the irony of piñatas

May 26, 2009


This is a paparazzi picture of the birthday party which was the central scene of the much-hyped season premiere of Jon and Kate Plus 8.  The best moment in the episode was this moment in which the titular Kate was talking about the piñatas that she had bought for the birthday party, an activity which was covered to the point of exhaustion — there was some video early in the episode of her visiting a party supply store to buy the piñatas, upset because she was being photographed in the parking lot by a band of paparazzi (she had instructed her children to call them “the P people” in the belief that calling them by their actual names was giving them too much power, kind of like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in that children’s book) and this scene was followed later by a rendering of her at home that evening, sprawled across her dining room table with the just-bought party supplies, exhausted and alone and on the verge of tears but still and always monologuing for the ever present cameras as she stuffed mounds and mounds of candy into the asses of the piñatas for the birthday party the next day, stuffed them full to bursting with contents, and then later in the episode at the party itself, there was some additional coverage of Kate stressing over and then figuring out the perfect tree from which to hang the piñatas so as to offer the most aesthetically pleasing piñata bashing experience to her children and their guests and the TV audience and then finally, near the end of the episode, we actually get to see the footage of the little kids at the party swinging their little sticks at these representations of animals hanging from a big tree branch in front of them, the little kids quickly and happily destroying the shells in order to get at the things inside, reducing these sculptured simulations of birds and bears to pulp because that’s what they’re supposed to do to have fun and as we see this, we hear the anonymous, post-production voice of a producer telling Kate that she “looks like she had fun when she was ripping that pinata open” and, over footage of her gleefully ripping into the paper-mache flesh and distributing the candy and glitter and toys to the children, we hear her say, “Oh yes, it was good, good frustration relief, yes, I was just tearing into them,”  and then the camera cuts from the party scene to the the talking head we’ve returned to again and again throughout the episode, the image of Kate sitting alone in a big chair in the Potemkin living room built in her basement, and she says, “But, you know, the irony of piñatas — every time I do piñatas, I think this — so you love your characters, you have this little character birthday party and you get the cute little Backyardigans…and then you beat them to death.  Like, it’s so violent. If you think about it, like, the one year we had Elmo, and we like beat Elmo to death! You’re not supposed to beat Elmo! I don’t get it! It’s so weird!” and she laughs at this, yukking it up at her own joke like it’s the beginning of a Seinfeld rerun or something, like, “What’s the deal with piñatas?” and etc., and she doesn’t seem to relate this to herself at all and understand that it’s really the best possible metaphor for what she’s going through at this very moment on her television show and in her life (since they’re the same thing), the building up of a character and then the destroying of that character by the same process, and it’s really ironic to see her not getting it, not verbal irony like she’s using in her stand-up routine but dramatic irony, the way a person can be so self conscious and yet not understand fundamental things about herself that we can understand by watching her, but besides all that what was maybe most poignant thing about the fifth birthday party shown in the season premiere was that the focal point of the party for Kate, the central, key moment of the experience for her was the moment when and she and Jon and the kids took a family portrait together — like, amid all of these representations of them being created every second of this birthday party by paparazzi cameras across the street and the digital and cell phone cameras of her children’s friends’ parents and the video cameras shooting their reality television show, each one adding to the probably thousands of hours of video and thousands of images which already exist of her family just existing, amid all the stress and tension created by this recording and photographing and representing, the stress and tension which seems to be one of the major factors destroying Kate’s relationship with her husband, still, the most important part of the fifth birthday party experience for her was taking a traditional family portrait, a single photograph, creating yet another representation of her reality, which I just found so amazing, the way I find it whenever I see people on reality shows taking pictures of their lives, I just find it so interesting, this way that we have of privileging certain representations over other ones, and like it kind of reminds me of how Susan said that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow.  Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor.  Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again,” like how amid all of these moments being captured of Kate and her children and her husband, all this recorded time, she still felt that it was up to her to capture a decisive moment, that this was the most important thing she could do at this birthday party, not exist or experience life but record her existence and experience of life, that the essential thing that she had to do was hang a frame on a moment in the hope that, by virtue of its medium, the frame could carry more weight than the all video being taken at the same time, could erase more unhappiness, could conjure more nostalgia and recreate more love and simulate more warmth, that this one little frame could do more than a million frames of a moving picture, two million frames, like that was the big wish that Kate had for this little portrait, an ordinary picture taken with an ordinary camera at an ordinary picnic table like any other in America, Jon and Kate and their kids sitting in between them on the bench seat, and before the picture was to be taken he was wearing sunglasses and she told him to take them off and he did and then they sat there and they smiled for a second and it was captured, one frame, that’s all.  You just have to hope that nobody blinked and ruined it.


This is a clip reel from the tape of my fourth birthday party.  My fourth birthday party, as you can see, was very well covered by a crew of two cameramen as well as several still photographers.  The tape has that weird, unintentionally meta quality of most home video: the constant direct address of the camera, the discussion of shots and positions and focus, the crash zooms, the play with the lens, all of it anti-cinematic in the best way, totally Dogme ’89.  Personally, I don’t like watching old home movies of myself and even though the rest of my family loves watching home movies and even though reality television is my favorite kind of television.  I like seeing videos of other people, of course — one night in college, a roommate and I broke my VCR watching his girlfriend’s home movies from when she was a little girl and our concern was not for the broken VCR but just getting her tape out of it safely so we could watch the rest of video somewhere else — but I hate watching videos of myself, I’m not sure completely why.  I guess maybe part of it is because in the videos I see myself doing or saying embarrassing or unpleasant things, things the current Me doesn’t agree with or like, because I see me talking or acting in ways I wish I didn’t talk or act, and I feel such a connection with this character that I’m watching on the screen (because, you know, it’s me) that when I see these wrong things, I want to edit myself, change the script, but I can’t because of course the moment’s over and done, and that disconnected connection and the lack of agency I feel is frustrating and maybe why I don’t really enjoy watching.  Like, you know, some people enjoy watching old home movies because they can look into the past for a minute and happily remember how things were once, see the representations in hte moviews as records disconnected from the now, carousels and not wheels, but for me what they kind of do is remind me that the past is over and I can’t change it and I have to live with the way it is now because of all the things I did then and after and before, the ways I was, and there’s something about that which is maybe hard for me to deal with.

There’s this thing a lot people do on Facebook where they make it so their profile pictures are not current likenesses but instead are old pictures of them when they were children, soft focus settings of miniature versions of themselves from years and years ago, tiny people wearing wearing tiny clothes and making tiny faces.  Some people post entire albums of their baby pictures, some of them have as many pictures of them as children as they have of themselves now.  Even though I don’t like seeing myself as a child and have never put up such pictures online, I can identify with this impulse, and I don’t think it just has to do my generation’s insane nostalgia or cuteness fetishism, I think it’s more basic than that, like, it’s a way for insecure people (which, of course, is most/all of us) to broadcast to others that they were once less spoiled by life and age and experience, that there are extant versions of themselves that haven’t lied or cheated or fucked people over, that aren’t self conscious or insecure or petty or jaded or insert your problems here, that are in some ways better than they are now, more complete, so that putting these childhood pictures in the place of their current likenesses is a way for these sad people to say to others, like, basically, “I’m not perfect, I know, but look at this different thing I once was a long time ago and try to find me in it, please,” hoping that the other people seeing the pictures will connect the dots between the old and new, pixel by pixel, and that this process of connecting will make the subject more a little more beautiful and complex and worthy of love.  I guess that’s a lot of hope to pin on a representation, but then hope and representations are things that we always seem to have an abundance of even in times that are dark.


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