by Lucius Shepard
May 3, 2004
Unable to locate Saddam Husseins stockpiles of nuclear explosives, bacteriological agents, and poison gas, the Bush Administration has launched an offensive against a newly perceived threat to the American way of life. I am speaking, of course, about Janet Jacksons right breast. The moment Ms. Jacksons nipple-shielded love puppy bounded into view during the worldwide television broadcast of the Super Bowl halftime show, the administration, having had a less than successful several months in the War on Terror, announced the War on Impropriety, and shifted its most fearsome and reliable resource, The Army of Bigotry and Repression, into the fray, directing them not only to prevent further breast exposure, but to wage battle against Web porn, MTV, gay marriage, Howard Stern, Triple X motels, and all things that might subvert the American Dream, the cutting edge of which is currently on exhibition in the Middle East, doing Gods work on behalf of the worlds newest democracy.
Some of us, naturally, were amused. We had become somewhat inured to the depredations of Dubya and his legions of neocon orcsamusement was a necessary refuge. It was a relief to take a cynical, soi distant view of the black-bone nightmare spell into which the Constitution was being reshaped. And so, as I watched one of our great senators speaking at the congressional hearings attendant upon the Awful Shame visited upon us by Justin and Janet, I found myself laughing uproariously when she declared herself to be vastly relieved that her children had been upstairs during halftime and thus had not been privy to the Horrid Revelation that might have stained their innocence, infected their behavior, and sullied their birthright. What, I wondered, did the Senator think her children were doing upstairs? Listening to Christian rock? Its far more likely that the little dicksenses were exploring their sexuality. And what does the Senator think would happen should her issue (or the issue of anyone else, for that matter) catch a glimpse of a 36-year-old gazonga? Would a juvenile form of stroke ensue? Would our kiddies be desensitized to the point of dysfunction and thereafter, upon seeing any breast, retreat into catatonia? Would their moral compass be so damaged that on reaching puberty they would immediately go breast-hunting with bow and arrow?
There I was, chuckling over these notions, when a particulate haze began to form in the midst of my living room and, before I could react, said haze coalesced into the form of a partially realized breast, a glandular incarnation of monstrous proportions complete with lifelike areolaa puckered, pinkish sunburst some three feet in diameterthat hovered above the floor, bobbling as if afloat upon choppy water. I was alarmed, and I grew increasingly alarmed when the breast, speaking through a mouth formed by the irising of the areola, intoned, I am the Ghost of Mammaries Past. Follow me!
With a delightful jiggle, the breast led me toward the kitchen door, bumped it open with a newly stiffened nipple, and I saw not stove and refrigerator and sink, but the bedroom of a nine-year-old tow-headed lad, Jason Pharb, who, having witnessed the unshelling of the Jackson hooter, sat on the edge of his bed, his mind reeling from the shock engendered by that nanosecond of pure tittage. I needed no tour conducted by the Ghost of Mammaries Future to see what lay ahead for young Jason: an embrace of the New Puritanism that inspires him to evolve into the first official neocon child evangel, appearing with such regularity on Scarborough Country, hes virtually made a citizen of that tiny, tedious nation; a celebrity adolescence during which he advocates chemical castration for teenagers in the name of a god he has invented, though his fans believe its just good ol Jehovah; fame and fortune follow, andfinallya night when a maid or a houseguest stumbles upon a secret room in his mansion containing a long white table upon which rest dozens of silvery metal domesroom service food warmersand beneath each one there lies a grisly relic of the obsession born during that long-ago Super Bowl halftime.
God knows how many pure-hearted American children have been turned down similar paths! The Ghost of Mammaries Present, another Z-cup hallucination, wanted to tell me exactly how many, but I hooked her bra strap (she was a chaste tele-friendly right-wing apparition) over a banister post and made my escape.
It seems more than a little odd that the political Right, their dull sensibilities stirred by the Jackson Nipple Incident and, shortly thereafter, stirred again by Mel Gibsons Whack-a-Savior flick, should choose the entertainment industry as a target upon which to vent their considerable spleen. Granted, Hollywood Babylon is one of their traditional targets, but over the past two decades or thereabouts, it has been something of a straw dog, because during that time the studios have proved themselves to be standard-bearers in the rabid anti-intellectualism that has brought the country to its current passthough Barbra Streisand, Martin Sheen, and various other Hollywood figures support a leftist agenda, the thrust of the industry has been to employ its potent charms toward instilling in its audience a bedrock stupidity that would allow them to be manipulated by certain tones and colors conjoined with a handful of keywords, that will persuade them to accept without analysis a comic-book-level presentation of current events by the news media, and to endure the theft of their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, their wages, and the quality of their futures, all the while smiling and nodding when they hear that all this is being done for their own good. Its quite possible that some movies and television shows do tend to encourage the inception of aberrant behavior in Americas youth, but its a dead certainty that these same productions are helping to anaesthetize an ever more manipulable and unquestioning populace, whichas far as the corporate movers and shakers are concernedis just the ticket. I am not positing the existence of a vast right-wing conspiracy. Like the Left, the Right is not smart enough to be so organized. One need only look to our president and the marginally more clever clods that surround him to recognize that our country is not led by Einsteins, or even by Machiavellis, but by men who share the intellectual and psychological purview of your average assistant manager. Check out the video of the million-dollar-plus birthday party that indicted Tyco CEO Dennis Koslowski threw for his wife in Sardiniathe ludicrous faux-Roman decor (a kitschy Fifties-era take on decadence, complete with waitress nymphs and toga-wearing pool boys) serving as the backdrop for a Jimmy Buffet concertand it becomes evident from this unimaginative excess that Koslowski and his peers are far from mental giants; they are slightly-smarter-than-average joes whose ruthlessness and grasping natures have allowed them to master a certain style of acquisitiveness. No less could be said of rats. Judging from this and numerous other incidences of the bumbling arrogance that typifies the new ruling class, no great leap is required to infer that its not human villainy that has conspired to lobotomize our cultureit is the tide of market forces sweeping across the centuries, a wave building and building until, at last, it seems ready to inundate us. The Right have simply been in a superior position to capitalize on the flood.
Motion pictures were originally perceived to be entertainment, secondarily as a new art form, but propaganda is their most natural use. The movie industry has, more-or-less inadvertently, done for the corpocracy what Leni Riefenstahl did for the Third Reich. Some of Hollywoods biggest hits (films like Forrest Gump and American Beauty for instance), haveif they do not qualify as straightforward propagandagiven voice to a palliative message that encourages their audience to accept the rule of the ordinary as if it were an eleventh commandment: Thou shall not think, and if thou dost think, thou shall not think analytically. Gumps Life is just a box of chocolates makes the same basic statement as Lester Burnhams posthumous reflection (I wouldnt change a single thing) on his terrible and unfulfilling life. These films and those like them promote the trickle-down theory of happiness, of satisfaction, of accomplishmentwe should be satisfied with what we have and not injure ourselves by aspiring too high. The wealthy and the highly placed will take care of us if we just stay the course, ride out the storm, whatever cliché applies. Everything happens for a reason. Things are as they are. If life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Its the American way, okay? They further influence us to identify with weak, hapless figures (in the films mentioned, a mentally challenged man and a disaffected neurotic), whose endurance in the face of tribulation, we are asked to believe, speaks to our innate nobility of spirit or our uniqueness or some other suitable-for-framing sloganized hoo ha, and not, as is actually the case, to our gullibility. Its a stratagem that helps to persuade us that we are powerlessness. Most studio films about heroes dont celebrate the average person transcending normal expectations, but deal with superheroes, whether costumed like Spiderman or non-costumed types like the governor of California and the Rock; and if they do portray ordinary heroes, those heroes usually die, because the idea of sacrificing oneself for some idiot-with-a-titles latest whim is just dandy with the Guys in the Big Chairs. They have a never-ending need for cannon fodder and they love it when we embrace the thought that its ennobling to die for a causeits the one myth of transcendence of which they approve. Corporate Christianity makes promises to its martyrs that arent much different than those made by radical Islamwe simply dont have that many virgins to pass around.
Speaking of corporate Christianity, it might be of moment to examine The Passion of the Christ, a picture that strikes me as being the Rocky of religious movies. Rockys fistic battle against Apollo Creed was a fight that, in real life, would have been stopped in the first round, orif it had not been stoppedwould likely have terminated with the death of both combatants; correspondingly, had Jesus taken a beating like that portrayed in Passion, he wouldnt have managed two steps up Calvary. One of the things that astonishes me about the phenomenon of Passion is that you will often hear people marvel at Jesus resilience in the movie, saying, I dont know how he kept getting up, having lost track of the reality that it was a motion picture they watched and not an portal opening through the fabric of time onto the event itself. I think this reaction is in part due to the fact that films like The Passion of the Christ paint the concept of powerlessness in seductive colors by making it inclusive, a club that wants us for members and whose central figures transform powerlessness into a radiant and alluring virtue, one that may have a confusing effect upon those whose immunities to such appeals are underdeveloped. The pertinent propagandic thrust of Passion is not whatever dollop of anti-Semitism it embodies (thats a bonus treat); no, like all good propaganda, it enjoins, it summons, it enlists, it plays upon our central hopes and fears, and although the cause Passion espouses is ostensibly a fundamentalist form of Christianity, this is Christianity wedded to a corporate purpose, Christianity in the functional employ of the state. Christianity utilized as secular mind control. Whatever Mel Gibson intended by the film is unimportant. Mainstream movies have become other than what they were intended to bemost flow along a cultural channel dredged by years and years of a ceaselessly digging economic imperative, adding their momentum to the whole; they are every bit the work of the culture as they are of an auteur or a studio. Thus the message of Passionthe Christian portion of that messagehas been co-opted, its values debased and utilized for the purpose of merchandising. We are, after all, talking about a movie thats on its way to doing half-a-billion at the box office and is responsible for selling who knows what quantity of necklaces and photo books and so on. One might say (and many have) that its success comes as a result of people crying out for movies of this kind, but while there may be some truth to that viewpoint, it is undeniably true that the marketing of the picture, not to mention its structure and focus, have all acted to downgrade Jesus own message to a sidebar issue and that the success of the film owes every bit as much to its subliminal persuasions. Dependent upon ones point of view, it will be either a depressing or a bleakly comic moment whenyears from nowthose among us who were seduced into the confession of past crimes by the gestalt surrounding Gibsons movie are in their cells, counting the days to freedom or awaiting execution, cut off from the center of the culture, distanced from its effects, and The Passion comes on the small screen, perhaps its network debut. I imagine bewilderment will be the initial reaction, bewilderment funded by the lack of feeling they derive from this second coming, this viewing behind walls that shield them from societys radiations. I imagine their next reaction may be something on the order of, I screwed my life up over this (epithet)?, followed by an orgy of destruction that earns them thirty days in isolation.
First-run movies that once opened in vast rococo downtown palaces, each new opening an event of sorts, now flicker into being inside characterless little screening rooms in the midst of strip malls, as one with and surrounded by the hamburgers and fish sandwiches and soft drinks and preservative-laced chocolates with which they have merchandising tie-ins. This is entirely appropriate, for most movies are themselves no more than tiny portions of artificial flavor, mildly addictive chemicals, and ersatz food substitutes enclosed in cheap, bright packaging. Watching a film such as, say, The Big Bounce in any setting more grand than the egg carton where I experienced it would be akin to breaking out your best china to present a serving of Chicken McNuggets.
The Big Bounce is a perfect example of post-millennial Hollywood banality, a product designed to be acceptable to as many varied palates as possible. Cinematic Cheez Whiz. It has a certain market luster, being based on an Elmore Leonard novel, yet it typifies that most potent of propagandas, propaganda without any message, or rather whose only message is to pacify, to soothe with stress-free, non-threatening non-meaning. Its negligible, leaving no more than a faint, sweet aftertaste. A remake, the original being a terrible 1969 movie starring Ryan ONeal, it has a cast that includes a young male lead (Owen Wilson) with a good deal of charm, a young model-turned-actress (Sara Foster), and a venerable character actor or three (Morgan Freeman, Harry Dean Stanton, Willie Nelson). It occupies a place in the tradition of the comic-noir film, a genre that Hollywood has not completely forgotten how to make, and its director, Geoffrey Armitage, has previously made a couple of good films that roughly conform to that genre, Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank. Lastly and most significantly, its script has that peculiar leached quality symptomatic of having been reworked, tweaked, and re-tweaked by serial hacks until it has become the screenwriting equivalent of a pretty child with a crooked spine, a feebly beating heart and no discernable brain function. It does not essay to challenge our stupor or ruffle our sense of well-being. That it did not succeed at the box office is immaterialten minutes after it vanished from the theaters, another similar vacuous two-hour stretch of happy colors and nutritionless dialog was slotted into the multiplexes and had a thirty-million-dollar openingeverything is positioning. If the proles dont fancy their food substitute in a pineapple-colored wrapper, theyll love it in cherry pink.
There is a plot, or rather the remnant of a plotthe original Leonard plot having been deconstructed. Jack Ryan (Wilson) is a drifter who passes his days committing small-time robberies and serving as a construction worker for a real estate developer, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise)hes building a hotel on a section of the North Shore of Hawaii sacred to native Hawaiians. After assaulting his foreman with a baseball bat, Ryan is befriended by Walter Crewes (Freeman), the judge who handles his arraignment. Crewes offers Ryan a job at his resort and there he meets Nancy (Foster), Richies live-in girlfriendshe has a plan to steal 250K from Ritchie and thinks Ryans just the guy to help her. Of course there are twists and turns, but such narrative complexity is not essential to the The Big Bounce. Nor is acting, nor is any other dramatic element traditionally accessible to criticism. This movie is about its attitude, an amiable smarminessit celebrates amorality, sexual promiscuity, and any number of neocon no-nos. It has approximately as much weight as would a perfumed fart, a pastel gas loosed into several thousand theaters at once, a weapon of mass seduction designed to render us conscious though not alert. If the moral police are looking for a deadly threat to the purity of our nation, The Big Bounce and its amoral ilkmovies in which perverts and criminals are treated like charming, quirky, relatively harmless uncles and cousins, objects that inspire amusement, not scornshould serve to jump their threat levels into the red and send them scurrying for the duct tape, because this bland effluvium of the culture is, like a candy-colored smog, suffocating our thought, polluting our will, and muffling our vital impulses. Yet we hear no Christian outcry, no Congressional bleating, no pundit-launched belches of indignation regarding such movies. Breasts and sex are no big deal to us. The imagery of the breast can be seen everywhere in America and sexuality is the foundation of the vast majority of the ads that are hourly beamed into our consensus cerebral cortex. How many times has a breast slipped free of a tank top or a bra on Americas Funniest Home Videos, the nipple obscured by a little blurry patch? Our general reaction to those displaysno less gratuitous, albeit far less frequent than the ten thousand similarly blurred replays of Janet Jacksons passion pillow shown on the local and national news, each repeat delivered by a smirking anchorwas laughter.
Why, then, all the furor in the wake of the Jackson Nipple Incident?
Because when Justin Timberlake ripped away Janet Jacksons bodice, it broke the flow of the programming; it interrupted the message that streams unendingly into our brains from every broadcast source. An unexpected oscillation in the Great Hum, it woke us to the irony of our fate. We sensed a wrongness. Naturally we misinterpreted that feelingmost of us, at any rateand blamed Jackson, MTV, gay marriage, Howard Stern, et al. We did not stay awake long enough to home in on the actual culprit. The signal was too quickly restored. For an instant we may have understood that we were victims of a greater scourge than that pointed out by Colin Powells prudish get. Like a lab monkey whose drugs have been cut off, the culture yammered and lashed about until its fear had been channeled into an appropriate response. Soon the tubes will be re-inserted, the drugs will kick back in, the monkey will be pacified, the committees will make their reports, and, gradually, titty bars and porn shops and Howard Stern and everything that has been lumped into the Bushian . . . theyre evil . . . category along with Saddam and steroids and smart-ass reporters and licorice gummy bears, will once again be blended into the American mix . . .or maybe not. Maybe this time good will triumph and the culture will go all-the-way Orwellian. It wouldnt take much. Were already an inch away from Anti-Sex Leagues and Two Minute Hates and the Ministry of Truth and Double-Speak.
For the sake of argument, lets say youre awake. Marginally; briefly; but awake nonetheless. Soon youll switch on the TV or visit the multiplex or pop a game into the Playstation, hook yourself up to some dispenser of corporate juice, and then everything will be fine. Before you do that, however, you might want to take a look around, maybe make a few notes on the reality youre preparing to escape, just on the off-chance case youre trapped for the rest of your days inside a bland pink bubble that enforces a bovine indifference. Heres what youll see if you do. Global warming? Uh-huh. The ice caps are melting. This April, the mercury hit 100 degrees in LA. Nuclear proliferation? You betcha! Pakistan, India, Iran, North Korea and, coming soon, maybe Al Qaeda. The price of gas is at an all-time high. The economy is teetering on a knife-point. We are at war with zealots intent upon blowing us up either piecemeal or, if Allah permits, in big bunches. Occasionally, following cabinet meetings, John Ashcroft will sit at the piano to accompany Condi Rice as she sings gospel songs. Our president talks to God.
Got the picture? Okay. Now, how about a video? The Big Bounce? Cool. Owen Wilson. Mmmm . . . Hes funny. Sara Foster. She has terrific breasts. Hawaii looks post-card pretty. All those beaches and palm trees and green hills and everything. Maybe someday youll go there on vacation. That would be really, really cool. Somethings troubling you, but it cant be anything important.
You are getting sleepy . . .