Thursday, September 17, 2015

Bloody and Chrome

The plot of Mad Max: Fury Road (directed, as were all of the previous three films, by George Miller) is refreshingly simple. The setting is a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland. Immortan Joe is a ghoulish, Vader-esque warlord who hoards water, food and beautiful women of birthing age in a mountain stronghold called the Citadel. Like most such strongmen, he rules through a combination of charisma, economic power and a quasi-religious cult of extreme violence. Joe charges Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron),  one of his most trusted cadres, with leading a convoy to replenish supplies at the aptly named Gas Town and Bullet Farm. Instead, Furiosa smuggles Joe's harem in the belly of her big rig in a mad bid for freedom. On the way, they pick up Max (Tom Hardy), the Road Warrior himself, also recently escaped from Joe's clutches. A mind-blowingly violent car chase ensues.

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Action movies are supposed to be fun but they almost never are.  In my experience, they manage to be at once overstimulating to the point of panic, obscenely cavalier with human life and also deadly boring. So it's no small compliment to say that the carnage and speed and noise and visual density of Mad Max: Fury Road truly is an incredible thrill. Be prepared, though:  this movie aims for all-out perceptual saturation. Light-drenched widescreen panoramas of desert and sky give way to frantic camera swoops and zooms. Extreme closeups of colossal, heaving machinery and manic human faces flutter by almost in collage. There are huge, kaleidoscopic mosaics filled to the brim with visual detail. And the design aesthetic choice. The nearest description might be an armed, post-apocalyptic, death metal demolition derby: monster trucks and muscle cars, all souped-up, armored and seriously weaponized but decayed and shambolic, held together with spare parts and found objects--skulls, spears, tank treads--covered in rust and oil and desert sand. It's like a medieval, carsploitation, sci-fi western. And if that sounds steampunk to you, it is--but in the gnarliest, most psychedelic way possible.

Did I mention the Doof Wagon, a flatbed loaded with Marshall stacks, a fleet of tyco drummers, and, suspended by cables above it all, a blind guitarist shredding on a flamethrowing double-necked guitar? That's real. (While we're on the subject of the Doof Wagon, this movie features some of the most spectacular character names you will ever hear. Imperator Furiosa? Toast the Knowing? Rictus Erectus? A thousand times yes.) And the humans are just as frankensteinian as the machines. They're like sacks of dusty bones, like prehistoric dirt creatures, clad in leather and rusty iron, often grotesquely scarred or deformed, sporting mechanized limbs, packing serious heat. From the cars to the weapons, from the goth accessories to the human bodies themselves to the speed of everything, Fury Road tends toward total audio-visual excess. It is mind-blowing and campy and terrifying and hilarious. It beggars description. Certain passages of this movie felt, to me, like something close to pure cinematic pleasure.

Of course this pleasure comes at a high price. The film overwhelms the viewer's sensorium, but it also overwhelms the human bodies within the film itself--by maiming, by cyborgification, by disease. This is practically a convention of the genre. But the violence here is extreme and total and it poisons every aspect of life. In this world there is almost no trust or human companionship. Violence mediates every human relationship; it backs every interaction like a currency. The beginning of Max and Furiosa's partnership is a game of mutual mistrust; almost every move they make is a hedge against treachery. Even language is badly decayed, boiled down almost entirely to sheer utility or violent exhortation. Max himself communicates mainly in a series of grunts and refuses to even utter his own name.  When Nux, one of Immortan Joe's army of "war boys" who has stowed away on Furiosa's rig, casually refers to a tree as "that thing," it's a funny acknowledgement not just of the obliterated natural world, but also of that world's severely restricted possibilities--for language, for imagination, for human life of any kind.

Unlike most movies of its kind, Fury Road actually seems to understand the devaluation of human life implied by violence on this scale. And it illustrates it in typically spectacular ways. The war boys are hairless and painted white. They are anonymous, born to live and quickly die in thrall to violence and power. Before they hurl themselves into certain death--and a ticket to Valhalla--they spray chrome paint on their mouths and scream "WITNESS ME!" It is pure insanity. After his capture by Joe's henchmen, Max becomes a "bloodbag," a human IV bag used to funnel healthy blood into sick war boys. Women work as milk-pumping machines or sex slaves. And the people living in the shadow of the Citadel are essentially abject human dust living at Immortan Joe's mercy. Also: One of Joe's henchmen sports an embalmed baby's head as an amulet.  Despite the aesthetic thrill, this may be the least appealing post-apocalyptic desert-scape of all time. As the film goes on, the horror of it all becomes harder to ignore.

We're even forced to consider the lives of the war boys, the kinds of faceless storm troopers that are dispensed with, casually and in great number, in so many violent movies. After he comes aboard Furiosa's truck, we actually come to know and to sympathize with Nux. We get to see him as a human person with feelings and desires. It's a lot harder to see other war boys blown to bits when we know they're capable of, say, love or regret or nostalgia. And, significantly, we  come to understand the nature of Nux's worship of Immortan Joe. It turns out that the violence and spectacle serve the same purpose for Nux as it does for the viewer. Just to perform as crazed warriors, they must achieve an ecstasy that short-circuits their deliberative minds and overwhelms their natural-born empathy. They truly are a benighted bunch, indoctrinated from childhood in an ethos of total violence, fed myths of an eternal reward in exchange for their self-sacrificial zeal. They, like us, are meant to be enthralled by the terrible beauty of it all; of course the optics are going to be spectacular. There's a parable on the fascistic perils of spectatorship for you.

Now, the self awareness at work here only extends so far. For as much as Fury Road has allowed itself to be hyped as a "feminist" action film, Immortan Joe's runaway brides look suspiciously as if they've just escaped from an Aerosmith video. They may be rebelling against the Citadel's particular form of sexual control, but they're still objects, if not of Joe's affections than of the hetero male viewer's eye. (Which is not to say that Charlize Theron's performance as Furiosa is anything but devastating.) And, in the end, the film still proffers a rather well-worn narrative of redemption through violence, a violence that rights political wrongs and offers personal salvation to go along with its narrative resolution. And that resolution here is fairly thin. We're supposed to believe that something transformational has happened simply because a single impressively costumed, water-hoarding caudillo has been toppled? I don't buy it. No, the evil at play here is too deep-seated and sinister, the ecological and spiritual wounds too deep. This is still a desert hellscape of warlord capitalism. We still have Gas Town and the Bullet Farm. This world is fucked.

But there is another moment in the film that offers a more convincing utopian possibility. As the action wears on, Max and Furiosa repeatedly exchange brazen life-saving feats. Their fates increasingly intertwine. Belatedly they come to trust one another. Near the end of the film, Furiosa sustains a life threatening wound and begins to bleed to death. Max puts an IV line from his arm into hers, allowing his blood to flow into her veins. "Max," he says, "my name is Max. That's my name." Like everything in Fury Road, the moment passes instantly. But the rhyme with the Max's time as a bloodbag is unmistakable. Immortan Joe's colony treated Max's body as just another natural resource to be plundered. But when Max commingles his blood with Furiosa's and finally speaks his name, it is an act of real brother-and-sisterhood. It's a genuinely communal moment, practically a marriage, that most optimistic of human institutions. In this world, that qualifies as a miracle.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Welcome to the Machine

Christopher Nolan's dark horse not-quite masterpiece The Prestige is a movie about magicians. But the magic that The Prestige explores most profoundly is the alchemy inherent to our experience of cinema: the way the eye can transform flickering light into an illusion of reality; the way we are enticed into investing our bodies and our emotions into blatant artifice. Not coincidentally, The Prestige describes a turn-of-the-century cultural moment in which science began to replace the supernatural and the religious as the site of our magical imagination. Fossils become light. Humans walk on the moon. Machines speak. Says Hugh Jackman's voiceover: "We be fooled."

But science's greatest magical aspiration might also be nature's most impossible feat of alchemy: the creation of consciousness out of nothing more than matter and energy. These overlapping phenomena--the magic of human consciousness and the messianic desire to synthesize it--are the subjects of Alex Garland's Ex-Machina. Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac with the perfect blend of charm and menace, is the reclusive founder of a Google-like technology company called BlueBook. He invites a young, low-level BlueBook programmer named Caleb to his home, a hyper-modern enclave nestled to the point of invisibility within a vast, mountainous wilderness. It's a beautiful, but distinctly unwelcoming place. Much of the house is underground and windowless. There are key cards that restrict access to certain mysterious rooms. There are random, late-night power outages that automatically lock all the doors. Setting a place this enclosed and suffocating within a location of such openness, produces a strange claustrophobia. (Extremely remote places can, of course, produce a claustrophobia all their own. No one can here you scream, etc.)

We soon learn that Nathan has secretly been building an AI robot; it is Caleb's role to test the machine, named Ava, for consciousness. The test, known as "The Turing Test," is this: Can a computer fool a human into believing he or she is talking to another human? Nathan, ever the provocateur, ups the ante. Can Caleb be fooled into believing he is talking to a human--or at least a perfect simulation of a human consciousness--when he already knows he is talking to a computer? This is the magic trick that Nathan performs for Caleb and that Ex-Machina performs for its audience. Nathan's house is a kind of black-box theater in which the trick plays out in plain sight. Will Caleb come to believe that Ava is human? Will we?

Every magic trick has its distractions, the filagrees and gestures that divert us from the real sleight-of-hand. In this particular trick--and this comparison is directly raised in the film by Nathan himself--the diversion is what you might call "the magician's assistant." Simply put, these robots are all beautiful young women. The revelation late in the film--and this is is a spoiler, as is probably everything hereafter--that Ava's particular beauty and demure personality have been specifically designed to fit Caleb's deepest desires (not to mention, I'm guessing, that of a significant portion of the film's audience) is, upon reflection, not really a revelation at all. It is one of Hollywood's oldest tricks. Put a beautiful woman on screen and you will hold our (assumed to be male, hetero) gazes. In fact, we will be hard pressed to notice anything else.

Ava is the robot we get to know and the only one with anything like a fully formed personality. But there are plenty of other women in this movie. We discover late in the film that Ava is merely the latest generation of AI babes; the rest have been deactivated. Their eerily inert unclothed bodies are stored in a cabinet in Nathan's inner quarters. One shudders to think of the young actress reading the casting descriptions. Yet another role calling for a "astonishingly beautiful" young woman to stand around naked and silent; a piece of erotic visual furniture. Indeed the real test here might be the one performed on the audience by the character known as Kyoko. She is Nathan's, yup, astonishingly beautiful Japanese servant, sexual and otherwise. She caters to Nathan's every whim; she sits around half-dressed; she unflinchingly absorbs Nathan's temper tantrums. And she never speaks. "Don't bother trying to talk to her," Nathan says, "she doesn't speak a word of English."

Here's the thing. The viewer--this particular viewer anyway--doesn't know until late in the film whether she is a human or an AI.  Has she simply been programmed for mute, Geisha-like subservience? Or has she been programmed in the larger sense that Nathan describes in the film, programmed by biology and culture, or maybe by a sadistic male captor? It is revealing of our expectations for female representation in cinema that this character could plausibly be taken for a human being.

Ava is trapped in the same house, in the same hermetically sealed world as Kyoko. But (at least as far as we can see), she has a far greater intellectual, social and verbal capacity. She puts these tools to great use. Alicia Vikander's performance as Ava is totally captivating. Her movements and expressions are somehow both robotic and also recognizably human. She performs all the appropriate social signals and facial inflections, but they are subtly stilted; we can sense the synthetic processing behind each expression. And yet, she charms Caleb and she charms us. The tension between her desire--for freedom, for companionship--and the severe limitations of her world produces a tangible, human frisson. Ava feels real. We see her wires and circuits but when she puts on a wig and a dress, there she is: a real girl.

But this is, of course, a magic trick, though not the one we were expecting. Like Gone Girl, Ex-Machina resurrects a type as old as Western lit: the scheming, beautiful woman who flirts and seduces, who makes use of the entire array of feminine wiles to achieve an ambition. Both films explore the idea of femininity--most specifically, female heterosexual desirability--as a kind of manipulative performance, a stand-in for "authentic" expression. (In my opinion, Ex-Machina does this much more intelligently and thoroughly.) Given the emotional deception and cold violence performed by both female leads, this performance comes off as almost a form of sociopathy.

But, in both films, classically feminine seduction and deception are the women's only means of escape from terrifying, claustrophobic, male-orchestrated worlds. This is a normed sociopathy. Indeed, this is precisely Nathan's real test of Ava's assimilation of human consciousness: Could she make use of her desirability, the only avenue to power granted her by her "culture," to achieve her liberation? (Ava's culture being the massive database of search engine analytics that Nathan uses as her software, plus the heavily circumscribed world that he has created for her.) Nathan's hermetically sealed science experiment is a simulacrum-in-miniature of how feminine performance is produced. So the question of Ava's affective authenticity is something of a red herring. The visible circuitry and the robotic gestures that signal her artificiality are a slight-of-hand. The real question is: How authentic, how "natural," is any gendered performance?

Ex-Machina's final reversal--it's prestige, in the parlance--is a pretty fascinating trick indeed. For most of the film, we are allowed to adopt Caleb's perspective as our own without a second thought, to fall under the cinematic spell of straight male desire. It is a familiar way of viewing and we succumb to it easily. It is fairly amazing, then, when our sympathies, and even our embodied perspective, begin to shift from Caleb to Ava. She stands in front of Nathan's cabinet of horrors, staring at the inert, battered bodies of her predecessors. She peels their synthetic skin and layers it over her exposed robotic innards. She literally wears the skin of other women, absorbing their bodies into her own. There is something eminently familiar about this, the cobbling together of a wearable skin, a skin fit to be gazed upon---the fabrication of visible self that could pass as human.

The longer we spend in Nathan's house--a place of almost messianic technological ambition hidden within a sublime wilderness--and the more we get to know Ava, the more we can feel the slippage between what we know about what is human and what is not, what is nature and what is technology, what is organic and what is synthetic. This slippage is surely a major element of the disquiet that pervades the entire film. But the final act's sudden reversal of fortunes upsets our confidence in even those compromised binaries.  Hidden within our working conception of nature is the idea that the way things are is the way they have been ordained to be--ordained by physical laws or by some transcendent creator. "Nature" is often merely an excuse to follow the cognitive path of least resistence, to fall into automatic habits of seeing. It's easy to believe in Ava's pliability and sexual availability. We're used to seeing women, on-screen and elsewhere, as barely more than objects of male desire. Nathan believes he has hacked human consciousness or nudged it, God-like, to its next evolutionary stage. But all he has ultimately done is reproduced some of our our culture's most ingrained assumptions. The "nature" that Ex-Machina undermines is the assumption that these beliefs are based in some organic reality, that they are, well, natural.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Killer of Foxes

From the outset, Foxcatcher is intimately attuned to physicality. This is, after all, a wrestling film. Early on, we see Dave Schultz and his brother Mark (played by Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, respectively) in training. They gently stretch one another's limbs and joints; they slowly mimic the movements and interlocking holds of a match; they carefully put their hands on each other's faces and heads; they embrace. It is a kind of intimate dance, a pantomime of aggression doubling as a physical expression of brotherly love. The wrestlers' mere presence is a testament to their physicality. Tatum's performance of the wide-armed, short-striding gate of very muscular men verges on a waddle. It is almost as if his body is so primed for explosive athletic movement that it is uncomfortable with the mundane physical acts of daily life.

Steve Carell's portrayal of John du Pont, the monumentally wealthy wrestling aficionado best known for murdering Dave Schultz, is equally physically expressive but set in almost an almost diametrically opposed register. He tilts his head back at an odd angle and maintains a plasticene facial stillness. His nose and teeth have been bizarrely prosthetically reinforced. His body is soft and hunched; he moves with a pinched, sclerotic shuffle. The effect is one of instant clammy smarm, an effect that is only enhanced when he opens his mouth. He speaks in a clipped, aristocratic western Pennsylvania accent that halts and restarts unnaturally. And he seems to have no ear for conversational English as spoken by non-billionaire non-aristocrats. When du Pont first meets Mark Schultz and attempts to convince him to live and train on the Foxcatcher estate, he drops this tangential snippet (and realize, this is a conversation about wrestling): "Do you birdwatch? You could learn a lot from birds. I'm an ornithologist. But more importantly I'm a patriot. I want to see this country soar again." Later in the film, du Pont assures Mark that they have become so close that Mark need not call him "Mr. du Pont." "My friends call me 'Eagle' or 'Golden Eagle.' Or you can call me 'John' or 'Coach.'" Will do, Coach.

It soon becomes clear that du Pont is a fraud. His knowledge of wrestling is mostly limited to classical/patriotic soliloquies that pass for motivational speeches. He calls himself a "mentor" and a "leader of men" but his athletes view him as little more than a very creepy benefactor. The physical contact he goes out of his way to initiate with the wrestlers--touches on the arm, demonstrations of elementary wrestling moves, even some drunken horseplay--display an unearned intimacy. We begin to understand that anything du Pont claims to have achieved he has purchased. His only childhood friend, he confides to Mark Schultz, was paid by du Pont's own mother to hang out with her strange son. His claims on his own behalf are grandiose delusions, testaments to the power of extreme wealth to buy human experience. The du Pont of Foxcatcher is a mix of extreme interpersonal awkwardness and pathological vanity. In other words, he is terrifying.

Hollywood films seem obsessed with achieving maximum imitative "authenticity" in their portrayal of historical figures. They strain to revivify the character's every gestural mannerism and facial tic. Here, Tatum and Carell may have taken this tendency to its endgame. It's hard not to be a little awed by power of Carell's eccentricity, by the exquisite menace he projects throughout the film. But Carell's portrayal is a grotesque of the historical du Pont's manner of being. It verges on pure performance, on a kind of expressionist caricature that nearly transcends the film itself.

Which is, in a certain way, fine with me. In fact, I very much appreciate the moments of almost hallucinatory grotesquerie that well up from within Foxcatcher's based-on-true-events, sports-movie structure. When Mark Schultz loses a match in the 1988 Olympic trials, he feverishly devours an entire room service cart's worth of chocolate cake and fried chicken, smashes his face into the mirror and then attempts to purge the weight by first vomiting and then by losing 12 pounds of sweat on a stationary bike. Flying to a benefit dinner (a dinner honoring du Pont, presumably funded by du Pont himself), du Pont engages in a coke-fueled reading of remarks he has prepared for Schultz: " ornithologist, philatalist, philanthropist!" he repeats over and over in his manic whine, Joker-grin pasted on his face.  Later, there is the very strange sight, almost reminiscent of the great bath scene in Spartacus, of a coke binging Schultz giving du Pont a haircut. It's pretty strong stuff and it quite effectively conveys the sense of a familiar human situation (athletes training for a competition) that has slipped into frightening, unfamiliar territory, of a world become demented and strange.  In terms of communicating that strangeness-unto-dread, of making the viewer feel it in her toes, Foxcatcher is a near-masterpiece.

But this is the problem. Not only does Carell's performance threaten to eclipse the rest of the film, it also threatens to eclipse du Pont as a character. We glimpse du Pont's queasily childlike relationship with his mother (played with delicious, icy dismissiveness by Vanessa Redgrave), just enough to infer some Freud-via-Hitchcock psychopathology. But it really is just a glimpse. All we really understand of du Pont is that foreign way of speech, that clammy physical presence, that spectacular eccentricity. And so the violent act that looms at the end of the film, an act known to any viewer with even a cursory knowledge of the film's backstory and that has no satisfying motivation either in the film's plot or the historical record, seems simply inherent to du Pont's being. Carell's du Pont is a purely cinematic artifact; the set of signifiers attached to him all point us inexorably to the inevitable narrative conclusion. (This is probably the deepest irony of the hagiographic documentary that we see du Pont's sycophants producing throughout Foxcatcher.  The doc makes clumsy use of cinematic artifice to create the campy, fawning portrait of du Pont as a neo-classical patriot and wrestling yogi. But the "real" du Pont of Foxcatcher--the one played by Steve Carell--is no less fabricated, only much more artfully so.)

This becomes especially problematic when we see the direction those signifiers are pointing. Foxcatcher presents du Pont as fundamentally estranged from authentic human relationships. We understand this partly as a product of his wealth; his intimacies and accomplishments are all, at their heart, financial transactions. This sounds like it could be an illustration of the spiritual distortions of wealth, or a critique of capitalism's contractualization of experience. But Foxcatcher doesn't come off this way; there's another facet to the portrayal. As the awkward, unwanted touches, the almost idolatrous gazes, the outbursts of jealousy all mount up over the course of the film, we begin to see du Pont not only as very strange but as queer. And this queerness is inextricable from his not just stilted, not just alien, but ultimately threatening affect.

When du Pont attempts to engage in the kind of physical movement and contact that the Schultz brothers--those salt-of-the earth, hetero jocks--perform so naturally, he just looks pathetic and contemptible, like someone's effete little brother trying to hang with the cool kids. The brothers know how real men love (that is: with a kind of tender physical aggression). The faggy polymath most certainly does not. Du Pont's most fundamental delusion is that he could ever experience the kind of camaraderie and physicality that such guys enjoy. And this delusion, this violation of the Schultz's space of straight brotherly love, is the heart of du Pont's menace.

So we understand du Pont's violent trajectory not as a product of some corrupt societal structure, (or of simple mental illness, which is the most likely case) but instead as the inevitable product of his deviance, his alienation from the "normal" social world. For all of the indelible moments that it evokes, Foxcatcher really is a bad, old story, one that Hollywood has told many times over. It is less a critique of a social or economic situation than a critique of a very strange man. In other words, it has very little to say.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Take Back the Night

When, we say that a film is visually "dark," we tend to conjure the all-swallowing darkness that drapes Gordon Willis' Mid-'70's work, in which all of the film's subjects--objects, human faces, space itself--seem to be enfolded in shadow. But the color palette of Ana Lily Amirpour's black-and-white Jarmuschian vampire film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night hearkens back farther, to the high-conrast, chiaroscuro of the noir era. Here, light borders directly on shadow. White draws its meaning from black. Black is both richly textured and bottomless, both the presence and absence of all color, somehow both devoid of light and humming with a dark radiance all its own.

As the title suggests, the film takes place almost entirely after sundown, in the dark, deserted streets of the Farsi-speaking "Bad City". This is fitting, because A Girl Walks Home Alone... occupies a cinematic dreamworld, a hybrid of Iranian social tapestry and Hollywood gun/girl/car noir, all set to a mix of Persian psych-pop and Anglo-American New Wave. It is fantastically beautiful and fantastically cool. It observes the characters on society's margins--junkies, dealers, prostitutes, renegade kids--but sets them within the louche ambience, the blase, dreamy swagger, of mid-century Hollywood. David Lynch has perfected this commingling of B-film style and deep existential dread, and Amirpour has tapped into that vein beautifully. As with Jim Jarmusch, the characters' coolness always seems to be a desperate bid to ward off boredom and, deeper down, something much worse. We never directly encounter the regime and its mechanisms of social control, but we always feel the presence of some abstract authority pushing deviant behavior into the shadows. We sense a kind of heavy malevolence in the air even before we see the casually observed, un-remarked-upon image of a drainage ditch filled with corpses.

Enter the majestic Sheila Vand. Playing a character known only as "The Girl," she silently haunts the streets, her pale, regally inexpressive face framed by her black headscarf. She glides along the walls like a shadow and cruises toward the camera on a skateboard, chador flowing behind her like a cape. She dances--very slowly--in her bedroom. And yes, she feasts on the blood of the city's predatory men. But this is not some morally unambiguous revenge pulp. It doesn't go down easily. As in Hollywood noir, the ever-present shadows signal a malignant presence in the heart of the world, a corruption of the societal fabric.  The darkness creeps around corners and through windows; it seeps into the character's affects and relationships.

In this sense, the heroine's vampirism, and the blackness with which she clothes herself, suggest to us that she herself is implicated in the film's fallen moral world. Her first victim is a spectacularly detestable pimp, drug dealer and abuser. But from there things become more complicated. She kills a sleeping homeless man. She approaches a ten-year-old street kid and asks him if he is a good boy. This turns out to be a rhetorical question. When he says yes, she replies, in a truly monstrous voice, "I can tear your eyes out of your skull and give them to dogs to eat." And then, for good measure: "Till the end of your life, I'll be watching you. Understand?" He understands.

This is, without question, a profound indictment of a misogynistic culture; she knows that in some essential way, the boy cannot possibly be telling the truth. But the film, and the Girl, also recognize that in making this indictment, she has also compromised herself. She devours human blood; she terrorizes children; she is not immune to the moral sickness plaguing her world because nobody is. This recognition allows for an uncommon moral ambiguity. A ten year-old-boy holds within him the potential for horrible acts. An abusive John might be complicit in violence but he is also someone's father. "I've done bad things," she says to her maybe boyfriend Arash, and we know it's true.

But this admission, and her self-implication in the darkness, is also a radical act. In walking the streets alone at night, in occupying this dark, forbidden space, the Girl reconfigures the symbolism of the black chador. What was a marker of female modesty now signals her dark magic, her transgressive power. The veil is a symbol of invisibility; but in haunting the men of the city the Girl becomes visible. Paradoxically, this visibility allows her to step outside of the traditional fundamentalist, not to mention cinematic, dynamics of female virtue. She has discovered an un-policed space.

What does this look like? Well it's fucking magnificent. Cinema bestows a kind of luminosity. The cinematic subject projects an aura, something like a radiant self-ness. The male gaze circumscribes that aura, channels that self-ness through its lens of normalizing, heterosexual desire. You're not seeing a human person, you're seeing a fantasy. But the Girl is relentlessly herself. Her desire, her thirst, is unchainable. She seethes and smolders like a goth Barbara Stanwyck. She glides on that skateboard; she vamps with her cat; she loses herself in the music; she stares down the camera with a mouthful of blood. She does violence and performs acts of grace. Just like a real human being. And when she does all of this this her wild identity, that radiant self-ness, just explodes on the screen.  "You don't remember what you want," she tells the aging prostitute that she has been following. "You don't remember wanting." This is perhaps the most damning thing she could say about the culture she inhabits. That the Girl's irruption of strange, intemperate desire reads as transgression--that it lives in darkness and shadow and evokes terror--is a testament to cinema's bad conscience, and the world's.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Sing, Memory

Lawrence Lebduska, "Panicked Horses" 1957
Once in a while, the Internet does what it's supposed to do. To wit: the Alan Lomax Archive channel on YouTube. Lomax, you may be aware, is one of the great documentarians of global folk music. His mid-20th century field recordings--which helped make musicians like Muddy Waters and Son House household names--are among our genuine cultural treasures, proof (when we surely need it) of our culture's abiding soulfulness and beauty.

In the late '70's and early '80's, at the behest of PBS, Lomax again toured through the southern U.S, this time with a 16 mm camera, shooting performances and interviews with musicians, dancers, storytellers and congregations. The recordings document regional modes--vocal styles, instrumental arrangements, ways of talking, ways of being--that have gradually decayed, that have been paved over by mass culture's ever-growing hegemony.

Speaking of said hegemony: YouTube may be our most populist, anarchic virtual medium but, like the Web in general, it has contributed mightily to the ongoing erosion of physical community and oral communication, to our isolation from each other. Here, though, it has given us access to a powerful traditional method of binding ourselves together, for physically communicating in the present and across generations.

Music has always been historically contingent, subject to socio-political change and the caprices of popular taste. It's a romantic mistake, then, to believe that any recording--no matter how charmingly weathered--hearkens back to some static, primordial moment. Nevertheless, the songs here are evidence of a far weirder, wilder musical culture than the one we currently inhabit. Gothic, surreal songs about talking animals and dead child-brides; droning strings, high lonesome voices, wobbly rhythms. Makes me want to hold hands with everybody. Makes me want to sing and dance.

Here's Sam Chatmon of Hollandale, MS singing "The Preacher and the Bear," from 1978.

This is the Wootten Family of Sand Mountain, Alabama singing "Present Joys" (#318) from the Sacred Harp. From 1982.

Here's Tommy Jarrell singing "Let Me Fall" in 1983. It's a song about getting drunk.

Sheila Kay Adams of Madison County, North Carolina in 1983. This is "Little Margaret".

Here's R.L. Burnside, one of my favorite humans, in 1978. Here he's singing "See My Jumper Hangin' on the Line". That voice!

Here, Frank Proffitt Jr, of Beach Mountain, North Carolina performs "Johnson Boys" on the dulcimer while Stanley and Hattie Hicks Buck-dance. Holy shit.

Finally, your Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans performing "Voodoo" at a funeral parade for Marshall Poland, Sr. in 1982. 

Friday, June 15, 2012


If you are close to my age, you surely remember Pearl Jam. You remember them, along with their darker siblings Nirvana, owning MTV and rock radio during the first half of the 1990's. You remember them appearing in a dense array of Video Music Awards and Lollapaloozas and SNL performances, first as astonishingly exuberant, fresh-faced, hair-enveloped kids and then as gloomy, somewhat less hairy iconoclasts. You remember the flannels and the Doc Martens and the skate shorts worn over colorful long underwear.

You probably remember that Pearl Jam and Nirvana were the avatars of a thing called "grunge," soon subsumed under the aegis of "Alternative Rock," terms that both became hopelessly dated lazy-dad-rock-critic fodder basically before they had ever even been uttered. Both terms did, however, signify a sudden emergence of a previously underground sound and ethos into the mainstream. These bands were the more approachable, user-friendly heirs of '80's noisemakers like Sonic Youth, The Pixies, The Melvins, and Fugazi (among many, many others). And to kids like me who had been fed a steady diet of Def Leppard and New Edition, there certainly seemed to be something radical and mysterious about Pearl Jam's music.

Nevertheless, despite their position as torchbearers of grunge (ugh, its really hard to even write that term) and despite the fact that their founding members were veterans of Seattle's underground scene, Pearl Jam were always slightly out of place in the cultural moment they inhabited. Ten, their debut record, was glossier and more arena-ready than the music of any of their cohorts. Their touchstones were as much The Who and Cheap Trick and the Cult as the Germs and Minor Threat. They had more than enough charisma and bombast to play stadiums, but they were too grave and hook-less and un-fun for the hair bands. They weren't heavy enough to be heavy; they were too glammy to be punk; they were too earnestly melodramatic for the indie rockers.  It was classic rock without the bluesy swagger, glam without the irony, punk without the musical purity.

And then there was that infamous bellow. If you remember anything about Pearl Jam, you remember the bellow.  Easily mocked, relentlessly copied, (indeed: the bellow was much more easily mocked thanks to the  unintentional burlesque-ing given it by its many imitators ) Eddie Vedder's deep, horse roar quickly became a signifier for an operatic melancholy that frequently spilled over into affected self-seriousness.  (If you've somehow forgotten what the bellow sounds like, imagine this in your mind's throatiest baritone: heeeeevaan, shamalama dabadaba hamalama, etc, hhyeeeeah, and so on.) It was Vedder's signature, the voice in which he declaimed his dramas of grade school suicides and incest-victims-turned-serial-killers. It is a voice that, unfortunately for all of us, still resonates through the chords of the plangent, emotionally overbearing confessional-mode that has permeated rock radio every since.

And so, despite (and of course because of) their breathtaking success--a success founded on that very emotionalism and bombast and rock-historical conservatism--Pearl Jam were really uncool. Which was ok with me because in the early '90's (and, well, throughout the middle and most of the late '90's) I was pretty uncool myself. I was a smart enough kid, exceptionally sensitive (in both senses of the word: acutely aware of the world and also easily wounded), but not exceptionally well-informed culturally. Call it the eldest child effect; I didn't have a cool older sister to force me to read Slaughterhouse-Five, or to recommend that instead of sitting alone in my room listening to baseball games on the radio or doing pushups while blasting Jimi Hendrix I should maybe accompany her to that Pavement show at 1st Avenue.  I didn't know any better. 

In other words, Pearl Jam was made for me.  I wasn't sophisticated enough to be snobbish about their lack of avant-rock cred, as I certainly would have been had they emerged ten years later. And, as the melancholy tween that I was in those days, I had more than enough taste for melodrama to tolerate the tortured YA fiction of Vedder's lyrics. And anyway, it wasn't really the stories in the songs that I connected with. What really moved me were the soaring choruses, the way Vedder's voice rode the cresting guitars. As with all anthems, the words relate more to themselves and to the music, than to any larger narrative, forming discrete, heavily charged instants of meaning. Over and over, Ten reaches for, and often achieves, maximum emotional crescendo. "Once upon a time I could control myself," "I'm still alive," "why go home?" "hold my hand, take a good look, this could be the day"; you don't have to know or really care what these words are "about" to viscerally understand what they're communicating.

More than anything, though, it was Vedder himself that I related to. Up to that point my musical world consisted essentially of Guns 'n Roses, NWA, Public Enemy and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Some of these things are great, some are not, but none of these acts projected a personality that was anything like mine--which, of course, was a large part of the appeal. Theirs was a kind of hypertrophic manhood, a costume of rock-star machismo. Vedder, in contrast, radiated an unabashed, almost embarrassing sincerity. His ecstasies and pains and sorrows were transparent. His angst was almost campy, but it was also unstintingly sincere. His early-'90's emotionalism and the brooding anti-stardom that came later often scanned as pretension, but he came by them honestly and they were deeply felt. This honesty, this emotional gravity, was nothing I had ever experienced in pop culture. The fact that these things, which were such powerful, ill-understood facets of my inner life, could actually be performed, could be physically expressed onstage or on record, totally blew me away.

Of course, sincerity and authenticity alone aren't enough to make great art, and they don't quite rescue Ten from its excesses. (They, in fact, constitute those very excesses.) But those excesses, as well as the record's many strengths, make their fullest sense in the context of live performance, when the songs' anthemic qualities really shine.  So I would turn your attention to Pearl Jam's live shows from that era. Because they are fucking amazing.

There are a number of sources I could refer you to in order to back up this assertion. But for my money the best live documents of early Pearl Jam are their first appearance on Saturday Night Live and the band's set at the Dutch Pinkpop festival, both from the spring of 1992. In both performances, you'll see a band waking up to the startling realization that millions of people want to hear their music, that everything they'd ever imagined about their lives as musicians is coming true. They are freaking out.

You'll see a band of top-notch players totally inhabiting the music, really investing themselves in their songs, playing with ridiculous energy and heart. You'll see a singer bursting out of his own skin. He's spastically shaking his long, curly hair, grunting and wailing like he's in serious pain. He's gesticulating wildly, almost reenacting the stories of his songs. He's singing with a crazy desperation, as if communicating the message with insufficient urgency will literally kill him. He's flailing and shaking and falling over. 

I know that this sounds painfully overwrought and theatrical. I totally hear you.  Confessional self-expression is surely an overrated mode in pop culture. Rarely, though, are the emotions expressed so raw and so forceful. Even more important is Vedder's insatiable desire to communicate that emotion to an audience, to create a moment of shared ecstatic experience. Just look at him during "Porch", the band's triumphal set-closing jam. He climbs on a video crane, begs the operator to move it over the swarming crowd. He leaps twenty feet from the crane into the sea of people. They swallow him up.  There's a great generosity at work here, a commitment to sharing the cathartic thrill of performance, to dissolving the distinction between performer and audience. A handful of bands (Fugazi and Lightning Bolt come to mind) have achieved this kind of transfiguration in clubs and basements and parking lots. Vedder's gift--with the help of those anthemic, emotive songs--was to create that intimacy in front of thousands.

*         *         *

Then Pearl Jam did something strange. They recognized that their very sincerity and passion was being commodified, that the machinations of the culture industry were alienating them from both their audience and their music. And so--in a way that almost seems quaint now, given both the decentralization of the music industry and most current acts' un-ambivalent relationship with self-branding--they rebelled against that commodification. They stopped making videos; they stopped appearing on TV; they stopped granting interviews; they sued the country's largest ticket distributor. They abandoned the style that had made them famous and made three increasingly hermetic, idiosyncratic, often bitter records.

And so while their music became more nuanced and textured (I think "better" might be another word for it), they were never quite as exuberant again, never quite as wide-eyed and manic. But I was hooked; the blood-curdling emotions, the intense pursuit of authenticity, these were things that were just too close to my heart to resist. I continued listening to Pearl Jam even as they came to look like alterna-rock dinosaurs next to the indie bands that comprised the majority of my tastes.  I couldn't help myself. They were the inspiration for too many solitary bedroom rock-out sessions, too many epic concerts given to the mirror. When I was first figuring out who I was, they were the first band that actually felt like me.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Notes on the Lightning Field

Walter de Maria, "The Lightning Field", 1977.

Walter de Maria's Lightning Field is far away from everything. From Albuquerque, you drive three hours through deserts and range land and scorched lava fields to Quemado, New Mexico, one of the more remote, desolate towns in one of the most sparsely populated states in the country. (Quemado, by the way, means burned.) From there, you drive for 45 minutes on wasted dirt roads that twist and bend incomprehensibly and seem, after a while, to be passing through a dimensional fold. When you arrive, the only remnants of the human world are the small cabin where you eat and sleep and the 400 polished stainless steel poles, arranged in a one mile by one kilometer array, that make up the field itself.


Whether we like it or not, we are Westerners. We have inherited a culture that has learned to divide and manage space, learned to make it productive. For those of us used to inhabiting space that has been parceled, named and economized, the desert's vast emptiness is a shock. We literally do not know how to see such open, uncultivated space. It is not for nothing that the grid system was invented here in the western U.S., as a way of dividing, selling and managing--of rationalizing--the vast expanse. We are unused to land that has not been primed for consumption.

And so the Lightning Field, composed of identical rectangles, transposes that familiar grid system onto wild, wide open space. In doing so, it makes the space intelligible to us. It creates geometry and dimension; it creates boundaries and units, allowing us to perceive the space as habitable.

But the Lightning Field also reveals the limits of this process. Despite the geometries and boundaries, there is a surplus of space in the field. Space overflows; it rushes above and through and around, always exceeding the boundaries imposed upon it. The Field seems to say: despite our best efforts to manage and contain, to impose rational, economic sense upon the world, there will always be unclaimed ground. There will always be a wildness, an openness in the interstices.


There are (at least) two processes at work in our perception of the Lightning Field's geometry. First, imagine yourself standing on any of the vertices of a grid. You will see unbroken lines of points stretching longitudinally, latitudinally and diagonally. In between those lines, though, the points will seem to array themselves incoherently. So it is at the Lightning Field.

The second process: as we all know, objects closer to us appear to be larger than objects further away. And so, the poles forming those longitudinal, latitudinal and diagonal lines seem to slope smoothly downward as they extend out to the horizon. But, again, those interstitial poles cause us problems. They form strange matrices of alignment and height that resist immediate intelligibility and yet seem to resonate within us like some disorienting, coded harmony.


The day and night in September when we visited the field were perfectly clear. There was, in other words, no lightning. But we soon discovered that although lightning would probably be spectacular, light itself is the real medium and the real subject of the Lightning Fields. The poles do not produce their own light, they reflect, concentrate, channel the dynamic light of the environment. When the sun is high and bright, the poles share its almost translucent whiteness. When it is low, they radiate those warm, familiar peaches and pinks. A sunset may be the most commodified image in western culture, but the Lightning Field re-engages us with the sublime ache of the sun going down. It brings our awareness to the way in which the sun casts itself unevenly on the earth, imprinting light on objects, creating shadows, evoking color from the world.

Walter de Maria, "The Lightning Field", 1977.


At midday, the poles, bleached by the intense high light, almost disappear into the landscape. At night, they are absorbed into the desert's comprehensive darkness. At both times they are essentially invisible. But, as the sun rises and sets, at the margins of light and dark, they begin to glow, suddenly robust and sharply defined against the backdrop of the land. You can probably imagine how beautiful and poignant this is.

But also:
dawn and dusk dramatize the constant, taken-for-granted process of phenomena moving into and out of visibility. As you stand in the field waiting for the sun to rise, sensing the light around you becoming fuller, the poles, once dark, barely visible shapes on the horizon, slowly absorb that pinkish dawn glow and emerge into perceptibility. By mirroring and magnifying this process, this revealing undergone by the rocks, the dirt, the mountains and all of the objects in the environment (including we ourselves!) the Lightning Field brings it newly and forcefully to our attention, a revelation of what is always already happening.

And this process really is a miracle; every day, things that were once invisible to us become visible. What was dark, becomes light. The poles remind us both of the wonder of our own perception but also of the incredible surplus of world beyond our perception. The essential fact of the unseen is that it has the potential to become seen. There is an overflowing of meaning in the world. It's important to remember that.


Because I had never been anywhere as empty and remote as the Lightning Field, I had never before experienced such an overwhelming lack of human sound. These are some of the things you hear there: the wind rustling the brush and rushing in your ears; birds chirping, birds flapping their wings; the creak and crunch of your footsteps; your own sharply defined, yet strangely contoured voice. If you stand close enough, you can hear the flowers.

Most intense: the sound of your own body in your ears. The heavy thrum of your blood. A deep, round, whispery drone, crested with tremulous overtones fading in and out of audibility. (Are these ringings an ever-present layer of sound obscured by the hum of urban life? Or is it our body's attempt to compensate for the lack of that hum?) This is your body's song. There is no silence.