House of Cards and the Reign of Injustice

The most remarkable thing about House of Cards, at this point, is that it hasn’t ended yet.

The first season was great – the story of an ambitious, scheming, and profoundly immoral political couple, which afforded the audience an inside view of the workings of American politics. By the end of Season 2, it became apparent that we were dealing with a classic rise-and-fall tale, which I initially assumed would end in Season 3. Just as The Godfather trilogy is the story of the rise and fall of Michael Corleone, and the George Lucas Star Wars hexology is the rise and fall and last-minute redemption of Anakin Skywalker, so did House of Cards set out to show the arc of Frank and Claire Underwood, whose Machiavellian misdeeds cry out for justice in almost every episode, like those of any other Hollywood villain we’ve ever seen on the screen.

Except that, as of the end of Season 5, they still haven’t gotten their comeuppance. We’re still waiting for the good guys to win – hell, we’re waiting for the good guys to show up. Why? Are the producers just stretching out a successful show because there’s more money to be made? Probably. But perhaps there is also a larger analogy to real life, and realpolitik, to be understood by this lack of resolution.

The Clintons

From the beginning, it was obvious that the Underwoods were modeled on the Clintons – a southern Democratic couple with a very unconventional marriage that seems cemented more by mutual lust for power than by love for each other, at least as most people understand love. Claire even looks like a more attractive version of Hillary, complete with a more attractive Huma Abedin played by Neve Campbell.

The kinds of scandals that House of Cards dramatizes are not terribly different from those that have surrounded the Clintons for decades, since Bill Clinton was the governor of Arkansas. Aside from endless stories of rampant infidelity by both parties, there are the more serious allegations of murders and cover-ups. During the Clinton presidency, it was Vince Foster. Much more recently, it is Seth Rich, the Democratic staffer who is believed by some to be the source of the leaked Podesta emails, who was murdered in July of last year. The murder remains unsolved.

House of Cards first aired during Barack Obama’s second term, and it was easy to simply imagine it as an alternate reality in which the Clintons, or people like them, had merely been born twenty years later. But Season 5 marks the first time that House of Cards has aired during the Trump presidency, and the media has a very different attitude to the current Commander-in-Chief.

The mainstream media, and therefore most of the public, thought that Obama was more or less a decent guy, if not an outright saint. Everyone in left-leaning Hollywood just loved him and treated him as one of their own, and as for Republicans, even his opponent John McCain defended him as “a decent family man” to a woman who said that Obama was not to be trusted because “he’s an Arab.”

Can anyone imagine the media, or Democratic politicians, being even half as gracious to President Trump? Whereas “birtherism” and accusations of Obama being a closet Muslim were confined to the fringes of the right (which included, at the time, Donald Trump) and were never taken seriously by the media, the accusations that Trump is an evil nazi puppet of Vladimir Putin have been front-page headlines ever since the election. And whereas John McCain rushed to the defense of his establishment-favored opponent in 2008, he has repeatedly lashed out at Putin as “a murderer and a thug.” Ah, American diplomacy.

Conspiracy Theory

The Trump era has so far distinguished itself as the time when conspiracy theories went full mainstream. When Oliver Stone made JFK in the early 90s, he faced a YUGE media backlash for suggesting that the assassination had been the result of a conspiracy (even though that was exactly the conclusion of the last and most comprehensive government investigation of the crime). Now, the media still hates Stone, but it’s because he’s chummy with Putin, and dares to question the media’s conspiracy theory that Putin “hacked the election” and is in cahoots with Trump. (Bringing up the influence of the Israel lobby while being interviewed by Stephen Colbert probably didn’t help him much either.)

Season 5 of House of Cards is likewise the most conspiratorial yet. We see the Underwoods sinking to new lows, which I won’t recap here, except to say that it brings to mind James Gandolfini’s monologue about killing in True Romance: “The first time you kill somebody, that’s the hardest. But now? Now I do it just to watch their expression change.” The Chief Executive as mafia kingpin. President Underworld.

But it isn’t just the Underwoods who become more sinister in Season 5. The view of politics itself changes. One episode has Frank attending a secret conclave of wealthy movers and shakers, which is obviously based on the infamous Bohemian Grove. (I wonder, did they use Alex Jones’ clandestine footage to recreate the scene?) The “Deep State” also makes an entrance into the storyline, in the characters of Mark Usher and Jane Davis. Usher is the campaign manager for Frank’s opponent Will Conway, but it later becomes apparent that his true allegiance is to the unelected power structure, which is why he can seamlessly transition from Conway’s team to the Underwood administration. Davis is an even more interesting character, a kind of female James Bond, but with neither country nor morals. She seemingly allies herself with Claire Underwood, but we’re not really sure why, or for how long.

(Off topic, but whoever wrote the Jane Davis character is spot on with her statement that southeast Asia has the best instant coffee. Old Town White Coffee out of Malaysia is amazingly good.)

On the one hand, the increased conspiracy and intrigue on House of Cards makes perfect sense, as it merely reflects the new reality (or, at least, the new media reality) of the times. Art and life imitating each other again. But what are truly interesting are not the show’s similarities to real life, but the differences.

True Confessions

The mainstream media loves House of Cards, because it’s a great show, with great actors, directors, and writers. The mainstream media hates Donald Trump, and threw the entirety of its weight behind Hillary Clinton in 2016, a loss from which they still have not recovered. So why do they love a show that skewers the Clintons far worse than anything Mike Cernovich has ever said about them? The media establishment, which consolidates its power through the major networks and publications, which wars against any outside perspectives by labeling them as “fake news” or “conspiracy theories” or worse, simultaneously praises House of Cards, which portrays a world in which conspiracy theories are usually true, though that truth is always suppressed. The same media which dismisses, without any investigation whatsoever, any claims of government or corporate malfeasance that fall outside of its preexisting narrative, will praise a show that portrays the halls of power as being just as corrupt and evil as Alex Jones claims they are. Why?

The answer that will immediately come back is: “Because it’s only fiction.” And indeed, conspiracy theories have always made for good stories, as both Oliver Stone and Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, can attest. But whereas The X-Files always occupied a kind of media safe space (a safe outer space, the realm of the paranormal and supernatural) that made it largely immune from any charge that it was trying to make a statement about the way things really are, House of Cards is fictional only in name. It’s not portraying real people and events the way JFK was, but it’s based on a real place – Washington D.C. – and its real socio-political culture and ethos.

House of Cards is not acknowledged and praised because it’s good fiction – it’s praised because it’s true.

I don’t mean that it’s literally true, that it’s an accurate though fictionalized account of real events, as was claimed of the anonymous book about the Clintons, Primary Colors. Rather, House of Cards conveys deep truths about the nature of American and world politics which are off-limits in conventional discourse, and which are therefore relegated to the world of fiction. House of Cards is what Oliver Stone said about JFK: a counter-myth, counter to the reigning myth of the American political system. And it strikes a chord with audiences for the same reason JFK did: because, at some level, people know that the reigning myth is a lie.

The film critic Nicole Brenez, in her book about director Abel Ferrara, wrote:

The treatment of historic evil requires the invention of filmic forms that express what is inadmissible in terms of behavior, morality, narrative, image, sound …. Provocative storylines (concerning murder, injury, apparent amorality, rape, and violence of every kind) are merely the currency of a structure of inadmissibility, the reign of injustice.”

This is what is happening in House of Cards. In a world in which truth is utterly subsumed by an endless barrage of fake news and simulacra, we are faced with what seems to be a paradox: fiction becomes a way of telling the truth.

This is actually nothing new. Stories, whether in new media like film and television, or older ones like books and songs, have always been a way for human beings to express things that somehow resist being expressed another way. This is especially true in Western civilization, in which our Holiest Book is literally a story, “the greatest story ever told.”

Of course, to the contemporary secular and cynical mind, a story by definition cannot be true, and so to refer back to our religious tradition is to merely peddle a different kind of fake news. The biblical story has been evaluated as history and found wanting. But the Christian tradition has long taught that there are layers of meaning and truth in a text, in a story, and the literal interpretation is the least important of these.

Christian tradition also provides us with another explanation for the existence of House of Cards: the need for confession, the heavy weight of sin on the soul, which in this case is our national soul, or even our global soul. Why does the Hollywood-Washington axis make a show that so obviously shows it for what it is in its essence, even if the details are fictionalized? For the same reason that Claire Underwood confesses her crimes to her lover Tom Yates. Because human beings are, at the end of the day, moral creatures, and cannot escape the cries of conscience, no matter how muted or mutilated they have become.

Underwood as Trump?

But there is another reason why it’s safe for the media to like House of Cards, besides the plausible deniability of “it’s only make believe.” Although the Underwoods began as Clintonesque, President Underwood has now become, for all intents and purposes, President Trump. In Season 5, Underwood implements a travel and immigration ban very similar to what Trump promised to do. Underwood steals the election – hacks it, actually – though without any help from Putin stand-in Viktor Petrov. Then there is President Underwood’s increasingly bombastic public speaking style, evident from the first episode of the season onward, which he explains to the camera (us) as pandering to the public’s desire for “action and slogans.”

Vanity Fair picked up on these Trump references and compiled their own handy list. I’m sure other publications have run with the Underwood-as-Trump meme as well. And who can deny that at least some of the comparisons are valid? Trump is outlandish. He grabs headlines, and makes his own. He swaggers and boasts and portrays himself as, in President Underwood’s words, “the strong man, the man of action.” But in doing all of this, can Trump not say, like Underwood in his resignation speech, that he is merely playing by the rules that already existed in politics and media, which everyone, including himself, helped to create?

What might happen is that House of Cards will end around the same time as the Trump presidency. If his opponents have their way, that will be through impeachment, or worse. At the same time, viewers will see President Underwood finally get his due for all the terrible things we’ve watched him do for the last five years. (And let’s concede Underwood’s point when he says to us: “Oh don’t deny it, you’ve loved it.”) Trump and Underwood will be largely equated in the public mind, and that public mind will quiet once again because, in both the real world and the reel world, the bad guy has been punished, and once again, all is well.

Who will remember that the Underwoods were not Donald Trump, but Bill and Hillary Clinton? Who will care that what will have taken place was in no way a rectification of the system, but merely another scapegoating, a political sleight of hand as old as human civilization itself?

Only an inconsequential few. And Washington will go on being, in the words of President Underwood, “a bunch of self-serving, money-hungry, boot-licking, power-seeking politicians who can be seduced, or sucker-punched, or blackmailed into submission.”



The Art of Bootleg DVDs

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a real DVD in China. By real, I mean legitimate – one actually produced by the company that owns the film, the sale of which will generate money for all the people involved in making the film according to the provisions of their various contracts.

Ha! That’s a good one.

In the store called Book City, which has three or four locations throughout Shenzhen, there is a DVD section which, presumably, carries official releases. They retail for anywhere from thirty renminbi to upwards of two hundred, which translates to between about five and thirty dollars.

Does anyone actually buy these? Or is it just for show? The selection at the various bootleg outlets – located on neighborhood side streets or in pedestrian malls a step below the fancier malls where Gap and Nike hawk their Chinese-made goods for import prices – is far better than at Book City. They’ve got everything. A few years ago I wrote about seeing The Water Diviner before it was even released in theaters. Subsequently, other leaked films like The Expendables 3 and The Interview (thanks Mr. Kim!) showed up in perfectly legit-looking sleeves, indistinguishable from the other legit-looking sleeves with all manner of alternate cover art and questionable credits.

None of which are actually legit. But perhaps they should be, because I don’t recall ever getting this good of a laugh at Book City, let alone any retail outlet in the U.S.

The bootleggers are pretty good at choosing the right pictures for the DVD sleeves. They also get the names of the stars right most of the time, though matching the actors’ names to the right photos is sometimes too much to ask. When we get to the credits, forget about it. Every other sleeve has some other film’s credits on the back. TITANIC. A Steven Spielberg Film. Starring Harrison Ford and Karen Allen.

And then there are the descriptions. While the Chinese descriptions are probably accurate (I wouldn’t know), the English is often pulled at random from a website and copy-pasted. Sometimes it’s from a good review and it kind of works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Of course, if you don’t want to risk using a negative review because you don’t speak English and don’t know what the writer is saying, you can use Chinglish instead.

Finally, even if you get everything else right, you have to be careful about which font you choose, as with this cover for the 2012 Hong Kong film Love in the (ahem…) Buff.

HyperNormalisation and Hyperreality

Continuing our Baudrillardian theme this month, we here present the newest documentary by the BBC’s Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation. If there’s a better documentary filmmaker than Curtis working these days, I don’t know who it is.

HyperNormalisation was released in the fall of 2016, just before the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Curtis weaves a complex narrative showing the interconnectedness of, among other things, the rise of cyberspace and suicide bombing, alongside the politics of persuasion that Trump used to such great effectiveness in his campaign.

The Master Persuader

One of the most important commentators on the election has been Scott Adams, who analyzed Trump’s campaign style in terms of what Robert Cialdini calls persuasion. Cialdini literally wrote the book on persuasion back in the 1980s, and it has become a must-read classic among businesspeople and politicians. More recently, he published a kind of sequel, Pre-suasion.

Adams says that Donald Trump is quite simply “the best master persuader I have ever seen.” Adams also noted that Hillary Clinton’s “persuasion game” mysteriously went from nothing to high-grade in a short amount of time, when she suddenly stopped criticizing Trump’s policies in concrete terms and began instead to talk about him as “scary.” In other words, she stopped trying to appeal to the electorate’s rationality (always a questionable approach) and started to appeal to their raw, even subconscious, emotions. Adams wondered whether she hadn’t hired Cialdini as a consultant at this time.

Another author who, like Adams, both predicted Trump’s ascendancy and analyzed his approach in terms of psychology, is Mike Cernovich. His short book MAGA Mindset utilizes Carol Dweck’s concept of “mindset” and deduces Trump’s inner game based Trump’s own writings, as well as those of his early mentor and pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, who pioneered the concept of “positive thinking” in the 1950s.

Few people realize that Trump was raised attending Peale’s Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan, and is thus a product of New Thought, that peculiarly American religion which seems to be always available for repackaging into a new bestselling book every decade or so, from William Walker Atkinson to Peale and on to Rhonda Byrne in more recent times. The gist of the sales pitch – for, as I previously wrote, New Thought seems to be above all else a pyramid scheme – is that people can create their own reality.

Both Adams and Cernovich noted many times that Donald Trump is a master of “reframing” events to make them seem more favorable to himself. There’s no question that this is true, and that one has to understand this in order to understand how Trump succeeded against the combined efforts of the media, Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, and even much of the Republican Party. However, what allows both Adams and Cernovich to admire Trump as much as they do is that both authors seem to have embraced postmodernism as their way of seeing the world.

The Logic of Simulation and the Vertigo of Interpretation

Scott Adams lays out his worldview in his How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It’s an excellent book, filled with a lot of practical and useful advice about business and life in general. Adams says, echoing William Burroughs, that human beings are basically “moist robots.” We think we have free will and autonomous personalities, but really, we are just programmed by our surroundings. The upside, if it can be called that, is that we can take some of this programming upon ourselves, with psycho-cybernetic tools like affirmations, and biochemical tools like nutritional supplements and controlled diets, and thus, we can control some of our reality.

Mike Cernovich also advocates self-programming in his best-selling Gorilla Mindset, another worthwhile book filled with a lot of good advice about self-improvement and what the ancient Greeks called σωφροσύνη. But whereas Greek philosophy culminated in the Aristotelian view of the real world and the distinction between truth and falsehood, Cernovich, in a profile piece for The New Yorker, said:

“Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative.” He smiled. “I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?”

It would seem that Nietzsche was right, and the future belongs to those who embrace the esoteric message of the legendary Hassan i Sabbah that “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”

That is certainly one of the accusations being leveled at Donald Trump, with his history of making questionable and sensational claims, such as that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S.A., or that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved with Lee Harvey Oswald. But if nothing is true anyway, then why would it not be permissible to make such claims, especially when his opponents operate according to the same principle, using all manner of lies and innuendo to discredit the President? What is the morality of fighting lies with lies? Or, if reality is just a narrative, a mental construct, then are they still lies, or are they just impositions of will upon life, like affirmations?

In 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard noted that the ambiguity of events like the terrorist bombings in Italy – which were unsolved crimes, of unknown origin, and thus simultaneously blamed on both the left and the right – allowed them to be interpreted in multiple ways at once.

“Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to discredit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation. That is, we are in the logic of simulation, which no longer has anything to do with a logic of facts and an order of reason.”

As Mike Cernovich said in the aforementioned article, “Logic is pointless.” And indeed, who would argue that he is wrong, when our whole political system demonstrates, each and every day, that logic is powerless against the rising tide of irrational emotion?

I remember watching the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000. Gore was clearly a man with a superior command of facts. Yet Bush was able to get the better of him, not by superior argumentation, but by being more human, more likable. It was like the argument between Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall in The Breakfast Club.

Bender, did you know that without trigonometry, there’d be no engineering?

Without lamps, there’d be no light.

It’s not about who’s right, it’s about who’s cool and who’s just a nerd. A man with too many facts appears “wooden,” as they all said about Gore (lest anyone think that Trump invented the art of the one-word deadly epithet). In earlier times, they might have said “robotic,” when that word still brought to mind the stilted, boxy, metallic beings of old science fiction films. But today, with the advent of artificial intelligence and cyborg chic, it is the new man who is the “moist robot,” the enlightened self-programmer who isn’t concerned with facts but rather with creating his own reality, while those who still cling to notions of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, right and wrong, reveal themselves to be merely human, all-too-human, antiquated relics of a dead age.

A longtime friend back in the U.S. wrote to me, exasperated, and said, “What does one believe/adhere to anymore?!!? I can’t remember a time when ‘truth’ was so subjective. Have ‘facts’ as we knew them become extinct?”

I wrote back to him with some links to Scott Adams’ articles about Trump’s powers of persuasion and the view of reality that they entail. But it was merely an offering of explanation, and not consolation. While I recognize the value and importance of the insights offered by the persuasionists, I remain skeptical of the greater worldview that they seem to present. My feeling – and perhaps that’s all it is – is that reality, however elusive it may be, is not quite as unreal as adherents of New Thought or psycho-cybernetics would have us believe. And perhaps reality, rather than having “disappeared” as Baudrillard claimed, is merely hiding in wait, plotting its return, or its revenge.

Canto-Pop Madness!

Canto-Pop Madness!

Teddy Robin Kwan performing in Alex Cheung’s New Wave cinema classic Cops and Robbers:

“To maintain peace, exterminate evil.” Awesomeness.

Sam Hui’s working-class anthem from his 1976 film The Private Eyes:

And finally, my favorite Hong Kong song of all-time, Diana Chang’s nineteen-fifty-something version of “Mambo Italiano,” re-worked as an ode to steamed pork buns:

Jia Zhangke, The Man With His Fingers on the Pulse of China

I was first introduced to Jia Zhangke a few years ago when I chanced to purchase a quasi-legit dvd of his 2013 film A Touch of Sin (天注定 tiān zhù dìng) from one of the street shops in Dongmen Plaza.  I’ve seen quite a few Chinese movies in my four years here in Shenzhen, and for the most part I’ve been unimpressed – with an honorable exception going to the Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s and 80s, which I absolutely love, though for very different reasons.

A Touch of Sin is the Taxi Driver of Chinese cinema, which would make Jia Zhangke its Martin Scorcese.  If that seems like high praise, it might actually not be high enough.  In his heyday, Scorcese had his fingers on the pulse of New York City – Jia has his fingers on the pulse of his entire country.

Most of Chinese cinema is marked by fantastic unreality.  That’s not necessarily a problem, and in fact, can even be a virtue.  If I have to choose between cheesy heroism with a nationalist subtext, and the nihilistic, vapid degeneracy of much of contemporary American cinema, I’ll take the former, thank you very much.  But one can only take so much superpower kung fu and Japan-bashing at one time.

By contrast, A Touch of Sin, and pretty much all of Jia’s other films, are almost straight cinéma vérité. I have never seen the look and feel of 21st century China, both its urban environments and its countrysides, captured better than in Jia’s films.  His characters – none of whom are played by established actors, though some have become more well-known because of his films – are entirely realistic, and their life stories mirror the lives of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people in this rapidly-changing country.

The four stories woven together in A Touch of Sin were all inspired by real people and events.  Most will be unknown to Westerners, with the possible exception of the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones are made – but that won’t matter.  The characters and stories are emblematic of deep problems in Chinese society, such as the systemic corruption which President Xi Jinping has targeted in recent years.  Also dealt with are the problems of migrant workers from the countryside who come into China’s cities and must struggle to earn their living and survive in an unfamiliar environment.  Finally, the film also touches on relations between men and women in a society in which concubinage and prostitution are both long-standing traditions.

Jia’s most recent film is 2015’s Mountains May Depart (山河故人 shānhé gùrén).  While its reviews have not been quite as favorable as A Touch of Sin‘s, I frankly fail to see why.  It is every bit as thoughtful and thought-provoking, and every bit as relevant to a discussion of the complexities of life in contemporary China.  Though lacking the violence of its predecessor, the problem it addresses is arguably even more fundamental than those in A Touch of Sin – the dissolution of the family.

Mountains May Depart tells the story of one Chinese family, in three different blocks of time.  In the first, which takes place in 1999, the main character, played by Jia’s muse and wife Zhao Tao, faces an archetypal choice between love and money.  In the second and third acts, she must live with the consequences of her choice.

Divorce, once a rarity in Chinese society due to the ancient cult of the family, has become increasingly commonplace, especially among the wealthy and middle-class, for whom it seems to be simply another aspect of being modern and cosmopolitan.  But the material abundance being enjoyed by the nouveaux riche isn’t always able to act as a buffer against the consequences of dehumanized behavior in a world devoid of values.

Another problem that China faces is the number of its wealthy citizens who are leaving, or who want to.  I recall a conversation between two Chinese people that I was privy to.  One, a young woman, had just returned from her first trip to America, while the other, an older woman, had been there several times in the past.  The older woman said to the younger, “Doesn’t it make you feel like we live in a garbage dump?”  She was in the process of sending her daughter off to school in Canada, and was making plans to expatriate her entire family to there or the U.S.

The third act of the film is set in 2025 and contains some interesting speculations about the future.  It is set in Australia, where a part of the family has relocated, as indeed many Chinese already have.

While Jia’s films are distinctly Chinese, as is their subject matter, it is precisely in their intimate specificity that they transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries and become deeply meaningful stories that anyone can relate to.

In English, “to have one’s finger on the pulse” of something means to have a good understanding of it, or be aware of its most recent developments as they happen.  In Traditional Chinese Medicine, pulse diagnosis is a fine art which allows a skilled practitioner to diagnose the ills of the entire body, by simply feeling the pulse of the radial artery at the wrist.  I have experienced this myself, and can verify that someone skilled in the art can have remarkable insight into a person’s state of health.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called Jia Zhangke simply “one of the best and most important directors in the world” today.  He’s not wrong.

Jia’s other films include:

The Pickpocket (小武 xiǎo wǔ) 1997
Platform (站台 zhàntái) 2000
Unknown Pleasures (任逍遙 rèn xiāo yáo) 2002
The World (世界 shìjiè) 2004
Still Life (三峡好人 sānxiá hǎorén) 2006
24 City (二十四城记 èr shí sì chéng jì) 2008