[Newitz] Fear is Good

I decided to watch M. Night Shyamalan's latest highbrow horror-nerd movie, "The Village," for reasons I can't properly explain. I think it had something to do with the vague sense of doom I always experience when the Federal Communications Commission starts bending the electronics industry to its will by issuing gold approval stars to certain companies and not others. In case you missed out, the FCC just issued a list of 13 high-definition TV recorders (including several made by Sony, a new TiVo, and Microsoft's latest Media Player) that are authorized for the marketplace because they "protect digital broadcast television from the threat of mass, indiscriminate redistribution."

What that means is the FCC won't allow the sale of H.D. recorders that don't recognize a little watermark in the H.D. signal called the broadcast flag. The flag stops the indiscriminate consumer from making digitally perfect backup copies of HDTV programs by screwing up the digital output on your favorite Sony or TiVo device. Maybe we should issue a rule to rename the FCC. We could just add a few more letters and call it the FCFCC, or the Federal Communications for Cash Commission. Then we wouldn't need to wonder why the only "approved" technologies come from giant megacorporations.

It was with visions of government-mandated Microsoft and Sony devices dancing in my head that I went over to the Sony Metreon to watch "The Village, "which was incidentally produced in part by Touchstone Pictures, which is owned by Disney. I like to consume the products of the culture industry, especially when I know they aren't threatened by mass, indiscriminate redistribution.

The FCC hasn't yet mandated a device that keeps me from using my finger outputs to type spoilers, so I can easily and legally redistribute at least the plot of "The Village" to you, if not the film itself. Here's the deal: The movie is really scary. Fun scary, great-acting scary. But then the fun part , and the ad for George W. Bush's America begins. I kid you not: This movie practically bashes you over the head with one of the most disturbingly right-wing messages you've ever seen in a monster flick.

Turns out the 19th-century town and terrifying, fast, red-cloaked snarly things you saw in the ads for the movie are lies. The village's elders have sewn a bunch of silly costumes that make them look like pig-faced monsters covered in spikes. Periodically they skin some animals and race through town making Blair Witch Project noises to scare their young-adult children into staying out of the woods and—as we discover in one of those not-really-very-twisted twist endings—out of the 21st century. Beyond the woods lies the present day with all its wars, cars, feminist values and modern medicine. But in the village are family values. Raised in terror, ignorance and archaic gender roles, the youth of the village know the most important things in life are to marry and obey authority.

By the end of the film, the protagonist has learned that the profound terror keeping the villagers inside their borders is based on lies. Nevertheless, she decides to stay within the walls and (one assumes) perpetuate the fearsome deception and meaningless, elaborate rituals the villagers have developed to ward off their imaginary monsters. Shyamalan seems to be suggesting that the goodness of old-fashioned, small-town life requires us to sacrifice rationality, peace of mind and truth itself.

"The Village" is pure, uncut Bushiana. We need to protect our borders, and if there's no real reason to do that, we'll just make one up. Terrorist plots! Weapons of mass destruction! Digital outputs on our HDTV devices! Living in fear of these phantasms is what makes America strong.

It's always creepy but gratifying when a piece of mass media so perfectly reflects the culture industry that conceived, manufactured and distributed it. Aided by government agencies, the tycoons of the techno-entertainment complex guard the boundaries of their intellectual property with rituals, propaganda and weak encryption they call "copy protection." And in the end, they do it for the same reason the village elders do it in Shyamalan's movie. They're afraid of the real world.

Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd whose outputs aren't yet regulated by the FCC.


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