Be the Media

The Current State of Activist Media and the Work of Franklin Lopez

by Chris Robé

11 November 2010

Still from The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 

The Simultor Presents An Amazing Moment of Political Pastiche

This sequence thematically ties to the worldwide rebellions against high fuel prices that The Stimulator will report on occurring in Spain, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India, Portugal, France, and the UK. And the clip will resurface when The Stimulator later ponders midway into the show: “What is the threshold when Americans will say enough is enough?” Here we witness López’s talent as an editor and writer.

The Stimulator continues: “I’ll tell you when: around late August when a gallon of gas will be five bucks, when the electric grid crashes on the hottest day of the year.” We watch images of Walmart workers clapping, the skeleton of a television framing a boarded-up street, an Enron logo, and shots of abandoned homes. We not only get an abbreviated contrast of the class gulf, but also an implicit critique of television that suggest only by kicking-out its screen can we begin to see the socio-economic issues that it masks. Furthermore, the Enron logo not only symbolizes corporate greed and its disdain for its workers, but by having it flash on the screen when mentioning electricity, it also recalls the 2001 California blackouts and price-fixings the company malignantly delivered upon the State’s residents. The logo condenses images of corporate greed, arrogance, and a general disregard for overall human welfare.

The danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers.

The Stimulator proceeds: “When all you can afford to eat is Mac and Cheese”—shot of a Kraft commercial—“When you finally fucking realize that the wool has been pulled over your eyes”—images of Ron and Nancy Reagan waving, representing the hollow promises of “morning in America”, a dream that broke the backs of millions of working-class folk—“and that everything you have been told is a motherfucking lie”—shots of Donald Rumsfeld press briefings and the terror alert chart, suggesting the fear-inducing lies that pervade our daily existence—“Your time, your life, your dreams, belong to you, and not your boss, your church, or your so-called government. When you do the math and if millions of us gather,”—shots of various protestors from the ‘60s to the present followed by an insert of The Warriors’s clip of “Can you dig it?” and then a shot of the Tiananmen square protestor halting a tank before him—“we can take this motherfucker head on, slay the beast that enslaves us and get on with building a world that we can be proud of”— the final section of The Warriors’clip asserts “Can you dig it?” with the crowd then roaring.

This entire sequence represents a complex socio-aesthetic attitude that both interrogates popular culture and critically appropriates it, that seizes upon its imagery to create momentum to think and act beyond its limits. It’s an amazing moment of political pastiche.

Yet the show also periodically catapults so far into the realms of the far Left that it begins uncomfortably orbiting the realm of far Right paranoia. López, to his credit, often self-consciously addresses this. In episode 18 of season three, The Stimulator distinguishes himself from conspiracy theorist, talk-show radio host Alex Jones, who believes that the government is drugging the water supply, that FEMA is preparing concentration camps, and the New World Order is secretly assembling its rule behind closed doors. As The Stimulator states, “The world is not that simple. Trying to explain our dire state of affairs by blaming a few white men who meet in dark rooms is retarded.”  Some of his thoughts at times suggest otherwise, though— like his belief that Bush and Cheney might have been involved in September 11th—even though he realizes that this might cause some of his viewers to be “worried about The Stimulator being one of those conspiracy nuts.” True enough.

The show has also been increasingly obsessed with catastrophic economic and environmental collapse—most typically associated with anarcho-primitivists like John Zerzan, Kevin Tucker, and Derrick Jensen. Not surprisingly, López’s film, END: CIV, which he is currently completing, is based on the End Game books of Jensen.

Jensen is something of a hangover from the ‘60s—a cult figure for an anarchist age. His speaking style is bombastic as if he imagines himself standing before audiences of a 1,000 rather than a 100. His analogies are often slipshod and cliché. For example, in one sequence from END: CIV he compares the corporate destruction of the environment and people with that of Nazi fascism. The sequence ends with him asking: “If this was happening today, would you fight it?” Echoes of the ‘30s Popular Front haunt his rhetoric—when Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was compared with anti-black sentiment of the US South and anti-ethnic attitudes of the Midwest. The conflation is simplistic and knee-jerk—and not all that much different than when Tea Baggers and Glen Beck claim Obama as a modern-day Hitler.

Additionally, Jensen’s polemical certainty seems less a ploy to engage in debate than to browbeat. In one interview, Jensen asserts, “Civilization will never rise again… It is a one-time blow-out” because all of the natural resources needed to sustain it will be unavailable. He continues: “I think that Mad Max is probably what we’re going to see.” The reference to Mad Max is telling since much of the catastrophe theory that Jensen and others like him propound often sounds like the script to a bad movie. This is not to discount that there are the occasional historical moments that one feels like an extra in a Jerry Bruckheimer film—such the day of 9/11. Yet living your daily life as if catastrophe looms behind every breeze seems psychically damaging. 

This is not to deny that the planet will eventually run out of oil or that global warming will devastatingly transform its surface or that humans will no longer exist. However,it strikes me that the world will more likely end with a whimper rather than a bang. The global catastrophe theory strikes me as too pat, too easy—a form of magical thinking that conveniently ignores how we need to transition from our current state of affairs to a more sustainable way of life, how our lifestyles need to alter and our priorities need to be reassessed. The catastrophe theory solves all this by assuming imminent and immediate collapse with a guaranteed reversion to a hunter-gathering lifestyle.

Furthermore, it can lead to political defeatism. If the world is on the brink of collapse, why not simply exploit our natural resources even more voraciously by keeping our lights on 24-hours a day, doubling deep-sea drilling for oil, accelerating strip mining since such actions will ultimately bring us to collapse sooner rather than later? The theory can be used to justify and accentuate the very worst practices of neoliberalism. It’s the flipside of a certain form of conservatism that asserts: the world is going to Hell, so why not take full advantage of what we have now before the Rapture descends?

This theory and Jensen’s tone don’t sit all that well with alter-globalization direct-action politics nor with López’s humorous, inquisitive, and self-reflective style. So it will be interesting to see the final results when END: CIV is completed. Based upon the clips currently displayed on SubMedia TV, the film will be much less freewheeling and more polemical.Yet it’s also strangely and disturbingly beautiful.

In one sequence where López establishes Jensen’s Tenth Premise: that culture is driven by a death urge, we see slow moving aerial shots of highways and rotating parking lots with an underlying dissonant cello soundtrack. This sequence could be straight out of Godfrey Reggio’s experimental film, Koyannisqatsi (1982). Similarly, later on when various voice-overs explain the destructiveness of extracting oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, we once again see beautiful aerial, slow motion shots that aestheticize the violence, abstracting it within cello music and graceful camera movements. 

This danger of aestheticizing violence and poverty is not unique to López but plagues all talented political filmmakers. Joris Ivens, a documentary filmmaker of The Spanish Earth (1937) and Power and the Land (1940), self-consciously rejected his older avant-garde aesthetic techniques to stress “the harshness of the situation without being sentimental or pitying” (The Camera and Lens 87). López must also learn to better negotiate this difficult terrain of presenting compelling footage while at the same time not derailing the film’s message. Overall, witnessing the tensions between the aesthetics and politics of López’s works provides a refreshing change of pace from activist media projects that all-too-often sacrifice aesthetics for a jagged, amateur self-satisfied harangue to insiders who already know better.

Ultimately, López’s work reveals the promises and pitfalls of contemporary global activist media making. It exposes the compelling results when the aesthetic traditions of political hip-hop and the avant-garde are successfully intertwined; it exemplifies how activists must trawl through popular culture in order to identify and reconfigure its hidden utopian impulses in more radical directions; it discloses the dangers of the reactionary nature of some strains of anarchist thought; and, finally, it negotiates the uncertain and always shifting terrain where aesthetics and politics meet.

Frankli Lopez

Frankli Lopez

As artists John MacPhee and Erik Reutland observe: “Because art is understood as a realm of the qualitative, where our assumptions about how the ‘real’ world works can be temporarily put on hold, it is the place where exciting experiments in social reorganization can take place. It is in this space that we can catch glimpses of liberation” (Realizing the Impossible 5). At its best, López’s work engages in constructing a new vision where popular culture serves the interests of the poor and dispossessed, where humor is reignited within activism, and the D.I.Y. ethics of punk and hip-hop allow those with talent and gumption to be the media, once again.

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