Saturday, December 28, 2013

Point Omega and Waveland: the Political Background of Literary Minimalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

La solita cosa italiana: Tradition and The Great Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 25, 2013

Everything Stays the Same: Drake Alone in First Class

In his hour-long interview on Canadian interview show Q, the host Jian Ghomeshi asks Drake what he thinks about his status as a "social media" rapper and icon of the millennial generation. Drake responds: "I hate the gist of living your life on the internet and telling everybody personal details about yourself on social media." The irony, of course, is that if you drop the internet references this is a perfect description of how he has made eight or nine digits in the past three years.  His distaste for the characterization and insistence throughout the interview that the stories on his records are all him, all Aubrey Graham autobiography, and not rap fairy tales are telling. Drake thinks that his success lies in his successful navigation between the Scylla of total naked confession and the Charybdis of bland genre convention.

This is exactly what is questioned in the article "Is Drake the Voice of the Millenial Generation" by David Drake (hereafter referred to as David). The author attempts to provide a survey of the "Millennial Drake" arguments and a bit of pleasant commentary. He muses that rather than representing self-obsession as the characteristic of a specific generation, Drake evokes a universal moment in the process of growing up. In this light, it's unsurprising when he writes:
"The most evocative moments are ones when reality intrudes upon the interior narrative, when Drake's abstracted ideas are replaced by concrete details [...] Oddly, these moments imply considerably more about Drake's internal world than the narration of his thought processes, and give oxygen to the world outside of his head. The confessional "Too Much," a rare moment of personal honesty about his family, is not unprecedented in Drake's catalog, but it explores a part of his life with a sincerity that is absent elsewhere. These are moments when he is least like a caricature of Drake, and most like a human being."
David thinks that Drake is making a move toward a fully realized adulthood on NWTS by demonstrating that he is becoming "emotionally responsible," with an implied wise wink suggesting that the millenials as a whole are reaching the same stage of their collective maturity. His laudation of Drake's patently relatable frustrations with his family on "Too Much" is helpfully understood as analogous to "Family Business" on Kanye's breakout The College Dropout or even 2pac's classic "Dear Mama".  These songs have to do with the artist-as-human-being, with the details of their families and therefore their histories. They try to get back to origin of the struggle, the emotional world from which the superheroes of rap extremity emerge. It's no surprise that the modesty and frankness of these tracks are striking to critics like David who think they articulate the "sincere" humanist undercurrent of the genre.  It's comforting to many to know that even the most talented and successful are damaged and vulnerable. At the heart of this rather dull aesthetic outlook is the thesis that nothing makes us more earnestly human than our family, which here represent the bedrock of our social responsibilities to one another.

Against this sort of pallid interpretation of his catalog, I want to say that the strongest moments of Drake's work are the moments of dehumanization.  These moments come in part out of his itinerancy. The boy that spent summers in Texas and winters in Ontario insistently raps about his home, but because he has never really belonged to only one city and travels constantly he often finds himself rapping about his homes.  His attachment to Toronto is more of an adoption than he commonly lets on. Remember that on "Club Paradise" one of his countless exes accuses him of "not knowing this city anymore" to which he gives a dismissive shrug. Even in his love letter to the city in the music video of "Started From the Bottom", he can't help but fly away and end the song with a vacation.

But Drake's predicament doesn't end with rootlessness. In the final calculus, it doesn't really matter where he is in the world. In the Pitchfork review of NWTS, reviewer Jayson Greene writes: "There is no uncomplicated forward motion in Drake songs; usually one small element worms forward while everything sits around it, a haze of rhythmic and harmonic indecision. " He's hit upon a critical insight; the thing that makes Drake's music work is that it's frozen in-between. As he says in "Furthest Thing", he's "Somewhere between psychotic and iconic/Somewhere between I want it and I got it/Somewhere between I'm sober and I'm lifted/Somewhere between a mistress and commitment." This sort of equivocality is often used to comfort by suggesting moderation or normalcy, but when it becomes a lifestyle things become much more problematic. On NWTS Drake flies between Miami (Hold On, We're Going Home), Memphis (Worst Behavior), and Toronto (Started from the Bottom), and everywhere he feels the same, and what he feels is very little.  But this isn't unique to Drake; the reason that it resonates with the rest of us is that his life exaggerates a contemporary world that we're all familiar with in the wealthiest countries. Money has bought us security, and with security has come insulation, and with insulation has come abstraction.  But after the complicated police-action wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, the more recent and hesitating pseudo-operations in Syria and Libya, and the realization of our collective impotence in the face of the world market in the recent financial crisis, it's hard to ignore the feeling that our comfortable position has very little to do with us.

Similarly, Drake's perpetually glamorous lifestyle has an element of inexplicable election; he's as bewildered by the spectacle of his success as the rest of us. Everywhere the citizens of the richest countries go, we're given the license and right to be unproblematically "what we are" and, similarly, wherever Drake goes he's accommodated as Drake. When we're protected that way, when we're shielded by money and cultural capital, the only thing that we can talk about are the times when we weren't so safe, our formative struggle. Drake raps about the girls that he was with, the women that pushed back against him when he was Aubrey Graham, and not the women that he told us about in Take Care when he said: "I got some women that's living off me/Paid for their flights and hotels, I'm ashamed/Bet that you know them, I won't say no names/After a while, girl, they all seem the same." This helps us to understand Drake's obsession with his emotional history and his crew; it's lonely at the top, and the only thing that you can see up there is everything that you passed up below you.  The people that he keeps around him are souvenirs and reminders of what he was beyond the fame, but they're not much more than that.  After all, how can they relate to him when he spends so much time struggling to relate to himself?  His reflective speech after receiving his Grammy is revealing (starting about 4:02):

On NWTS, Drake thinks that he's strong enough, famous enough to continue to push himself as a person into the limelight, rather than lapse into his identity as Drake the artist. The aggressive presence of Drake the man on this record is a reaction to the monstrosity of Drake the icon, and thus it's not surprising that NWTS comes off as Drake's most desperate record. No matter how much Drake might want to pose as relatable and aspirational, as an individual with personality and charm, with a claim to stake and name to defend, and no matter how much he insists on his authorship and authenticity in every verse, what draws us to him is his continual awe at his own lack of agency over his success. He's obsessed with his fame because he doesn't understand it and he desperately wants it to last, but at the same time he's not content with things staying the way that they are. When he proclaims "Came up, that's all me/Stayed true that's all me/No help that's all me/All me for real," the irony is so thick that it's hard not to cringe.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

God is Gay and You Were Right: Thoughts on Sonic Youth

(This is a collaborative post. The first half is by regular spook Max Bowen, the second half is by guest contributor Sophie Durbin. The title is a lyric from "Androgynous Mind")
Sonic Youth has been my favorite band for a long time. They broke up 2 years ago, and it is getting easier and easier for rock critics and fans to call them “rock legends” instead of engaging with their body of work. Sonic Youth are not rock legends. Rock legends have touring, costumed tribute bands (Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Elvis impersonators, for instance) that allow 60 year olds to relive their glory years. The idea of a touring Sonic Youth tribute band is absurd, partially because of how untheatrical of a band they were, and partially because of where they emerged from, namely New York’s No Wave scene.  No Wave is a catch-all term used to describe the downtown art scene in the late 70s and early 80s. It is difficult to find objective common features (like jangly guitars or vocal multi-tracking) among No Wave bands and artists, but they all conveyed a sense of stylistic homelessness and claustrophobic urgency. For instance, James Chance and the Contortions featured front man James Chance raving like a more-deranged James Brown  (when I get in the place/ there won’t be nothin left of the human race!) over noisy funk guitars and taking, ahem, “atonal” alto sax solos. Composer Glenn Branca initially gained notoriety doing experimental theater in Boston before relocating to New York and deciding to write symphonies featuring hordes of distorted guitars. Sonic Youth members Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo played in Branca’s groups, which were an important antecedent to Sonic Youth’s sound.
Thurston Moore

Even though there is zero puerile lore surrounding SY, they are nonetheless influenced by the classic rock sounds that came before them. 80’s hard rock and hair metal baldly embraced the most misogynistic elements of classic rock (case in point, Poison’s “I Hate Every Bone in Your Body But Mine”) and insulted Jimi Hendrix’s experiments with feedback and entropy by turning noise into a calculated cross-eyed spectacle (Van Halen’s “Eruption”, or Yngwie Malmsteen). SY made noise and experimentation a cornerstone of their approach. On tracks like Silver Rocket, the catchy power chord riff that churns the song eventually drops out entirely and is replaced by layers of feedback and guitar tinkering. Whereas previous rock music mostly used noise to add electrified pathos to clichéd blues licks (I’m ignoring Metal Machine Music, but that was a middle finger pointed directly at Robert Christgau anyway), SY makes noise for its own sake. Songs like “100%” feature skewering, flickering feedback alongside sullen, dumb guitar riffs. The idiotically idiomatic coexists with the completely non-idiomatic for a totally uncanny and addictive effect.
In addition to effacing genre conventions and seeking out new approaches instrumentally, SY’s lyrical content presents a radical departure from normal rock and roll subject matter. No idealistic, pugnacious sing-a-longs here. Instead, the lyrics are often cryptic- even if you find yourself singing along with one of their more apparently catchy choruses, you’ll soon be wondering what the fuck you are saying:

Kim Gordon
Inhuman off of Confusion is Sex: “My body is a pastime/ my mind is a simple joy/ I learned my lesson/ the hardest way/ but you don’t know me/ a complete inhuman”

Doctor’s Orders off of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star: “Mother’s such a mess/ she forgets how to dress/ but she’s no longer depressed/ she thinks she’s looking her best”

The Neutral off of Rather Ripped: “you won’t seduce me/ or attract me/ just ‘caus you’re a stray… he’s neutral/ yeah he’s weary/ and he’s so in love with you”

Disconnection Notice off of Murray Street: “Did you get your disconnection notice/ mine came in the mail today/ they seem to think I’m disconnected… everything’s right here inside your file/ you're not so free to be unprotected/ a secret Mona Lisa hides behind her smile”

These lyrics describe people at the fringes of society, but their angst isn’t directed at republicans or cops; it’s aimed directly at the relentless mechanisms of normalcy. Liberation and self-discovery, the by-words of rock and roll’s Woodstock forebears, are absent here. SY’s “self-discovery” is self loss. The acid rockers of the Woodstock era thought love and camaraderie could be found on off-the-grid farmland and behind closed tour bus doors.  When a genre tries to be openly subversive or “alternative”, it ends up sealing its own fate. Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo’s lyrics convey the persistence of love and curiosity in the face of the neutralizing effects of time and power- they are opaque yet honest, horny yet ghostly. Similarly, "Disconnection Notice" describes a sense of being unsynchronized with the obscure bureaucratic processes that, through their effects, constitute our individuality.  What makes Sonic Youth so radical is that they affirm the status quo within the “alternative” genre of independent rock, thereby showing how perverse the status quo really is.
“Liberation and self-discovery”—those buzzwords, those cornerstones of so-called “free love” of the late 60s, when millennials who weren’t there like to imagine rock music was at its purest and human sexuality at its freest—those terms that in fact symbolize to me an aesthetic that is/was predicated upon the availability of female bodies as muses and sex objects. Inextricable from this aesthetic is formal phallogocentrism, which has been argued to enforce the standard format in so-called “great art” that gradually rises, climaxes and returns slowly to “normalcy” à la the male sex response. This structure so thoroughly permeates the way “Western culture” formulates narrative that to destroy it or find alternatives at first looks like an attempt to destroy art itself, to tear fairy tales and soaring choruses out of the hands of the masses. I do not pretend that my forthcoming analysis will put a dent in, let alone destroy, how anyone conceptualizes art, but it is my hope that my exploration of non-phallogocentric form (or gynocentric form, to center the feminine) in the work of Sonic Youth may cause others to reflect on musical structure’s impact to uphold or subvert cultural constructions of gender.

(One important caveat before I begin: it is indeed essentialist to posit that a gynocentric form is inherently different from a phallogocentric one; that is, some women do experience a sex response process thought of as “male” and some men experience a “female” one. However, our culture’s folk wisdom about who gets erections, who has the capacity for multiple orgasms and who penetrates/is penetrated is highly dependent upon a clear-cut gender binary, and in order to analyze how this binary affects Sonic Youth’s music I will be using the binary itself. In summary: some women have penises and some men have vaginas. That does not negate phallogocentrism as a systemically applied, deeply embedded tradition in art.)

Drawing upon French post-structuralist feminists’ (Hélène Cixous in particular, for the purposes of this thought experiment) ideas of l’écriture féminine—writing centered in non-linearity, the pre-Oedipal/pre-language bodily being and a general rejection of phallogocentric structure-- I argue that much of Sonic Youth’s music may qualify as “musique féminine.” Obvious complications arise here: literature and music are different animals entirely and Sonic Youth does not have a spotless past in terms of—at risk of sounding quaint--privileging the phallus (see: Thurston Moore’s tongue-in-cheek-but-not-totally renaming of “Kill Yr Idols” to “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick” in response to the aforementioned Robert Christgau’s negative review of an SY show). Even so, bear with me and take a look at EVOL, commonly cited as the key “transition album” for the band as it floated from No Wave chaos toward a (slightly) more melodic, ordered sound.

As Max said, for Sonic Youth self-discovery is self-loss. There is no unique essence to the band’s musical philosophy—it is created through the bodily act of music-making and performing. This is a stark contrast from bands whose aim has always been to strip away layers of artifice until the truth appears: EVOL layers on the artifice with glee, spinning it and inverting it and cycling it through itself until no truth can be grasped at and no phallogocentric narrative structure privileging linearity and singular climaxes remains.
Richard Kern

The artifice and slippage begins with EVOL as a physical object. The album art itself makes the listener question linear aesthetics: everything is slightly askew, from a photograph of Moore’s hands with eyes drawn on covering his face to a black-and-white image of the band framed by a sugary pink-red heart to the presence of Lung Leg, a model/actress known for her unnerving appearances in the films of transgressive filmmaker Richard Kern (I recommend “You Killed Me First,” which is her best role and also showcases the legendary performance artist Karen Finley). The copy I listened to while preparing this piece was a later issue on candy-pink vinyl, making the listening experience also a compelling visual one as the pastel record spun. Film stills from “Friday the 13th Part II” and “Children of the Corn” also adorn the jacket—what to make of this Easter-egg colored record encased in such a sleeve? The track listing is out of order, there are no specifics as to who is playing what instrument, Lisa Crystal Carver’s liner notes are disjunctive and pasted together like a premonition of the riot grrrl zine craze—is the album’s sound equally disjointed, cyclical, intricate?

Like I said before, EVOL is aural evidence of Sonic Youth’s journey through the world of chaotic noise toward a lusher sound more accepting of melody and pattern. The melody and pattern present, however, does not reify previously conceived notions of verse-chorus-verse-key change-climax-fade. Such structure does not apply here musically or textually. I will conclude with notes from a listen to “Shadow of a Doubt”, where the lyrics—some of the most eerie on the album—imply an intimacy with a stranger that, for whatever reason, causes the song’s protagonist—if there is one, as protagonists themselves are evidence of the all-pervasive patriarchally defined narrative of the individual/hero—to explicate as if in a confession booth: “I swear it wasn't meant to be/From the bottom of my heart/He was looking all over me /Together ever after/He said/"You take me & I'll be you"/"You kill him & I'll kill her.” Kim Gordon’s voice—a paradox, a whisper and scream simultaneously—weaves in and out of the instrumentation, rising and falling repeatedly without giving way to any singular climactic moment or musical peak. One could also conceptualize these pulsations as a multitude of peaks—of orgasms, if you will—multiple ones, at that, which bear the possibility of infinite unique pleasures experienced through a female (or at least androgynous) bodily construction of artistic narrative.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Kessler Syndrome: Gravity and the Fear of Entropy

So George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are astronauts. The camera floats in a beautifully realized 3D space. George Clooney is very confident and Sandra Bullock is very high-strung. The Russians, those motherfuckers, blow up a dead spy satellite with a missile, which triggers a chain reaction in which a cloud of bullet-like space debris knocks out most of the satellites over North America, cuts off connection with Houston and kills all the astronauts but George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. George Clooney eventually dies in a freak accident. Sandra Bullock grits her teeth and makes it back to Earth.

Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's new movie, has inspired what seems to be an inordinate amount of boilerplate criticism. Not that boilerplate is anything new, obviously, but criticism of Gravity has been exceptional in both its laziness and its reverence. The few negative reviews, by and large, are no less lazy for being condescending; Vanity Fair calls it a "chick flick" and Bret Easton Ellis attacks it mainly by spoiling its ending. An interesting exception to this, though, is Richard Brody's recent article on the movie on the New Yorker's blog. His argument doesn't lend itself very well to summary because it coalesces around a series of concepts whose meanings become more subjective the more Brody tries to define them, but a reduction of it for Spook purposes is that Gravity's dedication to material realism, and the worldview that accompanies that realism, render it strangely flat. I'll quote him at length: Gravity is "a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—which they define in terms of physical phenomena and everyday people—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue."

Brody's is far more perceptive criticism than the film has been getting, but it's worth noting that giving reality a "quasi-political virtue" is nothing new in cinema. (Brody uses "quasi-religious" in another article, which demonstrates how precisely he's using his terminology.) Reverence for a mystical idea of preserved reality is at least as old as Andre Bazin; Bazin himself said it was as old as the Pharaohs. Across his articles on liberal cinema, Brody argues basically that it's the business of political filmmaking not to record reality but to pass it through human subjectivity. Realism is a "musty, mild worldview"; it needs an injection of, you know, libidinal/visceral/intuitive/subjective/fantastic/imaginative energy to be compelling. The example he cites in support of this, bizarrely, is not a movie but Bill Clinton, who embodied in "the same great man" both the high-handed compromiser of 1990s consensus and, well. The fact that Brody is almost certainly aware of this Bazinian pedigree, that he seems to be using it as a way to claim classicism, does not make it any less flawed; moreover, it misses the extent to which Gravity really does focus on what he'd call "the inner life."

It seems futile to look for a developed sense of subjectivity in a movie that basically functions as a tech demo, but there is a clear narrative of personal growth in Gravity. Sandra Bullock's feelings of helplessness and abandonment find objective correlatives in the void, and like a success story in some cosmic Scared Straight program she finds the will to live again. Lingering shots of Chinese Buddhas and Russian Orthodox icons on the dashboards of spaceships draw a symbolic connection between self-control and salvation; the theme of rebirth is not so much suggested as screamed. Sandra curls up like a fetus in the International Space Station while umbilical hoses curl in zero-g around her; she swims out of a womblike escape pod in the last scene. The symbolism is both so specific and so pervasive that the entire movie looks like the protagonist's hallucination. The extravagance and triteness of this internal narrative doesn't make it any less internal; depicting the Inner Life isn't a sure path to aesthetic success.

Brody's article links to another one in which he briefly discusses Steve McQueen's movie Shame, which is an instructive comparison. I reviewed Shame a few years ago for this blog; you can go back and read the review if you want to, but the relevant takeaway right now is that Shame, like Gravity, is an exercise in astounding cinematic and dramatic technique that looks at its characters primarily as collections of problems. "Drama" is too strong a word for a movie like Shame—it's more like a case history. Gravity is the same way; the self-discovery and growing confidence of its hero read like a cure rather than an epiphany. These are stories told from a clinical point of view, preoccupied with both the material and the subjective as sites where things can go wrong. You can be addicted to sex, you can be trapped by the memory of your dead daughter, Carey Mulligan might attempt suicide in your bathroom or George Clooney might drift off into the void. If these two movie are afraid of anything, it's collapse: cascades of mechanical failures, personal neuroses, descents into the grotesque. The possibility of entropy is what's really scary. Their redemption narratives are really normalization narratives—Sandra Bullock and Michael Fassbender struggle to be socialized, not reborn, in spite of all of Gravity's fetus imagery. Of course, the re-establishment of normality is one of the oldest plots in the world, but in classical comedy the threat is simply conflict, not absolute unraveling.

Gravity, in filling its objective reality with subjective symbolism, simply unifies psychological collapse with material collapse. If The Wire, Syriana, Zero Dark Thirty and other pieces of analytic realism dramatize the operation of a complex system, then Gravity dramatizes the disastrous collapse of such a system; unlike the The Wire and friends, it insists that such a system only becomes dehumanizing when it collapses. What's really disappointing about Gravity, then, is its inability to imagine possibilities outside of the reestablishment of order. Bret Easton Ellis noted (albeit spitefully) that we never really think Sandra Bullock is going to die; this is probably because, symbolically interlinked with imperiled order itself, Sandra Bullock would be a vote of no confidence against the concept of complex, diversified society if she were to die. This doesn't seem to be something we're ideologically prepared for. So it's ideologically imperative that Sandra Bullock emerge a stronger person; it's likewise imperative to at least imply that the mechanical failure that drives the plot (which entails the breakdown of world communication) is more a nuisance than a death blow. Brody complains that Gravity reduces "the spectrum of human life to a narrow consensus of decency"; maybe that's because outside this narrow (and narrowing) consensus, all we can see is the void.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Working for The Weeknd: Kiss Land and Loss

The new Weeknd record, Kiss Land, brings out a lot about the earlier material that I hadn't seen before.  I wrote about Abel Tesfaye 's earlier work at about this time last year, and I had nothing but good things to say.  The Weeknd, I said, explored the limits of modern morality, a space that usually remains unconscious in pop music.  It had the rush of transgression coded in the terms of modern pop.  Murky, smug, and ruthless, the mixtape Trilogy was a rare naked gesture in pop.

Listening to Kiss Land reminded me that you can't write a story about decay, The Weeknd's story, without a sigh.  In the Trilogy, a slightly younger Tesfaye wrote about MDMA and thuggish sexual encounters with the leer of a villain.  There was a sense of loss, but the loss was hers; Tesfaye's stories were about a devilish character leading women into the pit where he stayed.  This is why you had to wipe the slime off of you at the end of the tape.  The Weeknd told an urban horror story set in skyscrapers and tucked away nightclubs.  Pain and pills were passed around equally.

But Kiss Land reminded me that the core of this sort of predation was a sense of innocence. The self-awareness and sensitivity that it took to pen the emptiness on his earlier works came from a sense of ruination.  The fact that Tesfaye had been hurt snuck through in places in the Trilogy, but nowhere did Tesfaye make it as explicit as he does on Kiss Land.

Tesfaye is still 23, and it's impossible to fathom his motives but I suspect that it's hard on a young kid making music like he does.  In that light, it's unsurprising that Kiss Land veers into relatability consistently across its tracks. His insistence that "This ain't nothin' to relate to/Even if you tried" comes off as posturing at the end of a record full of human biography.  An important element of this is ambience; rather than the thudding, nasty statements on the best parts of the Trilogy, the beats on Kiss Land sprawl for miles and shudder with dissonances that sound cribbed after the advent of Yeezus.  This enhanced cinema lends Tesfaye some interesting widescreen spaces to play in at certain points during the record, but when you hear the eighties' guitar and the strumming straight out of Bad on "Wanderlust" one can't help but think that he got the wrong idea from the Miguel record.

Tesfaye tries for the debasement of his earlier work several times throughout Kiss Land.  The result is thoroughly unpleasant, and not in an interesting way.  Unmasked by its context, songs like the title track spin a dull story of seducing women using your fame and status.  This breed of status-mongering "sexuality" looked boring and moronic on Mick Jagger and it is profoundly disappointing here.  On the strongest moments of the Trilogy, Tesfaye wrote like a libertine.  Here, he writes like the drummer from Poison.

It's appropriate that the only guest appearance on the record is by Drake.  This is Tesfaye's play for mainstream acceptance, and it shows.  He meets his OVOXO teammate halfway throughout the record; when Tesfaye tells a Marvin's Room-like story we're disappointed in a way that we're not when it comes from Drake. We know that Aubrey Graham is playing at his limits when he makes himself vulnerable for the microphone, but we thought that Abel had a much stronger range.  When we hear him blabbing about the vicissitudes of success and wealth,  it's like remembering that all of Tyler Durden's shirts were from Tommy Bahama.  Kiss Land, as a weak moment, is a critical moment.  It reminds us that for all of pop music's posturing, the glitter and gold of "success" make motherfuckers get cautious.  Back in Toronto, Abel might still be a demon.  In the limelight, he looks dressed up for Halloween.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Thoughts on John Maus and (Black) Experimental Music

(This post is an unsolicited continuation of Rory Ferreira (AKA milo)’s letter published earlier this summer over at Impose)
"And my sense of rhythm acts like a force field/ protecting me from you or you from me (tone it down driver!)/ what's that in your gun holster? oh this, its the de-negritizer/ I shoot myself with it until I'm whiter than Peter Piper/ now I'll be able to bow before our world leader's might or/ tell them that the shackles on my Adidas sneakers need to be tighter/ 'cause right now man, I'm free like a zebra in Zaire/ so I'll hop in a time machine and have my lineage wiped clean/ and I'll entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine" —Busdriver as featured on milo's "the gus haynes cribbage league"
John Maus

Synth-pop musician John Maus has an agenda. He is knowledgeable about experimental classical music (Arnold Schoenberg, John Cage etc.) but is also steeped in continental philosophy—he holds a degree from the European Graduate School. His decision to work in the pop-music idiom is informed by his philosophical training: “I take seriously this claim of Gilles Deleuze… that perhaps it’s our task as artists to make intensive use of a major language.” Maus considers pop to be both a major language and something of a singularity within music history because it for the most part does without thematic development and major/minor tonality- the staples of western music, which is to say that now both “experimental” music and pop music have cast aside musical conventions and, as such, either might be an exemplary idiom for a political radical to be working within. A great pop performance leads to a sense of atavistic recognition between audience and performer, while experimental music becomes a contest in elitist one-upsmanship. In other words if you want to express yourself, write a three chord anthem, not a twelve-tone row. I’m not persuaded by this argument, partially for the same reason as milo: it disregards black music.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago
When John Maus talks about experimental music and conflates it with elitism, he is speaking exclusively about white classical composers. Avant-Garde jazz groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Sun Ra Arkestra are coming from a similar place as Maus but create better, more politically dangerous music; his argument seems to hinge upon an ignorance of experimental black musicians. Both the Art Ensemble and the Arkestra play music that expresses black consciousness and identity, and the volatility therein. The Art Ensemble’s catch phrase is “Ancient to the Future”; often on stage some members would wear tribal war paint while trumpeter Lester Bowie wore a lab coat. Their work contains the entire spectrum of African Diaspora musics, rock elements and the clatter of found percussion instruments, all subservient to the purgatorial wail of the blues. This melting pot aesthetic doesn’t lead to an atavistic music, where distinctions between white and black experience fall away. The breaking down of musical and cultural boundaries in search of an underlying unity ends with the abortive and sneering conclusion that existence itself is a boundary; the Art Ensemble’s mastery of jazz, classical, rhythm & blues and Caribbean styles expresses with claustrophobic intensity the terror of black American experience in the present (I’m writing primarily about the Ensemble’s hey-day in the 70’s and 80’s). The group’s presentation is simultaneously an homage to and mockery of History, their sound an orgy of overblown saxophones, speechlike trumpet and jocular drums. Instead of providing a release from the present (negro spirituals come to mind), the Art Ensemble of Chicago celebrates the present in all its ugliness, and what a perverse celebration it is.

While the Art Ensemble translated the collapse of history and linear progress into music, Sun Ra was more whimsical. He famously claimed to be an angel from Saturn; in his own words:
“I realize that people got feelings, and I reach toward their feelings, not their minds. Because they’ve been brain-washed. Why should I try to reach something that’s brain-washed? But their spirit hasn’t been brain-washed… I’m really not a man, you see, I’m an angel. If I was a man, you see, I couldn’t do anything, because man always fails you know, he’s so limited… I use my music as a sound-bridge for them to walk across the void.”
Sun Ra
During Ra’s lifetime, Arkestra (an approximation of the ebonic pronunciation of ‘orchestra’) members lived together, abandoning their families in order to pursue music. Sun Ra was a radical and a futurist (he was one of the very early proponents of synthesizers), a man of the people and a recluse. He was very much aware that he was considered a novelty by many music fans, but was apathetic towards his reception. His music often implored people, black people in particular, to face the realities of their situation; he demanded this but deflected questions of progress and action because he was just a concerned interstellar agent. Like the Art Ensemble, the Sun Ra Arkestra’s wild sound reproduced the crisis of black identity. Whereas John Maus makes use of a “major language”- pop music- in order to be seen, Sun Ra and the Art Ensemble make vigorous use of experimental languages in order to give life’s ambiguity and distortion full scope.

We like noise-rap crew Death Grips a lot here at the Spook (check out Owen’s post on them here). Their music and career arc shed light on how experimental music functions in society. First, it is important to recognize that Death Grips is a continuation of experimental rock drummer Zach Hill’s oeuvre (that is, they were never seeking mainstream acceptance or success). Infamously, the band was dropped from Epic Records after they leaked their album No Love Deep Web, which Epic financed, directly prior to the official release date. The cover was, fittingly, a picture of Zach Hill’s penis with “No Love Deep Web” written on it in sharpie.

MC Ride and Zach Hill
In Jean Baudrillard’s The Agony of Power, he distinguishes between two modalities of power: domination and hegemony. Domination is characterized by interpersonal antagonism and exploitation. In hegemony, which historically can be seen as domination’s final phase, the connection between human intent and power disappears. What emerges is a network of complicity; critical thought no longer targets sectors of power but uncovers ways in which works, movements and values collude with global capitalism. The “negative” thought of the Hegelian slave or Dostoevskian Underground Man might persist, but it is rendered impotent and by the virtue of its impotence is complicit with hegemony. MC Ride’s lyrics embody Baudrillard’s polemical intensity. On “Come Up and Get Me”, the title proves to be more of a plea than a provocation:
My stone wall it's on dog gaze duct taped to the ceiling/ Stucco cave make me illi okay, okay feel me/ I'm in an eight high abandoned building/ No daylight one midnight lamp lit twenty-four seven/ Murdered out windows two exits/ Street or nosedive to the next life in seconds/ and suicide ain't my stallion/ So I'm surrounded…I'm epiphanic amnesia

Baudrillard writes:
“A bitter truth: Radicalness is on the side of the intelligence of evil… we must look to the side of evil for the clearest indications, the harshest reality. Only those who show no concern for contradiction or critical consideration in their acts and discourse can… shed full light on… the absurd and extravagant character of the state of things, through the play of objective irony."

“For us…the continuity of history is shattered; we live in an instant and disincarnate currentness in which we take no more trouble… than to prolong history or rather the end of history, immersed in the euphoric banality that Heidegger called the second Fall of humanity.”

“Globalization automatically entails…fragmentation and deepening discrimination-and our fate is for a universe that no longer has anything universal about it-fragmentary and fractal-but that no doubt leaves the field free for all singularities: the worst and the best, the most violent and the most poetic.”
Jean Baudrillard
MC Ride’s lyrical content deals with these dark topics (for instance, the euphoric banality of voracious drug consumption and sex on tracks like “Spread Eagle Cross the Block” and “I Want it I Need it (Death Heated)”), and Death Grips’ sound resonates with people, which is partially why they got signed to Epic. By Baudrillard’s logic, Death Grips’ “nihilistic” sound ought to be prime material for corporate exploitation, but the group’s allegiances were never paid to careerism. If global capitalism is an unscrupulous, “evil” discourse, experimental music is a prima facie irrelevant discourse. In experimental music, personal expression is possible because the musicians have no concern for political agency. Baudrillard claims that only those in formal positions of power can “shed full light” on the state of things, but Death Grips, The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra’s Arkestra all play music on behalf of disenfranchised people—a growing category—and I think that the song of the disenfranchised contains more truth than the pronouncements of the cynical. John Maus is clearly a thoughtful dude, and he is limiting himself by ignoring not only the black experimental tradition, but also the heights of viciousness and vulnerability found in hip-hop from Big L to Death Grips.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Wanna Fight? Only God Forgives and Violent Myth-Making

When Drive came out in 2011, it seemed like Nicolas Winding Refn had finally escaped the cult-director ghetto where his early films had left him—here was a movie that spoke English, with trans-Atlantic star power and a mise-en-scene that shrewdly courted relevance by evoking the 80s after a decade of Reagan hagiographies and synthpop. Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan humanized its austere storyline, and for the first time Refn's penchant for gore felt like something out of Tarantino—that is, acceptably campy—rather than the ritualistic violence of Bronson and Valhalla Rising. Drive gave the impression that Refn was ready to make truly great films, rather than the niche-market gorefests of his early career.

But the critics have not been kind to Only God Forgives. The prevailing opinion is that Refn has gotten egotistical, that the success of Drive has convinced him he's a genius, and that, like Fellini before him, he's done the worst thing a respected art filmmaker can do: he's indulged himself. Ty Burr at the Boston Globe writes that it's "the kind of remarkable disaster only a very talented director can make after he finds success and is then allowed to do whatever he wants." "Very talented," in this case, is pejorative—Only God Forgives is a bloated, preachy, unbalanced mess, visually inventive but shrill, self-absorbed, and affected to the point of childishness. More to the point, though, it's inhuman.

Virtually every critic shares this last sentiment, and it's the point where we can see most clearly the laziness and dogmatism that color critical discussion of the film. Almost universally, critics of Only God Forgives predicate their criticism on a familiar argument from tradition—the humanist insistence that a work feature only characters who appear as complex and nuanced as actual people. Sometimes they slip consciously or unconsciously into a degraded form of this idea, the equally familiar insistence that a work feature at least a handful of "sympathetic" characters. In every case, they adamantly refuse to consider the movie on its own aesthetic terms; the reviews read like defenses of their own criteria more than evaluations of the movie itself.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden starts his review by calling Kristen Scott Thomas's character "The closest thing to a human character in Nicolas Winding Refn's blood-drenched, nihilistic reverie Only God Forgives." "Nihilistic" might or might not be a good descriptor for the movie, but Holden never returns to it, and the word expresses nothing more than blank distaste. In Variety, Peter Debruge writes, "Audiences need clues as to what the character is feeling if they're to invest anything in his journey. Does [Julian] care that his brother has died? Is he intimidated by or merely obedient to his mother?" The first sentence is a writing workshop cliché, repeated like catechism. Our need to invest something in his journey is apparently a self-evident truth, and this makes ambiguity an artistic demerit. In the Star Tribune, Colin Covert writes, "The film takes every audience desire and willfully breaks it over a knee." (Maybe it would be better if it broke every audience desire over a knee by mistake?) He later faults the movie for refusing to stage the film's fight scenes with "ingenious daredevil feats," for refusing to give us "the irresponsible thrills we're hoping for"—the implication being that a film is good or bad to the extent that it satisfies or doesn't satisfy audience desires.

The reviews go on more or less unbroken like this—complaints about the movie's pace, its humorlessness, even about how little Ryan Gosling smiles. In almost every case the reviews take vague concepts like "sympathetic characters" as the tenets of good filmmaking, which reveals a disappointing double standard in mainstream film criticism. How would a critic who judged movies based on snappy pacing and likable heroes deal with Monte Hellman? Or Andrei Tarkovsky? Or Jean-Luc Godard, for that matter? It's easy to imagine the reviews—"For all its visual flair, Godard's film is hamstrung. Why? Because we simply don't know who Michel and Patricia are. They never begin to seem like real people, and so it's hard to care when Michel is gunned down." Nobody with any experience has written a review like that since 1959, in part because Breathless's status as a art movie means we're inclined to give it a second chance. No reviewer would earnestly call Kubrick or Pasolini pretentious without a careful argument to back it up. Glib dismissal is only acceptable when the work in question is understood to be essentially Low, the kind of work that wouldn't stand up to sustained inquiry anyway. Only God Forgives, obviously, is understood to be this kind of movie—a failed attempt at art by a talented schlock director who ought to get back to the bloodbaths he does best. Of course, there were dozens of critics who attacked Breathless for its lack of organic characters when it came out, most of them conservative defenders of the Tradition of Quality. It's an important connection to keep in mind, because Only God Forgives is as much a pastiche as anything from the New Wave, and the critical response to it is as inadequate as it was to Breathless.

One of the insights of the New Wave was that if Hollywood composed its movies with a system of what amounted to myths—genres, tropes and stock characters—then parodies of those myths were the best way to overturn a stagnant film culture. Characters were deliberately shallow, referring directly to their archetypal roles without attempts at depth. Godard and Truffaut made genre movies about genre; it would be absurd to suggest that Refn doesn't do the same. What differentiates Only God Forgives, and what makes it the logical continuation of Drive, is render the parody infinitely murkier and more frightening. The movie takes movie archetypes—Ryan Gosling's self-reliant American, Kristin Scott Thomas's doting mother—to pure, nightmarish extremes, extremes that reveal their psychosis and, more often than not, their shabbiness. Critics who find fault with "mythic" undertones are missing half the movie; myth doesn't elevate Refn's characters, it demeans them. His characters are at their worst when they're inhabiting a role that might, in another movie, make them "sympathetic." 

When Julian plays the cool badass, Chang beats him meticulously to a pulp, which makes the Joseph Gordon Levitt ensemble he's just doffed look laughable. The revelation of Crystal's total ineffectuality makes her notorious dining room speech sound like Blanche DuBois myth-making. Even Chang's ritualistic murders are followed by campy karaoke numbers, presided over by a hilariously stone-faced group of cops. If there's anything really sadistic about Nicolas Winding Refn, it's his dedication to iconoclasm. In his world, where people form their identities by assuming whatever role is at hand, there's no part available that isn't vicious, or paranoid, or pathetic; people are isolated, warped and crushed by the myths they use to constitute themselves.

Only God Forgives, like Pierrot le fou, Investigation of a Citizen Above All Suspicion, Mulholland Drive, Watchmen, and dozens of other works, is a reductio ad absurdum of these myths. Accusations of humorlessness are highly exaggerated—this movie is a satire as much as anything else. Insofar as myths encompass concepts like "sympathetic character," and insofar as they coalesce to create audience expectations, Only God Forgives is also a reductio ad absurdum of sympathetic characters and audience expectations. The critical consensus is that this basic premise is wrong, which amounts to nothing more than a defense of the status quo. It ought to be obvious that while it's a critic's prerogative to take issue with a film's execution, it's lazy at best, and dogmatic at worst, to dismiss its raison d'être. 

David Edelstein's review of the film for Vulture is a good note to end on. In the first paragraph, Edelstein gives a straw reading of the film as a mythic melodrama, gives himself a few points to refute, and then breezes through three paragraphs of shallow jokes, during which he refutes none of them. The film is pompous and bloated, and presumably wouldn't stand up to sustained inquiry anyway. He ponders whether Ryan Gosling can see in the dark and calls the karaoke numbers "Lynch with none of the Lynchian frissons," which is not a good sentence to use if you're accusing something of pomposity. In the final paragraph he compares Only God Forgives to Christopher Nolan. Ironically, Nolan's tedious mythologizing, and the pseudofascist heroes he's inflicted on us, are probably the most obvious of Only God Forgives's targets. Edelstein, and everyone else, seem perfectly comfortable with mythologizing itself, in spite of their token objections to Nolan's work. Either that or they've lost their sense of humor. Why so serious?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Empty Tourist: Lost In Translation and Narrative Alienation

In Obama's Dreams From My Father, he wrote:
To avoid being mistaken for a sellout, I chose my friends carefully. The more politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist Professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.We smoked cigarettes and wore leather jackets.At night,in the dorms, we discussed neocolonialism, Frantz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.When we ground out our cigarettes in the hallway carpet or set our stereos so loud that the walls began to shake, we were resisting bourgeois society's stifling constraints. We weren't indifferent or careless or insecure. We were alienated.
This paragraph, undoubtedly written with a wry and knowing smile, encapsulates a common liberal vision of subculture. If you are rebelling against the "system", it's because you're having troubles dealing with your own problems. These problems may be serious or (more likely) superfluous, but being outside of the mainstream is more about what you are ("expressively") as an individual than any sort of larger statement about the conditions that gave rise to what you are.  Ironically, a famous populist radical put this idea best: "Maybe there ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue, they's just what people does. Some things folks do is nice and some ain't so nice, and that's all any man's got a right to say."

This sort of folksy, sighing rhetoric is pleasant enough as a sort of humanist palliative, the kind of thing that lets us put the book down and go back to our lives, but it buys comforting cliche at the cost of detail. Moreover, the sentiment itself isn't universal. It's born of a certain set of very modern values.

In Lost in Translation we meet two characters, a recent college graduate named Charlotte and a washed-up actor named Bob, adrift in a foreign land. They're both worried about the same things in different ways;  about their respective marriages (new and old), kids, and the deep, hollow aimlessness that they feel stuck in with no agenda in Japan.  Rather than coming off insightful or wise, this feels like a performance of intimacy,  even set against the intended background of "phony" performances that Bob executes with a grimace as a part of his advertising and PR work.  Down underneath the shifting structure of our social duties, Bob and Charlotte tell us, we're all the same kids at the core.  We have common fears, common hopes, and our own little quirks. We're supposed to the see the parallel; two points of the "cycles of life" that come close to one another in the null environment of Tokyo, uniting two people that would otherwise remain strangers to one another. 

This is a compelling line and it's delivered beautifully, but the environment that Bob and Charlotte find themselves in and how they react to it says far more about them than any of their intimate, confessional scenes.  Much of the film depicts Charlotte and Bob wandering in the vast confines of Tokyo. Presumably Tokyo was picked because it is an eminently modern city; despite Charlotte's foray into a Buddhist temple (she feels nothing after) much of the scenery could fit in somewhere between Midtown and Vegas.  For a majority of the movie they could be in any city they don't understand.  Just as we have common fears, hopes, and our own little quirks, the most modern parts of our mega-cities share a cosmopolitan sameness flavored with individual kitschy touches of history.  This is supposed to be a sort of calming realization; a city is just a city just as a person is just a person. It's our common human construction, going back to the dawn of civilization. And, in the hands of Bob and Charlotte, both aimless and both having no apparent monetary concerns, the city becomes a playground.  

Debord wrote in Society of the Spectacle that capitalism was a coagulation.  Like Adorno before him, Debord thought that the specific historical nature of human reason in each period had its own dynamics that worked dialectically.  More specifically, he believed that this dialectical process was slowed by capitalism to the point of arrest.  He thought that our culture was a continual excretion of this arrested process; the modern explosion of fractured narratives was a sort of distorted snapshot of the real material conditions that were the stalled engine of historical progress.  This image of abstract individuals fed back into the dialectical material conditions that were its original basis and continued to slow them down.  Things and people were caught up in a narrative feedback loop that kept them from moving forward.  And the monolithic capitalist city was a physical manifestation of this vicious cycle. 

Though  Lost In Translation doesn't make claims that are this bold or pessimistic, it does recognize that the situation of being a tourist in a large city is a very special one. When you visit Tokyo or New York City or London without an agenda, it turns into a sort of theme park.  All of the compaction that is part and parcel of individual lives in the cramped confines of a city becomes unreal and difficult to penetrate when we don't have a structured interest in the specific details of it.  This is because the public space of a city is excessive, abstract, and impersonal. People who live in it successfully know how to draw off what they need from the excess of things that it offers while maintaining their internal agenda. The unstructured tourist, on the other hand, sees the day-to-day activities of the city for what they are; in the crowds of people they don't know, they see the bare, depersonalized flow of desires and needs that undergirds human individuality.  This can give us insight into what makes a place a tourist attraction; in the faceless slush of the day to day life of the city the most successful activities and locations manage to bring in the most tourists because they have some sort of grounding individuality.  This individuality is commonly historical (Ellis Island), prestigious (Carnegie Hall) and/or extreme (The Empire State Building).

Analogous narratives of individuality and its accompanying security attract Charlotte and Bob to their common stories.  Their stories (marriage, children, career) function like tourist attractions; these historically meaningful narratives provide them with bulwarks against the ego-annihilating buzz of Tokyo.  However, their invocation of these stories to protect themselves also brings into stark relief their failure to measure up to the stories' abstract standards.  Their ennui simultaneously protects them from the harsh alien environment and makes them into self-involved and unaware tourists.  However, we shouldn't think that this failure is some sort of radical deviance from the way these narratives are supposed to work; Charlotte and Bob are exactly what these stories are supposed to produce.  In response to the inhuman whir of Tokyo, they have achieved the modern dream of individuality and self-sufficiency, which is exactly the dream of the isolated, unchanging observer.  The reason that Bob and Charlotte can share their uniform and childlike hopes and dreams is not because they both have a lot in the common human condition, but because they've come through these stories to the same place; they both manage to maintain an identity by constantly failing in comparison to something that will never change. With only the abstract conflict and structure of narratives to limit them, they float free from everything else, wading around in the bewildering, austere, and meaningless beauty that comes with being a tourist. 

The worry is that in the modern situation, we all want to be tourists. And we're going to get what we want.