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Out of Sight

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The Internet delivered on its promise of community for blind people, but accessibility is easy to overlook.

I have been blind since birth. I’m old enough to have completed my early schooling at a time when going to a special school for blind kids was the norm. In New Zealand, where I live, there is only one school for the blind. It was common for children to leave their families when they were five, to spend the majority of the year far from home in a school hostel. Many family relationships were strained as a result. Being exposed to older kids and adults with the same disability as you, however, can supply you with exemplars. It allows the blind to see other blind people being successful in a wide range of careers, raising families and being accepted in their local community. A focal point, such as a school for the blind, helps foster that kind of mentoring.

The Internet has expanded the practical meaning of the word community. New technology platforms aren’t often designed to be accessible to people unlike the designers themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t used by everyone who can. For blind people, the Internet has allowed an international community to flourish where there wasn’t much of one before, allowing people with shared experiences, interests, and challenges to forge a communion. Just as important, it has allowed blind people to participate in society in ways that have often otherwise been foreclosed by prejudice. Twitter has been at the heart of this, helping bring blind people from many countries and all walks of life together. It represents one of the most empowering aspects of the Internet for people with disabilities — its fundamentally textual nature and robust API supporting an ecosystem of innovative accessible apps has made it an equalizer. Behind the keyboard, no one need know you’re blind or have any other disability, unless you choose to let them know.

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Die 4 U

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Lana Del Rey’s sound is nostalgia for an old lie

“Darling, you can’t let everything seem so dark blue. Oh, what can I do?”

—“Black Beauty,” Lana Del Rey

The summer I was 16 and cripplingly awkward, my father’s job moved our family from Toronto to the southern U.S. After spending my whole young life in Canada, I started my first day of 10th grade at George Walton High School in East Cobb County, Georgia, and the ensuing culture shock was about as harrowing as you can imagine for an already uneasy teenage girl.

The high school of nearly 2,700 students was primarily white and Baptist, complete with daily prayer around the flagpole, pancake breakfasts for Jesus, and a Friday Night Lights–style football obsession. On game days, fully suited football players brought roses to their assigned cheerleaders, while the girls, clad in their freshly pressed red-white-and-blue uniforms, provided players with baked goods and breakfast sandwiches from Chik-fil-A. The town was famed for a 56-foot-tall steel-sided chicken statue, and for being an early adopter of evolution is just a theory stickers for its science textbooks. In one memorable round of bullying, a few other students decided I was a weirdo and a freak and threw food at me in the cafeteria while gleefully chanting insults.

The only way to suffer through 18 months in the slo-mo sport-movie montage of southern teen culture was to fetishize Americana—protests in Marietta Square and peach pies cooling on windowsills, buttery Waffle House grits and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds with bottomless diner coffee, and the appealing façade of southern hospitality. It was a bright-side approach to darkness, a juvenile fascination with the great American road trip, with drug-fueled binges for the sake of poetry and art, with Hollywood glamour and revolution and the blinking lights of Vegas—a false frontier mentality that made America seem majestic rather than menacing. Deluding myself into survival, I found something to love where there was nothing. And decades later, I’ve found that Lana Del Rey that sounds exactly like that glorious pretense. Her songs are, in essence, nostalgia for an old lie.

The culture makes a dictum of authenticity and a near tyranny of the “genuine,” so that anyone who capitalizes on untruths is sinning against the virtue of transparency. We so often destroy people who are truly themselves in all their brokenness, yet loathe those, like Lana, who can tell a whole lie (or at least make many music critics think she’s “fake”). But artifice is not only armor, and performance is not the same as faking it. It’s a salve against day-to-day cruelty to rewrite reality, to build pretty, fictional worlds to live inside for a time, because the alternative is to writhe in agony without them.

Lana Del Rey’s music is a tiny harbor of safety, not unlike the Americana of my teen imagination. She is hated not because she’s faking it, but because she’s faking it in an unsanctioned way, and even worse, is unrepentant about it. “My pussy taste like Pepsi-Cola, my eyes are wide like cherry pies. I gots a taste for men who’re older,” she croons in semi-ridiculousness. “I’ve got feathers in my hair. I get down to beat poetry, and my jazz collection’s rare,” she brags without the necessary irony. She’s playfully wrestling with bikers in the desert, safely submitting to her old man, glorifying things that never were and will never be. In essence, she’s a grown woman living inside that timeless teenage daydream of what it means to be an adult—yearning for agency but still wanting to be someone’s baby, too terrified to grow up but hating the powerlessness of youth.

While the media harps about the lies this self-styled daddy’s girl is spinning, those who enjoy her find her tall tales a balm. Some say she’s bored or boring (with “Lana Del Nyquil” being my favorite nickname thus far,) but hers is a comforting fantasy in its repetitive romantic tedium, an all-­consuming, unsustainable love on an endless loop. Del Rey’s Ultraviolence is brutal, sexy, and submissive., but she’s managed to make herself the subject of the narrative not the object, even if the subject is a passive one. This is not the (male) fantasy of Aguilera’s Dirrty-girl chaps, or Spears being a Slave 4 U with a python hanging from her all-American neck. It’s also not the ­hyper-caricature of over styled pop-culture pleather BDSM, though it’s just as performative.

This is not to say that Lana Del Rey doesn’t suffer, but that when she does it’s quick. Then she curls her hair, smokes a Parliament, and gets a little bit of bourbon in her. (I get a little bourbon in me, and I either need to have a cry or go to bed. Listening to Lana Del Rey is like doing both.) When, in an Ultraviolence lyric, she tells us that his “Bonnie on the side” makes her a “sad, sad girl,” we don’t really believe it. Her heart seems unbreakable, and there is no better “fake” daydream than the invincible heart.

In another lyric, Del Rey really misses you but is ultimately glad you’re gone—her sadness nothing more than a pretty song that can be skipped on the album. She is like a chameleon that got stuck on one comfortable color and decided to stay there while she made herself a martini. Sometimes she gets so lazy, lounging her linens, that she does nothing more than make ­Didion-style lists to combat life’s ugliness: “blue hydrangea, cold cash divine, cashmere, cologne and white sunshine, red racing cars, Sunset and Vine…”

As I grow older—age being the thing that the Del Rey persona fears the most—the future has become increasingly dictated by diminishing choices, and has increased the value of my (and Lana’s) long-fading fantasies of the wide-open road. All the hyper-romantic “die for you” sentiments of Ultra­violence are as impossible to sustain as they are beautiful, like love notes, folded and stored in shoeboxes in an adult bedroom closet. Her realm is the furthest thing from taking the kids to soccer practice, mortgage payments, and desk jobs, just like it was the furthest thing from the horrors of high school.

We know it’s impossible to love someone “ ’til the end of time,” or to “just ride,” but Del Rey’s gleefully artificial landscape softens the edges of those brutal truths, and belies the argument that she should stop all this faking. There is a forgotten part of me that would like to believe that—like in Ultraviolence’s “Old Money”—if you send for me, you know I’ll come, and if you call for me, you know I’ll run. But I know I can’t run. There are responsibilities and bills to pay and errands to cross off a tedious list, and for those trapped in whatever cage they’ve found themselves in, fantasy is necessity. Song by song, Lana’s telling us her pretty lies in her little red party dress, and we can enjoy her longing to believe them, even if we can’t.

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Vernacular Criticism

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The most interesting place to read about museums is Yelp.

“Boyfriend says that it’s a little silly to review a museum like PS1 because it has so many rotating pieces/exhibitions,” writes Yelp user Saskia S. in her five-star review of MoMA PS1, a contemporary art center in Queens. Boyfriend voices the status quo: Reviews of museums should reflect their rotating offerings, which means that the appearance of reviews should be metered by periodicals—the daily newspaper, the monthly ­magazine—whereas a Yelp review sits in online stasis, which is a little silly. Another subtext, which Boyfriend is perhaps too polite to say aloud, is that the high refinement of what museums do is best addressed by the professional critics who write for those periodicals, rather than Yelp ­users such as Saskia S.

The accumulation of Yelp reviews over time is meant to establish the reputation of a local business that Yelp’s users wouldn’t otherwise know about or know what to think of. The reputation of a museum, on the other hand, is established a priori, by the fact of its status as a museum. Museums are landmarks. When I’m on Manhattan’s Upper East Side I don’t open Yelp to find a good local museum to check out—I open it to find a place to get lunch after going to a museum there, which is the only reason I ever go to the Upper East Side.

And yet Yelp reviews of museums can be insightful, colorful, or strange (or, in Yelp’s own nomenclature, funny, useful, or cool):

“However, it seems that the artwork seem to curated neither chronologically nor harmonically with other work,” May Y. writes in a three-star review of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that bristles at its encyclopedic miscellany. “I felt like as if I were in a large field with different patches of flowers around me.”

“Being asian w/ tote bag n ‘art’ student id at the Whitney during a Yayoi Kusama show felt like a fag with more than 2 photo tags on patrickmcmullan.com wearing all black harem pants n rick owens.” Valeriana S. writes in their three-star review of the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Aniwai, I’m sort of on a diet off processed food n faminist art, so the majority of my interest was spent on spotting fashion students (who will use Yaya’s art as inpiration for their next assignment ‘designing a collection’) n counting # of art lovers wearing dots.”

“I never really thought much of Christina’s World (by Andrew Wyeth),” writes Gretchen P. in her five-star review of the Museum of Modern Art. “Then I saw it live and in person and it hit me. In a city where so many people move from ‘the country’ to make it, where the emaciated ribs of the 1930s still show in spots, here is Christina. Her world is polio and the ground in rural 1940s (although it might as well be 1930s) America. What strikes me is that this is what I contemplate as I’m riding an elevator. It’s just a weird place for an important piece of art. […] Then again, that’s also why I now like it. No pomp, no circumstance. It just exists and next to an elevator is where it does so.”

Even reviews that don’t detail responses to art offer frank facts about the bodily experience of being in a museum that professional criticism tends to omit. “Once you’re inside I would either use the elevator or the stairs to get all the way up to the top level. Start your visit at the top and then walk down,” writes Nicole P. in a three-star review of the Guggenheim Museum—a practical piece of advice that appears in many of the Guggenheim’s reviews.

“Carrie Mae Weems installations saved my whole visit! However, I didn’t understand why they chose to put her video pieces in a narrow hallway with high volume traffic,” writes Honore F. in another three-star review for the Guggenheim. “Also if they are gonna run for longer than 10 minutes I do think there should be a bench for the elderly and those with physical limitations.”

“Exhibits are hidden in rooms and there are no signs to direct visitors. I was informed that signs are aesthetically ugly and I should write a letter to express my opinion,” writes Iris S. in a three-star review of MoMA. “One final observation. Women’s bathrooms don’t have tampon machines. I was told that it’s because it looks ugly!”

Yelp reviews like these are a reminder that museums tend to subjugate concerns of the viewer’s body to things like sight lines, the production of meaning through juxtaposition, the interaction among isolated works of art. To museums and their curators, the social space produced by the people’s encounter with artworks, or the needs of a body in between its encounters with art, are secondary.

In this way, many Yelp reviews confront the engineered homogeneity of the museum experience, the standardized conditions that Brian O’Doherty, an artist and critic, wrote about in Inside the White Cube. In these essays, written in the 1970s, O’Doherty describes the origins of ubiquitous gallery architecture and offers a critique of the white cube’s transformation of the viewer into a phantom, a spectral organ of cognition designed for the bodiless appreciation of art.

The abruptly intimate accounts of subjective experience in a museum found on Yelp defy the white cube’s bloodlessness—even if all they do is address mundane concerns about a body’s movement in space.

“I’m not a big museum fan but I do enjoy work of art,” writes Ricca R.

“I have to admit something,” begins Nadia Z. in her five-star review of MoMA. “I been postponing museum reviews for some time now. The grandiosity of NYC art museums intimidate me. How you review something that not only the league on its own, but ever-changing with bigger-than-time-itself exhibits as well? But alas, I am going to try and learn to fly here.”

Yelp does a lot of things, including a number things that make people hate it. But one thing it does is provide a platform for vernacular art criticism, a different kind of writing about art and the public spaces where it is seen. Vernacular criticism can reject the guidelines set by cultivated artistic tastes, or it can guilelessly speak in ignorance of them, or in its naive fascination with them can inadvertently expose their falseness. Vernacular criticism is an expression of taste that has not been fully calibrated to the tastes cultivated in and by museums. Vernacular criticism inscribes bodies in public spaces that would otherwise erase them.

I yelp. I’ve written over 100 reviews on Yelp, almost all of them about museums and galleries. Other Yelp users have found my reviews useful (305 votes), funny (209 votes), and cool (198 votes). I know what it’s like to open the window on Yelp’s page to compose a new review, to have Yelp ask me to quantify my experience of a place by choosing a number of stars—each with its corresponding ­interjections. One star is “eek!” Two is “meh.” Three is “A-OK!” Four is “Yay!” Five is “Woohoo!”

A friend gave me a T-shirt she found in a thrift store that says “I [Yelp logo] Yelp” modeled on the “I [Heart] NY” design. Instead of a heart it has Yelp’s logo, which might be described as a sunburst or a blooming flower. I’m not exactly sure how to identify it, but its suggestion of an outward explosion through a neat and stylized form seems to approximate Yelp’s quantitative rationalization of the burst of feeling that moves me to write a review there. I wouldn’t say that I love Yelp. But I might say that I [logo] it. “I [logo] Yelp” says less about how I feel about Yelp than what I do for it—I spill my guts, I blurt my tastes, I let them by counted, branded, averaged, muted, processed into a crowdsourced stamp of (dis)approval.

I write about art on Yelp. I also write about art on other websites or in magazines in exchange for money, and I’ve been doing that since 2005. I’m not an art historian. I’ve never studied art history, which from a distance looks like a bleakly stuffy field, concerned with questions of influence and provenance that stake out an autonomous purity for art and its mediums, that disengages them from social or cultural history. Criticism, as opposed to history, appeals to me as a practice of inscribing art in life. I’m an art critic, and some people have said I’m “the first art critic on Yelp.” That’s not true, of course. If other people hadn’t written art criticism on Yelp before me, it never would have occurred to me that it was even possible.

Like most people, I had been using Yelp mainly to find out about restaurants, but in January 2012, when I was searching for information on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of millions of porcelain sunflower seeds at Mary Boone Gallery, the top result on Google was a four-star review on Yelp, by Lisa Jane C. “During my visit, many people were mesmerized by the seeds, which are beautiful,” she wrote. “Each one is unique, just like people.”

I don’t think that last line especially struck me the first time I saw it, but when I read it again now I realize it contains the seed of a theory of aesthetics whose practice is easier to imagine thanks to Yelp—one that begins with the heterogeneity of taste, a totality of dissensus expressed in subjective accounts of a body’s experience at a unique point in space and time. Somehow I recognized Yelp as a detour from the homogeneity of voice and style that I struggled with in writing for professional publications: the aloof posture of academic expertise applied to paraphrase the artist’s statement or gallery press release in a more authoritative way, all within the limited word count available for reviews.

And so I started to yelp.

In some ways, being a yelper isn’t all that different from being an art critic.

The art critic gets paid so little he may as well be writing for free, like the yelper does.

An art critic who gives Jeff Koons a negative review is like a yelper who gives one star to the Olive Garden. The market has already made up its mind and institutional policy follows. The art critic confronts this consensus and tries to express an independent, individual opinion in spite of it—a thankless task. The art critic doesn’t change the art world’s systems of power; he simply gives them publicity by reminding readers that they exist. So it is with the yelper who accumulates language around a storefront or a brand.

Most art critics—the ones writing for specialized art journals, where most art criticism today is found—do little more than mimic the academic discourses of art history and art theory, often poorly, as they apply them to specific instances of art making. So it is with the yelper, who does little more than mimic, often poorly, the vocabulary and style of marketing and journalism.

The more the art critic writes the more people pay attention to their name, to their opinion, even though these opinions have no effect on the landscape of the art world, the mechanisms of the market. If the art critic writes enough reviews, they will be invited to gallery dinners where critics are served free food and drinks, and so it is with Yelp—if you yelp enough, your account is ­designated Elite, your ­reviews are elevated to the top of a business’ page, and you’re invited to attend Elite events where yelpers are served free food and drinks.

The Yelp Elite are people who write lengthy, chatty, mostly positive reviews, and for my first year and half of yelping I held the Elite in scorn—these users were tools, instrumentalized by Yelp’s promotion of its brand identity. I didn’t think I wanted to be Elite or that I would even have a chance, with only a few dozen reviews under my belt compared with the hundreds on the profiles that boasted the Elite badge. But last October, after posting a particularly ecstatic five-star review of Friedrich Petzel Gallery, a Yelp community manager invited me to join Yelp’s Elite Squad.

So I did, and I started to attend Elite events. By this point, my account had received some institutional and media recognition, and so I was curious to test reactions to my account from people outside the art world. Would they think it was funny, or novel, or stupid and annoying, like people in the art world did? When I talked about it to Amaryllis S., from Astoria, Queens, she said she didn’t think my account was all that different from hers, which has hardly any reviews of restaurants, focusing instead on ­service-oriented businesses, like salons. Jando S., Yelp’s community manager for Queens, told me about a guy in Miami who reviewed only strip clubs, and they were all thorough reviews, regardless of whether the strippers were men or women, which Jando took as a sign of true commitment. The strip-club expert had resisted Elite status when it was first offered, because he thought his activity on Yelp was too narrow, but he eventually came to terms with his own eliteness. In short, my focus on museums and galleries differed little, in the eyes of the Yelp Elite, from other reviewers’ attention to salons or strip clubs.

Their opinion would probably be endorsed by Pierre Bourdieu, who in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste uses sociological data to argue that the theory of aesthetic judgment proposed by Kant in the 18th century as a description of a universal human condition is, in fact, particular to the class interests of the bourgeoisie. Like my fellow members of the Yelp Elite, Bourdieu chose not to grant art special status, to recognize its distinction from other pursuits. “The dispositions which govern ­choices between the goods of legitimate culture cannot be fully understood … unless ‘culture,’ in the restricted, normative sense of ordinary usage, is reinserted into ‘culture’ in the broad, anthropological sense, and the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is brought back into relation with the elementary taste for the flavors of food.” Taste is an embodied, sensory experience—one that originates in the gut and touches the world with the tongue. But it is also subject to a number of social abstractions that manage it, rationalize it, and build what Bourdieu calls a “magical barrier,” distinguishing “legitimate culture” through the skilled labor of identification and decoding, distinctions reproduced in education and cultivated over time.

The museum lives behind such a magical barrier. The power structures of Yelp—the hierarchy of service provider and users, algorithms of usefulness, advertising—have nothing to do with the museum’s power, and so Yelp can smash its magical barrier. Yelp puts museums into pages labeled with their names and addresses where anything can be said about them, the same as any other business.

The museum is a technology of public life, and like the public sphere, it began to acquire the forms familiar to us now in the 18th century.

Both museum and public sphere were born of bourgeois revolution—the museum quite literally; the first modern museum, the Louvre, was converted from a palace into a public collection of art by decree nine days after the French monarchy fell.

Both acquired significance as vehicles of bourgeois ideology, a worldview that did not displace aristocratic tastes and values so much as it worked to make them available, to present them as a way of life that anyone could ­aspire to approximate, imagined as so universally appealing and good that no one wouldn’t want it.

Both served as vessels for the bourgeois utopian ideal of meritocracy—the most rational and reasonable ideas will win the approval of an informed society through their dissemination in the public sphere; the best works of art will edify the public in the museum.

Social media is another, newer technology of public life, one so young that it’s hard yet to say what purpose it serves. But it’s easy enough to see that it doesn’t coincide with the purpose of those older technologies of public life, because the results of its contact with them are so often funny, strange, or unnerving—the kooky comments on newspaper websites, reviews of museums on Yelp.

Social media is not a degradation or improvement on the public sphere. Though owners of mass media have attempted to transpose the logic and power of the public sphere to social media, it never comes out quite right. Social media is further from the public sphere than it is from the old world of letters, diaries, albums, conversations with friends—the private sphere laid bare in public life, without subordination to the social abstractions that govern the dissemination of ideas in the public sphere (except, of course, for the ones that users have already learned and internalized).

There has been a lot of speculation about whether or not social media can measure artistic merit—or any merit—through likes, favorites, reblogs, retweets and so on. But the conversation tends to be limited to the potential of these metrics to measure quality, without acknowledging that such a process of measuring constitutes an attempt to merely “democratize” the meritocracy. This totally misses the potential of social media to account for the plurality of tastes found in the world. And so the counting of social-media attention is always ­unsatisfying—these metrics give a unified count of everything whose sums mean nothing.

Yelp—as well as Amazon and other review sites—shoehorn taste into metered ratings, but they also demand a first-person expression of taste. They ask the user to be a critic without demanding the past labor of cultivation or the other social abstractions imposed by the public sphere.

Meanwhile, the public sphere regularly produces editorials bemoaning the death of expertise—its own slow death. Food and movie critics are catching up with art critics, who have been talking about the crisis of their profession for about a half century. The crisis of art criticism, however, did not originally come from the encroaching masses—the hostile arcana of the avant-garde held them off long enough—but rather because of a hypertrophied art market, whose monetary consensus renders criticism moot, and the professionalization of the art world, the MFA programs that teach artists to develop critical appraisals of their work for marketing purposes, so that it appears in public with an already determined historical significance. That seems like sufficient indication that criticism’s problems stem from its own professionalization.

The early art critic “retained something of the amateur,” writes Jürgen Habermas in The Social Transformation of the Public Sphere. “Lay judgment was organized in it without becoming, by way of specialization, anything else than the judgment of one private person among all others who ultimately were not to be obligated by any judgment except their own.”

Yelp is not the answer to criticism’s problems. On its own it can’t transform criticism, or museums, for the better. The reviews of museums there may eschew the academic jargon of art writing and bourgeois biases of taste, but they tend to replace them with the clichés of marketing and advertising—the register of a commercialized public sphere—found in Yelp reviews of restaurants, strip clubs, or salons.

And yet Yelp could help reset the terms of art criticism, as an environment where the judgment of one among others not obligated by any judgment except their own is newly fresh, and where this judgment is honestly subjective and contingent, as tasted by unobligated bodies.

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Trophy Season

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Despite what you’ve heard, not every kid gets a trophy. But why not?

The end of the school year is awards season, when students of all ages are herded into auditoriums and cafeterias and cafetoriums to sit and listen to adults read off the accomplishments of a select few classmates. Sometimes the crowd is instructed to hold their applause until all the recipients have received their award, and if they forget, they are told, sternly, not to clap yet. By the end, every hand in the room hurts, and the kids who get their awards last get hardly any applause. The winners take beaming pictures with their certificates.

I recently attended one such elementary school award ceremony. The children, who are students of mine, cheered for each other. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and afterwards, kids were leaping out of their seats to give speeches to the crowd about the year’s end. Fifth graders expressed appreciation for their teachers; a first grader told a joke. A kindergartner (who had won several awards) took the microphone, turned to his classmates, and shyly announced: “If you didn’t get an award… don’t cry.”

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The End of the World as We Know It

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Ancient Apocalypse films use the past to project a reactionary present into the future.

When we think apocalypse, we tend to think of the future. Accordingly, the apocalypse seems to show up on film only in the realm of sci-fi or, occasionally horror. But while every single hair on the rotting scalp of zombie cinema has been analyzed under bloodstained micro­scopes, a new subgenre has been emerging that wields the potent thought of the end of the world to even more reactionary ends. It uses the trope of apocalypse to project current power into the future by situating catastrophe and its overcoming in the past. These movies give voice to the blind hatred of the disgruntled agents of collapsing empire.

These films span a number of generic registers, from animated kid’s movie to big-budget summer ­production. You’ve probably seen one: 300, Noah, Gladiator, The Croods, Centurion, etc. These are the Ancient Apocalypse films, and they have opened up whole cinematic territories for a far-right theory of terminal crisis to play in.

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