"Undermining my electoral viability since 2001."

Better Culture, Better Future?

Well, I've been stewing, and now I'll be spewing.

We of Cinema
City of MenA while back I got this great DVD from Brazil called City of Men, something of a follow-on to the brilliant film City of God, which delves into the lives of children in a particularly infamous favela.

The series is significantly more positive than the movie. It doesn't shy away from grit or violentce, but it does manage to pull out a lot of beauty by taking a wider angle and showing the holistic culture and community. It's really fantastic. You can buy it from Amazon if you like.

One of my favorite aspects of the series is the way in which many episodes include "live" camcorder shots of/by the kids, archival footage (which may or may not be real), and also documentary-style interviews. This form represents next-gen postmodernism at it's best: a reconstructive narrative. One of the more humorous moments comes in an episode where the two protagonists take a trip to Brazillia to hand-deliver a letter to President Lula, under the auspices of an NGO who's director has the kids film things in the favela. They're riding on the bus with the camcorder, talking about how important it is to get on tape so the director can "make her gringo bosses happy."

In reality, the series comes from just such an organization: the Nós do Cinema project in Rio, which is overseen by Kátina Lund, co-director of City of God. Basically they started doing media and acting training in the favela in order to build the cast for the movie, and the organization was such a hit with the people that they kept it going afterwards.

The two principle actors in City of Men Douglas Silva (Acerola) and Darlan Cunha (Laranjinha) were participants in this program. Both played central characters in City of God. They, along with most of the other child actors, are quite talented, and it's really something to watch them grow up over the four years of filming.

I really like the idea of Nós do Cinema. It is in keeping with the absolutely fantastic Brazilian pedagogical tradition of Paulo Freire, who's Pedagogy of the Oppressed I discovered by way of Auguso Boal and his Theatre of the Oppressed, which I studied a bit at NYU. In brief, Freire (much like my man John Dewey) asks us to ditch the "banking" concept of education -- in which the role of student is to be "filled" with "facts" -- and stresses the need to develop indigenous forms of intelligence, critical thought and articulation.

For me, these ideas echo many of the more positive aspects of my own non-traditional education; they have come to form a core set of values for me in evaluating the world around me and in thinking about how to improve the human condition.

The Means of Communication
I've repeated the notion so often that it feels tired to me, but it seems undeniable that future human progress depends on the continued democratization and decentralization of our means of communication. We need to talk more and more meaningfully to more of eachother. This isn't your average cliche call for increased dialogue; I believe we actually have a chance to make a quantum leap in terms of our global communication, and significantly improve the whole world situation in the process.

To be sure, human progress also depends on a lot of other more tangible things -- things closer to the Old Man's means of production -- being more equitably and efficiently parsed out as well. However, I and many other see strong rights and freedoms and powers around information to be fundamental, even necessary, pre-coursers to a more equitable distribution of material wealth; media justice as a means for social justice, if you will.

Indeed, without the critical ability to independently communicate, we're condemned to being herded (for better or for worse) by our social elites, and I don't think that's where we want to be. Recent history shows the weakness of elite/centralized control structures from the Soviet Politburo and their sham command economy, to our own decadent political establishment in Washington and the corruption and failure that's come from ever-greater corporate consolidation.

Indeed, there are few if any established institutions which have not seen their credibility degrade in recent years, including the press and religious institutions. And not without reason: they're failing us. If we're to navigate the perils of the 21st Century with any hope of making the world a better place, let alone preventing catastrophe, it's inarguably necessary to explore new forms of organization and interaction. What we have now is not working.

People are not stupid. They know that things are getting worse in the world, but I think most people -- myself included -- feel largely powerless. And, individually, we are. Certainly there are all manner of important individual acts that run along the theme of "think global, act local," and yes it's a good thing to conserve and recycle, to be kind and engaged with your own community. However, more is needed, and the first step towards getting more is to overcome that sensation of individual helplessness by connecting with like-minded people to engage in larger-scale projects.

What Do We Imagine?
One of the reasons City of Men impresses me is how well it communicates a distinctly different culture to my own, better than any foreign film I've seen. And in spite of the omnipresent threat of drug-traffickers, crushing poverty, disintegrating families, etc, the cultural "message" of the show is overwhelmingly positive and attractive.

I think a lot of this comes from the strong sense of community that's carried though the show, the sense of camradre and shared ownership of the physical and social environment. The US is very much a dog-eat-dog place, excessively individualistic, competitive and fearful to the point of paranoia and genrally lacking in public/community space. We're missing that quality of fraternity, to go with our liberty and (supposed) equality. Traded it in for the pursuit of happiness we did. Kind of a shame.

Something as simple as Acerola's favela funk-dancing group doing a little routine about peace and love stikes me as something that would seem out of place, if not laughable, in a mainstream American context. As someone who's a big proponent of both peace and love, this is a little disheartening.

It strikes me in my art-heart that a lot of our problems are bound up with the crass commercialization of our culture. Human beings, including those who create, tend to have a 360-degree range of experiences and expressions. While everyone's got their own style and I'm all for darkness, blood, sex and profanity, it's the need to fit into economic niches or appeal to marketing segments that drives the mindlessly low common denominator of so much contemporary culture.

On the other hand, if people didn't buy mindless inhumane and degrading products at such reliable rates, this wouldn't be an issue. There are cycles at work in culture, just like in family life, and they can spin either upward or down.

So the question really is, what do we imagine, and who are "we" in imagining it? Recently, the we has been a pretty small cabal, and the what has largely been whatever will sell. That's changing, and increasingly quickly, as the media industry becomes one of the first to come apart under the pressures of massive consolodation, like some black hole imploding.

Like the T-shirt says, it's fun! In spite of "the coarsening of our public discourse," as the circle of participation has widened and more people from more walks of life have become cultural producers -- whether we're talking independent film, hip-hop, blogging, or Nós do Cinema -- there have been some great results. I find a lot more to like in the contemporary cultural scene than I do in the sanitized past of Hollywood and Broadway, and it seems harder and harder to pass of rank bullshit in the public square these days.

This trend of decentralization, the decline of gatekeepers and rise of independent producers, also brings to life the great hope of a more equitable cultural balance: a civilization which truly exists in a state of conversational interconnection rather than some kind of internally constructed hegemony. It's been a long road out of serfdom, but it seems like we're getting close to a watershed.

Jaded skeptic that I am, I still hold out an innocent, faithful belief that people will do right more than they'll do wrong. It seems to me that the more we get people into making culture for, of and by themselves, the closer we'll get to a just and equitable world, and the better chance we'll have of living in peace.


funny to see you writing about this. i was just having a conversation with a british coworker about american popular culture, but where we ended up just before i had to dash back to work was thomas saying how one big difference he noted between the uk and the us is that he did feel there was a community over there. apparently the brits feel they share something, and it's an identity worth fighting for. if we americans didn't feel so much like outsiders in our own country, maybe we would fight harder for the principles in the constitution instead of joining evangelical religions or talking about moving to canada.

It's so nice that you have such an interest for others cultures, which it's not common among Americans.