Have a Good Time

January 11, 2016

Therese, Arthur, Curt, Carol, Brian, Tommy and Shannon

The first heavy news I got late on January 10th was that Todd Haynes’s Carol hadn’t won any Golden Globes. I felt this from the start as a frivolous sorrow, because I hadn’t expected to feel anything about the Golden Globes at all (to say nothing of more recent conversations about the Oscars). In the long last quarter of 2015, when I’d been waiting for Carol‘s wide release and almost starting to doubt its actual existence, I had even joked to a friend that when it finally came out and won all the awards and everyone was compelled to see it, the selfish teenager in me who had hoarded Velvet Goldmine, [SAFE], and Far from Heaven would harbor some resentment. Still: not a single statue. I tweeted: “it sounds as if there were bright spots but my heart goes out to anyone who sat through hours of ricky gervais to see carol win no awards.” And I’m sure it was awful, right? I wouldn’t wish that kind of defeat on anyone. But I did feel a flicker of unease for having written it that way, as if someone had died.

Evidence of omnipresence: there’s a shot in Carol that wouldn’t have meant what it did to me without David Bowie. Of course there’s no way to know what Haynes’s career would have looked like without Velvet Goldmine, or whether he would have adapted The Price of Salt. Even in a movie widely praised, though, for its scrupulous attention to aesthetic codes associated with 1950s New York, this stands out as a direct if brief self-quotation. Against a green backdrop that stands for a private space, a face appears in tight closeup, filmed from the right side, flushed, eyes directed to the bottom of the screen. Gravity is mobilized as a special effect, turning strands of brown hair into antennae that arc down and forward, toward the sign of the beloved. Twenty-four minutes into Carol, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is writing in her notebook the name of the woman who just took her out to dinner for the first time: Carol Aird. Twenty-one minutes into Velvet Goldmine, an English teenager named Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale, is staring at a fan magazine’s photo of a kiss between two glam-rock stars, Curt Wild and Brian Slade, while he listens to Slade’s new album.

There are countless beautiful shots in Carol, but, when I first saw it, this one restaged closeup had an effect on me that was immediate and powerful, and I started to realize that the two movies belonged together as studies in initiation. In a thoughtful piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, John Thomason argues for a way of situating Carol within Haynes’s filmography that would both extend and complicate a certain Haynesian orientation toward, on the one hand, films about women which rigorously explore familiar cinematic genres from within, and, on the other, films about men that begin with such genres and then appear deliberately to abandon them. (You could encapsulate the difference in scope between Carol and Velvet Goldmine by pointing to the objects that propel their narratives and circulate among characters: one is a pair of leather gloves left in a department store, and the other is a totemic emerald pin that has passed from artist to artist since it first arrived on Earth in 1854 with Oscar Wilde, who was an alien.) There are, however, other overlaps. In Carol‘s title role, as an older woman who teaches a younger one how to be a lesbian, Cate Blanchett charges each scene with a magnetism not wholly separable from the knowledge that she played Jude Quinn, the Bob Dylan who was a proto-Bowie, in Haynes’s I’m Not There. Before becoming Therese’s lover, Carol is the subject of her photographs, taken from a distance on a snowy city street as if by a tentative paparazza. Or by a fan. It’s a fact not lost on the queer kids of the Internet that one of Carol’s first lines to Therese, in the department store, is “Do you ship?”

If Carol, then, opens by exploring the way an initiation into same-sex desire can look like fandom, Velvet Goldmine insists from the start on conveying the way fandom can feel like love. This is the subject of Caroline Siede’s warm essay on the film for The A.V. Club. Siede’s piece resonated with me, because, while David Bowie’s music was never as important to me as its refraction through Velvet Goldmine, there was a period when nothing was more important to me than that movie. And I always knew that the way I felt about Haynes’s work was the way others felt about Bowie, or even the way the film had led them to feel about him.

On my own return to Velvet Goldmine, though, I’ve been struck again by the intensity of the film’s ultimate disenchantment with its Bowie surrogate, Brian Slade—the way it positions him, in effect, as having already died, with a legacy that amounts to a grave betrayal. I’ve been trying to think about how, especially in its last half hour, the film opens up into an affective space that is in some ways strangely similar to the space many fans have been forced to navigate in the last two weeks, as they’ve grappled, in many cases for the first time, with profoundly troubling facts from Bowie’s life.

(I would summarize these facts by saying that in the 70s a world-famous Bowie seduced girls in their early to mid-teens; that one of them maintained a positive view of her experience into adulthood; and that it’s possible to respect her testimony and her agency while condemning Bowie’s actions as rape. From the attempts I’ve made to enter online exchanges about this, I expect to lose some people on that last point, which is fine, but it’s not a point I want to discuss. There was also a separate rape allegation in Philadelphia in 1987. The woman asked Bowie to take an AIDS test, and the case was dropped without an indictment, and as a committed opponent of HIV criminalization I will say that the unqualified confidence with which some feminist Bowie fans have used those facts to dismiss the whole thing as a homophobic shakedown attempt has been another disturbing feature of the last two weeks for me.)

To be clear, Velvet Goldmine does not directly address or thematize sexual exploitation or statutory assault. Related issues hover around the film’s margins, in resolutely same-sex contexts. The narrator of one early section explains that a thirteen-year-old Curt Wild was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy after being discovered “at the service of his older brother”; and the same narrator sums up a short scene in which Brian Slade, as a teenage mod, seduces a significantly younger boy whose gold watch he covets, with the sentence “Style always wins out in the end.” When the film arrives at accusing Slade the star of betraying his calling and his fans, style, in a sense, wins out here too: the betrayal is figured in aesthetic terms, charting a cultural shift from the 70s to the 80s. It is Slade’s turn away from liberatory queerness, and—after a faked assassination and a ten-year silence—his assumption of a new identity, hidden in plain sight, as the rock god Tommy Stone. (Stone draws billions of viewers through global satellite shows, serves happily as a mouthpiece for 1984’s “President Reynolds,” and generally looks like the Donald Trump of 80s stadium rock.)

So the movie dramatizes a confused and conflicted mourning, and it does so largely through the figure of Arthur Stuart, the Brian Slade fan who has grown up to become a reporter assigned to uncover Slade’s fate. What Arthur and the film mourn is a broad utopian promise. One detail that stands out to me now, though, is the role played in both Brian’s career and Arthur’s investigation by a peripheral character with little dialogue named Shannon Hazelbourne.

a mask

The top two Google results for “velvet goldmine + shannon” are threads from two separate fan forums of the mid-2000s, featuring the respective questions “What’s the deal with Shannon?” and “OK what’s the deal with that Shannon bitch?” A little further down in the Google hits is “Shannon in Wonderland,” a subtle and generous work of fan fiction, which posits Shannon as an Alice figure and so poses the same question in more sympathetic terms: “When does Alice turn to malice?”

Shannon’s role in Velvet Goldmine is clearly defined as that of a young professional, but the aptness of the Alice analogy suggests a sense in which she allows the film to represent the figure of the “baby groupie” under erasure. To the extent that the movie sketches Shannon’s story, through scenes that grow out of Arthur’s interviews with others who knew Brian, that story is also one of initiation—even one that explicitly mirrors the younger Arthur’s—though not happily. She emerges as a named character halfway through, in the middle of a montage sequence depicting Slade’s rise to international glam stardom under the tutelage of his new manager, Jerry Devine. Shannon has arrived at Bijou Records to ask about a position as “assistant clerical aide,” but it’s precisely because she has no experience in wardrobe work—because her inexperience is seen as an asset—that she’s made the new wardrobe manager, just before Devine announces that Slade will start an American tour. She’s shown playing an increasingly important though often silent role behind the scenes of Slade’s career. (At a phantasmal press conference where he recites Wildean epigrams to uproarious laughter from American reporters, Shannon is the one holding the cue cards.) Later, at a Bijou orgy, she has an experience with Jerry Devine which is depicted as, at the very least, not enjoyable; she then sees Brian and Curt together in bed, becomes distraught, and forces Brian’s wife, Mandy, to swear to her that she’ll never tell Brian about her reaction to the night’s events. As time passes and Brian approaches his staged murder through clouds of cocaine, Shannon stays by his side, her demeanor hardens, and she ends up hustling Mandy out of his room when Mandy has come to deliver papers for a divorce. This, we learn, was almost the last time Mandy saw Brian, and it’s almost the film’s last view of Shannon.

with mandy

Then she reappears—in the present of 1984, twenty-five minutes from the end of the movie—as Arthur’s investigation into Slade’s whereabouts has come to a dead end. His digital search for name-change records has gotten him nowhere. As Arthur sits in front of the computer in his apartment and Brian Eno’s voice on the soundtrack intones “You’re so perceptive / And I wonder how you knew,” his gaze gradually turns from the computer screen to the chattering TV set in the corner, and to a local station’s interview with a triumphant Tommy Stone and his loyal press assistant, mid-tour. A series of slow zooms discloses Arthur’s growing interest in the press assistant. There’s a cut to a shot of a tearful Shannon, on the morning after the orgy, and Arthur starts to put things together.

Except there’s no indication that Arthur has ever seen Shannon before. Every glimpse of her in the film up to this point has been in scenes from Slade’s story recounted to him in conversation—and, even though it’s revealed that a younger Arthur was present at some of the events described to him in 1984, he certainly wasn’t at the orgy, or privy to the view of Shannon that the audience is now asked to recall.

I would hesitate to call this a plot hole or a self-evident mistake—as some viewers have done—given the film’s constant, exhilarating movement among styles, forms, and ways of imparting narrative information. (There are moments when the proliferation of ambiguous voiceovers makes Velvet Goldmine feel less like the reworking of Citizen Kane that it ostentatiously is, and more like an impossible collaboration between Derek Jarman and Terrence Malick. Tight plausibility doesn’t mean much here.) Nevertheless, as Arthur stares at these flickering images of Shannon’s face and then Tommy’s, and as the audience is asked to regard Shannon from an angle outside Arthur’s vision, it feels like a heavy displacement. The question is not just “I wonder how he knew” but what he knows, or what we know. Something has been intuited at this moment, as if by a sinister magic—something that seems to exceed the answer to any simple query about a pop star’s name change, and to assume an eerie resonance with discussions that have taken place this month, in the wake of David Bowie’s death. The movie turns on the revelation that a utopian queer dream and a patriarchal nightmare have all along been embodied, unrecognizably, in the same person; and the fulcrum for this turn is a silent shot of a young woman in tears.

Brian Slade is Tommy Stone” is a sentence never vocalized in Velvet Goldmine, and there’s a strong implication that it will remain publicly unspoken. The main agent preventing its disclosure is Shannon, and her exact motivations are never addressed. And so, in its move to mourn what was lost with Brian Slade, the film leaves her in a position that can only encourage the question What’s the deal with Shannon? while the truth of Brian’s new identity, in the last narrative scene, becomes a hushed secret between two men. After Arthur’s boss acts under mysterious orders to quash his investigation, Arthur goes dutifully to the Stone show, lingers in his memories from ten years before, obtains at least the private satisfaction of confronting Tommy after the concert with his knowledge, and ends up at a bleak nearby bar. Alone in the back room, he finds Curt Wild. Several things pass between Arthur and Curt in the scene that follows: a rueful acknowledgment of Brian’s transformation; the pin that once belonged to Oscar Wilde himself; and the hint of a possibility that Curt, like Arthur, remembers that the two of them have met before.

(It was a tryst on a rooftop after a concert heralding the Death of Glitter, a decade ago. Curt told Arthur: “Make a wish.” The scene of this encounter, which came minutes earlier in the movie complete with an appearance from the same flying saucer that had brought Oscar Wilde to Earth, self-consciously subsumes and culminates the erotic logic of fan fiction. In presenting the seduced fan not as thirteen or fourteen and female but as seventeen or eighteen and male, and portrayed by an actor in his mid-twenties, it arguably also participates in a larger, wishful fiction about the material conditions of 70s rock fandom. Watching it for the first time when I was seventeen or eighteen, I experienced it as one of the most potently romantic film sequences I had ever seen.)

Before leaving the bar, Curt delivers a final verdict on Brian Slade and his journey: “Well, I guess in the end he got what he wanted.” What Shannon might have wanted, and whether she got it, are among the questions that hang in the air as Velvet Goldmine ends with a burst of color and another beautiful song.

January 9, 2016

Two kinds of evidence

Because The X-Files is returning this month and I’m not sure how I feel about that, I’ve been remembering how, last September, just after Kim Davis had been imprisoned in Kentucky for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Dana Scully was patrolling the Internet reminding us all to do our jobs:

scully

Which I found encouraging in some ways and dispiriting in many others. So, along with almost twenty thousand other Facebook users, I shared the picture, and this is a lightly edited version of what I wrote to go along with it:

I’ll attach a really mild X-Files spoiler warning to this? Mild, because the show only waits to confirm what’s been implicit from the start, but still I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind this image, of course. But I have reservations, and I think the implications are actually worth exploring, given that Dana Scully‘s job—the full details of which are kept secret, at first, even from her—is to debunk and discredit, in any way possible, the work of her partner at the FBI, so that he can be safely disposed of and an enormous government conspiracy can be allowed to continue. Scully‘s job is in this sense not a good one. When her bosses remind her, often in so many words, to do her job, the show tends not to elicit sympathy for her bosses.

I’m saying this not just to quibble, but because the larger narrative of The X-Files actually hinges on Dana Scully‘s status as a woman whose personal convictions lead her to refuse to carry out some part of her job, to violate direct government orders, and even to break the law—like Chelsea Manning, you could say, or Kim Davis. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t see Davis and Scully, let alone Davis and Manning, as comparable in any other way. (And, for all I know, Kim Davis probably hates Chelsea Manning as much as the Westboro Baptist Church hates Kim Davis. I don’t know how any of them feel about Dana Scully.) I just mean that, with Manning and others in mind, I get nervous around arguments that end at the rightness of the law, or with the unconditioned axiom that if you work for the U.S. government, whatever you believe, it’s best to do your job.

With respect to The X-Files, I think it’s worth stressing how often the show comes down on the opposite side of “Do your fucking job,” not just within the broad terms of the mytharc but on a case-by-case basis. I have a lot of feelings about The X-Files and goodness knows there are enough problems with that show as it is, and enough episodes that left me unsettled or disappointed or angry. But I can’t imagine that it would ever have pulled me in at all if it were a show about two young agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation who faced new reminders, week after week, that no matter what you believe you should just do your fucking job.

As for Kim Davis, I’ve been reading

Not long after I posted this, of course, Gillian Anderson tweeted her support for the meme. I respect her advocacy for marriage rights, and, moreover, the meme’s creator sells some lovely letterpress items. But I stand by what I wrote.

One reason I feel comfortable standing by it is that, as painful as this truth can be, Dana Scully isn’t real, at least not in the way Chelsea Manning or Kim Davis is real. So while the evidence of Chelsea Manning’s convictions takes the form of the brilliant essays she continues to write from prison—

—free Chelsea Manning—

—Dana Scully’s beliefs have no substance beyond the evidence for them, evidence which can take the form of a smile, a cut, or the balance between a line reading and a piece of music. I made a video about this a while ago, and there’s also an exegesis that’s been kicking around since then with nowhere to go. So both are below.

A couple of years ago, on a long train trip, I got stuck inside an early sequence from The X-Files the way I sometimes get stuck inside a song, playing it over and over. Later I made a fan video that extended the sequence, and then I realized that part of what the video had dramatized was my own uncertainty about my attachment to The X-Files. There are many, many TV shows I’ve never seen, but for a long time I would have described The X-Files as my favorite—and yet I may never exactly have watched it for the mytharc, or for the monsters of the week, or for the neoliberal-era paranoia or the shipping or for narrative elements at all (as enjoyable as these all could be). It often seemed to have more to do with Mark Snow’s synths, the faces of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson and a host of sublime character actors, and the way Vancouver looked on film in the mid-90s. This is part of why I secretly prefer the second movie to the first, even if the aura was half gone. It was filmed back in Vancouver and it has a plot that’s there to be ignored for Vancouver. (Also Amanda Peet is underrated.) The new episodes will have Mulder, Scully, Vancouver and Mark Snow, but I don’t think I’m too worried about the possibility of disappointment, because the core of the show for me was over by season five, and so I’ll still know to expect a different kind of thing. Which is not to say that there weren’t good episodes after season five, or that there weren’t also really fucked-up episodes throughout the whole run.

This sequence comes about halfway through “Deep Throat,” the first episode after the pilot, and it’s bookended by images of Mulder in motion. It ends with the archetypal and fictively benign image of two federal agents approaching the front door of a suburban home—in this case with the camera trained at first on Scully, as she exits a car and starts up the sidewalk, only to be overtaken by Mulder, who cuts into the frame from the right and then takes the camera’s gaze with him. (Gillian Anderson would reveal in later interviews that there was a formalized rule, for the first few years of the series, that Mulder should approach houses first, with Scully following.)

mulder

And the sequence starts, too, with Mulder guiding the camera from right to left. A lateral tracking shot follows him along the driver’s side of a car after he says goodbye to two stoner kids who have seemed to serve both as Scully and Mulder’s grunge doubles and as stand-ins for an imagined audience. (The agents have just bought the kids hamburgers and listened to them talk about lights they’ve been watching in the sky over an airbase, under the influence. Intoxication will recur as a motif in dialogue throughout the sequence.) As Mulder walks toward the driver’s seat, the sounds of birdsong and a passing jet become nearly indistinguishable—hybrid frequencies. He enters the car and there’s a cut to Scully’s perspective from the passenger’s seat that coincides with the little crunching noise of Mulder putting a cassette into the tape deck. The scene enters a shot-reverse-shot pattern as the dialogue kicks off with a joke about music as evidence: the kids have given Mulder a tape, and, later, tapes will matter a lot, but this one turns out to be glam metal. It’s unclear, in fact, why they gave it to him. Scully switches it off.

And then Mulder shows her some photos that he actually believes to be evidence, and the cue by Mark Snow that begins at the moment Scully breaks into a smile at his theory is one of my favorite pieces of music. I’m always torn between hearing it as music and reading it evidentially. Mulder was the one to turn on the rock tape and Scully was the one to stop it, and then her smile at the absurdity of what Mulder is saying marks the transition from diegetic into non-diegetic sound. The music starts to feel like a protraction of or an elaboration upon her smile, as the smile ends and the sound lingers. Three slowly shifting synth chords attend her skepticism with a cut to the pictures as studies them: “Mulder, come on! You’ve got two blurry photos—one of them taken almost fifty years ago, and another one you purchased today in a roadside diner. You’re going out on a pretty big limb.”

scully

The music underneath these lines helps to define the space the show will occupy in the way it allows the rest of the exchange in the car to play out as a duet between paranoid faith and positivist doubt; but what always strikes me is the way it simultaneously steers the scene away from a rigid mapping of skepticism onto Scully and faith onto Mulder. A key point here is that, if the scene were from two or three seasons later, I think this dialogue would be played for laughs, and so it would be scored very differently, if at all. By that time the relationship between Scully and Mulder would have hardened somewhat into the familiar mold where, as Sianne Ngai says in her essay on feminism and paranoia, not only is Mulder always more paranoid, “he is always right.” (“For the feminist critic,” Ngai goes on to say, “it remains important to note how intimately tied conspiracy theory appears to be to the hermeneutic quests of male agent-intellectuals.”) But for now, and for these lines of Scully’s about a diner and a limb, the music is almost shockingly serious. I want to describe it as the sound of wanting to believe, in a way that points toward how the show at its best is centered around Scully’s subjectivity rather than Mulder’s. Because clearly Mulder believes already. Scully smiled once before in this scene, after she’d asked, “You believe it all, don’t you?” and he’d replied, “Why wouldn’t I?” (As if to underline Fox’s doggedness, there was distant barking.) A show focused exclusively on “Why wouldn’t I?” isn’t going far. It’s Scully who wants to believe, because she already trusts Mulder but also has doubts, and here it’s her ambivalence that seems to push the music and the rest of the scene forward. Something like this is conveyed visually in the next part of the sequence, when the music temporarily takes over and a single shot shows Mulder sitting in a motel room entranced by his photos, as if unable to move beyond mere belief, while, outside, Scully runs around and gets things done.

Maybe there’s already a hint of show’s eventual failure to avoid privileging Mulder’s heroic paranoia in the way the shot is filmed from inside the motel room, so that Scully’s activity appears from over his shoulder. And, again, the way I actually experience The X-Files is maybe not so different from the way Mulder gets locked inside those pictures, except I’m looking for less important things. I’ve spent a lot of time watching this scene—partly just because I can’t find a recording of the music by itself—and I always want it to go on for longer. Hence my video, assembled with the most basic editing tools in iMovie. First it allows the dialogue and the action to run their course (with a sadly cropped image, for YouTube, but it’s better than nothing), and then it just backs up to sit with notes, faces and textures for a while. When I made it I wasn’t thinking about much more than those textures. Because it’s a fan video with Mulder and Scully, though, I think it also inevitably lends itself to a mode of interpretation in which the music serves as evidence of something more tangible and straightforward, namely the bond between them. Which is also not wrong.

 

April 2, 2013

Ghosts are real: Nevada

I’m a little hesitant to write too much about Imogen Binnie’s debut novel Nevada, published this month by the wonderful transgender-focused Topside Press—partly because the experience of reading an advance copy was an unusually charged and emotionally complex one for me, which I’m still processing and which I’m still not sure how to write about, two months later; but also because Nic Bravo wrote a beautiful review on Tumblr which you should probably read first, and, furthermore, Stephen Ira has already called dibs on writing the definitive critical analysis, and who am I to try anything that would approach violating a double-doggy pact with Stephen Ira?

But I wanted to add one more voice to the chorus (and I’m sure it will only continue to grow) heralding Nevada as a gorgeous, hilarious, important, and, under the right conditions, very possibly lifesaving book. Binnie’s writing has mattered a lot to me since I first encountered it in one of the inaugural articles for PrettyQueer, which was a dialogue between her and the site’s managing editor, the great Red Durkin, on the existence or nonexistence of ghosts. In that piece Imogen lobbies strongly and convincingly on ghosts’ behalf, because they’re great, and because who are we to determine, really, what’s real and what isn’t?—“Fuck a scarcity paradigm.” And Nevada is not only a novel suffused with the fierce generosity of “fuck a scarcity paradigm”—it’s not only a radical and empathetic critique of the psychological and emotional and gender scarcity paradigms embedded in American culture. I think it’s also, in its own similarly funny but serious way, a further treatise on different forms of ghostliness. It may not be irrelevant that Star City, Nevada (the setting for the story’s second half, where Binnie’s protagonist Maria Griffiths, fleeing a personal crisis in New York, enters the life of a young person named James) is, outside the pages of the novel, a ghost town. Beyond Star City, though, I think Nevada as a whole finds new and unique ways of being attuned to hauntedness, to the affective reality of being haunted, whether by past lives and selves, romantic attachments, normativities, fantasies, gambles taken or untaken, or necessary coping mechanisms that have hardened into obstacles to life.

Which is why, for whatever it’s worth, I would recommend Nevada to anyone interested in literary explorations of cruel optimism, as well as to anyone of trans or queer experience, or anyone sympathetic to such experience, or maybe even anyone who, as Maria might put it, has ever felt weird, because “who doesn’t feel weird?” I’m hoping everyone reads it, I think, is what I’m saying. It’s available through the Topside Press online store and in bookstores starting right about now.

December 30, 2011

Worlds and their subjects supposed to feel, or not

This post isn’t really about Christopher Hitchens either, or not entirely. On the recent wave of encomia to Hitchens and their necessary erasures—and the felt need to dissent from a kind of miniature Christmas effect in reverse, by saying, The death of an Iraqi does not mean less than the death of a man who defended, encouraged and discursively enabled a war that killed Iraqis in the hundreds of thousands—I don’t have anything to add to Anthony Alessandrini in Jadaliyya, or Glenn Greenwald and Aaron Bady in Salon, or, more briefly, a few tweets by @abubanda. (See also: Dani Nayyar on Christmas and being shot in Baghdad.) But I was thinking about these sentences from a post by Corey Robin, quoted by Alessandrini, titled “Yes, But”:

[T]hat people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the [Iraq] war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

My own “yes, but”: while I agree with most of this, honestly, I’m interested in denying some of the other virtues, or in attending to other reflections of “the culture he helped create” that are disturbing. After a few conversations with people who wanted to defend the legacy, I was trying to figure out how I’d feel even if it were possible to block out imperial war in just the way Robin calls into question (and which so many writers seem to think it is anyway): if, say, we were trying to talk abstractly about a public intellectual who was a former Marxist and a prominent atheist. More specifically, the kind of atheist who commits all energies toward a fight against religious faith that’s seen as the essential fight, because religious faith, as such, is the essential enemy. And so I was remembering some other thoughts I’d had about The Invention of Lying, a movie by one of Hitchens’s most vocal pop-cultural disciples, Ricky Gervais … which I hated maybe as much as any movie I’ve ever seen, but which I think is arguably a useful text insofar as it stages a kind of central misprision or denial at the heart of “New Atheism.”

I saw the movie more than a year ago, and I’m not going to watch the whole thing again, so my memory of it isn’t perfect. I also haven’t gotten very far looking online for the symptomatic readings that other people must have written, because most of the Google results for [“the invention of lying” + “capitalism”] only reflect that Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story was released in the same year, 2009. But what it comes down to for me is that The Invention of Lying—which, importantly, wants to be seen not just as a minor comedy but as a comedy of radical ideas—could have been called Existing Social Relations: An Apologia. Gervais plays an American citizen in an alternate world where no one lies or tells stories, where human beings “haven’t evolved” the ability to speak anything other than “the truth”—a world which is, perversely, identical to the world we know, except that on the level of day-to-day interpersonal interaction we’re meaner to each other. Gervais’s character has money trouble, because capital exists, and, early in the film, he’s talking to a bank teller and the magic moment arrives: he’s bowled over by the realization that he can tell her (and gender is not irrelevant) that there’s more in his bank account than there actually is, and that she’ll believe him, because she’ll believe anything. Suddenly the scene feels haunted by the ghost of a more subversive movie it could have come from, one that might have been written by David Graeber: the foundational lie is patriarchal (a man lies to a woman) and it is also the creation of credit; it is (by extension) debt; it is money.

At which point the movie stops thinking about money, and moves on to “comedic” scenes like one in which the newly powerful Gervais lies to another woman who can’t process lies, so as to have sex with her, and nearly does that. I remember the movie’s trailer stopping at the suggestion that he had; which would have been rape. (The movie itself celebrates him for relinquishing his power over her. In these scenes, Gervais’s conception of “the (man’s) lie” is like a perfected version of Hitchens’s famous conception of “the (man’s) joke,” the joke that the ugly but funny man tells the unfunny but beautiful woman in order to produce a state of eroticized helplessness. Not only do I think most women, non-binary folks, and men are actually funnier than Christopher Hitchens—his paeans to the “involuntary […] mirth, “shocked surprise,” and “sweet surrender of female laughter” unsettle me deeply.) Finally, after those scenes, I remember the movie shifting into a second and third act in which, as you may know even if you haven’t seen it, Gervais the liar accidentally invents religion, a “man in the sky.” The satirical target becomes the pathetic childish gullibility of anyone who believes in God. (Don’t they know better?)

And this move out of the bank and into the church—this submission to an inchoately grasped capitalist realism, so that the task becomes, not radically restructuring the world on material grounds, but rather “liberating” the world solely by getting it to stop believing in the immaterial—this move which is crucially underlain by effectively unquestioned, coercively maintained white male privilege and domination of people who are not white men—maybe I’m being irresponsible, but this feels to me like a rough but adequate sketch, if not of Christopher Hitchens’s career, then certainly of the New Atheist program of which he was one of the most visible faces.

 

Having said that, I want to talk about the grimaces.

The arrogance of Gervaisian atheism in The Invention of Lying is also what allows the movie to achieve some poignant moments in spite of itself. After I saw it with friends, one of the things we bonded in annoyance over was the boring inattention to any possible distinction between “unable to tell a lie” and “unable to stop yourself from blurting out rude shit, unprompted.” But it’s not only that: in this movie people say whatever’s on their minds, and Ricky Gervais alone, because he’s (explicitly) the future inventor of lying and (implicitly) the atheist who’s smarter and more sensitive than everyone else, is hurt by it. The people he runs into tell him that they think he’s ugly, stupid, incompetent, whatever; and, instead of reacting the way someone would react who had been raised in a world where everyone said this to everyone else all the time, he responds exactly as Ricky Gervais would respond. Even before he invents lying, we look at his face and see that he knows what lying is, because it’s what he wants from sociality. And I was reminded of this by a bad video that Grant shared on Facebook a while ago—another unfunny comedy and another failure to found an alternate reality, in this case “a world of true equality between men and women.”

[“A Feminist’s Dream Date,” from YouTube. Transcript coming soon.]

Again: beyond wanting to show one boy relating to one girl in the spirit of “true equality,” this video wants to be a document from a world of “true equality”; and it wants to convince us that such a world is undesirable. (One of the “related videos” on YouTube, when I watched it, was a clip titled “Christopher Hitchens versus Feminism,” in which Hitchens tells a stunned female TV host, “They’re called the gentler sex for a reason […] I’m here to take care of them.” Of course Hitchens insultingly misread Judith Butler in the New York Times, and presented his misreading as a critique. Of course he did.) But what this video does instead, exquisitely, is to show the kernel of malignant meaninglessness in antifeminist “chivalry.” It shows us the kind of privileged American white guy who hates feminism because he believes in chivalry (which depends on inequality); and all it can think to do is subtract chivalry from the equation, revealing that, without chivalry, the guy will treat the girl he’s dating, not as a friend, a comrade, or someone who deserves a bite of popcorn or the most basic courtesy, but rather as an effectively nonhuman object in which he has no interest. And—again—what makes the video so interesting isn’t just that he treats her this way; it’s that she, too, breaks the rules the video thinks it’s following, by knowing it, and flinching in ways that bespeak expecting something else.

Like The Invention of Lying, this is an aspiring picture of a parallel world whose laziness is betrayed by winces, glimpses of a kind of lived affective archive that could only have been accumulated in this world. Not coincidentally a world where men like Christopher Hitchens and Ricky Gervais will defend to the death their right to offend you. I’m not sure if it would be all too precise, or not precise enough, to say that these characters who wince are like Sara Ahmed’s affect aliens, “unseated by the table of happiness”—they’re more like affect ambassadors, whose half-intended role is to show us the strangeness of a new world by acting, impossibly, as our surrogates in it. And, as much as I dislike and distrust the texts they come from, in some way I welcome these figures. Heading into a new year, inside a moment that at least seems to accommodate more and more thinking in public about the new worlds that people might actually want to inhabit, I think the fact that so many of us actually are ambassadors like this—inevitably bearing the imprints or scars of the world we want to see left behind—is worth keeping in mind.

November 14, 2011

Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left

Note from 2014: This post is out of date in crucial ways, and I’m keeping it here largely as a record of the moment when it was written. I recommend reading Aura Bogado’s open letter to Chelsea Manning and keeping up with the Chelsea Manning Support Network. Free Chelsea.

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