Politics and aesthetics (or, being a wanker even when I don’t want to be)

12/06/2017 § Leave a comment

As someone trained in the discipline of arts and humanities, I find that it’s sometimes difficult to turn off the way of thinking I’ve cultivated since studying critical theory. I need to remind myself that what I believe to be the generally accepted notion of the inextricable link between art and politics is something that most people dismiss as a matter of opinion – or worse, just a case of “over-reading.”

In hindsight, when I was an undergraduate, I must have been a total wanker to my non-arts and humanities friends (read: business and economics, or some other more ‘valid’ disciplines). And I know I can come off as a wanker even now, which is why I make sure I don’t read too much into things that I encounter on a daily basis. I don’t talk about every fucking Hollywood movie in terms of the culture industry, for example. Or I don’t talk about the global capitalist workings behind, say, the iconography of Kim Kardashian even when I think it – because in most cases, I know that it is unnecessarily alienating and even counter-productive. Besides, I enjoy Hollywood films, and I can’t escape the Kardashians. In everyday life, I don’t think of the politics and philosophy behind social media when I’m mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed, or I try not think too much of the banality of technology whenever I find myself spending too much time on my phone.

I consciously do not namedrop or theory-drop when engaged in conversations outside of academic spaces (e.g. the classroom, a conference, people from the same discipline) – because I absolutely detest academics who think they are the most intelligent people in a room full of non-academics, just because they think they understand Lacan. And I don’t use the word postmodern to describe the most recent movie I’ve seen, because anyone who uses the word postmodern un-ironically in everyday conversations is definitely a wanker. I don’t hate academic talk, and I love theory, but I abhor A&H academics who think that everyone else in the world who doesn’t know what ideology means is languishing in ignorance.

Having said all that I have so far, I also think that studying critical theory gives someone a bit more leverage in terms of having access to frameworks that provide the language to approach certain subjects. Critical theory gives us access to tools for analysis, or concepts that can help us break down elements of a work of art for a more comprehensive understanding. And most importantly, I think critical theory helps us think of how to approach works of art from different perspectives, and to determine which of those perspectives provide the most productive lens for finding meaning in the object of interpretation. This could be through the lens of Marxism, for example, or feminism, or race theory, or all of the above and more.

My point is this – I know when to hold my tongue, but there are also instances when I think it is worth pointing out when a work of art might actually be rather problematic in terms of politics and representation. It bothers me that some people think of this as nit-picking or over-reading. Besides – I can enjoy something AND also be critical about it. This perhaps is at the heart of what’s bothering me, and what compelled this rant – the false notion that leisure and politics are mutually exclusive. And I have to admit that it is annoying and even offensive to be dismissed as someone who is prone to over-reading. As someone who is writing a fucking PhD dissertation on films, I find that this accusation extends to the value of my research, as if writing critically about films is simply a matter of over-reading.

I remain convinced that critical and cultural theories are as important as other explicitly “political” disciplines (not more, not less) – because works of art/products of culture (especially works of fiction) inform and organise the way we think just as much as any politician or manifesto can. In fact, cultural products are arguably even more powerful in this regard, because they influence us most when we are unaware. Ideologies work on the unconscious. So when we participate in practices of oppression, it might be that we are unaware we are doing this. And what critical theory can provide us with are the tools with which to surface how ideology works, and how we can start subverting ideologies that reinforce existing systems of oppression.

I hate to be that wanker who feels compelled to say art is not just art, but it needs reiterating: the things we enjoy, and the very notion of enjoyment itself, is a product of the social times we live in.

Now back to regular programming.

It’s been a while

05/06/2017 § Leave a comment

It’s been a while since
I felt like I were teetering
on the edge of something.
I am not going mad
but I’m standing right outside
the mouth of a familiar cave
that echoes all my secrets.
I am tempted to step inside
because I’m not quite sure
which of my secrets are luring me in,
exactly. Sometimes I know them
all too well, but most days I forget.
I’m not all too afraid of finding out; but I’m afraid
I will be found out — not that I have anything
to hide.

I’m told this is what trauma
does to you, it rewrites your memory
so you’re not even sure what it is
that you’ve hidden in your cave.
And you’re afraid you’re the only one
who is not in on the secret. There’s a voice
in your ear who says: “They know.
Everybody knows you are pretending.”
It comes and goes, I don’t hear it most days,
to be honest, which is why I’m worried
when it starts. Stop it, woman,
you are far too old for these hysterics.
Remember the world does not owe you anything;
and you do not owe the world, other than those whom you love;
and  those who love you enough to not make you grovel for attention,
or take it against you when you need to fold in on yourself
for a little while.

So this is what you tell yourself:
Stop imagining that the ones you love
are always on the verge
of walking away.
You have to be okay
with the truth that
you are enough,
and you have to believe it.
Don’t be a fucking bore
or a melancholy bastard,
and most of all,
and don’t apologise
for not being either.

 

Dear Felicity

08/04/2017 § Leave a comment

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I rewatched the first episode of Felicity for the nth time just because. Still one of my faves. It’s odd that even as I’m turning thirty-two, I can still pretty much relate to her feelings of uncertainty when she decides to stay in New York. Especially now that I need to think more seriously about what lies ahead. Anyway. Here’s Sally with her words of wisdom:

Dear Felicity,

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you. It’s been a real struggle in Santa Fe. I guess when your heart gets broken you sort of start to see the cracks in everything.

I’m convinced that tragedy wants to harden us, and that our mission is to never let it. Two weeks ago I was going to move again. I was all packed, I was going to start all over somewhere new.

That morning I received your first tape from college. I just sat there in my little apartment, listening to your voice, crying like a baby. Suddenly, you were tutoring me.

I guess I’m learning little by little that we decide what our lives are going to be. Things happen to us but it’s our reactions that matter. I just want you to know, you’ve made a really great choice. And I can’t wait to hear what happens.

Paterson (2016)

13/03/2017 § Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 9.27.22 PM“A bus driver in Paterson. This is very poetic.” – says a Japanese poet-tourist on a serendipitous encounter with the film’s namesake, Paterson (Adam Driver). It is a line that suitably sums up what Jim Jarmusch’s latest film attempts to map as Paterson drives through and around the city he was born in. The city is a poem, and whoever knows its streets by heart is able to see and hear poetry at every turn.

The film compresses time and space in its weeklong narrative that establishes the routine that Paterson lives by. Like clockwork: he wakes up next to his sleeping wife, Laura, eats a cup of cereal for breakfast, walks along the same route to work, takes his place at the driver’s seat, chats a bit with a colleague before setting off for the day. People get on and off the bus. He goes home to have dinner with Laura. Afterwards, he walks the English bulldog, Marvin, to the pub, leaves the dog at the usual spot and caps off the night with a beer. This routine is not portrayed as dreary at all; in fact, this is the life that inspires Paterson’s poetry. Paterson revels in quotidian pleasures, but not in an overtly romanticized manner.

Paterson reinforces the romantic myth of the solitary writer at the same time that it demystifies it. “A bus driver in Paterson. This is very poetic.” manages to do just that. It appeals to the false assumption that the working class wo/man would not have enough depth to appreciate poetry, the snobbiest of all forms of literature – which reminds me of a news article I came across about an Argentinian janitor, Enrique Ferrari, who writes novels. Ferrari acutely remarks:

‘”I understand that people find it surprising, but I am not a strange creature. There are lots of we laborers who write, paint or play music.”… “It is a peculiarity of capitalists and the bourgeoisie to think that we workers have no culture,” adds the novelist, whose many tattoos include one of Karl Marx on his left arm.’

Unlike Ferrari, the fictional Paterson does not seem to have any Marxist streaks, but he does takes his work seriously, just as he takes his writing seriously. It is to the film’s credit that Paterson is not portrayed as a romantic genius. He labours over his writing every single day, although not in a tortured manner. By incorporating the act of writing in Paterson’s routine, the film succeeds in allowing the creative act to unfold between the time-spaces of labour and leisure. Paterson approaches writing and driving similarly, which works to reconcile the illusory division between labour and culture. Labour produces culture, in the same way that culture produces labour.

This attempt to demystify poetry while also reinforcing its productive value as a kind of human activity runs throughout the films. Almost predictably, Paterson’s favourite author is Williams Carlos Williams – but the couple laugh together when Laura mistakenly says Carlos Williams Carlos. The poet is respected but is not revered. In a crucial, emotionally-charged scene, Paterson states matter-of-factly: “It’s okay. It’s just words.”

Paterson is contrived, yes, but it is knowingly contrived, and it’s curbed at all the right corners. A scene to watch out for is an exchange with a young girl who reads out her poetry to Paterson. “Water Falls. Two words.” (This might be my favourite scene because it’s so earnest. Fun fact: Jarmusch wrote the poem). And then there’s Marvin, the dog, as the film’s adorable villain. There are a few potentially cringe-worthy moments, I suppose, like the time an actor declares dramatically: “Without love…what reason is there for anything?” It’s also a bit hipster that Paterson doesn’t think he needs a smart phone. Most of his encounters are too serendipitous. And of course, some of Paterson’s poetry might not be to everyone’s liking, with some lines bordering on trite. But all this is tempered by the film’s overall refusal of grandeur.

Some thoughts about Laura: It took me a few minutes into the film to appreciate the film’s approach to its female character. I was worried that for all its (imagined) refusal of romanticism, the film might actually fall into the cliché of the mysterious feminine. But Laura is actually her own character whose seemingly eccentric ideas are hers to pursue, and she does so with her own bursts of creative energy. She is in some occasions Paterson’s muse, but most of the time she goes about her own joyful business throughout the day, converting the domestic space into her own space of creativity.

I am struggling to find a sinister ulterior motive behind this film, other than to pay homage to a seemingly deadbeat city that actually offers so much creative energy. Hence the references to figures that the city of Paterson can lay claim to : The Hurricane, Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams, Iggy Pop…and yes, maybe, Paterson.

Paterson is not the most accomplished film of the year, and it doesn’t pretend to be by any measure. But it’s worth watching if you need to remind yourself that there is value in the mundane, and that sometimes what feels like a huge loss can only be countered by returning to the performance of the daily grind. Paterson’s poetry lies in the simple affirmation that life, indeed, goes on.

I end with a line that will only make sense once you get around to watching Paterson: Would you rather be a fish?

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Nocturnal Animals

17/11/2016 § Leave a comment

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I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016) that’s more unsettling than the average neo-noir. In the film, Amy Adams plays a wealthy and successful NY-based art dealer who seems to be having some sort of identity crisis prompted by marriage trouble. She receives a manuscript from Edward, her ex-husband/first love played by Jake Gylenhaal, which triggers Susan’s recollections of her old life. Two stories unfold and merge as Susan begins reading the manuscript that Edward has dedicated to her. The manuscript tells the story of a brutal attack on a man, his wife, and teenage daughter on a random road trip somewhere in the middle of Texas.

Judging from the trailer I thought the film would be something along the lines of a suspense thriller, fronted by an upgraded femme-fatale embodied by the character of Amy Adams. I haven’t read the book source for Nocturnal Animals so I’m not quite sure how to evaluate the film in terms of adaptation (although I hear the source is equally gripping). But having seen and liked A Single Man (2010), Ford’s first film, I did expect to see a similar sleekness to the look and treatment of Nocturnal Animals.  I don’t take issue with the glossy aesthetics, which I think adds to the characterization of Susan as cold, fake, insincere, and materialistic. I also found the structure of the storytelling quite effective, the story-within-a-story strategy that sets a stark contrast between the artificiality of Susan’s world and the grim ‘realism’ (for lack of a better word) of the book world. But there’s something about the overall narrative that doesn’t feel quite right, which  has to do with how the characters unfold through the dialogue created by the double narrative.

Like many contemporary viewers, I have developed a relatively strong stomach for violence depicted onscreen, no thanks to the real violence of the times we live in. Existing literature on film and visual culture have already pointed to the sense of obscene pleasure that can be derived from the very act of looking, foremost being Mulvey’s notion of the male gaze projected on the “phantasy” of the female figure. There are more ways to theorise how and why we enjoy watching violence, but I am inclined to agree with the suggestion that it is because we are able to experience some degree of violence (and even partake in it) from a position of safety. This could be in the actual cinema space intended for collective viewing, or in the comfort of the living room more conducive to individual viewing.

Nocturnal Animals invites the same kind of pleasure in voyeurism in a rather literal manner, as we are made to focus our attention on Susan who becomes more and more disturbed, but also strangely excited, as she continues to read her ex-lover’s book interspersed with memories of young love (the third story, actually).  The discomfort of viewing is heightened as the road assault takes place, a chase scene that’s full of suspense because we have absolutely no idea who the villains are, the darkness of the night dramatizing that there is literally no escape. A police car is even shown to tragically speed past just to drive the point that there is absolutely no escape. What makes the assault  more horrendous is that it happened out of nowhere, for no logical reason. (The matter-of-fact, middle-of-nowhere scenes reminded me a bit of the terror conveyed in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”). The film does not, at any point, provide any explanation as to why this group of men decided to attack the family – a sentiment articulated with so much rage by the character played by Gylenhaal who tries in vain to extract an explanation from the killer. What’s suggested is simple: there is evil out there, and it can come for anyone, anytime. Even, and especially, the nice ones. The only possible explanation behind the senseless attack can be derived from reading the manuscript alongside the ‘real’ story of the film – the attack is comparable to Susan’s “brutal” manner of ending her marriage with Edward.

The violence in Nocturnal Animals cuts across all stories. What’s more, it breaks through the film screen. At par with the scenes of assault, there is a scene not in the ‘book’ story that I found extremely disturbing. Susan is looking at a video of a colleague’s baby on a phone app, when she is startled by a flash of the killer’s face on the phone screen. She drops the phone in terror. This scene is key, perhaps, to understanding what I have personally found to be the unfamiliar yet timely re/presentation of violence in Nocturnal Animals . There is something unnerving about the way the killer leers in the film as though breaking the fourth wall. The male gaze, embodied and acted upon by the killer in the diegesis, is projected not just from the position of viewers (the audience enjoying Susan’s suffering); it is simultaneously projected through and by the screen itself.

One reviewer has described Nocturnal Animals as a film that “knowingly fed the increasingly loud conversation about abusive patriarchy.” This description is linked to the notion of “toxic masculinity” – “the social normalization of misogyny and sexual aggression that can poison masculine identity, not an intrinsic male evil.” I wouldn’t go as far as accusing the film as simply pandering to this conversation that is now in fashion (Anne Hathaway used the term in an interview and has since caught on), as the film does seem to have taken pains in its portrayal of Susan’s character.  I do think, however, that the film is more successful in cultivating Edward’s rage than Susan’s crisis. One thing that perplexed me was what I thought to be the excessive rage in the story of the ‘fictional’ manuscript when read alongside the rage Edward might have felt upon the end of his marriage to Susan in the ‘real’ story. The manuscript can thus be read as Edward’s symbolic acid attack on his ex-wife who accused him of being “weak.” It is the same accusation that the killer hurls at the husband in the book which supposedly enabled the assault. It is this male rage against the accusation of weakness that Susan detected so strongly in the scenes of violence in the book, which even prompted her to call her daughter in the ‘real’ story to check on her safety.

As the film explores and enters the conversation of ‘male rage,’ I wonder if in doing so, it also succeeds in laying full blame on Susan in her depiction as someone who deserves it – which is why her humiliation in the final scene rather satisfying.The closing scene is perfectly voyeuristic in the manner of execution: Susan is in the centre of the frame in a darkly lit restaurant scene as constantly checks for Edward to walk through the doors, her gaze becoming more and more defeated in the last minute. She’s a cold-hearted, callous, ambitious woman, ‘just like her mother’ (an accusation that will make sense when you watch it) who preys on the weak man embodied by Edward. And with all the talk of ‘nasty women’ and ‘ pussy grabbing’ that has disturbingly penetrated recent feminist conversations, I wonder if in closing this way, the film is actually more dangerous than helpful in the ongoing discourse around masculinity (which, of course, is a feminist backlash).

In short, I’m wondering if the film actually justifies male rage rather than questions it – and I’m wondering if this is why I felt slightly unsafe walking out of the cinema after watching this film.

 

Reminder to self

11/10/2016 § Leave a comment

Channeling Joan Didion:

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weak- nesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one’s sanity becomes an object of speculation among one’s acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

Full essay here.

Fate don’t know you

03/10/2016 § Leave a comment

New music discovery on a Monday afternoon.