Fluxing miscellany. If you're looking for top 10 film lists, click here.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Re: Dan Kois/Vegetables

This is intended in no malicious spirit, rather as an instantly piqued riposte to Dan Kois' article "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables" — not so much for the article as for the general tone, which seems pretty emblematic of a lot of cultural memes at the moment. The brief nub is that Kois is an "aspirational viewer": one who aspires to admire the slow-ass, pleasureless, essential but antiseptic movies/TV shows/books/et al. that excite his (our) fellow critics, yet generally leave him cold.

It's my experience that after high school (or, at latest, college), few people bother pretending to like things they don't actually enjoy in the hope of impressing someone. The dynamic behind that transaction's always confused me: assuming we're not all perpetual adolescents (no comment), who's the nebulous person being impressed by a declaration of love for the plainly unlovable? Why would someone bother lying about how they liked something obviously unlikable? Blatant insecurity? (Kois cites a collegiate acquaintance approvingly noting Tarkovsky's Solaris as "so boring...you won't get it," which inadvertently sums up the snobbishness of a mentality that only half-understands its own aspirational goals, an attitude people generally seem to figure out is as unlikable as you can get. Most people get over this, right?)

An AV Club comment I can't track down once noted the writer hated Chuck Klosterman for acting like hipsters were chasing him down the street, forcing him to listen to Sonic Youth, which encapsulates what I'm trying to get at: unpopular culture almost never takes an aggressive stance (unless it's socially confrontational, and even then the audience is largely self-selected). "Difficult" film lovers generally have normal friends uninterested in the glory of five-minute tracking shots of someone's head, and can coexist in peace and harmony without wandering around trying to tape people's eyelids open and make them watch Solaris.

On the low (non-high?) cultural side, I don't think it's controversial to state that the vast majority of the population doesn't need to be convinced that they're in the cultural right in preferring the trashy/instantly gratifying/easily viewed. I find it inexplicable when super-right-wingers claim that America's being dominated by an academic, "post-modern" elite. Similarly, there's zero reason to claim that "cultural vegetables" are being shoved down the public's throat. (It's actually easier to argue there's more overqualified liberal arts majors half-jokingly analyzing reality TV and sitcoms online than earnest bores dissecting vegetables, but let that be.)

The tone of the article isn't totally antagonistic; to be fair, it doesn't accuse anyone of bad faith, except implicitly. What bugs me are the twin assumptions that:

a) most things are exactly as they appear to the "average viewer" (or the "many viewers" Kois admits using as a stand-in for his personal discomfort/boredom with something he suspects may be objectively worthy): that no one could possibly enjoy this stuff (whatever the example is) in good faith, that ascetism is the end of pleasure and that's the end of discussion.

b) that therefore, someone is lying.

Of Meek's Cutoff, Kois notes that the film's "as closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it: "('Pleasureless,' raved David Denby of The New Yorker! 'There is not much action,' noted A. O. Scott of The Times!)." There's no way to argue with this: either you enjoy Meek's Cutoff or you don't. (NB: I know I'm not exactly breaking new phenomenological ground here. Bear with me.) My point: Meek's Cutoff is, for this viewer, the best movie of the last two years. (That I've had a chance to see, anyway.) I thrilled to the boredom of " long dissolves from one wind-blasted plateau to another" — not because I'm a fetishist for non-action, but because I was viscerally moved/jolted by every composition in the film. Note that this wasn't my intellectual response: I'm not really crazy about Reichardt's ideology, but in every feature she's shown the near-Spielbergian talents of a natural filmmaker, one whose understanding of framing and editing is almost preternatural. The climactic sequence of wagons transported down a steep slope with life and death stakes induced something close to shortness of breath, and even before then I was Moved — in a way that was often at odds with Reichardt's political agenda. Plus: it's been 27 years since Stranger Than Paradise: minimalism is no longer a striking anomaly. (Even beer commercials have Sundance rhythms now. )

Kois says Meek's is arid, "closed off," etc. These are subjective impressions, but the implication is clear: who could enjoy these vegetables? There are other examples, all clustered together: "'while I'm grateful to have watched 'Solaris' and 'Blue' and 'Meek’s Cutoff' and 'The Son' and 'Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)' and 'Three Times' and on and on, my taste stubbornly remains my taste." As far as those five examples go: I'm not sure what (respectively):

a) a USSR-made film, rejected by a commisar with the pithy comment "What's the use of humanity traveling through space if they drag their shit from one planet to another"

b) the next-to-last audio testament of a dying British filmmaker

c) a revisionist American western featuring actual Hollywood actors

d) a decidedly "European" film from Belgian Marxists [featuring an excellent chase no less EDIT: it does have a lumberyard chase, but the real motorcycle festivities take place in L'Enfant)

e) an Inuit film shot on video

f) a three-part portmanteau from a Taiwanese filmmaker

have in common aside from marginalization on the commercial level. Their financing/intention/motivation are all different — which isn't even getting into the fact that formally, none of these films have anything in common. And "formally" isn't automatically a sterilility-inducing word.

I've only seen Solaris once, and it almost drove me to desperate measures; it remains the only film I've seen that forced me to pause, then prepare and consume an omelette simply to re-focus my attention. But that's my problem, and I wouldn't question the sincerity of its many admirers. Sadly, I haven't seen Blue or Three Times yet. Plus as far as I remember, many people use phrases like "my taste stubbornly remains my taste" to implicitly congratulate themselves in their resolve to Not Be Moved: obdurateness is a quintessentially American virtue, a reminder that no force of elitist anti-Americans can force you to contradict your basic desires.

Enjoying something isn't a moral issue; nor do I know anyone who wants to spend a lifetime exclusively only the most daunting, endurance-testing works. We all become tired workers at some point: I've spent many hours watching Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris enact their strange ideas of justice, a pretty universal experience. (Goes without saying that not all "low" culture is actually low in artfulness, nor is all high culture high in results, etc.) But there's no threshold for visceral pleasure. Few people seem to actually feel the need to apologize for the comforts of easy-watching mainstream viewing; non-dogmatic highbrow buffs shouldn't have their sincerity questioned, regardless of what anyone acted like in college.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl: Eminem & Others

• Game itself: my only sports loyalty is to the perpetually beleaguered Houston Rockets. Arbitrary bias was for the Green Bay Packers, who a) are not fronted by (as a friend termed him) Ben Rapelisberger b) were endorsed by Lil Wayne. So yay, although the actual sporting event — while technically a "good game" — was endless, with all suspense about whether or not it would turn into a "real game" deferred close til the end of the 3rd quarter. In the end, the typically hyper-inflated affair — introduced by cancer survivor Michael Douglas (!) — was, in fact, a good game, but it took forever to get there. The affair got the quip it deserved from Packers receiver Greg Jennings: "It's a great day to be great." Indeed. Jennings also gave a shout-out to God, which at least served as a counterpoint to Roethlisberger's increasingly insincere-seeming hands to the sky. Plus c'mon: at a time when Republicans are redefining rape with the adjective "forcible," the jokes just kinda write themselves.

• So those commercials: while I watch them, I honestly don't understand why they're such a big deal, since they're mostly terrible. Briefly dismissed: why are Lord of the Rings dragons pimping Coke? That Star Wars commercial was uber-cutesy. I hope David Bowie got a shit-ton of money for whoring "Changes." GoDaddy.com becoming self-aware in its sleazy pitches — reproving a barely interested in the first place audience of leering males with the spectacle of Joan Rivers as a sex object — wasn't really a great idea. Ozzy should get back on those reaction-slowing drugs. Adrien Brody is not Charles Aznavour. Most surprising/satisfying celebrity cameo: Roseanne getting knocked over by a log.

• Seems like a whole lot of the broadcast was based on the mistaken assumption that Tron: Legacy would be a huge hit. Aside from that absurd ad for Android's new iPad thingy, there was the sad spectacle of the Black Eyed Peas' choreographed sperm extras. (Who, lights aside, also kind of looked like Urgh's Invisible Sex.) All I thought was "Gosh, China should've choreographed that." Plus: while the Black Eyed Peas aren't the first hip-hop artist on the Super Bowl (because, hey, Nelly! Twice!), c'mon. How in the world have they sold like 47 million records worldwide?

• But hip-hop was definitely there in not one but two Eminem ads, which frankly blew my mind. I'm not sure I'm an Eminem "fan," but I was for a long while: The Marshall Mathers LP was ubiquitous for a year, and I wasn't even allowed to go anywhere that entire time. In fact, every Eminem album up to Relapse had something to offer, at which point I checked out. Still, I wish him well — "Drug Ballad" is still an awfully good song — but I'm shocked he came up that often. Not really, I guess: though I've checked out, he still sells like crazy (5.7 million copies for Recovery and counting, plus that stupid song with Rihanna that sounds like an emo confessional). That would've accounted for the Brisk commercial. However: that Eminem was brought in as Chrysler's new version of Lee Iacocca — touting Detroit autos to the point of patriotic absurdity, complete with a movie theater marquee reading "Keep Detroit Beautiful" — is just crazy. They really couldn't find anyone more responsible? Poor Detroit. And poor Eminem, for that matter.

• Still, not gonna lie: the commercial itself — condescendingly ill-advised black choir and all — got my attention. Not just for conflating buying Chrysler and American economic rebirth (Iacocca would've been proud), but for the introduction 45 seconds into a 2-minute commercial of Eminem's "Lose Yourself." The song is 8 years old, which scared all of us — but it was, in fact, ubiquitous, and presumably kidss 17-years-old this year had a Proustian evocation of childhood. This prompted a brief but terrifying conversation about what, precisely, me and my friends have accomplished in the quarter century we can all our age, let alone in the last decade. Consensus: not much.

• But even more unearned yet effective nostalgia belonged to that NFL commercial sewn out of sitcoms. A reasonable equivalency for sure, but hey: despite having seen, like, 15 minutes of "Happy Days" in my entire life (plus hating "Seinfeld"), I recognized every junk-food component. I had a TV for about a decade, ages 9 to 18 or thereabouts, and that apparently prepared me to recognized every single pop culture reference for the rest of my life.

• Most Tea Party-ish pregame ever, from the stilted Declaration of Independence reading up through the weird Bill O'Reilly/Obama interview (both play tough, O'Reilly alludes to "haters" without mentioning his part in the affair and Obama "graciously" declines to mention it, everyone wins, they talk about sports, both curse their lives), plus greetings from Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. But all that patriotic lip-service just faded away once the game started, huh?

• We were all kind of in a coma after eating tacos and the endless game, which I guess is why no one changed the channel away from "Glee." Which I had never seen. Which: what the fuck? Work-wise, I've seen both of creator Ryan Murphy's awful movies (Running With Scissors, Eat Pray Love), plus some of "Nip/Tuck." All dreadful. But so much wrong here. Why is the color palette restricted to dark reds and grays? Why are the musical numbers filmed in a way that made me pine for Step Up 3D? Why does the music suck so much? Why did they desecrate The Zombies? HOW IS THIS POPULAR?

• The broadcast technically ended with Phoenix's "1901." Another meaningless victory for indie rock nation etc.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Glenn Beck live-blog, 1/26/11

Last night I gathered with a group of knee-jerk liberal types who, nonetheless, packed a bar in Cobble Hill and managed to stay respectfully silent for not just almost all of the State of the Union address (some derisive hooting against John Boehner's sopoforic appearance aside), but even the dual responses. Paul Ryan leaned on Fox News keywords pretty heavily — "the wisdom of the founders" — and claimed to be "speaking candidly, as one citizen to another," but he behaved with far more decorum (and less buffoonishness) than Bobby Jindal last year or (especially) Michelle Bachmann's frankly embarrassing performance. In the hours leading up to the speech, Glenn Beck conducted a program that began with him stroking a bunny, then getting out a chainsaw and comparing Obama's "we need to keep spending or die" rhetoric (quick, reductive version) to threatening to kill a bunny (the economy) with underspending (the chain saw). Whatever.

Today it's snowing in Brooklyn, I'm bored, cabin fever. Let's see how Beck follows up the president's speech.

4:59: Cavuto just said he's a real patient guy.

5:01: Beck has a 16mm projector! First talking point: Obama's "Reagan rhetoric" last night ran hollow.

5:02: Cookies are "Reagan's yumminess." Fish sticks are Woodrow's politics. Bake them together, you get cookie fishsticks. Inedible!

5:05: "I've never heard anyone say 'I'm just a teacher.' But I've heard people say 'I'm just a mom.' I hate that."

5:06: Obama was wrong to call for more respect for teachers. (Beck appears not to understand how salary levels are a key component of how much we value education.) We should respect moms and dads more. Also, Obama looking at a Lincoln portrait is a liar, for some reason.

5:07: Lengthy Paul Ryan excerpt. On China: he was talking about "how bad we are, because they're building choo-choo trains."

5:09: He's said "choo-choo trains" at least four times now. "I think we can all agree on one thing: America doesn't need more choo-choo trains." Beck's unconvinced faster, more reliable service would change Amtrak. I'm not sure he's ever taken Amtrak. It would!

5:10: We can't invest in high-speed trains because, apparently, they would constantly collide into regular trains and kill everyone. I guess he's not into American engineering skills.

5:11: "Chugga-chugga CHOO CHOO!" Starting to feel like I'm watching a weird adaptation of "I Am The Walrus."

5:12: Obama compared to Dr. Evil's ransom, to Obama's disadvantage.

5:15: "So he gave a shout-out to a SHINGLE COMPANY. Hey Obama, you're giving me shingles." 30 seconds later: "he also said he wants to invest in biomedical insurance. Can you find that one in the Constitution?

5:16: Comparison of Obama and recently deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

5:17: This is one of those thing I find totally infuriating. You can't constantly praise oil and endorse anti-solar/green energy all the time, then be surprised and claim green power's a total failure if you've been actively rooting against it the entire time.

5:20: First commercial break. "Hi, I'm Bill Kristol. I write The Weekly Standard." Yeah you do! Followed by the first gold ad of the hour. Then an add for solar generators. Struggling to imagine the mind of someone who opposes solar power except as a life-saving back-up, in which case it's OK.

5:24: Back to familiar motifs from the past few weeks, with an emphasis on The American Experiment ("Can man rule himself?") and the 4 E's (don't ask).

5:27: A brief lecture on the spacing of tree rings (far apart when healthy, close together in times of distress). "Even mother nature knows, better than congress or the government," etc. We must slow down to survive.

5:29: Another argument for slowing down: that's what pilots do during turbulence. Followed by gold ad #2 (the Rosland Capital ads featuring G. Gordon Liddy).

5:31: One strongly suspects "Americans Against Food Taxes" is powered by, say, the same people who make those pro-corn syrup ads.

5:34: Oh snap. Glenn's about to explain his daily routine! "It's insane what we're doing! It's insane what I do." ... "I didn't understand Frank Sinatra's song 'New York, New York' until I moved here. [...] There's about 9,000 people waiting to stab you in the back." Sounds like the Fox News jealousy situation in a nutshell.

5:37: I don't understand who Beck's friends are, obviously, but why does it take them a minimum of 75 minutes to commute to work each way? Even if they're in New Jersey, that seems flat-out wrong.

5:38 "Then your wife is like 'YOU NEVER LISTEN TO ME.' So then you have to listen to her."

5:39: "Where's the god stuff? Where's the good stuff?"

5:40: Third gold ad.

5:44: OK. How to fix the overworking of America. First, prioritize: God, family, country. Eliminate "stuff." Such as: Beck does not carry a cell phone, so neither should you.

5:46: Some people do charity, some people think "the IRS is your charity."

5:47: You can't separate your personal and professional life. Prime example: Bill Clinton (!). Can't be a good president, because it's all one. Very zen.

5:49: More stuff about his wife (off-camera, someone named "Oscar" snickers). More stuff about post-9/11 values. 4th gold ad.

5:53: "Yes you can do something about your tax problems." Riffing on Obama to sell tax services. Nice!

5:56: "The middle seat" is a metaphor for being generous enough to let someone sit in the middle chair on public transport and talking to them. It's one of seven steps, the first of which is "work the problem," yet another invocation of Beck's former addict status.

5:57: Fifth gold ad.

Wrap-up: Like "The 700 Club," pretty much every single episode of Beck's show features at least one batshit moment, but it has to be said that Beck's far less compelling now than he was a year ago. After about 20 minutes of what passed for a point-by-point rebuttal of the state of the union address, Beck settled down into the same points he's found his stride in repeating and hammering home. Like the Breitbart websites (except, oddly, slightly less political), this comforting repetition keeps his audience in a self-created loop, while all the spiritual talk imbues the nasty politicking, endlessly ridiculous comparisons (Dr. Evil? Cookies and fish sticks?) and noise-making with a quasi-religious ambiance.

The conclusion I'm increasingly arriving at about Fox News (and the Tea Party in general) isn't just that it panders to people afraid to contemplate a post-American world. Americans watch a shit-ton of TV, or at least they did before the internet (I don't know the numbers anymore, but it's hard to believe the average household set is still on for 7 1/2 hours a day, as it once was). Judging by the many, many ads for life insurance, medical care, etc., the show's audience is very geriatric, old folks who were going to have the tube on anyway. All the god/crisis/constitution talk imbues a normally acceptable-but-hardly-laudable activity with patriotic dimensions, giving viewers the feeling of political engagement while asking nothing of them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Gravity's Rainbow, pg. 267-268

In the Kronenhalle they find a table upstairs. The evening rush is tapering off. Sausages and fondue: Slothrop's starving.

"In the days of the gauchos, my country was a blank piece of paper. The pampas stretched as far as possible, inexhaustible, fenceless. Wherever the gaucho could ride, that place belonged to him. But Buenos Aires sought hegemony over the provinces. All the neuroses about property gathered strength, and began to infect the countryside. Fences went up, and the gaucho became less free. It is our national tragedy. We are obsessed with building labyrinths, where before there was open plain and sky. To draw ever more complex patterns on the blank sheet. We cannot abide that openness: it is terror to us. Look at Borges. Look at the suburbs of Buenos Aires. The tyrant Rosas has been dead a century, but his cult flourishes. Beneath the city streets, the warrens of rooms and corridors, the fences and the networks of steel track, the Argentine heart, in its perversity and guilt, longs for a return to that first unscribbled serenity . . . that anarchic oneness of pampas and sky. . . ."

"But-but bobwire," Slothrop with his mouth full of that fondue, just gobblin' away, "that's progress—you, you can't have open range forever, you can't just stand in the way of progress—" yes, he is actually going to go on for half an hour, quoting Saturday-afternoon western movies dedicated to Property if anything is, at this foreigner who's springing for his meal.

Squalidozzi, taking it for mild insanity instead of rudeness, only blinks once or twice.