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.

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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