I was recently at a dinner party where most of the other guests were in their late twenties and early thirties. Halfway through the evening, the conversation turned, with an odd inevitability, to psychopharmacology, with everyone at the table jockeying for bragging rights based on how successfully they were being sedated.
Status was determined, in part, based on your success at straddling submission and resistance—admitting you needed the drug, but asserting your individuality by never quite taking the full dose or exactly following the doctor’s instructions. There were many tales of people bravely trying to ween themselves from their dependencies. Funny thing is, no one had ever completely made it there.
Pot then reared its head. All involved indulged in weed on top of their stupor-inducing medications; nobody seemed to have a problem spending their existences constantly holding the world at arm’s length—or farther. Another refrain—seemingly unrelated, but actually very much joined at the hip—was that they were all in some way victims engaged in a heroic struggle against some nebulous form of The Man—that their underdog status somehow made them powerful—missing the irony that they all undeniably derived solace from their subservience to authority figures.
There’s so much I could say about this, but, at its heart, it’s no different than all the elaborate bragging, insecurity, and denial that used to be associated with cigarettes. Massive industries push essentially oppressive products with steep downsides by
suggesting they’re romantic (i.e., cool) and (feeding off that most corrosive of contemporary fads) empowering, and the sheep bleat in unison having been convinced they won’t be complete without them.
The big difference is that all cigarettes can do is kill you—they can’t steal your soul.
I realized as the AA-like confessionals wore on that this was my missing link, the thing I’d been searching for to explain the appalling current state of the movies. Simply put, movies are now created for an audience in a trance, with the purpose of jolting them out of their stupors but in a way that always safely returns them to the sleep of reason at the end, their heads full of empty dreams of power, without ever even hinting that there’s a larger, more complex, nuanced, and ultimately more satisfying reality to explore.
It explains the blind addiction to fantasy, to action films, to pornographic levels of violence, to horror comedy—which is becoming all comedy, the giggly adolescent fascination with obscenities, the infantile scatological fixation, wall-to-wall sarcasm, the obsession with constant cutting, shock edits, pounding noise—wrecks, and crashes, and other destruction, zombie films and the graphic portrayal of the degradation and annihilation of the body, the masochistic fetishization of darkness, the mad embrace of fascist armoring, weaponization, and fictions of unbridled power, of vengeance, killing sprees, and torture. The rabid, numbing list goes on and on. These aren’t movies—they’re shock generators, not dissimilar from the notorious “Danger: Extreme Shock” machine at the center of the singularly defining Milgram experiment.
But all of this way predates Milgram and his attempts to fathom the Nazi within us all. The parallels with Plato’s cave are inevitable. It’s been all but a given of society since Altamira that, presented with the choice between pretty pictures and
reality, most people will opt for vague shadows that lose all meaning the second somebody snuffs out the light. The big difference is that there’s nothing remotely pretty about contemporary films, which tend to be relentlessly and sadistically nasty and brutish—but, sadly, not short.
We’ve allowed ourselves to be yoked
to a cinema fit only for inhuman consumption, for keeping the emergent generations of pod people both quiescent and sated. Inherently desensitizing and degrading, the movies have become an assault on any meaningful sense of individual self. Finding something worth watching, in the human sense, has become like tip-toeing through a minefield where practically every square inch of turf is primed to go off.
But what if you haven’t bought into the lie that there’s power in being pummeled, if you happen to believe aggressive action should be deployed only rarely, judiciously, and as a last resort, that life is meant to be something more than constant bloodsport and a dehumanizing feeding frenzy? That there’s something to be said for restraint, sensitivity, and, yes, wit?
Society still needs canaries—in fact, those cheeping sentinels are perched at the very tipping point of the culture, their piffling weight the only thing keeping us from slipping completely into the corporately engineered, politically sanctioned nihilistic void. But they’re now being snuffed out almost as fast as they come into existence. The day the last one keels over will be the day the wheels come off for good.
I’d like to believe we can do better than this, that we’re still, in core and meaningful ways, somehow better than the selves we see reflected on our screens, the crude and dispensable beings we’re defined as in pop culture. But, as with the canaries, with each day the evidence of those better selves becomes harder and harder to discern and the vile, blind phantasms take on more palpable form.
Just because this is what they want to serve us doesn’t mean we have to accept it. Unthinkingly lapping up manipulative fictions, we’re eating ourselves alive.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.