Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cool Shit Alert: Jon Arbuckle's existential misery

I was introduced to something minor but fascinating today. It's a blog, hosted on Tumblr, called Garfield minus Garfield, and it's one of those amusing little media experiments that works out surprisingly well, if you're able to read it receptively. Here's the introduction to the blog:

"Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life?

Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against lonliness and methamphetamine addiction in a quiet American suburb."
Yes, friends, it's a simple experiment: remove Garfield, the commentator and primary personality, from a mundane comic strip and get a glimpse into the angst of a permanent secondary character. Some of the more recent ones are just goofy... "Something is wrong with my pants" is probably my favorite... but if you go back toward the beginning, you discover untold levels of existential anxiety and psychological disorder (such as February 18th, which was truly a miserable day for Jon Arbuckle).

Is there anything to this strange, funny, perhaps unsettling phenomenon, besides simple weirdness? Well, it might stem partly from the fact that Jon Arbuckle is a secondary character whose role is to bear Garfield's ridicule. Of course, Fat Orange Kitty normally distracts us from Jon's tribulations and lightens the mood, but when you remove him, you're left wondering how Jon got like this, what's going on in his head, and how he bears his lonely life. If you removed Sherlock Holmes from Watson's life, would you be left with a failed, lonely writer wandering a ghostly London town? Is secondary characterhood a great curse to be borne throughout literary history?

The empty panels are an effective part of this phenomenon, as well. The blank spaces around Jon give a sense of both physical emptiness (i.e. an empty room) and extended silence. When you have a single line by an afflicted Jon, surrounded by space and silence, you get a very lonely effect... you may sense that the world simply doesn't need Jon Arbuckle, and more frighteningly, you may realize that he feels the same way.

In this way, this reminds me of something else similarly spooky. Rene Magritte painted a piece called "Now, You Don't" which consists of four identical sitting rooms, only one of which contains a human being. His presence is ultimately irrelevant to the room he's sitting in, and ultimately, Jon seems totally insignificant, nonsensical, and even invisible, without his main character to give meaning to his little absurdities.

If you're interested in other creepy phenomena in Sunday funnies, I can suggest a few leads. If you can find it in a library, check out "Family Circus of Horrors" in The Book of Zines, which makes an interesting case about the human condition in Family Circus. You can also check out a Garfield-related existential crisis in the strips of Halloween 1989, which is generally chronicled online, in sites such as this one. Also take a look at the Christian (and anti-Jewish and Muslim) themes in Johnny Hart's comic B.C., which are hard to deny after a review of a few examples.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Monroe and Lohan: Is there anything worth talking about?

Okay, so here's an interesting parallel for discussion: Marilyn Monroe versus Lindsay Lohan? The question was raised recently, as Bert Stern, famous for photographing Monroe during "The Last Sitting," decided to recreate said monumental event using Lindsay Lohan as a stand-in. Let's try to do what we do here, and dig under the cheesy provocation and sensationalism for some meaning. In this case, there's quite a bit to discover.

I think the metaphor is obvious, after all. Just as with Marilyn, Lohan is a Hollywood starlet, famous for her charm and her body and infamous for her spotty background and bad behavior in the public eye. Marilyn's last photoshoot was looked upon in light of her death, which occurred shortly afterwards; Lohan herself has been plagued with addiction and rehabilitation, and with the attendant paparazzi attention, and her rendition of the photoshoot will be colored by her own recent controversies.

Now, very few of us will be willing to buy Lohan as a new Marilyn. At the most basic level, this return to Monroe's farewell seems like a stunt, something that's been done before, and Lohan seems fairly soulless compared to Monroe, who has a whole mythology and legacy behind her. After all, Lohan is just one of a handful of Hollywood A-List brats currently in the headlines. Marilyn is a one-of-a-kind historical figure, and that's what makes her photoshoot meaningful and culturally relevant.

Another point that needs visiting... something that's important to any feminist critique of the occasion... is that Monroe's portraits seem so honest, at least to our jaded postmodern eyes. She isn't a plastic replica in those shots. She isn't surgically altered or airbrushed, and nobody was able to hide the vulnerable look in her eyes. The whole package -- the flawed soul -- is coming from Marilyn herself, the source of the legend.

Lohan's body looks painfully fake by comparison, and it's the kind of fake that I hope some of us are getting tired of. She's got big boobs, sure, and I'm not one to complain about that, but her figure is boyish, with no hips and scarce buttocks. Stern is obviously shooting for a modern fashion eye, trained by ready-to-wear and Twiggy and Calvin Klein, and it seems like a tired mockery of Marilyn's curves and slight pudge. In that regard, if anything, we can look at these two photoshoots as a lesson in how homogeneous and inauthentic our ideals of beauty have become. Silicon boobs and airbrushed skin, boy-hips and blond wigs. Yawn.

But this can't just be a long opportunity to Lindsay-bash. There's enough of that going on. I want to step back and note something important that a lot of the commentators aren't saying.

Why are these original photographs of Marilyn so important to us? Why do I have the automatic urge to reject Lohan's attempt at the role?

It's because Marilyn is a myth and a legend for our current culture. Her self-destructive habits are part of a beautiful, flawed panorama of life and success and hardship, and we're willing to see her as a whole person, and to see her bad behavior in perspective. She certainly deserves it.

Unfortunately, we're not able to give this benefit to the struggling, self-abusive starlets of our day. Lohan's not healthy, and she's a shitty role-model, but she's faced with a whole culture that's intent on demonizing her and exposing her shortcomings. What chance has she ever had to make us happy? Do these girls have to endure the slings and arrows of stardom, and simply have faith that some day, after they've OD'd, we'll look back on them and see their unique beauty and vulnerability, and read it as a positive contribution to our cultural heritage? What hope do they have that one day we'll forgive their idiocy and irresponsibility, just as we've forgiven Marilyn's?

Maybe the lesson here: enjoy the photos, and stop being so hard on the girls who are stuck in the molars of a culture that's trying to consume and devour them.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Barack Obama: An old medium for a new media age

Cynical, jaded age of media savvy… meet Barack Obama. Despite all your postmodern disillusionment, your mistrust and confusion, despite the transparent opacity of your catch phrases and rhetorical maneuvers, you’ve still left a space for someone to make an impression, and Barack Obama has come to fill that space. How has Obama managed to penetrate our national defenses? And more importantly, should we still guard ourselves against his dulcet tones?

Obama’s online presence is a critical factor. His mainstream media presence? Perhaps less so, but still important. Even the aggrieved attention of his opponents, the attack dogs on both the right and the left wings, are probably bolstering the power of his campaign with their misguided hostility. Somebody who draws that much fire is a big target, and paradoxically, the mud-slinging seems to be making him more noticeable.

However, I believe it’s the power of the oldest of media that’s managing to penetrate a society that’s colored by the newest. Sure, the Internet and YouTube are powerful things, but Ron Paul certainly didn’t win the Republican nomination… and if the Internet was going to choose a president, Ron Paul would probably win by a landslide. Obama’s sudden rush of endorsements and his unstoppable momentum in the primaries must be due to some other factor.

Myself, I think the critical factor is Obama’s oratory skill, and the new development is the fact that he’s getting more opportunities to present himself personally to the American people. A few wins in the primaries put his face on a lot of television screens, and they gave new a new spark to his public addresses… a platform of victory, even if it’s partial, is a great place to construct oneself as a public image. Obama’s speeches have been reaching more and more ears as his momentum has increased, and I include my own among those new additions.

There, on that podium, is where Obama finds his greatest strength. People will attribute it to his deep voice, but that’s just a shiny paint-job. It’s the muscle car underneath that’s really carrying the campaign. Obama’s content is hopeful and idealistic, but his voice and his delivery are full of conviction, free of hesitation or apology, and this is bound to strike a cord with a jaded voter.

Jesus, so the man is good at public speaking… what are we all so excited about this?

Well, on a simple cultural level, we’ve always placed a profound emphasis on verbal communication. From Plato to the bible to Saussure, the spoken word has always been considered the voice of the soul, and written communication has been seen as a pale reflection of that voice. We’ve got a bit of a cultural prejudice in favor of verbal communication, and whether we see the man speak on TV or on YouTube or in person, the fact that he has a body and a voice are bound to give him some extra weight.

Aside from that, though, I think that it’s more difficult to hide fear and uncertainty in a verbal speech than in a written statement. There are certainly failures of verbal communication – we’ve all tried to communicate something and failed in the delivery – but a successful speech, statement, or assertion is worthy of a great amount of trust, because human beings have a penetrating intuition when it comes to tone of voice and gesture. People who bought into Bush’s stage character may have bought his rhetoric, but I think very few of us trusted him… especially those of us who know about the glamour of prepared speeches and catch-phrases. The media-savvy community was never really convinced by Bush. Obama, on the other hand, has convinced a lot of us.

The speeches themselves are brilliant, and they often confront our cynicism directly, on its own terms. One of the most powerful phrases I’ve heard Obama use was “That cynicism, that sometimes masquerades as wisdom, but is really just a fear of reaching for something higher.” This is rhetorical sharp-shooting at its finest: Obama implicitly asks us to question the na├»ve sense of superiority that many politicians bring to the table, which so many of us accepts without question. At the same time, he asks us to question our own cynicism, which feeds from this self-satisfied disillusionment that so often turns into hopelessness. So yeah, good speeches.

It’s the questions, though… Obama fielding the inquiries of individuals… that pinpoint him as a man who may be worthy of our trust. If it’s difficult to disguise hesitation in a the delivery of a prepared speech, it’s next to impossible to disguise it in a series of impromptu answers to unscripted questions. Obama fields each of these confidently, with a thought-out answer, and his confidence attests to his authenticity.

Thus, a description of Obama’s persuasive method, but also an argument for people to put trust in it. Obama is an old orator for a new age, and the meta-media of the Internet and cable news have become a mere vehicle for a voice that they can’t distract us from. If we can’t trust anything anymore, why does this guy sound so damn convincing? And shouldn’t we trust that last vestige of intuition we’ve got, and start placing our trust in him?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Partisan philosophies according to National Convention Web Pages

I know this is a bad day to post about political things. We're probably all tired of hearing about the parties and their delegates and their constituencies and their districts. Still, something very interesting was brought to my attention today, and I thought I should at least mention it.

Compare the Democratic National Committee page and the Republican National Committee page.

Okay, so the Dems don't have a "Favorites" icon. Egregious, but forgivable. But what about the fact that the GOP's page has been displaying attack ads against the Democrats all day, even on Super Tuesday, whereas the Democratic National Committee's page has been keeping tallies of votes, urging people to get involved, and generally running non-partisan ads?

Seriously, who has the perspective here? Who is really in support of a cooperative democracy? Setting aside the slippery slope between nationalist and patriot, who is real Patriotic here, working for the good of a nation, rather than for the good of a partisan ideology? Seeing these two side-by-side is almost like a political punchline. The philosophies embodied in these two visions are so different, and the right-leaning one has become such a caricature of itself, that we're basically all voting on a bedrock of stereotypes.

Maybe that's why McCain is winning for the GOP... he embodies, on some level, a backpedal from that slope of narcissistic politics (after all, he did vote against the Bush tax cuts). Still, there's no real end in sight... this desperation for conflict and sensation, rather than debate and compromise and pluralism, is still ingrained in the right wing. When will people get tired of groundless, useless, ineffective internal hostility and just build a platform on the basis of their own merits?

I'd like to pause, before I finish, and apologize that this became such a rant. I'm aware that a politics of meta-aggression... being hostile at people because they're hostile... may ultimately be counterproductive. This is something that I'm counting on the current presidential candidates to transcend, although they've only been marginally effective so far. Still, Barack Obama's platforms of campaign reform and transparency, McCain's commitment to restraint and civility, and even Hillary Clinton's tough realism could all help break up this poisonous political climate. Unfortunately, I'm here contributing to it, along with the Republicans. I suppose it's just a function of saying what I think.

Well, at least this whole thing reminds me why I'm proud to be a fucking leftist liberal pussy democrat.