Lagging the popgeist

Iron Man (2008)

Now that it’s nearly 2010– a decade after 2000, a year I once contemplated with awe in Ms. Conyers’ Language Arts class because I would be as old as Sting– it’s time to screen all those films I missed almost 2 years ago. The oughts (00’s) were a crap decade. Expectations those of us of a certain age had quietly nursed have been cast to the side of road like the shuck of a blown tire and we now face a deeper, more insidious version of what Hunter S. Thompson memorably tagged “the New Dumb.” The spine of American-style capitalist democracy finally buckled and snapped with the 2000 election (a judicial coup which has been carefully rehabilitated as a minor glitch in the system long since redeemed by the following two rounds of voting); the millenarian contortions of the post-conservative right resulted in millions of dead, maimed, orphaned, widowed and displaced people; and neoliberalism– its policies responsible for the greatest economic cataclysm since Black Tuesday– seems to have retained a patina of credibility among those Americans who can’t be bothered to be minimally informed about current events.

Here in Babylon, where we speak only in declarative sentences and the rentier class rules with a demented arrogance usually reserved for Roman proconsuls sotted on lead-rich wine, it is a time for studious reflection– or, barring that, the season for catching up with pop cinema. Last week I screened Iron Man (2008) directed by Jon Favreau and starring Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges, among others. Howard plays an army colonel with an expansive portfolio including rather vague intelligence duties, a key role in military-industrial R & D, and public-affairs work. His friend, Tony Stark (Downey), a character who puts the 13 in PG-13– narcissistic, surrounded by cool toys, always primed with a wisecrack– has developed a new weapons system called Jericho (as in “Joshua fought the battle of”) which for no explicable reason he has gone to Afghanistan to demonstrate. This event provides the pretext for a condensed narrative on American military intervention in the form of a glib bromide any College Republican would be proud to dispense:

They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it… and it’s worked out pretty well so far.

At this point in the film it is not clear that Favreau has any sort of satirical intent, an ambiguity which never quite dwindles. Instead, barring a conversion experience that leads Stark to question his involvement in the production of WMD, the film’s protagonist remains shallow and smug. With the exception of Obadiah Stane (Bridges)– a creepy weapons contractor and Stark’s business partner whose bald dome strikes a visual rhyme with Raza, the film’s central villain of color– the predicates of “military humanism” (i.e., altruism in the service of global hegemony) remain intact. Marvel at Stark in his gold and candy-apple red suit, defending hapless Afghan peasants from the depredations of Taliban/Al Qaeda thugs! Wince as that personification of military-industrial greed, Obadiah Stane, slams Stark to the ground while they battle to determine the fate of the world!

The original version of Iron Man, as he appeared as a comic book hero in 1963, confronted wily communist agents in the jungles of Vietnam. The anti-communist origins of the character continue to influence Favreau’s contemporary rendering, albeit in distorted form. The modest, liberalish critique of militarism expressed here is paved over by an unexamined, perhaps even unconscious, complicity with the most disruptive and destructive effects of the US’s enduring love affair with itself, American exceptionalism. But perhaps the most noxious moment in the film is when Stark returns to the States after 3 months imprisoned in a cave and informs his attractive but sexually benign assistant, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) that he wants “an American cheeseburger.” Cut to Stark munching a carefully groomed disk of antibiotic-laced beef and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oil with the Burger King logo prominently displayed. It’s tempting to locate the center of the film in this scene– Downey, Jr. demonstrating his thespian chops by consuming the culinary and nutritional equivalent of crack cocaine with apparent relish, the audience recognizing on a sub-verbal level that they too are eating this cheeseburger, gag reflex paralyzed, uncertain whether once it goes down it’ll come right back up– but that would misconstrue a cheap truth for critical insight. Suffice to say that part of Iron Man’s charm– as with much pop product, for better and worse–  is its garish disregard for anything other than itself. And like a Burger King cheeseburger this film has been painstakingly engineered for consumption.

10 thoughts on “Lagging the popgeist

  1. C.G.B. Spender

    Besides antibiotics in that Cheeseburger, there is a healthy dose of bovine growth hormones in the meat from injections given to the calves to get them to their slaughter weight quicker.

    Has Robert Downey done anything good since WONDER BOYS?

    Love from the cow pens,


  2. apciv Post author

    Dusty boy, maybe A Scanner Darkly but then that wasn’t too demanding. Viddies and letter headed your way. Watch the cow flop.

  3. C.G.B. Spender

    Wow! Watched the first five minutes of SCANNER DARKLY and it made me and the cattle nervous. Too high concept. I have yet to see a “graphic novel” translated to the screen with any hint of credibility—see ROAD TO PERDITION, aargh! So a movie as a graphic novel—or vice versa?—had me heading out the door to watch the Bald Eagles killing Cattle Egrets out in the pasture . . . .



    1. apciv Post author

      Scanner was a Philip K. Dick novel first, then what’s his name who did Slackers– Richard Linklater?– shot it live and ran it through a rotoscope. For graphic novel cred maybe 300? All those air brushed abs and stuffed codpieces make the spartans look like the work at a castro street gym. did you get your stuff?

  4. C.G.B. Spender

    Tried to watch 300 and could not get more than 20 minutes or so into it. The worst moment came when one of the volunteers out at the Refuge said with all sincerity, “C’mon, we need to all work together like they did in 300!” Needless to say, I have given up on the Refuge and its staff some time ago to devote myself to the Ranch project. An equally bad movie is 10,000 B.C.! Just try watching that one. Sadly, the New Dumb has a firm grip on Hollywood and the slacker public who pays for this yawning abyss of mindlessness!

    Package arrived two days ago. Baby Jesus said to wait until Friday to open. Now that I have your address have contacted the relevant agencies to contribute artifacts of Florida life that will soon be winging your way the beginning of the New Year. Sorry about the delay but the proper nostalgia and kitsch ratio factors must be aligned properly.


    1. apciv Post author

      Say hi to BJ for me. Out here in Sodom Cisco we don’t get a chance to see him so often. Last night I watched A Bad Day at Black Rock: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Walter Brennan, and Dean Jagger! Trying not to overload on cinema as I’ve a lot of reading and writing to do before the end of January. If you haven’t seen ABDABR I’ll ruin it for you: in the climactic scene of confrontation a one-armed Tracy improvises a Molotov cocktail and sets Ryan on fire! The stars burn bright in the city of angels.

  5. C.G.B. Spender

    Was talked into riding around Vero tonight to look at all the holiday decorations. Sadly, the town is pretty dark, most homes seem to have opted out of Christmas this year, or at least the festive part of it. Most likely Indian River’s chronic unemployment and the endless rows of empty, foreclosed houses making this look like the Sunshine State’s version of Flint, Michigan has something to do with it. Of course, the rich have not yet really started arriving yet. The private jets don’t start coming in force until after the New Year. McAnsh Park was putting on some pseudo-pagan ritual with candles burning in paper bags every few feet lining all the streets. All under the dark, brooding shadow of St. Helens Church where the large nativity scene out front is missing the manger and the Jesus doll is simply lying on the ground in the dewy grass. Every time I walk by it I have to keep the dog from rushing in and carrying away the representation of the Lord and Savior . . . . B

    1. apciv Post author

      I’ve always preferred naivete scenes to nativity ones.

      Re: the decline of Vero. Sounds bleak. The local economy’s built on cankered orange groves and sun stroke anyway. A Soylent Green scenario can’t be too far away. I recommend investing in a few hundred feet of cyclone fencing and tripflares. Will try to organize a rescue mission via armored Winnebago armada.

      Speaking of the apocalypse, I realized driving through holiday traffic that if the Big One ever hits here on the peninsula we’re totally screwed. Everyone will rush to their vehicles and become immediately mired in an endless gridlock of panicked motorists. Which is why I plan to make my escape by sea. Have begun to construct a crude coracle made of driftwood and goatskins. My neighbor, Ben Gunn, is helping.

  6. C.G.B. Spender

    Listening to NPR, shocked to hear that Vic Chesnutt has died after falling into a coma from an overdose of muscle relaxants at the age of 45. They did a very poignant interview with Michael Stipe about Vic’s career. Try and check it out in the NPR archives. Time to pull out a beer and listen to West of Rome.

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