24 March 2006

On Bad Films

"Mommy? Where do bad movies come from?"

Well, darling, like bad people, bad movies are made. Now, I happen to love bad movies—many of my friends will attest, and my boyfriend will object, that I will watch anything. As a firm believer in the idea that you can learn how to do things "correctly" by studying things you, and others, admire, not only do I think the converse holds true, but I also say you can even learn how to do cool things by looking at films, or other cultural objects, that went terribly terribly terribly awry. This is really a roundabout way of saying that if you study how things work, and examine their effects, whether it is "good" or not, doesn't necessarily matter.

Let's go back to "bad." Rather than accept that that this one word accurately describes a whole host of films, I submit the uncontroversial hypothesis that there are many kinds of bad films. A whole spectrum, in fact. We round up the usual suspects: "Plan 9 from Outer Space," say, or "Ishtar," or "Valley of the Dolls," or "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," or, what is to me the most reprehensible in this list, "You've Got Mail." The list is as long as you might like to make it, and will be different for everyone, as I have no doubt that there a number of admirers of the late Ephron oeuvre reading this. I'm not really interested in splitting hairs over personal taste; my point is that there's a common sense notion of film badness out there, and most of us share opinions—many of them received, sure—about which films are supposed to be bad.

An Ironic Excusion
Here's where we get into a glitch. At this historical point in American mainstream culture, there is a powerful factor that muddles what have traditionally been, I think, clearer cut notions of quality and the ways we engage with the "bad," and we call that factor irony. We live in a world where taking an ironic stance about something—anything, everything?—is a pop cultural article of faith. Irony used to be the tool of the educated and urbane, and therefore, often, of the upper classes and of urban places. Ducking into a brief history of Irony, we learn it is a figure of classical Rhetoric derived from the Greek word, eironeia, which means "affectation of ignorance" (NOTE: I ripped off the following examples from the link, they are not mine, but I did study this stuff in school. Honest). Following this cunningly simple source, we are given a definition: "Speaking in such a way as to imply the contrary of what one says, often for the purpose of derision, mockery, or jest." This sounds closer to what we're used to hearing when Irony is in the room. Yet, if we dig a little deeper, because this is Rhetoric, a more nuanced taxonomy has been derived down, and that means, Figures of Rhetoric, such as Irony, have related Figures depending from them, the Figures for Irony are:

antiphrasis: From the Gk. "to express by antithesis or negation." Defined: "Irony of one word, often derisively through patent contradiction; e.g. Referring to a tall person: "Now there's a midget for you."

paralipsis: From the Gk, "to leave to one side." Defined: "Stating and drawing attention to something in the very act of pretending to pass it over"; e.g. "It would be unseemly for me to dwell on Senator Kennedy's drinking problem, and too many have already sensationalized his womanizing...."

epitrope: From the Gk, "to yield." Defined: "A figure in which one turns things over to one's hearers, either ironically, or in such a way as to suggest a proof of something without having to state it. Epitrope often takes the form of granting permission (hence its Latin name, permissio), submitting something for consideration, or simply referring to the abilities of the audience to supply the meaning that the speaker passes over. Epitrope can be either biting in its irony, or flattering in its deference"; e.g. "Because all things [be] taken away, only is left unto me my body and mind. These things, which only are left unto me of many, I grant then to you and to your power. —R. Sherry." Clearly, this example of epitrope is one where the permission isn't given with much of a choice.

sarcasmus: From the Gk, "to tear flesh, to speak bitterly." Defined: "Use of mockery or verbal taunts"; e.g. like when those impolite Romans said to Christ on the cross: "If you be the son of God, descend from the cross —Matt. 27."

mycterismus: From the Gk, "to sneer." Defined: "It is a mock given with an accompanying gesture, such as a scornful countenance"; e.g. as in telling a misbehaving guest as they leave, "We're SO GLAD you came," with a kind of sneery-smile.

What all of these figures share is the element of negation; each case makes a surface statement that is undermined, mediated, or called into question by the way it's phrased, by a gesture, or the inclusion of an out-of-place contradictory word that can be frivolously ridiculous (tall person as a midget), or contain a derisive meaning as well, relating maybe to his failed performance in business or sex.

But for irony to become a good commodity in common discourse, all those Rhetorical Figures are forgotten, and a streamlined model of irony comes off the assembly line, and that line is the mass media. We can imagine Oscar Wilde as being the godfather of this irony as he played intricate games that seemed frivolous but did so with a high degree of seriousness. But it wasn't until mass media became televisual that this irony—which is a kind of "having on," a dubiousness, a mock, and a maintaining of two frames of mind or reference—was truly produced for and became a part of the masses. The Prometheus that delivered this fire to mortals was our very own Andy Warhol, through his low-art-as-high-art aesthetic (among other things). But more than that, he presented his whole persona and project—stuff that, like Wilde, he took greatly seriously—as silly, meaningless, and empty. The joke was on the viewer or the culture if one decided to believe his shenanigans. It also allowed him to get away with a great deal: were his silk screens clever comments on our culture of reproduction? did they play on the sense that people are things? that ugly photographs of car crashes can be screened with colors to make them go with the couch? or was his art only empty but hip "pop"? Warhol doesn't need to have invented The New Irony, but he certainly practiced it very well, and a lot of people noticed this (I think, by the way, that Warhol was very sophisticated in the ways he employed his ironic stance: the quality of the thing when it's introduced is always different from what it becomes to be more easily disseminated). Furthermore, his Factory produced films and rock groups, which played this irony out into larger audiences outside the art world. "Walk on the Wild Side" is a perfect example of droll ironic shrugging about drag queens, street people, and urban ennui with a great pop hook. We can include the punk aesthetic in this mini-history, but the next big shift happened with MTV and its wild popularity. Suddenly, a New York style of sarcastic hipness was everywhere, and after that you eventually have "Seinfeld" and "Friends." I'm skipping many many steps, but the upshot is that this irony is a much more powerful—and less risky—stance to have toward the world than sincerity (not that I'm holding up sincerity as a better option), and it's deeply embedded in the culture now. Everywhere you look, and I mean primarily in popular culture, there is a smart-ass quip or phrase announcing itself as the next bon mot. I submit Maxim magazine: reading it you get the impression that the editors are making fun of even the things they like. Does this mean that we're all more sophisticated now than our forebears? Yes, I think, yes and no. In the same way more people are literate now than ever before, our use of irony and that double-mindedness which it denotes is more sophisticated; but on the other hand, we're not exactly Oscar Wilde, either.

Back to Bad Movies
I told you that story to tell you this one: so now, taking on the question of a "bad" movie has become rather moot, because everyone likes bad movies now. There is certainly a generational barrier that keep some people over 50 or 60 out of the loop, and you have another cultural resistance in smaller towns, or "Red" states, with people who don't watch TV, go to the movies often, or read lad mags. And then, the best thing is that Hollywood hasn't entirely gotten on board with the new irony, because it is blinded in its pursuit of the test-marketed blockbuster: the film that will appeal to as many people as possible. Yes, we see the release of other, smaller kinds of movies that have no intention of making $100 million the opening weekend, but by and large Hollywood hasn't fully realized that its big money making scheme isn't working (or very cost-effective). Instead, they hire people like Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, and Carrie Fisher to add some zippy dialogue, but it's just another checkbox on the Blockbuster checklist, and while their aesthetical-financial obsession should give us hope for "bad" movies we can enjoy ironically, the results tend to be pretty bland.

Back in the Golden Age before mass-produced irony, no one even knew about "Plan 9 from Outer Space" unless he caught it on "The Late Late Show" or "Creature Double Feature." And the ones who didn't find it incoherent and boring decided it was funny, which is what Tim Burton did. And so a few "bad" movies, by way of a specialized audience were reinvented as "cult" films, a term that has the odor of weird fringiness about it, and that odor is the scent of marijuana. It was the dropouts, freaks, stoners, and funny bachelor men who were members of the various cults surrounding certain films, because who else had time to stay up for the late show or watch "Doctor Tongue's 3-D House of Stewardesses" on weekday or Saturday afternoons when Mr and Mrs America were at work or ironing? College students were the next wave, and why not? It's just another feature of rebelling against your parents by deciding the movies Mom and Dad think are bad, are actually trippy, interesting, or just plain funny.

I Didn’t Mean Anything by It
This is where I come in (did you really think this wasn’t about me at some point?). I am not a fan of The New Irony—I mean, sure it can be fun and all, but often it comes off as a reflex reaction of smug knowingness, a joyless exercise. I had a professor in grad school who wrote in one of his books that “the skeptic annihilates the world” (an always haunting phrase) and, in my opinion, The New Irony contains an irreducible kernel of skepticism. It isn’t a gesture of solidarity with an audience, or it doesn’t need to be. As opposed to a lie, which depends on the ignorance of the audience or listener, Rhetorical irony only functions when the listener also has knowledge; with The New Irony, no audience is necessarily even necessary. Just you. With Rhetorical irony, there is a space or a gap between what is said and what is meant, but there is an intention behind it, and a meaning, that despite its ambiguity is still meaningful; the New Irony believes in nothing, and therefore is about playing a game without a goal. So, the fact that bad movies and bad TV and bad fashion are valued for their hipness is a reliable index, not of nothing exactly, but of nothingness. It is an empty play of signs, signals, and signifiers, wherein the action of arrangement is the art, but to no discernable intentional effect, except, let us say, to be noticed, to register. It is as though an impatience with meaning itself (or even a radically antisentimental stance towards meaning) has supported this shift, this play that somehow has no rules, and no seriousness at all; therefore The New Irony becomes almost pure gesture or style. I know this paragraph is riddled with judgments, and while I engage in The New Irony myself sometimes, just like you, what I’m trying to state here is a preference. I’m old fashioned, and I don’t mind it.

Sometimes You Have to Be Bad
I still like to think of cult movies, mistakes, and trash as "bad." To name something as bad is to locate it someplace, perhaps not a precice location, but one nonetheless, whereas to relate to a film by way of The New Irony is to locate it no place, exactly. Rather than view a bad film by way of an I-know-better ironic agenda, I try to take it for what the "film" seems to be trying to do—and let me say that can get you into some pretty strange neighborhoods. Somebody set out to make these things, and that's more interesting to me than “enjoyment” served up with a condescending ironic twist—I guess what I mean is, you have to take these films seriously on some level. Besides, anything that disappoints, offends, baffles, or bores mainstream tastes is something I want to see. And a lot of these films are bad because they were made by freaks with no budget and a bad handle on production; others are just trashy B—or even C movies—where the plot is only a pretext for getting as many big breasted women with guns on screen as possible. But the holiest of bad films are the ones that were made with a budget, a certain amount (sometimes a lot) of expertise, a recognized if not respectable cast, a lot of pre-release publicity, and the utmost desire to make a really great movie. But either because of the material and the way it was handled, or just some crazy cinematic curse, each person from the director to the screenwriter to the star to the grip and the best boy made the wrong choice at every step of the way, and this created an impossible crystalline-like structure that a creative team could never hope to accomplish on purpose. It just happens. And all the audience can do is gape in disbelief at the embarrassment of otherworldly riches on display. The three timeless examples of this sort of movie magic are, of course, "Valley of the Dolls," "Mommie Dearest," and "Showgirls." If you've never seen them, or you aren't in the ten-plus club yet, you'd better get your freak on and take care of it, because some things really do make living better.

Why am I not writing for the New Yorker?

21 March 2006

I Post Song Lyrics Sometimes: Give a Little More

Duller than dishwater and twice as exciting....

This horrible song got Neely O'Hara fired from her first big break on Broadway! Early on in the ineffable film classic, "Valley of the Dolls" (1967), we observe a rehearsal for a new Helen Lawson musical; Miss Lawson coils in her dressing room, spitting invective at anyone who comes within reach; suddenly she is distracted by Neely singing "Give a Little More" (even the title is dismaying) from a rehearsal room and Miss Lawson decides right there to get the talented Neely fired, because, as I'm sure you know, say it with me: "The only hit that comes out of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson. And that's me, baby, remembuh?"

The other thing you should know about this song, and Patty Duke sings part of it twice, is that the first time we meet Neely, she's sitting in rehearsal singing this song to the cast, who are surprisingly transfixed--everything is "supposed" to scream that THIS GIRL HAS TALENT! But note the awful, smug sneer Neely has plastered on her mug the whole time (it's supposed to be a smile). She's just so cocky and gross and inappropriate, and I don't know if Patty just didn't know what she was doing or if she really thought Neely was supposed to be that full of herself in the scene where she's introduced to the audience. All I know, is it makes me hate Neely O'Hara from the get-go every time.

And now for the song....

Give a Little More

Try, my friend, to face yourself
with all you have in store.
But if you can't,
then brace yourself
and give a little more.

So, you wait
and find yourself
with blues you can't ignore.
Well, then, my friend,
remind yourself
to give a little more.

Make tomorrow dance for you,
strike a brand new pose.
There's always one more chance for you
before the curtains close.

Sure, that old inspired heart
ain't all it was before.
But then, my friend,
that tired heart
should try it's best to soar.

Dry those tears,
forget those fears,
and smile the smile you wore.

Come on, my firend, and give a little,
come on, my friend, and live a little.
Give a little more, more, and more.

Lyrics by Dory Previn, Music by Andre Previn.

13 March 2006

Fun With Shakespeare's Sonnets! Sonnet 75.

We call love an emotion, but it is distinct from feelings, such as sadness or anger. In fact, while we can be said to “feel” love, or “feel in love,” when one compares such a sensation with sadness or anger, love suddenly thrusts itself into relief. Love is, properly speaking, an attachment, a relation, a configuration, a projection, and a denial; love has the properties of reflection, absorption, and immersion. Is sadness like this? No. Instead, we notice that something odd occurs when love is around, to wit, that a phenomenon of love is sadness, and also anger—loving someone sometimes makes us sad, sometimes angry. Yet it is difficult to imagine the converse and love coming out of the experience of sadness. Is there any other emotion that produces so many other emotions? And what is the strange nature of love that it can make us feel exhilarated or depressed, whole or fragmented, connected or terribly alone? We'll let this musing stand for a moment and veer into a more literary and less speculative zone. 

I recently had the opportunity to work on a collection of short plays called Love’s Fire, in which seven playwrights were asked to each write a play based on a Shakespeare sonnet. (NOTE: I will post another time on my thoughts regarding the deathless Bard, or as I like to call him The Shakespeare-which-is-not-one.) Though I’ve read through the Sonnets off and on since college, I never took too much care with them until this project—man, was I in for a surprise. I used online research, a couple books, and especially Helen Vendler’s monumental, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for my resources. (NOTE 2: Vendler’s book is probably the best I’ve seen on the Sonnets, and it works incrementally: the more you read the sonnets and her commentaries on them, the more you understand how crazy and beautiful the whole collection is—and therefore the more you understand what a fucked-up, twisted freak Shakespeare was.)

For a quick review of what you may have forgotten or never learned: the sonnet is a fourteen-line iambic pentameter Middle Period poetic form initiated by the Italians in the 14th century and brought to England about two hundred years later. The English sonnet that Shakespeare used, consists of 3 quatrains of 4 lines each (noted Q1, Q2, Q3), and a final couplet (noted C); its rhyme-scheme—which allows for much less flexibility in English rather than Italian or French—is abab cdcd efef gg. The classic themes of a sonnet include love, time, the beauty and chastity of a maiden, and frequently, comparisons of the beloved to flowers and other natural features (for example, blushing cheeks are like roses).

Shakespeare came to the form after its popularity had begun to fade, and when his Sonnets were published in 1609, they sold poorly and received little critical attention for about two centuries. But what a complex and difficult treasure trove the Sonnets has turned out to be. Ever the innovator, Shakespeare performs a poetic sleight-of-hand so that the beloved addressed in these poems is not the virtuous woman of tradition but, respectively, a frivolous fickle young man and a promiscuous not-very-beautiful Dark Lady. Furthermore, Shakespeare takes the reader on an intellectual, emotional rollercoaster never seen in the literature before or since. The speaker (whom we distinguish from his author) of the 154 poems not only celebrates his beloved, but expresses his lust, frustration, impatience, anger, disappointment, possessiveness, forgiveness, despair, self-mocking, and even self-loathing. (Imagine the mind that conceives a love poem should begin, not “Be wise as thou art beautiful,” but “Be wise as thou art cruel.”) Until a reader immerses himself in the cycle, the truly twisted nature of the Sonnets remains obscure. To read them is a disorienting experience that can leave a person feeling a bit demented, but he might also find it exciting to encounter a tightly-controlled fourteen line lyric on the frightening desire for control that results in the loss of it, in one case (sonnet 75), or in another, a not-so-veiled threat wrapped in a humiliating plea to the Dark Lady to pretend to love the speaker even though she has found love elsewhere (140). Many of the effects we attribute to love appear in these poems, and Shakespeare’s fearlessness in exploring the exquisite complexity, strangeness, and troubling dark places of love and desire make the Sonnets one of Shakespeare’s—and literature’s—great achievements.

So, this is the first installment in a short series of pieces (re)visiting a few of the sonnets of William Shakespeare. Attributed to me. Apologies to Helen Vendler.

Sonnet 75

So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Q1
Or as sweet seasoned showers are to the grond;
And for the peace of you I hold such strife
As 'twixt a miser and his wealth is found:

Now proud as an enjoyer, and anon Q2
Doubting the filching age will steal his treasure;
Now counting best to be with you alone,
Then bettered that the world might see my pleasure:

Sometime all full with feasting on your sight, Q3
And by and by clean starved for a look; 
Possessing or pursuing no delight
Save what is had, or must from you be took.

Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day, C
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

This relatively early sonnet to the young man is remarkable for its frenetic turnover of metaphors, as though the impassioned excitement of the speaker were forcing him to jump from one image to the next, even as he puts on casual airs with "now," "anon," "now," "then," "sometime," and "by and by." But it cleverly uncovers the dark obsessiveness of this love by shifting from a beautiful, elevated depiction of the young man as the thing that gives the speaker's thoughts life (doubled in the image of life-giving rain) in Q1, to a portrayal of him as the coins coveted by a possessive miser in Q2 [the "filching age" has been interpreted as a reference to the rival poet(s), from whom the speaker wants to keep the young man], to the frightening description of the speaker as a glutton, starved and feasting on the young man, possessing him even by force ("or must from you be took") in Q3. We start with a grateful plenty that turns into desperate acts of control and bewildering wildly vacillating sensations of starvation and overindulged satiety. The speaker has no delight except in the young man, and waits for what the young man will give him—or what must be taken. These fantasies of possession, control, and absorption are belied by the depiction in the sonnet of the pursuit of the young man by the speaker, not his ownership of him, because the young man clearly comes and goes as he pleases, thus starving the speaker for another look. The nature of their relationship is implied with sexualized words ("enjoyer", "treasure", "pursuing", "possessing", "had") and there is a sense of the immoral, or an ironized recognition of it, by the inclusion of the deadly sins: avarice, pride, gluttony, explicitly, and the implication of lust and envy. Finally, it is the lack of control that the sonnet depicts so forcefully not just in the frantic grasping and discarding of metaphors, but in their ultimate form as degraded bodily ravenousness. The final couplet not only says, to paraphrase, that the speaker pines and overindulges, or overeats everything or has nothing at all ("all away"), but implies the desire of the speaker to glutton on the young man until there is nothing left of him ("gluttoning… all away")—to love him so furiously that he destroys the young man entirely. In sum, the speaker seems disgusted, frightened, embarrassed, and guilty about his dependence on the young man, and this expresses itself in a kind of panicked rage.

03 March 2006

A repost of a repost of a riposte: BigMuscle.com

Hey lady, you lady, cursing at your life....

Have you ever heard of BigMuscle.com? I've been "on" it for a while, and, after working in interactive for years, and being on a million sites (okay, a hundred, at least), I find it difficult to represent myself, well, with sincerity, on, um, anything online. I said "difficult." My great problem with Internet culture, and blogs especially, is that everyone is trying so hard to give up who they are, when everyone else is making a disposable identity. This makes for a bad dichotomy. It's as if half the world were writing memoirs and the other half were writing novels. And I mean this avowadly so in the first instance, and implicitly so in the second. This is the perfect example of how media has changed in an extraordinory way in the last fifteen years. Truth-claims for writing, whether online or elsewhere, have become very confused, but the online world is more and less sophisticated than the print-world: its boundaries are much more flexible. While we might be pissed off that that certain someone is not whom he or she said she or he would be online, we have learned to relax about it some; yet if a memoirist confesses to amplifying, extending, or even, yes, lying about his or her life on Oprah (or anywhere else [and where else does this happen, exactly?]), readers take great umbrage. (Alas, our current President and most others in elected government are held to a lesser standard.)

I don't know why this happens. Online, we let go of someone's misrepresentation (depending on one's experience and history), but on paper it's much more serious--it means something. Is the money we've paid for the paper and the incredibly well-financed cover and the PR the thing that prevents us from seeing a memoir as a story or as entertainment? And should we believe that any autobiography or biography is anything but a story? And lastly is any history anything but a story?

I had a few of these things in mind way back in 2003 when I wrote my first self-critical post on BigMuscle.com. To tell this story, however, I should tell two others first: the earlier is that I have a background in literary theory, cultural criticism, and psychoanalysis, so if you dislike one or all three of these options, you should probably stop reading now because my take will bore you. Latterally, BigMuscle is a funny "community" that allows you to post a profile with a number of pictures; it also requires your physical stats, including your geographical location; allows you to say as much as you might ever want textually, even, as some do, in a blog-style format; and lastly allows you to link out to other BigMuscle profiles, even in the thousands, so that your reader can see who you "like" in what in some cases is a vast list at the bottom of the your profile page.

So, here I offer up my first real post on BigMuscle. Read at your own risk.

Undated Winter 2003

We begin with the question of the gaze. Although the mouth is our first point of interaction with the world, and as much as orality typifies the way we greedily suck images inside ourselves as though they were some form of nourishment, it is a feeding that never satisfies. We begin instead with the gaze not in terms of our own looking but, naturally, the gaze of another, which, unlike our looking, does bring a kind of satisfaction with its own compliment of frustration and addiction. We throw ourselves at the world in fragments hoping to hook an eye, catch the gaze of another whose appraisal--of desire, delight, disgust, derision, or dread--will only feed something inside ourselves that demands that attention. We anxiously link out to other bodies we've constructed--bodies of words and disassembled parts--hoping to evoke a kind of wholeness, to trick the other and therefore ourselves into buying this wholeness with the coin of his gaze. But just as every signifier refers to every other signifier--and never to itself--we become lost in the web of signification, never finding a resting spot, a ground to stand on, a place that stays still, a signified. Or as Max Frisch says in one of his famous diaries, "I have only sought to explain myself but find I have only betrayed myself."

So, are you still looking?


02 March 2006

Day 1: Already Leaving Something to Be Desired....

The first thing my boyfriend said to me when I told him I was having difficulty coming up with a name for "my" "blog" was, "But blogs take up so much time!"

Well, I guess there's only one way to find out....