Sunday, December 31, 1995

In the year 2045

OK, here's my answer to Newt Gingrich's alternate history novel, 1945. Here's an altered future. If not a neutered future. Pun intended.

The United States of America is now the Divided States of America. There's a rump government in the old industrial Northeast, but nobody pays it much attention.

Most of the South (except for Texas and all of Florida, south of Disneyworld, which is now owned by the WaltDisneyCorp) has been reconstituted as the Christian States of America. More orderly than other places; think Singapore with neon crosses. They stone witches, adulterers and drug addicts to death, and it's not a good place to be a black person, Jewish, or one of them secular humanists. But the mag-lev trains run on time.

The Southwest, at its best, resembles Northern Ireland during the Troubles; at its worst, its a dead ringer for Bosnia in the mid 1990s. There's a strong Hispanic separatist movement and an almost equally strong nativist movement,resulting in mild to severe marches, riots, kneecappings and bombings, when the two hatefronts clash. Aqui...aya...y yanquis mortidad or For California will fight: for California will be right. You pays your money, you takes your shot.

As to America's heartland, the Midwest is a hodgepodge of overlapping, militia-controlled entities, Aryan Nation this, Middle America that. There's a decidedly Germanic cast about it all: speeches, boots, bombs, and military haircuts. In most of these regions, it is illegal to show The Blues Brothers.

From Midwest to Farwest, the sagebrush-rebellion-wise-use people have had their way, which means there's no West left at all, only stripmines and stripmalls. In Nevada, the last Native American reservation still survives. They are fighting for their land, even today. A noble people.

Most of the rich people live in the Pacific Northwest, from northern California up through Washington, Oregon, and on to Alberta. They consider themselves more a part of the Pacific Rim than they do the rest of America -- which they regard with liberal disgust, as they have the money and security forces to afford such sentiments.They feel very guilty. Really. They feel sorry for the Native Americans and they're angry at what's happening in the Christian States and the Midwest, the atrocities, all those horrible things. Someone should really do something. They give money to charities and hold benefit rock concerts and wear t-shirts with slogans, while making sure that their borders are secure.

Speaking of money, Alaska and Hawaii have been sold to Japan to cover interest charges on that ol' debbil the national debt (which was also the reason the national parks were sold off). Much-needed hard currency is also supplied by shipping American prisoners off to forced labor camps in the PRC. Helps out with that balance of trade thing.

Social security, medicare, welfare, and most of the other trappings of the evil welfare state have collapsed leaving...nothing, zippo, nada, not even workhouses or poor houses. Government is off our backs forever. Road, rail and mail have been privatized, which means you get what you pay for, or you don't get.

The popular vehicles of choice (for those who can afford them) either fly or go on almost any kind of terrain. Most of the so-called confederacies, alliances, and coalitions don't mean very much. The former United States of America (like the rest of the world) is divided into DWorlds and Lebanons--the DWorlds meaning Disneyworlds: artificial walled-in communities, sort of like Seaside, except for the guys in guard towers with automatic weapons. White flight to the suburbs has been reversed; the central cities are all now nicely gentrified, surrounded by rings of people living in cardboard boxes selling garbage, themselves, or pieces of themselves.

In 2045, the former United States of America resembles Brazil -- both the country, and the movie. The cities are surrounded by areolae of suffering campesinos; in the soft, chewy center are a very few people having a very good time. But people have adapted. The ability at which they accept these things and go on is amazing. Just the way it is...

Libertarians will be pleased to note that the radical principle of self-ownership now extends to dueling, suicide parlors, organ harvesting and indentured servitude. Prostitution, drug use and abortion are illegal in most areas though. A philosophical inconsistency, but nobody points it out too much (except for liberal sob sisters in the PacificRim, where these things are legal). It's a bad age for dialectic.

In addition to convict labor, our leading exports are organs, entertainment, military hardware, and thugs. We hire ourselves out as rent-a-cops to the rest of the planet -- tough cops, who aren't afraid to use the beat stick. And our guns, bombs, planes and missiles are just plain better. It's a source of pride that there are still some things Americans do better than anybody else. A commitment to excellence!

Newt Gingrich, amazingly enough, is still alive, floating foetus-like in a spherical bubble, filled with amniotic fluid, his brain and nervous system hardwired to an AI interface. Old Newt was always into that kind of thing. The net, the future. Just loved that gee-whiz-sense-of-wonder thing.

The wires leading out from Newt's head go into a computer, and out again to an audioanimatronic simulacrum of Howdy Doody, a pure freckle-faced synthesis of Newt's forward-into-the-past urge to leap into Tomorrowland and a Happy Days 1950s at one and the same time.

Way it works: you speak to the puppet and you speak to Newt; it sees you, thru luxvid eyes, talks back. Eerie. Kind of like Magic, though the puppet has never really hurt anybody. Kids think he's cute, write him postcards...

So, 2045 and all that -- my how time flies! It's the 50th anniversary of the publication of Newt's book, and the reporters are all flocking around his freckle-faced Doppelganger. One ballsy reporter looks Newtie Doody straight in the eye and asks, "What the hell you were you thinking?" The puppet turns its head. Dead serious (as far as Newt's imagineered user interface can register emotion), the puppet speaks.

"It was necessary to destroy the country to save it," he says.

102 years old, and Newt still comes up with the perfect sound-bite.

Wednesday, November 22, 1995

Dangerous Liaisions ... Lesiaisions ... Lesions ... Ah, to hell with it.

I’m not suave. This is not to say I’m some Gary Cooper/John Wayne type who tells the blunt truth. Now listen to me ya no good sonofabitch. Nah. I prefer my drama on stage and restrict sparring to karate class. I hate conflict. I’m not trying to piss people off. But people have elaborate codes and it’s easy to get them wrong. 

This ain’t supposed to be the American way.

The cliché notion of an American used to be, well, the plain-spoken Gary Cooper/John Wayne type. In contrast to the typical European who spoke in elaborate circumlocutions. 

John Wayne: That’s a lousy idea.
European: It would be not unwise for you to reconsider this proposal.

You want a concrete example of European artificiality, watch Liaisons Dangereuses. This French movie, available on VHS at Video Renaissance. Watch it, then get back to me. If you hate subtitles, watch Dangerous Liaisons. Either way. Go. 

OK. I’m assuming you watched it. We’re on the honor system here …

I trust you.

Now you know what I’m talking about. 

To me, the world of Liaisons Dangereuses is a freaking nightmare. Or the world of Dangerous Liasons, for that matter. Christ, John Malkovich gives me nightmares. Where was I? Oh yeah. Elaborate social codes. Wheels within wheels. Every meaning has a double meaning and a double meaning behind it. I can’t stand subtext. I have a hard problem with text. When woman make hand gestures, I never know what they’re talking about. Uh, you want me to throw the dog over the roof? Stuff cheese down my pants? What? Shoot me.

But that’s France, you say. It can’t happen here, you say.

Wrong.

For experimental validation, go to an arty party in a certain arts community. Speak your mind. See what happens.

Oh, God. That’s CENSORED. CENSORED is the president of a certain CENSORED and his daughter is the CENSORED who’s angry at CENSORED because he got the grant for the CENSORED and she didn’t. Whatever you do, don’t mention Rosenquist or Rauschenberg and Roquefort cheese.

See, I can't even speak my mind on my own blog. The CENSORED might lose advertisers.

Watch what you say. Think twice. Consider your words wisely.

Americans weren’t supposed to worry about that.

Gary Cooper. John Wayne.

No way.

Americans spoke the plain truth. We didn’t walk around on cracked eggs.

Now we do.

For small fish like me, who cares? But the big fish are walking around on cracked eggs as well, if you stretch the metaphor.

We can’t be real anymore. Politicians especially.

It’s instant death. Consider ancient history …

In 1967, presidential hopeful George Romney talked about his 1965 tour of Vietman. Said the generals gave him the greatest brainwashing of all time,” or something like that. Rhetoric. Metaphor. Any idiot would know he wasn’t being literal. “Brainwashing” -- referring to the stage-managed control of his perceptions. The press seized on the word “brainwashing.” End of presidential hopes.

Back in 1972, Edmund Muskie was running for president. A reporter ambushed him with slurs about his wife. Muskie cried. His campaign crashed and burned.

In 1979, Jimmy Carter swam away from a killer rabbit. Wise move. The freaking thing could’ve had rabies. But goodbye White House. This probably hurt him more than the hostage crisis.

In 1980, America put an actor in the White House. Ronald Reagan wasn't John Wayne or Gary Cooper. But he knew how to act like it. 

It's been fakery, appearance, show, flash and filigree ever since. Please wake me when it's over.

I'll be in my room.

Sunday, November 12, 1995

Tokyo Fist

Just caught Tokyo Fist at the CineWorld Film Festival -- a charming study in human nature by Shin'ya Tsukamoto, the director of Tetsuo II: Body Hammer. This is what you might call a study in cultural differences ...

Typical American boxing movie

A man runs into a high school buddy who’s now a boxer. Like an idiot, he takes him home to meet his girlfriend. The boxer beats the crap out of his old friend and steals the man’s girlfriend. Humiliated, the man hangs out at the gym and learns to box like a pro. After months of grueling training, he challenges the boxer to a fight, beats him in the ring and gets the girl back. (Alternate ending; he doesn’t want her anymore. Alternate ending #2; she decides she’s sick of violence and leaves them both.)

Tokyo Fist

A man runs into a high school buddy who’s now a boxer. Like an idiot, he takes him home to meet his girlfriend. The boxer beats the crap out of his old friend and steals the man’s girlfriend. Humiliated, the man hangs out at the gym and learns to box like a pro. After months of grueling training, he challenges the boxer to a fight. They beat each other to a bloody pulp in the ring—to the point their faces come apart at the seams. The boxer punches the man’s eye out of the socket and "wins." Nobody gets the girl. She’s developed a fetish for piercing and dies in an alley like a human pin cushion after sticking one rusty piece of metal through her body too many.

Sunday, November 5, 1995

If it don't work, sell it

Used to be, there was a fair assumption that, when you bought something off the shelf, it actually fucking worked. This assumption is now ancient history.

Companies have amputated the product-to-market cycle -- specifically the product-testing end of the cycle. The consumer is now the product tester, early adapters especially. Companies sell you stuff that doesn't quite work yet. You scream bloody murder -- and then they create a patch. Whether you know it or not, you're an unpaid grunt in R&D.

Which explains why Windows 95 is a hellish abortion of good intentions all wrapped up in a heavenly box.

Friday, September 15, 1995

Naked Clothing

When I was a kid I used to think there was a monster in the closet. I'd turn off the light and it would all seem to start writhing and I thought the clothes were getting ready to fuse together, turn into something hideous, and get me. So far that hasn't happened...

When all is said and done, clothes have no power in themselves: the power is the power we give them. I have a kid in middle school, and to me that's the most obvious example: the incredible pressure the kids feel to dress a certain way, wear a certain kind of tennis shoe. It isn't the shoe that has the power: it's the other kids, or the perception of one kid that the other kids are going to judge them a certain way. A nerd looks like this, a jock looks like that. Makes it easy to know somebody: just like spotting airplanes. Clothes are a form of a form of language -- vocabulary we wear. Clothes are self-expression. At the same time, they're group identification.

Part of our wearable vocabulary involves identifying yourself with a certain group. My power suit means I'm a powerful businessman; my blow-dried haircut means I'm an evangelist, whatever. Street gangs do this very consciously and, in certain places, the wrong jacket can get you killed.What you wear shows who you belong to, what you're loyal to,where you're from. One year, long hair is a sign of rebellion, the next year it's short hair, a bald head, a mohawk, pink hair. (Like any language, the vocabulary is always changing.) Every statement creates an equal and opposite anti-statement: which is how designers and clothing makers keep selling clothes. It's kind of silly to wonder if high fashion should be taken seriously because it's already taken seriousl. There's a lot of money in it--just as there's a lot of money in low fashion.

The art world should take it seriously, because fashion represents a paradigm--which I happen to think is a destructive one--that new is good, old is bad, period.Clothes go out of style. Do paintings go out of style? When we look at a painting are we seeing it for what it is--or are we thinking in terms of "what's hot...what's not?" Is it possible these days not to think in those terms?

There's also the fact that clothes and high fashion cost a great deal of money: on a planet where a lot of people are sick and starving, what percentage of our planetary resources should go to clothes? Is there something to be said--on amoral basis--for dressing simply? Probably. People should have the right to dress to the nines if they want. It's a question of status, and as Tom Wolfe likes to point out, human beings are wired for status. You can't fight it.

People should also have the right to opt out, if they want--to wear simple, functional clothes and not be judged for that--whether to save the planet, or just because it's too much trouble coordinating your outfits.I think whole cultures have done have done this: from the Puritans to the Mennonites, to the Communist Chinese--and of course the people on top always wind up wearing better uniforms. I could also say that people should have the right to wear weird clothes and not be judged--but people who wear weird clothes want to be judged, just so they can say hey, don't judge me.

The whole thing is full of contradiction.

Monday, September 11, 1995

Top Ten Reasons Why Advertising is the Work of Satan and Turning Us All Into Drooling Morons

1) Critical thinking? I call that stinking thinking! Advertising sez "unplug your brain and buy what we tell you." Just do it!

2) Attention teachers! Tired of swimming upstream and teaching your students how to think? We know you are! There you are in front of the mob--with no fancy graphics, effects and camera angles to keep the little brain dead bastards interested. Take heart! We'll sell you edutainment packets. Your students can learn the scientific method--comparing the thickness of Ragu and Prego!

3) Businesses competing on the basis of advertising and marketing--not on who has the best product or service.

4) Unscrewable pooches--that's right! You can't screw these pooches, from Windows 95 to some godawful stinker of a movie, because we freaking well advertise with you, and if you don't say something nice about us, we pull the ad. We want advertorial--we want "ink or air" for our ad--and if you can't say something nice...don't say it at all!
Somebody shoot that messenger...

5) Target marketing--direct to the frontal lobe! There's nothing like creating a new group to sell new stuff--or more of the old stuff that you've creatively repackaged. Flush all cultural consensus down the toilet and think of yourself as: a biker: a rightwing Christian, a lesbian radical hang-glider...etc. Magazines and electronic media targeted to YOUR group will tell you exactly what to think, buy, wear and do. It's easy!

6) Old is bad--new is good. Gotta sell the new stuff--and that includes ideas! We know this means all the good titles go out of print and the megabookstores choke up with offal--but that's progress!

7) Politicians are products. Like him or not, McGinniss was right, after all. Remember when "The Selling of the President 1968" was a shocker? Ah, sweet youth...

8) Beefed-up production values mean...no bottom rungs on the ladder! Have fun with your 'zines and homevideo--yer not even showing up on the radar, kids! Alternative music? We'll find a way to turn any "alternative" you come up with into something to package and sell; from rock, to punk, to grunge, to rap--welcome to the machine, babe! (The disk can sound raw...but it better be studio quality!) Mags mean 4-color glossy, slick and squeaky...forget the writing...it's the photography...the look! When it comes to movies, let's see how much we can spend, blowing up the bubble, South Sea style. Can you say Imax? And, of course, somebody has to pay for this...

9) You do! Every namebrand product has a bullshit subsidy tax; and what they're really paying for is the right to put their bullshit in YOUR brain!

10) This is Maggie's Farm, and neither am I out of it. While the avant garde argues about this fine point or that...we're busy stringing the barbed wire through the country of your soul. Painters, writers, filmmakers, cartoonists, voice character actors, musicians, live actors...how much of your time, how much of your brain is spent pushing somebody's bullshit...how little spent doing what you're really supposed to do? When you do your real stuff you're stealing the time...ain't you? Get back to work and SELL, boy. We ain't paying you to do your own thing here.

Saturday, September 9, 1995

Hey, kid. You want some eye candy?

OK. A few thoughts on the cult of storytelling on film. "Film is a storytelling medium." "It's all about stories." Bullshit.

Yeah, movies can tell stories. But that's only one thing film can do. Film is the Swiss Army knife of media formats.

Much of the appeal of movies has nothing to do with stories. It's just fun to look at interesting stuff move around: people running, cars, beautiful bodies, balls flying through the air, faces, landscapes: the movement of objects in space. Even a static shot of a face isn't really static: you see changes of light, expression...small subtle movements.

Anybody who's ever held a movie or video camera knows it's just fun to look at stuff moving around, to get it on film, story be damned...

Movement of story is to movement of object in space what libretto is to musical score. That stuff moving around should be subordinated to story--but the stuff you're watching should not be dull for chrissakes.

Analogous to a musical score, there's rhythm, movement, and pace to the flow of images. The basic movement: rising action. Within that arc: smaller sub-movements of tension and release: the church lady principle of keeping them in their seats.

Which brings us what to leave out.

Which brings us to A Clockwork Orange, a brilliant book, a brilliant movie. But consider what Kubrick left out...in the first third alone, up to the point where Alex has a falling out with his Droogs.

Gone is the fellow getting a glimpse of Bog and babbling glossolalia (and getting his foot stabbed) in the milkbar; the old ptitsas, booze-bribed for an alibi ("nice lads...God bless 'em"); the shop-crasting scene, the crystallo-veck whose books are razdrezzed, zoobies smashed outside the library; the scene where the Durango '95 gets dunked; the ride home where they rip up the seats on the train. Good stuff. Like the dunking scene:

"We yeckated back townwards, my brothers, but just ouside, not far from what they called the Industrial Canal, we viddied the fuel needle had like collapsed, like our own ha ha ha needles had, and the auto was coughing kashl kashl kashl. Not to worry overmuch, though, because a rail station kept flashing blue--on off on off--just near. The point was whether to leave the auto to be sobiratted by the rozzes or, us feeling like in a hate and murder mood, to give it a fair tolchock into the starry waters for a nice heavy loud plesk before the death of the evening. The later we decided on, so we got out and, the brakes off, all four tolchocked it to the edge fo the filthy water that was like treacle mixed with human hole products, then one good horrorshow tolchock and in she went. We had to dash back for fear of the filth splashing on our platties, but splussshhhh and glolp she went, down and loveley. "Farewell, old droog," called Georgie, and Dim obliged with a clowny great gugg--"Huh huh huh huh."

Cinematic, tight, would've made a great scene. Yet Kubrick goes directly from the writer and wife getting savaged by the droogs to the droogs returning to the milkbar.

Why?

Go back to the opening.

We open on Alex's face, camera pulling back. The movement is slow, stately, processional--and the music score is, in fact, a dirge. McDowell has no doubt been told to breath in quick shallow breaths, pent up with tension, animal ready to leap. But movement still slow.

Go to scene where they beat up the drunk. Still slow, but starting to speed up. They come walking up, backlit, to where he's lying in the underpass. Unhurried conversation--Alex let's him have his say--then they beat him. Getting faster now. Building to...

Rumble with Billy Boy's Droogs. Again, opens slow--but cuts in to choreographed violence, speeding up to fever pitch as Alex beats Billy Boy to a pulp--

Go to exterior, open road, Droogs on Durango 95 playing hogs of the road. Wild movement, vicious ecstasy...

Go to writers house--"HOME"--a safe space of eyeofstorm quiet before Droogs burst in, beat, rape--

--and after that nasty climax return to milkbar. Droogs enter, moving slowly, "shagged, fagged, fashed" detumescent, burnt-out--then Alex gets one last charge of pleasure as a singer bursts out with "Ode to Joy," setting up Dim to razz her, Alex to cane Dim; and Alex to ultimately fall as the gang's leader.

The story movement establishes the normal pattern of Alex's life (ultraviolence) moving to event that "spins the story around in another direction" as Field would put it. Aside from the story: what we see moving around in space begins slow, accelerates, peaks, slows down at the final milkbar scene.

The film moves from a peak of orgiastic violence to the burnt-out end of the evening at the milkbar. We don't need to see the car going in the water; it doesn't matter how they got the car, how they got rid of the car, how they got to the milkbar, good as these scenes might have been if filmed as written in the original book. Showing the dunked car would have wrecked the movement; from the peak of the rape and beating to the slow-moving endgame at the Korova.

Kubrick is a hard act to follow: director, screenwriter, somebody who knows how to use a camera, somebody who knows how to fine-tune the music score. The screenwriter normally ain't that far up the food chain; but he's a good example of how to do it right, and what to leave out...even when what you're leaving out is very good indeed.