But I do not want to leave you with the impression that Marvel, the spearhead of popular culture & the measure of show business success–both in movies &, increasingly, in online series–has nothing but race-class-gender moralism to offer, in some unstable mix with the worship of tech-scientific success. At some level, all these movies are humanistic. They want to rescue people from their problems.
The attack on manliness as monstrous–think of the Hulk, who mostly worries about losing control of his anger–is an attack in the name of science & health. The development of scientific monstrosities is always spurred on by a desire to save lives & prevent any possible dangers from the future. In short, what is attempted is the creation of the end of history–Hegel’s description of a situation where only technical questions remain to be asked & there are no more serious political problems. Change would always be in the direction of more scientific control of life. Temporary setbacks may be exciting, but ultimately unserious.
Of course, the problem is that whoever wants to save people should understand the dangers they face. The poet’s design has been replaced by a kind of ideology of sarcastic individualism, as I’ve noted. So also the orientation of man that leads to heroism has been changed. The old attitude could easily be summarized as: Being is striving. Man’s mortality was thought to be what heightened the human powers to such a pitch that inequalities took center stage & the common mortality of all men was relegated to the background.
The new situation is obviously Christian, but in a scientific way. Marvel is the biggest manufacturer of immortality in America. Just about every story requires a helpless sacrifice for mankind that turns out to be effective, not helpless, & also not a sacrifice. Dying & living with it are too common to mention anymore, but they are the salient facts. A terrible fear of death seems to lead these stories, but at the same time, it is continuously concealed behind technological tricks. The plots have therefore the sense about them of silly, manufactured, hysteric dreams–where the threats are nightmarish, but do not really affect the heroes, the destruction is vast, but impersonal, & the solutions are rather thoughtlessly contrived.
There is something further to notice about this desperate humanim. Almost without fail, the heroes have no family nor no love, & only a very unreliable understanding of friendship. They are therefore creatures without a past, which is one way to make sense of the fact that they are almost always the creatures of scientific power, including the manlier types like the Hulk or Captain America…
In certain cases, most obviously the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, a kind of ideology of orphanhood is on display & in action, so as to explain modern individualism. Of five protagonists, three are orphans or creatures of abusive creators. A fourth has lost his entire family. The fifth is a tree. A similar idealogy of abusive childhood & youth, creating orphanhood as an identity, is on display in the only successful non-Disney/Marvel superhero movie, Deadpool. Recently, Marvel’s only competition in superhero movies, DC, tried to put together the two themes of outsider villains from the lower classes & orphanhood or abused youth or creation in the popular & business failure Suicide Squad, all about anti-heroes. There will be more of this… Orphanhood as the core of individualism is the most desperate form of humanism, after all–attempting to affirm the worthwhile character of humanity almost entirely divorced from family & the past. One could say that the focus on the future typical of democracy goes too far in such cases.
The possibility that the market will extinguish the sources of story-telling
Our is an age of glamour, which is a fine word for an ugly thing–polished mediocrity. Glamour is what one feels for beauties seen on screen or the covers of magazines, as opposed to what one feels for one’s lover. It does not correspond to the psychological experience of perfection that attends on love; but it does not correspond to a social understanding of propriety either. If it can be said to correspond to any basic experience, it is hearing someone else talk about their beloved. Admiration by proxy.
The new superheroes tend to be made in that mold; manliness is reduced to bodies produced in a gym, in a world where actors talk about the difficulty & pleasure of achieving musculatures in the use of which they have no interest. The mind, as I said, is reduced to a troubled, but simplistic faith in scientific transformation of life–such as the one really at play in creating these new scientific bodies enshrined on screen to be idolized rather than desired.
These actors are not mere bodies, however, they do speak–in fact, all plots are now dialogue-driven. It is best, however, not to speak about the quality of the dialogue, whether in relation to plot or characterization. Sarcasm has replaced humor & stands in for everyday conversation; at the outer edge of experience, platitudes pass for principle; there is next to nothing in-between these most perishable private experiences & those most removed universal statements, in the realm of judgment. Sentimentality has replaced just about every form of love and the individualism of the age is enshrined without even the promise of happiness–which is dismissed sarcastically. These heroes are unhappy & advertise unhappiness, which apparently would be tolerable were it more glamorous. This may be a public opinion.
The directors hired to do this work are sometimes men of prestige & a classical bent–consider Sir Kenneth Branagh. At the same time, Marvel is buying up actors with more & more Oscar prestige. But they are on the leash, it would seem, of Mr. Kevin Feige, the producer who runs the Marvel enterprise, & who has not flopped since 2008.
Compare Marvel with the DC products that epitomize thoughtful superhero stories–the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. There are only three of the latter over about eight years, whereas Marvel puts out at least two movies a year; the director wrote & directed the movies in that case, but directors have almost no influence in this, & one could not recognize a poetic mind either by style or theme were one confronted with the immensely popular & profitable Marvel movies.
In short, beauty, speech, & poetic intention have all been taken out of the movie-making business & the substitutes are a remarkable success. The market seems to have spoken, at least in this generation. The American market especially is being transformed into an opening night for the worldwide audience, where most of the money is for the Marvel kind of spectacle.
Look back a generation to Die hard, which typified, while elevating, the action-comedy of the Eighties. John McClane, played by Mr. Bruce Willis, is a working class man from New York: his wit is coarse, his manners are not quite up to middle class standards, & he gradually turns into a dirty, naked beast that would sooner scream than speak. From law & self-defense down to animal pugnacity, this is a portrayal of American manliness.
The villain, played by the late Alan Rickman, has about him all the trappings of the higher classes–impeccable taste in clothing, which he discusses nonchalantly, a distinguished British accent that adorns a remarkable facility with speeches, & very sophisticated calculations that overcome the technical & legal obstacles to his nefarious purpose, wealth.
In this generation, that conflict has been reversed. Marvel, the dominant force in American cinema, has overseen the transformation of heroes into upper class, immensely wealthy men, opulent beyond vulgarity, & masters of business, technology (Iron man), or science (Dr. Strange). There are some exceptions–young male models are also given some scope (Captain America & Thor, who has a super-scientist girlfriend). There are also cases where people play super-educated characters (Hulk, TV’s startlingly successful Daredevil) or super-tech savvy, who are not wealthy (Ant-man, the new Spider-man). That’s the variety you can expect. What is lost is the example of the tenuous, but necessary independence of moral virtue from intellectual virtue.
The answer to every real question about American society is turning into a fantasy of scientific tyranny, to judge by the way the plot leads to the success of such characters… These latter-day heroes are leading each other & mankind into scientific creations that turn out to be dangerous, but impossible to draw back from. Neither social differences nor their significance matter to plot anymore. There is only so much future in fantasy & most people are apparently excluded from it.
Indeed, villains now tend to come from the lower classes, if not directly from the outskirts or peripheries of the tech-industry world that is portrayed as a shameless oligarchy blind to its own weaknesses. Captain America: Civil war & Avengers: Age of Ultron made this point explicitly. It’s the same in the Thor movies & in Dr. Strange. Of course, all the Iron man movies would be summarized by liberals as the class privilege of white men & it’s not clear there’s much more to the character…
By the way, Marvel is also introducing into American popular spectacles the fabled triad of race (Captain America: Civil War, the upcoming Black panther), class (Ant-man, Daredevil), & gender (Jessica Jones, the Netflix show about a rape survivor in a society that simply cannot see or do anything about a terrible rapist). To look at the popular spectacles that feature some fantasy of heroism, working class Americans have no place on the screen. It’s like Charles Murray’s Fishtown & Belmont are at war on the screen!–all the heroes are in Belmont, of course…
Doctor Strange is the new normal: & three disturbing thoughts conservatives should be taking seriously about popular culture
Disney is the biggest money-maker in American show-business & the only studio that’s wildly successful in a time of strange technological changes. With movie audiences still decreasing & studios competing over fewer & fewer money-making franchises, there is still success to boast of or to study. At the core of Disney’s influence on America & the world is Marvel, the studio that finally succeeded in turning yesterday’s lovers of comic books into today’s apostles & avant-garde of a new genre of hero fiction.
At this point, what used to be a boy’s or young man’s game, comic books, is the defining movie genre & therefore movie-going or at least movie-viewing experience. This has transformed movies in Hollywood in many different ways: how many movies get made–fewer every year; the average price of a studio picture–constantly rising; who directs or stars in what–more & more prestige actors are bought for popular spectacles, signing contracts for any number of years or sequels; as well as what the popular taste will accept, demand, tolerate, or reject. One wonders whether these productions will not ultimately also take over the Oscars, hitherto a reliable bastion of unpopular spectacles.
The most recent such success is Dr. Strange, a new Marvel offering that boasts Oscar-winning or nominated actors young & old. Thus starts a new franchise within the Disney/Marvel franchise; thus will come new work for other franchises within that big franchise, announced, as usual, in a post-credit scene; & thus is created a new object of curiosity & anticipation for the American audience &, as soon as the inevitable sequel comes, mainly for the worldwide audience.
Dr. Strange is played by Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes on British TV, in an acclaimed series in which he keeps calling himself a high-functioning sociopath. Now, he plays another such, a neurosurgeon who treats people with contempt, attempts daring life-saving procedures on a lark, unfailingly, & ends up a hero with enormous powers. He has an incredibly luxurious apartment that looks like a penthouse; he’s chasing after a very pretty girl; he’s got exorbitantly expensive watches & an exorbitantly expensive car; & he hunts for new cases to improve his sterling reputation while driving his super-scientific car at shocking speeds up a mountainside, in the rain, dodging traffic. Then he dies.
The vulgar show of oligarchic excesses powered by modern science is no morality play, except in the sense that such characters are redeemed, or at least popularized. Death is not an option for such a successful man, whose will is also indomitable. Does that make him a tyrant? No, a hero! His lovely torso is exposed for the public to admire, consequently, in our latter-day imitation of the Athenian love of ephebs. Why should a neurosurgeon be a male model? Why not! If you want a fantasy of a man who acquires just about every power he hungers for without having to bother about almost any other human being, this is the ticket for you!
Is the effectual truth of this kind of spectacle that the many millions of people who want to see delightful, amazing computer-generated graphics have so submit in some implicit way to tech oligarchy? Is it that people who really do believe tech oligarchy is the future are made to feel more responsible for the security of other people, who, of course, have no say in it whatsoever? The beauty of the spectacle conceals many unpleasant things conservatives should face in this time of social and political turmoil.
Mr. Herzog lets us know at some point that a child’s footprint had been impressed next to a wolf’s. He says, we can never know whether the wolf stalked the child; or they walked together; or they were separated by ages. These are the three ages of men–man was once prey seeking shelter from predators, then man came into mastery of the animals, & then he completely separated himself from the wilderness. Now we wonder whether we should go back.
Mr. Herzog offers two comparisons to the paintings in the cave. One is the dancing-with-his-shadows act Fred Astaire did in Swing Time: A startling comparison: The mood of the documentary is awe or reverence: & there is hardly anything more irreverent than Fred Astaire. This may be considered a suggestion about the innocence of play so well displayed by the experienced artist.–Or a darker suggestion, that the images made up in Hollywood know no more about shadows than that.
The other is the painting of Picasso. This would seem to serve a more serious purpose–the question is whether, after the high realism of the Renaissance, it is even possible for human beings to retrieve their basic or original experiences. Whether the heart could be freed from the conventions of the arts…
Mr. Herzog lets us know that, the paintings all done at the back of the cave, they could only have been drawn & seen by fire. This of course recalls to any educated man the cave of which Socrates speaks in Plato’s Republic. Mr. Herzog lets us know that before the cave painters moved into Europe, there dwelt the Neanderthals who, for all their achievements, had no arts. Does it take imagination for men to enter the cave? Or does it take imagination to become aware of it?
The remarkable ability to draw evidenced on the walls of the Chauvet cave has the effect of divorcing the ability to imitate from politics & religion. This discovery of a world less impermanent & maybe less opaque than the merely human world forces on us the question of human nature. (This is also suggested by the display of the famous statuettes of fertility, where femininity is exaggerated. & Mr. Herzog’s remark about the disproportionate size of the horn of the rhino, which would otherwise obviously denote merely fear, not male aggression.)
Is human nature anything but an image, like the images of other animals in the cave? Our awareness of our lost origins or that we are parts of an existence or history we cannot really scrutinize objectively–does it condemn our conventions as it condemned those we expected or desire to find in that cave? Is beauty the revenge taken on our politics?
A documentary filled with anthropological speculations about the character of our imagination
This is Werner Herzog’s most political film. After private men searching for caves discovered in a cave in France very old paintings of animals, after they presumably made the discovery public, the French state declared the cave a secret, closed it to the public, & turned it into a scientific research where a few select experts would conduct their investigations. In this new hiddenness, Mr. Werner Herzog was invited with super-scientific 3d cameras, to discover to the public the discovery.
The choice is remarkable. Man’s evil & the inhuman origin of mankind are the most important themes of Mr. Herzog’s filmography. He is the most serious poet to criticize civilization, or America. Let us start from startling facts. The alternative to America for France, & therefore for Europe, is France, & the core of France is the conflict between its rationalist politics & its Catholic faith. The former is simply dismissed as lacking depth. The latter, concentrated or reduced to its most penetrating expression, its holy music, is used continuously by Mr. Herzog in the movie. Does he want to sanctify–to cleanse–the cave? Or to debase the Church?
Mr. Herzog lets us know that although the cave at Chauvet was used by human beings in order to paint animals, it was only inhabited by bears, who made their own marks–claw scratches on the walls, sometimes in the same place where humans made their drawings, whether before or after–& who left behind copious amounts of bones, including skulls. But humans never dwelt there. Now, the paintings include both herbivores, or prey, & carnivores, or predators. There are no omnivores–like men or bears.
Mr. Herzog points silently to the crisis of understanding facing us by showing us the technological tricks of the age & especially by showing us France’s experts. One of them has transformed the cave, by technology, into an abstract space of hundreds of millions of points on a computer screen. You may judge for yourself whether such a man knows he is being treated ironically; or whether he is able to experience the terror of the origins.
Another talks about going into the caves & coming out dreaming about the animals there & about fearing to return until he had regained his faculties. That man is Mr. Herzog’s silent portrayal of his main audience. It seems very unlikely that he can look at that man without contempt. Compare his portrayal with the sympathy showed to all the silly madmen who yap the mouth about spirituality–whom Americans would dismiss as hippies.
All these humans serve one purpose, to establish the obstacles faced by a man who wants to go into the darkness. They are ultimately replaced didactically by another scientific monster, albino crocodiles.
A disturbing reflection that might occasion students of our intellectual heritage to take Plato & Heidegger more seriously.
Casablanca plus The English patient equals another Oscar drama?
It’s Oscar season & I’ve had the chance to attend an advanced screening of Allied in Seattle, where Paramount’s security men assured us we’d enjoy the show & that they would, too–having night vision goggles, they’d be all over us should we try to illegally film the movie or even fiddle with our phones overmuch. I write to pan the movie, which is easily done, given the outline of the plot:
A Canadian played by a famous American, in Casablanca, during WWII, is involved in some espionage against the Nazis, & there’s a French woman he loves mixed in. It’s remarkable how silly celebrities can be. Then there is the torrid doomed romance in the desert, during the war, also involving the Nazis at an important point in the plot. I dearly hope this does not get any Oscars, on its way to inevitable failure at the box office. If there’s anything worse than superhero movies, it’s selling nostalgia for money & prestige.
The movie is shot to look as pretty as can be–the cars, the clothes, & the architecture are all beautiful. Our attraction to a more elegant, more formal age is flattered at every turn. In short, it’s a movie for women of a certain respectability & a certain age. I do hope they enjoy it, but I’m afraid some of the moral vacuity is going to be a problem.
Then again, the sentimentality might cover it all up–there’s a birth-giving scene, by night, in the streets of London, under a sky of anti-aircraft fire & German bombers, during the Blitz, in 1942. There’s a sex scene, in a car, in the desert, during a storm. Allied is, not to put too fine a point on it, a movie about how falling in love might cause a person to be ok with turning murderer & traitor. The plot is twisted such that, if you took it seriously, you’d have to think the writer insane, just to give cover to that ugliness. Nevertheless, some of the people in the theater applauded at the end…
Mr. Pitt is less credible as a Canadian than as the Frenchman his character at some point portrays, which is both silly & a welcome departure from the foolishness of our age: The latter-day obsession with authenticity of detail that conceals the grand betrayal of whatever’s being imitated on screen.
Miss Marion Cotillard is again doing work to please Americans–a combination of worldly sophistication, without morality, & secret anguish. Who could say no to that? I will not psycho-analyze the proclivity–I will merely say that people who secretly enjoy the combination of sentimentality & brutality as a sophisticated, nuanced immorality must come to accept the awful ending of this plot.
The thing to notice is that this is the most vacuous title for an Oscar-minded movie in a long time. What happened to the silly pretensions of Oscar season?
The Reacher movie showed honor as American laws teach it going beyond what American laws will allow. This sequel shows the American family going beyond the laws. This seems more of a judgment on the secret manly dreams that create the action movie audience than on society at large.
The only interesting thing is the lawless way the plot forms the family-on-the-run. This suggests a natural, as opposed to a legal, family, as does the paternity lawsuit alleging Reacher fathered a bastard. We disbelieve: Reacher is the unerotic hero of an unerotic world.
But the writer cannot imagine a natural family–only an American family in unusual circumstances. This is not without merit–if you think of law as society, then it becomes obvious the three protagonists are all at the outer edges of society–they might want to fit in better, that is, to become part of a family. This might be a learning experience.
So the story turns around the sources of equality in American society. The dominant one, which tends to destroy the family, is professionalism. Doing a job well makes men & women competitors even as it pretends to wipe out the natural distinction between man & woman. The family threatens to collapse once, when the woman manfully takes insult at babysitting. There’s no family if you’re always risking quarrels concerning the honor of the sex.
The military is a source of equality for women. The girl is interested in the woman’s authority to give orders to men under her command, as well as her martial prowess for self-defense. This makes it obvious how much dignity is tied up with equality. She wonders, though, are all women-soldiers homosexual? She sees the dangers brotherhood & law pose to eroticism.
American family, however, is the main source of equality for women–Christianity is utterly neglected. Parents & children can have no serious secrets in America. When Reacher shows his indifference to his supposed daughter, discussing her prideful desire to run away, to be free, he shows he knows about family equality. Men ned hide their protective instincts & powers, because they might give offense or provoke. They need listen to their children’s foolish opinions & be mindful of their pride: The children learn they’re Americans young–they are as opinionated as the adults, but lack the reasonableness wrought of habits. American kids are as naturally asocial as Jack Reacher: They grow up with the twin instincts of honor & freedom. They have to be persuaded to be reasonable & accept authority where they cannot be compelled. This brings man to the situation of woman, among other things. Parenthood becomes hard to distinguish from a friendship strengthened by long habit. It gives children the illusion of self-rule.
Some notes on the motive power of freedom & honor when it comes to American men
Now that there’s a sequel out that seems as good as designed to ruin the character out of a misguided desire to introduce feminism into his story, I want to go back to the Jack Reacher movie, to spell out some of the things that made it such an interesting story & such a good fit for the Christopher McQuarrie-Tom Cruise team.
There are two things that make Jack Reacher interesting &, strangely enough, they’re both largely independent of his remarkable ability to kill people, which itself seems secondary to his willingness to do so. The first is something he says about himself in explanation for his way of life–he’d spent so much time defending America’s freedom in the military, he didn’t really know what it was. He decided to find out for himself. Now you might think that this is something to do with his driving muscle cars, & there’s some truth to that. You might think it’s to do with the freedom to fight whoever feels free to fight him–that’s also true.
But the most obvious thing about Reacher is that he lives a life alone from the rest of America, quite careful to hide from civilization. Of course, in America, freedom meant, before the Declaration & before the Pilgrims, the freedom of the Indians. Reacher wants to go from standing up for it to embodying it–he wants to live a nomadic life. He’s learning how much manliness is defined by aloofness.
This fits with the style of filming wonderfully–Jack Reacher uses both his detective skills & his natural violence to move around in the world. He is a foreigner in the city & has no attachments. His singlemindedness therefore dominates the setting & his decisiveness is on display in almost every scene. This is what an action or role playing computer game looks like transformed into a film. All the computer game-movies would do well to study it.
This brings us to the second thing, Reacher’s interest in justice, which he does not talk about, but is the American correspondent to Indian honor. Considerations of humanity seem alien to Reacher. He will not only do anything: He has no problem thinking the unthinkable, because he has no respect for Americans. The ugly secret about the city he’s entering as an avenger is not a surprise to him.
His conception of justice, however, comes from America. What’s strange about him is that he seems to know nothing else about America–leaving the army did not free him from his job as law enforcer, but from the political limits set to it. Reacher is the most public-spirited character there is. He has no soul but justice, is unerotic, & unconcerned with friendship.
When once the aviators make it to Cape Canaveral, they reach a crisis. The quarrel starts in the locker-room, in-between their duties & their private lives. Soon, they form two groups getting read for a fight–some argue that private life is private for people who do their jobs well, because they sacrifice a lot to get the job done–the others argue that in their new situation, they owe deference to the public even in their private lives.
They are quarreling because in modern America there are women throwing themselves at them, presumably because they are charmed by the idea of having sex with astronauts. A kind of sexual promiscuity seems to be part of the privilege of success, but of course, it is not publicly tolerable–there is always a danger that the people will indulge in a fit of indignation concerning the few who indulge in immoral pleasures.
In the midst of the quarrel, one of the astronauts utters the only useful truth available to them–they’re being treated like monkeys, that’s the problem. They cannot agree on quite what liberty means or requires, but they do have a common enemy–the scientists who want to take away their dignity. American manliness is better equipped to deal with that threat than with the above dilemma.
This allows the two factions to move forward together. Public scrutiny of mores is not all there is to public America–now that they’re famous, they’re no longer mere warm bodies, to be replaced at the whim of the scientists–they are important in themselves & can use their prestige & popularity to assert their dignity. At the same time, private collapse into promiscuity is not the best available to men who have acquired various excellences–they are better suited to derive their dignity from how well they do a job worth doing.
In parallel to this assertion of human dignity, we see the aviators debate the manliness of the astronauts. One of them, to mock the national enthusiasm, says they’re no better than monkeys. Chuck Yeager, the man who personally has most to lose by way of celebrity from the new success of the astronauts, is the one who defends them. They may have no more control over the rockets than the monkey that preceded them in space, but they have more knowledge.
The situation of man is such that he knows he is riding a bomb, but he does it anyway. Even in the new situation, where man may be powerless, he still knows his life is at stake & must decide when to risk it & for what reason. Danger & manliness are still the twin conditions of standing up for human dignity.