exponentiation ezine
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exponentiation ezine: issue [3.0:culture]

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Repo Man (dir. Alex Cox 1984)

The culmination of postmodern thought is a kind of paranoia that is both figurative and literal: we cannot trust social institutions, or even universal abstracts like "truth" and "good," because they can be manipulated; part II is that, having said that, we have to assume most of our society is not only indulging itself in fantasy but, because deluded, is actually opposed to truth... Repo Man is a movie that makes good on this principle by showing us the empty path of growing up suburban in the 1980s. There is the easy life -- "normal people" as defined by Bud, the anachronistically witty repossessor -- represented by Otto's family, who are living out a _Brave New World_ satiation by drugs, religion, sex and wealth while important decisions are offhand, unnoticed and denied. In contrast to normalcy, which we see is as empty as eating two Big Macs instead of a single (1) quality steak, is the life of the underworld: punkers committing senselessly graceful crime, kids gathering for secret parties at abandoned industrial locations, repo men trying to at least fool themselves into a modern chivalric code. Otto is defining himself by the path he takes through this mess, and his ultimate guiding light becomes a sense of truth "in the Real" as he rejects the sordid amusements, passive untruths, and failing paths of others. Almost every character in this movie comes to self-destruction as a result of losing sight of the pursuit of Realism: Bud shot down as he pursues money, Duke dying in a holdup, Archie fried on a dare, J. Frank Parnell destroyed by the radiation he considered a friend, Leila never gets to examine the aliens, Kevin becoming a pointless toadie to Mr. Humphries. Like most postmodern works, this movie is a subtle assimilation of 18th-century Romantic ideals into a modern sense of duality brought about by the difference between reality as it is described, especially by bureaucratic institutions, and reality as it exists... the indefinable, unbureaucratic _now_. Characters are as much icon as human being, and re-appear whenever their particular traits and failings need airing. Their names are ridiculous, from the customer "Arthur Pakman" (Pac-Man defining the arrival of video games, and soon computers, as trend in the 1980s) to the repo men named after different beers (Lite, Bud, Oly, Miller). Characters and events also satirize characters and events as portrayed by movies: Lite, the macho man African-American male; Leila, the classic insane but passionate movie woman; Marlene, a parody of women on shows like "A-Team" who were tough and carried guns but had few ideas. Other incidental parodies include the skewering of generic products, televangelism, new age religions, Hispanic culture, wealth, the emptiness of Anglo suburbs, the astounding ugliness of modern cities. Although it seems an unlikely source, this movie melds macabre humor and post-counterculture insight into a single clear voice, at a time when the world needed such a thing (and coincidentally, a time when the last postmodern works of any quality were written). With the mathematical-scientific metaphor of most postmodern movies, it summarizes how we have gone wrong ("Linear and inverse vectors merge in zero" -- one way of saying if you simplify life into a single variable like money or power, you bring it closer to death through repetition) while making us grin. In theory, it was about nuclear war -- as shown through the duality of harmful/helpful radiation, and aliens existing/being a hoax -- but it ended up being a critique not of an event or tendency but the underlying emptiness of our social and political outlook. Now that we once again have a president who talks fanatically about God while bandying weapons about, it's not a terrible time to view this snapshot of the 1980s that is dramatically relevant today. -vijay prozak



Dawn of the Dead (dir. George Romero 1978):

“When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth”

These haunting opening lines to George A. Romero’s epic horror film Dawn of the Dead foretell both the world of the film and the substance of our modern culture. Dawn marks the second film in Romeo’s “dead trilogy” and it is the most ambitious and competent of the three.

Dawn of the Dead begins in a disgruntled newsroom full of hectic chatter and anarchistic fray as scientists bicker on the television over what is causing the plight of zombies to raid their beloved society. The cities in Dawn of the Dead are degenerating into hellish prisons and wastelands full of squabbling, degenerate humans and waves of the undead. The film follows two policemen and two media employees as they flee the cities in a helicopter in order to find a safe haven away from the growing chaos and ever increasing legions of the undead.

Their trip takes them to an abandoned mall where they decided to take haven and create a society for themselves. Inside the mall mindless zombies wander aimlessly through the shops and along escalators as cheese-ridden mall music blares over the loudspeakers. While the mindless automatons we see in Dawn of the Dead are flesh eating zombies they are virtually indistinguishable from the living automatons that wander the malls daily. In this regard Dawn of the Dead removes the veil of western consumerism and exposes its hollow insides.

The protagonists of the film eventually take on the consumerist characteristics of the mall culture and begin to revel in the material goods of the mall. They essentially become the mindless themselves in the process. The filmmaker pulls no punches in making this point known. He has his smiling protagonists run wide-eyed through open stores full of useless junk as if they are kids in a candy shop. The protagonists attempt to create a society for themselves out of all the goodies they have accumulated in the mall while the world outside continues to tear itself apart.

Skillfully the film slows down the horror and terror in these sections and allows us to dwell in this new society along with the protagonists. We, like them, begin to forget about the dark underbelly lying just outside. The reality remains elusive to them as they indulge in mall junk. Eventually their mall wonder world comes crashing down as the terror on the outside finally manages to leak in. At that point the film resumes the terror in full and implies that as we grow fat on indulgence in the west this same end waits to leak in and finish us off - the illusion is only waiting to be striped away.

Although the film at times makes its critique of consumerist western culture from a manipulatively liberal perspective and loses the subtlety of quality satire in favor of indulging in irony, it should by no means deter from the power of the main point of the film. When the manipulative aspects of the film are peeled away the value of the message shines though and stands as a resolute attack on the lost and materialistic culture we live in today.

Dawn of the Dead is a rich allegory about modern consumerist culture and the degenerate and passive lifestyles most westerners joyfully engage in daily while remaining unaware of the doom waiting for them just around the corner. By utilizing the horror medium and turning zombies into a symbol for mindless consumerism, Dawn of the Dead manages to break down the illusionary walls of our modern society to expose the hell and emptiness that roams within. - phantasm

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