Happy 200th, Herman!

Herman Melville, 1870

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Happy 200th, Herman!

The first of August 2019 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick or, the Whale (1851), as well as numerous other novels, short stories and much poetry.

Because of the depth of his thought as well as the range of his invention, Herman Melville (1 August 1819 – 28 September 1891) remains America’s greatest writer of literary fiction, and also one of its superior poets. I consider Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) the quintessential American novelist because his masterwork, the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), is such an exquisite encapsulation of anti-slavery and anti-bigotry moral principle within a widely popular coming-of-age boy’s adventure story. But Melville is America’s deepest literary artist, his novels are metaphors for long-running threads of reality entwined as the American experience.

While Mark Twain’s facile humor and droll prose made him very popular with his 19th century audiences — both through publications and with live appearances — Herman Melville remained largely neglected during the last forty years of his life, by a reading public that was alienated by the complexity of his art. That complexity resulted from the combination of his literary sophistication, strongly influenced by the poetic language and moral insights of both William Shakespeare and the King James Bible; his personal philosophical thought as the fundamental source for his writing; his morally enlightened (non-racist) attitude about the world’s people; and the wit of his continuing critique, embedded in his fiction, of Americans’ myopic for-profit utilitarianism and obsessive hucksterism and con-artistry, which continues to this very day.

Herman Melville, 1860

I am no amateur scholar of Herman Melville and his literature, nor do I pretend to be. I am just one of millions of readers who since 1851 have been entranced by Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. I have read this book at least three times since 1961. With each reading I was older, more experienced, and was able to gain more insight about and appreciation for the literary use of the American language, and 19th America, out of the richness of Melville’s prose. I used the image of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal and fatal obsession to hunt down and kill the white whale Moby Dick, in a recent article of my own, as a metaphor for humanity’s current obsession to continue racing with its self-destructive fossil-fueled capitalism, which is the profligate source of greenhouse gas emissions causing anthropogenic global warming climate change.

Many readers today would find Melville prolix, abstruse, convoluted, and with a confounding multifarious vocabulary. This obviates Melville’s work from achieving instant contemporary mass pop-appeal. However, that prolixity, abstruseness, convolution and wide-spectrum vocabulary we grumble about now could reflect the devolution of Americans’ thought processes and language from a measured 19th century pacing of consideration to a hurried jittery 21st century attention-deficit superficiality: the shorn American language of today, our no-brainer “New Speak.”

Herman Melville, 1861

Herman Melville gained popular success as an author with his initial novel Typee (1846), a romantic account of his experiences of Polynesian life, gathered during his time as a whaler and seaman in the South Pacific between early 1841 and late 1844. Typee was followed by a sequel, Omoo (1847), which was also successful and paid him enough to marry and start a family. His first novel not based on his own experiences, Mardi (1849), was not well received. His next fictional work, Redburn (1849), and his non-fiction White-Jacket (1850) were given better reviews but did not provide financial security. (1)

Moby-Dick (1851), although now considered one of the great American novels, was not well received among contemporary critics. His psychological novel, Pierre: or, The Ambiguities (1852) was also scorned by reviewers. From 1853 to 1856, Melville published short fiction in magazines which were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. In 1857, he traveled to England and then toured the Near East. The Confidence-Man (1857) was the last prose work that he published. He moved to New York to take a position as Customs Inspector and turned to poetry. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) was his poetic reflection on the moral questions of the American Civil War. (1)

In 1867, his oldest child Malcolm died at home from a self-inflicted gunshot. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land was published in 1876, a metaphysical epic. In 1886, his son Stanwix died of apparent tuberculosis, and Melville retired. During his last years, he privately published two volumes of poetry, left one volume unpublished, and returned to prose of the sea. The novella Billy Budd was left unfinished at his death but was published posthumously in 1924. Melville died from cardiovascular disease in 1891. The 1919 centennial of his birth became the starting point of the “Melville Revival” with critics rediscovering his work and his major novels starting to become recognized as world classics of prominent importance to contemporary world literature. (1)

Most of Melville’s works can now be found on-line. (2)

Herman Melville, 1868

A most interesting and knowledgable commentator on Herman Melville’s works is Louis Proyect, both because of his familiarity with Melville’s texts, and because of his discussions of how Melville’s themes are critically reflected in the social contexts of both the 19th century and today, and of how Melville’s anti-racist attitudes contrasted favorably with the “utilitarian” consensus of his times, and even ours. (3), (4), (5).

To end this commemoration of Herman Melville and his literature, on the occasion of his 200th birthday, I borrow the following paragraphs from Louis Proyect (3). Mark well what ye read here, for we need slake our forgetfulness and remember this conviction today.

Melville’s Redburn is one of his lesser-known books, but it comes as close to a conscious expression of the world we are trying to build as will be found in all of his works. He writes:

There is something in the contemplation of the mode in which America has been settled that, in a noble breast, would forever extinguish the prejudices of national dislikes. Settled by the people of all nations, all nations may claim her for their own. You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world. . .Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world. . .Our ancestry is lost in the universal pageantry; and Caesar and Alfred, St. Paul and Luther, and Homer and Shakespeare are as much ours as Washington, who is as much the world’s as our own. We are the heirs of all time, and with all nations we divide our inheritance. On this Western Hemisphere all tribes and peoples are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden.

Herman Melville, 1885

Notes

(1) Herman Melville
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herman_Melville

All images of Herman Melville here are from Wikipedia.

(2) The Life and Works of Herman Melville
http://www.melville.org/

(3) Deconstructing cannibalism
5 January 2016
https://louisproyect.org/2016/01/05/deconstructing-cannibalism/

includes Louis Proyect’s articles:

Shakespeare’s Tempest and the American Indian
6 December 1998

Herman Melville’s Typee: a Peep at Polynesian Life
18 October 2004

(4) The Confidence Man
23 December 2013
https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/23/the-confidence-man/

(5) Herman Melville and indigenous peoples
16 February 2008
https://louisproyect.org/2008/02/16/herman-melville-and-indigenous-peoples/

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

 

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F. Scott Fitzgerald and Lost American Lyricism

For me, the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an English Romantic Poet like John Keats (1795-1821), who experienced during his college years — that pivotal time of transition from youth to adulthood — the shock of World War I destroying the Belle Époque and unleashing the blaring, crass, destructive, frenzied and wasteful Youth Quake sociological explosion known as the Roaring Twenties, when the prewar Gilded Age was resuscitated — to eventually reach its apotheosis in Trumpian America — during the postwar prosperity of a hypocritically repressed Prohibition America that was an economic bubble flinging open the starting gates to the modernization of American manners, morals, rhythms, fantasies and expectations, and whose totality we have all experienced as the 20th Century, which we can date as the zeitgeist from 1919 to 2019.

The zeitgeist now is of self-evident global warming climate change, openly acknowledged by all except intransigent ultra wealthy buffoons clinging to their hoards and their pathetically transparent propaganda intended to ward off just taxation.

Fitzgerald was a literary artist, a lyrical romanticist who became the hip young voice of the 1920s outburst because he was able to apply his 19th century mindset and literary facility to articulate — as deep psychological insights of general applicability — his personal youthful experiences and observations of transiting through the World War I cultural shock wave thrusting his generation into the manic modernity of a vastly industrialized, depersonalized and entertainment-obsessed America.

It was because Fitzgerald’s conceptions had been formed in a previous social paradigm that he had a basis from which to objectively evaluate the new psycho-social realities of the 1920s. Younger and less alert people, whose entire awareness of social life awakened during the 1920s, lacked such a contrasting mental framework because they were blindingly immersed in, and distracted and buffeted by their times. Fitzgerald was young enough to be completely hip to and synchronized with the 1920s, but not too young to be unable to understand where the 1920s had emerged from, how they were different from the prewar past, and how they were experienced as matters of personal and societal character.

Fitzgerald, along with his older English contemporary W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), have given me the deepest psychological insights into women as men experience them, and into personal character as it expresses itself through interpersonal relationships, especially between the sexes.

A similar transition of American life occurred forty to fifty years later when the Vietnam War shattered the stability and stasis of 1950s America, from which erupted the cultural efflorescence and political turmoil of the late 1960s, which like the late 1920s burned off the general prosperity that had been accumulated during the economic boom hot-housed during the preceding period of victorious peace.

Culturally alert writers of the 1960s included Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1922-2007), Joseph Heller (1923-1999), Malcolm X (1925-1965) with Alex Haley (1921-1992), and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983). These writers were as different from F. Scott Fitzgerald as he was from Mark Twain (1835-1910), and none of these others matched Fitzgerald for lyricism, except for a memorable passage in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn — on the Mississippi River in early morning — and the calmly eloquent and reflective moments in Tennessee Williams’ dramas.

Fitzgerald was 14 when Twain died, and when Fitzgerald died at age 44 in 1940: Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was 18, Joseph Heller was 17, Malcolm X was 15, Alex Haley was 19, and Tennessee Williams was 29. W. Somerset Maugham was 22 when F. Scott Fitzgerald was born, 36 when Mark Twain died, and 66 when F. Scott Fitzgerald died.

Twain’s war shocks were the American Civil War (1860-1865) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), while Vonnegut’s and Heller’s were World War II (1941-1945), primarily, and also the Korean War (1950-1953, for the hot war) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975, for the American phase).

Fitzgerald’s life was so timed that during the third decade of his life — and prime adult years — he also experienced the societal shock of the Crash of 1929 and its immediate aftermath, the Great Depression (1929-1942), when the outlandish and dissipative prosperity of 1920s capitalism collapsed into the socio-economic wreckage of the 1930s, with his own personal circumstances tumbling into ruins along with the times.

I find Fitzgerald’s keen insights on personal motivations and character, and on interpersonal relationships, to be far superior to those of both earlier and later American writers because of how his English Romantic Poetic frame of mind processed his experiences with youthful success and the allurements of fame while confronting the postwar shock of the new in the 1920s, followed by the collapse of illusions with the loss of wealth and social status in the 1930s, and all of that filtered through his intense emotions pulsing out of his marriage to and care for Zelda Sayre, his socially advanced and schizophrenic wife, and mother of his only child.

I can see why Fitzgeraldian lyricism was stripped out of American writing in reaction to the serial disappointments of the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the sterility of the Tailfin ’50s, and the Vietnam War, and why Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and imitators of his arid style became popular to this day, given the post World War II re-acceleration of life’s American rhythm, and the relentless commercially driven dumbing down of the American mind.

The loss of lyricism from American literary fiction, since that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, is not a sign of its increased artistry and insight, but of the opposite.

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Mendocino County, 2019

I just came back from a visit to Mendocino County, California, and here are 20 of my pictures from that trip. I’ve chosen to present these photos at a “large” size (not “full”) and “high” resolution (not “maximum). I hope you enjoy them.

We stayed in this house, designed to collect solar heat with its high row of windows facing south, and its full length solarium. The large vegetable and fruit garden is being prepared once again for the coming spring.

 

A meditative spot by the house is the Koi Pond.

 

Daffodils have started to carpet the green fields of the old cemetery for the town of Manchester.

 

Navarro Beach, where the Navarro River meets the Pacific Ocean, south of the hamlets of Albion and Little River.

 

I can never take too many pictures of the beach and surf.

 

The “isness” of nature is so beautiful, it takes you out of yourself and into the universal and primordial.

 

Grace Carpenter Hudson (1865-1937) was an American fine arts painter. She made this self portrait in oil, in 1881, when she was a 16 year old art student in San Francisco. This photo is only of a portion of the full painting.

 

Grace Hudson spent most of her life in the small city of Ukiah (inland Mendocino County), where today many of her art works are displayed at the Grace Hudson Museum.

 

Grace Hudson focused her artistry on the portraiture of the Pomo Indians, who live (still) in the Ukiah and Potter valleys (of inland Mendocino County). She painted real people in the natural settings of the region. This particular painting is about “the birth of song.”

 

A young Pomo girl with her pet fox.

 

A young Pomo girl with an orange, and attitude.

 

Grace Hudson made many paintings of Pomo children and babies. This is a detail of one of her best known “baby pictures.”

 

Grace Hudson sketched this amazingly subtle and detailed portrait of an expert Pomo basket weaver, and friend, with bitumen (which I think of as a coal/tar crayon).

 

Nit’s Cafe is a small, wonderful Thai-themed restaurant in Fort Bragg.

 

This view shows over 90% of the dining area of Nit’s Cafe. Note the potted orchids and colored lights. The food is phenomenal; the seafood is exquisite.

 

Menus at Nit’s Cafe.

 

Here is the chef of this one-woman enterprise, Nit herself: an accomplished gourmet chef who combines refined French culinary technique with Thai sensibility, and a passion for fine cooking. A lively and lovely person. Nit’s is at 322 CA Hwy 1 (the main street through Fort Bragg, in the center of town).

 

Point Navarro, north of Navarro Beach and south of Albion and Little River; looking west toward the setting sun, from near the edge of the high cliff (rocky surf below, and a very windy day).

 

The ceaseless surf at Navarro Point.

 

Looking north from the same cliff-edge spot at Navarro Point.

 

I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, with daughter Scottie

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I Learn About F. Scott Fitzgerald

After decades of resisting the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), thinking him and them as inconsequential and passé, I finally fell under their spell. He was a literary genius, a great romantic and perceptive and fundamentally tragic writer. His novel, The Great Gatsby, is shimmering, transcendental (beyond the powers of cinema to capture), and – from the perspective of our limited human lifetimes – eternal. A collection of his short stories compiled in 1960, Babylon Revisited, is fascinating, showing how inventive he was at devising characters and plots detailing the intertwining of the psychologies of those characters. And he would present it all with fluidly lyrical prose of amazing compactness. What has drawn me to his stories is his implicitly deep understanding of the human heart, which he conveys from behind the casual facade of both manic and faded Jazz Age settings. What I see from his own personal story is that every true artist must constantly struggle to be able to do the work that expresses their art and gives their life meaning, despite the enervating drag of the many demands heaped on one by the needs of economic survival, exhibiting sufficient conformity for social acceptance, and the emotional needs – and illusions – of close family. I think that is the great heroic epic of each artist’s personal life: somehow producing the work held deep in the heart and soul and mind, despite both the intentional and indifferent impediments placed before that artistic drive by life’s banalities. Some succeed better than others, and some are broken and fail in that they themselves are lost to life and their unknown art stillborn. With all that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, I think that we are only seeing fragments of his potential, even given that he was one of America’s supreme literary artists. I appreciate his decades of struggle to produce those gems. It can be very hard to be an ordinary, imperfect human being gifted to be an instinctive channel to a primordial artistic insight and creative drive. His gift to us is the wider awareness we may gain by reading his stories, and immersing ourselves in his enthralling lyricism. I’ve now embarked on Tender Is The Night, which he called “a confession of faith.” In the last year of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $13.13 in royalties. Since his death in 1940, more than 10 million copies of his books have been sold throughout the world.

Winter Dreams: F Scott Fitzgerald’s Life Remembered (PBS, 2001)
https://youtu.be/XnEO8yT_ApM

Sincerely, F. Scott Fitzgerald (BBC, 2013)
https://youtu.be/cCfUsaX5F10

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Cinema Art From 1968 For Today

For me, 1968 was the most consequential year in American history since the end of World War Two. It was a year filled with uplifting superlatives like: the explosion of fierce creativity and variety in popular music and the arts generally, including the premier of that revolutionary television program for as yet unconditioned humans, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; and it was a year filled with disastrous superlatives like: the meat-grinder crescendo of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the urban riots sparked by anger over King’s murder and America’s stubbornly embedded racism.

I think that in the fifty years since, the U.S. has regressed socially, culturally and intellectually (except in a few important areas regarding the treatment of women and LGTB people) while simultaneously advancing technologically. But, so much of that technological advancement has been skewed and debased with wasteful profit-seeking and idiotic consumerism. We are a country of lowered imagination, aspirations, expectations, hopes and economic opportunities, awash in highly advanced electronic technologies diffusing stupidity and disinformation for continuous mass distraction and disempowerment.

So, I found it bracing and reinvigorating to recently see three movies — playing in theaters this summer of 2018 — that are each masterpieces of or about that time half a century ago, and remain fresh and compelling today.

WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?, a superb and touching documentary about Fred Rogers and his long-running and revolutionary children’s television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is actually a film of 2018. Its very existence begs the question: why is such television programming no longer being broadcast daily as a government-funded public service? (I know, commercialism über alles). Among the many amazing stories in this film is that of the overt and explicit anti-war message of Fred Rogers’ TV show in its first week of broadcast, in February 1968, which was during the height of the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War and also the month of the highest rate of fatalities of US soldiers in that war (it was far worse for the Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians all the time).

Remember, Fred Rogers aimed his messages against war, against bigotry, about facing death, about dealing with your parents’ divorce, and about many other real world experiences both big and small, to children in the toddler, pre-school, kindergarten and very early grammar school years; amazing!

In being free of the macho insecurities so closely guarded and secreted by so many of America’s outwardly manly men, and with his strength of character and absolute commitment to love and to the respect of children, he remains for me “the strongest man in America.”

“Love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhwktRDG_aQ

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY premiered 50 years ago. Now, it has been gloriously reprinted as a 70mm six channel soundtrack Cinerama spectacular, and is once again being shown in selected theaters this summer. We saw it today (17 August 2018). Not only is this a movie masterpiece, it is one of the great works of art of the 20th century, and it remains an advanced work of conceptual, philosophical and cinema art today, and is likely to remain as such for quite some time to come.

This film conveys a visceral experience of encountering utterly alien intelligence in the unbounded expanse of unworldly space-time, by use of expansive and profound visual imagery combined with lush, majestic and enveloping music — classical music! — and by the use of deep silences and grandly unhurried pacing, which is so alien to our cacophonous myopic zero attention span hamster wheel earthly circus.

This movie rewards whatever exercising of your intellect you engage in as a result, by resonating with your own pondering and speculations on ultimate questions. It was grand immersing myself in this masterpiece again, on the big screen with the big sound, my eyes filled with wonder, my mind abuzz with transcendence.

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oR_e9y-bka0

YELLOW SUBMARINE premiered 50 years ago. Now, it has been gloriously restored and is once again being shown in selected theaters this summer. We saw it last month, a wonderful experience. See it if you can, on the big screen with the big sound: Beatles music with imaginatively unrivaled animated imagery.

Now more than ever we need the spirit of Yellow Submarine to permeate the populace, because the Blue Meanies are out there in force devastating our world with their dour dumbfounding deadly doofusness. Revolution is first and foremost a matter of heart — many revolutionary good, strong and happy hearts — and this movie has a lot of heart. It also remains an advanced work of art, given the sad reality of our decayed, stagnant and backward culture.

“All you need is love.”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOlwwoZLoKE

I don’t want to come across as an old fogy disparaging today’s youth by complaining that “things were better when I was a kid than they are today.” What I do wish to encourage is that people look back with appreciation to the real gems of the not-that-distant past, to both learn from and be heartened by them, and to help today’s vibrant (young!) people to infuse their now-time with heart, love and revolution, and thus help create both artistic and material advances of real human value to our shared national and world societies.

Enjoy!

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Societal Death or Transfiguration?, Cinema Visions of Humanity Facing Extinction

How should world society respond to the approach of human extinction compelled by implacable external forces, such as: radioactive fallout after a global nuclear war (as in Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach), or an alien invasion by a species of technologically superior beings from outer space, or an impending collision between Earth and a massive planetoid, or (as seems most likely today) by runaway and irreversible Climate Change?

The general question has long been the seed for spinning out entertaining speculations in fantasy novels and science-fiction movies, but now it has become a serious matter of immediate concern for an increasing number of geo- and social- scientists and social planners. Mayer Hillman, an 86-year-old social scientist, urban planner and senior fellow emeritus of the Policy Studies Institute in England, says (in an article published by The Guardian on 26 April 2018, https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/26/were-doomed-mayer-hillman-on-the-climate-reality-no-one-else-will-dare-mention):

“We’re doomed. — The outcome is death, and it’s the end of most life on the planet because we’re so dependent on the burning of fossil fuels. There are no means of reversing the process which is melting the polar ice caps. And very few appear to be prepared to say so. — I’m not going to write anymore [about the projected consequences of runaway Climate Change] because there’s nothing more that can be said. — With doom ahead, making a case for cycling as the primary mode of transport [instead of automobiles] is almost irrelevant. — We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels. So many aspects of life depend on fossil fuels, except for music and love and education and happiness. These things, which hardly use fossil fuels, are what we must focus on. [Hillman is amazed that our thinking rarely stretches beyond 2100 when discussing scientific predictions on the increase of average global temperature.] This is what I find so extraordinary when scientists warn that the temperature could rise to 5C or 8C. What?, and stop there? What legacies are we leaving for future generations? In the early 21st century, we did as good as nothing in response to Climate Change. Our children and grandchildren are going to be extraordinarily critical. — Even if the world went zero-carbon today that would not save us because we’ve gone past the point of no return. [Action by individuals to limit their ‘carbon footprint’ – their direct and indirect production of greenhouse gases is] as good as futile. [National action by the UK along the same lines is also irrelevant] because Britain’s contribution is minute. Even if the government were to go to zero-carbon it would make almost no difference. — [The world as a whole would have to go zero-carbon, but can that be done without the collapse of civilization?] I don’t think so. Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families? — Wealthy people will be better able to adapt but the world’s population will head to regions of the planet such as northern Europe which will be temporarily spared the extreme effects of climate change. How are these regions going to respond? We see it now. Migrants will be prevented from arriving. We will let them drown. — [Few scientific, political; and religious leaders have been honest with the public on all this, in order to protect their own positions] I don’t think they can [be forthright] because society isn’t organised to enable them to do so. Political parties’ focus is on jobs and GDP, depending on the burning of fossil fuels. — [Can the now obvious signs of advancing Climate Change spark an epiphany in humanity’s collective mind, and cause it to relinquish its ultimately self-destructive fossil fueled binge?] It depends on what we are prepared to do. Standing in the way is capitalism. Can you imagine the global airline industry being dismantled when hundreds of new runways are being built right now all over the world? It’s almost as if we’re deliberately attempting to defy nature. We’re doing the reverse of what we should be doing, with everybody’s silent acquiescence, and nobody’s batting an eyelid.”

Now, let us consider the 2017 American movie Downsizing, given this context.

Downsizing is an intelligent and, by American standards, subtle cinematic science-fiction social satire about the individual’s problem of securing sufficient wealth to comfortably sustain their lives in a secure cosmopolitan community for the duration of their lifespan. This movie was conceived by Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, and directed by Payne who has numerous successful movies to his credit: Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013). Downsizing was not well-received by the majority of the viewing public because it is a film about ideas, thus requiring thinking for its enjoyment, as opposed to being a cinematic delivery vehicle for emotive sensations and jolting stimuli to provide passive unthinking viewers with 135 minutes of thrilling distraction.

The central pit in Downsizing, around which the screenplay and the screenwriters’ implied social commentaries have been grown like the flesh of a stone-fruit, is that science has discovered a process for harmlessly shrinking living cells and organisms, enabling humans to be reduced to Lilliputian size so that their existing savings and equity in the “big world” can economically sustain them in lifetimes of luxury in the “small world,” because their “ecological footprints” – both for consumption and waste production – have been miniaturized. The attraction for “getting small” is basically a get-rich-quick scheme leading to an endlessly sustainable high-life coupled with the pleasurable sense of eliminating one’s big-world guilt over contributing to Climate Change and the environmental degradation of the planet, which is caused by its “overpopulation” with “big” capitalist-minded, wasteful and exploitative people. In brief: having it all.

The problem with making an expensive ($68M) artful cinematic work whose purpose is to stimulate thoughtful societal awareness – if you want to recoup your investment – is that you have to market it successfully to the masses of cinema-viewing yahoos. Downsizing was released on 22 December 2017, and as of 1 February 2018 (its theatrical closing) had only grossed $55M. It just didn’t hit the yahoo g-spot, and they hated it for boring them.

The “lesson” in the screenplay of Downsizing, which was delivered in a clear sedately-paced and understated way (which I like), is that the solution for achieving fulfilling individual lives in peaceful and comforting societies is for the people of such would-be societies to take care of one another: popular humanitarian socialism. Regardless of whether a society enjoys being situated in a natural or artificial paradise and is economically secure, or whether it is environmentally and economically stressed and doomed to extinction, the best that it can ever be for all of its inhabitants during its duration is entirely the result of its peoples’ commitment to construct mutually fulfilling lives of cooperation and compassion, instead of seeking to escape – from the masses of the less fortunate – into exclusive refuges and redoubts of enclosed privilege to continue with lives of egotistical self-centeredness and selfish indifference.

This message is ancient. It was part of the Buddha’s “Triple Jewel” teaching to his disciples and fellow monks and nuns (the Sangha), to ‘take care of one another’:

I will go to the Buddha for refuge.
I will go to the Dharma [the teachings of Buddha; the Buddhist way of life] for refuge.
I will go to the Sangha [harmonious community] for refuge.

The Buddhist sense of ‘taking refuge’ expressed here is not a running away from the rest of the world, but a commitment for living a truer life within it, based on Buddhist precepts.

There have been many book and movie stories centered on the idea of: individual fulfillment found through mutual help for securing group survival if possible, versus seeking individual escape from group peril, and from guilt over abandoning responsibility. Three such stories that came to my mind while pondering the movie Downsizing were the films: Lost Horizon (1937), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Zardoz (1974).

Lost Horizon is Frank Capra’s film of the James Hilton fantasy novel about Shangri-La: a fabulous and peaceful Buddhist-style refuge from modern society and its torments, situated in a life-extending green valley that is hidden within the otherwise frigid and snowy expanse of the high Himalayas. But, can Shangri-La truly be an escape?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is Robert Wise’s movie of Edmund H. North’s screenplay of Harry Bates’s story of an alien ambassador, Klaatu, and his all-powerful robot, Gort (with a heat-ray beam-weapon dematerializer), who arrive in a Flying Saucer to deliver a message to humanity from an alien Federation of Planets: live peacefully on Earth and join our Federation as an independent planet, but do not militarize space with your rockets and nuclear bombs, because we would take that as a mortal threat and then our space-patrolling robot police, like Gort, would “reduce your Earth to a burned-out cinder.” Humanity’s escape to the good life, which is offered in this movie fantasy, would be achieved by forsaking war-making in all its forms to instead gain the advanced knowledge and technology of Klaatu’s interplanetary civilization, and that technology would vastly enhance the quality-of-life of the popular humanistic socialism that humanity would have to adopt as its new social paradigm.

Zardoz is John Boorman’s film about a far future post-apocalyptic immiscibly stratified static society that is suddenly ruptured by violence against its tiny elite, which results in a complete blending of humanity and a rebirth of human evolution. The Eternals are non-aging humans who live in a paradisal community, the Vortex, bubbled from the external misery by invisible force fields, and containing advanced endlessly-fueled hidden technology that automatically maintains the Eternals’ unending and idyllic existences. All the fruits of humanity’s previous achievements are now maintained in the Vortex, but the Eternals are all bored with their immortal lives of effortless omniscience and leisure. The vast expanse of the Outlands beyond the Vortex is a wasteland inhabited by the Brutals, people reduced to being isolated dumb animals without any civilization or social cohesion, scrounging through the wreckage of the previous world for each individual’s survival. Among the Brutals is a horse-riding semi-organized militia of enforcers, the Exterminators, who receive guns from Zardoz, a god in the form of a huge flying stone head that orders the Exterminators to enslave defenseless Brutals into chain-gangs to perform rudimentary agricultural labor, or other such work as mining, as might be required to supply the Vortex with what its denizens desire. The Exterminators punish any infraction and every failure by a Brutal – however trivial – with instant death by gunfire. The Exterminators, all men, also exult in their power and preference by their god, Zardoz, by freely raping and pillaging among the Brutals. Zardoz tells them: “The gun is good.” It is the hobby and amusement of Arthur Frayn, one of the Eternals, to carry on the charade of being Zardoz (piloting the stone head, and supplying the Exterminators with commands and cascades of firearms). It happens that through an instance of Arthur Frayn’s carelessness one of the Exterminators, Zed, manages to get into the Vortex and once there evolves despite an oppressive captivity, from Brutal ignorance to Eternal knowledge, and this leads to the complete and violent death of Vortex society, and transfiguration of humanity. The movie Zardoz is a dark – black – analog to the much gentler if still subtly sharp Downsizing.

The essential lesson of responding to the approach of a destructive inevitability beyond your society’s power is to engage in compassionate cooperation to make your society as good as it can be for as long as you and it can be made to last, and to find your life’s fulfillment in doing so.

This idea is captured visually so simply in the last moments of Downsizing that it remains invisible to the majority of the viewing public. And so our fractious collectivity cruises onward, untrammeled, towards its willfully unexpected collision with fate.

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Societal Death or Transfiguration?, Cinema Visions of Humanity Facing Extinction
30 April 2017
https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/04/30/societal-death-or-transfiguration-cinema-visions-of-humanity-facing-extinction/

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Of related interest:

The Righteous And The Heathens of Climate And Capitalism
12 March 2012
http://www.swans.com/library/art18/mgarci43.html

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Message #1 to a Young Artist

I want to commend you (give you praise) for your resolve to study deeply, even if that means taking “hard classes” with “lots of work.” Any creative person who produces worthwhile work is a person who has studied deeply, whether formally at a school or independently and intuitively by conscientious practice (or both). Good and great work comes out of a prior build-up of deep study. On a simple and practical level it is best to get as much “learning” as you can out of a school you are paying to attend. But beyond that, it is artistically and intellectually most beneficial to gain as much information, insight and understanding as possible about your chosen craft, and about the history of the culture you come from and the society you are living in, so your knowledge has depth, which will be the well from which you will draw the elements of your future creative works. When you remain committed to this “career” of study, and focussed on your personal artistic (and intellectual) vision, you will be able to move through your schooling (and life) with greater ease even as friends and acquaintances drop in and drop out of your social circle: you will be able to navigate beyond others’ dramas with less distraction and damage to yourself, and you will find that there will always be new and delightful people who can come into your life without being clingy drags. Over time, the experiences (both good and bad) you gain from your self-motivated course of study and practice build up as a growing fund of wisdom, which improves your ability to continue navigating your voyage through life, and improves your ability to create finer art. I am writing you this because I do not want you to get discouraged by the loss of friends, and the fleeting nature of many seemingly close friendships. There is no blame, just the unknowable chaos of the flow of life. Be happy in being immersed in your learning and in doing well in your creating. Love.

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For Message #0 to a Young Artist, see:

Art versus Stomach
https://manuelgarciajr.com/2018/01/29/art-versus-stomach/

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