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Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie Review: The Road and Book of Eli

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for these movies

These two movies depict a future America a state phrased by survivalblog.com as TETWAWKI, The End of the World as We Know it.

I was struck by the dreary, stunning yet foreboding imagery of The Road. The Road stars Viggo Mortensen, who reduces his weight precipitously to play the role. He escorts his son along a road to some hopefully better place.

In one scene, Mortensen's character swims out into the sea to scavenge a cracked up old rusty freighter. The blue-gray (always gray) waters are rough, surprisingly so for a completely naked Mortensen to swim to in a real world way. His low body weight must've made the scene hard to shoot, and dangerous.

We're not exactly sure what's caused the apocalyptic North America in The Road. Earthquakes and forest fires create a scorched out landscape, which is caught in Director John Hillcoat's cameras as a gray, soggy existence. Food isn't found; nothing is growing, nothing alive at least. (A beetle emerges in a later scene, an indicator that perhaps the Earth is recovering.) The only breathing things appear to be the humans themselves, who are scurrying around the wasteland looking to feed on anything whose path they cross.

As the pair go down the road to some undefined location, they encounter all sorts of unpleasantries--foremost among them, cannibalism. Starvation on an epic scale justifies the smorgasbord of human flesh.

In The Road, a heavily disguised Robers Duvall plays a small role as an almost Kurosawa-type/Taoist old-man-walking-alone role. Blind, of course, Duvall's character can see into the past and future like some itinerant sage. He represents both what the world was, and what it will be. I guess Mortensen and his son are striving to escape Duvall's fate but need to embrace the old man, to learn from the past mistakes of humankind, to not go back, or along The road. They leave it and its many dangers soon after.

In Denzel Washington's Book of Eli, America is a far different kind of place, though in both movies, cannibalism and lawlessness rule, although Gary Oldman, playing the evil Carnegie, does organize a town providing water, security, and barter.

Barter becomes the chief means of trading, just like we saw in Mel Gibson's Mad Max series, which has become the granddaddy of this expanding genre. The first stage in all these dystopia/post-apocalyptic movies is a breakdown of order--what I call Mad Max Level One--then the rise of gangs, graduating through to reestablishment of order, the rebirth of small towns like the aptly named Bartertown. In Eli, Carnegie takes the place of Tina Turner's Aunty Entity ruling over his private domain.

Eli's style contrasts with Mortensen's. Eli is a hardy adventurer-turned-crusader/guardian of The Book. At some previous point, Eli had received a message from the Holy Spirit that he was to take the Holy Book to the west, and his enemies would part before him, or something like that, clearing the route for Eli down the road to salvation and rebirth.

An atmosphere of fear plagues The Road, while Denzel rises above it like some superhero invulnerable to the many evildoers plaguing the post-apocalyptic world. Mortensen is anything but the hero, hiding and scampering and only reluctantly killing. He retains his humanity--perhaps because of his son--even as he slowly dies from injury and starvation. Eli never dips below his moral principles, which have come to him in a supernatural (believers would call it "divinely inspired") way.

Mortensen's character seems more possessed with simple survival, scampering away even from a stocked shelter out of fear when he hears scampering above. Which survival methodology is more probable? Well, Mortensen's is realistic, while Denzel's is pure Hollywood.

I was struck by similarities in The Book of Eli's world and the popular computer game series Fallout. Both have nuclear war as the force majeure causing TETWAWKI. In scorched out flatlands we see craters caused by nuclear warheads pockmarking the ground.

Radiation doesn't seem to plague the survivors much in Denzel's world, which is one where the Holy Bible has becomes a much-treasured item sought by Oldman's dark hero Carnegie to control minds and exert power. The Bible, you see, is blamed for much of the destruction, and every last copy burned by survivors of the Holocaust. Implausible though it might seem, the Bible that Eli (Denzel) carries is the last in the world. {Personally I found this premise unlikely considering 1), the number of Bibles in use today, and 2) the value of the Bible as a source of spiritual strength, which would be more in demand after than before the apocalypse.}

The Road is scary because we don't know how much time passes between the beginning of the crisis, which begins softly, as Mortensen draws the blinds against a nighttime sky lit red with fire, and the time he and his son leave on the road. In The Book of Eli, a whole new generation comes of age, referring to Eli and Carnegie as "old timers," who are a shrinking group.

The Road makes the impending trip a scary but unavoidable tragedy-simply for lack of food they must travel the dangerous road. Some time into the calamity, the wife of the man--we don't learn the name of Mortensen's character, nor hers--played by the beautiful Charlize Theron can't handle the gloom and wanders off into it.

The Road is the darker of the two. You leave the film in a bit of a downer. I guess it's the cannibalism, or to be more accurate, the dark symbolic imagery of cannibalism, the skulls on stakes here, the human captives locked in the basement, the cold callousness of tortured calls felt as much as heard when Mortensen and his son wait out in the dark, nearly becoming captives themselves.

It hit me after the film that it's cannibalism rising in such a world that bothers you. In Book of Eli, cannibalism is brought up slyly, with dark humor: a couple invites Eli and Solara into their house, serving them tea in a shaking-like-a-leaf-if-there-were-any- left way, which is apparently a symptom of some disease I'd never heard of before where you eat too much lean, red meat. I guess if the cannibals could only devour hungry humans, their meal items would likely be starving as well as provide a food source lacking much fat.

In the Book of Eli, Eli is checked for shaking hands by a guard at the entrance to Carnegie's town, demonstrating that cannibalism was reviled even by the robbers and rapists who frequented the town. In this regard, Hughes' world reconciles itself to ours a little more; the instincts of the townspeople are still humanist at their core, despite all the inherent post-apocalyspe divisiveness and individualist nature of survivalism.

Hope, the greatest treasure

If the sole purpose of these movies were to warn, they'd have done that excellently, at perhaps the price of a depressive experience for the reader/viewer. Instead Hillcoat and Eli's Hughes push a ray of optimism into the inherently dark backdrop--if not for the characters trudging through the wasteland, then their offspring and followers (in the case of Book of Eli, it's the pretty yet overly-self-confident-for-such-a-time-and-place Solara, played by Mila Kunis.)

Both movies do cradle hope at their core.Like any dystopia movies, expressed vividly are the uglinesses of the post-apocalyptic world. More subtle, yet beckoning, are the little glimpses into a future less stained by violence and destruction, a world where reconciliation is possible.

In The Book of Eli, the Bible ends up getting delivered to Alcatraz Island, where a small but committed team of re-constructionists attempt to assemble the knowledge lost from the pre-apocalyptic world. It's an effort at re-humanization we can all appreciate.

I saw on a Discovery special not too long ago about what would happen during times of starvation. Apparently people have been documented traveling vast distances as they starve. Often spiritual leaders arise who promise to lead "their people" to a "promised land." We know also that extreme hunger can cause delirium, hallucinations, and the like. So the notion of a long-distance march may be quite plausible in a dystopic environment, especially one driven by mystical or religious experience.

Some inner motor must lead us on, blindly during these times of starvation. In that sense the Exodus-like wanderings are a demonstration of faith, the inner experience of belief in hope. Instead of confined to the spiritual world, our physical longings are brought to reality through the unifying event, the Apocalypse, and all the woes it spawns--including of course hope in the infallibility of Nature and faith in our fellow man.

Dark future fantasies

I've always been a fan of movies like The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. In that movie, Heston is the sole surviving human immune from a virus, at least he thinks so until discovering others like him. One aspect of these kinds of movies are the circumstances under which these scenarios which could occur, and how the concordant dystopia would unfold, or society unravel: "how did we get there." We think of these thinks mostly to prevent them, I guess, or perhaps better cope with them should they happen, though how someone will react is anyone's guess.

Trying to determine a time that TETWAWKI occurs has become can be a bit of a challenge. I guess when law and order break down, and laws can no longer be enforced, we've entered Mad Max Level One. Gangs will rise in such an environment. Interestingly, we don't need an apocalypse to cause TETWAWKI; nor do we need a nuclear winter nor zombie/vampire takeover to start the dystopia ball rolling. TETWAWKI is a subjective experience: a child leaving their home could mean and an end to all their expectation of the world outside--if it's limited to that. We've had plenty hells on earth; they need not require much space at all--heck a serial killer's basement could provide the setting.

Once started, the dystopia ball gets rolling, and further acts of depravity increase as civilization breaks down. This is the lesson of both movies, the dark specter of fear that colors the stories in each. We cringe at the the thought of losing what we hold dear: it's a threatening notion that strikes us on a personal level. It's not so much the actual apocalypse that gets us, and provides a compelling story line, but the shocking realities that ensue. We enter these movies not as voluntary Mary Poppins-style wanderers down the Yellow Brick Road of endless smiles but instead are pulled, dragged...unwilling prisoners to the dark side of our nature.

The idea of dystopia makes for good entertainment precisely because we want to see--deep down inside of some repressed part of ourselves--Nature exact some vengeance. George Carlin sums it upped magnificently in his video clip (from 3m15sec on), Saving the Planet as well as in his HBO special, Life Worth Losing, unavailable on youtube at the moment. People are drawn to natural disasters because they want to experience their mortality, or to contradict the arrogant notion that people are masters of their universe. Floods and calamities are Nature's way of getting back, or so Carlin iterated.

Deep down inside, we may all dread yet almost expect calamity to strike. Disaster films have grown more popular with scenarios of global warming, asteroid collisions, and similar issues, some of which humanity can endure. It's the purpose of a movie to entertain, so rare it is to see a movie where all the humans die off...I can't think of any titles. The Road comes close to killing all hope as you develop a personal attachment to the survivors. It's hard to wish anyone dead, but dying is a typical condition in a post-apocalyptic world. The movie 2012, which I saw recently as well, echoes the theme of worldwide calamity, yet even there Africa survives even if America doesn't.

The 70s saw a jolt of these movies: Airport7_, The Poseidon Adventure, etc. (see a list of here, about halfway down.) The idea of getting wiped out en masse has been central to entertainment for some time.

Perhaps there's some auto-response in our brains that let's us accept death, should it come through some wild event affecting us all simultaneously. Maybe the shock of the attack releases a surge of serotinin or some naturally biological response takes over, kind of like what's thought to happen to animals killed and eaten alive on the African savannah. Observing these victims in their death throes, the animals often seem quite docile despite what must be an immense desire to flail and kick.

Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) References:

The Book of Eli

The Road

The Omega Man

Complete synopses for the movies are available at all links.


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Monday, August 02, 2010

Myths and lies guide U.S. policies

We're seeing the culmination of BP's Gulf oil spill PR campaign. In the mainstream press, the event has been characterized as "winding down." Surface oil has become harder to see, or so they report. Also, the media consensus--not entirely supported in fact--is that the oil no longer poses the threat it did. Fishing grounds have been reopened.

The other looming issue is whether the well can be closed. BP has been saying that the wellhead has been secured, but other leaks and seepage in the area raise doubts whether the well--and not just the wellhead--is really sealed. This week a "Top Kill" effort to inject cement and mud from above and below (through the relief well) will occur.

The use of toxic dispersants is the real backstory the media doesn't want you to hear about. The dispersants have created a new problem: airborne oil. The oil is in tiny globules which can be lifted into the rain clouds that form over sea, which then blow inland and deposit the oil, along with whatever chemicals and fumes are associated with the spill.

We'll see, unreported in the mainstream media naturally, reports of acidic, strange-smelling rain, of chemical burns in vegetation, as well as a telltale oil sheen in the rainwater as it flows into gutters. The scope of contamination could move quite far north. Whatever the chemical composition of the rain, it's safe to say it's something people want to avoid.

We've traded one problem, the oil, for a couple more: surface oil for more sub-surface oil PLUS the dispersants. BP's logic for using dispersants has been clear from the beginning: to hide the scale of the disaster by eliminating as much surface oil as possible.

BP has sought to avoid transparency in regard to how much oil it's collected from the leaking well so it'd be keeping with the trend to oversell the well's possible closure, while claiming the amount of oil at the surface--and hence below as well--are dissipating.

The PR perception game limits public admission of realities that contradict BP's "it's over" theme. BP seeks to claim "it's over" as a way to limit its ongoing responsibilities in the matter. The media will simply echo what BP and the Coast Guard say, enshrining the company's PR with government-granted credibility.

Denying victims their legal rights

On the legal front, BP is demanding that those who receive compensation from BP sign away their right to sue. We saw this before in the management of compensation for the families of 9/11 victims. New York attorney Feinberg managed both BP's and Fedgov's system of 9/11 payouts. He's got experience in damage control which is likely why he was chosen.

If BP's $20 billion is handled anything like compensation for 9/11 first responders, we're in trouble. Recently a bill compensating first responders was killed, enraging Congressman Weiner of Brooklyn on the House floor. Weiner rightfully berated Congressman King of New York for his non-support of the bill offering payments for the responders, many of whom have died as a direct result of their intervention into the asbestos-laden smoke of the fallen towers in the first hours after the calamity. See the video at HuffPo.

Not paying the sick responders is truly callous. Fedgov views us "small people" as expendable and our legal rights as dispensable. Our government has become so tolerant of corporate polluters (and their lobbyists) that oversight and punishment are mild, even for as egregious and criminal a spill as the Deepwater Horizon, or Massey Energy's coal mine explosion.

Without the ability to hold BP to account through the Courts, it's unlikely the victims will ever receive their just due. Already Feinberg has told all the fisherman and boaters who've helped lay boom that whatever pay they'd receive would be deducted from any cash awarded them by BP.

Let me get this straight. BP, by its negligence, eliminates an entire way of life for thousands along the Gulf, spews toxins into the Gulf air, destroys vast reaches of key spawning habitat, and the survivors and responders are forced to sign away their right to sue? How convenient for BP. Is it just? No more than it would be for a criminal to control how much restitution he's willing to make, whatever the extent of damages to the victim. This Feinberg-administered fund looks like a pre-emptive maneuver on BP's behalf more than a real effort at restitution although it will likely be framed as one.

US on a path to fascism

It's worth noting that extralegal exceptions and preferential legal treatment are typical of fascist systems through which corporations gain undue control over the legal system. The best examples are probably South American juntas from the 70s, where an elite ruling class cavorts with corporate cronies, and foregoes unpleasant and unprofitable inconveniences like victim rights and pollution controls. Such a system is great for those in power, and certain favored business interests but not so great for the little people.

How similar is our new system from a fascist one? Not that far divorced in my opinion. As long as corporate money controls the elections, and the corporate media keeps the public uninformed, and gullible, the subversion of our democracy, which requires an informed and participating public, will continue. Until the people see it as their responsibility to control their government, they will likely be controlled by it, and face higher taxes, longer wars, more police state tactics, and repression.

Rather than see our democracy as a fait accompli in our country we need to see it as a work in progress. Mary Parker Follett explains:
"Democracy is not a goal, it is a path; it is not attainment, but a process ... When we grasp this and begin to live democracy, then only shall we have democracy."

The presumption that we've attained democracy that we don't need to question authority is a highly dangerous proposition. Jefferson admonished us to stay "eternally vigilant" as the price of democracy; Franklin said we'd have "a republic if we can keep it." No one wants to imagine American democracy as broken down and in need of repair yet I've warned of this, particularly since 9-11 and the rise of the National Security State, a bureacracy inherently incompatible with American democracy (our form of government may be alien or lost history to many Americans.)

Maybe we've never had as pure a form of representative democracy as we think. There have periods in the American past where a Gilded Age of robber barons and industrialists set policies. Yet a big difference between then and now is global competitiveness. Carnegie and J.P. Morgan came from the Industrial Age, where American industry dominated. Producing real things meant real exports, and a rising standard of living for all tiers of Americans, except perhaps the rural poor. It's the Chinese who are now industrializing and grow their middle class.

In contrast, the American economy of our time suffers from too much debt, and foreign competition. Now free trade has been sold to the public as a good thing since the days of the neoliberal Clinton, but it hasn't been fair. Labor rights and environmental protections have been so weakened in nations thought to be reliable trading partners like Columbia, where labor organizers were murdered on the shop floor of a Coca Cola distributing plant.

Meanwhile, here in the US, Coca Cola is treated as a venerable, benevolent icon, so revered it's even got its own CNBC special. No one mentions the effect of Coca Cola's rabid theft of ground water in India, a problem so severe it's led farmers to commit suicide as their crops failed for lack of water.

Unfairness is at the center of our trade policy because those in power look the other way. Presuming that corruption exists here in America is a healthy exercise. Dissent has been curtailed despite its valuable role in keeping the powerful in check, and encouraging the media to be more aggressive. Common sense dissipates in the face of militarism, patriotism, and hysteria.

Mass media, pied piper to the willfully ignorant

The media has played a big role in the failure of our democracy. Myths that emerge out of the media echo chamber fall on unquestioning ears. People hear what they want to hear.

We now know how hard it has been for our government to turn off the hate and propaganda. We're being lied to on a daily basis. The American people may have their suspicions about why we're fighting, and the chances of success, but they're reticent to share them openly, lest they be considered unpatriotic. Real qualified thought--facts, the truth--have been sacrificed so people don't have to question their faith in our government and the wars it wages.

The Wikileaks reports provide plenty of reasons to explain why our government lies all the time. Crystal clear it is that the way we're conducting ourselves makes extracting ourselves from Afghanistan nearly impossible. Few people seem willing to accept that our policies have intentionally led us into a quagmire. Then again, who wakes up and likes to question all their assumptions? Most people want life as simple as possible and Americans, judging from their lack of knowledge about geography and world events, can't possibly decide what's the best course of action to take. They've been fed the lie that we can win, that victory is inevitable against the enemy. All the while the real enemy--those that participated in and enabled 9/11--lies in our midst, claiming to know how best to respond to the event.

We can't distinguish between the Taliban and alQaeda because we've been told to believe the two are the same while in fact al Qaeda is a construct of the Western intelligence agencies, a leftover of Charlie WIlson's War. The Taliban are simply fundamentalists who want to be left alone. Now they may be into some evil crap but that's no reason alone to enter into permanent war with them.

The truth has had a hard time gathering enough supporters to lead to any meaningful change in policies, whether in trade, financial regulation, or land wars in Asia. On that last one, didn't we learn our lesson in Vietnam? Americans want to believe that we can win; I smirk at the idea of trying to destroy the Taliban. Why? We simply can't. And there's the troubling inconsistency that twice the Taliban offered Osama bin Laden to the CIA. Both times the US failed to act. Negligence? Perhaps...or an agenda to keep the boogeyman alive. The periodically released tapes said to be the work of bin Laden are little more than feeble efforts to keep Americans scared, where they can be more easily manipulated by our leadership, and less likely to question the official explanation for 9/11, the ultimate rationale for fighting open-ended land wars in Asia without clear exit goals.

9/11 response based on myths and lies

9/11 really did open the floodgates to Hell. The desire to exact revenge has missed the fundamental point, which was who really did 9/11, and why? As I've said in the past, I don't accept the Official Explanation, if for no other reason than the duration of the fires under the WTC buildings. I guess whatever my reasons for skepticism, they've in no way been weakened over the years. And like other 9/11 truthers, I feel increasingly isolated from the official narrative which has us continuing to occupy Afghanistan for their presumed connection to al Qaeda, despite the fact none of the hijackers were Afghans, nor were the plans designed there (in Hamburg) nor did they train there for the attacks (here instead.)

I could provide citations for all the reasons I disbelieve in the O.E., but before any case is made, it's vital to see how 9/11 has shaped American foreign policy.

The desired outcome has been to engage the US in long-term military actions against Israel's enemies, designed according to a 1996 plan called Clean Break.

Whatever your belief on 9/11, who did, or why, it's clear the US has been sucked into a war based on a weak justification, cherry-picked by intelligence contractors to fit the policy (to invade). So should we now be so surprised that our cause is lame, and progress so elusive? I mean if we'd found the real hijackers and bombers, wouldn't we--the mightiest country on the face of the planet--have been able to prosecute someone more significant that Osama's limo driver?

I mean I guess I'm not the only one who feels that the failure to try the terrorists who allegedly attacked us means that perhaps they didn't really do it? I mean all that torture did was to force the apprehended to talk, like the Gestapo. Now of course there are a plethora of excuses given why we haven't prosecuted the terrorists, but none of these explain how the premise for the 9/11 reaction--that acting alone, al Qaeda did it--could be wrong, set up to convince Americans of something that isn't true.

In the eyes of the elites governing this country, 9-11 is over--perhaps not too different from the way the BP spill is over, or the financial crisis is over. Just how stupid are the American people? I guess those in power are counting on the ignorance of the population, or its blind fury, or its ignorance, or its willingness to believe unquestioningly what our leaders say.

I'm not as easily swayed by the popularity of our response to 9/11. The reason for my disbelief is the wholly inadequate explanation given the nation for the attacks. Far too much about them is simply assumed, taken for granted for no other reason than that our government and the media tell us so. And the other red flag should be how the War Party has taken over and killed our budget. I can't believe that so much money directed into such unproductive uses happened spontaneously post-9/11. The goal of filling the coffers of the Military Industrial Complex is simply too large a potential motive to take off the table.

We need to understand that our occupation can't end without addressing 9/11. As long as we don't know who was really behind the attacks, our reaction will be misguided and inherently ineffectual. Meanwhile the main beneficiaries of our 9/11 response are the corporations serving the military (and receiving 40% of the Pentagon's now-$1 trillion budget), and Israel. We the American people pay the price or, to be more accurate, leave the debt to generation unborn. Responsibility just isn't guiding what we do anymore; we're simply adrift. So when our anti-teror policies seem incapable of stopping terrorists, and those involved in 9/11 aren't brought to justice, the situation will only worsen.

We've become our own worst enemy by blithely assuming everything the media and Fedgov tells us are the truth. We can't break this passivity, it would seem; it'll probably take some form of collapse--likely economic--to force Americans out of their slumber. Many are afraid-of this there can be no doubt. Yet very few are willing to consider that their future quality of life is being undermined by endless occupations overseas, and the conversion of the Treasury into a dispensary of corporate aid. I mean who wants to wake up and assume that our nation could be so foolish and gullible? The far easier course is to believe that the Afghan war is just, and that Americans fighting there are on the side of the good guys, despite easily obtained facts that would indicate the opposite.

Everyone seems so preoccupied with trying to survive that few bother to care. The conflicts and crises that seem to be emerging more and more often perhaps aren't simple coincidences: the fact is we're not doing what's right, and having problems "winning" over there. Now if we knew who'd really participated in 9/11, the American people might turn elsewhere, and look for answers to unanswered questions rather than assuming that our response is adequate and just.

I'll make this prediction: for as long as the United States fails to address what really happened on 9/11, we'll have an ongoing state of decline. The obvious signs are economic, which in turn come from the specter of higher taxes to pay for wars without end, and a growing surveillance society that needs enemies both internal and external to justify the bloated bureaucracy. The decline is more than materialistic: I think we're suffering from a corruption of the moral fabric that unites our country. I don't think we'll have a civil war, but there exists the possibility that we could have a breakdown in our energy grid, power shortage, or some major environmental catastrophe which so overwhelms Fedgov that Americans realize they really are on their own. Or, instead of some big bang it's possible that the US could rumble forward purely on its own momentum, even as our infrastructure decays, taxes rise, public services decline, and more and more become poor and dependent on government handouts.

In a situation where the need for change is paramount, pretending nothing's wrong is far worse than absorbing the shocks necessary to illustrate that change is necessary. Now as long as we're ignoring our recent past, and content to continue our wars without end, it's likely that policymakers will abuse our blind trust and cause even more problems for the little people. Some victims may come to realize that their situation is not the product of random incidents but rather than inevitable and much deserved recompense for abandoning reason and the facts in favor of hate and militarism.


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