Is interstellar space travel a Western, colonialist fantasy?
considered: Interstellar (2014)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Bill Irwin, and Ellen Burstyn
The collective consciousness of Wikipedia, in their plot summary of Interstellar, wrote1 that the film’s version of the USA depicts an “agrarian, stateless society.” In Nolan’s not-so-distant-future, America is ravaged by Dust Bowl-size superstorms, crop failures are abundant, and Big Government is a thing of the past—indeed, there’s hardly any government at all, save an allusion to a “federal” textbook. In this world, where the conspiratorial, anti-government pundits seem to have won, the moon landings are widely regarded to have been faked. (Professional conspiracy-mongerers like Alex Jones and Glenn Beck have reason to smile at this.) Continue reading →
In 1965, on the cusp of the counterculture movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first “teach-in” at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In contrast to a lecture or symposium, the teach-in was oriented towards action; indeed, SDS’s goal was to teach about Vietnam and organize students against the war. Remarkably, thousands attended the teach-in, yet this paled in comparison to the tens of thousands who turned up a few months later at Berkeley for an anti-war teach-in that included a range of intellectual luminaries, including Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone and Alan Watts.
A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.
One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading →
Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same. Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.
In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading →
Featuring Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass
Music video directed by Gus Van Sant
In 1995, two years prior to his death, poet Allen Ginsberg published “Ballad of the Skeletons” in The Nation magazine. The poem, a scathing condemnation of Newt Gingrich’s America, received attention from other aging artists, including Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and the considerably younger filmmaker Gus Van Sant. With rallying, Ginsberg was able to convince the four of them to work on producing a song and eventually even a music video to accompany. Continue reading →
In an editorial entitled “SF needs to make the Main Library safer,” the San Francisco Examiner lauded Mayor Ed Lee’s effort to “institute stronger consequences for breaking the rules” at the main branch of the San Francisco public library. “Give Mayor Ed Lee credit,” wrote the editorial staff. “[Lee] is right in making a big push to rid the Main Library of what he called [the] ‘small number of people who create disturbances and commit crimes, tarnishing the experience for everyone else.’”
“People who commit crimes” is a rhetorical construction designed to obfuscate. If the Examiner were being truthful, they might have rephrased this sentence to something like: “people—many them poor, and many of whom have untreated mental illness, and have no where else to go—whose desperation leads them to commit crimes.” The truth is that poverty in San Francisco’s civic center is nothing new—nor is the civic tendency to criminalize them.
The East (2013) Directed by Zal Batmangli
Scott Free Productions/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Fictional depictions of radicalism usually take one of two tacks. First, there’s the absurdist bent, as seen in The Monkey-Wrench Gang and Fight Club. In these tales, radicalism exists within a bubble, its practitioners iconoclastic and mad and their activities largely harmless. Even acts of extreme violence—the bombings of financial skyscrapers in Fight Club, for instance—play out as thrilling, brilliant acts, rife with revolutionary symbolism.