30 June 2008

The Armies of the Night

Conspiracy is contingent on authority. Without a dominant philosophy, there can't be a subversive one. The authority, often the government or governing body, gives an official account--JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone--and theorists construct a counter narrative.

Reading Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night gave me an interesting perspective on my "conspiracy" project. Mailer was far from a conspiracy theorist, but he was absolutely anti-establishment, and was one of the previous centuries primary inventor of narrative, especially narrative that used political and historical--non-fictional--elements. Mailer was also very famous, which would have made it difficult to be a good conspiracy theorist.

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It's hard for someone of my generation to really understand the impact that The Armies of the Night had. Although I once would have considered myself a political activist, I have never actually attended a protest of anything. The climate of political activism at my alma mater, Wesleyan, when I was there, was a sad imitation of the school's history. Thus it's hard for me to imagine a protest, or any collective activism, as being anything other that vaguely annoying. So when I started reading Mailer's book, I kept thinking, What's the big deal? The author is know for a robust ego, and the few days that he spent in jail, missing some party in Manhattan, hardly seemed like a heroic effort. I interview my father, who was alive during the 60s, after the jump.

So, in order to better understand why Mailer wrote 288 pages on a few days during which seemingly little happened, I called my Dad, in order to understand the time period. At the time of the march on the Pentagon, October 1967, my Dad was still in high school, and a self-described "young republican." He grew up in Akron, Ohio, which I can only imagine was absolutely thumping with bibles. In 1967, four months before the Kent State shooting and almost a year before the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, it was incredibly unpopular to be against the Vietnam war. Later in college my Dad would adopt a liberal anti-war stance, and attended a march in Washington in March of 1970, by which time it was more acceptable and even popular. But in 1967 it was considered unpatriotic.

This reminds me of 2003, when similar rhetoric was used concerning the war in Iraq. I remember being absolutely confused at the overwhelming support for the war by politicians. I was seventeen at the time, and actually thought that Congress wouldn't allow Bush to go into Iraq. Naive I was. Still, when I was talking to my Dad I realized that Vietnam was a completely different thing. I mean obviously, but for some reason I had to hear from him to believe what I had read in Mailer's book. According to my Dad, the reaction of the government authorities to protests was more violent than they would be now, and--though by the time my Dad was involved the demonstrations had become more peaceful--the leaders of the protests also tended toward violence.

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In an earlier post I talked about the movie "Chicago 10" and it's "protagonist," Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman plays a minor role in The Armies of the Night, in that Mailer mentions him being around, along with Jerry Rubin, also in the Chicago Seven. In my criticism of the film, I basically said that Hoffman was unsympathetic as a martyr figure, because he represented white privilege and reckless, hippie, trendster anti-establishmentness. I'm not exactly reversing my judgment on this, but maybe giving him a little more credit.

Mailer, however, is reluctant to make himself a martyr--at least a little bit. His arrest is symbolic and he goes into it planning to be arrested. He doesn't expect to actually go to the Pentagon, and basically forces a young National Guard officer to arrest him, later regretting that spending five days in jail--when he thought it would only be a few hours--would make it seem like too big of a deal.

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Mailer does share with Hoffman an interest self-invention. The formal innovations in The Armies of the Night (History as Novel, The Novel as History) reveal Mailer's approach to writing and political activism as interwoven and inextricable. His next book was a more objective look at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and Miami, but The Armies of the Night is as much about Mailer as it is about history. He is both the narrator and the protagonist in the first section of the book, the novel, during which the plot construct is ironic and deliberate. It may be a superficial device, and he may be pointing that out, but the formalism of Mailer's book goes a long way to capture the seriousness of the movement than does Hoffman's absurd theatricality.

09 June 2008

War, Inc.

I associate Hillary Duff with my little sister watching the Disney Channel. So, I was quite surprised when I finally figured out she was playing Yonica Babyyeah, the Britney spears parody in War, Inc. Then I thought, Wait a minute, is is appropriate for a white American teeny-bopper to be playing a middle eastern woman? But I guess part of the vague future that is constructed in the film is an obtuse deracination as a product of globalization. Looking at the cast list there are almost no Arab sounding names, which is my simplistic way of pointing out that they basically just slap vaguely Arabic names on to characters like Omar Sharif, and deal with the race issue that is central to the current war in Iraq by ignoring it. By setting their movie in the future, the makers are basically able to avoid making any serious political statement.

Whether this was a premeditated move to make the film more marketable, this negligence has made an otherwise action packed and thought provoking film come off as lazy and "fun." It has all the style of serious work, but little of the substance. In the end the message is one we've heard a million times, an obvious hyperbole of corporate control, using tropes of conspiracy and distopian works to create an exciting but ultimately unfulfilling forecast of military and corporate collusion. How the plot fails after the jump.

It seems like there are a lot of movies where the male protagonist has to decide between his profession and his love life, and in War, Inc Brand Hauser's (John Cusack) profession is killing people. He tries to escape his past, but it won't let him. This is pretty cliche right? It's too bad, because John Cusack is awesome in this movie. Unfortunately, his whole background is only seen through vague flashback sequences where he fights with his boss, the mysterious Walken (Ben Kingsley) is never satisfyingly explained, so it makes the whole climax of the movie seem like a joke.

The movie also makes this part into a joke. The quadriplegic bad guy tries to kill Cusack's character by running into him with a wheel chair, a hint at this film's penchant for corny humor. Cusack easily side steps his advances, and then pours Tabasco sauce in his eyes. Cusack's character is pretty inauthentic, he's just kind of a medley of badass movie guys, who starts having a conscience.

What's cool about this movie, and makes it worth seeing, is mostly the aesthetics and cinematography, and partly the jokes about capitalism (that sounds lame, I know). But we all love jokes about capitalism, right? It borrows from recent digital media influenced film and media, often looking like a Douglas Coupland project, especially the graphics and satire of corporate branding. Actually the plot is quite Coupland-esque as well, though the characters don't live up to it. It also resembles at times the Truman Show, the climactic scene looking a lot like when Jim Carrey breaks through the moon and confronts the bad guy in that movie. It also borrows from current news media, and basically satirizes all forms of pop culture that it can get to in 107 minutes.

While the premise of corporate control of the world is an interesting one, the movie doesn't bother to explain what the war is about, or go into the actual working of the corporate governments that exist. Maybe that would be boring, but it makes whatever commentary the movie is trying to make fall flat. It does a good job of being anti-war, the action scenes are pretty intense for a satire, and the senseless and random violence seems at least reminiscent of what's going on in Iraq now, but if it's meant to be a challenging theoretical piece, it doesn't go far enough.

Three I forgot

So I haven't posted in a month. I've been pretty busy, and I've actually seen a few movies that I just forgot to blog about. So I'm going to recap the worst three.

I noticed that SurfTheChannel.com has a documentary section about a month ago, so I watched the number one ranked entry, which was "The Nostradamus Effect," a National Geographic special on the 16th Century prophet and seer, Nostradamus, a name which I first associate with Douglas Coupland's most successful novel, Hey, Nostradamus! I never really got the reference, and I still don't, though I have been thinking recently that I should reread all of Coupland.

The documentary, which is one of those really annoying ones where they repeat the same information over and over again, is mostly about astrology, which is something that I have never really been interested in. Oh well, I just wasted 50 minutes. I really don't recommend watching this, besides being poorly made it contains no good conspiracies. If you really like watching crazy people make ridiculous claims about astrology, you might like it.

So I saw this trailer and got excited to see a good block buster conspiracy flick:

I know, stupid. It was actually the worst movie I have ever seen. I know it's not in theatres anymore, so it doesn't really matter but this movie totally sucked. And there was no conspiracy.

I also saw Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, though I watched a pretty shitty bootleg online. I'm not paying $12 to see this movie. Though I thought it was better, or at least as good as the first. There's something so charming about those guys, that despite the fact that there are no funny parts, you feel good after you watch it. Obviously I was vaguely interested in the movie because the title has a vaguely politically charged title. As I expected, they spend about two minutes on Guantanamo Bay, though the bad guy in this movie (was there a bad guy in the original?) is a Homeland Security dude out to get terrorists. He's a caricature of a racist, using comically obvious racist gestures to intimidate other characters. It's so over the top that it really isn't funny, like a lot of things in the movie. I won't try to analyze the race commentary that the film sort of tries to make. What struck me about this sequel was how much more Hollywood and formulaic it is than the original, but somehow also more enjoyable. I get that their whole thing is an ironic poke at Hollywood conventions, at least more obviously this time around, but it seems crazy that this works for a whole freaking movie. They're also pretty good at the formula it turns out. One thing: I did really miss the extreme dudes, but appreciated the reference to them.

Next time I'll write about something that's actually interesting. Hopefully soon.