Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Age of Convolution

We're living in a weird kind of world.  I'm sure most of you know that already.  Part of the benefit of enjoying the arts is getting to be entertained rather than frustrated by this.

Here I'm thinking of Oliver Stone's new movie Savages, which was released over the summer and has just come to [insert home video market of your choosing].  There're a lot of ways to view it, either as the latest of his mostly-violent-popcorn-flicks (see: Natural Born Killers, U-Turn) or as the latest of this year's mostly-violent-popcorn-flicks-by-various-directors (see: Seven Psychopaths, Killing Them Softly), or even as a new version of Traffic (which was itself based on a prior incarnation of something called...Traffic).

Savages is about the modern drug trade scene (as opposed to the '70s drug trade scene as seen in American Gangster, or the '80s scene as seen in Scarface or the '90s drug scene as seen in Trainspotting or the '00s scene as seen in...Traffic), but it's not just that (although Stone and some of his critics who've softened since some of his more polarizing efforts, which culminated in Alexander, would have you believe it's just a mostly-violent-popcorn-flick).  It's about the horribly convoluted business of the drug trade, but it can also be about the horribly convoluted business of any business.

I think we're living in an age of transition.  I think most people can see that, but even after the great recession begun in 2008 that exposed the horrifying number of ways that lots of businesses were doing business very badly and are still trying to get away with it today (Occupy Wall Street, which ultimately failed, was an attempt to remind everyone that we have definitely not solved those problems, although peasants have been revolting ineffectually against the system for many centuries).

The reason why I say that we're in an age of transition, which anyone can see for themselves, is that more and more the little people are attempting to exert themselves.  The big people are certainly fortifying themselves, but the little people are trying to operate more and more on their own.  That's what the fad of crowdsourcing is all about.  It's the next iteration of all the illegal file downloading people were doing at the turn of the millennium, which caused such a revolution in the creative business model and brought us a lot of things with a small "i" at the start of it.

The short of it is that the little people are trying to get control of their own affairs.  This works really well, to a certain extent.  Of course, these little people realize from the start that this is only possible by building a huge network of support.  This is of course what brought us the old model that got us to where we are today.  The difference is that these people are theoretically learning how to do this without any one person gaining an inordinate share of the profits.  It's about the work more than the money.

Basically it's the monetary system that's in a form of transition, but because there are a few people (as there has always been) who really, really believe that money is the ultimate goal of everything, this is a process that is going to take some time.

Anyway, the Age of Convolution happens when all the people scrambling to figure out their place in the new system butt heads.  In a lot of ways, Breaking Bad has been demonstrating this for years, and a lot of TV viewers really enjoy it.  Savages is like the movie version of Breaking Bad, if that makes it easier for you.  Instead of a cancer patient looking to solve his problems by (to my mind illogically) creating bigger ones, we get two young guys making their money and also becoming involved in something far bigger than they realized.

Stone often makes movies about people falling into situations they did not expect and being swallowed whole.  It's practically the only movie he makes, actually.  In Savages you mostly don't have to worry about the politics.  One of the young men is a former soldier, however, and so our current wars are at least name-checked (the connection between war and drugs is not made as clear as in American Gangster, but it's the same; it's worth noting that the current comic book Before Watchmen: Comedian has touched on the same subject).

The problem is that these guys can't exist in a bubble.  They're closely monitored by an agent of the DEA and are actively being recruited by a Mexican drug cartel, the latter of which leads to a situation very similar to No Country for Old Men (the one actor I will reference directly is Benicio del Toro, who in this particular role is very similar to Javier Bardem, a physical presence, as del Toro always is, that haunts the movie and defines it without having to do much more than be the manifestation of the violence at the heart of the story).

What looks at the beginning of the movie like a fairly simple living arrangement for our two young guys (and their beach bunny mutual lover) quickly devolves into, yes, a convoluted affair.  Not convoluted as in Stone doesn't help us figure it out, but that he lets us know all too well what's really going on.

That's what makes it topical, that's what draws me back to my point about the changing nature of the world we're living in.  That's basically what's going on everywhere.  Everyone's trying to get their piece of the pie and they don't really care who they step on.  They're stumbling around.  That's the nature of a transition period.

In a lot of ways, Stone is most closely echoing Shakespeare.  I'm not calling Oliver Stone our modern William Shakespeare (that's an argument for another day), but that's exactly what Shakespeare was doing in his plays.  Think about it.  Romeo + Juliet is all about two families that outmaneuver themselves so cleverly, with so many convoluted things going on, that they don't realize the biggest losers are the smallest pieces on the chess board, the title characters who are just a pair of lovebirds.  That's Hamlet, that's Othello (though admittedly it's Iago pulling all the strings), that's King Lear, that's Macbeth, that's every single one of them.

Shakespeare was writing at a time where England was in a marked transition thanks to Henry VIII's religious reforms, which caused a cosmic shift in the balance of society.  Elizabeth I caused a lot of stabilization to occur, but she was also reigning at the start of the the exploration of the New World, and massive changes were still on their way.  In each of his plays, Shakespeare writes about a paradigm shift.

Our shift is all about globalization.  Some of us embrace it, some of us fear it, but it's an inescapable fact that it's happening.  It's drastically affected the economics of every nation in the world, and we're still trying to figure out how to stabilize the process.  It's mostly a problem of figuring out how we can begin to respect everyone and where their specific productivity exists.  So much of the past was defined by physical resources, and yet now we're discovering that more and more it's the intangibles that we must depend on.  Everyone knows the statistics that show how the physical resources are consumed unequally.  That's what's a part of the transition, why so many people are warning of environmental catastrophe (to force those consuming more to rethink their policies).

Anyway, the convoluted nature of the world is something that's surfacing again in our fiction.  Savages is one example.  I'm writing about it in my writer's blog because this is exactly what I do in my fiction.  I guess I tend to write stories of this nature because that's what I've known in my own life, how forces that have been building to this moment and continue to develop have affected me throughout my life.  I guess I didn't really realize it until now.  I'm not plugging a book.  I just renamed one of my manuscripts, Finnegan.  It's now going to be known as Modern Ark, for any number of reasons.  That's a title I've been playing with for years.  I named a poem after the term.  It refers in one sense to the biblical tale of Noah's Ark, which was all about God's wrath and how a few people escaped it along with a lot of animals.  I've read a number of books that reinterpreted it for modern readers (the two best being Not Wanted On the Voyage and The Preservationist).  Modern Ark is not about Noah's Ark, however.  It began as a vampire story.  I thought it was going to stay a vampire story.  I proved myself wrong fairly soon.  There ended up being a lot of convoluted relationships that consumed the story, some associations that Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers comic would appreciate, characters that never meet because some of them are biblical and therefore thousands of years in the past.

Not all of my manuscripts are like Modern Ark, but it's an effort that I've tried selling to publishers with no success.  I guess the recent developments concerning the fate of Yoshimi (which I'm now thinking I'll either sell around or sell myself in installments, the latter of which is similar to how Stephen King did The Green Mile and Michael Abayomi has done his science fiction epic).  I'm beginning to see why it's so difficult, because not many people write like that.  But there's an audience.  If Oliver Stone can make Savages (and there being any number of examples of other filmmakers making similar movies, and even William frickin' Shakespeare), then I'm not so far off the mark.  It's a direct reflection of the world we're living in, after all.  Maybe it's not always popular to be such a direct reflection of complicated times, but that's another thing that makes the whole affair so brilliantly convoluted.

Maybe you're free of such relationships.  Maybe everything runs smoothly for you.  Maybe everything is simple.  But I doubt that.  Everything about everything is increasingly convoluted.  Sometimes it's beneficial to shine a light on a giant mess.  You'll see a lot of ugliness.  But you'll also see beauty where you never thought it could exist before.  One man's trash is another man's treasure, after all.  It's all a game of perspective, and that's what art at its best can give you.  I like escapism as much as the next guy, but sometimes I like to have a little more.


  1. I'll probably watch Savages at some point. I could have rented it yesterday when I was at the video store but instead I got MIB 3 and Expendables 2.

    1. It's not a movie that you need to rush to see. But if you give it a chance it will prove itself worthwhile.


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