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.

November 16, 2014

The watch: some notes on recent film

“Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review,” suggested Jamelle Bouie, before anything else, in a piece for Slate in September titled “A Few Helpful Rules for Reviewing Books About Slavery.” He was responding, of course, to The Economist‘s soon-infamous defense of slavery in the form of a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. The movie still in question no longer appears next to the withdrawn article, which The Economist has kept online “in the interests of transparency,” but it’s an image of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. It was originally captioned with the words “Patsey was certainly a valuable property,” and positioned just to the right of the review’s opening paragraph—a paragraph that begins, with no introduction, by reproducing the text of a mid-nineteenth-century newspaper ad quoted in Baptist’s book: “FOR sale: a coloured girl, of very superior qualifications.” The Economist‘s anonymous reviewer goes on to explain that “such accounts […] punctuate Edward Baptist’s grim history of the business of slavery.” The ascription of grimness to Baptist’s history, and not to “the business,” is already a sign of the direction the review will go in. Not contesting Baptist’s arguments so much as slickly ignoring them, it will come to focus on a claim that increased cotton production between 1800 and 1850 can be attributed to slaveholders’ supposed “vested interest” in “better treatment”—having adapted, to accompany this claim, the image of a character whose fate, onscreen and off, contradicts the claim on every imaginable level. Even before this, though, the original combination of the grotesquely captioned photo and the unattributed slaveowner’s ad copy has had the fleeting but unmistakably uncanny effect of making The Economist‘s article feel, itself, like an advertisement.

Bouie’s article was one of many necessary responses. Others include Jeet Heer’s tweets on The Economist‘s faux-contrarian history of apologism for slavery and posts by Will B. Mackintosh, Greg Grandin, and Chris Taylor on the inseparability of that apologism from the defense of capitalism. Ta-Nehisi Coates also tweeted about his memory of a stream of similar magazine articles throughout the 90s, articles for which “no one ever apologized”—a reflection, in some ways, of the same recent social-media developments whose radical potentialities are beautifully explored by Ashon Crawley in an essay from August, “Do It For the Vine,” on the occupation of Ferguson.

And it’s the appearance of The Economist‘s review at this precise time, in the wake of initial events in Ferguson, that has been on my mind for a while, along with Bouie’s crucial first rule: Don’t use movie stills to illustrate your review of a history of slavery. I’ve been thinking about why that rule was broken, why it will surely be broken again, and the implications of those facts for navigating a contemporary film environment that continues to engage, consciously or not, with the history and continuation of American white supremacy and antiblack violence. The intimacy of the connection between contemporary discussions of, respectively, America’s cinematic history and its racist legacy is suggested by the way The Economist‘s article—even while implicitly allowing a cinematic image to stand in for history—advances, almost word for word, the same evaluative claim about Baptist’s work as history that conservative American critics tended to make about 12 Years a Slave itself as cinema. (“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave,” wrote James Bowman in the American Spectator, “as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that [Steve] McQueen does not want us to hear about it. This […] surely means that his view of the history of the American South is as partial and one-sided as that of the hated Gone With the Wind.” Like The Economist‘s, these are sentences to which it’s hard to know how to respond. One detail I would highlight, though, is the conflation of seeing with hearing about: Bowman’s cherished fantasy of an apolitical film about slavery—the basis of his whole non-review—can’t be sustained even on its own terms, thanks to his evident disinclination to approach 12 Years a Slave as a film about Solomon Northup at all.)

Movies are, it’s true, usually not works of history. Hence the acuity of the need to read them historically. What joins together for me an apparently disparate group of movies I’ve seen in the last three years is a feeling that they demand to be seen as documents of the same American moment for which “Ferguson” might have become one shorthand. I would hesitate to make too strong a periodizing claim, partly because I’ve also been spending time with Frank Wilderson’s Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonismswhich is, among many other things, a reminder that one name for a cinema persistently structured by logics and optics of antiblackness simply is and always has been American cinema. Still, the purpose of this post is to gather together some thoughts (other viewers’ and my own, with suggestions for further reading gratefully encouraged) about a period loosely bookended by two events: the release of The Watch, formerly titled Neighborhood Watch, in July 2012, which coincided with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the release of Let’s Be Cops in August of this year, which—as Wesley Morris observed in an essential piece for Grantland—coincided with the police murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson uprising, as well as with the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing.

One undeniable feature of this period is its relative abundance of major releases by black directors directly addressing, from various geographic and historical angles, struggles for black life and resistance in the face of white supremacy. The last two years have seen 12 Years a Slave; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station; Shola Lynch’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners; and, from across the Atlantic, Amma Assante’s Belle—a dramatization of part of the prehistory of the English legal abolition of slavery that reaches one of several narrative climaxes with a scene of a woman looking at a painting, and thus a movie that might have a lot to tell The Economist. But in this post I want to see what emerges from close attention to three other films and to some threads that connect them and lead out elsewhere: The Watch; Jeff, Who Lives at Home; and After Earth.

dotherightthing thewatch

“The narrative strategies labor like responsible citizens, razing social barriers of the ‘past’ and democratizing the personal pronoun we. The cinematic strategies labor like watch commanders, sending the spectator out on patrol.”—Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black

The closing credits of The Watch begin to the sound of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” It’s obviously not a film that could have known what was coming, or one that shows much of a desire, in general, for proximity to the political. Granted, some of the jokes in its first few minutes are at the expense of the privileged subjectivity of Ben Stiller’s hero, Evan Trautwig—a Costco manager and city councilor in Glenview, Ohio, struggling with his fertility and, as a result, with his marriage—who announces hopefully in the opening voiceover that he’s “on the market” for a black friend, and who can conceal neither his surprise nor his awkward pleasure when Jamarcus, played by Richard Ayoade, shows up to volunteer for the local patrol he’s organized after the mysterious killing of a Latino employee. (This is arguably one of the most remarkable signs of The Watch‘s pre-Zimmerman origins. The depiction of a neighborhood watch founded in order to investigate the killing of a Latino who had just become an American citizen—with a fresh tattoo to prove it—seems to reveal the movie’s assumption that the key suspicion it must allay within its audience is the suspicion that any neighborhood watchers would prejudicially target, first and foremost, residents suspected to be unrecognized as American citizens by the law.) Trautwig has advertised the patrol at a high-school football game, bribing an announcer so he can deliver a halftime speech in a scene that holds up a small-town mirror to Bane’s injunction to Gothamites to “take control of [their] city” in The Dark Knight Rises. The only volunteers before Jamarcus have been Vince Vaughn’s Bob, the paranoid and authoritarian father of a teen girl, and Jonah Hill’s Franklin, a kid with a knife who always wanted to be a cop.

White anxiety and white vigilantism are, in these early scenes, more or less satirical targets. And yet the movie’s ineluctable embeddedness within histories of racialized surveillance and violence starts to become clearer with the late revelation that Jamarcus is the only member of the team who is also a member, however friendly, of an invading alien species, and the only such alien we see in human form. The film’s position here is underscored by a certain correspondence between, on the one hand, the alteration of its title in the wake of events in Florida, and, on the other, the trajectory of George Zimmerman himself before the day he followed Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was not officially on duty as the local neighborhood watch captain that day; nor was he licensed, as that captain, to be armed; nor was he ever on duty as the policeman he, too, always wanted to be, the kind of cop whose heroic death is marked with the term that served as the title of another big movie in 2012, End of Watch. In short, it wasn’t even really in the name of any neighborhood watch that Zimmerman acted. He was simply watching. And the nature of his concern for a neighborhood meant that he was on the lookout for perceived threats not just against that neighborhood but against an entire world—just as, onscreen, Trautwig and his crew soon come to realize that Glenview is (as Bob says) “ground zero” for an inestimably larger fight. It happens to be a fight against aliens whose strength is displayed, in one sequence, by the way one of them resists the group’s chokehold (as Bob shouts “Bring him down“)—and who, in a scene emphasized in trailers released after the title change, must be shot many, many times, even as they lie prone on the ground, before they are dead.

Eventually, with one exception, they all are. Trautwig and his wife have apparently adopted a child and repaired their relationship, and Franklin has finally been accepted onto the police force, in what feels like an alternate origin story for Hill’s character in 21 Jump Street, released four months before, or a teaser for its sequel, released two years later. (Without which, as Wesley Morris speculates, Let’s Be Cops probably wouldn’t exist.) When he wanted to join the neighborhood watch, Franklin’s desire to “work through [his] emotional shit and bust some heads in the process” was an unsettling joke. His hard-won opportunity to realize this desire with a badge is one unspoken component of a happy ending.

If the violence of the second half of The Watch is shocking and obvious, it might be instructive to consider the appearance and the operation of the kinds of watching that undergird it. And not only in brash and spectacularly ill-timed comedies of policing, but also in the kinds of movies that see their purpose as something closer to the quiet documentation of the ongoing scene of everyday American life—movies like, say, a low-budget post-mumblecore comedy, with likable actors and a mellow vibe, which wants nothing more than to breeze away eighty minutes in Baton Rouge and give its audience a few reminders that everything happens for a reason.

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That’s certainly how the Duplass brothers’ Jeff, Who Lives at Home tended to be received on its limited release, three months before The Watch, in March 2012. It’s an unassuming movie that would never dream of advocating violence against anyone. It also obeys a narrative logic wholly incomprehensible without the premise that white men are licensed, by some secret law of a beneficent universe, to watch and follow people who are not white men.

The full weight of this law is revealed only at the movie’s end, but it’s most glaringly evident in the first twenty minutes. Jason Segel’s Jeff, the younger of two brothers and an unemployed thirty-year-old stoner, is introduced to the audience on the couch in his mom’s basement as he records a blissed-out monologue about his conviction (largely derived from another alien-invasion movie, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs) that everything happens for a reason. You just have to follow the signs. The movie’s world immediately seems to bend to accommodate his faith: an infomercial on TV urges Jeff to “pick up that phone,” at which moment the phone rings, and a stranger on the other end asks to speak to “Kevin.” When Jeff says there’s no Kevin there, the stranger angrily insists otherwise, spells out the name—kay ay vee eye en!and hangs up. While Jeff is wondering what “Kevin” could mean, his mother, played by Susan Sarandon, calls from her office and asks him to go to the store to buy some wood glue so that he can fix a shutter that’s been broken forever. On the bus to the store, Jeff sees, seated in front of him, a young black man (played by Evan Ross) wearing a jersey that bears, sure enough, the name “KEVIN.” The man soon gets off the bus, and, after a moment’s hesitation, Jeff abandons his errand to do the same. He stalks the man through a convenience store, as mock-ominous music plays on the soundtrack. Eventually he ends up hovering at the edge of a basketball court where the man has joined his friends for a game. When one of the other players is hurt, Jeff is invited to play, and then to go off and smoke some pot with the young man, whose name, it turns out, is Kevin after all. After a drag on a shared joint, Jeff is in the middle of praising the quality of the pot when—with the effect of a jump scare, a sudden intrusion into the space of the scene—two darker-skinned black men attack him from behind, beat him to the ground, and take his wallet, while Kevin looks on. “Sorry, Jeff,” Kevin says, and disappears from the movie, having fulfilled his twofold function: he has been briefly held in the film’s gaze as, first, a suitable target for the innocent and well-meaning Jeff to follow across town in his pursuit of signs, and, second, the bearer of an unpredictable violence depicted as fundamentally unconnected to that earlier pursuit. (Until the moment of the assault, Jeff thinks they’re just new friends smoking together, and the audience has been encouraged to think the same.)

In its sudden shift from whimsically scored humanist comedy into unscored, “realistic” violence, this sequence comes closer than anything I know to presenting someone literally mugged by reality. Even in the most generous possible reading of the sequence—where its goal, say, is a liberally informed gesture toward a social world Jeff has no knowledge of, delivered in order to stress his privileged naïveté, his unpreparedness for the cruelty of everyday life—the only realization of that aim the film can imagine is a blunt presentation of Kevin as a deceptive embodiment of that cruelty. (Evan Ross brings as much to the role as anyone could, but it’s precisely his affable charisma that the scene betrays.) And yet the movie finds a way to fold this “reality” back into a providential narrative, without ever returning to Kevin or his friends, and over the course of the next hour Jeff’s stoned-innocent approach to the world will be emphatically confirmed as the right one anyway.

That’s what really fascinates me about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I think: that after Jeff is “beaten up by Kevin” (which is how he describes the event a few minutes later, though Kevin himself didn’t touch him), the movie obliges Jeff in the continuation of his quest for a Kevin-event. It ultimately allows him to find, indeed, another Kevin—one who looks very different, who happens to have a last name, and who redeems, in a single stroke, Jeff’s day-long search for “a perfect moment,” his previously aimless life, and, by implication, our experience as moviegoers. After the mugging, Jeff wanders across town and runs into his older and seemingly better-adjusted brother, Pat, played by Ed Helms. But Pat has his own problems: his marriage is collapsing, and he’s just bought, against his wife Linda’s express wishes, a new Porsche that she knows they can’t afford. Linda, played by Judy Greer, is unhappy about it. (Later it becomes clear just how cogent her analysis of the situation is, in a scene Greer imbues with a startling intensity: she doesn’t love Pat anymore, and, as she tells him, she’s glad they haven’t yet bought a house or had any kids, because that will make it easier to end the relationship. But the movie is not going to let this happen.) Pat also has reasons to suspect she’s having an affair, and so he enlists the help of a reluctant Jeff in a creepy pursuit of Linda across the city. There’s an interlude in a cemetery, where the two brothers’ bickering is briefly interrupted by the revelation that they’ve both been having the same dream about their father, who died in 1995. Events unfold from here so that the paths of all the major characters converge in the same traffic jam, on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, at which point Jeff realizes that another car has gone off the bridge; jumps into the water; saves two young white girls and then, with more difficulty, their father; and is saved, in turn, by Pat. After these dramatic developments, Jeff and Pat reconcile; Pat and Linda are implied to be back on track (perhaps with a child in the future); and Jeff is back on the couch, watching a news report that teases upcoming coverage of “the rescue tale of local councilman Kevin Landry.”

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Jeff’s decision to trust his instincts and follow that first Kevin on the bus, in short, began a series of events with a fantastically overdetermined resolution: the preservation of a marriage, the saving of three lives, and, as a function of the particular lives saved, a tangible civic benefit. A councilman lives to adjudicate another day. Satisfied, Jeff fixes the shutter. The camera’s shutter closes and the movie is over.

So it turns out that Jeff, Who Lives at Home and The Watch aren’t as far apart as they might look, with disparities in genre, tone, and critical reception starting to feel more like the elements of a good-cop/bad-cop dialectic—or, you could say, like the superficial fraternal differences between two movies that are having the same dream. Both are effectively comedies of remarriage in which the health of a white heterosexual couple’s relationship is tied to the health of their city, metonymized in the figure of a white city councilman. In order for this conjugal-civic happiness to be restored, Councilman Evan Trautwig must pump bullets into bodies in one city, while, in another, Jeff must stoically suffer an unprovoked beating at the hands of a Kevin who, despite actually bearing the name across his body, could never have been the Kevin he was looking for. To one viewer posting on an IMDB forum, this Kevin stands in for an urgently underestimated threat to civil society itself, a “racist” epidemic of young black men robbing “white guys or couples” in attacks that are never reported nationally, only locally. The viewer is upset by the injustice; still, he enjoyed the movie.

One other impassioned IMDB comment is worth noting: “This movie,” says a different forum member, “changed my stance on homosexuality.” This is the plot strand I haven’t mentioned (and in fact its separability from the main plot was a sticking point for other viewers), but the film’s vision of liberal community does have room for a tentatively established interracial queer couple. Jeff’s widowed mother Sharon has an online “secret admirer” at the office, gradually revealed to be Carol, the friendly coworker she’s been keeping apprised of the mysterious admiring messages all along, played by Rae Dawn Chong. The movie ends with Sharon maintaining on some level that she doesn’t identify as gay, while keeping the option of a relationship with Carol very much open, because, as Carol has said, they get each other. These scenes are sensitively played by Chong and Sarandon, and I don’t want to discount the remarkable effect they clearly had on one viewer, and maybe on others. I would just say that another way of getting at what makes Jeff, Who Lives At Home so interesting to me—what really makes it, I think, something like a defining movie of its era—is the way it seems to invite and to reward the reading practices of both of these IMDB comments simultaneously. The film is a careful shaping of an ostensible American everyday into a perfect moment, where “perfection” means the safe continuation of existing conditions and “the everyday” encompasses queer couple formation and contextless black-on-white violence. Watching Sharon and Carol find happiness with each other, it’s easy to see Jeff, Who Lives at Home as a document of a year when dramatic advances in same-sex marriage movements were taken to show the continued acceptance of LGBT people into American life. Focusing on the larger narrative that redeems Pat and Linda’s marriage, by way of Jeff’s progress through a raced teleology of Kevins, I think of Dan Savage—surely one of the most prominent champions of marriage in contemporary America—whose tendency to cast black citizens as ontological obstacles to the march of “marriage equality” garnered him appreciative citations in the fantasy fiction of (once again) The American Spectator. Here Trayvon Martin’s “homophobia” serves as an explanation for his fear of the man who was stalking him, and consequently as an excuse for his own death.

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“’I was like, “No, Quentin, please, I need to kill the bad guy!”‘ Smith said, spoiling the film.”—The Huffington Post

ghosting, noun. the appearance of a ghost or secondary image on a television or other display screen”—Compact Oxford English Dictionary

The prominence of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs as a motivating factor in Jeff’s odyssey through the everyday makes it all the more striking to find, in the Shyamalan film released the following year, a kind of sustained aesthetic resistance against the system of signs on which movies like Jeff, Who Lives at Home rely. Not that this did After Earth any critical favors. It’s undeniably a Shyamalan movie—in ways that Ben’s great post from last year investigates—though popular understanding of its authorship certainly tilted more than usual toward its star and coproducer. It was an M. Night Shyamalan movie but a Will Smith event, and, as such, it was met with roughly the same widespread derision and hostility as Smith’s decision not to play the role of a formerly enslaved bounty hunter in a movie that wouldn’t let that character kill the main antagonist himself. Smith had made it very clear that he’d declined the offer of Django Unchained not just because he could afford to, but because he’d felt—like the Academy, as it turned out—that the title character wasn’t the most significant one. In early 2013, everyone seemed to think this was evidence of hilarious vanity. (Around the same time, Smith was profiled, along with his son and After Earth costar Jaden, in a piece for New York that gave the impression of having been calculated to make him appear as out of sync with the world as possible; and he co-produced Shola Lynch’s documentary on Angela Davis.) So it was partly for this reason that a gleeful sense of karmic justice was palpable in the air when After Earth, the film Will Smith had turned down Quentin Tarantino himself in order to make, debuted to reviews like Joe Morgenstern’s in The Wall Street Journal, asking if it was the worst movie ever made.

The intensity of so many of the attacks on After Earth made every thoughtful response to the movie feel like a gift: Armond White’s review for CityArts, or Ben’s post, or Olivia Cole’s, or—one of the best things I read online in 2013—Nicholas Ochiel’s. And I don’t have much to add to these readings beyond a few more intertextual considerations, a few attempts to think through how the landscape the film is situated in makes it resonate all the more powerfully.

On the surface, the film’s premise and poetics might bring to mind an Afrofuturist echo of Fanon’s conviction, repeatedly cited by Frank Wilderson in Red, White & Black, that the end of white supremacy must mean nothing less than “the end of the world.” In its uncompromising interrogation of the antiblackness that saturates “the epistemic air we breathe,” and in its insistence on both the necessity and the incomprehensibility of the end of such a world, Wilderson’s book could almost have been titled After Earth itself. “To say we must be free of air,” as he writes near the conclusion, “while admitting to knowledge of no other source of breath, is what I have tried to do here.” From this perspective, the sight of Jaden Smith as Kitai Raige reaching for the “air-filtration inhalers” that will allow his temporary survival on an Earth with insufficient oxygen points toward a way of reading the dangers of this anti-human atmosphere (with White, Cole, and Ochiel) such that they come to resemble dangers much closer to home. The full setup clarifies the nature of this cinematic “end of the world,” and reveals a subversion of the decisive temporality promised by the title. Kitai has crash-landed on the planet with his father, General Cypher Raige, a thousand years after humans have been forced to abandon it. The Raiges’ ship is dead and there’s nowhere else to go. On the same ship was a captive member of the Ursa species, fierce creatures from the new homeworld, capable of tracking humans by chemically detecting their fear. (It’s General Raige who has led humans in the fight against the Ursa, but one of them, years ago, killed Kitai’s sister.) The captive Ursa has escaped; the general’s legs are broken; the other half of the ship is miles away. Kitai must elude unfamiliar predators, stay warm, conserve his limited oxygen supply, find the ship’s tail, and activate its beacon to send a distress signal into space, or—the line recurs—”we are going to die.” So he begins to make his way across the harsh landscape, digitally tracked by his father from the crash site, and wearing a skintight suit of “smart fabric” that senses threats, its darkness marking him out for danger: “My suit’s turned black. I like it but I think it’s something bad.”

Even this brief sketch of the action of After Earth suggests its radical difference from other movies of its period. It is a kind of apocalyptic mirror image of the settler-colonial kitsch of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, in which a white boy and girl in 1965 New England find romantic bliss against a pristinely empty natural backdrop that could only have been created for them, with Hank Williams on the soundtrack. (The confidence of a white at-homeness in the world extends into the name of one of Moonrise Kingdom‘s production companies, Steven Rales’s “Indian Paintbrush,” which also helped finance Jeff, Who Lives at Home.) It’s also galaxies away from the two other big post-Earth releases of last year, Oblivion and Elysium—or, more recently, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—where, more conventionally, the Earth itself is what’s at stake, to be rescued or redeemed through heroic individuality. (Ben calls this “a whiteness of genre.” Hollywood’s inability to visualize humanity’s salvation without whiteness at the center has also resulted in a recent wave of egregiously white Biblical epics. What I tried to explore in the paragraphs above, triangulating from The Watch and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is how the sense of a world at stake can make itself felt as well in white American conceptions of the everyday. As for sci-fi, though, maybe it should be noted that Tom Cruise’s Oblivion—which, like After Earth, was mocked as a Scientologist vanity project, though with less vitriol—makes “vanity” feel like an odd verdict, too, with the news that Earth was destroyed by nothing other than an army of clones who all thought they were Tom Cruise.) And, finally, After Earth stands in sharp relief against Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, another speculative fantasy that grounds its story of a child passing through ruined earthly environments, and toward a climactic confrontation with unearthly creatures, in the child’s relationship with a critically compromised father.

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The difference here isn’t just between the near-unanimous critical praise for one film and the near-unanimous dismissal of another. After seeing After Earth for the first time (and after reading so many reviews that seemed to locate a critique of Jaden Smith’s acting solely in a recognition of how much of the movie he spends looking terrified), I kept returning to a pair of brilliant posts from Social Text, by Christina Sharpe and Jayna Brown respectively, on the exuberance of the critical consensus around Beasts. And also on the movie’s “romance of precarity”—or how its effective reception as an inspiring document among largely white audiences depended on the blackness of its desperately poor protagonists “mak[ing] their precarity unreadable as precarity.” Responding to an Occupy-themed blog post by Nicholas Mirzoeff that had celebrated six-year-old Hushpuppy as a heroine whose “wilding” allowed viewers “a means to visualize climate resistance,” Sharpe is devastating:

How does a little black girl child orphaned and abandoned become a vision for climate resistance for so many people who watched the film? It is precisely this kind of misprision, this not feeling or seeing, that subtends an event like the death of Glenda Moore’s sons during Hurricane Sandy. Riffing on Invisible Man, optic white does not see your plight.

The film ends with Hushpuppy, six years old, motherless, fatherless, kinless, leading a group of black and white children and adults through a causeway after pushing her father’s corpse out to sea. She is caretaker, man, boy, girl, woman all within herself; she is part of the community but complete unto herself. Abandoned to precarious life.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, in this analysis, is unable to acknowledge or comprehend the burden it needs Hushpuppy to bear. It depicts an uninhabitable environment and at the same time encourages its audience to view Hushpuppy and her father as at home in it. In contrast, the specificity of After Earth’s sci-fi scenario allows it to go out of its way, from the opening shot, both to show the beauty of a digitally realized, wildly post-human planet, and to insist that this Earth is not where Kitai wants to be, or should be. His suffering is not in the service of saving it, because he is not The One, because no one is. There’s no Wall-Evian fantasy of repopulation here, no trace of the redemptive turn embedded in Oblivion‘s tagline: ”Earth is a memory / Worth fighting for.” Instead, Earth is a nightmare to be woken from (with repeated scenes of characters urging Kitai to wake up); in terms of structure and affect, everything is pared down; and the boy at the center is “a vision of climate resistance” only insofar as the experience of the film is that of watching him resist a climate.

In short, this is not a pretense of representing the social. As Nicholas Ochiel’s post in particular indicates so sharply, it may be more like a pretense of not representing it. And Ochiel’s reading of Kitai’s experience through the lens of the truth that “it has always been open season on black folk in America” enables, I think, a decisive response to one of the most popular and most tedious objections to After Earth on “scientific” grounds, voiced across the Internet even before the movie’s release: namely that its suggestion of a kind of malevolent evolutionary agency, articulated in Cypher’s warning to his son that “everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans,” reveals the movie’s ignorance of the laws of evolution. Now, under any circumstances, this objection would represent a notable failure to approach a work of art on its own terms. When Haley Joel Osment whispered “I see dead people” in trailers for The Sixth Sense, the utterance wasn’t widely received as evidence that “M. Night Shyamalan has no idea how death works.” But what the complaint misses here, crucially, is the very deliberate construction of a libidinal ecology—one whose surprising and willful distance from any coherent message about either evolution, or, as in Shyamalan’s The Happening, climate change, is indicated by its supplementation with a monster that is literally a fear machine, hanging bodies from trees. This ecology is not a happening but a structure, comparable to the libidinal economy of antiblackness whose irreducibility to the political economy of capitalism Wilderson is always at pains to emphasize. (In this sense, the notion that After Earth’s environment is more hostile than it has to be simply because the film “doesn’t understand the laws of evolution” is analogous to The Economist’s claim, against Edward Baptist, that slaveholders must have learned to practice “better treatment” because to do otherwise would have gone against the laws of the market. And I would say that one picture of an environment constantly evolving toward violence against a particular kind of body, even if direct opportunities for that violence remain temporarily absent, can be found in The Watch.) What the movie commits to putting on the screen, above all, is a world weaponized against a black teenager’s survival.

Following Ochiel’s and Ben’s readings, I would stress that it’s in this context that After Earth‘s study of fear needs to be understood. General Raige learned to defeat Ursas by “ghosting,” purging his body of any trace of terror. Halfway through the movie, in a monologue filmed largely in one medium shot, he gives his son an account of the events that led to his first learning to ghost, arriving at a formulation that was shortened and emblazoned on posters everywhere: “DANGER IS REAL / FEAR IS A CHOICE.” Armond White recognized this as “street hardness.” Reactions more commonly tended to be divided between, on the one hand, an assumption that any discourse of fear-management was necessarily Scientology, and, on the other, a dismissal of this assumption which also stripped the movie of its particularity altogether. “Saying that danger is real but fear is not is run-of-the-mill ‘brave warrior’ stuff,” claimed a Scientology scholar, in a Gawker article titled After Earth is Just a Shitty Movie, Not Scientology Propaganda.” And, divorced from its context, of course Cypher’s dictum is run-of-the-mill. But it’s also the thesis of a movie that is not quite After Earth itself, which holds more space for ambivalence about fear and about choices than its promotional campaigns. Ghosting, the technique that allows Cypher and then Kitai to survive, is just that—a survival technique: not an easily generalizable rule for managing subjectivity but a last-ditch affective gambit, undertaken by desperate people in order to face what was intended to destroy them. That it takes a psychological toll is obvious, if not from Cypher Raige’s name, then from Will Smith’s every word and gesture in a boldly uncharacteristic performance that so many viewers found baffling. In the closing scene, when the two are reunited, a near-dead Cypher’s rigid salute to his son collapses into an embrace, and into agreement with Kitai’s statement that he “want[s] to work with Mom” now, a scientist. Having had to become fearless is not, in this film, an enviable burden, and finally what matters is not that Kitai has become fearless but that he’s managed to stay alive. He’s managed it partly thanks to his father’s transmissible gift of ghosting; partly thanks to the unexpected maternal care of an earthly creature whose offspring had been killed; and partly thanks to a blessing and a warning received in a vision of his sister—which, further complicating the task of interpreting Cypher’s gift, might make After Earth the first Shyamalan movie since The Sixth Sense to feature an actual ghost.

In this vision of Earth, it’s a community born of ghostly attachments that enables continued life. (And even after the final defeat of the monster that most spectacularly threatened life, the ecosystem still has to be abandoned.) This, then, is not a Shyamalan movie without a twist: the twist is survival, in spite of everything, a survival that is alone worth the telling.

Against a white everyday that continues to sustain itself through criminalizing and policing black life, resistance in Ferguson and elsewhere is the necessary dream of an Earth after this Earth.

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.

March 8, 2011

Tony Hoagland is Terry Zwigoff’s Enid Coleslaw

For a little while—and probably not for too much longer—I’ve been staying again in Hyde Park, where I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and last week I was lucky enough to hear Claudia Rankine perform and discuss, among other things, a piece you can find on her website, which I’d urge you to read if you haven’t already.  It’s a talk she gave a month ago at an AWP panel, articulating her reaction to Tony Hoagland’s widely praised 2003 poem “The Change” and its depiction of a tennis match between a white woman and “that big black girl from Alabama, / cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite,” watched on TV by a speaker who, like Hoagland, is white and male, and who confesses that he “couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.”  (And so on.)  Hoagland replied to Rankine’s initial remarks with a letter which she also read, both at AWP and in Chicago last week, and which you can also read on her site—in which he accuses Rankine of being “naive [on] the subject of American racism” for having been, as a poet and a black woman, hurt and offended by this poem; he adds that “[a] poem is not a teddy bear” and that “[n]othing kills the elastic, life-giving spirit of humor more quickly—have you noticed?—than political correctness.”

Yeah, in short, he goes there.  (As Katie B recently tweeted, “I love it when people complain about political correctness […]. It tells you exactly who they don’t see as people deserving respect.”)  On the utter inadequacy and irrelevance of Hoagland’s response, I don’t really have much to add to what Sara Jaffe writes in a wonderful post which I would again urge you to read in full:

In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.

[…]

Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable” [a line from Judith Butler, quoted by Rankine]). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.

Rankine ended her presentation last week by encouraging everyone in attendance, and any of our friends as well, to reply to an open letter she recently wrote seeking thoughts from those who write critically or creatively about (or not about) race.  As a two-time grad-school dropout and the coauthor of a blog that doesn’t have many readers (but we appreciate you!), I haven’t really decided yet whether I think I’m in a position to submit something.  (The deadline indicated is March 11.)  But one of the lines in the open letter that serve as potential “jumping off points” for responses asks: “How do we invent the language of racial identity—that is, not necessarily constructing the ‘scene of instruction’ about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?”  And this reminded me of one actual, particular scene of instruction—a movie scene, set in a classroom, which is also a scene that seems to want to teach us something (about race)—from Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.

I’ve wondered before whether I had the energy or the interest to write something about, on the one hand, my complicated affection for Clowes’ comic book (part of which has to do with my memory of a teenage friendship with an androgynous punk kid who, I’ve realized in retrospect, was a lot like a male Enid Coleslaw); and, on the other hand, the confidence with which I would say that Zwigoff’s version, written by Clowes and himself, and featuring fine performances by Thora Birch and and Scarlett Johansson and numerous other things that should be just right, is one of my least favorite movies in the world.  Like Mike Barthel, I don’t really take any pleasure in being the fan of a comic who complains that the movie’s worse.  And people whose work I enjoy and respect have praised this movie, and at least once I’ve tried to give it another chance, watched the first few minutes, and given up.  I don’t want to write at length about everything that bothers me in Zwigoff’s Ghost World—maybe another time?—so I’ll just say that what bothers me most of all is the way the story of Enid and Rebecca, Clowes’ fiercely sardonic and alienated high-school graduates, gets shoehorned into Terry Zwigoff’s obsessions (“If I connected with something, then I included it in the script”) and disastrously turned into a treatise on the creeping fascist tide of political correctness.

The movie is a very free adaptation, with lots of additions, subtractions, and recombinations—and, promisingly, a tendency to seize on ambiguous or problematic areas in the comic and work through them—but almost every change is torqued, gratingly, in that way.  So, for instance, the original Ghost World is a story in pictures about two attractive teen girls, written and drawn by a straight adult man, the thorniness of which the comic implicitly half-addresses at such moments as Enid’s visit to a signing by her favorite cartoonist, “David Clowes,” and her immediate horrified departure and later dismissal of him as an “old perv.”  In the film, “David Clowes” has been merged with several other figures (including the periodically glimpsed psychic Bob Skeetes, whose ghostly and redemptive reappearance on the beach is just one reason why the closing pages are so spectacular) and turned into Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, through whose body we effectively hear a team of male filmmakers announce, Of course a 50-year-old man can have a sexual relationship with a girl who just graduated from high school.  What, you have some kind of problem with this?  Next! Or another example, the one that’s relevant here: the original Ghost World is a story about a largely white social environment, in which people of color are seen on the margins.  The movie seems to recognize this, and to want to be a movie about race, or about whiteness, even in the way “The Change” wants to be a poem about whiteness.  So there are more people of color, who I think function without exception (unless they’re blues singers from the early 20th century) as simply more people to be subjected to these white teenagers’ withering negative gaze; and there’s an extended narrative thread involving a remedial summer art class that Enid must take, and a decades-old, grossly racist poster from the fried-chicken place where Seymour works, and the consequences of Enid’s decision to display the poster to her class, and later to the public, as a piece of found art that comments on “how racism used to be more out in the open and now it’s hidden.”

The consequences are of course not good: at the public show, no one understands irony or art, and so Enid’s school forces her teacher to give her a failing grade; when it’s discovered that she got the poster from Seymour, he loses his job at the chicken place.  And these events are foreshadowed when Enid first shows the poster to her class.  In “Enid as Situationist: Commodification, Alienation and Authenticity in Ghost World“—an essay notable for reading moments like these in exactly the way I think Zwigoff and Clowes want them to be read—Doug Mann describes the scene:

As mentioned before, Enid uses a half-century old Cook’s Chicken sign as a piece of “found art” to make a comment on how racism hasn’t disappeared, but gone underground. It has been whitewashed by large corporations wanting to avoid bad publicity. The reaction of her classmates is interesting: one doesn’t like it, a second calls it “totally weak”, a third says that it’s “not right,” all without being able to explain why. These infantile consumers are simply parroting politically correct rhetoric in response to Enid’s more critical sense of history. Ironically, Enid’s hippy narcissist teacher Roberta supports her détournement against the majority opinion, perhaps flashing back to her radical youth.

When you write a passage like this, about “interestingly” “infantile consumers” who “lack a critical sense of history,” the kind of detail that really doesn’t work to your advantage, and that you therefore more or less have to avoid disclosing, is that the third student quoted—the one captured by Zwigoff’s camera as she says, with a heavy, weary sadness, “Yeah. It’s not right.”—looks like this:

This shot lasts no longer than two seconds, and its purpose in the framework of Ghost World is to present one of several voices that we, as viewers on Enid’s side, are encouraged to dismiss immediately because we bear the uncomfortable but undeniable burden of knowing better; but for me it’s the most important shot in the movie, because, with it, the movie implodes.  Or it becomes a movie about ghostliness in a way it can’t itself fully comprehend.  I don’t know just what was going through Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s minds as they wrote and shot this scene, or what was going through the mind of Janece Jordan, whose sole movie appearance is this one, and who’s credited as “Black Girl – Art Class.”  But I also don’t know how anyone can tolerate for a second the suggestion that this girl isn’t “able to explain why” she’s reacting the way she is—or, rather, that she should have to.  She is addressable.  She’s sitting in front of an aestheticized attack on her body, an image conceived and crafted to imply that people who look like her are less than human.  When her pain, or Claudia Rankine’s pain or anyone’s, is ignored or discounted in the service of an argument about how racism persists, only more insidiously than before, and so it’s important to bring it to the surface—who’s the one actually acting as if racism were a thing of the past, of the ghost world, to be dispassionately scrutinized by universal subjects of the post-racial present?  Who’s the one being naive about American racism?

(Henry A. Giroux has a fascinating article on Ghost World as both an indictment and a reflection of the neoliberalism that America’s young people are expected to accept, and it’s in this sense that I think his argument works brilliantly, too, as an account of the movie’s racial politics: “[Ghost World] resonates too intimately with a major aim of neoliberalism, which is to ‘make politics disappear by, in part, producing cynicism in the population.’  Cynicism does more than confirm irony as the last resort of the defeated; it also substitutes resignation and angst for any viable notion of resistance, politics, and transformation” [121].  In this classroom scene, white resignation, white angst, and ultimately white cynicism are substituted for any notion of a politics of cross-racial solidarity that would attempt to recognize the complications of white privilege, or respect the voices of people of color themselves.)

There’s a Facebook fan page called “My life is filled with Ghost World moments…,” and one of the moments listed is “when Enid brings in the […] poster and the girl says ‘it’s not right.'”  Tony Hoagland, I think, had a Ghost World moment.  (You’re making an important statement about racism, as a white person, and then a black person just has to step in and ruin it for you!)  Last week Claudia Rankine quoted a white lesbian friend who’d said that she was afraid of talking about race, because she knew she would always say the wrong thing; Rankine told us that what she hoped to see were more situations where people “said the wrong thing, but then kept going.”  So, basically, I want someone to do a Gus Van Sant-style shot-for-shot remake of Ghost World, all the way up to this moment, and then swerve away and turn the movie into a long classroom discussion of how words and images work the way they do, how racial identity affects the lives of these students, what Enid’s intentions were, why her classmates feel how they feel, and where to go from there.  I also want Tony Hoagland to actually apologize to Claudia Rankine, if not for writing “The Change” then for telling her she was wrong to react the way she did.  But I don’t really think either of those things is going to happen.

Finally, because I think it bears repeating: that racism is just as pernicious when it’s hidden beneath the surface isn’t exactly something we white folks were the first to realize.  When we insinuate otherwise, it’s an act of erasure.  James Baldwin visits San Francisco in 1963:

February 23, 2011

“We have come to give you metaphors for poetry,” said Yeats’s ghost

“From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” (Seamus Heaney)

“Are Gang Injunctions the new Guantanamo?”

“Ali Abdullah Salih says: Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia.  Qadhdhafi says: Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Mubarak: Egypt is not Tunisia.  You fools: the entire Arab world is Tunisia.

“Echo of the permanent saying of the Bible: the condition—or incondition—of strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt brings man closer to his fellow man. Men seek one another in their incondition of strangers. No one is at home. The memory of that servitude assembles humanity.” (Emmanuel Levinas) [Levinas is referring to the refrain in the Bible of “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  At the Passover seder, Jews say that in every generation, each person should feel as if they themselves have left Egypt.]

Comparisons are odious, right?  But not more odious than Seamus Heaney’s North, which is a pure example of the most ideological political poetry.  Jack Spicer said in 1965: “You can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole, and you can come up with a good poem. But it will be just by chance and will undoubtedly not simply say that President Johnson is an asshole.”  The poems in North attempt to be about the Troubles, but they are about how Seamus Heaney is an asshole.  I refuse to link or quote from Heaney’s poem “Acts of Union” because I refuse to give oxygen, as Thatcher might have put it, to this politically offensive and dangerous ideological poetry.  But if you look for the poem on Google you will find that Heaney is willing to compare the British imperialist penetration of Ireland to his penetration and impregnation of (one imagines) his wife.  I almost encourage you to look up this poem because its offensiveness beggars belief.

The outdated dichotomization of the poet searching for some images and symbols for a predicament they hope to adequately fit offends me on account of Spicer, but also on account of Walter Benjamin.  Isn’t  such a project always going to tell you more about the poet’s particular ideological position than anything about the political situation he is attempting to “capture”?  But isn’t that idea of “capture” equally offensive from a purely political, non-aesthetic standpoint?  When the Trotskyists start analyzing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in terms taken from (say) the Russian Revolution, one balks because they are clearly not attending to the historical particularity of these uprisings and allowing that particularity to speak.

Nonetheless comparisons and linkages do seem to be powerful.  Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is very clearly not a film that is meant to be “adequate” to the Troubles or even to Bobby Sands.  But Hunger seems “adequate,” I would say, as a piece of political art about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and modern instances of prisoner abuse, of sovereign exception, of internment, of population control.   Thatcher’s ghostly voice in Hunger (I wonder if the credits should not include Margaret Thatcher playing herself) reminds us that the power of the state haunts and repeats.

It is powerful and political to say something like “everywhere is Tunisia” even when that’s obviously false.  Bobby Sands is not a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay and a film that uses him to make a point about Guantanamo risks a violence to Bobby Sands’s memory and to the political particularity of the hunger strike.  But it’s a risk that McQueen is conscious of taking, I think.  The overly conscious formalism of Hunger, even the method acting taken to its deepest extreme, reminds us that this is a film, made by a director.  McQueen’s overt isolation of Loachian political discussion into a single, still, 17-minute take tells us that McQueen is very skeptical about the project of providing representation for that kind of discussion in film.  At the moment where the film comes closest to seeking adequacy to the particularities of the Irish predicament, McQueen refuses mise-en-scene.  With the intense lyricism of the filming of Bobby’s last days, which features the first appearance of non-diegetic music and the idyllic imagining of Bobby’s story of the foal, along with Fassbender’s intense method acting, one leaves the cinema deeply aware that this was a film made by a director in a particular time, with actors in a particular time, speaking to viewers in their present and bodies in their present.

Levinas says:

The crisis of humanism in our times undoubtedly originates in an experience of human inefficacy accentuated by the very abundance of our means of action and the scope of our ambitions. In a world where things are in place, where eyes, hands and feet can find them, where science extends the topography of perception and praxis even if it transfigures their space; in the places that lodge the cities and fields that humans inhabit, ranking themselves by varied groupings among the beings; in all this reality “in place,” the misconstruction of vast failed undertakings—where politics and technology result in the negation of the projects they guide—teaches the inconsistency of man, mere plaything of his works. The unburied dead of wars and death camps accredit the idea of a death with no future, making tragicomic the care for one’s self and illusory the pretensions of the rational animal to a privileged place in the cosmos, capable of dominating and integrating the totality of being in a consciousness of self.

McQueen takes a chance for humanism with his speaking to Bobby Sands in speaking about Guantanamo Bay.  He is talking to a ghost in an attempt to understand the present.  When we say Belfast is Guantanamo is Oakland, when we say Tunis is Cairo is Madison, aren’t we just speaking against the univocity of global capitalist imperialism that cause this human inefficacy–and speaking in favor of a future humanism to come in which we will be able to speak to these distant others in these distant places without metaphor, in a language that does not do violence?

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