Thursday, January 31, 2008

Boyl-ing It All Down: A Manifesto on the Purpose of Film (and other awful puns)

I've written before about some problems in Danny Boyle's films. But I finally got around to seeing Sunshine the other day, and it's becoming increasingly clear that his films aren't reductive to a fault out of his love for striking images that might seem to prevent any real point. After all, the list of filmmakers who compose genuinely moving images (going back to the original spirit that seemed to haunt the "movies") while loading them with genuinely disturbing social or political or philosophical or spiritual content is too enormous to list here (although, it could possibly be the subject of another post in the future).

No, at this point I have to admit that Boyle's endearingly stupid films are really the symptom of a genuinely consistent philosophy of film. One that he seems to genuinely believe in whole-heartedly. One which, as should by now be obvious, leaves me with serious reservations.

In 28 days later... Boyle crafted a patchwork film out of genre fare. Nearly every element from the most iconic zombie films were there. Even the plot itself, while re-tooling the basic premise by turning the "living dead" into the "infected," borrowed the first act from The Omega Man and the final two from Day of the Dead. One could call the film an "experiment" in digital filmmaking, but the entire piece was often breathtakingly and terrifyingly beautiful, borrowing the most iconic images from those previously iconic films and refreshing them with a pixelized, high-contrast sheen. Such a gloss seemed to permeate the entire narrative as well, as the film rolled along through the greatest hits of 1970s and 80s zombie cinema to give something like a striking Power Point presentation of the different kinds of violence humans can inflict on one another.

"Gloss" turns out to be the perfect word to describe the film, both in cinematic and narrative terms. "Gloss" not only in the sense of the sleekness of its chilly photography, but also in the sense that the film ultimately feels like a paraphrase of those previous films that ultimately seems to misinterpret the social point that they were attempting in the first place. After all, what impact can the image of a lone survivor of disaster wandering through the lonely streets of an empty metropolis have when it's divorced from the context in which that image first emerged, that is, the insanely reactionary, gun-toting Messianic image of Charlton Heston navigating the malaise of a society torn between "quiet Americans" like Heston and the radicals sick of Vietnam? And how is a viewer to understand the escape of a chained-up zombie who leads a violent revolt against a military compound when divorced from the image of Bub leading a very different group of "quiet Americans" in a violent protest against Reagan's militarism?

These aren't reinventions of those moments, replacing the politics of previously-loaded images with differently-loaded images. In the interviews with him that I've read, he seems to be fairly clear on the fact that the film isn't meant to be a palimpsestic adaptation of those sources: it is supposed to be an attempt to evacuate those sources of political valences that he may have felt were too specific on a particular moment. Those two moments, after all, have conflicting political projects in their original manifestations, but they are used here for the same political message. It was a deliberate casting away from the particular in favor of what he perceives as the "universal", a kind of idealistic humanism which is most concerned with what kinds of good and bad the individual is capable of performing. A philosophy of man on screen which forces "man" to confront "his" basest nature and conquer it by turning the violence of the individual against itself.

And so we now have Sunshine, which gives us virtually an identical message (Alex Garland scripted both, and I suspect that if I were to revisit The Beach I would find exactly the same message posed in exactly the same universalizing terms). And this time Boyle cannibalizes some of the greatest sci-fi films of all time, evacuating each and every one of them of their larger philosophical and socio-political implications in favor of a message that "Boyles" down to: "Some people have the capacity to kill humanity, while others have the strength to save it." Present are unimaginatively gorgeous and thrilling formal renderings of classic sci-fi images: a circular space station creating an eclipse with the sun; a group of astronauts floating through the vacuum of space in an attempt to re-enter a wounded ship; and a killer obscured by the properties of space vowing to bring an end to all life. Gone, however, are Solaris's post-WWII ruminations on how our collective memories become a material reality that we sometimes have to kill; 2001's obsessive fear of our own ingenuity turning against us; and even Alien's horror at how the biological imperative to kill could be exploited by global corporations.

The problem is not that the films were released outside of the "original" contexts of those films. The problem is that Boyle's aesthetics is precisely an "aesthetics" in the late-19th-century connotations of that term: a terrifying "sublime" under which any material social concerns at all are sublimated. The films have a political thesis, but that thesis is in a very real sense a metaphor with no referent, nothing grounding the loaded images in the very loaded contexts of how these concerns about violence operate today. This philosophy about the function of film has the same problems of which cultural critics of all kinds (popular and academic) are often accused: a disengagement with the real world in favor of masturbatory pursuits.

Personally, I find such vain pursuits at getting to the core of "humanity" counter-productive, misguided, and downright insulting when critics attempt it, and I find it no less of a problem when such pursuits fall under the purview of "art." Film is meant to engage us on a social level somehow, not on a personal level (no one really started talking about the "individual" experience of film until the 1960s or 70s, when psychoanalysis, with its own attempts to universalize the audience perversely by looking at individual film experience, took its hold in film criticism and hasn't let go. We can see this kind of criticism persist all the time popularly, most often with the "thumbs up" mentality that seems to dictate how we approach media nowadays). Some of the most sophisticated and explosive theory about film has been about its relationship to a collective audience, and I think that this is where film should still aim, even in the age of Netflix and iTunes. Film is meant to engage us collectively on an affective level, to drive us into some kind of action, even if it is simply to see something in a literally different way. The Boyle style of filmmaking shows us only things that we have already seen and says only things that have no real value to how we live in this very material world. He Boyles it down to essentials that are no longer essential for our survival, and I'm a little offended by it....

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Heath Ledger and the Status of a Tragic Icon

It's become something of a cliche at this point (after only a few days) to post comments about Heath Ledger's unexpected death (I almost followed another cliche and typed "untimely" until I realized how absurd that would be: is death ever really "timely"?). The most common tropes available to us at the moment point out his rapid improvement as a serious actor in the past few years, and the fact that we will never be able to know if he ever reached his full potential in his craft. And, if we follow some scholars' thinking on the subject of "tragedy" (Bryan Reynolds comes to mind), it's because of this sense of lost potential, this impossibility to know, that allows us to call his death tragic.

And yes, tragic it was. I can only join in with the chorus at the moment by pointing out how great of an actor he was, and how great of an actor he could have been had he lived. His resume is packed with wonderful performances: not just his subtle sense of longing in the oft-cited Brokeback Mountain (I have serious reservations about the film as a whole, and I find it hard to see good performances in films I don't like), but in a number of other films that I find more interesting and fun (his charismatic, charming, energetic, funny, slightly sadistic, very over-the-top but not off-the-deep-end turn as Patrick/Petrucchio in 10 Things I Hate about You has been on my mind for the past few days, as has his charming heroism in A Knight's Tale).

But in this tragic tale of lost potential, I think we can see the birth of a genuine icon. I don't want to sound like the increasingly Tom-Cruise-crazy-sounding John Travolta on this one, but Ledger has the potential to become this generation's James Dean. Scholars have pondered at length about what it means to become an iconic figure (Matt Hills's highly problematic interpretation of icons in his book Fan Cultures is worth reading), but they always seem to think of this question in retrospect, in the way that a celebrity is retroactively turned into an icon after his/her death. They rarely talk about the process through which this occurs, and I think we're seeing it with Ledger right now. In thinking of a few other icons as examples, we can safely say that there was a cult of Marilyn during her life, but I suspect that there wasn't with someone like James Dean. And I can't recall anyone calling Kurt Cobain the "voice of a generation" until after his own tragic death. This seems to be the case for Ledger as well: I can recall the angry message boards for The Dark Knight questioning whether he was the right actor for the role of the Joker, and, truth be told, I had my own doubts until I saw the first photos. That doubt seems to be effaced now, as if we have collectively decided to incorporate any problems with his life and his work into the overall image of Heath Ledger as icon.

I, for one, am pleased with the development, and I take it as small consolation right now that his work will be remembered even more now than it might have been had he lived longer.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Viral Marketing and Agency

Over at the Online Fandom blog, Nancy Baym discusses a recent article in Science News that reframes the terms of an ongoing public debate about how "social influence" works. She quotes this portion of the article:

More important than the influencers, the researchers found, were the influenced. Once an idea spread to a critical mass of easily influenced individuals, it took hold and continued to spread to other easily influenced individuals. In some networks, it was far easier to get an idea established this way than in others. The entire structure of the network mattered, not just the few influential people. Dodds compares the spread of ideas to the spread of a forest fire. When a fire turns into a conflagration, no one says that it was because the spark that began it was so potent. “If it had been raining,” Dodds says, “that same match wouldn’t have had an effect.” Instead, a fire takes off because of the properties of the larger forest environment: the dryness, the density, the wind, the temperature.

The upshot of the study, Dodds says, is that “in the end, you don’t have control over how people spread your message.” The best way to increase the odds of person-to-person transmission of an idea is to make it a good idea and to give it “social worth,” he says. “Some things are just fun to talk about."

I've done some work on viral marketing in the past, and this article simply confirms some of the theories I've had about it for some time. Many naysayers, even normally incredibly astute social commentators such as Steven Shaviro, for instance, focus on the ways in which viral marketing and other similar gambits which use a model of social influence allow corporations to turn you "into their shill."  This is probably because most of the people who actually theorize the ways in which ideas move across networks of different kinds of populations are generally advertising experts who are using this precisely to sell products.  This question of the "social worth" of the idea being spread adds an entirely new dimension to this equation, though, one which people like Malcolm Gladwell have been on top of for a while now.  And while even the more socially responsible theories of social influence are a bit reductive, this should still open up a space for us to discuss agency and power in vastly different terms than we have been.  If we continue to use the forest fire metaphor, where then does the agency lie: with the trees or with the fire?  The metaphor is a bit unwieldy because it implies a natural and even necessary chemical reaction to take place here (if there is kindling and oxygen, after all, the fire will spread), but it is instructive to ask ourselves whether agency and power in this new kind of social dynamic (the dynamic of networks) exists somewhere outside of people and institutions themselves, somewhere in the affect which catalyzes the spread of the idea through a population.  This certainly requires a very counter-intuitive kind of politics, but it is definitely one that we must adapt to on some level, at least in certain cases.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Politics of "Guilty" Pleasures

On the first day of class yesterday, I asked my students as an icebreaker (as I've been doing for years) what their guilty pleasures were: movies, songs, bands, television shows, any mediated object they are embarassed to admit that they love. Sad to say, but this is really the first time in which I've actually contemplated the implications of precisely what a "guilty pleasure" actually is.

Pleasure and affect are hot topics right now in media theory after a long period in which criticism misguidedly (but understandably in terms of the political climate) attempted to construct a politics of media that is divorced from questions of pleasure and affect. But the social "guilt" we commonly associate with our fondest pleasures doesn't, to my knowledge, get investigated all that often (the MLA online database only notes 17 entries which use the term, and they all seem to do so uncritically--this is, however, a very cursory search). But this seems to be a defining aspect of our taste culture in general and how we define "pleasure" through questions of quality and social expectations. "Guilt" necessarily implies a kind of law that is imposed on pleasure from the outside of our discourse about pleasure itself: these laws are determined to a large extent by popular criticism of these media artifacts and by the kinds of expectations that we as a culture impose for certain kinds of objects and certain kinds of audiences. The guilty pleasure seems to be something of a missing link in that all-too-present question of how our critical discourse and vocabulary (popular and academic) in part define and to an even larger extent reinforce what and how people enjoy the things that they do. (It is especially disconcerting that the question has not really arisen that forcefully in fan studies, in which the types of objects audience choose to invest in affectively are under scrutiny.)

The examples provided by my students seem instructive here (and, incidentally, this is just a reminder that we should always be ready to learn from our students). Some of the examples and the responses provoked by the rest of the class were explicit references to questions of the quality of the object (perceived trash television like A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, for instance, or another student's love for the film Elizabethtown, a movie he noted was hated by critics), while others clearly were directed to questions of their investment as the "right" type of audience, based on age ("Disney movies" as a category came up in both classes), maturity (the Spice Girls and late '90s boy bands came up in both classes), gender (a male in each class cited favorite movie The Notebook, while another cited Ever After), and race (some white students emphasized this aspect when they referred to "thug" music or "hardcore gangster rap"--an especially odd "guilty" pleasure since white suburban kids are statistically the most likely consumers of hip-hop culture). In some ways, the instances of the latter pleasure are a kind of performed drag, in which people who totally own their own pleasure performatively disavow how they impersonate the "proper" audience for these objects. But the drag in still something of a defensive posture to take against social forces (including my own authority as instructor) which label their pleasures as "bad."

We see this happen in reverse all the time, as well. In my own studies of Shakespearean fandom, for instance, I see something like the exact opposite of what we find in the narratives these students have constructed around their guilty pleasures. The opposite of "guilty," but not exactly synonymous with "proper" either. Many self-professed Shakespeare fans, for instance, are invoking an object that could not be more acceptable as an object for their pleasure. And yet, they continually announce themselves as alienated from their peers (a common thread being, "I thought I was the only one who got it"), noting the effects of their affect in a manner similar to those who discuss guilty pleasures. Shakespeare is an acceptable object, but it is precisely their performance of themselves that makes it seem as though they are taking pleasure in something that is outside the norm. While those who invoke their guilty pleasures are implicitly appealing to the alienating effects of a law governed by a variety of social circumstances, those who are Shakespeare fans seem to be performing the law themselves and, in doing so, constructing it altogether. In this sense, the kind of "class drag" these Shakespeare fans perform through is in some sense a defensive pose against the perceived lack of social/cultural laws governing the quality of Shakespeare as an object. In any case, it's all very strange and needs a great deal of further elaboration.