Orange Study

… this piece is a simple study from my first year of grad school, but I just unearthed it and watch it again, and I find it really satisfying on a number of different levels.

I might go so far as to claim Hollis Frampton’s “Lemon” as an influence, here…

Media Manifesto

A camera does not see how an eye sees, and when an image seems to move, it is not actually moving as a thing moves – a “moving image” is always a series of still frames separated either by blackness or merged by algorithmic compression.

Since the moving image is captured by an instrument that gathers light and motion fundamentally differently than a human eye, and re-presents what it gathers at another time and place (even if only a split second separates gathering and viewing), what the moving image shows us is not this world.

All around us, we are presented with images, moving and static, that claim, overtly and implicitly, to represent our literal, living world: in the news, on the internet, on digital billboards along the freeway. Even in our fictional media, we believe we are looking at real live people who are actors playing roles. The “realism” of these “lifelike” representations grows day by day with higher resolution displays, 3D, and new, more immersive gaming consoles.

It is easy to believe that we are looking into this world, experiencing this world through our devices, through our facebook feeds. But what the moving image shows us is not this world.

What the moving image presents is far more analogous to a dream or an underworld, populated by the dead, than we are willing to admit. The actor in the show we love may not be dead, but his captured image in a frame, in a shot, in a scene, in an episode, in a season, in a series, is not moving, it is static. It is not alive, it is in fact digitally preserved, embalmed, will not change by a single pixel in a thousand years (if, in fact, the data is still retrievable by the digital devices a thousand years from now).

When we spend time immersed in our screens, we are in a virtual underworld, communing with the dead and the undead – a world which is timeless and formless, populated with unchanging figures and landscapes, and at the same time constantly shifting and burgeoning with new residents. We are communing with the dreams and spectres of our shared culture more surely than the PR guy who named Hollywood “The Dream Factory” ever imagined.

This is by no means a bad thing – if we know it. I am assigning no moral or ethical valuation to either the dream or the real life experience, the above, daylight world or the virtual, underground, shadow realm. But to confuse the dream with reality, to believe one is awake while one is asleep, is problematic. To sleepwalk out of the house is dangerous, to call the dead your friends will cost you something in the daylight world.

Today we can enter the underworld at will, multiple times a day, we can slide in and out of waking life smoothly – but like Orpheus, we cannot succeed in bringing the dead back to the daylight world with us. It is only possible to cross over, permanently, in one direction. We can foster relationships with our favorite shows and viral videos, revisit them again and again, but we cannot change a single pixel of their stories – except, I suppose, through the Necromancy of appropriated video art.

Coming to terms with the true nature of our media-saturated existence is profoundly important to our art, our culture, and our individual emotional and spiritual health. We have been complicit for too long in the comforting lie told by the moving image – that it is showing us our living world, that it represents real life. This sense of “connectedness” masks the more troubling concept that most of us spend many hours of our day inhabiting dream-space populated by the dead.

I am not saying we should turn off the screens. There are plenty of prominent media figures who periodically decry and denounce our plugged-in culture and exhort us to go outside, have real face-to-face interactions with humans – to no avail, of course.

Dreams are healthy and necessary, and the underworld is a healthy and necessary part of our individual and collective geography. We could not suppress them, wall them off, or banish them from our society even if we really wanted to, which we really don’t. We are drawn to our screens like moths to flame, they are absorbing us, swallowing us up – this is neither good nor bad, it just is.

But we can acknowledge them for what they are, for the role they play, for what they really represent. And, as artists who work with media (and everyone works with media these days) we can interact with them more authentically – we can use them, not to purport to create real-life experiences for audiences, but to trace a path into the dreamspace, a thread into the underworld, to present an unreality as unreality for visceral engagement, contemplation and reflection.

Experimental media, classical and contemporary, can be frustrating and challenging to watch, partly I think because it confounds the audience’s desire for an experience that convincingly mimics a literal, living reality – experimental media is willing to abandon spatial coherence, cause and effect, and narrative logic in favor of the free association, chaos and caprice of dream-illogic.

Neither making nor viewing experimental media is necessarily a safe and comfortable experience, just as dreams and journeys to the underworld often feel unsafe and uncomfortable. But just as dreams are necessary to human health, experimental media is necessary to the health of our culture, because it is willing to grapple more authentically with the disquieting truth of our experience of the moving image than mainstream media culture, which can be counted upon to choose a comforting and entertaining lie over an unsettling and destabilizing truth any day of the week.

Deren on The Amateur

“The major obstacle for amateur film-makers is their own sense of inferiority vis-a-vis professional productions. The very classification “amateur” has an apologetic ring. But that very word–from the Latin amator, “lover” — means one who does something for the love of the thing rather than for economic reasons or necessity. And this is the meaning from which the amateur film-maker should take his cue. Instead of envying the script and dialogue writers, the trained actors, the elaborate staffs and sets, the enormous production budgets of the professional film, the amateur should make use of the one great advantage which all professionals envy him, namely, freedom–both artistic and physical.

Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words, words, to the relentless activity and explanations of a plot, or to the display of a star or a sponsor’s product; nor is the amateur production expected to return profit on a huge investment by holding the attention of a massive and motley audience for 90 minutes. Like the amateur still-photographer, the amateur film-maker can devote himself to capturing the poetry and beauty of places and events and, since he is using a motion-picture camera, he can explore the vast world of the beauty of movement. (One of the films winning Honorable Mention in the 1958 Creative Film Awards was Round and Square, a poetic, rhythmic treatment of the dancing lights of cars as they streamed down highways, under bridges, etc.) Instead of trying to invent a plot that moves, use the movement of wind, or water, children, people, elevators, balls, etc., as a poem might celebrate these. And use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.

Physical freedom includes time freedom–a freedom from budget imposed deadlines. But above all, the amateur film-maker, with his small, lightweight equipment, has an inconspicuousness (for candid shooting) and a physical mobility which is well the envy of most professionals, burdened as they are by their many-ton monsters, cables and crews. Don’t forget that no tripod has yet been built which is as miraculously versatile in movement as the complex system of supports, joints, muscles and nerves which is the human body, which, with a bit of practice, makes possible the enormous variety of camera angles and visual action. You have all this, and a brain too, in one neat, compact, mobile package.

Cameras do not make films; film-makers make films. Improve your films not by adding more equipment and personnel but by using what you have to its fullest capacity. The most important part of your equipment is yourself: your mobile body, your imaginative mind, and your freedom to use both. Make sure you do use them.

- Maya Deren, Essential Deren: Film Poetics, p.17

Brakhage on Ritual Cinema

“When an amateur photographs scenes of a trip he’s taking, a party or other special occasion, and especially when he’s photographing his children, he’s primarily seeking a hold on time and, as such, is ultimately attempting to defeat death. The entire act of motion picture making, thus, can be considered as an exteriorization of the process of memory. “Hollywood,” sometimes known as “the dream factory,” makes ritualistic-dramas in celebration of mass memory–very like the rituals of tribal people–and wishful-thinking movies which seek to control the national destiny…as sure as primitive tribes throw water on the ground to bring rain…and they make “social” or “serious” dramas, at great commercial risk to the industry, as a corporate act of “sacrifice”–not unlike the practices of self-torture priests undergo in order to “appease the gods”: and the whole commercial industry has created a pseudo church whose “god” is “mass psychology” and whose anthropomorphism consists of praying to (Buy this–NOW!), and preying upon (polling, etc.) “the-greatest-number-of-people” as if, thereby, the human destiny were predictable and/or could be controlled through mimicry. But the amateur photographs the persons, places, and objects of his love and the events of his happiness and personal importance in a gesture that can act directly and solely according to the needs of memory. He does not have to invent a god of memory, as does the professional: nor does the amateur have to appease any personification of God in his making. He is free, if he but accept the responsibility of his freedom, to work as the spirit of his god, or his memory, or his particular needs, move him. It is for this reason that I believe any art of the cinema must inevitably arise from the amateur, “home-movie” making medium.”

-Essential Brakhage, Stan Brakhage, p. 149

Spielberg and Lucas agree…

…With what I was saying a couple of weeks ago about Life After Hollywood, it turns out – according to this story from last year.

I’m with them on the likely “implosion” of the studio system – but of course I disagree about what the future holds, or what it should hold: they predict ever-increasingly immersive, technological experiences – wrap-around screens, virtual reality, brain implants, and entertainment that somehow taps into your actual dreams (yikes).

I don’t think the rectangular, flat screen is the issue at all – in my mind, it doesn’t really matter what kind of surface the images are projected upon – moving images have been profoundly compelling and complete ever since Plato’s Cave with its flickering firelight.

The screen is merely a portal, an access point for us to enter – and the act of entering itself is the crossing of the threshold into our own imagination / dreamscape / underworld.

Sometimes, or often, or always, I think less is more – the human imagination itself provides the landscape for the experience, and if the technology works harder and provides more of the experience, it will only lead to the enfeebling of the imaginative capacity of the audience member, making us more dependent on expensive toys. Better consumers, maybe, but not ultimately more satisfied with our cinematic (or videogame, or interactive) experiences.

A few months ago I saw a gifted performer tell the tale of the Odyssey – the whole thing, start to finish, as credited to Homer, on a stage, by himself. It wasn’t acting per se, it was straightforward, word-for-word storytelling. And damn, I tell ya, it was most definitely immersive and low-fi at the same time.

I’m not ready to give up on the moving image completely, in favor of live performance – I have far too long a history with the seductive power of film and video. But as the years pass I suppose I am becoming more crochety and stubborn that real innovation doesn’t require fancier new-fangled technology.

There are many lifetimes worth of creative, artistic, imaginative potential to explore yet with the most basic cinematic apparatus. Cinema is only 100-ish years old. No need (for me anyway) to rush on to the next thing.

In Praise of the Short Film

I just finished a 12-minute film that I’ve been working on for more than two years, and screened it at the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater last week. Roughly 100 people showed up over two nights, a healthy-sized crowd in the 70-ish seat theater.

Could I have made it faster? Probably. Could I have made it longer? Certainly. Could I have gotten more than 100 people to show up to see it? Possibly. But what if everything about it is the right size and shape? What if more, faster, bigger wouldn’t actually improve the experience or make it more meaningful, for me or anyone else?

I spend a substantial portion of my day in front of various screens already, by choice – and I make things for screens, for a living. Many or most of us are in front of screens for many hours each day. I don’t think screen time is bad, or wrong, but I do think that every moment that I ask people to spend staring at a screen on my behalf is both precious, and somewhat fraught – I want it to be a meaningful, dense, rich experience.

I worked briefly as a projectionist, and I remember unspooling a few feet from a reel of the Richard Linklater film Before Sunset one evening, in the deep solitude of the projection booth. That footage was a mere moment in the middle of some second-act conversation  on-screen, but the frames themselves were just two heads, going on and on seemingly endlessly – a minute of 35mm film is 96 FEET long. That’s so many frames, if you think about it, to spend just staring at heads, not really doing anything - merely mouths moving and (on the soundtrack) sounds coming out.

In that moment, it seemed like an incredible waste of a visual medium, to point the camera at people sitting there, talking. That experience, in the projection booth, gave me a deeper appreciation of avant-garde filmmakers who get obsessive about every single frame as an opportunity to create meaning – even though those frames pass by at the edge of perceptibility.

When film is used as a literal device for recording and shaping a narrative scene, it seems to me that there’s a kind of threshold of meaning – it can be beautiful, it can be a full dramatic experience, extremely well crafted, but on some level, a shot is just a shot: we’re watching him walk from here to there. This person is shooting at that robot. The spaceship is exploding. But it’s all craft, relating the information that “these things are happening.”

Whereas, the moment one steps beyond the literality of “these things are happening,” the realm of possible meanings and associations expands kaleidoscopically. We can leave world of logical perception – our eyes seeing that’s happening and our brain making sense of it – so easily, so easily. We spend our literal days right at the edge of this wellspring of the imagination, the realm of the dream – where things make far less sense and mean so much more, simultaneously.

This isn’t always a comfortable place to be, which may be partly why we don’t choose to go there, as artists or as audience, very often or for very long. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it can even be frightening to not understand what’s going on. There are feature filmmakers who are willing to go there, such as David Lynch in his heyday, or Fellini or Bergman in a lyrical mode. More recently, the Beasts of the Southern Wild is the latest example that springs to mind, of a filmmaker successfully leaving the literal and entering the symbolic, the poetic, the not-this-world.

But it’s pretty darn rare, in either movies or television, and when strange things are allowed to happen, it seems like they’re often safely framed in genre terms – “this literal monster is destroying the city – literally!”

Perhaps it’s natural that films that leave the literal would make people uncomfortable, just as dreams are often uncomfortable. We’ve evolved for millions of years to really want to know what’s going on around us at all times. We don’t WANT to be overwhelmed by images that don’t fit neatly together into an entirely comprehensible world. We want our status to be clear – this is safe, that’s a threat, I like these people, I don’t like that person. If we think we understand what’s going on, we feel safe, and if we feel safe, on some level, we relax. If our experience pushes us in unfamiliar ways, we don’t relax, we have to work, and we look forward to the end of the work, when we can relax.

Reading good poetry requires effort, too – and the audience for poetry is tiny. But it persists, because there is that desire, I guess, I hope, for turns of phrase that mean many things at once, for relationships between words that are shifting and slippery, that buzz and crackle and flutter and tickle…

In the thrall of a good poem, I can feel my brain lighting up, and I can feel the vastness of possibility in the universe, forces acting on a greater-than-human scale, complexity beyond my grasp. I feel small and humble, yet connected to at least the intimation of the beyond – and grateful for that connection.

As a filmmaker, I aspire to something similar – it doesn’t have to be a short film, and it doesn’t have to be strictly experimental – but I want to at least attempt to leave the realm of the literal, to challenge an audience for at least a few moments to see beyond bodies in rooms, to recognize that these dream-realms are touchable, are out there… and it’s really a miracle that we can access them, that we have the tools and the techniques at our fingertips which allow us to attempt to draw the imaginary, to map the underworld, to erect the architecture of the dream space.

It’s ultimately an invitation, I think – not everyone is willing to accept the invitation, and nobody has to, it’s a free choice. But the invitation is present, as the lights go down – take my hand here in the mundane, step across this threshold, and follow me… elsewhere.

The Myth of Community

It seems like everywhere I go these days, I become embroiled in conversations about the health of this or that community. The Community is ailing, and what can be done? Specifically, how can we get more people to participate in this or that community: the film community, the dance community, the art community.

The conversation seems to play out the same way each time: there’s a diagnosis of sub-optimal community, followed by theories about why the community is struggling, followed by some half-hearted brainstorming about different approaches to improving the community, then, finally, some resigned shrugging and vague, obligatory optimism about unspecified progress that could conceivably happen in the future.

I have very little patience anymore for these conversations, and the last time I stumbled into one, on Friday, I think I was brusque, possibly rude about it. It seems, at the moment, worse than useless to me – actually mildly toxic. Leagues from being part of the solution, this conversation is starting to feel more to me like part of the problem itself, or THE problem.

By talking about the community in general terms we automatically put ourselves in a passive and passive-aggressive stance – the problems and issues become nebulous, and a nebulous problem, it seems to me, is beyond hope of a specific solution. So we drift into a safe vagueness that has no possible productive outcome, besides serving some internal need to criticize, to state that There is a Problem.

If the problem were posed as specific, we might actually have to do something about it. If it were a specific person or institution, we would have an uncomfortable choice between actually taking action to influence or oppose that person or institution, or choosing inaction, which implicates us in the problem.

And worse, if we seek to define a specific problem and we can’t figure out what it is, it’s always possible that the problem is us. Is me. To quote the immortal David Mamet (I think): if you look around the poker table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, then the sucker is you.

What is the problem with this (film, dance, theatre, art) community? I am the problem with this community. That’s uncomfortable.

When people complain about the film community, I usually try to nip it in the bud by asking them what film project they’re working on at the moment. If you’re making a film, you’re not simultaneously complaining that no-one is making a film – you’re actually glad that you don’t have to compete for actors, equipment, locations. It honestly wouldn’t take that many people choosing to just get to work making a film, asking their friends for help, and having an event to screen it, to totally saturate Minneapolis with production.

“There are not enough films getting made in this town” is simply not a credible criticism. You want to make a film, make a film. Problem solved. But if everyone stands around waiting for someone else to do it, they simply have no one to blame for a lack of community but themselves.

The Hero in Love

With the latest shooting spree by a young, sexually frustrated white male, the idea that the media is responsible for men’s unrealistic romantic expectations has arisen again as a topic of debate.

A lot has been said about privilege, about romantic comedy tropes, about gender representation in Hollywood – and I think all of those are valid points, but I think on some level the problem is essentially Joseph Campbell-related.

I’ve written before about how the Hero’s Journey has taken over storytelling in Hollywood – this is amply documented, there are shelves upon shelves of screenwriting books and articles that basically say that every movie can be mapped onto the Monomyth template. Cannes Film Festival fare may occasionally deviate from this rule, but rarely do these films even appear as a blip on the cultural landscape.

The thing is, the Hero’s Journey is never a tale of two people. It always orbits around a single protagonist who faces seemingly insurmountable challenges, learns something, and saves the day.

I have seen many, many great plays and movies about human relationships, but they are seldom about Heroes. I would say they generally fall into two categories: the classic screwball comedy or the complex, emotional drama. The dramas are often family stories – about people who are already in relationships and have a lot of history together, often involving kids, in-laws, exes. The screwball comedies are often (maybe usually) of the meet-cute variety: I’m thinking Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but also Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

The screwball comedy is about two deeply flawed but redeemable characters finding one another, and salvation. The emotional drama is about deeply flawed characters struggling to find a way to stay together in spite of everything that stands between them, and often failing.

But there’s a subtle difference between either of these and a Hero’s Journey story – the Hero is a flawed protagonist, for sure, but his challenges are presented along an axis of internal / external. Internally speaking, he has to become a better man, and externally, there are circumstances in his life that must be overcome. Sometimes, in romantic comedies, these involve the girl he’s interested in having a boyfriend, fiancee, etc..

The protagonist in these cases is often a “he,” though I’m pretty sure there are cases where the Hero is female – movies like, say, My Best Friend’s Wedding, starring Julia Roberts.

I would say that movies in the classic screwball comedy and emotional drama categories pretty successfully avoid having a clear protagonist – Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn are equally matched, though a case could be made that she’s the protagonist in Bringing Up Baby.  Same with Harry and Sally. I think it’s him, based on the final scene at the New Year’s party, but it’s hard to be sure.

When you give up the fundamental duality of structure, necessarily, one of the members of the couple gives up their interiority, their own Hero-ness; their ability to make choices motivated by what they want and need. They cease to have agency, to be people who might say no for legitimate reasons – they become someone who needs to be convinced.

When real humans in the world try to model their relationships upon the Hero’s Journey, it can be a disaster – if I’m the Hero and the person I know I’m in love with is resisting my attempts to woo her – that’s merely a bigger challenge for me to overcome. Because I know the way my movie is supposed to end – us together, happily ever after.

I’ve seen this up close, and it’s painful to watch, and sometimes scary – if you’re convinced that you were meant to be together, you can play out a brilliant love story in your head – which, from an external point of view, is the very definition of stalking. But the Hero’s Journey doesn’t allow for an external point of view because it’s totally devoted to the perspective of the protagonist.

The Hero has to die – I mean, we all have to die, but it’s striking how profoundly true this is, in these failed romantic situations. In healthier and more resilient cases this “death” is a metaphor, an analogy, and it just means depression and grieving, a few months or years spent in the basement, numb (buried, I guess). In pathological cases like the guy in Isla Vista, the climax of the inner conflict is literally, horrifically deadly, but this can happen on any level – the Hero dies, no matter what. He (or she) learns, finally, that the other person doesn’t want to be in their movie, and the (symbolic) death can be epic and pyrrhic, taking down families and long-term friendships with it, or, I guess, noble, quiet, and mostly internal.

The Hero, as I’ve said before, is ultimately an adolescent archetype – it’s okay for adolescents to feel like they’re at the center of the universe, and of course the end of an adolescent romance isn’t pretty. We’ve all seen the aftermath of these bloody battles, certainly in our teens, probably also in college and into our twenties.

And that adolescent sensibility is still there, it seems, in a lot of failed marriages of people in their 30s, 40s, 50s – it’s okay, I suppose, if it takes a decade or two to fully play out – people are busy, they have kids, everyone’s on their own schedule in life as far as figuring these things out.

And absolutely, in this day and age, gender dynamics play a huge role in who has the unrealistic expectations – men are taught to take, to overcome challenges, to exert their will over the world.

All of that said, I think there is something fundamentally irresponsible and immature about proposing a Romantic Hero narrative about adults, to adults – whether that hero is male or female. It doesn’t reflect the way the world works, which is plenty interesting and compelling in and of itself, in all of its complexity and nuance. The Hero’s Journey has its place – it’s a valuable archetypal narrative – but artists and cultural producers have a responsibility, as adults, to get past their Hero fixation and, you know, grow up a little.

Plus, there’s got to be money in it. Bringing Up Baby is just plain brilliant, and ridiculous, and far more sophisticated than most of the relationship stories that are being made today. The more we can let the Hero go, the more we can move on to those types of grown-up stories, and, bonus, healthier human relationships.

Life After Hollywood

I just returned from a two-week student exchange with the Beijing Film Academy, or the BFA, the main (and best, according to their PR) film school in China. They say it’s the 3rd-ranked film school in the world, which I guess I believe, though who knows who is doing the ranking.

The BFA has about 3,000 students enrolled at a time, in undergraduate and graduate programs – 500 new ones enter per year, selected from the fray of fierce competition among 100,000 applicants. They have programs in film, television, directing, cinematography, post-production, and photography – and I was struck by how much it reminded me of USC, where I was an undergraduate in the film program from 1997-2001.

Many of the serious, smart, babyfaced students reminded me of myself as an ambitious young filmmaker, and the campus hums with production energy – random groups setting up dolly track along the sidewalk, the atrium of an otherwise deserted building dazzlingly bright during a lighting exercise in the middle of the night.

They have nice gear, too – sponsorships from RED, Arriflex, Canon, Kinoflo, Black Magic - just to name a few high-profile vendors of film equipment here in the US, whom I imagine are salivating with the prospect of dominating the fast-growing Chinese film industry.

Culturally and economically, it makes all the sense in the world that talented young people, excellent facilities, world famous alumni such as Zhang Yimou, and substantial underwriting from the Chinese government would yield a quickly growing film industry to serve the needs of the massive audience of Chinese citizens, 1.4 billion strong.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a recently published book by film producer Lynda Obst which describes in detail how in the past few years, Hollywood has recalibrated its business model specifically towards International Sales, which means, in large part, Asian Audiences. According to Obst, the main reason for the obsessive focus on massive tentpole film releases (any summer movie based on a comic book, for instance) is that they reliably make hundreds of millions of dollars internationally, which is, at this point, necessary for even the slimmest profit margin.

There are still a lot of people making a lot of money in Hollywood, and there’s a pervasive sense that we’re stuck with this model now – big, stupid movies for international audiences. But this will only work for as long as our big stupid movies can corner the international market. It’s easy to assume that this type of movie is quintessentially American, because historically it has been – but this sort of American exceptionalism isn’t any different, it seems to me, than the bluster around American-made cars in the 70s, which was ultimately and efficiently crushed by Honda and Toyota in the 80s.

I’ve been thinking lately of American culture as a resource, a raw material like oil or timber. The 20th Century was an impressive bonanza in the mining and manufacturing of America as a Cultural Product – lots of cool things happened here, from Prohibition-era gangsters to Jazz to the Beat Generation to the Hippies to… I guess, Michael Jackson. We have certainly had a good run leading the world in Cultural Product for mass consumption, and our industries for converting those raw materials to exportable commodities were, and are, first rate.

But I don’t think it’s farfetched to compare the tentpole blockbuster comic book movie, 200-million-dollar spectacle, to, say a Hummer SUV – they’re both big and loud and inefficient, impressive and garish curiosities with, ultimately, a short shelf life. How many Hummers do you see around these days?

No doubt once upon a time, in the 70s, Detroit was a paradise – everyone was making good, union money converting raw steel and rubber into big, shiny cars, and feeling great about leading the world in their industry. And now there’s not much left of Detroit.

In Hollywood today, pretty much everything and everyone is geared towards large scale media production – big mainstream movies and pop music, exported around the world. And yet the profit margins are thin and rely on huge audiences in foreign countries – who could probably be persuaded, at some point, by savvy, hip graduates of a school like the BFA, to choose a slick cultural product from their own side of the world over the latest X-Men Something Something. It doesn’t seem farfetched to me.

We’re still willing to take our summer blockbusters pretty seriously over here – it seems to be the only game in town – and for the moment they can still make some money. But I can’t help but wonder what’s next. To extend the metaphor, if the status symbol SUV of today is the ridiculous H2 Hummer a decade from now, how long, really, before the first smart, well-made Prius crosses the Pacific in the other direction, and finds massive, unexpected success on these shores?

I’m not necessarily saying that the USA is tapped out, culturally. But I think that More and Bigger, as a strategy, only goes so far – and before long, if we don’t have a genuinely original idea to contribute to the international conversation, we’re going to be surprised to find that someone else can do More, Bigger, and Cheaper – and just like that, our guys will be out of business, and Hollywood will start to look a lot more like Detroit than Beijing.

The Ideology of the Anti-Hero

I like to flatter myself that I have an evolved relationship with the television I watch, as an informed, discerning connoisseur of media. This article at Salon provided a welcome dose of humility and a reality check.

Dramatic television may, in fact, be better than it’s ever been – or at least the best of it is. And it makes sense to be grateful that so much talent has flowed into the TV industry, given that there’s not much sustenance to be found in mainstream moviemaking these days.

However, just because TV is good doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you – and there is indeed always an ideology at work that bears examination, even in the best programming. Perhaps ideology is especially dangerous in high-quality, premium television because it’s the most compellingly sublimated into the drama and characters on the screen.

What I would include in the category of premium television, the work I see and hear discussed as the saviors of the medium, are Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, and maybe a few other shows. Going back a few years, one could add The Sopranos.

So – what is the ideology behind these shows? Why are they so popular, what chord do they strike with the “sophisticated” television viewer (such as myself)?

To make a broad but I think accurate generalization, it strikes me that they’re all about Men and Power – specifically, men’s roles in Leadership, trading in the currency of Power.

Much discussed, with a lot of these shows, is the idea of the “anti-hero” – the morally compromised leader. Which indeed yields compelling television – for the leader the stakes are high, often life and death, and a character of dubious morality can make a range of choices which we, as audience members, can feel strongly about.

So we watch these shows and we’re placed in the position of getting to judge these powerful characters, while also growing invested in their lives. The medium of television is all about provoking empathy and identification – we watch because we get to spend time with Madison Avenue Ad Executives and Senators, we get to imagine what it would be like to be them.

What we don’t do, I think, is question their legitimacy. We can question their choices and their judgment, but we’re never provoked to wonder, “should Tony Soprano be in charge?” or “Should Don Draper be in charge?” Of course they should. They belong in these roles, they deserve the power they have.

Specifically on the axis of class – all of these characters have, along with power, a great deal of wealth, and their access to wealth never seems precarious – they may be killed, but they will never be poor. One might call the first season of Breaking Bad an exception to this, but though anxiety about wealth features in the series throughout (and in the Sopranos), cash is everpresent – tables piled high with bricks of cash, briefcases full of cash, sums exchanged in round tens of thousands or more. The rhetoric can be about fear of the loss of resources, but what we see are massive amounts of money and nice cars.

Watching season after season of these shows, we spend a lot of time in a realm of contested power, unquestioned wealth, and dubious morality – we sit outside of it looking in, we have our opinions about the choices but not the fundamental status of these characters, who are running things.

And then, I think, we transpose that to our world. What we don’t see change is who has the power and the money – these dynamics are basically set. Powerful characters are not brought low, except by death. We don’t contemplate, via television, downward mobility, or life after power – it doesn’t exist. When you are powerful, you will always be powerful, until you die.

One might argue that this is just how the Hero’s Journey works – by design, it ends in a happy place, or if it’s a tragedy, in death.  But it’s interesting to apply that template to dramatic series television, which doesn’t really end – characters have arcs during the season, and shows end after a number of seasons (often with the death of the protagonist) – but in the meantime, for five, six, eight seasons, all of the drama is about holding onto power and/or grabbing more. By going through this struggle with these characters, and rooting for them to hold onto and increase their power, I think we’re conditioned, on some level, to really accept that dynamic. Of course powerful men will fight tooth and nail to consolidate their power. It’s because they love their families so much!

Meanwhile, downward mobility is a reality for many of us in the world today, and nobody is happy in the slightest about the decisions that people in power are making. However, we continually cut them slack – we are aloud to have opinions and judgements, to complain loudly about their choices, even to be SHOCKED by their immorality – but we don’t really contemplate the possible loss of power, the idea that it can or should be taken away. The system that is in place for the maintenance of power is not up for debate.

It’s interesting to me that the success of these popular shows is happening in the context of the ongoing decline of moviemaking itself in Hollywood – especially the decline of the singular film, with beginning and end, in favor of the ongoing franchise.

Even if a standard contemporary Hero’s Journey-based narrative film (as discussed in previous posts) generally refuses to contemplate the Death of the Hero, the film itself, at least, ends – death, or ending, happens on a meta-level, whether or not we get there dramatically. But with endless series of super-hero movies and season after season of anti-hero shows, we seem further than ever, culturally, from a willingness to contemplate the reality of death – we would prefer, it seems, for everything to go on and on and on.

Which works great. Until, it doesn’t.

~ remedial media ~