Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Human Comedy

Bernie: Here is a movie with people who look and talk like people one meets outside the frame of a movie screen.  Nevermind that the lines between fiction and documentary blur here; the point is the effect within the context of a docudrama.  Richard Linklater, a liberal outsider (and an adopted son of "the People's Republic of Austin") casts a seriocomic eye on a corner of the American South, the town of Carthage in East Texas.   Linklater is attuned to striations of class and geography that many other directors might condense into an undifferentiated portrait of backwoods, backwards good ol' boys.  But he lets these divisions rub up against each other, giving his social portraiture texture, and reducing the problem of a unified, cod-anthropological "take" of his own.

For the second time in his career (Shallow Hal was the first), Jack Black strikes me as an actor well-used, and admirably committed to his part.  Slightly effeminate, perhaps subtly officious, a bit of a huckster, and a real sweetheart; his boundless activity, unflagging neatness, and ramrod posture express an internal energy the film suggests might be closeted queerness (but the film also leaves this as a question - a puzzle piece - rather than a merely suggestive, and lazy, explanation, for what ultimately could Bernie's same-sex attractions "explain"?).  I have known people like Bernie in my life, just as I can also recall the children who would possibly have grown into Bernies.  What the film tries to confound - I think - is the idea that one saying such a thing ("I have known that type...") could serve as a passable summary of a person.  Can one even summarize a person?  Perhaps so - legally - whether it's the court of the state or of public opinion.  But I would say that Bernie demonstrates how a person's summary is inextricable from his social commitments and dialogues, and that these apparatuses are not reducible only to the punitive register.  (Or, to put it like a sociologist in the wake of May '68, there is more to the society than the state.)

So Bernie is also about the problems that arise from typecasting.  If you're still reading this post, but haven't seen the film, I'll simply say that the story (based on actual events) culminates in a trial where Bernie's identity must be decided upon - criminal or good man.  He is, by evidence of the film, clearly both.  Tension arises when Bernie must be taken out of his community (and ever-so-slightly, but crucially, away from his peers) for this trial.  The legal system has no satisfying response to the possibility that Bernie may in fact be both guilty of a serious crime and a truly decent and valuable member of a community.  Rather, the legal system is meant to penalize the crime rather than the identify of the person - but as the movie's trial demonstrates, the only effective way to do this is to paint Bernie as a criminal type, a monster who will do this again because of his type.  There essentially is no fair trial available to Bernie (pro or con).

Helen Grace: "The relation between Eisenstein and Marfa Lapkina we know only through images.  There is no doubt that she is one of the finest representatives of the theory of typage, which some Soviet filmmakers, like Eisenstein, espoused - a theory which gaves a place in the history of the image to figures who are invisible to history.  The theory of typage is the culmination of all those attempts of the eighteenth century on to understand the language of the body, all those theories of bodily legibility through which character might be read.  The theory of typage is replaced at a certain point by a concern with personality rather than character, since this makes everything simpler.  Modernity demands that character declares itself, is made visible in the form of "the personality," the performing subject, who creates the appearance of depth and the problem of "good" and "bad" character disappears into the question of good or bad performance.  No longer is moral judgement required, since the subject merely reveals itself, speaks itself.  This is far more efficient since the temporalities of modernity do not allow for the slow revelation of character which pre-industrial societies depended upon.  Now it is necessary to make decisions on character from first impressions, from the strength of performance when the image, character or person first appears."

(See also Guy Debord's Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici and Roland Barthes' "Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature.")

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Monday, June 18, 2012

Not So Funny

"In the first edition of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa-Loompas were members of an African tribe displaced by Willy Wonka to the northern industrial hinterland. Not quite so funny anymore that his workers worship him like a god, is it? Or that he keeps them scrupulously isolated from the general population? Or that he pays them in cocoa beans? For the second edition in 1973, Dahl changed the Oompa-Loompas from black pygmies into “rosy-white” creatures with long “golden-brown” hair. The 1971 movie made them orange-skinned with green hair. Loompaland is a complicated place." ("How to Read a Racist Book to Your Children," NYTimes)

Strange* to think that the NYTimes intelligentsia categorizes a fiction which depicts a group of people working in (wage?) slavery as somehow pleasant if they're orange-and-green and magical, but "not so funny anymore" if they're brown-skinned, and African.  (That is, if they're placed in actual history.)  Why should it have been funny to begin with?  The imaginative capacity of genre is such that it makes the symbolic and the imaginative able to stand in for the material, which is why there are so many debates about the "meaning" of whatever comic book adaptation has the box office busy at any given point in the year.  My impression is that official liberal culture sanctions one of two reactions to the politics in & of genre - one is the sort of heartfelt, betcha-didn't-know conscientiousness of this piece linked to above; the other is a kind of j'accuse toward whatever cultural object offends with this "uncovered" or "spotlighted" shortcoming - the equivalent of that Wonder Showzen clip of the kid shouting "That's racist!"

Lest I not be clear for anyone reading this, I'm not even trying to be judgmental so much as descriptive of this tendency; my aim is to sketch out the tendencies of the educated intelligentsia of the imperial center - that which structures the "scripts" we have for cultural debates.  I'm also not trying to be a puritan myself when I ask "why should it have been funny to begin with."  It's a sincere question rather than a rhetorical one.

* No, not really.

Monday, June 04, 2012

A General Note on Legitimacy

Certain filmmakers, say Nicolas Winding Refn or Quentin Tarantino, interest me for a number of reasons - but not necessarily because I think they offer complex investigations of ethics - or, in cases where the ethics might be more complex, because they point to ethically sound conclusions to problems of violence, vengeance, social dysfunction, or representation.

The purely formalist critic can bracket off messier cultural, social, and/or ethical questions to one side; it can be easy then to presume that the thorny questions of non-formal meaning an object offers are containable and possible - even preferable - to ignore.  (Even if one's personal political opinions might "happen" to veer toward Straub-Huillet rather than Riefenstahl).  But for the critic who is interested in form but also in the world of this form, the world this form must always inhabit, an array of problems come into focus. 

One of the major problems, for the critic, is the question of legitimacy.  What counts as a proper object of analysis - do we legitimate harmful culture when we give it our attention, and when cultural intellectuals expend verbiage on such products?  To an extent, this is true.  But if this is the only strategy, the single overall strategy, then the cultural critic has hamstrung herself with the efficacy of the merely personal boycott - i.e., a pointless project whose usefulness is solely inward.  To me this suggests something of the "aestheticization of politics" (pace Benjamin) which projects aesthetics onto the final domain of all other human endeavors.  It would be better to push outward, instead, and to remind ourselves that the serious investigation of aesthetics need not lead to its supersession over all other domains (ethical, moral, social, and so on).

Sunday, June 03, 2012


Should verisimilitude be a concern ... decades from now, fiction representing American life circa 2012 would do well to incorporate liberally into the dialogue the word "amazing."  The world I inhabit has not seemed to tire of this word.  If you watch TV, hardly a commercial break goes by without the word coming up.  Pay attention, readers, and if you haven't noticed it before see if you don't notice it now.  See if it doesn't drive you a little batty.  See if you don't start regretting the word as soon as you say it yourself (as I do, not infrequently).  There are two main variations - the more abrupt "uh-mazing" and the slightly whinier "ammaaaayzing."  Either way, the object described is only rarely amazing in any boring old twentieth century way. 

We all fall into linguistic habits and ruts.  Certainly I've allowed this very blog to be the site of a lot of my lazier brainstorming and freewriting.  But for the sake of mere diversity, for the sake of the joys of that a larger vocabulary might bring, I submit to the public this plea: that we shake things up and reinvigorate our diction with a host of other words that do just as well, sometimes better, to describe "a thing I've encountered that I like."  We might start with lovely, superb, spectacular, wonderful, special, terrific, capital (as in, "capital idea, old man!" - arch, but appealing).  We can even dust off neat.  It would be pretty neat if people eased up a bit on amazing.