Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Top Gun 2's Box Office Run: Further Thoughts

With the second week of August already upon us it seems fair to say that Top Gun: Maverick has taken the box office crown for the season (and perhaps, the year). Not only did it have an extraordinary opening weekend exceeding even the high expectations for it, taking in over $160 million over the 4-day period. Its legs have been extraordinary, especially late in its run, the film's grosses eroding only very slightly from week to week. The result is that where its merely doubling its opening weekend would have been respectable, it has already grossed four times that sum, with its take still climbing--according to Boxofficemojo.com, some $662 million in the bank as of last Sunday, after an $7 million gross in that eleventh weekend in theaters (a mere 17 percent down from the $8.4 million of the prior ninth weekend). The result is that where even fairly late into its run I had expected it to top out at a (spectacular) $550 million, that late-stage resilience makes it now appear quite capable of finishing north of the (even more spectacular) $700 million mark.

Just why has this film so totally proven an outlier? Certainly it has helped that the media has been very much on its side. Nevertheless, the public had to be responsive to the push--and it was rather more so than I expected given what seemed to me the film's many liabilities in the present market (the sheer passage of time since the first Top Gun, the exhaustion of '80s nostalgia after so many years of its exploitation, the habituation of the public to more fantastical and CGI-driven blockbusters, etc.). Where this is concerned some have made much of the fact that Paramount eschewed the recent practice announcing a streaming date for the film, discouraging a critical part of the audience from just waiting and catching their film at home a few weeks later, increasing theatrical attendance. Perhaps. However, it seems to me that there is at least one obviously important factor generally getting overlooked, namely the weakness of the competition this summer. Instead of the usual eight-plus big action movies we typically saw through 2019 the summer of 2022 had just four, with the other three less than stellar performers by summer champion standards--helping clear the way for Top Gun 2 to do as well as it did by encouraging repeat business that would probably not have happened had there been more choices for fans of big-screen action.

The Summer 2022 Box Office: A Hopefully Not-Too-Early Assessment

With August upon us the summer film season is fast drawing to a close--the more in as the last really big release, Thor: Love and Thunder, is already a month behind us, making it not too early to make some assessment of how the season has gone that will look better than premature and wildly off the mark come the "official" end of summer on Labor Day Weekend.

A bit of simple math indicates that in the months of May, June and July the North American box office took in some $2.9 billion. How does that stack up against prior years? Simply adjusting the Boxofficemojo numbers for inflation as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics one gets an average of about $4.2 billion for the May-July period in 2015-2019--with the figure arguably conservative because of how simply bumping the first summer release back into early April, as an ever more aggressive Disney-Marvel did with Avengers 3 and 4 in 2018 and 2019, takes a big chunk out of the summer's earnings. (Avengers: Endgame picked up $427 million in the last five days of April 2019, which if added to the year's total would have raised it by about an eighth--from $3.35 to $3.8 billion before the adjustment for today's higher ticket prices--and of course 2022 saw nothing of the kind.)

The result is that this year the box office did about two-thirds as well as the average for those years. It might be added that July did a better than that--its $1.13 billion take about three-quarters of the July average for 2015-2019 (of $1.46 billion). That is far superior to how it did back in 2021, when you had MCU movies, F9 and the rest making at best half their expected earnings (and the whole three month period barely equaled the July earnings, with just under $1.2 billion in current dollars). But to claim that the situation has returned to the pre-pandemic norm would still be exaggerating things a good deal.

Of course, in considering that fact one has to admit that the release slate was not quite the same as in those prior years. Where 2015-2019, on average, had eight really big, brand name, live-action action-adventure films playing in theaters in the relevant period (DC/Marvel superhero stuff, spy-fi stuff of the Mission: Impossible/Jason Bourne/Fast and Furious franchises, etc.), 2022 had only four by my count (Dr. Strange 2, Top Gun 2, Jurassic World: Dominion, Thor 4), and of these only Top Gun 2 went "above and beyond" expectations (while Dr. Strange was merely respectable, Jurassic World 3 the weakest earner in the trilogy, and Thor arguably an underperformer). And it seems to me that there is at least an argument to be made that the comparative weakness of the summer slate reflects justifiable caution on the part of the studios as much as it does a cause of the summer's lackluster grosses by pre-pandemic standards.

Has Top Gun 2 Really "Saved the Movies?"

In Indiewire Tom Brueggemann made the case that Top Gun 2 has "saved the movies." His argument goes that in a Hollywood which has thrown over stars for franchises, and these overwhelmingly of the CGI-loaded "media" sci-fi type (comic book superheroes, Star Wars, etc.), Top Gun: Maverick has scored far and away the summer's and the year's biggest success with an old-fashioned star-driven vehicle without the superhero and other trappings--suggesting there is still room for other kinds of content.

It is an interesting idea. But I couldn't help noticing that where those other films Mr. Brueggemann talked about as having previously achieved the feat--Easy Rider, Jaws, Star Wars, etc.--generally brought something new to the screen, Top Gun 2 was pointedly old-fashioned --and, I think, hardly proved that its old-fashioned success was replicable. It seems telling that we are talking about a movie not with some newly minted star (there aren't any, and it's far from clear that there can be) but a star of the '80s who has sustained his career in part through franchise films (the Mission: Impossible sequels keeping his name on the marquee through thick and thin, while in 2017 he got involved with Marvel's Dark universe via the remake of the remake of The Mummy), without which he might not still be a star. It also seems telling that the film is still an action movie sequel milking '80s nostalgia, not so different on that level from, for instance, many of Michael Bay's Transformers movies--what is old here less completely a throwback than it may seem at first glance.

Indeed, I suspect that rather than bringing back the old-style star-driven film the movie will be remembered as a last hurrah for that type of film, not least because I do not see the studios rushing back to the old star-driven model, put off by its comparative unpredictability, as well as for lack of prospects as promising as a Tom Cruise-starring sequel to Top Gun. (As we have seen time and again, putting other '80s stars into follow-ups to their hits of that era—Stallone in a new Rambo, Schwarzenegger in a new Terminator--does not get the studios very far, and nor will putting Cruise in Rain Man Revisited or Jerry Maguire II.) In fact, its principal legacy that way will probably be to induce Paramount to convert Top Gun into yet another franchise while it is still hot—with what result, I cannot say.

Is the MCU Finally Wearing Out its Welcome?

Reading the criticisms of Thor: Love and Thunder--in particular the remarks about its tonal incoherence, and its shift into self-parody--I find myself recognizing complaints fairly standard about series' that have run too long. (I find myself thinking of, for example, the more oft-criticized Bond films of the Roger Moore era--The Man With the Golden Gun, Moonraker, A View to a Kill.) And it must be admitted that this seems unsurprising at this stage in the history of the franchise—Love and Thunder the fourth Thor movie, while also the eighth major film appearance for the (rather thin and one-note) character, and the twenty-ninth Marvel Cinematic Universe film overall in its fifteen year run. And considering the fact I can't help noting that if the film is no flop in the ordinary sense of the term, it is the case that it has fallen well short of the expectations some market-watchers had for it--and a reminder that if the Marvel Cinematic Universe can still score very, very big (with Spider-Man: No Way Home a near $2 billion hit, and Dr. Strange pulling in a respectable near-billion dollars after coming out a mere two months earlier), the most formidable franchise in film history is showing all too predictable signs of tiring out--with the pandemic and the culture wars and the actual wars "deglobalizing" the film market (with Russia and China, long good for $100 million+ and sometimes much more per Marvel movie, closing their doors to Hollywood) have played their part, filmgoers' enthusiasm for Marvel specifically, simply as entertainment, may be suffering.

In spite of that the Marvel machine will persist, however--Disney far too invested to back off, the more in as it has already floundered with the Star Wars universe that it tried so hard but ultimately failed to make a second Marvel-like success.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Reflections on Jack London's Martin Eden

When I first picked up Jack London's Martin Eden my first thought was of its being an inversion of his earlier The Sea-Wolf. Where that novel saw a cultured bourgeois plunged into the world of rough sailors and forced to survive in it, Martin Eden had a rough sailor plunged into the world of the cultured bourgeoisie and trying to survive in that. And certainly the novel is describable in such terms--and successful in such terms. Indeed, as a portrait of a working-class man coming into contact with "culture" the treatment of the eponymous character in Martin Eden is far, far more convincing and powerful than E.M. Forster's handling of Leonard Bast in Howard's End--the Bloomsbury crowd of which Foster was a part existing in a milieu so genteel that a persuasive image of a lower-class person was beyond the power of these "great" writers.

However, the novel is also much more than that, with perhaps its biggest surprise its being far and away the most realistic, and truthful, treatment of what it actually is to be a writer—of what it is like to write professionally, and of how society treats those who make the attempt, when they have not become "successful," and when they have become "successful"--that I have ever encountered in literature, period; infinitely more truthful than the utter garbage with which hacks as ignorant as they are insincere, talentless and unskilled, but who got all the breaks in spite of that, fill up our books and screens (where being a writer consists of wearing a smug expression on one's face as they autograph copies of their latest for starstruck fans), and the quite stupid lies with which the whole industries built around exploiting the dreams of authorship that pay far better than authorship ever did ceaselessly ply the public (summed up in five of the most insidious words in the English language, "You can do it too!").

That truthfulness is in large part a matter of the fact that where those writers tend to be at their most stupid, cowardly and dishonest when dealing with the matter of publishing--with these usually what we see is a writer finishing a manuscript, or maybe just beginning it, and BAM!, there they are in that bookshop signing those copies--Jack London, who unlike those people who are not even relevant now is genuinely relevant over a century later because he was not stupid or cowardly or dishonest, faces up to the reality fully. He forthrightly acknowledges that it is one thing to write, another to get published, still another to actually make a living from getting published--with the second challenge, and still more the third, so immense as to make the problem of merely producing a piece of writing, even high quality writing, appear trivial by comparison, especially for those who approach that world as most do, from outside, as outsiders who do "not know any editors or writers," or even "anybody who had ever attempted to write." Indeed, where even the few who admit the existence of obstacles tend to pass over the struggle to surmount them in a few words here it is lengthily dramatized as the heart, meat, core of the days of Eden's life during the period of the story, and treated not as the low comedy so many would make of it, but with the utmost--indeed, tragic--seriousness.

When Martin starts out, the very image of the neophyte, not only was there "nobody to tell him, to hint to him, to give him the least word of advice" about the rules. (Martin actually has to figure out for himself that he must type out the work rather than send it written in longhand--just one little reminder that, contrary to what certain Establishment idiots say, there is no "apprenticeship" to speak of in this process.) It was also the case that, submitting his work over and over and over again Martin "began to doubt that editors were real men. They seemed cogs in a machine. That was what it was, a machine . . . a mere cunning arrangement of cogs that changed the manuscript from one envelope to another and stuck on the stamps." Thus Martin
poured his soul into stories . . . [and] poems, and intrusted them to the machine. He folded them just so, put the proper stamps inside the long envelope along with the manuscript, sealed the envelope, put more stamps outside, and dropped it into the mail-box. It travelled across the continent, and after a certain lapse of time the postman returned him the manuscript in another long envelope, on the outside of which were the stamps he had enclosed.
It was just "like the slot machines wherein one dropped pennies, and, with a metallic whirl of machinery had delivered to him a stick of chewing-gum," with "the rejection slips . . . complet[ing] the horrible machinelikeness of the process . . . slips printed in stereotyped forms . . . he had received hundreds of them--as many as a dozen or more on each of his earlier manuscripts." It is so dispiriting that he thinks to himself that "[i]f he had received one line, one personal line, along with one rejection of all his rejections, he would have been cheered," but he never saw such a line, "not one editor . . . giv[ing] that proof of existence," so that Martin "could conclude only that there were no warm human men at the other end, only mere cogs, well oiled and running beautifully in the machine."

London shows us, too, the obscene amount of time taken up by that process of merely "feeding the machine" rather than actually writing, and the way that those supposedly small expenses of submission like postage add up, sufficiently so in his case to mean genuine hardship, with absolutely nothing to show for it--just one of many reasons why while he is at the effort there never seems to be time enough in the day, every other interest and pleasure getting crowded out. He shows us the confusion and frustration and sense of injustice the writer feels at seeing so much mediocrity and outright drivel in print, while work no worse and maybe much better gets only the cold contempt of those rejection slips. He shows us what happens when that writer turns their hand to nonfiction, and equally "pour[s] their soul" into it, regardless of what they can offer, the fact that they are a "nobody" rather than a "well-known specialist" retailing the conventionalities of their field makes what they have to say meaningless in any editor's eyes--nothing that he does ever seeming to make any difference whatsoever, offer any escape from "the process" and its horrible and invariably disappointing "machinelikeness."

Meanwhile, in the extreme opposite of those speeches in which tearful award-winners fulsomely give thanks to every person they have ever met in their entire lives for their unremitting support as they clutch their little statuettes, through it all no one supports Martin, no one believes in him, no one is interested. Those who at least attempt to be polite, like his sister, do not understand his work, let alone why he does it--what it means to him, why he cannot fit the square peg that is himself into the round holes society offers the vast majority of its members, why he cannot just reconcile himself to a workaday existence as his lot in life--just telling him to "get a job" (in spite of the fact that he is in no way living off of any of them, in no way a burden to them). Where in a more romanticized recounting of such a story the woman he loves would have been his sole support, here the woman he loves is like all the rest, and indeed more emphatic than all the rest in offering only disinterest and discouragement, endlessly trying to persuade him to give all this up and just "get a job." ("Their highest concept of right conduct . . . was to get a job. That was their first word and their last. It constituted their whole lexicon of ideas. Get a job!" The reader with any sympathy or empathy for Martin quickly gets as sick as he does of hearing others say it to him--while his experience in the resort laundry underlines just how foolish and glib is so much of the talk about day jobs and writing in one's "spare time.")

No matter how hard he worked at his writing it did not matter, he was "lazy"; and no matter what he produced it did not matter if there was no sale, their respect for the judgments of editors total--and their respect for him the extreme opposite. The editors who may not have existed at all, the editors with their soul-crushing "cold-blooded, automatic, stereotyped" rejection slips--they must be right, no one trying to see things his way, no one taking his side any more than they share his enthusiasm, endlessly justifying the shabby and cruel way in which he is being treated.

The indifference of the world, the absolute failure of effort to improve his own lot, the disrespect with which his toil is treated, makes a cruel mockery of the middle-class verities about delayed gratification, hard work, and the rest--and while I suspect that few indeed get past the experience of the first half of the book, in which Martin has sold absolutely nothing, there is no less truth in the second half, in which Martin starts to make sales. There is how it may be a long time between that positive reply and actually getting the money promised--perhaps so long a time as "never." There is the way that first little success or two, rather than a watershed, so frequently proves to be nothing of the kind, followed up by nothing else for a long time--and in that time that writer clings desperately to that tiny success too small to improve their situation in any way. If more checks come, eventually, the "old-time thrill at receiving" a check would be gone, for it would no longer be "pregnant with promise of great things to come," just a bit of money that might let them pay a bill so that they can continue grinding along in poverty.

And there is in that a hint of how the long train of disappointments, the brutalization of it all, far from making the victory sweeter in the manner of the "uplifting," aspirational garbage which Martin himself sees through early on, deprives later success of any sweetness it may have. Indeed, while stories of artists, fiction and nonfiction, always seem to me to become unreal when they tell of how they become "successful"--the grit and the texture of the early part of the story falling by the wayside as they seem to lose touch with reality, because in a sense they have (their head turned by what has happened to them, their self-awareness failing them), there was for me palpable truth in that last act in which Martin genuinely does find success--when the material that had so often been insulted in the past inexplicably, suddenly, brings him large paydays. Where most in such a situation, in life as in fiction, think "At last my hard work and perseverance have paid off! At last my genius has been recognized!"

Martin, being a deeper thinker and more feeling human being, has a different reaction. The profound disconnect between the effort he put in and the quality of his work, and the way the world treats him has swung from one extreme to the other, plays its part in destroying him. Thus does Martin think again and again in that last act about how when he was doing that celebrated work, when he had even finished that work, he received only contempt, now that he had riches and fame everyone sought after him, everyone honored him, because it was riches and fame they sought after and honored, not his work--this the "bourgeois valuation of a man" that has the bourgeoisie showering dinner invitations upon him. (Back when "he needed dinners, and went weak and faint for lack of them and lost weight from sheer famine . . . no one gave them to him, and now that he could buy a hundred thousand dinners . . . dinners were thrust upon him right and left.") Indeed, the very Morses who had disdained his earlier, honorable courtship of their daughter, contrived against it and compelled her to break it off peremptorily at the first opportunity, were, now that he was a man of fortune, ready to pimp her to him (her brother Norman escorting her to Martin's hotel, where she goes up to his room and lies about having defied her family to see him, offering him "free love" if that is all he will accept) in the ultimate commentary on what thinkers like London thought of the highly touted "bourgeois morality" in sex.

It all disgusts and demoralizes him. Everything he had believed in, his values and goals and accomplishments, are deprived of meaning--the admiration he felt for those who lived in what at the start seemed to him that higher, more beautiful world of not just material comfort but culture, the faith he had in his work and the possibility that others might value it as he did, the love he had for Ruth, or thought he had (Martin realizes in that shabby last meeting that he had loved "an idealized Ruth . . . an ethereal creature of his own creating, the bright and luminous spirit of his love-poems," and never "[t]he real bourgeois Ruth, with all the bourgeois failings and with the hopeless cramp of the bourgeois psychology in her mind") in the earlier part of the tale when in relation to all these things he seemed eons younger and more naive. The end of all that is the end of his capacity to create, which leaves him at an end, literally. "What does it profit a man to write a whole library and lose his own life?" Martin asked earlier in the narrative--but that is exactly the course he ends up following.

Indeed, thinking again of The Sea-Wolf I cannot help thinking of how in that book Humphrey Van Weyden, thrust into horrible circumstances aboard the ship the Ghost, managed to not just survive but triumph heroically. By contrast, Martin Eden (whom it would seem from the hints of his recollections of such episodes as his voyage on the John Rogers had himself survived horrors to compare with it), thrust into "bourgeois civilization," failed to do so. Of course, this was most fundamentally a matter of London's world-view, and especially his stance toward Nietzschean would-be superman-type individualism. It was not Humphrey who held such views, but the Ghost's captain Wolf Larsen, who extraordinary a man as he was in mind, body and will, was utterly destroyed in the end by the falsity of the ideology by which he endeavored to live--as Martin Eden was to be, that would-be superman, even in excellent physical health under conditions of life that could only be called luxurious, unable to endure in a world deprived of all meaning for him. Yet it also seems to me a suggestion that, horrific as life aboard the Ghost was, it was in at least some critical way less vile than that world in which Martin made his way, his triumph in which proved his undoing.

And thinking of that I find myself remembering the other book I mentioned at the outset of this review, Forster's Howard's End. Where Howard's End remains so esteemed that it is a byword for higher culture even for those who have never come within a million miles of actually reading Forster, most, in London's own country, at least, seem to remember London mainly as a teller of animal stories--and it seems that this has more than a little to do with London's truths being of a kind the opinion-making Establishment critics have not been prepared to accept, and indeed become less able to accept over time. This seems to me to validate EVERY SINGLE WORD London had to say about them in this book. Indeed, considering that fact it seems all the more fitting that one of Martin Eden's themes is how little intellect is actually to be found among society's designated intellectuals, how little culture among the designated cultured--and how much more of both these things can sometimes be found in working-class ghettoes than in the snobbish salons of the ever-middlebrow haute bourgeoisie.

Canceling Batgirl

I have long since stopped paying much attention to what is said about movies that has not been long since completed and so close to a proper, firm, reasonably unmovable release date as to be virtually immovable--in part because since the outbreak of the pandemic things have gone according to plan that much less often, making early claims about them (a good many of which are stupidities and outright lies anyway) much less meaningful.

Still, the news about Batgirl caught me by surprise. This film, which has a budget I have seen reported as variously in the $70 million to $100 million range was actually in post-production when Warner Brothers Discovery (the parent company of the backer, Warner Brothers) decided it was not going to come out. At all. Even on streaming.

Why has this been the case? Apparently the film, which cost as much as it did because of pandemic-related disruption and delay, is, according to the logic now prevailing with a recently changed company management at WBD, "neither big enough to feel worthy of a major theatrical release nor small enough to make economic sense in an increasingly cutthroat streaming landscape." Basically, the company is walking back from the idea of Warner Brothers making expensive content for streaming, instead reemphasizing theatrical release--where this relatively modest production (next to the "tentpoles" that cost several times as much to make) is a weak prospect, such that the additional cost of finishing post-production, marketing, distributing it (easily equaling or exceeding what has already been expended), would likely mean a much worse bottom line than if it had simply cut its losses and taken the tax write-off.

All of this seems to me plausible enough. As we have seen since the pandemic streaming, in any form (e.g. $30 surcharges), is no substitute for theatrical revenues--while the streaming market is indeed saturated. (Remember how Netflix has been taking that beating?) Meanwhile that theatrical release market has been ever more dominated by the really big blockbusters, meaning a comparatively "small" superhero film, in another saturated market, would have a tough time scoring back even that "small" budget. After all, if what is said about the numbers so far is accurate the movie, which may run the studio $200 million when marketing and distribution costs are all counted in, might need to make as much as a half billion to break even on its theatrical run--which would be a long shot even in good times, which these are not. The American box office remains well short of its normal dynamism, and the global box office too (with the Chinese government less likely than before to let Hollywood into its colossal and increasingly critical market).

And just as the prospects are poorer, so is the studio's capacity to take the hit in light of the financial beating that Warner Brothers, like every other studio these days (I dare say, like just about every other company these days ), has been taking for over two years as a result of the neverending troubles of the not-so-roaring 2020s (reflected in $3 billion in debt across its divisions, while interest rates head up in a way unseen in decades). Taken altogether this would seem to rather predictably compel a more than usually ruthless attitude on the part of management, perhaps especially in relation to a DC universe that may still look like their best bet for real profitability over the short, medium and even long-term.

So the decision seems to have run: show that the company's new management is serious about its announced strategy, take the tax write-off, and avoid adding yet another black mark to the WB's track record with DC.

Still, if I entirely get the business logic it still seems to me mind-boggling that a near-$100 million movie will get buried like this--the fact that between the commercial logic of the blockbuster, the pandemic and the other factors discussed here the business has come to this pass bespeaking a depressing decadence about the way movies get financed and made these days. The one movie discussed here may or may not represent any great loss to world cinema, but the fact that this is how the game is being played can only make things harder on those trying to actually make movies--and they were more than crushingly, heart-breakingly hard already.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Elizabeth Bennett and the Ideal of the "Accomplished Young Lady"

It is a commonplace to praise Jane Austen for her insight into the "manners" of the society of her time. I have to admit that, as is so often the case with the received wisdom about literary figures of that standing, I found myself a skeptic. Certainly I recognized that Austen has been a font of information about the life of provincial English gentry (I think, for example, of how Thomas Piketty made good use of Sense and Sensibility to explain matters of income, wealth and inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century), but her outlook generally struck me as extremely conventional--as tends to be the case with those writers who get to be so exalted, perhaps in the Anglosphere more than elsewhere. (More than the great continental traditions of which I know, for example, those writers occupying the highest pedestals in the English-speaking world tend to be "Establishment poets," with the esteem for Austin in particular oft-noted as a matter of the nostalgia many of the hyper-privileged have for a genteel hierarchical society in which the lower orders are scarcely seen, still less often heard, and even less often mentioned, at least so far as the never very observant elite notices.)

Still, the dialogue about the idea of the "accomplished young lady" in Pride and Prejudice made me rethink that posiiton. Said dialogue began with Mr. Bingley's remarking with characteristic credulousness how it is beyond him that "young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are," for he is "sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished." Of course, his sister and Mr. Darcy proceed to correct his misapprehension, setting a clear standard for what they think ought to merit recognition as "accomplishment," according to which the truly accomplished young lady "must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages," while improving her mind continuously "by extensive reading," and besides this "possess[ing] a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions."

The point made Darcy remarks that he has only met six women in his life who meet this standard of accomplishment--at which declaration Elizabeth Bennett expresses surprise that, with the bar set so high, he can actually ever have met any, for she "never saw such a woman . . . such capacity, and taste, and application, and elegance, as you describe, united'" in a single person.

Predictably Elizabeth's remark did not go over well with that stuffed-shirt Darcy, and a little unpleasantness later the conversation is at an end. Still, as I said, it resonated with me--because of what this "accomplishment" signifies, namely the attainment of a certain leisure-class ideal of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure, testifying to great wealth at the disposal of oneself or one's family. After all, where was one to get the time, the money, to become so accomplished, especially without any sort of practical use for all the skills and knowledge acquired so laboriously and expensively in mind? Only a very, very few had all that--such that they were a way of advertising how privileged one was, and gulling the simple into feeling deeply inferior. Moreover, because even the few who have the time and money are not necessarily going to find the actual business of acquiring all the elements of "accomplishment" to their taste, one was unlikely to meet anyone who had it "all," or even came close--while easily encountering a great many pretenders looking to impress simpletons.

That admiration for "accomplishment" of this kind, accomplishment which screams upper-class privilege not in spite of but because of its lack of usefulness; and the belief that such people are in some deep way going far beyond life's wildly unequal distribution of opportunity "superior"; remains very much with us. As much as ever I am struck by how Hollywood hacks, ever the raging conformists no matter how much culture warriors condemn their alleged "liberalism," strive to impress on us the idea that some character--because they are wealthy and of "the elite"--is superior to us in the audience, and to do it in the exact same ways that Bingley and Darcy talked about, like advertising implausible musical or linguistic skills (they always play the piano beautifully, they are always polyglots), or past reading (able to recite literary classics from their invariably photographic memories). Meanwhile, any number of people lie about those things--like their musical knowledge, the number of languages they speak, the reading they have done.

Alas, I suspect very few recognize the soundness of Austen's instincts when she expresses irony toward this fantasy of "accomplished" gentility --and fewer still have the benefit of equally sound instincts as they look at the drivel splashed across the screen today.

"The Habit of Invidious Comparison"

One of Thorstein Veblen's more memorable traits as a writer was his constantly coining striking phrases simply by calling things what they are. Indeed, in his classic story of fascism-come-to-America It Can't Happen Here Sinclair Lewis' protagonist Doremus Jessup lamented to himself that the young people of his day were "[g]etting their phrases from the comic strips instead of from Shakespeare and the Bible and Veblen" (emphasis added).

One of those phrases of Veblen's that particularly stuck in my memory was the "habit of invidious comparison"--the habit of judging one thing, and especially one person, against one another not merely for the sake of better understanding their qualities or making rationalistic practical choices, but the hierarchy-obsessed establishment of some order of precedence in which one is "better" and the other "worse" that can only leave those below envying those on the top (hence, "invidious"), and this all the time, as a matter of course, because that is just what they do. Raised in his book The Theory of the Leisure Class Veblen identified that habit with said "leisure class"--and in turn, with the barbarian values that this exemplifies, not least their explanation of outcomes in terms of a generalized personal prowess rather than in any rationalistic way, and their hierarchy-minded obsession with grading people as inferior and superior.

In this day and age, in which people brought up in a country that is officially a republic, which they will tell you has no social classes, and in which all are supposed to have been "created equal," will completely unthinkingly speak of one person as "better" than another because they were born to that supposedly nonexistent privilege and another was not, because they have money and the other does not, it is very clear that the "habit of invidious comparison" is exceedingly pervasive in our time, to the point of being a neurotic compulsion, with all that says about where we are along the spectrum extending from barbarism to civilization.

What Does it Mean to Be Civilized? (A Look at Veblen's View of the Matter)

For most these days I suppose the words "civilization" and "barbarism" have a rather old-fashioned, even pretentious ring. Yet anyone looking very deeply at social science can hardly avoid older work which makes use of such terms, often in ways that I think can still be deemed relevant.

Certainly one sees such usage in the work of Thorstein Veblen, as with his classic The Theory of the Leisure Class, where the usage is all the more notable for not proceeding along the lines they might expect from our everyday speech and writing.

For example, looking at the court of a monarch such as that of England, with its orders of precedence and minute protocol and ostentation, those who understand "civilization" in its everyday sense may think all that the epitome of civilized behavior.

But for Veblen it is the extreme opposite. As he explains the term it is the barbarian who is obsessed with hierarchy and inequality, with some being above and some being below to such a degree that descent from those who were above means much; obsessed with intricate, ostentatious ways of living, and the "conspicuous consumption" they bespeak. By contrast the civilized are egalitarian and matter-of-fact.

This disparity in its turn this reflects other differences between the civilized and the barbaric. The barbarian, Veblen explains, is defined by their living by predation--by the aggressive pursuit of dominance over others, over other humans in particular, and the personal prowess to which they attribute their acquisition of such dominance, all the way down to mystical notions of personal force, and advertise such pretensions to superiority with the wastefulness of that consumption. (The palace is absurdly large--and this shows that they can afford absurdly large expenditure, which in turn testifies to the prowess that enables them to get hold of so much, proving they are "more" than others, demigods, even.) By contrast the civilized lives not by predation on others, but by industriousness--that is to say, productive work on nature, in which work they emphasize less prowess than diligence. That work is oriented to the maximization of the creation of utilities--making for a relatively peaceable and "practical" outlook to which the ruthless violence and wastefulness of the barbarian are anathema. And their work trains them to the explanation of the world in terms of impersonal, highly material cause-and-effect rather than what the rational would think of as mystical nonsense.

In short, think of the barbarian as the "warrior" come to pillage, the civilized as the farmers, artisans and others on whom they would prey as they would the animals they hunt or herd, with, of course, feudalistic aristocrats and monarchs the glamourized, gilt-encrusted version of those pillaging warriors (whose "houses," ultimately, originated in exactly such fashion).

As one might guess from such a conception Veblen had thought that, while the world was far from having wholly gotten over barbarism, the progress of technology, commerce, industry would strengthen the tendencies to civilized attitudes, and weaken the barbarian ones, because of how hard material reality shapes people's minds over time. However, in his critical book The Theory of Business Enterprise (my review of which got a lot of page views from people whom I suspect were looking for something else) he argued that there were forces conducing to the maintenance of old-time barbaric values. Among them was that where those involved with technology were required to think in materialistic, civilized, cause-and-effect terms by their very work, like the engineer and the factory manager, others further removed from it went on thinking in the old ways, the property- and contract-minded businessman or lawyer thought in terms of the old frameworks (with the businessman concerned with acquisition rather than production, the lawyer with "the interpretation of new facts in terms of accredited precedents, rather than a revision of the knowledge drawn from past experience in the matter of fact light of new phenomena," making "facts conform to law").

The result was that the outcome of the contest between these forces was uncertain--while today it seems the barbaric is very much alive, and not merely in latterday monarchism. Ours remains a world where people still identify wealth with individual prowess and mystical personal force, and still justify extreme inequality on the grounds of such a personal "it," saying that some are "better" than others simply because they have money--while showing off that they have "money to burn" whenever they get the chance. The result is that while the techno-industrial system underlying modern life would not have been remotely conceivable without an enormous amount of civilized thinking the conventional wisdom of the day-to-day life making use of it all, in a great many ways that count, remains unalloyed barbarity by Veblen's standard.

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

What We Talk About When We Talk About Idiocracy

I recall happening across Mike Judge's Idiocracy on cable at about the time of its premiere there. I remember being astonished that a twenty-first century film would so blatantly make a case for dysgenics--specifically the prospect of (presumably) low IQ "poors" out-breeding the (presumably) high IQ upper strata--as a danger to civilization. However, I took it for an edgelordist chase after cheap laughs by the man who brought the world Beavis and Butt-head (it still seemed possible to take ultra-reactionary material that way back then, with South Park exemplary). And I probably would not have given the film very much thought afterward were it not for its exceptional persistence in the pop cultural memory, the particular character of which says a lot--only a few critics noticing the more disturbing elements of the premise (which, if anything, seem the more apparent in the wake of Judge's later work, like his six-season prestige TV hit on HBO, Silicon Valley--"Elitist porn," Rick Paulas calls Idiocracy, words equally applicable to Judge's HBO show). One of those few who has noticed, Adam Johnson, raised an important point when he noted who it was that treated the film as such a reference point in recent years--liberals invoking Idiocracy again and again in the wake of Donald Trump's recent electoral ascent. This seemed to him deeply incongruous--enough so that the title of his piece asked why liberals "love referencing" what was "one of the most elitist and anti-social movies ever." However, the fact may be less incongruous than it seems. If by liberal we mean "left" then this is indeed unfitting--the tendency plausibly reflective of liberals having ceased to be liberals, as many have charged has been the case, with Chris Hedges, for example, announcing the "death" of an American liberal class corrupted and demoralized by its proximity to and the temptations of power, by endless war, by its own hostility to the more fully leftward counterparts against whom it consistently sided with the right, and one might add, by its defeat after defeat after defeat for decades.

However, if by liberal we mean "centrist" then there really is no dissonance. American liberalism, after all, emerged less from adherents of socialism of the Marxist or any other variety, or from movements of labor or the poor, but a more upper-class Progressivism that was afraid of the left rather than influenced by it, and certainly as it developed at mid-century looked more like an update of classical conservatism for the realities of twentieth century America. That package most certainly included an insistence upon society's dependence on an elite--and distaste for the "swinish multitude" it feared would trample everything it valued into the mud under its hooves--such as is all too clear in that film.

The Problem With "Confidence"

These days the language we speak seems filled with usages for trivializing and dismissing the problems of the disadvantaged, above all when the disadvantaged speak up about them--like the accusations of "entitlement," "narcissism" and "self-pity" used to beat down expressions of what may be legitimate grievance on the part of those whom society has treated less well than it may have been obliged to do. In fact, this, rather than genuinely calling out the failing in those who really do have that failing, seems to me the principal use to which the word is put these days.

So does it go with "confidence." All you need to "succeed," they tell you, is "confidence." If you have "confidence" you will do just fine. If you lack "confidence" you will not. If you "succeeded" it was because you had "confidence," and if you "failed" it was because you did not have it.

This thinking, which is simple-minded in the extreme, not only slights hard material fact in favor of nonsense about "personal force"--plain and simple barbarous thinking, as Veblen knew. It threatens to reduce getting through life to a matter of striking stupid poses. And having done so it tells those who may never have a had a chance at all that they failed because they did not strike such poses often enough or correctly enough--rather than, perhaps, because of where they started out in life and how society distributes opportunity with regard to careers, or anything else--so that once again those tearing into them can have the satisfaction of snarling in their faces "You have no one to blame but yourself!" And the even more important satisfaction conformists so often take in deflecting what might have turned into a criticism of the status quo--especially when stinging those "life" has treated less well than they comes as a bonus.

Remembering "Nixon vs. Kennedy"

As I have had many an occasion to remark I found the praise for Mad Men wildly exaggerated--not unlike the Saturday Night Live parody of the critical raves for The Sopranos (for which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner had previously been a writer). However, this is not to say that the show did not have its points of interest, and I have recently found myself recalling a major scene at the end of the first season (in the episode "Nixon vs. Kennedy") in which the scheming Pete Campbell has discovered the truth about Don Draper's past--that Don, actually born Dick Whitman, was an Army deserter who stole the name, identity, life of an officer named Don Draper--and, after failing to blackmail Don into giving him a promotion with that information, goes to their ad agency's senior partner Bert Cooper with the information.

Bert's response is "Who cares?" Even if true, a thing Bert did not necessarily concede (indeed, he refers to Campbell as having "imagined" the story he tells), the fact would have made no difference to him. Japanophile that he is, he cites the saying that "A man is whatever room he is in"--and as he goes on to say, it is Don Draper who is in the room with them. At any rate, "This country was built and run by men with worse stories than whatever you've imagined here." And that is essentially that.

Dramatically it is rather a damp squib--the plot about Campbell's struggle with Draper simply fizzling anti-climactically, as was so often the case in what I saw of the show. Still, the more I think about the scene the more I find myself liking Bert--not least because of the unflappability, and wisdom, he displayed in the situation.

"Who cares?" indeed.

Alas, today the sensibility seems very different--enough so that it would probably take a good deal of courage to handle the situation the same way in any current production.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Is China's "Lying Flat" Movement the Wave of the Future?

These last couple of years China's "lying flat" movement has been making the news internationally. The phenomenon may recall to mind such phenomena as Japan's hikikomori, or American stereotypes of the country's young men turning into basement-dwelling gamers rather than getting jobs, dating, marrying and starting families. However, in line with the reality that conventional Western opinion is quick to regard forms of nonconformism and dissent that it would condemn in its own country in a foaming-at-the-mouth manner as heroic when they emerge in a place like China (or Russia), the coverage of the Chinese phenomenon differs significantly. Where the tendency has been to conceive of the hikikomori as sufferers of a mental disorder of wholly psychological rather than sociological significance, and Americans dropping out of the job/dating market as lazy, immature or worse (rather than sick, merely unvirtuous), where discussion of the "lying flat" is concerned there is an acknowledgment that there is a social conflict here, with the young rebelling against the "rat race" and what it stands for, a life devoted to the grueling careerism summed up as "996.ICU," and the consumerism that keeps them chained to it--with this a response to the brutality of working life in contemporary China, and one might also speculate, the slowing of material progress for the many as the country's earlier frantic economic growth slows down.

In bluntly discussing those aspects of the matter we find ourselves looking at aspects of contemporary reality the conventional prefer to ignore or dismiss--not least that, contrary to the aspirational rhetoric and the pontification of the Jack Mas of the world, the world of work as many, and likely most, experience it in the modern world, is a truly wretched thing, suffered through solely for the paycheck people need in order to live and for no other reason; that for decades slow growth and stagnant or declining incomes for the many have been a function of people being asked to work harder for less, with no prospect of better, only worse. We also acknowledge another thing commonly ignored or dismissed, namely that young people just entering the job market, often after a more brutal and brutalizing pursuit of educational credentials than their parents experienced (think of just how nuts the Cult of the Good School has gone), get the worst of it while being least resigned to it, being at the bottom of the hierarchy while having fewer of the commitments that make working people afraid to rock the boat. (They are less likely than their elders to have homes, marriages, children, the more in as knowing something of their declining prospects even before hitting the market they have been cautious.)

We also find ourselves facing the fact that all this, far from being unique to China, increasingly the norm the world over, and producing backlash all over the world. (Americans dismiss their basement-dwelling gamers as refusing to grow up. They have a tougher time dismissing the long gainfully employed adults, who so recently helped to hold the world together amid an unprecedented pandemic, driving the country's Great Resignation.) Meanwhile billionaires and government officials who think snarling sanctimoniously at those poorer and younger than they will make them fall into line only make themselves even more ridiculous than they already are with (yet another) display of that kind of self-importance that leaves the parody-minded comedian nowhere to go.

Contemplating all this one may wonder if there might not be a better way may wonder if society could not, at this stage of development, when at least in the richer countries growth has been so weak for so long in comparison with what came before, that even the most Establishment economists toss around words like "secular stagnation"; when it seems that much of the work we do may be of questionable value, while rising consumption may not necessarily be the best way to deliver a better life, and past a certain point may actually be failing altogether in providing that; when at least the hope is emerging that we could perhaps give vastly greater numbers of people a decent life at orders-of-magnitude lower cost and material throughput, all of which seems the more important amid the ecological crisis; a reconsideration of how we live, and expect other people to live their lives, is not grossly overdue. We may, for example, wonder if society should not have a "slow lane" for those for whom frenzied attempts to get ahead that seem increasingly futile are not the essence of a fulfilling life. However, in anything like today's world such a compromise looks like a fantasy at best.

Some Thoughts on Douglas Copeland's Piece on Elon Musk

Some time ago I (rather belatedly) happened upon Douglas Copeland's much talked-about piece about Elon Musk.

I would not have wasted my time clicking on the link had I known who Copeland was, but not knowing better I had a vague idea that he would at least attempt to offer an appraisal of Musk's record as an entrepreneur and in the course of it say something that I had not heard a million times before--perhaps actually succeeding in telling me something I did not know, or making me rethink what I already knew, if only a little.

Instead this piece, which had few facts and less analysis but many, many assertions, was just Copeland trolling--in exceedingly colloquial and vulgar fashion and at very great length--everyone who is not a devoted member of the Cult of Elon Musk, vehement about how the man is superior to you, you personally, repeating it again and again. The item's title is actually "'The Smartest Person in Any Room Anywhere,'" while phrases and words such as "huge IQ" and "Ubermensch" and "measurably, scientifically, clinically and demonstrably the smartest person in any room anywhere" (the title is a quote by Copeland of his own words) are peppered throughout, and not content with celebrating Musk he sneers in his opening paragraphs that anyone who thinks Musk is a [expletive deleted] is "stupid." Interestingly this appears in the course of the following passage: "what's in it for you to dis someone you don’t know, anyway? Being negative is a stupid person's way of trying to appear smart without actually being smart," Copeland apparently oblivious to the fact that "dissing someone you don't know" is exactly what he is doing on a colossal scale.

Or is he oblivious? At this point you might think from the muddle-headed, hyperbolic material ("smartest person in any room anywhere," etc.) that I have quoted that "Copeland's being ironic and we are not supposed to take him seriously"; or even that "Copeland is satirizing billionaire worship generally and worship of this billionaire in particular." But the tone of the rather long piece is less than consistent (it runs over two thousand words, and significant stretches of it betray no sign of self-awareness), while postmodernists like Copeland as a matter of course provide themselves such escape hatches whenever they mouth off (one may think of it as "cowardice masquerading as 'playfulness'"--it is, as I have said again and again over the years, part of what makes reading their material such a waste of time). At any rate, even if Copeland really is playing the satirist that hardly makes his joke a good one, for at least three reasons worth mentioning:

1. A joke your audience doesn't get--a joke your audience doesn't even realize a joke--is by definition an unsuccessful joke. And in looking about the Internet I have yet to see evidence of anyone taking this item as a joke.

2. The audience which, predictably, reacted negatively to the piece is sick and tired of the kind of thing Copeland had to offer. Few these days would sit through a racist or sexist harangue and then let the writer off on the excuse that they "were being ironic." This was the class equivalent, sneering and snarling at the "losers" for over two thousand words that if they had been made to feel small, well, that was because they deserved to be so, because they were inferior to the great Ubermensch; and those irritated or offended at something they took as more than just a waste of their time--as a statement intended to taunt and demean and humiliate those who are not billionaires and dubious about the elevation of this billionaire in particular to something akin to godhood; who in 2022 can only be sick and tired of the sneering and snarling, which in its original version is so extreme and so silly than the satirist, the parodist, has nowhere to go with it--have no obligation to allow the lame dodge. (Indeed, they could fairly take his remarks as a provocation, with the social media reaction testifying to their being far more successful that way than as a piece of socially incisive humor.)

3. The item in question ran in The Guardian, a far from likely place for an extended joke of this nature (again, over two thousand words!) while given the shifting of that newspaper's editorial line in the wake of its Jeremy Corbyn-bashing recent years one would be less sure than before that the publication would not run a piece of economic royalist snarling at "the common man." (Certainly in my glances at the publication I have noticed how it has gone from being a forum for critics of neoliberalism--with such criticism extending to the specific record of New Labour and Tony Blair--to increasing allotment of space to players of the tedious "neoliberalism isn't a thing" and "Tony Blair was more left-wing than he was given credit for" games. Indeed, even now the author of a recent article criticizing "warmed up Thatcherism" couldn't resist taking a cheap shot at Corbyn in which he inaccurately, even incomprehensibly, compared him to Tony Benn--whether one views him positively or negatively, a very different figure with very different stances in a very different time.)

The result is that the plausible explanation is that either

1. Copeland and the Guardian were coming at the audience from the elitist territory of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises (but with poorer argument and prose colloquial to the point of sub-literacy); or

2. Copeland and the Guardian tried and failed to make a very questionable, Onion-style joke because the joke looks so much like their actually coming at the audience from the elitist territory of Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises (but with poorer argument and prose colloquial to the point of sub-literacy).

Whichever one you go with, it reflects very poorly on both the author and the publication which accorded him the space on its platform.

From Idiocracy to Silicon Valley

It seems rare that anyone mentions Mike Judge's film Idiocracy and his HBO show Silicon Valley together, but it seems to me that the two works are both sides of the same coin. "Elitist porn," Rick Paulas calls the dysgenics-themed Idiocracy with its brutal mockery of the "low IQ," which the film in characteristically conventional fashion equates with the "lower class." However, as it takes up the subject of those that people of conventional mind regard as the "high IQ," equating this as they do with the "upper class" (or at least, those who might be on their way up into that class, not least "startup"-running IT types), the words "Elitist porn" seem to me to be equally applicable to it--if the fact is even less often appreciated than is Idiocracy's elitism. Indeed, so far as I know critic Kevin Reed is alone in identifying and making explicit this aspect of the show in his review of its first two seasons, remarking the show's writers' "admiring . . . the culture they are criticizing," and "never bring[ing] viewers to a point at which this peculiar phenomenon can scarcely be questioned" for utter and total lack of any sort of critical social vision, such that "[o]ne could hardly think of a more conventional and shallow approach to the complexities of life in Silicon Valley." Alas, without such conventionality and shallowness the show would never have been such a darling of the prestige TV-loving critics--and doubtless, Judge not done nearly so well as he must have out of it.

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