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Three Movies of the Digital Age

November 10, 2008 | By

The DVC phenomenon shows that those handling the media have the power to literally drag large crowds of people into their products and even to force some to get involved. As a result media tycoons rake in huge financial profits.

Introduction: digital age and empire of mind

The ‘digital age’ is now, an evanescent now, when by means of digital technology the military, the communication industry, and business generally have acquired an unprecedented power over the human species. The power is exercised in a new type of empire, an empire of mind. Three movies, typical of the digital age are discussed briefly hereafter to illustrate the workings of the empire of mind.

-I-
The DaVinci Code: the power to get the public involved

Three movies of the digital ageBy The DaVinci Code (or DVC) I mean the media phenomenon of both the book (2003) and the film (2006) of that name. We are told that the book sold over fifty million copies in forty languages. It triggered animated discussions, prompted many articles, and led religious leaders of various faiths to make pronouncements. All these contributed significantly to the publicity of the book. In due time a film based on the book was produced. Again articles, discussions, seminars. The DVC phenomenon lasted three years. Millions of people were immersed in it. After the film had a moderate success, the whole matter was forgotten. Has anybody benefited from it – except those seeking money? Who talks about it today? Myself, of course! But who else? Personally, I had no intention of reading the book, still less of seeing the film. But I was asked to say a few words about both. Being a media scholar and a priest, I could not say no. I was given a copy of the book and a cinema ticket. I read the book attentively. I saw the film patiently. I wrote two articles. I participated in two public discussions. I was morally coerced to do these things. While some believers asserted that Brown and Sony should have cared for the believers’ sentiments, few people, if any, did as much as mention that the whole phenomenon was not very kind towards two persons, the Lord Jesus and saint Mary Magdalene. How would you react if someone was to make a work of fiction on your father, claiming against all evidence, that he had a few wives? You would be expected to find that amusing, even humorous, since it was only fiction. Was it humane on the part of Dan Brown to brush up the old story of an imagined marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene?

The DVC phenomenon shows that those handling the media have the power to literally drag large crowds of people into their products and even to force some to get involved. As a result media tycoons rake in huge financial profits. Scholars, and more often non-scholars, call ‘social’ that involvement of the public. I do not share that opinion. For, the binding together of a crowd is not necessarily social. I rather see it as individualistic gregariousness.

-II-
The Matrix: digital technology

In The Matrix what first strikes the viewer is the use of digital technology in creating special effects. The makers of the film graciously explain (Hollywood used to be rather secretive regarding special effects) how they produce shots in which a man or a woman is seen with great credibility floating in the air. But when we hear that it takes nearly 200 still cameras and two movie cameras to take such a shot, that it requires a special background, that the actors are made to fall on cushions (that remain unseen), then one can understand why the ‘trick’ is explained to the inquisitive spectator. The effects are something to be proud of on the part of Hollywood.

Three movies of the digital age

However, one can wonder. Finally, what’s the point of such effects? Do they contribute anything to the movie? One critic even said that he had never seen so much skill and so much money used to produce such a stupid film. That, to me, was a stupid reaction to the movie, an example of how critics (or so-called critics) can mislead the public. Precisely because there is so much skill and so much money involved, one could give this much credit to the film’s makers and ask, what could be the point? I suggest that the point of these effects is to make credible, almost palpable, the existence of the ‘matrix.’ And we greatly need to be aware of the matrix. While believers in God can immediately see the matrix as an expression of God’s power, I feel that there is a more plausible and immediately relevant purpose in creating these effects: they make plausible the existence of another all-embracing power, a power that is now currently attributed to an “empire of mind.” [i]

While I would not argue that the movie was made explicitly to draw attention to the empire of mind, it nonetheless raises the issue of a power that, unknown to most people, is at work in the world. That is exactly the case of the ‘empire of mind’: it is invisible, has a tremendous mind power through the media, promotes values and styles of life, defines important concepts, for instance, ‘development’ and the ‘posthuman’, to mention only two. In the past, people resented the power of the empires, like the British Empire, now they thoroughly enjoy being dominated by the empire of mind. For instance, they enjoy the sports they watch on the media, unaware that the primary function of these media sports is to draw consumers to advertisers. Even the semi-gods of both sports and cinema end up being advertisers – think of Amitabha Bachchan, of Sourav Ganguly, for example.

The power of the empire of mind rests on the unawareness of the people under its sway. Hence, instead of looking down on popular movies, critics should help the public to benefit from these movies. Peter Malone wrote (16 April 2007):

Even classical directors like Poland’s Krzysztof Zanussi declared that everybody should see The Matrix for its philosophical/transcendent dimensions.[2]

-III-
Manasarovar: local identity

Three movies of the digital ageManasarovar, a film of Anup Kurian, 2004, exemplifies the possibility of making a film that is markedly local, in this case Indian and even Malayalam, and yet open to the global and able to benefit from it without losing anything of its local character. In fact, while Manasarovar is about a mythical yet real lake in the Himalayas, “the lake of the mind”, the filmmaker and his team chose to make it in English. Moreover, they had an Irish band create the entire music track of the movie, perhaps the first Indian film to have its entire music track made by foreign artists.

The film is local/global in yet another way, namely, in its theme. It projects the situation of young adults in India confronted with the demands of global capitalism. These young adults, professionals all, have very difficult decisions to make, hence the journey to ‘manasarovar’ in search of a clarity of mind that will prepare them to personal commitment in love, and professional commitment in efficiency, yet with concern for others.

The story is that of two brothers, George and Ravi, who happen to encounter professionally the same young woman, Malathy. One can easily think of the three characters as a sort of human Trimurti. You might say they represent three aspects of young India today: George is fully urbanized, Ravi is still rural. As for the girl, she is a third aspect of the young Indian, one who has to take hard decisions. She is the soul of the trimurti. Both George and Ravi show respect to Malathy. But in his loving attitude towards her, Ravi is too fast, and George is too slow. And, initially, Malathy cannot adjust to them.

The three young characters are one. For, in the end, both Ravi and Malathy are ‘en route’ to Manasarovar, and it is not too far fetched to think that George is likely to follow. Malathy represents love seeking rationality.

While remaining well aware of and sympathetic to the underprivileged, the young Indian is today confronted with a world of technology offering apparently infinite possibilities, but managed by an amoral –and at times even immoral– corporate world. As the young seek to engage in deep interpersonal relationships, they experience the need to take a distance from the world they live in to search for answers to their basic questions about life, love and, finally, about themselves. They seek a clarity of mind –similar to the crystal clear water of Manasarovar. They know or will soon find out that the way to Manasarovar is a rugged way, but the reward it promises warrants the effort.

-IV-
The empire of mind

Although we are witnessing a concurrent process of internationalization, globalization and, finally, of transnationalization, it would be naïve to think that the empire of mind is not anchored in a specific territory. Strangelove argues that

Many commentators have noted that it is difficult to see how this classic combination of imperial mechanisms of domination – military, economic, and judicial – can be dissociated from the notion of an imperial world order that emanates from the territorial center of the United States.[3]

 

It would be difficult not to see that the United States were pursuing national interests in a war that was supposedly waged in the service of the world to eliminate “weapons of massive destruction.” The largest military power ever handled hard weapons in Iraq, while the media, controlled by the same emperor, handled the soft “weapons of mass deception” and “mass distraction.”

The ‘new media’ environment has been structured into one (or more) empire of mind. In the natural world, all organisms are submitted to the law of gravitation. Similarly, under capitalism, our minds have been interlinked and attracted by a spurious gravitational power, that of the market.

It may be instructive to conclude this essay by a short discussion of a film belonging by far to the pre-digital era, The Birth of a Nation, 1915, by D. W. Griffith. That will show that movies, at least some movies, have throughout the history of cinema been not only significant but influential in shaping the mind of people.

Griffith’s movie is based on a novel written by a Protestant Padre, and entitled The Clansman. Initially the movie had that title. But when the film was released, it was received with great enthusiasm, and not a few said that the movie showed the birth of a nation. Accordingly, the title of the movie was changed. But the movie, like the novel, remained a paean in honor of the Ku-Klux Klan. The Klan was a secret army created by the White Americans to “terrorize” the African-Americans when they began to take more and more power and the Whites felt threatened. An inter title of the movie uses the word “terrorize” to define the role of the Klan. Thus, the movie shows the birth of the American nation as that of a terrorist nation. What is most significant today is that the movie was hailed by several clergymen. For instance, the Cambridge Chronicle, May 15, 1915, reports on “the first of a series of three sermons on the photo-play about which there has been so much discussion.” The heading of the report reads:

“Rev. Lyman V. Rutledge, of Harvard Street Unitarian Church, Says Photo-Play Deals in Tremendously Powerful Way With Most Sacred National Experiences.”

And the Reverend is quoted as saying:

“What are my most vivid impressions? The film presents the horrors of war. Next in vividness is the glory of the Ku-Klux Klan. There is no possibility of ever effacing the vivid memory of those night-riders, and their memory is to be forever associated with a thrill of joy. They stand here for that divine spirit which is above law, which in defiance of inadequate law rises to defend its honor in the face of tyranny. America has always stood for that kind of authority.” [4]

The media of film re-wrote history. Clergymen celebrated “with a thrill of joy” “the glory of the Ku-Klux Klan,” that “invisible empire.” [5]  The press reported pronouncements of religious and political personalities, and gave them mass outreach.

How not to see present day globalization as a continuation of the birth of a nation. We are witnessing the birth of a world.

“The word ‘globalization’ is itself an incomplete idea, since it fails to explain what, precisely, is being globalised. When Bush spoke of “the globalisation of terror”, he might equally well have referred to “the terror of globalization,” the well-founded fear of the appropriation, by force if necessary, of the resources, labour, wealth and raw materials of the world in the interests of the USA, and those who shelter in the shadow of its dominance.” [6]

Global terrorism? Indeed. Terror of globalization? Yes. Nonetheless, globally, people are not terrorized.

“The world will no doubt remember that the 21st Century began on that 30 November 1999 in Seattle, when worldwide civil society has succeeded, for the first time, to address a global “no” to the powerful economic interests that would govern the world.” (Jacques B. Gélinas) [7]

While people ‘enjoy’ movies like the DVC, while they ‘enjoy’ sport events packaged by the media, they celebrate their own subjection to the empire of mind, an empire powered by digital technology, a Ku-Klux Klan of sorts. Most people do not know about the empire, and they dance, as it were, in joy. I feel like asking each of them, “Media dancer, who sets the tune?” [8]

[i] Strangelove, Michael (U. of Ottawa): The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-Capitalist Movement. University of Toronto Press, 2005

[2] http://habitusnetwork.org/movie-reviews/ghost-rider-us-2007-d.-mark-steven-johnson.html

[3] Strangelove, op. cit. p. 15

[4] Stern, Seymour: Griffith: I – The Birth of a Nation. Film Culture, No. 36, Spring/Summer 1965. Special Griffith Issue, p. 209

[5] Stern, id., p. 209

[6] Seabrook, Sean: “Globalising terror, terrorizing the world.” in The Sunday Statesman, Kolkata, 6 October 2002.

[7] Quoted in Bernier, Réjean : ‘Au 3ème Sommet des Amériques à Québec : Les médias nous ont-ils distraits ou sensibilisés à la mondialisation?’ in Media and the Challenge of Globalisation, UCIP, Geneva, 2001, p. 55.

[8] “Media Dancer, Who Sets the Tune?” is the title of a new work of mine, a media (self) education program for liberation. Still in preparation.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Gaston Roberge, a Jesuit Father, was born in 1935 in Montreal, Canada. He volunteered to come to India and he was sent to Kolkata where arrived on 15 October 1961. He has a MA in Film Studies from the University of Los Angeles, USA.
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