Oh Liberty!

James King

26 Nov 2013
Film and Cinema Co-ordinator James King on ICA Cinematheque season Oh Liberty!, which concludes tonight with Southland Tales.

Film and Cinema Co-ordinator James King on ICA Cinematheque season Oh Liberty!, which concludes tonight with Southland Tales.

The idea was to put together a film season that explored the concept of freedom.

Freedom in that Frederick Jackson Turner pioneering sense of the word.  The U.S. Census of 1890 announced the close of the Western Frontier, so we turned our attentions to space, and then to the far more profitable cyberspace. This is what we did with our freedom in the 20th century.

I wanted to trace – or more probably impose – a chronology from the post-WW2 beatnik and hippie counter-cultures to the current Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, a timeline that felt connected by this pioneering, libertarian spirit, albeit revealing itself in radically different incarnations.

There always seemed to me a delicious irony in the evolution of the baby-boomer generation: how the affluence of the 1950s created these brand-new high-consuming ‘teenagers’, who would later become the flower power generation who dropped out of society in the late '60s and early '70s to experiment with drugs, veganism, free love and general mind-expansion; only to then sober up, sell-out and get decent jobs in the '80s so that their children could go to good schools and universities; children who would in turn use their expensive educations to become the juvenile entrepreneurs of the tech world, hoards of hoodie-and flip-flop attired twenty-five-year-olds developing apps and websites and pulling in six-figure salaries with total disregard for the wider socio-economic world in a frenzy of hyper-capitalist libertarianism; a fitting form of rebellion to their parent’s vaguely socialist ideals. One generation dropped out of society; the next disregarded it.  

I wanted to explore how the hippie co-operatives and alternative communities bled into fully-fledged communes and New Age cults, which in turn garnered a tainted, paranoid edge in the aftermath of the Manson Family murders, casting a shadow over the whole counterculture movement and bringing a bloody end to the 1960s. I wanted to examine how The Fountainhead, a lengthy book about obnoxious architects, written by a rabid Russian woman in the 1940s, had been adopted and exalted by pale white men half a century later to justify their shamelessly individualistic business practices. I wanted to understand the current historical moment, where wealth has never been more divided, and meditate on how exactly we got here. I grew up in the 1990s. I was raised on double-bills of Friends and the promise of infinite possibility. Things had not panned out how I thought they would. I found myself listening to street preachers reciting The Book of Revelations with a fresh unease. My ambitions for the season were clearly spiraling out of control.

The decision to focus specifically on California was two-fold. Firstly, the Golden State has been a historic emblem of the pioneering capitalist spirit. The literal geographic end of the American Frontier, it was both the site of the Wild West, with its Oil men and gold rushes, and now the current epicenter of the tech industry: the home of Apple, Twitter, Google and Facebook. Secondly, I studied at Berkeley, that icon of youthful rebellion, and had first-hand experience of living in a student housing co-operative where kale, tofu and LSD were consumed in equal quantities on sun-kissed Palm-lined lawns in an anachronistic simulacrum of the romanticized 1960s counterculture.  With all the arrogance of a social media maharishi, I’d convinced myself that I knew what I was talking about.

The first screening was to be Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu. A brilliantly anarchic collage narrative from the infamous curator of San Francisco’s Other Cinema, the film’s spidering web of plotlines covered a lot of bases to do with the season’s overriding themes – fictionalizing the lives of Jack Parsons (Crowleyite founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab), L. Ron Hubbard (sci-fi author turned cult leader) and Marjorie Cameron (bohemian artist and "mother of the New Age movement") into a sci-fi plot that involved a conspiracy to turn the Moon into a giant cosmic billboard, it forms a brilliant overview of the freewheeling California post-War subcultures, a careening matrix of rocket pioneers, alternative religions and Beat lifestyles.

King Vidor’s 1948 adaptation of The Fountainhead was a vital inclusion. There was a 35mm print available, in good condition, and Ayn Rand’s novel has held such an influence over the attitudes of the Silicon Valley pioneers - both in the initial 1990s Dot Com boom and now in the seemingly more sustained social media-fuelled Tech Industry - that to view it in a revisionist context felt timely and pertinent.

The Social Network was an attempt to subvert the notion of repertory screening by including a film that was less than three years old, a contemporary film that still feels worthy of examining as if were a canonical classic. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher collaborated to produce an ambiguous portrait of Mark Zuckerberg, framing his creation of Facebook and meteoric rise to the status of world’s youngest billionaire as a drama of Shakespearian proportions, injected with an avant-garde edge by Trent Reznor’s glittering electronic score.

The final film of the programme, Southland Tales is perhaps an apt reflection of the season as a whole: a kaleidoscopic orgy of ideas delivered with an ambition that far exceeds its reach. Seemingly attempting to depict and parody the entirety of US culture at the time of its production, 2006, director Richard Kelly bombards the audience with a torrent of multi-layered images, overlapping plotlines, quasi-religious science fiction concepts and pop-culture references. And yet, for all its noise, Southland Tales still has the power to elicit a strong emotional reaction. A mid-point musical sequence, in which Justin Timberlake depicts a drug-addled and battle-scarred Iraq war veteran, staggering around an abandoned Venice Beach video arcade and lip-synching to The Killers, is one of the most strangely evocative scenes in recent American cinema:

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