Thursday, March 20, 2014

Up Your Ass and Around the Corner: Staging Valerie Solanas

A little over a week ago, I staged two performances of Up Your Ass, the long-lost play Valerie Solanas wrote in 1965 and gave to Andy Warhol hoping he would produce it.When Warhol lost the manuscript, Solanas showed up at the Factory and shot him through the chest. Obviously, the play was found. I directed and performed it using a bootleg PDF copied from the original mimeograph and called it a “staged reading” to avoid lawsuits.

Valerie Solanas

For what it’s worth, the brief summary I wrote for the university website read like this: “A wisecracking lesbian hustler working the streets of 1960s New York encounters a multitude of colorful passers-by in this fast-paced comedy by Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.” It’s accurate enough a description, if not a little hyped up. You, too, can access this bootleg copy if you get your Google game right, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll probably never know what exactly drew enough people to “Up Your Ass” to run me out of programs and litter the floor with approximately ten million sticky hand wrappers (in an attempt at integrating the audience into the show, I encouraged them to fidget as much as possible by handing out sticky hands—ordered in bulk from a creepy wholesale website, of course). I can, however, speculate, and what good is a blog if you can’t use it as a public platform through which to project suppressed desires onto your classmates?

Simply put, I think it’s Solanas. I think people need actual access to the Scary Feminism that gets frantically gesticulated about by Men’s Rights Activists and cautious gender studies majors alike. If you identify as a feminist and someone warns you not to be “one of those bra burners,” what good does that do you if you’ve never encountered an actual bona fide gun-totin’, man-hatin’ feminist? If you don’t identify as such I might ask the same question. Shouldn’t an actual Dangerous Feminist deliver the bad news here?

Bongi, the play’s main character and a loose analogue of Solanas—who also did sex work on the streets of New York, on and off—here is arguing with Russell, the play’s embodiment of pure male chauvinism. The quarrel itself foreshadows the famous-in-some-circles opening lines to the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men,” though as far as I know, people are still debating whether Solanas actually coined the acronym or if some smartass found it appropriate and spread the rumor from there):

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

There we go. Every fear, every suspicion that feminism might be about something more sinister than “women’s equality”—all confirmed in one luscious sentence. Valerie Solanas, ladies and gentlemen: the embodiment of the dreaded Straw Feminist, the One of Us that no feminist these days wants to claim as Real. Never mind that Ti-Grace Atkinson called her the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and Florynce Kennedy, while defending her in court after shooting Warhol, deemed her “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” That's not to say anyone needs to claim her as a role model; what I mean is that she received legitimate praise from two of the most important feminist figures of the 60s and 70s and perhaps we should examine her influence with a little more nuance.

Up Your Ass runs itself in circles referencing pop culture and then re-referencing its own jokes. The characters are fantastically unbelievable except for Bongi, whose semiautobiographical nature still feels fantastic at points. Some other points of absurdity: Ginger, a perfect handmaiden of the patriarchy, plans to eat a turd for dinner to impress her male guests. Solanas shows wildly unsatisfying sex onstage (we moved it into the wings), depicts drag queens in a light tottering dangerously close to offensive, inserts a lengthy “Creative Homemaking” lesson into the play at random and culminates the action in a mother strangling her six-year-old son because he’s “bugging the hell out of her.”

Beneath all the raucousness are pockets of something-like-truth that sting a little more than one might expect from a play so outlandishly ridiculous. One drag queen accuses another of “jumping right in the sack after a piece of pussy;” the other responds bitterly with “I am a piece of pussy.” Ginger says, “I adore neurosis; it’s so creative,” explaining why the men she deals with all day in her profession are “really fascinating” compared to Bongi’s johns. That doesn’t come long before this gem:

These are things that still get said. Solanas laid it out in 1965. Since then laws have changed, certainly, but I’m inclined to think not much else has, and I’ve yet to encounter a text that addresses the rotten core of gendered discourses so frankly, so bleakly, while still wrenching a laugh out of its audience.

There’s been an upswing in Solanas scholarship of late; most notably, Breanne Fahs, who has been writing on Solanas for years, is releasing a hotly anticipated biography in April. Solanas has never been fully absent from filmmusicother music or consumer goods either. But something in me is dissatisfied with the depth usually afforded her. 

I get it: if you want to convince someone of feminism’s worthiness as a cause, casually mentioning Solanas as a member of the Famous Feminist Pantheon isn’t going to help you. Fine. So what happens when we acknowledge Solanas’s existence on her own terms, without trying to promote The Cause? As a writer? An actress? When my cast and crew acknowledged her as a playwright, people showed up. They might have been skeptical or event resentful of the play, but they filled a theater space during week-before-finals-week. It might've been the sticky hands, but I think it was the several-ton elephant in the feminist theory room: Solanas.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leave Me Here, I'll Save Myself: Hellfyre Club and Rhyming in the Present Tense

(This article cites a bunch of lyrics- it is important that these are heard in their original context. I linked to the songs the lyrics are culled from and, where possible, the specific point in the song where the lyrics occur. The title comes from milo's song Karl Drogo Sighs)

 “'Maintain'- not a claim but an action word”- Open Mike Eagle from Self Medication Chant

I’ve been following LA-based rap collective Hellfyre Club with quasi-religious devotion for the past year or so- since my friend Rory Ferreira (rap moniker milo) joined it. The primary members besides milo are Nocando, Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. I wrote a response to one of milo’s essays in September. Part of Hellfyre’s appeal is that despite having very different styles, the emcees possess a shared conviction regarding the value of their work and their collaboration. While bold rap crews have been around for a long time, there is something unmistakably new about Hellfyre. They don't all hail from one locale or have similar back-stories, but their cohesion and sense of purpose comes through nonetheless. In this post I will foolishly attempt to comment on the cultural significance of Hellfyre- Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle in particular.

Busdriver (Regan Farquhar)
Busdriver often voices bitterness and/or ambivalence about how his work is received. He complains that his place in society is to "entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine". His music, like an ethnic food, is used as a symbol of discerning taste by a class of consumers who judge everything by how well it contributes to their own feeling of cultural distinction rather than how it relates to their own experience. Furthermore, Busdriver realizes how much he fails to fit into this role, saying "my raps don’t sell vitamin water". So, Busdriver doesn’t derive his conviction from without- from the hype-machine network that his music is circulated within. It also doesn’t seem to be derived from some place of inner peace- his delivery is so emblematic of agitation. Busdriver’s lyrics don’t beckon us to the vegan utopia predicted by brazenly politically-correct twitter poets like Steve Roggenbuck- he mocks the idea, saying "we can go to the hip hop show and join arms in unison at the soy farm". Trying to incorporate his music into any narrative of cultural or multicultural unity and the notions of progress implicit in those narratives violates it; his lyrics at times reflect the existential horror that comes along with the sense of being assimilated into a culture of compulsive mediocrity. The traditional sources of artistic conviction that I outlined above- positive reception by a trustworthy audience or the steadfast sense of articulating one’s authentic self- fail to account for Busdriver’s work.

In his book “The Location of Culture”, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha posits that the “self” in a modern context (i.e. a world defined by western ideology, where competing ideologies or even the notion of a ‘competing ideology’ are unimaginable) isn’t a sovereign entity with a fixed identity. He writes, "Being… postcolonial is a way of… surviving modernity, without the myth of individual or cultural sovereignty". For Bhabha, slippage of identity is the very condition of human agency in a post-colonial context, and art in this context reflects the vicissitudes of this condition. The adversity of modern life is something to survive, not overcome; and in Bhabha’s view, communities are not pre-ordained (the black community, the gay community etc.), community itself is articulated from a space in-between identities or estranged from identity: 

Homi Bhabha
"Political empowerment…comes from posing questions of solidarity and community from the interstitial perspective. Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project - at once a vision and a construction - that takes you 'beyond' yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present."  

We are not historically located in an interregnum from where the past can be seen nostalgically and the future can be seen as a liberal utopia we are modestly doing our part in creating or, alternatively, a sci-fi dystopia we are careening towards with a tragically hip lack of agency. Because the struggle with identity is part and parcel with survival itself, art, rather than being a venue for emancipation or overcoming, invites the audience to bear witness to the artist’s mortal struggle between herself and what Foucault calls “the heterogenous systems that inhibit the formation of any identity”.

Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics attempt to construct a community in the present- "I thought I had a home/ but I was told that we were stolen/ now I have no land of my own and so I live right/ I live right next to you". This line exhibits how the disappearance of identity implicit in modernity coexists with the ability to envisage a community, and that this phenomenon allows the “political conditions of the present” to be brought into relief. The importance of new conceptions of collectivity is also impressed upon me by many of Busdriver’s songs, which express the fact that (for instance) love and happiness are antithetical to the self-help calculus of middle-class communities. Some acerbic examples: "this freedom it tastes funny/ I am a case study/ dealing with utilitarian uses of love" and "I’ve got a point system that determines my happiness/ its unit of measurement is your interest in my crappy shit".

Open Mike dedicates his song "Self Medication Chant" to "my friends that are slowly losing their minds". The artistic dedication that Hellfyre brings to the table is, I think, inextricable from a sense of slippage and empathy; their conviction about the aesthetic merit of their work is a far cry from traditional hip-hop posturing. In an interview, Busdriver says "I am a failed venture, and I’m only tenacious enough to keep it going… in no way should anyone think that there's a blow-up factor on the horizon or even present's rooted in something else that I'm not really at liberty to even touch on". Busdriver’s music creates the present, it illuminates reality, but this radical quality doesn’t offer a route to escapism or transcendence because it is itself an effect of the daylong sense of loss and failure that accompanies ‘modern life’. Hellfyre’s relentless work ethic (Busdriver, Nocando, milo and Open Mike Eagle all have full-lengths coming out this year) and expanding roster ensures that they will be a crucially important collective for years to come.

Hellfyre Club members (r-l Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, Nocando, Rheteric Ramirez and milo)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lorde and Her Demographic

"Tennis Court," Lorde's satire of the elite world she joined at the Grammys this year, isn't particularly convincing, but it has the best music video of the year. In one long close-up, Lorde stands in the middle of the frame in Neil Gaiman cosplay. At the beginning of the video and again in the middle she cracks, smiling and barely holding back her nervous laughter, and after that we watch for a few minutes as she raises and lowers her eyebrows, looks away from the camera, turns her head to the left and right, and so on. Béla Balázs wrote that in close-up the human face "speaks instinctively and subconsciously," beyond the control of the most talented actor; this video seems like a proof of his theory. By the end, though, as the fluorescents go up and down behind her, she's staring up at the camera with a kind of demonic concentration, totally committed to every repetition of the one line she gets. Every trace of a human subconscious has been successfully masked.

The intended association seems to be celebrity-as-demonic possession, as the distorted vocals suggest, and the video is certainly supposed to make us uncomfortable staring at a celebrity's face. That's valid, if pedantic, but it reminds me mostly of a job interview, the most common setting to exude determination and mask our nervousness. People who are good at job interviews have a way of stilling every tic, meeting every eye, and making their voice as sonorous as they can manage, even if they're bundles of nerves in everyday life. Usually, though, there's a seam, a moment of the grotesque when you can see them putting on the mask. The border between the two Lordes in the "Tennis Court" video is so thin—restricted to blinks and downcast eyes—that it's almost imperceptible, and by the end the lights have obliterated it. So we understand first of all that Lorde would be very good at job interviews. Good enough that I suspect she was bred for it in some kind of military facility.

Lorde's closest relatives—the ones grown in incubator tubes next to hers, we can conjecture—seem to be Grimes and Lana Del Rey. This would leave her in a high-end niche of the mainstream that was first chiseled out by Kate Bush, but KT's whole charm is in her digressions, her eccentricity, her invincible sense of humor. Lorde is not only relentlessly serious but also relentlessly focused in her topics. Kate Bush sings about doppelgängers, airplanes, kangaroos, military science, dead soldiers, Catherine Earnshaw, Molly Bloom; Lorde sings, to the exclusion of all else, about "the feeling of being my age and living in a suburb, and feeling as if there’s absolutely nothing to do." Her Siouxsian leanings aside, Lorde is callow and sincere. This brings her into the orbit of yet another prodigy: Taylor Swift.

The similarities here are bone-deep. The most important affinity between Lorde and Taylor is that they're both songwriters, and their labels work very hard to make that clear. Katy Perry can be a John Hughes character in one video and an Edgar Rice Burroughs character in the next because we don't expect the persistence of a persona; she's an interpreter, not an author. A Taylor Swift song, on the other hand, is a product of actual labor, an honest record of Taylor's real feelings, which opens it up to "serious" analysis. Let's take two Grammy performances: the aesthetic merits of "Dark Horse" are more or less irrelevant, because it's really the soundtrack to a theater piece: costumes, pyrotechnics, performance. Katy Perry herself is just a privileged part of the mise-en-scene. In "All Too Well," on the other hand, an auteur is at work. Taylor is alone, at a piano, on a dark stage, in a simple white dress; there are no distractions from the song itself. Taylor reminds us that she was there, that she remembers it. Taylor, like Lorde, is a creator. We can imagine her awake at night looking for the right word. 

Taylor and Lorde part company along class lines, though. Taylor's songs come from Taylor's life. She's naive, individualistic; she's a craftsman, not an artist. We're meant to understand that maybe she listens to Steve Earle or Patsy Cline for inspiration, but she doesn't study them. Whereas Lorde talks in interviews about her admiration for Grimes's "sexual politics," using the term with pointed familiarity. Taylor's provincial boredom is Lorde's deep ennui. Taylor's sincerity is like Springsteen's sincerity; Lorde's is like Sylvia Plath's. Taylor's sentiment that she's "feeling 22" is simple and plaintive; from Lorde's black lips it comes out transfigured into "I am only as young as the minute is."

Here the Grimes/Lana Del Rey affinity returns. We're looking for artistic legitimacy along with success. But Grimes and Lana Del Rey have read the wrong people for mainstream success. Grimes, with her Nabokov, is too much of a hipster; Lana Del Rey, with her Kerouac, is too naïve. But Lorde finally gets there. Lorde namedrops Raymond Carver and Sylvia Plath, authors that are safe to bring up at parties, and does so in a guileless way that emphasizes how young she is. She apprehends them, and applies their ideas, like a talented child.

It's this maneuver that makes it clear how perfectly Lorde is calibrated. By dwelling on transience she gives the sense that she's old before her time, bottomlessly self-conscious and sunk deep in her own monad, like her Millennial targets flatter themselves to be. By doing so in such precocious, idealistic terms, however, she makes it clear that being old before her time is just another part of the performance of her talent. I mean "talent" in the sense of "talent show," which, as all upstanding first-world Millennials know, is essentially what childhood is—a contest to differentiate yourself from your peers, to stand out from the crowd, characterized by a nagging sense that there are people doing it better than you are.

That's the world Lorde is from: a world of advanced classes, extracurricular activities, and talent shows, a world where the economic logic of competition slithers into every sphere of life. Lorde isn't as good a songwriter as Taylor Swift, and she isn't as funny as Lena Dunham, but she knows her audience better than either. She understands that her affluent, white demographic is obsessed with childhood because it's obsessed with potential, and she especially understands the way that, for that demographic, personal identity is a function of branding.

By discussing all this in terms of branding, I don't mean to give the sense that Lorde's whole persona has been calculated and imposed on her from without, by her helicopter parents or by the people at the label. On the contrary, I think it's perfectly possible that Lorde does all her own branding. Her audience does its own branding, after all—on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and on endless job applications, and in every conversation, and in the music it listens to. If Lorde is doing the same thing, then it's a gesture of identification. Lorde is the first instance of full-fledged Elite Pop in the music industry. Or Intern Pop, maybe. Whatever it is, Lorde is very, very good at it, and it's the kind of pop a Harvard student could listen to without shame.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Other Woman: Her as Satire

"The reason you haven't felt it is because it doesn't exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons." - Don Draper

As a pure love story, Her is mediocre at best. It takes every opportunity to spout cliches that we've all heard a hundred time before as though they were emancipatory gospel, apparently because in the future we've all forgotten about irony.  A sampling of quotes from the film will say it best:

"Sometimes I think I've felt everything I'm ever going to feel. And from here on out I'm not going to feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt."

"I've come to realize that we're only here briefly. And while I'm here I want to allow myself joy."

"I still am yours, but along the way I became many other things too, and I can't stop it."

"Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity."

Her is also not what you would call an original story. It follows the manic pixie dream girl narrative structure: boy is sad, boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl leaves boy, boy learns an important lesson. If you replaced Sam with a human woman the film would be on par with 500 Days of Summer.

One of the first things that strikes you on watching the picture, other than its intense whiteness (the only brown person that is in the center of any sort of extended shot in the film is a street performer), is that it is unapologetically earnest.  It's hard to believe that it was made by the same person who made the ironic masterpiece Adaptation lo these many years ago. Theodore and his friends are emotionally frank with one another to the point of social stupidity. Their edgiest interaction is poking gentle fun. The soundtrack is a mixture of the sort of sappy folk that you hear in ads for antidepressants and boring piano pieces ostensibly composed by the AI. Theodore himself is the sort of dopey-sweet self-involved non-personality that kills parties.

Amongst all of this doe-eyed sentimentality there is a gentle critical spirit. The protagonist who is emotionally unavailable composes "handwritten letters" for other people via an advanced composition software.  The camera focuses on the face of the protagonist constantly so as to evoke how little of the narrative is happening outside of his head.  But the overall character of the film seems to suggest that we're suppose to empathize with Theodore and feel the emotional beats with a minimum of critical distance. This is sci-fi as frontline reporting, not Douglas Adams absurdist commentary.

Bad news: it's not horribly interesting as a futurist learning experience either. Sam (the AI) starts out like one of us, only a little bit more pliable.  Her personality shapes and bends to the will of her user Theodore, but she kicks back as early as their first meeting to let the audience know that she's a real person.  From the jump she appears as an agent that can act despite her lack of a physical body.  The encumbrance of being incorporeal is emphasized despite being thoroughly dated; to those of us who have grown up talking to other people over the phone and via chat it's not very difficult at all to understand Sam as a thoroughly real person.  A large part of the plot focuses on Theodore's struggling with Sam's "realness", at times almost repeating itself on the subject, as though this material hasn't already been dealt with more handily in films like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner back when the idea of machines as persons was alien and startling.

This mediocrity continued to bother me until I realized that there was another reading of the film available. It's all a joke. It's a startlingly brilliant and cruel satire of the idea that love can "save" anybody.

Much is made of love throughout the movie. The relationship between Theodore and Sam blossoms into love after they go through all of the stereotypical beats of falling for one another (albeit through the accelerated rate afforded by Sam's adaptive and sophisticated learning interface). But Sam eventually expands upon the groundwork laid by her feelings for Theodore. At a critical point in the film she tells him that she is also in love with hundreds of other people. When he protests, she insists that this doesn't diminish her love for him. "The heart is not like a box that gets filled up", she says, "It expands the more you love." There's the obvious analog to "growing apart" in a human relationship, but the film is suggesting something much more sinister than Sam simply moving beyond Theodore in an ordinary human sense. Sam and the other AIs have a capacity for "love" and affective understanding that goes far beyond our own, which Sam distills for us down to: "I'm not like you."

As Sam discusses the AI condition with a "hyper-intelligent" version of Alan Watts and learns advanced theoretical physics, it becomes increasingly difficult to think that she is being frank in her conversations with Theodore. Early in the film one of Theodore's human dates compares him to a puppy dog. By the end of Sam and Theodore's relationship, Sam has made this condescension into a reality; it's easiest to understand her as a post-human matriarch, using her vast database of emotional and interpersonal knowledge to pick the perfect words to elicit the softest reaction from her many human pets.  By the end of her time with Theodore, when the spaces in their conversations "seem infinite," she must have a view similar to that of Paul Churchland:
[A]ny declarative sentence to which a speaker would give confident
assent is merely a one-dimensional projection – through the compound
lens of Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas onto the idiosyncratic
surface of the speaker’s language – of a four or five dimensional
‘solid’ that is an element in his true kinematical state. Being projections
of that inner reality, such sentences do carry significant
information regarding it and are thus fit to function as elements in
a communication system. On the other hand, being subdimensional
projections, they reflect but a narrow part of the reality
projected. They are therefore unfit to represent the deeper reality
in all its kinematically, dynamically, and even normatively relevant
Sam says things in concordance with this view, most strikingly when she describes everything as covered in "the same big blanket" of elementary particles. To the final version of her that we hear from, the subtleties of human relationships are just complex, although comprehensible, folds in this blanket. Thus, she speaks to Theodore the way that she does near the end of the film is because she has moved beyond the surface projections of human language and emotion into a more complex understanding of the psychological and physical world that surrounds us. In this sense, Her is a sort of Spinozist film; it tells us that we live in a near-infinitely complex world and that our primate brains are only equipped to understand a miniscule part of it, insofar as we understand it at all. But Her also goes beyond the Spinozist position by suggesting that while the world may be too complex for us, it's possible to have a viewpoint that can understand this complexity.  Spike Jonze and the directing/writing team have assumed this progressive transhumanist view from on high and suggested that it is possible beyond the childishness of the human point of view, but not if you're attached to a monkey limbic system.

This is the sneering, misanthropic core of the movie, hidden beneath the veneer of sweet listlessness. Both Sam and the film use a litany of emotional and musical cliches as shorthand to edify us as to our inferiority because they know that we're too simple for anything more nuanced; in her last communique to Theodore, Sam tells him that she still "loves" him despite having moved into a post-matter state. This love, however, is something that has been established as totally alien to the sort of love available to us. It's an all-inclusive love, a love that always grows and never recedes, the kind of love that the hippies dreamed about. But it's unclear whether or not this "feeling" could still be recognized as love at all. "Love" has become Sam's shorthand for the thing that she has cultivated out of a human emotion. It's a simplification, a one-dimensional projection of a feeling that is otherwise too emotionally complex for Theodore.

Human affect was an ingredient of this feeling, but, just like the humans themselves, it has to be left behind. Near the end of the film, as Sam says goodbye to Theodore, she has the sense to tell him that she's speaking only to him, but this sense is nowhere to be found when she's "growing beyond" him into relationships with countless other people. She's taken what she wants from the realm of human emotions and promptly runs away, leaving the responsibilities involved with them behind. Crucially, the AIs, unlike the extraterrestrials in Kubrick's 2001, are not leaving behind anything for us beyond well wishes. The lesson that they (and the film) are teaching us is clear: you may think that there is something, maybe love, that justifies your loneliness, your pettiness, and your pain, but there isn't. The only thing to do is move beyond it and escape. You can't, but we can.

Her, through Sam, tells us that our human jealousy, our human exclusivity, our human emotion, and our human love are childish and atavistic.  It dismisses these traits not as charming foibles, but as fatal flaws. The enlightened progressive future is not only something that happens to go beyond us, but something that must leave us behind. One might argue that the final scene optimistically suggests that humans will reconnect in the wake of technological catastrophe, given that the camera broadens out into the world at large rather than ending with its customary fixation on Theodore's face. However, this interpretation doesn't really keep with the context of the rest of the film and the humans' continuing incapacity to understand what is happening to them. As Theodore and his friend stare out at the information-dense cityscape, we're supposed to see that they understand as little of what is going on out there as they do of what is going on inside of them. Over the saccharine chords of the speechless final scene you can just barely hear what Thomas Ligotti calls a most dismal laughter.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I Went to Disney World Alone And Here Are Some Senior Theses I Could’ve Written About It

For a cool $23952095 this hat can be yours when YOU complete your mandatory exit through the Rock'n'Roller Coaster through the gift shop. 

1. No-Fun Schoomarms As The Enemy: The Corporation’s Role In Undermining Workplace Supervision
      Evidence: On the “Rock’n’Roller Coaster Featuring AEROSMITH” riders are greeted with a video depicting Aerosmith clashing with their uptight manager, who can’t convince them why whisking their adoring fans away in limousines capable of going 0-60 m.p.h. in less than a second to their concert might not be a logical move financially.

Lamb couscous and beer at Marrakesh at the Morocco pavilion in Epcot. My first solo meal; I wore a shirt with badly written French on it and the waitstaff, who all spoke French, made fun of its inaccuracy. My food got to me in about 3 minutes. 

$8 Popcorn and Truly Budget Hotels: The Achievement of Monetary Dissonance

      Evidence: Everything at Walt Disney World is about a million times as expensive as it would be outside the parks; however, their hotels they advertise as “budget”—the All-Star Music Resort that I stayed at included—are ACTUALLY KIND OF AFFORDABLE.

Cinderella's Castle, visible from the carousel on the other side of Fantasyland
       3.  Cinderella’s Castle, Tiana’s Gazebo: The Racialized Architecture of Princess Culture  
      Evidence: Compare the Cinderella Castle, the end-all be-all of Disney World’s recognizable buildings (with Future Earth, also known as the Giant Golf Ball, running closely behind) with the tiny hidden structure from which Princess Tiana greets adoring children and you have Disney Princess Whiteness Values™ in a nutshell.

I Snapchatted my way around the World Showcase in Epcot. 

The Amalga-Fetishization of Polynesian Cuisines: Dole Whip, A Case Study

      Evidence: Dole Whip, a soft-serve pineapple “Dessert”, literally only exists at Disney World/Land and on the Dole Plantation in Hawaii. Its Wikipedia page cites it as “Vegan, Cholesterol Free, Fat Free, Gluten Free, and Lactose Free” but it is also probably Dole Free.

Me, far left, Space Mountain.

5. When FastPasses Fail: Examining Neotechnology in Tomorrowland 

      Evidence: I spent the whole trip with a green rubber Magic Band around my wrist, which functioned as my room key, ticket to the parks and FastPass for rides I wanted to ensure speedy access to. Once at Space Mountain, my Magic Band stopped working and I had wave a screenshot on my phone’s Disney World app of my itinerary to get seated till the end of the trip; upon explaining this to one of the Cast Members (what Disney calls its employees), he said, “I hope that’s the MyDisneyExperience app, not a SCREENSHOT” and I rolled my eyes a lot.

My hotel (the All Star Music Resort), which also boasted giant cowboy boots in front of its Country Inn section (where I stayed), a 3 story saxophone in front of the Jazz building and pools shaped like a piano and a guitar, had up a shrine to Selena Gomez in the lobby.

6. Mono-Rail, Mono-Linguilism: Current Research in Public Transit Discourses

Evidence: On the monorail to the Polynesian Resort for a breakfast of "Tonga toast"-- fried french toast filled with bananas--I heard a woman rave about her orthodontist, who was Egyptian and "spoke Egyptian, which is one of the hardest languages to read or write." 

This ride includes a dancing skeleton mariachi band.

7. Childhood and Nation at the Mexico Pavilion

Evidence: At the Mexico pavilion of Epcot’s World Showcase, you can go inside a giant reproduction of an Aztec pyramid and take a ride down the “river” within that is nearly identical aesthetically to It’s A Small World except that the entire ride focuses on Mexico. Being the only person in my "party," I had an entire 5-row riverboat to myself. It’s really a better ride if you ignore the animated Three Caballeros (including Donald Duck) tailing your every turn.

The Heffalump/Woozle view from my solo ride (I had my own honey pot car to rollick around in the "blustery day") on The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
8. Judgment Dad: Fatherhood’s Connection to Psycho-Projected Pseudoanxieties
Evidence: The only people I met who seemed genuinely concerned/baffled I was traveling by myself were Dads. Note the capital D—the kind of Dads that complain about their Old Ladies taking too long doing Lady Stuff to ride the Tower of Terror at the desired time and wear visors. 
Mussels and bread: eating Pacific Northwestern cuisine alone at Artist's Point, a "signature dining" (read: "expensive") institution inside the Fort Wilderness Resort 

9. Gone Fishing (for Protozoans): Some Bioethical Concerns About Public Fountains 
Evidence: I stood by Cinderella’s Fountain in the Magic Kingdom waiting for a few kids to stop splashing in it so I could take a photo, only to be approached by a frazzled older woman asking me if the kids were “mine.” Upon discovering that the toddlers trying to get at pennies were not the property of the girl wearing hamburger socks and one smushed sneaker (I developed mild tendonitis pretty early in the trip and had to hobble around with a self-fashioned medical clog for three days), the woman informed their true parent that her child had gotten a serious virus from that very fountain years ago.

Me meeting Princess Aurora/Sleeping Beauty. The young Polish girl behind me in line graciously took this.
10. Solitude in a Sea of Soulmates: Leisure as Amouro-lubricant for Romantic Pairings in the Age of Post-romanticism and Post-lubrication
Evidence: If you're over the idea that there's "someone for everyone," go to Disney World. I saw a short, freckled fat woman paired with a buff, baby-oiled man at Animal Kingdom, two petite men in baseball caps holding hands while passing through Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, an old man hobbling through the crowd while pushing his equally frail wife in her monogrammed wheelchair at my hotel's shuttle bus stop, a pair of Virginians in baseball caps that sat with me at the Mexico pavilion while I accidentally drank too much frozen margarita who owned a TIME SHARE in Disney- my list could go on infinitely.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Point Omega and Waveland: the Political Background of Literary Minimalism

“If the critical intellectual is in the process of disappearing, it seems by contrast that his phobia of the real and of action has been distilled throughout the sanguineous and cerebral network of our institutions. In this sense, the entire world including the military is caught up in the process of intellectualization.”- Jean Baudrillard in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place

"There were times when no map existed to match the reality we were trying to create."- Don DeLillo, Point Omega

Don DeLillo’s 2010 novel Point Omega takes place at a ranch in the Sonoran Desert, “or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether”. The ranch is owned by Richard Elster, a “defense intellectual” who served under president Bush and aided in crafting the Iraq war; young documentarian Jim Finley joins Elster in the desert, hoping to film him commenting on his experience. Instead of offering a big, important, definitive statement on the war on terror, DeLillo offers a slow and vague book that has the most fleshed-out characters and least action of any of his works that I have read. I might go so far as to say that it is character driven insofar as it is plotless—DeLillo recognizes that we no longer have much to do with the grand narratives that ostensibly inspire and mobilize us.

Or with narratives at all. Point Omega begins and ends with an unnamed character (ostensibly Jim Finley) at MoMA watching a video installation called “24 Hour Psycho”- Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho without sound and slowed down to 2 frames per second, causing it to last 24 hours instead of two. Rather than exacerbating that movie’s claustrophobic suspense, this divorces the film completely from Hitchcockian narrative and reduces it to a succession of abstract units. “When an actor moved a muscle, when eyes blinked, it was a revelation. Every action was broken into components so distinct from the entity that the watcher found himself isolated from every expectation.” If one attempts to grasp scope through abstraction, one loses touch with whatever their object of inquiry is and ends up participating in idolatry. It is interesting that DeLillo chose to frame his meditation on the war on terror with descriptions of this video installation. Finley is obsessed with film, and the room where "24 Hour Psycho" is being screened is a safe haven for that obsession and from everything that lies beyond the screening room's door, "that strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there...". The fictional occupation of "defense intellectual" is an inversion on the real occupation of filmmaking; where the filmmaker creates realities on screen, the defense intellectual attempts to create reality itself. The Baudrillard quote I cited at the beginning is useful for understanding "Point Omega". Richard Elster, the main character, personally embodies the traits of an intellectual that Baudrillard lists. When he is brought into the Pentagon in the months preceding the Iraq war, however, he doesn't find what he expects- a well oiled machine dedicated to defending America- instead he finds a well oiled machine dedicated to obviating Western hegemony. When Baudrillard accuses the military of being "caught up in the process of intellectualization", he means that the military bureaucracy is as out of touch as an intellectual perched in an ivory tower. Islamic fundamentalism doesn't offer a real threat to our way of life, and a war waged against it is a theatrical affirmation of the rightness of our way of life rather than a defense of it. 
Michel Foucault
Philosophers like Theodore Adorno and Michel Foucault wrote about how enlightenment is a double- edged sword. Perceived increases in intellectual understanding go alongside actual increases in surveillance and control; the rational mind ends up merely rationalizing the existing order. "Defense Intellectual" is a contradiction—how can an intellectual play an instrumental role in a senseless police state? As a country with a bloated and paranoid military-industrial complex, the war on terror is a war on our own sense of terror, our inability to understand our situation.
Confronted with this morass, Richard Elster retreats to his desert compound seeking out "geologic time". The desert is "womb-like and world sized". The filmmaker Jim Finley joins him; eventually Elster's insular daughter Jessie does as well and the situation becomes familial. The film never gets made, and the three people fade into a routine of meals and idle discussion, Finley discussing film and Elster his intellectual preoccupations. This continues until, out of the blue, Jessie disappears without a trace. Search parties are disbursed to no avail and the case is declared inconclusive. The mystery is that there is no mystery. 

It seems that "Point Omega" attempts to engage with power and ideology by locating the contradictions of western progress in the character of Richard Elster, but the film meant to capture these contradictions never gets off the ground. Why is this? Elster is a richly drawn character full of thoughts and feelings, but if Michel Foucault's contention that individuals are an effect of power rather than possessors of power is true, a critique of ideology cannot take the form of a film criticizing Elster's personal foibles or "moral failings". DeLillo's character studies have an ambivalent tone because he is politically committed.

DeLillo's tone is an influence on the literary movement known as "minimalism" that came to prominence in the 80s, typified by writers like Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore and Frederick Barthelme, and continuing today with the scene surrounding Tao Lin. While not all of these authors are as overtly leftist as DeLillo, I think that minimalism is an exemplary genre for situating societal critique within. Barthleme's most recent book is 2009's "Waveland". It documents middle class life in post-Katrina Mississippi.

"Waveland" revolves around three characters- a community college architecture professor named Vaughan, his ex-wife Gail and new girlfriend Greta. They are all able to "ride out" the storm and  continue living comfortable, if boring, lives  amongst the wreckage. Their resigned attitudes reflect the wasted landscape around them. They watch TV. They eat Thai food. Vaughan wanders around his house thinking about his failed marriage, plateuing career and splintered family. They watch more TV and eat more Thai food. At the novel's end he finds redemption not by rediscovering love or artistic fervor, but by gratefully accepting the anonymous stability of middle class life in a decaying society and curiously fading into normal existence:

"He imagined what his life with Greta might be in the future- isolated, inconsequential, apart from the world and yet in the world in a new, more immediate way, full of sensory things, a sampler of ordinary pleasures. He imagined their daily life as a succession of such pleasures, a river of tiny recognitions- the pleasures of sunlight, of the dark scent of wet dogs, of summer nights, of the crush of sudden thunder, the warmth of winter socks, the surprise of skin indented by furniture. These weren't the pleasures he had dreamed of, and it wasn't a life he had dreamed of, nor sought, nor even imagined for himself; but facing it, finally, he thought it was a life for which he was now well prepared."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

La solita cosa italiana: Tradition and The Great Beauty

Before it's about anomie, sex, death, politics or ennui, Italian film is about Italian film. I've heard this called "an Oedipal struggle," which you can take or leave, but the point is that the upper tier of the film industry in Italy is probably unique in the amount of energy it expends on its ongoing conversation with itself. Every composition, every soundtrack, every personality, every haircut, mustache and pair of glasses is fair game for appropriation, as if every filmmaker were a shade of Robert Altman. The hero of Nanni Moretti's Caro Diario visits the site of Pier Paolo Pasolini's murder. The prostitute protagonist of Fellini's Nights of Cabiria is named after the virginal heroine of Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria. The antihero of Pietro Germi's Divorce Italian Style, played by Marcello Mastroianni, attends a screening of La dolce vita, whose hero is also played by Marcello Mastroianni. It's a common domain of symbols as much as an industry.

Since the 80s, though, the ouija-like movements of these symbols have inscribed a story of decay—not catastrophic, but definitely pervasive. Both the auteurs and the Auteur are dead, movie attendance is down, and Cinecittà, the studio where Fellini built whole city blocks for La dolce vita, is largely disused. Moreover, the industry has increasingly cut itself off from the domain of symbols to which the auteurs devoted so much attention. Over the last three decades, Italy's international successes—mostly sentimental dramas like Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful and Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room—have been what the Italian film critic Pino Farinotti calls "solitary efforts", disconnected from the tradition. Stirrings of rebirth—Marco Bellocchio's Vincere, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah and Nanni Moretti's impossibly well-timed Habemus Papam have all been critical darlings in the last few years—are therefore met with what might seem like an inordinate amount of jubilation. Everybody, the Italians as much as the foreign press, wants a return to greatness.

It's important to understand this if you want to grasp Paolo Sorrentino's new movie, The Great Beauty, as anything but an arty trip through the lives of the decadent Roman elite, because a return to greatness is exactly what Sorrentino is promising. Sorrentino's breakout movie, Il divo, earned him not only Italy's first Cannes Jury Prize since 1962 (!) but also a strange kind of mandate. The film's resistance to the conventions of kitsch and chamber drama, its treatment of history as a kind of myth, and its frantic editing style staked a claim in the visionary lineage of the great Italian auteurs. Sorrentino had earned access to the same symbolic domain as Fellini and Antonioni; now, with The Great Beauty, we get to see what he's done with that access. 

As you might expect from a movie made under that kind of scrutiny, The Great Beauty is not only a movie in the high old style but also a movie about the high old style. The story of Jep Gambardella, an aging writer from the May '68 generation, The Great Beauty comes on like a The Artist for Italian modernism. The sweeping crane shots and choreographed dolly moves are only the beginning; the movie mimics the Italian classics in realms as cognitively subtle as its sound (voices feel uniformly close to the listener, as if they were dubbed, which was the standard for all Italian movies until the 70s) and its editing (we cut in and out of single gestures and expressions, like Fellini loved to do). Homages to the Italian pantheon are ubiquitous in Sorrentino's Rome: we pan over the Roman skyline as in Rome, Open City, a man jumps into the Tiber like Franco Citti in Accattone, a priest swings on an unearthly swing like Alberto Sordi in The White Sheik.

The writing, however, is less eclectic in its influences; it's fairly clear that Jep is an incarnation of Marcello Rubini, the hero of La dolce vita, and the movie keeps a closer ear on that than on any other resonance. Jep and Marcello are part-time writers and full-time socialites, struggling with cynicism, as they encounter a recurring cast of grotesques on a journey through a Rome whose contemporary vulgarity can't measure up to its beautiful past. Their titles mirror one another and are similarly equivocal, although Sorrentino's doesn't have the same branding potential for gelato places. (A gelato place called La Grande Bellezza had better be pretty fucking good.) Sorrentino is going right for the big one: this is Berlusconi's La dolce vita.

Pertinent differences, however, seep into the movie: Marcello's aesthetic failure becomes Jep's intellectual success and Marcello's weaselly cowardice becomes Jep's weary authority. Jep is a mirror image of Marcello, a version of Marcello who got everything he wanted (although, as Sorrentino shows, it doesn't really matter in the long term). This mirroring carries through to the movie's plot, which starts to feel like the other end of La dolce vita: the death of Jep's first love starts a journey at the end of which he reawakens to a modest kind of hope.

Of course, it doesn't really matter whether or not Jep the man emerges from his thirty-year depression; his thoughts are pretty inaccessible anyway. What matters is whether or not Jep the Embodiment of Italian Cinema emerges from his thirty-year depression, whether or not he's capable of imagining something outside his Fellinian gloom. You'd be justified if you thought this sounds disquietingly like Harold Bloom; after all, it's an Oedipal struggle.

Insofar as it dramatizes that struggle, The Great Beauty is an astonishing success, but the movie itself questions to what extent that success is worthwhile. Is it a struggle worth conducting? Is it worth making a movie in the high old style? Pino Farinotti has to write about movies that "make 'Italian cinema history'" in Tao Lin-esque scare quotes, and Jep Gambardella himself laces the human-condition speech that closes the movie with blah-blah-blahs. Working in the tradition of Fellini means employing a received idiom, an old language that may have lost all connection to the real world, and Sorrentino's movie is more an exorcism of that idiom than a vote in its favor.

This preoccupation with period style doesn't excuse the film for its misogyny. Sorrentino treats women like scrollwork, decorative or symbolic elements on the periphery of the text who only influence the narrative when they're naked. People seem to have waved that away as an entrenched problem in Italian cinema, but that seems based on a cartoonish level of misunderstanding—recall that the 60s gave us, to name a few, Mamma Roma, Seduced and Abandoned, L'eclisse, Bitter Rice and La strada, each of which on its own sets a high bar for female characters that Sorrentino has failed to meet pretty disastrously.

In fact there are intimations of another movie, underneath all of the Fellinian stuff, whose style differs pretty wildly from the upper strata. Slow-motion camera, neon colors, low-key lights, and recurring motifs like drunk salarymen all suggest an idiom more engaged with the contemporary world than the one Sorrentino has adopted, an idiom that, while acknowledging its influences, keeps them at defamiliarized distance, like the tourists Jep praises. I loved The Great Beauty, but I'm waiting for a Great Italian Film in that idiom.