Filed under: Film | Tags: Academy Awards, Colonialism, Danny Boyle, Dharavi, Horatio Alger, Imperialism, India, Irvine Welsh, Mitu Sengupta, Mumbai, Oscars, Q & A, Ragged Dick, Salman Rushdie, Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, Vikas Swarup
“I think we can afford to leave Mott Street now,” he continued.
“This house isn’t as neat as it might be, and I shall like to live
in a nicer quarter of the city.”
“All right,” said Dick. “We’ll hunt up a new room to-morrow. I shall
have plenty of time, having retired from business. I’ll try to get
my reg’lar customers to take Johnny Nolan in my place. That boy
hasn’t any enterprise. He needs some body to look out for him.”
“You might give him your box and brush, too, Dick.”
“No,” said Dick; “I’ll give him some new ones, but mine I want
to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an
ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better.”
“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name,
and think of yourself now as”–
“Richard Hunter, Esq.,” said our hero, smiling.
“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.
— Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (1868)
Boy we love that rags to riches song. And so does the Academy, with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) picking up a trunk-full of Oscars Sunday night. I thought the movie was fun, and my initial response was that considering the minefield of potential exploitation such a project portends, director Danny Boyle did rather well. He even hired an Indian co-director, Lovleen Tandan, to give the film that added oomph of authenticity. I forgot, of course, that I don’t know anything about India, Mumbai or the slumdogs. Boyle caught me, like the American tourist johns in his film, staring at my own navel and liking what I saw.
Of course, Slumdog‘s Mumbai bares little resemblance to the real one. As Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes in a wonderful anti-colonialist tonic in the Star,
Most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard (and are promoting) it not as a cinematically spectacular and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.
Nothing could be more worrying. Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice….
If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.
However, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty. Its real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary area, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.
Other than the children (the “slumdogs”), no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to The Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between $50 and $100 million (U.S.).
Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cyber cafés and, according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.
In a somewhat more cantankerous tone, Salman Rushdie echoes Sengupta’s analysis and states that Boyle’s film ‘piles impossibility upon impossibility’, citing the geographical difficulty of travelling 1000 miles to the Taj Mahal between scenes and the significant improbability that the Malik brothers could procure a handgun in India.
Indeed, when we compare Slumdog to Boyle’s masterpiece, Trainspotting (1996), the fulsome laminate of the former begins to peel. While Renton, Spud and Sick Boy evince a startling grit and humanity in the tenements of Glasgow, there is no consonant authenticity to the flat protagonists of Slumdog. Indeed, when we examine the source material of both scripts, the dissonance between them is severe. Consider Irvine Welsh’s disjointed and vernacular novel set (unlike the film) in Leith where Welsh was born and raised, and the author of Q & A (2005), Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who writes in English. Surely, too, Boyle, with his working-class Irish roots, is closer to the source material of Trainspotting than he is to the hearsay evidence from which he created his vision of the Dharavi slums.
I admit that discussions of ‘authenticity’ get us nowhere, but it is important to point out the scale of this illusion when it comes to films like Slumdog Millionaire. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy such films, of course we do—after all, Horatio Alger made a career out of feelgood picaresque tales of the poverty stricken achieving bougeois comfort through the power of their courage and generosity over a hundred years ago, and he was hardly the first. But because when movies like this begin to seem like more than they are (I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the nauseating Oscar-winning Paul Haggis film Crash ) we need to inject a bit of perspective into the whole operation. Slumdog Millionaire was not an ‘extraordinary journey’; it does not prove that if you have ‘passion and…belief… if you have those two things, truly anything is possible’. It proves no more than that we like the taste of popcorn; that we like to believe that the poor of the world are so cursed because of their cold hearts and moral failings, and that true spirits can persevere if their will is strong; it proves, finally, that as long as we can paint our own imaginative versions of the Other, we need not confront her ourselves.
Filed under: Film | Tags: American Beauty, Cold War, James Woods, John Updike, Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mad Men, Mark Grief, Nostalgia, Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates, Sam Mendes, The Lives of Others
Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road
I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.
So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:
Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….
Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.
If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.
Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West. Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.
Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?
The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.
One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work. The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable. We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.
Filed under: Film | Tags: Bedford Falls, Capitalism, Ceci n'est pas une pipe, Christmas, film noir, Frank Capra, Gary Kamiya, It's a Wonderful Life, La trahison des images, Rene Magritte
I always disliked Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a teenager. I couldn’t buy that George Bailey, the intrepid cavalier whose only reward for discarding his lifelong hopes and dreams for conservative family security was not committing suicide and not losing the livelihood he never wanted. I know there’s suposed to be something about the respect of your peers and the triumph of the human heart, but it always seemed rather thin to me. This was eventualy compounded with an innate suspicion that because Paramount ‘forgot’ to renew its copyright in 1974 and let it enter the public domain, it became a “Holiday Classic” simply by virtue that broadcasters could play the movie ad nauseum.
Lately, however, my opinion of the film is changing. I’ve decided that Capra’s film is essentially a film noir in sheep’s clothing. Aesthetically, of course, the film uses many noir tropes: voice overs, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting and the cynical irony of Jimmy Stewart. But this style evidences nothing more than perhaps the fashion of the times. What truly establishes It’s a Wonderful Life as a noir is its treatment of the noir subject: the tough, ironic specimen of compromised masculinity who is drawn rather than travels through life, a a passive observer to forces beyond his control.
Gary Kamiya at Salon recently wrote about Capra’s opus, in which he hails the part of the film that is most explicitly film noir: the sultry, urban portrayal of a George Bailey-less world.
In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!
It sure does. Or at least, it certainly appears to. But what is particularly striking about this section of the film is that Pottersville more closely resembles the ‘real’ America: dehumanizing and debauched, rife unemployment, and criminally overseen by a General Sternwood-esque capitalist magnate, Mr. Potter. Bedford Falls, on the other hand, the ‘reality’ of the film, comes across as an eerie dream world of community, fraternity and equality (albeit with a creepy dose of privacy forfeiture). This dream world pales in the context of postwar America where a generation of men are searching for their identity, women are searching for their rights, and the capitalist state apparatus is violently rebuking such ideals at every opportunity in the face of the communist menace. Indeed, there is something powerfully unsettling about the film’s opening shot that brazenly declares to the viewer “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS” when we know, emphatically, we are not. Its uncanniness rivals Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.
Ironically, Bailey’s ‘dream’ world—that is, one where he has left Bedford Falls for college, travels or the war (!)—is the same as the one where he dies (paging Dr. Lacan). It’s also the real America. Essentially, America has dreamed itself, mediated by Bedford Falls where we all (do not) reside. Suddenly, we see the emergence of the noir universe, in which we are parasitic stowaways to our own capitalistic fantasies. How appropriate, then, that in the inflated consumerism of contemporary Christmas, this ‘wonderful’ film has monopolized our holidays by virtue of its repeatability, marketability and libidinal bribery.
Kamiya certainly notices this, although his conclusion is perhaps less jaded than my own:
I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.
We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.
So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!
On my last watching of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself really, truly enjoying it, both its preciousness and its stylistic gall. Perhaps Kamiya’s solution is the best one. If you’re offering a two-for-one Boxing Day sale on wings, I’ll be the first to queue up.
hat-tip to Julio
Filed under: Film | Tags: 9/11, James Marsh, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Man on Wire, Phillipe Petit, Wire Walking, World Trade Center
I saw James Marsh’s fantastic Man on Wire (2008) last night. It’s a film about Philippe Petit, wire walker par excellence. Paced like an action film, Marsh uses interviews, tasteful re-enactments and original footage to recreate Petit & co.’s daring ‘coup’ in which they counterfeit identification, dress-up alternatively as workmen and businessmen, fire an arrow from one tower to the next with a cord attached and string a 450-pound cable between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers. All this for the easy part: for Petit to walk above 110 stories in the early hours of 7 August 1974.
Even the Port Authority police officer, Sgt. Charles Daniels, sober in his report to the press, couldn’t hold back his wonder in the final instance:
I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….I figured I was watching something that no one would ever see again, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
There is the added thrill of seeing these artists, vagabonds, grifters and potsmokers break into the WTC in the context of the 1993 attempted bombing and of course, 9/11. As Marsh says in an interview with Time Out,
it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.
For me, that’s the magical part of Petit’s story. After 9/11, Electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, when prompted for a reaction to the attacks on the WTC, famously responded by calling them ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. The hijackers, he continued, had achieved ‘something in one act’ that ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music’, in which ‘people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically, for a concert, and then die….You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment’. It was grotesque detachment on the part of Stockhausen, but certainly, this sentiment is going through the back of our minds when we watch Marsh’s film. Except wonderfully, magically, Marsh, through Petit, subverts the horror, the ate of the September 11 attacks and gives us the beautiful image of a man dancing a quarter mile above the streets, kneeling in midair and saluting us with an impish flourish.
Marsh inlays Petit’s story with all the conventions of a heist flick: love interest, ‘professionals’ vs amateurs, the untrustworthy accomplice, and a bond of homosocial love between the protagonist and his lifelong friend shattered by the momentousness of the crime. However it is difficult for any mere action plot to recreate the drama contained in this candid statement from Petit:
I had to make the decision to take my foot, anchored on the building, and put it on the wire. Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the Moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high-wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step, like the first step on a new continent.
It’s a beautiful thing. See it!
Filed under: Ecocapitalism, Film | Tags: Alfonso Cuarón, Animation, Children of Men, Dolly!, Green Party of Canada, Hello, Kids Movies, Pixar, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Science Fiction, WALL*E
I just saw Pixar’s WALL*E, a futuristic animated feature in which Earth has been abandoned to landfill and pollution while the human race flies around the galaxy in a commodified stupor, consuming recreation and sustenance in bland, supersized quantities. The movie is fine, as kids’ flicks go. The narrative follows the last remaining trash-bot on Earth, WALL*E, charged with cleaning up the mess the last humans left behind. The only problem is that the environmental catastrophe has proved far too massive to be fixed, and 700 years later, WALL*E is still shoveling landfill into his trash-compactor belly and stacking it miles into the sky. Cue intergalactic arrival of shiny, high-tech loveinterestbot, and subsequent heartwarming tale.
The thing I found shocking about the movie is the conspicuous political polemic underwriting the otherwise standard love story. The film opens sans dialogue, with a fifteen-minute tour of the abandoned Earth, with an unabashedly anti-capitalist message. The mega-corporation “Buy n’ Large” owns everything from food outlets to public transit, and there is no question that hyperconsumerism pushed the human race to this crisis. Moreover, the ruined Earth, despite its sci-fi feel, is not so futuristic that we can’t see the resemblance to our own current predicament. The delightful irony of the accompanying music, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! is scathing:
Put on your Sunday clothes,
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air
The movie never backs down from this political message. The diasporic Earthlings eat their meals from giant cups (roughly the size of ‘large’ movie-theatre soft drinks), their leisure activities are automated and indistinguishable from each other, their bone structures have shrunk over the years due to inactivity, and social taste is dictated by an automated media system to which every citizen is connected, every minute of their lives.
How is it that a kids movie can get away with this? If this kind of overt political message was in a live-action movie, even a satire, it would be dismissed as unimaginative, or worse, as eco-commie agit prop. Not even science fiction could pull it off. An Inconvenient Truth didn’t sport this kind of polemic. If you want to spread a subversive, emancipatory political message in Hollywood, you have to cushion it in all kinds of subterfuge, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Yet somehow, WALL*E can get away with politics that read like they come from the most radical Green Party manifesto (not to be found, of course, in the eco-capitalist Green Party of Canada).
What is it about kids movies that permits this kind of radicalism? I’d like to think that it’s because Disney wants to instill the next generation with an emancipatory politics that will save our skins. I’m sure hoping it’ll happen. But in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, ‘that shit ain’t the truth.’ Instead, it’s the same logic that sees Canada hum and haw about banning incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags while giving tax breaks to Athabasca Tar Sand corporations. Rationally, we know we’re in trouble. Big Trouble. And we’ve got to do something. But Capitalism has so ingrained artificially prescribed desires that we cannot give up. So we shift the things we have to do to realms where it just doesn’t matter.
We relegate these truths that weigh on us to realms of fairy tales, of science fiction. I hope that the message of WALL*E—that, to be prosaic, our hyperconsumerism and disdain for the environment is leading us all to our demise—gains some traction in our children, but the reality is we need it to take hold of ourselves, now. When Disney starts mocking the giant soft drinks its theatres rely on for profit, I don’t get hopeful, I despair. Consumerism—the precise type WALL*E warns us against—has stolen its own criticism from our mouths. And we’re buying it back.
Filed under: Film | Tags: Barbara Stanwyck, Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity, film noir, Fred MacMurray, Friday Night Flicks, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler
So I’ve been away for awhile, as the paucity of posts indicates. To get back on the horse, I’m starting a new (hopefully) weekly feature showing film scenes that make me buzz.
To kick it off, here’s (fittingly) Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), the greatest film noir ever produced, with the creative holy trinity of Billy Wilder (director), James M. Cain (author of original novel) and Raymond Chandler (adaptive screenwriter).
This scene also includes some of the tightest dialogue ever written:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.
Filed under: Capitalism, cyberspace, Film, Imagination, Literature | Tags: Blade Runner, Colonialism, Colonization, Cyberpunk, cyberspace, Fredrick J. Turner, Frontier, Frontier Thesis, Locomotive, Neuromancer, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ridley Scott, Sergio Leone, Western, Wild West, William Gibson, Wired Magazine
In 1894, Fredrick J. Turner articulated his famous American frontier thesis:
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.
The ‘Great West’ in the American consciousness is not a geographical location, but a manufactured horizon perpetually out of reach. After all, the ‘Great West’ never needed to be ‘discovered’; it was already there and hundreds of indigenous societies called it home. Its construction as an uncivilized frontier remains an essential ingredient of economic expansion and legitimized the eradication of Native American cultures across the continent and the subsequent accumulation of wealth, natural resources and property. Unfortunately, arrival at its opposite coast and pan-national colonization did nothing to quench America’s desire for expansion and settlement. In fact, once America was confronted with physical evidence that the frontier that had motivated their historical narrative had disappeared, Western culture developed a cultural anxiety, almost an identity complex: once the end has been reached, once the West is no longer wild, how do we proceed?
The answer? Invent a substitute. Hollywood created a new, imaginary frontier in film, television and pulp fiction to retame and to recolonize. The trajectory of the cinematic Western follows the incessant progression of the locomotive, a potent symbol of modernization. From John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969) the locomotive lumbers on in an increasingly modern landscape; its arrival at the coast in Leone’s epic coincides with the death of Cheyenne, the classic (and nostalgic) frontiersman archetype, who succumbs to a wound inflicted by Morton, the railroad tycoon. Filmgoers witnessed their filmic West become civilized, settled and modernized, gradually weaned of its coarse and savage past. Seven months after the release of Leone’s final Western, Sam Peckinpah released The Wild Bunch (1969), a film set decidedly in the modern era, in 1913, complete with machine guns and automobiles. Colonization of the American Western was now complete.
This tactic of imaginary colonization was repeated with the emergence of cyberpunk. It was as if by the end of the 1970s, Western art had run out of revised histories to colonize, so it turned to the future. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) remain seminal texts for the new genre. Cyberpunk remains a curious cultural phenomenon. By 1993, only nine years after the publication of Neuromancer, Wired Magazine had already declared cyberpunk dead. Even contemporary films with clear allegiance to cyberpunk’s legacy, like the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy (1999, 2003, 2003) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) remain dissociated from the earlier cyberpunk canon.
The blinding speed with which cyberpunk completed its colonialist project is telling. What is notable about cyberpunk fantasies is their uncanny resemblance to contemporary global capitalism. They are like the present, only more so. Cyberpunk artists tend to tease out the latent material of our consumerist, fragmented society in a frenzied, amplified paean to postmodern life. The dystopic cityscapes of Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, saturated with corporate advertisements and giant digital screens might not concern a viewer who has visited New York’s Times Square in this century. Gibson is also credited with coining the term ‘cyberspace’—the ‘consensual hallucination’ of transglobal corporate commerce. The only difference between Gibson’s cyberspace and ours is that his vision of the corporate potential for profit were far too conservative.
Capitalism, having not yet realized its fullest desires in its own time, tips its hand with cyberpunk and colonizes the hereafter—or, in the parlance of Max Headroom, ‘20 minutes into the future’. The cyberpunk future collapses in on the present, which now seems a cruder, less civilized version of itself. The West has turned its settlers into natives; modernity needs to catch up and there’s no time like the present. ‘The wilderness masters the colonist,’ Turner wrote more than a century ago. ‘It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe’.
What is important to keep in mind, however, is that the space being colonized is not imaginary, but an actual, physical space in society. Just as colonizing the imaginary, filmic Wild West in fact colonized twentieth-century America with the expansion of the film and pulp literature industries to help establish a commodity culture, the preparation and subsequent colonizing of cyberspace facilitates the proliferation of offshore outsourcing, limitless free trade and the establishment of a post-industrial economy. Telecommunication companies colonize the real West with broadband cables and fibre optics, broadcast towers and satellite dishes. The fantasy, articulated by cyberpunk, of a decentralized, boundless, radically free market is purchased by a concentration of infrastructure and a focalized, urban population eager to make use of it.
So, finally, we are left with a new manifestation of Turner’s frontier: a vast, unnavigable space promising opportunity and expansion on one side; and a centralized, civilized posse of venture capitalists with an eye for profit. Only now, we don’t have to worry about that pesky Pacific ocean…
Filed under: Film, Television | Tags: Absolut Vodka, Action Flicks, Chick Lit, commodification, Feminism, Lauren Berlant, Michael Warner, Misogyny, Sex and the City, Sex in Public, The Image
As Shameless points out, there is something sexist about the kind of criticism coming out about the new (and ubiquitous) Sex and the City movie.
Why isn’t anybody calling out movie producers for their assumption that all it takes to get male movie-goers to the box office is car chases, explosions and breasts? If thousands of men flock to see the latest action flick, why isn’t that film’s very success suddenly a mark against it and proof that all men are shallow and vapid?
It’s a good question. So-called “chick lit,” for example, frequently makes the rounds on talk radio in a highly pitched discussion over whether or not it is worthwhile, whether or not it is “good for women,” and whether or not it should be read at all. Action movies, on the other hand, are taken as given, for what they are, and never have to endure bouts of soul searching or self-justification.
The problem arises because action flicks and macho video games never have a progressive politic incorrectly ascribed to them. It is characteristic of a society so terrified of feminism that any display of female empowerment, however stereotypical and however much it serves the interest of patriarchy, immediately earns the label. As a result, those who wish to buttress the term against erosion are compelled to join an almost frivolous debate: is Samantha’s “gut” feminist or not? In fact, it is in patriarchy’s best interest to enact this mischaracterization, to call what is expressly not feminism, feminism, because it subsumes dissenting voices in an act of self-affirmation. Meanwhile, the kind of feminism that gave women the vote, that pressed for equal wages and employment, that protected a woman jurisdiction over her own body, is relegated to the sidelines.
Consider the trajectory of the original series. Four strong , independent women decide to repudiate the stereotypes that society imposes upon them and live the lives that they want. So far, so good. There is a lot to be said for the subversive potential of public sex. If you believe that sex and gender politics are informed by sexual acts, then relegating sex to the bedroom, to the private sphere, is an ideological maneuver to keep us from discussing such implications. In their essay “Sex in Public,” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue precisely this point.
The [heterosexual] sex act shielded by the zone of privacy is the affectional nimbus that heterosexual culture protects and from which it abstracts its model of ethics, but this utopia of social belonging is also supported and extended by acts less commonly recognized as part of sexual culture: paying taxes, being disgusted, philandering, bequeathing, celebrating a holiday, investing for the future, teaching, disposing of a corpse, carrying wallet photos, buying economy size, being nepotistic, running for president, divorcing, or owning anything “His” and “Hers.”
By refusing to keep sexual acts in the (imaginary) private sphere, sex in the city becomes a political act. Consider how gay and lesbian sex in public places is such an affrontry to our sensibilities. If we rescue the shame, intimacy and pleasure from the bedroom, we can introduce these impulses where they could really shake things up.
Intimate life is the endlessly cited elsewhere of political public discourse, a promised haven that distracts citizens from the unequal conditions of their political and economic lives, consoles them for the damaged humanity of mass society, and shames them for any divergence between their lives and the intimate sphere that is alleged to be simple personhood.
By the end of the series, however, all four protagonists pair off into heteronormative couples, some with children, most with typical soap opera lives. Any political potential has dissipated, any subversiveness vanished. It is perhaps what viewers always wanted, but the city registers a sense of disappointment that pervades the final season. When Samantha convinces her “steamy love interest” Smith Jared to pose for a billboard advertisement for Absolut Vodka, his nakedness is only tempered by a strategically placed Absolut bottle. Essentially, the commodified image of the vodka has replaced the sexual organ that had such primacy at the beginning of the show. We no longer have sex in the city (or even simply its promise) we have its trademarked image, a Times Square billboard of public sex utterly drained of political (and libidinal) potential.
Pulp fictions like Sex and the City are thus doubly anti-feminist. They advertise feminist dissent while selling its cosmetic image (and the companion martini); and such a bait-and-switch trick invites further attacks by weighing feminist fantasies on a harsher scale than masculinist ones, on the off-chance that such fantasies might actually empower women. As a result, in the popular imagination, Sex and the City becomes synonymous with feminism—with the cynically useful side-effect that once the show’s feminism disappears, so does ours.