Monday, April 13, 2009

dave hickey explains it all, pt. 3 [book it]

Have you heard of Dave Hickey? I came across him this weekend in the Los Angeles Times' occasional Sunday magazine, LA (why this paper can't manage a Sunday magazine of any consistency or caliber like its pretentious New York competitor is beyond me, but that is a matter for its own diatribe). Inspired by the brief interview, I picked up Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, the 1997 collection of cultural commentary that helped him earn a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2001, and can assure you after a premliminary perusal -- it's worth a read.
- thoughts, quotes, SPOILERS -
The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market
Dave Hickey loves cars, and it's been an on-going affair. As a kid he would plug into car culture wherever his family moved, and he outlines this as the foundation for his art criticism with sharp and lovely brevity:
"Wherever I found myself, kids bought [cars], talked them, drew them, and dreamed them -- hopped them up and dropped them down -- cruised them on the drag and dragged them on the highway, and I did, too. Thus, of necessity, I learned car math and car engineering, car poli-sci and car economics, car anthropology and car beaux-arts.
Even my first glimmerings of higher theory arose out of that culture: the rhetoric of image and icon, the dynamics of embodied desire, the algorithms of style change, and the ideological force of disposable income. All these came to me couched in the lingua franca of cars."
He writes with such force and clarity that I find myself relating to experiences I've never had. It gives a fresh perspective on how hobbies shape and specialize you, and the different narrative and sociological threads that form any social experience or currency.
"All of us who partook of this discourse [...] understood its politico-aesthetic implications, understood that we were voting with our cars. [...] We also understood that we were dissenting when we customized them and hopped them up - demonstrating against the standards of the republic and advocating our own refined vision of power and loveliness."
This collection's art and democracy premise has seem rather vague and shaky to me in previous entries, but Hickey really brings it home and makes it count in this essay. I'll need to dig up what he says about Internet zines and social networking artwork/projects (like JPG), because it seems like contemporary culture's crystallization of his point.
"My optimum set of wheels, then, looked and sounded like a high-performance production model from a company you never fucking hear of -- as if I had walked into a Dave dealership one afternoon and bought it off the showroom floor--and now you wanted to buy one, too. That was my idea of cool."
This, then, is the beating heart of the designer -- a unique creation in which others see such value that it becomes a commodity. Is that art and democracy, or art and economy? [sidenote: this is the kind of true car-love by which the Fast & Furious films could enormously benefit if that just gave it some intellectual weight]
Hickey goes on to poke fun at how the new art establishment oddlly reveres the pop art 60s for "commercialization" whie, in fact:
"Works of art, after all, had been commercial objects for two hundred years, but commercial objects, like the cars we loved, had only recently become works of art -- and they did so in response to the market conditions that would ultimately create the post-industrail world. As Warhol was fond of telling us, the strange thing about the sixties was not that Western art was becoming commercialized but that Western commerce was becoming so much more artistic."
This guy is pretty much the coolest professor I never had. He then goes on to explain the artistic and economic implications of the evolution of differently priced lines by a single label, using the GM tailfin as an example of how to diversify your market and create loyalty to the brand:
"The tailfin technology, say, that had become stylistically obsolete on the Cadillac, could be retooled and used to produce Oldsmobiles, then Buicks, then Pontiacs, then Chevrolets, by which time it had been totally redesigned. From a marketing point of view, it was heaven. It bound consumers to the parent company and invited them to make incremental steps up the price ladder, as the exquisite, finny grail gradually descended toward their aspiring spirit."
The rest of the essay devolves into a wildly diverse philosophical rant against the high culture of the last few decades by citing the car as intellectual meeting of the Baroque and Enlightenment, the Catholic and Protestant, while also tracing hispanic culture's love for customizing it to a romantic Spanish heritage and basically refuting the notion that the aesthetics of car culture is low. I think. The essay is honestly a bit murky on the back end. but its core themes of democracy by commodification and dissent by modification ring clear and true.

fast & furious [cinefile]

Fast & FuriousIt’s baaaaa-aaaack. The original 2001 street-racer (now an official classic to any fan of overdone action schlock) is back to its big-budget beginnings, having survived two successively more forced derivatives. The most recent, Tokyo Drift, was an especially mind-boggling display of lazy writing and blatant misogyny, and but its director, Justin Lin, returns anyway for the series’ fourth installment. To enjoy it, you have to momentarily stash your brain and just go along for the ride.

thoughts, quotes, SPOILERS -

Dom (Vin Diesel) – street-racing crook-with-a-conscience; hulking teddy bear

Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) – buff street-racer; Bonnie to Dom’s Clyde

Brian (Paul Walker) – undercover cop with street-racing skills; pretty-boy square

Mia (Jordana Brewster) – Dom’s cute sister and Brian’s ex; otherwise undistinguished

Synopsis: Dom and Letty are renegade street-racing thieves wanted by the feds. After a close call, Dom goes into hiding, leaving Letty behind in Los Angeles. When she is murdered, he returns to LA to find whoever's responsible and crush them to a fine powder. Brian is also looking for these same evil folks, as they are a Mexican drug cartel (how timely!) and he is some sort of federal agent. He and Dom find themselves on the same hunt and try not to step on each other's toes as they go after the cartel the only way they know how -- street-racing. Brian and Dom have some history, of course. Brian once went undercover in Dom's street-racing ring to bust it up (Point Break-style), befriending Dom and dating his sister Mia before betraying them to the cops in the end. And, action!

So, basically: Fast & Furious is yet another installment of the recent sweep of bromance movies.

Or is every buddy cop movie essential a ‘bromance’? Maybe now we just have a word for a genre/dynamic/narrative that has always been there. There’s already a good deal of Internet literature, mostly amounting to lists, of movie bromances. Time’s Top 10 listicle includes Dean Martin & Jerry Stewart, Butch & Sundance, Point Break, Lethal Weapon, even Jules & Jim, a variety pack of dude-loves with an admirable diversity. I'd add Ricky & Fred, Starksy & Hutch, Speed. I could spend the rest of the day thinking them up, really. Whatever your personal top 10, in any case, I can assure you that Dom & Brian aren’t up there, and that, in a nutshell, is why this movie doesn’t work. Its action-team format requires a charismatic twosome, and Diesel and Walker just don’t click.

This production had the potential to truly go gangbusters, and not just because its brilliant theatrical trailer had me at hello [although that certainly didn't hurt -- plunging through a deftly edited sequence of three hot rods robbing an oil tanker (the movie's actual opening) without any indication of the film’s F&F identity, the trailer’s first minute ranks with pop culture's greatest action clips (like those Clive Owen BMW ads) as far as I'm concerned. If only its on-screen cousin was that lean and crisp.] With its fresh, streamlined title and a cast that still flies rather under the Hollywood radar, Fast & Furious could have finally shed that shiny MTV quality that has always kept it low-camp and emerged as a meaner, weightier action flick. 

I think it wanted to. There are several obvious Bourne attempts to grit up the action and suggest some emotional depth (although they ultimately remained hollow - more on that later). But you just have to check out the poster to see that the production kept its bar low. It didn't even think to capitalize on the great action star potential of its leading men's last names (DIESEL and WALKER, for christ's sake). This movie is just shilling once again to the sameold  narrow-minded demographic, and for that it is a failure.

The thing is, gender-wise, F&F wants to have its cake and eat it, too. Of course, the whole series is a gender debacle, filled with the skankified, underdressed and totally silent female hangers-on that dishearteningly symbolize 'partying' for this generation (Tokyo Drift, in which the supposed heroine literally offers herself as a prize before the hero and the villain's final drag race, is some of the most horrifyingly straight-faced misogyny I've ever encountered in pop culture), but I knew that going in; I came not to bitch and moan but to examine. So, yes, F&F features a handful of blatant ass shots and even a totally unnecessarily foray into homemade lesbian porn, and even revels without apology in this sexploitation. But it also revolves around one man mourning his one-true girlfriend (shades of Bourne, of course) and another returning to a past girl that he really loved. Our heroes endorse do true interest, even monogamy. 

The problem is, the movie itself doesn't likewise disown the seedy world of female-as-object that gives it its titilation. Dom and Brian align briefly with the enemy and, seated in a booth of some low-lit club, the villainous cartel kingpin proposes a toast to “the ladies we love and the ladies we lost.” He then rises, excusing himself with a reminder that all the pleasures of his club are for our heroes' gratis enjoyment. “Booze, broads…it’s all good.” Welcome to the classic machismo binary, Madonna/Whore.

Meanwhile, the purer heterosexual love stories that are supposed to give the movie its heart feel forced, even fake, because while our heroes dutifully look moonily at their ladies (Dom watches Letty sleep; Brian attempts a heart-to-heart with Mia over coffee), they gaze with true love at their cars. Despite several obligatory make-out scenes, the most erotic thing in this movie is the quick sequence of gauzy lighting and bare sweaty skin in which Diesel and Walker work on their engines. 

This action-team movie is not about girlfriends. It is about machismo, specifically in car culture. These men discuss being drivers like Tom Wolfe’s Right Stuff astronauts spoke of being pilots. It’s a thing of honor and skill and cajones, and those who belong to the club just know it. And the key is, we don't really see ladies drive in this one. We know that Letty and Mia can drive, and that this is part of their appeal to our heroes, but we don't actually see them take part as drivers. Instead, Mia comes to dress Dom's wounds when he's shot (she also brings dinner and makes the table say grace before they eat it). In a strange moment when Dom and Brian come face-to-face with the well-coiffed and pink-shirted cartel kingpin once more, Brian has the balls to call him out: “were you wearing pink when you clawed your way out of the barrio?” (btw, as if Blondie here were some expert on barrios, ha). There’s even a brief scene with an actual cockfight, a 15-second sliver which I like to think of as the inside joke of some female producer tinkering (unnoticed) with the script. This is about dudes, and dudes defining dude-ness.

Walker and Diesel could be up to the task. They make for a classic buddy-comedy mash-up: one, sleek and quiet, the other, muscular and flashy. But they have no spark together. In fact, they don't really have sparks individually. Diesel is too one-note (all brooding big guy), and Walker is an utterly blank Ken doll. A little age has grizzled him a bit, and in his opening one-on-one chase sequence (dashing through windows and across rooftops, again Bourne-style) he shows real action-guy promise, but there's no apparent charisma beyond that. His every line is a reading, like a first take. These guys barely register themselvs, certainly not enough to connect to each other.

In many other ways, this is not a subtle movie. Its embrace of untextured cultural stereotypes leaves us with a Latin villain in a snakeskin-patterned disco shirt in a sunburnt church in the north of Mexico. Its unbuyable CGI car-chase sequences curiously undervalue actual driving. Its plot's most interesting actual question is who the cartel kingpin actually is, but even that is obvious from the get-go. The kingpin's knock-out lady associate directly compares herself to a car in a heavy come-on to Dom (not unlike my own favorite chauvinist, R. Kelly). Etc. But almost anything can be popcorn entertainment if done with the right joie-de-vivre or schlocky-ness. F&F somehow takes itself too serious to be stupidly fun while still being too stupid to be taken seriously, and for managing neither it's a disappointment.

hey, jezebel: let the right ones in [quibble]

I’m a big fan of Jezebel. The Gawker-run site (mission statement: "celebrity, sex, fashion for women") is an intelligent mix of ladies mag, tabloid and Gender Studies 101 class, run by a group of sharp, quippy editors. Unlike the other few mainstream internet outlets that I skim every day, I am compelled to fully digest or investigate a full two-thirds of Jezebel’s steady stream of content, and that's no small amount. 

But I have a quibble: why is Jezebel “for women”? Isn’t that against the spirit of the site? Sure, Jezebel is mostly about women and their issues, but its habit of starting posts with greetings for the “ladies” effectively halves its assumed audience, playing right into the gender stereotypes that the site’s authors strive to debunk (men watch/do/think this, women watch/do/think that). Jezebel's editors constantly call out male writers and magazines for perpetuating such derivative gender cliches, but then turn arround and don't even think to invite men to consider the issue. This doublethink nonsense is a hallmark of the faulty school of feminism that (perhaps unwittingly?) endorses a “separate but equal” sense of justice. Jezebel should be above it. 

Assume there are men listening, Jezzies. Maybe even let one or two contribute. Because ‘women’s issues’ are actually a ‘people’ thing.

r. kelly: ridiculous [joy]

In general, I'm not one for in-da-club dance hits or their skin-and-booze videos. However, there are exceptions to every genre, and one 2003 jam rises above: R. Kelly's "Ignition." Pretty much irresistable. And I can't quite place why.

After all, it sticks to the typical formula: underdressed ladies, baggily dressed guys, copious flashing of booze and that stark, tempered lighting. The lyrics aren't exactly poetry, either:

no im not tryin to be rude, 
but hey pretty girl im feelin you
the way you do the things you do
remind me of my Lexus coup
thats why im all up in yo grill
tryina get you to a hotel
you must be a foot ball coach
the way you got me playin the field

so baby gimme that toot toot 
and lemme give you that beep beep
runnin her hands through my 'fro
bouncin on 24's 
while they say on the radio...

this is the remix to ignition
hot and fresh out the kitchen
mama rollin that body
got evey man in her wishin
sippin on coke and rum
im like so what im drunk
its the freakin weekend baby 
im about to have me some fun

And yet…the song is perfect hilarity anyway. Is it R. Kelly’s light, almost effeminately high voice? So laid-back, so non-threatening. Is it the blatant woman-as-car metaphor (man as key, woman as ignition)? Or is it the elementary nature of his rhymes? (ignition, kitchen; rum, drunk). I don't know if I'll ever put my finger on it. But the best of R. Kelly to me always shines as the absolute most Textbook version of the morass that is contemporary R&B, and there's something about his unassuming earnestness that is winningly goofy. 

Sunday, April 12, 2009

jpg: like flickr, but collectible [how long has this been going on?]

I love to complain about the banalities of mainstream entertainment. But you know what? I realized that I still follow it. Despite my mild contempt and perpetual boredom for such things, I still know what/who "Speidi' is. I still watch every installment of comedy's latest dude-love brofest. I still skim through the Yahoo! Music top ten to put faces and names to pop's endless parade of value-less dance hits. And you know what? It's time to take a stand. 

In the spirit of seeking new talent, I turned to This is not totally random. I've been on a big reading kick lately since, with few exceptions, current TV and film selections are generally tedious, and I need something to think about in my free time. So, books. And if I'm trying to avoid the schmaltzy bestsellers that leave me so mildly depressed, than why not turn to the unchartered (at least, to my knowledge) territory of self-publishing?

My foray so far has been brief, but I did already come across this veritable mine: JPG Magazine, Issue 2: "Lost". Apparently JPG is a photo sharing site whose editors compile user-submitted shots into monthly magazines, grouped around themes (next up: Zen, House, and Fairy Tale, if you care to enter your best shots), and published via Lulu. The concept is so easy and so simple that it's brilliant. You not only partake in this community; you can actually help shape its product, too. It's such a no-brainer intersection of social net groups and old-school publishing. Isn't editing mostly a matter of curation anyway? And the users' bio blurbs are way sweeter and much more personal that your traditional too-cool-for-school style-setting magazine. JPG's been around for about two years and I can't believe that I haven't heard of it until now -- late to the photo party!

Some other totally reasonable-looking Lulu book selections:
- Dodging the Butterfly Nets --"Running an independent art house movie theater is not for the faint of heart. It takes imagination, a sense of humor, and perhaps a bit of lunacy. These essays, culled from weekly newsletters sent out in 2007, tell the story of one man, four screens, and a small-town community of cinema lovers."
-- Naked, Drunk and Writing -- "A personable and funny book on how to write about your life in essay and memoir, by Adair Lara, whom Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) calls "San Francisco's legendary writer and teacher""

And, lastly, my favorite selection, not out of mockery, but because it demonstrates the breadth of material available on Lulu and reveals the degree of detailed knowledge that self-publishing allows the market to keep in circulation:
- Weathering -- "This book walks you through different techniques to weather model trains. Weathing models helps to make them look realistic."

Happy reading!

Friday, April 10, 2009

max perkins: portrait of an artist's best friend [book it]

As Stephanie Meyers continues her demoralizing, months-long domination of the bestsellers lists (btw which is not to say that Twilight the movie isn't a joyful cultural landmark of epic, straight-faced campiness -- and the only film I saw twice last year), let us reflect on a more stirring era in book publishing. 
Yes, I'm biased towards the 20s. Fitzgerald and Hemingway may be English dusty class perennials, but I say that status is well-earned. Their two peak creations -- The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, respectively -- are short and bittersweet works of singular soul. Beyond the iconic styles of the authors themselves (and of course I don't ever mean to sell a writer short), the world perhaps truly owes those final products to one Max Perkins, the longtime Scribner's editor who not only signed these and other fledgling literary lions, but shined their work to a fine polish.
A. Scott Berg's well-received 1978 biography of Perkins, the rather hyperbolically titled Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, presents the man as a quiet behind-the-scenes type with a gut feeling for writing talent and an even more impressive patience for shepherding it along. Fitzergald in particular benefitted from Perkins' seemingly infinite benevolence, and not only from extensive page-by-page editing sessions and title recommendations (Gatsby might have otherwise been titled Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires or, oy, Trimalchio in West Egg). Fitzgerald also relied on Perkins to dole out his pay in allowance-like installments, the famously excessive author being perhaps chemically incapable of living within means.
Perkins came from two distinguished two England lines, the Perkins and the Evarts. He had five daughters, a mildly tense marriage, and a deep fondness for the family summer home up in Windsor, VT (a relaxed, good-living state which, I might add, also gives me the warm fuzzies). But my favorite bit of biography concerns his quarter-century correspondence with one Elizabeth Lemmon (another Liz Lemon! Ha. If you don't watch 30 Rock, excuse the interruption), a family acquaintance who ended up serving Perkins in an odd -- and chaste -- confidant capacity. A lovely blonde with a rolling Virginia estate, Elizabeth was a distant, elusive ideal for a man who already harbored a sentimental taste for Venus (a three-foot version of the Venus di Milo stood in his front hall for decades); she was "an oasis of warmth and understanding in an increasingly difficult marriage." The relationship, it seems, did stick to letters, but its existence gives Perkins another shade, as well as underscores the many private connections that people pursue, quietly treasure, and even require. And how appropriate, that a man of letters who shied from the public eye, would conduct his greatest emotional affair with the pen alone. 
I'll leave you with this small Perkins observation, noted in a complaining letter to Lemmon in the midst of a dull Atlantic crossing: "The ocean doesn't even give a sense of immensity because you can clearly see the edge, equally distant in every direction. The ocean is a disc." Perkins was a keenly perceptive man, and it was that fine eye for detail that effectively mediated between his era's literary talent and the masterworks we still revere today. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

dave hickey explains it all, pt. 2 [book it]

(continued from previous post, "dave hickey explains it all")

Have you heard of Dave Hickey? I came across him this weekend in the Los Angeles Times' occasional Sunday magazine, LA (why this paper can't manage a Sunday magazine of any consistency or caliber like its pretentious New York competitor is beyond me, but that is a matter for its own diatribe). Inspired by the brief interview, I picked up Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, the 1997 collection of cultural commentary that helped him earn a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2001, and can assure you after a premliminary perusal -- it's worth a read.

- thoughts, quotes, SPOILERS -

A Rhinestone as Big as the Ritz
Okay, first off, what a deliciously fitting title. How better to reference today's gaudy mecca of excessive American play-time (Las Vegas) than by referencing a celebrated partaker of bygone American excess (F. Scott Fitzgerald and his short story, "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz," from the 20's)? Dave Hickey's deep fondness for Las Vegas is cerebral and sharp and not without condescension, but his attachment has more emotional texture than mere irony. He compares the Strip's neon lights against the backdrop of a desert sunset:
"Friends of mine who visit watch this light show with different eyes. They prefer the page of the landscape to the text of the neon. They seem to think it's more "authentic." I, on the other hand, suspect that "authenticity" is altogether elsewhere -- that they are responding to nature's ability to mimic the sincerity of a painting, that the question of the sunset and The Strip is more a matter of one's taste in duplicity. One either prefers the honest fakery of the neon or the fake honesty of the sunset -- the undisguised artifice of culture or the cultural construction of "authenticity." [bold mine]
I'm not clear on the bleak asssertion midway through that nature "mimics the sincerity of a painting" -- I think he means that our reading of nature as "authentic" is a cultural label, not that the sunset has any agency to actively mimic art -- but that last bit is the perfect closing zinger of a smug, minutiae-minded college prof.  Love it. (Check out Orson Welles' meandering F is for Fake for an extended exploration of the fake/authentic binary)
Hickey then goes on to happily dissect and savor the "amazing" Liberace museum.
Liberace, it seems, serves as a poetic example of authenticity debunked because "everything that Liberace created or caused to be crated as a function of his shows or of his showmanship (his costumes, his cars, his jewelry, his candelabra, his pianos) shiens with a crisp, pop authority [...] while everything he purchased out of his rising slum-kid appetite for "Old World" charm and ancien regime legitimacy (everything "real," in other words) looks unabashedly phony." By virtue of personality and vision, Liberace created his own visual world, in which only his designs and creations are really legit. 
But Liberace's vision wasn't quite meta. He didn't "understand his own radicality" -- 
"He had, after all, purchased the 1962 Rolls Rocye Phantom v Landau sitting out in the driveway (one of seven ever made), then made it disappear -- let it dissolve into a cubist dazzle of reflected desert by completely covering it with hundreds of thousands of tiny mirrored mosaic tiles -- a gesture comparable to Rauschenberg erasing a de Kooning. But Lee didn't get that."
Or does this choice quote reserve as adequate summation? "Bad taste is real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else's privilege; Liberace cultivated them both in equal parks and often to disastrous effect."
Hickey goes on to look over the cultural implications of Liberace as closeted gay mega-star, even comparing him to the lofty likes of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, pedigreed icons of eras past who were also officially closeted (interesting sidenote: could Wilde have really "invented the closet as a mode of subversive public/private existence"? Hey, undergrads -- sounds like a possible thesis paper to me).  
Liberace progresses the closet tradition. In fact, what he did was "Americanize the closet, democratize it, fit it out with transparent walls, take it up on stage and demand our complicity in his "open secret." [...] Liberace's closet was as democratically invisible as the emperor's new clothes, and just as revolutionary. Everybody "got it." But nobody said it."
And this is where the essay drives and finally rests, a lovely coming together of authenticity, meaning and cultural dialogue: 
"I think we can regard the Liberace Museum as having some general historical significance beyond the enshrining of a particularly exotic entertainer. Its artifacts, genuine rhinestones, and imitation pearls alike mark an American moment - the beginning of the end of the "open secret" So the cars and the costumes and the silly pianos might be seen as more than just the memorabilia of an exotic saloon singer: because they are, in fact, the tools with which Liberace took the "rehtoric of the closet" public, demosntrated the power of its generous duplicity, and changed the world."
Were I Liberace, I don't think I could fathom a more blushing ode to my legacy.