Monday, November 19, 2007

Blade Runner and the Question of Interpretation

Blade Runner is kind of an old movie. I was first released before I was... alive, I guess. Still, to my eyes, it seems like the best of (perhaps better than) contemporary cinema, and it was worth the exorbitant Manhattan prices to see Blade Runner: Final Cut a week or so ago. This is what science fiction should be. No glitzy showdowns or garish interstellar CGI plastic, but well-rendered drama, both emotionally and visually, that acknowledges that as the future arrives, emotions and human vulnerabilities aren't getting simpler... they're getting more complex, right along with the technology that protects us from them.

There are a lot of things I could talk about here. There's the differences between this and the previous Blade Runner releases, which are interesting trivia, but well-cataloged over at Wikipedia. There's also the whole bit about the 80's and cyberpunk, Sterling and Dick and Gibson's visions of the future that shuffle and grunt on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum from Star Trek's future utopia. I don't know if I want to tackle that monster, either, though. There's also a disturbing depiction of gender relations, a male-empowerment sex scene that resembles a rape scene remotely enough for casual viewers to pass over, but clearly enough to make me uncomfortable. It's something I've talked about before, though, so I'll hold off on that for now.

Instead, what I want to write about is the complexity of interpretation for a work this complex. I'm a new criticism type, through and through... I've read my share of Derrida, and I've perused Wimsatt and Beardsley... so I usually accept any work of entertainment or narrative media as something I should be picking through, interpreting for myself. I always want to personalize the story, and make it something uniquely my own by working out the connections for myself. I've done it on here a number of times, for James Bond and Unleashed, among many others.

I came to a similar cushy conclusion with regards to Blade Runner. There was something eerie and loaded about the final scene, just before the cut to the credits, and I immediately jumped to a conclusion that made perfect sense to me, even though it wasn't spelled out as such. The connection to an earlier scene, and to a few remarks by Deckard and Rachael, were the dots of meaning that I was able to connect in order to form a full picture.

Imagine my reaction when I discovered that I was "right" (in whatever way that holds). It turns out that Ridley Scott actually admitted, in an interview available on Google, that my conclusion was correct... or at least, it was his intention when he made this cut. This should have been a self-satisfied moment for me, right? I got it right, I caught the hints, I had connected the clues and the killer had just admitted that I was right about him. Neat and tidy, like Sherlock Holmes.

But I was, in fact, rather dismayed at Ridley's confirmation of my theory. Suddenly, there wasn't a real question about it... suddenly, everybody knows where to look, and the work is closed, right after I managed to open it up. Before that time, I was a fan of interpretive openness in my media, but I never thought very hard about it, except through the lens of amateur lit-crit. Suddenly, I had a new angle: an emotional reaction.

When Blade Runner was an open question, it seemed endlessly complex, like so many of the other work I'm such a fan of. This is why I liked Ada, or Ardor, and why I still remember Neon Genesis Evangelion so fondly. Their authors never bothered closing the interpretive code in these works, and openness lends a different scale to it, whether it's literature or art or entertainment. After Blade Runner, I was holding onto my insights like grains of sand I had gathered into my own personal hermeneutic sand castle. I was proud of it, and I was also jealous of it, in a way.

I should explain that last part... jealousy over a clever interpretation is a special vice that I tend to indulge whenever I can. I like having my own personal angle partly because I can explain it whenever my friends are talking about the movie. However, it also appeals because it's unverified, and I can use it to engage people in a conversation about the characters. A half-assed debate on an unconfirmed revelation can make for a lot of discussion and reinterpretation, and a small shadow can reveal serious new depths of a work of art.

There's a lesson for me as an artist, I think. On the simpler side, I'll never walk around explaining my art to people who are wondering about its "true meaning." If there's a true meaning, people can figure it out for themselves. On a deeper level, I'll avoid creating anything with a single, exclusive "meaning." If I can fold some uncertainty into the work when I create it, I won't feel like I'm closing it off too much when I finish it, and/or when people read it and/or ask about it (mental note: you have to have an audience first!)

But this also leaves open a question for the rest of the consumer universe out there (and make no mistake, I'm more of a consumer than a producer myself). Do you prefer your stories and pictures and music to be closed and explained, and to be the product of a clear, well-communicated idea? i.e. as with Ridley Scott, who communicated his idea after the fact? Or do you prefer them to be half-answered, leaving as many questions as "morals" or determinations? To put it another way: if you met the author of your favorite book, and they informed you that all your personal beliefs and reactions to it were "absolutely correct!", would you be happier for it?

I'm curious to know... if anyone, in the history of The InterNet, ever gets to the end of this blog post, please respond, cause I'd love to hear some thoughts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Speaking for the Millennials: a response to Morley Safer on 60 Minutes

"I promise that I will not judge any person only as a teenager if you will constantly remind yourself that some of my generation judge people by their race, their belief or the color of their skin and that this is no more right than saying all teenagers are drunken dope addicts or glue sniffers."
- Victor Lundberg, An Open Letter to My Teenage Son

Maybe it's absurd of me to get pissed off at something petty and transparent on 60 Minutes, but as I reviewed (and re-watched, and re-reviewed) their recent piece on Millennials, I was as close as I've ever been to damaging something in my apartment. It's not the kind of desperate rage I feel at rapists, or religious extremists, because I can recognize that Safer's ageist type of thinking is petty and has to fade into oblivion with every generation... but I still harbor a deep, mind-bending anger at a ubiquitous cultural myth that I've recognized, and struggled against, as long as I can remember being aware of it.

This myth is the degradation of America's youth.

Millennials on 60 Minutes

Watch the video and try to be convinced (if you're an upper-class 45-year-old, it might not be too hard). Is this message attractive? Does it validate you? Does it give you more fodder for disapproval, distrust, and cataclysmic discontent at the failures of your successors? The message is painfully clear, fueled by the insecurities of a disappearing generation, and it's vividly, comically transparent.

Here's what they offer to convince you: a series of remarks from consultants, most of whom have business or politics backgrounds, and all of whom offer unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence. Some stock video of kids with "the technology" or at "the computer." A long, rambling narrative by Mr. Morley Safer, inundated with disparaging phrases, and a self-help-book-selling IDIOT as the spokesperson for a generation that probably bought about five copies of his literature.

This is going to be a long post, so be patient with me. I'll go through these one at a time.

Mr. Safer characterizes the current generation's ethos as one of whimsical, childish laziness. If you've been living in the vicinity of planet Earth, you've probably heard that refrain before... teenagers in the 80's were apathetic losers, young people in the 60's were spoiled deviants, and youth in the 20's were hedonistic and self-absorbed. Some of you "doting parents" heard about the Roaring Twenties, didn't you?

Of course, Mr. Morley's monologue isn't exactly a balanced portrayal of an emergent consciousness. I think he starts off trying to be a little more subtle, with jabs like "their priorities are simple: they come first" (a thesis offered, with virtually no credible evidence whatsoever, by Jean M. Twenge, PhD in her book Generation Me'). As the report goes on, his shots get cheaper, as he calls all young people "the teenage babysitting pool" and refers to them offhandedly as "narcissistic praise-hounds."

As a side-note, this includes me... he indicts people born between 1980 and 1995. Thus, I feel my anger is slightly more validated.

Morley's guests have a similar tone to his: Marian Salzman, whose position as an ad-exec from Walter J. Thompson apparently qualifies her as a generational guru, says you "have to talk to them like a therapist on TV" (hmmm... apparently Ms. Salzman doesn't understand the problems that require a therapist in the real world). I didn't catch the information on Marian's vast personal experience with young professionals, or her personal success stories in regards to working with them, so she strikes me as representative of the segment's general tone.

In fact, all the guests sound the same, and they all echo Morley's disembodied monologue. Jeffrey Zaslow pointedly blames Mr. Rogers for his bad national parenting habits. A white house chef turned self-help consultant calls this generation a "perfect storm" of unpreparedness (seems a bit of a discontinuous metaphor to me).

Cherry-picking of guests allows Mr. Safer some more support: Jason Dorsey, a baby-faced author whose book on professionalism is apparent being read by people... somewhere... comes across as a smooth-lobed middle schooler who simply repeats, in a slightly higher register, all the complaints of the elders, and acts like he's being optimistic. I can tell you with complete sincerity that a 20-something who has published a self-help book is not representative of a "generation," and he comes across as a complete asshole (albiet a different kind of asshole from the gems of adulthood who represent the baby boomers).

There's a reason these segments, and the books they echo, depend so heavily on anecdotes and decontextualized comedy... they don't have any worthwhile evidence on their side. Now, I don't usually make demands for empirical proof, but it's a demand I'm willing to make in the face of absurd, antagonistic generalizations.

If you want facts... you know, those relics of modern rationalism... consider Their devastating critique of Generation Me includes some lovely statistical gems. Youth have no work-ethic? Since 1974, the students who planned to work off-campus to finance their college educations has risen by 5% (almost 10% among females). Alcohol consumption among students has dropped as much as 15%. Twice as many females (by percentage) plan to attain PhDs or similar professional degrees. They're self-centered? Felony arrests among young people, aged 10-17, have dropped by 56% since 1974, and community and volunteer work has risen by 14% since 1975/76.

If them young whippersnappers are quitting their jobs at your office, it might be because your ideas, marketing plans, priorities, and economic potential are all crumbling before their eyes.

A continued close reading of these remarks reveals something beyond the thoughtful observation and insightful analysis of the wiser generation. It reveals (actually, it doesn't even take that much close reading) the voice of the status quo, embedded but terrified for its own safety.

In between taking snipes at the "Millenials," Morley practically offers himself and his generation up as the entrenched institution. Apparently, the things the baby boomers hold dear are "giving orders" and "your starched white shirt and tie." Madame Salzman is disappointed that we aren't willing to "live and breathe the company" (how that ever became a virtue in the first place is beyond me). Morley also seems disgruntled that "friends and family are the new priority."

This makes for interesting reflection: was my generation's moment of failure the same moment that it chose "friends and family" over "living and breathing the company"? And does this, somehow, make us narcissistic and self-centered? This seems like a bit of a rhetorical discontinuity to my admittedly youthful brain.

This confusing backlash against young people, my friends, represents a state of fear. "Where did this fantasy come from?" ... "No more 'Pay your dues, just like I did' " ... these are the words of a generation that's used to a very strict power structure -- something developed in the 70's and 80's -- where they were at the top of a simple patriarchal heirarchy, and they're seeing it fall apart. They see a workforce that's increasingly intense and specialized, that can "multitask" and whose technology is "almost an extension of their bodies" (ooh! Somebody read the back cover of Understanding Media!) They realize they have to negotiate with us, rather than simply barking orders, and they react by calling us spoiled and self-centered.

I guess, after all this writing, I no longer feel the need to be angry... I feel rather an inevitable pity for the frustration of a generation in its twilight, and I think maybe I should go try to shake a corporate executive's hand and tell them it's been great working with them. It's time to indulge these corporatists with the reward they've come to deserve: the kind of affirmation you'd offer a discouraged child.

Sorry for the rant. Next time: Blade Runner.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

WGA topical ramblings

Warning: this may be more inane and rambling than my usual razor-sharp critical tongue. If you want something more focused, read the forthcoming piece about Blade Runner.

I'm definitely not qualified to talk about the current state of television. I hardly watch an hour of TV a week... occasionally I catch Scrubs, or a show on the Food Network, usually over someone else's shoulder. Somehow, some cryptic convergence of factors has destroyed my interest in boobtubery, which has been replaced by books, movies, and the Internet in my life.

Still, it's interesting to see an uprising and a debate about productivity in the entertainment industry. Strikes are so closely associated with the great days of blue-collar labor that it's confusing, and almost blasphemous, to see the concept make the postmodern transition into the world of "cultural production." The monetary elite in this country used to care about revenue from products... cars, infrastructure, etc. Now, they care about broadcastable, promotable content... something only seasoned dialogue writers can provide.

So: time to rethink cultural production? For a long time, I had trouble dealing with the idea that the vast majority of costs and payments in this country are for things that aren't physical, and that are infinitely reproducible. A computer program developed by Adobe, or a song written by Radiohead, or a digital photograph from the archives of Sebastio Salgado... those things require the creative effort to be put forth once, and from that point on, they can propagate infinitely at no further cost -- and if somebody is paying for each copy, they can generate infinite revenue. They don't require materials, or even labor, to keep making money for the people controlling them.

I think corporations, asserting endless control over things like songs and scripts, are acting on the old-fashioned paradigm. The fact that the distributor is recouping all the capital suggests that it's the distributor who's paying for the materials, when in fact there are no more materials. It's the creative locus of the work itself that is generating the revenue, so by rights, the majority of the capital should be distributed to the creative producer -- the writer, the artist, the band. Corporations are using their status as middle-men and distributors to hijack all the capital being circulated in this country.

Whether this analysis is accurate or painfully biased, it still seems like the same issue: the issue of revenue being siphoned away from producers and into the hands of bureaucrats. I'm unforgivably compelled by the instinctive belief that there are more executives, accountants, and business majors in this country than the infrastructure really requires, especially in the age of individual empowerment and immediate communication.

So I say, yay to the writers' guild, just like I said yay to the MTA workers a few years ago. I'd suggest going a step further, too... if you're in a stalemate too long, start publishing your writing via alternate sources. Show that, if it's not worth the network's attention, it's definitely going to be worth somebody else's.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Anton Corbijn's Control: portrait of a monster

I saw the film Control, by Anton Corbijn, a couple weeks ago. I enjoyed it, if only because I like watching moving images and being immersed in the great media spectacle. I'd recommend it to anyone who's in the mood for a troubling, introspective drama that pulls you into an artist's personal web of tragedy. I know, this doesn't sell very well on paper.

Still, if you're like me and welcome the chance to think a lot about a movie and a public persona, you'll probably find Control worth the watch. It brings up an old question that I find myself recycling every so often: how do I react to narratives wherein the protagonist is really a deplorable bastard? Are they 1) personally enriching and/or educational? or 2) even enjoyable? and if the answer to (2) is "Yes," is it an enjoyment I should be indulging in, or is it just the kind of pathetic voyeurism we get from watching a train wreck or a celebrity breakdown?

Quick backstory: Control is about Ian Curtis, the front-man to the goth/punk band Joy Division. Joy has earned a special place in music history, being the hybrid seed of a whole underground movement. They're the type of band that has resonated through the critical and historical consciousness of pop music, even though they've never surfaced in mainstream memory. They were categorically narcissistic and depressed, but they managed to avoid being a cliche because they were so damn sincere. This was no Brand New self-pity... this was genuinely troubled, sincere disaffected personal turmoil, born out for the eye of a thousand teenage fans.

Part of the reason for this sincerity, and for the fame that attended it, was that Curtis was such a pitiful case. His voice, and his songwriting, are the assets that carried the band to greatness. He was one of the rare people who is vulnerable to crushing emotional pain, and who knows how to express it intelligently and sensitively. The pressure of young marriage, fast fame, and medical issues were the engine behind his voice, but they were also the catalysts for his depression and suicide.

(spoiler warning... arg, too late.)

Unfortunately, he was also a dick. If Sam Riley's portrayal is to be believed, Curtis lived at an unfortunate crossroad between cynicism and sensitivity. He was chronically insecure, and yet he was thirsty to prove himself, so he ended up emotionally numb and vulnerable to self-indulgence. The film doesn't skimp on this point, either. Throughout Control, there seems to be a shadow across the characters and their city (dying industrial Manchester), and the discerning audience might realize that this pall is emanating from Ian Curtis himself, who seems to poison the lives and interactions of his friends and family.

So in a sad, vaguely sympathetic, but also frustrating journey, we see Curtis overflow and collapse. Have we learned anything from him? Have we enjoyed his downfall? Why the fuck did we see this movie?

As always, there's enlightenment to be found in any honest portrayal of a foreign psyche and experience. Even Curtis's flaws are part of the world we live in, and we may recognize some of them in ourselves... the dangerous human impulses of hubris and narcissism may be repressed, but there's a trace of them in each of us. This is a film that sheds some light on them in order that we may face them.

In this sense, Corbijn's Ian Curtis reminds me of John Gardner's Grendel. Grendel was a protagonist of sorts... the reader is placed behind his eyes and forced to see his flawed reasoning and his failure. However, in John Gardner's (totally amazing) novel, Grendel is also a monster through and through, willingly blind to the world so that he can feel justified in ravaging it. As an audience, we're supposed to be along for the ride, and we're supposed to give Grendel some face time for a while, but (as Gardner himself has pointed out) we're ultimately supposed to hate him and reject his nihilism in favor of the awesome humanistic strength of Beowulf.

With Curtis, we're not given this kind of alternative. There's no Eddie Vedder (or whoever) to stand up and be the success that Curtis couldn't become. Still, Ian Curtis's role in Control is directly analogous to Grendel's role in Grendel. As a sophisticated viewer, you can stick with Curtis and feel a sense of tragedy for his misfortunes, not because you like or respect him, but simply because he's human, and because ever human being is in danger of losing control. We're free to be angry at Curtis's abuse of his wife, family, friendships, and of his own talent, but perhaps Corbijn has allowed us to ride the line between rejection and sympathy, so that we can arrive at the end of Control and feel the tragedy of a life that could never find its own rhythm.