The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Film Review

Recently I’ve found myself searching through Netflix for the unusual, the oddball, the just plain bizarre.  When I happened upon a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the title hooked me immediately and I knew I had to watch it.  I have since watched it twice, finding some of the ideas presented in it useful to varying degrees.

Apparently a sequel to another doc, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which I haven’t seen, the film is basically a Marxist and Freudian examination of the concept of ideology as presented in and through an assortment of films both well-known and obscure.  Truthfully, I don’t really get the “pervert’s” part of the title–it seems to be little more than a red herring to draw attention to the film, and I can imagine it works like a charm.  Directed by Brit Sophie Fiennes and narrated by the thoroughly engaging (if sometimes difficult to follow) Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, the film is a fascinating documentary that, if nothing else, offers us a unique perspective on a motley collection of films we know and love such as They LiveJaws and Titanic.

But I have to admire Žižek–a knotty foreigner with a thick beard, a pronounced Slovene accent and a stilted manner of speaking, he boldly challenges us thoroughly capitalist Americans to step outside our comfort zones and look at movies through utterly oblique eyes, and he somehow pulls it off spectacularly.

He begins by claiming that when we feel we have escaped the influence of ideology, it is then that we are most susceptible to it.  Indeed, we actively resist being removed from it because it is extremely uncomfortable to disengage from our ingrained social identities.  Or, as he succinctly puts it, “freedom hurts.”  It’s hard to argue with that, especially in a nation where the political divide continues to widen every year and where outlandish conspiracies once relegated to the political fringe have moved nearly into the mainstream.  Žižek aims his criticisms squarely at consumerist culture, of which we Americans are by far the biggest offenders.  Not that he has nothing positive to say about us.  For example, he makes no bones about the fact that he admires Starbucks’ model of compassionate capitalism, identifying it as the perfect form of capitalism in the age of cynicism.

With nary a misstep, Žižek tackles the symbolism of the shark in Jaws, the true message of the Catholic church in The Sound of Music, Travis Bickle’s sexual repression in Taxi Driver, and the concept of the Big Other as represented in propaganda films like post-WWII Russian narrative film The Fall of Berlin and the Nazi documentary The Eternal Jew, among other things, all from the Marxist point-of-view.  Whether you identify in any sense with Marxism or not, Žižek presents Marxist philosophy in terms that are easy to grasp, or at least much easier to grasp than the works of Karl Marx himself.  I can vouch for that–I have tried to delve into Marx’s writing several times, with various degrees of success.  I can understand the basic premise of Marxism, but it’s all pretty confusing beyond that.  In fact, the Marxist idea I find most engaging (but no less complex) has nothing much to do with economics per se: dialectical materialism.  But more about that later.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in Freudianism, Marxism, semiotics, film history, film criticism, and so on, this shouldn’t be missed.  And now, to find a copy of The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema in my little Southern town.  Yeah, good luck to me, huh?

Grade: A

Updates: 7-20-14

Okay, so I finally got around to creating an Indigo Xix account for Facebook.  You can friend me or follow me by going here or by searching for Indigo Xix in the search window at the top of FB.

I also deleted a couple of articles dealing with gun control.  Not because I have changed my opinion about the issue, but because I no longer want the hassle of dealing with irate gun people, and because I do feel they were harsher than I originally intended them to be.

That’s all for now.  Have a good one, people.

AL+ER Teaser (Chapter One)

Here’s a teaser from the first chapter of my dark fantasy novel AL+ER.  Please bear in mind that this is an early draft and may be subject to editing.  This constitutes roughly three pages of my nineteen page double-spaced manuscript for Chapter One, so less than one-sixth of the chapter as a whole.


Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger album started up on the CD player, thundering with the speed grunge opening track Rusty Cage. Doing his best to ignore the gelatinous movement of the floor and walls of his apartment bedroom, Eric shambled over to the dresser and carefully—as carefully as his present condition would allow anyway—lifted the single object resting on top of it, a maplewood box with beveled corners and a brass latch. Medusian tresses of cigarette smoke wound through the space around him, a poison-toothed nimbus. With his back against the dresser he slid to the floor, pulling the box down onto his lap as he went. He popped the latch with his thumb, opened the lid and began removing its contents one by one: a Zippo with a musical half-note etched on its side; a folded and frayed letter he had penned as a teenager to a musician he idolized at the time but had never sent; a handful of old family photos with bent corners; another photo of himself as a preteen standing in a long hallway in a building he couldn’t remember; several guitar picks, paperclips and bits of loose change; tiny plastic weapons to long-lost toy figurines…

He dumped the remaining assortment of trinkets and effluvia onto the floor. And there were the cards, now exhumed from their burial at the bottom of the little wooden tomb. The Ledlow Tarot, as he called them. Or sometimes the Deck of Sins. They were wrapped in a square of black silk. Peeling away the silk covering, he splayed the partial Tarot deck—the twenty-one cards of the Major Arcana, which is all Allie had completed—in his left hand. He shuffled the cards and set the deck face-down on the carpet before him.

It must have been a thousand times Eric had done this in the last fourteen years, ever since Allie had given him the cards that summer when they’d both been ten. That was in 2001, the Summer of the Black Sun by Solomon Ryan’s reckoning, and by Eric’s too. Ordinarily he would be shaking by now, but a rare calm filled him this time, and he placed his right palm atop the deck for a few seconds as he pondered the same question, or some variant of it, that he always pondered at this point in the ritual: What will tomorrow bring for me?

Drawing the first card from the top of the deck, he placed it to the far left of what would become a line of five cards.

The Magician. The figure in the card waved his wand a bit before pointing it accusingly at Eric, a golden infinity halo pulsing over his head. Time to get his ass in gear and do what needed to be done. That’s what it meant. An auspicious start.

He drew the next card. The Chariot. The two muscular beasts, one a black unicorn, the other a pale griffin, strained against their shared yoke, briefly rearing past the two dimensions of their flat rectangular prison before being yanked back into the picture plane. Again the theme was motivation, but the Chariot indicated decisiveness as well. So he would go through with it this time after all.

The Lovers. Two entwined adolescents, a male and female, the boy a brunette like Eric and the girl wearing Allie’s unmistakable blond bob with the too-long bangs that half hid her eyes, broke from their hug to look at Eric with expressions of irritation at the interruption of their eternal embrace. At the center of it all, literally and figuratively, there they were. He and Aldora Ledlow, aged ten, sitting Indian-style and facing each other on the floor of Eric’s tree house.

Justice. A young queen who resembled Allie’s mom as she had been in those days, bearing a sword in one hand and a pair of scales in the other. She wore a sorrowful countenance. Everything would be set aright come tomorrow. The cards would decide. Before he drew the final card he felt a shudder of anxiety.

Here it is, folks, the moment of truth. And the winner is…

Death. The Reaper, who slashed his scythe outward, and Eric quickly withdrew his hand from the card to avoid losing a finger. Of course. How could it be anything else? It was the one he’d been waiting on for the last thirteen years, wasn’t it? Well, to be sure, Death didn’t always mean the big sleep. Sometimes it meant a transition, a major life change, or just the end of something important.

Like the world.

No, there was satisfaction in the realization that he would face judgment at last. There was no question of his guilt. The verdict was inevitable. The only matters to be settled now were where the trial would take place and how the punishment would be inflicted. It couldn’t be here in his apartment. Much too plebeian. BOOOOORRRRRing, as Allie would have said. Maybe he would fall from a high place; that seemed the most fitting. Hmm, too biblical? Too showy, certainly. Besides, going that way deprived him of the long trial, an essential part of his fate. The most appropriate means of seeing himself tried was by the same way he had lived his life for the last decade—with the aid of foreign chemicals. Yes. Isn’t that why he’d purchased the Spectral anyway? Hadn’t he known somewhere in the back of his mind that he was going to use the Spectral as a doorway out of this miserable existence?

Good, that was decided. All that was left now was to select the venue. Several minutes of wracking his brain got him nowhere on that count, and he nearly decided to do it at home after all. Then it came to him, and he nearly cackled aloud at the perfection of it. Galaxy House. That mysterious domicile made famous by its former owner and still more infamous by what had happened to him. Truth be told, Eric had always wanted to see the inside of it anyway. Now he would.

Focusing on My Writing

You may have noticed that I didn’t put up an Of the Week post this weekend.  The thing is, I’ve decided to suspend that series for awhile.  I’ll probably pick it up again at some later date, but for now I have grown weary of it.  This doesn’t mean I am going to stop posting awesome artwork, quotes, etc.; I’m just going to do it as the fancy strikes me rather than at regular intervals.

However, I am going to be slowing down on my blogging.  The reason for this is that I am focusing on writing my novel AL+ER right now.  I am shooting at having it completed by the end of the year, although it will no doubt require some heavy editing after the first draft is done; I hold no illusions that my novel will be anywhere near ready for publication by the end of December, but hopefully it won’t be too long thereafter that I can start shopping it around to publishers.  I have also considered taking the self-publication route, which may be necessary as the novel is going to be difficult to pigeonhole and publishers tend to dislike when things don’t fit comfortably into easily recognized genre boxes.  But that consideration is still months down the road.

Meanwhile, here’s some artwork related to the book.  There’s a rock band in the series that the main protagonists follow, called Lostsol, and this is a cover design I created for the band’s first album, Room Outside the Outside Room.  The title of the album is somewhat abstracted on the cover, but I did this intentionally, for reasons that will only be clear once you read the book.  And notice the dark sun behind the band name, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a symbol that recurs throughout the novel and ultimately the entire series.  For now, just keep in mind that mirrors and mirror images are also important to the novel.

Lostsol - Room Outside the Outside Room (cover design)
Lostsol – Room Outside the Outside Room (cover design)      

Some Thoughts on the Scientific Method and the Anti-Science Mentality in the United States

There’s a succinct and spot-on piece penned by Editor-in-Chief Analee Newitz over at io9 entitled If You Love Science, This Will Make You Lose Your Sh*t.  The article examines a piece written by Jason Mitchell, a Harvard-based professor of psychology, who addressed a growing criticism of the social sciences surrounding the fact that many of its researchers have published studies throughout the last decade or so with results that were not reproducible.  Mitchell, therefore, challenged the very notion that reproducibility is important to the sciences, which is no less than a brazen refutation of the concept of science itself.  Newitz (rightly) ripped Mitchell a new one for this nonsense.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to examine the scientific method, what it is and what it’s for.  In a nutshell, the scientific method is a process through which scientists can test their hypotheses, which is just a fancy word for hunches, albeit ones that are usually well thought through.  The origins of the scientific method as such can be traced back to the Renaissance, but the concept behind it goes back at least as far as Aristotle, so it has a long and distinguished history.  In fact, it is one of the few human inventions that have lasted, being tweaked, refined and improved upon over the centuries rather than completely scrapped for a different approach.  But the latter is precisely what Mitchell is proposing scientists do.

Mitchell’s belief that reproducibility isn’t important to science is a dangerous precedent for someone in his position to set.  Reproducibility, which is the ability of both the original experimenter and others in the scientific community to duplicate the results of an experiment, is vital for determining scientific truths.  Otherwise, a study could be fabricated whole-cloth and passed off as accurate without anyone being the wiser.  Think about the implications of that.  Would you trust your children’s lives or your own to a new medication that had only been demonstrated to be safe and effective in a single study that couldn’t be duplicated?  And yet, this is the level of standards we have been getting in the social sciences (psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics) as a matter of course in the last few years, which is the reason for the criticisms that have been leveled against many of the studies in these fields.  Even without gross fabrications these fields have traditionally had less rigorous standards to abide by than the hard sciences, but it seems that some, including Mitchell, believe there should be even fewer standards for testing claims, or perhaps none at all.

All of the fields listed above have been problematic, but the one that most concerns me is psychology because it is the one that most directly impacts the lives of many people.  Thus, for someone of Mitchell’s standing to dismiss the importance of reproducibility in studies that come out of his field is downright chilling.  For starters, consider that psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals are often called as expert witnesses in criminal court proceedings, sometimes in literal life-or-death cases.  Now, if you were on trial for a murder you didn’t commit, would you want your fate put into the hands of someone who placed little or no importance on the most accurate and widely respected forms of fact-finding among scientists?  I wouldn’t.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just the so-called soft sciences that have been impacted by this kind of lazy thinking.  It has even infiltrated the hard sciences, most notably in the areas of evolutionary theory and biology, the big bang theory and climatology.  What you should notice immediately if you are at all politically aware is that the importance placed on empirical fact-gathering for these issues tends to break down along political and religious lines, with liberals tending to support the validity of traditional scientific thought and conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, tending to favor a faster and looser approach to the empirical evidence, despite what they may claim.  Anyone who takes science seriously can discover this for themselves by putting their studies and claims to the test.  But, of course, if the test itself is viewed and treated as valueless by them, then they can make the results say whatever they like, which is mighty convenient for those who hold to beliefs not supported by the hard evidence.  Like climate change deniers.

The fact that the vast majority of scientists working in the field of climatology (not to mention tangential fields like geology and oceanography) agree that our planet is indeed undergoing significant climate change and that we humans are to a large extent responsible for it should be enough to silence the deniers.  The problem is that it has become a deeply politicized issue.  Without politicians jumping into the fray, this probably would not be a controversial issue at all.  But it is, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why: many wealthy politicians, particularly those who are fiscally conservative, have a direct financial stake in businesses that are strongly contributing to global warming.  The Guardian points out that a mere ninety companies worldwide are responsible for two-thirds of the world’s problematic emissions, with most of the bigger ones being oil and coal companies.  Guess who are some of the major investors and employees of these companies?  Wealthy conservative politicians.

These are primarily Republicans, but there are also some conservative Southern and Western Democrats in the mix.  And it isn’t just politicians who are directly tied to Big Oil and Big Coal who are the problem; those companies also use their money to gain political advantages through Congress.  If you’re interested, there’s a website that lays out the connections between energy companies and major political players: Dirty Energy Money.  It is definitely worth a look.

By the way, lest you think these politicians are just constantly lying to our faces, well, there is certainly some of that going on, but it isn’t the whole picture.  You see, often what happens is that these fallacies begin first as lies, but eventually the liars tell their lies so often that they begin to believe their own lies.  So how does that happen, exactly?  Do you remember those pesky things called cognitive biases that I’ve talked about before?  One of the biggies here is confirmation bias.  This is the tendency for people to gravitate toward information that already supports what they believe.  Thus, these politicians and heads of energy corporations have fabricated their own science with which to counter the real science.  Likewise, the deeply religious have fabricated their own science to counter the mainstream scientific findings that disturb them.  So, you see?  They no longer have to lie–they have their own bona fide science they can believe in, allowing them the comfort of avoiding the unpleasant evidence that shows their beliefs to be misguided.  This is what we call pseudoscience (literally: ‘false science’), and the more people they can convince to swallow it, the easier it is for them to maintain their Grand Delusion.  Unfortunately, their success rates are frighteningly high because a great many people are too morally and/or emotionally weak to face Truth-with-a-capital-T.

And if it’s that easy to convince people to dismiss the overwhelming evidence presented by the hard sciences, imagine how easy it is to sway people when it comes to the murkier realms explored by the social sciences.  It’s true: hard policies with regard to mental health issues and other social issues are often a reflection of the current societal biases that are masquerading as science.  This is why in the past, when homosexuality held a much greater stigma attached to it than it does now, the studies of the day often tended to reflect the stereotypes of that era–because psychological studies which are not held to the same rigorous standards as the hard sciences are far too easy to manipulate to reflect whatever the investigators want it to reflect.  So please remember that fact when you consider studies coming out today that deal with issues which are in some sense politically, socially or ethically controversial.

. . . Of the Week (7-6-14)

So, I am again a day or two behind.  This time I can chalk it up to it being the Fourth of July weekend.  On top of that my house has been undergoing some major work, so that has occupied much of my time as of late.  But anyway, here it is . . .

Article of the Week

This week’s article comes from a site called {Life}Buzz.  I don’t want to say too much about it, but it includes a touching video clip that’s guaranteed to bring a tear or two to your eye.

He saved 669 Children During the Holocaust…

Artwork of the Week

Marcela Bolívar is surrealist digital collage artist whose work has adorned album covers, book covers, t-shirts and magazine articles.  Her style reminds me a good deal of Dave McKean’s, though with a more feminine feel to it.  Here website contains a nice assortment of her work, so check it out.  This piece references Eden and the Fall of Man.

Marcela Bolívar - Garden
Marcela Bolívar – Garden

Album Cover of the Week

This cover design is for Enigma’s A Posteriori album.  Again, the design is enhanced by strong basic shapes, in this case circles.  The muted colors also give it a nice antique aura, and the pink lines (almost literally) tie all of its various elements together.

Enigma - A Posteriori (cover)
Enigma – A Posteriori (cover)

Book Cover of the Week

I haven’t done one of these in awhile.  This is a cover design for Ray Bradbury’s Machineries of Joy.  The coolest things about it are the way the artist/designer worked Bradbury’s name into the frames, and the Art Deco feel of it.  I could easily see this as a poster design from the 1920s or 1930s.  A great concept well executed.

Ray Bradbury - Machineries of Joy (cover)
Ray Bradbury – Machineries of Joy (cover)

Meme of the Week

Here’s a wonderful little cartoon that charmingly symbolizes the nature of books and the knowledge they offer.

Everyone, be good and have a wonderful week!


. . . Of the Week (6-28-14)

Art of the Week

I don’t really have an article this week, so I’m going straight to the artwork.  This is a gorgeous Art Nouveau-style poster by Florian Bertmer representing John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I don’t know if it’s ever been used this way, but it would make a damn fine cover for the book.  Bertmer usually does work for the extreme metal and punk scene, including album covers, and he was himself the singer for a band called Cheerleaders of the Apocalypse.  I don’t know anything about that, but he’s a freakin’ sweet artist.

Florian Bertmer - Paradise Lost
Florian Bertmer – Paradise Lost

Album Cover of the Week

I thought about posting one of Bertmer’s covers here, but I wanted to give equal time to a different artist and decided to go with yet another excellent poster and album cover artist, John Dyer Baizley.  He’s another artist associated with the extreme metal scene, and, like Bertmer, is himself a musician.  Also like Bertmer, his artwork is heavily influenced by Art Nouveau artists like Alphonse Mucha.  Check out this lovely cover for Gillian Welch’s The Harrow & the Harvest album.

John Dyer Baizley - Gillian Welch - The Harrow & the Harvest (cover)
John Dyer Baizley – Gillian Welch – The Harrow & the Harvest (cover)

Song of the Week

This week’s song is by The Veils and comes from their Nux Vomica album.  I love the sweaty, gritty, desperate feel of this song, which fits the subject matter quite well.  The song is called Pan, ostensibly after the Greek god of the same name.

The Veils – Pan

Meme of the week

A bit of humor for you. :)

And finally . . .

Quote of the Week

It’s a universal law—intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Everyone enjoy your weekend and the week ahead!




Simon Clark’s ‘Darker': A Review

This was the first book I’ve read by modern British horror phenom Simon Clark, and it was not a bad introduction to his writing, but I’m willing to wager this isn’t his strongest novel.  Clark’s writing style here is lean and his chapters are extremely short, both of which are a good fit for what is essentially a chase story.  The concept behind it is not exactly original–it bears more than a passing resemblance to Dean Koontz’s The Door to December.

The book centers on a young couple, Richard and Christine Young, who, along with their four-year-old daughter Amy and Christine’s bumbling smart-ass brother Joey (go ahead and try not to picture Ricky Gervais as this character, seriously), get sucked into the orbit of a desperate man named Michael, who is on the run from some giant  invisible force he calls the Beast.  Meanwhile, Michael is also being pursued by a teenage girl, Rosemary Snow, who intends to do him bodily harm after he left her to die at the, er, “hands” of the Beast, though mostly she’s upset that her run-in with the monster has left her facially disfigured.  Hmm, sounds like the motivation of every Batman villain ever.  Anyway, things are not what they seem with Michael, who isn’t telling the Youngs everything he knows about the Beast, and who quickly starts cultivating a particularly creepy relationship with little Amy.  Does he have ulterior motives?  Signs point to ‘yes’ pretty much from the get-go, and the reader can see what’s coming from miles–excuse me, kilometers (this is a British novel)–away.

As far as actual horror elements go, the novel is aggravatingly slight on them.  There are a few scenes of the Beast smashing people and objects to a pulp, but they play out more like a bloody Tarantino film than a horror novel.  In fact, the story is much more action-suspense than it is horror.  The fate of one of the main characters at the very end of the novel was pretty disturbing, but one almost gets the impression Clark wrote the entire novel just so he’d have an excuse to write that scene.  Almost.  Still, the plot is straightforward and flies by–as it should–and most of the characters seem genuine and well-rounded, particularly Michael (I kept picturing Rhys Ifans doing a slight variation on his Mycroft Holmes character from the CBS series Elementary) and Rosemary.  Little Amy was realistic enough as far as child characters go, even if she serves basically as little more than the story’s MacGuffin through most of it.  Clark is hardly the first genre writer to fall into that trap with children though, and he’s certainly far from the worst offender I’ve encountered.

There were some questionable narrative choices in the book.  About halfway in, for example, Clark invents a reason to get Richard and the sixteen-year-old Rosemary naked and lip-locked in a scene that feels more like a middle aged man’s fantasy come to life than an organic and necessary plot element.  Luckily he doesn’t carry it too far.  Instead he leaves it as an unresolved loose end, which I suppose was moderately better than having his hero, a married father of two, cheat on his wife with a teenage girl while in the midst of rescuing his family from an evil bastard.  Then there’s Joey, who is more of a foil to Richard than a character with real motivations.  The guy seems incapable of making good choices even when he tries.  Which he usually doesn’t.  And you just know as soon as he’s introduced that he’s destined to screw shit up somewhere along the way.  Which he does.

In short, nothing groundbreaking here, but all in all a decent read that has piqued my interest in Clark.  I’ll be giving another of his novels a try at some point.  Anyone have any recommendations?

Grade: B-

. . . Of the Week (6-22-14)

This really should’ve been put out yesterday, but much of my day was consumed with writing a longer article for this blog.  Anyway, a day late and a dollar short . . . the story of my life.

Article of the Week

I’m not a fan of the American gun culture at all.  I own a rifle, but more out of necessity (everyone in the South has at least one) than any desire to have it.  I have lost two different family members in two completely separate incidents to gun violence, both of them crime-of-passion murders that almost certainly would not have happened if guns hadn’t been present in the home.  Here’s a lovely fact: in America, on average, three women a day are murdered by their spouses or partners.  And the number one means of doing it?  Guns, by far.  Something to think about.

A ‘Grim Tally': Abusers, Guns, and the Women They Kill

Album Cover of the Week

Sound Tribe Sector 9 is an instrumental/electronica band–not my usual taste, but I do like a couple of their songs.  And I absolutely love this cover design!  Outer space?  Check.  Surreal weirdness?  Check.  Strong composition?  Check.  There you have it.

STS9 - When the Dust Settles (cover)
STS9 – When the Dust Settles (cover)

Website of the Week

As a bona fide agnostic (more or less), I love a good skeptical site, and this one is a winner.  There are some annoying aspects to the site, like the email updates pop-up and a crappy layout, but the information it provides is fantastic.  So, check it out.


Artwork of the Week

Two for one today, both by William Mortensen.  Mortensen was an early twentieth century photographer of the Pictorialist school, which was basically the opposite of documentary style photography.  Pictorialist photographs were artificially crafted scenes made to resemble paintings, and sometimes elaborate set pieces were created just for one photograph.  Mortensen was one of the best photographers who worked in this style.

William Mortensen - The Heretic
William Mortensen – The Heretic
William Mortensen - Mutual Admiration
William Mortensen – Mutual Admiration

Song of the Day

I almost included this song in my post The Ultimate ‘Dark Tower’ Playlist.  It’s dark, haunting and somewhat surreal, so it fits the theme in a vague way, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t actually about the books and in the end I didn’t include it in that list.  Still, it’s such a fantastic song that I felt it needed to be posted somewhere on my blog.  It’s the first track from Dave Smallen’s album Desolation.  Incidentally, Smallen is also a visual artist, and he creates his own album covers in addition to the music, including the one for Desolation, which you can see here.  You can hear the entire album–not to mention his other albums–at his site as well, and I encourage you to do so.  He deserves to be better known.

Dave Smallen – The Tower

That’s all for this week.  Until next time, sayonara and have a great week!

The American Way of Entertainment

In college I was once assigned a slim volume written by Plato called Gorgias.  It is one of the Socratic dialogues, an ancient Greek genre in which the Socratic method is put to the test in a variety of ways, and in which Socrates himself is often a central character.  In Gorgias, Socrates and a man named Polus, a rhetorician, discuss the moral implications and applications of rhetoric.  Socrates concludes that rhetoric alone, without the backbone of genuine truth-seeking, is useless at best.  He points out the fact that many rhetoricians apply their public speaking skills merely for their own gain, and that it often amounts to little more than flattery, with no attempt to get at the truth.  While I do not agree with all of the Socratic ideas presented in Gorgias, I think in this case Plato was definitely onto something.

Not that I don’t think there is ever a place for flattery and puff pieces and the like.  It’s just that I recognize the disastrous potential of telling people only what they want to hear.  Brutal honesty may not always win you friends, but anyone who would shun you for telling him or her a painful but helpful truth is no real friend anyway; they’re only after a sycophant, someone to stroke their already outsized ego.  Likewise, what do you think would be the effect of people being exposed only to views they agree with?  Given the  increasingly fragmented nature of media these days, we’re beginning to find out.  Recently I posted a link to a study that demonstrated that politically we’re more polarized now than we have been in decades.  I chalked it up to people digging in their heels when presented with challenging information.  I could’ve added the fragmentation of media as a cause too, but I think that fragmentation is itself (at least in part) a product of the Backfire Effect caused by the explosion of information that occurred with the advent of the World Wide Web.  There’s never a simple cause-and-effect explanation when it comes to human behavior.

And that leads me to the point of this article . . . sort of.  One of my big gripes with criticism of books, films and television shows is the notion that it has to always be emotionally satisfying to the reader or viewer.  In comparison to, say, Europe, far too often Americans seem either to forget or to not care that the telling of fictional stories is an art form as much as it is entertainment, or at least it should be, and that art is frequently most effective when it is challenging to us in some way.  Having become a fan of foreign films early in my life, the accumulative effect of watching all those foreign films alongside Hollywood’s output over the last twenty-five years or so has made me realize that Americans are, on the whole, less sophisticated and mature film-goers than Europeans.

Let me put this into context.  First, go to a website where media is frequently discussed by followers of the site and read the replies to any review of a film that challenges the viewer emotionally, either because it lacks a traditional resolution, or one or more of the characters do not behave as generally expected, and so on.  You’ll usually get a pretty good idea of how Americans like their storytelling, and it mostly amounts to fairly simplistic ideas about what makes a good story and what doesn’t.  Consequently, that’s mostly what we wind up getting from Hollywood.  In comparison to the European films I’ve seen, American films tend to follow the same broad pattern: the good guys always get rewarded and the bad guys always get punished, major characters do not present beliefs or behaviors that challenge us to look at issues in a different way, the story structure follows what I call the Coitus Framework (I’ll explain that in just a bit), there are never any mysteries left by the end of the story and everything gets tied up in a nice little bow.

This is not to say there are never deviations from this design in American entertainment, and Americans may not mind a little deviation here and there, but on the whole they are intolerant of anything too different from this fairy tale method of storytelling.  In short, Americans are basically still kids when it comes to media consumption.  Think about it this way: candy tastes good to us, but who except children would ever want a steady diet of it?  Adults usually prefer a variety of complex flavors, including some of what we call acquired tastes–that is, tastes which may at first be off-putting but with time become more interesting and enjoyable to us.  Thus, the mark of a sophisticated adult palate is its tolerance for/enjoyment of more complex and challenging tastes, whereas small children tend to despise any foods which are even remotely unpalatable to them.  I think the same applies to entertainment, and that being the case, America is in real trouble.

Now, you may be inclined to say so what; it’s just a novel or a movie after all.  Yes, but I think our tastes in books, TV shows and movies say a lot about our society and our culture on the whole.  In a country where media is becoming more and more compartmentalized, where our politics are increasingly polarized, and where health-threatening levels of obesity are the highest in the world, it seems apparent to me that the number of Americans prone to settling into their comfort zones is on the rise.  We are becoming the emotional equivalent of the Eloi in the H.G. Wells novel The Time Machine.  Okay, maybe that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration, but the evidence for American social devolution is all around us.

I’ve already mentioned the upswing in political polarization, the escalation in media fragmentation and the high levels of extreme obesity in our nation, but there are others.  For example, the percentage of violent crime in the US has gone up significantly in the last few years.  Some of this is attributable to the poor economy, but not all of it.  There are no obvious economic incentives for, say, attacking homeless people, and yet that too has increased at an alarming rate.  Another indicator is the increasing disconnect between the American public and its government.  The explosion of farfetched paranoia-driven conspiracies about what our government is up to reflects a breakdown in communication both ways, and the rising inability for people to find political middle ground suggests a disheartening narrowing of minds.  In short, we have tons of proof that Americans have reached a new low in their emotional and intellectual maturity levels.

And so, when you think about what fiction you’re reading or what films you’re watching, remember that with every dollar you spend or don’t spend on entertainment, you’re influencing these overarching  trends in media consumption, and that those in turn mirror the sociopolitical zeitgeist.  With every exceedingly comforting piece of entertainment we consume and every morally, emotionally or intellectually challenging piece we ignore, we are both sanctioning and contributing to this cultural downturn, and we are sacrificing our capacity to empathize with and understand others who do not think as we do.  That doesn’t just affect cultural integrity–it feeds into a society that imposes these simplistic fairy tale values onto the whole shebang.

So then, what exactly are the major problems with entertainment media?  There are tons of them, but I think we can break them down into some broad categories.

1) Simplistic Moral Certainty – One of the biggest issues I have with most American entertainment is that it is largely overshadowed by a kind of totalitarian conception of moral values, which is rooted in our Judeo-Christian past.  For a time–during the sixties and seventies–we managed to get away from this moral tyranny in books and films, but it has returned with a vengeance.  When I say Judeo-Christian here, I am not talking about the beliefs and values unique to the Judeo-Christian faith; what I mean is the Judeo-Christian concept of moral absolutes, which do not exist in reality.  Moral absolutism is a sign of simplistic thinking.  Any truly sophisticated system of morality accounts for reality’s moral ambiguity and complexity, and so too does good entertainment.  Characters who are drawn in broad moral strokes make for piss-poor drama (although they might make for excellent farce or satire).  In real life there are few if any people who are all-good or all-bad, and even when we think someone is a total asshole through-and-through, we should understand that in their minds they don’t see it that way.  But many people seem to take comfort in this simpleminded black-and-white view of humanity, and that is reflected in the media they consume.  When exposed to enough of that kind of media, where there are distinct and unambiguous good guys and bad guys, we can start to develop unrealistic and bigoted notions about other people and their motivations.

2) Emotionally Comforting Resolutions – Americans, certainly more so than Europeans, have a high expectation for resolutions to their stories that are emotionally gratifying.  That’s fine to an extent, but it has become by far the dominant paradigm in entertainment media.  But again, real life doesn’t work that way.  Some people argue that that’s precisely the point.  Why would you want to pay to see real life on the big screen when you get it everyday for free already?  Well, for starters there’s this thing called verisimilitude, which is just a fancy word for describing the believability factor of a work of fiction.  Theoretically, the less verisimilitude a work has, the more difficulty a reader or viewer will have with suspension of disbelief.  But I think one of the problems that can develop from overexposure to media that offers only emotional gratification is that it creates and reinforces an entire culture of unrealistic expectations as people give up critical thinking in order to be entertained, and that in turn causes them to disengage from the more challenging ideas or beliefs they’re exposed to.  For example, I am a pretty solid liberal, but I cannot ignore the fact that even among liberals there is a disconcerting degree of intolerance and nastiness directed at anyone who doesn’t share their values.  I expect that kind of thinking from religious extremists, racists and the like, but when it pops up among my fellow liberals, I am especially saddened.

So, there is verisimilitude, but there’s also the fact that choosing not to end a story in a satisfying way can be a valid and important artistic choice in its own right.  Let me give you an example from foreign cinema, the beautiful and award-winning Italian film Il ladro di bambini (The Stolen Children).  The story follows a policeman who is tasked with finding any living relatives for a pair of young siblings who have effectively become orphans after the arrest of their poor single mother, who had been pimping out one of the children in order to make ends meet.  The policeman at first drags the children, who are naturally distraught over the loss of their mother as well as frightened over the big unknown that faces them (not to mention the additional emotional baggage the little girl faces from being forced into prostitution by her mom), across the country in his quest.  Eventually, realizing there is no one to take the kids in, he plans to drop them off at an orphanage.  Along the way the young cop bonds with the kids.  The movie ends in medias res, with the policeman and the children sitting in a parking lot somewhere before arriving at their destination.  But this isn’t a case of bad writing–there’s a reason it ends this way.  We the viewers are left wondering whether the cop and his charges ever arrived at the orphanage, or whether perhaps he decided to take in these troubled youngsters himself instead.  Will they have a home or won’t they?  We’re haunted by that question long after the credits roll, and consequently, it forces us to think about the issues it presents, no matter how painful or uncomfortable they may be.  And in the end, we’re better people for having been confronted with the fact that real life ain’t Hollywood.

3) The Coitus Framework – This is nothing new.  Since at least the days of Aristotle critics have put forward models of what they think is the ideal narrative structure.  Aristotle’s highly detailed ideas about what certain types of stories should look like have been extremely influential, and many of his views are still adhered to by critics and artists today.  Later Gustav Freytag built upon Aristotle’s ideas and devised what he considered the perfect form of a dramatic work, which is as follows:

A. Exposition  (Sets up the story; important and necessary details are provided before the story begins)

B. Rising Action (The story begins to builds anticipation and excitement)

C. Climax (The point at which the main conflict of the story is decided; the high point, as it were)

D. Falling Action (Directly after the conflict; the relaxation of events)

E. Resolution (The ending of the story)

Now, notice how much this structure mimics sex.  First there is exposition, which is equivalent to seduction–important information is exchanged here, and we are tantalized into proceeding.  Next comes rising action, which creates excitement and pleasure in the buildup; this is the act of fucking itself.  Then there’s the climax, which is . . . well, the climax.  I don’t think it’s accidental that the high point of sex has come to be called by the same word we have long used for a narrative high point.  Then you have falling action, which is the release, and finally the resolution.  This is why I call this idealized dramatic structure the Coitus Framework; it’s basically storytelling modeled after sex.  And we’re still using it today as the basis for the narrative structural ideal.  There’s nothing wrong with it in and of itself, of course.  But should it be the basis for every story we want to tell?  It’s an inherently limited way to tell a story, and moreover, there’s something emotionally hedonistic about needing our stories to always fit this model.  Not every activity we engage in is sex; that would make sex terribly boring after awhile, wouldn’t it?  The same is true of narrative structure.  We do not have to adhere to the artistic tyranny of Aristotle and Freytag!

4) The Lack of Mystery – Life is full of mysteries.  In fact, one of the most beautiful things about being alive is the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know about our universe.  Indeed, evidence suggests that it may be impossible to know everything; the more we dig into the nature of the universe, the more questions that arise from what we do learn.  It seems that a lot of people find that idea threatening or disturbing.  Why should it?  We don’t need all the answers to enjoy life, and personally I enjoy a degree of mystery in my reality.  I also think there is more maturity in accepting this fact of life than in pretending like we have it all figured out, or that we even can figure it all out.  And that transfers to my entertainment.  Sometimes, maintaining some of the mystery we are confronted with in a narrative work only serves to strengthen it.

I recently reviewed Peter Straub’s novel A Dark Matter.  The book presents us with a group of characters who were all present during a single paranormal event, and their widely different experiences of that event.  One of the things I liked about the novel is that Straub offers very little explanation about the phenomena his characters are exposed to; indeed, he suggests much of it is actually unknowable.  This only strengthens the horror aspects of the novel in my opinion, because it suggests that such things cannot really be planned for or overcome.  Pretty much any other writer but Straub would’ve been tempted to lay out some grand scheme for the supernatural, with rules that had to be adhered to and weaknesses that could be discovered and exploited, but Straub never goes for the easy out here, and the book is all the more unsettling for it.  What I’m saying is, sometimes a story is better served when not every loose end is tied up neatly at the end.  Sometimes a little mystery adds depth (and of course verisimilitude) to a story.

I’m sure I could think of many more with time, but those four are big enough issues that just addressing and correcting those would put a big dent in the problem.  And maybe if readers and viewers started demanding more complexity and realism on these levels, we could perhaps turn back the tide of emotional regression infecting our society.  Probably not, but at least, on average, we’d have way better fiction! :)