Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Capitalism, Imperialism, Perfection, Gods

What great timing! I arrived home from the gym this evening just in time to catch the Point of View (POV) Shorts series on PBS. The four featured documentary films showcased fascinating imagery and provocative themes, touching on various aspects of the contemporary socio-political and cultural landscape. Below I have outlined my take-away from each short:

Utopia, Part 3: The World's Largest Shopping Mall - Located in a country believed to be sailing to newfound financial heights on account of its participation in the global capitalist economy, the South China Mall outside of Guangzhou, China, awes spectators with its overwhelming scale and size - it even boasts an indoor roller coaster for post-meal amusement. The mall's dirty little secret: it's virtually empty. Alex Hu built it, but 'they' didn't come. In a hauntingly existential way, capitalism's greatest monument becomes the very sign of its excess; the wild speculations of capitalist power are completely severed from the material reality; or, as Slavoj Zizek warns, "the capitalist incessant development and revolutionizing of its own material conditions, the mad dance of its unconditional spiral of productivity, is ultimately nothing but a desperate flight forward to escape its own debilitating inherent contradiction." What does the limit of our seemingly infinite thirst for consumption look like? After the illusion withers, all that's left are deserted concourses and empty amusement rides.

Nutkin's Last Stand - A gang of renegade Brits take to the streets (or, more accurately, the fields) to trap and destroy the foreign grey squirrel presence that is diseasing and killing off the local red squirrel population, which holds a special place in the native literary imagination. Implicitly, and in some scenes explicitly, the film illustrates how European villagers project their fears of American imperialism onto the infectious squirrel pox invasion. How do societies draw their circles of inclusion, and how far will they go to protect 'their own'? How can one colored species be labeled a disposable pest, and another colored species national treasure - even sacred?

34x25x36 - Enter into God's laboratory of corporeal perfection. The Patina V Mannequin Factory in City of Industry, California, has been tasked with the construction of American culture's religious statuary: the ideal woman of the moment. Veneration of fashion symbols represents but another link in the long chain of icon-worship. What is the significance of society's transition from the apotheosis of Mary to that of a chic female physique? In both cases, the εἰκών signifies a form of unattainable perfection, either spiritual/moral or physical/aesthetic. Must humanity always have some object of worship? And what are the implications of the owner's admission that no human model could possibly achieve the mannequin's level of perfection? Is Macy's this century's house of worship?

City of Cranes - Cranes dot the urban skyline, yet few people notice the lifting machines or the individuals that inhabit them. Why? Because we hardly look up. And yet, the cranes represent the very promise of future growth - a promise seemingly deferred, as the building never stops. There's always work, one construction operator explains: if he's not building a new structure, he's removing an older building he helped put up twenty years ago. The work, however, is solitary, often quiet, with sprawling panoramas of the hustle and bustle below - voyeuristic, and yet calm, patient. Crane maneuverers reportedly learn to tell stories about the people they view from above - narratives based on individual patterns and daily routines. Are these individuals our new gods? Do they inhabit another world above ours, marked by a ballet of coordinated machinery, that literally controls and constructs the world in which we live down below?

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