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Towards an Ideology-Free Zombie Apocalypse, Update

September 14, 2011

What I’ve been saying in this blog, I guess, is that the last two decades represent a break from previous versions of popular media in the 20th century. Its not just a paradigmatic break. Those are common, and each decade or so presents a new one; we expect this, and some would say that the breaks happen because we expect them to in the first place. But the popular films of the last 15 or so years, and those have been mainly in the realm of what can be accepted as Science Fiction, are just really different from the films of the sixties, seventies and eighties.

To illustrate this, we can take the case of the I Am Legend films. Only one of these films is called I Am Legend—the most recent one starring Will Smith. But they’re all based on the same novel of that name by Richard Matheson; in addition to 2007’s I Am Legend,  the work spawned 1964’s The Last Man on Earth and 1971’s The Omega Man. These aren’t remakes, but rather independent adaptations of the same source material. The bare bones: due to a unique immunity, iconoclast Robert Neville survives a worldwide plague brought on by human failings; he is caught between two poles of other survivors. Oh, and zombies.

Vincent Price, the suburban schlubby Neville

You can read these films sub-textually, and derive all kinds of messages, symbology and meanings. But what is more important in this context is the text itself, the ideological messages inserted by the authors and producers. That is, the messages that seem quite obviously put there by the producers as a message to their audience, to history and the culture they’re a part of forming–the stuff that’s quite obviously put there.

The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man have strong textual messages that are quite obviously a product of their time, and in a sense form a time capsule of the prevailing dichotomies, arguments and dialectics of the day. The Last Man on Earth is very interested in critiquing conformity, in expressing anxiety about ‘cognitive invasions’ from Europe [i.e. communism], the search for the meaning of life as expressed through the individual’s isolation in suburbia. Neville has nothing better to do than ask the big questions: What are ‘people’? Why does the individual need them? And do we accept them as they are? Or would we destroy those that we dislike if we got the chance?

The Neville character actively seeks out the undead created by the world wide plague to slaughter them, for no other reason but that he hates their disease, and the fact that they were once human and therefore now different than he. The sense of alienation is palpable through out the film. We realize that Neville was something of an iconoclast to begin with; a scientist who understood both human nature and the ramifications of the plague to a deeper degree than his community. The last scene posits a disturbing story of the post-war American, caught between a rapidly changing capitalist society where the promise of contentment seems elusive and the fear of infiltration and sudden paradigmatic shift. These were the intellectual conversations of the day; the specter of nuclear holocaust, communist subversion and the deformation of historical human society by suburban flight.

Charlton Heston, bachelor pad urban Neville

The Omega Man is also a product of its day. Seventies Neville, played by the meta-apocalypse-archetype Charlton Heston, is different from our sixties Neville. But nonetheless, he remains a character that didn’t fit into the world to begin with. The Omega Man places this outsiderness within the vacuum of a generational and culture war. Like its predecessor, there is an anxiety about the technological/political normal world, but the poles of antagonism toward it are embodied by culture war prototypes—young hippies vs. regressive and antagonistic populism. Neville is an establishment character,  but nevertheless a nihilistic iconoclast as well, not unlike the astronaut he plays in Planet of the Apes. But early on, its revealed that he is nonetheless attracted to youth culture’s hopefulness. He watches Woodstock [apparently the last film ever made] so many times that he can, with a face riven by mourning and regret, repeat the lines as they’re spoken. When Neville is finally ready to emerge from isolation, he chooses to join the youth culture.  Despite the death of the Neville character, which happens in every iteration of the film, he becomes a sort of messianic figure; too good/different in a sense for the world to come, but whose blood nevertheless infuses the hippie Eden that the youth will now create thanks to his work.

An ideological message infuses both of these films, and its obviously there because the authors meant it to be. There are of course unintended messages, but we can ignore those for now. Both films sought to deliver a clear ideological message, and their creators weren’t afraid to ruffle some feathers in the process. The Omega Man even has an interracial, intergenerational romance that’s handled quite beautifully for the time and in the context. Its not an accident that The Last Man on Earth‘s new humans are clothed in fascist looking uniforms, lacking any sort of individuality. Nor is it a coincidence that the band of survivors that represent the potential for repopulating the earth in The Omega Man are all under the age of 28. And in each film, the filmmakers obviously seek to show that the survivors want to establish a different regime in the US; in 1964, that would be a communal society that eschews individualism, and in 1971 that is a youth culture inspired utopia. In both films, there is dialogue that bears this out, its not meant to be inferred. For example, one of the youth survivors explicitly say that his aim is to establish an Eden, but without listening to the “snake” as his predecessors did.

Will Smith, amorphous post-millennial dog-loving Neville

That’s why I Am Legend is so baffling. It has no textual ideological message. The authors aren’t struggling with any big questions of the day. Because there are no big questions of the day in Neville’s pre-apocalyptic world. There is no war, poverty, famine, racism, genderism. There are no extra-territorial threats, no fears of ideological subversion, no culture war. Even the emergence of the disease has no greater symbology as intended by writers, though it certainly could have been put there as a critique of a faulty drug approval system, bigPharma–even the somewhat unoriginal theme of the hubris of mankind playing god. The pre-apocalyptic world is a bland utopia where everyone was middle class to begin with and the only problem, apparently, was cancer. Whereas the previous films retain Mathieson’s original idea of a sort of culture war created by the survivors, plying their own utopian vision to remake the world, there is no dichotomy here. In a telling scene Smith’s Neville also knows the lines of a film by heart after repeated viewings. But where Omega‘s Woodstock brought with it an embedded message,  Legend‘s Neville is watching Shrek.

In Legend‘s post-apocalyptic Manhattan, plague victims are hyper active zombie killing machines. The survivors are completely unaffected by the virus living in a shangrila and waiting for Neville’s blessing to simply start all over again, no lessons learned. If there is a message, it only seems to be a sort of macabre adolescent fascination with being the last person on earth and the surperficial consequences; being able to take whatever you want whenever you want, and dealing with isolation and loneliness. Exploring that premise takes all of five minutes.

I’ll refrain from a conclusion of what this all means. But if sci-fi film has been for modern society a way of working out its issues, what does it say when Sci Fi refuses to actually present any?

Update:

Some other glaring differences between 1971’s The Omega Man and 2007’s I Am Legend:

Omega, heroine African American, hero White, interracial romance [after three years of celibacy, in any case, first man and first woman contact would invariably end in sex].

Legend, heroine Latina, hero African American. No sex, not even fondling. Probably the most unrealistic premise in an already pretty unlikely sci fi scenario, especially because both actor and actress are insanely hot, impecably dressed and at bootcamp-levels of physical perfection.

Omega Neville is immune to virus because he managed to inject himself with the only available sample of the innoculation, being the scientist that was in charge of the health project for the plague. Its never explained how Legend‘s Neville acquires immunity. He’s apparently the head scientist for the project, and also coincidentally the only person in the world who happens to be immune. Obviously this was producer’s fear of a morally ambiguous premise that Neville innoculated himself, but couldn’t innoculate others, [or, as in Omega, wouldn’t].

Interesting Similarities:

–in both Omega and Legend, the military is in charge of the public health management of the plague. Not coincidentally, the US was then and is now, involved in various conflicts throughout the world. 1963’s Neville [named Morgan in this version for some odd reason] is a civilian scientist, coincidentally during an ostensible period of US peace. And also interestingly, 60’s Neville is a subordinate to the head of research on the disease. In both Omega and Legend, Neville is the most brilliant scientist in the world, in charge of the international research on the disease.

–in Omega and Legend, novel audio technology takes a central role in various scenes. Omega-Neville is a hip dude with eight track in both car and at home,  Legend-Neville listens to Ipod.

–The seventies and 00’s Neville’s take full advantage of the plethora of designer clothing available throughout the city. They remain impeccably dressed and groomed through most of the film, and they keep the house tidy. Compare that to schlubby Neville of the sixties. House is a mess, dresses like high school science teacher.

One last word on Contagion, Soderbergh’s realist take on the Zombie Apocalypse, which also leaves discussion of current events out of the plot line. Here is the difference between a smart and somewhat courageous blockbuster, and the kind of fearful filmmaking of I Am Legend. In the last scene of Contagion [and whether you like it or not, its a Sci Fi film], a political statement is made. Capitalism, which urges the decimation of the environment and increasingly unsafe food preparation practices, is responsible for the disease. Moreover, there needn’t be a cognitive aspect to the disease. The infected fill out the role of dangerous antagonists reserved for Zombies in other films, as a simple product of human nature in a capitalist, bureaucratic society. There’s a remarkable difference when sci fi makes a statement, compared to fearful sci fi that takes no chances.

Uncertain Future: Why Hollywood Can’t Create Smart Dystopia

September 8, 2011

Soylent Green is people. Don't worry, its mostly White people.

Dystopian filmmaking was once a pretty easy score—take current issues, place in future, add sex, violence and anti-hero. The dystopic films of the seventies were truly dystopic, their heroes doomed from the first frame, and the fate of the human race sealed, as in films such as Soylent Green, Silent Running, Planet of the Apes, etc. The dystopia of the Seventies rarely predicted a change in US culture, as much as a worsening of its human generator; greed, alienation, violence, war, consumerism and, capitalism [though always the elephant in the room] would eventually spell the doom of our civilization. That makes sense, because more or less, that’s what everyone in the seventies believed would happen.

The go-go eighties dystopia-lens saw things a bit differently, predicting a humanity that was essentially good, if excessive, having allowed some kind of authoritarian/corporate dictatorship to take over, with attendant soviet-era media control—these are the films of the late eighties and through the nineties, such as The Running Man, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, The Fortress, Demolition Man and Freejack.  Its not surprising that the eighties, concerned with legitimizing excess of all kinds, would flatter itself with American self-centered hedonism as the solution to super-state intrusion.

Today’s dystopian films can’t even said to be ideological responses to Seventies and Eighties era versions of the way the future [and hence, the present] ought to be. Rather these films present societies that cater to an imagined middle class male audience, carefully avoiding any threat to their ideas of the world, and are thus based on a fantastical version of the present to begin with. In efforts to avoid the issues of the present—wide-spread scarcity and steroidal wealth disparities—such films go out of their way to portray a globalized society in which  the future’s biological-technological phenomenon exists in equal parts in every part of the world. Gamer has an extended scene where its mpg war game, Slayer, populated with remote controlled real human beings, is shown to be a big a hit in Iraq as it is in the US. Daybreakers’ nightly newscast Greek chorus tells us that the human minority/vampire majority division exists everywhere, from Bhopal to London. Surrogates in its opening explanatory sequence, informs us that mechanized avatars are used internationally—the US fights its wars in the developing world with surrogates, and apparently the developing world also uses the exact same surrogate technology, an upside down view of how and where the US fights its wars.

This globalization extends to the American social world as well, superceding what we know as institutional kinds of poverty and discrimination. Where the dynamics of the developing world can be skimmed, the social interactions of the American world must be shown, however. Given the confines of Hollywood aesthetics and demographic needs, this leads to absurd representations.

That means that we find few black people in the future. The world of Daybreakers has exactly zero African American Vampires, and one African American Human [though there is a Pacific Islander/Vampire Congressman, a double-header for this unrepresented minority]. There’s an African American police chief in Surrogates, otherwise, either African Americans prefer to inhabit white avatars, or there are no Black people in this future. Gamer has two notable African Americans, representing the two poles of the representation of black males in popular corporate-produced culture. Ludacris, the leader of the counter-corporate, counter-cultural Humanz, serves as a symbolic icon of counter-cultural rebellion. Its a construct young white teens are fond of as they search for a suitably meaningful way to rebel against authority. The physically powerful, evil Slayer character, who lives only to kill, serves as a similar, embodiment of that same rebellion; like the mythological gangsta of the corporate music and movie business. Both are utterly vacuous characters with no development and few lines. A scene with Ludacris feels uncomfortably like a white suburban fantasy–the African American freedom fighter appears and begs an affluent white teen to become one of his cadre, calling him brother.

In its main narrative structure, Gamer is a perfect example of the way cowardly Hollywood execs, who fear nothing more than actually making a viable commentary on modern society, create confused dystopian narratives. Gamer centers around two society-changing MPGs. One is a dark iteration of Syms, called Society; the other a, a war mpg, Slayer even darker than the current lot. Gamer struggles to appear to have some kind of social message about the dynamics of these games, where wealthy gamers control those who have sold themselves into virtual slavery. But it’s a message that makes no sense. The majority of human ‘bots’ in Society have sold themselves into video game slavery for the thrill and public exposure, according to commentators in the film, and only infrequently for economic reasons [as the protagonist’s wife, inexplicably, does].  Society is populated almost exclusively by whites, and all of them are healthy, well manicured and glamorous. There are a few short scenes of a Chinatown-like area of the real city, but since there are few Asians in Society or Slayer, we can assume that dystopia has quite literally left them behind.

Quite obviously in our present, people of color make up a disproportionate number of America’s poor; but there are few of them where current statistics would lead you to expect to find them in the future–as the flesh for cash denizens of Society or the Death Row cannon fodder of Slayer.  The human bots in Society are subjected to an unlikely level of dehumanization and, more importantly, real physical, life-threatening dangers. They are portrayed as trapped in the world of the game, with several scenes which telegraph obvious discomfort with what they’re being directed to do. Thus, its unlikely that anyone would participate in such a game unless they had no other option.  But even as a dystopian  extreme form of prostitution, the portrayal is tone deaf to the relatively milder modern-day prostitution. Poor people sell their bodies in early 21st century America, of course. And even in some of the most arduous situations, they have a relative measure of control in how they do it. Why people would give up complete control of their bodies for a paycheck, while they can sell their body’s services in prostitution, and at least expect to use a condom, or defend themselves from physical violence, is a head-scratcher for anyone but the most cloistered cul de sac dweller. Society fails as dystopian social commentary from any perspective you care to look at.

The more critical metaphor, Slayers, is also a failure. While the script puts a flaccid critique of the financially draining prison system in the mouth of Ludacris [who seems unconvinced by his own soliloquy], the film veers away from any realistic commentary of the US prison system. In nearly every state with a death penalty, the majority of the death row population is non-white—exceptions include such states as Oklahoma, Utah and Idaho. Not so in the Gamers version, where whites finally overcome reverse-discrimination and represent a majority of death row inmates. Nor is there any mention of a prison-industrial complex–the makers of Slayers foots the bill for America’s prisons in an unbelievable reversal of the actual relationship tax payers have with the corporate private prison system.

Would that the 00’s have the kind of self-confidence and clarity that our previous dystopian visions have had, for good or ill. Even the worst dystopian film of earlier periods had a message about how the modern world could be better. Even if this was little more than a nightmarish iteration of a Reagan campaign speech, it was honest. But like so many other corporate cultural artifacts of the 00’s, the current dystopian film is a confused and fearful hodge-podge of themes and ideas. Films like Gamer are at their heart, regressive: you find a harkening to a constructed past [i.e. whatever year the film was released] as the solution to the problems facing the fictional future world. The traditional role of dystopian tales is thus up-ended. But this backwards dystopianism is too enfeebled by fear to even countenance the society it harkens back to. Fear of reminding viewers of the harsh economic and social parameters they return to when they leave the theater saturates every frame of today’s dystopian film. Film-goers are encouraged to forget that capitalism and racism continues to produce an underclass—and that globalization has successfully replicated such underclasses to worse degrees throughout the world. They can forget that the underclass already lives something akin to the dystopian future we see on the screen. That dystopian-present, of course, would make fine subject matter for a blockbuster, as the world’s dispossessed rise up against their overlords and install a system where all people can live freely as equals. Unfortunately, such a film would appeal to the wrong target group. Because the modern dystopian film also fears reminding white audiences that they aren’t the center of the Universe.

Lost in Film Translation: Mining Alt Comic Narratives for Costumes, not Meaning

August 5, 2011

The super hero film has traveled a substantial distance to the mainstream before it finally burst through the celluloid ceiling and became the contemporary definition of cinematic blockbuster. Comic books have traveled along a reverse trajectory, from mainstream to subculture. In a strange confluence, the comic books that gave us All-American avengers in the forties, fifties and sixties, have spent the last two or so decades reinvigorating their franchises by looking back on that legacy, and often redefining their heroes as the ideological opposite pole from whence they came. Both Marvel and DC, careful to guard the marketing gold that is their classical super hero branding, take great care to maintain the more radical shifts as non-continuity formats designed for adult readers. In 2000, Marvel committed itself to full time reinterpreation–a literal parallel series of comic books featuring its heavy hitters–in the Ultimate brand.

I remember thinking when I read the first issue of the The Ultimate, the analogue of the Avengers in The Ultimates version of the Marvel Universe, that the person who conceived the idea must have really hated the Avengers. All of the Ultimate versions of the characters were portrayed–joyfully by the writer, it seemed–as self-interested, corrupt and vain. The group itself was a literal boy band put together by a realistically nefarious version of Shield, complete with marketing friendly phony and cloying origin stories. Thor was a hedonic pacifist; Captain America a deluded, anachronistically self-rigtheous patriot; Iron Man a nihilist and alcoholic.

Certainly, not all of the Ultimates lines were subversive revisionism. While the Ultimate Fantastic Four sought the reverse of the mainstream brand, with a teen group, the adventures remained at their core similar to the older stuff. Likewise, until recently, when Peter Parker was replaced by an Afro-Latino Spidey, Ultimate Spider Man has been pretty faithful to the original, with simple retellings of the popular story arcs made for people who remember them fondly–Goblin, Venom, Lizard, etc.

While both Spider Man and FF films both conspicuously avoided the Ultimates story lines, other film versions seem inordinately interested in many of the more superficial apsects of the most subversive Ultimates brands. The film-version Captain America costume, for example, is an obvious lift from the Ultimates series. The reconstruction of the absurdly costumed 1940’s Captain America, into a commando-unit leading, gun toting and Kevlar padded special operative, is also an Ultimate’s trope. But the similarities end there. The Ultimates Captain America is the thesis of American exceptionalism, a swaggering John Wayne who even inspires the origin of a revenge-seeking “Captain Middle East” due to his imperialism and chauvinism. The celluloid Captain America is a nuanced human protagonist, fighting in an extra-military battle against a secret society; Cap and his merry band of Howling Commandos have a completely non-military attitude, dressing as they like, coming up with their own missions. Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury is a panel to frame transplant from the Utlimates, a product of a diagetic joke from the creative team about who would play the characters in a movie version of the Utlimates [it could have been worse, with Steve Buscemi as Bruce Banner and Brad Pitt as Steve Rogers]. But cinema Fury is forthright, and unlike his skulldegerous Ultimates version, fair to the team he is constructing. The Tony Stark of the Iron Man films has much more in common with that of the Ultimates [and coincidentally, Morton Downey Jr.] than the boring billionaire control-freak of the mainstream series.

The films consistently fail to imprint the darker narative commentaries on the nature of the super-hero narrative–the self deluded, self-righteousness, the indelible connection to cold war values and conservative capitalism, the sexism, the racism, the curiously homoerotic homophobia. To a certain extent, this dichotomy is a product of the different goals of comics and film. Comics today have a gigantic history to sort through, and an ideological mess to make sense of. That is, in fact, half the fun for the comic book fan of today, and what inspires so many non-canonical limited series. But for many viewers, the film version will be the first time they come into contact with the superhero’s narrative, outside of the cultural iconography that they’ve absorbed by osmosis. Film super heroes, in fact, are little more than dressed-up traditional blockbuster action heroes for the most part. And in the mainstream blockbuster world, there is no similar popular tradition of narrative revisionism.

This leads to a glaring dichotomy between the source material and the film. Iron Man, for example, has a problematic and war-linked origin that’s eliminated completely in the Ultimates. Though the film transfers a good deal of the plot devices and narrative from the Ultimates version of the Avengers, it simply redefines the seat of the character’s mainstream origin from Vietnam to our current imperial adventure–just as “right” today as Vietnam was in the early sixties. The film does attempt to deal with the war-profiteering legacy of Stark Industries with Tony Stark’s attempt to turn the company away from the defense industry. But in the second film, we’re told that Iron Man has solved all of the US’s defensive needs, while we still apparently occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. What emerges is a muddled perspective on Afghanistan in the first film, and a schizophrenic and delusional view of the US’s military posture in the second.

The confused political environment of Iron Man is, in fact, a testament to what happens to celluloid super-heroes that linger too long gazing at their own paradigmatic contradictions. In the unsuccessful Superman, reboot, for example, we find a reluctant Clark Kent channel-surfing cable news images of global crises, trying to avoid his apparent responsibility to the world. But when he finally suits up and gets back on the horse, his first job is foiling a fairly conventional bank robbery. Likewise, Batman, as many have commented, can’t escape seeming like an adventuring billionaire lunatic, more invested in his own ego and morose self-aborption than actually interested in helping people. Where adult comic readers now find such innocent portrayals comical and immature, the same tropes are welcomed by adult audience in the action genre, where heroes have shared many of the same clueless–and often, offensive to progressive sensibilities–relationships with their social and political environment for generations now.

What’s ironic is that the biggest blockbuster super-hero films of the past five years are products of the post-modern movement of revisionist history in comics; all of them non-canonical. The Batman films—even the pointless blockbustering of Tim Burton—were spawned by the Dark Knight. Nearly the entire stable of current Marvel films are from parallel continuities–Iron Man, Captain America and [one assumes] the Avengers are the product of the Ultimates from the 00’s. And even the new X-Men reboot originates in the First Class limited series, which isn’t part of the X-Men continuity. What made these stories attractive to adult fans, was their critical retrospective nature, allowing fans to look back on the innocent icons of their childhood, with a mature and culturally and politically [relatively] sophisticated lens, and to ask such questions as: can a super-hero be socialist and anti-war? Would it make any difference if the person under the mask were Black? Or Gay? Wouldn’t Professor X be a terrifying and authoritarian figure, rather than a kindly father-figure? And doesn’t Captain America seem like an overbearing, asinine fascist?

This seems to be the opposite dynamic of what’s happening on screen, where super-heroes are pretty much the same type of character they were in the sixties, with updated gadgetry, costumes and haistyles.

All this to say: don’t count on an Afro-Latino Spider-Man on the big screen any time soon.

On the Dangers of Taking this Shit too Seriously

July 8, 2011

I think Batman is a perfect example of the American perspective law enforcement and incarceration. He’s a billionaire, but rather than spend his money on funding social programs, he uses it to create unnecessarily advanced weaponry and surveillance equipment to fight “crime”. He beats up poor people, and focuses on psychopathic, but ultimately inconsequential spectacle-villains to the exclusion of real and important social and political problems. He literally invented the revolving door prison system. His prison of choice, Arkham, is the poster child for the nation’s dysfunctional warehousing and solitary confinement of the mentally ill. He’s the metaphor for our society’s addiction to flashy anti-crime policies in lieu of well thought out economic planning and fair income distribution.

But this is too much:

Becoming Captain America

May 21, 2011

Superhero film adaptations tend to hide the most interesting and socially relevant aspects of the mainstream comic genre. It’s not how the story reads at any given time, it’s how it got that way. Because the super-hero staples span decades, generations of continuity problems tend to make comic book narratives long, brilliantly nonsensical mash-ups. The ancestral text thus created provides ferment for comic writers and artists in the short-term. Every writer has decades of colorful history to resurrect, destroy, re-create and re-invent. In the long term, however, narrative headaches abound. DC comics has had to destroy and re-create its universe no less than three times to explain an eternally youthful [and even younger] Superman, and has now made the act a yearly occurrence. Likewise, Marvel comics has had to create its own patchwork solutions to maintain the narrative integrity of its super-heroes. Ironically, this leads to even more continuity upgrades, more monkeying around with timelines and origins, more ret-conning fixes.

The chore of dealing with the accumulated narrative clutter, create a never-ending discourse and dialectic on the ideological hegemony of the past and future, though rarely an intentional one. Alan Moore gets almost exclusive credit for creatively utilizing the narrative treasure chest in his style of comic book dissertation. His reinterpretation of Supreme in the nineties reads less like an attempt to revitalize a boring and derivative Superman clone for a wanna-be comic book company usurper, than a rumination on the mythos, ethos and generational zeitgeist that the character left to the memory hole through the decades.

But Moore was not the first. In the early seventies, Steve Englehart, the writer of Captain America and a recent military conscientious objector, took advantage of similar narrative detritus to examine his own moment in history, and the American narrative that had preceded it, through the logic of comic book continuity. With the recent death and re-birth of Captain America in the war-mongering double otts and with a film adaptation on the way, it may be instructive to examine Englehart’s narrative pitting the forgotten Captain America of the fifties, with the ever-more anti-establishment Captain America of the seventies.

McCarthyite Commie Smasher Cap

From 1946 to 1953, Captain America disappeared. The character’s utility as a cartoon chaperone and guardian angel to youthful American troops in Europe and Japan began to fade with the end of World War II and the comic was cancelled soon after. But in 1953, the character achieved a sort of rebirth; first as an ongoing companion in Young Men Comics, and then in his own book in 1954, where he was nicknamed the “Commie Smasher”. Its comes as little surprise that the writers of Captain America at that time would seek to emulate Joseph McCarthy, who, though reviled by many Americans, had a fifty percent national approval rating according to polls from the period. The Captain America of 1954 battled American communist sympathizers more often than not. His signature villain, the Red Skull, was re-invented as an American communist, rather than a German Nazi. The last cover of the run, in fact, depicts a triumphant Captain America and Bucky, standing over brutalized bodies dragged out of what appears to be an American factory—obvious commie infiltrators caught sabotaging American industry.

Captain America’s second life was unfortunately star-crossed, coinciding with McArthyism’s public flogging in the Army McCarthy hearings that Spring. Though there may have been no direct link, it seems likely that the fall of McCarthyism in the Spring brought about the end of Commie Smasher Cap in September, just three issues into his new run.

The Captain America character was revived, quite literally, in 1963. The commie-smasher days expunged from his history, this new Captain America had fallen into an icy patch of the Atlantic Ocean in the last days of WW II and was flash-frozen and thus preserved as a pristine champion of World War Two era values. The red-hunting paranoid of the fifties fell into the memory hole, and was written out of the continuity. The Captain America of the sixties enjoyed renewed vigor and became one of the leading characters in the company’s line super-heroes—and even the leader of the company’s super-team, The Avengers.

But by the seventies, Captain America faced yet another crisis. The civil rights movement, the black power movement, feminism, the unpopular Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, had begun to re-define concepts of liberty and of American-ness. Flagging sales of the comic mirrored Captain America’s own growing identity crisis, and by the early seventies, the comic book faced cancellation once more. As Steve Englehart, who assumed the comic’s writing duties at the time, notes, the comic “had no reason for existence…here was a guy with a flag on his chest who was supposed to represent what most people distrusted.”Unless Captain America could successfully face the enigma of his own inextricably America linked symbology in 1974—and, more to the point, what it meant to be the country’s zeitgeist—he faced the same oblivion that had claimed his predecessors.

The Falcon, Marvel's First African American Super Hero

Englehart devised an elegant, if somewhat antagonistic, solution. He brought Captain America face to face with these existential questions—quite literally—in issues 153 to 156, with the sudden re-appearance of the Commie Smasher Captain America.

At the beginning of issue 153, Captain America departs New York for a much needed vacation in the Bahamas, leaving the city in the hands of his unofficial partner, the African-American Harlem native, The Falcon. But a Captain America imposter suddenly appears to terrorize Harlem, “roughing up coloreds” to get Captain America’s attention. It is later revealed, after a period of suspense native to the genre, that this is the Captain America of 1954, “ret-conned” as a distinct individual. Such “retroactive continuity” engineering has gained popularity and utility with comic book writers as comic book universes become messier over time. But few, if any, characters have confronted the ghosts of their continuity in such a literal way—fighting an earlier version of themselves, a product of the disturbing xenophobia, bigotry and paranoia of an unapologetically flawed American period.

Englehart creates a neat battleground in which to pit the two comic book standards. On a primary level, it is almost exactly two decades later—the Captain America of 1954 versus the Captain America of 1974. The characters are physically identical: through the magic of comic books, commie-smasher Captain America discovered a method to duplicate Captain America’s super-soldier formula in the fifties, and has had “plastic surgery” to give himself the face of Steve Rogers [and even, somehow, his voice]. Commie Smasher Cap’s real name is never revealed, but he has it legally changed to that of his hero, Rogers. Commie Smasher Cap reaches the modern period with his youth and vigor intact through the same trope of suspended animation that brought the current Captain America into the modern period.

In some sense, then, the battle between Commie Smasher Cap and Seventies Cap seems less about a claim on the costume and insignia, than a struggle for narrative hegemony. At stake, a vital link to the World War II narrative—the “good” American period where, as Seventies Cap states, America’s enemies were foreign, and it was a clearly noble cause to fight them. Who will be the inheritor of 1940’s American virtue, the champion of the “greatest generation” at this pivotal moment in American history?

Seventies Cap, like his commie-obsessed doppleganger, also acknowledges that his enemies are now domestic. Of course, as always,  super-heroes must fight some generic “organized crime”, and Seventies Cap is no exception. But unlike many heroes of that time and since,  Seventies Cap is far more interested in facing unpleasant undercurrents in American society—what he observes as a revival of fascism and American “injustice”, an obvious, if  thinly-veiled, critique of economic and race inequalities. Seventies Cap, then, represents the progressive American narrative, linking and deleting historical periods, jettisoning the American history of bigotry in favor of the nation’s progressive and civil rights movements. World War II,  becomes a fight against race-based oppression, which sneaks past the fifties and straight into the civil rights era and the expanding race, class and gender consciousness of the seventies.

Commie Smasher Cap is the stark opposite of Seventies Captain America, representing the fading hegemonyof white male America against the forces of Un-American ideas disseminated by scandalous women, subversive leftists, and traitorous people of color. The commie smasher clings to the narrative of American exceptionalism, where morals are simply as they are, made by the most powerful for their own benefit. This is recast in the Pat Buchanan inspired rhetoric of white male grievance of the seventies.

Central to this struggle for hegemonic control of the American narrative are the cast of supporting characters. On the Seventies side—a racially and gender diverse group, at home in the big city. Seventies Cap’s love interest, Sharon Carter, is an establishment drop-out, having recently rejected her role as a government agent. The Falcon, a Harlem resident, represents a liminal African American super hero, trying to wed his role as Captain America’s new partner with the restive militancy of his Harlem community. In fact, the appearance of Commie Smasher Cap, who lures the Falcon into a trap by “roughing up some coloreds”, ignites new tensions in the community. As Falcon notes, Commie Smasher’s naked bigotry has driven his own love interest into the arms of “the militants”.

On the commie-busting side, “Bucky”, Commie Smasher Cap’s sidekick, is a foul-mouthed bigot—a misogynistic hypocrite with an authoritarian streak. He serves as a sadistic attack dog, hungrily doing the violent bidding of his superior. He is the white supremacist everyman; a colorfully-costumed “Bull” Connor, the white police chief who beat, hosed and used attack dogs on civil rights activists during the iconic Selma demonstrations.  Faced with the opportunity to beat Carter and the Falcon, Bucky nearly salivates at the opportunity to “pound on a colored creep and a tomato at the same time.”

There are two symbolic replays of iconic civil rights organizing and clashes involving Bucky in the story. In one, an overpowered Falcon is saved by a group of his neighbors, who recruit, organize and then attack the superhumanly powerful Bucky, despite the odds against them and Bucky’s official status as a white super-hero. Later, when Seventies Cap wants to face off with Commie Smasher and Bucky alone, he is reminded of the virtues of solidarity by Carter and the Falcon. The multi-racial and gender-diverse group echo the solidarity of the Freedom Riders as a paradigm of diversity and coordinated action to oppose a racist infrastructure. The trope of the individualist white male hero is challenged by an African American man and a white woman. Similarly, the Falcon and Carter finally defeat Bucky’s superhuman strength by organizing their efforts. As Carter notes, “we’ve got teamwork and you’ve only got hate.”

The two Captain Americas are also depicted at cultural odds, despite their physical similarity. Seventies Cap is urban and working class; he seems increasingly alienated from the standards and mores of the American super hero. Entering his seedy single room occupancy hotel in full costume, at the beginning of the story arc, he wearily questions the traditional super hero protocol of secret identities. On vacation, Cap, in his civilian identity of Steve Rogers, allows Sharon to defend herself at first from an assailant, rather than stepping in to protect her. He also lets her cover the cost of the vacation. Most interestingly, Seventies Captain America is uncomfortable with his role as a symbol of America. While pursuing Commie Smasher Cap, his thought-balloons are packed with self-doubt and recriminations—

–he is what he is because he admired me—wanted to copy me

–I’m responsible for all the evil he’s done.”

–he [Commie Smasher] could have been me”.

So disturbed is Seventies Captain America by the experience that he walks away, downcast, “to be alone” and ponder his role in the world in the last panel of the story.

By contrast, Commie Smasher Cap was affluent before assuming the mantle of Captain America in the fifties. He has none of his twin’s confidence in his masculinity, but is instead a running sore of wounded masculinity. At one point, he runs back into a losing battle simply to respond to a cat-call of ‘coward’; in the penultimate battle, Commie Smasher screams at Seventies cap that he is a “real man”.

Englehart’s portrait of Commie Smasher Cap is merciless—perhaps because of the writer’s own recent experiences of being discharged from the military as a “conscientious objector”. Commie Smasher Cap is not merely some misguided, but ultimately, patriotic and well-intentioned American [as the character is later portrayed in subsequent revivals]. Englehart specifically links Commie Smasher Cap’s anti-communist paranoia to hateful bigotry and chauvinism, not attachment to ideology—a point which is emphasized consistently throughout the three issue arc.

In his flashback origin story, where its revealed that the effects of an imperfect super-soldier serum may have driven Commie Smasher over the edge, the decline of his mental faculties is represented in one succinct panel: Commie Smasher looms over a cowering African American, saying, “we began finding reds where others saw nothing, like in Harlem and Watts. In fact, we found that most people who weren’t pure-blooded Americans were commies”. To Englehart, the fifties seem less about fear of communism, than fear of the “other”—of women, of African Americans, of diversity, non-conformity and of the subversion of hegemonic control. His Seventies-era Captain America, and his allies, are the champion of those people and ideas.

Englehart’s disdain for Commie Smasher Cap is explored through the symbols of the character’s iconic costume and shield throughout the story and in its climax. Seventies Captain America’s shield [emblazoned with a stars and stripes] is made of an indestructible material, Commie Smasher goes through one disposable shield after another, as they visibly crumple after only a few uses. Moreover, his costume is imperfect, lacking the stripes on his back, like Seventies Captain America; Commie Smasher’s back is, appropriately, emblazoned with a lone star. The costume itself becomes the symbol of his counterfeit status as American symbol in the final fight with Seventies Captain America as it begins to rend and shred, finally leaving him looking like a crazed mendicant. Though he is far stronger than Seventies Captain America, his moral weakness and hatred eventually prove his undoing; Seventies Captain America defeats him with one blow.

Englehart’s message is clear; the fifties were an inauthentic aberration to be excised from the American progressive narrative. In Englehart’s comic book Seventies, one of the most American things one can do is to cast off stale notions of patriotism and to question the idea of “America”. Indeed, Seventies Cap has only begun to fight; in a later issue, he discovers a Watergate like scandal which leads to the White House and the suicide of a disgraced President. Throwing away his costume, Steve Rogers leaves crime-fighting to the Falcon while he searches for the real person beneath the shield and the true meaning of a Captain America. The often-confused, introspective and rapidly-changing Captain America—who eventually shuns even the name and costume—becomes the true heir to the American narrative.

PTSD Cyborg Assault-Weapon-Toting Bucky

Interestingly, the film adaptation of Captain America will focus on the World War 2 years only, eschewing Cap’s most recent near half-century of history. It’s not surprising that again, writers seek the “good war”, even more so in a time of ambivalence to the American fighting spirit and sagging interest in the idea, if not character, of Captain America. When the current source material is considered, the break in the linkage is understandable. Captain America’s death actually made news in real world newspapers in 2007, at the height of American dissatisfaction with the Iraq War and Occupation. At the same time, rather than contest the current American political narrative in favor of a progressive one, Marvel’s writers chose to mirror the ever-more occluded and repressive security state, reviving Bucky as a cyborg assassin with PTSD who takes up the mantle of his former mentor. When, as is the norm for comics, Captain America returns from the dead, he mirrors the seventies cap storyline, eschewing the stars and stripes and patriotism.

Unlike Seventies Cap, however, the Captain America of the new millennium opts for a role as the director of a clandestine intelligence agency, that would, if it existed in the real world, violate dozens of international and domestic laws—invading other countries on a regular basis and rendering super powered villains in an extra dimensional Guantanamo.

Cynical Neo-Con Captain America

The evolution of seventies cap, perhaps, embodied the ethical struggles and hopes of its writer–a conscientious objector, in tune with the grassroots social movements of his day. Today’s cap is aligned with a neo-con “realism” that most Americans accept out of apathy, ignorance and fear, or some combination of all three. Still looking back to World War 2, we’re unable, or perhaps unwilling, to link the narratives. There may be nothing to validate with the blessing of the “good war” in our current era of cynical power-brokering and militarism.

Some Things You Just Can’t Censor

January 10, 2011

There’s been a furor recently over the decision of one publishing company to issue an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with certain redactions—i.e., “slave” for “nigger” and etcetera. It could be an interesting conversation; sadly, I think most people really miss the point in the discourse about American media, art and narrative in the context of the American identity and racism.

The question is less about whether language in Huckleberry Finn is racist. Certainly one could argue that the use of the term “nigger”, which was considered pejorative by Twain’s time, is used artfully in the context of the book as a critique of the mores of race at the time. And that in a sea of awful people, Jim is certainly the most moral, and that his emotional landscape is well-explored. These are the two main strands of defense from the charge of the book’s racism.

But there are other problems with this book, stemming from a deeper,  more troublesome racism than simple pejoratives and aggravated by the fact that, though now buried in history and multiple re-prints, the current iteration of Twain’s book is already censored. Mark Twain’s book, as he envisioned and directed it to print, is no longer available. In that volume, African-Americans, in the form of Jim, foremost, are nothing but a series of iconic images of black subordination and ugly stereotype–and they were commissioned and heartily approved by Twain. This glaring echo of the deep racism that suffused the era in which Twain was writing, was later “corrected” to fit the popular depiction of the image of Mark Twain of later eras.

The illustrator for the original 1885 publication of the book, E.W. Kemble, later became famous for his [in today’s view ludicrously offensive] portrayals of African-Americans, “Kemble’s Coons”, “A Coon Alphabet”, “Coontowns” and others.

Kemble was chosen personally by Twain, and his images enthusiastically approved of by the writer. But Kemble’s Jim is almost always depicted as wide-eyed and gape-mouthed.

It’s quite possible that Twain, as others comment, was quite a progressive thinker, and did indeed loathe the treatment of African-Americans. But it seems that even the remarkable Twain couldn’t escape the racism at the heart of 19th century America. Twain could imbue his African American character with a just and moral heart, but he couldn’t give him an intellect that could match that of the other characters in the work.

In one scene in particular, the reader is treated to Twain’s negative view of the intellectual capacity of African-Americans when Huck fakes his death, and then, inconceivably, convinces Jim that it was nothing but a dream. Twain’s idea that Jim could be so easily convinced of such a thing, is an uncomfortable detail usually skipped over when it comes time to laud the writer for his heart-felt depiction of African-Americans. Superstition, in fact, serves as Jim’s main way of understanding the world, combined with foolish boasts and exaggeration. We are also briefly told of how Tom once fooled Jim into thinking that witches stole his hat, and informed that Jim himself, as a classical fool, embellished the story to the point where the witches had ridden him like a horse all over the country. Other African Americans, of similar mental stature, came far and wide to hear this story. Throughout the book, Jim is driven to odd and foolish acts by simple superstition.

In another scene, Jim is an iconic image of black superstition and subservience.

We see a hysterical Jim on his knees in an image that has typified (and continues to typify) the representation of African-Americans and other people of color, especially in film and television.

Such scenes are fairly accurately illustrated by Kemble. Twain was, in fact, happy with the results of the illustrations, although he had sent previous drafts back. Of the final drawings, Twain remarked, “I knew Kemble had it in him…this batch of pictures is rattling good. They please me exceedingly.” Kemble made his name with Finn and became the country’s preeminent “negro” illustrator, going on to create iconic racist imagery of post-reconstruction era print media–what Michael Patrick Hearn calls “a national cesspool of xenophobia and bigotry.” As Stephen Railton notes:

In what he [Kemble] says there we hear a racism so deeply held and so naive that it is not even faintly aware of itself, especially when he talks about the white boy whom he hired to pose for all the book’s characters, and how much that boy enjoyed impersonating “Jim”: “he would jam his little black wool cap over his head, shoot out his lips and mumble coon talk”

Its ironic, then, that those arguing against the current effort to censor Twain’s work are almost certainly only familiar with a previously censored work, excised of these Sambo-like images, as culture and times turned away from such obvious and derogatory imagery.

Kemble was only conveying quite accurately the characterizations that Twain himself created, something people seem to blind themselves to when discussing the book for various reasons. Perhaps they excuse such characterizations as a product of the times, and consider that the positive virtues of the Jim character outweigh the stepinfetchit detritus. But the book remains problematic. While it shouldn’t be censored (again), it certainly shouldn’t be described in the glowing terms it continues to be as a discourse on racism. How it continues to be is a mystery that can only be solved by investigating the modern primacy that such depictions continue to enjoy.

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Something about the Twain discussion echoed in the new Coen Brothers film True Grit for me.

I don’t think its an exaggeration to say that the Coen brothers are directors who have defined the modern concept of film, and their ouvre is tremendous when compared to most filmmakers—they’ve produced, directed and written one film on an average of 14 months since the late eighties. By any measure, they are probably the most economically and artistically successful filmmakers that have ever put their minds to the medium. Film-goers of all kinds love Coen Brothers films, as do the critics. In terms of content, as well, they are uniquely cohesive. They write, produce and direct most of their films. In short, they really do make films in their entirety, unlike so many other film-makers, who are either confined to directing or writing, but rarely dare to aspire to both.

Which is why their issues with race should seem so obvious. Of the seventeen films they have been responsible for, none have had a non-white lead or significant protagonist. None have dealt with issues concerning non-white communities. More significantly, many of their films do include people of color in peripheral roles, but as objects of derision, exotic inscrutability, violence or comedy. The Asian American character in Fargo, for example, supplied for the comic relief, apparently, of an Asian American speaking with a northern midwest accent. Again, in A Serious Man, Asians provide comic relief but receive no substantive character development. In No Country for Old Men, “Mexicans” are the butt of jokes “I’ve heard a coyote won’t eat a Mexican”, and function as the object and cause of murder throughout the movie. And the film seems to imply that narcotics based violent crime emerged from Mexico and came to attack the US, a country unprepared for such levels of mayhem. Latinos are nearly voiceless but for two scenes in the film that cannot even be counted as dialogue in any real way. This is in contrast to highly nuanced and fascinating White characters of all moral persuasions, lovingly explored throughout the ponderous film.

True Grit stands out among these works for simple invisibility and irrelevance of non-white characters. It can certainly be argued that the Coens perhaps intended to depict the racist ideas of the time, and the racist White characters such times would create–that any hero from such a period would be indelibly stained with racist views and acts. But its the film’s perspective, not the characters, which seem to harbor antagonism to non-white characters, as if in trying to convey the racist realism of the 19th century, the film itself grew to appreciate it. A black character is condescendingly dismissed by a fourteen year old girl in the beginning of the film. Minutes later a scene is carefully constructed to show the last words of three men about to be hanged. The dialogue of first two of the men, both White, is well-written and nuanced for such inconsequential characters in the film. The third man about to hang, however, is gruffly and angrily interrupted just as he begins his soliloquy, and dies in silence; he is Native American. While the dialogue of the two White men give us insights into the kinds of crimes they committed and why, we never know anything about the Native American, except that he manages to sing a few lines of an indigenous song before he dies.

Later, the Cogburn character is shown kicking and beating Native American children; in and of itself, this moment could have been portrayed as the disgusting act of a bigot that it seems; some viewers and critics may yet argue that it was. And yet, the children are seemingly unaffected by the violence, neither crying out or complaining. In fact, they are portrayed in exactly the same light as the racist’s idea of Native Americans–sub-humans that can be treated like dogs and be none the poorer for it. The young female protagonist exchanges gazes with their vacuous expressionless faces–these are not just depictions of racists interacting with non-whites, these are also racist depictions of non-whites.Despite the violence this armed man has shown them, they show no fear when he returns, to again beat them. And they stand idly by, while the man who just beat them and his companion discuss the information that he has just learned.

This is reminiscent of a scene from the deeply racist John Ford film The Searchers, in which a protagonist, in a fit of anger, violently kicks a Native American character down a hillside. In both films, there is no commentary about the morality of the act, and, more importantly, no reaction either verbal or physical by the Native American characters. These white protagonists go on to be charming heroes, while we never see our Native American targets of abuse again.

Most film reviews that I’ve read of True Grit miss such facts, concentrating instead on the concept that this is attention to detail. But what remains interesting to me is that after nearly a century and a half after Mark Twain’s work, we’re still settling for realistic portrayals of white racism from earlier times at the cost of substantive and interesting portrayals of the non-whites they abuse. And we still fail to see how our self-satisfaction with our race discourse has kept us frozen in space and time, in a race-discourse not much different than it was fifty years ago.

What will future generations say when it comes to viewing our deeply racist society, so comfortable now with the exclusion of non-white voices and characters in mainstream films that it is no longer commented on? Will they ask, why did they so consistently make these films about the racist White people of yesterday, excusing their bigotry as a time period eccentricity, while constructing roles for them that can only be seen as heroic? And why did filmmakers rarely, if ever, make these same films from the perspective of the dismissed African-American servant or the executed Native American or the Native Americans on whose land the entire action of True Grit occurs? Why are there still no action films about the thousands of African-Americans who fought with the abolitionist British against the enslaving American colonists? Why no thrillers about the Underground Railroad, or uplifting films about Chinese labor movements against the railroads? The list goes and on and on. In fact, there is no shortage of eras housing great stories of the lives of the people of color who have inhabited this nation alongside the White objects of hegemonic narratives. There is simply almost as little will to make narratives about them today, as there was in Mark Twain’s day.

Lovemarks of the Post-Apocalypse

August 26, 2010

There’s a funny bit in the mostly unfunny movie, Tropic Thunder, where one of the cast–a merchandising-mogul/rapper–trudging through a sixties-era Vietnam jungle, slakes his thirst by downing his own “Booty Sweat” cola. The joke is obvious–Hollywood is so blindly jacked into product placement, so disinterested in the impact that it has on narrative, that it would even place a yet to be invented product into a period film just to turn a dime.

Well, maybe the past is a stretch. But there has been a proliferation of product placement in the future–specifically dystopian and apocalyptic futures. I, Robot, for example, is infamous for its product placements—a 2002 era bottle of Dos Equis, and a “vintage” pair of 2002 Chuck Taylors, among many others. Laughable, but not too surprising, given that the film is a Will Smith blockbuster; you can expect producers to cram as much crap into as the feature can handle. But the practice has been showing up in much more serious films with pretensions of being meaningful commentaries on human progress and twenty-first century technological pitfalls.

Two recent visions of a future America in perpetual nuclear winter–The Road and The Book of Eli–contain some rather odd product placements. In The Road, Cormac Mcarthy’s dark vision of a dying post-nuclear war America, the protagonists are treated to the world’s last Coke—a first for “the boy”, who’s never tasted the wonder of carbonation. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I expected the trademark “Have a Coke and a Smile” logo to appear in the next frame. Later, the pair happen on a forgotten bunker full of Dole canned goods and Vitamin Water. That’s right, rather than stock up on water, the people who outfitted their post-apocalypse hide-away spent three or four times as much on little bottles of adult kool-aid. Interestingly, a great deal of the film’s plot revolves around the nomadic quest for food–and in an age where naturally occurring food has vanished–food is, by definition, that branded and packaged iconography of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Despite the fact that the film pretends to be a haunting tale of desolation and an investigation into the nature of humanity, you can’t help but be left… well, hungry. Indeed, in a film where smiles are necessarily few, the only joy is found in discovering branded food items from the past, such as Cheetohs and Spam–a lucky break for the studio, the food companies and the protagonists alike.

In the Book of Eli, where cats and other vermin can still be hunted for food (though cannibalism is a curiously similarly important plot device), it’s twentieth century gadgets that play a role. Eli is brought into the town that sets events in motion to recharge his Ipod; there are no longer any cellphone towers, but Motorola makes an appearance branded on a home-made megaphone.

And even when society hasn’t, arguably, fallen apart, modern brands in recognizable form appear in the most bizarre contexts in apocalyptic films. Perhaps in earlier periods, marketing gurus feared to tread in. Soylent Green could never have been a division of an existing food company, for example, nor could you buy a Dos Equis at the Carousel in Logan’s Run. Perhaps corporations were more interested in protecting their corporate logos, than simple visibility. I have no doubt, however, that modern remakes of those films would have exactly those kinds of product placement. Life-clock with Intel inside; Kraft’s Soylent Green, Bringing People Together in the Cycle of Life. In today’s missed- it-in-a-flash internet-ad world cacophony, visibility is legitimacy all by itself. What else can explain Chrysler’s bold foray into Vampire-Assistive Driving Devices in DayBreakers? Or Volkswagen, the preferred vehicle of “organ repossession agencies” in Repo Men. In both films, the vehicles appear curiously contemporary –in Daybreakers, Chrysler’s 2010 300 model is literally a co-star in the film. The respective corporations and filmmakers want you to associate these brands–effective accomplices in societal stratification and murder–with their current incarnations.

Does this mean that there has emerged an attendant disconnect between Brand and reputation? Between Lovemark and legitimacy? It’s probably over-simplifying to say that the effect of internet advertisement models, and the growth of public sophistication, and thus, immunity to branding strategies, has created a product placement free for all, where associations play second fiddle to simple visibility. But I’ll put it out there, anyway. That would explain why Chrysler doesn’t care if its 300 is driven by genocidal vampires or the hapless and ever-dwindling human race (who prefer unbranded beaters, RV’s and the like), and why Glaceau doesn’t mind that you associate Vitamin Water with soul-crushing desperation, so long as you associate it with something.

Is there an attendant loss in the American capacity to recognize reputation and positive associations? And wouldn’t that necessarily mean the converse, that brand-amortization is now negligible, that brands can get away with anything now, and not lose their market? A world where Gap can have as many sweatshops as it likes, and still be cool, as long as it flits before your eyes often enough on a backlit screen? Or BP can destroy the Gulf and still earn a respectable profit in the next quarter? That would put most dystopian futures to shame, right here in the present.

Update:

I wanted to note that Daybreakers stands out amongst these films as the most subversively critical of American consumer culture in the age of Peak Oil. In my view, Daybreakers’ majority vampirism is a stand in for consumerist capitalism, the minority “non-Vampire” humans a metaphor for the non-industrialized or newly industrialized world trying to survive in a resource environment controlled by Americans. The Vampires, even when faced with extinction because of their own rapacious consumer habits, use a newly discovered blood substitute, not as an alternative to consuming humans for food, but as a way to continue doing so. What’s more important to American/Vampires than survival is continuing their consumptive ways, for they can’t bear to think of life without it.  It’s actually quite, ironic, then, that half the film is a Chrysler commercial. Or maybe it’s just a dumb movie about vampires.

Update 2:

Apropos to what I wrote about BP, here’s a tidbit from a recent Wall Street Journal article concerning the company’s brand:

A good brand may be able to help gas sales to some degree, but the most important draw may be price, convenience and quality.

“It’s good for my car, and it makes it run better,” Charlotte Sargent, 45, told the AP who asked her about the possible name change at a gas station in Cincinnati. “It doesn’t matter to me whether they call it BP or something else.”

Of course. Set the Gulf on fire, or outfit cars so that genocidal preppy Vampires can drive in the daytime. What difference does it make?

Also, yesterday at the UC gym, I spotted three young men standing next to one another at assorted work out stations, each wearing the distinctive set of headphones which attach the Book of Eli’s protagonist to his pre-apocalypse Ipod. I think I may have missed the actual target, here. I was informed by one of the guys, that these are “Dr. Dre’s” something or other, which really are the focus of these product placement shots. I was going to post a screen-shot of the last scene, in which Eli’s young disciple takes to the road with his Ipod—it’s an odd, long pause over her placement of the headphones in her ear in a tight shot that looks exactly like an ad for the headphones. But why should I help them sell this future land-fill?…oh what the hell,here’s a clip. Tell me this doesn’t look like an ad for the headphones?

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