Click here to start reading Part I of this list-letter to the CEO of Liberty Island with ideas for his team of creative counter-culture writers drawn from my years practicing “pop culture polytheism,” the worship of the images in mass media today.
Dear Adam Bellow,
As this series of films continues I’ll expand the opening index to include links to each of the films that have come before it. Here are links to the first titles I discussed, establishing the paradigm of celebrating both mainstream, big budget films and also more obscure titles that more traditionally conjure up the idea of counter-culture:
48. Yellow Submarine
47. Dark City
45. Dog Star Man
41. The Two Towers
38. The Avengers
I was nervous when publishing the first installment of this series, knowing that I was leaping off into the unknown again and certainly not going as detailed as I’ll need to when explaining these ideas in my book someday. A few commenters pushed back, with criticisms I anticipated — too long, all over the place, titles insufficiently “counter-culture” — and that are partially justified:
How do I defend such a broad understanding of “counter-culture” that the term can include both experimental shorts with moth wings taped to the film and hundred-million-dollar blockbusters? The fourth title from my list of “23 Books for Counter-Culture Conservatives, Tea Party Occultists, and Capitalist Wizards” remains my favorite definition and general history:
4. Counterculture Through the Ages: From Abraham to Acid House by Ken Goffman and Dan Joy
Publication Date: September 13, 2005
As long as there has been culture, there has been counterculture. At times it moves deep below the surface of things, a stealth mode of being all but invisible to the dominant paradigm; at other times it’s in plain sight, challenging the status quo; and at still other times it erupts in a fiery burst of creative–or destructive–energy to change the world forever.
But until now the countercultural phenomenon has been one of history’s great blind spots. Individual countercultures have been explored, but never before has a book set out to demonstrate the recurring nature of counterculturalism across all times and societies, and to illustrate its dynamic role in the continuous evolution of human values and cultures.
Countercultural pundit and cyberguru R. U. Sirius brilliantly sets the record straight in this colorful, anecdotal, and wide-ranging study based on ideas developed by the late Timothy Leary with Dan Joy. With a distinctive mix of scholarly erudition and gonzo passion, Sirius and Joy identify the distinguishing characteristics of countercultures, delving into history and myth to establish beyond doubt that, for all their surface differences, countercultures share important underlying principles: individualism, anti-authoritarianism, and a belief in the possibility of personal and social transformation.
Ranging from the Socratic counterculture of ancient Athens and the outsider movements of Judaism, which left indelible marks on Western culture, to the Taoist, Sufi, and Zen Buddhist countercultures, which were equally influential in the East, to the famous countercultural moments of the last century–Paris in the twenties, Haight-Ashbury in the sixties, Tropicalismo, women’s liberation, punk rock–to the cutting-edge countercultures of the twenty-first century, which combine science, art, music, technology, politics, and religion in astonishing (and sometimes disturbing) new ways, Counterculture Through the Ages is an indispensable guidebook to where we’ve been . . . and where we’re going.
Why Counterculture Conservatives Should Read It:
The key insight in reconciling counterculture and conservatism comes when we define the term historically, beyond just the caricature of the 60s hippie counterculture.
A counterculture is just any group of people who choose to reject some aspect of a dominant culture and then live peacefully in opposition to it. The Jews were a counterculture. So were Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. So were the Christians in ancient Rome. So were the Pilgrims. And the Transcendentalists. And the Mormons.
Counterculture Through the Ages presents an alternative way of understanding the West: what if “Western Civilization” was actually just the compilation of all the best countercultural ideas that worked? What if Western Civilization wasn’t really about places or people or things but about a process to understand ourselves, one another, and our purpose in the world? And how do we figure out what that purpose is?
So yes, I admit it — my list was a mess, and so it shall be going forward. (I can only un-messify Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson and their basis in Kabbalah and Tarot so much! Learning how to jump from mess to mess is kind of the point. God hides in the spaces between the letters and in the connections between the cards, in the invisible gap between my mind and yours.) Counter-culture is messy — it’s a big muck mixing and gurgling together. But that’s no excuse. I’ll employ the new media tool highlighted in the last segment in an effort to cut down on the word count in this and future installments. Here’s a basic start, as I’ve progressed through writing the list I’ve begun exploring new ways to utilize Instagram, Hyperlapse and other tools:
(I will try to improve the handwriting in future hyperlapses. Over the course of this list I experiment with a number of different configurations improving on that early one. I think for the next round I’ll pick up a white board and dry erase markers…)
In trying to define Western Civilization in broad we have to confront that WE are a mess. Americanism, the idea of the West — we are a mess of conflicting ethnic, religious, and philosophical traditions all crammed together.
But we must overcome our primitive tribal nature. Unfortunately some of film’s most glorified filmmakers rose to prominence through glamorizing and glorifying their tribal identity, building whole careers on mythologizing their tribe, obscuring the ugly truth of their primitive ideologies. The next three titles on the list are by filmmakers I once idolized, though now look at with skepticism. However, each still has a film in their canon that runs counter to their usual output and offer useful lessons for counter-culture crusaders.
36. Inside Man
35. Jackie Brown
What makes These Filmmakers Counter-Culture?
Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino each rose to prominence through creating romanticized film expressions of the counter-cultures in which they marinated during their youth. Scorsese made movies glamorizing the guilty, lapsed Catholic street thugs of New York City. Lee became baby boomer cinema’s most creative promoter of black nationalist progressivism, culminating in creating the film that would define Malcolm X for millions. Tarantino was the high priest of generation X’s video rental shop film school. His aesthetics blending the low of exploitation “grindhouse” films with the high of the pretentious, foreign language art house world would set an influential standard for aspiring indie filmmakers in the decade following Pulp Fiction‘s coronation.
Why do each of these 3 films rise up from their others? The answers on the next 3 pages, in Hyperlapse form…
How Should Counter-Culture Crusaders appreciate Inside Man?
(FYI: Instagram videos can be paused at any point to read text or see images…)
I don’t want to give away the twist ending of what motivates the heist in Inside Man or how they pursue it. But in principle it suggests the bigger picture way, a method engaged in by both skilled community organizers from Chicago and filmmakers aiming to make more money than controversy. Inside Man is Lee’s best film because he restrains himself the most, limiting his quirks and ideology to the margins and focusing on telling an exciting story with sympathetic characters. Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster also deliver very badass performances. The film’s extraordinary visual look is also provided by gifted cinematographer Matthew Libatique whose name will show up in later films on this list.
How can Counter-Culture Crusaders appreciate Jackie Brown?
In future lists and articles I’ll critique, rank, and analyze these three directors’ work, looking at the positives and negatives that they’ve contributed to the culture and also looking at some of their most significant films. I already did one explaining Jackie Brown‘s superiority here: 8 Reasons Why Jackie Brown Beats Pulp Fiction. But rankings of each of their filmographies — not unlike this one that Kyle Smith did of Wes Anderson here — are pieces I should stop procrastinating on and finally focus on and write.
As with Lee and Inside Man, much of the success of Jackie Brown derives from its story and characters coming from a source other Tarantino. It’s based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. (Adam, that’s a fact in support of your point that books should be the basis of films.) Again, the Tarantino style and quirks emerge in smaller dosages, thus allowing the star power of his actors to shine. Pam Grier and Robert Forster’s understated, subtle romance is one of the most endearing of ’90s cinema.
“I must say it’s the only one of my films that I like to watch.” – Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ, from page 215 of Scorsese on Scorsese:
How can Counter-Culture Crusaders appreciate The Last Temptation of Christ?
A profound mystical experience comes when one meditates on the paradoxical nature of Christ being both wholly God and wholly man. And Scorsese’s film is a gateway to that experience. But in a sense it goes too far in order to go far enough. In creating a human Christ he has to create a too human Christ. The film represents the Christ that the irreligious, anti-doctrinal Scorsese embraces, that allows him to continually fall down into films celebrating terrible men. For Scorsese, as with many more mainstream Christians, the religious experience is too often loaded in an overemphasis of the New Testament with a failure to understand the Old. He does not understand idol worship and its connection to human sacrifice, so his films stumble into repeating the same pattern over and over, with the exception of Last Temptation, his one film genuinely about immortality and resurrection instead of death and crime.
In my list of “30 Bad Ideas Men Should Embrace if They Want to Destroy Themselves” I named a few varieties of Christian theologies that go off the rails because of their rejection of their religion’s Jewish roots.
How Should Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply These 3 Films Today?
Being counter-culture one must define what it is we shall counter and why. These three filmmakers, among the most idolized today, I now regard as doing much more harm than good in popular culture. Here’s how Scorsese justifies the ultra-cool portraits of criminality that he’s responsible for mainstreaming:
This is morally relativistic nonsense, reflecting the confusion of Scorsese’s own journey away from traditional religion in favor of becoming the pope of pop culture polytheism. Those saying we should not celebrate murderers and wife-beaters as cool guys are not morally equal to them. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street — the celebration of the narcissistic criminal misogynist is not morally balanced because the conclusion of the film shows their supposed downfall.
For too long as a film obsessive I bought into the Scorsese/Lee/Tarantino logic — that spending mental time and emotional energy wallowing in stylized criminal brutality could somehow yield great insights into human nature. But there isn’t anything here that can’t be found in the first five books of the Bible, which all three filmmakers have neglected to understand and integrate into their worldview. Barbarism today isn’t much different than barbarism thousands of years ago.
With careers that have lasted for decades their work may have advanced and expanded aesthetically but substantively they still say the same thing: how cool it is to wallow in evil and watch people murder each other. (Lee’s newest film is a horror movie titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus. I really hope it’s not influenced by Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan too much like some of his previous films…)
The same can’t be said for the next counter-culture filmmaker who has now come to express regret for his younger days’ celebration of murderers and who hasn’t made a movie in a decade, moving on to become a great, gifted writer and stand-up comedian.
33. Pink Flamingos
What makes John Waters Counter-Culture?
John Waters set out to make the definitive film about the “filthiest people alive,” the greatest trash epic of all time. He succeeded. He can never be topped, though many have tried. Pink Flamingos tempers its shocks and disgusting moments with silliness, winking humor, and sly self-awareness. It gets the balance just right — it’s a film that pears over the edge into the abyss of pure trash but holds back by the fingernails of Waters’ wit. There’s no pretension of doing art here.
In creating his early films Waters drew inspiration from the counter-culture publisher Grove Press, specifically Our Lady of the Flowers and author Jean Genet who supplied the name and persona for his star, Divine. Here’s a trailer for the documentary Obscene about Grove and its publisher Barney Rosset, Waters appears:
What was counter-culture and marginal in the ’60s and ’70s has become mainstream today. With the dominance of postmodern thought in the university creeping down throughout the culture the standards of what constitutes art vs trash have degraded even further. The kind of content that one used to have to see at Midnight amongst freaks now is standard fare on MTV, as performed by teenage idols, and social media where it’s endlessly imitated in pursuit of internet fame.
How Should Today’s Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply Such a Revolting Film Today?
John Waters’ work and writing provide an understanding of the difference between trash and art that needs to be revived today. When we begin to grasp and articulate a moral difference between trash and art then all of a sudden a whole lot of trash dressed up as art reveals itself. And then the new counter-culture has its target to counter.
And the practical methods that Waters and Scorsese used are now available to everyone with an iPhone and can be learned from studying the occult filmmaker they both cite as a key influence…
32. The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 1: Fireworks
31. Puce Moment
30. Rabbit’s Moon
29. Eaux d’Artifice
What makes Kenneth Anger Counter-Culture?
Quoted in the liner notes for the first volume of the DVD collecting his short films, something I embrace perhaps a little too earnestly:
Like Stan Brakhage, the experimental filmmaker who shaped the 20th century avante garde, Anger exemplified another strain of Neo-Paganism and transmogrified it into film.
Anger’s films are devoted to two interrelated subjects: A) his explication of the magickal philosophy of Aleister Crowley, and B) his depiction of a variety of American pop culture cults from Golden age Hollywood to biker gangs and hot rods to the 1960s counter-culture scene.
Anger’s most overt contribution to film today was as the forerunner of music videos. This derives from how his movies are essentially silent, eschewing dialogue and traditional plot for strong images and striking music. I interpret this in the context of Anger’s occultism.
In my research into the origins of religion, the transition from ancient paganism into the original monotheisms of Judaism and Christianity, the role of music in the shaman’s craft to induce altered states is important for understanding film’s abilities to replicate and induce quasi-mystical experiences:
“It is also significant that all early musical instruments-drum, musical bow, rasp, rattle or harp-were originally shaman’s magic paraphernalia specifically and still are among primitive Siberian and American Indian tribes.” – Weston La Barre, page 422 of Ghost Dance: Origins of Religion
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"It is also significant that all early musical instruments-drum, musical bow, rasp, rattle or harp-were originally shaman's magic paraphernalia specifically and still are among primitive Siberian and American Indian tribes." – Weston La Barre, page 422 of Ghost Dance: Origins of #religion a head-expanding book. #music #magick #occult #culture #history
In a future list I’ll break down Anger’s films individually and explain their symbolism and the relevance they can have for those with Biblical values today. Hint: if Anger was a Satanist then he’d have gotten “Satan” tattooed on his chest instead of Lucifer. Names and words matter and Lucifer and Satan are not the same. Knowing how to call the demons by their correct name is among the first steps to overcoming them…
27. The Films of Kenneth Anger, Volume 2: Scorpio Rising
24. Lucifer Rising
How Should Today’s Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply Anger’s Work Today?
In the liner notes to Volume 2 Gus Van Sant also identifies the ritual nature of Anger’s work and the role of music:
Now the same tools — juxtaposing pop music and archetypal symbols — are available at our fingertips. Lomotif is another program one can use with Hyperlapse. It allows one to search the iTunes store for any song available and then overlay part of the free sample onto one’s video. So now one can draw parallels between video, text, and music. Here I juxtapose a passage from Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All Ages explaining the myth of the goddess Persephone, the Disney Silly Symphony cartoon from the 1930s depicting the story, and then a musical track of Beyonce, who embodies the fertility goddess trapped in a cycle of domination:
The worship of images is idolatry. And all world views based in celebrating images, that think in terms of images will perpetually be at war with word-based worlds.
In the comic book medium we see the particular magical potential from when images and text are balanced. The best documentary about an artist is about the most influential counter-culture comic artist of the 20th century.
(A few years back when Crumb came out on Blu Ray I met the director at a signing at Amoeba Records.)
What makes Robert Crumb Counter-Culture?
The LSD-inspired underground comix of R. Crumb captured the visual style of 1960s psychedelia — both sides of it.
Crumb’s innovative counter-culture provocation was to take the cartoony, innocent style of the comics from his youth and blend them with X-rated, ultra-violent, neurotic content.
Allen Ginsberg’s dictum that “the poet must stand naked” was embraced literally in Crumb’s work, as over the decades the artist literally depicted himself and his dark vision of American culture.
But where did it come from? The Crumb documentary reveals so much about the disturbing childhood that shaped this strange work. But there’s another book that came out in the years after that fills in the gaps.
How Should Today’s Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply It Today?
What happened to the Crumb brothers during their childhood that would make them so broken? We don’t know for certain but can see the similarities of result.
Of the three, the one spending a lifetime churning out celebrated drawings of himself having sex with cartoon characters is the most normal and functional. Older brother Charles Crumb never moved out of the house and spent his life on a variety of tranquilizers before committing suicide in February 1993. Younger brother Maxon lives a strange monk-like existence in San Francisco as a beggar and has been arrested for sexually assaulting women. In Crumb Family Comics we learn the rest of the story, that Charles admitted to pedophiliac desires — his training of his brothers to obsessively draw variations of Treasure Island cartoons was based in an obsession with Bobby Driscoll, star of the Disney movie.
Adam, in returning to consider Crumb these many years later, after five years of marriage, I think I now draw a different take-away from it than I did as a teenager. I initially interpreted Crumb as a portrait for how art could be a form of redemption. What kept Robert from a fate comparable to Maxon and Charles? The fact that he could develop his craft to a masterful level and pour it out onto the page for others. Worship your art and it will save you.
I don’t really believe that anymore, though. Just diving into creating art and books isn’t enough. Actually what the film reveals is that the stabilizing influence in Robert’s life that has kept him on track and pushed him to aim higher than stylized illustrations of his own penis has been his wife and daughter.
Just art isn’t enough, a lesson that Crumb director Terry Zwigoff’s follow up feature would illustrate in adapting a fictional story from another underground comic artist…
21. Ghost World
What makes the film and its director Counter-Culture?
The film adapts Daniel Clowes’ comic about two loner teenage girls just graduating high school and their relationship with a cynical loser obsessed with old jazz records. When the film made the leap to screen the role of this nerdy collector, Seymour, was expanded and deepened, modeled some on director and co-screenwriter Zwigoff, a bit on Crumb, and brought to life by Steve Buscemi. Here’s a scene capturing his zeitgeist, rejecting the consumerism of American culture and also the universal call to raise a family (“have some more kids why don’t you?!”):
When Ghost World first came out and I was about the age of the protagonists Enid and Rebecca I identified with them and chortled along with Seymour trashing the trappings of stereotypical suburbia. Nowadays I still value the film’s artistry and the sad truths it depicts, but see it differently as I’ve gradually escaped the kind of ideology around which Enid and Seymour base their lives.
How Should Today’s Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply It Today?
My favorite film of 2001, during my senior year of high school, now appears as an expression of the secular pop culture and art worship that now must be fought and opposed.
Stories like Ghost World will be more important to depict in fiction as with the growing secularization in America more people turn to the false gods of popular culture to try and fill their emptiness with songs and pretty pictures instead of other people. After the election I cited this as the crucial stat from CBS news for why Obama won reelection (bold added):
For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a new study. One reason: The number of Americans with no religious affiliation is on the rise.
The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 per cent, the first time that Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has reported with certainty that the number has fallen below 50 per cent. The drop has long been anticipated and comes at a time when no Protestants are on the U.S. Supreme Court and the Republicans have their first presidential ticket with no Protestant nominees.
Among the reasons for the change is a spike in the number of American adults who say they have no religion. The Pew study, released Tuesday, found that about 20 per cent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 per cent in the last five years.
As David P. Goldman and others have written a lot about, the increase in secularization is tied also to an increase in fewer people getting married and procreating. Thus, I conclude this segment of the list with a film that provides a more satisfying ending and a greater inspiration to live than Ghost World…
What makes it Counter-Culture?
A shy Parisian waitress, raised by two neurotic, distant parents discovers the power of transforming other people’s lives by bringing them joy. She finds that as she starts to engage the lives of others, learning about the aches in others’ lives, she transforms too.
Endeavoring to be an earnest do-gooder, making the lives of others better in small ways is a counter-culture against the prevailing norms too. Amelie provides several concrete examples for how to be counter-culture in our everyday lives. Examples are as simple as helping a blind man cross the street and telling him what he cannot see:
How Should Today’s Counter-Culture Crusaders Apply It Today?
Characters like Amelie that inspire people to change themselves and bring joy and light into their communities are what we should aspire toward. In particular: I do think that fiction, art, and culture should start actively combating the anti-marriage, anti-monogamy, neo-Pagan messages that have become so prominent.
There are many things I like about Amelie but the one I’ll emphasize here is that among her world-changing activities is matchmaking. This has been one of my habits for years — whenever I can I try and pair together friends and encourage marriage and monogamy. Someday I’m going to write more fiction featuring characters who model this. Maybe it will inspire others who have also been transformed through their marriages to try and inspire others to pursue what’s becoming a more “counter-culture” lifestyle choice.
Best wishes to you and hoping for continued success at Liberty Island,
P.S. I’ll aim for Part III next week, I hope now that I’m getting more comfortable with Hyperlapse it can flow more quickly and I can continue to improve the legibility and visual style. If any other writers would like to join me in experimenting with this new medium marrying writing, film, music, and social networking then I invite you to jump in — the water’s just fine…