Tag Archives: corporate america

Link Dump: #67

This week’s kitty is from Scary Movie 2, and it’s a lot less benign than most. I mean, it’s been beating the shit out of Anna Faris, and now it’s giving her the finger! Bad kitty! But still, it’s a kitty. Anyway, here’s a bunch of cool links…

We just have one particularly over-the-top search term this week: “violence horror pussy bloody operation.” That says it all, really.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Marge vs. the Monorail

We here at Pussy Goes Grrr are all about retcons. We’re OK with it if Greedo shot first, or if Iron Man’s origin was in the Gulf War, or whatever, as long as we can do it too. Therefore, I am retconning this series into a monthly series, and retroactively marking this as the May post. Comprehensively analyzing The Simpsons is, I think, a worthwhile task, but it’s also difficult and time-consuming. That said, it’s also uniquely rewarding. For example, it gives me an excuse to talk about The Simpsons for a long, long time once a month. I hope you enjoy it.

When I talked about the themes of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?“, one of them really stood out to me: the mob mentality in Springfield. Ever since then, I’ve observed mobs of all shapes and sizes everywhere in The Simpsons. In the show’s on-the-nail satire of ugly Americans, it depicts them in their natural environment, which happens to be as members of large, amorphous groups. The show also mercilessly criticizes ruthless individualism and hypocritical elitism, so it brilliantly plays both sides of the fence. All of this (and more) is at work in one of the best episodes ever, “Marge vs. the Monorail.”

It’s a testament to the show’s writers that this episode should be so effective. The premise feels so absurd, and indeed Wikipedia says that when Conan O’Brien originally pitched it, it was considered “a little crazy.” But the idea won out, and it became a showcase for some of the show’s sharpest social commentary. As with many of the best episodes, it’s so packed with allusions and quick gags with such a wide variety of targets that, in lesser hands, it might feel overcrowded. But it’s perfectly paced, none of the segments seem rushed, and it even has a slightly disturbing drama unfolding beneath the constant humor. This is virtuoso storytelling, and no convention is left without a little satirical twist.

The episode is so well-designed that it even starts with the cherry on top. This is, apropos of nothing, a 20-second parody of the Flintstones opening as Homer leaves work. It’s a brief preamble, recognizing the show’s debts to animated sitcoms of the 1960s while setting up Homer as a new type of TV father. Hell, if someone had never heard of Homer Simpson, this could be an introduction to the entire complex character. The plot then begins in earnest, as Carl and Lenny casually seal up vats of toxic waste at the nuclear power plant, which Mr. Burns and Smithers then dispose of at a local park. This section leads right into the main storyline, both causally and thematically; after all, it’s all about communal interest vs. personal greed. And Mr. Burns, of course, is personal greed incarnate.

So we get a mini-narrative about corporate corruption and disdain for the environment, and the episode’s barely getting warmed up. (I addressed this part of the episode in more depth in another post that was specifically about environmentalism in ’90s animation.) Mr. Burns’ $3 million fine for his “unbelievable contempt for human life” (which he pays with ease) goes to the city, necessitating a town meeting. These meetings are a relatively frequent part of life in Springfield, popping up whenever the town faces any kind of crisis; in general, as you may expect, the townspeople devolve into a mob, whether angry or otherwise. They’re opportunities to illustrate the divide between the government and the people, and they give a chance for each citizen’s own brand of ignorance to shine. “Marge vs. the Monorail” is no exception.

First, though, we’re treated to some wonderful fantasy sequences, as Lisa and Bart each share how they’d spend the money. These fantasies are especially great because they reflect the children’s personalities (Lisa’s bookishness, Bart’s desire for mayhem) while still maintaining a childlike yearning for the impossibly awesome – whether it’s eating who Genghis Khan eats, or controlling robotic ants. Both with the children here and later with the adults, the show pulls off a neat trick, as it represents the wishes and biases of individual characters both when contrasted with, and then integrated into, the teeming masses. A lot of deep questions are being raised about the individual’s role in popular decisions, and they’re raised in very funny ways.

Marge, often acknowledged as the town killjoy, is the voice of personal responsibility. Her plan for the money – to fix the potholes in Main Street – is an unexciting but obvious proposition that would greatly improve day-to-day life in Springfield. The mob even goes for it at first, following Abe Simpson’s confusingly sarcastic opposition. Then Lyle Lanley enters the picture. Lanley is one of the most memorable one-time characters in the show’s history, and it’s entirely because of Phil Hartman’s voice acting genius. Hartman voiced the supporting characters Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure on a regular basis, and although McClure was occasionally given room to grow, both were mostly (hilarious) one-note jokes – the sleazy lawyer and sleazy actor.

Lanley is something else altogether. Yes, he’s a sleazy con man, but he’s much more than that. He breathes contempt for small-town rubes, but it’s smeared over with greasy charisma, and a willingness to speak their simple-minded language. He has the element of surprise, and has no problem grabbing the town’s attention, especially since their civic leaders are so comparatively dull. Lanley brings razzle-dazzle to policymaking. Later, when Marge complains that the potholes will go unfixed, Homer remarks, “Well, you should’ve written a song like that guy.” Homer, an everyman, has the memory of a goldfish; he can’t even recall Lanley’s name, but he definitely remembers that he had a song.

And what a song! Of course, it’s a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, but it’s not just a frivolous reference. It instantly links Lanley to The Music Man‘s Harold Hill while applying the absurd randomness of Hill’s opposition to pool to Lanley’s support for a monorail. The question of “Why a monorail?” is raised precisely once, by Lisa, and Lanley cleverly distracts her; the point isn’t so much what he’s selling as how he sells it. He’s literally all flash, and the Springfieldianites are more than happy to be taken in. (As Mayor Quimby says, “Just tell us your idea, and we’ll vote for it!”) The episode also takes The Music Man‘s original story of a con man who grows close to the folks he’s trying to swindle, and redirects it into a savage indictment of politics and business. The episode’s bitter lesson, after all, is “You can fool all of the people all of the time [except Marge].”

The episode’s second act expands on this message through a series of monorail-related vignettes. Lanley’s slick presence suddenly lights up Springfield’s schools and TVs. Nobody thinks about the monorail in terms of what it actually is (i.e., a mass transit system); instead, it’s a receptacle for everything they want their town and their lives to become. Lanley could be a stand-in for any kind of demagogue, whether cultural, political, religious, etc. – the point is that he calculates his pitch so that the rubes feel they’d be doing themselves a disservice to not buy into him. He’s like a one-man rendition of the infomercials I analyzed a while back. (In many ways, he’s akin to the Leader from the later episode “The Joy of Sect.”) He hooks most of Springfield, including of course Homer, who decides that becoming a monorail conductor is his “lifelong dream.”

Here, the episode introduces a new and vital plot thread: the father-son relationship between Homer and Bart, and by extension, Homer’s role as an authority figure within his family. In an episode that begins by branding Homer as an especially incompetent patriarch, it really is, perhaps unconsciously, his “lifelong dream” to restore himself to a position of respect before his wife and children, specifically Bart. However, as Homer’s fortune rises along with the respect he receives from Bart, Marge discovers that Lanley is essentially a smooth-talking sociopath. The rest of the episode brings these parallel plots to their logical conclusion as Homer leads the monorail on its maiden voyage and Marge hurries to somehow save her town and her husband.

Marge’s detour into North Haverbrook is both unnerving and fascinating. It’s like a vision into Springfield’s possible future, as determined by its citizens’ short-sightedness and gullibility. This is a ghost town with a poorly-hidden secret. It’s also a tragedy, because according to Lanley’s spiel, all the town wanted was to be “put… on the map.” Lanley is an easy answer to difficult problems, whether personal (Homer wants to be a model father) or city-wide (the people of Springfield crave national renown). And Marge, as the hard-working mother, is automatically suspicious of everything the monorail represents. On her trip, she meets creepy monorail technician Sebastian Cobb, and together they return to Springfield… only to find that Homer has already started the monorail.

The episode’s last act is a curious mesh of disaster movie, political satire, and family melodrama. This comes complete with riffs on celebrity culture, more incompetence on the part of political leaders, and several more forays into absurdism – whether with Homer’s Chuck Jones-style viewing of Bart as an anchor, or the continued but superfluous presence of Leonard Nimoy. It’s resolved in a typically absurdist way as well, with the heroism being divvied up between Nimoy, Homer, and a giant donut. But how else could an episode based around a faulty monorail end? What’s impressive is how the show keeps the emotional stakes high even while realism runs low. The titular battle between Marge and the monorail rapidly becomes a fight for her town and her family, and Homer is still able to be temporarily recuperated as a legitimate father figure, since in an act of (ridiculous) leadership, he disarms the monorail’s destructive capabilities.

Thus, the Simpson family (and by extension, Springfield) averts any harm caused by its indulgence in fast answers, and is put back in order with Marge and Homer as its equal leaders. The episode’s conclusion, however, avoids settling on too triumphant of a note, as Marge narrates, “And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon.  Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper.  And the 50-foot magnifying glass.  And that escalator to nowhere.” This finale sarcastically suggests that the townspeople’s extreme ignorance is cyclical – although you can fool all of the people some of the time, there’s also a time when you can’t. (Specifically, right after they realize that they’ve been fooled.) As usual, the writers wield humor to put the finishing touches on their ideological points.

This is just a great, brilliant episode. It presents its satire simultaneously on macro and micro levels, as the city and the family, two groups of people driven to make poor decisions for selfish reasons. It also links these ideas to government oversight and free enterprise to give a very full picture of an America where everyone’s looking out for himself – except Marge, who has the public interest at heart. The show sees all these institutions as fundamentally flawed, but sometimes necessary. Despite all the greed, incompetence, and misguided choices, they can still be redeemed, if only through cosmic intervention… or donuts.

So I think “Marge vs. the Monorail” is genius. What about you?

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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.

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Asserting freedom in the face of bullshit

Fucking bullshit.

I feel like there are many lifestyles being practiced in this country at this time that will soon be outmoded and abandoned. I say this from the vantage point of west suburban Minnesota. Sitting in a library. Hearing people converse loudly.

Fuck it all.

The Rules of the Game (1939)

I was thinking about Jean Renoir – one of the greatest of directors – and how his work seems to focus on social interactions and relationships. Whether class barriers, romance, families, the individual’s place in society, always focusing on the ties between people. It’s a thought. Renoir, as shown by his performance as Octave in Rules of the Game, was a large and boisterous fellow. His films have a joie de vivre; they see value in forging ahead and trying to make it past all the upheavals and turmoil happening in the world. In the end, happiness can be achieved, like the formation of a family unit amidst the greatest difficulty at the end of The Grand Illusion, or the cyclical return present in the imagery of The River. I like how his films embrace life and enjoy themselves and their own beauty. I started watching The Southerner this morning, and that’s what started this trail of thought.

Futility. That was the title of the Morgan Robertson novel that presaged, in great detail, the sinking of the Titanic by 14 years. I know very little about the book but the title seems to suggest that building a transportatinal behemoth like that is futile, because it’s all going to be destroyed anyway. And the sun will eventually blossom into a red giant and burn away all the oceans of the world so no ships can travel, leaving behind a big salty desert covering this warm little chunk of dirt and moisture we call earth. Here we are, tossed back and forth in a neverending clash of happy and sad, purpose and pointlessness, struggling to build something from who we are and what we do, only to have it crumble like a sand castle at high tide. Here I exist as one person among many, wandering sleepily in the June sun, with ideas and traditions built from centuries of human life tumbling around in my head.

Last night I read a depressingly accurate article in the Onion. Maybe I should start reading news that doesn’t satirize the bleak emptiness of my life and the lives of everyone around me. Or maybe this can somehow spur me to action. We do fucking spend our lives in front of boxes and it’s depressing. But, well, is it so wrong if said box is showing me a Jean Renoir movie which I can then analyze in the context of my field of study (film history) and life in general? Movies are there for us to learn from, after all. But nonetheless… these are depressing truths. That a vacant glow from state-of-the-art machinery can occupy so much of our visual attention. I want to escape. I also think I want to become an anti-corporate activist. Idealistic or not, I feel like this big category I call “corporate bullshit” is the cause behind so many problems for just about everyone. Something is rotten as fuck in the state of Denmark, as Shakespeare would say. Hail back to the days of the muckrakers – Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and so on – exposing late 19th century corporations for what they were: faceless, soulless aggregations of wealth and power, both economic and political, dancing like puppets under the control of a few greedy fuckers. Greed like this, and our susceptibility to it and everything that follows, can be blamed for the pollution of our minds, souls, and planet; I just want to stop consuming and stop buying. I want to drop the fuck out of the system altogether.

Motherfuckers.

I guess I’m just really fucking bored with whatever this framework has to offer. The problem is that it’s nearly impossible to escape. It’s like a question of whether you’re going to be a Morlock or an Eloi – nonparticipation is not an option. Wherever you live, you’re under somebody’s domain, and it’s perfectly likely there’s a McDonalds within driving distance. And cars, too. Goddamn cars, another object of my ire. And why, you may ask, is it McDonalds, Disney, Wal-Mart, etc. that are being perpetually complained about as the primary corporate transgressors, well: these are some of the most obvious, unavoidable, advertising-heavy corporations throwing their cheap shit out there (often in collaboration) and goading you, the consumer, to pay for it. They’re enormous octopi wedging their fat tentacles into every niche the world has to offer. Well, fuck them. And of course that’s just empty talk, because what can I do? On my own, not a whole hell of a lot. Maybe I’ll reach out and try to find local anti-corporate organizations someday.

In any case, I’m sick of all the bullshit of the world. I want to discover and embrace real, genuine, meaningful, passionate art, not just manufactured shit churned out by an unfeeling system. God, how many times am I going to voice this desire via this blog? I need to get my stream of consciousness, well, a little concentrated. On something. Only I don’t know what. I need to find a different lifestyle to lead. Next year I’m staying at college over the summer, dammit. Any Ivory Tower is preferable to this valley of ashes.

Valerie Solanas (1936-1988)

One person I just keep returning to in my mind over and over is Valerie Solanas, the woman who founded SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men) and shot Andy Warhol in 1968. I guess she’s just one of those people who’s too weird, unusual, and interesting for me not to fixate on. And she wrote a manifesto. As I was discussing the other day, she wasn’t enslav’d by another Man’s system, she did not Reason & Compare. Her business was to Create, dammit. Most of my knowledge about Solanas comes from Mary Harron’s 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, although I know biopics are always loosely based and fuck around with what actually happened. Nonetheless, from what I’ve read, the movie seems to have captured the general spirit of Solanas’s life, if not its letter. The point is that she was an extremist. She did not Reason, Compare, or fuck around: she took action. Maybe shooting Warhol didn’t further her goals at all. Maybe it really hurt Warhol, a great artist in his own right (though that doesn’t worsen her crime or anything; people can be killed painfully and horribly, artists or not). I grant this and as I’ve said, I don’t condone or encourage violence. Violence sucks. Fuck violence; I’m a quasi-pacifist. But that doesn’t limit my fascination with Solanas. She studied psychology in Maryland, worked frequently as a prostitute, got involved in the Warhol Factory. She supported forming an all-female society. Now naturally I don’t endorse her version of radical misandry as a practical solution to the world’s problems, but it’s something, it’s an idea, and it’s uncompromising. Solanas’s whole manifesto can be read here; I have yet to read it in its entirety myself, but plan to in the near future. I think manifestos are good. Laying out what exactly you plan to accomplish and what course you’ll to take in order to accomplish it. And Solanas is such a great mix of attributes and values – a rebel in terms of politics, gender ideology, class, a historical figure, an artist herself (author of the willfully obscene play Up Your Ass). Would she be pissed off to see some white male student living 20+ years after her death gazing wistfully at her historical visage, puzzling over her actions and ideas? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Finally: one topic I find my main perpetually returning to, which I will probably continue to discuss in the future: neurochemicals. All the molecules and compounds and chains of whatever flitting around your brain, from gland to organ through the blood stream, being produced endlessly to trigger the various parts of your brain to act this way or that. One reason I’m glad I’ve taken so many intro psychology courses is that they taught me a little bit about neurochemicals. All those neurotransmitters – dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, adrenaline, melatonin, good old acetylcholine – modifying the signals fired off from one neuron to the next, subtly altering your mood, attitudes, behavior, thoughts, anything. And all of this is happening inside you, all the time, and when it goes wrong… well, OK, when you break an arm or leg, when your liver or kidney stops working, it sucks and it’s your body backfiring, but there’s always something you can do about it, right? And it’s just a part of your body. You can live with 1 arm or 1 kidney.

But your brain? That’s where you are localized. The you you call you, your self and identity, your consciousness and subjectivity, however you conceive of it, whatever your theory of the mind’s processes are, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s all inside your brain, cradled in your skull, working away and with a whole body around to carry and protect it. That’s some fucking important hardware between all those synapses and neural connections. It basically is who you are, what you think, and what you do. And so, neurochemicals: they make you sad, and glad, and bad. They make you desire, whether for food or drugs or orgasms or TV or video games or gambling. It’s all a matter of some chemicals transferring from one cell to another in your brain. That’s all pleasure is, after all. Some happy little chemicals get moved around and voilà, you’re happy. Pain works the same way. So when the system gets fucked up in one way or another? Well, that’s when some serious problems can start. Which can make you have sensory perceptions out of nowhere, or feel emotions for no bloody reason. This really is just right out of Psych 110; it’s nothing that groundbreaking. But I find it plays a big role in informing my thinking about emotions and behavior. Many, many times I’ve cried, “Goddamn neurochemistry!” It’s not like you can blame it for just anything. But nonetheless, being at the mercy of some malfunctioning brain chemicals is painful, depriving you of control over your own life, and also a basic part of most lives being lived on this planet.

And here we are. Under the heel of a million different frustrating, oppressive forces, with the freedom sucked out of us like marrow from our bones. And we just have to make the best of it.

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The eye on pyramids is keeping track of your every move

Today I was reminded for the umpteenth time that the world is a scary, forbidding, dangerous place. Living in this inhospitable labyrinth, we have to deal with unending hazards of one kind or another. Our lives are being threatened every single day of our lives, sometimes by forces we don’t even know exist. Whether it’s Nyarlothotep possessing our bodies or the United States government making attempts on our lives as in Oliver Stone’s JFK which I watched earlier tonight, unseen forces are moving nonstop and sometimes they happen to come in our direction. I wanted to mention, for some reason, the fact that the other night while shaving I had a brief fantasy about what would happen if I pushed too energetically with the razor – how it could go slicing across my eyeball as in Un Chien Andalou. It’s not like I was considering it. It’s just that the idea came into my head, a danger I hadn’t even been aware of moments before. Who knows what could kill you or cause you immeasurable pain next.

It was, oh, 6-7 years ago and I was at a Christmas party of some family friends. Some other kids and I were playing around upstairs. I saw a door in the wall and decided to open it. The door came unhinged and fell on the big toe (or for the technical term, hallux) of my right foot, which started bleeding through the white sock as I sat there in pain on the carpet. My parents came and found out what had happened, we left eventually, we went back home. The consequences? I had a fucked-up nail on my big toe for years to come. Fast-forward to May 19, 2005. I can easily look it up, because it’s the day I saw Star Wars: Episode III. My toenail, by then, had recovered for the most part (although at some point while at summer camp, another kid had stepped on it, fucking it up and making it bleed all over again). I was opening the back doors of the family car, taking some bricks out for my mom to remodel the downstairs or something. A brick fell out of the car and onto my right foot, again smashing my big toe. I went to the bathroom and lay down, sprawled out on the floor, moaning for a while. Eventually I got up, got it washed off, and I went through the same bullshit all over again. Some time later, my dad had to heat up a bent paperclip end in order to puncture the nail and let blood gush out. 4 years have passed. Here is my toe as of last December.

My right big toe

So why, indeed, am I sharing all this dubiously significant information? My toe’s fine now. It’s a very, very minor part of my life. I guess my whole point is that 1) I find it amusing and 2) danger can come from anywhere at any moment and really inconvenience you for a while. To illustrate this further with a more extreme example: my father once tried to help a woman who had been hit by a drunk driver and died shortly thereafter. It’s a sad story I heard growing up. Someone was killed as a result of mistakes and bad decisions. My father was on hand to witness it, but unable to stop it from happening. Everyone is going to experience pain and eventually death. The least we can do is not to inflict any pain ourselves.

I find myself coming back, over and over, to the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming“:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

They’re well-known words, and I guess I feel like they sum up so well something so basic and true. Things fall apart: it takes more energy to build than it does to destroy. So, whatever. We know this already. What kind of point am I trying to make? My stomach hurts. We consume food every day of our lives. We break down carefully-constructed chemical bonds resulting in chains of molecules containing energy set up so that they taste delicious and are aesthetically appealing as well. Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. I read something really insightful in the Onion last night, in reaction to apparent dishonesty in American Idol voting: “Come on, corporate America. Just tell me who the real winner is so I can buy his album and listen to it until you give me someone new to like.” There’s a reason I no longer partake in broadcast media – TV and radio – and it’s because, well, the same gang of greedy fuckers is behind most of it. Fucking Clear Channel Communications, fucking Viacom, man. There’s a quote I read once from Woody Allen on the topic of colorizing films. Although I can’t confirm for sure that he said it, it’s a quote I love: “Colorization is a monstrous, disgusting, horrible, sinful, absurd, humiliating, preposterous, and insultin’ mutilation and defacing of genuine works of art, in which computers are used to doctor and tamper with the great originals, thereby creating degraded, cheesy, artificial symbols of one society’s greed.” That’s how I regard a huge chunk of mainstream shit being shoved down the throats of American consumers: artificial symbols of one society’s greed.

So why exactly did I start ranting against Corporate America? I really can’t say. And I admit that my views may tend toward the naïve, recitations of “Down with The Man!”, “Fight the power,” “Eat the rich,” and what have you. But at some level, I really do believe in it. I’m not just all flash and no substance (as if it made a difference). I was thinking, while watching JFK, about all these modernist terrors, all these leftover Cold War fears stirring in my brain about a generally fascist, globalized world where no one and nothing can be trusted. Sure, reading 1984 several times along with every other dystopian novel I can get my hands on hasn’t helped, but then there’s the realities. I read half of André Brink‘s novel A Dry White Season is one sitting once (and never finished it, sadly); it dealt with South African apartheid and the treatment of black prisoners. I vividly remember a scene where the protagonist, a white lawyer, is thinking about how his gardener’s son may be being tortured in prison, having weights hung from his testicles in a dark, cold cell. I found that image pretty terrifying. I saw Costa-Gavras’s film Missing (1982) last term in a Politics in Film course and, well, I guess my point is that I’m practically afraid of Latin America as a whole by now. (OK, I’m kidding, I’d love to travel to the area, but still, not during the ’80s.)

The Eye of Providence

My real point is that, I think, reading and watching all these different sources basically made me terrified of police states. Security is not worth the sacrifice of freedom. I want to know as many of my fucking constitutional rights as I can, don’t like cops in general, and when asked which freedom I could not do without, insisted on the 8th Amendment, which includes “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” That’s fucking important to me. Something else I hate? The idea of government surveillance interfering with my civil liberties. I want to be fucking free to do whatever the fuck I want, say whatever, think whatever, within the privacy of these four fucking walls. All of this is just so very deeply important to me – that outside ideas, even if they’re weird or irrational or hell, even unpatriotic, still continue to be expressed. Oh, and Frank Capra films (like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939], which I mentioned to Ashley as a model for JFK) also helped inspire this sentiment. I side with Thomas Paine who (probably) said, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil.” God, seriously, the number of movies I’ve seen where bureaucracy ruins lives, or a buck-passing justice system executes the wrong people, or a sprawling government just makes life suck in general. Now you may ask, Wouldn’t it be preferable to base your beliefs on facts and reality rather than what you see in movies? But dammit, you know what? What I see in movies are stories which appeal to psychological drives in different ways, stories which reflect or mediate or interrogate reality, stories which are capable of demonstrating truths we’d never understand otherwise, sometimes through a combination of logic and emotions. What I see in movies has very real, albeit strange connection to reality.

So in the end, this leaves me somewhere between living a normal life, relatively unhindered by these civil liberties violations I so desperately fear, and being afraid, very afraid, especially when too much power is given to too few people. Or when someone announces that in the name of progress, they want to be able to watch me and take pictures of me without my consent or awareness. I’ve learned at least a little bit from the histories of Latin America, most of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Nazi-dominated Europe, and everywhere that’s suffered under the yoke of totalitarianism. I am frightened of the invisible forces governing my life; I want to cut the strings binding me to all these ruling systems and, like my old English teacher used to say, “speak truth to power.”

I am scared. You should be too.

My dad's apartment, on Google Maps

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