Evil corporations and sprawling epics

I stopped at a McDonald’s today, ate a double cheeseburger, and pondered the unholy alliance of corporate fast food and automotive culture present in the existence of the drive-thru. It’s really an insidious mixture, because it so perfectly combines all these supposed virtues – speed, convenience, low price – allowing for total instant gratification. Hell, I’m sure there’ll soon (if not already) be one-window drive-thrus so we don’t have to do all that pesky waiting for them to prepare the food and serve other customers.

Glossy iconography for a monolithic institution

So why do I complain if it’s so damn easy and useful? 1) Because I’m a total fucking malcontent. And 2) because as I was saying to myself while walking out of the restaurant, corporate America wants to control what we eat, buy, think, and believe, and wants us to pay them in order to be controlled. We shell out our money and are given a one-size-fits-all vision of how life should be lived. McDonald’s, Disney, Walmart, whoever else – all allied, loosely but vertically integrated, in an effort to make money and simultaneously establish their values as the hegemonic norm for America (and by extension/globalization, the world!). I mean, seriously, it’s possible to receive Disney toys in a Happy (happy, dammit!) Meal from a McDonald’s located inside a Walmart. This is looping multiple levels of corporate control over our lifestyles; this is the belly of the beast, in the belly of the beast… in the belly of another beast.

And of course one of my biggest complaints is that practically by virtue of living where I am, I’m forced to participate in this system I disagree with so passionately. Sure, I can grumble about hating cars and fast food that pickles the human body, and stores and gas stations and all of it, but nonetheless, I pretty much have to drive, and I have to eat; I’m just lucky I don’t really have to buy shit from department stores that often because, well, I don’t. But still, I think it’s all bullshit. We’re coerced into so damn much by the environments we live in. Escape is a dream worth having. One problem I think about a fair amount is corporate control of the media.

In one informative (but frightening) scene in This Film Is Not Yet Rated, director Kirby Dick points out that the MPAA represents a select group of major film studios, and goes on to show that each studio is owned by another, larger corporate overlord: companies like GE, Viacom, News Corp., AOL-Time Warner, and of course Disney. Then he reveals that between these corporations, they own about, oh, 95% of the American media. As Deep Throat said in All the President’s Men, “follow the money.” A quick search on Google turns up, for example, this quote from the CEO of Westinghouse, who in 1997 owned CBS:

We are here to serve advertisers. That is our raison d’etre.

Raison d’etre being, of course, the French for “reason for being.” So it’s all about ads, selling, getting you to buy, but you can’t just buy a product – you’re also buying ideas and values. On a related note, in the course of some random research earlier, I read that a certain Star Trek slashfic called “The Ring of Soshern” was, in fact, circulated illicitly in a practice called “samizdat” (meaning “self-publishing”) in the USSR until 1987. This means that some Russians in the ’80s decided to risk legal repercussions in order to let others read early Trek fanfiction. And I find this kind of fascinating. Regardless of the nerdy and pornographic Kirk/Spock content of the story, the fact is that someone cared about a story being told, a story that managed to cross the Iron Curtain, and that someone undermined governmental authority over the media in order to tell it.

I think that on a microcosmic level, this is a great example of the human drive to share information. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, information abhors captivity; it’s like a genie (a surprisingly apt comparison, what with knowledge’s ability to grant wishes and change lives) and dammit, it does not want to be cooped up in a bottle. I think I remember the Bible’s Book of Revelation having a warning at the end, which I found via Wikisource.

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18-19

What I think this amounts to is an early kind of license permitting the reader to reproduce the material, so long as nothing’s added or taken away. See, intellectual property is even addressed in the Bible. And it says lo! do not fuck with the original text. So my point so far? Look out where your media is coming from, and who owns it. Create original content and stay free.

Yesterday I had a little discussion about video games as a medium that made me think, about the contrast between video games, comics, film, and prose. Hell, might as well toss poetry and theater in there, too – the point is that these all intersect and overlap in such worth-examining ways. Questions like, how is it created; what senses does it engage; what stories can this medium communicate at which the others fail? We know about, say, unadaptable novels: how, for example, Ulysses takes such advantage of the formal abilities of the novel that its story can’t properly blossom in the wildly different context of film. And it makes me think of not only how, for example, identity, time, sensory perception, etc. are conveyed in each art form, but also how this affects what kinds of stories different artists tell. How someone who’s incredible well-skilled at filmmaking, or instead painting, or whatever, might gravitate toward a particular subject matter simply because of the limitations and possibilities inherent to their medium. I think it’s an interesting question.

And, naturally, I want to take a brief look at these issues through the lens of the epic saga I’m currently reading, Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Through his constant allusion, Gaiman plants himself in the midst of a global literary heritage – he reworks Greek myth, Shakespeare, Milton, and more; in Fables and Reflections, which I just finished, his story reaches out to touch on the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the adventures of Marco Polo, and the city of Baghdad under Caliph Harun al-Rashid (to use Wikipedia’s orthography, which is only one of many). I wonder if Sandman‘s ability to communicate grandeur (of, for example, Hell, the Dreaming, al-Rashid’s Baghdad, just to name a few) pictorially might contribute to its ability to nonetheless keep everything under the sweep of the massive, greater storyline – described once by Gaiman as “The king of dreams learned one must change or die, and then makes his decision.”

The capacity for epic storytelling is itself, interestingly, the subject of a Sandman story, “Calliope” (available in volume 3, Dream Country), named for the muse of epic poetry revealed to have once been Dream’s lover. The story has her kept captive for decades by a once-famous author, then traded off to the up-and-coming Richard Madoc, who rapes her repeatedly because, well, she’s a muse, not a person. The story, I think, broaches two aspects of writing: one is the willingness to sacrifice virtue for creativity, as with the Faulkner quote, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one… If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies,” which I first saw in reference to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and saw again in the Sandman Companion. The flip side of that is the pain of the writer’s block; Gaiman describes his personal vision of hell as “staring at a blank computer screen without being able to think of a single believable character, a single original story, or a single thing worth saying,” so I’m guessing he sympathizes somewhat with Madoc’s initial dilemma.

The captive muse Calliope - art by Kelley Jones

In any case, this makes me digress even more and consider the nature of the “epic” itself – Homeric, Miltonian, by Virgil or his pupil Dante, a popular genre for millennia, which has carried over, now, into comics and film. But while an epic poem can be like Spenser’s The Faerie Queene – i.e., virtually endless – film is more constrained. So we have 3-4 hour sagas like, among the most well-known, Ben-Hur, Intolerance, or Gone with the Wind. In general, I tend to prefer my movies precise and localized rather than grandiose and overblown, though I can’t deny there’s some appeal in being able to create a story that large. Maybe, in this regard, The Sandman shows an advantage that comics as (usually) a serial format hold over films, most of which are created as single-unit works meant to stand on their own. Yeah, there are film series, but I think it’s rare for a director to accomplish the same kind of breadth and continuity in a series of films that Gaiman does, or Dante or Homer. Consider one of the most ambitious of all film epics: Star Wars. Originally described by Lucas (as I recall, around 1980) as a planned 9-part series, the first 3 films successfully form a single story arc, and the prequel trilogy does fit coherently into the narrative, despite endless quality issues. Or, I suppose, we also have The Godfather and Lord of the Rings, although the former works best as a two-part epic; maybe LOTR deserves the hyperbolic, wide-reaching praise it received just for accomplishing what it set out to do – faithfully tell Tolkien’s long, ambitious story in film form.

Interesting to note that longer-form, single-narrative film projects like the Godfather trilogy have only become common and popular since, well, the ealry ’70s. I’ve long wondered about the history of film series themselves. Sure, there was the Universal horror cycle (e.g., Frankenstein, followed by Bride, Son, Ghost, etc.), there was Toho’s Godzilla series, there were the Thin Man movies, but in general each of these series resulted from the decision to tack on a sequel to cash in on the original, rather than a preconceived, limited storyline like The Godfather, whose sequel is the first one I can find to include the number “2” in it (now a universal practice).

So I guess my point is that epic storytelling is very worth looking at, partially because the longer form allows for longer emotional build-ups (like Rhett and Scarlett’s neverending love affair) as well as the ability to, well, just pack in more: more events, characters, detailed information, contrasts, to achieve the desired effect and get everything they want across to the audience. I think the epic can also be linked to the desire for spectacle; Intolerance, for example, was once marketed with a list of numbers: the total extras, the dimensions of the Babylonian palace, etc. It’s like standing back to gaze at a skyscraper. It’s enthralling just that it’s so big in the first place, that it doesn’t topple under its own enormity. The Sandman, I think, succeeds as an epic on all these counts. Even in the 6 volumes I’ve read, barely over half the series, Gaiman’s crammed in an astounding amount of erudition, cosmic speculation, intriguing characters (some of whom only feature briefly, at least so far), and stories within stories within, ultimately, the extreme scope of the meta-plot of Dream deciding to change or die.

So, I think I’ve managed to successfully explore a small part of what makes up medium specificity and the epic as a whole; at the very least, I got some point across there. I guess I’ll conclude by directing you to this shudder-inspiring AV Club article about the upcoming G.I. Joe movie; it’s pretty obvious and clear that when the Paramount executive says “We want audiences to define this film,” he means, “We want audiences to pay to see this film and not be warned away by intelligent critics.” And so, as I was saying earlier, watch out who’s producing what you’re watching or reading, because odds are good that they don’t have your best interest in mind.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Media, Politics

2 responses to “Evil corporations and sprawling epics

  1. Pingback: Evil corporations and sprawling epics | film news

  2. Pingback: Star Trek fanzines and sexual freedom « Pussy Goes Grrr

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