Posts categorized "Film"

How money and success destroy art

Eddie Vetter of Pearl Jam has said that his music was originally fueled by anger, and that it was challenging for him when that anger went away and was replace by happiness and contentedness.  Even the style of his music, itself, was originally a product of the angst and frustrations of a common life.  What meaning could it possibly have within the context of overwhelming success and riches? 

Did Eddie's success choke his ability to create the kind of meaningful music we knew and loved?  Consider his early song Jeremy in relation to the following lyrics from a recent song, Big Wave:

I scream in affirmation
Of connecting dislocations
And exceeding limitation
By achieving levitation

Got me a big wave, ride me a big wave, got me a big wave.
Got me a big wave, ride me a big wave, got me a big wave

OK that's just embarrassing.  You have to hear the song, set to the angst-ridden sounds of grunge music (a sound, by the way, that he hasn't bothered to evolve so that it might more accurately reflect his daily reality) in order to get the full picture of how badly this song misses the mark.

We see the same thing happen in Rap music all the time.   The art form itself is a reflection of the brutal realities of inner-city life.  Throw some money at it and what starts out as meaningful, anger-fueled and angst-ridden lyrics so quickly turn to boasting of cars and brands. 

Meaningful art has to arise from the life and experience of the artist.  One might expect the successful rocker or rapper to experiment with new, happier or more blissful sounds.  But in the case of both the rapper and the grunge-rocker, their style of music cannot be allowed to change so that it might more accurately reflect their new lives.  To do so would be to risk losing the very foundation of that success...the support of fans who originally loved them for who they once were.

And so it is, with overwhelming success and subsequent riches, art itself becomes inauthentic crap as the artist becomes a salesmen just trying to continue fueling an excessive lifestyle. 


I finally watched Michael Moore's film Sicko for the first time.  There can be no dispute that his comparison between the health care systems in the US and in other prosperous countries is accurate. 

I've lived in two countries; one in which the goal of the health care industry is to make money (U.S.), and one in which the goal of the health care sector is to...uh...deliver health care (Slovakia).  It is enough to say that the stories shared in the film, on both ends of the spectrum, do not surprise me at all.  I won't bore anyone with my personal stories.  The issue is so black-and-white that there is no honest moral argument that can be much different from the one made in the film.  What is more interesting is that this situation actually exists and that all of the candidates running for President tell us we need to accept, more-or-less, the status quo.

It occurred to me, watching the film, how deeply fucked the USA is.  How on earth have we been tricked into not just tolerating, but even oftentimes defending a system designed to exploit the ill and dieing?  How are we perfectly alright with a system that refuses treatment to children and allows a distant corporation to approve or disapprove treatment even to those who have played by the rules and paid them large amounts of money for coverage?  How can we leave the spouse of a cancer victim with a bill so large that his overwhelming grief is only made worse with the enslavement to a hospital bill that can never be paid off?  This is very personal to me.  I have family in exactly this situation.

If only Americans knew how life can be they would never tolerate what is.  Yet without time to travel the world, and without a media system that brings the world to them in an honest way, they have no way of knowing.  And even traveling on vacation isn't enough because it doesn't tell us anything about the conditions, beneath the surface, which allow for the beauty we might see on a culture's surface. 

I'll be very clear, Americans have no way of knowing that our lives are shit.  Ours are lives of worry, fear, uncertainty, intimidation, enslavement to debt, and employment instability.  We are scared of our government, while in better countries the government is afraid of the people.

When Michael Moore takes us to the UK, to Canada, and to France, he's not exaggerating.  He's just showing the plain reality.  We say that people come to America to live the "American Dream".  I left America because I knew that I could not live my dream there.  My dream was not of more stuff, but of a life full of experience, pleasure, relationships, enough leisure, and freedom in the truest sense of the word.  Over the past few years I've begun to find all of these things, but it doesn't mean that I no longer care about my country...the one I left behind.  I simply want the best for it, and wish its people had the common sense and courage to demand the best for themselves.

To look at a country's health care system is to look plainly at the country and what it stands for.  We Americans are, indeed, sicko.

Making sense of Borat

Due to the misguiding reviews I read (essentially that the film is offensive and low-brow), I wasn't the first in line to see Borat.  Well, I finally rented the DVD. 

I found the opening scene a bit silly, though many of the Slavic references were accurate.  However, when I finally realized that the character's experience in the USA was filmed in documentary style, I understood the appeal of the film. 

Between my uncontrollable and sometimes uncomfortable laughter, I found the film profound.  Borat brilliantly illustrates the America that I see.  Frankly, the Americans in the film are proud, profoundly idiotic, and completely out-of-touch with reality.  So, how was it that a comedian playing a seemingly semi-retarded foreigner could illustrate this point? His formula was to make them feel superior and then he tapped into their conformist thinking.

The US is an enormous country of self-declared individualists.  Yet, in reality, Americans aren't individualistic at all.  They are obsessed with conforming to the pre-existing variety of off-the-shelf social movements...the New Yorker, Southerner, God-fearing Christian, good Liberal, frat-boy, cowboy, gangsta, whatever.  The reason every American featured on the film appeared foolish, loathsome, or idiotic was that they were incapable of perceiving the character Borat without bias...without stereotype.  Rather than relating to him as one individual to another, they attempted to relate to him as they might think a (New Yorker, Southerner, Liberal...fill in the blank) might relate to a foreigner.  The humor and discomfort is found in the repeated attempts to put Borat into a neat box when, in fact, everything he did was absurdly outside of any box.  The Americans refused to drop their programatic thinking, their political-correctness, and their identity with a social movement, long enough to to perceive the situation as any independent, critically-thinking person might.

The film Borat highlights how ridiculous we look when we fail to conceive of our lives as something unique and authentic...and when we, instead, follow the herd.  It highlights how unthinking and ignorant the herd mentality of conformity is (in every case, not only for those associated with "the wrong movement"). 

This topic is personal to me.  When I lived in Seattle, I defined myself as "a good progressive" or "green activist" who shared all the "proper beliefs" about what "ought to be".  In conversation, I was eager to "make a difference in the world" by turning others on to "my way of thinking" which was "correct".  However, it wasn't really my way of thinking at was predefined and I was acting as a salesman selling a cause.  How did this conception of myself fit with the fact that I made good money as a business person?  It didn't.  How did my socially liberal beliefs coexist with my status as a faithful husband?  They didn't.  How were my trips to the gas station justified within the context of my beliefs in sustainability?  They weren't.  But I had my mind in a twist with many, many arguments and justifications for it all.  Oh, how I would define my identity by my favorite politicians, my tastes in music, my shoes, the books I would read.  Yet none of that was ME!

Today I see myself as more-or-less just a human being trying to be the unique genetic mutation that I am...trying to perceive people and things as they actually are and trying to let my voice speak for itself rather than on behalf of some movement.  There is an emmense difference.

The Beauty Exchange (Ženy Pro Měny)

Ženy Pro Měny (International title "The Beauty Exchange") is a provocative Czech documentary film about the effects that the beauty industry has on women in Prague.  I highly recommend it to anyone, man or woman.  Though none of the ideas are new to most thinking people, it is important to observe the very real human impact that the beauty and fashion industry has on the lives of a few women, representative of all ages. 

At its core, the film seems to be more about Consumerism than Feminism.  When women, influenced by commercial TV and magazines such as Cosmopolitan or Vogue, spend all Saturday morning in a beauty ritual (lotions, nail polish, teeth whitening, hair), then all Saturday afternoon shopping for new clothes which are barely distinguishable from the clothes already lining their closets, what we are witnessing is pure and simple Consumerism.  When these same woman, influenced by much more of the same, purchase diet products, become anorexic, or have breast augmentation surgery, what we are seeing are the absolute sickest extremes of Consumerism.

While such a woman is pursuing some vague notion of beauty, the irony is that she will only appear beautiful to a partner who is every bit as infected with the Consumerist / Materialist mindset as she is.  Maybe he's driving an Audi Convertible, wearing clothes from the same mall she shops at, spending his days plotting how he can buy a home theater system he cannot afford, and flexing his muscles in the mirror while listening to Jay-Z. 

And together, when these two humans-turned-product-of-commercial-culture meet, their conversations will be every bit as interesting as some endless reality TV-Show...occasionally interrupted, just as on such a show, by distracting advertisements.  This happy couple will get married (spending far too much on the wedding), buy a house in the suburbs and two new cars (well before they can afford it), and begin a lifetime of resentment caused by small-minded, petty arguments about money and who can buy what, when.

Still, we are meant to believe that commercial media is harmless.  To argue that advertising is harmless is to argue that it is ineffective.  We know advertising works (sells people products they otherwise wouldn't buy) because corporations continue spending an enormous amount of money on them. 

Advertising is only harmless to the individual who isn't exposed to it.  We're not going to stop advertisers, but we can stop exposing ourselves to advertisements.  I don't smoke, because I understand the physical harm done by the chemicals and components in cigarettes.  Similarly, I don't watch any commercial media because I understand the psychological and health risks cause by the consumption of junk-information.  Whether we are Liberal, Feminist, Progressive, Green, Conservative, Pro-family Values, Christian, fact if we stand for any cause at all, there is one thing we should be able to unite on.  The first thing we need to do is rid ourselves of advertising.

It isn't as hard as one might expect.  Avoiding advertisements is as simple as avoiding commercial media.  It is entirely possible to simply not watch any TV channel, listen to any radio station, or read any newspaper or magazine which contains advertising (yes, I'm even talking about the New York's rubbish).  What you are left with is a huge variety of independent or not-for-profit sources of content -- blogs, web communities, films, MP3's, podcasts...plenty of content which one finds is much more worthwhile.  I've lived this way for about 3 years now, and what I found after tuning out the commercial media is that nothing is actually lost, only gained.  Only by removing the corporate advertiser's mind-control censorship of our information can we begin to explore authentic ideas and authentic thought.

To expose yourself to commercial content is to turn yourself into a product rather than a human.  To watch a commercial TV show is to become an audience.  You, as the audience, are the product of the TV station, who sells you to advertisers.  You are just one more individual who is allowing yourself to be tricked so that someone else can make a few pennies on you...profoundly disrespecting your humanity and selling bits and pieces of it to the highest bidder for no good reason at all.

Ženy Pro Měny is a brave documentary film created by some intelligent young women in Prague.  It is meant as a message from women to women.  But, to me, it is also a plea to turn against commercialism and, more specifically, advertising.

By the way, an even more compelling documentary, in fact the de facto standard when it comes to understanding media propaganda, is Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky.  Watch these two films and your life will never be drastically improved.

The Decalogue Depression

Kieslowski's “Decalogue”, a set of 10 one-hour films made in Poland in 1987, is unlike any other film experience. It’s not so much a "movie" as a "mini life phase." I've been watching one of the films per night for the past few days. I've never seen a more compelling portrayal of human misery, hopelessness, and desperation. I say the series is a "mini life phase" because of the extent to which it has influenced my mood over the past several days. I guess you could say I've been a little depressed.

It would be easy to say that characters in the Decalogue suffer from clinical depression, but that, of course, misses the point badly. I suspect that to isolate depression as a condition absent the individual's external environment is to oversimplify and fail to understand it. Kieslowski shows us a society in which depression is the which the characters are unable to escape their shared mood and circumstance.

Incidentally, the rise in depression we've seen in the US certainly has a lot to do with our external environment as well. America has a war on everything…even a war on unhappiness. And what is often overlooked is the genuine and subtle beauty that can be found in the absence of cheeriness and perkiness. I'll continue watching the last 5 in the series because, despite what pop culture teaches us, misery can be embraced by the emotionally and intellectually honest. I don't want to accept the idea that depression is an illness. In fact, I’d rather start a war on cheeriness and perkiness instead.