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



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.

1 comment:

aljean said...

Mike: I think this is a smashing success at academic digital storytelling (a stretch from that made by regular folks that our scholars tell us define the genre): you move from truly personal stuff (the proper terrain) to the blog-like larger-scale rumination, and then, even harder, the mean hard theory itself (even on video), creating one platform that seamlessly holds all, that makes each seem better because of the other! well done. I do wonder if the blog may not the perfect place, however, because of the annoying scrolling problem. I think the web-page solution of some of your peers would serve this better, and then design could play a larger role in the making of (and content of?) your argument as well.