Capturing the Battle for the Soul of Gotham City

I’ve been holding off on writing about The Dark Knight for some time. It’s impact on American culture can hardly be overstated but for a long time it just felt too close to home to tackle head on. It wasn’t until I rewatched the old Tim Burton Batman of 1989 that it started to click. Heath Ledger’s Joker, while original and alluring (most of all for succeeding in capturing that ever sought after and highly profitable “zeitgeist”) is not that difficult to understand. When compared to Jack Nickolson’s Joker of 89, our new and more nerve-touching Joker is another beast entirely – even if many of his defining scenes are ripped right out of the old. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer attempt to put their version of Batman and the Joker in a real city and act out real contemporary political issues but, in spite of its resounding success, The Dark Knight is mired in War on Terror ideology and will remain frozen in that time. Their placement of Batman in a real world Gotham only diminishes his fantastic potential of visualizing and story-fying our unconscious desires.

Continue reading “Capturing the Battle for the Soul of Gotham City”

Don’t Get Schwifty, Raise Your Posterior

Of all the episodes of Rick and Morty that bend serious sci-fi to a casual comedic audience, ‘Get Schwifty’ sticks out the most. A giant head appears from the dark recesses of outer space and causes major geological disasters immediately before it issues one command to the people of earth: “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT.” The allusion to climate change is made immediately by a tv news reporter who is swiftly told to “not make this political.” The entire fate of the earth and its inhabitants now depends on showing the giant space heads, the Cromulons, what we got. It’s so simple and thrusts upon us so suddenly that there is no time to collectively discern how to react. The Cromulon heads are calling on us, demanding us to give them what they want.

Continue reading “Don’t Get Schwifty, Raise Your Posterior”

Starting Over with The Last Jedi

Here we go again, another Star Wars movie. After the reboot of the franchise in The Force Awakens took the safe route and essentially mimicked the original Star Wars episode IV, expectations were pretty low that The Last Jedi would give this next generation something sizable to chew on. When Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars brand it was safe to assume that the same tropes and themes would resurface in shiny new graphics, that they would give enough fan service to keep up with merchandizing profits, that they would sustain continuity between the generations. The fairy tale magic that George Lucas brought to the baby boomers was such a strong force in pop culture that it was bound to make a come-back and Star Wars probably will continue build on its universe in a time when its world is so well-entrenched in the mainstream consciousness. I still remember when my parents took me to see the 1990’s remakes of the original trilogy: it was a kind of inter-generational transference of pop-culture that (most importantly) brought families out to buy movie tickets of a movie they had already seem (many times I’m sure). After that success, Lucas Arts hit the accelerator on filming the prequels and turning this legendary trilogy into a billion dollar franchise that will seemingly never go away.

Continue reading “Starting Over with The Last Jedi”

The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era

It would be hard to overstate the impact that the Coen brother’s 1998 movie The Big Lebowski has had on contemporary pop culture. Social gatherings often fall into competitions for who can quote more lines from memory, cosplay for the movie’s characters is frequent, and twenty years after its release one can still find late-night screenings at the cinema packed with viewers. The fan base for The Big Lebowski has shown remarkable endurance and this may or may not be because of the points I will make in the following exposition, but shot throughout the film are references to the predicaments facing leftists in the post-Cold War period. Though the film is a patchwork of styles, genres, and character types often labeled ‘postmodern’ for being such a hodge-podge, but there are clues running through the story that allow for the viewer to put together an over-arching message – like a puzzle. With the shear amount of interest in and admiration for this movie, a large chunk of the population has a chance to learn about the perils of leftists political activity and the difficulty in maintaining it.

Continue reading “The Dude and the New Left in the Post-Cold War Era”

On Cowboy Bebop, part three

The final bounty that the Bebop crew sets after together tests the crew’s mettle like none other as they go after the leader of a cult. A man named Londis has been appearing on TV and convincing people to join his cyborg cult or “migration.” He has purportedly found a way to store someone’s brain activity – all of the electrical patterns in the brain and so the entire cognitive activity of a person – into data. Once your “soul” is digitalized and mapped into electron-silicon content instead of electron-neural content, you can then release that soul from the body and join the ethereal space of the internet. What if our minds or souls could escape the confines of our bodies and exist somewhere else? It’s an old thought experiment with a Cowboy Bebop twist: a figurehead has created a scandal by forming a cult around his new “technology” and is killing people with it. People get the word that they can leave their impure bodies behind and find ascetic bliss in the “other world” of the internet and they start committing suicide or otherwise going missing. The awakening that the SCRATCH movement preaches is that of the spirit transforming from the imperfect material world to the perfect world of spirit, via a new piece of technology whose powers people are unsure of. The old mind-body problem has taken on a new dimension with the new ability to store a massive amount of material data, and now people are becoming convinced that living in the internet can make their spirits immortal. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop, part three”

On Cowboy Bebop, part one

Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.

It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop, part one”

On Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.

It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop”

Fantasy Lives and Fantasie Signs

Our Fantasy Lives:
[http://youtu.be/TzlHdvoh0wQ]

It is this line starting at 3:05 that makes it worth pondering:
“A fantasy is often the best shape a wish can take.”

The rest of the video is one man’s personal fantasies of success and his ideal picture of himself. The end is a call to loosen-up our ideal images of ourselves and recognize that we all have fantasies. The narrative form of the video is a monologue that takes place inside the only character’s mind – a voice-over.

It is not enough that we acknowledge the fantasies of others or alter our fantasies to meet closer to the realities of *our* lives. The image of success that the character projects onto himself is that of a wealthy tech-businessman, an idea-generating politico, a celebrity, and a body without blemishes. These ideal images are desired not because of an individual’s aberrant thought wanderings but do to the surrounding composition of forces and dominant regimes of desire at work in human habitats. As Deleuze put it, we always desire in assemblages. [Deleuze A to Z]

A fantasy is an especially libidinous or desire-infused image that projects the limit of our thoughts onto a formed image. One never does this as ’one’ but as a body mixed with other bodies in an ever-more dizzying array of affectations and forces pushing and pulling in all manner of directions. Our desires and therefore our fantasies are not, strictly speaking, our own. “A fantasy is often the best shape a wish can take”, but a wish is also only a shape that desire can take. When individualized/personalized, the word ’fantasy’ draws a negative connotation: “Your dreams had better face up to reality you youthful idealist.” But everyone must admit that everyone else dreams as well (unless you are a solipsist), and we do so in strangely similar fashions… When taken as an adjective, something that is “fantastic” is not just good but extravagantly so.

When de-individualized, fantasy has become an entire genre and even an art style unto itself. Collective fantasies tend to take distinguishable patterns and those images of the past preserved in history as well as those today have no exemption from those patterns.  There is less to separate myths from fantasies than we think.  The demand for belief only obscures this.

A fantasy is a particularly intense form of desire, a desire that has taken form in a coherent image. A fantasy is not simply the opposite of reality – the way things really are.

Fantasie Sign:

Use this translation to follow along with the French lyrics if you do not understand it:

A walk
and the universe is me
After a cascade
It’s water is always you
an escapade
Life is in the woods
And then a ballad
It’s subject is always you
A walk
and the universe is me
After a cascade
It’s water is always you
It’s like the green of the fields and
Like a bird that flies
It’s always you
It’s always me
It’s always the rock of the excited soul
Like a child who sees
The time pass like a funny
It’s always you
It’s always me
On the wings and the songs of great love
It’s like the green of the fields and
Like a bird who flies
It’s always you
It’s always me
Always the rock of the excited soul
In this cybernetic era
Full of computer people
It’s the only fantasy here for always
It’s always me
It’s always you
Like the green of the fields and
like the bird that flies
It’s always you
it’s always me
It’s always the rock of the excited soul
Like the air it’s sweetly sharp
The blue of the sky is clearly apparent
It is the only fantasy here for always
It’s always you
It’s always me
For forever
and more days
and days
and days
It’s always you
and me
and you

*In full honesty, this was the first time I ever checked the translation of the lyrics for this song, while it had already come to be my favorite song in the great soundtrack to Cowboy Bebop without knowing them.

“Who Is Donald Draper?” – Updated

Don Draper was always a man in crisis. He held on to another man’s name as his fragile secret with which he was able to begin a life from scratch – a blank slate. The new identity was supposed to be a new start, the chance to be whoever he wanted to be and forget his troubled past, but it was never that easy. Don Draper is not just some empty name which we can filled up with our dreams for a life without all that “rough childhood” baggage, that is not why the character has been so fascinating to millions of Americans. Don Draper fascinates because he is able to take his own crises, his own truly frightened disposition as he teeters on the edge of breakdown into an understanding of the general sentiment of the population – his target audience. By living on the edge of secrecy and isolation, he can connect with the stranger and get a real sense for the desires of a decent sample of the population. His wit, ease, willingness to experiment, and observation skill allows him to probe people, learn from them their concerns, and make great art. Of course, that art is not art for the sheer pleasure of expression or taking sensation in new directions, but to channel that desire sweeping through the country into ends that satisfy the accounts (corporations) – getting people to buy their commodities. Don Draper is the great anonymous stranger, so mysterious and intriguing that you never feel like you can get to the bottom of him, wandering to wherever his fancy takes him as some seemingly wise traveling man of the world, collecting insights during his adventures but always coming back to the firm.

Not that he is necessarily infiltrating the masses consciously and strategically. His own life crises and urges toward flight seem genuine enough, but he also has to work, as nearly all of us do. Don Draper is the idealized businessman on the surface – handsome, practical, and articulate. His job is to reach the customer for the business clients he himself has helped win over; he has proven that he knows the customer and he can activate their desires to buy their products because he is better than any other at discovering what they want. He finds that desire by extracting himself from his contexts (becoming a new man each time) and hooking up with various other interesting individuals. But the individual that Don Draper is is a void, ready to take on whatever new form is needed to learn some new truth about people and assuage his angst. But instead of turning that intensity into existential art and improve himself, as he did for a time during his personal notebook phase in season 5, he tears that prospect up and turns toward the client.

His first known affair is with a young artist of the late 1950’s beat era, establishing himself in the contemporary pop-trends. When she turns to heroin a number of years later, he takes one of her artworks and contemplates it during a crisis at his advertising firm to make a bold strategic move. It is at this moment that he decides to tear up the diary and engage with his business issues more fully, in contemplation of an abstract painting fashioned out of the dark emotions of addiction.

The woman that he dates who is most similar to himself comes into his life at work. She is a psychologist who utilizes the ’focus group’ at an early era for the technique to extract from the participants a sort of group confessional. Her expertise are employed at Don’s advertising agency to extract consumer tendencies and reactions that help them more effectively target people. They made for a good team. She nails him when they break up: “… you only like the beginning of things.” It seemed as if he was taking a life-changing turn, being less engaged with his work at the office, exercising frequently, and acting less impulsively. But that doesn’t last long and his thoughts are recaptured by reestablishing his agency as a major force in the world of advertising. Don Draper must only experiment with different modes of living, affairs with women, and the various persons of interest he befriends. His flashes of inspiration and drifting desires always find their way back to his true home: the corporation on Madison Avenue.

His ad agencies takes on different names as the show progresses, depending on the partners that come to own it, with his name eventually reaching on the wall. After they merge with another agency to be more competitive, they have a hilarious conundrum of how to name a business composed of seven partners. “The business side of life” is always fought with shifting pressures from both the outside and in, which sets up a perfect complement to the other side of the show: the domestic family. Don Draper goes through two divorces and maintains a fairly amicable relationship with the family of the man whose name he stole. The image of the happy family that is perpetuated in the advertising strategies of American advertising in the fifties and early sixties gets upturned in the later part of the series, especially in the campaign they pioneer with the Burger-chef episode. Here Don defers to his protégé Peggy when her research shows that the family is torn up by the supposedly tranquil place of the house.  Peggy instead chooses to shoot their commercial inside of the store – selling it as a release from the chaotic place where conviviality is barely held together and into ’another place’ where the family can regain their sense of coherence. The image of the family moves from the dinning table to the fast-food restraint booth.  Both the firm and the family undergo turbulent transformation throughout Mad Men, where the roles are almost always up for grabs.

At one point the agency opens up a branch in California, but after Don draper takes one of his vanishing-act “vacations” that double as quasi-reconnaissance missions. He let’s his desires pull him towards the same place to where a cultural shift is taking place in America: the California coast where young people are flocking to in the mid-to-late sixties. It’s this experience floating around L.A. that allows him to woo a defiant client later on by saying approximately this (left resonating in my head for many years afterward – quoted from memory):

Draper: “A number of people understand this but few can actually implement it, if you do not like what is being said, simply change the conversation.”
Client: “And what is that conversation?”
Draper: “I’ve been to California. Everything is new there, people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay, but with Madison Square Garden it can be a bright and shining new future.
Client: “Just like that, it’s that simple?”

It was Don Drapers little flight of fancy that gave him the courage to speak like this to a powerful person and win him over to his side. It wasn’t so much any particular epiphany that he had that allowed him to discern what it was about California that made it such an attractive place, he was just following his desires and linking himself up with the general movement of the activated population of young and edgy hipsters. He can detect the tendencies of the target audience – the amorphous persuasions of the movers and shakers of the cultural atmosphere. He can only do this by getting lost somewhere else, evading his identity, and following his impulses. When falling in with a bunch of jet-setter Europeans in California, he says very little at all and merely rides along.

It shouldn’t have been surprising that Don Draper ended up back in California with the only member left of the old Draper family (before he stole the name): a young woman to which he is like an uncle. Together they go to a hippy-communal retreat where much of the sentiments of the time are typified. She leaves him there after she has a crisis about an abandoned child (a common motif throughout the series), which is symbolic of the fracturing of the family at the time while highlighting the difficult choices that women face in gaining more freedom outside of their role in house. Adam Kotsko has a great articulation of this thought on the shifts in reproduction and elite power here [As Good as It Gets: Mad Men and Neoliberalism]. When she is gone, Don Draper goes into crisis mode, becoming totally despondent by the only pay-phone of the secluded retreat and looking like the spitting image of a scared runaway child. He calls back to his home (the agency office) to talk to his Peggy, who tells him: “Don, you can come home…[They’ll] take you back in a second… Don, come home… I don’t think you shouldn’t be alone.” He responds: “I’m in a crowd, I just wanted to hear your voice.” and before that: “I only called because I… I realized I never said goodbye to you.” The scene just reeks of a runaway boy calling home to his family as the feeling of loss and vulnerability crept in. It fits in properly to have a gushy love scene for two soon-to-be engaged office coworkers.

At the hippy-retreat, we constantly hear the refrain “how do you feel?” or “how does that make you feel?” or some other such enticement to express your inner thoughts to the rest of the group. Everyone there is more-or-less lost and seeking some kind of therapy beyond the psychiatric methods of healing that wrecked so much havoc on the bodies of “troubled” “hysterics”, and “deviants”. The psychoanalytic methods deployed on Don Draper’s first wife Betty demonstrate such techniques in the earlier seasons of the series. She would lie alone and talk while the psychiatrist would take notes – and describe his conclusions on the phone to her husband. As objects isolated and analyzed by a scientific procedure, patients cannot be faulted for seeking alternatives for care. The dominant formation of the family model was there at the start and all throughout the psychoanalytic discipline, and the individuals congregating at the California coast retreat are searching for another way. But they are not enacting some alternative mode of living altogether (as was once depicted when Roger went to attempt an abduction of his daughter from a commune [Mad Men’s Commune] – another instance of a mother abandoning her child in Mad Men), instead they are all strangers gathering for some healing in confessional-therapy sessions of the collective kind. This is where Don Draper thrives, but he must go through his dark period first to get his artistic pay-off. Right before his breakdown by the phone, he remarks to an attendant in frustration, “everyone just comes and goes as they please and no one says goodbye?” It’s as if any real attachment that one may find in a family setting or elsewhere cannot be found here.

Here at the California retreat is where everyone must feel their most open and vulnerable, yet also encouraged by others to and expecting themselves to express their deepest feelings openly and gain some peace and tranquility. Stuck here for a few days is where Don Draper will excel. A woman comes up to him seeing that he is lost and implores him to come to her therapy session, with her stated reason being “I’m late and I don’t want to go in alone.” There, Don Draper is jostled from utter fright and listlessness into passion and direction by one average man’s self-reflection. The man is constantly worried that his family doesn’t love him, but he understands at the same time that “they’re trying” – he just “can’t see what it is.” He says this twice. “I just don’t know what it is.” How does one find that human connectivity, that true bond people always seem to long for in the relationship, that spark in-between we call love?

The man then gives us a dream-image of himself as a food jar on the shelf of a house cupboard in a kitchen, which isn’t picked by his family to eat. In this image, the man is seeking love as the product seeks to be consumed.

The love we feel with a friend or with our family can feel right and true, but it can also feel lacking and for good reasons. The oft-spoken of disintegration of the traditional family that happened during the time-period of Mad Men is a real disruption of a form that survived and reproduced itself by-and-large through conservative means. The rituals and repetitions that solidified that formation took a major hit with advent of new technologies that bursted into the fore with the speed of electricity that flew through them: television, the billboard, the internet and computer all assert themselves into our home lives with a glut of new images and styles. They are suddenly present and demanding your attention, tugging your desires to meet their ends.

Donald Draper is there to fill the void left in the family, a void that he and his like have helped create in their clinical dissection of the desires of the masses. He does this not as the returner of good-old values (far from the case) but as an above average man that learns from his crises – a trait one would find admirable if not for the purposes to which that education is made to serve. His bro-hug with the average man comes off as self-serving and unequal: Don Draper is not overlooked, he is very much desirable, and he is very interesting. He isn’t really commiserating or sympathetic to him. He seems to be saying something more like: “congratulations on such great self-expression. I needed to be reminded of what ordinary people are feeling, for I have been lost.” He is now ready to become new again, “a new day, new ideas, a new you” the guru says, as Don Draper has become many times already. And then the commercial kicks in:

“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love… And it’s the real thing, what the world wants today. And it’s the real thing…”

There is no doubt that this was a Don Draper commercial.  He has found it again.  The direction of the population, the desire of the youth, the new ways people are formulating for relating to each other: he has found a way to insert the commodity in them.

If it doesn’t make you furious, or at least irked in a mysterious way, then you have missed the point of Mad Men.

The Century of the Self

——-

Well it turns out, according to series creator and writer/director of many episodes including the finale Matt Weiner, you are not missing the point of Mad Men by being angry.  He wanted to end on a good note: [Matt Weiner Interview on the Mad Men Finale]

Fictional characters take on a life of their own however.  It is strange for me to say that Matt Weiner doesn’t understand his own character – one that he has crafted over many years – but my interpretation of Don Draper as a man who uses his own crises to target the desires of the population and better sell things to them holds up.  Don Draper, like his creator himself, doesn’t understand what ad-men like he have done to the world.  It’s not that the Don Drapers of the world were bad people, they are terribly intriguing and get a great deal out of their expressive capabilities.  They can change your life for the better with some profound advice.

No matter how much an artist puts into his artwork, he doesn’t get the final say on it. Both Weiner and Draper don’t know what their work is doing to people.  The call for empathy and an end to the cynical disposition of commentators on Mad Men by Weiner is as naive as the hippies that who pop up in the show every so often.  One’s life is far more pleasant without advertisements and the mad rush for consumer items they inspire.  Don Draper is the creative kernel and pretty face of the most far-reaching mechanism of control ever brought down upon the population.