Tag Archives: money

Link Dump: #44

Aww, look, it’s a kitty experimented on by Vincent Price in the William Castle classic The Tingler! (And in other Vincent Price news, I finally won Five Frames From over at My New Plaid Pants. The answer was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and I am ridiculously proud of that achievement.) Anyway, lest my gloating bore you, the links:

We had some pretty mind-boggling search terms this week. Like, um, “ילדות קטנות בסקס,” which is apparently Hebrew for “little girls sex.” So now we’re attracting the attention of Israeli pedophiles? Great. Just great. Less off-putting and more hilarious was “tintelating pictures.” I love it when people are so horny that they can’t spell. Finally, we had “i just wanna shit on society,” which really speaks for itself.

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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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I will not Reason & Compare

While walking to this library a short time ago, I spotted two very young children standing next to a church and mumbled something to myself about how I hope they make a good next generation for the world. And, well, it depends a lot on what circumstances they’re born into. It’s just kind of sad how some kids are surrounded by neglect or bad intentions – and stranger still how sometimes despite the worst conditions, some become fantastic people. There’s a very confusing correlation here. I can’t claim to understand it well.

I’ve also been thinking more about similar ideas to what I was discussing yesterday – about the effects that the economic systems in which we live have on our lives. How we make compr0mises and sacrifices, just in order to get enough money to be able to do this or that, pay rent and eat food, buy products and services outside our homes. We have strange relations with the concept of consumption, negotiating our options and desires. Everything seems to flow in an unbalanced cycle, from factories and natural resources into stores and shipping, to trash cans, streets, dumpsters, landfills, wherever… as a wise man named Deep Throat once said, “Follow the money.” And in the midst of this system all of us live, trying to puzzle out its ins & outs, causes & effects (or not – or happily accepting whatever the systems chooses to throw at us, and passing it along, enabling the cycle). We did not ask to be born into this world but we were born nonetheless.

I’ve been reading a lot of William Blake lately – I once cited him as an “especially deluded and fractured artist” – so pardon me if I allow his writings to heavily inform my thinking; he speaks to the necessity of creation & imagination, the confusing conditions of life on earth, & my love of ampersands, so I find his ideas very valuable in my lines of thought. So consider these lines from his “Auguries of Innocence”:

Every Night & every Morn

Some to Misery are Born.

Every Morn & every Night

Some are Born to sweet delight.

Will we be born to misery or to sweet delight? We really have no say in the matter. It’s just a matter of fortune. I’ve marveled many, many times during my life that I was born to an affluent society on a dying planet at the turning of what we call the new millennium – what are the odds of that? Why wouldn’t I have been born to what Blake calls “Endless Night,” or born centuries ago, or in some antique land? Why here and now? Some would say there’s purpose behind all of it. Others would say it’s all completely random – but why my particular self, my identity, my subjectivity, in this body temporally localized within 1990-2009 and so on? Well, here I am in this current mix of misery & sweet delight.

"The Shadow Out of Time" (1936)

This also reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time,” which I read over the course of a few weeks this spring. Its premise suggests that a Great Race, who dwelt on the earth before the dawn of man, learned how to transfer their minds into bodies spread across time and space, and thereby mastered time travel, eventually able to forgo their own extinction by fast-forwarding to the bodies of a species that lives after the death of mankind. Using this ability, they were able to see the conditions on every planet where life exists (or has ever existed), deep into the past – to the very beginning of life – and into the future, till the existence of the last living thing. The Yithians are a race capable of avoiding this random placement into misery or sweet delight, as they can switch between the two whenever they choose (albeit with the aid of an easily-constructed device). This connects back to my earlier explorations of how authors of speculative fiction, like Lovecraft, can comment on existential problems hounding us at this very moment.

Anyway, here I am and here we are, in the midst of unending strife & chaos, attempting to be good people but constantly foiled by the way we are and the way the world is. It just occurred to me that there are a lot of quotes and speeches that zero in on how there are two kinds of people in the world. The kind I’m specifically thinking of are the ones that identify the givers and the takers – good people who lose out, and bad people who get what they want. Though here’s another kind of quote like that, from John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, as said by villainess Connie Marble, played by Mink Stole:

I guess there’s just two kinds of people, Miss Sandstone: my kind of people, and assholes. It’s rather obvious which category you fit into. Have a nice day.

This is an interesting tendency itself: dichotomizing the entire human population into good and bad, light and dark, lions and lambs, hunters and hunted, doers and talkers, whatever. For what it’s worth, I say, Fuck that. People are psychologically complex organisms. Hitler liked his dog. Etc. We have irrational, conflicting drives affected by numerous factors, biological and environmental; this isn’t Brave New World and we aren’t systematically conditioned from birth to be an Alpha Plus or Gamma Minus or somewhere in between. Granted, we are systematically conditioned from birth. And I’m sure a lot of advertisers wish (on some level) that people could be brought up in corporate schools where they’d have product consumption associated day after day with pleasure, and non-consumption associated with pain. Hell, kids want candy, toys, and explosions as it is. But my point is that it’s far from absolute. There’s a lot of space in human minds still devoted to curiosity about the world outside themselves, experiencing new and different sensations, and creating something new. And my point is that consumerism and advertising tend to oppose this. I haven’t read Brave New World in an awful long time, but its lessons are still very relevant. “The more stitches, the less riches.” Throw away everything dusty or old; covet only the shiny and new. I’m really not sure what point I’m driving toward here, but I seriously do have a point.

For a long time, money has disgusted me. It still does. I was thinking the other day how it felt like money & alcohol, two things which have ruined countless lives and brought on endless misery, were being shoved into my face by my peers, by authority figures, and by society at large through popular culture, advertising, media products, etc. To me, this is tantamount to waving a jar of rat poison in my face as a delicacy. In my view, money should be treated like kryptonite or plutonium and contact should be limited. Carrying large quantities around could cause a disease far worse than radiation poisoning. But I’ve said all this before. But consider how readily people become willing to sell off the world’s great treasures just for a quick cent. To quote Al Roberts, the doomed sucker at the heart of Edgar G. Ulmer’s film noir masterpiece Detour: “Money. You know what that is. The stuff you never have enough of.”

But I think what I wanted to talk about in the first place was our position here as consumers/producers (?) stuck in the middle of a world not of our own creation. And it brings me back to the William Blake quote I was considering when I started writing, what Blake called “The Poet’s Motto”:

I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.

I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.

It’s this issue of trying to fit into the grand scheme of things while retaining your personal sovereignty, your independence, your freedom as a human being – which is itself highly in question in the first place, living both in this economic system and in an unwanted contract with a domineering government. But at the very least, your artistic selfhood, individuality; your ability to create what you want without being strangled by “another Man’s” System. Of course, it all depends on how you read this quote, since no one starts out a genius – not even Blake himself – and we all have to place our roots somewhere in antecedents. It’s the tension between being ourselves, being 1 person, and yet being only one of many, one single element of a great mass, a collective brotherhood of mankind spanning the entire earth and all its history. How do we reconcile this? I have no fucking clue.

Incidentally, in the course of researching Blake online I found this highly appealing book, William Blake and Gender by Magnus Ankarsjö. Because of course, with every artist, it’s always more fun when you analyze their attitude toward gender & sexuality. From my reading so far, I really can’t discern too much of Blake’s opinions on this matter, but hey, here’s a resource to explore it! Includes such appealing chapter titles as “Apocalypse, Utopia and Gender.” Oooh.

Come to think of it, yesterday’s viewing of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies connects pretty well to this whole issue of art, society, and necessity, so why not invoke it. The film is long, eerie, slow, and cryptic. The plot is simple: a small town is on the edge of violence for some reason – rumors hint at economic troubles and growing unrest of some kind. A circus trailer arrives in town housing a giant whale and “the prince” who can apparently bend others to his will. Crowds gather, people go crazy, a night of violence ensues, and the film ends with its innocent protagonist János recuperating in his uncle’s care. It’s hard to determine the film’s intended meaning – some of course might say “It’s not supposed to mean anything!”, an assertion that invariably pisses me off – but I think, maybe, it shows how close a superficially civilized, organized group of people lie to full-scale panic and hysteria, ultimately storming a hospital and smashing everything in sight.

The town seems to be a fairly empty, quiet place during the film’s first half, an impression reinforced by the stark B&W cinematography, the drawn-out long takes, and the frequent spells without dialogue. And then the creaky system that held it all in place falls apart, and almost everyone descends into madness. Tarr insists that films can’t be metaphors – he’s photographing something real, and since physical objects are recorded, they exist as they are and not as symbolic stand-ins for anything else. I can concede this point – though it does raise some interesting questions which remind me of André Bazin’s theories – but I still feel like the lack of specifics, the anonymity in Tarr’s film enables me to draw out broader conclusions, with this town as any town and these people as any people, although they speak Hungarian.

So, my ultimate point, I guess, is that it’s hard to exist both as one man and as one of many men (men used here purely in the “mankind” sense). And I want to be able to live and make decisions outside of the constraints imposed by most institutions, be they media conglomerates or the United States government. I don’t mean a kind of Nietzschean way of living beyond the concepts of good & evil endorsed by everyone else. I just mean being able to live outside of this cage imposed on us by the Powers That Be. Which is all very nice and revolutionary-sounding, I know, but this really is the conclusion I’ve been drawing to (more or less). My business is to Create.

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The eternal conflict of money and art

So here I am yet again sitting in the Westonka library using a free, government-provided computer and writing away. I don’t really have an agenda today but I didn’t want this blog to get dusty, after all. For that would be sad. It’s noisy and dull in here, surrounded by people going about their weary lives. I think pretty frequently about the interaction between art and commerce. Inevitably, we seem to live in a world where we must have money in order to eat, be clothed, have a roof over our heads, etc. – even have money in order to keep producing art. It’s a necessary evil that’s pretty much dogged all cultures since the beginning of time, whether Imhotep needed the Pharaoh’s patronage, or Michelangelo battled with the Pope, or Mozart had arguments with Emperor Joseph, or whatever the case. The moral has been: artists need to create art, but artists need money. Well, fuck.

One reason for me to contemplate this eternal struggle is my interest in film. Unlike writing, for example, film is a medium heavy in physical necessities, whether you’re talking people, equipment, sets, location shooting, the film itself, everything. Filmmaking has always been expensive, an investment on the part of someone who has the money to invest. The result is that while anyone can write a novel by scrawling down all their inner desires and dreams, committing anything and everything to paper, with no regard for who or what will end up reading it, a film is considered a failure by its producers if it fails to obtain an audience and high returns. This often leads to sacrificing what a few people want (say, the personal vision of the artist[s]) for what many people want – the millions, the unwashed masses. If you can’t reach them, well, your movie’s a flop. This creates the tension between art and entertainment, between highbrow and mainstream, between Persona and Transformers 2, to use a random example.

This problem, like oh so many, is created by money. If filmmakers didn’t have to worry about recouping what was spent on production, they could make whatever the hell they wanted. They could go in any direction, untethered to the needs or desires of the public. This is what avant-garde or experimental filmmakers tend to do – since they don’t need anyone to go and see their movie, they don’t have to worry if it sells. Of course, they also can’t spend as much on it, unless they have a wealthy patron who likes their style.

(Am I overgeneralizing? Fuck yes. Will I look back years later on this post, as well as the rest, and go, Wow, what was I thinking? Probably. But hell, I’m writing to write and maybe try to say something. I’m slightly educated, but far from fully. I see what I can see, and comment on it as I feel appropriate. If that’s not up to your standards, well, fuck you, I guess.)

So I try to let this knowledge of the tension between the commercial and the artistic inform my criticism and analysis. You can’t satisfy everyone, and if you try to, your product is likely to suck. After all, as I remind myself whenever I worry that people aren’t as stupid as I say they are, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s Meet the Spartans was the top-grossing film in the nation for a short time in 2008. By all accounts, a dreadful, worthless, and pathetic attempt at a film, and yet statistically the most favored film in American theaters for a week. It’s times like these when I wish I knew anything about economics.

My point is that commercially successful films can certainly be good – take last year’s The Dark Knight as a perfect example – but by and large in order to reach across demographics and into the wallets of as many Americans as possible, you have to have something shiny, bland, and simple. Like Titanic: two pretty leads fall in love across class barriers (isn’t it romantic?), the ship sinks in a loud, visually stunning display, somebody dies (aww, sad!), and we get all the automatically generated pathos we can handle. James Cameron, you’ve done it again.

So I think it’s always good, especially when looking over received wisdom like the “greatest movies ever,” to consider money as a factor – was the movie made that way to be good, or was it made that way to attract lots & lots of viewers? This is nothing new. I think it’s revelatory that Thomas Edison, Wizard of Menlo Park and all, was more interested in the moneymaking capabilities of film than the artistic. In fact, I believe he was reluctant to switch from simple peepholes to projection, because then more than one person could watch at once, and where’s the money in that? This is a big issue in all of the arts, but I think it’s just always interesting to think about. Maybe in the future I’ll come up with further, deeper commentary about it.

The bleak imagery of Sue Coe

© Sue Coe, presumably

I think blogs are prettier when they have images in them, so here’s an image: during the spring, I checked out but was never able to finish the book X by comics artist Sue Coe, who apparently collaborated with Art Spiegelman. If you can track the book down, it juxtaposes the Civil Rights movement and the speeches of Malcolm X with poems about the treatment of animals and the struggle of the poor in a warring, wealth-dominated nation. It’s pretty disturbing, especially with Coe’s pestilently expressionistic illustrations.

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