Thursday, July 27, 2017

On Twin Peaks: The Return, and the Present Delerium

Note: Spoilers below for Twin Peaks: The Return, Parts 1-11.


1989 comes to a small northwestern town, just as it comes to every other place. This town, sheltered by the rains and forests of Washington State, is called Twin Peaks.

And in 1989, Twin Peaks becomes a place so unlike every other place, it's almost insulting to describe it with the same language, channeled through the same air.

Something will find Twin Peaks and linger there: an entity from outside space and time, incorporated in a human body, but endless and depthless when you look into its eyes... a creature of the abyss, feeding on suffering, whose emptiness infects the weak and compromised. This thing is called BOB.

Fortunately, this universe has its defenses. A coalition of reason and resistance will emerge -- a wise and perceptive FBI agent named Dale Cooper, a stern and earnest local sheriff named Harry Truman, and a cast of supporting personnel who will make their jobs possible. This coalition will both win and lose... it will vanquish a tormentor, save a life, and face down the darkness... but Cooper will be drawn into an existential prison, locked away, while BOB is let loose upon the world.

This story will start with a single unsolved murder, and it won't end for 25 years.

...

In a hotel that appears mysteriously empty, except for the small lobby where we linger, there's a meager crowd huddled together and looking expectantly at an empty stage. Suddenly, a chorus of music blares, and a figure descends on a long escalator from nowhere. He stands in front of this audience, hand-picked to receive him, and he tells them something small and strange that will end up changing the lives of everybody in the world.

This creature is a funny little monster, a sort of orange wax figure, always scowling, with hair that looks like the chaff from a bad harvest. It's truly a Thing.

There's a lot of mockery of this spectacle... disembodied laughter, a slow-reacting universe that sees nothing but an empty absurdity... but when everything becomes clear, months and years later, we'll remember that laughter as a terrible portent.

...

In that small northwestern town, where those terrible things happened twenty-five years ago, a girl meets with her boyfriend outside the Double R Diner. He is afflicted... everyone is afflicted... and in his case, it shows as bad skin, a twitchy demeanor, and sunken eyes.

The girl ends a tense conversation by giving him a wad of money, and he promises her the world. He is moving in the right direction, he says. He will be everything he's been promising. In the meantime, do a line and lean back while I drive you into the wind.

It takes a certain kind of person to do this -- to convince themselves, and those who trust them, that they own the world. If they're really that kind of person, they can give you the glow of a good high, even as they grind your life into dust.

...

On November 8, 2016, the strange Thing from the top of the escalator becomes the Thing-in-Chief. Garmonbozia Futures shoot up on the commodities market.

...

Dale Cooper returns to the world, but he loses something in the process: his shoes, of course, but also his sovereignty, his gifts of wisdom and cunning and personality. He is essentially reduced to a toddler, well-meaning, but diminished, adrift in everyday life. Nobody really seems to care, because they have no sense of his real value... to them, he is just a placeholder, like every other secondary character in their lives.

Sheriff Harry Truman is suffering from an unnamed medical condition, and his loved ones can only hope he will recover. Twin Peaks, 25 years later, has to function without him. The silence of his absence is deafening.

Where are the heroes, the protectors, the avatars of hope and compassion? Where have they been, while Bob has been ranging across the American dreamscape?

...

The Thing-in-Chief is constantly photographed. This is a world where every reality is measured in photographs, after all, and this Thing has changed everything. History will always have his mark gouged across the second decade of the 21st century, and there will be plenty of visual records to prove it.

In this particular clip, he is on the tarmac, walking in close proximity to his wife, a loyal beauty who's been reduced to an ornament... whether this flatness is his work, or whether it's somehow self-imposed, is presently unanswerable.

The distinguishing thing, though... the little touch that sets this moment off... is that he reaches for her hand, looking for reassurance (a show for the cameras? Or an unexpected moment of insecurity?) and she bats him away. With gait unbroken and stone expression, she rejects him. How easily she makes such a large Thing look so small.

And the lens of the entire apparatus... every looping GIF, every gasp and joke and conspiracy theory, is turned toward that snub. Here, in a soup of irrationality, we catch a taste of meaning, and it turns out we're starving for it.

...

In 1941, "Trinity" -- predecessor of the nuclear bomb -- changes the geographic face of New Mexico, and the political landscape of the whole planet earth. This is the epicenter of the sins that will be visited upon these humans for the next century.

Within the blast radius, shadows flicker against gas station walls, and something parasitic is born.

...

Hands are an especially persistent motif in this visitor's mythology. The dissenting voices of the void call them "small," and this becomes a creeping trauma for the thing-in-chief. He sometimes uses them as weapons in social situations, yanking people toward himself and crowding them when he needs social leverage. His handshake is a landmine.

One of his strangest spectacles is a session in his office, sitting across from a fellow world leader while the buzzing eyes swarm around them. The expectation is simple -- a handshake, the oldest convention of courtesy in Western diplomacy -- and he refuses to carry it out, conspicuously ignoring the chancellor with whom he is supposed to be negotiating.

What is he afraid of, exactly? Her good will? Her leverage over him? Or his own hands, that suddenly seem so tiny?

...

And now we come to the primal scene, the moment where everything is distilled into its purest incomprehensibility.

...

At the Double-R Diner, there's tense conversation, followed by an unexpected burst of violence outside.

If you want the imaginary center of this sequence of events, pay attention to the conversation. Twin Peaks Deputy Bobby Briggs is talking to his daughter Becky and his former wife Shelly, and the family's tenderness is palpable. Even so, the strength of their connection can't efface the cruel undertone: Becky defending an abusive husband, continuing a pattern of abuse that her mother once propagated... and that her mother is making the same mistake again, even as she disapproves. The deep compassion of this family is barely enough to balance the cycle of violence that plagues her maternal line.

After the conversation is over, the violence comes, and here, you will find the emotional center, hand-in-hand with the imaginary center. Two gunshots break the windows of the Diner, and everyone ducks for cover. Deputy Briggs runs outside and finds a family stopped at an intersection, the mother screaming at her sulking husband for leaving a loaded gun in their car, and their child sulking in turn. So the father, so the son.

Behind the derailed minivan, there's a white sedan, and it can't stop honking, despite the obvious emergency that's holding up the line of traffic. Like a good town cop, Deputy Briggs goes to the window of the sedan to convince the driver to stop honking.

There, Briggs finds something harrowing, in its inexplicable way: a woman screaming about the delay, enraged that she won't make it home for dinner, while a young girl writhes in throes of agony beside her... apparently having a seizure and coughing up black bile.

There is something absolutely alien and poisonous about this narrative moment. What impulses the driver is acting out... why she's so hysterical over banalities, even as she accompanies a suffering family member with a horrific illness... the malevolence is thick and oily and palpable. There is a sense, here, that Deputy Briggs has stumbled into a nightmare. Luckily, a scene change arrives to wake us up, so we don't have to remain there with him.

...

More centers, more nodules where reality seems to have twisted around on itself:

On July 25, the Republicans in Congress (the Thing-in-Chief's sycophants) held a vote on to bring a bill to the Senate floor. This bill would dismantle the ACA, and radically reshape the US healthcare system. It would rip health insurance away from something like 15 million people, and it would increase premiums by something like 20% (contrary to its stated aim of making healthcare affordable for all) [CBO via Business Insider]. Their "Yes" votes were audible over the national public outcry against the bill, and over the advice of medical associations, state governors, and their own constituents.

If you glance at this bill for more than a second, you see that it's actually illusory: no concrete policy is entailed, no strategy for solving the lingering problems with the healthcare system is implied. It's essentially a blank page, and the Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell and goaded by the Thing itself, are insisting on having a "constructive debate" on it.

At the heart of the process was a veteran soldier, famous for standing up against his party's worst impulses. braving the aftermath of major brain surgery... a mythical figure of politics, walking dramatically into the Senate chamber, and casting his vote: to conform without question to his party's nihilism, denying millions their health insurance when he himself had just undergone the trauma of a devastating medical condition.

He was applauded for his bravery, not just by his own party, but by the entire floor. And then the vote went through, and this bill -- a throbbing nuclear bomb for anyone with unstable employment and medical needs -- became an imminent possibility.

These are the children of reason's sleep. These are the scions of a chaotic, narcissistic, demented modern age.

...

It's 3 AM, and my town is very Lynchian tonight. The suburbs are deserted, with a hum in the background (a neighborhood of window air conditioners). Whenever I hear a car coming in the distance, it's always isolated, and I'm fully alone, and so I keep feeling a moment of panic. This is the dark road of the margins, and I am the bystander getting caught in the headlights.

Where are my protectors? Where are the people who have some grip on the world, who can still resist its tantrums and confusions and cruelties?

They are still sleeping, it seems, and I'm still left watching the television.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twitter movie reviews: first half of 2017

In honor of the Summer Solstice, I'll go ahead and compile all my Twitter reviews for this year. These were all written within a couple weeks of seeing the film, and they all take up exactly 144 characters, including the film title and date. As you can see, I gave myself some flexibility on the matter of punctuation and abbreviation.

If you follow me on Twitter, these will occasionally show up on my timeline. As you can see, I like movies. I am very forgiving. If you're looking for something more acerbic, maybe Armond White or the Angry Nerd has a Twitter account.


JUNE


Spring (2014) - A wide-ranging young romance, with flashes of horror that are discordant, but don't do much to curb the warmth of the story.

Kagemusha (1980) - Grand & lush, all the elements of vintage Kurosawa, but didn't have the shapely arc and development of his better movies.


MAY


Anguish (2015) - A brooding, earnest "tormented ghost" tale with exceptionally endearing characters. In the end, it rather undersells itself

Tangled (2010) - Sort of a throwback Disney Romance/comedy, whose brilliant physical humor more than redeems some clumsy writing and pacing.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) - Gorgeous boy-hero story plus family chronicle, all warmth & wisdom, tempered by brilliant visual treatment


APRIL


The Wailing (2016) - A strong, thick, & subtle tonic: when the initial hints of levity fade, you're left with despair burning on your tongue

The Double (2013) - Through a Terry-Gilliam-influenced lens, a focused, twitchy, & potent reflection on the cruelties of desire & insecurity

Enemy (2013) - A brilliant, chilling cyclical enigma that opens its own little self-contained universe, and ends by closing itself up again.


MARCH


10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) - A tense, brooding chamber drama -- great fun, but its explosive finale undercuts the interesting character work

Dead Lands (2014) - A self-conscious intensity only barely distinguishes this action movie, otherwise built on rote masculine warrior tropes

City 40 (2016) - A fascinating subject, but too clinical, missing any kind of gravitational center -- intriguing, but emotionally weightless

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) - Not too scary, but stylish &; austere, with the feel of a dream on the edge of becoming a nightmare


FEBRUARY


La La Land (2016) - Sometimes too pat, but always earnest... you could tell the filmmaker wanted a happy ending as badly as his audience did

Dope (2015) - Malcolm and his crew are brilliant protagonists in a striking and spontaneous adventure, tonally cacophanous, but never boring

Happy People (2010) - Herzog weaves a spell of fascination and intimacy with the Taiga: its stern voices, its landscapes, & its bitter cold.


JANUARY


Extraordinary Tales (2013) - A Poe anthology that improves steadily, from an amateurish first entry, unto the finale, a goddamn masterpiece.

Quest for Fire (1981) - A muddy slog, bludgeoning narrative conventions with brute frankness, but limited in its capacity to create tension.

The Last Unicorn (1982) - A wise and bittersweet animated romance, crafted with gentle strangeness that makes it feel timeless and mythical.

The Witch (2015) - A grimy historical claustrophobic head-space whose perversions leave a toxic footprint. Creepy, corrupt, & very effective

The Lobster (2015) - A dry and twisted movie - sadistic in a lonely, alienating way, with traces of hope and romance. A singular experience.

Reductions: The Consumer and the Critic



I'm going to go ahead and post some more abstract notes, developing some ideas I've had floating around for a while. This is related to this post and this post, where you'll find what I was then calling the Aspect Aesthetic (I think I need a better name).

This is a follow-up on those posts, doing the following three things:
  • elaborating on those basic points
  • expanding the argument to include the Critic
  • reducing some of my previous wordiness
Still, the big idea is the same: that these three roles are fundamental, especially when talking about aesthetics... and they can be applied to many areas of life where investment and appreciation meet reason, loyalty, identity, and faith.

This depends on a lot of premises that haven't been proven, obviously... like, the idea that culture can be used as a guiding frame of reference for understanding humans and their relationship to the world, and that the more broadly you apply this frame, the more it seems to cover. You've started with culture and art and the creative instinct, and eventually, by talking about subjectivity and human nature and idealism, and the universe as a sensory phenomenon, you find yourself stomping clumsily through ethics and politics, and encroaching even upon history and physics and metaphysics.

Not that I necessarily mind that... I'm no analytic academic... but for now, we just have to start with the seed of the idea: the Consumer and the Critic. The Creator is a bigger construct, I think, and that will have to wait for a different day.

I. THE CONSUMER (Interiority)


The consumer lives in the work.

All works create an interior world, guided by certain patterns and assumptions, operating by certain rules, constrained in particular ways.

The world of the work is built according to the blueprints of its Creator, but it's not limited thereby. There's just as much input from history, context, collective memory, the subconscious, and the cultural preoccupations, as there is from the Creator herself, a small person with a limited purview and access to an disinterested creative force (the muse, the reservoir, etc... wait for the Creator entry for more on that).

The Consumer inhabits this world. They invest in it, accept its specifications, and make it real by acting as its observer.

The Consumer's relationship to the work is I-Thou, as opposed to the Critic's I-It.

The quintessential consumer is the Fan. If you're not a Fan, your status as Consumer is precarious. The Fan is the person who not only chooses the work, but who also chooses to advocate for it... a form of Patriotism for the work's conceptual territory.

The Fan has a shadow (the Jungian, or an archetypal video game Doppelganger boss, depending on your frame of reference). This shadow is the Anti-Fan, a genuinely weird creature -- a Consumer who rejects the work outright -- whose engagement takes the form of kneejerk denial. Anti-fans are the people who say, without any explicit reason, "This just isn't my thing" or "I don't really think I get it."

The true Fan defines the work from the inside. They are a necessary part of the work coming into fulfillment. Lots of works have no Fans, which leaves them stuck in a sort of limbo, having no relationship to the world except through the anemic will and intention of their Creator.

Fandom is a sort of religious experience, and all religions are Fandoms. Christians are the most obvious example of this, being Fans of God’s word, His creations, and Jesus, His central character/principle/motif.

A crucial part of the Consumer role: it's where freedom manifests.

The Critic may be free to focus on certain works and ignore others, but they're always bound by the obligations of rationality. They make claims about works, and these claims are supported or unsupported. Criticism is a parasite that feeds on justification. Consumers are immune to this infection.

The freedom of the Consumer is not merely the negative freedom of not-being-forced... it's the positive freedom of browsing and investing, the radical self-actualization of choosing something that defines you. Being a Consumer means you have this capacity… being a Fan means actually using it.

Fandom is the full exercise of freedom: sovereignty, choice, actualization.

II. THE CRITIC (Exteriority)


Criticism is exile.

It's hard to imagine why anyone would choose to be a Critic, when there's so much content around to get swept up in. Because Criticism is, by nature, a self-exile from the subject (i.e. putting your beloved pet, the dog named Culture, on the dissection table of discourse).

Criticism is I-It, contra the intimate, fully-involved Fandom relationship, which is I-Thou.

It may be the access. The Critic DOES have access to certain dimensions that the Consumer can't get to.

For instance, being a Consumer means the loss of the economic dimension... and for the Fan, there is no economic dimension at all. In a way that's denied to the Fan, the Critic can step outside the work and understand it in terms of precedent, context, relative quality, the field. "The Market," as it were.

But the Fan could certainly argue that the Critic is denied a certain dimension, as well, and it may be the most important dimension of the work: the heart, the interior, the absolute investment that makes the work come alive.

The Critic has to acknowledge the possibility of the Consumer, but they can't fully Consume. They have to appreciate the Fan, but they are not Fans. Anyone who claims to be a Fan and a Critic at the same time is misunderstanding one of those two roles.

If they're truly a Fan, their criticism isn't true criticism -- it's merely an intellectual engagement, broadening the scope of the work by doing internal labor. If they're doing the difficult work of criticism -- sorting out the pros from the cons, observing technical weaknesses, categorizing the work, questioning its motives and its internal coherence -- they're not really being a Fan. They're being a Critic.

Perhaps they're being a Critic who has eaten a Fan. This is relatively common, and frankly, Fans make the best food (other Critics are bitter and chafe the palate). So Fans make the best food, and eating Fans makes the best Critics.

The Critic eats Fans like Kirby eats his enemies. By eating the Fan, the Critic gains the short-term, provisional ability to ignore the work's weaknesses and assimilate with it. Employed correctly, this can make the Critic's criticism far more robust, and thus more persuasive. Criticism written from this perspective -- from the post-prandial daze of simulated fandom -- I would call "Criticism in the sympathetic mode."

Still, this is an asymmetrical relationship. The Critic can temporarily effect Fandom because the Critic is outside the work, and has more freedom to operate in various modes in relation to it. The Fan can't become a Critic in the same way, because the Fan is a creature of the interior. The Fan can't survive outside the work, and they can't see the work as a whole, which is required for any meaningful criticism.

One of the key postures that challenges the Critic-Consumer dichotomy is Ironic Fandom. This is a popular mode in postmodern discourse, and a key part of the Hipster project of illegibility.

The Ironic Fan seems to blur the line between Fan and Critic, but inevitably, the rule still holds: a Critic can act as a Fan, and not vice versa. The Ironic Fan is actually a Critic simulating a Fan, but leaving the signposts of simulation out to see. They are highly conscious of context: history, genre, and conventions. Their temporary Fandom consists in recognizing all the conventions and tropes and standard templates, and willingly inflating the value of these conventions in order to distort the appraisal of the work. Their Fandom is not sincere... it's a game of superiority and obfuscation.

The Critic has other crucial roles in cultural production. These are related to those functions and dimensions that are the unique purview of the critical perspective: context, history, technical authority, status, independence, objectivity. These may be true characteristics, or they may be pretensions... in any case, they are crucial for the work of the Critic.

One role of the critic is Gatekeeper.

One role of the critic is Historian.

One role of the critic is Mentor.

The critic has many faces... almost as many as the Creator, and certainly more than the Consumer.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Notes on Consumption: History of Philosophy, Twin Peaks, some writings

I'm feeling nostalgic for a time long before I existed... before most of Western civilization existed, really. It's a side-effect of listening to The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps (I'm up through the Middle Platonists) and reflecting on the potency and simplicity of those early philosophical doctrines, from Heraclitis and into Aristotle and Socrates and the Hellenistic schools.

I'm not nostalgic for the inevitable disease, scarcity, and slavery that made up everyday life in those classical empires... indeed, my nostalgia requires a certain denial about the real historical conditions. What I'm nostalgic about, obviously, is the freshness of thought... the way these philosophers could try to get a handle on the whole universe, the nature of reality and virtue and everything, in a way that's simple, that just requires a couple principles, one or two guiding concepts, and a faith in reason to reduce everything else.

It's been a long time since somebody could honestly say, "The virtuous life is the good life, and virtue is just the pursuit of wisdom and self-mastery." It's also been a long time since somebody could say, "Everything is made of air." How different history would have been, if one of those metaphysical statements had proven true! That behind the great multiplicity of reality, we'd found a simple unity! A history of childlike simplicity, of getting everything in order according to one principle... the whole mess of human conflict, just washed away, all at once.

I know philosophy can't really operate like that these days. That kind of innocence is long gone, diluted by cultural exchange and obliterated by the fires of war. No intellectualism can be honest without acknowledging the specific, the irreducible, the multiplicity of objects and subjects and vantage points.

So if you have a yearning for something that captures the world, or at least tries to grapple with everything at once, rather than with some small, isolated part of it, you have to go to those places that lean into ambiguity, that celebrate the strangeness and the mystery of it all... things that make space for meaninglessness, and accept infinite contingency.

Luckily, I've been watching the new season of Twin Peaks, and Lynch's sensibility scratches this itch pretty well.

It's not perfect... or if it is, I'm not far enough through the whole thing to see it... but Lynch does not shy away from the grand fog. He may find some monsters in the mist, but more importantly, it brings out the obscure discord of everything... the way all reality is sort of floating, removed from the simple constraints of logic and justice and cause and effect and archetype. Sometimes it's almost nihilistic, and sometimes it's merciful and melancholy.

There is something sad, to me, about watching Dale Cooper wander the city, helpless, only comprehending the most proximal connections and sensations. Because I am the proud parent of a toddler, and Dale Cooper is acting very much like her. And what it conveys, to me, is a particular point about how confused and venal and unnecessary the world is, with all its complications.

I'm uniquely sensitive to this kind of ambiguity at the moment. I think this is what I responded to in "It's Not Like I Tried to Hurt Anyone," a very compelling story I stumbled across in one of those Medium "recommended" sidebars... there is a sense in which the main character's refusal, her withdrawal from history, makes her feel vast and divine in a way that's not shared by all the rest of us, caught up and diminished in the flow of the everyday.

I'd like to do some more focused writing soon. I'd do a philosophical essay, if I could manage it, and I've got a starting point -- the Skeptics' investment in their own ignorance, which I strongly identify with -- but I need more content, something more compelling to structure it. We'll see what comes of the urge. I feel a terrible shortness in myself, an inadequacy, that I need to power through, even if I can never vanquish it.

As a final note -- I also ran across an excerpt from a book called Essayism, and it's made me want to buy the whole thing, when I have a moment to read it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Tangled (2010) and the Real Men of The Snuggly Duckling

Yes, that's right -- armchair media critic raising a little girl has been watching a lot of Disney movies, and in the spirit of this blog, I can't help but appreciatively thumb through their themes and messages and motifs. Here, as anywhere, there are many beautiful things to discover.

Despite having great friends and family who are intense Disney fans, I remain a bit of a skeptic. I have to take the position of the Critic on this topic -- I can't shake the suspicion that "Princess" culture might feed into crass, commercialized, rigid femininity.

On the other hand, I can't deny the company's love for cultural myth, and their commitment to storytelling. Rewatching their various canonical films, both Classic and Contemporary, I'm struck by the complexity of their aesthetic. They run the wide gamut of Romantic sensibilities, from the folksiness of Snow White to the Gothic sprawl of Sleeping Beauty, up through Princess Tiana's Creole Southern Gothic Americana.

I've been struck by some of the emotional moments in these movies... as, for instance, the crushing moment in Tangled when Rapunzel says "Yes, mommy" to her jealous kidnapper.

And I've been impressed with how Disney has changed: before what Wikipedia calls the Modern Era, the Princesses were generally pitted against standard monstrous adversaries. Since the 2000's, however -- with the adjective-titled Disney films, Frozen and Brave -- you'll find that a focus on internal turmoil, rather than external conflict... the estrangement between two sisters, a girl who resents her mother and the traditions she represents. These are the battles all the young people of the world will have to fight.

I did love Tangled... despite being a crusty 35-year old man, I was genuinely delighted by its earnestness and its slap-stick humor.

And I especially loved the bandits of The Snuggly Duckling.



These goofy men remind me more of myself than I'd ever be willing to admit to anyone, save the whole anonymous Internet. I imagine they're all living their Plan B -- they rehearse their piano lessons, reminisce about their first crush, and occasionally visit the storefront that was supposed to be their bakery. Pillaging was always supposed to be a side-job, they tell themselves... how did I end up here at the Duckling, just like my dad did, and just like his dad before him?

But they know. These bandits, they know -- it's not about who recognizes your hard work, or how much you get paid for it. They know that the free market economy chooses winners and losers based on inscrutable patterns, cynicism, charisma, and the flapping of a single butterfly's wings. For these ruffians, it's about flourishing, and they have faith that they CAN flourish, even as plunderers and highwaymen, as long as they set aside time for their true aspirations.

Eudaimonia -- a life of flourishing -- is all about having a space of your own to cultivate, even if it's deep under the radar of the prevailing social structures. It's all about having hopes, and passions, and a community of support.

That, of course, is the other beautiful function of the Snuggly Duckling... it's a community of enlightened, supportive masculinity, disguised as a rotten rat's nest of thieves. Who wouldn't want to be adopted by this circle of friends, who will listen to your concerts, taste your cupcakes, and watch your little puppet shows?

Of course, they have to keep up a front. Their furry capes and winged helmets are their Gucci business suits, and their battleaxes are their business cards. They have to talk in gruff obscenities, just like other male-gendered people have to make eye contact and shake hands. You never know when a potential client is going to come through that door and potentially catch you, looking like some kind of Unicorn Collector.

But for an earnest young lady who asks them the question -- what are your dreams? -- they will open up, just as they've opened up to one another. Breakin' femurs may provide a show of confidence, but it doesn't really indicate true security, genuine self-acceptance... only the recognition of your brothers-in-arms can do that. This is a truly magical little tavern, a temporary autonomous zone, where pretense is shed and aspiration takes all forms.

In fact, honesty and openness is so important to the denizens of the Snuggly Duckling that they will enforce it by violence, if necessary (truly an intersectional community). This is what Flynn Rider discovers when he refuses to sing.

All those swords.

Those swords have a clear message: In this community, a show of vulnerability and authenticity is the hazing, the expected trial by fire. If you don't open up and show your true self, they're saying, then you're not privy to the nurturing fraternity that's hiding here in the Duckling... nay, you get the malicious, mean, and scary outlaw pirates. And I don't think you want that, Mr. Slick-haired Pseudonymous Flynn "dying of insecurity" Rider. No, you definitely want to be on our Snuggly side.

My brothers, lost in this postmodern era, I promise you: we will eventually find our Snuggly Duckling. We will dream again!

Monday, May 08, 2017

Kubo (2016) and Poesis -- the Why of Art


Did we all write poetry? I know I did. I read them in classes, and I workshopped them among friends. I once got to read a few at a library event (some lyrical little remixes of lines from Langston Hughes, trying to leverage some unearned insight into the soul of jazz and blues). When there wasn't a literary magazine to publish it, I founded one. Poetry was a very pure exercise in construction and expression, and even now I occasionally miss it.

Despite its terrible potential for abuse by sullen teenagers, there’s something fundamental about poetry. In A Dying Art (2015), Clive James calls it "the queen of the humanities because all the humanities must be done for themselves alone, but poetry can prove that this is so." This is the praise of damnation, of course... he’s saying that poetry’s motives are vindicated by its social and economic irrelevance. Sad but fair.

On this point -- the elevation of poetry among the arts -- Martin Heidegger is more convincing. In The Origin of the Work of Art, he says "Art happens as poetry," and like so many of his claims, this is built on a reading of history and language. As an infamous miner of linguistic resonance, Heidegger knew that the etymology of the word "poetry" (German "poesie") is from Greek poiesis, meaning "making" more generally. Poetry -- the word, the signifier itself -- drags around the trace of something bigger: the human drive to create.

The question of "why" follows poetry around like an ill-tempered, codependent dog. In the last day, I’ve run across it in two different (very different) bits of criticism: the aforementioned Clive James essay, and the classic of literary theory, Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. And as poiesis suggests, this question is a proxy for a broader one: why art in general? Why do we still insist on making things, when every practical and extrinsic motive is refuted?

A 2016 stop-motion Samurai film -- Kubo and the Two Strings -- opens up this question ("why art?") and tries to give us the first traces of an answer.

Kubo and the Two Strings is not a rumination on artistic practice. It’s a sentimental swashbuckler, the story of a boy who’s being hunted by his demonic grandfather, and who undertakes a hero’s journey to save himself and reconcile the breakup of his family. Still, the motif of creative energy is highly visible: Kubo’s prized possession is a magical Shamisen from his mother, and when he plays, he’s able to invoke spirits in origami form.

I have to come out right here and declare my love for Kubo... not just the film, but the character himself, a solitary boy who’s taken on a nurturing role toward his ailing mother. He’s also, essentially, a multi-media artist, using his Shamizan and his origami puppets to stage adventure stories in a public square. And as exciting as his adventure becomes, I think that the beginning of the film, his time in his cave and hometown, have far more to offer the discerning audience... the film is truly thematically front-weighted.

Martin Heidegger, afore-mentioned German philosopher who ran with the wrong crowd, had a lot to say about context, and how it inevitably defines us. This is an angle worth noting in Kubo. Heidegger used terms like "world" and "thrownness" to get at this theme, but we can skip the jargon and talk about the specifics. Kubo’s life is one of misfortune and absence, from the very beginning: he lives in a cave, living by a small fire, and he travels to a single town to perform skits and trade for his household’s everyday needs. His mother lives with him, and she’s also a storyteller, but it’s pretty clear that they don’t travel a lot, and nobody in this family is going to a specialized prep school for the arts.

And this context, in turn, reveals the significance of Kubo’s music and theater. Kubo’s stories are vibrant and exotic, a succession of boss-fight vignettes that catch all Kubo’s spectators in their spell. They involve a great knight (Hanzo, who Kubo patterns after his mythical father) and a cast of monsters to be defeated... giant spiders, fire-breathing chickens... and they end with the appearance of The Moon King, an evil warlord, as Hanzo’s final adversary.

Like so many artists, Kubo’s art is compromised by his economic needs. His public-square stories are products, his talent packaged and sold. For most of his life, Kubo’s "why" has been banal: to buy food for myself and my mother.

After the plot’s initiating event, this changes, and Kubo finds himself traveling in search of his father’s mythical armaments, his economic concerns overruled. Still, he uses his magic, which is also his art: crossing a frozen tundra, he sees a lone bluebird, and he summons a flock of origami birds to fly alongside the loner and play with her.

This is where I feel the most kinship with Kubo, and indeed, I wish I practiced such a spontaneous art.

Kubo and I have this "why"... this creative impulse... because of the fissure between our inner lives and the world that situates us. We feel a richness in our imaginations, a vastness of possibilities, and when we return to the real world, we find it brittle, distracted by trivialities, rigid in scope, and inevitably lonely. This is not to say that reality is impoverished. Indeed, I’ve traveled to some amazing places, and Kubo spends half the film on a grand adventure. But we all have limits, standards, patterns, boundaries that draw us back. We are all locked into our situations. Our worlds don’t go on forever, and for some of us, at some times in our lives, they don’t even go past the city limits, or outside at night.

The "why" of art -- poiesis, as Theory calls it -- is that it lets us contaminate the mundane with the magic of possibility. To the well-structured, inevitable world of experience, with its stable past and fleeting present and predictable future, we can add this trickle of our private reality. Art lets us broker a peace, or at least reach a stalemate. Art is the negotiating party of our imaginations, setting out to meet with the world... to compromise, to respond, but never to submit.

...

Postscript: You could read more into Kubo, rich as it is in thematic nutrition. I mentioned Harold Bloom, and in a deep analysis, he might become useful again. Kubo is, after all, the product of powerful influences, and his relationship with them is a crucial part of his eventual resolution. You could also write something about the sort of bicameral relationship of Beetle/Mini-Hanzo, which becomes very puzzling as you learn more about the two characters.

This is the expansive inner life of art, isn’t it? For every artifact, a thousand interpretations, an infinitude of lenses and dimensions. A good work of art is worth a thousand critical interpretations.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

2013, year of the doppelganger (on Ayoade's The Double & Villeneuve's Enemy)

2013 was a big year for doppelgangers. I had to check IMDB to confirm, but I shouldn't have bothered, the memory is so vivid: seeing previews at indie features, and noticing that there were two movies arriving at the same time, both in a dark eccentric style, and both about protagonists meeting shadow versions of themselves.

I finally got around to seeing both of them this year. 2017 is looking to be a great year for discovering movies.

In case you missed either of them: the first was Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and directed by Denis Villeneuve. You might recognize that name... in the past year, the guy really leveled up, directing excellent film and worldwide award magnet The Arrival. The other was The Double, starring Jesse Eisenberg and directed by Richard Ayoade.

Enemy was an excellent, stirring film, partly because it was so focused and compact. It had the feel of Christopher Nolan's earlier films, but with richer tactile qualities, sort of inky and jaundiced. In a sense, its narrative purity was also its weakness: it felt so focused that it became irrelevant. It was essentially a study of itself, blind to the world that we were watching it from.

The Double, on its surface, wasn't much different. It took place in an absurdist fantasy world with strong Terry Gilliam influences, and it was tricky and ominous, but relatively predictable (the twists weren't very twisty, and those moments that were surprising weren't very relevant to the plot as a whole). However, these criticisms are minor quibbles when the whole product is taken into account, and I think, though it was less pure and technically artful, The Double was heartier than Enemy, and had more to say to its audience.

The key problematic in The Double was Simon's insecurity, and the film was intensely attentive to this. Simon was a sad character, perhaps too much of a caricature to be relatable, except for the fact that he embodies every neurotic insecurity and inferiority complex looming over our psychological bubbles. James was a brilliant foil, a manifestation of Simon's fantasy of dominance and aggression and confidence, and he captured both the thrill of that construct, and its terrible price: the inauthenticity, the opportunism, the misplaced priorities, the lack of consideration or compassion.

Simon having to face James as a sort of shadow perfection: that made for a powerful film, and at least for me, a compelling comment on how fantasy and reality run in parallel.

It brings larger questions to bear: at what point in our lives should we let go of the aspirational version of ourselves? At what point does a fantasy of self-possession, of personal success and validation, become an anchor rather than a buoy? Can we keep aspiring and striving, if we don't have some sort of perfect projection we're following... our own inadequacy, reconstructed as a guide to a better version of ourselves?

I started reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet recently -- you may have run across it in my other recent entries -- and this fits firmly within this entry's thematic, as well. Pessoa's distinguishing characteristic was that he wrote under multiple personas, all refracting his own personality in various ways. These all had their own histories and identities and concerns, but their writing (through Pessoa) was always rich and earnest and fully realized. Pessoa's subjects included inadequacy and incompleteness, the existential gaps at the heart of human identity. His writing might have been a balm for Simon.

This has been a relatively unfocused entry, and I hope you'll forgive it. Maybe I'll have more thoughts on 2013, the year of the doppelganger, and I'll write a second, more idealized post as a sort of twinner to this one.

Friday, April 07, 2017

A Manifesto, dedicated to Fernando Pessoa

Your style is a straitjacket.

You've figured out what you think is beautiful, and what kind of work you're committed to, and what kind of character you have as an artist, and this is your protective stance as you present yourself to the world. Every time you give the public a new artifact, a new piece of yourself, you put yourself at their mercy... and yet, you've shut out so many others. Because by choosing your style, you've excluded all other styles, and those exclusions have become part of your identity.

Your identity is built on an unstable affirmative and a rigid infinity of negatives.

I don't have a style. Each new work looks for a style, and they don't find it in me, and so they struggle. So my exclusions are washed away, and my potential fills the infinite space that my pretensions have vacated.

. . . . .

Your popularity is a poison.

You know the taste of validation, of feedback and response and appreciation. It's a sweet acidity that penetrates every level of your praxis. It softens your commitment and puts cracks in your sovereignty, and once it's in there, it can't be washed out.

You may embrace it. You may say you "do it for the fans," that your followers are "the most important thing to you." Some people love the things that are killing them.

I have no fans. I've learned the long asceticism of failure, and it keeps my creative organs pure. If I love any of my own output, I know that it has a 100% approval rating, that the only person in the world who cares about it is enamored of it. Hate follows the same path.

. . . . .

Your productiveness is a failure mode.

You know how to turn an idea into a product. You have a pipeline, a process, a series of technical steps that lead you to something complete, that you're happy with, that you can show the world. You've dug away the soft loam of unfinished projects.

But that vast incompleteness was you at your most fertile, your most robust. When you finish a work, you strip away all its beautiful indecision, its vastness, the unfulfilled potential that gives it those cosmic roots. Each signature and sale is a cord of wood, and your range is notably short of trees.

I don't finish projects, and they remain seeds and saplings in the primeval woodland of my imagination. I may produce artifacts, little bundles to burn as kindling or desiccated limbs shaped into walking sticks, but this only happens when the work has already died. And so I leave my best work to the wild, nascent, leafy, unrealized, hopeful and beautifully hopeless.

. . . . .

"And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes."

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet