07 May 2010

This is the End, My Friends

Not really. This is just the ultimate post for the semester! Throughout the semester I have attempted to keep this blog going, but it certainly suffered a bit from an overwhelming amount of work and obligations in March and April. That said, I do plan on keeping this blog going. I have really enjoyed having the outlet to put thoughts/ideas/videos/and one-offs that I can't really figure out where else to put. Also, if nothing else, I need a space where I can track the prolific amount of films I intend to consume or re-watch in anticipation of my dissertation.

My blog, I believe, was mostly of an academic nature (barring the last surge with Redd Foxx's wildly vulgar antics). In retrospect, this blog feels right, mostly, but some of the more academic work is uncharacteristically dry (in prose). I think it is because, as opposed to a written paper, I feel less obliged to be creative or humorous when I can post videos, links, or songs. Funny how that works. I did try to keep some humor in there, but for some reason the creativity I feel essential to my critical work was(at times) put on the shelf in favor of "smarts." Then again, my favorite things for the "Visual Research Methods" class--the video essay and my final digital story--are on here, and those were appropriately creative and fun.

I particularly loved doing the digital story, and though it shifts between font sizes, styles, and outlay (a true sign of my amateur grasp of all things digital), I have was happy to be able to put down something about my curious thoughts regarding memory, Christmas, and Halloween. Frankly, I'm not sure where else I could have too, which is another reason I'm so thankful for this class.

There are two other reasons I think it is essential, for me at least, to keep blogging: (1) it keeps me sharp on my written skills, particularly when the summer ennui attempts to settle in, and (2) it provides an outlet to catalog the papers I need to write, films I need to watch, and thoughts I need to start connecting. NOW, the hard part is actually doing it, but I think it's doable. The one thing I need to forfeit, however, in that process is style and a dedication to tidiness. Not everything will be stylistic or perfectly in order, but that will bother me less if I consider this blog as an extension of my notebooks.

The final thing I want to comment on, and this really came out in Professor Juhasz's comments about my digital story, is the personal nature of this blog. For my digital story, I felt it was necessary as I was grappling with something highly personal and specific (yet, as I noted, that has far-reaching possibilities and connections with others). Otherwise, I am always squeamish about the worse possible qualities of digital media seeping into my blogging; I'm thinking of the Facebook or Twitter "What I ate for breakfast" updates. I'm always afraid, as someone who has kept journals sporadically throughout his life, that I'll confuse the medium with an online journal, and lose some of my critical edge in the pursuit of tailoring everything back to myself. This is something I will consciously struggle against, maybe, but I think more likely connecting the work I do here with the work I will continue to do at CGU will help.

In parting, all I can say, is:

04 May 2010

A Post to Push Down Time

Also, to push down my previous post, with its XL videos, so I can access my side tabs; plus, working off the Red Foxx reference earlier--and in a general interest in Red's distinctive brand of offensive humor--a clip from his stand-up. Given what I am discussing in my digital storytelling project, and my interest du jour (ideology), the start of this clip shows someone embracing the illusion structuring the reality (nodding to Zizek) and managing the best, most authentically upfront sales pitch I have heard in recent memory. This is the ideology of capitalism not attempting to hide or distance itself, but presenting its realities as scatology:





(HERE COMES THE HUGE PUSH TO KNOCK VIDEOS DOWN LOWER; THIS IS ALSO A TEST FOR THE FINAL PROJECT)


























AND NOW...






















RED FOXX...

















HERE:






03 May 2010

Tricky Dicks

Just got finished writing a lengthy, historical (slightly critical) diatribe on Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon, and I thought this would be a great sounding pad to get out all the cultural Nixons that I squeezed into my concluding paragraph--and those that could not fit.



Nixon vs. Black Dynamite (2009); or, Nixon as paranoid, vitriolic, and excellent at kung-fu.



Nixon in Secret Honor (1984); or, Robert Altman excoriates the drunk, cruel Nixon.



Nixon in "A Head in the Polls" Futurama (1999); or, Nixon, Checkers, and the two-bit Watergate crooks get the what-for.



Nixon in The Simpsons; or, not my favorite Simpsons v. Nixon moment, but it'll have to do for, um, exposing Nixon's true "face."



Nixon at the "Last Press Conference" (1962); or, Nixon shoots self in foot--Norman Mailer would say the move was akin to suicide--before becoming twice-elected President of the United States of America.



Nixon reminding public/press "I am not a crook" (1973); the speech, a true testament of wishful thinking and believing your own dishonesty, is better understood in the look of the afro'd reporter early in the clip (he's thinking, like the nation, 'What the hell is up with this dude, cuz frankly this is uncomfortable and strange--and I'm pretty sure he's lying.')



Nixon's "Farewell Speech" (1974); or, a perfect study in ethos, pathos, logos, and much, much bathos (I wrote my paper on this doozy).

What do these images, fictionalized (sort of) or not (sort of), tell us of Richard Nixon? Not much. That's the one thing I've learned in my time reading, writing, and obsessing over Nixon: he is frankly unknowable. Is he full of shit? Yes, mostly. Is he utterly sincere (truly believing some of his own lies)? Yes, often. Is he a parody? Of course. Is he an important political mind? Certainly. Is he a dastardly war criminal? Sure. So, you tell me, what portrait could you draw of that person? Only one:


(Love, your pal, Richard M. Nixon)

Spinning the Black Circle

Surprised that I am not closer to the required eight semester posts for the semester--I'm not counting my video essay or first (test) post--I am going to do some quick hit posts that explore an idea or curio that interests me. First up: vinyl. Or, the black circle:



Using Pearl Jam, one of my favorite groups of all time, as the catalyst I'll note that I've recently (and again) become re-acquainted and interested in those big floppy discs o' music. I grew up with a record player, and my father's fairly ample, eclectic musical collection, which entertained me endless while I wrote and read. Recently, I've gotten back into vinyl at its demands that you attend to it have been a welcome distraction from all the writing the end of the semester requires.

This Pearl Jam song, "Spin the Black Circle," comes off their phenomenal album Vitalogy (1994), and is lyrically worth considering in light of my new-found interest in this aural delight:

"See this needle...a see my hand...
Drop, drop, dropping it down...oh, so gently...
Well here it comes...I touch the plane...
Turn me up...won't turn you away...

Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...spin the black, spin the black...
Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...whoa...

Pull it out...a paper sleeve...
Oh, my joy...only you deserve conceit...
I'm so big...a-my whole world...
I'd rather you...rather you...than her...

Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...spin the black, spin the black...
Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...whoa...oh...

You're so warm...oh, the ritual...when I lay down your crooked arm...

Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...spin the black, spin the black...
Spin, spin...spin the black circle
Spin, spin...
Spin the black circle
Spin the black circle...
Spin, spin...
Spin, spin..."

The kind of giddy excitement--not to mention the drug and sexual references--help explain the kind of delights vinyl can elicit in the audiophile. The first passage, with its clear drug references of needle in hand (thinking Neil Young's "The Needle and the Damage Done") and its gentle delivery explains the textile joy--greatly lost in the album download or purchase and loading of a CD into a car system--vinyl allows. Similarly, referencing the sexual elements of the song (warmth, crooked arm, "pull it out") and the decidedly gendered yet ambiguous desire* ("rather you than her"), there is a love associated with vinyl: you have to come to it, pull it out of a case, place it down, lift up the needle, set down the needle, and then, after a brief respite, repeat the process all over again. Vinyl truly caters to those who cater to music (coddle it, fetishize it, adore it), which is not to suggest that those who merely download music here and there are incapable of truly appreciating music. That's called elitism.

That said, I can't help but (somewhat) find myself falling into harboring those associations with many contemporary music fans, and mainly because I found myself--when just downloading music (not really when purchasing a CD)--skipping from track to track before even a first listen of the entire album. I have always been a huge purchaser of music because I love to pour over the artwork and lyrics (or not) of an album; I find myself assessing an album on all parts, which explains why I dig Cultural Studies. Also as a "music journalist" (which I don't know why I feel so strangely about labeling myself, as anyone who interviews bands and writes music pieces for money should proudly own up to the title) music has been more than just background noise or a passing interest.

A friend recently suggested that vinyl is the ultimate compromise in our complicated, commodified music structure. New albums often come with the download code, sating our need to take our music with us, and since CDs are notoriously no better in sound quality than vinyl (nor even cassettes), it reinvests music with its appropriate aural integrity. I think it does help foster some elitist feelings--in fact, I know it--but, critical faculties be damned, I can't help myself; appropriately, I'm hooked. In meantime I have to go flip over my Red Foxx album, excuse me...


* I say ambiguous because the record unlike "her" is not gendered; granted, if I had to guess, I'm thinking Eddie Vedder is looking to connect the album with the female.

01 May 2010

“Call it Mysticism,” Won’t You? Ideology eats Christmas, nibbles on Halloween

Once upon a time...

Taking full advantage of the multimodality of the medium most of my epigrams, naturally, are digital:



--Bob Dylan "Must Be Santa" Christmas in the Heart (2009)


--Halloween trailer (1978)


"Call it mysticism if you will, I have always believed that there was some divine providence that placed this great land here between the two great oceans, to be found by a special kind of people from every corner of the world, who had a special love for freedom and a special courage that enabled them to leave their own land, leave their friend and their countrymen, and come to this new and strange land to build a New World of peace and freedom and hope." --Ronald Reagan at New York Harbor on July 4, 1986.

Jing-jing jingling, ring-ring ringling

"Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!"
--A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)


During the 2004 Christmas season--a season I'm fairly certain extends from roughly the end of Thanksgiving and anywhere up to and including New Year’s Day--I saw this commercial:



Now, I’d seen this commercial countless times before (likely when it first aired, one of the few factoids I cannot track down on the vast Web), but 2004 was my final year at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and whenever this came on in my friends’ house—where we often congregated outside of class and work to drink, play video games, and drink—it would elicit wild excitement, laughter, and overall merriment (with endless recitations into the night). In fact, you would often hear someone, in any room, bellow with stunning accuracy, a perfectly warbling baritone of “Yabba Dabba Froooo-tee-licious, Doo!” Of course, laughter ensued, and, for me at least, I felt a kind of warmth akin to spending the holidays, slightly drunk and stuffed with good food, with your closest family (it helped that most of us in the house had been good friends since high school). And when I say drinking, I don’t mean to suggest a generic collegiate domesticity of iniquity, just as often as we were sipping from a 32 oz. of Miller High Life ("The Champagne of Beers" )--known for maybe the strangest beer bottle image:

--we were sucking down our own bastardized Slurpees (concoctions of absurd mixology); which is all in defense of suggesting that the joviality and good-cheer elicited by Freddy and Barney’s antics were not necessarily the result of too much hops. Strangely enough, I guess we were

not

alone.


Nitty-Gritty, The


And now for something completely different...some theory to explicate my digital exploration. My mediatized story (i.e., digital story) borrows its approach from Ola Erstad and James Wertsch. In essence, this digitally storied blog post takes a socio-cultural approach to "understand how individual functioning is shaped by and related to the socio-cultural setting within which it exists" (23). Why? Because I found, in abundantly clear ways during the process of writing this blog post (these comments in truly mediated, anachronistic fashion have been inserted after-the-fact), that "storytelling is not something 'invented' by the individual, but renegotiated in a cultural process in which we all participate" (25). What will follow is less a "specific" narrative (with "concrete places, characters, events") and more of "schematic narrative" template (29). Schematic because "it is generalised, abstract" and narrative because "it has an emplotted form" (29). By using the various modalities afforded by a blog, I am attempting to connect the personal with a more generalized grasp at meaning-making in my story, remembering: "All media are of course personal in the sense that they are mediational means for means for meaning making" (32).


And Back Again...


In the various reactions to the seasonal Fruity Pebbles, the Internet turned what seemed like simple nostalgia—we all liked the commercial growing up—or holiday levity—the general heady enjoyment of a season where people, by default, err towards being pleasant—into something more complex. Consider: “why is it I've never been a huge flintstone fan but this is my favorite commercial ever I have never forgotten one word to this classic?” “Why did I love THIS one so much? I never really even liked Flintstones, but the power of Christmas is strong with this commercial.” Not to be snarky, but for some grammatical guffaws, these sentiments are exactly analogous to those of myself, almost suggesting there may be something autochthonous about loving this commercial. An American version of the Platonic ideal of Christmas seems to be encapsulated in a Fruity Pebbles commercial.


Memory and nostalgia are particularly fascinating to me, yet I often consider them so ineffable or inexplicable that I rarely care to or even know how to speculate about them. Nevertheless, I am always fascinated when others do. I took a class on written style during my M.A. where we read some of Proust's In Search of Lost Time (1913-27), which is hugely concerned with memory and nostalgia. Of course, memory and nostalgia are also the subject of countless academic articles, dissertations, and books; one of the better ones I've read, so far, was George Lipsitz's Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (2001). Lipsitz nicely surmises on the potential of ever-present popular culture: "For all their triviality and frivolity, the messages of popular culture circulate in a network of production and reception that is quite serious. At their worst, they perform the dirty work of the economy and the state. At their best, they retain memories of the past and contain hopes for the future that rebuke the injustices and inequities of the present" (20). The reason I don't particularly want to study memory and nostalgia is because there's a kind of mystical quality to it all that baffles and, honestly, kind of frightens me. For instance, neither Proust or Lipsitz explain why this



still sticks in my head from when I was four years old (it aired on CBS in 1987); and I mean that specific scene, as well as a handful of other passages from the same special. It's not that there's a pestiferous quality to this media, it doesn't persist offensively in my memory, but its ability to last in my subconscious decades after it has been viewed is somehow haunting. Until, for this project, when I actually re-watched bits of it on YouTube, I hadn't seen any of this special since 1987. I can definitely see the "best" of popular culture at work in my/our collective nostalgia, but, thinking of Lipsitz, I'm not sure it rebukes the injustices or inequities of the present--unless it can be said to do so simply by recreating a fonder time. What further complicates the example of The Claymation Christmas, is that I also remember A Garfield Christmas special, which some extremely remedial online research informed me aired on CBS the exact same day as The Claymation Christmas, and which I have also not seen since.


There has to be something mighty powerful about the media, or certain mediatized moments specifically, that would allow them so free a reign in our subconscious. Often, as I’ve grown older and more directly immersed in the study of media, I query my own media upbringing and wonder why, like my friends (or those sounding off throughout the Internet), some media stuck, while other media or even significant memories (from as recently as high school*) have not. For some reason, Christmas time, and particularly from my youth, stands out as the cornerstone of fond, digitized memories; remembering, like those sounding off on the Internet, that if you can find Christmas in a cereal commercial perhaps your expectations aren't particularly high. Basely, I would suggest that maybe, in part, it is because when you're young and carefree (that is, if you're able to be young and carefree) you can allow for a hyper-sensitive, symbiotic relationship with the holidays and/or special moments that cannot be afforded when you age and the holidays, even at their best, still surround deadlines, chores, responsibilities, duties, and concerns. Yet, that seems too easy and decidedly cynical. Nonetheless, every year I still watch A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), listen to a smattering of seasonal tunes from Burl Ives to Perry Como, and seriously consider reading Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843) all because they correspond to early, pleasurable Christmas memories, like the aforementioned '87 Christmas specials.


(Read me, Seymour).


Slaying Santa


"Everything is topsy-turvy with the world today/All the world is restless since Depression came our way/So last night I went to sleep and dreamed that I had died...it sure is swell to be laying out dead."

--Alex Bartha's Hotel Traymore Orchestra, "It Must be Swell to be Laying Out Dead" (1932)


As I've aged, however, my interests (both academic and general) have tipped into decidedly darker territories--which is not to suggest, as that may read, that I've started studying/worshiping Satan and singing the praises of Mein Kampf. Rather, I have simply become interested in more pointedly critical works and art (from the recondite theories of Foucault and Deleuze to the darker, more sardonic literature of Melville, Chaucer, and Faulkner; from the knotty, mystical visions of Charles Fort and James Frazer to the savage American cinema of the '60s and '70s like Easy Rider and The Deer Hunter), an almost natural progression for many who study the humanities throughout their (long) collegiate career. Yet, in some kind of weird compensatory balancing act, I also became wholly invested in horror films, and not necessarily the canonical work that makes its way into academia. Growing up, horror was the one genre my dad--an avid cinephile--could not abide, while my mom wouldn't even humor the "classics" like Alien and Halloween. This, of course, will make it sound like my attachment to horror films was a rebellious turn. Truly, this was/is not the case; if for no other reason than my parents did not willfully or vengefully oppose my interest in horror films (why would they? didn't it beat the countless other things I could have been doing during my maturation?). (They did, however, serve up an ideology that, damn it all, was often all too true: you'll scare yourself to death with those movies, which, more often than not, I did).

(Here's one that still always gets me).

Personally, I kind of latched onto horror films for two reasons (one loony; one quasi-reasonable): (1) the worse the film I watched was, the more inspired to write, creatively or otherwise, I found myself, and, (2) having watched plenty of films, across just about every conceivable genre, I often find even the most pedestrian horror film to contain more creativity that the most pedestrian film of nearly any other genre. Nevertheless, my first true indoctrination into the depth of horror happened late at night, on Arizona public access, where I saw (at different times) two horror movies that stuck: Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988) and The Funhouse (1981). The former (which I have actually since bought on DVD, and still find to be a tight, mannered, and funny film) I saw either early in high school or late in grade school. From that time, until I confirmed it on DVD, I never forgot two scenes: one where a clown stabs a twisty straw into a giant hanging cotton candy encasing a human to drink the blood, and another where a cop is assaulted with acidic pies (leaving a skeleton). The film is sweet, at times, but whenever I watch it I'm still amazed by the amount of actual death it contains, even in the trailer (which has the pie scene!):




Meanwhile, I know I saw The Funhouse during my formative, grade school years, and it scared the bejesus out of me. I was pleased, last year when I re-watched it, that it was not just a case of being too young. Directed by the venerable Tobe Hooper (of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist fame) it is a genuinely tough movie with lots of sudden, harsh death, a relatively bleak ending, a bizarrely rough father-son relationship (or father-ghoul), and some effective, jumpy scares:



So, here again, in my general appreciation and love of horror films, I find my youthful memories coming back with a vengeance; unlike my Christmas memories, they often involve the fright and fascination with my newly discovered subject matter. Yet, the oddest thing is that somewhere in the mix, my youthful love of Christmas and frightening interest in horror films have merged into a burgeoning, inexplicable interest in a kind of hybrid that I'll call Christmas grindhouse films--which reached a personal apex this past December when I attended a Christmas grindhouse at the New Beverly Cinema that paired the excellent Black Christmas (1974) with the utterly peculiar Christmas Evil (1980). (Now, as is my wont, I can always excuse any film-watching as "research," and, often, I'm not wrong; as our culture speaks volumes about us, and should I ever write a formal paper on Christmas or Halloween or both these films will be excellent sources). Still, in true Freudian fashion, the repressed (the late-night, cable access horror films) of my youth returned and manifest itself by killing off my fonder subconscious childhood memories (the sweet, pleasant Christmas depictions). Although it doesn't seem to be a currently en vogue genre (not that it ever really was), Christmas grindhouse is certainly a curious specimen. Are these films retaliatory gestures against the consumerism that many see as endemic and problematic about Christmas? Are they an attempt to rid Christmas of its religious connotations by lifting the veil to show it, like Halloween, as a kind of pagan celebration? Are they immature, inevitable stabs at shock-value, mined by transgressing against one of the most beloved holidays? These questions are further complicated by another cult phenomenon, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993):




This film--which, in full disclosure, I have loved since seeing it on video shortly after its home release (having never seen it in the theater)--came out near Halloween (Oct. 29, 1993 to be specific), yet is nothing if not also a seasonal (viz., Christmas) film. So, in short, what gives? Well, film critic John Scalzi offers some insight into the film's wild "cult" success (hint: its an anti-Disney-Disney film), but the truth about the film and this paper likely lie in his one line: "Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the calendar, right after Christmas." Suddenly, in the distance, capital is emerging behind the Janus-headed conundrum of Christmas-Halloween that I have been grappling with, and why not? Think about it: cereal, films, music. Really, all along, the dreams, memories, fantasies, and sugar-plums dancing in my nostalgic miasma were made of dollar bills, coins, and gold bars. In essence, these holidays find Adorno and Horkheimer's Culture Industry and Althusser's Ideological State Apparatuses joining forces to show how idiosyncratic "thinkers" can foster (or blog) wild allegations and crackpot theories about ideology without ever calling it by name--they also show how willfully or apathetically mindless folks can take part in this grand charade like it or not. Here we find two holidays with explicit or indirect pagan origins (a Celtic harvest or the Winter Solstice) that have long since incorporated capital and/or religion (or anti-religion, as the case may be). Looking closer, we were being given the traces in the Christmas works we loved all along (with its talk about "my fair share"):




The Ideology of Mistletoe and Nixon Masks


Ultimately, my ideological impressibility is neither unique nor devastating. It kind of just--tautologically--is what it is. In fact, someone already told me something about this sometime...



Like Žižek, I want a third pill (so I can perceive "the reality in illusion itself"). Žižek also, elsewhere, discusses how the interpellation process ideology undertakes is incomplete, leaving a gap or residue, which must be filled by fully submitting to ideology. For me, those feelings of uneasiness, discomfort, or curiosity about my nostalgia for Christmas and fascination with Halloween horror films was that residue; apparently, I was being resistant in my illusory transition from external obedience to full submission to ideology. Someone for me that, like the murderous birds, helps crack the illusion (however slightly) to show some of the reality in mutually loving, worshiping, and complicating Halloween and Christmas is Canadian director Bob Clark. Idly, I found that my interests in the twisted histories of these two holidays converged nicely with Bob Clark's own filmography. You likely know Bob Clark because of his 1983 Christmas film:



But, I have also come to know him as the director of this 1974 horror film:




Here, strangely enough, I take solace that this man made his career--earned his capital, took our money, exposed the realities in illusion through film-making gimmickry, filled in the gap of interpellation--by celebrating the paradoxical fascination people like myself have with their holidays, memories, ideology, and nostalgia. It beats someone like Reagan who, in the epigram, fills in the gap of ideology with the American myth of the city on the hill--a far more grievous offense than turning Santa into a homicidal maniac. In Bob Clark, at least, I am able to celebrate the illusion because, however narrowly, I perceive some of the reality within. In Bob Clark, I can see the occasional ugliness of Christmas (with its false, media inspired and purported suicide spike), while also reveling in its resplendent ecstasies--and I can do so without feeling the contradictory pulls of these behaviors, but blanket them under nostalgia instead. Now, enjoy someone who also celebrates the illusion, maybe without caring about the reality too, in a video that oddly enough gives me substantial solace in embracing my contradictory and exploratory connections with Christmas and Halloween:




And, finally, it's a bit dramatic, but in the crux of this digital story you may find that some of the tangled grappling with our memories and nostalgia, unlike the above video, can lead to fury when ideology and capital come out the other end. Particularly, if you consider Reagan championing a common vision (capitalism) of the American dream; trying to complete our ideological interpellation so we don't have to struggle to enjoy the gap. Personally, I don't feel as violated as the (International) Noise Conspiracy do with "Capitalism Stole My Virginity" (2001) because you have to celebrate the small victories (like the films of Bob Clark or your own twisted nostalgia) when battling ideology:



*I use this note in particular because I have had a majority of my good friends since high school, and often I feel lost when certain people or incidents in our relatively small high school (approximately 160 per class) are discussed and I find them completely absent from my memory.

10 April 2010

This Movies I Seen

Coming back from a self-imposed blog-break--if that's not a phrase already, patent pending; I'm sure if I shot over to Urban Dictionary I would be amazed and horrified at its existence and variety of connotations--I wanted to write something loose and fun. It could also be because I need a break from the couplet of readings I'm currently undertaking (Bartiz's wonderful but sobering polemic Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did, and Zizek's maddening and delightful The Sublime Object of Ideology--which is maddening only in its occasional opacity and the way it constantly makes me realize that now that I can actually grasp the simple concepts of psychoanalysis and Marxism I need to rethink them entirely; thanks Zizek!)

Anyway, I recently got the chance to talk with some really smart folks at the CGU "Subverting the Margins" conference, and my discussion of the provocative and--in my opinion--political fallow animated film Fritz the Cat (1972) shocked me in its reception. I wasn't shocked, per se, but I was intrigued how many people had never seen (let alone heard of) Fritz the Cat. That, of course, is going to sound really snarky, and it shouldn't. It wasn't like I gave a talk on The Godfather or Gone with the Wind, so a lack of familiarity with the film is understandable. Nevertheless, with some of the film's I'm anticipating writing about (more below), it merely solidified the fact that--like the conference's title--I'll be occupying a marginal space. Not to be callow, but that could be a great thing (in terms of marketability*) or a bad thing (in terms of reputation**). Without further ado--this was supposed to be a fun post, wasn't it?--here are some of the future topics (read: films) of the academic enigma (and hack?) Mike Petitti:

A Bucket of Blood (1959): This Roger Corman film--who, finally, was appropriately sainted at the Oscars this year (without him, no New Hollywood)--stars Dick Miller (of Gremlins fame) as a busboy-cum-avant-garde-artist. Miller accidental kills a neighbors cat and, in a deft move, turns it into art (it's how Van Gogh started, I believe). The film is great on many levels, not the least of which is its flaying of beatniks and their culture, but also as a savage critique on art and creativity. On the level of Swift and Voltaire? Yes, yes it could be.

Blood Freak (1972): Look, any film that involves a complicated plot of a pot-addicted, Vietnam veteran whose taste for toxic turkey meat leads him down a rocky path (spoiler: he turns into a turkey, by which I mean his head is replaced with a cheesy, pawn-shop constructed turkey head). The film is almost didactic as an anti-drug piece--look where one joint can lead you...--yet there's also, obviously, so, so much more going on. Also, it sucks. Which brings me to a pervasive critical interest: bad cinema.

Detour (1945): Finally, an essential bit of film noir that is often overlooked in the canon, but has a substantial cult and critical following. Not sure what I'd like to say about this tale of the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time--but it's a true delight. In other words, I've run out of steam here.

*I'll be the guy who writes theoretical, humorous, and (hopefully) insightful pieces on obscure American movies.

**I'll be the guy who writes dense, unfunny, and pretentiously shortsighted pieces on obscure American movies.

01 March 2010

Gazing

I wanted to comment on Professor Oishi’s lecture two weeks ago because I just finished watching a film that I think connects, in a curious way, to the Halberstam article “The Transgender Gaze in Boys Don’t Cry.” Now, I am not a gaze expert—I, sadly, could not work Professor Krips’ “The Eye & the Gaze” class into my schedule this semester—but I did enjoy the exploration of the various gazes in Boys Don’t Cry. What I liked is the way Halberstam gives credit to director Kimberly Peirce’s use of a transgender gaze, but addresses the way she undercuts it by “[divesting] her character of his transgender gaze and [converting] it to a lesbian and therefore female gaze” (672).

I’d like to use the notion of the gaze as the jumping off point for looking at the film I alluded to earlier: Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). This Belgium film is fascinating for countless reasons—at 3 hours and 21 minutes it certainly challenges the notion of the epic (does time or scope make a film epic?)—but one of the most intriguing things Akerman does is use only static shots to compose her narrative. The basic premise of the story is three days, full of minutia and doldrums, in the life of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman. She makes dinner, runs errands, cooks dinner and awkwardly interacts with her teenage son. Dielman also makes time to sleep with clients for money (i.e., prostitutes herself).

Now, Akerman’s film of static shots will focus for extreme lengths on things like peeling potatoes, making meatloaf, sitting at the kitchen table, and so on. Yet, the film never gives us a glimpse at the most provocative moments in Dielman’s day: the bedroom scenes with her clients. Instead, Akerman keeps us at bay, down the hall, blocked out by a closed bedroom door. Here, our desired gaze—the insidious glance at a primal act—is intentionally denied, and it’s likely one of the reasons this film is a hailed feminist classic. Another reason? The moment we are finally granted access into the bedroom scene, which, of course, is a lengthy shot, and not entirely pleasant to watch; Dielman’s orgasm, while a man literally just lays on top of her, is a mixture of violence and release that will make you shift in your seat. What follows, however, after over 3 hours of exquisitely dull action—which, I confess, actually is engrossing enough that you get drawn into the comfort of the banality of it all (I felt, at times, like I enjoyed this so much I didn’t want too much of a change in Dielman’s routine; it was inviting for me as well)—is Dielman’s Judith versus Holofernes moment. So, once we are finally given the desired gaze, we are then forced to watch the film’s only violent (nay, active) moment. It’s wonderfully executed—pun not, necessarily, intended.

Needless to say, Akerman’s film is a stunning viewing experience that will surely stick with viewers for a long, long time. It’s not for everyone, but I love the way it challenges notions of privilege and the gaze, as well as what compromises a narrative or what constitutes an epic. As a side note, it is a perfect companion piece to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970). Of course, Fassbinder only makes us go through approximately 80 minutes before his explosive, shocking conclusion, but they essentially follow a similar path. Akerman’s film, however, is far more interesting, complicated, and ingenious.


Just one scene, and not the entire thing, to give you an idea of Dielman's life. (Akerman also cleverly uses no soundtrack throughout the film--immersing viewers in the dullness of a life without accompaniment)


And Fassbinder's take...

23 February 2010

...

so compressed the quality is awful, still...
video

05 February 2010

Men of a Certain Age

So, I finally saw my first John Cassavetes' film, Husbands (1970), followed shortly after by my second, Gloria (1980). Wow. That is to say, what a diverse pairing of films by the iconic lo-fi director/actor. You can thank such a unique pairing to the New Beverly Cinema (newbevcinema.com) where I would recommend spending much of your free time if you have a serious, intense interest in all types of films. During the semesters, I find I don't often get as much time to spend at this place, but I have yet to have a bad experience--whether it's seeing two I know by heart or, like last night, two that are new to me.

Now, as a cinephile, I have constantly heard good, bad, and ugly things about Cassavetes--as a filmmaker; as an actor, I was acquainted with his turns in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary's Baby (1968). Also as a cinephile, I hate to admit, I occasionally can get numbed by watching the plethora of films that I do--this sounds awful, even the dullest film I watch has some effect on me, but I'm stressing that it's a sliding scale. As for Gloria, I was sucked into Gena Rowlands acting--who wouldn't be?--but the film itself was certainly a jump from the more experimental Husbands to a more mainstream effort; complete with an absurd car crash scene. It's funny, but a lot of the problems with Gloria had to do with the score, which drew my mind back to Geuens--the way the strings would swell for maudlin moments was pure manipulation that Cassavetes' earlier work had no traces of (it had a very minimal soundtrack).

Onto Husbands. Holy cow. When I was talking about the kind of numbness and dullness that can pervade any serious film consumption, I was not speaking of Husbands. This film, seriously, was a minor epiphany for me. Hilarious, poignant, and perfect, it probably earned an entrance into the conversation (at least) of my Top 10 films of all-time list. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes are simultaneously wonderful and awful as older, married men coming to terms with their current stations in life. The way Cassavetes does not rely on typical framing (again, noticed Geuens' particular bias left the American director Cassavetes out of these discussions), the way he allows scenes to stretch on, the way the film is paced, acted, edited, all contribute to something fantastic.

I truly could--and eventually will--talk more about Husbands, but other duties (homework; work) make this a short-and-dirty post. Maybe the preeminent film about homosociality, aging, death, and freedom (the film's opening credits note it is: "A comedy about life, death, and freedom," which is nowhere near as cliche as that sounds), it's highly recommended viewing from this camp.


(Happy times)

31 January 2010

In Which the Olive Garden is Lectured and Dissected

So, I've decided to use this blog as both an academic outlet for our Visual Research Methods class and any other academic or critical thought that compels me to digitally scribble. In the vein of the latter, a raucous attack on the Olive Garden:

Anyone who knows me, knows one thing: I hate almost nothing in this sweet, sweet world...with, possibly exclusively, the exception of Olive Garden commercials. Seriously, what a bunch of hammy, corny, and mind-numbingly offensive wastes of ad space. Am I offended as an Italian-American by the company's "When You're Here, You're Family" hokum? Not really, but then again neither The Sopranos nor The Jersey Shore much bothered my particular sensibilities.

What is interesting--and I wonder if this is what offends me--about the Olive Garden ads is the way in our ultra-hip and winking era they play it SO straight. In other words, what is perhaps so minacious about the Olive Garden ads is the way they are of no consequence whatsoever, allowing us to give another corporate chain a pass. For instance, who among us doesn't ultimately say, "Sure, the ads are cheesy, but they do have that good endless soup, salad, and breadstick deal"? It's time we don't let them off the hook so easily.

Now, I don't mean to be an elitist, but I have lost all restraint and perspective with this particular issue. Yeah, okay, that endless soup/salad thing is a deal, but otherwise the food at this establishment tastes no better than what can be bought in a can or from the frozen food section. And, what's worse, some quick Internet research shows me that there is no cost benefit to be gained by eating at the Olive Garden; $10.25 for spaghetti and meatballs (pasta, by the way, costs approximately a dollar a pound in the store), or $14.50 for something "cleverly" and "authentically" dubbed "Lasagna Classico" (you could buy a substantially larger dinner at the pricey Whole Foods, or even a couple at the far cheaper Trader Joe's). Also, if it's true, as those particularly irksome ads from a while back suggested, that the Olive Garden sends its chefs to Italy--some archaic cooking institute in the Tuscan hills, I believe--then we really have a problem, and cost is just the tip of that iceberg. But enough aggressive ranting, let us address this issue in a semiotic manner. First, watch this ad:



What I specifically find fascinating? A couple things, but let's start with the moment when the woman who is searching for her "date" mentions that (aside from being handsome) his shoes are likely not laced up. First, note the "ooh" by the hostess, that follows the woman's mention that she is looking for her "date"--clearly the Olive Garden endorses human-on-human intimate encounters within its establishment (as it suggests, "Please have your dates here, lovers' cash will suffice as well as any!"). Additionally, and far stranger, this emphatic and curious utterance, "ooh," suggests a voyeurs delight at the possibility of an Olive Garden, or, more realistically, an uncensored interjection at the novel (for this hostess, it is either endearing or peculiar that someone would have a date at the Olive Garden). After this baffling "ooh"--and before the abrupt interruption of the child's call to "mom," which saves us from some quickly boiling water--you may notice the corners of the hostess's mouth droop, ever so slightly. What's the significance? Well, when we cut back to her, following the relief of clearing up the "date" conundrum, there can be no mistaking it: she is relieved (hand over heart) to see that this "date" was merely this woman's child. So, why the long face chum? Here's a thought: was this hostess possibly worried that this woman's date would, gasp, be in some way mentally challenged--incapable, say, of even tying his own shoelaces? What other explanation can there be for being shocked at the notion that this woman is dating someone who cannot tie their own shoes? Now, that saving calling ("mom!") doesn't seem so innocuous; particularly when you consider the hostess may even have allowed herself to ponder that this charming female customer is a lecherous pedophile (a leering, female Humbert Humbert)? And if this woman happens to find enduring love in the mentally challenged, or even in some female variation of NAMBLA, who cares? While the latter may be an ethical and legal issue, the former is certainly well within this woman's rights. Yet, given the hostess's reaction, which we can suggest stands in for Olive Garden (nothing is accidental in advertising), apparently this chain of medium-priced Italian-American cares who you date (so long as it's within the hallowed walls of their charmingly "dilapidated" Italian "farmhouse" eating establishments). Additionally, in case just a mother and son having a "date night" could further chaff some viewers (or allow more creative imaginations to wander and incite libel [cough]), we notice the careful placement of, what we assume, is the father (whose eyes the mother stares into, lovingly, while confessing, "I love date night"). Isn't it sweet?

And that's the Olive Garden rant! But, because the internet of 2010 is a strange and beautiful place (as I'm truly finding out by actually scouring through this YouTube thing), here is a counter-response to the Olive Garden's carefully doctored version of reality that had me laughing:

25 January 2010

"Art" and You

NOTE: Here is my problem with blogging, I'm an endless editor. So, once again, I will have to hack away at the below post as most of it was covered in class today (which, obviously, is a good problem). In the future I promise, to myself at least, to make more timely updates.

As we mentioned in class, Film Production Theory by Jean-Pierre Geuens--which I sort of admired for its historical breadth and personal conviction (albeit of the misguided sort)--was perhaps too closely aligned with the Adorno and Horkheimer (Frankfurt) school of thinking regarding "The Culture Industry" for my tastes. Still, I sometimes find it wholly appropriate to appropriate (as it were) certain ideas from the Frankfurt school regarding cinema, yet something--my own critical habits when watching movies, perhaps--prohibits me from ravaging moviegoers or the cinema like Geuens. [Granted, Geuens ultimately concedes that "works of art present the world anew," and, in the best occasions, "radically [refashion] the belief system held by [an] individual" (43)].

For me, I often agree with Geuens' latter points--I'll take this opportunity to officially insert "cinema" in for his "art"--believing that the most moving, provoking, and enticing cinema is compatible with Gadamer's following idea:

"the power of the work of art suddenly tears the person experiencing it out of the context of life, and yet releases him back to the whole of his existence. In the experience of art is present a fullness of meaning that belongs not only to this particular content or object but rather stands for the meaningful whole of life" (Gadamer qtd. in Geuens 42).

I think, having struggled to teach basic college writing to indifferent college freshman, my critical interest in cinema comes from a pedagogical impulse; ultimately, I want my excitement and critical curiosity about certain movies, film movements, directors, etc. to be contagious. Yet, I also respect where others come from and, regarding our "mass" versus "private" visual event, I force myself to watch what my students are likely bringing to the conversation (which, I think, is a fancy excuse for subjecting myself to Paul Blart: Mall Cop). Furthermore, and I have yet to test this, but I think Gadamer's idea could find a valid cultural litmus test in the cinema; in that, simply showing certainly films will elicit some response (visceral or otherwise) from even the most indifferent viewer. For example, here is the trailer for a film that I believe can accomplish everything Gadamer's quote about art stresses:



I don't claim authority on cinema's potential to either liberate or enslave, so I openly invite comments, questions, and discussion. I will say that I am torn on cinema and its ability to move viewers. Forget all the debates surrounding film: the evil machinations of the Culture Industry, the "Who Cares?" playful commentary of the postmoderns, or the escapist pleas of many viewers. What purpose can/does film serve? Yes, I think a film like Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) will necessarily provoke viewers, but is it in a way that is more substantial than pure shock or titillation? Additionally, I am referencing a film that, at best, would be considered a cult classic with an extremely selective viewership in 2010. So what then? You can't pull people off the street and force them to watch movies like this, and even getting rooms of bored underclassmen to watch may not elicit Gadamer's shock to their stoic indifference. That is, beyond a ephemeral, "Huh, that was interesting," what can we hope from using films like Sweetback in the classroom or our criticism? That's a lot to digest, I know, but let me know your thoughts.

P.S. As a substantial amount of the second chapter of Geuens also addresses the work of creating art, I was reminded, again, of a film. This film's central purpose seems to be to metaphorically contextualize the difficult--the sometimes impossible or insurmountable--tasks required in creating unique and enriching art (as a sidenote, I particularly enjoy the lyrical quality of this trailer*):



Any others come to mind?

* Which, as a tangent, makes me realize that there is a paper or perhaps video essay waiting to be done on film trailers and culture (what changes between eras, budgets, genres, etc.).

P.P.S. Modern culture may, at times, feel like a wasteland (and I'm purely speculating personally here), but it also contains so many great nuggets, like finding Polanski's short that Geuens discusses, that it's hard to pout:


Polanski.Shorts - Two men and a wardrobe
Uploaded by superyiyi. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.

P.P.S. I tend to be windy, if you couldn't tell, and I really want to use this blog to work on that too. As for this post: mulligan.

24 January 2010

Grappling

Trying to figure this all out. First, some sounds: