Black Ribbon Award

Month: June, 2017

DAVID LYNCH’S MOMENT OF CLARITY

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There are two ways, as I see it, to process the eighth episode of Showtime’s third season—or return or reboot, whatever you wish to call it—of Twin Peaks. One way I admit is quite petty, consisting mostly of marveling at The Atlantic’s James Parker for showing us how language, like a model rocket made while inebriated, can detonate without leaving the launching pad. “We will watch it, at any rate, not anchored to time and the boxy television set, but weightlessly adrift in our personal viewing cells,” he writes, whatever that means. “It might be great. It might be a disaster. But it won’t blow our minds. It can’t, because that already happened.” (Emphasis mine.) The other way, then, of piecing together what it was that one has just watched, why it is that one cannot readily let it leave one’s mental space, and precisely to what permanence did it upend one’s expectations and assumptions of a medium (but so much more than that) one thought to be in one’s effective control, is fairly self-explanatory.

In fairness to Mr. Parker, I agreed with him at the time. For as much as I enjoyed Twin Peaks I didn’t think anything needed to be added to it on top of what was already there. True enough, I understood the reviled Fire Walk With Me to be underrated, and I was glad that Lynch was picking up where he left off in its tone and its plot points. But I took to the new season generally with little more than curiosity. I was quite glad to see that Bobby and Shelly, seemingly no longer together, have found maturity, perhaps even contentment, in middle age. I was happy that Hawk is still Hawk, Agent Rosenfield is still Agent Rosenfield, and that the pine weasel is extinct. And I like knowing what New York City looks like through the Lynchian lens. Otherwise I had accepted that no depth, old or new, would be plumed, no mystery uncovered, no grander order of things revealed. So much for that.

When I last wrote about Twin Peaks for The American Conservative, I admitted my disappointment that I was unable to understand the experience of seeing the pilot episode when it first aired. All that can be said about once-in-a-lifetime milestones applies to it hand-in-glove, of course, but it had been a little over 15 years since I’d experienced a cultural black swan like that in real time. It was 2001 and Converge’s second album, the long-awaited Jane Doe, had been released. I remember it well because it was the week of September 11, it came a few days late, and listening to it while walking to my afterschool shift at Pizza Hut, the batteries in my Discman gave out not even a minute into the first song. Listening to it in full later that night, though, I felt that I’d been given a rare privilege of expectations being vastly exceeded, of aesthetic sensibilities being finally validated, and of old ideas being unrecognizably reborn. Even as the global situation was in chaos, what a time it was to be a certain kind of teen in a certain moment in time.

Even then I sensed that that was a feeling I may never have again. Certainly I’d be tricked—and I was, many times—but at some point the reality would set in that, while there may yet be something new (or newish) under the sun, it may not shine on anything in my periphery. And that’s fine, not everything is going to be about me. In fact, forcibly erecting cultural monuments has been something of a problem for many years now, not least of all when it came to television. Alan Sepinwall has made a career as media criticism’s Edward Everett, waxing profound on every Sopranos Easter egg, every pensive stare of Don Draper, like an Athenian triumph in battle. So imagine my shock, indeed my embarrassment, of having been caught in a moment many a critic have been not even halfway-convincingly rhapsodizing for so long. That, anyway, is how I justify writing about something that has been recapped to death since Monday morning.

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“Part 8,” as I shall call it henceforth, frustrated people at first as it was a marked detour from the many other storylines the series has been juggling over the previous seven episodes, with many of those carrying frustrations of their own. But viewers familiar with the series mythology, especially as it is presented in Fire Walk With Me, understand that it is not a gratuitous detour. Simply put, it is Lynch’s attempt at the origin story and at contextualizing the supernatural order that surrounds and haunts the northwestern town, and now the world. As it turns out, Bob is somehow humanity’s fault, having either been birthed or empowered by the Trinity atomic bomb test, recreated in a terrifying five-minute sequence. Moreover, the martyr complex of Laura Palmer, long a point of contention with Lynch’s feminist critics, was more or less confirmed. There is also the matter of the fly-frog hybrid who enters the mouth of a teen girl at episode’s end who may or may not be a young Sarah Palmer. And how any of this takes us forward into the remaining nine parts is anyone’s guess, but Lynch has done a strange thing by bringing a lot of elements, once unclear and jumbled (was The Man from Another Place good or evil? Frankly I have no fucking clue) into the forefront and somewhat more carefully positioned.

When surveying the vast critical consensus of “Part 8,” I agree with two things. First that it is among the most audacious, most radical episodes of television ever broadcast. Second is that it is not very original. The visual language of “Part 8” comes as echoes from art and underground cinema’s fairly distant past. Some echoes are quite loud, 2001: A Space Odyssey came in for immediate recall. Some, however, are rather faint, such as Stan Brakhage and, to me anyway, Carnival of Souls. But perhaps the most obvious visual touchstone is Lynch himself. Both a friend of mine and another critic used “full Eraserhead,” Lynch’s debut feature released 40 years ago, to describe the overall tone.

One point that I cannot agree with, however, is that the episode is, as some have said, “abstract” or “bonkers.” These designations have followed Lynch from Eraserhead and onward with varying aptness. We have some idea as to what Mulholland Drive was about; we may never conclusively know what Lost Highway or Inland Empire were about. That is part of the fun of David Lynch, who lords over the power to not explain himself as stridently and assuredly as Joe Arpaio lorded over his power to dress his prisoners in pink underwear. But the merits of “Part 8” cut a different way. Indeed, if the episode simply repeated the same fan theorist-friendly guesswork, we would be in a much different mood.

David Lynch has sustained himself for four decades not because his work is weird. To be weird doesn’t take much effort, as the many Twin Peaks descendants have shown. For Lynch it was always a means to an end. That the ends were never more than broadly certain was not his problem, but they always tied back to the thing he understood most: postwar America. This is hardly new, of course. Depicting the stark conflicts of American life and its ideals was always Lynch’s most obvious point of reference. But his due as a moral artist, let alone one with any sort of long game, has been inconsistently given. It was always there but often accompanied by various problematics, or plain perversity. But “Part 8” is distinct as a Lynchian moral document depicting a perversion that he did not exclusively script.

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Learning about the atomic bomb is a significant event in the life of the American, though it is one that no American precisely remembers taking place. For my part, I remember in early childhood seeing a vague mushroom cloud in the Harry S. Truman (!!!) section of a guide to presidents. And even there I am not entirely sure. We better remember periodic gestures made by social studies teachers to suggest that maybe dropping the bomb over Nagasaki was a bit excessive. No matter, I suppose. Those watching the episode, many of certain late-Cold War generations, have effectively received a comprehensive recircuiting of how to understand the bomb. Or if not that, then at least “Part 8” allows for comfort in discussing it more directly. As Emily L. Stephens at The AV Club writes: “There’s a grotesque righteousness in the suggestion that the evil of Bob isn’t some external force visited upon humankind, but something born from our corruption, from our willingness to pervert our greatest intellects and abilities to bring about terrible destruction.”

I find it difficult, listing back all the transgressions of the Second World War, to single out the Manhattan Project as evil; but it was arrogant. Today we attach a considerable moral weight to “the scientist,” but those involved at the creation of the bomb were either unaware of its power (some, for instance, thought the bomb might neutralize Earth’s atmosphere) or hyperaware of, but ultimately resigned to, its long term consequences. I always found the sensitivity and insightfulness of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his references to John Donne and eastern spirituality and the like, to be rather repugnant when set against his actual accomplishments. Perhaps implying his Trinity test as the source of Bob’s emergence is somewhat neat and tidy in a narrative sense, but attaching our feelings toward him and all he represents to a moment in our history was a powerful move on Lynch’s part, and certainly he must know of all possible effects that extend from that move.

David Lynch was born in 1944, but it never quite seems like it. In an era, and in the last year specifically, that saw culture turning decidedly against baby boomers, Lynch’s perspective stands entirely out of step with his cohort. Indeed, in the recently released documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch is heard recalling a moment as an art student in Boston in which he got high, went to a Bob Dylan concert, and left in the middle of it, a transgression that caused his roommate, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, to move out. His color palette favored dark Bacon-esque hues, he hates cities and is fond of small towns, and he has a stark, borderline conservative, understanding of what is right and what is wrong. He is not interested in improving America as he is in reminding us what it can be and what it too often is. And every time he veers a little too closely to Tim Burtonization, one of these attributes pulls him back, Loggia-like, from the precipice.

Lynch’s idiosyncrasies and the lack of force with which he exerts them in his art have earned him endless respect from subsequent generations eminently wise to being talked down to. But that is as much a burden as it is a blessing as “Part 8” demonstrates. Its simplest takeaway, whether Lynch intended it or not, is that the Atomic Age is not only back, it actually never left, and now it is ours.

Yes, to my surprise, my delight, and my apprehension, that was the greatest episode of television ever made.

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ON NOT BEING GOOD

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“Many of the children at Eastern are chronically mentally ill. They’ll never see what we see, hear what we hear, think in ways we do.” This is narration from the Academy Award-nominated documentary Children of Darkness, produced by Richard Kotuk and Ara Chekmaya and which aired on PBS in 1983. It explores the lives of young people who struggle with mental illness, of the institutions that house them, of the parents who place them there, and of the counselors who treat them. I’ve mentioned this film in previous posts, mostly in passing and almost always in tandem with likeminded works such as Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies and Geraldo Rivera’s exposé of the Willowbrook State School. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to explore the film in detail. But then I forget that this is an era in which impossibility seems less and less rare. Sooner or later I would be given this blessing, and I was, as it so often seems to be, through Twitter.

“This is what happens when you add the voice over to an old documentary about mental illness to video of SJWs,” reads a tweet posted by Jenna Abrams. “And it actually makes sense.” Below the text is just that: a video mashup of the most comical tantrums of left wing protestors set to narration of Children of Darkness, the aforementioned lines included. I suppose it’s hard to argue, on some level, that it doesn’t make sense. Ideology-as-disorder is a reliable cudgel. It’s certainly not easy to let go of with the advent of the “social justice warriors,” whose largely emotive and performative brand of persuasion lends to them an air of hysteria. And so to wield the cudgel effectively, one must go big or delete one’s account. As of this writing, Abrams’s tweet has over 6,000 retweets and over 10,000 “likes.”[1] And it’s a clever bit of media manipulation to be sure, almost pop art-level. But people seeing this on their timelines are left to wonder if the SJWs are being framed, as the mentally ill tend to be, as either threats to order or as pitiable. Perhaps by actually watching the film, which is available through Kotuk on YouTube, we might be able to surmise the intent of the tweet.

Viewers of Children of Darkness will find the following: Brian, a schizophrenic patient of Eastern State School and Hospital in Trevose, PA who is prone to violent, indiscriminately directed outbursts; the Elan School, a private treatment center for affluent teens with behavioral and substance problems and whose “no bullshit” approach is barely distinguishable from psychological torture; an autistic boy named Billy at Sagamore Children’s Center in New York who must be restrained to a bed for hours so as to prevent him from harming himself; and a Staten Island hospital fraught with deaths of patients due to neglect or harsh procedures. And those are just the framing devices.

“I was trying to kill myself so I could be with my mother,” says Denise, a teen patient of Eastern. “I love her a lot, and I don’t even know her, that’s what’s so funny.” Jerry, a patient at the same complex with muscular dystrophy, had not seen his parents since being dropped off two years before. “Three days after [being dropped off] … I was trying to call them at home and got somebody else who moved into our house, and six months later they wrote me a letter saying they were in Las Vegas, and they enclosed it with a check for $20.” By film’s end, both are out of the hospital, Jerry struggling to find a job and live on his own in Philadelphia, Denise’s whereabouts unknown. Children of Darkness runs the gamut of suffering, not just from patients but also from parents who are still present. “Why is this child? Why did God create it? That’s all I’ve always wondered,” says the mother of the autistic Billy.

Through Kotuk and Chekmaya, mental illness is not one easily comprehended condition, but one with many hues and intensities, never requiring the same approach to management. This is shown by the counselors in Children of Darkness, who are given substantial screen time. The Elan administrators, for instance, are direct in their harshness; students who act like “a baby” are “screamed at,” students who act like “a mature adolescent” are “talked to.” The staff at Eastern are more overrun and beleaguered, both by the demands of their patients and the outside indifference that had brought them under their care.

Children of Darkness is also a film steeped in little details: Billy’s protective Giants football helmet, the charming Australia t-shirt worn by a near-catatonic Denise, an Elan student wearing a bunny costume and leg shackles as punishment for trying to run away, Brian smiling while his father talks to him during an outside visitation. These moments, great and small, form a parasitic attachment onto the viewer. Children of Darkness is at once irresistible and difficult to watch, and all for what it is not. It eschews the aloofness of Titicut Follies and the grandstanding of Geraldo’s exposé. It is not a work of gothic nonfiction but of colorful, unavoidable reality.

But merely expositing a film doesn’t take us very far in answering why mental illness is used in political rhetoric at all. Contrast it, perhaps, against the use of cancer in the same way. When describing an opponent’s views as “cancerous to the body politic,” or some such, the metaphor speaker seeks to render them as dangerous to the point of being fatal if not neutralized soon. Mental illness, however, doesn’t work like cancer. It is not something that a sufferer can be entirely excised of in treatment. At best it is manageable. Saying one is mentally disordered by ideology, then, implies that one is hopeless, cannot be reasoned with, and so whose ideas are out of step and ultimately invalid.

When writing about Sarah Palin’s incoherent endorsement of Donald Trump, Slate’s Katy Waldman said that the apparent stream-of-consciousness nature of her speech was reminiscent of “clanging, a verbal symptom of schizophrenia in which the patient compulsively rhymes words that bear no logical connection to one another.” Rather common, almost harmless, language. But Sam Kriss, also writing in Slate, uses Eric Garland’s infamous game theory tweetstorm to make the rhetorical intent more explicit:

Game theory models human actions on the presumption that everyone is constantly trying to maximize their potential gain against everyone around them; this is why its most famous example concerns prisoners—isolated people, cut off from all the noncompetitive ties that constitute society. One of its most important theoreticians, John Nash, was also a paranoid schizophrenic, who believed himself to be the target of a vast Russian conspiracy. (Emphasis added.)

“But I digress,” he adds. Whatever one’s quibbles with the academic validity of game theory, they don’t seem to matter because John Nash had a screw loose. Neither, it seems, does Nash’s Nobel Prize.

Keeping with the metaphor, then, what are the “symptoms” of the social justice warriors? Possibly they are lazy, less interested in being challenged by any one theory or line of argument than they are in finding the view that best fits existing moral precepts. They may also be arrogant, believing rules and manners as such do not apply to them because their truth renders them moot. At worst they are just not very intelligent. Though more likely they wildly overvalue how personal the political truly is. These don’t ring like objectionable points of critique. Indeed, they are far and away more preferable. For they do not absolve those “diagnosed” with disordered ideology of responsibility for their own actions and thoughts. They do not enable the progressive’s penchant for politicizing the therapeutic nor do they elevate self-diagnosis to a kind of craft hobby. But to indulge those arguments would seem inconvenient. Because the same symptoms that drive special snowflakes to disrupt campus speakers are also found in “free speech activists” who disrupt play performances.

But the attributes of activists do not interest me as much as the mindset that causes people to look at depictions of mental illness to find primarily, perhaps exclusively, opportunities for scoring political points. I hesitate to pinpoint what attitude propels the mindset as it does. If I’m not generous I’d say cruelty, though it may more fairly and accurately be indifference, a common enough source of woe in human failing; the readiest to indulge, the easiest to ignore, and the hardest to reverse. But on this I have flimsy authority. I only know with certainty what the mindset is not, and anyone who watches Children of Darkness can find precisely what I mean.

One of the film’s stops is the Sagamore Children’s Center, which treats young people with autism. Employed there at the time of filming was teacher Joe Romagna. He is one of the “stars” of the documentary aside from the patients, and it’s easy to see why. He works in a classroom with numerous severely autistic adolescents. The camera almost struggles to keep up with him as he moves from desk to desk trying to give equal attention to each student, some lacking basic communication and motor skills, some hyperactive, some languishing under the side effects of medication. “What I hope for for them is that they can be happy and be taken care of all the time,” Romagna says. “I don’t have hope for all of them [that] they’ll be like you and me, I don’t think that’s possible at this point.” Not that this realism deters him, in fact Romagna’s lack of deterrence is almost superhuman. “So much effort for so little,” his interviewer comments from behind the camera. “A lot of people say that,” Romagna replies with a smile and a nod:

It’s not a little to me. A kid, you know, is a kid and he deserves a chance to be here like everybody else and deserves a chance to get better, to enjoy himself. The kids need to have somebody close to them. And it’s important to me while I’m doing what I’m doing, that I’m close to the kids, too. … I have no plans to do anything but this for the rest of my life.

The viewer may feel drained while watching this segment, but more so than in other sections. Where we might be able to create distance between someone with schizophrenia and ourselves, we cannot do the same with Romagna, who stands as a direct challenge to the competent. His energy, though extraordinarily boundless, even for a teacher, is dedicated to the hard work of care. His constitution, moreover, refuses to see certain types of humans as burdensome or abstract. To do the opposite of this, that is, to take a condition and form it into a rhetorical construct or bogeyman may or may not be altogether indicative of cruelty or even basic wrongheadedness. I just know that it is not good.

1 Jenna Abrams’s Twitter account—or rather the account claiming to be used by a human named “Jenna Abrams” (its output made it unclear)—was suspended since this piece was posted. Why? I have no idea. But there you go.

HIGHWAY TO THE INDETERMINATE DANGER ZONE

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SCENE: An empty road at the edge of a desolate forest, a man is hammering a large sign in place. Another man enters carrying a fire extinguisher.

Man 1: Hello.

Man 2: Oh dear, hello! You startled me.

Man 1: Sorry. May I ask what you’re doing?

Man 2: Oh, of course. I’m just putting the finishing touches on this sign. How does it look?

Man 1: It looks like a sign.

Man 2: Well I know that but does it serve its purpose? Is it clear? Here … let me step back and have you read it.

Man 1:DANGER!! … Entry beyond this point may put you at risk of exposure to any or all of the following: Skinwalkers, Amazon Queens, the Children’s Crusade, or variations of Chimera. Please consult your most recent edition of the Contingency Map for the nearest point of safety.”

Man 2: I was worried that the double exclamation point would be rhetorically excessive.

Man 1: I would change “point of safety” to “safe area.”

Man 2: You would?

Man 1: It’s more efficient, I think.

Man 2: Oh … yes, of course. I agree.

Man 1: I have questions about all this stuff here.

Man 2: Oh … such as?

Man 1: Like, what is it?

Man 2: Perhaps I should explain.

Man 1: Please.

Man 2: You know when, in the early days of the catastrophe, the Contingency Committee saw it fit to color-code the terrain?

Man 1: Yeah.

Man 2: Green for an area that was safe, red for an area of precise danger, and orange for an area of indeterminate danger. There were no problems with the first two. Green, red; pretty clear-cut. But orange was more ambiguous. Some people didn’t know if it was the same as red, other people thought it was basically okay, and went in none the wiser with little good coming of it. And since the Contingency Committee is more or less in dispose, I took it upon myself to clarify the matter.

Man 1: So you’ve been going in and letting people know of the danger?

Man 2: I haven’t been going in exactly.

Man 1: So how do you know about any of this?

Man 2: Well … I don’t, technically.

Man 1: You made this stuff up?

Man 2: Not so much as “made up” as “deduced through a painstaking qualitative analytical process.” No one knows what’s behind this sign. So, given the various events since the initial catastrophe, I sat down and thought of what could possibly exist within these territories, and gave them names that I thought had really good branding potential. You know, stuff that really sticks in the memory.

Man 1: Okay, so what are they?

Man 2: Ah, very glad you asked! Let me just get out my notebook here. Ah! So … Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are roving gangs who set traps in the woods hoping for a poor sap to wander in and ensnare him or her for their sustenance.

Man 1: Cannibals?

Man 2: Yes! And not only for digestive but also for aesthetic sustenance, replacing conventional textile adornments with the hides of their kill.

Man 1: And who are the Amazon Queens?

Man 2: Ah, yes. The Amazon Queens are an all- or predominantly female offshoot of the Skinwalkers.

Man 1: Roving female cannibals who eat only men?

Man 2: Not at all! They are a vegetarian group who use men in elaborate rituals to assure bountiful harvests. They also take certain trophies, so to speak, as tokens of good fortune. But as the soil is infertile and no one has any fortune, they do, much to their considerable regret, resort to cannibalism.

Man 1: And the Children’s Crusaders are also cannibals? But children?

Man 2: Gah! Get your head out of the gutter. Of course not. They are a puckish cohort predisposed to capers and schemes, which largely entail the fleecing of green zone rations. But they cannot, or will not, be held down by the strictures of green zone protocols.

Man 1: Sounds kind of charming.

Man 2: I mean, yes, if you cross them they will use your head as a rugby ball.

Man 1: Rugby?

Man 2: Very impromptu and idiosyncratically guided rugby, but still!

Man 1: Ah ha. And dare I even ask about the Chimeras?

Man 2: Mutant beast hybrids! Very imposing and powerful.

Man 1: Why can’t the cannibals just hunt them?

Man 2: Are you crazy? The Chimeras rule the night, come in unpredictable combinations, and are more than novice at camouflage.

Man 1: My mistake.

Man 2: I excuse you of that error. It’s a very complicated ecosystem I’ve devised.

Man 1: And they all live right over there?

Man 2: I can’t say for certain, nor will anyone else be able to, because even before revisions this is the perfect deterrent.

Pause.

Man 1: Is there something wrong.

Man 2: It’s weird, you haven’t disappeared.

Man 1: Pardon?

Man 2: You are a parabolic figment of my imagination, right? Sent to tell me that this is all going to work out?

Man 1: No, my name is Kurt.

Man 2: Oh. Well, I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with your car trouble then.

Man 1: Oh I don’t have any car trouble.

Man 2: Then what’s that fire extinguisher for?

Man 1: This is not a fire extinguisher.

Man 2: What the hell is it?

Man 1: It is an eraser!

Man 2: What?

Man 1: I am Kurt of the Eraser Brigade. You see, like you, we had the same concern that the coding system was flawed, and also like you we took it upon ourselves to correct it. But unlike you we decided to just turn the orange zones into red ones, spreading the Pestilence to whatever the hell dwells within them. It’s more efficient, I think. Frankly I’m disappointed you hadn’t also “deduced” us. Ah well, maybe the element of surprise is better.

Man 2: Probably yeah.

Man 1: Well, I do appreciate you saving me the trouble of having to go further in than usual. You’re right that that’s some scary shit. So I’m going to need you to move back for me.

Man 2: Back?

Man 1: Yeah, a little scooch.

Man 2: Like this?

Man 1: A liiiiitle more. A little bit more. No, like, behind the sign.

Man 2: Behind the sign? But—

Man 1: Yes, exactly. Now let me just … [straps on gas mask] … There we go. Alright. [pulls pin and sprays diseased solution]

Man 2: Hey, what fu— [hacks and chokes]

Man 1: Very good! Now walk in that direction if it’s not too much trouble.

Man 2: I feel kind of fuzzy all over.

Man 1: That won’t last.

Man 1 packs up his things as Man 2 stumbles into the forest. Standing before the sign, he takes out a marker, and writes “point of safety safe area.”

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN PUT-ON

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1990 stands in history as the last time the English were well and truly mad at us. True enough, there may have been moments since when we as a nation had perturbed them for one reason or another. But in such occurrences there is something trifling, they are like misunderstandings in comic error, careless blunders that inevitably extend from countries being countries. What I’m thinking of is altogether more momentous, nigh on unforgivable. It is an instance of trust betrayed, boundaries callously breached, an affair’s bliss wholly upended into cruel tragedy. Between the two nations it may not, on the surface, bear any lasting effects, but I find no event more revealing of their respective characters and ultimately their irreconcilability.

“Mudhoney are not the pig-fucking sulphate-rotten greasy biker Viking stormtroopers with one foot in the grave and the other in a nun’s entrails their music suggests,” wrote NME’s Steve Wells. “If Mudhoney had been sent to Vietnam,” he goes on, “they would have all been Radar from M*A*S*H. Mudhoney are geeky motherlovers, all matchstick arms and legs and horn-rimmed glasses and small bottoms and boyish fun. They are far too intelligent as individuals to believe in the rock ’n’ roll woah, they seem to be making a career out of one huge elongated piss-take.”

That probably needs some context.

In 1989, American media was an unfriendly place for independent music. If an underground act wanted any substantial exposure, it was much more likely to be gotten in the United Kingdom. Understanding this arrangement, Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman wanted to maximize coverage for its roster in the burgeoning grunge scene. And they were willing to stake their precarious solvency on it, flying Melody Maker’s Everett True to Seattle, wining and dining him and giving him full access to bands like Mudhoney, Tad, and Nirvana. It was perhaps the first indie rock presser, and it was a complete success. According to Michael Azerrad, True wrote “a glowing, if slightly condescending, roundup of Sub Pop’s roster.” Pavitt suspected that Seattle’s “white trash” garage lumberjack aesthetic would only sweeten the appeal. The rugged Americans, like the raccoon-skin cap pioneers of yore, were authentic representations of the colonial spirit: beer-sodden, half-crazed forest dwellers who perhaps confused their guitars for chainsaws. Things worked out well for Nirvana in short order, but Tad and Mudhoney did not fare so well. As soon as it was discovered that Tad Doyle was a university-trained musician and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner also had college degrees, the mystique had been lifted, revealing, as any Irish writer had done in so many centuries past, the prime defect of Englishness: the mood that sours on finding a joke they are not in on.

Though it can’t be said that Arm, Turner, or Doyle suffered at the hands of English turnaround, the drubbing they took must connote some measure of sacrifice meriting even modest declamation of heroism. For this was not a simple matter of executing a flawless troll but also, by some measure, a stance of principle in defense of the most enduring American ideal: tastelessness.

Perhaps on the part of the English press there was some wishful thinking in its discovery of grunge. But in defense to them it was thinking rooted in safe assumption rather than in wrongheadedness. America’s culture is flat even while its geography and its society are not. There are no heights anyone may climb so that one may see farther out than anyone else or breathe more rarified air. As such, vulgarity of so authentic a type as to border on spiritual is often assumed to be every American’s default setting. Refinement in America is a kind of put-on, a commentary; Jay Gatsby staring at his stupid green light.

But if there are no cultural peaks there are also no cultural valleys. We accept that Dwight Macdonald had failed in his crusade against “Midcult,” but I don’t believe we ever understood quite in what way he failed. Macdonald typified middlebrow as the leveler of the refined high culture and folksy low culture. But his trifecta rests on the assumption that American culture can comfortably accommodate it, and keep its components at arm’s length at all times. It rests moreover on the assumption that Americans have the wherewithal—indeed the moral obligation—to resign themselves to this imposed boredom. This is not so simple. Susan Sontag wrote as much four years after Macdonald with “Notes on Camp”:

Aristocracy is a position vis-á-vis culture (as well as vis-á-vis power), and the history of Camp taste is the history of snob taste. But since no authentic aristocrats in the old sense exist today to sponsor special tastes, who is the bearer of this taste? Answer: an improvised self-elected class … who constitute themselves as aristocrats of taste.

She goes on:

The experiences of Camp are based on the great discovery that the sensibility of high culture has no monopoly upon refinement. Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste.

Sontag had initially singled out homosexuals as the primary “self-elected class,” but real estate on the American flatland is rather limitless, and people of all stripes have as much opportunity to refine and play with the contents of their culture, and to do so as slyly and subtly as they wish, free of airs and agitprop. The English see Americans as being tone deaf to irony, and are shocked when they see us practicing it like a natural, if not fully aware, rhythm. Jay Gatsby is putting us on, ball culture is putting us on, the Kennedys were putting us on, Sub Pop was putting us on. Put another way, there will never, and should never, be an American Roger Scruton.

Though the flatland is vast, it is also not safe. It is as subject as anything else to development schemes. Even if one, like Macdonald, cannot build upon it, one can dig into it with much greater ease.

Vulgarity is talked about as if it is monolithic, but it is not without its own hues and dimensions. Vulgarity can be crass and ignorant; it can also be impatient and indifferent, clumsy and obvious, or just really dull. These types have gotten beneath our sensitivities in various combinations, though never to the point of suffocation. If at times they seemed on the verge of being totally pervasive there have always been escape hatches if one knew where to look. It’s an arrangement one can appreciate in hindsight, however, as vulgarities now seem to be in active and bitter competition with one another for our space. They are large, lumbering creatures, offensive to the ecosystem but with callused, impenetrable hides.

One is quite well known, serving as our national advocate, an unenviable position that also offers much leeway in how it is carried it out. Donald Trump’s style is one of familiar carelessness and idiosyncratic awkwardness. This had always been singular in his gold-plated personal presentation, which was not so much a natural tackiness as a piling on of clarifications. It has carried over into his propaganda aesthetic, consisting of “poorly-edited digital content in which serious and significant subjects are given bad color treatments, low resolution, and carelessly incorrect accouterments.” And as with anything Trump does, the line separating intention and incompetence is debatable, but the Trump White House’s visual style was picked up on by Tim Heidecker well before Trump even declared his candidacy. Heidecker’s skewering of Trump’s public access populism (rooted as it is in his mockery of Herman Cain) has become an elaborate obsession—his Decker series, itself a spinoff, has produced spinoffs of its own—but is instructive in highlighting the opposing vulgarity, from which it stands refreshingly apart.

Much controversy has been swirling around Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar for this year’s Shakespeare in the Park. Caesar has been unambiguously modeled on Trump and the play features an assassination that is said to be notably violent. Right wing media has been in a fury over it in the past week and corporate sponsors such as Delta have withdrawn support. I suspect the fallout was an intended, or at least expected, outcome, even if “notably violent” is relative in Shakespeare, let alone in his immediate successors. Nevertheless, critics assure the play’s quality. It is “mind-crushingly good,” according to Jessica Vanasco, “in no small part because it speaks precisely to our times. Images of the Constitution and the American Founding Fathers loom over the set. … Protesters wear pussy hats and ‘Resist’ armbands and wrangle with the police in a ‘Black-Lives-Matter’-style. Those police are clad in riot gear.”

Eustis has defended his production not as an attack on Trump, but as a warning to the public that, if they just so happen to want to unseat someone who is perceivably tyrannical, they must do so wisely. The play may indeed be adequately staged and performed, and certainly this is not the first Shakespeare production to be skewed for contemporary commentary, but Eustis’s didacticism on and offstage is revealing in what little faith this production has in the intelligence of its audience. As Richard Loncraine, Julie Taymor, Ralph Fiennes, Joss Whedon, Andrew Fleming, and Steve Bannon know, there are many levels at which Shakespeare can be modern. This past November, as Noah Millman positively cites, brought a less explicit but still recognizable update of Coriolanus[1]. Eustis’s Trump framing, however, makes this Julius Caesar rather claustrophobic to the imagination. Perhaps that is the point. Trump, having seemingly state-mandated the lowbrow, has put culture in crisis mode, and the Trumpified Julius Caesar amounts to a Patriot Act for the creative class. Subtlety, playfulness, even joy, are suspended to make space for relevance and utility until further notice. As much as we cannot overlook the challenges Trump poses with his day-to-day idiocy, cultural agitprop poses its own, at once overstating culture’s use and undercutting its possibilities. “The ‘universality’ of [The Crucible],” Robert Warshow wrote, “belongs neither to literature nor to history, but to that journalism of limp erudition which assumes that events are to be understood by referring them to categories, and which is therefore never at a loss for comment.”

Eustis is at least correct to place onus on the people for things being as they are and for those things to be righted. But the people, even on a good day, are a confused lot. Politics buckles under confusion; culture is sustained by it. When the latter is made subservient to the former, particularly to a generalized and abstract variation of it, it circles the drain. To be sure, proselytizing that culture remains vibrant, ironic, and porous is far easier than maintaining it, and doing so would not solve political conflict. In fact it may just as easily worsen it. But to determine what does and does not edify a people, to effectively erect a dam in culture’s stream, is tantamount to saying that the people’s personality is its own worst enemy. To my knowledge no one’s life has been given a new lease by having heard “Jack Pepsi,” but a culture, mature and confident, knows that “Jack Pepsi” is a fact of the American situation, and could not be of any other.

1 To be entirely fair, Millman saw and liked Julius Caesar, finding insights on power and violence in its most controversial direction.

WHAT SHOULD ADULTS WATCH?: A COUNTER-LISTICLE

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Over at First Things, Mark Bauerlein, senior editor and father of a son on the verge of adolescence, has assembled a list of films and television shows meant to serve as a bulwark against the intrusions of modern commerce and culture that flank his son and other boys in all directions:

Every time he encounters a television screen (we don’t have one at home), hears a hip-hop song blasting out of a car creeping down the street, spots a billboard or posters peddling clothes, new movies, the NBA and NFL, or automobiles, or goes to the web and catches ads for the latest games and videos of scandals and embarrassments, he observes bad behavior and bad words and bad values.

His solution, then, is a steady diet of media, dating largely from the early-to-mid-20th century studio system, which reinforces proper masculine attributes and moral attitudes. That is, “courtliness, strong silent types, men of substance, or sprezzatura” as opposed to the current youth culture that encourages being “loud, sarcastic, effeminate, touchy, vain, smart-alecky, and raunchy.” To his credit, his selections don’t seem to evince much of the latter. 1939’s Jesse James is “short on history but long on character.” The List of Adrian Messenger shows “the resolute pursuit of a killer without all the lurid silliness of today’s murder mysteries.” Yul Brynner’s portrayal of the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments “is a living lesson in the pitfalls of stubborn authority.” And so on.

Having only seen the very good Get Smart series I cannot quibble with the rest of its contents, though Dad Movie completists might be scratching their heads at the omission of Bridge Over the River Kwai or, say, Tender Mercies (which my own father claims is the greatest film ever made). That said, I’ve taken it upon myself to do a list of my own, because why not? As I am not a parent I’m not going to step in and tell other parents what their children should be watching. So I turned the concept on its head and developed a syllabus for adults.

“Adulthood” has become a confused term this day and age, as Bauerlein might agree, but I’ve decided to revel in that confusion a bit, embracing nuance in theme and time of release, finding examples which address different questions and instill different lessons. Some films depict the relationships between adults and children, some address society at large, and some are youthful TV shows that have stood the test of time. There is more than enough opportunity to point out my own omissions—It Follows, RushmoreThe Candidate, etc.—but hopefully these works are sufficient in their own ways. As with Bauerlein’s list, I offer them in no particular order.

Repo Man (1984) – I’m not sure if the greatness of this film can be attested by Alex Cox’s casting instincts or Emilio Estevez’s lack of range, perhaps a bit of both. While someone like Sean Penn or Patrick Swayze could finagle the role of the spiritually and materially bereft Otto into a second-coming-of-James Dean star turn, Estevez instead gave us the boorish, immature, awkward, clueless, and, therefore, most accurate portrayal of teen aimlessness in recent memory. This film is perhaps the most sympathetic to Bauerlein’s own argument, depicting southern California as a wasteland of apathy, sterility, greed, and burnouts. Also aliens. It moreover depicts how that aimlessness drifts into a dark, preemptive critique of mentor culture under Harry Dean Stanton and his band of blue-collar misanthropes (all named after cheap beers) at the repo lot.

The French Connection (1971) – I watch William Friedkin’s cop drama every Christmastime. I suspect because it prepares me for the brutal New York winter it renders with greater starkness than any violence. And it is a violent film, fumblingly and disastrously so. While its contemporary Dirty Harry depicted a central detective with the moral fervor of Martin Luther and the procedural scruples of a Jesuit, French Connection’s “Popeye” Doyle possessed even less of the latter and none of the former. Indeed, it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what Gene Hackman’s Doyle is after aside from chasing an obsession at the expense of property and life, let alone justice.

The Long Goodbye (1973) – In which Robert Altman takes Leigh Brackett’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s greatest novel and spins it into a kind of Rip Van Winkle tale. Phillip Marlowe embodies classic manhood and morality somehow adrift in a Los Angeles that is freer but also more brutal and corrupt than he seems able to comprehend. Elliott Gould’s proto-slacker portrayal is blackly comic as he stumbles in and out of danger as a pawn in entangled schemes with all the bewilderment of being on the outside of a cruel in-joke.

Hardcore (1979) – I never could get into Taxi Driver but I’ve always liked Paul Schrader’s voyeuristic, under-the-radar morality tales. George C. Scott is a Calvinist business owner in the Midwest whose daughter disappears into the porn industry, and who’s resolved to gain entry into its grimiest corners with a spiritualist sex worker sidekick, and extract her, come what may. That plot, a pornographic fantasy all its own, serves as a dressing for Scott’s descent from his bubble and seeing just how fallen the fallen world can be. It is a lot like The Long Goodbye, only Scott’s outsider has a safe place to escape.

The Night of the Hunter (1955) – Charles Laughton’s debut film was so despised upon its release that it became his only film. To be fair, it does make some sense that no one at that time would be chomping at the bit for an English outsider to turn the American countryside into an expressionist battleground between good and evil. But he did, and we are the richer for it. Good, in the guise of the pious Lillian Gish, triumphs of course, but not before getting the full measure of Robert Mitchum’s satanic Rev. Powell as he relentlessly pursues two children of an old cellmate unknowingly hiding a fortune. It is a story of innocence as well as a dualistic rendering of the wonder and mystery underlying America’s inseparable religiosity.

Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – In the decade that brought us Kids and Doom Generation, it’s hard to imagine that those might not have been the darkest youth-themed films of the time. Not that it wasn’t for lack of trying. Though it contains no drugs or sex, and in fact presents itself like a harmless quirky teen comedy, Todd Solondz’s indie classic is wholly unrestrained and far more wrenching in its portrayal of the very painful and lonely trials of female adolescence. We follow Heather Matarazzo’s Dawn “Wiener-Dog” Wiener as she is ignored at home and tormented at school. Gawky, socially tactless, and generally unremarkable, Dawn seeks to overcome that common desire to be anyone other than who she is. Solondz offers her no respite, but no comic expense either, trading exploitation for empathy, which he would carry into subsequent films to pedophiles (Happiness, Life During Wartime), anti-abortion extremists (Palindromes), and the man-child archetype (Dark Horse).

The Last Days of Disco (1998) – While I’m happy that Whit Stillman finally achieved his dream of adapting an actual Jane Austen work with Love and Friendship, I’m of the opinion that he was at the peak of his powers with this film. The Last Days of Disco is Stillman at his most fun and most realized, and perhaps least off-putting to people who aren’t wealthy or naturally wry. Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny exude enviable chemistry as newly minted young urban professionals trying to maneuver early-1980s New York City with mixed success. It is a more mature and more lasting generational rejoinder to Reality Bites; indeed, it may be Stillman’s remarks to the graduating class of whenever.

The Adventures of Pete and Pete (1992-1996) Nickelodeon never seemed entirely sure of what it had with Pete and Pete. Outwardly, it is a kind of starter kit for cult obsession. It is the first show, at least among people of a certain age, to instill the notion that not only was it okay to be a bit weird but that almost everyone is. In fact Pete and Pete subverted Nickelodeon’s “kids rule” marketing of the time by portraying adults as well-meaning but misunderstood, whether it be parents, teachers, crossing guards, or the ice cream man. Airing just prior to the internet’s dawn, the show never gained a network post-cancellation, but fans always manage to find one another as if by some strange unseen tether. And it is a joy when they do.

Daria (1997-2001) – For a while, Daria was living in the shadow of the show from which it spun off: Beavis and Butthead. Daria now lives in the shadow of its own protagonist, by no fault of its own, of course. Coming in as fans of Pete and Pete—and Clarissa Explains It All for that matter—were entering high school, precocious teens with misanthropic but hyper-vulnerable streaks were few and far between on television in the late Clinton era. The Daria type is well known even to some who haven’t seen the show, and viewers can identify with it with some pride. But that is to overlook the depth of the show’s world, which like Pete and Pete found empathy and humanity in even its most vacuous characters. And it was not reluctant to call bullshit on Daria’s own cynical affectations.

The Innocents (1961) – Depending on who you talk to, this ambiguity rich Truman Capote adaptation of the already ambiguity rich Henry James short story “The Turn of the Screw” is either gothic horror or psychological thriller. It is either the story of a godly governess trying to protect her charges from the menace of two dead lovers or of Victorian repression embodied trying to wrap her head around the notions of sexual agency and children being sinister entirely of their own cognizance. I mean, it’s a masterpiece either way you split it.

The Go-Between (1971) – The final of three collaborations between Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter, The Go-Between seems to go hand-in-hand with The Innocents. Though ostensibly a period romance and a coming of age story, based on the L.P. Hartley novel, the film also functions as a kind of prelude to a ghost story. A boy of low social standing spends the summer at his much wealthier schoolmate’s family estate where he develops and infatuation with his friend’s older sister (Julie Christie) and befriends her lover, the rich but common neighbor (Alan Bates). The two use his naivety to coordinate their affair. That should end well. Anglophiles are welcome to savor the pitch-perfect aristocratic gentility provided they can withstand the slow burn of traumas being passed on and lingering without end.

Morvern Callar (2002) – Admittedly I could put any Lynne Ramsay film on this list, but Morvern Callar seems to me her signature achievement. Samantha Morton is a Scottish supermarket drone who finds an escape by replacing her dead boyfriend’s name on his novel manuscript with her own, road trips in southern Spain, and gets a £100,000 publishing advance. That’s about it, really. Lynne Ramsay is one of the best filmmakers working today; Morvern Callar establishes her mastery of visual lyricism. It also has an aces soundtrack. Think of it as the timeless and understated Other to the dated and garish Trainspotting.

The Brood (1979) – The Brood is not David Cronenberg’s best film, but it is his most personal, something uncommon for a filmmaker otherwise thought to be rather aloof. In addition to its satirical commentary on experimental therapy, The Brood is an illustration of the traumas of divorce and the perpetuation of patterns of abuse in that typically graphic Cronenbergian style, in which a father in a custody battle over his daughter must protect her from homicidal childlike creatures asexually birthed from his ex-wife as an embodiment of her rage. “The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic,” Cronenberg said. Roger Ebert initially wrote off the film as an “el sleazo exploitation film,” but The Brood declare’s Cronenberg’s vision that the personal is every bit as horrific as the otherworldly, in fact more so.

Little Sister (2016) – Addison Timlin plays a nun in 2008 New York City on the verge of taking her first vows, who returns to North Carolina to face old family traumas, including a brother deformed by the Iraq War and a suicidal mother. I’m not sure the backdrop of Barack Obama’s election was necessary other than illustrating something that seems so long in the past, but the low-key indie film was a hopeful bright spot in the wastes of 2016. It demonstrates that depictions of family and faith need not be saccharine or cynical in SXSW cinema. It is also worth noting that it features Ally Sheedy as Timlin’s mother and Barbara Crampton as her Mother Superior.