Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why You Can't Do Fast Casual Dining Ironically

A few weeks ago, I walked into the Uptown Minneapolis Chipotle and was greeted by a sign announcing that no carnitas would be available. Luckily, my meat of choice at Chipotle is steak and I was there to try out Sofritas, the fast casual dining giant’s new vegan option. My Facebook news feed later informed me that Chipotle had pulled its pork option (look, a pun) from at least 400 of its locations upon discovering that one of its major pork suppliers had failed to comply with the chain’s animal welfare standards. Chipotle, it appears, is actually holding itself and its suppliers ethically accountable to the animals it depends on for profit.

 This information came to me at the height of my seemingly inexplicable obsession with the fast casual restaurant industry, particularly in its marketing and aesthetic practices: these places specifically position themselves in a realm between "fast food" and "casual dining," eschewing the table service of a casual family restaurant while promising higher quality, fresher cuisine than a typical fast food joint. The middlebrow result of these promises is what interested me. This phase doesn’t seem so inexplicable anymore, however; I think I’ve found the root of my fascination, which is that you can’t really do fast casual dining ironically. Something about how these companies market themselves commands the trust, rather than eyebrows raised hungrily tongue-in-cheek, of consumers, and when the chance to make a fast casual dining experience into a joke arises the company often delivers the punchline before we can.

What do I mean by “do fast casual dining ironically”? Think of spontaneous “Dude, what if we went to Arby’s right now?!?!?!!?” moments in your life. If there are none-- and there's no shame in that, considering the vast majority of people are probably more focused on eating for sustenance than eating to project an impression (I fall into both camps and, full disclaimer, really, really enjoy most of the bland American chains I mention throughout this article)--imagine a group of bored young adults stranded after bar close whose preferences have somehow shifted from “what is available for me to eat?” to “what would be the most ridiculous thing possible to eat right now?” The answer will almost never be a fast-casual dining establishment, at first for logistical purposes and then for the reason that it’s just not that funny to eat because the management is dead serious.

The first reason is about timing: while in any decently populated metro area in the U.S. you can find family-style chains like Denny’s or fast food drive-thrus open around the clock, the likes of Qdoba, Five Guys and Au Bon Pain are simply not open that late. If you’re not trekking out for refreshments at two a.m. (bar close in my current city of residence, Minneapolis), you can, of course, eat at a fast casual restaurant. But the likelihood of running to Panera Bread on your 40-minute lunch break in a burst of ironic motivation seems highly unlikely. Of course, now that I’ve said this, I expect everyone reading this article to announce to their coworkers around 12 p.m. tomorrow that it would be totally absurd to hit up Potbelly and spend a cool $8.50.

Neither does price of fast casual dining lend itself to ridiculous eating: while you’re not signing up for a gourmet meal by going out to Noodles and Company, you are sinking about $8-15 on your food when you could get the same amount for less than five bucks at the Taco Bell across the street. Actually, there probably isn’t a Taco Bell across the street from the Noodles and Company in question because throughout my “research” I’ve found that fast casual restaurants tend to cluster around each other the same way other similarly-priced institutions do. I think of some of my fondest memories: the road trips of my childhood and my family’s options at each stop being Bob Evans, Eat’n’Park or Steak’n’Shake (for a super fun challenge, look up the usual regional locations of these places to find out where my family used to travel in our white Honda Odyssey named Bill that I insisted was a “girl car.”) But I digress: a meal at Cosi requires more than pocket change and, therefore, less spontaneity and less potential for yuks than a trip through the Burger King drive-thru. 

But the price can’t be the only thing holding us back from making fast casual places the site of ironic joys. After all, pricier casual family dining chains such as Applebee’s and Perkins have served as a pilgrimage site for twenty-somethings looking to people-watch the poor slobs who frequent such joints (I’m allowed to say “poor slobs” because I used to go to Baker’s Square every week in high school to sincerely enjoy Free Pie Wednesday surrounded by octogenarians) or attend the world’s most unlikely “adult” venue. I’d suggest taking a look at artist Dorian Electra’s well-documented fascination with Applebee’s to understand the wondrous potential for the absurd in the world of family dining. Bennigan’s and Big Boy maintain Disney-levels of seriousness about the wholesome fun they offer to families, providing room for customers to make their own fun around these institutions. Chipotle senses its own comic possibilities and once offered its customers free food on the condition that they show up as silver-wrapped human burritos on Halloween. Again, fast casual is serious but not naïve: it can predict the end of the joke before we do.


In fact, in the fast casual dining I’ve “researched” (as in, ate at and asked my Chipotle and Noodles and Company employee friends about, my own food service industry experience being in a concession stand at a hockey rink) in the past few months there lies a sinisterly banal undertone: “eat less-processed, more-ethically-obtained food here!' they say. "Work at our company and make a career out of it! Sit back, relax and enjoy—we won’t rush you the way McDonald’s might.”

But what do we make, then, of the fact that Chipotle’s CEOs make more money than the vast majority of chief executives in the country’s largest 100 companies? What do we make of the sterility of the decor (which deserves a study to itself), the selectively chosen hip and friendly fonts, the Twitter campaigns and the buddy-buddy feel between management and customer that seems to pale when we realize these qualities necessarily fall under the backdrop of a corporate world dependent upon capitalism and hierarchy? My best answer is that if my interest mainly lies in how hard it is to eat “ironically” at a Chipotle, Fazoli’s or Culvers, perhaps what we really ought to delve into is just how the management at such places disallows the irony because it beats customers in their own race.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Mona Lisa's Got You All: Bradford Cox and the Death of the Author

"Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality."- Michel Foucault from "What is an Author"
"When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again."- Eric Dolphy 

Although Bradford Cox, the singer/guitarist of Deerhunter and sole member of Atlas Sound, makes hypnotic music that conveys an easy familiarity with the rock and roll tradition, he is notorious for being interminably opinionated and a difficult interviewee- this was satirized in a video where he gets psychoanalyzed. That video plays on the suspicion that his unfiltered thoughts, while always entertaining, could only be understood from a psychiatrist’s distance; similarly, his music sounds very vulnerable, not because his delivery is unapologetically nasal, voice-cracky, or out of tune, but because his voice, mixed low and drenched in reverb, constantly threatens to disappear into the wash of sound.

This dampening of the voice is related to his overall aesthetic:
 “If I could just put the stuff up there, and remove ego and name and possession from it, just to have immediacy...if there could just be a direct, like, route from my brain to instruments to the audience…”

Cox thinks his status as a creator impedes his ability to express himself. He laments that he has to preoccupy himself with presenting, packaging and distributing his music. Michel Foucault expresses comparable sentiments in his 1969 essay "What is an Author?"- which leaves its titular question open. "What is an Author" is Foucault's response to the 'death of the author', an event which used to dominate the French intellectual scene. For Foucault, recognizing the 'death of the author' meant recognizing that someone's biographical information, taste, and emotional proclivities were no longer useful criteria for analyzing a work. Rather than rendering authors anonymous, the 'death of the author' renders them irrelevant; discourse, even artistic discourse, operates according to its own rules- it hardly matters whose name is attached to what. The immediacy that Cox strives for is ultimately impossible because familiarity with a discourse- in this case, Cox's familiarity with rock music- doesn't allow one to mobilize discourse to be especially effective or expressive or descriptive; it instead exposes the artist to the irrelevance of their own human interiority to discursive practices. Foucault writes, "Discourse is not life, its time is not your time...". Cox's lyrics reflect this, for instance on "Disappearing Ink", where he seems to blame external forces for compelling him to write. The song is totally self-referring but can only be understood in terms of its 'unfolded exteriority'; the lyrics themselves make it clear that the circumstances they were written under are irrelevant:

I got a message/ Can you guess what it said?/ Drive alone/ Drive straight home/I did as instructed/ Closed my door and locked it//Sat and wrote a letter/ I described the weather/ And the scene/ Remembering/I forget tomorrow/ All sickness and sorrow/ Disappearing ink/ But the words still sting/ What was I thinking?/ What was I thinking?”

Many of his songs include similar intimations of the futility of human effort and the uselessness of curiosity (how many poverties were interrupted by learning how to read? he asks). Despite his seemingly pessimistic ‘message’, his music is still very popular- and deservedly so, given how oddly comforting it is. If Atlas Sound and Deerhunter were placed in genre confines, they would likely be labeled shoegaze or dream-pop; their music washes over you but never really sinks in...

The lyrics on "Agoraphobia" describe a dream about being locked in some kind of deprivation chamber:
"I had a dream/ No longer to be free/ I want only to see/ Four walls made of concrete…I'd lose my voice, I know/ But I've nothing left to sayNo echo in this space"

Implying that we are living in a world where our own pronouncements are already-ephemeral echoes, where the condition of our speaking is that we speak into an echo chamber, Cox advises that we do as he does- blather on. On "Nothing Ever Happened" he sings, “Focus on the depth that was never there/ nothing’s easy, nothing’s fair”.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Little Drummer Boy

A superhero always doubles down on his value set. You can rely on Peter Parker to put the mask back on even if he's decided to be Spider-Man No More. And the inevitable question is always, is he just doing this for himself? Or is he just trying to sustain a personal brand?

Whiplash, a movie about a shy boy from a broken family, bitten by a radioactive band director and thus imbued with the powers of a great jazz drummer, is no different. The plot builds towards a statement on the relationship between power and responsibility: can you be a superhero and also just be regular teenager? Just how much space can you afford to give your alter ego before your hero work starts to slip? And how's a nice, gifted white kid supposed to cope in a world so full of confusion and mediocrity? The answer to that last question is obvious before we even see our Peter Parker, pretty much from the first audio cue of the movie: you double down on your value set. You become Great. And if you have to drop Gwen Stacy off a bridge yourself, so be it. 

Most of the movie follows Peter Parker, whose pseudonym here is Andrew Neyman, as he works himself toward greatness: dragging his bed into a practice room, offending his friends and relatives (his cousin is on Carleton College's famously mediocre football squad), breaking up with his girlfriend (she hadn't decided on a major yet, so fuck her), and working himself into a spasmodic frenzy in practice sessions. He plays double-time swing at 330 BPM, for example, until drops of blood fly from his blisters and pool poetically on the white snare head. Finally, at the end, through some plot devices, with everybody who ever loved him alienated or forgotten, he finds the recognition he's always wanted onstage at Carnegie Hall and ends the movie on a hard cut to black.

In the interim the movie behaves exactly like every other in the supra-Hollywood edifice of American prestige pictures. Like a conservatory, it's misogynistic, airless, and humorless. Miles Teller's performance is rote naturalism and the only person who seems like he's having any fun is J.K. Simmons. The atmosphere is halfway between the self-importance of Black Swan and the self-importance of The Social Network. Technically the movie is a funhouse of film school tricks: tightening the shot to induce claustrophobia, heating up the lighting a few kelvins so you feel Andrew sweat, switching to handheld after the ridiculous truck accident to induce a feeling of disorientation. Few of these techniques are well-integrated; in particular, the slick editing during rehearsal scenes, which cuts like a music video along with Andrew's drumming, feels like it's grasping at hipness, like a professor of jazz studies doing an arrangement of a Hozier song. Spidey's wisecracks can't conceal the boy beneath the mask.

Whiplash, for all its bluster, is inarticulate, self-conscious, and bound by convention. This is true of every teenage superhero; it's also true of every mediocre elite-sanctioned art form, from Alessandro Algardi's busts to Dave Brubeck's music. The thing that makes Whiplash an exemplary specimen, though, is that unlike most Oscar bait it's essentially a college application essay. 

It isn't just a movie about a young jazz drummer at an elite conservatory, it's a movie written and directed by debutant filmmaker Damien Chazelle, born 1985, who a) played jazz drums in high school and b) went on to graduate from Harvard. Whiplash isn't really a naturalistic look at the world of jazz, nor is it an allegory for the position of the artist in our society. It's a movie about Damien Chazelle's alter ego, who never gave up jazz drumming and went on to become Great. And, ut pictura poesis, it's also about Chazelle himself. The slick cutting I mentioned unites drumming and film technique. The correspondence between Chazelle's Harvard and Whiplash's Shaffer Conservatory unites the drummer with the unseen figure of the filmmaker. And so this movie about jazz drumming also becomes a movie about the history of its own creation.

With every beat Andrew drums the great and magisterial power of Damien Chazelle into existence; every step in his personal growth, every new leap in his confidence and ambition, serves to imbue Chazelle with legitimacy. At the end, when he cuts off both solo and film, uniting the drummer in control of his band and the director in control of his set, he has affirmed his own talent and the talent of an immense and terrible new auteur, and affirmed by the same coin their respective places in history. 

Affirming your own talent is what you do for a living when you share Chazelle's class and values. I mentioned in my article on Lorde that for an ambitious white kid from the suburbs, talent is about being a showoff. High school and early college are where you find the profit motive at its most sublimated and also its most naked. In every college interview and every high school piano recital, talent is not demonstrated by the steady production of excellent work but by projecting Greatness at all times. It's about bombarding people with the evidence of your genius until they finally believe it. In a word, it's about branding.

Both Andrew and Damien Chazelle are essentially marketing themselves throughout the movie. Neither has anything in particular to express with his art, nor does either seem interested in any broader artistic discourse (Andrew has no favorite drummers except for Buddy Rich, a known replicant). In their preening superficiality they resemble nothing more than Spinal Tap. Their aesthetic philosophy is as shapeless as capitalism itself, with the same underlying values: it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do it more, bigger and louder than anyone else. It could be drumming or it could be film. Chipotle or McDonald's. LucasFilm or Marvel. Spiderman or Batman.

Whiplash is a bad movie, but it's worth an anthropological look if only because it represents some kind of inflection point in this great cultural hyperbola. Every piece of art has to do some work to justify its own existence, but if Whiplash couldn't congratulate itself then it wouldn't exist at all. The whole thing is a tautology, a commercial for itself, a smug ouroboros patting itself on its scaly tail and occasionally licking its own unmentionables. Andrew's apotheotic drum solo is, in the words of the Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones, "one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name", and the movie is doing very little else but jerking along with it. 

People keep going to Lincoln Center, though, and Damien Chazelle has positioned his brand extremely well with Whiplash. Thousands of shy boys in the suburbs will be bitten by his radioactive movie and become imbued with the powers of great artists. It's their gift, their curse.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

When A Carrot Is Just A Carrot: The Copyrights and the Redundancy of Hope

"Everything is over." - Teenage Bottlerocket, "Another Way"

At the beginning of "Grown Folks Business," on The Copyrights' split 7" with the Dopamines Songs About Fucking Up, Adam Fletcher sings:

"How many times can I write the same song / About my sick life and my shit job / I'm getting old and burned out / Putting the same words to the same sounds / You've gotta pick up the slack here / Cause I'm all out of ideas "

In pop punk circles, there's a common saying: "Pop Punk Is Dead". The days of Green Day and Blink on the radio are over. But the buck does not stop at pop punk. The Copyrights understand that in the 21st century you will never not sound like someone else. It's easy to sing about the oncoming apocalypse over the sound of thrash guitars or fucking authority with a double kick behind you; it's easy to sell records when you're singing about a fantasy and transporting somewhere else, saying that everything is going to shit or one day it's going to be better. The world-weariness of The Copyrights' lyrics is a perfect match for their heard-it-before pop punk guitars; both of them suggest that things might stay just the way that they are, and, further than that, that it's a mistake to think that things haven't always been this way. They play music you've heard before, not because they are not smart enough to be "avant-garde", but because they recognize the dishonesty and the redundancy of doing anything else. Music has ceased being "world-disclosing" in Habermasian terms, in no small part because we have disclosed the world plenty enough already. The problem is that, after every story has already been told, so many people are still trying to find a way out. Today, the extreme of utopianism on both the left and the right is just to hope or fear at all.

Fletcher echoes exactly this sentiment on "Holidays" when he sings:

"We all know much too well/There's no heaven, there's no hell/But we can dream/We can dream/That the calendar is full of holidays instead of numbers/Instead of work weeks/Instead of deadlines"

The Copyrights recognize that there's no transcendence on this world or the next. The utopia that they dream up isn't even the Marxist utopia of an unrealized freedom in solidarity. It's a negative statement; they just don't want to work. When everything speculative has been stripped away, the best we can do is celebrate every birthday at the bar. The holiday utopia is the best we can hope for exactly because it's a negative utopia. Things will be the same as they are now, just without all of the boring parts. We've exhausted every other hope that we had. It's all tied up and accounted for.

This isn't just about politics, it's also about personal aspiration. On "The World Is Such a Drag" Fletcher sings:

"Running after carrots on a stick / One day you'll finally catch up to it / And it tastes just like a carrot/Supposedly they help you see/But you don't wanna see that clearly/Better off in a world blurred slightly"

It's a familiar cycle. Whenever you get what you want, it's exactly what it was all along, and the thing that you wanted reveals itself as just a dream. Providing a twist on the beloved Louis CK bit "Everything is amazing, but no one is happy", "The World Is Such A Drag" suggests that nobody is happy because everything is amazing. If you get everything you ever wanted, you don't live happily ever after. You get miserable. You taste the carrot and realize that it's just a carrot. The rest of it is a pack of lies, and while you might need a lie to get you through the day, a lie won't save you.

What happens when you stop chasing the carrot? The other possibility is spelled out quite explicitly. On the record Dream Homes by Dear Landlord, which shares multiple band members with The Copyrights, the lyrics read:

 "We're both sort of right / I don't have much to sell / I'll die penniless, alone / I'll do what I like, you'll do what you know / That's just the way of things I suppose"

You can spend your life hoping that things will be better, or worry your whole life that things are going to be worse. You can chase the carrot. But Fletcher and his friends will still be drinking in the basement when you've hit your highest heights and lowest lows. The transition is from Kant's "What can I hope?" to "How can I run out the clock?" Beyond the apparent cynicism of this sort of thinking is a hungover-and-dead-sober humanism. It's a humanism that holds that we'll all be better off if we stop mistaking the lies we tell ourselves and one another for reality.

The chorus to "I Live In Hell" from Dream Homes goes:

"What does your dream home look like?/It'll take you years to even tell/And I'll be sleeping well/Here in Hell."

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

...But Who's Counting?: DJ Spooky's Aesthetic Imagination

"Things are always happening. It seems wherever I go there is drama. People are like lice, they get under your skin and bury themselves there. You scratch and scratch until the blood comes, but you cannot get permanently deloused ... I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death. "- Henry Miller

"I'll do a mix to highlight different styles of scratching ... I have works from John Cage, Joseph Beuys, different mechanical pianos, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis ... you'll hear them all mixed and collaged. It's always interaction- human gesture, movement, inscription ... "- DJ Spooky from the lecture "Turntablism as Performance Art "

Paul Miller, AKA DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, is an electronic musician and academic. I became interested in him partially because of how integrated his artistic and critical practices are: his critical writing clarifies his music and vice versa. This may be because he refined his DJing while studying critical theory at Bowdoin College, and it reflects the fact that one activity of the DJ-sampling- brings paradoxes surrounding authorship to the fore. DJ Spooky, I think, is indebted to both turntablism's roots in John Cage's project of rigorous banality (Imaginary Landscape no. 1) and to hip-hop sampling. In fact, his work suggests their overlap and ultimate indistinction.

Sampling problematizes authorship. When MF Doom constructs a beat by looping a snippet of a Steely Dan song, he uncovers expressive potentialities within the sample that were not present in its original context. When an element of a song is shown to be loop-able, reproducible, it's functionality and tonality change. DJ Spooky borrows John Cage's notion of sound as information. In the essay "Loops of Perception" , he clarifies this somewhat austere notion by quoting Don Delillo's "Cosmopolis": "In fact data itself [is] soulful and glowing, a dynamic aspect of the life process." In another novel, "Underworld," Delillo writes, "Capital burns off the nuance in a culture ... Not that people want the same things, necessarily, but that they want the same range of choices ." The sample, in DJ Spooky's hands, reduces a piece of music to a form of information that can be endlessly manipulated- "customized" - by capitalist subjectivity. What room is there for authorship in this paradigm, where a song is basically fodder for remixing?

One of DJ Spooky's better known projects is "Rebirth of a Nation," a cinematic remix of DW Griffith's 1915 silent film "The Birth of a Nation". The film portrays the antebellum south, where actors in blackface wreak havoc and are ultimately subdued by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The film was revolutionary in terms of technique- the film is a technical masterpiece and an indispensable part of the medium's history. "The Birth of a Nation" was made ​​possible by technological advances brought` about by the accumulation of capital. The film itself, a supposed recounting of history, effected the real world it was supposedly independent from: after it's release, there was a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activity, the film acting as a recruitment tool. Techniques of reproduction - or converting lived experience to information- the proliferation of which is intrinsic to the growth of capital, creates necessarily this sort of hyperreal echolalia that defines modern western existence.  By applying DJing techniques to the film, turning portions of the film into manipulable samples, DJ Spooky highlights their contingency. Above I asked "What room is there for authorship in this paradigm?". Rather than reinforcing the rigidity of the information age, the author (in this case, the DJ)'s artistic decisions obviate the fact that, to quote Foucault, "[things], in their substance, can change."  Authorship as provocation. For DJ Spooky, who sees a world turned into information as his palette, a sample can reflect an unnerving paradigmatic contingency (for instance in his project sampling and mixing auditory, visual and statistical information regarding climate change's effects on Antarctic ice, information that documents the total instability of our mode of life), the play of sampled information emanating from DJ Spooky's turntables and projectors suggests the randomness of all information, creating an effect in the private mind of the listener that is akin to the shattering of a wineglass when a soprano belts a high C.

On the track Asphalt (Tome II)  off of his record "Optometry", DJ Spooky and jazz pianist Matthew Shipp provide a stammering background for Carl Hancock Rux's smooth spoken word delivery. Rux delivers an oblique narrative about the dissolution of solidarity and artistic integrity in the hip-hop scene. The recurring phrase throughout the song is "I like it." After describing the disintegration of a scene, Rux's wry announcement of "Yeah, I like it" is sampled and repeated, becoming part of Spooky's mix. This implies, ultimately, that the eternally "current" coolness of hip-hop is indistinguishable from the vigilant boredom of Cage (see 4:33 ). By fostering an aesthetic that pursues the indistinction between the ultra-cool, live-streamed present and nowhere, DJ Spooky reminds us that, in his words, "another world is possible".

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Back in May, the Italian director Matteo Garrone gave an interview to Variety about his new project, a movie called The Tale of Tales. He had just begun shooting the film, which is based on a 1636 book of fairy tales by the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, after a painstaking search location from Sicily all the way to Friuli. Which, fine. Directors from Europe are after all free to mine the rich cultural and geographic holdings of their countries, Still, going all the way back to folklore is something we might expect from Alexander Sokhurov or maybe Guillermo del Toro, certainly not from Matteo Garrone, who has up to now seemed like the meanest motherfucker alive in realist cinema.

Garrone's big hit, Gomorrah, which swept film festivals around the world in 2008, begins with a gang murder carried out in a tanning salon and concludes with the image of the corpses of two boys carried to the edge of a deserted beach and dumped, by a bulldozer, in the surf. In between, five stories form a picture of almost unbelievable poverty and hopelessness as the outskirts of Naples tear themelves apart under the influence of its latter-day mob overlords, the Camorra. The Camorra, according to Garrone and Roberto Saviano, who wrote the source novel for the movie, are not only violent and cruel but increasingly inextricable from the world economy—a title notes at the end that the Camorra clans were the largest organized contributor to the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. So Gomorrah is a pretty fulminant piece of social criticism, a real work of consciousness-raising about globalization and its attendant woes, and it's a surprise to find that Garrone seems to be abandoning politics completely.

In the Variety interview, Garrone's very vocabulary is suspicious. He goes into some detail, in particular, on the "fabular" quality of his work. "Fabular" is not really a signal word for political commitment, nor is it one I would think of when I was trying to describe Gomorrah; it is, however, Italo Calvino's official epithet-along with "inventive" and "delightful," it's one of the words that Anglo-American critics use to patronize Calvino in relation to his big brothers Borges and Nabokov. Garrone, in fact, name drops Calvino, who of course had an affinity for folk tales and who apparently described Giambattista Basile as "a deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare." So what's going on in Garrone's career right now? Is he a realist hardbitten going soft? An ossifying radical? An overpraised director indulging himself? It's instructive, of course, to look at Calvino's own artistic trajectory—Calvino did, after all, begin literary life as a dedicated communist and chronicler of the Italian resistance—but to answer the question we really have to widen the field of criticism to look at Garrone's most recent movie, which came out in 2012, and at Italian cinema as a whole.

I pointed out in my last article about Italian movies that no other national cinema in the world is so concerned with its own mythology. You can go back and read the post if you want. Keeping this in mind, though, and keeping also in mind that this is the country of neorealism and its long, long legacy, I trust you to understand that it's a pretty daring maneuver, dialectically speaking, to title your movie Reality, which is what Garrone has done.

Reality is the story of a Neapolitan fishmonger named Luciano, a charming, hardworking man, popular in his community but desperately poor, supporting his children with help from a smuggling business That his wife coordinates through her ​​job at a local shopping mall. His living situation is a bizarre, postmodern amalgamation, an apartment in a rotting nineteenth-century tenement full of bright, cheap plastic furniture from the mall. As a favor to his kids, he auditions for Big Brother, and then, when he gets a callback, sinks into obsession with disturbing, pathetic speed. His perspective on life shifts drastically. Suddenly everything in Naples is speaking to him—customers from Rome are undercover TV people monitoring his behavior, beggars are wearing wires, and even celebrities are in town to watch him. The world is no longer simply a place to exist; it's a living organism with a mind made ​​of pure judgment, and that mind is for the moment trained on him. Fixated on earning the approval of his newfound judge, he begins to give his possessions to the poor; he sells his fish stand; he sinks money into expensive clothes and, finally, when it's impossible to avoid the truth that he is not going to be on the show, he becomes catatonic.

Luciano is played by Aniello Arena, an ex-Camorrista serving a life sentence for murder, and most of the movie was shot on location in a Neapolitan tenement. These two features, location shooting and nonprofessional actors, are of course the hallmarks of neorealist mise-en-scene, and considering them alongside the title I think it's clear what this movie is gunning for: neorealism itself, the sacred cow of Italian cinema, and all of its stylistic descendants.

Anglo-American readings of neorealism have trouble with the term "realism." Our understanding of the term is contaminated by the "analytic" realism of 19th-century France, a style epitomized by Émile Zola and his approach to literature as a kind of science—variables care fully controlled, laboratory conditions maintained, causes and effects scrupulously recorded. Neorealism, ironically, follows in an older tradition. Italian art in the 19th century was inflected by a pretty idiosyncratic reading of Hegel, focusing inordinately on idealism and subjectivity and the world-spirit in order to be ideologically palatable in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Materialists like Zola were therefore unwelcome. Mussolini, obviously, doubled down on this. As a result, what Rossellini and De Sica and the first generation of neorealists had to refer to when they approached "realism" was not Zola and Flaubert but a neoclassical relict, a style that ultimately came down from Aristotle. With certain modifications, this bloomed into neorealism, a relaism peculiarly concerned with the mind.

The analytic approach is still current, especially on film and especially in the era of globalization—just look at Syriana, Traffic, The Wire, The Class, or, if you really want to, Babel. All of these, to some extent, show us society from butterfly to hurricane. Since the 19th century, the influence of this approach to realism has become so pervasive that it's tempting to apply it to neorealism. But on close analysis it rarely holds up. If Zola (or David Simon) had directed Bicycle Thieves, we would meet the corrupt officials who built its hero Ricci's house, the absent father who drove the eponymous thieves into poverty, and so on. Bicycle Thieves instead strikes its main character cruelly and randomly with disaster, and the story that unfolds thereafter takes place in a Rome so dreamlike it's practically a De Chirico. Ricci and his son repeatedly turn a corner and find themelves on the other side of the city, and wherever they go there are people whispering messages, metaphors, prophecies, in some cases shouting them. Neorealism was, with few exceptions, a fantastic, fabular movement.

Critics who are not in touch with this sensibility have made ​​the mistake again and again of attacking Italian directors whenthey start to indulge in dreamy aestheticization. It's not just foreign critics, either: Italian Marxist luminaries like Luigi Chiarini and Guido Aristarco wrote polemic after polemic against Rossellini and Fellini when they thought those directors had let their art split from their politics—they had abandoned analysis, they had abandoned the plight of the common people. In reality Rossellini and Fellini always been open about the fact that, for them, politics was a subcategory of aesthetics. Cesare Zavattini, the neorealist mouthpiece who wrote Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D., said, "In America, lack of subjects for films causes a crisis, but with us such a crisis is impossible. One can not be short of themes while there is still plenty or reality. " For the neorealists, reality contained themes, which is to say that themes were real things, as real and almost as tangible as physical objects. You could point a camera at them and there they were. The world was a conscious, judging, thinking organism, the ongoing work of some author or body of authors, speaking a language that was abstruse but finally intelligible. This tendency persists through thirty years of Italian cinema, even in the iconoclasts—Pier Paolo Pasolini's essay "A Cinema of Poetry" concerns itself with exactly how, from a semiotic point of view, we read meaning into the world. You'd be forgiven for thinking this sounded deeply Catholic, or on the other hand deeply paranoid. Or both. If so, you're starting to see the track of thinking that Reality is following in and, I think, concluding.

Because the biggest difference in sensibility between Reality and its neorealist forebears is that Reality does not pretend to be naïve. Old neorealism always needed to seem innocent and trusting for its points to go over, but Reality is free to be as erudite and as polemical as it likes. (The big joke of the movie is Lacanian—what rhymes with "Big Brother?") Its obvious soft target is reality TV, which it sets up as the godhead of conservative idealism: an art form eager to impose themes on its content, to collapse its shows, who are, after all, real people, into types, into winner and loser, in and out, and to invite the viewer to judge them all. Its forays into socio-religious critique (there's a scene in Reality in which some nuns think Luciano is asking about Christ when in fact he's asking about two TV people who are in their church) let it use this as a metaphor for Catholicism's stranglehold on Italian culture, putting it into the honorable tradition of anti-religious cinema. But its metafictional machinery allow it to make the much broader critique that each entry in the canon of Italian cinema is poisoned by solipsism.

This all comes together in the incredible final sequence of the movie, in which Luciano, finally out of his mind, sneaks into the Big Brother house in Rome, slinks along the one-way mirrors and recording equipment in something like a trance, and finally slumps on a backstage couch, giggling blissfully, as the camera pulls back steadily, higher and higher, revealing nothing but blackness outside the annex. It pulls up impossibly high, until you can see all of Rome, and there is not a single light, anywhere, except the light from the Big Brother house. The whole world is black except the sliver animated by Luciano's unhinged consciousness. There are no points of reference, nothing to hold onto, except a giggling idiot watching live reality TV through a one-way mirror. The credits roll.

Reality, then, with its blunter-than-blunt title and its all-devouring satire, is a reductio ad absurdum of the neorealist project, burning everybody from Rossellini to Scola down into pig iron. Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty considers the crushing weight of the canon, but Reality actively wants to destroy it. Neorealism is, ultimately, fantasy just by a different name, and given that, Garrone's new career move is quite easy to understand. Why multiply entities beyond necessity? Kill the canon and simplify. A motor car is more beautiful than the Nike of Samothrace.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coiling Up That Hill: Nicki Minaj, Kate Bush and Traditions of Performance

Two of the highest-profile pop performances of the summer could not seem more different: Kate Bush's first live concerts in 35 years, which have been live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected and Nicki Minaj's video for her song "Anaconda," which has broken the Vevo single-day record and similarly live-blogged, live-tweeted and dissected.

Others have done the job for me in terms of reviewing the various responses to "Anaconda," which range from what-about-our-children-ing to no-one-is-a-better-feminist-ing. Bush's performances, like I noted above, have been more than hotly anticipated since they were announced and may well be the gig of the century for music bloggers and reporters worldwide. They were also likely the impetus for the recent release of Running Up That Hill, a fascinating, if not simplistic, overview of her career. It's high time to examine each artist's current achievements in context of their individual performance practices--centering on "Anaconda" for Minaj and some of Bush's earliest, most successful videos--and check out where, if ever, they intersect.

The Gaze

Minaj and Bush both creatively draw upon their distinctive eyeballs to engage viewers. In "Anaconda," Minaj alternates between "come-hither" glances, maniacal stares and near-winks. Each eye movement serves the narrative: the "come-hither" glance starts to look ridiculous when she uses it while mouthing the chipmunk-style "Oh my God, look-at-her-BUTT." When Minaj violently slices a banana just after bedroom-eyedly covering herself in whipped cream, the effect is both jarring and humorous.

Bush's gaze can be similarly maniacal, but usually signifies a shift in the character she's portraying rather than Minaj's change in tone. The best example here is the famous "Babooshka" video:

Bush, well known for her preference to tell someone else's story rather than her own, particularly in her early work, has charmingly explained this tendency by saying that those other characters are simply more interesting than she is. In "Babooshka," her performance meanders between playing the role of "storyteller" and referencing the disguises the song's subject takes to test her husband. In the first minute or so, each meticulously planned sway is accompanied by either a squint or a deer-in-the-headlights stare, prefacing the shifts that are about to take place and the importance of her eyes in the role-shifting process. Around 2:47 of the video, Bush, still frozen in a stare, looks behind her for a moment and, when her gaze returns to ours, squints once more. If she blinks throughout the entire video, I missed it.

Both women subvert the male gaze, yes, by exercising agency over both their videos and actually making eye contact with whoever might be watching - acknowledging that while they're being watched, they can at least play at looking right back at those who are supposed to have control over their image - but in this subversion they develop their own traditions of performance that go beyond referencing the male gaze and toward creating a new form of vision entirely.

The Choreography

Minaj performs a choreography of repetition, even tedium, in "Anaconda." In the work-out scene specifically, she holds absurdly small pink weights while shifting her weight from leg to leg, occasionally taking a break to play puppeteer/yoga instructor on her backup dancers. The music under her sing-song rhymes, at this point in the tune, feels like a ticking time bomb due to the chorus's surprising explosiveness. While Minaj's raps have been frantically fast in the past, here her slowness accompanies the dance's redundant taunt, testing the patience of viewers awaiting the DRAKE LAP DANCE at the video's climax.

The video's climax, of course, is not really one at all-- Minaj denies Drake's touch and flounces offscreen, and his response is to place his heavy head in hand. Minaj's denial here, after making viewers wait for the celebrity cameo to rule them all, is deliciously dismissive and reminicent of the earlier point in the video where she slices and dices the phallus--I mean banana--after decorating herself in pseudo-ejaculatory substances.

Bush's choreography, much derived from her training with mime Lindsay Kemp, also employs repetition. For Bush, however, the repetition feels less like a taunt and more like a hex. This is particularly evident in "Wuthering Heights":

It's worth noting that Bush uses her gaze strategically once more, this time fluttering her lashes and actually blinking, referencing the romance of Wuthering Heights itself and the sleepiness of singing from the perspective of a ghost. Combined with the sleepwalking motion she enters on "Bad dreams in the night" around: 33, Bush retains the same gesture for a good three seconds longer than we expect her to, finally ensnaring viewers with a swirl leading to the iconic dance phrase of the chorus. The following phrase features her hands, grasping and pulling at the air in towards her core in exaggerations of the "come here finger" to again aid with the enchantment.

If Minaj's aim in "Anaconda" is to use movement to entrap only to deny, Bush's seems to be to enchant, entrap and then refuse to release her victim from her clutches.


Finally, these performances rely on embodiment rather than explication. This embodiment occurs both through Minaj and Bush's aforementioned dances and their use of voice as a physical tool as well as a narrative device. Minaj's characteristic for switching accents, illustrated in "Anaconda" as she drawls out the word "cocaine" and in other hits such as "Superbass" where she whips out a London accent to proclaim having "always [having] a thing for American boys," intensifies the dexterity of her raps. This penchant also contributes to the listener's desire to imitate Minaj's rhymes, but there's a catch: that dexterity and her talent for dialects make her tunes very hard to imitate indeed. Her "dun-dun-dun-dundundundunduns" in "Anaconda," simple enough to intone aloud over the song but difficult to fully mimic, solidifies Minaj's unique use of her voice as another limb to dance with.

Where Minaj's code-switching skills and speed make her vocals a distinctive part of her performance practice, Bush's range spanning several octaves and acrobatic flutters are the hallmarks of her own vocals. Her mouth itself is often a focus in her choreography:

"WOW," which escapes Bush's mouth as a syllable, an exclamation and an animalistic yelp all at once, is framed by her arm movements, which conveniently make a "W" shape centering her mouth. The movement reminds us that Bush's "Wow" is a physical creation beginning with her vocal chords, traveling across her palate and ending outside her well-painted lips--it goes well beyond simply being a narrative device connoting amazement.

This is not to say that narrative isn't important: Bush is an admitted devotee of narrative, having written "Wuthering Heights" after reading the book in its entirety so she could get the "feel" right. Minaj fills the "Anaconda" verses with colorful anecdotes about her male conquests. But each artist complements narrative with a highly physicalized voice, unmistakable in the sea of pop performance available to listeners today.