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Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

                                                                                          –Crash, J.G. Ballard

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune Click To Tweet

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I’ll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London’s airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don’t you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard’s vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others’ and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

James Spader as Ballard– about to be rear-ended and turned on

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn’t like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn’t seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it’s very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It’s the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool’s way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard’s decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story’s tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard’s novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author’s absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg’s film) is Warner Herzog’s public service short From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito & His Legacy

“He is a little man, about five feet two inches in height, in a badly cut gray striped suit, with trousers a couple of inches too short. He has a pronounced facial tic and his right shoulder twitches constantly. When he walks, he throws his right leg a little sideways as if he has no control over it. He was obviously excited and ill at ease, and uncertain of what to do with his arms and hands.”

  –journalist Mark Gayn describing Emperor Hirohito on one of his postwar goodwill tours, March 26th, 1946.

The American novelist, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His subject matter was black-white race relations and the legacy of slavery in the American South, but his words serve the Japanese experiment in twentieth century imperialism, the scars of its militarism yet unhealed, and the descendants of the rulers and the oppressed nursing respective grievances. World War II ended nearly seventy years ago, the blood spilled long since washed away, but a new nationalism in East Asia is drawing up a stale and divisive rhetoric, taking arrogant postures, and pretending history is malleable and can be recast according to one’s manufactured political persuasions.

Bix argues it was Hirohito's self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan's cause was lost Click To Tweet

Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan - Herbert BixThe American historian, Herbert Bix’s biography of Japan’s most notorious emperor, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (Harper Collins, 2000), is an 800-page tome indicting Hirohito in no uncertain terms for the war crimes for which he was never prosecuted. Like an attorney who will leave no doubt in the reader’s mind, Bix carefully assembles a narrative, beginning with Hirohito’s grandfather, Meiji, and how his constitution allocated tremendous authority to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Nearly a hundred pages of the book are citations of evidence reflecting Japanese militarism and a racist philosophy propagated by Japanese intellectuals and historians that led to the colonization of Manchuria, sexual bondage in the Korean peninsula, and an irrational war of conquest that nearly caused Japan’s total obliteration. Every step of the way, Hirohito authorized or failed to punish the inhumane crimes of his military establishment. Moreover, Bix argues it was Hirohito’s self-centered maneuvers to preserve his throne and avoid just punishment that prolonged the war unnecessarily long after Japan’s cause was lost, and that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians is the emperor’s burden, as much as it is that of the Americans who authorized the atomic apocalypses.

Modern Japanese militarism has its origins when policy leaders began debating the kokutai, an archaic rarely-used concept nowadays. Kokutai are the best possible principles of Japanese state and society. Alas, it was inevitable that conservative ideologues would win the interpretation to ensure a status quo of the nearly feudal hierarchy that defined the structure of Japanese society for most of its history. Kokutai was then coupled with kodo, the “imperial way,” a political theology that declared the divine right of the emperor, who embodied moral goodness. The court, the military, and conservative political operatives could then utilize their reactionary agenda via imperial decree, as the emperor could make palatable even the most ruthless policies.

Hirohito & His Legacy

Hirohito was an amateur marine biologist. Small in stature, shy, and awkward, he was not a strongman. His personality was easily overshadowed by his arrogant generals and court advisers. Nevertheless, he was intelligent, detail-oriented and had been inculcated by court tutors to take divine right seriously, and that it was his responsibility to take part in political affairs, legitimizing Japanese militarism to the poor farmer sons who would have to leave their homeland and their families for dubious acts of violence in China, Korea, and Taiwan in service of the Emperor.

Because of WWII’s total destruction, it’s easy to overlook the trauma of the first world war. After Versailles, the US and Britain, via the League of Nations, put together a number of international treaties outlawing wars of aggression, most famously the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928. Japanese leaders interpreted that as an Anglo-American initiative to consolidate their vast colonial holdings (a fair argument– they also called Europe on its hypocrisy, declaring peace overtures while resorting to violence to keep its multitudes in Africa and Asia in line). The Japanese imperialist philosophy, Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, wanted to rid Asia of European colonialists (as well as their pernicious cultural influence). The war in Asia– beginning in China, and spreading to Britain’s and France’s holdings in Southeast Asia, as well as the United States’ colony in the Philippines– was justified as Asia for Asians, though the new hierarchy would indubitably place Japan at the top.

Every step of the way, Hirohito rubber-stamped his generals’ advances. As emperor he could have cautioned or refuted militarism, and initially he sometimes did feel outrage at aggression, but overwhelmed by other, stronger personalities, he admitted “it can’t be helped,” whether it was the political assassinations, repression of radicals, the Nanking Massacre, Pearl Harbor, or allied bombing of Japanese civilians, Hirohito decided to continue an unwinnable war waged with morally dubious values.

There is no question that Hirohito had absolute power. There is also no doubt that by summer of 1944, Japan would lose the war. Their ally, Nazi Germany, had been invaded at Normandy, and it was certain that the Soviets would turn their attention to Japan once Berlin fell. Moreover, after a spectacular blitzkrieg in late 1941, early 1942, Japan lost every single battle against the United States beginning with Midway, sustaining heavy casualties (to surrender to the enemy was seen as an act of ultimate shame– better to die for the emperor). The US had closed Japanese sea lanes, in the process removing access to vital natural resources, as they slowly moved the Pacific war towards the home islands. In fact, the army and navy were in such dire shape, the only major losses the Americans were incurring by 1945 were kamikaze attacks and suicide charges. Thus, thousands of young men were being asked to die needlessly in the emperor’s name. Why did Hirohito permit this? Why didn’t he stop the war after Tokyo was firebombed on the night of March 9th, 1945 (in which 100,000 civilians were killed)? Instead they passed out bamboo spears to women, children, and old men in the event of an amphibious American invasion. They sent thousands of balloons charged with explosive across the Pacific (almost none of them reaching the U.S. and none detonating over population centers) Meanwhile, dozens of Japanese urban industrialized areas would be bombed in the five months between Tokyo’s firestorming and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Why did Hirohito persist, causing so much unnecessary death?

Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none. Click To Tweet
The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

The famous photograph of MacArthur and Hirohito

Self-preservation, of course. The Americans wanted unconditional surrender, like they’d had with Germany. The atomic bombs and the Soviet declaration of war (happening the same week, a very bad one for Japan) spelled the futility in no uncertain terms. On August 15th, 1945, Hirohito gave his famous radio address announcing Japan’s surrender. But the emperor needn’t have worried. Though he had to give up his divinity status, US leadership (under the guidance of General Douglas MacArthur) was more concerned with total destabilization brought on by his abdication (they were quite concerned about communism and radicalism). During the Tokyo Trials, Hirohito was not brought up as a war criminal and the infamous Hideki Tojo, became the fall guy, the villain, taking the rap for the emperor (supposedly the emperor wept the morning Tojo was executed). Hirohito received all the credit for surrendering and none of the blame for the catastrophe. He kept his throne, collaborated with the Americans for the reconstruction of Japan, and approved of the famous peace constitution written by the Americans “forever” renouncing war. Hirohito would reign for another 44 years, in what would be one of the greatest economic booms of any society on earth, creating a middle class, a strong safety net, and progressive values, where once there had been almost none.

Bix has presented irrefutable evidence from various court sources and testimony regarding Hirohito’s war guilt. American leadership made a calculated choice not to prosecute him for these crimes. Bix’s immense and laboriously composed book is not necessarily a judgment on either the emperor nor Truman and MacArthur. It is not saying that Hirohito was a “bad” man. History is too complex for such trite conclusions. But it is conclusive that the emperor was complicit in giving his imperial seal on some of the worst excesses of Japanese war crimes. And moreover, his failure to act decisively in the certainty of defeat inexorably led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians. This is not up for debate or revision. This is what happened. But how to imagine a Japan had Hirohito been tried and punished like his beloved general and prime minister, Tojo, is one of those pathways history turned away from.

So we return to Faulkner and the presence of the past, our contemporary time and a new nationalism ascendant in Japan’s far right government. The prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is playing a risky game of brinksmanship with South Korea and especially China, quarreling territorially over a few rocks near Taiwan and revising history, absolving Japan of its criminal past. It is terrifying to consider how clumsy Abe is diplomatically, moreover, how poorly he is mistaking his agenda as that of a populist’s. Japan’s far-right is a vocal community, but they are a distinct minority, and the vast population of Japan does not seem very politically inclined, and would certainly be outraged by any sacrifice induced by (yet another unwinnable) war with China. Perhaps he is thinking his security treaty with the United States means U.S. armed forces would do his dirty work? I don’t think any US president would commit American boys to China for a few uninhabitable rocks and Japan’s reactionary misguided historical viewpoint. And certainly, almost no Japanese today will be willing to die for their emperor. That ideological cult is in the dustbin of history. He is no longer a god, he is just a man, a flawed one, like all of us.

Pool Party Still from The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese 2013

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

The most surprising quality of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s epic about yuppie-broker-asshole apotheosis is not that it might be the best movie of 2013, but that it might be the best movie Scorsese’s made since Taxi Driver. Wolf has earned a bad reputation for glorifying, if not humanizing the bad behavior of stock broker analysts. Those offended might have watched the film too literally, ideological do-goodism getting the best of them. Jordan Belfort (whose memoir is the film’s inspiration) might be an avaricious scumbag with a long trail of victims suckered by his shady investment schemes, but he’s never boring. Arguably, he’s comic book evil but I’ll take a film about a ‘lude-popping cokehead sex maniac antihero over predictable pure-hearted dull-witted Superman any day. And anyways, Wolf, besides being absolutely hilarious, is more subversive than its critics give it credit for. This is a vision of the American Dream taken to the nth dimension, littering consciousness with fuck-you Testarossas, tacky yachts, heaps of cocaine, sex orgies, and suitcases of undeclared millions in cash smuggled into Switzerland. It’s excess, all right, but beyond comprehension and even imagination, a tableau of money-hungry Hieronymus Bosch-type motherfuckers having one last long shindig on earth before roasting in hell for all eternity, amen.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

DiCaprio at his best?

A cinematic bastard love child of Scarface, Good Fellas, and Wall Street, a breakdown of Wolf‘s plot is almost superfluous. Not quite rags to riches, but a dude from the middle class, an offspring of accountants in suburban New York, makes it big on Wall Street, very big, by misrepresenting the earnings potential of penny stocks to gullible marks, eventually moving on to bluechip investors and big money windfalls, culminating in stock manipulation of the trendy shoes manufacturer Steve Madden’s IPO. Belfort gets too big for his own good, and the SEC and FBI begin monitoring his moves. He has an opportunity to retire fabulously wealthy, paying off some fines and staying out of prison, but his brokerage house is like a family, and anyways, it’s not the money he loves so much as the making of it. He stays in the game, the drugs and sex parties negatively affect both his marriage and judgement, mistakes are made in professional and personal spheres, and his fall from the top is precipitous, and comeuppance significant: divorce, humiliation, betrayal, and jailtime. But then it’s only three years in a minimum security facility and though barred from professional trading, Belfort’s comeback is in the speaking circuit, mentoring tomorrow’s generation on the dynamics of swindling, I mean, salesmanship. That’s the gist of the story and I’ve spoiled nothing by telling you how it all ends. The devil is in the details, in magnificent riffs between DiCaprio and his co-stars (particularly Jonah Hill), the reason for seeing the film being not what happens but how it happens.

The soul of this depraved project is Leonardo DiCaprio and his tour de force performance as the titular wolf. Titanic made DiCaprio such a larger-than-life movie star that I’ve always found it difficult to separate his star power from the character. For the first time ever I truly lost myself in DiCaprio’s performance, this decadent, once and for all “fuck you” to his Titanic past. (Forget Baz Luhrman’s adaptation: Jordan Belfort is the Great Gatsby 2.0, rebooted to turn-of-the-century nihilistic fashions and we are all Nick Calloway, participating in the Great American Mess simply by virtue of looking on.) DiCaprio inhabits the manipulative huckster almost too gorgeously, as if, had movie stardom never hit, he might have been just as successful bullshitting market hyperbole on coldcalled investors. But what makes his performance so interesting is that DiCaprio and Scorsese pull off a magic trick convincing us not to just like, but, unbelievably, to sympathize with Belfort. Instead of being another cliche-ridden bio-pic about the rise and fall of a wanna-be Gordon Gekko, Wolf is sensational, not just on a sensory level (who doesn’t enjoy a bit of looky-look at limitless bacchanalia?), but for the very reason we go to the cinema in the first place, that is to feel closer to the human spirit, to be part of something larger and grander than ourselves.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

This might sound absurd if you haven’t seen the film, but there are two important points to clarify about Wolf‘s ideas. First, Jordan Belfort did not begin his Wall Street career intending to fleece his investors– one of the best scenes in the movie is when DiCaprio’s rookie broker Belfort takes a martini lunch with his boss, Mark Hanna (an amazing turn by Matthew McConaughey). Belfort wants to succeed, but not at the expense of his clients’ welfare. Hana pooh-poohs his naivety: “The name of the game is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” Certainly, Wall Street attracts a certain ruthless character, but the film seems to suggest that it is the institution, rather than the individual broker, that is truly rotten. Secondly, Belfort’s success stems from his capacity to manipulate greed in his victims– he fuels his fortune by tapping the longing in others for wealth accumulation. Greed, then, is the universal condition, and Belfort merely a psychological miner pinpointing and extracting it from the darker areas of our collective soul. He sells us that little lie we tell ourselves, that we’re special and deserve our riches too.

Making big money is almost illogical. McConaughey’s Mark Hanna tells Belfort in that same martini lunch, “First rule of Wall Street– Nobody- and I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet- nobody knows if a stock is going up, down or f-ing sideways, least of all stockbrokers…It’s fugazi. It’s a wazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust.” In voiceover Belfort attempts to describe his shady practices, before dissolving the blah-blah into ‘don’t worry about it, I got rich’ pomposity. The stock market is a senseless enterprise run by senseless monsters deceiving senseless chumps. For some it can only go on so long before the absurdity destroys us. But no matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about second acts, especially for ambitious charmers. Who knows? You might even be sorta kinda vindicated when our nation’s most famous actor gives his best performance in your honor. As Belfort bellows to his whooping broker henchmen, “This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!” We cheer him in little fistpumps despite ourselves. Look in the mirror, Jordan Belfort. Maybe the zeitgeist is looking back.

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

What is it about storytellers’ imagination that it is inspired by the dystopian rather than the utopian? Dystopian novels are intriguing, for sure, and they reconfigure our social, political, and economic failings in a contextualized environment. They are literary caveats, Cassandra-like parables about what our world could become if we give in to our fears and loathings. But what about the utopian novel? What about wondering the best possible world for mankind? Is this more difficult, if not impossible to fathom– a better, fairer society which functions smoothly and generously? Or is this more of the province of activists than authors?

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy (Houghton Mifflin, 1888)

Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of Edward Bellamy, nor his utopian novel, Looking Backward, originally published way back in 1888, at the height of the Gilded Age. At the time, however, it was a blockbuster hit, outselling every novel of the 19th century (with the notable exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and leading to the burgeoning of dozens of progressive organizations. American history books tend to gloss over the 1890s, as the leitmotif of the decade was one of contentiousness, an uprising of labor against management, and for many on the front lines of the picket wars, the dogeared book tucked in their breast pocket was not Marx’s manifesto, but a “time travel” novel.

The story’s premise is simple: the year is 1887 and Julian West, a handsome, wealthy thirty-year-old engaged to a prominent Boston belle, is your 19th century version of the trust-fund loafer, whittling his time in clubs with brandy and cigars, oblivious to the misery of the working class poor and exasperated that the construction on his conjugal chateau has been disturbed by yet another labor strike. West’s troubles are tame in relation to the wage-slave factory hand, but he struggles with insomnia and has a hypnotist put him to sleep in a hermetically sealed underground chamber. This sleep unit survives a house fire in which West is presumed dead. More than a century later, in the year 2000, in the process of renovation, his chamber is discovered by the family now living on the grounds and West is revived, Lazarus-like, in a truly brave new world.

The family are the Leetes, the Dr., his wife, and their lovely daughter, Edith, and they are emblematic of contemporary folk– educated, generous, and incredulous at how people lived in utter desperation in the past. But what of the present? Bellamy’s Great Society is most specific on socio-economic changes rather than physical manifestations. It’s not so much the Jetsons as it is the Castros: a nation in which all industries are connected with the government, in which there is no cash (only debit cards) and where all workers, from the president to the pear-picker make do on the same salary.

Of course, this reads fundamentally like communism, but in this novel life functions more like Scandinavian egalitarianism than Soviet orthodoxy. This is a free society, in which, “every man for himself in accordance with his natural aptitude, the utmost pains being taken to enable him to find out what his natural aptitude really is.” In West’s age (and which continues in our time as well), the failure of the economic system to effectively “ develop and utilize the natural aptitudes of men for industries and intellectual avocations was one of the great wastes and causes of unhappiness.” Moreover, “mercenary considerations, tempting men to pursue money-making occupations for which they were unfit… were responsible for another vast perversion of talent.”

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Click To Tweet

With full equality a reality, men (and women!) can pursue ideal career goals that stimulate their intellect, rather than work a miserable profession to procure bling trophies of first place rat race finish lines. Families in Bellamy’s utopia live modestly but comfortably, private life luxuries sacrificed for a more extravagant public good, in which there are great collective dining and music halls, where all are welcome.

The novel is more closely a dialogue between the retired Dr. Leete and Julian West, naturally skeptical at first, but who comes around to understanding socialized paradigms as the natural inevitability of common sense, that, “it is the worst thing about any system which divides men, or allows them to be divided, into classes and castes, that it weakens the sense of a common humanity.”

It is often the case that we cannot see the forest for the trees, so that whatever present system we live (and loathe) under, it is difficult for most of us to contemplate any other way of life. But Dr. Leete’s (as a proxy for Bellamy) explication of 19th century’s business model’s prepositional “wastes” (of mistaken undertakings, from competition and mutual hostility, by periodical gluts and crises, from idle capital and labor at all times) is as true today as they were in the days of child labor and sharecropper farms. The system was “as absurd economically as it was morally abominable. Selfishness was their only science, and in industrial production selfishness is suicide.”

Through the tweaking of “certain fatal defects and prodigious imbecilities of private enterprise,” America’s economic system became more proficient and productive and, most importantly, less unequal. Higher achievement or excellence in performance is not rewarded remuneratively but with the bestowal of honor and the satisfaction of advancing the cause of humanity. In Bellamy’s imagined America, everyone contributes and no one starves, as “that the right of man to maintenance at the nation’s table depends on the fact that he is a man, and not on the amount of health and strength he may have, so long as he does his best.”

Great Society for Hundred-Percenters

Edward Bellamy – The Man & Moustache Himself

Julian West is eventually won over by the idea of social progress and in a dream-within-a-dream sequence that or may not have happened (no spoilers from me!), he wakes up back in his Boston bed of 1887, still an entitled scion, but no longer immune to the heartbreaking struggles of the majority of his brethren. The precariousness of their cutthroat existence moves him to intolerable emotions and he cannot not live sensibly with his class of men, their gentlemen’s clubs and servants and supercilious privilege. The epoch he was born into, and all he took for granted, had evolved into a living nightmare.

Bellamy is more of a conceptualist than a storyteller, and his writing can be clunky and his narrative guilty of melodrama especial to the time. But Upton Sinclair’s writing shares these same faults, but we remember (and some of us actually read) The Jungle, but not Looking Backward. Is this because Sinclair’s work led to government reform of a specific industry, while on the other hand implementing the ideas of Looking Backward would have involved total restructuring of our economic system as well as evolving from our materialistic habits? Bellamy’s seminal work is not an easy read, but it must be read by activists, artists, and anyone who believes that our society can, should and will be improved. In a short book review, you can just touch tip of the iceberg that might sink this ship of fools we’ve been riding directionless all too many generations.

The world we live in today is a far cry from Edward Bellamy’s epic vision. And it is easy to get down on the future with seemingly contemporary unwinnable crises, those of corporate oligarchies, environmental disaster, nuclear apocalypse, and longterm recession. Yet in Bellamy’s time of the 19th century, two thirds of the world was colonized by another, women were second-class citizens, children worked in factories, and no social safety net existed anywhere. Many fought, and much blood was spilled, to make common sense that much more common. Tens of thousands had martyred themselves to make the world a much more equitable place than it was in the so-called “good old days” of 1887. It is fitting then to finish the review with one of the twentieth century’s greatest martyrs, Martin Luther King Jr., who once put it best, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean Lotman

The Delhi on the Corner

I asked my soul: What is Delhi? She replied: The world is the body and Delhi its life.

–The poet Ghalib quoted in Khushwant Singh’s Delhi: a Novel

It was almost ten years ago but I don’t suppose I’ll ever forget the first time I arrived in Delhi. This was back in the day before they opened the modern, antiseptic terminal that handles international traffic. My flight had landed at three in the morning–I remember broken windows, shitty lighting and bad vibes. And being mobbed coming out of customs by desperate taxi drivers, winding up in a 3-wheeler tuktuk and the long drive into the city, indigents burning campfires on the roadside, farm animals wandering in the traffic lanes, and even in this witching hour, an incessant noise, the undisciplined application of vehicular horns. After checking into my hotel, I can recall my deep reluctance to leave the room, burning with regret over my decision to travel India for six weeks.

The Delhi on the Corner

In the last decade, I’ve flown into Delhi six times. Delhi is not the destination, of course; India is. For many of us, Delhi is more of a way station or a bazaar; it’s where the traveler stocks up on the necessities overlooked in his haste packing his bags. Most of us pick up our ongoing rail tickets on the day of arrival. No one loves Delhi but deep down, I think most of us like it. Because it’s where we say “Hello, India,” and when we’re done, “Farewell.”

Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version? Click To Tweet

Unfortunately for the city, if one googles “Delhi” the autofill names “Delhi gang rape” as its first search suggestion. This is not accidental. Delhi’s history goes back a thousand years to when it was known as Qila Rai Pithora. It has experienced many incarnations, eight cities, through the centuries: Siri, Tughluqabad, Jahanpanah, Firozabad, Purana Qila, and Shahjahanabad. Prior to New Delhi being built by the British Raj, Turks, Afghans, and Mongol hordes crisscrossing the continents in search of blood and booty laid waste to Delhi, starving its citizens, purging its enemies, torching its temples. The thing about the city today is that outside the wealthy suburbs and the business-leisure downtown district of Connaught Place, much of the Delhi’s crumbling architecture appears lately pillaged, though this ‘rustic’ aesthetic is more to do with neglect than the barbarians’ wake.

Most travelers enter India via Delhi and its airport and the transition is startling, even for the seasoned hand. Of course this is what you’re in for: different cultures play by different rules and you’re supposed to be learning about yourself in this (mis)adventure. When dealing with the insufferable crowds, traffic, shysters, bureaucracy, your character is tested. Moreover, you can’t help but think hey, for all the snafus at home, it’s not the disarray Delhi labors under. One is reminded that things in your real life aren’t so bad. At the same time, you try not to die here, as this is a city of djinns, and you really don’t want your own ghost marooned in such a sloppy megalopolis.

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean LotmanBut we should be little bit fair to Delhi. It has its sites. To name but a few: the Red Fort, Shah Jahan’s magnificent sandstone citadel; the Jama Masjid a beautiful seventeenth century mosque located in the medieval atmosphere of Old Delhi; the crooked, phallic 12th century Qutub Minar; not to mention the many museums (including one for toilets) and bazaars.

Having spent so much time in Delhi over the years, I don’t often go sightseeing. Instead I wander Paharganj, the main bazaar near New Delhi Train Station. It’s where I always stay when I’m in town and though it has its share of backpackers there are enough gray-haired hippies who remember the old days, trumping us young ones with their acid-laced anecdotes. In Paharganj, I have my restaurants, food stands, chai stalls, and rooftop lounge patios that I patronize. First meal whenever I’m in town is a rava onion masala dosa at Sonu Chat House, a no-frills joint where you share your tables with strangers and the food is cheap, good, and safe. If it’s dusk I like to go to the rooftop of the Hare Krishna restaurant. I don’t go for the fare (terrible except the ginger-honey-lemon tea) but the city looks beautiful in the gloaming light. Sometimes there are birds-of-prey hovering over the mess. The decay looks poetic and beautiful in magic hour light—I’d take a sunset over Delhi than Geneva anytime. There is a sense of relief as night falls. That those of us appreciating the coming darkness have survived. Because that’s what most of us do in Delhi, residents and visitors, we just try to make it through the day in one piece.

I’ve been going to India for ten years and in that time I’ve seen Delhi undergo some significant change. Much of it still looks like the aftermath of a catastrophe, but no question emerging middle-class wealth has led to some gentrification downtown. There are more cars and motorbikes on the road, more cameras and mobiles in people’s hands. A lot of the changes, including the new airport terminal, were done when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games a few years back. In my own Delhi world, they paved the road in the main bazaar and kicked the street merchants and mendicants out of Connaught. India is learning well from us in its process of Westernization: it’s not just transitioning to a hyper-consumerist society, but filtering the underclass out of its presentation of a competent, happy place. I could be wrong and many Indians are ascending socio-economic ladders, but in this country cynicism is a survivor’s tool. Or maybe it’s mostly the same as it ever was and it’s my memory playing tricks on me. Was Delhi really more desperate ten years ago or have I become so acclimatized that Delhi’s chaos is now a variety of normalcy, albeit an extreme version?

Delhi On The Corner - Pop Zeitgeist by Sean LotmanThis past month I came to India to visit Gujarat, specifically the Kutch region, in the dusty, desert frontier near southern Pakistan. For all my time spent in India it was a challenging experience and though I managed to stay active and accomplish what I’d set out to do I was debilitated by all sorts of physical complaints. Some threshold was breached halfway through the journey. In the midst of an agonizing health crisis I asked myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” I vowed that this was it, the last hurrah.

A week later, when I returned to Delhi on an overnight train from Ahmedabad, among the many unions striking that day were the taxi and tuktuk workers and I was stuck taking a cycle-rickshaw to Paharganj. The pockmarked road was a disgrace. “India!” I cursed. I’d planned some excursions into the city, but with the strike going I decided to remain in the New Delhi area until my flight left that night. I had my dosa at Sonu Chat House and read my novel in the park in Connaught Place. At dusk, I went to the roof of the Hare Krishna and had my tea and watched the sun fall beyond the serrated edge of my sight and I realized that my resolution of moving on would come to naught. Like a family member or a difficult friend you’ve known for years, I love India even if I don’t like it very much. Sooner or later, I’d stand on this same Delhi rooftop, feeling grateful to be alive, asking myself, “What am I still doing here in India?” My tea finished, I would once more begin the long process answering this incomprehensible question.

Coming of Age - The Long Journey

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In the summer of 1995, I was 19 years old, living on my own a few blocks from the sea in Isla Vista, a suburb of Santa Barbara, adjunct to the city’s university. Though I had summer school classes and a job, it was a good time for me. Romantically, I was unattached, my bout with teenaged acne had finally cleared up, my hair had grown hippie brave and so had my fashion style. I was riding my bike to Sands Beach on sunny days and listening to classic rock all the time— Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Byrds. My closest friend that summer was a dude we called The Gripper, who was like a guru to me in what we called the art of jibbing (sic)— encountering beautiful girls and charming them into giving awkward young men a chance. That summer, on the 31st of August, I turned twenty years old. For the first time in my young adult life I knew exactly who I was and I was all right with that. To paraphrase, I was my own man now and have been ever since.

Of course, for Americans, the big birthday isn’t 20, but 21, when you’ve reached the legal drinking age (turning 18 gives you the right to smoke tobacco, vote in your political representatives and die for your country but that doesn’t have the same cachet as a six-pack for most of us). Personally twenty-one was a bit of an anticlimax— I’d had a fake ID for several years, and moreover had landed in Paris on the morning of my 21st birthday, where if you’re old enough to see over the counter, you’re old enough to order a drink.

There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. Click To Tweet

Japan’s Coming of Age – Long Journey

In Japan, all the aforementioned privileges of adulthood are granted at twenty. There is even a holiday for it, the second Monday of January, known as Seijin no Hi, literally ‘Coming of Age Day,’ in which everybody who’s just turned twenty over the previous year gets dressed up and attends a (reputedly) dull ceremony at the local assembly hall, where they are at once congratulated on their calendar years and reminded that they are now citizens with the responsibilities of adulthood to consider.

These admonishments mostly fall on deaf ears. The real action is just outside, where several hundred young men and women loiter, either waiting to go inside or coming out, or else just rallying noisily over a bottle of shochu, or, conspiratorially, huddling over a smoke. Most of the men wear suits—their boy-next-door hair is neatly trimmed and carefully combed. A significant minority wears the hakama, and it being January, the haori, a hip-length kimono jacket. But we aren’t speaking of the formal-wear you’d wear to your grandmother’s machiya for green tea— the haori du jour is flamboyantly colorful, some featuring fierce animals (the tiger being a popular motif). Many of these youthful specimens have notable piercings and gratuitous tattoos; on not a few is an aura of aerosol, testified by a blonde, spiky haircut advocated by some trendy, tasteless youth mag. These young men might be adults now but their Japanese falls somewhere between uncouth and impolite and their communal laughter is shriller than a company of hyenas. Whatever you might think about Japanese men being shy, circumspect, and abstract in their indirectness would be dispelled by such theatrical yelling and falling over one other.

There is not a single young woman not wearing the fabled kimono and the foreigner (me) wonders how beautiful life in Japan might be if it had never been overrun by The Gap, Levi’s, and blouses from Donna Karan. The girls’ kimono are sometimes conservative, occasionally tempestuous, starbursting with enigmatic patterns and chic colors, their collared furs turned up against the winter wind; the devil is always in the details and the bolder blossoms are blowing all of our collective minds with deliriously manicured nails, half-inch eyelash extensions, vivid cheeks blush, and that sparkle stuff that only girls can ever remember the name of. They wobble in zori sandals to and fro, shrieking at each other’s comeliness. Hyper-aware of their adorability, nearly every woman is being photographed dozens of times by dozens of smartphones. I don’t even have to ask when I hold my camera up between us.

There is some hot rodding, but this being Japan, there are teen idols and Mickey Mouse paraphernalia painted on the sides of the vehicles, compromising the sinisterness of degenerate youth. Gunning their engines at five miles an hour, honking and heehawing noisily, the drivers are desperate to seen but on this day, narcissism levels being what they are, the babes in their daydreams are busy with their poses, so that only some members of the gauntlet of traffic cops glare indignantly.

I mill around, occasionally chatting up the young ones with well wishes and my compliments. I am there to take pictures, along with a small gaggle of Japanese retirees with big digital cameras. They move in packs, often piggybacking my shots, overwhelming the more extravagant peacocks, who pose grudgingly for rapid-fire shutter release shooting with a beautiful artifice of a smile. It’s only 1pm but already the drinking games are getting out of hand. There’s broken glass on the sidewalk and wanna-be hot shots with cornrows and platinum yellow braids are pounding beer cans and shochu bottles as their friends whinny in peer-pressurized chorus. There are some bad hangovers developing— you can see it in their eyes— that look in a twenty-year-old’s face, incomprehensible and insensitive to a body and soul’s limits. A dude one sip of sake away from tumbling, takes that sip and staggers—the crowd giving him a wide berth as many of the kimonos are rentals and anyways it would be embarrassing explaining the puke chunks to the dry cleaners. Some of the more inebriated “adults” are beginning to get really careless and I need to remove myself from the hullabaloo for a bit of air and perspective.

In the quieter environs of nearby Heian-jingu, a large shrine complex painted in bright, orange colors, I struggle reluctantly with introspective questions: wasn’t it so metaphorically tragic that the ceremony of becoming an adult entailed binge drinking and narcissistic posturing? Was this what Japanese men and women had a lifetime to look forward to? Humans: we’d come a long way since slaying a lion was our initiation into adulthood. But the questions engendered by this raucous setting were of a personal nature as well. For one, had I been something of an asshole myself at twenty? Did I know and respect my limits and the space of others when I danced with the elixir of youth? It was true that I had unique cultural values but I had my share of wild nights, and once I’d really known what a heady experience it was to abdicate control and give in to purely id proclivities. But had I handled myself mostly gracefully? There is a significant difference between a charming ass and an ass. Looking back, it was hard to parse what was and what wasn’t. Selective memory is an incredibly powerful survival mechanism. ‘It’s okay,’ I thought, hearing in the distance the ejaculatory shrieking of another drinking game going awry. Someday in the shockingly fast-creeping future, these presently intoxicated twenty-year-olds will come to this very same ceremony with their own kids. They’ll survey the drunken tomfoolery, wondering if they too had drunk one too many, and reflecting that if they had, what a long way they’ve come in the meantime.

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an Audience

The Prophet Finds an AUdience

Searching For Sugarman – Sixto Rodriguez

As far as years in music go, 1970 was a good one: Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, and Iggy Pop & The Stooges’s Fun House were all released, as were swan song LPs for The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, and Simon & Garfunkel, while John Lennon and George Harrison launched their solo careers with Plastic Ono Band and All Things Must Pass, respectively. In March of that year, Sussex Records, a label out of Detroit and loosely associated with Motown, released an album called Cold Fact. The cover features a glassy sphere, where, within, sits an ethnic hippie, Indian-style, garbed in sunglasses, hat and a pink tanktop, a gem hanging from his neck, dressed for the part of psychedelic messenger, hailing from the peyote and cactus lands of desert dreams.

The dude is Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singing in a Dylanesque high baritone the language of the zeitgeist, with songs titled, “Hate Street Dialogue” and “This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst.” Consider the prophet-tinged lyrics of The Establishment Blues,” sung with the clipped cadence of Subterranean Homesick Blues:

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer
This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Though it was peak season in the protest movement—the secret bombings of Cambodia had been leaked and the Kent State shootings occurred just after the album’s release— the album went nowhere. The sales for Cold Fact might have been disappointing, but because of his real-deal talent, a year later Rodriguez managed to produce a second album, Coming From Reality. On the cover, he’s sitting on the stoop of a run-down façade. The hair’s long but the hat and gemstone are gone, the hippie matured into a man. Rodriguez has dropped the Sixto; he’s just Rodriguez now. The music itself is less confrontational, mellower, more orchestral, more soulful. It sounds like a man who’s lost more battles than he’s won but he’s all right after all. As lovely, truthful and painfully human as anything produced at the time, like his preceding LP this second effort sold virtually nothing. You don’t get many chances in the music business. His presence then fades before it’s begun and, more or less, Rodriguez disappears without a trace.

But this is only Act I of the story. Let’s fast-forward all the way to the epilogue: a 2012 documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which is the subject of this review. The film is the story of what happened to Rodriguez’s music after his ostensible failures. As it turns out, a copy of Cold Fact wound up in Cape Town in 1972. His brilliant haranguing of the social order resonates with young people disenchanted with their conservative government and its program of state-sponsored apartheid. In South Africa, Cold Fact is a phenomenon, the soundtrack for the youth movement, as ubiquitous in the living rooms of Johannesburg student activists as “Street Fighting Man” is for New York City Marxist strategists. As someone in the film bluntly puts it, Sixto is “bigger than Elvis.”

But what of Sixto? In the pre-Internet days, clues are a lot harder to manage and wildly speculative apocrypha grind the rumor mills. A consensus develops that Rodriguez committed suicide on stage after a bad show— the only difference of opinion is whether he self-immolated or blew his brains out.

In the 1990s, apartheid ends, Sixto’s music is released on compact disc, and a quest begins to solve the mystery of his death once and for all by two of his fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, an owner of a popular Cape Town records shop, and Craig Strydom, a musical journalist. They find him via one of his three daughters, shocked to learn that not only is he not dead but that he’s working blue collar jobs in construction and that, moreover, he has absolutely no idea of his fame.

...the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. Click To Tweet

The Prophet Finds an Audience

Sixto Rodriguez – Searching For Sugarman

If you feel I’ve shared too much, then you better avoid the trailer, which neatly summarizes the entire story in two minutes. Needless to say, a happy ending can be a very good thing. How we get there, from Sixto’s debut to his fame in South Africa to the quest to find him to the redemption of his legacy is worth your time not just because it is a well-told story— Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul devoted four years to its creation— but because Sixto is a fantastic musician who somehow missed his moment, who in spite of his genius poet soul, remains completely unpretentious, a genuinely warm, lovely man. Though whatever money he should have made in residuals never reached him, he’s not holding any grudges nor does he regret the seemingly unkind hand fate dealt him, grateful to the end for what he has, content to work with his hands and come home to the same building he’s been living in for forty years, a human embodiment of the serenity prayer. Instead of an aloof pop star’s limousine lifestyle, Sixto spent his life as a community organizer, helping out the less fortunate in the neighborhood and even running for city council (he lost). Rodriguez had never really failed because he hadn’t wagered his soul on his musical career, as he sings on “I’ll Slip Away”, recorded after the dismal reception of “Coming From Reality” and unreleased for many years:

“And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then Ill go mend all my shattered dreams.”

There is many an artist that can relate to Sixto’s story. Whether he or she plays a guitar, paints subway cars, lays another novel in the sock drawer, maxes out the credit cards in order to make a movie only a few hundred people will ever view— the empty sound of no hands clapping is quite a calamitous silence to confront once the creative spirit has been put on the line. No one wants to be Van Gogh. We want to keep our ears and enjoy the appreciative applause that is our due. Just in case we live long enough to be recognized.

Even though it won the Special Jury Prize and Audience Award for best international documentary at Sundance, you’ll have some difficulty finding “Searching for Sugar Man” at your local theater. It’s strictly limited engagements in New York and Los Angeles, and even there, playing in just a handful of theaters. For everyone else, we’re left with Batman, Spiderman, and The Avengers, comic book idols that aren’t telling us a damn thing about how to live gracefully. You’ve got to look hard for real life heroes. You won’t find them soaring or swinging over the Manhattan skyline. But you might hear one singing about the truths of living. You only have to find the music and listen closely.

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The New World by Terrence Malick

The New World by Terrence Malick

While vacationing at my mother’s house in the Virginia countryside this summer I decided it might be appropriate to check out Terrence Malick’s The New World from the local library. Though I truly love Tree of Life and rather like his earlier films I nevertheless didn’t have high expectations. It’s almost a given that Hollywood will botch any historical event with schmaltz, sentimentality, inaccuracies, and whitewashing, especially if the area of history is something as momentous as the origins of America. The founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement on the American continent, is something the myth-makers monitoring our popular consciousness would like to let alone– after all, though it might have been the beginning of ascendance of one kind of people, it was also the genesis of apocalypse for another. This is not a narrative that lends itself easily to Hollywood and its aggrandizing temperament. But the encounter of two distinct civilizations is not just a story; it is poetry and that is what The New World feels like– dizzying and abstract, uncanny and rich. Yes, in the wrong hands, a 130-minute poem might be disastrous, but in Malick’s it feels so pure, lovely, and wonderful that the transcendence we hope for from great art lingers long after, moving me to say (albeit, quite belatedly) that The New World is the greatest film of the past decade.

One of the most provocative acts any critic endeavors to do is say a certain piece of artwork is the best of anything, because in all likelihood he is going to be called names — “philistine” or “snob”– depending on which camp the choice offends. Almost no one’s happy because human beings have an insane allegiance to personal favorites. Now I am not a fan of the Naughts in any of the major popular forms; literary, musical, and cinematic– it was a weak decade. Regarding Hollywood, it seemed for much of the era boy magicians, questing hobbits, and superhero blockheads dominated the screens, leaving mature audiences to fend for themselves. There were some good films but very few great ones so that in my occasional Top Ten listmaking with friends of similar predilections, I’d never bothered to consider the best films of the 2000s. I suppose a shortlist would include Y Tu Mama Tambien, Sexy Beast, L’enfant, The Royal Tenenbaums, Irreversible, Syriana, The Constant Gardener, and Children of Men. But until I saw The New World I never felt “best” was a necessary qualifier.

That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. Click To Tweet

Love in the Time of Eden and Aftermath

The story of John Smith and Pocahontas is a familiar one to most Americans (and that fact has little to do with the Disney film from the mid-nineties). Smith is part of a group of ragtag English colonists trying to start over in a so-called new world. Of course, it is not a new world, but an old one inhabited by Powhatan Indians. While it seems there is much potential for the men as they build their fort, cooperation with “the naturals” (as they are called by Captain Newport) would be essential for survival and Smith is sent to establish trade relations. He is very nearly put to death by the Powhatan chief, spared only when Pocahontas intervenes. While Smith lives with the naturals, he falls in love with the chief’s irresistibly charming daughter. His time with the Powhatan is idyllic but he is not of the indigenous tribe and must return to the fort, with its starving, raving colonists, desperate now for food and warmth with the onset of winter. John Smith is put in charge of the colony upon his return, complicating the Capulet-Montague dynamic already inherent in his love for Pocahontas.

Normally a loudmouth, arrogant actor, Colin Farrell’s John Smith is masculine but gentle– he might slay you in hand-to-hand combat but will feel very bad about your death afterwards. Farrell portrays Smith as a man utterly melancholic that this great love of his is doomed. And we the audience sympathize because the young actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, is so winning that it would be utterly foolish not to abandon the mortgage, insurance payments, traffic jams, cable TV, and the ephemeral junk that is modern life to live with her among trees, wildflowers, streams, and fields of gold. Kilcher inhabits Pocahontas with a sense of wonder that I have never quite seen in a performance. She physically manifests the trees, the sun, and the earth, but playfully and though childlike she also has the fall of the Powhatans on her conscience as it is she who instigates the tribe to gift the colonists with food in the dead of winter and who warns Smith of an imminent attack when the indigenous decide to expel the white man and his genealogical plague, that of materialistic avarice, racist exceptionalism, and ecological violence, habits antithetical to the communally organized tribe and its harmonious relationship to nature. The colonists are ready when the Powhatan attack and slaughter many with cannon and musket fire.

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

Film Still from The New World Terrence Malick

A treacherous Pocahontas (to be fair, all lovers are foolish) is disowned by her people and comes to live in Jamestown, now reinforced with more men and supplies and successfully tilling the land. John Smith, looking ever more mournful, takes an assignment from the king to lead an expedition to discover a northwest passage. He leaves Pocahontas without an explanation and has another colonist lie about his death en route so that, emotionally, she can move on. By now, her sensual summer tribe fashions have been replaced by stiff bodices and cumbersome petticoat and the forests where she’d roamed free are “there” but not “here.” The loss of John Smith forever is the vanishing of her last happiness. An alien in her own land, now she is truly alone.

Nevertheless, the first colonist to successfully grow tobacco in Virginia, John Rolfe (Christian Bale in an understated, patient performance), is smitten—it takes him some time to court her but he does and she begets him a son. Things could have gone happily ever after, were it not for Pocahontas learning the truth of John Smith and King James of England requesting their company at Buckingham Palace, angling the love triangle just so. It is natural, of course, that the woman who bridges one world to the next should be loved so dramatically by two great men.

My description of the plot may sound melodramatic but the execution is anything but. Like Stanley Kubrick, Malick is skilled at making us feel like participants, as if we are in the forest or the battlefield, loving and losing. The director is sensitive that we should feel this story as much as receive it—thus the sensuality, innocence and brutality alternately swoons and bludgeons. That it is extraordinarily researched and meticulous to detail (especially in regards to indigenous village life and language) makes it all the more intense. But more than a historical anecdote, this is a love story and Malick portrays the extraordinary tenderness between John Smith and Pocahontas nonverbally rather than with obvious declaratives prevalent in so much storytelling cliché. Most of the exposition is revealed not between characters but with voiceover: beautiful, poetic expressionism whispered over scenes of tribal life, elemental weather, bucolic freedom, accompanied by Richard Wagner’s ravishing “Prelude to Das Rheingold.” While falling for the Chief’s favorite daughter in the forest, John Smith susurrates, “Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given? There is only this. All else is unreal.” To which, Pocahontas, with nature as their stage and sound (rushing rivers, crepitating leaves, warbling birdlife, singing insects), murmurs, “Father. Where do you live? In the sky…the clouds… the sea…? Show me your face. Give me a sign. A god he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? All to be given to you. And to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two than one. One. One. I am. I am.”

Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick

It’s hard to qualify the effect of these scenes with mere words—The New World is one of those rare films that demonstrates the cinema as perhaps the world’s most important art, so potent is the emotional, sensual effect, more dimensional than what’s possible in literature and music. I cannot watch this film without feeling tremendously affected by the messy, hopeless experiment that is mankind– our excess, our potential, our bad and our good. Though never outright polemical, Malick suggests we lost as a species with the triumph of one civilization at the expense of another—and it’s not just the egalitarian society of Native Americans but their peaceful alliance with nature as well. Malick’s portrayal of the Virginia countryside on the eve of its appropriation by Europeans is as inspiring for environmentalists as any film ever made.

But I can also feel that Malick has loved and lost. Why else would he devote several years of his life to this now mythical time in our history? The story feels like a metaphor for the joys and tragedies endured by Malick himself. You can’t tell a story this beautifully without some truth in experience. His loss, whatever it might have been, is contextualized in a work of art, winning our sympathies and affections without loosening the secrets that inspired him in the first place. His catharsis is ours too.

Released on Christmas Day, 2005, The New World barely recouped its $30 million production costs and received few enthusiastic reviews. It was snubbed by the Academy, receiving only one Oscar nomination (for Emmanuel Lubezki’s breathtaking camerawork—he lost). The Best Picture that year was Crash, a silly, almost meaningless melodrama trivializing Los Angeles race relations. That The New World could be forsaken not only by the public but the critics as well reveals the extent to which we have lost the capacity to recognize a visionary work of art. It’s not Malick’s fault nor is it that of the ghosts of John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Powhatan Indians who bequeathed us our land and our tragedy. It’s our problem. After all, collective loss is something we’ve been perpetuating for four centuries now. That’s how we roll.

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