Dispatches: Chumps and Outlaws

There’s a quasi-famous shot I keep remembering in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie Brazil.  In it, Jonathan Pryce’s character, who has come to realize he lives in a fascist state, drives down an expressway.  The walls to either side of the road surface are covered in billboards and advertisements.  As Pryce’s car drives away from the viewer, the camera ascends, revealing that just outside the walls, invisible to drivers, lies a grim wasteland.  The vivid and friendly billboards hide the truth, which is that the actual world hidden from view by their flimsy walls is barren.  It is post-industrially empty–and having stripped it, the state consoles its subjects by substituting pasted-up two-dimensional images advertising island vacations.  When the movie opens, Pryce’s Sam Lowry is an obedient, crushed civil servant whose only escape is dreams.  Now he, and we, learn that this reality is a façade; the truth is bleaker and wilder.

That one shot has always seemed to me the most succinct visual expression of the heady thought that everyday life is an illusion.  George Orwell, from whom the movie derives its worldview, is only its most important recent progenitor; the history of philosophy teems with rehearsals of this idea.  Marx’s “all that is solid melts into air” might as well have been the production motto for Brazil.  To move right to the putative beginning, Plato’s cave serves as our most canonical and enshrined mythic allegory of the the founding philosophical idea that something floats above the tangible, physical world: metaphysics.  Critiques of fascism, capitalism and socialism all present the lived world as somehow fake.

The difference between various versions of the false consciousness concept lies in what lies behind the curtain.  For Orwell, a fascist state imposes the veil, and behind lies an anarchic zone of freedom and restored personal agency.  In much of American literature and film (particularly the Western), heroes must venture beyond the pale, into a realm of brutality and violence–paradoxically, this is done to ensure the safety of us civilized sissies.  In Marx, of course, it is the commodity fetish that hides the true reality of class conflict, and capitalism that blinds us to the organic, uncommodified world.  Though they differ in identifying the obscuring entity, all of these lines of thought share the trope of reality’s unreality.

Gilliam’s shot gets at this so directly that it replays in my mind from time to time.  When I first saw it, its political aspect seemed a dystopian fantasy; over time, the film seems more and more prophetic and, frankly, descriptive.  (I know you’ve been expecting that point.)  But before we came to be ruled by criminals, I also saw the shot as a powerful descriptor of the contemporary world of big-box retailers and how they have, within a generation, supersized the landscape of the U.S.  I truly believe this, Prince Charles-ish as it may sound: big box suburbia is an alienation factory.  Here’s the main reason: the sheer size of the various megastores means that when you’re inside one, your entire experiential world is produced by committee.  There’s no randomness.

You might find yourself in a “marketplace” aisle, but it’s all a Potemkin village staged by one massive concern.  Great big posters promise a vivid diversity of products inside; outside is best described by Rem Koolhaas’ term, junkspace.  And other people?  They have been turned into fellow shoppers or drones with no interest or stake in the larger enterprise.  Frank Lucas, the subject of the recent (and unenjoyable) Ridley Scott movie American Gangster, makes this point in a funnier way (in this New York Magazine article):

“Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. ‘Look at this shit,’ he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn’t have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. ‘What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that’s the way it is now. You can’t find the heart of anything to stick the knife into.'”

There it is.  Gangsters and cowboys are the ur-American figures for a reason: they represent freedom from political philosophy and empty consumerism.  If the everday world is false consciousness, these are the people who live beyond it.  The gangster lives in a world in which something like meritocracy holds–or at least, if not meritocracy, then true randomness, something besides the loaded dice of the system.  The cowboy lives beyond the arm of the Law, and thus is free to be a freer, simpler, and ultimately more just version of the law.  Both figures operate in zones of freedom that exist because of the failure of the state.  Having no respect for political philosophy IS America’s political philosophy.

So, Frank Lucas is saying, you know something’s wrong, something’s Orwellian about a landscape when gangsters and cowboys can no longer operate.  Right?    Right.  Is our continuing fixation on gangsters and our barely concealed adulation of gangsters any coincidence, then?  Are these gangster shows our colorful travel narratives, the compensation for living in a world as dreary as ours?  My provisional answer is: yes.  The one movie, by the way, that makes this symbiosis of exurb and gangster clear is GoodFellas–specifically it’s last shot, in which Ray Liotta, banished to Arizona by the witness protection program, stands in front of the tract housing in which he lives.  As he looks hopelessly, forlornly at the camera, we cut abruptly to Joe Pesci shooting up the screen, Great Train Robbery style.  Tearing right through the veil.  Now that’s living!  The gangster is the fantasy obverse of the man who knows his limits.

These days, people are especially fascinated by amoral protagonists: the absence of moral judgment is what everyone calls sophistication on The Sopranos and The Wire.  This isn’t new to American culture though.  It’s only new to TV.  For a century, there have been the ultimate landscape movies,  Westerns, in which the man who must blaze society’s trail is unfit for polite society.  (It’s no coincidence that the bleak landscape in Gilliam’s shot could easily be a Western one.)  As A.O. Scott wrote yesterday,

“The archetypal western hero is a complicated figure, and the world he inhabits is a place of flux and contradiction. At the end, the stranger rides off into the wilderness, since the civilization he has helped to save holds no permanent place for him… Modernity may be inevitable and desirable, but it comes at a price. The wilderness will be cut down and cultivated; the original inhabitants will be dispossessed; and an element of romance will be lost.”

Or will it?  Do we not have other countries in which to unleash our wild freedom?    The new frontier is the first frontier, the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and our representatives act as gangster-cowboys there while we exult in the televised fictions detailing the same.  We sure do love some cleansing violence.  And where better to stage it than a ruined, apocalyptic landscape (even if we have to ruin it first ourselves)?  That’s the funny thing about Gilliam’s vision.  It’s equally bleak on either side.  I think that’s why it describes an enduring dialectic of paranoia.  On the one hand, an alienating and utterly superficial consumerist culture and on the other, bleak lawlessness.

Maybe it’s worth remembering that gangsters, unlike cowboys, do try to ensure some kind of stable order.  Lucas says he wouldn’t shake down the mom-and-pop stores, only larger establishments that had some profit in them.  You don’t want to strip your ecosystem past the point of collapse.  Similarly, there’s a famous story about the establishment of New York’s most venerable pizzerias, those founded by apprenctices of the baker John Lombardi: Patsy’s, Grimaldi’s, Totonno’s, Lombardi’s.  These places don’t serve individual slices, just whole pies.  The reason, the story goes, is that the mobsters who shook down pizza places exempted these oldest restaurants.  Outta respect.  But, so they wouldn’t take too large of a cut of their business, they let them off the hook on one condition: that they wouldn’t sell slices.

There’s something wise in this anecdote.  Don’t punish your poorest and oldest constituents.  Take more money from the large outfits, who can afford it.  The mob, it seems, practiced progressive taxation.  That’s more than you can say for our contemporary elites.  No wonder Lucas is so incensed by superstores.  Their business is conducted at such a metahuman scale, who could shake them down?  This is the final meaning, I think of all the gangster and cowboy fantasies: they are symptoms of a time in which ordinary people have knowledge of events but almost no ability to affect them.  Protest goes unheard, while our government and multinational concerns ensure their safety and privacy to the detriment of ours.  Gilliam’s movie rendered society as a choice between being a chump or being an outlaw.  For now, we’re one dreaming we’re the other.

The rest of my dispatches.