Monday, September 16, 2013

The Post-Man Always Rings Twice

'All the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house.  They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.” Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them."' - Genesis 19:4-8

Here's the rest of the passage to show you how it turned out, but the Tl;dr version is below.

Suffice to say, the next time eHarmony offers you a choice between extraterrestrial visitors (however angelic their looks) and a pair of teenage virgins, take the virgins and don't look back.  Hellfire and Brimstone might be breathtaking to look at, but they are lousy for intimacy.  What's that?  The Bible not your thing?  Then take it from the Greeks - nothing good ever came from submitting to Zeus' animal charisma. Semele got incinerated by his divine form, Io got turned into a cow and poor Ganymede ended up spending eternity as Canteen Boy to Zeus' Alec Baldwin.

It appears, however, that my generation (Gen Y, though as a 1985 baby, I can claim both X and Y, just like my sex chromosomes) has dismissed the conclusions of the existing literature on extra-human relationships. The anti-miscegenation laws that once governed our mythology are falling to a new breed of progressives. One by one, disenfranchised classes of Gods & Monsters are gaining unfettered access to the relationship classifieds: vampires & werewolves (Twilight), aliens (Avatar), demons (Hellboy, the revised Beowulf), pagan gods (Thor), mutants (the various X-Men), zombies (Warm Bodies), robots (Terminator Salvation, the Battlestar Galactica reboot), hamsters (check the latest Kia commercials), even cartoons (Enchanted).  In some cases, real humans are dropping out of the picture entirely, making way for a new set of post-human couples.  Slum with a bunch of muggles and bald simians and they're likely to pee in your sparkling new gene pool.

Why should my generation be so eager to cuckold good old homo sapiens?  Previous generations have flirted - Spielberg's fetish for the inhuman has spanned generations (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., A.I.) - but this widespread, blatant cheating is unprecedented.  I can see three possible reasons for this infatuation:
  1. Peak entertainment - with so much entertainment at our fingertips and so much time devoted to its consumption, we've reached (to paraphrase Wikipedia's peak oil definition) "the point in time when maximum satisfaction extraction from existing entertainment forms has been reached." Boredom encroaches, prompting the urge to subvert even the most fundamental norms to create new combinations and new experiences. When you've messed around with the full spectrum of humanity, the eyes start to wander.
  2. Inhuman rights - with the Boomers having planted their flag on all the real world social issues, the pioneering crusader impulse has to have an outlet somewhere.  Getting out in front of a future alien encounter with a solidly progressive take on the issue merits a hearty clap on one's own back.
  3. Self-esteempunk - with technology charting an exponential course to sci-fi utopia (and special effects that can bridge the gap) and a culture that seeks to overwhelm any self-doubt with waves of positive reinforcements, it's a lot easier for this generation to believe in its own superhumanity.  Having gracefully bounded a mile in Avatar's alien moccasins, we are not only more likely to be sympathetic to inhuman rights, but we have an inflated opinion of our ability to walk 500 more.
We can see evidence of each of these generational attributes on display in one of the first post-humanist romances and the quintessential Gen Y movie: Shrek (released in 2001 - the coming of age year for the first crop of millenials).   

Bored to exhaustion with the dominant Western fairy tale formula, Shrek sets about subversion from the opening frames (Shrek using a storybook ending as toilet paper). Cherished humanist icons including Pinocchio (he wants to be a real boy!) and Robin Hood (the original venture philanthropist) are recast as punchlines and villains.  The only fully human character among the leads is the villain Farquaad (voiced by John Lithgow, building up quite the CV of post-humanist roles), whose defining characteristics (other than his name) are his puny stature, impotence and unattractiveness.  The role of hero falls to the ogre (after he demolishes an assortment of nondescript human knights in try-outs).

The subversion stops abruptly after the embrace of post-humanism.  The cheeky snark crosses paths with Shrek's character arc and flees headlong into maudlinism.  Deep down, Shrek just wants to be loved, and his misanthropy stems from man's incessant meanness towards him.   The sticks, stones and burning torches of the bigoted humans can't break his bones, but words hurt him every time.  By taking poor, ugly Shrek's side, we show our evolved sensibilities - that Gen Y mutation that allows us to see that beauty is exclusively on the inside. 

We millenials have also evolved a helpful cognitive dissonance that allows us to claim victimhood and supremacy simultaneously.  Shrek is a case in point: while he mopes about ugly discrimination, he suffers no equal on the field of combat.   The closest he comes to a worthy opponent is a huge dragon.  Not that Shrek need worry about a hard fight - the dragon joins his side for the 3rd act, rendering all attempts at human resistance even more futile than they had been for the rest of the movie. 

Shrek's fairy tale ending prophecies a blissful post-human marriage and a happily ever after-party, but I remain unconvinced that this generational romance with the alien and the unclean is a progressive (in the original sense of the word) development.  A movement driven by  boredom, misplaced pity and delusional self-image can hardly be constructive and will almost certainly become destructive, if it hasn't already.  This is not a marriage but an affair with a mysterious stranger.  If the warnings of the Bible aren't enough for you, check out the endings of some noir films from the 40's - Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice for starters - to see how those types of decisions pan out.

Mankind might be too old and tired and genetically inferior to keep up with our postmodern imaginations, but the only sensible means of addressing the gap is to slow the latter down.  Whenever we experience the urge to leave our own kind in the dust to pursue some beautiful chimera we should weigh the costs.  How foolish would we be to discard so rich a heritage and find nothing? How much worse still to seek the chimera alone and find him.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Fairy Sue

"Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky," thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. "Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet - only fifteen and a half years old." - "A Trekkie's Tale"

There wouldn’t be much need for hyper-vigilant critics (or hyper-critical vigilantes) like me if Mary Sues were always so obvious. Unfortunately, Mary Sue technology has advanced significantly since the early appearance of the clunky wish-fulfillment bots in the ghettos of 1970s Star Trek fan fiction.  Nowadays, they've become so sophisticated that they walk among us, undetected, infiltrating our favorite stories - books, movies, TV shows, you name it.  Your favorite movie could be harboring one right now.  Tragically, that’s the case for The Brothers Bloom, one of my new twitter follower Mae Batista’s faves. Fortunately, I’m Sam “Reese” Lively, Sergeant Tech-Com, DN38416, sent back in time (2009 in this case) and assigned to protect you from faulty entertainment choices. 

Or, if Reese is too intense, think of me as one of those Terminator-sniffing dogs, poking my big wet nose where it isn't welcome. Speaking of dogs, in the time-honored tradition begun in last week’s Usual Suspects review, let’s introduce the companion dog to Bloom’s cheetah: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.  Both released in 2009, both highly stylized, and both fairy tales centering on con men.  Parnassus is also a dog of a film, so there’s that.

The con man/fairy tale dichotomy is the heart of both narratives.  In Bloom, Adrien Brody is the reluctant con man who wants to believe in the fairy tale webs his brother Mark Ruffalo weaves for their marks. In Parnassus, con man Heath Ledger is the carnival barker for Christopher Plummer's traveling fairy tale generator.  Each film eagerly casts asides at the thematic parallels to their own craft: are they telling stories to deceive and profit or to teach and edify?  Is it about the money or the magic?  Or, better yet, is it some deliciously bittersweet combination of both – a juicy mouthful of the pluot that is human nature?  These are the immediate questions that leap from the material and they were tantalizing enough to capture Gilliam's and Bloom writer-director Rian Johnson's full attention.  In their eagerness, however, both artists left another, more fundamental question that they left unconsidered: when a storyteller tells a story about a storyteller, is he really exploring human nature or is he just writing fan fiction about himself?

The answer to the last question lies in the ability of the teller to find some objectivity.  It can be done.  The pioneers of the reflexive fantasy genre – Charlie Kaufman and Wes Anderson – have provided us with successful examples: Kaufman’s Adaptation and Anderson’s Life Aquatic. Their combination of exhaustive attention to (and disciplined application of) detail and a firmly established perspective keep the risky process of critical self-portraiture from degenerating into a montage of preening, posing and flexing in front of the mirror.  To the degree that they deviate from these object lessons, Bloom and Parnassus drift away from the canvas and towards the mirror.

In matters of detail, Johnson wields his brush with the panache of an accomplished BS artist, with one hand calling your attention to a nice bit of detail work here (e.g. Rachel Weisz' allergy to the alloy in hypodermic needles was a clever little touch), some high culture name-dropping (Herman Melville, Russian novelists) over there.  Meanwhile, he's using his free hand to fill in the blank expanses with broad strokes of arbitrary color (e.g. the ridiculous - and feebly animated - juggling of chainsaws and camel-chugging of whiskey flasks) and hide unfinished or ill-conceived details under blobs of quirkiness (give your hazy outline of  a villain a silly name and costume and you're all set!).  I’ll give Johnson credit for trying; in Parnassus, Gilliam forsakes all pretense of discipline, eats all his crayons and proceeds to barf color all over himself for 123 horrible minutes.

But all that is just confetti for the parade.  The narrative is where the Mary Sues rear their implausibly beautiful heads.  Don’t let the Brothers in Brothers Bloom fool you – they are both Rian Johnson, even more so than Charlie Kaufman and his made-up twin in Adaptation are Charlie Kaufman.  They both display the tell-tale signs of a Mary Sue: they are fantastically gifted from a young age; women everywhere throw themselves at Brody, while Ruffalo has his own pet Asian chick; they are witty, hipster-stylish and they literally have cards up their sleeves. 

Their problems? Poor Brody feels guilty about all the illicit booty (I’m just too tragically attractive!) and Ruffalo’s con writing, though impressive, isn’t quite convincing enough to assuage the guilt.  Enter Weisz – an adorkable heiress who can give Brody the loving & lifestyle he needs, some additional quirky-cred and, by virtue of her magical virginity (on loan, along with epilepsy, from Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State), return his own lost innocence.  Meanwhile, Ruffalo manages to die the cleverly heroic death he always dreamed of (with sense of humor and style intact), and his passage is mourned with much sobbing. 

See if you can spot Gilliam’s Mary Sue: Dr. Parnassus is an aging British entertainer, unappreciated and underfunded by the masses. Little do they know that he’s actually an immortal sorcerer, waging a battle with the devil for their souls. Gilliam could tell you who he’s really talking about, but modesty prohibits.   

Lest my haughty tone deceive you, I am not unsympathetic to the filmmakers’ plight (just condescending). As an avid amateur navel-gazer, I know well how easily a well-intentioned introspection can succumb to the mighty undercurrents of vanity and be swept off into indulgent daydreaming.  How much more difficult, then, to stay afloat when your mode of introspection is a fairy tale, a format built around wish-fulfillment? The overwhelming temptation for Johnson and Gilliam and any other artist entering their own incipient fairy tale universe is to start granting all of their own wishes.  

It seems an innocent enough mistake to indulge that temptation, but doing so undercuts the premise of both films, as well as a central tenet of the creed that motivates artists to spend so much time, money and psychological energy in telling stories.  The sacred, philanthropic power that Bloom and Parnassus ascribe to the storyteller is wasted on self-delusion.  The fairy godmothers, having taken all the seats in the pumpkin carriage for themselves, leave Cinderella in the dust.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Details in the Devil

“Who's Keyser Söze!?”
 “What’s in the box!?” 

You can stop screaming, mid-90’s detectives.  I've got your answer right here (in the form of an extremely belated double movie review).    I’d say spoiler alert, but as both movies in question are now legally of age – 18 this year! -  I figure I can spoil with impunity.

Why dig into a pair of cold cases like this, you ask?  Easy: I’m desperate for attention and I’ll review the favorite movie (The Usual Suspects) of anyone (Rob Kirby) who follows me on Twitter.  Also, I have a weakness for analyzing 90’s movies (among other cultural artifacts) – a dusty VHS cover is my idea of nose candy.   And there are important lessons to be learned, gosh pound it! 

I’d review Suspects on its own, but I find that a movie is easier to break down with a companion, kind of like those cheetahs at the zoo that have dog friends to keep them in line.  Se7en is a natural fit for this role: both movies released in 1995, both featuring Kevin Spacey as the villain, both crime thrillers, both famous (and much imitated) for twist endings, both playing fast and loose with genre expectations and religious themes.

1995 was a watershed year for movies.  As much as movies like Jaws and Star Wars get credit for changing the Hollywood landscape back in the late 70s, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that the changing of the guard was complete.  In the 80’s it was still possible for a Lifetime movie like On Golden Pond to rule the box office.  By the early 90’s, special effects extravaganzas like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 were starting to flex their muscle and crowd out the lower-concept hits of yesteryear.  Then in 1994 came the swan song: Forrest Gump, a sentimental non-action dramedy, somehow took the box office crown.  But come 1995, Toy Story took pole position, and the big budget action epics haven’t looked back since.  All that to say that by the mid-90’s, if you wanted to make a splash you had to have some kind of visceral wow factor.

Suspects and Se7en both embraced the wow or bust philosophy with near unprecedented gusto (Silence of the Lambs had beaten them to the punch-up of the crime genre, but the body was still fresh).  While Pixar was breaking the technology barrier to put out the first fully CGI movie, the writers of Suspects and Se7en were in the story structure workshop trying to build a better jack-in-the-box thriller, fine-tuning every cog and gear in the script to goose the impact of the inevitable reveal.  They were undeniably successful in their goals: Suspects won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Se7en made it into the box office top 10.   

All that success did not come without some collateral damage.  Selling out for the twist ending in these cases meant selling many of the other story elements short.  Consider one of the golden oldies of the crime thriller genre: The Maltese Falcon.  More than 70 years after the fiction, the shocking reveals in the third act pack all the punch of a geriatric baby, but the delicious moral ambiguities of the story and the rich characters are still intoxicating.  In contrast, Suspects and, to a lesser extent, Se7en deploy their characters more like one of the automatons in Geppetto’s workshop, following predetermined, diligently synchronized paths.  Moral ambiguities are present, but only as decorative detail carved on the surface.

The various Spaceys are examples of delicately crafted but thoroughly artificial characters.  Even their names are conspicuously made-up: Verbal Kint, Keyser Söze, John Doe.   Keyser Söze in particular reminds me of the Rollo Tomasi moniker Guy Pearce made up to give a name to his father’s nameless killer in LA Confidential (another Spacey movie). The artificiality goes well beyond their names.  They lack consciences or vulnerabilities– all that would just gum up the works of their convoluted and impossibly cunning plans.

Söze suffers no ethical qualms and meets no real challenge in conducting his crime and murder spree.  Other than the challenge to his ego (the detective declares that he’s smarter) that apparently motivates him to lead the detective (and the audience) on the thrilling goose chase, Söze does his screenwriter master’s bidding with all the soulless efficiency of a T-1000, or, given the amount of plot twisting required, a non-alcoholic bending unit.  John Doe is another robot, matter-of-factly sacrificing his life to produce a thrilling conclusion and keep the plot’s gears grinding towards perfect synchronicity with the seven cardinal sins.

The rest of the cast (with exceptions in the case of Se7en) are kept to fixed paths.  Pitt of course is a vessel of Wrath.  Baldwin the Younger and co. never tread far outside stereotype – the insignificant exception being Benicio del Toro, who was allowed to riff freely on the basis that his character’s only function was to die.  Even Gabriel Byrne, the putative conscience of the story, appears to be nothing more than a common crook once everything is revealed.  The desire to go straight, the love angle with the criminal attorney, the hesitance to kill, the friendship with Kint – all of it was just a red cape (or herring) Söze was waving to incite the bullish detective to waste all his energy “proving” that Byrne (his longtime nemesis) was a bad guy (which the screenwriter doesn’t seem to care about answering one way or the other.  He’s wholly concerned with establishing Söze as the baddest guy).

While the characters dutifully adhere to their routes, the abundant moral and religious themes get plastered onto the walls of the jack-in-the box as decoration. Suspects’ Charles Baudelaire quote “the greatest trick the Devil pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist” is pregnant with religious and philosophical implications – it’s a quote from a 19th century French poet about the Devil for crying out loud!  None of those implications are explored in Suspects – it’s there because it sounds slick (just like the title, lifted from Casablanca) and because it fits the big twist so well. Kint’s line “I believe in God, but I’m afraid of Keyser Söze” neatly sums up this topsy-turvy world where God takes a backseat to the sleek super-villain with the cooler-than-real name. 

Se7en takes its metaphysical content more seriously, but I’d argue that’s more the stylistic effect of a much darker tone than proof of more philosophical rigor.   As evidence, I present John Doe’s thoroughly unconvincing confession of Envy in the finale.  Chopping off a pretty lady’s head to inspire Wrath is not indicative of envy, nor are any of John Doe’s other crimes.  His conduct is characterized by a dearth of emotion and an absolute dedication to completing his riddle.  The clumsy handling of Envy reveals the conceit: the cardinal sins have been chopped up and sanded down into a set of serious-colored, neatly interlocking plot devices.  Their ultimate importance is how much force and flair they contribute to the final spring.

Returning now to the questions raised so vociferously by the detectives.  Who is Keyser Söze and what is in the box?  Technically speaking, the answer is Jack – a disembodied head, covered with all sorts of charmingly gruesome details, made up to look like a devil, and shot out at the audience to elicit the greatest reaction.  When the shock wears off, however, ankle-biting critics like me are left to pick up the detectives’ line of questioning, though no one is left on screen to answer.  Who do you mean by Keyser Söze? What was in the box, really?  What does it signify?  To which the body of work might as well reply, in the manner of a mother shushing her overeager child on Christmas Eve, “It’s a surprise.”  Nothing more, nothing less.  


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Party Gods

A man who refuses to have his own philosophy will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy. - G.K. Chesterton

From the used-up scraps file, here’s the best recipe I could find for holy water:

16 oz bottle of water
Some priestly vestments
A CD of Gregorian chants (optional)

Put on the vestments.  Play the CD if you got it.  Empty the water bottle into a large metal pot over high heat. Boil the hell out of it. Serves 3 persons (in one Godhead).

Hang onto that recipe - it’ll come in handy if you ever get possessed or your house gets haunted or you face some sort of apocalyptic scenario involving demons or vampires.  Also works for baptisms.  There might be some copyright issues with the Vatican, so freeloaders beware – if the Pope can tweet indulgences, telexcommunication can’t be far behind.
Before you dismiss the above as a pathetic attempt at humor, consider how much more pathetic would it be as an attempt at spiritual understanding.  After watching This is The End, I’m beginning to believe that an unhealthy-sized chunk of my generation won’t be able to tell the difference.  While a popular way of describing this trend is as an erosion of the sacred, I’m seeing it in reciprocal. To paraphrase the popular misquoted version of the actual Chesterton quote, when Man ceases to believe in the sacred, he does not believe nothing to be sacred.  He believes everything sacred.

A telling example of the sacralization of everything is the widespread adoption of “canon” to apply to the various series of comics, TV shows and movies that have attracted cult followings.  While perusing Amazon for a French-language version of an Asterix comic book (what can I say – I have a thing for Franco-Belgian comics from the 60s), I stumbled on a “non-canonical” work and, following a rigorous Wikipedia investigation, discovered a furious controversy over the author/illustrator’s decision to sell the right to continue the franchise after his death to corporate interests.  It was as if Paul sold the rights to future Pauline epistles to his amanuensis bureau (coming this fall, 126th Thessalonians: Paul vs. the Eurocrats).

Not that I’m exempt from this sort of misdirected religious zeal – I remember feeling something along the lines of righteous anger burning in my bones as I watched Spielberg’s overwrought Tintin and Peter Jackson’s awful Hobbit.  I contributed to the collective wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied the disastrously bad reboots of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises.  As much as I claim to revere the Bible, the Constitution and the various “serious” works of Western Civilization, it’s clear that the popcorn mythology of Hergé, Spielberg, Lucas and Tolkien have infiltrated my heart and taken a prominent place in my internal canon (perhaps we can be thankful for Spielberg, Lucas and Jackson’s recent gag-inducing efforts: all the better to vomit the false idols from our midst).  If the various social circles, blogs and media outlets I frequent are sufficient indicators,  I am representative of much of America in this regard.
The canonization of light fantasy doesn't happen in a vacuum.  The influx of immigrants from third world hellholes like Hollywood and the Marvel Universe inevitably triggers the canonical equivalent of white flight. Or if that analogy is too right-wing and nativist for your liking, imagine an army of soulless corporate toys infiltrating our shared cultural memory and replacing the likes of George Washington with one of the animatrons from Disney’s Hall of Presidents.  The Stepford Gods will eventually drive out the real article.  

An effect of this mythological changing of the guard in its later stage is the intense spiritual and cultural insanity on display in movies like The End.  Like my readers, Seth Rogen and co. are stuck in a giant mixed metaphor with no legend to make sense of it.  The lines between beliefs and suspension of disbelief have been blurred (if this sounds like regurgitated, half-digested readings in postmodernism, it's because it is, but bear with me: if The Matrix taught us anything it's that a limited understanding of postmodernist philosophy can at least inspire some entertaining imagery).

This becomes especially problematic (at least theoretically) when a situation calls more for moral conviction than a finely honed entertainment palate, which is precisely what happens to the protagonists of The End when their life of discriminating hedonism (the great conflict between Rogen and buddy Jay Baruchel rages over what kind of partying is best - Hollywood-style with narcissistic celebrities or slacker-style with video games and pot) is interrupted by a vaguely Christian end times scenario.

Left behind in the Rapture,the boys - Rogen, Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, all playing caricatured versions of their pop culture personas - have to find a way to heaven as earth rapidly descends into demon-infested hell.  As Chesterton foresaw, they are left with only with the “used-up scraps” of somebody else’s religion to guide them.  In postmodernist terms, they have only a few worn fragments of Borges’ world-sized map with which to navigate the “desert of the real.” Specifically, they have a few Bible passages and a working understanding of the supernatural derived from The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and, I’m guessing here, All Dogs Go to Heaven.  Predictably, it’s a nightmarish mess - a pastiche of wild parties, hellscapes, fights with friends and demons, with considerable ambiguity as to when one stops and the next begins.  God is conspicuously absent.

You’d think the absence of a merciful God and a working knowledge of good and evil would have fatal or, more soberingly, eternal consequences, but those concepts, or at least the used-up scraps they were written on, have apparently been lost to history. As the co-screenwriter and de facto God, Rogen calls in a few pretty much literal dei ex machina to retroactively pave the road to heaven with good intentions (generously defined in relative terms), punish the egregious evil-doers, and even lend a little bit of spiritual efficacy to an ad hoc exorcism to help his less obnoxious friends survive the trip.  Not that these interventions are serious or even half-hearted attempts to legitimize a fundamentally worthless moral philosophy - they are gleefully arbitrary “acts of God” offered in mocking obeisance to the dictates of conventional morality and classical narrative in order to keep the party going.  

The blatant hollowness of these gestures rings with more ominous implications. If heaven and hell are just a double punchline, the keys to both fall to the jokester.  In this light, many of the narrative decisions in The End - casting stars as exaggerated versions of themselves, setting the drama in their exorbitantly expensive mansions, excluding non-stars from the story (including the roles of the villains), omitting God, depicting heaven as a big celebrity house party - read as a declaration of Godhood on the part of the stars, or at least a shrugging acceptance speech for the divinity bestowed on them by the culture.  The much-feared Christian eschaton turns out to be all sound and fury, signifying only as the splashy backdrop for the apotheosis of sleazy celebrities into a Roman style pantheon (with Rogen as a Bacchus-style “good” god, and McBride as a Vulcan-style “bad” god).

It’s all absurd, and it doesn't pretend to be anything else, but the most disturbing takeaway is that it’s also pretty honest.  Further, it pretty much had to be absurdist to get mass distribution.  Anything that took Christian claims more seriously would either be consigned to the padded walls of the Christian media industry (or the indie realm, a la Passion of the Christ)or re-imagined as a horror movie.  These are the only spaces left  in the American pantheon for artifacts of the old faith. Even these spaces are occupied by pale shadows of the originals, the lazy simulacra of misremembered Sunday School lessons and the make-up effects fromThe Exorcism of Emily Rose.  In these versions they can co-exist less contentiously (and occasionally even participate in the frequent bacchanalias) with self-aware pop icons and their immense collections of entertainment memorabilia.  The faded notions of God and Satan are bound grotesquely together as minor deities in a supporting role for the newly ascendant Party Gods.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Old Turks & Young Jerks

Squeezed in between the sweaty folds of the terminally obese Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks - a cadre of secular, progressive younglings in the imperial administration - set about the work of reform from within.  They were a last-ditch stem cell injection for the “sick old man of Europe.”  To these jaundiced, Wikipedia-informed eyes, their notoriety is undeserved – the sick old man died and Turkey has yet to re-attain even the nadir of its former imperial glory.  Yet the term survived, resurfacing periodically as a label for any group of plucky upstarts trying to take on the establishment.
Working from the definitive characteristics “young,” “secular” and “progressive,” it would appear that the Baby Boomers are America's Young Turks.  Unfortunately, the target for their destructive reform was nothing resembling a sick old man but rather the world’s reigning superpower as it approached the height of its material wealth and global influence.    Regardless, their success in effecting (or at least cheerleading) change – the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war protests, women’s lib, the civil rights drama, etc. – puts the original Young Turks to shame.  But being a successful revolutionary (i.e., not a martyr) comes with a price: after 50 years of social dominance, the American Young Turks have become Old Turks, in full control of their own version of the “establishment.”  
Unique in so many ways, the Boomers have deviated from the familiar narrative of young revolutionaries settling into paternal conservatism after raising families and/or ascending into power.  After weathering a mild conservative counter-revolution, the Old Turks have pressed their progressive agenda into the new millennium with renewed enthusiasm.  Never having relinquished the revolutionary high ground, the Boomers have thus ceded no political or cultural territory to a younger class of revolutionaries.  Indeed, by constantly re-animating the ghosts of the past establishment through their mouthpieces in academia and the media, they have largely co-opted a gullible and feeble-minded generation of younger crusaders and directed them onto quixotic quests to eradicate liberal Boomer bogey-men (racists, polluters, sexists, Christian bigots, etc.).
That’s not to say that the Boomers have completely outmaneuvered the inevitable uprising of youthful rebellion.  A new wave of anti-establishment feeling is bubbling to the surface across the pop culture landscape.  The tenor of this rebellious movement is distinct from the self-righteous brashness of the Boomers in the 60’s – it reverberates in the impudent sneer of the stand-up comic, the unabashed cruelty of anonymous internet commenters, the snort of the heckler drowning out the shrill soprano of a Boomer castrati shrieking about white privilege.  It’s becoming clear that the counter-revolution to the Old Turks is comprised not from younger versions of themselves, but from a newer upstart breed of Young Jerks.  I count amongst their core Adam Carolla, Mike Judge and Daniel Tosh, with something akin to fellow travelers in Louis CK, Bill Simmons, Joel McHale, Matt Stone, Trey Parker and the Jackass diaspora (the Jackasspora?), among other lesser known entertainers.
The battle lines of this counter-revolution are still hazy – the most prominent Young Jerks are nominally aligned with the most cherished progressive ethics (some Young Jerk offshoots like Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino ground their Gen X rudeness in Boomer doctrine).  Nor is the movement cohesive or self-aware enough to fire anything that would be recognizable as a shot across the bow.   Nevertheless, their assorted pot-shots constitute a barrage of sorts against the Old Turks’ edifice of political correctness.  Hard-edged racial jokes at the expense of minorities, cheerful misogyny, the vulgarization of free love and drug use (as opposed to self-serious, romanticized hippie antics),  the trivialization of violence and rape, proud indulgence in crass commercialism, defiant political apathy and anti-intellectualism – these regressive characteristics stand out in stark opposition to progressive orthodoxy.  Though it’s impossible to discern a clear shout of “The Emperor has no clothes!” from the rabble rabble of the Young Jerks, you can at least make out a few jokes about the size of his penis.
Many Boomers of the progressive establishment are generally tolerant or at least unaware of this understated rebellion.  After all, vulgarity is part and parcel of the progressive package and a valuable weapon in the fight against lingering Judeo-Christian dominionism.  So long as the Young Jerks are not collaborators in the vast right-wing conspiracy, their improprieties can be chalked up to immaturity.  If they ever get really out of line, a la old fogey Don Imus, there are ample Inquisitors on hand to put them to the question.  Better yet, if they are pliant enough to apply their coarse means to progressive ends, the establishment will fete them – witness the accolades heaped on Quentin Tarantino for packaging his nihilistic orgies of excess with minority revenge fantasy narratives in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  
Still, some of the more zealous Old Turks are seeing the profane writing on the wall and taking a harder line with the Young Jerks.  Prominent among these is neo-Boomer Aaron “Ignatius” Sorkin, self-appointed Defender of the Progressive Faith, who has responded to the staggered barrage of the Young Jerks with a series of thunderous broadsides.  In the pilot episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, Sorkin’s crusty sock-puppet Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) lets loose on the underachieving younger generation – “the worst generation ever” – for slouching so apathetically into decadence.  Having declared war via proxy, Sorkin used his 2012 commencement address at Syracuse to rally the gullible young to his banner, preaching: "Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character. You're too good for schadenfreude, you're too good for gossip and snark, you're too good for intolerance."

Sorkin’s optimism aside, if schadenfreude and snark are the battle lines in the pop culture cold war, then the Young Jerks have already seized the high ground.  To be sure, Sorkin’s brand of earnest liberal idealism still has a firm foothold in the marketplace – the didactic 90’s tradition of Philadelphia, Dances with Wolves and Field of Dreams lives on with the likes of Brokeback Mountain, Avatar and Life of Pi.  But the undercurrents of schadenfreude and snark that surfaced in the marketplace with Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons have swelled, with unsightly whiteheads like The Man Show, Tosh.0 and South Park giving a new, visceral meaning to pop culture.   These are not so easily dismissed as low-brow groundling fodder in the vein of Saturday morning cartoons, The Three Stooges and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  Beneath the immature vulgarity is a hard-edged adult cynicism and, in some cases, nihilism that strikes at the core of Boomer utopianism.  And their influence extends far beyond the mainstream outlets: their jeers echo in millions of Youtube videos, blogs and hit-and-run internet comments.
Scarce few of the Young Jerks have met Sorkin on the field of explicit ideological warfare, and even their guerrilla combat is more catch-and-release than take-no-prisoners.  Parker and Stone – gleeful sacred cow-punchers – noticeably reserve their most straightforward attacks for distant (Islam) or marginal foes (Mormons), engaging in evasive maneuvers whenever they take on higher-profile targets.  The acrobatic displays of submission put on by South Park and Louis CK to justify their frequent use of “fag” are illustrative examples of most Young Jerks’ cautious but still subversive approach to engagement with the more powerful aspects of the establishment.   Even the most daring and shameless of the high-profile Young Jerks, Daniel Tosh, takes cover behind an omnipresent cherubic smile.
Yet as much as the Young Jerks avoid direct confrontation, their passive-aggression is a form of attack, and one that is setting the stage for a bloodier conflict in the future.  The Young Jerks have stoked a market with a growing demand for schadenfreude and a short supply of politically acceptable victims (there are only so many ways to skewer a redneck).  Further, they have implanted a younger caste of intellectuals with a foundation of reasonable apathy and an appetite for destruction.  Consider the explosive implications of a growing class of hungry, amoral cultural predators descending on the Boomers’ asylum for militant victims (or, alternately, a hungry coalition of militant victims descending on a group of apathetic underachievers with no interest in propping up the redistribution system).  Given the Boomers’ record of inverting historical antecedents – revolutionizing an ascending society into decline, getting more progressive with age – we can anticipate that the nature of their eventual downfall will also turn the established wisdom on its head. To reconfigure T.S. Eliot, this is how their world will end, not with a whimper, but a bang.