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The Century of the Self February 9, 2007

Posted by Sandsquish in Sociology.
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Produced by Adam Curtis, 2002 (B&W and Color, 4:3, Mono, 4×60′)
Featuring various marketers, political advisers, PR flacks, and psychologists

The Century of the Self contrasts whimsical film footage with an ominous narrative. It describes the way our ideas about human nature have changed and how the development of psychology has allowed social institutions to use these ideas to exert more and more control over people. This documentary focuses its attention on Sigmund Freud’s family, especially his daughter and nephew, who exerted a surprising amount of influence on the way corporations and governments throughout the 20th century have thought about, and dealt with, people.

At the end of the 19th century, Freud had a remarkable insight into human behavior. He believed that people were, often, unaware of what motivated them and didn’t really know how they felt about things. He called this part of the mind, the part that people couldn’t recognize, the subconscious. Being the cynic he was, Freud decided that the unconscious was filled with irrational, destructive, emotions which posed a danger to society. This was, unsurprisingly, a very unpopular point of view when Freud first wrote about it. At the time, people knew that they were, actually, divinely rational beings who were in complete control of themselves.

But Edward Bernays, Freud’s American nephew, was a little more receptive to his uncle’s ideas, not because he was concerned with whether or not people were naturally destructive, but because Freud’s ideas about people having strong emotions might help him convince people to buy things they didn’t really need, and make a lot of money for him and his clients in the process. As long as his uncle wasn’t completely wrong, then all Bernays had to do was associate emotional ideas with pointless products, and then consumers just wouldn’t be able to help themselves. He was right, and his remarkable successes created a new industry, called public relations, which relied, almost entirely, on playing emotional games with people’s heads.

But this only lasted till the market crashed. Worse of all, the terrifying events that began to occur in Germany during the depression convinced politicians that Freud had been right all along. People’s emotions were clearly dangerous and had to be controlled. Government agencies began using Bernays’ PR techniques, and Himmler’s propaganda methods, to convince people to suppress their emotions and conform to social norms. Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter, and one of his most influential evangelists, even decided that she would see to it that her British nephew and niece were raised this way, as an example.

However, one of Freud’s students, Wilhelm Reich, eventually decided that Freud had been a little paranoid. Emotions weren’t bad, people weren’t evil, and the solution wasn’t control and repression, but expression. Freud’s daughter didn’t like the sound of this, especially since her nephew and niece had since grown up to be severely troubled people providing an unnervingly good proof of his thesis. This Reich guy had struck a nerve, and so she ostracized him from the psychology movement. But Reich’s ideas still caught on.

This didn’t make either industry or government very happy either. Neither of them knew what to do with individuals. They had mass-produced products and policies that they sold through massive public-relations campaigns. Then, they noticed that self-expression gurus were organizing “focus groups” where people met to work out how they felt about things. All our institutions had to do was ask these focus groups the right questions, and they’d tell them how to keep selling us products and policies.

It turned out that all business and government really had to do was play each group off of each other. Corporations could sell slight variations of the same mass-produced products to people, as long as they associated one variation with one group of people, and then said that this variation allowed them to express their true nature. And politicians no longer had to worry about sweeping social changes, they could just play off one segment of voters against another. Cut taxes for their wealthy campaign contributors while creating a parental control system for their TV-watching voters.

This psychology stuff turned out to be better than they had thought. Now, our institutions could convince us that they were doing more and more, while they’re, actually, doing less and less all the time. Funny how that worked out, isn’t it?


The Power of Nightmares January 26, 2007

Posted by Sandsquish in History.
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Produced by Adam Curtis, 2005 (B&W and Color, 4:3, Mono, 3×60′)
Featuring various bureaucrats, intelligence analysts, journalists, military advisers, philosophers, and political advisers

The Power of Nightmares documents the history of neo-conservative politics and Islamic fundamentalism, from these movements’ philosophical beginnings in the ’50s and ’60s, to their followers’ current positions as influential, if unpopular, demagogues, who may, very well, have created power for themselves through the use of distortion and fear.

Adam Curtis begins his story by telling us that, in the past, politicians’ power came from the dreams they offered us, but, faced with a disenchanted population, they came to rely, instead, on promises to protect us from nightmares. Curtis’ well-reasoned, three-hour essay makes a convincing argument that those nightmares may be no more real than the dreams they couldn’t deliver previously.

Nightmares weaves a montage of narrated film and music clips with interviews of credible sources of information. The film and music sometimes add an ironic spin to the narrator’s calm and authoritative description of the ideas and events that led to the War on Terror.

Ideas play a central role in this history of events, and Nightmares begins with two relatively minor philosophers, Sayyid Qutb, in the Middle East, and Leo Strauss, in the West, who both believed that the tolerance and freedom of Western society had led to social disorder and decay. Qutb became convinced that the West was creating a world-wide culture of selfish, immoral people, while Strauss theorized that individualism and nihilism threatened the stability of Western society.

Qutb’s adherents, the Islamic fundamentalists, decided that the way to shock Muslims out of their moral corruption was by killing Arab politicians and, eventually, Arabic citizens, until the populace realized that Muslim states were the only way to create a pure, Islamic, society.

Meanwhile, Strauss’ followers, the American neo-conservatives, created a Platonic myth of America as a bastion of good which must battle the forces of evil in the world. They allied themselves with the Republican party and fundamentalist Christians, not because they believed in either of their philosophies, but because they offered them a means to spread their vision of a heroic fight between good and evil which would galvanize the West and reverse its decay.

Curtis describes both of these political movements as destructive, self-deluding forces which fell out of favor, after their hey-day in the 80s and early 90s, until the horrifying attack on New York City provided them with a means to re-assert their philosophies.

Nightmares sees al-Qaeda as a phantom threat which poses little more danger to society than any of the other isolated terrorist groups which have intermittently attacked people throughout the late 20th century, and it paints the Bush and Blair administrations’ reactions to the terrorist attacks as extreme and paranoid. This may startle people who have relied on mainstream journalism for their information on the War on Terror, but Nightmares’ argument is credible, well-reasoned, and worthy of consideration.

Tim Burton January 12, 2007

Posted by Sandsquish in Profiles.
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Characteristic films include Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands, Frankenweenie, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Sleepy Hollow

Tim Burton was raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles. He was struck by the lack of individuality he saw around him.

“I grew up in a subtext of normality,” he says. “It’s weird. It’s American. There’s a very strong sense of categorization and conformity.”

Although Tim Burton would probably not consider himself a conformist, he seems to suffer from the same sort of repression that he sees in the rest of our society. He feels unable to communicate verbally, and most of his interviewers appear to agree that he is difficult to understand. He has felt isolated for most of his life and has been depressed for as long as he can remember.

The horror movies he watched as a child provided a link between him and the rest of the world. He was able to empathize with the monsters and villains. He saw an honest release of emotion in those characters that he couldn’t find anywhere else.

“The heroes were always these bland actors with no emotion. They were the suburbanites to me. Vincent Price was my psychologist. Those movies were very inspirational.”

He considers horror films, and his own films, to be modern fairy tales. Burton believes that the purpose of a fairy tale is to create a heightened version of reality that links feelings to society. Throughout his interviews, Burton uses the words purity, passion, and strength interchangeably. To him they all mean the same thing: sincere emotion.

Burton began to draw when he was very young. He felt like he could express himself through his art. Monster movies and drawing were both methods of manufacturing images that became symbols for feelings. After high school, he went to the California Institute for the Arts and studied animation. He worked for Disney after he graduated, but that didn’t work out.

“I just could not draw cute foxes for the life of me,” he says. “I almost went insane. I really did.”

And most of the main characters in his films are not cute. They may be funny, absurd, terrifying, pathetic, or bizarre, but they are rarely cute. His films deal with isolated misfits who are perceived by the rest of society as threats. These characters deal with loss and the callousness of society imaginatively, and they always pursue something with obsessive passion. Man-made objects, or artifacts, are closely associated with the main characters. Since Burton manufactures art as an outlet for emotion, why shouldn’t his characters?

The dog in “Frankenweenie,” for instance, is a man-(re)made object that is the result of a young boy’s imaginative, and determined, wish to see his companion resurrected. Pee-Wee Herman goes on an epic, and absurd, journey in search of a bicycle. Edward Scissorhands is a man-made object that expresses himself through his topiary and hairstyling. Bruce Wayne uses his family fortune to create an alter-ego that is entirely dependent on technology, and he obsessively hunts down anyone whose behavior resembles that of the young thug who killed his parents. The art-destroying Joker is the product of an accident in a vat of industrial chemicals, and he goes to the trouble to manufacture and market a commercial product to get his revenge on an entire city. Ichabod Crane relies on his investigative gadgets to lead him to the truth, and shield him from bizarre social attitudes. And Willy Wonka went so far as to build a whole world for himself inside of a surreal candy factory.

The insane clown is another recurring element in Burton’s films. From the manic Bettlejuice to the whimsically callous Willy Wonka, Burton’s clowns behave in frighteningly unexpected ways.

“Why a fascination with clowns? Probably because they are dangerous. That kind of danger is what it’s all about.”

Clowns represent an extreme reaction to emotion and the freedom that can come from being different. In a way, they also symbolize the “real” world, as opposed to the “semi-oppressive, blank palette” of American society.

“They acknowledge the absurdity. They acknowledge the reality. Life is unknown … a mixture of good and bad, and funny and sad. It’s weirdly complicated.”

Many of Burton’s cinematic techniques look as baroque as his own outlook. Danny Elfman’s overpowering classical music reverberates throughout his films, and any on-screen music tends to be banal pop songs that drown out the rest of the soundtrack. Burton’s sets are always very dense and stylized, and his in-frame compositions are meticulously balanced. He’ll often contrast the brilliant colors of one location with the de-saturated palette of another. And, frequently, the vividly-colored settings represent the landscape the hero must navigate to reach his goal, whether it’s the garish pastels of suburbia in Edward Scissorhands, the vivid nightmares of Crane in Sleepy Hollow, the lively underworld of Corpse Bride, or the cartoonish factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It’s probably no coincidence that both Burton and a surprising number of his protagonists dress in black, or that many of his films are set in fall or winter, or that his characters, such as “Frankenweenie’s” Victor, Beetlejuice’s Lydia, Bruce Wayne, Ichabod Crane, and the Corpse Bride, are either obsessed with, or horribly scarred by, death. Fairy tales do deal with death, after all.

The actors who play out these fables are instructed to behave in either a stylized-and-exaggerated or simple-and-understated manner. Generally, the antagonists and clowns are stylized while the sympathetic characters are understated. The clowns, of course, display exaggerated emotion, but the characters who represent society-at-large are stylized in an attempt to portray the hypocrisy of people who fit in, despite the fact that the roles they have accepted may not represent what they really feel or believe. Meanwhile, Victor in “Frankenweenie,” Lydia in Beetlejuice, Bruce Wayne in Batman, Kim in Edward Scissorhands, and Katrina in Sleepy Hollow are all presented realistically.

Burton says that he has a lot of admiration for misguided characters who pursue something with passion. His films are absurd and bizarre, and they concern characters who are trapped in confusing and surrealistic worlds. Burton seems to see the world as a painful, but painful in a funny sort of way, place.

Quotes taken from interviews in GQ (Nov. 1993, v. 63, no. 11), Newsweek (Jan. 21, 1991, v. 117, no. 3), and Rolling Stone (July 9, 1992, no. 634)

Soylent Green January 5, 2007

Posted by Sandsquish in Dystopias.
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Directed by Richard Fleischer, 1973 (Color, 7:3, Mono, 100′)
Starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Chuck Connors

What would a corporation think the perfect world would be like?

Probably, it would be a place where consumers will take whatever they can get and they’ll want even that so badly that they’ll accept rationing when a company just can’t churn out enough of it. Corporations might also like to see governments so weak, corrupt, and busy quelling riots of unemployed people that they can’t bother with irksome tasks like regulating commerce. And if corporations decide that it would be profitable to turn the air green with smog and chew up all the natural resources, then that’ll probably be for the best anyhow. At least that way consumers won’t be able to live off the land and will crowd into the cities, which would make product distribution very efficient. And, if corporations should happen to run out of the usual raw materials for their products, then, considering the circumstances, no one would probably notice, or care, if they decided to use the term “human resources” in a new, and innovative, way.

Soylent Green shows us that world. The funny thing is, you might not think it looks as perfect as the MBAs think it will look. Come to think of it, all those “developing” countries who’ve decided to welcome transnational corporations into their economies don’t seem too sure it’s quite as perfect as they were told either. And Soylent Green looks a lot like those places.

Ah, well. We have other things to worry about. Detective Thorn, for instance, has to investigate a poorly-disguised murder. It’s kind of an odd murder. For one thing, the victim sat on the board of directors for the most perfect corporation in the world, Soylent. And, no one, not even the victim, judging from the crime scene, seems too bothered about his demise. What a strange place this perfect world is.

Strange place or not, Charlton Heston seems perfectly comfortable in it. His police investigator really appears to have grown up around there. And Edward G. Robinson plays the wizened old bibliophile, who can still remember when all this stuff seemed like a good idea, very well. Leigh Taylor-Young and Chuck Connors give their characters just enough warmth that you might be able to sympathize with them. And playing those roles that way makes sense, in this context. After all, in the perfect corporate world, we might have worse things to worry about than hookers and thugs.

Profit December 8, 2006

Posted by Sandsquish in The Business of Business.
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Produced by David Greenwalt and John McNamara, 1996 (Color, 4:3, Stereo, 1×90′ 7×45′)
Starring Adrian Pasdar, Lisa Zane, Lisa Blount, Lisa Darr, and Keith Szarabajka

Jim Profit is a psychopath. But that’s okay with him, because it makes him a remarkably good executive. Profit understands what matters in the corporate world: promotions — at least up to the point where the press might take note of him — and stock prices. People only matter if they can contribute to either of those things. If they can’t, in some way or another, then they’re not worth considering. If they can, and they get in the way of those things, well then, Profit will just have to do something about them, won’t he?

None of the other executives notice how sick Profit is because he fits right in with the crowd. They’re all sociopaths, after all. At least the good ones are. All Profit really has to do to maintain his cover is make sure that the extra spin he adds to things can’t be traced directly back to him.

But the head of corporate security can’t help but notice that the amount of spin in the executive suite has increased since Profit came onboard. She’s perfectly accustomed to seeing managers stab each other in the back, get investigated for crimes, and collapse from cardiac arrests, but the bodies have really been piling up recently. She’s convinced that Profit is even more disturbed than her other bosses, and she’s going to find some way to corner him.

However, the real tension in this show doesn’t come from Profit’s fencing with corporate security. The truth is, security doesn’t stand a chance against Profit. He’s too thorough, devious, and cold-blooded to feel threatened by people. Profit’s real enemy is himself, because while Profit may be cunning, he’s hardly smart. He’s so destructive that his schemes keep boxing him in, and while he’s quite capable of controlling or removing the people who notice things he doesn’t want them to notice, some of them keep bouncing back, and this boxes him in even further.

The strength of Profit is in its ironies. Profit believes he’s a smart, all-American success story, but we see a psychotic stand-in for everything that’s wrong with corporate America. Profit is sure he’s charming and lovable, but we’re only watching him to see how he’ll worm his way through the messes he creates, and how low he’ll go to create some more wiggle-room for himself. Profit opens and closes his stories with homilies about hard work, perseverance, and adversity, but we’re astonished that anyone could interpret those maxims the way he does. Profit knows he’s well-adjusted to his environment, but we see a chillingly real metaphor for the tragedy of his life at the end of each segment, when we’re shown exactly how he manages to sleep at night.

If this seems a little grim, that’s because it is. But it’s also amusing. And if Profit’s latest scheme makes you too uncomfortable to appreciate the humor, then the actors will play-it-up a little to remind you that, yes, it’s only a story, so, yes, it’s okay to grin at this monster as well as shudder at him.

The Dragon King December 1, 2006

Posted by Sandsquish in Teutonic Tales.
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Directed by Uli Edel, 2004 (Color, 9:5, Surround, 130’/170′)
Starring Benno Fürmann, Kristanna Loken, Alicia Witt, Julian Sands, Samuel West, and Max von Sydow

The Dragon King goes by several names. Sometimes, this film calls itself The Dark Kingdom, sometimes it goes by the name The Ring of the Nibelungs, and sometimes it thinks you should call it The Sword of Xanten. Sometimes it will show you almost three hours worth of story, but, at other times, it will only show you a little more than two hours worth.

This might make you suspect that The Dragon King has something to hide, but it doesn’t. In fact, the longer version is, by all accounts, the better of the two cuts of the film. Maybe The Dragon King feels a little insecure because it knows it’s tough not to compare it to the much more impressive Lord of the Rings trilogy. After all, they both concern a cursed ring. They both depict the spectral guardians of that ring. They both feature a dwarfish outcast with odd mannerisms and strange attributes. And they both involve a lot of swordplay and a fair amount of magic.

But The Dragon King is a retelling of the ancient Völsung saga and the Nibelungen lay, and it is significantly more earthbound than the Lord of the Rings. It is the story of Siegfried, a blacksmith who cannot remember his childhood, the court of the Burgundians, which his adoptive father works for, and a Scandinavian queen. Yes, the blacksmith battles a dragon, the royalty of Burgund isn’t above dabbling in black magic, the queen possesses supernatural strength, and they are all slowly acting out the elements of a curse cast by a long-dead race, but the story spends more time with its characters than it spends with the spectacular, and it plays off the contrasts between the friendly and honest, but fatalistic and vengeful, Nordic people who cling to their old ways, and their reserved and pious, but hypocritical and deceptive, cousins who have recently converted to Christianity.

The Dragon King is by no means a great movie, though. The characters sometimes mouth cringe-worthy dialog, the photography of some of the action sequences allows characters to bounce in and out of the frame, and several scenes were shot day-for-night. Oddly, however, these flaws seem to help the film as much as hurt it. The clunky dialog tends to come when characters are blustering or confused, the erratic action shots add a little chaos to the choreography, and the day-for-night photography seems to portray the sort of harsh, cold twilight you might expect to see in the mythical north.