Category Archives: Essays

Through The Media of Space and Time

A Meditation on SURFACE TENSIONS, one year later.

The first year anniversary of the Surface Tensions release has come and gone, somehow. I have decided to celebrate with a stand-alone audio piece drawn from the 6th chapter and with this reflection. Since I am no longer in the practice of writing smoothly integrated essays, these thoughts are more scattered than I’d prefer. But they nevertheless reveal how my thinking has grown and morphed, so here they are. (This eventually becomes an addendum to the conclusion, so, if you haven’t read the book, stop early and come back later.)

 

1. Reading is a cool, intimate thing.

It has been a surprising year. The largest surprise has not been a wide swath of readers — they, quite frankly, have yet to appear — but the memoir’s particular readers. These are often readers I never expected to read the book, distant friends and even friends of friends. They, without warning, message me to relay personal stories of how much it has meant to them. Of how they literally laughed and cried, reifying the cliché. Of how Surface Tensions allowed them to confront their own pasts, to consider the angels with whom they, like Jacob, like me, have wrestled. Any Surface Tensions reader knows the degree to which it puts myself out there. But readers have not only appreciated my vulnerability; they have subsequently put themselves out to me, as if my openness unfurled and secured a safety net over which they could jump into my Facebook messages.

This is cool. It’s rather wild, too, the knowledge that someone has spent hours thinking alongside you, co-thinking their hyperspecific feelings with your hyperspecific feelings. In the book, I speak of everyday intimacy and distance as covalently bonded through media. In the case of a book, I have learned, these intimacies and distances increase by massive degrees. Readers’ emotional experiences looks so different from my own… and yet, by the end of the process, they are somehow closer to me, my life, my sensibility and my way of thinking, than many of my everyday friends.

2. I still like the book, but I want to nuance some of my final ideas.

Now to the real question at hand: does book holds up? That is a hard question to answer — and probably not a question for me to answer, ultimately. What I can say with some degree of confidence: I am impressed that the book holds so many squirrely strands together, wrapping them around each other in unusual knots. It manifests what I always appreciate from young artists: a sense of formal ambition, a slightly-mad grasping toward a medium’s possibilities. It is as beholden to the nonfiction it emulates (by Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, James Baldwin, and so on) as it is determined to break down genres. Surface Tensions is a book by a young author, sure. But youth has its benefits; one of the benefits and traps of youth is a penchant for risk taking. Surface Tensions still feels like a risky book, one year later. It still surprises and rewards.

Yet youth brings frustrations with it. One of these frustrations: a lack of definitive closure. Some of the book’s biggest fans have told me that they find themselves frustrated by its conclusion. But they recommend the book to all sorts of people anyway… so I suppose I owe them a reevaluation.

3. Let’s reevaluate the conclusion.

The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. It was inspired, one could probably guess, by one of my favorite works by young artists: Good Will Hunting. I believe that, not unlike that film, my conclusion sincerely sticks some emotional-spiritual landings, but without presenting a form of closure that would have disingenuously obscured the tenuous emotional threshold from which it was written. If people are frustrated by the conclusion, they are frustrated by my own lack of personal stability.

While I hate to disappoint, I must admit: one year later, the issues I write about in the conclusion have only expanded and complicated in my mind. I look upon the conclusion with admiration. I think it’s one of the best parts of the book. But I also know that more can be done with its ideas. I therefore come to neither praise nor bury the Conclusion, but to take it and run a little further.

I must also admit that I wrote the conclusion with a bit of a strategic agenda. I was tired of those who tried to perpetuate a fundamental, ontological difference between “digital” and “physical” existence. There was, and probably still is, a tendency among certain tech-turned-anti-tech people to fetishize “the physical” and to rip at “the digital.” I bracket these terms with quotation mark because this binary holds no water. Of course we are physically embodied while engaging with digital media, and of course our physical lives involve the same presences and absences that frustrate us so much in digital spheres. I therefore think that the conclusion’s central point is still significant: digital media’s presences and absences can accustom us to live within the various mixtures of presence and absence (or, perhaps more accurately, the varying degrees of presence; absence isn’t exactly a substance that mixes) in which we spend our everyday lives wading.

I was happy, when writing, to end on a fundamentally constructivist note. I realized, recently, that I have a natural affinity for thinkers like Walter Benjamin. I have a natural desire to take on the Adornos of the world, those cranks who believe that media irrefutably lessens experience. I long to argue that technical mediation, as a symptom of modernity, can be the means by which we accommodate ourselves to all of modern life. Technical media can be a sort of interactive training module for living in a fallen world, a world stripped of aura.

Despite the difficulties involved in truly grasping Benjamin’s definition of aura, my preferred interpretation is that Benjamin’s “aura” implies a (1) spatio-temporal connection by which (2) an individual is pulled into and absorbed by an object outside of herself. Benjamin saw this connection severed by modern media, and also saw this severance fruitfully interrogated by processes of technological reproducibility: the processes that created cinematic montage and the surrealist photograph. Could we not also experience a similarly fruitful interrogation through, say, the iPhone? I would like to think so.

But if youth is about discovering possibilities (the “sensibility of possibility”, perhaps, most identifies Surface Tensions as a youthful work) age seems to be more about finding possibilities within limits. This happens at micro levels––as a child I wanted to be an engineer before I realized how terrible I was at math––before it occurs by ever-greater degrees: at a certain point, you find ways to live as all of your long-time friends leave you to enter eternity, one-by-one.

If I think about the media-related discoveries I’ve had over the last couple years, they’ve been about discovering limits. And I’ve realized that a potential problem with a purely constructivist attitude is the denial of limits. Yet limits exist, and limits are worth talking about. In this regard, I think that my attitude has shifted less toward Adorno-like fatalistic crankiness than toward the mentality of Benjamin’s friend and similarly-minded colleague Siegfried Kracauer.

4. Here’s a Kracauer essay that fruitfully complicates my conclusion.

Weimar-era Kracauer wrote what has recently become one of my favorite, peculiarly theological (one could even say media-theological) pieces of cultural criticism. It is called, simply, “Travel and Dance.” At the beginning of the piece, Kracauer denies the notion that postwar passions for traveling and dancing are technologically or historically determined. (“It would be all too facile to attribute these spatio-temporal passions to the development of transportation or to grasp them in psychological terms as consequences of the postwar period.”) Instead, he claims that “travel and dance have taken on a theological significance.”

To briefly encapuslate Kracauer’s complex point: postwar travel and dance function as forms of physical compensation for modern individuals who lack metaphysical imagination. Travel and dance function as substitutes for the orientation of “the real person” who lives “a double existence”: situated in, on one hand, space and time, and, on the other hand, orienting himself toward infinity and eternity. “He is always simultaneously within space and at the threshold of supra-spatial endlessness, simultaneously within the flow of time and in the reflection of eternity; and this duality of his existence is simple, since his being is precisely the tension from out of the Here into the There.”

The desire to travel and dance is, therefore, the mechanized and mathematically circumscribed man’s utter physicalization of a fundamental tension between the physical and the metaphysical, the Here and There. Modern individuals cannot even think of the infinite and the eternal! “They… run into the wall of those categories and tumble back into the spatio-temporal arena. They want to experience the endless and are points in space; they want to experience a relationship with the eternal but are swallowed up by the flow of time.”

Therefore — and here’s Kracauer’s key point – modern individuals “are granted access to the Beyond only through a change in their position in space and time… They experience supra-spatial endlessness by traveling in an endless geographic space… they imagine that infinity itself is spreading out before them”. When they dance, they experience “a liberation from earthly woes… it seems to them as if the Beyond (for which they have no words) is already announcing itself within this life here.”

Modern activities create, in other words, ways for restless people to respond to – and to compensate for – their inability to access, much less imagine, infinity and eternity. Don’t contemporary technological practices do this to an even greater degree? With iPhones and computers, dreams that were once regulated to the heavenly realm — the breakdown of space-time in a way that creates immanence, intimacy, communion; the ability to be with all of our beloved friends and family at once — almost come true in everyday life. The dead come back to life in pictures and films. We can be with friends and family across the globe, all the time, at the touch of a button. As Kracauer puts it: “We have fallen for the ability to have all these spaces at our disposal; we are like conquistadors who have not yet had a quiet moment to reflect on the meaning of their acquisition… Technology has taken us by surprise, and the regions that it has opened up are still glaringly empty…”

The constructivist will say: fill up the spaces! “Knit your story into our story into our story, stitch by stitch, bit by bit, tap by tap, and vaguely form something worth fighting for.” (That’s me at the end of Surface Tensions, not Kracauer.) Of course the thoughtful constructivist will contemplate the difficulties involved in the act of knitting, the act of building. He will say: “We must contemplate the bane of falsified images, the dangers of distance, the weight of absence, just as master builders must contemplate the difficulties of gravity and the steady, natural weathering of inclement weather.” But he will ultimately conclude: “We must build. For we must congregate, and we must worship.”

I have realized, over the last couple years, that while qualification complicates my constructivist stance, it nevertheless treats the mentioned issues as complications rather than true limits. My analogy doesn’t quite hold, tbh: gravity allows for a building to exist in the first place; weather allows for bricks to dry and for air to circulate. Gravity and weather, while potentially challenging, are necessary conditions for the existence of buildings in the first place; they are not true limits to the act of building itself. They are to be worked with. But aren’t falsehood, distance, absence––albeit inevitable––often worked against via modern technological constructions? We attempt to eliminate falsehood through “authenticity,” to deny distance and absence through texts and pictures and videos. While we may be stuck with falsehoods, distances, and absences (there are lots of examples of this in Surface Tensions) we’re not fans of these elements in the way that a structural engineer is a fan of gravity or air circulation.

4. I’ve been learning to treat limits as limits.

I recently heard the novelist and essayist Tom McCarthy present an essay on the technological prosthetic. Every prosthesis, McCarthy claimed — stealing “the double logic of prosthesis” from the art critic Hal Foster — is both additive and subtractive. Every technological invention enhances and diminishes. Every technological prosthesis makes us more-than and less-than human.

This seems right — and it seems to me that if the very aspects we wish to abolish via technology (falsehood, distances, absences) are the inevitable results of mediation itself, then ever-greater degrees of technological mediation cannot obliterate our initial problem. (The previous sentence is confusing, I admit. Let’s try an analogy: if eating Doritos makes you hungrier, then ever-more Doritos cannot fill you up. But the Dorito-loving constructivist cannot properly acknowledge this problem.)

Kracauer ends “Travel and Dance” in a peculiar and provocative way. I like the ending because it seems equally progressive and limit-acknowledging; it denies the simple binary between progressive and conservative, constructivist and luddite. Kracauer is aware of this: he writes that his “uncertain, hesitant confirmation of the civilizing [and modernizing] impulse is more realistic than a radical cult of progress… But it is also more realistic than the condemnations by those who romantically flee the situation they have been assigned.”

Travel and dance, he writes in his final sentence, these “excesses of a theological sort… distortions of real being and conquests in the (in themselves unreal) media of space and time… may become filled with meaning once people extend themselves from the newly won regions of this life here to the infinite and to the eternal, which can never be contained in any life here.” What a strange sentence! Read it carefully. Kracauer is not saying that we should stop dancing and traveling, that we should turn from the newly won regions of space and time, that we should destroy our iPhones and computers. Instead, we should extend through and beyond these conquests[1] toward that which cannot be mastered by these technologies and practices.

We should acknowledge our limits in the spatio-temporal realm of the here and now and extend our minds and hearts beyond these limits. We must therefore treat these limits aslimits; the only way our conquest of space and time will have any meaning is if we think beyond the space and time we have conquered, toward a world that needs redemption, toward that “which can never be contained in any life here.” This notion of extension is fundamentally progressive — but it progresses beyond that which we can truly construct.

“The passionate swarming out into all dimensions also demands redemption,” Kracauer observes––and ever-greater degrees of spatio-temporal swarming (through 3D modeling, printing, VR headsets, any app, any prosthesis you can think of) will ever-increase this need for ultimate redemption.

5. Some practical examples from my personal life would be helpful here, right?

I realize that this seems pretty abstract, so let’s bring this down to earth a little bit. I end Surface Tensions in a Good Will Hunting-esque way: I gotta go see about a girl. I describe choosing the medium best suited for my quest: should I talk on the phone? Send a text? Write a letter? Visit in person? That was a slightly disingenuous flourish, I must admit, created for the sake of rhetorical argument. Of course I was going to fly to in Chicago. I knew that while writing. We couldn’t have that conversation over the phone. That had to happen in-person. Duh.

I do not regret that decision. (If I regret anything, it’s that I did not have that significant conversation earlier––a mistake due, perhaps, to some last remaining bits of insecurity from a time when I presumed that the romantic realm was not for me.) But, sometime later, without that particular conversation even on my mind, I determined that Long Distance Dating is a Bad Idea in most cases. Many of you will say: “well, duh!”––but come on guys, I’m admitting my naivety here, be nice to me. When writing Surface Tensions, my constructivist stance would not allow me to come to that conclusion, to acknowledge that limit.

I now believe that those crucial, chemistry-laden beginnings cannot occur through digital distance. This is partially because I have grown fond of Affect Theory; if, as thinkers like Teresa Brennan have argued with verve, so many of our social interactions are created through biochemical processes like unconscious olfaction, through invisible pheromones tossed through the air, then how can the most emotionally sensitive of interactions truly function through digital distance?

I have also determined, even more controversially, that it is only prudent to ask someone out on a date in-person. “What if that person needs some time to figure out how they feel?” friends have retorted in response. “What if a little distance could be beneficial in that regard?” That’s a decent point — but what better way to gauge an emotional predisposition than an in-person approach? It has allowed me to see one young woman pull her scarf up from her neck, around her mouth, in a peculiar mixture of embarrassment and giddy surprise. I have seen another answer with measured, straightforward interest. I have seen yet another’s entire body tense up as she laughed nervously and glanced around, calculating a possibility that didn’t seem like a possibility until suddenly, surprisingly, anxiously, it was. No data could give you this. No thumbs up or thumbs down could communicate these layers of delight, indecision, confusion, surprise or lack thereof. Refusing the digital allowed for the creation of communicative possibility.

Again, like Kracauer, I don’t think we should relinquish our conquest of time and space. I still text and tweet and Facebook message. But I do so in varying degrees. I have largely turned from mass communication to in-person communication. I try to not only contemplate, but to regularly steep in why these communications won’t satisfy, why they won’t fulfill the longings of my heart, why they need to be redeemed. The people I’m speaking to are not truly present in those texts messages. The intimacy I desire cannot be translated into zeros and ones. And I then push further: I not only long for in-person immanence, but want what can only exist in the infinity and the eternity that exists beyond this fallen world.

I am, regardless of the digital strands I weave into the world, regardless of the words I weave into sentences, fundamentally alone in myself, even estranged from myself. I have opportunities for interpersonal construction and I’m constantly faced with the limits of this construction. The germs of these thoughts are all over Surface Tensions, of course, but they have only magnified in my mind since the book was published.

4. The Limits of Self Discovery

I recently listened to an interview with Father James Martin for the radio show On Being.Near the end, Martin shared a prayer by the mystic Thomas Merton. It struck me. It sits on my desktop background. I have begun to memorize it. It begins like this:

My Lord God,

I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Nor do I really know myself,

And the fact that I think I am following your will

does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Writing Surface Tensions was an experience of self-discovery. And, by God’s grace, I think I discovered a lot. Those discoveries, the narrative I weaved, still inform who I am, how I think about things. I have a much larger capacity for self-awareness now — too great sometimes, perhaps. Great enough to push me down a self-conscious tunnel into David Foster Wallace Land.

But it is now time to––without withdrawing from a life of interpersonal activity and technological engagement––acknowledge limits to self-knowledge. Limits to knowledge of my future. Limits of technological engagement. Limits of productive mediation. Limits of life in this spatio-temporal world.

This requires only a slight shift in attitude: from “I shall overcome” to “I shall live within.”

Vaguely form something worth fighting for, yes. But know how to fight and when to stop fighting, when to realize that presence and immanence and intimacy are gifts that no degree of technological progress can give. Extend yourself into the world through prosthesis after prosthesis, but keep that pesky double logic in mind — knowing that, as you make yourself more-than-human, you may also feel less human. And know how to accept the gifts of presence and absence, awaiting the immanence and the communion and the joy that rests beyond the realm of our imagination.

 

On Sunday, Pastor Dan, at my parents’ church, spoke of Peter’s response to the Transfiguration–“Moses, Elijah, AND Jesus are here?! Awesome! Let’s build some huts for you guys!”––and he spoke of our innate desire to build. He then recalled the time that King David, feeling a little sheepish and embarrassed, decided to construct a cedar house for the Ark of the Covenant, which sat lamely in a plain tent.

Dan quoted God’s response, as mediated by the Prophet Nathan, in the Message translation: “‘You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now… Furthermore, God has this message for you: God himself will build you a house! When your life is complete and you’re buried with your ancestors, then I’ll raise up your child, your own flesh and blood, to succeed you, and I’ll firmly establish his rule. He will build a house to honor me, and I will guarantee his kingdom’s rule permanently. ”

It is a house that will extend beyond David, a house that will spread throughout space and time, for people he does not know and cannot imagine, for generations on end––into infinity and eternity.

When he hears this, David gets on his knees: “Who am I, my Master God, and what is my family, that you have brought me to this place in life?”

May this be our prayer.

May we adjust our eyes to apprehend a house that extends beyond our constructive powers.

May we pick up our iPhones, straighten our shaking legs, ready our sleeping feet.

May we rise, clasping hands, clasping each other tight.

And may we propel ourselves through space, stepping in time, toward the door of the infinite and the eternal that somehow, improbably, incredibly, awaits––open and beyond.

Happy Birthday, From Facebook To Us

facebook birthdayFacebook has made birthdays weird. “It’s XYZs birthday!”, Facebook tells me when I jump on it in the morning. “Send them well wishes!”, or: “Help them celebrate!” I’ve learned to ignore the message, mostly, since it’s repetitive and pre-programmed and counters Facebook’s general penchant for amping up its users’ collective narcissism. Every little red notification ought to say: “Someone’s thinking about you!” “Someone else is thinking about you!”, not: “Think about someone else! Make someone else feel good!” It’s almost admirable, this interface’s attempt to work against its own programming – and, by extension, our own programming.

But it’s a little off-putting, too. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of Facebook’s desire to mechanize relationships than its birthday interface. Facebook used to (and by “used to,” I mean, “used to a couple years ago”; I don’t remember earlier versions) let you know about your friends’ birthdays, but it didn’t encourage you to do anything about them, much less make it easy for you to do anything about them. In those days, every single wall post garnered significance; every single post presented me with an individual notification. On my birthday, I used step away from the screen and let the notifications pile up. I watched them surge in number and eventually surpass 100 when they’d (somewhat disappointingly) begin again at 1. These notifications were markers of my birthday’s uniqueness: it was the only day when I’d get even close to that many notifications. It felt embarrassingly good, knowing that people went at least a little out of their way to send me thoughts. (In case you haven’t noticed: notifications were like Ego Crack to High School Nathan.)

I think, during those first couple years, I responded to the massive glut of messages en mass: “Thanks, all, for the birthday wishes,” and so on. But then, as Facebook realized that friends wanted to write on each other’s walls for birthday encouragement, they started to make it easier for us: we could send birthday messages on the upper-right corner of our homepage. It organized our birthday wall posts in one tidy column that opened up and out, away from the rest of the Timeline’s clutter, like an isolated file folder full of tax receipts. This mechanical ease seemed to perpetuate even more mechanical messages: “Happy birthday!” “Happy birthday!!!” “Happy b-day!!”

I mean to say nothing against the message-writers. I can rarely think of more creative or meaningful birthday wall posts myself. (Hell, I hardly even write on people’s walls for their birthdays, and then I feel bad about myself because I want to be liked.) The banal birthday message isn’t a bad banal: it says “I’m thinking of you,” and that’s usually enough. But when it’s folded into Facebook’s pre-programmed mechanism, it can feel like human originality and particularity and rough edges have been sanded off completely, slid like a CD-ROM into a pre-molded slot. Man and machine might as well be the same. When Facebook asks me to wish my friends a happy birthday, I almost think: well, why don’t you do it for me? You might as well. It hardly matters if I write “Happy birthday!” or whether the smart machine does it for me, on my behalf, like my own (im)personal secretary.

Or maybe this points to exactly what matters when it comes to writing birthday messages. In our mechanic age, it’s the personal will, the brain that registers another person’s existence, the human fingers on the keyboard, that matter most of all. When I get birthday messages, they’re the indexical markers of people registering my existence, thinking positively of me. The problem isn’t them: the problem is me, the selfish person that’d prefer to think of human beings as an accumulation of red numbers on the upper-right hand corner of the screen; the problem is the dude cynical enough to think that every “happy birthday!!” message might as well come from a robot.

 *****

A couple years ago, I made a decision: I would not just respond to all of the birthday messages at once, like an Internet King addressing his crowd of identical, faceless subjects below his e-Castle’s high-up Browser Window.  I would plow through the messages and reply to every single one. I would put effort into it: while I would sometimes give up and respond with the mechanically banal “thanks!”, I would try to come up with an individual, genuine message for several well-wishers.

It was hard. It took time. But I ended up starting personal conversations with people I hadn’t spoken to for quite some time. We began pleasant back-and-forths: nothing too deep, but undeniably human. (And undeniably aided by the non-human, I must add.) It felt like a good goal: I don’t give a shit how easy or brainless or automatic Facebook makes it; if you take the time to write on my Timeline, I’m going to reach out and treat you like the real-life person you are.

I no longer crave that little red notification like I used to. I don’t know if that means I’ve grown selfless or if I’m just desensitized to that particular egomaniacal thrill. (Probably the latter.) But I’ve kept my birthday message determination. And when I hold to that commitment, I feel a little thrill in the pit of my stomach derived from the steady act of turning simple, ego-boosting messages back outward, away from me, toward bilateral back-and-forths with full-on gosh-darn people.

And here’s the kicker: when I consider what I should send to well-wishers, when I sit at my computer and go through 100+ of these little things, it’s work. But the more I work, the more I try to empathetically imagine these people from California and Texas and New York and Cambridge and beyond, the more I feel the weight and gift of my many relationships wash over me; the more I consider the incredible diversity and particularities of the people I’ve had relationships with throughout my short life. When else, in human freaking history, have people been able to consider the multiplicity of their lifelong relationships in one single place? When have they been able to reach out to all of these people like a hand running along hundreds of inter-rooted hair follicles in one ecstatic stroke? Big parties, maybe. Weddings, maybe. But that’s about it. Working with, and against, the Facebook machine allows for this.

The more time I spend doing this, the more I’m awed by the teeming rhizome of humanity I’m blessed to meet and grow with, to twirl and knot around, to swell and mesh with. Deep, intimate, one-on-one relationships are a gift. But linked and networked diversity is a gift, too, and not one to be scoffed at or ignored or conflated with mechanical impersonality. (For what it’s worth, people like Jesus seemed to embrace both gifts with equal levels of gusto.)

In Essay on The Gift, Durkheim’s disciple Marcel Mauss explores the root of the sort of sweeping, Sublime feeling that washes over me when I try to respond to these many messages. Mauss, Tim Ingold explains, “showed how the gift I give to you” – i.e.: the happy birthday greeting – “that is incorporated into your very being, remains fully conjoined with me. Through the gift, my awareness penetrates yours – I am with you in your thoughts – and in your counter-gift, you are with me in mine. And so as long as we continue to give and receive, this interpenetration can carry on or perdure. Our lives are bound together as literally as two hands clasping…. And in carrying around, they wrap around each other, like the many strands of a rope.” As our lives interpenetrate and wrap around each other, they “form a boundless and ever-extending meshwork.”[1]

It can be trite and mechanical and inhuman, sure, but I stand by the (arguably naïve) claim that Facebook’s social network can both illuminate and perpetuate our social meshwork. Wrap around me and I’ll wrap around you. The gifts that began with our individual births will join and expand in the awesome hypertrophy of multi-personal life. And that’s something worth celebrating.


[1] Ingold, Tim. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge, 2015. 10-11. Print.

If I Was In LA, California Plottin’

Inherent VIce posterHere’s 1000 words I wrote on Inherent Vice, my favorite 2014 film. There’s a lot more to say, but, this is a fun start. 

Plot is the best and worst part of cinema, and Paul Thomas Anderson knows it. On one hand, plot is unavoidable––if, by plot, we mean intentional progression from one image to another. And since celluloid (real, beautiful celluloid in PTA’s case) unspools image after image, it keeps charging onward. Some genres are particularly dependent on the velocity and direction of their charge; mysteries, for instance, are hopelessly dependent on their logical, Rube Goldbergian momentum. We’re all foremen when it comes to mysteries: pulled in to dissect and judge the quality of the motors, gears, and sprockets whirring us through time.

But, on the other hand, what could be more antithetical to the visceral, sensual joy of cinema than the manmade shackle of narrative logic? Plots can carve up the unruly, the sensual, the natural into cubits and acres. They strip mine them with utilitarian haste. Scene 4 must get X from Location B to Location C, because Y waits there with crucial info. Sometimes, mystery plots are so preoccupied with how their progressions must unfold that they’re unconcerned with what simply is. They can leave us with handcrafted resolutions and disposable experiences.

This is why Inherent Vice is so damn great. PTA turns the mystery on its head: we’re left with very few answers and a phenomenal experience. He’s performed a magic trick, overloading this film with the best that plot can offer––the whirring, cackling mechanics, via Thomas Pynchon––for the sake of cultivating the wild, the wacky, the untamable. The true pleasure of the Rube Goldberg machine, Anderson knows, has nothing to do with utility. It’s all in the whiz-bang cause-effect razzle-dazzle. PTA’s mechanics spin and spin until they blossom into something wild and weird and awesome.

Premise: it’s 1970. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone in Gordita Beach, California, and the good vibrations have started shaking things up a little too much for stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). When Doc’s ex-old-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, asks him to examine the disappearance of her gangster boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, Doc is drawn into a web of postmodern intrigue: real estate tycoons, Asian hookers, Aryan biker gangs, Black Panthers, straight-laced-cops-turned-part-time-TV-actors, marine lawyers, runaway teenagers, blacklisted actors, two-timing “antigovernment revolutionaries,” megacorporate drug-pushing dentists, they’re all running (and tanning and sexing and coke snorting) around this full-baked SoCal mélange. The deeper Doc dives into this knotty rhizome, the more characters we meet, the more thematic connections arise, the fewer things make sense. Doc scribbles important points onto his notepad, like: “Hallucinating?,” “Definitely not hallucinating,” and “Something Spanish.” Critics may be tempted to do the same. While Inherent Vice might melt a positivist’s mind, feebler noggins like mine might as well chill and take in the ganja for what it’s worth.

And it’s worth a surprising lot. There’s a deep logic at play here: this is a high film about a high time. Doc would probably wax meditative like Joan Didion (“The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children…”) if he weren’t so blazed. Phoenix has received little buzz for this loose, mutton chopped performance––none of the raves he got for his manic, apish histrionics in The Master––and that’s too bad. He’s a pro purveyor of loopy, low-key comedy. It’s all in the reaction shots: the dropped jowl, the indignant, furrowed brow, the muddled noirspeak, the faux-I’m-totally-tracking-with-yah “mmmhm” response, the disapproving tongue click and head nod.

But as PTA carries us into an elegiac dénouement we realize how deeply we feel for our decentered, denim-clad, sunglassed hombre. Like all PTA films, Inherent Vice’s formal razzmatazz is marshaled to illuminate primal longings––in this case, we’re drawn to the wishful mirage of companionship in an ever-fracturing world.

Doc channels this longing into imagined romance and bromance. Inherent Vice is equally anchored by Doc’s feelings for Shasta Fay and Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson. Josh Brolin has, fortunately, received well-deserved acclaim for this (sometimes literal) scenery chewing, wannabe straight-laced/bad-boy cop. (Cops always want to have it both ways––a tension that writhes at the heart of this dead-eyed, sharp-jawed buffoon.) Geoffrey O’Brien likened Bigfoot’s flattop haircut to a granite mesa, and he’s right on the money. Bigfoot could have sprung from the rich red earth itself or come straight outta John Wayne’s big fat cock, ready to take the West with that “evil, little shit-twinkle in his eye that says Civil Rights Violations.” And yet, when Bigfoot and Doc eye each other warily––Doc’s eyes squinting, Bigfoot’s piercing––forced into unwitting cahoots, we sense The Master’s Freddy Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in a lesser key: beneath the sturdy façade of mid-20th-century American essentialism, both guys just kinda wanna be each other. PTA makes this desire hilariously, movingly literal in the aforementioned scenery-chewing scene, which begins when Bigfoot not only kicks down Doc’s door, but crushes its glass panes with decisive, vertical, Godzilla-like stomps.

I won’t describe the actual scenery chewed for the sake of preserving the punch line. It’s the kind of surreal, visual gag that leaves you wide-eyed, gasping and laughing at the same time. Inherent Vice is the kind of movie that makes you want to leave punch lines unsoiled for first-time viewers. And so I suppose I should end by saying that among its other qualities, Inherent Vice is, in its purest, most visceral element, one of the best visual comedies I’ve ever seen. Pynchon lays the loco-logical groundwork and then PTA, master of the mise-en-scène, carries in the wonky furniture. Nearly every shot is bursts with explosive visual verve. The mathematical mystery-lover may frown here and there as the equation stops adding up, but she may be just too doubled over to care. It’s certainly the best bad trip I’ve ever been on, and I mean that in the grooviest way possible.

Chewing on Good Serial

serial-social-logoI, like many others in Whitbread, NPR-Hooked Americaland, recently finished listening to a podcast called Serial. I’m not going to bore you by recalling what the show is or what it’s about, mostly because you can find out about these details in about a million places–The New York Times, Slate, The Colbert Report, The Guardian, The Verge, and on and on, not to mention NPR and the official Serial website, of course. The show has taken off, picked up steam and spawned countless conversations around the nation (I’ve had at least three very in-depth ones within the last week alone). As professional press junkets have slowly ceded their authority to less rigorous media platforms, it’s kind of thrilling to see a country hooked on professional journalism again. As much as we like digestible media tidbits, we seem to be collectively rediscovering the pleasure of wading through the weeds of an in-depth story. Forgo the cat memes for a little bit–Sarah Koenig wants us to trade out our 100-calorie airplane snacks for a 12-course meal. Unfortunately, however, the meal has finished, and many people don’t feel full. And that is what I want address.

Part of the innate appeal of Serial is its inherent relationship to hard-boiled crime fiction. By a stroke of incredible luck, Ms. Koenig found herself deep in a case as confusing and ambiguous as any John le Carré novel. What seemed fairly simple going in grew more and more complicated. Interviewed subjects were lying, but we weren’t sure who the liars were, or to what degree the liars were lying. “It sounds like a game of Clue, I know,” Sarah admitted once, sounding almost embarrassed, after she described several pieces of possible evidence collected near the crime scene. Serial was thrilling because detective fiction tropes were miraculously reified. That sort of thrill lies implicit in the very name “True Crime”; the “True Crime” label implies that crime is inherently untrue, except for true crime, which is (thrillingly) a bit different. It’s a treated like a special subcategory nestled under the overarching Crime Genre category, rather than the real-life source of the Crime Genre itself.

How bizarre. We’ve got it backwards.

Backward thinking has led many of us to treat Serial as if it were a piece of genre fiction. Emily Nussbaum, speaking for many of us, admitted: “Haven’t heard this week’s Serial, but I’ve been feeling guilty about theorizing that Adnan’s mom did it, since they’re all real people.” The genre tropes are all there, underscored by intense music, streamed through online media – it’s all too easy to fictionalize this real life situation, to project our assumptions onto charact – sorry, real individuals – just as we do with fiction. It’s an old postmodern yarn, that mass-media-saturated-culture treats truth like fiction and fiction like truth and relativizes and free plays and bla bla bla… but, well, isn’t it sort of true after all?

The best part of Serial, in my opinion, is that the show is resolutely not a work of crime fiction. Not even sensationalized drama. It’s plenty lurid, sure, and pretty sad, but it steers clear clear clear of tabloid territory. Therefore, the end of Serial  is a pill our postmodern society needs to take. It should remind us what good journalism looks like, and, more importantly, hold a mirror up to our own skewed expectations.

Immediately after I began to listen to the show, I tuned in to a Serial-related podcast on Slate. In the podcast, as Dwight Garner put it, “Mike Pesca… practically begged Ms. Koenig for closure. ‘Don’t let this,’ he said, ‘wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth.’” I found the interview to be, like many things published on Slate, rather enervating. The most aggravating aspect of this Mr. Pesca’s beg was his implied belief that Ms. Koenig could be, in fact, driving for some sort of half-assed “artistic contemplation.” Mr. Pesca should have clearly known, not only because Ms. Koenig has worked on this project for an entire year, but because she is an award-winning journalist – the kind that churns out, you know, fact-checked journalism – that that sort of mediocrity was never in her playbook. Ms. Koenig isn’t some liberal college freshman straight out of her first Derrida seminar. Serial would not devolve into some impressionistic postmodern hoo-ha. This should have been self-evident.

On Serial, we witnessed reporters doing what responsible reporters ought to do: reporting what they know, admitting what they don’t know. Not theorizing under the guise of explaining (all hypothetical imagining labeled itself as such). Not projecting their stories into some garbled stew of “possible fact.” We got a reporter who, yes, believes that the truth is out there. A reporter who spent an entire year chasing down facts and opinions in order to recover this truth.

But, just as significantly, we got a reporter willing to admit what she didn’t know. A reporter stating what she could reasonably propose, and staying silent where she felt she ought to say silent. A reporter who didn’t spin, who didn’t pull wild accusations out of thin air on the air. A reporter who did what Rolling Stone should have done months ago and, sadly, did not do.

We didn’t end up with sensationalized “True Crime.” We got journalistic integrity. And as far as I’m concerned, integrity is far more satisfying than any contrived or exaggerated “explanation” would ever be.

Many people won’t be satisfied – aren’t satisfied. These people will, in their desire to have a solid resolution, turn their anger against Ms. Koenig instead of the evidence (or lack thereof).  This is a shame. What does it say about us if we desire concrete, possibly untrue resolutions instead of honest ambiguity? It says we kinda like the spin we’re generally thrown, so long as it is simple and concrete. This is the real postmodern mess: not that we believe that truth is ambiguous and relative, but that we believe that we can all come to some sort of straight-forward truth on our own terms, by our own assumptive powers. That we can pull together shambles of evidence and make it all stick together by the power of sheer will. At least little parts of all Serial listeners (I’ll include myself here) do wish that Ms. Koenig did exactly this.

But Ms. Koenig didn’t balk in the face of this pressure. Even when Serial became the most popular podcast in history, and one of the most popular shows in the American media, period, she demonstrated what honest journalism should look like. She worked and worked and worked to try to acquire facts that would lead us to new resolutions, but she admitted when she didn’t find them. Sometimes you just come up dry. If you can’t tell whether the cat in the box is alive or dead, it’s best to avoid false assumptions in either direction.

And one of the things I liked most about Serial is how it demonstrated that, when you’re living in ambiguity, you can treat your own “Adnan Syed’ with sympathy, and, for that matter, your “Jay” too – even when Jay’s story seems fishier by the day. A special sort of grace arises when someone empathizes with people who are possibly dishonest. Persevering in the face of interpersonal ambiguity – this lies at the bedrock of any sort of relational development, I think. We can all improve in that department, and Serial gives us a chance to practice that form of difficult sympathy, with Ms. Koenig standing in as our collective avatar.

Murder fiction tends to either stem from the notion that there is an absolute truth, readily available to anyone by way of deductive reasoning, or – in its nihilistic, postmodern form – a stubborn insistence on utter doubt.

On Serial, Ms. Koenig showed how good reporting, even very entertaining reporting, can rise above both extremes. It can tirelessly search for an absolute truth that, yes, does exist. But, at the same time, it can avoid pretending that it knows what it don’t know, or suggesting that reporters can cobble together true stories with their own interpretive abilities and relational biases.

We joined Ms. Koenig; she got us hooked. Then we subjected her story to our own Hermeneutics of Fiction. But Ms. Koenig didn’t give in to our simple interpretive frameworks, and, by doing so, she challenged our naïve, fiction-formed presuppositions. Are we going to stare into the mirror she’s holding up to us? I hope so.

As much as I’d like to know the truth, we shouldn’t be happy with half-truths. (As my wise mentor Mike once said, “No half measures.”) But vigilance and integrity? I can live with that. Serially.

10 Easy Pieces (I’ve Been Writin’, I’ve Been Writin’…)

Just as the August heat really starts to wear a Texan down, I finished my summer internship with The High Calling. Somehow, magically, I got to write a lot. One of my articles was even–to my great shock–published on TIME.com. I’ll archive the articles on this site in the near future, but, for now, here’s a list of links by publication date.

They make for a surprisingly coherent anthology, sandwiched together like this, as if they’re in dialogue with each other. This reveals my sensibility and the limitations of my neural pathways, obviously (slightly younger Nathans talking to slightly older Nathans). But I hope these also reveal broader themes that come up whenever we talk about morality, faith, and work. I think they do:

1. Is Home More Stressful Than Work? Not super exciting. Had me experimenting with the current-event-response format. I still agree with my conclusion, though.

2. Social Justice: How To Respond To Extravagance. Originally published here as How Do We Respond to the 190K Night? A New Yorkery take on Social Justice.

3. What Can Pharrell’s “Happy” Tell Us About God? (Originally posted here.) Surprise of the summer. Took me about six hours to write; if I knew that it would blow up like it did, I would’ve probably edited it for years.  Strange to see something so small grow so fast; fun to see people really digging it. And like most internet opinion pieces, it got some entertainingly boneheaded responses from Christians and non-Christians alike. We binary-oriented, over-literal Westerners aren’t really equipped to talk about nuanced relationships between physical and metaphysical properties. Inspired by some of those loony responses (one of which even made it into TIME Magazine Proper), I started an essay with the resolutely unsexy title “Trouble with Metaphysics and Exemplification.” Maybe at some point I’ll finish the piece and throw it up here. With incredibly gripping topic sentences like “Let’s do some basic semiotics,” I’m sure that TIME will go head over heels for it.

4. What Does Sin Look Like in the Internet Age? This was my favorite article to write, I think. It was a little hard to get back on the saddle after “Happy,” but only a little bit. I just love essay-length media/cultural criticism. It gets me going on all cylinders. And the Deadly Sins website is a lot of thoughtful fun, too. The best sort of object d’research.

5. On Developing A New Style of Leadership. Written for a High Calling community linkup on leadership styles that go “beyond the stereotype”. It wasn’t actually picked up, and that’s just fine by me. Apple’s not really hurting in the good press department.

7. God Has No Favorites and Light Sabers, Bank Accounts, Trust Funds. A couple of reflections on the theme “Working for Free.” The closest I ever get to straight-up Biblical exegesis and application. Thanks, Tim Keller, for helping me with these.

8. I Was An Unpaid Intern for an Oscar-Nominated Director. An memoir-ish piece for the “Working for Free” theme. It was kind of tricky and fun to weave together. Personal, theoretical, and ethical elements overlap in (genuinely, for me) surprising ways. I didn’t know exactly where it was heading while I wrote it, but I like where it ended up.

9. There’s No Such Thing As The Good Book. At last! I got to riff on Susan Sontag, shitty Bible design, and the importance of style. Every writer’s dream, right?

10. Farewell, Middle Class Morality: What Comes Next? Finally, to round it all out, a little bit of A.O. Scott and a little bit of social theory. It’s a little heady, but I had fun.

I also wrote the text for some infographics that will be published later in the fall. Stay tuned for those! And thanks to Marcus Goodyear and all of The High Calling staff for an exciting, creative summer.

How Do We Respond to the 190K Night?

party sparkler

Photo by Gavin Cragie
https://www.flickr.com/photos/gavincraigie/

The man is a “club scene legend,” my roommate tells me. He’s a real-life Batman: a mysterious, wealthy benefactor. You’ll be minding your own business at an exclusive nightclub when––surprise!––he swoops onto the scene, showering you with charitable gifts.

YouTube clips show this charity in action. They depict the sorts of scenes that inspire rappers to wax poetic. Hundreds of champagne bottles are carried into a darkened club, radiant sparklers rubber-banded to their necks. The shimmering display screams as loudly as the clip’s title: “A 190K Night!”

I turn away from the video, staring at my roommate, wide-eyed: “You mean this mysterious guy bought one-hundred and ninety-thousand dollars worth of champagne in one night… all at once?”

He shrugs. “Yeah, that’s just what some people like to do.”

My stomach turns over. One hundred and ninety thousand dollars funneled into a brief night’s shallow pleasures, thumping away in the next day’s hangovers. My mind flips through a variety of social justice clichés: pouting, bony children; large families crammed into rickety favelas; the group of men huddled under donated blankets in front of my apartment. How much more could these people use this man’s charity? What could they have gotten with 190K?

Videos like these make me a little ashamed to call myself a Manhattanite. Many New Yorkers have the resources to radically change the world, but use them to bolster their own cultural capital instead. Of course, I can’t totally blame my neighbors. I, too, have learned how frighteningly easy it is to spend a lot of money in a single night. And as a scholarship-dependent, good-food-and-drink-loving college student, I’m no paragon of philanthropy either.

Still, it’s hard to live in a culture that could spark so much social justice but seems so reticent to do so. 190K nights may keep the economy rolling, but they won’t help the orphans, the widows, the “least of these.”

Generally, I just let these issues depress me. I unconsciously assume that the days of Zacchaeus are long past. But, in my better moments, I remember the story of someone who was once a NYU student like me: Scott Harrison. Scott was once a major club promoter. At the height of his career, Budweiser would pay him two thousand dollars to drink its beer in public––per night!

Then, at age 28, it hit him. As he put it: “I realized I was the worst person I knew. I was emotionally bankrupt. I was spiritually bankrupt, morally bankrupt…” So he began reading theology and asked himself: What if I actually served others? What would the exact opposite of my life look like?

Scott founded charity:water, an organization created to bring clean water into every area in the world. Since 2006, charity:water has funded 11,771 water projects and provided clean drinking water for over four million people.

What’s striking about Scott is that he isn’t just an example of a “life turned around.” He’s an example of how radical, selfish extravagance paved the way for radical, selfless commitment to social justice. Like Paul, his life is an example of how God works through opposing extremes–transforming hate into love, utter selfishness into selflessness. Would Scott have created such a radically charitable company if he hadn’t lived such a radically uncharitable lifestyle first? I’m not sure. Maybe not.

Scott reminds me how I shouldn’t just be depressed by 190K nights. Instead, I should imagine what these benefactors will look like when their lives are transformed by God. I should remind myself what Tim Keller says about God’s redemption: “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Some careers may not seem social justice oriented at all. They may seem hedonistic and wasteful. But we shouldn’t grow cynical. We have a just and merciful God who wants to take the worst of human nature and make it far better than we can imagine.

Brief Vignettes of Spiritual Death

Brief Interviews Cover

I wrote this essay for class in April, 2014. Here was the prompt: “In what way is David Foster Wallace an ethical writer in ‘Brief Interviews with Hideous Men’? What would that even mean in the context of these stories?” If you haven’t read the book, I’d firmly exhort you to check it out before reading this essay; it’s challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Otherwise you might find yourself a bit lost in my non-contextualized references. Or not. You decide. Either way, I like it enough to share it with you.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men reminded me of one of my favorite segments in the New Testament, Chapter 7 of Paul’s letter to the Roman Church. In this portion of the text, I imagine Paul having a sort of mental breakdown. He writes:

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate…. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway… I have discovered this principle in life––that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong… Oh, what a miserable person I am! (7:14-25, New Living Translation, abridged).

Paul’s repetitions are striking here, especially considering the expense of ink and papyrus during this historical moment. It seems that cost-consciousness alone––not to mention common editorial sense and philosophical rules-of-thumb like Occam’s Razor––would have kept him from making the same point four consecutive times.

This portion of the letter isn’t a logical, didactic treatise. This is the textual imprint of a mental breakdown. Anxiety builds and builds until an eruption of self-loathing and self-pity gushes onto the page: “Oh, what a miserable person I am!” In verses 7 through 10, Paul explains how the command “You must not covet” led him to this place of self-loathing. Through a life of restricted living, Paul easily avoided breaking most of the Ten Commandments. But this particular command was a different beast. It dealt in the realm of internal motivation, not external action. Paul realized that, as a Jewish Pharisee determined to follow the Law at all times, he began to covet a lack of covetousness. He says: “Sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me!” Paul’s self-centeredness felt unbeatable and he admits that, until his Christian conversion, this realization caused “spiritual death.”

In Brief Interviews, one gets the sense that Wallace knows this “spiritual death” all too well. Similarities between the texts are obvious: volatile prose, self-awareness, and a despairing attitude toward the seemingly incurable problem of human self-centeredness. Wallace understands our all-too-automatic inclination to covet.

How should we go about solving this problem? Perhaps we should grow aware of our own self-centeredness. Maybe self-knowledge will better us? This seems to be the prototypical Freudian or faux-Shakespearian solution: “This above all—to thine own self be true.” We can ignore that this phrase is uttered by the Polonius, a character Hamlet calls a “tedious old fool.”

Wallace has no qualms trampling on the moral implications of this simplistic worldview. The titular men are hideous––not only for their self-serving misogyny, but because many of them are self-aware and, therefore, guiltless. They use their self-awareness like defensive armor, uttering phrases like: “I’m aware of how it might sound, believe me,” “men are just shit,” “Does that sound shallow? Or does the real truth about this sort of thing always sound shallow, you know everybody’s real reasons?” They are Late Night comedians scowling at their own mediocre jokes, grasping for easy ways to gain favor with the “audience.” One interviewee even uses an “accurate” assessment of his relationship––“I saw that she would forever go on playing victim to my villain”––to forgive himself for committing domestic violence. For these men, awareness is the key to absolution.

Wallace compares this approach to the attitude of “‘meta’-type writers” whom are “honest” about the artificiality of their work. He calls this sort of “honesty” cheap, “highly rhetorical sham-honesty that’s designed to get you to like him and approve of him (i.e., of the ‘meta’-type writer).” He (i.e. the ‘meta’-type writer) is like the Hideous Man “who tries to manipulate you into liking him by making a big deal of how… open and honest… he’s being all the time…. Constantly congratulating himself for not doing precisely what the self-congratulation itself ends up doing… [He’s] just performing in some highly self-conscious and manipulative way.”

Well, where do we go from here? Maybe we can override our self-centeredness by helping others. This notion inspired my favorite line in the short film collection Paris, Je T’aime: “By acting like a man in love, he became a man in love again.” Self-determination defines Sartre’s solution in “Existentialism As Humanism”: “Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is…” If I act selflessly, perhaps I will become selfless.

Although Wallace is sympathetic toward self-determination––the raped Granola Cruncher transcends her situation through a demined, empathetic stare[1]––he is weary because acts of self-giving are often motivated by “pure selfishness.”  The Great Lover exemplifies this problem. The Great Lover is not “your basic pig.” He’s not the sort of thoughtless, hedonistic being that “wants whatever he can get, and as long as he gets it that’s all there is to it.” The pig doesn’t care about his partner’s pleasure because he’s “barely even semiconscious anyhow,” but the Great Lover tries to please his partner at all costs. He gives himself to her like a dedicated soldier laying his life on the line for his country: offering massages, “going down on her yingyang for hours on hours, holding off [his] own coming so [he] can keep at it for hours, knowing the G-spot and Ecstasy Posture and such.”

At first glance, the Great Lover seems like a charitable, honorable man––hence the title “Great.” Yet these sorts of men need to “think of themselves as Great.” The problem rears its ugly head with the three words “think of themselves,” but Wallace continues: “Seeing themselves as a Great Lover doesn’t mean they give any more of a shit about her than the pigs do, and deep down they aren’t one little bit less selfish in bed…. Their trip is different, but it’s still only just their own trip they’re on, in bed, and the little lady deep down’s going to feel like she’s just getting used just the same.”

What an awkward, insightful phrase: “it’s still only just their own trip they’re on.” They may be giving themselves, but they’re coveting power and status. They may be physically giving, but they’re emotionally using. It’s easier to pinpoint this in wannabe Great Lovers than in successful Great Lovers, which is why Andrew Crawford stands out in The Easter Parade. After an embarrassing display of sexual impotence, “he sat slumped on the edge of the bed as if on a prizefighter’s stool, his head hanging.” He may be trying to please Emily physically, but he looks like a prizefighter; he’s fighting for his own glory and self-worth. She is a conduit to his own accomplishment, “worked like a Porsche.”

Selfish self-giving isn’t an exclusively sexual phenomenon, of course. In “Octet,” Wallace refers to the sorts of people “everybody’s seen.” They will use you “as some piece of like moral gymnastics equipment on which they can demonstrate their virtuous character (as in people who are generous to other people only because they want to be seen as generous, and so actually secretly like it when people around them go broke or get into trouble, because it means they can rush generously in and act all helpful….” These people like when others are in trouble because it gives them opportunities to build up their self-worth. They want to call themselves good people.

They’re often blind to their own self-centeredness. In “The Devil Is A Busy Man,” the Charitable Giver condemns himself unintentionally. He says: “selfish motive would empty the nice gesture of any ultimate value, and cause me to once again fail in my efforts to be classifiable as a nice or ‘good’ person.” By trying so hard to be a good person, he’s still “on his own trip.”  Maybe we should call a sort of Sympathy Simulacrum, or, more specifically, a genuinely sympathetic impulse “turned inward on oneself.”

As with the manipulative, “honest” meta-writer, perhaps this sort of selfishness is more deadly than brazen greed because it pretends to be virtuous. When we interact with “good people,” we begin to play by their rules. If we wish to be regarded as a good people, too, then other “good people” demand our respect. They’ll use our approval to build up their sense of self-worth; we’ll use our own appreciation of their “goodness” to decide that we’re at least partially good, too.  Look at me. I “admire” this refugee worker––aren’t I a good person?

At this point, we can agree with Wallace: “there are literally a billion times more ways to ‘use’ somebody than there are to honestly just ‘be with’ them.” We will also admit, as Paul does: “when we want to do what is right, we inevitably do what is wrong.” Perhaps we’ll cry out in frustration: “Oh, what miserable people we are!” This cry describes the attitude of The Depressed Person in a nutshell. She understands how she exploits her Support System. She knows that these telephone-based relationships are unbalanced; she’s using her poor confidants. The Depressed Person realizes that she’s using her therapist, too, by paying for the “pathetic temporary illusion of a friend” “who[m] could fulfill her childishly narcissistic fantasies of getting her own emotional needs met by another without having to reciprocally… empathize with… the other’s own emotional needs.”

Yet she uses her “temporary illusion of a friend” to express these anxieties instead of finding a “real friend.” She uses her Support Group to express her Support Group anxieties, “bursting involuntarily into tears and telling them that she knew all too well that she was one of those dreaded types of people of everyone’s grim acquaintance who call at inconvenient times and just go on and on about themselves…” She lives out the relational equivalent of the joke-phrase “don’t fucking swear,” using people as she decries using them––even though she, like Paul in his insurmountable covetousness, despises her own hypocrisy.

Unlike the Hideous Men, the Depressed Person seems genuinely concerned by her lack of empathy. She’s not trying to use her Support Group members as pieces of “moral gymnastics equipment.” In the spirit of absolute honesty, she even “urged her terminally ill friend to go on, to not hold back, to let her have it: what words and terms might be applied to describe and assess such a solipsistic, self-consumed, endless emotional vacuum and sponge as she now appeared herself to be?”

In this exhausting and desperate ending, Wallace successfully utilizes what he calls exformation: “a certain quantity of vital information removed from but evoked by a communication in such a way as to cause a kind of explosion of associative connections within the recipient.” This story evokes what it refuses to say: if the depressed person really wants escape from her selfish conundrum, she is asking the wrong question! She ought to ask the terminally ill person: How are you today? or What can I do for you? The ending pulls us in two directions simultaneously: we feel sorry for the depressed person––who has medical reasons for this endless self-obsession, after all––and compassion for the terminally ill person. Since our impressions of these confidantes are filtered through the untrustworthy mind of The Depressed Person, we desperately want to escape her mind. And we want to take her––or at least the sacred, ethically minded part of her[2]––with us on the way out.

The term “self-centeredness” is helpful here because it suggests that, like focused camera lens, the mind and heart are often centered on the self. Yet the term also implies that it is possible to shift this center away from the self. In other words, the locus of my attention may be internal or external. In an ideal world, the question “How are you?” suggests an external orientation; the center of my attention shifts onto you.[3] We can determine the location of a speaker’s “center” by attending to their personal pronouns. “I want to be a good, caring person. I want to do charity work in Africa.” is a very different statement than “They are dying of AIDS in Swaziland. We must assist by distributing contraceptives.”

How do you shift your center? As Wallace demonstrates, this is more easily said than done. He’d agree with Benjamin Franklin: “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome [pride], I should probably be proud of my humility.” Similarly, after we learn about the Great Lovers, the speaker suggests that if you’re able to “put your picture of yourself on the goddamn back burner for once in your life,” you’ll “get” the woman you’ve been coveting: “Then you really and truly got her.” Once again, self-centeredness pokes its ugly head into the fray.

How does Paul center his mind? His solution is theistic and direct: “Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Therefore, he writes in Chapter 8: “The Law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (8:3-4, NLT).

After Paul found a god that kept all of the laws and died the death that he deserved––a god of “substitutionary atonement,” a Sydney Carton to his Charles Darnay––he found an external force worth centering his thoughts on. This discovery allowed him to center his thoughts on other people, too, since this god loved them all equally. In this vein, Benedictine Monks have developed what they call Centering Prayer. Modern Christian worship music speaks of putting “Jesus at the center of it all.”

When we don’t call this exuberant center-shifting process “falling in love,” we call it worship. Paul found something outside of himself worship-worthy. In what is perhaps Wallace’s most famous quote, he speaks of worship: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship––be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles –– is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” For Wallace, modern culture is particularly pernicious because it “hums merrily along in a pool of… worship of self,” encouraging us to believe that we are all “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” Brief Interviews focuses on the toxic byproducts of self-worship: vanity, misogyny, disillusionment, anxiety, helplessness, and solipsism.

Yet Wallace’s characters are at their best when they chose to initiate a center-shifting process. Consider the protagonist in “Think.” As the “younger sister of his wife’s college roommate” seduces him, “her expression is from Page 18 of the Victoria’s Secret catalogue.” She wants him to covet her body; she covets his approval. Her sexual vulnerability ought to flatter his ego; his willingness to fuck ought to compliment her seductive prowess. And yet, instead of leaning into his self-centered lust, he kneels to pray. “His gaze at the room’s ceiling is supplicatory. His lips are soundlessly moving… She’s not sure how to stand or look while he’s gazing so intently upward… His eyes never leave the middle distance between the ceiling and themselves.”

It doesn’t matter if he’s praying to JC or Allah or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, but his unfailing gaze is surprising and crucial. It demonstrates how he’s trying to re-center his focus in order to worship something more meaningful than her “media taught” body and his covetous lust. What is worth worshiping in this situation? He lands on a beautiful, fantastical possibility: “And what if she joined him on the floor, just like this, clasped in supplication.” Mutual regard for eternal value would be worth worshiping. Center shifting would be worth worshiping. Genuine intimacy––not a transactional sort of “mutual using”––would be worth worshiping.

Finally, consider the last Hideous Man. His story is all about center shifting. It’s like a falling domino line of center shifting experiences, actually. In chronological order: the Granola Cruncher centers her thoughts on her rapist. “She wills herself not to weep or plead but merely to use her penetrating focus to attempt to feel and empathize with the sex offender’s psychosis…” Just as the praying man intently stares at the ceiling, she stares at the sex offender. And in a similar manner, her dedicated focus changes what would have otherwise been a self-centered disaster for both parties involved.[4]

As she recounts this horrific event to the Hideous Man, the Granola Cruncher exemplifies this sort of focus with her storytelling. She “had an unexpected ability to recount it in such a way as to deflect attention from herself and displace maximum attention onto the anecdote itself.” She isn’t using this anecdote to prove how she’s a “good person.” Hence, the Hideous Man is the next domino to fall. He finds himself shifting his center of attention onto her. He is legitimately focused on the Granola Cruncher: “She had all my attention. I’d fallen in love with her.” And she continues to hold his attention as he recounts her recount to us. In another storytelling universe, this might not seem like a marvelous occasion. But in Wallace’s diegetic sphere, when a man uses the phrase “She had all my attention,” it feels like an ethical victory. Even the pronoun “she” seems to signify a seismic shift.

Wallace surely agreed with C.S. Lewis’s aphorism: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” But Brief Interviews is valuable precisely because it demonstrates how difficult it can be to think of yourself less. Self-worship is not just tempting; it’s our “default setting.” However, if we consciously shift our centers of attention, we may just find something outside of ourselves worth worshiping.

Actually, Wallace doesn’t equivocate with these sorts of “may just find” statements. He has a desperate, urgent need to say that if don’t worship something outside of ourselves, we will worship ourselves and we will drown in the mire of our own imperfections and insecurities. Here is Lewis again, at the end of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon that he wrote in the middle of World War II: “Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be inside some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

Wallace knew this door.

 


[1] In his 2005 Kenyon College Address, Wallace acknowledges how self-determined focus takes work: “Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” (emphasis mine).

[2] The Depressed Person’s “soul,” maybe?

[3]In everyday Western existence, there is perhaps no question robbed of its altruistic power quite like “How are you?”. In Czech culture, for example, if you ask someone how she is, she will respond with excessive details: “Not too well, I’m going through a divorce right now. My husband wants custody of Jan…” and so on. They assume that the question actually arises from an externally oriented place.

[4] There is something Christ-like going on here, actually. She exudes empathy that the Sex Offender cannot exude, giving him the sort of intimacy that he could never imagine.

Ride Nemec’s New Wave

“Diamonds of the Night” begins with breathtaking swiftness. Sharp gunshots echo in the distance as two unidentified young men scramble, half-running, half-crawling, up a hillside. We hear nothing but gunshots and breathless panting as they head into the woods for shelter.

In this 1964 feature-length debut by 1960s Czech New Wave auteur Jan Nemec, the young men are never given names or significant dialogue. Their forest escape meshes with intercut surrealistic visions: walks through a concentration camp wearing cloaks labeled “KL,” a tram speeding through the streets of Prague, ants crawling into an eye socket, laughing children tobogganing down snowy slopes, grain bags, slinking cats, rising elevators. No framing devices contextualize these images, leaving us the weighty task of determining whether we’re witnessing flashbacks, hallucinations or merely images that Nemec fancies.

….keep reading here.

Review of Three Milos Forman Czech New Wave Classics

Cheswick, sporting an exaggerated frown like a stubborn toddler, stands and interrupts a group therapy session in a fleeting impulse of civil disobedience.

“May I have my cigarettes please, Nurse Ratched?”

Ratched juts out her jaw, widening her fiery eyes: “Mr. Cheswick, you sit down!”

Cheswick sits, arms crossed, anxiety practically dripping from his pores. McMurphy tries to appease the squirmy man by playing off of Harding’s better nature. Harding, ever the intellectual, refuses to let Cheswick have his last cigarette: “I’m not running a charity ward, see.” Martini, grinning impishly, snatches this “last cigarette” from Harding’s hand and gives it one puff before tossing it across the circle. A game of “cigarette catch” begins, tensions rise, and Cheswick stands again to bellow in pure, bloated agony: “I want MY cigarettes, Nurse Ratched! I want MINE, Nurse Ratched!”

….keep reading here.

Images, Experience Absorbers and Self-Definers

A Comparative Exploration of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers

 

I.

I’m not exactly sure what a chance encounter between the young female protagonists of Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring would look like, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be a positive one.

Upon first glance (or first draft of a comparative essay) a total disassociation with conservative ethics would seem to link both groups together effortlessly––more than one person has told me: “I think The Bling Ring is like a better version of Spring Breakers”––yet I think that the respective cliques would stare at each other with catty wariness and quickly masked embarrassment. Like funhouse mirror reflections, they would find their doubles too similar to ignore yet too distasteful to embrace. This is because, like communism and fascism, their functional similarities stem from vastly different ideological aims. Together, they provide a multifaceted portrait of millennial hedonism.

To some, engaging in close analysis of these two groups may seem akin toexploring the motivational differences between serial killers and serial rapists; a taxonomy of evil cannot resolve the problem of evil. It can even create undo fascination with evil. Acknowledging this possibility, I hope that this essay can help illuminate how these sorts of individuals actually exist (in reality, of course, embodying complexity and contradiction that no overarching theoretical structure can provide) and what truths can be gleaned through their cinematic manifestations.

 II.

Prada 2The Bling Ring is about people who no longer wish to be multidimensional people. The Bling Ring is about people who wish to become images. They shun internal complexity as if they don’t even know of its existence. This is most perceptively embodied by Katie Chang’s Rebecca, who leads her gang of upper-middle class deviants on their destructive romp through Celebrityville, L.A. Although she leads the criminal charge, Rebecca embodies the dull passivity of an observer, assuming the countenance of a sullen supermodel with high cheek bones and skinny wrists who stares out from her Times Square poster with a vacuous expression of existential detachment, made complete by the wonders of makeup and Photoshop (©!). These sorts of models aren’t allowed the luxury of an interior life or personal characteristics; they are defined by the objects they wear. As their dully pigmented skin is poignantly contrasted the vibrancy of their advertised clothes (or bags, or whatever), they become materiality incarnate.

The Bling Ring 1Rebecca has no qualms relating her future to others: she will go to the Fashion Institute of Design (The Hills girls went there), she will intern at Teen Vogue, she will have her own line, and fragrance, and host a show… She will become an image. And with her blasé, clippy-meets-monotonous tone, even under pressure, she’s already doing the hard work necessary to become irreducibly external. Cheerfully joining in the devolution that early sociologist George Simmel called “the hypertrophy of objective culture,” Rebecca gladly sacrifices internal nuance for varied external outfits. While she picks and choses articles from celebrity homes with fastidious focus, she grabs works of art with disinterest. An image doesn’t see. It doesn’t have the capacity for aesthetic appreciation. It merely appears.

One could also mention that Rebecca is unwittingly situating herself within the oft-mentioned discourse of Warholian nihilism. Warhol famously said: “I want to be a machine” because “machines have less problems,” embracing the dehumanization available through image replication. If one were to take Warhol at his word (something that any true student of Warholian irony will tell you is perhaps a naïve idea), Warhol embraces the process of increased externalization and shallow replication.

Rebecca MirrorRebecca’s climax occurs when she stares into Lindsay Lohan’s mirror, illuminated by the soft, seductive light of a fashion shoot, slowly spraying herself with Lindsay’s perfume. Decontextualized, the shot seems straight out of a Dior ad. Rebecca has become the image that she desires; she is like Lohan without any of Lohan’s internal particularities (including her acting capacity). As Rosalind Krauss notes in her essay on the reflective quality of 1970s video art, pure reflection creates a narcissistic feeling of “self-encapsulation,” “spatial closure,” and “the presentation of a self understood to have no past and…  no connection to any objects that are external to it.” Krauss would say that at this moment of ecstasy, Rebecca is having “intercourse with her own [mirrored] image.”

By appropriating the dreamy glow of fashion photography, The Bling Ring’s cinematographer, the late Harris Savides, indulges the gang in their sensual ambitions. This sort of cinematography cannot be properly labeled expressionistic—externalizing the emotions of the characters photographed––because there is so little internal expression to be conveyed. The aesthetic is all surface gloss, the diffused orangey warmth of Southern California days and the gauzy simmer of LA nights, and we get the sense that The Bling Ring wouldn’t have it any other way. They want to be reduced to images that are equally seductive and empty and Sophia Coppola has no qualms humoring them with deadpan interest.

Coppola’s cinematographic technique doesn’t grab you with the pell-mell assertion of Martin Scorsese or the poetic juxtaposition of Terrence Malick. That would be all too human. No, Coppola watches these girls the way they watch themselves. Conveniently absent is her inclusion of over-the-shoulder shots, the bread and butter of cinematic two-way conversation, signifiers of engagement and interpersonal connection.

Alone Together

She usually sticks to off-center wide shots and slowly gliding medium shots, situating the teenagers in tableau-like scenes where they stand (or sit, or steal) alone together.In a central club scene, the camera glides from left to right as they lounge at a booth. They take selfies, laugh, text, look out, and take more selfies, but they never turn a full ninety degrees and engage with each other. Images can’t interact with other images… they can merely sit and enjoy their lonely existence, whether juxtaposed on the same leather couch or in a Facebook (©!) photo album.

Perhaps the most brilliant tableau occurs as Max Nelson describes in his critical roundup for Film Comment: “one gang member’s family [is] preparing breakfast smoothies in a spotless, gleaming kitchen, with a pair of snow-white corgis under one chair and a maid at work in the corner, as the LAPD’s incoming sirens get louder and louder.” As every character minds his or her own separate affairs within this wide space, even their dogs decry a sense of intimacy, barking shrilly before being quickly derided by their fruit-chopping owner.

The Bling Ring is less about a sense of longing than a sense of banal entitlement, spawning from an upper-middle class Southern California milieu that I know quite well (go Irvine!?). An image doesn’t long, it merely is. Rebecca knows this. When her compatriots voice the sort of cliché tension-baring signifiers that they’ve probably learned from movies: “I don’t know about this,” “Are you sure we should do this?” “Let’s fucking leave,” ect., Rebecca knows better, deriding their humanity with a sense of weary frustration and without any hint of true anger. Images don’t get angry.

Images also don’t take drugs or drink alcohol for reasons of heightened experience. The first line we hear from Nicki’s Mother: “Girls, time for your Adderall!” quickly zeroes in on the sorts of drugs the girls will prioritize: drugs that sedate existence, that numb experience, that turn (in a hypnotically frightening instance) a gun into a mere plaything. Marijuana, Adderall, Vicodin. Sure, these girls take cocaine and all of the typical drugs that are essential to the image they desire, but these are comparably rare occurrences.

The Bling Ring’s eventual punch stems from the fact that the gang succeeds in becoming widely popularized images. The final shot of Emma Watson’s Nicki taking control of her television interview, staring at the camera from the center of the frame, instructing the viewers to check out her story online, is a nearly Brechtian move by Coppola. This fourth-wall breaking indicates that, yes, the gang was quite successful indeed. They are now part of the simulacrum, staring at you in your theater seat through the filter of pretty actors, immortalized in a big budget Hollywood film, alone on the screen. We learn that Nicki shared a prison cell with Linday Lohan. In a society dominated by the hypertrophy of objective culture, they are both commodified images, merely separated by different screens and gossip reports.

The KissI was most vividly reminded of The Bling Ring while encountering Klimt’s “The Kiss” and “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” at the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. Pictorial replications of these works don’t do them justice; these renderings equally emphasize the skin of the subjects and the material embellishments on them and surrounding them. The actual paintings appear quite differently. The subjects’ skin appears ghastly, grey, soft and hardly visible, while the embellishments glitter with the sharp gleam that only gold foil can provide. In “The Kiss,” the actual loving act seems rudimentary, even banal, whereas the square and circular patterns engage in vivid material intercourse.

Judith

In “Judith,” the Biblical subject appears at once in ecstasy yet nevertheless choked by her vivid neckpiece, crowded out and claustrophobically consumed by the gold surrounding her. Before the technological advances and democratization of “art” that allowed Warhol to play with individuals-turned-images, Klimt portrays individuals defined by externality, submerged in aesthetic vibrancy. None of these figures are Napoleon in David’s “Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass,” also in the Belvedere, a work that gives an “in vitro” royal heritage to a ruler by plunging him into a historical narrative through weighty associative symbolism.

No, these are individuals in the process of losing their very humanity to the objects on them and surrounding them. They are aestheticized unto corpselike decay, appearing like ghastly specters limply hanging on walls before us.

They are Rebecca and her Bling Ring.

 III.

American PopsicleThe opening credits of The Bling Ring slice and dice designer items in a still-life montage, informing us that external objectivity will be Copolla’s focal point as well as and her characters’ respective objet petit a (although maybe more attainable than Lacan would have us believe). Spring Breakers, by contrast, immediately propels us into a world of hypnotic, perpetual motion. There is a perverse aesthetic beauty to its hedonistic, misogynist beach partiers as they relish in beer poured down quavering, topless chests, liquor ejaculated into open mouths, Skrillex keeping the party pumping with the entrancing distortion of dubstep electronica. The sublime Florida sun still graces these gyrating bodies and the cool salt-water still licks their spray-tanned skin. But, as evidenced by a hilariously spot-on shot of girls sucking phallic red-white-and-blue popsicles, Harmony Korine’s American materialism is not primarily one of external display and internal decay, but one of orgasmic consumption, a rabid internalization of the external world. These girls want to become “experience incarnate,” continually absorbing and receiving with carefree, gluttonous abandon. They don’t consume to become internally bankrupt; they consume to become internally filled.

While this point is crucial, it can be countered by their exhibitionist tendencies and the voyeuristic nature of Korine’s camera. Isn’t exhibitionism the desire to immortalize the external? What is the true difference between a girl who shows off her Prada bag and a girl who shows off her… um… generous genetic endowment of upper-chest region?

This is a good observation, but easy amended when one notes how lucidly Korine situates these girls within a broader desire-fueled narrative. For them, engaging in this sort of exhibitionism is only part of their self-fulfillment process, only a means to a deeper end.[1] “Misogyny” and “exhibitionism” aren’t even words in their relative vocabulary. One could draw a connection to the old acting-lesson story of a man running from a bear up a tree. On first glance, one would assume that the man is thinking: “I have to get away from this bear!” But what is the man actually thinking? “I have to figure out how to climb this tree!” We are always thinking forward toward our ultimate goals and deepest desires.

MoneyAnd what are their deepest desires? They desire a life defined by absorptive experiences. Consider, for example, an early scene after they’ve stolen piles of cash. They push it into their chests, lay on it, bathe in it, one of them saying (and I apologize for the crudeness here, but it can’t be helped on my end) “This money is making my pussy wet.” For them, money doesn’t simply exist to be admired. It is immediately associated with the language of sexual consumption. The girls aren’t thinking: “How physically vulgar can I be?” They’re thinking: “How can I feel pleasure and physicality, intimacy and community?”

Spring Breakers KissThis defines their narrative trajectory. The drugs, the partying, the sex, and the eventual violence are all about experiences shared. In this way, their spring break is the hedonistic equivalent of a religious revival in which a large group of people gather to “take in” the spirit. The sense of absorbing the external, the transcendent, is a firmly religious idea. Korine explicitly sets up this connection with Faith, the Christian character, who is loyal to her youth group yet drawn into––and eventually repulsed by––this orgy of hedonism. During the film she says to her grandmother: “This place is the most spiritual place I’ve ever been.” And Korine’s hallucinatory, sublime camerawork does little to convince us otherwise. It seems far easier to take in booze, drugs, sex, and violence than The Holy Spirit, after all. The sense of physical immediacy and interpersonal presence Faith witnesses is as undeniable as it is assaultive.

The film’s later half allows the girls an opportunity to apply their learned hedonism in an environment where it was previously lacking. This is with Alien, James Franco’s now infamous white rapper and drug dealer. Growing up on the street, Alien has not had an easy life; he hasn’t had the financial recourses to “take it all in” like our girls. But he also finds himself more like The Bling Ring protagonists because he gets his sense of self-worth from his material possessions. He is on the stage during the Spring Break brouhaha, separate from the intimate crowd. While his exuberant show during the infamous “Look at my shit!” scene lacks Rebecca’s nihilistic poise (it is particularly hilarious to imagine the two of them interacting), it nevertheless demonstrates his desire to be defined by possessions that can be looked at. One could almost imagine Rebecca watching his enthusiastic display with detached amusement, smiling drolly, zoning in and out as she glances down at her iPhone.

Alien GunTherefore, a key scene in Spring Breakers occurs when the girls grab Alien’s gun and force it in his mouth, mimicking oral sex. This scene demonstrates the beginning of Alien’s transformation. Suddenly, his material possessions are not merely things to be looked at. They become things to interact with, to absorb, to pleasurably (if ridiculously) internalize. When he claims that these girls are “his soul mates,” he is obviously reveling in a level of connection and personal absorption (made disgustingly literal during a late swimming pool scene) previously unknown.

This emphasis on kinetic interaction and felt experience is vividly communicated through Benoit Debie’s hypnotic cinematography and Douglas Crise’s brilliant editing. The camera swings along, pushing here and pulling there, immersing the audience in a sea of color and stylistic excess. The editing feels, as many have pointed out, like a Terrence Malick movie. Just like his films, juxtapositions create a sense of life, motion, and an intensity of feeling. The camera is so enthusiastic to show all that is around, to immerse you in the world, that it takes your breath away with a peculiar mixture of delight and disgust. In a sense, Spring Breakers could be seen as the perversion of a Malick film. In one of my favorite explanations in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains how badness is merely perverted goodness. He points to the things that the girls in Spring Breakers most desire:

“Pleasure, money, power, and safety are all… good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much…. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.”

Despite the fact that Malick explores this perversion himself, his camera is far more insistent on capturing goodness as “itself” than Korine, who is far more interested in its perversion. The sunset, the beach, and the natural world––all things that Malick would see as fundamental to his telling of this story––seem more incidental to Korine’s mise-en-scene. He shares Malik’s predilection for color juxtaposition, but his interests stay firmly attached to neon yellows, pinks, greens, and blues… all manmade amendments (some may say perversions) of natural color schemes. Korine bravely explores this perverted beauty and pleasure in a way that creates a sympathetic link with the shallowest of characters, yet, simultaneously, leads us to yearn for them to find pleasure, money, power, and safety through lifestyles that don’t––as we vividly witness––lead to eventual death, destruction, and internal desolation.

 IV.

Neither The Bling Ring nor Spring Breakers end in particularly happy places. As Emma Watson stares at the camera, we understand that the film concludes just as the process of simulacra is starting to escalate (and, at the same time, we are reminded how it has already escalated in the real world). She is already well on her way to becoming an image.

As Spring Breakers ends, our two remaining girls suggest vague longings to change their lifestyle. But these desires, even though they occur via voiceover (a commonly “all-revealing” level of diegetic discourse, molded into ambiguity with Korine’s light touch), are dubious because they occur in telephone conversations with their ignorant parents. Have these two been radically shocked by the violence that escalated as their reckless hedonism increased? Have they realized the emptiness of their experience? Have they grown, changed, or learned at all? Maybe. But they also––in a scene that also bares dubious veracity––violently destroyed all of their enemies. “Just pretend like it’s a videogame,” one of them says as they rob a restaurant near the film’s beginning. In the end, they seem to act inside a literal shoot-em-up videogame. And what is a videogame but an endless machine of continuous experience? Videogame characters don’t stop and think; they act. Violently, jerkily, instinctually, they act. Players absorb without any negative repercussions. Not unlike Watson, these girls seem to have accomplished their goals. We have no idea what they are going to do next.

Thus, the film artists turn to us. As these characters roll over into imaginary story-world-futures, they bleed off of the screen and into our collective conscience. We must either grapple with these unresolved conflicts in own lives or dismiss the films as mediocre (many have done so). Copolla and Korine have too much integrity to give us oversimplified solutions, but they’re too artistically provocative to let us off the hook. We cannot simply stare at these girls as they would stare at each other, with a mixture of catty repulsion and hidden embarrassment.

After all, the problems they present are relevant, postmodern problems. To an extent, both narratives explore the existential solution proposed by Sartre in “Existentialism as Humanism.” As an atheist, Sartre believes that existence precedes essence, and, therefore, “man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself… Man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be…. Man is responsible for what he is.” These girls, with their attempts to become images and experience absorbers, champion Sartre’s self-definition through personal action. They are brazen heroes of self-determination. Who cares if social norms, legal requirements, or older people look down on their actions? Following in the footsteps of their philosopher-leader Ke$ha, they shout (well, Rebecca wouldn’t shout, but you get the idea) from the rooftops: “Tonight we’re going hard! Just like the world is ours! We’re tearing it apart! We r who we r!”

So if you and I can define ourselves through our own moral actions, why do these poor girls frighten us, sicken us, disturb us? Sartre can help us understand these feelings, too, for as he explains the humanistic possibility of self-creation, he also illuminates the deep responsibility “inherent” to such a task:

“When we say that man chooses himself… we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men. For in effect, of all the actions a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be…. I am thus responsible for myself and all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”

For Sartre, this overwhelming responsibility creates a sense of anguish. I ask: “Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do?” Utter self-determinism is terrifying. Sartre does admit that not everybody thinks like this, but suggests that those who differ are merely “disguising their anguish or in flight from it.”

Perhaps the girls in The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers are merely fleeing from the sublimated anguish of existential responsibility? Or perhaps they truly believe that all people should behave as they do, which, although disturbing, actually bares the courage of a thought-out worldview?

Neither suggestion seems accurate. It seems, most frighteningly, that these girls simply don’t care, period. Copolla and Korine refuse to suggest that self-definition necessitates feelings and emotions of existential responsibility understood, sublimated, or “fled from.” Thus, we are left to cope with the sort of frightening nihilism that humanists have such trouble dealing with. Humanists are forced to hold the assumption that these girls must be good people deep inside, an assumption that neither Korine nor Coppola authenticate.

To these filmmakers, in world where choice is king, we can certainly choose to do away with the burden of responsibility and conscience, giddily diving into utter narcissism. And in a world without some sort of Heaven-decreed moral absolutes, who would dare claim the authority to criticize our choices? Who would dare to suggest that there is more to life than becoming an Image or an Experience Absorber?

We r who we r!

Emma Bling Ring


[1] By “deeper” I’m utilizing the metaphorical language for internality, not the metaphorical language for value. It’s more of an ontological placement than anything else. To suggest that these girls are “deep” in a “deep thought” sort of way would be ridiculous.