Thursday, January 07, 2010

From 2006: "Down here at the foot of the skyscraper, we hardly see anything coming."

by Steven Boone

Readers of this blog have no idea that there was once a Big Media Vandalism book. In early 2006, my girlfriend at the time wanted to beef up her portfolio by designing a book cover, so she asked me if I had any material. All I had were my stupid blog and some stray reviews, so I handed them over. She formatted it all for standard paperback printing and sent it to Cafe Press, along with her design, which I thought captured the spirit of BMV perfectly. No ISBN, no Amazon. We sold four copies--to ourselves-- and did no promotional nuthin. Good, clean fun.

Four years later, as I contemplate leaving New York for good thanks to El Jefe Bloomberg's ongoing po' folks fumigation program, the inroduction I wrote for the BMV book comes back to me in all its naive intransigence.

Here's some of that intro, written when the recession and Obama were still in the bleak/bright future:

Kiss the Sky

The photo on the cover of this book struck me as quite appropriate for the themes and concerns herein. A corporate fortress of glass and steel marred by a square of average-Joe plywood. But the real thrill of this picture is that it was composed from down on the street. Such an establishing shot is the opposite of the bird’s-eye cityscapes seen on everything from Trump’s The Apprentice to the opening of every third urban romantic comedy. Hitchcock used the omniscient God’s-p.ov. shot to signify our infernal helplessness. Nowadays, the helicopter flyby mostly represents the preferred view of the frequent flyer class. The sky is no longer a site of terror or God’s wrath—even after 9/11. Well, not consciously, anyway. What’s truly terrifying, and inadmissible in a society trying to outrun terror itself, is failure. Failure is never quite visible from such lofty heights.

A news show apparently taped on Cloud City, CNN’s The Situation Room often does a Millennium Falcon lightspeed jump across continents to catch up with fast-breaking stories, assuring us that no place under America’s vast dominions is ever out of reach or out of control. Even the recent Biblical cataclysms, bloody social unrest and, of course, relentless terrorist attacks are ours to package and resell.  The skies and above are where we wrest control of the weather, space, time and fate from God.

If you’ve managed to read this far without rolling your eyes, I’d better let you in on who’s offering these middlebrow musings. I’m an American who’s more likely to take his snapshots from down on the street than from up in the sky. I’m an African-American, or whatever we’re called these days. So when I refer to Americans or the United States as “we,” I’m actually indulging a bit of poetic license. Most black folks I know view America’s imperial actions as “their” business—“they” being “the white folks who run this country, always have, always will.” Poor minorities who take too much of an interest in America’s bloody power plays and head games are seen as foolish, self-destructive, crazy. Present.

Blacks by and large are too busy stumbling out of the rubble of the post-Civil Rights era (in which every formidable progressive leader was bought, jailed or destroyed and a chemical weapon called crack decimated whole communities) to resist much of anything beside the urge to sleep.

Down here at the foot of the skyscraper, we hardly see anything coming.

My reason for writing this book, and the blog that it is based on, is to hold up to the light what we do see from down here, media-wise, culture-wise. I also hope to shed some light on what the big media companies don’t see, or see but refuse to share with the rest of us. They have their reasons. Jonathan Rosenbaum has a great book (Movie Wars) about how the major studios like to hide good movies from us while casting the impression that there isn’t much good stuff out there, which, of course, clears the decks for their own horrible art-trocities. My book and blog are less about how corporations self-censor than what they censor, and why.

Even though DVD and the internet have made it hard to keep a good film down, Chris Rock’s 2005 Oscar® telecast gave the lie to supposed digital-age pluralism. In a man-on-the-street skit, he asked several black moviegoers to name their favorite film of 2004. An overwhelming majority named The Chronicles of Riddick, a gawdawful sci-fi flick that had been advertised so heavily on TV and radio that year, a record number of ’04 newborns named Riddick wouldn’t come as a surprise. Rock’s aim was to show how out of touch the Academy was with the viewing public, but what stung worse was the sense that we are being prodded to feast upon the cinematic equivalent of chit’lins.

As for what the big media won’t show:

I don’t know one poor American who isn’t working like a field hand, round the clock, to better himself. And few work harder than those on the welfare rolls, counting food stamp credits, applying for Section 8 housing. Everyone I know is in school while working at least two jobs—or an improvised job-and-side-hustle combo. (I call myself a writer, but to the IRS and the Bank of NY, I am a security guard at a homeless shelter. Writing is my side hustle.)

Of course, I’m speaking mainly of poor folks living in major coastal cities, where gentrification is politely waving bayonets at our backs. For those of us stragglers not ready or unwilling to embark upon the Second Exodus—back to the South, where wages can pay for both food and shelter—every minute spent lingering in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco… is fraught with suspense. How will we make it? Will we make it? But for us, the exodus is more like a forced march, so staying put is our half-assed idea of civil disobedience.

I worked in my city for ten years, mostly for media companies, in offices, studios and editing rooms overwhelmingly peopled with educated white folks. I rode the subway back to my struggling neighborhood each day. All the contrasts and ironies you’d expect, but also this: Every American thinks he’s middle class.

Turns out that the relatively affluent white kids I worked alongside imagined themselves as products of the average American household. Never mind that many of their parents were six-figure professionals in publishing, politics, the arts—even Texas oil. A wealthy commercial director I once worked for used to gripe about bills and the ostentatious “rich folks” he saw in the gossip pages. It was his way of bonding with his assistants, but I could tell that, in his mind, it wasn’t an act.

Back home, folks living in housing projects or renting studio apartments in the roughest parts of town also imagine themselves as middle class pillars of the community. The late model Lexus, the satellite dish perched on the fire escape, the designer wardrobe all attest to this belief. They may be living paycheck to paycheck with little or no savings, but they have all the right possessions as proof of membership.

Politicians stare into the TV cameras to flatter and commiserate with the supposedly long-suffering “middle class” so much, who can blame the poor or the rich for wanting to be down?

It took working in the bowels and on the fringes of the image industries to make me see this fractured reality in all its terrible beauty. The subway ride home was always a return trip through the Wardrobe.

The essays in this book are adapted from my online blog, and as such are about as well organized as a street fight. They are predominantly about my favorite subject, movies. The films covered are far ranging and not particularly unified in theme, style, author or topicality, but the essays all come from the same place, the ground floor.

Why “vandalism”? I’m not a graffiti aficionado, but I like the idea of outlaw expression as much as I despise arbitrary notions of refinement, professionalism and responsibility in art. When I tell folks that I intend to continue making self-financed films and writing self-published commentary even if I stumble across some commercial success, they all give me that look. “I thought the whole idea of doing an independent film was sorta like how you play for the minor leagues until the majors call.” Well, for a lot of folks, it is like that.  The TV show Project Greenlight and Hollywood’s self-representation in general help solidify this impression.

On Greenlight, a couple of bland movie stars and some hack filmmakers mentored wannabes in the craft of filmmaking. Trouble was, they didn’t do as much mentoring as scolding and flaunting their own relative professionalism. Like most reality TV, the show trafficked in humiliation: The eager-to-please, eager-to-fit-in fledgling directors often made fools of themselves trying to come off as hard-boiled and uncompromising as they thought big-time filmmakers needed to be. In return, their mentors rolled their eyes, tapped their watches and delivered sotto voce ultimatums.

The purpose of public relations presentations like Project Greenlight is clear: To discourage the notion that filmmaking is something anyone with a little spare change and talent can do; to perpetuate the 20th century concept of the art form as an aristocratic pursuit. In the age of cheap digital media tools and affordable DVD duplication, this notion is beyond absurd. There are a lot of small-town mavericks out there who don’t buy it, but the public at large still trusts The Chronicles of Riddick over Pi, Primer or Tarnation.

In any case, making media without any binding relationship with the major media conglomerates—at the production, distribution or marketing stage—is supposed to be quixotic, mastubatory, suicidal. The truth is that many people are self-distributing their music, books, films and reportage at a decent profit. They’ll never net what Time Warner or Conde Nast can guarantee, but their creations are theirs, wholly. For some of us, that beats a Maybach.

Individuals free to express themselves in any medium without having to negotiate a brushstroke with some accountant—this is the new vandalism. Simply rejecting the standard Faustian arrangement (journalists trading truth for access, artists swapping personal vision for high production values and prime venues) that globalized McWorld is so certain you’re desperate enough to accept... knocks out a window in that perfect skyscraper.

That other world those anti-globalization protesters keep saying is possible... ain’t possible until enough of us find ways to get our media creations in front of the people without assistance from powers whose only intention is to assimilate, censor and reconstitute these works as disposable product.

The technology is here—has been here for a minute now.

The gun is in your hand. Why turn it on yourself?


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