Scorsese’s Inferno

ImageI’ve been on a scary movie binge, but this is one of the most terrifying films I’ve seen. There are clues throughout the film the same way there are deaths throughout a horror movie.  As things progress, we’re made aware who is really innocent.  In retrospect, how obvious everything is; how plainly it’s presented — it will chill you to the core.

The socialite society is a metaphor for how any power system functions.  There are leaders; there are black sheep; there are those whom are respected without being admired — and every single person believes themselves to be on their own path, isolated from the rest of the system.  Yet, it’s so obvious where everyone fits and how easily everyone can be placed into a niche.

Newland feels guilt for the entire film and the viewer is led to believe he’s malicious, when in-fact, his desire is the most innocent of all.  May is revealed to be the devil incarnate: never missing the bullseye; maliciously gossiping of others; being distant with her husband; passive-aggressively telling Newland (moreorless), “Oh, do say hi to Ellen for me.”  These are all signs placed within the film, advising both Newland and the viewer just what’s what.

There’s nothing hidden in this world more than how others perceive you, and it’s so easy to manipulate that which is oblivious.  May represents evil as a force; their society, the hellish glamor they are all bound to.  The “scarlet” room is red for a reason; the manors are isolated fortresses; it always seems to be winter — Newland has no escape.  The wedlock scene plays like Newland becoming aware he’s gravely ill: the room spins as all potential life rushes by; he is merely swept along.

The most violent Scorsese film, indeed.

The Infinite Hallway (Fate vs Free Will)

  1. We are biologically alive and
  2. We are mentally conscious of this fact which
  3. Allows free will.

Yes, when analyzed, we are but a whirlwind of quarks bouncing upon quantum foam.  We have no knowledge of why quarks behave the way they do – it is intrinsically random.  If we were self-aware of every aspect that makes up who we are as a biologically living, mentally conscious, “free” individual, we would see the foundations of our thought processes are sealed in that of unexplainable synchronicities.  We are not those fractals.  Beyond a base level, do these constraints matter?  Do you first look at the top of a skyscraper, or do you analyze its foundation?  The answer is obvious – in every practical consideration of the term, we have free will.  Yes, there are societal constructs (these are breaking) and there are physical constructs.  However, even though we have no control of the rules in life, it is ultimately up to us how we play (or if we play).

Free will is embraced in optimism, while pessimism takes logical refuge in fate.  Both pessimists/optimists stand in the same hallway, with billions of doors to explore.  The pessimist realizes there are multiple floors and that only one door (which may not even exist) holds access to exploring the other hallways.  This mindset is intensified with the realization that there are also multiple buildings containing even more hallways, all contained within multiple cities, found on multiple planets, etc. etc.  The pessimist focuses on the repetition of constantly exploring the same hallway over and over again; creating a mindset revolving around life’s limitations and the “cruel fate” we have been subjected to.

The context of what’s behind each door is ever-changing.  Those who believe in fate see the limitations and recognize that life plays out like an experiment in a laboratory.  Replace the rodent and the maze with a human and the aforementioned infinite hallway.  The point?  How long before we run out of curiosity?  How long do our most intense moments of discovery last?  How long before the desire to free ourselves from ignorance becomes too repetitious and we grow weary of constantly opening new doors?

The optimist does not focus on this heavy realization.  Yes, while aware of our limited potential, free will ultimately understands that without this existential suffering, we could never experience the revitalization felt when discovering something truly holy, sacred, revolutionary or loving.  The mindset which embraces free will shall walk the hallway and admire its never-ending layers in silenced awe, never bothering to worry about an upstairs or a downstairs floor.

The optimist lives for the next moment; every moment like a lottery in which one picks their own numbers and draws them from a spinning pot.  Being that the ink is abrasive and easy to detect, with enough concentration, the optimist hopes to pull only the numbers found upon their own ticket.  This process of matching and selecting the best of life’s randomness continues until they have found themselves entirely and intentionally lost in plain sight; dancing in the realization of infinite potential and ever thankful for the experience.

This experience is the same experience which pessimism (and fate’s mindset) views as a cold and unrelenting experiment – all for the amusement of some distant observer.  Free will sees the observer as the true experiment.  This mindset finds freedom through transcendence of the boundaries; finding never-ending space and place to rest and contemplate.  The optimist knows that if the question is being thrown toward us (How long before we stop caring about finding novelty?) that an observer is awaiting an answer.  The joy and lifeblood of any optimistic mindset comes from the loving feeling of wanting to live up to human potential and being gracious to have even had the chance.  As this is an extended metaphor, the observer of this experiment and the one within the experiment of conscious (but limited) life are but the same person.

As children, the world is novel and even tragic moments come with the ecstasy of a truly new experience!  Fate says we are confined to search for novelty until we grow tired of the never-ending futile quest, but if we are confined and conscious, we will always have free choices to make.  Moments of shared transcendence continuously occur in reaction to progressive culture.  This essentially proves that when faced with the challenge to explore a billion doors or give up and become self-destructive (escapism), collectively, we have chosen to explore.

Fate and free will, optimism and pessimism – these are both sides of the same coin.  We are whole and feel different from day to day, inexplicably, like quarks (the foundation of our experience).  Today I am an optimist and tomorrow I will no doubt face thoughts of purposelessness.  The point is not that we “contradict” yesterday’s mantra in today’s actions, or that we can detect patterns of disappointment.  The truth is we do have the capacity to listen.  With this capacity comes potential for a love of life, that which goes beyond positive/negative thinking and that which is for transcendent purpose – to embrace every perspective, to attempt to empathize and to share our findings with any open ear.

A final thought:

If given immortality and omnipresent wisdom from birth, what would be the motivation to explore the hypothetical hallway, if one knew what was behind every door?  Knowledge of surroundings would not necessarily indicate transcendence from fate and if anything, it would lead to a desire to create an experiment the likes of which we now find ourselves metaphorically within.  From this perspective, it would appear that we are freer as mice in a maze, than the observers themselves.  It becomes obvious how true free will does not only occur when one is free of responsibility, but as an embraceable mindset possible in any circumstance.

“Modern Art” In Contemporary Society

Ask the average twenty-something what ‘modern art’ is and apart from an indifferent shrug, the response heard most often will be along the lines of “Oh, you mean Warhol and the soup cans?”

Warhol’s take on art was considered by many to be “the end of art”. Within the last year I have begun to realize the unintentional meaning this phrase carries in the ’00s.  To the average consumer, kid, adult and American, “art” is whatever is on television, our favorite films and the video game of the moment.  Traditional art, paintings, sculptures and the idea of a museum has become completely irrelevant apart from those who actively seek it out.  Art has faded into the background as a hobby at best and an unnecessary, exclusive, expensive and outdated luxury at worst.

Some might say, “Well, it’s simply been redefined” — this is ignoring the issue.  Paintings and the idea of putting art upon a pedestal for viewing has vanished from contemporary society and from the practical consumer’s mindset.  Sure, it has been replaced by flashier culture, but it’s only on a metaphorical pedestal, not a literal one, that we view video gaming and television.  What does a painting mean now?  If the term “modern art” means something that is half a century old (‘soup cans’), it’s clear that the very term is hypocritical.

Personally, art has meant album artwork.  This is a medium which many could toss up to containing a cohesive and beautiful statement once every 300 album covers.  Regardless, I have thrived off of my last remaining attachment I have to traditional paintings, even though the pedestal said album art is viewed upon is my laptop.

There is a poster on my wall containing the album artwork of Animal Collective’s 2009 album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”.  When moving from college dorm A to college dorm B, I had forgotten to take down my posters.  My friend, Ryan, kindly took the posters down and stored them in his car, where they collected dust all summer long.  These posters were rolled together in a messy clump, rendering most of them ruined from being stuck together for such a long time.  However, there was one interesting effect to the Merriweather Poster.  In addition to several white tears, the sunlight had created a fantastic faded blue streak across the bottom of the image.  It gave a precise effect that looked as if it could have only been created digitally — or perhaps by leaving a poster exposed to three months of sunlight.

With no real desire to seek out far-less stimulating culture, the place for massive and vibrant paintings, sculptures and installations has been moved to one of two places:

  1. There are enthusiasts, many of them, who will never say goodbye to the wonder and subtlety that “true” art, found in a museum, provides.
  2. The second place this art has gone to (and the place which gets far more attention) is upon Flickr accounts, various impersonal Tumblr pages and occasionally upon a Google Image search.

If art was an experience to help transcend the trivialities of daily life, if even for a moment, and said experience no longer takes place outside the stream of our lives — what does that say for art?  We no longer have to visit museums to experience a plethora of styles; all we need is StumbleUpon and perhaps a search string.  Such ease allows us a whirlwind of culture, but at the same time, it is easy to under-appreciate the magnitude of the culture itself.

Conceptually, the artist is dead, because there are no longer pedestals for each artist to showcase their work upon.  All art created gets thrown into the digital void, upon one unified pedestal.  This pedestal is shared amongst all artists and with this sharing, artistic individuality has been lost in the digital stream of consciousness.  The artist is no longer relevant so much as the audience, i.e., you, as you have the power to skip to the next image or share it on your Facebook wall.  This is about as much praise as one can practically expect as an artist on a mass scale, apart from the occasional PR puff piece and blogosphere commentary.

The poster on my wall does not ask for my attention, yet it exists outside the internet, in its own museum (my room) on its own pedestal (the wall).  The audience (I and whoever is in the room at the time) is not forced to look upon this poster, but when they do, it captures the overstimulated attention span, if just for a moment.  Modern art is individually-oriented and based around personal narratives — one glance upon the poster reminds of a story.  It calls attention to something I have no control over (sunlight, the forces of nature, destroying my perfect replica of a favorite album) and in its own subliminal way, reminds of my own impermanence.  One may think that this is all a bit hyperbolic, but that’s just it!  There is nothing that is going to exist in our lives which will live up to the mythical shadow cast upon by pre-internet society, when it was impossible to fathom the audience even touching the pedestal, let alone controlling what was seen upon it.

This is why I can look to a sun-faded Animal Collective poster as the highest example of contemporary art imaginable.  This is why the definition of art in practical, contemporary society is exactly what you as a viewer, view it to be.  While artists will continue to make thought-provoking work to be seen in small scales, the masses are still left scratching their head, thinking to 1962’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” as the only example of modern art — before tuning back into the daily programming.  Today, artistic relevance depends completely on what you personally find relevant.  Traditional art made by others will always have beauty, but it will never catch the eye as the heirlooms our lifetime will, however insignificant to an outside observer these may be.

The end of art meant the end of established artistic norms, of an invisible world telling you what you could and could not find aesthetically pleasing.  It began with Warhol realizing that art could be found anywhere, even in the supermarket.  If a supermarket is a pedestal, then it’s obvious that the museum is the human mind and whatever we attach ourselves to can be transformed into a gallery, flimsy posters included.

The Fading Hollywood Twilight

As icons and monoliths continue to fall we are left with less and less role models to look to.  Who replaces Michael Jackson?  What about Whitney Houston?  These intense groups of fandom and praise do not just disappear, instead, they hover.  They float aimlessly never to truly be fulfilled.  Who is going to live up to the hype that so many passing legends have generated in their lifetime?  This level of enthusiasm existed once and it implies that the public desires for it to exist again.

Except, there is no one else to live up to these icons.  These people came to popularity in a time of moreorless one-way communication and when what was on the radio was truly an indicator of popular American culture.  The truth is that the future is iconless and that the playing fields are completely level.  Take a look at someone like Lil B and look at how much instantaneous praise he gets on Twitter.  Conversely, look at someone like Rupert Murdoch, who might Tweet something casual only to be greeted by a hostile stream of criticism and backlash.  The public is rabid and there is no longer a barrier that exists to keep our opinions concealed from the celebrated and the popular.

This desire for new cultural messiahs has become vehement and aggressive.  Musical movements and relevant films come and go in the blink of an eye and with every passing day, the hype only intensifies.  The momentum is not disappearing — it’s increasing and it’s growing restless, leading to “trendy/flimsy” culture.  Today, Whitney Houston died.  Who will die tomorrow?  How many more icons will pass before we look around and realize that the field is completely devoid of beloved American role models?  How long before we look to the youth of the moment and find that there is no megaband and there is no universally loved actor to fill the longing void?

The cultural horizon is flat and infinite with absolutely no peaks that can be seen by the objective eye.  The only truth now, the only thing that matters, is your personal opinion and subjective taste.  The future is niche.  Every passing star makes the night that much darker.  However, there will never come a time when the sky shines as brightly as it did decades past.  It will not be long before we realize there is an approaching dawn and we no longer need to wait for the next Christlike cultural figure to emerge.  The new icon is that of eclectic personal choice.  As we learn to embrace every voice, no matter how much coverage has been given upon the radio or the Oscars, we will see a shining sun replacing the once astounding glow of the Hollywood twilight.  While the light that was cast down from the era of one-way communication was certainly meaningful to so many people, in time, I think the populous will begin to see just how glorious the collective brightness can actually be.

The Crossroads Of Indecision

There are two mindsets we take as human beings every day.  There are actions which benefit the immediate physical self.  Such things such as absurd sexual relief, indulgent eating, experiencing the meta-real (virtual reality/video games) and thus pro-longed detachment from the real — all of these things isolate us from the reality outside of ourselves.  The second mindset is that which benefits the long-term self.  It is this side which benefits the perception of how one will be seen outside of one’s individual bubble of self-stimulation.  However, to dedicate one’s self to more noble “ethereal”/spiritual purposes is to deny life and to dedicate one’s self to more tangible “immediate now” physicality is to self-indulge.

At the crosswords of these choices is that of pre-choice.  At this point is that of contemplated decision and where we are very much aware of both roads, but choose to take either the left or the right.  The one thing these roads have in common with one another is that when both are pursued long enough both lead to isolation.  If one lingers at the foreground, feels the sexual pulsating feeling of lingering pleasure and the mentally enlightening rush of absolute knowledge, but pursues neither, one experiences the place where they know themselves the most.  The longer you delay the decision, the closer you find yourself at home.

It is in this in-between place of indecision that we find our personal enlightenment, nirvana, “God”, as this is where all potential exists but none has been taken.  It is an open road in all directions.  Spend some time in this place every day and realize that this is where all decisions stem from which very directly affect the course of both the left and the right path.  We can choose either path — business or pleasure — but if we take the right path down the road, the further and further removed from the left road we become.  Choices are permanent once made and paths and roads which we walk upon carry us to very real homes of decision.  We can move, however, whenever we like and place ourselves back at the root point of the short-term and long-term and, if desired, simply float there and contemplate our choice.  It is in this contemplation which we find the deepest peace.

Falling back into disarray

During contemplation (and after ‘finding our center’) the most appealing thing to us is being lured OUT of the contemplation.  Whatever drives us out of this state, the fastest, is what turns us on the most and thus we pursue these decisions with no hesitation.  In our delighted success of finally finding “purpose” we live in leisure and at ease with our decisions.  All uncertainties are answered and we feel alive — on top of the world.  This is of course until something from beneath (within the actual world) pulls us back down to remind us that something is not quite consistent with our “we have found our purpose” notion.  At our own clumsiness, we fall once more into the cycle.  The pursual for the escape eventually becomes the norm with no additional realization gained and once more we find ourselves at a loss, out of balance and in need of some serious decision.  The cycle perpetuates…

Interpretations of the “Monolith” (2001: A Space Odyssey)

The marbled monolith represented exactly what it was — a massive slab of obviousness.  It was something that could not be ignored if one was consciously present within the room.  However, it represented something more.  It hypothetically put forward how we evolved from apes to humans, as despite it being so obvious, one does have to be consciously aware to detect a change in one’s environment — to detect a spontaneous black slab that appears out of nowhere.  What I think Kubrick may have been illustrating was how we transitioned from a lesser state of awareness and into something more.  The apes saw the world from a primal and survival-based intelligence level.  Then, one day, they saw something in a way which they could not describe.  It captivated them in a manner which superseded all that in the background.  The apes had their first intelligently conscious moment.  The black slab was so sudden and so out-of-nowhere, that there was no way to not perceive it with intense reactional response, elevating one’s self from a lower conscious level to ultimately realize human potential.  The apes realize that one can use objects as weapons and begin to interact with the world in an evolutionary manner.  Kubrick was describing the birth of conscious intelligent life.

Just as the apes, the bones-as-a-weapon realization and the rocky, wild and unconquered landscape acted as an allegory for where conscious awareness found itself, the ending “room” is the same.  We see a fully civilized, cultured man surrounded by a pleasant bright white light in an ordered and structured room.   Whereas before the sun was the only source of light, now the source is fluorescent and man-made.  The world in which the apes found themselves was completely out of their control and foreign, whereas the room the ‘futureman’ finds himself within is completely of his (in the species sense) own creation and understanding.

Just as before, this man sees a black slab appear out of nowhere.  He chases it around the room and finds himself getting older and older in the very process.  As with the apes (‘dawn of man’), the black slab represents something in which to call attention to and inspire evolutionary reaction.  However, as a being already evolved, it is perplexing to understand its context in this room.  The man is chasing the meaning to his own human life, representing the human species as a whole.  His drive and inspiration is personified as a cold, impersonal metallic slab.  The futureman is chasing this until he dies, but with every realization, he finds himself ending up at a goal, with no memory of how he got there.  His only memory is standing at his previous position, looking out at the end-goal.  He then finds himself at the end-goal, only to not have actually ended anything.  Ironically, he finds himself once again on the chase, immediately focusing on the end-goal, until his physical body runs out of life — the entire process fueled by the monolith.  Yet even on his deathbed, at the very last moment, with his very last ounce of strength, the futureman sees this black slab once more and MUST reach out to it.  He is determined despite knowing that there’s no way he can possibly do such a thing, as he is confined to his bed and limited by his old age.  However, he must reach the end-goal and is always searching for an answer that simply cannot be reached.

This man represents what we are as a human species at the present moment — 1% away from complete control but somehow we still find ourselves unable to reach this remaining percentage.  Kubrick’s only explanation is indirect, as he eventually zooms into the black slab and transitions into space.  We live on earth and we look at space, a massive beautiful black slab, and it drives us.  Space isn’t the actual root drive of humanity; it just represents something that makes us realize our own subjectivity and scale.  It represents something so massive and so incomprehensible — its existence is a symbol for human ambition.  Like the black slab, space is unexplainable, yet we must understand and decode its mystery.  As illustrated in the final room, though, we see how the pursuit will kill us.  It is only in our last moment in which we will ever feel complete, as death is the only end-goal that can be reached with complete satisfaction.  Upon death, we go once again back into the chaotic world which we so often, in life, pretended did not exist.  We are so afraid of the unknown, that just to live we have to build white rooms of cutting edge architecture to hide us from the scary black space.  This space, like the monolith, represents the majority of existence which we do not have wrapped around our finger.  We hide from chaos and disorder, but it always exists.  Death exists, space exists and everything beyond our perspective exists and it is out of our control.  As the apes did in the beginning of the film, we go insane at these realizations — just as the futureman drove himself to death in pursuit of an explanation for what is inherently unexplainable and chaotic.  All perceived order is nothing but one flower in a field of trillions of weeds which are slowly creeping in on our shell of artificial order.

An Alternative Interpretation

The final scene could also be viewed as Kubrick’s interpretation of death, post-existence and post-humanity.  The starchild symbolizes the final peaceful understanding felt just before passing after a lifetime of seemingly futile pursuit.  The last scene shows this starchild looking over the earth and it is here where the individual starchild transitions into a metaphor for the human species.  We see the starchild looking over the earth in a contemplative and honorable manner.  If you could replace the earth with “a lifetime of personal memories” and the starchild with “someone passing away”, the intention would be exactly the same.  Instead, the final scene depicts the personification of the perfect human looking back upon the earth and thinking upon how far man has come.  In this state, one can only observe in reserved tranquility rather than act.  For a perfect, fully-realized species, this is the ultimate heaven — to look back on the source of our life, the earth, and marvel at how far we have come.  In this light, the ending is a love letter for the human species of the future.  We see a peaceful, beautiful, golden and intelligent fetus rather than something wrought with flaws.  Despite the journey, despite the chaos that once so defined humanity and the desire to understand everything, we float in peace at the finish line with nothing to do but bask in the odyssey of our achievement.

The “Messiah” Complex

With enough self-confidence, we all begin to view ourselves, in some degree, as “messiahs” in our own respective fields and in our minds.  Why would you not base your actions around your ideal life philosophy?  The “Messiah” complex — the notion that “I believe, despite subjective nature of my rationality, that I am RIGHT and that you should trust my judgment.”  We base everything, from positive and negative interactions, around this belief — until it changes and we become empathetic to the grander and more selfless ideas based in love.

But do we, really?  Frankly, the ones who continue being right continue to do so due to a combination of having a sense for what the whole is thinking, at least in their particular location on the planet, and being charismatic enough to convince everyone of their own reality.  The thing about conscious awareness is that we are always trying to get the most out of every situation, simply because we are aware of choice.  Additionally, we at least have some idea of what would be a better outcome relative to our own personal tastes and personality/mindset.  Thus, every action, in our own minds and at said moment, is the right one to take.

Think about how you rationalize your choices at their core — “Because I like it”, because you believe it is ‘right’, the only natural option of the moment, the only embraceable decision.  If your chosen action is proven to not be as perfect as your perceptions allow, be prepared to show the world your negative side.  Selflessness allows you to see past this, but only to a certain point.  The more you break down your actions, what you are doing, the more likely deep, core motives are actually contradicting what you would perceive to be selflessness.

If you are helping people because that genuinely makes you happy, then are you helping people to help people?  Is it possible that because your experiences with helping people have been positive ones, that the feeling is what you seek — not the charity itself?  True selflessness is not even acknowledging favors or kind acts you are doing for another — it’s considering these actions STANDARD — the DEFAULT.  To never expect a “thank you”, because anything other than selflessness is derived pervertedly from your default “HELP ALL HUMANS” outlook.

In other words, the messiah complex is an oxymoron.  Those who are genuinely selfless would never acknowledge such a thing.  Those who acknowledge their charitable actions in a manner which encourages an ego or elevates their being above the rest of the world are clearly not selfless.  There can never again be a true messiah, as if he/she exists, we would never hear from him/her.  The minute you hear of a messiah’s existence, you know it to be false, because true godliness (my definition of godliness = striving to operate at peak human potential) understands that living up to your potential is what should be expected, not something that is beyond the norm or deserves compensation.