Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why worry now?

I showed in one of my classes two brief excerpts from Koyaanisqatsi, a cult quasi-documentary from 1982. It starts with some (truly) breath-taking helicopter-view natural scenes, and at one point shifts dramatically to the man-made world. That is introduced by a few powerful explosions and the emergence from clouds of dust of a monstrous truck – the kind used in strip mining. Then there are some long takes on military hardware in and out of service (including an aircraft carrier with the equation E=mc2 plastered in huge letters on its deck). Most of the remaining two-thirds of the film depict traffic, city life, factory work, commuting, etc., with many time-lapse sequences. The music (a famous score by Philip Glass), starting with the appearance of the truck, grows progressively disturbing. The title is a Hopi word which means essentially “out of balance” – and I thought the message the film sent was (judging from the lump in my throat) both gripping and unambiguous. Still, I asked students what message they thought the director wanted to send. The first four responses were: 1) though we may have caused some environmental problems, we can still create beautiful things; 2) there are some patterns beneath the apparent chaos of city life; 3) the human race is truly great; 4) daily routines are worth observing. The fifth response did point to the contrast between the natural scenes and the rest of the film, but I am afraid my probing questions were not very effective. The sixth student suggested the music was misleading since it sought to create the impression of some cataclysmic build-up – which was unnecessarily alarmist; and, by the way, we should not necessarily equate nature with beauty and everything man-made with hideousness. I was taken aback a bit, so I tried a slightly ironic question: “So, for some people Manhattan might be more beautiful than the Grand Canyon?” The response to that was: “Oh, absolutely!” Another student pointed out how much freer we have become to choose between outings in nature and inhabiting urban environments. Ortega y Gasset once described how in the late 19th century the young intelligentsia quite suddenly lost their taste for representational art, harmonious music, rhyme, and the conventional narrative of the great novels. And Virginia Woolf famously quipped that “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” Then, of course, it flipped once again with Elvis’e gyrating pelvis and the flower children. In another half century, welcome to the latest disruption, which seems to go much deeper than a mere shift in “values.” And which this time around may indeed signal, gasp, the end of history. Or at least the death of the author once prophesied by a few jaded French intellectuals. Increasingly, it seems, the resonance (or the lack of it) is the message.

P.S. I am reminded of a similar example Zadie Smith gives in her quite brilliant review of the "Social Network" (published in the New York Review of Books):

Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this [evolve] by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process. That is for techies and philosophers to debate (ideally techie-philosophers, like Jaron Lanier). Whichever direction the change is coming from, though, it’s absolutely clear to me that the students I teach now are not like the student I once was or even the students I taught seven short years ago at Harvard. Right now I am teaching my students a book called The Bathroom by the Belgian experimentalist Jean-Philippe Toussaint — at least I used to think he was an experimentalist. It’s a book about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom, yet to my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence.

P.P.S. Come to think of it, this shift in sensibilities can also be related to Brave New World. There, Helmholtz Watson starts laughing uncontrollably when he hears the story of Romeo and Juliet. He is a bit of a dissident and a writer himself, yet he finds the plot totally ludicrous. Two young people willing to commit suicide for the sake of exclusively "loving" each other? And their "mothers" and "fathers" (dirty words) ordering them whom to "marry"? What could be more preposterous than that? Brave New World, however, is set in the indefinite future, and its characters' inability to relate to a play written many centuries earlier may seem natural. Could we now be witnessing a similar cultural and psychological disruption over the course of three short decades?