20 Gift Ideas for $20 and Under

Posted by Amoebite, December 19, 2014 04:08pm | Post a Comment

20 Gifts Under $20

It’s the holidays, and you’re strapped for time and money. What to do?! We’ve got you covered with 20 gift ideas for under 20 clams*. (*Amoeba does not accept clams as currency.)

pop toys game of thrones


Amoeba is full of toys from various TV shows, films, comic books and bands, including these POP! toys featuring Star Wars characters like Yoda; Game of Thrones characters like Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow; Adventure Time characters like Fionna; Star Trek characters like Spock; and Guardians of the Galaxy characters like Rocket Raccoon.

Price: Toy prices vary, but POP! figurines are $12.98.

skullcandy ink'd headphones

Skullcandy INK'D Headphones

We've got a variety of headphones, but these INK'D earbuds offer a lot of bang for your buck.

Price: $19.98

Only Superman Forgives: Man of Steel (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 1, 2013 12:50pm | Post a Comment

I was recently working my way through Jonathan Hickman's run on Fantastic Four and it struck me how explicit the reference to the destruction of New York was made during the proceeding alien invasion storyline. Sue Storm (the super-mom of the group) demands that her fellow heroes move the battle with the invading Kree from the city's skyline to the ocean (why the ruler of the oceans, Prince Namor, has no problem with this is, I guess, because he's all googly eyed over Sue). And after the battle, the superheroes are shown helping rebuild the damaged city. This kind of real world destruction was so unimportant to superhero comics in the past that it became a central joke for a miniseries made back in the 80s called Damage Control about who actually does all the cleaning up. That's what the terrorists did to us, made it impossible to imagine a fantasy where real people aren't being hurt by collateral fallout from cataclysmic battles between superpowered beings.

Contrariwise, Slavoj Zizek has suggested 9/11 was a soporific, that it placed us in slumberland where American fantasies could take hold once again ("virtualization," he called it). The terrorists gave us real nefarious villains to which we could be safely opposed. The prominent media reaction, as he took it, like that of the typical superhero narrative, dehistoricized the attacks, setting them in the perpetual present of an endless comic book (or Hollywoodian virtual) world, where the action becomes one of pure villainy for villainy's sake, motivated by nothing but pure evil ("they hate our freedom," etc.). As Dan Hassler-Forest puts it in his book, Capitalist Superheroes:

Rather than experiencing the attacks as a sudden resurgence of the Real in an environment that had become increasingly virtual, reality instead came to be defined on the basis of fictional tropes. [p. 28]

And, as he points out, this view is rooted in an approach to postmodernity that many of its theorists share with Zizek, such as Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard. That is: 

[P]ostmodern (popular) culture serves first and foremost to sever the public's active connection with history by offering up continuous representations of events that are deliberately made unhistorical. [p. 33]

Despite referencing so many dialectical thinkers, Hassler-Forest applies only a half-assed dialectic approach to the modern superhero film. To him, the the genre only replaces the realistic structural problems with a fantasy of a subjective solution:

Superman is again a case in point, seemingly embodying utopian ideals of a better future for all mankind, while most Superman narratives fail to engage on any level with social or political realities. Instead, Superman and most other superheroes tend to fight the symptoms of crime and injustice while ignoring the causes. [p. 40]

Note that there's no contamination of the fantasy by reality (no "return of the repressed" as Robin Wood used to say of horror films). Despite how much Hassler-Forest emphasizes the importance of 9/11, he basically views it as having little effect on the explicit content of the superhero narrative. It becomes just another part of the Real that needs to be suppressed for the fantasy to function properly. As always, the genre's relation to reality is seen as a one-way street: the dream replaces reality. Hapless victims begin to see the world in superheroic terms, but never the genre on reality's terms -- pure escapism by reshaping historical reality. In other words:

For the superheroes depicted on the page or on the screen provide fantasies that offer the illusion of momentary escape from the powerless nature of the modern subject, but do so in ways that are deined by their fundamental removal from historical reality, and in forms that are grounded in capitalist processes of passive consumerism. [p. 42]

But isn't the current crop of superhero films more complicated than that? If these superpowered fantasies are dreamlike, they're more along the lines of lucid dreaming. The audience continues to walk around in the fantasy, enjoy the escape, but is constantly reminded of reality, namely that they are currently dreaming. Although many saw 9/11 as something along the lines of a Hollywood spectacle, there's also the fact that the spectacle is reflecting reality, bringing into question the hermetic virtuality of the fantasy that the above quoted commentary assumes.

[spoilers follow]

Consider the controversy over the new, more violent Superman in Zac Snyder's Man of Steel. Responding to an article on how producer and co-storyline creator Christopher Nolan disagreed with the finale that has Superman having to make a forced choice to kill General Zod, a commenter posed the following questions:

Why would you make a Superman movie where the villain ended up being right and the heroes ended up being wrong? Not only that but why would you make a Superman movie where earth would have been better off if Superman had never came here?

Those are the right ones to ask, I think. So, when a fanboy is quite clear on the film's subtext, where's the repression or even sublimation that's supposedly taking place in the postmodern/virtualization account? Maybe ... just maybe, films aren't really dreams or psychoanalytic fantasies. A popular purveyor of these fantasies, professional comic book writer Mark Waid also seems to be well aware of what the film was saying when he found the film's violence equally problematic for similar reasons:

The essential part of Superman that got lost in MAN OF STEEL, the fundamental break in trust between the movie and the audience, is that we don’t just want Superman to save us; we want him to protect us. He was okay at the former, but really, really lousy at the latter. 

How is this all a matter of virtualization or unconscious repression of the Real when the fanboy contingent is crying for a return to the good ole days of dehistoricized fantasy? These films of mass destruction are being consciously made and consciously received. There's nothing controlling us from the Freudian unconscious about 9/11. Here's Kyle Buchanan, a pop culture critic who needed neither postmodernism nor psychoanalysis to divine a trend in current action films: 

This weekend’s Man of Steel is only the latest film this year to exploit familiar 9/11 imagery in ways that are far more extreme and blatant than anything we’ve seen on the big screen before, as though Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.

I'm kind of desensitized to cities being destroyed, too, but Man of Steel did finally offer the superpowered fisticuffs I'd been waiting from the filmic interpretation of the genre ever since Alan Moore and John Totleben attempted to portray a more realistic effect of godlike creatures duking it out in Miracleman 15:

Granted, Snyder and his effects team don't render the personalized effects of violence in as much loving detail as Totleben, but the film isn't like those awful action cartoons in the 80s, either, where someone is always shown escaping from the damage and guns don't fire bullets. (Fear of media effects in the 70s and 80s resulted in no one getting hurt by violence in G.I. Joe and other product placement cartoons.) Hundreds of thousands die in Metropolis alone, even if we don't see a river of blood. However, we rarely saw any blood in the reporting on 9/11 while still being made aware that there was death involved. My point is that the closer the movies get to Moore and Totleben's vision of hero worship, the better. Since our species is so inclined towards savior fantasies, I prefer mine with the bloodshed that inevitably follows in reality when people really believe in them. If the PG-13 rating doesn't allow for verisimilitudinous bloodletting, then at least be honest enough about the fantasy to not show people parachuting out of harm's way.

More tiresome than mass destruction is the analogizing of superheroes to religious myths, and Snyder unfortunately loads his film with this allegorical shit: Superman is 33 years old; he's depicted in a Christ pose in outer space; and, if that's not explicit enough, he visits a church to get advice from a priest. But, as Waid demonstrates, being a savior isn't good enough; the fanboy requires from his superheroes more than what he requires from his gods. Snyder's transgression was in making Superman merely Christ-like, a savior by proxy, the one who sets the example par excellence for moral behavior. No, Superman should do more; he's supposed to personally protect everyone on earth from themselves or evil Kryptonians. Max Landis, the screenwriter for Chronicle, says much the same thing as Waid. He wants superhero films to return "the hero" to the super. The point of the Jesus myth isn't that another shall decide for you, but that's pretty clearly the message in most superhero narratives since their inception. It's why so many critics call them fascistic. Platitudinous as it may be, if Snyder adds anything by forcing the Christian analogy, it's a bit of humility to generic expectations: Superman seeks help from one of Christ's representatives, rather than having all the answers.

Pace critics such as Chris Gavaler and the aforementioned Hassler-Forest who have difficulty not making a 9/11 reference when discussing just about any contemporary action film, isn't there always something of a perceptual analogy between any large scale cinematographic destruction set in a city and the one instance of destruction to a city we Americans experienced in reality (mostly through video on the TV)? Is the similarity on which the comparisons rest always ideological? To answer Buchanan's question if it's possible to make a Hollywood blockbuster without evoking 9/11, I'm thinking probably not -- not because everyone of these films is "really about" suppressing the causes of 9/11, or making it into a fantasy, but because the event has become our default source in the analogies we draw from these films. However, if something has significantly changed in the blockbuster, it's the level of the realism in depicting the violence and a bit more depth to the hero and villain's respective rationales, which can be seen in recent superhero films.

As a contrast, take an episode of Fleischer Studio's Superman called "The Bulleteers," in which the eponymous villains terrorize Metropolis with an airplane that turns into a bullet and smashes into skyscrapers, power plants and trains, killing thousands and thousands of people.

Kind of hard not to analogize that to 9/11, even though the cartoon is from 1942. The Bulleteers' rationale was to traumatize the good citizens of Metropolis until their governmental representatives handed over the loot. Stealing is not ideological in the way we now think of terrorism, which has some political goal to the killing, but the methodology is pretty similar: create widespread fear in the populace. The Fleischer cartoons are replete with such destruction, often without even the motive of greed. Thousands die just because the villain is evil. Nevertheless, there's always a happy ending, because Superman saves Lois Lane.

Surely, Man of Steel is a tad more thoughtful than that. Instead of stopping pure evil or an act of theft, Superman is faced with a zero-sum choice between mutually exclusive ways of life, Kryptonian versus human. As Gaveler points out, this is a genocidal battle. Because subjective violence is more emotionally resonant when it's individuals being threatened rather than a building (with who knows how many individuals within), Superman is shown having to kill Zod to prevent his murdering a family in the end. (Superman has killed in the comics, too, namely his battle with Doomsday resulted in both dying in the much promoted "Death of Superman" storyline.) The threat to the family is a way of making Superman's forced choice more personalized and intimate. Some have spun this as the film's ignoring all the mass death up to this one family being threatened (this is Waid's interpretation, and would be a fairly accurate summation of the Fleischer cartoons). But the scene functions as a reminder of Zod's death toll if you weren't dwelling on the inhabitants of the buildings destroyed during the mêlée. It's saying he's going to keep on with mass annihilation if he's not stopped. Hardly subtle, I see it as a stagey, dramatic culmination of Superman trying to stop him from killing humans, not the hero's sudden awareness that someone might die during the fights. (Having said that, as should be clear from above, I'm an advocate of always showing more violent effects in these fantasies, but no one's ever going to make a rated-R-for-blood Superman flick. This is as much realistic concern as the brandname will allow.)

I prefer deflationary approaches to my fantasies. They should say something about reality (which isn't the same as preferring realism). I'm glad that there's an element of doubt that's become more prominent in the heroic fantasy after 9/11, not just with the dependency of the central hero on real world representatives of the system, but in the way the supervillains are presented as being ideologically opposed to that system. Thoughts of terrorism has certainly made the villains more interesting in these films. The recent version of Star Trek's Kahn, like the The Dark Knight's Joker, is used to expose the structural violence on which cultural order rests. No matter what kind of pacifist utopia Roddenberg imagined the Federation to be, the exploratory ships contained photon torpedoes for a reason. Into the Darkness dramatizes the repression of this violence by putting Kahn into suspended animation, while keeping the torpedo technology (one of the movie posters symbolizes the violence surrounding Kahn its relation to the Federation). Internally, the society might be pacifist, but it's going to need weapons to prevent external threats to the utopia. It seems to me that the supervillain is less likely to be a purely evil Otherness nowadays and more likely to reveal questions regarding what the hero signifies when suppressing this threat..

So, although Landis is right, Man of Steel does demote the hero, I'm not seeing why that's a bad thing. If Man of Steel says that we can't trust saviors to save us, then that's surely one of best lessons from any film this year. After all, it's not Superman alone who saves the planet. Rather, it's the sacrifice of Dr. Emil Hamilton and a bunch of soldiers who fly another Kryptonian ship into General Zod's own that sends all his forces back into the Phantom Zone. Lois Lane was willing, too, but falls out of the ship. Once again, her rescue helps us not feel so bad about the final death toll. That Superman has to work with the humans in order to save them seems the intended post-9/11 message here. Something similar was suggested when a bunch of teamsters lined up cranes in The Amazing Spider-Man so that the injured hero could swing to his destination to beat the Lizard. Likewise, Batman proved incapable of defeating the menace of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises without the help of Gotham's finest.

Because of the nature of this help, these recent versions of Superman and Batman, at least, can be seen as agitprop for the military, police, national security forces or whatever else exists to maintain the order of things. The superheroic fantasy is displacing itself, following the media mythologizing of first-responders, with one about realworld heroes. But both characters have always been vigilante fantasies of a moral status quo. They are incorruptible standins for cops and military types, who are idealized as America's true heroes. Someone like Superman lets us imagine what if the agents of order always used violence for justice, i.e., if those with power actually used it for the commonweal. (Superheroes are rarely the opponents of the status quo, usually only if the diegetic order is dystopian to which they can be opposed as a sympathetic terrorist or radical, such as in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta or Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.) That there's some ugly inferences to be made from this fantasy has been explored in Neil Gaiman's take on Miracleman and, later, Warren Ellis' The Authority, where the superheroes as self-appointed saviors take many cherished enlightened liberal ideas and force them upon the world. In other words, the police state or martial law lurks behind most superhero fantasies.

I agree with the above critics that the superhero fantasies tend toward conservatism. How could they not? Unless being used as auto-critiques by Moore and the like, they offer fantastical support for people putting their trust in an authority figure to return a destabilized system to order. It's just that if you're going to make a conservative fantasy, don't repress what you're fantasizing about. And it does seem that there's less repression in these superhero films than there used to be in Hollywood blockbusters before 9/11. Who knows why the Crimson Jihad wanted to blow up the United States in True Lies? No way could it be a problem with Arnold or what he represents. Post-9/11, probably because it's not exactly a bunch of conservative ideologues who are making these conservative fantasies, Superman is shown to need the American military in the film in the same way he's taken by Hassler-Forest to represent American power. It might remain a fantasy of American superiority, but Man of Steel makes sure we acknowledge it. Like the weapons on which Tony Stark became so rich in Iron Man, the role of the hero has become part of the problematic in these blockbusters, the absolutism isn't as absolute, and we have the terrorists to thank for that.


The full title of Dan Hassler-Forest's book is Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2011) for Zero Books. 

Man of Steel poster by Mark Ansin for Mondo.

Note: rather irritatingly, the diacritics in 'Zizek' no longer work for the blog software, so normal Zs will have to do. I'm sure that all my previous references now look like shit. Oh well.

(Before which the author's mother visits.)

Posted by Job O Brother, July 6, 2009 02:58pm | Post a Comment

That's my Ma, milking the cow. (The cow is the one with horns.)

This past week my dear, sweet Ma came for a visit. Her time here flew by quickly; we entertained ourselves with long walks, stories from her youth, and cooking-related reality TV. I also introduced her to one of my best friends in the whole world: absinthe.

She has a new iPhone, but her fear of technology had limited her use of it to – get this – making phone calls! I mean, what’s the point of a phone if all you do with it is call people? That’s so 1990’s! So I introduced her to all the things her new phone could do: map out directions, take photos, slay red dragons, make chocolate sprinkles, cure melanoma and make other kinds of chocolate sprinkles. She was quick to learn and I expect she will soon be filling my email inbox with pictures of my nephews, her tomato plants, and chocolate sprinkles.

In honor of her visit, I have assembled the following short list of things she loves, in hopes that you, too, may find some joy in them. If you’re not interested, don’t worry – she’s very easy-going and non-judgmental, and won’t take offense. I, however, will hunt you down like a dog and slay you. With my iPhone.

Glenn Gould


One of the most famous classical pianists of all time, and still controversial, Glenn Gould was the very definition of an eccentric genius. Most famous for his interpretations of J.S. Bach’s music for keyboard, Gould also championed modern composers, such as Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg, while frequently disparaging more popular composers such as Frédéric Chopin and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, finding their works often insincere and unsatisfying (a sentiment, incidentally, I share with Gould).

Gould died at age 50, leaving behind a rich and compelling catalogue of recordings and a few pairs of very rank smelling gloves.

In addition to some more traditional documentaries, there’s a film entitled 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould that provides an entertaining (perhaps more than deep) look at this musical prodigy.

He also provides the soundtrack for my Mother’s iPhone ringtone.

His Hand in Mine – Elvis Presley

Ma was raised in the church, where she played organ, piano and served as choral director. She also arranged flowers and… I dunno – probably designed the stained-glass windows, too. The church was in Florin, California, which had been mostly populated by Japanese farmers until, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government forced the Japanese into concentration camps – an event that seems remarkably absent from our consideration of American history.

Florin, California (circa what I'm talkin' about)

Anyway, at this time in Florin, there was really nothing to do but milk cows, watch the strawberries grow, and participate in church functions, which is what so occupied Ma’s time. Playing music served as one of Ma’s few truly fun activities, and her association with old hymns remains a positive one, although her belief in the traditional tenants of Protestantism has been replaced by something more akin to Shirley MacLaine’s persuasions.

If you want to see Ma’s eyes glaze over in bliss (and you know you do) I suggest spinning this album from Elvis Presley.

Carlos Montoya

Another controversial, artistic genius Ma gravitates towards is the flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya.

"Mine! All mine! Ahahahahahaha...!!!"

Montoya is renowned as much for his agility at playing guitar as he was for his ability to fly. He could fly in the air of his own volition and remains the first and only human in history to do so. It was on Montoya that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster based their superhero creation, Superman. This resulted in Montoya suing the comic writers in a case that was ultimately settled out of court, with Montoya being paid off in raisins, his favorite between-meal snack.

The following song was composed by Montoya for his wife, Lois, who would eventually divorce him, complaining that his willingness to work for dried fruit made life with the musician “crazy-making” and “mostly fucked.”

My Ma may have returned to the glorious state of Northern California, but she remains an eternal houseguest in my heart …where she is currently building a pulpit and brand-new steeple.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Taste No Evil: Religulous (2008), Blindness (2008) & Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Posted by Charles Reece, October 22, 2008 08:01pm | Post a Comment
Power can essentially do what it wants, and what it wants is completely arbitrary. -- Pier Paolo Pasolini in the documentary "Salò": Yesterday and Today

~ Hard of Hearing ~
The point which I should first wish to understand is whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods. -- Socrates in Plato's Euthyphro

In every internet debate I've ever had regarding religion (almost always with a Christian fundamentalist), I bring up the Euthyphro dilemma. Before Christianity even had its start, good ol' Plato cut it off at the knees with one sentential swipe. His reasoning goes something like this: if an action is moral only because a god says so, then morality is arbitrary; but if it's moral because it coincides with moral reality (what's objectively real), then morality is independent of a divine will (i.e., a god is good because it subscribes to the same reality that we mortals do). In either case, we don't need a god for morality. However, I've yet to meet a Christian who's convinced by this argument -- such is the function of faith -- but if he's intellectually inclined, he'll acknowledge that the argument is important enough to be dealt with. After all, what good is a religion that doesn't ground morality? Religions suck at doing science and are even worse at giving day-to-day practical advice. Thus, there has been a fine, honorable tradition of Christian rationalist attempts to explain away Plato's argument.

The logical tradition is interwoven with the history of Christianity. Indeed, my personal favorite argument for the capital-g God's existence (i.e., He who is omnipotent, -scient and -benevolent) -- the ontological proof -- was proposed by a Christian Platonist, St. Anselm (just check it out; it's got a real aesthetic beauty to it). And no sooner than Anselm's ink had dried on the parchment, there was a rebuttal from a Benedictine monk by the name of Gaunilo. All of this took place in the socalled "Dark Ages," around the time of the Crusades. My point in bringing all this up isn't that Christianity (or, by extension, any religion) is, in the final instance, as rational as any other belief system (it most certainly isn't), but that based on what it uses as an ontological ground (faith in God), it has a tradition of rational argumentation that's pretty fucking solid, even if you reject the ground.

Enter Bill Maher, skeptic, talkshow host, and humorless prick. Watching some of his early performance clips in his and director Larry Charles' documentary, Religulous, suggests divine intervention (or, at least, demiurgic interference) that such an individual could've ever had success as a comedian. His role in the film is as a bumptious court king, spewing out pieces of his leg of lamb while insisting that his dimwitted subjects entertain him ("orf wit' 'is 'ead"). As with the politicians he regularly lampoons, Maher's popularity rests on an audience even duller than he is. Likewise, his role as social critic is the result of the dependable outrage of people even more humorless. It's the sort of controversy that made both Rush Limbaugh and Madonna stars. Thus, there's no modern day Anselms in his film (no Alvin Plantinga), just a parade of faithful ignoramuses at whom we can point and laugh. True, Christiatnity has its fair share of such people, and I'm not unsympathetic to their being mocked. I just don't need Maher and Charles' subtitles to see the stupidity on display. And, yes, subtitles are actually used to point out what's supposed to be funny.  It reminds me of those bits on Leno where the audience is clued in by knowing comments and looks from Jay -- with the answers in front him -- on how ignorant the people on the street are about politics or grammar. Elitism for dummies.

Maher knows he's taking easy shots as demonstrated by the two exceptions in the film where he evinces any sort of respect for his interview subjects: Francis Collins, the former head of the human genome project, who is a devout Christian (although he feels misled), and some old middle management type in the Latin division of the Vatican, who seems to have lost his faith long ago and is now just collecting a paycheck. Knowing these guys aren't idiots, Maher doesn't even try to be funny around them (albeit the Latin expert is a real hoot). He's clearly only comfortable mocking the easily mocked (confer this).

So, back to Christianity, morality and rationality: the largest majority of morons in America didn't get that way because of their mistaken faith in a mythical foundation. Rather, the majority of morons are Christians simply because most people are Christians. If you were to draw some Venn-like diagrams with one big circle being labeled 'morons,' another big one 'Christians,' and a much smaller one 'non-believers,' you'd find that even if the non-believer circle was completely contained within the moron one, you'd still have more Christians coming out morons due to the sheer quantity of people stuffed within the overlap. I'll leave it to another day as to which group is actually proportionally more likely to be moronic, though. Suffice it to say that knuckleheads abound in any social affiliation.

Therefore, the nonreligious shouldn't make the same fallacious assumption about the religious that they often do about the nonreligious. One's belief in the foundation of morality or truth shouldn't play a part in determining whether one is behaving morally or rationally. The absolutist and relativist, for example, can agree that the indiscriminate killing of 10 year old boys is wrong while being in disagreement over the metaphysical why. For the calculus of brutality, it doesn't much matter whether people are getting slaughtered for God's Will or the good of the collective. Conversely, who cares if the leaders of Civil Rights Movement were acting in accordance with religiously inspired principles? What matters, as Plato demonstrated, is whether the actions coincided with correct moral thinking. Consequently, when Maher ends his film with a lengthy, humorless, tin-eared rant about the evils of religion and how much more peaceful the world would've been without it, he violates his own flippant disregard for faith, ironically giving the religious foundation too much credit in a film that had until then given it none. Religion is just an ideological muzzle used to cover up man's evil inclinations or to accept the credit when he does good. Man would still behave in the same way without it in his conceptual toolbag, only with a different set of rationalizations for doing so.
~ Seeing is Believing ~
Just like a blind man I wandered along
Worries and fears I claimed for my own
Then like the blind man that God gave back his sight
Praise the lord I saw the light. -- Hank Williams, "I Saw The Light"

A friend's mother used to have one of those tacky plates expressing homilies hanging up on her kitchen wall. Hers read, "Lord, if you can't make me thin, please make all my friends fat." There's a sort of religious fanatic's wish fulfillment fantasy expressed in that message, namely "I don't want to be happy, I want others to be more miserable." Only, it doesn't quite get the desire for power correct. More accurately, it should've read, "make my friends fatter than me." Peter Parker would've hardly captured the dork imagination had he only been given the strength of his high school archnemesis, Flash Thompson. No, he needed to become vastly superior. A thought experiment regarding this fantasied superiority complex comes by way of Fernando Meirelles' film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay On Blindness). I haven't read the book (but this plot summary sounds pretty close to the film's), so I'm just going to be talking about the film.

The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city where an epidemic of "white blindness" breaks out. The afflicted characters describe the blindness as swimming through milk, and the grey shapes fading into a white fog created for the camera eye reinforce this description. A more allegorically rich name for the film might've been The Ganzfeld ("whole field"), since the affliction bears a close resemblance to the old gestalt effect of creating a sort of snowblindness with a homogeneous distribution of light across the eyes. The ganzfeld parallels the redistribution of power relations among the blind and seeing within the story. As it were, "seeing the light" no longer has any beneficial effects for the sighted (just as belief in God has no real moral benefits for the religious).
Since blindness can occur just as much from a lack of contrasts within light as it can from the simple lack of light, it makes for an interesting allegory of societal relations centering on faith (even if the film as a whole fails to follow through with the full promise of its conceit). As Maher or some of the currently popular atheist ideologues (such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens) would have it, ridding the world of religion would reduce evil (a dream that isn't that far removed from the totalizing desire of the religious fanatic). What Blindness shows (badumpbump) is that any such homogeneous effect would, at best, provide for a temporary state of equilibrium in the social structure. As faith qua sight begins to disappear, the blind willingly lead the blind through the building in which they've been quarantined. But is this charity -- good will towards fellow man -- or an act of desperation resulting from what was lost? It doesn't take too long for a rebellious group to form around a charismatic leader (Gael Garcia Bernal as "the bartender") who decides to take control of the food supply. Blindness becomes the new source for the same ideological struggles now denuded, with seeing as an otiose mask, or useless filter. As such, the one person who retains her sight (Julianne Moore as "the doctor's wife") hides her (now super-) ability, pretending to be blind in order to belong to what remains of her society. Moore is Superman to Bernal's Lex Luthor.

I can't help but think of Bill's disquisition on Clark Kent in Kill Bill 2, where he gives a Nietzschean spin to  Superman's secret identity. Therein, Tarantino suggests that Superman is the true identity and the bumbling Clark reveals his contempt for Earthlings as a mocking imitation. Another possible interpretation, more consistent with Superman's own thought balloons, is that Clark represents the smalltown values with which he was raised and can never completely escape, regardless of how much power he might possess. Superman is no übermensch, but a being who uses his power to reinforce his (and others') place in the flock. It's the all-too-human Luthor with the Zarathustran dreams. Like Superman, Moore's character eventually uses her extra-ability for some violent superego retribution to the unbridled id impulses of Bernal and his group. It was the arrival of the adults in Lord of the Flies that stopped the children's savagery. It wasn't that the shipwrecked kids became wholly alien to civil society, but that they were cut off from the filtering mechanisms which normally regulates our inclinations. As an inverse of the standard monster film where the monster is the repressed, the appearance of the adults represents a thankful return of the oppression. Similarly, the white blindness doesn't so much create a new totalizing desire for power as it breaks down the repressive mechanisms that were in place during the occularist order. As the last vestige of occular control, the wife's struggle with the bartender points to another prominent Nietzshean idea: with the failure of faith in a previous order, the desire or need to control doesn't disappear; it just gets restructured. 
~ Melts in the Mouth ~
[W]ho will not be relieved to say in front of the libertines of Salò: "I am really not like them, I am not a fascist, since I do not like shit." -- Roland Barthes, Sade-Pasolini

Another filmic thought experiment is Pasolini's Salò, a modern retelling of Marquis de Sade's The 120 Nights of Sodom. (You can read a plot summary here.) It might not be science fiction proper, but it fits within the umbrella category of speculative fiction, into which more respectable authors like J. G. Ballard are often put to escape the critical taint of the science fiction genre that snobs like Susan Sontag have expressed. In fact, Salò isn't all that far removed from the dystopic disaster subgenre of Blindness -- the main difference being the willful ingestion of feces versus blindly stepping in it. Pasolini takes the dystopic idea to the extreme by removing any figure of the old restraining order, letting desire follow undeterred its own logical course of objectification. For all the posturing Kulturkampf (dim-)witticisisms of a film like Religulous, Pasolini's cropophagic masterpiece provides a cleansing of the palate. Where Blindness offers a glimmer of hope at the end that sight will return, Pasolini is consistently pessimistic. Hope, he said, is manufactured by those in power to maintain their control of others.

Thanks to the fetish film night over at the Egyptian Theater, I finally got to see it on the big screen. No matter how good the print (and the Egyptian had a recent 35mm one), there's a crude pornographic quality to Pasolini's stilted, wide-angled mise-en-scene. Like in the days of cheap VHS porn, the characters tend to look lost within the frame. I doubt the film ever looked new or crisp. This degraded aesthetic only adds to the degradation of the teenaged victims. The Kubrick-styled design of, say, Salon Kitty, would've made the film kitsch. Too much high-minded visual style can turn the transgressive into mere silliness -- just look at Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's Crash. Pasolini knew he had to get ugly for the film to work. Thus, there is something to be said for experiencing Salò in the washed out images on a well-worn tape and at home. Nevertheless, Egyptian's sound system gave me a newfound appreciation for the film's sound design, most notably the low level rumble of planes flying overhead while one of the lady storytellers began to relate her first experience with the Dirty Sanchez. The rumble continues through the "Circle of Shit" segment until the victims are finally released from their mandated constipation, providing the main course for the infamous dinner scene.

It might no longer be censored in as many countries as it once was and it has a lot more fellow travelers these days in narrative cinema (from Takashi Miike to Catherine Breillat), but it hasn't lost its transgressive potency. Transgression depends on shock, an ability to rattle one's preset concepts (moral or otherwise), and the film can still activate the flight or fright mechanism in even the most ironically detached of modern viewers (I counted 3 walkouts by the middle of the film). We won't be seeing any digitized appropriations of the characters for the purpose of selling things any time soon. For good or ill, the film remains defiantly authentic to itself, much like its literary source. That's real art to my mind.

Barthes takes Pasolini to task for mixing the obscenely erotic with a critique of fascism (or, really, totalitarianism in general). The gross-out factor resulting from the depths that the libertines go (Barthes seems to be saying) keeps the audience at a distance from the lure of fascism, thereby preventing a real critique (e.g., "those fascists aren't like me"). As I understand it, the difference between the erotic and the pornographic is a matter of gratification, the former being more conceptual and the latter being more physical. Salò contains many parallels to totalitarian subjugation: making the victims eat whatever shit is put before them, the Stockholm Syndrome of having a victim smilingly take on the desire of his bearded oppressor, guards justifying their abhorrent behavior with a "just following orders," and the tendency to save oneself by ratting out one's fellow captives. Contrary to Barthes' objection and unlike Cronenberg's Crash, Salò manages to keep the audience tethered to that liminal chain between disgust and desire. If, that is, the audience stays with it. Although the particular fetish objects aren't everyone's, the fetishistic desire for control is a central human trait we should all recognize.

Of course, this ain't wank material, rather it draws in vivid detail a conceptual link between the obscenities of totalitarian desire and those of an unconstrained eroticism. As Sontag has argued, this conceptual use of obscenity is what justifies its appearance in art (but not pornography), what makes it aesthetic. She suggested the obscene is ultimately a drive towards death. And I can't think of a better example of humanity's death drive than when it succumbs to the totalitarian desire for absolute control. Maybe Salò's moral is that of the old plate-worthy adage "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but even allowing such a pithy summation, the film's virtue lies in making you feel the truth of that expression, viscerally spelling it out (to the letter, as Barthes said). That virtue is also what led to the film being oft-labeled obscene, and unworthy of legal protection. Obscenity rulings never address the truth value of the artistic statement being judged; rather, they address whether that statement meets the supposed community standards. The more self-denying those standards are, the more likely truth itself will be deemed obscene, or degenerate.

Salò addresses the central problematic constitutive of culture that Blindness doesn't have the balls to follow through with and that Religulous is too simple-minded to even understand: "Man has always been a conformist. Man's principle trait is to conform to whatever power or type of life he's born into" (Pasolini, ibid.). As opposed to its appearance in a "fetish film" series -- implying risque entertainment for the bourgeois S&M crowd who spend their leisure time in latex at bondage parties --  Pasolini's film actually condemns the very notion of "free love." Freeing desire from social constraints is what connects the fascist to the libertine. Pure subjectivity can exist only if everything else becomes its mere objects, where otherness is reified and made easily consumable. From the top down, a system of repressive mechanisms (e.g., culture) is needed to stave off the obscene end product of pure desire, namely total control resulting in death (consider Descartes' experiments in vivisection, where he denied any subjectivity to the animals he treated as mere objects). From the bottom up, the way to achieve power is to conform to the mechanisms in place, filtering the individual's totalizing desire by shaping it into the repressive forms of his or her milieu. Ridding ourselves from a particular repressive mechanism like religion or old-fashioned sexual mores won't free us from this problematic. The godless communism of the Soviets was little more than a theocracy with the name 'God' erased (unsurprisingly, distinctions become blurry under totalitarianism, where one size fits all). Either God would be replaced with another form of repression, or we would take a step towards the world of Salò. Being an atheist and an optimist, I have hope that the theocrats will eventually find a new form of repression through which they can channel their desires.

Thomas More's map of Utopia.


Posted by Charles Reece, March 28, 2008 08:54pm | Post a Comment
After seventy years, Jerome Siegel’s heirs regain what he granted so long ago – the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics Vol. 1. What remains is an apportionment of profits, guided in some measure by the rulings contained in this Order, and a trial on whether to include the profits generated by DC Comics’ corporate sibling’s exploitation of the Superman copyright. -- Judge Larson

One for the little guys!