Pass the Popcorn: Romantic Individualism and Technocracy 

May 16, 2015

  

[CAPTION NEEDED, something about cooks and broth]

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Only mild spoilers lie in wait for you here, but if you want compete nonspoilage, don’t read. 

The new Avengers is awesome while you watch it but doesn’t live up to the original. A certain amount of comic book schlock – magic gems and a slew of newly introduced characters and bad guys who turn into good guys in the blink of an eye and . . . a magical biotechnological AI robot/human hybrid thingy that the bad guy built to be one thing but it became something else because the program upload was interrupted and it had a magic jewel put in its forehead . . . or something . . . well, a certain amount of that is okay, but past a certain point it’s just too damn much. 

But living up to the first Avengers film is a high standard to set from someone who called it “the movie for our time.” We’ve been spoiled by too many really outstanding comic book movies. This one is a lot of fun, go see it. Just don’t try too hard to follow the plot. 

I understand the original cut of this movie was three hours and Whedon had to chop it to the 2:20 we see on the screen. That would explain not only the confusing and inadequately explained plot and the underdevelopment of the character conflicts that made the first Avengers such a triumph, but also the mismatch between the themes early web articles anticipated would be in the movie and the absence of those themes from the movie. I saw several articles written on the assumption that Ultron, programmed to establish world peace, wanted to wipe out humanity because he realized that human beings are evil and will always create war and suffering, and deserve to be wiped out. That could have made a fascinating movie, but it’s not the one we got. 

What I do think is present in this movie is the tendency of Romantic (capital R) individualism, even in its most libertarian forms, to produce a destructive and oppressive technocracy. One of the great illusions of our time is that we can escape the tyranny and dehumanization of technocracy by romanticizing the individual. That is precisely what we cannot do. It was and is the romanticization of the individual that creates technocracy. Romantic individualism consistently ends in unsustainable narcissism. As the results of the narcissism become unsustainable, the Romantics – less and less willing to give up their Romanticism as they become more and more narcissistic – seek technocratic solutions that will take care of our problems for us without any of us having to practice self-denial, which is for them the sin against the Holy Ghost. Technocracy, they hope, will maintain the necessary conditions for individual narcissism. That is what Stark is doing when he creates Ultron – solve the problem of war not by creating people who want justice but by creating machines that will eradicate [people who practice] injustice. 

The whole logic of this is laid out admirably in Tocqueville, in Eliot’s famous line about “systems so perfect,” and in Wall-E. Men who live for nothing but pleasure are fit for nothing but slavery. 

The movie clearly understands what it is that makes Romantic individualism plausible and attractive. We see it in the fact that Stark’s hubris produces Vision as well as Ultron. We see it when Stark says “I’m not in charge, I just . . . pay for everything and make everyone look awesome.” We also see it when he says to Steve Rogers, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have a dark side.” Here we really see, as we did in the first film, that the difference between them is a religious one, and it boils down to what one does with one’s dark side. Stark gives in to it, like Emerson, whose response to the doctrine of the sinfulness of man was that he did not think he was sinful, but even if he were, “if I am the devil’s child I will live then from the devil.” What is there for a man to do but be what he is? Stark, like Emerson, does not believe there is a Power who can purge the darkness and truly make men clean. 

Rogers opposes Stark’s individualism not by overt appeal to God but by appeal to human relationships. We are made to live and work with one another, to solve – or at least cope with – our problems “together.” The solution to our problems lies not in machines and systems but in people wanting to be in right relationship with one another. 

This is just as religious a claim as “there’s only one God, ma’am.” I am not sure it isn’t an even more religious claim. For it asserts that we are made not simply to be what we are and do what we want, but to overcome what we are and control what we want in order to achieve a fulfillment that lies outside ourselves. 

I am surprised to say that Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to recognize that it is Steve Rogers’ America, not Tony Stark’s, that holds the secret to saving all that they both hold dear. 


Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

December 19, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this excellent essay on the way franchises have transformed Hollywood. It is not, I promise, just another long lament that there are too many comic book movies, too many sequels, etc. The author, Mark Harris, is thinking seriously about Hollywood’s business model, and there are lots of data and interesting quotes I haven’t seen elsewhere. Seeing the list of franchise movies already announced from the major studios really was an eye-opener. And he makes an insightful point about how Hollywood is now so skilled at creating anticipation that it’s forgetting to provide the payoff. What used to be payoff is now only a calculated part of a larger plan to keep building anticipation for the next product.

Now! That having been said, I think Harris is too pessimistic, for two reasons.

1) While Harris acknowledges that not all franchise movies are bad, and some are very good, he nonetheless seems to assume as a basis of his case that artsy movies – that is, movies intended to be serious rather than mere ephemeral entertainment – are, on the whole, more likely to be very good than franchise movies. This has not been my experience. Even if we discount the value of entertainment and judge strictly on “artistic merit,” I think franchise movies are about as likely to be very good as artsy movies. Not because franchise movies are necessarily good, but because artsy movies generally fail to have much more artistic merit than franchise movies. My wife and I were avid moviegoers during the very height of the independent movie era, and we saw a lot of them. Most of them had “entertainment value” rather than “artistic value.” They were witty or exciting or whatever, and we enjoyed them while we were watching them. But most of them were not great art.

Harris estimates that about 150 franchise movies will open in the next six years. At the end of the article he concedes that some of them – “more than two and fewer than twenty” – will be “very good.” Let’s say “more than two and fewer than twenty” is ten movies. That’s less than two very good movies per year, so it’s a conservative estimate. If so, by his own showing one out of every fifteen franchise movies is “very good.” I’d put up that track record against the arthouse any day.

2) Harris assumes consumer tastes will not revolt against the rise of the franchise. Franchises rule because they are financially rewarded. Must this remain so, even after franchises have squeezed everything else off the studio slate? I see no reason to think so, and every indication that consumers are already clamoring for something else. The idiots who run Hollywood just haven’t figured out how to give them anything else. But someone will, and when they do, the bubble will pop. (Barriers to entry in the entertainment sector are rapidly approaching zero.)

On both points, Harris’ argument fatally rests on the assumption that movies made for the purpose of having artistic merit rather than for the purpose of pleasing general audiences are more likely to have artistic merit. Yet there is little empirical evidence this is the case.


Pass the Popcorn: Bearing New Images

September 2, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki (a previous PTP subject) might like to know about this fascinating essay on his critical view of Japanese culture and what he thinks it needs from its filmmakers. Over on Hang Together, I connect his thoughts to western debates about capitalism and the role of entrepreneurs in cultural regeneration:

Verily, freedom and economic development create opportunities for people to distort their desire. But to contract freedom and development would only deliver us into the hands of an elite formed by that cultural decay, locking in the distortion of desire, freezing in place the present decadence. The solution instead lies with those who not only make responsible use of their opportunities, but inspire others to follow them in doing so (“to spur audiences to seek and love the world”).


“Doesn’t God Believe in My Pursuit of Happiness?”

May 21, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My nomination of Kickstarter for The Al didn’t get off the ground, but after watching this trailer, I already feel like I got full value for the $40 I chipped in to help Zack Braff make this movie without letting the idiots who seem to be in charge of Hollywood mess around with it. Enjoy!


McConaughey Hasn’t Been this Happy Since VY took it in on 4th and 5

March 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ellen’s best joke from the Oscar’s last night was that the nominees had 1,400 films between them and six years of college.  Two thirds of those years are held by last night’s Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey, a graduate and unofficial roaming ambassador for the University of Texas at Austin.

So Jay and Greg, how long has it been since your eastern seaboard finishing schools for global technocrats graduates won a Best Actor Oscar?  That’s what I thought- SCOREBOARD! Don’t bother bringing up those Nobel Prizes because we all know those things are totally overrated.

McConaughey snapped this pick on his iPhone and whispered to himself “Eat your heart out Krugman!”

Matthew McConaughey has slowly but surely become a more accomplished Dean Martin of the early 21st Century. Whether he’s getting into minor incidents with the Austin police for playing a bongo or winning an Oscar, dude is having fun whether you are or not.  Keep it up MM and

BOOOOOOOOM!!!!


Pass the Popcorn: Do You Want to Be Awesome, or Loved?

February 18, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s a Pass the Popcorn so big, I couldn’t fit it onto JPGB. Head over to Hang Together for 3,300 words on The Lego Movie and Frozen, which offer the two great moral worldviews of our time.

If you haven’t seen The Lego Movie, go see it. It’s hilarious. The entertainment value is well worth your money. I expect that some of the pop culture gags in this movie will be referenced by nerds around their digital water coolers for some time to come. And the gags are almost all visual, so it’s going to be a lot funnier on the big screen than it will be in your living room.

Don’t go expecting deep wisdom, just go expecting a great time, and you’ll have one.

Now, to business. Do NOT read the rest of this article until after you’ve seen both The Lego Movie and Frozen (subject of my most recent Pass the Popcorn article over at JPGB). Major spoilers lie ahead…

The Lego Movie and Frozen are both examining what may well be the most important question facing our culture. They are not about the culture war as such, but they are about the core question of the meaning and purpose of human life that lies behind the culture war…

Your thoughts and feedback welcomed!


Pass the Popcorn: Frozen

February 13, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While there’s still time, go see Frozen while it’s still in theaters. The Pixar conquest of Disney has been an uneven battle up to now, but this move is an unqualified victory and it may turn the tide of the war. It’s a profound movie on many levels.

The most obvious lesson of Frozen – the one that’s made explicit in the movie – is that love is not about how you feel. It’s about putting other people’s needs ahead of your own. This by itself would make Frozen a profound inversion of the old Disney culture by the Pixar invaders. But Frozen not only makes this point, it traces some wide-ranging consequences. Such as: people invest too much importance in romantic love relative to other kinds of love. The responsible grown-ups who tell you not to burn down everything else in your life for the sake of “true love” (quote unquote) are not your enemies, they’re your friends. They’re the people who really love you.

When Enchanted subverted these same fairy-tale conventions – e.g. getting engaged to someone you just met – it was just going for laughs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of laughs in Frozen. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. But there are no laughs on this particular subject. Frozen is not subverting the Disney view of marriage for fun. Frozen is playing to win.

That alone would be enough to make Frozen an early contender for the most culturally regenerative movie of the year. But there’s more going on.

Under the surface, Frozen is dealing with two other subjects that are, if anything, even tougher for our culture. One is the corruption of human nature. It used to be that pretty much everyone agreed there was a systematic moral dysfunction in human nature. This is a teaching held by Christians in an especially strong form, of course, but it is by no means a peculiar Christian doctrine. Aristotle believed it, as did Kant. There is a whole song in Frozen about how nobody is what he ought to be: “Everybody’s a Bit of a Fixer-Upper.” While there are villains in Frozen who are willing to kill, the main threat to the heroine’s life comes from the selfish actions of a sympathetic character – someone who loves her. We are explicitly told at one point that the explanation is simple: everyone is like that.

This is, of course, related to the main message. It’s because other people are so disappointing that we prioritize our own feelings rather than other people’s needs. And it is because we are ourselves so disappointing that our lives fall apart when we prioritize our own feelings.

The other theme in Frozen, one buried even deeper, is the tension between social rules and individual freedom. Without giving too much away, I can say that Frozen is the movie Brave was trying to be, but couldn’t be. Brave was trying to deal with the fact that society needs rules, and individuals who are not well served by the rules need to learn to subordinate their own desires to the good of their neighbors as embodied in the rules; at the same time, social authorities need to recognize that the rules must accommodate the needs of individuals – including the needs of those unusual individuals who are not well served by the same rules that serve everyone else.

There was internal conflict over Brave at Disney, and it shows. Frozen pulls off the same angle brilliantly – better, perhaps, than Brave could have. Because in Frozen we are shown what happens to individuals who try to flee from society in order to escape its rules. They fall apart. Their lives become arbitrary and meaningless – and they learn to hate. “The cold never bothered me anyway” sings Queen Elsa as she builds an ice castle for herself at the top of a remote mountain, but she doesn’t realize how the cold is seeping into her heart.

We all need freedom, but we also need each other.


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