Watching “The East” has reinvigorated various moral emotions in me; and so once again I am going to use this blog as a podium for some themes I return to again and again: greed, denial, environmental disaster, and imperial decline.
Like “Avatar,” another of my favorite movies, “The East” highlights major ethical flaws in the fabric of our culture, ones that are damning. Although corporate avarice is a well-worn plot driver, it has a stark basis in truth. Gigantic business organizations, tremendous in power and persuasion, deceive and pollute, inflicting damage to peoples and environments on a mind-withering scale. Most Americans seem numb to the prospect of actually challenging this destructive perversion of economics; but at a subconscious level, most seem aware of it. We seek out ‘entertainment’--movies, songs, video games, whatever--where the evils of excess are exposed and defeated by the protagonist. We derive catharsis this way, through song and story, for what we know subconsciously and yet refuse to fully process into awareness.
Why do we act like sheep? Well, as “The East” suggests, if you want a good job (or any job in your skill range) you knuckle under and not only do what you are told, but also work hard despite the gnaw of anxiety. Others want your job and there is plenty of competition. The competition and the necessity of a paycheck eclipse the observations of conscience. Survival comes first, with the plus of comforts. Another cog is born in the machinery of the Empire’s “free market” capitalism.
The ‘good guys’ in this movie are the subversive members of an anarchist environmental group eponymously named The East. They challenge and expose the entrenched corporate hegemony, employing violence that is measured--no bombs or outright murder--and yet still extreme. Their tactics are labeled as “ecoterrorism” by the mainstream media, and rightly so. The fierce methods are also very successful. When pharmaceutical executives are surreptitiously fed a drug they knew was highly dangerous and yet sold across Africa, the mass media refocuses its fickle lens on the wrongdoing of the company.
In another civil-disobedience op, a coal CEO is kidnapped and made to swim in waters rendered carcinogenic by illegally sluiced effluents. The East smoothly executes these “jams,” augmenting the exposé via internet.
As in many movies, the two dramatic antipodes, in this case hippie vs corporate, are hyperstylized. The East romps rustic and emotionally free in the woods. The suits, on the other hand, are irretrievably callous, lacking even a Potemkin village of decency (though one of them finally buckles to apologize in the nude--both literally and figuratively--while standing among dead fish and effluents. It is the sort of shock meme The East can inject online to viral effect).
What makes the movie great isn’t the template but rather the exquisite, evocative way it is trellised. From a nuanced weave of hypnotic acting, script and scene, emerges an arresting and soul-provoking achievement in incisive cinema. Through the eyes of the main character, who slowly shifts Eastward, the audience is seduced into a rare and special state of passionate philosophy: a zone of immersion where worldviews can be appraised and modified. Reality vicariously comes under the magnifying glass.
The US empire is badly in denial about its chasm of wealth and poverty, its monstrous corruption of government, its abject servitude to globe-spanning violence, all of which induce absurd quantities of pain. We citizens are not stupid, and any good movie on these topics should propel us to think about what true freedom is, and what the meaning of our lives should be. Given its power, you can’t watch "The East" and not question the status quo. How saturated with business dogma do we want the layers of our cortexes to be? Can we shrug off vast malfeasance and not tarnish the very nature of who we are? What are the dooming consequences? And if we decide to challenge the societal vise-grip of cupidity--how?