Saturday, September 25, 2010

What Monsters Would Say: Jack the Ripper

"I suspect that you can see that I am forced to function in a century I loathe. This was true even when I worked for the New Orleans Public Library."

Sunday, September 19, 2010

I'm Still Here (Prematurely), or On Intention and Authenticity (Prematurely)


Are You Aware of this new movie, I'm Still Here? It is a movie in which Joaquin Phoenix, the Rich Man's Balthazar Getty, has a nervous breakdown and tries to become a rapper. It is shot in a documentarian style by Phoenix's brother-in-law Casey Affleck and chronicles the last few years of Phoenix's life, in which he publicly grew a beard and subjected people to terrible rapping and rants about celebrity and altogether made an ass of himself.

I'm Still Here has a lot of people feeling very clever, because Affleck, in his capacity as director, has recently informed the public that Phoenix was not actually undergoing a mental breakdown while the movie was filmed. Well, Of Course, we are all saying, We Knew It Was Fake! What clever people we all are today!

In fact what we are saying, when we say, "I'm Still Here is fake just like I told you it was," is that we are quite old-fashioned when it comes to this lingering Romantic notion of "authenticity." It is a very old thing, this obsession with "realness," and while authors like the confoundingly interesting David Shields may invite us to get a little bit more adventurous about it all, for the most part it is a very creaky sort of paradigm through which we are still processing it.

When we say that a movie documenting its star's breakdown is "fake" because he did the things the movie says he did but not for the reasons given, are we saying that action is not enough, that intention is what counts? Because after all, the events documented in the movie (with the exception of some faked home-movie footage) really happened, regardless of the principals' reasons for doing them.

Is it our position that Joaquin Phoenix did not really give an embarrassing interview on Letterman because he was not actually flipping out at the time in the same way that, say, Crispin Glover would have been? Can we then say that Tom Hanks did not really get his teeth capped for The Bonfire of the Vanities because he was not doing it in the name of Tom Hanks' dental health, or that Klaus Kinski did not really drag a boat up a mountain because it happened in the wrong half of the 20th century?

Those seeking to explain Phoenix and Affleck's work often refer to the concept of "performance art," that same context that James Franco was so lampooned for placing his work on General Hospital within. The reason this often fails is that if someone does not like what someone else is doing, he will like it even less if she says that it is "art," because if he is meritocratic about art or insecure about his ability to understand culture, this implies (to him) that she believes there is an inherent nobility to her work which he did not get.

To call the movie "performance art" is valid, because it puts the notion of "fakeness" in its appropriately irrelevant place: nobody would call, say, Marina Abramovic's screaming until her lungs gave out "fake" because she was doing it in the name of a pre-planned artwork instead of because she was being chased by a monster or what have you.

But even if we can excuse a work by calling it art, this basic reliance on intentions is still bothersome, because the fact remains that the work was not allowed into the canon until we knew "why" it was done. This is a troublesome and dangerous distinction to make, not least because if we only allowed ourselves to enjoy things that were "good" in the way their creator intended them to be, we would become very bored very fast.

David Simon, the creator of my current favorite thing The Wire, likes to say that most entertainment in our time works within a Shakesperian model, whereby the focus is on the inner lives of characters' thoughts and emotions; whereas his television program worked within more of a framework of Greek tragedy, whereby protagonists' outward actions and the consequences of those actions are what matters. When we penalize someone like Joaquin Phoenix for doing something like I'm Still Here, we are faulting him for what we judge to be a duplicitous inner nature, whereas we might find more value in examining our notions of celebrity, narrative and performance and seeing where his actions fit within these contexts.

But then, I haven't seen the movie because I live in New Zealand, so I may be quite wrong about all of this. Just pretend I was talking about Wayne Anderson: Singer of Songs.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tom's New Zealand: A City Forsaken

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"Not the God, but a God, at least." That's how Bill Murray describes himself after discovering that he's trapped in a purgatorial parochiality in which time never changes and his ability to predict the next few minutes marks him as a minor superhuman. The people of New Zealand don't think themselves a God (much less the God), but they have some idea who knows what's coming next, and they have a fairly good reckoning that if they just keep in touch with this entity (who must be deific in the pantheonic sense, if not the monotheistic), she [1] will be right.

That God, of course, is the numinous and omniscient "They[2]." Like the God of the Israelites, the true name(s) of God must not be uttered; They are nameless and without number. And like the God of all those who follow Abraham, They can will events simply by speaking of them: for Them to say a thing is so is to make it so. If They say it is to rain, then the washing comes in; if They expect a popular swing to the Right, the Labour party had best start arresting terrorist suspects and promising tax cuts.

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But Christchurch, a city deceptively faithful to They[3], is so haunted by the motif of the impassible cup that an immovable monument to same has been erected in the town square. And just as such a cup heralds questions of divine abandonment, so the people of Christchurch, this week, have had to ask whether they have been abandoned by They.

When the woofters and wowsers of Wellington and the Aucklanders of Auckland were replacing their bricks and tram-lines with cement and cables and terrifying children with hard-sell preparedness, They assured Christchurch that this was Political Correctness Gone Mad, the Softening of Society. Christchurch kept her stone buildings and her solid frontages and her thick steel rails and her fearless youth.

And so when They turned out to have overlooked Christchurch's place on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Christchurch's people were unsure what to say. Uneasy about channelling their newly-fickle patron deity, Christchurchians ran to the words of favored son Chris Knox: across the breadth of news coverage, there were only cliches to get across the feeling. Everyone buckled down for 48 hours of equally punishing aftershocks, They having assured them that this was coming.

A brief respite, granted when They turned out to have been wrong again, turned to despair as They's assurances that the worst aftershocks were over turned out to be a third time wrong. Christchurch, unlike its namesake, had no way of predicting that it would be spoken against three times, so this was particularly galling.

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It is this abandonment that Christchurch finds the hardest to deal with. The physical nature of the damage, it has overcome ably: community centers overrun with donations and contributions, even the Council had to post a "please stop helping" message on their website. Cordons and curfews, geographic and chronological concessions to They, have been dutifully obeyed, that their patron may be appeased.

But the blow to Christchurch's spirit is harder to bandage. Usually a city with a proud (some might say ostentatious) tradition of stiff-upper-lip-service, Christchurch's town paper spent a week talking as if the crisis had been so severe that the questions facing townsfolk were far more serious than whether or not we'd still get to host the Rugby [4].

When the people of Christchurch speak, they speak of They; when they have questions, they have always known that They have the answers. In a city where They saw nothing coming, and where nobody is scared of a little hard work if only They would tell them how to make everything stone-solid once more, this is the hardest thing to stomach: the notion that the earth could shake, and They would have had nothing to say about it.

[1] While the God of epistemology and teleology is Janus-like and genderless, the personification of circumstances themselves is feminine.
[2] For foundational thoughts on the nature of They I am indebted to Bill Pearson's masterful essay on the New Zealand character, Fretful Sleepers, and to my friend Cheryl Bernstein for alerting me to its existence.
[3] The Christchurchian, deeply egalitarian in his politics, spirituality and day-to-day affairs, harbours a deep-set mistrust of any one entity with too much going for them. He appreciates the effort that must have gone into creating the Universe in a week, but hanging around to dictate a book about it smacks of skiting. Civic nomenclature aside, that goes double for His son.
[4] A question nevertheless so pressing that the Press was asking it within hours of the initial tremor.