Monday, July 23, 2012

PressPausePlay - a short reflection on a film about the creative climate

PressPausePlay is a documentary that I caught this weekend about the digital revolution in the arts and culture. It's from directors David Dworsky and Victor K√∂hler, and if you dwell on the same stuff I do, you might want to check it out. It's mostly dedicated to celebrating the accessibility of digital media, and trying to get a grip on the changes it's bringing about. They got some interesting people to address this topic... Moby, Robyn, Hot Chip, director Lena Dunham, Napster daddy Sean Parker, and authors like David Weinburger and Andrew Keen.

It's free on their website, if you wanna just go take a couple hours right now. Go ahead, I'll wait here and drink my soda.

Okay, so... buried in the unrelenting optimism about the future, there is some anxiety in PressPausePlay, and honestly, the interviews that speak to this anxiety are the most interesting of the bunch. Doomsday prophets are always kind of captivating, giving voice to our fears, and the few interviewees who really sounded freaked out about the whole thing are actually kind of existentially reassuring. At some point, one of them says, "Every artist I know is scared by this," which is actually really nice to hear.

I think the anxiety comes from a very specific question, and a few of the interviewees approach it from a few different angles. The question is... how are we going to get along and keep culture in shape if the system of filters and gatekeepers has collapsed? And I think it's a really valid question, and the only real answer is, "Wait and see?"

When I say "gatekeepers," I mean a lot of different things. First of all, there are the simple resource scarcities of yesteryear, something that's often called a "barrier to entry." Once upon a time, filmmaking was so expensive that you needed to know people... producers, other filmmakers, or very wealthy family members... to get anywhere near the industry. Second of all, there are the credible critics, people vetted by major publications, armed with graduate degrees in the arts and publications in journals, who were hired to tell us all what was really the good shit, and what was just shit. The days of blogs have severely damaged the landscape of professional reviewing and criticism, and the incredible surplus of new work is overwhelming the ones who still have any cultural clout.

This all makes it very hard to confidently differentiate between brilliant work and crappy work. One of the documentary's talking heads said that we may be getting to a point where all the good work is drowned in the noise. Another one said he doubts the old great directors -- people like Scorsese and Coppola -- would ever have risen to the top or been discovered in the current climate. Their early shorts weren't genius, and in the current media glut, they would have been swamped to the point of frustration by amateurs competing for the same money and attention. Some of the cultural authorities in this documentary were driven to say, "Look, most people just aren't talented and shouldn't be making art." One of the most interesting of the critics claimed that this loss of sobriety in media and discourse would lead to a new cultural dark age, where cultural production rises so much that cultural literacy just falls entirely flat.

There's a question implicit in all this that nobody quite got around to asking (although some of them answered it, in a roundabout way). Whether you're really anxious about this is contingent upon what you think of those cultural gatekeepers, those filters, those critics, those barriers to entry. They are losing their influence. The question is: were they actually selecting based on merit, and thereby fulfilling a very important cultural function? Or were they actually selecting based on privilege, institutional bias, and luck? Because if the latter is true, then losing them will be one of the best things to happen to art... because even if an absolutely democratic process of selection is stupid, illiterate, and prone to distortion by advertisers, at least it's authentic. At least our art will match our preferences and our interests and desires, even if those aren't exactly high-brow or well-informed. At least our art will be a reflection of us as a collective, be that for good or ill.

Of course, between these two... gatekeepers are a positive force vs. gatekeepers are a useless burden... the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. And to be honest, I doubt the cultural landscape will ever be a flat ocean of white-noise. New mechanisms will arise to help shape the landscape of art and media, and we'll figure out how to make them work in service to culture. I guess, deep down, I'm just a dumbass optimist about the whole thing. That's fine with me. I may as well have faith in something.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Daniel Tosh, Louis CK, and comedy and advocacy locked in an eternal struggle

On the Daniel Tosh incident: I'm perfectly comfortable with the standard, rational interpretation of these events, which takes all of the following for granted:

First, Tosh made a cheap joke whose punchline was simply a provocative subject. As annoying as that might be, it's got many precedents in comedy.

Second, the lady blurted out an opinion, which can be rude, but also has precedents in the world of comedy. When Tosh is saying intentionally offensive things, he will occasionally have to deal with people being offended. Nobody denied anybody else's right to speak. Nobody was censored.

Third, Tosh was a dick to the woman in his response. He had all the power in the room... a microphone, a sympathetic audience. His response showed him to be a clumsy, flat-footed entertainer playing to the stupidest common denominator of his audience. It's this insane, overheated response that got Tosh the monumental backlash from the rest of the Internet. Again, he deserves it. Nobody is being censored. If people are calling you out for being an idiot and an asshole, then obviously, in a certain person's world, that's exactly what you are. I'm glad he at least apologized, but he has to realize that won't close the discursive floodgates he opened, or entirely absolve him of purveying some ridiculous bullshit.

I agree, on a philosophical level, with this piece in Jezebel, which is pretty straight-up with ya'll on the issue. If you and I already understand each other, you don't need to read it (or you've probably already read it anyway), but if you still find yourself fuming with hate at the humorless lady in Tosh's audience, then maybe check it out as a bit of reinforcement.

Louis CK addressed it on The Daily Show later.

I dig Louis CK; I trust him that he wasn't really supporting Tosh's RJ when he tweeted about him, so much as tweeting a general fan message that got stuck in the wrong context. Louis CK has, after all, taken on an insane challenge: he's tried to be true to his comedic art and impulses, while also being conscientious and respectful of his audience... and since he's now a massive international phenomenon, that audience includes everybody, from frat-boys to minorities. His success at navigating those complex waters is a testament to his genius and audacity as an entertainer.

Look at what he's trying to do here. First, he's engaging with everybody at once, inhabiting a gray area of diplomacy where he's both funny and critical. This involves holding a few things in his head at once: first, the feminist perspective of, "Why the fuck would you say that? Why should we let it slide?"  Second, the comedic perspective of, "We're in it to make people laugh, and sometimes offensive stuff gets the LULZ," and more abstractly, "We are doing our jobs, and we won't be bullied by people who have no investment in our success."

When he says feminists and comedians are natural enemies, he is making a broad generalization. It's far from universal, and the defenders of feminism are quick to jump on the exceptions. However, it's not a total deception. There is a sense in which advocacy of any kind (racial, gender, etc) is at odds with comedy. After all, comedy is almost entirely about pushing boundaries. Even the most benign jokes are premised on the need to break, overturn, or subvert our expectations, with the punchline usually breaking out of the boundaries of the original question ("Why did the chicken cross the road?" "To get to the other side!" "Hey! You tricked me into thinking there was a real reason! Jerk!") Advocates, on the other hand, are at least partly responsible for sculpting the boundaries of speech. Make no mistake -- when you're telling people not to use the terms "faggot" or "retarded," you're erecting (lol) a very justified boundary within the game of language. You're pushing back against the uncritical, offensive, intentionally demeaning uses of those words.

So in this very abstract way, these two impulses are opposed to each other. Of course, they can work together... Louis CK never said they can't, and he's one of the greatest exemplars of ways to make this work. It requires a sort of judo... a kind of humor that calls attention to some boundaries while breaking others... in order to shape the discourse in a positive way. And, in the opposite side, a kind of advocacy (feminism, for instance) that is willing -- through humor -- to puncture some interpersonal boundaries and acknowledge some stereotypes in order to shed more light on the whole edifice.

That's what the great self-aware comedians do... Margaret Cho, Bo Burnham, Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, and of course, Louis CK, among many others.

Then there's a somewhat passive-aggressive reaction piece, questioning Louis CK's Daily Show discussion, on The Daily Beast.

It's nice that this piece presents a range of opinions from people who identify with both feminism and comedy, but I think it's a little uncharitable toward CK. It never bothers to actually ask: what did Louis CK mean when he said comedians and feminists are natural enemies? How does it jive with his persona as an actual comic? Does it make sense, in the larger context, for me to get offended by it?

Luckily, this is mostly dying down at this point, and I think most people feel that justice was served. And by this time, the trickle of remaining opinions (like, for instance, this one!) aren't going to change the landscape of civil rights or humor or anything like that. I just wanted to get this perspective out there, to make sure I had contributed a few words to the balance of the larger consensus.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Three Fetishes: An Essay on Return to Oz (1985)

(from a new essay of mine, entitled The Three Fetishes: Transformation and Ethical Engagement in Walter Murch's Return to Oz (1985)):
Both Mombi and the Wheelers are deconstructed human types, but it’s worth noting the difference in their strategies. The Wheelers are mechanical constructs, almost steampunk in their primitive morphology. Mombi, on the other hand, is cybernetic. She is a highly adaptive system with interchangeable identities, wearing faces and demeanors like it’s a matter of fashion. She is more dynamic than the Wheelers, but also more fragmented, with seams and couplings that penetrate right into her soul.
In what seems like somebody’s terrible delegation decision, Mombi has been placed in charge of guarding some very important things. One of them is a substance called Magic Powder, fairy dust gathered into a vial, that gives life to anything it’s applied to. She keeps this powder locked up with her original head; why she has it, why she values it, and what she might ever do with it are all mysteries that won’t be answered by this narrative. In no time at all, Dorothy will steal it and use it to animate a new companion (the Gump). Though it doesn’t have much more of a role to play, the powder is a symbolic cornerstone within the text. Honestly, Oz might as well be made of the stuff.
-- from the essay, which can be found at the excellent blog 366 Weird Movies. I've been writing a bit for outside outlets, and I'm going to continue doing that for a while; I'll keep posting selections on here, so feel free to click through, if this is how you keep up with my ramblings.