Emma Got Butts


The new Emma film, by Autumn de Wilde, is notable for its two butts. As the first is Mr. Knightley’s, and the second Emma’s, we can take the narrative — to paraphrase a social media comment from Louise D’Arcens (for whose review, see here) — as one designed to bring the butts together.

First, Mr. Knightley’s. He has arrived at the Woodhouse estate, damp and perhaps a little muddy from his trip, so, before joining Woodhouse père et fille by the fire, he has a manservant strip him naked, and then redress him tight in clean clothes. During the operation, facing the camera, we gaze upon his naked body, including his alabaster, hairless butt.

Emma’s butt is offered obliquely. She’s cold, one presumes, because she’s seen hiking the rear drapery of her dress up to her hips before the fire, so that her cheeks might bask merrily in its warmth.

It would be easy to take these two butts as just a bit of earthy humor in a story not exactly famous for its earthiness. It would be clever to take the butts, as I did on twitter the same evening I saw the film, as an allusion to Yoko Ono’s 1966-67 Film No. 4 (h/t Maya Weimer for turning me on to this). Her film’s title comes from the four segments formed by a butt as it walks: left cheek, right cheek, upper left thigh, upper right thigh, with a horizontal and vertical line dividing each. Unless you’re the Old Woman of Candide, who tragically lost one buttock to Ottoman Janissaries, same for you, same for me. Butts are an abstract, structural configuration, and, in this Emma, so very much a film by a photographer, abstract structural configurations are the order of the day.

yoko ono

still from Yoko Ono, Film No. 4

It would be correct, though, to take the butts amid the various neo-classical and perhaps actual classical statuary the film offers us, and also as part of the great cultural tendency to disdain hairiness as declassé.

First, the statuary: the characters, especially the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley, swoon or brood or flop through long hallways decorated with white marble figures, mostly busts. These aren’t butts, of course — indeed, the bust might be thought of precisely as the least em-butted of representations, removing the head as it does from the nearly the whole digestive apparatus — while the one full-bodied marble statue the film offers us does not, if my memory serves me, offer the camera its butt (it resembles, incidentally, Randolph Rogers’ The Lost Pleiad).


The smooth white marble does, however, match the smooth whiteness of Mr. Knightley’s and Emma’s skin. His back and butt and even his legs are hairless, his skin an undulating winter tundra. Emma’s legs and cheeks’ silhouette are, no surprise, also hairless. They are their statues come to life, but not too lively a life. For a long hairless marble-like leg is poised, skin and body comme il faut, nude perhaps, but not caught out in it.

I’d see Bean Pole just a few days before Emma — hence my need to assuage my bruised brain with Emma — and now that’s a film crawling with hairy skin, men and women alike: stubble, armpits, pubic hair, it’s all there. Leningrad’s a mess, and so is its skin.

Not so in this Austen film, and no surprise. Because hairy skin is unruly. Hairy skin is a reminder of the constant labor needed to keep the barbarians out of sight. Bare skin is an “mown lawn,” to recall Lydia Davis’s piece of the same name:

“Lawn [writes Davis] also contained the letters of law. In fact, lawn was a contraction of lawman. Certainly a lawman could and did mow a lawn. Law and order could be seen as starting from lawn order, valued by so many Americans. More lawn could be made using a lawn mower. A lawn mower did make more lawn. More lawn was a contraction of more lawmen. Did more lawn in America make more lawmen in America?”

American lawmen, as I hope we all know by now, have their origins in the maintenance of slavery. Their training and expansion has to do, as you know if you’ve read Stuart Schrader’s Badges without Borders, the maintenance of American empire.

And behind the smooth hairlessness of an Austen film is its hairy side, the sources of its wealth. Indeed, when we see the paintings of Mr. Knightley’s ancestors in his estate, they’re of his 17th-century ancestors, of the period just at the beginning — or, we might say, just slightly before — of England’s massive investment in transatlanic slavery.

Austen films generally have a difficult time talking about this source of wealth, with the exception of Patricia Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park. Shockingly, you can buy Tom Bertram’s sketchbook from the film, the one depicting the horrors of slavery in Antigua: $545, and its yours. De Wilde’s film, as D’Arcens’ review observes, isn’t particularly good at talking about poverty. We might note, too, that the film leaves its notorious — and I hope needless to say — racist “Gypsy” assault of poor Harriet Smith off-screen, one suspects from a slightly guilty liberal conscience, or perhaps because including the assault would have meant leaving the lawn unmown.

For when we’re in a medieval state of mind, we unwashed and unshaven proles like to imagine that the rich are just like us, doomed to mortality and putrefaction. We like to imagine that under our clothes, particularly in a society so sartorially hierarchized as, well, any classed society, we’re all the same, an envelop of skin over layers of fat and muscle over an armature of bones. Yet in Emma, we get what’s under the clothes, and what’s under the clothes is more perfection, social grace without limit and without need of any disguise.

For in the fantasy Emma offers us, Mr. Knightley doesn’t really need to be washed and changed at all. The fantasy Emma offers us is the characters’ own fantasy of themselves. It’s fetishes all the way through. For what the scene of Knightley’s butt insists on is a hairless, mown perfection at which the hairy us, having paid our price of admission, can do nothing but gawp.

Allegorical Battles of the Sexes, Medieval and Modern

The fourteenth century reimagined for the twentieth: the war between the sexes, 2 images.

EDIT “war between men and women” is language I’m getting from here, but the obvious, yet important point, is the way that this framing of love as war papers overs the actual violence of men against women (the ‘objective’ violence of gendered relations, to use, sort of, Zizek’s language). Malle gives his conflict allegory slightly more accuracy by giving the men more powerful, more ‘official’ weapons — field artillery (surely a signal of their political, economic, etc power) — but, as in the Middle Ages, the allegory obscures more than clarifies.

Louis Malle, BLACK MOON, executing prisoners

(thanks Alison Kinney for demanding a clarification for this post – any mistakes in thought are my own!)

3 Brief Points on Mad Max: Fury Road


Three brief points on Mad Max: Fury Road:

    • Joss Whedon, I understand, has something of a reputation as a feminist, but, never having watched Buffy or Firefly or Serenity, I know him primarily as one of several directors of superhero films: and whatever feminist reputation he has, he’s been coasting on itAvengers 2 has two major emotional beats to make the characters — gods, supergeniuses, and professional killers — “relatable” to an audience not comprising same – the perfect house in the country with the perfect kids and the perfect wife, waiting Dorigen-like, while her husband adventures, and, then, the grand reveal of Black Widow, which is that upon her graduation from Assassin U, she was sterilized (for other opinions, see here for starters; edit, and then see this for more readings that I don’t agree with). This Focus on the Family, on its preservation and its loss, would fit neatly into any “real man, real family, do it all for your children and your wife” story. It’s garbage.

      Mad Max, BY CONTRAST (just in case you didn’t see this coming), focuses on the particular violence that women face, namely, a violence focused on their bodies and on the control of the future. Immortal Joe is immortal — he thinks, he hopes — because he controls his genetic line, his property, his self; and when the Imperator Furiosa1 runs off with his brides, one of whom is visibly pregnant, Joe shouts something about RETURNING HIS PROPERTY. His wife; his child; his future; his property, “stolen” from him by an avenging woman. Here’s a film where the man who wants his kidnapped family back is the ENEMY. The great enemy of Mad Max is, then, the enemy of reproductive rights: now that, I’d say, is a feminist narrative.

      But also, as Nicole also observed last night, what about the Milk Maids? Why weren’t they rescued too?

    • Each of the male heads of each citadel has his own infernal branding: the head of Bullettown wears a judge’s wig constructed from a packed bandolier, while the head of Gastown wears a black business suit, and complains quantitatively, like a capitalist, about the waste of resources in the hunt for Joe’s brood and breeders. If the capitalist master in Snowpiercer is sleek, a gadget-head, well-fed, cosmopolitan, and the head of a conspiracy, with everything arranged well in advance, the capitalist in Mad Max is a properly horrifying figure of the erotic core of capitalism, and of the corporeal excesses of biopolitics rather than the neatness of the sovereign: his suit has been cut out to expose his nipples, which he rubs often as he grouses about the hunt. Like the Wife of Bath, he knows that the trade in money and the trade in bodies is also a trade in desire. There’s nothing attractive here; it’s just attraction itself.
    • Last point: on this (late) morning’s run, I suggested to Alison that Mad Max is a far superior film to Snowpiercer, and she pointed out the “I would have thought this was obvious” (her words) point, which is that Snowpiercer is at least organized around the rescue of a black child. Among the set of White Action Films, here we have one, at least, which argues that Black Lives Matter.

For further thoughts on feminism and Mad Max, see David Perry’s review here. And, edit, now also see Samuel Delany’s essential fb quick review.

1. (whose mixed-gender name may deserve its own unpacking [a point inspired by a comment on the need for Imperatrix Furiosa somewhere in this comment thread)

Sontag, Star Wars, and Scott – A squib on neo-fascist aesthetics

In 1974, in “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag wrote:

Triumph of the Will and Olympia are undoubtedly superb films {they may be the two greatest documentaries ever made) , but they are not reaily important in the history of cinema as an art form. Nobody making films today ailudes to Riefenstahl, while many filmmakers ( including myself) regard Dziga Vertov as an inexhaustible provocation and source of ideas about film language.

Funny that she didn’t revise this when it was reprinted in 1980, in Under the Sign of Saturn.

An example:


which might be compared to:


In the 1990s, we can compare this:


to just about any shot from Ridley Scott’s White Squall (1996)

6106_5We can compare all of this to Cate Shortland’s Lore (2013), which loves the tiny, the slow, the individual, and hands in contact:

Screen-Shot-2013-02-10-at-9.03.11-PMWe might accuse this of being apolitical — our Lore is, after all, a Nazi, and the daughter of an SS officer — but we can take this antimonumentality as a resistance to fascist aesthetics, without its dreams of heroism, redemptive sacrifice, being the “chosen one,” and surviving NATURE by succumbing to some mystical master. Bravo.

Gritty Realism, Snowpiercer, and the Tedious Trauma of the Real

CaptureIf you read Zizek, you know this bit as well as you know the wheelbarrow joke. Here’s evidence of our pathetic attempt to elude the traumatic kernel of the Real. We need to know that the pleasure will always come with filth; that the neighbor will never not be in some way annoying; that dreams of purity, happiness, and unmediated delight are sick frauds, liberal dreams just this side of fascism.

For Zizek, maybe, the worst of these fantasies is the fantasy of capitalism without excess. The Nazis wanted just that, blaming the Jews for the structural unpleasantness of business. The fascist, eschatological dream is the dream of a culture without disharmony, a state without excess, money without suffering, life without rot.

It’s an attractive argument, if Zizek’s celebrity is any guide, and attractive because it’s so very portable. We on the left like it because it’s an argument against fantasies of wholeness. If the Real always sticks to our shoe, then there’s no way to get that pure, happy small town world that, say, “The Christmas Shoes” loves. There’s no chance at kitsch.

But it’s also just this side of “you have to break eggs to make an omelette” authenticity of gritty realism. Gritty realism is a wonderful antidote for people — men especially, comfortable men especially especially — who feel that they’re leading too soft a life. That dream of coming into contact with the harsh truth of things, and living through it, is the core of most “Last Man” fantasies (from End of Grass to The Road to The Dog Stars); but it’s also the core of living in this capitalist world and constantly going on about a grimness that the comfortable man himself perpetuates. The gritty realist believes himself to be living without illusions, bedding down with the Real, facing things “as they really are.” The gritty realist indulges in guilt for the sake of honesty and in honesty for the sake of itself. There’s no goal,  no hope or plan of change, because that hope is, of course, false. Gritty realism is knowing something as true and, because it’s true, just continuing to live with it, so that perpetuating the status quo becomes a virtue.

They’re the ones who don’t walk away from Omelas.

So, let’s take the ending of Snowpiercer, which, you know, spoilers. Wilford plays the standard world-weary sophisticate who functions as the villain and object of desire in so many contemporary actioners (see also Loki or, uh, Paradise Lost), there to offer Real Power, but only if its recipient acknowledges the traumatic kernel of the Real. In fact, he’s selling gritty realism to the gritty Real itself (Curtis, played by Chris(t) Evans), the baby-eating filth from the back of the car, there to stain the smooth workings of the machine; but Wilford out-reals the Real by telling Curtis why he needs children to keep the machine running: without this continual sacrifice of children, there’s no future for humanity. We have to keep bringing them forward and using them up. It’s gritty Reproductive futurity, the dialectical reversal of the tyrannical child, so that they become slaves to our own stupid desire to survive.

Curtis says no. He sacrifices his arm, and then his whole self, colluding in the (accidental?) destruction of the train, leaving only Yona (Go Ah-sung) and Timmy (Marcanthonee Reis) alive, there, in the mountains, in a world that’s gradually thawing, probably on the verge of either starving or being eaten, either by each other or the polar bear (see also this crap post).

The choice seems to be to go along with the train or to walk away into nothing, because anything else would try to elude the traumatic kernel of the Real.

But that hopeless grittiness forgets that this isn’t a closed system (EDIT: contra Aaron Bady’s excellent and as they say epic post at The New Inquiry, which I just read, where he writes “This movie takes for granted that there is no alternative, and that’s the thing we shouldn’t take seriously”). Namgoong Minsu (Song Kang-ho) knows that the earth is gradually rewarming. Maybe it’s not: the ‘frozen arm’ punishment early in the film shouldn’t have worked in a warming world. Yona and Timmy and everyone might have walked away from the train; they might have hoped on the sun and the earth’s own molten core; they might have seized control of the train, redistributed the goods and the labor, ate the resisters, and remembered that they are human, capable of making and solving problems (rotating shifts of children, perhaps?, until an engineer offered a better solution?).

I realize, of course, that Snowpiercer is a fairy tale: the absence of a llvestock car is proof enough of that. But it’s a film, that like (incorrectly read?) Zizek, elevates the Real to the position of Final Truth, demanding that we get with the trauma if we want to live at all.

Or it reminds us, faintly, that there’s more to life that the Real, but kills nearly everyone off before we see how that life might have been led.

Why I basically hated Guardians of the Galaxy

Gamora: And by the way… Your ship is filthy.

Peter Quill: Filthy? She has no idea. If we had a blacklight, it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

And that’s why I hated Guardians of the Galaxy (tweets here and here and here and here). Maybe hate’s the wrong word. I liked the talking tree. I liked Drax. I liked Gamora, though not what the film did with her. I dislike Chris Pratt’s likable face, and I’m angry at the movie, because I expected to like it.

Part of what I hate in the above: painting. As opposed to what? A breakfast? A mousepad? His caul? It’s the double beat of “Jackson Pollock’s paintings look like ejaculate” and “you do know who Jackson Pollock is,” like explaining “proboscis.” It’s a joke that simultaneously flatters and insults the audience’s intelligence. It’s pretentious, and makes anyone who laughs at it pretentious (slight pause from the crowd: “oh, Jackson Pollock, haha!”)

The other hate that quote summons up is for the everyman, likeable Chris Pratt’s character, living in a flying frathouse. Somehow semen’s gotten all over his walls. How? Maybe he lives in a flying bathhouse (if so, much better movie!). Probably, though, it happened the same way it did in a sixth-floor walkup in the Village my wife once lived in: the previous tenant just liked jerking off all over the walls. Just like any everyman. Very cool.

Actually, it was totally gross (just like this, which, if we assume Pratt isn’t playing a character, suggests there’s not a lot of air between Pratt and Quill). And what underlines the grossness here: it’s the she rather than you. He’s not talking to her. He’s talking to us. Freud, you’ll remember, explained that jokes require three parties: the butt of the joke, the repressed jackass telling the joke, and the person the joke’s being told to. Laugh at the joke, and you show your consent, Horkheimer and Adorno tell us (“oh, The Culture Industry, haha!”). Well, that she means Gamora’s not the one being addressed: she’s the butt of the joke, and that butt’s being, in essence, jizzed on (but not in a gay way, dude!), while Quill and his fellow have a chuckle, and while we’re being asked to consent, because, remember, this is a funny movie, as we’ve been told repeatedly.

The thing is, Quill’s a dipshit: as we see in his big speech (“we’re all losers! just like you!“) he’s got nothing but guts, which I guess explains why he’s constantly ejaculating. Gamora’s got more political sense; Drax likes language (and, as straight man, is much, much funnier than Quill); the tree thing’s more emotionally intelligent; and the raccoon is…well, I didn’t like the raccoon either, though at least he knew how to build a bomb (and “what’s a raccoon?” was funny).

Despite all that, or because of all that, Quill gets to be the one the movie wants us to love; he’s the one from earth, kidnapped by space rednecks straight out of a Disneyfied Blood Meridian, a novel by Cormac McCarthy about killer rednecks (“oh, Cormac McCarthy, haha!”), whose dying mom (lead with the cancer scene! that’ll make ’em care!) gave him a mixtape that makes no damned sense at all (where “The Piña Colada Song” shares space with “Moonage Daydream,” which shares space with with “Hooked on a Feeling,” which, ok, does has the happy effect of making  Resevoir Dogs retroactively uncool). And he’s a jerk, who fucks and forgets an uncountable number of girls, and who’s therefore cool and likeable?

Maybe we’re supposed to hate him and the film’s about how a fratboy grows up?

But, c’mon, you’ll remember — SPOILER — that when the purple power stone is blowing Quill apart, Gamora reaches her green hand out to him; he sees her hand, and we get, with it, a flashback to his holding his lil’ boy hand out to his dying mother’s hand. So we get an emotional superimposition of the sexy green girl (count the number of times the camera gives up a Spring Break lingering shot of her tits or ass) with the, uh, sexy dying mother. And, to make this clear, this should be enough to make a feminist barf, because it made me barf, inside my brain: the biggest emotional hook of the film, hung on our audience stand in, is his growing up by realizing that the girl he wants to fuck is also like his dying mother,  because dying women are people too.

Great! Good job, movie. The bro becomes Leader Bro. Fist bump.

My regular guy bona fides: I liked the other super hero movie I saw this summer. And lest I be accused otherwise, I like some silly movies: L’iceberg and everything else by those Belgian geniuses; Zazie dans le Metro; Die Bergkatze; The Happiness of the Katakuris; and, more obviously, Some Like It Hot. All silly; all great.

And I’m sure I could write a nice post on Groot, if it hadn’t been for that sappy bit with the flower and the little white girl.

Captain Adorno: The Winter Moralia

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a live-action Hollywoodized adaptation of Minima Moralia. You’ll remember MM for its discovery of fascism in every aspect of the postwar liberal state. In running for the bus; in the discovery of Mammoths; in advertisements for toothpaste; in the mania for holiday snapshots; in, more obviously, standing in line and in the “teachers leave that kid alone” violence of the schoolroom:

From the domestic servants and governesses tormenting upper-class children to show them what life is like, by way of the teachers from Westerwald extirpating in them, along with the use of foreign words [elsewhere: “German words of foreign derivation are the Jews of language”], all joy in language, and then the officials and employees leaving them to stand in queues, the non-commissioned officers treading on them, there is a straight line to Gestapo torturers and the bureaucrats of the gas-chambers.

Or in Human Resources or in “networking,” in the business or conference-going sense:

For the so-called man of affairs with interests to pursue, plans to realize, the people he comes into contact with are metamorphosed automatically into friends or enemies….This way of reacting…the pattern of all administration and “personnel policy,” tends of its own accord, and in advance of any education of the political will or commitment to exclusive programs, towards Fascism.

Adorno’s genius is to replace the Jew with the Fascist. For anti-Semites, Jews are the secret contagion infesting the people. The anti-Semite believes that if only the Jews could be extirpated, then the people, capitalism, the culture, etc., would thrive. As a result, he turns up Jewishness wherever he looks, not because it’s “really” there, but because nothing ever works perfectly. If, for the anti-Semite, the fault is Jews, and if fault is actually universal, then Jews are everywhere, and the task of extirpation and paranoia can never stop.

Adorno swaps in the fascist for the anti-semitic fantasy of the Jew, although–by contrast!–with just cause: the fascist praise of masculine hardness, of purity, of submitting to historical (and by extension racial or genetic) necessity, of having a good head for business, all these have real, nasty effects that really do permeate and structure all dominant society. Still, Adorno, for better or worse, replicates the same paranoiac intensity cultivated by the anti-Semite. Frankfurt style cultural critique needs to believe in the secret.

The Captain America sequel (hencefore CATWS), which I watched on the plane a couple days ago on the way back from Iceland, does the same thing. Or, since I was reading Minima Moralia as the plane climbed, that’s how I saw it.

Like most modern Action films, CATWS discovers that the “call is coming from inside the house”: the enemy is within the organization, or perhaps it’s the organization itself. See the Bourne movies, or Mission Impossible, or Iron Man. So, when CATWS’s directors present the film as a modernized version of a 70s political thriller, even going so far as to use Three Days of the Condor’s Robert Redford, CATWS is really just another witness that the 70s political thriller is the modern narrative, but purged of that genre’s pessimism. Because its hero lives, the modern thriller holds out an apocalyptic hope that the inner contagion can be cured, but without any fundamental revision of the system.

Needless to say, this is a liberal rather than revolutionary fantasy.

hail-hydra-bert-and-ernieCATWS’s key difference from other modern thrillers, though, is that its inner villains are Nazis. Specifically, they’re agents of Hydra, an offshoot of the Nazis whose superior technology and sneakiness helped them survive the war, with a bit of help from the US’s real-life “Operation Paperclip.” Unlike the Nazis, Hydra is sly. No Nuremberg rallies for them. No big salute. They’re whisperers, leaning in close across the decades to sneak a “hail Hydra” into their allies’ ears.

Arnim Zola, the brain of Hydra, copied his brain into an analogue computer in the early 70s. When he’s confronted in a secret camp in New Jersey (of course?), stashed (of course) in an abandoned US military training camp, he explains that all world chaos since WWII can be blamed on Hydra. Images flash across the screen, recalling the great psychological screening scene of The Parallax View (for more from me on that, see here). Hydra’s aim? To sow enough chaos that the people will accept fascism. They’re now on the verge of using everyone’s data – bank records, Facebook posts, Instagrams, school records – to identify fascism’s current and future opponents, and then to kill them, quickly, by the millions, to inaugurate a New World Order, now without any possible opponents. Of course, it’s up to Captain America to stop them.

And he does, saving capitalism and the American way by eliminating its secret contagion.  The Black Widow uploads all of SHIELD and Hydra’s secrets to the internet (“it’s trending!” she exults), including her own nasty past as KGB assassin, eliminating the privacy through which the secret fascists operate. We’re now in a world without secrets, or nearly so. In the film’s last few minutes, Nick Fury and the Black Widow sneak back into the extrajudicial shadows, SHIELD’s former agents go to work for the FBI and CIA, and, especially, as we see in the credits teaser, Hydra persists. We’re back at the beginning, then, still in the hope that things might work, still in the liberal realpolitik certainty that contagion continues and that it can be cured only through the deployment of the liberal order’s own autoimmune secret contagion, here called the “super hero.”

The only way out of this loop might be for Captain America to shrug his shoulders, look at the camera, tell us “shit is fucked up and shit,” and, you know, continue saving people, but without any certainty that what he’s doing is right.


On Brennisteinsalda, Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Pause near the top of Brennisteinsalda

Desplechin’s Jimmy P(hallus)

Screenshot from 2014-07-14 12:14:39

Spoilers follow, if the plot is your thing, and if you, like me, haven’t read Georges Devereux’s Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.

Last February, Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (2013) received a surprisingly sympathetic review from Richard Brody in The New YorkerThe film, about Devereux’s psychoanalysis of Jimmy Picard, a WWII Veteran and Blackfoot Indian:

admirably bypasses the familiar movie trope of interminable analyses as a form of bourgeois self-absorption. It restores the primordial power of Freud’s great idea in its principally medical, results-oriented terms—self-knowledge, practical improvement, and independence. In one of the movie’s loveliest scenes, Devereux’s girlfriend Madeleine Steiner (Gina McKee), who has come to visit, asks him, “How do you know when the treatment is over?” Devereux answers, “There are no rules.”….It’s not giving anything away to say that there’s no big breakthrough in the treatment, no thunderous resolution. True to Devereux’s free-flowing sense of what constitutes a successful treatment, the movie doesn’t give in to the kinds of epiphanies (as in, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”) that reduce psychoanalysis to a search for a combination to open a lock. The de-dramatized ending is no accident or oversight. The height of the drama isn’t in Picard’s relative and incremental well-being, it’s in the resurgent and conscious presence of the past—which includes the painful history of Picard’s people, the acknowledgment of slights and resentments, and the readiness to push back (at least verbally) against unrepresentative and unfair authority.

Picard’s problems are what you’d expect to be turned up by psychoanalysis in this period: an absent father, a domineering mother and older sister, and childhood sexual trauma. His symptoms, likewise: various psychosomatic symptoms — headaches and blindness — abate as his psychic trauma abates. And the cure is just as familiar: Picard needs to learn to fight back against women so he can finally claim the daughter he abandoned.

In the film at least, Devereux, an anthropologist and an intimate of the Mojaves, decorates his analysis with gestures towards Blackfoot culture. He reminds Picard that the Blackfoot Indian men used to beat their wives; Picard replies “I would never hit a woman.” And that’s what the film would have us believe is his problem. Once Picard’s able to pick up women in town and abandon them, once he’s able to leave his sister, once he’s able to become a good father, then he’s cured. Devereux has assimilated Picard into the dominate masculinity of 1950s White America, which is largely still this America, today. He’s made Picard a Good American Man.

Here’s where Desplechin betrays the full potential of his story. Perhaps the historical Devereux did too. From the wikip:

In From Anxiety to Method in the Behavioral Sciences Devereux proposes to rethink the question of the relation between the observer and the observed. Devereux takes his guidance from psychoanalysis. According to him, the classical methodological principle which prescribes to the researcher to make his observations from a strictly objective point of view is not only impossible to put into practice but outrightly counterproductive. Instead the observer should place himself in the middle of the process and keep in mind that whatever he may observe is always influenced by his own activity of observing.

More precisely, the only data to which the observer actually has access to are his own perceptions, his reaction to reactions he himself had provoked. According to Devereux the observer must think about his relation to the observed in the same manner an analyst would do in his relation to his analysand. The analyst works with the transference he triggers and with the countertransference he can perceive looking at himself. In any study where the subject under scrutiny is the subjectivity of human beings (or even of animals), this procedure has to be applied, according to Devereux.

Now, as the film reminds us, Devereux himself wasn’t originally French. He was a Romanian Jew, born György Dobó, who emigrated to France in the mid 20s and converted to Catholicism. When, in the film, he’s asked about his family, his response is tellingly ambiguous (“It’s no trick to hide in Romania.”)

The film’s Devereux is an atheist; Picard’s the Catholic. Both, however, are survivors of genocide, albeit of different sorts. Both are bereft of family and of what the 1950s would recognize as a regular married life. Picard abandoned the woman he should have married and married a woman who abandoned him. Devereux, married at least twice, loses Steiner to her husband (who, I believe, is this Lucas Steiner, which means Madeleine may also be Marion Steiner).

Here’s the film as it might have been, then: Devereux and Picard both might have scorned these cultures that had, after all, done them no good; Devereux might have helped Picard recognize that his sister had, after all, raised him and saw to it that he received the care he needed; he might have helped Picard be grateful where it was owed and dismissive where it was deserved. And, had the film’s Devereux “perceive[d] himself look[ing] at himself,” he might have led both Picard and himself towards something other than a comfortable masculinity.

Because, after all, the true lesson of castration anxiety is not for men to realize that they have the phallus, or that they can finally claim it, but that no one ever gets to have it.

(French wikip is very thorough on the film, despite its being in English; if you’ve not seen any Desplechin, start with A Christmas Tale: it’s wonderful, definitely one of the better modern French bourgeois dramas).

(and needless to say, I don’t know much about psychoanalysis, anthropology, or their histories. This post is largely an exercise for me, its main audience)


WILD STYLE and the organic artist

Critics usually talk about Charlie Ahearn’s WILD STYLE (1983, filmed 1981/82) as a documentary of the moment when hiphop made contact with with the dominant, “downtown” culture, shortly before hiphop became dominant culture, in America and worldwide. Vincent Canby’s 1983 NYT review sets the tone by laboriously, and very whitely, explaining graffiti, rapping (“Like good calypso, good rapping is a mixture of the primitive, sophisticated and topical”), and breaking. But unlike more recent, retrospective reviews, Canby takes the plot seriously. Here’s how it looks to him:

The slight narrative of ”Wild Style” is about Raymond (Lee George Quinones), a skinny, outwardly mild-mannered Bronx teen-ager by day and, by night, the notorious “Zorro” [sic], a celebrated but unidentified spray-paint artist for whom every subway car is an empty canvas. Raymond scorns his fellow graffiti artists who turn their talents to legitimate, commissioned murals on the walls of playgrounds and business establishments….

”Wild Style” also has a slight love story involving Raymond and Rose Lady Bug (Sandra Pink Fabara), a spray-paint muralist who brings Raymond back to his senses when he takes his art too seriously.

Others, understandably overwhelmed by Wild Style‘s documentary importance, call the plot “inconsequential,” “slight,” or “almost non-existent” (here, here, and here). They also might have called it a total mess: Raymond’s brother has come back unexpectedly from the military, threatens him with a gun, and…nothing else happens; despite the long build, the story of the white reporter (played by Patti Astor) goes nowhere; the downtown party with the white art dealers, when you think you’re witnessing the birth of another Basquiat, just happens, with no consequence; and the conniving promoter Phade (Fab 5 Freddy) never seems to rip off anyone.

These are dead plots; or they’re narratives that just don’t matter. Ahearn, more or less deliberately, has set us up to expect a certain kind of movie about art. We expect the story of the artist who “makes it big” by getting in with the rich people, or we expect this to be a tragedy in which the artist, on the verge of getting big, is drawn back into the streets, gunning for the man who cheated him and the girl who dumped him or getting gunned down by his own brother.

We expect a movie that, like several, other, shittier films about art (eg, The Horse’s Mouth) concerns a man versus the world. After all, Lee Quinones’s Raymond goes by “Zoro,” a name that’s the signature, and, in being a signature that hides the artist, also a “Zero,” a cipher. Raymond prefers to work alone (in fact, Quinones himself refused–wisely!–to let Ahearn film him painting in the subway yards). He does take his art seriously, and he thinks of himself as a lone man against the world. Meanwhile, it’s not that Rose Lady Bug doesn’t take her art, or his, “too seriously,” but rather that she works in a group, for groups, for her “community” (as she says); and she wants to make legitimate money doing so.

That‘s the central conflict: Zoro wants to work alone, anonymously, as a pure artist, and Rose Lady Bug, an artist herself, doesn’t think that doing art separates her from her world of friends, obligations, and fun.

Here’s where the conflict’s resolved, when Zoro hits a creative wall while preparing the East Side Amphitheater for the film’s big concert climax:

RAYMOND: I’m trying to paint this figure in the middle, and it’s not even coming out right. I’ve already got the hands on the side, like the hands of doom, and they’re representing the city, and the environment around this artist. And what I’m trying to draw is the artist in the middle. And he’s like–like–he’s like painting all by himself in his own world and whatnot. He don’t care about nobody around him, and that’s what the hands are–everybody around him. bad

ROSE LADY BUG: Yeah? Who is this character? That’s Zoro, right? That’s you.

RAYMOND: Who told–What gave–Who gave you that idea?

ROSE LADY BUG: Come on, man. I been knowing it for a long time that was you.

RAYMOND: That’s ridiculous.

ROSE LADY BUG: You just didn’t trust me. You didn’t tell me about them things, so I’m going to tell you now. I’m also going to tell you I don’t like your mural. I don’t like the idea.

RAYMOND: Just get outta here. I don’t care.

ROSE LADY BUG: No, hell no. I’m just telling you the truth. All right? “Zoro this, Zoro that.” We don’t want to hear about it. You’re only worried about Zoro. Concentrate on what the whole thing is about. It’s a jam. Rappers are going to be coming down. They’re going to be the stars of this thing, not you! Damn man.

RAYMOND: That’s an idea.


RAYMOND: You know, that’s a hell of an idea. You did it! That’s beautiful!

And that’s it. Raymond gives up on his artistic isolation. He listens to his sometimes girlfriend, who’s no cipher, no mere muse (unlike Helen Mirren in Age of Consent, as bad an art film as The Horse’s Mouth), but rather an artist herself and a critic and organic intellectual, who–with all due respect to Vincent Canby–does take this stuff seriously.

goodWild Style‘s last shot of Raymond has him sitting on top of the amphitheater during the concert, in complete ecstasy over its success. He’s above the performers, loving their work, loving the crowd, but also invisible to the crowd, who, like Raymond, are just dancing and loving the Gesamtkunstwerk of this community.

And with that, the myth of the tormented, alienated male artist dies.

For more, watch the film or read Ed Piskor’s superb comic and read this short, sweet article on the 30th anniversary reunion at the Lower East Side amphitheater. And definitely read this Bill Benzon piece on graffiti over at 3 Quarks.

F for Fake

F is For Failure is this post’s preferred title, but it’s already been taken, a mere couple hundred times. It’s also unfair. The film succeeds, like this:

As Finnegans Wake was for Joyce, F for Fake was for Welles a playful repository of public history intertwined with private in-jokes as well as duplicitous meanings, an elaborate blend of sense and nonsense that carries us along regardless of what’s actually being said. For someone whose public and private identities became so separate that they wound up operating routinely in separate households and sometimes on separate continents, exposure and concealment sometimes figured as reverse sides of the same coin, and Welles’s desire to hide inside his own text here becomes a special kind of narcissism.

It succeeds like this, which is to say, it succeeds in its own way, but it might have been something far more subversive. The editorial playfulness, the reflections on authenticity and fraudulence, the market, surveillance and sex, and the entanglement of all these in the hidden figure of capital (played here by Howard Hughes), all that couldn’t have been more prescient of postmodernism. All of what I remember about Mark Leyner is here, in this film.

But that 1990s postmodernism is done with, and good riddance. Were someone to make this film, now, I’d like F for Fake to be a far more serious enemy of culture. Let my filmmakers clear out the girl-watching opening and the whole invented sequence at the end with Picasso–both the invention of Oja Kodar (herself presciently engaged in postmodern feminism)–and be interested in the right subject. Let it remember that our Hungarian art forger,  Elmyr de Hory (born Elemér Albert Hoffmann), was gay and Jewish, definitely imprisoned for both by the Nazis, and that his parents may or may not have survived the Holocaust. And, making his way through America and Europe, imprisoned for a time in Franco’s Spain, de Hory gets by, his forged “new” paintings by the great prewar European artists–Matisse, Picasso, Modigliani–finding their way into collections worldwide.

J for Gay.

The believer in authenticity will always be victimized by those who just don’t care. And who better to be the enemy of authenticity than a gay European Jew, the last lover (maybe?) of a great white Minnesotan giant with the improbable name of Mark Forgy? Who would make a better enemy to Europe’s dream of itself, to its Great Named Men of Modernism, to its Iberian dream of Gothic Purity, to its dream of Christian Virility, who better than this fraud out of Central Europe? Who better than this true fraud who never signed his forgeries?

T for Troll.

All this is may be getting us back into the territory of Lee Edelman: good. The Nazis thought Jews were an infestation, a drain on the nation and its masculine order, the enemies of its authenticity and future. And along comes de Hory, it almost seems, to willingly step into that role, but, and this is of paramount importance, to use that charge against them. If we read de Hory correctly, we have to know, of course, that there’s no there there, that the Nazi dream of lost authenticity is, like any dream of authenticity, a fraud.

But this doesn’t get us back to postmodernism, because there is another authenticity, practiced by de Hory, who’s so much better than a Troll.

F for Fan.

de Hory’s perfect imitation of European Culture witnesses to his perfect knowledge, acquired and practiced not through credentials, not through “natural” right, not through knowing the right people or being the right people, but through style and love. This is the authenticity not of the name but of the fan, the only authenticity that matters, and the enemy, in its pleasure, its serious delight, of all “natural” pretensions to heritage.

For more from me on fandom, see here.