Box of Nothing
This vampire I know keeps getting fired. For drinking blood. Among her recent ex-employers was a tony resort hotel owned by Disneyworld.
Okay, so a vampire drinking blood, even one in the employ of the Mouse, is redundant. The "vampire" in question—we'll call her Sarah—isn't really a vampire at all. She's a pagan witch who, in the course of her rituals, drinks human blood. These rituals usually involve or lead to sexual activity of some kind. We should all be so lucky.
All this is quite consensual, as Sarah is a young, alabaster-skinned, stunningly beautiful woman—not unlike Jennifer Tilly but with several operative brain cells—and has no problems finding donors. Her drinking is limited to about a shot-glass a week. The Kennedys could learn from her moderation.
But drinking isn't what keeps getting her dumped from jobs.
As a devout non-Christian, her real gaffe is the writing and editing of a paper- and web-based 'zine devoted to her singular views and activities. It's a gaffe that has literally nearly destroyed her life.
'One Enormous Audience' and the Demon Pazzuzu
No matter what you hear, racism, homophobia, misogyny or whatever other evil you might name are promoted only if that evil creates a larger market, or enhances a pre-existing one. Assorted communities are, by design—we'll get into whose design in a moment—splintered into the mainstream and then re-assimilated into a homogenous "us." As former Nation editor Mark Crispen Miller notes in this author's book, Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry, we are all potentially "One Enormous Audience." And the only people who are not part of this Audience are those who actively critique it.
The aim of corporate culture is to devour and/or subsidize into for-hire neutrality all generators of cultural information (read: artists.) It is the entire raison d'être of a Viacom or Disney to utterly control both the content and distribution of media. Rapid digital technology aids immeasurably in making this a reality.
Once information is controlled, concerns about "marketing" or, for that matter, "public opinion" dissolve. When a clutch of corporations control the rights to the content, the means of distributing it, and all major avenues of reportage regarding that content, those who betray unsympathetic views are cut out of the loop, and denied access to corporate-owned platforms of discourse. For the consumer, alternatives literally disappear. The phrase "captive audience" takes on a truly frightening new meaning. "Outsiders," whether gays, Lubovich Jews, or blood-drinkers, are all viable consumers, and corporate America embraces them with open arms, as long as demographics don't indicate that their presence will screw up the ability to "service" another market segment. And even then, there's niche-marketing. In the movies, this manifests as Message in a Bottle for the great unwashed, and The Craft for troubled teens with black accessory issues. As we'll see, the above is not an X-File flight of paranoia, but simply an account of current events. There is no "political" aspect here in the old use of the word, simply a product motive with growth hormones.
In order to create "one enormous audience," an on-going ad campaign is crafted which addresses "issues" such as "censorship." As with any ad campaign, this functions as a theater of cognitive dissonance. Or in simpler terms, a con job. As Miller notes, "...the real threats to free expression don't come from Bible-thumpers—they don't even come from schoolboards, prudes and prigs. They come from very hip, well-paid media executives and the whole system which is geared away from certain kinds of content."
With this in mind, Sarah, and a lot of less "unusual" folks are, in a word, fucked. Yet in many ways, Sarah is downright normal. She pays taxes, works—between firings—to feed the rent and her two kids.
Oh: the kids.
Sarah—whose ex was black, hence the kids—lives in The South. In Orlando, Florida, to be specific. Which, for all practical purposes, is a suburban annex of Disneyworld. Last year, a mundane domestic squabble caught the attention of someone who was a friend of the local police. I am unwilling to tell the details of this squabble, as any media reports of her situation most probably will be used against her. I'll simply say that Sarah's "domestic squabble" was of a remarkably tame variety, and would have been unworthy of even a drunk beat cop's semi-attention if the person involved in it had not been a female, non-Christian blood-imbiber with non-white children who lives down the street from Disneyworld. In the corporate hierarchy, such multiple-anti-isms are similar to the work of disgruntled and drunk janitors in an older world order. I sincerely doubt Edgar Bronfman, Jr., the president of the Seagrams booze and entertainment empire, could care less if you sacrifice three children and one dog to the Demon Pazzuzu, as long as long as www.pazzuzu.com stayed packed with banner ads and the hits kept coming.
Anyway, a cop visited Sarah's apartment, took in some of the books she was reading, and filed a report (but not before tossing off a mean-spirited—and inaccurate—bon mot or three about Sarah being a "Satanist" and all that implies).
Sarah reports that the rest of the report was even nastier than his remarks. After taking detailed notice of her choice in reading matter, and viewing a few decorative pentagrams—one atop a Christmas tree!—the officer then speculated that she "may be drinking her children's' blood". Not long after the cop composed this fanciful document, the court had Sarah's children taken away from her.
Which really sucks. And is also a violation of the Bill of Rights. At least in places where Disneyworld has no outposts. Which are getting to be few in number.
The Entertainment State: "One of us!" ?
One might wonder why we never heard about this incendiary tale of décolletage, blood, and judicial malfeasance, a real-life version of The Crucible. One might also understandably think this contradicts what I just said about 'outsiders' being okey-doke and assimilable market-segments. But Sarah is not a 'segment', she's not part of anyone's focus-group. She's just unusual. And vocal.
Still, the reasons for her censure are simple, quite possibly Evil, and a threat to all artists on Earth. Even Sheryl Crow.
You did not hear about the Incredible Sarah Story because news is almost entirely a media creation, and self-generated. Radio, network and cable TV, movies, newspapers—all are under the aegis of five corporations (Disney/CapCities, Viacom, Sony, News Corp, TimeWarner, and with MicroSoft and Seagrams trying to angle in as the sixth and seventh.)
Only in such an incestuous environment could Marilyn Manson punching out a few Spin editors (why is this a problem?) be considered 'news,' to say nothing of our President's penis issues. Look at Sarah from the point-of-view of your average corporate movie industry VP:
"Okay, she's a babe, but give her five seconds and she's saying more fucked-up shit about all of Christendom than Anton LeVey managed in a lifetime. Religious conflict doesn't sell. And what the fuck is a 'pagan'? Does she eat babies? Forget this broad."
Worse, she writes about her problems with the Christian program, her enjoyment of arcane rituals, and, worst of all, her need to be understood by people who might be interested in doing so. She does this every month. She goes on TV and talks more. She was even on Ricki Lake, for God's sake.
Sarah, in another Miller coinage, simply is not a viable member of "The Entertainment State." Despite the tabloid aspects of her story, Sarah does not fit into the rigid structures of what culture critic David J. Skal calls "the monster show."
From Todd Browning to Diane Arbus, America has secretly adored "freaks." But it is a culturally forbidden love, and can only be addressed via a rigorously-enforced set of laws. Recent examples include the freak shows seen on Jerry Springer, Oprah, or the Independent Council's investigation of our President.
The basic theatrical form for engagement in the monster show is one where the monster or freak in question—whether a transsexual Muslim hunger artist or whatever—is engaged to act out a very traditional American morality play with the "host."
Shuttled before the country's leering eyes, he (and/or she) tells, in detail, of his or her terrible deviation from The Program. The audience oohs and ahs in horror/delight. The host chastises—gently—the poor, and usually, none-to-articulate creep, and then said creep is shuttled off into the big nowhere, never to be heard from again. We are assured that he or she is not, in the immortal Browning freak declaration of validity, "One of us!" It is also essential that, while the freak titillates on an Arbus level, he or she must not be "attractive" enough to spawn more freaks (of course, if enough viewers are converted to create a new market segment, as in, say, the case of an Anne Rice, then we enter another freak-show also known as mass entertainment).
Sarah, dressed not unlike a darker Holly Golightly for her media appearances, is articulate, charming, and unrelenting in her caustic view of American/Christian verities. But even her critiques and occasional on-camera blood-drinking are done with a disarming Southern charm thing that I trust has won her many converts (except Ricki Lake, who I'm told hated Sarah because she could easily slip into a size 4).
Perhaps not surprisingly, there are few willing to sponsor Sarah's 'zine, even in the questionably trangressive world of trust-fund rebels who think they're, like, trangressive. The lack of sponsorship points out the real problem here, which is a sort of ambient fear, an unspoken understanding of exactly when one has crossed the line from media freak to something uncatagorizable.
In short, if Sarah wants to keep her kids, she will have to recant. Streamline her ideological ass. Switch her beverage preference to Jagermeister and hope for the best.
Or she may have to stop writing, close the 'zine, and delete her website. So the world doesn't know who she really is. So she can keep her kids.
And that about sums up the relationship between the artist and The World in post-corporate America.
If the above seems like a wee bit paranoid, keep in mind that:
1. Disney/CapCities owns, or co-owns, or has a really big interest in, among others:
Hollywood Pictures, Miramax Films, Touchstone Pictures, ABC Online (with AOL), A&E (co-owned with Hearst and GE), The Disney Channel, Disney Television, ESPN (80%), ABC Radio (21 stations), TV Stations in 10 major markets, 8 radio Stations, ABC Network News, Fairchild Publications (trade), 11 secondary market daily newspapers, the California Angels, The Mighty Ducks, and bits of State Farm Insurance. There are also planned or already-extant Disney "communities" (tiny townlets) such as Celebration, near—surprise—Orlando.
Just in passing: It has recently been estimated that Disney CEO Michael Eisner, in 1998, raked in $750,000 in salary, plus approximately $565 million in cashed-in stock options. Yet, when workers for his company went on strike in the fall of 1998 because Disney would not reveal the details of their new health plan, the Mouse just hired new, non-union employees. It has been estimated that Eisner could pay for the entire health-plan for about $3 mil—in other words, petty change. [Disney Strike story filed on CNN Online, November 2, 1998.] [Eisner info from E!Online, January 7, 1999.]
Lest it seem I have some sort of thing against Disney in particular, scan the (partial) corporate set-up for Viacom:
Paramount Pictures, the Cinamerica theater chain (50% with Time Warner), Blockbuster Video, Comedy Central (50% with TimeWarner), MTV, VH-1, Showtime, publishers Fireside, MTV Books, Pocket Books, Scribner, Simon & Schuster, The Free Press, Washington Square Press, 11 TV stations, ten radio stations, half of the UPN Network and assorted theme parks.
What you just read is a delineation of just who will employ artists in the coming century, have control over what is created, and decide whether their work will be filmed, published, or exhibited.
In the 1980s, then-President Reagan's whacked-out "trickle-down" abstraction of sane economic theory created a new class of really rich people who wanted to buy lots of stuff with their new wealth (much like today's digi-mania has created an information-service elite—for now).
By the late '80s, the sudden availability of extremely discretionary earnings artificially inflated the 'fine'-art markets. Despite economic shifts, the art market has stayed up there—a toy for very wealthy people (admittedly a traditional role). Although a few painters and such became vastly wealthy really fast, the lasting effect on most artists trying to live in LA, New York or other traditional artist stomping grounds has been, in every way, devastating. Rents are up there with a Basquiat original, making it so artists have no community or place for sharing ideas. To say nothing of room to make stuff.
I never thought I'd quote Marx, even in paraphrase, but the guy had something going for him when he said, in essence, that the way to destroy any artistic, political or ideological movement, was simply to destroy their ability to meet and live cheaply.
So the main supporters of the arts are corporate. They understandably either favor politically neutral abstractions, or Hallmark-friendly pop-isms, visual nothings that will offend no one.
Which is simply that the corporatization of the arts is not simply a process of "dumbing-down." It's more like a continual minor anxiety attack: a way we perceive, experience and deal with everything.
This process is manifested in fewer books, movies, art-works receiving distribution on par with the latest Martha Stewart cookbook. And so it's fewer voices. It's virtual as hell, which, according to my Random House Collegiate Dictionary means "less than," which never struck me as a good thing. Yet "virtual" is the sell-word of the decade.
Or maybe not.
Since they are astoundingly expensive things which necessitate total saturation advertising, and so are something we have no choice but to be up to date on, let's look at the movies again to view the destination of all the arts. What I'll call Xerox Culture.
This winter, Universal enjoyed a boffo opening weekend for the re-shoot (not 're-make') of Hitchcock's Psycho.
A recent issue of Variety nakedly prayed that Psycho would herald a new world order of filmmaking comprised of films which are low-risk because they're already famous hits. Already in production are similar re-animations of Charly and The Haunting. In the recently-released My Favorite Martian, Christopher Lloyd—as the titular alien—looks as though cloned from the original series. There is no updating, only replication. Meanwhile, this spring promises the release of a new, all-inclusive re-hash of the '60s TV semi-hit, The Wild, Wild West, starring Mr. Assimilation himself, Will Smith. After years of re-makes which at least attempted to either update, or else self-referentially pay homage to original sources, this new wave of virtual duplicates of tried-and-true properties may be the dawn of a true Xerox Cinema.
I'd think the appeal of Xerox Cinema to modern corporate movie executives, who, in the memorable words of screenwriter Jon Danziger, "might as well be selling honey mustard," would be obvious:
No more writers—just people to update pre-existing properties.
No auteurs—just technicians to shoot what already worked.
Although there will still be a need for moderately 'original' films, one can imagine the thrill of excitement this causes the MBAs of Hollywood. Of course, there's been Xerox Literature for years: only a true zealot could tell one Tom Clancy kill-fest from the other without a scorecard. Meanwhile, sequels to books by dead people are commonplace. Back in the music biz, sonic resuscitation-by-electronics (the "new" Beatles single, for example) is all the rage.
When you continually recycle your own culture, why be surprised when what comes out is shit?
The fact that, according to entertainment media, Psycho reportedly died at the box office is irrelevant, as it will surely make a load in multi-format re-release and foreign market sales. Most theatrical releases are not even intended to make money on their own—their real reason for existing is as mass-advertising for later video and DVD releases, as well as soundtrack album tie-ins and other tertiary products.
In a world where corporate control—either literal, or by threat of pulling support (advertising) from the organs of the press—informs every aspect of a film's existence, the "fact" that it "sank" and was "critically-maligned" only adds to a later press release for the same film, where, no doubt, it will be advertised as "a cult favorite!" and "criminally under-rated!" As a media-savvy person, you will feel compelled to see this poor little Psycho. And hey, the CD's pretty neat too.
This is all predicated upon the idea that Psycho—or any movie, ever—actually lost money at the box office.
We know that there are fewer and fewer publishers, studios, galleries and so on to present our works. We know they are owned by the same corporations. We know that art is usually expensive, and that, after the Reagan/Bush years, federal funding has become a tired joke.
So logic dictates that, from the corporate POV, more resources will be utilized to push fewer works in order to forcibly gain the risk-adverse, synergy-friendly insta-sales needed to keep the bottom line on a corporate vice president's monthly gains report impressive. From the artist's POV, fiscal logic dictates that one had better get a job working on those risk-free projects, and hope there's time left to do something else.
So Xerox Cinema—if only as a metaphor—is the corporate ideal, while at the same time, the absolute nadir for any creative person. And what is a Xerox anyway, but a paper copy of an original document— worth nothing in and of itself?
Which, bizarrely, is what we, as consumers, seem to want. Nothing. And hopefully we can order it online, and never have to deal with anyone while we get our daily nothing.
Which brings us back to Psycho and the general moviescape (again, with movies being the water-cooler-discourse center of post-corporate culture).
We'll skip the mainstream and go right to "indie film," a term which becomes rather meaningless when most indie-ish films are actually bank-rolled by the same Big 5. Here is a listing of the main providers of "independent" films, and the corporations who own them:
Castle Rock Cinema: TimeWarner/Turner Broadcastinmg
Fine Line Cinema: TimeWarner/Turner Broadcastinmg
Fox Searchlight: News Corporation
Mandalay Entertainment (distribution): Sony
Miramax Film Co.: Disney/CapCities
New Line Cinema: TimeWarner/Turner Broadcastinmg
October Films: Universal/Seagrams
Triumph Films (releasing): Sony
When we talk about "independent" filmmaking, what we are really talking about, as this list makes clear, is corporate Hollywood engaging in niche marketing. Indie film also functions for corporate Hollywood as a sort of cheap farm team, supplying new talent for later use in big-league mainstream product (see the career of Quentin Tarantino; as a follow-up to his hit, Pulp Fiction, the auteur was promptly employed to re-write and add Gen-X street-cred to the mega-dollar action retread, Crimson Tide.)
But the main reason there is no cohesive independent film scene—by any reality-based definition—is basic to the business of all art. You need places to show your work. Those same corporations own a great deal of the theaters that also need the screen-space to show You've Got Mail a/k/a Join AOL. Not to get all anti-trust about things.
Which, of course, the FCC and/or Congress didn't do when AOL and Netscape merged, or when Barnes and Noble and Ingram assimilated each other in a highly Borg-ian act of book retail/distribution Total Control. It seems the only monopoly that's taken seriously is a board game by Parker Brothers.
Which, in a large-ish stretch, brings me back to Sarah, the conceptual vampire, and Disney.
Disney Will Probably Sue You Just for Reading This.
Sarah was bringing in $6.49 an hour before she got popped for not being a Christian and had her kids taken away by the Orlando court. Destitute and in a really poor mood, she took to sleeping in small storage areas at Disneyland (in order to save up for her court battle.) Alas, she was soon thrown on the street by Dickensian minions of the Mouse. You can't make this stuff up.
More disturbing is the possibility that if you did, nobody would ever know. Witness author Marc Elliot.
In the early '90s, he wrote a critical biography of Walt Disney, entitled Hollywood's Dark Prince. His publisher, Bantam Books, who had only seen notes of the book, suddenly decided not to publish it.
Elliot later found out that Bantam had a deal with the Disney Library.
Box of Nothing
I recently got this great idea for a product. It'd make me seriously wealthy. It would have no calories, salt, or carbs, would not affect the lifestyles of distant dolphins, and would not only be "lite," it would be "extra-lite."
It would be a box called "Nothing." ("New and Improved!") Inside this new, improved box of Nothing, there would be, well, nothing. A pleasing vacuum, the ultimate fear-free product, so fear-free you wouldn't even have to consume it in any way. Sort of like the new Psycho, except that after two hours, you'd at least have a box to show for your trouble.
Virtual anything, at this point, is magnificently "less than." In the future, it may be "wider than" (HDTV), or "louder than" (THX), or just plain "weirder than," but until we can plug our brains and genitals right into some mega-chip, it will still, in terms of actual life, which is really complicated, be "less than."
Which is just what we, as consumers, want: something safe, distant, something with no emotional, intellectual or spiritual calories. We seem to want to become what carnies used to call "marks," willing rubes on the stupid mainway of corporate anti-culture.
There is one illusion central to the appeal of virtuality in the negation of the fact that we're still monkeys with a little bit less hair (except for Ron Jeremy and Alec Baldwin). Our basic motivating emotion is, and always will be, fear.
We hunted and gathered not because we were hungry, but because we were scared of getting hungry. Otherwise, we had a fairly small amount of stuff to get wiggy about: toothy fauna, lightning, bad cave accommodations and assorted angry gods. That was about it in terms of big scares—and it was stuff we could, at least to some degree, do something about, if only via a quick shot of distilled spirits or ritual sacrifice.
But we've advanced. Fear is everywhere. It's the bumper crop of post-everything America. Fear drives HMOs, SSRIs, nicotine patches, and the entire existence of, say, Jewel.
So how does one deal with the cornucopia of creepy stuff?
Well, there's the Internet. Which thrives on quick relief from The Fears.
There are no fears of rejection here, of smelling ghastly, of being too fleshy to wear spaghetti straps, of someone finding out that you are, in fact, a trembling mass of mortal protoplasm. The net is "less than" as hell.
I can't see that it's a coincidence that the biggest horror films—once the cultural repository and mass cathartic mechanism for dealing with our cultural creeps—are now all comedies (the Scream films, the I Know What You Did Last Summer films, Bride of Chucky, etc.) And—argh—"post-modern" comedies at that.
As far as real scary stuff, I don't think it's an accident that the fairly scary—well, at least fairly gross— Saving Private Ryan was set in Europe 40 years ago, as opposed to being set in Bosnia right now. Spielberg is a frighteningly savvy person. He knows that Long-Time-Ago plus People-Who-Aren't-Around-to-Argue equals "Safe Movie."
This year, we watched the end of all life on Earth presented as a rousing Republican sign-up drive (Armageddon) and a weepy soap opera (Deep Impact). We saw people get cancer (One True Thing), get blown to bits in the thousands (Starship Troopers ), and even dine with semen in their hair (There's Something About Mary). All these films are uplifting (especially Cameron Diaz's hair). All of them negate unnerving ideas such as, in order: death sucks, massive death sucks more, and, of course, semen as hair-gel does not work.
Actually, my Box of Nothing idea probably won't fly. We already have a million versions of "Nothing;" we just call it Everything.
And what of Sarah?
Sarah got her kids back (although she is on some sort of extremely surreal "probation." For what? Well, that's not real clear.)
But in order to pay her legal fees for her nonexistent crime, she had to sell her computer. For the time being, her 'zine has folded.
For the time being, another voice has been forced into silence.
Box of Nothing II: The Editor Strikes Back
My editor, a demanding but flawlessly-dressed person, said that I couldn't leave things on such a totally depressing note without offering some possible alternatives to the above scenario. Okay.
Create your own network.
Make a movie, find a building in your town, and show it. Fuck New York or Hollywood. Forget about national distribution, unless via Internet (no Luddites here). Revolt locally.
Convert your images to digital, and sell them over the net. Promote it at your local non-Blockbuster video store (if there is one). Yet another thing not reported is that smaller cities have actual, vibrant cinema communities. If yours doesn't, start one.
If the above is impractical, or you're not a filmmaker but still nauseated by the state of things, simply do this:
Do not go to any new movies. Period. Rent old or weird stuff. When next year's Robin Williams-as-Christ-substitute feature comes out, you can at least say it's not your fault. See also our intro to Indie Filmgoing, “The Golden Age of Not-Hollywood."
Support indie labels and sites. There's a TON of great music out there. Get it. And let these people know you're getting it: sign up for mailing lists, fill out those annoying questionnaires that fall out of jewel boxes. The are good things to do.
And next time you're on-line, be sure to drop by, say, Sony Music, and drop them an e-mail telling them how much they suck. Of course, you'll probably end up on some list that the IRS probably gets to look at, but, oh well.
If you desire an unusual volume, do NOT order online at barnesandnoble.com, as this is now a bona-fide Evil Act in support of Satan Himself. Instead, utilize your PPP connection to check out online, independent bookstores, and get your stuff there. Editor's Note: Hie thee to Fringe