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The Future, Part III

And now, a very special episode of "Same Day, Different Rat." It's a little number I like to call "Christ, is he still jabbering about Metropolis?!?"

Yes, he is.

Just three more things -- then I promise I'll talk about something else.

First, the Alloy Orchestra's website is back up. These men of bronze are known for making music with strange objects like bedpans and air-conditioner filters. Now, I'm happy to report that you can still visit their site and order stuff to put some jingle in their jeans.

Second, the issue of the correct playback speed for Metropolis, about which I've been an unconscionable ass. DVD Savant has an informed and interesting article about this and other aspects of the DVD. Apparently, Fritz Lang meant his movie to be projected at 20 frames per second, but the studio overrode him and had the music scored for 24 fps.

In this age of wonders, software like WinDVD can take the place of a good old speed dial. WinDVD can play a video faster or slower, while keeping the soundtrack at its original pitch (with some loss in quality). After playing portions of the DVD at 85% speed, I see that DVD Savant has a point. The slowdown isn't drastic, but it makes the action more manageable.

Finally, here's something interesting but exhausting: original reviews of Metropolis from 1927. The reviews run the gamut from huffy to goofy to grandiloquent.

The most entertaining piece is by H.G. Wells. Look for the review that starts "I have recently seen the silliest film."

It's interesting how jilted Wells comes off. I suspect some friends told him to see Metropolis because it incorporated one or two of his old ideas, and he was appalled by how the movie handled them. Granted, if someone took my writing from, say, age sixteen and turned it into the script for Titanic, I would also conclude that humanity had failed a crucial test of taste and restraint.

But what's most fascinating about the review is how its intelligence spotlights its cluelessness. For example, Wells pillories Metropolis for not presenting a well-reasoned picture of what the future might be like. Metropolis wasn't supposed to be an accurate projection of the future any more than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a scientific analysis of sleepwalking.

Wells was drawn to Progress the way a zombie is drawn to brains. Were he alive today, Wells would say that progress is a tide that lifts all boats. Everyone lives better and gets paid more, so they can buy more, so they make the producers richer, so they make themselves richer. He's at a loss to understand how the future city of Metropolis could depend for its riches on indentured labor, so he concludes that it's poppycock.

Were he alive today, I wonder what Wells would make of Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap. In the late nineties, Dunlap was the CEO of Sunbeam. He was a miracle-worker, the man who turned stock into gold, and his philsophy was this: in a perfect world, the workers would live on a barge. The barge would go wherever labor was cheapest.

At his worst, Dunlap talked like a general from World War I -- as though he was actually thirsty for the blood of his own men. But this was the late nineties, and there was no war. It was a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Compared to the rest of the world, Americans from Dunlap on down lived like kings -- or at least like kleptocrats.

Progress? We report -- you decide.

Forget for a moment that Wells wrote his review two years before the Great Depression, and three years before Gandhi's salt march, to break the British government's monopoly on Indian salt. (So much like Bechtel's 1999 privatization of Cochabamba's water, which actually forbid residents to collect rainwater!) By 1927, Gandhi had already started his campaign to revive Indian cottage industry, which had been crushed by British industrialists who took everything worth owning.

Where did this fit into Wells' vision of Progress? Presumably, he was talking about the First World. As Wells gazed from the top of his Tower of Babel at the gleaming skyline of the future, there were no wogs to spoil the view. They labored securely underground, on the other side of the equator.

Nowadays the word "progress" is passé. It's more fashionable to prattle about the Information Economy as we paw through racks of clothes made by fourteen-year-old brown people working fourteen-hour days. But they're on the other side of the world, and they don't believe in freedom anyway. Just like the good old days.