Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Mind versus Hollywood

I saw 2012 on its opening weekend, and would like to talk about it as though it mattered.

I like most of the Big Dumb Films that pass through the theatres. Aside from being moved by the spectacle (the most prominent aspect determining box-office appeal), I am often quite taken by the streamlined mythic stories, the over-blown emotional hooks and primal response to danger. and i love that wondrous focus that comes during crisis.

Given revenue, it’s safe to say, most everyone feels the same. There are genres within this genre. Michael Bay likes heroes saving the day and confrontation. Roland Emmerich likes the ordinary guy being called upon and being driven by his love of family. Stuff being destroyed is not enough for me, I am a sucker for the Emmerich Brand of Boom-Boom.

But I am disturbed by the stories I am being fed in these emotional roller-coasters.

I want you to imagine a no-holds-barred cage match. The goal is the shaping of your perceptions, the prize is no less than your decision making capacities.

I propose the environment academic, Thomas Homer-Dixon versus Roland Emmerich. What? Ok. I accept your contention that this is not a fair match.

To preserve fairness, I recommend forming a team against Emmerich. Due to the celluloid power of Emmerich, we’ll create an opposing team of intellectuals and writers including Paul Ehrlich, Richard Heinberg, Andrew Weaver, James Howard Kunstler, Jeff Rubin, David Suzuki even Al Gore. . .and I am allowing as trainers, Rachel Carson, James Lovelock, Colin Campbell, M. King Hubbert, Bill McKibben, Matthew Simmons, Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman. In the continuing spirit of fairness, I allow you to add 3 persons (who work in the idea sector/written medium) to the team or the team trainers. Keep in mind, we are only choosing between popular thinkers, who might be said to be relatively well known. Obscure academics are not welcome at the audition, no matter their expertise, because they reach too few people.

Now we have an A-Team versus Emmerich. Given the enormous team pitted against singular Emmerich, where do you place your bets for the prize? Remember the prize is decision making influence in the individual.

Medium: A-Team: written word; Emmerich: film.
Environment: A-Team: better bookstores everywhere, academic databases. Emmerich: theatres, television sets, video stores, drugstores, corner stores, department stores, occasional gas stations. Depending on where you live, also alleyways and dumpling stands.
Audience: A-Team: discerning readers already concerned by world affairs. Emmerich: Everyone, including the opponents audience.
Audience size: A-Team: 10’s of thousands. Emmerich: 100’s of millions, perhaps billions.
Handicaps: A-Team: the illiterate, the apathetic, the uneducated, the poor, the busy. Emmerich: the blind.
Method of Engagement: A-Team: argument, logical thought, historical analysis. Emmerich: metaphor, allusion, sensory overstimulation, emotional engagement.
Emotional production: A-Team: anxiety, fear, futility. Emmerich: Hope. Relief.
Audience requirement: A-Team: Literacy, motivation, patience, logic, determination, bravery, background education. Emmerich: Eyes. Ears.

I won't trouble you with the massacre that occurred in the cage.

Popcorn aside, I brought us this blood bath to demonstrate the difference in power between the message heralders. Now assuming a victor in reach and influence, what is Emmerich communicating?

When you let that ten bucks slip from your sweaty hands, you expect the film to breach all the laws of physics and common sense. You expect it to be melodramatic. You expect nothing related to reality. But, what you bring into the darkened room is your most accessible, malleable self. Your vanguards are off behind the theatre, smoking. You are all alone in there being saturated in “truths” within the story. The most powerful truths are the ones you don’t even think about.

2012, like all good disaster movies channels our anxieties. We were anxious about atomic energy and got giant ants, spiders and rabbits. We were anxious about communism and we got Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We were anxious about population and we got Soylent Green, and Population Zero. We were anxious about computers and we got 2001, The Terminator and the Matrix. Now, we are anxious about environmental destruction, and catastrophic climate change and, among others, we have 2012.

Leaving aside the emotional safety valve granted--that the destruction defined in the film is not our fault--we are still left trying to cope. The film has a protagonist narrator and a hero and a villain. It is these latter two characters and the forces they represent that I am concerned about.

The hero, a scientist, suffers misgivings throughout the film about the cold nature of lifeboat ethics. The villain, a generic political person, is narrowly focused on the goal of averting the extinction of the human race.

The scientist, in a baldfaced contradiction of the cold lucidity of science, expresses all of our warm fuzz feelings about including everyone and pursuing what everyone wants. The politico sets aside his emotions looking instead to the pragmatic concerns of how much can be saved, what actually has a future.

So, we have a kind of reversal. Politicians normally spend a lot of time barking whatever they feel will keep the most voters happy, and scientists normally have the gloomy position of crunching the numbers and thinking about tomorrow.

These two mindsets go to battle against one another in the climax of the film. It’s a nonsensical mess. The hero-scientist keeps railing about what is fair and not fair, and pushing to do nice wishful things. The villain-politician, remains steadfast and sticks to what will work, what will achieve results, what will in fact offer them some hope. The cast and audience cheer when he is defeated by the scientist and his emotionally moved sympathizers. If we take the “facts” in the story at face value, the scientist has doomed them. And he has doomed them for a reason that would never occur in reality. Scientists don’t believe you should put 400 people on a boat that can sustain 100. THEY KEEP TELLING US THIS IN THE REAL WORLD.

And this is only the little illusion snuck into our subconscious.

Out in the real world, scientists keep telling us that we are courting disaster of a magnitude beyond our imagining(kind of like the neutrino fed destruction in the film). They warn us that there will be no technological solutions and that we, and perhaps everything else(like kittens and tulips and baby seals) may be overwhelmed. They keep telling us if we don't make radical changes, there is no way we will cope with what is to come. Sheesh, what a bummer. What can Emmerich ‘teach’ us in the face of this foul tasting message?

Again, taking conditions of the film matter-of-factly, the earth heats up, tectonic chaos ensues. Earthquakes, volcanic activity and crustal breakups encircle the planet. Well, that's scary; what will we do?

Well, we’ll build Arks and in just 27 days, we will emerge and find Eden in a raised up continent of Africa. Human ingenuity and technology swoop down in the nick of time and save us from that nagging anxiety we are all living with. There is no sulphur poisoned atmosphere, no boiled away oceans, no multi-year ash winter killing off all life. There is the human-exceptionalism triumph. We the audience are rewarded for enduring the distress of the destruction.

So, why does this bug me? Why my stupid cage match?

We are in a moment in history where decisions are being made about how to respond to things that effect everyone and everything in unimaginable ways. There is already endless confusion among people.

People will shy away from uncomfortable truths if they are offered shelters.

What I am saying, is it does not matter that even though the thickest numb-nut recognizes that blockbusters are ridiculous nonsense, the message in the story still sinks in. The mind rejects the silly notion of the sun flare neutrino mumbo jumbo clocking our pretty planet. But once we are inside the story, the human story just flows uninhibited into our psyches.

We are presented with the righteousness of wishful thinking, the condemnation of hard decisions and sacrifice, and complete salvation offered to human ingenuity no matter what.

There is an ocean of smart clear thinking people trying desperately to get our attention and convince us to think about complex things, behave like real citizens and give up comforts that we are badly addicted to. And there are a handful of story weavers, who massage our consciences and comfort our fears with fairy tale endings. Engaging with the thinkers requires bravery, intelligence, distress and action. Engaging with the story tellers is as easy as breathing and allows comfort and inaction.

I am a mythopoetic soul, and value the power of narrative to instruct us. But there are evil stories that intoxicate us so we can’t see clearly and my real heroes don’t seem to stand a chance against them.

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