It’s a party in the sky

Wednesday, August 1st, 2018

Turkish Airlines has a new safety video — starring characters from The LEGO Movie:

One streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalog titles

Sunday, July 29th, 2018

I’m not at all nostalgic for video-rental stores like Blockbuster, but they did have their advantages:

Over five billion rentals have come through 40,000 Redbox kiosks since the company’s launch in 2002 — they now control 51% of the physical rental market in the US. But even the biggest Redbox machine only holds around 600 discs, covering up to 200 titles — no match for even a tiny video store.

Since 2010, the total number of feature films available to stream on Netflix has dropped from 6,755 to 3,686 as of writing this — a loss of more than three thousand titles. There are far more television shows available on Netflix than in 2010 — up from 530 to 1,122 — but that doesn’t make up for the massive decline in streamable films.

And, as BGR notes, “Not only is Netflix primarily focused on generating original TV content, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos a few years ago said that 66% of all Netflix subscribers don’t even watch movies.”

In 2018, over 375 million people subscribe to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. Streaming has become the dominant way in which most of us consume media, but little consideration has been given to what we’ve lost in saying goodbye to the tactile, human experience of visiting a video store.

[...]

Netflix’s current streaming catalogue of 3,686 films seems paltry when compared to even the most average Blockbuster, which stocked in the neighborhood of 10,000 titles. Amazon Prime’s streaming library is three times the size of Netflix’s, with 14,214 films now streaming — Amazon also offers an additional 20,265 titles via their rental service for an additional fee. Hulu has less than half as many movies as Netflix with 1,448 titles now streaming. On HBO NOW, that number falls to only 727 films.

[...]

No streaming service has been able to match the breadth and depth of a decades-old video store — at least not yet. Netflix’s disc rental service included 93,000 titles as of 2015 — a comparable library to somewhere like Eddie Brandt’s. But, disc rental isn’t a priority for Netflix: in 2016, they spent almost $1 billion promoting their streaming platform, but the physical rental service “doesn’t even have a marketing budget,” reports AP News.

And, even with 125 million streaming subscribers, Netflix still relies on physical media more than one might assume. AP News notes that Netflix makes “an operating profit of roughly 50 percent on DVD subscriptions, after covering the expense of buying discs and postage to and from its distribution centers…DVD profits have helped subsidize Netflix’s streaming expansion outside the U.S., a push that has accumulated losses of nearly $1.5 billion during the past five years [2011–2016.] The DVD service has made $1.9 billion during the same period, enabling Netflix to remain profitable.”

Besides Netflix’s physical DVD and Blu Ray service, the best, more accessible option for physical media rental for most is one of the 40,000 Redbox kiosks currently operating in America. While Redbox does carry many new release titles long before they reach streaming, when I looked up the Redbox closest to me in Hollywood, I found that only 168 titles were available in the machine, most of them from the last three years — not exactly an extensive selection, nor one that appeals to viewers interested in film history beyond the last decade.

The dearth of classic films and focus on new content becomes more apparent when taking a closer look at what’s available by decade on each of the major streaming services. According to JustWatch, two titles made before 1930 are now streaming on Netflix — they offer only 15 films made before 1950, 26 made before 1970, and 98 made before 1990. By streaming fewer than one hundred films to cover the medium’s first one hundred years, Netflix is doing an egregious disservice to film’s first century.

With four times as many titles as Netflix overall, it’s not surprising that Amazon Prime offers far more classic titles as well — 77 films on the platform were made before 1930; 661 before 1950; 1,292 before 1970; and 3,048 before 1990. But Amazon is the exception among streaming platforms — Hulu offers 115 films made by 1990 or earlier, and on HBO NOW, there are only 55 films that meet that same criteria.

There’s simply no question that new and exclusive content is the priority for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. 3,155 of the 3,686 films now available to stream on Netflix are from the last ten years — 85% of their entire catalogue. On Hulu, 75% of all movies are from the last ten years too. And while Amazon Prime certainly bests all other major platforms when it comes to “old movies”, 59% of their currently streaming films are from the last ten years as well.

But, one streaming platform is prioritizing classic catalogue titles: FilmStruck, which launched in late 2016. FilmStruck self-describes as featuring “iconic films of all kinds from Hollywood classics to independent, foreign and cult cinema. As the exclusive streaming home of TCM Select and the Criterion Collection, FilmStruck is the world’s largest classic film vault.”

FilmStruck partnered with Warner Bros. to (eventually) bring films like CASABLANCA, CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? to a streaming platform for the first very time. Including Criterion Collection titles (which are available for a small additional monthly fee) FilmStruck’s catalogue is still growing with 1,975 titles available. But more than 86% of their library is from 1990 or earlier, providing film fans with exclusive access to essential titles that are being overlooked and de-prioritized by other streaming services.

The idea that beloved, superlative films like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE can only be accessed with a subscription to an arthouse/classic focused streaming service is quite frankly insane. THE GODFATHER trilogy is now available on Netflix, but that’s only been the case since January of 2018. Even something as ubiquitous as STAR WARS is only available in its first, unedited iteration as a VHS box set from 1995 — and the original trilogy isn’t currently streaming anywhere.

And of course, most major streaming platforms are deep into the original content game. Netflix has released 25 original films and added 7.4 million new subscribers thus far in 2018 — that’s as many releases as the six major studios combined. They plan to release 80 films by the end of the year. The focus on new content creation over the preservation of and access to catalogue titles for most streaming services is quite clear.

There are many hurdles to making the classic available:

The biggest hurdle affecting deep catalogue home video releases, going all the way back to the dawn of the format, has been music rights, since from EASY RIDER onward, when pop song recordings became common on film soundtracks. Contracts only covered theatrical and TV, and even after they started accounting for home video, they didn’t factor the invention of DVD. Some of the earliest home video releases are the rarest now because they were put out before the lawyers realized you needed to make a new deal for the new media.

Now that there are only three major labels, with the downturn of physical media and the slivers of pennies that come from streaming, they and the artists they control get significant money from licensing to TV, film, and commercials, so their incentive is to take the studios for all they’ve got, feeling they have them over a barrel, since many times the songs are often so embedded in the films, they can’t be replaced, or directors won’t approve of the change. But in turn, studios are loath to pay the inflated music fees because they feel the cost spent in clearing the songs will not be recouped by whatever sales a title may have, and it’s cheaper just to do nothing.

The second biggest problem keeping movies off of physical media is ancient, expired intellectual property rights, usually involving books or plays that were originally only cleared for so many years because back then, nobody thought about repertory demand years after the fact. Warner Bros. has had a big problem with this in particular, a lot of Golden Age classics that they own — BEYOND THE FOREST, LETTY LYNTON, CEILING ZERO — can’t be cleared for video because the estates of the authors of those original source materials can’t come to terms about relicensing the story rights. This is what held up NIGHTMARE ALLEY for years, and likely also what has kept one of the greatest comedies of all time, Olsen & Johnson’s HELLZAPOPPIN’, in limbo.

Since the rise of “secondary studios” from the ’70s onward, lots of movies that went out through the majors are now reverting to other companies that are only interested in them as properties to be developed rather than preserved. Bristol-Myers-Squibb owns the original THE HEARTBREAK KID, THE STEPFORD WIVES, and SLEUTH, and they’ve done nothing with them since the early noughts Anchor Bay releases, aside from sell remake rights. We’re beginning to see that on a larger scale with Morgan Creek, Regency, Revolution, and others — the old deals are expiring, what new deals are being made are just cherry-picking the hits and leaving the deep cuts behind.

Spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor

Friday, July 13th, 2018

I haven’t kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I found Aaron Bady’s analysis surprisingly deep:

The MCU cycle began when Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were created in 2008, in the last year of Bush’s presidency. They are set against the backdrop of wars—in Iraq, in Afghanistan—that never seemed to end, and as such, are fables about the military industrial complex, artifacts from an era when people were still talking about “blowback,” when we still remembered (or cared) that the CIA had helped to create the conditions for Al Qaeda, and when “end the war” was a thing people promised, said, and demanded. To watch them now is to remember a time when we could still remember a time before we were at war, forever, with terror.

And so, those very first movies gave us Iron Man’s discovery that he is his own worst enemy, that Bruce Banner’s experiments have created a monster: himself. They are stories that take the salience of these stories for granted. Like Christopher Nolan Batman movies, which came to us around the same time, they are stories that ask a single, basic question: what if we are the enemy we’ve been searching for?

Since the answer, unavoidably, is yes, the next phase gave us The Avengers: with Thor and Captain America in 2011—leading up to The Avengers in 2012—the movies started to tell a larger story, about building a team of super-heroes out of this disparate set of “special” individuals; as fucked up as they all were, separately, maybe, together, they could be something… more? These are still stories in which the enemy we are searching for might turn out to be us, of course; they are still movies where anxiety about the self gets exorcized by violent combat with a double, just as Iron Man fought an even more iron man and The Incredible Hulk fought a bigger, more incredible hulk. And they are right to be anxious! What is Nazi-fighter Captain America, after all, but a genetically-modified Aryan super soldier? What is Thor’s quest to be “worthy” if not a conquering despot’s desire to justify the unjustifiable, to insist that he rules for some reason other than force? On some level, these movies always know that their protagonists are hypocrites, that the things they are fighting are basically themselves. S.H.I.E.L.D. vs. H.Y.D.R.A… what really is the difference?

But they are also stories in which “we” comes to take an interesting centrality, where the individual might be saved by the group, by friends, by family, by work. What if—in the course of human events—we the people could come together and form a union of super-special people? What if together we can become more than the sum of our individuality?

Alas! It only lasts as long as the alien invasion, and by the time we eat the shawarma, there’s not much to talk about. In Iron Man 3 (2013), we learn that terrorism really is just the MIC tail wagging the democratic dog; in Thor: The Dark World (2013), we learn that the Asgardians really are just conquering bastards; in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) we learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. actually are the same thing; in Age of Ultron (2015), we learn that keeping the peace with drone armies is a truly terrible idea, and it’s the only thing that Tony can think of; it’s the only thing ANYONE can think of. By the time of Civil War (2016), we’ve learned that “Us” is an unstable combination, that blowback is still real, and that no one really transcends their deep flaws. Even the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies tell a version of this story: if the first (2014) is about finding a new family, the second (2017) will be about remembering just how toxic family can be, and how long-lasting its wounds are.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, as the Avengers broke up and as the movies started to proliferate beyond narrative control—Ant-Man? Doctor Strange? Black Panther?—the people making them started to think about the next story they would tell. And so, it turned out that in the margins of these stories of American Empire—always the subtext for the original Avengers—they had begun planting the seeds for a different story, particularly in the post-credit sequences; there were hints and rumors and whispers of the larger story that was already taking place just off-screen, that had been from the beginning, a complex and nuanced and revelatory story—the very Grandest of Grand Narratives—about how a dude named Thanos was trying to acquire the six Infinity Stones so he could blow up the universe. This would be their big idea, their magnum opus, their greatest and most consequential story.

[...]

To pick a few random examples: Thor: Ragnarok was about emigrants fleeing a lost home, about how you carry home with you wherever you go. Spider-Man: Homecoming was about choosing not to be an Avenger, but simply to be a modest, humble, neighborhood hero (and also to be a kid). Black Panther was about blackness undefined by, conquered by, enslaved by, or beholden to whiteness. Guardians of the Galaxy is about finding a family among other people whose families hurt them.

Infinity War—as Gerry Canavan observed to me—destroys each of these stories completely. It does not develop them, build on them, or bring them to a climax; it simply eats them up. Thor: Ragnarok ended with the remnants of Asgard sailing bravely into the future in a kind of space ark; Infinity War begins with that space Ark having been blasted to hell (and though Thor later says something about how “half” his people were killed, come on). Peter Parker ended his movie by declining to join the Avengers; in this movie, he joins the Avengers almost immediately. Black Panther is about a place where everyone is black, the white guys are not that important, and Wakanda’s survival is the most important thing; Infinity War has T’Challa deciding to sacrifice Wakanda in battle without any trace of the prickly and regal insularity that has been the entirety of his character up to that point. Guardians of the Galaxy was about finding a family and staying together; in Infinity War, Thor arrives and they break up the group immediately.

My point is that there’s a conflict between the accumulative narrative impulse to see these movies as one continuous story and the sprawling impulse that lets them maintain different styles and themes and even narrative logics. If the MCU has been good because they let different voices tell different types of stories—and to the extent that it is good, it is because of that—Infinity War is bad because it smashes them all into indistinguishable paste. The Collector said that a powerful person “can use the stones to mow down entire civilizations like wheat in a field”; this is a good description of how Infinity War relates to its constituent stories: it harvests them.

Let me put it this way: There’s an extractive, exploitative relationship between the Avengers “team up” movies and the standalone single-hero stories, the same relationship we see between the Infinity Stone MacGuffins and the stories that the various Marvel movies have built around them. The Infinity Stones are the real story, the big picture, the driving force behind their master-narratives in the same way that capital always thinks it’s the “job creator.” But this is exactly backwards, in exactly the way extractive relations of exploitation tend to condition their beneficiaries to misunderstand what is happening: The Infinity Stones and the “team up” movies are spending the currency whose value was built out of the sweat and blood and human labor of the standalone movies. Infinity War is the moment when profits are extracted from the richness and depth of their stories, skimmed off and collected and sold: “Look, we killed Spider-Man, Black Panther, Bucky, Gamora, Loki!” they say; “Look how it makes you feel!”

Protection in the Nuclear Age

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Jesse Walker of Reason mocks an old civil defense film that I think I remember:

If I said I was about to show you a government film about how to survive a nuclear war, you’d probably guess that it came from the 1950s, that golden age of absurdly optimistic civil defense films. But Protection in the Nuclear Age was released in 1978, and it was made with an aesthetic that those of us who were in school in that era will recognize quickly. Some moments in these animations of pre- and post-apocalyptic life aren’t that different, in form if not content, from a 1970s guidance counselor’s collection of posters about emotions.

Like that guidance counselor, the movie strains hard to stay positive. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than five percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the narrator claims at one point. “Of course,” he adds mildly, “that five percent contains a large percentage of our population.” But those people just might have time to flee to the rest of the country, which “would escape untouched — except possibly by radioactive fallout.” Oh, you and your little caveats.

In the early 1980s, it was hip to be extremely pessimistic about these things.

It is your fault for following the wrong people

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

Is surfing the internet dead?

Ten to fifteen years ago, I remember the joys of just finding things, clicking links through to other links, and in general meandering through a thick, messy, exhilarating garden.

Today you can’t do that as much. Many media sites are gated, a lot of the personal content is in the walled garden of Facebook, and blogs and personal home pages are not as significant as before.

[...]

That said, I do not feel that time on the internet has become an inferior experience. It’s just that these days you find most things by Twitter. You don’t have to surf, because this aggregator performs a surfing-like function for you. Scroll rather than surf, you could say (“scrolling alone,” said somebody on Twitter).

And if you hate Twitter, it is your fault for following the wrong people (try hating yourself instead!).

They are incredible manifestations of God

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Haaretz tells the rather sensationalistic story of Adnan Oktar, “a combination of the type of evangelical preachers one sees on American television and the head of a sex cult that objects in principle to bringing children into the world”:

The cover for all this is a singular interpretation of Islam.

Oktar, 62, who started to preach his version of the Muslim faith in Istanbul in the 1980s, has since then collected 300 “good friends,” as he terms them, who follow his path, despite accusations that they are being brainwashed and also exploited sexually and economically.

Since 2011, when his television station, A9, started broadcasting globally (with English subtitles), his religious tenets have been getting more attention in Turkey and also worldwide. Oktar focuses on activity geared to interfaith dialogue, which has put him in contact with politicians and rabbis in Israel, but in recent years he’s been talked about mostly because of his interpretation of the “covering” women should wear according to Islam – namely, anything, including the most revealing bikini. The only requirement is that it cover the nipples and the groin area.

“Women are amazing manifestations of God,” Oktar explained to me, when I met him in Istanbul in early February. “They are the most beautiful beings in the world. They are incredible works of art, created by God. They are glorious beings that should be respected, admired, loved, cherished and protected all their lives as blessings.”

Adnan Oktar with his Kittens

The best-known part of his cult are his “kittens,” as he calls them – a group of young women, heavily made up and attired in body-hugging, revealing designer outfits, who appear on his television programs listening with a somewhat glazed expression to his religious exhortations on current issues. In the breaks between his remarks, they will dance robot-like in front of the cameras. Oktar: “Cats are very cute animals, and kittens are even cuter. They are incredible manifestations of God.”

This attitude toward women has generated profiles of Oktar in the international media, with references to the “feminist” cult or the “Muslim sex cult.” Other investigative reports focused on what they described as his modus operandi. These were based on lawsuits filed against him, and included testimonies to the effect that cult members lured young women into taking part in filmed orgies, and then used the recordings to blackmail the participants into obeying Oktar’s demands.

The “Esteban Colberto” look goes well beyond Colberto Reporto Gigante.

Making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Someone is finally pursuing the obvious strategy of making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored:

Since fleeing Los Angeles in 2015 for Texas, where he grew up, Mr. Sonnier has cast himself as the producer willing to do features that others in Hollywood consider politically radioactive. In the past year, he has wrapped production on “Dragged Across Concrete,” starring Mel Gibson as a cop accused of beating a suspect, filmed a drama about militia members, and bought a script about a school shooting in which a female student wrests control of a gun and fights back.

Mr. Sonnier’s revenues from a film are a tiny fraction of those from a major studio release, but he is making money off his strategy by keeping production costs low and relying on word-of-mouth to turn his movies into sleeper hits. With a budget of $3.8 million, “Brawl” has turned a profit, says Mr. Sonnier. He says Cinestate did it by selling distribution rights to overseas markets on the strength of Mr. Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers” fame, pocketing nearly $2 million for streaming rights from one online service and selling more than 40,000 DVDs in the first two weeks of release at big-box stores — a healthy performance in an age when few buy DVDs anymore.

Hollywood has occasionally targeted conservative moviegoers, releasing faith-based movies in specific neighborhoods or producing patriotic blockbusters such as “American Sniper.” The difference is that Mr. Sonnier is betting a whole company on a strategy of finding consumers he says are “outside the coasts,” marrying ideology with opportunism.

“The political climate brings a spotlight to these kinds of movies. We’re not shying away from that,” Mr. Sonnier says. “It’s funny that, in this moment in time, the movies we’re making are almost counterculture.”

Other studios don’t appear to be mimicking his approach, but some recent Hollywood moves seem to affirm Mr. Sonnier’s conviction that he’s tapping an underserved audience. The revival of the “Roseanne” TV series, starring the comedian Roseanne Barr as a Trump voter navigating various social issues, was part of a strategy at ABC discussed by executives at a meeting held the day after the election about how to entertain a broader swath of the nation.

The premiere episode’s top market was Tulsa, Okla., according to ABC, where it outperformed the national average by 60%.

[...]

“Sparrow Creek,” filmed in under three weeks for less than $1 million, Mr. Sonnier says, is part of a microbudget strategy he has used to profitable effect on previous movies “Brawl” and his 2015 Western, “Bone Tomahawk.”

When “Brawl” appeared on iTunes, the prison revenge movie shot to the top 10. The other titles in the iTunes top 10 at the time, “Spider Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” among them, had wide theatrical releases.

[...]

To pay the bills, he made direct-to-video shoot-’em-up films with Steve Austin, the wrestling champion.

One day, he dropped off Ms. Gerwig at an audition for Noah Baumbach’s art-house film “Greenberg,” he says, and met Mr. Austin for lunch on Sunset Boulevard. A fan approached the wrestler, had him autograph her arm and returned to show she’d had it tattooed. “Talk about walking in two universes,” he says.

The Austin features, with titles such as “Hunt to Kill,” taught Mr. Sonnier a simple formula: budgets under $1 million and foreign-rights deals that put the project in the black before cameras roll. He deployed what he calls a “Mad Libs” plot:

“A guy named Jim/John/Jack gets out of prison/wakes up from the dead/survives and comes back to his hometown/scene of the crime/where the bad guys are and kills everyone to save his family/save himself/save someone who can’t save themselves.”

He says: “As long as we stuck to the Mad Lib, the movie sold 300,000 to 500,000 units.”

The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country:

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country. At the outset practically all the Jesus People were young acid heads, i.e., LSD users, who had sworn off drugs (except, occasionally, in “organic form,” meaning marijuana and peyote) but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism of the psychedelic or hippie life. This they found in Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity of a sort that ten years before would have seemed utterly impossible to revive in America. The Jesus People, such as the Children of God, the Fresno God Squad, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the Sun Myung Moon sect, lived communally and took an ecstatic or “charismatic” (literally: “God-imbued”) approach to Christianity, after the manner of the Oneida, Shaker, and Mormon communes of the nineteenth century… and, for the matter, after the manner of the early Christians themselves, including the Gnostics.

There was considerable irony here. Ever since the late 1950s both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant denominations had been aware that young people, particularly in the cities, were drifting away from the faith. At every church conference and convocation and finance-committee meeting the cry went up: We must reach the urban young people. It became an obsession, this business of “the urban young people.” The key — one and all decided — was to “modernize” and “update” Christianity. So the Catholics gave the nuns outfits that made them look like World War II Wacs. The Protestants set up “beatnik coffee-houses” in church basements for poetry reading and bongo playing. They had the preacher put on a turtleneck sweater and sing “Joe Hill” and “Frankie and Johnny” during the hootenanny at the Sunday vespers. Both the priests and the preachers carried placards in civil rights marches, gay rights marches, women’s rights marches, prisoners’ rights marches, bondage lovers’ rights marches, or any other marches, so long as they might appear hip to the urban young people.

In fact, all these strenuous gestures merely made the churches look like rather awkward and senile groupies of secular movements. The much-sought-after Urban Young People found the Hip Churchman to be an embarrassment, if they noticed him at all. What finally started attracting young people to Christianity was something the churches had absolutely nothing to do with: namely, the psychedelic or hippie movement. The hippies had suddenly made religion look hip. Very few people went into the hippie life with religious intentions, but many came out of it absolutely righteous. The sheer power of the drug LSD is not to be underestimated. It was quite easy for an LSD experience to take the form of a religious vision, particularly if one were among people already so inclined. You would come across someone you had known for years, a pal, only now he was jacked up on LSD and sitting in the middle of the street saying. “I’m in the Pudding at last! I’ve met the Manager!” Without knowing it, many heads were reliving the religious fervor of their grandparents or great-grandparents… the Bible-Belting lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-majorchord Sister-Martha-at-the-keyboard tent-meeting loblolly piny-woods share-it-brother believers of the nineteenth century. The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time.

Today it is precisely the most rational, intellectual, secularized, modernized, updated, relevant religions—all the brave, forward-looking Ethical Culture, Unitarian, and Swedenborgian movements of only yesterday—that are finished, gasping, breathing their last. What the Urban Young People want from religion is a little Hallelujah!… and talking in tongues!… Praise God! Precisely that! In the most prestigious divinity schools today, Catholic. Presbyterian, and Episcopal, the avant-garde movement, the leading edge, is “charismatic Christianity”… featuring talking in tongues, ululation, visions, holy rolling, and other nonrational, even antirational, practices. Some of the most respectable old-line Protestant congregations, in the most placid suburban settings, have begun to split into the Charismatics and the Easter Christians (“All they care about is being seen in church on Easter”). The Easter Christians still usually control the main Sunday-morning service—but the Charismatics take over on Sunday evening and do the holy roll.

This curious development has breathed new life into the existing Fundamentalists, theosophists, and older salvation seekers of all sorts. Ten years ago, if anyone of wealth, power, or renown had publicly “announced for Christ,” people would have looked at him as if his nose had been eaten away by weevils. Today it happens regularly… Harold Hughes resigns from the U.S. Senate to become an evangelist… Jim Irwin, the astronaut, teams up with a Baptist evangelist in an organization called High Flight… singers like Pat Boone and Anita Bryant announce for Jesus… Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon administration, announces for Jesus, and the man who is likely to be the next president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, announces for Jesus. Oh Jesus People.

An other order that ran the universe

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018

The ESP or “psychic phenomena” movement began to grow very rapidly in the new religious atmosphere of the Me Decade:

ESP devotees had always believed that there was an other order that ran the universe, one that revealed itself occasionally through telepathy, déjà vu experiences, psychokinesis, dematerialization, and the like. It was but a small step from there to the assumption that all men possess a conscious energy paralleling the world of physical energy and that this mysterious energy can unite the universe (after the fashion of the light of God). A former astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, who has a doctor-of-science degree from MIT, founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences in an attempt to channel the work of all the ESP groups. “Noetic” is an adjective derived from the same root as that of “the Noosphere” — the name that Teilhard de Chardin gave his dream of a cosmic union of all souls. Even the Flying Saucer cults began to reveal their essentially religious nature at about this time. The Flying Saucer folk quite literally believed in an other order: It was under the command of superior beings from other planets or solar systems who had spaceships. A physician named Andrija Puharich wrote a book (Uri) in which he published the name of the God of the UFO’s: Hoova. He said Hoova had a herald messenger named Spectra, and Hoova’s and Spectra’s agent on earth, the human connection, as it were, was Uri Geller, the famous Israeli psychic and showman. Geller’s powers were also of great interest to people in the ESP movement, and there were many who wished that Puharich and the UFO people would keep their hands off him.

Not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Outsiders, hearing about the new fad of encounter sessions, wondered what their appeal was:

Yet the appeal was simple enough. It is summed up in the notion: “Let’s talk about Me.” No matter whether you managed to renovate your personality through encounter sessions or not, you had finally focused your attention and your energies on the most fascinating subject on earth: Me.

[...]

The encounter session — although it was not called that — was also a staple practice in psychedelic communes and, for that matter, in New Left communes. In fact, the analysis of the self, and of one another, was unceasing. But in these groups and at Esalen and in movements such as Arica there were two common assumptions that distinguished them from the aristocratic lemon sessions and personality finishings of yore. The first was: I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me. Scientology uses the word “clear” to identify the state that one must strive for. But just what is that state? And what will the Real Me be like? It is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere. In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago: namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God. In most mortals that spark is “asleep” (the Gnostics’ word), all but smothered by the facades and general falseness of society. But those souls who are clear can find that spark within themselves and unite their souls with God’s. And with that conviction comes the second assumption: There is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals. But he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it.

And with that… the Me movements were about to turn righteous.

By the early 1970s so many of the Me movements had reached this Gnostic religious stage, they now amounted to a new religious wave. Synanon, Arica, and the Scientology movement had become religions. The much-publicized psychedelic or hippie communes of the 1960s, although no longer big items in the press, were spreading widely and becoming more and more frankly religious. The huge Steve Gaskin commune in the Tennessee scrublands was a prime example. A New York Times survey concluded that there were at least two thousand communes in the United States by 1970, barely five years after the idea first caught on in California. Both the Esalen-style and Primal Therapy or Primal Scream encounter movements were becoming progressively less psychoanalytical and more mystical in their approach. The Oriental “meditation” religions — which had existed in the United States mainly in the form of rather intellectual and bohemian Zen and yoga circles — experienced a spectacular boom. Groups such as the Hare Krishna, the Sufi, and the Maharaj Ji communes began to discover that they could enroll thousands of new members and (in some cases) make small fortunes in real estate to finance the expansion. Many members of the New Left communes of the 1960s began to turn up in Me movements in the 1970s, including two of the celebrated “Chicago Seven.” Rennie Davis became a follower of the Maharaj Ji. Jerry Rubin enrolled in both est and Arica. Barbara Garson, who with the help of her husband, Marvin, wrote the great agitprop drama of the New Left, MacBird, would later observe, with considerable bitterness: “My husband Marvin forsook everything (me included) to find peace. For three years he wandered without shoes or money or glasses. Now he is in Israel with some glasses and possibly with some peace.” And not just him, she said, but so many other New Lefters as well: “Some follow a guru, some are into Primal Scream, some seek a rest from the diaspora — a home in Zion.” It is entirely possible that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.

The new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom

Sunday, May 20th, 2018

The saga of the Me Decade begins with one of those facts that is so big and so obvious that no one comments on it anymore:

Namely: the 30-year boom. Wartime spending in the United States in the 1940s touched off a boom that has continued for more than 30 years. It has pumped money into every class level of the population on a scale without parallel in any country in history. True, nothing has solved the plight of those at the very bottom, the chronically unemployed of the slums. Nevertheless, in Compton, California, today it is possible for a family at the very lowest class level, which is known in America today as “on welfare,” to draw an income of $8,000 a year entirely from public sources. This is more than most British newspaper columnists and Italian factory foremen make, even allowing for differences in living costs. In America truck drivers, mechanics, factory workers, policemen, firemen, and garbagemen make so much money — $15,000 to $20,000 (or more) per year is not uncommon — that the word proletarian can no longer be used in this country with a straight face. So one now says lower middle class. One can’t even call workingmen blue collar any longer. They all have on collars like Joe Namath’s or Johnny Bench’s or Walt Frazier’s. They all have on $35 Superstar Qiana sport shirts with elephant collars and 1940s Airbrush Wallpaper Flowers Buncha Grapes and Seashell designs all over them.

Well, my God, the old utopian socialists of the nineteenth century — such as Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, and Marx — lived for the day of the liberated workingman. They foresaw a day when industrialism (Saint-Simon coined the word) would give the common man the things he needed in order to realize his potential as a human being: surplus (discretionary) income, political freedom, free time (leisure), and freedom from grinding drudgery. Some of them, notably Owen and Fourier, thought all this might come to pass first in the United States. So they set up communes here: Owen’s New Harmony commune in Indiana and 34 Fourier-style “phalanx” settlements — socialist communes, because the new freedom was supposed to be possible only under socialism. The old boys never dreamed that the new freedom would come to pass instead as the result of a Go-Getter Bourgeois business boom such as began in the United States in the 1940s. Nor would they have liked it if they had seen it. For one thing, the homo novus, the new man, the liberated man, the first common man in the history of the world with the much-dreamed-of combination of money, free time, and personal freedom—this American workingman didn’t look right. The Joe Namath-Johnny Bench — Walt Frazier-Superstar Qiana Wallpaper sport shirt, for a start.

He didn’t look right, and he wouldn’t… do right! I can remember what brave plans visionary architects at Yale and Harvard still had for the common man in the early 1950s. (They actually used the term “common man.”) They had brought the utopian socialist dream forward into the twentieth century. They had things figured out for the workingman down to truly minute details such as lamp switches. The new liberated workingman would live as the Cultivated Ascetic. He would be modeled on the B.A.-degree Greenwich Village bohemian of the late 1940s — dark wool Hudson Bay shirts, tweed jackets, flannel trousers, briarwood pipes, good books, sandals and simplicity — except that he would live in a Worker Housing project. All Yale and Harvard architects worshiped Bauhaus principles and had the Bauhaus vision of Worker Housing. The Bauhaus movement absolutely hypnotized American architects, once its leaders, such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Miës van der Rohe, came to the United States from Germany in the 1930s. Worker Housing in America would have pure beige rooms, stripped, freed, purged of all moldings, cornices, and overhangs — which Gropius regarded as symbolic “crowns” and therefore loathsome. Worker Housing would be liberated from all wallpaper, “drapes,” Wilton rugs with flowers on them, lamps with fringed shades and bases that looked like vases or Greek columns. It would be cleansed of all doilies, knickknacks, mantelpieces, headboards, and radiator covers. Radiator coils would be left bare as honest, abstract sculptural objects.

But somehow the workers, incurable slobs that they were, avoided Worker Housing, better known as “the projects,” as if it had a smell. They were heading out instead to the suburbs — the suburbs! — to places like Islip, Long Island, and the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles — and buying houses with clapboard siding and a high-pitched roof and shingles and gaslight-style front-porch lamps and mailboxes set up on top of lengths of stiffened chain that seemed to defy gravity and all sorts of other unbelievably cute or antiquey touches, and they loaded these houses up with “drapes” such as baffled all description and wall-to-wall carpet you could lose a shoe in, and they put barbecue pits and fish ponds with concrete cherubs urinating into them on the lawn out back, and they parked 25-foot-long cars out front and Evinrude cruisers up on tow trailers in the carport just beyond the breezeway.

[Ignored or else held in contempt by working people, Bauhaus design eventually triumphed as a symbol of wealth and privilege, attuned chiefly to the tastes of businessmen’s wives. For example, Miës’s most famous piece of furniture design, the Barcelona chair, now sells for $1.680 and is available only through one’s decorator. The high price is due in no small part to the chair’s Worker Housing Honest Materials: stainless steel and leather. No chromed iron is allowed, and customers are refused if they want to have the chair upholstered in material of their own choice. Only leather is allowed, and only six shades of that: Seagram’s Building Lobby Palomino, Monsanto Company Lobby Antelope, Architectural Digest Pecan, Transamerica Building Ebony, Bank of America Building Walnut, and Embarcadero Center Mink.]

By the 1960s the common man was also getting quite interested in this business of “realizing his potential as a human being.” But once again he crossed everybody up! Once more he took his money and ran — determined to do-it-himself!

Satirized a quarter-century before it happened

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities preceded the real-life events it was supposedly based on, Steve Sailer reminds us:

We’ve seen the press and prosecutors on the prowl for the Great White Defendant numerous times before, such as the 2011 Dominique Strauss-Kahn mania, the 2006 Duke Lacrosse hoax, and the 1987 Tawana Brawley scam—which was promoted, just like the Trayvon Martin story a quarter of a century later, by the Rev. Al Sharpton.

The phrase “hunt for the Great White Defendant” comes from Tom Wolfe’s 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities , in which Sharpton is lampooned as Rev. Bacon. Indeed, if you want to understand the mechanics of how the Trayvon story was hyped in 2012, the best guide remains Bonfire.

It’s widely believed today that Bonfire was “ripped from the headlines” of the Brawley swindle, Michael Milken’s arrest, the O.J. Simpson case, and other notorious controversies in the manner of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order TV empire.

But in reality, Wolfe’s novel preceded not only Wolf’s L&O, but also almost all the real-life scandals it is now imagined to be based upon.

Thus in his 1995 book Overcoming Law , Judge Richard A. Posner retracted his initial dismissal of Wolfe’s novel:

The Bonfire of the Vanities has turned out to be a book that I think about a lot, in part because it describes with such vividness what Wolfe with prophetic insight (the sort of thing we attribute to&nnbsp;Kafka) identified as emerging problems of the American legal system … at a bizarre intersection of race, money, and violence, an intersection nowhere better depicted than in The Bonfire of the Vanities, even though the book was written before the intersection had come into view.”

The Trayvon Trayvesty should have crowned Bonfire’s reputation as The Great American Novel of the late 20th Century, and driven home that Wolfe has enjoyed the grandest career in American letters since Mark Twain.

Of course, being right doesn’t make you popular. The embarrassing realization that Trayvon Trayvesty had been satirized a quarter of a century before has only turned the MSM even more against Wolfe and his new Miami novel, Back To Blood, a hilarious self-parody of all things Tom Wolfe.

Tom Wolfe is dead, but the Me Decade lives on

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Nick Gillespie of Reason argues that Tom Wolfe’s enduring — and fundamentally libertarian — contribution to contemporary discourse is his 1976 New York essay that christened the ’70s the “Me Decade“:

Writing during a time when most wise men (and they were mostly men back then) were obsessed with inflation, unemployment, and other measures of macroeconomic malaise, Wolfe was nearly alone in underscoring that consumer goods and lifestyle options had been radically democratized in postwar America. Forget the soul-killing depredations of the Cold War, giant corporations, cheap money, rising taxes, and government’s expansion into every nook and cranny of life, he counseled. Wolfe focused on the pent-up psychic demand for freedom, individualism, and meaning in a country that had recently withstood a decade-plus of Great Depression and World War. The only thing worse than the impending apocalypse due to nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, overpopulation, or the Second Coming was that the world wouldn’t end and we’d have spent our time on Earth punching the clock for a soul-killing job with great dental benefits. In the goddamn Bicentennial Year, Wolfe argued, Americans were done with building Maslow’s pyramid of needs for other people, especially their social betters. Who among us was going to follow slow-witted concussion-cases like Jerry Ford or lusting-only-in-his-heart Jimmy Carter into the twilight’s last gleaming? It was our time to shine, baby!

Tom Wolfe still had three weaknesses as a novelist

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Tom Wolfe succeeded in cutting a figure in American life comparable to another white-suited, big-spending writer, Mark Twain, according to Steve Sailer, but he still had three weaknesses as a novelist:

The first was that in his pursuit of machismo he’d lost the ability to write interesting female characters.

The second flaw was that his famously flashy prose style wasn’t as sentence for sentence well-crafted as that of his rival’s like Updike. Wolfe came up with brilliant phrases, some of which have entered the language, but he embedded them in fairly functional prose hepped up with Zap! Pow! typography. For his second novel, A Man in Full, he cranked up his prose style to impressive levels. But with about 100 pages left in the book, you can suddenly see where he suffered major open-heart surgery and the subsequent manic-depressive mood swings that are a common side effect.

The third was one he never overcame: although Wolfe picked fights with high brow prestige novelists like John Updike, his biggest weakness was at the lower brow blocking and tackling basic of coming up with an ending for his plots.

He hid in plain sight

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Max Boot knew Tom Wolfe — slightly:

Like many people, I regard The Bonfire of the Vanities, the definitive portrait of New York in the 1980s, as one of Wolfe’s two masterpieces. The other was The Right Stuff, which was made into a much better movie than Bonfire. Wolfe got inside the minds of test pilots and astronauts in a way that no other writer has done before or since. The opening chapter, focused on the anxiety of the pilots’ wives who don’t know if their husbands will come home from work, instantly transported the reader to a psychological reality far removed from the glossy news coverage of the space program. The narrative was utterly seamless — as befits the New Journalism that Wolfe helped create, it read like a novel — and yet no one ever claimed that he made it up. There was a sturdy skeleton of reporting, invisible to the reader, upon which Wolfe hung his peerless prose.

Having gotten to know Wolfe a bit, I saw something of his method. He hid in plain sight — his three-piece white suits served as a shield that made the man within nearly invisible. To the extent that anyone so flamboyantly attired can recede into the background, he did. Wolfe did not talk much; he preferred to listen and to soak in the atmosphere. A quiet man, he did his talking in print. And now he has gone silent forever. American literature — and American life — will be the poorer without him.

I loved The Right Stuff — which includes his bit on the voice of the airline pilot — but I found Bonfire a bit over the top — like New York in the ’80s, I suppose.