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Fear Is Good

By Annalee Newitz

I DECIDED to watch M. Night Shyamalan's latest highbrow horror-nerd movie, The Village, for reasons that I can't properly explain. I think it had something to do with the sense of vague 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, last week the FCC issued a list of 13 high-definition television 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 this means is that the FCC won't allow anyone to sell HD recorders unless they recognize a little watermark in the HD 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 government-mandated Microsoft and Sony devices dancing in my mind that I headed over to the Sony Metreon movie theater to watch The Village, which was incidentally produced in part by Touchstone Pictures, 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 has not 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 stops, and the advertisement for George W. Bush's America begins. I shit you not: this is a movie that 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 both lies. The village's town 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, there 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 film's protagonist has discovered that the profound terror that keeps the villagers inside their borders is based on lies. Nevertheless, she decides to stay within its 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 technoentertainment complex guard the boundaries of their intellectual property with rituals, propaganda and weak encryption that 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 are afraid of the real world.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd whose outputs are not yet regulated by the FCFCC.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the August 11-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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