The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

3Ds Rise, and The Fall of The Autumning Empire

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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

2/28/12

*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.

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