Drowning In Waves Of Globalism & Humanism


published in Real Time No.27, Sydney, 1998

Think globally .... A child in a Nepalese village looks up to the sky. A mother half-hidden by rich, green leaves in a Brazilian rain forest looks into the camera. A wide angle shot tracks by 500 Muslim devotees bowing to Mecca. A family on a farm in Southern Italy laugh as they prepare lunch. Two boys chase each other down a thin, cobble-stoned street somewhere in Hungary. A young boy looks up at his grandfather as they sit in front of huge whisky barrels in Tennessee. Think slow motion. Think beautiful cinematography.

Act locally .... Those images could be the new Nescafe Coffee ad. Or the earlier Macdonald's ad. Or an ad from Microsoft. SBS-TV. Telstra. Saab. Benneton. The Body Shop. Cadbury. The Age. It could be a video clip from Enigma. Deep Forrest. Enya. Jean Michel Jarre. Dead Can Dance. Peter Gabriel. It could be Koyaanisqatsi. Lachto Drome. Congo. Barraka. Actually, they're from a Bruce Willis movie: Armageddon (1998). Hollywood starts to think globally - just like all the afore-mentioned corporations and individuals - and comes up with the same retro National Geographic photo spreads. Exotic locations. Noble savages. Gorgeous waifs. Proud people. Innocent children. Beautiful, graven images. In the late 50s, Roland Barthes wrote a simple and effective dismissal of the vain humanism of the international touring photographic exhibition from America called "The Family Of Man". His critique on the aching morality which runs rife through what we could term 'enthographology' - the beautification of the ethnic through encoding processes like photo and song - has had little impact on a world that has since become obsessed with a narcissistic, 'feel-good' image of globalism.

In this era of Anne Geddes scrumptious naked babies-fruit-and-vegies calendars, the idealistic sloganeering of "Think Globally - Act Locally" means something entirely opposite to its original intention. It means making calendars, ads, coffee mugs, video clips, films - and now, a big budget sci-fi movie full of irony, cocks and digital effects - wherein corny images of world awareness and global concern incongruously break into the narrative like some chic-radical broadcast-jamming. Armageddon (and others) continually halt to give us Norman Rockwell style tableaux of 'dirty foreign people' who most Westerners wouldn't sit next to if they were on their train going to work. Thank heaven for the distance beautiful imagery grants us. Thank heaven for the angelic muzak which wafts over these tableaux, and which you can play on your heaphones while you tune out those people on the train.

But most of this is self evident - given the degree to which irreconciled humanism, emotional universalism and a kind of psycho-somatic spiritualism infects movies by everyone from Jan Dubont to Alexandr Sokurov. (They aren't as far apart as mpost people would presume.) What is noticeable and worth commenting on is the way in which the audio-visual arena of the cinema operates as a sucking plug-hole for conflating the notions of 'thinking globally' and 'acting locally'. Today, that means entertaining global issues in fear of eco-spiritual retribution, and using the localization of an audience for the purposes of expressing such concerns. It's not all that different from being scared to blaspheme the name of god out loud in case you're struck down by a lightning bolt. The cinema has always displayed great capacity to be a vulgar sonorum of blasphemy: humans can be played with and manipulated in any way imaginable; cities can be destroyed and rebuilt at whim; bodies can be re-invented and inhabit new technological and psychological dimensions - all without bowing to some invisible omnipotence. Today, you're lucky if you can see a decent on-screen death. An engaging naked body. A gratuitous explosion.

Armageddon - aptly titled to reflect this spineless fear of the future which paralyses the breeders of today - is not simply another instalment in the long lingering crisis the cinema is suffering through its inability to conjure sounds and images from the greater potentiality of life in all its fucked-up magnificence. Armageddon is a gutless, flip-flopping attempt to atone for cinema's sins in being reckless and irresponsible. Like, as if the cinema needs redeeming. As if it was answerable to god, humanity, society, the planet. No doubt many a concerned person frowns and frets over the cinema that way - wishing it could be a magical machine projecting utopian images which could have the power to change the world. As if it ever had that kind of power. Left and Right join hands and collectively hope for such a moralistic cinema. Fortunately it will never happen. Armageddon and so many other faux-apocalyptic films may try and spook us into straightening up the cinema, but their digital fire and humanist brimstone is but the smoke of a blur filter overlaid on a fire particle trajectory in their animation software. Their audio-visual engineering will always declare their unearthly, a-planetary, non-global artifice which no amount of quotes from the Old Testament will naturalize.

But the cinema persists with this delusion of positive societal convergence. To wit, most blockbuster sci-fi movies of the latter 90s reterritorialize the cinema's social space and exploit the localized gathering of an audience for these kind of ulterior means. Watching Independence Day is like being forced to vote. Watching Lost In Space is like being forced to go on a Sunday drive with your parents. Watching Deep Impact is like being forced to sit through a mass. Watching Armageddon is like being forced to be Best Man at a wedding. (An aside: watching the only good sci-fi movie of the 90s - Star Ship Troopers - is like wanting to go to war.) The socio-spatial dynamics of, respectively, the town hall, the family car, the local church, the function room are imported into the cinema. This device - not merely an effect but a major modus operandi of textual construction which narration follows - works to convene an audience: to overlay their presence with purpose. To those of us (well, at least me) who accept the chaotic swamp of popular mythologies and audio-visual rhizomes which swirl around us as we dive deep into the mire - such social-spatial navigation is repulsive.

In a strained and strange way, the auditorium of the cinema - that energized space of the gathered group in the one time and place - is becoming a metaphorical diagrammatic realization of the drummers' circle. Beloved a phenomenon of many an ethnomusicologist, the drummer's circle - ie. a group drumming together for pleasure, therapy, healing, sex, whatever - has undoubted power in its conjoining of group dynamics with percussive execution and rhythmic entrainment. From Mickey Hart's "Planet Drum" to R. Murray Schafer's "The Tuning Of The World", from audio/radio artists theorizing the landscape to techno hippies throwing didgeridoo samples into Cubase, the notion of the world as one big drum is a popular conceit of the 90s. It suggests self-subsistence, individual expression and communal exchange. It limply gesticulates a stance against things like industrialization, capitalism, consumerism, drum machines. Just as the unconfinable power of music, sound and rhythm in the drummers' circle is naturalized and limited by so many do-gooder global moralists, so too is the power of music, sound and image in the cinema auditorium by an equivalent horde of do-gooder social idealists.

Choosing to escape the planet rather than save it, Edward G. Robinson signs up to be terminated in the bleak eco-sci-fi Soylent Green (1972). Its future Manhattan is a metropolis over-populated and under-nourished - symptomatic of the Hollywood 70s cultural fear that fine American cities would become like Bombay and Calcutta. Edward G. enters a circular clinical room and sits in a reclining chair. Once he is given a lethal injection, a set of screens open to show projected moving images of what he always believed had previously existed, but which the totalitarian government had refuted: trees, flowers, insects, mammals - an overwhelming abundance of flora and faunae blooming in glorious weather. 'Light Classical' music blares in the room as he experiences the audio-visual finality of his own funeral. His pulse quickens, the images fire rapidly, the music deafens. Tears stream down his face as he ODs on images of nature; he dies while the hills live with the sound of music.

Today, one can simulate a Soylent Green death trip in IMAX theatres: mainlining semi-spherical projections of globalism and overdosing on surround sound nature. But whereas the persuasive effectualism of IMAX's sono-optical mechanics foregrounds a psycho-material experience - light, colour, movement, sound, form, object and being are gratuitously heightened and emptied of narrative manipulation - the cinema revs up its myth-making engine to humanize every facet of life. Feeling, spirit, emotion, soul ooze out of every frame, justifying every film's existence, thrusting emotional pornography down out throats and making us swallow beauty by the bucket load.

Armageddon's neutralization of the cinema's auditorium is not a peak of progressively desperate measures to humanize social discourse and action. It is more likely the start of a slow incline where things will get worse. Expect more naked baby calendars. More presidential pulpit speeches. More blaring orchestras. More ads for NASA. And more sci-fi movies that end with weddings.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © Touchstone Pictures