I’m not usually a fan of statistics and polls, as they often disguise the truth as conveniently discrete facts. People tend to use them in support of ideas that they have not actually taken any time to think about. We’ve all heard someone spout off a claim like, “Well you know that owning a gun increases your chance of getting shot right?” But every once in a while there is a statistic that really shines some light on our serious problems.
When I heard in an article from the Atlantic that over the course of the past year, twenty five percent of Americans had not read a single book, I felt like someone had thrown a rock at the back of my head. Every shining piece of enthusiasm and hope that I had for the world was crushed by the knowledge that reading is becoming a rare thing. I had always known that books are becoming less and less popular, but the actual facts paint a bleak picture of just how bad the situation is. You see, when people don’t read, and don’t want to read, Kim Kardashian wins. I don’t mean that in some vague ideological, metaphorical sense. I mean that if people read more we wouldn’t have to put up with the wall of cultural/political/social bullshit that continues to climb higher and higher towards some future apex of anti-intellectualism. Reading is the antidote to so much of what is wrong with our world.
Books are capable of fueling ideas across the vast spectrum of human thought. There are good books and bad books, reading in and of itself is not the point that should be stressed. You can read People magazine on a daily basis and be worse off than if you spent your time trying to ignite your own farts. At least there is a science lesson somewhere to be found in that activity.
What good books are capable of, or rather good reading, is informing individual perspectives in a way that promotes true thinking. The goal can be to incite humor, impart information, spur creativity, or inspire spiritual connection. At the core reading books is about stretching your mind, improving the way that you think about the world. Pick the right subject and you actually can feel yourself becoming more intelligent, learning things that were completely unconsidered before. A book can put you inside the head of anyone you choose—scientists, poets, and sages. Which ever author you choose they can and will make you a better and more intelligent person. So please, if you do read, continue to do so and even more frequently. More importantly help the people around you to become interested in reading, it’s our only hope.
It has become clear to us in recent years that the economic and moral consequences of vampiric global capitalism are incompatible with the foundations of free society. Social inequality and expansive corruption have pushed masses of people across the globe into the streets in response to this blatant dysfunction of our worldwide system, from Los Angeles to Istanbul. In this public acknowledgement of the need for drastic changes to the way we think about economics, it seems there is a point which has gone unnoticed. Capitalism is not only harmful to social systems, it is antithetical to many of our basic human traits.
In Japanese culture, the astounding power of commodification and cultural capitalism is changing things in a very profound (and increasingly strange) way. The newest generation of younger Japanese now has the option of living their lives independent of traditional interpersonal relationships. There are markets for cuddle clubs, digital dating services, robotic sexual encounters, and many other new types of emotional satisfaction. For every emotional void, desire, fetish, disorder, there is a nightclub or service in Tokyo that will cater to your needs.
In the short Vice documentary found above, we catch an inside glimpse at this eerie change that is underway in Japan, and like all good documentaries the interpretations are left open to the viewer. While some may watch the footage and remark on the intrinsic strangeness of Japanese culture, I see one byproduct of a much bigger problem. The ideology that defines our modern economic system promises satisfaction of problems that are not monetary. Capitalism offers people the opportunity to circumvent a personal connection to the world in favor of easy alternatives. As Jordan Belfort puts it in The Wolf of Wall Street, “See money doesn’t just buy you a better life, better food, better cars, better pussy, it also makes you a better person.” This idea sounds like the hyperbolized dialogue of an over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster, but is it? What is happening in Japan suggests that, in fact, the impact of capitalism on individuals is precisely as narcissistic and degrading as Jordan Belfort’s statement would imply.
Today there are many young Japanese people that openly shun the archaic notion of personal relationships in favor of digital seduction and commercialized romance, but the problem isn’t isolated to Japan. The BBC estimated in 2011 that online dating services are a two-billion pound a year business. The message of this cultural shift is clear, with enough money you can find whatever kind of love you need, it may even come from a robot or digital projection. People like to look at Japan’s lack of romantic connection as a cultural idiosyncrasy, a sign of the changing times. But to understand the way that the situation is impacting the basic tenets of Japanese culture speaks to a much broader issue. The worldview promoted by capitalism no longer divides the world unequally between rich and poor, it also produces a very serious misanthropy. When money becomes the bottom line for every facet of our lives, there is no need to find another person who is important to you. All you need to do is head down to your local nightclub and pay for someone to massage your neck and listen to your problems, that is the new economics 101.
Last Sunday J.A. Young penned a scathing review ofThe Wolf of Wall Street, which I happened to see with him. I too left the theater feeling uneasy and angered, but the real scale of what happened didn’t truly set in until I returned home. I sat down in front of the television in a state of disbelief when two seemingly standard teaser commercials flashed in front of my face. Apart from scoffing at the advertised trash-stories, I felt like I was witnessing movies and television for the first time. It was all so plain and clear to me. What I was watching was nothing more than perfectly calculated propaganda—and I wondered if these are the stories that need to be told to society.
Crime shows make up a large constituent of evening programming these days and where these could provide a valuable platform for social awakening, they instead create a false reality of crime with campy characters and stock plots. The first of these two maddening pieces of “media” was a preview for the upcoming NBC crime-drama Chicago P.D. and although the show doesn’t debut until after the Olympics the trailers are already commanding a strong presence during commercial time. My initial reaction to the trailer was, “Bullshit!” because it in no way represented the Chicago I’ve read about in the news. Apart from the miniscule mention of the campy stereotyped hard-nosed African-American Captain, the cast appeared to be rather homogenous. Chicago is one of the most violent cities in America, do we not have a duty as a “civilized” nation to show the country what is really happening? Instead of solving the standard crime show plot of an upper-class white kidnapping, why wouldn’t NBC choose to do a civil duty and be honest? Simple, real drama doesn’t make money and harsh reality doesn’t capture viewers. More often than not these late night soap operas are meant to distract and create an illusionary landscape of crime and punishment.
Chances are you could travel anywhere in America and find someone who knows of Mark Wahlberg. His current film is the pure propagandist Lone Survivor. The movie presumably follows a ragtag team of elite soldiers behind enemy lines to fight an epic battle where they are outnumbered and left for dead. Although based on the real failed “Operation Red Wings” from June of 2005 in Afghanistan, Lone Survivor does not tell the story the American public should see. I have not seen the movie, nor do I plan to, but I can almost guarantee that it hopes to drum up chants of “USA, USA, USA!” from the audience. This is a distraction from what truly happened during most of our wars. Society is thrown this explosion-riddled film as a substitute for real information on the wars. Can the Man has reported several stories on the wartime aftermath that often goes unreported in the mainstream media and will continue to provide content that is meaningful and accurate—and not something artificially propped up with a hulking Mark Wahlberg and an endless budget.
The use of propaganda doesn’t stop with the movies, but for me, this seems to be like an easy outlet to express ideas to a large populace. My fellow Americans, we need to wake up and cut the crap out of our lives. There is a line between entertainment and propaganda—and it is becoming hard to discern if that line even exists anymore. I’m not clamoring for a complete abandonment of the entertainment industry, but we must begin to demand stories of relevance and importance instead of those drum up misguided patriotism or sound good to an accountant. I’m just tired of being deceived by the prospect of entertainment, only to have an inaccurate message shoved down my throat by cable giants and movie stars.
As many of our readers may know, in recent months I have found myself in somewhat of a silver-screen dilemma. It seems that ages have passed since I left a movie theater feeling truly elated and surprised by what I saw, chattering with my fellow patrons about incredible plot detail and kick-ass acting chops.
More often than not, I find myself solemnly waltzing to back to my car wondering how Hollywood managed to squeeze another ten dollars from my pocket. For the special privilege of watching Natalie Portman play a surprisingly lonely nuclear physicist who falls in love with a God, no less. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t head to the cinema to enjoy a Marvel popcorn flick with expectations of an Oscar worthy story and tear-jerking emotion, and I love a campy movie as much as anyone.
But now, even the movies that seem like fool-proof masterpieces are starting to fall flat on their asses. This brings me to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. A film that has pulled off the impossible in the worst possible way, employing an all-star cast and legendary director to usher me out the door before the final credits even rolled. Scorsese’s latest effort gives us an epic three hour journey through the life and times of womanizing stock-swindler Jordan Belfort, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie boasts an impressive (if somewhat top-heavy) cast for its legendary director to command, along with a screenplay by the usually fantastic Terence Winter (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire). Perfect pieces to the perfect puzzle right? All I needed to do was sit down and let the mastery wash over me. Not quite.
I waited on the edge of my seat as minute after minute of the film lapped painstakingly across the screen, each one more contrived and farcical than the last. Once again, Scorsese and his cast manage to pull off the impossible. They made a three-hour film of non-stop fucks, drugs, debauchery, and absurdity that is at the core…tiresome and pointless.
I am still struggling to make sense of the mess that unfolded before me. Scorsese’s greatest pictures have always succeeded because they are very emotive, they give us a tangible connection to the characters onscreen. Henry Hill, Travis Bickle, Sam Rothstein, these are the characters that defined generations of acting excellence. People walked into these movies not knowing what to expect, and getting way more than they bargained for. The Wolf is a complete reversal from that basic experience, promising us the world and delivering almost nothing.
As the plot meanders between drug binges, arbitrary misogyny, and occasionally sincere comedy, we are given no reason to care about anything that is happening. Who lives? Who dies? Who goes to jail in the end? Zero fucks given. And maybe that was the point after all. I can understand wanting to emphasize the extremist hedonism that comes along with financial depravity, but that is not what Scorsese gives us. At least not in the way of anything new or insightful. Every moment of human drama that unfolds on the screen is the same as it presumably was in Belfort’s actual experience, euphorically drug-addled and profoundly stupid. Every time Dicaprio nears the vicinity of an epiphany, a lesson, something to cling to that might save the viewer from falling into a coma along with his character, the film takes another sharp turn into mindless revelry. More ‘ludes, more midgets, more disgusting hookers, and on and on ad nauseum.
Even as we watch Belfort’s family begin to crumble and the story turn fatalistically dark, nothing really changes. The power hungry millionaire simply ditches his wife and child (their names don’t really matter) and moves on to better pussy, more drugs and more money. Tedious is too generous of a word to describe the pace of the film. Watching the screen made me really feel like the aging Marty Scorsese himself was strung out on Lemmons and blow during the entire process of filmmaking.
The real problem with the Wolf rears its head when you start to think about the possibilities, what might have been. Financial fraud and stock swindling is perhaps the greatest economic issue of our generation, the issue is a bottomless pit of dramatic and creative potential. The real-life drama is there for the taking. After watching a trailer or over-hyped advertisement about the film, you would have expected an experience akin to Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, but you certainly don’t get it. I’m sure the New York Timesgave it a great review (not that they had a choice) but I feel like I was swindled, just like all those poor saps on the phone who threw money Jordan Belfort so he could throw it at federal agents from his 200 foot yacht. The film spends five minutes showing us the rigors of trying to crawl to your Lamborghini after overdosing on quaaludes, and that is really all you really need to know. How do you make a movie that is (presumably?) about a hugely important real-life problem without even addressing a single piece of the puzzle.
In the end it really is a perfect metaphor for the financial industry, and maybe that was the point. Scorsese, like Madoff before him, is clearly content to just take your money and run. Jonah Hill, you’ve come a long way and the teeth were funny, but just no. Even with all the critical acclaim and box office success, this movie fails at the core. It is self-indulgent, and never rises above it’s own profoundness.