The High Druid's Homily

A blog about Druidism, Paganism, Politics, Southern Life, Sex, Entertainment, Sci-Fi, and a lot of crap like that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

A Very Wiccan Holiday Season

Ah, Yule! That glorious time of year that brings out goodwill towards men, the kindness of strangers, the fragrance of fresh-cut greenery and the inevitable prospect of numerous church-state First Amendment court cases on the part of the Evangelical Conservative Christians on the Right, and the litigious Wiccans on the . . . well, call it the Left, because the Evangelicals have certainly put it in those terms.

If you read the news, that’s likely the context in which you have been exposed to Wicca as a modern religion. It perennially pops up as third-page news every Hallowe’en (based on the Celtic fire festival Samhain and regularly reclaimed and rejected by above-referenced Evangelicals) and Christmas (all the Christmas Trees, mistletoe, crackling fires and gift-giving around the Winter Solstice have a distinctly Pagan feel and Pagan history about them) because of the Pagan connotations.

But what was once fairly safe historical-interest filler for the Religion section of the paper is now a hotbed of religious contention over symbols, beliefs, and public displays during the holiday season. Yes, those holidays were derived from Pagan roots, but until recently Paganism was a historical footnote, not taken seriously in the Western world of Religion as anything but fodder for quaint tradition.

No more. Wicca is a Pagan religion. It does not accept any scripture from the Ancient Middle East as a valid spiritual authority. It is a pantheistic/polytheistic Nature-oriented religion. It is protected by the First Amendment, recognized by the US Military (“an equal-opportunity employer”) and the legally savvy Wiccans are going to do everything they can to ensure that their beliefs are respected by the courts, if not the present Administration and the public-at-large.

Pretty heady stuff for a “made up” religion with less than 1 million practitioners in North America.

Wicca has been practiced in the Western world for over 50 years, now. Yet some claim that Wicca (an Old English-derived term for Witch, as in Witchcraft, as in magic, spells, wands and brooms) is some kind of kooky “made up” religion that was invented by an aging British civil servant, Gerald Gardner, in the 1950s. Still others claim that Wicca is the continuation of an ancient goddess-centric spirituality that dates back to Paleolithic times – when the evidence breaks down, blame the “monotheistic patriarchy” for trying to hide the truth. The facts and the truth lie somewhere between those extremes.

One of the common arguments against Wicca as a “real” religion is the fact that some early practitioners (way back in the mists of time, say the late 1960s, early 1970s), in an attempt to borrow legitimacy for their beliefs, made claims about the historical roots of the religion, often citing Margaret Murray’s now-discredited The Witch Cult in Western Europe as source material. With the rise of Wiccan practitioners in the 1990s, a whole new wave of historical re-interpretation was launched, asserting the overtly feminist history (or herstory, if you will) of Wicca, mainly basing their position on popular books such as Merlin Stone’s When God Was A Woman and Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance. Both books asserted a prehistoric matriarchal culture that universally worshipped a Mother Goddess, and the latter work claimed that Wicca was a descendent, spiritual or direct, of that cult. The scholarship was uneven, speculative, and in some places just fantastic; and while the books brought up an interesting – even inspiring –proposition, using them as a credible source for a historical base of the religion is difficult at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Wicca, as it is currently practiced, was largely formed by a small group of British mystics in the 1950s, themselves spiritual descendents of the previous age of British mystics who had used the British Empire as their spiritual smorgasbord. By borrowing mystical concepts from such diverse sources as Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and the Western European Occult tradition in the form of Freemasonry, Astrology and Alchemy, Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente and Alex Saunders, among others, “created” the bare bones of the religion now known as Wicca.
Most Wiccans are aware of that. Most Wiccans are cool with that.

Because the need to legitimize a spiritual belief by rooting it in the soil of ancient tradition or teaching is one of the legacies our culture bears from the Abrahamic Faiths: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As Wicca has grown and matured over the last 50 years, however, a large number of Wiccans have recognized that theirs is a syncretic faith. Upon further study, so were Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. This apparently occurs every couple of hundred years or so: as the society and technology and the economy change, so to does Religion change to conform to the spiritual needs of the people. It is no accident that Wicca’s recent popularity has coincided with the rise of the Internet, or the post-industrial economy.

The fact of the matter is that absent of any historically legitimizing text or practice, Wicca is a vibrant, potent spiritual movement in today’s society – much to the chagrin of many Christians, who take the very presence of this tiny religion as a sign of the Apocalypse. Wicca’s numbers have grown exponentially in the last few decades. And unlike previous nascent faiths, it has done so while actively shunning proselytizing of any sort. It has no central organization – and damn little local organization of any sort – and very few widely acknowledged leaders. Websites about Wicca abound, and are filled with as much rumor, urban myth and bad history as they are useful and practical information on the religion. With no central . . . anything, it’s easy to see how confusing things might get. As any three Wiccans of their opinion of any conceivable theological topic, it is said, and you will get five answers and a fight.

All of that being said, Wicca continues to expand, grow, and mature. Especially mature. No longer a “kooky cult”, it has been around long enough now to attract serious academic study as well as develop a very generalized theology, body of ritual, custom and lore. And virtually none of it came from ancient sources.

Are Wiccans “making it up as they go along”, as so many critics have insisted? Not quite. In the very best of religious traditions, Wicca is borrowing many diverse elements and creating a faith out of it. While this rankles the nostrils of those academicians who have spent their entire career viewing religion through a text-based filter, the fact remains that Wicca has co-opted perfectly sound religious principals from other religions . . . and other philosophical sources.

Feminist philosophy is one. One of the hallmarks of Wicca is the return of the Goddess – not the return of any specific pre-Christian Goddess, necessarily, but a return to the acknowledgement that Divinity has a female face as well as a long white beard. One common complaint among Wiccans about the current dominant faiths is that they are nearly totally lacking in divine feminine archetypes, and they place much of the burden of Christianity’s past sins squarely on its patriarchal shoulders. Bring back the Goddess, the Wiccans say, invite Her into your life and you invite Compassion, Love, and Caritas into your life. They aren’t pushy about it, and this isn’t the central focus for a lot of Wiccans, but Goddess Spirituality is a cornerstone of the religion.

Environmental Spirituality is another. As the effect of man’s presence on this globe is finally being felt in ways that cannot be ignored, a rise in the veneration of Nature and Ecology is to be expected. For some Wiccans it is a matter of picking up litter at public parks; for others it is the restoration or protection of environmentally sensitive areas. Combining social activism with religion is nothing new – Christianity and Islam have done it over and over – even if the realm of the Environment is relatively new spiritual territory. It helps that in absence of an Armageddon-like end-game, Wiccans are looking towards continued habitation on this planet for at least a few more hundred years. Elevating the Environment to the status of divine gives it more gravitas as an issue for them.

Science Fiction and Fantasy have also contributed to the syncretic nature of Wicca. While rarely used as “canonical” texts, Wiccans as a rule are as much well-educated bookworms as they are radical feminists or Green activists. Wicca in practice has co-opted much from the Society for Creative Anachronism, Sci-Fi Conventions, Star Trek, Star Wars, Renaissance Faires, and similar institutions, and the bookshelf of the average Wiccan has as much classic Sci-Fi and Fantasy as it does spellbooks. This gives Wicca a spiritual link to both the Past (Medieval Fantasy) and the Future (Science Fiction). It allows the religion to be open to new experiences and influences, such as the Internet and technology, as well as glean spiritually important insights from the past. The whole Goth aspect of Wicca stems from this wellspring. If the Geeks really will inherit the Earth, it will be a bunch of Dungeon-and-Dragons playing Wiccan Trekkies in charge.

The influence of “Eastern” religions is also present. While the belief in reincarnation shared by most practitioners was, indeed, a central tenant of the ancient Druids, it is more commonly understood by Wiccans today through a Hindu/Buddhist filter. Other Eastern spiritual practices inform the religious observances of Wiccans, without being a core component of the religion as a whole: martial arts, yoga, Chinese herbalism, acupuncture, and other exotic elements with very practical applications have seeped into Wicca. There’s also been a bit of Native American tradition picked up, which frequently annoys Native Americans. Most of the Wiccans don’t seem to mind.

Wicca is a syncretic faith, like all of the others. It has a dubious origin and questionable mythology, like all of the others. It has its zealots, its apostates, its martyrs, and its saints, just like all the others.

What it has that the Big Three lack is a deep spiritual commitment to Diversity and a focus on Wisdom (The Art and Science of Doing The Right Thing At The Right Time) instead of Faith (Absolute Belief Without Proof). It glorifies the sanctity of the individual spiritual experience instead of exalting the interpretation of the written word. It seeks religious truth through personal introspection instead of through conversion and confession. It is a religion of Orthopraxy (“Right Action”) as opposed to Orthodoxy (“Right Belief”). And it is an emergent faith, one that is still growing, still changing, still evolving.

And that’s cool with the Wiccans, too.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A Pagan Response to Terrorism

Recently there has been a number of articles posted in the Wiccasphere about the moral position that modern Paganism has on the current War on Terror, and on terrorism in general. Most of these Pagan responses take into consideration our religious preference to eschew terms like “evil” when faced with complex moral issues such as the atrocities of the 9/11 attacks and the bombings in Madrid and London.

Yet I have to disagree with some of the conclusions, namely the idea that Pagans can theologically reject the concept of Evil. Certainly, the idea of a kind of institutional evil has been shamefully used by the dominant culture against more marginalized cultures for millennia, now. It was all too easy for Christian and Moslem missionaries to encounter aboriginal cultural practices that did not fit within their narrow idea of morality; this enabled them to classify such practices as “evil”, “the work of Satan”, or simply “immoral” and, therefore, justify an extreme, brutal, and (in many cases) economically lucrative response. One of the hallmarks of the modern Pagan Resurgence has been a rejection of this dualistic paradigm in favor of a more measured, more relative idea of morality.

But that does not mean that we have totally abandoned the idea of evil as a force in our world today. When faced with such astonishing events as the Holocaust, the A-bomb and other Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the periodic genocides that plague our world, it is hard to say that evil isn’t a valid descriptor of these things. As a Pagan thealogian I have had my share of debates with Abrahamists of all traditions on the subject of evil, and the issue is often how evil is defined by the relative morality of Paganism compared to the absolutist morality of the God of Abraham. And while most Pagans would agree that personifying evil as the Abrahamists do is both inappropriate and destructive to society at large, I think that we can, in fact, reach a good, general rule-of-thumb Pagan consensus on the subject: if it looks evil, it probably is.

On the face of it I agree with most of my colleagues’ basic premise: that suffering the recent terrorist attacks is one of the results of our decades-old foreign and economic policies, and that terrorism is the only available military response of the Oppressed. History is replete with examples of oppressed religious, ethnic, and national groups responding to unbearable pressure by resorting to violence – what the military currently calls “asymmetrical warfare”. In the past it was also known as “guerrilla warfare”, “irregular warfare”, “low-intensity warfare”, “insurgency”, and “politically based banditry”. It’s what happens when a group of people feels that no recourse but violence, but they don’t have the resources for a tank regiment. In other words, War on a budget.

Asymmetrical Warfare is the type of war known as a Police War; instead of infantry and cavalry, air support and supply chains, a Police War has other operators. It usually uses the regular and “special” police of a nation as soldiers, uses criminal-style organizations, and uses assassination, sabotage, espionage, counter-espionage, propaganda, press-releases, publicity stunts, kidnapping, theft, indictments, treachery, politics, and any number of dirty tricks to carry out the war. There are, at any given time, hundreds of these Police Wars going on between rival power groups. And it is important to keep that in mind when we talk about this: all warfare is a struggle between rival power groups with a goal to set policy.

Police War, like all war, is “diplomacy by other means”; a way for one group to get what they want over the interests of another group. Police Wars are usually undeclared, as they often take place between groups without proper states or governments behind them. Police War covers struggles as diverse as the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Basque separatists, the finally ending Ulster conflict, the endless narcotics wars in Latin America, the struggles between the Mafia and law-enforcement, innumerable revolutionary movements, and even some struggles between corporations may evolve into this kind of conflict – Halliburton comes to mind. Our own Revolutionary War started as a Police War before we got the French involved. In all cases, though, the goal is to project power in order to influence policy, like other types of warfare. And a Police War can be won or lost like any other kind of war.

Police Wars can be subtle affairs, such as the complicated and largely secret 50-year dance of the Cold War superpowers; or they can be nasty, bloody, and very public, as the IRA and the Basque Separatists once demonstrated. They can be conducted with wide-spread popular support, as the French Resistance enjoyed in WWII, or they can be fought with a handful of die-hard fanatics who are generally despised by the public, as was the 17 November organization in Greece. The classic model is that of a small, lightly armed insurgency organized by clandestine cells and embedded within a civilian population versus a larger, better funded and equipped government military force.

But Police War is still a war, and war has rules. That has been established since the earliest days of the professional warrior. And while these rules change as politics and technology evolve, there are some that are unwritten and universal: such as the crime of deliberately targeting innocent civilians. Any professional soldier – or professional revolutionary – despises that kind of conduct and recognizes that it is almost always counter-productive in fulfilling the aim of war, i.e. establishing the right to set policy.

Civilians get hurt in war all the time. The military has plenty of euphemisms concerning this unpleasant fact: “collateral damage” is the newest way to clean it up. Civilians have always been in the wrong place at the wrong time in war. Bombs do not recognize uniforms, and bullets can’t tell a farmer from a sapper. It is one of the greatest horrors of war, and in every discussion about the rules of engagement since the Stone Age, it has been agreed by professional warriors of all stripes and cultures that purposefully targeting civilians is anathema. Even the Mafia has rules about such things.

This is true especially in a Police War where civilians can be easily damaged, by both sides. Asymmetrical Warfare presupposes that an insurgency is going to hide among a civilian population, which means that inevitably the innocent will be swept up by the government in efforts to net actual insurgents – and some will be wrongfully accused, mistakenly prosecuted, and summarily executed or imprisoned without charge. Similarly, insurgents will often “shake down” civilians for supplies and support, often resorting to threats of violence to do so, or target innocents for assassinations based on faulty intelligence about collaborators in their midst or as leverage against a target. But making war on a civilian population is never a good idea from a policy standpoint. It loses the insurgents their base, and it alienates the people from the government that is trying to fight the insurgency – and collect taxes.

That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t happen – indeed, it happens at some point in nearly every war. But that doesn’t make it any more right, or less reviled, by any belief system. The soldiers and revolutionaries and politicians who fight a Police War know the risks of what they do. The average farmer or shopkeeper or commuter does not, and it is universally unjust to include him into the battlefield without his knowledge. When you make war on civilians you are increasing suffering for no real political cause. As a Pagan thealogian, notorious for promoting our “relativist morality”, I deem unnecessary suffering as a universal evil.

So without descending to the level of using the term “evil” to describe one side of our current conflict (which , thanks to Abrahamic Dualism, implies that our side is therefore “good”) I would propose that the actions in the case of the Jihadi war against the West should be viewed by Pagans as violations of the essential rules of war. As such, it is to be condemned, regardless of the religion of the critic, the victim, or the terrorist, as evil.

Most of us cling to the Rede (“An it Harm Ye None, Do What Thou Wilt.”) as our guiding moral principal, whether we are Wiccan or not. But the Rede doesn’t exist in a vacuum, nor can it always be interpreted in a way that covers the myriad of ethical concerns we face on a daily basis. As a Pagan, I use it as a great rule-of-thumb to make my moral decisions. But I also use two other important guides to daily living to assist me in the ethical labyrinth that I am faced with: the Path of Wisdom and the Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality.

The Path of Wisdom is an unwritten (or custom-written) set of practical suggestions for the express purpose of Doing the Right Thing at the Right Time. It includes every scrap of useful lore you were ever exposed to, and it is frequently referred to as “common sense”, although as many have pointed out, it is a lot less common that we would prefer. The Path of Wisdom is constantly evolving and changing as we grow and develop our own moral and ethical judgments. It is guided by conscience and tempered by experience. It covers all of those “gray areas” that are left open by the Rede, and it is unique in form and composition for every Pagan.

The Codes of Chivalry and Hospitality are the rules of “civilized” behavior that were developed by our Paleopagan ancestors to regulate the rights, obligations and responsibilities of an individual in peace or in war. It may seem antiquated, archaic, or even obsolete to some in our modern age – Christianity, industrialism and Marxist theory have dramatically eroded its popular respect over the years. And while they may seem like quaint matters of simple politeness now, in the formative years of the great Pagan civilizations these Codes were elevated to the status of holy sacraments in nearly all cultures. The Roman cult of Jupiter, for example, held Hospitality as a religious rite, not merely a social institution. The Codes were created to inform the people about what kind of behavior they could reasonably expect in certain situations.

For example, if a wounded stranger wanders into your territory, you are obliged by the Code of Hospitality to take him in, feed him, nurse him to health, and allow him to leave your lands unimpeded (providing, of course, that he did not himself violate the Codes). Likewise, as a guest you have the obligation not to steal or damage your hosts’ property, to treat his kin with the same courtesy and respect you would treat your own, and to contribute in whatever way is appropriate to the management of his estate.

The Code of Chivalry regulated the affairs of warriors and the conduct of war. While the term eventually morphed into a high-minded set of rules of etiquette for the upper class, at its base it was developed to bring a semblance order to the bloody business of warfare. It codified the elements of mercy and fairness that make up the foundation of our human society. It made the word of the Warrior his bond, to be kept no matter the price. It established the responsibility of the strong to protect the weak without demeaning them. It institutionalizes the idea of a Warrior’s Honor, without which he is little more than a thug with a sword. And among its most sacred principals was avoiding the purposeful slaughtering of civilians – especially women and children. Such a crime was a supreme dishonor.

Archaic though this idea may be, the ideal still holds tremendous resonance for modern Pagans. Chivalry was the code adopted voluntarily by the male fighting elite as a means of practicing compassion, an essential and boundless quality of the Goddess. Chivalry predates the Christian expansion into northern Europe (despite the Arthurian cycle) – indeed, the early Church fought hard against it, blaming it for institutionalizing warfare (true), until it wised up and co-opted the institution. At its core was the idea that it was a Warrior’s duty to protect the tribe, clan, family, temple, and nation – but to do so with honor, even if it meant the death of the warrior.

Nor was it an exclusively European invention. The Moslems certainly had their own Koranic code of Chivalry, as did the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese. The idea of Chivalry was developed in many cultures, and while the specifics of the Code changed with relation to time and culture, the central idea was universal. The Warrior is ultimately responsible for his own actions – and the actions of his warband. The ends do not justify the means, no matter how important the cause. War may be inevitable, but it need not bring more suffering than absolutely necessary.

Starhawk, one of the prominent spokeswitches in our religion, has made an analysis of the moral issue of terrorism. At the root, her analysis is framed with the idea that as horrible as terror attacks are, they exist in a context that must be appreciated in order to understand that horror. That we are, in effect, reaping what we have sown as Westerners for allowing our governments and corporations to create a climate where this kind of violence can thrive. While I cannot disagree that corporate leaders bear some large share of responsibility for the current situation – especially the petroleum consortium that exploits the oil resources of the Middle-East – and that our politicians have been sadly myopic in designing both foreign and economic policies in this region, I feel that Starhawk ultimately misses the mark when it comes to a Pagan perspective on this conflict.

For Paganism is not an inherently pacifistic religion, despite the personal convictions of many of its adherents. As I write this there are hundreds of Pagans in military service and police work – even in the Central Intelligence Agency, if my sources are correct. They are putting their lives on the line for our freedoms, regardless of the asinine leadership of our politicians, and we should honor and respect these Pagan warriors for their individual sacrifice and high personal ideals. I appreciate Starhawk’s syncretism of progressive ideals and the re-emergence of the Goddess, and applaud her continuing struggles for social justice – but from a thealogical perspective, I remind her that it is the right of all species and peoples to defend themselves in the face of aggression, no matter what the source.

One of the things I have learned of the Goddess is that She is capable of boundless compassion for all of Her children. She is truly the All Mother, and she looks after us and loves us all, even when we fight amongst ourselves. It’s a learning experience, after all, and we acknowledge the fact that sometimes it is necessary to suffer to learn, even if the lessons learned don’t become manifest until the next lifetime. But She does not abide unnecessary suffering. If there is a Pagan definition of “evil”, that has to be it.

When the World Trade Center was attacked, I was as rabid as any Red Stater about the necessity of removing a brutally oppressive regime from Afghanistan in retribution for their support of the terrorists who murdered 3000 people in an utterly senseless and unnecessary infliction of suffering on my people. I did this knowing that there would inevitably be civilian casualties and wanton destruction. But I saw it as necessary, even as I prayed to the Goddess to protect the innocent. And I stand by that position.

I was also vocal about the utter foolishness of prosecuting the Iraqi war – ethical and moral considerations aside, it was a fundamentally unwise decision – and I (successfully) predicted the result. Our current Administration and their political cronies are de facto imperialists, turning our nation into a hegemonic Imperium, firmly in the pocket of commercial and Evangelical interests. And they apparently have only a nodding acquaintance with the concept of Wisdom. While fighting a bloody war on someone else’s territory may have some resonance in the heartland, sticking your hands into a hornet’s nest and clapping merits a dunce cap, not a victory lap.

Starhawk is also correct in her assertion that Pagans have no centralized . . . anything. The website, a kind of Pagan USA Today, is our only truly common forum. We pride ourselves on our individual right to choose and decide and bear responsibility for those decisions and beliefs. We regularly receive criticism from text-based religions about our lack of absolute values, and why it makes us a kooky cult instead of a valid religion. But that does not stop us from recognizing, as a community, the innate wrongness that the Jihadis have demonstrated in their global insurgency. Without labeling their cause as evil, I feel fully justified at labeling their actions as evil when they make random war on civilian populations.

They are falling into the same pit of evil that the Marxists did last century: using an ideological system to justify random violence, to make it OK for angry young men to express their testosterone poisoning by blowing things up. If a group wants to prosecute a war of liberation, a secessionist movement, a struggle for ethnic or religious identity, or the violent redress of grievances from a brutal and oppressive regime, fine. There are lawful and moral ways to do so, some of which do include killing people blowing things up. Even guerilla wars have rules, though, and even wide-eyed fanatical holy warriors have honor. Regardless of the cause, regardless of the situation, violating such a fundamental aspect of the international Code of Chivalry is no less than evil – and should be called out as such by any Pagan who gives the matter much thought.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The future of Hollywood isn’t in Hollywood. It’s in Chatsworth.

With the introduction of Apple’s new Video iPod, and faster and cheaper devices upon which to display video content, production studios all over the world – especially in Hollywood – are salivating at the prospect of new revenue streams as they watch box office totals and TV ratings plummet. TiVo, DVD sales and on-line video piracy are often held to blame for the disappointing earnings . . . but the same execs who cringe at the idea of a domestic box-office that doesn’t break even or a network show that can’t beat out the latest Fox reality show are watching DVD sales and getting erections. Even cancelled shows can make it big on DVD as Joss Whedon’s Firefly has proven. The $1.99 per episode download for Desperate Housewives and Lost, well, that’s simply a gravy windfall. If the ratings are low, direct-sales of such hits will still rack up $300k-$400k per episode, substantially decreasing the costs of production. How can that be bad?

What they ignore is the obvious: when distribution channels are so diffuse, what is to keep smaller studios – or (*gasp!*) talented amateurs from competing head-on with the major players for the customer’s viewing dollar?

It used to be assumed that the cost-of-entry for even small studios was too great to keep them from being a power. Now shot-on-digital cameras are relatively inexpensive. It used to be paradigm that newbie producers could never muscle their way into the incestuously small realm of motion picture distribution – that was before 50 million American households were broadband subscribers, able to download at will.

While these TV and Movie execs are lamenting about low BO and rejoicing about high DVD, they are about to be bitch-slapped with an altogether new reality: the entertainment world will soon have no need of their dubious services. While they bemoan high production costs and actors/writers/directors unions that drive up the cost of everything, a couple of guys in their basement are plotting their eventual downfall and ultimate ruin.

Get this: it costs anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 a minute to produce a feature film in Hollywood. Low-budget TV reality shows cost thousands per minute. With budgets like that, breaking into the business is a daunting task for a hopeful newcomer to the industry. Even seasoned pros are constantly walking a line between brilliance and cancellation. But with the new cheap video technology, everything from special effects to distribution can now be done in one’s basement.

I can already hear the industry insiders scoff: who can make a movie of any length for under $1000 a minute? Even for TV?


That’s right, the whipping boy of the entertainment industry has got this down to a science. Even elaborate porn features, such as Adam & Eve’s Pirates, which was launched in Hollywood style and featured Hollywood special effects, are filmed for a fraction of the cost of a “real Hollywood movie”. Some of the best-selling porn vids of all time were shot with a camera that cost less than $1000. A regular five-scene 90 minute (that would be two episodes of a TV show or one regular feature movie) runs about $60,000 when everyone gets paid – and that puppy is intellectual property, with loads of re-sell value. DVD, pay-per-view, Video On Demand, and the possibility of re-cutting and re-releasing scenes in compilations make the potential for a porn vid – even a hideously bad one – to break even pretty good.

Yes, there is a big difference in 90 minutes of Suburban Sluts #3 and the next Sharon Stone vehicle. Production values, for a start. Most porn vids are poorly shot, poorly lit, poorly written, acted, edited and directed. They almost never do re-takes of a scene, there is no union-mandated craft service, and the girls often do their own make-up. Pay rates are low, compared to Hollywood standard, and the specter of piracy, government regulation, and the capricious whims of Red State prosecutors make the business that much more difficult.

Yet despite all of these issues, Porn Valley (the tony SoCal suburb of Chatsworth where most of the major industry players have offices) produced a staggering19,000 films last year, most 90 minutes or more, for an industry that made somewhere between $10 and $14 Billion.

But Porn has proved an excellent trial balloon when it comes to pioneering new technology, and the incipient destruction of the TV/Movie entertainment complex is no exception. Porn has proved that some sort of entertainment can be shot with a low budget and turn a profit.

The other side of this coin is the amateur production. No, not Aunt Edna and Uncle Steve trying out the bondage room in the basement and sharing the results with their internet fanclub – though truthfully some of the highest paid people in Porn are mom-and-pop internet operations. The amateurs referred to are passionate amateur filmmakers who indulge their creativity with cheap hand-held video cameras and off-the-shelf animation and effects programs. Often obsessed with a particular genre, these “fan-filmmakers” have produced mountains of work – and like Porn, the majority is crap. But there are some who have invested enough of themselves into their pet projects to produce professional-quality “fan” films that rival what the major studios are producing.

Case in point: a few months before George Lucas unleashed the final chapter of his prequel trilogy, an enterprising and uber-geeky amateur in Virginia released his own ambitious Star Wars film: Star Wars Revelations.

Lucas spent $300 million on his movie. Shane Felux took out a second mortgage and spent $20,000. George produced two and a half hours at close to a million dollars a minute. Shane and his all-volunteer cast and crew produced forty minutes of quite credible action for roughly $500 per minute. Yet from the fifth row of the theater, you would be hard pressed to tell which movie had the huge Industrial Light and Magic SFX team toiling away . . . or the multi-million dollar talent paycheck.

Revelations is the first shot of a revolution in home entertainment. No longer is the world of feature film or TV confined to the graduating class of USC’s film department. Now the fans can take control, putting their amateurish visions on videotape and exporting it to the world. This almost seems like a pipe-dream, except for the fact that two big cable TV franchises, South Park and Tripping the Rift both began as hobbies in someone’s basement.

It won’t be long now, I predict, from the time when we will see the advent of “flash films”, productions that are entirely put together over the internet, quickly cast, filmed, and edited, then sold for public consumption at $.99 a pop. With a minimum of effort, a good ensemble of amateur cast and crew could easily do a TV show with every dime that’s made coming back to the creative people who made it, without distribution costs and three-martini lunches for FOX executives and agent’s percentages getting in the way.

Imagine, a dedicated group of say 20 folks decide to do a low-budget sci-fi series. They cobble together a script, handle the pre-production, do a little green-screening, and shoot the thing porn-style, with little or no re-takes, no trailers, and no lunch buffet with lobster claws. They nail enough footage in a weekend to edit it with some bitchin’ SFX courtesy an open-source 3D graphics application and produce a little 45 minute action show. Sure, it’s not Lucasfilm quality, but it looks better than most Dr. Who episodes and (hopefully) has a more compelling story. Total cost (noting everyone is working on spec) say $5000.

A month later, the post-production is done and they post this thing on the web at $1.99 an episode, giving out a three-minute teaser to hook the viewer. Say they get two thousand paid hits, which almost breaks them even. Then they lower the price to $.99 and get another two thousand hits. This is enough success to invest the time and effort to do a second episode . . . when they feel like it. No deadlines, no studio executives wanting to add a car chase or a dog (“’Cause people like dogs!”), no professional critics comparing it to Gigli. The second episode is published. This time five thousand people pay for the $1.99 download . . . and two-thousand more go back and hit episode 1 to catch up. By episode 4 everyone gets a residual check and the DVD with the first four episodes is commercial released, including lots of shiny extras.

How long until such a process becomes viable? How long until someone quits their day-job to do this full time? How long before someone decides to write and shoot all four episodes at the same time, reducing production costs still further, and making that much more profit?

It’s nichey, cheap and fan-oriented. But it is the future.