Thursday, December 17, 2009

into the magic shadows

I often think of writing movie articles; not necessarily reviews of recent movies, but reflections on movies past. But then it seems weird one week to write "egad, the sky is falling" and the next week to write, "don't you just love the "Secret of Nimh?"

I think too, that in my darker moments, when depression grips me, and my inner world is more terrible than anything going on in the real world, that i often cling to film, the comfort of past favorites, or looking forward to upcoming flics--and it keeps me going.

It gets me thinking that this is really weird, and maybe symptomatic of the same ostrich behaviour i piss and moan about in others. On the one hand, i feel desperately anxious about things in the world, and deeply troubled over what i ought be doing. On the other hand, i take deepest delight in film. My soul is overtaken by whimsy and I launch into retro film fests by myself, and I get giddy with excitement about new magicks coming down the pipeline.

Like, for example, i am so very excited that there is a new Sylvain Chomet film just about ready(The Illusionist, no relation to the other recent film of same title). it titillates me so much that it momentarily relieves me of overarching anxieties about goings on in the world.

The weird guilt feeling that arose moments before writing this, came from thinking about the juxtaposition of feelings, and realizing that even if the world, civilization, or maybe my and the human race's future might all be swirling in a black vortex, at least I get to take joy in the land of magic shadows.

I was reading a 'top 50' animated films of all time list, and just basking in the memories, luxuriating in the strange worlds they created for me, and thinking about what magical creations we come up with. These films made me forget some unpleasant feelings from earlier this evening when I was studying for my exam and thinking about issues relating to population, and how irresolvable emissions issues are simply because of how many of us there are, and even if we stopped burning oil, we would keep burning something to cook food and heat homes.

Many of my favorite animated films have held deeply political, social and ecological messages. Thinking about the popularity of these films, and their messages, I question the value of narrative at all. Its like we have so much narrative that it doesn't shape us at all, only offers us momentary distraction, But I do feel so very moved by film, and especially by the "cartoons" I have watched. I feel they have helped shape this primate in such distinct ways over the years.

So, I will be posting a few relevant words about my favorite animated films in the near future. And I will forgo trying to relavitize them to our present circumstances, even though that would be easy enough. Instead, I look to how they struck in the first place.

Monday, December 14, 2009



If you are old enough that your deepest memories are of wooded places and child quests in the wild, than this reverie is for you.

I bring the age up because it is a well known phenomenon that parents routinely shield their children from the kind of wildness that you and I experienced. Yes, today’s kids get a foundation in Motzartian fiddling, and are relatively safe from broken bones and pedophiles. And they are taught early to cope with the scheduling complicities that we cope with as adults in this world. . .

But I feel like some wild ranging orang-utan who appreciates his scars—and has to speak out against the domestication of children.

Parents have two primary fears. In no preferential order, the first is the fear of physical compromise. This fear is about bee stings and broken bones and the ever present horror that our children will actually break each others heads. It’s not unfounded. Left to their own, Golding style, children will devise systems to test each other and many will die, their eggs broken open in a non-poetic display of evolution. If you are watching the Darwinian drama, everything looks kosher, if you are a parent, everything is psychological terror. Supposedly, I tread the distance in between. I am a parent, with a wee little tot, venturing forth in the world, and I am a scholar who follows anthropology.

I have a cautious child who would rather bathe in mothers beauty than explore and so my Darwinian sense is not tested too often. My sister’s two boys, are both rambunctious, more the sort who you might fear will succumb to their own ambition. I need gravol just to watch them play. I am sure our parenting is informed as much by our heritage as our offspring. I haven’t had to learn how to keep my child from launching into flight off of a banister.

But I wish I had to. (Here we come sounding all old and stuff) When I was little, we were wild. We were crazy and stupid and spontaneous. Our favorite playground was a sewer tunnel that one had to traverse in the dark to prove worthiness of inclusion in the pack. Some of the games we played were really for keeps, and I am sure our parents would have turned grey to know what we were up to. But the point is, we were often left to our own devices to make our worlds.

It does seem to me that the shrinks agree that this is an important stage of life, learning limits, making social rules and what not. Testing, exploring, recuperating. The vast jungle of my childhood was a testing ground for survival, and I can understand parents not relishing their children wandering unattended in it, but I keep thinking it was not only fun, it may have been very necessary for our development.

Some day, our little children are unleashed from parents and school and they have to face sabre toothed workplaces, life-and-death civic choices, and a whole big bizarre world that the adults have created. And they need to be creative in it, and spontaneous. And they have to survive stupid things. They have to survive us. I really wonder that our planned play times and structured hobbies do not prepare them to live life to the fullest and certainly do not prepare them to understand being a living creature in an interdependent universe.

Do we need more adults who are very indoctrinated to quitting time and videogames? Or could we use a few wild children who make up reality as they go?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Riot Of Life

Part One: Change is Bad
Yesterday, winter arrived out of nowhere, burying a breezy autumn that I was only just getting used to. Jack frost sends us to his icy bowels around the same time each year, yet always takes us by surprise because like all things stressful we exile it to the furthest limits of our minds. That first heavy snowfall always shocks me to my core. My initial response is universally one of crisis, panic and flight. It’s perfectly normal because of the mantra that repeats itself 24 hours a day in the swampy lizard part of my brain. It’s the mantra playing in every life form, in every life that ever lived: change is bad.

We’re each of us still slinking around the savannah, still lurking in the trees, eyes and ears wide for danger. We’re each trying to stay fed and avoid being picked off by a predator. Part of how we do that is learning the lay of the land and embracing a healthy fear of change. Change means unknown, and throughout most of history the unknown often meant death. So we like things to remain predictably the same. The more predictable things are, the better. The orange berries are yummy, the red berries make us shit wasabi sauce. Hard lesson, but just avoid the red berries and everything is hunky dory. Until the orange berries are gone. Or it turns out that colour isn’t a universal predictor of food safety. No one is ever immune to change, nor would that be a good thing, but it has served as a useful enough rule of thumb to imbed itself in our deepest understanding of the world.

The odd thing that comes to mind when I think how far people will go to avoid change is that for several hundreds of years the very mythos of our species been progress, which means change.

Part Two: Change is Good?
The seed of progress may have formed in science and its seeming limitless ability to learn and discover and in some ways change our destiny on this planet, but science has generally been concerned with predicting and controlling. I think science mostly believes change is bad, and the kind of change we don't see coming is the worst. Economics, on the other hand has had grand designs on the concept of progress for at least the entire industrial age. Progress means change is good. Out with the old, in with the new. Produce, consume, toss, repeat. Progress equals growth, growth equals profit.

But it’s all kind of a scam because its only an illusion of progress, kind of how Disney might portray it. Commercial activities offer us just enough options and improvements to keep up the illusion of progress, hence motivation to buy, while keeping any changes small and controllable(nothing says sexy like control!). This year’s new improved I-pod is pink instead of green, but still plays tunes just like the old one(just like your great gramma's phonograph, and her great gramma's harpsichord--in fact there’s nothing very new about it since the times we beat out rhythms on hollow logs, except now you just press a button). New, but the same. Progress, just the way we like it.

it’s a whole other topic that somewhere along the line there was a revolutionary change in that we went from making music and expressing ourselves, sharing in some social way, to quietly consuming music in a passive solitary way (preferably with noise canceling headphones that keep that pesky outside world at bay). For all our fear of change, we routinely lose thing by pursuing our perverse logic of progress

Part Three: Change is Confusing
For a while now, we have tended to define change, development and progress via technology. We talk about the radio era, the television era and the internet era. We described the technological application of fossil fuel inputs to farming as a green revolution that introduced an era of plenty. We view history through the same lens, calling ages by our tool making abilities—the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age and so on. we act like its reality instead of simply a filter for ordering things. Had we become a religious society we might have named ages differently: the polytheistic age, the monotheistic age, the mystical age, the transcendental age, the rational theology age. As social engineers we might observe the tribal age, the village age, the city-state age and the nation age, and we might more recently look at the suburban era, the urban renewal era, the city of villages era.

I could think of plenty of worldviews, that whatever shortcomings they might have, I would find more comforting than the technological worldview. The technological worldview is all about thoughtless change. The more the better, the faster the better. It got a slow start: wise men resisted the written word, fearful of what it would do to our reasoning abilities and memory. Scholars resisted the printing press, thinking too much decontextualized information was not necessarily a good thing. Pundits to this day scorn the television as a mind rotting cancer(sometimes they do it on television). Who’s to say any of them were wrong?

Either way, things picked up speed once we developed machines and the ability to use concentrated fuels. We made cars and planes and spaceships; Factories and assembly lines; An endless stream of entertainment gadgets. We made powered versions of everything: toothbrushes, lawnmowers, can openers, you name it, if there was a way to make something less skill and labour intensive through the application of fuel or electricity, we did it. Machines raise our chickens and milk our cows. Machines tell us when to wake up. If you believe the medium is the message, then computers define the content of our communications. We adopt new technologies so fast we don’t have time to think about what they bring us or what they take away. Is it good to drink milk from a pillow shaped plastic bag and never see or touch a cow? Does twittering strengthen my social bonds and psychic maturity?

If it were only a metaphysical question about the purpose and quality of life, then mouldery luddite academics could debate and polemicise about it over brandy for all of eternity.

But we did stop listening to our mantra. We felt we had out evolved it. We’ve kept changing things while shielding ourselves from any negative feedbacks that would have set off the alarm bells in the old lizards den. But they are coming.

Part 4: Change or Die
This brings us back to the winter of 2009. The leaders of the nations of the world are gathered in Copenhagen, supposedly to talk about change. Drastic and direly needed change. Only they don’t want to change and we don't really want them to change things either. It was one thing to get a little tipsy with lots of little incremental changes that made tasks easier and life more entertaining, but now that we need to make changes that involve hardship and sacrifice, fundamental changes to infrastructure, essential changes to our concepts of purpose and accomplishment, well-being and quality, well it’s not just a salamander in the back of our heads whispering change is bad. No, we have Godzilla pounding the backs of our eyeballs screaming CHANGE IS BAD!

My nation is an energy and resource giant. Our nearest neighbour is an economic and military giant. Together, the two arguably concentrate some of the greatest wealth and influence in the world. Together, the two are primary drivers of global direction. Where they stand on the fulcrum of following known patterns or risking change has a direct and consequential effect for everyone on the planet, and I'm not talking just people.

During the breezy fall that just went the way of the dinosaur, I heard far more about Prime Minister Harper and President Obama courting China than I did about their preparations for the Copenhagen Summit. I heard about increasing trade, promoting growth and generating economic prosperity.

The thing is, there is a direct incontrovertible link between economic growth and fossil fuel use. Economic growth is achieved by burning fuels to produce raw materials, burning fuels to manufacture tradeable goods and burning fuel to cart those goods around the planet. And if those goods are machines, fossil fuels are burned to operate the machines. Fossil fuels keep advertising, accounting and managerial divisions going too. And it is all that fossil fuel that is changing the climate

The scientists have been unequivocal. Our current way of life is on the cusp of making most of the planet incompatible with life: Planet Sahara. Some of the destruction has begun. A lot of it we have ordered and paid for and are just waiting on delivery. But we may still be at the point where we can choose between an altered climate that we can make do with and struggle in, and a climate where everyone and everything pretty much dies.

So, when my leader or yours says they are working hard to increase trade and grow the economy it is entirely, and with no hyperbole, interchangeable with saying I am trying to expedite the destruction of life on earth. When our leaders say they are going to grow the economy they are also saying they will ensure that no useful strategy comes out of Copenhagen

What is called for today far outstrips the imagination and courage of most people. It requires individual efforts and mass efforts. It requires law, and maybe martial law. It requires making sacrifices now to influence outcomes that are years down the road. Most of all it requires resisting the lizard brain telling us change is bad. We can’t afford to get panicky or light headed or fuzzy headed and simply hide in HBO and hope the danger moves on. It’s not going away.

It’s becoming more clear than ever that sitting patiently waiting for international consortia of leaders to pave the way is not going to bear fruit. I'm not sure what to do, especially since so many people don’t even see that something needs to be done, and many that do don’t want to give up cars and plasma TVs and so keep waiting for a technological fix. We’ve lived with so much complacent wealth and plenty, and in north America are so untouched by real events taking place around the globe, that I don’t have the foggiest idea what would wake us up and get us changing.

In Copenhagen this week, activist Naomi Klein said, “Let's not restrict ourselves to polite marches and formulaic panel discussions,” and “we need to be more disobedient”. I believe her, but then I also recall George Monbiot saying “nobody ever rioted for austerity”. But it is essentially what we need. A riot against our corporate governments. A riot against global economics. A riot of activity to wake us up and get us participating. A riot of life or a riot of death, the fruits of all our changes in the last few hundred years are leading inevitably to riots, and the time when we get to choose is quickly passing.