Have a Good Time

February 8, 2011

Constructive engagement (was Ronald Reagan’s plan)

Of course Ronald Reagan’s centennial was yesterday, the day of the 45th Super Bowl, and I’ve found it’s been important to my emotional health to spend some time with a personal canon of texts running counter to the national celebration of an abominable, unkillable legacy—a canon that would include passages from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Davey D’s post on what children should be taught about Ronald Reagan; an assemblage of queer and feminist voices of opposition, put together by Queers for Economic Justice in 2004; Janelle Monáe’s video (still) for “Cold War,” a wonderful Foucauldian reading of which Robin James just published … and, maybe above all, another music video, made by Jonathan Demme in 1985 (when Reagan was president and everyone knew the Cold War was still going on) but in some interesting ways a video not so far away from Monáe’s.

When I watched “Cold War” for the first time, part of my reaction was to wonder—even as I knew there were crucial specificities here—why more artists didn’t make music videos that consisted of their just singing into a camera, in closeup, in one uninterrupted shot.  It’s beautiful, it works.  And it occurred to me that this was the same reaction I’d always had to seeing movies directed by Jonathan Demme, distinguished by a signature touch that’s fascinated me for a long time: why don’t more mainstream filmmakers construct scenes of dialogue or intersubjective engagement using direct-eyeline compositions?  When and how was it decided by the grammarians of cinema that actors, as characters, wouldn’t look straight into the camera?  For me, when two people in a contemporary American movie are together and suddenly I’m jolted and yanked in by feeling one of them look me right in the eye, almost like Ronald Reagan on TV, it’s immediately recognizable as Demme—it’s almost an auteur’s (unblinking) wink; it took me a while to appreciate how much sense it made that he had a special relationship with a band named Talking Heads—but this wasn’t the way film had to develop, was it?

I’m sure there are plenty of good discussions of this technique, but the best example that I know of right now, touching on its relation to André Bazin’s “Holy Moment,” comes in Keith Uhlich’s 2004 article on Demme for Senses of Cinema (which is full of excellent things, including a challenging, generous rereading (possibly too generous) of the queerphobia of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I think I’ll always have a painful relationship with—I’m not sure how to feel about Jack Halberstam‘s argument either…).  And the one text that Uhlich leaves out, but which I think confirms better than anything else his interpretation of Demme’s sense of cinema as a “medium of address,” is the “Sun City” video, codirected with Hart Perry: possibly my favorite thing Demme has ever done, definitely my favorite thing Bono has ever done, and, above all, still an amazing work of political art.  I first saw the video only about a year ago, thanks to Daniel, who I think had been turned on to it by friends passing it around as a much-needed antidote to Paul Haggis’s “We Are the World” remake (and wishing aloud that someone would make a “Sun City” for Palestine and the BDS movement).  Haggis’s “We Are the World 25,” remember, is the video that (in Jay Smooth’s mostly-joking words) killed rap music once and for all.  As for the original, anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I’m not going to pretend this was a high moment.  Even irrespective of musical quality, though, the differences between “Sun City” and both iterations of “We Are the World” are profound.  While one song is an attempt to conjure or invoke, out of its “we,”  a universal (Western) subject who should just be better at being good, the other is a powerfully angry, defiantly specific statement of solidarity, from artists who recognize the complications of their own subject position and are telling us what they won’t do, with a refrain that in its particularity has all the force of Tony Kushner’s angelic “I, I, I am the bird of America”: I (I) I (I) I (I) ain’t gonna play Sun City.

This intensity is complemented by a formal distinction between the video for “Sun City” and the videos for “We Are the World” that makes all the difference in the world: almost everyone in Demme’s clip makes their declaration right into the camera—as in a conventional music video, except, I think, not.  (One of the related pleasures of this particular clip, the copy of “Sun City” that exists on YouTube, is that we get to watch a rosy-cheeked video DJ transformed by their address: before playing the song he seems not to know how to pronounce “apartheid”; afterward he says, with lovely enthusiasm, “That was great, I never, I don’t, I don’t think I ever looked at that real closely, if i’ve seen it, but … that was great…”)*  The 1985 rendition of “We Are The World” relies on an uneasy half-transparency in relation to its own production, with the team of musicians who “are saving [their] own lives” shown singing together in a studio but never meeting the camera’s gaze, instead staring off to the side, into the phantom space of liberal charity (while Haggis’s shockingly misjudged update combines shots of the same kind with footage of what can only be described as a happily abject Haiti).  “Sun City,” in contrast, reverses the terms of this artificiality and goes out onto the streets of urban America—shown, at the climax, to be the same streets as those of apartheid South Africa and of the murderously segregated American South in the 1960s.  The video’s open acknowledgment of American complicity with injustice is crystallized as George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall, and Darlene Love, respectively, look out at the viewer and sing four lines which, in early February 2011, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, feel at least as resonant as ever:

Our government tells us, “We’re doing all we can”

“Constructive engagement” is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.

Quiet diplomacy.  I think of Reagan’s announcement that he and Hosni Mubarak were “close friends and partners in peace,” very explicitly echoed in recent days by Joe Biden, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton, and implicitly confirmed by the (imagined) quiet diplomacy of Barack Obama.  To be clear, this is not to say that Egypt is apartheid South Africa, or that Obama is Reagan.  It’s only to say that the video for “Sun City,” which was, on its own terms, a genuinely (de)constructive engagement seeking to educate, to raise awareness of the United States’ inextricability from global systems of violence and domination, and to inspire action, feels to me like the bearer of some really important reminders.  One of which would be that the model of “constructive engagement” personified by Ronald Reagan, and, ever-increasingly, in his long movie-star shadow, embodied by a president I supported with all my heart in November 2008, is a model that really amounts to looking the other way.

*Edited to add: These sentences refer to a clip removed from YouTube, sadly.

August 17, 2010

Bubble / dreams / forever

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER refers partly back to lyrics from Lady Gaga’s song “Speechless,” which, when I first listened to the song, I heard as follows: You popped my heart seams / All my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams.  I thought there was an effective, creepy symmetry here, in the presentation of two precisely opposed images of popping: the song’s (male) addressee has caused an interior transformation in the (female) speaker, the swelling of her heart beyond its limits, ultimately undoing the seams that held the organ together—an affective pop from the inside; and, like some figure in a Saul Steinberg drawing or a Chuck Jones cartoon, or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, he’s also taken hold of something sharp and burst the balloons emanating from the speaker’s head that manifested her interiority, which technically he wasn’t supposed to be able to see, her bubble dreams or maybe more precisely her dream bubbles: a pop from the outside, which is also a (conventional) challenge to certain conventions of representation.  Except I later confirmed that the lyrics officially go: You popped my heart seams / On my bubble dreams / Bubble dreams … which suggests that the bubble dreams or the dream bubbles in question are altogether weirder, harder, more resilient than I had realized.  As is suggested, too, by the apparently self-contradictory message from the tweet above: bubble dreams forever.  (Consider one clear intertext here: I’m forever blowing bubbles / Pretty bubbles in the air / They fly so high, / Nearly reach the sky, / Then like my dreams, / They fade and die … )

In the context of this tweet, the words express a reaction to U.S. District Chief Vaughn R. Walker’s decision to overturn Proposition 8, the amendment to California’s state constitution that had established “only marriage between a man and a woman” as “valid or recognized” in the state of California.  So they’re words that here generally celebrate the prospect of the acceptance of marriage between women and other women, or between men and other men, as the initial step in a process that will culminate in “full equality” for women who love women and men who love men in California, and by extension the U.S.  I happened to read these words on the evening of August 4th about five minutes before going to see Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian drama The Kids Are All Right, a movie that Jack Halberstam, in a convincing left-queer analysis, describes as “a scathing critique of gay marriage,” of the rhetoric of equality, that doesn’t quite seem to recognize itself as such: a movie that asks its viewers to keep the faith in a social institution (the heteronormative long-term monogamous state-sanctioned institution of marriage) that it depicts relentlessly as a long, hard, oppressive and largely unrewarding slog.  “[L]ike many a heterosexual drama that turns the family inside out only to return to it at the film’s end,” Halberstam writes, The Kids Are All Right suggests “that marriage is sexless, families turn rotten with familiarity, lesbians over-parent and then it asks us to invest hope into this very arrangement.”  The scene that most directly conveys the specific sexlessness of Nic and Jules’s marriage might be the one in which Nic (Annette Bening) tries to apologize for the way she’s been acting toward Jules (Julianne Moore) by pampering her for the evening, preparing a luxurious bubble bath, only to get distracted by a work-related phone call downstairs, leaving Jules (in one of the film’s most poignant and depressing images) alone in the bathtub as the water gets colder and colder and the bubbles eventually disappear.

In this sense, the tweet celebrating the anticipated acceptance of gay marriage across the U.S. acts both as a summary of utopian impulses in Gagaism, and as a reminder that some kinds of radical political action or commitment shouldn’t be expected from, and were never promised by, Lady Gaga—comparable to the tweets from five days earlier, justifying her decision to go on with the Monsterball performance in Phoenix, Arizona, in spite of a widespread call from fans in the Arizona queer migrant community and their allies to honor the anti-racist state boycott: “The Monsterball is by nature a protest: A youth church experience to speak out and celebrate against all forms of discrimination + prejudice.”  Having signed the boycott petition, I was disappointed by this, but also surprised by how little I was surprised.  Lady Gaga is a political actor whose political actions (learning of the repeal of Prop 8 and beginning to compose music; generating revenue for the city of Phoenix by playing a show there and speaking out against SB1070 from inside the Monsterball) are generally not going to leave a certain pop realm (pop from the inside), that weird queer house inhabited by Lady Gaga, Mother Monster, and her fans, the little monsters.

So it becomes tempting to make any number of critical arguments about “the bubble that (only) Lady Gaga inhabits,” or “the bubble she creates (only) for her fans,” whether the bubble in question is felt to be ideological, affective, temporal, or some amalgamation—as illustrated by Gaga herself, in the New York interview from March 28 with Vanessa Grigoriadis: “A year from now, I could go away, and people might say, ‘Gosh, what ever happened to that girl who never wore pants?’ But how wonderfully memorable 30 years from now, when they say, ‘Do you remember Gaga and her bubbles?’ Because, for a minute, everybody in that room will forget every sad, painful thing in their lives, and they’ll just live in my bubble world.”  The accent here should arguably fall on my, because a central focus of Gaga’s art and career from the beginning has been the ubiquity, dreamy plasticity, and deceptive impermeability of temporal, affective, and ideological bubbles in late capitalism.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER, read at a certain angle, sounds eerily synonymous with “capitalist realism”: neoliberal capitalism’s self-professed permanence in superiority to all other political systems; or the apparent impossibility, at this historical juncture, of effectively imagining an alternative to neoliberal capitalism, as diagnosed and described by Mark Fisher, who writes: “With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism itself is fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive comedown” (35).  Voyou Désoeuvré extends Fisher’s identification of Lady Gaga as, “on the face of it, […] the sound of” capitalist realism into an analysis of Gaga as, precisely, capitalist realism’s glamorous, critical, reflexive face (an analysis that overlaps somewhat with Kathryn Leedom’s discussion of Gaga’s “figurative mirroring or projection of consumer culture”).  “Bad Romance” is arguably still the most important text in this connection.  The video, with its constant product placement and famously explicit depiction of a many-faced Gaga as the commodity appraised and finally bid for and bought by men, is in some sense only bouncing off ways in which the original lyrics had already configured “romance” as a kind of late-capitalist microcosm: a violent lurching between irrational exuberance and depressive comedown (“I want your love and I want your revenge“) which depends on desire-as-speculation, with full knowledge that the assets might be toxic (“I want your ugly, I want your disease / I want your everything, as long as it’s free”).  The song puts romantic love and Gaga’s own megastardom together in and as an unsettling speculative bubble: the “romance” of the title is simultaneously something that someone’s got that Lady Gaga wants, and something that the two of them must produce, or, more precisely, “write” together.  Does that weird line, “You and me could write a bad romance,” actually suggest anything more strongly than bad credit, or the act of writing a bad check?

(Gaga in the bubble dress, telling the crowd, “Some say that Lady Gaga is a lie; and they are right, I am a lie; and every day I kill to make it true”; or singing, “A little gambling is fun when you’re with me…” then interrupting herself to say: “What do you even need me for, you know all the fucking words!  I’m just a blond bitch in a bunch of bubbles!  And I’m OK with that.  Where was I?”)

If there’s one facet of the “Bad Romance” video that most literally shows Lady Gaga caught in a bad romance, it’s the series of shots of her body suspended in a hanging cluster of diamonds, carefully observed by the soon-to-be-bidders, as the camera Matrix-like circles the room.  And if this tableau looks like a revision, or a frozen explosion, of the bubble dress that had become famous earlier in 2009, the dress itself can be read as a kind of freeze-frame device: a denaturalization through costume of one of the forms of “becoming-woman” mandated by contemporary capitalism, the disciplining of the female body which (as Anywn Crawford argues) Katy Perry happily renaturalizes with the “toned, tan, fit ‘n’ ready” female forms, cultured for male consumption, of the “California Gurls” video.  The bubble dress lingers playfully but seriously, spectacularly, speculatively, on the labor that’s meant to be at least half-invisible here.  And it’s a specifically feminized labor: when Andy Samberg unwittingly wears the same costume on Saturday Night Live, we’re all meant to laugh, because it’s so ridiculous, right?  (On the work of performing femininity and its results: see also Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” video, as analyzed in a brilliant post by Silvana Naguib.)  While Gaga’s bubble dress doesn’t necessarily feel dystopian, or draw attention to the pain involved—just the opposite, in fact—by the time we get to “Bad Romance,” to paraphrase one evangelist of the important distinctions between male and female body-disciplines, the bubbles are now diamonds! A bubble of diamonds, so sharp and hard you could pop heart seams on it, even.  (Or, to take another example from advertising: compare Gaga’s dress with the bubbles that stick around, in an incredibly upsetting, rightly withdrawn ad for Method cleaning products last year, where the chemical “Shiny Suds” of rival cleaning-product companies are depicted as horrible frat-boy monsters who linger toxically in the bathtub long after a woman has cleaned it and sexually harass her while she showers.)

So I take it that one of the most valuable moves made by Lady Gaga so far has been a kind of extended performative refutation of Thomas Friedman’s claim, seven years ago, that “[w]e are all now in a post-bubble world.”  That sentence comes from “The Third Bubble,” a truly amazing op-ed piece published in the New York Times on April 30, 2003, and summarized by Friedman a month later on Charlie Rose.  Yeah, this is the video that culminates with Friedman’s horrifying “Suck on this!”—an ejaculation preceded and enabled by a two-minute discourse, Gagaesque in its grotesque surrealism, on all the different kinds of bubbles that have been expanding for decades, most importantly a “terrorist bubble” that the United States needed to burst with “a very big stick” by invading, arbitrarily, the nation of Iraq, so that the world could remain safely post-ideology, free from terror, enlightened.  The American invasion of Iraq justified retrospectively (seven years ago) as the War to End All Bubbles.

BUBBLE DREAMS FOREVER

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