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

Footsteps


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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4


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.

5

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.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Silencio

In September, on Slate, Bill Wyman wrote this about Mullholland Drive, Memento, Waking Life, and Donnie Darko, four films released in the months before September 11, 2001 but that, for him, evoked something essential about that day:
A central character separates, in one way or another, from life, from the reality of being. Each film evocatively creates a heightened sense of reality for its characters that we the audience inhale as well. Each features a shock, a wrenching sideways, whether from that plane engine falling on a suburban house to the revelation that something is very, very wrong with poor Betty. The tragedy that hangs over each story is another similarity: In each case, the dread of loss touches the audience in some fundamental way...In each of these signal works, a sense of humanity, of the great worth of every life—and a shuddering appreciation of the apocalypse that accompanies every individual death—is palpable.
I want to speak now about David Lynch's Mulholland Drive because, of all of these films, it resonates most powerfully with the "wrenching sideways" September 11th still represents for me. I ask you to watch the scene below which is, for me, among the most terrifying in all of cinema.



...it's the second one I've had, but they're both the same. They start out that I'm in here...By disrupting our syntactical expectations, "Dan's" stilted language immediately communicates the moment's hallucinatory wrongness. There is his pale face, which becomes more discolored and sweaty as the scene proceeds. You can see him fighting against his mounting panic, struggling to maintain a relaxed expression--a struggle which only makes his face appear more contorted. There is the yet-unseen figure of the dark man behind the wall: He's the one that's doing it. Finally, there is the awful moment when Dan realizes that either he has not escaped from the nightmare, or the nightmare has invaded his waking life.

In many ways, this scene, which comes very near the beginning of the film and whose characters (apart from the diner itself) never appear again, is a template for the rest of the film. At the heart of Mullholland Drive is a deeply unhappy woman, her elaborate, desperate dream, and a great rupture that shears her from herself. As with Dan's nightmare and the film itself, this dream (or vision, or work of wild imagination) is ontologically unstable. It borrows and reconfigures facts from the waking world and burlesques that world's atmospheres and sensations. In return, the dream bleeds itself back through the gauze of everyday life. We never quite know what is fact and what is hallucination, what is "real" and what is imagined. This is a source of great dread.

* * *

Here I will defer to David Foster Wallace's great essay on Lynch's Lost Highway to help describe the way it feels to watch the first part of Mulholland Drive. Wallace argues that a thing feels "Lynchian" when "the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Among the most significant examples of this containment is Lynch's fascination with the mundane artifacts of daily life. No director since Hitchcock has invested everyday objects with as much totemic dread as Lynch. In Mullholland Drive, lamps, name tags, light bulbs and especially that blue box and it's blue key give off a sinister glow. The key difference: with Hitchcock, every filmic element is nested perfectly within his careful, ingenious plots. That teacup terrifies because we know that it's being used to poison poor Ingrid Bergman; that telephone turns us cold because we sense that it will collude in some dreadful act. In Lynch's films, objects are similarly transfigured but their meanings are more open ended. They derive their significance less from their relation to the plot's mechanics than from the film's broader, more ephemeral perceptual world; their only logic is the opaque, disembodied logic of dreams. Thus denatured, these objects become foreign and strange, signifying something hidden and nameless and vast.

In keeping with Wallace's idea that darkness is contained within the mundane: throughout much of Diane/Betty's dream, Lynch communicates a profound sense of dread through bright light and high color. The film's first hour radiates high-contrast reds, yellows and blues and is saturated with a painful Los Angelene brightness, a brightness that Betty--a parody of cute, frumpy American naivite--exudes in equal measure.

The platinum colors, the wide, constricted smiles and the alarming optimism all brim with a suspicious, itchy falsity. It isn't so much that these things are hiding something terrible; instead, we sense that, like those totemic objects, they themselves are somehow terrifying. This sense is reinforced by a dark, industrial drone, an airy hum that pervades the film and often blossoms into a menacing minor chord. It seems to emanate from the substance of the world itself, putting lie to Betty's optimism and rendering even the screwball-ish elements of the film's first section grotesque and unsettling.

Throughout Mullholland Drive's first hour, we are visited by strange voices, voices that seem to pierce the dream's bright sheen and communicate to us from the world beyond. Louise, a woman with hooded eyes and a black shawl comes to Betty's door and tells her in a panicked voice, "...Someone is in trouble! Something bad is happening!" Later, Adam, the director, meets a ghostly figure named The Cowboy who delivers bizarrely drawled, syntactically tortured koans, coded messages from some unseen power. All of these things--the light, the sounds, the objects, the cryptic sayings--impart a deep ambience of suspense, of some looming terror. But the source of that suspense remains mysterious; the film brims with a feeling of abstract existential menace--there's a man...he's the one who's doing it-- a dark presence under the skin of everything. Something bad is happening.

* * *

In the weeks and months after September 11th, I had some really awful dreams. Dreams of burning cityscapes, dreams of a thick, acrid smoke enveloping the city, dreams of white-sheeted children with terrible, bloody faces. Other times I would lie awake in bed almost paralyzed with panic, a heat rushing from my guts to the surface of my skin. The air molecules around me felt thick and still and geologically heavy. The frantic, multiplying thoughts in my head were not my own.

Everyday things became dreadful. Newspapers, TVs, the sounds of airplanes, police sirens, the mail, the noises of the city all sent small measures of toxic dread circulating through my body. Reality had been sundered and the world's substance now seemed deeply, irrevocably changed. Violence and fear had pervaded everyday life and were now enmeshed in it. Terrible things that had once felt so abstract and distant were now very close and very real. The world had become sinister and there seemed to be no way to escape. As a woman I met that September put it to me, with matter-of-fact resignation: "nowhere is safe."

One particularly unmooring element of this was the way that the disaster spun its awful aura in all temporal directions. Of course, both the present and our new future seemed suddenly unfamiliar and frightening. But more curiously, the past also felt infected. We came to see that reality before 9/11 was, as Wyman puts it, "heightened." I take that to mean: our culture had wallowed in a bored, almost campy self-parody. The optimism was too shiny and bright, the complacent self-involvement too engrossing. Even that morning, they sky was just too blue, the light too clean and pleasant. This past, like Betty's smile, now felt ominous and suspect. It was a deeply kitschy cultural moment and if David Lynch has shown us anything, it is that kitsch can be terrifying. In retrospect, it seemed that terror had been woven into the fabric all along.

Mulholland Drive's temporal structure speaks to this strange phenomenon. On its driest, most simplistic level, the film's chronology is relatively straightforward: Diane, a struggling actress, falls in love with Camilla; Camilla wins a role that Diane had desperately coveted; Camilla breaks Diane's heart by taking up with the film's director; Diane, by now deeply depressed, has Camilla killed; Diane re-imagines the entire scenario in a dream (with Betty and Rita assuming the Diane and Camilla roles) before finally killing herself.

Of course the film doesn't really work like this (and is considerably less interesting when seen this way). From the viewer's perspective, the dream occurs "before" any of the other events in the film--but an awareness of the film's conclusion has seeped into its emotional logic. Those awful events, including the death of the dreamer herself, are the source of the dream's sense of dread and foreboding. What's more: while the events within the dream unfold more or less chronologically and occupy a full three-quarters of the film's running time, the "waking" section's temporal scheme is fragmented and kaleidoscopic; events are doubled, elided, shifted in and out of sequence.

The result is a narrative shaped more by psychological, emotional and textural ambience than by a sequence of events. This kind of ambience mirrors the character of memory itself. In memory, as in dream, we create collages of image and sensation. We discover new stories in the mesh and pulse, in the shifting strands of wild perception. Through memory, the past becomes an ambient, perpetual present, a present that declares itself not through chronology or causation but through an ebb and flow of image and sensation. This is merely an element of everyday consciousness. But in the time after September 11th, this feeling became dreadful. The poisonous terror of that day seemed to radiate out into all temporal spheres: into our visions of the future, into our memories, into the abiding present.

But what was this terror? What exactly were we afraid of? Certainly, there was the fear of extreme, sudden violence, the very kind of stark fear that terrorism is meant to inspire. It is unquestionably terrifying that death could, without warning, rain down on you out of a clear blue sky and that our quotidian living spaces could be turned against us so suddenly and so profoundly. But nestled within that quite comprehensible fear is something more opaque and primordial. It is this kind of terror, at once nameless and omnipresent, that Lynch refers to by enfolding the horrible within the banal and that he conjures so powerfully in Mulholland Drive.

Our windows, we were told, were not sealed tightly enough. Poisonous air would surely leak through the cracks. It seemed that our bodies--vessels that we are taught to believe are discrete, self-contained objects, sealed off from the dangerous outside world both by our physical skin and by the skin of identity--were too porous, too riddled with perforations and respiring orifices. Those of you who were there will surely remember the acrid, burned smell that pervaded the city in those days. At all times, it felt, this toxic wave could penetrate our skin and compromise our bodily integrity.

Mulholland Drive speaks to this fear by strongly suggesting that we are not the discrete entities we believe ourselves to be. It does this first by questioning the notion that our voices are authentic emanations of our selves. In one scene, we see five singers performing a fifties bubble gum song. But as the camera pulls back we see first that they are in a recording studio, then that they are being filmed and finally that the studio itself is a set on a sound stage. The music is a recording; the physical space is a stage; the performance is a scene in a film-within-a-film. Later, in the beautiful (but really unsettling) "Silencio" scene, a singer performs an intensely moving Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." Betty and Rita (not to mention the viewer) are profoundly moved. Only when the singer collapses and the singing continues do we realize that the music was a recording. By severing the song from the singer, these scenes gently undermine the idea of the self as an expressible thing.

The skepticism goes deeper still. In perhaps the most disorienting of the film's many challenges to narrative expectation, the characters' identities are shown to be deeply unstable. Sunny Betty becomes morose Diane; Rita, a gentle amnesiac who poaches her name from a picture on the wall of a stranger's home, becomes hard-hearted Camilla. As actors, both characters assume new identities with frightening ease.


This instability is visually animated in two of the film's most striking moments. In the first, an image that calls to mind Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Bergman's Persona, Rita dons a blonde wig and becomes Betty's double, an empty vessel absorbing her counterpart's identity. (Not coincidentally, Ullman's character was also an actress, although mute, not amnesiac.) And in one of the film's most hallucinatory sequences, Rita and Betty venture into Diane Selwyn's dark apartment in an attempt to discover Rita's identity. When they find a horrifically decomposed body inside--belonging, we later discover, to none other than Diane--they flee in terror. As they emerge into the daylight, having just laid eyes on the dead body of the dreamer herself, on the creator of the very world they inhabit, the two characters dissolve into a halo of multiple exposures. As if cued by their awful vision, the ephemerality and multiplicity of Betty's and Rita's identities are laid bare.

In these scenes and throughout, Mullholland Drive calls into question the notion of a fixed reality and an idealized, integral self. The characters are multivalent and contingent; the border between inside and outside, self and other, is fluid. In an even remotely benevolent world, this fluidity and mutuality could be understood as perhaps our greatest attribute, the fount of our humanity and compassion. But the Hollywood of Mulholland Drive is a cruel, lonely place, a world of shadowy conspiracies, radical independence and deep isolation. And in such a world, to lose ones' integral selfhood is catastrophic.

We only really begin to understand this when we see the banal nightmare that is Diane's waking life. While the dream was bright and colorful, this new reality is gray and wan. Diane herself is a pale shadow of Betty, her dreamworld avatar. Her skin is sallow, her eyes sunken and bloodshot. While Betty exuded a painfully optimistic energy, Diane is jaded and tired. Her anger and grief have driven her to unthinkable acts and made her a grotesque, almost unrecognizable, version of herself. All of the flowing pluralities of identity, the mediations of self and voice, the layers of consciousness serve to illustrate Diane's loss of herself. And this loss, this apocalypse, as Wyman puts it, is, for me, the source of the film's deepest horror and the germ at the heart of our post-9/11 fear: that reality has been ruptured; that history has become a nightmare; that in the new world, we are not who we believe ourselves to be; that where there once was a self is now, at best, only a confluence of external forces or, at worst, a corroded, atomized reservoir of anger and fear.

* * *

In the margins between waking life and dream, between yesterday and tomorrow, between self and non-self, there is a cloud of unknowing; this is where we live; this is where the music comes from. But in Mulholland Drive's Los Angeles and, I fear, in too much of our own paranoid, atomized, bleakly mediated world, this unknowing, this disequilibrium, is a source of dread and loneliness and suspicion. The world outside cannot be trusted. These people mean you harm.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Breaking Bread

"Hunger" (2008) is a very short, very quiet film about IRA volunteer Bobby Sands, who died in Maze Prison in 1981, on the 67th day of a hunger strike. It might be the best movie I've seen this year. "Hunger" was directed by English artist Steve McQueen. This is his film, "Deadpan":


When it came to arresting visual images, the IRA were no slouches themselves. This is one of their many terrifying murals:
In "Hunger," we are brought into close contact with the suffering body of beautiful Michael Fassbender. It is shattered and bruised; it blisters and bleeds. Finally, it withers away, evaporates like water.

In its attendance to physical ritual, to the practices of bodies in confinement, to the textures of silence, to the contours of human faces "Hunger," for me, recalls Robert Bresson's films, especially "A Man Escaped" and "Pickpocket." For McQueen, after Bresson, these phenomena are deeply expressive.
"Pickpocket"
"A Man Escaped"
At the middle of "Hunger" is a single, unmoving 18-minute shot of a conversation between Sands and a priest. It's a total fucking knockout.



Friday, August 26, 2011

It Was Earth All Along

In the film "MVP: Most Valuable Primate" and its sequels, "MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate" and "MXP: Most Extreme Primate," a face-meltingly adorable chimp named Jack learns to: play hockey (see there's no rule in the league's bylaws that says chimps can't play); shred a halfpipe; snowboard; love. As I'm sure you can already tell, these are modern classics of the venerable chimp/human buddy genre.

Like its predecessors, these films depend on its lead chimp forging real, substantial relationships with his human companions. As one can plainly see from his heartwarming facial expressions, his endearing chirps and grunts and his attempts at sign language (plus his genius with a puck), Jack is more like us than the haters might like to admit. He can communicate. He has real emotions. He can give us a nice hug. Hey, just what does it mean to be "human" anyway?



Since the "MVP" trilogy was produced on a shoestring budget in the early aughts (although you'd never know it), the filmmakers can't really have been expected to know what a boon digital technology would have been to their enterprise. But it's 2011 now; we've got serious CGI and we can see exactly what it would really look like in real life if an alarmingly intelligent ape named Caesar fell in love with James Franco.

I'm speaking, of course, of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the prequel that lays out just how exactly a ragtag band of monkeys come to rule Earth. In general, "Rise..." is a cloying, ridiculously manipulative, mostly unintentionally funny melodrama (ie a human/chimp buddy picture). But although it does its large-hearted best to reaffirm our belief in humanity (or whatever), it is also another in a long line of paranoid sci-fi films; and a deeply uneasy conscience is one of that genre's hallmarks. (This hybrid, by the way? The chimp-buddy/paranoid future film? is really fucking weird.)

There is an awareness in movies like this--the "Terminator" and "Matrix" films and "Blade Runner" among many others--that the rise of human society has come at some great ecological or spiritual cost and that, as a consequence of these sins, humans are ultimately to be the authors of their own downfall. Apocalyptic catastrophe--and/or a subsequent futuristic dystopia--are the result of our hubristic quest for progress, our inability to understand and fully control our own technology.

So it is in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (seriously, that title). A select group of chimps are given an experimental drug designed to regenerate brain tissue in Alzheimer's patients. But obviously, it doesn't just regenerate damaged tissue, it also causes the apes to experience wild leaps in intelligence, emotional range and language skill--while also (rather conveniently actually, as far as the narrative goes) acting as a fatal virus on humans. Ok, got it, makes total sense. But strangely, the many non-infected apes, although clearly not as advanced as Caesar and his genetically altered pals, also possess curiously rich emotional capabilities. Their waxen, digitally processed faces are suspiciously, human-ishly expressive. Some of them sign in complete sentences (which really is just not possible). As in "MVP"--and really all cute critter films--the filmmakers are invested in narrowing the gap between human and animal.

This is neither new or surprising. After all, these movies (and many others) are machines designed to manipulate our sympathies, to act on our humanistic sensibilities by suggesting that everything seemingly wild and other is actually "like us." Always a comforting thought. But there's more going on here. The apes' rise is precipitated by their acquiring not just human-scale intelligence and sociality but also a kind of madness: a wild desire for freedom, the ability to imagine a new future. Why else would a gorilla choose to fight a helicopter?

In other words, Caesar and friends have come upon the very qualities that have made humans such wildly successful organisms, the qualities that have allowed us to dominate our primordial competitors, to manipulate our environment and transcend the privations of the food chain, to sail into endless, unknown seas. The irony--pretty much unacknowledged in the film--is that these are, of course, the very qualities that have brought us to our present moment of crisis, both in the movie and here in the world.

So there's a major ambivalence here between humanity reaping its just reward--losing the Earth and ushering in its own extinction--and a desire for the survival of something like essential humanness, borne by those ascendant apes. It's a tension between that bad conscience and our thirst for a future beyond ourselves. For many of us, this ambivalence is a familiar feeling.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Dirty Boots

Watch "Mildred Pierce." Look at Joan Crawford's face. It is a mask of worried curiosity, of closely guarded openness; her large almond eyes wide open and searching, mouth and cheeks drawn and fixed, as if bracing for what she might find. Even when she reluctantly allows herself a brief, warm smile she then almost immediately withdraws, becomes distant and hard, as if even that small intimacy were a dangerous indulgence. Her body often rests in close proximity to other characters, but her rigid torso and sharp, broad shoulders are almost always inclined away. For me, any understanding of "Mildred Pierce" begins with this shuddering dance. Crawford physically isolates herself, makes herself harder to love. Was there ever a female movie star who so willfully resisted the audience's affections? Why would she do that?

* * *

The film opens with the dissolution of Mildred's first marriage, a relationship ruined by financial strain, contemptuous bickering and infidelity. For many (and for men in particular) the end of an unhappy marriage might be viewed as a way to freedom, to spiritual or sexual self-actualization. But we can tell from Mildred's defiant but deeply worried expression that she understands her new life as a field of exposure and risk. Now she is vulnerable financially; she is exposed to the the sexual advances of Wally Fay, her husband's predatory former business partner; she is defenseless in an exploitive, unpredictable world.

Mildred's solution to her woes is somewhat hilariously simple. In true film noir fashion, intention almost instantaneously becomes action. Mildred decides that she wants to open a restaurant and become wealthy and almost immediately does so. Problem solved. On another level, though, there is something stark and terrifying, but also rather ingenious at work.



Mildred begins to mediate all of her relationships with contractual agreements and with money. She enters into a business partnership with the insatiable Wally and into a contractual one with Monte Baragon, her dissolutely aristocratic new love interest. Above all, she uses money--to solidify her relationships, to ensure her own security, to reconstitute her dissolving family. In other words, Mildred has commodified her relationships. This is her hedge against the violence and instability of single womanhood in a paternalistic world. This strategy proves pretty successful for her (until it doesn't) but it comes with some serious costs; these are played out most gruesomely in Mildred's relationship to her oldest daughter, the ironically named Veda (pronounced veedah like the Spanish word for 'life').

Mildred has had to teach herself, with great sorrow, how to operate in such a cold, unforgiving place but for Veda it all comes naturally; she was born into it. For her, personal relationships are entirely transactional, contracts to be negotiated and won. She takes great satisfaction in her own aristocratic selfishness; she cruelly manipulates other characters into satisfying her tremendous material desires. She is a monster. (It is in the character of Veda, too, that a narrative of post-depression class anxiety plays itself out. Underneath Veda's crass, aspirational materialism is a paranoia of work and the privations and fleshy indignity that accompany it.)

Mildred knows all this about Veda but can't stop loving her anyway. Mildred goes to absurd lengths to buy Veda's loyalty and love. She seems to know that with every material indulgence their relationship becomes more coldly transactional and less human, but she sees it as her only hope for wooing such a venal child. This is the tragedy of "Mildred Pierce": Mildred craves authentic human relationships but the more she plays by the rules, the more she commodifies her life, the more she forecloses the possibility of those relationships.

Thus, Crawford's contorted posture and her torturously restrained facial expressions. In Crawford's body we see a matrix of openness, longing and withdrawn self-protection. Her human instincts pull her toward intimacy, but she just as instinctively understands two things: first, that intimacy invites danger and second, that it has been replaced by contractual exchange. As Don Draper tells Peggy when she demands to be shown a modicum of gratitude for her hard work and creativity, "that's what the money's for."