Category Archives: Blog

What’s Going On: The Late May Rundown

graduationIt feels v 2006 to blog like this (Do normal people blog regularly anymore? Was that a pre-Twitter trend?), but I figure that I ought to supply a little rundown of some rather exciting things that have been going on – for, you know, the “fanbase” or the “followerbase” or whatever the hell we’re calling that now.

  • I graduated last week. That was fun. And exhausting. Perhaps the best part of the week (besides spending time with my lovely family and eating the [w/o exaggeration] best burger ever made) involved receiving an award for “interdisciplinary academic excellence” and, therefore, sitting on the stage at my Gallatin School of Individualized Study graduation. I sort of doubt that I deserve this award more than many, many of my talented classmates, but it was an honor to be honored by a school that I felt so honored to attend. Gallatin gave me the flexibility to explore and grow and discover my academic proclivities on my own terms. It taught me how to write and how to think in radically critical ways. I’m a proud alum.
  • This fall, I will enter a five-year PhD program in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard. This is exciting, but I’m not quite there yet, because…
  •  …beginning today, I’ll start writing a thematic memoir about growing up and growing into an increasingly media saturated culture. It’ll probably feature some potent mixture of traditional memoir stuff, media theory, philosophy, literature, theology… the whole enchilada. Here’s a brief excerpt from my very-in-process-and-subject-to-change introduction:

It’s easy to think about “The Media” as a concrete entity that will either oppress or liberate you; it’s much harder to think about many mediums. Mediums are, by their very nature, indeterminate. They’re contingent spaces. The author Zadie Smith voices our communal angst when she cries: “How persistent this horror of the middling spot is, this dread of the interim place! It extends through the specter of the tragic mulatto, to the plight of the transsexual, to our present anxiety–disguised as genteel concern – for the contemporary immigrant, tragically split, we are sure, between worlds, ideas, cultures, voices – whatever will become of them?”

In Protestant circles, we tend to ease our anxieties by resorting to polarities. We speak of sin: total disconnect between God and Man and Woman, manifest in the eternal reality of Hell. And then we do a full 180-degree turn. We look toward, and yearn for, the fruit of salvation: unmediated, communal intimacy with God and Man and Woman. While these polarities can bring spiritual reality into sharp focus (Flannery O’Conner: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures”), they can also make it harder to a cast cold eye onto the contingent spaces where we experience both communion and divorce, relation and isolation, unity and discord – and often a little bit of all that simultaneously. It’s much easier to gesture toward the solved and unsolved equations, and decry the dangers of moral relativism, than it is to engage complex ethical problems in media res.

Yet for some reason, I have spent my whole life attracted to media, in all senses of the word. As a so-called millennial, I have grown into what the pundits call an “increasingly media-saturated culture.” I have matured alongside television, video cassette players, personal computers, cell phones, laptops, blogs, iPhones, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and so on. I’ve witnessed that interpersonal modifier, “social,” welded onto “media” like a new, sequined outfit. And I’ve engaged with it all like a kid at a strange, ever-evolving candy shop.

I want to reflect on a life lived in media res, to decry reductive pulpit pounding and really get my hands dirty. It’ll be fun, I hope.

  •  I’ll still write for the web every once in a while. If you’ve missed my past pieces, you can find some of them here, here, and here. And if you’d like me to write for your publication (and if you pay at least a little bit… ;)), I’m all ears.
  • I’ll be in Brooklyn until July 13th and then in Los Angeles until August 24th. If you’re around, let’s hang out and grab a beer or something.

And without further ado… I gotta get writing.

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.

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.

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.