In the past brief month and a half there was a US Presidential inauguration, a handful of skittering little political scandals, a wave of panic over the collapsing global economy, and a constant drumbeat of negative fiscal news. Some million plus Americans lost their jobs in those 6 weeks; surely millions of others gave up hopes of finding work. The official unemployment stands around 7%, though most officials understand these figures are unreal, the method of measurement having been jiggled way back in Jimmy Carter’s day, in order to help mask the unhappier truth. Real unemployment is something closer to 15%, and in places like California edging on 20%. To say, we’re in a most predictable pickle, though our experts, as usual, missed this one by a mile. Of course, those experts – like Paulson and current Treasury Secretary Geithner had certain self-interests helping them miss the signs of trouble coming up the track – they were making tens of millions with the system gamed as it was.
But, of course, behind every darkening cloud, there’s a silver lining for someone.
Suddenly it seems as if everyone is going to the movies, with ticket sales this year up 17.5 percent, to $1.7 billion, according to Media by Numbers, a box-office tracking company.
And it is not just because ticket prices are higher. Attendance has also jumped, by nearly 16 percent. If that pace continues through the year, it would amount to the biggest box-office surge in at least two decades.
Americans, for the moment, just want to hide in a very dark place, said Martin Kaplan, the director of the Norman Lear Center for the study of entertainment and society at the University of Southern California.
“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”
Of course the films of choice do not wrestle with the real problems these audiences are trying to escape; quite the opposite. Slumdog Millionaire (which I have not seen), contrives to paint a rosy scenario out of the depths of Mumbai poverty. [My friend Dennis Grunes reports that to add insult to injury, the film’s co-director, Loveleen Tandon, an Indian woman who clearly had a major hand in directing the Indian children, showing a touch ever lacking in Mr Boyle’s work, was totally excluded from the Oscar recognition, showing perhaps the impacted colonialist mentality that still quivers in the English (Scots in this case) heart.] It’s been suggested that this film became a hit owing to its unintended timely resonance with today’s financial realities. Which is to say that while Americans supposedly voted for “change you can believe in” when confronted with the reality of the cumulative effects of their own behavior – running up credit card, student loan, mortgage debts so high they’ll never pay them off, while accepting the quantum leap equivalent in the stock market (don’t wanna look too hard at how those gazillions are being made…) – they show that deep down inside they really want to keep things like their imagined normal: get lucky at Vegas or on American Idol and for minimum input come out a billionaire with no effort. So Hollywood profits by merely sucking up the psychological consequences of its own socially derelict product, the dream factory rolls on cranking out more delusions, more future troubles, playing out its role as a metaphor for everything wrong about American culture. Of course it is one of the country’s most lucrative exports, along with arms and corporately farmed food stuffs.
By coincidence the other night, around 4 am, Marcella jabbed a deep-in-sleep me in the ribs, exclaiming, “look at this!” She was watching a film on her notebook, Penn’s Into the Wild. The occasion for pulling me out of my slumbers was to point at the name Alenka Pavlin floating by in the tail credits. Alenka and I lived together way back in 1985-7. She moved down to LA from San Francisco long ago, following her interests in sound recording. She was boom operator for Penn on this one, getting travels all over for 6 months. Lucky her.
Of course, like more or less all those who trundled stylishly dressed to the dais to receive their golden dildo, as well as those who sat splendorously to watch them, they all land somewhere on the upper levels of the income charts of the US, if not among the exclusive club of mostly financial-corporate CEO souls whose wealth is measured in mere billions. Hollywood stars are amply rewarded though, enough to push them to the top percentile or so in earnings. Meanwhile Joe Blow has seen this:
Thanx to Len Hart, the Existentialist Cowboy
Or, as the recent unemployment figures underline, they are dropping precipitously far lower than this graph suggests. Of course this graph lies, like graphs often do, by failing to tell just what this ascending Gross Domestic Product was composed of – what was America busy making? As mentioned, we were cranking out food, and movies, and weapons, though not as this graph would suggest in such accelerating amounts. Nope. What we were busy manufacturing during these years, under the philosophical guidance of the Bush administration in which regulation, oversight, or just following-the-laws, were brushed aside in the interests of globalization and “the Free Market” and other such shibboleths, so that we could make “financial instruments” like derivatives and bundled debts and the entire Wall Street lexicon of fiscal mumbo-jumbo which has all proved to spell something like P-O-N-Z-I. Though on a scale which makes that name origin look like chump change. So in fact our “product” actually reflected not the top line on the above graph, but the bottom one: we were just chuggin’ along at make-do level. With one major problem – most were doing it just like the guys on the top were doing it, on imaginary money, running up credit card debt of one kind or another, charging it to their expanding home “value,” and other such bookkeeping sleights-of-hand. But now the piper is calling and everyone is showing empty pockets. And, as we are seeing, the Reaganite trickle-down is coming as an apocalyptic deluge, but in negatives: the Wall Street hot shots cut back on the $5 latte and there goes the local barrista to the unemployment line, along with the aspiring actor cum waiter, and the myriad other members of our supposedly new “service industry” economy. The fabulously wealthy scamsters of the corporate world are suddenly bust, and along with them goes all the “servicing,” classy call-girl blow-jobs and all. The spiral down is now an avalanche, as in the fabled (and false) explanation of how the World Trade Center fell – one floor pancaking to the next in a vertical domino effect, but here it’s fiscal entities heading at gravitational speed to terra firma.
For the record, again, I feel certain that 9/11 is so full of fishy aspects that it must have been some kind of inside job. The image of Mr Bush reading My Pet Goat (upsidedown – what an example to the kids…) smacks of a rich kid who just did something real nasty and just found out about it:
Mr Bush, who has seemingly vanished from the world, was quoted before he departed as pondering, in a kind of poor-little-me manner, “why did it (the economic melt-down) have to happen on my watch?” Indeed. It must not have had anything to do with his policies, enforcement of existing law, example of brazen law-breaking himself, or the rampant corruption at all levels which characterized his administration. Just a coincidence, of course.
So while the nation and the world took a deep breath of hopeful release as Obama took up the keys to the national vehicle, the clatter of ever-worse news has muffled the sighs of content. Certainly it appears that he’s a can-do kind of guy, and has surrounded himself with like-minded help, but one senses it all may be – despite the astounding numbers tossed about (700 billion here, 1.3 trillion there, 7 trillion cumulatively over there …. our eyes glaze over in incomprehension at these can’t-imagine digits) too little way too late. Nor can we, or those bandying them about, really gauge just what they might do aside from burning up the Treasury printing presses. As they themselves seem to say, they’re doing it because they have to, “to save the system.”
And indeed that seems to be the fundamental problem – an incapacity to let go of what is transparently a rotten system, in which these crises are cyclical and predictable, having to do with some of the basic rules of that system. Like its arch-rival, “communism” (whichever label one puts on it, in America anything that hints of some gentle mode of “socialism” is deemed irredeemable on utterance), capitalism comes out of the womb with a built in sure-fire Achille’s Heel. With communism the problem is actually the same as with capitalism, with just the shifting of a few words which have proven to be interchangeable. Capitalism posits that “the economic market” will sort out all values, deliver the most efficient delivery of things to ever happier souls, and make for a little paradise here on earth. It does this by economic competition, in which the strong/better etc. survive and are well-rewarded for their services to humanity. That this system seems to repeatedly result in skewed income charts, booms and busts, not to mention a broader rampage of damage on the environment, social relations, and the human psyche is thought to be irrelevant to those fundamentalists of the Market. As Mr Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush are inclined to respond to those who point out these problems – “So what?” Indeed. Communism makes similar promises, if only for a temporary time we place dictatorial power in well-intentioned hands for a short term in order to build a workers’ paradise on earth. We’ve seen what happened with that one in China, the old USSR, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and elsewhere. Somehow the honey of this power attracts a certain kind of personality, and the shift to an anarchic non-government of happy collectives is ever delayed, while Mao orchestrates his Great Leaps and plays with his concubines, or Pol Pot plows his killing fields.
In both ideologies something is fundamentally amiss, something so obvious and self-evident that it is hard to think that grown-ups actually believe them. Especially since for the most part myths and fables and the collective wisdom of the ages all say pretty much the same thing and we’ve attempted (always failing) to build social restraints to minimize these things. Left to their own devices, humans are pretty selfish and greedy; surrounded with a system, like a capitalist one which celebrates wealth, and hence greed, a lot of people will not hesitate to trample over the next person to get whatever there is to be gotten first. Along the way they and their cohorts will of course construct a social and psychological framework to support this and all its consequent results. They will be celebrated, churches will bless them, and so on. Communism does the same thing, except shifts “power” into play instead of “wealth” (though in practice those in power in communist cultures were always the wealthiest as well, duh…). Boiled down to essences there are probably certain percentages of any populace of people who are either genetically and/or socially predisposed to seek and have power – for the psychological pleasure of it. In either capitalist or communist systems these people are funneled to their appropriate place on top of the heap, and they then indulge their inner selves to their needs. Hello Mr Stalin, Lenin, Mao, or though carrying a differing banner but espousing essentially the same things, hello Mr Schicklegruber, a.k.a. Hitler. And there are people who like to follow authoritarian leaders, so a perfect mix.
One would think with the plethora of example before us, we’d figure it out and see that the basic flaw in these “systems” is staring us in the mirror. All that capitalism and communism do, precisely because they are systems, is to amplify this human constant of greed and power-hunger.
So as this crisis hits the US, as well as the rest of the world, rather than, as Mr Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggests one should do and turn a crisis into a moment of opportunity, we find all the powers that be directed toward “saving the system.” They’ll modify this and that, make it environmentally a bit more sane, try to ameliorate the vast income disparities, trim back the military a touch, and basically do a lot of cosmetics aimed to resuscitate a failed system. We hear Obama assert in his Inaugural Address that “we will not apologize for our way of life” – without noting that “our way of life” is that 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of its energy; that a tiny fraction of that 5% owns some obscene chunk of the world’s wealth, and so on. We don’t hear that were the entire globe to live in the manner Americans live (even those gliding along on that bottom line on the chart), we could kiss our asses communally good-bye in short order.
What we need to do, for ourselves, and for this little hospitable site we live on, is to question the entire system, question our entire set of values and priorities, and commence with some profound changes in how we all live. But it is a characteristic of systems like “capitalism” or “communism” that they cannot do such things as question themselves in such a manner. Just like religious fundamentalists cannot do so. Instead it seems, despite ample historical examples to give us cautionary lessons, we must drive ourselves over a cliff, into a real hard inescapable catastrophe before we are willing to adjust our behavior in any significant manner. At the moment we’re in the prelude, likely with a major depression building around us, with all its attendant probable social-political ramifications (wars, famines, the usual company of such tragedies), and rather than confront this impending matter, we prefer to make some minor adjustments hoping it will all just go away and allow us to resume a few years hence in a manner something just like we were doing.
In which case it is somewhat more likely we’ll be looking like the pair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which I recently finally finished reading. For the most part a compelling book though I felt it was a bit redundant (hard not to be when the world has been stripped down to almost nothing), and that the ending was a tad too upbeat. I’ll be curious to see how the film copes with it – almost guaranteed to be a big box office loser, especially in these depression bound times when most would prefer a frothy musical to lose a few hours in.
For me it’s back to classes this coming week. Two a week, one being the Visual Directing kind of foundation here’s-what-DV-can-be course, and the other this time around being make-a-feature-with-Jon. Meaning we have to crank out a new feature in the coming 4 months, using students as help, actors, sources for places, settings, ideas. I have not given it a thought, wanting to have it be generated from whatever we can piece together in the first few weeks. I’m completely open.
Meantime on our trip to Singapore-Malacca-Kuala Lumpur (see cinemaelectronica) some possible future options seem to open up – a perhaps teaching job in S’pore and maybe later on setting up a kind of school in Malaysia. We should know more of these soon. While on journey we got an urgent email from Yonsei, urging me to sign contract for the coming year. This was a bit uncharacteristic as last year they’d waited late in the game to indicate they’d be wanting me back. Word must have drifted.