shotguns and other hardware, and a solid rendition of the evil machine myth. What you get in Terminator 2: Judgement Day are even more extravagant special effects, including the "fluid" effects Cameron and Hurd used in The Abyss (1989), and a solid rendition of the mad scientist myth as the three heroes, John Connor, his mom, and John's cyborg protector hustle to stop the mad scientist before he can invent the basic technology that leads to Skynet. To stay alive, they have to stay out of the clutches of a new kind of Terminator who, though Cameron and Hurd call him a machine, is depicted, especially in his grotesque death throes, as essentially organic or worse. Unlike the Terminator in T1, who is a machine disguised as a man, the Terminator in T2 is an organic whole, not an assemblage of parts, and, although it's possible to read "machine" into his strength, agility and relentless focus, when he's consigned to a caldron of molten steel at the climax of the film, he shape shifts, writhes and bellows in agony like a monstrous animal or demon.

T2 is remarkably misanthropic and predictably iconoclastic in its assault on the usual people and institutions, including Ma Bell, bank machines, cops, bikers, foster parents and the city of Los Angeles, which is flattened by a hydrogen bomb. But, in contrast, T2’s rendition of the cyborg who is sent back through time to protect John Connor is heroic. And, just in case we can't follow the sub-text, T2 spells it out for us in a voice-over by Sarah Connor. Watching the cyborg and her kid, Sarah says: "Watching John with the machine, it was suddenly so clear. The Terminator would never stop. It would never leave him. And it would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice."

In the film's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the caldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron and Hurd use a series of close-ups to create a beautiful portrait of The Cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.



In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron and Gayle Anne Hurd gave us our first glimpse of a new, still unformed technology that might replace the machine as the not-us adversary upon which we projected our worst fears. Having united human and machine through the myth of The Cyborg, having accepted the machine model of human intelligence and anatomy to the extent that we understood ourselves better as machines than as animals, having realized that we are evolving, not into angels but into machines, we have joined with The Cyborg to face the uncertain, and, because our paranoia stays one step ahead of us, always dangerous natural and supernatural worlds. The myth of the evil machine is dead. We are ready to confront, in myth and in art, the potential of bioengineering and of our own over-heated subconscious minds.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Unit D

My daughter was home today, complaining about having to get out of bed because the maid was coming. The maid's a woman from Brazil. Her husband's a divinity student at the Adventist college in a little town down the road. He helps her clean the house now and then, making her a maid service or cleaning service I guess, which is what we called our maid in Brooklyn, even though she was just a woman from Guatemala who brought her daughter with her sometimes and showed her maid tricks like storing the garbage bags in the bottom of the garbage can. The word maid was a problem in Brooklyn because my wife was ashamed that a woman was cleaning our house. There were programs on NPR about that in those days. Ways to get by without a maid. We lived with the guilt. Now I don't feel guilty about having a maid, just uneasy about being able to afford a maid when so many people are out of work sometimes, but never when I'm picking up the house before she comes, because I know that without the Friday pick up and the maid we'd slowly sink beneath a rising sea of kipple. When the house is picked up enough for her to start cleaning it, I get out of her way.

This morning I took the kid to Big Boy for breakfast. On the way, she told me if she had been born in the old days we would still be in New York where her name was written in the book. People couldn't move around back then she said, couldn't leave New York the way we did right after 9/11, a move we'd planned to make to the Midwest, made easier by the dust in the air and the smell like a burned out motor or lamp and the scorched pieces of paper that floated into the courtyard of our co-op the day after the towers fell down. That was the day I got back to Brooklyn, drove all night in a rented car, came in across Staten Island with the heavy trucks, ambulances, and military vehicles of all kinds, everything but tanks. The tanks were just in my mind. But I heard the helicopters when the rental threw a rod a couple of blocks from my apartment and I parked it in front of a corner grocery and walked the rest of the way home.

If it had been the old days, we'd have stayed in New York instead of laying in a supply of Cipro and Amoxicillin and flying out to the Midwest, and I never would have put that guy's eye out at the dump. It was about the time Saddam's sons, Uday and the other one, were killed, gunned down or blown up, and right after I took the wood from the kitchen cabinets we tore out to make room for the new refrigerator down to the dump. Right before that, the night before or maybe the night before that I dreamed I was trapped in the basement and the house was on fire, and I was yelling at my wife to throw the .357 magnum through the narrow basement window so I could blow my fucking brains out to keep from burning alive, the kind of dream that stays with you all day. And right after that dream I took the wood to the dump. Long pieces of wood with nails sticking out that I tried to hammer down, but they kept bending and sliding under the hammer and I couldn't get them all out or bent down flat, and I had to be careful not to jam one into my hand when I was loading the wood into the back of my truck. When I got to the dump, the attendant helped me pull the wood out of the back of the truck and throw it over the side of the walk-in dumpster. And when we were almost finished a guy came out of the dumpster, holding his head and saying what the fuck were we doing, and the attendant told him he wasn't supposed to be going inside the dumpster like that. You're lucky you didn't get killed the attendant told him. I could see the guy had a cut next to his eye, and he was sticking his finger through a hole in his baseball cap and saying you ruined my fucking cap. Then he went over and got in his car and his wife was looking at his eye, and I backed out and drove off, thinking they were probably writing down my license plate number, or maybe they would come back to the dump every Saturday and try to find me. But I was thinking maybe he wouldn't have much of a case, even if he lost that eye, because he probably shouldn't have been in the dumpster. But just to make sure, I called a lawyer so he could set my mind at ease. They say when you leave a place you get a unique perspective on it, see things the people who stay behind don't see. All I get is homesick now and then.

At Big Boy, we ended up in a booth next to some kind of old timers' breakfast club, four guys from the local VFW, talking about draft dodgers in the Seventies and a local doctor who did a tour on a medevac plane, flying critically hurt GIs from Iraq to Germany, the kind of old men and the kind of conversation makes you want to say if I get that way please put a bullet in my brain pan. But just to show you how confusing free association can get, I sat there thinking all at once about four or five things, all jumbled up, that I have to put down in some linear way here, because the narrative won't let me tell it all at once. The VFW has to let you use their big, portable barbeque pits if you're a veteran. You just reserve the pit. Tow it home with your truck. Leon told me that at Leon's World Famous Barbeque in Galveston while I waited for my take-out ribs, reading the menu on the wall, reading cold yard bird, a phrase my wife picked off the menu and put in a poem, you cold yard birds, I know the names of poets in high places, while Carmen, whose craziness landed me in the Army, waited for her order, standing alongside me at the counter, wondering who I was. I made the mistake of going to see her at Unit D, you don't even have to explain to anybody what a place called Unit D is about, after she slashed her wrists, and the cops, doing me a favor, figuring me, an officer of a local bank, for a respectable guy who happened, unwittingly, to be mixed up with the criminally insane, took me down to the station and showed me her rap sheet. How were they to know that inside that thick file was where I longed to be?

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Time Machine (The Ice Is Breaking Up, March 2009)

In 1926, the Russian film maker, Vsevolod Pudovkin, created one of film's most famous metaphors by cutting back and forth between images of the ice in a frozen river breaking up and workers storming a prison. The montage starts with the ice-clogged river, cuts to marching workers, back to the river, beginning to flow, marching workers reflected in the water, the water and broken ice cascading down river.

I wonder what a modern day Pudovkin would juxtapose with the river thawing and slowly turning into a torrent of water to create a metaphor for the financial system thawing out. Start with the Spring thaw maybe. Water dripping from the trees. I got a phone call from the bank that holds the mortgage on my house the other day, offering me a line of credit. Cut to a rivulet of water flowing downhill into a stream. Today, the bank offered to refinance my mortgage for free and give me a half-point discount if I open an account and let them deduct my monthly payments automatically. Cut to mail going into mail boxes, people calling the bank, kids trying on new shoes.

I can't wait for the part where the ACDs at the banks start to light up and we get to film those flashing lights on the computer consoles and data flying across the CRTs, images that took the place of tapes spinning back and forth to show those big computers working.  Money piling up in corporate accounts.

The hyenas have started buying "distressed" properties in Detroit, Florida and New Jersey. Cut to those jagged black cracks streaking across the ice.  Millions of people drowning in the cold water.  Bodies swept out to sea.