SCIOPS 01.25: Culture War

The rain has returned to Seattle, and with it has come a sense of impending doom.

Maybe that’s just me. At this time last year I was getting ready for an eviction while trying desperately to finish the second draft of my first novel. I’m in a better place this year, with a steady job and a reliable place to live and a newsletter-pet to feed every week. My novel hasn’t gotten any better, but I know definitively how many things are wrong with it. It would be an idyllic situation, except that all around me I can sense the churning fever of a nation infected with memetic plague and culture war.

If 2016 was the Year of the Dumpsterfire, then 2017 is shaping up to be the Year of the Bastards Grinding You Down.

Today I’m thinking about a movie I watched over the weekend – Bushwick , directed by Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion. It was an excellent film, evoking exactly the sort of claustrophobia and desperate fear that I struggle with in the city. It was the movie of 2017, as far as atmosphere goes.

The setup was, if not predictable, at least very familiar: “beautiful young woman in the middle of a guerrilla war finds big strong silent type to help her rescue the people of her neighborhood and escape the warzone.” The only difference between the plot of Bushwick and any other summer explosionpalooza: The war is on the streets of New York.

In Bushwick , an invading army scours the streets of the Brooklyn neighborhood of the same name. The invaders, kitted out in paramilitary gear and toting automatic rifles, move methodically through the streets, gunning down civilians and blowing up infrastructure. It’s no great spoiler (in fact, I think it’s revealed in the trailer) that the invading army isn’t a foreign force. They’re Americans. Texas is seceding from the union, along with the rest of Dixie. And they’ve invaded New York, to hold as a bargaining chip against the USA.

There’s two things about this movie that really screamed out at me: the content, and the cinematography.

The plot of the movie is rudimentary – protagonist Lucy wants to go the five blocks across the neighborhood to her grandmother’s house. She convinces the burly Stupe, Iraq War vet and medic, to help her. They get shot at, stabbed with glass, and blown up along the way. Eventually they grab her bong-smoking sister and a posse of neighbors and hightail it for Grover Cleveland Park, where the federal government is evacuating citizens in helicopters.

It’s Civil War II, the culture war that’s been perpetuated by the politicians and talking heads for decades now, finally brought to a boil. Rednecks and hoods blasting each other in the streets, rapists and looters and murderers everywhere, cellphone service overloaded by all the people calling for help. Trapped in crumbling buildings, taking cover behind dumpsters and parked cars, catching quick breaths of safety in basements and stairwells. The movie gives a visceral feeling of the inane violence unleashed on humans by humans.

The guy who owns the corner store, breathing shallowly as blood penetrates his lungs: “They were stealing candy. Stealing candy! I didn’t even try to stop them… they stabbed me anyway.”

The captured soldier, a scrawny young man from Kentucky: “When we started losing ground, they told us to shoot on sight. I was just following orders. I’m a soldier.”

The sister, barely awake and sucking down a joint: “I don’t know, the neighbors have been playing Call of Duty so loud I can’t even get any sleep!”

And it is strange, isn’t it, that we have machines in our house for simulating warfare? Sound systems so powerful that virtual and real gunfire are indistinguishable. A special networking system for connecting our war machines to others around the planet, a whole industry built around wargames. Our young are trained in combat simulators designed by the US Army. They practice group maneuvers and headshots. They believe in the zombie apocalypse – they’ve lived years of their lives in simulated apocalypse. It’s as realistic to them as school and work are.

That’s why the cinematography of Bushwick is so interesting: it’s filmed like a video game. I don’t know if this was the explicit intent of the directors, but it’s what they achieved. The entire movie is framed as one continuous shot. The camera stays with Lucy from the subway station where she enters the fray all the way to the dramatic rescue in the park. Occasionally the shot will drift away, but the camera is always located right near her. For most of the movie, Lucy is clearly situated in the middle of the frame, and everything is happening around her. The effect is exactly the same as watching someone else play a video game – the camera swings around dizzyingly, following a gaze not my own, but the protagonist is always at the center of the action.

Why did they film it like this? I understand the continuous-shot approach: this is what it feels like to live through a disaster. There’s no quick cut to save you. There’s no time for flashbacks or understanding where the enemy is coming from. There’s no “happily ever after”. It’s just bad things, one after another, and people trying to stay alive. Each person is the center of their own little world. In this sense the camera revolving around Lucy is symbolic of the way that our personal priorities take precedence in situations of extreme prejudice. Everyone else in the movie is on the same tip: take care of yourself first, and your loved ones. Nothing else matters.

But I think there’s more to it. The vision of New York being attacked has obvious overtones. Lucy, when she finally talks to someone that isn’t trying to hurt her, asks it for all of us: “Is it 9/11 again?”

That day, when the towers came down, was the day America was brought to its knees. Nothing has been the same since then. Whatever arrangements were made to get those planes to hit those towers – whoever was involved, who knew, who didn’t – it doesn’t matter. The point was to make Americans afraid, and turn them against each other, and embroil them in decades of unnecessary violence. It worked. However much our politicians posture, we all know it: the era of the single superpower ended in 2001.

The video-game feeling of Bushwick is not intended to create a sense of unreality. It’s a true vision of the world of 2017. If America does dissolve into civil war, which is not unlikely at this point, it will feel like a video game . People have spent so many hours playing war and watching war, they have no other models for how to survive in chaos. Troops of half-trained teenage soldiers in fatigues will do battle with pants-sagging drug dealers and we will all lose .

The weaponized propaganda is everywhere. Hell, Bushwick is probably part of it. I mean, once you see New York City torched by the Texans, it’s a hard image to forget. But we need to stay vigilant. “Just following orders” is the defense of every war-crimes trial ever convened. We have to immunize ourselves to that logic.

We need strategies for survival, and networks of people who will take care of each other. We need real community, not social-media gossip groups. We need peace simulations where we practice finding clean water, and feeding our neighbors, and bandaging wounds. We need thinking people, organized to resist the logic of war.

We need cognitive security.

Thanks for reading.

– Max

PS: The soundtrack to BUSHWICK was composed by Aesop Rock and you should so listen to it. There’s a sample at Cut Print Film.


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