Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Shit (BONUS): Hello Kitty's Fashion Music Wonderland & Here We Go!

In 2013, Viz Media started a line of comics licensed by Sanrio. Each of them tells a series of short, wordless stories about Kitty and her friends.

For ComicCon this year, a sort of pre-series comic was released, called Hello Kitty's Fashion Music Wonderland. In October, the first of the actual series came out: Hello Kitty: Here We Go!. I had Fashion Music Wonderland long before I started this series, but had kind of forgotten about it; I only recently got Here We Go!. They're both kind of great, as a person who likes Hello Kitty a lot. So I decided that, even though I read no other comics, they were worth talking about.

It seems like it's been ages since I've discussed any specific piece of Hello Kitty visual art; after I initally wrote about Jason Han's "I Haz Mouth," I had kind of planned to talk at length about some of the other paintings or sculptures from the 35th anniversary, collected in the Three Apples book. I never really got around to it, unfortunately, and I'm certainly not going to be going nearly as in depth here, but it'll be a fun little thing to do.

The first image, above, is from the arc in Fashion Music Wonderland in which Kitty White becomes a famous pop star; it specifically is the panel where she receives the gift of a Rock Band-like system from Dear Daniel, her old friend/boyfriend/husband, or something, depending on the line I guess.

It's a weird image, kind of very reminiscent of "I Haz Mouth" in its replication of Kitty's face. Except this time her "primary" face is actually entirely absent; her back is turned, but the speech bubble has her full face inside of it, and there is a "pixelated" version of it on the screen of the television. Plus there is Dear Daniel, whose face is also Kitty's face.

But then, it's also even more complex in its way; the exclamation point this time is not just in the speech bubble, it is dotted with Kitty's face, and surrounded by the Bang!-like color that also goes around the Kitty-whose-"talking"'s self. And instead of mirror Kitty (or Mimmy, but probably not) there's Dear Daniel looking like a smug-ass dad, which just, I don't even know how to.

In the short narrative, this gift leads to the formation of a band, who go to a talent show and win a record deal, and Kitty goes off to travel the world, even as she pines for Dear Daniel back home. The final panel of the arc mirrors this one, as Dear Daniel is lead to retrieve his gift which turns out to be Kitty herself; given the bizarre way in which Kitty is refracted throughout the objects and expressions here, from linguistically to technologically mediated, her own return as a unified individual gift is, well, really really interesting.

Of course, the whole point of Hello Kitty is that she is meant to be a gift, whether for another or to oneself, so this moment is shot through with that knowledge as well. I've not got a ton to say there, although it should remain an open topic, I think.

More immediately relevant is that, if, like I've been endlessly repeating, ghosts are about a becoming-linguistic of space, then this panel suggests a certain ghostliness to Kitty herself, if in no other way than in her persistent refusal to become-linguistic. I've covered this better in the essays linked above, but her tendency to occupy non-linguistic representative spaces through signifiers of language is pretty well established at this point. Here though, there is the addition, in the form of the "pixelated" face, of the sort of necessary abstraction of language as well as its refusal. It's a real neat panel.

It's not until the main story arc of Fashion Music Wonderland, where Kitty stars in a sorta Alice in Wonderland, that we see ghosts again. There's the Cheshire Cat, of course, but there's also this weird moment, where Kitty is chasing after that cat, and runs through this intersection populated by quasi-human forms that, again, seem to be somewhat digitized. In a weird way, it could almost be a scene out of Serial Experiments Lain, Internet ghosts and all.

Kitty is chasing the Cheshire Cat because Dear Daniel, here in the role of the very late rabbit, has asked her about his gloves and top hat, which the Cat is wearing. She entered Wonderland by way of thoughtlessly wandering into an open manhole, where she transformed into Fashion Music Kitty; it's all pretty adorable. This in Wonderland ends at the tea party, where the Red Queen shows up and looks very intimidating but ultimately invites Kitty in, and they all enjoy themselves. Which is all just to say that this scene is not really even remotely important to the story; it's a pure action sequence, devoid of narrative weight or responsibility, an unnecessary conveyance of how she gets from point A to point B. It is, in other words, a sort of visualization of what's usually left in the gutter.

Of course, these are more obviously ghostly than the reaction shot to Kitty's gift, even if it also obvious that they are not meant to be read as ghosts insofar as ghosts are associated with horror. They are, rather, instantiations or embodiments of space; a crosswalk doesn't make sense without both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, but it can only really project the former sufficiently. So it speaks its form through these quasidigital objects.

The "Deep Clean" short of Hello Kitty: Here We Go! has, incidentally, a panel that almost directly quotes the latter one from Fashion Music Wonderland. In this, Kitty is engaged in spring cleaning when she gets sucked into a deep underground civilization made up of people made of stone who eat gems and drink and smoke lava. As she enters the town, following her new friend, the panel above shows her wonderment and the friendliness of her newfound city's inhabitants.

In this case, the way that the inhabitants function as expressions of the landscape itself; that deep, the folks are made of rocks, of course. There's no crosswalk, because there's probably not a whole lot of need for vehicular travel; the roads are still very much designed for them, though. Here We Go! is very much, as the name suggests, a comic about Kitty's travels; she is depicted variously as a secret agent, an explorer, and a safari-goer throughout the collection. There are a number of vehicles that she drives or rides in, which makes the absence of them here, if not especially pronounced, at least interesting.

This too is why the stone folks inhabitants of this space is interesting on the level of space itself's becoming-linguistic. In conjunction with the quotation of the digitalish ghosts from the earlier collection of stories, here we are dealing with embodiment through possibility; rather, though, than the expression of space through slightly-estranged normative bodies, its through bodies themselves that are expressions of (in that they consist of the same stuff as, abstracted anthropomorphically,) the space. Which again recalls the first pictured panel; when Kitty becomes linguistic, or at least decidedly fails to, its generally through a form of expression which only ever appears as a simple representation of the stuff of which she is made. Her face.

Speaking of Kitty with the gendered pronoun obscures the point here significantly. That is: she herself is not a character. She precedes narrative. Kitty White is neither character nor stuff; she only exists as stuff, but on its periphery, or as a structuring force. Kitty is, that is to say, the way that stuff enters into the realm of representation, that it becomes-linguistic. She is, I suppose, a brand, although I hold some reservations about using that sort of language. Not that it's necessarily wrong, just that I'm not sure it's totally right.

These three panels, across two comics, tell their own story; it's about how Kitty's presence structures the possibility of the stuff which surrounds her. Call it Kitty Correlationism; her worlds are always only epistemological, organizations of being in accordance with the self-image of branded junk without interiority. Without an anchoring subjectivity, space becomes necessarily as expressive as the pseudosubjects which inhabit it. It's the objective correlative writ large; space, in fiction, sure, but mostly in manufactured objects that exist in the world as potentials for exchange-value, is a response to the subjects affective state.

The final image, also from Here We Go!, complicates my tidy little narrative. From one of the one-page shorts with which this title is filled, it is a brief story about Kitty driving around, getting a flat, and using My Melody's unicycle to replace the tire.

The most obvious difference is the style, which is most obviously explicable by way of the little lines that emanate from the characters' eyes. They aren't really expression lines or action lines or anything; they're just kind of there, looking real weird. Especially on My Melo.

But then, here is the vehicle, no longer absent. A car, too, that object which has, perhaps more than any other, totally restructured the way space works in the world for individuals, especially in America. From trucking to suburbs to sprawl, the automobile is sort of the antithesis of the expression of space; it's its silencing, at least in the form of distance. And yet here too is Kitty.

2013 in Shit: A Tale for the Time Being

I really, really wish that I was going to be able to do justice to Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. It's a phenomenal fucking book and it's kind of disappointing to end on this sort of low note. Luckily I'm not actually going to; there'll be a bonus post up later today.

Part of the reason that I am not going to be doing as good of a reading as I want to for this book is that I got a little ambitious with it; as I was reading, I decided that I wanted to review it using Anthony Paul Smith's new book, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought. So I got an ebook copy and got a premium ebook reader to be able to notate it; but then it turned out that the premium ebook reader started crashing aggressively as soon as notes were taken. I never managed to finish APS' book because of that, and the residual disappointment lead me to put off writing about Ozeki until the last minute.

The reason I thought the two might go good together is that I began to think of Ozeki's books in terms of ecologies before APS' came out. Large sections of the book are dedicated to discussions of things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the introduction of invasive species of flora or fauna into habitats; Ruth, the novelist/protagonist of the novel, is married to a man named Oliver, one of whose art projects is the development of fauna in specific places that will be neither invasive nor wiped out by global warming. These mostly appear in the form of asides, seeming to exist around the main narrative of Nao's diary and Ruth's mounting obsession with discovering the girl who wrote it, and there's never really an overt synthesis, but they seemed to me to slowly become the heart of the story.

I first came across Ruth Ozeki because I read her book My Year of Meats for a class; I remember then thinking that, based on the back materials and the description we received of it before we read it that I was not going to be super interested. She surprised me then, in something of a similar way to how A Tale for the Time Being surprised me; Ozeki is a writer who writes apparently exclusively about primary subjects that I have little interest in, but fills them out in such gorgeous ways that I end up totally in love with the novels themselves.

Part of this is her really interesting use of metafiction, or, to perhaps be more accurate, frames; with My Year of Meats it was the documentary frame, with A Tale for the Time Being the use of the diary and her own self-insertion. These frames, described, always feel like they ought to come off as fairly precious; and yet they always end up being phenomenal.

One of the main reasons I jumped on the book was the presence of Hello Kitty, another thing that I'm not going to really talk about all that much. Which seems, actually, in this case, kind of accurate; Ruth finds Nao's diary, written in a copy of Proust's In Search of Lost Time that's been de-paged and filled with writing paper, inside of a Hello Kitty lunchbox. If those two things don't make it pretty clear why I was so excited to read this book, I don't know what will. I kind of really enjoyed, too, how Ozeki just kind of let those things be; there are some reflections from Nao on the fact that she is writing in Proust, but they're largely in passing, and the Kitty lunchbox is allowed to simply be in its specificity without justification.

This is tied to both Ozeki's use of frames, which generally seem from a description like dull metafictional tricks but end up invigorating the core narrative, and her move towards an ecological aesthetics; these sorts of pregnant images are not so much additions of texture (as, say, the descriptions of objects in rooms in Dostoevsky could be argued to be) as they are elements in the representation of a dynamic system. A Hello Kitty lunchbox, in an Ozeki, is both life, needing no justification beyond its own existence, and energy, an abstraction organized by its status first as consumption and last by its expenditure. And as the lunchbox goes, so goes the documentary, or the record of reading that diary.

This goes partway in explaining, I think, why A Tale for the Time Being ends with such an awkward extended rumination on Schrödinger's Cat. It's still awkward, in the way that a just-wrong metaphor always is; as a development of the idea of quantum indeterminacy on the macro level it suggests that the production of abstractions called literature functions at the level of the general to reproduce the workings of the particular. More than that, though, its own particularities are caught up in the ideas of consumption and expenditure and existence as observation and self-organization. It's just-wrong because, while it holds all the keys to the tale, it focuses them in the wrong direction, suggesting that it is the point, rather than the color, of the thought experiment which makes it useful.

I got the impression, both from the book itself and from seeing a few scattered reactions to it, that people much preferred Nao's story to Ruth's; and yet I find myself remembering the beats of hers, from the grandmother to the crow to the conference, much better. Which isn't to say, of course, that Nao's story isn't phenomenal; just, I suppose, that it feels to me in retrospect much more like a story. Which leaves me to say that that is something I can respect but not really love, not in the ways that I love the lengthy passages about the power outage or the contrived silliness of the way it preempts Ruth's googling, or the shot of elation immediately dissolving into disappointment at the academic article and its paywall.

I guess that's it? I could probably ramble on more, and there's a part of me that wants to, but I'm calling it; this Year in Shit is done. Thanks for playing along.

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 in Shit: Ghosts in the Machine

Ghosts in the Machine is a collection of short stories about video games, edited by Lana Polansky and Brendan Keogh. I dug it. And, surprisingly (to me), it has stuck with me a lot more than I assumed it would initially after reading it; there is, I'll say up front, something slight-feeling about many of the stories, but that is, or at least for me was, a mistaken assumption. The stories work in ways that aren't immediately evident, and in ways that I'm not really sure I'll be able to articulate. I do think that you should check it out, especially if you have some interest in games. It's not really what you're bound to expect, no matter who you are, even if it remains uncomfortably close to being so.

Each story tends to focus on a broadly defined "bug;" from hacking players to avatars played against their characterization to unbalanced mechanics, the broadest shared theme among them is the becoming- (or being-)conscious of the avatar as the motivating event, followed by an exploration of the consequences. These range from the mildly interesting "The Hierarchy of Needs" by Ian Miles Cheong, in which a character in what appears to be The Sims Social narrates his existence within the game, to the very neat "Ten Steps" by co-editor Lana Polansky, where a third person perspective follows a character exploiting a bug to escape the game he's trapped in, before smash-cutting suddenly to the kid who was testing the bug and the manager who has to deal with the team. Perhaps the best of the explicitly becoming-conscious of game characters is Maddy Myers' "Unto Dust," which features a CounterStrike-like game in which the characters have to deal with a hacker.

I'll admit that, on my first reading, the dominance of these sorts of stories -- uncharitably, the "lol what if those characters were actually alive, like, what would that even be like," which, as extrapolated in my young teen brain, ends up somewhere like "what if we're all actually just characters in like, some alien version of EverQuest" -- kind of disappointed me. Familiarity breeds contempt, or whatever they say; not that it was contempt, really, so much as just discomfort, and a desire to see these writers -- some of whose work, especially critical work, I am practically in awe of -- work with something that I could deem "more interesting," to myself at least.

Obviously, that's a super shitty way to approach anything. So I paid some more attention, and noticed the way that none of these stories make that fallacious jump into allegory that I thought was So Fucking Cool when I was 13. So strike one down for projection.

This avoidance is done in one of two ways, generally; either, as in Polansky's story, the smash-cut to the player happens, and the world itself is contextualized. Or, as in Myers', the constructedness of the world is foregrounded. The reason her final sentences work so well is not just that they are pleasingly cadenced, or that they signal an end to the narrative conflict. It's that they signal that end as a return to the constitutive materials, even in an ecstatic register. "I close my eyes and let my body go still. I can almost feel the code. It feels safe. It feels balanced."

There are also stories like Dylan Sabin's "If The Sun Rises Again," where the action isn't so much a bug as the disillusioned player; it largely concerns a character from a game which bored the player enough to not go back, and the imagined consequences for that character. It too, on its surface, seems a little too close, to me, to the sort of shooting the shit that gamers do, and that makes it more difficult for me to reckon with the way its presentation as fiction effects that sort of discourse.

There are small gestures that suggest how this could work; Rollin Bishop's "Slow Leak,"about a small town which slowly dissolves into nothingness, opens with an epigraph from The Odyssey. Alois Wittwer's "A Perfect Apple," set in what is almost certainly a game of Animal Crossing, paints a similar slow desolation of a space with the sort of attention that makes the game itself more of an anchor than the focus.

This isn't the collections only through-line, though. One of the most interesting decisions is putting Ashton Raze's "GDD" at the front of the collection; it's a story about an aspiring game developer who is kind of an enormous shit. The character reads as something of a stereotype of the gamer, especially in relation to the recent developments within game culture which have pushed against the idea of the hegemonic demographic (young white male) to make spaces within games for new narratives and modes of representation. As he wanders around feeling entitled and objectifying women and raging against nothing in particular, he ends up devoting his life to a game, ultimately subsuming himself within the system.

The story doesn't really come into itself until the "review" and "news" clips at the end, which reveal that the game this guy has become is some weird indie platformer that is incomprehensible and awful, and then, in a cyberpunk twist, responsible for the dissemination of a virus.

Rather than foregrounding the diegetic universe of the game, and introducing an epistemological problem to it, as the previously discussed stories do, this story is more interested in the culture that conditions those games and the people who interact with them.

"All Time Heroes" by Matt Riche is another of these, telling the story of some sort of undefined arcade space shooter and one player's quest to reach the top of the all time leaderboard. It's interesting how it takes real developments in arcade machine technology (like networked cabinets) for granted in a way that, even though most readers might not be particularly knowledgeable of them (I'm certainly not), feels less like extrapolation and more like simple familiarity. The story's sorta twist at the end, where the scoreboard has a hard cap at the top that is unacknowledged by the community, works fairly well, and is used mostly to reflect, again, on the player himself.

It's only in Aevee Bee's "Good Losers Are Pretty" that these threads end up tying together in a way that really exhibits their full potential. It's about a character from a fictional fighting game who exits the game and posts on forums and makes the convention circuit. The story itself is sensitive to both the mechanical and communal aspects of this subculture of games in a way that I can intuit, even if I'm basically totally unaware of them, and it treats its less realist aspects with a pleasing lack of awe. That it's a world where a video game character can be featured on a panel at a convention is just kind of there, and its a little weird but not really all that. Which is kind of fantastic.

I do wish I was more able to do justice to just how weird and neat this collection is, but there it is. If you're even remotely interested by the premise, I'd say go for it; and even if it doesn't blow you away, as it didn't me, right off the bat, I'm willing to bet that the ways that it linger are worth exploring.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 in Shit: Escape Plan

Escape Plan is a Stallone & Schwarzenegger film that's about Fuck Blackwater. It's pretty amazing.

I wanted to see it for two reasons; the first was how much I enjoyed The Last Stand, and the second was the shot in the trailer where they show the underground prison. That shit's some real impressive architecture.

Also kind of funny to me was that Schwarzenegger's two films from 2013 were by a Korean and a Swedish director; I don't know much about the history of directors he has worked with but it's kind of surprising that his post-Governor films wouldn't be all Hoo-Rah about that shit.

So: it's a movie in which Sylvester Stallone plays a dude who breaks out of prisons for a living, to discover their structural weaknesses. He gets a real lucrative job, which turns out to be a con and is locked in some place called "The Tomb," where he meets Schwarzenegger, who apparently knows something about a terrorist dude or something, and they make a break for it. Only then they discover that The Tomb is actually a giant fucking boat and they're fucked, so they make a sextant and Schwarzenegger calls in a favor from Morocco and the libertarian prison boat paradise gets fucking shot the fuck up and they take off. Then they bounce and Schwarzenegger is like "PS I'm actually that terrorist dude they were looking for, I'm out" and they part ways. Then I think Stallone gets laid or something? Plus his boss gets hunted down because he sold them out and locked in a shipping container, in a bizarre critique of globalized capital (probably).

If I've never been a huge fan of Schwarzenegger prior to this year, my knowledge of Stallone is basically nonexistent. Browsing IMDb, I'm fairly certain the only film I've seen that he's participated in is Antz. Definitely never seen any Rocky or Rambo films. And honestly he wasn't all that great in this, although there were some moments. But then Schwarzenegger had the best one and Faran Tahir had the second best, so.

The best scene, uncontestably, being the one where Schwarzenegger, trapped in The Tomb's version of solitary (a small cube with a ton of sunlamps; the cells themselves are all glass boxes, so the relationship with solitary in this fake prison is a little different, I think), needs to provide a distraction for Stallone, and so he starts ranting. It's kind of neat, and then all of a sudden he's reciting the Lord's Prayer in German, and it's going on and on and you're aggressively seeing Arnold Fucking Schwarzenegger be nationally othered in a way that his whole career has kind of played with but (to my spotty knowledge) never outright acknowledged, and he's fucking acting too, like really getting into it, and it's great and fucking holy fuck what the fuck.

The second best is seeing President Patil go down guns blazing during the escape attempt; the use of Tahir in the film is, uh, pretty weird, but on the whole (as far as my obviously not very good assessment goes) surprisingly not awful. And of course he dies, but he goes out killing goons, in a surprisingly cool way, which I dug.

Is it obvious yet that I haven't really gotten any better at talking about action films since last year? I think it's pretty obvious. I definitely saved this Schwarzenegger weekend thing for near the end because I was like "I'm going to write huge fucking essays about these because they were so good and I want to really get into it" but turns out that I'm just burnt the fuck out and incapable of doing that to begin with so I'm just like fuck it see these fucking movies or something maybe we can chat about them that'd be sweet.

The Fuck Blackwater thing is pretty explicit, by the way; the movie outright says that the people who run The Tomb are affiliated with the organization that used to be known as Blackwater. The fact that, once they split with direct ties to governmental organizations, they get by briefly until they fuck up and get drawn into conflict with the global black market, at which point they get fucking trounced, seems like a pretty accurate prediction of one way the world might go.

The other thing about this movie is that it kind of seems a lot like Oldboy, in its exploration of violence within privatized prison systems. Kind of better than the remake in that sense, actually. It might be worthwhile to do a comparative analysis of the three. So go on and do it?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Last Stand

The Last Stand was the best movie of 2013.

I've never really watched all that many Schwarzenegger films; I've completely missed Predator and Conan and Total Recall. I have seen the Terminator films, and various assorted others, though many of them such a long time ago and in such contingent ways that I remember very little about them. Somehow it turned out that he starred in two of my favorite movies this year though.

I saw The Last Stand because it was fucking directed by Kim Jee-woon, obviously. I'm still kind of annoyed with myself that I haven't seen I Saw the Devil, and I certainly wouldn't mind watching A Bittersweet Life. A Tale of Two Sisters is one of the only movies that has legitimately scared me, and The Good, the Bad, the Weird just fucking blew me away. I seem to recall that people weren't super into this English language debut of Kim's, which I think had mostly to do with how muted his style was in comparison especially to The Good, the Bad, the Weird. Fuck all that though.

It's a movie where Schwarzenegger is old as fuck, a sheriff of a small border town who was kicked out of the police force in LA for, presumably, not being corrupt. It's got Johnny Knoxville mugging in really dull ways and Luis Guzmán being actually pretty funny, and then there are some other white people? I think one of them dies pretty early on which is cool.

There's a problem here; it has legitimately been like an entire year since I've seen this movie. More than anything else what stands out about it to me is the somatic reaction I had. I'm not really one for cheering a film on; I get hit by jump scares occasionally, but for the most part when I'm in a theater I'm likely just giggling. Whether that's at a shot I think is particularly neat or at something being just awful, it's for the most part the extent of how my body performatively reacts to whatever's on the screen.

But there's a scene in The Last Stand where Schwarzenegger tackles a dude off a roof (it might actually be through a second or third story window), and I legitimately sat very stiffly upright and covered my mouth with a fist and said "OH SHIT" much, much louder than I thought I could talk without actually yelling. It's kind of a funny reaction; the scene itself is clearly meant to be more in reference to the sort of scenes that were meant to elicit that sort of reaction than one itself. When it ends Schwarzenegger is on his back, hurt. He's no Terminator, even if he happens to look like one. It's not that it's played ironically, in the sense of a wink, but it does situate itself outside of itself, in a way that presumably works to undercut the intensity of that sort of affective response. But I'd never had that sort of affective response to a film before, so it was weird.

To be entirely honest, I don't know that there's much more to say than that. Kim is one of my favorite directors and it was a film that hit me in ways that I have never really been hit by a film before. I guess I could go into platitudes about how surprisingly fun it is, or dig it up and argue against the idea that Kim's cinematography is lacking compared to his other films. I don't think I'd really have my heart in that argument though; I do think it's not nearly the disappointment some reviewers made it out to be, but I can't really imagine making that sustained argument being anything other than a stretch. It's partially because that shit just doesn't matter for this film; a film heavily stylized like The Good, the Bad, the Weird starring Schwarzenegger might be cool if it existed, but it would need to be a very different film than this one, and for this one, the way that Kim works is kind of perfect.

~Thanks For Reading~

Friday, December 27, 2013

2012 in Shit (Bonus): Candy

I'll keep this one fairly short.

Samira Kawash's Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure is a pop history of candy, from its early artisanal form through industrialization up to its current status as a sort of generalized exception. It begins with a story about a friend of Kawash's daughter, whose parents showed utter contempt at the possibility of their offspring eating candy. It then hops back to the mid-19th century, and gives a broad history of how the stuff was made and talked about.

That description is actually closer to the book that I wanted to read than the one that actually exists, but it's still largely accurate. I had some problems with the structure of the book, and some with how what I thought I was going to be reading differed from what I actually ended up reading.

The latter, and less fair, complaint, is largely based on the fact that I assumed it would be more explicitly a history of the manufacture of candy, while it turns out to be largely a history of various discursive threads around, about, or by candy and its manufacturers. It is much more a book about marketing than production. Sometimes this is really interesting; other times not so much. It's always pretty compellingly told; Kawash writes in a very pop history register, and so is totally readable (even if that clarity sometimes comes at a lack of depth) and knows how to tell what amounts to a long series of citations in a way that feels like a story.

Well, sort of. Which is the former problem; rather than structuring the book chronologically, each chapter has a tendency to focus in on a specific discursive thread and track it through up to a certain point. This seems kind of fine, in abstract, and isn't necessarily a bad thing; it, again, makes the whole thing much more readable, and I am always suspicious of my own preferences with regards to these sorts of books since I read very few history texts in general, and a large part of that problem has to do with the fact that I think I want more immediate depth than a pop history tends to provide but also don't have the background to actually engage with more difficult history texts. But anyway.

The book, after a few chapters, begins to feel like it might have been better situated as a coffee table type rather than a 300 page tome; as each chapter recapitulates certain years from the previous ones, they begin to feel more and more like semi-related vignettes than a cohesive look at the subject matter. Certainly it wouldn't be impossible to glean the large picture by reading through the book, but by teasing out, say, the arguments made against candy in the lead up to and through Prohibition in one chapter suggests that there are certain historical reasons for this discourse. But to then go back a couple chapters later to talk about the homemade candy craze of those same years, without any acknowledgment that these are in fact the same years, and likely the same people, the book starts to read less like a historical understanding of the discourses and more like a flat out reification of them. There's a little bit of a problem in the inconsistencies of Kawash's editorializing, whether overt or implicit, that contributes to this; she often manages to put together the discourses in a way that avoids moralizing about or apologizing for candy or its makers and marketers, but not always. Which is kind of a big difference.

The other biggest problem with the book is the way that it ends; after largely being good about refusing to moralize, she falls totally into the trap of moralizing about processed foods. The chapter "Candification" outright ends up calling processed foods fake; a trap which one would assume writing a book about the ways in which candy has often been called fake would presumably hypersensitize one to. I imagine someone who has more invested in the idea of "real vs fake" foods than I do would find this less objectionable, but it seems to me to be a consequence of Kawash doing ideology critique without the tools of ideology critique. Admittedly, she is as quick to call bullshit on processed foods marketed as health food as she is those which don't position themselves as such, but her conclusion that unprocessed foods are the only real food, with which processed foods (including candy) ought only ever to be supplemented, seems to me to simply recapitulate certain currently vogue forms of localism which themselves are decidedly historical as though they are (say it with me, ideology) transhistorical, scientific fact.

Of course, there are parts of the book that are really fucking cool. As much as my childish resistance to pop history locates itself in whining about books that are just collections of neat facts, there are some hella neat facts in this book. A personal favorite is the circa-World War II advertisement which relies on equating housework with work according to the scientific understanding of nutrition (i.e. calories) of the time (pictured below). The idea that "Housework--any work--uses energy" is, given the centrality of the Wages for Housework campaign and its related work (even as I am woefully underread on the actual campaign or its theorists work) in my own thinking, kind of really fucking interesting. Obviously the purpose here isn't to demand the impossible, to make clear the invisible exploitation that structures the mode of production, but to sell a product. Even so, though, the struggle is strange, and these weird lacunae are important.

If this seems largely negative, it's only because the book itself is, for the most part, very interesting. I honestly didn't have particularly high expectations of it, and even if the lateral difference between what I did expect and what I got was kind of disappointing, I was largely impressed with the work. I don't know that I'd recommend it totally generally, but I certainly think it's the sort of thing that is worth reading if you think you'd be into it. Especially if you keep in mind that it might work better as a set of discrete chapters rather than a larger narrative.

2013 in Shit: Pink Globalization

The original draft of my review of Christine Yano's Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific was well over 5,000 words (I think at one point it was closer to 10). I really, really loved this book, in a way that went deeper than my particular relationship to Hello Kitty. After some serious edits, it went up in The New Inquiry in October; I really do hope that you'll read it.

I'd read some of the essays that formed the basis for chapters prior, but it was only when I heard from one of the editors that they would be interested in a review that I went out and found a copy of Yano's Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways and read it. Yano is an incredible writer. I honestly can't recommend anything she's done enough, although of course I think Pink Globalization is the most important and the most interesting.

The bonus supplement for today is another book that I didn't start reading (or even buy) until after I had started on this particularly ill conceived journey, so it didn't show up on the list; Candy by Sawira Kamash. It's a history of candy from around 1880 to the present. Maybe you'll enjoy that too.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 in Shit: From Up On Poppy Hill

I have very little in the way of memories of From Up On Poppy Hill, Studio Ghibli's late 2012 film that I didn't see until the beginning of this year. I liked it better than last year's The Secret of Arrietty, towards which I was fairly ambivalent, but not excessively. I often find myself falling slightly short of loving Ghibli movies that I expect I ought to, especially given how crucial My Neighbor Totoro was to me as a kid (Spirited Away being maybe the premiere example of this), and it was strange to me that I couldn't internally absolve or ignore those aspects of Arrietty which got in the way of the bits about which I was totally enthusiastic. Much the same, in places at least, for From Up On Poppy Hill, although to a lesser degree.

It's a gorgeous movie, and looks more often than not like a particularly well-imagined walk through a gallery with a friend where the two of you narrativize the series of paintings, catching motifs and drawing them out into a broad, if not particularly well nuanced, set of ideas tied together loosely by a narrator. Unfortunately it is also a bit like being the radical paired with a liberal, whose narrative consistently undermines the positioning you are attempting to achieve, watering down the real antagonisms into a more superficially pleasant and toothless version of their initial positions as the tour proceeds. What starts with guerrilla theater and building occupations ends up in the administrators office being granted the right not to die, with a nice little montage of gender parity in reproductive labor as an acceptable concession. And then the ending, a suggestion of classic love on an unexplored frontier, because nothing can be concluded without reproductive futurism's foregrounding of unknown territories.

So yeah, I give representations of radical student movements (especially ones that caricature overeager high school philosobros) more credit than's probably necessary. Oh well.

It's not as bad as all that, though the narrative does very much proceed to close on many of the possibilities that the movie itself opens. One of the strengths of the film's aesthetics, that could also easily be interpreted as a weakness, is their suggestion of history; for me, in retrospect, this managed to be more in the vein of the fact that this is a film which takes place in history and wants to interrogate it, rather than being a cloying argument for nostalgic reimaginings or the essentialized absence of the past on the present, but I could definitely see it reading as the latter. It has to do, at least in part, for me, with how the clearly nostalgic-elegiac vibrancy of the landscapes and the ocean especially are translated into, rather than juxtaposed against, the living excitement of the occupied building; that the narrative then goes on to suggest that the sterilized, gallerized post-occupation/liberal affordance building is just as exciting is clearly a contrivance of the narrative, which, seeing as the narrative itself is so clearly a consequence of the aesthetics (instead of the other way around) feels, in betraying them, not so much disappointing as just easily dismissed.

Which is sort of why, I think, this movie works in ways that Arrietty maybe didn't; the absolute weakness of its narrative doesn't feel like a problem so much as a feature of the way in which the film was constructed, and because of that its awkward weight is significantly diminished. Always, to my mind at least, a good thing. The subordination of narrative, I mean.

It's the other main image, the ocean, and its function, ships, that left me more ambivalent about the movie. There's something to be said, I think, about the way it plays into the historicization; as far as I recall it was narratively motivated by the main character's having lost a father at sea. That itself makes it a site of ambivalence within the film, but also makes it, at least to a greater extent than the rest, a consequence of the narrative universe, which probably, based on my speculations so far, reduced its effectiveness for me. It probably also has to do with the way that the image of the sea is used as the ultimate consolidation of the various strands of the film which are intent on the reclamation of its own radical potentialities, integrating them finally into the emergence of the couple form in the Imaginary of the unexplored territory. Which is a sentence I could probably put more succinctly but fuck you, I'm blogging.

So, to recap: what's interesting about From Up On Poppy Hill, to a person who is interested in films which exceed their narrative rather than work in concert with it, are the parts where it exceeds its narrative; what's less interesting about it are the parts where it doesn't. Fascinating. Also it's pretty, and maybe that's important! Or maybe not.

There's a reading of the movie that argues the arch liberalism to be a consequence of the widely-perceived failure of Goro Miyazaki's debut adaptation of Le Guin's Earthsea, necessitating a conservative approach to both subject matter and form in order to not bomb again. I don't know if I just made up and fully articulated the extent of that reading or if it precedes me and goes on to make more specific points, or broader ones, or better ones or worse ones, and I also have no idea how I feel about it. It seems potentially useful to contextualize the way in which, despite being in most all respects a better movie than, say, Arrietty, it somehow comes off as even more slight in certain ways. And it is undoubtedly true that where a more confident film might have lingered, to explore its own contradictions or even just to let its fictional world breathe a little, Poppy Hill keeps pushing forward. For a movie with almost no plot and which doesn't at all need to keep its narrative at the absolute forefront, it felt, to me, a bit breathless, constantly seeking the approval of an imagined fickle audience of dubious existence. Which, again, returns to the ending, and its almost comically classical love story bullshit, a focus group oriented decision (whether or not there actually was one) if I've ever seen one. Is it weird to claim that a small film about 60s student radicals, notable primarily for its aesthetics, feels focus grouped? It's a weird movie.

On the other hand, though, that isn't a very interesting thing to talk about in and of itself; it suggests a broader critique that I kind of have no interest in pursuing. Not exclusively because it suggests discussing things like artist intention or a cod-universalized subject of reception, but probably most likely. It's a movie I am much happier to remember in its failures than to attempt to organize the causes of the same, personally, which is pretty bourgie of me. Ghibli brings out the bourgie best in all of us, though. Save the whales and all.

The movie's politics, I suppose, could be summed up in the phrase "Occupy & De-escalate."

Part of what is disappointing about the narrative overdetermination of the image of the ocean is that it is simultaneously incredibly clear from the beginning and so tantalizingly close to a more interesting absence of argument that it frustrates; the early scenes where the protagonist waves naval flags in semaphore is obviously going to be explained, but it would be so much more wonderful if it hadn't. That it would have been, almost certainly, categorized in the Trivia or Goofs section on IMDb would be a small price to pay for an image of the pedagogical metonym transformed into an act of pure absence of communication. And posed against the liberal interpellation, that could (and, importantly, does, for the moments where the narrative has yet to perform its justificatory function, which moments are real as fuck, given that film occurs over time, even if that claim is very complicated and should not under any circumstances be confused for a claim of absolute linearity or even the primacy of text presented in a certain form) leave a certain important abstraction at play within viewer of the film that would justify reading it in the way that I am past a sort of reconstructive mode. Maybe I would have liked it a lot less that way though; it's hard to tell.

But then, these aren't really what actually lingers about From Up On Poppy Hill; its the force of the images of the protagonist riding a bike down a steep dirt road, and the clustering intimacy of the boys clubhouse in its presumed final days becoming a site of political struggle. Those moments are what actually counts, and the narrative be damned.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

2013 in Shit: After Earth

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it.
To begin; read Thinking about "After Earth" (2013) by @nochiel. You can finish there; what he has to say is significantly more important than what I'm about to write. If you want to read me as well, that's fine. But I really can't stress enough that reading that is more important and worthwhile than this.

It's not really my goal to expand upon what is written there. I think, for one thing, that I quite straightforwardly cannot, in any way that would be even remotely useful. What I think I can do is point up other ways in which the movie is, as Ochiel says, "an excellent, even important, sci-fi film" according to my own practices of reading, which firmly agree with that statement. And, of course, to read with him. Hopefully this weird thing I do manages that.

We assume that a film's stakes are basically a consequence of its genre; a biopic will fall along a spectrum that valorizes the individual according to tribulations, ranging from starting from the bottom to hitting rock bottom. The SF film spectrum has stakes in the setting; the world (or universe) is at stake. This is a sort of overdetermining of genericity, a whiteness of genre; not only does the marketing material let us know what sorts of things will be likely to be present, but it allows us the ability to enter the theater knowing for what or whom we will be rooting.

After Earth specifically undermines this. The film's climactic line is spoken by Jaden, and goes like this: "I wanna work with mom." It's a joke, sure, an intentional reflection of the gendered division of labor and the overwhelmingly masculine grammar of the film up to this point, a way of pretending to valorize women's work while implying that it isn't really work, at least not in the same way. But to read it as only this sort of joke, to deny that this is the real lesson of the film, that it also uncovers the actual desires of the film itself that were previously only communicated in its staging or cinematography, is to overvalue that generic whiteness. To let its claims about what is at stake in the film override the claims that the film itself makes.

The moment in which Kitai lays on a raft and dreams of his sister Senshi (Zoë Isabella Kravitz), who whispers something into his ear and has a conversation with him before suddenly shifting into a horrible spectre, contains more of the film than perhaps any other single moment. Shyamalan has basically always been a director of horror, in a largely idiosyncratic way, but this is the only moment of After Earth that is clearly signposted with elements of the filmic genre of horror. It's a jump scare, it's an example of the art of makeup application, and it is also a moment of psychological horror. Senshi's death is replayed endlessly, but in this moment alone she is unshackled from the burden of being the traumatic motivation and invested with a sense of malevolent agency (even if she never taps into it). At the same time, Kitai, with a sense of dream logic, is reciting a memorized passage from Moby Dick, a book that comes up a number of times throughout the film as a favorite of Cypher's, a moment of his bonding with Senshi, and a signifier of the lack of that bond with Kitai. The impulse, of course, played on though never really conceded, is to read the one through the other, to attempt to organize After Earth in accordance with some particular understanding of Melville's novel. On top of all that, the position that Kitai is in is one which is both foregrounded by the movie and constantly returned to it; the opening shots suture together Cypher's violent removal from Kitai by the ship's crashing with Kitai's laying on his side as the leeches venom takes hold. Throughout the movie Kitai finds himself in this peculiar repose, including the cross-cut scene out of which the above still is taken.

I am, to be completely honest, not sure what to do with the return to Kitai's laying on his side; but the return to that shot echoes the way that the movie aggressively insists on the image of Senshi as the marker of trauma. One of the many ways that this movie differs from the "accepted" mode of representation is in its insistence on trauma not just as a motivating force, but one that is marked by repetition; rather than using the moment of Senshi's death as either an established or revealed motivation, the film endlessly returns to it. In terms of narrative economy, this is decidedly inefficient; but as an act in itself, it resonates within the larger structure of the film beyond its narrative ends to color the similar use of the technique. So when Kitai speaks to Senshi in his dream, these moments that have technical resonance (both repeat beyond the representational economy that they are apparently subordinate to) are unified in representation; whether this explicitly codes Kitai's pose as traumatic or does something else entirely is beyond me. The presence of the "heart's hot shell" quote and the use of clear generic horror provide suggestions, though.

To linger, for just a moment, on the horror; more than the ways that this can be subsumed into the narrative by way of speculatively psychologizing the characters, I think the key here is the use of makeup and its metaphorization into a signifier of immanence. If it's a little cheap to say that what is important about this scene is that it is seen, then okay, yeah, so that is true of anything in a film. But it still feels especially so here, as so many things, both from within the film and from without it, are collapsed into this moment of visual recognition. Which is maybe what really matters; that the way the moment ends with certain established signifiers of estrangement are really aimed at producing a sort of recognition.

If Kitai's dream of Senshi is an exemplary moment in the film's repetitive impulse, that's only because that impulse is so completely diffuse throughout the movie that it needs a particular example to anchor it. As a whole the movie uses repetition to locate trauma, as being both representative and a consequence of the family.

I'll again note, because I worry that this last point will suggest otherwise, that I am very much reading with Ochiel here.

It resonates in the scene where, after Cypher has described his first experience of ghosting, Kitai learns to ghost in near-exactly the same circumstances; but more obliquely it even shows up in the way that the giant bird interacts with Kitai. At first an apparent enemy, it ends up saving Kitai by adopting him, even after he fails to protect its chicks from the predatory cats. And then again at the very end, as Cypher replies to Kitai's desire to work with Faia with a "me too," which itself calls back to the scene where Cypher tells Faia of his impending retirement and offers that he will possibly work with her as well.

That scene also repeats an early scene in a more direct way, as Cypher asks to be stood up to salute Kitai in the same way a soldier Cypher had saved asked to be stood up to salute him. This is, on the face of it, a pretty ordinary move, an example of the way the grammar of cinema uses self-citation to indicate the ascension of one character to the status of another where there was an initial power difference. But because of the insistence on showing and reshowing the scene where a young Kitai "fails" to save Senshi, it can't possibly only work to that end here; and because the final conclusion of the film is that the actions of the film are themselves totally untenable, this is even more drawn out than it would be otherwise.

That the film positions family as the site of trauma does not mean that the film positions family as the cause of trauma. This is an easy elision to make, but is itself a consequence of assuming the whiteness of genre, the overdetermining of the particular by the universal (in the form of marketing categories). That the act itself involves the invasion of an Ursa into the Raige household is important; family is the site, which is to say the location. The trauma builds into itself, refuses the distinction of outside and in, and so collocates the two. It is a rupture from outside, but it becomes the constitutive aspect.

I came across The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan, a fake documentary by the Sci Fi channel about the making of The Village by way of this article; I don't know quite how it was received or is remembered outside of that context, but I think it's not unfair to extrapolate that the article's reading of it alongside The Village and Lady in the Water as the turning point, when Shyamalan became too narcissistic to maintain a steady credible presence as an auteur, is pretty fair. Which is incredibly interesting, having now watched it myself; the fake documentary is clearly more invested in exploring the specific ways in which Shyamalan is or feels fetishized within the industry and the culture than it is an act of narcissism. From his early interview to the white kids at the gates to his house to the images of "ethnic" masks, The Buried Secret is a short film about race in an incredibly straightforward way. But instead it gets read under the same forms of erasure -- the whiteness of genre -- as After Earth has. It's no coincidence, I think, that this relatively nondescript fake documentary was brought up in relation to this film.

Of course, the silencing of artists of color by way of claiming their narcissism is both a common and well known tactic. It wouldn't be too hard to read The Buried Secret as being entirely about this; all one would need to do would be to discard the very tenuous generic connections and refuse to whitewash it. What arises then is a pseudo-documentary about a film crew whose invasive attempts to refuse to allow a director of color to control the meaning of his own works in even the limited field of his own actions. It's telling especially that the "last interview" with Shyamalan ends with a white dude explaining to a South Asian American artist that his works, despite all indications otherwise, are entirely and directly autobiographical. This is a history with which we are familiar.

There's a part of me that wants to launch into a full blown defense of M. Night Shyamalan here; I honestly think that Lady in the Water is his best film, and that The Happening is genuinely strange in ways that are actively enhanced by how dull it reads. And this probably is the place for it too; only it's not the time. I've got fake deadlines to meet.

Suffice to say, for now, that certain aspects of After Earth need to be read through Shyamalan. The scene just after the plane crash, for instance, where the camera is let rest just outside the plastic membrane that is meant to seal off the ship's atmosphere, as it opens and closes on the dead crewmembers body, seems to me to be very particularly Shyamalan, and to possess a strange, awkward visual poetry that ends up coded into the use of repetition in the films larger structures. There is also, of course, that moment of genre horror, which without Shyamalan would read very differently. But also, at a broader level, he presents maybe the most interesting case of the erasure of the why in the generic whiteness equation; why, if this is the Smith vanity project, was a director whose utter narcissism, as racialized and wrong as that claim might be, is so widely established as to be, at this point, basically uncontested? Why not, at that point, literally any other director at all? And the answer, again, is that I don't know; but also that I do know that there is a crack there, a failure of the metanarrative, and that this is a movie worth keeping in the conversation, and so it is a crack worth exploiting.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Hanging on Union Square

A new edition of a self-published novel thats almost 80 years old; a novel filled with the structural violence of the Depression so fully that it might be nothing but a stretched taut skin. Where Nut is beat with his comrades, before he knows them as such, outside a Communist diner over a $.05 check unpaid because he holds pride & its racist & sexist dictats sacrosanct & because the cops protect property to the rhythm of baton swoosh-skull-concrete, swoosh-skull-concrete. & because when Communists enter into the property relation shit happens; but at least they aren't Socialists or Liberals. But then in the terse lyric voice that distills that structural violence into the kind of poem that pushes you off a cliff there is that nasty little abstraction, voice, and it carries itself right into a night of homelessness for Nut and the men who invite him in and while it is said that all he does is politely decline and leave the voice is there and it is wretched with violence in absence and there is none of that poetic blood that sutures solidarity this time around but maybe theres the prosaic kind that this voice absences. & because it's a maybe of course it's a yes, in that way that words tremble and shake and never quite work as anything other than they are not.

If I secretly think that the conscious elaboration of a materialist critique of the subsumption of the generic into the symbolic can be done in such a way as to illuminate better the real affective power of that subsumption (secretly because if this is true it remains a radically opaquely motivation to me, if me alone) then there is no better illustration than the way that Mr. System and Wiseguy conspire to capitalize on Nut's performance of the titular act. Beyond "Mr. System / Beware..." being in the running for best refrain of all time, beyond even the way that the book configures itself as a spectacular object (printed rejection letters, cover duplicated but with title added, Nut talking about how annoying H.T. Tsiang is; the act of an Asian American (an anachronistic use, to term the author this, of course) writing a white protagonist (as Chang Rae Lee, in one particular example among others, would do 69 years later and 9 years earlier, to at least one Asian American Literature class at UC Santa Cruz in the last year of the first decade of the 21st century's profound confusion and disinterest) being a more buried version of this, perhaps, although I confess next to no knowledge whatsoever of the nuances of the reception of self-published Communist novels in the 30s, much less how particular groups were racialized within those contexts), there is in all this a narrative of the poor opting to hang from a flagpole in a public space used primarily by organizers and the homeless, and the way that those most comfortably inside the system sup on the myth of the absence of structural determiners to innovate this legal abstraction of individual consent to exploitation and death. And in all of that the material, the stuff, melts away as characters named Nut and Wiseguy enact roles at once systemic and individual, courting particularity in spite of their universal role in economic structures, or courting universality as the negation of the metastasization of words into the abstraction of character as a particular. Which is all just to say that though this may be a Communist novel it is not much of a materialist novel, and even its realism is in constant tension with the allegorizing it seems to need to do.

Whether that makes it an incoherent mess of a narrative or a landmark in absence that could have had the power to supercede much of the zombie realism that shambled through the 20th century with more & more tenuous a connection to "discovering the causal complexes of society / unmasking the prevailing view of things as the view of those who are in power / writing from the standpoint of the class which offers the broadest solutions for the pressing difficulties in which human society is caught up / emphasizing the element of development / making possible the concrete, and making possible abstraction from it" is largely a question of the temperament of the reader and their tendency toward charity or refusal; but then, like the cover says, "the cover of a book / is more of a book / than a book is a book” (which, of course, to explain myself, makes this not a materialist novel but a materialist book, which is to say a materialist material object, which is to say who knows; but also that this cover’s language is a materialist paratext to an allegorical proletarian novel, which is to say I adore it). As though we were still laboring under a culture which reified reading to triply obscure the history of the author-function, the real effects of the text, and the way that modes of distribution create real objects of textuality outside the internalized modes of interpretation/reflection/affective reaction that are completely ignored by anyone but marketers. What a nightmare world that would be to live in.

Violence is the air that Hanging has no choice but to breathe, and reading it makes needing revolution as easy as exhaling. In spite of the borderline aphoristic style and the playfulness in its namings, the most beautiful scenes in the novel (as well, as mentioned before, as the most grotesque) are its scenes of violent material struggle. The first, with Nut being beat by cops over a nickel alongside some comrades who have come to help him against his will, sets the tone. Violence is ambiance for the poor. When this is understood, the foreclosure defense and march through the streets become more than just illustrative instances of hardship; they are moments of icy, hateful beauty in a world that is burning. And just as the haunting that the motif from which the novel derives its name reveals itself as the ultimate negation of the negation, as the dialectically-allegorical Mr. System structures the last possible act of refusal accorded under the dominant mode of production and brings about that aufhebun that finally ends prehistory, at least in the fantasmic pages which stretch past the closed book's endcover, which, considering the semiotic coding as materialism of the material object itself, is much weightier than your ordinary elided-last-event, these moments shine through the historical-universalism of the rest in their own idiosyncratic, non-dialectical immanence, real (fictional) events existing in a real (fictional) world, subsumed into its trajectories but standing still partially outside of them as well.

More than anything else, this is a book that wants you to fight with it, to argue against it and to come away invigorated. The kind that reserves its materialism for its materials and treats language like a formal system of communication capable of operating within other formal systems that it makes itself. It's the kind of book that fucks with you, and it is beautiful for it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Wolverine

Holy hell do I not remember anything about The Wolverine. More or less a total blank. It was pretty enjoyable, I think? Also deeply, deeply fucked up? There's something about the way that the evil mutant is at best a miniboss maybe, and how it is pretty class warish, but other than that I don't know.

There's the scene with young Logan in the well, hiding from the nuclear bomb. I think his flesh gets all burned off or whatever? Was it this movie that he was an MMA fighter? Or has that been a thing for a while?

When war criminal-cum-billionaire definitively turns heel was a pretty good moment, I guess.

I feel like there were a few moments that really felt like they cemented themselves, but turns out they didn't. Wolverine's autocardioectomy as visualized through that X-Ray machine or whatever still hovers at the edges of my memory. Was he trying to lose his powers so he could die? Holy shit that movie totally did have a narrative.

And the villain is there too, the one who just sort of vanishes so that the men can get to the real business or whatever. I remember her being very campy, played with the sort of physical drawl that stands outside normal signifiers of seriousness or its lack. So of course she got replaced by a dying billionaire in a mech suit. Or was it a statue? I can only remember that there was some vaguely interesting architecture being smashed through, maybe.

The fight itself was one of those rare vertical film battles, from what I recall. Part Mortal Kombat circa N64 "Holy Shit You Can Break Through Parts Of The Stage And Fall Down Into Other Parts" and part "wow the vertical bits in the Star Wars prequel battles are way more interesting than the horizontal why aren't they using that at all." Obviously neither of these things is like actually all that great. Which is why I analogize them to The Wolverine, a movie that was also not all that great.

My favorite bit of the movie, though, was the "Wolverine in a Wetsuit" moment, where Wolverine is swimming in the gold-plated pool in the guy who ends up being the bad guy's mansion, in a wetsuit. It's kind of amazing that the movie is willing to let you figure out for yourself just how bizarre that is; the wetsuit is one of the most difficult sartorial problems for superheros, and this movie just plays it off.

There are the obvious reasons that wetsuits are weird; superpowers generally absolve the hero of the worry of being too cold, and their outfits are generally already suspiciously close to wetsuits to begin with. The Wolverine, I think, manages to insert this scene because of its aesthetic choice to veer away from the supersuit; the marked absence there becomes a sign of which the wetsuit itself can act as signified.

The shot itself is, I believe, medium-long, and so the eye is initially drawn to the architecture rather than the individual in frame; it's only after you notice the awkwardly-spaced pillars (which provide verisimilitude; it's obviously a set but the way the camera appears to be lodged into a corner makes the room "feel" more real) and the expanse of white marble tile that the focus resolves on the wetsuited body doing laps. It lingers just long enough for this focus to take, and then cuts away, leaving the viewer unable to question why exactly in such a portrait of wealth the swimming pool is apparently not heated.

And, of course, it never resolves itself visually; the rest of the film is primarily tightly drawn, and there's sure as hell no more wetsuits.

The fact that the organizing moment of the film takes place in a well in Japan suggests Murakami, of course, while the wetsuit scene (for me at least, as I grew up near it) is more Hearst Castle, which provide strange poles that the movie moves between; the yellow journalism (the term's racial origins being especially pertinent here) of the film's attempt to deal with the fact that superheros have become globalized along with the move towards an unrepresentable interiority conditioned by geography and history and accessible only peripherally through those things.

The wetsuit in this sense functions as a knitting point between the historical-specific and the geographic-universal; like the leotards that make up most classical superhero costumes, it functions to disguise by its own particular universality, to in its singular representation denote the absolute. At the same time, its actual use value ties it to the Pacific Rim, the film's clear structuring global, and to cultures of intense competition over the movements of landscape. Surfing itself is uniquely a proposition of anonymous conflict, with personalities submerged in both the vastness of the dominated object and the requirements (particularly of dress) that that object imposes. The ocean is a great leveler; but to parcel it temporo-spatially is to introduce to that leveling competition, and dominance.

Thus Hearst; similarly, the idea of journalism levels, while the practice of journalism requires the manufacturing of discrete sites of competition. Historically, of course, this site is "yellowness," of the yellow peril in particular and manufactured racial panics in general. This time, of course, the object of panic is an individual, as expressed through his mech, who happens to live in the castle of the individual who started it all.

Which, of course, makes the verticality of the final battle interesting; Hearst's castle itself is primarily a horizontal construction on a vertical landscape. It rests on top of a fucking mountain, basically, and the entrance is at the top of a particular slope of garden. The mech boss in The Wolverine, on the other hand, is fought in a vertically-constructed environment.

This is, I think, related to the sense of the flattening effects of globalization; as that phenomenon becomes an embodied representation in the billionaire/mech, the arena in which the battle takes place must be organized on contrary principles. In addition, the grounds speak clearly to the industrial nature of the space; this is partially a reference to the setting (the villain having become rich on industrial medicine, during the late Fordist period of capitalism, even as this takes place in a post-Fordist space which is also to say a Toyotist space, importantly) and partially an aesthetic choice reflecting both the needs of action and character, as Wolverine's metallic bone structure becomes externalized in both the villain (via the mech suit) and the space itself (via girders and shit) and the fact that girders and shit make for interesting fight choreography.

lol idk

Sunday, December 22, 2013

2013 in Shit: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I've told multiple people that this year's Hunger Games movie is better than last, but even though it is the most recent film I've seen on this list I feel like it has largely slipped away from me. When I saw last year's I had only recently read all three novels in rapid succession. Now it's been over a year, and the impulse to compare the films with the novels has significantly waned as my memory of the latter grows spottier. I skipped the critical reception this year as well, largely; I saw that Mark Fisher had written about it, but never read it.

There are two standout things in the difference between The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, for me at least. The first was my disappointment in the realization of the book's monsters in the first film; the second is basically devoid of the teratological, and so avoids that particular pitfall. The second is my offhand comment that the books at least seem to me to allegorize the American Revolution; given that I haven't actually followed the reception of the film I might be wrong about this, but I suspect that the critical engagement from folks like Fisher indicates that people are coming around to the thematization of the second capitalized word there, if not the first. Which is pretty understandable given that that particular situation is, I suspect, a product of my own idiosyncratic reading.

I remain curious to see the third book's translation into film; the first, with its heavy reliance on direct access to the interiority of Katniss, and the overt thematization of that access, seemed to me to be the least likely to translate well, while the second's shift into the justification of the spectacle on narrative grounds (the need for Katniss to be out of the loop) might (and did) work better. The third, though, where the revolution actually begins, is the mirror image of the first, with Katniss struggling internally with her use as a visual metaphor and biographical metonym, only this time for the opposite team, and paradoxically seems to me to offer the most interesting possible translation. Plus fighting through the bombed-out streets of the capitol is just bound to produce some good imagery. Right?

And I haven't particularly well thought through precisely how mirroring the American Revolution at this particular point in history works itself out, of course. To tell it as a story is necessarily to modulate it, to recast it according to contemporary political economies &c &c. To say simply that the trilogy (tetralogy, I guess, speaking of the films) is About Revolution, though, seems to me to miss the point that it is, even while its objects of representation are decidedly (if not exclusively) proletarian, recapitulating the form of one of the revolutions which made the proletariat into a class that is required to abolish itself seems to me to be important.

Other than that, uhm. Well, I had forgotten about the clock stadium, which was pretty cool. Also the bit where Katniss hangs the prior Gamesmaker in effigy, although the film seemed hella squeamish about that. Which seems fair. Also the fog, the washing off of which seemed like an interesting possible expansion on and counterpoint to both Peeta's way of surviving the first game and the televisual nature of the main conflict of the first film.

I don't even know. I'm pretty exhausted.

A couple days ago, apropos of nothing, I began to think that it would be interesting to try to think of the film against itself, centering around Katniss' act of firing the arrow into the hologram of the games as an unintentional act. An active disavowal of the movies rhetoric, politically motivated. I didn't really get any further than that though.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

2013 in Shit: Fruitvale Station

I could probably use Fruitvale Station as an excuse to talk about my feelings of acting on the periphery of occupy, from the 2009 occupation of the Graduate Student Commons to the various bay area occupy camps (primarily oakland) that I went to. There are some stories there, I guess.

I don't really want to though. And I sure as hell am not going to read it in the way that I usually read films.

You should probably see it, I guess.

Friday, December 20, 2013

2013 in Shit (Bonus): Cool Moves, Witch Hunter



Here's something I didn't notice until after having finished this essay; the square brackets indicate what I decided were the opening and closing frames of the film. That means there's only two moments where Hansel swaggers in the film that fall within the frame; once with a stick, and then with a gatling gun, which is arguably more practical than swaggering. The fact that the move with the stick is maybe my single most favorite instant of the film, period, aside, this might be a fun little thing to imagine; that the cool moves are largely paratextual, out-of-frame conditions by which the in-frame affective payoff can be emphasized.

Of course, another suggestion these images make is that the real frame is Gretel's assumption of Hansel's swagger; she shoulders her gun first, and last (assuming an imposed frame). That too might well be worth pursuing.

2013 in Shit: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

The only class that I took on film as an undergraduate was entirely about John Carpenter. I'd never seen any of his movies before that, although I liked Lynch and was interested in Cronenberg. The professor had taught a class on Horror Film prior that a few of my friends had taken, and were pretty effusive about, and I also missed his senior seminar on vampire fiction (I believe it was the same quarter as I took my senior seminar on Proust, but am not sure, and am neither sure whether this was before or after the Carpenter class). Professor Leicester was weird, and I did end up taking a small class on Milton from him as well; as I recall, the research interests listed on his faculty page included porn and country music, and he was one of the only professors in the Literature department teaching film classes at the time (at least as far as I remember).

His readings leaned strongly Lacanian, though I believe (having read almost nothing of her, admittedly) that it was very much a Lacan through Kristeva, and where I had previously thought about film mostly in generalities he encouraged a particular attention that I've since found invaluable. One of the things that stuck with me most of all was his asking the class to reject the idea that the women in Halloween were stupid or objects of a moralizing gaze or to be moralized about, and instead to pay attention to the small gestures or phrases, and to build out of them first before assuming the narrative weight. And he was right about that, I think; that movie has a depth of character that runs in direct contrast to its misogyny. I still think I Know What You Did Last Summer is even better at this, but it isn't a competition; the point is that these texts work against themselves and that this is wonderful.

Another of his lessons that stuck for me was his focus on Carpenter's use of what he called "cool moves;" this was mostly in relation to Assault on Precinct 13, but also (I might be wrong here) discussed in the context of The Thing. Leicester's argument was that Carpenter was borrowing a certain affective move from Howard Hawks, a way of engaging with homosociality and competitive friendliness in an established filmic shorthand consisting of things like catching a tossed shotgun in midair.

Leicester would point these moments out with no little relish, identifying them not only in their ecstatic immanence but in how they were framed, whether these frames were quoted, &c &c. And most importantly, how that framing or quoting or whatever spoke to the moment in which it happened, how it recontextualized certain relationships or reorganized social dynamics or presented new or enhanced aspects of one character's existence within the world and situation of the film. It was an incredibly generous form of criticism, and very precise even as it argued incredibly counterintuitively. That was also the class in which I first watched and began initially formulating my long-deferred theory of ghosts based on The Fog, so it was pretty cool.

The most exciting part of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for me was catching Hansel do those cool moves, mostly in the form of jauntily notching his shotgun into his shoulder (though the one instance of him replicating this tic with a large stick really cements how funny it is). Of course, as Professor Leicester strove to show, the coolness here was never in a vacuum; it always relied on and was generative of context.

I don't really remember if it was the same year as the Carpenter class or the year after, but I ended up applying for and winning a small grant at my school in the last year I was there. It was called the Humanities Undergraduate Research Award, and required submitting a proposal for a research project with a signoff by a professor; the winners were allowed to present a paper at the end of the year. I decided that I was going to submit a project called Hello Kitty Everything, which in that form was to be a series of essays about all the major (as determined by, uh, me) Sanrio characters. It was going to begin with an introduction about Hello Kitty, and then move through Chococat, My Melody, Charmmy Kitty, Badtz-Maru, and on and on. I also was going to anchor the project with a vague constellation of ideas, with the most overarching being Brecht's formulation of realism. On some level I've been working on this since, although hardly in the way I proposed. The closest I ever came to completing it in the initially proposed form was my contributions to three different #spamfm Chinese New Year compilations (the third of which I was the exclusive participant of); I don't think you can find those songs anywhere now, but they probably still exist.

The second new year compilation track was titled "My Melody, Remarks History" and was really a bad song. I basically wrote lyrics and sung them (I am a poor singer) and didn't record any sounds otherwise. It was nearly five minutes long, and was about My Melody as myth, more or less. The little rabbit started, allegedly, as a one-off bunny in a little red riding hood special with no name, but her potential popularity was realized and she became a staple. From what I understand, her popularity has had wild swings; the story is that in the 80s it was basically impossible to find merchandise of her anywhere, until a Strawberry News reader poll saw her come out on top; since then she has consistently remained in the upper tier of Sanrio characters, although (from what I understand) regional fluctuations can still be somewhat intense. I've heard, for instance, that her popularity in Japan was at a nadir about the same time as it reached its zenith here, about half a decade ago, but that's just anecdotal, and probably misremembered.

My interest in her, aside from the fact that she is one of my favorite of their designs, was largely in regards to how exactly her origins as an adaptation of little red riding hood affected the temporality of the Sanrio quasiverse. Everything in Sanrio is a bit of a weird timetable, given that their world comes very much after their products and remains unformalized. There are certain constants though, often related to Debord's clarifications on commodity time in Society of the Spectacle. I decided to start thinking of what My Melody occupied as "myth time."

This is complicated in a way that most theories projected on Sanrio characters aren't; My Melo had an anime called Onegai My Melody, which follows My Melo as she leaves Mari Land, her home, to pursue Kuromi, who is engaged in a plot to collect black notes via bad feelings to bring about some unspecified bad thing. My Melo collects pink notes and they race to a hundred; it's a pretty good show, and utterly weird for it to be based on Sanrio characters, whose characterization is exclusively situated in promotional materials, for the most part.

I really enjoy Genevieve Valentine's take on Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but I want to take a slightly different tack and try to piece together its mythological temporality, instead of relating its historical fuckups; not, hopefully, in some po-faced Academic Thesis way, but because, for me, that was the most invigorating thing about actively watching the movie as a whole (as opposed to the individual moments that were most fun in their cool moves).

I decided fairly early on in Gretel that one way to read it would be in continuity with Xena: Warrior Princess; I believe the impetus there was Hansel's reliance on insulin (he is diabetic in the movie due to the childhood episode in the witch's candy house; the movie could also be productively read as a toychest in the same way I did Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Xena's invention of CPR in the season one finale. There is also the scene in which Gretel invents a defibrillator with her steampunk taser, which cements that similarity. The history of medical science in this universe might be the impetus but I don't really have more to say about it than that. Sorry.

This speculative continuity draws out interesting similarities; both Xena and Gretel function as some weird sort of fairy tale consultant procedurals, except without the representation of the material conditions that allows that genre to make sense. In both cases, though, the team of protagonists are clearly operating as reluctant contractors, working outside established power dynamics to achieve a generally-recognized good end through whatever-it-takes means, and both have historical identities that privilege their ability to achieve those ends, especially when it comes to being hired.[1]

Which is just to say that Xena's warlord past and Gretel's witch-hood are both basically forms of knowledge that construct their capacity to act without structural support. Which is to say that they are both fictions, really, but also that they are fictions which adequately theorize their own status as such in a way that most don't. That they both take place in the My Melody-esque myth time, a strange fusion of the spectacular logic of time organized by commodities with the situated eternality of the fairy tale, pushes them together; one way to say this would be to say that where Valentine sees aggressive anachronism I see acts of refusal, which in effect isn't all that much different except in how the organization of events (worldbuilding) approaches time.

Which is more or less to say that, like Xena, I don't think Gretel gets it wrong; I think it is an argument against the aesthetic assumptions that condition what getting it right can look like. Admittedly it is not an especially strong argument; the ground is already mostly ceded by the use of fable rather than history. But fabular time is relevant to the assumptions we make about historical time, existing neither in nor outside of it. And it is also important to how we think of spectacular (or (late) capitalist) time, which, for all its granularity in the form of management and regulation, is at large exactly the sort of situated eternal that My Melody condenses into cute.

Another strategy that I learned in Leicester's class on Carpenter was how to consciously approach a film as a constructed whole. The elision of elements of a film is something we necessarily do, and it was through, I believe, The Fog that I came to understand how one way to play within this would be to actively declare the bookends of a film, refusing that the whole of a movie was necessarily the first shot to the final, or the space between the opening and closing credits, or etc. One way to do this is to identify a closing frame, and then to reach backwards through the film to identify what that closed. One option, for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, would be to say that it takes place in the space between Blue Velvet and Hellraiser. That cuts out the first half hour or so of the film and everything after the massacre at the blood moon convention.

Part of the point of this framing, of course, is simply to provide a base on which the elided portions can be differently accessed. So if I say that The Fog ends with the return of the golden crucifix, I'm not saying that Adrienne Barbeau doesn't cite The Thing From Another World, but that that citation functions differently than it would otherwise due to its being outside of the frame. It also means, then, that rather than assuming the obvious structure, with the child actors serving as prologue and the introduction of the adults as the beginning of the main story, that everything prior to the camera's delving underground is the pre-Velvet prologue; that is, up to that point the film doesn't have the overtones of an examination of the complicity between peace and violence (to HUGELY oversimplify). Or at least, it doesn't have them in terms it tacitly expects us to recognize.

The closing frame works more as genealogy than anything, though. Seen through visual allusion, it enacts this thematic layering as both a culmination and an initiation; Gretel, then, both closes as Hellraiser and demands retroactively to be read through it. But the conditions of the frame matter as well; it would not close with this allusion had it not opened with (a different) one. In the context of this movie, Hellraiser doesn't exist without Blue Velvet. That itself could form a compelling argument; resonances at the level of the unconscious as structure and horror as affect, dissonances at the level of the contemporary use of the Expressionist toolset and the consequence of objects. Read through Gretel, a more complete picture might be derived, not least in the position of misogyny and specifically (which is to say historically) filmic elaboration of affect in the form of camp. Or, more formally, we could discuss why it is that a quotation of Blue Velvet takes the form of a way of moving the camera, while a quotation of Hellraiser takes the form of costume design.

Or we could zoom back out, and return to the question of time. Because citing Blue Velvet doesn't just mean citing the debates around the film's theme; it carries other baggage as well. And not the least of that is how Lynch's film takes place in the suburbs, in a time frame that is probably only really comprehensible as the fifties through the eighties. Which is to say: the time frame of a situated eternal.

The (US) fifties being, of course, more a construction of the futurity of the thirties just before it failed to bear fruit, and the nostalgia of the eighties as everything began to fall apart. The fifties being, that is to say, a fantasy of infinitely extending stability, of unthreatening and unthreatened growth alongside a security of life and value. A non-time, as it were. Exactly as realistic as a (maybe) German village from (undisclosed) centuries ago with full literacy, steampunk guns and insulin injections, or where Caesar crucified a young warrior princess over a decade prior to the first steps in Homer's bardic career. Or where the profusion of commodities precede their contextualization, even as they are introduced as Little Red Riding Hood.

Of course, Blue Velvet's aesthetic is a mix of horror and melodrama and detective story, which is culturally about as far from the B-fairytale steampunk of Gretel as possible. And this isn't to say that these aesthetic modes necessarily share an orientation toward temporality; but in these specific instances, they do. This is probably nowhere more obvious in Blue Velvet than the scene where Ben pantomimes Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." I think that's pretty self-explanatory.

That the logic of dreams is evident in Hellraiser is useful; rather than the Nightmare on Elm Street approach of dreams as diegesis, Hellraiser is a logic of dreams expressed primarily in forms of architecture. The cenobites themselves, as the citational objects, don't present a contrast with this so much as an extension; less than bodies, the monsters of Hellraiser are designed objects for the inhabitation of space. They kill because they are extensions of a murderous topos. The topos is murderous because it is forever.

I do hope you realize by now that there's going to be nothing resembling a synthesis here.

One of my favorite films in the genre of situated eternality is Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves, even if it lays the werewolves as menstruation metaphor on a little thick. That it also derives from the Little Red Riding Hood myth is probably part of it; the scene with the aristocratic gentlemen being transformed into (were)wolves becomes an explicit link between the politics of class (and race) and cute by way of the myth, and My Melody's writtenness on its palimpsest. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters might have nothing to do with the actual myth at hand, or even much to do with Jordan's dark & sparkly aesthetic, but fucked if they don't occupy the same nonspace. Or, to be more accurate, the same absence of time as space. The same (say it with me now) situated eternal.

Here, then, are two lengthy justifications of the weight of Hansel's cool moves; that their performative nature is anchored in not the countertemporality of steampunk, but in the atemporality of myth, and that they draw on a cinematic language of action, horror, and fairy tale simultaneously, pulling them together without a pretense of synthesis. These find their unification in the how the intrafilmic frame is composed of interfilmic moves, with reference to the specificities of the films interpolated, and also in how the former's (in its positive articulation) subsumption of the latter precedes their disentangling. What this provides doesn't necessarily find expression in the Hawksian gesture, which lack is itself a condition of its own ability to produce friction. Or to say it differently: it works to spite all this contextualizing.

Which is maybe just another way of saying that it is what it is. The Hawksian gesture is always a productive site of inquiry into the film's epistemology precisely because of its aggressive immanence, its entanglement with reductive homosociality, its negative formalism. It is necessarily a gesture at odds, a refusal of depth, an indication of aporia. It is an invitation to act disrespectfully, to criticism, to analysis, to a reaction absent humor or charity or sincerity, because it is a preemptive disarming, a smirk or a shrug or a swagger without content.

But then, it being what it is doesn't say shit about where it is, or how it is. So it's an irony, sure. All the more effective for refusing to double itself, or stand outside its own absence. To which, I suppose, there are many responses. Mine just happens to be, alright, fuck it. Lets get it.

[1] I know I said last time that it was likely the last, but here's one more Easter Egg for you. I'm taking this opportunity to announce that A Truly Blonde Child's first EP Xena: Season 1 will be released on Fuck the Polis! on January 7th. Feel free to check out the album trailer directed by Tuchus Christ for a short preview.

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