Philistines From the Plush Parlors

Any legend immune to rational arguments can be supposed to rest upon powerful collective desires.
Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A psychological history of the German film (117).

IMG_5602A couple of weeks ago some of my children and I went to see Star Wars. I’ll state right up front, unequivocally—I love Star Wars. Okay, maybe a little equivocation—I am only speaking of the first three, and mostly the first two that were made. Nevertheless—we were excited. The film was fine, I do not regret the price of admission (which my lovely daughter’s boyfriend paid for come to think of it, although I bought the exorbitantly priced popcorn and what not) and it went a long way to make up for the last three monstrous iterations. But never mind all that. The discomfiting thing I wish to discuss is the previews that we were subjected to.

What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions—those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimension of consciousness (6).

There were of course many previews. The remarkable thing to me was not that they were all hyped-up action flicks—I suppose that is to be expected when one goes to see an action film—but it was the sheer redundancy of the films. We watched the first one which was based on a comic book, something to do with a superhero “civil war.” Then the next film was previewed—instead of DC Comics, this one was Marvel Comics about a superhero “civil war.” I look around in dismay—we literally just saw this preview, I hissed to my daughter— It’s the same film, right? Am I right? The next six previews were exactly the same, saving the scenery—one in ancient Greece, another Egypt, et cetera, ad nauseum. What the hell?

And permeating both the stories and the visuals, the “unseen dynamics of human relations” are more or less characteristics of the inner life of the nation from which the films emerge (7).

I began to be convinced that these films must surely suggest something about the American psyche. A deep fear, a hope for a single vigilante-like hero to save a world beset by evil. By a very interesting coincidence the next day a book that I had requested from ILL (inter-library loan) came. It had been recommended to me by a fellow blogger Howard JohnsonFrom Caligari to Hitler examines just this question in pre- and interwar Germany. And the comparisons are chilling.

Significantly, many observant Germans refused until the last moment to take Hitler seriously, and even after his rise to power considered the new regime a transitory adventure.[…] Their surrender to the Nazis was based on emotional fixations rather than on any facing of the facts (10, 11).

In the book, Kracauer takes the reader through a history of the German film which, he argues, shows the struggle and latent anxieties of the German people at that time. Film, in particular, because of its collaborative nature, has the ability to inadvertently expose the pulse of the culture. No single person’s pathology emerges, rather there is a sort of leveling out of the zeitgeist. The major difference between our time and the time Kracauer writes of is the complete excess of entertainment we now face. One can (and believe me, I normally do) easily avoid “popular” movies and TV, while still enjoying myriad film productions. This may diffuse our ability to gain insight into our particular current psyche. But— I am very confused about Donald Trump’s popularity…and I think it is worth a few moment’s thought to take him more seriously, or probe the unfathomable-ness, than any semi-intelligent person might otherwise be inclined.

All said, I am not sure whether or not I should be happy that what I sensed on the screen was as potentially ominous as I perceived, or, seriously depressed that it might in fact be so.

*title from p. 272 “The blare of military bugles sounded unremittingly, and the philistines from the plush parlors felt very elated.”

** Photo of my daughter and her Donald Trump creation made for our dear friends’ Guy Fawkes party this past fall.

 

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15 responses to “Philistines From the Plush Parlors

  1. Donald, love the hair . . . not!

  2. I love the photo. And the Donald creation. Except that he is way more bloated and usually seen spewing insults and “ist” (racist, sexist, etc.) comments. Totally agree re: the film previews. I loved Star Wars but found myself shuddering at the other six suggested films, especially that nightmare recreation of ancient times. Came away feeling like I had somehow just “saved” 70 bucks!

  3. I think this is an important question and insight, and one that dovetails with Nathan’s recent post about how we reckon with media, hand in hand with our new landscape of technology. I feel lately that media is chasing the lowest common denominator for the highest chance of profit, but surely the media impacts our psyche as well. Thanks for this.

  4. I agree that pop movies reflect/reveal the zeitgeist. And that the scenarios of comic book hero movies, where good vs evil is black and white, are the same as that of the fear-based fact-free campaigns that are currently firing up their bases. This is scary.
    What happens when theater and reality become indistinguishable? “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” (Baudrillard)
    When we get all our “reality” second hand, it seems all too unstable and we reach for anything to hang on to. The comic book hero movies and the simplistic presidential campaigns are there for us. The former is entertaining and the latter is dangerous, but we can’t tell them apart.
    Thinking about movies I need to re-watch this election cycle…“A Face in the Crowd” pops to the top of the list. I see DT as a Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith) kind of guy from that 1957 flic. Also DT, while he spouts a “The Triumph of [his] Will” schtick is no AH, unless you are referring to Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin) from “The Great Dictator.” And “Century of the Self” of course!
    A first-rate Guy, by the way.

  5. I don’t like the ads – even at indy cinemas they are all much the same, and far too loud and aggressive, no matter what they’re selling. And yes, a lot of the movies all seem to have paint by numbers plots. But the upside is this junk subsidises the really good stuff, the indies that would otherwise not get screened or even made. And there are antidotes to this junk – I was surprised at how good Jarhead is as an antiwar movie, they even quip how there’s no decent war songs any more. INdeed. Peruse the academy award nominees, and there is still some incredibly good stuff out there.

  6. Uhm… Really outstanding post, Jess!
    Congrats!

  7. Reblogged this on nós and commented:
    This could be a great start for a book of yours, Jess dear!!!

  8. As science fiction seems to burrow to possible futures through which we follow willy nilly. Scary how the repetitive neuroses of our psyches keep churning up the same themes, and show little regard for a realistic peaceful conclusion…

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