The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

3Ds Rise, and The Fall of The Autumning Empire



In the neighborhood of American movies, 3D used to be pretty low rent property. The first color, feature length 3D film was 1952’s Bwana Devil. I haven’t seen the movie, but the poster is awesome. It promises, among other things: “A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!” In the 1950s and ’60s 3D was an unambiguously tacky medium. That’s what made it a perfect vehicle for Vincent Price, who starred in the amazing House of Wax, as well as The Mad MagicianA Dangerous Mission, and Son of Sinbad*. You don’t need to see all, or perhaps any, of these movies to appreciate the absence of cultural pretension during 3Ds golden era.

But a lot can happen in half a century. America’s former novelty has now gone respectable. Former raging bull Martin Scorcese no doubt felt disappointed about Hugo’s Oscar outing two nights ago as he watched big game prizes such as Best Director and Motion Picture go to The Artist. But in the end, Hugo has little to complain about: it won five out of the eleven of the Oscars for which it was nominated. That’s a pretty impressive record for an artsy, kid friendly blockbuster conceived and executed in 3D.

And that’s a long, long way from House of Wax. Sure, the medium still offers more than its share of tacky, guilty pleasures. But none of the 1952 Academy Award nominees were made in 3D. That doesn’t seem strange until you consider that the winner of that year’s Best Picture Oscar was The Greatest Show On Earth. A circus movie could have put not just a lion, but an entire menagerie your lap. But 3D was new and just a little bit silly. Jimmy Stewart in a clown suit? Sure. 3D? Never. Even a grand showman like Cecil B. DeMille could never quite cross the invisible line between 3D and the decade’s more respectable variety of grand entertainment.

The same cannot be said of Scorsese, or Tintin’s director Steven Spielberg. 3D, once a schlocky diversion, is now a part of our cultural mainstream. Even more curious is Hollywood’s rush to transform ancient blockbusters from the 1990s into hitherto unimagined spectacles of in your face awesomeness. Titanic is now in 3D. Are its characters still one dimensional?  Will Billy Zane’s thrusting chest and caked on eyeliner jump off the screen to heighten our impressions of visceral and unrelenting realism? And what about The Phantom Menace? Dear God, do I have to take my eight-year old son to see it in the theatre, or can I just divert him with a trip to Baskin Robbins? Why is yesterday’s blockbuster being repackaged and hawked with such naked, bald aggression?

More importantly, why has 3D finally crossed the respectability line and become staple of our mainstream movie going diet? Perhaps the answer lies in a cultural shift in our national expectations, and the role that we expect a movie to play in our lives.

All art, especially narrative art, is manipulative. This story didn’t happen, but I’m going to make you believe that it did. And if you’re a Spielberg, a Lucas, or apparently a Scorcese, you aren’t satisfied with controlling your audience’s perception of reality. You must control their emotional response to it as well. Hear that music? See that close up? It is time for you now to be sad/horrified/uplifted/outraged/whatever. This is certainly not new. A figure no less than Wagner sought to stun and hypnotize his audiences, going to Disneyesque lengths to control every aspect of his awesome, mighty spectacle. I’ll bet Wagner and Walt would have hit it off great. After all, they were both were revolutionary figures, one transforming opera, the other animation, into something that audiences had never before seen, heard, or imagined. Disney and Wagner were also control freaks and racists who found in the mythic folktale fuel for their hitherto unimaginable engines of reactionary and nationalistic propaganda.

Ok, wait. What about Titanic ? And The Phantom Menace? Those movies aren’t propaganda. Are they?

Well …ok, maybe not. But they don’t exactly encourage us to think, now, do they? Both films might benignly (and charitably) be described as spectacles of escapism. And most Americans do not consider escapism propaganda. Then again, most Americans do consider it our God given right to support a billion dollar industry that churns out unreflective fantasy in the midst of a world wide economic crisis and staggering global poverty.

For a brief period of time, American cinema appeared to be moving in a less manipulative, more subversive direction. The late Robin Wood dates this period roughly between 1965 and 1977 in his brilliant book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Directors like Arthur Hill, Robert Altman, and (yup!) Martin Scorcese were consummate entertainers. But they were also artists; as such, their films made arduous intellectual, aesthetic, and moral demands upon their audiences. Just what exactly are we supposed to look at during the operating room scenes of the movie (not the series) M*A*S*H*? What about Bonnie and Clyde? And even Travis Bickle? Are they heroes? Psychopaths? Both? Neither? The seminal films of the late ’60s and early ’70s refused to decide for us, leaving their audiences in a vertiginous state of ethical suspension and moral ambiguity.

America went along for the ride briefly. But after Watergate, Vietnam, and multiple assassinations, the agony was just too great. In retrospect Lucas and Spielberg (not to mention Reagan) seem all but inevitable. Wood describes their advent in his chapter “Papering The Cracks”:

“The category of children’s films has of course always existed. The 80s variant is the curious and disturbing phenomenon of children’s films conceived and marketed largely for adults-films that construct the adult spectator as a child, or, more precisely, as a childish adult…(who) loses him/herself in fantasy, accepting the illusion…The lost breast (is) repeatedly rediscovered…Crucial here, no doubt, is the urge to evade responsibility – responsibility for actions, decision, thought, responsibility for changing things.”

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond: A Revised and Expanded Edition of the Classic Text **

Spielberg appears to have some artistic misgivings regarding his role as escape artist. Witness Liam Neeson’s maudlin and totally unconvincing breakdown near the end of Schindler’s List: “I could have done more!” he cries, only to be reassured by his saintly and once persecuted Jewish charges that indeed he couldn’t have done more. You are a hero, Oskar! And we like you just the way you are! And so his (and our) dominant culture guilt is sentimentally washed away. It is a troubling moment for all the wrong reasons, telling us more about Spielberg than it does about Schindler. But at least both of them had to struggle for a while to get there.

Not George Lucas. Blissfully or willfully untroubled by the political ramifications of his films (Jar Jar Binks? Racist? C’mon! Get over it!), Lucas is escapism’s man for all seasons, especially in regards to technology. Every re-release or edit of the two Star Wars trilogies involves the addition of some awesome new creation that further removes the audience from reality. So it is that the formerly vast, empty spaces of Luke Skywalker’s desert planet of Tatooine are now crowded with wickedly cool monsters, destroying the original print’s rare moments of quiet, mystical beauty.

Lily Tomlin said it: “They don’t call it ‘Show Art’.” Capitalism can’t thrive in stagnation; new products must be manufactured, marketed, and sold. Or perhaps the old ones can simply be repackaged. Dude, check out the new Zeppelin Box set. Or all 100 original episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man. Or what about Titanic? Yeah, let’s go see that again! All the original masters are now remasterfied. It’s like moving backwards and forwards and backwards all at the same time. Sam Phillips was right: nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

In this environment, it’s no wonder that 3D has made a come back. And who can resist its wondrous ability to make the imaginary seem real – actually, palpably real? Why suspend disbelief when the movie can do it for you? All the action comes right to you, and now…you don’t have to work. It’s our new manifest destiny: to breathe life into fictional constructs so that they may walk among us as equals. Virtual reality. Reality TV. Even the word “really,” which now functions as America’s all purpose adverb, reveals our obsessive quest to authenticate our wildest and least probable delusions.

First century Romans knew all about this, but of course, they took it one step further: the thrill of the blood sport is the thrill of the real. Gladiatorial contests were privately practiced during the Republic, but it took Rome’s first emperor Augustus to open them up to an avid, paying public. I in no way mean to suggest that 3D movies are even marginally comparable with the depravities of the coliseum. (For that, we must turn to professional boxing and wrestling, or perhaps America’s love affair with indefinite detention and torture). What we do share with our Roman forebears is the longing to know, or at least believe, that the action we are seeing is real. This desire might, perhaps, be shared by any group of people. But it has a funny way of rearing its head amongst unimaginable wealth and privilege. And as the Facebook photo says: to the rest of the world, we are the 1%.

NPR’s Glen Weldon called ours: “The Age of Indolence”. During the last 2011 podcast of Pop Culture Happy Hour he said:

“This is the first year I recall sitting like a pasha on my sofa and popular culture came to me; I did not go out to meet it.  I sat there and clapped my hands twice, and said, ‘Bring me your finest cheeses and salted nutmeats.’ And in they came: through Amazon, through Netflix, through Apple TV…I love the fact that we’ve reached this stage of society; I also have to own the fact that I am the reason society will collapse.” Pop Culture Happy Hour

Weldon’s characteristically insouciant delivery doesn’t dilute the take home message. Should our society collapse, we (middle class and other affluent Americans with expendable income) will be the reason. The fact that it’s hard to pay the bills or send our kids to college doesn’t change the fact that ours is a society of obscene privilege, privilege reflected not only in the content of our culture, but the very means by which it is consumed.

Do I overstate my case? The United States of America has 5% of the world’s population, and consumes 24% of its resources. In 2008 an MIT class figured out that even an American homeless person’s carbon footprint is roughly twice the size the world’s average. Our military spending is greater than any other nation’s, yet our national debt is projected to increase by 2 trillion dollars by the end of the year. You don’t have to be a statistician to see the global inequity of our riches, nor a Cassandra to forecast the probable outcome of this imperial and prodigal excess.

Ok, wait a minute! I recycle! And buy organic free trade coffee! And bike to work. And when November comes, I’m going to vote for Barak Obama.

Well…me, too. And isn’t that great for us? How we’re able to model the virtues of the Old Republic in the twilight days of The Autumning Empire? Seriously, no one wants to be the Malvolio in the room; I like my cakes and ale just as much as the next guy. But sometimes it feels like we’re all using thimbles to bail out the water of America’s rapidly sinking ship.

Of course, it probably won’t all end tomorrow. Perhaps you and I will have some Social Security by the time we reach retirement. Perhaps we can mitigate climate change by not driving to work on Fridays. And perhaps our good citizenship has earned us the right to put on a pair of silly glasses and resurrect the pleasures of a bygone era. A stoup of wine, Maria! Let’s try to enjoy ourselves, for God’s sake. But while the party rages, we might want to ignore the implied caution in the titles of nostalgia’s current offerings. Titles such as, oh I don’t know, Titanic and The Phantom Menace. Sure, we like our spectacles real. But not that real. Here we are now. Entertain us.

David Berkson


*Son of Sinbad was planned and shot for 3D, but due to production complications was released in the more traditional two dimensional format.

** I’ve quoted from the original text.

Your Own Republican Jesus


Please make it stop!” So reads an e-mail that I received this week from my friend Sue. She and I regularly attend an Episcopal church in Portland, Oregon, where I used to be the youth minister. Sue is usually calm and relatively soft spoken, so the urgency of her opening line naturally grabbed my attention. The “it” that so desperately needs stopping is described the following headline:

Santorum: Obama Leading Christians to the Guillotine

I don’t think it’s the president that Sue wants to stop. She appears to be much more afraid of the man who wants his job, Rick Santorum. The former Senator from Pennsylvania blames the 9th Circuit Court’s overturning of California’s Proposition 8 on Barak Obama (who does not even support gay marriage). And then, in a leap of faith and logic, which would have amazed even Kierkegaard, Santorum goes on to compare this judicial ruling to…The French Revolution.

Santorum warns us: “When you marginalize faith in America, when you remove the pillar of God-given rights then what’s left is the French Revolution…what’s left in France became the guillotine.”

When Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry dropped out of the Republican presidential race, it seemed as if we might receive much needed respite from all of this evangelical hysteria. * But Santorum is like Jason from the Friday the 13thhorror movie franchise: endlessly returning from the dead, leaving nothing but blood and carnage in his terrifying wake.

Unfortunately, Santorum is a mere symptom of a larger trend. A recent analysis from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life tells us that 70% of America’s Protestant evangelicals identify themselves as Republicans. That’s up 5% from 2008. In fact, every religious group polled, including black Protestants and Jews, is trending towards the Republican Party. Small wonder that most of the candidates want more than a little piece of that God action.

“Front runner” Mitt Romney has been working for years to make good with evangelical “value voters.” The former governor of Massachusetts is not a Christian, but a Mormon, or a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Even though Jesus is right there in the name of Romney’s religion, he apparently just wasn’t cutting it with the evangelical block. That is why, on December 6, 2007, Romney gave his now famous “Faith in America” speech at the George H.W. Bush presidential library, where he said:

“There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”

That this is the only thing Romney revealed about his own personal faith is telling. It is hard to imagine a Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist making any headway in the Republican primaries or caucuses. But Romney believes in the Carpenter from Nazareth, and perhaps that’s helped him (barely) hang on to his frontrunner status. I guess for Mitt Romney, Jesus does save.

And let there be no mistake. Romney, Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, the only three winners of any 2012 Republican primary or caucus, have loudly and explicitly made their belief in Jesus front and center in their campaigns. This is certainly any candidate’s prerogative. But what exactly does it mean to believe in Jesus? And how does this belief affect public policy and legislation? It’s a thorny question, but it is possible to make some rough generalizations:

A. Many evangelical Protestants and other conservative Christians argue for a factual/literal interpretation of The Bible.

B. A factual/literal interpretation of The Bible means that every word printed in it is factually true.

C. Belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of mankind as one reason for being elected president assumes that Jesus’ words and actions should literally and directly influence the public policy that such a president might propose.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s de-marginalize faith in America, and look at what The Bible actually says. After all, God must have opinions on matters other than gay marriage and the life of the unborn. So let’s examine three examples from the life of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospels, and see how our three top Republican contenders for president (and their respective policy positions) stack up:

1.    Jesus Provided Free Healthcare

Jesus was a healer. For most of His three-year ministry, He avoided the more metropolitan areas of Palestine, gravitating instead towards such backwater towns as Capernaum and Galilee – the forgotten areas of the mighty Roman Empire, populated by the poor and destitute. He wasted no time in ministering to the sick. If we are to believe Mark’s Gospel, Jesus spent the first 24 hours of His ministry:

  • Casting out an unclean spirit,
  • Healing Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever,
  • Healing “many” who come crowding to the home where He was staying (“the whole city was gathered together at the door”),
  • Curing a leper.

That’s a lot of work in one day. And this is just the first chapter, which ends “Jesus could no longer openly enter the city, but was outside in deserted places; and they came to Him from every direction.” (Mark 1:45)*

There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus ever charged or accepted a single denarius for any of these services. (And, as we’ll see in the next section, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he didn’t.) Nor did He say: “I’m sorry, but you have a pre-existing condition. I really, really wish I could help you. I do have a cousin named John who does some interesting work at the Jordan River; why don’t you try him?”

No. Jesus did not leave it to the market place to decide who should receive healthcare. And the frequent casting out of demons shows His concern for the physical, emotional, and mental health of every person he met. How strange that all of our Republican presidential hopefuls vitriolically oppose President Obama’s health care bill – even Romney, who helped create its blueprint while governor of Massachusetts. Finding Mitt’s real position on healthcare is like solving the Rubik’s cube, but here’s the basic thrust:

“My plan is to harness the power of markets to drive positive change in health insurance and health care. And we can do so with state flexibility…no new taxes…and better consumer choice…”

I’m no Biblical scholar, but I’m pretty sure that Jesus didn’t “harness the power of the markets” to enable “state flexibility” when restoring sight to the blind. And I’m sorry, but the phrase “consumer choice” is pure, Orwellian bullshit. 49.9 million Americans have no health insurance (up from 49 million in 2009), and it’s not because they enjoy being sick. My wife and I were both without health insurance when my son was born; Blue Cross/Blue Shield dropped us two weeks before Nicholas’ birth. That’s because my employer had stopped paying his share of the premiums for me and everyone else in the floundering start up company. Nick’ birth was fraught with complications and extremely traumatic. Our total, out of pocket bill for that medical care was $50,000.** So much for harnessing the power of the markets.

Besides, these hollow promises fly in the face of one of Jesus’ primary achievements: healing incredibly sick people who couldn’t afford to go to a doctor. If Governor Romney and his ilk believe that Jesus really is “the Savior of mankind”, they can jolly well follow His example by going beyond ObamaCare, and providing healthcare to every person who lives in this country (yes, single payer), regardless that person’s ability to pay.

2.    Jesus Was an Enemy of Private Wealth and Profit

Really? Nu-uh. Not Jesus. That’s just crazy. Besides, what’s wrong with making money?

Well, Jesus found plenty wrong with it, and His opposition to private wealth may have cost His life. Returning to Mark’s Gospel, we find Jesus on the Monday before He was crucified occupying the temple in Jerusalem in a shocking act of civil disobedience:

So they came to Jerusalem. Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple. Then He taught, saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’ ”

And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching. When evening had come, He went out of the city. (Mark 11: 15-19)

In less than one week, Jesus will not lift a finger to prevent his own execution. Yet here He is, for the first and only time, using force, even physical aggression. I guess He must have been pretty upset.

He had good reason: for centuries, Jerusalem’s temple had been the center of Jewish spiritual life, and considered nothing less than the house of God. But in that house now dwelt an unwelcome guest: the Roman Empire, which had occupied Jerusalem and the surrounding areas since 63 BCE.

This means that the “scribes and chief priests,” so frequently and disdainfully cited in all four Gospels, were little more than imperial puppet figures. This had been true since the reign Herod the Great, arch villain of Luke’s Christmas story, and collaborator with Augustus Caesar. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan document Herod’s impressive historical stature in their book The Last Week:

“Above all, he rebuilt the temple. (It was) surrounded by spacious courts and elegant colonnades, with sumptuous use of marble and gold. (Herod constructed) and enormous platform, about 1,550 feet by 1,000 feet – almost 40 acres…He built a palace for himself, which was later to become the residence of the Roman governors, including (Pontius) Pilate, when they were in Jerusalem. It was luxurious, with columns of colored marble and glittering fountains, shaded pools, ceilings painted with gold and vermillion, chairs of silver and gold inlaid with jewels, mosaic floors with agate and lapis lazuli. Like the temple, it was huge. His dining room had enough couches for three hundred guests.”

It is this Herodian temple that prompts Jesus to quote Jeremiah, indicting it as a ‘den of thieves’. An operation of this splendor and magnitude demanded heavy taxes upon Judea’s poor and destitute, and all for a puppet regime that owed as much to Rome as South Vietnam’s Diem regime owed to the United States in the 1960s.

Jesus made a lot of enemies during His ministry, but it took the cleansing of the temple to get the serious (and lethal) attention of the Roman authorities. The reason? His civil disobedience cut into the bottom line, and questioned the very core of imperial legitimacy. As empires go, Rome’s was reasonably tolerant of the religious practices of its subjects. But disrupting the normal flow of business and profit, well…that’s just a little bit more than the law would allow. Jesus was executed four days later.

The proposition that Jesus opposed the concept of private wealth is one that won’t sit well with many Americans, liberal or conservative. But Jesus made it painfully clear:

How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. (Luke 18: 24-25)

Ok, but I’m not rich. I’m middle class. (Aren’t all Americans?) Besides, I’m pretty sure that Jesus was speaking metaphorically.

Perhaps, but just a few verses earlier, Jesus turns away a potential disciple in an act that would have most not for profit development directors scratching their heads in wonder:

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ “And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich. (Luke 18: 18-23)

The message is clear: private virtue is not enough. Every person has a public obligation to equitably share all the material goods that he possesses. Note that Jesus does not say: “Sell some of what you have…” No, Jesus says all. And as conservative evangelicals so often like to remind us, when Jesus says something, we can be pretty well certain that it’s exactly what he means.

Well? Who will be the first Republican candidate to sell all that he has and distribute it to the poor? And then put forward legislation mandating a complete redistribution of public and private wealth? Can you say “Chinese Cultural Revolution?” C’mon, gentlemen! Who’s first in line? Romney? Santorum? Gingrich? Dear God, Newt thinks that Obama is a socialist; what would he say about Jesus? Not his Jesus, but the one documented in the Gospels: protester and the enemy of private wealth and profit. Gingrich is always up for a debate; I’d like to see him go toe to toe with the Savior of mankind. Odds are they wouldn’t even get to the economy, as I suspect that Jesus might want to have a word with Gingrich regarding the holy sanctity of marriage.

3.    Jesus Was an Advocate of Peace and an Enemy of Violence

Even the most cursory glance at the Gospels confirms this. You might even think that the argument stands without proof. Yet here we are, a nation that some describe as “Christian”, spending more money than any other country on its armed forces. The Violence Policy Center estimates that an average of 30,288 people die in America from gun related deaths per year. Last New Year’s eve, President Obama signed the NDAA, legalizing indefinite military detention, an infamous breeding ground for military abuse and torture. So perhaps we need some reminding:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. ’But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also…You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matthew 5: 38-46)

And there you have it. The problem isn’t simply Republican. Our empire is nowhere near ready to renounce our love affair with violence. Nor was Constantine’s when he converted to Christianity. And don’t we all think that God is on our side? Pope Julius II certainly did when he personally led troops on horseback against the French in 1506. So did the men who blew up the World Trade Center. And George W. Bush when he used U.S. troops to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Humanity has all but worn out the fig leaf of religion to mask our ancient bloodlust. But that leaf proves to be remarkably resilient. Of all the Republican candidates, Ron Paul is the only one calling for meaningful reductions in defense expenditures, and…well, look where that’s getting him.


The last I checked, the First Amendment to our constitution draws a clear and unambiguous line between church and state. I attend my own church on a fairly consistent basis, but I won’t for a moment suggest that anything should be put into law simply because it’s been written down in The Bible.

But our three top Republican candidates would have it otherwise. Fine, then. Have it your way, gentlemen. I challenge all candidates who employ the name of Jesus in defense of their actions to immediately call for nationalized healthcare, abolition of all private property, and an end to all domestic and foreign forms of violence. (Let them work to abolish the Second Amendment while they batter away at the First). To take up even one of these three crosses would demonstrate supreme courage and true Jesus like conviction. Anything less from our Republican presidential hopefuls exposes them for what they are: Herodian arch villains, and imperial vipers in a rancid den of thieves.

David Berkson



* Rick Santorum is a Catholic, not an evangelical protestant. He never the less enjoys tremendous support from the Republican Party’s evangelical wing:

** All Biblical citations use the New King James translation.

*** After a great deal of petitioning, we were able to have our debt reduced to $10,000.

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