“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett
I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeing Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dérive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation — even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.
While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition — you see, here it is — the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before — consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.
When I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enable new possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many films meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.
In Drive the gender roles remain fixed — the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling — her only salvation — is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego or anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.
The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.
The careful cinematic style of Drive reminded me of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block — a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.
Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insane side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think? we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That part is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incredibly seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.
But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power — he’s 30 Rock’s favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; we enjoy the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x. Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).
As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic. Ken Corbett’s book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies — from his own psychoanalytic practice — that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.
“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects — audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).
Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads in Tree of Life, for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life — something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.
What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves? Tree of Life is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention. The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. Both Tree of Life and Drive seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy. And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts — there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?
At 23, I sat on a beach with my brother, eight years older than me, and confessed to identify with women. Embedded in my confession was an indelible anxiety about what that meant—something I had always rejected. I don’t know why it’s the case, or where it came from but as early as I can remember I wanted to be a boy, rejecting the signifiers of femininity with a ruthless vehemence that vexed my mother to no end. (I remember, for instance, her asking with special timidity, whether I felt she was somehow too weak a role model for me; assuming, I suppose, that my fierce (and impossible) attempts at male-identification stemmed from a desire to be more like my father). Fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t have an answer, though I do appreciate the tenderness with which she broached the subject—what I seemed to indicate her own conflict between trying to encourage and support the child-ego in me while wrestling with her own gender expectations. At the time I think I was perplexed by her question and (probably) slightly annoyed. I expect I was certain my individuality had nothing to do with her.
While I’ve yet to unpack the perceptions of femininity in my family (both immediate and extended) I have considered the female alternatives in child cartoons: I would always prefer to be a smurf than I a smurfette; I would rather be Popeye or a Brutus than an Olive Oil. Bat Man (or Robin, for whom I had a particular affinity) were far more intriguing to me than the Betty Boops or Barbies; I desired an experience of peril and achievement that was not contingent on negotiating a gendered body. I wanted to conceive the surmountable danger so prevalent in boyish narratives,within which the female protagonists were generally rare (i.e. one female within a cast of many differentiated males) and symbolic: female characters indicated a feminine force—what generally always had to address, in some way, their physical properties (whether the weakness of Olive Oil, the prettiness of Smurfette, the sexiness of Cat Woman). And then I ended up on a beach talking to my brother about gender at an age when I should have been fully sorted out. He repeated a dating metaphor his friend used, where women were gazelles and men lions. My habit would have led me to laugh, but suddenly I identified not with the lion but with the gazelle. I don’t think either of us were equipped for the conversation at this time, but we did our best and thereafter I muddled through a new experience of the world. Of course there are probably countless women who enjoy the ritualized traditions of gender (these women always appear to me as idealized figments, perfectly manicured, elegant and slim with polite breasts and expensive taste) but I am not one of them. Furthermore I’m sure their meat-and-bones manifestations are more complex than I give credit in day dreams. Nevertheless I have begun to appreciate the way an albeit emotional response to banal images of half-naked woman wheat pasted on various surfaces of culture has challenged me to face and hopefully trouble the still and ever-present cultural representation of women, something I adeptly avoided when I didn’t identify with them. I want to think about what those images mean, what they signify and where I stand/am supposed to stand in relation to them.
Which is why I so deeply enjoyed Laurel Nakadate’s show, “Only the Lonely” at PS1. It closes this next Monday, on the 8th of August. I went to see the show about a month ago while visiting friends in New York. I had read about her work before hand; I had read about how she vies to be the center of attention to such an extent that she makes a parody of those attention-seeking impulse so easily exercised (and thus pervasive) in our times. I had read that her work platforms a much overlooked demographic—the middle-aged, single, shlubby, presumably lonely male, a figure marginalized in society and media alike. The punch of Nakadate’s photographic persona is entirely reliant on the context provided by her male counterparts. It is their gaze we end up muddling around in an attempt to study her form. I had read about how her work involved a kind of self-exploitation, where she enacted the pinup, or reenacted the dance steps of Brittany Speers’ Oops I did it again. To be honest, before going to the show, I braced myself. I thought, yes, this might make me faint in an hysterical swoon. After all, Knocked Up made me cry. I’m still terrified of the third book in 2666 (though I’m working up the courage, 300 pages of female murder sounds devastating) and I never saw Sex in the City because I felt sure I would leave the theater wanting to punch someone (the image of Kim Cattral riding a camel in the midst of our vexing Middle East presence seemed a dubious enough tip).
The last thing I expected when I walked into PS1 was to start laughing—that’s what happened, though. I started laughing. Nakadate does create an uncomfortable space, because she is directly facing and then recreating the subject of male desire, but accompanying that muscular subject-tackle is an attention to humor. She reenacts slap stick death scenes by herself in an American landscape, putting a plastic gun to her lips and then spewing fake blood. She bares her chest to an empty landscape. Pretends to hang herself, badly–these motions are shlocky and amusing for their poor execution. They feel badly scripted, like one enacting a fantasy. In another series, Trouble Ahead Trouble (2006) Behind, she photographs different pairs of underwear just before releasing them outside a train window. The underwear itself, while handsome and nicely framed, conjures our curious affection for lingerie and all its ornamentation. Removed from the body, it hangs like a flag of passing fancy. In her video Love Hotel, she parodies sexual acts without a partner, still clothed (albeit ridiculously in fetishistic sports socks and all pink cotton panties) we watch her body writhe to the point of absurdity before repositioning from an all-fours jiggle to a partially upright stance with her hands against the wall. In this second pose, again, she appears to be humped by a ghost. It’s comical because sex is comical. People look weird having sex outside the stylized lens of pornography and they look especially weird if they are alone, gyrating. She capitalizes on the signifiers of lust—those fetishized (and kind of creepy) knickers and bows so familiar in call-girl advertisements where 30 year-olds (you hope) dress like they’re 16. Part of what enables the humor (and probably its inextricable companion, discomfort) is her lack of judgement. She embodies and performs with unapologetic commitment, leaving her audience to question its gaze.
Listed in the materials of Oops I did it again (2000) is the infamous Hello Kitty Boom Box (what also and always seems to be mentioned when anyone talks or writes about this piece) and while its presence immediately lightens the mood, it is further softened by the movements of her companions who try with relative effectiveness to contribute to Nakadate’s choreography. After being asked for a phone number, she asks to go to the man’s house if he will let her take pictures. Upon arrival she sets up the boombox and the camera. She plays the Brittany Speers song and encourages the men to dance with her while she performs, verbatim, Speers’ dance moves. Her partners are endearingly funny, not in a “look at those losers” kind of way, but in an empathetic way. (Jesus, if I had to dance with someone to that song, especially if they seemed to know what they were doing, and especially if we were alone in my kitchen, I don’t know what I would do). For me, that empathy increased exponentially as I continued through the exhibit. I wasn’t just empathizing with the projected loneliness of these characters (which I’m sure played a part) I was also empathizing with Nakadate’s bravery, to create a relationship within a dynamic traditionally considered threatening to women at large (i.e., don’t talk to the weirdo, he might do something–probably he looks at weird porn in the sad house he never leaves, and yes, maybe he wants to stick a hot rod up your girl-butt). Nakadate engages these men, demanding something performative of them, while also asking they clarify their participation in her performance. One of my favorite pieces in the show, Lucky Tiger (2008), features a collection of self-portraits where she has posed in a traditional pinup style: she sits atop a horse, barefooted in a cowboy hat and panties, navel undressed in a short cropped t-shirt. In another she has her back to the audience, her head partially turned over her shoulder, looking coy in cowboy boots. The photos are covered in fingerprints, fingerprints left behind by men who have examined them with her (she had them cover their fingers in ink). Accompanying these photos is an audio track where you hear her companions reviewing the image, “This is a nice one here,” says a man. “Why?” Nakadate asks. Her companion responds, “You can see your diaphragm peeking out just there between your legs; that’s nice.” His voice is calm and reasoned: they are discussing the formal expectations required of such imagery. By documenting the conversation, Nakadate requires her companions to be both accountable to her, in the way he they assess her person as represented in the photograph, and accountable to an unknown public. And of course, what is most upsetting is to hear experience the reality of these evaluations–an extreme instance which, I would argue, takes place all the time everywhere to a lesser degree.
Consistently in her work, there is a back-and-forth dance of power. At first she appears exploited, then exploiting. In Lessons 1-10 (2001) Nakadate poses on a table, half dressed. A man sitting behind her looks up, concentratedly. He has a pencil in his hand and holds it over piece of paper. At first I imagined a young woman going to man’s house after seeing an ad on Craigslist for life drawing models. I imagined her arriving to this house and felt a shadow of lonely perversity, as I doubted the credentials of his life drawing appetite. Then, I recognized Nakadate as the author of the shot; she has facilitated and documented this scenario. Perhaps she is the one exploiting, using her body as a kind of red herring to distract and illustrate the man in the room. Even then, though, the man has agreed to be in the room which calls forth a shadow of loneliness once more. One minute she seems in total control, the next you realize she is all alone in a stranger’s house. One moment the men seem predatorial, the next devastatingly pathetic.
Add to this a last essential detail: I kept returning to an experience of mutual enjoyment between Nakadate and her subjects. This too facilitates humor, softening the brutal dynamics she exposes. She asks a man to lie down on a bed while she, as the eye of the camera, performs an excorcism. The bedding is sad, messy, unmade–the shelves around the bed are adhoc, containing disheveled books. Still, the man lying in this vignette is playful, repeating after her clunky, childish phrases to imaginary ghosts, “I do not want you in me. Stay away from me.” The element of play allows a real relationship, despite its center around subject of sexual tension. Here too, I was supremely aware of my position as a voyeur—someone not privy to the specific interior dynamics of the relationship, an element of mystery that contributes to the work’s success. “It’s all about self-consciousness, really, in both senses of the word—being self-aware and being ill at ease. You watch Nakadate—and you watch her watching herself, because she often indulges in the tic of breaking character and looking at the camera as if checking herself in a mirror. Or you watch someone watching Nakadate, and then you watch yourself watching someone watch her as she watches herself—and all those different viewpoints start to blur together. This mise-en-abyme might make you want to be more alert about understanding what’s going on, in the work and in yourself” (Barry Scwabsky, The Nation). We, the onlooker, can only judge based on our understanding of the signs as they are portrayed, the very signs which are being exhumed and challenged. Because she often works with the same subjects on different projects, we must assume experience is enjoyable for them, yet we cannot identify the precise nature of that enjoyment. It is reciprocally impossible to pin down the payoff for Nakadate’s investment. Obviously the project, as a whole, works because she is making a point. At the same time, she is a complicit and active participant in this point, appearing as potentially lonely as her subjects. It’s very probable she likes this form of attention—is that bad? Should it matter? Would it influence our aesthetic experience? What if she hated it? In an interview with Scott Indrisek she said, “In general, I wait to be approached. I want to be the one who’s hunted, I want to be the one who they take interest in—because if they’re not interested in me, they’re probably not going to be interested in being in a video. I also like the idea of turning the tables—the idea of them thinking that they’re in charge or that they’re in power and they’re asking me for something and then I turn it on them, where I’m the director and the world is really my world.”
What is difficult about this work is the way it engages the subject of girl-ness, not girls as a stage in life but as it is portrayed culturally through the lens of American Apparel and Brittany Spears. It’s a highly sexualized genre—something that remains taboo while being pointed, poked and exploited. Good Morning Sunshine (2009) further delves into the subject. Here, Nakadate is behind the camera, out of view; “‘We’—that is, the camera—enter a young teenage girl’s bedroom,” on three occasions. Each room belongs to a different girl. Nakadate coaxes them awake, gently. She asks them how they slept, and not-so-slowly tries to convince them to get undressed. “Let me see your feet,” she begins. “Can you take off your socks for me?” Peppering these requests with honey-dripped compliments, “You’re so pretty,” the young women seem uncomfortably complying. This project further informs Nakadate’s relationship to the camera, her understanding of its power and how to illustrate one extreme of its mechanics. Do we imagine Dov Charney to behave any differently? What is our responsibility as consumers in that equation?
Of course that question comes to me again and again. Having seen a number of movies this summer and noted the lack of female protagnists (here’s a pretty awesome conversation about The Smurfs/Super8), picked up on the on-going project of Lady Drawers, read about disheartening DC Comic conferences and, maybe above all else, read the curiously aggressive comment threads that follow those posts–it was a relief to feel submerged in a body of work that dealt directly with the gender binary. Here too, I feel it’s worth noting that Nakadate’s work is about a male/female world–distinctions that are becoming more and more porous as our expectations of gender and its performance grow more complex and conveluted. “The traditional Oedipal backstory is grainy at best; we are copies of copies of copies of copies of Oedipus’ children. Copies repeat. Copies degrade. Copies transform.” (Ken Corbett, from his book Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities).