Monthly Archives: January 2013

What I Liked This Week: 1/26/13

In keeping with where my head seemed to be most days (nothing to do with the fact that Sundance was going on without me sad face), a lot of what I liked this week revolved around films and filmmaking. Other items were/are just fun. Fun is good!

  • This post from Reid Rosefelt, a publicist and Facebook marketing researcher/expert, which is essentially about taking a measured, long-tail view of a film and/or a filmmaking career. I have been following Reid’s advice on Facebook Marketing for Filmmakers since he first started diving into the endeavor, and this post locks in on a lot of his main arguments: that filmmakers should be thinking more broadly about how they and their work are perceived (or would be better perceived, depending on how we conduct ourselves) in the age of information. Reid’s advice often strikes a great middle ground between reasoned and impassioned, and I liked this post in particular because I tend to agree with all of it, having reached many of the same realizations in recent months. Most of Reid’s insights probably cross-over into other art forms and the small business world (if you’re an artist, you’re a small business) as well.
  • This New York Times blog post, about how inequality is holding back America’s economic recovery. I like this because it’s the truth, even if I hate that fact that too few people are talking about it. How about we get on that?
  • This picture of a baby Korean Godfather, sent to me by my Korean friend, who was made an honorary Italian-American by my family years ago, and has never failed to live up to the title. I hope to someday take a similar picture of a child of my own, attacking a bowl of kimchi with a pair of chopsticks.
  • The Way Station bar in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Not only because the bathroom is a TARDIS, not only because I got to watch an episode each of Doctor Who and Torchwood (underrated!) when I went on Sunday, but also because the people there (staff and patrons) were all pretty chill, and nice. Unfortunately a rarity in the NYC bars these days. I will be going back to The Way Station.

Have a good week, readers. I continue to appreciate your attention and your feedback. As always, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter any time.

A Case for Anti-Film

I took a course in college that introduced me to the work of Nicanor Parra, a Chilean poet perhaps most famous for his declamations against poetry. A self-proclaimed “anti-poet,” Parra essentially took issue with the longstanding worldview of poetry as some sort of lofty, mystically powerful medium. He also criticized the attachment of poets to what at the time were the prevailing standards of the form itself. Frustrated by the lack of a utilitarian purpose to most poetry, but cognizant that it remained popular and had a large admiring audience, he sought to write and champion work that existed practically in opposition to itself.

I remember reading Parra and feeling alternately curious and dubious. The contrarian in me liked the idea of art made in opposition to itself; and his points on the lack of a link between prevailing examples of art and a greater utilitarian purpose behind such examples, rang true to me even then. The (undeveloped) artist in me disliked the proposition that, in order to be pure and useful, art should “devalue” itself and the artist by foregoing so much of the creativity that separated it from reality and simply “report observations and feelings” instead.

I was a silly little student.

To me, at the time, anti-poetry seemed like something of a copout. I just didn’t see the point in making a point about how far the messages had strayed from the messengers through a “new” stripped-down version of the message itself. It seemed a little too clever, and maybe it was and still is, to an extent. What I wasn’t seeing or admitting, however, is that it doesn’t matter.

It certainly doesn’t matter to us, here and now. Not when so many contemporary American “artists,” and the money men pulling their strings and slapping paint over their ideas, have dialed up their efforts at “engineering” art to such a spectacular degree that it is now considered an intriguing artistic statement (because it is, unfortunately) to illustrate the pure garishness of the whole situation via such magnificent displays of American cultural decline as are ingeniously mirrored at us by such experiments as Lady Gaga (well played, Gaga).

But I digress. What I mean to say is that I’ve been thinking a lot about Nicanor Parra this week, after so many days wrestling with my ideas and opinions about our relationship with The Screen, because it’s been somewhat difficult for me to reconcile what essentially amounts in those posts to a call for more participatory activism through The Screen (and against The Screen As We Know It), with my journey as a filmmaker.

While I’m definitely settling more comfortably in the role of the indie filmmaker — the definition of which for me starts and ends with total creative independence on the part of the production — I still respect and long for the sort of reach and audience relationship that at current can only be easily got by working with those who have historically controlled what goes on The Screen (and who still mostly do). This is not to say that there aren’t people-of-influence out there who support truth and filmmakers locked into it. I just haven’t met any of them yet — please give me a call of you’re one of those people and if you want me to show you mine.

Getting serious again, a conflict naturally arises for me, based on my combined desire to both reform the prevailing relationship between art and audience and yet remain honest and steadfast as I attempt to do so in an industry that in many ways represents a large part of the problem, when I consider how to move forward. I don’t fault the industry in particular for its failings. Evidence in support of that claim can be found in the aforementioned posts on The Screen.

Working under the assumption that “we get the art we deserve,” however, my view is that, if it’s broke, we can’t start fixing it until we look down at the pieces and start to think about how to put them back to together to form it again (it being us).

So, in thinking about Parra and anti-poetry, especially as I’ve continued working on my latest script (which is pretty much steeped in my own personal journey through this changed worldview), I started thinking about the concept of anti-film.

It didn’t surprise me, when I decided to look to see if anti-film already existed, and was quickly led to Warhol. The ideas that had been knocking around in my head when trying to link my feelings about Parra and anti-poetry to my feelings about The Screen find a obvious natural home in Warhol’s legacy. But he and Parra belonged to different eras (and Parra’s Chile was and is a much different place than contemporary America) and I am neither a poet nor an iconoclast. I’m just a guy trying to point out some bullshit that’s standing in the way of the real shit. But I think maybe most artists working today (and everyone else as well) might benefit from the examples set by these and other artists.

Particular to my life and my experience to this point, and piggy-backing in part on my discussion of The Screen, I think what I’m trying to say is that it’s time for a more robust and thoughtful opposition to the status quo – on the part of both artists and the audience. I think it’s time to admit that we’ve lost our way in terms of truth of expression, and that, further, we won’t be able to find it again until we work our way back to a place where the cultural dialogue of the average American overlaps in a widespread and impactful way with the challenges of our time.

Again, as the fallout from tragedies like Sandy Hook have proven, we seem incapable (as a whole) of facing truth itself. Our forms of expression, these days, have taken to mirroring our “interaction” (or lack thereof) with the markets. Our participation in our cultural dialogue has become far more passive, and/or spasmodically reactive, than either passionate or measured. That which is most popular is that which is hollowed out, spread thin, and shined up to appeal to the broadest possible swath of people who might find such inoffensiveness palatable and non-confrontational. That which can, not coincidentally, be duplicated into sequels, re-purposed into merchandise.

Time and again, our money and time get sucked away, most often in service of the lie that “everything is going to be okay.” Unless you’re one of the few privileged ones who don’t have to work as hard or worry as much as most of the rest of us do, this simply isn’t true. Things are only okay when we make them okay, when we decide to agree that they aren’t okay, and decide to collectively do something about it.

In artistic terms, the problem isn’t that our art is bad. The problem is that our art is bad because it’s dishonest. The world we most commonly see on The Screen is so divorced from reality as most of us know it, and has been for so long, that we’ve actually lost sight of the artifice, to such a chilling extent that we now accept the existence of reality television — in which life itself has been turned not into something to celebrate or question or struggle for, but just another melodramatic narrative that plays out on The Screen. Art, which in the Aristotelian sense once was an imitation of life, has in America become an imitation of an imitation. In this way, regress, the unspoken goal of those battling for continued control of The Screen, has infiltrated our lives.

This has happened because some people pushed it to happen and because many more didn’t know any better and allowed it to happen. Regardless, it has happened and is still happening.

Regress is the enemy of the future, and in order to combat it, we need to backpedal to its source and deal with whatever unfortunate truths we find there. In so many words, we need to steer our lives (and probably, first, our art) away from the prevailing narratives that are failing us.

Like nearly everything else I seem to advocate, this is easier said than done.

As I mentioned frequently in my discussion of The Screen, our narratives infiltrate and grip every aspect of our lives. Further, they’re now with us all the time, unending in their availability (if we’re being generous) or their assault (if we’re being combative). They aren’t going away, and neither will the minds of those that control them be swayed towards greater responsibility if we do not engineer our response to their failure in terms they can understand (hint: there’s only one term, and it’s money).

In the spirit of Parra, we need to peel away the layers that make these narratives seem larger and more legitimate than they are at their core. At the same time (and it’s important to note that it’s difficult for a single piece of artwork or another similarly engineered activist action to do both these things concurrently) we require more of the sort of inflammatory pop art, more commonly associated in the present discussion with someone like Warhol, that manages to be both familiar and challenging at the same time.

Quentin Tarentino understands this. Django Unchained is a brilliant example of one of the things we need most right now: bloodletting. The legacy of slavery and of racism continues to poison our society and render untrue our claim that America is a place of equality and opportunity. The genius of Django is that it delivers a few carefully placed, chilling reminders of some of the most visceral horrors from our past, that continue to haunt us in more devious ways in the present, all wrapped up in the clothing of our dearest American pastime (violence).

Similar praise should be heaped on Christopher Nolan and Joss Whedon for the separate contributions each recently made to a needed call for unity, as presented by The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. Each of these directors have succeeded wildly by locking into the popular need for something different and better delivered under the guise of the same. 

Joss Whedon’s work has always ridden on the message that community, for all its difficulties, trumps individualism, and that the defense of community begins with inhabiting its contradiction: that we are all together in feeling so alone. Nolan has historically been more focused on puzzling out the trustworthiness of narratives from the noirish point of view of a damaged, isolated loner. In this way, he makes an equally crucial contribution to the reigning popular culture by pulling us into The Screen, on terms we can relate to, while constantly asking questions about everything we see and, eventually, landing in a similar place as Whedon. In Nolan’s more mathematical point of view: this problem (social dysfunction) plus this targeted solution (social harmony) requires this variable (a united effort to understand and combat the dysfunction) for it to all work out (however much of what we knew and used to hold dear we may lose in the process).

These men are some of the finest filmmakers working today. It boggles my mind that they aren’t more celebrated or more imitated (in terms of strategy and focus) on artistic terms. Studios look for the next Avengers rather than the next Joss Whedon; they ask what else can be done the way Nolan did it, rather than sit and think about why Nolan has succeeded in the particular way that he has. Tarantino is treated as the maverick that he is, but few pause long enough in their tiresome conversations about the violence and the dirt and the language in his films to ask themselves why they’re so upset with him in the first place, and blame those reasons instead.

Independent film is in a similar state of disconnectedness. No matter how many fine films get made each year (some are still being made) only a rare few seem capable of punching through the noise of an increasingly saturated entertainment arena and meeting with widespread success. In a day and age when so many lines still exist, demarcating so many marginalized groups that are outside the “old media” establishment, fine filmmakers emerging from such groups have little choice, shackled as we all are to a need to remain authentic to our own feelings and experiences, to similarly marginalize our own work.

Especially in the age of social networks, good work finds its audience – which isn’t a bad thing and probably also a necessary step in our redemption. Too few pieces of great artistic import, however, are able to cross the same lines that a blockbuster are able to cross and yet deliver unadulterated crucial messaging that does need to be heard. Contrarily, too many independent films that do receive the marketing support necessary to increase the likelihood of this happening, simply offer something too akin to the same watered-down narratives as our failed blockbusters, just wrapped up in extra quirk or built upon a foundation of what essentially amounts to a well-intentioned but ultimately exclusionary artistic absolutism that cuts it off from both the audience at large as well as those who need the most convincing: the old rich white dudes in charge.

Again. The old rich white dudes in charge will only be convinced if we’re convinced, because, in the prevailing terms of our culture, the only way to convince anyone of anything is to show them the money.

The specifics of my argument for anti-film thus arise. Leaving alone those few brilliant niche artists who are able to continue to do their important work, I don’t think the rest of us can or should wait for the industry to come down to get us. I think indies need to rise up from a truthful place (the ground, which rich people usually only see from afar) and force progress on our culture by developing complex narratives with a two-tiered character of atonement (reconciliation from the top down) and forgiveness (progress from the bottom up).

As artists like Tarentino, Whedon and Nolan have shown, this can only be done honestly within the system by giving people what they need and are used to while still performing a measure of alchemy as you assemble the pieces. Audiences have always rewarded change of this sort, and the saving grace of this whole situation is that it seems like a natural corrective process, by which innovation made in the name of emotional truth is rewarded and allowed to hasten true change.

In the indie world, however, where none of us enjoy such influence or such easily-employed freedom (or are yet as brilliant), we need to shake off the idea that anything but a true reflection of what society looks like ‘on the ground,’ in very real terms, is acceptable. We need to cease rewarding cleverness and excusing myopia. We need to stop pursuing only that which appears true only in the sense that it reinforces what we already think to be true (because, as I discussed in my posts on The Screen, a lot of that is simply false). All these habits, in both the creative sense as well as on the level of the audience, reinforce old narratives of the American and/or the individual (often the white male American individual) as something particularly special. They also, in turn, reinforce the depiction of anyone existing outside this ‘norm’ as an ‘other.’

An anti-film, then, must be defined as an activist film that backtracks against the parameters of what is normally understood as a film by historically conservative, historically white audiences, in terms they can relate to, while at the same time challenging certain ideas steeped in those parts of white conservatism that continue to endanger our future and are otherwise maintained in order to preserve the power of the old regime.

Like I said, easier said than done. Certain people will continue to make good, important films that are incapable of accomplishing this at the same time that they’re being honest. Others will continue to give those in control of The Screen more of what they want, which is now so far divergent from what the people that make up the average audience want, that they can’t do anything but fail in the long run.

And they’ll fail because people like me, a formerly conservative white male with everything to gain by playing ball (and a few opportunities to do so), have sniffed out what’s going on, rejected their arguments and their rationalizations, and have called bullshit. They’ll fail because people like me and you (there’s no way you’re still reading if you don’t agree at least a little) are more interested in justice and fairness and truth, than the ease of idle passivity.

Mostly they’ll fail because the winds of change are blowing against them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working together to create and champion the sort of compassionately reactionary art that’s capable of hastening the change as much as possible. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working tirelessly to create and reward visions of an America (and a globe) that might be all we can aspire to for now, one where the realities of ‘life as most of us know it’ are depicted as they are, rather than what other people want them to look like. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep fighting for equality and justice. It just means we should be fighting smarter.

What I Liked This Week: 1/19/13

I liked a lot of stuff this week. Also, the 5,000 combined words of Regaining Equality By Reaching Out Through The Screen pretzeled my fangers into a gnarled mess (I’m supposed to eat pizza today!) so I’m going to keep this post short.

  • I liked The Sessions, written and directed by Ben Lewin and starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt. While Hunt was nominated for an Academy Award this year for Best Supporting Actress (deserved) Hawkes gives an equally fine performance and might have been legitimated “snubbed.” In addition, the film itself is better than some of the other Best Picture nominees, in my opinion.
  • This article, How the Creative Response of Artists and Activists Can Transform the World, by Antonio D’Ambrosio. In addition to being smartly and passionately written, many of the ideas expressed by D’Ambrosio align with those I expressed this week. Many of the historical facts he cites similarly come from a truthful rather than a cynical or reactive place. And he’s an Italian-American with a unique perspective on democracy and community based in no small part on the same sort of immigrant experience that once led my family to economic success and to which I owe almost everything. So I like that about him too.
  • Two songs, neither of which are new but this isn’t called What’s New This Week That I Liked SO BACK OFF. I Need A Dolla, by Aloe Blacc. This song reminds me of the artistic tradition. Also: Ida Maria’s Devil, from her most recent album that for some stupid reason I didn’t get around to until years after her first swept my ears off their feet, kicks all sorts of ass. All sorts. Non-discriminatory ass kicking.
  • This article, Ranks of Working Poor Increasing, from the Washington Post. Because…I AM NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP. Actually filed under: What I Liked This Week That Secretly Makes Me Want To Punch People While Crying.

The Fury appears to have crept into this post.

Anyway, I also got that last link from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a crazy old man who feels like it’s his job to help the American people rather than help keep them in their place. Follow him on Twitter. Support him. Because he supports us. I liked Bernie Sanders this week.

Oh. Something else I liked this was Senator Sanders speaking out against media consolidation, which is the first and biggest way in which those in power attempt to control us through The Screen.

Have a good weekend, readers. Speak out against one little thing today that you were afraid to speak out against yesterday.

Thanks for reading. Tell your friends.

EDIT: I failed to notice that there’s a petition attached to the page with the videos of Senator Sanders speaking out against media consolidation. It’s on the right. I signed it. You should too.

Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 3)

This is Part 3 of 3 of a mega-post. To read Part 2, click here. Part 1, here. Don’t be afraid to hit me up on Twitter to let me know what you think.

American consumers are in an abusive relationship with our economy, more often than not. We hand over our money, accept mostly mediocrity in return, and either complain about it amongst ourselves or sublimate our dissatisfaction and turn it against ourselves and each other, instead of reminding companies (big and small) that it’s their job to serve our needs, not the other way around.

Most Americans these days are consistently making due with less, and getting less for their dollar, while the economy continues to flounder and jobs continue to be scarce and/or inadequate in terms of pay and benefits – even as profits remain high and the rich remain well-paid despite having screwed a whole lot of stuff up.

The prevailing messaging coming through The Screen continues to minimize and deflect us from this reality. For the past several decades, while we were absorbing a predominantly one-way narrative controlled increasingly by special interests, those same interests were squeezing more and more out of us. And now we’re nearly juiced and still they squeeze and still they trust that their narratives will keep us docile and subservient so long as they continue to control the messaging.

Sure, there’s a vocal minority out there who demands more from life than simple consumerism, but we shouldn’t be a minority. To be honest, I’m not even as vocal as I used to be in this fight – not because I’ve given up, but because, as often as I can, I just stop. As much as I can help it, I only open my wallet for, and pay attention to, companies and professionals that earn it.

Okay. Perhaps my wallet is also pretty light on the disposable income, but that’s not the point (though it’s partially the point).

The crucial point, though, is that too many of us seem to have forgotten – though it looks increasingly as if some good people are waking up – that the decisions we collectively make or don’t make every day are our power in this conflict between us (average Americans) and them (the wealthy in control of The Screen).

An advertisement only wins your attention and your dollar if you choose to ignore the fact that your lens is being focused for you – on a one-way narrative designed most often for no other purpose other than to part you with your money. Spend what you want on what you want, of course, but I think we owe it to ourselves to respond to most advertising messaging with more in the way of initial distrust.

With all apologies to those for whom it isn’t so simple – though many of us could stand to spend less on the distractions and diversions and foods engineered primarily to keep us distracted and sated and quiet – money only leaves your hands if you let it. We need so much less than we buy and consume. That’s an American pastime as well, but it’s one we may have to let go of a little bit if we want to regain our freedom. We’re as complicit in our own repression as those who lord over us, until and unless we change the narrative of our economic lives away from one steeped purely in sales and consumerism and back to one of reasonable, community-centric supply and demand.

What does this have to do with The Screen? Well, how else can we be expected to band together? The economic reality I’ve been discussing exists in direct correlation with a now “normal” way of life wherein the majority of our consumer population lives out most days shackled to jobs that, for us, remain linked to sustenance (money for food, shelter, transportation, health care). But for them (the intransigent old guard), our continued participation as workers and buyers only islinked more importantly to the bottom line. As has been established, the wealthy and privileged special interests that run our country aren’t interested in matters of livelihood. Many of today’s wealthy don’t even understand livelihood. They only know privilege and power, and want to maintain both, again, at all costs.

Should we blame them for that impulse? Not entirely, in my opinion. Human nature is what it is. But human nature isn’t only defined by greed and opportunism, a combination which historical precedent has shown invariably always gives way to subjugation and oppression. At the end of the day, we have to stop pretending that we aren’t collectively responsible for the mess these machinations have created. In very real terms, they have caused – and continue to cause – the deaths of a large numbers of Americans that our crumbling social compact has left behind.

Beyond this, I think we need to shake off the narrative we’ve been indoctrinated in for decades (that America’s past successes came about because of individualism and free-market capitalism only) and remember that human nature is also about community. More importantly, in terms of the task that faces us, human nature is also about emotional expression.

That’s where, for me, it all comes back around to what the proliferation The Screen, and of social networking in particular, means to our prospects for deliverance. I believe Facebook and Twitter and the like emerged and rose to such importance because of a symptomatic need on the part of everyday people to free ourselves from the one-way narratives that have failed us in life, and on which we have mostly soured as a result of their near-total corruption. I believe we turn to The Screen in part because it has always been there, talking to us, but that we fill it now with our own faces and the faces of our kindred because we crave the authenticity and connection that we have lacked for so long while we were bombarded with agendas on the television at night and were pushed in front of computers, often in service of similar agendas, during the day.

Even those of us who fail to understand this in any way, our privileged white whiners and our imitative hipsters, they turn to The Screen and the internet for the same reason the rest of us do. It’s not just about attention in their case. It’s about the intense sadness that is their life. It’s about the emotional neediness that pervades an existence that has been defined by the lie that life is anywhere near as shiny and fatigable as it has historically been shown to be on The Screen, a lie that has been blasted into our faces since we were children. The lie lords over the lives of such people even as they purport to exist in total opposition to it, because in doing so they ignore the fact that they are realigning their point of view using reactive rather than active energy.

I believe it’s crucial that we acknowledge all this, and that, further, we act upon it by attempting to share our experiences and our collective pain and broaden our perspective. It’s, admittedly, confusing. We are used to a world where The Screen speaks and we process and respond mostly from our own point of view and for ourselves. Now that The Screen has been paired with the internet and has proliferated into more evolved iterations, and we have begun to speak more frequently back to it in earnest, we need to engage with one another, more often, on real and honest terms. And we should do so with actual people, especially those who we were previously led to believe were different from us (they aren’t).

We should reserve our online energy for, and wield our own little versions of The Screen in service of, the real-world fight. Most important of all, we must remember when we interact with one another, that we are all in the same predicament. We can all, myself included, do a better job of remembering the crucial difference between the old narrative of The Screen and the new one: that the new narrative is a dialogue, and that we have a say the conversation.

Take it from someone who’s spent the last ten years stumbling after a means of engaging in a more honest cultural dialogue through his work. A two-way conversation is, admittedly, infinitely messier and more difficult than a one-way conversation. But it’s also truer, more human. Dialogue equalizes us, and we need so much more of it if we’re to ever bring validity back to the increasingly hollow claims we put forth in this country: that we’re all equal, and entitled to our fair shot at fulfillment and happiness.

Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of 3 of a mega-post. To read Part 1, click here.

Power is only exchanged through conflict. However, conflict has been sublimated, in domestic terms, in modern America. Those currently in power (essentially, the corporations and special interests whose money powers the politicians who run or fail to run the country) have long been engaged in a sort of silent, backdoor civil war against the rest of us.

There’s really no other way to describe everything the wealthy white establishment within the conservative movement in particular is doing, while in its death throes, to continuously dehumanize minorities and the lower classes in an ongoing attempt to maintain control over the economy and country no matter the cost. They worked for a long time to quietly warp the narrative of what it means to be American, such that they could grow richer and more influential as we absorbed everything through a one-way screen (the television) and ended up simply “missing” what was happening. Once the recession started waking people up, these same manipulative special interests started screaming (or saw to it that their “constituents,” true believers in their messaging, started screaming). They started painting other Americans as enemies.

No, our current civil war has not been waged with weaponry. It has only resulted in actual violence in cases when citizens snap and spasmodically act out in tragic explosions of long-simmering emotional pain, which is itself arguably caused by our failure to treat each other not as ends but fellow humans. No, this war has been waged through suppression, carried out through the propagandizing, via The Screen, of an emotionally Darwinist narrative that depicts America as a place that was built by rugged individualism and unfettered free-market capitalism. All you have to do is read three history books that aren’t written by right wing conformists to realize that this simply isn’t the truth.

While we sit in front of The Screen, battles in this war are decided by lawyers and lawmakers. Plans are laid with the (sometimes even unwitting) goal of bleeding out the spirit and the animus of the average American man or woman in small, incremental steps. Whereas America as we know it was actually built by the partnership between wealthy capitalists and an industrious working class that became a robust and energetic middle class, now it is mostly a place where the rest prop up those at the top, even as they take more and more from us because they need and must retain their power. So now, absent any experience making things or solving problems, because many of them were born fortunate and don’t know how to work or to be creative, they attack the future under the guise of protecting the past.

A man cornered and attacked cries out and fights back. But a man prompted to wait, by the lack of a discernable oncoming blow, even as the air around him is increasingly poisoned by the second, idles almost willingly when faced with essentially the same end result. And who can blame him, when his environment is full of so many invisible threats that are impossible to track and avoid all at once? Except that, in the second case, such a man is robbed of the benefit of the assistance from his fellow man that would surely come in the first, as each eventually realizes that they are under similar assault.

What I’m suggesting is that The Screen has become the corner that we’re backed into. The old guard, exemplified by those in control of certain too-big-and-too-greedy corporations, is the attacker.

So what do we do?

Well, we talk about this shit, first and foremost.

I’m neither an economist or a political scientist, and I acknowledge and understand that even if this combined missive spreads like Bieberfire (it won’t), and we all collectively look up and whisper “no” – that things won’t change over night. But what influence we have, which we do not exercise enough en masse, is our bargaining power as consumers.

As trivial as some of them may seem on the surface, I’ve delighted in recent socially networked movements against backwards or exploitive corporate policies in recent months (the furor and flight over Instagram’s change in their TOS is a recent example). However trivial in comparison to what we should also be doing (increasing our active participation in combating social injustice on the ground) this sort of viral participation represents an easy and tangible way to band together and enact change. Companies can’t ignore shocks to the bottom line, which is something they used to worry about predominantly on our terms, not just the terms of wealthy shareholders. If our relationship with our corporations are going to swing back towards balance, this needs to become the norm once again.

Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen (Part 1)

Although I haven’t announced it, my goal for this site is to publish at least two posts per week. Most of the time, this will probably result in one lengthier post appearing earlier in the week, and What I Liked This Week (WILTW) rounding it off during the weekend. That’s pretty much all I’m going to be able to manage, in between the day job and The Filmmaking.

This week, however, you’re getting four posts. Or, more appropriately, one mega-post split into three parts, and then your weekly WILTW. I guess there just was a surplus of fury and romance this time around. Probably this happened because the gun control debate has me riled (the children who died last month are still dead, and still shouldn’t be dead, and more than a couple of people are standing in the way of desperately needed reforms) but also I’m pretty happy on a personal level these days.

Anyway, without further delay, here’s Part 1 of Regaining Equality by Reaching Out Through The Screen. I will publish Part 2 tomorrow, and Part 3 on Friday. As always, I encourage readers to respond via Twitter or Facebook, and please definitely share anything that you like.

Thanks for reading.

It should go without saying that our country and the globe are both big places, at least in comparison with the lens through which we view and experience them: our personal point of view.

But as a reader pointed out to me in response to my post about Sandy Hook, our personal point of view, oftentimes these days, is increasingly aimed at a screen. A computer. A television. A phone that ceased to be a phone a long time ago.

Her (paraphrased) words: “I’m not sure a world in which we’re so much ‘more connected’ to each other helps anything – I think it leaves us less humanly connected that ever before.” In addition to writing this, she smartly (and importantly, in my opinion) pointed out the irony inherent in the fact that she was delivering her opinion via Facebook. That’s an important detail, given where I’m about to go with this discussion.

Stick with me. This is a long one.

This issue of connectedness vs. connection, for me, is vastly interesting. Much has already been said about it, and the conversation continues, so I’m only going to focus on one particular problem I have with the way many of us use technology.

The aforementioned reader is also particularly worried about the dangers facing members of coming generations who are born into a society where so many of us choose The Screen over, say, a face. I share this concern, though I think the fact that she and I are both worrying about it indicates an awareness on the part of our generation that this is an important issue that needs to be dealt with on an individual and/or family level. One that, hopefully, at the end of the day, won’t differ too much from similar debates certain members of the boomer generation had about us, in regards to video games and computers, and which their parents before them had about television. It ends up, for me, a matter of vigilance on the part of the family as well as on a social level. I’m not as worried about it as I used to be, because I believe that such concerns, while legitimate, stem more from a need to catch ourselves up to accelerating technologies and technologically-based social networking systems than anything else. Though this doesn’t mean we don’t have work to do tracing our compulsions towards these technologies and sourcing out our subsequent responsibility to use them in a healthy and/or productive way.

This is the real imperative facing our generation and future generations: parsing why we feel compelled towards The Screen, in the particularly clumsy interactive ways in which we are lately compelled towards it in its evolving forms (phones, tablets, smart TVs). Answers as to what we should embrace, what we should worry about, how to respond as our lives continue to depend on computers and networks and information technology, are likely to follow.

I would argue that it all begins with understanding and acknowledging that our relationship with The Screen is as emotional as our relationship with the world itself, as glimpsed from our own point of view. Further, taking this statement at face value,  I believe we have some waking up to do, when it comes to realizing the extent to which the gatekeepers of The Screen have traditionally leveraged the influence they enjoy as programmers of its messaging to take advantage of this relationship.

If you can’t come with me on that, stop here and go catch up on Mad Men.

Again, our country and the globe represent a vast, interconnected system. This is true on both a natural level (the Earth as an organism) and a manmade level (society as a network of interdependent beings working together, if not in unison, to survive).

In contemporary terms, with rare exception, we enter into this system incrementally, by proxy at first, as we are raised (or flung) into adulthood.

In America, in particular, we begin to fully belong to the world, in prevailing terms, when we enter the workplace and begin purchasing and working our way through whatever corner of it ends up in front of our individual lens, either by choice (if we are “lucky,” and increasingly fewer of us are lucky, because the system is rigged in favor of the privileged) or necessity. These are the facts of American life. You grow up, it’s difficult and strange, and then eventually you settle into some place or another, do one thing or another, and at some point it all bleeds together and the difficulty and the strangeness evaporate except at times of emotional upheaval (birth, death, other rites of passage). Perhaps you shuffle things around now and then, in terms of where you live and what you do, but in the end we’re all just making money and handing over money and in between we keep ourselves busy. Increasingly, we keep ourselves ever-busy, on an individual level, in front of some permutation of The Screen.

Except there are a few key differences between The Screen as it was and The Screen as it is now. First, the television has lost its status as the primary target of the individual lens. Even those in our populations who are older are finally being forced by the move towards electronic publishing and recordkeeping to form some semblance of computer literacy. Additionally, there are the phones and, now, the tablets. The Screen has multiplied. Under our “control” it’s various forms coexist and interact. It is now “normal” for many people to engage with a computer or phone or tablet while watching TV.

It is not the concern of this post to judge questionable examples of such behavior, per se. There are clear, easy-to-see repercussions, on an individual and a societal level, to dividing our attention so completely for an extended period of time. Also, I am guilty of pushing my face into The Screen a little too often, so I can’t judge. However, there is a fine line between withholding judgment and the subsequent failure, in the place of judgment, to take a realistic perspective on the repercussions of our actions.

Which all a very long way of saying that we are collectively, and on average, far too passive in our use of technology.

To borrow some metaphors from my vocation: we are not a fixed lens. Our perspective can be likened to a fixed lens – which has only one point of view, that can be played with to varying degrees but which is unable to ever see everything on its own, even when focused on a dynamic and engrossing subject – but we should never be so self-restrictive or so presumptuous to assume that one point of view is capable of taking in the whole world.

Only in varying our perspective, switching out lenses, as it were, and experimenting with different views and different combinations of views, are we able to responsibly say that we have looked at something. Only then does it become easy to remember that The Screen is only that. A microcosm of a particular worldview. A picture of a thing that, however simple or complex it may be, or however steeped in the abstract of the imagination, has a real world equivalent which, whether we acknowledge or not, exists in relation to us in way that is neither tactile nor energetic.

Even more crucially, a face on a screen is not a face. It is a representation of a person on the other side who, despite any artifice thrown in the way of each of you, exists in reality in another place, made of organic stuff and vibrating with feelings.

Our initial relationship with The Screen was a passive one. It was crude, by today’s technological standards. The television blasted its messaging at you, and you could only respond insofar as you were able in the real world: by communing with those in your direct vicinity, or with your wallet as advertisements fought over each other for the privilege of your dollar. And prior to YouTube, a select few among us enjoyed the privilege of being able to clumsily and incompletely communicate within the screen, participants in the messaging conducted through subsequent programming.

This relationship has clearly changed, now that we have the internet and now that we carry it in our pocket wherever we go. Especially in the last several years, with the rise of social networks, the narrative of The Screen has begun to more closely align with the narrative of life. The faces that appear to us from the other side are increasingly the faces not of traditional messengers but rather our friends, our loved ones, perhaps even our enemies instead.

This is still all very new. And so, we worry. All of us. On the ground, people like me and you, we worry that we spend too much time on too many screens – which we’ve already discussed as a legitimate but ultimately inconsequential concern. We worry while experts and academics and reporters squabble amongst themselves about similar concerns, about the moral and social repercussions of our changing habits, all of which represents a debate made more on their own behalf than ours. They aren’t to be blamed. The one-way narratives they are used to continue to either evolve or expire, leaving whole swaths of them behind while a few of the smarter ones abandon themselves to the vagaries and the chaos of the new narrative. And as we all worry, those in the towers that loom over our cities (our literal overlords), scramble to adjust the narratives and the delivery systems they have long controlled, such that they may maintain or reinforce the old, crumbling relationship between us and them.

All our fears are justified. Make no mistake: The Screen, by virtue of our increasingly symbiotic relationship with it, is the personification of control. Say what you will about that, argue against it if you’d like (just don’t ask me to listen to you), but the fact of the matter is that we are, at least on structural terms, on the precipice of a future many of us have long feared. The Screen is everywhere; we can’t go back.

We shouldn’t want to go back. Especially those of us whose lives have been dictated by those traditionally in control of the The Screen and the message (most of us), we shouldn’t want to go back. Because as it stands right now, we know more about how to win control of The Screen than they do, and we are better positioned than ever to regain some of the dignity that the average American has lost over the past several decades. 

The truth is written in the mangled façade of what we still call Facebook, which rose to prominence once, in part, because its interface recalled an Apple-like regard for beauty, in comparison to the visual and architectural mess than was MySpace. The fact that the visuals of Facebook have turned into a conglomeration of icons, links, and flashing lights – whereas it used to look like a communication hub – tells us all we need to know about where the site is headed and/or where we’re letting it lead us.

Facebook is becoming just another business hub. Especially since it’s IPO, which has unsurprisingly hastened the rate of the reverse exponentially, the site is in a state of regress. What began as a means of connectedness now begs for and demands your connectivity. The push to make Facebook something more valuable than what it is – and, just so we’re clear, I believe Facebook has value and can co-exist as a business and as a historical touchstone of the social networking movement – has perverted its legacy as a primary virtual epicenter for the movement away from the traditional one-way narrative of The Screen and towards a more widespread and all-encompassing visualization of the sort of cultural exchange of information, ideas and emotions that has been taking place on the internet since its infancy as a popular destination.

Do you know why this is happening to Facebook? It’s because the monologue of The Screen has become a dialogue, and those who have historically controlled the messaging don’t want this.  Since it’s happening anyway, you can be sure that those in power will do their damnedest to seize one side of the conversation fully and not let go. That is what has worked for them in the past. That is why they bought the news.

Make no mistake: the war for your divided attention – for frequent access to your many screens – is on. Most of those in power don’t really know what they’re doing, because they’re old and because they’re incapable of knowing what it’s like to need The Screen as we need it. But they’re not completely stupid, they have resources, and they have time. Especially while we idle, continuing to devote more of our waking hours and our energy on trivialities than on improving our lives and the world, they have the time.

And why shouldn’t we idle? It fits the traditional narrative structure of life, as we experienced it growing up in front of our televisions. We can’t be blamed any more than we can be forgiven – and I say that because at the end of the day, regardless of causality and of the difficulties ahead of us, it’s our responsibility to seize control of our share of the dialogue ourselves.

There is no evil in business. Companies that make The Screen and fill it with imagery and provide us with the tools of communicating with one another and sharing information – as well similarly connected/invested corporate powers – they can’t be completely blamed for wanting their share of control. Evil comes from people. On the side of such organizations, they are evil who leverage their control of The Screen against humanity, perverting truth by doubling-down on the insistence that the limited view of a one-way narrative is legitimate and righteous. On the side of the people, we are evil who neglect to question these practices and damn their practitioners by failing to take our attention and our wallets somewhere else.

Only in understanding our true relationship with the new normal of communications technology, in acknowledging what it means about us and what it means for us going forward, can we begin to regain ownership of our side of the narrative. I believe this process, not new laws, or progressive policies, or more new technologies, will help us find our way back to true individual empowerment and true collaborative democracy.

But we have to want it. And it’s infinitely easier said than done.

What I Liked This Week: 1/12/13

Before I get on to What I Liked This Week — a quick thank you to everyone reading. Special thanks to everyone who provided feedback and extra special thanks to those who shared links. Please add yourselves to the end of this week’s list. Because I like you. Not like that. I’m a married man! Don’t be creepy!

Nah. Be creepy. In your own head, though. We’re all creeps in there anyway, and if we did a better job of accepting that and maybe even talking about it a little, the world would have fewer problems. Ah, well. We all float on.

There’s one thing that I loved this week, which gets it’s own mini-post. Bullet list of a few other things after that.

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. I bought this book for my gamer brother after hearing from a friend that it was a great read and a great read for people who like pop culture and video games. Since I also like both these things, even if I don’t dive into them as often as I used to or would like, I also bought a copy for myself. And I’m very glad I did. Ready Player One has been out a while and has sold a bunch of copies, but anyone who hasn’t checked it out should do so.

On the surface, the story seems like an esoteric trip for…people who like pop culture (particularly 80s pop culture!) and video games, comics, sci-fi, etc. I don’t know how many ladies and gents belonging to that category are left out there who haven’t read the book, but I’m including it here because I enjoyed it immensely and found it to be about much more than the sum of these broadest-of-its-thematic parts. I think people of lesser geekiness than I could get a lot out of it as well.

In short, in the tradition of all great sci-fi works, Ready Player One is a warning about where we might be headed as a society, what this may mean for us on an individual level, and what we may have to do on both terms to deliver us from such a frightening vision of the future. Particularly, it’s about how and why we choose to escape reality and also, sometimes, insulate ourselves from it and those around us. It’s also about the importance of questioning, challenging, and hopefully overcoming the worst and most damagingly excessive of these impulses.

Ready Player One spoke to me because I’ve done my own wrestling with escape and distractedness and loneliness, and I also think it’s a relevant entry into the thankfully growing discussion of how we might healthily coexist with our evolving technological systems.

Look out for a long post next week in which I explore my own ideas about this issue. Much of what I’ve been thinking about was shaken loose after reading Ready Player One, which, by the way, I accomplished mostly in the span of eight hours.

Reading a great book is infinitely better than suffering through insomnia.

Other things I liked this week:

  • This report, indicating that AIG, the insurance giant that the US government bailed out at the onset of the recession, in order to keep the economy from fully crashing, is considering suing the government on behalf of its shareholders, some of whom feel as if they were denied millions of dollars due to the “unfair” terms of the bailout. I don’t actually like this. I think it’s as contemptible as it is hilarious. I don’t actually think it’s hilarious. It reminds me how far away we are from regaining equality in our society — if we ever had it.
  • Jon Stewart chiming in on the inability of the GOP-led House to speedily pass adequate legislation providing aid to victims of hurricane Sandy. Which I touched upon in my post about Sandy Hook and America’s Sickness.
  • This footage of a giant squid. Because…giant fucking squid!

Have a good rest of the weekend. Don’t forget to hit me up on The Twitter (@MichaelDiBiasio).