Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Waiting For the End of the World: On Trump, Jehovah's Witnesses and The Late Great Planet Earth (1979)

The woman had blonde hair. Her mouth was forever frozen into a scream of complete terror. I hated this illustration. But I kept turning back to the page to look at it. The book was from the seventies. She had been screaming for decades in vain. That scared me the most.

Armageddon as illustrated in Jehovah's Witnesses literature never shrank from the details. Great plumes or fire and smoke, the earth cracking open and swallowing tiny figures in the background. Leering faces of corrupt leaders and non Witness religious figures. And the beautiful, laughing, mocking Babylon the Great. Riding her seven headed beast and raising her cup to the spectacle.

I've been thinking of that illustration of Babylon the Great a lot lately. Every time the current election groans to a new deplorable low. In these strange days of a dangerous religious fundamentalist wanting to be the first rider of the apocalypse and a tacky bullshit artist who has a good many of god's born again children hoping that he's actually the herald of the end of days my thoughts keep going back to a 1979 "documentary" curio that's gained a terrible currency.

"The Late Great Planet Earth" was based on Hal Lindsay's smash bestseller of the same name. It was Biblical prophecy that ignored the prophetic tradition of warning misfortune if there was no justice for the poor and weakest to make hash out of Revelation with chunks of Daniel and Ezekiel thrown in. This concoction was then presented with a straight face as a "literal" reading of the last book of the Bible which was "clearly" about events in the 20th century that were soon to happen.

The film made of this somehow got Orson Welles to host and narrate it. And if he kept wondering why God had forsaken him to gigs like this he did an admirable job of not showing it on camera. His presence in fact becomes very irresponsible as he gives the whole thing an air of seriousness and import it in no way deserves. Save as a warning for how the religious right was set to deform our politics permanently.

What's not mentioned as a sign of the last days in "The Late, Great, Planet Earth" is as interesting as what is. The film makes nary a peep about abortion as that was still seen a frighteningly Papist thing to be concerned about. There is no mention of the road to Megiddo being paved in gooey cobblestones of wedding cakes baked for gay couples. And shockingly, when the film rounds up a rouges gallery of potential Antichrist candidates Ronald Reagan is included.  

It's also enlightening to see how much of what was about to become the Moral Majority grew out of burnt out hippiedom. Disillusioned by protest movements, dabbling in Eastern religions, and mourning the genuinely alarming ecological devastation humanity had brought forth on its only home flower children were souring into neo cons looking for that portfolio that would be the key to the gated community away from the maddening crowd. Or more perniciously they were looking to underline their importance by being the last generation.

That belief is one I know all too well. And one that terrifies me as it colors my past and stains my future. Waiting, wanting, wishing for the world to end succeeds in killing the present, and the present moment is all any of us have. If you tell children they have no future they will believe you. So many kids I went to Kingdom Hall meetings with met with getting kicked out of "The Truth" via drugs, unplanned pregnancy or both. Being told, over and over and over, that we were no part of "The World" and juuuuust around the corner was that glorious future on paradise Earth where we could wander apple orchards while holding koalas (if the other sort of illustrations in the literature was anything to by) lead to a worldview helplessly disconnected from the present.

It's that's disconnect, and hunger for the center not holding that I see swirling in Trumpism and giving it hideous life force force. The selfishness, more explicitly the White selfishness, that will burn down the house we all live in rather than share it. That panic, fear and despair that the good life is slipping away and will not be coming back that leads to monstrous beliefs and actions. And yes, plenty of Serious People have calmly lectured that we've been here before and these people are not the majority and these movements always burn themselves out. But an angry minority can do a devastating amount of damage.

And "The Late Great Planet Earth" saw it coming, but not in the way it intended. In section of the film about potential Antichrists a talking head warns "If fascism ever comes to the United States it'll be called Americanism." It's impossible not to hear "Make America Great Again" in that. And it's impossible not to see a radicalized Christian fundamentalist base fed on decades of apocalyptic fantasies decide that if you want a Second Coming to happen you better jump start it yourself. And yet, I despair at the lethargy I see from the left. The insistence on utopia and moral purity that conveniently removes the person from the responsibility of any direct action or effort beyond hitting "retweet". We have the potential as a people to do so much, to repair, rebuild and prepare a better world for the future generation. But we chose not to.

So I'm starting to realize that Jehovah's Witnesses got it kinda right. But Armageddon didn't come in balls of fire and bowls of judgment. It came in smartphone aps and apathy and smart water and curdling sense of the common good. It came in Baby Boomers voting over and over to dismantle the social safety net. It came in Whites viewing their racial hold starting to fray and panicking. Babylon the Great came riding an Uber and getting drunk on cold brew coffee and craft beer. Her lips slick with the blood of "I'm not racist but...". As in all things, the supernatural was not needed. Humans proved capable of building an Apocalypse just fine on their own.

Watch "The Late Great Planet Earth" on YouTube.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A Look That Time Can't Erase

Sharon Stone photographed by Phillip Dixon, 1991. 

On The Warm World of Jack Sheldon album.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Not In My Name

I'm starting to get tired of John Oliver too.

Oh I know, he can be funny, and really a lot of it isn't his fault but I'm starting to dread the "John Oliver Completely DESTROYS X" clickbait pieces that will pop on on Monday after his show airs. It's a symptom of politics being turned into a professional sport the team with the most points can "win". Rather than politics being the incredibly messy, complicated affair complete with compromises that necessitate life in a pluralistic society.

And the illusion many liberals and progressives have that comedy can deliver a killing blow to tyrants, not to mention the fatal illusion that sharing a Funny or Die clip is a good substitute for voting, has only grown in the frightening wake of Trump's rise to the likely GOP presidential nominee.

Seeing the raging, churning mob Trump has unleashed and encouraged and the complete impotence of party officials and a cowed press to do anything to stop him has me increasingly seeking comfort in reminders of our species capability for humanity. And one of the best is Brandon Stanton's photo project Humans of New York.

Photo by Brandon Stanton for Humans of New York 

Stanton's eye for his subjects is matched only by the amazing stories he gets them to tell. Fragments of a memory unspool an entire life story in the mind's eye. His primary subjects are the people of New York City, but his project has taken him all around the world meeting celebrities, students and refugees.

It appears to be primarily the latter experience he was drawing from in the letter he posted this morning. I liked his letter, and I shared it. I know it doesn't "destroy" or "take down" anything. I shared  it so I wouldn't feel so helpless. That at least here was a record. A record of names, of words, of articles I find that say "Not In My Name". That say "enough". That say this is wrong and why it is wrong. So that when history looks back on us there will at least be a record that someone, anyone spoke out.

It's a luxury to be "above" politics. And at this point it's false pretense. Elie Wisel called out that kind of ducking responsibility in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim." I'm starting to get really existentially scared by what's going on. So no I don't look for "my team" to "win" or John Oliver to anything besides start to wear thin. But I do like letters like that, and I share letters like that because they serve as a record, that somebody said no. No.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Happy International Women's Day

Kate Bush

On Kate Bush's Hounds of Love album.  

Lupita Nyong'o 

Jeanette Winterson

Eva Green 

Bea Arthur 

Toni Morrison 

On Ella Fitzgerald's altogether essential Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook album.

Gina Gershon 

Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark 

Pam Grier 

Barbara Loden in her sole directorial effort, the magnificent Wanda (1970).   

Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda at the premiere of the highly recommended 9 to 5.

Grace Jones 

On Grace Jones' Warm Leatherette album. 

Audrey Hepburn

Francesca Lia Block 

Angela Bassett 

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow 

The Great Harlot in Revelation: Its Grand Climax At Hand!

Christy Turlington 

Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Barbara Stanwyck