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Latest 'Zeitgeist' film mixes sound critique and goofy futurism

 Moving Forward poster

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward, directed by Peter Joseph, 2011, 162 mins.
 

In the sixties and seventies, Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes were a trendy symbol of a better society -- hipper, physically and culturally transparent and much, much more logical than the hodgepodge of architecture styles handed down to us by history. In America, where youth were aflame over Vietnam, the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution, the dome stood for a future where the rule of forward thinking would wipe out prejudice and make old-style politics obsolete.

But then, Reagan took the White House and America got three decades of can't-get-enough consumerism. It was a thorough triumph of emotion over rationality for a phony "morning in America" that was really just the start of the biggest borrowing and spending spree in world history.

Thirty years on, as the party winds down and the hangover sets in, more and more of us worry about peak oil, climate change and economic collapse. And once again, to many who are disgusted by party politics and corporate greed, the dispassionate world of science, with integrity built right into the experimental method, looks appealing by comparison.

That must be why such a schizophrenic film as Zeitgeist: Moving Forward can boast 275,000 friends on Facebook, as opposed to only 33,354 for the most recent Academy Award winner, Inside Job.

Protocols of the elders of Manhattan

To be fair, Zeitgeist has had some time to recruit those fans, since 2011's Moving Forward is actually the third film in the series, which began with Zeitgeist in 2007, a film roundly attacked for promoting conspiracy theories on 9/11, Christianity and the international banking system. A second film, Zeitgeist: Addendum came out in 2008, focusing again on the financial system.

Clearly, these documentaries and the political movement behind them (the Zeitgeist Movement has a separate Facebook page with 95,089 friends) have tapped into a trend.

With a hard-hitting critique of market economics and corruption in politics by such visionary thinkers as Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky and Vancouver physician Gabor Maté, the film's got a lot that a thinking person can agree with. I was glad to see that director Peter Joseph gave plenty of time to peak oil, featuring both Michael Ruppert and Colin Campbell.

But this impressively produced film is wracked by a split personality. On the one hand, it's as cynical as can be about the difference between Democrats and Republicans (none that matters), the health of the financial system (poor to critical) and the consequences for the future of the market economy (bleak, bleak, bleak).

On the other hand, Zeitgeist's solutions are not merely uncompelling and unconvincing. They seem to rely on the very thinking that got us into today's problems in the first place.

Better living through science

Here's what the Very Smart People behind Zeitgeist think will save civilization:

The peoples of the world should rise up simultaneously in revolt and demand an end to the current world order. The film imagines a scenario where demonstrators mass peacefully in the major cities of the world and dump the life-savings they've just withdrawn from the nearest ATM into huge piles of cash on the street in front of the offices of their nation's central bank.

What's next? Somehow, an enlightened regime of brainiacs, chosen in some unspecified manner entirely free of either party politics or moneyed interests (oh, right, there's no more money), will revamp world civilization according to a blueprint from the world of -- get ready for it -- systems engineering.

Resources will be sourced from where they're produced anywhere on Earth to wherever they're needed anywhere else on Earth. Shopping will be a thing of the past as people simply "check out" any goods that they need for temporary use from the local lending library.

And the world's cities? Somehow they'll all become completely rational, with concentric circles of high-tech building complexes designed to maximize land use and energy efficiency, all fed by hydroponic agriculture and with transportation provided by monorails apparently borrowed from Disney World.

Apparently gone will be narrow Renaissance alleys and Victorian brownstones, Manhattan high-rises and Stalinist low-rises, Qing Dynasty hutongs and Meiji Era courtyards. How will we get there? Again, details TBA.

Dome livin' is the life for me

I don't fault a documentary that's already pushing three hours for skipping over all the steps of how such a wondrous transformation could occur. I'll trust that the super-smarties at the Venus Project, a clearly well-funded group behind Zeitgeist, have some ideas on how to pull the old stuff down, reuse the materials and rebuild everything to look like a set from Logan's Run.

The real question is, after dozens of compelling visions of techno-dystopia, why anyone today would still find appealing a future in glass domes and Modernist towers that look like the theme restaurant at LAX.

If the only way to free ourselves from the Koch brothers, Goldman Sachs and Michele Bachmann is to wipe away the glorious mess that is 5,000 years of civilization and replace it with a Version 2.0 that's all metal and perfectly aerodynamic, then there doesn't seem to be all that much point to human survival.

What the hell would we do in those damn domes all day anyway?

Fortunately, if for energy and resource depletion alone, not to mention human psychology, a future in geo-domes eating hydroponic asparagus picked from the glass balcony is about as likely as seeing George Jetson as president or Buck Rogers as Secretary of Defense.

The appeal of a cerebral version of urban renewal -- tear down the slums of history and replace them with shiny new stuff that's approved by science -- is worrisome.

Clearly, too many people still think we have to destroy civilization to save it.

And if you want to point your finger at dirty politics and the greedy market as the root of all evil, can you really claim that science still has clean hands?

From eugenics to Auschwitz, from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima, from physicists flocking to Wall Street to design complex financial derivatives to Monsanto's latest genetic engineering horror, science has shown little scruple about ethics when money and power came a-calling.

Why should next time be any different?

-- Erik Curren

Editorial Notes: Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. With his wife Lindsay Curren he co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in January 2010. He is managing partner of the Curren Media Group.

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