Skipping stones shallowly over the surface of this week’s brain residue

by zunguzungu

On the theory that no thought is too half-baked to be blogged, I offer you this selection of whatever was left over in the refrigerator. Enjoy!

The documentary I Bring What I Love was another opportunity for me to think about the biopic, the way artistic performance gets narrativized as the story of a life. I’m not going to write much about it though; though I thoroughly enjoyed seeing it, its failings as a documentary were pretty clear, especially by comparison to the two documentaries Sascha Paladino has made about Bela Fleck, about which I continue to be obsessed. Where Sascha shows people living in situations and responding to them, this documentary was mostly about fitting Youssou into a variety of pre-existing narratives (African world musician, etc), and that process of simplifying and streamlining a human story that is, in reality, so much more irreducibly interesting might render it more easily consumable, but… it’s the unfermentable sugars that make the beer taste good, however easily converted fructose may be. An interesting biopic, to me, is one in which the protagonist strains against the narrative, thinks against and responds to it; this one mostly didn’t do that, and its subject was fully complicit in providing the least interesting readings of his own significance and art. Not to fault him, of course; it may be that he can only be the kind of griot he saw himself as being by producing this kind of narrative of himself. But while I do love the sweet purity of the Egypt album (and appreciate the narrative of cultural essence it desires), I must admit I vastly prefer the dark and funky quasi-latin polyrhythms of Immigres, not to mention the twisted narratives of cultural concession and transformation it happens to be about.

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The best thing about “Stuff White People Like” is not the manner in which “whiteness” gets figured by reference to the cultivation of commodity desire; that’s good, but it’s still just watered down Bourdieu at best, and under-theorized caricature at worst. No, the best thing about the site is that the “you” by which the reader is hailed is not white. The writing doesn’t describe “you,” of course, but this is the point: it allows the site to defamiliarize whiteness without falling into the trap of making a negative identity (“not white”) into an identity in its own right, clearing space for non-white identity/ies without prescriptively describing what it or they are supposed to be.

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The last lines of The Breakfast Club illustrate just how shallow so much of that eighties movie punk-posturing actually was. The voice of the letter – the voice of a generation, according to some NPR piffle I heard this morning has nothing but scorn for the principal’s decision to entomb these students in a meaningless day of detention, yet he does so only after acknowledging, meekly, that they aren’t actually going to contest his power to make them do it. Not that you expect them to; they’re kids, right? But if those lines embody a larger ethos, it’s worth noting what a pathetic one it is, how a willingness to obey the dictates of a nonsensical power gets rendered pallatable by punk posturing: because we can criticize the power being exerted over us, we get excused from having to actually contest it.

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Zardoz is a truly strange movie, and much better than I expected. So much happens that can’t really be explained or justified in narrative terms; Sean Connery’s wardrobe choices, for example, only function as spectacle, but they are, in all their ridiculous glory, the very heart and essence of what makes the movie good. The fact that there’s no reason why he should be in a wedding dress, for example, is its virtue. Which is to say, so very many things happen in it that are completely underdetermined and without rationale, but such narrative excess is exactly the point, and the movie locates a defense of the kind of campy jouissance (that the Star Wars paradigm would, a few years later, so thoroughly kill off in Sci-fi) in exactly that ethos of irresponsible proliferation. By the standards of that more conventional aesthetic – nicely embodied for me by the German guy who said, afterwords, that it was the worst movie he’d ever seen that he enjoyed so much – our enjoyment of spectacle as spectacle is impossible to justify: if tight and lean are the appropriate terms of art, then an authorial responsibility to write as little as possible is implied, to cut away all the fat by showing only the things that are strictly necessary.

The pleasure of Zardoz, on the other hand, comes from the irresponsible proliferation of images that its central metaphor – the crystal – represents, and which its story (such as it is) draws us towards: a preference for anything and everything to happen over nothing happening. And if that German guy is any illustration, an aescetic aestheticism might prevent us from naming such narrative flabbiness as good, but not from enjoying it.

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I haven’t seen District 9 yet, but when I do, this is what I’ll be looking for: Cynthia Fuchs’ review of it says that “racism provides the white guy with a very special growth experience.” She seems not, quite, to take this as such a damning indictment. But the caucasion-centricity of conceptualizing racism only as a problem for white people is more than simply a blindness; it’s a limited perspective that becomes a kind of argument for its own rightness.

I suspect that this is what the movie is doing, because if it’s an allegory for Apartheid – something it wears on its lapel – then it’s a very strange one, one which fundamentally transforms the story being told: instead of a white minority showing up in ships and occupying land which a black majority had been living on, you have a story in which the oppressed minority are the people showing up in ships, and instead of wanting their land back, all they want to do is leave. As a dream-worked vision, then, I suspect that its wish-fulfillment is for a solution to a fundamentally white dilemma: how to change a history in which white people were the oppressive beneficiaries of racism into a story in which white people were the victims of it.

Again, haven’t seen it. But I fear that it does this by transforming white people into black people in two ways: not only does it it take the role played by white South Africans in the historical narrative (that of an immigrant minority) and emplots it into the sci-fi narrative as the victims of the oppressive system (instead of its engineers), but it also is, quite literally, the story of a human becoming an alien. Which is why such stories are so pernicious: when both the subject and object of racial violence is occupied by white people and when the very idea of black people is rendered alien (only to be cinematically mediated by a white perspective), then racism becomes, implicitly, a victimless crime, for its victims (black people) become unthinkable.

Anyone seen it? Am I right?