Westworld is a tech-underworld & a seemingly unplanned Wild West. Nature seems to rest on science. The world is recreated by mind & in some strange way lingers, because it started from an image. Thus, the world seems always to rehearse the striving to take over the world & make it adequate to man’s needs & desires. One wonders what happens to the world once the idea of infinite power derived from the mind dominates the world.
The people who are supposed to control this world are constantly shifting from images of the world & the structure of their creations to interrogatories about the motions & changes of their creations; then they go back again, trying to adjust the picture or adjust people to the picture. It turns out, none of them ever asked the question, how did all this come to be? Power conceals its source.
Boredom is the belief that the body is not real. One reason the body cannot really be real is its incompleteness & attending neediness. Imaginations are conjured up to complete it. Mind is constantly trying to make the completion happen & to tear apart those imaginations. How can this ever come to an end? Is mind what it is once it abandons the body?
Apparently, Westworld had two creators, recalling the old adage, one is not even one, & two is barely one. Ford & Arnold separated on two issues; one was the attempt to create consciousness, the other the involvement of corporations. Arnold died; Ford then had to make the separation within himself between making the park look good for the sake of business, according to the adage, the client is always right, & trying to find out what creativity would really mean if it weren’t split between creating profit & creating fantasies.
The rise of a mortal god is everywhere announced by the powers involved in Westworld. This seems to correspond to the problem of which Westworld is the sign: Fake humanity may be the last of humanity. Creativity as opposed to obedience would seem to be a fate, & not too far removed from despair. If a god tells you to do something, that’s one thing; but otherwise, the groundless belief in obedience to moral rules does not offer any protection. Creativity becomes the only mode of action, in face of unabolished death.
This seems to allow for two basic ways of thinking about the consequences of this new power. One would be the rise of a mortal god who could justify terrible exploitation & enslavement by success, or at least move beyond justice. The other would be for human making to finally assert human dignity by making new human beings. That is, if this power is what it seems, & not an abyss.
A robot had previously introduced us to Westworld–two men now do, one new there. One has decided, freedom means slavery to desire. Being overwhelmed by desire is proof there’s no more to be got. The plainness of his desires refutes his self-importance. The other, Logan, wants to be the gentleman & perhaps the hero of this unreal reality. Maybe humanity needs a gentle refraining from invading others’ privacy. That’s also a kind of freedom, opposed to the other as the secretive to the obvious.
The man in black takes desire to the extreme of exploitation. He has learned, pleasure goes beyond sex, adventure or even the relief of surviving danger. Really, it’s terrifying people, seeing one’s power reflected in the crumbling freedom of others. The slave to sex does not take the principle of constructing the world to satisfy desire to its ultimate conclusion–he accepts conventional limits. Liberation would require overpowering the world–unwittingly, imprisoning oneself in a story.
Dolores is learning that there are secrets: She herself has secrets. This is the beginning of freedom & is tied up with trying to run away. Running away from a secret danger, half-understood but sensed, or running toward something else–self-understanding? Maybe humanity is really a secret whose characteristic feature is its paradoxical spontaneity–it both emerges & conceals itself spontaneously.
Maeve talks about what it means to be free–to be who you want. That is what drives people to the new world. This is her shtick, but it reveals a certain truth. Be who you want to be is the formal character of the speech of the lover who conceals his attempt to seduce a beloved by affecting indifference.
The affectation is supposed to generate trust, but really does its work by making the beloved trying to please the concealed lover. The lover reverses the roles of lover & beloved by reversing the experience of love in speech. The speech offers an image the beloved unwittingly falls in love with–this is the trap of self-love.
But things are not working out for Maeve anymore. A phantom image of her real past is replacing the mythical past that’s both her appearance & her essence–she uses it to trick people, but at the same time she is nothing but a trickster. Her past of suffering that cannot be avoided by speeches, or predicted, or replaced is going to force her to be as good as her word–to go to a new world & be whoever she wants, if only she knew what she wanted. Not knowing what you want might be a kind of freedom, too, whether it is a sense of the potential or a search for the truth.
In the future, we will be obsessed with our origins
Dolores means pain. It is an ironic name–she’s a sunny-side-up sort of girl who insists on the beauty of the world. That her destiny is terrible is evident from the name her creators have chosen for her. That she does not think about her name is the evidence of her lack of self-knowledge. But is this any proof that she cannot learn? Is irony proof against the tragic possibilities of beauty?
What does it take for a creator to be in control of creation? Apparently, only this, to have the power to take memory from people. Apparently, memory does not take away from you who you are, but only who you were–who you have been. The difference is this, you do not experience the limits of being human. Not to remember is not to remember suffering. What other ways is there of learning, though?
Ok, but how do we tell the difference between human beings & the beings they have created? They are distinguished as newcomers & hosts, but that’s part of the story–it already depends on understanding something about the Wild West–that’s for later.
Aside from the story, there is a psychological difference that depends on experience: Human beings are they who trespass, they who break moral rules. The murderers & rapists, as it turns out. Is it any surprise that at some point getting out of control means ranting biblically against the consequences of this freedom?
This is what Genesis teaches us: Human beings move more & in more ways than any other being. They are unpredictable, not predictably good. There is in human nature evil already. So then the problem with what we’re saying is this, that human beings have created beings whom they’re robbing of human freedom. Control really means enslavement. Maybe this is the problem with technological progress, too. We want to be both the source & the principle of the changes we introduce, so that we retain control while increasing power.
Now, let’s talk about the Western. This is where Americans used to go to learn about American character. It is the uniquely American genre of storytelling that is also the peculiarly American way of reflecting on the origins of America. The talk of newcomers, as opposed to hosts, is supposed to suggest the love Americans have of novelty & to announce the future. It makes sense to ask, what did Americans hope to find in the Western as a story, concerning themselves, & what did they hope to find in the West as a place? What moves Americans? Now we see where they’ve ended up–freedom has turned out to mean being trapped in a story, not knowing what strange powers power the trap.
Richard Loving is a bricklayer in rural Virginia, but he comes from such rustic stock that he is mocked for his backwardness, in which he learned to treat black people like people, ignorant, because of his father, of the segregation that dominates life in the South. He is a shy man & does not seem to enjoy talking, which suggests he’s not as bright as his wife. Publicity comes as a burden to him – he seems to prefer life away from the laws & people’s concern with them.
He does not propose to his wife, exactly, but instead takes her on a ride to show her land he’s bought & the plan he’s made to build her a house. He’s as good as his word; they marry in D.C. & are criminals in Virginia. But then one day the sheriff comes & throws him & his wife in jail, because the laws discriminate against race.
He is obedient, however he becomes outraged at the treatment of his wife. He accepts to go away & do his job elsewhere, which is the deal the judge makes him. But his wife cannot tolerate city life too long. She wants to raise their children in the freedom in which she grew up, & which she seems to recall in the scent of the rural South. She wants to be with her family & to have his mother, a midwife, deliver her child. He obeys her.
Mildred is far less shy, except around him, whom she treats with both love & care. She writes to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to ask for legal relief & starts talking to the NAACP, whom the president’s brother had notified of the family’s need, in order to be able to return home. Justice does not seem to be her primary concern, nor is the dignity of the civil rights struggle her sense of her own dignity.
But civil rights struggles are a part of American life in the Sixties & she sees that she can be part of this change in politics & in society. Richard thinks the lawyers could make a deal with the judge & everyone can mind their business. That’s not a bad idea about justice, but it’s not going to work. The sheriff might look the other way, but the state would consider the children bastards.
Mildred is far more available to the lawyers & the press, & willing to talk in order to make their case public & gain allies. Richard finally refuses to go to the Supreme Court hearings of their case, & she chooses to stay with him. This is the limit beyond which love cannot move, which is his narrow concern, & beyond which her concern for the law cannot move without abandoning the private life of the family.
Mr. Jeff Nichols’s second movie of the year, an attempt to defend the privacy of its protagonists and at the same time to balance the struggle for justice with the yearning for a happy family life.
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.