The Moment of Truth — May 12, 2007
Come Back to the Five-and-Dime, Soylent Green, Soylent Green
Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the evil those three monkeys refuse to see, hear, or speak.
The sun is low over the water when Charlton Heston falls to his knees in the sand, distraught, damning his contemporaries, who are now his ancestors, for their mania. The camera pans left with that strange, late-sixties/early-seventies automatonomous motion, and we see, buried up to her shoulders, holding aloft her torch unlit for millennia, the catalyst of his apoplexy. “God damn you all to hell!”
If there is such a thing as cultural literacy, let that tableau stand as the illustration for the entry “ironic twist.” Please? Thank you. Also, it’s tragic. It’s a damn tragic tableau. Can we get that in there, too?
When I was a little nipper, we lived under a kind of Gravity’s Rainbow, an arc of potential global destruction that hung over the Earth like the halo of a doomed angel. We were all quite conscious of it. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been engulfed in the two most powerful light-flashes ever produced on our planet—flashes so intense they turned the pavement into a photo negative, imprinting shadows where human beings had stood. Nine years later, Godzilla came to make sure the Japanese were still haunted by the threat of annihilation.
Two years after that, Charlton Heston led the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, parted the sea, and delivered the Torah from God. Things were looking pretty good. No wonder he was so pissed when, 2012 years thence, apes were ruling an Earth devastated by human folly. Who dast blame that man? No one dast blame that man. He, like the child I was at the time, had learned to live with Gravity’s Rainbow hanging over his head, learned to live with the knowledge that human history could end quite abruptly and absurdly, a situation that brought everything Samuel Beckett and the French Existentialists wrote into clarity. But when he saw that it had actually happened, it wasn’t a surprise, more a confirmation of his worst fears.
By 1971, things hadn’t improved for Heston. Instead of apes, it was viral vampires that plagued him, and he plagued them right back. It was an absurd, violent existence, with very little fun to be had beyond blowing away the undead with a rifle in each hand. In 1972, the good-natured, passive, yet wise suburbanite and war veteran Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time, but by the following year Charlton Heston was in trouble again, presumably because George McGovern had lost to Nixon, and the thinking faction of the US polity had lost hope. The Earth had become so overcrowded that the mass of humanity were living on yellow and red crackers and eagerly awaiting the new green ones. Edward G. Robinson went to the suicide center, SPOILER ALERT: to help Heston discover that Soylent Green was people! Bummer. Back to the red and yellow crackers. Then again, people had become the world’s most plentiful renewable resource. Try one of the red and green ones together, you can hardly taste the dead guy.
END SPOILER ALERT
In last year’s anti-utopian Christmas movie, “Children of Men,” suicide was again advocated on the TV of the future as a lovely, peaceful way to choose one’s time of escape from the hellish human world as well as help the Earth shed its worst parasites. It’s interesting that the future-as-crappier-version-of-now trope has returned with such familiar art direction—a mise-en-scène shrouded in society’s-falling-apart gray.
See, as I moved into young adulthood, I made an effort to look on the “bright side.” Not as bright as Hiroshima and Nagasaki got, but brighter than Charlton Heston’s view of the human situation at the end of “Planet of the Apes.”
By the end of the 1980s, Alexander Cockburn was telling the left, look, we did prevent Reagan from invading Nicaragua. That was no small thing, he said, and I agreed. And there were nuclear arms treaties, a Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty yet. And then the Soviet bloc crumbled—all kinds of reasons to be optimistic!
But it was not to be. George Bush 41 decided the CIA and the Pentagon needed a new enemy, and fast, or the people would be expecting a peace dividend. Luckily, Saddam Hussein was on his way, with an okay from a US diplomat, to invade a sovereign neighbor, earning him the title of The New Hitler. It was a short-lived focus of counter-aggression, but it let the public know there weren’t going to be any cuts in military spending anytime soon. We had to enforce the New World Order.
But folks didn’t really seem that eager to find a replacement for the Communist menace. They wanted to live in the future—the good future—not the past, or the bad Orwellian future of the past. So they elected a guy who claimed he wanted to build a bridge to the next century.
Oh, Clinton recognized the threat Osama bin Laden was becoming, so he tried a few surgical strikes. But it wasn’t what those with big stakes in the military/petro-industrial complex felt they needed.
They didn’t need some piddly enemy like al-Qaeda, whoever they were, who could only provoke a few small outbursts of munitions usage every once in a while. They needed an enemy with staying power, and a location of conflict—not some disjointed “cells.” See, they hadn’t recognized yet what a goldmine the War on Terror could be—the war that couldn’t be won because its goal was utter nonsense. So they set their sights on Saddam. He had a country, an army, he was still a prick—and it would give the US military an active-fire beachhead in the area of the world most profitable to destabilize and restabilize. The region was bound to be a money hole for the US taxpayer—that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and all the rest of the Project for a New American Century cabal would make sure of.
The PNAC gallery were a bunch of incompetents, though. They’d chosen the worst possible combination of personalities to head the administration: a trust-fund moron who thought he had God on his side, and an ill-tempered walking spleen with five heart-attacks under his lapel to prove even his own body couldn’t stand him. But 9-11 happened, patriotism was stirred, and when patriotism is stirred, you know the wrong people are going to be given license to do bad, dangerous things.
And so it was. And damned if I wasn’t walking the dog yesterday when suddenly I said to myself, “I feel like a kid again!” There was that same rainbow overhead, the one belonging to gravity. Yes, I said to myself, it could all go away, just like that. Poof!
I once had an idea for a movie. It went like this: We get to know several characters very well, follow several plots, suspenseful, intriguing, who’s going to sleep with whom, will the murderer be caught or strike again, will the sympathetic bank robbers pull off their heist—and just as each plot was about to reach its climax, the world would end in a nuclear holocaust, cutting the narrative short.
I thought, that’s what I want to get across: the absurdity of the human project of destroying itself. An absurdity of which we are unconsciously aware every moment of our lives. I was very young at the time. Reagan hadn’t even been elected yet.
But, as I say, I grew older and less bitter, more optimistic, and certainly more desirous of happiness, and more of a believer that happiness could last, should it be found through the proper methods, and life could possibly be lived to a relatively natural conclusion.
Now, though, I’m young again, like back when I was so much older. It’s like coming home. I can already see signs that young people today have a similar sense of the absurd, the kind that generations X and Y wanted to have, and tried desperately to adopt, because all their old heroes had had it.
I wonder if the new generation will be foolish enough to believe in a better future, should things start looking up in their lifetimes. I hope so. Not that it did any good our time around. But you never know, it could be different this time.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!