The Beasts of Summer

September 24, 2012

I’m really busy this week, primarily preparing for a talk at the Scripps Humanities Institute exciting series on Social Media/Social Change, but I couldn’t resist putting off my real responsibilities to pen this short little blog post about the similarities and differences between this year’s two remarkable brute flicks: Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master.

Notable echoes are of course between the very beasts in question: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who live their lives outside any master’s dogma, or related organized rules of etiquette or discipline. Both are offered up by their directors (Benh Zeitlin and Paul Thomas Anderson) as retro-fueled models for a post-modern living that has been too tamed by technology, corporations, and stultifying social systems like race, gender, class and sexuality.

However, there the two must part, for Hushpuppy figures how to be part of a community (of outsiders) even so, has an ethical stance that is her personal amalgam of the many traditions (spiritual, philosophical, social, political and economic) that she rejects in toto, and uses violence with some consideration and moral compass.

While both the beasts need to be tamed by their Daddies, who each ultimately fail, the Mommy plays a different role in each triangle: for Hushpuppy she’s entirely absent, flipping the racist stereotype that black children suffer from missing patriarchs and blaming poverty, instead, for her lack of schooling. Meanwhile, Freddie’s matriarchal lady (Amy Adams) is both too present, and oddly absent (for him) as he only has eyes for Poppa. All the actors in The Master are pretty remarkable, and Adams plays Dodd’s wife Peggy asexually, all cold cunning, leaving the prurient excesses to the man (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his beast (which she also does in this weekend’s stunningly ham-fisted The Trouble With the Curve, albeit, we assume, to please this crowd-pleaser’s geriatric and juvenile audiences.)

So, it seems we have two tales of boys’ beasts and girls’, white beasts and black, and adults and children, too, telling us what we need to know today about male masters’ authority and everyone else’s needs to reject them (hello Occupy). Both are spectacular spectaculars, amazing in form and craft, intelligent and affecting, too. But from this brief scrutiny, I’d want to say that the beast (of the southern wild) ultimately makes a stronger claim for me about what and who we might hope to follow, and how, if we were to have no Mommies and then say no to Daddy, too: a personal ethics that allows for a careful and piece-meal consideration and embracing of the best of past traditions, the possibility for willful and strategic loving communities committed to each other and our lived places, as well as a hope and politics for the future.

I was hesitant to see Miranda July’s new film, The Future, because while I’m a fan of her earlier avant-garde art practice (and even a supporter and friend during this period of her career, shout out to Big Miss Moviola), the trailer’s sickly smell of and reviewer’s attention to its twee-hipsterism seemed to speak completely outside the daily confines of my interests as a middle-aged, lady-professor Mommy (although I walk the same streets, drink the high-priced coffee, and eat nouvelle Vietnamese with them often enough in my sporadically gentrifying LA neighborhood).

So let me say up front that while her film skirts that mode in some cloying aspects of style—thrift store fashion, skinny pubescent looking adults with wild-child hair, 35 year-olds in what appears to be someone’s college apartment, and her insistence upon playing the eternal permanently precocious ingénue—many of its forms are original, exciting, and feminist, what I’ve always admired in July’s oeuvre.

Let’s start with her interest in animating the inanimate: the cat, the Moon, and two decidedly unhip Angelenos who surprisingly speak when they transform from backdrop into supporting characters. Why do so many things that would usually be silent speak? The film’s narrative, and July’s Sophie initially suggest a technological excuse: once the internet is off we maybe just could become connected. But instead it turns out that our lovely couple are even more bereft of community and conversation, thereby needing different kind of objects (from those they would be watching dancing on YouTube, say) to add (any) meaning to their empty world. And yet, the film’s odd couple were already completely isolated in their domestic bliss of two, even when the internet was running: no friends, nowhere to go, no life but each other. And here enters July’s feminist formalism. These lost children in love—without to-be-expected careers, families, houses, friends or complex lives—have been convinced that the monogamous couple is enough, is all. The isolation of domestic love has locked them away and protected them from the world and both its bourgeois expectations and messy pleasures. But unlike the celebratory man-boy genre of male super-comedians and indie super-stars alike, this couple is punished for their infantitude: their selfishness kills the cat and no (movie) magic will bring it back. They have to grow up, which means growing out: out into the world through whatever connective technology works—computer, friendship, community, and art.

The third day of my show PerpiTube: Repurposing Social Media Spaces brought this remarkable and unexpected video by Shu Lea Cheang.

Unexpected in two senses. First, I had thought my old friend Shu Lea would push the limits of this show by presenting some aspect of her vast and cutting edge cyber/porn/viral/performance oeuvre. I was prepared to gently remind her that we were showing the work to young people, and an YouTube. No such conversation needed to ensue because instead she allowed us to see les cles. And here’s the second unforeseen experience. I write and think about almost too many media objects that sit on YouTube and smugly mark the line between documentary and fiction in ways that have become ever more predictable, benign, and expected. I have conjectured  this saturation may not be good for queer artists. And yet, Shu Lea’s quiet meditation on family love, intimacy, and the profound in the mundane is ever more interesting as an unstated exploration of the relationship between these themes and technology and visibility. Who is shooting these seemingly real people? If it is Shu Lea, how ever could this radical gender-queer new media pioneer be close enough to these seemingly working-class French people  that she could capture a moment of such intimacy and quiet? If it’s not Shu Lea, how is this her film? Did she chance upon the footage? Find it online, to then edit it with such grace? What ever could it mean to remake moments of others daily familiarity? And if they are actors, how could she script such a delicate and strange interaction, the kind that life produces in a way that fiction seemingly can not? And what does such complex and tranquil artistry mean when made visible in the frantic frenzy of YouTube? The mystery of the Mother’s angels meets the unfamiliar of Shu Lea’s forms in an elegant coupling that reminds me that the internet, and YouTube, has the capacity for depth, in the making strange of its own consolidating norms of volume, speed, over-sharing, spectacle, and irony.

I’ll be driving to Palm Springs this afternoon to attend their festival with my son. The Film Collaborative has been doing a great job with our distribution (the film is being released by First Run Features in March). And thanks to them we’ve been accepted to a swanky straight fest, who knew? Gay film festivals feel like the one bright spot in the moribund “indie” scene: providing dependable and supportive venues,  audiences, and markets for queer film. It’s truly always a pleasure and a privilege to have this well-oiled machine at ones service. A negative effect to this phenomenon, its flip side, is that “quality” or serious gay films have a harder time finding audiences, venues and markets outside the gay ghetto (really more like a resort, what with our high end and international festivals and tony corporate sponsorship). Queer film that may be about lesbian/queer life, but also, in our case about cinema (the documentary/fiction divide, the work of Patricia Highsmith), or more generic issues like aging and political generations, will most likely never be seen by interested and implicated if straight cineastes. Of course, the same goes for black cinema. For instance, by far the best review of the film so far,  by Danielle Riendeau, came out recently on AfterEllen. While we well attend to our niche audiences, as a devoted film community we have put little in place to speak to other potentially interested parties. Cheryl Dunye is lucky in that her films have been followed by academia, allowing her work to cross into this realm: but there, it’s usually attended to by the to-be-expected woman’s, black, queer studies scene rather than say the academic avant-garde.

In any case, it will be fun to see who comes out for the film (in the Berlin Q and A, I actually asked the straight-appearing and surprisingly male audience their thoughts on attending  lesbian film, which led to this interesting conversation).

I had the honor to give a keynote address at this international symposium, sponsored by Women in View, an association of  Canadian media professionals. An astoundingly diverse and powerful group of women–with high-ranking representatives from industry, finance, unions, the national government, technology, academia, the arts, and non-profits–joined for two days, with the primary goal of making sense of (and providing action items towards changing) the shockingly regressive rates of women’s participation in, and representation through, media. While it would be too long for this venue to cover everything of value that occurred in these jam packed days, I wanted to highlight three key points, and end by looking at the work of three women from whom I learned greatly.

1) O Canada!

It was dismaying to realize how profoundly neo-liberalism has soaked our consciousness and practices in the US by watching the Canadians unselfconsciously (if angrily) engage together via discourses of justice, equity, and a government and society (still a tiny bit) responsible for such claims. The fact that women were in the room from the agencies that fund, show, make, and legislate around a (still a tiny bit) state-supported system, and that they were listening and actually a part of the dialogue, is something I can not imagine in the US where we have become complacent to the idea that market trends trump all conversations around real-world legislation and practices within dominant systems of representation.

2) Stereotypes and Statistics:

As a media artist and humanities scholar, my work has not largely focused upon stereotypes or statistics, and I wanted to learn from intelligent women who were using these questions and methods to drive their work: the emphasis of this conference. The several studies that were shared were shocking: women’s participation in the media as marked by numbers of workers, dollars spent, or images of women on screen have fallen precipitously, and are in ratios that display an illegitimate reflection of women’s power in both other fields and daily life. While this data is deeply compelling, it fails to recognize women and girls’ equally compelling presence on the internet (thus my invited talk), the fact and real power of the hundred-plus female professionals in the room, and at least thirty years of feminist theoretical work in media and cultural studies that has built upon an analysis of how many, to try to understand the systems, structures, and conditions of representation that under-gird numbers. This is to say that while seeing more women on and behind the screen is certainly an admirable and understandable beginning, and an ongoing necessity, what women do when they get there is even more complicated, given that they are bound by corporate, narrative, psychoanalytic, aesthetic, social, and labor codes (to name a few) that must also be understood and changed to make any representation truly meaningful and empowering. Another way to say this is that “negative images” or even low numbers (especially those made by critical, angry women attempting to understand and give thought to their own imperfection, criticism, contradictions and oppression within a daunting and complicated world) are often more illuminating and empowering than “positive” or popular ones.

3) The Personal is the Political:

A brief anecdote: I ate lunch with four or five women, all, it turned out with their own children who are teenagers (I have pre-teens), some of whom made video games, one of whom worked on privacy legislation regarding digital content, and of course, me, I work on YouTube. Off-line, over lunch, we talked like very literate, even expert Moms who nevertheless worry and self-criticize about how to monitor, talk to, and empower our very active media girls (one scholar monitors Facebook with an alter-ego, another never looks). I can not emphasize how moving, and important it was for me to be in a room with women who wanted to let their personal problems and experience add to, nuance, and even contradict the professional and even political work we also do. It is my experience that this sustaining, productive magic happens when feminists are in rooms together, which they are most often not in our post-feminist world. The personal feeds my analysis, power, and anger and joins me with others, so experiencing; it is not a place I want to be at all times (thus I go to work), but it is one from which I move and think and grow. As women get more and more ensconced in the professions, we must self-consciously create and insist upon places from which we can also be fed by our personal experiences which are always productive towards our actions, analyses, demands, and work. This is our unique legacy and gift.

4) Three Women Who Moved Me (of course I learned from them all)

The first day’s keynote speaker, Rosalind Gill, from the London School of Economics, elegantly and flawlessly mobilized statistical and ethnographic analysis to fuel her cultural critical project on “retro-sexism,” one bent upon understanding the paradox of women’s achievement and same time worsening employment and representational conditions, in particular, the unspeakability of sexism in the cool, bohemian environments of new media. Bonnie Klein, and others from Canada’s National Film Board’s feminist Studio D, reminded us of the pros of a government mandated space, rooted in a living social movement, and its ideas, arts, and actions, and moored to the constant discovery engendered by a feminist inflected, actively supported, and highly participatory, self-critical, voice-inspiring system.

Finally, Jutta Treviranus, from OCAD University, inspired me to think about how innovation occurs at and for the margins, that “disability” happens to everyone when environments don’t match their needs, and that technology allows us to imagine a better world of “mass personalization” where “one size fits one.” Her work on the unpopular gave me intellectual and design ammunition in relation to my more experiential and intuitive analyses of popularity on YouTube.

My current work seeks to theorize, imagine, and construct on-line feminist spaces that are as feeding as was SexMoneyMedia in its artful and intentional corralling of expertise, power, affect, politics, art, diversity, and goal-driven world-changing.

Babies are People!

May 13, 2010

“Mommies are people. People with children. When mommies were little they used to be kids, like some of you, but then they grew, and now mommies are women: women with children. Busy with children and things that they do, there are a lot of things, a lot of mommies can do.”

(pardon the mistakes, this is from memory, used to listen to the album a lot in my living room in Boulder, that is Free to Be You and Me of course, got a bootleg video about ten years ago and showed it to my kids, but that’s another story from the early 2000s, and then, even earlier, the good old days, the 1970s, when mommies and babies and even daddies, too, were people being liberated with the help of Marlo Thomas and friends from the shackles of patriarchy and discrimination, and stereotypes but hey, look:

Babies treat babies like penguins! Or at least movie penguins, which are treated like people.

Babies relies upon animal documentary‘s comforting staples of pathos, melodrama (music swells to help us really get the feeling), and anthromorphism (animals are people, people with children…), to make the obvious argument that babies are people, but not. The film’s trite, pleasing, but ultimately intellectually offensive thesis is the opposite: that babies are animals, as are mommies and daddies, too, all doing what penguins do: following instinct to wash, shelter, feed, and enculture our offspring in the diverse landscapes and ecosystems of our natural world (steppe, savannah, urban mall, no matter). This film’s animalorphic view of babies celebrates nature and denies culture: we know or care nothing about the four baby’s parent’s jobs, wealth, access to health care or education or voting, whether or not they are raised in patriarchy or capitalism, whether they will be educated, married young, forced to the field. All of these babies will be people and not penguins and one or two will live longer, due to their home society’s average longevity, itself a function of culture, and some might get pay and jobs almost equal to men (due to feminism), and others will stay home tending children, and some will be men, and maybe herders, living off the land, while others work on computers.

Babies are people. And people live in culture. And ethnographic film and anthropology has long studied babies in context, a much more reasoned (if complicated) way to make sense of all the things that babies do.

I saw One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (Varda, 1977) in my graduate Women and Film class in the late 80s, with Professor Annette Michelson (one of those strangely women-averse female role-models who “mentored” my feminist education, Eve Sedgwick being another). Radical in 1977, by 1987 it already seemed dated.

Vincent Canby (1977) wrote about the film:

THE 15TH NEW YORK Film Festival gets very fashionably under way tonight at Avery Fisher Hall with a woman’s picture—a movie by, for and about women. These are women who haven’t exactly done away with men but they have successfully established an emotional strength that—unintentionally, I think—makes the men around them look superfluous for everything except for the reproduction of the species and singing in the kind of harmony that requires a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass.

Canby’s words hold eerily true for the two films I discuss today, so many years later, and so much and so little gained (for feminists and woman’s picture’s): Motherhood (Katherine Diekmann, 2009) and The Kids Are Alright (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010). While I really want to support the ideas and goals of both—putting onto the mainstream screen via movie stars (Benning, Moore, Thurman) the pathos, humor, and actual politics of the daily lives of women who live a lot like me, middle-aged, upper-middle class, professional, artistic, feminist mothers—one sings and the other doesn’t. This leads me to ask what forms are necessary to make woman’s pictures actually work?

I’ll attend to one here. As is true of the melodramatic and sentimental forms that serve as foundation for both films (and most all woman’s pix), the dramas of everyday life elevate (for the film and its women) in ways that are unrealistically scaled to the actual relevance, meaning, or impact of the household’s itsy-bitsy minutia (carrying too many grocery bags, having an affair) especially in relation to either world history, or the complex unfolding of any one person’s life. Yet any working mother can appreciate the gap between how large these small humiliations and tiny herculean accomplishments feel in relation to how inconsequential we rationally know them to be. One is reduced to really caring about goody bags or moving the car when one leaves the world of work, men, and the important things that happen outside the home, and this is at once humiliating, harrowing, and humbling.

The formal challenge resides in the minding, tending, and making clear of that very gap: Douglas Sirk marks it with style and camp; Cholodenko with witty writing and pitch perfect performance hit up against sunny LA exteriors; while Diekmann’s Uma Thurman somehow is asked to believe in the importance of her own clunky performance of home life’s endless queues-for-crap. Admittedly, this is hard work—for mothers, actors, and directors—to retain enough distance from the actual pain and pleasure that chosen- or forced-confinement creates to keep its irrelevance relative. It seems, in these (film) worlds of women, not the kids, or the moms, but the boys always, in the end, get it easiest, at least if that’s to be truly alright.