Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Truth is in Here

The 1990s was the decade of the conspiracy theory. People (and "respectable" people such as former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger) thought that the government was behind the TWA crash of 1996. People thought that Princess Diana was murdered by the British government. People thought that the government was behind the Oklahoma City bombing. People thought the government murdered the Heaven's Gate cult. People thought that the government developed and spread AIDS. People thought Bill Clinton was a mass murderer. People marked the 50th anniversary of the supposed Roswell UFO crash and cover-up. Mel Gibson starred in a movie called Conspiracy Theory. Art Bell ruled late night talk radio. And a TV show called The X-Files became the most watched show on the Fox network.

A common thread among many 1990s conspiracy theories is that the idea that the government, or perhaps a malevolent shadow government, is controlling and manipulating national events. That was certainly the case in the X-Files TV series, with the Cigarette-Smoking Man and "The Syndicate" appearing to chart the destiny of the world.

The 2008 feature film The X-Files: I Want to Believe does not re-visit these antagonists. Mulder and Scully's primary opponent is a Russian mad scientist, who while terrifying in his immediate goals, has a decidedly limited reach in how far he can inflict his evil. And perhaps this is echoed in a limited reach for the film at the box office.

So is the conspiracy theory of the 1990s a phenomenon of the past? If a scientific poll of 2006 is any indication, it is not. According to the Scripps-Howard poll, roughly one-third of all Americans said it was "very" or "somewhat" likely that the government had some involvement in the attacks of September 11. In the two years since then, the so-called "9/11 Truth Movement" has only gotten bigger.

Psychological explanations abound as to why people are so ready to believe conspiracy theories. According to a Time magazine commentary about the 2006 poll:

A world in which tiny causes can have huge consequences feels scary and unreliable. Therefore a grand disaster like Sept. 11 needs a grand conspiracy behind divisive as they are, conspiracy theories are part of the process by which Americans deal with traumatic public events like Sept. 11. Conspiracy theories form around them like scar tissue. In a curious way, they're an American form of national mourning. They'll be with us as long as we fear lone gunmen, and feel the pain of losses like the one we suffered on Sept. 11, and as long as the past, even the immediate past, is ultimately unknowable. That is to say, forever.
They may be around forever, but I do perceive a shift in the way they have been regarded by skeptics. In other words, while the Mulder prototype of the 90s might still be in place, I don't think Scully exists anymore. Conspiracy theorists of the 90s were regarded with vague amusement by the mainstream, as demonstrated best perhaps by the Gibson movie, but also to some extent by the wry smile that Scully would get when "Spooky" Mulder would go on one of his rants. They weren't believed by the mainstream, but they were allowed to have their say and peddle their wares. And the proliferation of theories in both the real and fictional worlds indicated that though the mainstream wasn't ready to be converted to a paranoiac worldview, they were willing to allow that perhaps some things weren't what they would seem to be.

What the Scripps-Howard poll doesn't report on is the attitude of the two-thirds who don't believe in government involvement in 9/11 towards the one-third who do. Anecdotally, I would argue that there is a higher level of hostility, impatience, and outright anger toward those who believe such things (and an anger that transcends partisanship). There is also anecdotal evidence that the one-third of believers aren't just "uneducated" people. My roommate at an English teacher's gathering earlier this summer recounted to me how a dinner conversation was soured by another teacher's insistence in a 9/11 Conspiracy. He reported to me that he angrily stormed off. Also, when the public heard about a Wisconsin professor teaching 9/11 conspiracy theories in the classroom a couple of years ago, it let to an outpouring of not just criticism, but passionate criticism.

Alternatively, rather than respond angrily, I think it is more likely that critics today will ignore conspiracy theories altogether. It seems odd that as media has reached a greater proliferation than in the past decade, the overall reach of alternative or "fringe" ideas in the public consciousness has seemed to decrease. The idea that one-third of people believe in 9/11 conspiracies seems to be a news story in and of itself, and worthy of more than just a short examination in Time Magazine. Even the fact that Willie Nelson, who memorably led a sing-along of "America the Beautiful" to close a 9/11 benefit concert, is now among the conspiracy theorists seems to me to be a story worthy of more attention.

These responses seem both understandable and problematic to me. Just as Time argues that conspiracy theories are an emotional response to tragedy, the tragedy itself also shapes how people respond to the theories. It is hard to be patient with those who are perceived as being disrespectful to the true gravity of the event. But I think part of the reason that the number of believers in the poll is so high is because there has been no widespread examination of their claims. Indeed, many in the "truth movement" were given ammunition when the 9/11 Commission failed to investigate many of their questions. I believe that if there were more light shed on the situation, the number of those who believe the government was "very" or "somewhat" involved in the attack would rapidly decline. Or at least I want to believe.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Where Batman Fails

As a long time dedicated fan of comic book superheroes, the recent transition of my beloved characters from cheap newsprint paper to multi-million dollar movie productions has been a bonanza. Some fans have missed out on appreciating this bonanza because of demands that the cinema portrayals of their heroes meet their preconceived set of rules and expectations. A few Spider-Man fans refused to see the movies because he had organic and not mechanical webshooters. Some Superman fans didn't bother to see his latest movie because the costume was "too dark." Other fans have been less extreme, but nonetheless bothered by elements that didn't even enter into the casual moviegoer's perceptions.

For me, I'm largely undiscriminating. As long as a movie gets the core concept of the character right (and I think by and large superhero movies have) I'm thrilled. Yet I find myself in the curious position of tempering the overwhelming praise heaped upon what has been called "The Godfather 2 of comic book movies"-- The Dark Knight. (Spoilers ahead).

To be sure, there is much I loved about that film. I honestly can't remember watching a movie that had more wall to wall suspense, with the sense that anything big (good or bad) could happen at any moment. I particularly loved the scene where Batman goes to Hong Kong and abducts a white collar criminal. I would describe it as the most "comic book" scene I've ever seen in a comic book movie. It's the type of scene relatively easy to write and draw, but to actually have it work in the internal logic of a noirish live action film that emphasizes verisimilitude was nothing short of masterful.

Heath Ledger deserves all the accolades he's received, but that credit should also be shared with Chris Nolan and his co-writers and producers. It's remarkable that a villain without any powers other than a tactical mind could become the most terrifying comic book villain to ever grace the big screen. I was especially impressed with his "temptation" scene in which he causes Harvey to give himself up to his dark side. In particular, I was taken with the way that his lies seemed to be truth. His approach was straight out of the Garden of Eden, the way that he minimized his own culpability in the death of Rachel, the way he convinced Harvey he was nothing more than a "dog chasing a car," and his ability to deflect suspicion onto others. He almost has the audience believing that he's just a clown, without any ability to actually manipulate events (when the exact opposite is true of course). Given such a reading to this scene, the movie actually succeeds in positing Batman as a Christ figure, redeeming Harvey at the end of the film with his own sacrifice.

However, it is the very nature of Batman's sacrifice that undermines much of my good will for the film. The reason that Gotham needs a Batman in the first place is not because there are criminals running around, but because the law enforcement system in place is broken. The reason that it is so hard for the "good guy" like Gordon and Dent to deal with the underlying problem is because information in Gotham is at a premium. You don't know who you can trust because there is so much duplicity and deception, so much hoarding of information by powerful criminal elements. One of the motifs in the film is the "good guys" efforts to extract information from the "bad guys." This can be scene in brutal interrogation methods, and even in the way that Batman is continually asking questions of the bad guys he encounters. Indeed, the original rift between Dent and Gordon, which eventually causes much pain and suffering to many people, is caused by distrust over information sharing.

So how does Batman choose to deal with the ultimate dilemma of Gotham's "White Knight" becoming corrupt? By continuing to perpetuate a culture of deception, and by entering the province of the "bad guys" in hoarding information. Keeping information from the public "for their own good" is in line with totalitarian regimes, and even in the process of putting a target on his back, Batman diverts public attention from the "real problems." Furthermore, in hoisting a false Harvey Dent into the public gaze, Batman not only disrespects a public that proved its worthiness during the Joker's "social experiment," he continues to perpetuate a mistake that he made through the whole narrative--he refused to see Harvey as a human being, but rather a symbol. Whereas he can reconcile his dual identity as subject and symbol with literally two personas, Harvey couldn't--at least until tragedy struck and his psychic split was manifested physically.

So in the end, I have to agree with Jim Gordon's statement that Batman is "not a hero." Which makes me think that the next installment of the franchise could see him learning a bit more about concepts such as "truth". I wonder who could help him out with that?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

New York Minute: What it is Really About

I've been meaning for some time now to write about my thoughts on the Olsen Twins' 2004 film New York Minute. It's just that it has taken me four years to get my head around the nuances and complexities in the script, the cinematography, and the mise en scene. Okay, the truth is that I didn't see it when it came out, but I did catch it a couple months ago. I came across it while channel surfing late at night in a hotel room while on vacation. I don't watch much non-sports television at home (as the Nielson people will be able to attest to when I send them my diary next week), but (for me anyway) there is something oddly alluring about watching bad TV in hotels. My book of Checkhov plays had no chance of getting off the nightstand.

And I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the viewing experience. Watching only a handful of movies a year means that the sheer novelty of the event amplifies the entertainment quotient of any movie. Although this particular one was harangued by critics to the tune of a 13% rating at, I never once felt tempted to change the channel. A gargantuan amount of suspension of disbelief is needed as the girls go through their day, but once that is accomplished, one can sit back and thrill to the wacky hijinx, sight gags, slapstick, and over the top drama. The pace was fast, with the girls being tossed with ever increasing speed from one dilemma to the next. The plot (such as it is) revolves around Ashley's (I never really got the character names down) attempt to give a speech in order to get a scholarship to study overseas and Mary Kate's attempt to ditch school for a music video shoot. Ashley needs to learn how to have fun and Mary Kate needs to learn how to be responsible.

Although I freely admit to being highly entertained by the film, I was also dumbfounded and somewhat disturbed by the way that it disseminated ideology. I have never seen a more blatant packaging of hegemonic bourgeoisie capitalism. I'm not sure how many Marxist critical theorists have taken the time to watch this movie, but this is what they have been waiting years for. For those that don't know, and at the risk of oversimplification, Marxist critics believe that most works of art are in some way an attempt by the prevailing economic ideology (in most cases Capitalism) to uphold the status quo. In other words, moviemakers help to keep down workers by feeding them movies that cause them to think that our current capitalistic system is ideal and that they shouldn't complain (or revolt, as many Marxists would have them do). While this requires some pretty convoluted readings of most movies (and other texts), I suspect that New York Minute might have been written on the sly by Marxist critics just so that they would have
an easy target to rail against.

First, the central protagonists serve to normalize white upper class materialism. Their father (somewhat hilariously played by Dr. Drew), is a physician. They appear to live a pampered and privileged life, at least until the fateful day when Ashley's designer outfit is ruined and she loses her credit card. Things go from bad to worse as they are forced to trudge through New York's sewers. Who could they possibly turn to for succor? Look no further than the kind hearted black folks down at Big Cheryl's House of Bling (with several women and a nonthreatening gay guy at their service), who will take time out of their busy day to doll up the cute little white girls, providing them their choice of literally a dozen outfits and hairstyles to choose from ("Just so we are clear, I want a more corporate bling," orders Ashley). Having got what they needed from the "sisters," the Olsens head back to their white world.

Not content to overtly designate racial roles, the movie also makes explicit that not all classes are created equal. One of the twins acquires a love interest that is quite literally a senator's son (the movie ends with the girls and their guys jamming in a "rock band". I doubt they will be doing any CCR covers). Also, comic relief is provided by a couple of stereotypical country rubes driving their RV around New York, completely oblivious to what is actually transpiring around them.

What is particularly fascinating about the film's ideology, though, is the way that the twins represent the reconciliation of the two (sometimes competing) traits necessary for the continuance of the Capitalistic status quo: responsible citizenship and consumer indulgence. The story starts with Ashley wholly on the former end of the spectrum, with Mary Kate embodying the latter. Through the course of the narrative, they are fully interpellated together into a unified, dominant ideology.

Ashley's story is the more simple of the two. A day out on the town brings her out of her shell and enables her to "loosen up." While clearly the "brainy one," it is interesting that her supposed intellectualism is manifested through business savvy. Indeed, one of the major plot points involves the loss of her organizer.

Mary Kate has a more interesting journey from "rebel" to "citizen." She is a habitual truant, something that she needs to overcome as she learns to play by the rules of society. This is neatly symbolized at the end of the movie, when she literally becomes friends with the truant officer who was chasing her over the course of the entire movie. Her primary objective in getting to the music video shoot is to get a demo tape into the hands of someone who can recognize her talent. What is absolutely fascinating here is that the "arty one" has more designs on commercial success than on actually pursuing artistic expression.

All of these elements are noteworthy, but what truly elevates this movie to the state of exemplar of bourgeoisie propaganda are the villains. The main event that drives the plot is the twins accidental acquisition of a computer chip that belongs to a criminal organization. What we slowly learn over the course of the movie is the nature of the organization and the nature of the crime ring. It turns out that the syndicate is responsible for (gasp) rampant proliferation of pirated movies and music. What an affront to capitalism! Where could such a threat come from? Obviously, the Chinese are responsible! Bizarrely, the man the twins are on the run from is a white guy who works for the "cartel" who happens to talk with a Chinese accent. At the end, he is reprimanded for pretending to be Chinese when he is not. Obviously, he was interpellated into the wrong value system and needs to be set right.

Now, as ready made as this production is for a Marxist critical assault, there is one problem. It was literally one of the poorest performing films ever. For a movie all about the importance of making money, they sure didn't practice what they preached. So what was the problem? Many critics maligned it for being too unrealistic. While it certainly was, maybe it was also a bit too realistic.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Texting: IMO IDC

Back in 2003 or early 2004, when I worked at a sports talk radio station, I was responsible for ensuring that our original programming got on the air and went off without glitches (something I was moderately successful at). I clearly remember one occasion in which one of our hosts would have to do a remote broadcast without access to a computer, and consequently would have no way of knowing basic things that a host needs to know, such as whether there are callers on the line. Just as he had given up hope, I asked whether his cell phone had text messaging. "Oh yeah, it does!" he remembered. Problem solved. Even though this particular host had a huge business role for the station while off-air, he evidently didn't make use much of texting.

Fast forward to the present and Wikipedia tells me that 75% of those with cell phones are frequent texters. Despite my (relatively) early application of this technology for professional purposes, I am not one of those 75%. I estimate that I have sent and received less than 20 texts in my life (and I had not sent or received a single one at the time that I saved that radio broadcast). I just don't get the phenomenon.

I seem to always read about texting in the sports section of the newspaper. I am a bit compulsive about reading the cover story of the USA Today sports section, which is quite often a profile of some athlete, and it is just amazing to me how many articles make reference to the athlete in question getting a "text from Michael Jordan" or a "text from Kobe Bryant." Mark McGwire, said to be in a kind of seclusion, frequently texts young hitters with advice on batting (insert your own joke here). Most recently, Brett Favre texted his hometown paper to temper rumors that he was returning to the Packers.

Now, athletes can certainly afford texting rates, and they can probably afford iphones or other mobile devices that make texting the basic equivalent of e-mail, but for the rest of us, what advantage does a text message have over an e-mail or an actual conversation? Obviously, some do, i.e. "running l8. b there @ 9" can be a legitimate application. But "hw r u 2day?"??? And there are certainly disadvantages to texting, even if you aren't Kwame Kilpatrick. It costs money. It can be addicting. It can imperil your life.

Obviously, for many people texting must serve a special purpose, and if it is not a pragmatic one, it must be a psychological one. Face to face, or even voice to voice interaction can be scary. Communicating through bytes can decrease anxiety and make each participant in a conversation feel that they have more control over the discourse. But that still doesn't account for why texting is often more popular than e-mailing.

I suspect the reason is that for many people, receiving a text of any kind is a mild buzz (sometimes literally). It is gratifying that someone cares enough about you to send you a text. Why wait to log onto a computer to get that buzz (and have it possibly diluted by getting several at a time), when you can carry a small device that can give you that buzz at random but blessed intervals throughout the day? And what better way to ensure that you get the buzz than by giving the buzz to others? And the phone companies reap massive profit from your buzz so everyone benefits! (except perhaps teachers who have to compete with texting, but they don't count).

Or maybe I'm just bitter because no one texts me...