Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:


Violence and identity

“I wouldn’t have it any other way”

The Wild Bunch is a 1969 film directed by Sam Peckinpah (written by Peckinpah and Walon Green) [1]. Nominally a Western, it tells the story of a gang of aging outlaws in the days leading up to their last gun battle.

After a failed payroll robbery, in which more innocents are killed than combatants, five surviving outlaws make their way into Mexico, broke and dispirited. The lead outlaw, Pike Bishop, remarks to his colleague Dutch that he wants to make one last big haul and then “back off.” “Back off to what?” Dutch asks, for which there is no answer. Finally Dutch reminds Bishop “they’ll be waiting for us,” and Bishop, the eternal adventurer, replies “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

In Mexico, the Bunch, including the two Gorch brothers, Lyle and Tector, and Sykes, an old man who rides with them, visit the home town of their youngest member, Angel, which has recently suffered a visit by Federal troops under General Mapache, during which anti-Huerta rebel sympathizers were rooted out and murdered. The Bunch forms an odd bond with the townsfolk, but they’re outlaws and they’re broke. Eventually they make a deal with Mapache (who is advised by Germans, eager to see Mexico allied with them in the impending war in Europe) to rob a US arms train across the border. This robbery is successful, and they return to Mexico with the stolen arms (including a machine gun) pursued, however, by a group of bounty hunters led by Deke Thorton, a former outlaw that Bishop once abandoned during a police raid on a bordello. Later ,the bounty hunters will wound Sykes, whom the Bunch will abandon to his fate.

Along the trail, Angel, a rebel sympathizer himself, has some Indian friends carry away a case of guns and another of ammunition. Angel, however, has been betrayed by the mother of a young woman he killed in a fit of anger for having run off to join Mapache’s camp followers. The outlaws complete their deal with Mapache, but surrender Angel over to Mapache.  Deciding to let Mapache deal with the bounty hunters, they return to the Army headquarters in the ruins of an old winery. However, their betrayal of Angel haunts them. After a brief period of whoring and drinking, they decide to confront Mapache and demand the return of their colleague. Mapache cuts Angel’s throat, and without hesitation Pike and Dutch shoot him down. At this point, the Bunch probably could take hostages and back off, but to what? Instead they throw themselves gleefully into a gun battle with some 200 Federales, and by taking control of the machine gun do quite a bit of damage. Eventually, however, the inevitable happens, and they end up dead, Pike shot by a young boy with a rifle.

As the surviving Federales limp out from the Army HQ, Thorton shows up. From there, he sends the bounty hunters home with the outlaws’ bodies, but remains to mourn the loss of his former friends. Sykes rides up with the rebel Indians who have saved him, and suggests Thorton join them. “It ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.” Laughing in the face of fate, they ride off to join the revolution.

The thematic power of the film hinges on two apposite recognitions. The first is that the outlaws are bad men. They rob, they cheat, they lie, they kill without compunction. They seem to hold nothing sacred and have no respect for any ethical code.

The second recognition is that this judgment is not entirely complete or correct. They have a sense of humor and an undeniable intelligence. They are able to sympathize with the oppressed villagers in Mexico. They have a sense of being bound together, and this is what leads them to their final gun battle.

The Bunch have lived largely wretched lives. As professional outlaws, they are dedicated to acquiring wealth by criminal means, but throughout the film, it is clear that wealth offered only two things for them: prostitutes and liquor. Although Pike was once in love and thinking of settling down, and (the asexual) Dutch speaks wistfully of buying a small ranch, they are just as committed to the outlaw lifestyle as the unrepentant Gorches; they just would rather believe otherwise.

This is because they are committed to a life of violence, to the thrills of dangerous heists, of chases across the landscape of the Southwest, and of gun fights. They rob largely to support that lifestyle, not the other way around.

The finale of the film has two major points of decision, the first determining the second. The first is when Pike, dressing after sex with a prostitute, sits on the bed finishing off a bottle of tequila.  That’s his life; and with the wealth gotten from the Mapache deal, he could continue it indefinitely. In the next room, the Gorch brothers, also drunk, argue with another prostitute over the price of her services. That’s their life, too. Meanwhile, Angel is getting tortured to death for being an outlaw with a conscience. Pike slams the empty bottle to the floor, and the march into battle begins.

The second point of decision has already been remarked on.  The moment after shooting Mapache, when they might have escaped, the Bunch choose to fight instead. Why do they do it? It’s not for the money, the drinking or the prostitutes.  Is it for revenge?  No, it’s because they live for the violence, and they do so as a team, and they have reached the moment at which they can live it to its logical conclusion.

Peckinpah remarked that, for that moment to carry any weight, the outlaws needed to be humanized to the extent that the audience could sympathize with them. He was, I think largely successful. But the film has been controversial, not only because of its portrayal of violence, but because in the climactic battle Peckinpah pushes our sympathies for the Bunch beyond mere recognition of their humanity.  They become heroic, larger than life, almost epic figures, challenging fate itself, in order to realize themselves, like Achilles on the field before Troy. And oddly, while not really acting heroically, they become heroes nonetheless, remembered by the revolutionaries who benefit from their sacrifice.

As a side remark, let’s note that Peckinpah was raised in a conservative Calvinist, Presbyterian household. But, like Herman Melville a century before, he was a Calvinist who could not believe in God.  In such a universe, some are damned, but no one is saved. We only realize our destiny by not having any. The Bunch destroy any future for themselves and thus, paradoxically, achieve their destiny. The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

A Soldier’s Story

The Wild Bunch is set in the last months of the Huerte dictatorship (Spring of 1914), a phase of the series of rebellions, coups d’état, and civil wars known collectively as the Mexican Revolution. [2] Officially, this revolution began with the fall of the Diaz regime and ended with the success of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but rebellions and bloodshed had already permeated the Diaz regime and continued a few years after the PRI came to power. In the official period of the revolution, casualties numbered approximately 1,000,000. When one discovers that the Federal Army only had about 200,000 men at any time, and that rebel armies counted their soldiers in the hundreds, one realizes that the majority of these casualties had to be non-combatants. Not surprisingly; the Federal Army, and some of the rebels, pursued a policy (advocated by our current US president) of family reprisal – once a rebel or a terrorist is identified, but cannot be captured or killed, his family is wiped out instead. Whole villages were massacred. Dozens of bodies would be tossed into a ditch and left to rot.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’ve nothing against thought-experiments that raise ethical questions, only those that limit the possible answers unjustifiably. So let us now imagine ourselves in the mind of a young Federal soldier, whose commandant has ordered him to shoot a family composed of a grandmother, a sister, a brother – the latter having atrophied legs due to polio – and the sister’s six-year-old daughter. The relevant question here is not whether or not he will do this. He will. The question is why.

This is a kind of question that rarely, if ever, appears in ethical philosophy in the Analytic tradition. It is, however, taken quite seriously in Continental philosophy. There’s a good, if uncomfortable, reason for this. Continental thinkers write in a Europe that survived the devastation of World War II and live among both the survivors of the Holocaust and the perpetrators of it. Analytic philosophers decided not to bother raising too many questions concerning Nazism or the Holocaust. Indeed, in the US, the general academic approach to events in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s has been that they constituted an aberration. Thus, even in studies of social psychology, the Nazi participants in the Holocaust are treated as examples of some sort of abnormality or test cases in extremities of assumed psychological, social, or moral norms.  This is utter nonsense. If it was true, then such slaughters would have been confined to Europe. And yet, very similar things went on in the Pacific Theater: during the Japanese invasion of China, the number of causalities is estimated as being into the tens of millions.

There were a million casualties resulting from the Turkish mass killing of the Armenians, long before the Holocaust.  There were several million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, decades after the Holocaust.  Far from being some pscyho-social aberration, human beings  have a facility for organized cruelty and mass slaughter.

At any rate, assuming that our young Mexican soldier is not suffering from some abnormal psychology, what normative thoughts might be going through his mind as he is about to pull the trigger on the family lined up before him?

For the sake of argument, we’ll allow that he has moral intuitions, however he got them, that tell him that killing innocent people is simply wrong. But some process of thought leads him to judge otherwise; to act despite his intuition. Note that we are not engaging in psychology here and need not reflect on motivations beyond the ethical explanations he gives for his own behavior.

While not a complete listing, here are some probable thoughts he might be able to relay to us in such an explanation:

For the good of the country I joined the Army, and must obey the orders of my commanding officer.

I would be broke without the Army, and they pay me to obey such orders.

These people are Yaqui Indians, and as such are sub-human, so strictures against killing innocents do not apply.

I enjoy killing, and the current insurrection gives me a chance to do so legally.

So far, all that is explained is why the soldier either thinks personal circumstances impel him to commit the massacre or believes doing so is allowable within the context. But here are some judgments that make the matter a bit more complicated:

This is the family of a rebel, who must be taught a lesson.

Anyone contemplating rebellion must be shown where it will lead.

This family could become rebels later on. They must be stopped before that can happen.

All enemies of General Huerta/ the State/ Mexico (etc.) must be killed.

Must, must, must. One of the ethical problems of violence is that there exist a great many reasons for it, within certain circumstances, although precisely which circumstances differ considerably from culture to culture, social group to social group, and generation to generation. In fact, there has never been a politically developed society for which this has not been the case. Most obviously, we find discussions among Christians and the inheritors of Christian culture, concerning what would constitute a “just war” (which translates into “jihad” in Islamic cultures). But we need not get into the specifics of that. All states, regardless of religion, hold to two basic principles concerning the use of violence in the interests of the State: First, obviously, the right to maintain the State against external opposition; but also, secondly, the right of the State to use lethal force against perceived internal threats to the peace and stability of the community. We would like to believe that our liberal heritage has reduced our eliminated adherence to the latter principle, but we are lying to ourselves. Capital punishment is legal in the United States, and 31 states still employ it. The basic theory underlying it is quite clear: Forget revenge or protection of the community or questions of the convicted person’s responsibility – the State reserves the right to end a life deemed too troublesome to continue.

But any conception of necessary violence seriously complicates ethical consideration of violence per se. Because such conceptions are found in every culture and permeate every society – by way of teaching, the arts, laws, political debates, propaganda during wartime, etc. – it is likely that each of us has, somewhere in the back of our minds, some idea, some species of reasoning, some set of acceptable responses, cued to the notion that some circumstance somewhere, at some time, justify the use of force, even lethal force. Indeed, even committed pacifists have to undertake a great deal of soul-searching and study to recognize these reasons and uproot them, but they are unlikely ever to get them all.

Many more simply will never bother to make the effort. They are either persuaded by the arguments for necessary force, or they have been so indoctrinated into such an idea that they simply take it for granted.

Because there are several and diverse conceptions and principles of necessary violence floating around in different cultures, one can expect that this indoctrination occurs to various degrees and by various means. One problem this creates is that regardless of its origin, a given conception or principle can be extended by any given individual. So today I might believe violence is only necessary when someone attempts to rape my spouse, but tomorrow I might think it necessary if someone looks at my spouse the wrong way.

The wide variance in possible indoctrination also means a wide variety in the way such a principle can be recognized or articulated. This is especially problematic given differences in education among those of differing social classes. So among some, the indoctrination occurs largely through friends and families, and may be articulated only in the crude assertion of right – “I just had to beat her!” “I couldn’t let him disrespect me!” – while those who go through schools may express this indoctrination through well thought-out, one might say philosophical, reasoning: “Of a just war, Aquinas says…” or “Nietzsche remarks of the Ubermensch…” and so on. But we need to avoid letting such expressions, either crude or sophisticated, distract us from what is really going on here. The idea that some violence is necessary has become part of the thought process of the individual. Consequently, when the relevant presumed – and prepared-for – circumstances arise, not only will violence be enacted, but the perpetrator will have no sense of transgression in doing so. As far as he is concerned, he is not doing anything wrong, even should the violent act appear to contradict some other moral interdiction. The necessary violence has become a moral intuition and overrides other concerns. “I shouldn’t kill an innocent, but in this case, I must.”

Again, this is not psychology. After more than a century of pacifist rhetoric and institutionalized efforts to find non-violent means of “conflict resolution,” we want to say that we can take this soldier and “cure” of his violent instincts.  But, what general wants us to do that? What prosecutor, seeking the death penalty, wishes that of a juror?

The rhetoric of pacifism and the institutionalization of reasoning for non-violence is a good thing, don’t misunderstand me. But don’t let it lead us to misunderstand ourselves. There is nothing psychologically aberrant in the reasoning that leads people to justify violence, and in all societies such reasoning is inevitable. It’s part of our cultural identity.  Strangely enough, it actually strengthens our social ties, as yet another deep point of agreement between us.

Being Violent

I’m certain that, given the present intellectual climate, some readers will insist that what we have been discussing is psychology; that Evolutionary Psychology or genetics can explain this; that neuroscience can pin-point the exact location in the brain for it; that some form of psychiatry can cure us. All of which may be true (assuming that our current culture holds values closer to “the truth” than other cultures, which I doubt), but is nonetheless irrelevant. It should be clear that I’m trying to engage in a form of social ontology or what might be called historically-contingent ontology. And ethics really begins in ontology, as Aristotle understood.  We are social animals, not simply by some ethnological observation, but in the very core of our being. We just have a difficult time getting along with each other.

It’s possible to change. Beating other people up is just another way to bang our own heads against the wall; this can be recognized, and changed, so the situation isn’t hopeless. As a Buddhist, I accept the violence of my nature, but have certain means of reducing it, limiting it, and letting it go. There are other paths to that. But they can only be followed by individuals. And only individuals can effect change in their communities.

This means we have to accept the possibility that human ontology is not an a-temporal absolute, and I know there is a long bias against that, but if we are stuck with what we have always been, we are doomed.

Nonetheless, the struggle to change a society takes many years, even generations, and it is never complete. Humans are an indefinitely diverse species, with a remarkable capacity to find excuses for the most execrable and self-destructive behavior. There may come a time that humans no longer have or seek justifications for killing each other; but historically, the only universal claim we can make about violence is that we are violent by virtue of being human, and because we live in human society.



Reprinted from:

Problems in current cultural changes

‘End-of-civilization’ theories always interest me, because they mark a recognition that a culture is in the midst of profound changes.

At the suggestion at the blog, Plato’s Footnote, I read an article by Mark Judge, in review of a book by Mario Vargas Llosa: ‘Star Wars’ and the End of Culture ( ), which complains that the current infatuation with spectacular movies, threatens our ability to value the cultural artifacts of the past.

I have no interest in Star Wars *. So as to Judge/Vargas Llosa – well, we’ve been hearing similar critiques for more than a century – and surprisingly, taken on their own terms, they are all true. However they all share similar problems. First, their definition of ‘culture’ is obviously very narrow and class-dependent. It is true that the culture of the Bourgeoisie and of the Aristocracy that preceded them is intellectually more stimulating and more complex, and emotionally more enticing and more rewarding than the culture Modernity produced for the person on the street. But accessing that ‘higher’ culture requires education, patience, and desire for the good it provides. The greater number of people simply don’t have time for this – but they have cultural needs for stimulation and satisfaction that cannot be denied. One might criticize the avaricious nature of those who cater to those needs, or the cynicism implicit in many of their products. But it is narrow minded to claim that no one should do anything to cater to those needs.

This opens out into another problem with end-of-civilization theorizing. Despite that such theories are arguments concerning history, their narrow understanding of culture leads to a impoverished, blinkered view of how history, especially cultural history, unravels. for one thing, cultural artifacts are very dependent on the technology used to produce them -Joyce’s Ulysses, as cultural artifact, is more dependent on the printing press than on Joyce’s pen. This also means that certain artifacts can become outdated, or even disappear, as technology changes. Collectors, scholars, and museums do what they can to use current technology to preserve artifacts left over from previous technologies – but they cannot recapture the cultural gestalts that gave originally gave these artifacts meaning. We can certainly read War and Peace on Kindle, perhaps even in Russian; but while the text still resonates for those with the proper education, we have only a general sense of its impact in Russia when first published. I’ll try to explain this in terms of an art I have been interested in since a kid.

I have always loved films and was long fascinated with film history. This has led me to confront some difficult problems. First, the physical medium is actually quite fragile. One can find lists of ‘lost films’ on the internet, but these lists are actually incomplete, because they depend on traceable documentation that is itself incomplete.

Second, films rely heavily on the set of conventions expected from them, and thus on the cultural codes surrounding them, because, unlike literature, they cannot be re-imagined by the audience. A studio could produce a ‘remake’ of Chaplin’s Gold Rush, but this would not really be a remake, but a variant re-telling of the same story. (And yes, that means there is no such thing as a ‘remake,’ that word is a used as a publicity ploy.)

Because of this, in order to learn film history, one has to develop a considerable tolerance for allowing cultural codes of the past, even those no longer interesting, or even offensive. The most notorious example of this, controversial even when released, is Birth of a Nation. For me, the realization of the full implication of this came while watching A Bill of Divorcement, the drama of which depends partly on the decision by Katherine Hepburn’s character, not to marry, based on then contemporary eugenics theories (due to her father, she has ‘bad genes’ and must avoid reproduction!). Recognizing the artificial nonsense of this premise made me see the whole film in a different way. I realized the camerawork was static, the dialog stilted, the characters over-drawn, and much of the acting overdone – all of which were quite acceptable conventions for audiences in 1932.

Now, one can say that these are simply criticisms of films of any era, even one’s own. But what this meant to me was that I was losing the capacity for suspending such critical judgment for the sake of losing myself enjoyably in films from the past. Shortly after, a whole host of silent-era and early sound-era films became unwatchable for me. I still cherish a handful, that can still be regarded as well made, with characters we still relate to – especially comedies. But a lot of films I had previously enjoyed have become tiresome efforts to get through cultural icons I could no longer enjoy, for which I no longer have time.

I do think they have value; film history is important, especially for those who would understand the changes that have produced the movie conventions of our own day. But I have come to understand the lack of interest that young people have for films of the past. It’s not just the absence of color or of spoken dialog or of CGI. The old films belong to cultures they do not inhabit.

So this is understandable, and a trend not worth bemoaning. It’s simply in the nature of culture change over generations, and in the nature of us to change with it.

But there is a trend I would like to complain of here – the loss of articulation. In a culture that is healthy – that is, interesting, involving, participatory – cultural artifacts are not simply produced to be ‘consumed’ – that is, sat through uncomplainingly, experienced without challenge, absorbed without question. In a healthy culture, people living in it participate in cultural production by developing a means of articulating what there is in their culture that they like or do not like; of discerning and discriminating between levels of value and differences in kinds and qualities of satisfaction. This is the origin of the language of criticism and review, of discussions of aesthetic taste, and of the agreement in a given culture concerning which artifacts are to be most valued, disseminated, and preserved.

But what I hear and read from young people today, indicates a loss of this necessary articulation. The critically rich language of value seems now replaced with impoverished exclamations of sense stimulation. ‘Awesome!’ – ‘epic!’ – ‘too many feels!’ Young people seem less and less able to articulate their responses to their cultural enjoyments. If so, they are losing the ability to participate in the production of these enjoyments; they become as sheep feeding at the trough of slop poured to them by greedy entrepreneurs with no sense of artistic integrity, and no interest in quality, since all they need to do is tweak the right nerves in their audiences to free them of their wealth.

That, I think, is the real problem here: not the “end of culture,” but the transformation of contemporary culture into a market of inarticulate consumers and mean-spirited producers. That doesn’t mean culture ‘ends,’ but it does mean that young people will be living with the culture they have without knowing the kinds of enjoyment, the stimulations and satisfactions, of full participatory co-production and articulation. They can get as much ‘wow!’ as they can afford (they’ll always have to pay), but they won’t know what it means to belong to a culture they helped produce.
* A side-bar remark on The Force Awakens – its phenomenal success may prove an utter disaster for Hollywood in the long run. Studios will now be competing to produce ‘blockbuster’ films costing literally a billion dollars each, and will be expecting two billion in return for each investment – the market is not really rich enough for that. (Perhaps that will lead to a proliferation of more interesting modestly-budgeted films that are not so effects laden – but I doubt it.)

Oh, Moses, Moses – you damned fool!


When I was teaching basic composition for those who had not made the grade in high-school, I was assigned a class in a small town in upstate New York, the main-street of which was littered with churches. So, since it is well to teach students according to their interests, one of the first writing assignments I gave my students was an essay on their belief in god and their religious preferences.

The results were surprising – even shocking. My middle-aged, small-town middle-American, supposedly Christian students agreed unanimously that god did not exist, but that religion was necessary for the teaching of morality. Really, they made no bones about that.

My suspicion is that most Americans do not believe in god; but they are so convinced that religion teaches morality that they are willing to spend literally billions on it. That makes them suckers – or as con-men put it, easy marks – for any fraud that perpetuates the myth that morality depends on some silly sacred book, no matter how incoherent.

One of the problems with mainstream American Christianity is that it is a mess of moral reductionism, superstition, mysticism, Old Testament fear-mongering, materialist hopes for increased wealth disguised as faith in grace, and just plain charlatanism.

Consider the 1956 Hollywood extravaganza, The Ten Commandments, by then-aging hack director Cecille B. DeMille.

If Charlton Heston wasn’t sure he could over-act before he made this film, he certainly proved it to himself – and everybody else – here. It’s hard to believe in a ‘prophet’ who can’t seem to lower his voice below a shout.

What’s really sad about films like this is that it plays well for people who deeply believe themselves to be devout Christians, even though the Sermon on the Mount makes so little sense to them, they tell their children to ignore it, “nobody could live that way”.

Of course, this is the “Old Testament” story, so references to mercy and justice and charity are somewhat out of place, anyway. DeMille, quite accidentally, has played up and reminded us that ancient Judaism was an essentially tribal religion. How it became an all-embracing world religion and how it spawned Christianity in that process, is a long and complex story – and why bother if you can load the screen with beefcake heroes, rivers flowing backwards, chariots, and dancing girls? And it’s just as well Heston over-acts like he’s just taken Angel Dust, because everyone else underacts embarrassingly. Most notable are Edward G. Robinson – looking like a toga-wearing ’30s B-movie gangster – and Yul Brynner. Brynner especially sleepwalks the film, looking dazed and confused; clearly awaiting instructions from the director that never arrive.

Why is DeMille considered a great director? Because Americans love a truly clever con-artist. We know that DeMille, selling beefcake and cheesecake and special effects, is garnishing all this with the words many call ‘sacred’ in our culture, even though we don’t really believe in them. He is not only playing to our baser instincts, but also to our hypocrisy.

Anyway, his film has no right to condemn any ‘Golden Calf’, because it is itself a golden calf, an idol of the herd.

Empty spectacle, fake religiosity, snooze-inducing narrative, cheesy cheesecake and beefy beefcake, crappy back-lot cinematography, bombastic dialog and music to match, endlessly mind-numbing moralizing, and acting that wood would be embarrassed to own –

Speaking about wood, this film is Ed Wood * on steroids with a big budget. DeMille knew just how to play the game (and Wood clearly did not), so DeMille was able to splash garbage on the screen and get Hollywood to pat him on the back for doing so. He pandered to the basest instincts of his low-brow middle-American audience and dressed it up with biblical quotations and pretentious promises of moral rectitude. He was basically a con-artist with a camera, a P.T. Barnum let loose in cinema and given the green light by financiers and media mavens – and he got the job done for them. 10 Boremandments made a ton of bucks, and film critics who should know better continue to sing its praise – Now that’s the mark of a truly great con-artist!

It was unfortunate for DeMille that he died when he did – he would have made a lot of money as a televangelist. (On the other hand, admittedly, those of us still living are blessed that DeMille is dead – who needs another televangelist?)

Old joke –

God comes down to Moses:
God: ‘Moses, I want to give you a commandment.’
Moses: ‘How much does it cost?’
God: ‘It’s free.’
Moses: ‘I’ll take ten.’

(This little story tells the whole story – forget the film.)

This joke was actually a self-deprecating bit of irony devised by Jews, who well knew what Christian Americans thought of them. (Just BTW, it must be noted that the Jewish community, at least in America, has long adopted a tolerance for those Jews who do not believe. Most American Jews still support Israel because they want somewhere to retire to, other than Florida; But they are really not interested in the religious muck that the Israeli right-wing espouses; and certainly don’t buy the Millenialism such muck involves. Outside of Orthodox communities in Israel and elsewhere, the Jewish identity is really a matter of culture and tradition; and one doesn’t need to believe in god to believe in culture.)

The film, then, doesn’t really tell us anything about the culture of the Jews as it has been handed down for centuries. It is really about American Christianity. What the Ten Commandments really reveals is that American Christianity is extremely primitive in its religious horizons. It is all about flash and spectacle, suppressed sexuality, moral rigidity, fear, and the desire for a strong man (like Moses) who can somehow make everything right through the smiting of enemies. And of course money.  It is a prelude to fascism.

Ten Commandments at IMDb:

Creative details:

Directed by
Cecil B. DeMille … (as Cecil B. de Mille)
Writing Credits
Dorothy Clarke Wilson … (this work contains material from the book “Prince of Egypt”) &
J.H. Ingraham … (this work contains material from the book “Pillar of Fire”) (as Rev. J. H. Ingraham) &
A.E. Southon … (this work contains material from the book “On Eagle’s Wing”) (as Rev. A. E. Southon)

Æneas MacKenzie … (written for the screen by) &
Jesse Lasky Jr. … (written for the screen by) (as Jesse L. Lasky Jr.) &
Jack Gariss … (written for the screen by) &
Fredric M. Frank … (written for the screen by)


* Ed Wood: reputably the worst director in film history – so notoriously bad, Tim Burton made a film about him.

But truth be told, despite the monies made available to him – DeMille is far worse.  A shameless purveyor of ludicrous pap pretending to be serious art.  Truly one of cinema’s greatest con-men and schlock-mongers – why wouldn’t Hollywood love him after all?  He is the baseline that real film-makers struggle to overcome and get beyond.

From a strictly personal perspective, I must admit that Ed Wood’s films usually amuse me.  DeMille’s films just make me want to puke.

Creativity and the need for history


One of the most influential films of all time, its impact still felt among film enthusiasts and film-makers, is also one of the best ever made. Akira Kurosawa’s The Severn Samurai (Japan, 1954) is one of the most powerful historical adventure dramas in the history of film. The story is complex, so I can’t really do justice to it here. A small farming village is threatened by a group of forty bandits. The village decides to put up a battle and hire five down on their luck samurai, one samurai apprentice, and one renegade who wants desperately to achieve the respect of a true warrior. The samurai get enmeshed in the lives of the villagers, but ultimately remain alien to them. After brief skirmishes, a final battle decides the day. Only three samurai remain standing. But it’s not their victory, the lead samurai remarks – the victory always belongs those who belong and continue. The samurai don’t belong.

Some time ago, I was talking with a young man intending to get into film school, and of course, hoping to go on to make masterpieces of action adventure films which would earn him millions. He ran by me a plot of one of the films he was planning – a grand epic concerning an embattled planet that hires a handful of mercenary space rangers to defeat a marauding band of interplanetary outlaws. “Oh,” I remarked, “Like the Seven Samurai?”

He frowned in bewilderment. “What’s that?” he asked. I told him about the film, and he dismissed it. “That’s old stuff – no CGI back then!”


I was reminded of this recently when considering some movie trailers now available at Youtube. Avengers: Age of Ultron; Superman vs. Batman (or is it the other way around?); Ant-Man; Fantastic Four; what, no new Transformers movie this year?

The summer blockbuster season is soon to arrive in movie theaters everywhere, threatening to overload our senses with explosions and super-powered fistfights and roller-coaster rides through special effects, unenlivened by any but the most ponderously histrionic declamations of banal dialogue rarely rising above the level of advertisement cliches.

I am tired of commercial filmmakers preying on the young by obscuring the fact that, as filmmakers, they have nothing original to say or do, by chewing up the past and spitting it out again with “new, improved” special FX. It is hard to believe that film was once considered an established art form, capable of bringing rich experience of other worlds and other peoples to local screens, along us enjoyment of the infinite humor and deepest drama of which humans are capable – as well as sheer, exhilarating adventures. Of course, there was always a lot of garbage – Film is a business, after all, and Hollywood is famous for its vultures, vampires, leeches, and other creatures of the capitalist menagerie of greedy beasts. But now there seems to be almost nothing more than garbage splashing across our big screens these days.

I once believed that if more were attuned to the history of film, they would make greater demands of their contemporary film-makers (and their producers and investors), and that the quality of all boats would lift in response to the demand. But I don’t think this anymore.

The sad fact is that many young viewers are not only ignorant of film history, they earnestly wish to remain ignorant.

What could possibly be gained by a surrender to one’s own ignorance. An ignorant man has to be told what to do and what to think. Simply rejecting the advice of one’s elders does not constitute freedom of thought – it is exactly when we reach a decision contrary to that of our peers that we discover what it may mean to become an individual.

This means, of course, that statistical arguments concerning the uselessness of history are wholly unconvincing. to say that ‘most people agree with me on this point’ doesn’t say that the point is well-made; possibly everyone in agreement with it is simply wrong.

To assert one’s independence and then turn around and say that the ‘majority agree’ is self-evidently contradictory. To abide by such statements despite evidence and reasonable disproof, is not simply exposing ignorance – which can be corrected through education – it is simply stupid.

Furthermore, since an ignorant person has to be told what to think, it follows that such a person is a victim waiting for a crime to happen. Such people seem proud of their ability to thumb their noses at people who reach out to help – but they easily and quickly fall victim to con-artists, who usually know how to make such people feel good about the victimization.

Knowledge of history means: not getting scammed for want of it. It means deepening one’s awareness of the strengths and faults of those we admire. It means that we learn the tricks used to produce something of value, thus making it easier to find and judge value.

In film it is also well to bear in mind that good film-makers are precisely those who have studied film history the most. This gives them a stock of film-techniques developed by others on which to draw for increased effectiveness of their own films. I find it unclear, why it is young viewers of today wish to remain in ignorance of where contemporary film-makers draws inspiration.

This fact blasts away the commonly proffered assertion, ‘we do things better now than anything they did “back when”‘. If that were true, then the film-makers of today would not need such inspiration; but they do.

Finally, it is simply a fact that those who profess ignorance – as a desirable quality – are simply incapable of saying anyone might be able to learn. They always get basic facts wrong.

I have actually seen reviews of the film that argue that, being an action film, the character development in the Seven Samurai is unimportant -it slows the film down; ‘get to the sword-fights – it’s a sword-fight film, after all!!’

But the Seven Samurai is not an action film; it is a period adventure film with both action elements but also, and more importantly, elements of serious drama.

The importance of the character development in the first half of this film is that some of us happen to like human beings and want to understand better: what makes them do the things they do – and what makes some of their actions mistakes – sometimes fatal mistakes.

As the remarks of the lead samurai at one point imply, the biggest mistake these men made was becoming samurai. But that being the hand life has dealt them, they need to play it out as best they can – and as gracefully as they can.

Hemingway once remarked that what truly made a man was ‘grace under fire’ – and I seem to recall he admitted that he had heard of this as a volunteer with the Italian army during the first world war, that this was the quality the Italians admired most about Americans.

Well, that’s what the Seven Samurai is about – not the action, but the ‘grace under fire’ that the samurai learn about themselves, and also teach the villagers – or those villagers willing to be taught. When someone is not willing to be taught, that one is not worthy of teaching – in which case bandits can rape, rob, and slaughter them, and no one would care.

Finally one must point out the tasteless ignorance of insisting that a film is weak because – heaven forbid – it’s not in color. That’s wholly irrelevant to any movie whatsoever. A good director can handle color well – but he or she can handle black and white lighting and composition equally well. A bad director can have state of the art technology and still come up with a mind-numbingly childish exercise in cinematic shite.

There is hardly a wasted frame in the Seven Samurai. And there are some stunningly beautiful and haunting images – in glorious black and white.

If you care about film, you owe it to yourself to see the film; had it never been made, neither would any contemporary films that you enjoy today, or that you may enjoy tomorrow.

The Seven Samurai is still one of the best films in the history of cinema, and still a film necessary to see and appreciate.