Monday, November 29, 2010

Review: "Collapse" (2009)

This time last year, moviegoers were treated to a triad of Christmas-season apocalypse movies; the bubbly Earth-buster 2012, the dramatically less bubbly The Road, and the much, much, much less bubbly documentary Collapse. This last movie - Chris Smith's look at one lone, persuasive doomsayer - served mostly to make The Road seem palatable as an entertainment choice. I myself only made it through 2012. Who wants to pay $18 (with drinks and popcorn) to sit through a non-exploding apocalypse? Why would I pay any dollars to see a movie that plausibly makes the case that civilization is dying? But Collapse eventually wound up on cable, and I grudgingly scooped it into my DVR. Unlike many distasteful fictional films, it seemed irresponsible to not give this documentary a respectful viewing.

Collapse's Cassandra is an unassuming ex-cop named Michael Ruppert. Ruppert ran the From The Wilderness newsletter (no mention is made if the initials are deliberate), and the film follows his dire predictions, from spring '09, through onscreen interviews and narration over stock footage. This version of doomsday stems from petroleum scarcity - nuclear weapons and global warming are distant afterthoughts - although its oracle doesn't limit the scarcity to just oil. Our era, he tells us, is "peak everything", pegged to an unsustainable "infinite growth paradigm". How many dates were ruined by this movie?

Being a film about the immediate future of civilization, Collapse elicits defensiveness. I found myself seeking cracks in Ruppert's persona, willing wrongness upon his premise. The film starts with stills from his newsletter that look vaguely Larouchian; I kept waiting (hoping?) for him to mumble something nasty about Jews. It was distressing to realize that I lacked the capacity to approach the subject matter objectively, my frightened brain automatically trying to discredit the messenger.

Ruppert obliges my skepticism. Several times, he does that annoying conspiracy theorist thing of pausing with a tiny smile after saying something provocative. Once, faced with a startlingly relevant question ("what about human ingenuity"?), he answers with a non sequitur about "the MSM", then defiantly waits for the interviewer's reaction. There is a distinct lack of self-reflection in Ruppert's pronouncements, a stubborn reluctance to utter the words, "I know this sounds crazy, but consider...". At one point he advocates buying gold, that staple of Glenn Beckonomics, as a means of avoiding fiat currencies. Isn't gold the ultimate fiat currency?

Ruppert's sales pitch is based on defensive logic. He's been right before, the thinking goes, therefore he must be right now. Only; was he so right? He drapes himself in the doomsday mantle of Nouriel Roubini without totally delivering the predictive goods. "My economic predictions," he says, pausing for a bit of pursey-lipped certainty, "we had it so right." His pre-crash lectures on mortgage-backed securities were uncannily accurate, but the big picture seems off. In this telling, 2008 was a crash "nothing like we have ever seen before," and the Greek debt crisis "a revolution". It's not quite Nostradamus.

Illustration courtesy of Joe Preston

Throughout his dialogue, Ruppert toggles between two extremes. Are his dire predictions in the vein of Al Gore (a warning) or Fred Phelps (a verdict)? He comes across as the enemy of hyperbole, then equates a global economic meltdown with the asteroid collision that killed the dinosaurs. There's an unfortunate bit about restoring "balance" to civilization, as if every problem he discusses - greed, disorganization, short sightedness - wasn't an innate, timeless function of human nature. I was reminded of Dr. Seuss's The Butter Battle Book, an arms race parable that - like Collapse - discounts progressive crosscurrents in human nature. What about all the people across the globe who agree with Ruppert? Where does Ruppert's own dissent factor into the fate of western civilization?

After an hour of colluding with its subject via grim music and grainy footage of oil wells, Collapse abruptly switches gears when Ruppert starts weeping onscreen. Tellingly, the tears come not from the direness of his predictions - the millions, if not billions, who will die if his scenario comes to pass - but from the isolation and frustration of being a full-time doomsayer. The film then becomes a study of a lonely man, and then the study of the duplicitous filmmaker who subtly betrays this lonely man. It's impressively meta.

Collapse didn't scare me nearly as much as I'd thought it would, although I'm still glad I avoided it in theaters (certainly there were no scenes as delightful as 2012's cosmic whoopee cushion smackdown of Los Angeles). Pondering the film afterwards, I was left with a strange appreciation for the world as it is now. Something terrible is surely coming for all of us this century. But it's not here yet. Ruppert's somber narration imparted me with a deep appreciation for antibiotics, freeways, libraries, Pandora, statins, Turner Classic Movies. And I registered a gratitude for those even more impressive, and entirely invisible, triumphs of human organization: alternating current, bar codes, packet switching, sewage treatment. That people have made it even this far is impressive.

Also, watching the blobby, JPEGgy title cards brought an even more urgent realization: I need to pony up for HD.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Brooks Recap

THE INTERNET, Nov 26 - Two weeks ago, I and Brooks Headley - subject of last year's The Dessert Psycho - were featured on "The Food Scene" online radio show. More accurately, Brooks was featured and I called in and tried to not sound snide or weird.

I had some funny gag questions I was going to slip in, but being on the radio is scary and I choked. The full interview is here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Smashing Party @ Tit Mouse

HOLLYWOOD, Nov. 20 - The invitation to the Titmouse smashing party told us to arrive anytime after five o'clock. Titmouse - producers of TV's Metalocalypse, among other projects - have held annual smashing parties since 2004, and they seemed to have worked out all the fine points. "If you want to smash," the invite explained, "bring something you hate and/or something that smashes really good. Hint - CRT monitors and TVs smash really good. So do toilets, plaster statues and giant vases. Don't bring watermelons or fire. We can't allow any food due to slippery danger or fire because it is fire."

The invite failed to mention that a thousand people had been invited. We decided to arrive early. At the front entrance, I was given a plastic wristband and made to sign a two-page liability waiver. Fine print told me, "The risk of injury from the activity and weaponry involved in smashing is significant," and had me acknowledge that "the activities of smashing are physically and mentally intense." I was issued a heavy duty respirator that seemed more expensive than the paltry 3M dust masks I'd salvaged from my garage's earthquake/ Al-Qaeda kit. Several people milled around in full eye-goggles and Road Warrior masks.

A large tent covered the Titmouse parking lot. Inside this tent, a smaller cage had been erected from chain link and protective mesh. Inside this cage, I could see three plastic trash cans. One stood upturned to make a pedestal, while the other two held all the implements of smashing; axes, shovels, sledgehammers, swords. A bowling ball rested nearby. Past this, in the Titmouse lobby, an open bar received a few sober partygoers. I grabbed a free Coke and returned to the cage, where I overheard one gawker remarking to another, "you can't imagine how gross it's going to get in just an hour from now."

graphic courtesy Titmouse

I caught up with writer and animator Christy Karacas, who'd I'd only met in person the night before, although we'd worked together twice last year. Christy is one of those gentlemen who fits the description of "the best". He told me and Tara about the glorious second season of Superjail!, and then a guy with a bullhorn took the stage in the cage and announced, "We must smash into ash all that is trash!"

A heavily protected man attacked a nude female mannequin with an ax. It was thrilling, and also disturbing. People whooped and hollered. He took a half-dozen whacks to get the head off. Bits of plastic - or whatever mannequins are made of - flew everywhere. One more blow speared the head on the ax, with the blade popping out of the lady mannequin's forehead. Afterwards, another padded fellow attacked a TV set with the head/ax. It was easy to see that the air in the cage - and thus the tent - would soon be a toxic 9/11 soup of heavy metals and carcinogens. I retreated.

Unlike most of the rest of the crowd, I wasn't so keen on smashing anything. I've broken a lot of possessions in my life, so my thing now is more like, how do I not smash anything? Back when I had a small record label, me and my business partner Neil used to hold frequent smashing parties of our own stock. Only the night before, at the same party where I'd met Christy, did it occur to me that this might have been a problem for the artists on my label. Later, I located Joel from Landed and asked if this had been a problem for the guys in his band. "Oh yeah," he said, not missing a beat. "It was a bummer, dude."

An hour in, we had to leave. Cinefamily was holding a 6:30 showing of the elusive Times Square - itself a movie with lots of things being broken - and sometimes you have to make sacrifices. "We usually get shut down by midnight or so," the invite had warned. Now I understood this would probably come from the growing throng of freely drinking party smashers, and not the sounds of the smashing itself. Later I would learn that we missed celebrities, live music - a marching band, some sort of "speed oi" act - and lots and lots of destruction. It was sad to miss the whole thing, but I still felt grateful to have been invited to a simply smashing party in the first place.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review: The APL Delaware St. Annex

REGRETS DEPT., Nov 22 - A lot of businesses and organizations have had the honor of firing me over the years, but the Albany, NY public library system got there first. This was at their Delaware Street annex, in 1985. The APLDSA was a tiny branch - about the size of a large suburban living room - and not known for difficult customers. It was the perfect job for a 16 year old who fancied himself a budding smartfellow.

In hindsight, I should have paid more attention to office politics. On the second Friday in November, I reported to work as usual, shelved some books and greeted some customers. My friends Bob and Eddie arrived at closing time. High school juniors, we were all too young to drive, and my boss, a Mrs. Lorraine Smi, had agreed to chauffer us to the Corrosion Of Conformity gig across town. I was closing up shop when Mrs. Smi beckoned me into a thinly partitioned back office. There was a problem - she said in a tone both soft and final - with my shelving. Then she read me a poem;

While you are trying your best
you are unable to perform
your paging duties
to my satisfaction
and I feel
at this time
it is necessary for me
to terminate your employment.

I accepted the letter in shock. I was barely a man and already unable to perform my duties. I knew my friends had heard everything through the meager wall. It was a library; what else was there to hear?

“Can we,” I asked quietly, “still get a ride to the show?” Ms. Smi nodded without smiling and drove the three of us to the Washington Street VFW in a difficult silence. Bob and Eddie are big shots now - a TV journalist and a doctor - and I thank them for not laughing out loud until Ms. Smi left us on the sidewalk and drove off into history.

Her face has faded with time, even if her insult has not. I was a good god-damned shelver. I shelved the shit out of that place. I’ve always felt I was unjustly dismissed, collateral damage in Albany budget battles, a pawn in a much larger game. I can accept that. Or maybe some mentally insane hobos came in and rearranged my careful shelving. I can accept that as well. Stranger things have happened. But I don’t know if I can accept that I was a bad librarian.

Here's the thing: was I a bad librarian? Subsequent years haven’t given me any chances to disprove this negative. I’ve frequented a lot of libraries since, but almost never fetched a book on my own. At the famous NYC 5th Ave branch – in the ornate, vast reading room that strangely reeked of old gym socks and whose windows were still blacked out from WW2 – I wrote my book requests on slips of paper and handed these to employees, who then lowered these requests, by hydraulics or rope pulley, into the catacombs below. Downtown, at the giant cube library NYU graciously let my college use, I only studied, or wrote terrible fanzines. In Richmond, VA, I spent many hours in the main branch on Franklin street, a fake airport terminal that seemed to mirror the Cancelled Flight inertia my life had taken on. But I almost never checked out books. The charming Providence, RI library had a good VHS selection. I use the local Claremont, CA library now only when I need graphics of cowboys or body parts, and I know what aisles to browse.

At the time of my firing, I had no way of knowing that I'd participated in the final days of the traditional, multi-millennia-old library system. A year later, arson destroyed 400,000 books at the central Los Angeles library. Six years after that, the National & University Library of Bosnia & Herzegovina was destroyed by war, a 1.5 million book hit to humanity's archives. Up until the 21st century, libraries - and books themselves - were lousy, lossy mediums for storing data. The minor uproar over digitizing card catalogs in the 1990's has given way to the wonderland of digital library information available from any computer in the 2010's. Soon it won't be possible to lose any books. "misshelving" will cease to exist, as a fireable offense or otherwise.

Here's what else isn't going away: the ding to my honor. If you've Googled yourself, Mrs. Lorraine Smi of upstate New York, and found this page, know that this indignity remains an open account. You may have won this round, but the battle is far from over.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

New: George Washington's America (review)

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM DEPT., Nov 18 - My review of Barnet Schecter's George Washington's America; A Biography Through His Maps is now online over at Bookforum.


I probably would have accomplished more with my life by now if I had a cool name like Barnet Schecter. But, you know, water under the bridge.