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Make it a Barrel. From Here to Eternity. Media and the Retrograde Future.

“At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought.”

— Jean-Luc Godard


The Film version of James Jones’ novel, From Here to Eternity, is rightly considered a classic. A working definition of a classic is a device that while specifically of its time, is also a work that transcends time and speaks by reflection, to all times and any context.

This is why Hamlet can be a story about a lion in Africa, or can be set on a spaceship, or can  be dressed up as a Western; it doesn’t matter because the themes involved are universal and speak to a continuity in human experience.

That this suggests an inability to evolve is no small issue but one to which we will return in subsequent work.

What concerns us here is a specific effect of media. By media we mean visual expression in television and film in both its artistic form and its use as advertising.*

The example we’re looking at is the film, From Here to Eternity.

Winner of 8 Academy Awards, starring Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Borgnine, the film succeeds in every aspect – acting, cinematography, and dialogue – even if the dialogue and the acting of the words are in many instances examples of chewing the scenery. This is especially true in scenes with Lancaster who fires off words as if he was shooting the words from his fingers. And yet, the scenes still succeed.

The film does tepidly render the more violent truths of Jones’ novel, which had caused what we would now call institutionalized blowback, as it exposed the harsh and blunt realities of the army’s sadistic treatment of recruits and its Roman legion style discipline, and its corruptions.

But amid all of that our focus is on one very brief scene; an exchange between Lancaster and an extra in the moments right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, where the film is set.

This occurs after the film’s central issues have been laid out and set in motion – Lancaster’s affair with the commanding officer’s wife, Borgnine’s sadism, Sinatra’s conflict with Borgnine and Montgomery Clift’s trajectory towards his fate.

As the bombs fall and the military struggles to respond adequately, Lancaster as the star, takes control and tames the chaos. He barks orders, organizes the defense and calms the men. Passing a soldier amid the chaos he grabs the man by the arm and snaps at him to put on a pot of coffee, then stops, turns and spins the man around and says, better make it a barrel.

The purpose of that brief moment is to colonize the imagination of the public by making them complicit in a conceit of the film, and a conceit of the medium. It is a retrograde future that steals the process of thought and places consciousness in a closed realm where not knowing, and thus, discovery, are transformed into the certainty of the past, and is then projected onto a false future in which the outcome is already established. This is a make believe notion in which the outcome is already known, but we are told to pretend otherwise while enjoying the false secret of the manufactured truth.

The conceit is of course that watching the film, released in 1953, the audience already knows who won the war. Thus, Lancaster’s double-take is meant as a wink and a nod to the audience as if to say, yes it’s going to be tough, tough enough to require a barrel of coffee but we (the unreal characters and the real audience who are transformed into unreal participants) know the future.

The moral, aesthetic and intellectual dilemma, is that as a consistent process, a consistent conceit, this erodes the act of imagining. To imagine is to invent, it is to suggest a future that has not occurred not only because by definition, the future is that which has yet to happen, but because it also arrests the present, the place where consciousness invents itself. In contrast the past, examined always in the perpetual now, is both an examination of known facts but also an invention with order, sequence, and meaning being shuffled like a deck of cards. The future is organized in a similar manner but unlike the past it is unknown and thus it is anxious, excited, a living dream in which anything is possible relative to the dreamer’s capacity to create.

What replaces that in Lancaster’s brief moment with the order for coffee is a colonization in which, as in all acts of colonization, time is arrested. Media in this process becomes propaganda and the purpose of propaganda is to control the frame that defines the narrative; to arrest the future by eliminating the imagination and with it the individual. The outcome being known, and exploited in the service of propaganda, media becomes a corrupt and corrupting tool of the cadre that controls the platform, or in other terms, the means of production. This in turn means control of the simulacrum of discussion in which, the sham dialogue of examination, of faux criticism, is nothing more or less than a footnote to what has been transformed from art, into an advertisement for the system that produces the advertisement but calls it art.

The film, if understood, remains successful but the success is qualified, informed, by the conceit.This is an old system in a new form. Control of the frame that defines the narrative is as old as dirt.

Consider that as far back as Ancient Athens, in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, Plato had outlined his ideal city state in which artists would be banished because their work agitated the public. The form of the agitation was its falsity, and how by being such precise imitations of reality, of the truth, they disrupted the stability of the community.

The irony being of course that Plato would in turn defend Socrates from the state which accused him of blasphemy because in hearing voices, he was worshiping gods that had not been sanctioned by the authorities.

We of course are told we are free to worship any or no god or gods, and to imagine anything we want – except of course we are subject to a constant barrage of images and dialogue that colonize our imagination and define the parameters of what is permissible, and what is not allowed.

In From Here to Eternity, what goes missing are not the facts as we know who won the war, but instead the ability to imagine the meaning of what happened, which is erased; distorted and thus, colonized.

Of course it will require a barrel. The war will be long and tragic, but all outcomes are inevitable and in being inevitable the future becomes the property of the present, and the emotional response, the spontaneous expression, is stunted, packaged and sold as a template.

The frame having been set, defines what is possible, and permissible within the subsequent narrative. To deviate from the narrative, to question the assertion of there being a Greatest Generation, is to be declared blasphemous.

You are not allowed to hear voices that have not been sanctioned by the state. Your mind has been colonized and rented out to a Cineplex.

Better make it a barrel.


*All forms of media, even those that lay claim to be art, are still a form of advertising.

2 comments on “Make it a Barrel. From Here to Eternity. Media and the Retrograde Future.

  1. That is well written. Tightly focused and to the point. A nice close-reading of a scene to exemplify a larger argument. And the topic being voices, it does fit well with my last piece.

    About voices and cinema, I’ve always been fond of the narrative voice of film noir. A narrative voice, when effective, sinks into the viewers mind and thinks the thoughts for the passive audience (film being the powerful combo of sight and sound). Noir is a flexible form and easily applied to the imagined futures or alternative timelines of SF. And often there is a Gnostic-like quality of fallen world.

    Noir also has a reactionary quality. I’ve pointed out how this was effectively used in the Dark Knight series. That was definitely the selling of a worldview. An ideological vision that feels ever more claustrophobic over time in its ability to seize the imagination. It’s a self-enclosed world without alternatives. Fatalism, often cynical or at least world-weary, as inevitability and inescapability is a quality of noir. But a similar quality is found in all ideological realism, which is the essence of entertainment as propaganda and advertising. The temporal arrested and the narrative framed.

    This same narrative voice can be used to many ends, though. There are the multiple lone voices of The Thin Red Line, creating a sense of fracture and mortal aloneness. And then there is the full-on gnostic voice of A Scanner Darkly with a moral force that wants to escape the frame of identity, an attempt to turn the narrative against the controllers of narrative, an attempt to evade the dark forces pulling the strings and playing both sides of the system.

    I don’t know how all of that might or might not apply to your analysis. It’s good to keep in mind what is being sold. As some like to repeat, in social media it is the social media user who is the product being sold. So, maybe it isn’t simply what we are being sold but in what ways are we being sold, in a world where consumer and product are hard to distinguish, as what is ultimately being sold is an entire ideological system and worldview. And a film industry as part of capitalist realism is essentially selling the same product over and over, that being a particular kind of identity and way of being within the system. As a reactionary system, it can adapt any material to this end, even the seemingly anti-reactionary.

    I’d like to see more posts along these lines. I get the basic idea your getting at. But I’d like to see it further sussed out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. rauldukeblog says:

      I’m about to post a new piece that deals with an example of several of your points vis the sameness of object for sale and the person who is purchasing but is also being purchased and sold.

      Batman has always had a kind of reactionary quality and comic books in general can be framed as anti-democratic and even neo-fascist but Marvel to its credit has always maintained an awareness that tends to come across in the characters comments or introspection though in certain characters the distinction is wafer thin.

      Noir of course is a spectrum. Can’t remember though it’s someone famous but a writer did a lengthy piece dissecting Chandler as a neo fascist. I disagree but I understand the argument. Micky Spillane of course is blatantly reactionary. I find it amusing that Tom Cruise’s version of a private detective was originally presented as anti-establishment and exposing corruption vis Afghanistan and then in the next one he’s far more a happy tool of the system. In other words the form is easy to exploit.

      I’m working out an expanded version of Faulkner’s Sparrows but its slow going as there’s a lot of material.

      The new piece about media will be posted shortly.

      Liked by 1 person

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