"Transformers" and Trance-Formation: Perpetual War in an Age of Tentpole Entertainment

Rolf Maurer (adapted from a talk given at a 3/28/15 Portland, CT Green Party fundraiser)


Knowing many stories is wisdom
Knowing no stories is ignorance
Knowing one story is death 
--John Michael Greer
Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush
Founders House, 2015
   
In 2004 I worked at the Greenwich Library—said, at the time, to hold the largest collection of books in the state. During an idle moment at the check-out, I was going through their online catalog and was staggered to find some 17 thrillers, all featuring Fidel Castro as the villain in scenarios involving biological or nuclear attacks on the US.
At the time more amused then dismayed, I wondered who read this stuff and what was going on in society that could make such improbable fare profitable; was there even a market for this sort of thing abroad?
Ben Affleck's Argo
So today I want to touch on how current events, the entertainment industry and the social trends shaped by them weave a mutually-reinforcing cultural fabric that defines a perpetual state of conflict as an acceptable national narrative for those born pre- and post-2001.

Defining the New Norm (While Apologizing for It)
Since that time, TV and film have been mired in a darkly glamorizing collage of geopolitical paranoia, intrigues, coups and assassinations that paints historical events like the 1979 
Iranian hostage crisis in 2012’s  Argo and the fictionalized pursuit of bin Laden the following year in Zero Dark Thirty with identical authority in the imagination. That plotting liberties were taken in the first example to tell a “good story” is a given in the public mind; but because both are dramas rather than documentaries, no more effort is called upon to get the facts straight about foreign affairs than in the case of something wholly contrived, like the White House-siege movie, Olympus Has Fallen (2013), or even something further afield like a  superhero or science fiction epic.

Jessica Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty
Oft-criticized for their incredible content, tabloids sell not because of the veracity of their stories, but because of their sensational appeal. The growing enshrinement of tropes which, while clearly regressive, are strangely compelling as definers of national identity—the need for enmity and suspicion, contempt for law and rights, expedience toward violence and subjugation, as culturally normatized through movies and television via such programs as the Israeli TV-derived Homeland and the "pre-crime" drama Person of Interest, works the same way.
While there’s frequent nominal acknowledgement of policy excesses, like the remedial account of blowback following the US installation of Shah Reza Palavi in the opening of Argo, or even to threats to domestic civil liberties at the end of Man of Steel, where a post-9/11 Superman objects to personally being tailed by a US Army drone, such gestures are slickly eclipsed by plots propelled by the convenient exigencies of “Realpolitik” (contrary to traditional expectations of the iconic American comic book character, Zack Snyder’s 2013 rendering of Superman, in his declared commitment to protect the US, tellingly voiced no objections about drones being used to spy on other Americans):
If we as citizens and media consumers, don’t weigh in on this highly one-sided conversation, we are passively contributing to a myopic perception of the rest of the world and the concerns of the people living in it that is as bad for us as it is for those in Iran, Russia or North Korea.

Missteps and Lies
Inspiring a pre-release retaliatory studio computer breach doubtfully attributed to the latter government, the more troubling concern with Sony Pictures' 2014 Seth Rogen/James Franco vehicle The Interview, about a pair of bumbling talk show personalities recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jon-un, is the oblivious disregard for domestic or international law the movie’s plot relies upon in order to generate laughs. Whether by intent or design (the movie was shot with the consultation of the State Department and, according to Rogen, the CIA), the gaff in this case isn’t what matters, so much as the casual sentiment by the filmmakers that the view of the rest of the world doesn’t. (1)
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton
Such cluelessness finds more arguably calculated expression in the recent letter sent to the Iranian government by 47 Republican Senators. Yes, this attempt to undermine White House negotiations with Iran might be considered reckless or illegal, but President Obama’s celebrated efforts at ending sanctions against the Iranian people in exchange for watering down its nuclear program overlooks the fact that such impositions at any level are a de facto act of war (2), crippling an economy with devastating effects on all aspects of daily life, including air travel safety and health care (particularly for people with diabetes or other medical dependencies), not to mention that the CIA and Mossad agree there is no nuclear threat (3). For all his geographical challenges, the conduct of Senator Cotton and his comrades provides useful cover for the larger diplomatic perfidy and true goals of the administration: fomenting a highly-industrialized country's future export-based dependency on the West (click here  for a detailed radio critique by Ellie Ommani of the American-Iranian Friendship Committee). (4)  
"I don't feel the need to go out and tell
people what to believe politically."
--Michael Bay, Mother Jones, 6/14 
Doing his part to promulgate the myth that a nation which has not attacked another country in over 250 years is an imminent global threat (5), director Michael Bay, whose ouvre is notorious for its bombastic, reactionary themes (6), recasts for the big screen the truck-, tank- and fighter-guised giant robots from the cartoon Transformersinto a literal anthropomorphization of the Military-Industrial Complex, amply demonstrated when one of several sapient machines, assuming the form of sports cars, (bearing inverted Iranian flags, no less) attacks an Iranian nuclear plant and wields giant swords in Dark of the Moon, 2011’s third entry in the series, thunderously advising the stunned guards: “On the ground… and stay there!”:
Even if one were to dismiss the impact of such message-freighted action, be it in Bay’s and Snyder’s extravaganzas, or the Fast and Furious and Pirates of the Caribbean movies, such “tentpole” franchises, (which veteran producer Lynda Obst says the financial dictates of the “New Hollywood” rely upon for its survival) are potentially as effective as government propaganda of old in exporting American biases, considering the greater importance of today's fast-growing foreign markets, which respond as much to visual excitement and franchise pre-awareness as to traditional star recognition. (7)
And such influences find their way into the consciousness of occupation forces, as well.

Globalization of Martial Pop
Sgt. Dioron with banner
As a rather sad coda to this point, early March saw Sgt. Andrew J. Doiron of Canada’s Special Forces killed in a friendly-fire incident in Iraq. (8) In the event of his death, Doiron had made the request that a particular photo be posted online, which showed him clutching a handmade banner, not representing his unit, a loved one, or even the Canadian flag, but the deathhead-like insignia of the Decepticons—the evil faction among the robots of the previously cited Transformers.
Decepticon sigil
Maybe this constitutes an emotional retreat into a rationalizing Manichean mindset, or even some childhood idyll (I will touch on stateside versions of this, too). Given that this global nightmare has been going on for fourteen years now (Doiron’s own service spanned more than ten of them) such desperate, dark adaptations raised concerns with West Point’s Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan and FBIinterrogatorsin 2007 in response to the ominous popularity with troops of the sadistic television series 24, whose desensitizing story lines revolved so much on the use of torture by its terror-cell thwarting hero Jack Bauer. (9) 

Keifer Sutherland of Fox's 24
Currently, with six corporations controlling almost all news and entertainment (10), we have reached a point where our understanding of who we are and how we define ourselves collectively, in contrast to how these characteristics are expressed on the world stage, is more dependent than ever on TV, movies, as well as the Internet, video games, cell phone applications and other new media conduits, reinforcing the mass merchandising of cultural perception, as well as material values (Transformers, after all, has its origins in a 1980s toy line) to a degree perhaps not even considered by the likes of Lippmann or Bernays. (11)
Transformers robot derived from mili-
tary contractor Force Protection's Buffalo
MRAP, deployed in Afghanistan
As to insignia, the predictably outraged response to a short-lived proposal to remove all national symbols from the lobby of student council offices at UC-Irvine in mid-March focused on the importance of nationalistic gratitude and veneration embodied by the US flag and other patriotic invocations—yet failing to observe the more relevant issue of how, depending on context, a symbol is more often used to incite an undisciplined, even fearful reaction, rather than to remind us of what high principles should inform it.(12)  Colors Running for Any Cause
Over the years, we have seen a range of exploitive applications for the flag, from the absurd, like post-9/11 stars and stripes-patterned diapers, to the glib blending of the erotic with the martial; wrestler Torrie Wilson even sat on one for the cover of the July 2005 issue ofWWE Smackdown!magazine.
In contrast, if you watch closely the video of Green Party Presidential/Vice Presidential candidates Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala getting arrested in protest of being barred from the 2012 presidential debates at Hofstra University, you can hear one of the officers advising his partner as they carry them away to “watch the flag”, in reference to the one the candidates had brought with them, ritualistically more concerned with ensuring it did not touch the ground than upholding the principles of free expression and assembly it represents:

Narva, Estonia--just 300 yards from
the Russian border
Only a week prior to the Irvine proposal, a convoy of APCs and other army vehicles from the U.S. Army’s Second Cavalry Regiment were videoed trundling though the streets of Narva, an Estonian city bordering Russia, as part of a military parade in support of the Estonian Independence Day, many of the trucks provocatively sporting the American flag (13)—a clear gesture of intimidation from the same power responsible for staging a fascist coup in Ukraine with the last election. (14) And Washington is claiming it is Putin, leader of a nation with a functional nuclear arsenal, who is crazed?

Specter of a New Brutality Afield...
U.S. Army Private Bradley
(now Chelsea) Manning
As if in overdue response to the dread of civilians apprehending the authentic horror and ambiguity of a whistle-blower’s wartime disclosures through the 2007  “Collateral Murder” US Apache gunship video, revealing the eager shooting of reporters in Iraq (15), we have last year’s Oscar-winning glorification of barbarism in American Sniper—a biopic about a soldier who went on to co-found Craft International (16), competitor to Dyncorp, Blackwater and other security contractors, whose slogan is “Contrary to What Your Mama Told You… Violence Does Solve Problems”. (17) In a 24-hour mediascape, where ballplayer Peyton Manning gets more coverage than Chelsea, is it her or Sniper’s late Kevin Kyle whom we are more likely to recall and whose understanding of mutual responsibility, justice and conscience is to be honored?


Even when humor is invoked as a distraction from these points, an almost life-negating fixation persists, as when American and UK military units in Afghanistan created their own video covers of Carly Rae Jepsen’s maddeningly inescapable 2012 pop hit “Call Me Maybe”. 
Though the source of great amusement at home, these carefully-choreographed responses to a popular cover performed by the Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders, with their showcasing of soldiers cavorting in military vehicles and suggestively caressing sidearms, come off more like macabre burlesque rather than innocuous skits:
...And Morbid Fantasies At Home 
With the authoritarian’s age-old Sisyphian pursuit of 100 percent-guaranteed security, 100 percent of the time (used to justify anything from water-boarding to depleted uranium munitions) as invoked by the perpetually insecure military officer in the previous Man of Steel clip, the converse allure of danger and abrupt, violent death finds stylized expression, stateside. Over the last few years, wedding photographers in North America have been increasingly encouraged to digitally enhance nuptial imagery with threatening, pop media-inspired elements, like rampaging dinosaurs and sharks, Star Wars space vehicles and even blood-covered zombies lurching toward bridesmaids or guests. (18) 
Lahj Province, Yemen
Al-Baida Province, Yemen
The ghastly disconnect between this puerile yearning for fantasy peril in the West, even as its forces visit real death and mutilation by drone upon similar ceremonies in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere would merit no further comment (19), save for the latest twist being the use of drones to record ceremonies from the air—as done at the wedding of Randy Florke and New York representative (and House Transportation & Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee member) Sean Patrick Maloney last summer. (20)
drone video, Maloney wedding
In order to change this suicidal narrative, we have to reclaim our role from the Political-Entertainment Complex that encourages the nationalism and social narcissism that sustains it, by engaging consciously with others to get up and walk around these stories, scrutinizing their overt and semiotic assumptions and how they do or do not comport with reality.

The difference matters because entertainment, too, matters--precisely because we have been ingrained with the notion that, it doesn’t. Our failure to challenge the commonly-used, but weak arguments that “it’s still a good story” or “it’s only a movie” gives entertainment an easy pass; but, as an often sly apologist for a dysfunctional status quo, entertainment, in turn, provides the public an easy pass on critically responding to the proposition of perpetual war and other injustices beyond the screen.


Taking up this conversation can change the story; and we can’t hope to change policy if we don’t change its underlying story, first.


--Rolf Maurer
Sources:
1. http://www.democracynow.org/2014/12/22/the_interview_pokes_fun_at_north
http://sputniknews.com/us/20141227/1013392113.html 2. http://www.dukechronicle.com/articles/2012/10/31/economic-sanctions-are-act-war#.VRyvX_nF8dQ
3. http://www.thehill.com/ blogs/congress-blog/foreign-policy/215406-sanctions-cause-iranian-airplane-crashes
https://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/12/15/with-no-easy-access-to-medicine-iranians-suffer-sanctions
http://rt.com/news/mossad-iran-nuclear-programme-851

4. http://www.politicususa.com/2015/03/15/cotton-collapse-iran-letter-author-constitution-geography-wrong-interview.html
http://cprnews.podbean.com/e/cpr-news-april-3-2015/
5. http://blog.transnational.org/2015/03/tff-pressinfo-315-happy-norooz-peace-in-the-new-year/
6. http://www.motherjones.com/media/2014/06/michael-bay-conservative-hero-politics-transformers-age-extinction
7. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16145972-sleepless-in-hollywood
http://www.globalresearch.ca/whos-who-in-ukraines-new-semi-fascist-government-meet-the-people-the-u-s-and-eu-are-supporting/5372422
20. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/fashion/weddings/bird-plane-no-its-the-wedding-photographer.html?_r=0

  

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