Have a Good Time

January 7, 2017

Freedom ’90, ’98, ’16

David Letterman is having a bad night, as a joke but also for real. Meryl Streep has been forced to cancel and he’s built his monologue around her absence. After the commercial break, he can’t let it go—the sounds of applause and a saxophone swell as his cameras trace the path Streep might have walked to join him, and then he addresses his questions to an empty chair, mining his resentment for awkward laughs, Eastwood-style. When a member of the audience interjects, “I came to see you, David,” he asks her to repeat the compliment but can’t bring himself to thank her. Nor can he summon much enthusiasm as he introduces the first genuine guest of the night, who then strides onstage wearing a sharp black suit and an easy, sanguine, suggestive smile, which will somehow remain on his face for ten minutes and will put the whole setting to shame.

Shame is meant to be the subject of the night. This is November 1998, seven months after George Michael’s arrest for “lewd conduct” at a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Letterman is confused about how long it’s been, just as he seems confused about whether Michael has appeared on the show before or whether he’s slated to play any music later. Michael just grins through everything. He maintains the air of a visitor from a more graceful galaxy as Letterman begins a prurient and crabbed interrogation, pressing Michael for details on the arrest (“Maybe I’ve been misled—I was under the impression you didn’t mind talking about this”) and then retreating into mock horror and family values as soon as those details emerge (“Hanson is here tonight!”). The entire ten-minute interview is structured around what Michael reveals he has been told not to say, above all “the M-word.” So the rhythms of the conversation build up to the illicit utterance almost as intensely as pre-chorus chords make way for “sex,” “faith,” or “freedom.” When the impossible finally arrives, halfway through—“I’m not allowed to say ‘masturbation'”—the moment is expressly musical, with Letterman’s band kicking in to drown out further speech for a moment, enforcing the spirit of the law if not its letter, and Michael standing to take a couple of quick bows. “I guess half of America just switched over, yeah?” he asks as he sits back down. “No,” Letterman responds, “I think they’re switching here. I think word is spreading across the yards.” Here, too, the law is set to a kind of music. The joke’s implication (which puts it on the side of many other jokes I remember hearing in 1998) is that the nature of this guest’s shifting public persona dictates that his biggest fans should be in prison.

sex-is-good

What that joke acknowledges, then, in its uneasy way, is that George Michael is here to offer a vision of freedom. A quiet contest over the meaning of freedom is disguised in banter and bound up with competing notions of innocence. Letterman aims for liberality when he speculates that Michael’s “reason for going into the restroom […] was innocent enough,” and Michael simply gives the frame of that question the slip, in a response that still makes me gasp: yes, he was completely innocent, and he often enters public spaces looking for sex with other men. He brings to this interview the same generous refusal of respectability that strengthened his bond with LGBT audiences around the world even as it restricted the scope of his career in the years that followed. This is the spirit of the “Outside” video, released a month earlier, in which Michael sings “Yes, I’ve been bad” with that same smile (always impossible for me to disconnect the voice from the smile) while a public bathroom becomes a Technicolor disco.

On this night in November the transformation is subtler—a gray CBS stage becomes a platform for gay freedom—and it revolves around George Michael’s self-presentation as a glamorous and unapologetic and notably British gay man, at home in the U.S. yet still bemused by American attitudes toward sex and frustrated by prohibitions around speech. (“I’m not allowed to say the words, am I? I’m a bit stuck here.”) This performance marks him out as a kind of precursor or mirror image to another celebrity whose star has been rising over the last year, and whose name it’s almost too painful for me to write next to Michael’s. I’m going to have to, though, since the year ended with what I take to be an evil and resonant synecdoche: one died at 53, and the other got a six-figure book deal.

2016 is over now. Bad news will keep coming from all sides, and I’m bracing myself not only for the bad news but for all the scrupulous reminders that will surely come in its wake, the reminders that bad news has no expiration date and that there was nothing specially fated about 2016. All of which is true enough. But I think it’s possible to be fairly precise about what the public fiction of 2016 meant to many people, or what people might be expressing when they say they hated it, the whole year. And, again, I think it has something to do with freedom. To me, anyway, here is a large part of what “2016” stands for: on the one hand, the untimely departure of a cluster of artists and public figures who adapted popular American idioms—athletic, cinematic, and musical—to make statements that helped more than one generation imagine what freedom felt like, in childhood and beyond; and, on the other hand, the vicious formal clarification of what “freedom” actually means to white America, in the voting booth and on the street. Half of America just switched over. I don’t exactly think Lauren Berlant is wrong to say that those who voted for Trump did so because they “feel unfree.” But I would find that analysis more helpful if it took a more direct account of “the Trump Emotion Machine” as a machine of terror and domination, in the works for hundreds of years, or if it felt less proximate to the claim that what was missing from the election was empathy for Trump voters.

White supremacy and its freedom from empathy and accountability found new vessels in 2016, not just in Trump and Pence and Bannon but also in Milo Yiannopoulos, whose importance to the libidinal economy of Trumpism seems clearer every day. If, as Joshua Clover wrote a few years ago, conditions were apt in 1990 for a George Michael song flirting with gay visibility to “crystallize the feeling of the post-Wall moment,” then I think some feelings of the Build-That-Wall moment find a related expression in Milo and his performance of freedom as violence.

A pair of pictures featuring cop uniforms and sunglasses offers a kind of condensed chapter in the evolving history of the options open to cis white gay men in U.S. public culture. The first is issuing a plea for sexual openness by embracing and mocking a spectacle intended for his own humiliation. Shortly after the release of these images he will be sued by the same officer who arrested him. The second, two decades later, is in the middle of a national campus tour sponsored by a fascist news organization which will soon be ensconced in the White House; he proclaims that “blue lives matter” and reads antiblack propaganda from his iPad. Whenever he’s named as the key contemporary proponent of white nationalism that he is, he will continue to weaponize for his own purposes the promiscuity that George Michael fought to make sayable and visible, returning over and over to the fetishistic alibi that he can’t be a white nationalist because he sleeps with black men. For this reason and others, it’s hard for me to avoid seeing the “free speech” now endorsed by Simon & Schuster as a specific travesty of the freedom which George Michael sought and which the world never truly granted him. At the same time, as B. B. Buchanan observes in the most instructive antifascist analysis I’ve read of Yiannopoulos’s tour, “these debates are not about freedom of speech, but about communities, the continuation of Black queer death, and problems which precede this speaker and run far deeper than his individual impact.”

Lies about freedom have long histories, then. George Michael’s inclusive pop fantasy, which I will find new ways to keep mourning, said: All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow. The awful joke of Trumpism, backed by Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right, says: Take these lies … please. 2016 was Trump’s year, Milo’s year, death’s year, America’s year. My hope is that after 2016 things will line up less neatly, though; and I think they might. Word is spreading.

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.

 

December 5, 2011

There never was a time

“But perhaps it is a misnomer to label this a progressive or liberal movement at all.”—Stephan Jenkins, lead singer of Third Eye Blind, in the Huffington Post

I really enjoyed The New Inquiry‘s recent dialogue on the occupations and pop culture, in which Max Fox and Malcolm Harris begin with the seemingly undeniable premise that the Third Eye Blind song “If There Ever Was a Time” fails to claim the space of soundtrack-to-a-crisis that’s already been happily occupied for a while by Rihanna, Ke$ha, and other pop music. For a few days I’ve been trying to put together some speculations in response to this piece—about a kind of rhyme between the respective sounds of the “long 1989” explored by Joshua Clover in 1989: bob dylan didn’t have this to sing about and the long 2011 that Fox and Harris point to; about some other great things people have written about love songs, love in politics, and the “ugly feelings” of those who are or are not occupying; and about attending, not only to those pieces of mass culture that seem to represent a preemptive appropriation of resistance as such, but also to those that might be helpful for thinking through the other feelings, the quieter political affects (which may or may not be traceable along genre lines). And I’m still hoping to finish that post. But yesterday, for the first time, I actually screwed up my courage and listened to “If There Ever Was a Time” all the way through, and there’s something in that I want to address briefly, first, because it strikes me as pretty extraordinary.

“If it were opportunistic,” Harris says of the song, “it would have a better beat.” So it’s appropriate that the one moment of real opportunism in “If There Ever Was a Time” should be the sampling of a better beat from a better song: it comes at the very end, after Stephan Jenkins’s repeated injunction, “Come on, meet me down at Zuccotti Park” and a guitar solo, as we continue to hear the voices of selected American protesters while the music lurches from blithe sunshiny rock into the beat (and only the beat) from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Let’s remember, this is at the end of a song that earlier said:

and i saw a sign in the oakland spring
it said “occupy everything!”
or by and for and of won’t mean a thing

To which I have a few reactions. First, are we in Oakland or New York, and does the song think that matters or not? Second, isn’t there something almost too perfect in the lyrical reflection of a certain kind of liberalism here—in the way that, at the moment of articulating the danger that democratic ideals will become meaningless, what’s actually revealed is a fetishization of the ideals so abstract—merely “by,” “for,” and “of”—that they’re close to meaningless already, because anything resembling “the people” has disappeared from view? Third, and most important: the audacity of quoting “Fight the Power” in a rock song that insists the time is now, because only now are “by” and “for” and “of” (“the people”) at risk of losing their meaning, is incredible. It feels like the precise musical equivalent of Naomi Wolf suggesting that Occupy Wall Street has faced “unparalleled police brutality.” And the title of a brilliant response to Wolf from DJ Ripley—”change comes from connection across difference not by erasing difference”—expresses an insight that was already embedded in the song whose radical energy Third Eye Blind tries to appropriate. (“People, people, we are the same / No we’re not the same / ‘Cause we don’t know the game!”)

A fuller explication of the politics behind a song like “If There Ever Was a Time” can be found in Jenkins’s piece for the Huffington Post, which situates the recent police violence against students at UC Davis as, again, unique and unparalleled (or as an example of bad policing, rather than as an example of policing), and responds to it with statements like “We need to take care of our cops so that they can take care of us.” Or, maybe even more remarkably: “every time a protester throws a bottle at a police officer, or breaks a window, or spray paints a tree, he or she does exponential damage to the Occupy movement.” Is Jenkins aware that he sampled a song from a movie that bravely refused to condemn a riot in the wake of racist violence? No, more than that (as Daniel pointed out): a song explicitly written to emblematize resistance to police violence in a movie about resistance to police violence. And if every protester really means every protester, then did Mookie with his trash can in Do the Right Thing do “exponential damage to the Occupy movement” twenty years before it began? Questions like these are part of why I think “If There Ever Was a Time” is actually a perfect anthem for (some aspects of) the Occupy movement, in depressing ways that were not intended—as a making-audible of the racial, cultural, and national blind spots that so many people are doing critical work to address. And in this case a kind of political failure makes itself felt dramatically as aesthetic and historical: a song that wants so badly to be the sound of 2011 can end only by leaving us feeling cheated out of hearing Flavor Flav and Chuck D herald “nineteen … eighty … nine!”

February 12, 2011

In a changing world, however, a change of hairstyle was indicated

The climax of Tangled: Gothel, Rapunzel, and Flynn Rider are together in the tower where the wrong queer mother has kept the daughter who now knows she is no daughter all her life.  Flynn has come to rescue the princess, and Gothel, hidden in the shadows and wearing the same black shawl she’s worn throughout, has stabbed him in the back with an ornate knife; he’s collapsed and dying in a corner, close to the window he entered through, and Rapunzel, bending over him, is on the verge of promising Gothel that she’ll stay with her forever, keeping her young, if she’s allowed to use her hair’s same powers to heal Flynn’s wound.  Flynn can’t let this happen.  With the last gasp of a soon-to-be-renewed life, in a slow-motion gesture that the whole movie has built up to, he uses a shard from a broken mirror to cut off almost all of Rapunzel’s hair, leaving her with a ragged bob that immediately turns black and loses its power.  The yards and yards of abject hair start to go the same way—Rapunzel picks it up at one end and a tracking shot follows the thick darkening rope across the floor to Gothel, who gathers the useless stuff up in desperation and holds it against herself, even as, its magic gone, she starts to age dramatically.  Her own black hair becoming almost the same gray-white as her wrinkling skin, she staggers across the room to the broken mirror and stares into a grotesque kaleidoscope of multiplied eyes, hair, skin, teeth; she screams and pulls the shawl over her hair and eyes, shrinking into it, covering up more and more of herself as she jerks backward toward the light.  Pascal the chameleon gives one of the strands of hair a strategic tug, tripping her up and hastening her flight out the window and a long fall from the tower to the ground, by the end of which her body has completely disintegrated, so that at the moment of impact her shawl opens itself up to reveal nothing but heavy dust.

I want to reiterate something I mentioned in my first post on Tangled but didn’t get into very deeply: which is that, on some level, I don’t have much doubt about the connotative force of these images of Mother Gothel backing away from the mirror.  This is a fifteen-second span of concentrated visual development in which the hierarchies of light over dark, good over evil, the (Disney) beautiful over the (Disney) ugly—hierarchies which, arguably, Tangled has until now been complicating in some interesting ways—reemerge with the fury of the repressed; in these moments, after Gothel’s stabbing of Flynn, the movie has resolved to make her as monstrous to its audience as possible; and the final step, the culmination of that turn, is to hijabize her.  (And to do it so completely that by the end of her fall she’s literally nothing-but-veil: behind this barrier to our gaze, a malignant emptiness.)  Suddenly it’s revealed that any sympathy we might have felt for Gothel earlier must have been misplaced, because, in her last moments of life, her hair and face are hidden from us and she’s keyed into a shorthand which, in some part of the contemporary Western visual imagination, signifies terror.  The fake-mother/daughter dynamic seems newly illuminated—Gothel has always hated Rapunzel (but needed her) because she envies the power of her beautiful, bountiful blond hair, in something like the way they have always hated us (but needed us) because they envy our freedom.

In short, I would see this sequence partly as one that becomes violently symptomatic of a Western fear of the veiled woman, even specifically of the woman who has hair that we can’t see, that she (unlike Rapunzel) won’t let down: the kind of anxiety explored in more interesting terms by someone like Princess Hijab.  (Who, maybe significantly, isn’t Princess Niqab—it’s not always about covering the face—and the Parisian advertising images that she targets with a black marker are often images dominated by luxurious hair.)  But what actually got me thinking more about this was a video Sociological Images posted last year, which I was reminded of by China Miéville’s note on military rules for postcards during the First World War (“All surplus is marshalled by the state to the task at hand”).  This video is from World War II, and it documents a moment that might look like a kind of mirror image of contemporary misogynist Islamophobia.  The suspicious woman here isn’t the one whose hair is covered, but the one whose hair is too long, the sign of excess itself, and, as such, permanently at risk of tangling itself in the war machine.  So the state must step in and tell Veronica Lake (the American actress who is the clearest precursor to Tangled‘s Rapunzel) to change her look.

This footage is so captivating to me that I hardly know where to start … that unbeatable 1940s authoritative Anglo/male voice, for one thing, coolly conceding that Lake’s “witchlock” (without which, by the way, her career was about to decline fast—I want someone to write a play about this) was “not bad on a dance floor, perhaps,” but adding that in austere times of military production a change was “indicated”: dictated, that is to say, but dictated as if by the laws of nature itself, because it was already obvious to all right-thinking people that feminine glamor such as this had to go.  (The camera is made to catch Lake gazing into a mirror and experimenting for a few seconds, and then laughing an unheard laugh (her voice is never part of the film) as if in recognition that her narcissism is ridiculously unpatriotic; and then, behold, there are the hands with the comb!)  Or the sheer oddness—to me, at least—of the reminder that the U.S. government once released messages urging Americans to “put glamor in its proper wartime place”: this distance from the wartime of the present.  Or, best of all, my new favorite sentence, as we watch white female factory workers take moments away from their machines to adjust their ’40s bangs: “Valuable time is lost on a futile gesture.”

That’s where the title of the blog comes in, I suppose, and where it becomes helpful to me to turn, again, to Lauren Berlant’s combover work, or Willow’s “Whip My Hair,” or Lady Gaga, captured so perfectly in the temporal bubble of a fan GIF that @kat_skat sent me—because what hair-whipping Willow and hair-flipping Gaga recognize and clarify, in their different ways, is that “time lost on a futile gesture” is one obvious definition of the space of the aesthetic as such.  Or even, maybe, one way to get at a useful account of subjectivity.  It seems really important to me that in “Whip My Hair” it “don’t matter if it’s long / short,” and that the video shows us what might be a surprising number of girls and boys, in the classroom and the hallway, who whip back and forth heads that are covered by hats, hoods, or hairstyles that stay in place or whip differently from Willow’s (I think it could just as easily be whipping your hijab back and forth): while on one level (which I don’t want to abstract anything from) this is clearly a huge celebration of the beauty of black hair, I think another reason so many people love the song is that it’s about the cogitative and affective excess that builds up around a person, a bit like hair that falls into awkward shapes or gets into her eyes, and how she will always have to take time away to shake it off, shake it off.  That’s one sense in which the insistent repetition of Willow’s refrain works so well (at least for listeners who aren’t haters); this deal can only keep going, but it can be a pleasure.  Or, an alternative endlessness: the form of the GIF, as it so often does (and I’m wondering what’s been written about this, actually), says just what needs to be said.

Less happily, biopolitics will always find its own ways of dealing with perceived excesses or lacks or threats, whether by disciplining hair itself, or banning veils that cover it, in all cases for the ostensible good of the subject.  (Get rid of that Veronica Lake look—don’t you want to be safe?  Take off that veil—don’t you want to be free?)  Staying with Gaga for a minute, which I know I’ve done a lot recently, I’ll close by saying that Gothel and Lake helped me get a better sense of one aspect of last year’s “Telephone” video, or the implications of another appropriation of the image of the hijab.  It’s not just that when Beyoncé sings “tonight I’m not taking no calls / ’cause I’ll be dancing,” her dancing takes the form of whipping her hair back and forth; and it’s not just that Gaga’s hair in the ’40s-style diner takes the form of a phone receiver covering up one of her eyes, at once echoing Lake’s witchlock and indexing the way the “war way of life” of an earlier time has been transformed into the contemporary climate of global communicative capitalism, where, instead of being tangled up in the machinery of mid-century military production, subjectivity gets tangled up in corporate information networks and we forget we’re even at war.  Meghan Vicks rightly points out that after the video’s cathartic act of anti-patriarchal violence Gaga’s hair is “let free.”  I would read the moments after that, though, when she and Beyoncé stand in front of the Pussy Wagon in black and lilac cowboy-veils and tell us we’re not going to reach their telephone, as an attempt (however limited or problematic) to access an even more subversive figure of refusal—in some kind of recognition that, at this cultural moment, fear and suspicion and violence are directed not only toward those whose hair is seen to stand for a frightening feminine excess, but also toward those who insist on their right not to show their hair to the world.  (Tangled understands the first half of this dynamic, but seems to enact the second.)

 

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