Amoeblog

Cold Storage: A Hazy Recollection of My Sick Days

Posted by Charles Reece, November 14, 2010 11:55pm | Post a Comment
I've had a horrible cold, and when I'm sick I lie around, sleep through DVDs and aimlessly look about the Web for things to entertain me. Here's some stuff that occupied my time:

"A hero to most," including me, I guess:


Ideological analysis as occasionally practiced on this blog can be tricky. One thing I don't like about so called culture studies (if I can make a blanket statement about a blanket term) is that while it's helped open the possibility of thinking seriously about pop culture, the aesthetic content of its subjects is often lost.  Notions of evaluation are either dismissed or ignored, treated as if they're otiose and old-fashioned. Contrariwise, I'd suggest that even if, in their respective times, both Frank Sinatra and Katy Perry served parallel functions in Ideological State Apparatuses, one shouldn't reduce them to the same level of aesthetic quality. There's something about art, even popular art, that's not reducible to the Culture Industry. Some commodities are constructed better than others. Now, usually I feel like I'm bungling my way through the history of ideas obtained from half-read books which I don't quite understand or explain properly, but when re-reading an old discussion I participated in a few years back, I actually (now from a distance) agree with the thought I was attempting to formulate. So, for posterity, here 'tis: 

Elvis was far more successful at doing rock & roll than his black predecessors. That's in large part because of the cultural context -- racism, in particular -- and how it shaped the music industry's expectations of what would sell and what wouldn't to a "mass" (read: white people with some disposable income) audience. Acknowledging (or analyzing) such reasons as his whiteness and male beauty shouldn't be a substitute for his very real and obvious talent. It wasn't merely because his music came in a readily digestible package (though it did), nor merely because he was more "iconic" or "mythic" than Big Mama Thornton (which is just another way of stating he was more easily commodified than a fat black woman in the 50s). The culture industry was what it was, but Elvis was what he was, too. [...] Lomax could've recorded Elvis on a porch in the hills and that talent would still be there.
-- from a thread on a comic book messboard in 2007

In other words, Chuck D was wrong to reduce Elvis' appeal to racism only. I had a lot of fun reading that discussion again. It's the kind of saltatory debate that could happen only after geeks began forming subcultures on message boards. Maybe it's just me, but with blogs now having taken over, you don't quite get the same level of wild rancor in tête-à-têtes between rival geek ideologues.

Herzog hates hippies:

   Brad: "Hey! Stop meditating, okay; open your eyes! Look, this is the river! This is
reality! We want people to think, come up with a coherent argument."


If I were to list my dream cast of living actors, it would be almost identical to that featured in Werner Herzog's latest, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009): Michael Shannon (Brad above), Udo Kier, Grace Zabriskie, Chloë Sevigny, Willem Dafoe and Brad Dourif. Really, each of them tweaks certain pleasure centers in my brain, making it impossible for me not to love this film. It's the story of an academically inclined actor, Brad, whose grasp on reality begins to dissolve, resulting in a murder and then a hostage situation. Told mostly in flashbacks, it feels like a series of lunatic comedy sketches, done with that really dry style Herzog has. I'm not sure whether he's becoming more like David Lynch or vice versa, but the latter's company "presents" the film, and there's definitely a kindred spirit on display. The scene quoted above is one the best, encapsulating Herzog's coldly Darwinian view of nature that was the basis for Grizzly Man. Rather than being one with nature, either through anthropomorphizing bears or meditating our consciousness into the Oneness, there's always going to be an otherness that demands our respect and fear. 

Marxist Tales 3: Falling Stars, or When Art Imitates Art

Posted by Charles Reece, January 5, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

Madonna falling in Rio back in December got me to thinking, naturally enough, about Mulholland Dr.'s use of "Llorando," Rebekah Del Rio's Spanish cover of "Crying." There's a lot of gravitas to gravity -- with one slip, the reality of artifice can be exposed. At the club Silencio, when the character of Del Rio (played by Del Rio) falls, but her singing continues, David Lynch is playing around with Bertolt Brecht's epic theater and his notion of estrangement. By having the work remind the audience of the layer of representation intervening between them and the emotions they're experiencing, Brecht hoped to create a more politico-rationally engaged experience -- that is, one of empathy, not sympathy (the former being of intellectual understanding, not the latter's identification).


However, Lynch turns estrangement on its ear by using lip-synching as the emotional crux of his film. If you'll remember, the scene occurs at the point where the fugue world of Betty is fracturing, and the reality of Diane is seeping in. Diane had killed her lover, Camilla, out of jealousy, replacing her in the dream with the amnesiac Rita. Of course Rita can't remember who she is, because she's a manifestation of Diane's oneiric state, a displacement of Camilla, with all the bad stuff repressed. As Rita, she's a ghost, pure desideratum, or Diane's objective (objectified) correlative of the real deal. (In fact, the same applies to Betty; she's Diane's idealized self.) Just as the illusion of the film's representational quality is most exposed (Lynch's "eye of the duck" scene), Betty and Rita begin sobbing -- and (provided the Silencio sequence works properly) the audience along with them.


Lynch has the audience identifying with his characters' experience of the distancing effect. The more one becomes cognitively aware of what's going on (say, knowing what's coming next in the narrative through repeated viewings), the more the emotive impact of the scene. The two dream projections, Betty and Rita, are doppelgängers of Diane, and (through identification) reflections of our own contemporary existence in what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle. We all exist as objectified projections of others while projecting our own images on them in return. The rub is that often what we desire and who we believe ourselves to be are thoroughly mediated by spectacle (our own images are no more our own than the other's image of us). Being made aware of specular (representational) mediation as Brechtian theater attempted hardly solves the contemporary dilemma between what's real and what's merely manufactured. Awareness of artifice is no longer sufficient to counterprogram mass desire (if it ever was), since a lip-synching existence has become an object of dreams. Gravity's truth hasn't hurt the fanbase of the following stars, any more than that of Madonna's.

Beyoncé


Shakira


K-ci & JoJo

The show goes on independently of the stars, just like a perpetual motion machine. Increasingly, we're less likely to feel shame at the antics of Milli Vanilli, instead dreaming of getting such a choice gig. What's really most prized, the face or the voice behind the face? Beyoncé can actually sing, but that's not really why she's famous. Her voice is a phony justification for her star image. The what's-their-names behind Milli Vanilli could sing, too, but fat lot of good that does them now. In other words, "hips don't lie."

Anyone under 60 probably has some level of sophistication regarding the construction of images, but this generalized awareness can lead many to be skeptical of an image's falsity. Living in an age where the medium is the message creates a parity between the real and illusion, making such a determination an agnostic guessing game of which is which. Consider that there was much debate on YouTube as to whether WWE impresario Vince McMahon was really hurt during the obviously staged destruction of the set around him:


As professional wrestlers will tell you in these supposedly sophisticated times, just because wrestling is pure commodity, staged for our entertainment, doesn't mean that they don't really get hurt. These wrestlers acknowledge the truth in Lynch's film: artifice is painful, regardless of whether we know it's false. Aware of the image people have of him, Pauly Shore pulled an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt playing into the mass desire of wanting to see him get punched:


Clearly, Shore was inspired by the internet infamy achieved by Glen Danzig when his macho image got neutered:


Whereas Danzig was probably embarrassed, Shore's intent was, like Madonna's voice in Rio, just to keep his fading stardom continuing as long as possible -- that is, regardless of whether he looked like a coward or a wimp. Being seen is the desire, 'as what' is irrelevant. (The strategy can work.) That's why we can see former Guns 'N Roses drummer Steven Adler sucking on a bong, crying about how Slash hasn't called him on Celebrity Rehab. And it's why some dumb fucker on Cheaters or COPS will sign a release form. When the dream being bought and sold is nothing more than cheap spectacle, devoid of content, where does that leave us? Somewhere in the precarious space of this young actress playing Helen Keller:


Feeling sadness at Diane's awakening to the role she's been playing out in her slumber demonstrates that there's something very real in her identification with images. Del Rio's falling begins to ground Diane's imaginary weightless existence with the moral ramifications of the choices she made in pursuit of the fantasy. Here, Lynch uses the identification with fiction in its most enlightened sense, to reflect our current state of being. As a dialectic between mass media and identity, eventually the desired spectacle will trip over reality. To borrow an analogy from Plato, we can either lift the stick out of the water to see that it's not actually bent, or we can continue to leave it there.

Parts I and II.

Marxist Tales, Part 1: The Lives of Stars

Posted by Charles Reece, December 11, 2007 02:00am | Post a Comment
The celebrity, the spectacular representation of a living human being, embodies this banality [pseudo-individualism by way of what you want to buy – think of a hippie rebelling by driving a VW] by embodying the image of a possible role. Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived. Celebrities exist to act out various styles of living and viewing society unfettered, free to express themselves globally. They embody the inaccessible result of social labor by dramatizing its by-products magically projected above it as its goal: power and vacations, decision and consumption, which are the beginning and end of an undiscussed process. – Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle #60

I’m always left slightly annoyed every time I hear some star kvetching about how he or she is stalked by the paparazzi.  It’s as if a piston suddenly started to resent its function within the engine.  More often than not, a star is designed, by luck of genetics, familial ties, or modern surgical techniques for fitness to Hollywood’s nature – pop culture's own form of eugenics.  It’s rarely based on a meritocracy.  Not that there’s no inherent talent, or craft, involved, but similar to choosing a good dentist on a friend’s recommendation or insurance coverage, some other beautiful guy would’ve been People’s most eligible bachelor had the astrological rules played out a bit differently.  When stars start complaining about being photographed or gossiped about, it’s because they’ve bought into the myth of the spectacle (image as consumable reality), believing that their position in popular culture is one of true individualism, rather than a simulation of individualism.  They’re assuming control of their image, rather than their image being a mediation between an individual and reality.  It’s the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, confusing the map with the mapped.  Their image is there to be consumed like every other product in the market; the shinier and newer it appears, the more likely it’ll be desired.  The trick of the publicity machine is to perpetually churn out novel-seeming stories about stars that don’t fundamentally alter our desire for the star.  Stardom isn’t sustained by the films in which the actor is in, but by our interest in the stories being told about that actor that keep us returning to his or her films, regardless of what kind of shit they’re getting paid to be in.  The star represents who we’re supposed to want to be.  And with exceeding frequency in our media-saturated culture, we do want to be that star.  Hell, even the celebrities desire their star-images.  As Debord pointed out, it’s a dream of pseudo-power, the ultimate ability to consume without any real control over what the caviling star mistakenly assumes is his or her image of selfhood.  Ultimately, the star is nothing but the photograph to the culture industry’s camera, a postcard of a place where we’re all supposed to want to visit.

Continue reading...