L’il Hil Gives Me a Chill

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When I first heard a description of Jenn Berger’s new animatronic sculpture Hillary Clinton as a Child (2016) I laughed out loud. When I finally saw it, I was still amused, but also a little spooked, in the classic uncanny sense — that dissociative self-reflective identification that underlies our fascination with robots, automatons, and TV morning talk show hosts. This was a work of considerable psychological depth, in addition to it’s humor and topical currency.

As anyone who has been within earshot of me for more than a couple of minutes knows, I consider Firesign Theatre’s 1971 “comedy LP” I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus to be one of the greatest artworks of the 20th century. That complex fable centers around a near-future everyman who hacks into the OS of the Nixonesque Robo-POTUS and thereby brings about the collapse of the Matrix-like digital kenoma. And who’s not for that, right?

But Jenn Berger’s Hillarybot occupies a more ambiguous domain — for one thing, Hillary isn’t president yet. And although I’m sure there will be a plethora of selfies generated by the entity’s weekend residency at Monte Vista Projects  (5442 Monte Vista St, Los Angeles, CA 90042; Saturday Oct. 22 from 5-9pm and Sunday Oct 23 from 1-5pm), this is a manifestation of Ms. Clinton that makes no promises, but peers out at us through a convoluted warp in time, conflating innocence and world-weary skepticism in singular multi-media narrative mashup.

“Combining half of a child size doll, drawing replacing the doll’s front, and video eyes sourced from the Benghazi hearing,” reads the PR in the Facebook announcement,  “Hillary Clinton As A Child speaks to the construction of a larger than life identity over time. The mention of just the name Hillary Clinton brings an immediate response. From where do we form an opinion of our politicians? Based on a childhood photo of Hillary, HCAAC stands as a reminder of Hillary’s history, that she was not always the Hillary Clinton we think we know today.”

This is followed by a quote from Neil Postman’s prescient 1985 scree Amusing Ourselves To Death, in which he observes that “on television the politician does not so much offer the audience an image of [herself], as offer [herself] as an image of the audience.” So now I’m supposed to be a creepy robotic girl with shifty eyes? What’s the deal? I decided to track down the artist and get a few straight answers.

Less Art: So, where do you get all your crazy ideas?

Jenn Berger: For this one I had a dream about a doll that was in half, and the front side was paper. It was the smaller — around 12 inches — porcelain kind. I used to collect Dynasty Dolls. I had this one when I was a kid and it was that kind of style doll in my dream:

s-l400Dynasty Doll Collection Amber 17″ Curly Redhead

So I had that visual in my head, but I didn’t know who the drawing was of and then some time later it just popped into my head and I was curious – what did Hillary Clinton look like as a kid? I didn’t know and I looked it up online and that image I saw, she looks like such a doll, both literally and in the way I’d use that expression – I think it’s a very sweet picture – so that answered it for me.

LA: That was a while back, wasn’t it?

JB: It was May 2015 that I started making it, so Hillary was in the air but nothing like now. It went from there and then I started thinking about her size and what it would be like to encounter her, so over time it has changed from the dream. But that’s how it started.

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LA: Can you describe the process of constructing the Hillary piece? 
JB: The doll was cut in half first and then I traced around the cut off front part so I’d have the area I was drawing in. I made the outline for the drawing a little bigger than the form to allow room for when I’d have to bend and shape the paper to the doll. I drew the face from the photo and drew whatever I saw – all those marks on her face I saw in the photo but I think at some point I realized that was just digital noise in the photo and not freckles or marks on her skin. I drew the body from looking at the front of the doll. Charcoal pencils on paper.
I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to adhere the paper to the doll. I started with double sided tape. There isn’t a lot of surface area on the half doll for the paper to stick to and the paper would pull the tape up. Rubber cement did the trick but it’s not permanent. She has to be repeatedly re-glued. Over time now the paper pretty much stays in place but it comes loose and is fragile.
I cut the paper to the doll but that seems to keep needing adjustment too – sometimes the body and paper get out of alignment – it seems like the arms are changing size over time (maybe just from hanging there or the conditions in the apartment, I don’t know) and it’s a living thing, it’s not a permanent or fixed sculpture, I have to keep tending to it and fix her up each time before she’s shown. If I take her out of her stand I’ll lay her down, (because I worry she could fall over if I just lean her against the wall) and then her hair gets messed up so I have to re-curl it. I have a bunch of bottles of hair coloring on stand by too too because that is not permanent either.
There are two batteries in her stomach that power the small rearview car monitor and media player in her head. I had to get the monitor inside  aligned with the cut out eyes from the drawing, and also keep adjusting the color to match the drawing. Depending on where you are standing the eyes can have a different tint to them. I took the video from the eyes from videos online of the Benghazi hearing – I looked for the longest part I could find where she is not moving her head but is just looking and occasionally blinking.
I had to do several test on prints of the drawn head to see where to cut the eyes out on the actual drawing. Another challenge was getting the arms to stand up, since there was only half of them they could no longer fit into their joints.

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L: Look At Me, 2014, single channel video projection, charcoal on paper, fur on chicken wire and wood, 12′ x 16′ x 4′ R: Standing Cat (Tyra),2014, single channel video projection, fur on chicken wire and wood, 7′ x 4′ x 2′ (sculpture) 2′ x 3′ (video projection)
LA: A lot of your work, like L’il Hil, Tyra (Standing Cat) which was in Another Cats Show at 356 Mission, and the giraffe in Look At Me (2014) from your thesis show at UC Irvine- foreground a simultaneity of discrete representational modes, awkwardly grafting together video, sculpture, and drawing. What the heck is that all about?
JB: I think L’il Hil may be the last of this combining different “platforms of representation” at least in this way. I think I’m trying to bring them to life however I can and interact with their bodies and get a sense of their scale through different mediums. Drawing and sculpture and video each allow a different way of getting to know and touch and interact with that specific creature I’m cobbling together.

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Just Cause You Feel It Doesn’t Mean It’s There, 2013, fur on chicken wire, charcoal on paper, internal motor to simulate breathing, 4′ x 5′ x 6″
It started with the coyote – I was drawing it from video stills of a coyote under anesthesia and then I wanted to get it closer to the experience of being with the coyote when I filmed it so I wanted it to be three dimensional so I added chicken wire to it and fur and then I wanted to simulate the labored breathing so I added the motor. The giraffe started from wondering about the size of a giraffe and fitting  it into my studio at school and thinking the only way to do that would be to fold its body so that the torso and legs would be on the ground and the neck and head along the wall. I got curious about the actual size of a giraffe because I’ve only seen them at a distance.
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Where Do They Go? 2013, taxidermy cat and video
It also started with the piece with the taxidermy cat and the video of the cat that looked to be the same cat (called Where Do They Go?) – I was curious which would be more present – the tangible cat body located physically in the space or the moving images of the projected video. But instead of having the thing, and the copy of the thing, and the viewer (which was still like the triangular set up of videos I was doing where I would “draw” smoke with my body and have the video of the thing I was looking at and then video of me “drawing” it) — with these combined different representational modes there is still the going back and forth between things lining up and slipping apart, but in one body. It’s fragmented and one cohesive image at the same time. I’m curious about where the piece most comes alive because I’m trying to figure out where the self is located in relationship to the body, especially with animals and public familiar figures that we feel familiar with but are at distance to us.
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LA: How do these pieces relate to the history of animatronic entertainment? If at all.

JB: I came across here images from the audio-animatronics from Carousel of Progress. That was first at the ’64 World’s Fair and then Disneyland and then Disney World I think and that’s where I’d see it as a kid with my family. Both my sister and I loved that attraction. I hadn’t thought about it much until I started working for Disney recently but I think it must have made an impact. The audience moved around the stage and there were elaborate sets of different time periods with talking audio-animatronics and it was very pleasurable to move through these different scenes. Disney also has a Lincoln audio-animatronic also first shown at the World’s Fair and that’s at Disneyland now, but I haven’t seen it yet.

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LA: Do you find L’il Hil creepy? Can you pin down what ideas about Hillary the sculpture embodies?
JB: I don’t find her creepy but I can see how people would. I see her as more sweet and like a babydoll. I also see her as too carefully made to be just creepy but I’m not sure a viewer would see that. Since she is not a seamless animatronic where it’s trying to simulate the real thing and instead  is hand made and one of a kind I think that makes her less creepy because she’s more specific and personal. I get the whole creepy doll thing but I’m more thinking of dolls that I played with as a kid – I had a doll house and little figures and I’d make up scenarios so I’m more thinking of the dolls that you project on to. My sister made me paper dolls too. I don’t think when you’re kid and you play with dolls or figures that you think of them as creepy, you just play things out with them. I think the sculpture points to that about Hillary – we have a sense of her but it’s not based on any real contact, it’s just what we project on to her.
LA: Who are you voting for?
JB: I think you know, but I think it’s besides the point.

The Once and Future Kilduff

kilduff-internet-tv-collaboration-5John Kilduff, Internet TV Collaboration #5, oil on canvas, 2008 (included in “Some Paintings”)

In anticipation of John “Mr. Let’s Paint TV” Kilduff’s solo show/residency at Woodbury U’s Nan Rae Gallery opening this Friday Oct 14, here’s a profile I wrote on the man a little over 10 years back –just before the advent of the now-signature treadmill and the visionary multitasking of the subsequent decade — entitled The Joy of Painting Saddam:

“I feel like I’m picking up the people that have fallen off the creative cycle, with the more intangibles of artmaking, and painting in particular — jumping into that fear of failure.” John Kilduff is getting prepared to shoot back-to-back episodes of his cable-access show Let’s Paint TV in Adelphia’s tiny, less than state-of-the-art studio in an industrial neighborhood in Eagle Rock. There’s not much to setting up — he spreads a dropcloth, dumps out his paints in a big pile, puts up a blank canvasboard and positions the little white cake that will be the subject of today’s painting. Dressed in his trademark crumpled and paint-stained Brooks Brothers suit, Kilduff — a gangly, balding, charismatic 30-something — seems only slightly wired in spite of the fact that his program is unscripted and unrehearsed. But after 150 episodes, it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of matter-of-fact routine even to the most improvisational of TV shows.

Of course, that’s not such a rarity in the world of cable access, home of the insane rant and the sprawling, self-indulgent variety show. When I first saw Let’s Paint TV, I was almost certain that this was a clever parody of the Bob Ross tradition of painting programs, perpetrated by some CalArts performance or video graduate who had never touched a brush in his life. Kilduff’s tone is slippery and a little sarcastic, and he was doing a portrait of some kind of rowdy street freak (probably another cable-access host), using what appeared to be an enormous house-painting brush. Later shows introduced a very peculiar array of models and still-life objects — 99-cent-store toy insects, a clown dressed as Uncle Sam on stilts (who chased the artiste around the studio), a thrift-store ceramic bust of JFK and, for four entire episodes, a potty-mouthed Saddam Hussein brought in to experience the rehabilitative power of painting practice. It all smacked of prankish subversion. The problem was, Kilduff was too good. In spite of the zany antics and rough-hewn, possibly naive expressionism of the images, you could tell this guy had pushed some paint around.

And the more I saw, the less frivolous it seemed. I also experienced the unusual sensation of agreeing with most of what Kilduff had to say about painting. At least I’m pretty sure I agree with it — Kilduff’s stream-of-consciousness play-by-play can become seriously fragmented, studded with malapropisms, mixed metaphors, and shaggy dog stories that trail off into the ether. Yet underlying this lurching banter is a cheerful determination to entertain and inform and get to the other side of the 28 and a half minutes. “Just throw down the paint!” is his mantra. “Block it in. Squint. Use a rag. And try to have fun. We at Let’s Paint TV want to encourage you.” This gives his performance the same kind of improv buoyancy that makes his paintings so authentic.

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As it turns out, this confidence comes from having painted most of his life and now finding himself in the unusual position of supporting himself with his artwork. Raised in Oakland, Kilduff took art classes throughout his childhood and migrated south to attend Otis in the mid-’80s. There, in spite of studying with postmodern artists such as Mike Kelley, Roy Dowell and Carol Caroompas, Kilduff perversely insisted on pursuing his interest in the quintessentially early-Modernist practice of plein-air, on-location painting — a practice that, despite its pivotal role in freeing the Impressionist painters from academic strictures, has become an invisible substratum, an embarrassment to the mainstream contemporary art world.

But plein air embodies a category of artmaking (alongside the still lifes and posed models that make up Let’s Paint TV’s repertoire) that isn’t available anywhere else — a complex improvisational relationship among the painter, the subject and the canvas, enacted in real time, unscripted and deeply rooted in the human body. And it has its adherents — thousands and thousands of them, particularly in California, whose landscape-painting tradition continues to support a vital and lucrative parallel art universe with its own galleries, collectors, magazines and art fairs. These fairs have allowed Kilduff to avoid a real job. This year he’ll be peddling his wares (including his elaborate shaped canvases with three-dimensional elements — an approach he’s tired of but that’s a hit with art-fair regulars) at 15 such venues, including this weekend’s 52nd annual Sausalito Art Festival, ranked the No. 1 art fest in the country.

The ins and outs of such lesser-known suburbs of contemporary artmaking are fascinating, as are the idiosyncratic paths followed by artists who actually have their own ideas about how and why they make art. But Kilduff’s claim to fame, such as it is, derives from his inspired combination of his own art practice with the most powerful of contemporary creative media — broadcast television. Painting and TV seem unlikely bedmates, but in fact the very first commercial television broadcast — beamed from the Empire State Building on May 16, 1946 — included a live drawing lesson by the father of televised art instruction, Jon Gnagy. Enormously popular, Gnagy was an important influence on young Andy Warhol, among millions of other budding artists. His show stayed on the air until 1970, inspiring many imitators and establishing an entire field of collateral marketing opportunities with drawing kits and instructional books. William Alexander followed with his trademarked “Wet-on-Wet Technique” (known in previous centuries as alla prima), and in the early ’80s anointed a soft-spoken, frizzy-haired ex–Air Force man named Bob Ross as his heir apparent. Ross’ hypnotic delivery and litany of “happy little trees” have made him one of the most recognizable American art figures of the 21st century — in spite of the fact that he died in 1995.

Right around that time, Kilduff started getting involved in the strange world of public-access cable television, a remarkable and underappreciated forum for free expression mandated by the FCC in the late ’60s. Anyone who can sit through a free training session can have his own TV show, and some of the finest video art of the last quarter-century has resulted. Locally, cable access has produced underground stars like Francine Dancer, Dr. Susan Block and Zuma Dogg. As depicted in the recent documentary Public Access Hollywood (which will screen at the Century City Film Festival in late October), the cable-access community is sort of a non-hierarchical version of Warhol’s Factory, and one of its late-’90s superstars was one Jim Berry, a.k.a. John Kilduff.

After a couple of years spoofing talk shows and the Home Shopping Network, Kilduff realized that if he combined his first calling as a painter with the ramshackle seat-of-your-pants inventiveness of cable access, he’d produce something new — a mutant strain of instructional art television. And he was right. Boisterous, irreverent and surreal, Let’s Paint TV is nevertheless utterly sincere in its espousal of painting as a path of creative liberation. If anything, it jettisons the inverse snobbery of the Bob Ross tradition, assuming a sophisticated audience informed by the inescapable influence of Modernism and the indeterminate sincerity of post–Saturday Night Live television. It turns out Let’s Paint TV is indeed a clever parody of Bob Ross and company, but — like so much parody, from Don Quixote to the novelty music of Spike Jones — this one turns out to be better art than that at which it pokes fun. Poised between the mainstream and plein-air art worlds, the instructional art television tradition and cable-access madness, Kilduff somehow delivers a painting primer as good as any I’ve seen in art school and better than any other I’ve seen on TV. And you get Saddam Hussein.

www.letspainttv.com

Gender Essentialism in “Stranger Things”

stranger-things-season-1-2-the-weirdo-on-maple-street-eleven-found-mike-lucas-dustin-gaten-matarazzo-caleb-mclaughlin-finn-wolfhard-review-episode-guide-list“I don’t make any rules Nick — I go with the flow.”

I don’t think I can tackle the fine kettle of perverse nostalgiafish that is Stranger Things. I binge-watched it when it came out, now almost three months ago, and it triggered my wanting to finally get this blog rolling, but it just doesn’t seem worth it — the fact that several generations of Americans (and beyond) have developed into adults believing in and aping the behavior of a reactionary, fictional 1970s revival of 1950s atomic family values (itself largely a normative construct imposed by TV, Duh!) — to such a degree that kids today are effectively living in a simulacrum of Stevens Spielberg and King’s bedwetting nightmares and subsequent attempts to shift blame (AKA Art) — can’t be laid at the feet of one otherwise entertaining genre exercise. Especially one with Wynona.

The numbers just don’t crunch. So I will focus on the one specific bug up my butt that Stranger Things put there. As a lifelong feminist, I have always been sensitive to the retarded clichés that are routinely imposed on all genders by the industrial storytellers, and my interest is aroused when a monkeywrench is introduced to the SOP. Thus, when that buzzcut kid in a hospital gown shows up at the diner in the midst of the confusion of Wynona’s missing son and the diner dude is suddenly all like “Gorsh I’m sorry little lady” my phallic signifier alarm went Ka-Ching!

Hold on, I guess I have to review the fucking scenes before I ask my question. Goddammit! …OK, I’m back. Diner dude is Benny, and I remember my curiosity as pertains to his means of determining 011‘s gender. He seemed to have had some kind of revelation in the last shot of the scene where he first catches 011 scarfing down the french fries, but since the action cuts away to the introductory ham radio sequence, I figured maybe ol’ Benny took a quick peak under the hood or something. Creepy, but hey, the heart wants what it wants, right?

But then the same thing happens with the three lost boys from Hook they thawed out for the protagonist cluster. End of episode 1 they find 011 in the woods. Beginning of episode 2, they’re saying she this and her that. It’s worth noting that nobody that wasn’t in an industrial band in the UK had hair that short in 1983, particularly chicks, so there must have been a really big tell. I mean, it looks like she’s just wearing that yellow tee-shirt and might be rocking some Basic Instinct scissor action during that basement couch interrogation. But then the lost boys are all like “Eek!” when she start to pull the tee-shirt off in front of them. WTF?

Now I‘m all for suspension of disbelief. Vagidentasaurus from the bertweenyworld, why not? Matthew Modine playing an arrogant asshole, no problem. But this whole story appears to be taking place in some parallel universe which is exactly identical to ours (or rather the one in the Stevens’ pee-pee dreams,) except you can discern gender in a prepubescent by gazing into their eyes. What else can we diagnose there? Homosexuality? Communist sympathies? Jewishness?

And don’t get me started on that! At least her goddam nightie had dots instead of stripes! But the buzzcut, the number tattooed on her wrist? When did it become OK to appropriate that particular set of historical signifiers as a convenient shortcut around character development in a cheesy sci-fi drama? Maybe 011 slipped through a wormhole created when Magneto atomized Auschwitz in X-Men: Apocalypse (Also set in 1983! Mere coincidence?) It’s terribly, terribly Post-Modern. Where’s the Anti-Defamation League when you need them?

But the whole tat issue is what got me thinking, maybe 011 has more than one tattoo, and we, the viewers, just couldn’t see it. And sure enough, when I put that frame grab up on the big screen and yelled “Enhance!” everything became clear:

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Is “Jason Bourne” a 123-minute Psychotronic Blipvert for Hillary?!

jason-bourneThe He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society meets monthly to view promising high-budget mainstream shoot-em-ups in the context for which they were designed — big, loud movie theaters (although at $17 for an 11 AM matinee, it’s unlikely we’ll be patronizing the Arclight Pasadena again any time soon! No wonder we were the only ones in the place except for that one guy.) Actually, this was our inaugural screening, so we’ll see if the concept has legs.

I really loved the first Bourne movie, and the two subsequent entries were satisfying extensions of the premise — I guess I’m a sucker for movies that give people the impression that MKULTRA is some kind of fictional trope. And since I heard Matt Damon had been all “Never again unless it’s a quality project!” I figured this one could be solid. I try not to read reviews before I see a movie, so I had no idea how it had been received out of the gate. I’m actually still pretty much in the dark, though I heard us critics didn’t like it.

I have to say that I’m still processing the experience. In a nearly empty statish-of-the-art theater in row G, with the screen hovering at maximum engulfment eye level, the action was dizzying enough to send my vertigo-prone HMAMAS colleague scurrying to the back row (and apparently the 3D version has been exploding heads in China). But I toughed it out, since I probably haven’t frequented one of these joints in three years or longer, and it’s a formidable sensory environment worth embracing on its own terms.

The movie starts with a sequence that is as deftly carved a block of fromage as I’ve ever seen. We catch up with the titular ex-asset hiding off the grid in some grimy Mediterranean traveling Fight Club, as he grimly and silently prepares to go mano a mano with a flexing tattooed Chechen ex-con, whom he knocks flat with one swat before spitting in the dust and demanding of the gathered looky-loos “Are you not entertained?!” So far so good.

Actually I made that last bit up. But the thickly sliced genericism of this Gladiatorial homage bookends the film along with an even more outrageous appropriation, though I can’t put my finger on it — what movie is that with the super-destructive car chase through Vegas ending up with the bad guy clambering out of a stolen SWAT-mobile among the smashed-up nickel-slots of the Riviera lobby, brandishing a machine gun? Die Harderest?

In between (and intermingled with) these already remarkable bursts of post-modern cribbing is what seemed to me like a frenetic 90-minute experiment in avant-garde editing, camerawork — and, I began to suspect about halfway through — post-production digital enhancement (“Enhance!”). Now, I’ve seen a lot of these kinds of action movies — the whole handheld camera, jumpcuts, zoom, focus method of creating a dynamic action sequence. Bourne #1 was one of the first to do that, right? Not counting Bullitt and The Battle of Algiers. And #s 2 & 3, which were directed by the same dude as this new one, were responsible for escalating the Vertiginous into a mainstream action movie lingua franca.

And that in itself was an extraordinary envelope-pushing development — moving the bulk of the action inside the camera, imposing a mechanical phenomenological interiority on the hypnagogic movie-watching mind, demanding at least a tolerance for (if not full literacy in) structuralist and cinema verité narrative forms from the viewers — montage via high-speed shredder, owing more to John Cage than John Ford.

But initially those sequences alternated with relatively placid character-driven interludes, and even at their most fevered, didn’t seem to pack as much mulch into each square second as this reboot. And it’s relentless! There was one scene where Bourne’s getting in a taxi or something, totally innocuous, but they used like 6 rapid-fire angles of blurry, swooping whoop-de-do to communicate that. That’s not storytelling. That’s Cubism! And I’m shocked and impressed that this is generally intelligible — considered acceptable or even essential as a contemporary narrative visual language.

Not that they actually managed to come up with a compelling storyline — they followed the apparently sacrosanct sequel strategy of skimping on the script to pay for Matt Damon and repairs to Las Vegas. Or maybe it was committee-regarbled so many times it lost all its vitamins. Something about the internet? How shutting off your wifi while opening stolen encrypted CIA black op files on your laptop would not prevent them from tracking you? Yeah, there’s a couple of plot holes in there. But hey, Stan Brakhage didn’t need no stinking plot. And I kept flashing on Brakhage in that documentary, walking around his rural property swinging a super-8 at the end of his arm? But like here there’s a half dozen cameramen with state-o-the-art hardware executing carefully choreographed whoop-de-do.

Or are there? That’s when I started wondering about the actual improvisatory content of this rococo cinematic bebop. Obviously the editing is intricately orchestrated with little left to chance, and that simple truth is what started me down this speculative path — the percussive pacing is so blatantly manipulative, with such a predictable course of physiological impact, provoking and soothing the fight-or-flight response, that I wondered if there wasn’t an algorithm at work behind the decisions, some Fibonacci Sequence of duration, chop, chop, chop chop, chop chop chop…

Then I realized that in these days of industrial light and magic, all the actual texture that was being parsed so carefully was most probably digitally tweaked, layered over existing — relatively pedestrian — footage, or summoned out of whole cloth. “Defocus that shot of the text coming over the phone. Now add a zoom, and make it come in focus, then swipe to the left! Disenhance!” Retroactive spontaneity. And if enough data has been collected from enough focus groups, couldn’t a few lines of code determine exactly how much lack of focus to apply, how unsteady the cam should seem, how disintegrated the pictorial information, to produce the desired anxiety levels in the average viewer? Or to disrupt rational skepticism or a host of other specifically targeted cognitive functions?

I was a grand mal epileptic during my formative years, and during that time and afterwards, I fooled around with strobes and a Burroughs/Gysin/Sommerville Dreamachine so I know from optically induced altered states. Maybe this is old hat; maybe this is what’s taught in film school these days. Being self-consciously formulaic is hardly a new development in Hollywood. What struck me as new about this, though, was the possibility that it had reached a level of clinical physiology.

As such would be in essence mimicking the central historical narrative engine of the series’ mythology in its own cinematic structure — MK (Mind Kontrol) ULTRA’s attempts to rearrange or obliterate human personality on a neurophysiological level — using drugs, sensory deprivation, electric shock, and audiovisual reprogramming elements including verbal tape loops, strobes, and deliberate overloading of visual information. This doesn’t come from the Voices haranguing some foil-hatted fringe theorist, BTW, but from the Freedom of Information Act. Look it up on wikipedia.

Now aesthetically, this seems to be a brilliant masterstroke, and inevitable in retrospect. In fact this apparent melding of form, fiction, and function can be read back into the first three installments — but it took until this one for me to make the connection. I can be thick sometimes. But the earlier iterations didn’t make me so suspicious as regards their hidden agendas, prompting the question of what exactly the content of the brainwashing consists of. Which brings us to politics.

In the first installment, Bourne is essentially a runaway iSlave, a wanderer off the Manchurian reservation, pushed to awesome violence only because his former masters are relentless in their attempts to recover or destroy their property. From what I remember, this formula held for 2 & 3. In the new picture, Bourne is drawn out of his perfectly comfortable life of vagabond fisticuffs by his former handler, who is a babe, and has stolen those aforementioned Black Op files for slimy phony creepy reptilian Julian Assange. Jason tells Julian Assange that he’s been “exploiting” the babe. Jason tells Julian Assange “I’m not on your side.” Julian Assange tries to kill Jason with a barbell, but Jason’s too fast and strong! Julian Assange is defeated! (But he lasts a lot longer than that Chechen, which is impressive for a foppish Eurotrash cyberterrist.) But the bad guys are coming! Run, Jason Bourne, run! Jason Bourne runs.

OK, my WTF-meter just popped a gasket, so we’ll put that on the back burner for now — actually Julian Assange completely disappears from the plot-like-thing from this point, so we have to move on anyway. So there’s this other digital cultural icon dude, a sort of mash-up of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, except brown, and he has been colluding with the CIA since start-up-in-the-garage days to spy on the users of whatever it is he already invented — some social networking platform? Whatevs.

Speaking of whatevs — hold, on, let me get this off the back burner — what exactly is Bourne’s motivation this time? His Dad was more involved in MKULTRA than he thought? Whoa. “I must go play smash-up-derby on the Strip!” If anyone needed to deploy the mighty engine of detachment that is “whatevs” it’s Jason Bourne when he gets that news. “Thanks, I’ve actually been trying to put all that behind me. There’s gladiatin’ that needs doin’!” How hard is that? OK, maybe he says something like that, but then BANG! – it becomes all about revenge. Escalating, snowballing, pulse-pounding, bubblicious revenge upon revenge.

WhatEVS. OK, back to Samir Zuckerjobs — he’s all Silicon Valley smarm and “We’re making the world a better place!” to his adoring legions, but to CIA director Tommy Lee Jones, he’s all like “These Black Op leaks to Julian Assange are too risky! I’m not going to let you use my new improved social media platform to data mine my clientele!” and Tommy Lee’s all like “Grrrr!” because that messes with his plan for ultimate world domination. So it’s ON.

The third party in this let’s-get-all-jiggy-with-the-kids-and-their-devices triumvirate is the ambitious young whippersnapper babe gunnin’ for Tommy Lee’s job. And she’s got an edge, because she like writes code and yells “Enhance!” and Tommy Lee fumbles with one of those big-number phones they advertise in the back of The Nation as he soils his Depends. He’s a dinosaur, man, and he killed Jason Bourne’s dad or something. So Digital Babe starts running a counter-counter on Tommy Lee, protecting and offering covert succor to Jason.

Now, this lady’s a real conundrum. Naked political ambition rooted in that authentic kind of patriotism, apparently the product of a left-liberal hi-tech ivy league education — she went to MIT with Samir — and she’s helping our guy. And in so doing, she gives Jason Bourne permission to trust again. Maybe we can trust her too. But there are so many things on her permanent record that bear contradictory interpretations, and so many ethical strings are left hanging at the end of the movie!

It’s just too soon to tell. But no, she really puts it on the line for JB. She’s a good egg. Down deep. She even makes a speech about how the New CIA is going to be way cooler, because it’ll be made up of digital people who want to make the world a better place. Maybe we should give her a shot. It’s clear that Silicon Valley is taking over, and with whom are we to cast our lots? Well-meaning but weak, hypocritical, and already compromised Samir Zuckerjobs? Evil evil Julian Assange? Maybe we should give Digital Babe a chance! Cue “First We Take Manhattan” (Oops! Of course I meant “Democracy is Coming“)

I can’t believe that I’m telling you all this. I can’t believe I remember it, actually — it’s been a couple of days (weeks) since I started writing this, and, as you can probably tell, the story doesn’t really make a lot of sense or inspire much emotional or psychological investment. And there are way more unresolved loose ends than needed to allow for another sequel. And even the meaning of those elements that are conclusive remain ambiguous — particularly in their political implications.

The biggest, loosest string is the hypnotically repeated suggestion that Jason Bourne is damaged goods, and will be a psychological cripple incapable of “finding peace” until he’s back with the agency killing bad guys who threaten our feelings of comfortableness. It’s just that crazy thing of his that he does so well! Coming from Tommy Lee it’s creepy, all like “Luke I am your Father – join me!” but when Digital Babe slings it, Jason’s all like “Mmmmmmmmaybe…” 

It appears that there’s a glimmer of hope, that the dream that was USA! USA! USA! was ever so slightly derailed by a few bad eggs, but when the Digital People take over, the crack in the Liberty Bell will be photoshopped out like a bad dream. “Come in from the cold, Jason Bourne! It’s ever so warm inside! We have periodicals on microfiche!”

And Jason Bourne is considering it! So by the time the credits roll, we’ve got the Disenfranchised Everyman Anarchist Ninja contemplating going back to the Winning Team, on top of the 3-count-em-3 rival avatars of the Brave New Digiworld. Of course only two of these are viable stewards of the global information power structure — basically decent but nobly obliged to negotiate compromises. The 3rd is evil, naive, exploitative, nihilistic, and evil! Plus we’ve got the Bad Daddy out of the picture, leaving everything up in the air.

I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! Julian Assange BAD! Torrented Bourne movies BAD! Got that much. But is Matt Damon really endorsing a kinder, gentler machine gun hand? If so, why not just say it, give a fella some closure? It’s almost as if the purpose of the film is to leave the viewer in a state of anxious narrative destabilization. Why would that nice young man want to do such a thing? He cited Chomsky and Zinn in Good Will Hunting!

At first I put it down to laziness and greed, which account for so much contemporary culture. But a few hours later, I had a small epiphany. I always wonder why more celebrities don’t plunge into the electoral arena. Take Ronald Reagan… please! Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jessie Ventura, Clint Eastwood. And Al Franken! LOOK AT THEM! Patriots to a man. But I get that they feel they should try to effect change through their chosen sphere — and when you’re talking about the enormously profitable, unprecedentedly influential business of global mythmaking that is Hollywood, it’s a fair point.

But we saw how Hollywood’s best shot at discursive propaganda – Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 — could not save us from four more years of The Decider. Something more intuitive was called for in the face of the Trump Inevitability (or the Jeb Redundancy, or the Bern Ultimatum). My epiphany consisted of two parts: that Matt Damon and his friends knew exactly what they were doing; and that Digital Babe is Hillary Clinton.

Think about it — she’s strong, ambitious, politically savvy to the point of Machiavellianism, she has deep sympatico with Silicon Valley — and she’s a Babe! They even give her a Benghazi-like failed mission costing the lives of several American operatives and threatening to torpedo her career (though the audience knows all along that it’s the Bad Daddy trying to throw her under the bus). Julian Assange represents Julian Assange, but he also represents Bernie Sanders and the entire Generation Occupy, who are clearly the target demographic here.

Generation Occupy grew up with Bourne, identifying with his bafflement and rage at the hypocrisy and corruption endemic to government and business. The first Bourne movie was originally scheduled to be released in September 2001, so its arrival six months later actually coincided with the first delayed waves of widespread cognitive dissonance generated between the protectionist rhetoric of the 9/11 response and the actual predatory behavior of the ruling military industrial complex.

I had to back-engineer this logic from my epiphany, and I believe it’s solid, but it’s a mistake to take these correspondences literally. “Jason Bourne” operates subliminally — or at least liminally, in an optically and sonically triggered twilight state of neurological receptivity — and the actual details are promiscuous, polymorphous, and fuzzy. The characters are dreamlike, blurry composites — you know when you dream about some one and they don’t look or act or talk the way they do in real life, but in the dream you know it’s them?

But this is the message I think is unmistakably embedded in this deliberately cartoonish mythology, and delivered deep into the viewer’s unconscious using state of the art psychotronic mind-control technology (at least as far as what’s legal to deploy openly on a paying audience): “The cold war military industrial complex — and its attendant paranoia, corruption, and prejudices — has been removed from power. Set to replace it is a benevolent global digital corporate empire still in its birth throes, but unavoidable. And made in America!”

“The terror threat, the threat of violence inflicted on our bodies and those of those we love, is a very real and present danger. The radical left — while it may use rhetoric that appeals to our fondest ideals about society and our species potential — are at best dangerously naive and at worst up to their usual no-good commie bastard tricks. Hate our freedom. Way of life. Conomy. Taxes taxes taxes. Won’t somebody please think of the children? They are craving electrolytes!” But I digress. Ahem.

“Hillary may have made some mistakes in the past, she may have compromised with the cold war military industrial complex, but it was only to get to a position of power so that she could help and guide her real friends, the Digital People, in the responsible and ethical establishment of a digital global power network that will very probably transform the nature of nationhood and government forever. In or out? Which side are you on?”

So that’s this month’s report from the He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society, we hope we’ve helped you sort out the ol’ bang-for-buck ratio. Stay tuned for the next He-Man Action Movie Appreciation Society report, when we will be looking at The Accountant, a film that finally addresses the question “What if Good Will Hunting was a chick and Jason Bourne banged her and they had an inbred baby that was all like Shine-meets-Transporter and turns out to be the other guy from Good Will Hunting?” Whoa.