Thursday, March 13, 2014

Horizons of Expectation

True Detective is apocalyptic by the most conservative definitions. The southern gothic cop genre is the context for a narrative in which a revelatory message of eschatological salvation is conveyed by a supernatural force to a human actor. The message reveals another world. It transforms its recipients. It also presents normative banality as revelation, following a really gripping, super violent spectacle. Classic apocalypse.

Most of the action of the first four episodes of True Detective takes place at the retrospectively cast turn of the millennium. The show's two main characters Rust (Mcconaughey) and Marty (Harrelson) are both ex-cops who achieved hero status for their handling of a notorious homicide case in 1995. In 2012 (end of the Mayan calendar if you wanna read the signs) the case has been reopened. A murder resembling the one our protagonists worked in 1995 has appeared, begging the question of how the same serial killer could be on the lose considering he was apparently shot by them a 17 years earlier. Rust and Marty, now estranged, are hauled in for questioning. Through a spliced narrative whereby we both hear what Rust and Marty tell the detectives, and see what really happens, a deeper mystery develops. Because this is a Southern Gothic, the mystery involves poor 'white trash' psychos, women as suffering housewives or whores, mass-rape, child abuse and hoodoo.

Apart from the fact that True Detective is a stellar example of the genre, what particularly interested me was the contemporised take on millennial angst, particularly in relation to masculinity and paternity. While Marty is a decadent Last Man, slipping in to affairs and drunkeness, seeking only comfort and release, Rust is a nihilist whose misanthropic views are delivered in monologues back dropped by the misty landscapes of Southern Louisiana Bayou country. It is end of the world territory, passing by the windows of the cruiser. A place where civilisation is propped precariously on brick pillars above the impending floodwaters of our own vile design.

Seeing nothing but cruelty, suffering and ignorance, Rust thinks the decent thing for humanity to do is bow out. Quit breeding and end the anthropocene. His views shock the conservative Marty but align nicely with those of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, an environmentalist group that cropped up in the 90s making pretty much the same claim. It was a popular shock-view for the millennial fringe. Downers and politically induced abstinence as a strategy to save the world from your own self-righteous proclivities. 

For Rust, the look in the eyes of photographed murder victims always conveys relief. In the end, he says, they realise how easy it is to let it all slip away. Why doesn't he kill himself? He tells himself 'he bears witness' but suspects the truth is he 'lacks the constitution for suicide'. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rust's grim speeches don't win him any popularity contests in the cop-shop (though they certainly did on my couch) where belief in an underlying order of things might be thought to be a prerequisite of employment. We soon learn that Rust's career path was forged through pure junky death-drive. The irony, or perhaps the path to faith, lies in the fact that he hasn't been killed in his suicidal escapades.

Of course, Rust wasn't born this way. It takes the compassionate probing of a virtuous woman (Marty's wife Maggie) to discover that Rust's nihilism is the result of trauma (damnit!). His young daughter was killed in a car accident. His marriage crumbled under the profundity of the loss and Rust began to envy his daughter her 'innocent', painless death.  She becomes a saint in his imagination, sparing him 'the sin of fatherhood'. Now even the 'well-adjusted' can understand. He doesn't really hate paternity; he's not a monster, just sad.

This might have been my first dissapointment. Why can't we have a creative nihilist on TV? Why does he have to be a victim overcoming injustice?

Rust's monologues and mythanthropic declarations are supposed to both convince us of his status as a good man pushed to a place 'beyond hope' and, later, sow doubt in our minds regarding his involvement in the case of the bayou serial killer. It is the contention of the new detectives that Rust is the perp they have been looking for and as they present their case, we are unable to find anything in our own recollection that would shoot them out of the water. We the audience put our faith in Rust's redemption. It's a pretty standard plot and I gotta say I was reminded of Charlie Kauffman's exasperated line delivered through the mouth of Nic Cage in Adaptations, "You explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this."

That said, the accusations of the detectives do cast light on some of the obvious contradiction of Rust's words and actions. Namely, why the hell is someone who thinks the human race should take on a project of voluntary extinction so obsessed with saving children? Wouldn’t it be better to just kill all the kiddies and leave the adults to their evil, post-menopausal end of the millennium debauchery and death? Can we have a TV show about that? To the very end Rust's position as self-appointed saviour of the orphaned and abused belies his professed enthusiasms for ending it all as reveals a messianic fervour for having the last, good word.

The landscape of True Detective is littered with false prophets: The Reverend Tuttle whose creationist schools project reeks of child abuse and conspiracy. The tent revivalist charismatic. The outlaw biker gang named appropriately as 'The Iron Crusaders'. Its the middle ages all over again. The illiterate are taking up arms and declaring apocalypse on the horizon. Rust is the messiah to lead us on a journey to the truth.

The excellent first half of the season climaxes with a spectacular battle in which Marty and Rust kill the terrifying Satan worshipping ice heads and rescue the abused children. It's a classic good over evil with a twist relating to human frailty and police procedure that builds a great deal of suspense as we head in to the 'tribulations' section of the narrative. If we have read our bibles we already know there now needs to be seven years of unrest culminating in a final battle between good and evil and a revelation. And it needs to happen in four hours or four horses, something like that.

Despite the fact that Marty and Rust know they didn't really crack the case, they try to move on with their lives. For Marty, this means joining the famed late nineties fundamentalist super-bowl The Promise Keepers, a Christian men's group who meet in football stadiums in order to make promises regarding their gender 'purity' and responsibilities toward women, kiddies and Christ. Promise Keepers dubs itself as a 'catalytic event for men' but its basically a millenarian movement from which men make normative claims about their gender roles within an apocalyptic rubric that casts them as figures of authority based on the divine form of the patriarchal, hetero family.

Promise Keepers works on the premise that you can substitute apocalyptic (pure/impure, damned/saved virgin/whore beast/messiah) binaries for any process of adaptation in a changing culture where men are being asked to take on different roles and to acknowledge the difference of others. They are essentially defensive, normative and indicative of what might once have been referred to as a 'masculine crisis', but now days is mostly just called whining. We'd suggest trading the stadium for the therapist but the Promise Keepers would probably stone us with copies of the bible or The Minimal Self. It's an astute plot device for Marty then, who likes to be the boss and saviour but also likes to pass the buck. It is also a great foil to Rust's performed extinctionist zeal. Essentially, they are two sides of the same millennium commemorative coin. If I could cast a late nineties political/religious battle I would probably set the Promise Keepers against the voluntary extinction movement. Then I would have a UFO land right there in the middle of it all and a bunch of anthroposuspect greys come out and blaze up a dooby.

Unsurprisingly Marty's apocalyptic men's group doesn't make him much easier to live with. His quest for purity means that he slut-shames his teen goth daughter but still can't resist cheating on his wife. Rust too, who seemingly modified his nihilism in order to snag a hot doctor soon sinks into the tribulations. It comes to a head with a punch-up between the two, exactly seven years after their battle on the Bayou. They have turned on each other. They fail to see the bigger picture. At the beginning of the third act of the season, the two men are damaged goods. 

The message is clear. The millennial battle has passed but evil still reigns. The men must prove their purity and their authority before it is too late. At this point I was ready for the show to go either way. The suggestions of church conspiracy, corrupt old southern dynasties and the wide shots of oil refineries made me sure we would get an ending that resembled every book James Lee Burke's Dave Roubicheux detective series. The nods to Twin Peaks (the place where the cool kids put their millennial zeal) made me wonder if we were heading in to the territory of the crypto psycho/religious art wrap up. Either would have been excellent.

Disappointingly, the show eschewed the supernatural for a western style show down. Rust, the damaged but not beyond redemption crusader V the singularly most 'damaged dude' of the show, the dude who shows men who think they are damaged what real damage looks like and specifically, shows Rust what happens when you give yourself over to the darkness of pure misanthropy, like, for real. The antichrist in the final battle is a serial killer of the 'idiot-savant, swamp dwelling nightmare' trope. Obviously, he's gotta die. We know that even before we get to the mounds of dead kids in the crypt of creepy stick-tents.

The final showdown has some excellent violence and a suggestive view of the cosmos that looks for a moment like it might crack open ala Sliders but turns out to be a visual gimmick and one of Rust's visions. Rust and Marty resolve their dude issues in order to kill the freak sex-fiend together. Wounded but not killed they awake in their hospital beds to find, if not transcendence then at least a profound moderation.

Rust, who glimpsed some kind of afterlife from where he lay, comatose in the psycho's crypt, now knows that fatherhood is not a sin and that his daughter is awaiting him in the primeval warmth that lies below this painful life. Marty too can moderate his take on purity in order to be better friends with his ex and accept his ex-goth daughter who, it turns out, was only dressing that way cause she was an untreated proto-depressive, yet to find her tolerant boyfriend. The men turn to each other and their previously latent homosocial bond for redemption and we get an glimpse of them as a bickering odd couple, spending the rest of their lives sharing coolers of Lonestar, being nice to their respective future-girlfriends and fuddling through the crazy maze of manhood in the wake of the evil of their prime.

Before I wrote this, I was tantalised by an interview in which the show's creator Nic Palazzo supposedly revealed alternative endings. In it, he claims that the supernatural, inconclusive or tragic endings for the show were uninteresting, 'easy' and unrealistic (we could be forgiven for not realising that realism was one of his goals).  "What was more interesting to me is that both these men are left in a place of deliverance," says Polazzo, which is fine.

But in delivering these men from tribulation to calm twilight we the audience have, once more, been delivered from the turbulence of millennial angst and tension into a kind of apocalyptic forgetfulness. Order is restored, the order of banality. We are delivered once more into the tired, normative conclusions that these kinds of narratives have carried as long as we have been consuming them, fiending for them like the very drug addicts they villify. Is it wrong to wish for something else? Some hybridized post-apocalyptic noir mutation that turns the tunnel of genre in to a kaleidoscope? It can be a jarring blow when your imagination is engaged and then blocked. Again, classic apocalypse. I guess I'm just a gal who loves to get her heart broken by the same old genres.

There is something else going on in my dissatisfaction with the resolution of True Detective and it has less to do with apocalypse and more to do with my personal, nostalgic aesthetic preference.

In the finale, the angst, the nihilism opposed by fanaticism, heavy drinking, mething and slut-goth ambience of the late 1990s are replaced by the moderate bromancing of the 2010s. The New Jerusalem is, sadly, a pragmatic acceptance that things are neither dark or light but beige. There might be ghosts and monsters but they are just a lunatic fringe, not actual horsemen of the apocalypse. So cheer up, it could be worse. At least we have a moderate liberal administration, the internet and good pals and beer to wait out heaven with. I liked it better when the end was nigh.

When earlier, in my favourite episode, the horrifying Reggie Ledoux tells Rust that he has seen him in a dream. That they are doomed to repeat the fight and that the Yellow King knows all about it, I thought we were heading to some seriously weird terrain. At that point, anything seemed possible, as I'm sure it does for all those gripped in pre-apocalyptic fervour. The line 'time is a flat circle' seemed to signify a cue to the opening of the space-time continuum and the emergence of something unfathomable, or at least really, really cool. But, in the end, it seems that once again, if we are doomed to repeat anything it is just the banal acts of our lives in which we fish, make empty promises, be nice to children, loyal to our bros and watch endless rehashes of the same plots on TV hoping in vain for them to reveal a braver newer world.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014


I’m not a teenager any more. This is less a disclaimer than the kind of thing I have, at low ebbs of life, been tempted to force myself to write out a thousand times, detention style. The older I get the more paranoid I am about how little my focus is changing. I don’t want to get a real job or buy insurance. I don’t know what babies are for or which grapes make nice wine. I worry about all of it, as though the worrying about it might bring it closer to me, let me unlock the secret of adulthood. I want to have a meaningful adult life but most of the time I’d rather go to the movies. I talk to my psychologist about ‘identity foreclosure’ and she nods enthusiastically and gives me a book by an Auschwitz survivor that makes me feel like a total dickhead.

I like things too much. But not the right things.

Until a few weeks ago I didn’t know much about Tavi Gevinson. If I had, maybe I could have saved the 70 bucks on therapy. Tavi is a teenager. She edits Rookie, an online magazine for other teenage girls. And she’s famous. But I didn’t know anything about her until she said something insightful in the new documentary about Kathleen Hannah, which prompted me to google her, which prompted me to go to her MWF keynote address and write about it for the Brow. Still, I didn’t know what to expect from her talk. I took my place in a long line of girls and women waiting outside Melbourne’s Atheneum Theatre. I was impressed by the crowd and happy to be at a girl-event but I was still mildly anticipating annoyance, ready to take the high ground beside the shallow river of fashion, the innocuousness of internet culture, the cult of youth which rains by-lines on babies, or the cult of success that might make a baby want one.

But Tavi talked the uncertainty right out of me. She laid bare some important truths I’d been ignoring, a whole latent value system obscured by the labours of trying to make an adult life. Instead of talking about how to use the net to promote your brand, or about how cool certain combinations of clogs and frocks are, or what a spin-out it is to be famous, Tavi used her talk to investigate the category of the fangirl, both as the thing that she is, and as ‘fangirling’, the activity which makes her. Her talk moved through Powerpoint, anecdote and of course much fangirling over books, films, songs and TV shows, and became a manifesto that I would follow to the trenches.

If you are unsure about your terms, here’s a statement of the obvious: a fangirl is a girl who is also a fan of something, or someone. This is not a mild statement. Being a fan is not the same as pressing a ‘like’ button. A fangirl’s like is holy. In all occurrences fangirling is deeply linked with fantasy and dreams, but it also leads to fangirl behaviours: activities like home crafted memorabilia, collages that would impress serial killers, blogging, raving, poeming, love songing and rapturous thrashing of the body and vocal chords.

These are not activities we typically accord with much importance. Teen crushes, particularly teen-girl crushes are seen as shallow, naïve and sometimes even dangerous. The hoards of screaming girls waiting for The Beatles to get off the plane or mobbing the cast of Twilight outside some LA shopping centre are not afforded the epithet of a ‘movement’. There is, I think, a general feeling that this is just some primal girl-stupidity with no intrinsic value. The objects of fandom are often considered less than art. The fans are often seen as duped, brainwashed by clever marketing professionals, incapable of finding something useful to do.

To this, Tavi says no. Her talk is a manifesto because Tavi is an uber-fangirl who has brought this largely derided category into a glamorous spotlight. She is not a fraction of the mindless mass but a thoughtful and creative individual among many who proves how intellectually and emotionally engaging, but also productive fangirling can be. Fangirling allows you to connect with other people, she enthuses. It enlarges your world. “When I started becoming a fangirl, she says, I began seeing through other people’s eyes in a very thrilling way,” which is something any parent would love to hear their offspring say, because it means they not only have finely tuned empathy, but a creative outlook and the tools to work with others.

Fanning then, is a generative act. It produces new paradigms for traversing the world. For back up, Tavi interprets JD Salinger’s Frannie and Zooey as a tract that deifies the fan. Fanning isn’t just a way to occupy the mind while waiting for life to begin – it’s a way to enter life. The objects of the fan’s obsession help her reframe her world, connect with people and fight depression. In Tavi’s theorising of fandom, she even constructs a rudimentary fangirl ethics featuring ways to deal with various situations, such as when an artist you fan on betrays your love, or how to share the intensity of fanning by allowing other to “like things as you like unto yourself.”

At 17, Tavi is coming of age in a time when being a fan is the easiest and the hardest thing to do. She thinks a lot about authenticity and the value of the object. She considers the temptation to hide behind one’s taste. Sometimes she looks out over the world and sees “a sea of Facebook likes.” Sometimes it’s depressing. She takes to her bed to watch movies for hours. She feels better. She goes forth to fan again.

My sweetheart and I often argue about what it would be like to be a teenager in the internet age. As a fangirl myself, and one who lived way out in the country for much of my girlhood, all I can think is how great it must be to have access to all the cool stuff in the world, no matter how isolated you are. I could really have used This American Life, Chris Kraus or Royal Trux a decade earlier than I found them. But my sweetheart says that it’s precisely the difficulty of access that matters. It was the journey from the Blue Mountains to Sydney to go to Phantom Records that eeked out a fragile identity from the peers that would never understand. And once that special thing is found, it is loved all the more because of the search for it.

You can tell Tavi has thought this through to the edge of the abyss. She cops flak from older fashion writers for her ‘internet sensation’ status. She catches glimpses of blog-based take downs, snapping closed her computer, reciting an all purpose mantra that she’s borrowed from Kathleen Hannah – “what would Beyonce do?” She worries that, because of the internet, all her references are traceable. She worries about entitlement. In Rookie she interviews older artists (like Ghost World creator Daniel Clownes) who wax nostalgic for the days when you consumed the things you liked slowly, found things by chance, savoured every morsel. Taste was cultivated and nurtured, not downloaded in one day.

For better or worse, Tavi has the internet and it has her. Her aesthetic sense and her movement of thought are unequivocally sculpted by it. You can tell by the way she moves back and forth between texts, how she connects them to herself and spits them back up to the world. She says she feels happiest “when she is just a pair of eyes” but there is always more than that. And anyway, whether you are on a train to the city, or in your girl-room, connected to millions of other girl rooms with fibre optic rainbows, fandom reveals things about yourself that you just can’t Google.

This is perhaps what resonated most for me. When I think about my most rewarding experiences, they have often involved fanning out, alone or in company. I’ve sent fan mail to people who have made things that change my life, been fundamentally altered by rock concerts and theatre, queued up to stand tongue-tied in front of strangers. I’ve pulled apart and put back together everything I like and often found I like it all the more. This here, for instance—what I am doing right now—is immensely rewarding. I fangirled my way to Tavi via Kathleen Hannah and found connection with a room full of screaming girls. Now it’s generating not only a column, but an enlivened sense of myself in the world that neither therapy nor a tract on surviving Auschwitz could provide. But somehow, as we get older, this kind of activity is less valued. It’s not seen as productive – not like making money is productive, or building careers and families. Not that the revelation of this column is some stay-true-to-yourself or follow-your-dreams cliché, because apart from everything else, dreams often don’t lead anywhere. That’s part of their charm. You may well be better off inhabiting your dreams, like a girl-bedroom, full of creativity and hope but with no space for the dictates of the real world.

During the question time that follows her keynote talk, adults ask Tavi questions about how she manages her time. Between high school and Rookie and being famous, how does she stay productive? Adults love to talk about being productive. It’s a weird logic in this context because when adults talk about productivity they typically mean fighting the urge to waste time (say, watching TV or singing down the phone to your best friend) in order to use it to pursue valued outcomes. Tavi dodges the questions, but the answer is all over her face when she raves about mapping out her walk to school with scenes from movies and lines from songs, or when she shows the diagram of all the light and colour references in Fleetwood Mac songs. She’s spending her life in a way that adults tend to avoid. She’s cultivating obsessions and they fuel her. Far from being too young for such work she is precisely the right age, because teenagers are allowed to be obsessed with things. It fills the time between childhood and adulthood, when we, like anti-feminist rol model Bella Swan entering some vampiric maternity must “put down childish things.”

But what do we lose when we underrate the intrinsic value in things like obsession, fangirling? A meaningful life is generally thought of in terms of connections forged through activity. This is something adults, in their isolation and ambition, tend to struggle with.

We take things very seriously. But not always the right things.

It’s one of the missions of feminism to reclaim the value of women’s work. Tavi has an instinctual handle on this when she lays the full force of her intellect on fangirling and reaches millions of others in the process. In The Whole Woman Germaine Greer makes the bittersweet argument that if you could harness the energy of women’s tears, it would power the whole feminist movement, perhaps the whole world. This is in itself a sad and powerful thought. It has stuck with me for years and occurs to me now in relation to Tavi’s fandom. She looks at One Direction and sees how the fangirls are really the most interesting thing there. Their screams and wailing have more weight and passion than any of the pre-fab band’s lyrics. Tavi wonders what motivates them, what lies between them, what they are thinking. What do they get from fanning out like that? What she is saying is that girls and women are interesting. They know things. Their activity is vastly more complex than what they can do for society. For me, the next question relates to Germaine’s – what can we power with fangirl energy?

While I don’t have an answer to this question (other than the enthusiastic notion that we could power ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING), I do have a related proposition. It is that in order to know what fangirling is capable of, we have to take Tavi’s lead and attribute it the importance it deserves. Because trivialising the praxis of fangirling (and it is praxis; theory in action) is to play into the oppressive mechanism where by women’s thinking is less valued than men’s thinking. Telling girls and women that the things they are thinking about and the things they are doing are trivial and silly has long been a tool of patriarchy. It’s an entrenched way to keep them from challenging an oppressive order. Feeling like the content of your mind is irrelevant stops you from speaking it. It’s horrifying to consider all the ideas that remain undeveloped, all the objections that remain unconsidered because of this trick.  It’s a good thing then, that Tavi is a success. It’s late capitalism and though we can ignore girls, we cannot ignore success. Rookie as a ‘product’ is a testament to the existence of widespread interest in the things that girls are thinking about. Not in terms of the things they will buy, because Rookie fashion edits tend not to have stockists listed and the site doesn’t carry advertorials that prey on young people’s insecurities about their bodies etc., but is rather a space for thoughtful yet unabashed fanning, and forging connections. It’s a living example of fangirling as something that generates thought and community. And, to use Tavi’s term, it’s happying. It fills the theatre with screams and applause. It makes me feel optimistic.

I’m not a teenager any more. But I am still a fangirl. This means I get to like things too much, and in the holy act of liking find the thing’s importance as well as my own. In the book signing line after Tavi’s talk, I’m reminded of perhaps the best part of being a fangirl – there is always the possibility that around the next corner there will be something new, something to enliven the world and send thrill through the eyes once again.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Closer to Gods

There’s some great graffiti on the walls in the toilet stalls of Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. Aside from affirmations, and quotes from the scriptures of both the Holy Bible and Lynn’s own country songs (‘Honky Tonk Girl’, ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, ‘Don't Come Home a Drinkin’), there is a whole literature of slogans that alter the traditional ‘X was here, date’ to incorporate a celebrity in the value X: i.e. “Loretta Lynn was here 2008”, a not unlikely statement that segues effortlessly into more imaginative concatenations such as “Lady Gaga was here” and even “Snookie took a dookie here, 2012”.

“Snookie took a dookie here” is a work of minor genius. Anonymous teen vandals have had the poetic gall to scratch a stall door with a perfect satire of what I, and others like me, have been doing from Hollywood to Chicago, Memphis to Nashville, and beyond: crisscrossing the USA in the strange dance that makes up the tourism of proximity.

Anyone who has stood behind the velvet rope of Elvis’ bedroom at Graceland while an amiable guide recounts The King’s ablution habits and TV watching schedule, or slept beneath motel sheets thinking of the time that Tennessee Williams, or Bessie Smith lay here, knows what I mean.. Proximity tourism is a travel style where you visit places based on who (or what) has been in this place before you. As though stomping on Elvis’s carpet — or, in the current example, using one of the public toilets that Loretta owns — might give you some particular insight. But insight into what?

Into the reality behind the myth, perhaps. As though a hair on the sink or an original bed sheet might pin down and locate the mystique, and more importantly, allow the tourist to enter into it, to incorporate it and become in turn incorporated.

While this kind of tourism occurs everywhere, I have never participated so fully and shamelessly in it as now, in the middle of my first trip to the USA. I have become a proximity tourist because of my long time obsession with the country’s pop culture, and also because such tourism is so available, so promoted. The homes of celebrities and the places where famous things once happened show up on every city and every town’s internet tourist to-do list. I ached strangely with loss when my itinerary originally did not allocate enough time in Palm Springs to see both the vacation home of Marylyn Monroe and the house where Elvis and Pricilla honeymooned. Later though, sitting in the rental car out the front of Elvis’ love nest, I am struck by a different kind of emptiness: the boredom of sitting in a car outside a house, on a stake-out of a long dead suspect. Not that this boredom will kick my proximity craving; rather it intensifies it, motivates me to search harder, move closer. If myth has an aura, I wanna get my stink on it.

We discovered Loretta Lynn’s ranch while searching out the mythic locales around Tennessee. Unlike Graceland or Dollywood, Loretta’s Hurricane Mills Ranch seems particularly exposed and lawless. For one thing, Loretta still lives there. She has opened up her ranch to “the fans” and the local community.  She hosts concerts, motocross events and trail rides that attract country folk from all over Tennessee and Kentucky. They drag their floats and families and horses onto her property and camp for weeks on end. Swimming in her creek, singing round her campfire. The fans do much the same thing, though some also sit out all night outside her home, telling the security they are just 'lovin' Lorretta'. When we arrive we are told to pull up anywhere. We pitch our tent between the stables and the billboard of Loretta’s face over the scrawled “Y'all make yourselves at home”.

My abiding interest in Loretta springs from several places: from a love of the kitschy, from her own place in the country music scene of the ’60s and ’70s, and from an enduring fandom for feminist music. Loretta Lynn was one of the first big female country superstars, the protégé and bestie of Patsy Cline. Her songs tell first person narratives of country women’s lives while eschewing the whole lonely victim thing. Loretta ain’t all torch songs and regret. She fights. She writes songs with titles like ‘Your Squaw is on the Warpath’ and ‘Fist City’. She refuses to either romanticise or be ashamed of her childhood poverty, declaring simply in her hit song that she is “proud to be a coalminer’s daughter”. In 1975 she wrote the first English language song that mentions the oral contraceptive pill. In the song, obliquely titled ‘The Pill’, she declares to an oppressive husband-figure that “I'm tearing down your brooder house, ’cause now I've got the pill”. Today aged 80-something Loretta is a woman who’s still working, writing, touring and destroying taboos, by appearing in video clips in her Grand Ole Opry gown, flirting and kissing Jack White while singing sexed-up duets.

And, of course, she still has her ranch, “the seventh biggest tourist attraction in Tennessee”. It’s run mainly by her massive brood of kids and grandkids, and it employs loads of locals. The ranch itself is huge, and its 1966 bill of sale also included a ghost town, one that Loretta, with her country singer’s command on kitschy narrative, has turned into a museum and gift shop complex. The ranch has a grist mill and a simulated coal mine, the latter of which a tour guide takes us through before concluding with the statement that 60 percent of America’s power still comes from coal, which means, to both him and to Loretta, that coal miners “are heroes that need to be sung”.

In another building, Loretta displays a vast collection of some of the most hideous, buck-toothed and pin-curled plastic dolls I have ever seen. A redheaded, watery-eyed kidult in brocade stares up from a display case devoted to Loretta’s Minnesota fans, its pink tongue protruding suggestively from beside a centre clump of bottom teeth. Other cases feature some impressive fan art, as well as art by the Lynn clan. There are velvet paintings commemorating Loretta and her husband Mooney’s anniversary, ancient Valentines’ Day cards with a thousand signatures, and ancient bottles of Crisco’s vegetable oil, a product which the guide later tells me Loretta briefly endorsed during the early eighties.

 Our guide, taking his fifth tour for the day through the star attraction, Loretta’s ex-plantation home — the Adirondack rocking chair sitting right on top of the century-old ‘slave hutch’ — informs us that “Y'all might recognise this kitchen, ’cause this is where Loretta stood and did those Crisco ads.” A squeal emits from a few of the people in the group who remember the advertisements. Now they are proximate not only to Loretta Lynn but also to their own childhoods, basking in the Crisco-yellow glow of the television.

The museums are exhaustive; they include every award, every hand-stitched dress, every family photo. There’s every opportunity to take hold of Loretta’s life and immerse yourself in her mythology. There is a kind of unselfish narcissism at play: you are invited to share in a shrine constructed by its object. The ranch workers have a simpler take: one tells me that “Loretta is a damn pack-rat, that’s for sure.”

Loretta Lynn’s rags-to-riches story is well known and documented. Her songs account for some of this, as does the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek, based on Lynn’s autobiography. Loretta grew up dirt poor in a coal mining community in Kentucky. The oldest of eight kids, she married at thirteen and got to breeding her own six strong family before her drunken, philandering husband Mooney (his nickname awarded on account of his moonshining racket) bought her a $19 harmony guitar on which she learned her chords and wrote her first hit singles. Mooney bullied her into her full potential and then behaved rather badly when her success emasculated him. His poor behaviour in turn became gold records, classic Loretta lines like 'I'm not here to fight though if he were a better man I might'.

Touring the ranch property, inspecting the perfect replica of the dilapidated miner’s cottage in which Loretta grew up, exploring the recording studio and gift shops, my companion noted how engrained and well-loved the rags to riches narrative is in US mythology: “This could just as easily be about Jay Z.” (Or indeed Elvis, or a dozen others at first thought). These kinds of stories always include the same elements: the loyalty to the humble origin, and the creation of a small empire that brings members of the old community into a new golden world. It’s a story we never tire of. A rise to stardom from the boggy marsh of extreme poverty suggests that the system works (or at least provides the interpretive structure through which we can construct the myth). It’s the map that draws up the territory. In this Tennessee ranch museum we are proximate not just to Loretta’s specific story, but also to the possibility of our own banal or wretched beginnings turning mythic in the shadow of some marvellous, glittering possible future.  

There is an argument that says that today’s museum is no longer located, but instead incorporates the whole of reality, making us all the subjects of some invisible ethnology. This is a function of narrative, a by-product of our impulse to order experience with stories. I'm a fan of these kinds of theories, but they can become a convenient way to avoid responsibility, especially when you are doing activities as covetous and selfish as tourism – or worse, writing. This is drawn into sharp relief for me at Loretta Lynn’s ranch, where the appeal of myth and the violence of reality clash, rendering me uncomfortable in my skin.

One evening that we are there the ranch hosts its annual rodeo and, sitting in the stalls with my Budweiser, anticipating immersion in some curated and mythic event, I begin to realise that this gathering is not a tourist spectacle or a privileged glimpse at some mythic practice. This is a real rodeo full of real ranching folk who like to rope steers and drink beers and know everyone around them. I flinch as a cowboy cable ties the ankles of a calf in less than thirty seconds. I am totally out of place. This event isn't being offered up to my gaze as a prefab narrative – it’s participatory and alive, with all the good, bad and ugly in attendance.

Immediately my fan-girl motives, my movie monologues in fake southern accent and my love of ‘kitsch’ is exposed as pretentious and offensive. It’s a colonial impulse to reduce a whole living culture to artefacts that I can know and understand just by looking at them. I'm a grifter with lazy TV eyes. The tourism of proximity is not just silly, but straight-up wrong.

I squirm in my seat as a cow lets out a pained bellow. How can I reconcile my point of view with my actual view? Should I change the subject of my inquiry and my writing from pop culture to people? I shudder at the thought, sip my beer, loath to step in to the arena of anthropology and wrestle the poor steer that is ‘real people’.

In order to redeem myself I have to find a more comfortable job description, a better narrative. What am I? What active role do I have here? I have paid my admission fee but I'm still interloping and scrounging for scraps to pilfer. Perhaps, if there is any place for me it is as a kind of myth side-worker, a member of a maintenance crew that continues to consider and re-narrate the myth, even just to keep the dust off it. Because myth isn't something that exists on its own, isn’t something can be packaged and sold to tourists, not really. Mythology is a participatory sport. It requires constant upkeep. If you think proximity alone will unlock mystique and allow your incorporation, think again. You might as well sit where Snookie took a dookie and think that makes you special.

Leaving Loretta’s ranch, driving past her smiling face on the billboard with the scrawling kindness “Ya'll come back now”, we drive through the depopulated and dirt-poor countryside, past the closed down diners and factories and bars, and back onto the giant rolling interstate which links one part of the museum to another. Now flashing past the car window are global franchises: the Arbies and Burger Kings, the Sonic Drive Throughs and Super 8 motels. They spool like a repeated background in an old cartoon and it occurs to me that the myth I am trying to incorporate is bigger than Loretta or Elvis or The Beats or The Delta Blues. The myth I wanna get real close to is America itself. Its rags-to-riches. Its impossibility. I wanna sleep in the sheets America slept in; America The Dead Celebrity as well as America The Real Place, where real people dwell and live and die and have their own stories to tell. I wanna incorporate and be incorporated in this TV and pop song land, but this damned interstate, and the fact of being a tourist, a writer, a fan, an outsider with an itinerary and agenda – that’s the real velvet rope. That’s the thing that makes it both so pressing, and so impossible to attain any real proximity.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hollerback Grrrl

Dear Pistoleers,

2013 has passed by with neither passion nor pop at this address. But fear not - I haven't tossed it all in and stayed home popping pharmies and watching scrubs for the last 8 months. Far from it. I have in fact been writing for other people (shock! horror!).

With a little bit of online pop culture writing and a regular column in The Lifted Brow, I have not had the brain space to think up something new to keep this blog up to date. However, the gracious editors at TLB have allowed me to republish my column on this site, and as I now have a backlog of them, a post every month or so begins, like, right now.

Enjoy my now out of date but nevertheless available piece on Lana Del Rey and the Kennedy assassination. If you like it - you could look at the other stuff in The Lifted Brow, or even subscribe if you want to see what I'm thinking about before it arrives here. Next issue is tourism and Loretta Lynn and I use the word 'dookie' twice.

Dragging Out History

The video for Lana Del Rey's 2012 song ‘National Anthem’ opens with the singer, shot in black and white faux super 8, costumed as Marilyn Monroe, singing happy birthday. She plays with her hair, mounts a smile. In the front row sits US President A$AP Rocky, dressed in an ill-fitting suit and baseball cap. He looks up, stone-cool from the shadows. The film cuts and suddenly we are in full colour, at the scene of president JFK's 1964 assassination. The sound of crowd chaos from that historically key Dallas street rises up over a slow hip-hop beat. Another quick cut amid a flutter of many and now we have Del Rey as Jackie Kennedy, garbed in trademark style, flitting around the gardens of a Cape Cod mansion, tending the flower beds, mothering little black Kennedy children. She and A$AP pose in tableaux taken from Kennedy family home movies, reappropriating with a gangster’s licence. Del Rey butters toast while awkwardly smoking a cigarette. Rocky toasts democracy with his homies and a glass of yak. The couple relieve stress — perhaps about the Cuban missile crisis — by bumping ass to groin on the USS Sequoia.

Then we are back to the streets of Dallas. Riding in the midnight blue Lincoln limo with its suicide doors. A$AP places a presidential hand on a first-lady thigh. The camera makes a fuss of Jackie Del Rey's manicure. It's another beautiful day for the rich and powerful. But we all know what happens next. We have seen it before. Anticipating her loss through song, Del Rey waxes nostalgic over minor strings. The gunshot reintroduces the percussion. Jackie Del Rey's eyes widen. She looks back to the secret service agent before attempting to crawl out across the boot of the Lincoln. It's crass, tasteless, intriguing, and kitsch. I am obsessed with it. After every gunshot I replay the loop. Happy birthday, Mr President...
There are a few ways to read this clip. Foremost, as a marketing tool designed to beguile and provoke. Tastelessness and irreverence have long been the domain of the pop video, and artists vie for media attention with outlandish visual gimmicks. Think Lady Gaga as Mary Magdalena in biker sex triangle with Judas and Jesus, or Beyonce as post-apocalyptic Amazonian-despot-with-lion. The pop video is extra-textual augmentation for the song, presenting narrative complexities and dazzling imagery usually absent from lyrical content.
Del Rey is famous for her visual style. All her clips are presented as video collage, a hobby she claims to have been cultivating since a tender age. ‘National Anthem’ is not the first video in which she's mixed fantasy and reality. In her break-out single 'Video Games' she included paparazzi video of drunk starlet Paz Del La Hueta; a smear of authenticity on the fucked-up glamour girl posture of her song.
Patriotism is another Del Rey aesthetic marker. She uses it in the Tommy Hilfiger sense: a collage of narrative clichés drawn together in the cut of a blazer, a swim suit, a particular yellow hue across the lens. An earlier single, ‘Born to Die’, begins and ends with Del Rey, naked, gripped in the tattooed yet paternal arms of a shirtless hunk as the stars and stripes billow behind them. In ‘Ride’ she holds a reverently faded flag out to the wind like a pair of gaudy wings. Broadly, Lana Del Rey’s shtick is 'America'. She chases the nostalgic clichés of a technicolour promised land. Her America is a place that only exists in images and stories. She's a Disneyland patriot, waving the flag of a country that no longer exists, and maybe never did, at least not how she sings it.
In ‘National Anthem’, Del Rey takes the logical next step, eroticising American history with pornographic panache. History here is not a matter of dates, events, the push and pull of dialectical materialism, or even some prophetic celestial patterning. Rather, all of history is collapsed into the vast aesthetic category of 'vintage'. This is nowhere clearer than in Del Rey's insistence that the act of casting a black rapper as President of the USA in the period immediately preceding the civil rights movement is an apolitical statement.
Rappers, particularly A$AP Rocky, are cool. Being rich in the 60s is cool and America is cool. The romance, in Del Rey's revisioning of the Kennedy story, is not between John and Jackie, or John and Marilyn or Lana and A$AP, but between a generation of kids growing up on YouTube and[bd  the video clips that collapse time and offer up history as a mass of simultaneous contexts that slip on and off the timeline. By re-enacting these images, Del Rey performs  a drag show America.
Drag shows have a canny — and uncanny — way of revealing the constructed nature of the original object. The over-exaggerated, pantomime femininity of nightclub drag queens reveal gender as gestural theatre: a way of applying lipstick, of cocking the hips. Go-to gender theorist Judith Butler knew this. Pastiche does not require an element of knowing satire in order to be both entertaining and insightful, especially when its object is revealed as a phoney.
Like most pop stars, Del Rey is a master drag artist, whether she knows it or not. Her object is a nostalgic woman-ideal torn from old movies and magazines. Monroe. Nancy Sinatra. 60s girl groups. And every now and then she grabs at some strange, offensively-white caricature of native/Latin/African American culture.
It's easy to make the case that Del Rey is dragging a drag, performing a role that never existed off-stage. The Kennedy assassination then, is  the perfect historical narrative to play dress-ups with. After all, it was Jackie Kennedy who first coined the analogy of her time with JFK in the Whitehouse as 'Camelot' (a fictional kingdom of egalitarianism, chivalry, magic swords and witches). The Kennedy presidency was the first to exist largely through the proliferation of media images beamed into the home via TV. No longer was a president some disembodied voice on the wireless, a picture in the paper or a distant figure in a parade. JFK was the first president to occupy our lounge rooms.
Both Don DeLillo and Jean Baudrillard point to the Kennedy assassination as a marker of a crisis of representation, a site at which coherence became impossible as images and accounts of the event proliferated. There is certainly the sense when you trawl the Kennedy YouTube archive (home movies, old news clips, to-camera addresses, speeches, glimpses of constructed intimacy, Jackie's famous tour of the Whitehouse, the Zapruder assassination tape, etc) that you are handling the seed that germinated into our present day miasma of TV-Politics. With the Kennedy media-material we see the full power of the TV image, before the master manipulators learned all the tricks of how to wield it, before the cutting and pasting of moving images was something a bored teenager does as a hobby. To truck out a cliché that we'll return to in a minute, there is an innocence in the way Kennedy inhabited his media image.
Del Rey is not the first to drag  the Kennedy assassination. IN 1968 in John Waters' (unfortunately, impossible to find and so to write about) first 16mm short Eat Your Makeup, he cast Divine as Jackie Onassis and restaged a drag assassination. Then it happened again, when in 1975 the video art collectives Ant Farm and T.R Uthco bought a banged up Lincoln and travelled to Dallas to restage the assassination. In the video that documents this work, titled 'The Eternal Frame', Artist-President Kennedy addresses the viewer posthumously to make a point about the way that the media incarnates people. “No president,” he claims, “can ever again be more than an image on your TV screen and no image can ever be in the past or the future, anything but dead.” When Ant Farm performed 'The Eternal Frame' they thought they were making guerrilla art, but within a few hours the police were helping them to execute their re-enactment. With state protection, they staged it again and again. A crowd gathered, becoming part of the work.

In the 'Eternal Frame' video, an older couple rubberneck the scene, binoculars pressed up to their eyes. The wife coos in earnest about the great resemblance of the male artist-performer to the real Jackie Kennedy. When Artist-JFK takes another bullet the wife jumps, wipes away a tear. “I'm just so glad we could make it here in time to see this. We were just in time,” she says, her husband nodding in solemn agreement.  
In 1975 there is still the sense that the live performance, the embodied act, precedes the video-image – even if the act is drag, a re-enactment of a representation, which will soon return to video itself. Speaking about the work at a screening three decades after its creation, one of the artists comments that they were originally acting on an urge to “grab into the stream of data and loaded imagery” in order to sift out something they could reappropriate and nurture in the imagination. Something they could actually use. They wanted, in other words, to demonstrate people's active participation in the making of mythologies. In this historical drag show, the fictionalisation was a way to get to the truth of the matter, to make something real out of images. It is in the aftermath that we can recognise the crisis of representation; here, as with any crisis, is where we find the looters.
The looting and lampooning of history has long been a postmodern obsession. It captivated JG Ballard: in The Atrocity Exhibition he professes, in an unreliable authorial voice, that the book is directly inspired by Kennedy's death. He goes on to proclaim that “the mass media created the Kennedy we know, and his death represented a tectonic shift in the communications landscape, sending fissures deep into the popular psyche that have not yet closed.” He returns to the theme later in Crash, which follows a group of symphorophiliacs (car-crash fetishists) who restage famous accidents for and to erotic ends. Their leader, Dr Richard Vaugn, dreams endlessly of the deaths of the famous. He drives the same model Ford in which Kennedy was shot, a 1961 s100x Lincoln Continental limousine in midnight blue. In Vaugn's drag show-cum-drag race the Kennedy assassination is reframed as a “special kind of car crash”. This is not just a writer's 'dark' flourish. It's an arguable stance.  After JFK's assassination the Secret Service realised how inappropriate the vehicle had been. Visibility had been privileged over safety, reframing the assassination as an accident of design. Unable to correct the past, the car became a substitute. It was recalled by Ford for a refit. In Crash, by owning the original model of the vehicle, Vaugn owns a historical fact that was later obscured and corrected.
In this mechanistic enactment of history, events occur at the site of the breakdown. JFK's assassination depends now as much upon a design flaw from the Ford company, or a naïve public relations preference for total visibility as it does on political conspiracy and the popular conception of the Vietnam war. In the midst of conspiracy and cover-up, of mass media manipulations and lost frames from videotapes, there is the sense that the car, but also the bullet, the wig, the dinner jacket, the camera angle are each as close to the truth as any official historical text.
When Oliver Stone decided to make his film JFK he copped unprecedented flack, especially when compared to the reception his other docu-dramas Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. While consensus had approved his right as a veteran to speculate on the experiences of war, he was seen as out of line with his treatment of the Kennedy assassination, despite professed motives of exploring the reasoning behind wartime policy. Critics worried about the impact the film would have on people's understanding of the event. Again, there is an innocence to this concern, something heart-achingly last-century, perhaps appropriate for a film that seeks to restore claim to the existence of some kind of hidden truth to a historical event. I mean, of course The Movie impacts people's understanding of history. On one level The Movie is history.
In JFK vignettes of historical fiction are inserted into an 'I recall' type narrative of pieced-together testimony. The vignettes, lit up like theatre and designed like advertising stills, are noirish clichés – the hooker who saw too much, the gangster in over his head, the hedonistic queers, the inhuman federal agents. Here conspiracy is presented like a performance of its own: the act of drawing the narrative tropes out of history and linking them together into something coherently cinematic. Conspiracy, like drag, attempts to reveal the phoneyness of something, wants to deconstruct its object, but while drag reveals the impossibility of the real, conspiracy seeks to make its own truth claims.
To make the factoids and real evidence fit in with the visual style of the film, Stone messes with our expectations of video-truth. The real footage he uses of the assassination — taken from the famous Zapruder tape — is shown in colour, and the fictionalised evidence in grainy black and white. At the time, this blurring of fact and fiction was seen as a problematic way to address a historical narrative considered to be unresolved. Twenty years later this sounds like a very dated critique. In 2013, history is always unresolved and conspiracy is constructed as fast as the actual event; 9/11 is the ultimate example. But the historical reception of Stone's JFK poses important questions: Who has the right to recreate history? When does re-enactment make a claim to truth and when is it drag? Is there a difference? If so, what differentiates a conspiracy theorist from a nut-job, an artist from an exploitationist?
Of course, Del Rey has no truck with coherence. For her, no archive is more revealing than any other. Vintage is the only vantage point. Authenticity is just one shade on a palette. The video-bites of history offer themselves up, sluttishly, to her heavily lined Instagram-eyes. Her take on Kennedy is the logical continuance of a cultural phenomenon in which visibility was privileged above all else. There is no conspiracy, no aching for authenticity, no desire for connection with the real. Video nostalgia means the watcher is (always and never) home.
Segueing effortlessly from Del Rey back into the YouTube archive, I watch another loop of the Zapruder tape. The midnight blue Lincoln moves swiftly into shot, flags hanging flaccidly from its fenders. There are a few sparse groups of observers standing by the road, but most people, like Adam Zapruder, the man who shot the film, are presumably further back. Jackie is wearing a pink pillbox hat. Her husband moves towards her across the backseat, maybe a hand on her thigh, but here there's no zoom, no fussy manicure, no batting lashes, no revelation or diagrammatic overlay. When the film was initially released  a conspiracy grew up over some missing frames, but looking back, it's as though we need the space cleared by a missing frame to fit our own imaginings.
The grain on the film, the shadows on the manicured lawn, the sign for the turnpike: it's all banal as anything. The gunshot is a flash of smoke. A crisis. A point in history after which everything is re-narrated. Even though it's obvious what’s going on in this clip, it is still a moment on which we can hang a crisis of representation. Jean Luc Godard said famously that all you need for cinema is a girl and a gun, and here, in less than 30 seconds, we have it all.
When I watch the Zapruder tape, after hours of watching videos of pop songs, postmodern polemic, telemovies and blockbuster narrative, I'm struck by how quiet it is. What differentiates these images from all the copies and spin-offs and critiques is perhaps also the defining characteristic of any moment constructed as innocent: it fails to speak for itself. Compared with the cacophony of culture, history is really fucking silent. I guess for us, the YouTube archivists and archaeologists, history has become a drag.