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A Different Look at Don’t Look Up


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I hate apocalyptic politics. You have probably heard it chant: “The world is at stake. Disaster is at the door. Get off your ass or you are part of the problem. In fact, you are the whole damn problem.” Apocalyptic screams assault neighbors, workmates, and schoolmates. Why? To proudly parade brilliance? To organize? To win?

Sometimes our lives feel so weird they defy calm words. Sometimes our lives aren’t just too confusing for calm words, they are too deadly. Usually only folks under bombs or starving feel that level of crazed danger. But now we are all in a super large vehicle that barrels toward a super nasty cliff. To fall off the cliff won’t instantly annihilate us, but will instead cause a slow vicious, persistent, decline into boiling, drowning, starving, clawing oblivion (and yes, some will suffer worse on the way down than others). Actually, it isn’t even one cliff we barrel toward. We approach a bunch of cliffs, all clustered ahead of our super large vehicle. Apocalypse tells us If global warming doesn’t get us—a pandemic will. If a pandemic doesn’t get us—fascism will. The cliffs will get some of us sooner and harsher and get others of us later and a bit less harsh. But wherever we sit in the super large vehicle, bloody awful days are coming. And we all tell each other “have a nice day.” Instant Karma coming.

But the impending fall to oblivion isn’t inevitable. Yes, our drivers are callous. Their media and social media are malevolent. If some passengers put up a big enough fuss to get their attention, our drivers grab the steering mechanism and hold steady. If some passengers budge the steering, our drivers slam it back. They shout through their on board PA system, “all is well. All will be okay. We got the wheel. We got your back. Sit tight. Smile. Be happy.”

I would like to see tomorrow. I would like others to see tomorrow’s tomorrows. What can I say? What words fit? Tell those who know what’s just ahead and admit that they know, but do little, reasoned words to point out the cliff’s existence, scope, and scale? Tell those who know what’s just ahead but don’t admit that they know, heads looking at their cell phones? Tell those who work hard to hide the obvious from themselves so they can eat, work, and play a little longer in the big corridor of the super large vehicle? Tell the drivers, proudly deaf, dumb, and blind to everything but their bank accounts, electoral polls, and self glorifications? Tell the drivers’ first mates and publicists, deaf, dumb, and blind to everything but their masters’ instructions and whatever bank accounts, power, and self glorifications they can grab for themselves?

Okay, how about instead we threaten power? We make the drivers fear the passengers? That makes sense. But still, what can we say to passengers who only look down?

There is a movie showing on screens worldwide. Reviews cascade one over the last, two over the next. Some progressive and even revolutionary reviewers say: “The movie says nothing about carbon. The movie shows no organizing. The movie shows no movements. The movie depicts media, business, and government without using any big A analysis. The movie is too simple. It has no footnotes acknowledging—well, me.” Do such reviewers have points or miss the point?

With all the cliffs lurking ahead, Don’t Look Up offers no high level, big word, ego-inflating, radical-signifying commentary. It doesn’t explain the innermost details of why and how global warming is horrific. It doesn’t explain why and how racism, sexism, transphobia, profit-seeking, and power-wielding all reproduce each other. It doesn’t tell us with polysyllabic certitude why indignity is undignified. It doesn’t prove that poverty, disease, degradation, disempowerment, high waters rising, and hurricane winds blowing are all structural. And it doesn’t say join this project at this address, or join that project at that address. And so what’s the film good for? For a laugh or two, some reviewers acknowledge, but for nothing that can abet winning a new world, they emphasize.

I have no doubt that DiCaprio and Lawrence’s salaries are obscene. Corporate construction of art, however creative, still has corporate marks on it. So? Why don’t progressive and revolutionary reviewers get past the obvious?

The main question Don’t Look Up asks is not why do the super large vehicle’s drivers go cliff-ward, much less what are the super large vehicle’s detailed innards. If that was the main question the film posed and tried to polysyllabically answer, the dismissive left reviewers would all celebrate, even if the audience was only themselves and a few others. But that isn’t the main question the film raises and tries to at least shed a little light on, so the dismissive reviewers wonder why doesn’t the film do what I do, and I have done, over and over? Why doesn’t the film regale its audience with facts they have heard a million times before? Why doesn’t it deliver fully fleshed out ideas the audience broadly knows or could easily know if they were to look up, since the ideas are visible all over the place? Perhaps it is because Don’t Look Up isn’t mainly concerned with speaking truth to power. Perhaps it is because Don’t Look Up isn’t even mainly concerned with speaking truth to an audience who has heard truth over and over with modest effect. Perhaps it is because Don’t Look Up is mainly concerned with why the passengers in the super large vehicle aren’t rising up angry. Why do so many hungry people not steal? Why do so many addicted people and their families not at least occupy big pharma? Why do so many students not define their own educations? Why do so many assemblers not disassemble the jobs that imprison them? Why do so many of us see the ravages of global warming, but not fight for our lives?

I don’t know the writers, director, actors, camera folks, and whoever else created Don’t Look Up but I would guess some had a brilliant agenda, and some were probably just doing a job. Whatever. I don’t know squat about film cuts from scene to scene. Are they good? Are they bad? I have no idea.

What I do know is that Don’t Look Up raises a question too many activists and organizers ignore. How come our brilliant, courageous words, images, and actions delivered non-stop for decades haven’t generated wider and more sustained passenger participation to avoid cliffs and to redefine our super large vehicle? And how can future words, images, and actions respect and arouse those now looking down to instead look up?

I don’t know if the filmmakers have answers. I don’t even know if they have broached the possibility of helping people to participate in a way that dislodges willful or imposed hopelessness. I don’t know if they are thinking how do we do a follow-up movie about passengers who redefine our super large vehicle. But I bet some of the creators of Don’t Look Up could have written dismissive reviews as harsh or harsher than the film’s actual reviewers. It is not the point. The film’s creators care about reaching millions of passengers with whatever can prod, facilitate, scare, entice, enliven, and especially empower those passengers to confidently participate in redirecting our super large vehicle, and then redefining its core features. No more bosses driving.

Is the only obstacle to passengers successfully rebelling that writers, activists, and organizers don’t provide sufficient analyses in sufficiently comprehensible language? We just need more, more, more. Or must we acknowledge another obstacle—people’s tendency to look down and deal with today with no inclination, patience, or willingness to try to deal with tomorrow? And if that latter tendency prevents the former analyses from yielding sufficient passenger participation, shouldn’t we address that latter tendency, whether we call it cynicism, or resignation, or defeatism, as a prime and perhaps even the prime priority? And if so, might we writers, activists, and organizers have something to learn from Don’t Look Up, and from popular reactions to it?

Of course this one film won’t alone rouse enough passengers to revolutionize our capitalist, racist, sexist, authoritarian vehicle. But shouldn’t we writers, activists, and organizers aid a film that tries to prepare the way for us? And if one reason why passengers look down instead of up is that passengers don’t believe they can force drivers to avoid the cliffs and doubt that there is any better super large vehicle to live in—then shouldn’t we ask what we might do things we haven’t been doing to address passengers’ lack of strategic and visionary confidence?

3 Comments

  1. avatar
    Joel Isaacs January 3, 2022 1:38 am 

    One way we can start is by changing how we describe it.
    Words like global, warming, green, house, and new deal don’t convey an urgency.

    With a nod to George Carlin, let’s call it like it is:

    FOSSIL-FUELED LIFE-DESTRUCTION !!

    And put an END to it !

    • avatar
      James January 3, 2022 11:55 am 

      The urgency would be implied by the NOW in GLOBAL GREEN NEW DEAL NOW, splashed across every Left websites homepage. And it would suggest what needs to be done, a doable NOW possible solution according at least to Chomsky and Pollin (and I’m sure many many others) in order to put and end to it. A banner forcing people LOOK UP and see a solution and not just a scary description of what we are doing. It would be as if every left wing website is constantly protesting even while physically not. Constantly on the march against fossil fuel life destruction, not just yelling about bad shit in Carlinesque cynical fashion but pointing at a way forward, never going home as if the protest finishes at sunset and they’re all carrying the same big banner. And they all continue in concert, full tutti until the WE actually do put an END to it.

  2. avatar
    James January 1, 2022 10:19 pm 

    Well to me Don’t Look Up is like a big banner saying, fuck look up. But it’s just one film. The Left Landscaoe could aid such a banner by creating another and placing on the homepage if every one of its websites dedicated to enlightening the world and making it a better place. A banner that directly speaks to strategic and visionary confidence, albeit not revolutionary but absolutely necessary…Global Green New Deal Now. Perhaps with a link to some site offering up at least two PDFs, one detailed and long and another shorter and concise, outlining what a GGND actually would entail.

    It may get more people to LOOK UP every time they click, maybe by accident, on some marginal and not so marginal Left website…at least LOOK UP somewhere on the Left groups website homepage…and make them MORE aware. It may even start a fucking meme and get tongues wagging.

    I know, I know, stupid idea…

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