August 05, 2007

Completely Inhuman

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The title is a refrain from Sonic Youth’s song “Inhuman” off the album Confusion is Sex, in which Thurston Moore repeatedly chants “completely inhuman”. Sister might be the bands most influential record, but the SST release of these tracks from 1983 is one of their most tits-out efforts. Folks have, from day one, tried to define what makes us human. Feeling pain, or feeling at all used to cover it. These days just wanting to feel something, anything does the trick. It’s no small irony that the world we have made for each other is the most alienating possible. J.G. Ballard continues to throw our peculiar desire for synthetic reality back in our face. Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000) are ruthless indictments of the way we choose to fill the void we have created for ourselves. According to the author these are but two installments in a trilogy. Except for their different settings the books are virtually identical. Cocaine Nights takes place in a resort community for the wealthy, while Super-Cannes is located in a walled in corporate park (something akin to Iraq’s Green-Zone, except in the French Riviera). Both are basically murder-mysteries. And, in both, the elites have resolved to stave off their insufferable boredom with a particularly drastic form of entertainment. These are the lawless classes of the global economy. Their post-national corporate existence makes them inured to any semblance of local justice. Ballard is keen to contrast the intimacy of personal relationships against an aristocratic penchant for rigged sport. Super-Cannes, in particular, finds the protagonist sorting through a deceitful web of personal relationships — love affairs and friendships — in order to get his head around a practically unfathomable conspiracy. It seems that the otherwise myopic theocrats engaged by the trans-national corporation he works for can no longer get it off in the pressure-cooker world of high finance and cut-throat business competition without their nightly thrill. For their pleasure they have organized some peculiar junkets. Convoys of black Mercedes SUV’s ferry members into town in fascist-style gangs to beat and murder their local vagrant of choice. Where the totally insulated corporate set are concerned entertainment is especially deviate. Social existence becomes entirely consumed by the need to find some kind of stimulation in such an absolutely inhuman environment. In such a paranoiac world, our hero has nothing but his humanity to guide him through the labyrinth of deceit and cover-up. Cocaine Nights was Ballard's first go at the theme. The protagonist must navigate a nearly endless maze of smoke and mirrors to understand why his friend was murdered. It's a classic enigma. In a way these books offer up a last vestige of a Marxist critique of the the kind of monsters we can become in conditions that would otherwise seem ideal. Our last-ditch effort at pleasure becomes entirely sadistic and we are reduced (or elevated) to thuggery. These books offer up a kind of Fantasy Island where the indulgence of choice is an old fashioned crime spree. Ballard has always been keenly aware of the inhumanity we create for ourselves. Concrete Island might just have been the most astute vision of the desolate wasteland we routinely create for ourselves, although someone else could probably sight any number of other examples. An outstanding movie along these same lines is Society (1989) directed by Brian Yuzna famous for the Re-Animator cycle. It’s rare to see a movie in this day-and-age so unabashedly class-conscious. The elite are savagely skewered. A teenage boy presumably the son of an extremely wealthy Beverly Hills family doesn’t feel like he fits in. As he gains independence he increasingly begins to believe something fishy is going on in his all too perfect family. A tape his friend has surreptitiously made of his sister’s coming out party confirms his most paranoid feelings of teen alienation. He will come to discover that the wealthiest members of his community routinely engage in the most decadent rituals, that his feelings of not belonging are well warranted because he has, in fact, been adopted, and that he is the object of their hunger and age old lust. Rarely has class-consciousness and teenage angst been put to such great use. All expectations pointed to a vampiric decadent conclusion in which the young man was consumed by the judges, lawyers, politicians, as well as all the rest of the fine upstanding citizens attending the party in the movie's debauched finale. The atrocity of social privilege our young hero is confronted with isn’t the usual blood-sucking perversion of wealth, though, but something else quite extraordinary. It is common enough to depict old world royalty as a bunch of depraved, degenarate vampires. In fact, it’s been the only way to express the almost inexplicably iron-fisted hold on power by the few families who managed to secure top positions in the late royal monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries; the Viennese Queen of France, and Germans married into multiple families including notably British, and Swedish kingdoms who made curious bargains with the outsiders. But these are old conspiracy theories, and what is most curious is that they would manifest themselves in an adolescent horror movie in the late 20th-century. It turns out that the wealthy are not really human at all. No surprise! In Society they are depicted as a bunch of shape shifting individuals who have ruled the world since time memorial. The hero of our movie must, in fact, fight against an overly privileged and entitled nemesis. In a bizarrely optimistic twist director Brian Yuzna tries his very best to hold onto the American dream where the little guy still has a fighting chance. The vampyric upper classes might still hold all the cards, but too much time and too many little indiscretions and mistakes have accumulated for the inbred ruling elite to be sure of their stranglehold over power. Bill, who has had bad daydreams and terrifying visions, reaches up inside his rival and turns him inside out. Is Billy some kind of bastard child of these creeps? Who knows. It's more than possible. Eons of rule over the less-than-perfect human race has no doubt resulted in some unexpected cross-breeding. The existence of half human half aristo-decadent vampire monsters is more than possible in the context of the movie. It provides the unexpected surprise that is their ruin. It’s an allegory of colonialism. The games of the wealthy are temporarily interrupted by the consciousness that their victim is no longer different than themselves, except in the one key factor, that although he is a hybrid, he still retains some semblance of humanity. The Chinese, whose economic model now holds the rest of the world in thrall, have asserted that imperialist policies are a “dead-end”. The West may, at this point, agree, but it is far too late in our game to stave off our winnings from our losses. The fact of the matter is that all our gains — our wealth — is based on exploitation of resources that have now come back to haunt us. Those indignant masses that are now moving into Western metropolises, suburbs and ex-urbs to flee worlds made unlivable by our economic machine are now deemed terrorists. It’s easy to call the politics of our enemies repressive. After all those policies are specifically opposed to our own. The important thing is to understand why our way of life is being disputed. Except for the radical right wing, who exist in a terrible bubble of nostalgia, our half-human self — what is, at any rate, left of our collective humanity — wants only to improve conditions on the ground.

Posted by dm-b at August 5, 2007 10:11 PM | TrackBack
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