Nicolas D. Sampson is a writer-producer based in Cyprus and the UK. His work has appeared in Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, The Scofield, and The Writers’ Magazine, among others. His short story Flames and Shadows was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Film projects include Behind the Mirror(writer/producer – winner of Best Thriller in the Manhattan Film Festival 2015), Vita and Virginia and Show Me The Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall(executive producer). He loves Alfred Hitchcock films. And traveling. And the Cloud. And is currently working on a psychological horror script.
LIFEBOAT: IT STILL WORKS
Every once in a while comes a film that delves deep into the intricacies of life, examining humanity from all viewpoints, selling no one short. This is not such a film. It uses multiple angles to reach a monolithic conclusion, and thank goodness for it because life is not always balanced, moral, and so-called objective.
Lifeboat is an underrated Hitchcock film. Experimental and daring in cinematic terms, it was set in a boat out at sea, using a cast of castaways to explore the psychology of crisis in confined spaces. (Dare I call it the cinematic adaptation of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa?) Lifeboat tells its story in a simple and effective manner, playing out like a psychological drama thriller, going only as deep as the trope needs. No excessive layering or extra padding, no all-round catering. The fact that it was shot during WWII defined the story, a relatively black and white (message-wise) film with a positive-for-the-Allies ending.
In terms of art, this might feel like a flaw, but it’s a valid and illuminating choice. Lifeboat’s message relies on a refreshingly biased perspective that casts light on the complex reality of the human condition, reminding today’s audience that objectivity is a subjective approach, part of an ongoing life cycle, and that bias is as natural – and sometimes as necessary – as an open mind.
In other words, Lifeboat throws the debate on the human condition back into rough waters. Pragmatism becomes relevant again. It’s about complex psychology that boils down to black-and-white outcomes, the story serving a specific point of view: We’re the good guys! The bad guys are over there! – that kind of thing.
‘Objectivists’ may not value the premise, arguing that any kind of stereotyping is harmful (see the German in the film).
Today’s critics may agree with them, longing for grey areas and holistic points of view.
The counterargument is that life is too complex for a grey-only perspective. It takes all kinds, from black and white to grey, to color, to the shades and nuances in between, a little of everything for reality to manifest. Sometimes there’s no grey at all, just harsh and delineated opposites, simple distinctions. Many situations are like that, and so are many of the stories we tell. Life averages out across events, some of which are clear-cut, others more nuanced. This occurs over time, in averaged-out permutations. Life is a series of waves, with ups and downs, not smooth sailing down the cross-section of a bell curve.
In other words, to appreciate the complexity of life, we sometimes have to tell stories that are partial. Demanding that everything balances out at any given point in time, intra-story – that every tale we tell encapsulates all points of view, that no one is unduly shown in a bad light, that no one’s feelings get hurt – is unrealistic and counterproductive, at least in art. We improve ourselves by examining the very things that trouble us, and sometimes this involves each other, the way we get in each other’s faces and under each other’s skin. Keeping the scales level is not feasible if we’re telling stories that represent real life. To make genuine art and valid commentary – not journalism – our primary concern is the art and the commentary, not how to be fair and balanced.
This doesn’t mean we have to become the artistic equivalent of Fox News, Breitbart, or MSNBC (pick and choose your favorite propaganda outlet). It’s not an anything-goes situation – and opinion is not the same as fact – let’s make that clear. If you think that the earth is flat or that big government is automatically equivalent to social integrity, you’re entitled to your opinion. You’re also welcome to debate the matter, argue all you want, but don’t call your arguments facts. If you have solid data, by all means, use them to build your theory, tear down the previous one, if you can, and do so with authority. (By the way, authority isn’t the same as a loud voice.) But don’t pretend that all opinions have merit. Some are bogus and dysfunctional. Once floated, the rotten ones sink to the bottom.
That doesn’t mean we have to earn a PhD before floating an opinion. Perspective varies, and so do the accounts we share, offering balance on average, across projects and time. Science depends on the verification, replication, corroboration, refutation, and expansion of data sets and all related processes. Journalism examines all points of view before making a rounded report, communicating events and developments, past and present. And art, like it or not, is a little looser, its purpose to entertain, at the top of its game when making revelations about life from interesting, often contentious points of view. Where would we be without Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, Lovecraft’s mythos, Quentin Tarantino’s colorful (yet monolithic) sensationalism, Joan Didion’s ice-sharp (cold?) early writings, Trevor Noah’s identity-obsessed show, Virginia Woolf’s sharp/feminist/prudish/highbrow oeuvre, George Carlin’s offensive rants … the list goes on, making up the canon of human culture.
Sometimes it’s good to take a step back to grasp the essence of what is said/shown/portrayed without nitpicking an argument to death. Everything has bias in it, after all. Demonizing isn’t hard. Give me six lines, said Richelieu. History’s records are full of those who suffered someone else’s judgment, our dungeons crawling with bones, the sea full of people thrown overboard for violating this and that code. If we put our minds to it we could find fault in every single point of view and reference, demonizing a buttercup, a hummingbird, the bees, a piece of clothing (where was it made, by whom, who wears it, what does it symbolize…? – it goes on and on).
Today we vilify in the name of inclusion, unaware of the paradox, the highhandedness of the approach, the undertow that drives it.
It’s a torturous way to approach life. Nothing is safe from our wrath. We heed nothing, respect nothing, appreciate nothing, all in the name of appreciating everything.
It’s an awful waste of intelligence that leads to a confused mindset, not to mention questionable art that will age badly.
To put things in perspective, let me say this: objectivity and fairness are points of view, more Construct than Virtue. We’re creatures of interpretation. None among us is infallible or innocent, not even the most well-intentioned. The world we live in is the product of partial points of view, some more informed than others, all of them subject to perspective. The way we improve is incremental. We live and learn by trial and error. Sometimes we touch on something from a specific point of view, leaving out the rest, which someone else picks up. It adds up. Touch on a principle in any given case, trace out patterns and trends, the examples and symbols, hinting at the bigger picture, laying the foundation for a wider perspective. It comes together over time, the aggregate of our numerous codes of conduct, our science, our reports and records, our works of art, our ongoing conversations and debates, our presentations and rebuttals, most of which have already taken place, and from which we draw reference.
In other words, our world is the product of past choices, many of which, as things stand, seem questionable in retrospect. Looking back, we shake our heads at our ancestors and their choices, the way they went about their lives, wondering what on earth informed their decisions.
Yet here we are, reaping the benefits of their choices, on which progress was made, warts and all.
What now? Do we reject everything they did, cancel their legacy in the name of today’s morals? We should, if we want to be true to our fair standards, but we don’t, we can’t, our investment in the past too deep and intricate. We can’t cancel the past because it would wipe out the present.
Instead we take it with a pinch of salt, pretend only parts of it are questionable, preferably the parts that suit our sense of all-roundedness, fairness, justice. We embrace the infrastructure that came about from grueling, unsafe, unfair working conditions. We reap the benefits of science that was first developed by the military for dubious purposes (jet engines, computer technology etc.). We mix and match. Life is a continuum, a story that stems and develops from its prequels, and which doesn’t exist de novo. We’re not going to invent society from scratch, pretending we just sprung from the fountain of progress – they tried that in the Soviet Union, among other places, and it failed.
The complexity of life is something to keep in mind in times of crisis. I do – I try to anyway. Hell or high water, I embrace the past and what it has to offer – problematic as much of it is – with an open mind, identifying the old and limited approaches, marking them down as something to avoid, paying attention to the thought-provoking and informative parts instead. Lifeboat, for example: a slow-burner that relies on old but valid-at-the-time tropes. It offers a valuable glimpse of life in the context of WWII.
The same applies to all kinds of films and shows – they provide glimpses of life in any given context. From the naive and saccharine A Few Good Men, to the macho Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, to the over-scored Philadelphia, to the over-polished Friends – it goes on, all the way back to Shakespeare (too violent?), Aeschylus (too patriarchic?), the Epic Of Gilgamesh (eschatological to the point of having fixated later literature on violence, doom, and revelation?) … on and on. We could trash each and every one of these stories, judging them against today’s standards. Or we could learn from them.
The past has much to teach us, should we let it. Are we secure enough – in ourselves and our positions – to engage it? Watching humanity make its slow drift to our day and age is a humbling and informative experience. The art of our ancestors, no matter how dated its purview, is as important and valuable as contemporary art. Well-rounded and culturally sensitive films, stage plays, and stories that are in tune with today’s sensibilities have as much to offer as projects not as even-keeled as we’d like them to be. To each their own, all together. As long as they’re done well, they shape our understanding of the world, helping us trace out the pros and cons of this age, but also of times bygone, even of a time to come, contributing to a spherical approach.
Let me leave you with a parting thought: subjectivity is part of life, not a dirty word or something to be afraid of. A partial point of view can be a beautiful thing, especially when it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It offers depth, perspective, a sense of direction, scope and potential, helping us come to terms with the range and complexity of the human condition. It’s what keeps us afloat in times of uncertainty. When too many voices battle for our attention, we have a choice. Time does the rest, arbiter of all decisions, for better or worse.
FROM HELL’S ANGELS TO HELL’S AGENTS
‘After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind.’ ~ This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson (The Nation, Dec 2016)
The ingenious gonzo journalist and bad-boy-extraordinaire Hunter S. Thompson’s experience with California’s motorcycle gangs in the 60’s was chronicled in an article he wrote for The Nation. Published in 1966, it paved the way for Thompson’s prescient and acclaimed book debut, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a nonfiction account of his adventures with one of America’s most notorious fringe groups.
Fast-forward to 2016 … Populism and extreme right-wing politics are on the rise so The Nation revisits Thompson’s writings in an article that draws comparisons between the author’s original take on the Angels and today’s politics.
There’s plenty to learn from Thompson’s 50-year-old observations. For one, the culture of indignation is real, and older than we think. It’s been seething in the background all this time.
To address the madness behind extreme right-wing politics we must first understand what makes people so mad, what makes them want to dismantle everything.
Thompson got a valuable first glimpse, first hand.
Says the 2016 article:
‘[He] saw the appeal of that retaliatory ethic. He claimed that a small part of every human being longs to burn it all down, especially when faced with great and impersonal powers that seem hostile to your very existence. In the United States, a place of ever greater and more impersonal powers, the ethic of total retaliation was likely to catch on.’
Indeed it has.
The article goes on to explain:
‘What made that outcome almost certain, Thompson thought, was the obliviousness of Berkeley, California, types who, from the safety of their cocktail parties, imagined that they understood and represented the downtrodden.’
Indeed. The right wing has failed to adapt to the times, slipping into atavisms and anachronisms, but what about the left? It refuses to face facts and come to terms with reality. Like the establishment of old, entrenched and fixated in its ways, it’s unable to deal with common grievance, at least the kind that comes from a traditionalist/religious/non-progressive point of view.
Thompson was quick to point out that the Angels were the vanguard of a new approach to right-wing politics. Their attitude was combative and abrasive, impossible to address using ‘empathy’ or ‘awareness-raising’ alone. The left, and the majority of people in general, were caught by surprise, unsure how to deal with it.
Fast-forward to today. The year is 2020, the election campaign is well underway, and America still struggles to combat Trumpism. After all the scandals, the filth, the ruin brought forth by Trump’s administration and their vile approach to all who disagree with them – at the expense of American (and global) progress – the toxicity of radical right-wing politics persists. The opposition hasn’t swept the field clean, and isn’t looking likely to do so in November, not unless the grievances that led to this cock-up are met.
To find solutions one must first identify and understand the problem.
Hunter S. Thompson made a good start.
Says the 2016 article:
‘Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” [see today’s GOP siding with big government, big wars, and vulture capitalism.] The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.’
The article points out how desperate some people are in the wake of a changing world and the lengths to which they will go to make their voice heard:
‘We parents tell our children that when you know you’ve lost an argument or a race, the right thing to do is to be a good sport and to “get ’em next time.” But if there is no next time, or you know that every next time you are going to be in the loser’s lane again, what’s the use of being a good sport? … The game has been rigged against you. Why not piss on the field before you storm off? Why not stick up your finger at the whole goddamned game?’
And they do.
And here we are:
‘The ethic of total retaliation.’
This is what today’s Republicans and many other disillusioned groups are doing, acting through their proxies-in-chief – Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, et al. They’re mad, irrational, self-righteous, hell-bent on trouncing whatever makes them irrelevant. They don’t care if the opposition is correct, or what anyone says. They want to get their point across, make themselves heard and acknowledged, feel like they count, even if they’re wrong, even if their beliefs go against the data. The point is to eclipse those who’ve overshadowed them, seize momentum, airtime, power, and expand their demographic in a manner that assuages their fears. They want to feel relevant again, come what may.
‘These are men and women whose denials of climate change are gleeful denials of scientific expertise in a world where scientific experts have unquestioned intellectual respect and social status. These are men and women who seemed to applaud the incompetence of Trump’s campaign because competence itself is associated with membership in the elite.’
The rejection of knowledge and expertise can be understood in terms of disillusionment and reactionarism, anger and fear:
‘The idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.’
Trump, it seems, panders to the indignant, fueling their rage, and it’s working. The chronically disillusioned aren’t interested in reform. They throw wrenches in the system and cheer the damage. They want to hear someone speak their language, echo their anger, pander to their insecurities – to glorify those who sound and think like them. The idea is to crush the elites and intellectuals, anyone who stands in their way. If we can’t fix Washington, we might as well screw it, and the same goes for the rest of the country! – that kind of thing.
In the end, it’s all a show. It worked then, back in the 60s, on a smaller scale …
‘The Hells Angels, Thompson wrote, did things like get tattoos of swastikas mostly because it visibly scared the members of polite society. The Angels were perfectly happy to hang out at bars with men of different races, especially if those men drove motorcycles, and several insisted to Thompson that the racism was only for show.’
… and it’s at work now, across the US.
Says the article:
‘While I have no doubt (and no one should have any doubt) that there are genuine racists in Trump’s constituency – and the gleeful performance of racism is nothing to shrug off – Thompson suggests we should consider the ways in which racism might not be the core disease of Trumpism but a symptom of a deeper illness.’
Indeed. We’re faced with a gross sociopolitical illness – a disease of shortfall and retaliation, the mindset of which includes, but is not limited to, racism. The problem is bigger than that. It boils down to the urge to destroy what others have created. The impulse to be hateful toward others, toward change, toward anything that challenges a very rigid set of beliefs – it’s evident, and growing. The end result is ignorance and more ignorance, all in the name of militaristic patriotism i.e. jingoism, which we experience as Trumpism.
Trumpism is a movement that uses right-wing politics to stir up a culture of resentment and belligerence designed to wreck all previous achievement. The movement is defined by the heights it fails to reach, and the rage it feels every time it comes to terms its shortcomings paves the way for more destruction, fueling even more resentment. It’s a vicious, toxic, cannibalistic cycle.
We would do well to understand the gears behind today’s radical right-wing politics and the mindset that fuels it.
The article concludes:
‘Trumpism is about something far more serious than Trump, something that has been brewing and building for generations. Let us take Thompson’s cautions seriously, then, so that this time we Berkeley types are not naive about what we face. Otherwise, we’re all liable to get stomped.’
Wise words – and a word to the wise under siege. November 2020 is a crucial milestone. Should Trump and his minions prevail, we won’t be able to breathe for another four years, if not longer, not just in the US but across the world.