idle thoughts about art's political role against corporate power

Let’s consider two disturbing observations.

First, according to Global Justice Now, the ten largest corporations in the World are wealthier than most countries combined. From Common Dreams:

"Today, of the 100 wealthiest economic entities in the world, 69 are now corporations and only 31 countries," wrote Global Justice Now campaigns and policy officer Aisha Dodwell. "This is up from 63 to 37 a year ago. At this rate, within a generation we will be living in a world entirely dominated by giant corporations."

Indeed, multinational behemoths Shell, Apple, and Walmart each rake in more revenue than the world's 180 "poorest" countries—a list that includes Ireland, Greece, Israel, South Africa, Vietnam, and Colombia—combined.

And the top ten largest companies have a whopping combined value of $2.9 trillion, which is larger than China's economy.

See the spreadsheet for yourself here.

Second, corporate power has replaced popular, “democratic” power in the United States. It’s worth reading Chris Hedges’ piece at Truthdig in full, but here’s a key nugget:
Our political elites, Republican and Democrat, were shaped, funded and largely selected by corporate power in what John Ralston Saul correctly calls a coup d’état in slow motion. Nothing will change until corporate power itself is dismantled.
The corporate elites failed to grasp that a functioning liberal class is the mechanism that permits a capitalist democracy to adjust itself to stave off unrest and revolt. They decided, not unlike other doomed elites of history, to eradicate the liberal establishment after they had eradicated the radical movements that created the political pressure for advancements such as the eight-hour workday and Social Security.
This was planned:
Lewis Powell, then the general counsel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in August 1971 wrote a memo called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup. Powell would later be appointed to the Supreme Court. Corporations, as Powell urged, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, backing candidates, creating the Business Roundtable, funding The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations must marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests. Powell attacked Ralph Nader and called for a concerted campaign to discredit him. Lobbyists eager to dole out huge sums of cash flooded Washington and state capitals. It soon became difficult and often impossible, whether in the press, the political arena or academia, to challenge the dogma of neoliberalism.
40 years after Powell wrote that memo and enmeshed himself in an effort to transform the country through increased corporate power, we find an intersection between neoconservatism and neoliberals.

The war corporatism the Knife Party warned us about so memorably in What Barry Says  - specifically the “visible yet sinister group” called the Project for a New American Century is only one chilling manifestation of the dangers presented by the substitution of corporate power for popular governance.

The political implications should be clear enough to anyone paying attention. My question is: what role can art play in resisting this corporate power grab, if not through direct action than at least through inspiration?

Our popular art forms often portray dystopian futures where the rule of law is supplanted by the rule of commerce. The cyberpunk genre, for example, is fundamentally rooted in extrapolating near-futures dominated by megacorporations whose powers transcend governments. Sci-fi shows like Continuum and the upcoming Affleck/Damon-produced Incorporated directly posit futures dominated by corporations.

Novels, of course, have long been a source of cautionary tales. Books like 1984 and Brave New World, for example, insightfully amplified real societal trends in terms of totalitarianism and social control to depict worse-case scenarios with applications to actual politics. There are countless more examples, of course.

Yet for all the vivid dramatizations about social ills, it doesn't seem enough. We seem distinctly unable to generate enough popular momentum to reverse deep, structural changes in our society. We can achieve some important victories, like marriage equality, but when it comes to challenging the forces controlling the fundamentals – health, shelter, food, economic security – we are stymied by the neoliberal/neoconservative programs that have taken root in our society’s most essential legal, political and economic operations. But at least the heroes on TV can win, right?

One of the most significant functions of art is to present us with fictional scenarios that allow us to safely explore the issues and consequences of real-life challenges. While we can debate the extent to which art that is fictional is as effective as art that can also be journalistic, like photography, it seems that art is experiencing a crisis of relevance. Not personal relevance, as it can’t be denied how artistic expressions is beneficial on a personal level, but political relevance. Whether a mirror of our anxieties or a prophet warning us of doom, art in all its forms seems more like a Cassandra. We respond emotionally to the ideas we are presented with, then move on to the next item of consumption with the delusion that art and reality have no necessary relation to each other.

Perhaps that’s where the problem lies: art struggles to be revolutionary because it is commoditized. Like everything else, art has been subsumed by the capitalist economic machine and, in the Internet age, drowned in hyperdata that dis-informs us. It’s so much easier to dismiss the ideas underlying fiction as fiction themselves; consume, dispose, repeat.

There’s historical precedence. Without being “productive” in the sense that being a labourer is productive, artists have always been dependent on society’s support or, more typically, on patrons for the necessary subsistence that enables them to devote themselves to producing art. Today, the patron is more often than not the marketplace in which case artists make money when their supply is matched to the demand – and the demand is for safe and pretty ornaments.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. It largely depends on our own individual conception of, and relationship to, art. So while the “system” requires criticism, we should also give some thought to how we interact with art.


Did DC commit hara-kiri with suicide squad?

Here we are, after Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, with another comic book ersatz-blockbuster bloodied by critics while running the gauntlet of marketing hype and fan expectations. As the mighty box office pronounces its own apparently victorious judgment on Suicide Squad, one can’t help but if wonder if DC/Warner Bros executives and filmmakers are starting to feel like Pyrrhus after his costly victory at the battle of Asculum. “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans,” the Greek general reportedly said, “we shall be utterly ruined.”

While not strictly a bad movie as the media would have us believe, Suicide Squad does suffer from a failing that consigns the film to a footnote in DC’s film universe rather than a milestone: a lack of ambition, which is all the more obvious in contrast to the acid trip promise of its marketing campaign and the relative novelty of its concept. It’s not just that Suicide Squad ends up subjecting its supervillainous Dirty Dozen to a rather banal save-the-world plot, but that it sets up promising ideas only to give us lackluster follow-through. The most obvious example of this rests in David Ayers split-personality direction. He starts us with half-an-hour of exposition delivered with a modicum of guerilla style (complete with cutesy graphic overlays), but then drops the guerilla and settles for the usual hum-drum once the plot gets going. A catalog of characters, even when livened up by Batman and the Flash, is no way to start a film – remember show don’t tell? – and abandoning the flourishes that might electrify an otherwise middling narrative is no way to finish a film. Suicide Squad should be edgy, but the tame results beg the question: what happened to the grit and harrowing pathos that David Ayers so capably delivered in the WWII tank drama Fury, with considerably more panache than he does here?

Perhaps it’s time to dispense with the industry’s obsession with realism – Marvel movies all look the same, and DC has so far relied on Zack Snyder’s moody aesthetic and Christopher Nolan’s urban pragmatism. Let’s have the idiosyncratic and unabashedly artsy approach Tim Burton used for his Batman films and Robert Rodriguez for his Sin City films. Or how about taking inspiration from Kerry Conran and his criminally underappreciated Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?

Stylistic inconsistencies might be overlooked if Ayers had opted for a more sophisticated narrative approach. Off the top of my head, the film could have started mid-mission and used flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Or it could have more openly aped its inspiration, The Dirty Dozen, which provides a more plausible perspective of how a team of misfits could be forged into a cohesive unit capable of fighting a dire menace. It could have used stories of encounters with Batman and other heroes as a means of bonding the villains together. Heck, it could have just followed the path Ayers capably tread in Fury. There are any number of creative ways to tell the story, but instead we get as many empty promises as genuine pleasures, particularly in how characters are described versus how they are developed throughout the narrative. Joel Kinnaman’s Colonel Flag, for instance, comes across especially poorly; although described as the world’s best special-ops commando, he acts like a wishy-washy mop, a far cry from Lee Marvin’s Colonel Reisman. (He even hugs Deadshot at the end.) And Karen Fukuhara’ Katana, ostensibly Flag’s bodyguard, is described as not only the deadliest woman in the room but gifted with a soul-stealing sword that is depicted as little else than a good listener and a sharp blade. This all typifies the struggle Suicide Squad has in managing an ensemble cast; some characters get more attention than others, and only one – Jay Hernandez’ tragic criminal-with-a-conscience El Diablo – is given the opportunity to grow and change. Even the story’s major players – Will Smith’s Deadshot and Robbie Margot’s Harley Quinn – are kept in neutral. Essentially, Suicide Squad’s dramatic conceit is limited to the notion of forcing villains to act on behalf of the great thanks to implanted explosives. How the experience changes them, or reinforces their initial villainous proclivities, is yet another missed opportunity.

Strip away the film’s unrealized potential, and you’re left with a serviceable action movie that plausibly contributes to DC’s world-building and is punctuated by enthusiastic but unambitious character design. Will Smith is enjoyable as a version of his usual action movie personal, and Viola Davis offers us a terrifying and sociopathic Amanda Waller (creator of the Suicide Squad), but Margot Robbie especially sparkles as the psychedelically psychotic and homicidal Harley Quinn. Her gleefully off-kilter performance, however, is limited by the film’s refusal to emancipate Quinn from her definition as the Joker’s victim and plaything.  A telling scene is when the film’s supernatural antagonist offers the Squad their deepest desires in exchange for loyalty; Quinn’s wish is for a domestic bliss with a de-Jokerized Joker, which suggests that her innermost psyche is just as much an appendage to the Clown Prince of Crime as her body. In the comics, Quinn achieves an independence that doesn’t rely on the consent of men. The film, however, squanders a major opportunity to give her agency distinct from male expectations. And Clara Delevigne, as an archaeologist possessed by an ancient evil witch, gets even less than that.

On to the Joker, then, performed by Jared Leto. His version, a suitably deranged synthesis of Nicholson and Ledger generously seasoned with MTV and Miami Vice chic, worked for me. Where some complain that there is too little Joker in the film, I submit that there was too much. However deliciously menacing, and however much Leto and Quinn share a disturbing chemistry on-screen as the King and Queen of Gotham, the Joker is nevertheless locked into a “love” story that goes nowhere and takes away from other characters. Once again, the impression is that the filmmakers didn’t have the courage of their conviction, preferring to elevate the film’s most marketable elements at the expense of fully embracing the ensemble nature of its cast of villains forced to do good.

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Enjoy Star Trek Beyond, but for Smart & Fun Sci-Fi – Watch TV

What would Paramount’s Star Trek film franchise look like had they launched with Star Trek Beyond instead of J.J. Abrams’ slick counterfeits? We’ll never know how much better it would be, but at least we finally have a film that acknowledges the substance of Star Trek instead of merely grafting its modernized aesthetic onto generic action movie plots.

Star Trek Beyond is the trekkiest of the films set in the so-called “Kelvin Timeline,” mostly because unlike its Earth-bound predecessors it actually does go, if not quite boldly than at least with greater confidence, into the unknown to seek out new life and civilizations. Set mid-way during the Enterprise’s 5-year mission, it positions the series where it was meant to be all along: out in space. Although the planet hosting the majority of the film’s action is just routinely beautiful, the film makes up for it with the stunning Yorktown, a majestic starbase whose cityscape twists and loops on itself, Inception-style, and looks every bit the futuristic ideal of civilization Roddenberry’s Star Trek strove to represent.

Given the low standards established by the previous films, it almost doesn’t matter that Star Trek Beyond’s plot is ultimately revealed to be yet another revenge drama. The cast – always the new franchise’s strength alongside production design – is in its finest form, giving us an Enterprise crew worthy of representing the original thanks to focused and often funny script. (Yes, Spock’s romance with Uhura still grates. But it’s handled here with enough nuance to feel less like a stunt and more like a genuine relationship – and this is less critical than the surprisingly thoughtful interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as well as the introduction of a pleasingly tough new character, Jaylah, played with smarts and sass by Sofia Boutella, and Shohreh Aghdashloo’s dignified Commodore Paris.) Justin Lin achieves a brisk and exciting pace for the film, revving up the action scenes and deftly managing spectacular special effects while also letting the film breathe during its character moments.

It does matter, however, that Star Trek Beyond remains mired in Paramount’s – and Hollywood’s – resistance to high-concept films, particularly in the science fiction genre, and preference for action to ideas. Like the recent glut of superhero movies demonstrates, there is the trend in the industry to look for conflict and drama only in situations involving violence and combat – a trend that has afflicted TV-to-film adaptations beyond Star Trek, like the Mission: Impossible series, as well as generally excellent higher-concept films like Edge of Tomorrow and Oblivion. Although very entertaining and a welcome throwback to some of the elements that made us fall in love with the Original Series, Star Trek Beyond presents us with a villain – Idris Elba under heavy makeup – reducible to a vengeful menace with an appetite for mass destruction. The idea that the Federation might meet opposition by alien races who view them as a colonialist rather than a cooperative force never gains traction as anything other than the stage on which yet another apocalyptic scenario is played. And in the end, just as Starfleet’s identity crisis in Star Trek Into Darkness’ somehow fit into the single character of Peter Weller’s warmonger, it boils down to a personal confrontation between Kirk and the villain.

Lacking a majestic sense of grandeur – which only Star Trek: The Motion Picture succeeded in achieving among all the Star Trek films – as well as well as grand and grandly executed ideas, Star Trek Beyond’s by-the-numbers action-adventure plot just doesn’t stand alongside Star Trek’s best stories – like “Devil in the Dark” and” Encounter at Farpoint,” to name two of many.

The lesson, then, is that the best science-fiction stories aren’t to be found in film but in television, which is rather sad given how different the cinematic experience is from the small screen. It comes down to economics, of course, and the cost of production that studios need to recoup even before profit is factored in. But what does it say that television, with its lower budget, can succeed at telling smart stories rooted in fiction about science while movies run the hamster wheel of exploding blockbuster action movies? If you’ve never done so, I suggest watching shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek Voyager, Odyssey 5, and FarScape.

There’s a vicious cycle at play, in that studios don’t typically present audiences with beautiful and smart science-fiction films (Duncan Jones’ Moon and films by Neil Blomkamp being notable exceptions), so audiences don’t get exposed to what is possible and, consequently, don’t demand better than the usual action movie formulas. Yet there is also a technical element, in that visually demanding film productions don’t seem to have benefited from computers to significantly reduce costs and make it easier to depict strange new worlds – worlds limited by imagination rather than budget.

Nevertheless, Star Trek Beyond certainly is fun. But I do wish people could see what the wonder and challenging social commentary science-fiction is really capable of offering.

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notes from LACMA: rain room washes out, but del Toro lights a bonfire of imagination

Rain Room

Rain Room has been a bonanza for LACMA, its popularity prompting extended runs to accommodate the demand. After the hype, of course, comes the deluge after a brief wind-up in the waiting line. Admitted in small groups of 15 or so, patrons are led down a short corridor that opens up on the famous space itself, a large room illuminated by a single bright spotlight and dominated by a grid of falling water. Sensors detect the presence of people beneath the nozzles and switch them off accordingly. The experience, then, involves wandering through the grid surrounded by raining water while staying reasonably dry.

There’s fun to be had daring the sensors to fail, and of course it’s a dream setting for artsy Instagrammers. But essentially, it’s a toy, not unlike splashing around a park fountain. It might be tempting to see in Rain Room an oblique commentary on California’s drought, but forget it: Rain Room is a content-less experience. No music. No supplemental imagery. Not even space for contemplation, as there are too many people bustling about. Whatever artistic aspirations one might want to uncover, they are overshadowed by that dreary and dreaded question: is it art?

Ever since Marcel Duchamp obtained a urinal, flipped it upside down, cheekily named it The Fountain, and submitted it to the Society of Independent Artists for exhibition only for it to be hidden from view, the Art World has reacted to Dadaist acts of subversion by erasing their most fundamental provocation. The result is an unfortunate trend in contemporary art to define as art any “thing” that is placed in an art gallery.

The critical problem is this: art that simply serves as a blank surface onto which viewers can project their own meanings is, in my view, scarcely worthy of being considered art. Ornamentation, perhaps, but not art. To that essential dialogue between artist, viewer, and the artwork itself there should be some communicable concept; the joy lies in fixing or loosening this concept, that is, in framing a work’s meaning. The meaning doesn’t have to be clearly articulated or overtly define. It can be vague, suggested, or even deferred in a post-modern gesture. (Whether it can be refused altogether is the Dadaist question, but Rain Room doesn’t manifest a Dadaist sensibility.) You can make it mean whatever you want, but the experience itself is just water falling from the ceiling in a darkened room. As with LACMA’s Levitated Mass, a rock perched above a walkway, Rain Room’s impression is of a gimmick who distinction is its artificiality. Make of that what you will, and decide for yourself whether it’s worth paying for a ticket.

Tickets for Rain Room are $30 and must be purchased in advanced.

Guillermo Del Toro: At Home with Monsters

A view inside del Toro's Bleak House.
Designed to provide visitors with the impression of walking into Bleak House, del Toro’s Los Angeles Home, At Home with Monsters is a phantasmagorical exhibit well worth visiting. Much like LACMA’s Tim Burton exhibit some time ago, At Home with Monsters works to provide visitors with a richer context for the imagination of one of cinema’s most visionary artists. The salon-style exhibit is organized by theme, which makes the experience more personal than the usual didactic, chronological arrangement. But once exposed to the buffet of artefacts, however, curatorial concepts become less important than feeling of wonderment at the paintings, sketches, sculptures, books, maquettes, movie props, concept art and astonishing assortment of curios that span the mystical, the horrific, the beautiful, the macabre, and even the humourous.

The crowd of visitors jostling for a closer look at the exhibit’s many curios can be jarring, but don’t let it deter you: the prospect of exploring the vast catalog of Del Toro’s inspiration should boost your courage for getting close and personal. From idea journals, displayed next to tablets allowing visitors to virtually scroll through the impressively illustrated diaries, to video monitors with film montages, the exhibit immerses us in the influences that drive Del Toro’s art. It particularly highlights the synthetic aspect of the artistic process, the convergence of artistic and cultural forces absorbed over a lifetime that produce singular visions. As with Burton’s exhibit, biographical insights emphasize how Del Toro’s outsider perspective and its embrace of the bizarre and freakish ultimately serves as an affirmation of humanity.

A page from one of del Toro's journal.
At Home with Monsters even comes with its own “rain room,” a simulation of del Toro’s home workspace that takes its cues from Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room to provide 24-hour rain and thunderstorms. It is, appropriately, the space in the exhibit dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe. But it also presents one of del Toro’s most potent insights: “The point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you've been harboring since you were 7.”

A particularly refreshing aspect of the exhibit is its sheer lack of pretentiousness. Where we might ordinarily distinguish between high and low art, the sublime and the pulp, At Home with Monsters reminds us that the best art knows no class. And insofar as visitors leave inspired not only to look more deeply into life’s shadowy and creaking nooks and crannies but to embrace the creative impulse for themselves, then the exhibit triumphs as more than just a showcase for del Toro.

On display at LACMA from August 1, 2016–November 27, 2016

Tickets are $25 and include general admission as well as admission to At Home with Monsters and other special exhibitions.


While You're Visiting ...

While you're visiting LACMA, be sure to visit the contemporary Islamic Art exhibit in the Ahmanson Building as well as the Enigmatic Image, an exhibit on symbolism and other fascinating aspects of Indian art. Both are beautiful,fascinating and insightful.


quick review: deadpool

Here we go again with another attempt to shock the bourgeoisie, only this time the outrage is perpetuated on superhero films after years of Marvel formula. Are we really outraged anymore by crass humour, crude sex, or gory violence, or are we just being good consumers by buying into the marketing?

Deadpool adapts an intriguing metafictional anti-hero – 31st on IGN’s ranking of Top 100 superheroes – but like most of Marvel’s film output, it’s a mediocrity. The plot is a rehashed revenge-driven origin story, the settings are banal, characters not named Deadpool/Wade Wilson are either clichés, bland pudding, or punchlines with little humanity to them, and the raunchy rapid-paced humour is more often hit-and-miss rather than the hit-and-run it hopes to be. (T.J. Miller’s comic relief is particularly limp, but if you’re amused by the description of Wilson’s disfigurement as the offspring of two avacadoes hatefully fucking each other, dig in.) There’s nothing in its metafictional makeup – breaking the fourth-wall, self-referential humour – that we haven’t seen done better elsewhere (by characters named Ferris Bueller, for example). Not even the addition of two X-Men helps. Negasonic Teenage Warhead’s contribution is to be the butt of moody teenager jokes, while Colossus isn’t even allowed to win his own big fight let alone be more than Deadpool’s naively moral straight man. At least the romance between Wade Willson and Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa is sweet. Awwww.

If Ryan Reynolds, who made the film his passion project, wasn’t so well suited to the title role we’d have a plotless bore. But Reynolds carries the film like it was his birthright, partly due to his charm but also because Deadpool is the only character the filmmakers care about. It’s a shame that the film comes across as money thrown at a low-budget indie production. Tim Miller stages his action scenes with verve, but there’s nothing about his direction or Ken Seng’s pedestrian, colourless cinematography to thrill the senses. Deadpool has its moments – enough to be worth a watch if the trailer intrigues you, and the character has potential, but as far as this pool goes Marvel is swimming in the shallow end.