Black Ribbon Award

Month: August, 2016

THE ‘NORMATIVE HEART

hqdefault

What’s the best advice you have ever received on being in love?

Reece, 26: The best advice I ever got was to never fear commitment. But the trick is you never know just what you’ll be committing to. I don’t really know what promulgated it, all I can say is that one day I was fed up. With all of it. All of the games and bullshit; all of the mixed signals and drama. I was at the end up my rope. I was in my apartment, my utilities bill in hand, and just said, “Fuck it.” Yes, out loud. I drank my last can of Michelob and took the equivalent amount of money I owed my landlord and spent it on eggrolls to have delivered to the workplace of the last girl who ghosted me. Then I started running.

Kaylee and Alan, 31 and 33: The best advice we ever got was to be adventurous. I know, when you’re single and dating you hear that a lot. And then it only really amounts to what, mixing mint cookies n’ cream with sherbet? But it takes on a whole new meaning once you’re a year and a half—almost two years—into a marriage. No one, not our friends or family, thought highly of our prospects. And they’re not wrong. My parents: divorced. His parents: divorced twice. Same with a few cousins and even grandparents. I have auxiliary grandparents. Step grandparents! How honorifically awkward is that?

Dana, 32: Probably, no, definitely the best advice I ever got was to go to Hell. “Go to Hell.” That’s what I was told, specifically. By a guy. He wasn’t my boyfriend, thinking about it now he probably thought that he was my boyfriend, or convinced himself that he was my boyfriend, through force of will, I guess. I cannot recall the events that precipitated the handing down of that particular advice. I get so much advice in a day it’s hard to know really who is doing the soliciting. I sense it wasn’t me. All I know is that at some point in our relationship, angular though it was, I grew exhausted with pleasantries. Evidently so did he.

***

Reece: Well, I didn’t go running running, but I was moving. I kept on moving until the roads no longer led anywhere, until the stench of sweat and shit in the city became the natural musk of pine and dung, until the hollers and screeches became chirps and breezes. I was in the woods, basically. So deep into them I completely lost the way to get out. I admit I was well and truly scared. After a day of wandering I came to a creek, intermittently heaving and crying. And at the moment I was convinced that I would die alone, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

Kaylee and Alan: They said “When you know, you’ll know.” One day, Alan walks into the room and I know him in form, but not in spirit; as if someone was inside him, working his gears. To let each other know, we’d give ourselves new names. He’d see me sometimes and go “Hi, Delilah!” and I’d go “Good morning, Will!” (I’m not really creative with names.) We could go whole days doing that, we even had separate Gmails for them.

Dana: I didn’t know much about Hell when he told me to go there, in fact what I knew about it appeared to be wrong. In what little time I gave myself towards thinking about Hell I was always under the assumption that it was something that found you. In my experience it’s something that I had to go out in search of. Now I wonder, is this the same for everyone? Or could it be that I am a good person? But why would a good person go through with this? Why would a good person go into CVS at nine ‘o clock on a Tuesday for tampons and instead spend the better part of the night staring down a display of hair dye?

***

Reece: I looked up and saw a man, who hoisted me up and gave me the longest, closest, tightest hug I ever felt. When he released me he smiled and said, “Welcome.” He stepped off to the side and from out of the trees came another man. Then another man. Then another man, until there was a veritable tribe of them. It turns out I was not the only one who was overcome by the petty demands of polite society and took to nature’s bosom. They had been at it a while though. They were robust and lived in, where I was frail and soft. But they changed that.

Kaylee and Alan: But long term, that wasn’t going to work. We went to counseling. We tried tantric sex. We tried role-play sex. We tried BDSM, you know, with safe words and all that. It was all too pedestrian. We tried swinging once. I think the problem was planning. There was too much of it. I think at every level of our relationship we strived too hard for the perfect moment, which we had planned into something turgid and clinical. We had to be spontaneous. There was a lot of suspense at first. We didn’t do anything for weeks.

Dana: I guess you can say I found it, or stumbled into it. Whatever.

***

Reece: For most of the time we are just living our days in the wild. We forage for food, build shelter, find manageable clothing, yes. But we also swim and run. We play contact games of our own rules, design, and ends. Yes, there needs to be a winner for it to be complete, but all is fair and accepted under the guides of brotherhood and sportsmanship.

But our most cherished—and to me our most necessary—activity is the vulnerability cone.

Kaylee and Alan: Then, boom. I wake up one Saturday to find Alan already out of bed. I remember it so clearly. He called me from outside, I looked out the window, and he was standing in between two used Pintos. They were so old, they were rusty, the paint was chipping off, and they reeked something fierce, of stale sweat and Burger King. I asked him what the hell were supposed to do with these, we couldn’t possibly drive more than 20 miles in these. But that was the point. They would only go as far as this old reservoir outside of town. Once there, he would drive to one end and I would be at the other, and then we’d spend every last bit of juice these jalopies had driving straight at each other. I asked him if we were playing chicken, if this as a test. And I’ll never forget this, he smiled that kind but shy smile I remember from our first date and said “Get dressed and get in.”

Dana: The hair dyes were from the same brand. A green box with a picture of the same model. Same skin color—white but not too white—and eye color—hazel, I think—but with a different hair color of course, each with names more colorful than the actual colors. “Raven,” “sunset,” “chestnut,” “amber,” “copper,” “caramel,” and so on. Perhaps it was the specific way in which she was positioned on the package, but my gaze was locked in by hers and it wouldn’t let go. “Why,” I asked her, neither conscious nor interested if anyone else was in the aisle with me, “why me?” She did not answer.

***

Reece: It’s not a physical thing as such, but a kind of area we construct when we focus our energies when we need comfort and security. In the vulnerability cone, we can at long last be honest and direct. We need no longer talk around, over, or at anyone, but just to anyone. We can share secrets, longings, and pain. We can be quirky and joyful or we can be introspective and sad. We can, for whatever reason, have an erection, and we can talk each other through it. We are honest, but we are respectful. The stability of the cone depends on it.

Kaylee and Alan: I’m a romantic at heart. We both are. I had an image in my head that we’d collide with enough power to break the windshield and we’d embrace losing consciousness. It’s silly and I’m embarrassed to think about it.

Dana: I decided then that being a redhead was not as important as knowing the message of this woman. I sensed that each new color I tried would elicit a new secret. I had even worked out an order. No secrets were forthcoming, though. Soon enough my hair had begun to thin. I went next to a Rite Aid and found the lipsticks, each with their own colors, “rose,” “coral,” “jubilee,” “diamond jubilee,” “pink lemonade,” “silver fox,” “opal,” “jade.” I took all of them back home. The shades did not correspond in flavor, exactly.

***

Reece: One day, one of my brothers asked us if women could do what we do, and perhaps even with us. At the time we were hiking and not in the vulnerability cone. It caused panic and near-rupture. I miss him sometimes.

Yet, sometime later, a woman did appear, and inside the cone no less! No one would cop to who invited her inside, or how she could be let in at all. Nor could she provide any real information when we prodded her. It was all the more jarring when she broke square through the cone and back into the wild. We made a firm pact to never break each other’s trust like that again.

Kaylee and Alan: We woke up in the hospital. We were devastated and in pain. We were also heavily drugged, so this sequence of events is a bit blurry. During rehabilitation, we met this doctor. Dr. [REDACTED]. He is a surgical specialist and he said he’d been watching us, that he felt profound sadness and joy at our struggles to stay together. He wanted to help us and he had just the solution. He said that he can, quite literally, bring us together. He developed a process by which two people can become conjoined by our circulatory systems. Now, Alan and I have vastly different blood types, so we were open but wary. Dr. [REDACTED] assured us, however, that through his special cell synthesis, he could create a new type, a kind of boutique blood type. I remember very clearly what he said to me before the gas kicked in: “Science will cure incompatibility.”

Dana: For a few weeks I was sick. Then I adjusted, mind as well as body. I had restocked the cupboards and refrigerators and then my vanity cabinets. I have to be creative if I want to look nice, or at least presentable. One day I was feeling less confident than usual. I opened the first drawer and I found some meat, some kind of beef, still in the plastic, still good, more or less.

***

Reece: We’ve made a good home here. But some day we’d like to return and to show our potential brothers what we’ve learned. We’d like to be able to construct more, bigger vulnerability cones anywhere, and to make all of our world safe. But I’m afraid that is impossible without making considerable changes to society. I am certain our way will be laughed at if we came back now.

Kaylee and Alan: Science, regretfully, hasn’t quite mastered preservation methods. Alan’s gone silent these days, but that’s not entirely new, he was the introvert. But we are certainly closer together since the procedure. We are inside of each other in ways that would astonish our skeptical loved ones. And they do. I love the looks on their faces. We’re doing well! We’re even exploring polyamory.

Dana: I sat in front of the mirror, switched it to convex and patted it on my cheeks, then smeared it over my mouth and forehead. I smiled, genuinely. The flies started showing up in the afternoon as I lay on the couch. They communed and commiserated well into the night.

*** 

Reece: So we bide our time, we play our games, and with some patience, they may in the end come to us, until all of nature is one vast cone.

Kaylee and Alan: So yes, be adventurous. Be unafraid. But definitely buy used cars within budget!

Dana: I can tell you how many flies were on me. I named them all. I remember them when they return and mourn them when they die. Maybe when I get to know you better I’ll tell you what they were.

Advertisements

FEMINISM, AUDITION, AND THE HUM OF CONSCIENCE

Carter 2

What you are about to read should not be construed as a confession, a profession, or an endorsement of feminism. It is not a statement of conversion or a pledge of allegiance. I’m not going to use the space I’m given on this platform to extol upon the rights of women as individuals or as a collective. I’m not going to praise the relative intellectual unremarkability between the sexes. Nor am I going to pledge for more sincere, concerted efforts to achieve their greater equality. Surveying the ideological expanse of feminism, its successive waves and innumerable offshoots, there are too many avenues to turn down, and not enough time and energy required to dedicate finding my way back out of any of them. And I shall remain steadfast in this, no matter how right and good the underlying principles are, no matter how simple I’m told it will be, or how advantageous it will be to my moral and material well-being. Perhaps, gun drawn to my head, in the ascension of one of any number of competing femocracies, I would find some incentive to reconsider my commitment.

But I admit that I find myself in the minority here, a lone holdout among a desecrated social pasture. Its richness is bankrupt and my company is abject. Every day I look at the furthest horizon and see faint specs, pilgrims making their way to the more bountiful plain. While I have made a comfortable enough home in these badlands, I understand the lure of wanting to get away from it. Feminism has a future, it seems, not wilting in promise. If that is the direction they seek to go, far be it from me to tell them otherwise. Indeed, I would gladly assist them in their pursuit. Feminism’s freeway is actually not as easily navigable as it may at first seem, certainly not for those travelers who do not fall into feminism’s demographic locus. So with some risk, I venture just far enough from shelter to bring light upon a discovery that would be helpful in pushing outsiders more safely into the feminist grazing lands.

If one seeks to be feminist to the utmost conclusiveness, with the deepest conviction, these are the steps required: don’t.

Please be assured that this is no trick to alleviate my loneliness. The counsel I offer could not be more distinct from my mode of living. Why this truth sought me as the distribution vessel to the wider consciousness is perhaps best left a mystery. Nevertheless, I can only offer this discovery as it came to me.

Takashi Miike’s 1999 film Audition owes its reputation in the United States primarily to reaching the once unthinkable achievement of having left Rob Zombie “creeped out” by his viewing of it. Indeed, much of the film’s fame rests on its final 20 minutes, a scene which ranks among the most violent sequences ever simulated on camera. It is a justified, if somewhat ironic, legacy, as it is alleged that Miike initially did not intend to include the grisly climax, painstaking, methodical, even symphonic though it came out in the end. Though the film’s influence on “torture porn” renders it dubious to some, to the point that many wave off even the inclination to watch it, that scene and every action that led to it assures it as one of the greatest horror films ever made, and at least lends weight to a claim of being one of the best films ever made, full stop.

The effect of the film is rooted within its careful construction. Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama, a middle-aged, widowed television executive who sets up a fraudulent audition in order to find a suitable new woman. Eihi Shiina plays Asami, a former ballerina and aspiring actress whose delicate sensibilities and passive charm catch Aoyama’s attention. If the premise sounds overly cute that’s because it is. The first hour of the film is set up not unlike any given romance. The tone is sentimental rather than menacing; the score is mournful rather than dreadful. Contrasting the horror of the final scene is the comedy of the titular scene, in which Aoyama and his producer friend endure a jaunty montage of eager young actress hopefuls in varying shapes, sizes, talents, and states of mind. It is chipper, and a bit bewildering but a clever set up for the stately introduction of Asami, whom Aoyama had earlier singled out in a previous scene which, as he flips through résumés and headshots, anticipates Tinder. Waifish, doll-like, sweet, and almost exclusively dressed in white, Asami is archetypical in the extreme; a rendition of the iconic roles of Audrey Hepburn and Meg Ryan drained of all blood. The former model Shiina displays a near-blank slate of gentle kindness that enraptures Aoyama instantly while leaving everyone else cold at the very least.

Gradually, Miike subverts the romantic comedy tropes, notably trading puzzling quirk with unsettling mystery. Asami’s background doesn’t check out. One of her references has disappeared. Her endless smile and pleasing nature is less of a trait and more of a smokescreen. The film was marketed for what it was, of course, but it did little to indicate just how the pieces were put into place. Miike’s reveals of Asami’s true nature and intentions, her background and traumas are teased out in strokes both subtle and bold. As the façade falls piece by piece, Aoyama, stricken with love for a woman he doesn’t know, loses all logic in an obsessive quest for closure.

True to its legacy, Audition is perhaps one of the most critiqued films in the history of film study, and almost always critiqued within the same parameters: is Audition feminist or misogynist? They have ranged from the thoughtful to the not-so-thoughtful. “Living in New York City,” Eli Roth recalls, “I’ve dated a few psychos, and there’s sometimes when you’re on a date with a girl and you’re like ‘Oh my god, this chick is totally nuts,’ and Audition is like the ultimate version of that horrible, horrible, horrible date scenario.” The debate will rage, of course, as criticism, for good or ill, is more conversation than judgment in the end. Yet for my part, I can say with confidence that it is not feminist.

odishon

To date, Takashi Miike has over 100 projects to his name as a director. Audition was one of seven he released in 1999, including a TV miniseries—indeed, Miike had been hired by a studio to make the film. In addition to the tension one feels while watching the film, one might just as easily dread the thought of its actual making, which was said to have taken three weeks, apparently one longer than Miike is accustomed to. His projects, understandably, are eclectic, including comedies and theatre productions, though he is known primarily for extreme and graphic films like Ichi the Killer and One Missed Call. At his best, Miike is playful and provocative, even when he is not being gruesome. His wide interests and the time constraints that his prolific activity impose upon him make articulating a coherent political agenda all but impossible.

Yet it is very easy to prescribe the film as feminist as it is at base not misogynist. Despite the alarming speed with which Miike was said to have made the film, Audition’s craft is evident, not least of all that of its characterization. As Dennis Lim put it in The Los Angeles Times:

It is too simplistic, however, to label Miike’s film as feminist—or misogynist. What’s most surprising about “Audition” is the complex depiction of the characters, who are both predators and victims and, even at their worst, largely sympathetic figures. Miike suggests that Asami is, to some degree, a figment of Aoyama’s imagination—or, more to the point, a projection of his guilt (at having betrayed his late wife and seduced his new girlfriend under false pretenses).

Audition is a violent film, true; and both of its characters repulse us in their own ways, yet it is a film devoid almost entirely of hate. Who can hate a man who is trying to find happiness, for himself and his family, while in mourning? Who, moreover, can hate a woman beset with as much trauma as Asami? Audition is not so much loathsome as it is sad. It is a well-made, entertaining, and disturbing film. It is a study of idealized love and its pitfalls, of the expectations of gender (particularly in Japan) and how they conflict. Perhaps to some this meets the criteria for a feminist film. Perhaps to others it does not. It doesn’t necessarily matter when the challenge is laid by the story and to be reckoned with by the viewer. Contrast this with Eli Roth, professed disciple of Miike, whose films such as Hostel, Green Inferno and Knock Knock, which dress ornate violence with blunt social commentary, but never to any useful or serious affect. “If [Knock Knock] is a feminist revenge story, as Roth has argued,” The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd wrote, “it’s a deeply confused one, since every prominent female character is either a duplicitous temptress or a neglectful, blue-balls-provoking spouse.”

Audition is not an argument. It does not seek to prove anything other than what happens when two people who should not have met meet. This is not to say that it is without conscience, it hums beneath the roar of its violence. In such cases, feminism, or any ideology, comes to it and it is in turn welcomed as any other guest, but not in any particular honor. Not, I suspect, out of any kind of mistrust or antipathy, but out of humility. It confirms for the guests that adverse conditions exist, and if not proposing any solution to them per se, can at least articulate their severity, in addition to their nuance. Its task is to see, and to a certain extent, to be influenced as much as it may or may not seek to influence. It can in turn be appreciated and sourced but not assimilated, for the good of everyone.