Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010: The year of the signature movie?

Has anyone gotten the sense, this year, that the "directors of the hour" have all suddenly made their signature movie? By "directors of the hour," I'm not talking about the Hollywood staples (Ridley Scott, James Cameron, etc), but rather of those provocateurs who are emerging into the mainstream. In particular, I've noticed this phenomenon with Christopher Nolan (who's just become the trump card of studios trying to ride the nerd zeitgeist)... Darren Aaronofsky (who's recently graduated from cinema cult-leader to critical boy wonder)... and Gasper Noe (who seems to be following Aaronofsky into the role of "that guy that directs those batshit crazy movies").

For Christopher Nolan, it was Inception. This was obviously the movie the guy's been fantasizing about since he was a teenager, back when he started writing the script. It marries the techno-futurist with the retro-stylist, bring noir into the realm of the virtual and the psychological, and it provides a great forum for structural experimentation and visual flair. As a bonus, Nolan got the creme de la creme of swaggering neo-noir actors, including Leo, JGL, and Michael Caine.

Memento will generally be seen as Nolan's Reservoir Dogs, I think. He came out of nowhere with that little shocker, riding the formal gimmick and stylish presentation out of the obscurity of film school... and The Dark Knight may always be seen as his Pulp Fiction, cementing his fame and proving his genius. But as much as it was a great piece of cinema, Dark Knight was tied down by its reliance on the Batman franchise, and by the legions of comic book fans who don't actually particularly care about cinema per se. Inception is the piece that Nolan will be able to claim as his own, stylistically, conceptually, and in every way necessary for it to become his signature piece.

As I mentioned above, Aaronofsky has gone through a transition recently. He was born as one of those bad-boy director provocateurs, giving us the hyper-intense and disturbed Pi, and then the devastating American neo-realist tragedy Requiem for a Dream. I think that phase of his life ended with The Fountain, which was his little vanity project, offensive to public sensibilities not because it was ugly, but because it was so soaring and uninhibited. But recently, with The Wrestler, he's made a decisive move into character-study territory, and he's become a guy for the middlebrow critics to watch.

Enter Black Swan. Could the man have a more perfect film to give to the world, at this moment of transformation? Black Swan retrieves Aaronofsky the stylist, the impressionist, the conductor of madness and dissociation, which are the themes that characterized his earlier work. It also marries the stylistic precision of The Fountain (the gothic, the erotic, the intimate) with the real-world anxieties and uncertainties that made The Wrestler work so well. And it's admirably reserved, refusing to resort to cheap shocks for his visual and emotional climaxes.

So I think Black Swan will be a signature film, as well: Aaronofsky's first award-winning, show-stopping feature, and also an index of his established themes: trauma, madness, and the tortured mind of the alienated genius.

And finally, we have Gasper Noe, who still sort of fulfills the role that Aaronofsky recently left behind: provocateur, offender of sensibilities, whose challenging and aversive style reads as "courage" to the independent circuit. Irreversible is commonly hailed among cinephiles (horror and extreme cinema enthusiasts, especially) as a breakthrough for extreme cinema. I think it really got noticed because the 9-minute rape scene got so much attention -- but, you know, once he was visible, Noe managed to convince people that he's a proficient auteur, and that's no small task in our skeptical community.

I think it was clear that after Irreversible, Noe had to push his sensationalism to the max before he could break in a different direction. I think, with Enter the Void, he did that. It's not only difficult and arresting in its visual innovations (the strict first-person camera, the hallucinated cityscapes), but it's also provocative in its specific images. If you want to read about them, it's all over the Internet. From what I understand, it's pretty intense.

Sibling loyalty, incest, death, and the cycle of destruction and rebirth are pretty ideal themes for an elusive assault on the viewers' senses. This is the piece that Noe's previous work was leading up to: something that people just had to see, something to polarize the community, something to provide the basis for grand controversy and extravagant claims. Again, it's the signature piece. This is the final draft of Noe's stamp as an auteur, and everything he does from here on out will be a reference to Enter the Void, or a notable departure from it. Or both.

Am I sure? No. It's possible that Aaronofsky will be remembered by his urban grime and realism, rather than his epic stylization. It's possible that Nolan will make an even more Nolan-esque movie in a couple years, or that Gasper Noe will manage to totally leave behind this shock-and-awe period in his cinematic oeuvre. But I'm guessing that one or two of these three films will end up being the signature film of its particular director, even though these directors have a lot of growth and accomplishment ahead of them.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan and the myth of the self-destructive female: The Red Shoes, Perfect Blue, Lust Caution

WARNING: Spoilers for the three movies mentioned in the title.

It's hard to know what to say about Black Swan, and I think this is a testament to the film. Every comparison and generalization comes with caveats; the only things that seem to hold unarguably true are the most obvious stylistic observations: it's a psychological thriller with all the aesthetic trappings of the classical world, remixed into a dark psychological landscape. It's a film about the collision of personalities, of the type you only find in an intense world like ballet: aggressive, unreserved personalities that deal in raw human emotional currency, like purity, desire, and control.

What impresses me most about Black Swan, I think, is the intensity of the personalities that collide in order to make this story happen. Portman did a brilliant job playing Nina, the virginal ballet purist who can't seem to let go of herself in order to find her inner "black swan" -- but this role is so perfect a showcase for a brilliant performance, that I think we all sort of expected this of Portman, who's never half-assed a role in her career. Mila Kuniz works wonders as her counterpart, too, but honestly, Kuniz never quite reaches the heights of authenticity that Portman attains. Her character is a bit too much of a foil, a bit too empty and enigmatic, for her to really show off her acting chops.

But Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet that drives these characters into conflict... he was really the stand-out, wouldn't you say? His performance is noble and degraded and inspiring and vicious, balancing the things that a ballet director would have to be: an embodiment of the art form's allure, and also a medium for its horrifying expectations, its life-destroying pressure. He sails through so many modes -- creepy, charming, enraged, and sensual -- it's hard for me to do any justice in describing his character.

There's a precedent for this character, of course: Boris Lermentov, the ballet director from the Archer Brothers' The Red Shoes, is a similarly ambivalent, enigmatic figure, a dangerous catalyst for Victoria's love for the dance. Ebert said of him, "... the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that." Lermentov may have a special sort of insidious purpose, but ultimately, he's not much worse than Leroy. Both manipulate their dancers, treat them as objects, and in regarding them as avatars for some dancing muse, forget that they're actually just young girls with real lives.

I think, though, that Thomas Leroy is a more complex character than Lermentov, because in place of Lermentov's melodramatic cruelty and cynicism, Leroy seems to really believe in the human possibilities of dance. And though Leroy is insidiously sexual, he seems to believe in love and sensuality, as well, even if he channels it all into the dance. So he's no less responsible than Lermentov was for the fate that befalls his performer, but in Leroy Thomas's case, it's hard to call him a "villain."

Some friends have suggested that Black Swan was not a literal hallucination-murder-death story, but rather a metaphor for the main character's artistic blossoming. They see a large part of the story as taking place inside of Nina's head (which the narrative gladly acknowledges), and they consider the possibility that the ending is inside her head, as well. This reading may be a little Inception-esque for my taste, but it's a compelling one to consider. Remember, for instance, that Nina saw herself as an actual, physical black swan, whereas she was seen by the audience as a dancer nailing the performance.

If you read the narrative in this way, seeing madness as the catalyst for a butterfly-like personal breakthrough, it comes to resemble another classic tale of creative ambition gone bad, told in Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue. That film, though dissociation was its organizing principle, turned out to be a coming-of-age story of Mima, its female protagonist, as she moved away from performing crowd-friendly girl-pop and into the adult world of acting and sensationalism. If you read Black Swan metaphorically, it's close kin to this animated cousin. There are a number of character parallels, as well: Nina's cloying mother has a clear equal in the over-protective casting agent in Perfect Blue, and Aaronofsky's Beth Macintyre, played by Winona Rider, plays a parallel part to the murderous fanboy who stalks Mima in order to prevent her from destroying her own innocence.

These three films are part of a broader cultural myth that's started forming in cinema: the myth of the female artist whose devotion, mixed with the dangerous elements of sexual desire and professional ambition, becomes her path to self-destruction. Aside from The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue (thanks, Frankie, for that observation!), this structure also appears in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in a slightly modified form (thanks, Mai, for that suggestion!). In Lust, Caution, the theater is the political world, and the dissociation is between the protagonist's performance as a collaborator and her true identity as a subversive. It's a fascinating application of the template, remixed but undeniable in its fidelity.

So there are a few common characteristics that surface in these closely-related movies, and I'd like to enumerate them. If anybody knows of any other films that seem to reinforce this myth, please let me know, I'd like to hear about them.

1 - Female protagonist with a creative ambition that she pursues obsessively
1a - to the point of purism, self-denial, and/or monasticism
2 - A career change, accompanied by a high degree of pressure to perform well
3 - A demand, inherent in the performance, that leads to an unresolvable inner conflict for the protagonist

Some other common characteristics:

4 - the protagonist's final self-destruction (BS, RS, LC)
5 - an over-protective maternal figure limiting the protagonist's growth (BS, PB, LC?)
6 - a monster lurking at the margins, nursing resentment and/or jealousy toward the protagonist (BS, PB)
7 - an unhealthy conflation of desire and sexual repression (BS, PB, LC)
8 - a strong male gaze as catalyst for the protagonist's unhealthy obsession (BS, RS, LC)
9 - a theme of psychological dissociation (BS, PB, LC?)

This is among the most powerful mythic structures I've identified in my short time as a cinephile, with Aaronofsky's Black Swan as an apparent epitome of the type. I'd love to hear other thoughts on the growth of this narrative, if anyone has some other ideas. If you haven't seen any of the above movies, by the way, definitely go check them out. They're all amazing.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Walking Dead: The psychology of enclaves

The first season of The Walking Dead ended this past weekend. Did it measure up to the standards set by the comic? Not entirely, but it was damn well done, and I'm excited that there's gonna be a season two. Despite my desperate urge to compare Darabont's adaptation to Kirkman's original, I'm going to do my best to resist, and look at the series on its own terms.

After the various tangents and interjections, what we've ended up with, in this AMC series, is a sort of post-apocalyptic anthropology, showing the breakdown and restructuring of society into various enclaves in an economy of self-defense and scarcity. Rick's family group is the control group, an intensive investigation into the unstable power dynamics and desperate decisions of a fugitive community. It'll provide fuel for a lot more episodes down the line.

But perhaps more interesting are what I just referred to as "enclaves," the isolated autonomous zones that Rick and his group come across as they navigate the landscape. There are really three, aside from the main group: the Jones's household, the Atlanta clinic, and the CDC. Each offers a glimpse into how extreme circumstances may effect human behavior and self-presentation; together, they provide a fascinating perspective on the landscape of desperation.

Morgan and Duane Jones initiate Rick into the world of the walkers, reluctantly taking him in when he wanders into their front yard. When we encounter them (Episode 1), they are isolated and paralyzed, still stuck in the state of shock that the zombie apocalypse has caused. The reappearance of Morgan's wife reflects their failure to accept the zombies as inhuman and come fully to terms with what's happened to the world; they are still undeveloped, showing us the early-development stages of bona fide post-apocalyptic survival. They are an important emotional anchor for the show, but they're not the most interesting fragment for analysis.

If the Jones's are in the primitive stages of adjustment, still showing signs of shock and paralysis, the other two communities -- the clinic and the CDC -- are both communities that have been distilled into pure psychology, representing two opposite sides of pure personality. One is the animal impulse for survival and protection; the other is the rational mind, devouring itself as it stares into the void.

The Atlanta clinic (Episode 4) is truly survivalist. It's a collective of folks from the street, with all the ethnic diversity of urban neighborhoods, who exhibit the highly defensive responses of a family group in the wild. When Rick, Darryl, and T-Dog arrive to demand the return of Glen, Guillermo's group is defensive and reactionary, bristling and intentionally escalating the conflict. Their demand for the guns, and their claim that they're willing to enter into a shootout, is almost a bluff, but it's the type of bluff that could be disastrous if called. Rick and his gang, in turn, refuse to concede the guns, their most important resource. These two groups are like wild dogs, circling, exploring their dominance and trying to find some equilibrium before they tear each other apart.

It's telling, of course, that the clinic residents aren't pure evil. Rather, they're protective of themselves and their families, and they are desperate for the firearms that they noticed in the street. Once they find common ground to cooperate with Rick, they're revealed to be reasonable and deeply compassionate people, holding out in the city to take care of their elderly. According to the show's narrative, their behavior is justified by necessity -- they're really just following their survival and caretaking instincts in a desperate bid for survival.

Contrast this with the CDC (episodes 5 and 6), where the lone Dr. Jenner holds out, having just given up on continuing his research into the zombie plague. Rick and the gang find him on the verge of suicide, having just lost his stock of fresh samples. He makes an exception to let them into his sanctuary, where he's the little glimmer of consciousness in the center of a big electronic brain.

Jenner's misfortunes are telling and troubling. He's absolutely isolated, and his wife died under his observation. He is clearly a smart man, driven by a rational engine that continue to run even after his great emotional breakdown. In a pivotal scene, he uses his wife's brain-scan as an illustration to explain all the functions of the mind and the zombie disease that takes over it. This real-time brain scan even includes the bullet that takes the test subject's life. For Jenner, this lecture is an act of self-deconstruction, ending with a reference to the human "extinction event."

Jenner's wife invested him with a final purpose before she departed, perhaps because she knew he was a goal-seeking type of guy, but with the destruction of his samples, this purpose died, as well. Jenner does not seem to be a man who's interested in pressing on no matter what the costs... for him, life has had a point, and it no longer has one, so there's no longer a reason to sustain it. Jenner's tragedy isn't that he dies for no reason, but that he lives for no reason. This is not how they would frame the situation out at the clinic in Atlanta.

And of course, Jenner's despair almost leads to a suicide for the whole company, including the survivors, the protectors, and the children. Jenner's computer, carrying out a "decontamination" that's actually just a self-destruction, is an extension of his own sense of hopelessness. He is higher consciousness turned on itself, the death drive turned into a suicide impulse, and he even goes so far as to argue to Rick and his companions that it's more merciful than trying to live on.

With these two communities, The Walking Dead sets up an interesting argument by juxtaposition. I'm going to stick this into a classic Freudian framework, so bear with me. Jenner, representing the higher faculties, is a nod to the superego, especially since he ultimately directs his own aggression toward himself... according to Freud, this was the basic mechanism that created self-control. Presumably, this would make Guillermo and his crew the id, a vicious, protective, uninhibited animal instinct for self-preservation. It holds pretty well, considering the Atlanta clinic crew seemed so quick to violence and so desperate for resources.

But the inversion brought about by the economy of scarcity is striking. The Atlanta clinic may be aggressive and reactionary, but it's also protective and self-perpetuating, and ultimately these urban warriors live to protect their own and take care of the collective body, even when it's made up of thugs and aging grandparents. Jenner the superego, on the other hand, despite his claims to rationality and order, is the more destructive of these two forces, because in the absence of a purpose, he directs his frustration back on himself. Reason implodes, and without the raw desire to survive into another day, Jenner just gives up on the whole human project, not just for himself, but for those around him.

Assuming there's something to be said here about Freudian psychology and different cognitive levels, it seems that the show is arguing the reverse of the Freud assumption. The Walking Dead is in fact suggesting that in the absence of order and civilization, it's going to be the animal part of the human that preserves the self and the species, and the rationalizing, intelligent part that dooms us to self-destruction.

If I have time, I'll discuss some more of this fascinating show. Shane alone is worth the price of admission -- his character is thoroughly complex and conflicted, an authority figure tortured by a sudden loss of power and intimacy. If Kirkman had developed Shane more thoroughly in the comic, I'm pretty sure he would have looked like Darabont's rendition. It will also be interesting seeing the development of Andrea, as she's already got the emotional groundwork to build into a strong and complicated character.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hitchens versus Blair on religion, and an alternative defense of religion (warning: Jesse in philosophy mode)

Sometimes I think I spend too much time trying to read provocative stuff on the computer, and I wonder if I should be getting out more? Or at least watching movies, instead of trying to read words, on these video screens? But today my attention was called to a transcript of a debate between Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair on the following topic: "Resolved: Religion is a force for good in the world." So I had to read it. And now, having read it, I have to respond to this public display of rhetoric, a showcase of a debate carried out in the most mundane terms possible. It's a sad truth... Hitchens' sensationalist provocation versus Tony Blair's apologism just didn't make a very interesting debate.

Strangely, though the resolution seems to place the burden of proof on Tony Blair's shoulders, Christopher Hitchens immediately takes up the role of arguing a constructive thesis (in essence, arguing the inverse of the resolution), possibly because he's called upon to go first. He does this with relish, of course, because it's a position he's been practicing his whole life. Hitchens' argument is almost too predictable for my taste: organized religion is an irrational institution that makes conflicting and regressive demands of its followers, and it amplifies their negative tendencies, especially tribalism, dependence, and submission. His evidence is pretty obvious: a litany of global conflicts and suppressions undertaken in the name of religion, or at least with religion as an essential component, however ambiguously. Disempowerment of women and the crisis in Gaza are two of his favorite situations to cite, but he also manages to co-opt a number of other genocides and point out the role of religions in their perpetuation.

Tony Blair argues a hazy counter-position that attempts to drag Hitchens' claim into doubt. He essentially says that Hitchens can't prove religion is a wholly negative influence, given all the positive work done in the name of the church. He downplays Hitchens' anecdotal evidence, provides a few counterexamples, and appeals to a sort of common wisdom: that just from everyday social experience, you can tell that a great many people can be part of a religious community, and channel that experience into positive actions and intentions... and that these people can be fully logical and reasonable, as well. But Blair isn't making any positive argument in favor of religion, so much as taking a defensive stance against Hitchens' rabid atheism.

This is a weak-ass debate, I have to say. I'd expect Hitchens to take a stronger position, but he waters down his argument, saying in his second speech, "Well now, in fairness, no one was arguing that religion should or will die out of the world, and all I'm arguing is it would be better if there was a great deal more by way of an outbreak of secularism." This echoes the circumlocutive nature of Blair's argument, which is infused with apologism. He keeps saying things like, "My claim is just very simple, there are nonetheless people who are inspired by their faith to do good." I'm telling you! Weak weak weak!

These two characters are basically arguing the same thing: religion's done bad stuff, but it's not ALL bad stuff. Hitchens says there should be more secularism, Blair says it's important to see religion in its positive aspects and try to reinforce those aspects. They're like two samurais who circle without ever coming in for a sword strike.

Hitchens won the debate, according to the polls. I think this is just because he's a lot more passionate about secularism than Blair is about theology. But couldn't one of these two find a more creative way of framing and expressing their argument? I think I can, and though I'm a mere non-committal agnostic, I think I could have made a better case for religion as a "positive force in the world" than Tony Blair did. Let me give it a shot.

WARNING: Long, abstract argument about religion looms ahead.

First, to answer Hitchens, who sets the tone for this debate: Hitchens spends his words characterizing religion as a supernatural belief system with detrimental outcomes. Among these:

  • "To terrify children with the image of hell and eternal punishment"
  • "To consider women an inferior creation"
  • "[to force] nice people to do unkind things, and also [to make] intelligent people say stupid things"

  • These points do not stand as self-evident, no matter how loyal you are to enlightenment thinking. Images of hell and eternal punishment are an Abrahamic staple, mirrored in images of heaven and salvation, and linked to a deeper philosophy that moral choices have spiritual consequences (not, in itself, a terribly negative idea). In many religions, they are replaced by karmic mechanisms of rebirth, or by a yearning for emptiness as freedom from self-indulgence and vanity (Eastern philosophies are definitely religions, make no mistake). Historically, churches have been connected with female empowerment as well as subjugation, and they've been accredited as a powerful part of the civil rights movement. And the last of those three points is such an abstraction, it's almost meaningless... it can be answered readily with the claim that religion provided a social and institutional groundwork for GOOD works, for humility and community and human solidarity, and that religion's role in tribalism is as much a consequence of the latter as a fault of the former.

    So these points neutralize themselves, simply because the anecdotal effects of religion are so contingent on its historical conditions (and also, so subject to observational bias and retroactive interpretation). Instead of trying to find reasons to praise or blame religion, we should consider its historical role in the world, the dramatic ambient influence it has had over the centuries. That's where, if anywhere, we'll discover its overarching value: its long-term outcomes, whether they're positive or negative.

    When you say, "What has religion always given us, in different ways, throughout the history of civilization?" I think the best answer is that it's created a space for the discussion of morality as a function of transcendental consciousness. There has always been power, and self-regard, and goal-seeking behavior, but by appealing to a transcendental authority, religion has put morality beyond the reach of the contingent historical circumstances, so that "virtue" and "right and wrong" can be discussed and regarded as an independent sphere of principles. That's what's so important in the idea of a higher power, whether it's a monotheistic consciousness or an oligarchy of conflicted dieties... or even, in Eastern cases, a highly-abstracted "heaven and Earth," a Tao or a true nature of the universe. And I'll argue that this not only makes religion justifiable in pragmatic terms... it also clarifies the logic and validity of its truth-claims. Looked at as an historical artifact, religion is neither "evil" or "misguided."

    It's hard to imagine a culture entirely without religion -- without any sense of a higher power or a transcendental framework. However, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that such a society would be deeply driven by survival instincts and power struggles. Human interaction can't happen without some sort of heirarchy and authority, however provisional it is, and without the stabalizing force of a "higher power," isn't it pretty reasonable to assume that power struggles would entirely dictate our loyalties and our deference? And that the strongest would become the final authority on moral good? People like Christopher Hitchens may hate the idea of a transcendental source of absolute authority, but isn't this far better than what we would get from an earthly source of absolute authority?

    By making morality and virtue a conversation that can take place outside the immediate, strength-based power structure, religion has been an excellent tool to challenge the social and political hegemonies throughout history. If you can have communities of faith, you can escape the tendency to organize into ethnic enclaves, or alliances of wealth, or (especially) strength-based classes of master and slave. I find Nietzsche's ideology to be a bit noxious, but there's something to be learned from his work in The Genealogy of Morality. He claims that religion allowed the slave to become the master by effectively inverting the standard dominant/submissive parity. With religion, weakness could become a virtue; excess and brutality could be seen as flaws. Nietzsche thought this was a shitty development, but I think it's not so bad. Morality SHOULD be more complex than "do what the strongest guy tells you," shouldn't it?

    Indeed, as long as we're talking about philosophers, we should mention the idea of discourse ethics: that "moral truths" are gradually being illuminated by way of a collective process of reasoning, carried out in conversation, debate, and rational rhetoric in public discourse. This idea is championed by contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas... and though Habermas doesn't talk directly about religion, as far as I know, he does claim that ethics are evolving within society by way of ongoing conversations about morality. And it's hard to imagine many conversations about morality without some appeal to a transcendental moral authority. It's the public institution of religion that's provided the changing platform for this kind of discourse throughout history.

    It's actually kind of amazing, the way religion's focus on virtue and moral self-awareness has allowed it to be such a dynamic system. The various reformations couldn't have happened in such a strong, hierarchical system, if that system was purely political and terrestrial. It's only by appealing to the higher power that Martin Luther was able to question the Catholic Church's corruption at the time. And I think, arguably, religion has been involved in every major moral evolution throughout the history of man's moral consciousness. Even in times like the Enlightenment, when man was moving away from centralized organized religion, there was still an appeal to the higher will of God, manifesting in various forms of deism and religious fragmenting throughout the world. This fragmenting led isolated communities to seek freedom, and their spiritual solidarity and desire for liberation led to the formation of our current democratic republic.

    The newest version of this kind of shift is the new movement from institutional organized religion to pluralistic, personal religious conviction. It's a credit to the power and flexibility of religion that this evolution can take place so naturally.

    I said above that the "transcendental moral" nature of religious thought isn't just pragmatically justified... it's also rationally justified. The reason I say this is that religion, the placement of trust in a higher power, mirrors an actual human faculty for which there is no ultimate natural account. This is the human capacity to treat virtue and moral rightness as ends to be pursued in themselves, rather than mere survival techniques or responses to threats of force. Indeed, we can look for a rational reason for empathy and purity of conviction all we want, but it's always going to become a bit ambiguous when you account for self-sacrifice, stewardship, pacificism, and the passionate devotion to abstract principles. Rational explanation is too strict, too raw, too cynical to account for this whole moral structure.

    Religious faith is a way of reconciling the knowledge that these moral impulses come from something greater than the biologically-determined, self-regarding individual consciousness. It's not illogical to perceive a transcendental force of harmony at work in the world, and this force would exist outside the plane of rational, deterministic explanation. Religions are all ways of encountering this transcendental force, through various traditions, metaphors, narratives, and belief systems. Reason legitimizes them, purely by virtue of its inherent incompleteness.

    That's my argument, I think -- not short, but hopefully succinct enough to be clear. Religion is indeed a force for good in the world, because it's provided a platform and pivot-point, at every stage in history, for a debate on morality and virtue outside the demands of power and self-preservation. And even in the face of reason, religion is a legitimate project, because we will always have to go looking for "truth" in places that logical and reason can't entirely illuminate... especially in the case of moral and spiritual truths.

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    The Walking Dead follow-up: tracking some gender issues

    I'm going to do a quick post on gender relations in The Walking Dead, the AMC series that's recently aired its third episode.

    The Walking Dead holds true to the atmosphere of the comic, which is good enough for me; I believe an artist has some responsibility to their source when adapting something, but I'm not a purist. Darabont's series treats Kirkman's protagonists lovingly, it adheres to the tone and intensity of the comics, and it remixes these elements to form a great parallel product. It seems to me that most of the new material -- the racists and the domestic abuse, the additional action and escape scenes, the return to Atlanta -- are mostly added in order to keep up with the pacing needs of television. I find this acceptable, even if these additions aren't as graceful as the original writing tended to be.

    However, there are a few ways in which AMC's changes effect the tone of Robert Kirkman's narrative. One of the most jarring is the way the TV series handles its females, at least in these first three episodes. Now, I know there hasn't been a lot of development of the secondary characters, but real quick, I'll mention a few of the details that come into play when you talk about gender roles in The Walking Dead.

    The first conversation in the TV series is between Rick Grimes and Shane, his best friend. After Shane offers some half-baked female-bashing guy talk, Rick unpacks some of his frustrations with his marriage to Lori, his wife, and he basically argues his side of the argument unilaterally: she undermines him emotionally, right in front of their son. Shane's only answer is to reassure him that this is just a phase marriages go through. This exchange is NOT in the comics; take that as you will.

    Later in the same episode, we see Lori, just for a short sequence. She has a minor fight with Shane in front of Carl, and it becomes clear that Lori and Shane have started a relationship, since they both suspect Rick might be dead. Again, this conversation was invented for the show. In light of the previous exchange, it gives us a sense that Lori might be a bit self-righteous and hysterical (a "nag" is one word that springs to mind). This would naturally come as a point of contention for critics with a feminist awareness, such as, for instance, Nathaniel of Film Experience Blog.

    But what I think is really happening here is that the writers are filtering these first two to three episodes through an explicitly male point of view. These are Rick's story, following the total collapse of his domestic life, and all the plot points introduced are related to this collapse. He was struggling with his relationship with Lori; now he's been replaced by Shane (though he doesn't know that yet). He's confronted with the unvarnished love and camaraderie between a neighboring father and son. If this unilateral point of view takes over the whole TV series, I'll take issue with it, as the comic is notably subtle and objective in its tone.

    In the second episode, there is still a conventional gender divide, but it becomes more complex. Andrea is a presence in episode two, acting courageous, if a bit frantic, in the face of disaster in inner-city Atlanta. Again, there is a sense that she's a bit hysterical, and that should rightly raise some hackles. However, she also shows signs of becoming a strong, assertive female character, confident with a weapon and willing to take action. Her personality dominates the males around her, until the arrival of Rick, who derives most of his authority from the fact that he's a sheriff.

    Through these two episodes, the male point of view remains fairly coherent. Rick and Shane are the strong, grounded, controlled leaders of whatever company they keep. The female point of view is kept at arm's length, at least somewhat. Lori and Andrea seem to linger in conventional modes: frantic, over-emotional, and motherly. Happily, in the third episode, these essentialisms break down further.

    In Episode Three, "Tell It To The Frogs," Rick is finally reunited with his family. There are already power-struggles fomenting among the survivors, and they seem to ignite when Rick arrives. Lori viciously reprimands Shane for acting as a father figure to her son, since her husband has returned; meanwhile, the other women of the group step up to an abusive, misogynistic husband over the distribution of duties in the camp. Both of these are highly charged events, the cracks in the gender wall that the show has erected.

    Lori's angry move to reclaim her family -- especially her son -- from Shane's paternalistic aura is rather jarring. It seems like nobody has even discussed this uncomfortable love-triangle situation, and she's acting like Shane's moving in on her kid. From the rationalistic, "let's discuss the issues" standpoint of a male viewer, her behavior may seem unreasonable, but it's probably appropriate in the circumstances. We've already seen how this post-apocalyptic world has brought out the territorial, the brutal, and the reactionary in its shaken residents. Lori has rediscovered her solid ground, and she takes this opportunity to stake it out.

    The sequence that immediately follows justifies her aggression, at least partly. Shane "heroically" steps in to punish the domestic abuser of the group, effectively asserting his own status as the benevolent patriarch and punisher of injustice. However, you can see in the faces of the women he's defending: his reaction is excessively violent and self-indulgent. Read in isolation, Shane's outburst is a gesture of benevolent masculinity. However, seen in the context of his situation -- his sudden loss of a potential mate and protege -- it hints at dangerous reactionary instability. As the law-officer/husband/father patriarchy unravels, it starts to show something sinister underneath.

    These are the first hints of something I hope continues through the rest of the season, and the series: the exploration of gender at the horizon of the apocalypse. Georgia has been converted, almost overnight, into a place governed by desperation, paranoia, and scarcity. This could devolve into pure vicious patriarchy (I understand something like this happens in the movie/book Blindness?) but in the hands of the writers and directors at work here, it should become something far more complex. Alliances will certainly be shifting over the next few episodes, and gender struggles will be balanced against familial loyalty and group solidarity.

    Ultimately, it will be worth considering the writers' treatment of evolution and regression: do our human natures endure the trial of a desperate, wasted world? Do paranoia and desperation break down the barriers between us, or do they reinforce them beyond repair? If the writers are half as good as the other people writing for AMC, the gender issues will feed into these broader questions, rather than distracting from them.

    Tuesday, November 16, 2010

    Walking Dead: Three Episodes Down, First Thoughts

    I'm keeping a close eye on AMC's The Walking Dead. I could give a respectable-sounding reason for this... it's an unusual artifact, being a television series based on a horror comic. We've been seeing a lot of movies based on comics lately, but isn't a television series probably a better match for the comic's format, which stresses perpetual, cyclical continuity? And a horror-based television show... aside from infamous examples like Tales from the Crypt and The Twilight Zone, we haven't had many of those, partly because broadcast television has such strict content controls.

    But the real reason I'm following The Walking Dead is that I'm a huge fan of the graphic novels. I have been for three or four years, since they were publishing collection five or six (out of thirteen now). It's fascinating on a personal level to see how the story, characters, and atmosphere of the comic is changing with its move into a new format. As much as that stuff is my real point of contact, I think I should start with the media questions, because in writing these two paragraphs, I've realized that stuff is probably more interesting.

    Sure, there have been TV series based on comic books before. Superman, Batman, The Hulk, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- these all jump to mind. And recently, there've been some abortive attempts at creating series based on comic strips -- Boondocks, Dilbert, etc. However, it's worth noting that those first four, the adaptations of superhero comics, totally abandoned the continuity that makes the comic book series such a fascinating medium. Indeed, The Walking Dead is one of the first live-action adaptations that, as far as I can see, attempts to keep the comic book's sense of perpetual continuity and change.

    This was one of the great aspects of The Walking Dead in its graphic novel form. The characters weren't unchanging, mythical embodiments of ideals, like Superman and Batman, nor were they stuck in constant cycles of crisis and contrived resurrection, like many superheroes tend to be (the characteristic they share with soap opera characters). It's an inevitable fact of the series that characters, including the ones you hold dearest, have finite lifespans, and as the reader, you never get the comfort of functionally immortal protagonists. The series itself isn't even titled after a hero, so there's always the possibility that Rick Grimes, the series protagonist, may die a permanent death.

    Within these limited lifespans, these characters evolve constantly, becoming hardened in the face of the apocalypse, sometimes breaking, sometimes becoming pillars of strength. If the series plays its cards right, we'll see that by about the mid-point of the second season (which has already been renewed, by the way). This is when the first batch of protagonists will have established their roles in the group dynamic, and it's when we'll probably be seeing the first "turnover," if you will, of some of the most important characters.

    I have to mention, in passing, the brilliant casting decisions. Carl, in particular, is perfectly cast. His presence in the show is actually one of the first times I've ever seen an adaptation improve upon the spirit of the original. Carl makes the most sense as a character when he's seen as a fresh-faced little boy. Robert Kirkman, the writer of the comic, does a good job of evoking his childlike mentality, but artist Tony Moore can't really do justice to the face of a child. This is mostly because of the harsh, scratchy, India-ink finish of the artwork. Yet, it still stands -- the rough artwork seems to alienate the reader from sheltered little Carl. In the show, on the other hand, Chandler Riggs has exactly the right on-screen presence to evoke the Carl of Kirkman's writing.

    We're now past the third episode, and it's become clear that pretty extensive liberties have been taken with the core team in adapting the comic to a television series. In particular, the show has added a couple subplots about social issues: a raving racist becomes a key figure in the show's first major moral dilemma, and some of the early power struggles among the survivors occur because of a wife-beater's treatment of the women of the camp.

    These additional elements of drama are only provisionally welcome. They provide some additional opportunities to cast Rick and Shane as heroic defenders of justice and order, and they allow for some commentary on the civil strife within an isolate community. They also feel a little too easy, because "racism" and "domestic abuse" are very easy cues for our moral indignation. Without these little indicators, the comic provided a fairly broad, unpredictable, and murky moral landscape. Perhaps these civil disputes are commentary on culture clash in the American South, where the story is taking place; that rationale is enough to redeem the dramatic baggage, at least for the moment.

    Ultimately, and refreshingly, the most powerful scenes in the show are the moments of emotional redemption, brought into relief against a ruined world. The cross-cut "mercy killing" sequence in episode 1, where Rick wanders into the woods to euthanize a female zombie, paralleling Morgan Jones' unsuccessful attempt to put his wife down: this sequence was one for the ages. The reunion scene between Rick, Lori, and Carl was another perfectly directed cinematic sequence, bringing the joy of the reunited family into focus without losing sight of the emerging tension between Shane and Rick.

    I'm not completely done discussing these three episodes yet. In particular, I need to devote a post to the gender roles in the show, because they're a bit different from the comic, and they're showing a little regressiveness. However, that's a post for another day, not in the least because it's a bit too foggy and complex to be covered in a mere few closing paragraphs.

    With that said, I hope everybody is enjoying the show as much as this Walking Dead fanboy, and I hope you'll stick with me through the first season.

    Monday, November 08, 2010

    More Politics: The old and wealthy right: Media outrage and resistance

    I know I've been a little over-active in the political writing, but these thoughts need an outlet, or they'll vanish into my cognitive history. I'm connecting various dots from the media and from my previous speculation, and suddenly, I'm understanding how conspiracy theorists are born: they like this feeling too much, the feeling of synthesizing disparate information, and they get addicted to it, and start to do it in excess.

    As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, it seems that the effectiveness of John Stewart's rally, at least in the short term, maybe be tragically limited by economic conditions. As Fenzel from Overthinking It points out, it's far more profitable for the media conglomerates to promote outrage, as it tends to draw more viewers, whether in fearful agreement or disgusted skepticism. Somebody else wrote about this just recently, as well: The New Republic's Jonathan Chait suggests that a lot of the misconceptions about policies stem from the disparate amount of influence of the wealthy over the media. The wealthy scream that taxes are going up because they ARE going up, for the wealthy... even when they're going down for the middle class. So everybody thinks Obama is raising taxes, when he's actually just weighing them toward wealth to flatten out the bell curve of privilege.

    These points, recalling the theory of the Frankfurt School, explain some aspects of the short-term political environment. The media (whether consciously or unconsciously) milks the outrage of the right, the political party most sympathetic to free-market business interests and most dismissive of social concerns.

    There's another line of thinking going on, as well, dovetailing with the first. This is the theory that the older generation has been galvanized against the left, again offered on Jonathan Chait's feed. It might be argued that the older generations are more susceptible to the kind of outrage and sensationalism that the media outlets are selling. They haven't developed enough immunity to the influence of the once-credible traditional media.

    To be honest, I've even felt this myself. As I get older, I get more mentally involved in politics and media, and it becomes hard to withstand the bombardment of information. Whether there's necessarily a right-wing bias, I can't tell, because I still mostly exist in the liberal echo-chamber (though I do take occasional excursions to the conservative outlets). However, I can tell you without a doubt that there's a bias toward discontent, alarmism, and cynicism, especially in the mainstream media that fills in the cracks between Salon and FiveThirtyEight. It's hard not to be taken up in the tidal wave of hand-wringing: is the world really going straight to hell, RIGHT NOW, in front of my eyes?

    I'm still pretty sure that it's not the real world, but rather the raw, chafed, twitchy sensory organs of the media, which profit from our fear and oversensitivity. After all, it's built on advertising, which works best when we're off-balance, vulnerable, distracted, and hyper-perceptive.

    With all that said... even that thing about me feeling mentally vulnerable myself... I can find a lot of hope under the surface onslaught. If this conservative surge is being driven by the older, richer, cynical generation, then it means that the future isn't necessarily in the hands of the conservatives. In fact, there are signs that this populist upswell is being locked out of party leadership now that it's fulfilled its electoral purpose. And if this is all the result of a malignant, outrage-prone media environment, then we see in John Stewart and Stephen Colbert the seeds of a media resistance. That's why I feel their rally was a significant event: it was a manifesto against the infrastructure that profits from our paralysis.

    The younger generation won't always be apolitical; we all get more civic-minded when we step out of the bubbles of our childhood homes. And with luck, they'll be totally indifferent to the inane rantings of the media outlets, and much more prone to get their information from alternate sources -- and to know how to filter and synthesize that information in useful ways. Obama's big win was the first glimmer of consciousness from that generation, and recent progress on gay rights is a continuation of its positive influence.

    If you came here looking for hope, it's above. If you came looking for some ideas, they're below.

    First, we have to stay progressive, even when the real world seems frustrating, and multiculturalism seems to be swimming upstream against poverty and hostility, and social welfare seems like a futile gesture. If every generation really does turn conservative when it gets old, there will always be a culture war between the old and the young.

    Second, we need to be vigilant enemies of cynicism and doomsday prophecy. The outrage and sensationalism always seems to turn people into fearful conservatives. As Bill Maher says, there is no equivalence (and he's got a good goddamn point there), but what he doesn't realize is that all irrational, self-righteous discourse will become political capital for the conservative cause. Fire and brimstone are not the liberals' strong suits... discursive agility and broad perspective are the weapons that fall on our side of political asymmetry.

    Third, we need to listen to the youth, and groom our leaders from the emerging generation of activists and media personalities. These people will know how to manage the insane, super-complex media environment, and by defining the media environment for the next political age, they'll also be writing its policies. And they're smart and compassionate and hard-working.

    Sunday, November 07, 2010

    The Horn and the Darkness: Love and death and trumpets in Venus in Furs (1969) and The Salton Sea (2002)

    In 1969, Jesus Franco made a film about a trumpet player, living in a world of dreamlike European wealth and sensation, who gets hung up on a mysterious stranger and caught up in her supernatural agenda. Like the art films of the time, it was a sick-soul-of-Europe party, but it was supported by narrative and genre conventions that those other experiments didn't have. That movie was Venus in Furs.

    Venus in Furs is steeped in the erotic and the enigmatic; it takes itself deathly seriously, being packed full of dramatic jazzy voiceover, and in this regard it belongs with Roger Corman among the era's kitsch excesses and indulgences. However, Venus in Furs knows how to be a little restrained and a little classy... just enough to be respectful, and therefore respectable. It probably won't do anything for people who love exploitation's self-indulgence, but for someone like me, who's more generally a "good movies" fan, it went down just right. It has its cheesiness (e.g. the title song, the bizarro ending) but it earns it in atmosphere and rhythm and self-awareness.

    If you want a more detailed overview, check out an excellent review at Ferdy on Films.

    And in 2002, the formula re-emerged as a tweaky cult crime thriller starring Val Kilmer, in one of those strange cinematic parallels that seems like it has to have been intentional, but also, maybe it wasn't. This film was The Salton Sea, and its similarities to Venus in Furs straddle the line between cosmetic and uncanny. Both films are about a trumpet player who's abandoned his craft because of the death of a romantic interest, the protagonists' chance encounters with desire and death. Both come to channel, or manifest, the vengeful personalities of the crimes. Both are lead into obsession and betrayal by their association with these restless demons.

    On a slightly deeper level, both of these films are stories of witnessing death and dealing with the guilt that comes of it -- the transfer of responsibility for a lost life, simply because you were present for the crime. The two main characters... Danny/Tom and Jimmy... are led in different directions by this guilt: Danny becomes obsessed with retribution, whereas Jimmy becomes sexually obsessed, and almost enslaved.

    It seems to me that their stories part ways at the moment when they make different decisions about the trumpet. Tom (Danny) lets go of his identity as a horn player, and he never goes back to it, taking on a new persona in order to make amends for his idle gaze. Jimmy, on the other hand, can't let it go: as the film begins, he digs up his trumpet and starts to play. This is just the moment when his crime washes up on shore, returning with his old identity, which is still infected with the memory of the murder.

    Perhaps if Jimmy had gone Van Allen's route... leaving the horn and taking his life in another direction... he would never have seen Wanda wash up on the shore.

    Of course, the journey isn't over for Danny/Tom: he still has to purge his guilt by pursuing the murderers (and contaminating his own body and ethics in the process). This is the amends-making that drives the movie. However, even this fate is better than Jimmy's, who loses the only person who loves him (the only person who seems to notice him), and then accompanies a vengeful spirit through a trippy afterlife. I had the sense, in fact, that Jimmy was Wanda's avatar, her link with the real world, and that she had to stay attached to him in order to carry out her mission.

    Franco's tale is a bit more artistically sloppy, as befits a trash culture surrealist, and it has more inexplicable moments of hyperreality: the carnival, where normal people are licensed to release their inner demons; the sexually-ambivalent relationship between Olga and Wanda, involving a doubling collision of lustful glances and camera lenses; the red room, chamber of damnation for the wealthy murderers, where Wanda is condemned to be the object of their guilt. Among the most interesting scenes is the weird imperial fantasy of Ahmed, the host of the party, and by implication, the host of the whole sequences of events of the film.

    Another place of overlap: isn't there some interesting parallel between Ahmed (played by Klaus Kinski) and Poo-Bear (played by Vincent D'Onofrio)? Both are the deranged lords of their households, entertaining depraved guests and delusions of grandeur. They are the sinister epicenters of these two psychologically intense films, providing a gravitation center for the themes of guilt, repression, and retribution.

    See Venus in Furs and The Salton Sea as a double-feature, and spend a night feeling tweaky and tripped-out, meditating on the meaning of non-intervention and guilt and vengeful reincarnation by way of hapless horn players. While you're at it, hire a jazz band to play during the break. Or call me! I'll organize it, as long as you pay for the pizza.

    Thursday, November 04, 2010

    A couple more observations on politics and discourse

    First: if we're going to try to get this "well-informed, balanced discourse" thing going after the Stewart Rally and the election-day fisticuffs, we can start with some worthwhile articles from reputable sources that address some of the myths echoing around popular discourse:

    Here's one on how Obama saved Capitalism, to his own ultimate political disadvantage.

    From Bloomberg Businessweek, Obama is meeting his legislative objectives, and very few people are noticing.

    And now a more personal response to these unstable political days.

    After the Comedy Central rally, I happened to pick up one of my old Media Studies sourcebooks, Marshall McLuhan's The Gutenberg Galaxy. It argues an elaborate theory that for two thousand years, Western civilization conditioned itself into being an extremely visual society (which he also associates with being individualist, linear, chronological, and structured in our thinking)... he asserts that the Gutenberg press brought about the apex of this form of culture. He then argues that for the past 100 years, we've been reverting into an auditory culture, which he associates with spatial, non-linear, and simultaneous ways of thinking.

    And he says that panicked, terror-stricken behavior will be a product of this shift in perceptual mode, if we're not prepared for the changes. His description of this rocky transition is strikingly familiar:
    And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence. It is easy to perceive signs of such panic in Jacques Barzun [a cultural historian/philosopher] who manifests himself as a fearless and ferocious Luddite in his The House of the Intellect. Sensing that all he holds dear, stems from the operation of the alphabet in and on our minds, he proposes the abolition of all modern art, science, and philanthropy. This trio extirpated, he feels we can slap down the lid on Pandora's box. At least Barzum localizes his problem even if he has no clue as to the kind of agency exerted by these forms. Terror is the normal state of an oral society, for in it everything affects everything all the same.
    So, M.M. offers warnings of anti-intellectualism, and a prophecy that our culture will be engulfed in panic and terror, a knee-jerk reaction to the sudden explosion of our mutual awareness (aka loss of privacy, high visibility, and ubiquity of trivial information). And now here we are, scared of terrorists next door, homosexuals infiltrating our childrens' heads, and rats with human brains. It may be a little late for this world, Marshall, but if you can see this from the next, I hope you're saying, "Yup, that's what I figured."

    Rally to Restore Sanity: A meta-political landmark. I hope.

    Happy political Halloween! Instead of spending a day working on a costume or watching artsy horror movies from the 60's and 70's, I went to the Rally to Restore Sanity. It was a last-minute decision, made on the fly because I knew it would be a cultural landmark, and I saw the opportunity. At least, I hope it will be seen as a cultural landmark. It was a little microcosm of liberalism, in all its beauty and its vulnerability.

    I didn't see all the mad performance pieces at the front; I couldn't hear Yusef or Ozzy or Rahzel. I didn't catch the keynote until I got to a video after-the-fact. You may think that this gave me a narrower insight into the dynamic of the event, but au contraire! It gave me a better one! Because, no matter how diplomatic John and Stephen tried to be, the tenor of the rally would be set by the attendees. If they had been Black Bloc and revolutionary insurrectionists, or even straight-edge punks chanting slogans, the politics would have been pretty one-sided, no matter how the speeches themselves were handled. By wandering among the signs and participants, I got a feeling for the mood of the crowd and the tone of the event as a whole, rather than for the specific performances, which (being affiliated with a major media network) are obviously going to be sanitized.

    What I found was pretty impressive: the rally as a whole -- both the on-stage rhetoric and the expressions of the crowd -- were strikingly on-message. Leftist solidarity and socialist advocacy were generally absent, and almost all the signs were meta-political, targeting the language and media of politics, rather than the divisive issues that make up its content. The fears of people like Timothy Noah at Slate, who felt the event automatically had a strong liberal bias that made its message of moderation disingenuous, were pretty much unfounded. And the massive crowd was universally calm, cordial, well-behaved, good-humored, and easy to get along with, even in stressful positions (like shut out of a full metro car, even when they'd been waiting for hours to get downtown).

    Now, here's where I'm coming from. I'm a guy who indulges the unhealthy habit of reading highly partisan blog posts from time to time (on both sides of the aisle) and then reading the comments to each of them, wherein the tantrums of the few trolling attention-whores tend to drown out any useful dialogue going on. I get this feeling from the mainstream outlets themselves, too, at least in the past year or so: that participating in the democratic discourse is always a losing proposition, because any argument is automatically hyper-politicized, linked with dozens of bad (usually irrelevant) arguments, and invalidated by proxy. Every attempt to participate is turned into a shouting match, and thus, expressing any political position whatsoever is enabling trolls and reactionaries, and is therefore self-defeating.

    So this rally was genuinely refreshing. John and Stephen (and Yusef and Ozzie and the guy next to me with a big "Use Your Inside Voice" sign) had a cohesive message, contrary to some of the nay-saying that's gone on since the rally... and it's a cohesive message I can get behind: discourse needs to be civil. In so many words, we were trying to say, "We respect, and expect, maturity and restraint from our political media, and we will reward it." And there were a lot of people saying that. And it's actually one of the first large-scale, mass-media sentiments I can get behind, because it outflanks the hyper-politicized culture-war rhetoric. Stewart and Colbert stepped back, took the whole situation into account, and fashioned a message that responds to it at a higher level than mere partisanship. It's a little more complex, and it's far more gratifying.

    Of course, with the palpable relief comes the fear that many of us leftists (and also tons of moderates) probably still have, especially after yesterday's election: the fear that this whole thing will be overlooked, because it's not sensational enough to be interesting. Unfortunately, no matter how high-level the thinking is, Stewart and Colbert are still subject to the media conditions that created this shitty situation in the first place.

    Fenzel from Overthinking It puts it rather nicely:
    The rally isn’t going to solve Stewart’s problem with the press — it’s not even going to come close to solving the problem. The economic fundamentals are too heavily stacked against it. The profit motive for media organizations to keep going the way things are dwarfs what they can make just producing news. They can make a lot more money — for their own books, for their own pockets, and through various complex business relationships — selling de facto editorial control of news outlets to private companies (that will turn profits by influencing government policy) than they can make selling time to the Pine-Sol lady and the Scooter Store.
    So while I can call this event a "landmark," it won't even be a footnote if it doesn't have some effect on the material conditions that govern these things. And it will be hard, especially if you follow a Marxist framework, like Fenzel seems to... it won't have much effect on the economics of the situation.

    But here's where my hopes for the rally come in.

    First, it's important to note that shows of solidarity have a powerful effect, if they can resonate with the media. The Tea Party has proven this -- their power isn't in their spending or their economic force, but rather in their visibility, and their ability to reframe the political environment. This rally was indeed a response to the Tea Party (a common theme on the signs), and it makes reframing the discursive environment its explicit business. The exposure from this rally may give everybody -- not just leftists or teenagers -- an essential tool that they didn't have before: a new sensitivity to media sensationalism, which might have been affecting them for a long time without their even knowing it. Maybe, because of this rally, a new crop of people will be able to roll their eyes and change the channel when someone accuses a university professor of "hating America," or a Christian teenager of being a mindless conservative drone.

    I especially hope Stewart and Colbert reinforce the younger generation's resistance to outrage and sensationalism, because they're both the most vulnerable to bad discourse, and the its most powerful potential foe. They need to build up a media immune system, and if their influence works out right, Stewart and Colbert could act as vaccines against the festering media conglomerates.

    Also, as a progressive, I have some hopes (didn't mean to give away my political persuasion, but there you have it). I think the conservative perspective is currently dominating the media environment because it's created a foundation of outrage and reactionary rhetoric, and this has served its message very well. This is one very important reason for the partisan shift in yesterday's elections. Though the rally came to late to have any effect on the elections, I hope they can do something new: provide a parallel foundation for the leftist platform to be consolidated and articulated. If a discursive framework of moderation, diplomacy, and constructive, hopeful, humorous, self-aware dialogue can be laid, then the progressives may stand a chance of forming a cohesive platform, based on our core values: compassion, economic and social equality, and market capitalism supported by universal social programs providing for basic civil rights (both negative and positive, outlined in documents like the Bill of Rights and the UDHR).

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Kanye West's Runaway, post 3: Who is this guy?

    This is my final post about Kanye's recent music video opus Runaway. You can go to the first post to see the video and check out some other blogs' reactions; the second post discusses some precedents for this type of narrative music video treatment.

    You got the story on where this fits in... today, I'll talk more about what sets it apart. And I want to start with the opinion of one of its commentators, The House Next Door's Oscar Moralde.

    Moralde gets one particular thing right -- like many music videos, this short film stands on the virtue of its individual moments. The extended ballet sequence was particularly visually effective, I think, as the dance itself was beautiful. It was an interesting creative decision: this is the moment when the debutante dinner is watching Kanye the most closely. Thus, this moment represents the spectacle of Kanye's act, and in the middle of an orgy of spectacle, he chooses something restrained and expressive to draw the audience's gaze. And he doesn't half-ass it... it's about 10 minutes long, at the exact center of the 30-minute video. I love the sequence, and I love its contrast with Kanye's persona.

    Is it all too grand? Is it all too cheesy? I think this is what some of the commentators think, but this isn't a paradigm that demands great restraint. After all, the "art film" pretense is just a gloss -- this film is made with a musical sensibility, rather than a cinematic one. Where the fine arts of cinema and theater are always looking for new stories to tell and fresh, transgressive ways of telling them, music is more cyclical. In the pop music worlds (rock, rap, country) we don't criticize artists for writing yet another song about love, or another self-praise anthem backed by ironic retro samples. And we have a good deal of tolerance for high drama in music, to the point of celebrating some truly epic melodramatic songs (The Killers and Guns n Roses, I'm looking at you guys). These tolerances bleed over into the world of music video, as well... we appreciate and celebrate lots of music videos weighed down with high drama, repeating the same cyclical structures: performance, abstract, story, performance.

    Convention has its place, and the the "cliches" of Kanye's short film are fairly purchased by its musical nature. Just listen to the songs: "Can we get much higher?" ... "Turn up the lights in here baby" ... "Lost in the World." In the music, the self-importance, the epic drama, is a part of the package, and it's not only tolerable... it's necessary. This is where the video is rooted. This is why the project fits together.

    Certainly, this video opus is excessive, but it's also very authentic. Kanye put himself into his video piece, including all his self-importance, his feeling of isolation, and his ambivalence about his industry patrons. He also acknowledges that he's kind of a ridiculous centerpiece for a sweeping drama... Oscar Moralde may interpret his lines as simply bad, but for me, they worked great as humorous asides in a very self-important work of art. When his neighbor at the dinner asks if he realizes his companion is a bird, he says, stupidly and drolly, "I never noticed that."

    This little clip of dialogue is turned into a strange moment of discomfort and recognition when the patronizing neighbor makes a xenophobic remark. The cheesiness of this moment is mitigated by the awkward line that precedes it, which has already brought some levity to the moment. The recognition of injustice doesn't manifest as shock or heroic indignation, so much as a tiny crack in Kanye's total obliviousness. This makes him a strange character, an idiot-savant center of attention who doesn't fully understand what he's bringing to the table (so to speak).

    You can claim he just looks stupid because he's actually stupid, but I don't really buy this. "Felliniesque" is certainly an overstatement, but the guy is shrewd, and he presumably knows what messages he is sending. Seen in this light, his character is a sort of hip-hop Forrest Gump, and his lines, like "First rule in this world, baby: don't pay attention to anything you see in the news" represent intentionally simple-minded wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, baby.

    This kind of sounds like his Twitter personality, too. He's got GW Bush's pithyness and Joe Biden's tact. And he knows this. "Let's have a toast to the douchebags" is as much a self-criticism as a snipe at his peers.

    This self-criticism is part of the general tone that makes this video unique. It may be decked with the trappings and ostentation of big-money hip-hop videos (the Michael Jackson parade! Jesus!), but Kanye's character isn't exactly a hard-ass baller. He's got a cool car and a nice crib, but rather than counting his bitches, he's falling in hopeless, almost adolescent love. Rather than taking over the party, he's asking whether he even wants to be a part of it.

    Now, this is on top of the rather uncontroversial "central metaphor" of the film, which is that the phoenix represents Kanye's career, which is being reborn from its own ashes. Now, everybody kind of takes that metaphor for granted, because it's so easy to sum up, as I just did. But if you actually look into it, it's not so simple. The 2009 VMA's were Kanye's Taylor-Swift-boat, but is he equating this process with crashing down into a cesspool of critics, in anticipation of rising up again to return to his fame? Considering the video is about love and loss within this transitional period, and that Kanye himself appears as a companion and a guide through this "lower world," I don't think this metaphor is so cut-and-dry. There's a sense of alienation and uncertainty to the phoenix's predicament, but not a sense of failure or trial-by-fire. In fact, she seems to approach her situation with hope, and with some measured joy. You could say the metaphor is underdeveloped, or you could say it's loose and ambiguous... but it's not so simplistic that you can wave it away as below consideration.

    Part of the mixed message, I feel, is that Kanye actually appreciated being lost and dismissed as an artist (now, it's arguable whether this was ever really true, but we'll play along). On Earth, where the phoenix is exiled, there's all sorts of pettiness and sniping and unfulfilled promises... but there's also hope for love, some excellent dancers, fireworks, and the epic paper mache heads of music legends. And Phoenix, when she finally leaves, doesn't seem triumphant or ecstatic to return to her place in the heavens. Indeed, she seems to be tortured by mixed feelings, knowing that she's leaving behind a sad Kanye. And Kanye himself knows that, however broken he found his career to be, his challenges after a "renewal" will probably be all the more stressful (mo' money, you know the story).

    There has always been a bit of adolescence and a bit of vulnerability to Kanye, even at his moments of purest arrogance. All of these things come across in Runaway. It may be audacious, self-centered, and grossly over-the-top... but I'd like to give Kanye my props, knowing that he's an artist who will try some crazy shit when it suits him. This is who he is. Hear, hear.

    Tuesday, October 26, 2010

    Kanye West's Runaway, post 2: Man, you referenced the wrong history

    This is my second post on Kanye West's recent music video epic, Runaway. In the first post, I discussed the general story framework, and the critics' reactions. I also linked to the video, so click through to see it. Tomorrow, I'll talk about some interesting thematic elements that make this a unique media artifact.

    Today: where this project fits into recent mass media history.

    Kanye is a big star, and he knows how to make headlines. Just recently, he got a pop music meditation written about him by Taylor Swift and performed at the VMA's, and no matter how you judge that, it's proof that he's made an impression. His Twitter account is followed madly for its insight and comic touch. He's had a funny relationship with SNL, leading to an interesting performance on the show recently. At this point, he's in danger of overexposure. But he's not the first guy to take over the mass media for a while... and his most recent output, that batshit insane music video, is not the first project of its kind, either.

    The House Next Door mentions Michael Jackson, who did this sort of thing from time to time. Of course, the MJ line in the song and the paper mache MJ in one of the scenes is a reference to Jacko, who was the progenitor of this narrative-montage format. In terms of message, Runaway is a far cry from Moonwalker, which was strictly a hero fantasy with no sense of irony or self-criticism at all. However, in tone and scale, Runaway strongly resembles the object of comparison, and given how few such projects have really come together, I think this comparison works to Kanye's credit.

    This video also strongly reminds me of Madonna's historic Like a Prayer. It's partly the color palette and the thematic ambition; it's partly because of the image of a mythical figure coming to life as an object of desire, and because of the use of classical performers as a backdrop to a pop performance. Madonna was also exploring her own media condition as a theme. Her piece was shorter and much more focused; Kanye is ready to say something about everything. Again, I see this as an asset.

    I'm sorry if it just sounded like I said Jesus is a myth, by the way. I meant "mythical" in scope and cultural influence.

    There are a couple more notable resonances between these two videos. As with Madonna's black Jesus, Kanye includes a racial theme, where the female protagonist appears to be of mixed race. Kanye also references white oppression in the form of a child in a Klan hood -- a reference that Madonna shares in her controversial video. However, unlike Madonna's video, Kanye doesn't come across as making an activist statement: many of the black characters are the wealthy exploiters, in a clear shot at the big money of hip-hop. It's never clear, along racial lines, who perpetrates the oppression.

    Madonna and Kanye also both use the female body as an element of the spectacle, with lots of cleavage in both cases. Obviously this is for different thematic purposes: Madonna's liberated sexuality was transgressive, a feminist response to the controlling power of conservative media, reinforced by her relationship with the black character. By contrast, Kanye's media environment is not conservative, and his use of the female form isn't exactly taboo-breaking at this point; in his case, the almost nude model is garbed in a fashion designer's fantasy of divine wings. Kanye is celebrating the permissiveness and spectacle of his media, using this powerful and remote female presence as a symbol of innocence and desire. Make of this what you will -- it probably deserves a few words from a good feminist critic.

    Of course, there's almost a touch of Lady Gaga in her fashionable excess, isn't there? Gaga, who's been mixing narrative and fashion for a few media cycles now, and who is notably influenced by Bjork. The phoenix (non)-costume is reminiscent of Bjork's iconic swan dress from the 2001 VMA's. The phoenix is Runaway's nod to the fashion world, which goes hand in hand with hip-hop and with the global media spectacle as it evolves.

    How about another one? As I've written about Runaway, I've realized it also feels like Guns n' Roses' epic rock and roll videos, like November Rain, from back in 1992. Again, it's the themes: love and loss, the return to oblivion as a signal of redemption. It's also some of the techniques. Like Axl Rose, Kanye performs his piece on a piano before a captivated audience; like Slash, he then stands on that piano to deliver the climax.

    The context here -- Madonna, MJ, GnR -- demonstrates one of the notable quirks about Kanye: he has the sensibility of a rock music video artist, even as he has the sense of irony and "arrogance" (read: self-praise) of the hip-hop artists who inform his sound. Apparently, when he talked about this video, he talked about it being "Felliniesque," which is a little silly. Hype Williams probably doesn't know who Fellini is. But Italian art cinema just wasn't quite the right context for this project ("Them Italians sure know how to make what the ________s want").

    A better context would have been this history of epic music videos, that don't subscribe to the same standards of subtlety and taste. It may have a lot of ideas and references spinning around in there, but this is not intended to play out like literature. It's all about the spectacle, like those giants of the form: Jackson, Madonna, Bjork, Axl and Slash. And watching the videos above, I think Kanye's intense, ostentatious approach is going to prove an asset in the long run.

    Luckily, despite all the nostalgia, there's also something here that's uniquely Kanye. I'll cover that tomorrow, when I discuss this particular video's subtexts.

    Monday, October 25, 2010

    Kanye West's Runaway, post 1: Not terribly well-received

    I happened to catch Kanye's new music-video-cum-short-film opus Runaway on Vimeo the night it came out. I didn't even realize it would be a phenomenon. I think I was lucky in this regard -- I didn't have to see it so much as a media artifact of fame and arrogance, as just a video project, as with everything I see randomly on the Vimeo front page. But now the blog responses have started coming in, and I feel compelled to provide my own bit of discussion.

    It's a mythic hip-hop saga of a playah (Kanye, who may or may not be playing himself) who runs across a fallen Phoenix, descended like an angel in a ball of fire. They go through the standard stewardship ritual, where he introduces her to the world in its beauty and tragedy, by way of some baroque music video set-pieces. Of course, he falls in love with her, and then (in the oldest tragic love-story trick in the book) has to let her go.

    If you've got a free 30 minutes, watch it below:

    First, I ran across the reaction from Monika Bartyzel at Cinematical, to which I responded: what? Your only reaction was to be totally sarcastic and unsympathetic? Haven't you ever seen a music video? Un-subtle symbolism is not a crime against sensibility... it's just a guy going crazy with the expressive tools at his disposal. Surrealism was no less blatant; neo-realism wasn't much more opaque about its deeper implications. If you insist on sputtering vitriol, please give it some substance!

    Second, the reaction from Oscar Moralde at The House Next Door. This one is less hostile -- still delivered with an undertone of condescension, but it makes concessions to the imagery and the ambition. His initial problem seems to be that the video is arrogant and self-aggrandizing, and that it's got the sensibility of a film student. I submit that these complaints aren't that serious, either... rappers are generally expected to be adept in the art of self-praise, and cultural reference is one of their stocks in trade. And perhaps he's not exactly a mature, restrained filmmaker, but don't a lot of artists make their best work in their student period? Wouldn't you rather have the ambition of a student who's preoccupied with great works of art, rather than the routine of a rap video with no interest in showing anything but bling and bitches and booty, or (in the case of early gangsta rap) a bunch of dudes engaged in a pot-smoking rager?

    [EDIT: I re-read Moralde's piece, and it's much more well-rounded than I give it credit for. He actually does discover some beauty and noble purpose in the video, and honestly, along with his criticism, his take is probably even more balanced than my own. So thanks for that, Oscar -- just wanted to put it out there.]

    Okay, so needless to say, I don't buy these criticisms. In fact, I rarely buy criticisms without some sympathetic acknowledgment of what the artist was trying to do, or what makes their vision unique. And in Kanye's case, we have a guy aligned with the rap scene (complete with help from Hype Williams) but who wants to capture an epic tableaux of love, passionate, and self-destruction. It's got the pomp and circumstance and self-importance of the rap game, which is one of Kanye's essential themes, but it's also got a consciousness of myth and the universal human story.

    In my next couple posts on the topic, I'll talk about two things: tomorrow, visual precedents for this kind of treatment; Wednesday, the oddities of theme and character that make this video uniquely Kanye.

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Searching out the Sick Soul: La Dolce Vita, La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad

    I've seen all three "Sick-Soul-of-Europe-Party" movies now... two recently, one (La Dolce Vita) a while ago. Everybody talks about these movies as being about the alienation of the pampered European bourgeoisie lifestyle, which I think glosses over a more specific reading: they are movies about the anxiety of detached reflection, the fear that in pausing to consider your life, you'll discover that there's just no real point to it. Some people (myself included, and Roger Ebert, as well) felt compelled by this.

    Pauline Kael did not. She makes this strikingly clear in her essay for The Massachusetts Review (Winter 1963), entitled "The Sick-Soul-Of-Europe-Parties." She says,

    La Dolce Vita, La Notte, and Marienbad are all about people who are bored, successful and rich--international cafe society--but in at least two of them we are told they are artists, and because we know that artists embody and express their age, its soul and its temper, we are led to believe that these silly mannikins represent the soul-sickness, the failure of communication, the moral isolation of modern man.

    Fellini and Antonioni ask us to share their moral disgust at the life they show us--as if they were illuminating our lives, but are they? Nothing seems more self-indulgent and shallow than the dissatisfaction of the enervated rich; nothing is easier to attack or expose.

    Kael seemed to come at these films from her entrenched spectatorial position: that she lives a well-supplied, respectable everyday life; that what matters in this world is self-evident. This is the point of view of the essential middle-class white-collar citizen, working for their money, just trying to make it though the day. Of course, Kael had the extra bit of detached self-awareness necessary to use that as a frame for analyzing movies. Even so, she made her lens obvious in a number of passages:

    "I don't want to sound like a Doris Day character--the all-American middle-aged girl--but when I put the coffee on in the morning and let the dogs out, I don't think I feel more alienated than people who did the same things a hundred years ago."

    "Forgive me if I sound plaintive: I've never been to one of these dreadfully decadent big parties (the people I know are more likely to give bring-your-own-bottle parties)."

    "I was intrigued by the palaces and parks and wanted to know where they were, who had built them, and for what purposes (I was interested in the specific material that Resnais was attempting to make unspecific)."

    Analyzing these three films from this perspective is natural and excusable, but I can't help but feel that Kael was willfully neglecting the point of view that the films are expressing. It's a point of view that she probably had access to, being a well-paid professional writer and film theorist, which are bourgeoisie professions par excellence (this coming from an acknowledged member of the same creative class, of course). Did Kael never indulge the idea that she may have been a cultural parasite, feeding off the structural and economic excesses that place such high value on "abstract thought" and "cultural literacy?" Had she never been scared by the idea that her ultimate role in the universe was the role of privileged navel-gazer? I think she needed to access these anxieties to see where these filmmakers were coming from.

    By shoehorning herself into this critical perspective, Kael makes the mistake of treating all three of these films as unequivocally identical, when in truth, each has its own particular dramatic conflicts and lessons. Kael thinks that all three are over-determined by the message that "big decadent European parties are actually sad and pathetic," which isn't actually the message in any of them. If anything, it's merely the tone: the sad-heart-of-privilege is definitely a shared stage, and the idle celebration is an easy way to set that stage, but each film creates its own thematic undertones within this space.

    For instance, I can't help but feel that Roman Catholicism is a strong presence in La Dolce Vita, and this may be why this feels like the most full-bodied and hopeful of the three films. Marcello and his band of adolescents don't take religion seriously, but even so, it lingers out there on the periphery of the story, offering a glimpse into a hope that some people can access, even if it's beyond Marcello's reach. This theme of religion and cosmic uncertainty seeps into the story in a number of places: the agony of suicide and death, just off-screen and outside Marcello's blinders; the appearance of father figures who inspire both admiration and ambivalence in the protagonist. The film may be unresolved; it may withhold its thesis; but it can't be accused of being empty of concrete meaning.

    The wealth and false narratives, covering meaninglessness like plaster over a gaping hole, is a theme in the work of Resnais, as well. However, like all of his themes, it isn't rooted as deeply in the characters -- generally the film seems to be an exploration of appearances and aestheticization.

    You could point to some religious concerns in La Notte, as well, but again, they don't have much emphasis. What does have a strong emphasis in La Notte -- which is minimally addressed in the other two films -- is the faux-creative disposition, the inauthentic position of the self-involved public artist. Kael throws light on this by rejecting the theme before she actually investigates it; she says Giovanni seems like a fake artist, with none of the tortured texture of a truly great writer. Without a doubt, Antonioni would probably make the same observation: Giovanni is not addicted to the act of creation, like a great artist, but rather to the public image that he can attain.

    This also relates, in no small way, to Giovanni's relationship with Valentina, who acts as both a muse and a foil. She has everything the couple lacks: spontaneity, artistic ambition and humility, and some respect and regard for the marriage she threatens to break up. I think, as much as it's a simple interpretation to see Giovanni's interest in her as the capricious horniness of a middle-aged man, it's actually a form of possessive denial. Giovanni wants to possess her because she represents a lost part of himself.

    Kael calls for a character in these films "who enjoys every minute of it, who really has a ball," who she says would be "the innocent American exploding this European mythology of depleted modern man"... and yet, she fails to recognize these figures when they arrive. They are Valentina, and Marcello's father, and perhaps even M, the husband in Last Year at Marienbad. These characters are the windows to the outside world, alluding to places that haven't become drowned in habit and aimlessness.

    Of course, I have the urge to ask of Kael: why write so much about these movies, simply to say that they're generally shallow and overrated? I guess, at the time, the prevailing appreciation of these films was so strong that it was worth voicing some resistance. Kael is also one of the greatest critics in history, so I can't deny that she had good reason, even if I don't understand it. And I must admit, I don't mind the basic idea of a review-criticism hybrid essay, which is pretty much what this is. Even so, I think I got more out of the sick soul films that Kael did, maybe because I watched with a different pair of eyes.