Review of two films by director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky. Read here.
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.
A Comparative Exploration of The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers
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.
The 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.
Rebecca 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’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.
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.
I 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.
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.
The 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. “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.
And 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?”
This 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.
Therefore, 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.
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!
 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.
I am currently riding on a train up to Oxford. This alone is a treat; riding a train through the British countryside is romanticized for good reasons. Even in the early fall, trees are still a wonderful mix of green and yellow. The houses are as red brick as your heart could desire, the grassy lawns are rich and emerald, the rivers brown yet clear.
London has been a wonderful contrast to both Granada and Prague. It is a simple gift to be in a city so westernized yet a city with such strong particularities and cultural character. It many ways, as far as diversity of individuals and eateries are concerned, it feels like a sister city to New York. And yet, London feels cleaner, classier and more modern than New York, and certainly more vastly spread out. The distance between places can make London a little overwhelming, but also lends its neighborhoods a great deal of individual character and diversity. Unlike New York, it feels wholly lived in, and, if you’re a fan of classic red brick like myself, this is immensely comforting. Last night I visited “Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that Charles Dickens apparently went to. Sitting on an ornate blue velvet couch in a burgundy room warmly lit by small wall-mounted lamps and a large (unlit, unfortunately) fireplace, drinking a classic bitter English pint, looking at ancient portraits and pictures on the walls,
I didn’t feel the weight of formality and precociousness that often leaves me disenchanted with stereotypically British things. Rather, I felt a reassuring sense of home.
Although London proudly continues its staunchly traditional double decker busses, red telephone booths, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, ect. ect., what impressed me most was its clean, modern feel. Even my hostel, which feels so large and corporate, is brightly and immaculately––if a bit cheesily––designed (posted rule plaques say, in a skinny handwriting-styled font: “Rule Number 1 is have fun!” The same font adorns hallways where token Britishisms mixed with American slang are stenciled on the bright blue walls. My personal favorite says: “You only live once. Live like Bond!”). The hostel harnesses an immediately appealing mixture of bright colors, light brown softwood,and sleek chrome, coming off like the Ikea or Whole Foods of hostels: large, impersonal and imposing yet impressively sleek nonetheless.
This modern-and-clean-yet-bright-and-welcoming feel carries over into restaurants, the National Theatre, The Tate Modern, The London Eye… ect. ect. Even crowded pubs feel clean and welcoming and smoking has been outlawed in all of them. London is an immaculate aesthetic combination of old and new, lacking the imposing vacuity of high modernism (and postmodernism, one could argue) and the red brick formality and conformity of classically industrialized cities. It has overcome architectural and aesthetic hurdles with class and brilliance, existing as a wonderful model of what a modern, multicultural, pluralistic city should look like… in all areas except expense. I am grateful to not live in London simply because of how quickly the city would drain my finances. I do note that expensiveness probably helps explain how the city can afford such aesthetic impressiveness; the two usually go hand in hand.
Some highlights from London: first, seeing my friend Laura and meeting her friends from Furman University. Something reinforced by this trip is how appealing it can be to see old friends in new contexts. Although I’ve known Laura for a couple years, I mostly know her from the context of Laity Lodge Youth Camp, a hermetically sealed community and cultural atmosphere. And in my experience, one of the best things about camp friendships is not engaging them at camp, but precipitating, deepening and enriching them within the contexts of the world at large.
Laura is involved in a very unique program through Furman, one where she gets to see a variety of plays and write about them. She was kind enough to get me a ticket for the play her group saw on Wednesday night, “nut,” at the National Theater’s “Shed,” a small black box with a striking red exterior. It was a peculiar play, the kind where its characters continually argue in a circular fashion for its entire running time. Sometimes this sort of writing is a bit unnerving for me, feeling a bit forced, a billboard screaming “NATURALISM.” I’m not sure about you, but the people I talk to tend to actually communicate in conversations that move, even when they’re arguing. Some admittedly do result in deadlock, but this sort of insistent circularity often rings a bit false for me as a viewer. However, considering the subject of the play––a woman with a mental illness who consistently argues with herself (or at least people who are most likely mental manifestation of herself)––this sort of dialogue seemed fairly necessary.
And “nut” was structurally interesting, only subtly, carefully revealing how its first act character were fantastical manifestations. The point wasn’t the reveal, the sort of self-impressed “ta da” that revels in writerly vanity while exploiting mental illness. The whole play was firmly rooted in compassion and, the more I think about it, the more insightful it becomes. It deals with relational tensions, how all external struggles actually stem from internal struggles in response to others, and how we consistently find our own identity through external comparison (“She’s/I’m not like you” are consistent refrains that most characters say in the show, anthems of internal isolation and longing for stable forms of self-definition”). Although little in the show is concrete, none of it was too abstract and, particularly through its wonderfully subtle, symbolic staging (various giant metal beams are imposingly fused, crisscrossing and jutting out forebodingly above characters, precariously and uncomfortably appearing to push down on them throughout the projection), the show is ultimately poetic and even a bit heartbreaking. The more I think about it the more I like it, and I’m sure if I were to see it again I would appreciate it even more.
(If you’re going to London and want a bit of avant-garde theatre instead of the typical big name shows, you can buy tickets here. It’s playing through December 5.)
I am currently sitting in a wine bar in Granada close to the Cathetral (Tabernas Masquevinos, if you want to know). It is a lively, most likely touristy place. Yet, in particularly Granadian fashion, not a single word of English can be heard in the entire place. This is typical for Granada. Like most beautiful cities, it has exploited its touristic potential, but it mostly caters to Spanish tourists; it doesn’t feel seem of tourist traps designed to suck in Americans and Brits as they do their proverbial Euro Trip. I even entered my hostel for the first time to find a young woman from Venezuela who knew absolutely no English sitting on the bed across from mine. For a city as beautiful as this one, this sort of purity is borderline miraculous; apparently it is perpetuated by a strong sense of Andalucían nationalism, and if this is what nationalism looks like, I’m all for it.
I am drinking a glass of Andalucían wine called “Glarima.” It is a rather wonderful red, not too bitter and tannin-heavy, but smoky and smooth. [It certainly beats smoky beer, which I was recently disappointed to learn that I dislike, at least when it’s of a particular bottom-fermented German variety.] My free Tapa is bread with cheese, olive oil, and vinegar; the cheese is delightfully pungent and the combination is lovely. I also paid for a goat cheese croquette, which is phenomenal as well; sprinkled with sweet vinegar, it takes the flavorful-yet-not-overbearing nature of goat cheese and gives it a crunchy, sweet edge.
Yes, I did say “free tapa” in the previous paragraph. Apparently this quirk is a Granada specialty, a way to keep people from drinking too much and luring in tourists in for drinks and food. Almost every restaurant abides by the free tapa policy, and of course people love it.
On my first night in Granada I noted an offhand observation to my friend Louisa that’s become even more apparent the longer I’ve stayed here: “Granada is like Disneyland, but real.” Indeed, Disneyland––with its stylized combination of different worlds that are consistently varying yet always aesthetically exciting––is a rather apt comparison for Granada, a city whose incredible location has made it the centuries-long site of envy-ridden competition for Muslim, Catholic, and Jewish cultures. Walking along its beautifully stylized streets, it is––
Excuse me one moment. One of the most delicious things I have ever eaten just arrived at my seat, and I would be completely ashamed to ignore mentioning it: tosta (toast) con “jamon iberico, queso de cabra y cebolla caramalezada” (cured Iberian ham and goat cheese and caramelized unions). The counterbalance of salty ham, bitter cheese, and sweet onions is unbelievable.
Anyway, as I was saying, the streets of Granada contain a deluge of wonderful Islamic-turned-Hispanic styles: white houses with brown tiled roofs hug the hillside in a dizzying maze of streets, hiding lush, ornate patios with decorative, geometrically patterned tiles that peak out from behind wrought iron gates. The façade of its towering, baroque cathedral (appealingly luminous on its interior) is surrounded by open-air Arab marketplaces that sell a dizzying rainbow of glass lamps and vibrant scarves. Mexico may own the cliché of the giant orange stucco hacienda, but Granada and southern Spain owns the cliché of the warm, ornamental Hispanic village. Designers of Southern California towns like San Clemente seem to have appropriated all of their architectural strategies from this one little town, and as someone from Southern
California, it felt comfortingly familiar.
And yet, the previously mentioned authenticity made it all the more exciting and fascinating. First, even though Spain is a Catholic country, Granada owns its Muslim influence. The full nature of this influence didn’t really occur to me until coming to Granada. Ferdinand and Isabella, notoriously responsible for the discovery and subsequent conquering of the New World, truly transferred the brilliance of Muslim architecture and technology onto North American soil. Blown away by the
Alhambra, they happily claimed it as their own, Catholic architectural predilections aside (they got their Cathedral eventually). Granada’s etchings, tiles, arches, and fountains are a far cry from traditional gothic, baroque, Catholic design. Unless you live in a traditional brickwork east-coast style house in the US, you probably owe a lot of your environment to early Muslim design. Shove that down your anglophile gullet, why don’t you.
Granada is famous for the Alhambra, the palace and fortress that Isabella and Ferdinand appropriated after conquering their Muslim oponents. I spent the majority of my Sunday afternoon here, from 2 PM to 5 PM. It is a massive place. I started with the Generalife, a summer resort with beautifully sculpted gardens and fountains. It even has upturned roof tiles that carry water down a stairwell. The design is impeccable, yet even more incredible when it occurs to you how old the Generalife actually is; Orange County’s modern “Fashion Island” was basically built between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The main attraction, and one that required a specific 3:30 entrance time (brilliantly instated to curtail traffic), was the Nasrid palace. After walking down from the Generalife and waiting in line, I was let into the palace where Ferdinand and Isabella gave Columbus permission to seek out the New World. I’m sure I’ve seen pictures of this palace on/in textbooks before: deep pools, mathematically perfected fountains, it’s all here. But the true, overwhelming beauty of the Nasrid palace lies in its tile sculptures (Islamic architecture pros can probably correct me on my wording here). Immaculately carved tiles are flawlessly arranged over unbelievably large spans wall space, columns, and ceilings. It is impossible to fully imagine the amount of hours and care placed into this breathtaking work. And, amazingly, unlike western variations on this sort of ornamental stylization (I’m looking at you, Rococo, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco), its decorating methods never seem to draw undue attention to themselves. From a distance, they merely ripple and only unveil their true majesty when careful eyes step in close to take them in. They beckon for watchful presence and award your aesthetic digestion in spades.
Being at the Alhambra made me think of how the closest Western Christian culture comes to this sort of detailed design is through stained-glass windows. Yet in general, Christian decoration could learn from this sort of watchful nuance. Copying examples from the Greeks and Romans, Western Christian culture is typically influenced by concepts of the grand, the pompous, the boastful. The problem with this generally neoclassical and gothic notion is that largeness can sometimes feel grand yet empty, impressive yet vacuous. “My cup runneth over,” says in the Psalmist. Not “My cup is really large and imposing.” It’s not the cup that’s large—it’s the density of the goodness within the cup. Christian artisans could do well to learn from the Alhambra.
Yet as ornate as the Nasrid palace is, as wonderful as the Granadan character can be (I seriously felt like I could live there a lifetime, and not only because I could wear a t-shirt and shorts everyday if I did), the true highlight of the trip was seeing Louisa. Louisa and I have been friends since… well, before you chose your friends. We’ve been friends since your “friends” were just little kids that your parents grouped you with before you had the agency to say yes or no. And, in a sense, that makes our relationship all the more incredible. Because we are not “old friends” who simply get together and reminisce about “the old days” without any true substance to our current, continuing relationship. We’re not ancient acquaintances who get together merely out of courtesy or parental encouragement. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though we live far apart now and have vastly different life experiences, our relationship is somehow all the stronger because of this distance, because of our different life experiences. We have independently grown into the sort of people who can have wonderful conversations about anything and everything, who can laugh together and share together, who can find ourselves mutually enlightened through our combined perspectives. Our friendship doesn’t only pick up where it left off; it grows because of the time that has lapsed since we last saw each other. Even though I see Louisa probably six days per year (max) compared to the hundreds (only a slight exaggeration) of days that we used to see each other, I feel as if our the quality of our friendship is stronger now than it was when I was in eighth grade. This is a gift.
And it is even more of a gift that, with little to no knowledge of Granada, I was able to visit such an extraordinary, lively, beautiful place. That I stayed long enough to have multiple churros con chocolate (seriously, the US has no idea what good churros are like), sangria, local wine, and 3 (yes three) incredible shwarmas from local Arab places (one in particular was literally among the best things I have ever eaten—Tony Stark would fall head over heels), was a supreme gift. On Monday afternoon, Louisa’s host mother, Rosa, even had me over and made an impeccable local Spanish dish. Louisa was a gracious translator and I enjoyed seeing what bits of Spanish I could pick up (a surprisingly ok amount, considering how long it’s been since I’ve taken the language). It was also very nice to be in a real home after traveling so long—although my hostel was very nice, as far as hostels go. It was roomy, nicely decorated, had a comfortable mattress, and I spent the last 24 hours in my room as its only occupant, a rather amazing feat.
I could go on and on describing the Rio Darro, the wonderful mural-eque graffiti throughout the city, the little miniature pinscher who followed me all the way down the Camino de Sacromonte, the expat atmosphere of Paddy’s Irish Pub (no, Charlie Kelly wasn’t there. I know, it killed me too), but I’ve used up enough words here already. In summary, Granada was an oasis of striking color, style, relaxation, exploration, and fun with a timeless friend.
I am currently on a plane headed for London (come on, you don’t think I’d be able to write this many words this diligently with wine and tapas in front of me, did you?!) after the lovely two-hour bus ride through the Central-California-looking Andalucían countryside. London will be strikingly different than Granada, but I am very excited to experience the contrasting atmosphere (even in its stereotypical rainy-coldness). Also, as much as I liked practicing and refreshing my limited Spanish, it will be lovely to be, for the first time in months, in a place where English is the most commonly spoken language.
I am currently sitting in the Milan airport. It is 5:15 in the morning. I left my hostel at 3:00 AM in order to get here.
One of the most interesting things about traveling as a young person without significant financial resources is the peculiar spheres you can find yourself in. In the shadow of the Sheratons and Best Westerns and Grand Hotel Fill-In-The-Blanks lies an underground teeming with inexpensive youth hostels, non-corporatized (well, there are some chains, but none are particularly large) establishments that fill up every night with young people trying to fulfill their birthright and “see the world.” As places that lure in young adults with extremely attractive prices, their quality is inevitably inconsistent.
In Milan, I took the risk of staying in “Kennedy Hostel” even though it only received at 63% approval rating on hostelbookers.com. This was for one simple reason: it was the only available hostel within an easy (15 minute) walking distance from Station Centrale, launching point for the Milano Malpensa airport bus. The Milano Malpensa airport is a little less than an hour away from Milan—a lovely cab ride that would cost you euros in the three-digit range––and the private bus is the only other available option for getting there.
I got into Milan on this bus a little after midnight on the 8th. A wet, thick fog weighed down the city, creating an atmosphere that almost reminded me of a colder Southern California. This part of Milan was not the nicest section of town (graffiti covered every building), but it was far from a ghetto. It felt modern, lived in, and even the grunginess reminded me (wistfully, somehow?) of New York. The New York association was compounded when the first Italian restaurant I saw was called “Little Italy” and New York subway maps and littered its walls. The irony was wonderful: Italians are now capitalizing on Americans’ capitalizing on Italians. And so the simulacrum continues….
This restaurant was actually a good introduction to the general spirit of Milan. While the city has a nice urban appeal, it does not have a particularly aged appeal. And the even more archaic, architecturally beautified portions of the city (statues, the enormous Duomo, giant arched Romanesque ceilings and passageways besieged with ornate glass panels) are consistently punctuated by and mixed with the iconography and advertisements of High Italian fashion. The story of Jesus and the moneylenders in the temple comes to mind, except imagine those moneylenders selling Prada and Gucci with giant, ornate black-and-white advertisements featuring Matthew McCaughey and Scarlett Johansson pretending to be lovers (a peculiar romantic combination, if you ask me). It felt a bit like the most impressively authentic Orange County high-fashion mall imaginable, and I mean that as a mixed compliment. As peculiar as it is to see a giant LED Samsung advertisement awkwardly plastered onto the side of of the world’s second-largest cathedral, at least the interior of the Duomo was free to enter (ah, the paradox of global capitalism).
And the interior was truly breathtaking, nearly moving me to tears by its sublime scope and intricate architecture; if the Duomo isn’t the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen, I can’t recall the one that surpasses it. There was still a section near the front left wing containing several operation confession booths in parallel formation; local Italians trickled into these one-by-one, ready to hand off their wrongs and get going with their day.
When I arrived at Hostel Kennedy, I pressed an exterior button to unlock the door (“Hello?” I hopelessly muttered into the speaker when nobody said anything. What in the world are you supposed to do in those situations?). After riding up a rickety elevator to the 6th floor just large enough to fit my bulging backpack and myself, I arrived to find the young, dark skinned male concierge watching “God of War” cheats on YouTube, full-screen. I informed him that I was checking into my reservation. Briefly taking a break from his video, he said he couldn’t find my reservation. As I was about to get my printout, he found my reservation. The desk had a new-looking credit card machine; I said I wanted to finish my payment by card (I had no Euros). He said that the credit card machine wasn’t plugged in. Through a thick accent, he tried to give me directions to an ATM. Finally giving up, he took me to a window to point to the ATM on the street down below. After using the machine and paying with the cash, he owed me two Euros but he didn’t have any coins. “Can you get it tomorrow?” he asked. “Sure.” I said. The gold star of the service industry, this guy.
He led me to my four-person room only occupied by two sleeping Polish girls.
Hotel Kennedy felt like a 1940s hotel that was occasionally renovated yet mediocrely kept up. One got a sense that it actually was a nice hotel at some point, and this gave it a hominess and comfort that was simply countered by the age of the place. At the very least, the bathroom seemed recently remodeled and quite clean. My bed was another story. It felt as if the mattress were divided into two unequal sections, as if there were a long gaping chuck literally ripped out of the middle—not a gap large enough to fall into, but one that certainly made sleeping uncomfortable. Fortunately, I was tired enough that I didn’t really care.
I woke up at 9:30 the next morning. There was a woman at the desk now. I asked for a key to a storage locker in my room. She asked me if I needed to pay, and if I had a reservation for that night, because apparently it didn’t look like I did (or this much I could gather through her accent). I said that I already paid and, yes, I had a reservation. She launched into a long explanation in broken-English about why I had to put down a security deposit in order to use the locker. After placing my backpack in the locker, I decided to head out. Right as I was about to enter the little elevator, I heard a voice behind me.
“Roberts!” the concierge belted in her rich alto voice, rolling the “R” like a good, strong-spirited Italian stereotype.
“Where are you going?” she accusatorially asked.
“I’m going to… the Duomo, to walk around… to do some sight seeing?”
She backed off, lowering her voice a little. “Oh, ok.”
“Uhhh… ok, have a nice day.” I turned to leave.
After breaking a twenty at McDonalds in order to pay for a metro ticket (a McCafe cappuccino and croissant for breakfast in Milan—how multicultural of me!) I made my way to the Duomo and walked around the surrounding shops. As tempted as I was to browse through The Gap and the Disney Store, I declined. After a while I wandered into an Italian marketplace, full of cheeses and olives and vinegars and prototypical Italian things. Considering its proximity to the Duomo, and the fact that all of the booths were all decorated with the Italian flag, its authenticity seemed a little suspect, but I nevertheless got a large cheese pizza for lunch that was quite fresh and filling.
After this I headed over to the only museum I had time for, (sorry Rafael’s “School of Athens,” you’ll have to wait. Oh, and “The Last Supper,” which I couldn’t see because ticketing system is more or less overrun by sanctioned ticket scalpers—I mean, tourist companies. Again, Jesus and the moneylenders come to mind) Museo de Novecento. This was a clean, nicely assembled Italian modern art museum, with works organized thematically and by movement instead of by chronology. The highlight of the museum was Italian Futurism. As a lover of cinema, an art form defined by movement, the futurists and their love of movement have fascinated me ever since I’ve been exposed to them. Their attempts to represent motion through the inherently static forms of painting and sculpture are both aesthetically appealing and theoretically
interesting. Some of their more literal-minded paintings even resemble long exposure photographs or several corresponding film stills juxtaposed on top of each other. Yet unlike the more sterile object dissections found in Cubism, Futurist art tends to ripple with dynamism; it’s full of contradicting, layered curvatures and twisting, contorting shapes. A highlight was seeing the paradoxically curvaceous, sharp, malleable, solid, and altogether striking sculpture we studied in class, Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity In Space”.
After this I met up with my NYU friends at Milan’s castle and we proceeded to walk through a park, visit a canal and a nearby cafe. Fulfilling Italy requirements, I had both espresso and gelato, choosing an absolutely killer mix of nutella and mint flavored gelato. Since a couple in our group had to catch a 9 PM train, we ate dinner at a rather unremarkable bakery. However, this bakery did sell bottles of sparkling wine for three euros, which were quite useful in helping me fall asleep by 9:30 PM, a feat I literally don’t think I’ve accomplished in years.
I woke up at 2:45 and went to check out, but there was nobody at the desk. Heavy breathing clued me in: my beloved concierge from the first night was sleeping on the couch in the tiny lobby, snoring long, wet snores. I went up to him and tried talking to him, but he didn’t awake. I poked him a little bit, talked a little more, and he slowly opened his eyes.
“Hi, I’d like to check out.”
“Oh, ok.” He paused. “You can go.”
“But… I need to return my locker key and get my deposit back.”
He didn’t have any coins to give me, only a ten euro bill. Fortunately I had change for him this time.
It was misting again as I walked to the bus in the dark, so very early in the morning.
I am now on the plane headed to Malaga, and I will take a bus from there to Granada. It’s 8:12 AM.
I am currently riding in an EasyJet plane headed to Milan. My black backpack is resting in the overhead compartment above my head, thick and full to the brim with clothes intended to accommodate 70-degree temperatures and freezing temperatures. My trip is only beginning, and yet, somehow, I feel at peace.
Perhaps this is false confidence. I am certainly not logistically and directionally talented, so travel doesn’t come extraordinarily easy to me. I am not versed in multiple languages. I do not have an unlimited budget.
And yet, because of this I tried to plan as extensively as I could. I have a thick packet full of papers—tickets, directions, hostel reservations, ideas of places to go, eat, ect. sitting in the pouch in front of me. This was fairly nightmarish to put together. I spent hours on the computer, buying and researching and writing instructions and reading through Let’s Go Europe as if it were the night before a final exam and that snarky guide was my lifesaver of a textbook. My ultimate hope is that this planning will confirm my belief that the further you plan in advance, the more things you buy early, the more places you know you’re going, then the easier and less stressful the work of traveling will become. We will see. Even my attempts at being organized have caused me to purchase two different nonrefundable tickets twice without even realizing it. So it goes.
I need this to be somewhat easier because it feels (or at least it felt during those god-awful planning hours) that I have bitten more than I can chew. Traveling to five vastly different European countries over eleven days, on my own? Seriously?
This is certainly ambitious. I have never traveled by myself before (oh, you know what I mean. Car trips and one-way San Antonio to New York trips don’t count), and this is a helluva way to start. I feel greatly empowered yet simultaneously overwhelmed by the notion of traveling hundreds of miles and through several countries without another pair of eyes to deal with the logistics. “The lone traveler” is both an literary cliché and an existential reality. For while the challenges I face will be of an undeniably upper-middle class nature, I feel that this sort of trip can undeniably bare the thematic heft of a bildungsroman regardless. No, I’m not traveling in the wilderness for days before returning to my tribe. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that I’m embarking on the globalized, pluralistic 21st century version of a similar quest, what Victor Turner would call a “liminal experience,” an undetermined period of time when I can contemplate the elements of the world around me as they’re twisted and pulled into contortions that are both strikingly beautiful and frighteningly grotesque.
I will witness the heart of modern, urbanized Italy in Milan and its many museums. I will bask in the Islamic architecture, snow-tipped peaks, and warm sun of Southern Spain in Granada. I will experience the classic heart of London and have a pint in the Oxford pub where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien regularly met. I will finish with an all-out feast of chocolate, waffles, pommes frites and wonderful beer in Brussels; a several-hour dip into Amsterdam will prelude my flight back into Prague.
Like all great, lasting life events, pondering this one gives me a peculiar mix of anxiety and excitement. And after all, there is no need to overstate the difficulties because I won’t be completely alone; I will be (quite by chance, actually) spending the day in Milan with some NYU friends. I will see a lifelong friend in Granada and another fine friend in London. And above all else, I somehow know that the God of the Universe is with me, inside me, gently turning me toward Himself and my True Self: the person that I, in the heart of my being, implicitly long to become.
I can’t promise that I’ll write regularly during this trip. If I don’t update you or update Instagram, please don’t think that something awful has happened to me. But if you check this blog, maybe you’ll see a couple updates here and there. Who knows. The plane is about to land in Milan now.
It’s an adventure.
“The Conjuring” is a direct and unapologetic Haunted House film. Regardless of James Wan’s opinion on the actual existence of paranormal activity—it seems that Wan is a curious paranormal agnostic at the very least, or (a cynic would suggest) impersonating that attitude in order to enhance his cinematic craft—he is certainly a believer in the classic horror motifs. I spent a good deal his film feeling like Marty in “Cabin in The Woods,” questioning why its characters consistently made the mistakes that all characters are bound to make in every haunted house.
But these tropes must come from somewhere, and the real Lorraine Warren and Andrea Perron (consultants for Wan) claim that the film is “art” instead of fiction. Regardless of how you respond to their claim, it is this implied veracity that makes the film stand apart from other members of its wood-creaking, wind-blowing, door-thumping niche. Wan gives our demon-hunting protagonists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, a level of intelligence, humanity, and confidence that is functions as the brain and heart of the entire film. And while Patrick Wilson is serviceable, the true center is Vera Farmiga, turning in another performance brimming with a remarkable blend of pathos and cool intelligence. As no stranger to genuine spiritual search,—her own directorial debut “Higher Ground” percolates with metaphysical wrestling—Farmiga’s Lorraine has the remarkable (and underrated) ability to look her husband in the eye and say “I believe that God brought us together for a reason” without sounding trite, sentimental, or shrill. Like a belabored psalmist, she trusts God in spite of her weary, frightened, and frustrated soul.
Ed and Lorraine are human enough to become annoyed with the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church (their priestless, self-initiated exorcism made this protestant feel an embarrassing twinge of theological satisfaction), but sensitive enough to recognize the vastness of evil that lurks beyond humanity’s control. The actual evil shown in The Conjuring amounts to smoke, mirrors, and CGI, but Farmiga’s performance gives testimony to a transcendent pain and suffering. Like Francis McDormand in the Coen’s noir-pastiche Fargo, Farmiga both grounds and elevates all of the ridiculousness surrounding her.
Yet while Farmiga and Wilson are impressive, and while the tormented family is believable as well, the true crux of good horror lies in its formal presentation. Wan is credited as saying: “…the irony has always been that horror may be disregarded by critics, but often they are the best-made movies you’re going to find in terms of craft. You can’t scare people if they see the seams,” and he is right. Classic horror is intensely indebted to cinematic craft, pacing, and what the camera can and can’t see (or chooses not see).
In this regard I am happy to report that The Conjuring has some remarkable shots. Before anything crazy even occurs Wan uses an expositional steadicam shot with the skill and audacity of Martin Scorsese. The slow, intentional zooms he uses throughout the film effortlessly evoke films of the 1970s, when motorized zoom lenses were all the rage; rotating gimbal shots make us feel like spirits floating through out the haunted house. The whole film feels as if it is shot through either a blue-grey or warm orange filter (depending on mood and location), a nice homage to the browns and light-blues that fill out our cultural imagining of the seventies.
However, while it is evident that Wan is a student of Friedkin, De Palma, and other masters of horror, he refuses to immerse himself in their classic cinematic language, settling for pastiche rather than full-on technique adoption. And while I admire his desire to find an original cinematic voice instead of beating a dead horse (oh, but what a beautiful dead horse!), his visual style ends up in a sort of lukewarm deadlock; “The Conjuring” shifts between traditional dollying/steadicamming and the newer “Blair Witch”-style first-person shakeycam. These shifts often accommodate the purpose of individual shots, but they often detract from the pacing and groundwork laid by previous scenes. While this stylistic potpourri isn’t as obnoxious as Abrams’ direction in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” Wan’s craftsmanship reflects on his generation in a similar way. He can clearly appreciate past styles and pull from them, but he seems to lack the slow, patient energy needed to build a coherent visual language that encompasses an entire film. He bears the DNA of a visionary, perhaps, but certainly lacks the perfection-driven legwork needed to get there.
Regardless, Wan’s sensitive, sincere approach to character and paranormal storytelling elevates The Conjouring into something that leaves you with a beating, compassionate heart long after you’ve exorcized its jolts and chills out of your system. And this summer, that’s saying a lot.
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.” 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.
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.”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.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?”), 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), 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.
 Plato,and John Ferguson. Plato: Republic. London: Methuen, 1957. Print.
 Baumbach,Nico. “All That Heaven Allows.” Film Comment Mar. 2012: 49.Web. 25 Apr. 2013
 Allen,Richard, and Murray Smith. “Introduction.” Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. 2-3. Print.
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.
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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
 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
 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/
 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>.
 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.
 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.
 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/
 Kael, Pauline. “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” Pg. 356.
 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>.