Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sweating the Heat from Hollywood?

I'd wanted to weigh in on this whole James Arthur Ray/sweat lodge tragedy, but there's really nothing I can say any better than it's being said almost everywhere else at the moment, notably over on Cosmic Connie's Whirled Musings; Connie has been on top of this since the bodies were still warm to the touch. Keep an eye out for quickly assembled exposés on Dateline or 20/20. Producers from the latter show have been talking to me on and off ever since SHAM was published; two or three different times I was "assured" that they'd be putting together an "in-depth" special on SHAMland, a project for which I'd serve as a consultant. I'm pretty sure that now, with people actually dying in the name of self-improvement, they'll feel motivated enough to get off their asses and do it. Death is sexy.

UPDATE, afternoon. Been hearing from a few folks who tweeted about this and included plugs for SHAM. (Thank you, by the way.) One suggests I should've picked a stronger subtitle for my book: Instead of "how the self-help movement made us helpless," he suggests "how the self-help movement makes us dead." Probably a bit of a reach as an overall subtitle, but tragically apt here.

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I am distantly related to Al Pacino. Yes, it's true. (Well, no, technically it isn't, but I figure all Italian people are related somewhere down the line. Actually I figure all people are related, so by that logic, I'm distantly related to you, too.)

I mention Pacino because again last night I was watching Heat, which I think is one of the best movies of the past 20 years. The bank-robbery/escape sequence thrills me every time, but the film as a whole also makes you think:
about marriage, about loneliness, about loneliness within marriage, about the complexity of human personality, about the true meaning of love, about the true meaning of loyalty, about the too-easy distinctions we make between right and wrong, about the true nature of our true nature and whether or not we give in to it. Dare I say it, the film provokes questions about the very nature of Self itself. That 5-second scene in the kitchen of that greasy spoonwhere ex-con/short-order cook Dennis Haysbert*, who's been trying so hard to live up to his wife's expectations by going straight, is making the snap decision that we viewers just know will end his lifeis heartbreaking and yet somehow heroic at the same time. Overall, I think Heat's director, Michael Mann, is one of the most gifted and surely underrated filmmakers of our generation; for my money, his films, one after another, are a near-perfect synthesis of art and entertainment. (Did I mention that I'm distantly related to Michael Mann?)

Having said all that, I'm annoyed with cousin Al this morning. And the reason is that I wonder exactly when and why he decided that screeeeeaaming all of his lines would be a good follow-up to the brilliant subtlety of his work in such early classic showcases as The Godfather**, Serpico and even Scarface.

So Cuz, if by some chance you should happen to read this: What gives?

Bigger picture, I'm wondering what you folks think about movies nowadays. It's easy to say "they don't make 'em like they used to," which is what we old farts tend to say about all aspects of culture after a certain point. But is that true? Is Hollywood's typical output as bad as I think it is? Just wonderin'.

* sadly, best-known today for uttering lines about "accident forgiveness."
** GF1 and GF2, that is. By the time GF3 rolled around in 1990, it was all-screaming, all-the-time.

16 comments:

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, While some of the old movies are rightfully held up as pinnacles of the cinematic arts, there are far more of them that are pure schlock. By the same token, while most of the current offerings are nothing more than brain candy, a few will find themselves included among the best movies of old.

While us old farts do tend to romanticize the superiority of things we experienced in our youth, I don't think that the quality of movies has deteriorated, though the acting has, to a great extent, matured somewhat. The best actors today pretty well disappear into their roles, as did the earlier great talents, and the best ones' plots - even some of the more fantastic ones - just feel pretty credible credible.

Of course, the same equivalence doesn't apply to music. There are some true geniuses nowadays, but the genres as a whole have really deteriorated, in my curmudgeonly opinion. Have yet to hear a rap artist who can touch an audience the way CSNY or the Moody Blues can, and Stevie Ray notwithstanding, nothing I've heard of late can compare with the musicianship of Jethro Tull or Hendrix. Of course, Miley and Britney are in a class apart. :-)

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, I hope you do get some more mileage from SHAM as a result of this incident. It's too bad it takes a tragedy to bring more people's attention to the follies of SHAM/New-Wage stuff, but as you wrote, "Death is sexy."

I think just for the heck of it I'll plug SHAM (the book) again on my blog.

David Brennan said...

RE: Movies

My favorite moviemaker is the greatest of all time: James Cameron, so I don't have to lament that he's "underrated" (not that I ever use that word anyway....because how the hell do I know what everybody else in the world "rates" something?)

I have a thesis that (a) Americans are getting dumber and (b) as a result of this, they're losing the ability to grasp stories, on a fundamental level. That is, they can't follow the sequential cause-and-effect sequence of events and grasp it as a whole. (I also think that Americans' emotional - and sexual - impotence is causing some sort of collective asberger's snydrome; we can't empathize with characters in a story.)

About a month ago, I wrote a column kind of expounding on this a bit. I looked at the trend of box office hits and found that a radical transformation has occurred since the impotent neo-cons took over society in the late 90's and entirely after 9/11: people only spend money on pre-existing tales. They're demonstrably incapable of grasping new stories. This is why 'Transformers' and '300' and 'Harry Potter' and all these other franchises utterly and completely dominate theaters nowadays. If James Cameron were to make The Terminator today, it would flop because worthless Americans are unable to wrap their decaying, solipsistic brains around it.

Francis Ford Coppola had an interesting idea that news-as-entertainment is a big factor in people's inability and unwillingness to learn new tales. That is, moron Americans watch FoxNews and, rather than viewing it critically as they would data, they view it as entertainment (which, like all good propaganda, it is) and so it fills that part of the brain that requires entertainment. (He says the future of movies might be something like an opera, where the moviemaker is sitting there in person talking about what you're watching as you're watching it.)

Steve Salerno said...

DB: Well, at least you're not judgmental. I take it you are not an American, then?

RevRon's Rants said...

If one doubts that people are indeed getting dumber, one only need listen to the timbre of modern dialog, where reasoned debate is rendered useless by ad hominem attacks and the wholesale derision of entire groups of people.

In such intellectually-deficient encounters, the only possible conclusion to the dialog is either for one side to literally destroy the other, or for one side to acknowledge the futility of debating with a troll and move on to more pleasant and productive endeavors.

And speaking of old movies, one channel here is broadcasting a series of old Vincent Price movies. He was such an incredible ham that I can't believe I ever took any of his portrayals seriously. :-)

Anonymous said...

I love Michael Mann's films! If you liked Heat then watch Thief with James Caan. Michael Mann really gets you to question life and you're own motives with every movie. His films are like poetry.

Anonymous said...

As always, the comments here are just as provocative as your posts.

Sadly I'm afraid we may be dumbing our kids down as well (it started with the generation after mine, of course ;>). I see it in simple day-to-day conversation -- even my own sense of grammar and English is being colored by it, which annoys me to no end. I blame the Internet and reality TV.

An odd irony that in the current quest to 'keep it real' we feed more than ever on regurgitated stories and packaged media. I'm hoping it is the Dark Night of Our Collective Soul before the dawn...of what, though, I'm no longer sure.

Kimberely

Steve Salerno said...

Kimberely: As always, if people give me some identifier to go on, I like to greet them individually...so welcome to the fray. Or have you commented before? The spelling is unusual.

sassy sasha said...

steve i'm a mmeber of that much maligned younger generation that has destroyed our culture or so you make it seem but in this case i agree with you, movies suck! every movie seems like it was made with the same teenage boy or girl in mind, it's insane, they give no one any credit for having a brain. or even half a brain like in that last blog of yours. -)

renee said...

I'm not sure I agree we're getting dumber. Perhaps only more complacent.

We can all leave the multi-plex behind and feast on some films that may challenge us in one way or another. I'm all for Vince Vaughn and his posse when I need a pretty mindless laugh; and I appreciate his ability to deliver it.

In the past year, Away We Go, Lars and the Real Girl, The Visitor and Frozen River (among others) each gave me characters I could love or wonder about, characters that could challenge some thinking...each one from writers and directors who found the backing they needed to bring the work to life.

David Brennan said...

I'm an American (although my dad's from Ontario, if that counts for anything). I don't mean literally every American has a decaying brain or is some Viagra-popping neo-con, but that's the overall trajectory of our civilization (if we even are that, anymore). I'll say this: every immigrant I work with is competent, honest, and hard working. Literally every one I've ever met (well, there was one exception, now that I think of it). Conversely, 75% of Americans I work with are stupid, liars, and spiritually inert. It's an intangible thing, but I'm certain of it, but it's obvious. If you doubt Americans' total inability to build and create anything....journey to an engineering school. All foreigners.

(But whatever an individual's or a society's failings are, all human life is axiomatically sacred. That's my point of view - a minority one.)

(Quickly, an anonymous poster mentioned 'Thief'. Michael Mann literally cut-and-pasted no fewer than five critical shots and scenarios from that to 'Heat'.)

RevRon's Rants said...

"If you doubt Americans' total inability to build and create anything....journey to an engineering school. All foreigners."

According to what I've heard and read, more American students are going for a MBA than an MSE or MME due to economic factors - they know that they can earn more with the former. At one time, engineering was the accepted discipline for the upwardly mobile, but now, it has been supplanted by business. Managing is viewed as more valuable than is the resolution of technical issues. So we have not a deficiency in abilities, but rather a shift in priorities. Whether such a shift is advisable or inevitable is another topic altogether.

David Brennan said...

"According to what I've heard and read, more American students are going for a MBA than an MSE or MME due to economic factors - they know that they can earn more with the former. At one time, engineering was the accepted discipline for the upwardly mobile, but now, it has been supplanted by business. Managing is viewed as more valuable than is the resolution of technical issues. So we have not a deficiency in abilities, but rather a shift in priorities. Whether such a shift is advisable or inevitable is another topic altogether."

Okay, I disagree with almost everything. I'll respond to each idea.

1. MBA's are not easier to get than engineering degrees, I'm sorry. An old colleague of mine was at U of M's engineering school for one semester before he couldn't keep up and had to drop out. But he ultimately graduated from their business school, breezily.

2. Okay, now we have tons and tons of MBA's being doled out (and I did indeed hear somebody on C-SPAN recently say that business degrees are the most common in the U.S. now), and so we have all sorts of bureaucrats: people who want to organize and live this reductionist life of "managing" and "delegating responsibility" and "administrating". Great. Great.

....But who's gonna build and create the things to be sold and used in the first place?

Creation precedes everything. Everything is dependent upon the human brain taking dumb matter - a sheet of paper, a silicon chip, a 2x4, a painting canvas, whatever....and then imposing intelligence on it. Without that idea as a fundamental guide (really, it should be an innate and unconscious guide), we aren't even a civilization. We're animals. Animals game their system (nature). They delegate authority and manage and all that MBA crap. But they don't create. As seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey, man is superior to them because he can look at something in nature and say, "I'm going to impose my will on that and make it useful."

3. If MBA's are more useful than engineering degrees....than why the hell aren't we desperately trying to swipe all of India and China's businessmen with H-1B visas? We're not. We don't want them, and rightfully so. We want their builders. Their engineers.

And here's my personal experience (this might be anomalous, but it was so completely ubiquitous that I don't think so at all): businesspeople are worthless. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. When I was trying to start up a rapid prototyping company, I was solicited by so many absolutely useless "marketers" and "consultants" that it got to the point where I couldn't even bear to look at them. They were stupid, uncreative, and technologically inept. (Oh, yeah, they were also delusionally egotistical and pathological liars.)

Conversely, I was craving engineers and other creative people. (Naturally, they were all foreigners.) These people were worth their weight in gold. Smart, honest, and hard working. (Conversely, the useless American businessmen couldn't even be counted on to deliver their easy crap.)

Americans are getting MBAs because they're lazy and it's a hell of a lot easier to read stupid, megalomanical aphorisms from Peter Drucker and Dale Carnegie than it is to study the Bernoulli principle or the theory of relativity.

Steve Salerno said...

DB: Again here--particularly to your Point 1--evidence that begins "I know a guy who..." will strike a lot of people as suspect and not in keeping with the scientific method. But as a general impression, I do agree with you about the MBAs. To me, they are the intellectual financiers, if you will, of business: Like the men (and women) who ruined Wall Street, they deal generally in derivatives, and seldom produce anything in its own right except (1) another layer of managerial bureaucracy and, too often, (2) a leaner workforce--which is to say, smaller numbers of the people who actually do "create" something.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

I've posted before, but rarely. Yes, the spelling is unusual and drives my husband nuts. (Long story not worth telling.)

You drive me nuts, Steve -- but in a good way. I love opinions, whether I agree with them or not. I check out your blog almost every day.

Kim(berely)

David Brennan said...

"Like the men (and women) who ruined Wall Street, they deal generally in derivatives, and seldom produce anything in its own right except (1) another layer of managerial bureaucracy and, too often, (2) a leaner workforce--which is to say, smaller numbers of the people who actually do "create" something."

Right. These people do not get their thrills from the ecstasy of creation or the sense of wonder in discovery. In fact, they are incapable of creating or discovering. So they get their thrills from absolutely reshuffling existing crap (be it downsizing, management schemes, marketing crap, whatever). Their entire careers are desperate quests to try and justify their own existence when, in fact, businesses would be better off without them.

My experience is (obviously) limited and subjective, but I think it is broad enough that I feel totally confident saying that businesspeople - the armies and armies of MBAs and "marketers" and all this - are completely useless to the process of building a worthwhile product or service. It does indeed take a diverse talent set to start and then operate a company, but the talents of businesspeople are on the peripheral of those needed.

The larger point is philosophical, but I'll repeat it: creation, by definition, precedes everything. Everybody talks about "defense". We have a DoD here in America that is so rich we can't even fathom it. Great. So they're going to "defend us" (if you believe that). But what is there to defend if nothing is created in the first place? It would be as if you built up 30' brick walls to defend a house from wind, rain, snow, and sunlight....but there's nothing inside the house: no plumbing, no electricity, no appliances, no books, computers, clothes, beds, nothing.

If there's nothing created, there's nothing to "defend" or to "manage" or to "administer" or anything at all.

If America weren't the decaying wasteland we are (but the Pentagon's doin' better than ever!), then our heroes would still be Edison and Ford and Franklin and Salk and Einstein and John Glenn and Neal Armstrong and other men who built, created, and discovered. Not "the troops" or Miley Cyrus or George Bush or Barack Obama.