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by PopMatters Staff

18 Oct 2009

The Conformist
Releasing: 20 October

Former PopMatters scribe Thomas Bartlett, better known as Doveman, has a new record coming out this week. His mellow and delicate pop is always a delight.

01 Breathing Out
02 Best Thing
03 Memorize
04 Hurricane
05 Aftermath
06 From Silence
07 Cat Awoke
08 Angel’s Share
09 Burgundy Stain
10 Tigers
11 Castles

“Angel’s Share” [MP3]

by Rob Horning

17 Oct 2009

Christopher Shea linked to this post at the Awl, in which Tom Scocca threw up all over Mark Greif’s earnest look in n+1 at sexual freedom as a way out of capitalism’s confinements. Greif writes,

“Sex without consequences” becomes the metaphor for cooperative exchange without gain or loss. For basing life on the things that are free. For the anticapitalist experience par excellence.

Scocca’s retort to this sort of sentiment: “What is this CUDDLE-PUDDLE BULLSHIT?”

Though Scocca is taking a deliberately obtuse and unsympathetic tack to squeeze out a few laughs at Greif’s expense, this is a fair question. Greif is polemicizing about “repressive sentimentalism” but puts forward his own sort of sentimentalized absolute—sex for pleasure. (What David Brent celebrates as Free Love on the Free Love Freeway.) Greif’s interpretation of domination as repression ignores Foucault’s arguments about the political uses of pleasure. I’m tempted to call this move repressive tolerance, though that doesn’t quite fit. Actually, Greif is arguing that gay-marriage rights are a form of repressive tolerance, masking the underlying domestic system of oppression. Power, however, can work through permissions as well as through prohibitions in the sexual sphere as well. One can end up in the trap of competing to see who can become the most liberated, a competition that suits consumerism—which aids this pursuit with a variety of lifestyle accouterments—just fine.

Greif’s take on free love is grounded in an essentialized version of libido:

Yet you have to stick with sex, as a utopian—even when you’re not a particularly lubricious person yourself.
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies.

The amount of qualifications Greif has already had to put in that proposition is a clue that it’s pretty dubious. I’m reluctant to agree that a sexual relation is “a deep intuitive process.” It seems more a labile, tentatively constructed thing, highly normative as opposed to instinctual. I’m totally with Greif that marriage supports patriarchal arrangements regardless of the gender of those marrying, and that a radical restructuring of society would require a drastic reordering of domesticity. (Laura Kipnis makes a similar argument in Against Love.) But free-love utopianism feels like a short-circuiting of the sort of theorizing necessary to address the problem, which is ultimately one of who performs the socially necessary emotion work. Sex is great and all, but it is not the only “authentic” form of pleasure. To regard sexual relations as directly given to our consciousness is to submit to a fantasy about sex’s pure spontaneity, the final destination in the quest for an unmediated private and personal relation, independent of society.

But sexual desire is far from “universal” in its expression. The sexual relation is not necessarily economic in nature, but that doesn’t it mean it pre-exists economic relations or is capable of purifying them or that it is automatically egalitarian. Sex doesn’t inherently make you “love people.” That claim reimports the sentimental cant about love that he began by wanting to banish. Also, “Sex without consequences” is not really possible because all actions have consequences. Ruling out one particular set of consequences does not mean there are none at all. It seems morally foolish to posit as the ideal the ability to act without consequences—not to go all existential, but that makes for a freedom that is inherently meaningless. Acting in the world is the self’s pursuit of responsibility, but advocating the pursuit of pleasure “without consequences” as model behavior seems like a wish to abdicate it in the search for oblivion.

It seems to me Greif is more on the right track when he talks about the seductiveness of the existing system of marriage:

Domination depends rather on the beauty of sex with consequences, the pleasure of sex with consequences, to guarantee commitment to the family-centered fold. Women’s straight desire and wish for love and pleasure is the thing that’s supposed to seduce women back into the system of inequality—a beautiful inequality mentally structured by childbearing and the determination of your life course by the consequences of desire. It is beautiful, in its way; as oriental despotism was beautiful, too. You must give something up to leave the system—or else the system is revealed as naked and weak. Thus feminism always needs to be pictured publicly as sexless, man-hating, or just manless—not to mention babyless—or it would become appealing. (Indeed, baby love may furnish the greater lifetime erotic satisfaction for straight women, on the traditional system.) If desire fails to pull people back into patriarchy, patriarchy’s arsenal is diminished.

Yes. It seems that feminism needs to reach a point where it need not be deliberately “represented” at all—a point at which it so thoroughly saturates our values that the fact that someone is a “feminist” wouldn’t jump out at us. In other words, it needs to cease to be an identity and simply be a practice.

Chris Dillow linked to a paper that takes an entirely different approach to marriage.

I’m intrigued by this new paper on the economics of marriage by Gilles Saint-Paul.
He begins from the premise that the gains from marriage arise from innate biological differences between men and women - that men can have loads of children, but don‘t know which ones are theirs, whilst women cannot. Given this, marriage is a potentially mutually beneficial trade. Men get to know which children are theirs, which is utility-enhancing if they care about the human capital of their offspring. And women get someone to help (if only financially) with child-raising.

This, in Dillow’s interpretation, means that “repression of women’s sexuality operates to the benefit of second-rate men. If women were free to shag around, they’d only go with the best men and ignore lower-quality ones. Repression and marriage thus give second-rate blokes a chance.” When women pursue “sex without consequences,” by this reasoning, they curtail the possibility for sexual liberation for those average men who won’t find willing partners. That sounds a lot like the “nice guy syndrome.” Here’s a definition from the Urban Dictionary:

A annoying mental condition in which a heterosexual man concocts oversimplified ideas why women aren’t flocking to him in droves. Typically this male will whine and complain about how women never want to date him because he is “too nice” or that he is average in appearance. He often targets a woman who is already in a relationship; misrepresenting his intentions of wanting to be her friend and having the expectation that he is owed more than friendship because he is such a good listener. He is prone to brooding over this and passive aggressive behavior.
He is too stupid to realize the reason women don’t find him attractive is because he feels sorry for himself; he concludes that women like to be treated like shit.

As Greif notes, Houellebecq’s novels are about this problem—free love becomes institutionalized, yet “nice guys” find themselves under more pressure than ever to use prostitutes in order to get in on the action. Maybe Greif in his essay is trying to find a way to circumvent nice guyism without giving way to Tucker Max-ism, intellectualizing what is easily reduced to an alpha-male evolutionary premise in order to redeem it, dignify it, preserve it as “hopeful.” But as anyone who has seen the preview for Tucker Max’s movie knows, there is no hope for humanity.

by Bill Gibron

16 Oct 2009

Wow - did we have Brad Silberling all wrong. The director of this past Summer blankbuster Land of the Lost wasn’t insane when he decided to turn the beloved Sid and Marty Krofft semi-serious sci-fi kid show classic from the ‘70s into an over-meta irreverent romp. He wasn’t misguided when he cast Will Ferrell as the heroic father figure, Danny McBride as his snide sidekick, and Pushing Daises’ Anna Friel as a decidedly grown-up female adventurer. Every oddball turn - the exploring of sexual and scatological boundaries, the surrealism by way of Stuckey’s production design, the complete and utter reinvention and perversion of every character and concept forwarded by the original - was preplanned and approved by a studio that saw nothing but dollar signs. But after it bombed, barely covering a small percentage of its elephantine budget, dissatisfied viewers still apparently have the right to question his decisions.

The answers can be found on the commentary track to the newly released Blu-ray version of the film. Loaded with the kind of self-affirming explanations that help someone sleep at night, Silberling makes one thing very clear - everything you see onscreen was done on purpose, accomplished to take his memories of geekdom over the Saturday morning show and twist them into a pure post-modern mess. For this director, perhaps best known for guiding the first (and so far, only) Lemony Snicket film, as well as Caspar and City of Angels, there is nothing insulting here, nothing disrespectful to the nature of what Sid and Marty once created. For him, it’s all about artistic choices, about allowing his actors to adlib in surefire comedy creativity. So what if some of the humor is inappropriate, or even worse, unsuccessful. It’s all part of a bigger picture production ideal, one based on paying homage to the TV treasure while dumping all over it at the same time. If you can figure that backwards logic, you will love this film. If you can’t, a pristine 1080p image isn’t going to save you.

The story finds research scientist Dr. Will Marshall as a laughing stock. With everyone from Stephen Hawking to Today ‘s Matt Lauer mocking his theories, he’s been reduced to a running joke among local grade school science classes. When a visiting Oxford gal named Holly Cantrell comes calling, she wants to know about the success Marshall has had with his hypothetical time travel device. Sadly, it’s very little. Inspired by her sudden interest in his work, our hero fashions his amazing machine, and the pair go to test it at a local “mystery” spot. There they meet proprietor Will Stanton, a crude man with an even more rudimentary grasp on reality. Suddenly, Marshall’s contraption causes a spike in prevailing “tachyons”, and soon the trio is sent hurtling down a raging rapids and through a waterfall-inspired vortex. Waking up, they find themselves in the proverbial ‘Land of the Lost’, an oddball universe filled with ape creatures, lizard men, and rampaging dinosaurs.

Take Step Brothers, remove all the sibling rivalry humor, insert plenty of pee and poop gags, set it all in a surreal backlot that’s half Dino-Lion Country Safari, half Salvador Dali product placement dreamscape, and then pump as much Ferrell and McBride at the audience as possible. Call in the Kroffts, give the old coots a paycheck, and name the creation Land of the Lost. Then, sit back and watch as audiences…well, that’s the kicker, isn’t it. This remake/reboot/reimagining of the ‘70s stalwart about a family suddenly stuck in time and space is so uneven, so scattered in both approach and tone, that you don’t know whether to laugh or wince, shudder or simply stand up and walk out of the theater. If this is what $150 million buys today, then our country is really in a complete and utter economic meltdown.

Though he denies it in his discussion, part of the blame for this overripe frat house flop goes directly to Silberling. As the commentary makes abundantly clear, he feels that the best way to handle the Krofft’s cracked fantasy realm is to simply stick smarmy actors in the middle of a glorified greenscreen and let them riff until something salvageable can be created. It’s actually not a wholly bad idea. When placed in the right realm, Ferrell and McBride can be electric. They can be and usually are funnier than numerous lame laugh-fest wannabes. But here, they do nothing but tread water - and they do so poorly. We except a certain level of irreverence from the duo. What we get instead is an attitude so mocking that it makes the whole experience pointless. If the people on screen aren’t taking things at least semi-seriously, why should we.

This is not to say that Ferrell and McBride are bad, or miscast. Indeed, they are only playing to their orchestrated strengths and to an audience ready to lap up every bit of their anger-spawned spoofing. But like Mike Myers in The Love Guru, this is a film for confirmed fans only - and even that’s a stretch, quality wise. Anyone hoping to glimpse a bit of the old Land of the Lost magic will wince when the Sleestaks are transformed into Alien rip-offs, or when beloved Neanderthal Chaka turns out to be a hopeless horndog. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking a nostalgic favorite from several decades ago (right, The Brady Bunch Movie?). But this version pisses all over the original - literally. Indeed, there is a sequence dealing with dinosaur urine that has to go down in history as one of the most pointless bits of forced scatology ever.

But the biggest mistake that this Land of the Lost makes is the total disregard for the sci-fi setting created. Nothing is ever explained here - not even when plot point Enik shows up to send the narrative careening off into heroes and villain mode. Leonard Nimoy’s cameo is cast aside with complete disregard, and the ending is given over to cheap F/X and stunt work. Yet we’d buy all the bumbling and burlesque if we just understood the rules of this particular parallel space. Why the various derelict ships (including a couple of flying saucers)? Why the old school motel with convenient pool (ready for a pointless drug dream montage)? If the dinosaurs and Sleestaks don’t get along, how did they survive each other until now? And why does everything in this particular domain revolve around feces, phlegm, and numerous man/animal bodily fluids? Of course, once we hear the reasoning (in both the alternative narrative and the endless bonus features which produce their own kind of cynical backslapping), it still makes no sense.

For those who like their satire glib, snide, and on the decidedly stupid side, Land of the Lost may satisfy. It defiantly builds up a big head of silly steam trying. But in the end, the lack of any real affection for the original series will ward off the Krofft faithful, and Ferrell’s fans haven’t actually been reliable when it comes to making his movie’s consistently successful (right, Semi-Pro and Stranger than Fiction?). Indeed, the only demographic assured of enjoying themselves are the same ADD-addled viewership that makes random hit or (mostly) miss shows like Family Guy a Fox favorite. In fact, if you didn’t see the other names listed among the credits, you’d swear Seth MacFarlane and his band of comedically challenged cronies were responsible for this hopeless hatchet job. As long as you enjoy the actors involved, Land of the Lost will mostly deliver. If you don’t, you’ll vanish into an entertainment void all your own - which might be what Silberling had in mind all along.

by Katharine Wray

16 Oct 2009

Authors Nona Willis Aronowitz and Emma Bee Bernstein document and reveal American women across the continent in Girldrive: Criss-crossing America, Redefining Feminism, while traveling the literal and metaphorical road. With a manifest certainty, these life-long friends hit the road in search of “what do other 20-something women care about? Have they heard of this nebulous idea of ‘feminism’ and do they relate to it?” As recent college grads, Nona and Emma decide to take this trip to hear women’s different stories about feminism in America, using their talents as writers and photographers.

There is a trio of plots being told in this unassuming book. The cover and size of the book is similar to that of a photo album, but it’s filled with more than just pictures and memories. The book starts with an ominous dedication, “For two kick-ass feminists who left this world too early”: Emma Bee Bernstein, one of the authors of Girldrive, and Ellen Willis, Nona’s mother.  This information lends a bittersweet poignancy to certain transitional passages.

As Nona and Emma travel the United States, they can’t help but feel “entrenched in a cinematic and literary idea of road tripping.” This nostalgic theme runs through the book, making it at times read like a travelogue, in the cleverest way. Like any well told road trip, this tale stirs wanderlust in the reader. They actually travel from sea to shining sea.

However, above all, this is a book about feminism. As Nona and Emma travel through the States, they interview young women about perspectives on being a woman in modern America. While the authors are strident feminists and embrace the word and it’s history, many of their subjects don’t subscribe to the term, ignore it, or protest against it. Yet, all of these women have very strong opinions about being empowered females.

The tales of these women accompanied by stirring photographs offers a decidedly female perspective in Girldrive. Nona and Emma manage to exhibit the feminine perspective on the American countryside, as well as social and racial issues, with a sense of humor.

by Rob Horning

16 Oct 2009

Metafilter linked to this interview with Andrea Natella, director of Guerrigliamarketing.it, which (I think) pursues culture jamming under the auspices of being an advertising agency. The translation isn’t great, but as far as I can tell, the idea behind this is either that ads have become their opposite, or that resistance to ads has become a latter-day form of advertising in itself. (I prefer the far more cynical second interpretation.) In Natella’s own words: “Guerrigliamarketing.it was born out of a bet. Is it possible to imagine modalities of radical participation on the universe of brands and at the same time present oneself as an advertising agency? Is it possible for the professionals of communication not to give up their own political ideas in carrying out their job?”

What happens when you make “resistance to marketing” your brand? Is that some sort of parallax approach to advertising? Can you converse in the discourse of brands without tacitly endorsing it? Doing Wacky Package-style art seems to vindicate the power of brands rather than subvert it. I guess I am skeptical of the whole “culture jamming” concept, which seems less like Situationist detournement than borderline-cruel pranksterism (sort of like Improv Everywhere). I know it is supposed to “make us think”, but culture jamming often ends up mocking the consumers it purportedly wants to win over.

It strikes me that a strategy of less clever nuisances might be more effective in slowing the juggernaut of thoughtless consumption. When an effort is made to mitigate the inconvenience that inevitably arises from monkeying with the retail market with what can be taken as hipster humor, it alienates the discomfited even further. That makes the subversion of culture jamming into advertising a weird sort of dialectic that ends up vindicating consumers, if you believe Natella, anyway: “What we try to do is to increase the awareness that true value is produced by the consumers.” This is a familiar theme in cultural studies, that consuming culture is an underappreciated form of production—users innovate new techniques to use things, and produce signs and cultural capital with regard to what cultural goods mean. But that doesn’t mean marketing is ultimately benign; it just suggests that its modality is depressingly easy for laypeople to adopt. The value we produce is often something that marketers most appreciate; it is our doing their job for them. So while Natella touts the more obvious capacity of guerrilla marketing to be confrontational—“We made people think that in order to sell a company [the agency] is ready to do anything, also on the border of illegality. We tried to confuse these borders”—the more radical implication is that we are all being drafted as guerrilla-marketing recruits without especially realizing it. Marketing has so saturated culture —with people adopting the discourse of branding, with online activity being tracked and parsed by companies to serve ads, with people embracing hype as a conversational strategy, and so on—that we produce ads simply by virtue of living our lives.

(Incidentally, do not follow the link to thisman.org. It will haunt your nightmares.)

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