Wednesday, December 26, 2012

An Education: Narrative Overload and Social Critique

A month or two ago, a friend of mine scoffed at me when I called An Education one of my favorite movies. An Education had always seemed untouchable to me, but then I'd never had a a reason to do anything but love it—it had been smothered with accolades practically from the instant it hit the screen. Now, suddenly, I was confronted with the idea that the emperor had no clothes, that An Education was actually nothing but a sacred cow.

At first it was hard to consider. An Education is one of those movies, like Little Miss Sunshine or maybe Thumbsucker, that hits a sweet spot in critical sentiment: it has Integrity and a Message, but it's straightforward enough that it never becomes pretentious; it's a showpiece for performances by brilliant actors, but none of them is so overbearing that it becomes a prestige picture; it centers around a coming-of-age story, but it treats it sensitively enough that it never becomes a teen movie. It's set in London, but it both keeps Big Ben out of frame and writes off England as a cultural desert, so it never turns into Anglophile pornography; it's set in the early 60s, but it gives us Ravel instead of the Beatles, so it doesn't turn into an exercise in Retro.

Still, those are all basically negative qualifiers: we're awarding it for mistakes avoided rather than successes achieved. I think anybody who cares about movies would agree that a really excellent film has to do more than be tasteful, which is all that avoiding mistakes really means in this context. An Education does do a lot of things right in the eyes of the New York Times Arts pages, but that doesn't make a movie good—it's almost cliché to say that there are plenty of clever, well-composed movies that are (maybe consequently) also shallow and uninteresting, and many of these movies win Oscars. Midnight in Paris is a good example.

An Education isn't one of those movies either, though. To its bedrock of good technique and good taste it adds a layer of humanity that's actually engaging and personal: a bleak story about a, bright, impressionable suburban girl seduced by a vacillating con man, virtuoso performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina, and the debut of Carey Mulligan, who was contextually identified as the next Meryl Streep at the Oscars the year the movie came out. Not only that, but its skewering of the English bourgeoisie's short-sightedness and hypocrisy—embodied in Alfred Molina's character, our heroine's father, who rants endlessly about money and doesn't even seem to try to connect to his talented daughter—gives it a pointed social position that puts it in relation to Wilde and Shaw. It's not average glossy middlebrow fare.

Even so, neither is The King's Speech, another socially-conscious period picture set in England, which shows off several fantastic performances and performs a very nuanced analysis of the psychology and politics of George VI's speech impediment. I hated The King's Speech; I thought it was a glib, cloying exercise in heartstring-tugging and the only good thing that came out of it was the end of Colin Firth's quixotic search for an Oscar. But I can't deny that it has a lot in common with An Education, as far as those first two categories are concerned: it's well within the boundaries of middlebrow good taste, and it's a success from a purely formal point of view: it's definitely well-made and definitely well-acted. All of this is to say that it took some deep digging to discover exactly what I like about An Education. It must have performed some kind of alchemy to turn from another bland New York Times movie into something really powerful and topical. I've been thinking this over, as near as I can identify, the irreducible moments come in the two scenes when Carey Mulligan's character is alone in her headmistress's office. 

Up to the first of these scenes, the movie has been a sharp, well-acted drama about a bright, naïve girl and her older boyfriend as they navigate the art world, family politics and the perils of the Winter-Spring romance; it's kept from acknowledging a lot of tension beyond that within Jenny and David's relationship, and it's kept any social criticism implicit within Jenny's father's buffoonish rants about money. After the scene is over, the movie has made its social position crystal-clear and acknowledged the tension and impending disaster not only in the microcosm of Jenny's romance with David but also in the macrocosm of her socioeconomic life, and its set up its sequel, in which the alluded-to social repression becomes the center of the drama.

The hero of An Education, Jenny Meller, is a gifted girl from Twickenham who cleaves pretty closely to the archetype of the bright provincial who dreams of getting out of the suburbs and going someplace sophisticated, someplace where people will understand her; in her case, at least at first, this place is Oxford. She's a perfect student in all her classes except Latin, a stuffy, antiquated subject, where she struggles just as she does with the stuffiness of her family and suburban Greater London in general.

The critical change in her life comes when, walking out of Youth Orchestra rehearsal and avoiding her gawky boyfriend Graeme, she meets a businessman named David. David comes to represent everything Jenny wants, every reason she has to get out of the suburbs: he's handsome and witty, he can hold a conversation about Ravel or the Pre-Raphaelites, and his money, apparently plentiful, carries an aura of vague danger and corruption that Jenny finds exciting once she gets over her initial misgivings. They fall in love, although it's obvious from the beginning that Jenny loves him more as the symbol of a lifestyle than as a person, and it becomes obvious that David, who grows more neurotic and inconsistent as the relationship progresses, sees Jenny as his savior. Each of them is a kind of commodity to the other. Regardless of this, though, David is soon talking about taking Jenny to Paris. Paris is another important commodity for Jenny; she listens to Juliette Gréco on the floor of her bedroom and peppers her speech with French interjections, and when she meets David she tells with him, an idealism that's so childish it's almost embarrassing for us to listen to, that she's going to move to Paris, wear black and talk to people who know "lots about lots." 

Naturally, she can't keep her mouth shut about the impending trip, and soon the whole school knows about it, including her long-suffering teacher and therefore the headmistress, who calls Jenny into her office.

The headmistress, a caricature of the contemporary English bourgeoisie and its stultifying Victorian ideas of both sex and and socialization, tells Jenny in thinly-veiled terms that if she loses her virginity to David—as other girls at the school have done before her—she will be expelled, and that, moreover, if she doesn't get a degree, she will never do anything worthwhile. It's a typically overt, ham-handed, school-administration kind of thing to say, and Jenny counters with a disillusioned rant about the treadmill she's been placed in, and it's here that we become aware that she actually has some self-awareness, some understanding of her plight beyond the fantasy world she's been living in. She's grasped that Oxford is just a very prestigious way into the same system, that being a woman in Britain means a life of dreary toil and little more, and that the narrative she's stuck in—go to Oxford, read literature, and move to Paris—is just going to slot her into a boring life as a high school teacher. She can only reasonably achieve her idea of sophistication and freedom if she abandons it entirely and throws herself into her life with David completely. Education isn't enough, she tells the headmistress, without a clear reason. The headmistress helpfully reminds her that teaching isn't the only career open to women—the civil service is always there as well.

Jenny goes to Paris with David, agrees to marry him, and leaves school. At home, she has a conversation with her parents in which they blankly tell her that marriage is as good as Oxford as far as they're concerned. Jenny clearly has more doubts about the whole thing than they do—for her, it's a question of whether marriage or university is a better path to fulfillment, and to them they're both simply ways to provide for oneself.

Unfortunately, after it's revealed that he's already married, David vanishes, and Jenny learns that she's not even the first girl he's seduced and then abandoned, just as she's not even the first girl who's told the headmistress she's leaving school for an older man. This sense of repetition, of inhabiting a role rather than being an individual in the Romantic sense, comes up in the second of the two scenes with the headmistress, in which the schoolmarm curtly refuses Jenny readmission and throws her out in the cold. As long as Jenny is in the school's good graces, she's given every chance to reform; once she's gone she might as well be a stranger. Her disillusioned attack on the system's one-sided model of education now seems silly; it doesn't need to provide a reason for educating its students, because it has a monopoly. The students are the ones who have to justify themselves.

And justify herself is exactly what Jenny does. In a montage that covers the next few months, with the help of her English teacher, she studies for her A-levels, passes them, and goes to Oxford. The last we hear of her, in a narration that plays over footage of her, plaid-skirted, riding a bike across a leafy Gothic campus, is that she went on to tell the boys she went out with in college ("and they really were boys") that she would love to go to Paris, "like I'd never been."

It's this that makes An Education a great movie, as far as I'm concerned. Alongside a host of movies like The King's Speech and Midnight in Paris, movies that deliver trite, palliative humanism and celebrate a vaguely defined idea of individual freedom, An Education does exactly the opposite: it shows us how we lack freedom, how the human element is inextricable from wider cultural trends. It's a bleak, pessimistic, almost Orwellian film: Jenny's final voiceover is tinged with fatigue and regret as she tells us that she learned to love the institution she had tried so hard to escape, although it never even tried to provide satisfactory answers to her questions.

The stealthy critique this movie levels against modern life may have been too stealthy, because most critics ignored it and gave An Education a comfortable place within that year's well-meaning Sundance movies. The critique, though, is no less sharp for that, and it's what keeps the movie from slipping into "socially-conscious" territory—that is, dealing with the problems of women or young people or the middle class as if they're isolated "issues" unconnected to larger cultural currents. Beneath its veneer of retro romance, An Education is a perfectly pitched movie about what it's like to begin your life disillusioned; in an industry full of movies about becoming illusioned, so to speak, it's the kind of movie we need.

Friday, September 28, 2012

End of the Weeknd: Experiment at the Limits of Hedonism (Modernism and Pop Music 1)

- Life of the Party, The Weeknd

This is first of a series of articles I'm planning on writing about pop music and modernism.

Art is not the first concern of pop music.  That said, what is artistic in pop music is the articulation of a certain way of being.  This may sound heady, but I mean that no matter its puerility, pop music expresses a certain set of experiences and a perspective on those experiences. It may simply express bald melodrama (teenage angst) or bland escapism (nonstop parties); the perspective taken may be reductive and irresponsible, but still, a life and a mood are conveyed. Much of the music on Billboard expresses something familiar to our own lives (with either this or that accented) or something familiar to our collective fantasy life (money, sex, success).  For Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd, pop music is not an expression of the familiar, but an opportunity for exploration of a set of our cultural limits.

I wrote about Drake and Young Money last year on this blog. I said that Drake (and 40) brought a wistfulness and haunting sense of loss to the now-banal "rapper lifestyle".  In their music, there is a sense of trying to stay grounded while at the same time enjoying one's success.  It is this tension that makes Drake more interesting and complex than say, his comrade Wayne (though both Wayne and Nicki Minaj have attempted forays into this mood, I find their attempts token and fairly adolescent).  Though both the Weeknd and Drake occupy a part of the same OVOXO clique and occupy parts of a constellation of similar artists (also including the oddball Kendrick Lamar and the young romantic Frank Ocean) The Weeknd takes his music beyond the relatable themes of regret and loneliness.  While his neighboring artists have developed chilly mutant strains of their R&B and left-field hip-hop genetics, Tesfaye has attempted to breed a predator.

A consideration of the music itself.  In many of his songs, Tesfaye is directly addressing a young woman.  Often confused, uncomfortable, displaced, depressed, or vulnerable, these girls are wandering the party circuit where Tesfaye makes his home.  He seduces them into drugs, sex, or other hinted depravities.  This formula can create the disturbing sensation that one is listening to an act of predation, as in the truly disconcerting "Initiation".  With its murky lyrical references to coercive group sex and hard drugs, and a musical backdrop including a distorted, alien bass thump, echoed guitar, and Tesfaye's inhuman voice, it makes a distinctly sinister impression:

The braggadacio of someone like Trey Songz is here unconstrained by the need to be MTV marketable. Where artists like Flo Rida or the Black Eyed Peas attempt an Epicurean mood (it's the weekend!), the lifestyle that Tesfaye introduces us to is wholly unsustainable.  He makes no pretensions to the faith or social duress that define the other side of gangster masculinity.   Tesfaye's music is excessive and makes no apologies.

This makes Tesfaye's music fairly one dimensional.  At times he allows suggestions of woe or regret to creep into his lyrics, but they ring hollow.  Any attempt to portray him as a "dynamic" personality is missing the interesting aspect of his music. As gestured at above, The Weeknd is a profoundly Modern reflection on our cultural fantasies.  Listening to one of his mixtapes is a long look into our musical id.

Despite its flatness, the project has a special nuance; it is compelling because it doesn't rely on shock for its transgression (compare and contrast with the adolescent fuck-you attitude of early Eminem).  Tesfaye takes pop narratives and soundscapes that we are by now familiar with (club life, R&B seduction, casual intoxication) a long way towards their logical conclusion without stepping into caricature.

The twist of The Weeknd is that in Tesfaye's world the "avant-garde" spirit is pop. He may not approach the explorations of someone like de Sade, but a version of the libertine spirit is present in his music, asking the same chain of questions that it has for centuries.  With the excesses of art today, have we exhausted its potential?  What does it mean to "transgress" in today's pop culture?  In a world without God, is morality an aesthetic phenomenon?  These questions are important to the Modern cultural conversation, and The Weeknd articulates them in a contemporary popular context where they are becoming increasingly insistent.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Ennui Hath Wrought, Part Two

This is the second part of an ongoing series I'm writing about contemporary comedy films.

Last time I wrote that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype was the product of a sector of screenwriting preoccupied with inertia, awkwardness, and the search for identity, typically by wealthy white men in their twenties. If a movie like this has a girl-centric romantic subplot, the girl will inevitably tend to present Manic Pixie symptoms, because in this kind of movie, the style—the dialogue peppered with "realistic" disfluencies, the mean-spirited observational comedy and the pathetic protagonists—is so completely the focus that it strangles the plot and makes it impossible for anything to happen unless a savior appears who can show a way out of both the style and the content that the style has incapacitated. This savior is typically a Manic Pixie.

This is true whether or not she's a prototypic, undisguised iteration of the character like Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown or a self-aware attack on it like Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, whether she's ridiculously exaggerated like Mary Elizabeth Winstead (and everything else) in Scott Pilgrim Versus the World or downplayed to the point of nonexistence like Greta Gerwig in Greenberg. Her presentation might be different, but like a Campbellian hero, her role is the same.

So rather than writing yet another series of screeds against the pixie with a thousand faces, it seems to me that it would be more productive to go to the source and screed against the style of screenwriting instead. That said, what is the style, anyway?

When I say that it's obsessed with inertia, I have something very specific in mind. There's an awful lot of art that concerns itself partly or principally with the aimlessness that arises around adolescence. Romeo and Juliet, for one. So the subject matter isn't what's unique about this style of screenwriting. What's unique, rather, is the way the subject matter is emphasized. To examine that emphasis, let's look at an instructive foil, a movie with a lot of similarity to, say, Garden State and Tiny Furniture.

This is a montage from the middle of The Graduate. Our hero, as you can see, is numbly splitting his time between floating in his pool and carrying on an affair with his parents' friend at a nearby hotel; this montage neatly sums up, in under five minutes, his mindset at the time: he's aimless, hollow, numb and quietly desperate, alienated from his parents and even his lover, whose face we don't see clearly until the last shot. There doesn't seem to be a way out. None of this is really notable on its own; the important thing is that if you stretched this montage out over an hour and a half you would have the makings of 85% of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl film. All that's missing in this montage is the Manic Pixie herself.

Here's a plot:

Benjamin Braddock, a talented but aimless college graduate, has been home from college for a few months now, and doesn't seem interested in anything except the backyard pool and (unbeknownst to his parents) his trysts with the neighbor's wife. But just as he's about to succumb to loneliness and isolation, he meets a girl who's everything he needs—beautiful, lively and just different.

Throw in a few songs by the Shins and you've got a movie.

I'd argue that parts of The Graduate form the prototypic aimless male hero movie: a brooding, handsome loser lies around and mopes, doing his damnedest not to deal with his unexorcised demons. That's the core of Garden State, (500) Days of Summer, and most other movies in this genre.

At best, a Garden State-type movie is the first half of The Graduate. At worst, it's just those four-and-a-half minutes spread thinly over two hours, with a quick beginning and end tacked on. In either case, the movie is almost inevitably a slapdash, lazy, undemanding version of The Graduate, a movie that pretends emotional immobility is the same as subtlety and, bizarrely, that one-dimensional characterizations are the same as complex ones. (I guess the expectation of this last is to be some kind of Iceberg Theory, where the viewer will infer 90% of the screenplay on their own, but unfortunately nobody writing these movies is half the writer Hemingway was, so it inevitably becomes an excuse.)

With this in mind, let's compare The Graduate with Noah Baumbach's Greenberg, a movie that epitomizes the ennui-fueled, arrested-development energy of this genre. In Greenberg, our talented but aimless hero comes home after being away for a long time, where he spends most of his time floating around in a pool until he meets a girl who, we're led to assume, is the "first thing that's made him feel alive in years." Granted, he's in forties and not his twenties and the institution from which he's returning is mental and not academic, but that doesn't diminish its obvious stylistic debt to The Graduate.
Roger Greenberg floats from party to party, much as Ben Braddock does—the incredibly dry irony makes The Graduate's wordplay and physical comedy look Vaudevillian by comparison, but the jokes have the same butts—in the process abortively hooking up with the other house-sitter, a blond girl half his age, whose name, of course, is Florence. He's later reunited with her by a sick dog, and after some messy subplot issues involving his failed rock band and the possibility of a trip to Australia, which we equate with his continued emotional numbness, he decides to stay in California with Florence.

This is The Graduate. It just moves slower and cuts out halfway through.
The second half of the The Graduate, though, is what makes all the difference, and this in the problem: Elaine may be everything Ben needs, but she quickly becomes inaccessible, so he tells his parents he's marrying her, runs to Berkeley, follows her in a way that becomes less endearing every second, destroys his reputation, runs back down to Southern California, crashes her wedding, locks her family in a church, and hops a bus with her—and then the cameras roll on and on and on while the two of them stare up the aisle and slowly realize they have no idea what to do next. They don't even know where the bus is going. But with absolute disregard, it pulls away, and it's too late for them.

We don't get to see any of this in Greenberg. Greenberg is, in its entirety, the prologue to one action—that is, Roger's decision to stay with Florence. This is the only decision in the the movie that Roger doesn't defer or avoid. The decision to go to marry Elaine is the first decision in The Graduate that Ben doesn't defer or avoid, with the exception of his decision to take up with Mrs. Robinson—and he needs a lot of help with the latter—but the movie shows us the consequences of the decision. Ben's decision both signifies that he's taking responsibility for himself and irreversibly affects the plot; Roger's is nothing but an empty gesture. The irony of Greenberg is that it puts the act of taking responsibility for oneself, of choosing to stop deferring and live one's own life, into a context where it has no effect on the lives of any of the characters. Roger ostensibly chooses to start living, finally; in fact, though, all he chooses to do (mercifully!) is end the movie.

For all its extremely realistic content, Greenberg is really a fantasy. I am not going to dance around this: the ending of Greenberg, in which a protagonist who's previously been absolutely immobile is suddenly given a chance at romantic fulfillment and we fade out before we see how that romance ends up, is a happily-ever-after, and Greenberg is a fairy tale. Garden State is also a fairy tale, as is Elizabethtown. Any movie that conceives of growing up, of getting out of arrested development and into adulthood, as a kind of mystical gift that's dropped into the laps of its protagonists, will tend to turn into a fairy tale.

Happily-ever-after is a shallow ending. I won't argue against the deus-ex-machina as it's deployed in Greek tragedy, or even against its use in folklore, which tends to be more about encoded cultural lessons than about plot or character development anyway, but in contemporary indie cinema, which is so completely obsessed with verisimilitude that it looks more and more like this blog every day, it's hard for me to read it as anything more than the worst kind of aesthetic cowardice.

The Graduate has the aesthetic and intellectual maturity to show us what it means to break out of the doldrums suddenly, to find a consuming passion and dedicate yourself completely to it, and how that passion can ruin your life. In contrast, Greenberg and its ilk are like kids who haven't learned how to pick up their own laundry yet. It's like they invent the Pixie to act as a mother, somebody who will pick up their laundry for them and nurse them into adulthood along the way.

The thing is, we know that somewhere along the line, Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr are going to end up on a proverbial bus of their own, staring blankly up the aisle and realizing that it takes more than a magical donation to escape from inertia. We know that because The Graduate has had the courage to tell us the story up to that point. Greenberg doesn't even have the courage to pick up its own laundry.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Spiral in Permanent Revolutions: Gurren Lagann via Gilles Deleuze

- Leeron Littner

At first glance, Gurren Lagann looks like a generic example of Shonen anime.  Its story is hackeneyed: young man starts into the world from his small town and quickly gathers a group of eclectic friends to face down a global-level threat. As it follows this basic format it is easy to mistake Gurren Lagann for an earnest tribute to its forerunners, counting such classics as Getter Robo, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Gundam Wing and other exemplars of the "Real Robo" and ,"Super Robo" genres as its wikipedia-obvious influences.  You could see it falling well in line with its better known, longer running contemporaries like One Piece or Naruto. But Gurren Lagann transcends the limits of its genre-siblings and forerunners by pushing the conventions of Shonen to the edge of absurdity in a single season-length statement.  This manic, concise, and ultimately critical spirit makes Gurren Lagann one of the most interesting anime I have come across.

The show affects its aesthetic and narrative feats by finding spirals at the heart of the genre and bringing them to the forefront. Watching this theme develop on-screen, you're surprised that you hadn't thought about it when viewing Gurren Lagann's act-alikes (assuming you hadn't); Shonen repeats the cycle of get stronger, beat boss, discover new threat.  It shares this narrative structure with video games, particularly early generation RPGs that were severely limited in gameplay diversity by virtue of their hardware and thus were forced to repeat variations on a theme.  But limited structure can sometimes make for the most inspiring art, and Gurren Lagann achieves baroque-pop greatness by taking this repetition and expanding it in a profoundly exuberant way. Far from being fanboy gushy about its influences, this expansion is accompanied by a surprising self-awareness that allows the show a critical reflection that is all too often missing from its fellows. This reflective stance transforms Gurren Lagann into a meditation on desire.

Already in this trailer you can see that Gurren Lagann does not shy from an overt traditional masculinity and a certain teenage puerility.  This may turn some off from the show; it certainly made me more wary when I started watching it (especially since some scenes are explicitly transphobic).  I think the show can be legitimately criticized for its shortcomings, but I also think that it embraces its kinks as part of the territory; when you're going to create the ultimate Shonen, you have to be willing to express its weaknesses just as much as its strengths.  This willingness to capture the entirety of the genre, flaws intact, defines the progression of the show.  It is "orgasmically" structured; each "circle" in the "spiral" of its narrative structure follows the aforementioned build-up, climax, recovery cycle.  And what's interesting is that the characters suffer the consequences.

Note: This next section will make a hell of a lot more sense if you have seen the series.  If you have not, hopefully I have piqued your curiosity enough that you'll go try it, maybe watch it, and come back.

Take, for example, the transition between the first and second major arcs of the series. Simone acts as a subject orbiting around an object of desire in both, the object of the first arc being Kamina and his desire to "break through the heavens," his desire for freedom, and the second being Nia and her desire to discover her purpose.  When Team Gurren has a center, it becomes what Deleuze calls "fascicular"; it spirals outward and echoes the power of its origin in an expansive and exploratory way.  For example, Team Gurren's escape through the ceiling of the hometown, the destruction of the four spiral generals, and the acquisition of Dai-Gurren act as echoes of Kamina's willingness to "drill" through the established order through sheer will in the first arc act as good examples of this echoing.  The more important note here is that in the interstitial period, when Team Gurren has no definite focal point, it flops.  Simone's depression and the establishment of the well-intentioned totalitarian world state after the second arc leap immediately to mind here.  It's easy to argue that the third and final act of the series is about Simone finding and expressing his conjugal desire for Nia.  But there are two interesting weaknesses to this third desiring relationship that beautifully illustrate the question that animates the series.

The first is that Simone's desire for Nia isn't strong enough.  When the Anti-Spiral traps Team Gurren in the alternate dimensions where they act as other selves, they stay stuck there.  It takes Kamina's reappearance and reactivation of Team Gurren's old desire, that is to say Kamina's desire, for freedom to jar them back into the fight. Trapped by their otherwise mediocre and everyday desires, they rely on Kamina's strength to galvanize them to their utmost potential.  Kamina here becomes more than an "individual" or a "symbol"; in this sequence, Kamina is a becoming.  Characters that are becoming-Kamina are each transformed in entirely different ways, each striving to reach their utmost expression.  Nowhere is this better captured than when Kamina explains that when he doesn't believe in himself, he relies on the him that Simone believes in, the becoming-Kamina in himself that defies his insecurities and transforms him into an expression rather than an individual.  This is further validated by the scene where Simone tells Kamina he'll "always be in his heart" and goes on to destroy the Anti-Spiral; Kamina has ceased being a person or a symbol, and become a freeing affect.

The second weakness of the central relationship of the third act is that after this final desire is consummated in the symbolic marriage of Simone and Nia, both characters are finished and the series is over.  It's easy to forget that Gurren Lagann ends on a cliffhanging, bittersweet note; the bulk of the characters take up becoming-Kamina again and presumably go on to challenge the spiral nemesis, but Simone ends up tired and comically impotent (skip to 21:56, unless you want to see the whole final episode and/or hear the Four Year Strong-esque end theme):

This is what I find truly fascinating about Gurren Lagann; every productive and strong force in the entire show relies on the drive to freedom of becoming-Kamina.  To me, becoming-Kamina is a perfect example of Deleuze's successful war-machine, the nomadic flow that continually escapes established boundaries on its own novel flight path.  When becoming-Kamina, Team Gurren creates, steals, and destroys with an anarchist glee; when forced to become sedentary, they lapse into a sometimes dangerous or aimless segmentation. The stand-out reference for this "reterritorialization" is Rossiu's world-state.  The series takes pains to make it explicit that his carefully planned order is born of his original religious resentment and is parasitic on the raw desire unlocked by Kamina; he tries to control, quantify it, and reduce it to its utility, but cannot fully contain its flow (as a perfect example, consider the Grapearls; mass produced based on Gurren Lagann's technology, they ultimately cannot come close to matching it).  Eventually the war-machine starts up again and the state relinquishes control when the Anti-Spirals shatter Rossiu's carefully constructed equilibrium.  Kamina and Team Gurren are a line of flight that breaks free from centered structures, including the identities of Kamina and Simone themselves.

Team Gurren is stuck vacillating between their self-sustaining collective desire and their centered, serial dependence on their cycle of become stronger, win the battle, and suffer refraction.  This assemblage is the basis of the startlingly interesting dynamic exploration that makes Gurren Lagann worth watching and worth thinking about.  At times, Team Gurren use their alliance and shared desire to act as a multitude straight out of Hardt and Negri's Empire.  At others, they fall into the "black hole" of hierarchy and complacency.  Their task (and perhaps ours) is either to find a practice of desiring that doesn't rely on a constantly collapsing structure of desired objects, but instead puts emphasis on sustained "plateaued" force (Trotsky, Deleuze/Guattari) or accept that the tragic structure is our lot and heroically embrace this fate (Camus, Zizek).  Or, to put it in appropriately melodramatic terms, are we up in the sky with Kamina, or stuck on the ground with Simone?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Ennui Hath Wrought, Part One

This is the first part of an ongoing series I'm writing about contemporary comedy films.

I don't know if there's a more widely damned stock character in cinema these days, at least in the parts of the blogosphere that discuss representations of women in movies, than the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. We all know her, right? Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer, etc. People condemn her so completely that it's amazing that she appears so often. She's held up as an example of everything bad about screenwriting these days: she's shallow, precious and ornamental, and she gives the sense that the writer believes that women basically exist to provide direction and guidance to brooding men. Despite all of this, though, she keeps cropping up, and she keeps cropping up even when she's not supposed to be able to. Even when the writer has obviously tried painstakingly to subvert every aspect of the stock character, as in Kate Winslet's character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who was created specifically to quash the archetype (and even almost succeeds, in a couple of monologues), in the end she still feels like a Manic Pixie, like the persona is a demon that even the forces of Hollywood can't exorcise no matter how hard they try.

What that says to me is that there's nothing innate in these poor women that's causing them to transform into Manic Pixies; rather, it's probably something about the situations that screenwriting today creates for its characters that stick them with the Manic Pixie label. If character qualities alone aren't enough to form a definition of her, it would probably be more productive to analyze the role she inhabits in the plot . So rather than look at a list of personality traits (zaniness, lack of inhibition, fun dress sense etc.), let's look instead at how she functions and what she represents.

How she functions, I'd argue, is as a source of direction. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, regardless of whether she has blue hair or pink hair, whether she wears vintage sweaters or Doc Martens, is in the movie basically as a catalyst, a plot device to kickstart the main character's inert life. Her personal traits are totally irrelevant to this fact; she could be anything as long as she gets the catalysis done. A Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a cross between a messiah and a muse: she not only inspires, but she does it at a moment of dire need, when the protagonist is so stuck, professionally, and emotionally, that inspiration is basically interchangeable with salvation. All of which is to say that she can't exist in a movie that doesn't have a directionless protagonist, and that the Enemy in her movies—the force so evil and all-encompassing that only outside salvation can defeat it—is inertia itself. Not just unleaded plebeian inertia, either, but the high-octane moneyed twentysomething variety. Without inertia, she has no in. And the corollary of that is that if the movie is about inertia, she will appear. Any movie about educated twentysomethings that is fundamentally about one man's struggle with inertia, and has a major subplot that is romantic in the conventional sense, will tend to produce Manic Pixie Dream Girls. 

So now we have not only a definition but a way of predicting when a Manic Pixie will show up—and also, we're no longer just talking about this particular character archetype, but rather the whole style of screenwriting that created her—that is, screenwriting obsessed with inertia, awkwardness, and "finding yourself."

This sector of screenwriting is what gave us the careers of Judd Apatow, Noah Baumbach, Michael Cera, Jesse Eisenberg, Lena Dunham, and a lot of others, and it cleaves pretty closely to their general style. It's preoccupied with adolescence, ennui, arrested development, lingering family issues, and the utter inability to cope with the choices provided by privilege. None of this is new to screenwriting or narrative in general, though—John Hughes movies are often about these issues, The Graduate certainly is, and, of course, so are Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Augustine's Confessions. 

What differentiates this new kind of screenwriting is its obsessive focus on the minutiae of the lives of the characters it describes, the premium it places on realism. Movies like Greenberg, Superbad and Tiny Furniture are precise. They resist the standard Hollywood dialog style—nothing is ever glossed over by resorting to standard popcorn-movie diction, characters often speak with likes and whatevers intact, and nothing happens that could not happen in real life. (Notable exceptions like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are careful to present their fantastic elements as realistically as possible—the Lacuna Inc. set is as quotidian a dentist's office.) They reject the high-toned wit of classic comedies like My Man Godfrey, the "one word: plastics" satire of The Graduate, the outrageous sitcom tone of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and even the condescending sneer of Dazed and Confused in favor of a level-headed, sympathetic inspection of their misbegotten heroes exactly as they are. They are invariably about intelligent but listless middle-class people, people who have their heads on straight but are maybe a little selfish, maybe a little numb, and usually very socially inept.

Now, not all of these movies have Manic Pixie Dream Girls. There's none in Superbad, none in Tiny Furniture, none in The Squid and the Whale. But in the solo straight white male twentysomething genre—Greenberg, (500) Days of Summer, Garden State, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—she's inevitable.

These movies, the white-dude-living-alone ones, are also typically the ones that are most concerned with wallowing in carefully observed realist aimlessness. The style—disfluencies in dialog, realism in storyline—is so completely united with the subject matter, it comes to embody the aimlessness and ennui that the movies are about, and transcending that aimlessness is inextricable from transcending the style. So the plots require an instrument like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who wears sun dresses when everyone else is in t-shirts and jeans, who sings songs from children's television when everyone else is talking in monotone, and who does her own social thing when everyone else is trapped on the middle-class twentysomething treadmill. She's the only character who's allowed to break out of the obsessive, precise realism of the movies, just as she's the only character who's allowed to break out of the cynical realist conventions of the plot. Both in style and in subject, she's the one concession the movie makes to real fantasy, and this fantasy is what interrupts the main character's doldrums for long enough that he can learn to love again.

Her slightly outrageous behavior, cloying and precious as it is, is really the most parsimonious way to make the movie work. What's more, she reveals the fact that movies so ideologically fixated on minute realism require the implosion of that very minute realism to function; the type of screenwriting that produces the Manic Pixie Dream Girl produces her to destroy the realist style it's created, which is the only way it can resolve itself. She's a lazy, sexist character archetype, yes, but the movie needs her nonetheless. Rather than critique her in a vacuum, then, it's probably best to critique the environment that creates her, the sterile focus on verisimilitude and aimlessness that necessitates her. Browbeating writers into paranoia isn't going to make her go away; she'll just appear in ever more subtle and devious ways, because she's a consequence of movies about white dudes in their twenties with their own apartments. So shut up about the poor Pixie, O thou bloggers. It's not her fault. Society made her.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hot Springs and Train Tracks: The Global Village in Spirited Away

Spirited Away, anime juggernaut, credited with finally outing what had been called "Japanimation" a few years before as a "legitimate art form," seems at first blush like an extremely Japanese movie, almost to the point of exclusivity. Like many of Hayao Miyazaki's movies, it avoids the western-friendly science fiction trappings of other big movies like Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and draws on Japanese mythology instead to build up its fantasy world—a wester viewer doesn't have a big Cold War crater in the middle of Tokyo or a ton of Biblical allusions to give them a foothold. What they have is an aggressively traditional bathhouse full of inscrutable Shinto spirits spirits, the assumption that a viewer passively knows things about the 1980s boom economy, and a ton of calligraphy. It doesn't seem outwardly surprising that Disney sunk so much money into its dubbing job and its advertising—Spirited Away feels Japanese enough that it needs a lot of naturalization to be accessible in America.

But the thing is that it's not. The outer "Japaneseness" of the whole affair is only briefly convincing. As an instructive comparison, let's look briefly at Princess Mononoke, another of Miyazaki's movies that I would say is truly nativist.

Princess Mononoke is set during the Muromachi period, around the 15th century, about as distant as medieval Sweden in The Seventh Seal. Its plot centers around an exile from an Emishi community in Japan who comes west to find that an industrial iron-mining operation is moving into a forest that's under the protection of a group of territorial spirits, and tries unsuccessfully to find a way to navigate the process without whipping it up into a war. It's a fairly nightmarish movie, in a lot of ways—in the first scene the main character gets himself cursed by a giant boar, the movie ends with a Godzilla-sized monster made of terrifying black goop tramping through a forest, and in between are a lot of lepers, bleeding pigs and massing of squirming black worms festering inside of wounds, the upshot being that the magical elements of the movie are persistently presented as terrifying and unknowable, even when they're not necessarily malevolent. Moreover, a lot of them are physically amorphous—the huge Godzilla monster at the end is an extreme example, obviously, since it's mostly made of black goo, but even the strange little forest spirits that recur throughout the movie have a melted, colloidal look to them.

The effect of all this is that the spirit world in Mononoke is best understood as a kind of force rather than as a cohesive world that truly intersects with our own. It's more of an immanent disordering principle than a separate setting in and of itself. Mononoke's setting—from its local geography to its details—is extremely, intricately, obsessively fleshed out, but the points at which the spirit world intersects with it, things become fuzzy, and the rules don't really apply anymore, or at least become extremely inconsistent. Much of the movie relies on juxtaposing the human need to impose order on nature with nature's ultimate, uncontrollable irrationality. It's a conceit as old as history that Mononoke repeats enthusiastically.

Spirited Away, on the other hand, inverts this formula. It's set in a vision of modern Japan, a country of infrastructure, highways, and a national economy, which collides with an idiosyncratic vision of a spirit world that isn't immanent in our own but highly segregated, and isn't a disordering principle but a highly ordered one. Our heroine, a girl named Chihiro, stumbles with her parents into an abandoned amusement park (built, her father informs us, during the boom economy of the 1980s, and quickly closed once the recession of the 90s hit) and, from there, into a strange otherworld, in which she worms her way into a job at a bathhouse for the spirits.

Through the entire world-building of the movie, it neatly flips around Mononoke's spirit/human dichotomy: what little we see of the world outside the bathhouse, in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, is an amorphous mass of highway interchanges and houses that flow by outside the window; it's not so much a distinct place as a backdrop, and contrary to Miyazaki's usual obsession with detail, it's absolutely indistinct. There's no way to navigate it; it's an anonymous Potemkin village, seen completely in transit. More than anything in Miyazaki's work, it resembles Ozu's depiction of Tokyo in Tokyo Story in its total anonymity: the infrastructure of contemporary Japan makes it impossible to navigate the outside world as a coherent geographical space, and it becomes more like a subway tunnel, connecting space to space without any real spatial existence of its own. In this way it's as immanent yet indistinct as the spirit world in Mononoke.

Once we get into the spirit world, the movie once again uses the exact opposite effect as in Mononoke. The bathhouse where Chihiro works—once her name has been Le Guinned away from her and she's been rechristened Sen—has a very carefully mapped out geography that the viewer quickly picks up on. The administrative offices are at the top, the boiler is in the basement, the baths are along the ground  floor, the workers' quarters are along the sides; the water is controlled by a system on little wooden cards with painted symbols on them that the staff and the boiler room send back and forth; there's a system of elevators that links the floors of the bathhouse. Even more, there's a system of trains that connects the bathhouse to other parts of the spirit world. They go by at regular intervals throughout the day. The spirits themselves typically look more or less like humans or frogs; when they approach black goo status, as in the character of No Face, it's treated as a bizarre exception. Employment at the bathhouse requires signing a contract; getting into it requires payment whose value is agreed upon beforehand. Diegetically, the spirit world is far more "structured" than the interstitial material world. This organized structure raises a more interesting observation about the spirit world: not only is it structured like a contemporary capitalist institution, but it's also globalized like one.

When we look back at Mononoke, we see that it's set in a medieval past so distant that's it hard to distinguish from fantasy in some ways; communities are totally insular, with no question of infrastructural connection or even necessarily of linguistic compatibility, and the movie hinges around the rampant tribalism and outsider status that this engenders. The main character's Emishi heritage makes him an outsider from the iron-mining community he encounters; the iron miners in turn define themselves as separate from the spirits in the forest. The factional conflict that this creates is worthy of Starcraft.

Tribal borders in Spirited Away, as it were, are far hazier. It's true that when Chihiro first enters the spirit world, she's clearly marked as a human and has to hide from spirits who might hurt her if they knew. However, there's already a bureaucratic solution in place to her problem; all she has to do is make her case to the owner of the bathhouse and sign a contract, and she's immediately accepted as a member of the workforce. This kind of slippage between the human and spirit worlds would be almost unthinkable in Princess Mononoke's world of rigid tribal boundaries, in which the girl-raised-as-a-wolf character of San is exceptional precisely because there's no template for her. Where San functions as a red flag on the tribal boundaries that drive the narrative in the movie, Chihiro's status is unusual but fully precedented.

This kind of easy slippage between cultural identities extends all the way to the mise-en-scene. In the scene in which the spirits are first introduced, they disembark from a Mississippi River steam ferry and process through a town full of tacky neon lights, many of which say "Café" in the Roman alphabet, while an Okinawan (not Japanese) shamisen plays in the background. The owner of the bathhouse lives in an elaborate apartment with European decor and wears Victorian dresses. Nobody ever remarks on any of this. Miyazaki seems to be presenting a world in which a huge number of cultural and social influences coexist more or less peacefully—albeit not without corruption—and that's a far cry from Mononoke, which effectively centers around a race war.

If you accept the thesis that the spirit world is an abstract manifestation of Japan's cultural psyche (which is itself a pretty big assumption that I'll leapfrog right over, but if you'd like further reading there's a chapter in Susan Napier's book on anime about that phenomenon) and that the bathhouse is a place where that psyche can be literally purified, then it's telling that Miyazaki goes to such trouble to make it both global and functional. It would be pretty facile to conclude by saying that Miyazaki's rejection of the simplistic antimodern predilections of earlier Japanese films means that he's evolved as a writer past his easy condemnations of tribalism in Mononoke, so I'll just add that if there's any pop culture phenomenon that better embodies the twenty-first century than Spirited Away, a movie that casts a sympathetic eye on the possibilities of pluralist society, using a medium that was appropriated from the west and is now being re-imported as an important Japanese art form, I can't imagine what it is.

Monday, May 14, 2012

He Who Must Not Be Served: The Anti-Aristocratic Sentiments of Harry Potter

- Voldemort

Harry Potter, insofar as it is literature, is pop lit.  The series is built around a slightly mysterious and nite-lite foggy world that can be charitably called "quirky"; despite how much Rowling is able to pack into it, this world has never been anything more than a backdrop to me. As in most plot-driven pop lit, the world is an elaborate prop. Part of the appeal of the wizard world is that so much of it can be twisted around (by MAGIC) to serve any purpose. No wonder Harry Potter fanfiction is so popular. Things don't happen when Harry and his friends turn away, except insofar as they set up the next magical encounter or emotionally salient moment. In fact, one of the real achievements of Rowlings' vision is that the world is a beautifully designed Rube Goldberg machine to put Voldemort back into power. Every nook and cranny in the world is full of implements and techniques that he can turn to his own ends, whether it be unicorn blood or horcruxes.

But this is not (primarily) a whine about Harry Potter's shallow, usefully magical context.  Instead, I want to talk about what it means when this elaborate mechanism is turned to a certain purpose.  Rowling's world is a fable world; it is built and bent for a specific purpose.  It does not strive for realism.  It is a delivery mechanism for a moral spectacle, or, more often, a collection of moral spectacles.

In order to locate Voldemort within Rowling's ethical map, let's take a minute to watch the Death Eaters as they commune:

Voldemort and his cadre are primarily pale, well kept, mannered, thin, and surrounded by austere and antique furniture.  They are, for the most part, well off.  They keep servants. They meet in cavernous mansions.

The pattern here is far from subtle. Rowling makes no secret about the fact that the Death Eaters represent a caricatured aristocracy.  For them, values like love and friendship take a backseat to fidelity, purity, and strength.  Those Death Eaters that aren't valued for their blood or their loyalty are treated like mercenaries or hired help, able to be dismissed via Avada Kedavra at any moment.  When we see the scene above in the context of some of the warm and casual meetings of the Order of the Phoenix, the dichotomy is made bare.

And nowhere is the contrast between the Death Eaters and Harry's contingent made clearer than on the issue of equality.  At Voldemort's ministry of magic, the statue of the wizard crushing the muggles beneath his boots is the centerpiece: the Death Eaters are more powerful than the muggles, and therefore the muggles are inferior. The Death Eater philosophy embraces a "natural order" that goes back to Aristotelianism if not before; according to the Death Eaters, the world is stratified into levels of objective value and all of the levels are better off for it.  The commoners should stay with the common, the mudbloods with mudbloods, the warriors with the warriors, and the house elves with the house elves.  The Death Eaters are reactionary, but they have a positive program.  By contrast, Harry and his friends often seem more defined negatively; they are not the Death Eaters.

This quasi-Manicheanism illustrates one of the fundamental tensions of the book: Harry is a Death Eater in disguise.  He comes from a pureblood background, wields great power, and sits on immense wealth.  His identification with Voldemort is even less a coincidence in these lights.  When de Tocqueville came to America, he saw an aristocracy increasingly held to the standards of the growing middle class.  They had to be useful and humble; unlike their european counterparts, they did not have history and culture to support them.  The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality simply would not allow them to sit idly on the same patrician chairs they did in Europe.  Harry is the American aristocracy to Voldemort's old world traditions.  No wonder He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has such a refined accent.

Compromise is key to Rowling's contrast between good and evil; Harry and his friends realize that morality is painted in shades of gray, in sharp contrast to the absolutes of Voldemort et al. But for me, the truly interesting negotiation of both Rowlings' books and the movies is finding exactly where the compromises stop for Harry and his friends. Like so much morally concerned pop media, the problem negotiated is where to find the moral rock to stand on. Harry will kill, but only the right people.  He'll use unforgivable curses, but only in the right situations. Rowling and like minded writers are concerned particularly with placating middle class moral anxieties. In the face of globalism and pluralism, aspects of the western middle class ache to find principles to found a new set of timeless values. This is why Voldemort represents a threat; against a marketplace of fluid values and ideas, the Death Eaters stand as anachronistically principled and insular. Malfoy makes his friends by connecting with the families his family has connected with for centuries; there is no comparison of shared interests, little uncertainty, and limited negotiation. By contrast, Harry's relationships seem more tumultuous and varied, and thus Harry's greatest strength is his unerring intuition. He can feel through his relationships and moral quandaries, and though he may sometimes stumble or compromise, he always ends up in the right and we envy him for his successes. This is yet another contrast;  Harry and his friends feel what is right while the Death Eaters know what is right.

This negotiation of modern value confusion animates Harry and his friends and, at times, is their heaviest burden. For example, the very fact of Slytherin's continued existence pulls at the bounds of tolerance, another middle class anxiety. Everyone at Hogwarts knows that "those people" tend to be bad for the most part, but we allow them their say, because, after all, everyone has a right to their say.  The tolerance of intolerance is a heavy burden to modern liberalism, and Harry and his friends bear it resentfully.  In fact, whenever a Slytherin turns out good, it is seen as a happy, surprising exception and celebrated as a success of Harry's openness. To be welcome at Harry's liberal consensus, you need only be willing to enter the dialogue.

I do not mean to reduce Harry Potter to the modern anxieties it expresses. In many ways, Harry's story is structurally similar to stories told in the Western tradition for thousands of years.  But even the fact that it is not a straightforward repetition of those stories casts light on part of Rowling's narrative agenda. Harry Potter is successful in large part because it succeeds at being what it tries to be; an anchor and an anthropological document for a generation of middle class desires and insecurities.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Chameleon Circuit: Doctor Who and Postmodernism Lite

Postmodernism had been around for a while – since Borges, Nabokov, Rauschenberg and Warhol, but awareness of the phenomenon outside of France didn't blow up until the culture wars. The Yale School did most of its publishing in the eighties; campus speech code controversies picked up in the late eighties and early nineties; Harold and Allan Bloom (no relation!) wrote their big, fat books about the problems with intellectual culture around the end of the eighties; Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont wrote Fashionable Nonsense in the middle of the nineties.

This had a Reaganomic effect on culture: postmodernism trickled down from journals to grad schools to undergrad philosophy departments to high school English classes – where students now have to learn about "the other" – and, inevitably, into television. And what this trickling down congealed into, if you ask me, was the revival of a show called Doctor Who.

Doctor Who owes a lot of its popularity right now, I think, to the ways people think it differs from the "average" science fiction show. There's something about it that – speaking from personal experience, before I fell off the wagon – feels a little fresher than your average science fiction show, and I think it owes a lot of that to its adherence to the aesthetic dictates of a kind of Postmodernism Lite, the kind of Readers Digest postmodernism that you can explore in a forty-minute episode without cutting too many of the effects shots. But to explain exactly what that means, it's useful to look at the "average" science fiction show, and for that I'll turn, obviously, to Star Trek.

Marshall Berman defines two dominant threads in modernist expression: "cultural despair," the type practiced by Eliot, Faulkner, Sartre and Stravinsky, which is your average gloom and doom about anomie, alienation and ennui, and "modernolatry," the type found in the International Style and Futurism, which is all about enshrining the machine age, embracing globalism, and the belief that all social problems can be solved by strong central administration and efficient use of resources. This is the big utopian historical-narrative type of modernism that led to Pruitt-Igoe and the moon landings, and I don't think it's a stretch to see Star Trek (or at least the 1960s version) as an incarnation of it.

In fact, Star Trek really has it all: a multiethnic, utopian Worlds Fair of a crew who never broach the topic of race, a Futurist fetish for speed and violence, a progressive and omnipresent administration, and, most importantly, a highly self-contained and cohesive universe. It's true that there isn't a real geography in Star Trek (not there is in other fantasy, like Tolkien, anyway) but we know that when we encounter a Klingon, he isn't just a monster of the week; he's part of a faction that has institutions and politics of its own. We know that there's a Starfleet organization; there are things happening on Earth and on every planet that we visit. The crew are just the lens that we view things through; other stories, we can imagine, are being told elsewhere in the universe. The series works very hard to make sure that nothing in the show every breaks the illusion of the coherence of the universe – not the jokes, not the time travel, not even the music is allowed to interrupt the show's universe. Everything works on one register. In other words, it's a utopian, humanist, rationalist approach to constructing a fictional universe – an approach that's colored, I'd argue, by nothing as much as International Style modernist ideology.

Doctor Who, right from the beginning, has taken the opposite tack. There's no effective universal administration, no multiethnic crew members (at first, they're all white; as the show goes on it starts to deal halfheartedly with class and race), and certainly no preoccupation with speed and motion. In fact, there's no real sense of space as such in Doctor Who – the Tardis basically takes on whatever interior dimensions are convenient, and they never rationally fit inside of the phone box; moreover, it doesn't fly off into the stars like the Enterprise, it disappears and reappears somewhere else with apparently no motion involved at all. When characters do talk about "flying" the Tardis, it's abstracted and usually not particularly convincing; one of the show's running gags is how the knobs and levers in the Tardis can't really be assigned specific functions. It seems to move in some sort of frictionless way. The only real analog I can think of for the way the viewer understands the Tardis's motion is the hypertext link, actually: we find it in a new place, without even imagining that there might be intervening space between where it takes off and where it lands. Marinetti would be horrified.

But the real thing that I think sets Doctor Who apart from Star Trek, and from most science fiction shows in that mold, is its utter disregard for a cohesive universe. Doctor Who's focus on travel through time means that literally any character from any time period could potentially appear in any episode. This foregrounds the artificiality of the whole thing, demands that the reader view the episode not as one of many potential stories unfolding within a self-contained universe, but as something that could only happen under the exact circumstances of the episode. Even when the show does linger in one setting for a long time, even when it works at setting up a self-contained universe to inhabit for a few episodes, we're so colored by our experiences of all of the previous episodes and their own universes that we refuse to accept it on any level as absolute. Star Trek's universe has narrative impact because it feels new and fresh; the modernist ideal of art always plumbing new depths. The societies the Doctor encounters ultimately always seem like constructs, backdrops for the episodes, rather than places the viewer could really inhabit; their narrative impact comes simply from their exposure to the Doctor, and not from anything distinctive about themselves. A season of Doctor Who samples a lot of different settings; none of them suggests wider narrative any more than a three-second sample of the Amen Break really suggests the entirety of "Amen, Brother." Doctor Who's narrative avoids the totalizing, rationalist outlook that Star Trek seems so wedded to embraces meaning constructed out of the juxtaposition of elements, and throws in its lot with artificiality, irrationality, fragmentation and playful irony – all things that any freshman humanities textbook will tell you are emblematic of Postmodernism.

But clearly none of the really difficult aspects of Postmodernism come up in Doctor Who. Doctor Who is interested in the Nam Jun Paik/Grandmaster Flash kind of postmodernism, the kind that's fun and colorful and isn't heavy on theory. There's no micropolitics in the Tardis, no infinitely deferred meaning, no exploded subjectivity unless you count all the regenerations. For all its innovation, Doctor Who is ultimately humanist in the same stale way as Star Trek – it's more reductive in its humanism, certainly, but still humanist. Star Trek had the comfortable modernist belief that people, organized by administrators, could solve all their problems. Doctor Who also believes that people can solve all their problems, but legitimizes this, at least in the new series, not by endorsing universal government but simply by letting the Doctor talk about human potential until his face turns blue. It's always unconvincing, and it comes across, I've always thought, as a kind of ideological concession, a way of propitiating the ghost of Star Trek humanism even though Doctor Who, in the twenty-first century, knows a lot more than Star Trek about how insurmountable our problems are.
I read this as a real reluctance on the part of modern culture at large to embrace the kind of pessimistic outlook that Doctor Who's sense of rootlessness, isolation, fear and artificiality could engender. The audience is more than willing to consume Doctor Who if it tempers the threatening parts of its narrative with token humanism and whimsy. So as much as Doctor Who seems like it could qualify as a "postmodern" show on some level, it's really rooted in the same humanistic tradition as any other science fiction show that's on TV right now. It blends in, but it's smaller on the inside than the outside.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Syriana and Emergent Institutions


- Dean Whiting, Syriana

Syriana has been one of my favorite movies for a very long time.  Along with its companion film Traffic, it takes advantage of the medium in a way that few other films do.  For those of you who haven't seen it, it's a film about the oil business.  What aspect of the oil business, you ask?  Well, what do you have?

Syriana is a part of a trend of fractured filmmaking in the early 2000s. These films follow Robert Altman's sprawling Nashville in weaving together a collection of disparate storyline that all connect together in something that looks a little more like a narrative web than a narrative line.  This kind of non-linear storytelling has been around for a long time, but the transfer of it to film brings a new dimension to the technique. Using the framed visual style of film can bring attention to the fact that what you're seeing is an inherently limited frame, and things occur outside of that frame that affect the things inside of it.  Syriana is exciting to me because it shows how these frames intersect, clash, and complicate one another.

Syriana is primarily concerned with the rights to mineral deposits in Kazakhstan acquired by a relatively small oil company called Killeen and the acquisition of Killeen by the larger Connexx.  We see this story through the eyes of one of the men working on the ground at an oil refinery in the fictional country of Syriana, (a thinly veiled Saudi Arabia), the royal family of said oiltopia, the law firm brokering the deal between Connexx and Killeen, and a CIA agent.  In true thriller fashion, everyone has their own agenda, and each of them are at the mercy of forces larger than those they can comprehend. Unsurprisingly, everything gets twisted together pretty quickly.

Syriana is well paced, well written, and well acted, but that's not why I love it.  I love it because it does not let anyone off the hook and, for the most part, refuses to place blame.  That is to say, at its best, Syriana is portraying an abstract system, not a collection of acting agents. Sure, the film is made accessible and visceral by its characterization and the idiosyncratic (read: convenient) events that drive the plot forward, but we always get the feeling that, as I mentioned above, the structures behind the characters' actions don't reduce to their individuality.  We get the feeling that although we're seeing the flow disrupted, by the end of the film the system (or assemblage of diverse systems) has corrected/adapted itself to equilibrium and the individual actions of the characters that we follow, while not unremarkable, are assimilated back into a resorted order.

Take, as a grounding example, the case of the CIA agent Robert Barnes (here a stand-in for the author whose books the movie is ostensibly based on, Robert Baer).  He begins the movie as a good cog in the bureaucratic machine, a man of action who does his job and doesn't ask questions.  When he's thrown into a dangerous situation and begins to encounter difficulties with the niche he has carved out for himself at the agency, the system of which he is a part attempts to repurpose, eject, and finally, (inadvertantly) eradicate him.  He runs the gamut of institutional mechanisms designed to deal with faulty elements.

And this is where my real fascination with the movie lies.  The film has two registers; the human and the institutional.  It overtly gives us the drama, the morality, and the pathos of the human situations that it deals with while it simultaneously takes us on a profoundly impersonal tour of the institutions in which they are imbedded.  I am reminded of Manuel DeLanda's fascinating book War in the Age of Intelligent Machines in which he essentially argues that we are witnessing a kind of pregnancy of the human race with the new emergent order of technology.  He speculates that this "machinic phylum" has several possible ways in which it could evolve beyond human dependence and warns us away from the military route.

With the help of theorists like DeLanda, director Stephen Gaghan is participating in a wave of 21st century multimedia statements that bring together an emergent approach to institutions with a certain breed of American realism.  The idea of the institution as a very special breed of parasite that fundamentally changes its host holds a profound aesthetic sexiness that goes a long way toward explaining people's fascination with the books of Foucault and the appeal of The Wire. This approach to institutions is made explicit in Michael Clayton, another fucking spectacular (if far more moralistic) Clooney movie.

Together, this axis of dour 21st century pragmatism and cynicism can be riveting.  Syriana and its ilk make you feel as though you are witness to what's really going on behind closed doors. They create the illusion that they are showing you how the real world, the greedy, violent, impersonal one behind all of our comforting narratives, is produced and has been for time untold.  In their finest moments, they show you the unthinking, amoral inhumanity of human systems.

Statements like Syriana have the potential to engender a sort of sober quietism, a kind of serene shoulder shrug in the face of monstrous odds.  But, far more interestingly to my mind, they can also bring about an increased awareness of the pervasiveness of insitutional intervention in our lives and the way these interventions govern our interpersonal relationships.  Gaghan, alongside Delanda, Deleuze, Zizek and Foucault, realizes that the minute politicization of lives is already always a reality and that the first (and perhaps best) thing that we can do is be mindful of it.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Don't Drink This: Yacht Club / Lily Bart

Every so often, Izzet and Boros come up with a shitty idea for a drink and ask you to get together with your friends to drink it.  We call it "Don't Drink This".

Social mobility has been on the collective societal brain a lot in the last four years, and the cultural archetype of the nouveau poor is increasingly prominent. With this in mind, we here at Inebriated Spook think it's important to embrace versatility in drink recipes, and so we give you a beverage with two faces: one is great to sip on the deck of your weekender while you're enjoying the glittering Cape Cod sun, and one (special thanks to Edith Wharton) tastes almost as good and brings up pleasant memories of days gone by while you're licking your financial wounds in your one-room apartment in the Bronx. Either way, you're prepared – which is the best thing you can be in this economy.

The Yacht Club:

1 part limoncello
1 part champagne
2 parts single-malt Scotch
Serve straight up in a chilled highball. Garnish with a twenty dollar bill and enjoy.

The Lily Bart:

1 part lemonade
1 part Andre
2 parts Jack
Serve with ice in a plastic cup. Garnish with a thin lemon slice and attempt to enjoy.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Learn the Power of the Dark Side: Why Star Wars is a Better Movie than Shame

Steve McQueen's minimalist angstravaganza Shame has been in the Serious Cinema press a lot in the last few months. It's one of the year's big international auteur-type movies; it won the biggest acting award at the Venice Film Festival this year; it uses a careful color palette and scads of beautiful long takes to coax delicate and nuanced performances out of its stars, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, who are both flawlessly beautiful and extremely talented. More than anything, though, it's its subject matter, which is disturbing, raw, and largely unexplored on film, that people have responded to most strongly. 
I've read a lot of reviews of Shame, and most of them open with a sentence like "Michael Fassbender has an awful lot of sex in this film – but believe me, it's far from sexy." It's become an instant cliché. Like any cliché, though, there's a molten core of truth to it: Shame de-eroticizes sex almost completely; it takes the perfect bodies and enthusiastic noisemaking we're used to seeing in movies and plunders them of all of their positive associations, rendering the act cold, isolating and robotic.

Shame's Greek god of a leading man, Michael Fassbender, plays a New York executive with something to hide. You've heard it before: He Seems To Have It All, But Under The Surface He Harbors A Terrible Secret. It's a formulaic formulation, yes, but that's not the point – what matters in the movie is how this particular Terrible Secret is portrayed. Fassbender's character, Brandon, is a sex addict. We gather that he can't go more than a few hours without having an orgasm; he masturbates in the bathroom at his office, menaces hapless women on the subway, and spends the lion's share of his free time with prostitutes or internet pornography. The noise of moans and gasps floats out of his computer whenever it's open, until we become numb to it, like we're numb to the noise of taxis and nightclubs outside his window. It's not simply that sex is de-eroticized – it's de-exoticized. It's not even special. 

Different critics have taken different positions on whether Brandon's few friends know about his predilections; I think that's clear evidence that McQueen and company are purposely being obfuscatory. It's never clear how much his coworkers know: either they're playing dumb because they're too embarrassed to confront him, they genuinely don't know, or – and this is the most compelling option – they'd confront him about it if they didn't know that he had just as much dirt on each of them. We have the sense that everybody in Shame is hiding something just as filthy as Brandon is, that nobody can really cast the first stone: his boss is cheating on his wife, the girl he chases on the subway at the beginning has decided, by the end, that she might want to be chased after all, and his sister Sissy is a serial couchsurfer and an emotional lamprey. Brandon is just the one we happen to settle on.

Sissy, speaking of her, is who throws a monkey wrench into Brandon's well-oiled (well-lubricated?) machine of a lifestyle – abandoned by her always-offscreen boyfriend, she turns up in Michael's bathroom one day and insists she's just there until she finds a place to stay. You can surmise what that means. Initially we have the impression that she's your average washed-up jazz singer, lazy and basically untalented. However, Brandon and his boss make their way to a nightclub where she's singing (and where the sound designer slyly cuts in twenty seconds of the late Coltrane Quartet to make it sound, improbably, like she's the featured act in an ensemble that also includes McCoy Tyner and Roy Haynes) and discover how talented and expressive she is: her rendition of "New York, New York," shown entirely in one long closeup, is unexpectedly beautiful, and we wonder immediately why she isn't more successful – why she doesn't have her own place, at least. And then, as she throws herself into the arms of Brandon's sleazy boss and takes him, of all places, back to Brandon's apartment, we realize that she has the same problem that Brandon has: she's emotionally crippled, insecure, and irremediably lonely. It might manifest itself differently in her case, but she has fundamentally the same problem as her brother.

As she reaches out to him over the course of the movie, she threatens to further and further damage his hermetic lifestyle, and he pushes her away more and more violently – and as he does this, his guilt mounts and he becomes more and more desperate for real emotional connections, and more and more frustrated as they collapse. He starts offering drinks to prostitutes and even tries dating a woman from his office, but everything falls apart, and it all culminates in an agonizing fifteen-minute scene in which he takes off on a depraved sex spree, bouncing aimlessly from location to New York location like Leopold Bloom on Viagra, talking dirty to strangers and plunging into gay bars as the camera slowly zeroes in on his o-face, which looks more and more like a scream the longer we look at it. The whole time we're aware that Sissy is falling apart emotionally, and when somebody leaps in front of the subway train on Brandon's way home, the entire tragedy of the movie comes together in a way that's uniquely horrible. Brandon anxiously takes the elevator up to his apartment and finds Sissy limp on the floor of his bathroom (the first place we ever saw her, remember, and the place where Brandon, in a very ham-handedly Freudian way, shunts everything he's ashamed of) with her blood all over the walls and the ceiling, having slashed her wrists.
But never fear, dear reader: by the end of the movie she's been patched up and it looks like she's going to be okay, and Brandon pointedly averts his gaze when  the perky young woman from the film's first scene tries to pick him up on the subway. 

On the surface, Brandon seems to have a lot in common with Raskolnikov: they're both cut off from the rest of humanity, talented but overwhelmed by internalized guilt that they struggle to intellectualize away (Brandon has a brief monologue about his philosophical opposition to long-term relationships) and ultimately saved by fragile, wilting orchids of women.

But that comparison isn't doing Dostoevsky justice, because the thing that animates Crime and Punishment is how far we get to follow Raskolnikov's logic: we're submerged in his murky rationalizations practically from the first page of the book, and there's a terrifying suggestion that if we swim down far enough, we'll get to a place where double murder is perfectly okay. There's a tantalizing, diabolical hint throughout the book that Raskolnikov's guilt might not be absolute. That piece of proto-existential subtlety is what makes Crime and Punishment such a brilliant book, and it's what keeps Shame firmly on the other side of the fence with the other two-toned morality tales.

So let's step out of the Western Canon for now and compare Shame to something that Harold Bloom probably won't be lionizing any time soon: the second Star Wars trilogy. Here's another story about personal isolation and the fine line that all of us have to walk between morality and immorality; it's got a young, attractive, misunderstood protagonist who's tortured by guilt about his personal failures and it's got a sensitive, talented female co-star who tries to reach out to him and ends up dragging him down. It's a little less Dostoevsky and a little more Verdi, maybe, but let's not get hung up on that.

Anakin Skywalker, an innocent and completely ingenuous boy from the provinces, is snatched by forces beyond his control and granted unbelievable power and prestige – on two conditions. He needs to take a leadership role in an extremely complex world, and he needs to keep away from the only person who might make things easier for him. This completely arbitrary set of rules takes its toll on him – his increasing distrust of the Jedi he's supposed to be loyal to, his repressed adolescent sex drive, and his deep-rooted need for more power all lead him to turn on his friends and destroy the society that his psyche was essentially invented to protect. But that doesn't bring any catharsis, it only exacerbates his internalized guilt, and at the end of Episode 3 he's left in an increasingly suffocating personal situation, anesthetized, effectively castrated, and enslaved, a situation that's mirrored externally in the hopeless, totalitarian gray of his surroundings in the original trilogy. 

Obviously, we see this from a few different points of view, interspersed with a lot of politics, intrigue, fanwank and scenery-chewing, but I don't think it's debatable that the fall-from-grace plot is the central narrative thread of the prequel trilogy. And the compelling thing about it, at least in a vacuum, is that most of it is sympathetic to Anakin. Through the whole plot we receive every successive element in Anakin's psychological collapse as an intense negative experience for him – the death of his mother, his inability to act on his feelings for Padme, his sense of betrayal by Obi-Wan, and his overall feeling that no matter what he does, no matter how successful he is, he ends up offending somebody or making something worse. The effect is that we empathize with Anakin. We understand him, fundamentally, the same way we understand Raskolnikov – somewhere, deep down, both of them are trying to find a psychological space where the evil they're doing isn't evil anymore. The temptation of the Dark Side is the temptation of a total, irreversible absolution from guilt.

Shame is an excellent movie, mostly: the performances are Oscar-caliber if you don't count Carey Mulligan's American accent slipping a little every time she says "no," the photography and the soundtrack are both beautiful, and the handling of the imagery and pacing are perfect. Star Wars, especially the prequels but really, be honest, the original trilogy too, is a clumsy mess of sci-fi clichés and misappropriated Campbellian garbage that makes Heinlein look like Tolstoy. So the perplexing thing is how much less sophisticated Shame is when it comes to examining its characters. We never get enough of a look inside of Brandon's head to see anything but agony; we never get the sense that he has any kind of agency or selfhood outside his addiction, and I refuse to accept that it's just that it's "consumed him" or anything like that; it just seems like misguided writing to me.

I've heard critics spin the film's detachment as "observational," that it's not supposed to explore the morality of sex addiction and that all we're supposed to do is watch the pathos unfold, but I find that extremely shallow. Pathos in a vacuum gets you a lot of mileage in static visual art, but not in narrative and certainly not on film. There's a difference between writing an unsympathetic character and writing a character primarily as a subject of pity; it's the same as the difference between avoiding a person and petting a dog. 
I've heard Shame derided as being hysterical and Catholic – it was in response to a scene where Brandon goes to the basement of a gay bar (it's red and hot, like Hell, see) and frantically forces one of its denizens to go down on him. As apt as that characterization is, I'd rather say that it's shallow and vaguely dehumanizing, and it's disappointing to me that people are pushing it so hard as one of the best indie films of last year. Lots of sex, but not sexy; lots of pathos, but not sympathetic.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Don't Drink This: Sweet Sixteen

Every so often, Izzet and Boros come up with a shitty idea for a drink and ask you to get together with your friends to drink it.  We call it "Don't Drink This".

Die Bonbon sechzen

- 2 parts Mountain Dew
- 2 parts Andre
- 1 part Lime Vodka

Hey guys,

For the first installment of "Don't Drink This", we're going to drink something I came up with while champagne drunk a few weekends ago.

It's the perfect drink for when you and your friends want to talk about boys but also feel really grown up.  Also you'll get drunk and there's caffeine in it too so you'll start acting really silly and random. lol.

So get together with some of your bffs, mix this ish up and tell us what happens.

Many hyphy returns of the day.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Inebriated Friends #1


Here are some links to things that we like:

Following up on my post about Young Money and post-modernity, here is a fantastic Jamesonesque Marxist analysis of Lil B as symptom of late capitalism.  I had a feeling someone had written this before I'd seen it and I'm glad that they did.

While we're on the topic of pop music, there's a careful investigation of the role of empty center that Britney Spears plays on the Billboard Charts over at Hooded Utilitarian.  Thought provoking and fairly discouraging.

A series about Pokemon theme songs by our good friend Jacob on the blog of our good friends Ashley and Andreas.  A well-written and mildly traumatizing trip down memory lane.

In keeping with the high-flown, slightly overreaching video game writing that's been going on, here are a few more Tim Rogers posts, these ones about Earthbound and Shadow of the Colossus.

In keeping with nothing (but fascinating nonetheless!), here's a response to the Werner Herzog documentary Encounters at the End of the World written by an interview subject in that movie.

Here's an old video about Charlie Rose that fills me with dread.

Next up, our first installment of "Don't Drink This"