Animal Planet Peddles More Unicorns

I think “cryptozoology” is a really fascinating subject. The assumption is always made by the general public (and usually fed by professionals in the sciences, who don’t like to admit that something might possibly lie beyond their ken) that we must surely have discovered by now every life form on Planet Earth. This is an ignorant, arrogant leap of faith. Because most of us have now squeezed ourselves into “megalopolis” or into one of the concentric rings of suburbia enclosing it, we can’t imagine any weird creature’s escaping detection. One thing we fail to consider is that our collective influx into cities has left rural areas depopulated. Yes, the explosion of human inhabitants in all quarters of the globe would seem to compensate for any relative diminution in the percentage of people filling this or that corner. I doubt that this proposition is unassailable, however. Comparatively few though we were a hundred years ago, our overwhelmingly agricultural society still concentrated its strength very heavily in the boondocks. Now any drive along a rural highway (and how many of us ever take such a drive?) reveals desolation on all sides. Abandoned houses are falling apart everywhere, and seldom does any new structure rear its satellite dish in their place.

People who should find themselves in the country for some reason are also less likely now to know its sights and sounds. They can’t tell a wolf’s cry from a coyote’s or a crow’s call from a caracara’s. The situation where a tenderfoot thinks he may have seen a chupacabra when he’s only run across a large stray dog often works in reverse, thanks to such ignorance: a person might see an unidentified species and assume that it is a familiar one. Witnesses in shooting incidents almost invariably say that they at first thought the gunshots were a backfiring car. The stronger tendency of the human mind is to blend the unique into the commonplace, not the other way around.

Thirdly, the encroachment of human beings on so many once-remote parts of the natural environment can create opportunities for more resourceful species that were formerly hard-pressed. Squirrels are much more abundant in suburbia than in the wilderness. Humans have chased off or killed most natural predators (foxes, snakes, hawks) while allowing the “cuddly, adorable” little fur-ball to chew up orchards and attics unmolested. If something extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent like a Sasquatch did exist, an invasion of humans that thinned out rival predators like panthers and bears while allowing food sources like deer and squirrel to proliferate might actually improve the outlook for survival.

All of this is merely to say that I was looking forward to the first episode of Animal Planet’s Destination: Mungo last Sunday. Quite a letdown. Once again, we are treated to a showman who expensively, ostentatiously makes his way to some forgotten corner of the planet… and then spends one night in the “hot spot” to see if his infrared cameras are activated by anything larger than a rat. Bwana Mungo hasn’t even heard of the coelacanth, apparently (and hasn’t yet figured out how to pronounce the word, either). In one scene, he contacts his biologist buddy in the States to ask if the Postosuchus, a Triassic ancestor of the crocodile, might really exist today, as Liberian locals are reporting. Responding via satellite through a laptop linked to a smartphone, the suitably bearded academic tells an inspirational story. “Have you heard of the coelacanth, Mungo?” “No, never. Tell me about it.” Oh, please!

In the first place, the coelacanth’s presumed date of extermination was considerably closer to our own time than the late Triassic (by a factor of close to a thousand). In the second place, coelacanths inhabit ocean trenches and would be virtually undetectable to human beings in the normal course of events. In the third place, of course Mungo has heard of the coelacanth! I learned of its lately discovered survival into the present when I was a young boy—a professional wildlife photographer and cryptozoology enthusiast could no more have remained ignorant of the subject than a physicist could fail to have heard of a quark. And finally, biologist buddy’s fishing stories transmitted by satellite, however inspirational, are insufficient reason for Mungo to rise from his laptop feeling new confidence in his quest. He hasn’t garnered a single particle of arcane information about tropical African fauna that might be seen as assisting his search. The whole exchange is highly staged and utterly ridiculous… almost as bad as a mockumentary about mermaids.

So… my quest of credible shows on the subject of cryptozoology continues as we permanently put the Amusement Park of Mungo at our backs. I’m looking for something rarer than a unicorn, it seems. In the meantime, old episodes of River Monsters are far less a waste of time.

Bogeymen, Academics, and Truth

I’ve been fascinated by the popular response to UFO’s and Bigfoot for a long time—and also by the way a self-styled intelligentsia responds to the popular response. The case of the Little Grey Men and that of the Huge Hairy Man-Apes have a lot more in common than meets the eye at first glance.

The public visibility of both has mushroomed in the past half-century or so. This is surely because our mass media of entertainment picked up on their “spook” potential about midway through the twentieth century. Bogeymen are a great draw at the box office. Between the Greys and Sasquatch, we have the Other covered from the terrifying high-tech dystopia to the get-away-from-it-all rustic retreat.

As more and more people were introduced to these “phenomena” through popular media, reports of new encounters also burgeoned. These included honest instances of misidentification due to someone’s having “Bigfoot on the brain” or “saucer paranoia”; but the percentage of deliberate hoaxes, as well, also appears to have skyrocketed (if you’ll excuse a pun). Indeed, as photographic technology became both more affordable and more flexible, the ability to “document” a hoax in credible film footage escalated—and with it the possibility (especially in the past thirty years) of having one’s own camera artistry uplifted to the big screen as “evidence”. The process feeds upon itself: video testimony attracts more viewers, and the expanded viewership creates a motive for more videos, which are ever likelier to be apocryphal because the chances of achieving momentary fame have been multiplied.

The sightings of both phenomena include some very plausible testimony—but this grows ever leaner (about 5% and falling, according to Nick Pope) in the deluge of clever fakery. Seasoned pilots have actually seen craft which resemble nothing we are known to produce here on Earth and nothing we are known to be capable of producing. Seasoned woodsmen have seen and heard creatures that resemble neither a bear nor a boar nor an elk nor anything extant recognized by biology. There’s always the possibility that some old pilot with a lousy pension plan is seeking a sweet deal on a Barbara Walters interview, at that Daniel Boon’s great-great grandson was cozened by a guy in a gorilla suit who just happened to be hanging out in the middle of nowhere under a cold rain.

The “scientific establishment” plays the trump card of such possibility over and over. Frankly, I find it disheartening that ostensible professionals can proudly put such narrow-mindedness on display and be bursting with contentment at their performance. A true scientist should be able to distinguish between adventurous hoaxers and credible witnesses who have no reason to lie. The academic community’s sneering refusal to do so has a thoroughly self-serving look about it. I should like to pose such “experts” the question, “Are you more concerned about the truth or about keeping the bricks tidy and straight that undergird your brilliant career?”

For my own position on both cases is that there’s something at the bottom of the well not acknowledged in any of our textbooks. Having spoken to one of the hundreds of witnesses (a man with a government security clearance) to the 1997 Phoenix Lights, I cannot write off every UFO report as the bad dream of some physics-challenged hayseed; and the one person I know whose near relative saw a Sasquatch beyond the shadow of a doubt (as he swears) will quickly add that the witness refuses to discuss the incident. This is yet another commonality: reliable witnesses in both cases do not come forward, for fear of derision. Evidence that is noisily publicized, therefore, stands a good chance of being phony precisely because of its noise. As the Buddhist conundrum has it, those who say don’t know, and those who know don’t say.

To Sasquatch-scoffers, in particular, I would point out that their assuming the creature to be something of sub-human intelligence wins their argument without requiring them to listen to a conflicting analysis. We humans are not really all that smart, or all that hard to figure out, predict, and avoid. But we wear clothes! Yeah… and for the last seven decades, we’ve been one red button away from self-extermination. If a chimp could tell you what he thinks of homo sapiens, do you suppose he would extol our superior intelligence… or would he laugh at our puny physique and snort at our poisoning of the rivers?

Finally (for this short space), understanding both the UFO and the Sasquatch is set back light years by idiotic television serials that claim to track either phenomenon. A conspiracy theorist might conjecture that Unexplained: Alien Files was created by none other than a cabal of men in black who want to diffuse public interest by saturating genuine puzzles in an insipid brew of buffoonery. As for the Four Stooges of Finding Bigfoot, their relation to the supposed subject of their quest is approximates that of a weekend Thoreau to wild nature—an amateur hiker, I mean, who leaves behind energy-bar wrappers and scares away nesting bluebirds. With detectives like these on the case, we can expect the body to petrify before a suspect is arrested.

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

Trying to Understand Chinese Culture

I don’t… but I’m trying.

One thing I’ve been doing a lot over the past year is watching Chinese movies available on Netflix.  Since I like legend, myth, epic, and all that, I often go for the flicks that are set a thousand years ago; and, of course, since no film about the past is ever really about the past, I’m fascinated by Kurosawa’s “seven samurai” paradigm which gave our Westerns The Magnificent Seven and has given Chinese producers, apparently, abundant ways to fantasize about a few dedicated souls fighting off armies of bullies.  I mean, if you live under constant censorship and the imminent threat of being “invited for tea” at the police station, you obviously have to address the subject of tyranny with caution.  Staging a clash between Martial-Arts Loner and All the Emperor’s Men is one way to keep your hands clean.

Yet these movies tend to degenerate into special-effects extravaganzas where combatants spring fifty feet into the air while twirling the Sword of Destiny that beats away all of eighty thousand arrows.  Even in the worst Hollywood B-Westerns, the most overloaded six-shooter only carries eleven or twelve shots.

There’s plenty of matter to revisit later in this topic.  The pilot of a TV serial I watched last night is what’s on my mind at the moment.  I discovered belatedly that CSIC is actually produced in Taiwan–which isn’t quite the same thing as mainland China, whatever the PRC insists on the subject.  Immediately of note is how the CSI serials in the US have been ripped off without any pretense of concealment.  (Well, it’s only fair turn-around after the way everyone ripped off Kurosawa: even Fistful of Dollars patently plagiarized Yojimbo).  The techie setting, the mock-digital overlays, the rhythm of the editing… pure rip-off.

The characters, interestingly, are indeed nerdy but rather more “teen” and frivolous than their American counterparts, like a fashion show in a college computer lab.  The only occasions when their winsome flippancy yields to passion involve such social naughtiness as consuming alcohol, especially before driving.  All of the Puritanical fury infused into our nation’s anti-gun crusades seems to be expended (in this episode, at least) upon cases of DWI (“drunk while intoxicated”, as we say down South).  The message is very powerfully projected that cops are your friends if you’re a law-abiding citizen.  They don’t take bribes, they bristle at the hint of bending rules to favor the privileged, they release a slavering rage upon nightclub owners who allow patrons to exit in a pasted condition, and they offer the liberation of a clean conscience to culprits in need of confession.  They’re a cross between Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and Father Brown… with a dash of Miley Cyrus.

Maybe Taiwan and the PRC do have something in common, after all.  I’ve noticed this same effort to sanitize “your local policeman” in Jackie Chan’s films for his admiring audience of Communist Party hacks.  State official: selfless, devoted servant of virtue; money-making entrepreneur: unsavory, unprincipled pimp.  All black and white–no gray on either side.

And yet, I hear that want-ads for plum positions in China often stipulate that the applicant must be able to hold his liquor, and that girls post cards on matchmakers’ bulletin boards expressing their desire for a Mercedes and an upscale apartment.  On either side of the Formosa Strait, contemporary life doesn’t really sound like what you see on Netflix.  Seems that the Chinese, even when they try to portray survival on the streets, are still leaping fifty feet in the air and twirling the Sword of Destiny.