April 13, 2008

commenter jared wrote in with a comment and also reminded me that i never commented on his previous comment. i feel bad! first, his previous comment, about my margaret seltzer post:

Aw, go groan alone. There’s a difference between 1) making a claim of reality in order to play with genre conventions or question modes of representation or whatever, and 2) making a claim of reality in order to make money by taking advantage of a widespread fetish of authenticity. A fetish that you rightly criticize. If James Frey had gone on Oprah and said “It was all an exercise in media hype. Got you, suckers!” we would have declared him a genius. Actually, we probably would have just assumed he was still lying, and we would have been right.

i respect his opinion, but i disagree. as i see it, the point he is making is largely about intentionality – i.e. if james frey thinks he is making some serious point about how memoirs work or how much bullshit people will buy then we should respect him but if he is just an ex-junkie trying to cop some cash, well, he should fuck off, but personally i just don’t care about intentionality – i have no interest in this classic author figure sitting in his room smoking too many cigarettes and masturbating about all the big important thoughts he’s having and how his big important words are revolutionary and going to challenge what people think about society blah blah vomit.

so, intentionality. listen, i doubt the creators of “the hills” are holed up somewhere watching “masculin feminin” and “last year at marienbad” and reading back issues of ‘film comment’ and dreaming up ways to really fuck with the parameters of truth and authenticity, with how the audience handles narrative. maybe i’m wrong, maybe they are, maybe they’re hardcore theory wonks and meta-televisionaries, but what i think they’re probably trying to do is create a show that a lot of people will watch so it will make a lot of money so they can have jobs and support their families and eat and buy beach houses in malibu. yet the fact is that they are creating art that does fuck with genre conventions and that does, however consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or not, question “modes of representation or whatever.” moreover they’re not doing it with some obscure, difficult novel published in a limited run paperback by fiction collective or a lo-fi indie brooklyn snuff film that gets reviewed in the village voice and some asshole’s blog, they’re doing it with one of the highest rated shows on cable television, they’re doing it with a popular culture phenomenon that is enjoyed by a lot of people and mostly by teenage girls. they are engaging teenage girls, who are fed the most facile, ridiculous pepto-bismol bullshit from their magazines and TV shows, to think about the modes of production of television and film and how editing works to affect meaning and how the paparazzi and the media machines operate and what rights celebrities should have and what is a story. obviously not all of the girls are doing this, i’m sure there are some cindy-lu’s in mimetic trances and “team lauren” t-shirts drooling along to “unwritten,” but i don’t think that’s all of them or even most of them or even many of them. and even if there are a lot of them and they are getting nothing out of this besides the joy of watching the show, well, they’re still watching a really well-produced TV show, so good for them.

beyond all that, what i was responding to with this post was really only that quote that i include from the article. professor blah blah i’m old was saying that he thinks it’s difficult to make successful art that straddles the line between truth and fiction. i can think of three ways we can define successful art (in the pop culture realm, when art is inextricably linked with commerce).

1. it makes a lot of money (commercially successful).

2. it moves people/makes them feel something (emotionally/aesthetically successful).

3. it inspires discussion and debate (culturally? successful).

i was simply making a list of works of art that, off the top of my head, were/are successful at doing all those things while playing with the truth/fiction line. whether or not this use of the truth is morally “right” or “good,” well, you might have me there, but again, that’s not what’s interesting or relevant to me; what’s interesting to me is asses in seats, tears in eyes, and words in ears. if james frey’s work challenged this “widespread fetish of authenticity,” even if he didn’t really mean for it to and was really just trying to tell a good story to make a fast buck, if it made a vast swath of society, from men in tweed jackets at the new republic or the atlantic to soccer moms in oprah’s book club to an idiot friend of mine who was obsessed with this book and “the game” think about what narrative is and what is true and false and to have a public discussion about this, in fact have this discussion on “oprah” and on “the today show,” doesn’t that make this “fake” work more important and successful than some dime a dozen “true” redemption narrative about an asshole who got a root canal without novocain? even if he’s taking advantage of us, if the end result is more thought, more discussion, more reaction, doesn’t that make it more worthwhile than if it was true?

now, his current comment:

My experience watching Juno in the theater, FWIW, was not as bad as you think yours would have been. Yes, the first 15 minutes were cloying and unfunny, but most of my anger was directed not towards the movie itself but towards that half of the audience that thought “honest to blog” was such a hilarious joke that they laughed over whatever the next line was. So once these people got over how totally awesome it was to be watching a smart, funny movie that, like, gets how they and their friends feel to be totally smarter and cooler than everyone else, well then the real movie starts and it’s probably a little better than it deserves to be.

Sorry, my main point isn’t hipster-mocking. My point is I think the contrast between Juno and The Hills and Napoleon Dynamite is very interesting if you think of them as depicting three different strategies for relating to pop culture. (And every work of art is first and foremost a lesson on how to experience that work of art. The medium is the message, etc. etc.) The urban/suburban/rural settings are important here–The Hills comes from within the culture industry, Juno is somewhat insulated from it, N. Dynamite is from so far away you have to get it by mail order. Of course the divisions aren’t set in stone. Everyone who discusses The Hills, or blogs about it, or buys US magazine to read about LC or Heidi, is engaged in co-authorship, or is complicit (if you want to put it that way). Conversely, even (or especially) Hollywood stars are snarky and cynical about the industry.

Everyone is simultaneously inside and outside (even Jackie Harvey) and must constantly negotiate their position. The Hills people try to construct and enact (as we all do) a seamless (or minimalist) persona out of a million previous personae (fictional or not); Juno’s pregnancy is such a crisis because it forces/allows her to become a (re)productive member of the culture industry instead of remaining forever ironic; Napoleon’s triumph is a radical reformulation of a distant (both spatially and racially) culture. I agree that ND is the weakest, because it relies on the Romantic myth of the mystical creative genius, but it’s pretty genius to create an entire alternative system of cultural references for teenagers who feel themselves left behind in the race to master cultural references.

p.s. To make this schema work for ska, just replace “culture industry” with “Jamaica.” Skatalites=The Hills; English Beat=Juno; Reel Big Fish=Napoleon Dynamite. The difference is that here, increased distance from the center (Kingston->London->LA) means a weaker (rather than stronger) claim to authenticity, for those who still think authenticity is a meaningful concept.

jared, i don’t exactly understand what you’re arguing here but it all sounds really good, so you can take that as a tacit admission that you’re right.

jared has an interesting post about “the hills” on his blog. he notes:

The narrative is never confined to what we see on the show–every single tabloid piece, every public appearance, every blog entry, is actually part of the show.

absolutely true. and this is the reason why the show is such a powerful cultural force, because it is that, a force, a mass of images, an army of reproductions, not just a show that comes on a half hour every week at 10:00. all of this conflicting data complicates the essence of the show, but it also makes it bigger, more enveloping, more powerful. the show (and the filmed lives of britney and lindsey, paris) is a living, breathing refutation of “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.”

The first question I have–and it may seem trivial given all that lit theory, but I want to start to try to bring visual analysis into the discussion–is why do so many characters make entrances with their faces obscured? Entrances are obviously planned and staged, so why create that second of confusion when you see that a character has entered an apartment but don’t see who it is? To create a reality effect?

i thought about this during episode 22, when the lauren-brody lunch scene starts. we open on brody sitting at his lunch table and calling lauren, who he thinks is late but who is actually at the other side of the restaurant. through some awkwardly framed shots of her from behind, at an angle (i don’t have time to look at the show itself right now) she gets to the table and sits down and then the scene begins. the thing is, why is this a part of the episode? it could have easily been chopped off and we would have just started with the two of them saying hello. as we know, scenes can be restaged, so why not just do that? i don’t have the answer either, although my best guess would have something to do with your idea of creating “a reality effect.”

or it could be the production of the show responding to the demands of reality. think of all the times we see a waiter bringing characters food in a restaurant and the scene sort of stops to acknowledge the waiter and that this, the bringing of food, is going on. in a fiction film, there would be none of this acknowledgment or recognition of such a basic everyday thing unless it was in some way important to the plot or the characters (i.e. if the reaction to the waiter revealed something about the attitudes of one or both of the characters, if the waiter interrupted some crucial moment, if the waiter is secretly a spy or has some relation to the characters etc.) but here it’s just a waiter, and why is it necessary for valuable storytelling time to be taken up with characters accepting food? it could be creating “a reality effect” (i.e. viewers will be confused and/or disoriented if food just appears out of nowhere) or it could be the effect of reality (i.e. the characters were in the middle of a first take with a really fresh, authentic feeling that you get in the first take and the producers want to use that, even if we have to sit through a waiter presenting drinks and salads and listen to the girls thank him/her.)

anyway, thanks for commenting! “I appreciate people taking time to write any kind of comment. Do you know how much effort it really takes to sit down and write a comment? I’ve never written a comment in my entire life…you really have to have a lot of passion and thought to write any comment, so thank you.”


4 Responses to “comments”

  1. Jared Says:

    Okay, a few responses:

    1. I absolutely agree with you about authorial intention–it is entirely irrelevant to textual analysis. But if you write a book and proceed to market it as a faithful account of your life, you are asking people to judge it not on its literary merits, but as a realistic depiction of the world. The book reinforces the claim that authenticity is an important quality, instead of questioning the nature of authenticity (which is what The Hills does, as well as a number of other works you cite). This is all on the meta-textual level, i.e. it’s the marketing department’s fault, but presumably the author goes along with the marketing decision and profits from it.

    2. Your rules for judging successful art are extremely crude. The popularity of a work of art has very little to do with its quality. The way a work of art makes you feel should never be confused with the work of art itself (that’s called the affective fallacy). How much a work inspires discussion–well, that’s pretty much a different way of measuring popularity.

    Judging works of art is a complicated process that involves years and decades of arguments. These arguments are made more complex by the fact that aesthetic positions are always bound up with social/political positions, often unknowingly. Judging a work of art solely by its popularity only supports the existing social structure.

    3. I think you’ve misread the “Work of Art” essay. Benjamin is not defending the “aura,” he’s arguing that the material conditions of artistic production in industrial society tend to democratize art. The loss of aura is a good thing, like the death of God. (In other places Benjamin is more messianic, but this is him at his most Marxist.) A Million Little Pieces relies on the continued belief in the importance of the aura; this is aesthetically and socially outdated.

    Unless you’re saying that Lauren, Heidi, Paris et al constitute a criticism of “the work of art” as an anachronism in “the age of mechanical reproduction.” This may be true, but it’s not turning out to be as democratic as Benjamin wanted. Warhol said everyone will get 15 minutes of fame, but these people are taking up the time that rightly belongs to everyone else. If people like you and me point out that every consumer of the Hills is also a co-author, the correct response should be “when do I get paid?”

  2. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    “Judging works of art is a complicated process that involves years and decades of arguments. These arguments are made more complex by the fact that aesthetic positions are always bound up with social/political positions, often unknowingly. Judging a work of art solely by its popularity only supports the existing social structure.”

    not to sound anti-intellectual (i usually shoot for pseudo-intellectual) but i just don’t fucking care about whether i’m “supporting the existing social structure” or how ideology affects my aesthetic position or whatever. these are not the things that interest me and this is a blog about how i personally read and think about this thing that i find interesting. i’m not looking to make some sort of judgment for the ages: this is a blog, it is all about the ephemeral, the instantly dated. i mean, my post last week included an emo anecdote about how i didn’t get my name in blender and a home recording of the “friends” theme, for god’s sake.

    i think maybe i am just coming at the word “criticism” and the word “judgment” from a way different direction than you are. I am coming at it from the tradition of mainstream popular film and music criticism whereas you are coming at it from an academic tradition. that’s great, you can offer things to the study of this show that I simply can’t; I have no problem playing an ebert to your zizek (or insert your critical homeboy here). but honestly, I’ll admit that i’m just not well educated enough to shoot the shit with you about this kind of thing. my readings in critical theory are patchy at best (at best) and so if you want to call me out on misreadings or lack of readings or being crude, go ahead, you’re probably right.

  3. Jared Says:

    Okay. I didn’t mean any of that to be insulting, so sorry if I came across as a raving Marxist. It’s just that your posts are actually pretty meta and I was trying to respond the same way.

  4. songsaboutbuildingsandfood Says:

    hey, no problem. and to be fair, that ebert thing in the last comment was kind of a rhetorical pose, i am kind of trying to be academic and meta in a kind of have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too sort of way (i.e. when i can flip a couple quotes from some theorist to support some hare-brained idea of mine, i will; i’m aware this is not, like, real scholarship, but again, that’s not my goal) i really enjoyed reading your “hills” post and i hope you write more. i just think this kind of nature-of-art discussion isn’t really that productive (for either of us) because i’m not really equipped to respond to what you’re saying and also it’s kind of outside my sphere of interest. not knocking it, just saying it’s not always my thing.

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