I had this plan that I was going to watch all three Transformers movies this week and write something hilarious about how Michael Bay is a bleeding propagandist who markets a particular vision of unbridled and global American military power to children on behalf of his clients in the Pentagon.
It was going to go something like this:
“We hunt for what remains of our Decepticon foes, hiding in different countries throughout the globe,” booms Optimus Prime’s stentorian voiceover intro to Rise of the Fallen, providing context to a montage of what in different places and at different points in history have been called death squads, though we in America prefer the euphemism “Special Forces,” because we are special. Anything goes because we are at war. The US military can and should be able to drop into any country in the world with our cool-ass machine guns to waste the bad guys, like it did in Pakistan, like it should have done in Benghazi, cartoon-like. The justness of our cause trumps diplomacy, borders and the rule of law.
I wrote 2,000 words and scrapped it, then rewrote it, then scrapped it again, then crushed it into a snappy op-ed, then blew it back open into a stem-winding, baroque and profane screed. Then I scrapped it. After a week of this, my gusto flagged.
It wasn’t wrong. But it just wasn’t working. How come? Why not? Michael Bay, propaganda for the military industrial complex, three 2.5-hour advertisements for failed and over-budget weapons systems like the F-22 and Osprey, movie dialogue that groans under the weight of so much preposterous bullshit – “Hold the airstrike! We’re rescuing civilians!” – a cartoonish vision of American military force that is globally omniscient and omnipresent. This is easy stuff to skewer.
Was it too easy? Was it too obvious? Was it too much? The way too much sugar gives you wine that is too sharp and straight-forward and mean?
I took a break. I wandered over to the local multiplex where Ironman 3 was playing and bought a ticket, wandered in and pondered and ate popcorn and pondered until something odd happened. Spoiler/epiphany alert: The scary Oriental bad guy turns out to be a false boogey man, a beer-drinking empty robe, an actor playing a role designed to frighten people into spending money on military contracts.
That is, Ironman 3 turns all the comic book movies and goofy pro-military action flicks and stupidly reductive TV shows about terrorists in our backyards, all the Bay-esk flag-waving bullshit from the last 12 years, and turns it upside down and shakes it and laughs and points to it and says, “This? This is over. This stuff about violent, unreasoning religious zealots with long beards and scary foreign-looking logos and organized insurgencies, douchebag “Iron Patriots” painting themselves with the American flag and storming into the wrong part of Pakistan like dumbasses, this bullshit where we stay scared and our leaders get to look strong and competent while they amass power and money and keep the contracts rolling. It’s not even that it’s wrong: It’s passé. It’s fucking laughable.”
Something clicked as I walked out through the mall, looking at clothing store marketing images of skinny jeans and big curly hipster beards in Santiago, Chile, thinking about how you don’t have to live in Portland to think Portlandia is funny because urban cool has been turned into a commodity and zipped around the world in a lingua franca of yoga studios and fixie bikes and yarn bombing, and I realized that something has ended. An era has been exhausted. Apple OS textures look tired and boring, all website stock photos look the same, Williamsburg, Brooklyn is a globalized brand, blogs have become news websites, cable news doesn’t even believe its own bullshit, and comic book movies – those ever-reliable vehicles for messaging about the evilness of the Other and the necessity of extra-judicial force – have finally, finally grown bored with a plot arc that began on September 11, 2001.
Compare it to 1999, or thereabouts, when grunge was petering out into Third Eye Blind and Matchbox 20, when America came Online, when Hollywood, grasping for a post-Cold-War boogeyman and coming up empty, settled for The System (The Matrix), the Russians (007), and the Very Intelligent Sharks (The Deep Blue). We didn’t know it then, but we were on the cusp of a crazy downhill tear toward always-connected hand held computers, Forever and Everywhere War, the worst financial crisis in 80 years, and the collapse of traditional print media.
I can’t rip Michael Bay with the rhetorical technology of the past. Keith Olbermann is unemployed because it doesn’t work anymore, because it doesn’t matter, and because we’re on the cusp – probably beyond the cusp – of something else, some other logic of mass psychosis or fashion or technology that has yet to take full form. Blogging about the War on Terror is like shooting at shadows. Somewhere out there, in some office building or board room, some politicians or executives are figuring out a new bad guy for the American public. Or there’s a club somewhere unexpected, or a magazine, or something I don’t even know what, that will change the sound and look of our pop culture world for the next 15 years. It’s probably already happening, or has happened already. Our president said this War on Terror is going to end, which means something else is about to start. CO2 levels are at their highest point in human history. I read the other day that Google just bought a quantum computer that can solve extremely complex problems 33,000 times faster than a conventional computer. Where are we going? I feel old. I feel like the future is opening up right in front of me, and it’s going to be a fast, long, hard drop.