Please dispose of all reality at the back of the theatre
An emancipated society . . . should rather point to the bad equality of today, the identity of film interests with weapons interests, and think of the better condition as the one in which one could be different without fear.
— Theodor Adorno, (from Minima Moralia, Aphorism 66, 1951)
Sold on pastoral endings and the coy backward glance, America, the world’s autist, insists on its own terms: civil war, insurgency, pockets of resistance, dead-enders, a few bad eggs. But the world, sold on nothing in particular, gives nothing up.
This clash of civilizations resounds in warring factions that seek to define war on another man’s turf, using sound bites market-tested in a Beltway think tank. Columns of contractors shield millions from the whites of another man’s eyes. For this, steep tribute is paid, feeding a shell-game of letterheads. Drones are the crystallizing emblem, the empty casings of outsourced character; the actor who emerges, unscathed, slathered in movie-blood, claiming to do his own stunts. Unmanned wars loom like the next brave frontier claiming the New American Century while freeing-up the best and brightest for movie-lot tours of duty. Zipperless fucks in impregnable titanium tanks are every techie’s wet dream. But is this bold embrace of absence a clandestine departure?
Even in its storybook heart America knows that armed conflict, left unattended, can spoil the most carefully-conceived mise en scene. Hundred Year Wars ravage a filmic sensibility. Eisenstein, Stalin’s docile chronologist, abolished them in favor of the flashpoint. Given the shifting paradigm of today’s infotainment complex, no studio will bankroll a century. Editors practice their own brand of fascism in the darkroom after a long hard day of shooting. Movies are what a culture’s history aspires to, particularly when the Pentagon offers its full cooperation. Done well, a Great Lie can hold back an accounting of biblical proportions — provided the right permissions are obtained. The military complex opens up like a wine cellar to patriotic directors known to embrace a certain military ethos. Goebbels was careful never to curb Riefenstahl’s access to the vast storehouse of Nazi paraphernalia.
This wealth of cherished falsehoods emboldens homegrown fire-brands, our Aryan fanatics, to vote with their skin for cinematic victory and its easy accoutrements: ticker tapes, chastened foes given over to liberty, a zealot’s creeping temperance, white flags, prison swastikas, ceremonial pens. But every beachhead must contend with fresh-configured sands. Nothing from this busted carnival ride will ever tread the hallowed ground of Omaha Beach again. Spielberg rode that moment into the terminus of an Oscar sunset.
In the dead of endless summer, some fierce circle completed itself and split tinsel town without reporting to its agent. John Wayne owned Okinawa. But his Waterloo was Vietnam. If victory, in the American sense, is an American invention, how will we retrofit its thirst for glory to this dull ironic age? Who will rise like a thief with stolen medals? What new false idol with matinee looks will lead the charge? Irony devours role models. But somehow our nightmares must be vexed back to sleep. Dick Cheney, hunkered down in an undisclosed location with a stack of John Ford movies, cannot turn back the clock alone.
So where are today’s paragons? Today’s returning kids, baptized in PTSD and asymmetric force, are left struggling alone with jihadists hell-bent on dreams of paradise. In his top-secret heart, Rummy cries mummy for Paris Peace Talks. But this penchant for deliberation betrays the secularist’s chief mission, namely, staying alive — no doubt a telling sign of weakness. At least the Commies manned the leeward side of the dialectic, rearranging bourgeois deck-chairs while endlessly rehashing the same five-year plan. Now there was an enemy that could be counted on for old-school brinksmanship.
There’s only one shell-game in this enemy’s agenda: peace-through-rigor-mortis. At least there is broad consensus on the subject of eternity: From some noxious pit of fire, the vanquished will petition the sneering top-God even as the larger universe screams its ambivalence at the many bad actors who speak in its name. Show us oh Lord a demiurge not deserving of a swift kick in the ass, and we will embrace his unspeakable wonderment, verily we say.
Blame the double feature, but America sat and watched too long, out-sourcing courage to the shadowy world of lucrative contracts. Our appointment with death and dismemberment seems interminably deferred. Cameras are forbidden to probe the flag-draped secrets of Dover AFB’s back-lot. No General worth his chest-ware dares visit for fear of seeing his own crestfallen stars on the gurney, the gold caked in rust. Learning to walk again challenges the canon of the suburban multiplex. Prosthetics will ring hollow until some consummating vision slams the table with clenched fist.
The whole thing reeks of napalm in the morning, the ruinous aftermath of a defeated worldview. Iraq is that vaguely familiar character actor sprouting six degrees of tentacles. Every failure needs a locus of evil, a sinner to be scourged from the bully pulpit.
Truth is always where the bombs fall. There is nothing even slyly ironic about a missile in your kitchen. But this is the cost of facing an unscripted enemy. Waves of nausea, no doubt clandestine shipments from Syria, attack — only to fade back into ineffable night when the Cavalry of Zion thunders into town. Irony, hardly a seminal force, churns out anti-heroes like aging rock stars on their third farewell tour. Jessica Lynch’s fiercest battle was stateside with the soldiers of propaganda. Pat Tillman, of Rushmore jaw and raw manipulated courage, was shot from behind by a jealous comrade who failed to make the high school JV football team. Tillman’s hooded assailant, probably a black man, nursed his own domestic wound: a shrinking factory floor that made his trigger-finger itch, forcing him onto the grassy knoll of paranoia.
Americans cringe at the horrendous opportunity cost of friendly fire, money being the last pill-box on the hill — impregnable to ironic erosion. Think of all that cash flow left to bleed a world away! What possessed Tillman who, having everything, desperately needed something? Gray-haired wise men, his former bosses, lobby for open trade while their own children play dress-up with the offspring of hostile foreign interests in Swiss boarding schools, proving that irony is wasted on the powerful.
Seasoned war planners, reduced to gnashing teeth, find religion in the media glare. Shock and awe reveals itself as an epiphany launched on a boomerang. Some bunkers, we find, are like old souls, too sublime even for the smartest bombs. Dr. Strangelove, permanently estranged from Aeschylus, denied to the end that the smartest bombs always find their makers. Some sympathetic chorus replies: That’s a deft bandying-about of the western canon alright, but these people are a mystery with their aversion to late-model cars and stone-washed jeans. How will you buy them off?
Indeed, undeterred by the bounty lying just outside their vast network of ill-appointed caves, hungry men hang on just as they did against Mongol hordes millennia ago. There isn’t a Marshall Plan big enough to resolve their endurance. Each surgical strike serves only to drive them further into subterranean wells of contemplation where they map, circle by concentric circle, the contours of Hollywood’s darkest fears. How can their access to Dante’s air-flight schools make the Homeland any safer? While we face an acute shortage of Arabic translators and porous borders, their devils move back and forth across our cratered cities with an infidel’s abandon.
America scrambles for the exits, reserving its applause for a commercial interruption that never seems to arrive. Find for us that style-conscious former Baathist party member who will rise to claim vast sums of unmarked bills while condemning car bombs for their formulaic repetition. We seek a graven image, a poodle in our likeness: a Marcos, a Diem, a Batista; a man who wears his spirit on his sleeve where it dangles like a vetted script.
During this interregnum, dispatches from the front are a déjà vu of prior endings. In an asynchronous conflict, no officer’s commission is safe. Careers are destroyed. Mothers nurse tactical advantage. Every baby is a bomb. No, this enemy, engaged at the throat of our advancements, is impervious to suspicious white powders and concluding sunsets. Life is a plot hatched for endless struggle. Denouement is an abomination. Virgins want blood. Irony is a decadent western literary device, the pornographer turned to seedy language when his movies fail to register. The box office can’t tally when the credits don’t roll.
Meanwhile that overworked deus ex machina, Saigon’s last-shining-copter-on-a-hill, stands ready to pull the post-Pepsi generation from the roofs of burning theatres. How many times can it be relied upon? Affix a new world order to those evacuating skids and mission creep wins. Our civilization will veer into an unmarked desert where fresh believers stand ready to make short work of it.
Warehouses of sentiment and period dress — narrative arcs safely landed, the warm bosom of resolution — sink in the Ozymandian sands. Prophecy, that contrary bitch, proves once again she has a taste for mighty armies. How would that great completist, Cecil B. DeMille, stanch this burgeoning desert flower, this gratuitous wound of the world that so clearly wants to flow like a salve over every artifice the Duke, consummate actor, once held sacred?