Archive for August, 2011

A Halo or Horns? The Playboy Club

Disclaimer: The following post will require that you be willing to engage in adult content, film theory, and iPhone apps.

The slippage of meaning in words is part of what makes it fun to talk.  Think Shakespeare and his irascible puns; think Conan and Colbert and their commentary; think Derrida and differance.  Okay, maybe don’t think about linguistic theory.  Think about sex.  And porn.  And erotica.  And titillation.  Yes, when they are in italics that means the word itself, the letters in a row—not what you’re picturing in your head.

Despite their slipperiness, I’d like to say a few words about how important it is to try to hang on to the distinguishing feature of words: that they really do help us get a grip on reality.  And keeping a grip on reality is really important if you want to have anything to do with it.

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

This fall, NBC is premiering a new show called The Playboy Club; lots of people are petitioning that NBC refrain from premiering pornography on mainstream network television.  Not a new idea, this petitioning of a network or corporation to refrain from selling or distributing material considered detrimental to society.  It’s at the very heart of American democracy that a lot of names on a piece of paper with lots of words on it has the power to effect change.

But—and here’s the key—the words need to have meaning.  They have to make mutual sense among the parties involved.  And herein is the problem with the above petition, and many others like it, that have identified a perceived threat to society’s health and tried to do something.  Using words to describe, to literally “write in the air,” something that they don’t mean…well, it means nothing.

Ok, so that was a bit of pedantic explanation.  Let’s break it down a bit.

1. The Playboy Club is not porn. It is a drama with lots of sexual content, but it is not porn. Porn is (and I consult the most reliable source on the planet, my iPhone dictionary app): obscene writing, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.  And, although I don’t intend to entertain a debate about what qualifies as artistic merit, I can answer the follow-up in line, “What is obscene?” Well, again according to my iPhone, something obscene is causing uncontrolled sexual desire.  It is important to understand and uphold the distinguishing power of words.  One word (porn) indicates content that is designed to arouse and satisfy nothing but sexual desire.  Therefore, it doesn’t apply to a television “drama about a time and place that challenged the existing social mores and transformed American culture forever…[where] all that glitters is not gold.”

2. Furthermore, The Playboy Club is not endorsing porn.  Pornography is primarily a private indulgence—-hidden from view.  The show is examining the life and culture of [un]fulfilled sexual fantasies, which takes place in a specific place: a club.  A club is usually full of people.

Ok, so now that The Playboy Club is off the hook, is it innocent of all the damaging affects to society of which it stands accused?

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

3. No, The Playboy Club is not innocent of all charges.  By airing a show full of erotic and provocative dialog and imagery, it is tempting the audience to involve in sexual fantasy—and once involved, the viewer will want to realize (fulfill) the fantasy.  Since I spared you linguistic theory earlier, allow me to walk you through some basic film theory:

  • The very act of watching television creates a sense of “aura”–the type of glorification associated with heroes and idols and temples–around the content.  The figures are forever out of reach, ensconced in a beautiful shroud.
  • Human beings are physiologically and psychologically wired to want (1) to bring things closer and (2) to reproduce them—even more so now than in any previous era because of the ethos of immediacy and replication in which we now live and move and have our being.  See re-tweets, web cams, and FaceTime as exhibits A, B, and C in the affirmative evidence.
  • Our natural response, therefore, to something interesting that we see on television is “to pry [the] object from its shell, to destroy its aura [as] the mark of the ‘universal equality of things.'”  So says, Walter Benjamin, who theorized about this stuff back in 1936 when Hollywood glamour was at its height.

4.  Therefore, The Playboy Club does represent a risk for society’s detriment.  We’ve just looked at how we want to actualize what we see onscreen.  Why are there so many annoying commercials for cleaning products?  We see the product, want the product, buy the product, and the producers make more commercials so that we will again see the product, want the product, buy the product, and so forth.  Our first-world wealth and American independence empowers us to feel entitled in just that way.  And the same principle that sells Lysol plays out with dramas that have lots of sexual content.  The more we offer onscreen, the more people want it.

5. But, people are stupid and selfish.  When they want something, they don’t often check to make sure that it has integrity.  Men that want to be surrounded by beautiful women who will do any sexual act they please don’t usually stop to make sure that those women are there by choice.  They don’t often think about the repercussions for their personal relationships.  Women that want to be sexy and beautiful and petted by wealthy men don’t usually stop to make sure that the man will follow through on his promises, that he won’t beat her, and that she can leave when she wants.  And they, too, may never consider the repercussions for their personal relationships.

So, The Playboy Club may not be porn and it may not endorse porn, but its existence as a network television show will surely create a situation in which people will be set up to privately indulge their fantasies.  And the track record of humanity’s stupid and selfish traits indicates that such an indulgence will probably put many, many people at risk for exploitation, victimization, and personal injury–on both sides of the “fourth wall” that we like to think separates us from role playing and reality.  (This is not the show’s intention—otherwise, why would the same producer who brought us Law and Order: SVU be willing to back it?)

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

While the Playboy revolution of the 60s was important for pushing people to recognize themselves as sexual beings (versus the domestic automatons of the 50s), the shame that continues to surround the culture of sex keeps even 2011 sexuality hidden. And that hiddenness that covers the natural human insistence that our dreams come close and replay on loop, that hiddenness more than anything, is what empowers exploitation. It’s not the content itself that’s the threat; it’s our human propensity to reach out and grab hold of it, regardless of the effects of that action. The petition should not be about the “pornography” of The Playboy Club.  It should address the aura of the TV—the way we respond by extending our reach, ripping it out of the cultural conversation, and trying to replicate it in reality, as if we could hold the whole world in our hands.

Creeper

oh the tragic beauty of a creeper parking lot

oh the tragic beauty of a creeper parking lot

I’m sure it’s happened to you.  You’re walking down the parking lot and there’s someone following you.  At first you don’t think of it because lots of cars roll slowly through a lot looking for the next available space.  But then you realize that they aren’t passing you.  They are just idling behind you—creeping along at an unnaturally slow pace for a metal vehicle with hundreds of horses under the hood.

So you begin to speed up slightly—mind you, this is all happening within a split second, maybe two.  Your pace is now unnaturally faster than the ordinary person returning to their parked car, but you want to keep it just shy of utter panic.  The driver of the creeping vehicle must never know that you’re onto them.  Somehow you think your ignorance will be a shield in the time of distress.  Drawing attention to their distress-causing behavior may incite them to increase escalate said behavior.  God forbid.

Now you’re slightly jogging and even going so far as to attempt the whimsical “glance over the shoulder.”  Oh, boy.  That was risky.  And, of course, for all your stealthiness, you didn’t get a single impression of the driver.  There’s no way the perpetrator would ever be identifiable by the kind of picture the sketch artist would produce when you recounted the story under great duress at the local precinct.  Oh, no.  It’s over.

Then, suddenly, as you pass the last despicably dim, outrageously lofty street lamp on your row you realize—with great relief and slight pressure of apprehension lest your hope prove false—that your car is parked two rows over.  Two whole rows, though which your tiny human body can maneuver on a dime but the large bootlegger motorcar with its bulky sideboards cannot.  It must proceed to the end of the aisle.

You dart through, sure to find your vehicle right where you left it, far away from creeping drivers and glances askance, safely under the tree that’s—

Wait, no!  You didn’t park under the tree today because it was raining!  And when it’s raining—not 100 degrees and sunny—outside, you never park at the back of the lot like usual, you always park up never the front so you can dart with your shiny galoshes across the shorter, straightest path to the awning and arrive semi-presentatlbe for your big quarterly meeting!

And now, the Creeper is turning the corner of your aisle, you’re about to be discovered, not only in your idiocy, but in your total vulnerability.  There’s not even a fuckin’ call box out this far for God’s sake!

So you abandon all veneer of propriety and grip on reality and break out in a dead run for the front of the lot, praying and hoping the whole way that when your body is discovered by the morning news the next day that it’ll be so obliterated by the shot that they could never tell that you were assaulted from behind—running—running away—running—

“Hey, pal, you need a lift?”

And finally you turn around to face your doom: the mall security cop.

The Piano (1)

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)

Ada and her Piano haunt you utterly—the same way our sexual selves haunt us by day and through the night, never letting go.  Ada is a Scottish immigrant to New Zealand sometime in the vicinity of Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights.  She has a young daughter and a piano.  The daughter interprets for her; and so does the piano.  Ada hasn’t spoken a word since she was 6 years old.

Her new Husband vow he will not mind her silence, half believing that she is faking the affliction and will have no reason to continue in the face of harsh settlement conditions.  He tells her father in Scotland that he can send Ada and her daughter and he will make them into a family, free of charge.  No dowry is mentioned.

When Ada arrives, she discovered her husband to be a cold man full of all the high expectation and ironic knack for communicating with English fluency and accomplishing very little shared meaning in the exercise.  Unheeding of her insistence that the piano must come with her—even if it means leaving her clothes and kitchenware—he leaves it alone on the beach, a heavy burden he won’t take the trouble to bear.

But the Whaler sees.  When the Husband leaves on business for a few days, Ada convinces the lonely man to guide her and her daughter back to the beach.  Unwilling at first, he finally acquiesces and in the listening, he is lost.  As she plays and plays and plays through the afternoon and evening, late on toward night, he feels a tender longing fill him, body and soul.  Being very much silent himself, he says nothing, but he barters with the Husband for the piano upon his return.

Thereupon ensues a love triangle–or perhaps, quadrangle, for the Piano is involved as much as any person is.  Through the remainder of the tale, Ada, the Husband, the Whaler, the Piano, and the daughter grapevine their way through all the triumvirate trappings of the human self.

There are infinite opportunities for commentary, and I plan on unfolding them throughout the next few days and weeks in a series of posts.  If I have piqued your interest, view the film on Netflix Instant Play (I doubt a local rental store will carry it in stock).  Then, come contemplate with me the deep humanity, the thought vs. action, sexuality vs. gender performance, the feminine vs. the masculine, the independent vs. the mainstream, the object vs. the agent (Soul)…

The Shrew Stops the Sun

Fie, fie, unknit that threatening unkind brow and dart not scornful glances from those eyes to wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.  It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads, confounds thy fame as thirlwinds shake fair buds, and in no sense is meet or amiable.  A woman moved is like a fountain troubled, muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereeft of beauty, and while it is so , none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign—one that care for thee, and for thy maintenance commits his body to painful labor both by sea and land, to watch the night in storms, the day in cold, whilst thou li’st warm at home, secure and safe; and craves no other tribute at thy hands but love, fair looks, and true obedience: too little payment for so great a debt.  Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband, and when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour, and not obedient to his honest will, what is she but a foul contending rebel and graceless traitor to her loving lord? I am ashamed that women are so simple to offer war where they should kneel for peace, or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway, when they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth, unapt to toil and trouble in the world, but that our soft conditions and our hearts should well agree with our external parts?  Come, come, you froward and unable worms, my mind hath been as big as one of yours, my heart as great, my reason haply more, to bandy word for word and frown for frown.  But now I see our lances are but straws, our strngth as weak, our weakness past compare, that seeming to be most which we indeed least are.

Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot, and place your hands below your husband’s foot, in token of which duty, if he please, my hand is ready, may it do him ease.

Watching The Taming of the Shrew this past weekend at the Shakespeare Tavern reminded me how much there is in a word!  The text of Kate’s final speech does seem at once glorious and distasteful to the modern female mind.  But watching it on stage, with the gesture at the speech’s close, it transcends the battle of the sexes and ends for a moment in the kind of sweet reconciliation all humanity craves with itself.

As Kate places her hand palm-down on the stage, gazes up with confidence into her husband’s eye: he melts.  Falling on his knees beside her, he gently, swiftly lifts the hand and kisses it.  With a wink of sarcasm in his eye, he cries: “Why, there’s a wench!” Then, in utmost solemnity, as if like Davy Jones his heart was beating free of its cage and bare to the knife’s edge, he asks: “Come on, and kiss me, Kate.”

And that’s the power of a woman.  That is the bond of love at the heart of our human longings.  To be the weaker in body, and yet the stronger in sway; to be vulnerable and find that vulnerability met with an even greater bending, yielding, rolling over and over as if waves too strong to stand against are reverberating unceasingly from out our simple hearts.

C.S. Lewis has spoken of the “eroticism of obedience.”  I think he hit the mark—the kind of laying down of oneself in awe of something greater.  The beauty of loving is the undulating rhythm of mutual adoration—Kate lays down her hand, Petruchio lifts it; Petruchio lays down his heart, Kate meets its elevated wish.  One of Lewis’ characters described his thought of possessing beauty and fire in  marrying his wife as ridiculous: ridiculous as trying to “buy a sunset by purchasing the field from which you saw it.”  No human can ever be tamed just as the sun can never be purchased for the price of a field.  And yet, the voluntary submission of a living soul to another living soul is powerful enough to stop the sun in the sky.

Swallow_the_Sun_by_synax444

courtesy synax444

After 25 Seconds

I finally understand why chick-flicks are so important.

Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard---begad!

Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard---begad!

I just finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel for, like, the fifth time.  (Since I first read it in high school X many years ago, not, in, you know, a row…)  And I didn’t really want it to end.  The first time I read it ravenously; I couldn’t wait to see what happened!  This last time, I lingered long over the last chapter.

The prose isn’t anything fantastic.  Lots of repetitious phrases, and if I was the editor way back in 1905, I’d’ve said it wasn’t ready for publication.  So many repetitious phrases with variations like “the man who had won her heart,” “whom she loved with all her soul,” “the dearest being in the world,” “nearer to her than life,” etc. etc. etc.

the best frame in the world: a two-shot

the best frame in the world: a two-shot

…but, you know? Those phrases are why I didn’t want to stop reading.  The book is about two people in love.  Not only two people in love, but two married people in love who fall in love after they are already married.  It’s got the sweet charm of Golde and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: after 25 years, it’s nice to know.  Except, for Marguerite and Percy, it’s 25 months, haha!  That makes it all the more delicious.

It’s very nice to know about two people being in love.  That’s why chick flicks are important. Love isn’t just a nice way to live life; it’s the stuff of life itself.  I’m not envious of Romeo and Juliet, or even Marguerite and Percy for that matter.  I don’t really want to kill myself for love or be traumatically and uselessly devoted until I have to be carried back home by the man I went to save.  But I want to know that love exists, that love is happening.  Somewhere, between someones.  Even 25 seconds after closing the book, I’m ready to be told again.

For the Love of Red October

There’s a short list of movies that I am always in the mood to watch; at the top is The Hunt for Red October—for all its formulaic glory.  After coming home late from a baseball game last night, my family suggested that we put it in.  Butter-saturated popcorn and IBC root beers in hand, we snuggled down to watch a movie that we can all quote by heart.

Why is that?

The sheer volume of movies produced in the early part of last century and the sheer volume of new series constantly promoted on network and cable TV would imply a need for constant change and stimulation.  On the other hand, most of those movies and series could all be summed up in generic codes: chick flick, action, adventure, thriller, horror, comedy, drama.  (And within those, as Netflix informs me in my “Recommended” tab, there are infinitely finer distinctions, such as critically-acclaimed-strong-female-lead-foreign dramas.)  The formulas have endless variations.

I could contemplate how generic code complies with the human need for uniform variety–whatever the hell that means—or I could simply explain why, of all those possibilities, my family and I continue to return to The Hunt for Red October.  And, as any audience response theorist would champion, I think it comes down to our daily lives, the society in which we live, the questions we face every morning, and the need for reassurance at the end of the day.

It particularly struck me last night that this movie about the Cold War was released one year after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  It was such a blatant political affirmation of the demise of the U.S.S.R. and the triumph of American ideals: driving from state to state in a pick-up truck.  And yet all its obvious politicizing doesn’t explain why I have loved this movie since I was far too young to even comprehend what politics was.

the mind game of men

the mind game of men

So then I turn to another reason I have often touted: there are no woman in the film (with the notable exceptions of a nagging wife, a precious little girl, and a fuzzy black-and-white image).  During my high school days at the end of a long gab session after gym class, I would relish the total absence of “drama” in The Hunt for Red October.  Women are put forth as the necessary objects of male sentimentality, bravado, and inspiration, but their own feminine weakness and ambiguity is obscured by the rising tides of cool male analysis and straightforward tactical procedure that apparently transcends all political codes or cultural constructions to reach the heights of “universal knowledge.”  Bullshit.  It would be a delightful exercise to argue why women are at the center of an almost entirely male movie, but I’ll leave that to another day of academic pursuits.  Suffice it to say, that female role models or a safe haven from femininity’s worser aspects do not justify my unwavering devotion to Captain Ramius and Bart Mancuso.

I am, I confess, I little starstruck.  For all my neglect of female considerations, perhaps that is the one inexorable aspect which I must concede: Sean Connery is damn attractive.  As an object of feminine fancy and masculine aspirations, he fits the bill.  But how can a seventy-year-old actor could hold my fifty-year-old father and my fifteen-year-old sister equally spellbound is a puzzle worth solving.  And, therein, I believe is my answer to our love for Red October.

Our lives are hard.  My dad works every day to bring money home for our family.  My sister works everyday to prepare herself for the eventuality that she, too, will one day work to bring home money for herself.  And I work everyday to graduate from dependency to independence.  We don’t complain–and are actually very grateful to ourselves for the effort and our bosses for their monetary acknowledgement of that effort–but a working life is damn difficult.  The stakes are high because our world is no longer tied to the simplicity of growing your own food, making your own clothes, and building your own house—for which I am also grateful.  But the intricacies of our modern economies make us increasingly dependent on what is left over when our hands are tied: our brain.

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

And that’s why at the end of any given day of the week, we will all sit down to watch The Hunt for Red October.  It is a story of men who live or die by their minds.  Their hands are tied.  They cannot support or release their emotions by a punch to jaw or a swift flight down an alley.  They must wait.  In many days of silence, in tiny cubicles of living space, under the watery weight of a world in which they can no longer fight for survival alongside the  other organic bodies.  Enclosed a metallurgical casket of sorts, dead bodies and living minds, they must maneuver complicated man-made mechanisms, both real and imagined, in order to resurrect themselves on shore after the long voyage.  They are never given all the information they need.  They are never given leisure to research or contrive other options.  They are never given the full support of the citizenship they have inherited from the hundreds of generations trying to carve civilization out of a spinning planetary orb.  They are alone in the battle, friend or foe for the taking.

Now, that was rather prosaic of me, but I think my case is born out in the characters of Marko Ramius and Bart Mancuso.  Two men given enormous responsibility and an incredible dearth of resource.  Each moment is a crisis decision: murdering the political officer, breaking contact with the fleet, fleeing to a dangerous canyon, tracking a silent sub, breaking off to pick up an analyst crazy enough to jump out of a helicopter in a storm to get aboard, starting a conversation with the man you are ordered to kill, sending one ping and one ping only please.  Now, of course, one could argue that’s just their job, that if you get involved in the military, that’s what you get.

But I think the  understated performances of Sean Connery and Scott Glenn reinforce the idea that this is normal life.  There is nothing epic about humanity trying to survive.  In a poignant irony, the things that thrill our inner selves—the Montana homestead, the pick-up truck, and the fishing pole—are silenced and displaced so that we can actually retain our lives.  And how many times does every working person do this to themselves every day?  How often must I not read or write or travel or make love or sing or dance or garden or paint or cook because I have to work.  Or not even work, but preserve my opportunity to work.  Preserve my right to work. Preserve my ability to work.

The complex economy and politics we have constructed to accelerate our wealth, productivity, and power may have come at the cost of our own selves—at least our bodies and souls.  This thought, again, is nothing new; hundreds and thousands of other people have chafed under “modernity.”  But just because it isn’t a new thought doesn’t mean I am already comforted.  And watching The Hunt for Red October is comforting.  Because I face this true cost of living every day, it is comforting to see men facing crisis decisions with little or nothing to offer, take a gamble, and come out on the other side—no thanks to the strong arms of the world powers.  Perhaps it is an American political ideal to nurture the hope of the individual in the face of everything else; perhaps it is a school-girl crush to take refuge in masculine prowess; and perhaps it is unrealistic to feed on impossible probabilities.

But feed I must or my heart will fail.

Aiming at Ourselves

Wild Target was a refreshing exercise in forms; it’s almost like a comic strip or animated feature made entirely out of character sketches.  But what’s so marvelous about it, is that, like a Scott McCloud insists, the lack of solid identity on the part of the character creates just the right space for us to insert ourselves into the story.

Somehow these people never look cool, but their inelegance is quite charming.

Somehow these people never look cool, but their inelegance is quite charming.

So, in conversation with my friends, I’ve been summarizing the film like this: a middle-aged hit man falls in love with his kleptomaniac target who has soured a deal with a vicious art collector played to a tease by Rupert Everett.  And the guy from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy plays the second hit man hired to finish the job; he has unnaturally big bright teeth which I suspect of being false.  Oh, and the first hit man’s mother gets involved to save the family honor—wielding a Hitchcockian knife, no less.  Ta-da!

What makes the film so delightful is its abruptness and its total lack of commitment to its own story.  It rather unceremoniously unwinds with no rush, no hurry—peppered with a little action to keep the flavors nice.  Its rather like a lovely stew set to simmer for hours, marinating in its own premise; stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t stick to the pan.

At first I felt as if the film had no idea what it was doing.  It kept cutting into the scenes at the wrong moments—for example, it cuts from a “love scene” involving foot massage to a knife crashing down into the pillow beside the “heroine”‘s head.  No creepy lead time, with the creaking of the door and stealthy approach the angelic sleeper.  Just BAM!  But therein lies the joke: watching an eighty-year-old woman ride her scooter into her old bedroom in which a young house guest is in quiet repose just doesn’t quite seem as funny until after that eighty-year-old woman has attacked the young house guest.  The whole film plays out this way, the punch line before the joke almost.

Yes, we are knocking at a door with a big hole in it, because we're polite.

Yes, we are knocking at a door with a big hole in it, because we're polite.

And somehow, as it jumps through the hoops—falling in love by watching the heroine from afar, turning the tables in a gun fight, whisking her away to a hotel room for safety’s sake, the utter opposition of their ways of life, her abandonment of their plan at its most necessary hour, the reunion and coming to terms, her clumsy expression of affection, his utter inability to comprehend “love,” and the ultimate test of their newfound romance—somehow as it jumps through all those hoops that make up the formulaic chick-flick, it rises above it.  Like an out-of-body experience, it joins you in the heavens and looks down on the pathetic three-act play, passes you the popcorn, and says, “It’s that cute?”  And it is.

It is cute.  It is cute because it knows that aiming for the human heart is aiming at a wild target.  And no movie, however great, should ever suppose itself capable of actually embodying all the crazy vicissitudes and epiphanies of a real person.  And because Wild Target embraces that fact and chuckles to itself, you chuckle to yourself, too.  And somehow the epic grandeur of “romantic ideals” become a little less heavy to bear and the mundaneness of your own life seems to be just fine and dandy—because, of course, there is nothing mundane about being a person with fears and loves, wounds and regrets, insecurities and heroic impulses all bound up in a single bodily form.