Monday, September 29, 2008


Paul Newman has died, and, with him, I think one of the very last of the Sixties rebels of classical Hollywood cinema. Sure, we still have some rebels around (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Terence Stamp and Malcolm MacDowell and some others are still kicking, but they're really more of the '70s generation and are generally consistently making shit--check out the trailer for the television version of Crash, starring Hopper, and you'll see what I mean...), but Newman was the last of the truly iconic rebels of film in that period. He was every bit as much to '60s filmmaking what Brando was to the '50s and what Nicholson was to the '70s: and we know all to well what happened to Brando as he aged, and Jack is perfectly content to make crap like The Bucket List, totally complacent with his star persona, leaving us to ask (as his last decent character did), "What if this is as good as it gets?"

Walter Chaw over at Film Freak Central has an excellent appreciation of Newman which isolates what was so great about him as an actor:

Paul Newman’s death is shaking. I was more personally traumatized by the death of Roy Scheider, though, and I think that it has a lot to do with my not understanding Newman until I got a little older and got ahold of Hud and The Hustler and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - all those movies where he played fags and rapists and long-time losers that facilitate their girlfriend’s rape and suicide. Hardly matinee idol stuff, but that was Newman, right? One of the two or three most beautiful people to ever flicker on that luminous scrim and choosing to play assholes and miscreants (Cool Hand Luke, Hombre, and his Lew Archer and on and on and on) – that’s integrity. His films are the tumult and displacement of the sixties; he’s the sixties. Forget about bullshit like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting - Newman was fucking steel, man, the s’truth unfiltered.
Got it nailed for Newman as an actor: I think it even holds for his later work. Even if The Road to Perdition is a little too sanctimonious for its own good, Newman exerts a kind of rakish charm that melds so perfectly with the world-weary cynicism his character embodies.

Great performance, but even greater when we consider that (at least in his public persona) Newman never seemed to succumb to that kind of cynicism himself. As many of his rebellious compatriots of '60s radicalism steadily settled into a compromise with the status quo, we saw as Newman transformed his image as the screen's favorite "assholes and miscreants" into someone who was too world-weary not to try to save the world in some small way (and, seriously, hundreds of millions of dollars donated to charity through his Newman's Own line is not exactly "some small way"). It's the perfect melding of an antiheroic politics of representation with a quietly and casually heroic politics of giving.

Roger Ebert (to whom I'm warming up--I think losing the ability to speak has somehow given him a different and interesting new perspective on how to mourn what the media do in our culture, but that's a different post altogether) writes about Newman as a star persona:

We linger on such moments because movie stars are important to us. They represent an ideal form we are deluded to think exists inside of us. Paul Newman seemed to represent the best of what we could hope for. He was handsome, yes. He had those blue eyes, yes. Helpful in making him a star, but inconsequential to his ultimate achievement. What he expressed above all was grace, and comfort within his own skin. If he had demons, he had faced them and dealt with them. Is this my fantasy? Of course. That's what movie stars represent, our fantasies. His wife, children and grandchildren knew him, and which of us would not hope to receive such a loving tribute after we're gone? ("Our father was a rare symbol of selfless humility, the last to acknowledge what he was doing was special. Intensely private, he quietly succeeded beyond measure in impacting the lives of so many with his generosity.")

What I've written about Newman's transformation across the screen from rebel with a cause to subdued defender of a cause is most certainly a fantasy, one to which I imagine many subscribe. I've grown cynical enough that this has become a very easily-deconstructible thing, but I'll let the last vestiges of my idealism shine through to mourn him a bit and check out some of those movies of his that I never saw (Hombre comes to mind).


Incidentally, I've had a weird instinct to mourn lately in a manner that has never really been a part of my personality until now. David Foster Wallace was a young-ish writer with whose works I never got the chance to acquaint myself while he was alive, and now I'm tearing (slowly) through Infinite Jest.... There's sure to be a post about the work of mourning in culture coming up soon, but for now I have to perform that work myself in a more private manner.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"The Dude abides": The Big Lebowski and Politics as Tragic Farce

David Haglund over at Slate just posted a fascinating piece unpacking some of the contemporary political resonances that The Big Lebowski raises today. I have to admit, it was a ballsy choice to publish an article about a cult farce on Sept. 11, but it struck a chord in me in a way that nothing else on the net did yesterday, seven years after (or is it into) the national trauma that 9/11 marked. (Honestly, I didn't even see much online to mark the occasion, other than a few article-of-the-day postings on Wikipedia--perhaps it's because I look mostly at media sites... Although I did find the bottom paragraph of Jim Emerson's post strangely affecting also...). This has always been seen as the fluffiest of the brothers Coen's fluff pieces, a strange genre exercise that views film noir through a marijuana haze.

But I also think it was an effective choice. I have to admit that I never caught the political commentary that seems to frame the film the first (few) time(s) I saw it: George Bush's speech to open the film as The Dude chooses his Half-n-Half, Walter's comments about the "camel-fuckers in Iraq," etc. It's something that creeps up on you as you re-visit the film, and, I would argue along with Haglund, it only creeps up on you because of its nostalgic retrospective lens. Walter is a neo-con before the term even existed, Haglund suggests, and The Dude's pacifism is the yin to Walter's yang. There's a genuine sweetness in the relationship, an intimation of intimacy among folks so politically divided, a friendliness among the hawk, the dove, and the guy who is constantly "out of [his] element" and who doesn't fit neatly into the prescribed labels of red-state and blue-state. Haglund writes:

This gentle, comic conclusion came to mind while I watched the Coen brothers' new farce, Burn After Reading, which revolves around the misplaced memoirs of an ex-CIA analyst. The new film is a similarly sharp satire of American life, and there are parallels with the Lebowski plot: a greedy attempt at extortion, multiple schemes incompetently botched. The contrast in tone, though, is stark. There's no real friendship in the world of Burn After Reading, there's even less heroism, and paranoia abounds. No one mentions 9/11 or the war in Iraq, but these characters, like their audience, are living in a darker world. The cult of Lebowski, I've begun to suspect, has more than a little nostalgia in it—for a decade when one could poke brilliant fun at the national disposition and the stakes didn't feel so high.

I think it's a great reading of the film, but, more importantly, I think it articulates something deeper about how we relate to media, and particularly to representations of politics within the everyday (as crazy as the everyday in this film is). Haglund notes that the cult of Lebowski has a certain nostalgia for simpler times at the heart of it, but I would suggest that equally important to the nostalgia is the work of mourning that we perform as we watch something like this. I'm reminded of Marx's dictum that history happens first as tragedy and is repeated as farce, but this film seems to suggest that the reverse can be true as well. It would be reductive to suggest that the politics worked themselves on a completely passively ignorant audience when the film was first distributed, but I do think that there's a certain sadness in seeing the politics of it now that wasn't necessarily as present as it is when watching the movie today. The film itself even seems to anticipate this trajectory from farce to tragedy, as it manages to kill off the most likable character in the most over-the-top confrontation in the film. But the film also seems to contain that, to reign it in in a way that history can't, as the Cowboy slowly intones in his comforting drawl that he himself takes comfort from the fact that "The Dude abides."

But in this historical repetition--the repetition whereby we watch a film from two different vantage points, and the repetition that allows us to see Lebowski's Iraq I in the context of Iraq II--to what does The Dude abide? Seemingly, the answer is the intensity of affect that flows personally and politically from one moment to the next. Walter may be an overt neo-con avant la lettre, but The Dude is the one who finds the truth with his gut, the one who in the end realizes that the solution to the mystery really means nothing but its truthiness. He's a desiring-machine--caring only about sensations, like the movement of bowling, or being high, or finding a rug that nebulously "ties the whole room together"--who (despite a politically Leftist past) cannot connect to any politics in the present, but this only makes him resonate more tragic-comically as we move from one political moment to the next. He becomes a better signifier for the kinds of tragedy we live out in our less innocent world today.

I will say, every time I get stressed (and this is definitely true of several of my friends), my first instinct is to watch The Big Lebowski, to find solace in its utter silliness. The experience (for me at least) is becoming more and more bittersweet to me over the years, and this perhaps points to one reason why.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Triumphant Return to the Blog: Palin and Wikipedia

So it seems that my "brief" break turned into the entire summer. This is probably normal in the academic calendar of blogging, and it was amplified to a large extent by my exam reading. Well, I'm happy to report that the written portion of my exams are complete, and with the return to school this week, I now have more of an obligation to be tapped in to the world outside my own head. Hopefully regular updates will ensue.

In that spirit, a return to the kinds and quality of scandal that media can generate (and to which media can respond) these days with a word on a story that broke yesterday about Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. No, I'm not referring to her pregnant teenage daughter. I'm referring to the quality of information that is circulating on the net about her. The International Herald Tribune reported yesterday that a single Wikipedia user made massive edits to Palin's Wikipedia profile ... exactly one day before the announcement that she was chosen as McCain's running-mate. The user later revealed him/herself anonymously as a volunteer in the McCain campaign. Noam Cohen reports of this semi-scandal:
While ethically suspect, the idea that a politician would try to shape her Wikipedia article should not come as a surprise. In modern politics, where the struggle is to "define" yourself before your opponent "defines" you, Wikipedia has become an important part of political strategy.
I find this situation incredibly problematic for a number of reasons. Theorists such as Henry Jenkins (in his book Convergence Culture, among other articles) have lauded Wikipedia as a potential source for the democratization of knowledge, the formation of a "knowledge community." Moreover, such genuine communities were unable to be formed without the technologies provided by Wikipedia's Web 2.0 interface, which allows all users to continually edit one another's work in order to create the best possible knowledge. The interface also provides several tools to track any changes made to individual entries over time, tools that some idealists ironically find to be overly authoritarian, potentially limiting the kinds of changes that can be made to knowledge over time.

And yet, this is an instance in which timing is clearly everything. The linked article above reports that another regular happened to be editing the entry at the same time, and was thus able to neutralize some of the more overtly partisan language in the first user's edits. Some might see this as a vindication of the kind of communal construction of knowledge that Jenkins rhapsodizes about, or, at least, as an instance of the kinds of small transformations in the interface that allow it to produce what Alan Liu describes (in a lecture given at Indiana University last Spring semester) as "good enough knowledge."

However, I see it as something of a cautionary tale that the way in which we frame discussions about Wikipedia and other "convergence" media has veered too far in the direction of posing epistemological questions without proper consideration of the larger political commitments embedded in the kinds and qualities of knowledge that we choose to valorize. Along with Rick Johnston, I have argued recently (in an article to be published in a forthcoming volume about South Park and culture) that a consistent fallback position in recent years for conservatives is an appeal to a perfect end justified by a knowledge that "feels" right: what Stephen Colbert calls "truthiness" has the consequence of generating a kind of affective knowledge that is deployed more often than not for culturally and politically conservative ends. The problem here is that so many of us forget that Colbert is not calling for a return to a crude rationalism: his focus is less on "facts" than on how such constructions are mediated in politics, the press, and popular culture in general. In other words, because of the focus on "fact" that inevitably becomes entwined with conversations about "good enough knowledge"--because of the focus on accuracy--we forget to examine how such knowledges--whether "good enough" or even "best"--are deployed culturally for specific political purposes.

This instance shows yet again the lesson the Left should have learned a long time ago: that the political Right is better equipped to deploy knowledge in an effective manner. Certainly, we know that a single user added thirty entirely positive edits to the post (and we know this, ironically, because of those very tools that at first glance seem to be most authoritarian and controlling), but the damage was already done: as the above article reports, there were 2.4 million views of Palin's entry the day her candidacy was announced, and the knowledge that those millions viewed was coded in a politically partisan manner.

While knowledge communities in web environments like Wikipedia may prove a potential forum for contesting the kinds of knowledge that count as "good enough," it also proves a forum over which the political implications of these contested knowledges are also fought. In some ways, this is a reminder of the kind of "control society" that Gilles Deleuze describes, in which the breakdown of a central authority over discourses results in the continual and instantaneous political control over knowledge from multiple vantage points. Rather than becoming "disciplined" into objective fact for specific ideological purposes, knowledge is affectively controlled in a constant ideological contestation. Such control society thus certainly poses the possibilities for the kinds of utopian promise Jenkins sees, but, as in this case, it also offers the possibilities for more indirect and anonymous control in the constant battle to curry ideological favor. There was some corrective in this case, but just imagine if the knowledge under question was something more important than the "definition" of Alaska's governor....