“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.