Thursday, July 27, 2017

Spam Takes Over The Menu

An army marches on its stomach. This adage holds the key to understanding how our present globalist masters succeeded where Hitler, Napoleon, Stalin and the other world-emperor hopefuls failed. Whereas Hitler and Napoleon starved their soldiers on exhausting treks into Russia and Stalin skimped on the pleasures of life (all purge, no binge), the corporate giants treat their regulars to an unending buffet of earthly delights.

I am reminded of a haunting scene from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. A family on vacation stumbles on an empty restaurant with heaping platters of steaming, delicious food. Ignoring their anorexic 10-year-old's hysterical warnings, the parents stuff their faces in an orgy of gluttony. Of course little Anna Rexia was right - they quickly transform into huge fat hogs to be herded into the pens of the master spirits that run the place.


"Wow, that's really disturbing, but a great modern parable for the dangers of consumer-powered globalism," I burbled as I chugged down a gallon-sized Disney jug of imported Miyazaki. The anti-globalist revolution should get underway any day now. In fact, we might even get some good ideas from next Sunday's Game of Thrones! In the words of a homegrown possum, we have met the enemy and he is us.

A dictatorship of the proletariat's stomach is upon us then, and our diet is trending towards complete garbage. Remember all those crazy urban legends about KFC about how they used the acronym because they couldn't call their vat-raised GMObominations chicken? Well that's what came to mind when I read today's NY Times piece on the modern movie business.

Reporter Alex French follows producer Tripp Vinson on his Journey 2 the absolute rock bottom of Hollywood's brain-dead IP harvesting. (Note that it's referred to as IP, not intellectual property, presumably because the intellect is gone). Vinson is no stranger to the bottom of the barrel. French charitably describes him as a producer of popcorn flicks. More accurately, he delivers well-casted badly scripted stink bombs that happen to fill the right genre slots on the periphery of major studio slates.

As audiences have largely rejected lazy, soulless genre pieces, Vinson has joined his fellow producers in pivoting to lazy, soulless IP conversions. While the strip-mining rights to the really juicy IPs, like George Lucas' severed brainchild, are already long gone, there's always another layer to frack. Like board games, toys, bad TV shows and mobile games. Vinson struck pay dirt with the popular time-killing app Fruit Ninja, getting the rights and then setting a team BS artists to farting out an ad hoc narrative. Their winning take? Read it and weep:
Every couple of hundred years a comet flies by Earth, leaving in its wake a parasite that descends on a farm and infects the fruit. The infected fruit then search for a human host. The only thing keeping humanity from certain doom is a secret society of ninjas who kill the fruit and rescue the hosts by administering the "anti-fruit." The produce-slaying saviors are recruited from the population based on their skill with the Fruit Ninja game... The action starts after each of the story's heroes returns home after a horrible day and plays Fruit Ninja to relieve some stress... this aligns with the Fruit Ninja brand: "Anybody can play. Anybody can be a master."
That last bit sounds remarkably like the new Hollywood brand: "Any IP can be a movie. Any bot can be a screenwriter." I'm also reminded of the amazing kid's book pitch session from Elf. I'd love to see a tribe of asparagus children team up with these Fruit Ninjas and maybe end up less self-conscious about the way their pee smells.



In the somewhat recent past, we could rely on the English-speaking world having just enough taste to throw dreck like this right out of the theater and into the dustbin known as the HBO movie library. Sure there were embarrassing exceptions, like Adam Sandler's entire career, but for the most part, American audiences and the smaller Western markets on the periphery were pretty good about enforcing a quality standard.

But nowadays, unfettered access to global markets has essentially eliminated American audience's veto power over Hollywood. French references two doozies -  Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Battleship - that were saved from domestic hostility by the intervention angel of consumers from abroad. Last year I was one of the few American masochists to brave the Independence Day sequel and Warcraft. They sucked but international audiences sent them to the moon. Warcraft made more in its opening weekend in China than it did in its entire domestic run in the states.

In the build-up to World War II, FDR answered allies call for help by calling on America to serve as a "great arsenal of democracy," devoting the bulk of American industrial might to the military needs of country in Europe and Asia. Today, Hollywood is converting our cultural might into a great arsenal of mediocrity to serve the least common denominator demands of the global market.

For the moment, America is less than enthused with the development but not yet in open revolt. We still go to see movies, but ticket sales have declined significantly since their peak in 2002. That decline has meant little to nothing to Hollywood however as international markets have more than doubled over the same time frame.

Our situation is growing more and more like the cafe patrons from Monty Python's famous spam sketch. We are seeing our own cultural preferences sidelined to cater to foreigners' preferences for the worst stuff on the menu. Our favorite menu items are gradually being pushed to the periphery or omitted altogether, their places taken by endless reproductions of the same gelatinous mystery meat. And while our current choices may be Dunkirk, Atomic Blonde and SPAM, no amount of domestic protest can prevent the progression to SPAM, SPAM and more SPAM. Take it away, Viking chorus.




Thursday, March 9, 2017

Being John Mal... colm X: a Get Out Review

It used to be (and maybe still is) that you could drive critics wild by breaking the fourth wall, especially when lecturing, confronting or otherwise upsetting an audience of bourgeois white people. Hence the critical adulation heaped on Woody Allen and Spike Lee early in their careers: a Jew and a black man busting through stifling conventions and shaking up the white folk. I've never been that impressed - dropping the pretense of storytelling to lecture the audience always struck me as a self-indulgent temptation to resist, not a bold innovation to be emulated.

It is breaking the first wall, the one hiding the writer from the actors and the audience, that I've always found more challenging and more rewarding. Charlie Kaufman is the greatest practitioner of this art, rerouting the shallow and endlessly verbose asides of Woody Allen into outrageously deep and wildly unpredictable plunges into his own psyche. Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation and Being John Malkovich go boldly where no neurotic Jewish filmmaker had gone before.

For a few moments in his just-released Get Out, writer/director Jordan Peele approaches doing for Spike Lee what Kaufman did for Allen, exploring the wild twists and turns of his own grievances and paranoia instead of just rehearsing stale riffs on racial and social problems. Some of this seems to be conscious - while Peele attributes much of his inspiration to novelist Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives), his use of the head portal mechanic from Being John Malkovich and casting of Malkovich star Catherine Keener suggest a significant Kaufman influence.

Unfortunately Peele stops well short of Kaufman's extraordinary self-awareness, blinkering his self-reflexive journey to avoid any serious (or even satiric) self-analysis. The result is an initially tantalizing, unpredictable thrill ride that ultimately devolves into a more sophisticated version of The Purge series' unhinged anti-white propaganda with a hefty dose of black chauvinism. While predictably raking in the raves and the bucks, it utterly fails to fulfill its considerable potential.

Before launching into the relevant elements of the movie, it's important to understand some key facts about Peele. While he rose to prominence as a capital B Black sketch comic, with viral hits from Barack Obama and MLK impersonations, his upbringing suggests an almost total assimilation into white liberal culture. His father was black but out of the picture from early on, so Peele was raised by his white mother in Manhattan, a few blocks from the SNL studio. Upon graduating high school he went to a fancy-schmancy white liberal haven, Sarah Lawrence College, where he studied puppetry (in addition to being the whitest profession imaginable, puppetry was also the trade of Being John Malkovich's hero) and roomed with a white Jewish lesbian. He married a white woman, fellow NYC-based comic Chelsea Peretti (who actually beat Peele to the satiric punch on white liberal racism with her BlackPeopleLoveUs website in 2002).

A Kaufman-style deep dive into the actual Peele's search for a black or white identity would have been fascinating. Get Out's premise flirts with delivering on that potential, setting up numerous parallels with Peele's own situation. Like Peele, Get Out's protagonist, Chris, is a successful black artist in New York City, in a serious relationship with a white girl, Rose (who bears a very slight resemblance to Peele's wife). Like Peele, Chris' father was out of the picture early.

But the similarities stop abruptly thereafter as Peele builds a wall around Chris' black identity. In addition to casting blacker-than-anybody 2nd generation Ugandan immigrant Daniel Kaluuya as Chris, Peele makes heavy use of best friend/comic relief Rod as an ever-present voice for urban black America, always ready and eager to reaffirm Chris' black cultural identity. Chris also seems terrified of white people, dragging his feet over meeting Rose's white family, and openly expressing his discomfort at being surrounded by white people. None of this rings true for Peele; to the contrary, one of Peele's funnier bits is playing off his racial anxiety over sounding too white.

Peele also hamstrings all ambassadors for the white cultural identity after a promising beginning. Rose initially serves as a rival to Rod, pulling Chris into white-world as Rod chirps in warning, Jiminy Cricket style. She pokes and prods at his insecurities, reframing his Rod-fueled paranoia as a silly streak of narcissism. This playful flitting between indulging paranoia and exposing narcissism is Get Out at its unpredictable best, but Peele is too eager to throw all of his weight behind the paranoia to force Chris deeper into his blackness.

Shirking ambiguity and exploration, Peele barrels into outright propaganda, gearing all the story mechanics to validate Rod's essentially anti-assimilation, anti-miscegenation views on race. Not only is Rose ultimately revealed as a malevolent honey trap, every white character in the story is in on the predatory scheme. When they speak of Chris joining the family, they are speaking only of his body. After Rose disarms his insecurities, her uber-ginger, UFC-obsessed brother will physically subdue him, after which her neurosurgeon dad will implant a white consciousness over the black consciousness suppressed by her hypnotist mom. When things get really hairy, Rose can call in her mind-controlled black servants - actually just hosts for the transplanted minds of her grandparents (you'd think the extended family would have included an Uncle Tom too, but no) - to help her out.

The inherent evil of the whites obviously nips any identity search for Chris in the bud. His new mission is to Get Out at any cost and liberate as many blacks from white culture as he can. The metaphors along the way are so cheerfully on-the-nose as to be parody. As Steve Sailer points out, the uber-ginger's unlikely weapon of choice is a lacrosse stick, a likely allusion to the Duke lacrosse hate crime hoax. His stalking and kidnapping of a young black guy lost in the suburbs is also a blatant shout-out to the Trayvon Martin killing.

Meanwhile, Chris' only means of waking up brainwashed blacks is getting them with the flash from his camera - how else is a filmmaker gonna wake up the people? He's able to escape imprisonment and prevent his own brainwashing by literally picking cotton to stuff in his ears. After impaling the great white hunter via deer antlers and killing the rest of the family, Chris even gets a chance to choke out Rose, Othello-Desdemona style.

This gleeful use of over-the-top symbolism, allusion and cliche while taking the easy way out of an existential crisis closely resembles Kaufman's self-parodying conclusion to Adaptation, when he gives up on his lofty ambitions for the story and lets his idiot twin finish off the script as an absurd thriller. But Peele's extensive public statements about the movie, unless he's playing extremely coy, show none of this self-awareness. As he related in one interview:
"Ultimately, the movie ends up talking about the exotification and the love of the black body and culture. It’s just as twisted a form of racism as the darker, more violent forms of racism. It’s all a piece of the same thing…It’s really meant to point out that any time we see color first or we categorize one another as a race, we’ve already lost an important part of what being human should be."
This is self-evident nonsense: the movie does no such thing. To the contrary, the ultimate danger to Chris is his de-exotification, where his distinctly black identity is swallowed up by ultra-bland whiteness. Throughout the movie the "important part of what being human should be" that has been lost is cultural distinctness. It is the utter lack of cultural blackness that Chris finds disturbing about the brainwashed black people. They talk and dress like old white people, they don't recognize his black solidarity cues and they are way too comfortable hanging out with a bunch of rich whites.

True, Peele takes every opportunity to lampoon white liberals for "exotifying" blacks, literally transforming the adoring pedestal into a platform for a slave auction, but little to none of that satiric bite remains for rampant self-exotification and racial categorization among blacks. Their paranoia is validated on every front as is their narcissism. Whites really are out to get them. They want them for their genetic make-up, their sexual performance, their muscles, their cultural cachet, even their eye for art. The conspiracy-theorizing, self-aggrandizing Rod often sets himself up as the butt of the joke, but ends up as the vindicated hero. Instead of the anti-exotification/categorization movie Peele claims he's made, we end up with a slick, witty repackaging of evil white-wing conspiracy plot of The Purge coupled with a light-hearted but still earnest pitch for the black nationalism touted by John Singleton in Boyz n the Hood.

From his own statement about what he thinks Get Out is saying and the ample parallels to his own life, it seems that Peele set out to fall on a double-edged satire, playing on the legitimate and illegitimate fears of a biracial man meeting the parents of his white girlfriend, and facing the prospect of total white assimilation. And yet he ended up with a bloody revenge fantasy, leaving this alternate universe covered in the blood of his own would-be white in-laws and girlfriend and walking into a big "I told you so" from his anti-miscegenation friend.

By Peele's own standards then, Get Out, for all its critical acclaim and box office success, is a catastrophic failure. Ostensibly digging into sensitive territory in hopes of finding a post-racial identity, Peele completely failed to penetrate even the flimsiest of racial barriers. And instead of owning and humanizing that failure, as Kaufman does so effectively in Adaptation, Peele surrenders to the most immature and irresponsible impulses triggered by the subject matter.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Knights Who Say "Ni": The Left As Big Business



This post-Super Bowl tweet by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called conservative Twitter's attention to a paradigm-shifting reality: once the loudest voice crying out against the depredations of Big Business, the Left now is Big Business. The Occupy Wall Street movement, framed as a protest against a cruel present, would have been more accurately rendered in the past tense. The massive American multinationals targeted for Leftist abuse, e.g. the storefronts ransacked in the Battle for Seattle, now almost uniformly push the Left's cultural platform.

This is not an entirely new or unexpected development. It was partially prophesied almost 50 years ago by French political scientist Jean-Fran├žois Revel in his book Ni Marx Ni Jesus (directly translated as Neither Marx Nor Jesus). Written at the zenith of New Left agitation at the onset of the 1970s, Revel boldly broke with the fashionable designation of capitalist USA as a reactionary superpower, seeing instead its unmatched potential as an instrument of global revolution. Diverging from the old poor vs. rich dichotomy that animated most Leftist would-be revolutionaries, Revel describes a "centrifugal gyration" in America. Free speech, a free press and free enterprise create opportunities for a whole new revolutionary program that pulls the ideological struggle out of stale class-based antagonisms to create a unique new constellation of social alliances.

The leaders that emerge from Revel's revolutionary centrifuge are the Knights Who Say "Ni" to Marx and Jesus. They reject both the economic strictures of Marxist dogma, with its grim fixation on the working class overthrowing the landed class, and the moral injunctions Christianity, especially its patriarchy, sexual mores and anti-materialist bent. They see commercialized technology not as corrupting but as the ultimate solution to the world's problems, particularly when divested from smelly, pollutant industry. Most importantly to Revel's thesis, they see revolution not as a demolition but a renovation. They've moved on from the political violence of their ideological predecessors, but not from their revolutionary aims. The societal institutions of yore are not to be destroyed, but absorbed and weaponized for culture war.

This revolutionary absorption is evident, indeed blatantly obvious, across the corporate landscape. Consider the huge northwestern multinationals targeted by the (recently resurgent) Black Bloc at the Battle for Seattle in 1999. Starbucks, already a veteran of Leftist causes, announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees in a blatant stab at the Trump's refugee pause. Nike CEO Mark Parker followed suit with an unsolicited condemnation of Trump over the same issue. Nordstrom issued an internal memo panning Trump's policies, almost immediately followed up by dumping Ivanka Trump's fashion line.

This is by no means restrained to the northwest. Silicon Valley and corporate Hollywood have been excelled by none in their zeal for Leftist social causes, with examples ranging from Google's annual outpouring of Lefty Riefenstahl propaganda to the militant posturing of star actors and producers at Hollywood industry parties. This synergy is best exemplified by TJ Miller, the star of Hollywood's eponymous tribute to Silicon Valley, getting arrested for assaulting his Trump-supporting Uber driver on his way between awards shows (he would host another awards show 2 days after his arrest). Completing the comedy of terrors, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just bowed to Silicon Valley peer pressure and stepped down from Trump's business advisory council.

Not to be outshone, The Big Apple, the financial heart and media nervous system of Big Business, is just as open in its Leftism. Manhattan voted almost 10-1 for Hillary over native son Trump, with hedge fund managers in particular racking up a massive donation imbalance in her favor. NYC-based sports behemoth the NBA has emerged as a leading enforcer of the Left's platform in red states, taking the pressure tactics Apple used to great effect on Indiana after their Religious Freedom Restoration Act triggered LGBT fury and applying them to North Carolina for their transgender bathroom bill. The NYC-based NFL's tacit endorsement of Colin Kaepernick's Leftist agitation, even at significant cost in ratings, is yet another example. The leftward tack of red state dependent industries like sports is likely heavily influenced by the pressure of LA/NY media conglomerates, especially Disney/ABC.

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Knights Who Say "Ni!" waylay travelers and assault them with sacred nonsense words until the travelers cower and give in to their absurd demands (sound familiar?). Eventually their victims turn around and use the same techniques on others even lower on the totem pole. And by the time the extorted goods are delivered, the Knights have moved on to new sacred nonsense with even more absurd demands  - "you must cut down the mightiest tree in the forest... with a herring!"



The leaders of today's corporate multinationals have organized themselves into a fraternal organization worthy of Monty Python and their medieval inspiration, combining the high-pitched histrionics and escalating demands of the Knights Who Say "Ni!" with the global financial muscle and sacred commission of the Order of the Knights Templar, the West's first multinational corporation.  Fortunately, like their counterparts in Monty Python and the Templars, this new breed of Ni-sayers has only a tenuous grasp on soft power, bullying largely by the consent of the bullied. Monty Python's knights fell to pathetic cringing when their own tactics were applied against them. The Knights Templar were annihilated by their own vengeful client. Such ignoble fates likely await the multinationals who continue to mistake their consumers for subjects.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Respect and Respectability: Russell Moore vs. Mel Gibson


Since the sexual revolution destroyed Christian hegemony over American culture, the deposed have been debating the appropriate manner of engaging a post-Christian culture. The initial televangelist-led counter-counterculture, epitomized by the late Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and Pat Robertson's CBN, favored straightforward, direct engagement. But a counter-culture headed by a federation of rotund cheeseball preachers and politicians proved to be no match for the Left's slick culture war machine. Though they would go on to notch further political victories, their ultimate cultural failure became evident when Bill Clinton's already strong approval ratings spiked as high as 68% after the Lewinsky imbroglio.  As the culture war defeats have since accelerated in number and severity, two rival approaches to cultural engagement have emerged as candidates to lead the Christian counter-culture out of the wilderness. The clearest way to distinguish these approaches is through their differing goals: respect and respectability.

Respectability
The respectable side is best exemplified by Russell Moore, author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel and President of  the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). As a Southern Baptist preacher, Moore shares a church and a vocation with Falwell, Robertson and a host of other Religious Righters. Indeed, the ERLC is something of a remnant of the Religious Right organizations of yesteryear – it emerged out of conservative revolution in the SBC that defunded its left-leaning predecessor, the Baptist Joint Committee run by liberal minister James Dunn. In his manifesto Onward, Moore breaks from both traditions, at once scorning the erstwhile Religious Right for its worldliness and rejecting the nominally Christian Left's flight from fundamentalism.

This approach shares much in common with the  Benedict Option touted by American Conservative editor Rod Dreher - both welcome (or at least embrace the silver lining of) defeat in the culture wars as a means of returning to the celebrated anti-materialist purity of the early church martyrs and the various silos of Christianity that held out against tremendous pressure from the secular West. Yet, as his title suggests, Moore doesn't share Dreher's inward-looking, anti-modern monasticism. To the contrary, he wholeheartedly embraces a global Church identity, one that eagerly piggybacks on secular global crusades for civil rights and immigration reform while intentionally remaining a "prophetic minority" in the domestic sphere.

Like many utopian visions, Moore's approach is riddled with magical thinking, oversights and inconsistencies. Moore either does not recognize or acknowledge that his secular globalist allies in the fight against the old standbys of racism and nativism view his positions on abortion and, especially, homosexuality as monstrous and repressive. Thus while he rails against the idea of a Moral Minority stretching for a Majority by including prosperity-preaching televangelists, fire-breathing Mormon talk show hosts (ironically, Moore found himself arm-in-arm with Glenn Beck as part of National Review's Against Trump coalition) and "serially-monogamous casino magnates", i.e. Trump, he has no problem reaching across the aisle in the other direction. Hence his courtship of Black Lives Matter, his advocacy for admitting Muslim refugees and his repeated affirmations of the Left's judgement of 1950's America as a morass of materialism, sexism, racism and bigotry.

Viewed as a whole, Moore's manifesto is as full of holes as the "Seamless Garment" pushed by left-leaning Catholics. The Seamless Garment aimed to tie abortion seamlessly into a holistic platform opposing all injustice. In effect the Seamless Garment was, as John Zmirak argues, an attempt at "saddling the pro-life movement with a deadly poison pill: Either embrace our outrageous, implausible, and likely suicidal utopianism, or let us go on murdering a million children per year." Thus the real utility of the Seamless Garment was not in advancing the actual causes it espoused, utopian or otherwise, but in providing cover from criticism from the left and right.

Viewed from this lens, Moore's argument can be reduced to a plea for respectability. Wielding his Christian fundamentalism within SBC circles, Moore can disarm challenges from the grassroots conservatives in ways that an outright liberal like James Dunn could not. When calls for his head came in the wake of Trump's victory, a host of conservatives rushed to his defense, including Dreher. He was only extrapolating from fundamental Christian principles you see. Then when engaging with the leftist establishment in DC and major media outlets like the Washington Post and the NY Times, Moore can present a huge swathe of his most left-friendly extrapolations. Their favorite Moore trick? Lecturing "angry white men" in the Bible Belt for being farther removed from "Middle Eastern illegal immigrant" Jesus than the third world refugees and immigrants they want to keep out of the country.

This approach has undoubtedly won Moore a kind of respectability. The establishment press, always leery of handing over the megaphone to fundamentalist Christians, proved extraordinarily open to his message. In the run-up to the election, he scored op-eds at the Post and Times along with a steady supply of attentive ears in interviews, culminating in an admiring, novella-size profile in the New Yorker the day before the election. The triumphal title - "The New Evangelical Moral Minority" - was by no means one sided: the magazine of the liberal elite was joining hand in hand with Moore and a new wave of Evangelicals to celebrate the political marginalization of American Christianity.

As the sharks circling Moore's island fortress at the ERLC attest, there are many outraged by the ascendance of his respectability-driven model. But the return of a Moral Majority style offensive spearheaded by televangelists and megachurchers seems unlikely. While Moore's diagnosis of a collapsing Bible Belt is premature, and his prescription of an army of hip, tattooed young pastors passionate about prison reform is as ridiculous and painfully naive* as Howard Schultz's pie-eyed "Race Together" stunt, it's hard to get excited about a return to Pat Robertson. To borrow from the infomercial, the televangelist's secular cousin, there must be a better way!

Respect
One might be tempted to see in Trump's victory a broader return of 80's-style ostentation complete with larger-than-life Evangelical leadership - call it Bakker to the Future. But a notable subplot in the primary mania was the stubborn ceiling of support for Ted Cruz, an Elmer Gantry par excellence, even among Southern Evangelicals. Trump's primary victory was not because he was the Swaggart to Cruz' Falwell (Moore's analogy - his South-centric analysis extended to dub Rubio Billy Graham), but because he was the wildly irreverent Peter Venkman to a host of sanctimonious bureaucrats. Trump laid an independent if morally tainted claim to respect based solely on his own brand and body of work, blithely dismissing the self-appointed gatekeepers of respectability ennobled and emulated by Moore.

The Bible Belt was willing to look beyond its own waistline and recruit a geographic and cultural outsider to tackle its political agenda in Trump. There is now an appreciable hunger for a champion with a similarly independent claim to American respect to continue the counter-revolution throughout the rest of the culture. As the charisma of Southern Baptist preachers tends not to translate outside their own region, the goal is to recruit from within the decadent post-Christian culture, to intercept a talented enemy on his way to Damascus and win, or at least steer him to the cause. Such was the case with Trump - the once liberal and still decadent New Yorker - and is likely to be the case for his cultural counterpart(s).

Such a Christian counter-culture leader has already been active for most of the new millennium, albeit unwittingly and probably unwillingly. I speak of Mel Gibson. He'd hardly recognize himself as such. His public pronouncements range wildly between affirmations of ultraconservative Roman Catholicism to drunken profane rants to mumbled recitations of PC platitudes. His filmography is all over the place, ranging from hyper-violent nationalist epics to standard liberal Hollywood fare and everything in between.

Since establishing himself as creative force as director, producer and star of the Oscar-winning Braveheart in 1995, however, Gibson has been the single most powerful cultural ally of the Religious Right. Where the "God and country" salvos of the old Religious Right fell short, too heavily larded with country-western hokum, Gibson's electric freedom speech in Braveheart still rings out as a clarion call. The same God and country plus R-rated violence formula was at work in The Patriot and We Were Soldiers. He would also tackle faith more explicitly as the headliner to M. Night Shyamalan's last true hit, Signs. Each of these films foreshadowed Gibson's magnum opus, itself the single most impactful Christian contribution to culture in the 21st century: 2004's The Passion of  the Christ.

It's hard to overstate how unusual the success and mass market impact of The Passion was. Not just groundbreaking as a Christian film - it racked up 15x times more box office than the most successful Christian film of the modern age at that point (the Veggie Tales Jonah movie) - it was a harbinger of the vulnerability of the media elite that had scorned the project. A gifted filmmaker with enough financial wherewithal to self-fund and some marketing savvy in reserve could make whatever kind of movie he wanted and still deliver a Hollywood-grade four-quadrant blockbuster.

The flighty Gibson did little with the domestic momentum generated by Passion, routing his immediate currency into the exotic, pre-Christian Apocalypto. The cottage cheese industry that is the Christian movie business tried to ride its coattails with The Nativity Story and Son of God with little mainstream success. Hollywood too tried a post-Christian renaissance of the Biblical epic (Ridley Scott's Exodus, Darren Aronofsky's Noah and Timur Bekmambetov's B-movie treatment of Ben-Hur) with lukewarm results. Meanwhile, Gibson was busy self-destructing, starting with his infamous 2006 DUI and its accompanying "it's the Jews!" rant, continuing with a $400 million divorce and bottoming with a disastrous break-up with his new baby mama. It wasn't until 2010 that Gibson emerged from rehab to reappear at the fringes of the culture in a series of appropriately dark starring roles.

Adding to his renewed acting efforts, he has gathered the loyal circle of film-making talent nurtured during the making of Passion and Apocalypto and is now returning in earnest to the business of cultural engagement. While violence-drenched explorations of the revenge impulse and mental illness still feature prominently, his recent work is building a strong narrative of the redemption and restoration of the disgraced American patriarch, and with him, a Christian culture.

The first entry in the Gibson renaissance was revenge thriller Edge of Darkness , playing a nothing-to-lose father seeking justice for his murdered daughter. This was followed by his starring role in The Beaver as a terminally depressed husband and father revitalized by succumbing to his driven, super-competent id, taking the form of a hand-puppet beaver. His next vehicle, 2012's Get the Gringo, represented his first return to self-funded film-making, blending the border-fixation of his earlier creative works with a renewed emphasis on rehabilitating a loose cannon into a protective and loving family man. These trends culminated with two remarkable 2016 releases that could signify his return in force to the cultural scene: Blood Father and Hacksaw Ridge.

In Blood Father, Gibson plays John Link, a trailer trash version of himself. He's a violent felonious drunk in recovery, divorced, estranged from his missing daughter, and living in the trailer/tattoo parlor somewhere out in the wastelands of the California desert.  His only remaining human connection is to the local trailer trash AA group and his hick philosopher sponsor (William H. Macy, looking suitably terrible). That AA group, his higher power and the faint hope that he might one day find his daughter are all that keeps him going.

But such rawboned tenacity has a power all its own; one that, when engaged, can accomplish much more than Moore's respectability-driven media campaigns. In Blood Father, Link's wealthy, respectable ex-wife offers everything to their daughter Lydia - all the material comforts plus a fancy education - but it doesn't stop her from running away with her bandito boyfriend. Nor does the ex-wife's six-figure award bounty fetch her back. When her self-destructive behavior earns a far more effective Mexican drug cartel bounty on her, only her roughneck dad can save her. As a man with nothing to lose but the most important person in his life, he fights with a savage determination that puts the fear of God into his enemies and inspires his daughter to beat her own demons.

The Gibson-directed Hacksaw Ridge carries the redemptive arc even further, with combat medic hero Doss already having overcome his violent nature and driven explicitly by his Christian faith to save his fellows without shedding blood. Of course there's still enough blood shed to get Hacksaw Ridge Gibson's typical R-rating, which continues to serve as a dividing line between him and the ghetto of Christian niche media.

***

This time last year, Tucker Carlson was penning a far-sighted Trump piece that would pave the way for his takeover of conservative media in the wake of Trump's victory. In it he excoriated the "conservative nonprofit establishment" for their complete failure to check their ideological opponents and to understand their conservative base. They craved the respectability to impress their ideological foes in DC and purchased it at the cost of detaching from their base. He concludes that Christians flocked to Trump over his purer conservative detractors because they wanted "a bodyguard, someone to shield them from mounting (and real) threats to their freedom of speech and worship. Trump fits that role nicely, better in fact than many church-going Republicans."

Moore believes such a role should be filled by younger, hipper versions of leaders in his mold, like the young pastors he's nurtured in seminary. Indeed, he is mortally opposed to the idea of an outsider applying for the job. In his WaPo denunciation of Trump and the Religious Right, he summoned his ideal culture warrior: a "30-year-old evangelical pastor down the street from you" who would "would rather die than hand over his church directory to a politician or turn his church service into a political rally." This pastor must not "concede the public space, in our name, to heretics and hucksters and influence-peddlers."

In fact, these pastors and their predecessors have already conceded the public space and the popular culture. As Moore's example demonstrates, the only way they get access to it is by saying what their ideological foes at places like WaPo, the NY Times and the New Yorker want to hear. Without a bodyguard or a broad-shouldered fullback to punch a hole in the defensive line, there's no way to crash the party.

Moore's stated objective of confronting the culture with the strangeness of the Gospel runs directly counter to his efforts gain access to the culture by emphasizing the talking points in favor with respectable society. Jesus was a dark-skinned refugee! The illegal immigrant janitor is a future king of the universe! Donald Trump is a dirty, filthy sinner!  This is not a strange and challenging Gospel but a familiar screeching refrain. It is preaching to the post-Christian choir.

Moore and culture-minded Christians would do well to compare the engagement modeled by his NY Times screed with Gibson's recent appearance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to promote his upcoming sequel to Passion. In stark contrast to Moore's clean-shaven Chamber of Commerce profile, Gibson shambled onto the stage looking every bit the half-crazed wildman, with soft eyes dancing manically behind a huge Old Testament beard. His personal baggage could not be more evident. He opened by bragging about a barfight with a rugby team that made him believable enough to get cast as a revenge-driven vigilante in Mad Max. Later a detour into spirituality had him seeing a devil and angel on Colbert's shoulders, with Gibson implicitly and pathetically pleading with the angel not to dig into his dirty laundry. As a public witness, to use Moore's term, Gibson is deeply compromised.

And yet there he was, in the bowels of secular pop culture, getting free media for a Christian movie centering on the boldest, strangest and most crucial tenet of the Gospel: the resurrection. This opportunity was not afforded by moral and political correctness nor abstinence from heresy, hucksterism and influence peddling. On the contrary, Gibson wallowed in the muck and mire of the worst of Hollywood and human nature, only momentarily emerging from it, like King Kong or the Creature of the Black Lagoon, to grab a hold of something pure, beautiful and redemptive. However earnestly a moral minority seeks respectability, it cannot command respect without a champion from within the immoral majority. Sometimes it takes a swamp creature to drain the swamp.



*Another example of Moore's painful naivete from Onward: fantasizing about how amazing a public witness it would be for a church to have a worship leader with Down syndrome and a scripture reader with dementia. How about an emotional equivalent of a 14-year old as president of the ERLC?


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oedipus Wrecked: The Failure of #NeverTrump


I used to hate it whenever Hollywood turned its condescending Freudian lens on Christian conservatives and their traditional families.  Inevitably the various prudes and bigots that occupy flyover country turn out to be secret homosexuals or nymphos, projecting their frustration and self-loathing onto the liberated heroes of the story. See American Beauty for the most obnoxious example. The increasingly bizarre and melodramatic behavior of conservatives in the disastrous #NeverTrump campaign, however, has me reconsidering my judgment.

Earlier this week I caught yet another Freudian lens flare in a Hollywood treatment of the middle American man - 2015 Jack Black indie The D Train. As always with Freud, the view is distorted by weird sexuality, but for the first time I found it matching what I was observing in reality. (Sidenote: this is not a vindication of Freudian Hollywood; I think they are largely to blame for gaslighting the weak minds that constitute so much of conservative punditry). And now I can’t help but slip on the Black Rose colored glasses and take a more jaded look at a hefty chunk of the conservative movement.

First, a quick rundown on the obscure D Train. I first heard of it at Sundance, where my favorite lefty critic* lauded it as the ultimate transgressive bromance (if you can’t guess why, I’ll spoil below). The public did not share his sentiments, sending it down to one of the worst wide releases in box office history when it opened this time last year.

It was easy to see why they did. Dan (Jack Black), a sadsack family man from Nowheresville, recognizes sexy high school alum Oliver in a Baywatch-style commercial. Smitten, Dan launches himself onto a desperate gambit to convince Oliver to descend from Mt. Olympus and slum with the mortals at their upcoming 20-year high school reunion. What starts as innocently as growing out a soul patch to douche-up his provincial bumpkin look quickly snowballs. He lies to his boss and his wife to finagle a trip to LA, and then follows Oliver on a wild night of debauchery that has him snorting cocaine, hopping strip clubs and finally… having sex with Oliver in his hotel room. Behold the American patriarch!

That little twist was enough to get me to see what else was on the schedule, but the ideas and images were sticky. And, as I read Scott Greer’s piece on the #NeverTrump movement's refusal to learn from defeat, disturbingly relevant. I’m not thinking so much of the gay twist on the bromance (though I’m sure there’s some material there), but the unmistakable Freudian insecurities exposed in all the Trump drama.

The first striking takeway: how exactly Jack Black’s Dan resembles the social conservative figureheads of #NeverTrump. So many of them squeeze together in the same range on the weight spectrum - teddy bear chubby, just a few pot roasts short of obese. They are surprisingly loyal to the clean-shaven look (only the bald ones seem to go for beards), showcasing the jowls and pasty complexions born of sheltered existence. In D Train Black tops it off with a wet-combed schoolboy part to maximize the frumpiness and close in on doppelganger status for hardcore #NeverTrump pundit Steve Deace.


This isn’t just mindless pudge-shaming (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If this election season has taught us anything, it’s that the simplest visuals often expose real psychological weaknesses. Consider Jeb Bush’s sad, flabby visage and the bullied prep school softness it implied - how closely did the book match the cover! Ditto for Ted Cruz, whose melted Reagan mask of a face suggested an anachronistic phoney, and John Kasich, whose slack-shouldered posture, baggy suits and slovenly eating habits branded him as a crazy vagrant, squatting where he wasn’t wanted.

So do the layered chins, dumpling cheeks and hungry eyes of the #NeverTrumpers suggest a soft, ample underbelly of vulnerability. Even moreso than Jack Black, who dramatically adjusted his usual class clown chubster look for the part, these guys come out of central casting for put-upon bully-magnets, along with that kid who got one of Jeb Bush's signature tortoises. I mean, if Samwell Tarly came out with a #NeverTrump campaign in a Black Watch Commander election, would anyone have been surprised?

Under the putative thought leadership of such individuals, social conservatism has careened from one disastrous defeat to the next. What drives them so consistently to defeat? For a clue, take a look at some of the Twitter bios. I’ve noticed that many of the pious NeverTrumpers make a big show out of trumpeting their husbandhood and fatherhood. Their idol, Ted Cruz, is a representative example. His bio leads off with “Father of two, @heidicruz’s husband.” GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak identifies himself as “lucky husband.” Blogger Matt Walsh (pay no mind to his carefully cultivated rugged aesthetic - he’s a bleating sheep in wolf’s clothing) drops in “father of twins.” RedState editor Ben Howe opens with “Single dad.” National Review editor Jim Geraghty says he’s a “dad by day and night.”


Methinks the patriarch doth protest too much. For it is the most patriarchal aspects of Trump that seem to drive this wing of #NeverTrump up the wall. They cringe when he busts balls, scoff when he boasts and mock when he patronizes (e.g. the Taco Bowl hysteria on Cinco de Mayo). But nothing triggers them like Trump talking down to women (or is it mansplaining?), from the “blood out of wherever” crack sending Erick Erickson crashing to his fainting couch, to the incredible mania that broke out when Trump refused to take Michelle Fields’ wild accusations seriously and fire his campaign manager. Most telling was the instantaneous and near-universal condemnation these guys meted out on Trump for entertaining the idea of “punishing women” if abortion were banned. This from men who will never turn down an opportunity to thunder (from a safe distance) over the murder of the unborn.

These men will exult in the implied strength of the paternal title, but any exercise of that power sends them into convulsions. Consider Kevin Williamson’s bile-drenched denunciation of Trump as “father-fuhrer.” Because normal, well-adjusted men immediately associate strong male leadership with Adolf Hitler, obviously. They remind me of the Hollywood cliche of the boy who witnesses his father beating his mother and grows up into an unstable, brooding avenger of all of the world’s golden-hearted hookers. The Crowe character in LA Confidential springs to mind.

Far be it from these men to take matters into their own fists as Crowe’s bruiser did. They prefer to empower women to do the fighting for them (even as they huff and puff about the prospect of women in combat and men in women’s restrooms- oh the womanity!). Thus Rich Lowry waxing orgiastic about Carly Fiorina’s surgical emasculation of Donald Trump. And the manly tittering of #NeverTrump at the thought of Donald being scared of Megyn Kelly. The logical endgame of this approach is backing Hillary, which has already begun.

Again the evidence of projection is obvious. These men wield women as an object of worship and terror because they find them awesome and terrifying. Consider a revealing mini-drama: in the days before the ill-fated Cruz-Fiorina #NeverTrump alliance, Deace left his filter off and called out Fiorina for going “full vagina” in the GOP debate. He soon deleted the tweet and beat his chest in apology after his wife said he was being vulgar and disgusting. But it wasn’t over - he had to be scolded by Fiorina herself and good old Megyn Kelly before his guilt could be truly expunged. Meanwhile Ben Howe managed to escape a similar fate for calling Melania Trump a whore by exercising a quicker Twitter finger on the delete button.

The Freudian diagnosis of #NeverTrump punditry then is a case of an Oedipal complex run amok. The father-fixation, the castration anxiety, heck even the penis envy - what else can explain the furor over the “schlonging” of Hillary, or the celebration of Rubio’s career-shattering descent into d*ck jokes? They view the patriarchal Trump both as an overpowering rival for attention and a direct challenge to their own, still incipient manhood. He takes their viewers, their readers, their mantle of anger, their influence, their party… all as a matter of patriarchal prerogative.

In the myth, Oedipus faces down his father in a game of chariot chicken on a narrow road. A young man at the height of his powers, Oedipus defeats the old man and leaves him dead in the ditch, continuing along his path, marrying his mother (there’s another romantic boundary for you to transgress, D Train creators!)  and taking his father’s throne. In Freud, the Oedipal male faces his father from a position of pre-pubescent weakness. If he pursues this conflict he is doomed to defeat and ensuing neurosis; his only positive resolution is identifying with his challenger, and modeling himself after him.

In insisting on their own game of chariot chicken with a formidable patriarch, the #NeverTrumpers have exposed themselves as weak little boys. They now lie defeated in the ditch, surrounded by the wreckage of the “conservative movement.” They have none of Oedipus’ deeds, but all of his rage. Now they follow in his example by gouging out their eyes to spite the new face of the GOP. Would that they take Freud's advice, identify with their victorious opponent and model themselves after him.

*Subversive, funny and insightful, Mancini stands head and shoulders above the Millennial herd of pop culture critics in the same way that the South Park creators have towered over their Gen X vulgarian fellow travelers. Like South Park, he’s a better destroyer than creator, but he’s not as disciplined in playing to his strengths - his ventures into cultural optimism are made absurd by his rosy view of sexual anarchy.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Samson Option: The Biblical Case for Donald Trump


American clergy and Christian conservative pundits have conditioned the Religious Right to hold those aspiring to national leadership to the standard of Christ. Absolute moral clarity, humility unto (political) death, compassion for enemies and strangers - these have been the virtues serious-minded believing voters have searched for in candidates. Hence the enormous early appeal of the humble, soft-spoken, gentle Ben Carson. Many others are flocking to the principled but opportunistic Ted Cruz, who adopts the cheesy Sunday morning drawl of a Southern Baptist preacher whenever he faces the camera, or to Marco Rubio (aka J.F.Que?), who commands goosebumps to rise with every impassioned salvo against Planned Parenthood and the moral bankruptcy of the Democrats.

The conditioning that draws us to these candidates also inflames every fiber of our political being to cry out against Donald Trump. He boasts incessantly. He casually drops profanity and below-the-belt insults. He never repents. He doesn’t forgive or ask for forgiveness. He doesn’t turn the cheek. He equivocates on the crucible issues of abortion and gay marriage. He loudly and proudly prioritizes the material over the spiritual. For Christians trained to run candidates through the eye of the needle, the Camel-sized Trump is prima facie no-go. Through a Christian lens, he is the world and the flesh, and all we need is a little bit of the left’s politically correct reflex to tack on the devil. Hence the widespread and emphatic renunciation of Trump by Christian conservative leaders like Russell Moore and Rod Dreher.

Christians like me who find themselves rooting on Trump in flagrant contradiction to all of our training and conditioning can’t help but feel unfaithful, drawn by some base depravity to worship at the feet of this Golden Calf that just sprang out of the fire. Could it be that we are stopping our ears to the still small voice and instead hearkening to a heartbeat quickened by the satanic appeal of our pagan, barbarian ancestry? Is Trump Conan, luring us back to the old creed of crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of the women?

To these nagging questions and those who raise them, I pose a strong biblical counter-example. He was the ultimate man’s man and an archetype of Christ, celebrated by the author of Hebrews in the ranks of the faithful leaders of Israel along with Gideon, David and Samuel. I’m talking about Samson.
The parallels between Trump and Samson are extraordinarily close and abundant and I am far from the first to notice them - Pat Buchanan referred to Trump’s Samson Option in early August and blogger/satirist David Burge, responding to the Trump favorite Bible verse controversy, dubbed him the “jawbone of an ass.” But to my knowledge, no Christian conservative commentator has considered the depth of the comparison or its implications.

Samson arose during a time of bondage. On the eve of his birth, the Lord had delivered the Israelites into the hands of the Philistines. America today suffers under cultural bondage that is rapidly transforming the political and demographic landscape of the country. The modern connotation of Philistines is “people who are hostile or indifferent to culture” and you couldn’t ask for a better description of the political and social elites in this country. There is no greater existential threat to American culture than mass immigration, yet that is the only issue on which the establishments of both parties can agree. A similarly unified front on the doctrine of political correctness polices all dissent on this issue while gradually decoupling modern America from its heritage by the escalating demonization of white privilege, patriarchy and Christian values. Both situations cry out for nationalist heroes to break the yoke.

Like Trump, Samson was anything but a pure Messianic figure (other than the hair). Neither did he fit the Robin Hood/Batman “heroes that Gotham/Nottingham deserved” vigilante archetype. Rather he was the villain that the Philistines deserved. Like Trump, Samson was a sworn foe of the Philistines on the political/national level, while being almost indistinguishable from them on a personal level. For most intents and purposes, he was one of them. He scorned his own people to sleep with Philistine women and spent most of his time in Philistine territory where he could give his many vices free rein. And God wasn’t even mad - he wanted Samson in there getting dirty with the unholy so he’d be able to do more damage (Judges 14:4). Sort of a continuation of His rationale for Jesus intermingling with the hookers and vice merchants: you send the physician to the sick and you send the wrecking ball to the crumbling tenement.

It’s because Trump has slummed (or slum-lorded) with the Philistines that he’s such a potent force within their midst. The Apprentice, a million Hollywood cameos, golf dates with every conceivable celebrity, media mogul and power broker, donations to every establishment candidate - he started this war from the middle of their wheelhouse. Again and again he strolls into their centers of power, runs headlong into their traps, and walks off with the city gates on his shoulders.

As many have declared of Trump, Samson was almost completely non-ideological. His acts were motivated by hunger, self-preservation, greed, lust, hatred and vengeance, and yet they always resulted in gain for his people. He obviously had a knack for brute-force destruction, but he was also resourceful and cunning. His firebrands-to-foxtails strategy mirrors Trump’s mastery of social media, and he showed a similar inclination to troll those plotting against him with conniving riddles and baiting proclamations to expose their hidden agendas for the world to see. The parallels are also striking to Christ’s use of disciples to multiply his impact and clever parables to confound the Pharisee media.

Samson always pushed the envelope further than any of his people would or could. So much so that his own people delivered him into the Philistines’ hands just as the Lord had delivered them. Even his lovers had no qualms about turning him over. We’ve seen this over and over with Trump, as his GOP fellow travelers compete for the chance to trip him up and turn him over to the other side to demonstrate that they had nothing to do with his hell-raising. No one ever exposed the duplicity and cravenness of frenemies better than Samson or Trump.

Samson’s fighting style was crude, often unfair, and barbaric, but it was brutally effective, not only in defeating the enemies that had overwhelmed his people, but in exposing their own barbarity. When he struck down 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass/donkey (about as pregnant a double metaphor as you can get with Trump), he declared in characteristically bombastic fashion, “with a donkey’s jawbone, I have made donkeys of them.” (Sly as always, Samson was punning - the Hebrew word for donkeys is apparently a homonym for piles or heaps). So has Donald’s unbridled jaw laid waste to surprised opponents who had come to expect gentle, heavily-qualified rhetoric from GOP frontrunners. It has also provoked a torrent of crude ass-braying from prominent liberals and the media, unmasking the visceral hatred lurking behind tolerant facades.

The Samson comparison has a tragic dimension that might not bode well for Trump the man. Their shared predilection for cannonballing into enemy honey traps ultimately produced Samson’s downfall, ending with him as a blinded carnie freak show trotted out for a sadistic Philistine mob. Even so, by bringing down the evil Philistine establishment with him in a final act of vengeance, he ended up doing even more damage to Israel’s enemy than when he lived.

Meanwhile, as much as the biblical headlines focus on these sensational scraps with the Philistines, none of these unserious hijinks or dangerous flirtations disqualified him for the serious job of judging the Israelites during a volatile time. Judges 14:20 tells us that Samson led, i.e. judged, the Israelites for twenty years. While he was unquestionably an agent of chaos for the Philistines, the Bible gives us no indication that he was a bad executive for the Israelites. Indeed, the author of Hebrews puts him on a veritable Rushmore of faithful Hebrew leaders, with the group being recognized for having “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” Trump would put it more succinctly: they made Israel great again.

There is ample reason to believe that Trump could provide a steady hand at the wheel, even as the other wields the jawbone against his enemies. His business record, while not as spectacular as his boasts, suggests a competent administrator, evaluator and entrepreneur, however unorthodox and flamboyant his public persona. His ability to delegate has been on excellent display during the campaign: he couldn’t have picked better ghost writers for his policy papers on immigration, tax policy and gun control. His dominance of the media has demonstrated again and again his ability to set the terms of debate and advance his message in even the most hostile environments. This undercurrent of competence has consistently been discounted by conservative commentators, even those who admire his work against the establishment. They see the destroyer and not the judge.

The biblical precedent then for a leader like Trump is concrete. If these are Samsonian times and America is truly in the hands of modern-day Philistines, as I believe most Christians would agree, the worries about Trump’s motivations, principles, character and demeanor are largely irrelevant. The matter of greatest consequence is whether he or any of the other candidates are strong enough to bring down the Philistine establishment and return the country to its people.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Alien's Guide to Xenophobia


Are you looking for a trusty handbook to steer you through the thorny ethical and political dilemmas raised by the immigration crises raging across the Western world? Look no further.  The appropriately titled 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien tells you everything you need to know.

The demographics and attitudes of the ill-fated Nostromo crew are not unlike the West prior to the immigration explosion of the post-boomer era:  a pair of working-class guys, one white and one black, in the engine room, a middle class of WASPy American officers and a snobby semi-aristocratic Brit on the periphery. Though they share a camaraderie born of long isolation in each other’s company, this sense of kinship does not extend beyond their own hull and certainly not to newcomer Ash, the cold, aloof Science Officer. When the ship’s computer interrupts their blissful hypersleep with a command to respond to an alien distress signal, they grumble and whine at the imposition. Only a begrudging respect for company policy and the threat of withheld money forestalls a mutiny. While this curmudgeonly behavior might strike some as selfish and unenlightened, the events that follow vindicate it as common sense.
Unfortunately such stubborn independence and self-interested caution is in short supply when the Nostromo advance team embarks for a derelict alien vessel. Dismissing the sensible fears of navigator Lambert as she pleads with them to cut the mission short, cowboy Captain Dallas and his adventure-hungry officer Kane plunge ever deeper into the ship’s heart of darkness, mirroring the eagerness of the West’s neoconservative lobby to extend a Middle Eastern anti-terrorism mission into an exercise in kingmaking and nation building. (Ironically, Kane’s recklessness brings him face-to-face-hugger with just the type of WMD stockpile that we went into Iraq to find).

The results of these misadventures are horrifying. The domino-style toppling of stable, if evil, dictatorships in Iraq, Libya and most of Syria have unleashed the denizens of hell on the region. Demonic ISIS and their fellow jihadists now cover the face of the Levant like the creature face-hugging the terminally curious officer Kane. Meanwhile in Mexico, where many blame the drug wars on the US outsourcing of its narcotics industry, drug cartels pioneer gruesome tactics for future use by ISIS. Still, to quote the ultimate hero-coward Don Knotts, while the horribleness and the awfulness of it will never actually be forgotten, the hellish contagion is mercifully remote. At the onset of the crisis, the stateside Westerners and the more cautious Nostromo crew enjoy a healthy distance from the alien menace, and, in the latter case, a secure border monitored by a careful watchman.

This brings us to the thorniest moral quandary posed by the crisis. While the outbreak of horror is initially remote, it doesn’t take long for its victims (and its perpetrators) to close the gap. The sympathy and empathy that rise so naturally in response to the news of distant tragedy lose much of their potency when the fallout suddenly arrives on our doorstep, angrily clamouring to be allowed inside. Instincts for self-preservation and skepticism battle with humanitarian impulses, as the West and the Nostromo crew grapple over the agonizing question: let them in and risk the sacred home turf or leave them weeping and gnashing their teeth in the outer darkness?

The responses of the members of the Nostromo crew to this quandary, and the motives and philosophies behind those responses, provide the greatest of Alien’s insights on the immigration debate. The crewmembers’ responses divide them into three basic categories (with one intriguing spin-off) which I consider to neatly match the various camps staking out positions on the present immigration and refugee questions.

The first of these groups is the Hardliners, derided as selfish and heartless by their detractors, their positions closely parallel the strict immigration restrictionists like Trump in the US and Viktor Orban in the EU. On the Nostromo, the grimly practical Ripley is the standard-bearer for this position, with sympathizers in Brett and Parker from the engine room. Ripley adheres firmly to the rule of law and her conviction that letting them in would endanger the rest of the ship. So resolute is she that she denies even the demands of her commanding officer to open the hatch and let them in. It is a tough stance to take - a potential death sentence for three shipmates, even though two aren’t even infected - but it is firmly rooted in the conservative notion that the safety of the crew already on the ship takes precedence over the demands of any outsiders.

The second group are the Bleeding Hearts. Their stance is less ideological than moral and emotional. Commander Dallas and Lambert embody this perspective. Though Dallas is normally a respecter of laws and protocols, and Lambert a cautious and sensible person in other contexts, they are so moved by the horror that has befallen Kane that they are willing to dismiss any theoretical risk to get him the immediate help he so clearly needs. In the context of the current debate, these are the sincere humanitarians who fear that a strictly conservative response to human suffering will cost us our humanity, even if it shields us from risk.

The third and final group would claim membership with the bleeding hearts, but their chest-beating appeals to emotion ring strangely hollow. These are the Company Men. They cloak their company-uber-alles agenda under a veil of arch morality. The Nostromo’s science officer Ash is the ultimate company man. It is he who makes the fateful decision to circumvent Ripley and let the Alien onboard. He claims to have acted on compassion, even allowing a charge of recklessness, but the cold rationality of his personality, the evenness of his demeanor, and the intensity of his interest in the Alien suggest entirely different motives. As it turns out, he is quite literally a company man, an android engineered to do the company’s bidding whatever the human cost. In this case, the company views the Alien as an asset and the crew as expendable.

Such synthetic bleeding hearts abound in positions of power across the Western landscape. Facing a demographic winter that could simultaneously put substantial upward pressure on future wages and reduce consumption, as well as an ornery middle class seeking more political power, the chamber of commerce class and the political class it bankrolls views mass immigration as an unmitigated good. If a few hundred suburbs have to be transformed into third world hellholes, to borrow Ann Coulter’s phrase, that’s just the cost of doing global business.  Thus, bright-eyed automatons like Angela Merkel and Barack Obama crank up the wattage on their humanitarian rhetoric as they cheerfully implant Alien embryos into the heartlands of their paralyzed constituencies.

A final variation on the Company Man type is found in increasing numbers in the West and hinted at in the character of Ash. Cognizant of his synthetic form, Ash has none of his shipmates’ instincts for self-preservation. From this standpoint he can logically view their xenophobia as close-minded and irrational, even as the Alien rips them into pieces. The real-life equivalent to this extreme detachment is seen in the example of several prominent Christian leaders, including Pope Francis and Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore. These men are not only enthusiastically pro-immigration, they seem incapable of entertaining or comprehending the fears of their followers. No amount of material or cultural devastation can sway them. From reading Russell Moore in particular, you almost get the sense that he views the potential for negative temporal consequences as a spiritual perk... A means of mortifying the flesh (at least the flesh of the unenlightened). Such men make useful allies of Company Men.

And there you have it: the complete Alien’s Guide to Xenophobia, pieced together from the scattered entrails (including a few literal bleeding hearts) of the Nostromo crew.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Artificial Gravitas

Born and raised a Bible-believing Christian, the only post-earth scenario I've ever seriously entertained involves a new heaven and earth of God's creation. I wouldn't say exactly that I'm comfortable with this scenario, as anything earth-shattering is inherently discomfiting, but it sure beats the secular alternative I encountered in places like my astronomy textbook.  I remember the author droning on with scholarly detachment about the inevitable burnout of the sun and the ensuing end of all life – the nihilist eschaton. I imagine the normal secular response to such a depressing future to be something akin to John Maynard Keynes' famous shrug: "in the long run, we're all dead." But the more optimistic of the secularists turn to science fiction, projecting their trust in the power of the human mind, whether manifested in technology or evolved intelligence, to furnish a new heaven and earth.

The Nolan brothers (the brains behind Memento, Inception, The Prestige and The Dark Knight trilogy) with Interstellar have provided the latest secularist entry into the optimist's column.  Sure the world's ending - an infectious blight wiping out our crops and turning the earth into a vast dust bowl - but there's a way out.  Some mysterious force, alien perhaps, has opened a wormhole in Saturn's backyard, offering a shortcut to a host of new habitable planets.  With new friends like these, who needs an old-fashioned deity like the Lord of Heaven and Earth?  To answer heaven's new call, a heroic band of scientists and astronauts take up the mantle of Moses and set out in search of a new promised land. Of course to perform the miraculous feat of launching earth's remaining millions into space, our heroes need some additional guidance from their mysterious friends.  This help can only be found in a close encounter with a black hole, which serves as a sort of inverted burning bush.

The many parallels to Exodus are not coincidental. Interstellar is a powerful new voice in a familiar chorus of secular prophets calling the West out of the bondage of Christian ideology.  Not that Interstellar directly attacks any Christian doctrine - the plagues have already been meted out on Christian hegemony by earlier generations of culture warriors.  All that remains is to offer the people a new faith to comfort them.  Thus, Interstellar looks forward, articulating a 3rd stage replacement theology, with the species taking the place of the Christian church and super-evolved transdimensional beings filling God's shoes.

In taking such a positive, constructive role, Interstellar wisely avoids a direct confrontation with Christianity, a conflict that mired its ideological relative Contact (incidentally starring a younger Matthew McConaughey as the smarmy liberal peacemaker between faith and science) in Baby Boomer preachiness.  The Nolan brothers also sidestep the alienating art house vibe of 2001: A Space Odyssey by grounding the cosmic stakes in a heartwarming father-daughter relationship that literally transcends space and time.

Forcing a feel-good narrative into the core of a black hole greatly diminishes the awesome and terrifying grandeur of outer space, much like the Cuarons largely neutered space with the imposition of a stock Sandra Bullock character arc on Gravity. Or, on the extreme end of the Hollywood spectrum, how Michael Bay and his collaborators turned Armageddon into a work of high camp. Still, the Nolans are defter screenwriters than the Cuarons and Christopher Nolan is infinitely more serious a craftsman than Bay, so much of the violence to logic and ideological coherence has been better disguised.  It’s artificial gravitas – not quite as powerful as the real article, but not as lightweight as the hackery that is so dominant in modern Hollywood. More importantly, it palliates the optimistic longings of the human heart while suspending the thoroughly justified disbelief of the human mind.

At heart, the Nolans are meticulous, highly skilled entertainers and careless ideologues – ideas are to them as magic to a magician.  Whereas Kubrick and Clarke used space as a grand canvas on which to paint their atheistic vision of life, the universe and everything, the Nolans pull rabbits out of wormholes. Yet the bent of the artist matters less than the content of his work, and Interstellar, for all its sacrifices to sentimentality and artifice, ultimately worships at the same bogus altar of human technology and evolution. Indeed, by pandering skillfully to the tastes of the common man, Interstellar outdoes its predecessors as an apostle, reaching into the heartland passed over by the elitist 2001 and maligned by the belligerent Contact.

Interstellar offers a more entertaining and hopeful endgame for humanity than my old astronomy textbook, but the entertainment is fleeting and the hope is false.  A sober examination of infinite space will yield one of two images, both of them terrible to behold: the face of almighty God or an abyss of nothingness.  The secular Interstellar, unwilling to acknowledge the face of God yet shirking the nihilism of the black hole, settles for smoke and mirrors.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nuggets of Wisdom from George Lucas' Severed Head

Eureka!
Safely ensconced in a simpler age, Hitchcock observed that drama was “life with the dull bits cut out.” Clearly that is no longer the case. In this postmodern age, our lives are wrapped in so many layers of entertainment that what Hitchcock would have recognized as “life” is increasingly irrelevant as a primary source. Now more than ever, popular entertainment is our foundation, and we construct our dramas by excavating previous generation’s favorites, hammering away the duller bits to hone in on whatever was awesome about the originals.  A case in point is the defining hit movie of the year thus far, Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the most intriguing, and illuminating, bit of Guardians, our ensemble of strangely familiar heroes stumbles upon the giant severed head of an ancient celestial super-being. Inside, a guy named the Collector has set up a pirate mining operation, drilling into the decaying nervous tissue, presumably to discover the wondrous secrets stored in the great old brain. The movie plays coy until the very end as to the identity of the decapitated being, when the surprise Howard the Duck cameo makes it clear (as the ever-keen Steve Sailer points out): the ancient celestial super-being is none other than George Lucas.

The Collector then is the Disney-Marvel entertainment-industrial complex, in this case represented by writer-director-foreman James Gunn, and this film is the first nugget of the box office gold that was Star Wars to be successfully refined into something shiny enough for this postmodern age. And shiny it is, gleaming like a newly-forged golden calf. Gunn has developed into a capable refiner: having earned his stripes as screenwriter on a pair of successful reboots of Boomer-era hits Scooby Doo and Dawn of the Dead, he exhibits a near perfect accord with the zeitgeist in Guardians.  

Along with co-writer Nicole Perlman and the creators of the original comic (which in turn, I understand, is derivative of a Marvel universe too vast for me to comprehend), Gunn strip-mines the Star Wars universe for elements most readily recognized as “awesome,” leaving behind the less compelling bits. Guardians happily scratches the painfully earnest Luke and preachy old Obi-Wan to showcase Peter Quill, a beefed up, geeked up version of everyone’s favorite scoundrel Han Solo.  Also reforged in new forms are Leia as a kung-fu fighting Green Goddess, Chewbacca as a Space Ent, R2D2 as a pissed-off tech-savvy raccoon, C3PO as a socially-awkward bodybuilder, and the Death Star as the Dark Aster. The dated Star Wars trappings have also been scrapped like so many yards of shag carpet (ironically to make way for judiciously applied retro stylings). For instance, instead of the bombastic classical scores that Star Wars made synonymous with the blockbuster epic, we get an “awesome mix” of catchy 70’s pop hits.
The resulting film is simultaneously impressive and pointless. It’s a pastiche imitating a portrait - like a Lego version of a Rockwell painting - a characteristic that is at once central to its charm and damning of its overall value. It has an unapologetic self-awareness of its derivative nature that frees it from the silly pretensions of so many other comic book adaptations. Where a movie like The Watchmen trudged grimly onward, grunting under its own importance, the lightweight Guardians lassos pop hooks with one-liners and leaps nimbly from spectacle to spectacle. All this, however, begs the question: what does it matter how skillfully the Guardians fly circles around lamer fantasy heroes? They are all still stuck orbiting the same lifeless objects, whether it be Lucas’ head or Stan Lee’s or any other misplaced centers of “expanded universes.”

It’s not that Guardians or its lesser comic book inspired brethren are merely derivative, but that they are derivative of a derivative that renders them of so little cultural worth. Their growing popularity and sophistication is symptomatic of the broader cultural phenomenon described by the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard and condemned by the Second Commandment. Baudrillard pointed to the “precession of the simulacra,” when the real is preceded (essentially replaced) by its imitation in the culture. God forbade the Jews to create graven images lest they worship them in place of him.

In the past, boondoggles like Guardians tended to be amateur projects, usually the work of adolescents and/or antisocial single guys who would expend their creative and productive energies in exploring and expanding fantasy worlds of others’ creation. Today, they attract the attention of some of our best craftsmen, the bulk of the funding of our major studios, and the brand loyalty of the broadest segment of the market. As a recovering nerd who suffers the occasional lapse, a part of me wants to embrace the success of Guardians as mainstream validation of a misspent youth.  As a new father, however, I worry about the stability of a crumbling cultural foundation reinforced with Legos.