Projecting an artificial world
American cinema's images of artificial reality leave no space for socio-cultural negotiation. This not only warps an American's view of other countries but also the way the world looks at the United States, writes AJIT DUARA.
Human attachment to artificial reality... "Terminator" and "Matrix"
WHAT spooks Americans about 9/11 is not so much the terrorist attack but the spectacular visuals on television. Ironically, from strikes to collapse of the twin towers, the duration was about 90 minutes, the length of an average Hollywood movie of the "Terminator" kind. The balance of space and time is the art of the cinema; inevitably, a parallel with the action film genre enters the sub-conscious and creates a "spook effect" from which it is difficult to recover.
It is well documented that social and cultural relations, including the uniformity of the American accent in spoken English, has been dictated by mass media, particularly film and television. It stands to reason that the themes and presentation of Hollywood, in regard to the "superiority" of the American way of life, has an equal influence on a corporate salesman as it does on a soldier patrolling the outskirts of Baghdad. Naturally, this makes interpersonal relations, especially with societies unexposed to the advantages of the American lifestyle, a little difficult.
The corporate executive sells his wares with no thought of how an advertising barrage on the product might upset the sense and sensibility of people not entirely convinced about the benefits of rampant consumerism, while the soldier is unable to connect with notions of tradition and custom and cannot understand how frisking men and women for weapons in Iraq and using sniffer dogs to help them, is an assault on an ancient civilisation.
To him this is "security procedure" for safe and efficient living in a land under military occupation in the manner that Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 3" might destroy a few vehicles, bodily pick up people and put them in vans, all the while explaining in a charming Austrian accent that it is for reasons of their security.
The nonsensical content of the film is not as disturbing as is the use of technology of war to perpetrate acts of violence far in excess of requirement. This makes the action spectacular but does not, logically or necessarily, make it effective, in relation to the plot of the movie.
Unable to connect with notions of tradition and custom... American soldiers in Iraq.
Aesthetically, the film becomes mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is like the bombing of defenceless Afghan villages for weeks on end in order to target one Bin Laden spectacularly ineffective for its specific purpose, but assuaging the need for problem solving in the artificial reality of popular American consciousness.
When lifestyle becomes a substitute for culture, the inanimate takes on a life of its own. Cars, computers and mobile phones become social attachments extending their functional properties to areas for which they were not designed. We are social animals by evolutionary programming, and if the post modern world has fractured our family and personal interaction with one another, we attach ourselves to the inanimate in the manner that an insecure child might hold on to a teddy bear or an Orson Welles in "Citizen Kane" might hang on to the memory of "Rosebud", a sled from his childhood.
Hollywood action cinema reinforces this sense of human attachment to artificial reality and almost all the major productions and their sequels "Matrix", "Men in Black", "Bad Boys", "Robocop", "Terminator" reflect this. Add to this, many similar shows on television, Internet sites and video games and what you have is a cyberspace within the human head, which closely resembles a cipher space. Culture, the ideology with which we negotiate with each other for political space and social stability, is completely out of the equation.
When a Frenchman deals with an Iraqi, for example, subconsciously he brings into play all the social and cultural traditions that he has grown up with in France, hoping to find a thread of commonality in human experience with the Iraqi. Once he has achieved that, he can renegotiate for space in other areas. Similarly, the elaborate and complex class structure of English society makes it relatively easier for the British to juggle for political space with Indians. We understand each other.
But the poor American has virtually no one on the planet with whom to share cultural space. His major product of interpersonal relation, successfully exported to the world market, is the Hollywood action film. So what is the icebreaking subject of discussion to be the merits of "Terminator 3" versus "Charlie's Angels"? Yes, "Charlie's Angels" certainly brings women into the equation, always important in the juggle for global entertainment space. All action in the film is artificially slowed down and exaggerated, as in Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". This splinters our sense of time/space reality, and we watch the movie as we would an animation film, aware that the characters are but creations of the drawing board.
With the export of Hollywood films all over the world, the artificial reality generated does have a global impact. It becomes a two-way process of cultural perception and not only affects the American psyche, but skewers the world's vision of U.S. society. That perspective too becomes unreal.
The fine quality of genuine research at U.S. universities, the determined and articulate liberal thinkers, the enormously talented musicians, particularly in Jazz and the Blues, the independent film makers who make intelligent films not sponsored by corporate giants and the thousands of ordinary men and women who find precisely this aspect of artificial reality in mass media nauseating they are completely eliminated from our view. When you manufacture consent on artificial reality, to borrow an idiom from Noam Chomsky, you have to make sure that it is certified export quality. Dissenting voices would dilute the message.
The fact of the matter is that when the movie going public now sees an action packed Hollywood film, with a white Anglo Saxon male saving the civilised world from certain disaster and doing so with the help of special effects, there is silent amusement at the memory of the "special effects" that brought down the tallest buildings in the world in 90 minutes or less.
When an Arnold Schwarzenegger, albeit not Anglo Saxon, stands for Governor in the land of Hollywood, California, the artificial reality of his films is extended to the artificiality of political office. Just a few weeks ago, he was visiting U.S. troops in Iraq in connection with the publicity of "Terminator 3". He made a speech in which he told the soldiers, "I am just an actor. You are the real terminators." It was probably the most honest statement made by a politician aspiring to be the Governor of California.
The relationship between politics and cinema is an old one the notion that political space can be created in films has existed for almost the entire 100 odd years of its history. A little after the October 1917 revolution, Lenin, recognising the power of cinema for propagating the Marxist vision, said, "Of all the arts, cinema is the most important." Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Lev Kulesov and Vsevolad Pudovkin responded beautifully and produced some of the most enduring images of ideological thinking in cinema.
The world of artificial reality produced in American cinema today is just as political, without being obviously so. It presents the inanimate object as the protagonist. It leaves no room for social or cultural negotiation, no space for debate or disagreement or the outlining of our common humanity.
It reflects, clearly and without pretensions, the U.S. vision of itself and its position in the community of nations.
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