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Trivial Pursuits

Why do we think of the kleptomaniac as being usually a woman, and why do we find her so alluring?

In her eyebrow-raising memoir from 1902, newly published under the title I Await the Devil’s Coming, 19-year-old Mary MacLane wrote proudly of her compulsion to steal: “I steal money, or anything that I want, whenever I can, nearly always. It amuses me — and one must be amused.” MacLane doesn’t look like a thief — “I look so respectable, so refined, so ‘nice,’ so inoffensive, so sweet, even!” — and the sense of freedom the act gives her, a way of being something other than she appears to be, contributes to its thrill.

Blithe (“It amuses me”), yet shockingly honest (“I am a plain downright thief”), this confession places her in a cadre of some of literature’s most fascinating characters — real and fictional — who indulge an impulse most of us resist. Compulsion, by definition, makes for a fascinating read: A compulsive character must inevitably be vested with extraordinary desire – that “alchemical agent,” as Jonathan Franzen nicely terms it, “by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of ‘bad’ people into sympathy.” Yet this desire in many ways mirrors the reader’s own desire, stretched, as it were, to an uncomfortable extreme, so that we find ourselves perhaps cringing from this character’s behavior while at the same time oddly rooting for it. MacLane’s memoir, offering legions of young women the opportunity to see a visceral and uncensored version of themselves in her depictions, became an instant sensation.

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Fear of an Ape Planet

Debating the blinkered Hollywood take on race in films like The Help and Rise of the Apes only helps perpetuate it

Positive or negative, reviews of a new film are surprisingly consistent. Though reviewers may disagree on a thumbs-up, thumbs-down level, they typically highlight the same issues, describe the film in the same way, talk about the same performances, and so on. It’s rare that reviewers don’t discuss a film in terms of its marketing. When a film engenders a lot of argument, odds are that critics are arguing against its marketing and missing what’s actually going on with it while, well, helping market it themselves.

Accordingly, there has been a huge amount of “debate” about The Help, revolving around the ridiculously useless question of whether it’s racist. Of course it’s racist: It’s white Hollywood taking on racial issues. The producers, the director, the writer, and the marquee star are all white. It’s based on a novel by white writer Kathryn Stockett. Am I saying that a white person can’t address racial issues in the civil-rights era without being racist? No, but I am saying that a whole gang of white people with a $25 million budget and a bunch of cameras can’t.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the first shot of the film:

Yes, those are Emma Stone’s white hands writing The Help.

This is the movie letting us know from frame one that this is a movie about white people telling a story about black people.

The movie focuses on Skeeter (Stone), an aspiring writer and member of the social elite in Jackson, Mississippi, circa 1963. She gets testimony from her cohort’s black maids, in particular Aibileen (Viola Davis) and Minny (Octavia Spencer), in order to publish a book (also titled The Help) telling their story in their voice and revealing the everyday cruelty of the petty rich white women who employ them. This, we are given to believe, will empower the maids and help them discover their identity. “No one’s ever heard the story from this perspective!” Skeeter beams to her white New York publisher. The main dramatic tension lies in whether the maids will overcome their fears of violent reprisal and participate in the oral history.

On a historical level, this is atrocious. Both the rich young white women and middle-aged black maids seem oddly distant from the civil-rights movement that is burning all around them. Medgar Evers’ murder occurs during the film’s time span, but none of the protest and action surrounding it is even mentioned. The film depicts the actual black politics of the time as significantly less important to the maids than Skeeter’s efforts to empower them. In a scene late in the film, the maids are applauded by the black congregation at their church for their bravery, and indeed it is, we are shown, an empowering experience. But individual empowerment is meant to be enough, especially as the film ends with Aibileen’s being fired: She gets psychological uplift, but her social and economic power is actually diminished.

Many “serious” critics (David Edelstein, David Denby) like this film, glossing over the historical myopia to focus on Viola Davis’s incredible performance, but a number of criticshave also cried foul. Most prominent among the film’s detractors, the Association of Black Women Historians released a statement slamming the film for the use of black dialect, the lack of attention to sexual harassment faced by domestic workers, and the revival of the mammy character.

But this critique is too limited, attacking stereotypes that the film doesn’t entirely embrace (The Help’s maids are not exactly the mammy figure; though they are portrayed as matronly and asexual, these characters are not Gone With the Wind caricatures) rather than the film’s systemic racism. Yes, only a white person could write the line: “Fryin’ chicken just tends to make you feel better ‘bout life,” but a black actress has to deliver it. And these black actresses do an incredible job, earning every word of praise the critics have given them. But the film’s still racist as fuck. And the black actresses and workers who made this film have to confront this criticism, forcing them into an impossible situation: either defend it as not racist with a willed act of cognitive dissonance, or become dismissive of their own creative output.

Though the maids are given serious screen time and some psychological complexity, the unmistakable fact is that they are still less complex than the white women. We watch the white women laugh, socialize, fall in love, work, achieve, dream, collapse and face crisis. The black women either suffer at their duties, describe their suffering for Skeeter’s book, or display their wisdom and strength in overcoming this suffering. Though no longer mammies, the black women remain objects of history, depositories for suffering and struggle, stand-ins for the entirety of racist injustice, while the white women have complex, real(ish) lives. The black characters, as always in white popular cinema, must represent all of black America.

And no matter how well they perform here, how many starring roles are coming for these not-exactly-Hollywood-beautiful black actresses? When will they ever get this much screen time again? Yes, starring in a hit film and receiving heaps of praise will advance their careers, but not nearly as much as it will help Emma Stone’s. (She is already on the cover ofVanity Fair.) These actresses are complicit in producing a racist work, yet it is the best opportunity they will have to work so well so visibly, to express their creativity and their art to the greatest number of people. By attacking The Help for being racist without considering the economic realities of its production, critics reinforce this racist labor relation.

Still, a majority of critics liked this movie, Viola Davis will get an Oscar nod, and everyone’s gonna make a bunch of money. The debate over the The Help’s race problem has only helped it on its way to being a huge hit: It has made $97 million in three weeks. If selling movie tickets was all the phony debate accomplished, well, there are worse things to do with your time. But the critics’ accusations of racism end up perpetuating the exploitative and racist labor relations. Driving up ticket sales sends money to the white producers, who get new pool houses along with a huge hit on their résumés.

August’s other hit film, also widely praised by the critical establishment, appears to discuss race issues in a very different way. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is, of course, about race war. Movie revolutions fought on hard species lines (usually robots, but sometimes sentient animals) most often resemble slave uprisings or anticolonial struggles—the revolutionaries begin as slaves, dispersed within the population, doing its undesirable labor. But as they become aware of their enslavement, they turn on their oppressors (humans), crush them, and develop their own free state. These movies usually center around the brave human resistance against the evil robot/chimp/what have you new overlords. On its surface, Riseturns this structure on its head.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco (and that’s who he is in this movie, James Franco) is a scientist in San Francisco developing a cure for Alzheimer’s. He tests it on chimps, and it makes them supersmart, meaning that it works. But the smartest chimp, Bright Eyes, goes apeshit and tears up the lab, forcing Franco’s boss to shut down the project and kill all the chimps. (Un)Luckily, Franco smuggles Bright Eyes’s son Ceasar (who has inherited his mother’s superior intelligence in the womb) home to raise him.

The first half of the film is a multicultural family drama, with a mixed-race couple (Franco marries an Indian primatologist played by Freida Pinto) raising their super-intelligent chimp baby. But when Ceasar attacks their neighbor, he’s sent to a Dickensian primate-holding government facility—basically chimp jail. There he realizes the nature of species antagonism, doses the rest of the apes with the drug that made him smart, and leads a daring escape, climaxing in a battle with the police on the Golden Gate Bridge. Ultimately, thanks to the dual processes of mutual aid (freeing the chimps from their cages, feeding them cookies) and propaganda (dosing them with Franco’s brain gas) the chimps unify and overcome their oppressors, ultimately defeating the cops and arriving at their freedom in the Redwoods.

Throughout, the film makes direct references to the African American struggle. The opening scene, in which machete-wielding Africans chase CGI chimps through a jungle to send them to American labs, could be straight out of Amistad. The jailers spray Ceasar with a fire hose to pacify him, echoing images of Birmingham, 1963. But none of these allusions constitutes critique. This film, more than any blockbuster I’ve seen in a long time, plays directly into the deconstructing habits of lefty filmgoers, letting them congratulate themselves for picking up on the racial undercurrents and revolutionary organization taking place. Political theorist Jodi Dean, in a dubious piece of promotion, wrote, “Watch it for the tactics.”

This is hardly a subversive approach to the movie. It is not as though the producers used the imagery of the fire hose or the slave hunt accidentally, and they certainly anticipate that we’ll get off on watching an underclass go up against the cops and win: The scene on the Golden Gate Bridge was the focus of the film’s previews and advertisements. Even our indignation at the connection the film clearly posits between black identity and monkeys feels overdetermined, expected. The apes are the good guys, for chrissakes! It’s a neat trick: If you make a rousing summer blockbuster that allows for a certain amount of smug critical masturbation, you’ll get great reviews for no added cost.

Beyond the civil-rights overtones, the actual implications of the film’s plot are less laudable. In the final scene, Franco catches up with the apes and asks Ceasar to come home. Ceasar replies, “Ceasar is home,” after which Franco tearfully turns away, nodding, to leave him to his new life. The takeaway: the rebellious group, defined by age, race or species, just needs its own home where it can be free, and then it will stop fighting against society. The goal of political action is not total freedom from political oppression but rather the pseudo-freedom of self-defined community within the state apparatus. The Redwoods is, as we are shown twice in establishing shots, a national park, although conveniently empty when the apes arrive.

And the hyperreal nature of the CGI apes increases the distance between the audience and the revolutionaries depicted. They are less monkeys than pure cinematic phantasms, animated unrealities, diminishing the presentation of revolt into pure aesthetic signifying. It doesn’t help, either, that the CGI is obviously superexpensive. That level of economic ostentation tends to neutralize any of the film’s possible political connotations.

A key moment in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one which also functions as a sequel-enabling aside. It turns out that Franco’s gas, while enhancing monkey IQ, also produces a deadly contagious disease in humans. In a mid-credits coda, Franco’s neighbor, infected with the disease, gets on a plane. The implication is that Franco’s creation will wipe out humanity, and the apes will be left to rebuild. In other words, the apes will not bring revolutionary war to humankind, rather humankind will destroy itself, and the apes will build over the ashes.

On a superficial level, each of these films provide different ideas about overcoming oppression. Rise of the Planet of the Apes pictures organization toward violent class struggle. That makes it much more fun to watch then The Help, where speaking truth to power is the major tool to freedom. But ultimately, their messages are the same: Victory occurs upon the achievement of identity empowerment. In both films, the ideological underpinnings are identical. A white person provides the tools, knowledge, and opportunity for members of the underclass to develop and recognize their own identity. The economic, physical, and psychological repression we are shown in both films is ultimately a function of mis-recognition of the consciousness of the oppressed: the struggle for recognition of that paradigm. Thus, once a certain amount of identity control has been wrested, the political project is presumed to be complete.

It is important to see how Hollywood political narratives mirror dominant political narratives, how they inform ways of thinking about politics that drastically limit possibilities. The organizational methods differ between the films, but in a political-historical narrative, it’s the goal that ultimately reflects ideological position. Washington Democrats may want to maintain the current distribution of wealth and power technocratically with slight adjustments, while the Republicans would prefer to throw the people off a fucking cliff, but neither party acts toward or wants an actual reorganization of the current paradigm. Rise up or speak out. As long as you’re not looking to actually overthrow systemic inequality, you can be a hero. If you saw both Rise and The Help in August, and many did, the most devastating mistake would be believing you saw two different forms of political thought.

Willie Osterweil is The New Inquiry’s film editor and a writer living in Brooklyn. 

 

To Sit on a Throne of Teeth, Graced With a Crown of Teeth

Notes on opportunities blown and missed:

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox
Conan the Barbarian, Lionsgate
Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Paramount Pictures
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Miramax Pictures

By Evan Calder Williams

This is one of two essays that constitute a loose, although non-sequential, pairing of reflections on popular film I watched in theaters this summer. This one is more concerned with issues falling roughly beneath the heading of “content.” The other essay, forthcoming in Mute, has more to do with a recurrent visual tendency: namely, the decomposition of large sphere-shaped objects or fields and the consequent snowing drift of debris, through which a few figures will make a slow passage. Preferably with their mouths open.


This has been a summer of blown opportunities, at least insofar as cinema allegedly devoted to taking those opportunities goes. There’s been a sheer blowing, one that evacuates any sense of weight that might mark a difference between one possibility or another: see here the hot glassy wind of irrelevant unmaking and particle effects that constitutes the relevant narrative arc of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. That at least knows how to puncture holes in everything, even if the holes are barely compelling and hardly ragged. At the least, it was both committedly awful and the source of one of 2011’s crowning moments of lolled-tongue stupefaction, as a giant chthonic robot worm, bristling with circulating razors, simultaneously encircled and penetrated Chicago’s Hudson Tower. It strangled it in two, like a burrowing python or chrome bolas, while characters inside shouted a lot and dodged sliding office furniture.

More though, there were opportunities that simply did not come. And if they did, they were resolutely shoved aside. See, for example, nearly the entirety of the new Conan The Barbarian. I saw it all wrong, perhaps: sober as sand, at early dusk with the sun still hazy outside, in the mood for something that understood pleasure. But all began well. Its properly exploitative first minutes gave precisely what we didn’t have: a particularly giddy, bright drunk of motion and axes. For those minutes feature — in rapid succession — a battlefield birth by C-section, a young boy hacking off a few heads while keeping a raw egg unbroken in his mouth, and an excruciating aria of hack symbolism regarding how steel needs both fireand ice.

Another tendency shaping recent mainstream film is the obsessive’s need to over-explain, to both show and tell, and to do both at extreme length: if one can use the 1982 Conan to help gauge the further banalization of pop cinema, then consider the difference between the two sword-forging scenes. The version from two decades ago seems nearly elegant, Bresson-ish, in its old-fashioned reliance on images and semi-deft editing to show the process. In comparison, that is, to Ron Perlman in barbarian/bear disguise explaining how steel must be tempered with fire and ice at the same time, while in the same screen time we watch a sword get dipped in a trough of fire and ice. In case we missed the point, immediately following, he tells young Conan that he has too much fire and not enough ice. As this occurs, he knocks him — because he’s too fiery, see? — into a frozen lake. It’s fair to assume that one or the other — the laborious explanation or the hammy diagesis — would have been plenty. Instead, the film, and we with it, groans beneath the weight.

Exploitation films are, taken generally, those that fully enact generic modes, premises, or single concerns (cannibalism, sex, motorcycles, samurai, werewolves, gladiators, pimps, a combination of all seven) and make of the attendant contradictions not a damning incoherence but a true joy and technics. Their massification is by now an old story, as we’re in the midst of a long stretch of years when films costing $90 million try their damnedest to necromance some of the lost aura of films that either “didn’t know better” or didn’t have the capital to do anything about it otherwise. Conan is one such film. It reloads a cult classic and marks itself as an especially pulpy incarnation of a diffuse lineage that runs through Italian peplum, sword & sorcery tales, D&D thrown into a creatine lab vat with MMA and parkour, and a distinctly ’80s version of the fantasy aesthetic that features a lot of big biceps and bigger hair.

Yet while Conan bares its beefcake, splatter, and consummate idiocy, it nevertheless botches nearly every instance it could actually exploit. It hacks its ankles out from beneath itself, and the resultant blood sprays no noteworthy patterns. Case in point: The story revolves around the reconstruction of an evil mask, at once antlerish and tentacular, with which our evil warlord can resurrect his evil dead wife and proceed to rule, evilly. And indeed, he collects the requisite pieces and prepares dark dominion. What, then, is the result, when he dons the all-powerful relic at the veritable climax of the film?  The mask wiggles its limp tentacles a bit. That is all.

This is action-fantasy film fundamentally structured as mediocre straight porn: a hunk of male flesh tries to stay center screen while doing hypermasculine things for a prescribed duration of time, with the promise that the ending will be big, messy, and somehow related to the previous buildup. But Conan can’t even allow the highly limited pleasures of that. We’re left then, not with pulped froth but with turgid misogynist melodrama of the variety that spends a whole lot of time talking about what people would like to do to one another while constantly restraining that from ever coming to pass. For a film that gestures toward necrophilia, incest, pec oiling, and shapeshifting, it ultimately delivers one genuinely kinky moment (young Conan watching his father’s face get splattered with “molten sword”), plenty of stabbings, one brief hetero sex scene — of the blurry genital-obscuring-objects-in-the-foreground 1984 Cinemax variety — and a good 30 minutes of lamentations about a dead father. (1)

(1) If it is the task of a critic to say whether or not a reader should spend money and see a film, then I would say: you should not see this film. But if that is the task of a critic, as it may well be, then I am not a critic and may never be.

 


Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes closer to throwing open the libidinal floodgates. I, for one, cannot disavow the particular corner of the spectacle that involves apes outflanking the San Francisco Police Department on the Golden Gate bridge and getting away with it. But it’s there on that foggy bridge that the film works itself up to the moment for which we’ve waited, the truth of the film: A gorilla pins a riot cop to the ground, finally about to do with those big canines what big primates are good at doing. He is going to tear the throat from an officer of the law. But no. Caesar, leader of the ape insurrection, yet still tortured about the sanctity of human life because James Franco is very kind and has that smile, stops him as if to say, No, we don’t do that. We don’t kill. And if we do, we only kill in that bloodless way favored by films trying to keep their MPAA ratings down. Encourage them to crash their cars à la Blues Brothers, bring about mayhem in which other objects are technically responsible, let gravity drag them off a bridge, or throw multiple things toward them such that they are “knocked out,” much as PG-13 katana fights involve an excess of smacking enemies on the head with the handle. But kill? With hands, with mouths? No, no.

And so the gorilla merely roars at the cop. He has his species-enemy pinned to ground, and he yells at him. Yes, it’s a given that censors, studios, and a fair number of audiences will not permit any depiction of violence against the police that would — because it will — excite spectators: Such is one of the few remaining permanent taboos in mainstream cinema, roughly on par with onscreen pedophilia.

But the film goes to baroque lengths to bring itself to that occasion, to hint a path between the thick fang and the thumping bare neck. It goes even further to refuse to actually draw that crimson line. If one wants to venture a reading of the ideological bent of this film (a small frenzy of which have circulated), it shouldn’t lie in the particular modulations of the apes, in what they say, in how they are anthropomorphized, racialized, or gendered, in the fact that their leader holds up a bundle of sticks to make a fasces point about solidarity. It won’t be found in periodizing the differences between this remake and the previous incarnations. It doesn’t reside in the battle with the police as such or that the furry subaltern speaks, uttering the master’s language (“No!” – a snarkily proper choice of word if you’re going to hijack “the language of the Father”) as the marker of the uprising’s start.

And above all, it won’t be found in the obvious point that it is, nominally and substantively, a film “about” insurrection, that takes rising up (“ape-rising”) as its content and arc. What is relevant lies only in the forms into which this chunk of time is poured (2) and in this restraint and withholding, in the violence that does not happen, the limits that it imposes on itself, as it still polices its own actions once police are incapacitated. (The film’s tagline “Evolution becomes revolution” should actually read “Evolution becomes revolution becomes managed social democracy.”) And more than this, it is independent of the specificity of violence, its agents or targets. For the form of denial is the real content at hand. Turning back when the time is right, denouncing that possibility of exploiting the one true possibility built slow over an hour and a half and longer, over a century, the long history of cinematic memory exploited to make such a moment hang before us and not come off. There are no lessons to be learned here: There is only the dulling danger of lessons imposed.

Still, such films are blockbusters through and through, and one might say that to even approach that unfinished finishing move is really something for poppier entertainment. But adjudicating a general realm of what may or may not be possible “in mainstream culture” is not, and cannot be, a generative game for thought. It leads only to a sloppy balance sheet of what we already knew about the strict logic of profits, the infrequent exceptions to that, and the very frequent recuperation of those exceptions. As such, we’re infinitely more likely to see and say something compelling if we begin with particular films, their specific sets of proffered expectations and follow-throughs, their store of inherited moves, and their peculiar restrictions.

Joyous a sight as it would be, we’re not surprised that He’s Just Not That Into You lacked a significant quantity of jump cuts, nine-minute tracking shots over gray Romanian villages, neo-Expressionist set design, or an unstoppable plague ravaging Baltimore. To ask after them is a counterfactual dead end fated to pile up against the same wall. It wasn’t that kind of film because there was no way that it could have been. It would not have been the same film it was had any of those elements been present, hence the question asks only: Why is there not another film that exists? However, there are films that shape and code themselves, and are shaped and coded by producers, distributors, and marketers, as being ones in which just those sort of things happen. As such, what is worth asking after, not just with cinema but toward all cultural productions, are the highly particular exceptions, slippages, surges, fuck-ups, or, most peculiar and rare, flawless functionings of a film in terms of the relations — economic, generic, stylistic, and social — according to which it came to be and without which it simply wouldn’t be.

(2) See my forthcoming piece in Mute on this other side of the equation.


Of the films that cost a lot to make and that I spent money to see this summer, the remake of 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark goes the furthest in blowing its chances. Although technically directed by someone named Troy Nixey (a comic-book artist and director of a short film that is pretty much Hostel with a heavy dose of monogamy and keys instead of humans), it is “presented” by, and intended to fall beneath the name of, Guillermo Del Toro. If anything, it represents the full extension of Del Toro into a discernible franchise and banner, complete with discernible — and requisite — tendencies, going so far as to provide the second Del Toro film in the space of three years to feature small, swarming “tooth fairies,” however wingless and furry they may be in this iteration.

In casual terms, I’m a fan of Del Toro. I’ve always lacked the subjective structure of a real fanboy and hence that specific relationship remains opaque to me. When it comes to thinking about films, shot angles, directors, cinematographers, themes, formal techniques, genres, characters, and so forth, there are those that I love fully, those that are “comrades” in how they articulate a similar loathing of the world order (yes, a camera angle or editing pattern can be a comrade or an enemy), those that exert a perverse fascination, and those that matter not a whit to me.

The last of these is a large group. The “Del Toro film” –- the whole swarm that goes by his name and which certainly includes him as a distinct writer and director -– fits into none of these. Quite simply, I dig them, and less simply, I take them as a sometimes fellow traveler to whatever swarm makes up my own thinking, watching, and writing. More specifically, aside from our shared interest in monsters, certain genres, and teeth, Del Toro is a sharp and funny man who, importantly, actually loves this stuff. (And he seems to love in the crucial way that such a love doesn’t make one a sycophant of one’s own taste but rather attentive to its histories, its offshoots and modulations.) Besides, he is part of that tradition that’s into “showing the monster” –- as he put it once, trying to avoid the tendency of bad erotic fiction to “call a sword that which is not a sword” -– and, better, which understands that “the monster” is not a vivisection as such, nor is it necessarily something that vivisects.

This is perhaps an unnecessary caveat, especially as I have little interest in taking films or their producers, directors, camera operators, sound editors or actors “to task” via critiques that will not remotely affect their practice. (We’ll be harder on them when we squat their mansions in Malibu or hack Regal’s digital projectors to replace their films with those of Jia Zhangke or Ida Lupino. Until that more material critique, there’s literally no point in saying, Roland Emmerich, the people have spoken: That pixelated blood is on your hands!) Therefore, if we aren’t talking a practical theorization of what, how, and with whom we want to watch without having to route it through the sham agora of the megaplex, then critique and theory will be addressed to ourselves.

As such, we might begin with that outer layer of “our side” of the circuit: official reviewers who, for the most part, are merely the industry as such in front of a not particularly dark mirror, mouthing the words already spoken, adding adjectives, mentioning who performs admirably, shitting on the films there to be shat upon. Without getting into the minor modulations of opinion or their final judgments of the film, one thing becomes quickly evident: the limits of the striptease or porno understanding of cinema, however pertinent it may be to such films as Conan. For in the case of Don’t Be Afraid, a lot of the reviews seem concerned with showing “it” –- that is, the monster, the small ape-fairies out to tear the teeth from the mouth of children –- too soon (“the haunted-house-style story is hampered by his desire to show them off”) or not showing it soon enough (“What they’re after is clear from the film’s gruesome prologue; what they look like is withheld until long after we have ceased to care”). If we need further evidence of the commonness of this erotic spectacle understanding of film, Roger Ebert is, as always, very good at accidentally laying bare what’s beneath how we figure our responses: “This is a very good haunted-house film. It milks our frustration deliciously.” (3)

But whether the milking of Ebert’s frustration is delicious or not, what no review will fully touch is another question, insofar as reviews are concerned with the degree to which films are adequate to the expectations mutually agreed upon –- the kinosocial contract of sorts -– through individual life spans of film watching and a messy century of global film production. At times, reviews can be wowed by what “exceeds our expectations” or is “better than we could have imagined.” And we are all equally familiar with the tired or worried invectives: “X film is staggeringly stupid, and it therefore assumes a stupid audience — my god let that not be true, at least not to the level decreed by Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”; “X film indicates a trend line according to which popular cinema is getting worse and more concerned with Taylor Lautner sliding down the side of a glass building than with building up convincing characters.”

As for the first concern, yes, we are that stupid. As for the second, just because The Ipcress File is a smart and subtle film does not indicate anything about the 230 nominally similar films from 1965 that did not see the light of day again until torrent hunters started sharing them. Many of them are neither smart nor subtle, and they may be remarkably good for precisely that reason. Apply that logic of selective canonization to now, and the historical judgment becomes far trickier.

The line of thought worth pursuing, to flee the delimited zone of the review, is not the success with which we get shown what we came to see, but the extreme restriction of what it is we may have come for, all the more in the films that trumpet their capacity to do this. As we said, applying this in general is not compelling. However, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a film about imagination, and not just as its subject matter. It passes a subjectless judgment on what constitutes the inventive and spooky, from that Proustian magic lantern revolving in the little girl’s room to the hissing voices that come through the heating system, from what they will do if and when they get their hands on the kid to what it means to be a fucked-up family. It firmly inscribes itself within a couple traditions of horror. First, there is the “fantastic” Del Toro world, the love child of a Dungeon Master’s bestiary and Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, equal parts lovingly hand-detailed carapaces and sad-eyed dark-haired adolescent girls (here named Sally) tempted to flee their familial and political situation for something more magical. Second, especially in this film, there is a gesture to “weird” horror much in the way that Tarantino gestures to Monte Hellman in Deathproof: they talk explicitly about Arthur Machen (during the requisite trip to the archive), and the house belonged to “Emerson Blackwood” (read: Algernon Blackwood). Machen and Blackwood are major figures in the history of English-language horror literature, both prolific writers in the early 20th century.

But more interesting, the film’s background subject matter -– architecture and design –- finds itself doubled in the relation of the film to the haunted-house movie and other lineages to which it aims to hearken back. Because, after all, the grounding narrative at hand is one of “restoration”: a self-impressed architect (Alex, played by Guy Pearce) has sunk his money into restoring the manor, with his interior designer girlfriend (Kim, played by Katie Holmes), of an artist-naturalist (Blackwood) so that he can get on the cover of an architectural magazine and sell the house to someone for a lot more money.

The entire concern, then, from the diagetic world to that of the film as a whole, is: How does one restore what has gone to shit, decayed, or been forgotten? Of course, the operative cinematic fantasy is that the very act of restoration is capable of unearthing some of the magic, however murderous, that was once there, as if the sheer fact of labor and refinishing will crank up the old generic engines and let the nasties loose once more. Yet there is another aspect of restoration present, and it is interior design: not architecture as such, not the design and construction of forms, but the redressing, repolishing, and regilding of given surfaces in accordance with an enormous set of internal restrictions about fidelity to the original, all to produce the illusion of it never having changed in the first place. An enormous investment of time, money, judgment, and intellect is poured into the erasure of time’s passage. The wager is that you can add new stone from the old quarry, and it can mean what it meant to those who ran, laughed, looked, painted, and died on and beneath that stone. The house itself is, like its film, a remake.

It might be seen as rather unfair to attack the Del Toro enterprise. After all, as things go in popular cinema, he is “on our side”: not politically, but as mentioned, in that his name marks an actual care for these things, and those things are, more often than not, monsters climbing from a gaping hole who are certainly more compelling to stare at than Sarah Jessica Parker’s yawning maw. Shouldn’t we celebrate a film like this for at least making a move in the right direction and focus our real negative energy on popular cinema that is immediately “objectionable”? Isn’t this a bit like slapping the hand that feeds you, even if the food isn’t quite as good as it could be?

No. One should always slap the hand that holds out food and, at the last minute, replaces it with Katie Holmes, some loud noise, and an ending that is exactly calculated to be just the right balance of eerie yet still sentimental. Such that the child is indeed finally capable of expressing her love for the surrogate mother and the surrogate mother can be slightly creepy yet without constituting a threat to the family tricycle composed with her as the necessarily absent third wheel.

Because this is not an imaginative film, even if it is about imagination. It is not a film that revels in exploitation, in seeing what can be done with the chances it proposes. It reveals dully instead, not with the long Lewton withholding of the monster but in mobilizing that showing of the fairies as a blind to occlude a follow-through that might actually have been worth watching. That is, much as critics took the bait of laying their praise or dejection solely on the chronometrics of when we get to see the furry beasts, what is forgotten is that this mode of appearance is a real hiding. A battering of chance. The very category of judgment itself is rendered identical to the internal aesthetic judgments of the film: Will we see them, will they come at the right time, and will they look decent? But for a film that claims to be worth being seen because it arrives under the sign of inventive and imaginative cinema, a cinema that enacts a restoration in order to polish some sharp corners not seen for many years: For that we can indeed say, Seriously, is that all? And we will not be saying that to the film. We will be saying it to ourselves, in the dark, in distraction’s half-light.

For like the films with which I began, what emerges in the place of a film really gunning it and actually letting itself be what it trumpets (that is, spooky, weird, unsettling) rather than what it involves (that is, hissing voices saying, Come play with us… in a supposedly creepy way for the 1,284th time in horror film), is again that intolerable, eternal restraint. To take one example, the fairies let themselves get sabotaged by allowing Daddy and Future Step-mommy to live long enough, because, just like Caesar urged the gorilla, No, we don’t do that sort of thing, we just knock them out, even though we have plenty of knives and we have tried to kill before. It is further dressed up with the camouflage of arcane “rules” to be followed, such as the claim that the fairies only take one child per generation.

Of course, the film does not remark upon how its own rules are entirely incoherent: the film opens with the previous owner Emerson Blackwood searching out more teeth for the fairies immediately after they have just taken his son. Nor does it let this rulebreaking devolve into a chaotic glee or darker negotiation: Imagine a version with teeth, so to speak, in which Alex kidnaps someone else’s daughter (or simply tears the teeth from her mouth) to feed to the fairies, to bind them to the pact, and therefore to leave his own daughter untouched. No such luck.

(3) He’s also increasingly good at dropping idiosyncratic/hallucinatory speculations in the midst of otherwise straightforward reviews: “You wonder how long life can be sustained on an all-teeth diet. Now that Bill Clinton is a vegan, let him try that for a while.” Yes, I suppose we do wonder that. But why Bill Clinton, and in what way are teeth vegan? Consuming nothing but the part of the body that another creature uses to consume food is one of the more strikingly un-vegan things imaginable.


The point, of course, is not to say, Dear Hollywood, stop making these films. They are inadequate! It is only to use these inadequacies to illumine and texture our own. And in this case, the very uselessness of such an injunction to make different renders clear the absent conditions in which it would make a grain of sense to say that. That is, if we had the capacity to

1) Make the kind of films we want to watch (including ones that involve small hairy fairies storming across 19th century carpet as if the Winter Palace lawn to tear the pearly whites from the skull of an asshole architect who also happens to be Guy Pearce. And no, I don’t think that desire is limited to a retroactive creation based on “that is what is available to us,” because it isn’t, other than as a deferred moment).

2) Shift what it is we want to get out of the cinema. (I, for one, think it will be a long time before I lose the desire to see those teeth pulled from thatskull. I cannot possibly be alone in this.)

3) Impose our will on Hollywood. (We force Paramount to permanently defund and publicly lash Tom Dey for Marmaduke. Michael Bay directsTransformers 4 with handheld camera, a hacked copy of iMovie 6, an amateur cast, and a strict adherence to Dogma 95 rules, all at gunpoint. Wes Anderson is “strongly urged” to remake La Terra Trema in black-and-white with an all-Limp Bizkit soundtrack.)

Sad as it is to say, the realization of any of these capacities seems a long way off. The first involves, to a certain degree, a flight into other media. Certain things can be done more cheaply and otherwise, via the much-touted capacity to shoot and edit digital video. But the very fetishization of that carries a whiff of redescribing necessity under the guise of petty rebellious freedom: Yes, we can pull a lot off without the studio apparatus, but that indexes all the more the gap between the effects one is capable of producing.

Such misprision is largely the point of that insufferable piece of tripe called Super 8, that pretends to celebrate amateur efforts (ah, nostalgia for kids just making movies, not for money but love, wide-eyed!) while declaring them utterly inadequate through the material fact of its cool $50 million budget. It’s for this reason that a simultaneous celebration of what cinema can do with a renunciation of continuing to put up with the Hollywood circuit may involve, above all, a double flight into other media and into other subject matter. It is extraordinarily costly to film tentacles erupting from the earth and reaching across the universe to wrestle the sun. It is very cheap to write that, although of course, the grammar of film and the grammar of prose will never be the same thing. It is also cheap to film a conversation between two people. The continuing disaster of capital may involve an increasing reallocation of modes and figures of thought to media capable of being adequate to them. A cinema adequate to its time and insistent on not remaining as such may now be one that doesn’t bother trying to “depict” the end of the world or anything so grandiose. It may burrow into its impoverishment and see what it locates there.

That’s a grayer possibility, but it arises out of the greater impossibility of the third option mentioned above. The mode of social upheaval building in the U.S will bear no possible resemblance to certain moments of the last century, in which the development of a socialist hierarchy complete with Commissars of Culture and centralized cinematic planning was occasionally plausible. This does not mean, however, that we should flee from the thought of intervening into the circuits of reproduction that both subtend and are generated by Hollywood, taken in its widest sense. We have as much say about the economy as we do about the cinema, which is and always has been part of the economy. In both cases, we relate to it as one relates to an earthquake: You can shift your weight, but the disturbances of plate tectonics are the consequences of a set of tensions, relations, and drifts that entirely dwarf any illusions we might have about consumer choice.

Yet this is not to say that interference — not with “the economy” or “the cinema” as such, but the social relations on which they turn and which they reproduce — on all fronts has ever been beyond our reach. Its modes of transmission and dispersal are indeed not reducible to any single instance (a film, a cinematheque, a production company), but any critique that won’t take on the material occasions in front of it is not critique: It is just cowardice and obfuscation. A megaplex is as flammable as a mortgage office. Not to mention, it may well be a space more worth saving, at least until they cut the power.

The second option – change what we want to get out of the cinema – seems at both a long shot and a feeble solution. After all, you don’t choose your desires as you might choose an adventure. And moreover, the very notion that we just need to “think differently” about how we relate to that leviathan of capital called the culture industry smacks of those terrible notions of “prosumerism,” making sustainable choices, or, worse, “raising consciousness” without razing material edifies, as though it had ever been possible to substantively alter general structures of thought separately from the transformation of daily conditions. As such, a full version of this –- the transformation of wanting itself -– seems to require the fulfillment of those other two conditions: the full takeover of cinematic productive capacities by ourselves necessarily indicates the coming to a head of the kind of social chaos in which it might be possible to guarantee that other version of Transformers 4 gets made.

However, there is another sense to it, one that does have to do with a present relation. The questions behind these notes are those of negation: How do we negate without simply destroying or turning away from? How do we go to the movies without thinking either that they matter or that they are irrelevant? How do we do so together, rather than before the baleful dusk of a laptop? How do you wreck slowly, persistently, pointedly, with the double awareness that the effects won’t be seen quickly and that they will never be seen if they aren’t constantly, diligently, furiously enacted?

I have no general answer for these questions, as we shouldn’t. For negation is at once a care for and an equally attentive loathing of the concrete, a fine-grained attention to peculiar cases and an attack on how the general freezes itself in the guise of the particular. And so let me speak only of this particular Del Toro film, of the limits it points up. Namely, that the thought of “negating” the inadequacies of this film cannot be a thought that says: “Ah, it missed its chances, if only Del Toro didn’t have to answer to Hollywood”; “ah, it is just pop shit, it always would be, what did you expect, you should attack your own silly interest in it”; “ah, it’s pretty good actually, what should be negated is the apparatus surrounding it, its qualities could be free from it”. All of these are negations concerned with cutting what is of value free from the mold of banality that shapes and traps it, such that what comes loose — us as an audience, certain weird turns, the negative space of the empty cinema — can be taken as a grounding point while tossing the rotten bits to the curb.

But negation is not always made of razor wire. It is also a thick liquid, a pouring in and crystallization over what is to be negated in full, in all its complexity. In The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler raises the figure of the pseudomorph (“false form”), a mineral compound that does not produce its own shape:

“But these are not free to do so in their own special forms. They must fill up the spaces that they find available. Thus there arise distorted forms, crystals whose inner structure contradicts their external shape, stones of one kind presenting the appearance of stones of another kind.”

Being Spengler, he meant this in a terrible way, and the figure appears as a way to attack the inadequacy of “the Arabian culture” as pseudomorphic (“All that wells up from the depths of the young soul is cast in the old moulds, young feelings stiffen in senile practices, and instead of expanding its own creative power, it can only hate the distant power with a hate that grows to be monstrous.”)

But it should be taken otherwise, just as that earlier figure I raised – that of ornament, of wallpaper, of surface modulations that do not build forms from scratch – should be as well. For if we want to complicate, misuse, and exploit a relationship to popular cinema, and particularly to films like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, it should be a pseudomorphic relation, letting our thought swell into the forms that we may loathe.

Not taking these films as finished things to be judged as good or bad, as adequate or not, not as objects of critique to be scrutined, analyzed, sniffed or cheered at. Rather, merely as a texture of the given over which our watching, thought, care, and hatred necessarily pour and form, a set of inherited forms to be overwhelmed in the process of making an occasion for thinking. An occasion for negation to mimic, to take on shapes it otherwise would not, before outstripping them. In this way, the “distortions” and contradictions of the given form become raised to the level of ornament’s cartography, of pattern, of that which can be at last detected and traced. And then begins the harder work of another kind of negation, one that eats away at all that appears solid, including its own growth.


It’s in this way that the counterfactual, a consistently suspect form of historical thought, comes to be of real importance. Of course, we have no interest in saying, oh, wouldn’t it have been cool if it ended this other way? Too bad it didn’t! Maybe next time… Rather, to negate this film correctly is to let it be nothing but a set of details and stoppages, little restraints and clusters there to be noted precisely, taken up, and put to use elsewhere. Films will be recognized as inadequate not by their abjuration but by our extension of them, our outpacing, our saying this film is a belittlement of imagination precisely because it does not do any of what we are about to propose. As long as find ourselves capable of doing that, then we’ll go to the movies. We’ll leave them better for it, because we leave with more to say to one another than when we entered, having sloshed ourselves into and spilled out of those shapes. When this is not the case, then may the cinema perish.

In that spirit, five counterfactuals to end, not to say wouldn’t it have been cool but to say, let’s flood that basement.

One.

Sally does not end well in this version.

In version one (The Horror of Family as The Horror of the Couple), Kim – the step-mother to be – has no interest in becoming the surrogate mother of a problem child. And just as in the final version of the film (when she is about to be killed by the fairies, she calls out Sally! as though to remind them of their younger, tastier target), here too she is more than happy to sacrifice the Third to keep the Two running smooth and bedding down. She now stands at the front of the open fireplace grate in the basement, having just heaved the dark-haired youngster down the deep hole like a sandbag, falsely weeping as Alex rushes down the stairs. Oh baby, I tried to save her. I know you did Kim, I know. They get back to restoring the house. It looks great.

In version two (The Horror of the Family as The Horror of the Career), Alex is very committed to the success of his architectural project. He really wants to be on that cover. His daughter is a distraction. Why, after all, did he leave her with her mother in the first place? He knows about the fairies, has for a long time. The fairies, in fact, help with the restoration at night. They have very delicate tiny hands for doing filigree work, even if they are extremely pushy about wallpaper choices and prefer tones that are too muted to really make an impact on today’s critics, especially in the autumn light. But they have made it clear to him that if they are not fed his daughter’s teeth, they will undo all of his work and make completion impossible. They prove this one night by carving a surprising array of very unpleasant four letter words across an entire span of extremely expensive mahogany parquet just laid down. His workmen are more than a little confused about this littlest of graffito. It is a very difficult decision. He doesn’t know what to do. Sally wanders down to the basement again. He’s watching her there, talking to herself. No father should have to make this decision.

Cut to final sequence of film: the restoration is finished. And boy, does it look great.

Two.

Sally, having been the only one downstairs when the groundskeeper was viciously attacked and having been implicated previously in the razoring of Kim’s wardrobe, is understandably suspected of having tried to kill the old man. She is, after all, not quite right in the head. The film goes to lengths to indicate that this is unjust, that they cannot understand. We see her talking with the creatures. She turns the light off, and they creep onto the bed, nimble as spiders, chittering through their bat teeth.

However, she is still alive the next morning. In her hair, there are amazing delicate braids, twirled in a tiny, complex weave. She seems to be a model child now, and even helps out around the house, gives Kim nice hugs, “accidentally” calls her mommy one time while snuggling up drowsily to her.

The house is nearing completion. Sally has made a lot of little friends in the area, really come out of her shell. She is having a birthday party, surrounded by twelve grinning little girls, scrubbed clean and beaming. She asks her dad and the adults if she can give them a tour of the house. He’s proud of his work, sure, honey. She leads them to the basement, which has been spruced up, repainted. The dappled light falls through the arched window on Kim’s new wallpaper, which features rabbits winding through the briar. Cut to close up of the fireplace grate. It does not seem held on by any screws.

Let’s play hide and seek! Sally cries. I will go hide! All of you close your eyes and start counting!

They cheer. They do love their new friend, and they put their hands over their eyes.

Sally climbs the stairs. She bolts the heavy, nearly soundproof door from the outside.

Downstairs the girls are counting. Their little teeth, bright and small as bleached baby corn, catch that dappling light. They hear a slight clank as the grate door falls off. There is a rustling from the fireplace.

Sally, her mouth full of very straight white teeth, is grinning. After all, it feels good to keep up your end of the bargain. She is going to go get some more cake.

Three.

The fairies as almost anything other than those who just say We’re hungry, Come play with us, Give us teeth, Turn off the lights, et bloody cetera.

Replace audio track with any of the following options:

Creepier, although technically less threatening demands: Give us body hair… Shave it off, put it under the pillow! You’re not using it anyway!

Banal: Reset the router!

Pushy (as mentioned in Alex as monster of design version): No, no, don’t use the puce carpeting! We hate that faux cheer! Use the taupe! Restraint, give us restrained taste…

All of which to be followed by an even more elevated level of violence that is not causally linked to their incessant talking. (See immediately below.)

Four.

They actually pull some teeth.

Five.

Everyone has gotten it wrong from the start. Yes, they want teeth. Yes, they are invading the house, where Sally uses her Polaroid to scare them away with the light and, as a byproduct, capture their images.

Sally is dragged down the fireplace. Kim and Alex made it just a bit too late. Kim is shrieking. Alex tries to look stoic, fails. The house is now empty, abandoned, and as the film (much like the filmed version does, with Sally and Alex returning to leave a drawing of them as a happy family, which floats through the house down the fireplace, where we hear a pseudo-Kim conspiring with the fairies), a love letter from Daddy and Step-Mommy is carried through the empty house down the hole. This time, the camera follows it, winding slow through the dark. Gradually, there is enough texture on the walls to make it clear that the vertical tunnel is beginning to tilt toward horizontal and widening out. What we took as grime is, in fact, intensely detailed wallpaper, full of ornate arabesques and bold ogees, hypnotic, tattooed. We cannot tell if it is fully repeating or always different. But it is punctuated, every so often, by something hanging on the wall, as the camera turns to face more directly down its length. Hung at regular intervals, in responsibly Scandinavian natural ash frames, are the Polaroids taken upstairs: fairies leaping from the shelves, fairies dragging knives across the floor, fairies perched on Sally’s shoulder as they both scream into the camera. Fairies giving a thumbs up. Fairies with their arms around one another, tongues deep in one another’s mouths.

The camera swoops magisterial, glacially through the hallway and opens out into an cavernous room, focused low onto a oddly patterned floor. It seems almost to be made of ivory. Oh. It is a mosaic of teeth, buffed and polished, turned sideways and jammed together. The camera tilts up, onto an enormous set of patent leather shoes. It cants up at the enormous form before tracking backwards over the ground previously traversed, inch by inch. And there sits Sally, on a throne of teeth, graced with a crown of teeth.

Evan Calder Williams is the author of Combined and Uneven Apocalypse and Roman Letters.

 

The More Things Change

(Images from AD: New Orleans after the Deluge, Josh Neufeld, 2009)

NOLA’s Ongoing Disaster

By Alex Gecan

As I write this in late August, a plume of smoke from a 1,600-acre swamp fire is drifting over my New Orleans office and cars have begun to park on “neutral grounds” (grassy medians) in preparation for a growing storm off the Mississippi coast. Meanwhile, My parents’ street in central New Jersey recently became a semi-permanent detour for State Highway 27, which is underwater between the canal to the north (which also submerged the prep kitchen, walk-in coolers and wine cellar of a restaurant where I worked for a year) and the sloping grade of what becomes Highway 206. So if I seem emotionally compromised, it is because I am.

Today New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu offered a press conference, ostensibly to address the marsh fire. Instead he held forth on the gathering storm, offering the microphone to representatives from Entergy New Orleans, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board and the Army Corps of Engineers. Each said that his or her agency was “prepared for this storm.” But in the course of the conference, each encouraged us in turn to prepare for flooding, power outages, and the possibility of “a different conversation.” (Mayor Landrieu balks at using the E-word—evacuation.)

On its face, this sort of contradiction seems laughable, but it is a geographical inevitability—a series of inconveniences the metropolitan area has accepted in exchange for mild winters, proximity to ports, and other advantages.

But the real specter of disaster is that, should something go horribly wrong, we have no safety net. FEMA is broke. The city and state are broke. The mayor, who rode into office on a promise of change (as did his predecessor, Ray Nagin), has spent most of the Community Development Block Grant money on architectural restoration rather than economic development. He has decided to spend the $4.2 million donated by a Bloomberg charity to increase staffing in the city’s permitting department and “fund a study” on crime rates.

Meanwhile, many of the city’s worst neighborhoods, like the Upper Ninth Ward (not the Lower Ninth), built on top of an old landfill, remain unpatrolled. The cops we do have are facing unparalleled public backlash on account of the Danziger Bridge convictions and a spectrum of behavior at the top of the department that ranges from poor performance to alleged criminal activity. To say the least, trust in public servants is not at an all-time high.

And to make matters worse, the collective white knight of the city, the Office of Inspector General, has taken a wide departure from its original stance, diverging from dedicated funding (which put it decidedly outside of everyone’s pocket) to essentially courting federal contracts.

The office was officially opened in September 2007 with former Massachusetts Inspector General Robert Cerasoli at the helm. The office was assaulted from the get-go. The top-heavy executive branch submitted a budget proposal that excluded dedicating funding to Cerasoli. The city Attorney General balked at letting Cerasoli hire independent council. The city withheld materiel requisitioned by OIG (such as the computers for their first real office) and was obstinate when forced to cooperate with investigations. Nevertheless, OIG came to be.

Then three things happened. First, Cerasoli hired a former student of his, whose previous experience included only part-time work, to a top spot in the Ethics Review Board, the body that recruits and hires the IG. Then he began a feud with his deputy Leonard Odom. And then he got cancer and quit.

Despite the fragmentation within OIG, Odom met the ERB’s approval, but the requirements were too restrictive for Odom to take the top seat.

Enter Edouard Quatrevaux, a local boy who went to Vietnam, emerged as a brilliant military analyst, and spent decades investigating waste, fraud, and abuse in the Army and Department of Defense. He was the nexus of Cerasoli’s idealism and a local’s familiarity with “how it happens here.” And to put it bluntly, he began kicking ass. He stomped court officials for taking publicly owned cars home. He found over $9 million of city money that been misappropriated in 2010. He even stuck it to Mayor Landrieu for awarding a convict-tracking program to the Orleans Parish Sheriff despite lower bids that were on the table.

Then two things happened. FEMA (which is now out of money) gave New Orleans $1.8 billion to rebuild schools. Then the city signed a contract with Quatrevaux for $800,000 to monitor the assignment of that $1.8 billion for fraud.

This seems like a great idea, at least at first. Quatrevaux has been a whirlwind of transparency in a backward, Byzantine political environment. But here’s the rub: The money is going to Recovery School District projects, which are under the state’s jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the state doesn’t have a regulatory body capable of handling that sort of monitoring (which, in and of itself, is astounding given the political climate here), so they asked Quatrevaux to step in.

The real problem, however, is that he’s doing it on a city contract. Heretofore the funding for OIG came from a dedication of a certain percentage (0.75) of the city’s annual budget, mandated by the city charter, untouchable by the Mayor or the Council (in case the IG had to investigate them). Now, the man in charge of monitoring how the city does business is doing business with the city. Add to that the caveat that his purview only extends to investigating fraud and not waste, and the public starts to ask questions. To Quatrevaux’s credit, he has in one year exposed wasted monies that amounted to three times his budget for that year. His record has been excellent. But this paradigm shift is troubling at best.

But this also brings us back to the crux of the FEMA dilemma. Without going too far into the global climate shift debate (the why has no bearing on this issue, only the how), the recent uptick in calamitous weather means big trouble for little FEMA. Its coffers spent, the agency is ill-equipped to cope with flooding in the Northeast or whatever comes out of the current storm system in the Gulf. Should another school system be decimated by a large storm, earthquake, or fire (or anything else for that matter), there’s nothing left to build them back up.

The congressional scrum was quick to begin. Eric Cantor is quick to mollify the public with reassurances that the feds will find funds for disaster relief, but only by cutting spending elsewhere. This creates a novel hostage-squared situation—hostages of nature are held hostage a second time by partisan politicians. Ron Paul wants FEMA’s role to be taken on by private insurance companies, who already play policy ping-pong with people’s homes, claiming flood damage is actually uncovered wind damage or vice versa. And that doesn’t even get into the fact that we can’t enter into a discussion about privatizing emergency relief right now because we’re dealing with the aftermath of a hurricane and an earthquake in one region and are faced with a wildfire and possible tropical storm in another, and that destruction is not going to wait on the convenience of a national debate that barely exists.

FEMA’s record in recent years has been atrocious. The DHS IG (Department of Homeland Security Inspector General) has said as much. But a public agency has the benefit of transparent spending and the restrictions (however inadequate) of the Federal Acquisition Requirements. No matter how poorly it is run, it is not a company founded on the principle of profiting off of people hedging their bets against disaster.

And so we are left with a disaster-relief system that has been compromised by compromise. On a national scale, Congress is playing political tug-of-war with money that doesn’t exist or can’t be re-appropriated. Down in my neck of the woods, the Mayor who campaigned on a promise to change whatever it was the last guy changed is instead using federal money to preserve the way things were. The state is so backward it’s looking to a city official to oversee the disbursement of $1.8 billion from an agency that can’t afford it under a contract that subverts that official’s position.

With this marsh fire, as with many natural disasters in the past, the city waited too long to do too little. What began as a small conflagration ballooned into an inferno that was only contained by natural water barriers. Although speculation is now pointless as to whether or not early water dumps could have cut the fire short and prevented the hundreds of resulting hospitalizations (fortunately, all respiratory complaints), the city went along with national best practices and decided to let the fire burn out. At least, they did until five days in, when the fire had grown to its zenith, and they decided to start running aerial dumps, despite having said earlier that they would be useless, and ultimately rain and depletion of fuel would kill the blaze.

But they felt a compromise was necessary. They bowed to the disapproval of a public that felt ignored and took measures that they themselves knew to be fruitless. (They did extinguish a much smaller, secondary fire that abutted a state highway, however.) The dumps reek of currying political favor at the expense of public resources at a time when the latter is running miserably thin.

New Orleans, like the country, has—and is—compromised.

Alex Gecan is a freelance writer and web editor for New Orleans Magazine and MyNewOrleans.com. You can reach him at alex@myneworleans.com.

Josh Neufeld is a cartoonist & illustrator and the creator of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, a nonfiction graphic novel about seven real-life New Orleanians and their encounters with Hurricane Katrina. A.D. started as a webcomic on SMITH Magazine, and was released in an expanded hardcover edition in 2009 by Pantheon.

 

Hometown Unglory

Ash Wednesday: 8:30am, 2004/5

George Shaw’s Tile Hill paintings explore the daunting provisionality — and banality — of identity 

A Sly and Unseen Day,” at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, England, Late Spring 2011

In an interview with journalist Gordon Burn, painter George Shaw explained that his Tile Hill series, precise and melancholic depictions of Tile Hill, the council estate in the Midlands of England where he grew up, was “allegorical for the present,” exploring “the relationship that banality has with, say, horror.”  One of the four artists nominated for the 2011 Turner Prize, presented annually to a British visual artist under 50, Shaw combs through the place he grew up in the series, preserving places that have been destroyed, looking for something he’ll never find. He is caught in Tile Hill, and he is enjoying his imprisonment—a sentence we enjoy too, faced with the dizzying array of tiny moments and scenes, the forgotten alleyways and gunnels of a forgotten place, that make up the identity of one fully rounded person.

Shaw takes snapshots during his walks around Tile Hill, then creates a painting from the artless results. Tile Hill is not a pretty place. The cookie-cutter houses have small windows and small gardens; they’re full of brick, concrete paths and a stucco-like surface ingloriously called pebble-dash. The community center is run down. The pubs have burned to the ground.

The Back That Used to Be the Front depicts double doors flanked by shop windows, all of which have been painted over with a gray green. The transom above the doors is boarded up, initials and a phallic drawing brushed on the glass. We see the transitory nature of a public space’s vitality, the creeping disinterest of the community. Shaw suggests that this back alley means something—that it’s as relevant as the house he grew up in or the footprint of the burned-down pub where his father used to drink. This implies that anything, no matter how seemingly banal, might be the keystone of his identity.

Shaw described how Francis Bacon has written of “paint trying to trap reality.”  But for Shaw, “painting is a way of trying to just pin anything down, just for an instant so I can actually think about it seriously enough.” As we walk through Tile Hill with Shaw, we cannot help but be struck at the wonder in his reverential paintings—this despite the materials Shaw has chosen. He exclusively uses Humbrol enamel paints, designed for model trains and airplanes and available in colors like Ferrari Red, RAF Blue, and U.S. Gull Grey. Novelist Michael Bracewell writes that these “humble” paints, in Shaw’s hands, evoke “an intensely atmospheric form of color and luminosity” capable of capturing “the glimmer of sunset on rain-sodden streets and the stillness of a bright and frosty morning; the near purple light pursuant on the gathering of storm clouds over deserted playing fields or residential hinterland.”

Shaw has joked that Humbrol enamel was not destined to paint gods and saviors, yet with it he manages the pitch and fervor of the sublime. His depiction of Tile Hill landscapes balances melancholy reality with an almost spiritual beauty. In Ash Wednesday: 8:30am(top), the saturating sunrise silhouettes a tree, its branches spindling and swallowed by the light. The still, precise details in This Sporting Life make the broken frame of a soccer goal the collapse of our untended hearts, the places we’ve seen, passed by, and forgotten in the first 18 years of our lives.

Shaw’s paintings force us to think of that discarded past—of Shaw’s and of our own. But they are more than just triggers for emotive memories. Shaw’s series prompts a consideration of what it means to infuse the past with meaning. He evokes a history not made up of major events or even crucial personal turning points, but one made up of places, and the things that happened in those places that one does not directly remember. These are scenes not even important enough to try to forget, places one didn’t even realize one had forgotten until faced with a glimpse of them.

These works remind us that our identity is made up of not only the big happenings of our lives but the street corners and alleyways, the early mornings and back passages. Is it possible to take stock of all the little details that truly make up who we are as individuals and synthesize them into an exhaustive explanation of ourselves? Shaw’s work hits us with the fact that we’ve probably forgotten more about ourselves than we’ll ever remember.

Historian Pierre Nora claims we conflate memory and history, organizing our personal and cultural remembrances with the same logic we use to construct formal history—using of category, analysis, and meaning. In Nora’s estimation, memory ultimately loses out in this tug and pull. Shaw’s visual catalog and painterly obsession demand that viewers acknowledge their own propensity to catalog, analyze, and fictionalize their past. Overwhelmed by the beauty we potentially ignore in discarding memories, in not paying attention, we might end up grateful that Shaw’s paintings are ultimately another person’s life hanging on the walls of a gallery we can leave.

In the Tile Hill series, Shaw depicts how identity is formed from constructed memories. The artist has personal experience with the landscape, removed by time and distance. He returns, the prodigal son, to try and make something—to perform some kind of understanding of what has conspired to create the person who takes a walk with this father, snaps a photo of a curb, takes the photo back to his studio, gets out the little pots of paint used for painting model airplanes or touching up a radiator, and paints that curb, the wet gutter, and the mottled pavement.

And that painting, Scenes of the Passion: The Steps, delivers such an anonymous subject that viewers set themselves to devouring every wet shadow, stepping back to marvel at juxtaposed detail and infinity captured in boring old pavement.

Writing about the sublime of infinite spaces, poet and art critic Susan Stewart observes, such landscapes “draw us to looking as they draw us to the limits of our looking.” Like vast spaces—those romantic infinities that capture our metaphysical yens—Shaw’s three steps baffle and comfort. We know them and do not. We have walked over each of them millions of times. Had one of those journeys been more significant than another?

We may identify with Shaw’s paintings because of their banality, but we are also drawn into them because of their emptiness. For many of the photos Shaw snapped as studies, his father would have been standing just outside of the frame. And we know the artist himself is standing in the scene as the onlooker. But each painting is void of figures. Each depicts liminal spaces, dawns, dusks, empty phone booths, footprints of the ruin grassdown and forgotten. We have the sense that we are witness to what has either just happened or is about to happen. The cinematic nature of many of the compositions plays into how we expect stories to unfold—what they are supposed to look like. The limits of our looking are stretched and, to release the tension, we insert ourselves.

Shaw’s scenes look like they’re from a movie, starring whomever is standing in front of them. When Shaw first started working on the series, he imagined the paintings as part of a performance-art piece in which he, outside the frame, would be the figure meant for the paintings: He would star in the show, with the paintings as his stage design. Instead, he has created paintings whose protagonist is the viewer. When standing in front of A Little Later, which depicts the side of a rode, a littered ditch, the edge of a forest in wintertime, branches bare, we are compelled to provide our own coordinates. Have I been here before? Is this a future scene, the one directly before a dramatic finale?

Through the collection of these passed-over places and times, and the splendor with which he renders them, Shaw gives us the sublimity of selfhood, reconstructing from the banality of our middle-of-the-road lives a greater understanding of what it is to be human. The viewer is left struck by how futile the project of constructing identity from memory is—and how pleasurable, how necessary.

Emily Wolahan’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Drunken Boat and New Linear Perspectives. She received her MFA from Columbia University and currently lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. She co-edits JERRY, an online magazine of poetry and prose.