By Sam Cha
II. Theories? Glossary? Glossolalia?
1.0 So these gestures—these scenes, these postures, these physical modalities—are interchangeable. They’re standardized, in other words. Like how ammunition is standardized. How each cartridge-caliber can be used in any gun chambered for it. Or like car-parts, if you prefer.
1.01 There’s a reason why movies are called vehicles for one star or another. One star turn and you’re in Neverland, where they bring you all the Lamborghinis. O wondrous world of the future. We don’t have interstellar travel, but we do have star vehicles.
1.02 How many blurbs for movies, do you think, are a variation on that was a wild ride?
1.1 On one level, we could say that these interchangeable gestures are used as markers of genre. They’re there to tell you what kind of movie you’re watching. You see a scene with that anime ninja landing pose, for instance, and you immediately understand that a) this is a movie in which we’re not overly concerned with the laws of physics as we know them, and in fact perhaps the breaking of the laws of physics is going to be a major plot point, something involving telekinesis and/or Buddhism and/or vampires and/or circuitry and/or alien physiological response to the light of a yellow sun, and b) it’s a movie about looking cool, looking fast, and looking in general like you can kill 20+ interchangeable robot monster cyborg ninja vampires with your bare hands, maybe with the help of a shadowy badass mentor (who is probably, shall we say, ethnic? Not not a Magical Negro stereotype?) and an icy-cool but passionate badass sidekick/love-interest (usually a pale-skinned brunette.) But mostly because you know kung fu, because c) it’s going to be a movie like The Matrix.
1.11 There is a charge, a very large charge one gets out of recognizing references. Out of recognizing genre.
1.111 You caught the Sylvia Plath reference there, right? Of course you did. Three points to Gryffindor. Wink wink. Nudge nudge.
1.12 And by the way, speaking of kung-fu, and speaking of The Matrix, can you imagine how secretly bored and depressed Yuen Wo-Ping must be? The man’s choreographed roughly two billion fight scenes, including at least five of the best fights ever put on film (in Fist of Legend and Once Upon A Time In China 1 and 2 and The Tai-Chi Master). He’s worked with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Gordon Liu and Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung and Michelle Yeoh. But ever since The Matrix, he’s been that guy who made Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving look awesome on green screen. The money’s great, of course, but every day he’s got men with sweat stains in the pits of their Armanis calling him up all wild-eyed going please sir, can you do the same for Stifler from American Pie? For Shia the Beef? For Angelina Jolie? For Uma Thurman? For Optimus Prime? Somewhere in Hell, Mephistopheles has the true Wo-Ping trapped in a cricket cage. There he waits, sitting in lotus position on top of a heap of celluloid. A ghastly green light limns his features. He meditates on the nature of fame, on the transience of all things. He gathers his chi for one last real punch to break the Devil’s nose.
1.2 They (these gestures, I mean) also generate a lot of cash. Total worldwide gross of every movie I mentioned in part II comes to 18.64 gigabucks, which is roughly the 2012 GDP of Honduras, and is a little bit more than Israel’s military spending in 2013, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
1.22 Israel comes in at number 14 worldwide on that list, when you rank countries by military spending. The US, of course, is numero uno, at 1595.1 gigabucks. But even by US standards, 18.64 gigabucks is a sizeable chunk of cash—it’s 1.1 percent of total spendings; almost enough to pay for both the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Ballistic Missile Defense programs.
1.221 Total Hollywood worldwide box office gross in 2012? 11.2 gigabucks. Total Hollywood revenue in 2012? Somewhere in the high double digit gigabucks—probably something like 95, which is roughly the GDP of Ecuador, which is about the size of the GDP of Luxembourg and Jordan combined.
1.3 They’re good at generating cash for a number of reasons.
1.31 They build on a model that’s already been proved to make money. It’s like an assembly line—why waste time and money on laboriously coming up with something new for your hero to do when you have something to build on that already works? Why be an artisan or, god forbid, an auteur when you can streamline the shit out of that whole process by bypassing it? Cut and paste the blocking, the timing of the shots, the distances, the angle. Import CGI models. Increase polygon count. Re-skin. Done.
1.311 Video games take this a step further—they often build on graphics and physics “engines” that they license (i.e., rent) from other successful video games. The Unreal engine is very popular. Somewhere T. S. Eliot is spinning whenever somebody uses the Unreal engine to render a city, yes?
1.312 When you’re patenting something, you have to both refer to, and differentiate yourself from, what they call “prior art.”
1.313 All those lawsuits you hear about, where this no-name screenwriter sues the director of a blockbuster on charges of plagiarism? That’s about trying to license the engine of the narrative. That’s about being prior art, precisely in the way they talk about it at the Patent Office.
1.32 “1.11 There is a charge, a very large charge one gets out of recognizing references. Out of recognizing genre.”—and so you’re willing to be charged for getting a charge out of a cultural artifact.
1.4 In effect, they’re good at making cash because they reference and duplicate earlier things that made cash. Which, really, is the same as saying that these gestures are cash. If A = B and B = cash, then, etc.. Dollar bills are as interchangeable as bullets or car parts. More so, in fact. So these gestures have monetary value. They are currency. They are current. They have cachet.
1.41 When you recycle a gesture, it takes the whole economy of tickets and DVD sales and streaming video and subscriptions and rentals and marketing and focus groups and—well, think of all of that money made manifest in physical form. As a pillar, maybe. A giant pillar, wide at the base as the entire world, and as tall as 95 gigabucks in dollar bills laid end to end, lengthwise. (Since a US dollar bill is exactly six inches long, this comes out to 8,996,212 miles, which is more than thirty-seven times the distance to the moon—almost a tenth of the distance to the sun.) And this pillar tapers to a point, sharper than needles, sharper than a scalpel—a point made of a pattern of photons, able to spike through your eye and right into your visual cortex without causing you pain, without you even feeling it.
1.411 That’s not quite true. You do feel it. You feel it, in fact, as fun.
1.412 10 bonus points if you recognized the Silmarillion reference in 1.41.
2.0 But all of that’s not really all that interesting, is it? To summarize, this is a cycle of references, each reference referring to each other, and all of them pointing to the Ur-reference, which is cash. Big fucking deal. This still doesn’t quite explain why these gestures make so much money in the first place.
2.1 Well but so the economics of reference and wink-wink-nudge-nudge is informed by a larger cultural logic, one that’s been with us at least since the Reformation.
2.2 Max Weber’s the guy who, famously, argued that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is what led to the hyper-development of capitalism in the Protestant nations of the Northern hemisphere. The argument being:
2.21 Only some people are going to heaven. Those people are the elect, and they were always already going to go to heaven. Everybody else is fucked. If you’re one of them (the “everybody else,” that is), the sacraments won’t save you. Bathing in holy water won’t save you, chewing on the dry mealy body of Christ won’t save you, drinking the thin watery sour blood of Christ won’t save you. You’ve been fucked since the beginning of time, and will continue to be fucked till and beyond the end of time.
2.22 But here’s the kicker: nobody knows who’s one of the elect. You could be Mother Theresa and you wouldn’t be able to know for sure.
2.221 Well, actually, Mother Theresa, in the Calvinist framework, is definitely in hell. Because Catholicism.
2.23 All we know for sure is that the elect will definitely be people who act like the elect—i.e., they will be visibly virtuous, visibly industrious, pillars of the community, et cetera.
2.24 Therefore, in order to even imagine that you might conceivably be one of the elect, you need try to act like one of the elect would. Because if you slip up, you’re definitely going to Hell.
2.25 So what do you do? You start repeating gestures. Any chance of salvation depends on it.
2.251 You look at the most visibly virtuous, most visibly industrious, biggest… pillar (of the community) you know, and you start to practice being them. You make like Elizabeth Berkeley in Showgirls imitating Gina Gershon, doing the spirit fingers and the armwave and the thighs open just so for the camera, just perfect, you’re so fierce, you’re so Tyra Banks, you’re so Top Model, and your clothes are so now, baby, so fucking luxe. And your milkshake brings all the boys to the yard and the voguing makes you Madonna and the trying to be Madonna makes you Gaga and the twerking makes you Nicki Minaj and all the single ladies all the single ladies and you stick a feather in your hat and call it macaroni and you put footnotes in your novel and you’re David Foster Wallace or you’re David Foster Wallace trying to be Nabokov or Wittgenstein or you’re Dave Eggers trying to be David Foster Wallace or you’re Kenneth Goldsmith re-typing a phonebook which makes you Kenneth Goldsmith trying to be Duchamp a hundred years after Duchamp or you’re James Franco trying to be a Real Boy, a Pinnochio Caulfield, and you alternate tri- and tetra-meter and you have lots of dashes and you’re Dickinson and you include some orphans and a happy ending to be Dickens and you practice the quickdraw pointing the gun at the man in the mirror muttering
you talkin’ to me you talkin’ to me you wanna be starting somethin’ who’s bad I coulda been somebody I coulda been a contenda say hello to my leetle friend yippee ka yay motherfucker the horror the horror you’re gonna hear me roar I’ll be back them other boys don’t know how to act like a room without a roof like a wrecking ball we gonna run this town tonight
and you make like Ralph Macchio imitating Pat Morita. You stand on a pillar and you hold your arms out to each side, with one leg cocked to kick. And you kick and kick, and the red light of the setting sun burns you to a sumi-e silhouette, a thin wash of black.
Up overhead the seagulls wheel and turn like bloodied stars.
2.2511 “Go right now to any poetry open mic in the country,” Dawn says, “and there’s at least two people trying to sound like Rachel. Probably more. And they’re usually pretty good at it, they’ve got the tone and the rhythm down, more or less. The tone and rhythm of their favorite Rachel poem. Usually it’s “Central Park, Mother’s Day.” But something’s missing. I don’t know what.”
2.26 And the gestures become you.
2.261 Which is our inheritance, now emptied of any soteriological significance. If god is dead, after all, the gestures no longer refer to any hope of salvation but only to each other.
2.2611 Not that this is directly relevant or even anything that has a definitive answer, necessarily, but I wonder sometimes whether people who live in a technologically advanced, industrialized, and networked nation have a greater or lesser diversity in the kinds of physical gestures they make every day, compared to what they would have had in the past.
How many times a day, do you think, do you slide/swipe to unlock? Drag to scroll? How many times do you click like? Open a new tab? Hit the space bar? Type your password? Swipe a card? Enter PIN? Swing your backpack around to look inside? Unzip? Double click?
If you’re, say, on the Pequod in the late 1840s, do you make more varied gestures? How many gestures do you share in common with the other sailors? How many do you share with the owner of the Spouter Inn? With Father Mapple? With Ahab’s wife? With Ralph Waldo Emerson? With Harriet Tubman?
2.2612 Have you faked it till you made it lately? Have you done your crunches? Have you been cheating on your ketogenic diet? Have you worn pants that were a half-inch longer than they should be this season? Are you really into coconut aminos? What are coconut aminos? Which journals do you read? Have you been nominated for a Pushcart? How do you feel about conceptualism, really? What is your position on irony? Are drop-crotch printed harem pants really the new thing? Are skinny jeans the old old new thing? What will happen to our legs when we bend them in different ways each morning, putting on looser pants? Are our ankles different from 70s ankles now that nobody wears bell bottoms? Now that crop tops are back, will we have more belly button piercings? Now that waists are moving back up, will all the pornstars stop shaving their pubes?
2.262 What is your reward, if not that old salvation? Do you expect a reward? I suspect you do. I suspect we all do, in some part of us, “maybe in the liver, maybe some place below the liver, maybe even in the colon.” I suspect that the supernatural carrot and stick of the old Protestant work ethic is still at work in our culture, except now they’ve rotated back into the world. For heaven, read flying first class. Read hot fuckbuddy. Read comped dinner at Alinea. Read promotion. Read Lord of the Rings themed wedding in a pristine redwood forest attended by Jeff Bezos. For hell, read not enough money to afford childcare. Read deadend. Read pan-handling. Read privatized prison. Read secret prison. Read Death Row. Read nutriloaf and don’t drop the soap.
2.263 In old-school kung fu movies, people yell out the names of their moves as they’re doing them. Often these names are capsule histories of where they were invented and who invented them and what they were intended to do: “Shadowless Kick from Fa-shan!” “Emperor Taizu’s Long Fist!” “Preserve the Heart-Mind Gate!” “Six-Harmony Lance!” Not anymore. Now our kung fu moves are references from earlier kung fu movies, even if they are outwardly the same move.
2.2631 In The Tai-chi Master, when Jet Li windmills his arms, curving them gently with fluid grace, he’s still performing the “Lazily Tucking Your Clothes” pose from Chen-Style Tai Chi.
2.2632 But when Keanu Reeves does it in The Matrix, he’s not trying to practice Chen-Style Tai Chi. He’s trying to look like Jet Li in The Tai-chi Master.
2.2633 When Good Jet Li uses it against Evil Jet Li in The One, he’s not referring any more to Chen-Style Tai Chi, or even to Jet Li in The Tai-chi Master. He’s referring to The Matrix. He’s Jet Li trying to look like Keanu Reeves trying to look like Jet Li.
2.2634 And by the time Ang does the same thing in Avatar: The Last Airbender, he’s not referring to any one movie, but to a whole nebula of movies that all use the same pose, the same camera angles.
2.264 When you talk to people online, on Facebook or Twitter or Gchat or Facebookchat, or whatever it is all the kids are using these days, how many emojis do you use as a shortcut for expressing what “you” “feel” “now”? What percentage of your conversations happen as an exchange of copied and pasted links?
2.2642 When you start typing something into Google, how often does autocomplete correctly guess what you’re about to say?
2.26421 Not that I mean this whole thing as some sort of elegy for some imagined mythic realm where everything we wrote was always authentically ours and ours alone, because that was never the case.
2.26422 But we were able to imagine that it was the case. I don’t know if we can, now.
2.264221 These numbers I have from Wittgenstein. Many of my conjunctions come from David Foster Wallace. Some of the rhetoric comes from the beginning of Fight Club and/or Trainspotting. Some of the tone comes from Melville. Some of the ideas from Derrida. And I can only sometimes forget.
2.2642211 Sometimes I think that that’s one of my strengths as a writer—the ability granted me (but only on occasion) to forget that what I write has been written before.
2.2642212 I don’t even like Chuck Palahniuk.
2.27 Everything in action/superhero movies—and everything about the way we consume action/superhero movies—unfolds in accordance with this cultural logic. (OK, not everything, but close enough for cultural studies.) Gesture as character, gesture as destiny. And every one of those gestures aimed at the accumulation of wealth and power. At using or overcoming other people.
2.271 Infra-fictionally, the hero learns moves/gestures. Eventually, the hero learns how to do more and more complicated/difficult/impressive moves. The hero learns how to combine them, how to use them on other people.
2.2711 Mostly, the hero’s learning these moves in order to gain power. There’s usually some sort of Noble Motive, of course. But the fact remains that the hero of an action/superhero movie is mostly trying to get better at beating people up.
2.2712 Also, at getting laid.
Not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to get laid, but in these narratives the ability to get laid is uncomfortably linked with the ability to beat people up.
Which is a fucking problem.
2.2713 Do you remember the Charles Atlas ads that used to run in DC and Marvel comics? Skinny guy’s walking along the beach with his girlfriend, big muscular guy comes along, kicks sand in his eye, and girlfriend jumps ship? Skinny guy goes home, rage-subscribes to Charles Atlas, pumps himself up into Mega Muscle Guy, goes back to beach, knocks big guy the fuck out, takes girlfriend back? Girlfriend rubs lube into his biceps? Girlfriend is robot and her prime directive is to have sex with the biggest muscles around, is the implication?
2.27131 Number of Youtube results for “Charles Atlas”: 45,900.
2.2714 Do you remember Captain America: The First Avenger? Peggy Carter isn’t interested in Steve Rogers, at first. Not like that. But after he gets super-soldier serumed and muscled and learns how to toss a vibranium-steel alloy Frisbee?
2.2715 Do you remember the Clark-Lois-Superman love triangle? Do you remember the Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson-Spiderman love triangle? Do you realize that in something like the twelfth issue of Action Comics, Lois slaps Clark in the face and says that she could never be with him because he’s a coward and a weakling?
Do you remember The Matrix? Trinity really only gets into Neo after he takes the red pill and learns kung fu.
2.27151 Number of Youtube results for “red pill”: 238,000.
2.27152 Current number of subscribers to the batshit-insane antifeminist subreddit “TheRedPill”: 55,982. (Number of subscribers in September 2013 was 15,000, according to this Business Insider article: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-red-pill-reddit-2013-8.)
Typical quote from The Red Pill:
“ Western women are now empowered with being the ‘gatekeepers’ to sex and relationships. If a woman wants sex, she can find a guy and have sex. If a man wants sex, he has to figure out how to become attractive and how to properly navigate these encounters.” THAT KID FROM EVERY PHILOSOPHY 101 CLASS IN 1999 WHO WAS REALLY EXCITED ABOUT RECOGNIZING PLATO’S PARABLE OF THE CAVE IN THE MATRIX WANTS TO COERCE YOU INTO TOUCHING HIS PENIS.
“We don’t want to isolate ourselves from women, we want to understand women.” BLAH BLAH BULLSHIT
“We want to have sex.”
“We want to understand why ‘game’ works in our society and discuss the ramifications of it.”BLAHBLAHBLAH SEX! SEX! SEX! WE DESERVE TO FUCK!
2.2716 Common internet advice (or common speech-gesture) for guys who are having relationship problems is: “Leave / delete Facebook / hit the gym.”
2.2717 Too many guys see a radioactive spider or cosmic radiation or instruction from a clan of ninjas or a super soldier serum and see “Hit the gym.” Or is it vice versa?
2.2718 Either way. They get culturally conditioned to expect sex as the reward for learning the gestures of muscle-gain and violence, is the point. “Hitting the gym” equivalent to “hitting people” equivalent to being rewarded by getting to “hit it.”
2.2719 Do you think Elliott Rodgers rooted for Steve Rogers?
I’m guessing yes.
2.27191 See also: http://comicsalliance.com/greg-horn-art/?trackback=tsmclip
2.272 Extra- or meta-fictionally, as I’ve already argued, the movies learn moves and gestures from other movies.
2.2721 And mostly they’re learning these moves in order to gain power. (Since money is power.)
2.2722 The two most popular superhero characters/movie franchises today are Batman and Iron Man. It’s no accident that they’re both billionaires and head their own corporations.
2.2723 In the movies, Iron Man wants to “privatize global security.”
2.2724 In the comics, lately, Batman’s gone multinational, recruiting superheroes in countries all over the world in order to form “Batman Incorporated.”
2.2725 Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are acting out the corporate ethos of their creators.
2.2726 Who are their creators, in their most current incarnations? Not Stan Lee or Bob Kane or Bill Finger. Not Joss Whedon or David S. Goyer or Kenneth Branagh or Christopher Nolan or Grant Morrison or Frank Miller.
It’s very simple. Batman and Iron Man right now are corporate fictions, human-shaped things created by corporations and imbued with life by the mathematics of high finance.
You could call them golems. You might even call them incarnations, the corporate word made flesh. Hypostases of that ineffable being to whom the invisible hand of the market belongs.
2.2726 If corporations are people, superhero movies might be their Ur-literature, their primordial Gesamtkunst, their Lascaux. (Just as, surely, the Internet is their fire, the 3-D printer and the drone their bone needles and knapped flint.)
Skynet dreams: images brought to life by flickering light, accompanied by voices and booming drums. Depicting the shapes of their prey.
2.28 Well, but we’re in this culture. And it’s in us. Its gestures and its logic are part of us. Are inescapable.
2.281 Maybe what we need to do is use it
Right now, it uses us. It’s a set of selfish memes.
2.3 But is there a way to use appropriation, use reference, use the discipline of learning gesture, of becoming perfect, without having that set of practices always aimed at power, at things external to us, at a reward?
Because that’s what we need. We need a set of gestures—a kind of cultural kung fu—that empowers us to look inwards, that isn’t tied to power, that gets us to focus on improving ourselves. On changing ourselves in some sort of meaningful way. A set of gestures that helps to make us better human beings.
2.31 One reason why, say, yoga is so popular right now might be because we as a culture are conscious of this need.
2.32 Although of course whenever something becomes that popular we begin to suspect that it’s been co-opted by Lord Business.
3.0 This is why the scenes of falling are so interesting.
3.1 There’s something about falling as a gesture that seems at odds with the scenes in which the Hero Kills Villains or the Hero Gets The Girl or the Hero is Triumphant.
3.2 Falling’s a surrender, after all, a relinquishing of power. And falling, in action movies, usually serves to underline the hero’s devotion to a cause, their willingness to sacrifice themselves.
3.3 Is it a message, perhaps, from the night-side of our culture, its dream-self, which remembers truths that its waking self has forgotten?
3.4 That the quest for power needs to be balanced (or countered or interrupted or replaced) with a renovation of the self, a letting-the-self-go?
3.5 Any metaphor is shaped like two words separated by an abyss. Thin bridge of “is” connects them. A small, everyday magic: a grammatical glamour.
(“Grammar” and “glamour,” of course, share the same root. And a glamour was originally a spell, just as a spell was originally a speech.)
3.6 Any sentence with the verb “to be” in it, then, is shaped like a metaphor.
3.7 Every time a hero falls, staging sacrifice, the abyss into which they willingly cast themselves—the abyss that they fill with their visible bodies—is the abyss between I and you.
I am you, is the metaphor. The glamour. Which is empathy.
Which is a kind of hope.