Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Why do 99% of movies follow the same formula?

Because they address our most basic anxieties, our fear of death and our drive to deny it.  Denial of death is what I call a meta-institution. That means an institution (defined by Veblen as a crystallized habit of thought or life) that is globally dominant and pervasive. No place, country, society, culture or whatever group is immune.  We all create and nurture death-denying institutions. Sometimes they involve religion, sometimes not. Business is as good at death denial as religion is. There is no way that the film industry can escape our basic drive to deny death.

Death doesn’t necessarily mean what happens to you when your brain and body stop functioning. It can mean poverty or social death and isolation. In this sense death denies us the good life but leaves us, zombie-like, to live out our physical lives with not much of anything interesting to experience or for which to look forward.

The film industry barters in death, social or physical, worldly or eternal. So, you’ll often see a person die in movies but generally that’s considered a sacrifice for the survival of our favourite death-denying meta-institution, the one that promises us eternal life of one kind or another. The hero, that person or group that personifies the triumph over death, occasionally dies in a movie, but always with the proviso that what they’ve fought and died for lives on. From war movies to romantic comedies, the formula is always the same as is the outcome. Of course there is a lot of variation in how the formula plays out and how long an individual movie spends on any particular part of the formula, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the formula itself.

Triumph over complacency, attack from various quarters (earthly or otherwise), disease, rejection, isolation, poverty, or what-have-you, is the bread and butter of the film industry.

The Future of Drone Attacks: Automated Killing – FORA.tv

The Future of Drone Attacks: Automated Killing – FORA.tv.

One of my former students, Karina Sangha did a Master’s dissertation on Drones.  I attended a very informative discussion of drones and the ethical considerations of using drones for war and policing she presented recently at North Island College.  This video presents a hint of what the issues are.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

Gwynne Dyer – A review of a recent talk: a lot right, some not so much.

 

Gwynne Dyer (http://gwynnedyer.com/) spoke recently at North Island College as part of the Institute of War & Peace being taught over the spring term by three faculty members from the English and Humanities and Social Sciences Department.  This is the third time I’ve heard Dyer speak and on every occasion he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to go on for an hour and a half without notes or even the benefit of a power point presentation.  Astounding!  But he is a compelling speaker.  When I was still teaching sociology at the college I often used Dyer’s films in my classes, one on the experience of Marine basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina and another great one on the ‘tribe’ as an organizing social and political force.  Dyer is an intelligent reporter and critic on world affairs, especially those with military dimensions.

 

In his recent talk at the college he covered three areas of ‘current unrest’ in the world, the Middle East, the Ukraine and the South China Sea.  His analyses often seem counterintuitive as one listens to them yet strangely plausible at the same time.

 

With reference to the Middle East, Dyer argues that there has been no major war to disrupt the area for quite some time.  He goes over the power and potential of the major states in the area, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Iraq, but also of Egypt, to win a war with Israel.  He concludes that all out war between Israel and any one of those Arab states is highly unlikely.  Of course, the tension always seems to be there and there have been the odd military excursions here and there and punishing attacks by the Israelis in Gaza in ‘retaliation’ for Palestinian attacks like the wave of bus bombings in Jerusalem a few years ago.  The West Bank is slowly being overrun with Jewish settlements.  So what would be a viable solution to the ‘crisis’ if one were a Palestinian?  Well, the two state solution seems plausible with Israel taking the bulk of the territory but with the Palestinians at least holding on to some territory over which they would have sovereignty.  A better solution, still, Dyer proposes, might be a one state solution where Israel would cover the whole area from the Egypt to Lebanon and everyone would become a citizen of one country, Israel, whether Jewish or Palestinian.  Because of the demographics of the situation, and if the Palestinians had the vote which would be their right as citizens of Israel, power could realistically devolve to the Palestinians in a reasonable period of time.  Apparently, this scenario is gaining ground as a possibility among Palestinians but the impediments to such a solution are not easily discounted.  Plausible…as they would say on Mythbusters, but probably a long shot.

 

Dyer’s comments about the Ukraine are less optimistic than are his thoughts on the Middle East.  He sees a lot of outright stupidity and bravado there but he is cautiously optimistic that war will be averted as long as Western countries keep their noses out of it but that the tension could very well devolve into something more serious than a skirmish.  Dyer is much more knowledgeable about the situation than I am.  I freely admit that I know very little about the politics of that area of the world, but I still feel there is something lacking in Dyer’s analysis, a feeling I get from my general knowledge of the global political economy over the past few centuries, particularly since the first serious wave of the spread of European capital to other parts of the world in the 15th Century. (let’s not quibble about the Roman empire).  Back to that later.

 

Dyer ended his talk with a note on the South China Sea where China and Viet Nam are now in a dispute about the ownership of some islands that coincidentally are on top of substantial oil reserves.  We know from the news that Chinese nationals are being attacked by Vietnamese in Hanoi and other cities causing thousands of Chinese to return in haste to China. Dyer also talked about longstanding disputes between Japan and Korea over islands (of course).  His main point in his talk about the South China disputes is that China is headed into a deep recession.  Its in need of a diversion so that its citizens are focused on an external ‘threat’ thus inflaming an always present but sometimes dormant nationalism.  For the Chinese leaders this is a much better outcome than having China’s workers brooding on the fact that their jobs have disappeared and having them get revolting over that. There’s already enough unrest in Chinese factories with workers demanding pay increases and better working conditions.  Don’t need any more of that!   I don’t believe I’ve misinterpreted Dyer in any of this but I’m open to be corrected if need be.  That said, I left Dyer’s talk last week a little dissatisfied.

 

Dyer, being a specialist in military and political history, can be forgiven for not integrating political economy into his analysis more completely.  In reference to some situation in the Ukraine that I can’t recall at the moment, although it may have had something to do with the sad state of productive capacity and outmoded means of production and competition from other jurisdictions, he made an offhanded remark that ‘well, that’s just business.’  Well, business, especially at the scale we’re concerned with here, is never just business.  When Dyer mentions that a coming recession in China is driving foreign policy he’s getting it, sort of, but not essentially.

 

I want to step back here for a moment and consider why there has been no major military battles in the last 70 years on this favourite planet of ours.  It could be argued, I suppose, that assured mutual destruction may have something to do with it.  Launching nuclear weapons is a no-win game and everybody knows it.  That doesn’t mean that some nut job in the Pentagon or the Kremlin hasn’t thought about it.  So far more rational heads have prevailed.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

 

I believe, however, that the main reason for the fact that bombs aren’t flying between major powers in the world today is much more about the fact that countries are not really the drivers of economic activity, multinational corporations are.  I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but from my reading of European history, the driver of the formation, configuration and constitution of countries (states) from as far back as the 14th Century is capital expansion.  In the Middle Ages the acquisition of land, often violently but mainly by treaty and intermarriage, was the way wealth and power were accumulated.  After all, it was the prospect of new territory that prompted Queen Isabella of Spain to bankroll Christopher Columbus on his little jaunt into the Atlantic Ocean.  Columbus himself didn’t care a hoot about territory. He was interested in ‘stuff’ he could bring back from India or wherever he landed to sell on the European market to make himself rich.  For his class of people, the bourgeoisie, commodities, not the conquest of land were the source of wealth.  That’s still the way it is today although today we’ve come to a time when the world is becoming highly integrated in economic terms.  Companies with head offices the whereabouts of which matter very little anymore, produce (or contract other local businesses to produce) goods in export processing zones all over the world.  They then move them to ‘consumer’ markets mostly in Europe and North America, but increasingly to every corner of the planet by just-in-time processes of distribution.  In whatever country a corporation has a head office (usually just because it first saw the light of day there) it’s likely to lobby hard and get the support of the national government to champion its interests even though those interests may clash with those of the citizens of said country.  The larger the corporation the less likely the national government is to ignore it.  And if, as with the petrochemical or auto industries, a number of corporations lobby hard through their non-profit lobbying societies like the Canadian Petroleum Producers Association, then the government takes the call no matter what time of the day or night.

 

In fact, with a few exceptions, the governments of our world are all too eager to serve corporate interests to the detriment of those of its own citizens.  A recent article in The New Republic suggests that a number of ‘American’[1] corporations are already whining about how economic sanctions against Russia would be sanctions against them because they do billions of dollars of business a year in Russia and have high hopes for Russia as an emerging market for US goods (some produced, no doubt, in China). There are Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs all over Moscow. (Vinnik 2014)  Now this has a critical impact on the likelihood of open interstate warfare, especially where nuclear weapons are concerned.  It’s really not about territorial expansion anymore, anyway.  It’s about control of commodity markets, including those for cheap labour power.  Particularly strange would be for the US to decide to attack China with bombs.  It’s true that if Walmart were a country it would be China’s 8th most important trading partner.  I can’t imagine Washington attacking Walmart’s factories in China!

 

In fact, in a perverse kind of weird way, I think that the fact that corporations, in looking for the cheapest sources of labour and raw materials, spread themselves all over the globe is a deterrent to all-out war between states.  Of course the fear of war is important because that justifies feeding billions of dollars into arms producing businesses.  But skirmishes here and there use up some of that arms production as do military exercises like patrolling the South China Sea, something the American Navy has done since 1945.  Still, an American government aiming to protect ‘its’ corporations is not likely to send in the troops when that would lead to dropping corporate profits.  Nowadays, war is not always good for business and its clearer now than ever that corporate interests come first in our world.  I hate to admit it, but corporate global expansion may be a strong deterrent to interstate warfare. (Vinnik 2014)

Works Cited

Vinnik, Danny. These U.S. Corporations Are Probably Scared of Sanctions on Russia. March 4, 2014. http://www.newrepublic.com/article/116853/economic-sanctions-would-hurt-american-companies-russia.

 

 

 

 

[1] Corporations are considered legal individuals in the US and in Canada but it’s a stretch to think of them as ‘national’ when capital supercedes state in the way the world is organized these days according to Thorstein Veblen and other commentators for whom I have a great deal of respect.  Although the relationships are complicated, it’s more accurate to say that capital created the modern nation-state than the other way around.

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

Escape 21: Scapegoating 101: “Hell is other people.”

This is going to be a shorter post than the last few…which have been way too long.  I fear I’m getting pedantic in my old age.  Say it ain’t so.  I’ll carry on now, pedantry or not.  One positive thing I’m getting out of this is that my typing skills are improving, if nothing else.

So, in the last post we looked at Becker’s use of the term ‘sacrifice’.  This post is about a related term, scapegoating.  Scapegoating is a form of sacrifice…in the early days using a real goat.  Now we do it with people, mostly people we blame, realistically or not, for all of our troubles.  Becker opens this part of Chapter 8 with a quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist, who said “Hell is other people.”  I need to put that on a T-shirt, damn it!

From the beginning, men have served the appetites of one another in the most varying ways, but these were always reducible to a single theme: the need for fuel for one’s own aggrandizement and immunity.  Men use one another to assure their personal victory over death…In one of the most logical formulas on the human condition Rank observed: ‘The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.  No wonder men are addicted to war…war is a ritual for the emergence of heroes.

What about heroes? This is where Becker introduces the concept of heroism as a major element in his whole thought.  Heroes are not like the rest of us.  Most of us would be willing to sacrifice just about anyone who stands in our way, friend or foe, because inevitably people offend us.  A wife or husband ‘cheats’, another driver cuts us off in traffic then gives us the finger.  As Becker notes, this is the price of our natural narcissism.  We would like to kill people, or at least maim them, almost every day, but our fear of death prevents us.  Heroes are different.  They take the bullet, they take on the bad guys, they put themselves in harms way instead of throwing others in the way.  So “war IS a ritual for the emergence of heroes.”

The logic of scapegoating, then, is based on animal narcissism and hidden fear. If luck, as Aristotle said, is when the arrow hits the fellow next to you, then scapegoating is pushing the fellow into its path – with special alacrity if he is a stranger to you. 

Freud was right; in the narcissism of earthly bodies, where each is imprisoned fatally in his own finite integument, everyone is alien to oneself and subject to the status of scapegoating for one’s own life.

 We kill others, literally or socially, in order to affirm our own life. Then killing others in mass rituals like war is spectacularly affirming.  To bring it closer to home and in a bit of a less dramatic fashion, consider the way we treat the homeless and the poor and how desperately they try to hide their condition.  We kill them socially; it’s almost better than killing them physically because we prolong their suffering and see their distress and immobility as it slowly unfolds before our very eyes.  That affirms our life.

As we watch the Sochi Olympic Games, the victory celebration is a way of

…experiencing the power of our lives and the visible decrease of the enemy: it is a sort of staging of the whole meaning of a war, the demonstration of the essence of it – which is why the public display, humiliation, and execution of prisoners is so important. ‘They are weak and die: we are strong and live.’

We are disgusted by what is happening in North Korea but we turn a blind eye to the humiliation and degradation prisoners experience in our own prisons every day.

The U.S. is always keen to keep the torches lit and the electric chair warmed up.  Guantanamo Bay is a celebration of American power.

 It is obvious that man kills to cleanse the earth of tainted ones, and that is what victory means and how it commemorates life and power: man is bloodthirsty to ward off the flow of his own blood.

Other things that we have found hard to understand have been hatreds and feuds between tribes and families, and continual butchery practiced for what seemed petty, prideful motives of personal honor and revenge. 

Nothing has changed much.  We all think that we are the chosen people and if we don’t try literally to exterminate those who don’t agree with us or who aren’t like us therefore we can’t possibly ‘like’, we ostracize them, marginalize them, ignore them.

Here I would quote a passage that Becker uses from Alan Harrington, but it’s too long and I’m too tired.  Suffice it to say, that that guy over there with the funny beard and strange looking clothes and hat, what if that guy is right in his beliefs.  Can he be my equal?  “All I know is if he’s right I’m wrong.” (p. 113)

In times of peace, without an external enemy, the fear that feeds war tends to find its outlet within the society, in the hatred between classes and races, in the everyday violence of crime, of automobile accidents, and even the self-violence of suicide.

 Enough for today, don’t you think?  Is anybody really reading this stuff anyway?

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

Escape 20: Why do we have to fight the death star?

No, this post isn’t exactly about Star Wars, but that movie is such a brilliant commentary on a power mega-machine gone mad that it could easily serve as a basis for the discussion here. In many ways, movie makers have been more intuitively in tune with the insanity of the world today than most intellectuals and politicians, of course. Maybe after I finish this Becker marathon, I’ll turn to how movies and books have given us insights into our basis fears of life and death.

Chapter 8 in Becker’s EFE is called The Nature of Social Evil.  It’s a very dense chapter in which Becker can now get to the nitty-gritty.  He’s laid the groundwork and summarizes it in the first paragraph of the chapter, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

We have seen with Rank that the driving force behind evil in human affairs stems from man’s paradoxical nature: in the flesh and doomed with it, out of the flesh in the world of symbol and trying to continue on a heavenly flight.  The thing that makes man the most devastating animal that ever stuck his neck up into the sky is that the wants a stature and a destiny that is impossible for an animal; he wants an earth that is not an earth but a heaven, and the price for this kind of fantastic ambition is to make the earth an even more eager graveyard than it naturally is. 

 In the primitive world heroism and expiation were small time affairs.  Primitives weren’t capable technologically or ideationally to wreak havoc on the planet.  That’s changed now.  There is no comparing even the destructive power of an Aztec murderous ritual of thousands of victims with Hiroshima.  What can be said of a species that can pull off a Hiroshima and then (to make the point absolutely clear) a Nagasaki, a blood potlatch like the Nazi Holocaust or the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao?

Today we are agreed that the picture looks something like this: that once mankind got the means for large-scale manipulation of the world, the lust for power began to take devastating tolls…Masses of men were forged into obedient tools for really large-scale power operations directed by a powerful, exploitive class.  [in the process]… We see this in the degradation of tribal peoples today, when they hire themselves out for money to work monotonously in the mines. Primitive man could be transformed, in one small step, from a rich creator of meaning in a society of equals to a mechanical thing.

 It’s been ten or twelve thousand years in the making, but we’ve now unleashed this “colossus of power gone mad…” (p. 99)

…and with it began mankind’s real woes.  The new class society of conquerors and slaves right away had its own internal frictions; what better way to siphon them off than by directing the energies of the masses outward toward an ‘alien’ enemy?..this was the start of large-scale scapegoating that has consumed such mountains of lives down through history and continues to do so today, right up to Viet Nam and Bangladesh [and Rwanda, Eritria, Cambodia, East Timor, Iraq, Syria, etc.]: what better way to forge a nation into a unity, to take everyone’s eyes off the frightening state of domestic affairs, than by focusing on a heroic foreign cause? 

 …even if it has to be contrived, as in George Bush’s Iraqi ‘war’, probably the most blatantly contrived invasion of a country since Hitler invaded Poland. (http://deoxy.org/wc/wc-consp.htm)

Keeping up the lie for the sake of power takes its toll although people like Dick Cheney have no regrets because they are willing to make the sacrifice for domestic peace and future profits for oil producers.  This goes back a long way, way before Bush, of course, but as Becker notes:

Once you start an arms race, you are consumed by it.  This is the tragic fatality of power, that it leads to a fundamental distortion of the reality of man’s relationship with nature – and so can undermine his own well-being. 

How can this be?  Tomorrow we tackle the role of sacrifice in all of this.  We’ve had a taste of it in previous blogs.  Now for the main course.

 Let me tell you again that there is no substitute for reading Becker’s Denial of Death or Escape From Evil if you want to understand his thought in its richness and wholeness.  I must say, though, that his message is not in the least upbeat.  This is scary stuff and it requires a certain degree of courage and detachment to wrestle with it.  I know it nearly drove me crazy, but it seems so familiar to me now, comforting in a way.  And let me say here and now that I do have an immortality-ideology and at the end of this Becker marathon I’ll tell you exactly what it is.  But for now, let’s carry on with the task at hand.