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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Banksy stacks The Simpsons with different levels of messaging

Banksy's recent opening sequence for The Simpsons is striking and discomforting, which is a small triumph right from the get-go, as far as I'm concerned. However, more brilliant is the way Banksy has used this forum to navigate a gauntlet of corporate pressure and open critique. He's done this by subverting his own message with sarcasm, which provides just enough of a hook for FOX to let the ad run; it may make the sequence more diffuse in its targeting, but it also makes it much more effective, if only by giving FOX a reason to put it on the air.

WTF am I talking about? Check out the sequence:

Well, let's start with the most obvious reading of the intro: that it's an exposé and a direct, open attack on FOX and The Simpsons' overseas outsourcing policies. I'll call this the CRITICAL READING -- the interpretation that Banksy has used this forum to make a direct comment on FOX's corporate immorality.

This raises an obvious first question: how did this get past the FOX executives? It doesn't matter how powerful Matt Groening is in the FOX heirarchy... the network would never PAY a video artist to create a direct attack on its own policies, and then air it on a high-visibility network show. They also wouldn't give such a dangerous artist completely free license; they would only hire him on particular conditions of review and approval. So how'd Banksy make this work?

Presumably, if this sequence was too literally on-target, it wouldn't have run. If FOX was actually perpetrating human rights abuses for the purposes of creating FOX animation and merchandise, and it wasn't a public issue, and the network was trying to keep quiet about it, then they wouldn't have touched this bit of subversive commentary by Banksy. So there must be something else going on here, something that subverts the CRITICAL READING that's initially evident.

Well, guess what? There IS another reading out there. After all, this information about FOX outsourcing from Korea... this is already public, and the public has already had a chance to chew on it and gripe about it. So the suggestion that The Simpsons outsources its labor isn't so dangerous. People who realize this are seeing this opening sequence as being a satire of media hype, a wry hyperbole of critics' misinformed ideas of foreign labor. This reading, seeing the segment as more tongue-in-cheek and humorous, is what I'd call the SARCASTIC READING.

And it's an adept turn of message that the SARCASTIC READING subverts the CRITICAL READING. Certainly, this was enough of a selling point for Banksy to get the network to agree to air this segment. They know The Simpsons has always been edgy and self-critical, so when Banksy tells them that his opening sequence is actually making fun of the critics for being so sensitive about this "sweatshop labor" outsourcing thing, they buy it. They understand that the segment is controversial, but not outright dangerous to them, so they agree to run it. It's good for all parties.

It's important to note that even with the specific FOX-focused criticism slightly declawed, this intro sequence still makes a statement. For one thing, many people won't notice the sarcastic reading and will just come away with the critical reading. For another, there is a higher-level critical reading that isn't preemptively invalidated: the reading that this intro is a general critique of American consumerism and lack of global awareness. People may follow this insight to a dead end with regards to FOX, but at least they will have taken a moment to consider where their products come from. And there will be lots of people -- the smartest of them -- saying, "Well, maybe FOX isn't the worst offender in terms of exploitive labor, but there are definitely American companies out there who are actually just this bad." ... "And honestly, we don't know about FOX, either. Maybe this is closer to the mark than we realize."

Banksy is walking a deeply ambivalent line between co-opting the instruments of mass culture, and selling out to them. His ability to simultaneously skewer FOX and its critics shows just how complex his messages can be. As much as this attests to his skill at working with the information apparatus, it still begs the question: for whose benefit is this media artifact created? You're sending a valuable message, but is it enabling the offender? Which is more important: what you say? Or on whose behalf you say it?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Last Year at Marienbad (1961): Considerations of a Complex Space

If you have a friend who

1) didn't understand what happened in Inception, and always calls the movie "confusing" before applying any other adjective, or

2) always talks about the movie by launching into a lecture on what was real and what wasn't and whose dream they were in and whether or not the top fell down,

don't let that person get their hands on Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais's 1961 film about the fragments of remembered experience within a hermetically-sealed European resort. Resnais, with the help of his modernist script-writer Robbe-Grillet, will drive both of the above-mentioned people insane -- the former with frustration, and the latter with giddy speculation. I loved it, though. I thought it was a razor-sharp dreamlike drama that greatly rewards a patient spectator. It's also one of those films that will get better with each viewing, as I further acclimate to the refracted logic of its chronology.

Last Year at Marienbad is tragically betrayed by the synopses floating around out there. NetFlix's summary is as follows:
At a lavish European hotel, a handsome stranger tries to convince a lovely young woman that they had a passionate affair a year ago. When she claims not to remember him, he keeps trying to convince her, weaving a story that mixes memory and fantasy. Or is it all fantasy? French new wave director Alain Resnais helms this complex, controversial film that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.
The closest thing to a summary on IMDB goes like this:
In a huge, old-fashioned luxury hotel a stranger tries to persuade a married woman to run away with him, but it seems she hardly remembers the affair they may have had (or not?) last year at Marienbad.
These are all well and good, but they don't make clear just how experimental this film is (for the record, Wikipedia's summary is much more informative). From the outset, the viewer will assume that there is a definitive "time" and that this lavish hotel is at a definitive location in space; readers will assume that these strangers have backstories, whether explained or implied, and that their conversations and flirtations unfold in something like a coherent reality. None of these assumptions will turn out to imply. I'm not sure how NetFlix would have alluded to that in its summary, so I guess it's fair that viewers will be surprised.

For those who aren't already scared away, a bit of cultural background will deepen the hypnotic experience of Last Year at Marienbad. The film seems to take place at a crossroads of time, conditioned by both actual and possible events, but always delimited by the walls of the hotel -- no outside world is acknowledged. The central narrative thread is the ongoing recollection of X, the stranger who acts as the male protagonist, as he attempts to "remind" (or convince) a beautiful married woman of their previous stays at the hotel, and of their romance in its gardens and salons. This thread is cushioned by the depiction of other hotel guests engaged in socialite rituals: conversations over drinks, theater productions, gambling and card games, and loitering in the hallways.

My first thought upon seeing the film is "hypertext," given its willingness to reject any clear surface meta-narrative. Even Inception had one of these (Cobb's "last job" in order to get home to his children). It's a postmodern truism that there's no authority to give meaning to our experiences any longer, so we can jump from YouTube video to Wikipedia article to IRL conversation to the calculated representations of the evening news. Last Year at Marienbad's refusal to provide a well-defined establishing story or context recalls Lyotard's rejection of metanarratives in The Postmodern Condition.

However, in terms of style and figurative content, Last Year at Marienbad seems to have more in common with the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges than it does with the world of postmodern theory, which still struggles with the need to find a footing in its slippery cultural environment. Borges' fiction, obsessed as it was with recursive structures and the complexities of representation, exhibits many of the same themes and stylistic tendencies as Resnais's film. In particular, the hotel seems hermetically sealed, like the infinite labyrinthine halls of The Library of Babel. And the imperfection of memory, and its effect on the present and the future, is addressed in Funes the Memorious, a short story about a character who remembers every detail of his life with perfect clarity. Marienbad also plays with the idea of alternate destinies for its underdetermined characters, a theme at work in Borges' The Garden of Forking Paths.

As much as I'd like to accredit postmodernism with this kind of complexity, I have to admit that it's more a concern of high modernism, with its emphasis on structure and form. The extraction of the core narrative from all contextual concerns is right in line with minimalism, an offshoot of the modernist sensibility, and the treatment of fantasy and memory as interchangable, and equal even to at-hand experience, is something that you can find in all sorts of formally intensive modernist works, from Italo Calvino to Nabakov to Joyce. Last Year at Marienbad may share a sort of hypertextual, non-deterministic philosophy with postmodernism, but this is actually something the postmodern inherited from its modernist precursors... and without that postmodern emphasis on recontextualization and low culture, this film remains firmly situated in the modernist artistic mode.

I said this background would deepen the experience... I never said it would explain it. Indeed, no amount of wily-nily reading and research will fully capture the many meanings of Last Year at Marienbad. This is because the film has no surface story, nor any guiding narrative, nor any clear signposts to help sort out the themes. The creation of such a self-enclosed world, and such a commitment to mixing up all different types of experience (lived, remembered, imagined) is quite a powerful statement, and it's one of the things that makes this film such a landmark. If you have yet to watch the film, the first piece of advice I can give you is to trust your instincts about whether you're in the past, present, or future, and don't look too hard for actual visual indications, because there are very few, if any.

If you can keep from getting distracted by the non-linear storytelling, you may notice the film's occasional switches into horror techniques, suggesting psychological trauma: the strobe-like cuts to the female character standing alone in an empty room; the jarring rhythmic approaches when she's reaching like a worshipper toward the approaching camera. Resnais's long walks down hotel hallways probably influenced Kubrick's filming of The Shining, where Danny rides his tricycle through the endless corridors of the Overlook Hotel. So could you read this as a horror film, a movie about the loss of one's soul in a decadent pit of circular conversation and remembrance? Maybe, although I'd love to meet the person who was sensitive enough to that sort of stuff to actually be scared by it.

There are many readings of the film, I'm sure, including the assessment that it should be experienced and meditated upon, but not interpreted into some "reading" (since the vagueness of the story rules out any authoritative interpretation). I personally feel that any very complex movie deserves the benefit of some interpretation, even if it's only a tentative thesis against which to judge the twists and turns of the plot. So I came up with at least one reading of Last Year at Marienbad, which I believe is strongly supported by the text.

I understand the characters A (the female) and M (presumably her husband) as a married couple who have entered the hotel from the outside world. They have actual connections -- their love, the mastery of gambling and parlor games -- that link them to a real life, with genuine shared experiences. The hotel is an escape for A (as her husband suggests at one point, implying that she came there for her health), but it is also an existential trap, an enclosed reality sealed off from the world, which threatens at all times to engulf those who enter it looking for solace.

X seems to be a dashing stranger, but he's actually a parasite, the only native inhabitant of the labyinthine hotel. He is the hotel's minotaur, a parasite who only exists within that sealed space, and his life is devoted to trapping people inside its walls. He spends the whole film in pursuit of A, evoking memories both real and false; all the memories he calls on take place within the hotel itself, because he has no access to any experience outside that reality. He uses these memories, with their golden glow of nostalgia and mystery, to lure A away from her husband, and from her life outside the hotel walls. He only reveals his malicious nature to us in the final line of the film (which I won't give away here).

I haven't studied the film enough to find more support for this reading, and I know it doesn't conclusively tie together all of the film's imagery... or even a significant part of it. However, it's a worthy starting point for my next viewing of the film, if I ever get around to it. It will require a long, quiet night and a flexible, patient mind, because those long corridors are alluring and dangerous.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rock and Roll Done Right: Nostalgia with Chris Cunningham and Courtney Love

I had almost forgotten my old tastes in music before I ran across the two videos I saw last week, minor but strangely poignant clips from creative minds that I greatly respect. I had forgotten what it feels like to look into the cultural slipstream and see how history flows through us, from the past into the future. And I had mostly forgotten about Chris Cunningham and Courtney Love, before these two videos turned up and reminded me how interesting they always were.

The first one was Chris Cunningham's beautiful, subdued, abstract visual piece, exhibited this past month at the MoMa. It's called New York is Killing Me, and it's an audio-visual remix of a song by Gil-Scott Heron. The original was a multi-channel work, shown on three screens simultaneously (must have been a hell of an experience). It's bluesy, and dark gritty ambient, and for some reason, I feel like the bastard child of those forms is some sort of rock and fucking roll, a kindred spirit to Joy Division. You can see a clip at Cunningham's website.

Now, this is a pretty chilled-out clip for Chris. He's famous for the ferocious, cerebral insanity of Come to Daddy and Rubber Johnny, the kind of work that makes you grit your teeth. New York is Killing Me is more of a meditation, reflecting the broader, more cunning nature of urban oppression. Gone is the twitchy, glitchy effects work, replaced with a steady hand and an eye for juxtaposition and composition. This is about the landscape, without and within the mind.

The other one, posted later in the week at The House Next Door, is a little Courtney Love moment, among her more photogenic: she sings Lady Gaga's Bad Romance to a tiny crowd in what looks like the back room of a bar. Take a look:

There are so many evocative elements and undercurrents in this video. It all adds up to something strangely beautiful in its nostalgic sincerity. Courtney is part of a whole lineage (arguably its Godmother) of female rock stars cum publicity monsters, succeeded by people like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. Between Love and Winehouse, we seem to have adapted to bad behavior enough that we could laugh at Amy, whereas we tended to sneer at Courtney... and with Gaga, we have come to see outlandish public appearances as a sort of performance art. I support this. Lady Gaga is great at what she does.

But here, Courtney is not being an inane fuck-up, which is what she's arguably most famous for. Instead, she's exhibiting those things that made us appreciate her (or forgive her). She's not puking or getting naked -- she's performing a song by the new Mad Diva, obviously not completely knowing it (reminiscent of Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious), but ready to share it with the crowd she's part of. She was unstable, but this wasn't what made her great... what made her great was her work with Hole, her razor-sharp, well-written albums and studio tracks, and her general unwillingness to compromise anything about herself. Here, after Joaquin Phoenix self-destructs for show, we get a performance by the real shit, the model train-wreck.

And doesn't she look like she's having the time of her life, singing her ambivalently sarcastic tribute? When Courtney stands up and gets a ripple of love from the crowd, it's a quietly epic moment. It feels like she's bearing her soul, in the same strange, private way that Cunningham seems to be doing in his MoMa piece. These are rock and roll icons with their accolades stripped away, so we can see why they're so untouchable: because they love this shit, and they're 100% sincere about it.

There's something else about these short films: both of them remind me of New York City. The open, endless urban sprawl, interlaced with subterranean rhythms, is an essential part of the texture of Cunningham's video. Now, I know Courtney's video was shot in Paris, but it still has that sweaty, claustrophilic, center-of-the-universe sense that you get from the back room of a bar in a big city, whether it's the Givenchy Party or the Knitting Factory. So the face of the city is reflected in the faces of these artists, which is why it's such a great idea to put the right kinds of visuals with your aural stimulation.

I can watch these a bunch more times, and turn the sound up as high as it goes, and it empties me out and leaves me feeling raw and monolithic. It's good to know that Chris Cunningham is still realigning the audio-visual forces of rock and roll, and it's great to be reminded that Courtney Love's presence screams and echoes in the history of crazy bitch rock and roll. But these little intellectualizations are ultimately irrelevant... the real point is to feel the blood pumping through these media artifacts, drowning out the anesthetized world.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Tyler Clementi - pausing for an imprudent political rant

I composed this post as a comment on this article. It's long and undirected, and basically reframes the discussion in that article: on whose head does Tyler Clementi's death fall?

Infantilization is accelerating. As my fiancee said to me recently, college is the new high school; 18 is the new 10 years old. We talk about how the perpetrators were victims of an irresponsible society, and how their actions were adolescent pranks that went too far. I address this comment to all those who were shocked at this kind of incident happening in a Northeastern college, where young people can finally go to escape the bullying of teenagehood: undergraduate programs are feeling younger and younger, less and less decisive as a transition into adulthood. This reflects in both the behavior of the perpetrators, who were criminally negligent of another human being's personhood, and in the behavior of the victim, who wasn't prepared for the crushing blow of an inhumane society.

However, right now, talking about the victim's preparedness is not appropriate. Society is indeed causing confidence and self-image issues, but that's something we need to address in the long-term, on the social level. Punishing, or blaming, anyone for not being prepared for cruelty is bizarro-world logic.

What's much more appropriate -- and the collective indignation of so many of us is a good guideline to the morality of the situation -- is interrogating the perpetrators, and interrogating society to find out where these people come from. Why are we creating people who are so desperate for attention that it overrules their empathy, their practical judgment, and their decision-making skills?

There are a number of steps we need to take, but one of them is to acknowledge and commit to our moral standards. An educated, undiagnosed adult in the United States is responsible for the ramifications of their behavior, and these perpetrators did something almost unspeakably vicious to a classmate. Of course, the law delimits their possible punishment, which is a good thing, but they deserve the absolute maximum allowed for by those terms.

As a side-note, this is one of the reasons this particular story is getting so much attention -- it was the result of a single act of cruelty and moral perversion. People like watching moral train wrecks, and gasping at the outrage it inspires in them.

So, um, yes, there are a lot of people who are to blame for this. For starters, 1) the perpetrators... 2) the media and cultural trend toward attention-seeking behavior... especially 2a) those who do so in order to advance a hateful agenda, like the aforementioned right-wing pundits, and also 2b) those media trollers (some of them very far left) who profit off of cruel, attention-seeking, voyeuristic sensationalism.

I'd like to throw in the leftist political establishment, too, as abetted by Obama. These are the people who are actually able to advance an agenda logically, through argument and diplomacy, in contrast to the sound-byte-screaming right wing pundits. And yet, this political persuasion consistently proves unable to articulate and defend a strong set of principles. I can suggest some obvious ones: anti-opportunistic-corporatism. Social and economic infrastructure to regulate the excesses of capitalism. Oooh, and here's one: tolerance of personal freedom and sexual liberty as a core civil right.

Come on, Officially Licensed Participants in Society. It's the 21st century. We need to get this shit straight.

EDIT FOR CLARITY: I am a supporter of Obama, especially in terms of his actual initiatives, and his approach to political discourse. This just happens to be an issue where I wish he would take a stronger position.