Category Archives: Philosophy

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.

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.

Great Enters The Little

Recently, thanks to Tim Keller, I discovered a C.S. Lewis quote that radically shook my complacency regarding the oft-mentioned “Miracle of Christmas.” This full quote is too long to post on Facebook, but the least I can do is share it here.

“What can be meant by ‘God becoming man’? In what sense is it conceivable that eternal self-existent Spirit, basic Fact-hood, should be so combined with a natural human organism as to make one person?…..  We cannot conceive how the Divine Spirit dwelled within the created and human spirit of Jesus: but neither can we conceive how His human spirit, or that of any man, dwells within his natural organism. What we can understand, if the Christian doctrine is true, is that our own composite existence is not the sheer anomaly it might seem to be, but a faint image of the Divine Incarnation itself—the same theme in a very minor key. We can understand that if God so descends into a human spirit, and human spirit so descends into Nature, and our thoughts into our senses and passions, and if adult minds (but only the best of them) can descend into sympathy with children, and men into sympathy with beasts, then everything hangs together and the total reality, both Natural and Supernatural, in which we are living is more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected. We catch sight of a new key principle—the power of the Higher, just in so far as it is truly Higher, to come down, the power of the greater to include the less. Thus solid bodies exemplify many truths of plane geometry, but plane figures no truths of solid geometry: many inorganic propositions are true of organisms but no organic propositions are true of minerals; Montaigne became kittenish with his kitten but she never talked philosophy to him. Everywhere the great enters the little—its power to do so is almost the test of its greatness.”

C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Preliminary Study (New York: MacMillan, 1947/1960), p. 111.

 

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.

What in the World Am I Studying at NYU?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on May 14, 2013.

Throughout the past couple years, many of you have wondered what in the world I’m actually studying at NYU. This is a very good question, and not one easily answered. In the Gallatin School of Individualized Study I have flexibility to form my own major and over the past two years I’ve been developing my area of specific interest, my “concentration,” as it’s formally called.

Since I am almost halfway done with college (*cue profuse sweating*), I was required to write a short “Intellectual Autobiography and Plan For Concentration” that describes

how I acquired my interests and the future trajectory of my education. It’s a bit formal and stuffy, so if you don’t want to read it I totally understand. But I figured that some of you may find this helpful, and if it cuts down the amount of time I have to spend explaining my schooling to people by even a smudge, then that’s all the better in my book (not that I MIND talking about it… it just requires a fair amount of explanation. Frequently).

Feel free to ask questions. No question is too stupid. My responses might be stupid, though, especially related to my eventual career… but oh well. I’ll try.
So without further ado:

On My Expected Concentration: Cinematic Philosophy

I chose to apply for the Gallatin School after working as a youth camp videographer durin

g high school. Although I dreamt of going to film school since I was young, filming and editing footage in familiar patterns for months on end made me realize that working as a sole cog in the film industry wouldn’t be ultimately satisfying. I was (and am) enamored by broad conceptual investigations into the world of cinema, but apathetic toward the glut of technical minutiae that film school would inevitably require me to master. Call it teenage narcissism if you must, but I preferred to be the experimental captain venturing into unknown waters than the dutiful shipmate keeping the ship on course.

Fortunately, Gallatin prides itself in institutionalizing this sort of “narcissism”––or cross-disciplinal academic curiosity, as I’d prefer to call it­­––and my academic trajectory at NYU has been equally invigorating and diverse. However, my concentration initially sprung out of my First Year Interdisciplinary Seminar, “The Social Construction of Reality.” We began by reading Plato’s “Simile of the Cave,” an allegory that appeared shockingly comparable to a cinematic experience. [Side Note: If you don’t know what this is, here’s a great cartoon of Orson Welles reading it. It’s really worth a watch.] If we replace the fire in the cave with an electric light bulb, the shadowy figures cast on the wall with the projection of chemically developed film (or perhaps digital pixels, but let’s not go there), and the voices that prisoners (cinema watchers) hear with an electronic soundtrack, it seems like Plato was referring to a traditional movie theater.

To my delight, I found my intuition rearticulated a couple weeks later when I read an article for “American Cinema: Origin to 1960s” in which Maxim Gorky responded to his experience at the Lumiere Cinematograph by invoking Plato. He claimed that the images on the screen portrayed “not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its… spectre… It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned… unto eternity.”[1] Of course, the significant difference between cinematic experiences and Plato’s analogy is that, in Plato’s conception, the philosopher who escapes the cave “would congratulate himself on his good fortune and be very sorry for [the other prisoners],” whereas people continually return to the cave of the movie theater.[2]

This realization planted the seed that burgeoned into my expected concentration: “Cinematic Philosophy.” Since philosophy is dedicated to rationally investigating the fundamental nature of reality, it is hard to deny that cinema is an essential aspect of modern life. It is not a “shadow” that an educated philosopher must turn from, but a physical, aesthetic entity with its own ontological structure—one that unsettled Gorky and probably would have unsettled Plato as well. And just like the shadows in Plato’s cave, cinema typically lies at the curious juncture of simulation and reality, sensory experience and worldview articulation through narrative.

However, it is important that I avoid overgeneralization in this short essay for several reasons. First, most of the cinema studies classes I’ve taken tend to emphasize historicity more than theory, an exception being Gregory Zinman’s “American Cinema: 1960s to Present,” a class that investigated issues of representation, realism, formalism, and cinematic time. Secondly, I have only just begun my journey in actual philosophy classes, although I can already tell that aesthetics, phenomenology, cognition and metaphysics will greatly inform my concentration. Thirdly, it seems that the intersection of philosophy and film already has its fair share of problematic overgeneralizations. One prominent area is what David Bordwell (pejoratively?) refers to as “Grand Theory,” a number of politically galvanized theories from the 1970s that can “function like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live: equipped with some French or German proper names and fashionable buzzwords, graduate students are given the power to see through cultural objects for the concealed messages underneath.”[3]Richard Allen and Murray Smith also note that many philosophically informed theories from this time period, greatly influenced by the Continental tradition, tend to be dogmatic, uncritically pluralistic, and vague in their argumentation.[4]Therefore, while I intend to wade into Grand Theory, I want to skew my education toward the tradition of analytic philosophy and cognitive theory in order to aim for precise, approachable arguments and broad application.

 I ultimately desire this sort of lucid precision because cinematic philosophy can no longer remain an esoteric interest among academics. From the recent documentary Side By Side(Kenneally, 2012), to speculative articles (“Are Animated Gifs a Type Of Cinema?”[5]), to Stephen’s Soderbergh’s recent public address that has taken the internet by storm (“Cinema is a specificity of vision… as unique as a signature or fingerprint,” he adamantly claimed[6]), the world is scrambling to determine what the substance of cinema actually is. Now that moving images are democratized and culturally ubiquitous, it is more important than ever to understand what cinema signifies––what it should be, shouldn’t be, and can’t be. Although philosophers never achieve unified agreement, I would be thrilled if I am able to grasp onto some nuanced ontological perspectives that avoid the trappings of naïve metanarratives or uncritical pluralism by the end of my study in Gallatin. As our world is saturated with moving images and cinematic representations that are continually gaining influence, ignoring their philosophical implications would leave us voluntarily chained to Plato’s cave, unwilling to truly examine the projected shadows of cinematic representation that dominate reality.

[2] Plato,and John Ferguson. Plato: Republic. London: Methuen, 1957. Print.

[3] Baumbach,Nico. “All That Heaven Allows.” Film Comment Mar. 2012: 49.Web. 25 Apr. 2013

[4] Allen,Richard, and Murray Smith. “Introduction.” Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. 2-3. Print.

The Transcendence of the Unintentionally Absurd

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on February 18, 2013.

Due to several requests, I meant to post this final essay for my “Writing About Film” class a couple months ago. Please forgive my tardiness. Some of the subject matter in this essay is a bit pasé now, but that’s not necissarily a bad thing. As Chuck Klosterman points out, “temporality is part of the truth.” The passage of time can (hopefully) help sharpen an arguement about the ephemeral half-lives of pop culture commodities. Now, without further ado, let’s get a little ridiculous.

 

Nicole Westbrook, a 12-year-old brunette, sits on the edge of her bed and sensually thrusts her shoulders back and forth. Her eyes are glazed over and she’s smiling in slow motion, staring longingly into the distance. As the Lynchian steadicam floats aimlessly in space, her autotuned voice softly croons: “I’m wide awake and I should take a step and say thank you, thank you.” A hypnotic slow-mo sequence shows her preparing an entire Thanksgiving meal by herself (she cooks, among other dishes, an immaculate butterball turkey) as she explains in song: “It’s Thanksgiving, we we we we’re gonna have a good time. With the turkey, ay! Mashed potatoes, ay!”

A variety of other pre-teens show up at her front door, smiling vacantly with their own immaculately prepared plates, holding delectable barbequed ribs and canned cranberry sauce. The last person to arrive is a muscular, tattooed, goateed, middle-aged black man sporting a sequined turkey outfit and a broad, mechanical smile. He skips into the house and sits down at the table with the group of kids. As they hold hands to pray Westbrook begins to rap, much to her company’s collective shock: “Yo it’s thankgiving givin’ and I’m tryin’ to be forgivin’. Nothin’ is forbidden, you know we gotta have…. Can’t be hateful, gotta be grateful, mashed potatoes on my table. I got ribs smellin’ up my neightbors cribs.” As her friends eat and jive at the table, Westbrook stands and sings the chorus again into a turkey-leg-substitution for a wireless microphone. The steadicam continues to swing left and right while pushing toward and pulling back from Westbrook with hypnotic ease.

“It’s Thanksgiving,” the newest viral “hit” from independent music producer (and turkeyfied muscleman) Patrice Wilson, has twelve million YouTube hits and nearly universal disdain. Wilson, commonly accused of poisoning the ears of millions through exploiting wealthy, fame-hungry families, is also the producer of Rebecca Black’s infamously despised music video, “Friday.” That beauty was the most-viewed YouTube video of 2011, worldwide.[1]

If these music videos are “terrible,” why do they become enormous hits? There are a number of potential answers to this question. One theory is that people are masochistically fascinated with things they find absurdly disgusting. This fascination has fueled the enduring popularity of “B Pictures” and cheap exploitation flicks, John Waters films, Jackass, and newer TLC stunts like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Hoarding, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Toddlers In Tiaras. This masochism is often associated with feelings of self-congratulatory irony, superiority, and an implicit desire to reinforce dominant cultural tastes.[2] If we can keep talking about how terrible “It’s Thanksgiving” and “Friday” are, we can reinforce our opinion that bands like Radiohead and Beach House are “amazing.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this argument. When “Friday” and “It’s Thanksgiving” were released, my friends and family watched the videos slack-jawed, laughed, called them atrocious, and moved on with their lives. Feelings of irony and superiority are fleeting, ego-boosting pleasures. “Friday,” once an international phenomenon and the butt of many Late Night jokes (Jimmy Fallon’s rendition with The Roots and Taylor Hicks is a particular standout), has been nearly lost in cyberspace, trashed alongside other mockery-worthy scraps of digital debris (When was the last time you heard someone mention the once-so-hilarious “Numa Numa” or “Star Wars Kid” videos?). As I ‘close-read’ “It’s Thanksgiving” while writing my opening paragraphs only three weeks after it’s original release, both of my roommates ran out of my room and slammed the door behind them in disgust. They had their laugh when they first saw it; the fun was over.

However, for some reason, I don’t get tired or infuriated with either video. They give me a sense of joy that is undeniable and lasting. When I tell people about “It’s Thanksgiving” in particular, I get the same rush of excitement I feel when talking about Mulholland Drive. I’m sure I feel superior to the video in some sense––it’s not like I’m able to feel a genuine sense of thankfulness for anything except It’s Thanksgiving’s existence while watching it––but the video gives me a glorious vision of film unbound from narrative conventions and the self-seriousness of modern cinema. Why are these pre-teenagers preparing and celebrating Thanksgiving (and every holiday, I must add—I skipped over those equally brilliant holiday montages in my opening) by themselves? Is Nicole Westbrook some sort of orphan who is able to afford an upper-middle class suburban home? How does she know how to cook elaborate dishes? Do her parents really leave her during every holiday? How did these kids get to her house (if this is the same world as “Friday,” it seems that all preteens drive illegally)? Is the frequent use of slow motion indicating that this is her hyper-realistic dream? Why does this middle aged black man celebrate with them? Is he some sort of pedophile or emotionally manipulative child-porn-producing pimp, the son of Jodie Foster’s pimp in Taxi Driver, perhaps?

The film gives us no answers to these questions (or at least, no answers within its bizzaro diegesis) and nor does it need any to be enjoyed. True to the spirit of surrealism, “It’s Thanksgiving” is the cinematic manifestation of the illogical subconscious. It creates a type of dream logic that pushes conventions until they pop, situating us in a realm where the rules of cause-and-effect have minimal sway. However, I believe that videos like “It’s Thanksgiving” accomplish something even more daring and invigorating than traditional surrealism because their absurdity is, as far as we can fairly interpret, unintentional.

That said, some of my favorite films are intentionally surreal works; intentional surrealism is often fascinating and evocative. The first film I ever saw that could be considered “surreal” is David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. It is a flawless work of tone and mood, a noir-tinged examination of two identity-shifting women (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, delivering raw, brilliant performances) in Hollywood who long for… something. As Roger Ebert puts it in his recent “Great Movies” review, “it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.”[3] The film is as captivating as it is elusive, a fearless examination of fantasy and desire.

A more recent piece of quality surrealism is Leos Carax’s Holy Motors. Unlike Mulholland Dr., everything in that film occurs according to temporal succession, but it captures a linear amalgamation of surreal events. Denis Lavant (giving a brilliant performance demonstrating his remarkable range) plays Mr. Oscar, a man who travels in a limousine to a variety of “appointments” where he plays a variety of roles in a variety of genres. By freely and fantastically playing with the purpose and scope these individual scenes, which are never given a logical purpose, Carax demonstrates how cinema can move you even as it admits its own artifice. You know that Mr. Oscar is acting in his many “appointments,” but the scenarios he acts in are full of tremendous power regardless. Even the final scene, where limousines in a garage talk about the inevitability of their eventual demise, is surprisingly moving. Yes, the limos are as artificial as Mr. Oscar’s performances, but Holy Motors demonstrates the many ways that meaning can manifest itself in absurd, artificial vessels.

However, if there were one critique worth giving intentionally surreal films like Holy Motors, it would be that they occasionally try a little too hard to remind you that they’re eschewing narrative conventions and being absurd. In Holy Motors we are consistently reminded that Oscar’s whole life is an act; even the film’s most bizarre situations break their fourth wall. Sometimes Holy Motors feels less like surrealism than a piece of metafiction contemplating surrealism. It’s like having a dream in which you are continually reminded that you are dreaming. This sort of problem is evident even in early surrealism. For example, Luis Buñel and Salvador Dalí’s 1929 short Un Chien Andalou is a wonderful example of freeform dream logic––except for its overly formal intertitles. Throughout its loosely related sequences the film displays intertitles that are overbearingly absurd and have no relevance to the sequences presented. “Once upon a time,” the film starts, then “Eight Years Later,” then “Around Three in The Morning,” then “Sixteen Years Ago,” and finally “In Spring.” The dream logic of the film is continually interrupted by this formal mockery of narrative convention. With every intertitle you can almost hear Buñel and Dalí obnoxiously laugh at their own mischievousness, dully distracting us from the freeform dream they’re presenting. As Pauline Kael points out, “Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.”[4] Dalí and Buñel really want to eschew cinematic conventions? We get it. Over and over again, we get it.

This “relentless march” is the problem you inevitably face when you begin making intentionally surreal films. As you decide that you’re creating an absurd film, you immediately begin to make conscious decisions about how absurd your film should be. And the irony here is that the more conscious your filmmaking becomes, the less absurd it can be. When you try to consciously recreate the experience of the subconscious, you’re not actually opening yourself up your subconscious. You’re recounting an impression of the subconscious, sure, but it’s not the real deal. Trying to consciously recreate the subconscious is like trying to turn sand back into rocks; it’s too late. You can’t undo the transformation that’s taken place.[5]

This is why unintentional absurdity is so exciting. When “It’s Thanksgiving,” made to be a sweet and pointless cash grab, unintentionally turns into an brilliantly absurd short, we know that the video’s absurdity just happened somehow. A similar gem is “Johnny Football Song,” a YouTube video showing a cleavagey 50-something woman seduce the camera to a tinny karaoke track of 1963’s “Johnny Angel.” She rewrote the lyrics in honor of Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M quarterback and recent recipient of the Heisman Trophy. The mise-en-scène is framed by garish maroon Texas A&M attire. As she smiles sensuously, sways bizarrely, and sings her banal rewrite, the unintentional sexual provocation of the scene is completely unnerving. The top comments acknowledge this: “It’s like I’m watching an episode of Twin Peaks!” one top commenter says. “The surreal quality of the video is certainly entertaining,” says another. Yet the beauty of this video is that it doesn’t even know it’s like Twin Peaks. It simply is. “Johnny Football Song” reveals the subconscious liberated from narrative pressure and liberated from the pressure of intentional surrealism. The video attests to the fact that life itself is absurd, whether we know it or not.

Perhaps the best cinematic example of this type of unintentional absurdity exists in the 2001 cult classic The Room. The Room was produced by, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau, a greasy, wrinkly, black-haired European man who won’t reveal where he’s from or how he acquired five million dollars in order to finance the film. The entire production of The Room was fraught with difficulties. Actors dropped like flies and were haphazardly replaced. Simply making the script legible was a challenge. Wiseau had very little technical cinematic expertise and, unable to decide between the two formats, decided to shoot every scene on film and digital cameras strapped together. The ending result was a disaster, critically decimated. However, soon after its humdrum release The Room grew to have immensely popular midnight showings in Los Angeles and deemed the “Citizen Kane of bad movies.” By 2012, Wiseau is constantly touring with the film, attending Q&As at screenings around the world.

I have seen The Room multiple times, in and out of theaters, and it is one of my favorite films because it is so unintentionally absurd. Wiseau wanted to make a melodrama in the style of Tennessee Williams and James Dean, not a surreal film. It tells the “heart-wrenching” story of Johnny (played by Tommy Wiseau), perfectly kind and hopelessly devoted to his fiancé, Lisa. They are about to get married, but Lisa is unapologetically evil. She decides that Johnny’s “not enough” for her and seduces Johnny’s strong and beardy best friend, Mark. A surplus of excessive sex scenes and predictable drama ensue.

While the plot is laughably predictable, The Room is far from a conventional melodrama. Much of the film is extraordinarily bizarre. For example, its characters’ favorite hobby is throwing a football to each other from very short distances. In one remarkable scene a group of men in tuxedos decide to toss a football in the street and a minor character falls violently on the asphalt. We don’t see him get up. When the character appears again (at least, we must assume it’s the same character), another actor is playing his role. Lisa’s mother, Claudette (equally demonic), passively breaks the news that she has breast cancer to Lisa. Lisa’s reply is extraordinarily trite: “You’ll be fine, mom” she didactically says. The cancer is never brought up again.

It often looks as if Tommy is copulating with Lisa’s belly button. The same belly-button sex scene is shown twice. Characters inexplicably make chicken noises on more than one occasion.  All of the artwork in Johnny and Lisa’s apartment depicts spoons. Scenes go in and out of focus. Johnny and Lisa mix scotch and vodka; Tommy ends up drunk wearing a necktie like a headband. An unnerving kidult named Denny shows up from time to do nothing but creep on Lisa. Lines of dialogue dissolve into non-sequiturs; Johnny chuckles a deranged giggle at inappropriate moments. Unnecessary tracking shots of the Golden Gate Bridge break up scenes. Random characters show up to have sex in the apartment without purpose or exposition. This list could go on and on.[6]

These unintentionally absurd moments are what make The Room such an endearing experience. While it is almost impossible not to feel superior to the film’s poor writing and acting, if you want to ironically watch poor cinematic craft you don’t have to go further than Netflix. As Pauline Kael points out, “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”[7] Cinematic trash is commonplace.

By contrast, The Room is so endearing because it manifests a surreal, artistic vitality that wasn’t even intended to exist. While audiences openly mock the film at midnight showings, they laugh with delight at its originality and uniqueness even more often. Kristen Bell told Entertainment Weekly: “There is a magic about that film that is indescribable.”[8] And she’s right. Through the structure of a poorly made melodrama, The Room demonstrates more daring and surreal ingenuity than most “serious” Hollywood films ever will. After seeing it in the theater for the first time, I realized––with a mix of shock and giddy delight––that Tommy Wiseau’s unintentional absurdity had given me a transcendent experience. Gasping and laughing and throwing plastic spoons at the screen and yelling zingers with my friends in the safety of the darkened theater, I felt an old rush: I felt like a silly kid “playing pretend” again. We weren’t superior to Wiseau. We weren’t mocking Wiseau. No, Wiseau was leading us on a rampant, random dance through the goofy wilderness of the human psyche. We were free.

The current zeitgeist insists that even the most lackluster film must treat itself like a “serious” artistic statement. This is partially Christopher Nolan’s fault for demonstrating that a Batman film could pull off taking itself seriously. Yet now every routine genre film must be treated like the important work of a great auteur. For example, the newest trailer for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel makes it look almost like a shot-for-shot remake of The Passion of the Christ. The film may be top-notch, sure. Or it may be pretentious and mediocre. Regardless, this impulse for seriousness generally smothers the impulse for surrealism and unintentional ridiculousness. This sort of seriousness takes an emotional toll on Mr. Oscar in Holy Motors and it takes a toll on us as well. It hammers a film’s rough, zany edges blunt and dull. Fortunately, due to the democratization of filmmaking technology, we still have amateurs and innocents willing to put their videos on YouTube and make independent films. There are still idealists willing to naively manifest the zaniness of the human subconscious on camera in order to giddily, surreally break down tropes and social norms without pretense, irony, or even intention.

Because of them, I’m wide awake. And I should take a step and say, “Thank you, thank you.”



[1] Since the video was taken offline for a period, its exact view count isn’t readily available. The “most viewed” title also excludes videos from major music labels. Source: http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2011/12/what-were-we-watching-this-year-lets.html

[2] One of the most recent, illuminating, and controversial incarnations of this point of view is explored in Christy Wampole’s New York Times opinion piece: “How To Live Without Irony” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/

[3] Ebert, Roger. “Mulholland Dr: Great Movies Review.” RogerEbert.com. N.p., 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Nov. 2012. <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121111/REVIEWS08/121119998>.

[4] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Library of America, 2006. N. pag. 341. Print.

[5] As a caveat, I should note that some of my favorite intentionally surreal filmmakers do various exercises in an effort to harness purely subconscious energy. David Lynch, for example, is a longtime advocate of spirituality and transcendental meditation. Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, use improvisational tactics in their comedic shorts. I am not a psychologist, but their work seems to demonstrate that these sorts of tactics can help harness subconscious energy to impressive (if varying) degrees, helping them skirt the trap I mention in this paragraph.

[6] Much has been written about the absurd elements of The Room. This piece at The AV Club is particularly good: http://www.avclub.com/articles/the-room,25723/

[7] Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Pg. 356.

[8] Collis, Clark. “The Crazy Cult of ‘The Room'” EW.com. Entertainment Weekly, 12 Dec. 2008. Web. 30 Nov. 2012. <http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20246031,00.html>.

Teaching Simulations, Provoking Reality

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on November 17, 2012

My most recent Writing About Film assignment was to write a “book review” of sorts. Specifically, the piece was supposed to be an essay loosely inspired by a book about film. Naturally, beacuse I’m a bonehead, I chose to write about a book chock full of difficult philosophy. While you may have to stick with me a bit on this one, I think this is a piece worth sharing simply because it’s about my plan of study at NYU. People ask me what I’m studying and I tell them that I’m in an individualized study program. They frown. I explain that I’m studying “The Philosophy and Psychology of Film.” They seem intrigued but don’t quite know what I’m talking about. To be honest, neither do I–– exactly. But this piece touches on some of the ideas that fascinate me, ideas that inspire me to get up for class in the morning, ideas that I sincerely believe manifest themselves and resonate in all of our lives. Ideas worth investing in.

Plus, you’ll get a taste of why I don’t like The Matrix and why I’m a sincere fan of Cloud Atlas. I think (particularly after more people see Cloud Atlas. Like you. Today.) my position will be unusual and unpopular. Come at me, bro.

With sincere apology to Slavoj Žižek for the numerous ways I’ve probably misrepresented his work, here we go:

One afternoon this past summer, as I was sitting on the porch of a mountain cabin with my father, we began to discuss postmodernism and the role of the academic “provocateur.” As an example of this sort of figure I referenced Slavoj Žižek, one of the philosophers I had to try to wrap my head around as a NYU Gallatin freshman.  My dad—Harvard educated, BA and PhD—half-listened to my muddled attempt to explain Žižek’s style before shrugging: “If someone wants to call himself a provocateur, I’d be more inclined to call him an asshole.”

Through this simple phrase he plainly articulated the tension that surrounds most postmodern philosophy. Is this sort of heady writing about reality, subjectivity, and deconstruction “profound” academic work or is it—to use a vulgar phrase—“academic masturbation”?

To be honest, I’m not sure. And I don’t think philosophers like Jean Baudrillard or Slavoj Žižek are sure either. But I do believe that if taken seriously, postmodernism is the academic equivalent of a waving white flag in surrender, not a having a self-satisfied jerkoff session. In fact, the term “academic provocation” implies skirting the edge of ideas bigger than us, poking something far vaster than the limits of our own consciousness. And, once we get past the head-trips, I think this sort of provocation leaves us somewhere surprising and exciting: it leaves us longing to engage with art and see the world anew.

Žižek’s provocation fills the pages of his 2002 book Welcome to The Desert of the Real! Its five essays form a broad tapestry of thoughts on how the bombardment of media simulations has made it impossible to conceive of reality unmediated by images.  Writing in the wake of 9/11, the destruction of the Twin Towers is his primary example of an important paradox: trying to evoke “`the Real’ [through fantastic violence]… culminates in its exact opposite, in a theatrical spectacle” (9). While the destruction of the towers was meant to shock Americans out of self-sustaining fantasy with the reality of painful violence, most watched the event as a simulation mediated through a television screen. It appeared to America like an extremely compelling disaster movie, horrible and amazing at the same time. The mediation of a machine, a television, turned a really horrible event into something virtual and cinematic.

So how do we experience unsimulated reality? Is there a way out? Žižek doesn’t know. The title of his book, and how he uses it, says as much. “Welcome to the desert of the real!” is a line by Morpheus in the Wachowskis’ 1999 hit, The Matrix, and a reference to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (which Neo uses to hide an illegal disk in the film). Morpheus says the line to Neo when showing him that the world he’s come to know, the prosperous world of the late 1990s, is actually a virtual illusion created by machines. The real world is a spectacular post-apocalyptic city.

Yet Žižek points out that this post-apocalyptic “reality” isn’t actually real at all; it appears to Neo and viewers as a theatrical spectacle. The scene itself is literally made with computer animation, mediated by a complex machine. To Žižek, this irony represents how there’s no conceivable way out of virtual reality. Even “The Desert of the Real” is a spectacular virtual conception.

Personally, I find Žižek’s critique of The Matrix only one example of what makes the film unsatisfactory. If the film is, as Žižek assumes, a prime example of postmodern media (the whole cast was required to read Simulacra and Simulation), it makes postmodernism look incredibly vapid and self-serious. The world inside The Matrix isn’t so bad. Sure, it’s tinted green a little bit and Neo doesn’t look very happy, but isn’t that Keanu Reeves on a good day? There’s no inclination that people can’t have meaningful relationships inside the world of the machines. Agent Smith even says that keeping people happy makes them act as better energy sources. People aren’t actually slaves or subservient in any obvious way. And outside of The Matrix clothes seem to be made of burlap and food sucks and everything sucks.

Only the concept of being duped for your entire life, the “twist” of being fooled, makes the premise of The Matrix interesting. It isn’t grounded in the reality of physical persecution or the actual denaturing of reality through mechanized images; it is an action film based solely in abstraction. When Neo dramatically tells the machines that: “I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible,” I thought: What is he talking about? He’s just going to show them a world without comfortable clothing. Machines don’t actually seem to denature much in The Matrix. The Wachowskis actually make virtual reality seem pretty damn awesome, especially if you’re “The One.”

People often say to me that I’m taking the ideas of an inventive action movie too seriously.  However, The Matrix takes its intellectual conceits very seriously and wants the viewer to take them equally seriously. Unlike Žižek’s writing, it doesn’t provoke; it knows everything and didactically tells you what it knows. If Žižek waves a white flag of surrender, The Wachowskis are masturbating in their own cleverness. Juxtaposing the Welcome to the Desert of the Real! with The Matrix shows interesting role reversal from the common norm: with Žižek’s work academia is pondering, in The Matrix “art” is teaching.

My weariness of the Wachowskis’ work helped me try to rein in my excitement about Cloud Atlas when I first saw it. But since it was adapted from a well-regarded literary source I was vaguely hopeful that maybe this time their intellectual cleverness wouldn’t overshadow the film’s emotional substance. Maybe this time they wouldn’t show off their complex philosophy only to underrepresent it. But I was a bit wary; in a film full of six story lines in six different times, would the human element be any stronger than it was in The Matrix?

I was happily surprised by how much I liked the Cloud Atlas; I have seen it twice now. While there was a fair amount of didacticism and philosophizing (including humble questions and varying perspectives, though!) filling its edges and its characters’ speeches, Cloud Atlas was most successful when did what The Matrix refused to do: it let its philosophy stay implicit.

Every film, even the most mind-numbing comedy, is implicitly philosophical. Every script and every decision in a film promotes a specific narrative worldview. If your protagonist is miserable until he begins to help others, a la Groundhog Day, then your film implies that helping others is the best thing you can do with your life. If doing good only ends up making you miserable, a la Chinatown, then your film implies a nihilistic worldview where nothing can give you lasting happiness. You don’t need Baudrillard, science fiction, and endless exposition in order to have a philosophically complex film.

Cloud Atlas has a philosophical conception of how the world functions, of the Darwinian “status quo” that transcends eras, of enslavement and resistance, of kindness and sacrifice rippling through time. But at its best moments it makes you come understand to these grandiose understandings yourself. You have to wrestle with the stories to make connections and see why they even belong in the same film. In fact, it is the narrative worldview that ties these otherwise unrelated stories together at all (beyond a few multi-storyline characters and surviving books). This is a heady process, but unlike The Matrix, there are human stakes involved this time. I found watching the film to be an exciting and engaging task, even more on my second viewing. Seeing the film is more like figuring out how you’re similar to your parents and your grandparents than figuring out why humans work as a good mechanical battery.

And at the film’s most pleasurable moments, juxtapositions between the six different storylines lend meaning and nuance to each other. There is a joy that comes from witnessing the same motif creatively applied to different genres. Within the span of a few minutes we see a Korean clone escape enslavement on a Tron-esque motorcycle in 2144, British senior citizens flee a Cuckoo’s Nest-inspired nursing home in 2012, and a tribal burlap-garbed Tom Hanks (again, the burlap!) run from a Hugh-Grant-cannibal in post-apocalyptic woodlands. Cross-cutting and parallel motivations lend pathos to all three storylines. This concept of meaning created by juxtaposing clips was coined the “Kuleshov Effect” in the 1920s (distinct and unrelated shots drew emotional reactions when assembled together cinematically, transcending their original diegetic purposes) and became the foundation of Soviet montage, but it has been largely ignored in conventional American narrative cinema. Cloud Atlas merges montage-tactics and narrative momentum at a level of formal complexity that is both daunting and thrilling. Unlike The Matrix, a film that forces the viewer to buy a premise based on meager intellectual conceits, Cloud Atlas allows viewers to find meaning within the madness and it has the formal intelligence to help them along the way. It provokes rather than preaches.

Finally, in very important ways, Cloud Atlas provides a possible answer to Žižek’s concern about media denaturing reality. In some ways the film is very postmodern, relying on familiar tropes thrown in a blender. It is pastiche upon pastiche. However, the juxtaposition of these stories, the merging of their themes, and the opportunities for an individual viewer to make connections takes full advantage of the cinema’s power to create meaning. It doesn’t simply turn physical reality into virtual reality. No, Cloud Atlas takes the elements of pop culture, the elements of pre-existing virtual realities, and puts them together to create new realities, to find new connections, to reshape the nature of individual “tropes” and “clichés.” If we can’t escape desert of virtual simulations we live in, the Wachowski’s newest film gives us hope that we can boldly innovate inside the system. We can challenge our narrative preconceptions, our minds and our worldviews. And there’s no theatrical effect to diminish that humble, exciting process. It’s unsimulated reality.