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.

 

January 23, 2011

Footnote on contemporary fans and their transnational affective communities

“Thus, insofar as power expresses itself as the violence of unbinding, compearing community foments its nonviolent resistance through an anarchist politics of immediate conjunction, coalition, and collaboration ‘between’ the most unlikely of associates.  Second, as ‘the appearance of the between as such’ (viz. of the space of relationality/conjunction rather than of discrete relational/conjunctive subjects), compearance requires of its agents a qualifying ethico-existential capacity for the radical expropriation of identity in the face of the other—a capacity, that is, for self-othering.”—Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities

“America, I want you to know that before I’m an American I’m a Britney fan.”—Chris Crocker on Maury, 20 September 2007

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.  Such a choice may scandalize the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone at once and ring up the police.”—E.M. Forster, “What I Believe”

“The alleged Wikileaks source, a 23-year-old American soldier called Bradley Manning, leaked the info by burning it onto CDs marked ‘Lady Gaga’, listening and lip-synching along to her mega-hit ‘Telephone’ as he did so, in the way that a 1950s cartoon character might whistle tunelessly to give an impression of benign innocence.”—Dan Hancox

January 21, 2011

Favorite movies (about the humanities?) of 2010, with digressions on resistance to affect and on leaving grad school

I guess I’m really not alone in finding that 2010 was, even more than usual, a year when I didn’t see a lot of movies, and when most of the movies I did see I had mixed to negative feelings about.  I never worked up the enthusiasm to get to many of the big releases I was told I should like. About The Social Network—I know it wasn’t Lisa Nakamura’s intention, but this is the kind of great critical paragraph that tends to kill the last trace of interest I might have had in seeing a film that felt seriously overrated even from a distance.  About True Grit—maybe it wasn’t Evan Calder Williams’s intention either, but this is the kind of great critical post that makes me decide I might see it after all.  And I’m sure I’ll get to Black Swan eventually, mostly because Kate Bornstein praised it on Twitter and Eileen Myles praised it on Facebook, and in spite of the way its 15-second YouTube ads make me take off my headphones and go for some deep breaths.

Some of the mixed feelings: The Fighter really does have nice performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Mark Wahlberg, and a sound design that I loved; but as a movie about class in America I think it’s deeply bizarre, in the sense that for most of its running time I could see it only as a real-life story shaped into the story of how, if you happen to be as beautiful and charismatic as Mark Wahlberg, your future depends on removing yourself from the unforgivably trashy, vulgar, non-movie-star folks with horrible hair who are your family.  (Once you do, it gets better! Or maybe you’ll realize in the end that your brother is OK, and maybe your mother too, but as for the indistinguishable mass of nagging bodies constituted by your sisters, forget it.)  Atom Egoyan’s Chloë (released in 2009 in Canada, in 2010 in the U.S.) was a movie with an even more emphatic message, which was that lesbian sex workers are FUCKING CRAZY AND HAVE COME TO DESTROY YR STABLE HETERO UNION FOR NO REASON, RUN: I think it has the sketchy distinction of coming closer than any film I can remember to a full-fledged presentation of female sinthomosexuality? And I had fun at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I couldn’t quite share Steven Shaviro’s enthusiasm for it, partly because its sensibility struck me not just as unrelievedly white (Shaviro’s phrase), but as unrelievedly white and male in some particularly troubling ways—I appreciated Mike Barthel’s post explaining departures from the original comic in that respect.  (With Nakamura’s paragraph still in mind, you could even say it was a conspicuously bad year for Asian girls in American movies about white boys and their computers.)  My reaction to Tangled is here.

Two of my favorites were both studies of prison and punishment, again actually released in their countries of origin in 2009: Un prophète and Vincere.  Not that I saw many documentaries, but I liked Tamra Davis’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a lot better than its title.  Three of the performances I valued most were Greta Gerwig’s, Ben Stiller’s, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in Greenberg—which I almost didn’t see, because I was basically unthrilled by a trailer that seemed to promise not much more than a celebration of the world’s stretching to accommodate a privileged person (no indication of his mental illness) who wanted to “do nothing for a while.” (This was a reaction of guilty disavowal, because it hit close to home.  But I think maybe the trailer for Greenberg was a trailer for the kind of movie Roger Greenberg would like to see about himself, and Greenberg isn’t that movie, one good illustration of the fact being that it gives two awesome actresses so much space for thoughts and gestures that go way beyond Roger Greenberg.  Call my standards low, but I also really appreciated seeing a movie that was just so nonchalant about presenting, first, a woman whose uncertainty about what she’s doing in the world doesn’t prevent her from making reproductive decisions that are in no way demonized or Douthatized; and, second, a protagonist who in his constant letter-writing may look like a kind of one-man L.A. Bouvard and Pécuchet, but who ultimately stands revealed as someone who tried successfully to get the New York Times to care more about Pakistan.  I started to wonder whether with one line of dialogue the movie had conjured up its own counterpublic—audience members whose main reaction was, What a fantasy.  They’ve never printed any of my letters on Pakistan…)

My favorite American movie was Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways—not perfect, and Susie Bright’s lament on its insufficient attention to “the Underground Dyke Punk Groupie Slut culture that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to the bowels of Orange County” is one I take quite seriously … but the use of multiple songs from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, as one way of hinting at how badly the glam/punk scene of that time and place needed a real gender revolution, was the kind of of touch that definitely worked for me, and of which there were lots.  Plus, it looked to me like the most satisfying realization yet of Kristen Stewart’s invaluable negativity, which Voyou has been posting excellent things about—because, here, we get to watch that negativity become confidently other-directed, the classical punk rerouting, a move out through Bella Swan’s aphasia and into “I’m-a-fuckin’-wild-thing” and new political possibilities.  I’m sure it helps that I’ve been reading Sara Marcus’s truly amazing book Girls to the Front, and remembering Joan Jett’s friendship later in life with Kathleen Hanna and her encouragement for projects like Bikini Kill, and being reminded that the history of riot grrrl, is, in part, the history of women who were tired of hearing that they should let themselves be eclipsed by Edward fuckin’ Cullen.

So there were bright spots.  But I’m pretty sure this was a year in which I got more out of things I watched online than from trips to the theater to see feature-length, narrative-driven movies.  Because I’m aware this is true to varying degrees for a whole lot of people, I won’t bore anyone with a long list of my favorite YouTube clips of 2010, which is what I was thinking of doing at first.  Instead I’ll briefly talk about two videos that meant a lot to me last year, that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but haven’t really been able to process well enough to write about them, and that are related to each other, among other ways, in being about robots and in not being about robots.

Last year there were many music videos I liked, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say my favorite was Janelle Monáe’s self-described “emotion picture” for “Cold War,” directed by Wendy Morgan.  The basic act of performing a song with these lyrics and this title, taking the name of a conflict which everyone recognizes as “dead” and which still serves as the metoynm for history as such; and telling all comers that it isn’t over, it’s still proceeding, only it’s gone further underground and gotten colder; it’s a struggle that doesn’t afford neutrality, even if it’s harder than ever to be sure what you’re fighting for, but you have to try to know: I think this is a pop gesture whose significance shouldn’t be underestimated.  Like the 2008 short film based around “Many Moons,” “Cold War” almost works as a concentration of the whole ArchAndroid album, in its effective ability to make itself felt at once as a document from the year 2719 and as an inevitably but spectacularly failed exorcism of the long 20th century—except this time it’s played out in real time, over one face, captured and transformed by what Monáe would describe on Twitter as “an uncontrollable emotion.”  And while I appreciated learning from Anwyn at Popular Demand and others about the connection to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U,” I’m even more interested in the affiliation with two more recent texts, namely Grace Jones’s and Nick Hooker’s “Corporate Cannibal” video from 2008 (a link Erik Steinskog makes here), and Chris Crocker’s “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” announcement from 2007.

These arguably stand at and for the two affective poles between which “Cold War” defines itself in oscillation.  The first is an emotion/less picture in which, as Steven Shaviro notes, Grace Jones fearlessly transfigures her upper body into a “chilly and affectless object-machine,” digitally distorted and modulated in order to ventriloquize the cold, infinitely mutable, vampiric-robotic charge of Capital in 21st-century corporate culture.  These modulations are echoed visually in “Cold War” at moments when the camera’s focus on Monáe’s face suddenly blurs, while its ever-present readout in the lower-right-hand corner ticks away pristinely, and while Monáe’s eyes widen and her face tilts upward and back as if in terrified recognition of the cold world that both her lyrics and Jones’s have described.  (Two further modes of musical engagement with capitalist realism, which maybe aren’t so different from each other: Jones speaks as the “I” of Capital, addressing a “you” who can only ever be devoured alive—the end of history confirmed, but as a nightmare from which there’s no way out; and even if Monáe interpellates the viewer as a historical subject who retains some theoretical capacity for resistance, her “Do you know what you’re fighting for? / Do you, do you?” is less hopeful than it is melancholic, vexed, almost undecidable.  Still—at least queries are being made, and the possibility of struggle is there.)  And the posthuman/Afrofuturist poetics of Grace Jones’s whole career (thoughtfully analyzed in the same post by Shaviro) resonate in the unifying conceit of The ArchAndroid, which is that “Cold War” and all the other songs are the work of an asylum inmate named Janelle Monáe who has been kidnapped from the future, sent to the present, and replaced, “back in the year 2719,” with an android named Cindi Mayweather, who might herself be the savior sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide.  (“Is the American government tied to the Great Divide?”  Seriously, if you haven’t already, just listen to the album.)

If this is an android we’re watching, though, she’s an android who starts to cry uncontrollably, in what the opening title assures us is an unfiltered “Take 1,” while the sonic world that she’s trying to keep up with continues on without her.  (War is not over if you, as an individual, want it.)  Which leads me to my second companion text—a straight shot of e-‘mo/tion in which Chris Crocker freaked everybody the fuck out, four years ago, by focusing on one of the most prominent faces and victims of 21st-century corporate culture’s entertainment industry, and making the radically unsettling gesture of considering her as a person.  Chris knew what he was fighting for, and it was, by extension, the right of young women to show their vulnerability in public without being humiliated and harassed, which is something.  That his video then became an international joke about the horror of young androgynous people showing their vulnerability in public (and provoked an unending tide of YouTube comments along the lines of, “I have no problem with gay people, but this fag is gross”) only proved his point.  And if “Cold War” inspires unease in anyone, it’s likely to be unease of a related (though crucially nonidentical) kind: wait, are they faking it?  Isn’t this all really narcissistic?  Isn’t there something suspect about deliberately giving yourself over to an emotion in public that way?  (And who cares about Britney Spears, and isn’t the Cold War over?)

These concerns are most revealingly (and infuriatingly) voiced by someone like Larry Ryan, writing for the Independent. Ryan has no problem with the “Cold War” video itself, understand, because Monáe is “poised” (!) and because he can tell that the tear running down her cheek is just an artful homage to Sinéad O’Connor.  It’s Monáe’s revelation on Twitter that these were actually real feelings, worth talking about, that gets under his skin: quoting her tweet about the uncontrollable emotion, and her exchanges with fans who told her that they had shared that emotion, that it had been important to them, and that they’d felt a connection with her that had changed their lives, Ryan declares that “Janelle Monáe has fallen off her tightrope” and that the whole online conversation amounts to a “hideously lame display of bogus pyschobabble.”  He’s not done, either: after this weird failure to consider what Monáe might be doing as an artist (“Tightrope” does come right on the heels of “Cold War” on the album, like the quenching of a thirst, and the first words she sings in “Tightrope” are “I’ll take your pain away,” and just maybe the first song is evoking an environment and the next song is making some suggestions about managing affect and surviving within it, and she had an interesting reason for reversing the order of the music video releases, because sometimes nothing and no one will come to take your pain away) … the article then offers the unbelievable spectacle (or maybe not so unbelievable) of a white man telling a black woman, in print, that she shouldn’t be having or expressing the feelings she’s had and expressed, because it makes her look too much like Oprah and Michael Jackson.  The lines in “Cold War” that provoke Monáe’s tears and change the video’s course, the most exquisite lines in anything I heard or read or saw in 2010, are: “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me / There’s nothing wrong with me / And it hurts my heart.”  Those are words sung by a woman of color, calling out a system of norms in which we all participate, and which, at this moment, a music journalist confirms by participating in it enthusiastically.  (Maybe you could even say that this point, about “poise” and how certain bodies are especially policed to conform to it, is one that Chris Crocker picked up on and tried to explore in some problematic videos, post-“LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE,” where he adopted the stereotyped speech and mannerisms of urban black femininity.)

One of the messages a fan sent to Janelle Monáe, and that Larry Ryan mocked, read: “I feel human again.”  I wouldn’t be one to say this can never be problematized, or thought more about.  I’d only say that it isn’t advisable, it doesn’t work, to problematize it from a perspective according to which feeling, or even feeling human, is inherently laughable.  Because that leads to bad criticism; and it leads to bad art, like Seth Green’s fucking awful “Leave Chris Crocker Alone” video; and I don’t think you actually have to stretch it too far before you reach the sadistic limit point of Glenn Beck laughing at Nancy Pelosi’s prophetic tears for Harvey Milk in 2009.  (You know, I don’t think the best way to critique Glenn Beck or John Boehner is to say they cry too much, either!  Or that they need to man up.)  And while I might not be doing much more here than glossing k-punk’s wonderful writing on Fans and on the Trolls and Grey Vampires who attack them, I think my three near-arbitrary examples—Larry Ryan, Seth Green, Glenn Beck—point toward something which k-punk doesn’t address explicitly, and which it’s very important to me to keep in mind: which is that, while something like trolling or Grey Vampirism does represent “a subject position that (any)one can be lured into,” surely it tends to flourish most nastily in settings where there are already important differences in place between subject positions or levels of privilege.  It’s always easier for some people to troll than for others.

All of which leads me really indirectly to my other favorite short Internet movie of the year, whose key sentence, arguably, is “Let us stop saying that it sounds stupid,” and which contains another line that might inspire trepidation (but above all among those of us playing the Troll or the Grey Vampire?): “I am a person.  That’s why I study the humanities.”

This comes in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?,” an xtranormal response to the “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video that so many people were passing around in October 2010.  I don’t have much to say about the first video, because Aaron Bady said the important things in a lovely post about it.  (It was thanks to Aaron that I saw the response video too.)  I also really don’t mean to attack the first video’s author, a PhD student who was voicing genuine concerns about what the future held (and calling out Harold Bloom’s misogyny—always a good thing), and who wasn’t actually as cynical as the video itself (no one could be), and who I think never expected it to get so popular.  What bothers me, in fact, is precisely the way this text left its author behind and seemed to become almost universally beloved—even (or especially?) by people outside the world it discussed—and accepted as the truth about what graduate school in the humanities was like.  And distributed by everyone as a reason not to go to graduate school in the humanities.  But I had enjoyed a couple of xtranormal videos before, and it wasn’t until I watched “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities” (and thought more about the “Cold War” video) that I realized one of the generative structural limitations of the xtranormal form, which many users have taken advantage of, is that it gives you the ability to craft reasonably lifelike human conversations, without the ability to make one of the participants burst into tears.  In response to this depiction of an impossibly clueless student berated by an impossibly heartless professor, though, the second video, “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” (where, as the title indicates, the question of graduate study is actually a question), shows a teacher who warmly compliments her student’s paper on Hamlet and its “comparisons between liturgy and theater,” in a conversation that is itself somewhere between liturgy and theater: almost a secular prayer for, or a profession of faith in, the 21st-century humanities; which, as such, has something in common with Derrida’s late lecture “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition,” possibly my favorite thing Derrida ever wrote, and possibly an underread work of his.  To recognize (as Derrida does) that the university without condition has never existed, and never will, is not the same as telling a student, You are in no condition to go to graduate school, and you never will be, and on no condition will I prepare you for it properly. It’s even, you could say, the opposite.  “A PhD in the Humanities?” would obviously not exist without “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and maybe they do need to be watched together (in the same way that “Tightrope” wouldn’t be what it is without “Cold War?”), but the affects and implications of the second video are so blessedly different from those of the first that I’d just like to find the person who made it, ask if it’s OK for me to give them a hug, and give them a hug if it’s OK.  I’d also like more people who work in the humanities to see it.

(I really can't figure out how to embed the video, but please click on the picture for the link)

“Perhaps, even, we will speak in human voices”: isn’t this also a Pinocchio story, in the form of a beautifully self-reflexive rumination on the difficulty of finding your voice as a writer and pedagogue, in a setting that might have a lot invested in turning you into a puppet or a robot?  And so, speaking of animation, I don’t think it’s irrelevant at all here to note that Melissa Harris-Perry says Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story reminded her of being a grad student (or that Toy Story 3 provoked such fantastic further thoughts from other academics on labor, alienation and commodification).  To a sort of striking degree, the distance between “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is the narrative distance covered in the first Toy Story movie.  A few months ago, a frankly baffling number of people seemed to have fun watching Professor Jerk curse like a cowboy at a student who trusts her, effectively telling her, “You! are! a! toy!” … and, as Aaron’s post suggests, there’s a recognizably Woodyesque ressentiment at work: you yell at this person, you try to hurt and diminish this would-be voyager, not just because you think they’re stupid but because it’s obvious to everyone that they are newer and shinier than you, readier than you are to think about going to infinity and beyond, and eventually you may be forgotten and they may well have taken your place.  Of course, in Toy Story, Buzz has something to teach Woody; and part of what’s being conveyed in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is that, if you’re lucky and things go right, a PhD in the humanities can mean, if not exactly flying, then at least falling with style.

That’s especially poignant, as I’m sure you can imagine, for someone who came across this response video at just the moment when it had become totally clear that grad school wasn’t going to be manageable, at least for now—partly because of the pressures that always come with it, but at least as importantly because of individual issues with depression and anxiety.  When Daniel and I started this blog about a year ago, it was partly as a way for me to keep writing and thinking and preparing to re-enter an English PhD program, after briefly giving it a try in the fall of 2009.  Then it didn’t work out in the fall of 2010, either (in spite of the unbelievable generosity shown by everyone in my department about giving me a second chance).  So I’d just like to close by stating, for the record, that I’ve seen “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and I left graduate school in the humanities, but it wasn’t because of that.  And, finally, now that this blog is no longer serving the function for me that it once did, I’m already really intensely aware of the temptation to let it become a kind of fantasy space, where I invest a lot of my time and energy into trying to feel like a grad student without doing any real work, instead of actually getting my shit together and figuring out where my life is going to go now.  So I’ll try to resist that.  But I’ll also definitely try to keep writing things here—possibly shorter things, possibly things of a more personal i.e. even more boring nature, while Daniel (if he’s able to) keeps contributing his own thoughts from an academic setting—and if anyone kept following along, that would be nice.

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