The Remains of the Day (1993): Kazuo Ishiguro and the Art of Repression

In the extraordinarily subtle climax of James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Lord Darlington, a British aristocrat and Nazi appeaser, is in the study of his palatial estate in Oxfordshire. “We do the Jews no injustice when we say that the revelation of Christ is something incomprehensible and hateful to them,” he reads. “Although he apparently sprang from their midst, he embodies nevertheless the negation of their whole nature.” Lord Darlington is not an evil man. He’s not even particularly anti-Semitic. Earlier that year, he had allowed his head butler to hire two young German Jewish refugees as maids. But the book he’s studying, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, a pseudo-scientific tract by the British racist and proto-fascist Houston Stewart Chamberlain, has convinced him that the two young women are no longer fit for service at Darlington Hall.

Mr. James Stevens, the head butler of Darlington Hall, a fiftyish man played by Anthony Hopkins, is the very embodiment of the British class system. He does what he’s told. He doesn’t speak unless he’s spoken to. He never talks about politics or religion. He is so utterly devoted to Lord Darlington that he not only follows orders. He convinces himself that Lord Darlington’s orders are always proper and good. If left to his own devices, it would never occur to Stevens to fire two innocent women merely on the basis of their religion, but now that he’s been told to, it would never occur to him to do anything else. “Miss” Sarah Kenton, the housekeeper played by Emma Thompson, by contrast, knows that what Lord Darlington has told Mr. Stevens to do is not only wrong. It’s evil. Without employment, the two women will be sent back to Germany, where they will be subject to the Nuremberg Laws, and eventually gassed. She threatens to resign. He tells her the decision is out of their hands, and the girls are dismissed.

Miss Kenton fails to make good on her threat to resign. She has nowhere else to go. She’s also deeply in love with Mr. Stevens, but the firing Elsa and Irma, the two young Jewish refugees, sets off a chain of events that eventually leads to her marrying Benn, another butler played by Tim Piggott-Smith. Miss Kenton is not in love with Benn. Unlike Mr. Stevens, however, he’s recognizably human. He likes women. He has his own opinions. He wants to “leave service” and break out on his own, to “open a little shop where he can sell tobacco and newspapers.” Above all, he has no stomach for Nazi appeasers. Even though the marriage ends in divorce, Miss Kenton made the right choice. Ivory’s imagination of the fictional night at Darlington Hall where Neville Chamberlain plots the rape of Czechoslovakia with Lord Darlington and his circle of British fascists has a quiet, yet palpable evil. Mr. Stevens, along with the rest of Britain, has repressed his emotions to the point where he has allowed this to happen without protest. Spiritually, he is a dead man, doomed to a lonely old age, and the deep fear of death that comes from knowing that he has never really lived.

For an American, or an Englishman in 2015, the world of Darlington Hall is a strange place. If working-class Americans serve evil, and they do, they do it mainly because they have dreams of upward mobility. Mr. Stevens is different. He doesn’t serve Lord Darlington because he hopes some day to be Lord Darlington, but precisely because he knows he will never be Lord Darlington. James Stevens has elevated the practice of conformism and obedience to an art. “A man is no use unless he’s of use to his employer,” he remarks, and he does his best to live up to his principles. The only time in The Remains of Day where Stevens proves to be a difficult employee is when he insists on keeping his 75-year-old father on the staff, in spite of the way the old-man is so obviously no longer fit for “service.” It is the exception that proves the rule. Disobedience, for James Stevens, is possible only when it’s obedience to the patriarchy.

James Stevens is better than a “good German.” He’s a “good Englishman,” the kind of man who made centuries of British imperialism possible, part of the reason why the British, unlike the French, never had a Revolution of 1848 or a Paris Commune. But Kazuo Ishiguro did not write The Remains of Day to bash the English. Rather, he’s making a statement about the psychology of working-class men and women so broken in spirit and so trained for obedience that they eventually lose the capacity, “even to make their own mistakes.”

Ishiguro would go on to explore the same themes with a greater degree of abstraction and universality in his later novel Never Let Me Go. If Mr. Stevens has repressed himself to the point where he has killed everything inside but obedience and conformity, then the young English men and women in Never Let Me Go are no longer even officially human, but rather, clones bred for their body parts and vital organs. Mr. Stevens can’t reciprocate Miss Kenton’s affections because sex between employees doesn’t serve the employer. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are sexually attracted to one another, but the state refuses to acknowledge that they can fall in love. After all, clones don’t have souls. When they time comes to give up a liver or a spleen, they have to report to surgery just like anybody else.

One striking quality about the film adaptations of both The Remains of Day and Never Let Me Go is how James Ivory, and later Mark Romanek, cast such decidedly non-working-class actors to play characters crippled by working-class repression. Anthony Hopkins, in 1993, was an A-List Hollywood star. Emma Thompson does her best to embody a lonely old maid servant, but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s a graduate of Cambridge. Carrie Mulligan who played Kathy H in the film version of Never Let Me Go attended Woldingham, a posh Catholic School in Surrey that also graduated Vivian Leigh and Princess Marie Adelaide of Luxembourg.

Does it work? I think it does.

Had James Ivory cast a rough-looking working-class actor as Stevens, and a plain, working-class woman as Sarah Kenton, they would have created a dissonant note in the aesthetics of the film. As head butler, James Stevens is essentially an actor, a man who has to work constantly at erasing any proletarian manners that he has left over from childhood. He is also a casting director, responsible for hiring and firing the staff under him. He is initially reluctant to hire Miss Kenton because, as played by the 34-year-old Emma Thompson, she’s young and beautiful. In the end, he decides to hire her precisely because she is young and beautiful, and he’s confident that he can pass the test she represents. Anybody can resist a homely old woman. Only a head butler who has perfectly mastered the art of conformity and repression could resist Miss Kenton.

At the end of The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens, now in his 70s, goes to visit the divorced Sarah Kenton, now Benn, and now in her 50s. The final scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are a miracle of repression and unhappiness. Their nostalgia for each other is palpable. But they dare not let it go any further than a brief visit. They part. Their hands touch. They separate. Sarah Benn has decided to live for her daughter. James Stevens goes back to Darlington Hall, to live out the rest of his days for a new employer, a rich American who no longer needs him, but who has kept him on as an act of kindness. Stevens’ perfect defeat his is perfect victory. It’s one thing to work for a ruling-class that needs you. It’s an even higher accomplishment to work for one that doesn’t.

Note: We never find out what happens to Elsa and Irma. In the book they’re both British citizens, and in no danger of going to the gas chamber. But it was an inspired choice for James Ivory to make them both German in the film. As Howard Zinn has remarked, the problem isn’t civil disobedience. It’s civil obedience. You could say that James Stevens’ conformism hurt nobody but himself. But it did.

Being (Funny) and Nothingness: Phenomenology of the Poop Joke

To be who you are is to avoid the itch: (as in):

Who knows dot dot dot. (Y’know.)

-Robert Ashley, Perfect Lives: The Church

Jokes work in a variety of ways far too numerous to be summed up in a blog post, and their manner continuously changes at a speed where it’s difficult to keep up with the new manifestations; yet at the same time, they’re recognizable as such in a manner that suggests a deep undercurrent. By the same token, over time jokes are torn down by culture until only their architecture remains to be fully examined. What passed for jokes at the time of the first popular joke book, Poggio’s Facetiae are by now far less recognizable as jokes than as simply horrible circumstances the writer escapes abruptly without cleaning up. An example:

A MAN WHO FOUND GOLD DURING HIS SLEEP

A friend of ours related at a party that one night he had found gold in a dream. “Mind,” said someone, “mind that the same thing does not befall you that befell one of my neighbours, whose gold was turned into muck.” Being asked to relate that dream, “My neighbour,” he said, “one night dreamt that the devil had led him into a field to dig out gold. When he had found a good lot: ‘You are now not allowed to carry it away,’ quoth the demon, ‘but mark the place, that you may be alone to know it again.’ The man inquired what sign he could well use: ‘Cack here,’ replied the devil; ‘it is the best way that nobody should suspect there is gold; none but you will have cognizance in the matter.’ The man thought that a good plan and, awaking forthwith, became aware that he had abominably loosened his bowels in the bed. Rising amid the muck and stench to leave the house, he set on the crown of his head a cap wherein the cat had just done its needs. Enraged at the horrible smell, he had to go and wash the filth off his head and hair. Thus the golden dream had turned to turd.

I’d here separate-artificially because the discourse of our time makes little distinction between the two forms-the joke and the pun so that I can point to their similarities as tools of expression-the procedure of masking as realization as masking. The pun holds for Robert Ashley, similarly to how it did for James Joyce, the possibility of breaking open the language-a forced epiphany, a realization a phrase or term or action has more in common between its disparate contexts than would seem to be present in their usual staid contextualization in functional discourse.

But then, the narrative joke works similarly. In the joke above, the gold of the dream becomes the turd of the cat. The clean resolution, complete with something between a moral and a punchline. But moral and the punchline are the same phenomena in separate guises: a means to derail the narrative off the track of the infinite into the chasm of set meaning, a ribbon bow to tie up the gift so that the debt can be incurred in the receiver. Who’s to say the next night the turd might not again become the golden dream?

The joke means its meaninglessness; its a quarantine of sorts. The joke stands as the refuge in which the body reacts or doesn’t; to analyze or explain a joke is one of the least attractive social tacks that can possibly be taken. The joke is the way to approach the possibility of having been fooled in the various guises in which the phenomena of disappointment can be engaged; synechdoches for the greater possibilities of meaninglessness. The marriage of Kafka’s nightmares and slapstick comedy seems natural. Kafka’s most faithful children are the visual comedians that probably never read him.

In Ernie Kovacs’ silent Eugene special from 1961, he visualizes the seduction of sense, culture, truth, beauty, and whatever else the comedian and philosopher share in common as the unseen partner in their conversations that keeps evading them or that they in turn have run away from in terror. It seems easiest to get this across as a series of screenshots with commentary underneath.

The comedian approaches reality in the manner of a phenomenologist; they grasp it loosely with no special sentimental attachment to procedure and in fact an outright hostility toward the possibility there could be a standard procedure in the coming into being of the gag. I used to work as a stand-up comedian when I was 16 and most comics would only explore the mechanics of the joke in clearly circumscribed territories; the life stories of other comedians and superstitious mantras about what constitutes “funny.” Their writing style seemed very much the product of carefully manicured automatic writing. They were probably wise in taking this strategy.

The intellectual is the enemy of the comedian and as a person given to both tendencies I feel very much like a house divided. Tellingly, despite a good head start, I have not advanced especially far in the comedy world. I recorded a comedy album which has been very popular with the five people who’ve heard it and otherwise ignored. At a house party some people in a circle were competing to see who had the most offensive joke. I won this competition by some margin with a 400 year old joke about two nuns in the woods which was promptly met with horror, killed the conversation, and left me very much persona non-grata for the remainder of the evening. There isn’t much steam left in the “they were asking for it” self-defense, but I feel compelled to defend myself by saying such. They literally did ask for it.

Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and won’t repeat the joke here. All I can say is read Gershon Legman and whichever joke you think it is, that’s probably it.


“IT’S FUNNY CAUSE IT’S TRUE!’: MOMENTS OF CLARITY, THE NECESSITY OF ESCAPE

The trajectory of the joke or gag can run in two directions-toward the possibility of sudden clarity or out from under the entrapment of a confining clarity. This is compounded exponentially by the place of the audience, who have a much larger position in relation to the joke than to other forms of discourse; their laughter is the tightrope the comedian walks between “greatness” and the sprawling Siberian no-man’s land of the faux-pasian failure. In the comedian the audience looks for the forceful validation of the comic as a secular preacher whose dictum can be taken or left a la carte because “Hey, it’s just a joke!” or the deflation of a threatening or disliked rhetoric. Comedians exist whose acts revolve around lazy smarm in the form of witticisms; they seek the validation of applause under the guise of seeking laughter. There is an audience for this sort of spectacle, and a lot of them really like Bill Maher.

Because the comedian’s success with the audience is reliant on the ability of the audience to read their performance at lightning speed as a confirmation (by transgression) of the bounds of their shared discourse, a confirmation created by the presentation of the negative definition of said discourse, the comedian acts as a gatekeeper. However, in the the comedian’s constant necessary engagement with the discourse outside the bounds of the cultural discourse represented in the figure of the comedian, the comedian plays loose and risky with the possibility of falling over either side of the line.

The comedian as little Shiva, destroyer of “sense”, has a long and respectable history. From the fictional Svejk upon whom my username is derived to Cantinflas to Professor Irwin Corey to Steve Carrell’s winding, collapsing monologues on the US version of The Office, this archetype has existed in numerous incarnations, each with their own distinct characteristics as contenders in the battle over what constitutes the culture. This is feigned powerlessness as a means to question the possibility of sense or relevance of a style of language. A monologue delivered by Diane Keaton in Woody Allen’s Love and Death illustrates this line of comedy well:

To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering one must not love. But then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love. To be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy. Therefore, to be unhappy, one must love or love to suffer or suffer from too much happiness. I hope you’re getting this down.

The line of thought here, like the golden dream become cat turd at the beginning the essay, is wrapped up neatly in the stylistic rupture of the final line, “I hope you’re getting this down.” Another dialogue from the same film that illustrates as well or better:

Russian gentleman: So who is to say what is moral?

Sonja: Morality is subjective.

Russian gentleman: Subjectivity is objective.

Sonja: Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.

Russian gentleman: Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.

Sonja: Can we not talk about sex so much?

In the case of Woody Allen and in the literary world, Stanley Elkin, the language moves very rapidly as a means to keep running around and thereby avoid falling into a void; a nothingness; the equally disturbing possibilities of ones thoughts having set meaning and their being meaningless. In this passage, the opening to Elkin’s The Living End, the rapid riffing against the solidifying toward sense is itself a narrative of rapid disappearances and the crumbling of a everything around the protagonist that would signify reconciliation with civilization, as the statue crumbled when Kovacs attempted to kiss it earlier:

Ellerbee had been having a bad time of it. He’d had financial reversals. Change would slip out of his pockets and slide down into the crevices of other people’s furniture. He dropped deposit bottles and lost money in pay phones and vending machines. He overtipped in dark taxicabs. He had many such financial reversals. He was stuck with Super Bowl tickets when he was suddenly called out of town and with theater and opera tickets when the ice was too slick to move his car out of his driveway. But all this was small potatoes. His portfolio was a disgrace. He had gotten into mutual funds at the wrong time and out at a worse. His house, appraised for tax purposes at many thousands of dollars below its replacement cost, burned down, and recently his once flourishing liquor store, one of the largest in Minneapolis, had drawn the attention of burly, hopped-up and armed deprivators, ski-masked, head-stockinged. Two of his clerks had been shot, one killed, the other crippled and brain damaged, during the most recent visitation by these marauders, and Ellerbee, feeling a sense of responsibility, took it upon himself to support his clerks’ families. His wife reproached him for this, which led to bad feelings between them.

The more and more rapid escape into noise, sense, nonsense, and any sort of life raft that might stroke one’s shoulder seems to be the defining broad striving of our time. Away from the neuroses and the possibilities of entrap in being something or being nothing.

Across 110th Street (1972)

Barry Shears’ brutal crime drama begins with an aerial shot, high over East Harlem. The camera tilts to let us catch a glimpse of Roosevelt Island before it comes to rest on a black Cadillac making its way uptown. An observant viewer will notice that we are now over Riverside Drive, on the other side of the island. The camera descends to street level. The car crosses 110th Street, the dividing line in the early 1970s between black and white, then makes a right turn onto 125th Street. Eventually we find ourselves inside a Harlem apartment, where we learn what was inside the suitcase we had noticed sitting on the front seat of the Cadillac, 300,000 dollars.

Five men, three black, and two white, count the money together, efficiently thumbing through stacks of tens and twenties. What we are witnessing is not interracial harmony, but interracial corruption. The white men, representatives of the Italian mob, and the black men, their local enforcers in Harlem, are dividing up the proceeds from the old “numbers” racket, the lottery before the state took it over in the 1980s. Black and white criminals have come together to extract money from the struggling black working-class, the people we noticed living in poverty on our drive up Riverside Drive through Harlem.

We near a knock on the door. Through the keyhole we notice two police officers, both black. “Does anybody here own a black Cadillac parked out in front of the hydrant?” one of them asks. The five men aren’t worried. “Give them a few twenties,” one of the Italians says, letting us know early in the film that the NYPD is on the take. But the two men aren’t police officers coming to get their cut of the numbers money. One of them, a man named Joe Logart, works in a laundry. The other, Jim Harris, is an ex-con out on parole. It’s a daring heist, two anonymous members of the black working-class, coming to take back what was theirs, the labor power stolen from them by organized crime. One of the mobsters reaches for his pistol. It’s a mistake. Jim Harris who has a machine gun, has no hesitation about using it. Harris and Logart massacre the five gangsters, and make their way out to their getaway car, an old Checker Cab driven by Henry Jackson, played by Antonio Fargas, Huggy Bear from Starsky and Hutch. After a clumsy escape, where they bump a street cleaner, wreck half the cars on the block, and kill two real cops, they’re home free.

Of course they’re not. The three men have just robbed the mob of 300,000 dollars and killed two cops. We all know how the movie will end, with Harris, Jackson and Logan in their graves. That shouldn’t surprise anybody. Everything else about Across 110th Street, however, at least from the perspective of 2015, seems to have come from a world as strange as Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Don’t let the misleading Netflix page fool you. Yaphet Kotta, as the black Lieutenant Pope, a college graduate an a straight arrow, and the great Mexican actor Anthony Quinn, as the corrupt, racist Italian American Captain Mattelli, are the Across 110th Street’s biggest stars. But neither Pope nor Mattelli dominates the film. Rather, they are two more characters in a Darwinian world where everybody is out for himself, and everybody is out to get everybody else. 110th Street is not pro-police propaganda, copaganda. There is little or no moral difference between Mattelli and Doc, the head of the black mob from whom he takes bribes — but only “clean gambling money” —- or between Mattelli and and Nick D’Salvio, the savage Italian mobster who wants to find Jackson, Harris, and Logart before the police do.

Who will capture Harris, Jackson, and Logart first? The police, who will send them to Attica, or Doc and D’Salvio, who will make of them an example that will terrorize the rest of Harlem? It’s important to Doc and D’Salvio that Harris, Jackson and Logart die under slow torture instead of going to Attica. Mattelli, in turn, is a 55-year-old white man who has to prove he’s still in control of “the blacks,” the insecure representative of a white supremacy that had been rocked to its deepest core by the Civil Rights and black nationalist movements of the 1960s. Pope is an ambitious younger, black man who wants to make his mark, an example of the new black leadership class who have allied themselves with state in order to displace both the mob, and the white ethnic police unions. He’s a tough, straight-edged man who takes no grief from anybody, but, in the end, he’s not Across 110th’s Street most sympathetic character.

That honor would go to Jim Harris, played by Paul Benjamin. You’ll recognize him as one of the street corner guys from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Harris, a self-described “42-year old nigger ex-con,” is an anarchist and a nihilist. We don’t like him in spite of the way he slaughtered 5 gangsters in cold blood with an automatic weapon. We like him precisely because he slaughtered 5 gangsters in cold blood with an automatic weapon. Harris is the image of a black working-class that has finally had enough. Nobody will make him go back to jail, or take a dead-end job. Unlike Logart and Jackson, who die begging for their lives, Harris goes out in a blaze of glory, with all guns firing, killing cops, Italian and black mobsters as if they were stormtroopers on the Death Star. His final gesture, throwing a bag full of money off a roof to a playground full of school children just before he bleeds to death, is cinematic, anarchist poetry.

In the end, in spite of its many flaws – Barry Shears was mainly a TV director and it shows. –Across 110th Street is the kind of film Quentin Tarantino only wishes he could make, and probably ripped off trying. While it lacks the polish of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, it makes up for it by directly addressing the issues of crime, class, and race. It also makes me wonder. Surely the NYPD is every bit as much “on the take” in 2015 as it was in 1972. Tony Serpico is still in hiding, after all. Why don’t filmmakers tell these kinds of stories any more?

Mad Max and the Bechdel Test: Gender Equality’s 65th Percentile

One matter regarding Mad Max: Fury Road has irritated me since the “Men’s Rights Advocates” first complained about it, all the way back when the trailer was first released. Stanley alluded to it in his second take on the movie. The shallowness of the Bechdel Test is clearly not lost on Stan, but the political ramifications of what, in my mind, is a “the only way to win is not to play” proposition, unnerve me. I’m a few months removed from having seen the film a couple of weeks after it came out, but fortunately for me the matter in question and its relationship with the movie is not particularly nuanced.

From its promotion and unrelentingly after its release, the aforementioned men’s rights advocates have railed against the purported politics of a two hour-long movie which, by my estimations, has between one and one-half minutes of combined dialogue. This started when the first trailer came out, because low-hanging fruit is low-hanging.

Discussion of the film’s feminism belie just how asymmetrical the debate of gender equality has become. For decades, the female audience has been increasingly sought by purveyors of action and carnage, and merely passing the Bechdel Test isn’t an indication, even remotely, of a film’s “feminism,” let alone even a semblance of equality. That literally every film that doesn’t have a contrivance for excluding women from the cast entirely (i.e., military and prison movies, movies about the U.S. legislative branch) or an inordinately small number of speaking parts (for instance, Cube, although that decisively passes the Bechdel Test) can’t pass the Bechdel Test is a reflection of the disastrous discussion in the United States about gender equality, which is as continuously muddled with non-factors and red herrings as similar discussions on racial and LBGT equality.

Feminism can be read into Fury Road. Someone might think: “Oh, hey, the women in this plot aren’t chattel, maybe the director is a feminist.” The women Max encounters have escaped their harem enslavement under the leader of the film’s city, the only real civilization that’s shown in the film. Not only did they escape, they decided to and succeeded all by themselves! Max is more reliant on what they have to offer than vice versa. But this seems less like feminism and more a harem ex machina: a way for the hero to survive an impossible situation and a way for the audience to look at underwear models who are suggestively dousing themselves in water when Max first awakens in their midst.

Charlize Theron’s character, Imperator Furiosa, is the leader of this group, not a member of the harem but the most decorated… I don’t know, war-driver or something of city’s forces. I bet they have a cool automotive-derived name for whatever she is. She liberates the harem, who are relatively feeble compared to her. She is the classic liberator in film, taking others to safety who cannot take themselves. While they prove capable when the noose is tightening in the film’s climactic sequence, this doesn’t read as anything more than an easy way of putting more action into an action film.

This role could have been Max’s, but Max is the wanderer. Only the first Mad Max was about his breakdown as an individual in a world gone mad. In every movie since, Fury Road included, he’s served largely as a more-capable-than-thou apocalypse-dweller. That oil refinery had gas. He just kind of wanted to get the fuck away from Tina Turner and her Thunderdome. This is not a complex character. The first movie shows you why his life is ruined, the other movies are him going through the instinctive motions in response to the threat of dying. Furiosa’s role as the liberator of the harem means her character must convey some authority and power. None of this reads like the setup for a feminist exploitation car movie. Death Proof, this ain’t. But then, Death Proof wasn’t even anything like what it set out to be.

The women scrawl “WE ARE NOT THINGS” on their cells before escaping, which… what? Is this supposed to convey anything beyond the feeling of anyone locked into any fashion of bondage or its derivative abuse, let alone women referred to in this role as “breeders?” Neither they nor Imperator spend the movie spouting anything about the treatment of women where they were, nor about male/female relations, but simply how they were treated and why they escaped.

Is Fury Road a poignant warning about the dark future that awaits women should society crumble? You could choose to view the movie as this huge, overarching framing device for analyzing gender roles, but you could also call Star Wars a deconstruction of the transference of propaganda themes into popular media, which overlooks that the tropes from propaganda films were in Star Wars because the propaganda in question was meant to look intimidating and that fit the tone Lucas was going for in those shots.

I went to Fury Road intent on shutting off my brain. It’s rare an action movie allows me to do this, but Fury Road did even as I spent the better part of it looking for evidence of its “feminism.” What justification are they giving that I’m not seeing here? Is this all not enough? Isn’t it possible George Miller thought “Hey, this is an action movie, you know what would be better than one person punching people? Two people punching people!” and with Imperator already established in this hypothetical nascent plot outline as a strong character, decided she would be his other people-puncher?

Feminist? Mad Max is barely about anything. Which is not to say it doesn’t have an engrossing and well-groomed world: indeed, the continuity and self-assured authenticity of it is why two hours of almost-constant car chases works. It might actually constitute an art piece comprised of car crashes, but culture is a fickle thing, and at best maybe the children of those fortunate enough to have seen Fury Road will see a time where, during driver’s ed, in full costume, ala Rocky Horror screenings, they get to the documentary that’s all gory car crashes and their aftermaths.


ISSUES WITH THE BECHDEL TEST

A few days ago, the Atlantic ran “How the Standard for Gender Equality in Culture Became Known as the ‘Bechdel Test.'” The article serves mainly as a setup for a pedestrian “ask a smart person about a trivial element of this topic”-type interview, instead of highlighting the idea that gender equality is “achieved” in media by passing the Bechdel Test. As a social imposition of politics upon art, this is nothing short of a disastrous failure of the societal brain’s cognitive functions. Failing the Bechdel Test, save for the aforementioned contrivances, is not an indication that a movie could “use some work” in the female character department: it’s an indication, a very strong one, that the movie is a fucking disaster, featuring female characters with only one setting: vapid.

Fury Road is also an explicitly feminist movie, with Furiosa and Max joining forces to take down a literal patriarchy.” – VICE, “The New Mad Max Movie is Both Badass and Totally Feminist” (But does anyone in the movie actually say the word “patriarchy?” Or any word that even suggests they know what patriarchy is?)

In the title of this essay I call the Bechdel Test the sixty-fifth percentile of gender equality, but really it’s like the twentieth, or the eighth. Failing the Bechdel Test for most movies is a reflection that they’re attempting to engage women so little they’ve basically resorted to negging. It is hard to say if this reflects individual writers or actors, but as I’ve heard it told, Hollywood filmmaking is about pain-in-the-ass compromise and personal politics even more than actual governmental politics is, and compromise reveals nothing better than the will and the enthusiasm of the culture. Art is the energy of the culture that feeds it, and Hollywood is a lot closer to being the best of the best than it is to being the worst of the worst. The zeitgeist is the zeitgeist because it’s the cumulative present, not an arbitrary collection of modernity always somehow derived from the lowest common denominator because, Oh my god, certainly not, have we really gotten that fat? There must be something wrong with this mirror…

The reality is that the lowly Bechdel Test has become our cultural standard of gender equality in creative media because the culture, one of male privilege in just the same manner as the culture of white privilege to which our society has given much discussion of late, wants it that way. Jackasses are much happier trying to argue you away from a standard so low it may as well have been meant as a joke (oh, wait…) than actually having a pointed debate on specific reasons why a film is “feminist.” Feeding into this Bechdel Test crap is starting healthcare negotiations by revealing you don’t want universal healthcare. It’s a compromise position that frames the context of the real debate in a radically uneven way.

The critique of a film as “feminist” for suggesting, essentially, that women may in fact be people too, is already a victory for misogynists of the world: it frames feminism through the cultural stereotype of equal-rights activists as sex-averse second-wave feminists, the sorts that were either always on the fringe or moved further and further to the fringe before the so-called “sex wars” decisively removed them from general conversation amongst the feminist. They represent feminists as a concept no more than South Park‘s Big Gay Al represents gays and often stake claims to feminism the way people using descriptors like “big R Republican” or “big L Libertarian” stake their claims: increasingly contrived No True Scotsman designations that rely on the grade of their contrivance to disguise just how contrived it is. When opponents of gender equality continuously transmit this trope into the cultural perception, this idea that self-appointed “big F” feminists–largely relics of the past at this point–are the only feminists or have ever represented feminism, it degrades the conversation as a whole. When this presumption is the basis of the debate, you’re already losing.

 

How do we come to cultivate our standards into these shapes and forms? Haven’t we been complaining about Common Core non-stop since the alliterative, media-friendly moniker was first unleashed on us? There’s something about glass houses and stone-throwing in here, but that’s trying to have an even broader conversation than this one which, as said, is tenuous even in its existence. When you’re arguing with a misogynist and the argument revolves around “feminism” in film, application of the Bechdel Test is a quality of either ignorance or outright dialectic malice on the part of at least one of the conversants. For this, I propose a Second Bechdel Test, three simple rules that can be followed in order to make sure you’ve walked into a rational conversation about feminism and its role in a given work.


A BETTER BECHDEL TEST

1) Be familiar with the Bechdel Test in the first place. Since you’ve gotten this far and I haven’t actually bothered to describe it in the text anywhere above, I’ll assume you’re good on this.

2) If you even have to think about if a movie passes the Bechdel Test, it almost certainly can’t possibly be “feminist.” A movie that has an interest and role for the women of its universe will not come remotely close to straddling the line.

3) Remember that the beauty of arguing for equality is the sheer simplicity of the argument you need to make: everything should be the same for everybody, “everybody” depending on the sort of specific equality you’re going after. As such: if a male character in the place of a female character did the thing that caused the female character to be labeled “feminist,” would he be labeled feminist? Characters voting in movies that take place before suffrage do not count.

There is, of course, an important zeroth rule meant to serve as an indicator that a film is feminist: it knows that feminism is an equality movement, not a supremacy movement, and talks about it in a positive light and/or advocates for feminism.

Now, weary travelers: Ride to Valhalla, shiny and chrome!

The Sound of (No) One (Not) Listening

A common complaint is that not enough people listen to serious programs. Is there a method for studying non-listening?
-Paul Lazarsfeld, “Introduction”, Radio Research 1942-1943

The abiding rule of thumb when it comes to the gross people of the world is to just ignore them. It’s not like they’re capable of rational, respectful dialogue. It’s not like pointing out that they’re gross is going to make them be not gross…the Calgary police add, “It violates section 175(1)(A) of the Criminal Code: ‘a disturbance in or near a public place, (1) by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language.’” Normally, I am a firm supporter of the right to drop F-bombs whenever and wherever, but if the only thing these clowns understand is the fear of real consequences, then I’m down for it.

A scotsman who can’t watch a movie without shouting…
-Youtube clip title

According to Baudrillard, the territory of reality no longer precedes the map of representation…In the past, a “real” moment occurred when a person experienced another person’s presence and speech, or observed something that was happening in the neighborhood or across the street. Today what we experience more and more are spectacles…

It is with severe difficulty that we measure the strangeness of the present; it might in fact be said that the only means of defining the present is in its strangeness. With this strangeness we differentiate it from the past. By riding this feeling of the present’s strangeness we make our claims to the future, a forever uninhabited wilderness where theorists of all sorts set up claims and some strike gold. Sometimes this gold is found around their less than fresh corpse. The gold is fought over, the speculator at that point is dead, not much can be done for them. The gold may not even be gold. But then, like Schroedinger’s cat, gold only becomes “gold” insofar as we observe it as being such. Tooth fillings work similarly.

When Schroedinger opened his speculative box, had the cat died in a position to suggest it was chasing its tail?


What exactly is the sound of nothing being not-listened to? Traditionally: a tree falling in the forrest, a pin dropping, crickets, sneezing, the audience talking over the performer, “talk to the hand”, the audience heckling in an attempt to break down the imagined wall between audience and performer.

The inertia of a set of relations that in their proper placement create the performer and audience, that create the magical fourth wall, are multi-tiered, their allegiances scattered, flexible and frequently redrawn. The audience recreate their communicative end of the relationship in different forms that have a surprising level of complexity given the limit to their variety; the clap comes to be the sign of polite impatience, an “other” category for that which can’t comfortably be fit in the space of the laugh shout or boo, the acknowledgment of appreciation, and the impetus for an extension of performance. To invert the snow clone, if the eskimos have 50 words for snow, the audience has one clap correspond to 50 responses.

The theatergoers’ etiquette, always a tenuous treaty between two parties in conflict, reproduces itself in the relation passersby take to the production of moving images. While traveling around the country making a film about the US, I found that when I would take urban landscape shots hoping for people to walk through them, I would need to usher them, Moses-like, parting the sea of the image before they felt comfortable walking through. Successful long-running TV shows have worked on usually disingenuous flirtations of a new sort of relation between the audience and the performers; the Today Show’s famous police-style barricade surrounding crowds of eager TV viewers, the constant casting call on late night and daytime talk shows to “Be in our audience!”, the voting structure of talent competition shows, and in journalism the necessarily misleading “man on the street” interview.

The promise of performance is two-sided. The performer seeks a variable relation to the audience, the audience seeks the temporary feeling of community in their shared identity as the spectator. The uneasy elements of performance art and stand-up comedy are that they blur this line; the comic will attack a hostile audience, the performance artist will designate unusual and unrehearsed performance from the audience. The television on the other hand, despite the broad range of response it can elicit, safely contains both the space of the performer and that of the audience through what I guess could be called a two-state solution. Yet the hostilities on both sides remain, and the borders keep getting redrawn.

Yesterday’s shooting of two reporters on the air by a colleague who had been demoted (in his own mind, which is the primary space from which to analyze the spectator, who exists in communal interiority) from the space of performer to that of audience member has elicited two days of front page coverage in several international papers because, while the news usually is meant to be understood as allegory by the reader, this incident has extreme allegorical implications for the journalists themselves. The racial and gender components provide a means through which to explore unconsciously the incident’s dimension as a breach of trust between the set social relations in the production of news.

These relations and their once seemingly set qualities of course have been repeatedly questioned in the last several months. When activists claiming to be with Black Lives Matter took over the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, decentralized discourse on the internet immediately began grappling with the question of what interpretation to use as a frame. Were the activists attempting to create a news story themselves, were they in the employ of the Clinton campaign, could they even be properly considered to be emissaries of Black Lives Matter at all, could Sanders’ followers in fact be racists? This swamp of confusion showed its spirit in the interchangeability of descriptions of Black Lives Matter as being a “movement” or a “hashtag”.

The reporting on the presidential campaign that reaches a broad saturation point is similarly defined by performative ruptures of identities-any Donald Trump “gaff” and the coverage following could suffice to prove my point here. In these spaces the viewer and journalist can explore the only partially conscious realization that the boundaries have shifted or possibly even collapsed between consumer and producer. With a TV or a radio, I can’t produce TV and consume unless I’m within the industry (outside small strongholds like public access and college stations, which still regiment the production of images in time and space in a manner the internet and its two-way delivery systems such as the computer, phone, or tablet, don’t.) CNN will often do stories on viral videos, in part to sustain the illusion they’re still monolithic curators of the image, in part a peacemaking concession to the rupture of TV communications, the way human interest stories worked for years and years.

New etiquettes are being created and smashed several times a day; the seemingly all encompassing space of the norm has enough cracks where the chaotic forces lurking behind it in shadows for all this time can be seen more clearly than the normatives.

The Symbolic Construction of Mass Shootings

(Check out my previous two pieces relating to this subject here and here.)

Much of the internet has evolved into a mutated form of the famous New Yorker cartoon caption contest; except in the internet the cartoon is not a cartoon but the rapid procession of events that constitute the enterprise we monolithically dub “the news”. Twitter and Facebook exist to arbitrate these acts of framing and declare quantitative winners. Twitter in particular pushes the form of discourse toward the framing caption; as in The New Yorker a vast quantity of captions are submitted, unlike in The New Yorker their voluminous quantity is regulated in a decentralized fashion.

The traumatic event being read into as a form of literature is hardly a new thing. Thomas Carlyle’s account of the French Revolution is structured as a novel, and similar exercises exist in such a staggering multitude that to begin listing them would rapidly derail this article. However, the form of the novel suggests a different sort of interpretation of events than a tweet, an online news article, or a blog post such as this one does. There are certain grammatical structures that are favored; a novel composed entirely of declarative generalizations would be rather rough reading, but a Twitter feed composed of little else has been several people’s ticket to influence.

Soon after the Virginia Tech shooting, a package was delivered to NBC containing what could be considered promotional materials for the shooting by the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. It would seem, given the frequency with which mass shooters are delusional and prone to fantasizing, that the medium of the redemptive fantasy, the advertisement, would give tons of insight into what would cause a shooting. The police officials and a psychologist seemed to disagree despite a telling detail being right at the end of the statement. From Wikipedia:

“Police officials, who reviewed the video, pictures and manifesto, concluded that the contents of the media package had marginal value in helping them learn and understand why Cho committed the killings.[123][124] Dr. Michael Welner, who also reviewed the materials, believed that Cho’s rantings offer little insight into the mental illness that may have triggered his rampage.[125][126][127] Dr. Welner stated that “These videos do not help us understand Cho. They distort him. He was meek. He was quiet. This is a PR tape of him trying to turn himself into a Quentin Tarantino character.”[126]

Their roots seem to be fairly simple-some combination of major depressive disorder/severe anxiety/schizophrenia and an attraction to the aesthetics of a prior example of violence. These are, of course, far too broad as precursor symptoms to be of much use in rooting out shootings before they occur. Semiotic democracy, the decentralized readings of a shared text, will sometimes produce horrific outliers.

The almost daily occurrence and discussion of these sorts of shootings does not push the public into a state of enhanced sensitivity to them, nor does it get us any closer to figuring out their roots. It does, however, force the reader to start distinguishing them into categories mentally or to develop strategies of not engaging with the articles/events when they encounter them if they’d like to continue reading the national newspapers regularly.


PROCEDURALS AND THE MAGIC TRICK OF THE MIND: PULLING ‘SENSE’ OUT OF A HAT

This dilemma of internal media environment ecology has been dramatized in the NBC show Hannibal. The show, in its first season anyhow, exists as an unusual but still recognizable police procedural-serial killer is on the loose, brilliant investigator and his loyal crew of coworkers figure out how to catch him with the centerpiece of each episode being the virtuoso aria of an explanation provided by the brilliant investigator. The grand hero of any procedural, from House to Monk to Shark to…well you get the picture, is the character who can consistently pull off the magic trick of pulling sense from an overwhelming pile of seemingly contradictory information.

What sets Hannibal‘s Will Graham apart is the tone this procedural investigator-as-secular rationalist-mystic takes and the self-reflexive quality of the show. Graham, taken from Thomas Harris’s novels, is a freelance psychological profiling consultant for the FBI who specializes in serial killers. He has a form of “radical empathy” wherein he can enter the mind of the killers by looking at their crime scenes. The show recognizes Graham’s position as a mystic; the cops have to leave the crime scene for a brief period in order for Graham to channel the interior psychology of the serial killer. The crime scenes are very much gruesome art pieces and Graham treats them like an extremely astute art critic who focuses on the place of the “artist” in the piece.

Part of the reason for Hannibal’s steep ratings decline and cancellation is possibly a product of its hitting the point of procedurals too squarely on the nose. The primary comfort of the procedural, like that of the mystery novel, is the eventual catharsis of a mysterious world coming to clear coherence through the medium of the investigator. The increasingly prolonged periods of rather questionable but very calm and rationalistic explanation that always concludes popular programs in this mold such as  CSI in its various incarnations is a response to increased desire for explanations; the money shot. Hannibal meanwhile explores the ramifications of the procedural mentality and its aftershocks; Graham is frequently on the brink of madness and his knowledge is very much a grounds for suspicions that in his ability to read the killers he isn’t that far removed from them in his mental workings.

The distorted Krazy Kat triangle between Hannibal Lecter, Will Graham, and Jack Crawford on the show is a subject that will require its own essay. It’ll suffice for now to take away the lesson that the contemplation of crimes does not produce a unified response by any standard and that the desire to understand these events, if pursued in good faith, does not always lead to especially comforting conclusions. Much of the public is willing to write killers off as monolithic totems of “insanity”, an ill-defined category used mostly for gerrymandering the border of acceptable behaviors and thought processes.

This isn’t necessarily an unhealthy response, though it leads to the production of articles, news reports, and pop psychology books that frame these events as indictments of specific social trends in a binary that usually favors the agenda of the writer while fetishizing the less familiar detail. Columbine was a problem of “video games”, as though video games exist simply in a vacuum. The influence of video games probably played some small role in the manifestation of the shooting, but then so did a million other things.


WHAT CAN WE TAKE AWAY FROM BRYCE WILLIAMS SHOOTING TWO CBS REPORTERS THIS MORNING?

In his suicide note, Williams positions himself in the cultural genealogy presented above going from Timothy McVeigh to the Columbine shooter to the V-Tech shooting. CBS reports on the suicide note:

“Flanagan (Williams) also said in the note that Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, was ‘his boy’ and mentioned the Columbine High School shooting.

‘Also, I was influenced by Seung-Hui Cho. That’s my boy right there. He got NEARLY double the amount that Eric Harris and Dylann Klebold got….just sayin,’ he wrote.”

More interestingly, he sets up his shooting as a response to the Dylann Roof shooting earlier this year. He writes “The church shooting was the tipping point…but my anger has been building steadily…I’ve been a human powder keg for a while…just waiting to go BOOM!!!!” There is a discourse of mass shootings, and among the isolated shooters a strange and horrible tradition with controversy over what belongs in the cannon.

The symbolic components of the shooting as its been reported seem to have been set-up, knowingly or otherwise, by Williams so as to make the news articles become self-reflexive exercises in examining the place of journalism itself. He shot the reporter and cameraman as they were in the process of shooting a news segment, creating the possibility the murders could have been broadcast live. At the same time, he also filmed the shooting himself and uploaded it to Facebook and Twitter while broadcasting his personal justifications for carrying out the shooting. It was calculated, like the others, as a performance meant for broadcast.

The place of the media in the emergence of copycat killers is not well understood.

Maybe the FBI ought to hire some theater critics.

The Last Frontier (1955)

Starring a very young, very blond, and very wooden Anne Bancroft, Robert Preston, best known for starring in The Music Man, an actor named Guy Madison, who’s such a dead ringer for Ben Affleck it makes you wonder if both men are the same vampire, and the now almost completely forgotten Victor Mature, the main problem with The Last Frontier is the acting. Except for Preston, who plays the half-mad, Custer-like Colonel Frank Marston, nobody is even remotely believable. Bancroft is incredibly hot, and incredibly bad. Guy Madison not only looks like Ben Affleck. He acts like Ben Affleck. Victor Mature reminded me of a pizza man from New Jersey lost in the old west.

But if Anthony Mann’s little-known western is miscast, it’s also a critique of Manifest Destiny that goes well beyond John Ford’s much better known Fort Apache, to which it owes an obvious debt. While John Ford concedes that the influence of the white man has not been entirely beneficial to the Indians, he places the blame squarely on one corrupt government agent, and on one rigid army officer who belongs in the Army of the Potomac more than he belongs in Monument Valley. Anthony Mann, on the other hand, looks forward to the anti-authoritarian politics of the 1960s, and even to the renaissance of Native American cinema in the 1990s.

The Last Frontier is testament to just how easy it was to get around the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1950s. Mann has no respect for the United States Army, the sanctity of marriage, or for “western civilization.” Compared to the bloodthirsty Colonel Marston, the Indians come off like a responsible nation state defending themselves against an imperialist madman. Fort Apache gives the last word to the regular army, which, once properly led, can be counted on to maintain the peace in the old west. The Last Frontier, on the other hand, ends on a dissonant note. Even though Victor Mature’s frontier scout is seen wearing a blue coat, the uniform of the United States Army in 1864, it’s clear that Mann had actually wanted him to head back out to the frontier, that the studio had forced him to edit the screenplay.

Michael, no relation to Anthony, Mann probably borrowed parts of the opening of The Last Frontier for his film The Last of the Mohicans. The Last Frontier opens with Jed Cooper, Mature, and two of his friends, returning from a hunting trip. There’s the white Gus, James Whitemore, his mentor and father figure. Then there’s Mungo, an Indian played by Pat Hogan, who, in spite of the name, was not an Irish American, but, rather, a member of the Pottawatomie nation in Oklahoma. The three men are surrounded by a war party led by the famous Lakota chief Red Cloud. Although Jed, Gus, and Mungo have had friendly relations with the Lakota for years, Red Cloud has decided to revoke their hunting privileges on tribal lands. When Jed protests – He and his two friends have never hunted more than they could eat or trapped more than they needed to make a living. – Red Cloud informs him that the United States Army is building forts along the border. Red Cloud is fine with a few white trappers and hunters. But he sees the danger of white civilization, and the eventual annexation of tribal lands

After the Lakota confiscate their furs, rifles, and horses, Jed, Mungo, and Gus have two choices. Gus suggests they head north to Canada. Jed and Mungo, on the other hand, are curious about the “civilization” that so worries Red Cloud. They head to the fort, where they meet Captain Riordan, Guy Madison, a level-headed officer who understands the frontier. He’s the rough equivalent of John Wayne’s Captain Kirby York from Fort Apache. Riordan offers to hire the three men as scouts at 25 dollars a month. Realizing they don’t have the money or the supplies to get to Canada, Gus agrees to come along. Jed Cooper immediately falls in love, quite literally as we shall see, with “civilization.”

Victor Mature has none of Daniel Day Lewis’ athletic grace, but Jed Cooper, like Nathaniel Poe from The Last of the Mohicans, is a white Indian, a man born on the frontier who’s free from the constraints of civilization. That’s fine with Riordan, who understands that Cooper can never live a regimented life, but not with Colonel Marston, Preston, who arrives a few days later. Colonel Frank Marston is a bitter authoritarian who’s been sent west because he was found to be an incompetent officer personally responsible for getting 1500 men killed at The Battle of Shiloh. The number is a clear exaggeration. Shiloh was a meat grinder of a battle, but the Union Army only lost a little over 1700 men, and no mere Colonel would have been in a position to lose 1500. It is possible that Mann intended Marston to be a fictionalized version of John Pope, who was the Supreme Commander of the Union Army at the disastrous Second Battle of Manassas, and who was later sent to Minnesota to fight the Indians in the Dakota War of 1862. Pope wound up ordering the largest mass execution in American history. But precise historical antecedents aren’t important. Colonel Marston, like George Armstrong Custer, is a bloodthirsty racist who hates the Indians, and a tyrant willing to get every one of his soldiers killed for his own personal vendetta.

Colonel Marston also has a beautiful, blond wife named Corinna. While Anne Bancroft, like Victor Mature, was an Italian American, they are coded very differently in The Last Frontier. Bancroft is barely recognizable. Her hair is bleached platinum blond. Her skin is lit to make her look as pale as possible. When Jed Cooper and Corinna Marston begin an affair, and when Cooper attempts to kill Marston to get him out of the way, Anthony Mann is clearly hinting that it’s an affair between a white woman an an Indian. Jed Cooper sees Corinna Marston as his gateway to a civilized life he’s never had. Corinna Marston sees Jed Cooper as a representative of the wilderness her brutal husband wants to destroy. As miscast as Mature is as a frontier scout, his Southern Italian looks come in handy. Unlike Anthony Mann, many Hollywood directors would cast Italians, not Indians, as Indians. So while Victor Mature may not look like a real Indian he does look like a Hollywood Indian. Victor Mature is a bad actor. Daniel Day Lewis is a great one. But Anthony Mann is a far more radical director than Michael Mann. He turns the racist Hollywood convention of casting Southern Europeans as Indians against itself.

Anthony Mann doesn’t stop at the idea of miscegenation. Corinna talks Jed out of killing her husband. But Mann clearly implies that the death of Colonel Frank Marston would have been better, not only for the Indians, but for all of the white men at the fort. Captain Riordan, unlike Marston, is a competent officer, and should have gotten the command in the first place. Marston is determined to lead his troops on a suicide mission to kill as many Indians as possible. Jed Cooper is right and Corinna Marston knows it, a point driven home when Colonel Marston tries to have Cooper assassinated by one of his henchmen. Cooper escapes, only to return to save most of Marston’s soldiers from an almost certain death. In the end, Marston gets what he deserves. He’s killed by Red Cloud’s braves. Riordan assumes command. For the short term, the war is over, but the eventual outcome, Mann lets us know, is inevitable. Unlike John Ford, who celebrates the arrival of western civilization in the old west, Anthony Mann all but mourns it.

In The Valley of Elah (2007)

White Americans don’t like to lose boxing matches, and they don’t like to lose wars.

Sometimes it gets reflected in American cinema. No white fighter in the 1960s or 1970s could even come close to beating the great African Americans Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. In the movie Rocky, however, an entirely fictional great white hope played by Sylvester Stallone “goes the distance” with an entirely fictional Muhammad Ali played by Carl Weathers. Rocky was a dreadful film, dull, sexist, and aesthetically unimaginative. Yet it not only beat out Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver for Best Picture. It inspired a sequel where the great white hope becomes the champion, and another where he saves the honor of his country from the Russians. If that weren’t enough, the same actor would then go on to play “Rambo,” a former green beret with almost superhuman abilities who goes back to Vietnam to re-fight the war the United States lost 10 years earlier.

By 2007, it was clear that the United States had lost the war in Iraq. After 5000 dead Americans and over a million dead Iraqis, the country was no more a democracy in 2007 than it had been under Saddam. All the American invasion had accomplished had been to destroy Iraq, make a lot of money for people in Washington with the right political connections, and strengthen Iran as a regional power in the Middle East. The Nixonian MIA/POW cult embodied by Stallone’s Rambo, however, wouldn’t work this time. There weren’t any American POWs or MIAs in 2007. Instead, George W. Bush just sent a few more divisions of American soldiers to Iraq, labeled it “the surge,” and the corporate media dutifully complied, labeling “the surge” a great victory, and taking the defeat in Iraq out of the headlines altogether. Films like The Hurt Locker, Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Sniper ignored the political defeat of the United States to focus on the (dumb but widely believed) idea that the American soldier was fighting for freedom a far-off land for American civilians too clueless to appreciate what these heroic men (and women) were doing for them.

The film that got the Iraq War right has largely been forgotten.

Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah wasn’t a total flop. It cost $23 million to make and got back $29 million dollars at the box office. But unlike American Sniper or Zero Dark Thirty it has never made much of an impression on the American public. This isn’t entirely the fault of the American public. Haggis is not a great filmmaker. He made the dreadful Crash, the worst film ever to wing Best Picture. In the Valley of Elah is not without it’s flaws. Politically it’s cautious. If you had to sum up Paul Haggis’ views on the war in Iraq on a bumper sticker it would be something along the lines of “support the troops. Bring them home.” Nevertheless, In the Valley of Elah gets one thing entirely right. So far, it’s the only film I can think of that breaks with the Rocky/Rambo model of trying to win on screen what you lost in real life. Haggis forces you to admit that the war in Iraq was an overwhelming defeat that corrupted Americans and killed innocent Iraqis. That’s probably why it’s never been very popular.

White Americans don’t like to lose boxing matches, and they don’t like to lose wars.

In the Valley of Elah is aesthetically conventional. At it’s worst, it comes off a bit too much like a feature length episode of NCIS, only without the popular TV show’s Gung ho patriotism. At its best, however, it reminded me of Costa-Gavras’ great film Missing. In both films, a conservative, white American is forced to admit his country is not what he always thought it was, that it may not only be misguided, but evil. Hank Deerfield’s pain, however, is even greater that Edmund Horman’s. Horman’s son may have been murdered during an American sponsored coup, but it was the Chilean Army, not his fellow Americans who killed him. For Deerfield, on the other hand, the invasion of Iraq not only takes his only remaining son, and undermines whatever faith he may have had left in his country. It destroys his confidence in his fellow soldiers, and even in his fellow men.

Haggis’ film has two great performances. Charlize Theron’s portrayal of an initially clueless, then progressively enlightened police detective demonstrates why she eventually became a feminist icon in Mad Max: Fury Road. Emily Sanders may look a bit like a supermodel without her make up, but she’s tough as nails, shrugging off her colleagues’ sexism off as a mere annoyance. She’s also open-minded and willing to learn. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that gets the process by which we admit we’re wrong so right. There’s an initial resistance. Then you feel a sense of dread. Then you finally admit you’re wrong. Charlize Theron nails the emotions every step along the way, especially in one key scene where the expression on her face registers all of the agony that comes along with the knowledge that her careless indifference may have gotten someone killed.

In the Valley of Elah, however, is Tommy Lee Jones’ movie, his performance as great as Jack Lemon’s in Missing. If Edmund Horman’s disillusionment was that of a liberal, Ivy League northeasterner, Deerfield’s discovery is more painful yet. Hank Deerfield is a southern, American patriot. A Vietnam vet and ex-military-policeman, he embodies red state America. Deerfield can deal with his son dying in a war, even an unjust war. We never quite learn what Deerfield thinks about Vietnam. He might not know himself, but he’s also a clearly gifted police detective who’s been making a living hauling gravel for the past 30 years. What went wrong? Why did he give up his career as a military policeman? Nobody with a face that looks like Tommy Lee Jones’ face can have many illusions about anything.

Yet Hank Deerfield does have one illusion left, the same illusion George W. Bush used to sell the war in Iraq to the American people. Deerfield may have his doubts about the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq, but up until his son is murdered, he’s never had any doubts about the troops. If he eventually came to believe the war in Vietnam was wrong, he probably got through it the way he hoped his son would get through the war in Iraq, with the idea that he wasn’t fighting for his government, or even his country, but for his fellow soldiers. The grotesque betrayal at the center of In the Valley of Elah does not leave Hank Deerfield with even the hope Edmund Horman had at the end of Missing. The collusion of the American government with Augusto Pinochet is bad enough, but it’s still a collusion between two rotten governments, and Americans have grown used to the idea that the American government, and governments in general, are rotten and corrupt. Indeed, throughout the film, Haggis very cleverly plays on our expectations that the murder is part of a government conspiracy. When it turns out that it’s not, it’s simultaneously shocking and anti-climatic. That Mike Deerfield was a hero after all – not in the way the corporate media likes to label soldiers as “heroes” but a hero nonetheless – and that he’s killed for the pettiest of reasons is almost too much for any father, or any of us, to bear.

Small Details: Mass Production As Literature

I worked in the used book business for a long time sorting books to be sold online both independently and as a contractor for a store. The store had more than 40,000 books in overstock, and I’d sit in a storage warehouse or the back of the store itself. Part of my job would be to research prices on a variety of sites. I kept a collection of interestingly damaged books. I had pictures of most of them at some point but lost them.

I remember mostly the bizarrely specific hesitations people would have over minor condition points while buying; the Mexican stand-off with the object wherein the urge to take it home is resisted. What was considered mint condition could vary wildly from book to book. The little condition blurbs put onto places like Amazon and Abebooks and varied wildly in tone and substance from seller to seller. Some sellers had clearly obsessive issues with certain defects. In their lists of defects they made the case for the refinement of their pickiness they hoped to find mirrored in the peculiar pickiness of the buyer. Detailed descriptions of books selling for a penny weren’t uncommon. It was a genealogy of individual supposedly identical copies of objects. Scanning down a page of these, Steinian repetitions occur. Read these out loud in order for the full effect:

“Harpercollins Trade Sales Dept. Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Minimal damage to cover and binding. Pages show light use. Bookseller Inventory # G0061490199I3N00”

“Harper Perennial. Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Light shelving wear with minimal damage to cover and bindings. Pages show minor use. Bookseller Inventory # G0061490199I3N00”

“Del Rey. Paperback. Book Condition: Good. Book shows minor use. Cover and Binding have minimal wear and the pages have only minimal creases. Bookseller Inventory # G0345502078I3N00”

“Del Rey. Hardcover. Book Condition: Good. Ex-Library Book – will contain Library Markings. Only lightly used. Book has minimal wear to cover and binding. A few pages may have small creases and minimal underlining. Bookseller Inventory # G0345501748I3N10”

This is the novelized adaptation of tradio. The TV series plays on the local channel that loops the real estate listings. I’m not sure a film version has been made yet, but Mr. Show came close.


A SERIES OF IMAGES, WHEREIN THE IMAGES THEMSELVES MEET-CUTE

The line between an encyclopedia, a dictionary, a catalog page and traditional personals ads is a thin one, and in that line is the literary space wherein the internet creates itself. The strict rectangular geometry of the page creates the medium in which the space of “innovation” takes place.


WHAT IS THIS A LITERATURE OF? HOW DO WE WRITE IN IT?

Can’t say for sure, but I think I just did.


WERE THERE WARNING SIGNS?

They were coded to be indecipherable to their writers and the folks hired to deliver them. A couple have been retrieved but they’re fragmentary.

GK Chesterton in his introduction to his book William Blake: “Napoleon said that we English were a nation of shopkeepers; if he had pursued the problem a little further he might have discovered why we are a nation of poets. Our recent slackness in poetry and in everything else is due to the fact that we are no longer a nation of shopkeepers, but merely a nation of shop-owners.”

Robert Ashley wrote “In the beginning, there were rocks. And on those rocks with harder rock, we learned to make a million bruises. To spell out things like:We Were Here and Watch Your Water. They only moved it, the idea of bruises adding up to something, from rocks to skin. A tendency toward motion pictures.”

The present moment is a haystack made of needles. Problem now is: Where do you find a big enough haystack to hide them all in?

Liberation Theologies of a Consumer Society

…there used to be rather serious firewalls between the artist and the buying public – the gallery, the publisher. And technology demolishes that wall and basically says, self-promote or die. And that is a bad head for any sort of artist to be forced into.

Jonathan Franzen

If a number is so large that we have no way of measuring its magntiude, it might as well be infinity. If a number is non-zero, yet we cannot distinguish it from zero, it might as well be infinitesimal. How would we detect that a supposedly infinitesimal number is non-zero?

-Kalid’s Pages, Infinity Explanation

The boundaries between the serious and the frivolous have collapsed. We’re in the early post-revolutionary period now. As is standard in a post-revolutionary void, purges and infighting will occur repeatedly until the playing field stabilizes, only to break apart again over time.

Granted, the serious and the frivolous, high and low culture, were always categories defined by the reader and the strictures of power stacking the deck in order to make the most shining examples of the past falsely inflated to stand as the defining voices of their era. At the same time, this creates a textual void of power. As consumers of objects and texts, consumers with a voracity that easily dwarfs that of all other periods of human history, we cannot come to a shared text or a small enough number of shared texts so as to create social cohesion. The initial trauma to western civilization of discovering that there was no objective basis to claims of sovereignty over everything or even to the rightness of their accepted customs and beliefs or goals. The new worldliness, the signifier of sophistication, is the ability to consume and digest these texts more rapidly than the other people rapidly consuming and digesting these texts that produce themselves at a pace in which they can never be consumed.

Most US residents have not read The Bible. This is not a good or bad thing, just a sign times have changed. Before the time of the Protestant revolution, most Christians had not read the actual Bible. They were largely illiterate; there weren’t printing presses yet. The book stood as a thing imbued with mystical power for its rarity and social prestige; like the ultra-rich it had agents meant to propagate its public image and through their lens and careful custody it did weekly press conferences. Its power was, as rare book collectors know when they seek first editions, the power of the book itself as a mystical talisman, as an aura.

Still, a culture deterritorialized from their geographic space must find a shared text as a bedrock. Sometimes this is The Bible, sometimes this is The Simpsons. Sometimes its both. Texts separate themselves in the social eye into genres and traditions in order to confine them into serving as glue for a community hoping to gather together commentary on them.

The responsibility of the consumer in a market society is two-fold: 1) The consumer must use up the products produced, 2) The consumer must provide the person at the point of exchange with expanded value over his materials. The consumer frequently takes their duties quite solemnly; we don’t usually recognize this because part of their duty is to seem to have fun. It’s usually a very strained fun unless it can push itself into the realm of shared hysteria.

The perfect balance between their consuming things and their satisfying the theatrical trappings of their desired self is desired. Confidence often wanes. Xanadu moments are had wherein the consumer looks around and thinks “What’ll I ever do with all this stuff?” This confidence has to be reinvigorated.

The recent Ashley Madison hack/leak is another especially damaging blow that will shape the consumers’ confidence; the users paid for the privilege of complete erasure and were embarrassingly left exposed. All failed transactions create aftershocks in customers who need to be reassured that the project of their being wooed by products was not in fact a giant waste. When the product is trust itself, this takes on an almost allegorical dimension.


I wrote a short story about the above screenshot in the form of a press release for a non-existent podcast.

GSC GRADUATES START SELF-HELP PODCAST

Commercials got you down? Have you and TV lost that spark in the bedroom? Don’t worry, a new self-help podcast is here to the rescue and taking the net by storm.

Jenny Weaver and Tom Clapton met in college. “We were in the Korean Christian Fellowship together and we really bonded there because we were the only two people in the club who weren’t Korean.” Together they discussed a shared phobia that had made them hesitant to go to the supermarket.

“Well, we watch all these commercials for cleaning products and baked goods and snacks and microwave dinners and they look so amazing. But then you go to the store and buy them and they never live up to the commercials.”

Weaver in particular was disturbed. “There were trust issues. I just didn’t think I could handle being betrayed like that again.” Together they founded the Commercial Therapy Institute. The institute studies the strains and turbulences in peoples’ relationship with their televisions. The Institute also offers many treatment plans and workshops. “We do a lot of experimental talk therapies, like…we offer a workshop where everyone in the group watches TV together and we lead them in chanting ‘I can go out again. I am not afraid. It will be even better than the commercials.'”

The duo saw a lot of potential in this radical new field of therapy. They decided to start a podcast to promote their work. “On the show,” says Clapton, “We do some of the talk therapy techniques we use in our clinic, but we also give news in the beginning about what’s happening in the field. It’s a lot of fun.” Their podcast updates every Monday and can be downloaded on Itunes. -Terry Bull (Associate Editor, Generic State College Tribune)

The actual fully liberated consumer of course cannot exist. There can only be more and more sophisticated ways of digesting the data and increasingly more aggressive attempts to expand it. There is an economy of information; the larger the content market glut the less likely the possibility of humans corralling it all to their purposes. But it can be tried.

We live in the media environment now and desire control over it.

…if you give a mouse a cookie…