“The people of an era must either carry the burden of change assigned to their time or die under its weight in the wilderness.”
Harold Rosenberg, art critic
Note: this is not a political post. Call if a meditation or flight of fancy on a cold winter’s day, but take it with the requisite grain of salt. Just be glad it's not some goddamned Christmas Letter...
You may have noticed an uptick in posting here lately, and for good reason: there’s not much work around these days. Other than the occasional wrong number/telephone solicitor, my phone went dead right about the time those feathery silver Christmas decorations magically appeared on the streetlights along Hollywood Boulevard. The freelance life is an individual journey of triumph and failure – mostly failure, now that I think about it -- and for me the work has dried up and blown away. At this point, so close to Christmas, it's highly unlikely any jobs will materialize from the Hollywood ether. My circle of work friends and contacts are either busy and don’t need any help, or else they’re marooned in the same boat I currently occupy: the SS Unemployed.
Thus I enjoy the gift of time, which is neither all good nor all bad. Looking back on a year that concluded a bit too early, I was lucky to more or less break even, thanks to the turmoil surrounding the WGA strike. If I’m not too thrilled about plunging into the holiday season without the usual small-but-comforting layer of financial fat, at least I’m not crawling into a cardboard condo under the Sixth Street Bridge every night, along the cold concrete banks of the LA River.
It’s useful to remember that things could always be worse -- and they will be, if those actors go on strike. But that’s next year’s worry. This is now, and now it’s Christmas.
Being unemployed provides ample opportunity to do the Xmas shopping, albeit with a much thinner wallet than I’d like. That’s life, giving with one hand while taking away with the other. In a way, this too has its upside – the Christmas shopping was finished in record time, although my people won’t be getting much this year.
2008 is what it is, and it was not a good year.
Digression: It occurs to me that this might be a lot what retirement will look like, should I manage to crawl across the finish line still breathing. This could be me then, staring into the glowing screen, pecking away at the keyboard for a while, then wondering what to fix for lunch. But there are many rivers to cross before reaching that Promised Land, and the way things are going, it looks like white-water rapids all the way. Still, if I do make it, is this really a preview of coming attractions?
Hmm, wonder what I should fix for lunch...
So I’ve been using this extra time to post more frequently – straying a bit from my mission of exploring the underbelly of Industry life -- and to catch up with old friends. While trading e-mails with one of those old pals the other day, the subject of Stanley Kubrick came up. R.D. happens to be a huge fan of Kubrick, and raved about a documentary he’d seen on Sundance called “Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes.” Here’s what he had to say:
“When Kubrick died, he left behind thousands and thousands of boxes of, well, Stanley Stuff, every bit of it indexed and itemized and packaged and stored with all the megalomaniacal care and attention he lavished on his movies. The film-maker got permission to pore through these boxes and share what he found and it is absolutely fascinating. The greatest discovery of all, for me anyway, were the hours of unseen documentary footage one of Kubricks daughters shot of him directing "Full Metal Jacket". Hey, you mean that's the God Kubrick? The guy not throwing tantrums? The guy laughing and shooting the breeze with the crew? The guy scribbling F. Lee Armey's Drill Sergeant vulgarisms into the edge of the script as he improvised it?
I would give anything to watch every mundane minute of each of those hundred reels of film...”
Thinking about Kubrick got me to musing about his epic "2001", remembering that wonderful scene where the space liner gently docks with the gracefully spinning space station as both future-tech craft circle the earth. From the first time I saw it, that scene felt like a beautiful metaphor for sex, in the form of a weightless pas de deux consummated to the gloriously soaring strains of a Strauss waltz. As the world’s first cinematic space fuck, it was damned impressive on the big screen forty years ago.
Then there’s that mysterious black monolith -- first we see it mesmerize our ancient monkey ancestors, and later, a space-suited row of baffled humans standing on the cold gray surface of the moon.
I was thinking about all this while staring at the blank screen, lost in memory, with the current dismal state of the world drifting in my background thoughts... and that’s when it hit me:
Obama is the monolith.
He's tall, he’s black, he remains shrouded in mystery, and he’s caused enormous consternation amongst humans of all political persuasions across the globe. His seemingly miraculous ascent to the Presidency comes at a time of extreme crisis on all fronts: economic, environmental, and geopolitical. Across the boards, the situation is one the cusp of critical (just as in the movie*), with humanity in deep trouble, even deeper denial, and -- whether we know it or not -- standing at the crossroads. The question is, can we summon the foresight, discipline, and will to change our ways enough, and thus allow us to survive in sustainable manner on this planet? If so, maybe life more or less as we know it will go on for a long time to come. If not – if we keep trudging down the current path, or settle for the half-measures of political convenience – then we risk descending through the many levels of Dante's Inferno, one bloody step at a time.
Nobody knows exactly how it will go down, but it’s clear that unless we do change, we’ll all find out the hard way – and that if we go that route, things are gonna get very ugly indeed.
So here comes Obama, our first black President, saying all the right things (well, some of them, anyway) about changing our national direction from the current road to oblivion towards a new and infinitely challenging course that might lead us to a viable future. As I see it, a positive change on this order of magnitude would represent a major step in our evolutionary intellectual development.
Wasn’t that the point of 2001 – that at crucial moments of our history on earth, some kind of cosmic nudge is sometimes required to point us in the right direction? Without a massive asteroid hit 65 million years ago, our mammalian ancestors would likely have remained dinosaur food, and monkeys might never have come about at all, much less evolved into modern humans. In the movie, the appearance of that mysterious monolith seemed to provide the nudge needed to reach the next evolutionary plateau.
Preposterous? Sure, and I’m not seriously equating the election of a politician to the meteor strike at Chicxulub, much less a dusty celluloid icon from a forty year old movie – but on the metaphorical level, at least, one could view Obama as our real life monolith: the Obamalith.
It’s been widely noted that our President-elect faces the most challenging national and international circumstances since FDR took office, and that fixing the current mess alone will be a task akin to the Fifth Labor of Heracles (Hercules), cleaning out the Augean Stables.
Unfortunately, this isn't the comfortable world of mythology, where even the most monumental job can be finished in a single day. Fixing this will take a long time, and addressing the rest of the problem -- actually changing the mind-set of Americans and the rest of the world so that we’ll all have the chance to create that viable future -- will take an even longer, harder effort.
I’m not sure any one person could live up to such expectations, even if everybody were to get behind him all the way -- and we know damned well that ain't gonna happen. But we do have hope now, which is something we haven't had much of for very long time. I've no idea how this will all play out, and truth be told, don’t expect to see all the essential changes come about during my lifetime. This needs to be a long term effort over the next few decades. Maybe the changes – and the consciousness required to galvanize those changes -- will only come once it’s too late, or maybe they won’t come at all. Maybe humanity is doomed to choke, drown, and starve in the misery of our own mass-produced petrochemical crap.
In the spirit of the season, let's hope not.
*I'm not so sure where HAL or the Space Child fit into this politico-cultural cosmology. Maybe the dog Obama gets for his kids will be a canine of uncanny intelligence and -- one can only hope -- superpowers...