Cinematic Enslavement

Cineaste recently published a forum on "cult cinema" (December 22, 2008). Now that the issue is off the newsstand, I'm reprinting my contribution below. The other contributors to the forum were Joe Bob Briggs, J. Hoberman, Damien Love, Tim Lucas, Danny Peary, and Peter Stanfield.

What is it like to be in a film cult? I can only speak from my own limited experience in cinematic enslavement. Dallas, 1977: A small circle of friends emerges from their seventh consecutive Saturday midnight screening of David Lynch's Eraserhead. As we leave the theater, a bored usher accosts us with biting sarcasm: "Can you believe you paid four bucks to see that?" "Yes!," we respond in unison. "We've seen it seven times!" We exit into the parking lot, smugly triumphant in having "blown the mind" of this lowly popcorn jockey, knowing that we alone have the brains and the taste to "get" Eraserhead while this poor soul, sadly, would have to settle for the more simple pleasures of Orca or Smokey and the Bandit.

Are such moments of cult solidarity still available to young cinephiles? Certainly there have never been more opportunities to sample the entirety of film history and argue about films, genres, and directors for hours on end. Between Netflix, bit torrent, TCM, and international Amazon, any reasonably motivated person can probably track down almost any extant title in the world in less than a few weeks. The growth of the blogosphere, meanwhile, gives us all the opportunity to engage complete strangers in passionate debate over the talents of Ron Howard, or better yet, his little brother Clint. Does this mean "cult" cinema still thrives? I would say no, not really. I've never actually liked the term "cult" very much. If we designate as "cult" any film with an unusually devoted audience, the term remains imprecise and fairly meaningless. In theory, Doris Wishman, The Goonies, Pilipino gore, Japanese "pink films," Titanic, Mildred Pierce, Zontar, and The Sound of Music would all qualify under this criterion, reminding us that there is probably a "cult" of at least one viewer for every single film ever made.

To the extent that there was something called "cult cinema," I think it was very specific to a finite window in the history of cinephilia and exhibition. "Cult" thrived when film culture itself was growing in the 1970s/'80s and yet access to certain films remained somewhat limited. Midnight movies were one sacrament in this religion, as was dutiful attendance at the local rep house. Seeing Godard's late-Sixties oeuvre (yes, that's a cult too, let's face it) used to require proximity to a university or film society and required a certain work ethic in service of the cinema as whole. Schedules had to be cleared. Laziness and torpor overcome (Will Letter to Jane ever screen again in this municipality? Better not chance it!) Back in 1977, having no insight into the future media platforms on the horizon, I stupidly thought I would actually have to go to a theater to see Eraserhead, and that I had better do so as much as possible before Attack of the Killer Tomatoes or some other lame stoner fare displaced it on my local screen. In its original form, then, "cultism" evoked an esoteric sense of social, cultural, and esthetic exile, a type of distinction difficult to maintain once every film became available to every viewer, and once domestic viewing replaced theatrical screenings as the privileged form of spectatorship.

At the height of the cult boom, Danny Peary argued "cult" cinema defined itself through "excess and controversy," but this too seems a less salient criterion in today's media environment. One could argue the moment Cannibal Holocaust appeared at the local video store, conveniently filed in the "cult" section, any final remnant of "excess and controversy" passed into history. And given the acceleration, fragmentation, and hypervisibility of contemporary filmmaking, is it even possible to signify "excess" or provoke controversy anymore? Some cultural center would have to remain to be attacked and defended. Even if an enterprising gore-hound somehow found a way to marry The Matrix, Wavelength, and Saw to photograph a circular blade cutting through a skull in excruciatingly precise slow motion for an hour and a half--each droplet of brain spray meticulously rendered through the latest in digital imaging technology--would anyone even notice, much less be outraged?

No doubt some viewers still form intense "cultlike" attachments to individual films, watching them over and over again to that strange point of intimate defamiliarization that accompanies such complete diegetic immersion. But I think in general the cultism of cult cinema has changed over the past few years, morphing right alongside the growing access to thousands of previously obscure titles. Today "cult cinema" appears to have become more or less a synonym for various historical schools of "exploitation"--low-budget horror, '60s/'70s soft-core, Italian Giallo, Hammer, grindhouse, blaxploitation, Eurotrash coproductions, Asian Extreme, etc. For Anglophonic audiences in particular, "cultism" has the tendency to transform this hodgepodge of international "trash" into an ahistorical playpen of "gee-whiz" Otherness. Isn't Japan kinky-strange? What's up with the Italians and all those zombies? Mexican horror films are really, really weird, man. Calling such fare "cult" really only cloaks the "cultist" with a mantle of connoisseurship, providing a few extra inches of critical distance that help better protect said cultist from the implications of simply enjoying exploitation for what it is--obsolescent sex and violence. I realize "exploitation" is no less loaded a critical term than "cult," but it at least has the advantage of placing these films back into the social, historical, and industrial contexts of their original production and circulation.

This trend toward creating a metagenre of "cult" from various national traditions in exploitation also suggests that today's cultism is less about the intense fetishization of a single film than an obsessive mastery over an entire genre or subgenre. "Cultists" now seem to collect Giallos, Jess Franco movies, and hicksploitation titles like baseball cards, reconstructing an entire historical avenue of cultural production rather than singling out a particular film for repeated engagement. It is an interesting shift from a type of heady romanticism, one born of "cult's" oldest foundations in the secrecy and esotericism of the "occult," to a world where everyone can serve as an archivist of his or her own obscure pocket of film history. If, for example, one is an aficionado of schlocky LSD cinema of the Sixties, then Otto Preminger's fatally misguided Skidoo is a must--but once Skidoo has been seen, there is little to do other than check it off the master list of the genre--God help anyone who would try to watch it a second time.

In many respects, this transition in cultism from an experience of immersion to one of critical mastery is symptomatic of a larger crisis in cinephilia over the past twenty years or so. On the one hand, I can't imagine that I would ever care as much about a movie as I did about Eraserhead in 1977. To see a film on a big screen in 35mm seven weeks in a row, with a full week separating each individual screening to facilitate reflection and anticipation, presents a type of textual engagement that is now rare if not completely impossible. On the other hand, the idea that one can now use DVDs to reconstruct the entire exhibition history of a long defunct Alabama drive-in is nothing less than amazing. The cultist challenge of the new century, I imagine, is to prevent this new plentitude from damning the cinema to the cruel fate of music in the era of the iPod--songs and albums often reduced to little more than data, more important as potential examples of certain types of music than as music itself. I probably don't need to see Eraserhead again, but I do sometimes worry the day will come when I'll have the sick realization that I've never had access to so many movies in my life, and yet cared so little about any of them.

"It was worth murdering a world"

I recently published a piece on Graham Greene's use of wireless imagery in Brighton Rock. The article appears in The Space Between 3:1 (2007), a journal that examines modernism between WWI and WWII (thus, the space "between"). For those interested in Greene, wireless, Catholic torture, angry young boys, mass woman, and mass culture, the article is available for free via this link:

Ghost Mom of Plasticville

From the "Plasticville U.S.A." series by Bachmann Brothers, a snap-together model kit of a 50's ranch home. These kits were aimed primarily at N and HO model train enthusiasts. As these modelers were overwhelmingly male, this tableau is of interest for its highly gendered view of suburban life. Mom and the daughters stay home--presumably away from where the trains are--the girls remaining under the bay window surveillance of their indistinct, almost ghostly mother. The kit itself features two plastic people--"Mom" in the same red dress and "Dad" in pants and shirt. Materially present in the kit, father here has vanished from the picture, no doubt down at the railroad crossing with his son. Mom, meanwhile, takes up her position as the symbolic center of the home--watching and being watched through the "picture" window.

Double Torture

April 24, 2009: these photos appear side by side on The Huffington Post.

Wrestling with Snakes on a Plane

The article below was delivered as a plenary address at the Screen Studies Conference in Glasgow in 2006, just a month or so before the notorious Snakes on a Plane went into release. I'm posting it here because it never appeared anywhere else--Chuck Klosterman wrote a shorter, similar, and much funnier take on Snakes just a few weeks after this, so I figured why bother. But with the magic of the blog, it can now take its rightful place as detritus on some remote mainframe. If nothing else, the embedded clips are enjoyable for those who like snakes and/or planes.

Forty odd years ago, a modest young sociologist took it upon himself to do battle with the historical legacy of Marx. In thin but razor sharp volumes like The Consumer Society and the Mirror of Production, Jean Baudrillard revisited—one might dare say, deconstructed—the spectres of a Marxist vocabulary that seemed increasingly irrelevant in the European and American democracies, a world where Das Kapital had begun to lie like a nightmare on the leftist present. The essays anticipated a new global order where the western democracies, placated by gestures toward socialist policies at mid-century and then blindsided by the accelerating exportation of their labor force to the third world, would cease to produce much of anything anymore beyond media, information, and military hardware. Rejecting the Marxist trinity of labor, production, and alienation, Baudrillard offered a new vocabulary to engage the increasingly obscene politics of simulation, a world of seduction and an evil system of objects. In this hyperreal land of sci-fi theory, human subjectivity no longer finds itself embroiled in adjudicating the exploitative politics of exchange value. Instead, a collective genius of consumer goods and information technologies now cultivate human subjectivity as an incubator necessary in sustaining their existence, circulation, and evil agendas. Thus does my iPod need me more than I need it, whatever “I” might be at this point in the non-history of objects, and whatever “need” might mean to a thin slab of silicone and plastic that was born, not so much of a human desire to hear music, but out of a parent technology’s imperative to create new formats and markets for its data.

All good materialists will no doubt find the above gloss noxious to the point of provoking internal sarcasm, if not externalized nausea. Unfortunately and perhaps unfairly, Baudrillard’s work today often evokes a strand of media theory that seems wholly allergic to institutions and practices, audiences and people. However, as counter-intuitive as it may seem from our own historical moment, I would argue Baudrillard’s move away from Lefebrvian materialism toward the anti-Platonic giddiness of the hyperreal was in fact wholly consonant with a larger move during the 1970s toward engaging a more concrete politics of consumption. During roughly the same period, after all, countrymen Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault also sought to reframe classic Marxist issues of power and domination within more localized frames of practice and discourse, albeit with vastly different agendas and results. And in England, of course, the Birmingham School radically redirected neo-Marxism from its totalizing Lacanian-Althusserian wing to a Gramscian emphasis on the politics of consumption and social difference in everyday life, a paradigm of media theory that arguably remains dominant in the English speaking world.

The arch difference in Baudrillard’s work, of course, and the reason why so many on the left refuse to take anything he ever wrote seriously, was the seemingly definitive and yet suspiciously ironic break with Marxism itself, a calculated and no doubt self-aggrandizing decision to stand Marx on his head, perhaps only speculatively, so as to counter the increasingly dead-end struggles of historical materialism with the ecstatic resignation of a nihilistic idealism (or idealistic nihilism, depending on one’s perspective). The Baudrillardian wing of media theory thus remains a thorny and infuriating paradox for the left and media studies generally, a body of work clearly indebted to leftist traditions of ideological critique and aesthetic negation, and yet wholly estranged from the left’s traditional architectures of power and its usual engines of explication. It is a critical position marked by perpetual irony and ultimate impossibility, maddeningly apathetic in its political utility, and yet all the same strangely persuasive as an oceanic poetics of electronic signification.

Like other forms of poetry, it is probably impossible to have a rational debate over the merits of simulation, obscenity, fascination, and seduction as a working theory of the media. What I would like to address today is what might be gained by entertaining the possibility that the Baudrillardian critique of Marxism and its attending theories of the media may be more than a simple stunt, postmodern poetry, or an instrumental attempt to gain strategic position in the always high-stakes competition of French philosophy. Why, after all these years of dismissal and disavowal, does this paradigm nevertheless remain so persuasive in capturing a certain logic of the media as an environment, opponent and destiny? In keeping with the theme of this year’s conference, I am particularly interested in how this work might help us reconsider our always vexing inquiry into the issue of representation, social determination, and the status of contemporary television as object, text, and/or system, a debate that in turn has important implications in considering questions of a television aesthetic.

A good starting point here might be to consider whether or not television has in fact become an evil object, a techno-institution that in its unchecked expansion, proliferation, and domination now exceeds any former relationship it may once have had with the political economy of the corporate nation state, and that increasingly follows its own logic in virtual independence from all passing social and historical formations, be they individual, local, or global. Of course, at this point in history, to isolate television as an object, either technologically or institutionally, seems quaint, perhaps even ridiculous. So, having begun with the premise of TV as an evil object, I would like, as many have done this weekend, to dissolve the technology itself away into a more synthetic notion of an evil system—a terrain of popular culture where individual media--film, TV, the internet--are just so many vectors in advancing its ever more horizontally and vertically integrated agenda. Convergence, as we often call the hardware side of this equation, also indexes a cultural process that with increasing frequency seems to produce irrational, inexplicable phenomena that break with media culture’s antiquated mandate to inform or entertain. How else are we to explain a major CD release by Paris Hilton, a star with no discernable constituency, whose meta-fame seems based entirely on a desire to be famous for being famous for being famous, and whose career can only be seen as a toxic ghost in a bored hype machine, one that must, above all else, create buzz, media, and markets.

Consider also a phenomenon like Snakes on a Plane. Scheduled for release later this summer, this film has been a growing multi-platform sensation for over a year now, promising to leap from B-film joke to major summer blockbuster. Interest in the project seems to have first emerged among that growing legion of internet cinephiles who seem more fascinated by the film industry than films themselves. Smitten by screenwriter Josh Friedman’s blog account of his involvement in the film’s high-concept genesis, this community of early franchise adapters quickly spread the Snakes on a Plane mantra, or at least took the film’s title as a mantra. Recounting the phone call from his agent offering him the chance to work on the film, Friedman writes, “Holy shit! It’s a title. It’s a concept. It’s a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It’s perfect. Perfect. It’s the everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.” Snakes on a Plane has since gone on to generate countless fan websites, unlicensed T-shirts, fake promo reels, fake audition tapes, parodies, alternate scripts, winking late-night TV jokes, and one might even say a nascent pop philosophy. Friedman himself has encouraged, facetiously no doubt, that “snakes on a plane” replace “shit happens” as the nation’s favorite phrase of fatalistic resignation, as in “did you hear Jack got hit by a bus?” “Eh, whaddya going do…snakes on a plane.”

As the above clips suggest, Snakes on a Plane has already generated the full gamut of “fan” activities associated with other media franchises, suggesting a passionate and sincere interest in the film’s compelling narrative world. In this extraordinary case, however, such activity has flourished well before the film itself has even made it to the screen, and in some cases, even before the film started principle photography. Since Snakes on a Plane does not as yet exist in any official form, one has to assume there is a sizeable audience intoxicated by the very idea of snakes on a plane. We have to wonder, however, if the premise of reptiles disrupting a flight is so startlingly original and utterly compelling that thousands would embrace it as profoundly meaningful within their own lives, sight unseen? Probably not. In fact, the exact opposite. As the above examples of pre-extratextual materials should make clear, those with the strongest interest in Snakes on a Plane appear to gravitate toward the film as an absurd exemplar of the high concept algebra by which the film industry calculates its product. Echoing Friedman, participants in the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon walk that thin line dividing adolescent enthusiasm for adolescent crap with a knowing, world-weary appreciation for the inane genius of Snakes on a Plane as pure concept, a viewing position that it seems we are all increasingly asked to entertain these days. Like all good high-concept titles, Snakes on a Plane cynically and yet with glorious candor comments directly on the recombinatory logic that has come to dominate the media industries so dramatically, so unapologetically. The most popular bootleg T-shirts for the film thus feature the film’s narrative architecture reduced to a simple pictographic equation: snakes + plane = snakes on a plane.

Most of the performative over-enthusiasm for the film plays incessantly with this single joke, reveling with winking bemusement in Hollywood’s reductive logic of additive attraction.
Perhaps the biggest fan of the title is the movie’s leading man, Samuel L. Jackson. Supposedly, when the studio considered changing the title to something less campy, Jackson responded, “What are you doing here? It’s not Gone with the Wind. It’s not On the Waterfront. It’s Snakes on a Plane.” According to such lore, the title remains Snakes on a Plane because, as the above fan clip suggests, Samuel Jackson said so. Widely circulated, stories of Jackson’s determination to be in a film called Snakes on a Plane, come hell or high water, evoke images of the star in his Shaft persona storming into a room of metrosexual studio parasites and scalding them with their own triple lattes for messing with his action. In reality, however, Jackson and New Line Cinema have worked hard and in complete harmony to exploit Jackson’s now oddly comforting image as America’s favorite angry black man, an identity Jackson has cultivated in projects ranging from the high drama of A Time to Kill to the retro-camp street cool of his work with Quentin Tarantino. Again, within a logic of signification wholly divorced from any grounding in the material politics of race, Jackson has come to epitomize an urban black masculinity that operates on the border of humor and menace, a composite of historical movie signifiers incorporating Sidney Poitier’s internalized righteousness, Clint Eastwood’s slow-burning vengeance, and the urban √©lan of innumerable blaxploitation stars of the 1970s.

While the title Snakes on a Plane evokes as certain inane brilliance in and of itself, Jackson’s presence in the film and publicity adds an equally powerful, though equally cartoonish, frame of race around the entire project. Indeed, when added to the high concept dilemma of snakes loose on a plane, Samuel Jackson’s high concept blackness has proven so powerful that the film is perhaps the first in history, though probably not the last, to generate a catch-phrase in advance and in complete independence of the film’s actual dialogue. With Jackson’s persona involved, snakesters began circulating an imaginary yet seemingly inevitable moment of Jackson yelling passionately to ground control, “We got motherfuckin’ snakes on this motherfuckin’ plane.” So profound was this fantasy of a racialized action cinema, of what Jackson would most likely say if he were actually caught on a plane with a mess o dem creepifying snakes, producers eventually rescheduled six days of reshoots so that the phrase could actually be inserted into the final film. Not only did this insertion further flatter both the “insider” and populist fantasies of the Snakes community, it also allowed the movie to move up from a PG to a more marketable R rating. And while the “MF” bomb can not be dropped directly in most official venues for publicity, this phrase nonetheless permeates the unofficial marketing campaign.

With minor adjustments, Snakes on a Plane could have been made by Monogram studios in 1943, by PRC in 1955, by A.I.P. in 1964, by Roger Corman in 1974, or by Dino De Laurentis in 1985. One could say, in this respect, that the film is, or will soon be, “timeless.” Which brings us back to Marx, Baudrillard, textuality, pop aesthetics, and the social. A timeless story, by definition, stands outside of history. For many years, neo-Marxists staged often bloody interventions into the politics of a “timeless” canon, providing materialist grounding to the previously unexamined ideologies that bound narration, form, and style within specific historical formations. At the same time, however, insidiously and silently, the omnivorous and ever merging industries of culture were producing their own brand of timeless art, not in a bid for transhistorical greatness, but as the inevitable product of a hermetic circulation of ideas, routines, wisdoms, logics, and protocols. Perhaps there was a moment, say in 1934, when aeroplane and Cobra could have hashed it out in the skies of modernity in a genuinely compelling fashion, plausibly linked in some way to a social imaginary beset with wonder technologies and orientalized reptiles. But what does it mean to make that film, torn straight from the pages of a depression era pulp, in the early 21st century? Once the film comes out, no doubt some pop pundit will offer a pseudo-symptomatic explanation as to its extraordinary popularity, perhaps opining that the film’s collision of snakes, planes, and angry black men reflects a post 9-11 fear of technology, terrorism, and the global other. But that would be complete bullshit. Better to explain the film as the Darwinian endpoint in decades of high concept evolution, an industrial logic conducted, no so much as a dialogue between Hollywood and a history of actual audiences, but as a chase after a phantom social through a generic funhouse of distorting mirrors.

Ironically, and yet wholly consonant with the genius of the media as a complex evil system, our era’s move toward global cultural traffic only accelerates this agenda. There is no corner of the world that Snakes on a Plane cannot and will not touch, since it speaks so eloquently in the international action film’s chosen dialect of Pidgin cinema, a mode of high concept cinema so high that it has broken free of the gravitational pull of any individual or social experiences, hopes, or desires. We have long been so sensitive to the exploitative politics of class, nationalism, racism, sexism, and heteronormativity, that we rarely consider what might happen once the culture industries finally achieve what years of political activism have not, an elimination of all social difference to the point that, rather than usher in a new era of harmony, light, and justice, we all become perfect vessals for the replication of viral blockbusters, sitcoms, and celebrity gossip. Working from neo-Marxist assumptions about hegemony, mediation, homology, and determination, we have long assumed that the media have some connection to what people do and think, and there remains a branch of media studies still very invested in issues of reform, progress, and justice across the various media, whether such reform involves improved content quality or better serving viewing communities perceived as marginalized and neglected. And yet, such models of determination and mediation have always been, and remain even now, fraught with problems. If the media are, ultimately, an index of the social, than efforts to reform them are akin to trying to rechannel the smoke billowing from a raging semiotic tire fire. If we lean more toward a paranoid vision of the media as directly determinative of the social, an instrument of more centralized and organized power, we risk returning to delusions of ideological inscription traceable to rational or at least vaguely lucid agents of power, perhaps Rupert Murdock operating from an oxygenated compound on the moon. Hegemony gives us the advantage of balancing both modes of indetermination, fluid alliances of elusive power at war with the symbolic creativity of a resistant public. And yet, how much more might we be able to explain if we were to cede to contemporary media its own autonomous and in many ways agentless logic, a signifying system that, while it may have at one point had its roots in a formative moment of social and historical determination, increasingly seems motivated by and answerable to a set of aesthetic and industrial protocols that are gradually walling themselves off from the terrain of the social.

We are all no doubt familiar with the common science fiction plot of the robot or android who gradually becomes sentient and then, inevitably, autonomous, a creation of mankind that eventually breaks free of all human influence and control. Most frequently, such fantasies are expressed in the prevailing language of techno-animism, wherein centuries of magical thinking about the apparent electronic transmutability of information and consciousness incubate within the housing of an historical era’s most advanced gadgetry, be it a clunky depression era robot lumbering through a mad scientist’s laboratory or a sleek mainframe purring in the underground bunker of some secret governmental agency. But what if the media, in its relentless international success as a weapon of mass signification, is destined to become, not an exquisitely refined chunk of hardware like the Terminator or HAL 2000, but a decidedly protean medium of messy, low-tech evolution, not unlike the great Paleozoic oceans that once covered the earth and that randomly spawned amino acids that randomly spawned creatures that randomly developed to have their own logics and agendas. In this scenario, media technologies do not become increasingly sentient mirrors of human consciousness, but instead remain wholly alien objects that in ever more complex structures, economies, protocols, and histories generate waves of signification far in excess of anyone’s ability to control, understand, need, or desire them. This is not to argue that the media, as an increasingly sovereign and perhaps even evil object, does not have a profound impact on the social; rather, it is to say that the media in its own diabolical and ultimately agentless agenda to replicate us as eternally viewing and consuming subjects is no longer an extension, reflection, or partner in our social world, but an irrational empire onto itself that must be acknowledged and negotiated, much like a rogue state with loose signifying nukes. The media as an evil object, paradoxically, would be a system with no center, no boundaries, and little to no ambition or politics beyond its own economic and aesthetic replication.

A half-century ago Theodor Adorno lamented, “every trip to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse. Thirty years ago, Pauline Kael complained, “After years of stale stupid acted-out stories,” she could no longer endure “the little bits of show-business detail worked up for us by show-business minds who got them from the same movies we’re tired of.” For many years, the besieged could at least retreat into a form of creative irony, perhaps as a last vestige of an alienation that was gradually giving way to ecstacy. As Kael, notes, “cinephiles have always recognized each other at once because they talk less about good movies than what they love in bad movies,” suggesting that many of us have long been in tactical combat with our culture’s industrial logics and agendas. And how else are we to function in a cultural environment where increasingly the only real entertainment the media provides us is the metapleasures of process over product, a world where movies are no longer stories or art, but are increasingly discussed, even in popular discourse, as projects, vehicles, and franchises—examples of some new low, outrage, or mode of stupidity that transcends us all? But, as Snakes on a Plane demonstrates so dramatically, even this pleasure of a resistance grounded in the social is about to be taken away from us, portending as it does a world where everyone is such an “insider” that there is no longer any “outside” from which to experience any form of aesthetic, moral, or political affect.

Amusing as this clip might be, it also suggests an increasingly difficult challenge in the coming years. How does one satirize Hollywood by satirizing Snakes on a Plane? Why would anyone engage in such a redundant mode of comedy when Hollywood already offers such satire pre-loaded in so much of its product? While it would be comforting to believe that this skit reflects the real process of the film’s actual development, a scenario wherein passionate artists fight to tell the story of Anne Frank only to have a studio cretin saddle them with snakes on a motherfuckin’ airplane, the sad truth is there are thousands, if not millions of eager thralls only too happy to serve the Master’s call in bringing Snakes on a Plane to a marketing/consumption venue near you. After all, it seems to somehow be related to what the people want, or once wanted at some point, and in any case, it demonstrates that the Master laughingly recognizes his limits and foibles. Yes children, I often do make films that suck…now have a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt, won’t you? There are also thousands if not millions of us willing to embrace Snakes on a Plane, either out of boredom, compromise, or a smirking cynicism. In the mid-1990s, an older though still anti-rationalist Baudrillard writes, “Things have found a way of avoiding a dialectics of meaning that was beginning to bore them, by proliferating indefinitely, increasing their potential, outbidding themselves in ascension to the limit, an obscenity that henceforth becomes their immanent finality and senseless reason.” What better way to describe our Snakes on a Plane moment than as an “ascension to a limit,” a world where cultural technologies have found a way to break free of the messy, limiting dialectics of a meaning grounded in the social, perfecting instead an obscenity of senseless reason where we laugh at the culture industries laughing at themselves laughing at us laughing at them? Or, to put this process of an obscenity accelerated to the point of informed resignation in a more pop vernacular, “Did you hear there’s going to be a film called Snakes on a Plane? Can you believe it? Eh, whaddya gonna do…snakes on a plane.”

Better Red and Dead

A couple days ago while surfing the web I was directed to an article on where this absolutely hilarious cartoon had just been posted. The caption read: Sacrifice? Heck wit dat. I'm eatin' me some pizza. Racist? Absolutely. But I was more struck by the weird attempt to generate outrage from something so trivial. For those who don't know, a pizza chef in St. Louis recently volunteered to stop by the White House and prepare dinner for the Obamas, whom he had met during the campaign. For the right, this somehow translates into Obama eating pizza while Rome (which he ignited a mere two months ago) burns. Given the stupidity of the illustration and the issue, I thought I might drop a quick barb in the comment section to set everyone straight.

This is probably old news to the net-savvy, but it turns out some sites have what might be called a "hothead" cooling off period, meaning if you register for a site to make an incidiary comment, they make you wait 24-hours before having access to the forums. Fine. I made a note to return the next day and show them what's what, less out of allegiance to the left at this point than to make sure their stupid filtering system wouldn't work, at least in this case. When I was finally allowed to play in the RedStates 24 hours later, I tried to take the Kaufman angle, completely agreeing that the Obama administration was the most corrupt in American history (after only two months, no less), writing, "How dare they accept an invitation from a visiting chef to prepare a pizza in the White House. I am sickened, disgusted, and so very very mad."

At that point I was going to bail, but then I saw a thread about Obama's handling of the pirate hostage crisis in Somalia, which was literally schizophrenic in its attempts to criticize everything Obama had or had not done, and everything he might or might not do. They really hate him! To a comment that called Obama a "wuss" for not nuking Somalia in its entirity, I added "3 shots. 3 dead pirates. Why is this post still up?" (so much for Kaufmanesque irony). To a comment that argued, post-snipering, that killing the snipers was not the answer because it would just create more pirates, I added: "Obama + negotiation = wussdom. Obama + killing pirates = more pirates. Obama + (x) = any probability of succcess. Solve for X. Show your work." When another poster noted that Obama had nothing to do with this successful resolution, that it was strictly a military decision and operation, I opined at least Obama didn't dress up as a sniper and try to take credit for it.

Moving on, I saw that someone had posted a link about the government's plan to scrutinize "right wing hate groups" more closely. Of course, everyone in this thread thought they were facing imminent arrest, or more frighteningly, that it was time to stock up on a shitload of guns before the inevitable repeal of the 2nd amendment. To this I added, "Who is more likely to shoot up a McDonalds today? Al Qaeda or a recently unemployed militia member convinced Obama wants to convert the nation to Islam and melt down the nation's AK-47s to build an underground mandatory abortion bunker? If we were in Vegas, the odds wouldn't even be close."

I added a couple more zingers on my way out. Awhile later I returned to see if any of these pithy rejoinders had brought a RedStater to his/her (probably his) senses--instead I received a "601 redigestation error." After a few more attempts to regain access to my new RedState brethern, I realized I had been thrown out, locked out, barred from the site. Redigested, whatever that might mean. So ended my career in political dialogue on the net: 8 comments in 45 minutes = exile.

I share this, not so much to demonstrate my superior BlueState wit (well, maybe a little), but to think about the poor suckers who have to police these sites. Most likely a person who gets a job checking posts for potentially disruptive satire, irony, political leanings, hidden messages, etc. has to be a somewhat literate, textually sensitive individual. What must it be like to be a smart, relatively informed person in charge of protecting extraordinarily stupid chickens from a pack of snarky foxes? In the end, this editorial cop is probably the only one who followed my brief career on I can only hope s/he was amused for a few moments in between deciding whether or not calling the First Lady "H'Obama" is offensive--which it is. Then again, anyone who would censor my airtight logic while allowing "H'Obama" through the gates repeatedly is probably dead inside. Dead and red.

Ernest Borgnine, Menaced by Rats

Soon to be lost forever in the move toward digital effects is the art of appearing menaced by real animals in real time. Before animals actors could be convincingly animated to hit their marks or appear more terrifying, they had to be "wrangled." Human actors, in turn, often had to carry the scene by turning an otherwise harmless tableau of trained animals into blood-curdling terror. In the original Willard (1971), Ernest Borgnine works with a menacing yet relatively manageable octet of rats. One might think Borgnine would be more terrified by Willard himself, his usually timid employee suddenly turned psychopath--but the movie requires us to believe that rats--even just eight of them--are a mortal threat. Note how the rodent co-stars have been cued by a trainer to look, for the most part, out of frame but still in Borgnine's general direction while Borgnine recoils in feigned terror. Given the acceleration of imaging in contemporary horror, this scene, by contrast, appears all the more real and thus all the less terrifying.
This effect is even more pronounced at the lower echelons of filmmaking. Particularly notorious is Ted V. Mikels' The Corpse Grinders (1972) in which domestic cats, having been given a taste of human flesh by unscrupulous catfood makers, begin to turn on their owners for additional meals. While Willard depended for the most part on the mise-en-scene of multiplication (as in, "wow, that's a lot of rats")--The Corpse Grinders combines rudimentary editing tricks and actors struggling to hold/shake cats in such a way that it appears the animal is ripping open the jugular vein. This scene is typical, a young woman undulating on the couch and thrashing her feline co-star back and forth in an attempt to simulate a plausible mutilation. The combination of bad acting, sparse editing, and cheap film stock make for attacks that are more charming than frightful. One also cannot help but empathize with the actors who have been given an almost impossible task here--transforming Puff into a blood-thirsty killer without any effects or image-processing whatsoever.

Finally, although anyone under the age of 40 may find it incredible, Stephen King was once so popular that Hollywood fought for the right to adapt every single word that came out of his word processor, including a minor effort about a mom and her son trapped in a car by a rabid St. Bernard, the eponymous Cujo (1982). Here we see a third pre-digital strategy for transforming a flesh and fur actor into an object of terror. Unlike the rat-pack stars of Willard or the generally lazy cats of The Corpse Grinders, Cujo the dog could actually act, propelling the film through his formidible talents in barking, growling, and snarling. Make-up helps also--gallons of shaving cream and stage blood rubbed all over his body to transform him from merely rambunctious to plausibly rabid.

These attacks would all be done digitally now (as in the 2003 remake of Willard). This doesn't make these older animal attack flicks more "real" or "authentic"--but the lost art of wrangling, blocking, and directing ordinary animals did hold a certain fascination that no longer exists in the cinema--the appreciation of a rather specialized craft shared with varying degrees of competence by the animal, the wrangler, the actor, the director, and the editor.

The Girl from Pawnee

 Editor's Note:  What follows is crap.  As it turns out, Parks and Recreation would go on to be the only decent comedy on network television that year. 

Back when NBC was still riding high, Thursday primetime was the jewel of the crown. Friends, Seinfeld, and ER were platinum tent poles that could support innumerable Single Guys, Sudden Susans, Carolines, Wills, Graces, and other young white urban professionals looking to balance the demands of a career, romantic life, and the big city. No more. Friends and Seinfeld are long gone, of course, and ER is finally exiting this season with a whimper rather than a bang. Looking back, the comedies in particular seem increasingly dated, transmissions from that strange reality we all only vaguely remember before Bush v. Gore, 9/11, Iraq, and Great Depression 2.0. Not only do the go-go ‘90s increasingly seem like a distant fever dream, so too does television itself. The hubris of Thursday’s “must see TV” now settles for the more workmanlike “comedy done right”—a promise of basic competence that comes with seeing your audience dwindle by two-thirds. GE once offered Jerry Seinfeld part ownership of the company to stay in production; now Tina Fey begs on the Emmys for someone, somewhere to watch her show in some format, any format.

The rest of this article can be read at FlowTV

Creme de la Weezer

As music continues to dematerialize, so too do the CD sections of major retailers. No surprise there--everyone expects the once "state-of-the-art" Compact Disc to become just another dinosaur format in the next few years. Which makes the latest marketing scheme at Best Buy all the more puzzling. Best Buy has always depended on "Greatest Hit" packages to prop up its CD sales, and almost always has the usual suspects at the end of the aisle for $9.99. Now they've debuted these "mini" greatest hits packages--a band's most popular recordings culled down to six, seven, or eight songs. After releasing seven studio albums over the past decade or so, for example, Weezer can now be had in a 6 songs for $5.99 CD format. Bad Company's famed "10 from 6" greatest hits package can now be had in an "8 from 6" version, also for $5.99. Are consumers beginning to suspect that DRM technology will one day, as we all suspect, wipe clean everyone's iTunes library? Are these 6-pack mini hit CD's a way of storing only the most important songs in a hard format, the seeds to rebuild one's Weezer playlist? Or are they simply a more sober and realistic assessment of what constitutes a "great hit?" Are there, in the end, only six Weezer songs worth owning?